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By ERNEST HILL
DAFINA BOOKS Copyright © 2010 Ernest Hill
All right reserved.
Chapter One I stood before the window watching large torrents of rain fall from the eave of the roof. But my mind formed no lasting image of the rain; instead, the sound of the rain cast a strange spell upon me, a spell that cautioned me to fully contemplate what had just happened. And as I did, fresh tears formed in the corners of my eyes, and I mourned from a place deep within my soul, and as I mourned, I felt rise in me a rage that echoed the voice that told me to leave this place and to forget these people and to begin life anew in a town where I was not known. A town hundreds of miles from Lake Providence, Louisiana.
I turned from the window and removed the tiny suitcase from the closet. I pulled open the dresser drawer, and I was about to remove my clothes when footsteps in the corridor made me turn and look. Behind me, in the shadows of the hallway, I saw the dim form of a heavyset woman. It was Mr. Henry's sister, the one we called Miss Big Siss. She eased forward, and I could see that she was still wearing the long black dress and wide brim hat she had worn at the funeral. She made it to the doorway, then stopped. She looked at me. Our eyes met.
"Are you alright?" she asked.
Her question caused me to pause. I looked at her, then sank onto the bed, fighting against raw emotions tugging at my already moist eyes. I opened my mouth to answer her, but no words came. I turned my head back toward the window again. Outside, the rain had ceased, and in its place hung a dreary, ominous-looking haze. But I was neither seeing the haze, nor the trees, nor the tiny vegetable garden nestled just beyond the hurricane fence; instead, I was seeing the undertaker as he slowly lowered the steel blue coffin into the recently excavated earth. Suddenly my emotions broke and I began to sob again.
"Hush, now," she said. "Henry wouldn't want that."
I felt the bed give, and then I felt her arm about my shoulders, hugging me tight, gently rocking me from side to side.
A moment passed and then she spoke again. "Henry lived a good life," she said, then paused. I closed my eyes. I felt my body begin to tremble. "But he had gotten old and tired, and it was just his time to go." She paused again, waiting for me to say something, but I remained quiet. "He was proud of you," she said. "I hope you know that."
I didn't answer.
"You were like a son to him."
I still didn't answer.
"And I thank you for what you did for him."
Suddenly a lump filled my throat; I opened my eyes and looked at her. "I didn't do anything," I said.
"Yes, you did."
"No, ma'am ... I didn't."
"You did," she said. "Before he closed his eyes, you allowed him to see his dream. And I thank you for that."
I didn't answer. I couldn't.
"But now there's something I want you to do for me," she said.
Suddenly, I pulled away and looked at her with eager eyes.
"Anything," I said. "Anything at all."
"I want you to go home," she said. "I want you to talk to your mother. I want you to work things out."
Stunned, I rose and moved next to the window. It had been ten years since I had seen my mother, and at that time she had made it perfectly clear-she never wanted to see me again. I turned and looked at Miss Big Siss. I opened my mouth to speak, but sorrow choked back my words. I raised my fist to my mouth and cleared my throat. My eyes blurred, and I shook my head.
"She doesn't want to see me," I said.
My voice broke again, and I lowered my head, feeling warm tears collecting underneath my chin.
"Nonsense," she said. "What mother doesn't want to see her child?"
"You don't believe that."
"She told me not to come back."
"Just before the judge sentenced me."
"She didn't mean it."
"I was fifteen years old, and she told me I was dead."
"People say a lot of things, especially when they're angry."
"I wrote her when I was locked up. I tried to apologize. I tried to explain. But she would never write back. So, I kept writing and I kept telling her that I had changed. And she finally sent me a note." My voice trembled and I broke down again. "You know what it said?"
"No, child," she said. "I don't."
I opened my mouth to answer but I could not. Suddenly my mind began to whirl. I turned from the window and made my way to the far wall, feeling the tightness in my legs, hearing the mounting tide of blood pulsating through my veins. I leaned into the wall, balancing myself with sweaty palms. Anger seized me. I bowed my head and lowered my eyes, seeing the letter again. I bit my lip and pushed hard against the wall. I stared at the floor a moment, then spoke again.
"'Time will tell.'"
"That's all she said."
I paused. But Miss Big Siss remained quiet.
"She never came to visit," I said, sobbing. "And she never wrote me again. She doesn't want to see me. She's made that perfectly clear. And if she doesn't want to see me, I don't want to see her."
"Life is short," Miss Big Siss said, "even when it's long."
"I can't go back there," I said. "I can't go back there and take a chance on her rejecting me again."
