She did not turn to acknowledge that he was about to snap a photo of her, nor did she tilt her head in disapproval. If she turned toward him, he would assume she disapproved and not take the picture. Instead, she walked slowly toward the sunrise-lit curtains. The part of her life controlled by fear or self-doubt would stay behind her, even if she had to choose an “as if” to propel her.
He gifted her the ability to see herself as imperfectly perfect. In her previous life, she would have hidden herself, stepped behind a door, or refused to be in light sufficient to draw attention. Such refusals inevitably lead to apathy, the architect of so much unhappiness.
Today, though, she crawled from the unfamiliar bed and walked toward the balcony. She knew that the light shone around her in a gauzy corona, giving him an unvarnished view of her. Letting the sheet fall away, she turned toward him. She smiled, one born of genuine acceptance.
Instead of snapping another picture, he tossed the camera on the floor. The camera was no longer necessary. Confidence was its own illumination.
“Save that spot for me!” The words echoed in her memory as she stood in the kitchen, staring at the empty rocking chair next to the ornate tree. Though her heart wasn’t in it, Susan begrudgingly pulled out the bins of Christmas ornaments earlier and studiously rebuilt the tree. Her mother’s constant reminder to everyone in the family still lingered in the air, along with scents of fresh pine and the dozens of cookies Susan’s son Sam and daughter Sue baked each holiday season. Last year, they made more than sixty dozen. The pastor of the church could not have been happier. When the kids presented him with a case of cookies, he excitedly informed them he had a freezer for just such a contingency. Neither had the heart to clarify to him that the cookies were intended for the entire congregation rather than the pastor himself.
It was Susan’s first Christmas without her mom. Everyone was supposed to call her mom “Darling,” a name she picked up while singing. The term used to annoy Susan. Total strangers called her mom Darling. Anyone who used her nickname with a bit of creativity earned a famous cackle of laughter from Darling and sometimes a quick kiss on the cheek. Darling loved giving kisses. “Johnny Cash gave me that name. If it was good enough for him, it’s good enough for anyone.” Was the Johnny Cash story true? No one knew. But it might have been.
For the last several years, Darling insisted that the rocking chair be carefully aligned near the Christmas tree and that she be able to claim permanent dibs on sitting there. It was an enviable spot. Not only could the occupant of the rocking chair see outside to watch everyone drive up to the house, but the floor vent was nearby, ensuring warmth that wasn’t guaranteed around the rest of the drafty living room. Factor in the prime observation spot for both passing out and opening presents, and it was the perfect spot to observe everyone. And as everyone found out with Darling, it was also the ideal point from which to bark orders, criticisms, and sometimes, encouragement.
Everyone enjoyed pretending to be unaware of Darling’s rule regarding permanent dibs on the rocking chair. Pastor Evans, who wasn’t faking his ignorance, found himself being unceremoniously harangued in front of a houseful of guests two seasons ago. He tried making his case with her. “Now Darling, there is a wonderful glider rocker over there closer to the kitchen!” She glowered at him and said, “Well, move your keister over to it if it’s so darned comfortable!” The pastor sheepishly changed seats after picking up another cup of famously-strong eggnog. Under his breath, you might hear him tell no one in particular that one had to drink around Darling to keep one’s sanity. This was more memorable because Darling always managed to sneak in another bottle of whiskey into the eggnog. Only Susan was aware she did it. “If it doesn’t ring your gong, why are you climbing the bell tower,” Darling loved saying. More than one person undoubtedly drove home from their Christmas get-togethers with a buzz. Darling could hold her own when drinking. She toured with many rowdy country and gospel singers when she was younger. No one turned the lights off when she was still in the room.
The Friday after Thanksgiving, one of Darling’s neighbors dropped by to give her some leftover turkey. She found Darling sleeping on the porch swing. When she shook her, she realized that Darling had passed away. The coroner advised them that a massive stroke killed her. A full cup of untasted coffee sat on the antique table next to the swing.
Susan considered not having a family Christmas this year, but she knew Darling would be very unhappy to hear of it, especially from her viewpoint in the afterlife. While Susan wasn’t a superstitious person, she dared not risk finding out if Darling could reach her from the other side. Sam and Sue applauded with enthusiasm when Susan informed them that the kitchen was back open for business because Darling would want it that way. Sam chimed in, “We’re going to make a hundred dozen cookies this year, Mom!”
By two in the afternoon on Christmas day, everyone had nervously avoided sitting in the rocking chair, even as a joke. Susan attempted to encourage different people to sit in the rocker. Even her husband’s Aunt Edna refused. Darling’s presence still filled the house. It might never be the same, even though their home was always filled with overflowing conversations, laughter, and the occasional shout.
