Dad guided our Chevy wagon to the berm of the road and pulled the emergency brake with a jerk. The car listed at a sharp angle as a muddy stream rushed just inches from his door.
“Well, nobody’s in the yard. Wait here while I roust somebody.”
I watched as he eased out his door, his dress shoes sliding on the steep bank as he jumped clear of the water. He rolled his white shirtsleeves up as he headed to the dirt driveway, the sun reflecting its heat off the top of his black Brylcreamed hair. He stopped at the gate.
“Hallo the house!” he called. He waited several seconds before raising his hands again to his mouth.
“Hallo the house! Anybody there? Jack? Lester?”
He hesitated and then started back to the car. About the time he reached the stream, a thin voice called out “Izzat you, Raymond?”
Dad spun on his heels. “Naw…it’s just another ol’ hillbilly, Lester, come home for supper,” he called.
“I’ll send Jack’s boy down to unlock the gate, you ol’ Buckeye. Anybody with you?”
“Yep…we’re all hopin’ for some beans and cornbread,” Dad laughed. I glanced at Mom. Her eyes held a brightness that made her look brittle and unsure. I gave her a quick smile before I looked back out the window.
I watched a scrawny, soil-laden boy shuffle his lanky body down the lane, the dirt devils rising all around him like he was the eye of an approaching storm. He unlatched the gate in a languid manner and welcomed my dad with a shrug.
Dad loped back to the car and eased the Chevy’s fat whitewalls through the shallow creek and onto the dry drive. Our tire tracks left fancy prints in the red dirt behind us.
I watched as a flock of nervous chickens made a pitiful attempt at flight as our car encroached on their favorite pecking grounds. They squawked their complaints in loud screeches when we passed by.
As Dad pulled the Chevy to a stop under the limbs of a shaggy-looking oak, his family gathered on the porch to stare as we climbed from the car. Dad moseyed his way to his kin, taking time to ruffle a couple of heads as he went. There were no hugs or smiles and only a few slight grins, but he seemed to know he was welcome. I wasn’t as sure, and Mom was standing as stiff as an ironing board between my sister and I.
“Grandma in there?” Dad asked, jerking his thumb at the holey screen door.
“Yep. She’s makin’ some cornbread an’ beans, right now. Y’all gonna c’mon in and take supper with us?” asked a woman who was wearing the exact same cover-alls as the men. Children began to ramble out to us; their freckled faces lighting up with admiring grins. I suddenly realized they were my cousins.
The woman in cover-alls called down to my mom, sister, and me. “Y’all c’mon in and take a rest. Mighty hot out’chere. I got some tea inside.” She didn’t wait to escort us in and we awkwardly followed her through the relatives to the house.
Inside, the kids scattered and the grown-ups sat in groups as Mom tried to make polite conversation.
“It’s nice we got a chance to stop in on our way home after the funeral,” she said.
Everyone silently nodded as a clock ticked in the quiet room.
“How’s your Mom taking Mr. See’s death?” a man asked.
“She’s doing fine, I guess.” Another long silence made Mom’s cheeks redden and she sighed.
We stayed through supper, and then sat around some more. Finally Dad stood.
“Well, it’s time we head home. We’ve got a ways to go and I have to work tomorrow.” The relatives moved as a group with us out the door and onto the porch.
We made our way to the Chevy and Dad waved his goodbyes all the way down the lane; his family lazily lifted an arm or two in farewell. I watched them as they sauntered back to the porch.
We pulled out onto the blacktopped highway and pointed the nose of our Chevy north. Mom rolled her window down and let the wind blow her blond hair away from her face. Her smile echoed the relief I felt as the house and the family we quickly left behind became just another memory. We wouldn’t have to visit again for a long time.
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