I had nothing against Mr. Ardis J. Elpy. I swear it. I admit that I did not like the way he smelled, a mix of coal oil and tobacco spit and less-than-fresh underwear. I did not like the oily stainswhether mostly sweat or mostly hair greaseon the silk lining of his gray felt hat. I did not like him coughing up stuff into his handkerchief. I did not like the hair in his ears.
But I wished him no real harm. I wanted him to get his own car so that he could drive his own wife to church. I wanted my brother and me to have the entire backseat of my father’s copper-colored Oldsmobile to ourselves. Was it too much to ask that I not have to sit on the hump, forced to smell Ardis J. Elpy’s left underarm and pushed up against Lina Elpy’s cotton-brassiered right breast? Was it too much to ask that I be allowed, once in a while, to sit in the front seat? I was younger than my brother; such privileges were supposed to be mine.
Surely, I told myself, Ardis J. Elpy would be happier if he didn’t have to be beholden to other people. Surely, I thought, if the Elpys could afford a TV set, they could afford a used Chevrolet. As a matter of fact, there was a used Chevrolet jacked up in their side yard. On Sunday mornings, the engine of the Oldsmobile idling, my father would look at the Chevrolet and say, “That thing’s never gonna come down off the blocks.”
Nevertheless, I was sure Ardis Elpy and his wife, Lina, got tired of having to stand out on their front porch in all kinds of weather, waiting for my father’s Oldsmobile to pull into their front yard. I am sure Ardis Elpy got tired of knowing that, every Sunday morning, every Sunday night, every Wednesday night of the world, my mother would be calling to say, “Sister Elpy, we’re leaving for church now.” I certainly know I got tired of hearing my mother say, “We’ll just toot the horn when we pull in. You and Brother Elpy don’t have to wait out on that leaky old porch.”
I know he must have been sick to death of hearing my father say, “Ardis, you know we could have had one of the boys run up and get you.” I know he could have throttled Lina Elpy every time she made her high wheezy giggle noise and said, “Now Brother Bridges, you’re already doing too much for us. I’m not about to have either one of these sweet little boys of yours getting rained on in his Sunday clothes.” I know I could have kicked her every time she put her hand on my head and told the rear-view mirror, “John Auston and Jackson are the cleanest little boys I know of. I wouldn’t want them having to get out in our dirty old front yard.”
I detested her every time she leaned down toward me and said, “I wouldn’t want that old bandy rooster getting ahold of them.” I wanted to kill her every time she stuck her red-polished fingernail in my ear and went, “Cock-a-doodle doo doo. Chicky-chicky chick.”
I hated the next moment most of all. It was the moment when Ardis J. Elpy would reach down into his pocket and say, “Either you boys want a stick of gum?”
My mother would say, “I don’t think so, Brother Elpy. We’re on our way to church.”
My brother would say, “Oh, Mama...” My mother would say, “You boys just tell Brother Elpy ‘no thank you.’ ” My brother and I would say, “No thank you, Brother Elpy.”
My father would shift the Oldsmobile out of neutral. As the car pulled out of the Elpys’ front yard, I swearevery Sunday morning, every Sunday evening, every Wednesday nightArdis J. Elpy would cut a fart.
But still I never thought of causing physical injury to Ardis J. Elpy. I simply wanted him out of my life. I figured, even without the farts as supporting evidence, that he wanted me, my brother, and my father’s Oldsmobile out of his life too.
After church, while Lina Elpy stood around talking to the women, waving her hands so that her patent-leather pocketbook caught the light from the floodlights mounted on top of the church, Ardis Elpy waited, putting in his time with the men, standing just outside their conversation. I always figured he was telling himself, “You know, if I was at my own house now, I could be chewing me some tobacco. I could be watching me some ‘Bonanza.’ I could be spitting in a can.”
One Sunday morning, while my mother was washing the breakfast dishesit was an autumn morning; I know, because there had been redeye gravy with the gritsI asked her, “Why do we always have to go pick up the Elpys?”
My mother put down her dishcloth, looked over her shoulder, and said, “Well, how else do you think Lina Elpy would ever get to services? I don’t suppose you think Ardis Elpy would get her there, do you?”
I thought of Ardis Elpy, getting to watch his little black-and-white TV on Sunday evenings and Wednesday nights, getting to see Ed Sullivan and “The Beverly Hillbillies” and TV show after TV show after TV show that I had never seen. My mother said, “You wouldn’t want Sister Elpy to miss the Lord’s Supper, would you? You wouldn’t want her to miss Wednesday night prayer meeting.”
I said, “No, ma’am. I guess probably not.”
It was that very Wednesday night, I think, when I slammed the car door on Ardis J. Elpy’s finger. I have no idea why he was trying to get out of Lina Elpy’s side of the Oldsmobile. I only remember my mother saying, “Hurry up, boys. They’ve already started the singing.”
I remember giving the car door a heave. I remember my brother saying, “Holy Moses!” I remember Ardis J. Elpy saying, “Goddamn little asshole son-of-a-bitch!”
I remember Lina Elpy saying, “Ardis J. Elpy, you watch your language!” I remember my father opening the car door. I remember Ardis J. Elpy passing out in the church yard.
I remember Lina Elpy refused to go home. During the prayer-meeting service, Ardis J. Elpy, his right hand bundled in toilet paper, lay on the floor in a Sunday School room and groaned.
The next Sunday morning, after my mother called the Elpys, she put down the receiver and said, “Poor Sister Elpy. I don’t know when I’ve ever heard a woman be so embarrassed.” We did not pick up the Elpys that Sunday morning. In fact, we never picked them up again.
Still, my mother insisted they join us for Thanksgiving dinner. It had been three weeks since I had slammed the door on Ardis Elpy’s finger, but he still had a popsicle-stick splint and a gauze bandage on his right hand. When we had served our plates, my father said, “Brother Elpy, I’d like to ask you to return the blessing.”
Lina Elpy said, “Well that’ll be some praying that God won’t never hear.”
My mother said, “Daddy, maybe you ought to go ahead and say the blessing yourself.”
That Thanksgiving, I sat as far away as possible from Ardis J. Elpy, but, as far as I could tell, he never produced any odd noises or smells. Truth be told, on that Thanksgiving Day, for the first time in my life, I heard Ardis J. Elpy begin a conversation.
He finished his pecan pie and wiped his mouth with his napkin. He pushed his plate away, stared down at his bandaged finger, and said, “You know, that ‘Bonanza,’ that’s one mighty fine TV show.”