As a little girl, the open road was my magic carpet. It lured me out of my surroundings. The car crossed the Duval county line, and I felt free.
One Sunday, I traveled to my godmother’s childhood home after we attended church. Red clay dust threaded itself through the fence. Laughter crackled from the picnic tables.
I flitted around the front yard and captured snatches of conversations. I pocketed them, those lulls and inflections along the Southern exchange.
A man with a scraggly beard and a paperboy hat cocked to the side entertained a bevy of gentlemen. He guzzled a steady succession of Colt 45 beer. A cigarette dangled from his lips.
His bony finger beckoned me. I bounced over to him, my ponytails tapping in synchronized beats against my scalp. As I stood in front of him with my open-toed sandals, he shook his ashes on my pinky toe. I cried out in pain.
“Maybe it will burn the ugly off of you,” the old man said and crushed the butt on top of his can. His quip seized his audience with a fit of cackling.
The skin blistered. I thought scars only came from falls off bicycles or during hopscotch or dodge ball. Not this.
Later that summer, the open road summoned me again. Daddy vacationed every year at my grandmother’s house in Mississippi. Sometimes the whole family went, but I enjoyed it more when it was just him and me.
Daddy fitted wooden suitcases next to Styrofoam coolers and garment bags inside his Impala. I slid inside, careful to avoid crushing my hand inside the metal door. He cranked the engine, and we were on our way.
I-10 westbound soon connected to a bridge that hovered over the Gulf of Mexico.
Pensacola seemed like an enchanted land. I wished our entrance could slough off the crust of words that old man left all over me.
I resorted to hiding in my bedroom closet or bending my head down so low that I resembled a hooked statue. Maybe that old man shed some light on things that needled me.
Things that I buried liked a soiled cloth I didn’t want anyone to find.
Maybe that’s why a distant family member touched me in places that made me feel uncomfortable. Maybe that’s why some people at my church favored my sister over me.
The brown blot that wouldn’t fade.
Daddy’s singing interrupted my thoughts. We approached the state line separating Georgia from Alabama. Sweat had glued my thighs to the burgundy leather seats.
It was past due for a stop. Mama packed us staples so that we wouldn’t have to buy anything. Daddy slapped the ham and mayonnaise on the bread and scooped up two canned drinks. He managed to keep his tan shorts and Hawaiian print shirt free from stains.
With the windows cracked and our seat belts buckled, we munched and resumed our trip. Pit stops were very few and short. It normally took us over twelve hours to reach Grandma’s house, if we departed at 4:00 a.m. sharp. Daddy mapped out every minute.
Around dusk, we finally arrived.
Peach rose bushes and lawn statues bordered my grandmother’s front yard. Her screened lanai had a porch swing and windows that revealed a sitting room reserved for visitors.
My grandmother waited with open arms. Her laughter was the music of wind chimes. Her eyes twinkled, a hint of playfulness lurking there.
Daddy hugged her first and planted a kiss on her cheek.
Always the strategist that stemmed from his army days, he riddled off a list of things to do. “Mama, I’ll start scraping off that old paint here.”
His arm swept over it in a saluting motion and surveyed the outer perimeter. “Clean the gutters out and help weed the garden out back.”
“Alright,” Grandma said to his back as he ushered the luggage inside.
I tumbled into her, my little pincers tugging at the folds of her flesh. “Hey, Grandma,” I said in my sing-song voice.
She embraced me. The scent of baby powder and cinnamon enveloped me. A soft body pillow filled with potpourri. She said, “It’s so good to see you.”
Her wrinkled hands traced the contours of my face, her beloved. They washed away my imperfections. It didn’t matter that my toe still throbbed or the gnats nicked at us or the crickets hummed in a blanket of oncoming darkness.
For that moment, my grandmother’s hands loved me.