The eighteen wheelers sound as if one may soon graze the edge of my bed, and the air conditioner rattles like farm machinery in dire need of oil. The motel rug reeks of mildew, and a distant whistle wails every ninety minutes or so. I’m almost home.
When my father passed away a month ago, I knew I was destined to see the farm where he was born during the Great War. Don’t ask me why, but like a butterfly hell-bent for Mexico, I sensed the fates had ordered this trek.
A shy sun peeks through a thick copse of oaks on the far side of the meadow beside a weather-worn house that stands in stoic repose. The spring air is damp and quiet save the chatter of field larks in playful combat. I’m alone.
Jennie, my valley girl wife who wheels around in a sports car, insisted I needed this time to myself. Perhaps she thought with this diversion I’d fail to wonder why her Monday tennis lesson with the club pro had blossomed into several sessions a week. He’s young and new, and I’m an LA attorney who’s seen it all.
What could have been so unique about my father’s childhood that’s lured me across a continent to gaze on this forlorn place? A broken pane winks in the sun’s light as if to say, “I’ve got a secret you want to know, care to play twenty questions?” Raccoons have left a minefield of scat across the covered porch and a column of frenzied ants have made a foray around the weathered boards beneath my feet. Yet a door ajar seems to say, “do come in.”
My dad had no ego, of if he did, I never saw signs of it. He was quiet, unassuming, and all business during the day. After supper he’d dry dishes next to Mom and check on our homework assignments and settle into his chair and read. Then he was gone. Well, not quite.
Inside I hear a noise and tip-toe toward the kitchen where I surprise a mouse on his haunches. With a mouthful of seed he eyes me as if I’ve invaded his private domain, but before I can smile, he scampers away. Sometimes brief encounters are all we are offered.
Through a window over the sink I see a train on a distant hill inching along with cars of coal and grains and other goods of commerce. And I’m reminded that twice in my life I’d seen my father cry. Once in the Smithsonian he’d paused in front of an ancient locomotive that had once pulled freight across this land. What caught his eye was the number on the engine, a figure he’d see many times as a boy atop the hill I see. The other was the day my mother died.
I try to picture five small boys racing through this house, chasing chickens and pigs around a vast yard, and hiding in piles of hay in the barn while soft spring rains cover the landscape. And my grandmother in the kitchen baking pies and cakes, and kissing scratches and bruises, and wiping crocodile tears. Are these the images I’ve come so far to see?
There’s a terse message on my phone, Jennie says we need to talk. This usually means a fight, something I try to avoid, but maybe this is it. Perhaps she sees a future for herself with the young tennis pro, lots of parties with the younger set, her premature Botox sessions and Rodeo Drive fashion paying well-earned dividends. Who knows? I’m tired. A good book, a fine wine, a loyal dog at my feet, a simpler life, that will do.
Behind the house is a stone wall, old and irregular, yet steadfast and true. A lizard lies basking in the sun and I wonder what he thinks, “my belly is full, life is good.” A hawk swoops down and both are gone in a trice. Life inviting, fulfilled, then rent without notice.
We met at a law review party; she was someone else’s date. I had goals, she had vision and dreams. I yearned for partnership with a prestigious firm, she to explore the world. She said she liked my freckles and kissed them in the shadows of the patio. Together we left and never looked back.
The partnership came, with time and effort, and we paused to see some of her world. Children were a given, but success elusive. I once broached the subject of adoption and was met with silence. My career has soared and she still kisses my freckles, but says little, and has turned to girlfriends and sports and hobbies.
What is it about this place, confident and silent with the absence of pretense or airs? Over the years Dad regaled us with snippets of his childhood: deep snows and sleds, warm creeks and swimming holes, coon hunts at night with yapping dogs—all magic in a young boy’s life.
His first job away came the day after commencement. For the summer he worked in a textile mill, sundown to sun-up and earned seventy dollars over a three-month stretch, enough to secure him a place in the freshman class of a small mountain college, a train ride away. And worked two jobs until graduation and began a career of forty years with one firm, loyal and dedicated. Perhaps his tenacity is something I’ve inherited, perhaps.
Was it the tacit freedom he felt here, things predictable? Odd, I never heard him raise his voice to Mom, never saw them fight. And if he spoke harshly of another man, it was never in my presence. My imagination whirls with the possibilities of what made him the man he was.
My time here has grown short. I stop once to look back and then think better of it. Memories will render more than what my eyes have taken in.
When they call my plane for LAX, I’m deep in concentration on a brief for an upcoming case and almost miss the flight. In the air I gaze out over a fluffy horizon and wonder what happened. She’ll ask for everything and I’ll buckle to most demands. What I’d give to go back and start anew. But what would I do differently? Take time for simple pleasures? Idle dreams now, I suppose.
When I reach the baggage claim area, she’s waiting, all smiles, a surprise. I cannot recall a time she’s met a flight of mine and I almost fail to recognize her. Jennie is a natty dresser, always stylish, but today she’s in sloppy jeans and a tee with an arrow across the front pointed down. In her hand a small sign reads: DINNER FOR TWO PLUS? My face is that of an attorney about to examine a hostile witness until it dawns on me what is happening. My eyes fill and she blushes. We hug. And I’m at a loss for words.
On the way home I wonder how I’ll handle this development — over-analyze and separate supposition from fact, match future DNA on the sly, my life and career in the balance? And then I recall what I’ve seen today: simplicity and permanence, tacit understandings. Best to take small steps, I tell myself.