My father’s farm in Virginia is called Oak Hill. When he bought it, not long after he divorced my mother, there was in fact a cluster of enormous oak trees that shaded a white clapboard, nineteenth-century house that stood on the hill in the center of the farm, but the house burned down before my father could move into it. Some of the oaks survived the fire, which occurred on a Halloween night, but despite whispers that the previous owner had torched the house, no charges were ever filed. I remember surveying the charred remains and spotting, not charred even slightly, an old board game called Why, the Alfred Hitchock Mystery Game, which, according to the blurb on the box, involved “real thinking, planning, and memory.” I took the game home with me—I lived a twenty-minute drive from the farm with my mother, brother, and sister—but I never played it, and don’t know what became of it. Maybe my memory wouldn’t be so faulty if I had better developed it by playing Why.
After the fire, my father, who’d been living with my grandmother since the divorce, bought a trailer home, parked it on the hill, and moved into one of the two small bedrooms on either end of the trailer. This was a temporary arrangement while he designed and built a new house near the entrance to the property, assisted by friends and relatives. The other bedroom was mine during my weekend stays on the farm, where I likewise assisted with the building of the new house, though, being thirteen at the time, all I did for the most part was get in the way.
When the house was finished, a hippieish relative moved into the trailer, paying little or nothing in rent in exchange for his help on the farm. Then, if faulty memory serves, marijuana plants were discovered growing in a tucked-away corner of the farm, and while, as with the fire, no charges were filed, my hippie relative found accommodations elsewhere and my father leased the trailer to a black family. They never seemed to be around I was around, but I certainly heard a lot about the one named Joe, who was younger than I was. “That Joe is a hell of a ballplayer,” my father said again and again. He still, in middle age, fancied himself a formidable athlete, but Joe had apparently kicked his ass, or come close to kicking his ass, one on one in basketball. I had given up on trying to kick my father’s ass in basketball or any other sport, certain that he would pause the game to provide irritating pointers, though I was quick to correct him on any factual errors when he discussed, for instance, the Civil War, a favorite topic among Virginians who live near Civil War battlefields. “Stonewall Jackson wasn’t killed at Gettysburg by the Yankees,” I would pounce; “he was killed by his own men at Chancellorsville.” Probably my father never made that particular error, but in any case, kicking his ass intellectually, which I thought I was doing, was as satisfying as kicking his ass athletically—or so I told myself.
Post-divorce, my siblings and I always spent Christmas Eve with my father, and that year, after we exchanged presents, I tagged along with my father to the sheep shed, a short distance from the house, to see if any lambs had been born, winter being lambing season. He would have walked, ordinarily, or sent me to check on the lambs, but it was raining that night, though not hard, so he took his truck. Also, it turned out, he had a second mission: to deliver presents to the family living in the trailer. We drove up the red-dirt road to the hill, where I could see a Christmas tree glowing in the trailer’s picture window, and the minute we parked, the trailer door flew open and a bevy of children charged outside and mobbed the truck. I don’t remember how many there were, but there were far too many to be living in a cramped trailer.
“Mr. Haney!” they shouted, giddy with the Christmas spirit. “Mr. Haney, we got you a present!”
“And I got some presents for you all,” my father said. He had even wrapped his presents for them, or maybe his girlfriend (now his wife) had done the wrapping. Anyway, he gathered the presents from the floorboard of the truck and turned to me and said, “Come on.”
But I didn’t want to go inside the trailer. I was shy around strangers, and I was anyway jealous of Joe, whom I tried to identify among the children standing in the drizzle.
“I’m going to stay here,” I told my father.
“Well, it’s warm in the trailer, and it ain’t but ten feet away.”
“You go on. I’ll wait here.”
My father was used to my moodiness, which is not to say that it didn’t annoy him. He got out of the truck and walked to the trailer, followed by the kids, all of them disappearing inside. After a while, two boys emerged and dawdled near the truck, clearly hoping to engage me. I knew one of them must be Joe, but I was determined to remain aloof, pretending to be too consumed with the radio to notice Joe or his brother.
“What wrong with that boy?” I heard one of them say. “Why don’t he come inside?”
“Maybe he don’t want to come inside.”
“I don’t know. Sure seem strange to me.”
Then my father walked out and opened the door to the truck in a way that announced that a trip inside the trailer was a fait accompli.
“Come on in for a minute,” he said. “This nice lady wants to meet you.”
I got out of the truck and slammed the door in lieu of having the last word, and, inside the trailer, I was circled by children who stared at me as if at a fractious animal released, as a kind of experiment, from its cage. Gradually, they braved questions: “Where you live?” “What school you go to?” I answered shortly when I answered at all, intent on embarrassing my father. The kids had already opened the presents he’d given them, the shredded paper here and there on the floor, but their presents to each other were still wrapped and heaped around the Christmas tree. Then their mother walked out from what had once been my father’s room, smiling so brightly that the light of the tree, the only light in the room, seemed to dim a little in favor of her.
“Well,” she said, “I finally get to meet you. Your daddy talk about you all the time.”
“Yeah, right,” I thought. “All I hear about is Joe.” She was holding a present, which I could tell had been hastily wrapped, and I expected her to place it beneath the tree or hand it to my father. Instead, she handed it to me.
“Merry Christmas,” she said.
I would like to think I thanked her, but if I didn’t, it was only because I didn’t know how. Here was a woman so poor that she lived with her many children in a two-bedroom trailer, and yet she was giving me, a stranger—and a sullen, uncommunicative stranger at that—a present. I felt humbled and ashamed, just as I did when I later opened the present and found a jean shirt, which she had undoubtedly bought for one of her sons, maybe the one I disliked before I’d set eyes on him, and transferred it to me, darting into her room to quickly wrap it or, anyway, remove the original gift tag and replace it with one with my name on it. She had even spelled my name correctly: “Daryl,” not “Darryl” or “Darrell” or “Darly,” the last a counterintuitive but surprisingly common mistake. Was it a good guess on her part, or had she asked my father about the spelling while I was in the truck?
But that’s a mystery, and so is the fate of that shirt. I know I never wore it, partly because the elite kids at my school were style despots, as kids so often are, and jean shirts were considered déclassé. Also, I didn’t feel worthy of wearing it, though I couldn’t bring myself to give it away. And until it somehow disappeared, like Why, the Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Game, I kept that shirt neatly folded in a drawer, and whenever I saw it, I was reminded that sometimes people were as good as I wanted to believe they were, as good as I wanted to believe I could be, regardless of evidence to the contrary.
I have wished, if not needed, many times over the years to see that shirt again.