Lydia remembered being only six years old when she first began wondering if her mama was crazy, although it was the summer of her thirteenth birthday before she was able to lay that question to rest and only then because Francine Hayes' own father came right out and admitted, “Yep, reckon your mama’s a mite strange, all right."
Well, Lydia thought, that settles that.
“But she weren't always that way,” Grandpa added. “Up ‘til that tornado, Francine acted ‘bout same as most folks.”
“What tornado?” Lydia asked, given he’d lost her.
“The big ‘un of ‘65.”
Lydia did some quick math, concluding that since she’d been barely two at the time, it was no wonder she couldn’t recall the “big ‘un of ‘65.”
Grandpa frowned. “Course, I don’t reckon Francine’s gonna much cotton to you knowing ‘bout it.”
“Why wouldn’t she?” Lydia asked.
“Has her reasons.”
Not wanting to get onto the subject of her mama's reasoning ability, which was sorely lacking, Lydia didn’t even bother to ask why Francine wanted something like a little old tornado kept from her daughter, especially since they lived in Perry, Georgia, located in what folks around there referred to as “Tornado Alley,” meaning that, even at thirteen, Lydia suspected she’d seen more tornadoes than most folks ever saw in a lifetime.
“But,” Grandpa said, “I reckon you're old enough to know. ‘Sides, it just might make you a bit more tolerant of your mama’s ways.”
Though she seriously doubted that, Lydia said she’d like to hear about the “big ‘un of ’65,” after which her grandpa proceeded to relate a story set on a sultry April afternoon when a particularly violent storm front had come marching in from the west—dark ominous clouds topping the horizon, roiling and churning, angry faces white hot with lightning, and stomachs pregnant with foreboding.
“Francine,” Grandpa said, “she was out in the barn trying to milk the cows ‘fore the storms hit. I say trying ‘cause them cows wasn’t much in no mood to cooperate. They was too blame scared. Course, animals, they know when the weather’s gonna get bad.”
Lydia pictured her mama trying to convince a bunch of overwrought cows to stand still and let her pull on their tits, an image that caused Lydia to think maybe Francine Hayes hadn’t been exactly right in the head even before the damn tornado.
“Anyways,” Grandpa continued, “she give up, seeing the sky was getting real dark and the wind starting to how, so she head, lickety spit, for the house. But when she got there, your daddy weren’t nowhere to be seen, so Francine, she figured he was still down in the field plowing.”
Lydia then had to wonder just how bright her daddy had been. Couldn’t have been too bright, she concluded, out plowing with thunderheads darkening the skies.
Like he’d read her mind, Grandpa said, “You gotta understand, them clouds come in real sudden like; took everybody plumb by surprise.” He scratched his beard as if pondering what had transpired next. “Way I recollect it,” he then said, “your mama up and decided to run down and see what was keeping Roy.”
Lydia had no memories of Roy Hayes, given he’d died when she was just a toddler, having succumbed to what her mama said was “one of them diseases of the brain.” And though sometimes she’d sneak into her mama’s bedroom and glance through the now-faded photographs kept in a tin box in the closet Francine once had shared with the man, looking at those pictures was like looking at snapshots of some stranger—a tall, dark-haired man squinting into the sun, tanned face creased in a smile and head cocked to one side like he was contemplating something that had nothing to do with having his picture taken there in the Georgia heat.
Fishing his pipe and tobacco pouch from the pocket of his overalls, Grandpa began filling the bowl with Prince Albert. “Tornado hit right `bout then,” he said. “I was driving in from town and I seen it. Seen it slide down outta them clouds like a giant black snake and start slithering across the fields. Course I didn’t know your mama and daddy was out there. Figured they’d done took you and went to hide in the root cellar."
“So where was I?” Lydia asked, imagining herself trapped in the playpen with a tornado boiling down on the house.
