One hot Saturday morning, in the summer of 1956, the year Patti Page released “Allegheny Moon,” and I turned eight, my father took our preacher fishing, whacked him on the head with an oar and killed him dead. He did this so fast and smooth, he made killing a preacher look easy.
I know it’s true because I was in the live oak tree that hung out over the deep water above our secret spot, right where Daddy and Preacher pulled up.
Earlier, when I could see I wasn’t gonna get asked to go fishing too, I took off across the tobacco fields, the shortcut to where I knew Daddy would be taking Preacher. I’d climbed that live oak a hundred times so I shinnied up easy and waited. Soon Daddy’s boat, with Preacher hanging on to both sides, drifted to a stop below me. I stayed real quiet.
By the way he cut bait I figured Preacher never fished a day in his life, at least nowhere here in Calvert County, probably nowhere in Maryland. Or Virginia. Or the whole world. I thought those bloodworms were going to die of old age before Preacher got a little piece put on his hook. He looked a bit puny, too, cutting slow and lifting his head up taking deep breaths between slices. Bloodworm bits were twisting all over the place, falling off the board we used for cutting bait, messing up the bottom of the boat something awful. I figured Daddy would be mad, but he stayed perfect calm.
It was during one of Preacher’s deep breaths while cutting bloodworms that Daddy picked up an oar and swung it down hard, smack on top of Preacher’s head, the blade edge cracking his skull loud. Blood shot up like a firecracker on the Fourth of July and Preacher’s eyes rolled back in his head. I surely cried out, but if I did Daddy did not seem to hear me. Daddy picked Preacher up by his belt and rolled him over the side of the boat. My hands were smack tight over my mouth.
Daddy poked him with the oar until bubbles came out of Preacher’s shirt and pants and he started sinking good. Then Daddy yanked the rope on the motor, backed the boat out of our secret spot and aimed it toward the Bay. I watched Preacher’s body sink into the brown and bloody water and I wondered if I still had to keep the secret he made me promise not to tell, or would I be going to hell no matter what.
Preacher's shoe was last to go under and I noticed there was a hole worn in the bottom, which I thought was odd because, as we all know, preachers are rich, what with getting all that collection money every week. He could surely buy new shoes.
I stayed still in that live oak until I couldn’t hear the motor any more, both hands still smack over my mouth. I’d never seen Daddy hurt a living thing before. Now, that morning Daddy had killed Preacher and I was scared he did it for me.
I did not like Preacher. On Sundays he forever told me my flesh was going to burn in Hell if I did not repent, and Hell is so awful that for all eternity I would cry out for God’s mercy, but God would have no mercy on me. Preacher told me I made God angry by my wickedness. “Brothers and sisters,” (but Preacher really meant me, Patti Page MacDougal) “you have been justified by the blood and body of our Savior, Jesus Christ, but you are not sanctified, and you will not be glorified. You will not see the Kingdom of God unless you repent… repent… and repent!” Preacher laid down that warning, or some awful version of it, every Sunday with a power that shook my bones. I did not know why I needed to repent, nor what I had ever done to make God angry.
Momma named me Patti Page after the Patti Page, her favorite singer. Not just Patti or Patricia, which would have been reasonable, but the whole name, Patti Page, which she used all the time. On the first day of school I always got called on to lead the class in singing the Star-Spangled Banner, or God Bless America because my new teacher figured I could sing. I couldn’t sing a lick but I’d try and we’d all be embarrassed. Momma told me to never mind, but I could tell she was embarrassed, too.
Momma was the star singer in the Calvary Baptist Church choir, and it wasn’t just because she was so pretty. She could really sing. Daddy told me that when Momma lived in Jacksonville, long before I was born, she was the star in the biggest Baptist church in town. She even sang solos at concerts, which is how they met. Daddy was a sailor, training to go to the War, when he saw Momma singing “Give Me That Old Time Religion” at a revival, and he says he knew right then and there he wanted some of that religion, too. They got married in the chapel on the base two days before Daddy shipped out for the Philippines.
Momma saw me come in through the back porch. “Patti Page, get in here and change those dirty clothes. You’re filthy again. Where have you been?" I was grateful she did not wait for an answer, because I can never lie and I surely did not want to tell the truth. "Never mind, just get cleaned up. I’m going shopping and you can’t stay here by yourself.” Then she said, looking up at the ceiling, “Your father’s never around when he could be useful.”
I ignored Momma’s order and ran into the hall bathroom and climbed up on the toilet seat to where I could look out the window to the driveway. Daddy’s truck was not there. I waited, hoping it would pull in. He ought to be home by now, even if he had killed the Preacher.
Standing there, watching for Daddy’s truck, I remembered the last time Preacher was at our house, Saturday one week before. Daddy and I were coming back from fishing at our secret spot, the same one where Preacher was now resting, and we’d had ourselves a good day catching a mess of fish, mostly perch, but a few spot, too. I tossed the rope up on the pier and that’s when I saw Preacher coming down the back porch steps toward us.
