To Marian Smith Collins and Bob Collins for their help with the Calhoun setting and the law…
To Gunnery Sgt. Richard E. Martelli, United States Marine Corps, for sharing his invaluable knowledge of Marine history…
And to Carol Gatts, midwife and beekeeper, for keeping old traditions alive and for letting us glimpse them…
To my favorite authors,
Tom & Sharon Curtis
who by their writing
have taught, entertained and inspired.
With deepest admiration.
The train pulled into Whitney, Georgia, on a leaden afternoon in November. Clouds churned and the first droplets of rain pelted like thick batter onto the black leather roof of a waiting carriage. Both of its windows were covered with black. As the train clanged to a stop, one shade was stealthily lifted aside and a single eyeball peered through the slit.
"She’s here," a woman’s voice hissed. "Go!"
The carriage door opened and a man stepped out. He, like the carriage, was garbed in black-suit, shoes and flat-brimmed hat worn level with the earth. He glanced neither right nor left but strode purposefully to the train steps as a young woman emerged with a baby in her arms.
"Hello, Papa," she said uncertainly, offering a wavering smile.
"Bring your bastard and come with me." He turned her roughly by an elbow and marched her back to the carriage without looking at her or the infant.
The curtained door was thrown open the instant they reached it. The young woman lurched back protectively, drawing the baby against her shoulder. Her soft hazel eyes met the hard green ones above her, framed by a black bonnet and mourning dress.
"Get in before every soul in this town sees our shame!"
The man gave his daughter a nudge. She stumbled into the carriage, scarcely able to see through her tears. He followed quickly and grasped the reins, which were threaded through a peekhole, yielding only a murky light.
"Hurry, Albert," the woman ordered, sitting stiff as a grave marker, staring straight ahead.
He whipped the horses into a trot.
"Mama, it’s a girl. Don’t you want to see her?"
"See her?" The woman’s mouth pursed as she continued staring straight ahead. "I’ll have to, won’t I, for the rest of my life, while people whisper about the devil’s work you’ve brought to our doorstep."
The young woman clutched the child tighter. It whimpered, then as a jarring crash of thunder boomed, began crying lustily.
"Shut it up, do you hear!"
"Her name is Eleanor, Mama and-"
"Shut it up before everyone on the street hears!"
But the baby howled the entire distance from the depot, along the town square and the main road leading to the south edge of town, past a row of houses to a frame one surrounded by a picket fence with morning glories climbing its front stoop. The carriage turned in, crossed a deep front yard and pulled up near the back door. The mother and child were herded inside by the black-garbed woman and immediately a dark green shade was snapped down to cover a window, followed by another and another until every window in the house was shrouded.
The new mother was never seen leaving the house again nor were the shades ever lifted.
The noon whistle blew and the saws stopped whining. Will Parker stepped back, lifted his sweat-soaked hat and wiped his forehead with a sleeve. The other millhands did the same, retreating toward the shade with voluble complaints about the heat or what kind of sandwiches their wives had packed in their lunch pails.
Will Parker had learned well not to complain. The heat hadn’t affected him yet, and he had neither wife nor lunch pail. What he had were three stolen apples from somebody’s backyard tree-green, they were, so green he figured he’d suffer later-and a quart of buttermilk he’d found in an unguarded well.
The men sat in the shade of the mill yard, their backs against the scaly loblolly pines, palavering while they ate. But Will Parker sat apart from the others; he was no mingler, not anymore.
"Lord a-mighty, but it’s hot," a man named Elroy Moody complained, swabbing his wrinkled red neck with a wrinkled red hanky.
"And dusty," added the one called Blaylock. He hacked twice and spit into the pine needles. "Got enough sawdust in my lungs to stuff a mattress."
The foreman, Harley Overmire, performing his usual noon ritual stripped to the waist, dipped his head under the pump and came up roaring to draw attention to himself. Overmire was a sawed-off runt with a broad pug nose, tiny ears and a short neck. He had a head full of close-cropped dark hair that coiled like watchsprings and refused to stop growing at his neckline. Instead, it merely made the concession of thinning before continuing downward, giving him the hirsute appearance of an ape when he went shirtless. And Overmire loved to go shirtless. As if his excessive girth and body hair made up for his diminutive height, he exposed them whenever the opportunity arose.
Drying himself with his shirt, Overmire sauntered across the yard to join the men. He opened his lunch pail, folded back the top of his sandwich and muttered, "Sonofabitch, she forgot the mustard again." He slapped the sandwich together in disgust. "How many times I got to tell that woman it’s pork plain and mustard on beef!"
"You got to train ’er, Harley," Blaylock teased. "Slap ’er upside the head one time."
"Train her, hell. We been married seventeen years. You’d think she’d know by now I want mustard on my beef." With his heel he ground the sandwich into the dry needles and cursed again.
"Here, have one o’ mine," Blaylock obliged. "Bologna and cheese today."
Will Parker bit into the bitter apple, felt the saliva spurt so sharply it stung his jaws. He kept his eyes off Overmire’s beef sandwich and Blaylock’s spare bologna and cheese, forcing himself to think of something else.
The neatly mowed backyard where he’d ransacked the well. Pretty pink flowers blooming in a white enamel kettle sitting on a tree stump by the back door. The sound of a baby crying from inside the house. A clothesline with white sheets and white diapers and white dishtowels and enough blue denim britches that one pair wouldn’t be missed, and a matching number of blue cambric shirts from which he’d nobly taken the one with a hole in the elbow. And a rainbow of towels, from which he’d selected green because somewhere in the recesses of his memory was a woman with green eyes who’d once been kind to him, making him forever prefer green over all other colors.
The green towel was wet now, wrapped around the Ball jar. He folded it aside, unscrewed the zinc lid, drank and forced himself not to grimace. The buttermilk was sickeningly sweet; even the wet towel hadn’t managed to keep it cool.
With his head tilted back against the bole of the pine tree, Parker saw Overmire watching him with beady mustardseed eyes while stretching to his feet. The jar came down slowly. Equally as slowly, Parker backhanded his lips. Overmire strutted over and stopped beside Will’s outstretched feet, his own widespread, firmly planted, his beefy fists akimbo.
Four days Will Parker had been here, only four this time, but he knew the look on the foreman’s face as if the words had already been spoken.
"Parker?" Overmire said it loud, loud enough so all the others could hear.
Will went stiff, slow-motion like, bringing his back away from the tree and setting the fruit jar down by feel.
The foreman pushed back his straw hat, let his forehead wrinkle so all the men could see how there was nothing else he could do. "Thought you said you was from Dallas."
Will knew when to keep his mouth shut. He wiped all expression from his face and lifted his eyes to Overmire’s, chewing a piece of sour apple.
"You sayin’ that’s where you’re from?"
Will rolled to one buttock as if to rise. Overmire planted a boot on his crotch and pushed. Hard. "I’m talkin’ to you, boy!" he snapped, then let his eyes rove over his underlings to make sure none of them missed this.
Parker flattened both palms against the earth at the sudden jolt of pain. "I been there," he answered stoically.
"Been in Huntsville, too, haven’t you, boy?"
The strangling sense of subjugation rose like bile in Parker’s throat. Familiar. Degrading. He felt the eyes of the men measuring him above their half-formed, prepotent grins. But he’d learned not to talk back to that tone of superiority, and especially not to the word "boy." He felt the cold sweat break out on his chest, the sense of helplessness at the term calculated to make one man look small, another powerful. With Overmire’s boot exerting pressure, Will repressed the awful need to give vent to the loathing he felt, sealing himself in the cocoon of pretended indifference.
"They only put the tough ones in there, ain’t that right, Parker?" Overmire pushed harder but Will refused to wince. Instead, he clamped a hand on the ankle, forcing the dusty boot aside. Without removing his eyes from the foreman, Will rose, picked up his battered Stetson, whacked it on his thigh and settled the brim low over his eyes.
Overmire chuckled, crossed his burly arms, and fixed the ex-convict with his beady eyes. "Word came down you killed a woman in a Texas whorehouse and you’re fresh out for it. I don’t think we want your kind around here where we got wives and daughters, do we fellows?" He let his eyes flick to the men briefly.
The fellows had quit rummaging through their lunch pails.
"Well, you got anything to say for yourself, boy?"
Will swallowed, felt the apple skin hitting bottom. "No, sir, except I got three and a half days’ pay comin’."
"Three," Overmire corrected. "We don’t count no half days around here."
Will worked a piece of apple peel between his front teeth. His jaw protruded and Harley Overmire balled his fists, getting ready. But Will only stared silently from beneath the brim of his sorry-looking cowboy hat. He didn’t need to lower his eyes from Overmire’s face to know what his fists looked like.
"Three," Will agreed quietly. But he hurled his apple core out beneath the pines with a fierceness that made the men start their rummaging again. Then he scooped up his towel-wrapped jar and followed Overmire into the office.
When he came back out the men were huddled around the time board. He passed among them, sealed within a bubble of dispassion, folding his nine dollars into his breast pocket, staring straight ahead, avoiding their self-righteous expressions.
"Hey, Parker," one of them called when he’d passed. "You might try the Widow Dinsmore’s place. She’s so hard up she’d probably even settle for a jailbird like you, ain’t that right, boys?"
Jeering laughter followed, then a second voice. "Woman like that who’ll put her card up in a sawmill’s bound to take anything she can git."
And finally, a third voice. "You shoulda stepped a little harder on his balls, Harley, so the women around here could sleep better nights."
Will headed off through the pines. But when he saw the remains of someone’s sandwich, left amid the pine needles for the birds, hunger overcame pride. He picked it up between two fingers as if it were a cigarette, and turned with a forced looseness.
"Anybody mind if I eat this?"
"Hell, no," called Overmire. "It’s on me."
More laughter followed, then, "Listen, Parker, y’all give crazy Elly Dinsmore a try. No tellin’ but what the two of you might hit it off right nice together. Her advertisin’ for a man and you fresh outa the pen. Could be there’s more’n a piece o’ bread in it for y’!"
Will swung away and started walking. But he balled the bread into a hard knot and flung it back into the pine needles. Stalking away, he shut out the pain and transported himself to a place he’d never seen, where smiles were plentiful, and plates full, and people nice to one another. He no longer believed such a place existed, yet he escaped to it more and more often. When it had served its purpose he returned to reality-a dusty pine forest somewhere in northwest Georgia and a strange road ahead.
What now? he thought. Same old bullshit wherever he went. There was no such thing as serving your time; it was never over. Aw, what the hell did he care? He had no ties in this miserable jerkwater burg. Who ever heard of Whitney, Georgia, anyway? It was nothing but a flyspeck on the map and he could as easily move on as stay.
But a mile up the road he passed the same neatly tended farm where he’d stolen the buttermilk, towel and clothes; a sweet yearning pulled at his insides. A woman stood on the back porch, shaking a rug. Her hair was hidden by a dishtowel, knotted at the front. She was young and pretty and wore a pink apron, and the smell of something baking drifted out and made Will’s stomach rumble. She raised a hand and waved and he hid the towel on his left side, smitten with guilt. He had a wrenching urge to walk up the drive, hand her her belongings and apologize. But he reckoned he’d scare the hell out of her if he did. And besides, he could use the towel, and probably the jar, too, if he walked on to the next town. The clothes on his back were the only ones he had.
He left the farm behind, trudging northward on a gravel road the color of fresh rust. The smell of the pines was inviting, and the look of them, all green and crisp against the red clay earth. There were so many rivers here, fast-flowing streams in a hurry to get to the sea. He’d even seen some waterfalls where the waters rushed out of the Blue Ridge foothills toward the coastal plain to the south. And orchards everywhere-peach, apple, quince and pear. Lord, what it must look like when those fruit trees bloomed. Soft pink clouds, and fragrant, too. Will had discovered within himself a deep need to experience the softer things in life since he’d gotten out of that hard place. Things he’d never noticed before-the beginning bloom on the cheek of a peach, the sun caught on a droplet of dew in a spiderweb, a pink apron on a woman with her hair tied in a clean white dishtowel.
He reached the edge of Whitney, scarcely more than a widening in the pines, a mere slip of a town dozing in the afternoon sun with little more moving than the flies about the tips of the chicory blossoms. He passed an ice house on the outskirts, a tiny railroad depot painted the color of a turnip, a wooden platform stacked with empty chicken crates, the smell of their former occupants rejuvenated by the hot sun. There was a deserted house overgrown with morning glory vines behind a seedy picket fence, then a row of occupied houses, some of red brick, others of Savannah gray, but all with verandas and rocking chairs out front, telling how many people lived in each. He came to a school building closed for the summer, and finally a town square typical of most in the south, dominated by a Baptist church and the town hall, with other businesses scattered around, interspersed by vacant lots-a drugstore, grocery, cafe, hardware, a blacksmith shop in front of which stood a brand-new gas pump topped by a white glass eagle.
He stopped before the office of the town newspaper, absently gazing at his reflection in the window. He fingered the few precious bills in his pocket, turned and glanced across the square at Vickery’s Cafe, pulled his hat brim down lower and strode in that direction.
The square held a patch of green grass and a bandstand wreathed by black iron benches. In the cool splash of shade beneath an enormous magnolia tree two old men sat, whittling. They glanced up as he passed. One of them nodded, spat, then returned to his whittling.
The screen door on Vickery’s Cafe had a wide red and white tin band advertising Coca-Cola. The metal was warm beneath Will’s hands and the door spring sang out as he entered the place. He paused a moment to let his eyes adjust to the dimness. At a long counter, two men turned, regarded him indolently without removing their elbows from beside their coffee cups. A buxom young woman ambled the length of the counter and drawled, "Howdy. What can I do for y’, honey?"
Will trained his eyes on her face to keep them off the row of plates behind the counter where cherry and apple pie winked an invitation.
"Wondered if you got a local paper I could look at."
She smiled dryly and cocked one thin-plucked eyebrow, glanced at the lump of wet green terrycloth he held against his thigh, then reached beneath the counter to dig one out. Will knew perfectly well she’d seen him pause before the newspaper office across the street, then walk over here instead.
"Much obliged," he said as he took it.
She propped the heel of one hand on a round hip and ran her eyes over the length of him while chewing gum lazily, making it snap.
"You new around these parts?"
"You the new one out at the sawmill?"
Will had to force his hands not to grip the folded paper. All he wanted was to read it and get the hell out of here. But the two at the counter were still staring over their shoulders. He felt their speculative gazes and gave the waitress a curt nod.
"Be okay if I set down a spell and look at this?"
"Sure thing, help yourself. Can I get ya a cup of coffee or anything?"
"No, ma’am, I’ll just…" With the paper he gestured toward the row of high-backed booths, turned and folded his lanky frame into one of them. From the corner of his eye he saw the waitress produce a compact and begin to paint her lips. He buried his face in the Whitney Register. Headlines about the war in Europe; disclosure of a secret meeting between President Roosevelt and Prime Minister Churchill, who’d drafted something called the Atlantic Charter; Joe DiMaggio playing another in his long string of safe-hit games; Citizen Kane, starring Orson Welles, showing at someplace called The Gem; the announcement of a garden party coming up on Monday; an advertisement for automobile repair beside another for harness repair; the funeral announcement of someone named Idamae Dell Randolph, born 1879 in Burnt Corn, Alabama, died in the home of her daughter, Elsie Randolph Blythe on August 8, 1941. The want ads were simple enough to locate in the eight-page edition: a roving lawyer would be in town the first and third Mondays of each month and could be found in Room 6 of the Town Hall; someone had a good used daybed for sale; someone wanted a husband…
Will’s eyes backtracked and read the whole ad, the same one she’d tacked up on the time board at the mill.
WANTED-A HUSBAND. Need healthy man of any age willing to work a spread and share the place. See E. Dinsmore, top of Rock Creek Road.
A healthy man of any age? No wonder the millhands called her crazy.
His eyes moved on: somebody had homemade rag rugs for sale; a nearby town needed a dentist and a mercantile establishment an accountant.
But nobody needed a drifter fresh out of Huntsville State Penitentiary who’d picked fruit and ridden freights and wrangled cattle and drifted half the length of this country in his day.
He read E. Dinsmore’s ad again.
Need healthy man of any age willing to work a spread and share the place.
His eyes narrowed beneath the deep shadow of his hat brim while he studied the words. Now what the hell kind of woman would advertise for a man? But then what the hell kind of man would consider applying?
The pair of locals had twisted around on their stools and were overtly staring. The waitress leaned on the counter, gabbing with them, her eyes flashing often to Will. He eased from the booth and she sauntered to meet him at the glass cigar counter up front. He handed her the paper, curled a hand around his hat brim without actually dipping it.
"Anytime. It’s the least I can do for a new neighbor. The name’s Lula." She extended a limp hand with talons polished the same vermilion shade as her lips. Will assessed the hand and the come-hither jut of her hip, the unmistakable message some women can’t help emanating. Her bleached hair was piled high and tumbled onto her forehead in a studied imitation of Hollywood’s newest cheesecake, Betty Grable.
At last Will extended his own hand in a brief handshake accompanied by an even briefer nod. But he didn’t offer his name.
"Could you tell me how to find Rock Creek Road?"
"Rock Creek Road?"
Again he gave a curt nod.
The men snickered. The smile fell from Lula’s sultry mouth.
"Down past the sawmill, first road south of there, then the first road left offa that."
He stepped back, touched his hat and said, "Much obliged," before walking out.
"Well," Lula huffed, watching him walk past the window. "If he ain’t a surly one."
