Going Home

Long fingers of dawn gripped the cold morning sky, pulling the sun over the rim of the world. Far to the north, great piles of cumulus lay like riffs of dirty cotton, skirted beneath with scud gray as cold-drawn steel.

Darby Mims stirred on the cold earth. The north wind whipped over him, nipping at his ears like a playful pup. He moved again and moaned, reaching up with trembling hands to bring the collar of his greatcoat about his ears. The newspapers stuffed in his
shirt front crackled like cold fire against his skin.

"Dammit!" he cried aloud. He pushed himself up uncertainly from the ground and stood, his back against the wind. In his gaunt face his eyes burned like two black coals. His lips were twisted downward in despair. Ragged, dirty hair flopped around his ears and cascaded onto the shoulders of his torn overcoat. Against the wind he stood as a dead man might stand by his own grave side, cursing yesterday and today and all the days to come.

"I'm goin' home," he had said two nights before to a sad hobo in a jungle just north of St. Louis. "Been on the rods and rails most of 18 years now, but it's time to go home."

The old man had looked up, his moist eyes glinting in the light of the stew fire and said, "God go with you, feller, and I'm hopin' you manage to find home.. .1 never could."

"Ain't no God," Darby had replied softly, spitting into the crackling fire. "I've traveled this here land coast to coast and border to border, and I ain't seen the first sign of God yet. I've seen men go under the wheels and die in pieces, I've seen men shot to death and beat to death 'long side the right-o-way, seen men froze and starved to death. Ain't never seen me no workin's of the Lord, though."

The old man had smiled sadly in the soft hght of the fire, and spat a glob of phlegm into the cherry red coals.

"You seen 'em, feller. You jest ain't knowed it yet," he had replied.

Darby set the sun to his back and began to walk west alongside the rails. The wind blew harder now, the scud coming lower and lower. It chewed at the right side of his face like a hungry rat, and whipped the ragtag clothing about his body. He lowered his face and cursed, trudging doggedly onward.

What would they think to see him again after all these years? What would they do when he walked up the lane and knocked on the front door? Were they still alive after all these years, mama and papa?

Up ahead the Wolf Creek trestle loomed, gaunt and skeletal in the gray morning light. His roughshod feet slapped the crossties, first one then another. Down the escarpment the brackish waters of Big Buck Slough lapped cold and forbidding against the levee bottom. Ghostly cypress reared up out of the swamp waters, their barren limbs raking the frigid skies, their root stumps gnarled as old arthritic knees.

A lone Mallard beat his wings across the cloud-lit water, climbing out amidst a rush of air and away from the lone figure plodding relentlessly up the bottom rails. He quacked loudly in the chill morning air, annoyed at being driven from his set by this stark intruder.

Four miles from home. A ways out of the bottom and the rails turned west by south, coming alongside a tarmac road. Bottom land transformed slowly to rolling hillside. Cotton land went to upland. Swamp rabbits gave way to coveys of quail that scurried through the briar thickets like nervous aunts.

He recalled hunting this land as a boy. Out at daybreak on a cold morning, his belly fueled by ladles of eggs and mounds of sausage and biscuits and blackstrap molasses. His gun felt sturdy in his hands, and he could smell the oil on it - papa always insisted that he oil and clean his gun before and after each hunt.

Old Rex was their bird dog and never a finer one lived. He was a big lemon-spot hound, and his papa always said Rex must have been born part bird because he seemed to know how a bird thought. When old Rex went stiff in the tail and threw his nose out, Papa knew the birds were there. He brought his shotgun to a high port with the safety off when Rex pointed, and then eased forward, anticipating the excitement when the covey flushed.

It never failed to catch him unawares, the sudden upward explosion of feathers and air, the tremendous whir of wings. He sometimes managed to get doubles, drawing down on a lead bird then taking another from behind and below. His papa most always got two.

Those days were gone forever. He was too old and tired now to hunt, the thought of trudging around cold fields with a gun in his hands filled him with dread. He wanted only to sit by a warm crackling fire and feel the flush of it upon his face. He wanted to sit down before a good meal spread on the oil-clothed table, and drink strong black coffee from one of mama's chipped blue mugs. He wanted to lie on his back on a feather bed, covered with warm quilts, and listen to the wind sing outside his window.

Where Carter's Road broached the L & N tracks, he turned north. Snow had begun to fall, great sticky flakes big as quarter pieces. Home was close by now, and he smiled, unmindful of the driving flakes that slapped undaunted at his face.

Home. How many nights in faraway and lonesome places had he thought of home? Too many to remember. The house was beyond the rise, and beyond his eyes, but in his mind's eye he could still see it clearly...two stories of white clapboard sitting south of a row of windbreak pines. Large maples in the front yard - how he remembered those helicopter seeds coming down on the slightest of breezes! - and the great oak in back where squirrels played like kittens.

In his mind's eye he could see mama in her vegetable garden, her old blue bonnet tied firm around her head, bending to weed her corn and squash. Her garden always flourished better than most, and he suspected it was because of her great love for anything that grew in the soil. In the fall she took great pride in her crop, going among the heavily laden plants and filling her pick bucket time after time. She cooked and canned and put up fruits and vegetables for the coming winter, always making extra for her friends and neighbors.

