My Mothers 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. Whacha staren 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 dont kiss my daddy when he chews.
Tractor rolled on me when just a boy. Bout split my back. Its a might easier just sitn here and chewn tobacco is a pleasure thats none ya business, boy.
Boys cant drive tractors, Old Man, and ya spitn in my Daddys yard. Where's ya teef? I asked, giving Ray a wide, tooth-filled smile.
Ask lots of questions for a boy. Sure ya aint a girl?
I held up a fist. Come on out that truck and I show ya whos a girl.
Ray Hobbs 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. Im Grayson Purdy. Nice to meet ya, Son.
I shoved my hands in my pockets and backed away. Aint shook hands with no black man 'fore, I said, turning my eyes from the sun and squinting at the thin, lanky man with the large, floppy hat. And my Grandpa dont do so either.
Grayson, neva mind the boy. Be quick helpn Mr. Taylor and git on back hea, Ray said.
Yes sir, Mr. Hobbs, Grayson said, tipping his hat as he walked past me.
Ya gotta go say hello to my mama first, O.K.? Grayson nodded in agreement. 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 cant quite reach the latch. Grayson, can you undo it?
Yes maam, Mrs. Taylor. Ill do just that.
Listen here Ellis, my mother said. Grayson is Mr. Hobbs hired hand, his helper. So dont you be calling him anything but Grayson or Mr. Purdy, you hear me, Son?
But Mama, my grandpa dont--- My mother ended my rebuttal quickly.
Hush up, Ellis Martin Taylor. Even your Daddys Papa believes in treating and addressing folks proper. You best do so, too. Understand me?
Yes, Mama, I mean yes, Maam, I said, turning to the noisy rumble behind me.
Ray drove past slowly. Hop in back, Boy and Ill get ya to ya Daddy.
Go on ahead with Ray if youd like, my mother said.
Not in the back. I wanna ride in front," I said to my mother.
Ray wont let you Son. Even Grayson never gets to ride up front.
Never? I asked. Even when its 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 comn or not, Boy?
I trotted alongside his truck, I wanna ride up front with ya, Ray. Stop and leme in.
The 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. Aint no one eva gonna ride up hea---certainly not no Nigga. Ya unastand me, Boy?
My mama gave me a woopn for saying that word, Ray. Maybe she needs to woop ya butt, too.
Ill be damned if any woman would eva hope to put a wallopn on me, Ray said.
Well then, Ray, ya mama needs to get a holt ya and soap your damn mouth out.
Dont cuss me or cuss round me, Boy, ya hea? Ray looked up and past me. He nodded toward the barn. Theres ya Daddy and hes a comn 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'n, Ray, before I have to displn ya like my Mama would.
Ray spouted back, And ya best be watchn ya smart mouth 'gin, youngn, fore I git out this truck and womp ya butt a good one. I held up both fists in defiance, challenging him. Ray growled at me.
My father and Grayson walked toward Ray and me, talking to one another of the work at hand. My father stuck his hand out and shook Rays gnarled, leathered hand. Thank you, Ray. I really appreciate Graysons help.
Grayson stood humbly, holding his hat at his waist with both hands. His dark face and arms glistened with beads of sweat. Mr. Hobbs, Im in need of some water if ya dont 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 cut his eyes at Grayson and nodded his head.
I left Ray and my father behind, walking beside Grayson and watching the shadow tacked to his heels stretch across the sunlit span of our back yard. How tall are you, Grayson? I asked.
He pointed a finger to the sky above. Why there, Mr. Ellis, Im tall enough to where I can reach way up, tickle the cloud bottoms, and make em rain. Yes sir, thats 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 dont 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 at the steps to our back porch. Wheres ya water spicket, Mr. Ellis? 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 Maam, 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 aint right, cause ya thirsty, I said to Grayson, confused about my mother denying anyone in need or want of water. Mama, Graysons 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, holding two tall glasses of iced tea.
One is for you, Ellis 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 youre out that sun.
Oh, no Maam. Mr. Hobbs wont like it much at all, you know, me standing on the porch of a white woman.
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. "No harms gonna be done."
I can drink it down here, Mrs. Taylor, Grayson said, stepping up to take the tea my mother held out to him and then quickly back-pedaling his footsteps to return to the yard.
Grayson hesitated just enough on one backward step for Ray to catch sight of him in the reverse view of his truck door side mirror.
The truck door creaked and groaned in an agonizing, grating sound 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 overhead like a crude sword. You hea me, Missy! You hea me, Nigga! he said, beating a crooked path to our back porch.
Ive had enough of 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. Hes just an old man, my father said.
"Dont be speakn up for me, Boy Ray said. Like ya aint gonna be old someday or some'n.
Hes 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, impatiently tapping her foot. Ray, Ive a good mind to take that cane from you and womp you in front of all here.
