We all make mistakes. What do we do after?
Thanksgiving Day, and I wasn't sure what was happy about it like everyone kept saying all day. Our turkey upped and died two days ago, and Daddy thought it might have been a sickness that could be in the others as well, so he killed all five of them. There went Thanksgiving dinner and thirty dollars a turkey for Christmas, and I was sure this was the worst Thanksgiving in all my 12 years. But it wasn't -- not yet, anyway.
We had just sat down to a dinner of fried chicken and mashed potatoes when it all happened. We would have had corn on the cob, but Tracey had let the water boil out of the pot, so we threw it to the pigs. But she was only six, so we understood. Daddy had raised us in a house that understood that everybody made mistakes sometimes. People don't remember your mistakes, he told us time and again. They remember what you do after. Anyone who couldn't understand that making mistakes was part of life, and that doing better was making a better life -- why, they just didn't count! Except they never understood Daddy after his mistake.
Momma had just plopped a thigh in the middle of Daddy's potatoes -- he said it all went to the same place anyway, so why not eat it together? -- when there was a knock at the door. Daddy excused himself and got up to see who it was. We weren't expecting anyone, and five miles off the road in Kansas is not where you go by accident. The chill of first dark blew into the house when he opened the door, but it was the glint of the porch light off the badge that turned his face white.
He staggered back, weak at the knees like a bull knocked between the eyes, and a strange man in a dark suit pushed his way in, followed by Sheriff Barton. Momma rushed in, wiping her hands on her apron, and Tracey and I ran after. We got there as the stranger finished reciting stuff from a little card in his thick hand.
"Do you understand these rights as I have explained them to you?"
Daddy nodded, his eyes blank, staring at the wall and seeing things the rest of us couldn't. The man, fat as a pregnant sow, stepped forward, dark pleasure on his scrunched up pig face, handcuffs clinking and papers displayed like winning Lotto tickets.
"Robert Allen MacKenzie, it is my pleasure to place you under arrest for armed robbery, grand theft auto, and ..." He grabbed Daddy's arm and slammed the cuff on his wrist. "... murder!" He grunted as he ratcheted the cuff two notches tighter. Daddy was so out of touch, he didn't flinch a bit.
When Pig-Face grabbed Daddy's other arm, Tracey couldn't hold it in. "You leave my Daddy alone! You got no call to be mean to him!"
"Well, now," he said, looking at her like she was a fussy hen, "aren't you the feisty one? Sorry about your Daddy, little girl, but I've got a warrant for his arrest that I've been trying to serve on him for a long time now. And the long arm of the law," he raised the other cuff, "has finally caught up!"
He swung the cuff down like he did the first one, but I grabbed his hand and hung on. "Maybe you got to do something, mister, and maybe this is all a mistake. But that's my Daddy, and if you hurt him on purpose again, I'll see you wearing those!" I didn't know what I was saying, not really. It was something like off a movie, but it was what came out.
He pushed me off roughly, and Daddy came to life. With arms wiry from throwing bales of hay every season for all of my 12 years and more, he shook free and grabbed the man's lapels and yanked him up nose-to-nose. "Don't touch my girls!"
Sheriff Barton got Daddy away from the fat man and gently pulled his arms behind him. "I'm sorry, Bob, but we got this to do." Daddy nodded, and the empty cuff clicked shut on the bare wrist, but lightly.
Pig-Face jerked his jacket straight, then put his snout in Daddy's face. "What are you going to do, MacKenzie? Kill me, too?"
"What's all this about killing?" Momma shouted. "And his name's not MacKenzie! My husband would never hurt anyone! You've got the wrong man!" She was wailing by now, and Sheriff Barton took her shoulders to calm her down.
"No, Emily," Daddy said, and a unnatural quiet hung in the air. "They have the right man." He gulped air for a second like a landed fish fighting to live, then something settled over him. Shep had looked like that when he got kicked by the cow and realized in his doggie mind that we had to shoot him because it was quicker to die that way.
"Daddy," I said, taking his arm, "what is all of this?" I was detached, kind of outside myself watching everything. Part of me knew it would all hit later; the other part thought this was a video. "What are they talking about?"
"We're talking about a bank robbery, with over half a million stolen!" spat Pig-Face. "And the guard left gut-shot and bleeding to death!" His face turned ugly with his lip turned up. In a low snarling voice, he said, "Thanksgiving eve, and your Pa shot my Pa and left him to die, little girl! How's that for a Thanksgiving holiday?"
"Shut up!" Tracey screamed. She wasn't allowed to say that, but I don't think the rules applied tonight. "She wasn't asking you!" Her foot shot out and landed a good kick on his shin that made him howl.
"Yes, sir, she's a feisty one, all right," he said, rubbing his leg. He looked me over. "How old is this one, MacKenzie?"
"Twelve," Daddy whispered.
"Twelve, huh? What a coincidence. That's how old my sister was when you shot our Pa and she had to raise five of us herself!" He parted his lips in an evil smile. "You know, it would really be tragic if the courts decided that all this, land and house and all, was bought with that stolen money and took it away."
Momma wailed again. "But he's a good father and husband! He goes to church, and he's on the school board and the farm council! He's a good man! There's got to be a mistake!"
