My grandmother read aloud about the closing of the cathouse in Longview.  From behind the Saturday morning paper she gleefully announced, “Finally, some progress coming to this backwater town.  I can’t imagine why you choose to live here, Jonathan.”  Ever since grandmother met refined people on her trip around the world she tried to sound sophisticated.

“It’s the interstate,” Dad remarked ignoring her comment, “it kills character and color.  When it is all said and done only barbecue stands and gas stations will link this country.  It is not progress, it is a shame.”

Dad and Grandmother never agreed.  During the Great Depression, when he was ten, two days after his violent tempered father vanished, Grandmother took her two youngest daughters and left him and his older sister to fend for themselves.  Three years later, when they finally reunited, Grandmother was remarried to a Greek and insisted they call her Aunt Peg.  It is hard to imagine a mother deserting half her children but they say during the depression it was done all the time.  Dad forever mistrusted anything Grandmother did or said.

“You are wrong again, Jonathon.  The interstate is a wonderful river of progress.  America’s bounty will flow from the cities and everyone, even backwards souls in small Texas towns, will benefit.”  She put the paper down and drank black coffee from a steaming cup.  “Besides, I think Marian agrees.  Closing Madam Lela’s can only be called progress.  Don’t you, dear?”

Mother avoided speaking with Grandmother whenever possible.  Mother gave the impression she did not like Grandmother.  Perhaps she felt the older woman competed for her family’s attention, or criticized her homemaking with carefully phrased compliments.  Whatever the reasons Grandmother raised Mother’s hackles with the most seemingly innocent remark.

“I suppose.  I certainly hope the girls who worked there move on.  I hope they won’t take to the streets,” she said.  Then trying to change the subject said, “It says here the bridge over Ten Mile Creek will be finished ahead of schedule and they may get the interstate opened to Atlanta by spring,”

“What do you think about them closing the cathouse, William?”  Grandmother always called me by my proper name.  I only liked it when a gift card with a five-dollar bill was involved.

“Peg,” Mother inserted herself, “I’m sure Bill,” she said, emphasizing her name for me, “has no opinions on such matters.”

“Yes I do, mamma,” I chimed.  I did not know exactly what a cathouse was.  Dad often told me that if I didn’t do a particular chore we would be in the doghouse and I had figured out the doghouse was a place for men in trouble.  It seemed only natural that a cathouse was for women with similar problems.  “It is a place for ladies and girls who got in trouble.”

“How perceptive,” Grandmother studied me to see if I understood what I had said.

“A very nice way of putting it,” Mother commended.

Pushing for more compliments I tried to think of the Christian thing to say.  Mother was very big on saying the Christian thing.  “Maybe if they get put on the streets, we might take some in for a while to help them.”

“An excellent idea,” Dad said dryly.  When I was young I never knew my father was joking until he laughed.

“Jonathon,” Mother ordered, “don’t encourage him.”

Dad looked at my plate.  “Finish up if you want to go with me.  I’ve got to get moving before it gets hot.”

It was near the end of summer.  It had been hot and dry, a deadly combination in east Texas.  Dad was going to Henderson’s Feed to pick up fertilizer.

We did not speak much as we drove along the asphalt farm road that connected us with the main part of town.  Dad thought a lot, about a lot of things.  It was not uncomfortable being included in his silence if you knew him.  When he did speak it always made you think and you always remembered what he said and what you thought about it.

As we passed between the ramparts of the unfinished interstate overpass Dad stopped the car.  “Let’s take a look,” he said.

We climbed the steep, dirt embankment raising ochre dust swirls with each step.  At the top we stood in the morning sun looking into the distance.  The interstate construction cut as far east and west as I could see.  It was so perfect, so straight.  I thought it could run that way forever.  It felt good to be there, to see so far to witness the geometry of progress.

“Where will it take us,” Dad asked?

Dad’s questions were almost always about something other than they sounded.  I wanted to please my father so I thought hard about an answer he would like.

To the west lay Dallas and Fort Worth, rivaling siblings linked by urban Yin and Yang:  One master of cattle and culture the other center for banking and bustle.  They were Texas’s double helix of commerce.

But Dad was not looking west, the direction of change and advancement.  He looked east, the direction of memories.

Far down that scar in the earth lay Atlanta, the jewel of the south, the city that had been my father’s second home and my first.  I tried to remember what was there that my father wanted me to think about.

I closed my eyes and strained my mind to see what was there.  What I saw was Grandmother’s house on Rosedale Road.

Two and a half stories of ivy covered ruby brick crowning a grassy knob.  Many relatives had shared its high ceiling character over the years.

Mother nursed grandmother’s sister there around the clock until she died.  Grandmother’s husband’s weak heart stopped peacefully in his bedroom.

