My Uncle Buck’s smile wasn’t to express joy, his was more like a sneer, and it promised good ole’ fashioned pain for some poor soul, once he could get his mind good and numbed from drinkin’. It wasn’t always just another man he was looking to punish, he was hunting for the one without a soul, the enemy of God; the devil himself.
If you believe in that sort of thing, then you know it was that lust for vengeance that the ole’ devil used to lure Buck closer to him, so close to satisfying his desire, and yet just out of reach, but he swore by God that he could wup that ole’ devil given the chance, even sparred him for practice in his sleep. Buck looked high and low for him, searched darn near every bar from Missouri to Arkansas to California, and he doubled back more than a few times to make sure he didn’t miss him in one of the honky tonks.
Most of the nine kids were born with that same smile, but the majority of them learned it like they did their names, and that expression with the mouth, raised on one side, eyes squinting, spelled danger. Funny things about folks who’ve got nothing, and aren’t in jeopardy of losing what they ain’t got, sometimes seem to smile as much or even more than the ones who are fretting about the finer things in life that they could lose.
My dad’s smile was different. I thought about it that day at my house, a special day, a day I’d never known in over forty years, how his could be so gentle after the life that forbid it still baffled me. Kindness was mistaken for weakness in his world and tears were designed, by God, for women and children. It might have been the new world, in the new South, but they weren’t of any kind of new mind to square the first part of the Good Book with the second.
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My dad smiled the kind of smile that let you know it’s genuine, from the heart, and if you were looking close, you could catch a glimpse of his soul through those soft green eyes. But there was something different about it that day, unique, one I hadn’t seen another one of his exactly like it. It was strained, but happy, beaming with pride, not for himself. That wasn’t his style—it was pride and appreciation. I was proud too, but that’s been something that’s come far too easily for me. It didn’t matter that I was forty-four years old. I was still his youngest son, and it felt like cool green grass under my feet on the perfect spring day when he was proud of me, and told me so.
For the life of me I can’t imagine why I hated it when he, or anyone else for that matter, tussled my hair in affection, back when I was young enough for another person to actually be willing to show their emotion. I had no idea how rare it was, otherwise I might have cherished it, but I was the son of strong men, hard men. I knew that before I could speak, before the rest of the world laughed at the kid who couldn’t pronounce an ‘R’ to save my life. My dad never laughed.
The strained smile looked almost sad. That’s when I spotted it. I’d seen every different type of emotion on my dad’s face over my lifetime, caused every one of them at one time or another, but it had been too long since I’d seen something close to that one. That day I’d remember all the days of my life… and his.