Seven years had passed since I'd left my hometown. There was more there than I thought.
|Seven years had passed since I’d seen the broken, weathered boards of the Sundry Store – The faded paint on the letters barely discernible now. An image of Jed flashed through my mind. I recalled his country demeanor and smile when he attended his customers. A rust-infested pickup meandered by on the street behind me as I peered in the windows of the dilapidated place. Dust caked on the display case just inside the doorway. I also recalled Jed’s daughter, Karen. She’d drift through the front door as I passed by on the way home. Dressed in a flowery sun dress, her eyes sparkled in the sunlight, and her smile delved deep in my heart. No place on Earth had this feeling. Home.
I turned and crossed the street. Mac’s Diner still served a mean lunch crowd, even with the closure of several businesses. I heard the bells jangle when I stepped in. Mac poured coffee into an old codger’s cup. Maggie, his wife, scribbled down an order at the booth to the right. The old jukebox with the whole left side’s lights burnt out stood like a monument at the end of the long bar lined with stools. I moseyed to the counter and sat down. The vinyl covering stuck to my sweaty thigh. Yeah. This is Mac’s all right. Strange that I always compare every place I go into, to this one.
The smell of hamburgers and onions frying wafted throughout. I closed my eyes and sucked it in. Mac made the best hamburgers. Even after all these years and the places I’ve gone, I never forgot that smell. Mumbled voices down the bar seemed familiar. So, I glanced their way. A man in a ruffed-up denim baseball cap with his back toward me spoke with a scrawny weasel of a man with a bushy black mustache. I watched them and strained, but couldn’t make out what they said.
“Can I help you, sir?” Mac feigned wiping the counter-top with a rag I swore was the one he held when I left town.
“Yeah, Mac. I’ll have the double with all the fixings. You still got coke?”
Mac eyed me, cocked his head a bit, and squinted with one eye. “You know me?”
“Well yeah. It’s Gary. I grew up here. I’ve been in here about a thousand times.”
He reached up and scratched his stubbled cheek. “Gary? Hmmm… You used to run around with that Donohoo kid didn’t you? What was his name?”
“No. That was my brother, Curtis. My best friend was Tony Keriluke. You remember. I spilled a milkshake down your wife’s front once. Although Tony really did it.”
“Yeah. I seem to remember that. She was pissed. She told you two to not come back in here until you learned some manners.”
“Yep. That was us.” I smiled broadly and nodded.
He returned the smile. “To answer your question, we still have coke. Regular or diet?”
Mac scribbled on an order slip and shoved it in his apron. He turned and ambled down the bar as he said, “Nice seeing you again.”
“Yeah. Likewise,” I responded. He doesn’t really remember me.
I fiddled with the menu’s plastic corner for a moment.
“You hung out with that Karen Stanley girl, Jed’s daughter?”
Startled I looked up at Mac who had spun around to face me. He pointed at me with a fat greasy finger.
“That’s right.” Now he remembers me.
“A shame. Jed seemed to like you.”
“Yeah? Where is old Jed?”
“Passed away about two years ago. The Sundry closed up after that. Nobody left to run it.”
“What happened to Karen?” My heartbeat spiked as I asked. I stuttered the words a little.
“Moved away. Don’t know where.”
“Oh” was all I could push out like someone squeezed all the air from my lungs. Something just sank inside me. Karen’s pale blue eyes whisked through my mind. Until this moment I never really understood my feelings for her. Not like any other woman I’d ever met. She knew me. She knew my family. I knew hers. I became so entranced at the thought of her that I raised my hand in front of me to touch her auburn hair.
“You Ok kid?” Mac peered at me and glanced at my arm in the air.
“Yeah.” I dropped my elbow to the counter. “Just a bug flying around.” My face must have flushed red, but Mac nodded and turned away.
"Ok." I heard him mumble.
I went back to fiddling with the menu. I perused the specials – corned beef on rye, Mac’s famous hamburger platter, and chili. I swear this place hasn’t changed a bit. I glanced through the desserts and spied a nice Martha’s cherry pie. The picture showed a pie dripping with cherries in a golden brown crust. I flipped the menu down and sat there. Nothingness. I stared at the cat clock behind the cash register. The eyes darted from left to right in direct contrast to its cat-tail pendulum.
I snapped out of my trance to see the old codger down the bar standing before me. I squinted and recognized him – Uncle Phil. He wasn’t really my uncle. He was Karen’s. But nearly everyone around town called him that. He owned probably the largest farm in the county.
“Uncle Phil! I’ll be damned. How are you?”
“I thought that voiced sounded familiar with Mac talking to you. Where have you been?”
“Following my dream of playing my music. Hasn’t worked out well. Played in several bands. Made a few bucks. Thought I’d come home for a bit and see the old place.”
“Well you should stop out. Me and the Mrs. would love to have you. Karen is even coming to town tomorrow for a few days to stay. You remember Karen don’t you?”
“Really?” My heart started beating again. “You bet. I just…” My voice trailed off.
“I don’t know whether she’d like to see me or not. We didn’t leave on the best of terms.”
“I remember. Broke her heart. I always thought you two would end up together.”
“So did I. She just wouldn’t come with me. I thought...”
“Can’t blame her with Jed’s cancer and all,” Uncle Phil said and stared at the floor as if trying to place the next piece of a jigsaw puzzle.