“Well, Mr. Mac, Miss Patti, how nice to see you both. Good luck on the Bay this morning I see.” There was sweat on his upper lip, even though it was not yet hot, and Preacher dabbed it with his folded hanky.
“Good luck, and a generous God,” Daddy said. “You fish, Preacher?” he asked, looking square at him.
“It’s been some time, but yes… wonderful way to be close to the Lord, and all.” Preacher’s voice trailed off as he watched Daddy lay out the fish on the pier, their tails still flapping and mouths gaping open-shut, open-shut. I knew then he was lying, he'd never fished a day in his life.
And he didn’t try to shake Daddy’s hand, just stuffed the hanky back in his trouser pocket. They were trousers, too, not pants or dungarees, and I thought Preacher was dressed particularly fine for a Saturday morning visit to his choir leader’s house. Another practice, I supposed. They practiced a lot because Momma and Preacher sang duets for special music most Sundays. That was the last time Preacher was at the house with Momma, but I knew it wasn’t the first.
“Special friends,” is what Preacher called it that day last spring when I came home from school sick with a sore throat. I found him and Momma practicing in the back bedroom, close together, going over the music I think. They were surprised to see me. When Momma went to the kitchen to get me some warm salt water to gargle with, Preacher looked down at me hard and told me he and Momma were special friends and asked me if I knew what that meant. Well of course I knew what that meant, I told him, I had special friends at school. Lots of them. I didn’t understand why I had to keep Momma’s and Preacher’s special friendship a big secret. But I promised Preacher I would, thinking I did not want anything on my record for which I’d have to later repent.
“It ain’t sinful to call a mean sonofabitch a mean sonofabitch if he is one, preacher or not, and God does not care if I say so,” Daddy said to Momma during one of their regular Sunday-morning fights.
“How dare you pretend to know what God cares about? How dare you? He’s a fine, fine man, a true preacher of the Word, which you know nothing about.” Momma grabbed a tissue and held it to her nose.
“She doesn’t need to listen to that poison he spews every Sunday. She doesn’t understand it’s bullshit and it scares her.” Momma gasped at the word “bullshit,” put her hands over her ears and turned her back to Daddy like she wasn’t listening anymore. But I knew she could still hear him. Daddy lowered his voice. “He frightens her, Margaret. You go and sing your heart out for him; Patti and I are staying home.
And so we did. That Sunday Daddy won the fight, but the next Sunday, and all the Sundays I could remember before that, we went to church and sat in second pew next to the aisle. Daddy told me it was for the music, and to hear Momma sing, but I always felt he was watching for something.
I got down from the window, washed my hands and arms up to the elbows, changed into my pedal pushers, though I knew Momma would want me in a dress, and yelled down the hall I was ready to go. I grabbed my new Hardy Boys book, The Secret of Wildcat Swamp, because I knew from experience I’d be spending time in the guest chair at Pinkney’s Fine Gowns, while Momma tried on dresses.
When Momma and I pulled back into the driveway late that afternoon Daddy’s truck was back and I could see him down on the pier hosing off the boat. He had dragged the hose down from the house and when I got there I saw everything pulled out of the boat, cushions, my life jacket, rods and reels, bait can, cutting board, and the oars. Everything was washed down and Daddy was soaking wet from head to toe. I did not say a word when I got to the pier.
“Patti, Sugar, where you and your mother been?” As if he didn’t know, because like clockwork Momma goes shopping on Saturday afternoons.
“Pinkney’s. Like always. Why are you all wet?” I watched his face looking for a sign he knew I saw him kill the preacher, but there was none.
“Just hot, Sugar. Must be ninety, ninety-five, don’t you think? You want to cool down, too?” He played like he was going to squirt me with the hose and I jumped back. Daddy laughed, and so I laughed, too.
Daddy was barefoot and I saw he'd taken off his fishing shoes, the nice pair he got at Brown's Boats and Sporting Goods in Annapolis. (Oh, how I loved to go with Daddy to Brown's in Annapolis!) The shoes were sitting, soles up, at the start of the pier where I was standing and, looking close I could see dark red stains deep in the creases in the soles and stitching along the sides. I knew it was Preacher's blood.
Days later, when the Sheriff came by to talk to Daddy about the missing preacher he nearly tripped over the blood-stained shoes laying on the back porch steps. Daddy explained that he’d knocked over the bait can and bloodworms had gone all across the bottom of the boat. “Hell of a mess,” Daddy told him. “I’m gonna have to get rid of these shoes, can’t seem to get the blood out. Shame, too. Good shoes.” And with that he tossed them into the trash can.
Nobody missed Preacher until the next morning, it being Sunday, when preachers, in general, are expected to be in church. Preacher wasn’t married so there was no Mrs. Preacher to call the police when he didn’t come home. No dog to bark for its dinner, no nothing to make anyone wonder where he was. I’d always figured Preacher wasn’t married because he was so mean. I thought, who’d care to marry someone who told little kids they were going to hell and then make them keep a deep, dark secret?
