BOOKS AND THE CULTURE Byron and I By Elroy Bode We have fished the jetties at Port Aransas, looked across Llano country from Enchanted Rock, drifted down the Frio River beneath the cypresses at Garner Park, and now well, we are just going to drive out from Kerrville to the west pasture of the family ranch place and camp for a while. My son Byron and I and a dog. We load the Chevy hatchback with boxes and quilts and the compact, twoman nylon tent from K-Mart that almost fits in your pocket and we ease out into the four o’clock June heat. Byron’s solemn-eyed dog Duchess is curled on the front seat by the air conditioner. Byron lies in back among the boxes. He is reading a comic, his legs angled upward above the styrofoam cooler. I gaze at the passing fields, then look once more into the rearview mirror at Byron’s toes: they are pieces of sculpture, those white, narrow feet and ankles, those pleasantly curved bones, that shining flesh. I drive on, enjoying the countryside, but I keep glancing at the symmetry of my son’s feet freed from shoes and upraised in the air. There is nothing exotic about them; they are just ordinary, human boy-bones suddenly delicate, suddenly strange, like white, undersea flowers that have joined together in the hatchback light. We turn off the Mountain Home highway and drive upward toward the ranchland plateau. Some of the pastures are unfenced, and sheep lie in the road in the shade of the trees. I. drive slowly around them, then see it again: the Oehler home. It is a ranch house I have admired coveted for 30 years, an unpretentious rock house set in a clump of oaks. There is a garden in back, a neat wire fence, a rock garage, a front porch with an arched entrance. Sitting there, in just the right blend of shadow and sun, just off the road enough, with just the right amount of yard, it has always rep resented to me the beauty one strives for, the peace one wants, the home in the country at the end of the day. At the gate to our property Byron gets out, starts undoing the chains around the post. As he stands there, trying to make the worn key fit, the lock, I find it a pleasure to look at him: my son, 12, almost 13, in his worn blue tank top, blue shorts, Nike tennis shoes without socks. I like seeing him do that open the gate finally and swing it forward, then stand there beside it in the rising bit of dust, waiting for me to drive on through: my son the apprentice guitar player, the seventh-grade drummer, the lover of loud “Rush” rock songs; my son, his Prince Valiant-style blond hair shining in the sun, his mother’s features nicely chromosomed in his face. The road to the hunting cabin is rocky, almost impassable; we ease along it for half a mile and stop at the ridge that overlooks the small valley to the south. It is a classic amphitheater of grassland, with tree-lined knolls on both sides. We get out and stand in the country stillness. A buzzard is circling high overhead. A mockingbird is holding a private carnival in the top of a post oak. Thistles hundreds of them below the ridge wobble their purple heads like Martian shock troops that have descended onto the ranchland in the heat. They are tall, slender, and spiny, but their heads all slightly turned, all at angles are demure, beautifully round, as if they are wearing brilliant Martian afros. WE select a level spot to set up the tent facing it south to catch the breeze. Byron assembles it in a professional manner tightening a rope here, realigning another there and soon it becomes a bright-orange envelope staked neatly to the earth. He calls Duchess; they race down into the valley. Beer in hand, I watch them a long while, the way you look at a painting. They return, and Byron and I begin to horse around with Country Talk. “Heyboy,” I say, “you better find me some cedar bark if we gonna have any vittles tonight.” Byron says, “Shore, Paw,” and races Duchess across the rocks and needle grass to a big cedar tree. He returns with enough long strips to start the campfire. Then he gets his BB gun and roams around shooting at gourds, dragon flies, scorpions under rocks. He stops a moment and says in a mock gunfighter’s drawl, “Wal, cow patty, we meet again,” and fires four quick ones into the soggy pile. “Reckon we better clear the land, Paw?” Byron calls out. He gets a gray, weather-smooth limb from a brush pile and begins chopping down the tall mullein plants along the ridge with loud, kung fu haaaaaas. He stops, stares at a formidable-looking plant in front of him. “He just called you a bad name, Paw.” “A bad name!” I say in my own Yosemite Sam voice. “Well, git him, Son!” Byron swings his stick viciously, toppling the badmouthing plant. By seven o’clock the breeze is sweeping the ridge. I sit on a canvas camp stool in the shade of the car, reading. Byron returns from another round of exploration with Duchess. He drinks a root beer from the cooler; his fuel-injected belches rock the air. Time passes and the ridge is quiet. A plane drones by. Then, from inside the hatchback: “Dad, what does girth mean?” A bit later: “What does bauble mean?” Welcome questions to me. They mean that Byron has made himself a place among the quilts and is reading his library book. The Black Cauldron is a sword-clasher full of huntsmen and enchantresses and characters with alphabet-stew names like Orgoch, Lluagor, and Fflewddur, but I am pleased that he has picked it up I had tossed it into the car next to his BB gun THE TEXAS OBSERVER 19
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