The blinding shock of an Eveready 5-Cell blazed into the cab while the officer interrogated Johnny.
“How old are you?”
“How old is she?”
“Get out the car!”
I’ll never forget the rolling thunder of the officer’s voice, for at that moment I knew my life would change forever. The officer would call Papa and that would be it.
I wasn’t allowed to talk to boys, much less get inside a car with one, but when Johnny offered me a ride home, I couldn’t resist. Though my older brother was allowed to do whatever he wanted after school, I was required to go directly home where Mama would greet me with a painstaking list of chores. I accepted Johnny’s offer, insisting he take me straight home, but Johnny offered to buy me a malted shake and again, I couldn’t resist. I sucked down the drink as fast as I could but by the time I finished I was already late, so Johnny drove around a few extra minutes while I tried to gain the courage I needed to return home.
Then it got later and later, and then it got dark, and I feared Papa more than ever.
I knew Papa wouldn’t whip me. The last time he had tried I was fifteen, and smart enough to know it wasn’t okay. Papa was a strong, beefy man, but he was short, and I was able to wrestle free. He never whipped me again, but I knew one day I would feel the sting of his wrath one way or another. This was that day.
Johnny and I didn’t do anything, not even touch or kiss, but Papa was not convinced. He dragged Johnny and I both home from the police station and unleashed his tirade.
“You have brought shame to our family,” Papa roared, his fist flying high. “You say you didn’t do anything, but I know better! And even if you didn’t do anything, you’ve given the entire town the impression that you have.”
Impression was everything. I’d learned that from my mother’s habit of sneaking off into the garage for a cigarette and a swig of vodka, then returning to the house with her perfectly pressed apron fastened around her waist, and a perfectly pressed smile fastened across her face. Mama thought nobody knew, but I’d followed her and had seen her puff and swig, her hand shaking so violently she could barely get the cigarette to her lips.
After an hour of red faced screaming Papa came to a resounding conclusion: Johnny and I must get married.
Papa shoved us into a room and ordered us to talk about it; then he shut the door. Johnny and I looked into each other’s eyes like two deer staring into headlights.
“Well, you wanna get married?” Johnny asked, sliding his Buddy Holly glasses up the ridge of his nose, his face lighting up the way it always did when he looked at me.
Johnny and I knew each other from school, but really, we hardly knew each other. One thing I knew for sure, I had to get out of my parents’ house.
“Sure,” I replied.
Poof! We were all in agreement—me, Johnny, Papa, and Mama too—that Johnny and I would marry, immediately following my graduation.
Before my parents could blink twice, Johnny and I, newly wed, fled our hometown and settle in rural California where we lived as uninhibited as the surrounding wildflowers and hippies. In the name of liberation, we turned our backs against our parents, and even worse, we turned our backs against God.
Fifty years later, Johnny and I celebrated our golden anniversary, having grown more madly in love with each other with each passing year, and having looked back to our past only a handful of times.
Then one dark night several months later, I received news of Papa’s death. I sat slumped on my front steps, five decades of lost opportunity weighing upon my shoulders. I sat motionless until the blinding shock of minivan headlights flashed up my gravel driveway. My daughter Becky hastily jumped out of her car.
“I’m sorry about Papa,” she said kindly as I stood to greet her.
Then she held my shoulders square and said, “It’s too late to reconcile with your father. But it’s not too late to turn back to your Holy Father.”
I’ll never forget the rolling softness in Becky’s voice, for in that moment my life changed for eternity.
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