Memoir

‘Libeth & Sidney

My grandfather, in his hurried Southern accent, called my grandmother—his Elizabeth that goes by Liz—‘Libeth. He’s gone now, but in the utility room window of her house, her name, spelled in the way my grandfather said it, is carved into a piece of wood. It’s professionally done. Lacquer and everything. I think a family friend must have given it to them as a gift a while back. For years, even before he died, I would imitate him to myself as I passed the carving on my way to the small bathroom where his mud-clodded workboots sat in the corner, waiting for him until the next morning when he’d need them to walk out to feed his cows. I love how Po made Nana’s name his and in doing so, somehow strengthened the bond between them. And it shouldn’t be ignored that Nana made Po’s name hers, too. What my grandfather lacked in the way of subtleties—dropping whole letters from the pronunciation of her name—Nana made up for with the deliberate way she said his. The slow, thoughtful rhythm of the way she said Sidney to the man who was known for his fast-paced walk and for being notoriously hard to physically keep up with, was carefully weighed.

People called him Sid, and once they had his attention, they braced for whatever jolting ride he would take them on next. A conversation with Po had a point, and when that point was made, he was off to looking for the next point to be gotten to—on his cards, he listed his business as “Cars, Cows, and Kids,” and he was always chasing one of those things. And if there were no cars, if the cows didn’t need tending, if all his grandkids were in school? Then he would simply “Grab a bucket and be a’walkin’.” It was the advice he always gave me when there was nothing to do. “A man walking with a bucket looks like he’s keeping himself busy. Always stay busy, Guy-boy. There’s nothing worse than a lazy man.”

I spent a summer working for him, being his “hand.” He traded used cars wholesale, buying up the vehicles that people traded in at dealerships and selling them to smaller lots usually, sometimes other wholesalers who thought they could get a better price. The dog-eat-dog environment most people think of when they think of used car dealers doesn’t describe the business Po did out of his home office, which he called “The Shortbranch”—a reference to Gunsmoke. The Shortbranch stood separate from the house, and had only room enough for his large desk, a small bathroom, a mini-fridge and two chairs for guests. Po’s wholesaling friend Pruitt Osborne and I sat in them one day I remember well, facing Po, not unlike two high school seniors in front of the principal. The desk gave Po an added authority that collapsed the age gap between seventeen-year-old me and probably sixty-five-year-old Pruitt.

“Oz, what did that little car of Bob’s turn out to be?” Po said. I could tell by his tone he was already analyzing Pruitt’s response before he’d heard a word. He wanted to buy that car.

Oz had a calm, grandfatherly demeanor. He was a gentle man. He moved at a normal pace, but up against Po, one got the impression that Oz moved too slow for this game, like he might get run over if he didn’t stay out of the way. Like a canoe drifting leisurely into the path of a ski boat.

“Sid, I’ll tell you, that turned out to be a good little ole car. I gave him $—– for it. I think it’ll probably bring $—–.”

Po pulled out his large hard-backed checkbook and put it on the table. He pulled a pen from the top drawer of his desk in a way not meant to intimidate anyone. On the wall hung a picture of a younger me in my Buddy League uniform, white with navy pinstripes, holding a bat like I’m about to swing it, but not really convincing anyone there’s anything to hit except the camera. Across my chest, my team name: “Sid White Auto.” Nearly identical pictures hung beside mine—uniform and pose the same, but the boy changed in each photo—my cousins Will, John, Zac, and Jacob, each of us, once we reached the appropriate age, having been on the Sid White Auto team. Pictures of a younger Po in his flattop haircut, usually standing beside horses, the background a dusty pasture hung next to a watercolor that someone had done of his father, a large, round man—built nothing like Po—who sat in his hitched wagon in front of his red barn where he traded Appaloosas and Shetland ponies much like Po traded cars.

Po tore the check along the perforated edges, folded it and handed it to Oz. It wasn’t an act—I don’t think he had any intention of Oz immediately opening the check, but when he did, he told Po it was too much.

“You told me what it would bring, now it brought it,” Po told him.

“Well, if I don’t have to spend any time working for it, I don’t have to get as much,” Oz countered. And then he pulled out two one-hundred dollar bills from his wallet and slid them across the desk toward Po, who was documenting the check in the register. When he finished, he closed the checkbook, tossed it back into the side drawer of the desk, stood up—prompting Oz and I to stand—and picked up the cash from the desk and shoved it back into Oz’s front jean pocket. It was deliberately awkward. If Oz persisted with this nonsense, things would only get worse. Oz didn’t persist.

“Guy-boy, let’s go. Oz, where’s my new car?”