“Turned out you was with Effie. Francine had brung you over for a little visit. Think she was scrubbing floors that day and wanted you outta the way. Or maybe she was baking.” He narrowed his eyes. “Course, truth be known, can’t rightly recollect why you was at the house. Anyways, Effie, she’d done took you and went to the cellar. Reckon she figured Francine and Roy, they’d be joining he.” He retrieved a box of matches from his pocket, struck a match, and held it to the bowl of the pipe, his cheeks going in and out like a bellows, until the pipe was lit to his liking, after which, he squinted at Lydia. “Now where was I?”
Lydia refreshed his memory: “The tornado was coming, and mama was out looking for daddy.”
“That’s right,” Grandpa said. “That tornado come roaring outta them woods to the west of where your daddy was plowing. Snapped off a plumb acre of pines like they was so many toothpicks. Then it made a beeline for the house.”
“Where was Mama when all this was happening?”
“Somewhere between the house and the field.”
“Still down in the field.”
Lydia imagined her parents seeing one another and frantically waving their arms, Francine motioning for Roy to come and get in the root cellar, and Roy motioning for her to turn around, run for it herself, and not wait for him.
Grandpa took the pipe out of his mouth and glanced at it. “Then all hell broke loose. That funnel cloud come across the field, sucking up everything in its path; must’ve sucked up a good two tons of dirt. And . . . well, while it was sucking up stuff, it went and sucked up your mama.”
Lydia rocked back in the chair. “What?” She tried to visualize Francine Hayes being sucked up into a whirling dervish of dirt and debris. “You sure?”
“Sure I’m sure. Sucked her up like she weren’t nothing but a rag doll.”
“That tornado sucked up my mama?”
“That’s what I said, ain’t it? Grandpa squinted at her. “Lord is my witness. It sucked your mama right up; and it’s a miracle she weren’t kilt.”
“It hurt her any? Lydia then asked, concluding he was telling the truth or he’d never have brought the Lord into it.
“That’s what’s so amazing. Francine didn’t have but a few little scratches. Course she was wet as a drowned rat.”
“But how’d she get down outta that tornado?”
“It set her down pretty as you please, right in Harold Wilkerson’s front yard `fore it tore on across the road and knocked Old Man Terry’s barn into pieces fit for nothing but kindling.”
“She say what it was like up there?” Lydia suspected it must have been something to see and couldn’t help but wonder why her mama had never bothered to tell her about it. Looked like the woman would want her own daughter to know she’d been sucked up by a tornado.
“Yep,” Grandpa said. “Told us all ‘bout it after the shock wore off.”
“And what’d she say?”
“Said she seen a mule.”
“A mule?” Lydia again rocked back in the chair.
“Yep, that’s right. Seen Avery Gill’s old gray mule, Boomer. Francine said Boomer’s eyes was rolled back in his head, and he was kicking and carrying on something fierce.”
“So what happened to Boomer?”
“He got set down, too, right beside the highway at the Perry city limits” Saying this Grandpa chuckled. “Beat anything I ever seen, that it did.”
“Was Boomer dead?”
“Nope, but he weren’t never the same. Kinda touched in the head after that, so Avery went and put ‘im outta his misery.”
"What about Daddy?” Lydia asked. “Was he sucked up, too?"
"Yep,” Grandpa replied, “sucked your daddy up right outta that field."
"So he saw the mule too?"
"Don't rightly know." Grandpa didn't look at her but at his pipe. "Never did find him."
Lydia didn't much care for where this story was going. "You mean—?"
"Yep," Grandpa said, "Roy Hayes died in that storm."
"But mama said—"
"I know what your mama told you, but like I said, I reckon you're old enough to hear the truth."
"He didn't have no disease of the brain?" Lydia asked.
"Nope, Francine made that up."
"Reckon she thought it sounded a mite better." Frowning, he turned the pipe back and forth in his hand. "Can't say I blame her none. Be kinda hard to tell a young'un her daddy got tote off by a funnel cloud."
Lydia thought of all the years she had wasted imagining Roy Hayes writhing around, foaming at the mouth, and dying from some brain disease, and now she was going to have to change that image to one of him sailing through the air and being unceremoniously belched out of a tornado, maybe in a swamp near Valdosta, where the alligators had eaten him for a midday snack.
