The Son of Estelle Ivy Stepped Up.
Gently, one by one, he put his items down on the drug-store counter in front of three-time employee of the month George Myer. Fresh breath mints. Old Spice Cologne. A box of note-cards trimmed in gold. One tightly rolled astrology scroll. It all moved the kind of slow and easy you don't see much of anymore. Nobody even noticed the girl in line, doing her best to get the attention of somebody. She had realized if you pour a red knit dress over a standard body and stack it all on top of a pair of black vinyl high-heeled boots, men would surely notice. But not here today, at least not the son of Estelle Ivy. This day was all about something else. This day he would see his son for the first time since he got sprung.
After six months in the Lenoir County jail, and two years under the supervision of a man named Travis Outlaw in Facility twenty-four, otherwise known as the Eastern Correctional Institution, he had graduated with a GED and a vocational certificate in horticulture. Ever since getting out a few months back, he had been trying to get a job, but only seemed to be able to land day work and handy-man gigs that didn't pay much. Last month he had also gotten himself some information on going up to State to get a real degree so he could learn more about crop production, but he hadn't done anything about that yet. He was still thinking on it.
In fact, he thought a lot of the time now, and he thought a lot about how it wasn't so bad that he had to pay all those years for a mistake made when he was drunk. What gave him so much trouble was that his son had paid too. He hadn't seen the boy since he was just a little more than a baby and he hadn't seen a picture for the last year.
After he was finished at the drugstore, he headed to The Sunshine Diner for breakfast, where he was meeting his best friend, Franklin T. Robinson, who happened to be a forty-seven year old black man. Around town, that got Estelle Ivy's son called some ugly names. This never bothered him much.
Franklin was waiting at the counter, already on his third cup of coffee. The big hands that held the small white cup were rough and scarred from the tobacco fields in Pink Hill where he had spent most of his days since coming out of the state home one day past his eighteenth birthday. His face was pock-marked and his eyes big and brown.
“You gonna try Sarah's grits again?” Franklin asked with raised eyebrows.
“Suppose I will.”
“Mighty brave, mighty brave,”
“What's news, Franklin?”
“Did you hear about that fire off Highway 17?”
“Yep, sure did.”
“It happened right under the fire tower,” Franklin said, a little amused.
“Yeah, I did hear about it. Heard too that you could see the smoke clear to the Casey place.”
“Yep, sure ‘nough. Sure ‘nough. Tough to lose all them trees,” Franklin said taking another sip of his coffee.
“It'll grow back. It always does. You just gotta leave it alone, don't mess with it. Before long, it'll be better than before. Stronger than it ever was.”
Franklin put his fork down, picked up his napkin and wiped his chapped lips. “That's true.”
“Yep, some people got to be the ones that just leave it alone. It won't take but a few days before the plants will start sprouting up. That's the way it is. That's how it works.”
Franklin put his hand on his friend's back, “Yes sir, ain't that the way.” After looking at him a little longer, Franklin asked, “So how you been doin' these last coup'la weeks?”
“Okay, I suppose. Okay.”
“Good,” Franklin said.
“Still cain't sleep though. Every night I wake up, seems like near once an hour. And it always takes me layin' in the bed for a long time before I can even get to sleep in the first place.”
Franklin nodded, “Yep, I can tell. Listen here, you gotta relax startin' out. You gotta lay there and think about your body bein' heavy. Heavy like a bag of wet sand. Then you gotta start relaxing your face.” Franklin closed his eyes and put his head back, “One thing at a time, real slow. First your eyes and then your mouth and nose. Then your arms and legs, and toes…even your skin.”
“Uh huh,” he said to Franklin, trying to imagine doing this kind of thing.
“Fine, don't believe me then,” Franklin said shaking his head.
“I do believe you.”
Franklin cut his eyes over at him, real sharp.
Then those two grown men sat on their little low stools and closed both their eyes together. Right about then Sherry (called Sherrags by most everybody) who was a waitress that had only been working at the Sunshine for two years, walked by with her magic hips, “Ya'll okay?” she asked. They both opened their eyes at the same time and looked at her.
“Yep. We're fine, just fine,” Franklin said.
The two men laughed and went back to their breakfast. Finishing it together, like they had for twenty years, both sopping up their egg yolks with biscuits until all the yellow was gone from their round plates. Before long, they were paying their bill up at the register and parting ways, at least until tomorrow morning's breakfast.
Estelle Ivy was known as Crazy Estelle around town. People had lost count of how many husbands she had before she died in a car crash on a dark two lane road just across the county line. While she was alive, her son had been taken care of by a string of people. Some good, some not good. He was always dropped off with a promised return and a kiss from his mother, but it hadn't taken him long to figure out she never came back when she said she would.
After his breakfast with Franklin, he turned into the Pleasant Acres Mobile Home Park, thinking about one of those times his mother didn't show back up. He parked his El Camino in the driveway, which was a place in his yard where the grass was just a little bit bare in two thin strips. He climbed up the cinder block steps, unlocked his door, and went inside just as it was starting to rain.
