Clear gray eyes look at me from the picture, the young man's hand perched casually on the bloodhound's back as they stand at the top of the red clay hill. It's Barry as a child. When that picture was taken, it was summer in the Blue Ridge. It's summer now and the photograph triggers memories of when we first met. In my mind, I inhale the rich aroma of deep fried chicken. I can still hear the sounds of cows bellowing as they made their way home from outlying pastures. I put the picture down and try to smile at Barry's mother. She never seems to change; she still doesn't care for me. The other constant is that she continues to mumble that Barry will be coming home any time now.
"He'll probly surprise us an be here fer supper," she says as if daring me to tell her otherwise, her hands wringing the fabric of the worn apron that has seen better days. "Ya know how he loves his corn fritters an I made a batch jus this mornin for him. My boy," she mumbles on her way into the kitchen. "He sure does love his mama's corn fritters."
I turn to fix the shades as the sun lights dusk motes that settled onto the highly polished wooden floor. Looking at the familiar living room I touched the things he had touched, things his mama left in place the day Barry "went away fer a spell." I picked up a magazine, idly turning the pages, my mind's eye seeing him, and remembered how he'd drive the hills, scaring the devil out of me until I swore I wouldn't see him again if he didn't slow down.
The land glided past as we darted around the curves, and I gasped when towering mounds of red clay sprang up out of nowhere; the edge of mountains on one side, deep ravines on the other. I heard myself shout: "Slow down Barry, slow down!" He always laughed at me, but Barry was free then with a leash on life as tight as a pure heart hanging onto its first true love.
Barry wasn't driving when it happened. When he awoke in his hospital bed, the truck driver mumbled vaguely about falling asleep at the wheel. By the time he was coherent enough to be interviewed by the police... Barry was already out of surgery. I've been counting the days ever since - he's been comatose for eight long weeks. I lay the magazine aside to think of him and to remember that long-ago summer when life seemed freer.
"You're a Yankee gal, right?" He smirked when I drove up in my brand new Corvair, his body leaning against a mud streaked pickup truck parked by the side of the road.
"Uh huh." I smiled as I got out of the car. "You're Barry Adams, right? The travel agent told me you'd meet me here to show me around town. I'm sure I would have found the way but..."
"Got turned around in Millidgeville, I bet." His gray eyes twinkled as he gave me the once over.
"I did," I laughed, "and I also made a twenty-mile U-turn in Valdosta. That happen a lot to folks looking to summer in Habersham County?"
"All the time," he chuckled, "but not one nearly as pretty as you. You got some man waitin for you somewhere?"
"In that case, I'll ask you to dinner. I hope you like southern fried chicken, biscuits and brown gravy, and mashed potatoes swimmin in butter."
"Pie, too?" I asked, a giggle escaping at his cheeky forward words.
"Apple, peach and cherry. Any of them suit you?"
"What? No pecan pie?"
"For a kiss," he smiled, "I'll make sure there's one of those, too."
"You kiss all the girls that come this way, Mr. Adams?" I asked as formally as I could, even though I thought our conversation was really funny in a sweet sort of way.
"No," He stood over me, his index finger briefly touching my chin. "Just the pretty Yankee ones."
"How many of those pretty Yankee ones you kissed?" I asked in a hushed tone, something tightening in my chest as I openly flirted with a man I had met just minutes ago.
"Not a one," he smiled, easing the unresolved tension that rose much too swiftly on a summer's day in northeast Georgia. "But plannin' to fix that soon as I get you that pecan pie."
Such a brash man. I looked up into his handsome face. I didn't want to smile at him; he was much too forward for a stranger. I needed to turn away, ignore the sudden attraction. But oh, he was so charming and in spite of my good intentions, a smile yanked the corners of my mouth up and I turned my face up to his.
"Should I follow you into town?"
"No, go park your fancy car in that lot over there," he pointed. "I'll take you into town and get you acquainted with what's there and then bring you back here. After that, I'll let you follow me out to the cabins."
"You think I couldn't find town by myself?"
"I think folks around here wouldn't be too friendly to a pretty little gal like you at first glance."
"Why not?" I asked, indignation rising.
"Well," he drawled with a twinkle in his eye. "First off, you're a Yankee. Second, you're driving a foreign car. This is Ford country and look at what you brought us - a fancy car, all clean and white with red leather seats and no damn radiator. What in tarnation kind of car is that? Add salt to the wound," he continued and shook his head. "That car's engine's in the back! Wouldn't be at all surprised if I find myself defending your honor or some such thing before the day's done. Tell me now, woman. Don't lie to me. You *are* an American citizen, right?"
"My car is a Chevrolet!" I shouted.
"See!" he smirked, shaking his head. "A foreign car," and then taking my arm, he burst out laughing at the look on my face.
"You!" I could sputtered when I realized he'd been teasing me all along.
"Gotcha, honey bun," he chuckled. "It's gonna cost you another kiss."
I arched a brow at his audacity but said nothing when he put his hands on my waist and lifted me into the pick-up's passenger seat.
"Mark my words, little lady," he smiled as he put a gentle palm on my face, his thumb slowly stroking my cheek. "I always collect whatever's owed me. And right now, you're up to two kisses."
"You're very charming," I smiled, but I was serious, too. "And just so you know, I don't kiss strange men."
"You think I'm strange?" His grin was so wicked, I couldn't help myself. I laughed.
"I think you're pretty damn forward for sure," I said sassy enough to make him arch a brow in my direction.
"Southern gals don't curse." There was a definite note of admonishment in his tone. "You Yankee gals curse a blue streak, I s'ppose."
"Saying damn isn't cursing. It's just another word to emphasize a point."
"Keep it up, Yankee gal," his voice still soft. "And I'll show you how a Southern man *makes* a point."
"Ha!" I snorted. "You planning on washing my mouth out with soap or... I know. You're going to eat all the pecan pie by yourself!"
I pretended horror and fright, but he didn't answer me, just kept on smiling and then he pulled me right back into his charming web. After steering the truck back onto the highway, his hand slid across the seat and took hold of mine... he squeezed it gently.
"Two kisses, Yankee gal," he said "and your debt's about to grow."