When Susan’s husband Ed stood by the tree to read 1 Corinthians 13:13, Darling’s favorite, he laughed. “This isn’t a Christmas verse, but it is the one Darling insisted on for twenty years. I see no need to break it.” He recited the passage from memory as everyone in the living room and kitchen stopped to listen. Most had their eyes turned to the empty rocking chair next to the Christmas tree. Although many had endured both rebuke and charm from Darling, most eyes were moist from remembering her.
Susan felt an unseen hand push her toward the rocking chair. Aunt Edna turned from near the coffee table and started to make her way to the chair. Without knowing she was doing so, Susan shouted, “Save that spot for me!” Aunt Edna froze as every head turned to watch Susan walk across the living room and put her hand on the back of the rocking chair. She hesitated and then sat down firmly in the rocking chair.
“Well, what are we waiting for?” She asked. “These gifts aren’t going to hand themselves out, are they?”
The snug warmth of him behind her granted her sleep. She hadn’t known how desperately she needed the sleep of trusting someone. Her hair spread out across the pillow behind her. She woke to him gently touching the strands. She shivered at the sweet intimacy of someone playing with her hair. It centered her in a way she did not realize she had been missing.
He leaned in to whisper to her, a game both of them loved playing. “I figured out the line you need to start your book,” he softly whispered. No one else could hear them. The absurdity of whispering amused them both. Now that they started the game, they wanted to play it out for a thousand innings.
“There are no tiny paragraphs. The smallest increment of spoken intimacy is the phrase ‘I love you.’ Yet it can contain the volume of a lifetime if spoken.”
She turned slightly toward him. “Aren’t you romantic? It’s barely six, and you’re already turning the page.” He laughed.
“I got a head start, watching you this morning.” He leaned in, kissed her quickly on the lips, and then sprang from the bed with his customary energy. He briefly touched her dress from the day before. It hung on the armoire. “Thanks,” he whispered as his fingers caressed the hem.
As he neared the bathroom door, he heard a subtle whisper. He turned. She had pulled the cover off.
“We have more to talk about if you’re interested.” She winked and smiled at him. He jumped to the bed from where he was standing. She howled with laughter and surprise as his landing bounced her off the bed and back.
Another typical day and another neither one of them would take for granted.
Judy’s eyes opened to see the projector clock on the opposite wall indicating 4:45 a.m. Before going to bed, she set the bedroom alarm for 5:00 a.m. and her automatic coffee pot in the kitchen for 5:15 a.m. Since it was Christmas morning, she needed to complete her to-do list before Jake scrambled out of his pillow fort. They spent at least thirty minutes last night, carefully building his sleeping fort to his precise specifications. He wanted to ensure that Santa wouldn’t find him awake in the dark. After getting Jake to stop chatting and to try to sleep, Judy pulled the presents for Jake from the trunk of her car and tucked them under the tree. It would be an austere Christmas this year. She hoped Jake wouldn’t mind.
Judy succumbed to the warmth of the bed; she pulled the comforter tightly under her neck.
The last year was beyond difficult. Judy’s ex-husband Richard spent the first four months of the year denying he had abused her. When he discovered that Judy’s decision to flee him was going to last, he turned his efforts to the court to take Jake from her. Even Judy’s mom testified against her. For reasons she still didn’t understand, the judge awarded her sole custody and granted her permission to move away. By September, she had a new apartment, a new job, and a new list of fears. Judy and Jake were on their own in every sense of the word. For ten years old, Jake somehow avoided the anguish others kids might have experienced through such a traumatic year. Judy found herself holding her breath tensely, waiting to see Jake act out. He never did.
At 4:50, Judy imagined she could smell coffee. If she overslept the alarm, the coffee always roused her from the bed. Single parents had to use a bit of creativity to keep their lives manageable. Imagining her first cup of coffee, she realized that she needed to pee. She pulled the comforter over her head as if doing so would erase the imaginary scent of coffee from her nose and the need to go to the bathroom. When she got the edge of the comforter tucked behind her head, she heard the soft melodies of “All I Want For Christmas” by Celine Dion. Most people preferred Mariah Carey, but not Judy. Celine was the voice of her angel. Deciding that she wasn’t going to quiet her mind or rest, Judy crawled from her warm bed and walked through the small dark bedroom to the tiny bathroom attached to it. As soon as she sat, she distinctly heard the music volume increase dramatically. Without a doubt, Celine’s voice played in the living room. Judy tried to finish more quickly, which only increased her need to go longer. As most moms discover, there is no such thing as quiet time, even in the bathroom. There’s always a bang on the door or an immediate need to address.
