On a fine sunny Saturday in the spring of 1980, Dad drove Mom, Brother, and me from our tidy white house on Riveredge Drive in Richmond to what was then the smallest incorporated town in Texas. We crossed the muddy Brazos and headed west through rundown Rosenberg, hit the highway at Sealy, and cut northwest out of Columbus. We turned right onto a two-lane rough-paved road on the outskirts of LaGrange near the old chicken ranch, and Dad turned his attention to Brother and me, his eyes and glasses framed in the rearview mirror.
“Boys,” he said, “I brought you with us today because I wanted to include you on this. I’m not positive, but I may get offered a job today.”
He paused and I looked away from his reflection and out onto the passing cattle country and new-growth oaks and sparse cedar. We passed through a town with a winter-dried cane break at its edge and an ancient live oak at its center and a weathered church and steps cut into a hillside to keep the hill and the tin-roofed store it supported from sliding down into a creek below.
“The Superintendent likes me and the school board wanted to meet your mother and I before anything was final. So that’s where we’re going today. And after praying about it a lot over the past week, I wanted the whole family here.”
Dad had a way of always putting God first without making us feel second. But there was something else there. I could see strain in his soft eyes reflected in the mirror.
Mom craned her neck around and smiled. “So what do you think? You ready to move to the country?”
Her smile was too big, like it was painted on. Who could blame her? She had her own teaching career and had recently ascended to Science Department Head at Lamar High School. To her, moving must have represented giving something away, or giving something up. She turned from Brother and me and looked out over the brown Ford LTD hood that seemed to hover over the road, dipping and weaving with the rounded-out asphalt.
We passed a tiny steepled building, no larger than my bedroom, standing vigil over a handful of gravestones scattered like dice in a small yard filled with wild green rye gone heavy with seed. The long sedan heaved and rolled over the imperfect road, through a wood and across a concrete bridge spanning a stone-bottomed creek that smelled of mud and leaves, made a long sweeping right-hand curve, and began climbing toward a cluster of trees and houses on the crown of a hill.
From my place in the passenger side behind Mom, I watched the ground fall away to our right as we rose. What I saw in that moment I will always remember. The ground dropped into a natural valley and then rose again on the other side to reveal a hillside that was exploding. There was the rich, near-purple of well-watered bluebonnets, the bright red of Indian paintbrushes, and the mellow pink-white of evening primroses all shot across a rich green carpet of wild winter grasses that some would call weeds.
“Well, we’re here,” said Dad. “Welcome to Round Top.”
I turned from the explosion of color on the hill beyond my window and there at the village boundary was a sign declaring a population of 94. I thought about that and about our business there and saw the sign as it might be, updated to reflect a population of 98.
There were wood-framed houses and a bright white courthouse with red trim. Standing on the corner was a hazy see-through phone booth and across the street from the courthouse was a loose line of spread-out buildings that housed Klump’s general store, the Birkelbach’s Café, and a white stucco post office. We passed all this by and I saw an auto repair garage with two closed bays and dust-crusted cars in front, and on further down another building with a chair propping open the door and a sign for beer and ice and the words Merry Christmas left there permanent in faded red block letters.
“That’s the thing about Round Top,” said Dad. “They say if you blink, you’ll miss it.”
And then I said two words he had heard from me before. “I know.”
He caught my eye in the mirror, held it, then looked back to the road and slowed the big brown sedan and flicked the left blinker. We turned onto a gravel drive and pulled on past what looked like a small machine repair shop with mowers propped up on oil-stained wood blocks and new orange chain saws hanging in the window.
The sign on the blonde brick school building at the end of the circle-loop drive said, “Round Top Elementry,” and I saw Mom start to say something to Dad and then stifle the words. We pulled up and came to a gentle stop beside a gray Chevrolet pickup with a gun in the gun rack and the windows left down.
A round-faced man came out of the office and smiled at Dad and they shook hands. Dad introduced Mom first, then Brother, and then me, and we all shook his hand in turn under the naked flagpole and smiled and laughed at whatever he said and listened to Dad pour praise on the little town and the little school on this little hilltop hidden in Texas.
“Well come on,” the man said to Dad. “Let’s go meet the board. That’s what you’re here for.”
