Shannon L. Johnson

The Old ‘55  

(Thomas Fernandez)     

Thomas1.jpg (232539 bytes)Grandpa eventually died.  He lingered on a respirator with tubes down his nose and mouth and in his arms.  In the three weeks he was at St. Joe’s Mercy Hospital, his big lumberjack-like body melted away a little each day until there was nothing left but a few wrinkles in the sheets.  I was there when he died.  They took the respirator out and he gulped like a catfish in the bottom of a boat.  His lips parted in rhythms as he searched for a pocket of air.  The doctors said he was about to die anyway, so they removed the respirator.  So he could die naturally, they said. 

At the funeral there began to circulate rumors that the car had killed him.  In a sense, I guess that could be said.  He worked on that car out in the cold damp garage.  He had closed the garage doors to keep out some of the frigidness.  Grandma found him sound asleep with his head under the hood.  Grandpa recovered from the asphyxiation, but he had caught pneumonia out there in the freezing garage.  There had been offers to buy the car, but he wouldn’t sell.  He couldn’t.  His parents loved it so much, they both died in it.    

The ‘55, as we had always called it, belonged to my great grandparents.  It was their first car, and it meant a lot to them because they traded what was left of their land out in Beaten, Arkansas, for it.  Papa, my great grandpa, knew they would have to move to town because Mama had congestive heart failure and had to be nearer the doctor’s office–“a real city doctor, no country witch doctors,” Grandpa had told them.  They moved in with Grandma and Grandpa.  Papa wanted to preserve a bit of independence and that’s why he bought the car.  On Sundays, they drove to church.  Afterward, with picnic basket and their small white and tan mutt Suzie in the vast back seat,  they drove out somewhere and spent the day until time for evening church.

When Mama became too ill to ride in the car, Papa would pack the picnic basket, Suzie, Mama, and put them in the car.  And they’d just sit there.  They’d sit there and eat their lunch.  I remember as a child getting the idea that Papa and Mama were the only two people who were really in love.  I tried desperately to think of other people who were really in love.  Papa and Mama for sure, and my 12-year-old friend Shelly.  She and Todd were in love because they wrote love letters back and forth and they were together all the time at school.  I asked Papa how he met Mama.  I was thinking maybe they had met on the Mayflower.   “When I was just a kid of a boy,” he said.  “We went to school over to Cedar Point.  I was a rascal always pulling pranks and your great grandma was a nice, proper girl, but she was puny.  I felt I could fatten her up some, so I said, ‘one day I’m gonna marry that girl and take care of her’.” 

Eventually, they bought a little mobile home and put it out behind Grandma’s and Grandpa’s house.  But that car had become a part of their existence.  One night after church Grandpa went to check on them.  He found Papa asleep in the car and Mama dead asleep leaning up against his shoulder.  Papa wanted to bury Mama in the car, but Grandpa talked him out of it.  Papa went straight down hill after Mama died.  He took to the car and hardly ever left it.  Grandma brought him food, and she and Grandpa took him in the house every other day or so to clean him up.  Once I brought a friend over to prove my great grandpa lived in a car.  I won the bet, but my friend told everyone back at school how smelly and scraggly my great grandpa was.  It wasn’t long before a real bad stink came from that car.  Papa was dead in the car, but he had seen to his burial attire: his picnic duds were hanging just inside his closet door, his straw hat upside down on the chest of drawers.  That’s what he was buried in, right beside Mama, both dressed for a picnic–in Beulah.

After Grandpa died, aunts, uncles and cousins came around to see what they could get.  I moved in with Grandma to help situate things and to protect her from the hounds.  I had been mooching off of my mother since I had been fired from the Daily Record–for sleeping during a City Council meeting–and I desperately needed a change.  I have been searching for inspiration to write a book all of my life.  Instead, I have had nothing but chronic writer’s block.  Mother tried to inspire–read: poison–me with her fluffy purple romance prosody.  I thought maybe Grandma could help.  Instead, she tried to save me.  I soon found myself a sinner in the hands of angry Baptists.  Grandma had my baptism all arranged before I had time hold my breath.  I went to church looking for story ideas, always looking for material.  Those Baptists didn’t like me going into their closets looking for skeletons.  And I didn’t like church.  Although I must admit, church people are very good to their own, especially when someone dies.  I thought organized religion a lot like a turnip plant–part of it’s really tasty and nutritious, and part of it is rather bitter and as it looks a lot like mashed potatoes, a cruel deception.

 My friend Chance, Victoria Chancellor, and I often have philosophical discussions about religion.  She has tried on every religion known from Zoroastrianism to Jehovah’s Witness.  “I’m a spiritual atheist,” she once declared. 

“An atheist, huh?”  I whispered it because we were in the garage, my grandpa’s garage.  My grandpa, church deacon, member of the choir.  Grandpa was a kind man, but he believed the Good Book often quite literally.

“Now don’t get all freaked out on me.”  She was about to launch into one of her hypotheses of self-realization.

Sometimes I just liked to step back and watch Chance work.  There wasn’t much opportunity for that because, by nature, she didn’t like to do work.  She liked the idea of certain types of work.  Right now, though, she was tinkering with the old car.  She loved antiques, and so I guess finishing Grandpa’s car didn’t really qualify as work.  “We ought to take this thing for a drive.” Her head was hidden under the hood.  All I could see were her overalls and a dirty red grease rag hanging out of her pocket.  I thought, she could be anybody in those big overalls, but then I pictured the rest of her and I had to laugh.  Her short brown hair was matted into three and four inch dread locks and a little silver hoop pierced her left nostril.  Grandma always said Chance was full of the stuff of mule traders.  She told some good stories.  I always wanted to believe her because her stories were more exciting than my life.  “De black woman is de mule uh de world so fur as Ah can see,” she was given to misquoting Zora Neale Hurston lately.  “Especially in the South.  And that’s why I’m gonna haul my ass out of here, soon.”

“Uh, Chance, you’re using an adjective to describe yourself that doesn’t quite fit.”


“You’re not black!”

“How do you know?”

“Okay, you are whatever you say you are.” I realized a long time ago that you can’t argue with someone who is insane.

Chance is creative and artistic.  She is a free spirit, albeit tortured in some way.  I think it hurts her to proclaim her atheism.  She is a feminist, and that is the problem she has with religion.  We agree on this.  Religion in the Bible Belt is not woman-friendly.  “God endorses man because God is male.  Man created God, and God created man.  Woman was an after-thought, and she is the real root of all evil, according to man and to God.  Eve screwed it all up for all of humankind.  Can you imagine what society would be like if God were a women, if all references to God were female specific,” my friend preached to me as she turned red in the face.  She took religion and other people’s ideologies personally.  Good thing we mostly agreed.

 “What’s your grandma gonna to do with this thing, anyway?”

“I don’t know.  Sell it, I guess.  Do you think it’d make it around the block?”

“Hell, yeah.  Let’s start it up.”

“Maybe I better ask Grandma,”

“You know she’ll say yes.”

With a little manual choke manipulation we got the car started.  I was afraid to let Chance behind the wheel.  I guess I wanted to believe her virtuosity in all things, but I had inherited a good dose of skepticism from Grandma.  “We need to take and blow the mutha out,” Chance said snapping her red rag at the car.

“Blow it up, you mean.”

