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On The Journey Back Jimmy Pollard Edited and rewritten by Barbara Milbourn


A man travels the world over in search of what he needs and returns home to find it. George Moore (Novelist 1852-1933)


PART ONE


Chapter One Joys of my journey with steps never told. Jimmy Eugene

What God-fearing, right-minded parents pack up their young sons and send them off on an unsupervised road trip without a second thought? Mine, that’s who—Judith and Andrew Pollard. But things were different back then. People were less evil and more trusting. Bus stations were more for middle-class travelers and less for unsavory characters hanging around pushing drugs and preying on those who were down and out. Besides, it wasn’t exactly an around-theworld trip, although it might have been, so great was the difference between our days at home in Lake Charles and summers on our grandparents’ farm a stone’s throw from Louisiana’s border with Arkansas. I settled into the aisle seat next to my older brother William as the bus pulled away. From the side and then from the rear of the coach I watched Mama become smaller and smaller. The fading vision of her tugged at me and began to form an impassible dam in my throat that would burst and spill out my eyes. William never teased me about crying when we were very young—he had his own tears to fight back. Leaning my head against the seat and clamping my eyes shut, I could still see Mama’s toothy smile, her slender arm sweeping the sky, her hair pinned up at the temples. She had worn the dress Daddy liked best—a dark blue/near black number that looked like a collapsing umbrella on the bottom with a tailored top and a skinny, rolled-down collar that showed just enough skin to reveal a string of pearls her father had given her as a wedding gift. Daddy liked her in things that weren’t flashy and didn’t show too much skin. I 7


liked her in this particular dress because of its buttons. They were round and smooth like river pearls. I remember being very small, sitting in her lap against her warmth, and rolling them around with the tips of my fingers. Mama always gave us a little money for the trip to be spent on food. Fifty cents a meal did it. The thought of that juicy burger hot off the grill with lots of ketchup and mayonnaise washed down with an RC Cola sent the glands under my tongue into overdrive. My mouth flooded with a river of tangy saliva I could hardly contain and usually didn’t. The burger’s juices mixed with mine and ran down my fingers and hands to be swabbed onto my pants with no conscience of laundering. Stopping to eat meant we were halfway to Mamaw and Granddad’s where one could walk half a mile and be in another state entirely. There was a hundred miles to go. My mother did not think twice about sending us on the Trailways bus ride alone every summer from the time I was three, with only the promise of the bus driver that my brother and I would make it to the top of Louisiana from the bottom safely. The bus rocked along northward, and I dozed while the salty, clammy air of the Gulf slowly turned woodsier. I dreamed of the farm and could smell its rich loam and conifers—so different than sandy, swampy Lake Charles. Through my reverie, I heard the driver call “next stop, Haynesville.” William tugged on my arm. We’d be there soon. A few minutes later we made our way down the aisle and descended the tall steps to steady ground where the driver opened the bus’s belly and unloaded our suitcases. Haynesville proper, Granddad had told us, was once a big boom town in the 1920s—built on one of the biggest petroleum booms in the state. Long since before we’d been coming, however, its numbers had been dwindling and now it was barely a shadow of what it once had been. Not that we cared much about Haynesville itself; it was Granddad and Mamaw’s place about three miles out that we came for. My excitement mounted at the thought of seeing them, but I knew from past experience their picking us up from the bus station was out of the question. Neither drove or had a driver’s license. It would be Old Man Percy, a black driver for Mr. Martin’s grocery store who would fetch us in his old pickup and tote us and our luggage to the 8


