What might have been an otherwise forgettable night begins as we’re on our way home from revival meeting at Everybody’s Tabernacle. As we pass Branch’s store, Pa sees several parked vehicles that he recognizes and pulls over. He says he needs to see about borrowing Witty’s corn harvester so he stops, telling us all to wait in the car while he goes inside “for a minute.”
We’re all tired and sleepy and want to go home, since we have to get up and go to school early in the morning. Mama, sick of our complaining, and knowing Pa’s tendency to lose track of time, decides to let me go inside to remind Pa we’re in the car and that he should hurry up. “If anybody can make Pa hurry,” she says, “it’s you. You’ve practically got him wrapped around your little finger.”
As I walk into the store I pull myself up to my full height, feeling very important that Mama has trusted me with a mission. Sitting around the potbellied black stove are several men from neighboring farms, each holding a frosty bottle of Coca Cola or Pepsi. Pa leans on the counter in front of Mr. Branch sitting on his tall stool braced on the wall behind the counter. Pa sets his Coke bottle down while everyone continues laughing something or other one of the men has said.
Now Pa wasn’t an unkind man, nor even a stingy one whenever he had two nickels to rub together, and I was fairly certain he would never have indulged himself at our expense had he not been pressed to do so by whatever man was feeling prosperous that night buying a round for his friends. “Mama says we might oughta get on home, school tomorrow,” I say.
“You go on back to the car, I’ll be there directly,” he says.
I take in the scene before me. “Buy me a coke, Pa?”
“Do like I said. Go on back to the car,” he says trying out a smile on his face, more for his friends, I know, than for me.
I try again. “Can’t I have a coke first, Pa?” I ask in my sweetest, smallest voice.
“What did I just tell you!” he says and this time there’s not even a hint of a smile on his face. He points his finger to the door in that way he has, and even a little girl whose forehead has been stamped with a sense of what is and isn’t fair, knows he means ONE, do as I say, TWO, right now, and THREE, no questions asked.
Thereupon I storm out, kicking Mrs. Branch’s doormat, making dust fly around my feet as I go. I push the screen door hard, slinging my best parting shot over my shoulder. “Well, alright then, you goddamned stingy son of a bitch!” The spring on the screen door snaps the door shut behind me. Muddled laughter follows as I stomp angrily to the car.
Pa soon comes out and drives home in silence. At home I get out and, to make sure everybody knows I’m mad, I kick dirt at Butchie when he comes out from under the steps, tail wagging, to welcome me home.
Inside the house, my brothers and sister straggle off to bed. Pa reaches out to grab me by the shoulder. “You wait,” he says. Suddenly Mama has urgent things to do in the kitchen as Pa unbuckles his leather belt, pulling it through all the belt loops on his pants. My heart kicks in double time with every tick Big Ben makes over the fireplace mantle.
Pa yanks my dress up to my waist and makes me bend down over a chair in the dining room exposing white panties. I feel the belt bite into my bottom. “I’ll teach you to disrespect me!” he yells, and once again I feel the sting of leather through my thin cotton panties with Wednesday embroidered on the front. Immediately a blend of snot and tears begin streaming, but no amount of crying will bring mercy. “I’ll teach you to disrespect me,” he repeats. “Be quiet,” he yells, “or I’ll give you something to really cry about.” One thing I’ve never understood then or now. How can a parent spank you hard and then expect you not to cry. I try to swallow the agony of indignity thrust on top of injustice, but still another moan escapes my mouth. He raises the belt still higher.
Then suddenly Mama’s in the room. Her face is strained too. “That’s enough! You know you have only yourself to blame,” she says. “Where do you think she learned that kind of language?”
Pa brings the belt down, but this time, instead of it thrashing my behind, it hits the kitchen floor with a thud. He lets it go of it as if it’s suddenly turned to fire. Through clenched teeth, as if he’s the one who has undergone the whipping, he says “Go to bed.”
Eventually I would learn not to take God’s name in vain, though more through the efforts of Sunday school teachers and a kind and patient mother and grandmothers than through any amount whipping. In time I learned, too, to show respect for Pa, especially in front of his friends.
The lesson that took longer to learn, but stayed with me longest is that girls needn’t sit around waiting patiently for a man to buy things for her, no matter what he may promise her. Yessiree Bob! A smart girl can eventually earn her own nickels and buy her own damn Coca Colas!