"HeavenlyFatherwedohumblythankThee(breathe) forwhatwe'reabouttoreceive(breathe) forthenourishmentofourbodies(breathe)for Christ's sake Amen."
Daddy had recited this prayer so many times, the punctuation marks and capital letters had all worn away and the words had rearranged themselves to match Daddy's breathing patterns. When he was away from home, Mama designated one of us six kids to bless the table. Invariably, we phrased it with all Daddy's worn away edges, whatever our own natural rhythm might have been. I can't recite that blessing even now without doing it exactly the way Daddy did.
After Daddy said the magic words, each of us recited a Bible verse. Usually, everyone said the shortest one in the Bible: "Jesus wept." I never doubted the truth of Mama's warning that unblessed food would give us a stomachache. It was simple cause and effect: step out into traffic and get hit by a car. Skip the blessing and get a stomachache.
But even at dinner, I rarely said "Jesus wept." Instead, I would spend hours before dinner with the Bible, finding long, twisty verses full of archaic language. No one dared interrupt a recitation from the Bible, so I got to orate for as long as I liked. Often, I'd end my orations with a vocal flourish and a derisive "Jesus wept."
One Saturday morning, Daddy woke us at 6 a.m. with a drill sergeant's cold purpose, as had become his practice over the last few months. We girls were required to clean without ceasing until the late afternoon. He wouldn't even allow us to listen to the radio while we worked because "This ain't no party."
In the afternoon, he passed by on an inspection sweep, whistling "Precious Lord, Take My Hand." It was one of my favorite hymns, so I joined in. Briskly, he stuck his head in and informed me I was going to Hell.
I stopped mid-whistle.
He recited priggishly: "A whistling woman and a crowing hen both come to a bad end." His shrug said, "Sorry, not my rule."
"I thought hens had to crow," I said stupidly. He seemed so calm about my eternal damnation; I was more disturbed by his easy abandonment of me than anything else.
"Y'all don't never learn nothin' in the country," he answered. "Roosters. 'S roosters that crow. Males. Women got they jobs and men got they's. Decent women don't whistle. Just like they don't cut they hair ner wear pants ner answer back. 'S mannish. The Bible say."
This caught my fancy. More than a devoted reader, I loved indices, tables of contents, appendices, footnotes, almanacs, dictionaries--I adored fact checking. When ministers gave chapter and verse in church, I raced the old ladies to find it first.
Old Testament or New? I wondered. Knowing my Daddy, it had to be Old. So I asked him, "Where?"
His lips thinned. I was "quizzin'" him, calling him a fool. He turned on his heel and left.
We cleaned pretty much straight through until dinner with a lunch break only long enough for a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. I was starved. My stomach rumbled and gurgled through Daddy's blessing. There was grape Kool-Aid, fried chicken, black-eyed peas with cornbread and fresh tomatoes, my favorite meal. More hungry than neurotic for once, I opted for simplicity. I lowered my standards and mumbled a fairly commonplace "Come unto Me all ye that labor and are heavy laden and I will give you rest." For the rest of the table, it was "Jesus wep's" all around. I won.
He flung the paper down so it landed just off to my side on the floor. The advertisement section opened to an ad featuring four women: three white, one black. The sister was right up front.
I looked at it for a nanosecond too long. I knew when I raised my head that Daddy would be staring me down. I said nothing, kept my face blank. Looking away might well be considered backtalking. I held my breath and held his gaze, trying to look as stupid as possible. Finally Mama cleared her throat and sent me upstairs to make sure there was toilet paper in the bathroom.
When I returned, Daddy looked calm. I sat silently for a minute, then resumed eating. Or tried to. My fork was gone. For a comically long time, I looked around for it on the floor even though I knew where it had to be: a million miles away. Neatly centered and squared with the far side of his plate.
For the rest of the meal, he never looked at me. He made chirpy small talk to which everyone responded with extreme caution. Across from him, Mama's eyes fixed somewhere through and beyond the window behind him. As each of my siblings made it furtively known that they wanted to leave, she nodded permission. Finally, just the three of us were left. Without one clever thought in my head, I did what I had to. I let the tears roll down my face.
"Clean up this kitchen and git to bed," he said and left.
