Her nose was a granite block, porous and grand. Her brow was wide and plain, unburdened by worry (she always gave it all to Jesus) but quick to furrow because she was so easily frustrated. Her short hair was naturally wavy, and always reminded me of West Texas snow: delicate and erratic and constantly in flight. But it was her hand, and what she held in it, holding my fascination at the moment.
“Like this…now watch again,” she said.
Behind her, the sun was caught low in a horizon of mesquite branches and dust, setting in a hot cloudless sky that stretched over a barbed wire fence as far as my eyes could see. Even with all the doors and windows open, my legs were starting to sweat and stick miserably to the car seat. Yet, I couldn’t take my eyes off her. It was the same for my older brother, David. He’d been polishing his marble collection, but now they lay still in the handkerchief in his lap. Infrequent blasts of atomic wind from a passing rig rustled our hair, but did little to help cool things off. As she curled back down to a laying position on the concrete picnic table bench, she tucked the blade between her hands and used them as a pillow. Before it disappeared, the sun reflected off the blade in clean, quick bursts.
She closed her eyes and lay still. The desolate blacktop stretched empty out the window behind me, the only sound the angry, intermittent buzzing of a fly as it lit and flew, lit and flew, at a scab on my knee. From my scalp, a lone drop of sweat slid slowly to the corner of my eye. She may have been 53 years old, but she was lean and quick like the rooster that lived in the hardscrabble plot of land she called a backyard. Not wanting to miss a thing, I forced myself not to blink and my eye began to water.
It was the summer of ’58 and I was nine years old.
August in West Texas is a furnace of caliche and creaking pump jacks, and it’s the perfect time for kids on summer break to spend a Saturday in an oasis of natural spring water. We’d made the trip down Highway 17 many times that summer, but we got started late that day and that little stretch of two-lane government blacktop between Pecos and the park in Balmorhea hadn’t seen a new coat of asphalt in twenty years, if not more. Even though we were less than an hour from the park, she’d made up her mind and that was all she wrote. We were camping out at the only rest stop for 50 miles: two concrete picnic tables under twin rusted awnings sitting as if abandoned, ten-feet from the dividing yellow line.
It was time for an adventure, she’d said.
Faster than it took for Dave’s marbles to fall from his lap, she burst to a crouch, the butter knife now a gleaming dagger in her fist. For the second time, she played out how we were to defend ourselves if someone came on us in the night. “Now it’s going to be dark. So hold it tight and swing hard in case you hit something,” she said, jerking, stabbing with her right arm and defensively blocking with her left.
My grandmother, Mamaw, was my favorite person in the world. She’d made every stitch of clothing Dave and I were wearing, and the shift dress covering her own skinny five foot frame. We got started late that day because we’d been dunning, one of Mamaw’s favorite things.
“Come on,” she’d said that morning, “It’s time to go dunning.”
During the summer, dunning was when I got to ride with Mamaw in Pa’s Oldsmobile and help her collect on past due accounts for his Auto Parts store. Mamaw always said if she left it to him they’d “be in the poorhouse afore Christmas the way he gives out that ‘credick’.” Pa’s real job probably should have been preaching or youth ministry because that was his passion. For 25 years, he taught a Sunday school class for fifteen year old boys and held a weekly breakfast meeting at the First National Bank for men who couldn’t abide regular church. Mamaw and Pa were a good match; and, she was right. Left to his own devices, Tubb’s Auto Parts would’ve been long on goodwill, but short on cash. And that was no way to run a business or feed a family.
Dunning conversations with Mamaw always went something like this:
“Yes, Mrs. Tubbs, I know I still got a tab pending down to the store. I’m hoping to pay in full by the end of the month.”
“Well now, Bill, ain’t that a pack a smokes you got in your pocket right there? And didn’t I see you down to the drugstore eating lunch yesterday? Now do you think it’s fair you spend extry money on those things when you got that debt pending? My family needs to eat too, Bill.”
In the face of that, and a nine year old curiously looking on, Bill, or Bob, or Chris, would always cave. Usually, the cigarette would get pulled behind the back or smashed into an ashtray, and the stubborn look, if any, would crumble as he looked from her to me
“Yes, ma’am,” he’d say with resignation. “Let me see what I got here to give you today. Gimme just a minute.”
That’s how I learned to be direct.
Being direct is a good thing. But it didn’t help me, or us, that night in ’58 on the side of the road. Today, I’m 63. Neither dunning, nor what I’d learned from Pa’s preaching, could prepare me for what happened that night. And it’s something I’ll never forget.