‘Till the day she died, Mama never figured out that I could hear everything anyone said in our living room when I sat at my desk in my bedroom. The furnace register for the living room was almost directly below my bedroom register, which was next to my desk.
In warm weather I usually kept a throw rug over the floor register and rested my bare feet there when I sat at my desk. On one particular hot August afternoon, however, I removed the rug when I sat down at my desk.
A few minutes earlier the neighborhood gossip had arrived unannounced, which usually meant she had some juicy new gossip to share. After a nod to my Mama, Mama suggested I might want to study the airplane diagrams my uncle had given me a couple of days earlier. I went to my bedroom, took the large envelope of diagrams out of my desk, removed the rug from the register and sat down. I didn’t have to wait long to hear the latest neighborhood gossip.
“Did you see that man flying down the road this morning?” the gossip asked Mama.
“No. Where was he going?”
“To Bobby Jo’s. Her new boyfriend was over there sitting on her side porch. Somehow that man got wind that Bobby Jo has a boyfriend.”
“Why would he care?” Mama asked.
“Oh come on, honey. You know that man thinks she’s his.”
“He’s old enough to be her father.”
“Men usually like younger women. Apparently Bobby Jo decided she needed a man her age, not a father image, and he’s having none of it. Confronted her and her boyfriend on the porch.”
“What happened?” Mama asked.
“The boyfriend got right in his face. From what I could see, I’d guess he told the old man to get out, which he did. Jumped in his car and spun out of there, throwing gravel with that big ol’ Cadillac of his until he was out of sight. Boy was he mad, or scared or both.”
“He’ll be back,” Mama said. “He don’t give up that easy. He outlasted her boy’s father.”
“Well at least the boy lives with his daddy now, and not in that house of debauchery with that old man comin’ and goin’.”
“He don’t come around here much,” Mama said.
“Of course not. He meets her in the basement of his church on her lunch hour. Thinks nobody knows. The whole town knows. Why does that church keep him on?”
“Probably the money his great aunt left him. I was told he doesn’t get much of a salary. They probably couldn’t get another preacher for what they pay him,” Mama said.
“Not now that most of the church has left. In three years two of the high school girls in that church got shipped off mysteriously for a few months. We all know they went to someplace to have babies.”
“That doesn’t mean he had anything to do with that,” Mama said.
“Then why’d most everybody leave the church?”
“I don’t know.”
“A very reliable source told me that Bobby Jo told that woman she works with that she won’t be havin’ no more babies. Said she got that fixed. Said that preacher man paid to have it done. Paid in cash. Now what you got to say about that? Why would that man pay to have her fixed if he ain’t havin’ relations with her? If he’s havin’ relations with her, he probably did with those other girls too.”
“Without any evidence, that’s all guesses,” Mama replied.
“Guesses my foot. That old man likes young girls. Hope you don’t let him near your daughter.”
“She’s a little young for his taste.”
“See! You know he likes young girls. All I’m sayin’ is to keep him away from Tammy or you’ll be shippin’ her off to Oklahoma or wherever it is to one of them homes for unwed mothers.”
Mama’s voice rose and I heard her say the angriest thing I ever heard her say ‘till the day she died.
“He lays one hand on her and I’ll take my butcher knife to his privates and he’ll never touch another woman if he doesn’t bleed to death first.”
“Well you may have to stand in line to get your turn honey.”
“I think it best we keep this conversation between the two of us,” Mama said. “We shouldn’t go around telling stories if we don’t know they’re true,” Mama insisted.
“We know they’re true. We just ain’t got all the evidence. That man’s gonna’ burn in hell for what he’s done to these girls.”
“Let’s just be careful we don’t join him there,” Mama cautioned.
“Lordy, no. Spend all eternity in hell with him? Now that’s enough to make me consider getting’ religion. Lordy what a thought!”
Even when Mama got old and age and confusion loosed her tongue and she told stories I’d never heard and would never have guessed she would repeat, Mama never told one word of what I’d heard through the register on that hot August afternoon. Maybe Mama forgot. But I never did.