"Didn’t fall for your smile now either, did he, Lula?"
"What smile you talkin’ about, you dumb redneck? I didn’t give him no smile!" She moved along the counter, slapping at it with a wet rag.
"Thought y’ had a live one there, eh, Lula?" Orlan Nettles leaned over the counter and squeezed her buttock.
"Damn you, Orlan, git your hands off!" she squawked, twisting free and swatting his wrist with the wet rag.
Orlan eased back onto the stool, his eyebrows mounting his forehead. "Hoo-ee! Would y’ look at that now, Jack." Jack Quigley turned droll eyes on the pair. "I never knew old Lula to slap away a man’s hand before, have you, Jack?"
"You got a right filthy mouth, Orlan Nettles!" Lula yelped.
Orlan grinned lazily, lifted his coffee cup and watched her over the brim. "Now what do you suppose that feller’s doing up Rock Creek Road, Jack?"
Jack at last showed some sign of life as he drawled, "Could be he’s goin’ up to check out the Widow Dinsmore."
"Could be. Can’t figger what else he’d of found in that newspaper, can you, Lula?"
"How should I know what he’s doin’ up Rock Creek Road? Wouldn’t open his mouth enough to give a person his name."
Orlan loudly swallowed the last of his coffee. "Yup!" With the back of a hand he smeared the wetness from the corners of his mouth over the rest of it. "Reckon he went on up to check out Eleanor Dinsmore."
"That crazy old coot?" Lula spat. "Why, if he did, he’ll be back down in one all-fire hurry."
"Don’t you just wish, Lula… don’t you just wish?" Orlan chuckled, bowed his legs and backed off the stool, then dropped a nickel on the counter.
Lula scraped up her tip, dropped it into her pocket and dumped his coffee cup into a sink beneath the counter. "Go on, git out o’ here, you two. Ain’t givin’ me no business anyway, sittin’ there soppin’ up coffee."
"C’mon, Jack, what say we sashay up to the lumber mill, do a little snoopin’ around, see what we can find out."
Lula glared at him, refusing to break down and ask him to come back and tell her what he learned about the tall, handsome stranger. The town was small enough that it wouldn’t take her long to find out on her own.
By the time he found the Dinsmore place it was evening. He used his green towel to wash in a creek before going up, then hung it on a tree limb and set the fruit jar carefully beneath it. The road-if you could call it that-was steep, rocky and full of washouts. Reaching the top, he found himself sweating again but figured it really didn’t matter; she wouldn’t take him anyway.
He left the road and approached through the woods, standing hidden in the trees, studying the place. It was a mess: chicken dung, piles of rusting machinery, a goat chewing his cud on a back stoop that looked ready to drop off the house, outbuildings peeling, shingles curled, tools left out in the weather, a sagging clothesline with a chipped enamel kettle hanging from one pole, remnants of a weedy garden.
Will Parker felt as if he fit right in.
He stepped into the clearing and waited; it didn’t take too long.
A woman appeared in the doorway of the house, one child on her hip, another burrowing into her skirts with a thumb in its mouth. She was barefoot, her skirt faded, its hem sagging to the right, her blouse the color of muddy water, her entire appearance as shabby as her place.
"What can I do for you?" she called. Her voice sounded flat, wary.
"I’m lookin’ for the Dinsmore place."
"You found it."
"I come about the ad."
She hitched the baby higher onto her hip. "The ad?" she repeated, squinting for a closer look.
"The one about the husband." He moved no closer, but stayed where he was at the edge of the clearing.
Eleanor Dinsmore kept a safe distance, unable to make out much of him. He wore a curled cowboy hat pulled low over his eyes, stood with his weight-what there was of it-on one bony hip with his thumbs hitched in his back pockets. She made out scuffed cowboy boots, a worn blue cambric shirt with sweat-stained armpits and faded jeans several inches too short for his lanky legs. There was nothing to do, she guessed, but go on out there and take a look at him. Wouldn’t matter anyhow. He wouldn’t stay.
He watched as she picked her way around the goat, down the steps and across the clearing, never taking her eyes off him, that young one still riding her hip, the other one tagging close-barefoot, too. She came slow, ignoring a chicken that squawked and flapped out of her path.
When she stood no more than ten feet before him she let the baby slip down and stand by himself, braced against her knee.
"You applying?" she asked smilelessly.
His eyes dropped to her stomach. She was pregnant as hell.
She watched, waiting for him to turn heel and run. Instead, his eyes returned to her face. At least she thought they did from the slight lifting of his hat brim.
"I reckon I am." He stood absolutely still, not a nerve flinching.
"I’m the one placed the ad," she told him, so there’d be no question.
"Figured you were."
"There’s three of us… nearly four."
"Figured there were."
"The place needs work."
She waited, but he didn’t say he figured it did, didn’t even glance sideways at all the junk in the yard.
"You still interested?" she asked.
She’d never seen anyone could stand so still. "I reckon so." His britches were so loose she expected them to drop over his hipbones any second. His gut was hollow. But he had wiry arms, the kind that look as strong relaxed as flexed, with veins standing out in the hollows where the flesh was palest. He might be thin, but he wasn’t puny. He’d be a worker.
"Then take your hat off so’s I can see you one time."
Will Parker wasn’t fond of removing his hat. When he’d been released from prison his hat and boots were the only things they’d returned to him. The Stetson was oily, misshapen, but an old friend. Without it he felt naked.
Still, he answered politely, "Yes, ma’am."
Once the hat was off he stood without fidgeting, letting her get a gander at his face. It was long and lean, like the rest of him, with brown eyes that looked as if he worked hard to keep the expression out of them. Same with his voice; it was respectful but flat. He didn’t smile, but his mouth was good, had a nice shape to the upper lip with two definite peaks, which she liked. His hair was a dirty blond, the color of a collie, shaggy at the back and around his ears. The front was plastered against his brow from his hatband. "You could use a haircut," was all she said.
He put his hat back on and it hid his eyes again, while from beneath its shadow he took in the woman’s worn cotton clothes, the sleeves rolled to the elbow, the soiled skirt where her belly was fullest. Her face might have been pretty, but looked old before its time. Maybe it was just the hair, flying around like goose grass from whatever moored it at the back of her neck. He took her for thirty, maybe, but thought if she ever smiled it might take five years off her.
"I’m Eleanor Dinsmore… Mrs. Glendon Dinsmore."
"Will Parker," he returned, curling a hand around his hat brim, then catching his thumb in a back pocket again.
She knew right off he was a man of few words; that’d suit her just fine. Even when she gave him the chance he didn’t ask questions like most men would. So she went on asking them herself.
"You been around here long?"
"Four days where?"
"Been workin’ at the sawmill."
"Workin’ for Overmire?"
"He’s no good. You’re better off workin’ here." She glanced in a semicircle and went on: "I been here all my life, in Whitney."
She didn’t sigh, but she didn’t need to. He heard the weariness in her words as she scanned the dismal yard. Her eyes returned to him and she rested one knobby hand on her stomach. When she spoke again her voice held a hint of puzzlement. "Mister, I’ve had that ad up at the sawmill for over three months now and you’re the first one fool enough to come up that hill and check it out. I know what this place is. I know what I am. Down below they call me crazy." Her head jutted forward. "Did you know that?"
"Yes, ma’am," he answered quietly.
Her face registered surprise, then she chuckled. "Honest, ain’t you? Well, I’m just wondering why you ain’t run yet, is all."
He crossed his arms and shifted his weight to the opposite hip. She had the shoe on the wrong foot. Once she found out about his record he’d be marching down that road faster than a roach when the light comes on. Telling her was as good as putting a shotgun in her hands. But she was bound to find out eventually; might as well get it over with.
"Maybe you should be the one runnin’."
Will Parker looked her square in the eyes. "I done time in prison. You might’s well know it, right off."
He expected quick signs of withdrawal. Instead Eleanor Dinsmore pursed her mouth and said in an ornery tone, "I says to take that hat off so’s I can see what kind of man I’m talkin’ to here."
He took it off slowly, revealing a countenance wiped clean of all emotion.
"What’d they put you in there for?" She could tell by the nervous tap of his hat brim on his thigh that he wanted to put it back on. It pleased her that he didn’t.
"They say I killed a woman in a Texas whorehouse."
His answer stunned her, but she could be as poker-faced as he. "Did you?" she shot back, watching his unflinching eyes. The control. The expressionlessness. He swallowed once and his Adam’s apple bobbed.
She submerged another jolt of surprise and asked, "Did you have good reason?"
"I thought so at the time."
Point-blank, she asked, "Well, Will Parker, you plan on doing that to me?"
The question caught Will by surprise and tipped up the corners of his lips. "No, ma’am," he answered quietly.
She stared hard into his eyes, came two steps closer and decided he didn’t look like a killer, nor act like one. He was sure no liar, and he had a workingman’s arms and wasn’t going to gab her head off. It was good enough for her.
"Okay, then, you can come on up to the house. They say I’m crazy anyway, might’s well give ’em something to back it up." She picked up the baby, herded the toddler along by the back of his head and led the way toward the house. The toddler peeked around to see if Will was following; the baby stared over its mother’s shoulder; but the mother herself turned her back as if to say, do what you will, Will Parker.
She walked like a pelican, swaying with each step in an ungainly fashion. Her hair was dull, her shoulders round and her hips wide.
The house was a tacky thing, atilt in several directions at once. It looked to have been built in stages, each addition blown slightly off level by the prevailing wind of the moment. The main body listed northeast, an ell west and the stoop east. The windows were off square, there were tin patches on the roof, and the porch steps were rotting.
But inside it smelled of fresh bread.
Will’s eyes found it, cooling on the kitchen cupboard beneath a dishtowel. He had to force his attention back to Eleanor Dinsmore when she put the baby in a high chair and offered, "How about a cup of coffee?"
He nodded silently, venturing no further than the rag rug at the kitchen door. His eyes followed as she fetched two cracked cups and filled them from a white enamel pot on the iron cookstove while the blond child hid in her skirts, hindering her footsteps.
"Leave off now, Donald Wade, so I can get Mr. Parker his coffee." The child clung, sucking his thumb until at last she reached down to pick him up. "This here is Donald Wade," she said. "He’s kind of shy. Hasn’t seen many strangers in his life."
Will remained by the door. "Howdy, Donald Wade," he said, nodding. Donald Wade buried his face in his mother’s neck while she sat down on a scarred wooden chair at a table covered with red flowered oilcloth.
"You gonna stand by that door all night?" she inquired.
"No, ma’am." He approached the table cautiously, pulled out a chair and sat well away from Eleanor Dinsmore, his hat again pulled low over his eyes. She waited, but he only took a pull on his hot coffee, saying nothing, eyes flickering occasionally to her and the boy and something behind her.
"I guess you’re wondering about me," she said at last. She smoothed the back of Donald Wade’s shirt with a palm, waiting for questions that didn’t come. The room carried only the sound of the baby slapping his hand on the wooden tray of the high chair. She rose and fetched a dry biscuit and laid it on the tray. The baby gurgled, took it in a fat fist and began gumming it. She stood behind him and regarded Will while repeatedly brushing the child’s feathery hair back from his forehead. She wished Will would look at her, would take that hat off so they could get started. Donald Wade had followed her, was again clinging to her skirts. Still feathering the baby’s hair, she found Donald Wade’s head with her free hand. Standing so, she said what needed saying.
"The baby’s name is Thomas. He’s near a year and a half old. Donald Wade here, he’s going on four. This one’s going to be born just shy of Christmas, close as I can reckon. Their daddy’s name was Glendon."
Will Parker’s eyes were drawn to her stomach as she rested a hand on it. He thought about how maybe there was more than one kind of prison.
"Where’s their daddy?" he inquired, lifting his eyes to her face.
She nodded westward. "Out in the orchard. I buried him out there."
"I thought-" But he stopped.
"You got a strange way of not sayin’ things, Mr. Parker. How’s a body supposed to make up a mind when you keep closed up so?" Will studied her, finding it hard to let loose after five years, and especially when she stood with her children at guard. "Go on, then, say it," Eleanor Dinsmore prodded.
"I thought maybe your man run off. So many of ’em are doin’ that since the depression."
"I wouldn’t be lookin’ for no husband then, would I?"
His glance dropped guiltily to his coffee cup. "I reckon not."
"And anyway, Glendon woulda never dreamed of runnin’ off. He didn’t have to. He was so full of dreams he wasn’t here anyways. Always miles away dreamin’ about this and that. The two of us together, we had lots of dreams once." The way she looked at him, Will knew she harbored dreams no longer.
"How long’s he been dead?"
"Oh, don’t you worry none, the baby is his."
Will colored. "I didn’t mean that."
"Course you did. I watched your eyes when you first come up here. He’s been dead since April. It was his dreams killed him. This time it was the bees and his honey. He thought he’d get rich real fast making honey out in the orchard, but the bees they started swarmin’ and he was in too much of a hurry to use good sense. I told him to shoot the branch down with a shotgun, but he wouldn’t listen. He went out on a branch, and sure enough, it broke, and so did he. He never would listen to me much." A faraway look came into her eyes. Will watched the way her hands lingered in the baby’s hair.
"Some men are like that." The words felt strange on Will’s lips. Comfort-either getting it or giving it-was foreign to him.
"We sure were happy, though. He had a way about him." Her expression as she spoke made Will sure it had once been Glendon Dinsmore’s hair through which she’d run her fingers that way. She acted as if she’d forgotten Will was in the room. He couldn’t quit watching her hands. It was another of those soft things that got him deep in the gut-the sight of her leafing through the baby’s airy hair while the child continued with its biscuit and made gurgling sounds. He wondered if anyone had ever done that to him, maybe sometime long before he had memory, but he had no conscious recollection of ever being touched that way.
Eleanor Dinsmore drew herself back to the present to find Will Parker’s eyes on her hands.
"So, what’re your thoughts, Mr. Parker?"
He glanced up, refocused his eyes. "It don’t matter about the kids."
"I mean, I don’t mind that you’ve got them. Your ad didn’t say."
"You like kids then?" she asked hopefully.
"I don’t know. Never been around ’em much. Yours seem nice enough."
She smiled at her boys and gave each a love pat. "They can be a joy." He couldn’t help wondering at her reasoning, for she looked tired and worn beyond her years, having the near-three she did. "Just make sure, Mr. Parker," she added, "’cause three’s a lot. I won’t have you layin’ a hand on them when they’re troublesome. They’re Glendon’s boys and he woulda never dreamed of layin’ a hand on them."
Just what did she take him for? He felt himself blush. But what else was she supposed to think after what he’d revealed out there in the yard?
"You got my word."
She believed him. Maybe because of the way his eyes lingered on Baby Thomas’s hair. She liked his eyes, and they had a way of turning soft when they’d light on the boys. But the boys weren’t the only consideration.
"It’s got to be said," she went on. "I loved Glendon somethin’ fierce. It takes some time to get over a man like that. I wouldn’t be lookin’ for a man ’less I had to. But winter’s comin’, and the baby, too. I was in a fix, Mr. Parker. You understand, don’t you?"
Will nodded solemnly, noting the absence of self-pity in her voice.
"Another thing." She concentrated on Thomas’s hair, stroking it differently, distractedly, her cheeks turning pink. "Having three babies under four years old, well-don’t get me wrong-I love ’em something fierce, but I wouldn’t want any more. Three’s plenty to suit me."
Lord a-mighty, the thought hadn’t crossed his mind. She was almost as sorry-looking as her place, and pregnant to boot. He needed a dry bed, but preferably not one with her in it.
When she glanced up, Will Parker glanced down. "Ma’am…" His voice croaked. He cleared his throat and tried again. "Ma’am, I didn’t come up here lookin’ for…" He swallowed, glanced up, then sharply down. "I need a place is all. I’m tired of movin’."
"You moved a lot, have you?"
"I been movin’ since I remember."
"Where’d you start from?"
"Start from?" He met her eyes, puzzled.
"You mean you don’t remember?"
"That’s all you know?"
"Maybe you’re lucky," she commented.
Though he shot her a glance, the remark went unexplained. She merely added, "I started from right down there in Whitney. Never moved farther than from the town to the top of this hill. I reckon you’ve been around, though."
He nodded silently. Again, she found herself pleased by his brusqueness, his lack of curiosity. She thought she could get along quite well with a man like him.
"So you’re lookin’ for a dry bed and a full plate is all."
She studied him a moment, the way he sat on the edge of his chair, taking nothing for granted, the way he kept his hat brim pulled low as if protecting any secret she might read in his eyes. Well, everybody had secrets. Let him keep his and she’d keep hers. But she sure as shootin’wasn’t going to strike up an agreement with a man whose eyes she hadn’t even seen in the clear light. And besides, suppose he didn’t want her.
He was a vagrant ex-con; she poor, pregnant and unpretty. Who was the bigger loser?
"Mr. Parker, this house ain’t much, but I’d appreciate it if you’d take your hat off when you’re in it."
He reached up slowly and removed the hat. She lit the kerosene lantern and pushed it aside so they need not look around it.
For long moments they studied each other.
His lips were chapped and his cheeks gaunt, but his eyes were true brown. Brown as pecans, with blunt black lashes and a pair of creases between well-shaped brows. He had a nice knife-straight nose-some might even call it handsome-and a fine mouth. But so sour all the time. Well, maybe she could make it smile. He was quiet-spoken-she liked that. And those arms might be skinny, but they’d done their share of work. That, above all, mattered. If there was one thing a man would have to do around here it was work.
