Front porch

Each morning at about seven o’clock, a man with a peach ballcap walks by on the road leading away from the cul de sac that punctuates Stablewood Lane.

He wears the same blue Bermuda shorts, cream shirt, tube socks and white sneakers, and looks straight ahead as he walks. He doesn’t notice me on the front porch, even though the time and stillness of day, and the relative clearing of trees, should allow one’s peripheral vision—that is, his—to sense another human fairly easily. Perhaps he is as focused moving ahead as I am relaxed staying still. I admire his discipline.

Seven o’clock.

By this time each weekday, my father-in-law Earl would have been at work and probably about to see his first patient, slightly more than an hour drive south of here in San Antonio at the Veteran’s Administration outpatient clinic. Every morning at 4:10, with military precision, he’d arise, eat breakfast prepared by his faithful wife of 50+ years (the “plus” sign on longevity like that is a narrative ellipsis of its own), don a mid-thigh long, starched, white medical coat with his name embroidered on it, a buttoned down shirt and tie, cordovan loafers and either gray slacks or dress khakis, and off he’d go. For a number of years since I first met them, every other week he and Ginger would fly down to McAllen—“the valley”—and he’d perform sigmoidoscopies at the VA clinic there as well. He would talk with pride but not boastfulness about how he and his team increased the number of patients seen and effectively treated, yet he lamented how the system both overloaded the staff, and how it had such a surprising disdain for efficiency and excellence.

This was the first summer we’d experienced Kerrville, a town of twenty thousand, without Earl. He died in February at the age of 82. Four months before his death he was still practicing surgery, still getting up at 4:10 most mornings, still rocking the government health care system in his “H. Earl Kilgore, M.D.” white coat and obliging you with his motto, “to cut is to cure.”

There was peace during these mornings I sat on the front porch of their home and watched Peach Ballcap walk by.

What you notice first when stepping onto the 4’ x 8’ limestone slab is the clouds moving overhead. To the left, south, and to the right they often appear thicker than they do directly overhead, where you see mere strands of cotton candy being pulled like threads by a large invisible hand over the roof. They move quickly enough that the illusion of proximity makes you feel like you could reach up and touch one. Grab one of those cotton candy strands and stuff it in your mouth.

The driveway comes in from the right, with a decline of about fifteen feet from the road, and makes a long arc in front of the house and then swoops up again to the street. A “U” shape as you sit there, looking up. The slight rise between the two-foot wide berm planter spanning the front on the other side of the driveway—the open area that allows you to take a deep breath and the space my father-in-law called “the beyond”—almost wasn’t to be.

At the outset of building, Earl and the subdivision’s developer were negotiating the depth of the setback. Earl said he preferred the house to be close to the road, so that he and Ginger could have an extended back yard. The developer wanted all houses set farther back. The latter finally picked up “a large rock” and, walking down the hill of the site’s footprint (part of the “beyond”), he dropped it saying, “The house will be no closer than here.”

“What’s funny,” said Ginger, “is that we’re actually farther back than even where that rock was. We were both happy later when we saw how it turned out. So I’m glad the large rock won the day!”

You’re aware at this hour of the deer and the birds, particularly morning doves, whose hollow coos echo the hilly landscape. The deer, often numbering between five and eight, will graze among the mountain cedar and live oak trees in the beyond. They notice me but with no regard. They’ll be back each night, when we sit out front and bring stale tortilla chips to feed them. The strongest of them is a female who’s come to be called Matilda by the Kilgore family. Matilda has survived in part by chasing off the others, even her offspring, and cornering the market on tortilla chips. Whoever says that nature is not harsh, even among such seemingly gentle creatures, has not closely watched deer during a Texas drought. Ginger found three dead fawns out front just this summer. Only humans can display mercy and kindness for their own sake, and our ability to do so—innate or not—is a gift, and a sporadically exercised one at that. Nature is unblinkingly consistent, and here the buzzards are its primary beneficiaries.

Across the road to the left is a house under construction. The workers arrive just before Peach Ballcap goes by, and judging by the voices there seem to be four or five of them. A rusted dumpster, about head-high, sits to the right of the worksite. Occasional hammering and a table saw can be heard before 7:15, but for the most part a man, probably the foreman, can be heard on his cellphone or calling out to the others through the skeletal floors. A turquoise and white van fires up and then drives away, returning fifteen minutes later, perhaps with breakfast tacos from Rita’s in town, or from the closer Taqueria Jalisco, just across the Guadalupe River and then left, less than a mile on Junction Highway.

The purple martins are back.

I saw these birds first on the grounds of the Kerrville VA hospital. When I met Earl and Ginger in 1995, they were living in a two-bedroom apartment at the VA—this is well after their five children were grown—and then they moved to hospital’s “big house,” a two-story, five-bedroom house which served at various times as an administration building and housing for staff. That second building afforded a gathering point where the out-of-town kids and six grandkids in addition to the three local kids and five additional grandkids could congregate. At Christmas, Ginger would host dinner and a couple dozen additional family members from Austin and Buda. At that point, there was room only for chairs and 8-foot long folding tables, food and unsweetened tea, and funny stories and family news.

Purple martins, Earl told me, require a long open approach to their nests, which is rare in most places, so they’re hard to find but are highly desirable because they are “aerial insectivores,” flying while feeding, on mosquitoes in their case. You watch them swoop low to the ground where the insects are, back and forth like World War I aces in dogfights. Their white underbellies flash toward you, and their forked swallowtails flit open and closed. Nature, both beautiful and unadorned. Unrelenting. Irrepressible. Unforgiving.

The sun has risen enough now that you get a little too warm for comfort. It is nearly 7:30 and probably close to 80 degrees, and the touch of direct rays makes you begin sweating.

Peach Ballcap is typically my only human contact—in an indirect way—on these mornings. Others are voices on the construction site—(I’ve never verified a person there except for one, whose back was to me as he stood urinating next to the dumpster)—or a lost driver once who inched toward the cul de sac and circled back around and then drove off. I can see how people in a monastery with a vow of silence can become a bit eccentric. Even introverts needing solitude need others.

Just now, a black pick-up truck grumbles by headed to the cul de sac… Now turning in to our driveway.

“Morning!” he says when the truck is close enough. Grey beard. Glasses. Black t-shirt. An arm extends out the window and a paper is dropped on the front walk.

Back to him: “Good morning!”

“How you doin’?” Meant as a further reply to my greeting, not really a question. Or at least I think. It’s Texas, after all, and he might really be asking.

“Good! Thank you!”

A wave, and he looks ahead at the arc leading up to the road, driving up through the beyond as the purple martins continue their breakfast.