My stomach roared with hunger. My tears disgusted me. I wanted to slam a door or throw something at the wall. I squeezed my eyes shut and pictured myself answering Daddy back with big words he wouldn't understand, but my fantasy's very dreamlike quality made it just that much more frustrating.
Crying and hiccuping, I lifted the dishpan to empty it down the drain, just as my knees gave out in a blinding swirl of pain. Dirty, greasy water from the upended dishpan drenched me as the doubled-over extension cord cut into the back of my legs again. Daddy's strong arms pinned my face to the faucet by the scruff of my neck and kept me from falling down.
"I'm a give you somethin' to cry about," he snarled. "I'm a teach you about backtalk if it kills me." His voice was a hiss in my ear.
The world went white with pain and fury. He beat me and he beat me and he beat me. Sweat dropped from his face onto the back of my neck and his breathing was ragged. By then, I was clinging to the faucet as if it were a life preserver while the rest of my body bucked and thrashed, unable to escape either Daddy's grip or the cord's reach. I rubbed my face wantonly against the faucet's coolness while colored lights flashed behind my eyelids. Finally, Daddy dropped both me and the cord as if we suddenly weighed a ton.
"Put that up," he spat. With my face still at sink level, I could only assume he meant the cord I could see coiled up like a sudden snake at his feet.
I struggled into my nightgown, moaning and rocking myself like an old lady to finesse the pain. I de-hospital-cornered my bed just enough to slip into it, hit the light switch, and collapsed face first on my thin pillow. I sighed, knowing I'd be awake all night, then cut it off in terror before the sigh could become tears. God help me if I cried again.
I ached for C.S. Lewis, or Dickens. Even a Bronte. Then I remembered the Bible I'd let tumble to the floor. I lay on my stomach waiting for the house to settle. After Daddy'd snored for a continuous hour, I knew it was safe to get out my flashlight and start in on the Bible.
I was the first one at the table the next morning. When my turn came to say a verse, I recited all 67 books of the Bible in order. There was an impressed silence. Just as Bobby began "Jes-" I interrupted and recited them again. Backwards.
Daddy leaned back expansively in his chair and beamed at me. He lectured my siblings; let that be a lesson to them all. The pride he took in his handiwork on the back of my legs was clear.
Through the six hours of church, I kept my head buried in the Bible. When we sat down to dinner, I noted that Mama had made Daddy's favorites--deep fried pork chops, boiled cabbage, butter beans with spicy hot chow-chow, fried green tomatoes from the garden, cornbread and lots of buttermilk to crumble it into. He sat down, rubbing his hands in high good spirits. He blessed the table and I began reciting the mind-numbing lists of names from the second census of the Israelites in the 26th chapter of Numbers:
These were the Israelites who came out of Egypt:
The descendants of Reuben, the firstborn son of Israel, were: through Hanoch, the Hanochite clan; through Pallu, the Palluite clan; through Hezron, the Hezronite clan; through Carmi, the Carmite clan. These were the clans of Reuben; those numbered were 43,730....
I did this for three and one-half minutes.
I went on so long at breakfast the next morning, Mama had to wrap Daddy's breakfast for him to take with him. Since I was still sitting on the edge of my seat, I could feel his feet tapping impatiently as I filibustered my family. I orated for another five minutes at dinner--more lists from Numbers. When I finished, Daddy faked a hearty "Amen," his fists clenching and unclenching in confused frustration. The table once blessed, I never raised my eyes from my plate, never spoke again. I only had so much energy.
On the third day, the Bible disappeared. I went across the street to the Reverend's. He was only too happy to give me another one.
On the fourth day, I began with Song of Songs, second chapter, sixteenth verse:
My lover is mine and I am his;
he browses among the lilies.
Until the day breaks and the shadows flee,
turn, my lover,
and be like a gazelle or like a young stag
on the rugged hills.
All night long on my bed
I looked for the one my heart loves;
Daddy gasped. That shocked me so, I stopped speaking. Daddy was speechless but powerless to bring down God's wrath by interrupting and disapproving of His Word. I had him right where I wanted him. Daddy, who had probably never read an actual page of the Bible, both dreaded and longed to hear what I would say next. I peeked up from my lowered eyes and saw him breathing through his mouth in abject, but approving, surrender. He was impressed. Bobby began to whimper. Suddenly, I was exhausted. Tonight, at last, I knew I'd sleep.
"Jesus wept," I said.