As I mentioned in my last entry, Chuck convinced me, or rather bribed me, to go back to our hometown of Bernie for Easter. It’s not a bad town. It falls somewhere between Possum Grape, AR & Santa Barbara, CA, on the coolness scale, leaning heavily toward Possum Grape. (No offense to the Possum Grapians – your town may be FABULOUS.) The weekend ended up having it’s moments. We attended Easter breakfast with my dad & his wife, Debbie & my childhood Sunday School crush served me milk. Twice. It’s the closest we’ll ever come to having a date. I’ll take it. He hasn’t aged one bit. Chuck took it all in stride, though I’m sure I was a bit googly-eyed. Dad also had my long johns from Faye’s waiting as I had requested – EIGHTEEN, just as I had asked.
My family visits us in Little Rock on a regular basis & we lost my grandma in 2009, so I had only one reason for going home. I had known for some time I needed to pay a visit to my friends, Doris & Leroy, who were the closest thing I could have had, during the 70′s and 80′s, to a second set of parents. They had four children, a boy & 3 girls, spread very far apart in age. Lana, their baby, was my childhood best friend. Our houses backed up to each other with an alley separating them. Countless arguments ensued over who owned the alley. We finally drew up a treaty and agreed to split it in the middle. To this day, I’m not sure who really owned it. Or why it was so important for us to know. Doris spent many, many hours of our adolescence carting us to Wal-Mart, Pizza Hut, the mall and movies. She was a beautiful woman & still is. She treated me like her own. Their house was my house. Leroy, Lana’s dad, is a very private & I’ve always felt, very misunderstood man. He’s hardworking (still going at age 84 – “too young to retire”, he told me last weekend), generous & kind. He’s also one of the quietest, gentlest men I’ve ever known. He’s always had an air of mystery about him & I think he cherishes that somewhat. He was one of the first examples I had of learning to go on living life as I wanted, regardless of what people’s opinions of me might be.
Lana has always been my best friend. Our great grandmothers were quilting buddies and my Granny would put me in the back of her three-wheel bicycle, with a couple pillows to make the wire basket a bit more comfortable & ride me over to Lana’s Grandma Lora’s home, which just happened to be next door to hers. Often Lana would be there & we quickly became friends. We like to say “we met at two and three”, though in reality, we might have been a tad older. We spent time at both houses throughout the years but Lana’s house was a bit more interesting. You see, Leroy’s line of work was coin-operated machines. He put video games, jukeboxes and, back then, cigarette and candy machines in stores, restaurants and bars. At Lana’s house you could rock out to the jukebox, play Ms. Pac-Man in their family room, watch satellite tv AND by the time we were in 5th grade, swim in the pool. He also had a storage building for extra video games and jukeboxes & we had a key and a token. That meant we could play Frogger, Centipede, Donkey Kong and Pac-Man to our heart’s content. Leroy was notorious for buying things that he got a great deal on, like 50 pairs of roller skates or an old green Cacillac Coupe deVille. If someone needed money & had something to offer he could remotely use, or not, he’d buy it. And when I say that Cadillac he came home with was green, it was chartreuse green with cream leather interior. You couldn’t miss it. He parked it in the yard beside their home & soon Lana and I were taking the keys and backing up and pulling forward, using the brake, blasting the radio, basically acquainting ourselves with the ins and outs of driving, with very little supervision whatsoever. I will give all of our parents kudos for having faith in us. Eventually we would drive it through Lana’s backyard, turn down the alley and make a sharp left into the side yard at my Granny’s house. This prevented us from getting on the city streets & having to make an appearance in my dad’s courtroom for driving underage with no license whatsoever. To get back to Lana’s home, we would back the Caddy all the way down my grandma’s sideyard and then pull back into the alley. Eventually there were prominent ruts in the grass where we came and went. To this day, I am one hell of a car “backer-upper”.
Leroy would come home at the end of the work day in his S & W Sales truck, Tommy-lift rattling as he pulled into the driveway & get out with a big bag or two or three of quarters, taken out of the machines on that day’s rounds. He made carrying them look effortless but let me tell you, if you stubbed your toe on them, you knew exactly how heavy they were. His attire was always the same & if I remember right, he wore a perfect 50′s-style Mad Men hat. Or a baseball-style cap. If we were driving through the backyard when he arrived, he might grin, shake his head and go on inside to watch boxing & eat the supper Doris had made. If Lana & I were “laying out” by the pool, increasing our chances of melanoma with SPF2 oil and blasting Casey Kasem’s Countdown, he might come peek over the fence, ask if we were having fun or “how was the pool?” and then go inside. He was a man of few words, but you always knew he loved you and was proud of you. In fact, you still do. I haven’t meant many men in my life who communicate emotions intensely with only their eyes, but Leroy is one of them.
Lana and I spent much of our lives around age 10, in their family room around a big octagonal table writing plays, planning our future businesses (some things are just too embarrassing to share – sorry) & drawing sketch book upon sketch book of house plans, going as far as to describe the families that would live in these houses. And I remember still, nothing made Lana more irritated than one of us designing a house with a hallway that ended in a wall. I would have bet my life at that age that we’d be architects today. We always had a steady supply of Pepsi, yellow Lay’s with mustard for dip, and Kit Kat bars. One day we went out for a while, came back and my Kit Kat was gone. We looked over in the big chair and Leroy sat enjoying a Kit Kat and a boxing match. The man loved boxing. And until recently the Kit Kat incident was still fresh in his memory & always fair game for a joke or laugh. But that’s where this story gets heartbreaking.
The man I know and love & viewed as such a constant in my life that I took for granted he would always be there, is slipping away. Emotionally, at least. He will talk to you as if he knows you and he has the act down pretty good. But once you step away or leave, he will ask Doris or Lana who you were. And he’ll ask how he knows you. During my visit, he did a great job of acting like he knew me. And then he went to the restroom & Doris said, “He probably doesn’t know who you are.” When he returned, she said, “Leroy, this is Noelle. Lana’s friend that practically grew up with us. Dorothy’s granddaughter. You know, Norman’s daughter.” A lump had already begun to form in my throat but he said, “I KNEW I knew who that was! I’ve always loved Norman. Of course it’s Noelle.” That was enough to almost convince me that he hasn’t forgotten me completely. For at least an instant, his eyes said that he knew. Doris brought up the green Cadillac & I even confessed that we scraped a pole with it once, got white paint on it, drove it to my house & wiped the paint off with gasoline. Sorry, Lana. I’m finally free of that guilt! Before I left, I went over to him & gave him a huge hug for fear that it would be my last chance. Thinking back on his 84 years of life as Chuck & I drove back to Little Rock, I realized one of the things I most admire in him is his undying faith that his kids will be ok. He has four wonderful kids who have blessed him with grandchildren and great-grandchildren & although the road was bumpy at times, he seemed to have faith that everything would be fine & he will eventually leave this world leaving an awesome legacy behind. I think all of us could use a little of Leroy’s faith in family & mankind. I know I intend to try to find some somewhere. It’s a small way of paying him back for that green Cadillac.