“Harley Jane?  What are you two doing out here?”  Grandma always looked like she’d just traveled through Dante’s inferno.  I think it has something to do with the Puritan work ethic and spending 18 hours a day cooking.  Also, Grandma is Irish–fair skinned with wild red hair, red when she was younger.  Now her hair is just wild, grayish-red, and Alfred Einstein-y.

“Hey, Grandma, Chance thinks we ought to take the car out for ride.”

“Well, I’ve got dinner ready.  Y’all better come in and eat something before you dry up and blow away.”  Grandma spit root beer-colored snuff into a Del Monte Green Beans can she was carrying, turned, and walked back up to the house.

Food also has something to do with Puritan strictures, or maybe it’s a Southern thing: a Southern woman looks for any occasion to cook, and her company is supposed to show their appreciation by eating three times more than they normally would.  It was hard to be cynical about food, however.  Grandma’s food was so good.  Chance, the vegetarian, delighted in Grandma’s cornbread, poke salat, squash soup, fried okra, fresh tomatoes.  I, feigning geographic explorer to a little-known exotic country, would try anything weird.  I enjoyed challenging Chance’s fortitude as I gnawed and pulled on a pickled pig’s foot.  The idea of pickled pig’s anything is pretty awful, but I featured myself a method actor, and so yummy it was, as long as anyone was watching my performance.

While we ate Grandma sometimes would talk about the olden days.  She would begin by talking about someone in her church, and since we didn’t know most of those people we would urge her toward a segue into the past.  While sopping up bean juice with cornbread or sprinkling salt on slices of garden grown cucumber, she would tell how when she was young Papa would catch a possum for supper.  But they couldn’t eat it right away--because possums eat anything–so they’d keep it under an old wash tub and feed it produce like cabbage and carrots and turnips and what not.  They’d do this for a day or so until the animal’s system was cleaned out.  Then they’d kill it and eat it.  She talked about scrambling squirrel brains with eggs, roasting rabbits, and barbequing raccoons.  Ethnic foods–and I consider Southern cooking ethnic–always sounded scrumptious to me.

“We ought to fix up the ‘55 and go on a road trip.  What do you think, Grandma?”  I was pretty much just joking.

“A drive up to Albert Pike for a picnic would be nice,” Grandma said without a trace of doubt that the old car would make it.  “Me and your grandpa used to love to go up there.”

“You think that old car will go that far and back?” I was an explorer, but I am also very pragmatic and anal retentive.  Albert Pike was about a two hour drive, one way.

“Oh, I don’t see why not.”  She obviously didn’t understand how far automotive technology had come. 

“Grandma, that car’s eight years older than me,” I said.

“And look how young you are.  Besides, just because something’s old don’t mean it’s lost its usefulness.”

“I told you so,” Chance sung under her breath.  “Come on Harley.  Let’s start ‘er up and take her around the block.”

Chance backed the big black Sunday-go-to-meetin’ car out of the carport and up the hill, but I made her let me drive.  Sitting behind the steering wheel, I was taken back more than thirty years.  It was 1959, and Papa was driving to some secluded picnic area that only he and Mama and Suzie knew.  I had never driven a column shift, but I was learning.  The steering wheel was huge.  I was learning and enjoying the little idiosyncrasies this car carried.  Grandpa had painted the dash red; the glove compartment door kept falling open; one of the little vent windows whistled; and the passenger-side window had what looked like a b.b. hole in it.  For now, I had completely forgotten that this car had already killed at least three people.

When Chance and I got back, my mother was at grandma’s.  Chance liked Mother.  In her frilly, romantic, deluded world, she was simply a misunderstood artist, Chance said.  “Just look at what she’s done with that trailer.”  Mother lived in a mobile home which she had decorated like the Palace of Versailles.  She lived in a Baroque world.  Everything to the extreme.  One school friend of mine put it nicely when she exclaimed, “Oooo, look at that upholstery and those curtains.  Isn’t it a bit busy?”

Busy?  My mother doesn’t know she is an authority on Baroque style.  It just comes naturally.  Grandma calls her Miss Hoity-Toity, but she isn’t a snob.  She lives in a place inside her imagination where glass slippers do exist.  A place where beautiful muscle-bound men with olive skin and foreign accents just wait to indulge their heroine’s starving sexual compulsions.  My mother is the heroine, and she is waiting for her Fabio.

When we came inside, Grandma was trying to force-feed Mother. 

“I’m not hungry.  I told you, I just ate a big pretzel at the mall.” Mother pushed the plate back away from her.

“Pretzel schmetzel.  You need to eat something good for you.  Are you too hoity-toity for home cooking?  I’ll swan you’re going to blow away with these two.”  Grandma nodded toward me and Chance and pushed a plate containing purple hull peas, fresh tomatoes, fried okra, and cornbread at Mother.  “I can’t get them to eat a thing either.”

I would not allow her to make me feel guilty.  “Grandma, I ate two helpings of everything.  She’ll eat when she’s hungry.”  I often felt like Mother’s protector, but I didn’t want to be because I wanted run off on an expedition to Katmandu or Machu Picchu or somewhere and write my book.  And I didn’t want to have to worry about anyone.  “Mother, did Grandma tell you we’re going to take the ‘55 on a road trip?”

“Who is?”  She was forking her peas and occasionally depositing one in her mouth.  “Papa’s old car?”

“We are.  Whoever wants to go.  You want to go?”  I really didn’t think she’d bite.

“Where are we going?  To New Orleans?  You know it’s very French down there.” 

“Whoa, yeah.”  Chance was already in favor of a nine hour drive to the French Quarter.  “I have a friend down there.  I’m sure we could stay with her.”

“Well, we were thinking more like a day trip.  Sort of ...”  I was usually the planner of these family get-togethers, but I felt I was losing control of this situation.

“It won’t even take a day to get to New Orleans,” Mother said.  “I can get a half day off on Friday, and we can spend Saturday there.  Mother, you’ve always wanted to go to New Orleans, haven’t you?”  My mother was trying to convince her mother that this trip was something she had always wanted.  I was picturing the big black car stranded in the Delta, the four of us–a huddle of women in a strange land of darker shades and meager living–locked inside terrified to move.

“That’s kind of a big test to put the old car through,” I said trying to ease Mother into a different, shorter direction.

“Well, where else is there?”  She was pouting, but I knew I could change her mind.

“We could drive over to Tallequah and visit Sequoia’s cabin.”  Mother wasn’t listening to my suggestion.  She was rummaging through her purse, and Chance was already sipping coffee at the Café DuMonde.  

“Let’s go up to War Eagle,” Grandma said coming back to the table with some old brochures.  I knew she and Grandpa had gone up there a few times.  All I knew about the place was that it was up in the Ozarks, and you could get fresh cornmeal there at the mill.  Driving up those twisty mountains in the car called for a little more faith than I could muster.

“I think your mom’s right,” Chance was saying.  “We gotta go to New Orleans.  There’s something for all of us there.  It’s all down hill from here.” She smiled at her pun, and I was thinking she would be a sight anywhere more conservative than New Orleans.  “We can go to Cajun country, and Plantation country, and museums, and the Vieux Carre, there’s lots we can do.  That old car will make it.”  Chance was campaigning for New Orleans, and it was working.  I don’t know how it worked on Grandma, but it did.  I guess there is a bit of adventure in her that I never considered.

“Don’t y’all think you better take that car by Delbert’s and let them give it a good look?”  With those words from Grandma, I knew we were going to New Orleans.  The trip was set for the following week. 