Judy quickly put on her Santa pajama bottoms and walked out into the living room. Inexplicably, the small tree next to the front window was fully lit and twinkling. The stereo next to the small television was on. Celine’s voice streamed from it. Judy walked across the narrow living room to Jake’s room. Opening the door, she went to the pillow fort and peered inside. Jake wasn’t there.
Judy quickly backed out of the room and peeked into the front bathroom. Also empty.
She turned and slid the sliding door to the kitchen open.
Jake sat at the small plain wood table. A cup of coffee sat in front of him. Next to that, a simple red box tied with twine.
“Merry Christmas, Mom!” Jake shouted as he ran over and hugged Judy around the waist. Surprised, Judy stood and rubbed her son’s hair back from his face. After a few seconds, he pulled away and reached over to grab the cup to hand to Judy. “I made this just the way you like it, Mom!”
“When did you learn to make coffee, Jake?” she asked.
“Oh Mom. That’s what YouTube is for! Plus, this is your Christmas!” Jake’s smile was as big as Judy had ever seen it. Though doubtful, Judy sipped the coffee. It was perfect. She laughed, realizing that Jake just volunteered to make coffee for her for the next ten years. “It’s delicious and so much better when someone else makes it!” She winked at him in the way that he loved.
“What are you doing up so early, son? It’s barely five.”
“Mom, I asked Santa to give you a good Christmas. He told me that I should give you a good one. I got you a gift.” Jake reached for the box on the table and pushed it toward Judy.
“How did you manage this, Jake? Do you even have money?” Judy laughed. She pulled the top bow loose to work the lid off the box.
“It was easy. I took out the trash every day for Mr. Johnson and agreed to help the building manager for a few months next year. I got Ken’s mom to get the gift at Target. Ken brought me the surprise to school, and I sneaked it home in my backpack. Simple.” He smiled. Judy knew that it had been anything but simple. Such planning for a ten-year-old was impressive. She was going to act delighted no matter what the box contained. It’s a ritual that Moms do instinctively.
Judy lifted the top off the box. She gasped. Inside the box at the bottom was a single ruby earring. Her eyes welled up as she looked at Jake. He sat, watching her, a smile on his face.
“Mom, do you like it?”
She swallowed hard to avoid crying. “Yes, of course!”
“I know that Dad took your Grandma’s ruby earrings and hid them. I could only afford one this year. I’ll get you the other one next year, I promise.”
Judy abandoned all pretense and started sobbing. She sat down hard on the chair across from Jake. Her coffee sloshed and spilled a little as she did so. Jake came around the table and hugged Judy from the side. She grabbed him and squeezed him hard against her.
“I love it, Jake! I love you.” She fumbled to pick up the single ruby earring and put it into her right earlobe. She smiled at Jake.
“Merry Christmas, Mom!”
As Celine continued to soar in the clouds in the background, Jake and Judy, mom and son, sat at the kitchen table laughing. It was a long time coming. In the living room, beneath the tree, Jake’s presents waited.
Love and Christmas were drowning them both. They swam in it.
Wherever you are and whoever you are, the season is inside you if you’ll permit it to overwhelm you.
J.C. smelled more smoke in the air. He shifted in the porch swing and then flicked the cigarette butt from his left hand out into the yard, where it landed a couple of feet unceremoniously from the empty bean field at the edge of the yard. It was his first cigarette in 50 years. J.C. loved the idea that it would be his last. He remembered his first cigarette when he went to Korea.
Giving up smoking at the request of his beautiful wife Mary was no sacrifice at all. When he met her, she was finishing high school. Her hair was short, as was the fashion in the early 50s. Her nose and elegant profile called to him like the face of no other girl had. They went on four dates even though her father thought J.C. was a delinquent. J.C. indeed dropped out of school in the 9th grade to work. Every penny went to his mom. When J.C. signed up to go to Korea, Mary’s dad Thomas decided that J.C. was good enough for his daughter after all. Before he shipped out, he asked Mary to marry him, with her dad’s blessing. In part due to shrapnel in his leg, J.C. returned sooner than expected. They were married in August 1952, fifty years ago today.
