Daddy, Hank Williams, and the Gift Ham by Julie McCracken
A gift ham, oddly enough, triggered this particular meditation. It was published in Lynx Eye, Winter, 1995. This story is copyrighted and may not be reproduced without the permission of Julie A. McCracken.
Last night under the slim gaze of the new moon I drove to the Wyvonia City Dump and tossed away a fourteen pound ham worth $66.45. That was what was printed on the side of the box: $66.45, and I had to get rid of it. Any sane person in my position would have done the same.
Daddy didn't raise me to be the kind of person who wasted food, not with all those starving children in China watching my plate since I was in first grade. You've got to understand that this was a special circumstance. This was one very old, very troubled ham. It had come to us at Christmas which was nearly seven months ago, and not too many weeks after Daddy went fishing in Canada, and disappeared. My husband, Digger Connors, ran Daddy's bait shop, and a worm bag salesman gave Digger a spiral cut, smoked ham for Christmas. All of Digger's family was dead or in Texas, so I figured I'd bring that ham to my sister Kate's for our New Year's Day family get-together.
Christmas Day was hard, what with all of us missing Daddy and wondering where he was. Kate and I argued about something or other. Between her Mt. Olive Independent Baptist Church and her weekly Bible study, she was as close to a prude as we'd ever seen hanging on the McCallister family tree. She changed her religion as often as she changed her hair color, which was now a Baptist pink. The truth is, we argue so much that I can't recall what started it this time.
Before we cooled down, her husband Stanley, the High Elder of the Mt. Olive Church, got into it with our brother Byron over what was real baptism (a full body immersion), what was pretending (Methodist sprinkling), and which method offered the surest road to Heaven. It always amazes me when a Christian person mixes his religious beliefs with four-letter words, but the High Elder worked at construction when he wasn't holy-rolling, and could swear with Byron, word for word.
Finally, Byron threatened to shoot the High Elder so he could test his theory right away. I made certain remarks in that general direction myself, and Kate had just started her Lake of Fire rant when Grandma McCallister canceled the New Year's Day dinner. She knew my Christmas present from Digger was the 12-gauge Weatherby I'd been wanting since I saw it at Junior's Gun World in Lexington, Kentucky, so she probably had the right idea about keeping the family apart for a while. I could tolerate a lot in a man, but I couldn't take a smug man, all self-satisfied and superior, and that was the High Elder. A little buckshot would have toned him down some, but Digger didn't approve. Digger was no Clint Eastwood, but he was a good man just the same.
Sometimes I wasn't sure I deserved a man as good as Digger. After all, he dropped his excavating business just-like-that to take over Daddy's bait shop when Daddy didn't come back from his fishing trip to Canada. He was making a pretty good go of the bait shop, too, and I was proud of him. He never put on airs, not my Digger. Sometimes he drove his backhoe around our back lot just to keep his skills up in case he could go back to excavating again. He looked like the King of the Road up there in his high seat. I waved at him, and Digger smiled that big man's slow, lazy smile. I was one lucky woman--just look at Kate, married to a skinny little man with the sex appeal of uncooked bacon.
Like I said, after all this arguing and talk of shooting on Christmas Day, Grandma postponed the New Year's gathering until, "You people act like civilized human bein's." You see, with Mama passed away, and Daddy disappeared into Canada, Grandma McCallister ran the family things, and all of us who could joined her every Sunday for the best fried chicken and cream gravy on earth, bar none. Every once in a while we heard from the Canadian authorities that they were still looking for Daddy, and that maybe his body would pop up during the next "Thaw", which we guessed was a Canadian season kind of like our Spring.
I figured he was as dead as that ham in my refrigerator, but I didn't talk about that to anybody but Digger who agreed with me, but said, "Let it be, honey. Everybody's gotta deal with this in their own way."
Grandma set a place for Daddy at the Sunday meals, and Kate talked out loud to that place-setting like Daddy was there listening to how much Jesus loved her and elevated her soul. Sometimes she rubbed her finger across the plate, and smiled like she had touched something warm, something good. When nobody was around, I tried it myself, but all I felt were a few bumps in the cold porcelain glaze. Kate might talk about how great Heaven was and put one of them "At the Rapture this Vehicle will be Driverless" bumper-stickers on her Chevette, but she sure held tight to the notion that Daddy would walk in one day with a Coleman cooler full of walleye and a great explanation.
The family got together at our place in February, but by then Kate was burgundy-haired, wearing a Star of David along with a cross, and wouldn't eat pork. She was becoming Jewish, because Jesus was Jewish, and being a Jew brought her closer to Jesus. The High Elder grinned all over himself, and Grandma threatened to slap them both, but she didn't. She looked across the dinner table at the two smiling Believers, and said, "We had a couple of Presbyterians and maybe a Catholic a few generations back, so I 'spect a Jew won't ruin the family name." Deep in her heart, she wanted everyone to go to church, and didn't much care where.
It ticked me off, but Digger reminded me, "Look, Hon, be glad she just lives in Illinois. She could be wearing finger cymbals, one of them sari-things, and cha-cha-ing with incense sticks in a California airport. Kate's got a big hole in her soul and she's just looking for a plug. Living in the middle of Illinois puts a lid on her options."
I knew Digger had a point, and after a while I gave up bringing Kate casseroles with pork hidden in them. Meanwhile, the boxed ham squatted on the top shelf of the refrigerator. Eventually I didn't see it anymore, and tailored my grocery shopping so I wouldn't buy more than would fit. If asked, I could have recited everything in that refrigerator, from the three kinds of olives, through the preserves and jellies, right down the condiments, and never mentioned the ham. I might have complained about a too-small refrigerator, but, then, a person grows accustomed to something, even inconvenience.