Before we took the car to Delbert’s Full-Service Gas Station and Garage, Chance and I gave it a gulp of gas treatment and took it out on the highway and blew it out.  Then we cleaned the carburetor, flushed the radiator, changed the oil, cleaned and shined the interior, washed and waxed the car.  Then we let Delbert’s check it out.  Delbert, Jr., replaced the fan belt and sold us an extra, and he installed new wiper blades. All the lights worked, and the horn.  We passed inspection, were registered, licensed, and insured.  Now all we needed was a good road map.

Mother decided to take off Thursday afternoon, so we’d have two whole days down in the Big Easy.  The three of us were packed and waiting for her at two o’clock.  Lady Godiva’s Hair Salon would survive the weekend without her, but today she had to do an eleven-thirty perm.  We expected her any minute.

The trunk of the ‘55 was vast, but Mother’s suitcase, dress bag, make-up kit, hat boxes, and shoe boxes quickly filled all but the tiniest niches.  Those were left for the rest of us.  Chance and I traveled light; we could practically wear the same clothes we started in save for a couple changes of underwear.  Grandma packed a simple supply of personals and brought several spit cans, so she could throw them away as they became used.  But the food.  My gosh!  It seemed as though we were headed for the old country church and dinner on the grounds.  There was fried chicken and fried pies, lunch meat, bread, pickles, tomatoes, potato salad, potato chips, sodas, cookies, mayonnaise, mustard, ketchup, and candy–hard candy, jellies, and chocolate.  We had a cooler, a picnic basket, and a grocery sack packed with goodies all in the back seat.  Still, there was plenty of room left for two people, a blanket and two pillows.  I drove the first shift.

“Okay, it’s three o’clock.  Let’s see what kind of time we make.”  I carried a little notebook: I wanted to chart expenses, but mostly I wanted to see what kind of mileage this thing would get.  And I wanted to discipline myself into recording things: sights, sounds, details: concrete and abstract.  Always looking for material. 

We took 270 East to Malvern and kept on going to Pine Bluff.  The car ran wonderfully.  No trouble at all, and everyone was in an excited mood.  Grandma was excited, I could tell.  “Are you all right, Harley Jane?  She asked.  “Do you need me to drive for a while?” 

“I’m all right for now, thanks.”  There was construction after we got on 65 at Pine Bluff, and all Mother’s and Grandma’s fussing and Chance trying to talk to me was making it hard for me to see.  Soon we were at a halt.  “Ugh, this will mess up my calculations,” I said it mostly to myself.

“It’s all part of the trip, relax.”  Chance was the quintessential hippie going with the flow.  As far as tension, I was a tight high note, and she was so loose she made no sound at all except what only whales could hear.  “Whoa, check that out.  Ah, man, that’s horrible.  I’m getting it.”

“Wha ... Wait!”  Before I could figure out what she was looking at, Chance had jumped out of the car in the middle of construction–only two-lanes now, big semi trucks headed in our direction with a temporary concrete barrier being the only thing separating us.  Even though we were sandwiched between two semis, Chance had seen the small white mass squeezed between traffic and the concrete wall.  It looked like dirty rags or paper, but it sure didn’t look like a chicken.

Chance jumped back in the car just as traffic started to move.  “I don’t think it’s hurt, but it’s definitely in shock,” she said.

“Lands!  What in the world are you going to do with that?” Grandma asked hugging her Sue B Chicken and Dumplings spit can close.  “Lands.  I can’t believe you’d bring that nasty thing in here.  Cover up the food.”

“I couldn’t just leave it there.  It would have been killed.  Some asshole, I mean, idiot dropped it off his truck or something. Hey, chicky, chicky, are you hurt?”

“It’s probably got mites and no telling what all.”  Her spit can notwithstanding, Grandma did have something of a phobia, ever since that time my cousin Carl spent the weekend with her and Grandpa.  They had all gone looking for poke salat out in the woods, and when they got home they noticed Carl scratching himself bloody.  They assumed he’d gotten into some poison oak.  Aunt Pat called Monday afternoon after she’d taken Carl to the doctor.  The doctor said Carl had scabies. His whole Sunday school class had them, but they weren’t sure where it started.  Aunt Pat told Grandma she was supposed to boil all her sheets and towels in disinfectant, and there was some special spray she’d bring over, and Grandma was to spray everything with it.  And if she or Grandpa got to itching, tell her because there was a special ointment you had to put all over your body.  They quarantined Carl’s Sunday school room for two Sundays.  They sprayed all kinds of disinfectant in there.  I heard it took the paint off of the metal folding chairs.

“Pull in at a gas station and let’s get rid of it,” Mother talked as if she were the only level-headed one in the car.  I never thought of her that way.

“They don’t want a chicken at a gas station.” I was really more concerned about getting us safely through this construction.  “Just make sure you hold on to...”  My instructions came too late.  Others may have mistaken our trauma for an untimely pillow fight.  The bird made several laps around the inside of the car flapping and losing feathers, pooping and clawing at our heads.  “Shit, Chance. I mean shoot. Grab that thing.”

Chance grabbed the bird’s feet, pulled her in, and tucked the fowl under her arms like she was carrying a football.  I glanced in the rearview mirror at Grandma and Mother.  With her carefully fashioned coif mussed and decorated with chicken feathers, Mother looked to be in shock.  Grandma held a tissue to her nose and shook her head.  I thought I could see mischief in her eyes.

The gas station was one of those new shiny, splashy-colored kinds that serves chicken, pizza, and burritos.  They sell gas and oil, but they don’t know the first thing about auto mechanics.  And they didn’t know what to do with a shocky hen.  They gave us a box that had, ironically, contained frozen chicken parts.  We poked holes in the waxy cardboard and threw in some corn chips.  “Maybe if we keep her in the dark she’ll settle down,” Chance said as she chirped at the bird and closed the lid. 

“We’ll get rid of her when we get out in the country.” I was being authoritative, but I didn’t know what we would do:  Throw her off in a cornfield somewhere; find some old country shack and plop her down on the door step, knock and run.

“This is gonna be a cool trip.  We’re on an adventure,”  Chance was talking to the front windshield.  But she was right.  This was already an adventure.  Isn’t that what I longed for?  How many people go on a trip, find a chicken on the highway, and invite it to come along with them? 

“I’m hungry.”  The best and worst thing about road trips is the junk food.

“Here, take this wet wipe and clean your hands real good before you touch any of that food.  We don’t need to spread salmonella on everything.”

“Grandma, yuck.”

“Just do it.  Here, everybody wash your hands.” She was doling out packages of baby wipes like they were candy at Halloween and we were trick-or-treaters.

By the time we got to Dumas, we had been on the road almost three hours.  The construction and a certain dirty bird had set us back time-wise.  I had hoped to get to New Orleans before midnight, but I forgot to figure in stops and emergencies.  We’d be rolling into the City of Sin at the witching hour and in my wild imagination fall pray to some voodoo doctor, drug pusher, pimp daddy, thug, or alligator ... aren’t they nocturnal?  “We’re gonna be late getting there,” I mumbled to Chance.  I could see in the rearview that Grandma was asleep, mouth slightly ajar, lips vibrating intermittently like a metronome.  Mother was lost in one of her Romance novels.  The large bosomed, red-headed female on the cover could have been her, except that Mother had about twenty-five years on that delicate damsel.   Mother’s latest stint as a hair dresser had lasted five years now.  Before that she had been a sales clerk in home furnishings at a local department store.  She’d also been in real estate, but her honesty proved detrimental to any commission: “You don’t want this place. It’s a decorator’s nightmare.”  Mother had taken several continuing education courses in design, decorating, fashion, and even romance writing.  She was beautiful with red hair, the color Grandma’s used to be.  Of course, Mother kept hers dyed.  Despite trying every fad diet to come around, she had a “woman’s belly,” as Grandma called it, which was blamed on me.  Mother looked good on the outside, but I knew her health could be better.  The only reason she didn’t wear a girdle was because she had a spastic colon and the girdle gave her fits.  Besides, she reasoned, Botticelli’s Venus had a woman’s belly.  I was sure Mother’s boobs had long since given in to the pull of gravity, except that she kept them propped up with special mail-order bras.  At that moment, Mother wasn’t in this car with us.  She was in a castle in some foggy place, probably imprisoned in its tower waiting for her Fabio.

