A Child's Penance
Saturday mornings began early for me. I was usually the first up, at least in my recollection, and the Three Stooges were always there to greet me. Mom slept in a little while but never failed to present us with stacks of pancakes with syrup, crispy fried bacon and cafe au lait (half Folger's and half whole milk) with lots of sugar.
The day was spent meandering about the street we lived on, Rhapsody Drive. Our house backed up to a slough, or ditch, or what we called a bayou. It was simply a shallow rainwater drainage canal dredged out of thick grayish-white clay. It was a clear running little stream with minnows, tadpoles, and crawfish for inhabitants but we all knew better than to drink from it. Opposite the neat row of houses that backed up to the canal was a small farm and a church, both of which faced Old Hammond Highway. The church was Pentecostal, I think, and had nothing to do with the farm. A teenager that lived next door once tried to tell us that they were devil worshipers. Having been raised in a more sheltered environment than he, we didn't believe him. It didn't make sense to worship something that was bad.
Four or five horses had the run of the small pastures that made up the farm. Old oak trees, gray with long lengths of Spanish moss, interrupted the velvety grass surface. None of us were horsemen but we tried nonetheless. One of the horses, old and docile, was happy to take the apples we would steal from our mother's refrigerator crisper and if we occupied his attention long enough, one of us would swing up onto his bareback from our perch on the wooden slat fence. Though he clearly didn't like the feel of dirty ankles kicking his side, he would take a few steps to the amusement of the rider.
Once, the owner spotted us and yelled at us. Startled, the rider naturally fell off the roan's back into the nearest soft thing. We flew like banshees down the worn switchback into the ditch and then up the opposite side, dropping to our knees to hide behind an overgrown clump of razor grass. The farmer walked through the pasture and up to the fence, chuckling to himself as he caught sight of the manure that was sprayed all over the grass. He most likely knew we were there, across the bayou, watching.
Since the bayou ran the length of our street and then some, there were adventures to be had away from the farmer and his horses. At the opposite end, the foliage turned tropical with wild growing ferns and grasses that looked like something out of Gilligan's Island. Even the terrain was different. Chunks of cement from road construction lined the high sides of the bayou at that end. But paths were worn back into the thicket of vegetation. That meant that other people were back there. We were warned in those days to watch for hobos who wandered into town along Old Hammond Highway. I always thought hobos were railway riders. This was new information. We found a few old liquor bottles, all of them empty, which we assumed were left over from some vagabond's latest party. We felt like adventurers with our discoveries.
Discoveries required that we manage the scourge of young explorers: barbed wire. We all got scraped and scratched by it at some point, but finding a barbed wire fence was our sign that we were surely on the path to a great discovery. One time, we found an old shack back in the woods. Looking back, it was likely to have been a hired hand's shack. An old bedstead decorated with wooden curlicues, rusted bedsprings, broken up furniture and lots of bottles and old cans littered the inside and outside of the shanty.
"Black people must've lived here," one of my cohorts said, disdain in her voice.
That was a stupid assumption, I thought. It made me feel sad for those that did live in the rickety shelter. It was surely an awful place. The loud snap of a stick being broken underfoot ended our trespass.
At church the next day, the words to the Lord's Prayer were spoken just to me: "And give us this day our daily bread; and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those….” So God knew I had trespassed on someone else's land and in someone else's house. I felt terrible. I was so bad and though I felt sure that God would look on it as a forgiven sin, I felt I had really done something awful to another human being.
After church, Mom took us up to Florida Boulevard to the 7-11 for our weekly comic book run before returning home for bacon and tomato sandwiches. While she fried the bacon and heated the bread, I plotted my penance.
The man who lived there, (only a man could live in that bad of a place, I believed) most likely needed food and since the Israelites had eaten bread and the Lord's Prayer even said "give us this day our daily bread," that was what I would take. After lunch, Mom went off to study for school the next day and my older sister went off to our room to read. While a playmate distracted my brother, I grabbed five or six slices of bread, three pieces of fried bacon and a tomato and stuffed it into a Rexall's bag. The grease from the bacon leaked through the paper bag pretty quickly as I walked in the sunny weather. I approached the shaded barbed wire fence and paused. The shanty was just visible in the distance, behind the brambles and wild vines. To shimmy under the barbed wire was to break the rules again, so I set the bag on the ground next to the wooden fence post. There was no doorbell or knocker, so I picked up a good piece of rock and lobbed it (a first baseman's throw) towards the shack. The rock grazed the tin roof and fell to the ground.
"Who is it!" a gravelly voice yelled from inside the shack.
I didn't wait to receive his gratitude. Nevertheless, I felt better. I had given "this day, his daily bread." Sounded like a good way to make amends.
I was good to go. My penance was real and I felt forgiven.“Thank you, God. Thanks an awful lot.”