We’d go to a lot and he’d put me in a car, then give me a single sentence of instruction—where to take the car, say—but he talked so quickly that I could rarely understand him. But before I realized I didn’t understand him, he’d have already turned and gone, off to the next place. And Po was such a serious man, and I didn’t want to disappoint him, so I didn’t want to call him up and ask him to repeat himself. Instead, I’d guess at where I was supposed to go, and sometimes find myself forty miles from where I was expected to be. If it was anywhere close to noon, I’d always guess that he’d told me to go to The Shortbranch. I’d back the truck up, parallel to all the others on his driveway-lot, all waiting to be sold in conversation without ever being inspected by the buyer because they knew Sid White, which is to say they knew Sid White’s cars. And then I would wander into the house to find Nana wearing one of her many aprons, warmed up green beans in a bowl on the table, a steak broiling in the oven.

“How about some lunch?” Nana would ask, her question so inviting it became a statement. The way she said it, how eager she was to feed me, made me feel like I’d earned lunch, but a part of me was still wondering if I’d shown up at the right place, wondering if I deserved lunch. There was no telling where Po was, racing the diesel engine in his silver truck from car lot to car lot. I prayed I wasn’t supposed to be meeting him at one of those lots. Or was I supposed to take this car to Harold—a timid, middle-aged man I wouldn’t recognize without a shammy draped over his shoulder—who detailed all of Po’s cars in a shop beside his house.

“Is Po out in the office?” she’d ask, and I would say that I wasn’t sure where he was. She’d walk to the phone. She made it look easy to call him up and ask him simple information—like location—something of which I was almost terrified. I didn’t want him to think I wasn’t smart. I didn’t want him to think I wasn’t capable. I didn’t want to disappoint him.

Sidney?” she’d say in a warm, delicate way. And even though I couldn’t see him, nor did I know where he was, I know there was something about the way Nana said his name that must’ve relaxed him. His heart raced through life and he’d been chain-smoking since he was fifteen, spending his long, dusty days breaking horses for his dad. If he didn’t have that cigarette, he would tense up and you got the feeling he was going to launch like a rocket away from the Sunday dinner table to go accomplish things that would take anyone else a week. But when Nana talked to him, he calmed. He had things to go do, and I’m not sure he had the patience to listen to anyone else speak as slowly as Nana did, but when she talked, he listened, and it was like watching him finally allow himself to exhale. As if he couldn’t breathe on his own. Part of me thinks he chain-smoked with the specific intention of dying before her. He would’ve never survived a day without Nana to help him breathe. He knew that.

Sidney, your help and I are about to sit down to lunch; are you going to join us?” I imagined him sitting high in that truck, charging determinedly like a shark through the ocean, heading the other direction until Nana effortlessly reeled him in with a power she never acknowledged, but never doubted. It was beautiful to see her use it so dexterously.

At the first sound of his truck’s engine churning up the driveway, Nana would fill one of her hexagonal drinking glasses with iced tea, leaving plenty of room for lemon juice, but not enough to call his drink an Arnold Palmer. I’m glad he didn’t drink those. Golf feels too cheap, too fragile for a man like Sid White. It would be more appropriate to name Po’s drink after a bull rider, except that no one has ever heard a specific bull rider’s name, which is also appropriate. Sid wasn’t a man that needed to be recognizable in any way, but even if you didn’t know who he was before, after you’d met him you knew he was tough, hard-working, and he loved the bull for trying to buck him off. Po liked working up a decent sweat.

The casualness of the way Nana carried out the act of serving my grandfather tea was indication that she had never been scolded for not doing it, but also, the timing of Po walking through the door, taking off his cowboy hat at the moment she placed the glass at the head of the table, said that it had been rehearsed so many times that it was always expected. And as she paused in her steps just long enough for him to kiss her cheek with a smile, anyone could see that the most important part of the entire event was that it was appreciated.

I watched that scene play out countless times in the twenty-three-and-a-half years that Po and I walked this Earth together, and while I never studied it, I saw it enough times that I remember it vividly. Even without closing my eyes, I can sit at Nana’s dining room table now and envision Po walking up the garage steps to enter the house. I can hear his footsteps on the wood laminate floors of the dining room. I can smell the Vantage-brand cigarette smoke he brought in on the worn fibers of his denim jacket. His voice is in my head saying, “If a fella’ pays attention, Guy-boy, he’ll learn something every day,” and so I don’t dwell on memories at that moment, but instead pay attention to what is happening around me. Nana is walking toward me from the kitchen with a homemade apple cake and apologizing that it is all she has to offer me in terms of something sweet. But I assure her that I am pleased to have it—that, in fact, I can think of nothing I would rather eat. And as I watch her cut me a slice, I can’t help but feel Po’s voice behind me, telling her that the size of the piece she has cut for me is the son-in-law’s piece. I don’t mention the thought to Nana, who knows the size of the piece was always sufficient, even for her grandson with the large appetite. Her grandson who knows he is lucky to have been born her grandson. Her grandson who still walks to the utility room bathroom and says ‘Libeth under his breath as a way to remember how to properly pronounce my people’s word for Love.

Guy Choate grew up in small town Arkansas, where he learned to shoot a BB gun and drive a stick-shift, but he's been gone long enough now that manual transmissions scare him. He currently lives in Richmond, Virginia and maintains a photo-a-day blog at www.getoutofthisplace.tumblr.com.