Had I known what lay ahead, I might have chosen a pith helmet and khakis for my evening attire. Instead, I opted for what I imagined to be Country Casual: a denim skirt, a white piqué blouse, and turquoise bracelets.
After years of sweating through the swamp-like heat and humidity of Houston, I’d already experienced one benefit to living with more earth and less concrete. Country air seemed to cool more quickly after sunset, making the sweater I’d already thrown into the car a reasonable accessory.
Plucking the directions I’d been given from the side of the refrigerator, I re-read them before tucking them into my bag and heading off to dinner. Written in a neat, almost pinched hand on paper torn from a spiral-bound notebook, they seemed straightforward enough.
Head east on the highway — about 20 miles. Go past the Community Center, turn right at the gas station. Go through town & keep on the blacktop. When you see a gravel road on your right, turn right and go past two cattle guards.
You’ll pass a big mott, then a cattle guard and an arched gate on your left. Pass that gate, and we’re the next house on the left. It’s 3.5 miles from the corner, so if you go 4, you’ve gone too far.
We’ll have the gate open. Come on in and park by the clothesline. Don’t mind the dog. He just likes to say hello.
Today, such detailed directions would seem anachronistic. Cell phones, smart phones, and GPS have made it possible to pull to the side of the road and make a call, or double-check a location’s coordinates. At the time, the only option was a pay phone at the local gas station or ice house.
On the other hand, with no phone number included in the directions I’d been given, there was no phoning of any sort to be done. The suggestion seemed to be that, if I felt lost and decided to stop at the gas station, I might as well just ask the clerk.
The truth is, I was less concerned with making phone calls than I was with finding the mott. Halfway to my destination, I realized I had no idea what a “mott” looked like. Since it had been described as “big,” I assumed it would be easy enough to spot in the middle of the pastures and corn fields I was passing, but I was more curious than worried. Besides, if I missed the mott, the arched gate nearby would do for a landmark.
As the miles clicked off, all was well. I passed the Community Center, made my turn, found the gravel road, and began looking for the mott. The only thing that seemed big, apart from some farm equipment and a hay shed, were the trees. When I passed a particularly nice grove of live oaks, it occurred to me that “mott” might be Texas-speak for “grove, and I began looking for the cattle guard and gate.
Perhaps I was inattentive. Perhaps I was too interested in the scenery, or the handsome cattle grazing in the field. However it happened, I glanced down at the odometer and saw I’d traveled just over four miles. In the process, I’d missed the cattle guards, the arched gate, the second gate, and the house.
Turning around at a wide spot in the road, I started back, looking again for the open gate. Since I still didn’t see it, I decided to make use of the extra travel time I’d built into my plans. I went back to the intersection where I’d turned off the blacktop, and headed up the gravel road again, muttering to myself as I did.
The second time, I spotted the live oaks and arched gate with no trouble at all and found the second gate easily, even though I still hadn’t noticed any cattle guards.
Turning into the lane, I followed its curve toward the house, where I found the clothesline hidden behind a hedge of red-tipped photinia. Two cars already were parked in the graveled space next to it, guarded by an exuberant dog who seemed intent on alerting the entire county to a new arrival.
I was only halfway to the porch when my hostess met me on the path, wiping her hands on the edge of her apron and smiling. “We thought that might have been your dust we saw. Had to turn around, did you?”
“Sure did,” I said. “But I think I figured something out. Is that big bunch of live oaks what you meant by the mott?” Laughing, she assured me I was right. Then she asked, “But didn’t you see the gate and the cattle guards?” “I saw the arched gate the second time,” I said. “But I never saw any cattle guards. There wasn’t anyone out there, as far as I could tell.”
The hum of cicadas rose and expanded, filling the air as she stopped to look at me with an expression impossible to decipher. The silence seemed to stretch on forever, until she ended it by asking, “You were looking for people?” Feeling as though I’d just stepped off an unseen cliff, I confessed it was true. I had been looking for people: two-legged guards keeping an eye on the four-legged cattle.
She was gracious enough not to laugh too loudly, or too long. She still was in the process of explaining cattle guards — parallel metal pipes set into the ground to keep cattle from roaming — when her husband walked up.
“Merle,” she said, “I believe this girl’s going to need some educating.”
For months, the story made its way through the gas stations and domino parties where the story-tellers held court. Eventually, it faded away, replaced by newer and better stories. I did wonder from time to time if some kind soul had hastened its demise by saying, “Let the poor girl be.” What I knew for certain was that I was relieved to have it gone, and I hoped it was forgotten.
Years later, shortly before I moved back to the Houston area, I spent a companionable evening with some of the same people who’d met me on the night of that first, confusing trip to the country.
As the evening was coming to an end, someone said, “You’ll be coming back to see us now, won’t you?” “I’ll be back for sure,” I said, “and when I come back, I won’t have such a hard time finding my way around.”
“No, I figure you won’t,” he said. Reaching for another beer, his eyes crinkled with the beginnings of a smile. “Matter of fact, I suspect you’ll do just fine. Next time, we’re fixin’ to put those cattle guards of yours into some uniforms.”