“It’s all right.  Squeaky’ll be up.  We can crash with her.”

“How do you know this Squeaky, anyway?  And what does she do in New Orleans?”

“She’s from Little Rock.  We worked at the Spaghetti Warehouse together.  She’s kind of a ... she’s an artist.  She does portraits in Jackson Square.  Well, they’re more like caricatures.”

“What makes you think she’ll be up so late?”

“Come on.  Nobody goes to bed early in New Orleans.  It doesn’t even start up until late.  Hey, are we gonna be able to slip away from your folks for awhile and check out some bars and stuff?”

“Yeah, we’ll figure something out.  So, Squeaky’s a weird name for a girl ...”

“Yeah, Harlequin Jane, Squeaky’s real weird.”

“Okay, you got me there.  Now don’t call me that ever again.”

I didn’t like the looks of Dumas, and Chance and I were talking, so I just kept going.  After two Mountain Dews, a peach fried pie, and some barbequed chips, I was ready to pee and run a couple miles to get all the junk out of my system.  I definitely needed to stop and do some yoga stretches.  “Anybody need to stretch their legs or use the bathroom?  Here comes a rest area.”  We were just past Dermott down in the Delta.  My dark vision of the four of us stranded visited me again.  “I wonder if we should let that chicken see some light.  Or will it rile her up?”

“Nooo, don’t open that box.”  Grandma was the authority on chickens, having raised them and wrung a few necks.

“But what if it’s dead?”  Chance tapped the box, and we heard a claw scratching the cardboard.  “She’s alive.”  Chance began pulling the lid up ever so slightly.  “Zora, are you all right honey?  Did you eat your Fritos?  I think I should give her some water.” 

Zora?  Appropriate, I guess.  A tenacious bird named for a tenacious woman.  And hadn’t Zora Neale Hurston driven down to parts of Louisiana on a mission to research various cultures?  She was particularly interested in voodoo.  I wondered if we’d have any experiences with voodoo during our short visit?  I wondered if we’d cross her old cold path?

Chance and I tried to find a home for Zora among the travelers at the rest stop.  Most people gave us a recipe for “the best fried chicken ever.”  Chance didn’t think that was funny, and I was becoming attached to Zora, thinking of her more as literary hero than as a yard bird.  We did get one offer to take her, but we could tell his intentions right off.  “Sorry, sir, I think I might keep her as a pet,” Chance said backing away as the old man with sweaty hair and worn out overalls smacked his toothless gums.

“Shaaaaw.  You caint keep no chicken as a pet.  I’ll clean ‘er up and split ‘er with ye,” he said pleasantly and innocently enough.

“Thanks anyway.”

As I was stretching on the grass, meditating as I saluted the soon-to-be waning sun, Dueling Banjos invaded my nothingness.  Oh, well, the sun was being covered off and on by ominous-looking clouds, anyway.  “Looks like it’s storming off to the west,” Grandma said, interrupting the bluegrass music in my mind.  I guess she saw me playing peek-a-boo with the sun.  “You ‘bout ready?  I see your friend still has that nasty bird.”

“Yep.  Plenty of people want to have her for supper, and I don’t mean as a guest.”

It began sprinkling rain as we hit the road again.  I didn’t want to, but I let Chance drive.  Grandma again offered to drive, but I told her to pretend she was someone famous and we were chauffeuring her.   It hadn’t dawned on me that she needed to get behind the wheel of the old car.  The rain was coming down harder.  Big trucks were trying to make us go too fast, and other trucks were driving too slow in front of us, spraying dirty water on the windshield.  Somewhere past Lake Village, the sky darkened, thunder clapped, and lightning flashed.  It was very difficult to see, and then it happened.  One of our brand new windshield wipers just flew off.  Just back and forth, back and forth, and blup.   “Jeez,” Chance said turning the wipers off because the broken one was scratching the window.

“What happened,” Grandma was startled awake.

“I’m pulling over.”

“Right here?” I said, concerned about the big trucks.

“I can’t see.  Is there a rag or T-shirt or something in here?” Chance had stopped the car and was leaning over into the back seat pulling a pillowcase off of one of the pillows.  “I’m going to wrap this around the arm so it won’t scratch.”

The arm looked like an amputated stump dressed in soggy bandages.  We were back on the highway, all squinting to see the road ahead.  As quickly as the rain had started it stopped.  We journeyed onward.  Within a few miles, the dark heavens opened and some quirky god drained a lake on us.  Lightning bolts stabbed at the fields nearby as thunder vibrated our nervous systems.  All the while, our pillow case became heavier and grimier.  The wind picked up, and the rain blew across the windshield in sheets.  It was so white through the windows, I thought we’d died and were heading down that proverbial tunnel to the other side.  Chance pulled over.  It was not really a voluntary thing.  I think she lost sight of the road.  For a moment it felt like we were on some kind of a ... actually, it felt like a big old car going over very small berms.  With every dip and jolt upward, Grandma gave an uhm and an oh me.  “Sorry.  At least we’re off the road.  Man, I could not see at all.  Are there any hazard lights on this thing?  Not that anyone could see them.”

We sat there in the steamy car, which was forecasting an aroma of chicken house.  It was seven o’clock.  Normally, we’d have another hour or so of daylight, but the storm brought with it an early darkness.  “Where are we?” Grandma was wide-eyed.  “Wonder if we’re not settin’ in the middle of somebody’s cotton field?”

We relaxed knowing we were out off the dangerous roadway at least, out of harm’s way.  The rain let up, and we hardly noticed.  Chance tried the wipers, but the windows were steamed from the inside. There came a tapping on the glass.  A dark blurry shape moved near the outside of the window.  Grandma reached up and locked her door.  I was embarrassed but wished we had all already locked our doors.  My vision had been an omen.  Too bad it went no further than this–I had no foreknowledge of my own death.  I grabbed a napkin and wiped the passenger window.  There stood an older black man holding a bucket over his head.  He was smiling or grimacing.  I rolled the window down.  “Y’all come off the road a little.  Ever body okay?”  He seemed nice enough, just an old farmer.

“We’re all right, thank you.  We lost sight of the road and just thought we’d sit here until it cleared up,” I said being as polite and unobtrusive as possible.  “We can probably go on now, if we’re not stuck,” I said leaning out of the window to get a good look at where we sat.  Looking back I could see where we had left the road.  We came off the shoulder, hit a shallow ditch, came up into this man’s yard, and settled in his driveway not too far from his old maroon Olds 98.  “Ooo, did we mess up your yard?”

