â€œWatch now, Paul,â€ Grandpa told me. We were on a winding bit of highway outside Texarkana. Grandpa was showing me how to drive for the first time, and I watched intently so I wouldnâ€™t crack up when I got my chance behind the wheel. We were in Grandpaâ€™s old â€™64 Ford Fairlane. The old car didnâ€™t have air conditioning and Grandpa hadnâ€™t put in the new automatic engine yet. So he showed me how to change gears on the 3-speed transmission with the clutch in the floorboard and the gearshift on the steering column.
â€œFirst gear is down here,â€ Grandpa said, demonstrating. â€œLike this.â€
My eyes were so wide, he didnâ€™t have to ask if I was listening now and trying to understand so I could do it just the way he was doing it.
â€œWhen you want to change gears, you push in the clutch down here by the brake. You bring the shift up to neutral. See neutral, here, where itâ€™s kind of loose. And all the way up to the top into second gear.â€
I was itching to get behind the wheel, but I knew Grandpa wouldnâ€™t let me until he told me how to handle everything the right way. I was sweating bullets even though the windows were down. It was late August and everything was brown, except for the pine trees on both sides of the highway. There was a pony drinking water from a bird bath on the small farm across the road. The colt had to stretch its head through the fence rails to get to the water. I had seen the mare do the same thing when I came down this road the year before, when Grandpa took me shooting for the first time. Now the mother stood in the shade along the fence and watched the colt. If Grandpa would only let me drive soon, we could get the 4/40 A.C. going â€“ four windows down at forty miles per hour.
â€œAt about thirty miles an hour you need to change it to third gear. You just push the clutch in again and pull the shift back down into neutral and on into third. Donâ€™t try to force it. Just pull it the way it wants to go and you donâ€™t have to worry about going back into first.
â€œYou ready to give it a try, Boy?â€
Grandpa slid over to the middle of the seat and I crawled over him. I was almost twelve years old: I thought I was a big boy, but I had to sit on the edge of the seat to reach the pedals on the floor and I had to look between the steering wheel and the dashboard to see the road.
â€œPush the clutch all the way in with your left foot and put your right foot on the brake. Now make sure the carâ€™s in neutral.â€
Grandpa handed me the keys and I started the car.
â€œPull it down into gear and take your foot off the brake. Let the clutch out slow and when the car starts to fall forward, give it a little gas.â€
I tried to do everything just the way Grandpa showed me. I started lifting my foot off the clutch and the car rolled forward, and I stepped on the gas and we lurched ahead. â€œPush in the clutch and move it up to second gear, and let the clutch back out.â€ I did what Grandpa said without looking at my hands or feet, and I kept my eyes on the road. I was scared to death that someone might drive up behind me or pass me coming the other way. The car started to strain a bit in second gear. â€œBring it back down to third the same way you shifted to second.â€ I went into third gear as we hit the first curve in the road. The turn made it feel as if we were really picking up speed. The 4/40 A.C. was going full blast. â€œI told you there werenâ€™t nothingâ€™ to it.â€ Grandpa was right. He was sitting right next to me, but this time I was driving.
A few years later, when I was in high school, Grandpa would give me the old Ford. It was the same â€™64 Fairlane, but it had changed. Grandpa had put in an air conditioning unit, one of those old jobs that went under the dash. Grandpa also put an automatic engine in the car. It was a rebuilt 1965 Mustang engine, a 289 V-8. The best engine Ford ever made. That was the best car I would ever have.
â€œPull over to the side here. Push in the clutch and put it into neutral. Start using the brake a little.â€
I stopped in a patch of gravel that was the beginning edge of the only other farm on that stretch of the highway. I would get to drive again when we got through hunting. Now Grandpa drove across the highway down a dirt road where we always went shooting. I didnâ€™t want to drive down that narrow road anyway. It snaked through the woods and crossed the creek on bridges that were only two precarious boards, spaced so cars could cross.
â€œI could never make it across those bridges,â€ I said.
â€œSure you could,â€ Grandpa answered. â€œPut the left wheel on the left board and the rest of the car follows right along.â€
We finally pulled over in a wide space in the road and got out. Grandpa reached over the seat and got the .22 rifle. I opened the glove compartment and got a box of shells. I was an old pro at this. Last year Grandpa had taught me how to shoot the way he taught me how to drive this year. He showed me the right way to hold the gun and to aim, even how to load the shells. Then he handed me the rifle and a handful of bullets, knowing there was nothing he hadnâ€™t told me. Before we went into the woods, we went to a place where people dumped trash. There were hundreds of bottles. We each picked up three or four unbroken ones for shooting practice. We carried the bottles to a bluff that overlooked the creek. Grandpa handed me the rifle and tossed several of the bottles into the current. I loaded the gun and started shooting at the half-submerged bottles as they meandered with the current down the creek. Most of the shooting we did at bottles like that, either the ones Grandpa threw in the creek or the ones he saved to put on the broken ends of tree branches to shoot at. If I saw a bird or squirrel Iâ€™d shoot at it, but Iâ€™d rarely hit it.
