Hex Keys

Father's Day 1972—an oddball quest. A short story

Trent McGinn

The fourth woman stood outside her trailer, wearing a smudged orange pantsuit, holding a three-foot-long dead rat snake by the tail, walking toward a roadside ditch. The look on her face said something like This is nothing, comparatively speaking. She looked as if she might bellow out, “This ain’t as bad as dealing with smoke damage inside the bedroom.” Later on, I couldn’t imagine my father planning a better scenario. What had he expected when we pulled off on that rutted clay road? I would’ve bet that he plainly wanted to drive by the trailer, maybe see the woman out there sweeping her dirt driveway with a cheap rake missing prongs. He would’ve said, “See?,” or “There you go,” or “What do you think you’d be doing inside that place, if she’d been your mother?”

“I almost took that woman to the prom,” my father said. “We were dating, I asked her to the prom, and then her daddy said he didn’t like me. Said I wasn’t what his daughter deserved, or something like that. Anyway, she could’ve been your mother.”

This occurred in June, Father’s Day 1972. I was 12. I’d bought my father a set of Allen wrenches and had them wrapped up nicely on the kitchen table for when he got up and ate his everyday breakfast of Cream of Wheat with blackstrap molasses.

We didn’t take time to eat breakfast on Father’s Day 1972. He woke me up, had my pants and shirt laid out on a chair, and said, “Come on, hurry up. We got some places to go today I want you to see.”

Our first stop was a breakfast joint one town over called Mama’s Nook. Somebody had spray-painted an ie after the sign, on the side of the cement-block building. This wasn’t any kind of raised-letter sign, or neon. It wasn’t a nice porcelain sign, or even a cutout piece of plywood attached to the side of the building. It looked as if the owner had hired someone with a nice stencil set to flat-out paint right onto the building’s exterior. I didn’t know the term nookie yet. I knew poontang, only because, right after my mother took a temporary hiatus from our family to “tend to more-important tasks in the long run,” my father took grease pencils and wrote P-O-O-N on the Tang jugs that he drank from each morning with his Cream of Wheat.

I said, “I got you a Father’s Day present.”

My father turned into the narrow parking lot. He stared straight ahead and, without moving his lips much, said, “Mama’s Nookie’s the place to be.”

At this point I didn’t know that my father had an established plan for the day. I’ll give him this: he didn’t seem to blame my mom for checking herself into some kind of clinic that treated chronic depression and pain. Me, I’d said some bad things about her to friends of mine. I’d said over the phone, “At least your mother doesn’t mind seeing you in the morning,” and “At least you have a mother who doesn’t want to see you ruin your teeth” when my buddy Clay called up to tell me how his mother made him wear ironed blue jeans, or told him to quit eating Milk Duds. To be honest, I didn’t quite understand my mother’s alleged predicament. She’d been gone for two months, and I doubted that she would return, ever.

We walked in and sat down at a booth. This was a Sunday, so everyone else inside was wearing church clothes.

The first waitress who came to our table wore a name tag. My father said, “Hello, Arlene.”

“Well, well, well. I heard you might be back to alone. Wondered when you might come crawling over here.” She wore a yellow dress with a stain along the right side. Her hair probably wasn’t formed into tight pin curls naturally. Arlene’s head reminded me of a vegetable scrubber we had under the sink.

She tossed down two laminated one-sheet menus, printed only on the front. She said, “We out of liver mush, so don’t ask. We had a run on liver mush, and Mama ain’t had time to go to the store.”

My father said, “This is my son, Preston,” and nodded his head once across the table, toward me.

I said, “Hello.”

Arlene smiled. She had all of her teeth, which kind of surprised me. She said, “Hey, Varlene, get on over here,” without taking her eyes off me.

The two women weren’t twins, but they looked alike. They wore the same uniform and went to the same hairdresser, at least. Varlene showed up from behind the cash register and said, “Buck Hewitt. Hey, Buck. Is this Buck Junior?”