“Nah, nah.  Y’all a bunch a women in der?  Well, I’ll be.  In this old car?  Come in so’s Mannie can meet y’all.  Umm, umm.  Y’all sho is a sight.  Come on now.  Let this rain blow over some,” he grinned at us showing off what had to be brand new teeth. 

He was getting wet, and I smelled an adventure.  Besides, Chance was already taking Zora, box and all, out of the car.  Mother and Grandma weren’t moving.  “Moth-ther,” I admonished through gritted teeth.

“No, Harley Jane, I think I’m perfectly comfortable right here,” she said holding her book higher in front of her face.


“I believe I’ll set here and take a nap.”

“Mizzes.  Y’all come on in.  Y’all can take a nap in out of the rain.”

“Oh, no, no, we don’t want to put y’all out,” Grandma cleverly turned it around so that she was being the polite one.

Hearing the porch door slam, we all looked over to see a hefty woman wearing what had to be a pair of her husband’s work boots picking her way down the muddy drive way.  “Poke?  Ever thang all right?”

“Yes’m be right der.  Y’all better come on in now, come on.”  He headed for the house.  Chance and I followed.  On the porch two dogs stood, stretched, allowed a brief wag of their tails, and slowly bobbed down the steps.  They sniffed our legs and then showed keen interest in Chance’s box.

“Um, sir.  I have a .. a chicken here.  She’s a pet and ...”

“Oh, bring it on in.”

Inside the house was warm, too warm for most, but I like warmth.  The woman had gone to the kitchen.  I could see her through a cutaway in the wall between the kitchen and the table.  She was taking something out of the oven.  It smelled good in the house.  There was the bitter smell of greens, the golden aroma of cornbread, and there was a heavy but comfortable lived-in honest sweaty smell.  It smelled like Grandpa’s hat and the pennies in the his truck ashtray.

“My name’s Poke Roberts, and that gal over there is Mannie.  She’s got some Mexican in her that’s ...”

“Ah, now quit inventin’ yo tongue gonna fall out,” Mannie said casting a happy grin our way.  She hadn’t gotten new teeth, for her top fronts were missing.

A light rapping on the screen door proved to be two stubborn or curious women come to join in the socializing.  Feigning full bladders, they earned another invitation into the house.  About that time a small brown figure peeped from behind a curtain which functioned as a door.  He stepped out rubbing his eyes and whining.  “Granny, I’m hungry.  Who all those white women.”

“Hesh, hesh now.  We goin’ eat in a minute.”

Zora was the ice breaker as the boy became enraptured by a chicken in a box .  We discovered Jamaal was the couple’s great grandson.  His mother was out of his life, dumped him and ran off somewhere.  His grandma was in Chicago working for the Post Office.  She didn’t have any way to keep him, and everyone thought he was better off in the Delta than in Chicago.  We learned that we were right near Eudora–another omen, Eudora Welty, famous southern woman writer.  I don’t think it occurred to me that I was living a pretty interesting story, but I was being faithful about keeping a journal.  I had done so sporadically all my life.  I guess I always knew I wanted to be a writer.  I just never saw anything in my journal pages or in life around me worth writing about.

The Roberts had left their front door open.  Through the screen I noticed the rain had begun again as a steady, soothing shower.  The kind of quenching that flowers and garden vegetables, trees and brush, and weeds and crops must revel in.  I pictured a cartoon with animated plants turning their mouths toward the sky and gulping the pure water.  I could see them dancing, their roots kicking up water like Gene Kelly in “Singing in the Rain.” 

“I guess we can drive in this until we get to somewhere where they have wiper blades.” I was looking out past the screen door to the dogs rolling around in the wet yard chewing on each other.  They made playful growling sounds as they took turns mouthing each other’s necks.

“We can find y’all a wiper blade, but first y’all might as well have some supper,” Poke said as he set the table.

“Oh, we don’t want to put y’all out.  We’ll just go on.  Y’all needn’t feed us ...” Grandma was sincere this time, and she also had probably never eaten supper with black folks before either.

“Nah, nah.  We gots plenty, and we won’t you to stay.  You aint puttin’ us out none.”  Poke was carrying a pan of cornbread to the table.

“Don’t you worry.  I always cooks a big mess of food.  It’s been a long time since we had any company, aint that right Poke?”  Mannie was headed back to the kitchen to fetch another steaming bowl of something that smelled scrumptious.

“We aint never had white women, Granny.  We aint never had white women for supper.”  Mannie grabbed Jamaal and held him close to her skirt so as to suffocate his talk.

“Come let’s all set down.” Poke motioned everyone into place.  There were only four chairs so Poke sat on a foot stool, and Mannie brought in one of the chairs from off of the porch.  Mannie situated Jamaal in the living room at the coffee table.  Poke bowed his head and looked through his eyebrows at everyone around the table.  “Let’s say the blessin’.  Missus, uh?”

“Farquarson,” Grandma said.

“Would you kindly lead us in the blessin’, Missus Farquarson?”

Grandma nodded and began, “Our Heavenly Father, thank you for delivering us into the hands of these kind strangers.  Thank you for this bountiful feast and bless it to the nourishment of our bodies. In  Jesus name ... Oh, and I pray we aren’t putting these nice people out.  Jesus name. Amen.”

“Amen.”  Poke stood waiting for everyone to sit.

“Now, I’ve got turnips and greens, souse meat; there’s some hot sauce.  Potatoes, beans, cornbread, fried chicken, corn on the cob; where’s the butter?  Jamaal bring that butter over here.  Here’s some pickles if you won’t ‘em, and some green onion.  Y’all help yoursefs.  I got some pecan pie fuh dessert.”

“Wow, this is incredible.” Chance filled her plate with every vegetable there was.  I didn’t tell her that everything was so good because it was all cooked in meat drippings.

“Jamaal, leave that bird alone while you’re eating.”

“He likes some cornbread.”  The little boy poked cornbread through the flaps of the cardboard box, and then he put his eye up to one of the holes.

“Now, y’all said your coming from Hot Springs?  I got a sister live up there.  She said she didn’t want to marry no farmer.  So she moved to the big city.  She been workin’ at one of them fancy hotel’s up there.  She do the baths.”  Poke wasn’t letting his talking interrupt his eating.

“Which hotel,” I asked.

“Oh, the Fordyce, I think it’s called.”  The Fordyce was one of the old bath houses renovated and made into a hotel and spa.

“I go to the Fordyce quite often for a bath,” Mother said.  “What’s your sister’s name?”

“Her name is Ruth.”

“Ruthie.  I do know a Ruthie.  She’s my masseuse.  Is she in her late fifties?”  Mother asked.

“Yes, she is.”

“Now that I look at you I can see the resemblance.  In this whole wide world.  Idn’t it a small world?  I’ll tell her we nearly ran into you.”  Mother laughed at her own joke.

After dinner, the rain had eased to a steady mist.  Poke told us how to get to Sweet’s Garage, which wasn’t far off the highway.  The business was closed, but we knocked on the door of Sweet’s house and told him Poke Roberts sent us.  We got new wiper blades just as the night grew pitch dark.

These delays would put us in New Orleans well after midnight.  I didn’t care how close a friend Squeaky was to Chance, we were not going to pop in on her at four in the morning.  We decided to get a motel in Vicksburg.  I had hoped it would still be daylight as we drove through some of these small black towns like Transylvania and Tallulah.  I loved watching the people relaxing on their porches, talking to one another. 

