The two-car Watkins family caravan nosed along the long gravel drive and out onto Highway 117, heading east toward the town of Buford. Already, at ten in the morning, the weather was sultry, but in the back seat of Dr. Watkins’s air-conditioned Cadillac, Cheryl felt almost chilly in her knee pants and sleeveless top. Up front, the doctor wore the same rumpled suit he’d worn the day before, but he had showered and shaved, and Cheryl detected a touch of nervousness in his voice when they said hello in the hotel driveway. Now, though, the snippets of grunted conversation had fallen away and the old man gazed out at the low, rolling hills on either side of the highway, silent and unreadable.
“There,” he said gruffly, pointing to a grassy hillock a quarter mile ahead.
“Where?” Frank said.
“There,” his grandfather snapped. “That’s the turnoff, right up ahead.”
Frank slowed the car, and as he did, the gravel shoulder widened and became, for a moment, a red-dirt roadway angling up the sunbaked hillside. Twenty yards from the highway Cheryl saw a small road sign:
WATKINS RIDGE LN
No Thru Road
“Go slow, now,” Dr. Watkins said. “Road’s gonna get rough.”
As if his voice had commanded it, the roadbed dipped, plunging the front end of the Cadillac into a deep rut and bucking it again as it came back out.
“God damn!” the doctor shouted, laughing. “Sixty years the county’s had this road, and they still ain’t got around to grading it.”
Frank slowed the Cadillac almost to a walking pace, his eyes finding Cheryl’s in the rear-view mirror. She smiled tightly to let him know she was managing, but she was glad all over again she had eaten such a light, bland breakfast. A single dab of butter on her toast and she would have been sick all over the car’s sleek silver-blue interior.
When they crested the hill, Cheryl spotted the whitewashed farmhouse and a low-lying archipelago of smaller outbuildings spread out along the spine of the windswept ridge. To her inexperienced eye, the land on either side of the ridge looked empty, just more tall green grass and barbed wire, but as they crept along the washboard road, the doctor pointed out a tin-roofed hayloft, and next to it, a dirt-floored feed lot and gelding pen. “And down there in the meadow,” he said, pointing, “them’s the beeves.”
Cheryl laughed. She couldn’t believe she’d missed them. At the bottom of the hill, a herd of cattle, some patched black and white like the ones on the side of a milk carton, others a lustrous golden brown, fanned out from a grove of wind-stunted oak that lined a trickling creek, their heads angled downward, placidly tearing at the grass. Beyond them, in the next field, a tractor dragged a massive hay baler across the browning meadow like an enormous yellow water bug skimming the surface of an undulating pond. Every fifty yards, the back end of the baler kicked open and spat out a rectangular bale of hay, which bounced a few times in silent slow motion before coming to rest on the newly mown sod.
“That field there, out where the tractor is,” Frank said, “is that part of the property, too?”
His grandfather nodded. “Used to take ten men and a team of mules half a week to get that field mowed and baled. Now, I bet one man in a tractor can clean it all up before lunch.” He sat watching the tractor. “Bet he’s been at it since sun-up, though. Poor son of a bitch.”
The farmhouse, when they reached it, was a weathered, two-story pine box perched on the crest of the ridge, with no front porch, no shutters, nothing but a stark blue door and four windows to break the monotony of the whitewashed walls. In the side yard, Cheryl noticed, someone had set out a wooden picnic table, though it, too, was broken-down and silvered with age.
As they pulled in front of the house, a girl of about ten, her skin coffee-black, her plaited hair tied off in wiry pigtails, burst through the front door, shouting and waving her arms like the circus had come to town. Cheryl was shocked by how shocked she was at the color of the girl’s skin. This was a tenant farm, she reminded herself, owned and operated by a cattle syndicate in Texas. What had made her think that a white family would ever take on such a job?
“Which of y’all the TV man?” the girl called out as the car rolled to a stop.
“That would be my Uncle Shelby,” Frank said. “He’s in the car behind us. But my granddad here grew up in this house.”
If the girl heard this, she gave no sign of it. When Cheryl climbed out of the back seat, the girl’s small, fine-featured face registered surprise, but in the time it took Cheryl to shut the car door, she had moved on, searching the windows of Shelby’s rented Mercedes SUV for the man she had seen on TV.