“Cancer?” The word came unexpectedly.
“Yep. She had to stay to take care of him. She couldn’t just up and leave. I thought you knew.” Jed squinted at me appearing to elicit whether I did or didn't know.
“She never told me." I paused to ponder that fact. My mind raced with flashes of that day. If I'd only known that. "I’m sorry to hear about Jed," I murmured.
“No need. A long time a coming. Lots of pain. Jed was a hell of a brother. How did you find out?” Phil asked.
“Mac told me just a minute ago.”
“Oh.” Uncle Phil seemed to mull the statement like old farmers do. He shoved his fists into his overalls and rocked back on his work boots. I always admired Phil. He could build just about anything. Damned handy with any tool. He even built a 1968 Corvette from scratch. I remember Karen and I took it for a spin twice. Man, what a car. Sold it for a mint. Said he just ‘Always wanted to build one.’ Yet in typical Phil fashion, just up and sold it seemingly with no attachment to it at all.
Mac slid a plate in front of me, plopped a ketchup bottle beside it, and a tall Styrofoam cup next to it. He sauntered back into the kitchen. His mind seemed elsewhere as he spoke not a word.
“Looks like your food is here. Stop by in the morning. Karen should arrive in the afternoon coming down from Pisga. I’ll let her know you’re here.”
“Maybe we should just surprise her. I’ll try to make it out there by eleven. I’m guessing you still live out on Williams Road?”
“Yep. That’s the place. I’ll see you out there.” He stepped closer and nudge me with an elbow. “Don’t let Mac’s burgers give you too much indigestion.” He cracked a broad smile.
I smiled back and nodded. “I’ll try not to. Some things never change.”
I watched Uncle Phil exit as the bells jangled behind him. His huge frame filled the driver’s side of a monstrous Chevy pickup and he drove out of sight. Good to see Phil. Karen coming to town? Looks like a little luck is coming my way for a change. Steam from my burger drifted across my eyes. I ate in blissful solitude, until the heartburn set in.
After milling about the small town and peering in shop windows I decided to head to Milly's Bed and Breakfast on the outskirts of town. Actually, it stood as the only place to stay near town. I figured El (short for Ellen, Milly's daughter) would still be running the place. I wasn't disappointed.
El smiled at me as she handed over the key to Room B. El really wasn't much of a talker. A mousy young lady who perennially looked about twelve years old, but I knew was nearing thirty, stood behind the counter. She waved her hand up the large stairwell.
"It's upstairs on the left. There's only four rooms and 'B' is the nicest," she said in her typical perky fashion.
"Thanks, El. You look just the same. You married now?" I inquired.
"No." She looked down at the freshly waxed wood floor and glanced up at me. I didn't mean to embarrass her.
I simply nodded. "Oh," I paused a moment to catch a twinkle in her eyes that I'd not noticed before. "Guess I'll just go on up."
"OK. How you doing with your music?" She blurted. "I'd love to hear you play sometime."
"It's going pretty well. I'm between gigs and thought I'd stop into the hometown for old time's sake. Not much money, but maybe some day..."
"That's great. Wish I could travel like you do," she lamented, "I'm always... here." A tone of finality resounded on her last word.
"Well, you should get out of town more often. There really isn't much here. I mean the town is..."
"I know. It's kind of run down. A bunch of old men with no ideas." She completed my sentence.
I realized she was quoting me from seven years prior. I’d never come back to a place where nothing was ever new. A long silence blanketed the conversation. So much so that it began to be awkward.
"You'd best get your stuff upstairs. See you around," she said with a shy, half-hearted wave while biting her bottom lip.
"Yeah." Is she in to me? I paused a moment on the stairs. She stood with her hands behind her, watching me ascend. I pressed on.
A clean, comfortable bed awaited me in Room B. The window overlooked the small parking lot with six spaces. A monstrous oak stood just to the left and gave a plentiful amount of shade. The sun, just above the horizon, glinted between the boughs and leaves.
I tossed my traveling satchel on the bed and habitually retrieved my toiletry bag and set it on the bathroom sink for the morning. My bones ached from the day, but my mind raced with thoughts of Karen. Images of auburn hair and a kind smile filled my head. The anticipation of seeing her again, especially after the way we broke up, bore upon me. Why wouldn't she have said anything about Jed's cancer?
I lay on the bed churning through our last conversation. Her last words: "Just go." rang in my ears. I always thought she was being cold. Now, I had to think that maybe she was letting me live my dream. She knew I'd never leave her if I knew about Jed. She'd be tying me down. That has to be it. And what did I make of myself? Nothing. Just another musician. Another drifter trying to make it big.
I fell into a fitful sleep, trying to make sense of the senseless.
I awoke to the soft smell of lilac amidst comfortable sheets. I reached and slid the remote over, grabbed it, and click on the TV. After a few moments of channel surfing, I settled on the weather. Glancing at the little icons for the local weather I saw a chance of rain at 30% but partly sunny for the local weather.
I stretched a bit and pushed out of bed. A few steps off the plush area rug and I could feel on the bottom of my feet the cool wood boards, followed by the even cooler bathroom tile. I quickly churned through my morning ritual -- toilet, towel, shower, comb hair, shave, and teeth brushing.