Even though it was over ninety degrees today, J.C. didn’t feel the heat around him. The loose tie around his neck didn’t even feel moist with sweat. It was the second time he wore a tie this year, after swearing he would never put on another one until Hell froze over. He wasn’t sure if he’d been sitting on the swing for five minutes or an hour. Time always played tricks on the porch. He and Mary spent many afternoons there, often just sitting and listening to the insects and the ice cubes dwindle inside the Mason jars Mary loved using as glasses. All of those glasses sat in the cupboard, unused since she passed.
The smoke was getting thicker now. J.C. felt it in his lungs a bit. He continued to look out across the empty field and wonder about the years passing by. Last week, he leafed through the family photo albums with his only daughter Debbie. When she asked if she could copy all the pictures, J.C. laughed. “Lord no, Debbie. Take them and share the stories. I’ll look at them when I come to visit you and the kids.” Debbie heard a catch in his voice but failed to see the tears coalescing at the corners of his eyes. If she had, things might have ended differently. “I’ve got the wedding photo to keep me company.” He pointed across the living room at the black and white wedding picture from the day they were married. It was a beautiful photo. Mary was pointing at the Reverend out of frame and laughing. J.C. stood nearby, worshipping her with his eyes. They had a traditional photograph of them both standing and smiling at the camera. It sat in the bottom of the blanket trunk in the extra bedroom.
Behind him, the smoke was billowing out through the screen door. J.C. heard a window crack from the heat. Time was running short.
He stood up, turned, and pushed the porch swing gently. It rocked back and forth, empty. It would do for a witness.
He walked toward the screen door, opened it, and went inside.
Had you been standing in the yard, you would have seen the heavy front door close behind him. Within a minute, the flames began to consume the house. J.C. was no more. In reality, he hadn’t been since Mary died.
Jake pushed the piece of apple pie across the diner table. He sighed. Two interminable years had passed since Jessie died. For reasons only someone left behind could understand, he continued to visit their favorite diner. The smells of toast, hash browns, and grilled onions whispered “home” to him in a way that even his own house couldn’t. It didn’t matter what else was on the limited menu there. Everything smelled of onions and breakfast food. His own house smelled of creeping loneliness and the distant moldy smell of someone living alone.
Two or three times a week after work, Jake distractedly drove the two miles out of the way. He climbed out of his car with his favorite book tucked under his right arm and went inside Joe’s. Everyone knew him there, even as the cast of employees and characters rotated with fresh faces from the local school and tired, worn-out faces of those who needed a job anywhere they could get it. If it was available, he walked to the farthest booth. Every couple of Saturdays, Jake found himself leaving the house and driving to Joe’s, even before he had his first cup of coffee. At 5:30 a.m., he was already sitting in the far booth cradling a cup of coffee.
The joke was on him, all this time later. Neither Jessie nor Jake really liked the food at the diner. He was sure that not many people did. No matter what they ordered, they knew that the apple pie for dessert would fill them.
The first time Jake went to Joe’s, Jessie talked him into it. “It’s so bad! You have to try it, Jake.” He said no until she took his left hand into hers and pushed it against her chest, and smiled. He couldn’t say no to that trick. When they were married, that’s how Jessie recited her simple vows.
At Joe’s, they laughed about the soggy toast and buttery hashbrowns, which were both overcooked and partially uncooked. That sort of result took either talent or blatant disregard for food. The owner didn’t seem to mind being ribbed about it. She was a small woman who moved there from Alaska.
Jake disliked the food so much that they started eating at Joe’s at least once a week. It’s the sort of inside joke that only close friends or lovers would appreciate. While they seldom left with full stomachs, they left with a belly full of apple pie and an hour of conversation. Joe’s was the place where they connected. For four years, they were as happy as any couple could be.
In June, almost three years ago, Jessie started coughing one Wednesday morning and didn’t stop. Within a week, Jake sat with her in the oncologist’s office to hear the doctor tell Jessie, “It is too far advanced for treatment. Here’s the name of another doctor for a second opinion. Go as soon as possible.” They went to Joe’s after the appointment with the oncologist. It was the first time they sat silently across from one another. The fear in Jessie’s eyes was a mortal wound for Jake. He knew a single word would shatter them both.
Four months later, Jessie died at home.
Since her death, Jake ordered two pieces of apple pie during each visit to Joe’s. He left both untouched after every meal. It was wasteful, but he couldn’t bring himself to stop. He didn’t know if it was superstition, grief, or another long con he was playing against himself.
Today, a new waitress came over to take his order. Jake couldn’t guess her age. Her hair was hidden inside a ballcap, but her face was crowded with wrinkle lines. When she took his order, she looked at him directly without diverting her gaze. Her eyes were alive with interest. Jessie did the same thing when they met. It was one of the things that convinced him that she was for him. People often said they wanted to be heard. For Jake, being seen was blatantly magical.