Daddy and I were in our usual places, where we had a good view of Momma. Folks were still coming into the sanctuary, taking their seats when the choir, Momma in the lead, came in singing “Holy Spirit, Truth Divine.” They finished up the last verse, a rousing “Be my guide and I shall be / firmly bound, forever free.” I could hardly wait to see what was going to happen next. We all sat down and watched for Preacher to make his usual entrance through the double doors from the rectory.
The doors stayed shut.
Everyone waited, quiet at first, then they started shifting in their seats and muttering. A hum started in the back of the church and traveled forward, right to the empty pulpit. I kept thinking about Preacher at the bottom of the muddy water wondering if the crabs had gotten to him yet. Daddy squeezed my hand and smiled.
Finally, Deacon Hobbs and Deacon Jones stood up and walked toward the rectory. They were not gone long. "It seems our Preacher is not here," Deacon Hobbs said, wringing his hands.
"Well, call the parsonage!" someone yelled out from the back, and folks nodded their heads in support of this idea.
"No need. Car's gone," Deacon Jones said, and all heads turned to look out the open windows to the parsonage next door. He was right, Preacher's gravel driveway was empty. His black Buick Roadmaster was nowhere in sight. No one had noticed, not even me, until Deacon Jones' announcement. I looked up at Daddy and saw he was not looking out the window toward the parsonage, but staring right at Momma.
Deacon Hobbs and Deacon Jones tried to lead a service but no one was paying much attention. Finally, they skipped to the hymn of invitation, where, if he’d been there, Preacher would have come down from the pulpit, stood in front of the congregation hoping someone would be moved enough by his sermon to repent and come forward. We opened our hymnals to Psalm #600 and began singing “Just as I Am, Without One Plea.” And when we got to the third verse I stopped caring about my croaky voice and sang out loud “...to Thee whose blood can cleanse each spot, O Lamb of God, I come, I come.”
After supper, Deacon Jones came by to tell Momma, as choir leader and therefore a pillar of the church, that they’d found Preacher’s black Roadmaster down by Hobart’s Pier, no more than a mile from the parsonage. There was no sign of Preacher. Hobart’s Marine and Tackle Shop had gone out of business in ’52, but sometimes folks would use the pier to hitch rides on boats going out to the Bay. High school kids went swimming there, jumping off the old pier into the fast-moving channel. Momma and Daddy forbid me to visit Hobart’s because they said it was dangerous. Deacon said everything in the car was in order, keys were in the glove box, bible and a study guide to the book of Revelations, on the back seat. The only peculiar thing was Preacher’s shoes, all shined, black socks tucked into the toes, sitting on the driver’s side floor boards. Now why would he take off his shoes? Deacon wondered. He didn’t say so in front of Momma, but Deacon told Daddy and me that the Sherriff didn’t want to bother dragging the channel because if he’d gone off Hobart’s pier Preacher would be so far out into the Bay by then it would be a waste of time and tax-payer money. Besides, Deacon said, others were talking that maybe Preacher headed the other direction, you know, just took off. It happens sometimes. Strange, but it happens.
As the summer went on the missing preacher story went from big news (it was in the Baltimore Sun!) to an occasional update in our local weekly, until finally it wasn’t even gossip any more. Mabel Spivey, First Baptist’s combination secretary and organist, swore she saw Preacher at the farmers’ market in Annapolis the week before it closed for the season. She called Momma to tell her.
Mabel had to pay for long distance to call Momma because soon after Preacher disappeared Momma went to stay with Aunt Alice in Jacksonville. I would have never known about Mabel’s so-called sighting and her phone call to Momma except she had to ask Daddy for Aunt Alice’s telephone number, so she told him about seeing Preacher. “He looked real good, too,” she said, though she only saw him from a distance.
In September the Church Council officially gave up waiting for Preacher to come back and started interviewing for a new preacher, but it did not go well. There was a substitute who came down from Annapolis every other Sunday for a while, but he made it clear he wasn’t looking to stay. Deacon Hobbs and Deacon Jones pulled preaching duty to fill in, but they were “not filled with the Spirit” as Mabel put it and attendance began to drop off. We learned all this through Mabel, because Daddy and I stopped going to church altogether when Momma left.
I’d like to say everything turned out fine, that Momma came home from Jacksonville and went on singing in the choir, and that Daddy lived a long and happy life fishing every week and never worrying again about the sonofabitch preacher telling his eight-year-daughter she was going to burn in hell. I’d like to say I went on to third grade that fall and my new teacher did not ask me to lead the class in singing The Star-Spangled Banner. I’d like to say these things, but I cannot. In the time Daddy had left he never again took me fishing at our secret spot. “The place went sour, Sugar,” he’d tell me when I’d ask to go. “Fish been spooked off. It happens sometimes. Strange, but it happens.”
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