farm. And there he was in his overalls, quickening his steps and breaking into a broad grin as he spotted us. “Why, look at you boys,” he exclaimed beaming at us like we were his own. “Yo mama must be feeding you real good; you done grown a foot since I seen you last!” He reached down to pick up our suitcases and closely inspected our faces in the process. Friendly and pleased that we were the same Jimmy and Willy we were last year, he shuffled us in the direction of his Chevy. Old Man Percy knew that Granddad would pay him for the chore with something good to eat—probably a big mess of fresh-caught fish. Sitting up high in the truck flanked by Mr. Percy and William, I felt on top of the world as we pulled away from the bus station. In a few short minutes the last buildings of town gave way to stands of pine and fields of crops and cattle. I grew antsy in my seat as Granddad’s cotton fields came into view. More than anything or anyone, I was excited to see Mamaw; all five foot eight inches of her. She was rail thin; so thin you could see the blue veins and sinew under her leathery sun-tanned skin. Her hands were as twisted as the ropes of laundry she rang the suds from, and her knuckles were arthritic and knotted-looking like a tree suffering from gall. There was not a tooth in her head. “Edentulous,” she’d say. It was a big word in her normally simple vocabulary that she used to amuse us. “Temporarily edentulous,” she’d laugh and pull her dentures from an oversized pocket. I liked her best without teeth; the way words flowed soft and smooth over her soft, smooth gums. Mamaw didn’t have a hard edge to her. A first glance might have a lot of people thinking this little spit of a woman was a weakling, but she was anything but. She built the fires to heat water for laundry, cooking, cleaning, and bathing. She tended the animals, the garden, Granddad, and us when we came to visit. She taught school too, and oversaw the general operations of the house and farm. Women half her age griped about doing half the work Mamaw did. She never complained—not one word. I’d never seen anyone, man or woman, before or since, work the way Mamaw did. She was strong all right. She had to be; she had married Dude Bernum. Granddad bragged to us about being born in 1882, a year that 9


sounded ancient to me, but an important one he had insisted because the tuberculosis germ had been discovered. He raised cotton on some of his 50 acres and harvested resin from his pine trees on the others, both of which he sold for a good profit most years. He fished and hunted and had provided well for the eight children he fathered that included my mother. People in town knew and respected him for being resourceful. He’d even built the house they lived in, a house with a shiny tin roof and porches in the back and front. The front was where Mr. Percy was pulling to a stop now. We’d arrived. At the sound of the truck, Mamaw came out of the house, wiping her hands on her apron then wrapping her skinny arms around William and me at the same time. She crushed us to her with stunning strength. I took in her fresh laundry smell bosom-high and squeezed her back as hard as I could. “Go on in there, eat your supper, and get settled,” Granddad said after prying us free from Mamaw and greeting us with his own bear hug. His hand patted us on the fanny and propelled us in the direction of the house. As we went off with Mamaw, Granddad turned to square up with Mr. Percy, and then called back to us, “Then we’ll turn on the radio. It’s Saturday night, Grand Ole Opry time.” Mamaw had set our suitcases in the breezeway that separated the sleeping room from the rest of the house. We entered the large, familiar room that was kitchen, dining room, and sitting room all at once. The big, square dining room table was set with our plates and William made straight for it as he was told, but I stopped to peer down at the table I had been warned not to mess with since the time I was eye-level with it. Mamaw’s voice rang in my ears, “You kids stay away from Granddad’s table now. That’s his space. Jimmy, ya hear me?” “Yes Ma’am,” I must have told her a hundred times. It looked the very same. A pack of Panatella cigars, Juicy Fruit gum, Old Spice aftershave, the same shaving cup with horsehair brush whose bristles had long since relaxed to one side, straight razor, pocket knife, and pocket watch—everything exactly the same and arranged neatly on the red and white checked oil cloth year after year. The hand mirror and razor strop hung on their same nails to the right of the window under which the table sat. 10


