As the bus pulled into the Wharton station, Joe Anderson looked through the window, searching for Grandma Anderson. Aunt Margo had told him, “I’ve put up with you for ten years. You’re sixteen now, and you and Ben don’t get along, so the Andersons will have to take you.”
Ben Trasker was Aunt Margo’s new husband. From the first he seemed to be looking for an excuse to get rid of Joe. After Ben had sounded off on “the long-haired creeps,” Joe had let his hair grow, begun wearing a fringed jacket, and started hanging out with Zip Savage. That’s when Ben had said, “Get out!”
So now Joe was in Wharton to live with his father’s mother. For a moment he daydreamed. Grandma would be happy to see him. Life would be as secure as it had been before Mom and Dad were killed when he was six.
The bus stopped with a jerk. He picked up the khaki knapsack and got off.
Grandma wouldn’t be glad to see him. For ten years she hadn’t even acknowledged that he was alive. She would take one look at his long blond hair and space out. Would he know her? She had come to the funeral in Chicago. He remembered her as tall, brown-eyed. She had kissed him, and some of the grief and fear had gone out of him.
His blue eyes searched the crowd, but he found no welcoming smile. Insecurity washed over him. Why was I ever born? What is life all about anyhow? he asked himself. He was bad news to Grandma too. But he would have to go to her house because that address was the only one Zip Savage had. When Zip came, they would split to San Francisco and Mexico on Zip’s motorcycle.
Sometimes Zip frightened Joe. Instinct warned him to keep away from him, but since Aunt Margo had gotten married, Zip had been the only person he could talk to.
“Joseph!” he swung around at the sound of his name and looked down on a small, white-haired woman with warm brown eyes. Suddenly he remembered Dad saying, “Mom made us toe the mark!” How could this frail little woman make anyone toe the mark? She wasn’t tall at all. And then he remembered that the last time he saw her he had been a very small boy. “Hello, Grandma.”
“You’ve grown so tall, but I would have known you anywhere. Bend down so I can kiss you.”
The kiss was affectionate and his heart beat with a surge of hope. Then he remembered Aunt Margo saying, “The Andersons are two-faced hypocrites.”
“Let’s get your bags, Joseph.”
“This is all I have. My trunk will come later.”
“Then let’s walk home. It’s only four blocks, and this is such a beautiful day. I’m too old to drive so I sold the car.”
Not even a car! He hoped Zip would hurry.
A man bumped into them. “Sorry.” Then he saw Joe and laughed. “So sorry, ladies.” Joe wanted to paste him one. As they walked up the street, he heard whispers, “Is it a boy or girl? Look at that long curly hair.”
He glanced down at Grandma. Her spine looked ramrod stiff. When she got him home, she would tear him apart. She was pointing out places of interest—the courthouse, the park—but he scarcely heard her. He was breathing deep of the clear air, and his breath caught at the majesty of the mountains in the distance.
“The new high school is on the other side of town, Joseph. You’ll go to school there with your cousin Edward. All the folks will come to Sunday dinner to meet you. Oh, hello, Brother Peek. This is Justin’s son.”
They stood before a store with a sign, PEEK’S PHARMACY. A white-haired man smiled. “So you’re Justin’s boy. Your father used to be my delivery boy. You remind me of him. Are you going to be here with your grandma? It happens I need a boy right now. Would you like to work for me?”
“I sure would!” Suddenly he was conscious of his appearance. Maybe he could cut his hair, just a bit.
“Fine. Come in Monday and I’ll show you around.”
“Thank you, sir.” Joe’s step was jaunty as they continued their walk.
“Gosh, Grandma, he doesn’t even know me!”
“He knows the Andersons. We have a reputation for honesty.”
They stopped in front of a large red brick house. Memory came sweeping back. He knew he had been here long ago with Mom and Dad. He felt a quickening of excitement, and then a car full of boys sped by.
“Hey, blondie! How about a date!”
Joe spun around. “I’m not going to cut my hair, Grandma, no matter what you say!”
“Did I ask you to cut your hair, Joseph?”
“No.” He shifted from one foot to the other.
“If you like it that way, that’s your privilege. But—” she pushed his hair back “—it is a shame to hide your magnificent forehead. Now, let’s go in and eat.”
The aroma of something good welcomed him. His stomach twisted with hunger.
“You’re to have your father’s old bedroom. This way, Joseph.”
It was a large, sunny room with a study desk and lamp. “You can wash up. Lunch will be ready in ten minutes.”
He saw the pennants on the wall. Wharton High. He’d blown his chances when he dropped out of school. This was his father’s room. Suddenly he felt a presence, as if a loving arm were around his shoulder. He could almost hear a voice say, “Oh my son, my dear son.”
“Dad,” he whispered. Tears stung his eyes. Angrily he brushed them away. He stood before the bathroom mirror. Whew! He looked like a wild man. He pushed his hair back. By golly, he did have a good forehead!
