Volume 21, Number 122, August/September 2018 Favours Received by Judith Ouellette Bezaire
Thank you, thank you, thank you! I have been searching for a home for this story for a very long time in popular magazines as well as literary journals. Many painful revisions resulted, but this final version of “Favours Received” is the one I have settled on as the truest and finally have faith in. And your comments and ultimate acceptance are glorious reassuring music to my ears. The best thing in the world is to have one’s work read and I am beyond happy to know it will be in your August issue of CANADIAN STORIES. I found out about your magazine browsing on the Internet for a home for my work. And, I now have a subscription to your magazine, but was not aware of it until just recently. I know I will love the stories in it and will be sure to recommend it to other readers as well. I am sure I have read your columns about old cars in newspapers or magazines throughout the years, as I too love cars. The heritage around that love is totally accurate as illustrated in my story. Thank you again, Ed. It is so thrilling to know I am part of your CANADIAN STORIES magazine family of readers and writers.
I ask myself how much of this story is memory. How much is myth? How much, mysterious miracle? The bus route I speak of was not well-established. The tourniquet, never kept. The true order of things in my seven-year-old, age-of-reason mind undetermined. But the details in the black and white snapshot are the evidence of the greater truth discovered.
The big, wire-spoke wheels of the 1935 Chevrolet Master Deluxe were cumbersome. The round smooth fender was wide enough to support a man to climb and stand on, even while holding something heavy. The curved running board was broad enough for a grown man to sprawl on. And the rusty hole in the middle of the driver’s side door was the failed patch where my father tried to mend the shrapnel of ripped black metal and retain the stash of shredded cotton padding of green velvet interior. Lots of times I poked my finger into that space to follow the dark tunnel of outside steel through to the shattered tufts of burnt faded fabric within. My four older brothers managed the distance. An old painful memory to them, it remained a piece of historic drama to me, always untouchable.
They had been born in the thirties; the decade belonged to them. I was the long-awaited baby girl, the answer to my mother’s prayers. In numerous novenas to the patron saint of hopeless cases, I was the final product of her devotion to that master of things despaired of, Saint Jude Thaddeus. That is how I came to be christened, Judith, and how this man came to be my intercessor, and how, miraculously, my father seemed to agree in his handsome forfeiting grin, arched eyebrow and reassuring wink whenever my mother acclaimed me, her “favour received, thanks to St. Jude”.
The best vehicle my dad ever owned, the Chevy wasn’t new when he got it, but already old with the remains of its explosive history.
“If I don’t come out of this, Vic, you keep my car,” my dad had been told. “There’s only one payment left. Make it and it’s yours. That son-of-a- bitch-in, Ross.”
Sam had grabbed at his wounded, ripped thigh, wincing with pain. The range had been too close. Ross had been too ready.
“Look a’ there, Sam,” Ross screamed excitedly, pointing to that fateful Thanksgiving Day dawn. Like a field soldier, his fists took mock aim at a red-tailed hawk barely visible, soaring high above the laneway.
“It’s headin’ for the bush and marsh. Gonna swing right over us. Can’t you get this buggy to go any faster?”
In the days leading up to the hunt, it had rained, and now Sam manoeuvred a muddy drive. At Ross’s insistence, the front wheels stuck, spinning and whirring. Sam remained intent, working the knee action. Ross jumped out to rock the big machine. When he saw the hawk dive, he mounted the Chevy’s fender, his loaded gun in hand.
“Not yet, Ross,” Sam yelled. “Not here. Climb back in. We’ll get there,” he appealed in his amiable, calm manner.
“Like Hell, we will,” Ross hollered. “I’m gettin’ him right now!”
Reluctantly, Sam conceded, remaining at the steering wheel, sitting, waiting to see if Ross would make his mark. Then he opened the door to perch on the running board to gaze at the hawk riding the air, spreading strong wings, circling for quarry in the quiet of the harvested cornfield. When Ross’s gun discharged its deafening blast, Sam felt the heavy Chevy jar, but breached to see the bird soar heavenward and he smiled, momentarily, assuming its freedom. Then he felt himself stumble, then he saw the blood, the confusing black projectile squirting into the low hedge line of weeds at the base of the Chevy’s entrenched wheel.
He stared once again toward the sky for the hawk, for a dropping, bleeding, diving hawk, but saw none. Then he looked to the path, to the blood in the lane, dripping like red paint in shiny spurts, making its way toward him and the open door where his foot still rested on the running board. That’s when he saw the cavern of shredded trouser exposing his gaping thigh.