"I have never asked you for anything," Miss Big Siss said. "Not as long as you've been living in Henry's house-but I'm asking you now ... No, I'm begging you.... Please go see your mother while you still have a mother to see."
"I can't," I said.
"I just can't."
"How do you think you would feel if something happened to her before you had a chance to make things right?"
I didn't answer. I wanted to, but I did not know what to say.
"You would feel terrible," Miss Big Siss said. "That's how."
"I don't know," I said.
"Well, I do," she said.
In the hallway, I heard footsteps moving toward us. I looked at the door. Miss Ida entered the room, and like Miss Big Siss, she was still wearing the clothes she had worn to the funeral.
Miss Ida looked at me and then at her sister. "You tell him yet?" she asked.
"No," Miss Big Siss said. "Not yet."
"Tell me what?" I asked.
"Sis and I talked it over," Ida said. "And we want you to know that you can stay in Henry's house as long as you want to, and we want you to have his truck."
I shook my head. "No," I said. "I can't accept that."
"It's what Henry would want," Miss Big Siss said.
"No," I said again. "You all divide his things among yourselves. You're his family. Not me. I can't take his things."
"When I first saw you, I hated you," Ida said.
"Ida!" Miss Big Siss said, shocked.
"All I could think about is what you took from us."
"Ida!" Miss Big Siss said again.
"But then, over the years, I got to know you," she said. "And I watched how hard you worked to make things right with Henry. And gradually I saw some of the pain leave his eyes. And I saw him get up and live again. You did that. You took his life from him; then you gave it back. And as the years passed, it was like he wasn't mad at you anymore. At first, I couldn't understand it. Oh, I knew Henry was a true believer. And I knew his faith was strong and that he believed in love and forgiveness, but not me. I just wanted him to keep on hating you just like I was hating you. But he didn't. And over time, I guess I figured if Henry could forgive you, I could forgive you too. Son, take his truck, and live in his house. It's what he would want."
"His family should have his things," I said.
Miss Big Siss rose and moved next to me.
"In Henry's eyes, you are his family," she said.
"That's right," Ida said. "As far as Henry was concerned, you're just as much his family as anyone else. Child, Henry loved you. Don't you know that?"
"Then it's settled," she said.
"No, ma'am," I said, shaking my head again. "I can't."
"You can and you will," Ida said. "It's what he would have wanted."
"But I'm leaving."
"Leaving!" Miss Big Siss shouted, stunned.
"Yes, ma'am," I said. "Leaving."
She looked at me and then at the suitcase.
"Where are you going?"
"Where in Texas?"
"Didn't know you knew anyone in Dallas."
"I don't," I said. "I was offered a job. A good job with an engineering firm."
"And you decided to take it."
"Yes, ma'am," I said.
"Why?" Ida asked. "Why so far away?"
"Just figure it might be a good time to start over somewhere."
"Well, ain't nothing wrong with starting over," Miss Big Siss said, "as long as you running to something and not from something."
I didn't answer.
"When you planning on leaving?" Ida asked.
"In an hour or two," I said.
"Well, at least take his truck," Ida said. "The house will be here if you ever decide to come back."
I nodded. Then I saw her turn and look toward the front door.
"We got a house full of folks across the street," she said. "I guess I better go back over there and check on Mama. She's been real quiet since the funeral."
"I'll be on directly," Miss Big Siss said.
Ida looked at me again. "Plenty food over there," she said. "You better come on and get something to eat."
"I'm not hungry," I said.
"Well, I'll fix you a plate," she said. "It'll be over there when you want it."
Then she turned and disappeared into the living room. I heard the screen door open and close as she made her way out of the house and back across the street. I was sitting there thinking about what she had said, when I heard the sound of Miss Big Siss's voice again.
"Family is everything," she said. "But family ain't much good when the circle has been broken."
I remained quiet.
"I'm not worried about Henry," she said. "He's with his wife and child, and all three of them with Jesus. But I am worried about you. Your papa is in jail. Henry is dead. And you and your mama ain't talking. Before you leave here, I want you to go home," she said. "I want you to go home while there is still a home to go to."
"I'm alright," I said.
"You're not alright," she said. "And you won't be alright until you make things right with your mother.... Go home. Go home and talk to your mother. Sometimes, time changes things."
"You think your mother hates you," she said, "but you're wrong."
I didn't answer. Instead, I looked around the old house. I could feel Mr. Henry's presence lingering in the space that he had once occupied. I shook my head again. I wanted to hate my mother, and I wanted to hate my father, and I wanted that hatred to give me the strength to leave this place.
