His foot ached, but he knew by the itch that it was healing, and he released the pain from his mind. If only he could release all pain that way. The Coach had taught him that pain trick playing football last fall, and he couldn't remember how many times he had put it to use. Coach had helped in so many ways since he took him in last year. He owed a lot to Coach.
But this summer he felt a pull to go see her. Getting that job in Hadley's Ice House last month was a stroke of luck. If he had only not slipped and cut his foot so badly. He would have to use his thinking as well as what little money he had earned. Jumping on the freight train in the Lubbock backlot, he had spent five days avoiding the patrols and catching bits of food until he made it to Georgia.
Now, sharing a meal of rabbit and canned beans with a "trav'ling man" he had to figure a way to get to Lakeland, Florida. Shifting his sixteen-year-old boy/man frame on the hard ground, itch and ache pushed to the back of his mind, Max mulled over the old hobo's warning..." don't you git caught hitchhiking here in Georgia now, boy. They'll slap yall on a chain-gang 'fore ya knowd what hit ya."
Later, while the old man slept, Max pulled off his shoe, unwrapped his foot, pulling the few dollars he had between the bandages and glanced at the healing gash that stretched across the tender arch. In the dim light of the glowing coals, he counted out six five dollar bills and three ones. He wanted to save most of it to buy a suit, but maybe he could squeeze out enough to get a bus ticket, too. With his mind eased a bit, he wrapped up the money and the foot as carefully as a skilled doctor, and stretched out to get a few hours of sleep before daybreak.
Walking up the old wooden steps and on to the white Southern porch, Max proudly brushed off his new khaki turn-ups and straightened the cotton argyle sweater over his old shirt. Even with the bus ticket, new pants and sweater he had managed to still have four dollars and thirty-three cents.
The twisting door chime felt cold to his fingers and echoed a chilling shrill in his ears. Standing tall in the shade of the giant magnolia tree, he waited.
Her familiar step on the wooden floorboards replaced the chime's screeching echo. Two whole years and he could still identify her short, quick step.
A look of surprise, love and confusion crowded her prim lady-like features before the recognition registered. The screen door flew open. The pale crepe-soft cheek caressed the tanned, peach-fuzzy face. Embracing her last child, she closed her eyes to soak in the touch that she could only remember as her own hand on her own cheek. Lingering...re-memorizing. Hold tight. Her arms felt the newly emerged muscles in his back and shoulders. Pulling him to arms length she spoke through her tears, "Oh, son, you've grown so much. How did you get here?"
"By bus, Momma. Surprised?"
"Well, yes.I just didn't expect you to come all this way."
Embarrassed by her smothering perusal, the uncomfortable heat outside was beginning to rub on his collar and he sought for something else to say, "How's Poppa Copeland?"
Her soft pillow body stiffened, "Fine. But he really doesn't know people when he sees them. Sometimes he still thinks I'm a little girl, or even your Grammy Copeland. His tirades are pretty fierce and then he'll just float off into some far off place and I just let him be. But, here now, come on in. It's hotter'nblazes out there."
Unsteadily, Max entered the house, the screen door snapping shut behind him as Susan led her son to the kitchen. Pulling out a chair from the center table she invited him to sit. "Would you like some lemonade? The ice man just left. Want some chipped ice, too? Feeling a quick jab on the sole of his foot, Max accepted with a polite, "Yes'M." As she busied herself making the drink, an air of uncomfortable silence hung over the kitchen like frosty frozen air.
"Momma, when do you think you might be coming back?"
The graying tendrils, escaping the hair combs hid her eyes.
"Son, I'd really like to, but Poppa's just not well enough for me to leave. He needs me."
His teeth bit his retorting remark on his tongue, tasting the bitterness in his mouth rather than hearing it. "Well, do you think I could stay awhile? School doesn't start for six more weeks?"
"Well, I'll ask Poppa, son. We'll see what he says, OK?"
From the upstairs Max and his mother heard the roar of Poppa's voice booming his demand for attention.
"Susie, who's down there? I hear voices. Who's in my house?"
Susan gave her son a fearful look and without excusing herself pulled away from the table to make her way up the stairs to her father's room.Max heard the voices exchanging booming demands and meek explanations...
"Who is that man down there? .Is he coming to take you away? 1 told you, NO suitors in this house...don't you give me your lip, child. Susie, you get him outta here, or I'll take the situation into my own hands, do you hear?
Although the voices were mutely mingled in conflicting anger and beseeching submission, Max clearly heard the continual click and spin of a gun ...click...spin...click...spin...
He jumped in horror at the sound, but the protective instinct sent him through the unfamiliar hallway to the foot of the stairs. He could see his mother slowly backing out of the upstairs bedroom soothingly crooning, "OK, Poppa. I'll tell him. I'll tell him."
She turned to face her son at the bottom of the stairs and her descending steps made the floor boards emit faint screams of rejection as he anticipated her words. She stopped on the center step, as if she had lost her direction. An attempted glance to her son fell to the comfort of the icy blue carpet on the steps. "Max, he's not well. He just doesn't know who you are. I don't know how to get through to him." Her eyes drifted up to the continual faint click-spin above their heads. She turned back to her son, but the confusing indecision forced her eyes downward.
Max could sense the same failing fear a half life ago when Daddy died, everyone else grown up, moved away. He and mom left so alone, so destitute. Buck up, Rut. It's your move, he told himself. "Mom, I think I'd better go."
Relinquishing a deep, weary breath, Susan nodded releasing more than a sigh, "Do you have bus fare?"
"Sure, Mom, I'll be fine. You know I will."