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Except for the occasional Good mornin’ courtesy, I’d never really spoken with Mr. Eldon Pennebaker. I was born in the Mississippi delta town that bore his family name and like most of the other kids, grew up avoiding direct contact with the imposing man who owned one of the largest farms in the state.
In July of ‘68, three recent Roosevelt High graduates and a small group of well-wishers stood uneasily beside an idling Greyhound. Lex, Ronnie, and I were on our way to another delta, one located in an unreal black-and-white world we’d seen flashing behind Walter Cronkite. The bus driver was inside Blue’s Cafe and as we waited for him to finish his coffee, my mom clung to me silently. Years earlier, a father I knew only from faded family photos had also taken a Greyhound before melting forever into a snowy Korean-hillside.
The uniformed driver appeared, closing the luggage compartment doors, heralding our imminent departure. I bent and kissed my mom but before I could promise her I’d be home soon she slipped away from me, wilting like a tulip in the Mississippi sun. The armor of my teenage bravado cracked at her abrupt withdrawal and cruel intuition whispered to me; I would never see her again.
Turning toward the cafe, I saw Mr. Pennebaker framed in the two-tone gray haze of a scarred screen window. He stood mopping his broad forehead with a bandana, watching as his man Isaiah approached us. Isaiah was a Negro of indeterminate age, stooped and painfully thin. He removed the green John Deere ball cap covering his salt-and-pepper and reverently extended a hand, first to Lex, then to Ronnie.
Like Isaiah, my two companions were colored, and they greeted the old man respectfully. His warm and ready smile shined in stark contrast to the dour man he constantly accompanied. To this day I’m ashamed to admit I hesitated when Isaiah turned to me and offered his delicate handshake. He must have sensed my awkwardness, but his hand remained extended for the extra instant I needed. It seems a small thing now, but Isaiah’s simple gesture forever changed me.
When the bus pulled away that sweltering morning, Mr. Pennebaker’s Ford pickup truck was parked in front of Blue’s Cafe. As was his custom, Isaiah had crossed the street to his familiar post, sitting on the curb in the shade of the big willow oak in front of Rebel Tractor Repair.
Thirty months later, a lifetime, the Greyhound returned me to Pennebaker, Mississippi on a blustery February morning. A Chevy pickup had replaced the Ford in front of Blue’s Cafe but little else seemed changed. Isaiah was sitting in the same spot beneath the now-leafless oak tree. Smiling broadly, he rose to his feet, waved, and crossed the street to greet me.
“Mornin’ Mr. David,” he said.
“Mornin’ Isaiah,” I replied. He didn’t shake my hand but hugged me instead. This time, I welcomed his touch.
“You’re all back home now,” he whispered, patting my back gently.
“I reckon,” I said softly. Lex and Ronnie had preceded me. They were both resting in the hillside cemetery south of the Greater Spirit Baptist Church.
“Sorry about your momma,” he said.
I nodded but didn’t respond. Her death nine days earlier had been sudden. In spite of my best effort, Uncle Sam and twelve thousand miles had prevented me from attending the funeral.
As the two of us stood for a moment, a buffeting north wind slammed the Bunny Bread-adorned screen door of the cafe, signaling the emergence of Eldon Pennebaker. As Mr. Pennebaker approached, Isaiah touched my arm and with a nod, departed for his post across the street. Oddly, Pennebaker looked younger to me than he had nearly three years earlier.
“Good morning, Mr. Coyle,” he said, his cadence and tone perfect Mississippi delta.
“I bought the old Rebel building when it went bust last year,” he drawled, tilting his head toward the abandoned repair shop acr