My Mother’s Way
Ray Hobbs stopped his pickup truck in our side yard, leaned out and spit a dark stream of tobacco. His eyes narrowed at me, suspicious of my study of him. “Come ova hea boy. Wha’cha stare’n at?” he asked.
“How come ya never get out that truck?” I asked, walking slowly toward Ray while curiously eyeballing the golf ball size bulge in his cheek. “How come ya chew? My mama don’t kiss my daddy when he chews.”
“Tractor rolled on me when just a boy…’bout split my back. It’s a might easier just sit’n here and chew’n tobacco is a pleasure that’s none ya business.”
“Boys can’t drive tractors old man and ya spit’n in my daddy’s yard. Where's ya teef?” I asked, giving Ray a wide, tooth-filled smile.
“Ask lots of questions for a boy---sure ya ain’t a girl?”
I held up a fist. “Come on out that truck and I show ya who’s a girl.”
Ray slapped the rusty truck door and laughed in a low growl.
“Ya got some spunk in ya boy. Go git ya daddy. Tell ’em Ray sent ya.” Ray rolled his eyes up to the rearview mirror. “Grayson, get on out now, ya hea?”
“Yes sir, Mr. Hobbs, I hear ya.” A tall, dark figure stepped down from the truck bed, extending a huge hand to shake mine, “I’m Grayson Purdy. Nice to meet ya son.”
I shoved my hands in my pockets and backed away. “Ain’t ever shook hands with no black man,” I said, turning my eyes from the sun and squinting at the thin, lanky man with the large, floppy hat. “And my grandpa don’t do so either.”
“Grayson, nev’a mind the boy. Be quick help’n Mr. Taylor and git on back hea.”
“Yes sir, Mr. Hobbs,” Grayson said, tipping his hat as he walked by me.
“Ya gotta go say hello to my mama first, O.K.?” Grayson nodded. I ran ahead of him yelling, “Mama, mama! Old Man Ray and his black man are here to see daddy!”
My mother stepped out on the back porch and wiped her hands dry on her waist apron.
She waved and said, “Afternoon Mr. Hobbs, afternoon Grayson. My husband is shoeing the brood mare in the barn. Drive on through the pasture.” She pointed at the closed gate. “My boy can’t quite reach the latch. Grayson, can you undo it?”
“Yes ma’am, I’ll do just that.”
“Listen here Ellis,” my mother said. “Grayson is Mr. Hobb’s hired hand, his helper, so don’t you be calling him anything but Grayson or Mr. Purdy, you hear me son?”
“But mama, my grandpa don’t" ” My mother ended my rebuttal quickly.
“Hush up Ellis Martin Taylor. Even your daddy’s papa believes in treating and addressing folks proper. You best do so too. Understand me?”
“Yes mama … I mean … yes ma’am,” I said, turning to the noisy rumble behind me.
Ray drove past slowly. “Hop in back boy and I’ll get ya to ya daddy.”
“Go on ahead with Ray if you’d like,” my mother said to me.
“Not in the back … I wanna ride in front mama.”
“Ray won’t let you son … even Grayson never gets to ride up front.”
“Never?” I asked. “Even when it’s rain'n … or snow'n? A tornado might grab him!”
“No Ellis, never, not even the worst of weather,” my mother said, a weary note in her voice. “Grayson has always rode in the back of that truck since Ray bought it new in ’62.”
Ray called out, “Ya com’n or not boy?”
I trotted alongside his truck, “I wanna ride up front with ya Ray. Stop and le’me in.”
The beat-up red pickup slowed to a stop. Ray leaned out. “Come ova hea again boy.” He tilted his ball cap back and spit over my head, “Say again, ya wanna--- ?”
“I wanna ride in the front. And I think Grayson should sometimes ride up there too.”
Ray lazily wiped away the dark trickle dribbling down his stubbled chin. “Ain’t no one eva gonna ride up hea … certainly not no nigga. Ya una’stand me boy?”
“My mama gave me a woop’n for saying that word Ray. She needs to woop ya butt too.”
“I‘ll be damned if any woman would eva’ hope to put a wallop’n on me,” Ray said.
“Well then Ray, ya mama needs to get a holt ya and soap your damn mouth out.”
“Don’t cuss me or cuss round me boy, ya hea?” Ray looked up and past me. He nodded toward the barn. “There’s ya daddy and he’s a com’n this way. Might have to let ’em know bout ya smart mouth.” Ray spit again, much too close to my shoes.