There’s a difference between siblings, you know. I’m not sure how or why this is, and it doesn’t matter. The truth is some are satisfied and obey once told, and others are born with a natural itch to explore what’s beyond. “Precocious,” Mamaw would say. “Trouble,” said my mother. Most times when someone told me not to touch something—like Granddad’s table—my curiosity piqued and I’d start itching to know. “Why can’t I touch it? Why?” I had to walk by that table every single summer’s day since I was a young, young boy. The forbidden contents had drawn me like a magnet. I was like a boy walking in his sleep. Who, besides my brother, could possibly resist reaching out a young arm to finger the razor and rub the shaving brush around on one’s own chin? The fascination with Granddad’s table remained, but it had changed through the years. Now I eyed the Panatellas. Later that evening Granddad picked up WSM-AM out of Nashville as everyone gathered by the radio. Dude Bernum puffed his cigar and rolled it between his thumb and index finger. He reclined in his chair and rocked slowly tapping his foot in perfect rhythm to whatever song was broadcasting from the country’s most famous stage. Mamaw claimed he had perfect rhythm and she smiled at the music, at us, and at the sight of her husband’s enjoyment, her toothless face a beautiful and comforting image to me. When she caught me out of the corner of her eye looking twice at Granddad’s table, the corners of her mouth curled upward and she gave me a look that said no. She seemed able to detect my every whim—a schoolteacher’s gift perhaps. In her lap was a garment for hand mending. For Mamaw, but not the rest of us, there was always something that still needed doing at the end of the day. “Idle hands are the devil’s workshop,” she said. The needle moved in and out with perfect precision, Mamaw’s hands deftly maneuvering the fabric without thought or effort. As I watched her sew I’d look intermittently at the radio, as mesmerized by its sound as I was by the soft lines in Mamaw’s face. I took mental leave of the room as if watching it from above. I savored the soft, low light and music and smoke from Granddad’s cigar. The faces and smiles and toetapping all pleased me. I was understood here; a boy who mattered. 11


I basked in the warm pool of approval. The nervousness that had been growing like a tight knot in my stomach was melting away. It seemed to dissipate in the night air coming in the windows. It was going to be another very good summer. I refocused now on the radio, a maple-colored wooden box with two knobs on either end of five push buttons. I had learned to count to five on those buttons and got into trouble because I always wanted to push in on the grill cloth covering the speaker. Old time country music reverberated against clapboard walls and filled the room with its tinny, familiar sound. This was the Opry before strictly-country Opry manager Jim Denny told Elvis he ought to take his rhythm and blues back to Memphis and keep his truck driving job. This was the Opry after it had moved to the Ryman Auditorium and lifted the ban on drums and horns. Worn out from the bus ride, relaxed, fed, safe, and lulled by the music, I drifted off into a peaceful sleep. Granddad most likely carried me to bed, because it was there I woke up alone surrounded by a sea of rumpled sheets. A long ray of light reached into the breezeway and fell across the floor. Granddad was already out behind Beulah the mule, his steely blue eyes focused on plowing under Mamaw’s spring garden, the delicate salad greens, radish, and onions having all been eaten and long since gone. On my way to the two-hole outhouse, which was uptown in those days, I waved to him but he was too intent to wave back, although he may have nodded in my direction. I took no offense; he was a quiet man who meant what he said about everything, including actions speaking louder than words. The sun glistened off his skin and set his red hair aflame. I stared at this short man with muscles of braided rope bending backwards in full effort to dig the plow in deeply and carve out another day. How different from the man last night tipped all the way back in his rocker as relaxed as Gumby and enjoying music and cigars. On my return to the house I saw Mamaw by the fire pit standing between two big iron pots, one for washing clothes and one for rinsing. Before the clothes could go into the rinsing pot after being stirred around in the boiling-hot washing water, they were scrubbed on the washboard. Her arms pumped up and down across the board and I thought I recognized my pants from yesterday. 12