“I know,” I said again, even though he wasn’t talking to me and I knew we were not invited, almost like I couldn’t stop myself.
Dad gave me that look again for a half beat and then he and the round-faced man retreated into the office and the woman and children stepped into the center of the circle-loop drive where there was a fenceless playground. I climbed and skidded down the skinny, steep, metal slide polished clean by denim. It was tall and fast.
Brother carried handfuls of sand up the ladder, using his elbows on the handrails, and spread the sand on the metal surface and sent it skittering down. He grinned at me and zipped down the high-polished metal and shot off the end, landing on his bottom in the sandy divot written in the earth by thousands of tiny footfalls.
Mom laughed an easy laugh with us and we talked about the flowers we had seen coming into town and about the stark white fences and about how far we were from home and about how the country was very different from what we had known on Riveredge Drive and in the halls and playgrounds around Jane Long Elementary.
Two hours later we were all three spaced out, each to a swing, us boys swinging and Mom mostly sitting and doodling with her sandled toes in the dirt. It was near dark when they came for her and they left Brother and me there on the swings.
As soon as they disappeared into the office he started to cry. He is four years my senior and had more time by which to establish normalcy, I suppose… and maybe expectations. He said he didn’t want to move to some little country town, that he would be leaving his friends and his life. All I remember is feeling excited, and like there was opportunity here. To be fair, I did not have many friends back in Richmond. For me, the possibility of moving to Round Top sounded exciting, even fun. To him, I think it just felt like a betrayal somehow.
It was dark when we loaded up and turned right onto the two-lane and retraced our path back through the yellow lights of Round Top and down the hill and past the flowers we couldn’t see in the night and past the smell of the creek that seemed more pronounced in the absence of light.
It was Dad who finally broke the silence. “What did you think?” I saw him turn to Mom in the dash glow. She stared ahead and didn’t respond. “I really like it,” he said.
I said, “I know.”
Dad turned and looked at me in the back seat. There was not enough light to see his face, but I knew the stern expression it held. I averted my eyes and stared into the darkness outside the window. He spoke again to her and she spoke back and they talked in soft tones I couldn’t quite make out. I rested my forehead on the cool window and closed my eyes.
We found a small diner in Sealy and stopped for supper. The evening was still and the town was quiet and June bugs traveled in random, clumsy arcs. Mom stretched. Dad hesitated and stopped and motioned for us to gather with him there in the street light. He pulled us in a circle with our arms looped around one another’s backs and he looked at us each and said, “Let’s pray,” and we all bowed. He gave thanks for the family and for opportunities. He asked for guidance and for wisdom in the decision he faced. And he began to cry there in our circle and you could just tell the decision was heavy with him, but that he had already made up his mind. He said more words I don’t recall and I looked up at him after he said Amen because I had never seen him cry.
Tear tracks still lay on his cheeks and his lashes were wet. He took off his glasses to wipe his eyes and he let out a breath. “I’m sorry,” he said and then looked at me, I guess because I was looking at him. “I want this for us. I just want to make sure it’s for the right reasons.”
“I know,” I said.
His countenance shifted. He stiffened and the softness that had been in his face left. His intense gaze pinned me to the spot and I felt something between us snap and slip apart. This proud, honest, decent man had finally had enough of a son who seemed to know it all. Looking back, I can’t say that I blame him.
Clearly trying to control his anger, his lips pulled tight around his teeth. He raised his voice and said, “Why do you have to be such a smartass!?”
That was the first curse word I ever heard him say, and it was leveled directly at me, like a warning shot. I ran the words back in my brain to make sure I had heard correctly. Smartass. And standing there still and small and quiet, I knew we had all changed that day. We had all started a new journey, each very much decided for us and yet of our own choosing. And I also knew that there were forces working in each of us that I could not quite see, like flowers on a hillside hidden in the dark of night.
As quickly as the flash of anger had surfaced in him it slipped back underneath. He dropped his eyes. As we walked toward the diner, he reached out to me and touched my thin neck and squeezed softly in apology.
And I knew he felt guilt and doubt about how he had blown up at me. And whether it was him, or Round Top, or Mom, or all of it together knotted up like some great accident, I received the message loud and clear. It is a message that has served me well in life, and I am lucky to have heard and learned it that warm spring night.
Really, Lee, don’t be a smartass.