|Denise stood in the rain as the water speckled her denim top. Her hair matted down with each drop as she wiped away the wet strands from her face. She began walking, drifting down the old country road, to somewhere, yet nowhere in particular. With each step her Civic’s headlights in the ditch behind her faded from view. Four maple trees growing in the twisted rusty farm fence partially obscured the flowing fields beyond.
Her thoughts clung to her son, Daniel's funeral. She could still picture the preacher standing over the casket in the twilight intoning the familiar 'ashes to ashes, dust to dust' biblical verse. Her heart felt like a withering ember gasping for life. The soul-aching pain overwhelmed her and her mind raced with thoughts of throwing herself in front of the next passing car, but no cars came.
Lightning lit up the darkening sky and a crack of thunder rumbled over the fields. The rain fell harder and the wind caused the few trees to toss and contort in odd menacing shapes. No one understands, she thought.
A farmhouse lay ahead. The increase in lightning strikes caused it to silhouette against a few tall sycamores in the distance. The house stood as a respite in the tumult of nature. So, she turned to push her body into the fierce wind, down the uneven rocky driveway washed out in several spots. Denise collapsed to her knees as the strength of the flash stream's current surprised her. Numb to the danger, she lifted herself from the muddy torrent and trudged on.
The dark farmhouse and barn lay in disrepair. Even from fifty yards, she could make out the broken barn door and the rotting unpainted planks. The door banged in the gale force wind. She approached the porch with two broken steps, ascended, and knocked on the weathered door. Soaked to the bone, she cared not whether anyone answered. The rain pelted her anew as the wind became more ferocious. It took on a personality of its own, daring her to stay outside. She tried the handle, but it was locked. Maybe the back door will be open.
She plodded around the house, stepping over a fallen gutter and neared the back side. A storm door swung open and closed, banging like an insane come-to-life inanimate object. She caught it with one hand and tried the knob. While it was locked, the jamb appeared half rotten. To her surprise, with only a meager effort the door pushed in. A musty odor and dark room confronted her.
Seems abandoned. She tried to shut the door but it swung open. The wind taunted her efforts. A lightning strike lit up what appeared to be a kitchen. Several old items -- a cracked cookie jar, a faded picture of something unrecognizable, an antique iron, and a wooden spoon -- glinted with each strike. An old-fashioned stove stood next to the door. One more lightning strike and she again spotted the antique black iron. She lugged it to the door and wedged it closed. The silence of the room fell on her like a down blanket. The sudden dampness of her clothes sent a chill through her frame. Her shoes, filled with water, sloshed as she felt her way into a larger room.
“Hello?” She called. Only a faint echo answered her.
An occasional lightning flash lit up the almost empty room. A few chairs and an old couch haphazardly arranged rested near the center. A fireplace with a small stack of wood and a fire poker set were at one end, while two pictures hung on the opposite wall. Two six foot high windows showed the pouring rain outside, and the long lane which Denise traversed. The striped aged wallpaper looked like prison bars.
She felt along the tattered wallpaper until she reached the fireplace. “How can I light this?” She said aloud. Her heart sank as the cold of the house crept over her. She shivered. A candle lay upon the mantle. “Well, that’s still no help. Maybe I can find something in the kitchen.”
She fumbled her way back to the kitchen and stumbled over the iron. “Forgot about that,” She chided herself and rubbed her toe. She slid open each drawer and found: silverware, a few cans of something that she couldn’t make out, a few washcloths, and a metal box. She felt inside and it seemed familiar somehow. A memory of her grandfather crossed her mind. A flint box, she finally recalled.
She took one of the cloths and decided that her best chance of starting a fire was either the candle or the cloth. After multiple attempts with the candle, she decided the cloth might catch better. After two tries, the fabric lit and glowed. She blew on it and it brightened into a ruddy orange. The heat on her hands felt good. She took a few of the smaller wood pieces, and with a little effort, smoke drifted up the chimney and a flame danced in the old fireplace. Soon the room's chill faded. She was glad the chimney wasn’t blocked.
