Dairy Queen Days
Trout Moseley was a day shy of sixteen when his father, Reverend Joe Pike Moseley, ran away.
Most people thought it started with the motorcycle. Maybe even before that, when they sent Trout's mother off to the Institute. But people thought Joe Pike had been handling that unpleasantness reasonably well -- keeping his equilibrium, as they said -- until he showed up with the motorcycle.
It was an ancient Triumph, or at least what had once been a Triumph. Joe Pike found it in a farmer's barn, in pieces, and brought it home in the trunk of his car. Trout was standing at the kitchen window when he saw Joe Pike back the car down the driveway to the garage behind the parsonage. By the time Trout got out there, Joe Pike had the trunk open and was standing with his arms crossed, staring at the jumble of wheel rims, pitted chrome pieces, engine, handlebars, gasoline tank.
"What's that?" Trout asked.
"A once and future motorcycle."
"What're you gonna do with it?"
Joe Pike uncrossed his arms and hitched up his pants from their accustomed place below his paunch. "Fix it up. I am the resurrection and the life. Yea, verily." A trace of a smile played at his lips. "Up from the grave He arose!" he sang off-key. Joe Pike sang badly, but enthusiastically. In church, he could make the choir director wince. He referred to his singing as "making a joyful noise."
"You know anything about motorcycles?" Trout asked.
"Need some help?"
Joe Pike stared for a long time at the jumble of metal in the trunk of the car. Trout wondered after awhile if he had heard the question. Then finally Joe Pike said, "I reckon I can manage. It ain't heavy."
"I mean..." But then he saw that Joe Pike wasn't really paying him any attention. His mind was there inside the trunk among the parts of the old Triumph, perhaps deep down inside one of the cylinders of the engine, imagining a million tiny explosions going off rapid-fire. Trout studied him for a minute or so, then shrugged and turned to go.
"It's a four-cycle," Joe Pike said.
Trout turned and looked at him again. Joe Pike's gaze never left the motorcycle. "What?"
"You don't have to mix the gas and oil."
"That's good," Trout said. "You might forget."
When Trout looked out the kitchen window again a half-hour later, the trunk of the car was closed and so were the double doors of the old wood-frame garage. But he could faintly hear Joe Pike singing inside, "Rescue the perishing, care for the dying!"
Over the next two months, Trout stayed away from the garage when Joe Pike was out there. But he followed the progress of the motorcycle by sneaking a look when Joe Pike was gone. At first it was a spindly metal frame propped on two concrete blocks like a huge insect, and metal parts bobbing like apples in a ten-gallon galvanized washtub filled with solvent to eat away years of grime and rust. Before long, with the metal sanded smooth, the motorcycle began to take shape on the frame. Joe Pike took the fenders, wheel rims, gasoline tank and handlebars to a body shop and had them re-painted and re-chromed. Replacement parts -- headlamp, cables, speedometer -- began to arrive by UPS.
Trout remained vaguely hopeful at first. Fifteen years old, almost sixteen, fascinated by the thought of motorized transportation. But he came to realize that Joe Pike had no intention of sharing the motorcycle.
Joe Pike worked on it in the garage deep into the night, showing up for breakfast bleary-eyed, smelling of grease and solvent, grime caked thick under his fingernails. That was uncharacteristic. Joe Pike was by habit a fastidious man. He took at least two baths a day -- more in the summer, because he was a prodigious perspirer -- and changed his underwear each time. But this present grubbiness didn't seem to bother him. Neither did the state of their housekeeping, which got progressively worse. The church had hired a cleaning woman to come once a week after Trout's mother went off to the Institute, but she was no match for the growing piles of dirty dishes and laundry. Trout finally took matters into his own hands and learned to operate the dishwasher and the washing machine and dryer. After a fashion. At school, he endured locker room snickers over underwear dyed pale pink by washing with a red tee-shirt. Joe Pike's underwear was likewise pale pink, but he didn't seem to notice, or at least he didn't remark upon it. Joe Pike's mind seemed to be fixed on the motorcycle, or whatever larger thing it was that the motorcycle represented. There was a gently stubborn set to his jaw, almost a grimness there. On Sundays his sermons were vague, rambling things, trailing off in mid-sentence. He didn't seem to be paying the sermons much attention, either. In the pews, members of the congregation would steal glances at each other, perplexed. What?