A brood of cousins shared the house with us on occasion.  One became America’s premier novelist, another, the nation’s poet laureate.  The poetess’s work pulsed with the dull glow of emotional bruises so many of our generation learned to embrace.  The novelist became rich and famous writing about southern males melding into the twentieth century.  No matter how far they strayed, I could see the house on Rosedale Road behind their words.

There were secrets learned there.  In the attic, rummaging through Grandmother’s dead husband’s trunk I found ledgers listing shipments of beer and whiskey from before the depression.  Playing in the pantry I listened as Grandmother belittled her first husband as a big fisted drunkard.  But the basement was the place for the greatest secrets.

The basement was no more than a hole dug in the red clay beneath the back third of the house.  From outside it was entered through a small door even a boy had to crawl through.  It contained a few abandoned pieces of furniture, some mason jars, tin boxes and an orange crate overflowing with newspapers.  Its main attraction was a Lennox furnace adjacent to a coal box.

In the summer, when the furnace sat useless, listening to the house, I would go down, always with plenty of daylight left, and squat near the furnace’s open door.  Sometimes I would be rewarded by hollow voices drifting through heat grills.  The furnace and I listened for long stretches.  We learned secrets southern boys were not supposed to know.

I opened my eyes and stared hard down the straight scar in the earth that would soon be interstate highway.  I looked beyond the horizon, all the way to Atlanta, all the way to the Lennox in the basement under the house on Rosedale Road and the furnace’s two most secret words echoed in my memory.

It was the summer Grandmother’s brother returned.  Great Uncle Harlan had vanished during the Depression just before Grandmother moved to Atlanta with half her children.  No one, not even Grandmother, knew where he had been.

Twenty years later, he chose that summer, when the dogwoods bloomed early, when a blanket of heat settled on the city, where the only cool place was the red clay basement that smelled like slow baking pottery, to reunite with what was left of his family.

After lunch I had taken my toy soldiers into the basement and arranged them in opposing ranks on the packed dirt floor in front of the hulking Lennox.  I sat making battle sounds and choosing, in as fair a manner as possible that would allow the Americans to win, which soldiers to knock over.  In a fit of drama, the Germans were temporarily ahead.  The outnumbered Americans were about to launch a heroic hand-to-hand assault from which they would, of course, emerge victorious when I realized someone was talking.

The voices began as raspy whispers then escalated into venomous hisses humming through metal ducts.  Louder, more urgent, suddenly above the sound of an imaginary grenade exploding in a machine-gun nest, Grandmother’s and Uncle Harlan’s argument poured hotly into the basement.

The furnace distorted voices, adding a cavernous, quaking depth that made them hard to understand but, as if some secret decoder flicked on at just the right instant, the voices became crystal clear as they exchanged accusations.  “Whore,” he said.  “Murderer,” she said.

I fled the basement that day, afraid to go into the house where their words might linger.  Instead, I ran into the patch of woods behind the house and sat under a dogwood with knees drawn up.

When dusk entered the woods I went to the house and found my mother packing to visit her family until Dad returned.  I helped her with solemn understanding.

We never returned to Rosedale Road to live.  Even our visits were short.  The house suddenly seemed decayed and worn.  Grandmother sold it.  She said it was too empty.  She spent almost all her money traveling around the world.  She told of wonderful adventures but I think she was running from those words.

Now she took turns living with her four children.  Even the two she deserted in the depression treated her well.

One evening when everyone else was in bed and Dad and I were alone watching a movie about a man who killed someone and a woman who lied to protect him I asked, “Is that what happened to Grandmother?”

Dad’s unblinking eyes never left the screen, his folded hands did not tighten, his expression did not change but I could see his mind working.  When the Mr. Clean jingle started, he turned his head.

“Sometimes people do horrible things.  There is right and wrong, and when it does not involve you it is easy to know the difference.  But sometimes, Bill, sometimes, when it involves you, when you get caught up in it and no matter which way you turn someone gets hurt, then it is not so easy.  People make bad mistakes that hurt everyone.  They think they are doing what is right but maybe it’s the worst thing they could do.  Then later they realize how much they have hurt others.  They never get away with it, Bill.  It follows them around and becomes a black sickness growing inside.

“I don’t know what you heard, Bill, but I know this, you have to love your family and love means forgiving.  When you forgive someone you put the bad thing behind you and don’t talk about it.  If you don’t forgive people then you begin to hate them for what they did and that blackness grows in you.  Being able to forgive someone, even when you know they are wrong, is a good thing, the kind of thing that can take you a long way in life.”

Standing on that mound in the sun, remembering his words, it crossed my mind Dad never said so much to me at one time before or since.

Dad tapped my shoulder, “Well, Bill, where do you think this progressive concrete slab will take us?”

“A long way in life,” I answered my father’s question.

He looked at me, a hint of smile in his soft eyes, “I believe you are right.”