The Papalote Chronicles

Nancy Taylor Day

RELATIVE DISTANCE (Sally Dillon Hughes, 1994)

"How's my favorite school teacher?" Mr. Griff asked.


"Coffee?" he asked.

I nodded and sat at the counter. I'd gone to Griff's Cafe to pick up cinnamon biscuits for Thanksgiving breakfast, but when you're someone's favorite, you have to sit with them a spell. Mr. Griff poured his famous chicory blend into our cups.

I felt uncomfortable with my friend that morning, though. Mr. Griff's son Matt was sitting in jail awaiting trial for civil rights violations and accessory to murder. You can't just say how are you, how's the family, when you know your friend's carrying that kind of grief in his heart.

Carolee, Matt's sister, came to the counter with a box. "Your biscuits."

The box was warm and I could smell cinnamon and butter. "Yum. If I ate all these, I could tell everyone you were out."

"You wouldn't do that. What's this I hear about your sister taking off on vacation?" Picking up a coffee cup, Carolee leaned against the counter, her friendly expression a softer version of her daddy's.

"They've gone to Mexico. I hope my brother-in-law knows what he's gotten himself into. Margaret Ann's never been farther away than Corpus Christi in her life."

Mr. Griff grunted. "Who has the time to go much farther? I know, teachers get summers off." He winked at me.

Behind his smile I detected fatigue, a gray and sagging spirit. Carolee looked that way, too. I reached for the coffee pot and refilled their cups.

"Even balancing vacation and retirement against endless hours, I've thought it's a shame I didn't go to pharmacy school and keep Daddy's business running."

"Then we'd be competitors," Mr. Griff said, referring to Daddy's soda fountain and lunch counter.

"Well we're not," I said, smiling at my old friend.

"Pop says you could do anything you want," Carolee said, eyeing her father, the softness gone from her gaze.

"Ah, gee," I said, feigning coyness. "Back then I didn't see myself as a behind-the-counter pharmacist."

Carolee said, "If you'd been a boy, your gramma would have deeded you that farm, and you know it."

"Let's not talk about that," I said, my face flushing.

A group of men came in the door, and Mr. Griff patted my hand. "Happy Thanksgiving, Sally."

"To you, too."

Carolee levered herself away from the counter. "I didn't mean to bring up a sore subject," she said. "The truth is, I know Pop would rather have my brother cooking here than me, crazy as Matt is. Pop thinks if Matt had settled down, had gone into the business with him, well, Pop really can't accept what a bastard my brother is. Men and their sons."

"I'm sorry. And I'm not sure working in the cafe would have made a difference, except to ruin your daddy's business."

"See, everyone knows but him!"

"He knows. He probably blames himself some, too. I'm sorry," I said.

Carolee walked back into the kitchen and I left. On my way home I drove down our main street, stopping in front of the former Rexall Drugstore. My sister and I owned the stone building that seemed old rather than grand, its essence drained. Business had gone to Wal-Mart.

I opened the white box and ate a cinnamon biscuit.

Men and their sons had never been my problem, and I sure had different concerns on that day before Thanksgiving. My sister Margaret had left John and me to host the family--my sons, nieces and their families, cousins and kin. I was sitting in my car having hot flashes, sweating like a farmer in summer, nibbling at another biscuit and wishing they'd all leave town for the holiday.

Fanning myself with my hand, I switched anxieties. My older son was leaving, not just Papalote, but the state. I admired his goal, a Ph.D. in music history, but once gone, he'd never come back, I felt certain.

John Isaac hadn't told me with words, but I'd seen the displeasure on his face when we'd driven to the grocery store on his last visit.

"You're still shopping at this place," he said.

"It's been remodeled. It's got everything we need." The lettuce was wilted, the cantaloupe green, and they were out of my brand of coffee.

"Why do you put up with this?"

I shrugged. When I had more time, when I was alone, I roamed the roadsides buying in-season produce from the backs of trucks. I knew who came up from the Valley, who came over from Cotulla, who brought pecans down from San Marcos in the fall. And they knew me. We'd chat about rainfall and whitefly and the price of gasoline. I knew names of grandchildren, how the watermelon man lost his arm, and that Mrs. Delgado's husband died in a car wreck. Sometimes we bartered, their produce for my tomatoes or salsa.

