My mother has headaches. She often has to lie down. She lies on my brother’s narrow bed in the little screened porch, shaded by heavy branches. “I look up at that tree and I think I am at home,” she says.
“What you need,” my father tells her, “ is some fresh air and a drive in the country.” He means for her to go with him, on his Walker Brothers route.
That is not my mother’s idea of a drive in the country.
“Can I come?”
“Your mother might want you for trying on clothes.”
“I’m beyond sewing this afternoon,” my mother says.
“I’ll take her then. Take both of them, give you a rest”
What is there about us that people need to be given a rest from? Never mind. I am glad enough to find my brother and make him go to the toilet and get us both into the car, our knees unscrubbed, my hair unringleted. My father brings from the house his two heavy brown suitcases, full of bottles, and sets them on the back seat. he wears a white shirt, brilliant in the sunlight, a tie, light trousers belonging to his summer suit (his other suit is black, for funerals, and belonged to my uncle before he died) and a creamy straw hat. His salesman’s outfit, with pencils clipped in the shirt pocket. He goes back once again, probably to say goodbye to my mother, to ask her if she is sure she doesn’t want to come, and hear her say, “No. No thanks, I’m better just to lie here with my eyes closed.” Then we are backing out of the driveway with the rising hope of adventure, just the little hope that takes you over the bump into the street, the hot air starting to move, turning into a breeze, the houses growing less and less familiar as we follow the short cut my father knows, the quick way out of town. Yet what is there waiting for us all afternoon but hot hours in stricken farmyards, perhaps a stop at a country store and three ice cream cones or bottles of pop, and my father singing? The one he made up about himself has a title—”The Walker Brothers Cowboy”—and it starts out like this:
Old Ned Fields, he now is dead,
So I am ridin’ the route instead…
Who is Ned Fields? The man he replaced, surely, and if so he really is dead; yet my father’s voice is mournful-jolly, making his death some kind of nonsense, a comic calamity. “Wisht I was back on the Rio Grande, plungin’ through the dusky sand.” My father sings most of the time while driving the car. Even now, heading out of town, crossing the bridge and taking the sharp turn onto the highway, he is humming something mumbling a bit of a song to himself, just tuning up, really, getting ready to improvise, for out along the highway we pass the Baptist Camp, the Vacation Bible Camp, and he lets loose:
Where are the Baptists, where are the Baptists
where are all the Baptists today?
They’re down in the water, in Lake Huron water,
with their sins all a-gittin’ washed away.
My brother takes this for straight truth and gets up on his knees trying to see down to the Lake. “I don’t see any Baptists,” he says accusingly. “Neither do I, son,” says my father. “I told you, they’re down in the Lake.”