She decided he’d do.
She had fine-textured skin, strong bones and features that, if taken one by one, weren’t actually displeasing. Her cheekbones were slightly too prominent, her upper lip a little too thin, and her hair unkempt. But it was honey-brown, and he wondered if with a washing it might not turn honeyer. He shifted his study to her eyes and saw for the first time: they were green. A green-eyed woman who touched her babies like every baby deserved to be touched.
He decided she’d do.
"I wanted you to see what you’d be gettin’," she told him. "Not much."
Will Parker wasn’t one for fancy words, but this much he could say: "That’s for me to decide."
She didn’t fluster or blush, only pushed herself out of the chair and offered, "I’ll get you more coffee, Mr. Parker."
She refilled both their cups, then rejoined him. He wrapped both hands around the hot cup and watched the lamplight play on the surface of the black liquid. "How come you’re not afraid of me?"
"Maybe I am."
His glance lifted. "Not so it shows."
"A person doesn’t always let it show."
He had to know. "Are you?"
In the lanternlight they studied each other again. All was quiet but for Donald Wade’s bare toes bumping a rung of the chair and the baby sucking his gooey fingers.
"What if I said I was?"
"Then I’d walk back down the road the way I came."
"You want to do that?"
He wasn’t used to being allowed to speak his mind. Prison had taught him the road to the least troubles was to keep his mouth shut. It felt strange, being granted the freedom to say what he would.
"No, I don’t reckon so."
"You wanna stay up here with the whole bunch of them down there thinking I’m crazy?"
"Are you?" He hadn’t meant to ask such a thing, but she had a way of making a man talk.
"Maybe a little. This here what I’m doing seems crazy to me. Doesn’t it to you?"
She sensed that he was too kind to say yes.
At that moment a pain grabbed Will’s gut-the green apples catching up with him-but he wished it away, telling himself it was only nerves. Applying for a job as a husband wasn’t exactly an everyday occurrence.
"You could spend the night," she offered, "look the place over in the morning when the light is up. See what you think." She paused, then added, "Out in the barn."
"Yes, ma’am." The pain wrenched him again, higher up this time, and he winced.
She thought it was because of what she’d said, but it’d take some time before she’d trust him in the house nights. And besides, she might be crazy, but she wasn’t loose.
"Nights are plenty warm. I’ll make you a shakedown out there."
He nodded silently, fingering the brim of his hat as if anxious to put it back on.
She told her older son, "Go fetch Daddy’s pillow, Donald Wade." The little boy hugged her shyly, staring at Will. She reached for his hand. "Come along, we’ll get it together."
Will watched them leave, hand in hand, and felt an ache in his gut that had nothing to do with green apples.
When Eleanor returned to the kitchen, Will Parker was gone. Thomas was still in his high chair, discontented now that his biscuit was gone. She experienced a curious stab of disappointment-he’d run away.
Well, what did you expect?
Then, from outside she heard the sound of retching. The sun had gone behind the pines, taking its light with it. Eleanor stepped onto the sagging back stoop and heard him vomiting. "You stay inside, Donald Wade." She pushed the boy back and closed the screen door. Though he started crying, she ignored him and walked to the top of the rotting steps.
"Mr. Parker, are you sick?" She didn’t want any sickly man.
He straightened with an effort, his back to her. "No, ma’am."
"But you’re throwing up."
He gulped a refreshing lungful of night air, threw back his head and dried his forehead with a sleeve. "I’m all right now. It’s just those green apples."
"What green apples?"
"I ate green apples for lunch."
"A grown man should have more sense!" she retorted.
"Sense didn’t enter into it, ma’am. I was hungry."
She stood in the semidark, hugging Glendon Dinsmore’s pillow against her swollen stomach, watching and listening as another spasm hit Will Parker and he doubled over. But there was nothing more inside him to come up. She left the pillow on the porch rail and crossed the beaten earth to stand behind his slim, stooping form. He braced both hands on his knees, trying to catch his breath. His vertebrae stood out like stepping-stones. She reached out a hand as if to lay it on his back, but thought better of it and crossed her arms tightly beneath her breasts.
He straightened, muscle by muscle, and blew out a shaky breath.
"Why didn’t you say something?" she asked.
"I thought it’d pass."
"You had no supper, then?"
He didn’t answer.
"No dinner either?"
Again he remained silent.
"Where did you get them apples?"
"I stole them off somebody’s tree. A pretty little place down along the main road between here and the sawmill with pink flowers on a tree stump."
"Tom Marsh’s place. And good people, too. Well, that’ll teach you a lesson." She turned back toward the steps. "Come on back in the house and I’ll fix you something."
"That’s not necessary, ma’am. I’m not-"
Her voice became sharper. "Get back in the house, Will Parker, before your foolish pride pushes your ribs right through your thin skin!"
Will rubbed his sore stomach and watched her mount the porch steps, treading near the edges where the boards were still good. The screen door whacked shut behind her. Inside Donald Wade stopped crying. Outside, night peepers started. He glanced over his shoulder. The shadows lent a velvet richness to the dusky clearing, disguising its rusted junk and dung and weeds. But he remembered how sorry it had looked by daylight. And what a wreck the house was. And how worn and lackluster Eleanor Dinsmore looked. And how she’d made it clear she didn’t want any jailbird sleeping in her house. He asked himself what the hell he was doing as he followed her inside.
She left him sitting in the kitchen while she put the boys to bed. He sat eyeing the room. The cabinets consisted of open shelves displaying cookpots and dishes beneath a workbench crudely covered with cracked linoleum. Between the nails that held it on, chunks were missing. The sink was old, chipped and stained, with a single short pipe to drop the runoff into a slop pail underneath. There was no pump. Instead, a dipper handle protruded from a white enamel water pail beneath which the linoleum held a sunburst of cracks. The floor was covered with linoleum of a different pattern, but it showed more black backing than green ivy design. The ceiling needed washing. It was gray with soot above the woodstove. Apparently someone had had dreams of resurfacing the walls but had gotten only as far as tearing off the old plaster on a wall and a half, leaving the wooden slats showing like the bones of a skeleton. Will found it surprising that a room so ramshackle could smell so good.
His eyes moved to the bread and he forced himself to sit and wait.
When Eleanor Dinsmore returned to the kitchen he made sure his hat was on the tabletop instead of on his head. With an effort he rose from the rung-back chair, bolstering his stomach with one arm.
"No need to get up. You rest while I get something started."
He let his weight drop back while she opened a wooden trapdoor in the floor and disappeared down a set of crude, steep steps. Her hand reappeared, setting a covered kettle on the floor, then she emerged, climbing clumsily.
When she reached for the ring on the trapdoor he was waiting to lower it for her. Her startled look told Will she wasn’t used to men doing it for her. It had been a long time, too, since he’d performed courtesies for a woman, but he found it impossible to watch a pregnant one struggling up a cellar hatch without offering a hand.
For a moment neither of them knew what to say.
Finally she glanced away, offering, "I appreciate it, Mr. Parker." And when he’d lowered the trapdoor behind her, "Never had a man openin’ and closin’ doors for me. Glendon, he never learnt how. Makes me feel a little foolish. Anyway, I thought I told you to set. Your belly’s bound to be hurtin’ after you brought them apples up for another look."
He grinned at her homey turn of speech and returned to the chair, watching as she added wood to the stove and put the kettle on to heat.
"I’m sorry about what happened out there in the yard. I guess it embarrassed you."
"It’s a purely natural act, Mr. Parker." She stirred the contents of the pot. "Besides, I don’t embarrass easy." She set the spoon down and gave him a wry smile. "And leastways, you did it before you tasted my cooking."
She gave him a cajoling grin and got one of his rare ones in return. He tried to recall if he’d ever known a woman with a sense of humor, but none came to mind. He watched her move around in an ungainly, swaying way, placing a hand to her roundness when she reached or stooped. He wondered if she really was crazy, if he was, too. Bad enough taking a strange woman for a wife. Worse taking one who was pregnant. What the hell did he know about pregnant women? Only that in his time he might have left a few of them behind.
"You’d probably feel better if you washed up some," she suggested.
In his usual fashion, he neither moved nor replied.
"There’s the basin." She gestured, then turned away, busying herself. He threw a longing glance at the basin, the soap, the white towel and washcloth hanging on nails at the front of the sink.
After a minute she turned and asked, "What’s the matter? Stomach hurt too bad to get up?"
"No, ma’am." He wasn’t accustomed to freedom yet, didn’t believe it fully. It felt as if anything he reached for would be snatched away. In prison a man learned early to take nothing for granted. Not even the most basic creature comforts. This was her house, her soap, her water. She couldn’t possibly understand what prizes they seemed to a man fresh out.
"Well, what is it?" she demanded impatiently.
"Then help yourself to the teakettle and washbasin."
He stretched to his feet, but moved cautiously. He crossed behind her and found a clean white washbasin in the sink, and on the nail, the clean white towel and washcloth. So white. Whiter than anything he remembered. In prison the washcloths had been puce green and had grown musty smelling long before clean ones were issued.
Eleanor peered over her shoulder as he filled the washbasin, then dipped his hands into the cold water. "Don’t you want it warmed up?" He glanced back over his shoulder. His eyes, when they weren’t carefully blank, were questioning and uncertain.
"Yes, ma’am," he answered. But when he’d shaken off his hands and turned he made no move toward the teakettle. She plucked it off the stove and poured the warm water for him, then turned her back, pretending to go back to work. But she glanced surreptitiously over her shoulder, confounded by his strange hesitancy. He flattened both palms against the bottom of the basin and leaned forward with his head hung low. There he stood, stiff-armed, as if transfixed. What in the world was he doing? She tipped sideways and peeked around him-his eyes were closed, his lips open. At last he scooped water to his face and gave a small shudder. Lord a-mercy, so that was it! Understanding swamped her. She felt a surge of heat flush her body, a queer sympathetic thrill, a gripping about her heart.
"How long has it been?" she asked quietly.
His head came up but he neither turned, nor spoke. Water dripped from his face and hands into the basin.
"How long since you had warm water?" she insisted in the kindest tone she could manage.
"A long time."
He didn’t want her pity. "Five years."
"You were in prison five years?"
"Yes, ma’am." He buried his face in the towel-it smelled of homemade lye soap and fresh air, and he took his time savoring its softness and scent.
"You mean the water’s cold in there?"
He hung up the towel without answering. The water had been cold all his life-creeks and lakes and horse troughs. And often he dried himself with his shirt, or on a lucky day, the sun.
"How long you been out?"
"Couple of months."
"How long since you ate a decent meal?"
Still silent, he closed two buttons on his shirt, staring out a filmy window above the sink.
"Mr. Parker, I asked you a question."
On a crude shelf to his left a small round mirror reflected her image. What he saw mostly was obstinacy.
"A while," he replied flatly while their mirrored eyes locked.
Eleanor realized he was a man who’d accept a challenge more readily than charity, so she carefully wiped all sympathy from her voice. "I should think," she admonished, stepping close behind him, holding his gaze in the mirror, "a man that’s been roughing it might need a touch of soap." She reached around him, picked up a bar of Ivory and plopped it into his hand, then rested her own on her hips. "You’re not in prison anymore, Mr. Parker. Soap is free for the taking here, and there’s always warm water. Only thing I ask is that when you’re through you spill it out and rinse the basin."
Staring at her in the mirror, he felt as if an immense weight had lifted from his chest. She stood in the pose of a fighter, daring him to defy her. But beneath her stern façade, he sensed a generous spirit. "Yes, ma’am," he returned quietly. And this time before leaning over the welcome warm water, he shrugged out of his shirt.
Holy Moses, was he thin. From behind she eyed his ribs. They stuck out like a kite frame in a strong wind. He began spreading soapsuds with his hands-chest, arms, neck and as far around his trunk as he could reach. He bent forward, and her eyes were drawn down his tan back to where a white band of skin appeared above the line of grayed elastic on his underwear.
She had never seen any man but Glendon wash up. Grandpa was the only other male she’d ever lived with and he certainly hadn’t bared himself to any female. Staring at Will Parker while he performed his ablutions, Eleanor suddenly realized she was watching a very personal thing, and turned away guiltily.
"Washcloth’s for you-use it." She left the room to give him privacy.
She returned several minutes later to find him shiny faced, buttoning up his shirt. "Got this." She held up a yellow toothbrush. "It was Glendon’s, but I’ll clean it with soda if you don’t mind using it secondhand."
He did, but ran his tongue over his teeth and nodded. She fetched a cup, spooned in soda and filled it with boiling water from the teakettle. "Person oughta have a toothbrush," she declared, stirring with Glendon Dinsmore’s.
She handed it to Will along with a can of toothpowder, then stood and watched while he dumped some in his palm.
Will didn’t like being watched. He’d been watched for five years and now that he was out he ought to be able to do his private business without feeling somebody’s eyes on him. But even with his back turned, he felt her scrutiny all the while he used her husband’s toothbrush, savoring the toothpowder that was so sweet he wanted to swallow it instead of spitting it out. When he finished, she ordered, "Well, set yourself down at the table."
She served him vegetable soup, hot and fragrant, thick with okra and tomato and beef. His hands rested beside the bowl while he fought the compulsion to gobble it like an animal. His stomach seemed to roll over and beg, but he hesitated, savoring not only the smell but the anticipation, and the fact that he was allowed as much time as he wanted-no bells would ring, no guards would prod.
"Go ahead… eat."
It was different, being told by her instead of the guards. Her motives were strictly friendly. Her eyes followed his head as he dipped the spoon and lifted it to his lips.
It was the best soup he’d ever tasted.
"I asked how long since your last meal. You gonna tell me or not?"
His glance flickered up briefly. "A couple of days."
"A couple of days!"
"I stopped in a restaurant in town to read the want ads but there was a waitress there I didn’t particularly care for, so I moved on without eating."
"Lula Peak. She’s a good one to avoid, all right. She been chasin’ men since she was tall enough to sniff ’em. So you been eating green apples a coupla days, have you?"
He shrugged, but his glance darted briefly to the bread behind her.
"There’s no disgrace in admitting you’ve gone hungry, you know."
But there was. To Will Parker there was. Just emerging from the jaws of the depression, America was still overrun with tramps, worthless vagrants who’d deserted their families and rode the flatcars aimlessly, begging for handouts at random doorsteps. During the past two months he’d seen-even ridden with-dozens of them. But he’d never been able to bring himself to beg. Steal, yes, but only in the most dire straits.
She watched him eat, watched his eyes remain downcast nearly all the time. Each time they flicked up they seemed drawn to something behind her. She twisted in her chair to see what it was. The bread. How stupid of her. "Why didn’t you say you wanted some fresh bread?" she chided as she rose to get it.
But he’d been schooled well to ask for nothing. In prison, asking meant being jeered at or baited like an animal and being made to perform hideous acts that made a man as base as his jailers. To ask was to put power into the sadistic hands of those who already wielded enough of it to dehumanize any who chose to cross them.
But no woman with three fresh loaves could comprehend a thing like that. He submerged the ugly memories as he watched her waddle to the cabinet top and fetch a knife from a crock filled with upended utensils. She scooped up a loaf against her hip and returned to the table to slice off a generous width. His mouth watered. His nostrils dilated. His eyes riveted upon the white slice curling softly from the blade.
She stabbed it with the tip of the knife and picked it up. "You want it?"
Oh, God, not again. His hungry eyes flew to her face, taking on the look of a cornered animal. Against his will, the memory was rekindled, of Weeks, the prison guard, with his slitty, amphibian eyes and his teeth bared in a travesty of a smile, his unctuous voice with its perverted laughter. "You want it, Parker? Then howl like a dog." And he’d howled like a dog.
"You want it?" Eleanor Dinsmore repeated, softer this time, snapping Will back from the past to the present.
"Yes, ma’am," he uttered, feeling the familiar knot of helplessness lodge in his throat.
"Then all you got to do is say so. Remember that." She dropped the bread beside his soup bowl. "This ain’t jail, Mr. Parker. The bread ain’t gonna disappear and nobody’s gonna smack your hand if you reach for it. But around here you might have to ask for things. I’m no mind reader, you know."
He felt the tension drain from him, but he held his shoulders stiff, wondering what to make of Eleanor Dinsmore, so dictatorial and unsympathetic at times, so dreamy and vague at others. It was only the painful memories that had transported him-she wasn’t Weeks, and she wouldn’t make him pay for picking up the food.
The bread was soft, warm, the greatest gift he’d ever received. His eyes closed as he chewed his first bite.
They flew open again when she grunted, "Humph!"
Puzzled, he watched her turn her back and move across the room to fetch a crock full of the most beautiful lemon-bright butter in the world. She came back and held it just beyond his reach.
He swallowed. His shoulders stiffened and the wary look returned to his face. His voice came reluctantly. "I’d like some o’ that butter."
"It’s yours." Unceremoniously she clapped it down, then herself, across from him. "And it didn’t hurt you one little bit to ask for it, did it?" She brushed off her fingers and admonished, "Around here you ask, ’cause things are in such a mess it’s the only way you’ll find it most of the time. Well, go ahead, butter your bread and eat."
His hands followed orders while his emotions took additional moments to readjust to her quicksilver mood changes. As he bent over his soup, she warned, "Watch you don’t overdo it. Best if you eat slow till your stomach gets used to decent food again."