He hadn’t felt the shot. Disbelieving, he finally realized what had happened. Instinctively he cupped his palms to try to cover the wound, but a saucer of warm sticky heartbeat flow gushed past his knuckles, then puddled at his foot, spilling to the waiting muddy ground below. He tried to hold his breath, then screamed at Ross for help. Then he reached inside to the Chevy’s mirror to grab a scarf left behind by a girlfriend to try to make a tourniquet. But fumbling, the slippery silk only deepened the insult and resisted the red stream and, swearing, Sam tossed it aside.
“#&!? Ross ...You shot me! Damn you! Run back to the house ...get my dad ....”
“#&!?/ ...how in Hell ...Sam ...#&!?/ it was an accident ...I slipped ...Sam ...!”
Sam pleaded once again to Ross to go get help as he sprawled, perspiring, already whitening to the car’s muddy running board.
“Get me the Hell out a here, Ross!” he yelled.
Ross blinked stupidly, then ran in circles around the Chevy, stunned.
Once again, Sam grabbed the scarf to try to tie a tourniquet, but the panic and futility and passage of precious moments had already weakened him and resisted all his efforts. He winced in pain and closed his eyes in confounded disbelief when he heard the disappearing Ross, swearing, charge desperately down the lane away from his father’s house toward the destined marsh and community of pit blinds.
He could hear Ross approach the hidden caves of anticipating hunters, breaking their silence in screaming rage. In the stillness of the Chevy, Sam felt himself hemorrhaging, saw himself fading in the deadly reflection of the car’s door. He longed for the hawk’s return, imploring rescue in the same vein of departure that had carried it to the safety of a coveted distant field.
Two men hurried back with Ross, then lifted Sam from the running board into the rear seat of the Chevy. They used a belt to stop the bleeding, then wrapped their heavy canvas coats around his legs, then pushed the car out of the mud and on to a new track that would speed them the twenty miles to the closest city hospital.
My granddad heard the gunfire.
“Those boys are shootin before sunup, Lizzie,” he called to my grandmother, shaking his head in remonstrance, inhaling to light his first pipe of the day. “That new warden hears, they’ll loose their guns, sure as Hell,” he warned.
It was shortly after, that he spied the Chevy. Through the dining room window of cut lace curtain he saw Sam’s car come barrelling up, and saw its big wheels stop to let Ross jump out. He saw the muddy fender and running board, but missed his son and the shattered door and his son’s red blood splattered there. He watched Ross hesitate, then gawk, then stumble slowly to cross the yard. His head was bowed, two shotguns in hand. Then he saw the Chevy charge forward in a rapid retreat, boldly spewing mud and sheared tufts of grass to reach the paved highway.
Automobiles were the pride and prejudice of my dad’s family of six brothers of his own. Often the topic of conversation, their cars roused heated discussion round the dining room table or in the darkening evening in wicker cushioned couches and press-backed wooden rockers in my grandparents’ summer porch. The renowned successful carriage maker in our heritage at the turn of the century was recollected to have worked with the famous Dodge Brothers in their bicycle shop in nearby Windsor. They prided in the best horses ever owned, my granddad’s plough-mare, Bell, and reminiscences of fields she furrowed and wagons she pulled, and every race she’d won following Sunday Masses from the McGregor Village church nearby. In winter, she worked tirelessly with her sure dependable foot, leading a huge cutter to secure each summer’s supply of ice from frozen Lake Erie.
The prejudice piece was the goodnatured banter of debate that always rose and fell in the male voices of our household. Passionate sentimental defence of older models of cars in comparisons to sleek efficient new ones; competitive statements around smooth or rough running engines; exaggerations bordering on lies around gas consumption and mileage. Most claims prompted a rumble of laughter with teasing, but ultimately led to their stories about the best cars ever driven. My granddad and uncles always agreed that the best car my dad ever drove was the one that belonged to Sam.
The Chevy streamed smoothly through three rural country villages where doctors’ offices fronted their family residences, their practice as heavenly a presence and as common as any parsonage that shared the same familiar street. But the men within deemed the need for a city surgeon for Sam, and so bypassed those trusted bastions for the expertise of more than old Doc Parks who’d known Sam since birth and had his home office a mere mile from the accident site. The hospital doctors finally stop the bleeding where the shot had severed a major artery. It hadn’t lodged, but gone right through, dragging tissue and shiny bits of car metal and door padding, the same still edged in tufts of yesterday’s vividness.