She pulled the couch closer to the fireplace and lay down. The fire crackled and popped as she could hear the storm fading and the rain slowing. Her clothes started to dry and she peered at the opposite wall where the two portraits hung. A woman and a boy stared at her. Somehow she knew they were mother and son. Their eyes flickered in the fire’s light. Her mind drifted back to Daniel. His funeral only a few days old now, she began to weep. Her tortured soul racked in the stillness.
“I see you’ve made yourself comfortable.” A voice spoke from the darkness.
Startled, Denise bolted upright, and saw an old woman holding a candle. Her shadowy face changed at the whims of the flame as she moved toward Denise.
“I… I’m sorry. I didn’t think anyone lived here.”
“It’s all right. Actually, it’s nice to have company, especially on a night like this.”
“It was raining. My car slid off into the ditch.”
“Yes, it’s just down the road. I’m soaked and it took a bit, but I finally got a fire started. I hope you don’t mind. I’ll leave if you’d like. I really feel embarrassed.”
“Nonsense.” The old woman sat down on the couch next to her. “You’ll be my guest. Dreadful night out. My son, David died on a night like this. I won’t have you walking around in it.” The old woman stared forlorn as if remembering something long ago.
“Oh. I’m sorry to hear that. My son died as well. Just ten days ago.”
“David was kicked by a horse. The thunder and lightning caused him to bolt. David insisted on running him down and bringing him back to the barn. I called him a damn fool, but he wouldn’t listen.”
A sudden recognition came to Denise as she stared into the old woman’s eyes. “You’re the woman in the picture." She gestured toward the other end of the room. "Is that David beside you?”
“Yes. Yes, it is. Lovely portraits aren’t they? My husband insisted upon them. Never one of him though, just David and me. I found comfort in those when David passed. I could always look over and see his smiling face, right next to his mother. I suppose that’s a bit of vanity.”
“Oh, no. Not at all. I was thinking of maybe making one of Daniel when I saw them."
“How did he die, dear?” The old woman reached out and patted Denise’s hand.
“He …” Denise bit her lip. “He drowned. He went swimming with one of his friends down at the pond. I shouldn’t have let him go. I knew they’d do something stupid. I shouldn't have let him go." Denise shook her head as her voice trailed off.
“You shouldn't do that, dear. I did that for years; Beat myself up over letting my Davey go. I’ve since forgiven myself. After all, I had no idea what would happen. He lived a short but happy life. It’s all up to the good Lord you know.”
Both of them fell silent as a distant rumble mixed with the fireplace crackle. An eerie quiet filled the room.
“Well, you still have to be cold. I’ll get you a blanket.”
“What is your name?”
“Oh. I guess we haven’t been properly introduced. My name is Martha Chaney. What is yours?”
“I’m Denise Caldwell. So happy to meet you. You may be the first person to truly understand how I feel. Maybe the only one that can understand.” They shook hands.
Martha nodded and shuffled off to the next room. A couple of minutes passed and she reappeared with a wool blanket that she wrapped around Denise. Soon the warmth of the blanket and the dwindling fire made Denise sleepy. Martha placed two pieces of wood on the fire.
She turned and sat on the edge of the couch, and lightly ran her fingers through Denise's wet hair. "You poor thing," she said. Martha kissed her forehead. Denise smiled, and recalled her grandmother's touch at bedtime. Soon, she drifted off to sleep.
Denise awoke to the sound of birds chirping. One of the front windows was open, and the smell of fresh, clean air greeted her nose. The kink in her back testified to the comfort of the couch. She stretched and still felt the dampness in her clothes.
She surveyed the room, now bathed in light from the windows. The old striped wallpaper lined the dreary walls. It peeled in several spots with one corner above the portraits drooping and revealing old plaster board. The worn floors and faded drapery completed the scene along with the three chairs and ancient couch.
The sound of clanging dishpans emanated from the kitchen, and Denise caught a whiff of eggs frying. Martha, she surmised, was cooking breakfast. She folded up the blanket and pushed the couch back to its original position where deep holes were dug into the floor.