Cheryl helped Dr. Watkins out of the car while Frank rooted around on the floor of the passenger seat for his brass-handled cane. For his part, the doctor seemed not to see Cheryl and Frank or anything else but the whitewashed crackerbox of a house.
“I’ll be damned,” he kept saying, shaking his head. “I’ll be damned.”
The girl’s mother had come out onto the lawn, wiping her hands on a faded rag. She was a heavy-set woman, squat-built and mannish, her arms ropy with muscle. Her face, though, was bright and friendly, gaping openly at the novelty of not one, but two cars full of visitors. Shelby strode over to introduce himself, making a show of remembering the woman’s name—she was Beth-Ann, and the girl was Adelia. Beth-Ann hung back as Shelby made the introductions, holding her daughter at her side, smiling but wary, her eyes sliding from face to face, as if at any moment one of them might produce an eviction notice with a Texas address on it. Cheryl had expected to feel a pulse of connection, one of those subterranean glances that passed between black strangers in a crowd of white people, but Beth-Ann’s eyes lingered on her only a second, blank and uninterested, before moving on.
“Cher, could you help me with my granddad?” Frank whispered as they started inside. “I don’t want him slipping on these steps.”
There were only two steps to the front door and they were low ones, but Cheryl dutifully led the doctor inside, taking one of his bird-like arms to help him up the stairs. Inside, the house was neat to the point of barrenness: a battered sofa facing an equally battered-looking television in one corner, and in another, an oval table surrounded by four mismatched chairs. Other than a coiled-rag rug laid out between the sofa and TV, there was nothing soft or pretty to brighten the immaculate room. As she looked around at peeling wallpaper and the cracked rotary telephone, Cheryl sensed the lacerating isolation of the place. Days, even weeks, could go by with no visitors making the long trip up the dirt driveway.
“Something sure smells good,” Shelby said. “What you got cooking in there, Beth-Ann?”
“Oh, nothing much,” she said. “Pot of greens, is all.”
Cheryl smelled it now, too, the musky odor of collard greens in fatback. A bilious wave bubbled up from her stomach, and she instinctively scanned the room for the nearest exit.
“Now, that ain’t nothin’,” Shelby said, his Southern accent deepening by the minute. “I can pick out a homemade pot of greens a mile off. Grew ’em here, I bet.”
“Mm-hmm,” Beth-Ann allowed. “Picked ’em myself this morning. My Ronald won’t eat no store-bought. Cure his own meat, too.”
“You hear that, Daddy?” Shelby asked. “I bet you haven’t had a home-smoked ham since you left this house.”
“Can the doctor have smoked meats?” Beth-Ann asked Cheryl.
Cheryl stared back, uncomprehending.
“For his heart,” Beth-Ann said. “I can fix something else if it ain’t good for him.”
Then Cheryl understood. The small room tilted sideways, sloshing her insides like a washing machine. “I need to get outside, now,” she said.
“Cher, wait,” Frank said, reaching for her.
But she slipped his grasp and stumbled out through the living room to the front yard. A hot arrow of bile shot into her mouth, doubling her over, but nothing came up. She just stood bent in the tall grass, her eyes tearing, her back spasming as she gasped like a fish fighting to dislodge a hook.
“Breathe, Cher,” Frank said at her side. “Just try to breathe, okay?”
She thought I was the fucking nursemaid, Cheryl screamed, but no words came, only a faint, animal-like howl of pain. Her stomach lurched again like a fist slamming into her lungs, nearly knocking her off her feet.
“For God’s sake, leave her be,” Dr. Watkins said, hobbling toward them on his cane. “Give her some air.”
“Grandpa, please stay out of this,” Frank said.
“She’s gonna be sick, boy,” his grandfather said, waving his walking stick. “We need to get her moving, get her away from all these people.”
“I don’t feel like walking right now,” Cheryl whispered, her throat hot with bile.
“I know it, honey,” he said, tugging her arm. “But it’ll take your mind off your stomach.”
“Grandpa!” Frank shouted after them.
