Pappy died on a Sunday morning in September, and by Wednesday, Mama’d buried him in the little graveyard on the south side of the property like he’d wanted. Everybody expected it. Pappy’d had the bad kind of cancer; the one that gets you fast and spreads everywhere and then it’s too late. He hung on for a bit, probably for Mama’s sake, but towards the end when Mama stopped fussin’ at him and jumpin’ around the house like a fart in a mitten, he musta felt at peace enough to let go.
It’s late Friday night when I finally get here, and I’m greeted with a sinkful of empty casserole pans, a near-empty jug of Carlo Rossi, and Mama fast asleep in the front room. I know she’ll be spittin’ mad at me when she wakes up. I tried to get back to town before the service, I really did, but Mama won't believe it. Mama believes that anything was possible if a body said their prayers and tried their best, but prayers don’t work when you’re coming off two weeks’ mandatory overtime and you got a mortgage and mouths to feed.
The room’s heavy with the sweet smell of cherry wood and Virginia Slims, and Mama’s old hurricane lamp fills the place with a dreamy sort of glow. Reruns of some crime show blare from the big TV in the corner, making me wonder how Mama’s ever able to snooze through a racket louder than Gabriel’s trumpet. I reckon she needs the noise these days. Pappy liked his noises loud. Pappy’d been half deaf for as long as anybody could remember, although everybody supposed that he only lost his hearing the times Mama was nagging at him.
I let Mama snore away in the blue corduroy recliner she’d been pestering Pappy to take to the dump for years. The light’s still on above the kitchen sink. Mama always got on Pappy’s case about it. Bill, she’d say in that tone that let you know you were in for it. Are ya fixin’ to put us in the poor house wastin’ all this electric? But I’d always liked it on, just like he did.
The drive down and the memories of Mama standing over the stove on Sunday afternoons are makin’ my stomach growl somethin’ fierce. Luckily the icebox’s still stuffed to damn near bursting with mismatched Tupperware containers full of the sympathy food folks brought ‘round for Mama. It makes me chuckle a little, remembering how Pappy used to tease her about it. Joy, he’d say, you keep goin’ to these Tupperware parties n’ we’ll be livin’ out of ‘em, hand to God.
Everybody knew that Pappy wasn’t really my daddy. My own daddy’d passed before I was even born. They said he’d been drivin’ too fast and drinkin’ too much. Pappy came along when I was four, and he was my hero right from the very first time he came to Gram’s front door to fetch Mama. He was a police officer for Wayne Township, and he wore a shiny metal star on his breast pocket. But even at four, usin’ the word “daddy” didn’t feel proper. So he was Pappy. And after he married Mama that summer, he moved us into this house and I got to share a bedroom with my brand new big sister.
Try as I might, I’ve never been able to remember Steffie that much. Over the years she’d turned into a ghost in the back of my head, and heck, most days I damn near forgot that she was ever even there to begin with. But every now and again little snips of memory pop into my every day living. A delicate white cameo on a choker around her neck. A poster of David Lee Roth that was torn up at the corners. Baby Soft perfume in pretty pink bottles. When folks ask me in polite conversation if I have any brothers or sisters, most times I say no. Mama always said that the dead should stay buried, so that’s where I let Steffie.
Mama used to get up real early on Saturday summers and drive to the flea market in Millheim. She’d take me with her sometimes, and we’d root around through the miles and miles of junk to find picture frames. This house is chock full of pictures; every school picture, prom, family party, cookout, holiday and whatnot are remembered behind glass on these walls. Steffie’s in some of ‘em, but you have to look real hard to find her. After she passed, Pappy didn’t want any of Steffie in the house anymore, and Mama didn’t push him too hard about it. Mama told me that it was too hard for him, and he knew best.
Steffie only lived with us sometimes, because she mostly lived with her mama in Titusville. Steffie’s mama was a big, brassy lady that took up a whole room. JoAnn’s got a mouth on her that’d make a trucker blush, Pappy used to say. They’d never married, and lookin’ back on it now I reckon that they never much cared for each other, neither. Mama liked her, though. Mama always said that JoAnn was uglier n’ homemade sin but goddamn if she ain’t a hoot!. She’d baked JoAnn a rhubarb pie that year, because JoAnn loved rhubarb but couldn’t bake to save her soul.