Missy, ya bout to ostep 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!
Cant make me, Missy and Id 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, and no neutral corner. Simply comply with her and the storm would soon pass by. She pointed at my father, You too. Go on. You best get up on that porch now!
My father offered no protest. He soon sat on the back porch beside Grayson and me, watching the standoff unfold between Ray and my mother.
Grayson, come down here. Move Ray's junk heap of a truck 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 dont, Ray Hobbs! my mother said, spinning Ray around to face us. She popped his behind as if he were a child, Now git on that porch!" She pointed at his truck, "If Grayson cant drive that piece of beat-up junk outta here, then I will. And I aint got no license or practice either.
Ray raised his hands overhead as if surrendering to the enemy, "I give up Goddamn it. Im a gon to the porch now, Missy. Just don't be touch'n my truck or try'n to drive it."
My mother, as mad as she was, still stood by Rays side to insure he didnt 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. Dont 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 Maam."
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 dont make excuses that you cant. Ive done set two extra places at the dinner table. Ill not hear of you refusing my cooking."
Two places? Ray asked. Missy, ya done gone and gochya way once with me, but if ya think Im gonna set and eat at ya table with with that nig---
My mother stomped her right foot, gritted her teeth, and clinched her fists, Dont you dare say that word, Ray Hobbs!
Ray eased himself into a porch rocker, turned his head and spit into the yard. Ill eat on ya porch with the damn dogs fore I disgrace myself atchu dinner table.
No Ray---you wont," my mother said, as she sat down in the rocker next to him. 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 Taylors 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 on my mother's azalea bushes, but my mother got her way in the end 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. Ray grumbled and muttered to himself. He narrowed 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. I aint no invalid or crippled as yall might think.
No, Mama, dont 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 fathers voice, Thats enough, Ellis.
Missy, if I was to tell ya Im not feeln well, would ya still make me sit and eat? Ray asked, still standing and leaning on his cane.
Ellis dont 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 Im gonna sit and ptake of this good familys generosity and food." He turned to my mother and father and asked, May I say grace over ya dinner table outta respect for the Almighty and ya kindness?
My father answered, Please, please do, Grayson.
My mother smiled, grabbed my fathers hand and squeezed it tight. She held her hand out to Ray. He ratcheted his bent body downward to sit with us and slowly reached for the hand that had offered to feed him. My head still bowed, I opened one eye, spotted Ray and didnt find it the least bit amusing to see him staring back at me with a mirror-image 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 eye, maybe even in the dark of night. Suspect yet in awe of him, I quickly pulled my hand away from Grayson's at the sound of Amen".
Im gonna be in sec'n grade I held up two fingers. after summers 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 kinda questions, my mother said, reaching across and spooning fresh corn on my plate.
Ray chuckled, Boy awready knows how to do that well.
Hes just a youngn, Mr. Hobbs, Grayson said. No harm in asking to learn. He looked to my mothers face for some sign that he had not overstepped his bounds speaking in my defense.
My mother smiled and asked, Grayson, hows Ophelia doing these days?
Doing right well, Mrs. Taylor. Shes set and runn in her doctor practice now. Ill tell her ya askd bout her.
Ellis, I went to school with Graysons 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 Graysons 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 me down and explained how life was for both Ray and Grayson in the time before she was even born. That was along time ago and thats just the way it was, she said. Times are different now, Ellis, and theres still a lot of change coming in this world."
I hope Ray changes too, Mama. I dont like the way he treats Grayson, I said. Im gonna go tell him now. I was out the door in a flash, well before I heard my mothers 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 dont much care for the way ya treat Grayson. Ya need to change and be good to him.
God and me. And if you dont listen to us, then ya gotta listen to my Mama.
Ray smiled down at me, That right, huh?
Yes, Ray. Dont ya Mama and wife get shamed how ya act sometimes?
Both done passed away, Boy, Ray said, turning away.
Well, Im shamed of ya then, Ray." I held my hands out toward Ray. "I'm gonna wash my hands clean of ya 'cuz ya a meany...so I guess we cant be friends 'gin til ya change ya Old Man ways, I said, putting my hands back in my pockets and backing away toward the porch. Half way 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, Im not shedn a tear Ellis. Its Ray. She 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 back yard that evening for at least an hour, just talking. Every so often, my mother would try to wipe the tears from Ray's eyes, but he always turned away. "Don't be a tell'n anybody 'bout this, Missy," 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'm proud of you, Son. We'll read together when our guests leave."
I was about to crawl into bed when the sound of heavy rain vibrated our tin roof. I jumped up and ran to the 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. "Come on now, get on out here so you can see this.
I had no expectations of seeing anything exciting or unusual about two old men drive off in the rain that night. 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 when I spotted Ray's truck.
Mama, the back of Rays truck is empty! I said. I leaned 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 and said,
"Ray ain't driving, honey."