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“AREN’T we lucky?” Garland asked. “Just traveling souls, making traditions and cheeseburgers.”
“Lucky,” I said right back. I didn’t really know if I believed that part, but I sure could believe in the summer’s traditions.
Garland always said being a rambler of the road meant three things: food, family, and fun. Triple and I always said it meant three other things: blisters, grease splatters, and loneliness. But there we were, rambling back into Ridge Creek for another summer.
The Rambler’s windows were down, and a hot breeze gave away the hiding place of a skunk out in a roadside ditch. Garland sang at the top of his lungs, sounding like someone who should stick to doing it in the shower. And since he was driving the Rambler, he was almost in reaching distance of our shower stall, so I guess that counted. Triple played along on his banjo, which wasn’t really a banjo—it was just an empty shoebox with a paper towel tube for a neck and rubber bands for strings. Garland had gotten real mad when he found out Triple used the good scissors to cut a hole in the lid, but that shoebox was worth saving. Triple had named him Twang. I didn’t want to admit to either one of them how much I liked their broken duet.
So as we bumped along the country roads, the three of us stretched our necks around to rest our eyes on the landmarks. It was a routine that told us the rambling was about to settle down. It would slow to a complete stop for the summer, and so would we.
While Garland and I counted landmarks, Triple sang, making up new words for the stories we knew by heart. There was the old drive-in: “Roll down the windows of your car, set your eyes on a movie star!” The farm with all those calm cows that stood staring together, always in the same direction: “Bales to the east; moos to the west!” And of course, the general store that sold gigantic concrete planters that looked just like turkeys: “Mister Mayflower sticks his zinnias in his fancy turkey dinn-ias!”
Once Garland kicked in the parking brake and unhooked the Grill from the back of the Rambler, we wouldn’t see the drive-in or the cows or the turkeys. We’d stay close to the Grill all summer, because even though we were done with the driving for a while, we weren’t done with the work. But that would be okay, because we’d be right in the shadow of the best baseball stadium there ever was. We’d have traditions and time and each other. Besides, I always did prefer summer grease splatters to winter blisters, and the next few months would be full of those hot, prickly burns.
If only I could’ve counted on grease splatters to be the biggest trouble of the season.
OF all the times we piled up in the Rambler, summer was my favorite. The bleachers weren’t all that great for your hind parts, but at least they were bolted in one place.
Triple liked the springtime’s rambling, but I think that was mostly because you couldn’t drive anywhere without hitting some kind of carnival, and he would’ve been happy eating cotton candy for every meal of the day. That’s how it is when you’re seven, and Garland didn’t seem to mind like maybe a mama would.
Garland, our papa, liked the turning of the leaves up north when it was the cider and sweater time of year. Then, right after the pumpkins got all smashed up and you’d have pies coming out your ears, it was time for Christmas trees. That tightrope of a drive along Canada’s edge and west to Wisconsin got a little tricky because our Rambler wasn’t exactly made for snow tires, but that was Garland’s favorite of the rambling seasons. That’s when he laughed the most.
Hauling Christmas trees out of a Wisconsin forest made for some juicy blisters, no thanks to scraggly mittens that let icicles and pine needles poke through. The woods were right off a four-lane highway where all that broke the black of night were white lights coming and red lights going. We just lived right there in our Rambler, parked in the roadside lot, where most people only stayed long enough to pick out a tree. It was a whole lot of hard work to give someone else something to hang tinsel and candy canes on.
Every winter, Garland said, “Aren’t we lucky? We get more Christmas trees than anyone could fit in their home, even if they were the president or the queen.”
I’d still love to have just one.
And that one tree would be in one home.
Garland’s love of the season is why my middle name is Christmas. He said didn’t he get lucky, having a name like Garland and then finding the Christmas‑tree business? He took it as a sign, but I thought it was probably just a coincidence.
I’d never tell him that.
Even though we rambled, we always had one moneymaker hitched up to the back of our Rambler—and that’s where the grease came from. That old concession stand trailer had been Garland’s Grill since he bought it at a flea market in the middle of Oklahoma. The man with the cash box said it was only fit to stay in place and maybe serve up cold‑cut sandwiches and cans of soda, but Garland had a bigger vision. He saw wheels that worked, and a fryer that was new to us even though it came from an old fast‑food restaurant somewhere in Indiana—and, of course, he saw Christmastime. Even when the summer sweated, he tied up strands of fake greenery and Christmas lights on the front of Garland’s Grill, then knotted it all up with a floppy red bow. I don’t know if he was jolly because he loved Christmas so much or if it was the other way around.
