July 29, 1989
Pappaw bent over and reached for his toes, his fingers didn’t quite touch his loafers. I repeated the gesture though I knew nothing of its purpose, I just hoped it’d make me run faster than the year before when he beat me by a country mile. I think he was exaggerating cuz the miles in gym class seemed a lot bigger than my backyard. But maybe a country mile was smaller than a gym class mile. Maybe a country mile fit in between the mossy maple tree we stood under and the rickety wood fence opposite us. Whether it did or didn’t was of little importance, as long as I won. As long as I touched that termite tunneled fence post first. As long as I got the answer he promised.
“I’m gonna beat you by a gym class mile,” I said bending my legs, my toes against the invisible starting line.
“Is that right?” He pulled up his dress pants like he was preparin’ to cross a creek, flashing white cotton socks. “I hope so, but I gotta tell ya, I ain’t gonna let you beat me. You gotta earn it.”
“Yeah. Yeah.” I gestured dismissively. “Let’s do this. My birthday cake is waitin’.”
And the thrill of victory would make it taste that much sweeter.
“Okie-Dokie.” He said bending his knock knees like mine. “Mammaw, you got the start.”
Mammaw sat under the shade of the porch awning with Dad, fanning herself with a floral print church fan like she was one of the Chinese ladies in a Kung Fu movie.
“Aren’t you a little too old for this foolishness?” she said.
“The boy and I got a wager. When he beats me, I’ll tell him the----
-----Yeah. Yeah,” she said. “We know. I just don’t want you gettin’ yourself hurt.”
“I survived two years in a Vietcong prison camp, a little race with my grandson ain’t gonna do me in. Now if you wouldn’t mind.”
“Fine, but I ain’t payin for the funeral,” she said before raising her hand. “Ready…”
I pulled in a breath.
I crouched low like a cat.
I launched myself forward, kickin up grass with my bare feet. I was off to a good start, a gym class mile a head of the old man at the halfway point before his shadow crossed over mine as he passed me. I strove to catch up, but before long he was outta reach of me and my shadow. When I made it to the post, he was leanin’ against it, his chest heavin’.
“You’ve gotten better, boy,” he said. “But you’re not there yet. You gave it a good effort though.”
I kicked at a bare spot in the grass with my toe. “It ain’t matter none, I didn’t win.”
He nodded, then produced a handkerchief from a back pocket and used it to dab the sweat off his forehead. “Tell you what, since you gave it such a good effort, that you think didn’t matter none, I’ll tell you---
---The secret to life?” I blurted out.
“No. You only get that once you beat me. But because you gave it such a good effort and you didn’t quit once I reached the post like last year, I’ll tell you what it ain’t.”
“Like a…clue!” I said.
“Yep. ‘Spose so. Like a clue.”
“Okay!” I said, clappin’ my hands. “Tell me. Tell me. Tell me.”
Pappaw bent down on a knee so his cloudless blue eyes met mine. “Boy, the secret to life ain’t about gettin’ a good start.”
He stood, a rusty crane lumbering to life.
“That’s it?” I said, my brow crinkled. “That’s my clue?”
He chuckled but said no more as he headed for the back porch. I stood for a moment, pondering what it ain’t until Mom came through the screen door carrying my birthday cake. My frustration faded away and I ran toward the porch.
There were seven candles burning for me.
July 29, 1992
“Looks like Clinton’s gonna win the nomination,” my daddy said. “I’m sure you got somethin’ to say about that, don’t you, Pa.”
I cupped my chin with my hand and sighed. Yeah. More boring president stuff.
“Not right now, he don’t,” Mammaw said. “I have to hear what he and his VFW buddies have to say about it all the time.”
“You been goin’ down to the Legion with Pa?” Dad said.
“No, he brings it home with him.”
“Good. I was worried you finally got a taste for cheap beer and took a likin’ to it.”
“I just may, if I have to hear any more politics at my grandson’s birthday party.”
“Well if you ever do,” Pappaw said. “I gotta few recommendations.”
Mammaw slapped him playfully on the arm. Pappaw laughed, his belly jiggglin. I didn’t see what was so funny.