“How long you been having these spells?” the doctor asked, ignoring him.
“I don’t know, maybe two or three days.” Cheryl turned to him, seeing his cloudy blue eyes studying her, taking her in. “Okay, a week. Maybe more.”
“Just in the morning, or all day?”
“It was just mornings at first,” she said. “But now it’s all day, sometimes three or four times a day. It comes out of nowhere, and then I can’t keep anything down.”
They were on the road now, walking slowly, the doctor leading Cheryl by the arm.
“You taking anything?” he asked. “Zofran? Dramamine?”
“Vitamin B6. Sometimes a little ginger tea.” When he fell quiet, she added, “I was afraid to hurt the baby.”
“Nothing wrong with a little Dramamine or Zofran,” he said. “You can pick up some in town, but for now we’re gonna do it the old-fashioned way.” He turned to Frank, who was following them a few miserable steps behind. “Son, go in that house and ask for a lemon.”
“Sliced right down the middle. That woman in there, she’ll know what it’s for.”
“I’m feeling a little better,” Cheryl said.
“Good, good. But a ride in a car’s the last thing you need. We’ll get you some sliced lemon and maybe she can dig up some ginger crackers. You seen a doctor yet?”
Cheryl stared at her sandaled feet, embarrassed. “No. I know I need to.”
“Well, he can talk to you about the morning sickness,” the doctor said. “Most times, it’s a good thing, means the baby’s growing normally. But there’s something called hyperemesis gravidarum. Doesn’t happen often, but trust me, you don’t want it. The doctor can talk to you about that, too.” He paused and his grave eyes settled on her again. “Any idea how far you are along?”
“About seven weeks, I think.”
He looked over his shoulder. “You and the boy talked about it?”
She nodded. “We had a long talk last night. He’s, well, he’s pretty scared. So am I.”
“Hell, who wouldn’t be?” he said, laughing. “I never will forget the day I heard Rebecca was pregnant with Frank’s daddy. I was in the Army, stationed at Fort Sam Houston in Texas. Got the news in a telegram. ‘Test confirmed. Stop. Congratulations.’ That’s all it said. I ran all over those damn barracks, yelling, ‘I’m gonna be a daddy! I’m gonna be a daddy!’ Ten minutes later, I thought: ‘This war better end soon, ’cause I sure as hell can’t raise a family on what Uncle Sam’s paying me.’”
In his cadence, in the timing of the punchline, Cheryl heard the patter of a small-town doctor. He had told this same story, probably in those very words, she realized, to dozens of young, frightened women over the years. Still, it comforted her. There wasn’t a war on. She and Frank were bright, capable people with plenty of education. Her parents would be shocked, and the minute word spread that Cheryl Crawford was pregnant with a white boy’s baby, tongues would be wagging from Brookline to Oak Bluffs. But white, brown, or black, this child would be her parents’ grandchild, their first. Her father would be furious at her, and he might never take to Frank, but he would dote on this child. He would.
“I’m sorry you never met my wife,” the doctor said. “I have an idea you two might have got along.”
They had reached the open ridgeline, and the breeze blowing up from the valley, scented with clover and newly mown grass, had begun to clear the bile from her nostrils, allowing her to breathe again, think again.
“Frank’s told me some stories about her,” she said.
“You remind me of her, a little,” the doctor said. “The way you carry yourself, the way you’re always lookin’ to run everything. She was like that till her dying day. I reckon you got a bit of her meanness in you, too.”
Cheryl looked up. “Her meanness?”
“Oh yes. Rebecca could be mean as hell if she had to. And tough? I never met anybody so stubborn. It’s how she got so much done.”
Behind them, Frank was loping toward them along the dirt road, a halved lemon in his hand. He was shouting something, but his words were lost on the wind.
“And you think I’m like that?” she asked. “Mean as hell?”
The smile on the doctor’s face was gentle but firm. “I sure hope so, honey,” he said. “The world’s changed, but it ain’t changed that much.”
About the author:
Michael Bourne’s fiction has appeared in Tin House, December, The Southampton Review, The Common, and The Cortland Review. He is a contributing editor at Poets & Writers Magazine and a staff writer for The Millions.