This woman doesn’t like change, she thought placing the gray wool blanket on the back of the couch.
Denise poked her head into the kitchen doorway where she spotted Martha doting over an iron skillet. A pound of butter, and some salt and pepper rested at her right hand. Martha took a few strips of bacon and lay them in the skillet. The bacon sizzled and the smell wafted through the house like waves on the beach.
“It sure does smell delicious.”
Startled, Martha looked up and smiled. “Oh, same old same old. This is my usual breakfast. This and a cup of coffee. Would you like a cup?”
“Oh, yes. Thank you. That would be wonderful. You’ve been so nice.”
Martha without a reply, turned as if commanded and grabbed an old mug from the cupboard. She took a black handled percolator from the stovetop and poured the coffee in the mug. Denise had to blink a few times at the antique pot. The alloy and apparatus looked like something out of the 1940s. She remembered her great grandmother had something similar. Martha held up the cup and waved Denise forward.
“I’m not as nimble as I used to be,” Martha stated, “I wouldn’t want to spill any.”
“Thank you.” Denise cradled the cup in her hands and sat at a small round table with two rickety chairs. The heat of the coffee warmed her hands.
“My nephew and niece say I’m old-fashioned, but they help me a lot. I love them dearly.”
“I’d have to agree with the old-fashioned part. Some of the things in this house, I’ve not seen since I was a child.”
“They still work. I enjoy my things. Ralph and I bought that dining set when we were married. Two of the chairs broke though. They just don’t make things like that any more.”
Denise looked about the room. Everything in it was from the 1940s or 1950s. Like a time machine, this kitchen could have posed in a magazine for what a 1950s kitchen looked like. A pull handle refrigerator stood across from the stove.
“What does your nephew do? I mean for a living.”
“He’s a junk man. He also fixes things. He’s kept my washer and dryer running for many years. My niece does all my shopping and banking. I can’t believe my bank though. Selling out like that after fifty-two years with them. I suppose I’ll stick with the new bank though.”
“Are you talking about New Haven Bank being bought by First Federal?”
“Oh, you’ve heard about it? Tch Tch. Such a shame.”
“But First Federal is one of the oldest banks in the county.”
“They’re new to me, Dear. New to me. I hope you like your eggs scrambled. I never was much good at that over easy stuff. Every once in a while I get a hankerin' to do it, but not too often.”
“Oh, anything would be great with me. I love eggs and bacon.”
“I do too.” Martha measured out the eggs onto two ceramic plates, and poured a cup of coffee for herself. Denise examined the two plates and thought, I don’t think you could weigh it out and be that even between those two plates.
Denise picked up her fork, but suddenly felt Martha’s eyes upon her. Martha stared at the fork in Denise’s hand with a furrowed brow and a touch of scorn.
“We’ve forgotten something, haven’t we?”
Denise was puzzled, then nodded in agreement.
“Dear Lord, thank you for special guests and for this food for which we give thanks. Amen.”
Denise squirmed in her seat a bit. She reminded herself that this was Martha’s home. Denise took up her fork and ate. The eggs and bacon were delicious. She hadn’t realized how hungry she had become. She consumed every morsel. Martha’s plate remained half full when she finished. So, she slowed down to sip her coffee while Martha finished.
“You make a mean breakfast, Martha.”
“Thank you. As you can imagine, I don’t get many visitors.”
“How long have you lived here?”
“Fifty-six years this coming August. Ralph and I bought this place right after we were married at age nineteen. I’ve never left.”
“That’s a long time. I was wondering if I could borrow your car to drive into town later.”
“Oh, I don’t have a car. My niece and nephew run my errands. I garden some. The weeds are terrible this year.”
“You don’t have a car? How often do you go into town?”
“I don’t.” Martha sipped her coffee and took a bite of eggs.
“You mean you haven’t left the farm here for over fifty years?”
“Except for a few times to see the doctor, and Davy’s funeral, no.”