I dug through my satchel and pulled out my best shirt (short sleeve, dark blue with black pinstripes) and khakis. I even pulled out my tweezers and plucked a few stray eyebrow hairs. When placing them back in my bag I could see my hand shake. Damn. I'm nervous. I've performed dozens of times in front of a hundred or so people, but meeting Karen again...
I threw those thoughts from my mind and tried to concentrate on breakfast. I figured I'd just eat here. I just hope El is like her mom in the kitchen. She made the best pies.
After perusing the newspaper for a few minutes, El brought out some scrambled eggs and a slab of ham. The aroma invited me.
"I have apple pie too if you'd like," El said with a half-smile.
"Sure. I'm hoping it's your mom's recipe?"
"Then bring it on." I shoveled some eggs in and glanced at my empty glass.
"Oh yeah. I've got some grape juice too."
With the tip of my fork, I tinged my glass and stated, "Fill 'er up!"
El sauntered away and returned a few moments later with a big bottle of Welch's grape juice. She filled the glass and twisted the cap back on. She set it off to my left as I ate.
"If you want more..."
"I can get it, but thanks. If you could round up that pie, that'd be great."
"Oh, yes. Right away, Gary. Anything you want."
Those last words just kind of hung in the air. I futility tried not to catch her eyes, but I couldn't help myself. They shined just like I knew they would. Women definitely have a way of 'letting you know'. Men on the other hand are just dolts. I smiled at my thought.
The sweet tartness of the juice ravished my tongue as I left it for last. El lingered in the corner playing with one of her apron strings. Another day I might have pursued her, but Karen's face kept drifting into my mind. Her sweet smile taunted me from years past. I do hope she has that same smile.
I arose and scooted the chair across the wood floor. The sound seemed to break El out of her daydream.
"Are you leaving?" She asked.
"Yeah. I have to get going. I have a few errands to run." I lied. My mind was only on one thing.
"Ok. Hurry back. We serve lunch at 11:00. It's deli sandwiches today with potato soup."
"We'll have to see how things go," I stated while I fished for my wallet. El just stood there, head cocked a bit to the side while she twirled her hair. I grabbed a ten dollar bill -- feeling a bit guilty -- and handed it to her. "Get something for yourself."
She took the money but remained silent. She stayed in that same pose.
Another day. With a final glance, I turned and pushed out the big oak door.
A bright blue sky with cotton ball clouds pasted upon it, greeted me. Rustling leaves arose and danced across the small walkway. This is a fantastic day. Reminds me of San Diego only without the ocean.
I pulled my phone from my pocket and pressed a button. 9:41 am blinked back at me. "An hour to kill," I said aloud. I meandered to my Jeep and stood there playing with my keys. I really have nowhere to go. Kind of like high school. And where did I end up? ... Tony's.
I hopped in the Jeep and sped off toward the other side of town. Five minutes later I pressed the brake and the soft crunch of gravel beneath my tires signaled my arrival.
The house stood back off the road about 150 yards. A rusty farm fence riddled with weeds and stubborn saplings wound its way down the gravel drive. A few puddled potholes dotted the length of it. I turned and almost by instinct started avoiding each one as I crept toward the familiar place. The giant oak still stood off in the distant back yard. I rubbed my arm reminiscing falling out of it. I guess you never forget that kind of pain.
Exiting the Jeep I closed the door and stood surveying the place. The metal garage stood as the sole building not in dire need of repair. The clothes line was gone. A stump was all that remained of the Mulberry tree which always looked like it would fall down any way. The lawn was mowed, but not trimmed. Weeds grew up in the cracks of the sidewalk leading to their front porch. Little had changed, yet I didn't have the same feeling this day -- That feeling of my second home of childhood. I felt very much like an adult, intruding. I had no idea how I'd be received.
I milled about the garage and drive looking at the basketball hoop that Tony and I used to play on, the back yard where we'd throw a football, and the deck where Stephanie Gaylord kissed me on a dare. I'm not sure this was a good idea. I don't even know if Tony's parents still live here.
Something kept me there though. I leaned on my Jeep lost in thought, expecting to be noticed. No one ever came out. I didn't go down the walk. Nothing in me wanted to go inside. Fear maybe? A feeling like I didn't belong there anymore. The sun drifted across the sky, undeterred at my dilemma. Best be going. Perhaps another day. I opened the driver's door, took one last look and jumped in. The door closed with a thump and I spun out in the gravel.
Next stop. Uncle Phil's.
I'd wasted a good 45 minutes. So, I could drive slow and still easily make it to Phil's. The sun warmed me as I drove south. An image of Karen pushed to my brain and held there. Like a sleeping memory awakened by my journey through my hometown, she was there. She was always there. Yet when I was away these long years, the only time I really thought much of her was those first few weeks. Then, like many things in life, she faded; Lost in the coming of the next moment of my chosen life. All of the roads I'd gone down. All of the bars I'd been in. All of the songs sung to mostly empty walls. They all seemed small now, almost like they were someone else's life. But then, without even expecting it, she would cross my mind. I’d write a letter occasionally and ultimately not send it. Sometimes I would even forget about those, tucked away in the compartment in my Jeep. I’d run across them. Read. Ponder.