“Fred Parks could have stopped the bleeding,” my grandad always insisted. “He could have stopped the bleeding sooner, Vic, and Sam would be alive today.”
Doc Parks had delivered Sam from the very bed he’d been conceived in. In one of Sam’s boyhood summers, Doc had mended his shattered broken leg on the dining room table, with no electric lights and no anaesthetic. The same leg that was scattered in the field, beyond the lane, one short mile from Doc’s home office.
That field seemed fastened to the laneway by my uncle’s leg and a line of old growth sugar maples and an ancient rope swing that hung from the tallest broad green crown. In the wind its invisible passenger rested on its plank of once sharp wooden edges worn to a lovely shining curve of smooth silk, aged to the colour of sterling. Its emptiness swayed playfully, twisting and turning furry lengths of brown twine. Sam with his upper thighs seated, greeted me there in my imagination alongside the property that paralleled the lane near the dusky empty horse barn.
My granddad always said the same thing. It was the same chilling ending to each retelling of the shooting. In the vacant silence that hung in the room, his soft blue eyes would swim with regret. And my dad would try to console him and whisper, shaking his head, that, “Only a miracle could have saved Sam, Pa.” And my uncles would concur in silent nods.
Fond in the reality of all other members of our large extended family, I only knew Sam from the story of his shooting and through his fading photo. He was a dusty presence on the well-used piano in my grandparents’ front parlour, a darkened, lonely place where I loved to linger with ancestors of all ages in similar sepia, who lined the papered walls or perched along gleaming tabletops nestled in yellowed handcrocheted doilies.
Severe looking unsmiling, bustled ladies legless in long skirts posed beside wicker buggies bursting with tightly bound babies. Broad shouldered men in wide-brimmed straw hats, white cotton shirts and serious, suspendered black britches stood proudly in high top riding boots beside bridled horses and slick surreys. They all passed by me one by one in dizzying, swirling circles where I loved to spin on the ancient black piano stool, my legs wrapped securely around its axis so as not to fall off.
Sam was where I always ended, my feet jarringly halted at his lean, youthful hands care-freely clasped together resting on his raised thigh. Dizzily, I searched the openness around his laughing eyes. With my fingertips, I reached out to trace his wide handsome smile of full lips. He had a clear resemblance to my own sweet dad and uncles who must have looked similar in their svelte, healthy youth in the years before my miraculous birth. They all had sunkissed, swarthy good looks like the new TV movie stars with shiny scrubbed faces and wavy, wellcoifed hair and dimples in their chins.
When that last picture of Sam was taken, my parents were young, then, too. They rented a small. quaint bungalow on a quiet, tree-lined street “in town”. A farmer, my granddad was devastated by the Great Depression and forced to abandon his heritage acreage. After four generations of growing crops, most of his property was lost to the downturn of the dirty thirties. All but the heaven-reaching elegant 1890 farm house he built, with its enclosed fieldstone porch edged in my grandmother’s climbing rose bushes and side yards of peonies and lilacs. Most Sundays and holidays found us skirting the ten miles from town to country to visit, “out home” via the dusty rusting Chevy.
“Sam’s car,” everyone referred to it.
“How’s Sam’s car running, Vic?” grandad would ask.
“Sam’s old car still putt-in’ along, eh Vic?” my uncles prodded. “Sam would be proud of her, wouldn’t he, Vic? Poor bugger ....”
Their voices would catch, their conversation stifle in the stillness that followed where words would trip, then trail soulfully away and disappear into the silence of sadness. Eyes would tear up, casting painful glances downward toward the floor and their own feet. With lips pursed, tightened admonishment demanded the retelling of Sam’s story.
This day we rode the bus “out home”. From the towering seat, the springtime fields stretched for miles, further than I had ever seen. The ruptured, new ploughed earth dotted with farm houses and red stained barns and out buildings was blocked in lacy bush lots, outlined in fieldstone or greying split-rail. The novelty of the ride made the journey along the familiar road seem like my very first with the landscape laid out before me, miraculously uncommon.
Usually, I was folded into the back seat of the Chevy, where, well past its prime in faded mohair the bench seat clutched me and my four sturdy brothers. Their sweaty tanned legs shoed in high-top black and white canvas runners crowded and kicked, and their tawny bony arms cuffed in smelly leather baseball mitts sweated and suffocated.