“Morning Jimmy,” she called looking up and still scrubbing. “Morning Mamaw.” “You boys need to get ya something to eat and ready yourselves for church. Food’s on the table; wash basin is on the sideboard; your white shirt and black bow tie is hanging up.” “Yes Ma’am,” I said picking up my step. Mamaw had already milked the cows, started the laundry, and mixed flour, milk, and lard together to make biscuits. Sometimes she added a pinch of sugar just for William and me. Biscuits, gravy, bacon and eggs were warm and piled high on two plates on the table. I flashed William a grin intended to register that this was a real breakfast compared to our usual Sunday morning bowl of lackluster cold cereal back home. Here was my plate, my very own special plate, full of my favorite things. A few summers ago I’d taken a liking to a plate with a wild rose pattern on it. It had a tablespoonsized chip out of one side, was thin and lightweight, and was easy to spot among the others. It may have been damaged goods, but it suited me just fine. That it was my plate was an unspoken understanding between Mamaw and me. It had never been discussed; it just was, and we both knew it. By the time we finished eating, the water in the basin had lost most of its heat. I rubbed as little soap as possible on the rag to still be able to say I used soap and not lie to Mamaw, but not enough to qualify as taking a bath. I scrubbed up under my arms, around my neck, splashed my face, and got into my clothes. That was enough washing up for one day. Old Military Road ran in front of the farm and led to a two-lane dirt highway that took us the three miles to town. Dreading the walk, I slipped a couple pieces of bacon into my pants pocket. I’d whip one out for motivation when I felt like I positively could not go one step farther. “Ten more steps to a bite of bacon,” I’d say. And then it would be a hundred more until the next. The drudgery of walking the endless road was something I did not think a boy my age should have to endure unless he was of the mind to. It was a good thing that getting to church on foot wasn’t left up to my little mind of convenience. We went—every Sunday morning and Wednesday evening. Around here, giving thanks and praying that the good Lord’s hand would 13


be upon us wasn’t some hit-or-miss proposition. As far as the walk itself was concerned, enduring it while listening to my grandparents talk about everything from McCarthyism to growing cucumbers was laying a foundation I would need later on. It was rare to be passed by a car on the road leading into town except for on Sunday. Their neighbor Joe and his wife stopped alongside us in their black 1949 Ford two-door sedan. Mamaw turned her head away from them, reached into her pocket, and slipped her teeth into her sunken face. “Fine morning we got here Mrs. Bernum,” Joe said, sticking his head halfway out the open window. “Sure enough is,” Mamaw answered, and then spoke to Joe’s wife. “Morning, Katie.” “Morning,” Katie said smiling as she leaned forward to look around her husband. She might have asked Mamaw how her corn was coming this year or for some gardening advice, but there was a good ways yet to get to church and she knew Mamaw wouldn’t accept a ride—she never had. Mamaw was a fine gardener known for growing the sweetest watermelon, dew melons, peas; the fattest corn; the crispiest cucumbers; best potatoes and beans; and the roundest pumpkins in the fall. But right now, garden talk would have to wait. “How about riding with us the rest of the way into town?” Joe asked looking at William and me. As soon as Joe’s mouth stopped moving, I was jigging and pulling on Mamaw’s dress. “Please Mamaw? Please can we ride with Joe?” She patted my head and put her arm around my shoulder. I knew her answer. “Joe, thank you, but walking is good for the soul. It gives a person quiet time to reason the mind. We will be there in a little while.” “Okay then. See you there.” Joe drove off, along with my hopes that one day Mamaw would allow someone to give us a ride to church, just once. As soon as Joe and his wife were out of sight, Mamaw reached into her mouth, pulled out her teeth and slipped them back into her pocket. “Mamaw?” “Yes.” “Why do you put those things in your mouth? You look funny with 14


them in. I like you better without them.” “Not everyone agrees with you about that Jimmy.” She didn’t agree either, but the things weren’t comfortable and she could chew just as well without them. She’d wear them when she went to town, and that would be enough. She smiled her toothless smile, and I reached into my pocket for another strip of bacon. We walked on. When we finally reached the front steps of the First Baptist Church, several familiar-looking adults greeted Granddad and Mamaw and showered William and me with hugs and pats and comments about how big we had gotten since they last saw us. As we were about to go inside, Mr. Martin’s daughter Alyssa walked by clutching her Bible to her chest. She hesitated for an imperceptible moment, tossed her blonde head, and fixed me in place with her blue eyes like a monarch butterfly to a mounting board. It was impossible to blink, much less look away. Then she smiled, raised her hand in a slight half wave, and walked inside. “Jimmy, come on to Sunday school before a bug flies in your mouth,” Mamaw said noticing me staring. She’d been teaching Sunday school for as long as I could remember. By the time I arrived each summer, the other children in class had rows upon rows of stars on their charts for memorized scripture. I would start with a single blank row, but it usually didn’t take long to accumulate enough stars to where it appeared I had been there since January memorizing scripture along with everyone else. Stamina is what it took, in my opinion, and most of them didn’t have the kind I had, the kind needed to memorize mountains week after week. They would make a good start for a few months, but before long something else caught their attention and their efforts would wane as summer neared. I knew the difference between us was a matter of endurance. I’d heard the fable of the tortoise and the hare; running the long race and staying the course was where it was at. Sort of like that long walk to and from church. Mamaw encouraged me to recite from memory as much as I wanted, even tutoring me about the scriptures she presented to the other children earlier in the year. Whether it was her insistence or praise, or my own satisfaction from doing well and delighting her, memorizing verses from the Bible came easy to me when I was at 15


