Oct 20, 2012

Yesterday I passed a watermelon-red Olds 88 just like the one my grandfather drove in 1960. He was tall, white-haired and certain about things, the image of ancient to a 5-year-old. He traded cars every summer. His idea of breaking in a new one was driving it off the dealer's lot and clear across the country — the Grand Canyon, Gettysburg, the Florida Keys.

My parents and I sometimes went along, Dad up front, me sandwiched between the women, whose headscarves were poor protection against the hot wind. On even years, we'd visit the straight dirt roads and Johnny Appleseed orchards of my grandparents' native Indiana.

The summer of the red 88, we spent a night with Uncle Carl and Aunt Callie. After dinner, Carl hung a sheet over the bookcase and showed us a home movie of his trip to the Soviet Union as Indiana Corn King. The strange scenes flickered like a dream — Carl and Callie standing in a shining sea of wheat, endless rows of tractors, churches with puffy hats on top, and a parade of older children wearing red neckerchiefs, looking enthralled.

That night, a hailstorm woke everyone up. Aunt Callie made coffee, and Carl paced the kitchen worrying about his crop.

In the morning, the damage was lighter than he'd expected. Dad and Granddad offered to stay and help, but Carl said his hired man had been working since daybreak and was nearly done cleaning up. Besides, he said, we needed to get on over to Gentryville.

"If those girls find out you were this close and didn't visit, I'll never hear the end of it."

The road to Gentryville passed Meemaw's old school, small and pointy-roofed. Some people were living in it. Granddad eyed me in the mirror.

"Know where we're going, son?"

I shook my head.

"We're going to see my Aunt Bess."

I felt a sudden cold weight in my stomach, as if I'd swallowed a ball bearing. That was impossible: Granddad had an aunt?

Further on, we pulled up a narrow driveway that climbed to a high, unpainted house perched right over the road. I was dizzy. Our footsteps boomed on the porch. Granddad started hitting things with his knuckle — the screen door, the solid door, the glass beside it. After another round of knocking, the door creaked open, and a tiny figure in a checked housecoat peered outside.

"It's Lloyd," he said.

"Well, land's sake," said the old woman, smiling at me now. "And who's this?" Her mouth was sunken-looking, her eyes glistening, like daubs of ointment.

"This is Gary, Wanda's boy."

"Well, that's mighty fine. You all come in. I'll go get Mom. She's in the garden."

We sat in the kitchen and ate cake. Aunt Bess, small as her daughter but bent forward permanently at the waist, was stone deaf, so her comments and questions cut into the conversation without warning.

"How old are you?" she said. It was hard to see her face under the bonnet.

I held up five fingers.

"One time when I was your age, Poppy woke us all up and loaded us in the wagon. We rode all night. We came to a town full of people, all gathered around the courthouse. There was torches and a brass band. We got in line and waited a long time. It was cold. Mommy fed us cornbread. It took forever to climb those steps. Inside, they gave us a ribbon to wear. My sister Sarie pinned mine on and stuck me. That's when Daddy picked me up and said, 'See that corpse? That's President Lincoln.' "

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