Red. Slimy, globby red smears the flagstone where Steffie’s mama dropped the pie, and I cry a little because it looks like blood. Steffie’s mama is screamin’ like a banshee right there on the porch. Pappy’s cryin’. I feel Mama’s long pink fingernails dig into the tops of my shoulders. I’m real scared, but I don’t right know what’s scarin’ me.
“You shouldn’t a’let her go, Bill! This is your goddamn fault!”
“I know it, Jo. I know it.”
Pappy lets out a wail like a dyin’ dog, and I bury my face in Mama’s blue apron.
“You’s a goddamn cop, you sonofabitch! You coulda protected her! You let that goddamn hillbilly bastard kill my baby, an’ now he ain’t even goin’ to jail!”
Mama smooths my hair. I try to be sad about Steffie, but all I wonder is what happened to her pretty white cameo choker.
Our family is famous in this town. Everybody ‘round here knows about the McDade clan, just like everybody knows the Jensons. Folks can’t say one family name without sayin’ the other right after. I was so eager to not have to be Annie McDade, You Know, the Sister of the Girl that Trenton Jenson Killed anymore that I made Todd take me right down to the Jackson County Courthouse the very next day after our wedding so that I could change my social security card. Now I get to be plain ol’ Mrs. Silvan, and that suits me much better.
The Steffie McDade and Trenton Jenson story is this town’s favorite haint tale. I reckon it’s still told around the campfires at spook season. That’s how I first heard it; huddled ‘round Cynthie Beckman’s brother’s fire pit when I was sixteen.
“Git off it, Bentley. Annie don’t wanna hear that story.”
“Annie don’t care. She’s a toughie.” Bentley Beckman is a pretty boy. Pappy calls him a dandy boy sometimes.
“Yup. I don’t right care. I was too little to ‘member it anyways.” It’s full dark and real chilly, and Bentley’s lettin’ me wear his letter jacket. It smells like Old Spice. I’d drank too much apple whisky and now my lips are tingly and my words are slurry, and Mama’s gonna have my hide.
“Trenton’d taken a real shine to Steffie, an’ one night he took her out Route 7 to Sullivan Pointe. Trenton tried real hard to get Steffie to go all the way with him, but Steffie kept sayin’ no. But, y’know, Trenton’s a Jenson boy, an’ ain’t no one alive ever said no to a Jenson boy. Not with all that money. So Trenton went plumb crazy an’ put his hands ‘round Steffie’s neck an’ squeezed ‘til he couldn’t squeeze no more. Then he threw her outta the car an’ drove down to the A & P an’ called his daddy to come git him.”
I’m just about through with the dishes Mama’d left to soak, and I see the light glint off Pappy’s old badge on the curio shelf next to the icebox. I’m surprised Mama even had it still. I always figured Pappy’d gotten rid of all his cop stuff after Steffie passed. Pappy’d been a great cop. That’s what everybody who knew him said. Bentley and Cynthie’s daddy was in the drunk tank damn near every Saturday night, and he always said that Pappy walked on water. Best damn pig I ever known, he used to say. But Pappy messed up once, and everybody knew it. Pappy was the cop on duty the night Trenton Jenson killed Steffie McDade. Most folks assumed Trenton’s daddy was the anonymous caller that reported they seen a dead body at the lake, but nobody ever knew for sure. When Pappy got there and saw that it was his Steffie, he drove straight to the Jenson’s house on Rancord Road and punched Trenton Jenson so hard that one of his front teeth flew clean out his mouth. Folks said that Pappy was fixin’ to kill Trenton, and probably would have if Tom Dell hadn’t shown up and pulled him off the boy. That’s why there wasn’t a trial. Trenton’s daddy’s fancy lawyers figured out a deal with the county, and instead of rottin’ away in a jail cell for killin’ a person, Trenton had to spend his senior year cleaning bedpans at the Lutheran Home as penance, all because a cop attacked him.
