James Purdy, "Short Papa"
When I caught a glimpse of Short Papa coming through the back yard that cold sleety February afternoon I had straight away a funny feeling it might be the last time he would visit me. He looked about the same, tall and lean and wind-burned, but despite the way he kept his shoulders back and his head up he spoke and shook hands like a man who didn’t expect you to believe a word he said.
Neither Mama nor Sister Ruth budged an inch when I told them who was out on the back porch, but after a struggle with herself, Ma finally said, "You can give Short Papa this plate of hot Brunswick stew, and let him get his strength back from wherever he has been this time. And then you tell him, Lester, he has got to light out again soon as possible."
"But, Ma," I began, "can’t he stay just the night?"
"Father or not father," she began, "after what that man has done to us, no … I’ll feed him but I won’t take him in, and you give him my message, hear? Eat and get!"
But I seen that my remark about how after all it was my own dad who had come to see me had moved Ma more than a little, for her breast rose and fell like it always does when she is wrought up.
"He’ll only get in more trouble if he stays, Lester, and he’ll get you in trouble too. I do regret to talk against your papa, but he is a no-account, low-down—"
She stopped, though, when she saw the expression on my face.
Short Papa sat, hands folded, on a little green wicker upright chair before the round green wicker table as I brought him his hot plate of Brunswick stew to the back porch.
"Thank you, Les." He eyed the plate and then took it from me, I can still see the way he ate the fricassee chicken and little bits of lima beans and potatoes. He was most famished.
"You can assure your Ma I’ll be on my way right after sunset," he replied to the message I bore from her. "Tell her I don’t want folks to see me in town … by daylight."
I nodded. looking at his empty plate.
"Your Ma has taken awful good care of you, Les. I observed that right away. I’m grateful to her for that, you can tell her. The day I get back on my feet, son, I will see to it that a lot of the thingsowin’ to you will be yours. … Count on me."
I didn’t quite know what he meant then, but I was pleased he felt I deserved something. Ma didn’t often make me feel deserving.
Short Papa got up from the table, loosened his suspenders under his suit coat, felt in his breast pocket as he kept clearing his throat, and then sat down again as he said, "Matter of fact, Les, I have brought you a little something. But first you best take this plate back to the kitchen, for you know how fussy your Ma is about dirty dishes standing around."
I rushed with the plate back to the kitchen and on the double back to Short Papa, and sat down beside him on a little taboret which we use for sitting on.
"I want you to promise me, though, you won’t lose it after I give it to you," Short Papa said solemnly.
"Cross your heart and all that." Short Papa sort of grinned, but I knew he was dead serious and wanted me to be.
"Cross my heart, Papa."
"All right, Lester, Then here it is."
He handed me a great, really heavy gold watch with a massive chain a-hanging from it.
"Don’t you worry now, Les. It is not stolen. It is your great-grandpa’s watch. All during my most recent trouble I kept it in a safety deposit vault over at Moortown. I got behind on the annual rent payments when I was in jail, but the bank trusted me, Les, and they kept it. I have paid up for the arrears and this watch is yours. It has been in the family for well over a hundred years, you can count on that."
I was not really glad to get the watch, and yet I wanted it too. I wanted also to show Short Papa I was grateful, and so I hugged and kissed him. His eyes watered a little and he turned away from me, and then he laughed and slapped my shoulder several times.
"Keep it in a safe place, Les, for beyond what it’s worth, which ain’t inconsiderable, it’s your old pa and his pa, and his pa before him that owned it. Understand? ‘Course you do—"
After Short Papa left, I sat for a long time on the back porch listening to my watch tick. It had a powerful beat to it. From behind me I could hear Ma talking with Sister Ruth about the dress they were making for her wedding. Ruth was going to be married in June.
I considered how Short Papa’s sudden arrival and departure had made no impression on them. He might as well have been the man who comes to collect the old papers and tin cans. Yet he was Ruth‘s father too.
"You take my word for it, Les, things are going to be hunky-dory one day for all of us again."
That was what Pa had said to me as he slipped out the back way in the gathering darkness, and like the ticking of my watch those words kept pounding in my ears.
Ma had made me ashamed of Papa, always reminding me of the many times he had been sent to jail for a short stretch (hence his nickname), and once out, he would only be sent back again, and so on and so forth, but there was now something about the way this watch ticking away in my possession made me feel not only different about Papa and his pa and his pa before him, I felt for the first time I was connected with somebody, or with something. I felt I had a basis, you see. But I didn’t want anybody to know I had the watch, and I also felt that I would never see Short Papa again, that he had come back, so to speak his piece and be gone for good.