“Guess what’s her name.” On my second try I correctly guessed Darlene, and then I ordered a waffle.

She didn’t look at me. My father said no, and introduced me again. For some reason I thought this was the perfect opportunity to set these two women straight. I said, “A lot of people call me Presto, like if you took the n off my name. I do a lot of magic tricks.” “A lot” was an exaggeration. I knew about four card tricks, and could make a quarter disappear about half the time.

Varlene said, “Magic. Like father, like son.” Then she returned to the cash register without saying goodbye.

My father said, “I’ll just have an egg sandwich.” To me he said, “Hey, Preston, Arlene and Varlene have a sister. Guess what’s her name.”

On my second try I correctly guessed Darlene, and then I ordered a waffle.

“Waffle,” Arlene said. “I could’ve guessed that.”

I figured out her allusion years later. My father didn’t move his lips much, and spoke quietly. He said, “When I get the sandwich, I’m not going to eat it. You eat up your waffle just fine, but I’m going to plain sit here.”

I leaned across the table. I said, “Say that again?”

My father looked to his left, at all the people bowed in prayer before their breakfasts showed up. For the first time ever I noticed how his face resembled a half-melted back-porch citronella candle. He said, “Never eat food served to you by someone you’ve hurt, Preston. If I can teach you anything, that’s it. Well, it’s one of the things.” Then he went on, quietly, to tell me how he’d dated Arlene and broken up with her, dated Varlene and broken up with her—he had even taken Darlene out to a movie once, but halfway through she stood up and made a big scene. My father said that her two sisters had paid her $10, which was huge money back in the early 1950s, to break up with him. “It’s not like we were going together, you know. But I was embarrassed in front of all those people watching Marlon Brando.”

Our food came. Varlene brought it out. She set my waffle down lightly, and pretty much slung my father’s plate down. It rattled and wobbled like a dropped dime on a cookie sheet. My father placed a $10 bill on the table. I said, “I got you a Father’s Day present.”

My father said, “You ain’t got to give me nothing, Presto. Just coming out to meet women who could’ve been your mother is enough gift for me.”

I’d decided on Allen wrenches—they’d been used, sure, but I’d gotten some 3-in-One oil and sanded off the rust—because my father’d broken a couple of those little ones while unsuccessfully trying to unstick stuck gravel from the treads of his tires. My father said they were “hex keys,” and he needed them for the machines he worked on at the behest of independent textile-supply companies and cotton mills that demanded his presence when one of their machines ran afoul. My grandfather started the business, and when he died, my father dropped out of college—where he’d met my mom—and took over.

I said, “What I got you is better than this, I bet.”

My father shook his head. He said, “We got a couple more places to go.”

We left Mama’s Nook and took Highway 56 out toward the town of Glenn Springs, where—according to my father—a special curative mineral water got bottled and shipped to high-ranking members of the Confederacy. The entire operation dwindled once General Lee or someone accused an interloper of bottling a tainted, nonrestorative tonic that induced dysentery in the troops before the First Battle of Kernstown or the Battle of Appomattox Station. Maybe it was Stonewall Jackson who blamed Glenn Springs water, or the white-supremacist Lieutenant General Jubal Early—one of them. Glenn Springs still featured a number of wooden two-story antebellum houses owned by the descendants of bottlers and shallow-water-spa attendants, but each house had fallen more and more into disrepair.

I didn’t speak during this 20-minute trip. Maybe I got all obsessed with how either Arlene or Varlene might’ve sprinkled rat poison in my waffle batter. I thought about how easily someone could stir liquid poison into a syrup container. My father took a left turn and said, “It’s around here somewhere.” He hit the brakes, accelerated, hit the brakes, accelerated, and I rolled down the window of his truck in case I got sick.

