Katie Letcher Lyle

Books & Articles:


from I Thought My Father Was God
And Other True Tales from NPR's National Story Project

┬ęPicador USA, 2001

I Thought My Father Was God


One bitter winter night when Cochran was about thirteen and Jennie six, I took them to the local ice-cream parlor, one of the few places in town where college students and locals manage to coexist peacefully, sometimes even cordially. I didn't realize it was fraternity initiation week at the college until, out of the icy night, a young man appeared in the doorway, teeth chattering, clad in nothing but maroon bathing trunks and a filthy white T-shirt covered in bright arcs of mustard and catsup. His hair was sprinkled with chopped onions, and something like syrup or molasses had been poured over his head and was drizzling down into his face and dripping from his earlobes. Standing in the open doorway, puffing haze with every breath, this sorry sight announced to the eight or ten tables of customers and the two women behind the counter that he had to find a girl who was willing to go back to his fraternity and dance with him for five minutes, and wouldn't someone--Please . . . ?

Every woman in the place stared aghast, squirming uncomfortable, giggling, looking away. The waitresses in their white uniforms practically screamed in unison that they couldn't leave the ice-cream parlor unattended. The miserable fellow then began to cruise from table to table, but no one wanted to meet his eye. It was impossible to look at him without feeling disgust.

Finally, he got to us. "Ma'am?" he said to me, eyes pleading. I could hardly bear to be near him. But suddenly a thought hit me. I leaned down and said to Jennie, "Would you like to go to a fraternity party? It's a kind of dance."

Jennie's green eyes lit up. "Yeah!" she said, breaking into a big smile. Ignoring Cochran's appalled glare, I said to the young man, "This is Jennie. You'll have to walk slow or carry her. She's retarded, and she has cerebral palsy."

Trapped animal. "But, ma'am--" he began to protest. "I'll ger her dirty--I mean--" and he spread his arms to show me what he looked like, just in case I hadn't noticed.

"It's okay," I said, "she's washable. So are her clothes."

His eyes darted around frantically, but he realized that this was the only chance he was going to get to make it into the fraternity of his dreams. So I stuffed Jennie into her hooded jacket, and he hoisted her onto one hip, mashing her against the garish clots of condiments on his chest. Then he carried her off into the darkness.

Now I had to contend with Cochran. Always Jennie's fiercest protector, he had been stopped from preventing this disaster only by his larger-than-life sense of propriety. His blue eyes were huge and terrible over his Oreo sundae.

"Mother!" he whispered (he called me that only when he was angry). "You didn't even get his name! You don't even know what fraternity he's going to! Do you even have any idea what they do at fraternities? What if he doesn't bring her back?"

"Oh, don't worry," I said with artificial cheer, suddenly realizing how irresponsible I had been. "He'll bring her back. . . ."

But my heart sank. Cochran was right. It had been more than a quarter of a century since my honeysuckle days as the sweetheart of Kappa Sig, and I had no idea what went on in fraternities today. Jennie is one of God's innocents, a child who once described a stranger as "a friend I don't know yet." Anyone could take advantage of her. Oh God, why hadn't I stopped to think? I sat watching my root-beer float turn into a polluted lake of foam. Before long, it had become a metaphor for my careless life. My mind tortured me. I saw the headlines in the newspaper: LOCAL CHILD KIDNAPPED . . . SEX MANIAC POSES AS COLLEGE STUDENT . . .

I wondered how many of us in Sweet Things could give an accurate description of the young man to the police. I thought he was maybe five-nine, and I thought I recalled that his hair was a sort of brownish blond. Or was it blondish brown? . . .

"They'll be right back," I assured Cochran.

And soon they were. The young man, already looking a lot less miserable, plopped Jennie down in her chair, thanked me with a jerky, truncated bow, and once again disappeared into the night, leaving behind only his unique perfume and a few bits of diced onion bobbing in my float.

"Jennie!" I exclaimed in delirious relief. "Did you have a good time?"

"Yeah," she said. "We danced, and they had loud music, and it was great. And Mama? Cochran? Did you notice? He had a rainbow on his shirt!"

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