What might have been an otherwise forgettable night begins as we’re on our way home from prayer meeting. As we pass Branch’s store, Pa notices several parked cars and trucks that he recognizes. He says he needs to see about borrowing Witty’s corn harvester so he stops. He tells all of us, Mama included, to wait in the car while he goes inside “for a minute.”
We’re all tired and sleepy and want to go home, since we know we have to get up and go to school early in the morning. Mama soon gets sick of our complaining, and–knowing Pa’s tendency to lose track of time–she decides to send me inside to remind Pa we’re in the car and that he should hurry up. “If anybody can make Pa hurry,” she says, “it’s you. You’ve practically got him wrapped around your little finger.”
Walking into the store I glance at my little finger, wondering about what Ma said. I pull myself up to my full 45 inches, feeling very important and at least four feet tall. Sitting around the pot bellied black stove are several men from neighboring farms, each holding a frosty bottle of Coca Cola or Pepsi. Leaning on the counter in front of Mr. Branch who’s sitting on his tall stool and leaning against a wall, Pa sets a Coke bottle down. Everyone is still laughing at a joke one of the men has told.
Now Pa wasn’t an unkind man, nor even a stingy one if he had two nickels to rub together, and I was fairly certain he would never have indulged himself at our expense had he not been pressed to do so by whatever man was feeling prosperous that night buying a round for his friends. “Mama says we oughta get on home,” I say. “You go on back to the car, I’ll be there directly,” he says.
I take in the scene before me and quickly conclude that Pa will not want to look stingy in front of all these men. “Gimme a nickel for a coke, Pa?” “Go to the car,” he says trying out a smile on his face, more for his friends, I know, than for me. I try again. “Can’t I have a coke, too, Pa?” I ask in my sweetest, smallest voice. “I told you, go back and get in the car,” he says and this time there’s no smile on his face. He points his finger to the door in that way he has, and even a little girl whose forehead has been stamped with a sense of what is and isn’t fair, knows he means ONE, do as I say, TWO, right now, and THREE, no questions asked.
But there are other ways to make my feelings known. I storm out, kicking Mrs. Branch’s doormat as I go. Dust flies around my feet and I push the screen door hard. At that very moment, a monster I’ve been careful to keep hidden inside me, rears up, opens its ugly mouth and slings a parting shot over my shoulder. “Well, alright then, you goddamned stingy son of a bitch!” The door screen door snaps shut behind me and I hear laughter through my anger as I stomp to the car.
Pa soon comes out and drives home in silence. At home I get out and, to make sure everybody knows I’m mad, I kick dirt at my dog Butchie when he comes out from under the steps, wagging his tail, to welcome me home.
Inside the house, my brothers and sister straggle off to bed. Pa reaches out to grab me by the shoulder. “You wait,” he says. Mama suddenly has things to do in the kitchen. Pa unbuckles his leather belt and pulls it through the beltloops of his pants. My heart beats double time with every tick Big Ben makes over the fireplace mantle.
I’m made to bend down over a chair and Pa yanks my dress up over my head, exposing my thin cotton panties with Wednesday embroidered on the front. Soon I feel the belt bite into my bottom. “So, I’m a stingy son of a bitch, huh?” he yells, and hits me again. Snot and tears start pouring at the same time, but no amount of crying will bring mercy. “I’ll teach you to disrespect me,” he says.
One thing I’ve never understood then or now. Why parents can spank you and expect you not to cry. “Be quiet,” he yells, “or I’ll give you something to really cry about.” I try to swallow the agony of indignity thrust on top of injustice, but still another moan escapes my mouth. He raises the belt still higher.
And then suddenly Mama’s in the room. Tears are streaming down her face too. “That’s enough! You know you have only yourself to blame,” she says. “Where on earth do you think she learned that kind of language?”Pa brings the belt down, but this time it hits the kitchen floor instead of my behind. He lets go of it as if it’s suddenly turned to fire. “Go to bed,” he says through clenched teeth.
Eventually I would learn not to take God’s name in vain, though more through the efforts of Sunday school teachers and a kind and patient mother and grandmothers than whipping. In time I learned, too, to show respect for Pa, especially in front of his friends. The lesson that took longer to learn, but stayed with me longest is that girls needn’t sit around waiting patiently for a man, no matter what he may promise her.
Yessiree Bob! A smart girl can eventually earn her own nickels and buy her own damn Coca Colas.