I turned on Havermill road and I could see the long driveway leading back to Uncle Phil's place just off Williams road which was only about a mile long. In fact, Phil's place was the only house on it. A giant red barn, two smaller ones, and four silos sat behind the old farm house. A line of pine trees on either side of the lane ushered travelers straight to the big house. I ambled down the gravel drive, admiring the flowing fields with knee-high corn to either side. A sign off to the left announced "The Stanley Farm Est. 1962."
Gray stone tiered up the sides of the walk and to the front porch where Karen and I would sit and watch the stars. We would sit there on 4th of July and watch the county firework display with her parents, Uncle Phil and Phil's wife, Mae. She was the best cook. Scotchie cookies would just melt in your mouth. I recalled her saying that she would make a whole extra batch just for Tony and me so the rest of them could have some. I smiled as I put the Jeep in park and turned off the engine. I sat there letting it all engulf me. Scotchie cookies and Karen. I remember that like it was just yesterday. Our first kiss was that night. I guess that's been just over ten years ago though. Fear began to creep into my soul along with the same feeling I had at Tony's house. What am I doing here? I can't go back. I have my music career. I'm a different person. I...
Uncle Phil emerged from the big barn and spied my Jeep. He wiped his hands with a rag as he sauntered toward me. He stuffed it into the back of his overalls. It hung like a cloth pendulum. He smiled a big toothy smile, once he recognized me. I stayed perfectly still. I could hear my heart thump in my chest.
"Come on out here, Gary," he said.
I glanced his way twice and reached for the handle. I heard the latch release and some fresh, manure-riddled, country air greeted my nostrils. I grimaced. I certainly didn't miss that! But as I recall you get used to it after a couple minutes. I stood in front of Uncle Phil and managed a meek smile.
"How are you?" I asked.
"Well, I'm doing fair to middling. How about yourself?" He stuck his thumbs inside the front of his bibs.
Good ole Phil. He said that all the time. I guess some things never change.
"Good. Been a long time since I’ve been here. I remember the last 4th of July I was here. We sat up on the porch and watched them."
"Yeah. They don't do that anymore. Guess the town fathers ran out of money. Those buzzards couldn't balance a checkbook much less manage the funds to give the people a proper fireworks." He shook his head with his forehead crinkled and eyebrows cocked.
That dread feeling began to subside. Suddenly, I looked around and this seemed like the old farm I knew. A wind chime on a pole next to the walk, swayed and tinkled in the light breeze. Steady, Gary.
"That's a shame. I enjoyed those." A flash of Karen's eyes as our faces came together flash through my mind. "I really enjoyed them."
Phil waved a hand. "Let's go see Mae. She's rummaging around the house somewhere. Kinda liked the idea of you coming. She even baked some cookies for some dern reason."
"Scotchies?" I piped.
"Yeah." Phil stopped mid-walk. "How'd you know?"
"Just a guess. Mae is quite a woman." At that moment, I smelled them. Ohhhhh, yeah.
"That she is." He continued walking. "That she is," he repeated.
Phil marched through the porch's old swinging screen door. I followed close on his heels. A slight musty smell entered my nostrils as Phil went through the open door of the house. Mae held a pan of cookies just out of the oven and slid them next to a first batch to cool. She spun to see who'd just come in. Her face was older with smile lines running from the corners of her mouth and eyes. She stepped toward me. Her left leg was a prosthetic while her right looked normal. I couldn't seem to help but stare.
"Gary!" She said. A broad toothy smile appeared on her face. She took several steps forward and noticed my stare. "Oh. I guess you didn't know now did you?" Her hand covered her mouth as if it had just dawned on her.
"I ... I .... I didn't mean to. I mean. It's just."
"I know. Quite a shock. Happened about five years ago now. Tractor accident. Phil tried to run me over."
Phil, a normally subdued man at heart, blushed a bit. “It’s now been six years.”
Mae paused a moment, stuck her pointer finger in the air, and nodded to agree as if to remember the date.
I raised my arms up and gave her a big hug. She gripped me tight like a grandmother who had not seen her grandchild for several years. So much had changed in my hometown. This was the first time I'd felt like it was more than just a walk down memory lane.
"It's good to feel a good country hug." The corners of my mouth just seemed to turn up by themselves. Guess I really did miss this place.
"Have a seat and tell me a little about your travels. It's been a long time." Mae leaned back in preparation for a good long tale.
"Sure. I left, as you know to follow my music." My mind drifted back to that feeling. Leaving Karen. My parents. The Stanley's. I just seemed to spill it all out to Mae. I sat there for thirty minutes straight going through the towns and gigs I'd had. The hotels I'd stayed in. The money running out. Staying in my Jeep several times overnight. But I just kept drifting, and hooking up with different bands that needed a guitar player and a song writer. A few successes, but nothing big. A few women but nothing permanent. I left that part out as any child would.
“Sounds like you’ve had quite the adventure,” Mae declared. Her eyes locked with mine and she beamed with one of her kind motherly smiles.
“I wouldn’t go that far,” I replied. “I missed this place. More than I really knew.”
“It’s always that way, Dear.” She patted my knee. “It’s always that way. No one has the same life, you know, but everyone has a home. And being away from it, well… you feel it. It never goes away completely.”
I pondered her statement. I’d never really thought about home that way. I just felt home would be where I would ultimately make it. Feelings, my past, people who knew me, would just kind of blend in with wherever I was at the time.