"Anyways," Grandpa said, "It was hard on Francine. She was right fond of the man. Plumb pitiful she was. Moping around, not eating. Course, it was a bad way to lose a husband."
Lydia thought it was a hell of a way to lose a daddy.
"Then again, Francine pulled through, but I reckon it was what else she seen up there give her the strength to do it."
"She saw something else?" Lydia asked, although she was still trying to envision Roy Hayes being gobbled up by gators.
Nodding, Grandpa said, “Yes ma’am, your mama, she seen Jesus."
If it was hard to picture her mama, daddy, and a mule whirling around in a tornado, Lydia figured it was going to be twice as hard to picture the Lord, white robe flapping around his legs, long hair and beard whipping in the wind, being carried along by a tornado through the skies over Perry, Georgia.
"Francine seen the Lord all right,” Grandpa said.
"So what was Jesus doing?” Lydia asked. “Riding the mule?"
"Nope, your mama didn't say nothing ‘bout Jesus riding no mule. Just says He was floating there beside her, and when she looked over at Him, the Lord, He raised His hand and beckoned, kinda like this." Shifting the pipe to his left hand, Grandpa used his right hand to demonstrate how the Lord had beckoned to Francine Hayes by raising his arm over his head and moving it slowly back and forth. “Your mama,” he added, “she says Jesus was telling her she was gonna live through that tornado ‘cause He had work for her here on earth."
Lydia suddenly found herself wondering if the Lord had been wearing Jockey shorts under that flowing white robe.
"Course,” Grandpa said with a sigh, “she didn't know at the time she was gonna be doing God’s work as a widow woman. But I reckon, it's like the Good Book says—the Lord, He giveth and the Lord, He taketh away."
# # # #
After hearing this account of “the big one of ’65,” Lydia tried to be more tolerant of Francine’s behavior; but she soon decided, though her grandpa had being trying to help, knowing about the tornado didn’t make living with the woman any easier; and in some ways, knowing made it more difficult, since Lydia now had no doubt whatsoever that the woman was crazy, given no sane person was going to go around claiming the Lord had beckoned to her in a tornado.
Then again, Lydia figured the best course of action would be to let Francine just go right on doing whatever it was she thought the Lord was leading her to do; and she, in turn, would go right on ignoring her mama. And maybe Lydia could have done this if Francine had not set her mind on something that affected Lydia personally.
On a day toward the end of August, a day so hot the Redbone hounds lay in the shade of the porch and didn't even bother to twitch when their fleas worked up enough energy to take an occasional half-hearted bite, Lydia was sitting at the kitchen table and glancing through a movie magazine she'd borrowed from her friend, Janice, when Francine, who was washing dishes at the time, announced, "You know, it's ‘bout time you made things right with the Lord."
Nodding, Lydia mumbled, "Uh huh," which was her usual response whenever her mama got to talking religion.
"Yes ma'am," Francine said, "You're thirteen now. Got to step out for Jesus. Thirteen's the age of accountability."
Finally tuning her in, Lydia looked up from the magazine and yelled, "What'd you say?" since her mama was now scrubbing a skillet under the running water and making a racket.
"Said you gotta step out for Jesus."
"The hell I will," Lydia said just as her mama cut off the water so that her words were loud and clear.
Francine wheeled around, wielding the wet dishrag like a whip. Out it went, slap, sting, leaving a red welt on Lydia’s arm. “What have I told you ‘bout using such language?"
With a shriek, Lydia jumped from the chair to dart around the table.
"Oughta wash your mouth out with soap," Francine said, "talking like that."
"Hell ain't no bad word.” Lydia assured her. “It’s right there in the Bible."
"The way it's used in the Good Book and the way you're using it are two different things."
Lydia wiped her face on the hem of her shirt, pulled out another chair, and picked up the gray tom cat Francine had named "Moses" because she'd found it one stormy night down near the river when she'd been walking home from the Wednesday night prayer meeting at Covenant Baptist Church. “Poor thing," she'd said. "You should've seen him, all huddled there under them cattails. Just like Moses in the bulrushes."