The snow was sticking to the earth now, so that with each step he left tracks back from where he had come. He wondered how many tracks he had made back across his past, how many myriad pieces of earth his lonesome shoes had trod. All those tracks were gone now, save the last few he had made. Life was that way, he decided, a long walk to nowhere with nothing left to show of a man's passing. Life was like a monkey jabbering into the wind. ..in the end nothing much could be made of it.

He could see the house now through the blowing snow, standing off down at the bottom of the lane. It was much as he had emblazoned it in his memory, except that it was smaller than he remembered.... this did not surprise him, for as a child he had thought his papa to be a giant, but when he reached full growth he realized his papa was a small man - he only looked big to little eyes.

The house had turned from the white he remembered to a dingy gray. Raw boarding could be seen in many places below the eaves and a screen on one of the upper windows flapped forlornly in the wind.

The plot to the east of the house stood overrun with weeds turned dead brown by the winter winds. No sign of corn stalk or bean vine remained. That had been his mama's garden plot.

The front screen squalled above the wind as he opened it and stepped onto the porch. The gray floor paint was trod bare, and little furls of snow blew about, having gained access through huge rents in the screen.

His nerves seized him suddenly, and he shook like a man with the ague. It felt wrong somehow for him to be standing there after all those years. He felt like an interloper, an intruder from some time past better left forgotten.

He tapped at the front door glass. Once, twice. ..and again, harder. He felt a vibration in the soles of his ragged shoes as some movement was made within, and saw a slight flutter at the white curtain hanging over the door pane. The knob turned and the door opened slowly.

"Papa?" He stood uneasily, shifting from one foot to the other. "Papa, it's me.. Darby."

The old man wrinkled his face up like a baby on the verge of tears, then pushed his top plate up with his tongue, making a clucking sound. He opened the door wider. He looked slack and old in his trousers and undershirt, his gallowses hanging loose at his sides. He was bald except for a snow white fringe above his ears.

"That you, Darby?" the old man said. He squinted his faded blue eyes, moving his neck around like the waddle on an old tom turkey. "Is that you, Son?"

Darby rubbed his hand across his eyes, as if to wipe away the scene.

"It's me, Papa," he said. "Ain't you goin' to ask me in?.. Ain't you glad to see me?" He felt like a fellow who had showed up a day late for a job interview.

"Lord God Almighty, you done come home!" the old man cried, still not opening the door screen so that he might enter. "I figured you was dead all these years, an' you done showed up!"

"Can I come in, Papa?" he said. He was embarrassed suddenly, so that he felt compelled to turn his face away for a moment. It was hard for him to look upon his father's face; the years had taken their toll.

"Come in out of that cold, Son," the old man said suddenly, pushing the screen door open. "Come on in 'fore you catch yore death!"

Darby eased into the foyer, stepping past the old man. His papa smelled like worn leather and tobacco, just as he remembered.

"Lord knows get yoreself in here by the fire an' warm up," the old man said. He followed the old man into the sitting room, the "front parlor," as his mama always called it. It was much as he remembered, except that the room looked as if it needed a good cleaning. A fire roared in the redbrick fireplace. Mama's pretties still sat on a shelf in the corner: pretty porcelain dolls with red cheeks and swirling gowns, shiny black hair and red dancing shoes. The picture of Christ crucified still hung on the east wall, the boyish features lax with agony, blood streaming down from the crown of thorns.

"Side up to that fire and warm," the old man said, skittering about and swiping at the arm of a chair with his wrinkled old hand. "Lord knows I need to clean this place up some"

"Where's mama, Papa?" Darby asked. The old man did not answer, but continued to prance around and rearrange this and that.

"Reckon I can't seem to keep things the way they ought to be," he said, moving a doily on the end table. "Ain't got sense enough no more, I reckon."

"When did Mama die?" Darby heard himself ask now, turning his back to the fire. He could feel the heat scorching his pant legs, and remembered times as a child when he had overheated his trousers at the fireplace then sat down and felt the tight heat burning into his legs.

The old man sighed then, and dropped into the overstuffed chair. He gazed at the flames for a few long moments before looking back up to Darby.

"She went seven years ago, Son," he said softly. "She was puttin' up a mess of green beans, and she just yelled out once and keeled over on the kitchen floor. .Doc said somethin' busted 'round her heart. She didn't suffer none."

Darby turned his face toward the fire. He wanted to weep with all his heart, but the tears were not in him. He could barely remember his mother's face; there was not enough memory to feed the grief.

"Well, I'm sorry," he said in apology. "I reckon she lived a good life, anyhow."

"I envy her, Son," the old man said. He took a can of Garrett's Snuff from his pocket and poured a big dip behind his lower lip. "She's done crossed Jordan to be with the Lord, and I'm still strugglin' long here on this mortal sod.. It won't be long though. Lord knows it won't."

Darby snuggled down in his featherbed, his belly full of salt pork and beans and buttermilk. Outside, the gale whipped fresh new snow against the window pane and sang sadly in the eaves.

He was a child again here. He was safe and secure in his own room, snuggled down among his bedding. Nothing could touch him here. Down the hall, mama and papa slept soundly in their big brass bedstead. Outside, foxes prowled the countryside in search of chickens. Swamp rabbits hopped in the bottoms and quail huddled under blackberry bushes.

He smiled once in the dark, then rolled over in his warm cocoon. Sleep took his eyes, and his mind.