LIKE A PRAYER

By John Thomas Tuft

Pap sat on the stoop of the old garage, propped up next to the small house. The garage was home for Pap’s tools and endless mason jars of screws, nails, nuts, and bolts. A roll of black electrical tape was always close at hand for any and all repairs. The narrow passage between the house and garage was lined with carefully raked white rock. Beyond a patch of grass, the vegetable garden boasted of generous care and promised rewards. Behind him in the garage the big burgundy Oldsmobile crouched, its front bumper nosed in, pinning the push mower to the wall. Dangling from the pegboard above the mower is a necklace made of old soft drink crimp caps on a piece of red yarn.

Every time that Pap goes into the house, gets the keys from the hook, and comes back out to start up the old behemoth, he gently takes the necklace from the wall and carefully hangs it over the rear-view mirror of the car. Even when he is not going to take the car out on the road, mind you always at least five miles an hour under the speed limit, but simply “Turn her over and get the juices flowing in the engine,” he still hangs the simple necklace on the mirror. One day as we made lunch together I asked him about the necklace. “Go and fetch it from the garage,” he said as he took a tube of biscuit dough out of the refrigerator.

When I got back with it, he had the cookie sheet out and was separating the individual biscuits onto it. “That was mine and your grandma’s prayer beads,” he grunted as he began to smash each disc of dough with the palm of his hand. “You ready?” he asked, sure I knew what he meant. I nodded and quickly spooned pizza sauce onto each flattened biscuit. “Cheese, cheese, cheese please, please, please,” I hollered just like Grandma had taught me when I was a little boy. Pap opened the shredded mozzarella with his teeth, beaming at the shared memory. With the panache of cooking show chefs, we took turns throwing cheese on each disc, from great heights, from the side, every angle we could dream up.

As the dogs feasted on cheese that never had a chance other than the floor, I made a show of prancing over to the oven and opening the door for Pap to slide the tray in with a flourish befitting a maestro. “Chewy or all the way done?” he asked, hand hovering at the timer knob. “Chewy and gooey but piping hot like stewy!” I exclaimed, holding up my part of the litany. He laughed and set the time. He swept the necklace of bottle caps into his hands and motioned for me to sit in the cherished kingdom of the kitchen table when the air is filled with the incense of baking bread. “This was our prayer beads,” he began, his voice softening and a bit of extra moisture showing in his eyes.

He caressed an old Coke cap. “This is Aunt Millie, fighting the devil of breast cancer.” An old A&W cap, “This is Tommy, the milk man.” And on he went. A Pepsi was Francine, who lost her baby at birth. Mt. Dew for pastor and his family. Dr. Pepper for the town doctor and his family. He fingered a Nehi Grape, hesitated, then moved on without a word. Vernor’s tagged his brother overseas, fighting in Korea. Yahoo Chocolate Drink was for the Simpsons, who’s daddy was out of work, what with a new baby and all. Canada Dry was for orphans in the County Home. “Your grandma would save up her Green Stamps and get little things from them kids. Broke her heart.” He swiped at his eyes. “She always said, that’s prayer. Letting your heart break, even for people you don’t know.”

The late afternoon sun stretched the shadow of the old rose bush at the window across the table. The air smelled warm and divine. “We’d use a church key to pry the cap off the soda bottles. It’d make a little pop sound and the vapors of gas would float up. She’d say, ‘there goes another prayer. Keep that cap.’ So I did.” He smiled at me. “I ain’t no preacher man, or even much of believer. But if your grandma says prayer is your imagination popping out, getting bigger, filling with quiet holiness, and giving good intentions, then who am I to argue?” The timer buzzed and our feast came forth. We laughed and joked, seeing who could make the longest string of cheese and belch the loudest.

Filled and content, I motioned to the prayer necklace. “And Grape Nehi?” Pap picked it up and pressed the cap to his lips. “Sweet. Sweet, cool and so good.” I felt a sharp intake of angel’s breath in my chest as he whispered, “That’s your Grandma.” In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Words are magic and writers are wizards.