“Would you care for a Scotchie, Gary?” A plate of cookies extended toward me in her hand. I must’ve not even noticed her getting up and going to the counter to get them, so lost in that last thought I was.
“Oh…,” I dribbled out finally. “Sure.” I snatched a couple from the top of the pile and nodded my approval. I took a good bite from one and grinned up at Mae. The instant Butterscotch flavor burst in my mouth. So creamy and soft. Just like I remembered them being.
“Karen should be here soon.” Phil shouted from the porch.
“Yes. Perhaps Gary should hide and we could surprise her when she arrives,” she suggested.
Phil sauntered to the entryway, placing his hands on either side and leaning his head in. “Yeah. What do you think, Gary?”
“No. I think she should just see me straight out.” I just want to get the anxiety out of the way for us both. No need to prolong it.
“Ok,” Phil agreed. I heard the screen door close and a sweep of wind swirled around the kitchen and settled.
Mae remained silent as if indifferent to the idea at last.
I munched on the rest of the first cookie and took a big bite of the second. Mae arose and stepped past me and returned with a tall glass of milk. She placed it neatly next to the cookie tray which lay tantalizingly on the stand beside me. So, much so I grabbed another. Mae just ambled back to her chair and sat down. Her eyes watching me enjoy each bite while her eyes sparkled with delight.
Mae loved making people feel right at home. I’m guessing that’s why Uncle Phil had his nickname. Mae never met a stranger. We chatted for a while as Mae doted about me: straightened my collar, patted my cheek, even ran her small hands through my hair. We sat there discussing how many acres Phil was up to planting this year when I head the screen door bang. I figured it was Phil milling about as was his usual custom.
“Gary?” A female voice asked instead.
I froze for a moment while Mae looked up. She looked back at me and pushed her eyes toward the source of the voice, urging me to reply.
My head turned slowly toward her. My eyes stared into those eyes from long ago. Fear bubbled within me. Karen.
“Karen,” is all I could manage.
She stood there, lips slightly parted. Her auburn hair danced in the breeze. She wore a dull yellow blouse that clung to her curves, long denim pants, and a heart locket around her neck. She maybe had put ten pounds on since we last saw each other but to me, she looked great. She stared at me. Her brow wrinkled with curiosity.
“What are you doing here?” She asked.
“We invited him out,” Mae stated, “He just got into town.”
“Did you call him back here for some reason? How did you get his number? This is a fine time to do this to me, Mae!” She let out a huff then turned around in a lurch.
Karen reached behind her and grabbed a suitcase and swiftly swung it inside. She glared at Mae. Her teeth now gritted. She glanced at me and stormed through the dining room and up the stairs. I bolted to my feet and stood there like a statue, one hand hanging in the air. Not a thought came into my head.
“What just happened?” I finally asked.
“It’s ok, dear,” Mae stated. “She’ll be fine in an hour or so.”
My head ratcheted toward her. “Mae? What did she mean ‘this is a fine time’? What was that supposed to mean?”
Mae folded her hands together. “I didn’t want to tell you. It shouldn’t mean anything really.…” She clenched and unclenched her hands.
“Mae, Karen is obviously upset. What is going on?” For the first time in my life I glared at Mae.
“Sit down, dear.”
I slipped back into my seat and looked at Mae.
“She is coming for more than a few days. She’s coming here to live a while. Her husband, Rick, ran off on her. Heaven knows where he went. I never did much care for him. Probably to some God forsaken place. A casino or something. A gambler, you know. That man just came out of nowhere and charmed her.” She shook her head while she rambled. “I told her he was no good. He would drop her like an old pair of shoes, he would… Let’s see. They were married about two years ago. No… No. A year and a half. They’d met just two years ago right after Jed, God bless his soul, passed on.” She stopped and bowed her head in solitude.
“Karen got married?” The words were more of a statement than a question. I could hear the house groan and creak as a gust of wind pelted the old homestead.
“Yes. Were you not listening? About two years ago. Right after…”
“Yeah. I heard you. I’m just trying to take it in. How long ago did he leave her?” I asked.
“Oh. Near on four months ago now. Poor dear tried to keep the house, but no. The scoundrel took off with all their money. Cleaned out the accounts, he did.” She paused and unclipped the prosthesis and leaned the leg against a nearby chair. “Silly thing digs into me after a while.”
My heart sank. Karen, married. Why am I surprised? I went on with my life why wouldn’t she? What kind of person am I? Once I hit it big, I guess I thought I’d just come back and sweep her away from all this or settle down in a nice house somewhere in the area. My mind wandered to the letters I’d written, but never sent. I came so close to sending them, but the time never seemed right.
Ah, the letters. Those things I just couldn’t seem to bring myself to throw away or send. Never knowing why. Fear probably. I poured my heart out in those. Then it dawned on me. A thought I’d never even considered. I’d never sent them because I had nothing to offer Karen. While that thought was new, the truth of it crushed me. I had nothing more to offer Karen than when I left. Suddenly, I realized Mae was still prattling on. Once she had you at her table, she seemed to do that.
“… Rick left after that. Said he was bored with Karen. She being a small town girl and all…”
“Mae,” I interrupted.
“Shouldn’t one of us go up and talk to Karen?” I questioned.
“You have to give her some time. A lady needs to settle and compose herself after a scene,” Mae said.
“I suppose you are right.” My eyes wandered to the stairs.