He wanted to tell her it was good, better than good, the best he remembered. He wanted to tell her there was no butter in prison, the bread there was coarse and dry and certainly never warm. He wanted to tell her he didn’t remember the last time he’d been invited to sit at somebody’s kitchen table. He wanted to tell her what it meant to him to sit at hers. But compliments were as foreign to him as crocks of butter, so he ate his bread and soup in silence.
While he ate she brought out her crocheting and sat working on something soft and fuzzy and pink. Her wedding ring-still on her left hand-flashed in the lanternlight in rhythm with the hook. Her hands were nimble, but work-worn, and the skin looked like hide. It appeared all the tougher when contrasted against the fine pink yarn as she played it out from one calloused finger.
"What you watchin’?"
He glanced up guiltily.
She adjusted the yarn and smiled. The smile transformed her face. "Never seen a woman crochet before?"
"Makin’ a shawl for the baby. This here’s a shell design." She spread it out on her knee. "Pretty, ain’t it?"
"Yes, ma’am." Once again he was assaulted by yearning, a sense of things missed, a desire to reach out and touch that soft pink thing she was creating. Rub it between his fingers as if it were a woman’s hair.
"I’m makin’ it in pink cause I’d sure like a girl this time. A girl’d be nice for the boys, don’t you think?"
What did he know about babies-girls, boys, either one? Nothing except they scared him to death. And girls? He’d never found girls to be especially nice except maybe when they were older, when a man was sinking his body into them. Then, for a few minutes, while they stopped harping or threatening or tormenting, maybe they were nice.
Mrs. Dinsmore’s silver hook flashed on. "Baby’ll be needing a warm blanket. This old house gets plenty cold in the winter. Glendon, he always meant to fix it up and seal up the cracks and such, but he never got around to it."
His eyes lifted to the walls with the missing plaster.
"Maybe I could seal up the cracks for you."
She glanced up and smiled, unrolling more slack from the basket on the floor. "Maybe you could, Mr. Parker. That’d sure be nice. Glendon, he meant well, but somehow there was always something new he was going to try."
No matter what her mood, when she spoke the name Glendon a softness crept into her voice, a smile, too, whether there was one on her face or not. Will supposed there’d never been a woman in the world who’d looked so sentimental when speaking his name.
"Would you like some more soup, Mr. Parker? A little might be okay."
He ate until his stomach felt hard as a baseball. Then he sat back, rubbed it and sighed.
"You sure can pack it away." She tucked her piece of handiwork into the basket and stood up to clear the table.
He watched her move across the kitchen, thinking if he lived to be two hundred he’d never forget this meal, nor how nice it had felt to sit and watch her work fine pink yarn into a shell design and believe that tomorrow when he woke up, he might not have to move on.
She carried Glendon Dinsmore’s pillow and quilt and led the way to the barn. He found himself again performing uncustomary courtesies, carrying the lantern, opening the screen door, letting her walk first through the littered yard.
The moon had risen. It rode the eastern trees like an orange pumpkin bobbing on dark water. The chickens were roosting-somewhere in the junk, undoubtedly. He wondered how she ever found eggs.
"I tell you what, Mr. Parker," she told him as they walked through the moonlight, "tomorrow morning when you look the place over you might decide it’s not such a good idea to stay. I sure wouldn’t hold you to it, no matter what you said when you first come up here."
He watched her waddle along in front of him, hugging her husband’s patchwork quilt against her stomach.
"Same goes for you, Mrs. Dinsmore."
Just before they reached the barn she warned, "Be careful, there’s a pile of junk here."
Apile? That was a laugh. She sidestepped something made of black spiked iron and opened the barn door. Its unoiled hinges squeaked. Inside there were no animals, but his nose told him there had been.
"Guess this barn could do with a little cleaning," she noted while he raised the lantern over his head and surveyed the circle of light.
"I can do that tomorrow."
"I’d be grateful. So would Madam."
"My mule. This way." She led him to a wall-mounted ladder. "You’ll sleep up there."
She would have begun climbing but he grabbed her arm. "Better let me go first. That ladder doesn’t look too dependable."
He slipped the lantern over his arm and started up. When his foot took the third rung it splintered and dumped him flush against the wall, where he dangled like a puppet with a broken string.
"Mr. Parker!" she shrieked, grabbing his thighs while he pedaled for a toehold.
She leaped back and held her breath as the lanternlight swung wildly. At last he found a solid rung, but tested the rest before putting his weight on each. She pressed a hand to her heart, watching him climb until he safely reached the loft with his elbows. "Lord, you gave me a fright. Be careful."
His head disappeared into the dark square above, then the lantern went up with him, gilding the underside of his hat brim. Only when he stood on solid planking did he look back down. "You’re a fine one to talk. If I would’ve come down I’d have taken you right with me."
"I reckon this old ladder’s about as rickety as everything else around here."
"I can fix it tomorrow, too." He raised the lantern and checked the loft. "There’s hay." He disappeared and she listened to his footsteps thud overhead.
"I’m sorry about the smell in here," she called.
"It’s not as bad up here. This’ll be fine."
"I would’ve cleaned it if I’d known I’d be havin’ overnight company."
"Don’t worry. I slept in much worse in my day."
He reappeared, knelt, and set the lantern at his knee. "Can you toss up the bedding?"
The pillow went up perfectly. The quilt took three tries. By the third, he was grinning. "Ain’t got much for muscles, have you?"
It was the first lighthearted thing he’d said. She stood with her fists on her hips, gazing up at him while he held the patchwork quilt. It might not be so bad having him around if he’d lighten up this way more often.
"Oh, ain’t I? I got those up there, didn’t I?"
The grin softened his face. The cockiness sharpened hers. For the first time they began to feel comfortable with each other.
He flopped to his belly and hung over the edge of the hatch. "Here, you take the lantern."
"Don’t be silly. I been walkin’ in this barnyard since before you owned that thing you call a cowboy hat."
"What’s wrong with my cowboy hat?"
"Looks like it’s been through a war."
"It’s my own. It and my boots." He waggled the lantern. "Here, take it."
So that was why he kept that sorry-looking thing on his head all the time.
"Take it yourself," she said, and disappeared from sight. He knelt on his haunches and listened for her footsteps, but she was barefoot.
"Mrs. Dinsmore?" he called.
"Yes, Mr. Parker?" she called from the opposite end of the barn.
"You mind my asking how old you are?"
"Be twenty-five on November tenth. How about you?"
"Thirty or so."
Silence, while she digested his answer. "Or so?"
"Somebody left me on the steps of an orphanage when I was little." Will hadn’t told that to many people in his life. He waited uncertainly for her reaction.
"You mean you don’t know when your birthday is?"
The barn grew silent. Outside a whippoorwill called and the frogs sang discordantly. Eleanor paused with her hand on the latch. Will knelt, gripping his thighs.
"We’ll have to pick you out a birthday if you decide to stay. A man should have a birthday."
Will smiled, imagining it.
"G’night, Mr. Parker."
"G’night, Mrs. Dinsmore." He heard the barn door squeak open and called again, "Mrs. Dinsmore?"
The squeaking stopped. "What?"
Five seconds of silence, then, "Much obliged for the supper. You’re a good cook." His heart thumped gladly after the words were out. It hadn’t been so hard after all.
In the dark below she smiled. It had been good to see a man at her table again.
She made her way to the house, prepared for bed and eased into it with a sigh. As she straightened, a faint cramp caught her low across the stomach. She cradled it, rolling to her side. She had chopped wood today, though she knew she shouldn’t have. But Glendon had scarcely managed to get the day-to-day tasks done, let alone stockpiling for tomorrow. The seasoned wood needed splitting, and next year’s supply should be cut so it could start to dry. Besides the wood, there was always water to carry. So much. And there’d be more when the new baby came and she’d have two of them in diapers.
She stretched out on her back and rested a wrist on her forehead, picturing the veins along the inside of Will Parker’s arms, the cluster of wiry muscles. She remembered how hard his legs had been when she’d touched them as he hung on the ladder.
Stay, Will Parker. Please stay.
In the hayloft, Will sank his head into a pillow made of real feathers and stretched out on a soft handmade quilt. His belly was full, his teeth were clean, his skin smelled of soap. And somewhere out there was a mule, and beehives and chickens and a house with possibilities. A place where a man could make a go of it with a little hard work. Hell, hard work came easy.
Just give me a chance, Eleanor Dinsmore, and I’ll show you.
He remembered her standing barefoot in the yard with her two boys, her stomach round as a watermelon, eyeing him warily. He remembered the detached look on her face when she’d questioned him and the momentary flash of shock when he told her about Huntsville. She was probably mulling it over right now, having second thoughts about keeping a jailbird around. And by morning she’d have decided he was too much of a risk. But in the morning he’d show her. First thing, before she had a chance to put him off the place he’d show her he intended to earn his keep.
Lula Peak lived in the tiny bungalow on Pecan Street where she’d grown up. While her mother was alive the furnishings had been adequate, if old. Now, however, the kitchen sported a spanking new Frigidaire electric refrigerator, a bathroom with hot and cold running water and in the living room a new Philco radio.
At eight o’clock that night the Philco and Lula were both tuned to Atlanta, both blasting out "Oh, Johnny, Oh." Dressed in a slinky red-orange wrapper, Lula tilted toward the bathroom mirror, scavenging with the tips of a tweezer for any wayward hair with the audacity to be growing beyond the periphery of her pencil-thin eyebrows.
Oh Johnny, oh, Johnny, how you can love…
She stopped her fruitless search and ran her palms up her silk-covered arms as she’d seen Betty Grable do in the movies.
Oh, Johnny, oh, Johnny, heaven’s above…
She made a moue at her reflection in the mirror, then shimmied and dipped her knees, letting her palms brush the sides of her breasts. The satin rubbed seductively over her nipples and they popped up like balloons taking air. Lula loved getting hot, either by herself or with someone else-didn’t matter which. But to really cool down, she needed a man. Lula always needed a man, and Whitney didn’t have enough of them. When Lula itched, she needed scratching. And Lula itched all the time.
She plucked up a bottle of Evening in Paris cologne and spun twice while dabbing it on, watching her face flash across the bathroom mirror. After a third spin she balanced one high-heeled foot on the toilet seat, then touched some of the cologne to the thick thatch of blond hair revealed by the gaping gown. She dropped the foot to the floor, then ran her hand down her belly while giving the mirror a sultry kiss, leaving the imprint of vermilion lipstick on the cold glass.
"Lula, what the hell’s goin’ on in here?" Harley Overmire bellowed from her living room. "Music’s so goddamn loud any bum coulda walked in here and you wouldnt’a even known it."
"Harley-honey, is that you?" The music suddenly dimmed and Lula came flying out of the bathroom, pouting. "Harley, turn that back up! That’s my favorite song!" She darted to the Philco-a flash of white limbs and flaming silk-and cranked it up.
Oh, Johnny, oh, Johnny, oh…
Harley immediately turned it down. "Lula-honey, I didn’t come over here to get my eardrums broke."
"Oh, yeah? Then what did you come for, Harleykins?"
Lula turned the radio to a thunderous volume.
She swung toward him, her expression sultry as she pressed the sides of her ample breasts, accentuating the deep cleavage as she stalked him and slipped one white leg through the break in the garish satin wrapper. Her painted lips pouted voluptuously as she sidled close and rubbed herself against him, straddling one of his thighs.
Harley’s eyes became hooded, his lips dropped open with lascivious expectation as he lifted his knee against her.
"Ooh-hoo-hoo, Lula-baby, sugar-pie, you sure know how t’ do it to a man."
"You bet I do, kiddo, and you’d like it right now, wouldn’t you?"
He gripped her hips with both hands. "I’m here, ain’t I, baby?"
She took his hands and transferred them to her breasts. "Feel that? I got gumdrops just thinkin’ about you. Wanna know what else happened when I thought about you, Harleykins?"
"Yeah," Harley growled, low and lusty, manipulating her pelvis. "What?"
They ground against each other in earnest. Harley’s root had sprung up like a mushroom after two weeks of rain. She grasped his neck and put her lips to his ear and whispered something coarse, for good measure.
He laughed gutturally and said, "Oh, yeah? Let’s see," then reached for the thatch of blond hair and slipped a finger inside her.
"Ooh-hoo-hoo, Lula-baby, you need your damper turned down, and how."
She unbuttoned his shirt and pushed it off till it hung from his waist, all the while riding his hand, which was braced against his thigh. She looped both arms around his neck, nipped his ear, licked the inside of it and suggested, "What I need is one of them new electric fans that turns back and forth. I seen one down in a hardware store in Atlanta last time I visited my sister Junie." She eased down and ran her lips across his chest, then splayed her hands on the black curly hair. "Mmm… I love my men hairy. Gets me itchin’somethin’ awful."
Harley was nearly at the bursting point already. "Honey, I ain’t made of money, you know."
She bit his nipple, then tugged it until he yelped and jerked back, nursing it. She gazed into his eyes, her face feigning innocence as she gyrated against him. "I bet your wife’s got one o’ them electric fans already, hasn’t she, Harley?"
"Come on, Lula, let’s go to bed. I’m hurtin’, honey."
"What about that fan?"
"Maybe next payday."
She pouted her vermilion lips and ran one finger down her damp cleavage. "Next payday’s too late. Why, it’s been so hot, I just can’t hardly sleep nights at all." She wiped her collected sweat beneath his nose.
"Lula, be reasonable. I already give you that Frigidaire and the Philco and had that closet made into a bathroom for you. I had to do some fancy explainin’ to Mae about where the extra money went."
Abruptly she gave him a shove and flounced away from him, throwing her hands in the air. "Mae, Mae, Mae! I swear that’s all I hear from you, Harley Overmire! Well, if you won’t get me that electric fan, I know somebody who will. Why, just today Orlan Nettles was in the cafe and all I’da had to do was crook my little finger and it woulda been him here tonight instead of you. I’ll bet you five dollars Orlan never did it the way I had in mind to do it with you tonight."
"You thought of a new way?" Harley was pure miserable by this time.
With her back turned, she inspected her painted nails. "It was a good one, too."
The music on the Philco had changed to "Paper Doll." It continued blasting as he came up behind her and clamped his teeth on her neck, reached around front and started convincing her again. But Lula had coercion down to an art. She dipped her knees and got the most out of Harley’s strokes, but she could remain unyielding till she got what she wanted, and it was always more than just an orgasm. If she was going to live the rest of her life in this little jerkwater town, she’d live it in luxury, by God. The fan and the bathroom and the Philco were just the beginning. She intended to have a Ford, and a carpeted front room and an R.C.A. Victor phonograph before this was over.
Behind her, Harley was breathing like a winded horse. What he had inside his pants felt like it belonged to a horse, too. She reached back to help Harley make his decision.
He groaned against her neck and said, "Okay, Lula-honey, I’ll get you the fan."
"Tomorrow, Harleykins?" she purred.
"Tomorrow. I’ll think of somethin’ I got to run down to Atlanta for."
Lula didn’t expect something for nothing. The change in her was immediate and inspired. She swung around and began removing Harley’s clothes, licking his chest, fondling him while backing him toward the kitchen.
"What’s your favorite kind of sandwich, Harleykins?"
He stumbled over a pantleg and laughed. "Roast beef and mustard."
"Mmm… roast beef and mustard. You like mustard, do you, Harley?" She knew he liked mustard. She knew everything about Harley Overmire and used every scrap of knowledge to best advantage.
"Damn right, and Mae, she’s always forgettin’ to put it on."
"That’s the trouble with Mae," Lula purred, pushing his boxer shorts to the floor. "Mae doesn’t know what a man likes. But I do." Harley chuckled, thinking he’d get Lula the biggest damn fan in the city of Atlanta. "And where should a man eat his roast beef and mustard sandwich, Harleykins?" She stroked him till he felt hard and pulsing as a jackhammer.
"At the kitchen table?" Oh, merciful heavens, he thought. This is gonna be good.
"That’s right, honey-lamb. I got cold roast beef in my new Frigidaire, just waitin’ for you, and all the mustard you want, and I’m gonna serve ’em both to you on the kitchen table, and afterwards you and me’re gonna climb in that beautiful new bathtub and run some of that luscious hot water from my brand-new water heater, and we’re gonna put some Dreft in there and get lost in the bubbles, and everytime you open your lunch pail up at the mill and see a roast beef sandwich without mustard, you’re gonna remember who it is that treats you right-aren’t you, Harleykins?"
They spent forty minutes on the kitchen table, and the things Lula did with that mustard would have sold millions of bottles, had the manufacturer had the ingenuity to suggest such uses.
Later, in Lula’s shiny new porcelain tub, she ran her bare toes up Harley’s hairy chest. His eyes were closed and his beefy arms rested on the wide edge.
"A stranger came into the cafe today."
"Hm." He sounded disinterested.
Two minutes passed in silence while Lula patiently rested with her eyes closed. She was bright enough to know that if she asked, she’d arouse his suspicion. But if Harley thought he alone could scratch her itch, he was sadly mistaken.
"Don’t get many strangers through here," she murmured in due time, as if half asleep.
Harley lifted his head. "Tall guy? Wiry? Wearin’ a battered cowboy hat?"
"Yeah, that’s the one," she replied dreamily, following with a throaty chuckle. "Hey, Harley, how come you always know everything before I can tell you?"
He chortled and laid his head back. "You got to get up pretty early in the mornin’ to put one over on old Harley."
"He just read the paper and moved on."
"Prob’ly lookin’ at the want ads. I fired him from the mill today."
"What’d he do wrong?"
"Done five years in Huntsville State Pen for killin’ a whore in some whorehouse down there."
