The hum of bugs surrounds the porch and though my grandfather has told me a million times their name, I can’t recall whether they were crickets or cicadas. The humidity is thick and oppressive and the music coming from the radio inside is slowed by the thickness of the air. My grandmother was inside with her girlfriends, other wives married to oil men and Army men, and they were playing Bouree or Bridge.
The gin was cold and the glasses sweat onto dainty cocktail napkins purchased for just such occasions. In my grandmother’s closet hung her best outfit, pressed and starched to withstand the Louisiana humidity. I sat in the kitchen while she pressed it and talked to my grandfather.
“I told Dr. Wolfe the voodoo queens were coming,” she leaned into her ironing, willing the wrinkles to obey her. “I thought that if we carried her basket for her, maybe we could love her through this.” Her voice was thick now with the bayou and gin.
I opened my eyes and was no longer on the porch of my childhood in the bayou but on my own front porch on the ranch my husband’s family had owned for generations. I was in my 30s and my grandmother and her Bouree-playing girlfriends were all dead and gone. I recalled the woman they buried the day after their get together. I understood as an adult that the woman had suffered the long decline brought on by depression in an era in which it was not understood.
As a child, I thought the voodoo queens to be ugly witches who came around when death came knocking. On my own porch, I now understand them to be well dressed, charming belles who take mothers from their children. I’ve heard their voices and smelled their perfume in the darkness.
I heard the screen door shut behind Grady and I listened to his steps as he joined me on the porch. He sat down and stretched his tired legs onto a table. He smelled like wind and cattle tanks and chewing tobacco and dryer sheets.
“You should have seen my boy at football practice,” he stretched and put his hand behind my neck. “He’s one of the bigger boys on the line but he’s quick.”
It was my son that he was referring to, the one whose father was at a rodeo somewhere. Grady never referred to him as his stepson and that was a gift to all three of us.
I had spent the day teaching at the local high school trying to convince teenagers of the value of adjectives and literature written in a time with which they are unfamiliar. He had spent the day moving open heifers to pastures with our massive, black bulls to ensure February and March would bring calving season. In a few months, Grady would sort the heifers and cows that would not calve in the spring and cull them, sending them to a sale barn as they were of little use to us.
“I’m not pregnant this time either,” I blurted the words and took a breath of the dry air. I felt like one of the open cows who would be sent away since I had outlasted my usefulness.
“It will come,” he said.
The first time Grady invited me to the ranch for dinner, I brought tiramisu and we grilled beef that he had raised. After we ate and the day’s heat subsided, we made our way to the corral. Two black calves were looking at us through the gate, one with wraps on his front legs. Minutes later, I found myself sitting in the corral with one leg draped over the calf’s neck while I held his back legs. Grady was carefully removing the wraps from the calf’s buckled front legs. Flesh and yellow tendons were exposed and he gingerly separated the old bandages, occasionally dribbling clean water on the dried wounds to ease the process. The calf didn’t struggle much but when he did, Grady would stop and rub the calf’s head or hip and say, ‘It’s okay, buddy,” or “I know, but we’ll make it better,”. There, draped over a late Spring calf, sitting in a corral with my feet asleep and tingling, I wanted Grady to love me.
Several weeks later, Grady pulled up in front of my home with a trailer load of cattle. They rocked and stomped and swatted flies in the trailer, waiting for him to accelerate the truck and provide them with an Indian Summer breeze. It was dusty and loud but it was a breeze. My son, Drew, had been watching for the truck for what he thought was a lifetime though it had been only 20 minutes. I heard his aluminum baseball bat drop to the ground right before he and his dog came tearing through the house to reach the front door. He threw the door open before Grady had a chance to knock.
“I’m going with Grady, Mom,” he yelled and jerked his ball cap down over his red hair. Grady winked at me.
“Ready to go, buddy?,” he pulled my son’s ball cap off, tousled his hair and put it back on, pushing it over his eyes. Drew giggled.
Grady took big, sure steps toward the truck and my son bounced at his side. He scrambled into the cab of the truck and sat in the back seat in the middle between Grady and Grady’s father, Wes. They pulled out toward the highway and it was in between those two men over the course of months and years that my son learned the dignity of work and how to be a man.