I suppose the thing that struck me most was how large the oak tree had grown in these past twenty years. When I left home it was in its first year and maybe five feet tall. Now its massive knurled arms held a million leaf-covered fingers in a canopy that covered the small yard with shade. The old house looked the same with its redbrick facade and white soffit, yet some how different. Maybe the knowledge that neither anyone I knew nor myself lived there anymore gave it a foreign appearance. “You can’t go home again,” they say and the meaning of that phrase became crystal clear to me as I slipped the car into gear and slowly drove away.
I looked left and right in mechanical fashion as I drove past the homes I grew up around. I wondered if anyone I knew even lived here anymore. Maybe a few lingered on but my guess is that most were long gone now. No matter, I was not here to see anyone anyway. To tell the truth, I was not sure why I was here at all. This visit had no logical reason to it other than I just wanted to see things here one more time before I put it behind me and moved on.
There was Suzie Jenson’s house with that carport where we both had our first kiss. The old porch swing that had hung there was gone now but its image was fresh in my head. We had sat there nervously swinging back and forth in the pale glow of a yellow porch light. I felt the hand that I held tremble a bit as I leaned my face into hers and our lips touched. I could have stayed there forever, and just might have, if her father hadn’t been watching us through the kitchen window. He damn near tore that door off the hinges and squalled for Suzi to get in the house. “You get your ass home, Paul Miller and don’t you come back here again ‘til I send for ya,” he had said. I grinned to myself a little as I thought about it. He would have shit a meat axe if he knew that kiss was not the only ‘first’ Suzi and me would share further on down the road that summer.
Across the street and one house down was where Billy Crowder lived. The old cinder-block garage we used to sneak behind with stolen cigarettes was still there but in bad need of a roof. I remember the day Momma caught us back there and had a bona fide conniption fit. She demanded my pocketknife from me and cut a switch off of one of Mr. Crowder’s apple trees with it. It was about as big around as your little finger and five feet long. She had me by my left wrist and fairly well cut the backs of my legs to pieces with it as we went towards home. She cussed me and prayed to Jesus in the same sentence and breath as we danced down the street in front of God and everybody. All’s well that ends well, I reckon, and I lost my taste for tobacco that day.
The street ended at the main highway, a four-lane road that ran to Nashville in one direction and north to Louisville in the other. There was a traffic light here where none had been my last time home. The old Greyhound sub-station across the road and Joe’s Bar and Grill beside it were gone, their footprints buried under a new road that had emerged over the years. I guess nothing is safe or sacred anymore. I turned with the light and headed towards town.
It was hard to see now through the thick growth of hedge apple trees surrounding the yard, but there on the right sat old Medora Elementary. I thought how very small it looked now. Its halls seemed so massive to me as a child. It was here that I had learned some of my most important lessons in life. I learned that bloody noses and black eyes don’t hurt near as bad if you win the fight, broken hearts are not fatal and even grandmothers have to die. I was shown the world is not a happy, friendly place every time we had a civil defense drill in the hallway. “Sit on the floor with your backs against the wall, pull your knees to your chest and place your head between your legs,” they told us. But they didn’t tell us everything. They left out the part about "kiss your ass goodbye" because you ain’t walking away from a nuclear attack. But we all knew it intuitively.
I moved on up the road until I came to the little strip mall on the left where we used to get our groceries. Winn-Dixie on one end and A & P on the other kept one another honest for the customers. Between them lay the drug store, the bakery, a barbershop, the old ‘Ten-Cent Store’ – Woolworth’s and the bank. The buildings were still there but I didn’t recognize a single business in them. The memories rushed over me as I recalled those hot summer days when Ronnie and me would ride our bikes the mile or so to get here. One or the other of us had done a chore for somebody and had fifty cents or a dollar, maybe. We had a pact that way, a “one for all, all for one” understanding that the good fortunes of one was good fortune for the other as well. Candy bars were a nickel then and donuts were three cents each. Ice cold bottles of pop were a dime at the bakery. A half dollar would find us over under the big maple trees across the street at the church eating 10 donuts and washing them down with a couple of cool drinks. Only my memories remain of those days now, the rest of it has gone.
I glanced left at my old high school on the left as I waited for the light to change. There had been much added on to it since I attended. I hardly recognized it anymore. School was out now and only a few cars were in front of the main building, probably maintenance men or janitors. The light changed and I made a right turn before I had time to get lost in thought about my high school days.
Most of the businesses here on Old Third Street road had changed, too. Burger Chef was gone and so was that little diner where our neighbor Ann had worked after her husband died. Champ’s Roller Rink, just before the railroad crossing, was now a small warehouse of some kind. But the times we had there! As a matter of fact, it was here that I spent my last night in this town.
It was like almost every other Saturday night. At least it started out that way. I was at Champ’s with Ronnie to see what kind of luck we would have with the ladies. Ronnie had pilfered a pint of Canadian Mist from his father’s liquor cabinet and we were not having a bit of trouble in the courage department. We hooked up with Cathy Crawford and her little sister, Mary Beth. We flirted and laughed and skated around the floor backward for a while. Every so often, Ronnie and me would excuse ourselves and slip outside for another sip of courage. Eventually we ended up leaving with the girls in tow, headed to a little secluded spot down by the river.
The radio was blaring inside the little Chevelle as I pulled out of the parking lot and turned right and headed across the railroad tracks there. The crossing guard must have been broken and I never saw the train. The last thing I remember was Cathy’s screams being drowned out by the train’s horn, a great concussion and then nothing.
I awoke in a hospital bed in the jail wing of the hospital. As soon as the doctor had examined me and determined I was lucid enough to talk, a sheriff’s deputy stepped forward and read me my rights and the charges against me. Three counts of vehicular homicide, he said. The rest is history, as they say. My history.
My folks both died while I was in prison. They left me what they had in a bank account so I could try to start my life over when I got out. I made parole this week but I will never be out of this prison in my head. Every night for the last twenty years when I laid down to sleep, six eyes stared at me from the dark ceiling of my cell. I can’t imagine that being anything but a life sentence.
The last big holiday of the Summer is fast approaching and with it the parties and celebrations. I hope everyone has fun and stays safe. I am running this piece in hopes that someone, somewhere will read it and think before they make a mistake like the character in the story.