Since I was driving and no one was helping to keep me awake, I stopped for coffee at Tallulah.  That little perk influenced me to keep going.  I could catch up on my sleep tomorrow in a park or something.  I didn’t want us to waste our precious little time in a motel.  I also decided not to drive over to Jackson and then down Interstate 55.  Country roads, the scenic route (although it was now dark), always suited me better, so I stayed on 65 heading for Natchez.  At Natchez, I would get on 61 to Baton Rouge.  I would then decide whether to stay on 61 to New Orleans or get on Interstate 10.

Mother was in front with me, and when, somehow, I had gotten off the highway onto a really rough road that led nowhere, the heavy glove compartment door came unlatched, fell open, and whacked her right in the knees.  She awoke with a start.  “What?”  I could tell Mother’s mind was processing the available information and soon she would remember where she was.  “Is this ...?  Harley Jane?” Mother was whispering.  “Where are we?”

“Umm.  Actually, I don’t know.”

“What do you mean you don’t know.  Where’s the motel?”

“About two hours back.  I de ...”


“We’re still on 65.  Well, we were.  I was trying to get on 61 at Natchez, and I’m not sure what I did, but I’m pretty sure this isn’t 61.  Although I wouldn’t be surprised; some of the roads around here are pretty shitty.”

“Watch your mouth.  This is practically a dirt road.”

“I can see that.”

“Well, turn around.”

“This thing won’t just turn around on a dime.  I need room.”

The road didn’t wake Grandma, but our fussing did.  “What is all the commotion about?  What in Sam Hill?  Harley Jane?”

“I know.  I got us lost out in the middle of nowhere.”

“Well, let me drive then.”

“Grandma, what good would that do?”  I was getting frustrated, and I needed them to be quiet so I could think.

“She said she doesn’t have enough room to turn around.”

“Back it out then.”  Grandma’s solution sounded so simple.

“Back up for two or three miles?”

“We’ve come that far?”  As soon as she said that, we fell into what felt like a meteorite crater.  What there had been of the road ended, and we drove off of it landing six or eight inches on the real dirt road beneath. 

“Oh, Heavens.” I could just picture Mother in the dark fanning herself.

“Don’t worry.  Look.   What is that?”

Chance’s voice startled me.  “It belongs to the road department.  It looks like they actually plan to finish this road sometime.  You can turn around there.”  I hadn’t realized she was awake.  While my family was frantic, she was so calm. She probably enjoyed being lost.  Zora on the other hand was thinking no telling what.  When we fell into the meteorite crater, she began a frantic clucking that didn’t stop for at least forty-five minutes.

I turned around and headed back to the main road.  Thankfully, everybody was too tired to be mad at me.  After directing me to 61, Grandma and Chance went back to sleep.  I offered to let Mother drive, but she declined.  She said she would just keep me awake and on the right road.  I wondered how she was taking all of this.  She had an extensive regimen of beauty care that she had to follow every night.  This night I’d seen her pop more than one mouthful of antacid pills.  Back at Tallulah she had awakened long enough to take off her make-up and wrap a scarf around her hair, and she brushed and flossed her teeth.  I wondered whether she took off her high tech bosom erector.  I sure couldn’t stand something like that.  I looked over at her.  She was holding the glove compartment door up with her knee.  It stubbornly refused to latch.

“If we had some duct tape, we could tape that thing shut,” I offered.

“We should have taken my car.  It’s more reliable.”  Mother owned an ‘81 Cadillac.  I hated it.  It was a road yacht and made me as sick as an ocean-going yacht probably would.  I didn’t care for big, smooth cars.

“That would kind of defeat the purpose.  This is a trip of nostalgia.  We’re supposed to embrace whatever happens.  Don’t you feel Mama and Papa’s presence?”

“I could feel more nostalgic if I were safe.  And no, I don’t feel Mama and Papa in the car with us.”  Mother and I hadn’t talked much lately.  We were on two different wave-lengths.  I guess I hadn’t turn out anything like she expected.  “I’m surprised this car doesn’t still stink after Papa lived and died in it the way he did.”

Chance took the wheel somewhere around Baton Rouge.  It was nearly four o’clock when Mother and I took the back seat.  Where had we lost so much time?  I listened to Grandma and Chance awhile before nodding off. 

“You want me to drive.  I’m not a bit sleepy; I’ll drive.”

“That’s okay, Mrs. Farquarson.  I feel fine.”

“Well, at least have a bite to eat,” Grandma said rummaging through the big brown grocery bag.  “Let’s see.  You don’t won’t no chicken, or baloney,” she had teased.  “Here!  Let me make you some peanut butter crackers.  Do you want a coke?”

“That sounds good.  Thank you.  I can’t wait to have some benets.”


“Benets.  You know those little French donut-type things.  Only they don’t have a hole, and there’s powdered sugar on top.”

“Sounds like a fancy name for French toast.”


There was a long silence.  I may have fallen asleep for awhile.  When I awoke, they were talking religion. 

“I bet you’ll enjoy Saint Paul’s Cathedral, Mrs. Farquarson.  It’s beautiful.”

I heard Grandma spit.  I winced more at Chance’s choice of topic than Grandma’s crude habit.

“Them Catholics think too much about their statues and saints.  It’s just like idol worship.” 

“I think they just use those statues and ceremonies to help them remember the Bible stories.”

“Well, they pray to those saints, and that ain't right.  Mary is just a woman.  She don’t deserve no special treatment.”

“See, that’s what’s wrong with Judeo-Christian religions.  They leave women out of the good and important roles.  Or else they just make out like their contributions aren’t a big deal.  Camels and goats were worth more back in Old Testament days.  Except Eve.  Now she’s notorious, but not for being the mother of the human race, but because she talked her man into taking a bite of an apple.  Women still do that, feeding their men: the way to a man’s heart...  It wasn’t that she was defying God, she was simply seeking knowledge.  What’s wrong with that?  What is philosophy?  What is education?  Isn’t that what most people strive for?  Knowledge.”

“Now, hold on a minute.  God specifically told them not to eat of that tree because then they would have knowledge of good and evil.”

“That doesn’t make sense.  Were they living in nothingness?  How can you know what’s good without evil?”

“Well, it was Paradise, and she’s the one who made the mistake.  Here’s you a cracker.”

“Thank you.  Anyway, I’d like for women to be portrayed in a better light.  We are the ones who give birth; we grow life.”

“Some of us do.”

I was glad Grandma thought I was asleep because at the ages of thirty and thirty-one, Chance and I were on the downhill slide, and we should each already have a couple of kids.

The next time I awoke, we were in New Orleans, and Grandma was saying, “One a y’all is going the wrong way.”

“Ohhhh.”  At that, Chance maneuvered the monstrous car around in a jerky u-turn in the middle of a one-way street.  The next street was also a one-way, and again she was going the wrong way.  No one was coming, so she kept going and took the next available road and parked.  “Here we are.”

It was close to six in the morning.  Not many people were stirring; it was warm and misty.  “What do we do now, this early?”  I asked.

“I’d really like to freshen up.  I wouldn’t dare be seen in public like this,” Mother said looking into a compact mirror while gently dabbing the sleep out of her eyes with a tissue.

“I’d like a hot shower to wake up my bones.  Grandma, I bet you’d like a nap.”

“Maybe we ought to find a motel.”  Grandma was tucking her spit can safely into a garbage bag.  She had stuffed it full of paper towels so it wouldn’t spill.

“That sounds fine,” Mother and I both said.

