After ten or so miles down the gravel road we arrive. It's raining as always, heat and rain, heat and rain. It never stops. The house is wooden, built years ago, raised on cinder blocks about four feet from the ground. It's good because it keeps the water out of the house during heavy rains or if the levy ever breaks. It also gives my dad crawl space to bang the pipes around with his wrench when the toilet or sink backs up. My brother says it gives him shelter from the rain and a place to pass out when he comes home drunk. It is stained, worn, reeking of neglect. Sometimes I feel like that house, but then I think, Ruthie, you're being selfish. Your mom is doing God's work.
As our old Chevy truck pulls into the lawn “Sea of Love” comes streaming through the radio. The corner of her lips curl.
“You love that song, don’t you?” I ask, already knowing the answer.
“I sure do, Sha. I like to see a local do well. He’s from Lake Charles you know?” I do know. She tells me every time the song comes on the radio.
As I take off my shoes and roll up my pants to walk through the muddy front yard and hopefully squish my toes in a few crayfish holes along the way, I notice the town school bus parked in the alley. It's odd to ever have anyone come to our house for social reasons. It's usually only people who are looking for a little piece of salvation through mom. Who else would want to visit a house furnished with handrails, ramps, special toilets, sit down showers, beaten up hospital beds and wheelchairs.
There is no life in the house, just a stream of the dying making their way through. A sort of purgatory for grandparents, distant cousins, the local mail carrier's dying mother, the neighbor's aunt, you name it. I always sit next to them reading my homework out loud at night because mom says that hearing is the last thing to go and it's nice for them to hear the voice of a child if they still can. They are probably sick of sixth grade history by now, but no one ever complains.
When people ask my mom why she spends all of her time in hospitals and caring for the sick at our house she just says with conviction, "There, but for the grace of God, go I."
I want to say "Huh?" but I'm afraid of another hand in my face.
"Why is the school bus parked at our house?" I ask. We jump from the truck and slosh through the mud towards the front porch. Mom is silent and looking fearful. She has a death grip on my arm. I forget about the crayfish holes.
We stop at the top of the porch. Out of the darkness and raindrops the size of buckshot I see Mr. Pete, the school bus driver. I'm not allowed to ride the bus because mom says Mr. Pete is nice but you can't be too careful, him being a Negro and all. I know him from tales I've heard from other kids, the way you hear of tales about people who live over the tracks. I can never understand why a Negro on the radio makes her smile but one in real life makes her shiver. After all, she claims they’re all alike.
To the left of Mr. Pete is a boy about my age, but smaller, frail. Mr. Pete holds an umbrella over his bare scalp. The boy shivers and stares at the ground. He is so black that he almost disappears in the darkness. Mom and I are dry under the porch. Mr. Pete and the boy stand a few feet below us in the rain. He doesn't look as scary as all those stories make him out to be and no one ever said he has a son.