As a result I felt awful crushed that Short Papa had been entertained so miserly by Ma, being fed on the back porch like a tramp, and then dismissed. But then Ma’s attitude towards Pa was hard to fathom, for though she never wanted any more to do with him she never said anything about getting a divorce. She just didn’t want any more men around, for one thing, and then, as she said, why go to the bother of divorcing somebody when you was already divorced from him for good and all….
I kept the watch under my pillow at night, and I wound it cautiously and slow twice a day, like he had instructed me, and I never let it out of my sight whilst I was awake, keeping it with me at all times. I could not imagine being without it ever now.
After a couple to three months of this great care with his watch, and to tell the truth getting a little weary sometimes with the worry and guardianship bestowed on it, the polishing and keeping it when unused in its own little cotton case, and also seeing it was hid from Ma, for I feared she might claim it away from me for what Pa owed her, I remember the time it happened: It was an unsteady spring afternoon, when it couldn’t make up its mind whether it was still winter or shirt-sleeves weather, and I had gone to the Regal Pool Parlors to watch the fellows shoot pool, for at this time their hard-fast rule there was that nobody under sixteen was allowed to play, but you could be a spectator provided you kept your mouth shut.
Absorbed in the games and the talk of the older fellows, before I was aware of it all the shadows had lengthened outside and the first street lights had begun to pop on, and so then almost automatically I began to lift the chain to my watch, and as I did so I was all at once reminded of another time further back when Short Papa had been teaching me to fish and he had said nervously: "Pull up your rod, Les, you’ve got a bite there!" And I had pulled of course and felt the rod heavy at first and weighted but then pulling harder I got this terrible lightness, and yanking the pole to shore there was nothing on the hook at all, including no bait neither. And pulling now on the watch chain I drew up nothing from my pocket. My watch was gone. I got faint-sick all over. I was too shaky in fact to get up and start looking. I was pretty sure, nonplussed though I was, that I had not lost it here in the Regal Pool Parlors, but I went over to BudHughes the manager, who knew me and my family. and told him.
Bud studied my face a long time, and then finally I saw he believed me, but he kept asking a few more questions, like where I had got the watch in the first place, and when. I lied to him then because if he had knowed it come direct from Short Papa he would have thought it was stolen. So I told him the far side of the truth, that it was from my great-grandfather, passed on to me, and this seemed to satisfy him, and he said he would be on the lookout.
Almost every day thereafter on the way home from school I stopped in at the Regal to see if they had any news about my watch. and it got to be a kind of joke there with the customers and with Bud especially. I think they were almost half-glad to see me show up so regular, and inquire.
"No news, though, yet about your great-grandfather’s watch, "Bud Hughes would generally manage to quip at some time during my visit, and he would wink at me.
Then the joke about the missing watch having run its course, no mention was finally ever made of it again, and then after a while I quit going to the Regal entirely.
I held on to the chain, though, like for dear life, and never left it out of my grasp if I could help it.
During this period of what must have been a year or two, Ma would often study me more carefully than usual as if she had decided there was something wrong somewhere, but then finally decided she didn’t want to know maybe what it was, for she had enough other worries nagging away at her.
About this time, school being out, and the long summer vacation getting under way, I got me a job in a concession at Auglaize Amusement Park selling Crackerjack and candy bars in the arcade that faces the river. They give me a nice white uniform and cap, and for the first time the girls began making eyes at me … I realized that summer I was growing up, and I also realized I would soon be able to leave Ma for good and fend for myself.
On the way to work I would pass this fortune teller’s booth early each P.M. and the lady who told the fortunes was usually seated in a silk upholstered armchair outside, and got to know me by sight. She wasn’t exactly young or old, and went under the name MadameAmelia. She was also very pleasant to me partly because she knowed I worked in the concession. One time right out of the blue she told me she would be happy to give a nice young boy starting out a free reading but not to wait too long tocome in and take advantage of it, now business was still a bit slack.
I had sort of a crush on a young girl who come in now with her soldier boyfriend and bought popcorn from me, and I wanted like everything to find out her name and if she was going to be married to her boyfriend. So I decided finally to take advantage of MadameAmelia‘s invitation and offer…. The fortune telling booth with the smell of incense and jingle of little wind chimes and the perfume of red jasmine which she wore on her own person, the thought of the girl I loved and her soldier friend sort of went right out of my head and vanished into thin air.