"How's it going?" Trout would ask.
"Don't you get cold out there?" It was March, the pecan trees in the parsonage yard still bare-limbed and gaunt against the gray morning sky.
A blank look from Joe Pike. "No. I reckon not." Then he would stare out the kitchen window in the direction of the garage and Trout would know that Joe Pike wasn't really there with him at all. He was out there with the Triumph.
It worried Trout a good deal. It brought back all the old business of his mother's long silences, the way she went away somewhere that nobody else could go, stayed for days at a time, and finally just never came back. With Irene's silences, he had felt isolated, left out, wondering what of it, if anything, was his fault. Now, Joe Pike's preoccupation with the motorcycle gave him the same old spooked feeling. Joe Pike, like Irene, seemed unreachable. And Trout finally decided there was really nothing he could do but watch and wait.
So he did, and so did the good people of Ohatchee, Georgia -- particularly, the good people of Ohatchee Methodist. They watched, waited, talked:
"What you reckon he's gone do with that thing?"
"Give it to Trout, prob'ly. Man of his size'd bust the tires." (Hearty chuckle here. Joe Pike's stood six-feet-four and his weight ranged from 250 to 300 pounds, depending on whether he was in one of his Dairy Queen phases.)
"Well, it gives the Baptists something to talk about."
"Yeah. That and all the other."
"Was she hittin' the bottle?"
"Don't think so. Just went off the deep end."
"Poor old Joe Pike. And little Trout. Bless his heart."
Long pause. "Don't reckon Joe Pike had anything to do with it, do you?"
"'Course not." Longer pause. "But it does make you wonder."
"Reckon they'll transfer Joe Pike at annual conference?"
"Prob'ly not. He's only been here two years."
"Hmmm. But folks sure do talk."
"Yeah. 'Specially Baptists."
They talked among themselves, but they did not talk to Joe Pike Moseley about his motorcycle. No matter how gracefully he seemed to have handled the business of his wife, there was in general an air of disaster about Joe Pike. People were wary, as if he might be contagious. Then too, a motorcycle just didn't seem to be the kind of thing you discussed with a preacher. At least it didn't until Easter Sunday.
Ohatchee Methodist was packed, the usual crowd swelled by the once-a-year attendees, the ones Joe Pike referred to as "tourists." They were crammed seersucker-to-crinoline into the oak pews and in folding chairs set up along the aisles and the back wall. It was mid-April, already warm but not quite warm enough for air conditioning, so the windows of the sanctuary were open to the Spring morning outside and the ceiling fans went whoosh-whoosh overhead, stirring the smell of new clothes and store-bought fragrances into a rich sweet stew.
When they were finally settled into their seats, the choir entered from the narthex singing, "Up From the Grave He Arose!" They marched smartly two-by-two down the aisle, proclaiming triumph o'er the grave, and the congregation rose with a flurry and joined in, swelling the high-ceiling sanctuary with their earnestness. The choir paraded up into the choir loft and everybody sang another verse and then they all sat down and stared at the door to the Pastor's Study to the right of the altar, expecting Joe Pike to emerge as was his custom. They sat there for a good while. Nothing. They began to look about at each other. What? Then after a minute or two, they heard the throaty roar of the motorcycle, faintly at first and then growing louder as it approached the church and stopped finally at the curb outside. Trout -- seated midway in the middle section with his friend Parks Belton and Parks' mother Imogene -- looked about for a route of discreet escape. Joe Pike had spent all night in the garage. He was still there when Trout left for Sunday School. And now he had ridden the motorcycle to church. Maybe if I crawl under the pew. But he sat there, transfixed. They were all transfixed.
After a moment, the swinging doors that separated the sanctuary from the narthex flew open and Joe Pike swept in, huge and hurrying, his black robe billowing about him, down the aisle and up to the pulpit. He stopped, looked out over the congregation, gave them all a vague half-smile, and then settled himself in the high-backed chair behind the pulpit. He slouched, one elbow propped on the arm of the chair, chin resting in his hand, one ham-like thigh hiked over the other, revealing a pair of scuffed brown cowboy boots. Trout stared at the boots. Joe Pike had bought them in Dallas years ago when he played football at Texas A&M, but they had been gathering dust in various parsonage closets for as long as Trout could remember. He had never seen Joe Pike wear the boots before.
