Father tilted his hat back on his head and stared with disgust at the cracked felloe on the wagon wheel.
“I had hoped we could make it to Glendora today, but it looks like Minter City will be the best we can do,” he said. “Might hold up, but best change it.”
All day long they had followed the road north, long, straight stretches with only the occasional curve. Fallow fields, gray with the stubble of last year’s cotton, stretched away on each side, alternating with fields of green, winter wheat or thick patches of brown, leafless forests. At places they passed wide, sluggish, tree-lined bayous, cypress sentinels scattered about in the unmoving waters.
It was all so different from smaller fields and forests scattered on the rolling hills back home, with water in streams that actually moved. It seemed unreal that one could travel such a short distance, one day by car, and be in another world. He realized that Father was speaking to him.
“Get out the block and the wagon jack, Son. I’ll get the extra wheel.”
“Yessir,” he replied.
Despite the cool afternoon air, he was quickly covered in sweat. Soon they were rolling north again. His wet clothes clung to his body, and he shivered each time even the lightest breeze came up. He looked to his left. The long rays of the sinking sun no longer offered any warmth. They reached Minter City just before the sun finally sank the horizon. At last, he thought.
They dropped off the teams at the livery stable. Father paid for to have both teams tended to and purchased a new wheel getting partial credit on the busted one from the blacksmith next door. That completed they hurried up the only real street in town, and even it was unpaved, to the small hotel where they took a single room. They left their bags at the desk and went directly to the dining room. There were two other customers at separate tables. Salesmen, he imagined.
He and his father took a table close to the stove. The room could have been a little warmer, but it was better near the stove. A waiter in a reasonably clean apron approached as they dropped their hats in the two other empty places.
Father looked up.
“What’s your special tonight?” he asked.
“Beefsteak, snap beans, hominy, and cornbread,” the small man answered.
“We’ll have two then,” Father said. “And coffee, too, please.”
“Yessir, coming right up.”
Father placed a half dollar on the checkered tablecloth. He had not even seen Father reach into his pocket.
The waiter eyed the coin and Father said softly, “It has been a long, cold day. A little something to fortify the coffee would be appreciated. If that is possible.
The waiter brandished a rag as if to wipe their table and the coin disappeared.
“I’ll see what I can do for ya,” the waiter answered.
He wanted to ask Father what that was all about, but in the presence of this unspoken communication it seemed best not to.
The waiter returned with their coffee. Morris Bailey wrapped both hands around his cup and relished the warmth. His hands still shook a little from the cold. He lifted the cup and began to sip the rich, hot coffee. Father looked at him over the rim of his own cup.
“Unbutton your coat, Son. Let the warmth in,” Father said.
“Yessir,” he said and fumbled with the buttons.
“Better?” Father asked.
“Yessir. Much better,” he said and picked up his cup for another sip.
“Good Lord willing and the creek don’t rise, we’ll make Friendship tomorrow,” Father said.
“You’ve done a good job these last two days, Son, a man’s job.”
He flushed. Father was not particularly free with praise. When you received it, you could be sure you had earned it.
“Thank you, Father.”
He set down his cup.
“Father?” he asked. “Grady says there is a school in Webb that goes all the way to the twelfth grade.”
“Uh, huh,” Father said between swallows.
“Will we be able to go there?”
He had been wanting to ask that question for a long time.
Father set down his cup and looked at him like he wondered why he had even asked that question.
“I expect you to go there,” Father said. “And I expect you to do well. There are many good reasons for this move. Good land and an opportunity to own our own place. Good transportation for our crop. Good towns with schools. Education is a good thing. I want each one of you to have more than your mother and I had.”
Father sounded so serious, but like his mind was far away at the same time. Mother sometimes talked this way, but Father never had, not with him. He had been excited when Father had chosen him to make this trip, and now he was even more glad. He could tell these things meant a lot to Father, a lot like when he and Grady would lie in bed at night and talk about the things they wanted to do when they were grown. He realized that he wanted to be a part of Father’s dream.
“I won’t let you down, Father,” was all he could say.
Father smiled, but before he could say anything, the waiter returned with their plates. As he left, Morris Bailey noticed a small bottle of clear, colorless liquid between the sugar bowl and salt and pepper shakers. He was sure it had not been there before. Father reached for it, pulled the cork, and poured a generous amount into his own coffee.
Father was about to replace the cork, when he paused and splashed a tiny bit into Morris Bailey’s cup. Then Father slipped the bottle into his coat pocket.
“For the cold,” Father said.
Morris Bailey took a small sip, coughed at the sudden fire in his throat, then sipped again. He knew Father took a nip of whiskey from time to time. Mother mixed it with hot sweet tea and gave them a spoonful for a cough or a headcold. She even put up her nutbread every Christmas in a cake tin along with a cup of whiskey. When all the whiskey had evaporated, it was time to cut the cake. He loved that cake, loved the heady aroma, but he had never tasted the whiskey like this before. He had never dared.
How could something that smelled so sweet burn so going down? And how had Father known how to get some here in Minter City? Back home everybody knew who made and sold corn liquor. Most folks didn’t talk about it, just kind of ignored it and kept a little on hand. Except for folks like Father’s brother Burton who was regularly having fellowship from the Concord Baptist Church withdrawn from him, usually for dancing or playing cards, but occasionally for drunkenness.
Father smiled from across the table.
“Best not tell your mother,” he said.
“Nosir,” he said.
He felt like he had entered another world. They bowed their heads and Father offered thanks for their food and safe travel. Hungrily, they picked up their knives and forks and dug into their supper.