At about 10 o’clock we turned down a pea-gravel-and-pine-straw driveway to one of those Sears Craftsman bungalows. My father pulled up to the house and opened his door. I slid out on his side, because he’d parked way too close to a rock wall on the right. “I’m back here. Hey! I’m back here,” a woman called out as my father approached the front door.

My father took me by the right shoulder and directed me around the house. He walked with a sudden and pronounced limp, and leaned on me as we curved around.

“It’s Buck and Preston,” my father said when we reached an open gate in a chain-link fence. He and I both looked around at eye level, swooping our heads this way and that. My father said to me, in a louder-than-normal conversational voice, “We’re here to see Rayelle Purvis.”

“I’m up here,” Rayelle said, and we looked upward into the limbs of an oak tree, the kind usually seen in movies that involve hangings. She stood on an eight-by-eight platform at least 20 feet in the air. No ladder stood nearby, and no low limbs protruded from the trunk. She said, “Buck Hewitt? What the hell are you doing here? I thought you were smart enough to know better.”

My father said, “What’re you doing up there?” He didn’t introduce me. I craned my neck. I tried to figure out if this woman had scrambled up the tree like some kind of squirrel or trick pit bull.

Rayelle Purvis looked up at the sky, then back down to us. She said, whispering, “I hope you didn’t go to the front door and wake up Floyd.”

My father shook his head no. He whispered back, “I just wanted to see how you’re doing.”

“Floyd would kill you if you came to the door. If you woke him up or not. You know that.” To me she said, “Hey, little fellow.”

I waved, but said nothing. My father said, “We’re just out on a tour today seeing who’s alive and who’s not. Maybe I’m feeling middle-aged, you know.”

A live brown field rat fell off Rayelle Purvis’s platform, landed closer to me than my father, then skittered off slowly. I won’t say that I didn’t jump. I won’t say that I didn’t maybe let out a little squeal. Rayelle said, “Damn it to hell.” She squatted down out of sight, then stood back up holding a silver industrial stapler. I guess that she’d had her toe on the rat’s tail up until this point.

“Do you want me to try and catch that thing?” my father said. “I wanted Preston here to hear about how you and Ginny used to be roommates. I wanted for you to tell him how his momma’s smart and normal, I guess.”

I looked at my father. “Smart and normal” seemed an odd thing to push a stranger into admitting, I thought, even then. I looked off to where the rat had run—under a pile of what ended up being the past winter’s butterfly-bush clippings—then back up to Rayelle Purvis. She looked at me and said, “Your momma and I used to be roommates in college. We were KD sorority sisters. I introduced her to your daddy, and my lot in life got decided because of Ginny’s drive.”

My father said, “Well. That’s not exactly how I remember things, but okay. Come on down from there, Rayelle.”

For some reason I felt empowered enough, maybe because this woman said my mother’s name in a way that almost sounded like a curse, to say, “Are you more comfortable with rats than with people?” I’d read some kind of National Enquirer thing my mother had left behind about people who cared more for vermin than for humans. Some people out there held Cheerios in their mouths and let rats climb up their shirts.

Rayelle said, “Floyd was up all night trying to catch an owl. I’m trying to catch a hawk. We got us a dream to travel around showing injured birds of prey to schoolchildren.”

My father said, “So you’ll catch a normal bird, then injure it?”

“Hey, you shouldn’t be so unaccustomed to such a thing, Buck,” Rayelle Purvis said. “Am I right or am I right?” She pointed off in the distance and said, “We got another platform over there with roadkill possums and coons stacked up, for turkey vultures. I got to keep an eye out for them, too.”

I said, “Mom was in a sorority?”

My father said to Rayelle Purvis, “I wish you nothing but the best of luck, Rayelle. You should be proud. You and Floyd both should be proud.”

I said, “Was she a cheerleader or something?”

My father waved upward, and took my right shoulder again, and led me back to the truck. We got in. He said to me, “That woman’s insane, you understand? I knew it would be bad, but I didn’t know she would be that crazy.”