The choir director, seated at the piano, gave Joe Pike a long look over the tops of her glasses. Then she nodded to the choir and they stood and launched into "The Old Rugged Cross." As they sang, Joe Pike sat staring out the window, the toe of his boot swaying slightly in time to the music, brow wrinkled in thought.
The last notes faded and the choir sat back down. Joe Pike remained in his seat, still staring out the window, out where the motorcycle was. The choir director gave an impatient cough. Then Joe Pike looked up, shook himself. He stood slowly and moved the two steps to the pulpit. He picked up the pulpit Bible. It was a huge thing, leather-bound with gold letters and gold edging and a long red ribbon to mark your place. Joe Pike held it in his left hand as if it weighed no more than a feather. He opened it with his right, flipped a few pages, found his place, marked it with his index finger.
His eyes searched the words for a long time. Then his brow furrowed in dismay, as if someone had substituted a Bible written in a foreign tongue. He looked up, gaze sweeping the congregation. His mouth opened, but nothing came out. Sweat beads began to pop out on his forehead. He opened his mouth again, made a little hissing sound through his teeth.
Trout had known for a good while that Joe Pike was really two people -- the big man you saw and another, smaller one who was tucked away somewhere inside. Trout didn't know who the small man was. Maybe Joe Pike didn't either, actually. But he gave little evidences of himself in tiny movements of eye, hand, mouth -- such as this business of hissing through the teeth -- mostly when agitated. You had to be quick to catch it. Most people didn't. But Trout had formed the habit of watchfulness. You had to be watchful in a house where your mother said nothing for long stretches and your father was two people. So now, watching Joe Pike carefully, he saw this hissing through the teeth and read it as trouble, pure and simple.
"What's he doing?" Parks Belton whispered to Trout.
Trout shrugged. "I don't know."
Imogene Belton glared at them. "Shhhhhh!"
Suddenly, Trout felt a great urge to get up from his pew, go up to the pulpit and take the Bible from his father's hand, take him by the arm and say, "It's all right." He felt that the entire congregation, every last one of them, expected him to do just that. But he sat, as immobilized as the rest, all of them like morbid onlookers at the scene of a wreck. Finally, Joe Pike gave a great shuddering sigh and put the Bible back down.
There was a long, fascinated silence, a great holding of breath, broken only by the throb of the ceiling fans. And then Reverend Joe Pike Moseley said, "I'm sorry. I've got to go."
He closed the Bible with a thump. He drew in a deep breath. Then he walked quickly down from the pulpit and up the aisle, the black robe flapping about him, and out the door, looking neither left nor right. Not a soul inside the church moved. After a moment they heard the motorcycle cough to life out front. Joe Pike gunned it a couple of times, then dropped it into gear and roared away. They could hear him for a long time, until the sound finally faded as he topped the rise at the edge of town, heading west. They sat there for awhile longer and then one of the ushers got up and went through the swinging doors into the narthex. He returned, holding Joe Pike's black robe. "I reckon he's gone for the day," the man said. With that, everybody got up and went home.
* * * * *
Trout woke the next morning in an agitated muddle, and for a moment he couldn't think of what was wrong. Then he remembered Joe Pike and the motorcycle.
Trout had slept badly, what little he had slept at all. He had assumed Joe Pike would return, certainly by nightfall. Apparently, so had the good people of Ohatchee Methodist, because none of them inquired, in person or by phone, during the afternoon. Whatever was going on at the parsonage or in the tortured soul of Reverend Joe Pike Moseley, best to let it marinate until Monday.
By dark, Trout was getting worried. He pictured Joe Pike stranded somewhere, sitting morosely on a deserted roadside with a flat tire or a blown cylinder. Or worse. He thought at one point of sounding some kind of alarm. But two things deterred him and gave him some ease.