Lydia had thought any comparison between a mangy cat and the prophet Moses one mighty big stretch of the imagination.
Now turning back to the sink, Francine said, “I been thinking."
Lydia scratched the cat's ears and tried to ignore the implications of that statement.
"Preacher Avery, he's gonna be baptizing folks next month on the fifteenth. Got several lined up, all of 'em just hankering to start doing the Lord's work. Like Myrtice Taylor . . . you know her . . . works at the hardware store."
No, Lydia thought; I don’t know the woman from Adam’s housecat.
“Myrtice, she's more than ready. Told me, she did, just last Sunday. Francine, she said, I feel like I'm on fire for Jesus. Course, her husband, that no-account heathen, he's . . ."
Now watching the fleas scurry for cover on the cat's scabby head, Lydia started wondering what Janice was doing Saturday. Maybe she'd want to sneak out and catch a movie, then hitch a ride over to the new shopping plaza in Perry.
Francine said, "I figure you oughta let the preacher know you wanna be included."
“What?” Lydia dumped Moses out of her lap. He hissed and ran for cover under the table.
“I said, you oughta tell ‘im you wanna—"
"But I don't want any such thing."
Francine said, “Don’t you dare talk like that. If you died tomorrow, you'd go to hell. That what you want?"
Lydia suspected hell was right there in that house on White Mill Road where she lived with Francine Hayes.
"Everybody's got to accept Jesus once they're old enough to be held accountable for their sins," Francine said. "Thirteen is the cut-off point."
"Says the Bible."
"I ain't never seen nothing where it says thirteen."
"Maybe it don't say thirteen exactly, but it says when a person is old enough to know the consequences of their sin and accept the Lord as their savior, they got to get baptized or they're going to hell."
Figuring it wasn't going to get her anyplace to try reasoning with the woman, given Francine wasn't exactly the most reasonable person in the world, Lydia concluded she'd be better off not even trying, so snatching the magazine from the table, she headed for her room.
"You come back here," Francine yelled. "We gotta talk ‘bout this."
"Ain't nothing to talk about. It ain't gonna do me no good to go get myself baptized if it's something you want me to do and my heart ain't in it." Lydia figured even Francine, crazy as she was, would have to admit the logic of this argument; and as she closed the door, Lydia also figured she was closing the door on the subject. She should have known better.
When Lydia awakened the next morning, she opened her eyes and screeched, “What on earth are you doing?” The last thing she had expected was to open her eyes to the sight of Francine, still in a gown and with her hair uncombed, standing at the foot of the bed and looking down at her.
“Praying over you," Francine said and headed toward the door.
"Praying?" Jumping out of bed, Lydia ran after her. “But I don't need nobody praying over me.”
"Everybody needs praying over; and the Lord says for us to pray without ceasing. Says it right there in Matthew 21: `whatsoever ye shall ask in prayer, believing, ye shall receive.'"
Lydia sniffed her opinion and went to the cabinet, where she sorted through the bowls, looking for one that was reasonably clean.
“He also tells us to pray one for the other, so that's what I'm doing, praying for you."
Taking a box of cornflakes from the cabinet and the milk from the refrigerator, Lydia sat down at the table and tried to ignore her mama, but Francine pulled out the chair across from her, sat down, and said, “I figure if I pray hard enough and long enough, you're gonna see the error of your ways."
"The error of what ways?" Lydia asked and filled the bowl.
"You know what ways," Francine said.
Lydia ate her cereal and tried to pretend she wasn't sitting at the table with a crazy woman; and by the following weekend, she had conditioned herself to go to bed and not give a thought to her mama’s early-morning prayer vigils.
When Lydia awoke Sunday morning, smelling the lingering odor of the Lifebuoy soap Francine used, she lay under the covers, listening to the sounds from the other room as her mama got ready for church, and Lydia thought how it was going to be a cold day in hell when she'd let Preacher Avery dunk her in the muddy waters of Dog River. Let the woman pray till the cows came home. It wasn't going to change a thing. Not now. Not ever.