Often the Chevy’s dusty floor waspreferable to me, with its ragged faded elegance of threadbare carpet, now sadly forsaken to tiny, rusting, developing thin-edged holes. In their grey blur, I could tell how fast we travelled, and when we finally arrived “out home”. My dad’s slow turn off the highway of cement pads, seamed with tar strips of snaky lines, swollen in summer’s heat, shrunken and brittle in winter’s cold was the visceral signal. Grandpa’s drive of grass had dusty silt when dry and brown sticky mud when wet, same as the laneway beside it.
The big rambling bus rolled to a halt, prematurely, opposite the laneway. For the first time ever, I clearly saw that storied straight line of sadness running before me, stretching forever beside the field that led to the woodlot then marsh a mile or so beyond. When the doors magically opened, I followed my family to step out into the warm spring sunshine awaiting, and we watched and waved good-bye as the vehicle left us. Gazing after it, I could hear the birds chirping high up in Sam’s sugar maple.
Suddenly all the promises of that Easter Sunday seemed realized. I was glad for the fresh cotton, flowered dress I found myself twirling in, that my mother had insisted I wear instead of my brothers’ faded hand-me-down dungarees and the checkered shirt I’d chosen. Painstakingly, she’d brushed my hair, and fussed unruly blonde curls into a halo of a spritely tree top that made my brothers laugh and my dad suck in his breath. My mother clucked, then patted and pasted, wetting her fingertips delectably with spit to tie me up even further in a length of crimson red ribbon.
“After all, cleanliness is next to godliness,” she admonished, smiling at her final product. Then she rolled her eyes in a flirt with my dad that made him chuckle and me scowl and rub my burning temples to loosen the pale strands caught up in the assault.
All the newness I felt that day was heightened further with the addition of a pair of black patent leather shoes, fashionably called “Baby Dolls”. The shining toes topped in linen bows with straps that wrapped around my ankles seemed to give me wings and make my feet fly. They caused me to skip and jump, then prance down the drive past the stone porch of front entrance. I nodded to the silent swing, and felt the ribboned tree top upon my head, bounce spritely.
My grandparents knew we were coming. My grandmother stood waiting in the opened door of the front porch, smiling, her arms raised expectantly in sweeping welcome, ready to hug each one of us as we passed through. She turned to see me zoom past and I saw her clutch my father embracingly as he entered.
At the dining room window, my grandpa sat waiting where he always liked to, and I passed by the lace curtains and raised my arm to him in a wave that made me run even faster, eager to be the one to tell him about the new Pontiac.
We had already gazed on its shining sparkle on that Easter morning of 1953. This exciting Pontiac Chieftain Deluxe was the new fresh start waiting. Yet to be claimed, it was still chained to the huge car carrier at the dealership in town where we would trade the Chevy the next day. The Pontiac had made my dad’s blue eyes sparkle as bright as it and my brothers’ long limbs scramble and try to climb aboard and my mother sigh in some deep mysterious invocation. This car was ready to be my favourite and I was eager to boast about its spiffy shade of heavenly blue unlike poor Sam’s sordid black. This car arrived happily, a flashy master unto its own without a horrible history, with no sad tale of woe and no wrenching drama.
I charged through the deserted covered square of back veranda with its dark, tangled woody vines of wild grape and brazenly pulled some of their tart leafy pleasure, giddily popping it into my mouth. I pounded through the opened wood screen door to fly past my brothers who were seating themselves politely on pressed back chairs near the wood stove in the kitchen. Scrubbed clean and lined up like newly hatched chicks, they waited patiently while my grandmother clucked happily to fetch her homemade raisin cookies from the milk pantry where the chill air was heavy with the acrid smell of sulphur from ice cold well-water stored in a deep white porcelain crock there. The boys’ canvas shoes carefully toyed with the soft fluff of a litter of new kittens that stumbled curiously toward them, balancing badly and uncertainly, having left the safe confines of the low cardboard carton beneath the wooden, drop-leaf table.
I stormed the dining room to my grandfather who was still peering out the window, softly silhouetted against white lace, a still-life of small cotton circles of cut diamonds. He was looking toward the laneway, but when he turned to see me, he smiled, then bent to kiss my hair and finger the novel tree top with its fresh starched ribbon. Then I saw his hand move from the top of my head to the photo resting on the tabletop nearby.
It was that showstopper, Sam, of course, proudly suited in pinstripes as always, with his stylish fedora pushed to the back of his handsome blonde head. With his dimpled chin lifted, his elbow resting easily on his raised knee of the offended thigh, his hands clasped assuredly, he leaned care-freely against the closed door of his gleaming ‘35 Chevy. His black pointy shoe shone like a star, unjaded on the silver straight line of wide running board where it rested, while the other one remained securely grounded in the grassy lane.
