Book 3: The Centre

by Rick Beck

Chapter 5

Alabama Here We Come

We drove across the top of the country, starting to lose altitude as we drove south. Coming out at Durango, we headed southeastward. Once we reached Route 40, we turned east again. The Rockies gave way to rolling hills and considerably more heat.

Crossing New Mexico we found ourselves in the company of a train. Looking across the red earth between the road and the train tracks, we could easily see the train from engine to caboose. There were eighty-four cars between those two cars. I took the time to count them as we moved along in tandem for mile after mile. I never lost sight of the train. In the East, you see two, three, four cars, before some obstruction blocks your view. I'd never seen an entire train before the one I watched in New Mexico.

The West is big enough not only to hold whole trains but to allow easy viewing. The East is cut, bent, and divided so often, you can never see far. I loved seeing far. The magnitude of the country was never as obvious as it was on that trip with Carl.

It got me thinking of the people in covered wagons who crossed the same Great Divide we were crossing. That was beyond remarkable. Even in the van, I wasn't always certain we'd make it up the next grade. There was one steady hour long climb after another separated by the steep descent that required you not let the speed of your vehicle get faster than your braking capability.

We went through the neck of Texas, stopping in Amarillo to replenish supplies. The flat straight highway required little sightseeing. We were most of the way through Oklahoma, when Carl decided to stop for the night, after filling up the van.

"We'll be there tomorrow evening," he said, between bites of the hamburger.

"You'll have a couple of weeks before you need to report?"

"A little more than two weeks."

"Where will we stay?"

"Not sure. Haven't been there in a spell. I'll make sure we have plenty of room. My parents won't want us underfoot and I don't want you feeling uncomfortable."

"Thank you. I'll be fine as long as I'm with you."

"That's how I feel, Babe."

Arkansas gave us green forests, lakes, and rolling hills, but after the first few days, the East would always seem somehow ordinary. You can never see very far in the East, because of the next curve, dip, or rise that you can't see beyond. There was one thing common to both East and West: trains.

It was late afternoon when we drove up a long driveway near Decatur, Alabama. There were several young kids swinging on a tire hung from a rope on a low branch of a huge tree. Two dogs barked as they ran along beside the van. A stout middle-aged woman stepped out on the porch, holding a cooking implement, and watching closely as the kids stopped their motion and we stopped the van.

Carl swung out of the driver's seat onto the ground and took long strides over to the woman who had gray streaks in her hair. Her full attention was on Carl as she stood motionless, expressionless.

"Hey, maw, what's cooking?"

"Carl!" was the shrill retort. "Carl. Carl. How's my baby. You've lost weight."

The woman objected to Carl's thinness. She stepped back to look a second and then a third time, always going back for another ready hug.

"Mama, this is my friend Billie Joe. He'll be staying, until I go over to Fort Gordon."

"Well, don't just sit there, Billie Joe. Come on in. It's not as country as it looks. I'm fixin' a roast, potatoes, carrots, and sliced tomatoes, cucumbers, and onions. We got plenty, so don't you be bashful," she said, stopping and holding the door for me. "You could use a little fattening up as well."

"Uncle Carl."

"Uncle Carl."

"Uncle Carl."

The young kids caught up with us before we got settled in the kitchen.

"These aren't your kids," I calculated.

"Heavens no. Carl's my baby. These are the grandkids. I'm an easy mark when my kids want some peace and quiet. They're here as much as not come summer."

I realized I didn't know anything about Carl's family. He didn't know anything about mine. There was no doubt I'd come to a happy home by the look of the kids. Each of them seemed relaxed with Carl.

"Can we use Memaw's trailer, Mama?"

"Trailer? You will not. You'll stay right here with us. I want you where I can look at you, Carl Ray. I want you under foot. You'll be gone in a spell and then I'll be waiting to see you again."

"Carl Ray?" I questioned.

"Mama! Billie Joe would be more comfortable not having a half dozen crumb snatchers under foot. He'd be worried about stepping on one."

"All right, Carl. I'll have to do bed clothes. Air that place out. It hasn't been open since Mama passed," she said, figuring her response as she went through it in her head.

"Give me the key and I'll go open it up. We got sleeping bags in the van. We'll just throw them on the bed for tonight."

"The bed?" she measured carefully, glancing at me as she spoke. "I'll need to clean it. Go over and open it up and I'll sweep and dust after dinner. You boys can help with the dishes and I'll get the trailer in some kind of condition to live in."

"That's fine, Mama. You need me to do anything before we go over?"

"No, Carl. Your Daddy'll be in for supper in an hour. You boys come right back after opening it up. Leave the doors open. The back screen isn't all that much, but you need the air to move around in there a little. It's been powerful hot this summer."

