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lisa powell / essay

He Presided / Dr. Pepper

He did not sit.

He presided 

from the Ethan Allen captain’s chair at the kitchen table in the house where he slept, only a few steps inside the back door, in the path to the dining room, all the other rooms. He did not walk around to the other side of the table, did not touch the stove, or the sink, or the refrigerator. The food, the water, the coffee moved to him. 

and from the carved wood and green velvet throne in the living room of that house, at Christmas and Easter, observing presents being passed around, receiving some himself, always token compared to those he gave, in small white envelopes he handed over casually and quietly. 

He presided 

from the A-frame swing outside the house he loved, two blocks away from where he slept. Where he tended a quarter-acre garden with nineteenth-century tools, no raccoons daring to cross his boundary, no crops ever lost. Where I sat on hazy, humid summer evenings and shelled lima beans. Where I wasn’t allowed to drink the salted Dr. Pepper from his red plastic cup. I was given another cup, with a different smell, without the salt. 

and from the kitchen chair by the ancient refrigerator, where he sliced commodity cheese from a massive block he’d bought from a man who’d received it from the government. He loved that cheese. He said he paid $20 a block which I now know meant he paid $100. Or, received the cheese as a request for mercy on an unpaid loan. Either way, he got his cheese, and another man got something he needed more. 

He presided 

from the black high chair with a metal back and seat and step for resting his silver-accented, custom-made cowboy boots. The stool sat in front of the glass display case in front of the cash register in the main room of the hardware store, on the block between the two houses. He bought the hardware store after he had retired the full-time farming to his son, giving both him and grandmother a place to be, and where customers could buy chains by the foot and screws for pennies, and several varieties of chewing gum as five-cent pieces. 

and from the backless stool in the back room of the hardware store, where he cooked Spam in an electric skillet, ate it with saltine crackers, half-listening to hear the bell of a customer coming through the door. Often not letting that bell interrupt his Spam. 

He presided

from the peeling black-painted swing on the front porch of the house he now had trouble leaving. Where he’d count the money that a neighbor boy would steal two years after his death, from his secret hiding place. 

He presided

as he pointed to the moles on my leg and forced his failing mouth to form “tick” when his also-failing eyes thought a parasite was feeding. 

and at the last family reunion they could transport him to. He had few words left, but the day’s photographs still show him taller than the rest, Stetson Fairway pork pie hat perfectly askance, red cup of Dr. Pepper loosely in his hand, owning the day. 

He presided, still,

from the hospital bed rolled into the enclosed back porch where he’d half-watched Wheel of Fortune most evenings for a decade. He slept, mostly, his mouth open, silent, but repeatedly denying grandmother’s attempts to declare his last hour, even after she’d gathered his half-dozen living brothers and sisters to his bedside, again. 

and fifteen years after his death, when the second of his two red and white Dodge trucks was convinced to start and traded, as part of Obama’s cash-for-clunkers program, for a fuel-efficient Ford Escape with the exact roof rack his only grandchild wanted. Neither he, nor his son, would let that crumbling truck go for anything less than exactly what she, I, wanted. Like the other Dodge Ram, it had a silver ram figurine bolted onto the hood, the one thing we salvaged. 

He wrecked the first Dodge Ram as he drove to the farm his parents had owned, the one his son, my dad, had to buy at public auction after their deaths, at the height of land prices, as granddaddy was one of eleven. He only drove his truck on backroads, where the other farmers knew him and would pull the truck from the ditch with a tractor and to our nearest driveway, before state police could ask about the sticky brown liquid splashed all over the cab, the liquid that didn’t exactly smell like Dr. Pepper. He said a bee flew into his face, and he let go of the steering wheel to swat it away. But he would have never let an animal preside over him like that. 


L. J. Powell is an associate professor of environmental science and agriculture at Sweet Briar College in Virginia, and a farmer. She has published her research in numerous journals, including Agriculture & Human Values; Geohumanities; Food, Culture & Society; The Geographical Journal; Journal of Family and Consumer Sciences, and Health Education Journal. Her photography has appeared in The Vanderbilt Review, and she has collected oral histories for the Southern Foodways Alliance. This lyric essay was developed during and following her time in the 2023 Sweet Briar Summer Arts and Writing Retreat.

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