the farm. There was plenty of quiet time to roll them around in my head. “I’m proud of you Jimmy. You’re as bright as they come,” Mamaw said. The walk home that day seemed shorter and less grueling, impressing upon me that it might be true what the people at church said about going back being quicker than getting there. I kicked rocks and replayed the memory of Alyssa Martin. A full day of doing chores and being useful, a heaping plate of Mamaw’s home cooking, and a washing up before bed put my body and mind totally at ease. A peaceful night’s sleep next to my big brother, the two of us sandwiched between Granddad and Mamaw seemed the ultimate reward for a day well lived. I relished when the hour came to lay my head on the pillow and say good night, knowing the sounds here that might awaken me were far different from those at home. They held no menace, except for Mamaw being grumpy at the chickens when they interrupted her few hours of rest. Sometimes it was one or two hens that caused a ruckus, and sometimes the whole henhouse sounded an alarm. That usually signaled a fox or in some rare cases a weasel. Tonight, it was one noisy, fussy hen that had started up. Granddad and William stayed asleep, or stayed in bed anyway, while I slipped on shoes and followed Mamaw’s flashlight beam. She marched to the coup on these nights, her walk fast and heavy with purpose to quiet the cackling hens so she could go back to sleep. I had no idea what all purpose meant until I saw her grab the invading snake as it slipped under a second hen in quest of eggs. With her bare hands Mamaw ripped the writhing thing from the nest, chucked it on the ground, and cleanly chopped its head off with a shovel she kept there to clean the coup. So fast and sure were her motions that I was sure the snake didn’t know what hit him. I had no sympathy though for the glistening, cold-blooded coil that lay in the dirt still twitching. Without words and with the task completed we marched back to the house in unison. The whole incident stayed with me for a long time after returning to bed. I didn’t know anyone who had picked up a snake with their bare hands except Mamaw. In my mind, she already was an angel on a pedestal, but now she was a conqueror, an Athena standing twenty feet tall holding a sword and shield, her feet apart and crush16


ing the heads of snakes as the folds of her dress swayed gently in the breeze. Morning came without further interruption. William and I helped with our morning chores and had come back to the house. Maybe it was Mamaw’s bravery toward the snake that boiled in me, maybe not. Whatever the reason, the seduction had gotten too great to resist a visit to Granddad’s table. I looked down at the familiar sight. There was no sense pondering. I snagged a box of matches and the Panatellas from Granddad’s table and ran with William to the twoholer. He struck the big wooden match and lit us both. We took a few brazen puffs suppressing our coughs, and acted like we were something until we heard Mamaw’s voice. She was outside the door talking through the cracks to us. “Boys, I know you are in there smoking your Granddad’s cigars. I believe I would stay away from that table because if he finds out he is going to give both of you a good whipping.” Then she was gone. “How does she know?” I asked William. This event further added to the super powers I was certain Mamaw possessed. Now she had acquired X-ray vision and could see through walls—I was sure of it! At the thought of facing Granddad and him getting hold of us, we threw our two cigars down the outhouse holes and returned the rest to the table. It was in the heart of summer when the well went dry and we had to walk nearly two miles to my uncle’s place to get water from his spring. We had gone back and forth a number of days for drinking and cooking water and water for the dogs and smaller animals. Two days before the rain came and replenished the well again, Mamaw decided she couldn’t wait any longer to wash clothes. She had us help her carry the laundry pots and she built her fire there and got down to the business of washing while I persistently played too near the fire after being told not to. “Mamaw!” I yelped. “My foot’s on fire!” It seemed a natural outcome to tempting fate. I had been standing by the fire ring watching the flames flicker out from under the pot. I’d stick one bare foot near the flame to see how long I could endure the heat and jerk it back when it got too hot. Like the game William 17