Denise thought about her statement as she swallowed some more coffee. The coffee was strong and the caffeine coursed through her, shaking off the stiffness she’d felt earlier.
“Why haven’t you left, Martha? You’ve stayed on this farm all your life, but why?”
“I had no where to go. When Ralph died, I just stayed. The life insurance paid off the farm, and I got a pension from the plant he worked for. I just sat around; Cleaning and keeping up the place. Oh, I just don’t have the energy any more. I became so depressed. Davy’s passing took something out of me. Something I guess I’ve never gotten back.” Martha’s eyes watered at the last statement. She dabbed her eyes with her apron.
Denise’s eyes began tearing up as well. She couldn’t help but think of Daniel. A happy child, he liked to bike ride, swim, and loved comic books. Denise covered her face with her hand. She’d cried enough in the last few days.
“I miss my Davy. He was such a good boy.”
“I miss Daniel as well.”
The birds chirped a sweet song and the room became more humid as the hot rising sun began to dry out the farm. Denise noticed Martha had swung open the back door and wedged it open with the same iron she found last night. The breeze rustled through the house causing a dish cloth to wriggle on the stove handle. How did Martha end up like this? She’s so stuck in the past.
“Let me take your plate.”
“Thank you Martha. Allow me to do the dishes. It’s the least I can do. I must apologize again for breaking in. It was just storming so badly that…”
“Now, now. That’s over and done. You’ve been marvelous company. I’ve quite enjoyed it. Not another word about that.”
Denise looked into Martha’s eyes. A sparkle appeared that wasn’t there the night before. Somehow Denise felt at home with her. She guessed that feeling was mutual. She walked over to the rust iron-stained sink and started to do the dishes. Martha hobbled into the living room. Denise could hear some rummaging sounds, and then the only sound was the breeze and the birds.
She became lost in her own thoughts. Fifty years here. This must have been a wonderful farm at one time. She peered through the small window above the sink and viewed the cornfields beyond the large red barn. A corner of the garden with a few marked rows stood in back of the barn. I’m guessing that’s how she copes. Davy and Ralph were her whole world. She died, or at least a part of her died back then. Just like me and Daniel. She sighed. That darkness never left her. I wonder, will it leave me?
Denise finished the few dishes and placed them in the dish drainer.
“Martha?” She called.
“Yes. I’m in here.”
“Do you have a phone? I must have left my cell phone in my car.”
“Certainly. It’s by the cabinets over by the refrigerator.”
“What road are we on?”
“4035 McCabe Road”
Denise walked to the end of the cabinets. A black rotary dial phone hung on the wall. She lifted the fragile receiver to her ear and dialed her sister, Joanie’s number. Waiting on the dial to tic tic tic brought back memories of her grandmother's old gray phone. She smiled at the thought. At last, her sister's voice came on the line. She made arrangements for Joanie to come pick her up at her car in an hour.
“Martha, I called my sister. She’s going to pick me up at my car.” She repeated herself as she stepped into the living room. Martha sat in a chair knitting, and looked up at Denise.
“Did you say something, dear? I get so wound up in my knitting. Plus I just don’t hear as well as I used to.”
“Yes. My sister is coming to pick me up.”
“Oh.” Martha stared at the floorboards. “I was kind of hoping you’d stay for a bit longer.”
“I’d love to come visit, but I do have to get my car out of the ditch and take care of some errands. How about I come back this Thursday. Perhaps we could go into town together.” Denise could tell Martha was apprehensive. “Or… we could just have a nice dinner.”
“That would be nice.” Martha smiled.
Denise wrote down Martha’s phone number and hugged her.
“I’ll see you on Thursday. I’ll call first.”
Denise closed the door and began walking down the long lane back to the road. She carefully avoided the muddy areas, and admired the waist high corn on each side. The sun warmed her face. Her hair waved in the wind, and her heart felt light.
She stopped and turned toward the old farmhouse, half expecting it to disappear in a mirage. She couldn’t help but wonder which one of them helped the other more. She only knew that she looked forward to Thursday, and to a woman who left the world fifty years ago.