I reached over and pulled on Pappaw’s sleeve, interrupting his laughter. “Is it time yet?”
“Depends. You 10 yet?”
“I turned 10 at 12:37 today.”
“Good,” he said with a wink. “I won’t feel so bad about beatin’ a 10 year old.”
“I slipped last year,” I said.
“And the year before that?” he asked.
I shrugged. “I still had short little legs, my legs had grown at least a foot since then.”
It sure felt like it since Mom seemed to be draggin’ me to K-Mart all the time to get new jeans.
“Those sound like excuses and you know what I say about them.”
“Excuses are like butt holes,” I repeated. “Everyone has em and they all----“
“---Pappaw!” Mammaw said. “I can’t believe you taught him that.”
Pappaw raised his palms, a guilty smirk on his face. “I’d make an excuse, but…”
Mammaw shot him a glare from across the table.
He stood and gestured. “Come on, boy, let’s have this race before I get us into any more trouble.”
We reached the shade of the maple tree and took our positions at the invisible starting line.
“You remember the last clues I gave ya?” Pappaw asked.
“The secret to life ain’t about gettin’ a good start.”
“The secret to life ain’t about the toys you own, even the ones you get for your birthday.”
“The secret to life ain’t little league baseball----wait. Are you making them up as you go?”
Last year I was sure I was gonna win because I led my little league team in stolen bases and I said as much before we started.
“Beat me in this race and you’ll find out.”
I rubbed my knuckles and dug my feet into the turf.
Pappaw gave Mammaw the cue and she gave us the start. “Ready. Set. Go!”
I bolted from the shade of the old maple, sure of every step, but Pappaw was right there with me, pullin’ away as we neared the post. He slapped it first, then with hands on his hips, leaned back and let out a howl.
“Woo-Wee! Still got it!” he said between breaths. “You almost got me, but I still got it.”
I glanced back toward the maple. I didn’t slip. No stinky butt-hole excuses this year.
“All right,” I said, disappointed. “Let me hear another made up clue.”
“I never said they’re made up. I just said you’d find out if you beat me.”
“Okay. Just give me the clue.”
He peered up at the sky for a moment, tappin’ his chin. “Hmmm…the secret to life…the secret to life ain’t about whose in office.”
“The Principal’s office?”
He chuckled. “No. The President.”
“Oh.” Even more boring.
He reached down and jostled my hair. “Now come on.”
“Pappaw,” I said after we started walkin’, “if I was runnin’ for president, would you vote for me?”
“Sure would, boy,” he replied. “And ya know why?”
“Because you wouldn’t make excuses.”
July 29, 1994
She leaned over the side of the play-pen and bounced a fluffy bunny in the air while my baby sister giggled and clapped.
I huffed out a frustrated breath. “She ain’t even watchin’.”
My new baby sister was a star and like everyone else, Emily had been caught in her gravitational pull.
Pappaw twisted his body from left to right and back again. “You sure you want her to watch this? What happens if I beat ya?”
I shrugged. “Don’t matter anyway. She’s just a girl. I don’t know why I even invited her to my birthday party.”
Maybe because she was the only person my age who lived on my road. Or because she dressed as the Pink Power Ranger last Halloween. Or because her hair smelled like strawberries, and I didn’t mind that she was taller than me...
Pappaw arched a gray eyebrow.
“What?” I said. “I felt bad for her okay. That’s why I invited her.”
“Whatever you say.” He bent down, his right foot against the invisible starting line. “You ready?”
I nodded and took my mark.
Pappaw gestured to Mammaw. “My beautiful wife. If you would?”
She raised an arm. “Ready. Set. Go!”
Just as she said go, Emily turned around to face me. Our eyes met and I froze. Her dimpled cheeks and the way the light played on her strawberry smellin’ hair…
-----Crap in a trap! Pappaw was half-way there!
Breaking out of my trance, I took off like a cat chasin’ a mouse. Pappaw for his part didn’t look back, he just pumped those knock knees and pointy elbows like they was pistons. He neared the fence post. I dove to beat him, extendin’ my arm like I was Stretch Armstrong. Apparently I didn’t have enough gooey syrup in me because my reach wasn’t long enough and Pappaw smacked the fence post first while all I got for it was face full of grass and dirt.