and I played about how long we could hold our breath, I held my foot to the flame longer each time. Mamaw pulled me away from the fire. “Stand still and hold on to me,” she said dousing my foot with cool rinse water. I balanced on my good foot and held on wherever I could as she bent over and wrapped my damaged foot in one of Granddad’s wet handkerchiefs. “William, gather the clothes and let’s head home,” she said. Then, she stooped down and instructed me to climb on. “I’m sorry, Mamaw,” I whispered as she boosted my weight on her piggy-back style. She strapped my legs closer to her with the crooks of her elbows and said, “That’s fine, Jimmy. Next time, you’ll do better when I tell you something, won’t you.” It wasn’t a question. William stacked the laundry pots together and put the wet clothes inside. They both buckled under their heavy loads, and although I knew I was guilty for causing their discomfort, I can’t remember ever feeling so loved. I rested my head on Mamaw’s shoulder and hugged her loosely with every ounce of goodness in me. The days on Mamaw and Granddad’s farm were filled with a kind of charm that sprang from the natural rhythm of living honestly and close to the land. Every living thing—animals, plants, and us, flourished. There was security in the simple words and ways of my grandparents, and a confidence to dream. It meant everything to Granddad to own and work a piece of land. Day in and day out, everything got done with a sense of pride and a feeling that the worth of it far outweighed the effort. There were never any wars of words between Mamaw and Granddad. Rather, they accepted each other the way they were. Considered an old maid at twenty-five, Mamaw had established her own identity and was comfortable with it. When she was good and ready, she married Dude Bernum, the man she loved. Dude he was, all starched up in his khaki shirt and pants and fancy Brogan boots when he went to town alone every other Saturday night. In town, he was a man concerned with his manners and appearance, a city fellow. In the country, he was concerned about his crops, his trees, his woman, kids, grandkids, and neighbors. Granddad was at home everywhere and Mamaw loved him unconditionally through eight 18


children and occasional outings when he partook of a little too much to drink. “Don’t you wake your Granddaddy,” she’d say shooing us off the foot of the bed. “He has an upset stomach.” She’d tell us to let him sleep, that he worked hard and he was sick. We all knew he had been drinking and during those times when anyone tried to imply anything else, Mamaw defended him. “That’s my husband you’re talking about. You people just need to keep quiet.” When Granddad woke up and shaved, he’d look around for a paper sack he’d brought back from his outing. It was filled with jellybeans, gumdrops, and Juicy Fruit chewing gum, and William and I got to choose what we wanted. One of Granddad’s particular trips to town yielded .22 rifles for William and me. Country folks believed that teaching children how to use guns and be responsible with them would preclude accidents in which people got shot. Granddad helped us set up a row of cans arcade-style and we sat on the front porch learning to aim. I did this for a while, and then one day while William and Granddad were practicing from the porch, I sneaked off. I liked the idea of bird hunting in the woods better than shooting at cans from a porch. Red birds were the easiest to spot with their color contrasting against the green trees and shrubs. I aimed at one and fired. The bird, to my amazement, fell to the ground. I was thrilled to have hit my target and I ran back to tell Mamaw how my sharp shooting lessons had paid off. “Jimmy! Don’t you know you are not supposed to shoot that red bird! That bird wasn’t doing any harm to you. They can put you in jail for that ya know.” Her words slapped my face and made me ashamed. I had no idea about shooting this wild bird or any wild bird. Worse than the remorse I felt about killing the bird was the thought of how I had disappointed Mamaw and brought down her correction on me. I went back into the woods with her chicken coup shovel, found the bird I’d killed, and buried it. I never shot another red bird or bird of any kind.

19

On the Journey Back  

On the Journey Back, Chapter 1

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