By John Philipp
The day everything changed, her father had stood beside the kitchen window, holding a telescope and peeking through the curtains.
“They’re there, by the oaks. Two cars. Three men, maybe more.”
She followed her mother upstairs and sat on the bed through the hurried packing and scattered instructions.
“—and don’t forget to feed the chickens every morning. Uncle James will be here if you need anything.” Then Mommy crouched down, looking her in the eye, callused hands holding her tender arms.
“We’ll be back, Anna. Soon as we can. I need you to wait here. No matter how long it takes. Promise Mommy?”
She wanted to plead to go with them, but she’d nodded instead. She nodded again when, in the moonless night, she heard the gravel crunch as her father and uncle pushed and inched the silent sedan onto the county road.
For years, whenever she’d hear a car approach on the county road, she’d stop for a moment and listen for tires on gravel. But the only time she ever heard that sound was twenty past five, Monday through Friday, when Uncle James would turn into the driveway, returning from the VA.
She was twelve when her parents left, and you could see then she would become a stunner. At sixteen, the local farm boys were sniffing around, driving their noisy, smoky tractors past the gravel driveway, perched on the high seats, gimme hats worn brim backward, straw stalks sticking from the corners of their mouths.
She’d promised Mommy to stay home, so she teased the boys—a smile here, a wave there, and they became more daring. Soon the word spread, and town boys with cars and allowances were on the prowl. Braddock Compton would be the winner, the first to make it to the porch, sitting with her at one end on the chaise, playing hidden finger games while Uncle James rocked at the other end, listening to classical strains through the window.
She couldn’t leave, so she upped the tease. On walks around the barn, she let Brad see past opened buttons but not touch, rub together through their clothes but not undress. So enamored would he become, he’d forego the family business and move onto the farm with her and Uncle James. Two children and ten years later he’d tire of everyday sameness, take the kids, and return to his family fold.
After Brad, life was once again just Anna and Uncle James. Divorced because she’d promised to wait here, she’d rock in the living room, watching a soap opera on a black-and-white Emerson with the sound off while upstairs, a bedridden Uncle James would cough in syncopation with Schumann. With one child killed overseas and one moved across the country, she knew by then she had chosen to wait.
She still checked out the window to see if her parents were arriving, though not as often, not every day. In her sixties, she began to wonder if the gravel driveway was just for goodbyes.