Red Duct Magic
By Katina Pontikes
The drive from Lake Charles, Louisiana to DeRidder, Louisiana is only forty-five minutes long. When I was a child, it seemed to take hours. Farm fences displayed brightly colored ads for Brylcreem hair pomade and Barbasol shaving cream. The colorful signs provided a break in the monotony for our carload of restless children, as the older children read the ads to the younger ones.
My mother would drive us to the country on many Fridays, ostensibly to see her parents, my Mommy and Poppy. I think she was getting us away from my Dad, so that we would have tranquility. My parent’s weekend fights involved angry words, tears and discussions of a divorce that wouldn’t come for years. Their relationship was tumultuous, the opposite of life in DeRidder.
DeRidder was a quiet country town, sparsely populated and with one Dairy Queen for local gathering. The Baptist church was big, and cocktail lounges were not to be found, even though they were common in other towns. The earth was russet red in color, and as we turned off from the highway to the dirt road that wound up and down small hills to my grandparents’ farm, we left a trail of ruby dust kicking up in our wake. If the window were cracked open, the dust would get in your nose and sit on your lips, invasive like beach sand marking us with the location we were visiting.
Arrival was joyous. We would fall out of the car, hot and thirsty, and Mommy would come out to meet us with her high-pitched, affectionate “Halloo!” and wide smile, her arms dramatically outstretched. She had prematurely white hair, bright blue eyes and a soft matronly body that hugged us warmly. I would always take a moment to compliment her blue hydrangea flowers, which grew profusely by her front door. They loved the spot, she would tell me, and she fed them coffee grinds every now and then. Their vivid blue hues and cabbage size were gorgeous, almost artificial in their perfection. They added a fairytale-like quality to our visits.
Poppy appeared next, less expressive, with a soft warm smile and a sinewy hug, his chest strong and hard. He was the steady rock of the household, and demanded good behavior of us hooligans. His gruff voice gave us security if there were strange noises in the late night. He was a farmer who kept a shotgun, in case he heard a wildcat screeching, and he wasn’t afraid to go out looking for just such a scary creature.
Dinners took place around a cheery yellow-flowered Formica table with chrome trim. Our chairs were cushioned in plastic, cool on the back of our thighs. We usually had food like chicken and dumplings and fresh-hulled peas. Dessert was something from the farm, like fresh peaches, or in winter, the peaches came from Bell jars in which they were preserved. Dependable rituals were in every moment of the day.
Late afternoons we would sit outside with bowls in our laps hulling fresh peas. Conversations were colorful, and if the gossip was particularly interesting, hulling peas became as interesting as watching a favorite television show. Once you were old enough to share this chore with the adults, you were old enough to hear the talk of the latest scandal. Perhaps a neighbor’s wife had been spotted kissing a soldier from the nearby military base, and it was on good authority because someone from Mommy’s church was the person who saw them. Heads would shake in disapproval, pursed lips registering the sin. I just pulled peas out, like I heard this sort of thing all the time.
Sometimes we fed the cows watermelon rinds. They would lazily chomp the green rinds and the juices would overflow from the sides of their mouths, the display exquisitely unrefined. I liked watching this spectacle more than I enjoyed eating the watermelon.
The country afforded us serenity in our brief social isolation. We could roam the farm, smelling the earth, the mixture of pine trees and a distant whiff of the cows. These memories were permanently etched within me, offering a place of peace in my otherwise chaotic childhood.