On his last visit, John Isaac had seemed uncomfortable in our small house, as if he'd grown too tall for the doorways, too long for the couch. Tomorrow, twenty people would crowd themselves into that place. I felt grateful that both sons had even agreed to come for dinner, considering how packed in we'd all be. I drove home, promising to forego any biscuits on Thanksgiving morning.

I had stuffing to make and a turkey to prepare, but instead of cooking, I wandered through the house, sitting first in John Isaac's room, then Albert's. I leaned against the wall and cried, finally falling asleep with a Tony Hillerman mystery of Albert's.

A hot flush woke me and I heard sounds of icy wind, sliding toboggan-like into South Texas. At first I was disoriented. I'd drooled on my hand, and the face I saw in Albert's dresser mirror looked like a stuffed doll made from wide wale corduroy. I went to the kitchen. Eleven o'clock.

By then my body had cooled. After I turned up the furnace, I dripped a cup of coffee, and heated a cinnamon biscuit. Not an adequate lunch, but all I wanted was a sweet snack. Walking to the front door, I opened it, letting in the first cold front of winter. The wind ironed out the creases in my face. Fleabane, a big red cat who had arrived recently, groomed his whiskers on my ankles then followed me to the kitchen.

I still couldn't manage to face my chores, so I went into my bedroom. John had left a handful of change and a ticket from Rich Ritter's Texaco on the dresser top. His overalls lumped up in the corner. I pulled them to my face; they smelled of leather and boot polish, like John did. Tears started again.

Damn Margaret and damn me for agreeing to be Thanksgiving hostess. All I wanted was for John, John Isaac, Albert and me to sit down in the kitchen for Thanksgiving dinner. And I wanted the dinner to last for days. I wanted us to pick and piece and drink coffee and whiskey and talk, just the four of us. Iced-in until spring.

I dragged John's overalls with me, drying my eyes on my husband's pant legs. Then the phone started ringing, calls coming in quick succession.

"Shall I bring the extra chairs this evening or tomorrow?" my cousin asked. Her Sunday school had lent us folding chairs.

"Do you want the casseroles today or tomorrow?" my niece asked.

"Would you want both red and white wine?" another niece asked. In the background her husband was saying, "Ask if we need to bring a table for the kids."

I tried to be cordial and not put them off. "Tomorrow's fine." Did we have to do this? "Red and white wine would be fine." I didn't have a starched, white tablecloth to ruin. "Bring the casseroles hot; the oven will be full of bird." If I got around to it. If not, I thought we had some cold cuts, peanut butter. I wanted to be honest and tell them all to go away. Instead I kept trying to be rational.

While they chatted, I nibbled. Fleabane nested in the overalls I'd dropped on a kitchen chair.

Late in the afternoon, I turned down the thermostat on the furnace, brewed more coffee, and stretched out in my recliner with a biscuit and book. Fleabane stretched out against my thigh. When I went back to the kitchen and looked into the box, there were only four biscuits. Four out of a dozen, Good Lord! I called Carolee.

"I need another dozen biscuits," I said.


"If you have them."

"I don't, and we're closing now. Don't tell me you ate the whole box," Carolee joked.

"I won't." I considered blaming Fleabane, but anyone with sense would know a cat might curl up on top of a warm box, never deigning to eat biscuits unless they were made with sausage.

Carolee said, "See, men. They drive us to all kinds of madness."

I couldn't agree that my behavior was madness. I had been distressed, but I couldn't blame men. I sat in the kitchen continuing to eat biscuits, warmed and spread with butter and honey.

By Sunday my boys would be heading away--John Isaac to Seattle, Albert back to A&M--a million miles, as far as I was concerned. In my heart there was no relative distance. I had wanted reality to shift, as the wind had, but in the warmer direction. That would not happen. My house was emptying out, leaving dingy spaces. My stomach rumbled, my hands shook, and I felt panicky. I stuffed the empty biscuit box into the garbage can.