We could have gone on like that forever until that ham dried up or exploded or grew legs and walked, all of which would have been better than what happened. The fact was, that ham began to talk. Well, it began to sing. It started on Memorial Day when I was gathering the piccalilli, mustard, ketchup, and a raw onion to pull together for a picnic. I opened the refrigerator door, my hand brushed against the box, which sent a little electric jolt up my arm, and a man's voice started singing, "Hey, Good Lookin', what ya got cookin'?" A twelve ounce jar of lime green piccalilli shattered against the linoleum floor, and our English Setter Beulah set to howling like she'd never done before in life. I petted poor Beulah until she quieted, but her eyes stayed bright with fear. We both knew it was Daddy's voice singing that dumb song he always sang to make fun of my cooking, which was never as good as Mama's or Grandma's, or even Kate's.
"Who's in there?"
No one answered, but I swore I heard the faint hum of that same tune. I tried to forget about it, and cleaned up the piccalilli. We had our picnic, just like usual, but when I opened the refrigerator to put the condiments back, there it came again: "Hey, Good Lookin'," and I told it to shut up. I was tired and not about to listen to some damn refrigerator sing, especially one that upset one of the sweetest, kindest dogs in the world so bad that she wouldn't even come into the kitchen. You read about this kind of thing in the newspapers in the grocery store check-out lanes, but you never expect it to happen to you. I didn't dare tell Kate. She'd probably think it was Jesus singing and make a shrine out of our Frigidaire, and we couldn't afford to dedicate our only refrigerator to Kate's Jesus.
I fell asleep as soon as my head hit the pillow and wouldn't you know I dreamed about Daddy singing and dancing across the kitchen, just like he was alive and I was still trying to make a meal from one of Mama's recipes? He moved slowly across the floor, like some invisible force dragged against his dancing legs. Daddy held something in his arms while he danced, and the thing grew wings that flapped softly against Daddy's arms until the wings were strong enough to fly the thing out of my kitchen window without breaking the glass or splitting the window screen. It wasn't until I was awake and drinking coffee at breakfast that I realized he was dancing with a whole cured ham. Well, a ham with the wings of a great big bird. I hadn't opened that seven month old gift ham, but I was pretty sure it was kin to what Daddy was dancing with.
I am not religious, never read my horoscope, never play with fortune-telling cards or an Ouija board, but I figured that this dream was a sign of something. Given Daddy's opinion of my cooking and the age of the ham in the refrigerator, I decided that Daddy had came back to remind me about the gift ham and tell me it had gone bad. As if to make sure that I got the message, Beulah sat in the doorway between the kitchen and the dining room. Her big brown eyes were sad, but skittish. Whatever was wrong in my kitchen was some human thing that she couldn't chew until it was right.
Over a second cup of coffee I considered the situation, thought about tossing ham in the garbage can, even burying it in the back yard. All in all, taking it to a town dump felt like a good idea. I didn't want it near the house where I could hear it singing. The way Beulah was behaving let me know that she wasn't going to accept a simple burial, not with her hole-digging talent. The calendar said tonight was the new moon, which seemed like a good time to dispose of the problem, once Digger was sound asleep.
Wouldn't you know that Digger would decide to get romantic? I begged off, claiming a headache and promising I'd wear that lace stuff he liked if we delayed until tomorrow night. Digger liked the idea, and was asleep in minutes.
I dressed in the dark hallway. As I passed Beulah, she offered a soft, encouraging bark, but did not follow me into the dimly-lit kitchen. I pulled the boxed ham out so fast that it didn't have time to sing a full note, dropped it into a heavy plastic trash bag, and tied it with a piece of clothesline. I held the bag against me like burglar's stolen goods, and moved cautiously across our backyard. At first, the bag warmed my forearms, fingers, and chest, but the warming grew almost too hot to bear by the time I dropped the bag on the floor of passenger side of the Jeep. I rubbed my scalded hands against my jeans, and felt for the comfort of the Weatherby I kept across the passenger seat. Unfortunately, my beautiful Weatherby was not the solution to this problem.
I put the Jeep into gear and hit the black top road to Wyvonia. That darned ham sang muffled Hank Williams' tunes, beginning with "Your Cheatin' Heart," moving on to "Jambalaya" and launching into "I'm So Lonesome I Could Die," as I pulled onto the access road for the dump. I knew that, $66.45 or not, the gift ham had to go.
I pulled the Jeep up to the locked gate, got out, and used Digger's high-powered flashlight to scan the scenery. Kids came to the dump to shoot rats, and I didn't want to run into any of them. A faraway dump yard dog barked and rattled against a chain. Tiny red rat eyes scurried away from the light, but I wasn't scared. Working part-time in a bait shop cured me of that. I carried the bag to the metal chain fence, pushed it over, then I climbed over, and carried the singing bag to a spot away from the main entrance. The day had been hot, and the dump steamed with fermenting this and that, which sent my stomach into a spin. I swallowed hard, found a low place in the trash, and tossed in the bag. I got to the fence and into the Jeep before the dump yard dog finished barking. The sensation in my arms and hands left me slowly, as did the sad words of Hank Williams.
All the way home I thought about Daddy, and the gift ham. I felt in my heart of hearts that Daddy was a goner, just like Hank Williams. I wished we had him to bury closer to us than wherever he was in Canada, but I could live with it. Kate and Grandma would learn to live with it, too.
The bad air of the dump was behind me, and I moved steadily into the sweet pure air of the July night with the certain knowledge that Digger and a contented Beulah were waiting for me, and I'd done the right thing.
the end other stories by Julie A. McCracken
Dancing Into the Light
There and Back Again
What The Spiders Say
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