He started the truck and turned his head in order to back out of the long driveway. He put his arm around the back of the bench seat, and I could smell Ivory on his skin. I said, “Is her husband mean or something?”

My father said, “Yes, he’s mean and out of control. He’s a loose cannon. I went to high school with him. Floyd got kicked off the football team in high school for beating up a trumpet player in the pep band he thought blew off-tune. He could head-butt a Coke machine into spitting out bottles.”

“What if he’d answered the door?,” I asked. My father swung the steering wheel hard. He put the truck in first gear and peeled out onto the asphalt.

“I was going to say we had the wrong house. That’s what you do. I was going to say, ‘I’m sorry. We’re looking for the Snopeses.’ Listen, Preston, in these kinds of situations, always say that you’re looking for the Snopeses. It’s kind of a joke. It’s a long-winded joke I’ll tell you sometime. I learned it in college. Floyd wouldn’t remember me, for one, and he never read about the Snopeses, for two.”

I said, “Let’s go home. I want you to open up what I got you.”

He didn’t say “Two more.” He didn’t say “Having you spend the day with me is Father’s Day enough.” I think I heard him mumble “Still better than checking in voluntarily.” He drove back toward town for a couple of miles, then took a left. He said, “Old Canaan Road. Old Grist Mill. Old Stone Station,” to himself, like a mantra.

Between us on the bench seat he had a folded-up map of Spartanburg County, but he had already memorized his routes.

We got home right before noon. My father pulled into the driveway. We lived in a normal middle-class subdivision, one of those places that emerged in the early 1960s filled with brick ranch-style houses, all of them 1,600 square feet, some of them with half basements that always flooded. I wanted to hurry up inside and see the look on my father’s face when he unwrapped the hex keys. I foresaw his pulling those things out one by one and twirling them between his thumb and forefinger, maybe saying, “This little wrench will work perfectly.” Maybe he’d say something like “It’s three inches long,” and I could say, “That’s 76.2 millimeters!,” seeing as we’d been going over the metric system in math class right before summer started.

My father closed his truck door and said, “Let’s take a little walk, Preston.”

He held out his hand for me to grab. I did. I said, “Come on. Come inside so you can open up your Father’s Day present.” Maybe I stomped my foot like a big baby.

“Two more,” my father said. He looked at his wristwatch. He said, “Your mother would want it.”

“Ever since the integration, the government’s been happy to kill off every black and white-trash linthead who can’t afford private schooling, so’s to start up a new race of people, just like Hitler wanted.”

When I say “normal middle-class subdivision,” I should mention that it was only half a subdivision. It was a sub-subdivision. It was a circle divided by two other streets. We lived on Great Smoky Circle. The two streets that intersected Great Smoky were Yosemite and Yellowstone. Everyone who lived on Yosemite pronounced it “Yoze-mite,” two syllables. We walked down Great Smoky for a while, then continued on a path surrounded by kudzu on both sides. My father took me through a place where—years later—two children would be found dead. We walked down a path that, as the subdivision developers would discover when they continued their project, held a slave cemetery on either side.

We walked what must’ve been a half mile, until we reached what I learned later was an old, unpainted heart-pine sharecropper house between two creeks, set out in a four-acre expanse of bottomland. My father hunched down low and whispered, “I should’ve brought the binoculars for this one. Be quiet.”

A woman came out wearing denim overalls. She wasn’t wearing a shirt beneath them. She had her head wrapped up in a red bandanna. Two mixed-breed dogs trotted behind her, wagging their tails, their heads lifted upward. A number of chickens stood high on the gutters of the house. This might all have taken place about 50 yards away, not far. The woman held a silver metal bucket that she swung by her side. A hawk went scree-scree-scree overhead. I don’t know if she hummed a tune, or if music merely followed in her path. If we’d gone to this woman’s house first, I might’ve said to my father, “Witch!”

