Archive for January, 2010

The Home Place, Part 1

January 5, 2010

I felt nostalgia grabbing at my sternum as soon as my tires crunched in the red gravel driveway. I live in the city, so I don’t drive much on anything except pavement, but even when I do, in my part of the world they don’t really have gravel—they have something called caliche. It doesn’t make the same sound as the red gravel folks use around here.

I used to spend hours—well, minutes, maybe—standing in the driveway with a bat-shaped board, tossing golf-ball-sized rocks into the air and pounding them into the empty field across the blacktop road from our house. Hal taught me how to do it—demonstrated, anyhow. And, big-brother-like, mocked my fumbling efforts at imitation. But I finally got it. The board/bat was how I first learned about hitting the sweet spot. You really want to find the sweet spot when you’re batting rocks from a red gravel driveway.

The place looked different. Not surprising; I hadn’t seen it since Reagan was president. Not the house so much—I expected that. It was more the land itself: flatter, if you can imagine it. More uniform. I’d noticed it on the drive in: fewer trees, and what little contour the terrain used to possess now laser-graded and scraped into the uniformity needed for irrigation. The few sloughs and sinks I remembered from the days when I used to hunt rabbits and squirrels had yielded to the implacable need for increased rice yields. It was just business—I understood that. But I still missed the sight of those old-growth cypresses and sweet gums.

I got out of the car and corralled the store-wrapped packages in and under my arms, turned and walked across the winter-browed front yard. Steam feathered in front of my face in the cool December evening. Through the kitchen windows I could see Gail bent over the sink, peeling or scrubbing or slicing or some such. I reached the front porch and started to nudge the doorbell with a knuckle, but before I did I paused, letting the silence of the darkened countryside seep into me.

The stillness out here was of a completely different quality from that which passed for quiet in the city. It was like being in a closet: one the size of the universe. No whine of truck tires on a freeway, no passing thump of car stereos, no distant music or laughter spilling from the open door of a nightclub or restaurant. Just an elemental hush that I could almost feel on the back of my neck.

I pressed the button and almost instantly heard the pounding of multiple sets of juvenile feet, stampeding toward the door. The door jerked open and a tangle of blond hair, denim, and arms and legs of various sizes flung itself about my waist. “It’s Uncle Frank! He’s here!”

“Hey guys! Take these packages before they’re destroyed.” I parceled the boxes out with a hug and a kiss for each of them. I looked up just in time to see Hal come out of the den, just off the entryway. He smiled. “Hey, bud. Glad you could make it.” We hugged tightly, slapping each other on the back.

I had seen Hal twist steel bolts in half, trying to snug them down just one more notch. And I had seen him rocking his babies, his hard, nicked hands cradling them as gently as a feathered nest.

“How was the drive?”
“Long and uneventful.”
“Still liking your Miata?”
“You bet. Made it here from Dallas in just over eight hours.”

Hal shook his head and smiled. “Well, come on in and put your stuff in Kris’s room. Gail’s still working on supper, so it’ll be a while.”

On my way to the kitchen, I glanced at the small tree in the den. The five-foot spruce struggled gamely to bear up under the weight of all the decorations, clustered as thick as chain mail. The few packages I had brought had just about doubled the volume of parcels under the tree.

Gail scurried between the stove and the refrigerator, choreographing the three-course meal and looking like a utility percussionist during a performance of the 1812 Overture. She finally glanced up and saw me.
She gave me a grin. “Hey, Frank!” She reached for me, a paring knife in her hand. “Oops, sorry,” she said, seeing my mock dodge. She tossed the knife on the counter beside the sink, then turned and gave me a good, tight squeeze. “Good to see you.”

“Likewise, kiddo. Glad to be here. Smells delicious.”
“Well, I hope it is. I got started late, as usual.”
“I’ve already been so advised. How you doing?”
“Oh … okay.”

I searched her eyes for the source of the delayed response, but she looked away.

“So, you can either help me slice potatoes or go in there and chase the kids and visit with your brother,” she said with a quickly summoned smile. “Your choice.”
“With my culinary skills, I can probably make the best contribution by getting out of your way.”
“That’s kind of what I was thinking. Dinner will be ready before you know it.”

I wandered back through the house, looking at everything. This was the same house my parents had brought me home to from the hospital. Through the years our folks had made additions here and there, and Hal and Gail had continued the process during their tenancy. The dwelling had started out as a very simple living room/kitchen/two bedroom crackerbox. Then, as times got a little more prosperous, Dad and Mom had added another bedroom, a carport, and enlarged the kitchen. Hal and Gail had added a den, an upstairs playroom, and a master suite.

So many joinings of timber and time, so many layers of memory … The house existed both Now and Then. The construction of my life had started with the building of this house. By the time I graduated from high school, I was pretty sure I’d outgrown this place. Turns out it had grown into me.

I felt Hal’s hand on my shoulder. “Whatcha doing?”
“Oh, just remembering stuff, I guess.”
“Yeah. Me, too.”
The tone in his voice pulled my head around to look at him.

“Something going on, bud?”
He stared into the middle distance for a second or two, then shook his head. “Nah. Let’s go sit in the den.”

There was a comfortable fire in the fireplace. The TV was on with the volume down; General Schwarzkopf was standing in front of a bank of microphones while stock quotes crawled across the bottom of the screen. Hal aimed the remote and the picture disappeared. I settled into an armchair and rested my feet on an ottoman, and Hal sank into his recliner. We both stared into the fire for a few seconds.

Kip, the youngest, scampered into the room. “Know what Santa’s bringing me, Uncle Frank?” he said, crawling into my lap.

I smiled down into his intent blue eyes. “No, Kipper, what’s that?”
“He’s bringing me a red tractor, just like my daddy’s.”
“No kidding! You going to help your dad plow?”
“Yeah. Just like my daddy.”

“Sounds good, pal. I bet your dad could use another good tractor driver.”
I ruffled Kip’s hair as he scooted out of my lap and trotted toward the stairs leading to the playroom. I grinned at Hal.

Tears gleamed on his cheeks as he stared into the fire. His mouth was twisted into a grimace of anguish.

“Hal? You okay?”

He just kept staring straight ahead.

(to be continued)

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So Fair and Bright (a weblog) by Thom Lemmons is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.