I jumped back. “Watch where ya spit Ray before I have to displ’n ya like my mama would.”
Ray spouted back, “And ya best be watch’n ya smart mouth young’n … ’fore I git out this truck and womp ’ya a good one.” I held up both fists in defiance. Ray growled at me.
My father and Grayson walked toward Ray and me, talking of the work at hand. My father shook Ray’s gnarled, leathered hand. “Thank you Ray. I really appreciate Grayson’s help.”
Grayson stood humbly, holding his hat at his waist with both hands. His face and arms glistened with beads of sweat. “Mr. Hobbs, I’m in need of some water if ya don’t mind.”
My father pointed to our house, “Go on there Grayson and get something to drink.”
“Thank you Mr. Taylor. That O.K. with you Mr. Hobbs?” Ray nodded his head.
I left Ray and my father behind, walking beside Grayson, watching his shadow as the sun stretched it across the span of our back yard. “How tall are you Grayson?” I asked.
He pointed a finger to the sky above. “Why there Mr. Ellis, I’m tall enough to where I can reach way up, tickle the cloud bottoms and make ’em rain. Yes sir, that’s how tall I am.”
I looked up at the clouds. “Only Indians can make rain. Ya a black man Grayson. I say black cause my mama and me don’t like that other word … ya know … that bad word.”
“I know the word well Mr. Ellis. Not too much fond of it either.” Grayson stopped. “Where’s ya water spicket?” I pointed to the handle on the side of the house.
The sound of water coursing through the house pipes soon brought my mother outside.
“Grayson Purdy, you turn off that water right now,” she said.
“Yes ma’am,” Grayson said. He coiled the hose neatly back over the faucet handle. My mother spun on her heel and returned inside, slamming the door behind her.
“That ain’t right cause ya thirsty,” I said to Grayson, confused about my mother denying anyone in need or want of water. “Mama, Grayson is thirsty and so am I!” I yelled. I raced up the steps, flung the back door open and met my mother as she stepped out … smiling … and holding two tall glasses of iced tea.
“One is for you and the other is for Grayson,” she said, handing a glass to me. “Grayson come on up here on the back porch with Ellis so you’re out that sun.”
“Oh, no ma’am. Mr. Hobbs won’t like it much at all me standing on your porch.”
Grayson worked his way slowly to the steps. He looked back over his shoulder. Ray still sat in in his truck, his back to the porch and talking with my father.
“Come on now, you heard me, get on up here with us,” my mother insisted.
“I can drink it down here Mrs. Taylor,” Grayson said, stepping up to take the tea my mother held out to him. He hesitated just enough on that one backward step for Ray to catch sight of him in the view of his truck door side mirror.
The truck door creaked and groaned in agony as Ray pushed it open with his feet. He half fell, half hobbled out. “That nigga best not set foot on that back porch!” Ray shouted. His body was bent sideways at the waist, one leg shorter than the other, bucking one shoulder up at an odd angle. He swung a wooden cane like a crude sword.
“You hea me missy, you hea me nigga!” he said, beating a crooked path to our back porch.
“I’ve had enough Ray Hobbs,” my mother said, shedding and tossing her apron aside as she stomped off the back porch. Her steps were quick and determined as she closed the distance quickly between her and Ray.
“Oh my Goodness. Sara, go easy. He’s just an old man,” my father said.
"Don’t be speak’n up for me boy” Ray said. “Like ya ain’t gonna be old someday or some'n.”
"He’s a crusty, old fart who forgets hospitality is mine, not his, to give and take,” my mother said. She stopped in front of Ray, hands on her hips, and tapping her foot. “Ray, I’ve a good mind to take that cane from you and womp you in front of all here.”
“Missy, ya bout to o’step ya bounds with me,” Ray said.
My mother clinched her teeth, stomped her feet and pointed at the back porch.
“Get up there now Ray and I mean now!”
“Can’t make me missy and I’d like to see ya try,” Ray said.
When my mother stomped her feet, hissed and spit, those were sure signs that there was no way to safely go back to where you started; there was no returning to Kansas, no time-out, no neutral corner. Simply comply with her and the storm would soon pass by.
She pointed at my father, “You too. Go on. Get up on that porch!”
My father offered no protest. He soon sat on the back porch beside Grayson and me, watching the drama unfold between Ray and my mother.
“Grayson, come down here. Move this junk heap outta my back yard,” my mother said.
“Mrs. Taylor, ya know I can't drive no truck.”
