Sarah Beth Childers

I took a walk with my PaPa one spring afternoon when I was five. Because of his heart condition, PaPa walked often, thumping along the brick streets with his prosthetic leg and metal cane. PaPa seemed old to me then, but he was only sixty-two; dark hair still covered his head.

On that walk, PaPa and I clutched each other's hands as we plodded past a gaping pothole, an unsteady blue house with a jungle of weeds, and a driveway that seemed to angle straight up into a thatch of maples. I held PaPa's hand believing he needed me for balance; he held mine to keep me from skipping off down the street.

I'd been able to read badly since I was three and well since I was four, and PaPa was proud of his first grandchild. He showcased his tiny reader for visiting cousins, handing me National Geographic and gloating as I sounded out articles about the Nyangatom people and Kentucky caves. As we walked, PaPa pointed out road signs, business signs, names on mailboxes, and angry poster boards nailed to shabby porches. He bellowed, "Read that one, Doll!" And I read. TWENTY-NINTH STREET. GINO'S PIZZA. THE MAYOR IS A CROOK.

We stopped for a root beer in TED'S IMPERIAL LANES, a prospect I found exciting because my parents refused to take me. The inside was less spectacular than I'd hoped: a dim bowling alley full of loud, greasy-haired people with cigarettes. I clung closer to PaPa's polyester polo as he bought our root beer and chose a table with two sticky vinyl chairs. When PaPa sat, he crossed his fake leg over his real one and straightened his sock; the white nylon had slipped down the flesh-colored plastic. Then he asked me to read the names on the scoreboards.

On the way back to PaPa's, we ambled past SANSOM'S USED CARS, and the name intrigued me. Sansom. So close to Samson, the hero in my Bible storybook, drawn with seven long black locks and muscles that bulged under his dark red tunic. Early in Samson's story, he snarls in the picture, fists outstretched, gripping the dry jawbone of a donkey he's used to slay a thousand Philistines. Bodies litter the sandy earth around his sandals. In a later picture, after his run-in with Delilah, Samson's hair is short and ragged, his eyes empty bruises. Feasting Philistines in gold rings and purple cloaks mock Samson as he stands, chained to stone pillars that support the house where the laughing people sit. The Philistines should have known this was a bad idea. Samson bows his head, so shamefully bare, and prays for the strength to kill himself with the Philistine lords.

PaPa died three years after that walk, and when I think about him, I often think of our journey to the bowling alley: I'm alone and happy with PaPa, who is as healthy as I ever saw him. And in this memory, that sign for Sansom's car lot burns as clearly as PaPa's shiny cane, his striped polo shirt, his wavy dark hair. And behind that sign lurks a drawing of Samson. I wonder why I remember that sign so clearly—if, as a five-year-old, I connected the two fiery, dark-haired men. Both of them robbed of their might. With PaPa's left leg a dead thing he propped in a bedroom corner when he slept, he barely seemed the same man as that robust father in my mother's photo album, the teenage sailor in his sister's stories, who had battled Germans on the Normandy coast.

But I didn't think of my PaPa as weak. I squeezed his hand in dingy alleys because he needed me; deprived of his sight, even Samson needed a child to guide his hands to the stone pillars. And I clung to PaPa because I depended on him. If a greasy person had crept after us out of that bowling alley, PaPa would have defended me with his cane if he had to, summoning his former strength with a prayer.

Sarah Beth Childers is from Huntington and lives in Morgantown. "Shorn" is from her book, SHAKE TERRIBLY THE EARTH, which is forthcoming from Ohio University Press.

Detail of photo on main page courtesy of Jerry Dohnal.

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