When I left home, he told me to never come back.
I guess I shouldn’t blame him. I was always out late, partying with friends, skipping school, ignoring most of the things he told me to do.
I got a job at the Grille on Hadley Street over in Norton in the summer of 1997. It was 120 miles east of Vernon, Alabama, where my parents lived. The Grille was on the edge of Norton Lake. What paint was left on the outside was cracked, the steps always made a creaking sound when someone walked to the front door, but people still filled the seats.
The kitchen crew at the Grille was nice. They put me to work making sandwiches at first. I was fourth in line to work the grill. The boss wouldn’t let anybody waltz in and work the grill. You had to have some experience first.
Horace, the main grill man, told me, “It’s gonna be a long while before you get to throw a burger on my grill.” He waited nearly ten years before he got the job.
At the time, I didn’t care much. I wasn’t going back. I was doing all right.
I was 17 then.
Horace was this old guy who’d been working there since he was about my age. He was six feet tall, had a belly that hung a couple of inches over his belt. He had grease stains on his apron and in his beard. He never seemed to mind either. He loved working at the Grille.
Mama called me every day, asking me to come back.
“Your daddy can’t help the way he acts sometimes,” she said. “You know how he gets.”
She’d ask if I needed any money, and we’d say goodbye after I told her I was getting by fine.
Horace convinced me to go back to school and work afternoon and nights at the Grille.
“A man can’t get nothing out of life without some kind of an education,” he said. “You don’t want to be 57, working at this place. You might be mad at your daddy now, but if you mess it up because of him, you’ll regret it for the rest of your life.”
He let me crash on his couch when I couldn’t pay the rent on the trailer I was staying in. I moved from one trailer to another.
Horace dragged me off the couch every morning for the first few weeks. He even gave me a curfew. I had to obey it because I needed a place to sleep.
He always had breakfast ready before he left for the Grille. It was the same thing every day, bacon and grits. He’d set two plates on the two-person square table in the corner of the kitchen. On occasion, he might bake some cheese toast.
He had this whole routine to his life. Breakfast, work, TV, sleep. On weekends, he’d play cards with a few of his buddies, and he’d let me play. He wouldn’t let me drink with them, but I’d sneak a beer off when I got up for bathroom breaks.
One day, I got caught with this girl, Teri Rogers, making out on the couch. Horace had come home for a lunch break. I guess he was tired of the Grille’s food that day. He wasn’t even mad about Teri’s shirt being off.
“Boy, you ain’t gonna amount to nothing skipping school. I’ve done told you, if you’re gonna stay here, you gotta get your diploma.”
I couldn’t say anything. He knocked his only lamp off the coffee table, and it broke into five or six pieces.
“Shit,” he moaned as he walked into the kitchen. That was the last word that was exchanged between us the rest of the day.
Teri and I got her older brother to buy us some beer, and we built a fire in the woods behind her house. She wasn’t interested in hearing me complain about Horace. She wanted to make out, or maybe more. I got drunk and went back home about the next morning.
Horace left me a note on the refrigerator. Sorry. Dinner is in the fridge. I’ll see you in the morning.
I don’t know why I did it, but I super glued Horace’s lamp back together. He had thrown it in the trash out the back. I spent two hours working on it, making sure every little piece was perfectly in place before I went to sleep on the couch.
After I left home, he asked me to come back once.
It was three years after I left, six months ago from now. He had some liver disease and didn’t have but a few days left.
I didn’t want to go back, but I made myself believe that I was doing it for Mama.
He was lying on his bed, sweating. A few of the blinds were broken that covered the window above the bed, and a few rays of light shined on his forehead.
I thought he wanted to apologize to me for being a drunk when I was growing up. I thought that’s what people done on their deathbed, they tried to make things right.
He motioned me closer so I could hear him speak.
“I’m leaving you the land. You need to come back and take care of your mama.”
I shook my head in agreement.
That was the last time we talked. Mama wouldn’t let me stay though because I was taking classes at Norton Community College.
“You’ve let your daddy hold you back long enough,” she said. “You need to stay where you’re at. Get your education and do something with yourself.”
“He never held me back, Mama,” I said. “The only person that can hold us back is ourselves.”
After I left home, Horace was waiting for me.
I was crying, but I didn’t know why. It might’ve been because I knew I shouldn’t be relieved that my father was dead. Maybe it was because I wasn’t really relieved.
The next morning, Horace made a different breakfast. We still had grits and bacon, but he added cheese bits in the grits and made pancakes. I didn’t even know we had the ingredients to make pancakes.
He took the day off work. It was the first time he’d done that since I had known him, probably the first time since he’d worked at the Grille.
“Today, we’re going on a trip,” he said. “It’ll get your mind off of everything. We both need some time to relax anyway.”
It wasn’t really so much a trip as riding seven miles down the road to a hiking and camping trail. We found a clearing after hiking in mostly silence, except when Horace mentioned that he saw deer tracks or told me to look at the size of a squirrel. That’s where we built a fire. I half expected him to build it with twigs and a stone after the way he navigated his way through the trail.
A small stream trickled along beyond a bank 20 yards out from camp. The sky was gray. The half-full moon barely peaked out of the sky.
“My daddy took me out here when I was a few years older than you,” Horace said. “At the time, I didn’t know why. I was 24 years old, and my daddy was taking me on a camping trip.”
“Why did he take you on a camping trip?” I asked.
“He never said. I guess it’s because he couldn’t say.”
Horace took a frying pan and a can of pork ‘n’ beans out of his backpack.
“Daddy, he was never much of a talker. But, he was a drinker like your daddy. He cleaned himself up when I was 13 or so though. That’s when he really stopped talking. I guess he didn’t know how to say he was sorry.”
“At least he had the courage to quit,” I said.
“Courage had nothing to do with it. Mama was going to leave him and take me and my brothers and sister with her. My daddy didn’t have courage. He just wanted to keep what he did have.”
Horace dumped the beans on the frying pan he had positioned over the fire.
“Well, he did quit,” I said.
“Yeah,” Horace looked up, “he did quit drinking. He quit everything else too. It doesn’t take courage to quit drinking. It takes courage to keep on going after that. Daddy didn’t have that.”
“What did he do after that then?”
“Not much of anything. He worked, came home and didn’t say anything. Most of the time, he just sat quietly in the living room. He came out here a lot. Said it kept him from slipping back into drinking. He never let me come out here when I was a kid. That’s part of why I didn’t understand why he did when I was older.”
Horace stirred the beans in the pan, and he told me to get a paper plate. The moon was shining fully, and the sky had grown darker.
“Daddy didn’t say much that time he took me out here either,” Horace said. “We just went fishing and camped. Done the things fathers and sons are supposed to do when the son is growing up. I guess he wanted to make up for at least one day we missed out on when I was a kid.”
“My dad used to take me fishing when I was little,” I said.
“You wanna go?”
“Yeah. What, you never been fishing in the dark before?” Horace asked.
I had never been fishing at night before. Horace said we had to be quite if we wanted to catch fish, but we talked most of the night. We didn’t talk about anything in particular. We talked about how I was doing in school. If I was ever going to settle down with a girl. What I was going to do after I got a degree. We talked about football, work, and a number of random things until the sun came up.
We had caught three fish by the time we finished, and we cleaned them and ate them for breakfast.
The next day, I went back to school and Horace went back to work. We’ve been going back to that trail once a month since then. Our record number of fish caught is still three. Horace keeps telling me that next time he’s going to catch that many on his own.