Thursday, October 25, 2012
It was the late 1970's,
. We were living in an old servants
shack on what had once been a fine pecan plantation. My mother, her mate Jean,
my younger sister Pepper and me. Del Rio, Texas
By now it was no longer fine at all. Most of the pecans fell and laid unwanted to rot on the ground. Many of the stately trees had died long ago and left empty spaces in the neat rows. The big house, at the front of the property, had fallen into disrepair, no longer white and grand, it was gray and dirty, the paint chipping away and the shutters falling off.
The current occupant and owner of the place was an elder woman named Mame (pronounced with a long A and a y at the end). She lived alone in the main house with her little decrepit little dog. The plantation had been in Mame's family for many generations and, at one time, our house had housed slaves.
The main house, was at the front of the property near the main road. Our house was down a long driveway (just under a mile, I believe), that curved around to the back of the property. On one side of the drive was dense overgrown pine forest that now belonged to someone else. On the other side was row after row of giant pecan trees, what was left of the main orchard.
I'm not sure how long we lived there, many things happened to us in relatively small spans of time, so that a month's worth of adventure for us might seem like a year or more. We rarely lived in the same place for more than a few months and I this place was no different.
I was 7 or 8, and Pepper and I spent our days swinging from grapevines, hiding in honeysuckle forts and riding the neighbors goats. It was a great place for high adventure, some of it quite dangerous for two little girls but, there wasn't much I feared. Except the old lady and her house.
She really did seem nice enough, from what I remember. Aside from terrifying us by standing at the gate and throwing rocks on the tin roof of our house to get my mother to come out. I can't remember anything in particular that would have made me fear her, but fear her I did.
She was a long time widow, her and a little dog had lived by themselves there for many years. She had one child, an adult son who rarely, if ever, visited her (I never saw him). But she did go on about him and seemed to love him very much. She also spoke to my mother about him often, in an odd, hushed way.
The house itself always had an odd and terrible smell to me, it burned my nose and made my eyes water. It smelled of decay and ruin. And it was filled so full of stuff it was hard to walk or move and there was no place at all to sit down. There was also a garage which my sister and I were never allowed in. But we knew about one of the secrets it held. Locked away in the garage, was kept a very special car, which she Mame talked of often but, we never saw it.
The car had belonged to her late husband, Henry. Which is also what she called the car, Henry. Although we were never allowed to see it, my mother was charged with the task of starting Henry a few times a week and she would often make us go with her and stay in the house with Mame while she did it.
Once or twice every week we would trudge through the pecan orchard up to her house. And it indeed seemed like trudging because I dreaded it so much. I can't remember what we did there while we waited for my mom but after a while we would go back home and Pepper and I would race ahead through the trees as fast as we could go. As much as I was fascinated by the idea of Henry, my only thoughts while we were there, were of getting away as soon as we could.
One day, many months later, my mother told us that Mame had died. I felt terrible for her and worse for her little dog. I also felt a bit guilty because I shamefully was a little glad that I would never have to visit her again. But mostly I cried for her little dog.
About a month after that, my mother told us that Mame had left Henry, the car, to my mother. Apparently, Mame's son didn't want us to have the car and he was going to court to try and prevent it. Whatever happened, my mother ended up with Henry.
Henry was actually a very cool car, I thought so even then. An antique my mother said, black and very shiny. She said she thought that Henry the car housed Henry the man's spirit. So we thought of the car like a grandpa. We all loved him and talked to him often. He seemed so very fancy to us. Mame had taken good care of him, there wasn't a scratch or dent or tear or smudge anywhere and when my mother first turned the key he started immediately. Tho Henry was very old, he was also like brand new.
Right away my mother wanted us to go joyriding. I'm not sure if other people do that or not but we did it often and I still do it today (when the gas can be afforded). We loved joyriding so we all excitedly hopped in to go. And it seemed almost instantly that we all went from jovial and excited to very solemn and uncomfortable. Pepper and I decided we wanted to stay home and not go at all. But my mother laughed it off saying we just weren't used to it yet, and away we went.
I don't remember what all we did while it was light but as soon as the sun begin to set my mother decided we should drive to the cemetery and drink to Mame. Pepper and I just wanted to go home. But, off to the cemetery we went.
Upon arriving, the first thing I remember thinking was how many plastic flowers there must have been. Not just on Mame's grave but everywhere. Hundreds and hundreds of them, in every color and shape imaginable. That seemed very odd to me and gave me the creeps, I wondered if we were in the right place. But soon enough my mother confirmed that we were by making a toast to Mame and thanking her for giving us Henry. We all toasted and thanked her.
Then we all fell silent and no one said a thing for some time. We just sat there quietly, seemingly frozen in time, no one speaking or moving. Like zombies, we just stared into space.
The silence was finally broken when Jean said it was late and she thought we should go home now. My mother scoffed at the idea and thought we should stay longer. She started talking loudly and seemed to get more excited by the second until she was suddenly interrupted by Henry's radio and headlights coming on. That's when I remember looking out the front windshield and seeing that we were parked almost right on top of Mame's grave. The car headlights shown brightly on her headstone just inches away and it dawned on me that none of this was right.
Amidst the blaring radio I took Jean's cue and started asking to go home. Pepper, generally doing anything I did, also started asking to go. Soon we were on our way home.
The ride home was uneventful and Pepper and I may have even fallen asleep in the backseat. Everything changed as soon as we pulled into the long driveway.
As soon as Henry's tires touched the driveway the radio came on, blasting away into the night. Shaking the old speakers and hurting our ears and our heads. My mother quickly fumbled for the knob and switched it off. But before any of us could say anything it was back on again. My mother reached for the switch again but this time she yanked her hand back quickly and cried out, "it's still turned off!".
We were still moving the whole time, just coasting but never stopping. The big house was a little ways off to the left and back a little ways from the main road. As we coasted closer and came up to being even with the front of the house the headlights begin to flash. Off, on, off, on, off, on..... Sometimes staying off a little longer making us think they weren't coming back on but when my mother would start to brake they would come right back on. Like Henry didn't want her to stop completely.
As we came up even with the house the horn begin to honk, beep beep ...... beep beep beep. Intervals of 2 and 3 honks with a few seconds between. We could barely here it over the radio but it was certainly loud enough to be sure of what it was.
As we began to finally pass the house, the inside dome light came on. It seemed unnaturally bright and I could have sworn I could hear the electrical buzz of it over our heads. We begin to cry to be let out, but my mother wouldn't stop driving.
We were just past Mame's house when my mother yelled "OK, I'll give it back!". The headlights stopped flashing, the horn stopped honking and, tho the radio stayed on, the volume went down and we could barely hear it in the background of our crying. The dome light stayed on until we pulled in, turned off the car, got out and shut the doors for the last time.
The next day my mother called Mame's son to come and get Henry. And our strange lives went on as usual.