This story is by Wesley Ginther and was part of our 2017 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the Spring Writing Contest stories here.
Samuel leaned against the outside wall next to the kitchen screen door and with toe to heel shucked off his weathered work boots. His granddaughter Mary Alice had already gone to prayer meeting, just as his late wife had done every Wednesday night. She had banked the stove before leaving; he knew the room would still be warm. Samuel pushed open the screen door and entered, boots in hand. Inside, it was a bit cool as expected and very clean. Just inside the door, he bent over and pulled off his sweat-soaked socks and tucked them into the tops of the boots. Leaning back on the bench allowed him to rest his lower back and to feel the numbness in his feet that long ago had replaced the aching. Years of lifting bales of hay and throwing them up to a helper on the tractor wagon had made him strong, but that work had also brought on pain to an aging body. And now the daily tasks took longer to finish.
Dang, I hate feeling tired … maybe I’m just feeling old. At sixty-three? Stop it. Can’t be thinking this shit, he thought. Dirty bib overalls, that once fit comfortably, now hung loose on his large frame that was once taller and stronger. Someday Mary Alice and will marry and with her husband run our farm.
He sat silent for several moments. He considered himself lucky to have his granddaughter still living in his house. She had been a great help since his wife died eleven years earlier. Why would God, if there were one, take both mother and grandmother from a child that needed both mother and grandmother?
Samuel slowly stood, cupped his hands under the boots, and walked across the worn hardwood floor, conscious to keep it clean lest Mary Alice yell at him. The potbelly stove in the middle of the small living room was still warm, the coals barely alive. Old Man Morgan, as some of the town kids called him, threw kindling and a log onto the remaining coals in the pot belly stove. He placed his boots near the stove, but not so close as to burn them, and laid the socks over the tops so they would dry out. He eased his tired body into the Boston rocker, pulled his pipe from his bib pocket, filled and lit it. Mary Alice will be back from the prayer group before long. She keeps her grandmother’s faith, no matter I don’t. I just can’t believe anymore.
About a half hour passed; the fire in the pipe died, his head slumped to one side and his eyes closed. He awakened to the sound of footsteps on the porch. Mary Alice entered through the front door, wearing a white cotton blouse, billowy peasant skirt, and black patent leather flats.
A smile splayed his face. She is so beautiful. Just like her mother—with flowing auburn air, hazel eyes, and tiny freckles on her cheeks and an up-turned nose. Oh so beautiful!
“Hi Pepe!” she exclaimed.
Before he could respond, a young man appeared behind her. Samuel’s grin faded from his leathered face. He immediately recognized Josh—the preacher’s skinny son. The young man walked toward him with his hand outstretched.
Samuel stood, shoulders back and arms across his chest, tall like the Old Man Morgan the neighbors knew.
“You’re the preacher’s son, aren’t you?” Without a breath, he continued, “Rather late to be coming by, wouldn’t you say?” He stared at the young man. This was a question, and one to be answered straight forth.
Josh stopped. He dropped his outstretched hand.
“Y-yes sir, it is a little late.” He paused and nervously stuck his hands into his jean pockets.
Mary Alice interrupted, “Pepe, why don’t you and Josh sit here by the stove and visit while I get you some coffee?” Before he could answer she continued, “Josh, do you want a cup?”
“Ah. No. I don’t think so. Thanks.”
She continued, “I’ll be back in a few minutes. I need to heat the coffee, Pepe. And while I’m at it, I’ll lay out our stuff on the counter for breakfast.”
As she left, she flashed Josh a reassuring smile as she sternly said, “Pepe. Be nice, now.”
Samuel was silent, trying to understand what was really being said. Something is going on here. Mary Alice has never brought someone into the house before. So what the hell was this?
Josh had a half smile on his face, in what appeared to be an attempt to be cordial. Samuel was expressionless. No smile. Not even a hint of openness. Just cold and indifferent.
Josh hands trembled, his balance was a bit shaky. Finally he stammered, “Shouldn’t we sit down, sir?”
“Depends on why you’re here.”
“I have…” Josh paused to clear his throat. “I…ah…I don’t know quite how to…”
Samuel backed up to his rocker and slowly lowered himself. Josh glanced at the sofa and asked, “Do you mind?”
“If you must.” Samuel leaned back and tried to grasp the situation. The kid is scared to ask me. Yup…this young kid! I should have guessed. He’s the reason Mary Alice has been going to all those church meetings. This…The Preacher’s Kid!