Spitting out a clump of turf, I climbed to my feet and glanced over at Emily. She was laughin’.
Pappaw, hands on his thighs, bent over fighting for breath.
“Now…that…was….a fun race,” he said. “Woo-Wee.”
I clenched my jaw. “No it wasn’t. I lost again.”
“You can still have fun even when you lose,” he said.
“Not when there’s a girl watchin’.”
Pappaw glanced over at her then back at me. “I thought you only invited her cuz you felt bad for her.”
“I…I….” I peered down at my feet.
“Tell you what, boy. The Secret to life ain’t about girls.”
“What about Mammaw?”
“What about her?”
“You love her?”
“Do June bugs like it when you leave the porch light on?”
Yes. Of course they do, but I didn’t say anything.
Pappaw straightened himself and pulled out the old handkerchief. “You want my advice. I say you dust yourself off and go tell that girl what you think of her.”
“I thought you said the secret of life ain’t about girls.”
“It ain’t,” he said before winking. “Most of the time.”
I flashed a nervous smile as I dusted myself off, before swallowing hard and heading in her direction.
July 23, 1996
The rain dripped off the porch awning, forming unsteady prison bars of water. I sat at the edge of my bed, the crumpled up letter in my hands, part of the ink smudged, blurring some of the words.
The bedroom door creaked open and I barely noticed.
“What you up to?” Pappaw asked.
“I’m…ummm…” I dropped the note to my side on the bed. “I’m just gettin’ ready to watch some TV.”
“On such a wonderful day like this?” He gestured toward the window.
“What? Rain doesn’t have to put a damper on your day.”
It wasn’t the rain puttin’ a damper on my day. Pappaw must’ve noticed. He frowned as he lowered himself onto the bed next to me.
“I know you’re hurtin’, boy. I know.”
Did the whole world know? Had Mom and Dad told everyone? Was it on the news?
This just in, local boy, dumped by his girlfriend two days before his 13th birthday. My stomach knotted up.
“I’m fine, Pappaw. I’m fine.”
Pappaw placed a hand on my knee. His bony fingers seemed thinner than usual.
“I know what’ll cheer you up. Beating your pappaw in a race.”
I looked over at him. “You serious?”
“Yeah. Why wouldn’t I be? The rain will give your young legs an advantage. Maybe you’ll finally beat me.”
I blew out a long breath and peered down at my note.
“I’m too old to be racin’ you.”
Too old to wanna play Power Rangers. Too old for Marco Polo at the pool. Too old to build forts out of blankets. Too old to be actin’ like a kid.
“You’re too old?” Pappaw laughed. “That’s the funniest things I heard all year.”
“It’s true. It’s time I grow up. It’s time I start actin’-acting like an adult.”
“You have your whole life to be actin’ like an adult. Enjoy being a kid.”
If only Emily felt the same way he did. I need someone more mature. The blurry words, right where my tears had hit ‘em.
“Come on,” Pappaw said, pushing himself up off the bed. “I’m tired of carryin’ this secret around.”
I remained sitting, the blurry words repeating in my head.
Pappaw extended his hand toward me, but I gently pushed it down. “I’m sorry, Pappaw. I don’t really feel like racing.”
A glimmer of sadness passed over the old man’s face, his sky blues eyes clouding’ up. “Okay,” he said with a nod. “But if you change your mind. You know where to find me.”
He paused in the doorway and turned around. “I want ya to remember somethin’. There are no tears in the rain.”
With that he left, pulling the door shut behind him. I turned and peered out my window at the broken stump where the old maple tree once stood.
July 20, 1997
I settled into my seat behind Mammaw who sobbed into the arms of my aunt Ruthie. Next to me, Mom dabbed tears from her eyes with a tissue while my sister, curled up in her lap, played with a beanie baby. The large crowd that had gathered, Pappaw’s younger brother who drove up from Florida, his church folk, his old work buddies and his friends from the VFW, quieted down as my dad approached the small podium next to the open casket. So many people around me were crying, I had yet to shed a tear.
