It’s 90 degrees when we pull in to the gravel drive at Bethany church. My uncle’s buried here, Mom reminds me. It’s one of those summer days when Cyrus and I visit my parents, and Dad decides to drive us 25 miles into town to eat at the Chinese buffet.
Cyrus has fallen asleep in his car seat, his head still bobbing, though Dad’s cut the engine. I pry off the cap of a sweating beer I meant to take back home, and Mom and I share it while Dad points to the west, a wall of black clouds, and proclaims that Columbia is getting a helluva storm.
We were on our way back to their house when Cyrus said, “Papa, let’s drive around.” He’s only four, but he already understands the meditation of gravel roads, the comfort of Dad’s voice when he turns down the radio and points to tree lines across hazy corn fields, at sagging porches of abandoned houses, at rusted farm machinery rooted in place by snaking vines, and tells the stories of his youth. “Your mom and I spent a night in a cave right over yonder.” Mom blushes and rolls her eyes from the back seat. “It rained so goddamn hard, hadta walk over to Ol’ Man Carver’s the next mornin’ and ask him to pull out my car.”
Mom sometimes tells a story, but Dad usually cuts her off. 1970, not 1971. They lived on the right side of the road, not the left. Her stories are evocative, too, but she avoids the details. I don’t know if it’s because of his incorrect corrections or if she just doesn’t like to talk about those times. Dad drank too much, and they were poor teenagers in love. Just like those songs. Cars were made of solid metal and had no seatbelts. Dad drove them hard, on top of river levees, outrunning local police, into ditches, into trees, into blown transmissions and burnt engines. The 66 Super Sport. The 67 GTO.
Here we are, at this church, and I still can’t tell if he’s driven here on purpose or if the roads just wound this way. Uncle Kenny was Mom’s eldest brother, 20 years her senior. We walk to his grave, across burnt grass and strewn plastic flowers, and she points to the back of the tombstone. It’s an aerial photo of the farm where he lived and logged, just like their dad. There in the picture are rusted out trucks, piles of tires, and full summer trees.
“Betty said you can see Kenny in the photo,” Dad says, “but that’s bullshit.” He points to the object thought to be Kenny. It’s just a fence post, we all decide. Mom walks off with Cyrus toward the truck. When Dad and I turn to leave, he points out Ol’ Man Carver’s grave. “That sonofabitch pissed blood for a year before he went to the doctor.” He wipes his face on his t-shirt sleeve, then turns to the sky.
Back in the truck, we all click on our seatbelts. He won’t turn the key until we do. I hand Mom the beer and stare out the window over the fields of soybeans that have just come up. Dad starts in on a story, and I turn to Mom to see if he has the details right. She gives me the look that means he’s wrong, but she smiles anyway, takes a drink, and keeps quiet. She’s done this for 45 years.
“Wow,” I say, “look at those clouds.”
[Check out Christina Holzhauser’s back porch advice here]