Carl drove the van back behind the house following the same driveway we'd taken up to the house. About a half a mile behind the house was a full sized trailer set back under a half dozen large trees. Carl opened the front door and we went about opening up the windows. There was a slight musty smell, but a little fresh air was all it needed.

"Your mom's nice," I said, as we met at the front door.

"You were expecting Attila?"

"No, I wasn't expecting anything, but it does explain a lot."

"Like what?"

"Like why she has such a nice son."

"Oh that, I'm just one in a million," Carl said, leaping down the few stairs that led to the front door.

Carl, his mom and dad, and I ate at the table in the kitchen. The kids ate on a picnic table out back under a big oak tree. His mom checked on them frequently the first few minutes before settling in once she'd made sure we'd all been taken care of.

"Carl wants to use Mama's trailer," his mother said.

"Don't see why not. Just sitting there since Mama died. You better let me spray up under the skirting. There were hornets up under there before mama passed. The electricity is hooked up. Always figured one of you kids would come back to use it sooner or later. Mama'd like to know it's being used."

"I got bed clothes in the washer, but they'll never dry tonight. I guess it'll be tomorrow before I can make up the bed. I'll go over and give it a good cleaning tomorrow. Wait and hang the sheets out to dry."

"Mama, we been sleeping in the back of that van for almost a week. Memaw's place will be like a palace to us. I don't want you troubling yourself and trying to do much. There isn't anything we can't do."

"Yes, I know, Carl, but I've been cleaning up after you since you were old enough to make a mess. If you're going to stay in that place, it needs a good cleaning and a couple of boys aren't going to get it done in my experience."

The back screen door banged and a shorter and older version of Carl made his way to the table.

"Hey, little brother, you found your way back. I figured you would."

"Branch," Carl said, standing to hug his brother. "How's Karen?"

"Just fine. Visiting her mother for a few days. I thought maybe if I looked pitiful enough Mama might feed me," Branch said, leaning over his mother's shoulder to kiss her cheek.

"Get yourself a plate and quit bothering your Mama while she's eating," his father said.

"How's the garage, Daddy?" Branch asked.

"It's always slow this time of year. We're making a buck or two."

"I see you're still collecting strays," Branch said, pushing a chair up to the table to join us.

"Billie Joe, this is my older brother Branch."

"Glad to meet you, Mr. Billie Joe. Where you from?"

"Minnesota."

"Oh, that's cold. Where'd you meet Carl," Branch quizzed, before starting in on his food.

"Branch, I'll take a switch to you, you don't mind your manors. He came with your brother. That's all you need to know," his mother scolded.

"I just asked, for Pete sake."

"Eat your groceries," his father ordered between mouthfuls.

"Those your kids?" I asked.

"Just the oldest two. Gordon's responsible for the other one. He came in between Carl and me. You outdone yourself, Mama. This roast is special. I do miss your cooking. Next time I'm going to marry me a woman who can cook."

"Branch!" his mother corrected. "You're lucky Karen puts up with your foolishness. You may as well forget about attracting another woman. You best take care of the one you got."

"I was just kidding, Mama," Branch said, reaching for the nicely roasted potatoes.

"How's the mower? Had any more trouble with it?"

"No, sir. Runs like a top since you had it. Which reminds me, I got to mow that damn lawn before Karen comes home."

The screen door slammed again and a little girl about ten stood just inside the kitchen.

"Memaw, we're out of tea, and you didn't cut us off any pie."

"No, Baby, I didn't. You go back out to the table and I'll bring out some tea in a minute. Once you've all cleaned up your plates, Grandmaw will cut the pie, but you've got to eat your dinner first."

"Yes, ma'am," the little girl said, and the door slammed as she went back outside.

We played something called Canasta, drank tea, and ate the best apple pie with the lightest crust I'd ever experienced. Branch played a few hands, sat out a few hands, and seemed at home there but not comfortable with himself. Before dark Carl said we were going to Memaw's, and we walked, leaving the van at the house once we'd unloaded its contents into the trailer.

This was the kind of routine that carried us through the next couple of weeks. If anyone had told me I'd be comfortable with Carl's people so close at hand, I'd have thought it not likely, but being there was being home, just not my home. Carl's family was thoughtful and considerate. They accepted me as is with Carl's certification all that was necessary to account for my presence. I enjoyed the stoppage of time, the constant companionship that Carl furnished, and Decatur, Alabama in general.

Carl took me to his father's garage, which just happened to be on the main highway another half mile further back behind the trailer. Carl was immediately involved in odd jobs to help his father out. He assembled a transmission, rebuilt brakes, and took the transmission out of the van to attend to a part that made a wobbling sound at low speed.

His father was quiet, receptive, and appreciative of Carl. There were no questions about what I was doing with him or what the long-range plans were. It was like being set down somewhere that I'd always been. It was a bit country but Carl's family made country pretty darn cool.

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