As a small child, I used to sit on my father’s lap on cold winter evenings and watch the fire as it danced in the fireplace. He would rock me in that saggy, cane-bottom chair we used to have; a rocker so worn and tired that every time someone sat down, the joints creaked and complained like an old man with lumbago. Back and forth. Back and forth we would nod together, my father and I, as we listened to that rocker sing its squeaky song.
After some moments, I would ask my father, whom I loved very much, “Will you tell me a story?” And he would say to me, “What kind of story would you like to hear?” And I would say, “Tell me a story out of your mouth.”
I meant by those words that no ordinary story would do. I had already heard the “Once upon a time …” of the Three Little Pigs until I could recite it as easily as my own name. A house of straw. A huffing and puffing and “blow your house down.” I’d already heard that piggy story a thousand times and more, and I knew how it would end.
Cinderella held no mystery for me, either. Ugly step-sisters. The fairy godmother. The handsome prince. A chariot of pumpkin, and mice who grew to be strong as a team of white horses. That beautiful dress. That fancy ball. A clock that struck midnight, and a glass slipper, left behind as evidence that something incredible had happened. I’d heard it all before. I already knew that Cinderella’s foot was fit for a king. I knew they lived happily ever after, too, and I didn’t want to hear it again.
Fairy tales always end that way, “… happily ever after.” But even a child knows that fairy tales aren’t true. No, on those cold winter nights while I rocked with my father, I wanted him to tell me a different kind of story, a story out of his mouth, a story no other living soul had ever heard, or lived, or even read before; a story whose ending I did not already know.
My father is dead and gone now. But on certain cold winter nights, I long to hear his voice just once more, telling me an unfamiliar tale about some nameless hobo who hopped a train to Memphis, and nearly died along the way. If I close my eyes, I can almost hear my father now, describing the clack of a train on the tracks, or the groan of an engine pulling its load up some steep grade. He could make the wail of a lonely train whistle so real and so sad, I’d want to weep for that hobo I didn’t even know. What I wouldn’t give to listen again to one of those lyric stories my father used to tell me out of his mouth, while that old cane-bottomed rocker sang along.
I learned much about life in those stories my father used to tell. Words like longing, and hope, and living, and life took shape and form in the power of story. A story about God, or faith, or belief —a story that includes a description of the smell of a newly mown field of hay rising on a gentle breeze — can lift and mesmerize a soul if you tell it just right. And if you catch that wind and breath of faith with the wings of your imagination, you can soar to places only eagles get to fly.
Sometimes, a story out of his mouth was so incredible, so sorrowful, or exciting or splendid that I could not resist. I could not wait.
“And then what happened, father?” I would ask. “What happened next?”
And he would continue, on and on, sometimes long into the night, painting those pictures with words, and plot and story. Once, after a particularly exciting tale finally ended, I asked him, “Was this story real? Did this story actually happen?” I still remember waiting the longest of whiles before he answered. He stared into the flames of our old fireplace, looking for all the world as if he were replaying some movie scene in his mind. And then, he finally said, “The best stories, my son, are the stories that are so unbelievable they have to be real. You must decide for yourself if this is that kind of story.”
Now, I will tell you my tales, stories out of my mouth. They will not begin with “Once upon a time.” And they may not not end with “… happily ever after.” Perhaps you will learn about straw houses, and homes and lives devastated by the wind of life. You may watch men, weak as mice who grow to be strong as stallions. Who knows? Perhaps you will hear a clock; some regulator ticking time’s incessant cadence, and watch as it strikes a final hour for one living a fairytale life. Or maybe you will meet some character, some vagabond, some hobo trying to find his way down a lonely stretch of life’s narrow track, as he journeys on his way to nowhere in particular.
They will be as honest and truth-filled as I can tell them, these stories out of my mouth. And if, perchance, after you have read one of them, you find it to be so incredible, so sorrowful, or exciting, or splendid that you cannot resist the asking, then who knows? Perhaps, you will be tempted to query, “Was this story true? Did this story really happen?”
And I will say to you, as my father said to me, “You must decide that … for yourself.”