Then early one Sunday morning not long after, Sharon Duncan, who was the old secretary at St. Stephen’s Episcopal, pulled into her parking space across from the town square and found Trenton Jenson hanging from a light post. Folks didn’t rightly know how to feel about it. On one hand, the son of one of their most well respected families went an' killed hisself, and that was a downright tragedy. On the other hand, he got away with killin’ Officer Bill’s girl and everybody knew it, so a lot of folks said he got what the good Lord intended. But Pappy quit the force the very next day and learned to drive the big rigs. He didn’t ever like to talk about bein’ a cop, and as the years passed, folks stopped asking until finally no one even remembered that part of the story.
There’s a phlegmy cough in the front room. Mama’s awake.
“Babygirl? You git here finally?”
She’s lightin’ a smoke with Pappy’s old Zippo. His pipe is still on the little folding table next to the chair, just as it had been the last time I’d seen him.
“Hey, Mama.” I lean in to kiss her cheek. I’m still dazzled by how soft her skin is, even after all the years of hard livin’. “I’m here now.”
“I am sorry, babygirl. I’m sorry we didn’t wait for ya. Your Pappy didn’t want no fuss, n’ Wednesday’s the only day Pastor Thomas could come out.”
I pat her hand. “I know, Mama. I really tried.”
“Well, I reckon you coulda tried a bit harder. But I am sorry.”
“ ‘s okay, Mama. Pappy and me already said our goodbyes.”
She hits the Mute button on the clicker, and we sit in silence for a bit. There’s a big talk comin’ soon, and there’s a lot of big decisions that got to be made. Pappy left a will, and he had a little pension money that he figured on dividing around the family. Then there’s the matter of the house, and what to do with Mama, ‘cause she drinks too much and smokes too much and sometimes I think she’s fixin’ to burn the house down when she forgets to turn off the stove. But Mama and me are just alike. Neither of us wants to start in about the important stuff. It’s easier to just be still for a spell.
“Babygirl, I need to tell ya some things.”
Pappy’s sittin’ on the edge of the chair. The sweet familiar smell of Ole’ Shenandoah pipe tobacco cuts through the stuffy summer air. He looks weaker than a newborn kitten and damn near as tiny. We all know he hasn’t got much time left.
“Pappy, hows about you rest a spell? We can have a chat after supper.”
“Babygirl, now, I need to tell ya some things, an’ I wanna tell ya now. While my brain is still workin’ right.”
“Okay, Pappy. Okay.”
“I din’t quit bein’ a cop. They done fired me.”
“What? Why?!” I try to believe it but just don’t.
“Cause the chief knew what I done, and he gave me a choice. He knew why I done it. Hell, he said he’d a’done the same were it his girl, but he had ta protect the law. See, I done it, Babygirl. I done took that damn monster right outta his bed and I put ‘im up there for the whole ever lovin’ town to see. So they’d know what a goddamn evil coward he was. So his daddy’d go to his own grave knowin’ that his boy was burnin’ in Hell where he belonged.”
“You...Trenton Jenson? You killed…”
“I done what I done, Annie. I done it for my girl. An’ I done it for you. I love you, Babygirl.”
I try to imagine my sweet, kind, simple Pappy, who I’d always loved best, takin’ the life of another person. And I just can’t. But I’m not upset. I feel a spark of pride start to grow inside my chest. Pappy's always been my hero.
“Why are you tellin’ it to me now, Pappy?”
He closes his eyes and grasps my hand in his. His are still rough with callouses from years of haulin’ livestock, but now mine are the stronger ones.
“Now I can go meet my maker knowin’ that my girl forgives me.”
“I do, Pappy. I do forgive you. I love you, too.”
He waited until I was back home in Clearfield to take his last breath. I reckon he did it on purpose, knowing that he’d said his peace and that was that. I didn’t tell Mama, though, and I never will. Maybe she knows. It’s no matter. The legend of Steffie and Trenton will always end the same as it ever did, and that’s just how it should be.