The sun was just setting as James and MaryAnn took the Amos exit off I-70 and rolled into town.
And while Amos at the best of times was a roll-up-the-sidewalks-at-dusk kind of town, it seemed to them that it was even quieter than usual. By this time of night, Main Street would ordinarily be a parade of teenagers cruising from one end of town to the other, shouting out of car windows and waving to friends, clustering up outside McDonalds and working out what to do in a town with precious little to offer in the way of entertainment.
As it was, McDonalds was quiet and the sidewalks were pretty well deserted.
Passing the Amos State Bank, MaryAnn gave a little gasp of surprise to see “WELCOME HOME, JAMES & MARY ANNE” spelled out in bold, red letters.
“Well, would ya look at that?” James said wonderingly.
MaryAnn felt the sudden prick of tears and bit her lip.
“What’s the matter, honey? You ok?”
“I’m just… fine,” she lied, blowing her nose loudly on a KFC napkin.
James reached across and patted her arm. “It’s gonna be ok, honey,” he said, and hoped it was true. But he could see that his angry Phoenix was struggling to keep her feathers from drooping.
Once they reached the quarter-mile driveway that led to their farm, the silence of Amos suddenly made sense, for it seemed the entire town had turned out to welcome them. There were cars parked from one end of their drive to the other, and their yard was a veritable sea of picnic blankets and coolers and lawn chairs. A small army of kids had set up a softball diamond in the freshly cut wheat field, and there were old-timers tossing horseshoes and manning a barbeque pit.
Their combine had been moved out of the metal barn, and the doors stood wide open. In the doorway a five-piece band was setting up their gear and running a sound check. A banner strung above their heads read, “WELCOME HOME, MOM AND DAD!”
MaryAnn sat in the passenger’s seat, clutching her bucket of chicken, speechless.
Her front porch had been outlined in fairy lights, and behind the safety of the porch screen, she could see a multi-tiered wedding cake flanked on both sides by pink and yellow lilies.
“Momma!” Jimmy shouted, yanking the door open on the RV, “Momma, you’re here! Welcome back!”
MaryAnn felt foolish suddenly, standing there on the running board with her bucket of chicken, gazing about her in wonderment as her brothers and sisters, uncles and aunts and cousins, nieces and nephews materialized from every corner of her property. Overwhelmed, she handed off the chicken and reached for her son’s outstretched arms.
“Jimbo!” she cried, as he swept her down to ground level, “what – what has she been feeding you?” she stammered, not knowing what else to make of her son, the husky boy who had, in the space of a year, been transformed utterly. “You must be starving to death!”
Her son threw back his head and laughed. “Naw, Momma,” he said, swallowing up her little shoulders in his oversized arms, “I’m healthy as an ox. Just trying to stay in shape is all,” he said, kissing his mother soundly on her cheek before releasing her.
His father made his way through the throng of friends and relatives and reached for his son’s hand, pulling him into a bear hug. “You look good, boy,” he said. “real good.”
“Thanks Dad,” Jimmy said, giving his father a conspiratorial grin, “Y’all are just in time.”
James Sr. nodded and gave his son a wink. “I was running out of national parks!”
Before MaryAnn could react to news of their collusion, Jimmy grabbed her elbow and shepherded her into the crowd. Surrounded as she was by friends and relatives, an entire town seeking news of her travels, she was separated from her husband and son and wrapped up by community. And though she searched the crowd for signs of her daughter-in-law, she could not find her.
Not that she was not the subject of every conversation.
Everyone in Amos had something good to say about Anita. MaryAnn learned she had been a registered nurse in the Philippines, which made Anita’s move to the US easier. She worked at the nursing home. She was a hard worker. She was good to the old folks. She was making them all fat with her desserts…
MaryAnn swallowed her gall and smiled as brightly as she could. There was her son, starving to death, and his wife was feeding pie to the whole world.
“…oh yes, she volunteers at the library. She says it helps with her English…”
“…is SUCH a nice girl…”
“…and doesn’t Jimmy look so happy?”
MaryAnn looked up just then to see Jimmy approaching her. On his arm was a tiny woman in a yellow sundress, her brown shoulders gleaming darkly beneath the lights strung back and forth over a makeshift dance floor in the barn yard. She wore a circlet of orchids over her own crown of thick, shiny hair, a black flag that hung loosely down her back. Her eyes sparkled with laughter above broad cheekbones. They were kind eyes, but sharp and clever, too. Jimmy leaned down and whispered something, and Anita burst into girlish laughter, her face splitting wide in a broad, toothy smile.
It was a smile that MaryAnn found herself echoing in spite of herself. As they approached, James materialized at her side and slid an arm around her waist. He squeezed her shoulder lightly and took a deep breath.
Jimmy stopped and smiled at his parents. “Mom, Dad, this is Anita. My wife.”
MaryAnn realized she had been holding her breath, and she hiccuped slightly as she started to speak. “Well, hello there,” she said, reaching out her hand.
Anita ignored the hand and cocked her head. “You very pretty,” she said, smiling her wide, slow smile. “Too young to be Momma.” She nodded her head as if that was settled, then turned to James Sr.
James felt a flush creeping up his neck under Anita’s frank, black eyes. “Mm-hmm,” she said suddenly, “I see where you get it, farm boy,” she said, elbowing Jimmy slightly in the ribs. “You got pretty parents.” James’ flush deepened to brick red, and his collar was suddenly three sizes too small. Darned if this little woman wasn’t unnerving.
“Now,” she said, ignoring MaryAnn’s slack jaw and James’ blush, “you gotta tell them, farm boy.”
“Aww, honey,” Jimmy started.
“Don’t you ‘aww honey’ me, mista, it’s time. You tell them.”
MaryAnn and James stood in suspended animation, their hearts sinking by measures with each passing second. Tell them what? They exchanged a glance. What on earth…?
Jimmy discovered a sudden itch on the back of his head and he dropped his eyes. “Momma, Daddy,” he said, “Anita wants me to -”
“No way, farm boy,” she said, “This from YOUR heart, not mine. What you done ain’t right. It ain’t no way to treat your pretty parents!”
“I’m sorry,” Jimmy said at length, raising his eyes to meet his parents shocked gazes. “I’m not sorry I got married, but…” When he hesitated, Anita nudged him gently with her elbow and her eyes. “I AM sorry about the way I went about it. And about not telling you.”
“And for hurting you, ‘specially you, Momma. Anita’s right. It wasn’t right to do you that way. And I’m sorry.”
MaryAnn realized her mouth had been hanging open, and she closed it with a snap. She looked at her boy, fit, humbled, a man at last, and clearly in love. Without her help, Jimmy had found all his mother could ever have wanted for him. MaryAnn looked with new eyes to the one who had accomplished these miracles, and felt herself beginning to smile. “Well, now,” she said, “Well, now.”
Anita returned her smile and reached out both hands. “Welcome home, Momma,” she said. “I think we be good friends.”
MaryAnn took the tiny, work worn hands in her own and drew Anita closer. “I think we will at that,” she said.
James Sr. shook his head and watched his wife link arms with Anita and make their way toward the porch, Phoenixes both. James laid an arm around his son’s shoulder. “Birds of a feather,” he said with a grin.
Jimmy snorted. “Hens,” he said, “with sharp beaks, too.”
“Yup. But they sure do know how to feather a nest, now, don’t they?”
Jimmy knew his daddy was right. Like he was about most things.
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