I felt an old hurt begin to throb inside me.
Madame Amelia at first sort of flailed around asking me a few leading questions, such as where I had grown up, if I was the only boy in the family and if I had worked in the concession before, and so on—all just to get her warmed up, as I later found out was the practice with "readers." But then just before she began the actual fortune in earnest, she held her breast, her eyes closed tight, and she looked so tortured and distressed I thought she was about to have a heart attack, but it was all part also of her getting in touch with the "hidden forces" which was to direct her sorting out your fortune.
Then she got very calm and quiet, and looked me straight in the eye.
I stirred under her searching scowl.
"Before I begin, Lester," she said, shading her brow, "I must ask you something, for you are a good subject, my dear—I can tell—and unusually receptive for a young boy. What I would get for you, therefore, would come from deeper down than just any ordinary fortune. Is that clear?"
She looked at me very narrowly. "In other words, Lester, do you want to hear the truth or do you just want the usual amusement park rigmarole?"
"The truth, Madame Amelia," I said as resolutely as I could.
She nodded, and touched my hand.
"You have had two losses, Lester," she began now at once in a booming voice. "But you know only about one of them, I see."
The words the truth seemed to form again and again on my tongue like the first wave of severe nausea.
"As I say," she was going on, "you have lost two things precious to you. A gift, and a man who loves you very deeply.
"The hand that gave you the gift which you have not been able to locate, that hand has been cold a long time, and will soon turn to dust. You will never see him again in this life."
I gave out a short cry, but Madame Amelia pointed an outstretched finger at me which would have silenced a whole auditorium.
"Long since turned to dust," she went on pitilessly. "But the gift which he bestowed on you is not lost." Her voice was now soft and less scary. "I see a bed, Lester, on which you sleep…. The gift so precious to both the giver and the receiver you will find within the mattress … in a small opening."
I do not even remember leaving Madame Amelia‘s, or recall working the rest of the afternoon in the popcorn concession…. I do know I ran most of the way home.
Mama was giving a big party for her bridge club, and for once she was in a good humor, so she said very little to me as I rushed past upstairs to my bedroom.
Mama always made my bed so good, I hated to take off the handsewn coverlet and the immaculate just-changed and ironed sheet, but I had to know if Madame Amelia was telling me the truth…. I hoped and prayed she was wrong, that she had lied, and that I would not find the watch, for if that part of the fortune was not true, neither would be the other part about the hand of the bestower.
I searched and searched but could find no little aperture where my watch would have slipped down in the mattress, until when about to give up, all at once I see under one of the button-like doohickeys a sort of small opening…. My hand delved down, my heart came into my mouth, I felt the cold metal, I pulled it out, it was my gold watch.
But instead of the joy at having it back, I felt as bad as if I had killed somebody. Sitting there with the timepiece which I now wound carefully. I lost all track of my surroundings. I sat there on the unmade bed for I don’t know how long, hardly looking at my long-lost friend, which ticked on and on uncomfortingly.
"Lester?" I heard Mama’s troubled voice, "Why, where on earth did you ever get that beautiful watch?"
I looked up at her, and then I told it all to her….
She looked at the tousled condition of sheets, coverlet, and mattress, but there come from her no criticism or scolding.
She held the watch now in her own palm and gazed at it carefully but sort of absentmindedly.
"You should have told me, Lester, and not kept it locked in your own heart all this time. You should confide in Mama more. Just look at you, too, you’re growing into a handsome young man right in front of my eyes."
A queer kind of sob escaped from her….
"Where is Short Papa, do you suppose?" I got out at last as she took my hand.
Mama smoothed my hair briefly, then she went on:
"I have wondered and wondered how I was to tell you all these months, Lester, and I see that as usual I must have did the wrong thing where you and Short Papa are concerned. But you realize I learned of his death weeks after the event. … And then weeks and weeks after that I heard he had been buried in accord with his firm instructions that there was to be no funeral and nobody was to be notified back here of his passing…."
I nodded, meaning I did not blame her, but kept looking hard at the watch, and thinking there could be no place safe enough now for it, and that it must never part from me again.
"I’ve always wanted to do what was best, Lester," Mama went on, "but parents too are only after all flesh and blood as someday you will find out for yourself."
She dried her eyes on her tea apron and then touched me softly on the cheek and started to make up the bed, and at the very last to make a final touch she got out her old-fashioned bedspread from the cedar chest and put that over the rayon coverlet.
—from James Purdy’s The Candles of Your Eyes (1987)