Lula’s foot hit the water with a splash as she sat bolt upright. "My God, Harley, he didn’t!" Her blood ran fast at the mere idea of being in the same room with a man like that. "Lord, we women won’t be safe on the streets."
"That’s what I told him. Parker, I said, we don’t want your kind around here. Pick up your pay and git."
So his name was Parker.
"Good for you, Harley." She lay back and stroked his genitals with her heel. Beneath the bubbly water they were sleek. She began growing aroused again, touching Harley, but picturing the tall, tacit cowboy who’d said so little and had hidden beneath the brim of his hat. Still waters, she thought, and felt her heart begin to race. Going to bed with a man like that would be the ultimate excitement; she imagined it in vivid detail-the danger, the challenge, the sexual drive behind a man who’d been cut off from women for five years. Lord a-mighty, it would be one she’d never forget.
"Bet I know somethin’ you don’t know, Harley." She let her toes climb his chest like an inchworm.
"He went up to see crazy Elly Dinsmore about that ad she run."
"What!" The water slopped over the edge of the tub as Overmire shot up.
"I know damn well he did ’cause first he asked to see the paper, then he sat and read it, then he asked how to find Rock Creek Road, and when I told him he headed off in that direction. What else would he be goin’up there for?"
Overmire roared with laughter and fell back in the water. "Wait’ll I tell the boys about this. Jesus, will they laugh. Crazy Elly Dinsmore… ha, ha, ha!"
"She really is crazy, isn’t she?"
"As a bedbug. Advertisin’ for a husband. Christ."
"Course, what could you expect after she was locked up in that house all her life?" Lula shivered.
"I went to school with her mother, you know. Course, that was before she dropped her whelp and they locked her up."
"You did?" Lula sat up and reached over the edge of the tub for a towel. She stood and began drying herself. Harley did the same.
"She stared at the wall a lot, and drew pictures all the time. Once she drew a picture of a naked man on a windowshade. The teacher didn’t know it was there and when she pulled it down the class went crazy. Course, they never proved it was Lottie See drew it, but she was always drawin’, and who else’d be crazy enough to do a thing like that?"
Harley stepped from the tub and began drying his legs. Suddenly he stopped and stared at the hairless insides of his thighs. "Damn it all, Lula, how’m I gonna explain these mustard stains to Mae?"
Lula explored the evidence, giggled and turned to the mirror, tightening one of the combs that held her upsweep. "Tell her you got the yellow jaundice."
Harley guffawed and slapped her fanny. "Hey, Lula, you’re all right, kid." Abruptly he sobered. "You’re sure tonight was okay to do it-I mean, you couldn’t get pregnant or anything, could you?"
Lula grew piqued. "You’re a little late askin’, aren’t you, Harley?"
"Jesus, Lula, I depend on you to tell me if I need to use anything."
She dabbed Evening in Paris behind her ears, between her thighs. "How dumb do you think I am, Harley?" She capped the bottle and slammed it down. He was always asking the same question, as if she were too ignorant to use a calendar. She’d answered it scores of times, but it always left her feeling empty and angry. So, she wasn’t his wife. So, she couldn’t have his babies. Who’d want ’em? She’d seen his kids and they were stubby, ugly little brats that looked like bug-eyed monkeys. If she was ever going to have a kid, it sure as hell wouldn’t be his. It’d be somebody’s like that Parker’s, somebody who’d give her handsome, brown-eyed darlings that other women would envy.
The thought of it gripped her with a sense of urgency. She was thirty-six already and no marriage prospects in sight. She’d live the rest of her life in this stinking little dump where she’d probably die, just like her mother had. And when she got so old Harley didn’t want to do it on the kitchen table anymore-or couldn’t, for that matter-he’d retire to his rocking chair on the front veranda with his precious, boring Mae. And all those homely little monkeys of his would turn out more homely little monkeys and old Grampa Harley’d be happy as a tick on a fat sheep.
And she-Lula-would be here alone. Aging. Going to fat. Eating beef and mustard sandwiches by herself.
Well, not if she could help it, Lula vowed. Not if she could by God help it.
Eleanor awakened to a pink sunrise creeping over the sill and the sound of an ax. She peeked across her pillow at the alarm clock. Six-thirty. He was chopping wood at six-thirty?
Barefoot, she crept to the kitchen window and stood back, studying him and the woodpile. How long had he been up? Already he’d split a stack waist-high. He had tossed his shirt and hat aside. Dressed only in jeans and cowboy boots, he looked as meaty as a scarecrow. He swung the ax and she watched, fascinated in spite of herself by the hollow belly, the taut arms, the flexing chest. He’d done some splitting in his time and went at it with measured consistency, regulating his energy for maximum endurance-balancing a log on the stump, standing back, cracking it dead center and cleaving it with two whacks. He balanced another piece and-whack! whack!-firewood.
She closed her eyes-lordy, don’t let him leave-and rested a hand on her roundness, recalling her own clumsiness at the task, the amount of effort it had taken, the length of time.
She opened the back door and stepped onto the porch. "You’re sure up with the chickens, Mr. Parker."
Will let the ax fall and swung around. "Mornin’, Mrs. Dinsmore."
"Mornin’ yourself. Can’t say the sound of that ax ain’t welcome around here."
She stood on the stoop in a white, ankle-length nightgown that exaggerated her pregnancy. Her hair hung loose to her shoulders, her feet were bare, and from this distance she looked younger and happier than she had last night. For a moment Will Parker imagined he was Glendon Dinsmore, he really belonged here, she was his woman and the babies inside the house, inside her, were his. The brief fantasy was sparked not by Eleanor Dinsmore but by things Will Parker had managed to miss in his life. Suddenly he realized he’d been staring and became self-conscious. Leaning on the ax, he reached for his shirt and hat.
"Would you mind bringin’ in an armload of that wood so I can get a fire started?" she called.
"No, ma’am, don’t mind at all."
"Just dump it in the woodbox."
The screen door slammed and she disappeared.
He hated to stop splitting wood even long enough to carry it into the house. In prison he’d worked in the laundry, smelling the stink of other men’s sweat rising from the steaming water as he tended the clothes in a hot, close room where no sunlight reached. To stand in the morning sun while the dew was still thick, sharing the lavender circle of sky with dozens of birds that flitted from countless gourd birdhouses hung about the place-ahh, this was sheer heaven. And gripping an ax handle, feeling its weight slice through the air, the resistance as it struck wood, the thud of a piece falling to the earth-now that was freedom. And the smell-clean, sharp and on his knuckle a touch of pungent sap-he couldn’t get enough of it. Nor of using his muscles again, stretching them to the limit. He had grown soft in prison, soft and white and somehow emasculated by doing women’s work.
If the sound of the ax was welcome to Mrs. Dinsmore, the feel of it was emancipation to Will Parker.
He knelt and loaded his arm with wood-good, sharp, biting edges that creased his skin where his sleeve was rolled back; grainy flat pieces that clacked together and echoed across the clearing. He piled it high until it reached his chin, then higher until he couldn’t see over it, testing himself again. This was man’s work. Honest. Satisfying. He grunted as he stood with the enormous load.
At the screen door he knocked.
She came running, scolding, "What in heaven’s name’re you knockin’ for?"
"Brought your wood, ma’am."
"I can see that. But there’s no need to knock." She pushed the screen door open. "And y’ got to learn that around here y’ can’t stand on that rotting old porch floor with a load so heavy. It’s likely t’ take you right through."
"I made sure I walked near the edge." He felt with the toe of his boot, stepped up and crossed the kitchen to clatter the wood into the woodbox. Brushing off his arms, Will turned. "That oughta keep you for-" His words fell away.
Eleanor Dinsmore stood behind him, dressed in a clean yellow smock and matching skirt, brushing her hair into a tail. Her chin rested on her chest, and a checkered ribbon was clamped in her teeth. How long had it been since he’d seen a woman putting up her hair in the morning? Her elbows-pointed toward the ceiling-appeared graceful. They lifted the hem of her smock, revealing a crescent of white within the cutout of her skirt. She snatched the ribbon from her teeth and bound the hair high and tight. Lifting her head, she caught him gawking.
"What’re you staring at?"
"Nothing." Guiltily, he lurched for the door, feeling his face heat.
"Ma’am?" He stopped, refusing to turn and let her see him blushing.
"I’ll need a little kindling. Would you mind breaking off a few smaller pieces?"
He nodded and left.
Will had been unprepared for his reaction to Mrs. Dinsmore. It wasn’t her-hell, it could have been any woman and his reaction would probably have been the same. Women were soft, curvy things, and he’d been without them for a long, long time. What man wouldn’t want to watch? As he knelt to tap kindling off a chunk of oak, he recalled the checkered ribbon trailing from her teeth, the white flash of underwear beneath her smock, and his own quick blush.
What the hell’s the matter with you, Parker? The woman’s five months pregnant, and plain as a round rock. Get that kindling back in there, and find somethin’ else to think about.
She’d scolded him once for knocking, but returning with the kindling, he paused again. Even before prison, there had been few doors open to Will Parker, and-fresh out-he was too accustomed to locks and bars to open a woman’s screen and walk right in.
Instead of knocking, he announced, "Got your kindling."
She glanced up from the bacon she was slicing and called, "Put it right in the stove."
He not only put it in the stove, he built the fire. Such a simple job, but a pleasure. In all his life, he’d never owned a stove. It had been years since he’d had the right to one, even one owned by somebody else. He took care laying the kindling, striking the match, watching the sticks flare. Savoring. Taking as much time as he pleased, realizing time was no longer controlled by someone else. When the kindling had a hearty start, he added a thick log, and though it was a warm morning, extended his palms toward the heat.
Building a fire in a stove was just another morning chore to Eleanor. Watching him enjoy the job made her wonder about the life he’d lived, the comforts he hadn’t had. She wondered what was going through his mind as he stared at the flames. Whatever it was, she’d probably never know.
He turned from the stove reluctantly, dusting his hands on his thighs. "Anything else?"
"You could fill that water pail for me."
From behind he scanned her yellow outfit-yellow as a buttercup-and the tail of hair bound by the checkered ribbon. She had donned an apron styled like a pinafore, tied loosely at the back. Studying the bow in the shallows of her spine, he experienced again the wrenching sense of home that had been denied him all his life, and along with it a queer reluctance to approach her. But the water pail was at her elbow, and deliberately stepping close to a woman-any woman-since doing time for killing one made him constantly expect her to leap aside in fright. He made a wide berth around her and, reaching, muttered, "Scuse me, ma’am."
She glanced up and smiled. "’Preciate your buildin’ the fire, Mr. Parker," she offered, then returned to her slicing.
Crossing the room with the water pail, he felt better than he had in years. At the door, he stopped. "I was wonderin’, ma’am…"
With the knife in the bacon she looked back over her shoulder.
"You milk that goat out there?" He thumbed toward the yard.
"No. I milk the cow."
"You have a cow?"
"Herbert. She’s probably down by the barn by now."
"Herbert?" A corner of his mouth quirked.
She shrugged while humor lit her face. "Don’t ask me how the name got on her. She’s always been Herbert and that’s what she answers to."
"I could milk"-his grin spread-"Herbert for you if you tell me where to find another pail."
She completed the slice and wiped her hands on her apron, fixing a teasing grin on her mouth. "Well, my, my…" she drawled. "Is that a smile I see threatenin’ the man’s face?"
He allowed it to remain as they openly regarded one another, finding that the morning had brought changes they each liked. Seconds passed before they were smitten by self-consciousness. He glanced away. She turned to fetch him a galvanized pail.
"There’s a milk stool standin’ against the south side o’ the barn."
"I’ll find it."
The screen door slammed and she crossed to it, calling, "Oh, Mr. Parker?"
He pivoted in the path. "Ma’am?"
She studied him through the screen.
He had a pair of the nicest lips she’d ever seen, and they were downright pretty when they smiled.
"After breakfast I’m gonna cut that hair for you."
The grin mellowed and reached his eyes. "Yes, ma’am," he said softly with a touch on his hat brim.
As he turned downyard with the pail swinging at his side, he wondered when he’d been happier, when life had looked more promising. She was going to keep him!
Herbert turned out to be a friendly cuss with big brown eyes and a brown and white hide. She and the goat seemed to be pals, exchanging a hello of noses. The mule was out behind the barn, too, with its eyes half closed, facing the wall. Will chose to milk the cow outside instead of in the smelly barn. He tied her to a fencepost, stripped off his shirt and hunkered on the stool while the heat of the sun pelted his back. It seemed he couldn’t soak up enough of it to make up for the five years’dearth. Beside him the goat watched, chewing its cud. The cow chewed too-loud, grinding beats. Comfortable. In time Will’s milking matched the rhythm of Herbert’s jaws. It was soothing-the warm bovine flesh against his forehead, the warmer sun, the homely sound, and the heat building up the length of his arms. In time his muscles burned-satisfying, honest heat generated by his own body toiling as a body ought. He increased his speed to test his mettle.
While he worked, the hens came out of their night roosts, one by one, clucking throatily, walking as if on sharp stones, exploring the grass for snails. He eyed the yard, imagining it clean. He eyed the chickens, imagining them penned. He eyed the woodpile imagining it chopped, ranked and filed. There was one hell of a lot to do, but the challenge fired him with eagerness.
A mother cat showed up with three taffy-colored kittens, a trio of clowning puffballs with tails straight as pokers. The mother curled against Will’s ankle and he paused to scratch her.
"What’s your name, missus?" She stood on her hind legs, braced her forefeet on his thigh, begging. Her fur was soft and warm as she jutted against his fingers. "You feedin’ those three, huh? Need a little help?" He found a sardine can inside the doorway of the barn and filled it, then watched the four of them eat, one of the babies with a foot in the can. He chuckled… and the sound of his own laughter was so foreign to his ears it made his heart hammer. He tilted his head back and squinted at the sky, letting freedom and happiness overcome him. He chuckled again, feeling the wondrous thrust of the sound against his throat. How long since he’d heard it? How long?
When he delivered the milk to the house he smelled bacon frying from twenty feet down the yard. His stomach growled and he paused with his hand raised to knock on the screen door.
Inside the kitchen, Eleanor lifted her head and their gazes caught.
He dropped the hand and opened the door, taking the risk and finding it easy, after all.
"Met the animals," he announced, setting the pail on the cupboard. "Mule’s a little stuck-up, compared to the others."
"Well, bless my soul," Eleanor remarked. "A regular speech."
He backed off, rubbing his hands on his thighs self-consciously. "I’m not much for small talk."
"I’ve noticed. Still, you might try it out on the boys."
The pair was up, dressed in wrinkled pajamas. The older one looked up from where he was entertaining the young one on the floor with five wooden spools. He stared at Will.
"Howdy, Donald Wade," Will ventured, feeling awkward and uncertain.
Donald Wade stuck his finger in his mouth and poked his cheek out.
"Say good morning, Donald Wade," his mother prompted.
Instead Donald Wade pointed a stubby finger at his brother and blurted out, "That’s Baby Thomas."
Baby Thomas drooled down the front of his pajamas, stared at Will and clacked two spools together. To the best of Will’s recollection he had never spoken to a person so young. He felt foolish waiting for an answer and didn’t know what to do with his hands. So he stacked three spools in a tower. Baby Thomas knocked them over, giggled and clapped. Will looked up and found Eleanor watching him, stirring something on the stove.
"I laid out Glendon’s razor for you, and his mug and brush. You’re welcome to use them."
He rose to his feet, glanced at the shaving equipment, then at her. But already she’d turned to her cooking, giving him a measure of privacy. He’d been shaving with a straightedge and no soap, hacking his skin all to hell; the mug and brush would be as welcome as the hot water, but he paused before moving toward them.
He’d just have to get used to it: they were going to share this kitchen every morning. He’d have to wash and shave and she’d have to comb her hair and cook breakfast and tend her babies. There were bound to be times when he’d have to brush close by her. And she hadn’t jumped away so far, had she?
"Excuse me," he said at her shoulder. She glanced at the mug and shifted over without missing a beat in stirring the grits, letting him reach around her for the teakettle.
"You sleep all right last night?"
He filled the cup and the washbasin, whipped up a froth of shaving bubbles and lathered his face, back to back with her.
"How do you like your eggs?"
"Cooked?" She spun around and their eyes met in the mirror.
"Yes, ma’am." He tilted his head and scraped beneath his left jaw.
"You mean you’re in the habit of eating ’em raw?"
"I been known to."
"You mean straight out of some farmer’s hen house?"
He shaved away, avoiding her eyes. She burst out laughing, drawing his reflected glance once again. She laughed long, unrestrainedly, resting an arm on her stomach, until his eyes-black as walnuts above the white shaving soap-took on a hint of amusement.
"You think it’s funny?" He rinsed the razor.
She sobered with an effort. "I’m sorry."
She sounded anything but sorry, but he found her amusement did pleasant things to her face. Outlining a sideburn, he said, "Farmers tend to blame it on the foxes, so nobody comes lookin’."
She studied him a while, wondering how many miles he’d drifted, how many hen houses he’d raided, how long it would take him to lose that distance he maintained so carefully. For the moment she’d created a crack in it, but inside he was rolled up like a possum.
She found herself enjoying the smell of shaving soap in the house again. His face emerged, one scrape at a time, the face she’d be looking at across her table for years to come, should he decide to stay. She was surprised to find herself fascinated by it, by the shape of his jaw, the clean line of his nose, the thinness of his cheeks, the darkness of his eyes. When he glanced up and found her still studying him, she spun back toward the stove.
