I’ve drive east towards Valdosta every working day for the last nine plus years. Like a metal migratory animal, my truck, the second one I’ve owned for the daily trip in, seems to know the way there and back again. As I go through Quitman, the town I share a zip code with, there are certain constants that are landscaped into my mind and these would be the things I don’t notice unless they aren’t there anymore. Twenty-five point one miles of travel and I feel like I could do it in my sleep if there weren’t crazy people out there on the roads.
I lost my first house about seven years ago, and it was a sad thing too. The big white house someone was renovating on East Bay Street was looking good. The rumor was the man who was doing the work was going through a divorce and in the middle of everything he lost the house to her. It burned down the day after he was finished and it burned to the ground, too. Ever the truth might be it was a fine looking house. I still remember the morning it burned, and I watched from the truck as thick ugly smoke poured out of the building. It’s totally gone now and nothing but a vacant lot sits where there was once a home.
I lost my first child a few years ago, and I still miss her. I remember when she was a small child, standing beside the road waiting for the bus, and over the years she got taller and taller. I waved at her one morning and she waved back. Every day I went to work I would wave, she would wave back, and soon enough I could tell when she recognized my truck. I got a new truck in 2004, and the first morning I went by her I blew my horn and surprised her. She gave me thumbs up the next day, approval for the new shiny red truck, and smiled. The next September she wasn’t there anymore, and I assume she graduated. I haven’t seen her since. I miss her. She was a little girl the first time I waved at her, and by the time I saw her for the last time she was reaching into adulthood. The upside is I haven’t seen her around town, so maybe she went to college, got a good job, and made it out of this part of the world where there is so little for women to excel themselves in.
I noticed the odd couple several years ago, and at first I thought it might have been some temporary arrangement, and maybe back then it was. The house isn’t much to speak of, in the poorer section of town, so at first I thought he might be a neighbor, you know, because the houses are so close together. He’s an older white man, likely into his mid-sixties, always smoking a cigarette, never dressed very tidy at all. He’s one of those men who looks like he hasn’t shaved in a week perpetually. Five or six years ago she looked like she was in the third or fourth grade, maybe but each year she’s grown taller, and quite frankly, prettier. I remember one Spring morning she was running around in the unkempt yard gather flowering weeds and handing them to him, and he was accepting them. He had a bunch of weedy flowers in one hand and a cigarette in the other. That was when I knew they were related, he the grandfather, perhaps, and she the child his daughter should not have had while young and unmarried. Yet children can find beauty anywhere, and they can find it everywhere. We might see nothing but weeds where this one saw the chance to give flowers, pretty flowers for the grandfather. I’ve seen him swinging her around by her arms as they wait for the bus, and truthfully, as close as the house is to the road he could wait inside, but he stays outside with her, even when it’s cold.
I saw them both in a local restaurant today, and it’s a little expensive for lunch but the food is really good. I started for a few seconds, trying to find the context for them, and finally it dawned on me these were part of my drive to work, and I settled in to watch. She’s a young teen now, at that age of beginning to separate from childhood but she allows her grandfather to carry her plate in his tray like she still a kid. He stops at each dish and they debate as to if she wants any of this, or any of that, and it’s endearing. They stand close together and they both seem incredibly happy together. She says something about the sweet potatoes, and he scoops out a tiny piece of one and puts it on her plate. She laughs out loud at this, and I’m guessing she said she just wanted a little. The go down the line oblivious to the rest of the world. He’s dressed nearly in rags but she has on very nice clothes. They sit close together and she laughs often drumming her feet on the floor in happiness.
I want to go over and ask, but there isn’t a way without ruining their lunch. Even writers ought to respect this much happiness in one place, and indeed, we above all others ought to. But there is another story here. He is an older white man in his mid-sixties and she is a young black tween. He’s old enough to have grown up in a very segregated South, and if he’s from this part of South Georgia, the times were very bad, and the division sharp. She doesn’t look like she’s mixed race. Her skin is the same tone as dark chocolate, deep dark brown, and her entire body glows with happiness.
It is likely my assumptions about these two are near the mark. But whatever their past is, they have grown past it, evolved past the past, and learned to live here and now. He cuts up a piece of meat for her, and she sits there and smiles at him for it. Is this his granddaughter, the last link to his daughter who I have never seen? Or is this a neighbor’s child who he began to babysit for money and then fell in love with being a parent? Whatever the past, whatever blood between them, I will miss them both when she no longer rides the bus to school. And perhaps this is it for him too; whatever time they have left together there is no time for unhappiness or bitterness. The old white man and the young black girl have discovered joy and it is up to the rest of us to find that in ourselves, and those nearest to us.