After he pushed away his mostly untouched plate, the waitress returned and asked him if he wanted any pie. “Yes, two pieces of apple pie. Thank you.” Jake looked at her name tag. “Alicia,” it indicated.
In a moment, Alicia returned. She put a slice of lemon pie in front of him and another on the other side of the table.
“Do you mind?” she asked him, pointing at the empty side of the booth across from him. “I’m on break for twenty minutes.” Before Jake could answer, she smoothly slid into the booth to sit across from him.
As she adjusted the pie of pie in front of her, she looked at him directly again.
“I don’t eat lemon pie, Alicia. Just apple.” It sounded lame to him as he said it.
“Jake, that’s not true. You don’t eat apple pie either. That’s okay.” Alicia winked at him.
Jake blushed. Through no dishonor to Jessie, the world around him suddenly diminished to Alicia’s face as she looked at him.
“I don’t know what to say, Alicia.”
“You don’t have to say anything, Jake. Just sit and be with me and enjoy the pie. Everything else will follow.” She winked again.
He smiled at Alicia and took his first bite of pie in two years. His new favorite was lemon. She met his gaze as they began to talk. *
Millicent was a pretty and quite precocious young girl. By age 5, she had developed a startling trait of listening to adults a little too closely. While her contemporaries squabbled over dolls and crayons, she dedicated herself to watching the strange adults around her. Instinctively, she also learned to spread her questions around among a variety of adults. After a certain number of questions, most adults became defensive or, worse, annoyed. Much of the time, their answers made little sense. Though she was young, it didn’t take her long to decide that most adults were winging it in life. Because she figured out that it was true for almost everyone, it didn’t upset her or make her sad.
Grandma Tuggins, her mother’s mom, noticed Millicent’s vocabulary had exceeded her own by age 6. Millie often sat on the floor while the older women watched “As The World Turns.” In the mid-70s, it was the show that defined daytime soap operas for women in Georgia. During one of the biggest melodramatic moments of the season, Millie stood up and announced, “Well, the plot is a bit preposterous if I’m expected to swallow the fact that she’s in love with both of those gentlemen!” She stomped away to get herself a bottle of Coke from the fridge. Tugs and the other women laughed.
Tugs, as her friends called her, knew the dangers of a girl being too smart. Alabama was still behind the times in 1975. Tugs made it her mission to bend Millie’s inquisitive nature before things got out of hand. Tugs was the organist at the Methodist church in town. She played the organ on Sundays and did the books for Reverend Hawkins. Within weeks of watching her grandmother as she counted the money and paid the bills for the church, Millie could do the math in her head.
Everyone knew that Millicent had announced that she could read on her fourth birthday. For a year, she would stare at the books on the floor or in her lap as she sat in the rocking chair with her mom. Her lips didn’t move, but her eyes seemed to read the words on the pages. She started with her collection of Curious George Books. Soon enough and her mom found her with a Nancy Drew series boxed up in the cellar. Millie’s other grandmother, Ellie, bought Millie a set of Encyclopedia Brown books for her birthday. “Just like a real set of encyclopedias,” she proudly (and wrongly) proclaimed. No one told her they weren’t the same thing. After eating the cake with no frosting, Uncle Pete asked Millie to read a bit of Encyclopedia Brown to him, knowing she wouldn’t be able to. A full chapter later, as Millie recited the words perfectly, Uncle Pete kept saying, “Lord, where did she get all them brains from? Ain’t none of us got that much smarts.” Grandma Tugs knew better. Millie’s dead father Andrew was the guilty party to passing along so much brains. Andrew also liked to take shortcuts for everything.
What concerned Tugs the most was the Wednesday evening when Millie turned from her chair and said, “The Reverend makes a lot of money for selling promises, doesn’t he?” Tugs burst out laughing at the question. “Yes, but his message makes a lot of people happy, Millicent!” Millie looked a little troubled. “Mr. Harley doesn’t seem happy about the message. I think his drinking has him thinking he might not go upstairs when he dies.” Grandma Tugs laughed again, but she was surprised that Millicent knew that Mr. Harley had a drinking problem – or that she had a grasp of the difference between Heaven and the brimstone place.