"Son, your mama loves you," she said. "And I suspect deep down you know that." She paused. I remained quiet. "When your mother said those things to you, you were a troubled little boy caught up in a bad situation. But you're not that boy anymore. Now you're a man-a twenty-five-year-old man with a college education. Go home and let your mama see what kind of man her child has become."
There was silence. I looked at her, but I did not speak.
"Will you go?" she asked.
I hesitated again. Maybe she was right. Maybe it was time that I went back to Brownsville. After all, I wasn't a child anymore; I was a grown man with a college degree. And perhaps my mother would be proud of what I had become. Perhaps she would see that I was not like my "no-good daddy." No, her child, the one they had called outlaw, the one who had done six years in juvenile hall for first-degree murder, the one for whom she had cried a river of tears, her son, D'Ray Reid, had made something of himself. Yes, I would go, and like the prodigal son, my return would be cause for celebration.
"Will you?" I heard Miss Big Siss ask again.
"Will you go with me?" I asked her.
"Of course I will," she said.
Then there was silence.
"Does that mean you're going?" she asked.
I looked up. Our eyes met. I nodded.
Chapter Two Mr. Henry's old green pickup truck was parked next to the house beneath the carport. Miss Big Siss followed me out to the truck, and once I had helped her climb inside, I went around to the driver's side, got in, and slowly pulled out of the driveway, heading north toward the still blue waters of Lake Providence.
As I drove, I formulated a plan. When I reached Brownsville, I would park in front of my mother's house, then cross the yard and take the stairs like one who belonged. And when she opened the door, her eyes would fall upon me, and she would cry, and then she would stretch forth her arms and pull me into her bosom, and all that had been wrong between us would be made right, and she would apologize for the ugly words she had directed at me all those years ago, and I would accept her apology, and the nightmare that had been our relationship would be never more. Involuntarily, I let out a deep sigh. Oh, if only this vision, which danced so vividly in my head, could somehow morph into the reality that I was so desperate to claim.
I turned left at the caution light and headed west toward Brownsville. The truck rumbled over the tracks, and I heard Miss Big Siss grunt. I looked at her; she was bracing herself against the door. I had been driving too fast. I gently pressed the brake and the truck slowed. Through the windshield, I spied a sign neatly nestled on the far shoulder: Brownsville 8 Miles. I swallowed hard, feeling my tepid skin flash hot. It just did not seem fair that I should have to deal with so much. Suddenly, I frowned. I could not picture my mother's face. It had been so long since I had been in her presence that I simply could not picture her. How strange this was to me; she was my mother, and I could not picture her face.
In Brownsville, I spied a flower shop on the corner just off Main Street. Suddenly, a thought occurred to me. I should bring her something-a peace offering of sorts. I pulled into the parking lot and stopped, my eager eyes fastened on the sign hanging high above the tiny flower shop. I looked at the sign and then at Miss Big Siss.
"Maybe I ought to buy Mama some flowers?"
"That would be nice."
"Roses," she said. "A lady is always partial to roses."
"Roses it is," I said. "A dozen red roses."
I hurried from the truck and bound toward the door. Inside, I paused and looked around. An arrangement in the far corner caught my eye. I was starting toward it when a woman called to me. I snapped around, startled. Our eyes met. I paused and looked at her. She was a beautiful lady. I guessed she was in her midtwenties. She was wearing an elegant gray skirt with matching high heels. Her shoulder-length hair was down, and she was carrying a rather expensive-looking purse. Then, suddenly, I recognized her.
"Peaches," I exclaimed. "Is it really you?"
Involuntarily, I felt the corners of my mouth form a smile. And in that instant, I was in Jackson again, looking through the peephole, staring at a young, beautiful woman standing before the door, seeking entrance into the seedy hotel room that served as my temporary hideout.
"It's me," she said.
I took her into my arms and held her for a long time. "What in the world are you doing here?" I asked, finally releasing her.
"I live here," she said.
"No," she said. "It's true."
"But how can that be?"
"It's a long story," she said.
Through the large bay window, I could see Miss Big Siss. She was still sitting in the truck, only now her head was bowed and I figured she was looking through her purse for something. I looked at her for a moment, then at Peaches. No, I couldn't keep her waiting. That would be rude.
"Right now I'm pushed for time," I said.
"How about the abridged version?" she asked me.
"Sure," I said.
"In short," she said, smiling, "I came looking for you."
"For me!" I said, frowning.
"Yes," she said. "For you."
"But how did you know where to find me? I mean, I never told you where I lived."
"Your cousin told me."
I hesitated. "How do you know Glenda?"
"I met her at a church retreat."
Excerpted from Family Ties by ERNEST HILL Copyright © 2010 by Ernest Hill. Excerpted by permission.
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