“Why, Novis?” Mama demanded through tears. “Why do ya have to hurt me so bad?” She threw her arms in the air and returned to wailing uncontrollably. Novis stood quietly in the middle of the dining room. He knew better than to respond when she was ranting. Her questions were not asked to be answered. She paced back and forth in the dining room. Her moans ricocheted between the wood ceiling and floor.
“What did I do? What did I do?” Mama sobbed on. She was a round woman who bellowed like a cow in pain when she cried. “Why are ya doin’ this to me, Novis? Why?” she blubbered. She covered her face with her apron and wept into it.
Novis stared at the floor with his hands jammed into his pockets. He didn’t know how he’d expected the conversation to go, but this wasn’t it.
“Look at wha’cha done to your mother, boy,” Novis’ father said, leaning back in his chair. Pa was a thin man with strong, calloused hands. He folded his arms across his chest and twisted his jaw in frustration. “Are ya happy now? Well? Are ya?”
“No sir,” Novis said sheepishly, still looking into the floor.
Mama wailed loudly again into her apron.
“What’d say, boy?” his father said. “Speak up. I can’t hear over your mother’s racket?”
On cue, Mama let loose another blubber.
Novis glanced to his brothers for help. The other five kids had been excused from dinner, but Pa had forced Festus and Jimmy to stay. Both boys leaned against the wood planked wall to Novis’ left, waiting for the drama to end. Jimmy, Novis’ younger brother, looked worried. Festus, the oldest by a year, made eye contact with Novis, shook his head, and laughed to himself.
“Somethin’ funny over there, son?” Pa asked cocking his head at his oldest.
Festus swallowed his smile. “No sir,” he said with mock seriousness. “Nothin’ funny here.”
“Don’t look to them,” Pa said to Novis. “They can’t help ya. You dug your own hole.”
“How could you leave me, Novis? How could you walk away from your momma?” Mama moaned again as she fell into a chair next to Pa at the kitchen table.
Pa sighed and grimaced, growing weary of his wife’s antics. “Are you serious about this, boy?” he said looking back at Novis.
Novis looked up from the floor and met his father’s stare. “Yes sir,” he said plainly. “Ms. Jenkins thinks I have a real chance. She said I’m smart enough to do it. I wanna try.”
“I knew I never should’ve sent ‘em into town,” Mama wailed. “I knew I should’ve just schooled ‘em here at the farm. This is all my fault.”
Pa sighed again. “Novis, you’re a smart boy and Ms. Jenkins is probably right. But we need you here. The farm and horses aren’t going to tend to themselves.”
“I can handle Novis’ chores, Pa,” Jimmy said, hoping to be helpful. “He’s been teachin’ me. I’m gettin’ good with the horses.”
“And whose goin’ do yours, boy?” Pa said to Jimmy without breaking eye contact with his second son.
Novis stared at the floor again. He couldn’t take his father’s disappointed glare. This isn’t what he’d wanted. He felt ashamed. He didn’t mean to make Mama cry. “I just wanted to see if I could do it, Pa. I just wanted to see.”
The men in the room stood silent, each one thinking differently on the conversation. The only sound in the room was Mama’s soft sniffling. Finally, Pa sighed a third time. He leaned forward, resting his arms on the table. Grace and understanding filled his voice. “You’re a smart boy. But you’re only seventeen. And I need you right now. With my back acting up, I’m not goin’ to be able to keep up things without you. Maybe next year. College will still be there next year.”
Novis felt a ball of sorrow rise in his throat, but he couldn’t show it. Not in front of his brother’s. Not in front of Pa. So he choked it back and bit the inside of his lip. The stab of pain helped him regain his composure. “Yes, sir,” he said to the floor.
“Alright then,” Pa replied smacking the table with his open palm, relieved the conversation was over. Then he pushed his chair back and stood. “I love ya, son. And I want what’s best for ya. I know you want this, but your family needs ya.” Pa stretched his arms high and then turned toward the bedrooms. Before exiting the dining room he called, “Don’t stay up to late boys. Early mornin’ tomorrow.”
Mama rose and walked to where Novis stood in the middle of the room. The tears had vanished and a bright smile had taken their place. She wrapped her arms around her second child and squeezed him tight. “I love you,” she whispered in his ear. “Don’t stay up to late, okay,” she said sweetly. Then she turned and followed Pa to bed, humming quietly in victory as she left.
Festus nudged Jimmy with his elbow and motioned with his head toward the back door. Jimmy understood and the two boys moved to the exit. As they passed their brother, they both took a turn patting him on the shoulder. They said nothing because there was nothing to say.
The screen door slammed closed behind them and Novis was alone. He stood motionless, hands in his pockets, staring at the floor. He wanted to scream, to cry, to blubber like his mother; but that’s not what the men of his family did. It was not their way. So he sighed like his father and after his brothers out of the back door.