As the years passed, Millicent’s grades suffered. She was more interested in learning from books on her own and doing things with her hands dirty up to her elbows. She learned the piano by watching Grandma Tugs. Her Grandma spent one afternoon showing her what all the squiggles were on the music book and how they corresponded to the keys on a piano. Grandma Tugs spent years to get decently good. Millie needed less than a few weeks before her fingers learned the keyboard and improvised on the fly. “Grandma, can we jazz it up a little next Sunday? Give Reverend Hawkins a shock?” Grandma Tugs hugged Millie close to her on the piano bench. “That would be a hoot, wouldn’t it?” Tugs decided she needed to keep an even closer eye on Millie.
In fifth grade, Reverend Hawkins visited Heritage Elementary School, where Millie attended. Despite all the arguing about it, her school still offered a Bible Study class. Millie hated all the discussion. “People say it means stuff that isn’t written in there! At least with Encyclopedia Brown, the answer is the answer.” Grandma Tugs would shake her head and tell her to focus on not blurting out what was going on inside her head. Reverend Hawkins had no idea that he was about to face his most formidable adversary.
“Boys and girls, I hope you’ve been reading your Bibles. It’s just as important as math and reading comic books,” he said, as Millie’s focus wandered. She started at the open dictionary on her desk instead.
Millie looked up, surprised. The Reverend had asked her to tell her what her favorite Bible verse was. “Proverbs 31:6,” Millie said immediately. The Reverend looked startled as he hastily searched for the verse in his Bible. Millie told him, “Give beer to those who are perishing, wine to those who are in anguish.” Several of her classmates laughed. “Proverbs 20:1 says, ‘Wine is a mocker and beer is a brawler, whoever is led astray by them is not wise.'” Ms. Atkins politely applauded Reverend Hawkins.
Reverend Hawkins began to speak again. Millie cut him off, saying, “1 Timothy 5:23: Stop drinking only water, and use a little wine because of your stomach and your frequent illnesses.” Both the Reverend and Ms. Atkins stared at one another in consternation.
“Can I speak to you in the hallway, Ms. Atkins?” The Reverend didn’t wait for an answer and almost ran outside into the hallway. After a minute of whispered discussion away from the eyes of the class, they both returned.
Ms. Atkins folded her hands in front of her. “Class, let’s all give Millicent a round of applause for studying her Bible so diligently!” Her face was flushed. Her classmates nervously applauded. They knew something wasn’t right but didn’t know quite what had happened. “Let’s all make our way single file to the cafeteria where we’ll all enjoy a milk and chocolate pudding with the Reverend.” At that, everyone began to talk animatedly and to lose their interest in what had happened. When Millicent stood, Reverend Hawkins asked her to wait a moment.
“Millie, how did you know those verses? Alcohol is a subject a little advanced for you.” The Reverend had underestimated Millie. He wouldn’t be the last.
“I learned the Bible, Reverend. And everyone has alcohol in their houses. Even you.” Millie smiled at him.
“You learned it? How much?” He seemed concerned. He filed away the idea that Millicent somehow knew he liked to drink a bit of whiskey. Oddly, he suddenly wanted a sip right then, too.
“All of it. It’s already broken into indexed pieces by book, chapter, and verse.” Millie wasn’t bragging.
Revered Hawkins opened and closed his mouth several times. Finally, almost croaking, he said, “Let’s go get some pudding.” Millicent ran out of the classroom, smiling.
Pinche decided to take a walk around the neighborhood. He drank three or four cups of bitter coffee and felt restless, especially for an overcast fall day. After reading several hundred pages of one of his favorite books, even those beloved words grew stale for him. Grabbing a jacket on the way out, he put it on as he crossed the old, narrow cement walkway to the street.
As Pinche passed his next-door neighbor’s house, Sam waved to him and laughed. Though it was just 4:45 in the afternoon, Sam already had a glass of ice and another small glass for his whiskey. “Hey, Pinche neighbor!” Ever since Pinche bought the old house on Elm Street, his neighbors took delight in saying his name, mainly because “Pinche” meant “damn” in Spanish. Pinche didn’t have the heart to tell them it often meant much worse. Them not knowing as they yelled his name always resulted in him laughing back. He hoped that dozens of white people were still saying his name without realizing it could be shocking to many people. Pinche’s grandfather got the blame for naming him; he cursed at least a thousand times the first month he discovered that Pinche’s mother became accidentally pregnant when she was only seventeen. When he found out that a priest was the father, he cursed even more and didn’t stop until Pinche was five years old. Pinche’s Mom decided to memorialize the cursing by choosing a potentially mild one as a name.
Pinche also always whistled as he walked. He didn’t know he was doing it unless a neighbor or passerby commented on it. From show tunes to rap to blues and rock, Pinche’s grasp of music was incredible. He studied piano for several years and could sing like an angel. One of his favorite things to do while walking was to whistle three-octave scales. His Mom told him to whistle as much as he wanted because God sent him to teach the birds how to sing.