“Ready, Joseph!” Grandma called.
A feast was spread on the table. As he reached for the ham, Grandma’s voice stopped him. “Would you please say the blessing, Joseph?”
He didn’t know a blessing! But Grandma was waiting, her head bent. The memory of his father blessing the food rescued him. “Our Father which art in heaven, we thank thee for this food.” From his memory the words returned. “May it nourish and strengthen our bodies and give us the strength to do thy will. Amen.”
“That’s the prayer your father used to say. Oh, Joseph, it’s so good to have a man to cook for again.”
He almost believed she loved him. But why hadn’t she ever written him? Still he ate heartily and an emptiness was filled. How little Grandma ate!
“Give me a moment to rest, Joseph,” she said finally. “Then I’ll do the dishes and we’ll look at the photograph album.”
After she went to her room, Joe paced the floor. He’d go for a walk. He opened the door, then stopped. He should tell Grandma where he was going. In the doorway of her bedroom he stopped. Her body made a very small mound under the afghan. He had a sudden desire to protect her.
He walked out onto the long front porch. He could see that the lawn needed cutting. Well, he wasn’t going to cut it! Back in the kitchen he saw the dishes on the table. He smiled. He would wash them and surprise her. He washed every dish, whistling softly.
“Why, Joseph, you’ve done the dishes!” Grandma said from the doorway. “You’re just like your father.”
Suddenly he wanted to do something nice for her. “Grandma, there’s enough money in my trust fund to buy a car. I’ll buy one and take you for rides.”
“Oh, I really do have a car, Joseph. I sold the 1950 Ford but I still have our old sedan. I just couldn’t part with it!”
“You have an old car? Could I see it?”
“Come along. It’s in the garage, set up on blocks. It was pretty elegant back in 1924, when it was new.”
Joe pulled the tarpaulin off and the sedan stood there, very stately. “Those tires on the back seat are new.”
“Yes, your grandfather was going to fix the car, but then he got sick.”
“Could I work on it tomorrow?”
“You may have the car, Joseph. Your grandfather would be pleased.”
He could hardly sleep, he was so excited. He was awakened by a whirring sound. Grandma was pushing the heavy old lawn mower. “Grandma, don’t do that! You’re too old—” Her eyes gave off sparks. “I mean, I love to cut lawns. I can cut them and then work on the car.”
He ate a hasty breakfast, then firmly but gently took the mower from her. As he pushed it the length of the yard, his long hair kept falling in his eyes. “Would you cut my hair a bit, Grandma?”
“If that’s what you want.”
As he sat before the mirror, she said, “I used to cut your father’s hair.”
“Do I look like him?” he asked.
“The image. Do you remember your father, Joseph?”
“I remember the feel of my hand in his. I remember the way he and Mom laughed together.” Again he was confused. Aunt Margo told him his mother had been unhappy with his father.
“He kept us separated,” Aunt Margo had said. “When the company transferred him to Chicago, he was mad because he knew he would have to share her with me. He drove the car too fast. He killed your mother!”
“That’s enough, Grandma.” He meant, Enough of memories that hurt.
He looked at himself in the mirror and he liked what he saw.
He worked on the car all day. After a hasty supper he walked to the service station for gas and spark plugs. Finally he said, “I think you’ll have to help me, Grandma. You have to adjust the spark while—”
“Oh, I know how to do that!” She looked happy, her cheeks pink.
It was almost ten o’clock when the old car shook with new life.
“We did it, Grandma! We made it run!”
“You did it, Joseph. Splendid.”
“First thing tomorrow I’ll take you for a drive.”
“Maybe tomorrow evening, Joseph—after sacrament meeting. In the afternoon the folks are all coming for dinner.”
In his bedroom he looked at the white shirt and dark trousers.
“I do hope they are the right size, Joseph.”
“I like the clothes I’m wearing.”
“They are very colorful, but you don’t think they would be acceptable in the house of the Lord, do you?”
“No, ma’am.” He hoped Zip would never see him in such square clothes. Somehow he wasn’t so eager to see Zip. Again he felt confused.
In Sunday School he quietly listened while the congregation sang “O My Father.” He read the words: “In thy holy habitation, did my spirit once reside? … For a wise and glorious purpose Thou hast placed me here on earth. … when I’ve completed all you sent me forth to do, … Let me come and dwell with you.”
His heart swelled. Here were the answers to his questions. Who am I? Why am I here? After death—then what?
At one o’clock his father’s people arrived. He tried to stay aloof, remembering the long years of silence, but he was caught up in their love. He tried to keep all their names straight, but it was difficult. Then Grandma said, “This is your cousin Edward. You are the same age.”
“Hi, Joe!” Edward shook his hand and grinned. He was a tall boy with dark hair, long on the neck but neatly combed. “You and I will have great times together.”