Mae fell silent. She rubbed at her leg for a minute.
I looked about the kitchen. A simple assortment of pans, large to small, hung neatly under the white cupboards. Canisters in reverse order sitting on the counter underneath. A blue, flowery wallpaper hung behind them. The stove, also white, gleamed and appeared out of place with its shiny flat bluish surface contrasting with the painfully old and faded linoleum floor, the pull handle refrigerator, and the ivory old-fashioned double sink. Mae attempted to pull the whole scene together with matching flowered towels and pot holders conspicuously placed. But old and new, just don’t always blend.
“What’s Phil’s new project?” I asked, breaking the silence.
Mae looked up from her leg and smiled. “He’s wanting another pull barn. Like he needs another one of those. He’d just fill it with farm toys.” She chuckled while placing her hand over her mouth. “Men and their toys, I swear.”
“Men do like their gizmos. You ever think those cell phones will catch on? I’ve thought about getting one myself,” I said.
“Oh, posh.” She replied waving a hand in the air as if slapping at a fly. “Whoever would want to be bothered with all that? Constantly being bothered. Probably cost an arm and a leg. Oh! And I don’t have one to give!” She laughed.
“Still it would be handy. Emergencies and all.”
“There is that,” she agreed. She peered out the kitchen window above the sink and spotted Phil loitering about the barn. She reached over and strapped on her leg and pushed herself to her feet. “He’ll be in soon wanting his cocoa. Best make it up. I have to measure it out just so you know. He’s quite particular about it.”
I watched Mae pour out the cold milk and deftly open a nearby drawer for her scoops. She opened a cookie jar and pulled out a Nestle Quick canister hidden inside, and turned and winked at me. She whispered, “He thinks I still make this from scratch. Grate the chocolate and all. Heaven forbid he knew that.”
I grinned. Mae Stanley – A woman of contradictions when you’d least expect them. She’d be the first one at the church bake fair to go on and on about the best ingredients to make the best pies and cakes.
“I suppose the Scotchies are a ruse as well?” I jibed.
She turned like I’d taken a hot iron to her side. “My dear boy, those are authentic. That recipe passed down from my great-grandmother. She gave me that recipe while she lay on her death bed. True as God is my witness. I was to take that recipe to my grave or give it to my daughter when the time was right.”
“Speaking of which, what is Emily up to these days?” The words were out before I realized to whom I was asking. I settled back in my chair bracing for the onslaught of the recount of Emily’s life from when she left diapers up until the last five minutes.
“Emily lives in Florida now. She’s married and has a daughter, Tia. Oh, she is the cutest little darling. I wish we could get down to see her more often. Her last name is now Gonzalez.” Mae paused and looked directly at me. “I mean Emily of course.” She took a few steps over and pulled out a blue covered photo album tucked between two jars. She opened, and then positioned it like a place setting before me.
A curly-headed three year old decked out in white lace smiled back at me. A few pictures later she appeared in full twirl. Her hand held high above her, arched in typical Spanish dance. Her flawless skin a tawny brown, while her face lit up as if in a full laugh. Mae went on to describe how her dance teacher insisted that Tia had natural talent. She gushed like grandmothers do, but spoke little of Emily or her husband. I dutifully nodded at each gush.
The bang of the screen door and heavy footfalls rescued me. Phil emerged. Without saying a word, Mae went to the cocoa and slid it into the microwave.
“It’s about time,” Mae said. “I was wondering if you were coming in at all.”
“Sorry. Had to finish testing the hydraulics on the backhoe. I believe I’ve stopped the leak and she’s as good as new.” Phil announced. His demeanor never changed. Phil could’ve stated he’d saved an entire battalion or gone to get the mail. He would say it exactly the same way.
“That’s nice dear. I have your cocoa right here. Just the way you like it.” Mae nodded at me. “Would you like a cup, Gary?” She asked while setting the cup before Phil.
“No ma’am.” I looked up the stairs. “I think I should go talk to Karen now,” I whispered while leaning forward a bit.
“Yes. She’s likely much more calm now.”
Phil sipped his cocoa oblivious to the blowup.
I arose and stole away up the stairs. I could hear quick steps and drawers opening and closing from the first bedroom to the left. My heart raced. What the hell am I going to say to her?
The steps ceased and the house went quiet, save for the few ‘tics’ and ‘groans’ of an old house. The wind evidently had picked up across the open fields. I crept down the hall and listened. Total silence. Come on Gary. Just do it. I raised my fist and rapped on the door.
A few moments passed until Karen inched open the door and stared at me through the crack.
“I suppose Mae told you everything,” she said. Her voice flat and disinterested.
“I really didn’t know until just a few moments ago,” I answered. “Karen I…”
“Don’t. I just want to be left alone for a while. I need to think and you being here isn’t helping. My life is a mess right now.”
“I just wanted to explain. I didn’t come out here with any expectations. I didn’t even know…”
“It doesn’t matter. You left me and this life seven years ago.” Her voice quivered along with her bottom lip. Her blue eyes began to water.
“I know why you let me leave now. I know about Jed. You should have told me.” I said, almost pleading.
“Why? So, you could blame me for keeping you here? Never knowing whether you had what it took to make it big? You hated this small town. I still remember the words. No ideas from old men. Your future wasn’t here. Isn’t that what you said?”