The first was the physical image of his father, massive and fearless. Joe Pike had played football for Bear Bryant. He was the only Georgia boy on the Texas A&M team when the Bear went there in 1954 and piled sixty of them onto buses and took them out in the desert to a dust-choked, heat-blasted camp and tried to kill them. Most gave up, some of them sneaking away in the night, dragging their weary bodies and their cardboard suitcases to the bus station at Junction so they could escape crazy Bear Bryant. But twenty-seven of them survived to ride the bus back to College Station, including Joe Pike Moseley. Trout had never been able to fully understand and appreciate why otherwise sane people willingly endured things like that, but it was enough to know that Joe Pike did. Joe Pike weighed two hundred-fifty pounds at Texas A&M, even when Bear Bryant got through with him. He was very slow, but immovable and also brave. The Bear stuck him in the middle of the line and made the rest of the game take a detour around him. He once played three quarters against Rice with a broken wrist, until he finally fainted at the bottom of a pileup. All that was back before he became a preacher and a gentleman, of course. But even now - powerful of body, thunderous of voice - there was no question that Joe Pike was still immovable and brave. The good people of Ohatchee Methodist might think that Joe Pike was fleeing from something when he swept down out of the pulpit and roared off to the west yesterday. But Trout suspected just the opposite. He knew the look on Joe Pike's face, had seen it often enough before. Joe Pike was going to do battle. With what? The answer to that would have to wait for Joe Pike's return.
The other thing that kept Trout from calling for help was sheer embarrassment - both for Joe Pike and himself. He imagined that by now, Joe Pike had probably fought whatever battle he was looking for and was laying low somewhere, considering how he might return to Ohatchee without the congregation or the Bishop doing anything drastic. Joe Pike was not a man to hurry to trouble. And for Trout's part - well, there would be snickers and whispers enough at Ohatchee High School tomorrow without sending out an alarm on Sunday night.
So Trout fretted and kept his own counsel and finally drifted off into troubled sleep in the small hours of the morning. When he awoke, the house was still empty and quiet. Joe Pike, wherever he had gone, was still there.
As Trout lay there wondering what the hell to do now, he could feel something else besides Joe Pike Moseley nibbling at the back of his brain. Then he remembered: it was his birthday. Sixteen years old. This was supposed to be something really special, wasn't it? But there was nobody here singing and prancing around, the way Joe Pike loved to do on birthdays and Christmas and Confederate Memorial Day and any other excuse he could find to be celebratory. For such a gentle man, he loved nothing better than a good celebration.
It occurred to Trout that maybe a lot of Joe Pike's celebrations had been an attempt to fill up Irene's silences. A kind of pitiful denial that never really worked. Since they had taken Irene away, Joe Pike had simply stopped trying. A final admission of defeat. And now, on what should have been the most celebratory occasion of Trout's young life, Joe Pike had gone away.
Trout lay in bed awhile longer, mulling it all over, feeling a little brain-fevered. Then finally he got up and padded barefoot to the kitchen where the clock on the stove read "8:30." Late for school. Nobody here to write him an excuse. What to do? He decided, for the time being, on inertia. He poured himself a glass of orange juice, sat down at the kitchen table, drank it slowly and listened to the silence. In truth, he decided after awhile, the empty quiet was something of a relief after all that had happened. You could only put up with so much ridiculousness. Considering that, he felt better.
Then he thought, I am alone in the house and I can do anything I want to do, as long as it's not permanent damage. So he got up, took off his pajamas, dropped them in the middle of the floor, and stood there feeling the silence on his bare skin. He wandered for awhile buck naked through every room in the parsonage, ending up in the living room where he checked to make sure the front door was locked, then sat down in Joe Pike's favorite chair and finished the orange juice, celebrating the utter novelty of it.
Even when his mother had been here, mute and withdrawn, it hadn't been like this. A Methodist parsonage was a public accommodation. Church people would drop by at all hours of the day or night, march right in without knocking, as if they owned the place. Which, in fact, they did. A preacher might fill up the drawers and closets with his clothes and tack do-dads to the wall, but he didn't own the place. The congregation considered the parsonage not so much the preacher's residence as an extension of the church itself. So there was always a lot of noise, coming and going, and you didn't wander around in your pajamas, much less buck naked. Over the years, Irene had shrunk from that. Her own silence seemed in part a protest against invasion, the only way she could get any peace and quiet.