Except I’d never seen a more beautiful woman in my life. My mother was pretty, but this woman held an exotic appeal that could’ve been recognized by Ray Charles and Helen Keller alike. I said, “This woman could’ve been my mother?” I felt ashamed for saying it. Betraying my depressed mother wasn’t something I’d planned to do on Father’s Day.

“Shhh,” my father said. “No. No, never.”

The woman stopped and turned our way. She looked perplexed for a second, then started laughing and said, “Is that you, Buck?”

My father eased up to his full height. I didn’t. If anything, I crouched down farther. My father lifted his right hand and said, “Hey, Bess. I’ll be damned. Is that you? Me and my boy here are looking for his dog. His dog ran off. And we’re looking for it.” My father ambled slowly toward this Bess woman. “You haven’t seen a dog out this way, have you?” To me he said, “Come on, boy, don’t be shy.”

Understand that I’d never been shy in my life, but this woman’s beauty apparently stunned my synapses to the point where no muscle knew how to function. My father walked back toward me, grabbed my collar, and stood me up. Bess said, “I ain’t seen no dog out here. What kind?”

When we entered what might be considered her yard, my father said, “I don’t know. What kind of dog would you say you got?”

If it hadn’t been Father’s Day, I might’ve called him on all of this. But I said to Bess and my father, “Oh, it’s a mixed breed. Maybe part collie and part something else.” I couldn’t think of one dog breed besides collie. I’d seen Lassie, but never Rin Tin Tin or Old Yeller. To my father I said, “Maybe if he shows up here she should know its name.”

My father said, “Richard. The dog’s name is Richard.”

Richard?, I thought. My father must’ve been thinking of the president or something.

Bess lifted up her arm to wipe sweat from her brow. A rooster ran off under the house. I noticed about two inches of blond hair emerging from Bess’s armpit. Off to the right a mule brayed, then kicked at nothing with both back legs. He stood in a corral of sorts, surrounded by a large garden of tomatoes, corn, and sweet peas. I said, “My name’s Preston. The dog’s name’s Richard.” Again, I cannot explain this woman’s outright sublime nature. Two inches of armpit hair, I thought, equals 50.8 millimeters.

My father said, “Yeah, looking for the dog. You still growing your organic vegetables?”

She nodded. She said, “You need to change your ways, Buck. The government’s into killing off people with chemicals they spraying on. Oh, the government’s telling people they depend on to not eat store vegetables, but everyone else don’t know. They got secret ways of letting their rich backers know to buy from me, but they ain’t telling no one else. You know why? Because of integration. Ever since the integration, the government’s been happy to kill off every black and white-trash linthead who can’t afford private schooling, so’s to start up a new race of people, just like Hitler wanted. You know who buys from me? I’ll tell you. Both our senators, for one. Funny thing is, they send they slaves down here to pile up the backs of they Cadillacs full of peas, corn, tomatoes, beans, and sweet potatoes. I might look like I live in poverty, but I got a bank account you wouldn’t believe.” She said all this fast, like she had it memorized and wanted to get it out of her throat.

There, on the outskirts of Bess’s garden, I said, “Dad.”

He said, “Well, okay, Bess. I guess we better go look for Richard elsewhere.”

She walked up and squatted down in front of me. She said, I think, “Go to a private school, if you can talk your daddy into it. You need to be around only people like you, always. They’s going to be a race war in time. You and your dog need to know about it.”

I thought, How can my father have ever been interested in a racist woman? What would have happened to me had this Bess woman ended up being my mother? Would I be driving around in a convertible, wearing a hood like all the Ku Klux Klan members I’d seen driving through Belle Park? Would I forever make fun of people not like me?

We got back home, and my father turned on the TV. I kind of forgot about the hex keys I’d bought him, which still sat atop the kitchen table, next to an empty bowl.

Finally my father got up out of his chair with a grunt and walked into the kitchen. I heard him tearing apart the wrapping paper. Then I couldn’t tell if he laughed or cried. I never asked.