Everywhere we went, Garland changed what we served at the Grill. The Christmas‑tree people lined up for hot chocolate and gingersnaps, and on sweater days it was apple cider and cinnamon-sugar-too-sweet donuts. All up and down those spring highways, it was snacks and bottles of water.
And no matter where we were, when we were done for the day, Garland still made us do school right there in the Rambler. “Aren’t we lucky,” he said, “making up the things we want to learn and doing it as we go?” He was a lot of things to me and Triple: Our papa. Our boss. And our teacher. So I used to call him Mr. Clark to tease him. But one day I called him Garland to get his attention, and it just plain stuck.
I think he liked it, since it was what our mama used to call him.
After Triple had gotten his fill of carnival cotton candy every spring, it was time to get back to Virginia. We rode into town just in time to watch the Ridge Creek Rockskippers play ball from June to September. Garland’s Grill set up shop right there in the parking lot of the James Edward Allen Gibbs Stadium, where its wheels didn’t have to matter for a while. We’d fire up the fryer and get the burgers ready to flip and we didn’t have to do school all summer.
“Poor little schnauzer stuck to the ground, won’t ever chase his tail around!” sang Triple. The schnauzer mailbox with the hanging ears and sweet eyes meant we were close. Garland and Triple rolled up the windows, since it was getting later and they were getting louder.
Every summer when we drove into town, we went the long way. Garland liked to ramble as long as we could before we got to that parking lot, like he didn’t quite feel right with two feet on the ground. Maybe Garland was a little superstitious about sunsets, but for as long as I could remember, we got to Ridge Creek once it was already dark and everything was quiet.
The houses were mostly set way back from the main road, which must have made getting the mail a muddy run on rainy days, and you couldn’t even connect a tin-can phone from your window to the one next door. Seemed like they were all wasting the best part of being neighbors.
There was the clearing to the creek, the one you had to wrestle tentacles of honeysuckle and Queen Anne’s lace to get through. In the dark, it would be hard to know it was there, but we did anyway.
We passed the Sweet Street Mart, and I didn’t even have to be inside to smell the sour-pickle air about it.
The Heritage Inn was about the only thing around with its lights on, which was a good thing, since we’d circle back around to its parking lot to stay. It shared that parking lot and a bunch of stories with the stadium, and since it didn’t have much in the way of room service, it was a real good place for us to end up. The people at the inn would get hungry, and we’d be right outside their front door shaking salt on fries.
But, like always, not before a slow drive past the James Edward Allen Gibbs Stadium. We may as well have parked, because each side of its entrance didn’t stretch much farther than from the driver’s seat of the Rambler to the tail end of Garland’s Grill. Even though it was dark and I couldn’t see the insides yet, I could feel what the place looked like. I could see the red paint of the giant ROCKSKIPPERS fading to the color of a mouse’s tail, mostly on the ROCK part. A red-and-blue Rockskippers flag hung still and lonely in the thick, hot air, and right at the entrance was the box office, covered in pennants and hope and ghosts of the past. It was on wheels too, but it never left this place.
“Cool,” Triple said. “I wonder if they finally got cotton candy.”
“Maybe,” I said, in a little bit of wonder myself.
“Hey, Derby, you promised you’d teach me that Rockskipper high-five, remember?” Triple said when we rolled past the tall banner, the one from the roof to the ground, the one that showed some of the first Rockskippers celebrating something great.
“Promise,” I said.
Garland was looking up even higher. “Looks like Ferdie’s working late tonight.”
I leaned out to see. The man had a flashlight in his teeth, and he was aiming it way up above him at the stadium’s marquee. He hadn’t changed a bit in the last year, except for maybe being a little saggier in the shoulders. Some things are easy to spot, even in the almost-dark.
Ferdie’s job as the stadium’s caretaker made him the voice of that marquee, and otherwise he didn’t say much. And like him, that big sign was quiet for the whole year, empty until the season started back up. Those letters meant life to the Rockskippers.
“What do you think it’s gonna say?” Triple asked.
“Hard to tell,” Garland said, but he studied every letter that was up there.
All I could make out was SAVE.
“The date, maybe?” I finished what Ferdie might have been starting. “But everyone knows that Opening Day is tomorrow.”
“Maybe,” Garland said, and picked up the Rambler’s tempo.
“Save me the fastest turtle!” Triple added. He’d be sleepless over that on our first night back, getting to the creek in time for a good one first thing in the morning.
And just like that, the traditions were on.