“Good afternoon,” Dad began, his red swollen eyes in paradox to the gentle smile he wore as he adjusted the microphone. “When my Pa was in hospice he asked me to speak for him at his funeral. I reluctantly agreed…because I knew what to say, because he’d already told me. You see on my fifth or sixth birthday, Pa said that he knew the secret to life. That he’d found it while in a Vietcong Prison camp. At that age, I thought it must be real good if King Kong was guarding it, so I asked him to tell me. He told me he would, once I beat him in a foot race. As you know, he was spry and I’m not exactly light of foot, so I didn’t beat him until my 15th birthday. But when I did, true to his word, he told me.”
My mind conjured up the broken stump in the corner of my backyard, a knot of regret formed in my stomach.
“Panting under the summer heat, Pa said, ‘the secret to life ain’t your diploma, or a college degree. It ain’t your career or the money you’ll make from it. It ain’t even the pretty girl you’ll marry someday or the house you’ll fill with children…The secret to life is that on this side of eternity, the only races worth runnin’ are the ones that have an end.’”
The termite tunneled fence post bloomed on the surface of my mind. The knot in my stomach tightened.
“I think…” Dad continued, “I think I stared at him in confusion for a good long minute until he said, ‘boy, one day you’ll be a man and you’ll feel the tug at your heart for more. More money, more prestige. But I want ya to remember somethin’, that’s a race you can’t win because it don’t end. More is never enough.’”
Dad paused to regain the grip on his composure. “Knowing a bit about what he’d experienced in war, I said to him then, ‘You found that in a prison camp?’ His face when stone rigid for a moment before he chuckled and replied, ‘I was a nobody in that camp, all I had left belonged to a race that had an end. And that’s when I learned it. The bad stuff, the pain of heartbreak, the ache of failure, the loneliness we sometimes feel, is all part of the race that has an end, the race worth runnin’.”
The knot in my stomach verged on tearing in half. The pain he talked about. I felt it. Like something been torn from me.
There was more, right? The secret to life couldn’t only be pain. There had to be more…right?
My dad peered down at me for a moment, then continued, “I had the same look I see on my own son’s face. How can the race worth runnin’ have so much bad stuff? So much disappointment, pain and hurt? Well I asked him.”
I closed my eyes, pinched them shut, a dam holding back the tears and Pappaw appeared speaking to me his reply.
“Because the bad stuff won’t last forever and the good stuff, the things that make you smile, they’re just a preview of what happens when your time in this world is over. When the race is finished and all that's left on this side of things is the memory of it. Catching your first fish, holding that girl’s hand, your son finally beatin’ ya in a foot race..."
The knot in my stomach----a violin string, vibrated, sang in tune with his words. My heart pounded in my chest as my body began to tremble, like I would shatter if I didn’t get it out. As my dad instructed everyone to bow their heads to pray with him, I snuck out of my seat and headed for the exit. Stepping out into a wet afternoon, I let the dam break. Teary eyed, I peered up at the rainy sky.
“I’m sorry, pappaw. I’m sorry.”
As the rain pelted my face, hiding my tears, I knew his reply.
“There are no tears in the rain.”
“You promise you’ll tell me?” he asks.
“Yep,” I say. “But I ain’t gonna let you beat me. You gotta earn it.”
My son readies himself next to a young maple tree in my backyard, his toes edged against the invisible starting line.
I gesture to my wife. “Give us the start.”
She raises her hand.
I was inspired to write this story after listening to an episode of the "Thinking Out Loud" Podcast by Cameron McAllister and Nathan Rittenhouse of Ravi Zacharias International Ministries (RZIM) entitled "Limitations, Delicacy, and Beauty". Check them out https://www.rzim.org/listen/thinking-out-loud
If you enjoyed this story, please share it with others who might enjoy it. Also, you may like my novel The Truth about Romantic Comedies, a coming-of-age romance about a young couple who set out to determine if romantic cliches and tropes actually help people fall in love. Click Here if Interested :)
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