Now, as Trout sat here doing what he darned well pleased, he considered that this, too was a form of protest over being at the mercy of other people's silences and preoccupations. But enough of protest. Empty silence or not, it was his sixteenth birthday. Nobody could take that away from him. Even if he got run over by a truck at mid-morning, the obituary would still read, "Troutman Joseph Moseley, 16…" It was a marvelous thing, like having Christmas and the Fourth of July and Easter and Confederate Memorial Day all rolled into one. And even more marvelous was the fact that he was sixteen on a Monday, the only day of the week the state driver's license examiner would be in Ohatchee. Trout Moseley didn't need anybody singing and prancing to get a driver's license.
* * * * *
He drove Joe Pike's car downtown himself and parked it across the street from the courthouse. He was waiting, first in line, when the examiner arrived at ten.
"Ain't you supposed to be in school, son?" the examiner asked.
"My daddy said it would be all right to skip this morning," Trout lied without blinking. "I've got band practice after school this afternoon, so I couldn't come then." Band practice? He admired his own inventiveness. The closest he got to music was church on Sunday and the Atlanta oldies' station on the radio. But at five-ten, one hundred thirty pounds, he looked more like a band member than an athlete.
He produced his birth certificate and took the written examination. Trout had been studying for it for more than a year, had every word of the manual committed to memory. He sat quietly while the examiner checked his answers, and then they walked across the street to the car for his road test.
"How'd this car get here?" the examiner asked as they climbed in, Trout behind the wheel, the examiner holding a clipboard in his lap with a stub of pencil stuck under the metal clip.
"My daddy brought me and then walked home."
"Who's your daddy?"
Eyebrows up. "Joe Pike Moseley?"
"Yes sir." Had the examiner heard about Joe Pike's Sunday escapade? Apparently not.
Wide grin. "I used to play football against Joe Pike. Lord, he was a grain-fed young'un. And rough as a cob." The examiner laughed, showing stained, uneven teeth. "Him and a long tall drink of water named Wardell Dubarry. Wardell would hit you low and then Joe Pike would get up a head of steam and come in high. They near about ruined our quarterback one year. You had to watch Joe Pike, or he'd take your head off with an elbow."
"Well, he's still grain fed," Trout said. He put his key in the ignition, started the car.
"Played for Bear Bryant."
"Yes sir. Texas A&M."
"Folks never could figure why Joe Pike went all that way to play football. He could've got a scholarship at Georgia. Or Georgia Tech." The examiner shook his head. "And then made a preacher to boot. You just never know about folks."
"No sir. I guess not."
"He doing okay?"
"Yes sir," Trout said. "He's just fine."
"Well, you tell him Will Dobbins from Thomson asked about him."
"Yes sir. I'll do that."
The examiner put his hand on the door handle. "Hell, turn the car off, son. I imagine you know how to drive just fine. You made a hundred on the written test. No sense in us wasting gas. Just make the Arabs richer. Come on in and I'll write you out a temporary license."
* * * * *
Trout drove out the highway a good way toward Valdosta with all the windows on the car rolled down, filling the car with warming April and the smell of fresh-turned earth and blossom, feeling the novelty of being alone in the car, sixteen years old, legally licensed. It was heady stuff. Someday, he thought, he might drive the car buck naked. That would be about as ridiculous as you could get. He thought fleetingly of going on to Florida. Decided against it. Thought about going to school. Decided against that too. And then he thought suddenly of Joe Pike and the motorcycle and his spirits sank. He turned around and headed home.
It was nearly noon when he got back to the parsonage. The phone was ringing, jarring the emptiness.
"Trout, it's me."
"Where are you?"
"What are you doing in Hattiesburg?"
"It's on the way to Junction."
"Texas. Listen, there's some chicken pot pies in the freezer."
Trout sat down at the kitchen table and stared at the refrigerator. Over the telephone line, he could hear the faint roar of traffic, the bleat of a semi's air horn.
"You can fix 'em in the regular oven or the microwave. Directions on the package. Poke some holes in the top with a fork."
"Are you all right?"
