The Center of Everything

  Brian Cator

They’re both standing there looking at the camera. He’s leaning forward a little from the waist, hands hidden somewhere behind his back. His suit looks too big for him, but that could have been the way they wore them back then. But I really think he didn’t wear a suit much. His bride is young, like him. Her dress is mostly lace and short with a ragged edge. Her head is down, eyes lifted up. She is standing with a young boy, my grandfather, who looks nothing like I imagined he would at that age. He looks like me.

Grandpa used to say his father, his papa, was magic with a mule team. He said his papa would talk to each mule softly, like it was personal. He said he would talk to them by name, saying “step” to command them, and one would, the one called by name. Grandpa said his father used to hire out to the oil fields where there was a need for a team that pulled precisely. That’s where his papa was most of the time, in the oil fields. It was hard work my Grandpa said. He said that's why he became a cotton farmer, to get away from hard work.

My grandfather’s father chewed tobacco, even when sitting in church where he’d just swallow, instead of spit. When he got older, he had his teeth pulled. His wife would mush up his food for him. Grandpa used to chew tobacco too, but he had false teeth and didn’t need to mush his food. 

My grandfather’s father looks stern in the few pictures I have of him, but Grandpa used to say that he wasn’t. He said his papa used to cut up at parties and want to be the center of the whole thing. There was a big stack of pictures in a box Grandpa used to keep in a side closet. I used to rummage through them at my grandfather’s feet. In one picture, his father is in a uniform. He looks like you might expect he’d look; a little proud, a little afraid and very young. Grandpa said the picture was from just before he went off to war. He meant the first world war, I suppose.

In one of the pictures, toward the bottom of that big stack, I saw his papa trying to make the girls laugh. But, I’ve imagined the girls. Really, it is just a picture of him with his hat sideways, mocking a goofy grin, and winking at someone off camera. Girls, I imagine.

Grandpa used to say that for a long time, whenever he’d be out at the home place and see dust flying up on the road in the distance, he’d look. He’d look before he thought about it. He would see, as he watched, although he knew without watching, it would be somebody else. It wouldn’t be his papa. But he looked. For a long time, he looked.