The cool, evening, Texas wind kiss his face as he stepped into the moonlight. He looked for Festus and Jimmy, but there was no sign of them; which suited Novis just fine. He wanted to be alone.
He trudged through the thin grass toward the barn. Dust clouds rose behind his dragging feet. The heavy leather ball was right where he’d left it before dinner. He picked it up and took ten paces away from the side of the barn. He eyed the metal rim he and Festus had hung on the wooden wall two years ago. He could barely make it out in the dark, but it didn’t matter. He didn’t need to see it. He could feel where it was.
He cocked his right arm back and let the ball fly. It clanged through the metal rim and thumped into the dirt. Novis ran forward, snatched it up, and jogged back to his previous spot. He fired off another shot. Again the ring clanked. Again he ran forward to get the ball where it had sunk into the soft dirt. Again he jogged back to his spot for another shot. Over and over. This was his ritual. It was where he found peace. With each basket the stress of the past conversation faded away and normalcy returned.
As he prepared to release the fifteenth shot, Novis’ was interrupted by the neigh of his horse. He spun on his heal, panicked that somehow the animal had gotten loose. But the horse wasn’t free. Rather it was saddled and being led by Jimmy. A sly grin filled his younger brother’s face and his eyes gleamed in the starlight. Festus was next to him, atop his own horse.
The older brother took his cowboy hat off and wiped his brow with his shirtsleeve. “Well?” his deep voice rang out into the empty air. “You comin’? We gotta move if we goin’ get you on that train.”
Novis laughed at the courage and audacity of his brothers, but he didn’t hesitate. He didn’t want to give them a chance to change their minds. Letting the ball fall, Novis ran to his horse and mounted up with a single motion. He rubbed the horse on the neck and said to Festus, “You comin’ too?”
“Nope,” Festus says. “I like the farm. But someone’s got to lead your horse home or Pa really will get mad.”
“Thanks Jimmy,” Novis said looking down at his younger brother.
Jimmy smiled and handed Novis the reigns.
The boys rode hard together. Novis didn’t know when the last train to Corpus left, but he knew it had to be soon. As they approached the station a wave of gratitude flooded his heart. There at the platform was a giant, black engine. Steam billowed from its iron pipe as it warmed up and prepared to pull away. Behind it was a sting of brown, wooden freight cars. Festus and Novis raced the horses to the back of the line. They pulled up in unison at an empty pallet car.
“You didn’t have to do this,” Novis said as he dismounted. The train whistle blew two sharp bursts.
Festus took the horse’s reigns from Novis and began tying them to his saddle. With a smile of joy he said, “You better get on or you’re goin’ to have to run there.”
“Pa’s goin’ kill you,” Novis said as he climb up onto the pallet car.
Festus leaned forward in his saddle and laughed, “Why?” he said confidently. “I was never here.”
The train lurched forward and Novis had to fall to one knee and brace himself with his arms to keep his balance. He looked his brother in the eye. “You better get home,” were the words that fell from his mouth, but both boys knew what he meant was “I love you.”
“Go make somethin’ of yourself,” Festus called steering the horse away from the slowly moving train.
Novis spent the entire night listening to the clickly-clack of the tracks on the wheels, staring at the up stars, watching the Texas fields roll by. They arrived at the Corpus station as the sun rose. Novis, not wanting to be discovered, jumped down from the car before the train came to a full stop. He walked down the nearest dirt road in the direction of town, pretending as if he belonged.
A strong hour of walking passed before a car found him. The automobile had a powerful metal grill in front, a sharp green paint job, and a small, silver, charging ram on the hood. A large cloud of dust followed it. Novis was in awe. He’d seen cars in town, but none as beautiful as this sleek machine. The driver slowed to a halt before reaching the thin, tall boy. Novis grinned like a five-year-old with an ice-cream cone and ran to the passenger window hoping to get a glimpse inside.
The drive stretched across the inside of the car and pushed open the passenger door. Novis marveled at the brown leather seats and the gauges on the dash board. “Where you goin’, son?” the driver asked. He had kind eyes that wrinkled at the corners. He wore a grey businessman’s hat, a bright white button down shirt, red suspenders, and grey slacks. He was heavier than Novis’ Pa, but Novis figured they were around the same age.
“College,” Novis said.
“Which one?” the man asked with a laugh.
“Which ever one will have me,” Novis replied.
The man shook his head and laughed again. “Do you have any money, son?” he asked. There was compassion in his voice.
“No sir,” Novis said.
“Hmm,” the man pondered, looking Novis up and down. “Do you have any special skills?” he asked.
“Um,” Novis thought. “I can play ball,” he said.
“Baseball or basketball?” the man asked curiously.
“Basketball, sir,” Novis replied with pride.
“Well then,” the man said as if something had been decided. He put his hands back on the steering wheel and announced, “Texas A and I it is. Get in the car, son. I’ll give you ride.”
This story was written in loving memory of my grandfather, Novis Elkins who left the farm for college and changed the trajectory of my family forever.