The trailer was about ten years old, but still in good shape. The carpet was a deep red and orange, the color of rust on the bottom of a steel bridge. The walls were covered with dark paneling. The furniture seemed to blend in with it all, including the faded starburst Formica table-top where he sat down.
There were plant trays all around the trailer. Near every light source there were at least two or three. A few were the green plastic ones a neighbor had thrown out on garbage day. A few were made from the bottom of plastic milk jugs he had cut in half a week earlier. Some he had made out of paper mache' and a couple of them under the kitchen window were the ones he had made from egg cartons by poking a hole into the bottom of each egg socket. In every tray there were seeds and seedlings and newborn plants at different stages. From a little raised bump of dirt about to be pushed through by a tiny double leaf, to the ones already an inch tall, he tended them with great care.
At a bit past two, with gelled-back hair, a wave right down the middle, the Members Only jacket he got back after leaving prison, and Wrangler jeans still black-blue, he headed out, driving toward the place where he hoped to see his son. He arrived at Barnet Park over half an hour early. The park was the pride of the town. Located near the Neuse River, it had a picnic shelter, tee-ball fields and soccer fields, a nature trail and the playground where the boy's mother, Sandy, was supposed to bring him at three.
There weren't many people there, but a few mothers were spending their time either chasing their kids or trying to force them onto slides and swings that didn't seem all that interesting to the littlest ones. He found an empty bench where he could see the whole playground and the whole parking area. He sat down with his back real straight and one hand cupping each of his knees, and for the next thirty minutes Estelle Ivy's son sat there on that bench, without moving, not an inch.
As three o'clock came and went his nerves began to dump little shots of adrenaline into his chest. He started being strangely aware of every move around him. Every sensation was intensified, his eyes catching every jay bird that darted from one tree to another and every yelp from one of the dogs playing or being walked around the park. He stayed on the bench for a while more, only moving slightly when he felt his circulation going bad in one foot or the other.
At around three-thirty he got up from the bench and walked back and forth in front of it. He went over to one of the pine trees to take a look at the place where the bark was diseased and peeling off. Four o'clock came and went. Most of the other people had left the park without noticing him much, but a few had looked him up and down like they figured he was up to no good before packing up their children into their cars and leaving him to keep waiting.
He sat back down on the bench for a spell. Got a song stuck in his head. Noticed the sole of one of his shoes had started to peel off. Pondered on this and that. Got back up and walked back and forth by the bench again. Then he heard the bells from the Grace Baptist Church announce it was Five o'clock. By this time, his awareness, sharp like a Buck Knife earlier, had gone pretty dull and he was starting to feel a little sick to his stomach.
It was a few minutes later when a Sheriff's Deputy pulled up in his dark brown patrol car. He made a bee-line over to the only person left in the park. “Hello there,” the deputy said, before looking around, “Boy howdy, that was a big rain today, huh.”
“Yep, sure was. Lotta rain, alright.”
The deputy sat down on the bench and looked over. “Ain't you Estelle Ivy's son?”
“Why don't you tell me what you're up to hanging out at a playground all day?”
Looking straight ahead, and not at the Deputy, “I've been waitin' on somebody. But I don't guess they're gonna come now,” he said.
“Okay, well then why don't you just move on from here, son. Before long it'll be dark and there's no sense in giving people the idea that you're up to something that ain't right. You know you can't just hang out all day at a playground by yourself,” the deputy said as he hooked his thumbs into two of his belt loops.
“Okay, then. You take it easy,” the Deputy said right before his radio cracked to life. He pushed a button on the side of it, turned around, and walked toward the still idling patrol car. After he got into his car, he talked on his radio for a minute before pulling out of the parking lot with a tip of his hat.
When the Sheriff drove away the park was quiet for the first time all day long. The children's jumpy noise and the dog's sharp barks and the bird's jittery songs, were all gone and all that was left was one man in his Wrangler jeans and Member's Only jacket, standing by a bench facing the playground. He just stood there for a couple of minutes, looking around. He went back over to the pine tree he had seen earlier and peeled off a piece of the bark and put it in his jacket pocket so he could take it home and study it.
Then he took a note card, in a gold-trimmed and sealed envelope, out of the other pocket.
I'm sorry I didn't see you today.
I'll come back next week.
He walked past the set of swings next to the jungle gym, where the flat wooden planks hung still in the breezeless late afternoon. On the curb just beyond the playground there was a blue Postal Service mailbox next to an aluminum trash can. He started walking toward it. His face was a little clenched, his forehead formed into grooves. Once he got there, he lifted the envelope and pushed it toward the mailbox, and just like he had the last three times he had done this, he dropped the envelope into the trash can.
The son of Estelle Ivy got into his El Camino. He was thinking he ought to stop in at Boyd's to buy Franklin a bag of boiled peanuts for tomorrow, so he headed off in that direction.
As he drove down the main road through Pink Hill, the ground fog was blanketing the flat green land, so thick that it covered the tires on the tractors that were resting in the fields.