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By D. A. Ratliff
I hadn’t planned on going. Fate brought me to speak at a seminar out of state, and the fact that I was only an hour’s drive from my old homestead kept gnawing at me. I tried to push it away, but the itch was there and needed attention.
Foolish to do it. That chapter of my life had been closed for over thirty years. I had made my escape from the doldrums of country life and had never looked back. Didn’t want to look back. Memories suppressed were the best kind as far as I was concerned. But I did it anyway. I decided to go home.
A flurry of activity by my assistant secured a change in my travel plans, an extra night in the hotel, and a rental car. After a leisurely breakfast with colleagues before they caught their flights home, I set out down the state highway to the town where I once existed.
I say existed because I hated every moment there. I was born for more than the 4H Club. I hated cows and chickens and plows. And my family—they were the worst.
As I neared the small town, I was a bit surprised at the pressure building in my chest. The day I left and never looked back, I was seething with anger. That burn of hate was building again. I fought it back, no need for that anger now. I was free.
The town had changed little. A rail line cut through the center of Main Street, several shops shuttered and dilapidated. The diner I was dragged to by my father on Saturday mornings was still open. I had to chuckle, probably still serving those awful, doughy pancakes and rancid coffee. A few old codgers sat outside the courthouse, moving nothing but their eyes as they watched my luxury rental pass through. I laughed out loud. I could hear them now, Who’s that city slicker? If they knew, they would bust a vein. If they knew.
The cotton mill on the edge of town was in ruins. My mother and grandmother had worked there. Both got brown lung from the cotton dust, and I got so tired of them hacking and spitting up mucus. Not how people should have to live. Certainly not how I had to live.
Two miles on the other side of town, I slowed down to look for the gate. I almost passed it by, but the old mailbox was still standing. Bent, broken and rusted, but it was there. I turned onto the overgrown gravel drive and drove in as far as I dared until the car was past the tree line and, hopefully, couldn’t be seen from the highway.
I got out of the car and looked down at my expensive loafers. I hadn’t planned on hiking, so I really wasn’t prepared. I’d have to be careful. This place wasn’t worth scuffing my shoes.
As I walked deeper into the now overgrown land, I had to admit that it was beautiful. The grove of trees where my parents built the house was now thick with underbrush, lush and green. Beyond the tree line were the family cotton fields. I leased those out, not stupid enough to lose money on the place. Just wanted no part of life here.
When I spotted the path, I stopped. A chill passed through me despite the building heat of a summer day in Louisiana. My mother had painstakingly dug out the path, laying steel rails across it so she could terrace the slope, something she had seen in a magazine. She had made me help her. Hour after hour, leveling each slightly raised terrace and filling it with finely ground granite. Made her feel like a queen to have such a grand path to the house. Made her look like a fool to me.
As I continued along the walkway my mother created, it was apparent that all that fine granite that had sparkled with bits of quartz in the sunlight was now nothing but dirt, the metal rails exposed, limbs fallen across her grand path. The carefully manicured edges now ragged with weeds. It was grand alright.
It was at the end of the path that I felt my first pang of regret. I shouldn’t have come here. Every cell in my body was irritated. The old hatred for how they tried to ruin my life came flaring back. They had tried, but I had won.
Where the large, white, French-style farmhouse had stood was only worn cinder blocks that were once the house’s foundation. I cracked a slight smile from a bit of morbid satisfaction. There were still marks on the blocks from the fire that raged that night. Now only a partial outline of the house remained. Vegetation filled in where rooms once existed.
If they had only listened to me, this wouldn’t have happened. But my dream to be an attorney since I was young was met with disdain and outright amusement. I had to follow in my father’s and grandfather’s footsteps, grow cotton and be happy about it. It was my fate in life.
No. It was not my fate. I was a brilliant student, and the local schools couldn’t keep up with my need for knowledge. Only one of my teachers recognized that and he arranged for me to get lessons through the mail from a college. I lived for those lessons. I had to rush home to get the mail before my mother got home from the mill and my father came out of the fields. He’d laughed at my crazy ideas and thrown the envelopes in my face if he got to the mailbox first. His words cut through me still. You ain’t going to college, boy. You are gonna stay right here and raise cotton.
I was nearing seventeen when I began to formulate my plan. I agreed to work for my father during the summer before my senior year in high school. He was so happy, certain that he had beaten me down. He had no idea. I saved my money and right before I started my senior year, I applied for life insurance policies on my parents from one of those companies that didn’t do medical exams. Or rather my grandmother did. She was getting sicker from the brown lung and the lack of breathing well made her lethargic and confused. She signed the applications without question. I paid the premiums in her name via money order, five-hundred-thousand-dollar policies on each of my parents, and I was the beneficiary. My parents may have been fools but I was not. I also got the key to my grandmother’s safety deposit box at the bank. Small town—who would ever doubt a loving grandson wouldn’t go to the bank for his grandmother to put something in it for her. Fools they were, but the insurance documents were safe.
During my senior year, I applied to the colleges that I wanted to attend, and with my grades, they were clamoring for me. I was offered several scholarships without my parents knowing as I had rented a post office box and kept everything secret. As the end of the school year approached, I hatched my plan.
The house was heated by an old oil furnace and cooking heat was provided by gas. I began to sabotage the furnace in February so that there would be a trail of repairs. Then the night I made my escape, I waited until my parents and grandmother were sound asleep and I blew up the furnace, which in turn caused the gas line to explode. The house was engulfed in minutes. By the time the fire department arrived, called by me seconds before I lit the oil furnace on fire, I was covered in soot, hands burned from trying to rescue my family. They believed me.
The town was in mourning for my tragic loss. I played the shocked son and allowed all the good folks to take care of me. I graduated from high school, and a month later I turned eighteen and received the settlement from the insurance company. I was out of this town as fast as I could flee and never said goodbye.
With one last look around, I decided it was time to leave. I had enough nostalgia for a lifetime. As I walked along the path toward the car, I took in the dappled sunlight streaming through the thick copse of trees. I knew I should feel remorse, but I didn’t. If I hadn’t escaped, I wouldn’t be a federal judge and wield the power I now possessed.
Better than growing cotton.
Visit Deborah at her blog.