I sat on the steps of the porch, feeling the boards against my back. I was barefoot and wearing cutoff shorts, the official uniform of Southern boys. The porch was a stack of large railroad ties. Each section had at least two hundred nails driven in it. If the summer sun were shining on them, the nails became unbearably hot against your legs. The narrow highway was about thirty feet away, its tan hue rendered black in the early morning. No car was parked in the driveway because my grandparents didn’t drive, a fact that still surprises me. Later in the day, Aunt Betty or Aunt Marylou would come, and we would go to the store, probably to the Mercantile in Monroe. Grandma would let me pick out one of the cheap toys hanging on a rickety metal carousel. In a few minutes, one of the robins that preferred the protection of the cedar tree by the ditch would begin to call.
The days of the summer of 1973 filled with Watergate, and one of my favorite books, “Jonathan Livingston Seagull,” was a best-seller. Both of these facts might as well have been part of another world, one only remotely attached to Monroe County. I came back for the summer. My parents had precipitously decided to move to Northwest Arkansas the year before. I skipped kindergarten and went to first grade. Coming back to be with Grandma and Grandpa probably saved my life that summer. I didn’t know until I was over fifty years old that my Dad fled his hometown because he had another secret, one which was unacceptable to many people in that part of the state. He could kill someone and pay no price, but he couldn’t escape the pressure of violating an unwritten social norm. Mom and Dad spent many of their nights beating one another into reality. I was a couple of hundred miles away that summer before the interstate crept into Springdale. Because school used to start later, I had about three weeks to enjoy the summer. Three weeks at that age might as well have been a year. And time in the rural areas of the South slowed to a pace that most modern people couldn’t accept easily.
Because it was early August, Grandpa would come outside sooner than usual. He might cut a plug of tobacco but would probably wait until after breakfast. Grandma’s Saturday menu invariably included sausage or salt pork and toast with butter. Years later, I thought it strange that everyone didn’t have extra biscuits or toast leftover in a pan on the stove or table.
Sitting on the porch, I knew that just a few minutes separated night and day for everyone in the house. All the windows were up because the night was hot and dense. Being outside, I could hear the fans whisper against sheets and mosquitoes. As the day lengthened, I knew Grandma would be in the living room, asking herself what time she could seal up the small area, turn on the window air conditioner, and feel the chill of a small victory against hot summers. Much of my day would be spent digging in the ditch along the road or sitting on the floor near Grandma, cradling an infinite glass of Coke and crushed ice Grandma often made for me, using a hammer and hand towel. It’s a recipe you won’t find on The Food Network. It’ll never taste the same anyway because its alchemy includes water from old ground and love from one’s Grandma.
I knew I wasn’t there again, even as I smelled the dark earth of the surrounding fields fade from me. Monroe County receded and dissipated, leaving me to awaken in 2021, imagining August 3rd, 1973.
In a minute, I’ll get up, peer through the blinds at the backyard, and wonder about the intervening forty-eight years. I’ll make a strong pot of coffee, and as I take the first sip from my green Pyrite cup, I will invoke the misty morning I left behind.
I don’t dream of my summers before Grandpa died with much frequency anymore. When I do, though, I find it takes me a few minutes to shake away the idea that some part of me still sits on the edge of the porch.
Nostalgia has its benefits.
And its price.