Ray turned slowly and started a shuffle back to his truck. “Oh no you don’t Ray Hobbs!” my mother said, spinning Ray around to face us. She popped his behind as if he were a child, “Now git! She pointed at his truck, "Grayson can’t drive that piece of beat-up junk outta here, then I will. And I ain’t got no license or practice either.”
Ray raised his hands overhead as if surrendering to the enemy, "I give up goddamn it. I’m a go’n to the porch now missy. Just don't be touch'n my truck or try'n to drive it."
My mother, even as mad as she was, still stood by Ray’s side to insure he didn’t fall, and accompanied him (chewing his ear of course for the taking of the Lord's name in vain) all the way to the back porch.
“Don’t no one leave this porch,” she said, disappearing to the kitchen. She returned with three glasses of iced tea, handing one to my father and one to Ray.
She held her glass high in the air and offered a word of prayer (a warning in disguise) to all of us, “Gentlemen, this is my porch, my tea, and by God, my hospitality. Everyone got it?”
Four male voices, without delay, chortled in unison, … “yes ma’am."
My mother finished her tea. She stopped short of opening the back door, turned and pointed at Ray and Grayson, “The two of you are staying for dinner as well and don’t make excuses that you can’t. I’ve done set two extra places at the dinner table. I’ll not hear of you refusing my cooking,” my mother said.
“Two places?” Ray asked. “Missy, ya done gone and goch’ya way once with me, but if ya think I’m gonna set and eat at ya table with … with that nig"”
My mother stomped her right foot, “Don’t you dare say that word Ray Hobbs!”
Ray eased himself into a porch rocker, turned his head and spit into the yard, “I’ll eat on ya porch with the damn dogs ’fore I disgrace myself atch’u dinner table.”
“No Ray"you won’t," my mother said. She sat down in the rocker next to Ray and for the next half hour, I stood on a stool and watched through the screened kitchen window as Ray Hobbs received an earful of Sara Mae Taylor’s philosophy on life, God, church, family and friendship. Ray never said a word, preferring to look away, shake his head or spit in the yard or my mother's azalea bushes, but my mother got her way and Ray Hobbs came to the dinner table that evening.
My mother pointed at the two chairs, one at each end of our dinner table, “You gentlemen are our dinner guests, always equal to one another in our home, and tonight, you both set as the heads, the elders of our table.” Jay grumbled and muttered to himself. He cut his eyes at Grayson, shook his head and then looked at me, a snarl crossing his lips. My mother pulled an end chair out from the table, “Ray, sit right here.”
“Missy, I can sit myself if ya please … ain’t no invalid or as crippled as ya’ll think.”
“No mama, don‘t sit ‘em like that,” I said. “Make me and Ray sit side each other so we can fuss and fight. He needs a womp'n from me!”
My arrogance vanished instantly at the sound of my father’s voice, “That’s enough Ellis.”
“Missy, if I was to tell ya I’m not feel’n well, would ya still make me sit and eat?” Ray asked, still standing and leaning on his cane.
“Ellis don’t even get away with that Ray so what you think my answer is gonna be?
Grayson stood at the other end of the table. “Mr. Hobbs, no disrespect but my work day is over other than a ride back with ya … so I’m gonna sit and p’take of this good family’s generosity and food. Would ya join me? Would ya join us?” He turned to my mother and father. “May I say grace over ya dinner table outta respect for the Almighty and ya kindness?”
My father, not my mother, answered, “Please, please do Grayson.”
My mother smiled, grabbed my father’s hand and squeezed it tight. She held her hand out to Ray. He ratcheted his bent body downward and slowly reached for the hand that had offered to feed him. My head still bowed, I opened one eye and spotted Ray. I didn’t find it the least bit amusing to see him staring back at me with a copy of my one-eyed peek. I raised a fist to Ray only to have it pushed down gently by Grayson who was, at that moment, still reciting the dinner prayer with his eyes shut. I closed my eye quickly, assuming the black man sitting next to me, the man who said he could make rain, also had the power to see from behind closed eyes …maybe even in the dark of night. Suspect yet in awe of him, I quickly pulled my left hand away from Grayson's at the sound of “Amen".
“I’m gonna be in sec'n grade …” I held up two fingers. “…after summer’s done.” Grayson offered me the plate with fresh sliced bread. “Did ya go to school Grayson? How ‘bout ya Ray? I asked, pulling a slice to my plate.
“Ellis, let our guests eat first before you ask all kind’a questions,” my mother said, reaching across and spooning fresh corn on my plate.