Pinche turned at the next block and walked down Maple street, an older street with massive oak trees in many yards. As he neared the house directly behind his a street over, he noted that The Wilkerson’s house front door was open. A panel truck sat at the curb out front. Their light blue piano sat on a mover’s platform at the base of the porch steps. Almost no one knew that the piano once belonged to Liberace. Pinche was in on the secret because of his perfect pitch and skill with a piano. He knew that the Wilkersons were in Ohio visiting their son. Usually, Pinche jumped the back fence to check in on their cat Purrincess, which it turns out was probably the ugliest cat in North America. Its meow sounded like a loose cello string being dragged across an electric fence.
Pinche slowed as a man wearing a blue uniform exited the front door. He pulled the door closed behind him as he did. The man seemed surprised to see Pinche near the oak tree by the street. The uniformed man nodded and stopped at the piano.
“I can’t believe that the Wilkersons are selling that piano. They turned down a huge offer last year. They don’t play, of course. Such a waste for such a famous piano. An unplayed piano is like an empty heart.” Pinche chatted casually with everyone who would listen. It sometimes resulted in great conversation and sometimes with hurried looks of annoyance.
The piano mover sighed. “Yes, they got an offer they couldn’t ignore. Hey, could you help me shift this over the edge of the sidewalk?”
Pinche walked over and pushed the piano to the left while the piano man pushed toward the street. Surprisingly, the piano smoothly rolled. “The right equipment makes the job easier,” the piano mover said as if reading Pinche’s mind. They continued moving to the sidewalk. While they slowed, the piano man continued to push evenly. The base fluidly lowered to street level. The piano mover then drove it onto the waiting platform that was already lowered to street level.
“Thanks, you made this a lot easier if the piano had shifted.” While he spoke, he threw a protective blanket across the piano and threw soft straps across it. As he powered the lift up, Pinche asked him, “Who is the buyer? This is a fairly famous piano.”
“A buyer in New York. He’s wanted this piano for at least 20 years.” The piano mover continued to tighten and adjust the straps as he moved the piano inside the confines of the panel truck.
Pinche remained standing by the truck, watching the piano mover.
After a couple of minutes, the piano mover came back down to street level and then raised the platform and locked it vertically against the back of the truck.
“Listen, am I in trouble here?” The piano mover asked Pinche, suddenly revealing his nervousness.
“It depends,” Pinche said. “Is the piano going to someone who will play it? And did you lock the Wilkerson’s front door to prevent anyone else from paying a visit?”
“Yes to the door, and yes, indeed, he will. And the family here can take the $30,000 cashier’s check I left on the counter. Or they can file insurance for theft. Or both, if you know what I mean.” The piano mover took a moment to look Pinche in the eyes.
Pinche extended his right hand as the piano mover reluctantly shook it.
“It’s a deal.” Pinche nodded goodbye and turned to walk away.
The piano mover shook his head in a bit of surprise and confusion as Pinche walked away.
By the time Pinche reached the other end of Maple Street, and the piano mover opened the driver’s door of the truck, he could Pinche happily whistling “I’m Always Chasing Rainbows” as his pace quickened.
Pinche felt a sudden case of forgetfulness overcoming him as Liberace filled the air.
After I wrote my Rip-Shirt story, someone messaged me to tell me she knew who the person was I taught to stitch. And then she gave me the gift of sharing a few anecdotes about the time she spent with him. My memory didn’t keep any recollections of them being close. But I take pride in knowing that my little story, the one about a sliver of my life, took her back to another time. I did that. And she felt comfortable enough to share bits of herself with me – someone who is a hack but loves personal stories.
I think we all crave personal stories if we can stop worrying about language or our words being misconstrued. Who are we kidding? We don’t understand ourselves, not really, so the expectation that others conform to an idea of our self-image that we don’t even possess is a bit preposterous.
I love to think that every once in a while that I write something that triggers a memory and hopefully a fond one. While we should not get anchored in the past, there are few greater pleasures than using our nostalgic eyes to wander in time. As we age, we change around the static memories. It’s our gift. For anyone lucky enough, our memories soften and gauze our eyes to the harshness that pervades people.
