Chasing the Calm after the Storm
The more things change, the more they remain the same
A year had passed since our last visit home, and I have to admit I was both apprehensive and excited about the return. I was apprehensive because I wasn’t real sure how my family and friends would react to me. You see, I grew up in a small town in Northwest Louisiana, small enough where you knew everyone in the community and they knew you. I often hear stories about people that grew up in close-knit communities where if they were to get in trouble at school, that before they got home they would have to hear it not only from their teacher, but from their neighbors, their mother and then the father when he made it home. But that’s the way it was for me, and as much as I begrudged it then, when I look back on that time in my life, it provided a sense of comfort that I never experienced living in a bigger city.
Driving through the old town nothing had seemed to change. I recall my father saying, “Wow, this place looks like the world that time forgot.” And he was right, the school that I attended as a child looked worn from years of guiding young minds and was in need of a fresh coat of inspiration. Local businesses advertised today’s specials, using yesterday’s methods and tomorrow’s pricing. The same guys that used to stand outside of their homes all day drinking beers and telling lies were still there with fresh beers and the same old lies. Again, as a kid seeing this behavior everyday it didn’t seem strange to me. It took me leaving and seeing how other people lived in the world to recognize the oddity of it.
When we finally arrived to my grandmother’s house, I welcomed the familiarity of home. My grandmother was a big woman that gave an even bigger hug. In the year that I had been gone, I missed her and that hug, and just being in her house instantly brought back so many warm memories from my childhood. Big Mama, as all the kids and adults affectionately called her, taught me to play Checkers, Dominoes, Trouble and so many other board and card games. But in reality, she was teaching me that it was okay to be a kid, which is something I am forever indebted to her for. So often, especially as teenagers we try to rush ourselves into adulthood not fully knowing what that means until the reality of the world slaps us in the face. Big Mama, the daughter of a sharecropper, and a woman that spent many days picking cotton in the hot sun of the South understood this reality, better than I ever would. Sadly, however, her efforts to sustain my childhood would come to an abrupt end just a few hours later.
After catching up with Big Mama for a few hours, we made our way over to my other grandmother’s house, Grandma Mattie. A sweet woman, but after having 14 kids, mostly boys that were better known for getting in trouble than being productive citizens, she wasn’t the most affectionate of people. And to be honest, the lack of affection from her didn’t really bother me all that much because I received an abundance of love from my other grandmother. No, what really bothered me, even to this day, was the fact that I’m not really sure she knows my name. I know this sounds funny, but my given name is Eric, but she always referred to me simply as “Eh”. I cannot tell you the number of times I just wanted to scream, “Eh-Rick”, my name is “Eric!!” I never said anything however, I always showed respect, but come on, it’s two syllables!!
The real fun began when my uncle/cousin Mark arrived home. You see Mark and I were only a year or so apart in age, with me being older, fifteen at the time, but because he was my mother’s brother he was officially my uncle, even though we grew up playing together like cousins. Hey, welcome to the new American family!! Mark was my best friend in the world and I could not wait to hear and share stories of the past year. And did we ever have stories to tell. We talked about school, and pretty girls, and how crazy it was to be living somewhere other than Louisiana. It was fun catching up, and eventually we were soon joined by my Aunt Diane’s two sons, Chris and Rico. Ironically, this was also their first day back home after living in Saginaw, Michigan, for the past year.
After a couple of hours it all felt like home again. Mark was still Mark and Chris and Rico were still as crazy as the day was long. They teased me that I had come back with an accent. Personally I didn’t hear it, but there was no denying that my speech pattern probably more resembled my circle of friends in Georgia more so than the drawl they had grown accustomed to while I lived in Louisiana.
Ominous signs that change is on the horizon
Eventually, someone got the bright idea that we needed to go to the store and get some snacks. Sounded like a great idea, except for the fact that I didn’t have any money and neither did Mark. However, Chris and Rico seemed to have a pocket full of cash, so off to the store we went. “Dude, look at all those black crows on top of the house,” I said to Mark. “Yeah,” he replied, “that means someone is going to pass away soon.” “Oh yeah,” I thought for a second, “Or it could mean that your house smells like old meat.” “Either way, it’s not a good sign,” as we both laughed and walked behind Chris and Rico toward the neighborhood store.