"Fried soft, hard or scrambled?"
His hands fell still at the question. In prison they were always scrambled and tasted like damp newspaper. My God-to be given a choice.
"Soft it’ll be."
While he washed up and combed his hair, he listened to the spatter as the eggs hit the pan, a sound he’d seldom heard, living in bunkhouses and boxcars as he had for much of his free life. Sounds. In his life he’d heard a lot of rumbling wheels and other men snoring. Clanging bars, male voices, washing machines.
Behind him the boys jabbered and giggled, and the wooden spools clattered to the floor. The stovelids clanged. The ashes collapsed. A log thudded. The teakettle hissed. A mother said, "Time for breakfast, boys. Jump up on your chairs now."
The smells in this kitchen were enough to make a man drown in his own saliva. In prison the two prevailing smells were those of disinfectant and urine, and food there seemed to have as little smell as it did taste.
When they sat down to breakfast, Will openly stared at the wealth of food on his plate: three eggs-three!-done to a turn. Grits, bacon, hot black coffee and toast with boysenberry jam.
She saw his hesitation, saw him rest his hands on his thighs as if afraid to reach out again.
"Eat," she ordered, then began chopping up an egg for Baby Thomas.
As he had last night, Will ate in a state of disbelief at his good fortune. He was half done before realizing she was only picking at a piece of dry toast. His fork-hand paused.
"What’s the matter?" she inquired. "Somethin’ cooked wrong?"
"No. No! It’s… why, it’s the best breakfast I ever had in my life, but where’s yours?"
"Food don’t agree with me this early in the morning."
He couldn’t imagine anyone not eating if food was plentiful. Had she given him her share, too?
"Women get that way when they’re expectin’," she explained.
"Oh." His eyes dropped to her belly, then quickly aside.
Why, I swear, she thought. That man’s blushin’! For whatever reason, the thought pleased her.
After breakfast she sat him on a chair in the middle of the kitchen and tied a dishtowel around him, backward. Her first touch sent shivers down his calves. He listened to the scissors snip, felt the comb scrape his skull and closed his eyes to savor each movement of her knuckles against his head. He shuddered and let his hands go limp on his thighs, covered by the dishtowel.
She saw his eyes drop closed.
"Feel good?" she asked.
They flew open again. "Yes, ma’am."
"No need to stiffen up." She nudged his shoulder gently. "Just relax."
After that, she worked in silence, letting him absorb the pleasure undisturbed.
His eyelids slid closed again and he drifted beneath the first gentle woman’s touch he’d experienced in over six years. She brushed the tip of his ear, the back of his neck, and he was lulled into his private, soft place. Lord, lord… it was good…
When the haircut was done she had to wake him.
"Hm?" He lifted his head, then jerked awake, dismayed at finding he’d dozed. "Oh… I must’ve-"
"All done." She whisked the dishtowel off and he rose to peer into the tiny round mirror next to the sink. The hair was slightly longer above his right ear than above his left, but overall the haircut was a great improvement over the close shearing he’d received in prison.
"Looks good, ma’am," he offered, touching a sideburn with his knuckles. He looked back over his shoulder. "Thank you. And for breakfast, too."
Whenever he thanked her she brushed it off as if she’d done nothing. Sweeping the floor, she didn’t look up. "You got a healthy head of hair there, Mr. Parker. Glendon’s was thin and fine. Always cut his, too." She waddled to the side of the room for a dustpan. "Enjoyed doin’ it again. Enjoyed the smell of the shavin’ soap around the house again, too."
She had? He thought he’d been the only one to enjoy those things. Or perhaps she was being kind to put him at ease. He found himself wanting to return the favor.
"I can do that," he offered as she bent to collect his streaky brown hair from the floor.
"It’s as good as done. Wouldn’t mind, however, if you took over the chore of feeding the pigs."
She straightened and their eyes met. In hers he saw uncertainty. It was the first thing she’d asked him to do, and not too pleasant. But what was unpleasant to one man was freedom to Will Parker. She’d fed him, lent him her husband’s razor, shared her fire and her table and had put him to sleep with a comb and scissors. His lips opened and a voice inside urged, Say it, Parker. You afraid she’ll think you ain’t much of man if you do?
"That haircut was the best thing I’ve felt for a long time."
She understood perfectly. She, too, had spent so much of her life in a loveless, touchless world. Odd, how a statement so simple formed a sympathetic bond.
"Well, I’m glad."
Her eyes swept back to his. "In prison, what?"
He shouldn’t have started, but she had a way about her that loosened his jaws, made him want to trust her with the secrets that hurt most. "In prison they use these buzzy little clippers and they cut off most of your hair so you feel-" He glanced away, reluctant to complete the thought, after all.
"You feel what?" she encouraged.
He studied his own hair lying on the dustpan, remembering. "Naked."
Neither of them moved. Sensing how hard it had been for him to admit such a thing, she wanted to reach out and touch his arm. But before she could, he took the dustpan and dumped it in the stove.
"I’ll see after the pigs," he said, ending the moment of closeness.
Donald Wade agreed to show Will where the pigs were, and Eleanor sent them out with a half-pail of milk and orders to feed it to them.
"To the pigs!" Will exclaimed, aghast. He’d gone hungry most of his life and she fed fresh milk to the pigs?
"Herbert gives more than we can use, and the milk truck can’t get in here, what with the driveway all washed out. Anyway, I don’t want no town people nosing around the place. Feed it to the pigs."
It broke Will’s heart to carry the milk out of the house.
Donald Wade led the way, though Will could have found the pigpen with his nose alone. Crossing the yard, he took a better look at the driveway. It was sorry, all right. But Mrs. Dinsmore had a mule, and if there was a mule there must be implements to hitch to it. And if there were no implements, he’d shovel by hand. He needed the driveway passable to get the junk hauled out of here. Already he was assessing that junk not as waste but as scrap metal. Scrap metal would soon bring top dollar with America turning out war supplies for England. The woman was sitting on top of a gold mine and didn’t even know it.
Not only was the driveway sad; the yard in broad daylight was pitiful. Dilapidated buildings that looked as if a swift kick would send them over. Those with a few good years left were sorely in need of paint. The corncrib was filled with junk instead of corn-barrels, crates, rolls of rusty barbed wire, stacks of warped lumber. Will couldn’t tell what kept the door of the chicken coop from falling off. The smell, as they passed, was horrendous. No wonder the chickens roosted in the junkpiles. He passed stacks of machinery parts, empty paint cans-though he couldn’t figure out where the paint might have been used. The goat’s nest seemed to be in an abandoned truck with the cushion stuffing chewed away. Lord, thought Will, there was enough work here to keep a man going twenty-four hours a day for a solid year.
Bobbing along beside him, Donald Wade interrupted his thoughts.
"There." The boy pointed at the structure that looked like a tobacco-drying shed.
"That’s where the pig mash is." He led the way into a building crammed with everything from soup to nuts, only this time, usable stuff. Obviously Dinsmore had done more than collect junk. Barterer? Horse trader? The paint cans in here were full. The rolls of barbed wire, new. Furniture, tools, saddles, a newspaper press, egg crates, pulley belts, canepoles, the fender of a Model-A, a dress form, a barrel full of pistons, Easter baskets, a boiler, cowbells, moonshine jugs, bedsprings… and who knew what else was buried in the close-packed building.
Donald Wade pointed to a gunnysack sitting on the dirt floor with a rusty coffee can beside it. "Two." He held up three fingers and had to fold one down manually.
"Mama, she mixes two with the milk."
Will hunkered beside Donald Wade, opened the sack and smiled as the boy continued to hold down the finger. "You wanna scoop ’em for me?"
Donald Wade nodded so hard his hair flopped. He filled the can but couldn’t manage to pull it from the deep sack. Will reached in to help. The mash fell into the milk with a sharp, grainy smell. When the second scoop was dumped, Donald Wade found a piece of lath in a corner.
"You stir with this."
Will began stirring. Donald Wade stood with his hands inside the bib of his overalls, watching. At length he volunteered, "I can stir good."
Will grinned secretly. "You can?"
Donald Wade made his hair flop again.
"Well, good thing, ’cause I was needin’ a rest."
Even with both hands knotted hard around the lath, Donald Wade needed help from Will. The man’s smile broke free as the boy clamped his teeth over his bottom lip and maneuvered the stick with flimsy arms. Will’s arms fit nice around the small shoulders as he knelt behind the boy and the two of them together mixed the mash.
"You help your mama do this every day?"
"Prett-near. She gets tired. Mostly I pick eggs."
"Around the yard. I know where the chickens like it best. I c’n show you."
"They give many eggs?"
Donald Wade shrugged.
"She sell ’em?"
"Down on the road. She just leaves ’em there and people leave the money in a can. She don’t like goin’ to town."
Donald Wade shrugged again.
"She got any friends?"
"Just my pa. But he died."
"Yeah, I know. And I’m sure sorry about that, Donald Wade."
"Know what Baby Thomas did once?"
"He ate a worm."
Until that moment Will hadn’t realized that to a four-year-old the eating of a worm was more important than the death of a father. He chuckled and ruffled the boy’s hair. It felt as soft as it looked.
I could get to like this one a lot, he thought.
With the hogs fed, they stopped to rinse the bucket at the pump. Beneath it was a wide mudhole with not even a board thrown across it to keep the mud from splattering.
Naturally, Donald Wade got his boots coated. When they returned to the house his mother scolded, "You git, child, and scrape them soles before you come in here!"
Will put in, "It’s my fault, ma’am. I took him down by the pump."
"You did? Oh, well…" Immediately she hid her pique, then glanced across the property. When she spoke, her voice held a quiet despondency. "Things are a real fright around here, I know. But I guess you can see that for yourself."
Will sealed his lips, tugged his hat brim clear down to his eyebrows, slipped his hands flat inside his backside pockets and scanned the property expressionlessly. Eleanor peeked at him from the corner of her eye. Her heart beat out a warning. He’ll run now. He’ll sure as shootin’ run after getting an eyeful of the place in broad daylight.
But again he saw the possibilities. And nothing on the good green earth could make him turn his back on this place unless he was asked to. Gazing across the yard, all he said, in his low-key voice was, "Reckon the pens could use a little cleanin’."
They went for a walk when the midmorning sun had lifted well above the trees-a green and gold day smelling of deep summer. Will had never walked with a woman and her children before. It held a strange, unexpected appeal. He noticed her way with the children, how she carried Baby Thomas on one hip with his heel flattening her smock. How, as they set off from the porch, she reached back for Donald Wade, inviting, "Come on, honey, you lead the way," and helped him off the last step. How she watched him gallop ahead, smiling after him as if she’d never before seen his flopping yellow hair, his baggy striped overalls. How she locked her hands beneath Thomas’s backside, leaned from the waist, took a deep pull of the clear air and said to the sky, "My, if this day ain’t a blessin’." How she called ahead, "Careful o’that wire in the grass there, Donald Wade!" How she plucked a leaf and handed it to Thomas, then let him touch her nose with it and pretended it tickled her and made the young one giggle.
Watching, Will became entranced. Lord, she was some mother. Always kind voiced. Always finding the good in things. Always concerned about her boys. Always making them feel important. Nobody had ever made Will feel important, only in the way.
He studied her covertly, noting more clearly the bulk of her belly, outlined by the baby’s leg. Donald Wade had said she gets tired. Recalling the boy’s words, Will considered offering to carry the baby, but he felt out of his depth around Thomas. He’d be no good at getting his nose tickled or making chitchat. Besides, she might not cotton to a stranger like him handling Glendon Dinsmore’s boys.
They went around to the back of the house where the dishtowel flapped on a line strung between teetering clothespoles that had been shimmed up by crude wood braces. Beyond these were more junkpiles before the woods began-pines, oaks, hickories and more. Sparrows flitted from tree to tree ahead, and Eleanor followed with her finger, telling the boys, "See? Chipping sparrows." A brown thrasher swept past and perched on a dead limb. Again she pointed it out and named it. The sun glinted off the boys’ blond heads and painted their mother’s dress an even brighter hue. They walked along a faint double path worn by wheels some time ago. Sometimes Donald Wade skipped, swinging his arms widely. The younger one tipped his head back and looked at the sky, his hand resting on his mother’s shoulder. They were so happy! Will hadn’t come up against many happy people in his day. It was arresting.
A short distance from the house they came upon an east-facing hill covered by regular rows of squat fruit trees.
"This here’s the orchard," Eleanor announced, gazing over its length and breadth.
"Big," Will observed.
"And you ain’t seen half of it. These here are peach. Down yonder is a whole string of apples and pears… and oranges, too. Glendon had this idea to try orange trees, but they never did much." She smiled wistfully. "Too far north for them."
Will stepped off the path and inspected a cluster of fruit. "Could have used a little spraying."
"I know." Unconsciously she stroked the baby’s back. "Glendon planned to do that, but he died in April and never got the chance."
This far south the trees should have been sprayed long before April, Will thought, but refrained from saying so. They moved on.
"How old are these trees?"
"I don’t know exactly. Glendon’s daddy planted most of them when he was still alive. All except the oranges, like I said. There’s apples, too, just about every kind imaginable, but I never learned their names. Glendon’s daddy, he knew a lot about them, but he died before I married Glendon. He was a junker, too, just like Glendon. Went to auction sales and traded stuff with anybody that came along. No reason to any of it, it seemed." Abruptly, she inquired, "You ever tasted quince? Those there are quince."
"Sour as rhubarb."
"Make a luscious pie, though."
"I wouldn’t know about that, ma’am."
"Bet you’d like to try one, wouldn’t you?"
He gave her a sideward glance. "Reckon I would."
"Could use a little fat on them bones, Mr. Parker."
He leveled his eyes on the quince trees and tugged his hat brim so low it cut off his view of the horizon. Thankfully, she changed the subject.
"So where’d you eat ’em, then?"
"California?" She peered up at him with her head cocked. "You been there?"
"Picked fruit there one summer when I was a kid."
"You see any movie stars?"
"Movie stars?" He wouldn’t have guessed she’d know much about movie stars. "No." He glanced at her. "You ever seen any?"
She laughed. "Now where would I see movie stars when I never even seen a movie?"
She shook her head. "Heard about ’em from the kids in school, though."
He wished he could promise to take her sometime, but where would he get the money for movies? And even if he had it, there was no theater in Whitney. Besides, she avoided the town.
"In California, the movie stars are only in Hollywood, and it gets cold in parts where there are mountains. And the ocean’s dirty. It stinks."
She could see she had her work cut out for her if she was to get that pessimism out of him. "You always so jolly?"
He would have tugged his hat brim lower, but if he did he’d be unable to see where he was walking. "Well, California isn’t like what you think."
"You know, I can’t say I’d mind if you’d smile a little more often."
He tossed her a sullen glance. "About what?"
"Maybe, Mr. Parker, you got to find that out for yourself." She let the baby slip from her hip. "Lord, Thomas, if you ain’t gettin’ heavier than a guilty conscience, I don’t know. Come on, take Mommy’s hand and I’ll show you somethin’."
She showed him things Will would have missed: a branch shaped like a dog’s paw-"A man could whittle forever and not make anything prettier," she declared. A place where something tiny had nested in the grass and left a collection of empty seed pods-"If I was a mouse, I’d love livin’ right here in this pretty-smellin’ orchard, wouldn’t you?" A green katydid camouflaged upon a greener blade of grass-"Y’ got to look close to see he’s makin’ the sound with his wings." And in the adjacent woods a magnolia tree with a deep bowl, head-high, where its branches met, and within that bowl, a second tree taken root: a sturdy little oak growing straight and healthy.
"How’d it get there?" Donald Wade asked.
"How d’ you think?"
She squatted beside the boys, gazing up at piggyback trees. "Well, there was this wise old owl lived in these woods, and one evenin’ at dusk he came by and I ast him the same thing. I says to him, how’d that li’l old oak tree get t’ growin’ in that magnolia?" She grinned at Donald Wade. "Know what he told me?"
"Uh-uh." Donald Wade stared at his mother, mystified. She dropped to her rump and sat like an Indian, stripping bark from a stick with her thumbnail as she went on.
"Well, he said there was two squirrels lived here, years ago. One of ’em was a hard worker, spent every day totin’ acorns into that little pocket in the tree up there." She pointed with the stick. "The other squirrel, well, he was lazy. Laid on his back on that limb over there"-she pointed again, to a nearby pine-"and made a pillow out of his tail and crossed his legs and watched the busy squirrel gettin’ ready for winter. He waited until there was so many nuts they was about to start spillin’ over the edge. Then when the hardworking squirrel went off to look for one last nut, the lazy one scrambled up there and ate and ate and ate, until he’d ate every last one of ’em. He was so full he sat on the limb and let out a burp so almighty powerful it knocked him off backwards." She drew a deep breath, braced her hands on her knees and burped loudly, then flopped back, arms outflung. Will smiled. Donald Wade giggled. Baby Thomas squealed.
"But it wasn’t so funny, after all," she continued, gazing at the sky.
Donald Wade sobered and leaned over her to look straight down into her face. "Why not?"
"Because on his way down, he cracked his head on a limb and killed himself deader’n a mackerel."