Waiting until she heard the screened door slap shut, heralding Francine’s departure for church, Lydia went to the kitchen, changed the radio from the gospel station to WPLO, which played rock & roll, and poured herself a cup of coffee. Francine, of course, thought Lydia was too young to drink coffee, so she drank it only on Sunday mornings.
Propping her bare feet in a chair, Lydia took a sip of coffee just as the deejay said, "Here it is, boys and girls, one of your favorites to get the morning started, B.J. Thomas singing ‘He Don't Love You Like I Love You.’” Then, the song beginning, Lydia glanced out the window just as an unfamiliar black car turned in from White Mill Road and headed up their driveway, its arrival prompting the Redbones to crawl out from under the porch and break into a crescendo of long, mournful bays.
Lydia wondered just who would be coming by on a Sunday morning.
The car straddled the ruts and inched its way toward the house as the dogs, red coats glistening in the sun, ran baying down the driveway, the sound ricocheting through the heavy stillness of the morning.
The car was a black Chevrolet, its metallic finish coated with a fine layer of Georgia red dust; and as it pulled to a stop beside the Chinaberry tree, Lydia decided the driver must be someone looking for directions or maybe one of their relatives who'd just bought a new vehicle from Floyd's Used Cars and Trucks on the outskirts of Perry.
The door on the driver’s side opened and a man stepped out, swinging the door wide so that it clipped the head of the female hound and she yipped, darting to one side.
Standing and tightening the belt of her robe, Lydia rushed to the screened door and latched it. She sure wasn't about to let a stranger in the house, and she didn't know this man from Adam's housecat. Dressed in jeans and a black shirt, his dark hair pulled back in a pony tall, he certainly wasn't anyone she'd ever seen around Perry. Looked like a hippy, that’s what. "What you want?” she shouted, deciding he’d better have a mighty good reason for being there or she was going straight to the telephone and call the Perry Police Department.
He stopped, raising one hand to shield his eyes. "Lydia? That you?"
"How you know my name?" she asked, thinking it a good question to ask, given she sure didn't know his.
"Don't you recognize me?" He spread his arms and turned in a slow circle so she could get a good look.
She wondered if he was drunk, standing there in her yard, spinning around like a top. "Am I supposed to recognize you?" she asked.
"Now Lydia," he said. "I'm hurt."
Squinting, she decided there was something vaguely familiar about the man, like she should know him but just couldn't put a name with the face.
Beginning to walk toward the porch again, he said, "It's me."
"And just who is me?"
Then he smiled, the long sun-tanned planes of his face crinkling, and Lydia knew that smile, had seen it countless times in those old photographs her mama kept stashed away; and seeing it, she swallowed around the sudden tightness in her throat as he climbed the back steps to the porch, walking up them just as natural as you please, like he hadn't been dead for any eleven years but had just gone to town for a loaf of bread.
"Girl," he said, "I'm your daddy, Roy Hayes."
Swallowing again, she replied, "My daddy's dead," knowing for her it was true and his walking onto her porch and announcing otherwise would never change a thing.
He laughed, saying, "Well, got news for you. I'm still alive and kicking," as though he were relating something of no more consequence than the state of the weather. "Been out in California. Got myself a band. Call ourselves The Four Riders. Been making the rounds. Even cut. . ."
"California?" she said. "The Four Riders?"
"You know," he said, the smile still creasing his face. "Like the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse."
"If you say so." She thought he was full of crap.
Then glancing at his cowboy boots as though checking the shine, he asked, "Where's you mama?"
"At church? Francine?"
"That's what I said, ain't it?"
He leaned forward, his face close to the screen. "You going to make me stand out here all day?"
"Might," Lydia said, not being much inclined to let a corpse come strutting into her house.
Hooking his hands in his belt, he rocked back on his heels. "Have to admit, you've grown up. How old are you now? Fourteen?"