“I’m looking forward to that!” He felt a wonderful closeness to his cousin. After dinner he said, “Let’s go out back. I want to show you something.” He showed him the car in the garage.
“She kept it well covered. She said I could drive it. Wait a minute and I’ll get the key.”
He walked eagerly back to the house. Then voices stopped him. “It’s too much for your age …” “Too much responsibility …” “You must listen to us …”
They were talking about him! Aunt Margo was right. They were hypocrites. He turned and walked back to the garage.
“Get the key?” Edward asked.
“I don’t feel like driving now.” He turned on his heel and walked away.
“Wait, I’ll go with you.”
“I want to be alone!”
He sat on a park bench, and tears stung his eyes. He had felt so secure. And now …
It was dark when he returned. Grandma was waiting at the gate. “Joseph, why did you go away?”
“I don’t want to talk about it.”
“As you wish, Joseph.”
He dreamed he was walking in a fog, trying to find his mother and father. He was awakened by a scratching sound on the screen. Zip was standing in the moonlight, his long hair to his shoulders. “Zip! You did come!”
“Sure, kid, I told you I would. Listen, there’s a crummy-looking drugstore about two blocks away. We can crash it, get plenty of hard stuff, and sell it.”
Peek’s Drugstore, where he was to start work Monday!
“Mexico for us, kid.” Zip painted a vivid picture of bullfights and fiestas.
“The Mexico scene, okay, but negative on the break-in.” The Andersons wanted no part of him, but he wasn’t going to take a chance of leaving a blot on his father’s name.
“Come on, it’s almost light!”
His eyes swept the room. Then he removed the window screen. But as he started to climb out, a strong hand clutched his jacket and jerked him back. He saw Grandma in the moonlight. “No grandson of mine is sneaking out of the house in the middle of the night. Mr. Zip, if you want to see my grandson, you come around to the front door at a decent hour.”
“Don’t pay any attention to the old bag, Joe!” Zip’s voice was ugly.
“This is my grandmother, Zip.”
“She’s still an old bag to me. Come on!” In that moment Joe really saw Zip as for the first time. His face was evil.
“You heard my grandmother, Zip. Blast off!”
Zip swung on his heel and was gone.
“Now, young man, into my bedroom. March!”
Joe understood then how Grandma had made her tall sons toe the mark. She said “March!”—and you marched.
In the bedroom she faced him. “Now, why were you leaving?”
“How did you know I was leaving?”
“I learned something from rearing six sons. I—” Suddenly she wavered. “Pills in blue bottle. Two—” She was struggling for breath as she moved to the bed to lie down.
He gave her the pills. She was very still. He prayed, “Please don’t let her die. Maybe if I have more time …”
After a few minutes she opened her eyes. “Guess I’m not as young as I used to be. But don’t you dare tell anyone I had a spell. The family were at me again today. ‘This house is too much responsibility for you—you’re over eighty.’ They would have me cooped up in an apartment without my flowers.”
So that’s what he had overheard!
“I told them, ‘I have Joseph to stay with me now.’ I do have you—don’t I?”
The bitter years of silence came back. “You didn’t want me before!”
“Why, what do you mean?”
“You never let on I was alive!” His voice trembled.
“Oh, Joseph, my dearest. I wrote to you. I sent gifts. They were all returned. When your mother and father were killed, I went to Chicago to bring you back with me, but your aunt said your mother had lived long enough to make her promise to take care of you. I wanted to stay and fight for you, but your grandfather was very ill. I had to come home. I lost track of your aunt. She had moved, left no address.”
Joe thought of the many moves they had made.
“When Margo called to say you were coming to live with me, I was so happy I cried.”
“But why did Aunt Margo lie to me? And she said my father was responsible for my mother’s death!”
“Joseph, dear, listen. Grief does cruel things to people. Your mother and Margo were twins. When your mother joined the Church and was married, Margo blamed the Church and your father. She became bitter. The accident was not your father’s fault. The road was icy, and the car went out of control. But don’t blame Margo. Pity her and pray for her. Be compassionate.”
“Then you did want me, Grandma. You did!”
“Oh, so very much, Joseph, and now you are here and you can go to school with Edward.”
“No, I can’t. I’m a dropout. It’s too late.”
“It’s never too late, Joseph. You can study to catch up. Edward and the family will help you. There is a test you can take for reentrance.” She held her hand up. “Listen, Joseph!”
There was the wail of a police siren from the direction of Peek’s Drugstore. Zip had been so sure the robbery would be a cinch! Joseph closed his eyes and said a prayer of gratitude. How terribly close he had come to disaster!
“Sit by me, Joseph. Just for awhile.”
He sat very straight. He was the man of the house now. When Grandma was asleep, he gently covered her. Then he went to his room and to bed. But he kept his door open, in case she should need him. And in that quiet moment just before sleep came, he was again aware of his father’s spirit, very close. He smiled and whispered, “It’s okay, Dad, I’m home now.”