Samuel eased the muscles in his face with a slight grin. He recalled the days he dated his wife Lucy. We had a good life. But she’s gone, now. That TB got her. But our sweet Rachael shouldn’t have gone so quick. Giving birth to Mary Alice took her away from us all. What an ass her husband was. Just up and disappeared. Left Mary Alice alone to be raised by us. Probably the best thing he did because Lucy was so good with Mary Alice. Lucy would be proud of her. Oh I wish….
Josh slouched into the couch, cleared his throat and said, “Mary said…”
Samuel interrupted, “Mary Alice. She’s Mary Alice.”
Josh sat forward on the edge of the couch. “I’m sorry. But, at church…oh, it doesn’t matter.”
“Yes it does matter.” Samuel rose from the rocker and walked over to the fireplace and banged his pipe on the edge to dislodge the ashes. He reached up and took the 12 gauge down off the mantel, walked it to the door and placed it against the door jam. “Dang varmints have been disturbing my chickens at night. I think I might have to shoot me one.”
Josh nervously stood up and said, “It is getting late, sir. I better…” He again was interrupted.
“I thought you wanted to ask me something?”
“We…Mary Alice and I wanted to talk to you about something, but I think we better wait til another time. It is getting late.”
“Sit down young man.” He paused. “Josh, isn’t it?”
Samuel walked back to his rocker, filled his pipe from his tobacco pouch and continued, “I don’t know much about church, your daddy the preacher, or religions and all that. But around here, and the way we were all raised, a man says what he has to say. We don’t hide behind our lady folks’ dresses and we don’t take kindly to bullshit talk. So, if you got something to say, you best get it out.”
A profound silence filled the room. Mary Alice quickly appeared at the door with two cups in her hands. Her faced was ashen, but her eyes fired warnings at her grandfather.
“Pepe, ease up. He’s not your mule, and you best be kind with your words.” She handed him his cup and turned to Josh with a cup for him. Softly she continued, “Now Josh, you tell him what we talked about.”
Samuel could see the unease that was strangling the young boy. “Must be something important you want to ask. You best just get it out.” A tinge of softness in his voice allowed the young man to brave up.
“Mary Alice and I want to go on a two-month church missionary excursion to Haiti.”
“That’s not a question,” bellowed Samuel. He rose from the rocker and walked over to the stove, opening the door, peered inside, then closed and latched the door. Deliberately he slowly retreated to his Boston rocker.
Mary Alice softly said, “Pepe, we’re asking for both your permission and blessing.”
“So you’re gonna leave me for two whole months during the summer? During farm time…plowin’ time, plantin’ time and harvest time?”
She sat down on the couch next to Josh. “The church does it during summer break so the high school and college students can participate. We build huts so the poor people have some housing and we build a school for their kids so they have a place to learn and study.”
This was not what Old Man Morgan was expecting. They are going to a foreign place and do stuff they should be doing here—helping us poor farmers here in Arkansas! What the hell! He filled his lungs. Maybe I should say that!
Josh stood up, hands tucked into his back pockets, “One more thing Mr. Morgan.” He waited for eye contact. “I want to marry Mary Alice. And, after I finish my senior year at Mid West Bible College we want to become missionaries.”
A chill shuddered Samuel’s body. His hands and feet ice cold. He was speechless. Tightness gripped his chest. He closed his eyes—all the while trying to grasp what he should or should not say. He felt Mary Alice’s hand on his. She knelt in front, both of her hands cradled his.
“Pepe. Pepe. Are you alright?”
He stared into her hazel eyes. What do I tell her? I want her near. Not in some far off over seas country. I want to grow old with her and her family here with me. Her children—my great grandchildren—playing with my pigs, my cows and my mule. I want her to have my farm.
“Pepe. Talk to me. Are you alright?”
“Yes…yes, dear. I’m okay. I’ll be okay.” He paused before adding, “It’s just…a shock.”
Josh was now standing in front of the rocker. “Mr. Morgan,” he softly began, “we’re really set on getting married this fall when we come back from Haiti. I have one more year of college, after which…we want to spend one year of missionary work in Haiti and then return to the states. I want to find a church—¬to pastor—around here. So, we can be nearby.”
Samuel looked up, stunned. What just happened? Did he just become a man right in front of my eyes? I wonder…no, I guess this is what’s gonna be. Maybe….
Mary Alice stood up and placed her arm around Josh’s waist, looked up into his face and smiled.
Not up to me. I guess it never was. But….