My soul wrenched as the words rang inside me. The second time in less than two hours someone threw them back at me. “Yes. But I would have stayed. We could have…”
“Could have what? Stayed here and been miserable? Don’t bother. You made your choice.”
“No. That’s not fair and you know it. You made a choice too. You chose to leave out a piece of information. I never understood why you wouldn’t come with me. I had to make it on my own. Alone.” My voice cracked on the last word as my composure faltered.
She swung open the door more. “Alone,” she uttered coldly. She turned and traversed to the window and gazed out over the wide-open fields. The wind sent ripples through the leaves of the corn stalks. “I’ll tell you about being alone.” She paused, glanced at me and went back to staring out the window.
“For five years I toiled, watching my father die. Mae tried to help, but with her accident and recovery and all she wasn’t any help. Phil had the farm and felt so guilty about Mae, he was useless. My brother lived in California. So, it all fell to me. The dutiful daughter. I cried just about every day. Alone. I wondered if you’d ever come back but after a few months there was nothing. I took care of the store alone. I took care of my dad alone. At that point I’d resigned to being alone.”
She continued. “I read a review about your show in Reno. It said you ‘had promise’. At first I was thrilled. I dreamed, ever so briefly, that you could come back to me or had gotten it out of your system. Then I realized it had been four years. I didn’t even know where you were. My last tiny hope crushed. I really was alone. It was like a burning ember that smoldered inside me. Never leaving. Burning me alive one hour at a time until after several years I felt totally empty. I’m sure toward the end I was going mad. Daddy would throw up blood. I’d rush him to the hospital. More doctors, tests, hospitals, chemo-therapy, surgeries. It was endless. In a way, I saved you from all that. You should probably thank me. I …” Her voice splintered into a sniffle. “… let you go.” She shook her head and repeated, “I just let you go.”
We stood there. Me just outside the door looking in. Karen vacant. Her hand covered her eyes while tears streamed down her cheeks and fell silently onto the area rug. It seemed an eternity.
“I’m sorry, Karen.” I stepped in the room. “I’m sorry you had to go through that. I wish things could have been different.” My arms spread open. Give me a chance.
She turned her head and looked at me. She wiped the tears from her eyes and inspected me.
“You’ve gained a little weight,” She stated and laughed at the sudden change in mood.
I smiled. “Well, you look great too,” I responded, “Other than the bleary red watery eye look.”
She let out a big sigh and smiled meekly. She turned and took a few steps toward me. I could smell her shampoo. Oranges. She always did love oranges.
“I’m sorry, Gary. I didn’t mean to take it all out on you. I knew what I was doing when you left. I knew if I told you about Jed you would have stayed. You would have been miserable, but you probably would have stayed.”
My arms fell back to my side. “I understand,” I said. My stomach twisted into knots. She seemed distant. So, I scanned the room as she tried to compose herself.
The room was simple and plain. The white curtains hung by each side of the only window, overlooking the largest cornfield. A single bed laid out opposite it while a dresser lay to its left. A small closet resided in the farthest corner. As a kid, Karen would come for the night and stay here.
“Actually it’s good to see you, Gary.” She reached out and squeezed my hand. “But I’m in no condition to see anybody right now.”
“How about an old friend?”
“Yes. I could use a friend.” She reached up with her other hand and cradled mine. A forced grin pushed its way to her mouth. “I’d like to sleep now.” She kissed my cheek and before I knew it I was standing in the hall and the soft thump of the door faded from my ears.
I descended the stairs somewhat in a daze and wandered to the kitchen. Mae’s back toward me, she stood at the stove. She turned and had a Ziploc bag of cookies in her hand. She reached out and offered them to me. Uncanny how she knew. The woman seemed to know the tiniest little things that made people happy.
I nodded, took the cookies and drifted out the door.
“Come back real soon,” she said as the screen door slapped the door frame. I waved and in under a minute I was back on Havermill road heading toward town.
I must have driven for an hour around town. I couldn’t believe how much was the same. The only real change was a strip mall just outside town to the west toward the lake. Tim’s boat rental still occupied the corner where you turned to go to Lake Tampicona. Half the kids in school called it lake tampon. The Jeep rambled down the road and I could see the sunshine sparkle on the water. I needed to ponder what just happened with Karen. I could think of no better place to do that than Lake Tampon.
Two towering oak trees stood like a gateway arch over the path down to the lakeside. I strolled down the path absorbing each ray of sunshine, each waft of wind and each plop of my shoes against the hard asphalt. The pavement ended into a gravelly sand about a 100 yards from the lake’s edge. I plodded forward watching a small sailboat – the only activity on the lake – push across the water.
Its wake causing small ripples which lapped against the pebbled shore.
I settled into my favorite bench which, as a happy coincidence, had just been covered in shade by a large sycamore standing to its left. Its largest branch extended over the lake and when I was five or six years old I recalled a tire swing attached to it. I could still make out where the ropes scarred the bark. My dad urged me to take a swing on it, but I never had the courage to do it. I wasn’t a strong swimmer.
A flock of Canadian Geese landed on the opposite shore and started honking like madmen. Their leader seemed upset at another goose and started pecking and flapping to show his disapproval. As quickly as it started, it ended and the geese began to waddle into the water like a tiny army. They ducked their heads into the water and occasionally came up for air or a fish in their beak.