"Yea, verily," Joe Pike said. "A little minor problem with the wiring, that's all. I got it fixed." There was a long silence from Joe Pike, broken by the dinging of a bell on a gas pump, a woman fussing at a child. Then he said, "I need you to hang in there with me, Trout. Something I've gotta do..." His voice trailed off. "Just hang in there, okay?"
"Love you, son."
"Love you too."
Then there was a click on the other end of the line and Trout was left with the silence and, after a moment, a dial tone. He hung up the phone, heard the rattling of the front door. He peered down the hallway and saw Imogene Belton through the door glass. She had a key and she was coming right on in.
Trout thought, He didn't say anything about my birthday. And then he thought, But I didn't ask him when he was coming back, either.
* * * * *
The Bishop came on Friday, after Trout had spent the week at the Beltons' house, clucked over by Imogene until he was sick to death of it.
"I feel like a freak," he told Parks.
"Well, what do you expect?" Parks answered.
What he did not expect was the Bishop. But he was waiting in the Beltons' living room when Trout and Parks got home from school. He was a trim, gray-haired man, about sixty, and he wore a black suit and clerical collar. He had good strong gray eyes and a nice smile and a firm handshake. But Trout thought of what he had heard Joe Pike say one time: "When the Bishop shows up all of a sudden, it's most likely either death or embezzlement."
The Bishop politely but firmly shooed Imogene and Parks out of the living room, sat down on the sofa next to Trout and leaned forward, elbows on his knees. Then he said, "Trout, your father's had a breakdown."
Trout shrugged. "It's an old motorcycle. He said he was having a problem with the wiring."
"You've talked to him?"
"Monday. He called from Hattiesburg."
"Did he sound all right?"
"Yes sir. I reckon so."
"Well," the Bishop said, "it's not just the motorcycle."
Trout sucked in his breath. "Is he okay?"
"Resting. A few days in the hospital..."
Trout stood, his school books clattering to the floor. "Where is he?"
The Bishop pulled him gently back to the sofa. "He's all right, Trout. I talked to him myself this morning. Joe Pike has..." he fanned the air with his hands a bit, searching for words, "...he's been under a lot of pressure, and I think something just got out of kilter."
They sat there for a moment, Trout imagining Joe Pike huge and pale in a hospital bed...tubes and breathing apparatus.... Trout felt sick. Orphaned at sixteen. Both parents gone batty.
Finally the Bishop said, "Your father needs a little time and space, I think. I've got some friends near Lubbock, and he's going to stay with them for a few days. And then," he pursed his lips, musing, "I'm sending your father home, Trout. To Moseley. Maybe with his family, familiar surroundings, he can get his legs back under him. Your uncle Cicero will go out to Texas and fetch him and take him directly there. He and the minister at Moseley will simply swap pulpits. I think this is best for everybody concerned."
Trout thought about the Easter congregation at Ohatchee Methodist, staring slack-jawed as big solid Joe Pike Moseley, the most substantial of men, unraveled before their eyes. And then the curious stares of everybody at school, the hovering Imogene Belton, the half-whispers. He thought, with a rush of despair, It won't do to stay here.
The Bishop put his hand on Trout's knee. "I know this isn't easy for you, Trout. Moving, right here at the end of the school year."
Not just that. Unfair. Not just moving, but the whole business. Why should he, at sixteen, have to be the sane one in the family? At sixteen, you were supposed to be flaky, irresponsible, hormone-driven. Unfair. But, there it was.
"No," Trout said. "It's okay. We'll manage."
The Bishop sat there for a moment, then rose from the sofa, smoothing the creased front of his black trousers. "Of course there's the other thing, too. Moseley's just two hours from Atlanta."
Atlanta. The Institute. Irene. That's what the Bishop was getting at, of course, but he wouldn't come right out and say it. Nobody, including the Bishop, wanted to talk about Irene, not directly. When you got anywhere near the subject, folks started acting like boxers, bobbing and weaving and staying out of reach of a good left hook. Joe Pike had bobbed and weaved as long as he could, and then lit out for Texas. Well, all right. Trout would pack up bag and baggage and move, unfair as it might be. But before long, somebody was going to have to sit still and talk to him about his mother.