Ray chuckled, “Boy aw’ready knows how to do that well.”
“He’s just a young’n Mr. Hobbs,” Grayson said. “No harm in asking to learn.” He looked to my mother’s face for some sign that he had not overstepped his bounds speaking in my defense. “Grayson, how’s Ophelia doing these days?” my mother asked.
“Doing right well Mrs. Taylor. She’s setup and run’n in her doctor practice now. I’ll tell her ya ask’d ’bout her.”
“Ellis, I went to school with Grayson’s daughter Ophelia. We graduated the same year.”
“Did Ray and Grayson go to school ’gether mama?”
My mother's answer, if any, was cut short by Ray, “Not likely,” he mumbled, reaching over and stabbing at a leg of fried chicken.
“Ray, did ya kids go to school with Grayson’s kids?” I asked.
Ray finished his bite of food and shook his head, “No boy, not in my time,” he said.
After dinner, my mother sat with me and explained how life was for both Ray and Grayson in the time before my mother was even born. “That’s just the way it was,” she said. “Times are different now Ellis and there’s still a lot of change coming in this world.”
“I hope Ray changes too mama. I don’t like the way he treats Grayson,” I said. “I’m gonna go tell him now.” I was out the door in a flash, well before I heard my mother’s words to stop.
Ray stood in the backyard, leaning on his cane. He turned his head to spit and spotted me as I walked toward him, my hands in my pockets with my head hung low. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see him look up at my mother who stood silently on the back porch.
“Ya look'n deep in thought boy. Wa'cha you think'n?” he asked.
“Just wanna talk to ya Ray.”
“’Well, ’bout what?”
“I don’t much care for the way ya treat Grayson. Ya need to change and be good to him.”
“God and me. And if you don’t listen to us, then ya gotta listen to my mama.”
Ray smiled down at me, “That right huh?”
“Yeah Ray. Don’t ya mama and wife get ’shamed how ya act sometimes?”
“Both done passed away boy,” Ray said turning away.
“Well, I’m ’shamed of ya then Ray so I guess we can’t be friends no more,” I said, shoving my hands back in my pockets and backing away toward the porch. Halfway there, I heard the sound of a whimper and then sobbing. I looked up at the porch where my mother still stood. “Mama, how come ya crying?” I asked.
My mother pointed over my head and said, “I’m not shed’n a tear Ellis. It’s Ray.” My mother left the porch and walked toward Ray, “Get on the porch son,” she said as she passed me.
Ray and my mother stood in our yard that evening talking. My mother tried to wipe the tears from Ray's eyes, but he turned away, "Don't you be telling anybody 'bout this missy if you please," he said. My father and Grayson were content with watching the sunset from the back pasture. I had the entire back porch to myself and sat there wondering why adults watch the twilight sky, why mothers occasionally give second chances like grandmothers do and why grown men, even grumpy ones like Ray, cry in backyards.
“Come on Ellis and wash up for bed before the storm gets here,” my mother said, holding the bathroom door open. Her voice was softer than usual as she ushered me to the bathtub.
I was about to crawl into bed when the sound of heavy rain vibrated our tin roof. I jumped up and ran to the kitchen back door. My mother and father stood on the porch watching Ray and Grayson drive away. "Mama! Grayson made it rain but he's gonna get soaked sit'n back there, maybe get zapped by lightn'n!".
“Come out here Ellis,” my mother said. My father wrapped his arm around my mother’s waist. “Your daddy wants you to see this son. Come on now, get on out here.”
I had no expections of seeing anything exciting or unusual about two old men drive off that night in the rain. And, I had no desire to see a rain-soaked Grayson sitting in the back of Ray's truck. "Look son," my father said. My frown changed to a smile whe I spottted Ray's truck.
“Mama, the back of Ray’s truck is empty!” I said. I leaned out past the porch railings, watching Ray's truck jerk left then right, missing most of the holes and ruts of the muddy road. "I'm glad Ray let Grayson ride up front mama, but Ray sure is drive'n crazy in that pour'n rain. Goodness, he's all over the road!"
My mother stared through the curtain of rain draining from our roof. She smiled at me and said,
"Ray ain't driving honey."
A note from the author:
The end of the story is not meant to be comical. Rather, it should be viewed as a a parable to keep the meaning within context. The dialogue is wrote as authentic and reflects what the ear might hear even today in some parts of the south.
I enjoy writing about my experiences from childhood, but would rather have my work viewed as creative non-fiction rather than memoir given the embellishment I enjoy giving to some of the stories