The neighborhood “store” was in reality a trailer home where a lady would sell loose cookies, candy, ice cream and of course the greatest frozen snack known to boys and girls across the land - the “cool cup”. What is a cool cup you ask? It is small Styrofoam cup filled with your choice of juice, my favorite was grape, which was then placed in a freezer until frozen and then served. The best part was the top layer that had a sticky sweetness to it. Each cool cup would sell for about 50 cents, however, when considering how easy it was to make, the price was highway robbery, but as a kid seemed like a pretty good deal at the time.
Mark and I waited outside while Chris and Rico went inside to buy the snacks. After about five minutes or so, the weather which had been very pleasant up until that point started to change. The wind started howling through the trees and the sky grew dark. I knocked at the door and peeked in and told the guys they needed to hurry up because it was starting to rain. Another five minutes had passed and the guys were still in the store while a light, but steady rain showered the area. Finally, after ten minutes of waiting and dodging wind and rain drops, Rico and Chris came out of the store – with one, tiny bag. “You guys spent all that time in the store,” I yelled pointing at the bag, “and that’s all you have?!”
From the store we begin to run back toward Grandma Mattie’s house to avoid getting caught in a heavier rain, but not even a minute into our trek the rain stopped and the weather cleared. So, we slowed down to a leisurely walk and did the next obvious thing – investigate what snacks Rico purchased in that little bag and worked to assist him in making the bag lighter. But Rico was wise to the game and quickly walked a head of us. His walk was a cross between a slow jog and a speed walk and it was absolutely hilarious. He kept up his unique style of sauntering until he made it to where the side road met with the main road. It was here that he decided to kick it up a notch and run across the street, obviously forgetting that just a few minutes prior it rained and the road was probably a little slick. He was quickly introduced to the science of gravity and fell flat on his butt. We laughed until tears begin to form in our eyes.
The end of innocence
Luckily for Rico no cars were coming in either direction at the time. For a minute he sat there with one hand behind his back supporting his upper torso and his other hand resting on top of his legs, which were sprawled out length-wise on the street. As we walked closer to him, still trying to control our laughter we managed to throw in a couple of concerned questions, like, “Are you alright?” He seemed to be fine, but for whatever reason he didn’t or couldn’t move. It was at this point everything seemed to happen in slow motion. In the distance a black car traveling at a high rate of speed begin to barrel toward Rico. We looked at him, he looked at the car and then back at us. The car kept coming. We yelled at Rico, “Get up, get up, there’s a car!!” The car kept coming. Rico was sitting upright in the road, surely the driver would clearly see him and either slow down or swerve around him. The car kept coming. Rico looked back at me and smiled and then - the car hit him head on, full speed and dragged him for nearly 100 yards down the wet pavement. As soon as Rico’s crumpled body was free from the car, I ran toward him and yelled out his name, “Ricoooooooo!!” and all I could think about was the smile he gave me just before it happened.
Chris stayed with his brother while Mark and I ran back home to inform the family. By the time we returned to the scene of the accident the street was filled with police cars, ambulances and emergency vehicles. The police officer in charge of the investigation took each of us aside to get our version of what happened. I was the last one to get interviewed, and once I finished I asked the police officer one final question, “Sir, is my cousin going to be okay?” He looked back at me and simply said, “He’s dead,” and then walked away.
Later that night I intentionally watched both the evening and late local news just to see if they would tell the story of my cousin. My parents watched the news every night and I hated it because it bored me to tears. But this day was different, the tears in my eyes were not metaphorical, they were real, and I needed the news to tell Rico’s story – but there was no mentioning of the accident in either broadcast. That night I went to bed forever changed. Gone was the innocence of adolescence. Gone was the belief that life was forever. When I awoke the next morning, I went outside and stared into the bright blue sky. I closed my eyes, said a little prayer and said goodbye to my cousin – and my childhood.