I'd always thought of myself as responsible, but I hadn't borne the challenge. What would I tell my family? Not about the damn biscuits, but about Thanksgiving. Falling under my kitchen's derisive gaze, I slipped on my down vest, made myself an Alka-Seltzer, and went out to the front porch with Fleabane at my feet.

Wind picked at the leaves and rain pelted the windows. By morning the trees would look like wrought iron curlicues against the sky and cars would decorate my street.

Standing on our porch, I remembered cars, so many cars, parking at the school, or my sister's house, or on the lane at the farm. Scenes, like a high-speed movie, passed through my mind. I saw pairs of comings and goings, generations of my family. My gramma rocking babies; her grandsons carrying her casket. Grass seed falling; beef cattle growing. A truck driving up the lane; Daddy and I walking down the aisle. Comings and goings, balanced.

I reached down and petted the cat and he purred, a comforting vibration against my palm. A little car came up the street, turned into the driveway, and stopped.

John Isaac stepped out. "Hey, Mama, what are you doing out here?"

"Feeling the weather," I said.

John Isaac dropped his bag on the porch. Fleabane sniffed it, then sniffed John Isaac's trousers.

"You look good, John Isaac."

We hugged.

"How about some pie?"

"Your cousins are in charge of pies."

I picked up Fleabane; my son got his bag.

"How about me sneaking one of those biscuits we have for breakfast?"

"We're breaking that tradition this year."

"Why?" he asked.

"Just because," I said, my face hot. I wouldn't offer any explanations. My bellyache was penance enough.

When we got to the entryway, he dropped his bag and headed toward the kitchen. He came back, meeting me in the den.

"What's going on? Aren't we having everyone here for dinner?"

I nodded, tears starting. "The house is too small; I don't do parties."

John Isaac hugged me then. "What's up, Mama?"

"I don't know which is worse, everyone filling up the house or you and Albert emptying it out."

He patted my back.

"I just want to be by myself," I said, guilt all over me.

"We're alike that way, you know."

I pulled back and stared at my son. He was clearly more confident in that moment than I was.

"That's why you and Dad are such a match," he said. "Two quiet people in love."

"We are that," I said, wiping my eyes.

I started stacking magazines, putting books back in the shelves beside the small fireplace, squaring pillows on the sofa.

"Just pretend we're your pupils tomorrow."

I flushed and pulled off my down vest. "As much as I love my students, I was hoping for a break." My tone sounded harsh.

"If you don't like teaching, why do it?"

"Because no one gave me a farm to care for," I snapped and was immediately sorry.

"Don't give me that crap. You and Dad make enough to buy some acreage. Buy a piece of the farm from Uncle Pache. Besides, I know the reason you stay in the classroom." He wiggled his eyebrows at me.

"Okay, smarty, tell me why I put up with snotty noses, chaos, and bureaucracy?"

"You love to read so you think everyone else should."

I wouldn't have phrased it that way, but bottom lines were John Isaac's specialty, and he'd come close to the truth.

I let out a long breath.

"Mama, what do we have to do to get ready for everyone?"

"Make floor space and stuff a turkey."

"I'll fix me a sandwich and help you," he said. He unzipped his bag, got out a cassette tape, and put it in our player. Piano music filled my den.

"Is that you playing?"

He nodded. "In case you miss me when I'm gone."

"In case," I said, smiling as I headed for the kitchen.


I sprinkled homegrown dried sage, marjoram, and rosemary into a mortar. As I ground the herbs, they released the scents of Thanksgiving. John Isaac slipped by me, pulled the vacuum cleaner out of the closet, and pushed it into the living room.

"Don't drown out your music," I called.

John Isaac stuck his head through the doorway. "I'll start in the bedrooms."

"Thank you."

While piano music filled the empty spaces, I flipped though my cookbook, stopping at the section for quick breads. If my son wanted cinnamon biscuits, he was going to have cinnamon biscuits.

Last updated: 1999-02-14