Daddy shook his head. Sheriff Barton spoke up gently. "There was a mistake all right, Emily. It was made 27 years ago by a couple of young kids who thought life was too boring and work was too hard." To Daddy, he said, "Did you know they executed Davis two weeks ago? You learned; he never did."
Gently he took Daddy's arm, then stopped. "Loosen that cuff!" he growled at Pig-Face. "This here's a better man than you'll ever be, and I'll not have him treated badly!" Pig-Face hesitated, and Sheriff Barton snapped, "Loosen it or I'll have it cut off! Then I'll let Peggy put my cuffs on you!" The thought of squeezing the cuffs on that fat arm with all my skinny strength sent wonderful chills up my back.
"A better man?" Pig-Face snorted, letting the cuff looser by only one notch. "How do you figure? I grew up without a Pa because of him! I've been waiting all these years just for this day. I became a cop for one reason: so I could find me a murderer and put him away!" He spit on Daddy's boots and the sheriff had to hold me back.
"A better man is one who doesn't hate," said the sheriff. "He grows out of his mistakes and turns himself around. This family, this farm ... is that the mark of a murderer? Or of a man who knows the right way to live in this world?"
"If he's such a good man, then why didn't he ever confess? If it hadn't been for some anonymous tip, we'd never have found him." He pushed his whiskered snout closer to the sheriff's face. "Besides, Barton, somebody out here doesn't think too much of your 'better man'! That tip came from your district! Wonder who called in on the Father of the Year?" He laughed at his own joke.
Daddy looked up. "I did," he said quietly. "It was the only way I could get you here." Turning, he asked, "Tracey, would you go get my little notebook?" She ran to the desk and pulled out a small black vinyl binder. It was old, and none of us had ever seen what was in it. "Give it to the sheriff, Punkin."
Sheriff Barton lifted the cover and gave a little gasp. The first page was a yellowed newspaper clipping about the robbery and killing. The three pages after that had more clippings about the investigation. Then it was note after note, with names, addresses, and phone numbers, all in Daddy's handwriting. Two pages from the back was a newspaper picture of Pig-Face, telling about his promotion to detective. Last was the phone number of Silent Witness and a ten-digit number. An envelope fell out.
"I've been trying to keep track of your family, to make it up to you somehow," Daddy said. "But I kept losing contact. Then you got promoted, and I knew this was the only way to make it right." He sighed, and it was like air escaping from a balloon. He seemed to go all flat. "The farm wasn't bought with the money. I didn't get much of it anyway, but what I did get was put in a trust fund for you and your sister. That's what's in the envelope."
"Em," he said to Momma, "I'm sorry. I've been dreading this day for years, but I never did have the heart to tell you." To me: "Peg, I wish you didn't have to see your Daddy like this. Especially on Thanksgiving. Be big, okay?" His voice choked on the tears dripping off his chin. "And Tracey, my little Punkin Pie, I'm sorry you don't understand what this is all about."
"But I do understand, Daddy. You made a mistake, that's all. Just like I did with the corn. I won't do that again! Will you?"
Daddy knelt down to her. "No, Punkin, I won't."
She threw her arms around him and gave him a big wet smack on his cheek. "Then it's okay. I understand." She looked at Pig-Face. "Do you?"
Faced with the honest innocence of a six-year-old, he could only stammer. "N - no, I don't think I do."
"Then," she declared, "you don't count!" Her curls flounced as she spun on her heel and returned to the table.
Sheriff Barton pushed his hat back on his head to scratch the red mark the hat band made above his wild and bushy eyebrows. "Well, now, I reckon that sort of logic just can't be argued with." To Pig-Face he said roughly, "Take off them cuffs!"
"What are you trying to do? I may be in your county, but this is a Federal case!"
Thumbs hooked in his belt, rocking on the worn heels of his boots, the Sheriff nodded. "You got one thing right -- you're in my county." One hand suddenly jerked the snap on his holster. "And in my county, I make the rules! Now get them cuffs off!"
Hands trembling in rage, his thick fingers fumbling with the key, Pig-Face undid the cuffs, muttering cuss words I'm not supposed to hear. He stepped back, putting them in his pocket, and gave the Sheriff the evil eye.
But Sheriff Barton didn't care one little bit! Keeping one eye on Pig-Face and one hand obviously on his gun, he said, "Courthouse be open again on Monday, Bob. Come in and see me then, and we'll get this settled, okay?"
Daddy just rubbed his wrists and nodded, a dazed look on his face. The sheriff tipped his hat politely to Momma. "Y'all have a good Thanksgiving now."
Pig-Face sputtered like a dying log fire and made to take a step, but Sheriff Barton put one hand on his rubbery chest and spit "Get out!" in his face. They left, the sheriff the last out and throwing us a big wink before he closed the door.
We stood there, Momma hanging all over Daddy and me trying to come back to reality. listening to the car drive away. Slowly we turned to go back to our cold chicken and potatoes before Tracey ate it all. Biggest appetite I ever saw on a six-year-old.
At the doorway to the kitchen, Daddy stopped and hugged Momma close to him. "Happy Thanksgiving, Em." She buried her head in his neck and cried, and I hugged the both of them and cried, too. Maybe things would be different come Monday, but right now I'd say we were having a Happy Thanksgiving.