The sun is breaking through, the dark green grass shimmering as it is swept back and forth by the wind like the mane of a wild mustang running along a plain. Down here, near Madisonville along I-45 South, the rains had come hard and heavy. The roadside is aglow in the white sunlight with the orange-reds of the Indian paintbrushes, the pinks of the buttercups, and the tall, bright stems of the Texas state flower, the bluebonnet.
The land has changed from the prairies and cross-timbers of North Texas to the heavy thickets and piney woods of the southeast corner of the Lone Star state. Soon, I’ll pass Huntsville. Maybe I’ll see the prisoners in white working at what we used to call the “pea farm,” with Stetsoned men on horseback, shotguns in hand, watching, the sun reflecting off of their mirror sunglasses; the prisoners stooped over; the horses standing tall.
The brightness of the sun glaring on something ahead makes me reach for my shades, and I see the reflection of my arm in the window, the trees and grass and flowers and fenceposts sliding by. I wave at them and listen to the music, a haunting duet by Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan from when I was a schoolboy and never thought of saying goodbye:
If you’re traveling in the North Country fair,
Where the wind blows heavy at the borderline
Remember me to one who lives there,
She once was a true love of mine
The kids had acted like I was going on a journey akin to the travels of Marco Polo when I dropped them off at school earlier. Even Matthew, who is not exactly the sentimental type, stopped to hug me. Goodbye, little ones.
The next morning, the doctor tells my mother that they will remove that spot on her thyroid and hope for the best. She’s in good spirits, confident that God is watching over her and that her time isn’t up yet. I shiver a little, having forgotten how cold hospitals can be. In the waiting room, we gather—friends, aunts and cousins, sons, Daddy, who is holding up well, too, and my grandparents, who probably shouldn’t have come but did anyway. We wait and tell funny stories on one another and catch up a little.
A few hours later, the doctor comes out, smiling. It went well, he says. She’s resting. He doesn’t think the cancer has come back. We all breathe a little easier and make plans to see each other again some time. Not so long, next time, huh?
Pawps, my grandfather, motions for me to come over. He tells me he wants me to come by tomorrow. He’s got something for me, he says, and I wonder what. Then he slowly moves away and is gone. When I was a little boy, I used to wonder where everybody went when you could not see them, like they weren’t real until they turned up right in front of me. But I don’t wonder about that anymore.
It is nice out the following day. Not too hot, a few clouds, everything lush and green, the sun not so harsh as it usually is down here.
The Sak ’n’ Pak icehouse is still there. The big garage doors are already up, the shop fans blowing inside. I see a few glowing beer signs, a pool table, and an old man in suspenders as I drive slowly by. Next door, two Mexicans sit outside, leaning back against the wall of the tire shop, a hand-painted sign over their heads.
Pawps and Nanny are outside, sitting in the shade of the garage in a couple of lawn chairs. The garage looks empty since they gave that old Dodge truck to my brother. He’ll need it up at the country, they say, and then we go inside and I notice that one of the four deer heads that lined the paneled wall in the living room is gone. So is the bobcat Nanny shot, the one with the bent ear from when one of the trophies fell on it. It used to sit on the TV, climbing a tree limb and baring its teeth at you.
Pawps tells me he wants me to have their deer rifles, Nanny’s .222 and his .308. They can’t go any more, anyway, and he knows I’ll use them. And he wants me to take one of the trophies, an eight-pointer he shot himself. So we go and get the gun case, and I take down the deer. Pawps brushes the dust off him, and I carry him out to the car carefully, like I’m helping an old friend. Then I come back for the gun case, telling them I’ll be proud to use their rifles. Nanny smiles and taps the case. “That was my little jewel,” she says. But times change.
I pull away, and they walk slowly back into the shadows of the garage.
As I pass the icehouse, I notice the old man is gone. At the tire shop, one of the Mexicans lifts his hand and waves as I pass by.
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