“No, no, no.  We can stay at Squeaky’s.  She’ll probably be gone most of the day.  It’s no problem.  She’d be mad if she found out we were here and didn’t stay.”

“Well, I hate to put someone out ...”  Grandma was so tired she probably didn’t really care if she put out the Queen of England.

Chance had already started the car, and we were on our way.  Squeaky didn’t live too far from the French Quarter.  I knew her neighborhood looked a little questionable to Mother and Grandma, but in little more than twelve hours we’d adopted a chicken off of the highway, run off the road in a deluge, had supper with a black family in the Delta, gotten lost in the woods in the middle of the night, and gone the wrong way down one-way streets.  What could possibly top any of that?  One good thing about arriving so early, we were bound to catch Squeaky at home. 

It was a duplex, neatly painted white with green wooden shutters.  There were hanging plants and potted plants everywhere.  We parked in the alley.  As Chance approached the back door the rest of us hung back.  We didn’t want to overwhelm her friend with our tired and weary huddled mass.  Chance knocked and motioned for us to approach.  A very tall–six-foot-two-inch–woman in curlers answered the door.  There was something queer about this woman, and I figured it out pretty quickly.

“Uh, Girl!  What are you doing here?  It’s so good to see you,” said the Amazon with the high cheek bones, thin lips, broad shoulders, and bloody tissue stuck all over her face.

“My friend Harley Jane and her folks and me are visiting New Orleans.  We had an interesting time getting here, but here we are ... just arrived.”

“Miss Thang.  Y’all come on in.”

Ooooh, I was giddy with the nervousness of knowing what Squeaky was, and I was wondering if her voice would soften up and get any higher as the day wore on.  So far there had been no clue as to why her name.  As we walked in, I punched Chance.  “She’s a ...”


Squeaky was already accommodating Mother and Grandma.  “Mrs... Farquarson, did you say?  The bathroom’s right this way, honey.  Bless your heart.  I bet you are just worn to a frazzle.”  

So far, I couldn’t tell that Mother or Grandma had a clue about Squeaky.  While Grandma was in the bathroom, Chance made introductions.  Mother took up Grandma’s role in assuring our hostess that we did not want to impose.

“Oh, girl, you are not imposing one bit.  I love company.  Y’all make yourselves at home: shower, eat, sleep.  I want to hear all about this trip when I get back.”  With that, our hostess disappeared into the bathroom for thirty minutes, and when she emerged ... she didn’t look much better.  Her hair was like dry grass, the curl was limp and sagging, her lips were obviously painted on, her shoulders were broad and square, and her tight blouse was smooth over a flat chest save for two pimples making bumps where her breasts should be.  She wore a tight black leather mini skirt;coming from beneath her skirt were two thin muscular, albeit smooth, legs.  On her feet she wore clogs.  As she left I was waiting for Grandma and Mother to throw a fit about rooming with a transsexual.

“She seems like a nice girl,” Grandma said as she dug through her purse looking for her pill bottle.  “Must come from Norwegian stock with that big frame.”

“She’s kind of homely.”  Mother looked at Chance.  “Do you think she’d be offended if I offered to give her a make-over?  I really think I can help her hair a lot.  And that make-up.  Oh, that was hideous.  Her mother must not have taught her anything about make-up.  Do you think she’d let me give her a hairdo at least?”

“Well, I ... sure she would.”

I punched Chance.

“What do you want me to say?”

We took our turns taking a hot shower.  But by the time it was my turn, there was no hot left.  A cold shower was not enough to wake me up, so I found a place to sleep next to Chance on Squeaky’s bed.  Squeaky said Mother and Grandma could make themselves comfortable in the other bedroom as her roommate had recently left, without paying his share of the rent.

Before taking a nap, Chance cleaned Zora’s box, no easy task with two curious house cats stalking nearby.  I could hear the bird crying or singing to herself.  I wondered if she felt thankful for being saved from certain death on the highway or in the chicken processing plant or if she felt just as close to death in that dark, confining box.  How long had it been since she’d seen any of her kind?  I figured she would die soon.

We got ourselves together by two o'clock and went out looking for some lunch.  “Let’s just walk, stretch our legs some,” I suggested.  I knew I could get a muffaletta at any number of places in the Quarter.  I loved those huge, spicy mixed deli meat sandwiches. 

We probably looked like tourists, except for Chance.  With her dread locks, nose ring, overalls, and sandals, she looked like a Jackson Square regular. 

Mother wore white peddle pushers, a black sleeveless button-down blouse (with the first three buttons unbuttoned to prove her expensive bra really worked), and shiny gold sandals with colorful jewels encrusted on the straps.  The strap of a black, gold, and white purse fit comfortably in the crook of her elbow.  The purse looked like it was made for the outfit.  Mother’s flowing red hair was teased and curled–she was all that Squeaky only hoped to be. 

Grandma tried to pin her coarse hair back with combs, but they kept popping out all day long.  She would just sweep them back through her hair lodging them some way or other so that they held most of the mass out of her face.  Grandma wore simple navy blue cotton pants, ugly-yet-comfortable orthopedic shoes, and a light cotton blue and red plaid button-down shirt–the last button was left undone over her woman’s belly. 

My 35 mm camera gave me away as a tourist, but I wanted to record any interesting images in this strange land.  I was a famous southern woman writer doing research.  I wore a long cotton pieced-together skirt Grandma had sewn for me, it was mostly in blue.  With a man’s white T-shirt and a blue and white striped button-down blouse over that, I looked and felt comfortable.  I took care with my feet, opting for well-worn, cork-soled brown leather sandals.

“My lands!  You know I haven’t even thought to call home once.  I bet Rand is beside himself worrying about us,” Grandma said.

I doubted my uncle Randall even thought about us.  I guess I had a dubious attitude when it came to my relatives.  When Grandpa died, they swarmed like flies on fresh road-kill.  Grandma was tougher than any of us gave her credit for though.  She told them that she was not dead yet and that anything that was Grandpa’s was hers and if she wanted anyone to have anything she’d let them know.  But she would need someone to come around regularly to help with different things like the yard, the car, the house, and so on.  Oh, they helped out, for a couple of months.  They were just waiting around to see what she’d give them, or maybe they were waiting for her to die.  She took Grandpa’s clothes to the church, so they could be donated to the needy, and she kept everything else just like it was.  Grandpa’s shaving cup and razor still hung by the medicine cabinet. 

Rand was a Viet Nam vet, a carpenter, and when riding his Harley Davidson Sportster, he looked like a Hell’s Angel.  He acted like one too.  I think Grandma held a soft spot in her heart for him.  I heard her talking to one of her church friends about Rand coming home from the war after the accident.  I never asked him about the war because everybody acted like it was a sensitive subject with him.  Grandma was saying, “When that grenade blew up in the back of that truck, he probably thought his life was over.  You know men think they’re nothing without that.  Yes.  I think that’s why he acts the way he does, to prove his manhood.” 

Anyway, he was not always reliable.

“I left the cell phone at Squeaky’s.  We can call when we get back,” I said.

“Don’t let me forget.  Look at that.  Is that a church?”

“That’s St. Paul’s Cathedral.  Do you want to go in?” Chance said.

“It’s Catholic, aint it?  Well, I’ll just pretend it’s a museum.”

After we toured the church, we saw Squeaky working in the Square.  She was doing a caricature of a rather large woman who was trying to keep vanilla swirl ice cream from dripping all over her hands.