Later, when I was sixteen, Grandpa would bring the shotgun, a double-barreled 20-gauge. We looked for rabbits and squirrels when we took that gun. They were easier to hit then, the cartridge spraying a pattern of shot that engulfed them. I can still remember how fire leapt out of the barrel and how the helpless animal slid through the underbrush.
â€œItâ€™s getting late, Paul. We better start heading back before Nanny gets through fixing dinner, or she might not let us in the house.â€
I never missed a meal when I went to my grandparents. Nanny thought eating was one of the principle pleasures of life. Even many years later, when Nanny couldnâ€™t do her own cooking anymore because of a respiratory disease that made her short of breath after any kind of activity, mealtime was the foundation on which the day was built. Breakfast was always early. We usually had thick slices of homemade bread, thickly buttered and lightly toasted, with coffee for them and milk for me. During breakfast, Nanny would discuss our options for lunch. At lunch, the decision of what was for dinner was made. When I drove up from Houston to Texarkana with my parents, we would always guess what Nanny would have cooked for us when we got there. I would guess fried chicken, and more often than not I was right. The chicken was always a deep brown and delicious. From the garden Grandpa cultivated every summer, we would have fresh green beans or corn on the cob, and homemade cherry pie for dessert, from Nannyâ€™s oven. If I stayed with Nanny and Grandpa during the summer, I helped with the garden. Weâ€™d pick the tomatoes and the beans and the black-eyed peas, and shuck the ears of corn, and pull the carrots and beets and potatoes from the cool earth under the burning summer sun. After I had helped Grandpa with the picking, Nanny would start to work shelling the peas and canning everything for the year. There was so much the fresh vegetable never ran out, at least until the next summer when I could revel again in the rich, dark earth and the smell of boiling vegetables or fresh baked pies.
The pattern of my grandparentsâ€™ life was timeless. Nanny and Grandpa had settled on a standard that was right in its enduring homespun ritual and its endless preference for things that upheld manâ€™s belief in himself. Even when they neared the end of life they understood that doing things the right way was the only way. Grandpa had a heart attack, but he did not wither under lifeâ€™s cruel, burning caprice. He had to quit eating Nannyâ€™s fried chicken or anything that could cause his heart to rebel again, but he continued to cultivate his garden where he felt life was full. He did the right things to cheat inexorable death, the way inequitable fortune had tried to cheat him. Nanny, too, was dealt cruel cards. Time spotted her lungs with disease and she could no longer prepare the meals she planned. So Grandpa cut the thick slices of homemade bread for their toast and Nanny taught him to make the meals they decided on for lunch and dinner. I stayed with them for two months after Nanny fell and broke a hip because couldnâ€™t keep enough air in her lungs to hold her up. It was during that stay I realized how enduring their devotion to the right things was. Grandpa still took me hunting when Nanny got stronger, and Nanny still decided whether we would have fresh corn on the cob or if Grandpa should make a cherry cobbler. They were devoted to a way of life that endured even when their lives were narrowed by time, and they demanded that time yield the best things even when life had tried to cripple their belief in the best things.
How clearly my memories invade this present purgatory. What I held on to was much less than a memory. It was a mania for doing things the right way. And as time marches men to death, I realize I had only learned half the lesson I remembered now. I planned the whole thing right, but my memory had forsaken me. I showed my friend Frankie the right way to do the wrong thing. Instead of embracing the goodness I had grown up with, I was encompassed by the half-truth of my confusion. The purity I expected from life was not there for me any more than for Nanny and Grandpa, but I lashed out against impurity with fear, the mother of violence.
â€œRemember everything,â€ I told Frankie. We were parked in the street along a dark row of houses, trading shots of Ezra Brooks from a pint bottle. It was the night before Thanksgiving and my parents had gone to Texarkana. I didnâ€™t go with them anymore. I stayed in Houston and laughed with Frankie about how silly my grandparents were. Frankie was scared now though, so he listened really close. I was scared, too, but the fear only steeled my resolve to plunge on.
â€œIâ€™ll park the car at the far end of the store and weâ€™ll go in together.â€
There was a liquor store a couple of blocks away in a poorly lit strip shopping center, and we were going to rob the place.