Donald Wade smacked himself in the head and fell backward, sprawled on the grass beside Eleanor, his eyelids closed but twitching. She rolled up and took Thomas into her lap. "Now when the busy little squirrel come back with that one last nut between his teeth, he climbed up and saw that all his acorns were gone. He opened his mouth to cry and the last acorn he brung up, why, it fell into the nest beneath the nutshells the greedy squirrel had left." Donald Wade, too, sat up, his interest in the story aroused once again. "He knew he couldn’t stay here for the winter, ’cause he’d already gathered up all the nuts for miles around. So he left his cozy nest and didn’t come back till he was old. So old it was hard for him to climb up and down the oak trees like he used to. But he remembered the little nest in the magnolia where it had been warm and dry and safe, and he climbed up there to see it again, just for old times’ sake. And what do you think he found?"
"The oak tree growin’ there?" the older boy ventured.
"That’s right." She finger-combed Donald Wade’s hair off his brow. "A sturdy little oak with enough acorns that the old squirrel never had to run up and down a tree again, ’cause they was growin’ all around his head, right there in his warm, cozy nest."
Donald Wade popped up. "Tell me another one!"
"Uh-uh. Got to go on, show Mr. Parker the rest of the place." She pushed to her feet and reached for Thomas’s hand. "Come on, boys. Donald Wade, you take Thomas’s other hand. Come on, Mr. Parker," she said over her shoulder. "Day’s movin’ on."
Will lagged behind, watching them saunter up the lane, three abreast, holding hands. The rear of her skirt was wrinkled from the damp grass, but she cared not a whit. She was busy pointing out birds, laughing softly, talking to the boys in her singsong Southern fashion. He felt a catch in his heart for the mother he’d never known, the hand he’d never held, the make-believe tales he’d never been told. For a moment he pretended he’d had one like Eleanor Dinsmore. Every kid should have one like her.Maybe, Mr. Parker, you got to find that out for yourself. Her words echoed through his mind as they moved on, and Will found himself glancing back over his shoulder at the oak tree growing out of the magnolia, realizing fully what a rare thing it was.
In time they came to a double flank of beehives, grayed, weathered and untended, dotting the edge of the orchard. He searched his mind for any knowledge of bees, but found none. He saw the hives as a potential source of income, but she gave them wide berth and he recalled that her husband had died tending the bees, was buried somewhere out here in the orchard. But he saw no grave and she pointed none out. In spite of the way Dinsmore had died, Will felt himself drawn to the hives, to the few insects that droned around them, and to the scent of the fruit-wormy or whole-as it warmed beneath the eleven o’clock sun. He wondered about the man who’d been here before him, a man who maintained nothing, finished nothing and apparently never worried about either. How could a man let things run to ruin that way? How could a man lucky enough to own things-so many things-care so little about their condition? Will could count in ten seconds the number of things he’d ever owned: a horse, a saddle, clothing, a razor. Lengthening his stride to catch up with Eleanor Dinsmore, he wondered if she were as hopeless a dreamer as her husband had been.
They came to a pecan grove that looked promising, hanging thick with immature nuts, and in the lane over the next hill a tractor, which blocked their way.
"What’s this?" Will’s eyes lit up.
"Glendon’s old Steel Mule," she explained while Will made a slow circuit around the rusting hulk. "This was where she stopped running, so this is where he left ’er." It was an old Bates Model G, but of what vintage Will couldn’t be sure-’26 or ’27, maybe. At the front it had two wide-set steel wheels, and on each side at the rear three wheels of telescoping size surrounded by tracks with lugs. The lugs were chewed, in some places missing. He glanced at the engine and doubted it would ever make a sound again.
"I know a little about engines, but I think this one’s shot for good."
They moved on, reaching the far end of the property, turning back toward the house on another path. They passed stubbled fields and patches of woods, eventually topping a rise where Will stopped dead, pushed back his hat and gaped. "Holy smokes," he muttered. Below lay a veritable graveyard of iron stoves, rusting in grass tall enough to bend in the wind.
"A bunch of ’em, huh?" Eleanor stopped beside him. "Seemed like he’d haul another one home every week. I said to him, "Glendon, what’re you going to do with all them old stoves when everybody these days is changin’ to gas and kerosene?’ But he just kept hauling ’em in here whenever he heard of someone changin’over."
There had to be five hundred of them, as bright orange as the road to Whitney.
"Holy smokes," Will repeated, lifting his hat and scratching his head, imagining the chore of hauling them out again.
She glanced at his profile, clearly defined against the blue sky, with the hat pushed back beyond his hairline. Did she dare tell him about the rest? Might as well, she decided. He’d find out eventually anyway. "Wait’ll you see the cars."
Will turned her way. After all he’d seen, nothing would be a surprise. "Cars?"
"Wrecks, every one of ’em. Worse’n the Steel Mule."
Hands on hips, he studied the stoves a long moment. At length he sighed, tugged down his hat brim and said, "Well, let’s get it over with."
The cars lay immediately behind the band of woods surrounding the outbuildings-they’d come nearly full circle around the place-and created a clutter of gaping doors and sagging roofs in the long weeds. They approached the windowless wreck of an old 1928 Whippet. Wild honeysuckle climbed over its wire wheels and along the front bumper. On the near runningboard a bird had made its nest against the lee of the back fender.
"Can I drive it?" Donald Wade asked eagerly.
"Sure can. Wanna take Baby Thomas with you?"
"Come on, Thomas." Donald Wade took his brother’s hand, plowed through the grass and helped Thomas board. The two clambered up and sat side by side, bouncing on the tattered seat. Donald Wade pumped the steering wheel left and right, making engine noises with his tongue. When Eleanor and Will approached, he whipped the wheel even more vigorously. Imitating his brother, Thomas stuck out his tongue and blew, sending specks of saliva flying onto a cobweb strung across the faded black paint of the dashboard.
Eleanor stood beside the open door and laughed. The more she laughed, the more the boys bounced and blew. The more they bounced and blew, the more animatedly Donald Wade worked the steering wheel.
She crossed her arms on the window opening, bent forward and propped her chin on a wrist. "Where y’all goin’, fellers?"
"Atlanta!" squealed Donald Wade.
"’Lanta!" parroted Thomas.
"Atlanta?" teased their mother. "What y’all think y’re gonna do clear over there?"
"Don’ know." Donald Wade drove hell-bent for leather, the old wheel spinning in his freckled hands.
"Care to give a pretty lady a ride?"
"Can’t stop-goin’ too fast!"
"Hows ’bout if I just jump on the runnin’ board while you whiz by?"
"Ouch!" Eleanor jumped back and grabbed her foot. "You run over my toe, young feller!"
"Eeeeech!" Donald Wade’s stubby foot slammed the brake pedal to the floor as he came to a screeching halt. "Git in, lady."
Eleanor acted affronted. She put her nose in the air and turned away. "Don’t reckon I care to, now you run over my toes that way. Reckon I’ll find myself somebody drives less reckless than you. But you might ask Mr. Parker here if he needs a lift to town. He’s been walkin’ some and he’s probably plum tuckered, ain’t you, Mr. Parker?" She squinted up at him with a crooked smile.
Will had never played such games before. He felt conspicuous and unimaginative, while they all watched him, waiting for a reply. He frantically searched his mind and came up with a sudden stroke of genius. "Next time, boys." He lifted one scuffed boot above the grass. "Just got this here new pair of boots and I gotta get ’em broke in before the dance Saturday night."
"Okee-dokee, mister. Bbvvrr-n-n-n!" More spit accompanied the engine noise, and more laughter from Eleanor Dinsmore. She and Will stood in the dappled light from a wide oak, in grass and honeysuckle to their knees, and Will felt himself becoming a child again, experiencing delights he hadn’t known the first time around. The day was warm and smelled green, and for the moment there seemed no need to rush or plan, to wish or regret. It was enough to watch two blond tykes drivin’ down to Atlanta in a 1928 Whippet.
Eleanor’s laughter faded, but her smile remained as she studied Will. He leaned against the side of the car with his weight on one foot, arms crossed loosely over his chest. The sunlight lit the tip of his nose. On his lips was a genuine smile. "Well, now, would you lookit there," she said softly.
He glanced up and found her studying his mouth. So she’d done it; she’d made him smile. It felt as revitalizing as a full belly, and he neither dimmed nor hid it, but rained it on Eleanor Dinsmore.
"Feels good, don’t it?" she asked quietly.
His brown eyes softened as they appreciated her green ones. "Yes, ma’am," he replied quietly.
Smiling up at him, noting the pleasure in his eyes, Eleanor thrilled at the realization that she and the boys had succeeded in putting it there. Heaven’s sake, what a smile did to Will Parker’s face-eyes hooked down at the corners, lids lowered to half-mast, lips softened, the emotionlessness gone. I could get along with his man quite easy, now I know I can get him to smile.
His smile traveled from her mouth to her rounded stomach, a tarrying trip. She remained unflinching under his steady regard, wondering what he was thinking. "For life" was a long time. Let him look, let him decide. She’d do the same. She had never cared one way or the other about how people looked. But Will Parker, relaxed and smiling, made a fetching sight, no question about it. Only after the thought struck did she grow uneasy beneath his perusal. His gaze lifted and meeting hers, made Eleanor blush inside.
"You know, Mrs. Dinsmore-"
Thomas’s scream interrupted. Will glanced over his shoulder. "What the-"
Donald Wade screamed-pained and panicked.
Will snapped around and shouted, "Jesus Christ, get them out of there!" He lunged toward the car and hauled Donald Wade out by one arm. "Run! Get away from here! Bees!" Half a dozen of them buzzed around Will’s head. One stung him on the neck, another on the wrist, as he reached for a yowling Thomas. By the time he withdrew from the car, the insects swarmed everywhere. Ignoring the stings that fell on him, he swatted the bees off Thomas with his cowboy hat. Eleanor and Donald Wade took off at a run, but just as Will caught up to them Donald Wade tipped over, face first, screaming. Will scooped him up and kept running. His legs were longer than Eleanor’s and he soon outdistanced her. Halting uncertainly, he turned back. Behind him, she struggled along at an awkward gait, supporting her stomach with one hand, fanning the air about her head with the other. The bees had thickened and set up an angry hum.
"Mrs. Dinsmore!" he called.
"Take them and run!" Eleanor hollered. "Don’t wait for me!"
Will saw the terror in her eyes and paused in indecision.
"Go!" she screamed.
One landed on Thomas’s arm. He screamed and began thrashing wildly on Will’s arm. Will turned and barreled up the lane, with the boys bellowing and bouncing. When he’d outrun the swarm, he paused, panting, and spun just in time to see Eleanor stumble and go down on her face. His heart seemed to jump into his mouth. He dropped the boys in the middle of the lane and ordered, "Wait here!" Then he was pounding back to her, ignoring the howls behind him. He ran harder than ever before in his life, toward the woman who rolled over slowly and pushed herself up. On one hip she sat, eyes closed, rocking, clutching her stomach. Oh, Jesus, sonofabitch, Christ-almighty- Will prayed in the only way he knew how-don’t let her be hurt! He skidded to a halt on one knee, reaching for her.
"Mrs. Dinsmore…" he panted.
Her eyes opened. "The boys-are the boys all right?"
"Mostly scared." He took off his hat and flapped angrily at two buzzing bees that hovered about her head. "Git out of here, you sons a bitches!" From up the path the screams continued. Will threw an uncertain glance at the boys, then at Eleanor, fighting panic. He took her by the arms and forced her back. "Lay down here a minute. The bees are gone."
"But the boys-"
"The boys got a few bites, but let ’em howl for a minute. Here now, you lay back like I said." She stopped resisting and wilted to the earth. He stuffed his hat under her. "Here, you put your head on this."
She rested but small pains arced through her abdomen.
"You hurt anything when you fell?" Will asked anxiously, kneeling beside her, wondering what he was supposed to do if she started losing the baby out here in the middle of this weed patch. He watched her stomach lifting and falling in panting beats, wondered if he should touch it, test it. But for what? He sat on one heel, hands resting uncertainly on his thighs.
"I’m okay. Please… would you just see after the boys?"
"I’ll just lay here a while. You take the boys up to the well and plaster some mud on their bee stings quick as you can. It’ll cut the swelling."
"But I can’t just leave you here."
"Yes, you can! Now do as I say, Will Parker! Them bee stings could kill Thomas if he got enough of them, and I already lost their daddy to the bees-don’t you understand!" Her eyes filled with tears and Will reluctantly got to his feet. He glanced toward the pair, still sitting abjectly in the middle of the lane, bawling their heads off. He glanced at their mother and pointed authoritatively at her nose.
"Don’t you move until I get back." Then he was off at a run again. A moment later he rescued the two squalling boys and trotted on.
"Maa-maaaaw! I want my maa-maaw!" Donald Wade had several welts on his face and hands. One ear was scarlet and puffed. He ground his fists into his eyes.
"Your mama can’t run as fast as I can. Hang on and we’ll put somethin’ cool on them bites."
Baby Thomas was running from all ports and had bites all over, including a mean-looking cluster on his neck. They’d already begun swelling. At the thought of what could happen, should they be swelling as much on the inside as they were on the out, Will made his legs pump harder. He tried to think rationally, to remember if he’d seen where Mrs. Dinsmore kept her bread knife. A picture of the long silver blade flashed through his mind and he imagined having to slip it into Baby Thomas’s windpipe, through that soft, pink baby skin. His stomach tumbled at the thought. He wasn’t sure he could do it. Goddammit, don’t let this kid choke, you hear me!
Don’t think of it, Parker, just keep runnin’! As long as he’s screaming like a banshee he ain’t strangling.
Baby Thomas yowled all the way back to the yard. Will hit the mud patch by the pump doing seven miles an hour. His left foot flew west, his right east, and a moment later he landed on his seat with a splat. There he sat with two bawling boys. A bubble formed in Baby Thomas’s right nostril. Tears rolled down Donald Wade’s cheeks, wetting the bee stings. Will reached up and pulled Donald Wade’s fist down.
"Here, don’t rub ’em." He sat in the cold, slimy mud and started dabbing it on both boys at once. Thomas fought him tooth and nail, jerking his head back, pushing at Will’s hands. But in time the visible welts were covered. The howling subsided to jerky sobs, then the jerky sobs to breathy chuffs of wonder as it dawned on the boys that they were sitting beneath the pump, being plastered with mud. Will unhooked Donald Wade’s suspenders, turned his bib down and his shirt up. He treated several stings on his back and belly, then removed the baby’s shirt and did likewise.
"They got you, all right," Will confirmed, examining for any he might have missed.
"Are they all right?"
Will’s chin snapped up at the sound of Eleanor’s voice. She stood at the edge of the puddle, holding his flattened hat in her hand. "I thought I told you to stay put till I could get back to you."
"Are they all right?" she repeated.
"I think so. Are you?"
"I think so."
"Mama…" The baby reached toward her, but Will held him in place.
"You sit here a minute, sport. You’ll get your mama all muddy."
Suddenly Eleanor’s face crinkled and a chuckle began deep in her throat. Will shot her a glare.
"What you laughin’ at?"
"Oh, mercy, if you could see the picture you three make." She covered her mouth and doubled forward, laughing. "It just struck me."
Sudden anger boiled up in Will. How dare she stand there cackling when he’d just had five good years scared out of him! When his heart was knocking so hard his temples hurt! When he sat with the mud oozing up through his only pair of jeans! And all because of her and her boys!
"There ain’t a damn thing funny, so stop your crowin’!" He planted both boys on their feet as if they were spades and he was done shoveling. Clumsily he extracted himself from the mud and stood bowlegged, like a toddler with full diapers. All the while she giggled behind her hand. Giggled, for chrissake, when she could be standing there at this very minute having a miscarriage!
He got madder. His head jutted forward. "You crazy, woman?"
"I reckon I am," she managed through her laughter. "Leastways, they all say so, don’t they?"
Her good humor only intensified his choler. Incensed, he pointed. "You git up to the house and-and-" But he didn’t know what to advise. Hell, what was he, a midwife?
"I’m going, Mr. Parker, I’m going," Eleanor returned jauntily. She punched out the dome of his hat and plopped it on her own head, where it fell past her ears. "But how could I pass by without noticing you sitting there in the mud?" She reached down for Baby Thomas and Will barked, "I’ll take care of them! Just get up there and see to yourself!"
She turned away, chuckling, and waddled up the path.
Damn woman didn’t have the sense God gave a box of rocks if she didn’t realize she should be flat on her back, resting, after the fall she’d taken. It’d take some getting used to, living with a single-minded woman who laughed at him every chance she got. And didn’t she know what a scare she gave him? Now that it was over, his knees felt like a pair of rotting tomatoes. That, too, made him mad. Getting watery-kneed over somebody else’s woman, and a stranger to boot! None too gently, he called after her, "How long does this mud have to be on ’em?"
From up the path she called, "Ten minutes or so should do it. I’ll fix somethin’ to help the itching." She dropped his hat on the porch step and disappeared inside.
Will removed the boys’ shoes and let them play in the mud. He himself felt twenty pounds heavier with so much goo hanging off his backside. Now and then he glanced at the house, but she stayed inside. He didn’t know if he wanted her to come out or not. Confounded woman, standing there laughing at him while he was trying to calm down her howling kids. And nobody wore his hat. Nobody!
At the house, Eleanor set to work smashing plantain leaves with a mortar and pestle. You really don’t know a person till you see him mad. So now she’d seen Will Parker mad, and even riled he was pretty mellow-a good sign. What a sight he’d made, sitting in that mudhole with his dark eyes snapping. If he stayed, years from now they’d laugh about it.