"No, I ain't fourteen," she said. The man would know how old his own daughter was if he'd been around to celebrate her birthdays, instead of . . . She glared at him. "Wait a minute. How'd you get to California? That where that tornado dropped you?"
"Tornado? What tornado?"
"The one that sucked up you, mama, and Mr. Gill's gray mule."
"Mule?" His smile broadened. "Girl, what are you talking about?"
"You know, back in `65. When that tornado come through and carried you off. Dumped you somewhere and . . ."
"Wait a minute. Is that what your mama told you? That . . ."
"Well, ain't it what happened?"
"Heck, no. Your mama knew I was going to California." He swept a hand out, the gesture somehow taking in the rundown house, the kudzu-choked fields, and even the town of Perry that lay somewhere to the east. "What kind of life is this? I was never cut out to be a farmer. Had music flowing through my veins. Had dreams . . ."
"So you just up and left me and Francine cause you had dreams?"
Rolling his shoulders, the movement rippling the shirt across his back, he said, "Look, I wrote, even tried to call. Francine, she never wrote back and wouldn't talk to me. I finally just gave up." He shrugged again. "Anyway, we got divorced back in `67."
"Divorced!" Lydia stepped back from the door.
"Yeah, Francine didn't want it, but I did. Thought it best for both of us." Again the hunched movement of his shoulders. "Divorces are easy in California. Was a free man in no time."
Not much caring how easy divorces were, Lydia said, "So you don't know `bout the tornado of `65? Bout what happened?"
"You mean the one that came through the day I left?" Still smiling, he again rocked on his heels. "Yeah, I heard about it. Guess I took it as a sign."
"What kinda sign?"
"You know, the end of my old way of life," he said, laughing again, his teeth white in the suntanned face.
Watching him, Lydia decided she didn't find it so amusing.
"So, when's your mama coming home?" he asked.
"Not till late." Lydia didn't think her mama needed to see Roy Hayes.
"Thought you said she's gone to church."
"Has," Lydia admitted, "but she's got a date after the meeting."
"Yeah, that's what I said, a date."
"With her boyfriend."
"Yeah, B.J.," she said, using the first name that came to mind, given B.J. Thomas's song had just finished playing on the radio. "They're getting married."
"That's what I said, ain't it? Getting married next month at Covenant Baptist Church."
Roy looked back at his boots. "Well, I guess Francine needs herself a good, steady man."
"Well, she's got one. Steady like a rock, that's old B.J. And I don't think he's gonna like it none too much if when they get home from church, Francine's dead husband is standing here on her doorstep, seeing how B.J. ain't got much of a sense of humor."
The smile finally fading, he asked, "What're you saying? That I should leave?"
"Reckon so," Lydia said, knowing it was for the best. Like she'd always heard, let the dead bury the dead.
"Well, I really just came by to see how my little girl had turned out."
Lydia thought the man sure had gone one hell of a long time before that urge had hit him. "I ain't no little girl," she said.
"No, I guess you're not," he said. "Guess you've gone and grown up." He narrowed his eyes. "You know, you're just like your mama."
"No, I ain't," Lydia told him. "My mama, she's crazy. Me, I got good sense."
"What's that mean?"
"It means you better get now before Mama and B.J. come home," Lydia said and closed the door, heading back to her room, where she sat on the edge of the bed and waited to hear the Chevrolet's engine eventually rumble and then fade into silence as Roy Hayes made his way back down the drive and out of her and Francine's life.
Well, Lydia thought, mama was telling the truth. The man did have a disease of the brain. Yet thinking this, she realized something else: maybe the woman was crazy, but Francine was still a good mama, and she owed her an awful lot. So maybe it wouldn't hurt too much if she let Preacher Avery dunk her in the river along with those sinners next month. Getting a little wet was the least she could do for someone who had been beckoned to by the Lord in a tornado over Perry, Georgia, something which, now that she given it some thought, was worth bragging about. She sure didn't know anyone else who could say that about her mama.