Lost in thought I recalled the last time I surveyed this lake. Tony and Christy Baker, his girl at the time, went swimming down near the dam further off to the left side. I dangled my feet in the water and watched them splash each other. I pictured that in my head when I heard footsteps behind me.
Before I could turn around.
“’’Ello Gary. I ‘erd you was in town.”
I knew that voice in an instant – Charlie McGregg. There was only one. Every small town has one. A guy that you shook your head every time you saw them and asked: How did they end up here of all places? Charlie came from England originally and lived in a small cabin about a mile from the lake (Well, I assumed he still live there). A perennial bachelor, he spent his time fishing, drinking, or telling tall tales to the locals at the bar. He, of course, called it a pub.
I stood and extended a hand. His wild beard, barrel chest and odd gait were just as I remembered. You couldn’t help but like him – even if he was a bit strange.
“Charlie McGregg as I live and breathe. How the hell are you?”
“I’m good. Yeah, Yeah. Getting’ ready for some football action in the world cup I am. England might ‘ave a chance this year. They have a keeperr w’ose brilliant. Best in the business, he is.”
He reached and shook my hand with a grip that would crush granite. I tried my best not to wince although I couldn’t help but rub my limp right hand with my left, if nothing else but to restore the circulation.
“You know I don’t follow soccer… er… football, but I’d raise a glass or two with you.” I could use a drink.
“Jolly good. We’ll take the trail to me ‘ouse.”
“Lead the way, Charlie.” Charlie waited for me to be even with him to walk side by side. I obliged and we were off. At first we said nothing. Just two guys tromping down a trail (the back way to Charlie’s house).
“So ‘ow’s the music going?” He asked.
“Good and bad. Moved from gig to gig. It’s been a good run.”
“Been ‘ard on yea I’m guessing. Reminds me of the times I’d frequent the pubs in England. Me dad and granddad would drag me into them. Mostly for dad to drink and me granddad to talk to old war buddies. Ahh… yes,” as if trying to recall something he stopped, nodded, and continued down the trail, “Shearer’s Pub. A bloody dive as an American would say. The only redeemin’ quality being Ms. Lucy Farthing. A pretty one she was.”
Charlie. Always the eye for the ladies. And with the accent he took as much advantage as he was able.
I smiled. “But was the beer any good?”
“Aye. But I was too young to drink…” He winked.
I grinned even bigger. “Aye,” I echoed.
The trail grew narrow between a line of thick maples on each side. Bramble bush lined each side underneath so you dare not walk abreast, lest you wanted thorns ripping at your legs like demons from a pit. We ducked a low-hanging bough and the corner of the house came into view.
Charlie lumbered up the final slope toward the small cabin. I noticed at once there was an extra room built on. Several new bushes (new to me) lined the front side and a long row of red and white geraniums mixed together about halfway down its side and culminated in a round protrusion with an abundance of them bursting out of the landscaping borders. I thought they were tasteful and quite lovely. Not by Charlie’s hand for sure.
I stopped and admired them for a moment. Apparently a bit too long as Charlie stopped as well, and peered behind at me.
“Oh,” he stated, “the misses likes those type.”
Charlie? Married? What was the world coming to!?
“Ohhh….” He intoned like it suddenly dawned on him. “That’s right. Yea wouldn’t know that. Met Marcy about five years ago. Married for four and a half.”
“Marcy huh? Well, I’m dying to meet the woman who corralled Charlie McGregg.” I chuckled.
“’Tis more like we corralled each other. We have our rows from time to time, but at the end of the day we were meant for one another. Now don’t be sayin’ anything to ‘er now.”
“My lips are sealed.”
“Strange American expression,” was all he said as if he had none himself.
We crashed into the house like two huntsmen from a long trip. Our dust-covered shoes now producing their own cloud upon the hard-wood floor. Charlie made for the kitchen. I heard him open the fridge and some glasses clank.
I surveyed the room. Rustic was the only word that came to mind. The room hadn’t changed a great deal. The deer head mounted on the wall dominated the decorum while two wide, heavy brown chairs stared at the only appliance-- the TV. The bed which used to reside in the corner with a curtain drawn around it when company came over was conspicuously missing.
I could see into the new room from where I stood. A matching chair and sofa were barely visible to the left while a door to perhaps the new bedroom were to the right. The decorations were simple but definitely with a feminine touch. The Charlie I knew lived by one creed – functionality. Looking good was far down the list.
The smell had also changed. Instead of the musty, dankness of a bachelor’s cabin (which I must admit was still there in a small quantity) one of lemon and ammonia cut through it like cigarette smoke in an otherwise fresh parcel of air.
Charlie emerged from the small kitchen, plopped two glasses on the round walnut stand between the chairs and began to fill each with a dark English lager. The strong brew mixed with the other scents and pushed the cabin atmosphere up to the next testosterone level.
“’ere we are,” Charlie said, “I’ll grab a bag of crisps too.” He stepped back into the kitchen and promptly came back carrying a large bag of Frito Lay potato chips.
“When does the first game start?” I asked.
“In about half an ‘our. I just spotted you down at the lake. Was about to come up to the cabin anyway. England against Peru. Should be a good match. The misses don like football much so she went to visit ‘er sister in Pisga. She’ll likely be back at ten or so.”
Editor's Pick Romance Newsletter 12/25/2013