â€œWhen we get in, you go behind the counter and get the money. Make the guy get down on his knees and keep your gun pressed to his head. Heâ€™ll be so scared he wonâ€™t do anything but pray. Iâ€™ll look for anybody coming at the door. Tell me when you have the money and Iâ€™ll get the car and weâ€™re gone.â€
I had wanted to do something like this since soon after I left my parentâ€™s house. Things had been bad when I moved out. In high school I started smoking pot and I snorted cocaine if I could get the money to buy it. By some miracle my grades didnâ€™t fail, I was a good student, but my life started to crumble around the edges. I tried to hide my abuse but my parents found out, of course, and they didnâ€™t know how to deal with it. After graduating from school, I would have gone to the college where my father was financial officer, if I hadnâ€™t ruined my own chances. Mom was behind it, and she was right. I couldnâ€™t go to college where everyone knew my father if I didnâ€™t break my cycle of abuse before it became addiction. That was when I started to laugh about how silly everyone else was. I left home, laughing. Then things got worse. The job I scraped up landed me in an apartment house that was a barrio filled with Mexicans and Orientals and barely provided enough money to eat and buy weed. I still laughed at everyone else, but my own hardship was deathly serious and someone elseâ€™s fault. My thoughts twisted until taking the money from that liquor store became justified by what everybody else had done to me.
â€œIâ€™ll leave the car running when we go in, Frankie. Donâ€™t worry about anyone coming in while weâ€™re doing it, everyone in this neighborhood is out of town or somewhere starting their holiday. Just do everything as quick as you can and we donâ€™t have to worry about anything going wrong.
â€œYou ready to go, Bud?â€
Frankie nodded that he was ready and I started the car. I still had the dark blue â€™64 Fairlane I had learned to drive in. It was the only thing I cared about much. I turned out the lights as we pulled to the far end of the liquor store. Nothing else on the strip was open, closed early for Thanksgiving, and it was dark.
â€œRemember everything and donâ€™t get jumpy or youâ€™ll forget what to do.â€
We got out of the car and I could tell Frankie was more scared than I was.
â€œCalm down. Weâ€™ve gone over everything a thousand times. Just do it and you wonâ€™t have time to forget.â€
Frankie pulled the black barreled .45 out of his belt as soon as he got in the store and pointed it at the guy behind the counter. I got the sawed-off, double-barreled shotgun from under my coat while Frankie went behind the counter. â€œDo it quick; push no sale and the drawer will pop open.â€ Frankie didnâ€™t make the guy kneel down but he shoved the barrel of his gun into the back of the manâ€™s neck. When he reached his other hand to get the money, the store owner grabbed for something under the counter. â€œWatch out!â€ Frankie pulled the trigger without even turning back to look, but the guy had already dropped to the floor. The next shot came from behind the counter and Frankieâ€™s face became a mask of blood. I unloaded both barrels through the thick wall of the counter. I saw fire leap out of the barrel and the store owner reeled backwards into the bottles behind him. The pattern of blood engulfed his head and chest. â€œJesus,â€ I whispered, and the image of the helpless rabbit skidding across the dried leaves invaded my nightmare. I struggled to get Frankie, but the store owner was slumped over him and neither one of them would move. I ran out to the car; it was still running. I jumped in, threw the gun into the back and took off. I could already hear sirens. I didnâ€™t know where to go. I started toward the barrio where I lived, down a narrow two-way road with a deep ditch running along either side. Then a cop car flashed out from the neighborhood into the street with its sirens wailing. I must have been doing sixty-five per and I slammed into the passenger side of the copâ€™s car. The impact sent me careening into the ditch on my right and flipped the car into a culvert where I was pinned. I didnâ€™t know if the cops were after me or just heading to the scene, but I panicked. There was about of foot of water standing in the ditch and it was flowing through the shattered windshield and filling the ceiling. The shotgun was half-submerged. I tried to reach the gun, but the frame of the driverâ€™s side window had shot into my shoulder and the pain shocked me and stopped me from reaching the gun. One of the cops was wading through the water in the ditch toward the car. I could see his black boots pass by the empty bottle of Ezra Brooks bobbling in the current he created. The other officer was either hurt in the crash or calling in. When the first cop got closer he could see me reaching around. At the same time his flashlight found the gun. He pulled the revolver from his holster and told me to freeze, pointing the gun at me all the time. The cop left in the car must have been calling in because it didnâ€™t take long for an ambulance to get there.
They pried me out of the car and wrapped my shoulder in a gauze sling. They hoisted me into the back of the ambulance. The cop followed me in, water dripping from his boots like my blood onto the floor. As we rushed toward the hospital I remembered a winding stretch of highway outside Texarkana where I had learned to drive, listening hard to every word my Grandpa told me.
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