As my granddad rustled worn wooden prayer beads back into their leather case, I saw large tears escape from his eyes, then roll uncontrollably down his cheeks. He hid them with the back of his hand, then asked, “Did you get your new car yet?”
I saw him straighten and look away, then plant his rosary beside Sam’s photo. He returned to me for an answer, but I just shook my head, “No”. Deflated that he already knew about the Pontiac, I boldly asked, “Are you praying for a miracle, grandpa, for Uncle Samuel?”
I heard his deep breath and saw his shudder, then felt his sob when he squinted out more large tears as he bent to kiss my cheek and fold me into his arms. Through a pained smile he took my hands in his, then I lifted my chin to look into his eyes and he whispered, “I’ll try St. Jude. I hear tell he does favours.”
He wiped his tears again, then reached for Sam from the shaft of sunlight on the tabletop. Hand in hand, we walked to the parlour where we placed the photo in its familiar place on the piano.
Photography was still magical when the treasured last picture of Sam’s car was taken by my mother with her beloved Kodak Brownie box camera. It was one of a roll-film of 12 exposures that was brought to the drug store, then sent away to be processed. We waited a week or sometimes longer to get the developed prints back. They were expensive, too. You had to pay for every negative, even the ones that didn’t “turn out” that were overexposed, underexposed or double exposed. Consequently, my mother was careful about her subjects and as proud of all her products.
By the time the snapshot came back, Sam’s car was long gone. The photo was placed in my “Baby’s Own” record book. The man seated on the running board in the snapshot of the 1935 Chevrolet Master Deluxe is my dad. His black dress shoes are planted firmly in the dusty shoulder of the roadway. His hands are cupped casually, elbows rest easily over splayed knees, but his smile is painfully tight and his glance at the camera, soberingly heart-wrenching. The little girl in the dungarees and checkered shirt and messy blond hair is me, in wide-eyed simper, sitting in the weedy grass with the rolling Detroit river in the background.
I had just heard the story once again, in all its intransigent detail, as if it was the very first time my dad had ever told it to anybody. Of how he came to have the best car he ever drove. But he’d added something more that had brought tears to his eyes, then made streams down his checks. A part I had never remembered hearing, where he made a promise to his youngest brother who lay in the hospital his leg rife with gangrene.
“Don’t let them take my leg, Vic. Promise me. For God’s sake, please.Don’t let dad let them take my leg. I don’t want to live with only one leg. Please, promise me. And promise you’ll keep my car if I don’t come out of this. There’s only one payment left. Make it ... make it for ... me.”
They didn’t take Sam’s leg. They didn’t have to. He died within the hour of my dad’s promise. Unable to recover from shock from loss of blood, he was buried with his leg intact. My grandparents arrived too late to ever see their youngest son alive again. And my dad told them right away that only a miracle could have saved Sam. And he drove Sam’s car for thirteen long years afterward.
After the picture-taking, on the ride to the dealership that Easter Monday to take delivery of our new Pontiac, I burrowed as usual into the worn upholstery of the broken back seat of Sam’s old Chevy amidst my sweaty brothers. Then I reached once more and stretched with all my might, to poke and prod for one last time into rotting metal, this time the floorboard where I took my finger to trace yet another rusting hole of frilly petals.
Suddenly, from beneath the sagging seat springs, I saw a sentimental finger of faded red silk resurrect. In miraculous touch, the fabric of failed tourniquet emerged. It seemed to unfurl itself into my hand to become the crinkled scroll of hardened rigour that I recognized immediately from the numerous retellings of its terrible failure. With wrenching force, in fisted fury, I clenched its crimson folds and felt the crust of my uncle’s blood. When I opened my palm, the scarf seemed to soften in my grasp and I secretly slid it once more into Sam’s Chevy where it belonged and remained.
Miracles and favours are sometimes indistinguishable. Most often, life is not shocked and saved by miracles, but dealt in small favours, easily missed, like circles of one inch diameter, like the dark shattered wound of gunshot blast through the driver’s side door where I always poked my finger determined to reach that sorrowful interior. Like the broken back seat of my Uncle Samuel’s 1935 Chevrolet Master Deluxe.
In the photo, in the door’s reflection behind my dad you can see what looks like an old time heliograph. A trim young man is seated on the running board where his lower back leans against his beloved Chevy. He’s sporting a peaked hunting cap outlined in the white of the door’s slim silver handle. His hands are clasped, elbows bent, propped easily on both knees with his gun resting across his lap with the silent marsh behind, where he ponders.