We bought carry-out lunch along the street and ate it while sitting on a rock wall near the French Market.  Chance bought some nuts and fruit in the market.  Mother ate a cup of red beans and rice, and Grandma shared a muffaletta with me. 

“We better get back and rest up before your friend gets home,” Grandma said dusting the crumbs off her lap.  She fished her snuff and snuff spoon out of her purse and dropped a little of the black powder down her lip in front of her gums.

Chance pulled me back as Mother and Grandma walked back toward Squeaky’s house.  “Think we can get a Hurricane or some Voodoo Beer sometime.”

“Uh, sure, maybe later.”

“Come on.  Be adventurous.”

“Okay, okay.  Later.  They’ll go to bed early.”  I was hoping they’d go to bed early because a beer would sure do me good.  Grandpa used to tell me I was wound tighter than a $2 watch.  When I got older, I figured out a cure for that.  Besides, a lot of famous writers liked to take a nip of hooch once in a while.

When we got to Squeaky’s, she was already there.  “Hey, girls, look what I made.  Virgin strawberry daiquiris with real strawberries.  Ummm.”

Chance told me later that Squeaky was a recovering alcoholic.  Lucky for us.  Even though the drinks were non-alcoholic, I could see Grandma doing battle with her religious conscience.  Her graciousness won out, and it was amusing watching my grandma sip a frozen cocktail.

The real amusement was my mother.  She began to act absolutely giddy.  Did she not know there was no alcohol in her drink?  She and Squeaky became fast friends.  Here was someone Mother could do so much for.  “Miss Squeaky,” Mother cooed in her best Southern belle drawl.  “Would y’all like for me to do y’all’s hair.”

Oh, I was so embarrassed.  Chance sat on the couch like a Cheshire cat watching the scene play out.  Grandma had fallen asleep in a chair.  “Oh, Miss Adelline, would you!”  Squeaky was game for playing too.

While Mother took Squeaky into the bathroom, Chance and I scoured the cabinets for some vodka, rum, anything to blur the vision a bit.  Nothing.  We watched music videos on television until Mother and Squeaky appeared from the bathroom.  “Just remember, Sweety, you want to make sure your base is real even and smoothed out, even under your chin.”

“Miss Adelline, you are a wonder.   Look y’all.  I am gorgeous!”

Boy, she did look much better.  Mother had outlined her lips and made them look fuller, and her over-all make-up looked natural while covering her manly rough skin.

“Now, here’s the conditioner I use.  And, well, you just take this one so you’ll know what to look for.  No, no, take it.  I can get all I want.”  She pinched and pulled at Squeaky’s hair, like hair dressers do.  “Your hair will be healthy in no time.”

After the rest of us freshened up, we went out to eat and took a ride on the trolley car.  The city was so romantic at night.  You could ride the trolley or a carriage through an old neighborhood and travel back in time.  Fences and balconies with wrought iron trimmings and small yards with huge trees dripping with Spanish moss, took me to a fantasy place.  It was the twenties and I was a flapper, an independent woman and ...

“Oh, foot.”

“What’s the matter, Grandma?”

“I plum forgot to call Rand.  It’ll probably be too late by the time we get back.”

I wasn’t worried about ol’ Rand, but I felt like I needed to reassure Grandma.  “We’ll call him first thing in the morning.  He’s probably already gone to bed.”  Or out drinking.

When we got back to Squeaky’s, it seemed like it took forever to get Mother and Grandma to go bed.  Squeaky, Chance, and I went out for a little night life.

“Doesn’t it seem unusually calm tonight, Squeaky?” I asked.  I’m not sure what my expectations were.

“Nah, it’s not that late really.  It’ll liven up.”

We didn’t have the stamina to wait for it to liven up.  After I drank a Fuzzy Leprechaun, it was all I could do to keep my eyelids open, and I think Chance was having the same trouble after a huge Hurricane.  Squeaky said she couldn’t let her fresh make-over go to waste, so she was “going out, honey.”

“Squeaky, you be a good girl, and come home at a decent hour.” Chance winked at the primped up girl.

“Ooo, girl, now you want me to have fun, don’t you?”

I never heard Squeaky come in, but I heard her get up to make coffee.  “Hey, sleepy heads.”  She was sitting at the table with Grandma and Mother drinking coffee.

“Where’re the benets?” Chance croaked.

“Here, Grandma, you can probably catch Rand before he goes to work,” I said handing her the cellular phone. 

“Rand?  This is Mother.  We’re in ... What?” 

Oh, great.  What kind of bull was he feeding her to make her upset. 

“Okay,” Grandma’s voice quavered.  “I’ll call up there and find out.  We will.  I love you too.”  Grandma ran into the bathroom crying.  The rest of us sat there.  I was no good with emotional moments.  I’ll just sit here and let her have time to herself, I told myself.  That’s what most people want, to be left alone.

“Aren’t you gonna go check on her?”  Chance prodded me.

Just then Grandma came back out.  Her eyes were read and swollen around the edges.  “Henrietta’s dying of cancer.” She winced again.  Mother stiffly put her arm around her sobbing parent.

Aunt Henry was Grandma’s only living sibling.  She had played on the women’s baseball league back during World War II.  Playing baseball had allowed her to see parts of the States that she might not have otherwise gotten to see.  She had liked a little more freedom than the South offered, so she moved to Los Angeles, California.  Aunt Henry played in some small roles in few movies.  Ten or fifteen years ago, she and her long-time roommate bought a bookstore/coffee shop.  I had only met Aunt Henry a few times, but there was some confidence about her that I admired.  She knew how she wanted to live and she lived that way.  Her having cancer was sad news.

“Well, I guess we should head back home,” Grandma said.  “Thank you for your hospitality.” She reached for Squeaky’s hand and gave it a couple of soft pats.

“Grandma, are you going to fly to California?”  Grandma had always had a fear of flying and had sworn she would  never set foot on an airplane.

“I’ll have to see if I can get a bus ticket ... or one of them fast trains.”

“Mrs. Farquarson, why don’t we just go from here.  You don’t want to take a bus.  That’d be miserable.” Chance was crazy.  Take this old car all the way to California? 

She was asking for trouble and I couldn’t let her influence my family this time.  “No.  Absolutely no.” I whispered loudly.  “This car will never make it.  We can’t chance it.  There’s too much desert and who knows what all from here to there.”

“It’s not like the old Route 66.  There’re gas stations and garages all along the way.  That car can do as well as a bus.  I thought you were adventurous ...”

“Don’t even.  This is not about our little adventure anymore...”

“Now, wait a minute, Harley Jane.  Chance has got a point.  And I would like for you and your mama to see your Aunt Henrietta–it’d be your last chance.  That is if we’re not too late.  Oh, but we cain’t.”  Grandma’s face reddened, and she dabbed at her watery nose and eyes with a tissue.  “Adelle’s got to get back to work by Monday. Don’t you, Adelle?” Grandma was actually considering Chance’s crazy idea.  I was terrified at the thought and wouldn’t have it.  I knew Mother’s employment obligations would put her on my side.

I couldn’t understand why Mother was taking so long to answer.  “Well, now, this is a family emergency.  They’ll just have to be understanding over at the salon.  Besides, I might just start my own beauty salon when I get back.  Squeaky thinks I’ll do good business.”  She winked at Squeaky who was holding both Grandma’s and Mother’s hands.

They were all insane.  How were four women and a chicken going to make it all the way from New Orleans to California in a 36-year-old car?