As for the man I taught to stitch in my story, I have a couple of stories that are simply hard to believe. One of them is either incurably romantic – or breathtakingly odd. The overlap of both possibilities is what makes me remember it. I don’t remember all the details, but I’ll try to write the story in a future post in such a way so that no one gets in the crosshairs about it. Other than the man in question, only one other person knew it happened. I used to think I understood his motives clearly. Age taught me that I was mistaken. I wish I had known then that piece of his heart. Though you don’t know of which story I’m writing, I laugh and admit that the day I’ll write about would definitely have ended differently.
For now, I just wanted to share that I feel like my rip-shirt story pushed several people back in time to consider people they loved. People wrote to me on my blog, too. Sewing is an activity that most people predominantly feel echoes from their childhood.
Each time I share such stories, many of them seem to take on a life of their own. Others see them and realize that they too are connected to me in intangible ways. Whether it is a plane crash on a clear blue day, an untimely death, that some of our family are not who we think, the closets of secrets so many of us carry in our front pockets as we live our lives, we each are capable of surprising ourselves and others.
The coincidences and unlikely overlap of our lives should no longer surprise me.
But it does. And whatever regard for other’s people stories I have, they envelop me.*
I stood at the edge of the rural road, looking north. Because I knew another road once met the edge of the one I stood on, I could see the subtle difference in the ground and the trees’ varying thickness ahead that the forgotten dirt road left behind. Up until 1965, the road led to the Chowderwick house, once home to a prosperous family. It had likely fallen in now and was probably a pile of boards and tin cups somewhere back in the dense trees. It was likely that no one would remember that a house once proudly stood back there in a generation. Such places litter the South.
From the confines of my mind, I saw an image of Lilly Chowderwick when she was 6. In 1964, the Esper community went into shock when they heard Lilly had been abducted and likely murdered. Sheriff Brimley found blood along the floorboards near the wood stove in the front room and along the porch that comprised the entire length of the front of the house. Dogs lost the scent at the edge of the porch. To him, such things indicated that whoever did the crime had planned on not being caught.
Sheriff Brimley conducted as thorough an investigation as was possible in the South in those days. He concluded that Lilly was likely dead and that someone would slip up and say something incriminating one day. Or, more likely, someone would stumble upon a hidden set of bones somewhere within the rural boundaries of Maylean County.
Lilly’s dad Jeffrey inherited a good fortune. It included a store along Main Street as well as some mining interests across two counties. He didn’t inherit the savvy or patience that Lilly’s grandfather used to build a small fortune. By the early 1960s, the Chowderwicks had retreated to the acreage along the road on which I stood. Jeffrey was rumored to beat his once beautiful wife, Lilian. Lilian often disappeared from public view for days on end. Esper, like all small towns, whispered and gossiped each time. After Lilly’s murder, Lilian fell into a trance and seldom spoke. It seemed like she was waiting for her turn.
Sheriff Brimley brought in Jeffrey for questioning. Jeffrey insisted he had nothing to do with Lilly’s disappearance. Although the Sheriff believed his story, he arranged a trunk interrogation a week later. Two of his deputies grabbed Jeffrey as he walked on the edge of the town drunk. They deposited him in the trunk of one of their cars and drove him a few miles to a barn. After convincing Jeffrey he would likely die in that barn that night, they decided he hadn’t abducted or killed his daughter. He was capable of it, though. He confessed to beating his wife repeatedly.
In 1965, Jeffrey died when he drank too much and walked out onto the main road on a cold Wednesday night. A truck loaded with lumber crushed him as he stumbled out onto the road. The driver said he never saw Jeffrey. The accident happened where the swamp and creek encroached on the farmland adjacent to it. The trees often leaned and overhung the road.
Within months, Lilian left without saying goodbye. Everyone assumed she moved out west where distant cousins once lived. No one knew for sure.
I had promised to tell no one the secrets of Esper or Lilian and Lilly Chowderwick. Fifty-five years later, I knew that DNA would out their family secret. I knew what no one else did: that little girl had not been abducted or killed. Lilian murdered her husband. She endured countless beatings after the burial of the empty coffin that should have held her daughter. When the time was right, she killed Jeffrey and put his body on the road. I helped.
Despite my promise, I can finally say that I know all this because I’m the one who drove little Lily out of town in May of 1964. If she had stayed, her father would have continued to abuse her or worse.
My confession must include that I am an accessory to several crimes.
I’m not sorry, and I don’t apologize.
In a few minutes, Lillian would drive down this road and meet me in the place she swore she’d never see again. And with her would be Lilly, now 61 years old, a grandmother in her own right, with a full life that remained a mystery to me. At that age, we decided that she should know that we killed her father.
Though the air was filled with dust, the tears on my face came from a place of nostalgia.
There are hidden roads everywhere if you know where to look.