It was Caleb’s fifteenth birthday, and he thought no one remembered. His mom didn’t. She never even came out of her bedroom before he left the house. His brothers were already gone when he woke up.
When he got out of bed, he rummaged through the clothes on the floor of the bedroom he shared with Travis. He found a pair of khaki cargo shorts that didn’t look too dirty, and opened his closet to grab a shirt. He caught sight of himself in the mirror on the back of the closet door. For a moment, he saw what his Mamaw always saw…his dad. Just a glimpse. For just a moment, Caleb saw his father in his own brown hair, brown eyes, and those high cheekbones his father had. And then he was gone, and it was just himself staring back at him.
Caleb sat down on the bed, and put on his shoes. He knew his dad would have remembered his birthday. He would have taken him to Cracker Barrel for breakfast, and maybe he would have let him drive his truck to the end of the street. It would have been a lot like when Caleb was still a little kid, but maybe he would have ordered coffee instead of hot chocolate. Maybe his dad would have taught him how to shave, even though he really didn’t need to. Maybe he would have given him something special for his birthday. He gave Clay a shotgun for his thirteenth birthday. He had hinted that all the boys would get one when they turned thirteen. But then he died before the rest of his sons became teenagers. Caleb’s Uncle Titus got him a mountain bike when he turned thirteen. His mom was sick that day.
Caleb ate a bowl of cereal and left the house. The screen door banged, and he wondered if his mom would hear it and wake up. It’s hot in Tennessee in July, and Caleb was sweating before he even got out of the driveway. He rode his bike to Robbie’s house, but he wasn’t home. Robbie was Caleb’s best friend, and he spent a lot of time at his house. Robbie had two little sisters, and a border collie named Max. Robbie’s mom got up early every day, and she made waffles or pancakes every Saturday. She called Caleb her other son, and she smelled like honeysuckle. Robbie’s dad’s name was Jim. He was six feet four inches tall. He worked for the railroad, and came home every day sweaty and dirty. He called Robbie “Buddy” and took him hunting and fishing. Sometimes, he took Caleb, too. When he was younger, Caleb liked to pretend that Robbie was his brother and Jim was his dad. Now that he was older, he was just glad they let him hang around as much as they did.
Caleb didn’t have a back up plan for his day, so he just rode his bike aimlessly around town. Little River is a combination of neighborhoods and subdivisions, and areas, like Caleb’s family’s place, that were more rural. A lot of people had small farms. Caleb lived just outside of town, so he could easily ride his bike across the railroad tracks to most anywhere he wanted to go. There wasn’t much there. Some fast food places, a Dollar General, a drugstore, and a couple gas stations were about it.
Caleb was coasting down a residential street that he wasn’t familiar with when he heard someone yell, “Hey, you!”
Caleb looked around and saw an old man on his front porch. He was waving his arm at Caleb, so he slowed down and pedaled across the street to where the man now stood in his front yard.
“Yeah?” Caleb asked.
The man was probably seventy-five or eighty. He was a big guy, but his back was bent. He had lots of wrinkles and a hearing aid. Even though it was nearly ninety degrees, he was wearing overalls and a long sleeved, button up shirt. He had a pouch of Red Man chewing tobacco in the bib pocket of his overalls. “What’s your name, Son?” he asked.
The old man looked interested, and said, “Salt, eh? I knew a feller by the name of Salt one time. Unusual name. He had big ears like you’ve got, too. Wonder if he’s any of your kin?”
“I don’t know.” Caleb didn’t know what to think of the old man and his watery, green eyes. No one had ever said anything about his ears being big before. He had never noticed it. Surely if he had unusually big ears, his brothers would have let him know. “What was his first name?”
“Clayton, I think.” The old man rubbed his whiskery chin. “Yeah. I think it was Clayton. He married a friend of my sister’s. Her name was Iva. I was sweet on her when we was still in school. She never did give me a chance, though. Took up with that Clayton feller right after high school. I was in the service and traveled around for a spell, so I never did see them after that.”
“That was my grandfather.” Caleb said. “He’s dead now.”
“Aw. I hate to hear that.” The old man looked genuinely disappointed. “How long ago?”
“I was just a little kid…four or five. Grandma’s still living, but she lives in Kentucky with my Aunt Sarah.”
“That’s good to hear about Iva.” The old man spat a stream of tobacco juice onto the grass by his shoes, and smiled at Caleb. “She was always a real sweet girl. I would have liked to have married her myself.”
Caleb just smiled at the old man. He felt awkward listening to the way the old man talked about his grandmother.
“Well, I better be going.” Caleb started to push away on his bike, but the old man stopped him.
“Hey, wait a minute!” He laughed at the boy. “I was going to ask you something.”
“I need a boy to mow my yard for me. It’s getting high, and the feller I had cutting it for me done took off to Georgia. Said he’s going to college there.” He motioned to the yard behind him, and said, “It’s just this part here in front, the sides of the house, and a back yard about the same size as the front. You interested?”
“I’d give you twenty-five dollars if you do a good job.”
“That sounds ok.” Caleb was really very happy about making that much money. He never had any. He was trying to seem mature about it, though. “You want me to do it right away?”
“Yeah. How’s tomorrow? It’s supposed to rain on Thursday.”
“Alright. I can do that.”
“You got a mower?”
Caleb’s heart sank. “No.”
“Aw, that’s okay.” The old man smiled as he spat a stream of brown liquid uncomfortably close to Caleb’s shoe. “You can use mine.”
When Caleb got home, Uncle Titus’ car was in the driveway. Caleb walked in the door, and called out, “Mama? Uncle Titus? Guess what!”
“We’re in here, Baby.” His mother’s voice floated out of the kitchen.
Caleb rounded the corner to the kitchen, and was surprised to see Uncle Titus, his mom, and his brothers all sitting at the table. There were cupcakes on the table, and a couple of balloons tied to his chair.
“Happy birthday!” His mom and Uncle Titus beamed at him. His brothers just kind of smiled at him and reached for cupcakes.
Their mom smacked Clay’s hand. “Now, you wait. Those are for after we eat. And Caleb gets the first one!”
“I thought you didn’t remember it was my birthday.” Caleb said as he sat down. “And you made me cupcakes!”
A funny look crossed his mom’s face, but she covered it up with a smile. “Titus brought the cupcakes for you. But I would have made you some if he didn’t. I wouldn’t forget my baby boy’s birthday.”
“How about some pizza for dinner?” Uncle Titus had retrieved two boxes from the counter, and was setting them in front of Caleb. “Ham and pineapple.”
“My favorite!” Caleb grinned. His mom might not remember the little things, but Uncle Titus always did.
©2015 Rachel Holbrook
Rachel Holbrook writes from her home in Knoxville, TN. She is the author of the syndicated serial, Little River, Volumes 1 & 2. Her short fiction and poetry have appeared in Burningword Literary Journal, *82 Review, Ink in Thirds, Akitsu Quarterly, The Avalon Literary Review, and various other literary journals. When she’s not writing, she enjoys going on literal and literary adventures with her husband and six children.