SUNDAYS AND SARSAPARILLA
It was crazy hot, after dinner, and Sunday afternoon.
Three generations of men were on the porch, doing what Grams referred to as loafin’ dem bones. Dad was reclining in the old wicker rocking chair, chewing on the remnants of a week old cigar. Although the look on his face was one of relaxation, he could never completely hide the face of work and worry behind his Sunday afternoon face.
Pap sat in the porch swing, his feet dangling, not touching the floor. He wore the same I think I’m going to have a stroke expression on his face that he brandished regardless of time or emotion. He muttered about how he thought the heat was making him shrink, a comment that never garnered much attention since it was one of his main topics of conversation every day that the temperature would reach ninety degrees or better. Grams would always derail him from that topic by telling him that the heat don’t shrink a good man, but, it sure as hell might give him some wrinkles.
I would sit on a cinder block, leaning against the wall of my grandparents’ house, which I had always considered to be nondescript. Nondescript with the exception of the smell of cooked cabbage that seemed to have worked its way into the soul of the house, overriding all other odors, no matter what might have been stewing in the kettle for dinner. To this day, the smell of cabbage cooking always reminds me of the colors Avocado Green and Harvest Gold.
My shoulder blades would rest comfortably against the house, my head tilted back completing a three point nap position. I would pull down the brim of my Cub cap, close my eyes and enjoy what little Sunday afternoon relaxation that I could.
Air in the summer time was nonexistent. What you breathed in August around those parts was heat. This was the only thing that could explain why every soul was so quick to temper during the latter parts of summer, even me.
The silence of our summer Sunday would always come to an abrupt end in the same fashion. Pap would smack his dentureless gums and thin pale lips, and utter one word. “Parched.”
He would stand up, trembling, and fish in his back pocket for his wallet for what seemed like hours. He would come close to losing his balance and tumbling over several times before he would finally work the ancient leather case free.
He would pull a single dollar bill from the depths of a wallet that rarely saw the light of day, at least not in the company of friends or family. I was pretty sure that the only other living soul other than me and Dad that had laid eyes on that wallet more than six times was Crandon Birch, the white trash boozer that ran the girlie show down on Devonshire. I had seen Pap sneaking in more than once after his Saturday morning haircut when I was at the arcade.
Once the wallet was safely stashed again, Pap would sit back and study the dollar bill. He would turn it over in his hands and look at it from every angle. I knew Pap wasn’t oblivious to the fact that I was watching him, but, at the time he didn’t want me to know that this was the case.
Pap would squint hard. He would fold back the corners of the bill one by one, taking the greatest of care to ensure that there was only one bill in his hands. He rubbed the bill between his thumb and forefinger so hard at times that I thought he was going to rub the nose clean off of President Washington.
My mind would fester, tarrying on the fact that I knew he was going to ask me to run up to Charlie Applegate’s market to fetch him a sarsaparilla and a bag of Goobers. As always these items would total eighty-three cents. And, just like every Sunday for the last two years, he was going to play with that single dollar bill for ten minutes until he made damned sure that he wasn’t giving me more money than he had to. Not once in two years had he ever offered to buy me, the faithful servant that fetched his after dinner goodies, a little something for my troubles.
As if the same old routine wasn’t bad enough, on this particular Sunday, Pap added a new wrinkle to his festival of cheapness. He held the dollar bill up to the sun to see if the transparency was consistent with that of a single, one-dollar bill. It was this new wrinkle that sent me careening over the edge. There was no doubt in my mind that Pap had secured his position in the cheapskate hall of fame.
I glanced at my dad, who was still reclining, a grin played at the corners of his mouth and closed eyes, suggesting that maybe he had an idea of how angry these episodes made me. My anger peaked. I was going to demand that Pap buy me a sarsaparilla for my trouble today, and I didn’t even like sarsaparilla.
As I stepped toward him, I became aware of a ball in the pit of my stomach.
Pap was still holding the bill up to the sunlight when I approached him
“Pap,” I said, trying to add some authority to my approach by lowering my voice.
Because the matters at hand overshadowed everything else happening on the porch at that particular moment, I hadn’t noticed that my dad had stopped rocking and cocked an eye in my direction.
“Huh,” Pap said, appearing not to notice the tone in my voice, or the fact that I had stirred before I had been summoned.
“Well Pap, I think that...well ya see…do you want me to run up to Charlie’s for ya?”
“If it ain’t no bother.”
“No bother,” I said, hanging my head in disgust.
Pap handed me the dollar bill and placed his order as if I had never performed this woeful task, and I headed off to Charlie’s.
I didn’t hear the conversation between Pap and dad that day after I left, but dad told me what was said years later. And now, as I sit in my wicker rocking chair, on the porch of my fairly nondescript house, I recall the conversation.
“It frustrated the hell out of me when you used to do that to me pop.”
“Taught ya to stand up for yourself didn’t it?”
“It’s a good thing that your boy didn’t decide to find his manhood today.”
“I only had one dollar.”