She looked up and saw a sight that made her hands fall still. "Well, would y’ look at that," she murmured to herself. Will Parker came stalking toward the house with her two naked sons on his arms. Their rumps looked pink and plump against Parker’s hard brown arms, their hands fragile on his wiry shoulders. He had a long-legged stride, but moved as if hurry were a stranger to him. His head was bare, his shirt unbuttoned with the tails flapping, and he scowled deeply. What a sight to see her boys with a man again. Strangers scared them, but in less than a day they had taken to Will Parker. And in the same length of time she’d seen all she needed to be convinced he’d do all right at daddyin’, whether the boys were his own or not. He’d be gentle with them. And caring.
She watched from the shadows of the kitchen as he approached the house and paused uncertainly at the foot of the porch steps. She stepped out, noting that his pants and shirttails were dripping.
"Y’all washed in that cold well water?"
"Thought you’d be laying down." His voice still hinted at displeasure.
"I had a pang or two but there’s nothin’ serious wrong."
"Shouldn’t you see a doctor or something?"
"Doctor," she scoffed. "What do I need with a doctor?"
"I could walk to town, see if we could get one out here."
"Town ain’t got no use for me, I ain’t got no use for it. I’ll get along just fine."
Lord a-mercy, she was five months pregnant and she hadn’t seen a doctor? His eyes dropped to the dish she held. "What’s that?"
"Crushed plantain leaves for the bites. But we better dry the boys off first. You mind doin’ one while I do the other?"
She was gone inside the house before Will could reply. A moment later she returned with two towels, tossed one to Will and sat on the bottom step with the other. While she dried Donald Wade, Will found himself balancing on the balls of his feet with Thomas between his knees. Another first, he thought, awkwardly drawing the child closer. Thomas was pink and gleaming and his little pecker stuck out like a barricade at a railroad crossing. He stared straight into Will’s eyes, silent. Will grinned. "Got to dry you off, short stuff," he ventured quietly. This time he didn’t feel as ignorant, talking to the little guy. Thomas didn’t yowl or fight him, so he figured he was doing all right. He soon learned that babies do little in the way of helping at bath time. Chiefly, Thomas stared, with his lower lip hanging. He had to have his arms lifted, his fingers separated, his body turned this way and that. Will dried all the cracks and crannies, going easy where the bites were worst. Thomas’s neck was so small and fragile-looking. His skin was soft and he smelled better than any human being Will had ever been near. Unexpected pleasure stole over the man.
He glanced up and discovered Eleanor watching him.
"How you doin’?" She smiled lazily.
"Never had any o’ your own?"
They fell silent, rubbing down the boys. The mellowness inspired by the task spilled over in Will and softened his annoyance with the woman.
"You scared the hell out of me, you know, falling like that."
"Scared the hell out of myself." Her lazy smile continued.
"Didn’t mean to bark at you that way."
"It’s all right. I understand." After a pause, she added, "Reckon you’re a little shivery in those wet britches yourself."
Thomas stood complacently between Will’s knees, and Will had no warning until he felt something warming the cold denim on his inner thigh. He glanced down, yelped and leaped to his feet. Baby Thomas unconcernedly bowed his legs and continued relieving himself in a splattering yellow arc.
"Mercy, Thomas, look what you’ve done!" Eleanor pushed Donald Wade aside and came up off the step. "Oh, mercy, Mr. Parker, I’m sorry." She dropped a self-conscious glance to Will’s thigh. "Baby Thomas, he ain’t trained yet, you see, and sometimes-well, sometimes-" She fumbled to a stop and turned pink. "I’m awful sorry."
Will stood with feet widespread, surveying the damages. "Like you said, they were wet anyway."
"I’d be happy to wash them for you, and I’ll get you something of Glendon’s to wear till they’re dry," she offered.
He lifted his head and their eyes met. Hers were dismayed, his bemused. A smile began tugging at one corner of his mouth, a smile as slow as his walk, climbing one cheek until an attractive crescent dented it. He snickered. Inside him the laughter built until it erupted. And as Eleanor’s chagrin turned to relief, she joined him.
They stood in the sun laughing together for the first time, with the naked children gazing up at them.
When it ended a subtle change had transpired. Their smiles remained while possibilities drifted through their minds.
"So," he said at length, "is this how you initiate all the men who come up here to answer your ad?" he teased drolly.
"You never know what to expect when you got two this little."
"I’ll remember that next time."
"I’ll get them clothes of Glendon’s and you can take a pail of warm water to the barn."
"Appreciate it, ma’am."
For the moment neither of them moved. They stood rooted by surprise and curiosity, now that they’d seen each other in a new light. Her face radiated more than the reflection of her yellow dress. He thought about reaching up and touching it, thought about what her skin might feel like-maybe soft like Donald Wade’s and warm beneath the sun. Instead, he bent to retrieve his hat from the step and settled it on his head. From the safety of its shadow he told her, "I’ve decided to stay, if you still want me."
"I do," she said directly.
The thrill shot straight to his vitals. For as long as he could remember, nobody had wanted Will Parker. Standing in the sun with one foot on her porch steps and her bare children at his feet, he vowed he’d do his best by her or die trying. "And as far as marrying goes, we’ll put that off till you feel comfortable. And if it’s never, well, fine. I’ll be happy in the barn. How’s that?"
"Fine," she agreed, flashing him a brief, nervous smile. He wondered if her insides were stirring like his. He might never have known had she not at that very moment dropped her gaze and fussily checked the hair at the back of her neck.
Well, I’ll be damned, Will thought. I’ll be ding-dong double damned.
That first week Will Parker was there Eleanor hardly saw him except at mealtimes. He worked. And worked and worked. Sunup to sunrise, he never stopped. Their first morning had established a routine which they kept by tacit agreement. Will chopped wood, carried it in and made a fire, then filled the water pail and left to do the milking, giving her privacy in the kitchen. She’d be dressed by the time he returned, and would start breakfast while he washed up and shaved. After they’d eaten, he fed the pigs, then disappeared to do whatever tasks he’d set for himself that day.
The first two things he did were to make a slatted wooden grid for beneath the pump and to fix the ladder to his hayloft. He cleaned the barn better than Eleanor ever recalled seeing it-cobwebs, windows and all-hauled the manure out to the orchard and spread the gutters with lime. Next he attacked the hen house, mucking it out completely, fixing some of the broken roosts, putting new screen on the door and the windows, then sinking posts to make an adjacent pen for the chickens. When it was done, he announced that he could use a little help herding the birds inside. They spent an amusing hour trying to do so. At least, Eleanor found it amusing. Will found it exasperating. He flapped his cowboy hat and cursed when a stubborn hen refused to go where he wanted her to. Eleanor made clucking noises and coaxed the hens with corn. Sometimes she imitated their strut and made up tales about how the hens came to walk that way, the most inventive one about a stubborn black cricket that refused to slither down a hen’s throat after it was swallowed. Chickens weren’t Will’s favorite animal. Goddamn stupid clucks is what he called them. But by the time they got the last one into the hen house, Eleanor had teased a reluctant smile out of him.
Will got along well with the mule, though. Her name was Madam, and Will liked her the moment he saw her wide hairy nose poking around the barn door while he was doing the evening milking. Madam smelled no better than the barn, so as soon as it was clean, Will decided she should be, too. He tethered her by the well and washed her down with Ivory Snow, scrubbing her with a brush and rinsing her with a bucket and rag.
"What the devil are you doing down there?" Eleanor called from the porch.
"Giving Madam a bath."
"What in blazes for?"
"She needs one."
Eleanor had never heard of an animal being scrubbed with Ivory Snow! But it was the durndest thing-Glendon had never been able to do a thing with that stubborn old cuss, but after her bath, Madam did anything Will wanted her to. She followed him around like a trained puppy. Sometimes Eleanor would catch Will looking into Madam’s eye and whispering to her, as if the two of them shared secrets.
One evening Will surprised everyone by showing up at the back porch with Madam on a hackamore.
"What’s this?" Eleanor stepped to the door, followed by Donald Wade and Baby Thomas.
Will grinned and hoped he wasn’t about to make a fool of himself. "Madam and me… well, we’re goin’ to Atlanta and we’ll take any passengers who want to come along."
"Atlanta!" Eleanor panicked. Atlanta was forty miles away. What did he want in Atlanta? Then she saw the grin on his lips.
"She said she wanted to see a Claudette Colbert movie," Will explained.
Suddenly Eleanor understood. She released a peal of laughter while Will rubbed Madam’s nose. Foolery wasn’t easy for him-it was apparent-so she appreciated it all the more. She stood in the doorway with a hand on Donald Wade’s head, inquiring, "Anybody want a ride on Madam?" Then, to Will, "You sure she’s safe?"
"As a lamb."
From the porch Eleanor watched as Will led the smiling boys around the yard on Madam’s back, that back so broad their legs protruded parallel with the earth. Donald Wade rode behind Thomas with his arms folded around the baby’s stomach. Surprisingly, Baby Thomas wasn’t frightened. He clutched Madam’s mane and gurgled in delight.
In the days following that ride, Donald Wade took to trailing after Will just as Madam did. He pitched a fit if Eleanor said, no, it was time for a nap, or no, Will would be doing something that might be dangerous. Nearly always, though, Will would interject, "Let the boy come. He’s no trouble."
One morning while she was mixing up a spice cake the pair showed up at the back porch with saws, nails and lumber.
"What’re you two up to now?" Eleanor asked, stepping to the screen door, stirring, a bowl against her stomach.
"Will and me are gonna fix the porch floor!" Donald Wade announced proudly. "Ain’t we, Will?"
"Sure are, short stuff." Will glanced up at Eleanor. "I could use a piece of wool rag if you got one."
She fetched the rag, then watched while Will patiently sat on the step and showed Donald Wade how to clean a rusty sawblade with steel wool and oil and a piece of soft wool. The saw, she noticed, was miniature. Where he’d found it she didn’t know, but it became Donald Wade’s. Will had another larger one he’d cleaned and sharpened days ago. When the smaller saw was clean, Will clamped the blade between his knees, took a metal file from his back pocket and showed Donald Wade how a blade is sharpened.
"You ready now?" he asked the boy.
"Then let’s get started."
Donald Wade was nothing but a nuisance, getting in Will’s way most of the time. But Will’s patience with the boy was inexhaustible. He set him up with his own piece of wood on the milking stool, showed him how to anchor it with a knee and get started, then set to work himself, sawing lumber to replace the porch floor. When Donald Wade’s saw refused to comply, Will interrupted his work and curled himself over the boy, gripping his small hand, pumping it until a piece of wood fell free. Eleanor felt her heart expand as Donald Wade giggled and looked up with hero-worship in his eyes. "We done it, Will!"
"Yup. Sure did. Now come over here and hand me a few nails."
The nails, Eleanor noticed, were rusty, and the wood slightly warped. But within hours he had the porch looking sturdy again. They christened it by sitting on the new steps in the sun and eating spice cake topped with Herbert’s whipped cream.
"You know"-Eleanor smiled at Will-"I sure like the sound of the hammer and saw around the place again."
"And I like the smell of spice cake bakin’ while I work."
The following day they painted the entire porch-floor in brick red, and posts in white.
At the "New Porch Party" she served gingerbread and whipped cream. He ate enough for two men and she loved watching him. He put away three pieces, then rubbed his stomach and sighed. "That was mighty good gingerbread, ma’am." He never failed to show appreciation, though never wordily. "Fine dinner, ma’am," or "Much obliged for supper, ma’am." But his thanks made her efforts seem worthwhile and filled her with a sense of accomplishment she’d never known before.
He loved his sweets and couldn’t seem to get enough of them. One day when she hadn’t fixed dessert he looked let-down, but made no remarks. An hour after the noon meal she found a bucket of ripe quince sitting on the porch step.
The pie-she’d forgotten. She smiled at his reminder and glanced across the yard. He was nowhere to be seen as she picked up the bucket and headed inside and began to mix up a piecrust.
For Will Parker those first couple of weeks at Eleanor Dinsmore’s place were unadulterated heaven. The work-why, hell-the work was a privilege, the idea that he could choose what he wanted to do each day. He could cut wood, patch porch floors, clean barns or wash mules. Anything he chose, and nobody said, "Boy, you supposed to be here? Boy, who tol’ you to do that?" Madam was a pleasurable animal, reminded him of the days when he’d done wrangling and had had a horse of his own. He flat liked everything about Madam, from the hairs on her lumpy nose to her long, curved eyelashes. And at night now, he brought her into the barn and made his own bed beside her in one of the box stalls that were cleaned and smelled of sweet grass.
Then came morning, every one better than the last. Morning and Donald Wade trailing along, providing company and doting on every word Will said. The boy was turning out to be a real surprise. Some of the things that kid came up with! One day when he was holding the hammer for Will while Will stretched wire around the chicken pen, he stared at an orange hen and asked pensively, "Hey, Will, how come chickens ain’t got lips?" Another day he and Will were digging through a bunch of junk, searching for hinges in a dark tool shed when a suspicious odor began tainting the air around them. Donald Wade straightened abruptly and said, "Oh-oh! One of us farted, didn’t we?"
But Donald Wade was more than merely amusing. He was curious, bright, and worshiped the shadow Will cast. Will’s little sidekick, following everywhere-"I’ll help, Will!"-getting his head in the way, standing on the screwdriver, dropping the nails in the grass. But Will wouldn’t have changed a minute of it. He found he liked teaching the boy. He learned how by watching Eleanor. Only Will taught different things. Men’s things. The names of the tools, the proper way to hold them, how to put a rivet through leather, how to brace a screen door and make it stronger, how to trim a mule’s hoof.
The work and Donald Wade were only part of what made his days blissful. The food-God, the food. All he had to do was walk up to the house and take it, cut a piece of spice cake from a pan or butter a bun. What he liked best was taking something sweet outside and eating it as he ambled back toward some half-finished project of his choice. Quince pie-damn, but that woman could make quince pie, could make anything, actually. But she had quince pie down to an art.
He was gaining weight. Already the waistband on his own jeans was tight, and it felt good to work in Glendon Dinsmore’s roomy overalls. Odd, how she volunteered anything at all of her husband’s without seeming to resent Will’s using it-toothbrush, razor, clothes, even dropping the hems of the pants to accommodate Will’s longer legs.
But his gratitude was extended for far more than creature comforts. She’d offered him trust, had given him pride again, and enthusiasm at the break of each new day. She’d shared her children who’d brought a new dimension of happiness into his life. She’d brought back his smile.
There was nothing he couldn’t accomplish. Nothing he wouldn’t try. He wanted to do it all at once.
As the days passed, the improvements he’d made began tallying up. The yard looked better, and the back porch. The eggs were easy to find since the hens were confined to the hen house and, slowly but surely, the woodpile was changing contours. As the place grew neater, so did Eleanor Dinsmore. She wore shoes and anklets now, and a clean apron and dress every morning with a bright hair ribbon to match. She washed her hair twice a week, and he’d been right about it. Clean, it took on a honey glow.
Sometimes when they’d meet in the kitchen, he’d look at her a second time and think, You look pretty this morning, Mrs. Dinsmore.But he could never say it, lest she think he was after something more than creature comforts. Truth to tell, it had been a long, long time, but always in the back of his mind lingered the fact that he’d spent time in prison, and what for. Because of it, he kept a careful distance.
Besides, he had a lot more to do before he’d proved he was worth keeping. He wanted to finish the plastering, give the house a coat of paint, improve the road, get rid of the junk cars, make the orchard produce again, and the bees… The list seemed endless. But Will soon realized he didn’t know how to do all that.
"Has Whitney got a library?" he asked one day in early September.
Eleanor glanced up from the collar she was turning. "In the town hall. Why?"
"I need to learn about apples and bees."
Will sensed her defiance even before she spoke.
He fixed his eyes on her and let them speak for him. He’d learned by now it was the best way to deal with her when they disagreed.
"You know about libraries-how to use ’em, I mean?"
"In prison I read all I could. They had a library there."
"Oh." It was one of the rare times he’d mentioned prison, but he didn’t elaborate. Instead, he went on questioning. "Did your husband have one of those veiled hats, and things to tend bees with?" He didn’t know a lot, but he knew he’d need certain equipment.
"Think you could look around for me? See if you can find ’em?"
Fear flashed through her, followed quickly by obstinacy. "I don’t want you messin’ with those bees."
"I won’t mess with ’em till I know what I’m doing."
He didn’t want to argue with her, and he understood her fear of the bees. But it made no sense to let the hives sit empty when honey could bring in cold, hard cash. The best way to soften her might be by being soft himself.
"I’d appreciate it if you’d look for them," he told her kindly, then pushed back from the dinner table and reached for his hat. "I’ll be walkin’ into town this afternoon to the library. If you’d like I can take whatever eggs you got and try to sell them there."
He took a bucket of warm water and the shaving gear down to the barn and came back half an hour later all spiffed up in his own freshly laundered jeans and shirt. When they met in the kitchen, her mouth still looked stubborn.
"I’m leaving now. How about those eggs?"
She refused to speak to him, but thumbed at the five dozen eggs sitting on the porch in a slatted wooden crate.
They were going to be heavy, but let him carry them, she thought stubbornly. If he wanted to go sellin’ eggs to the creeps in town, and learning about bees, and getting all money-hungry, let him carry them!
She pretended not to watch him heft the crate, but her curiosity was aroused when he set it back down and disappeared around the back of the house. A minute later he returned pulling Donald Wade’s wooden wagon. He loaded the egg crate on board only to discover the handle was too short for his tall frame. She watched, gratified when with his first steps his heels hooked on the front of the wagon. Five minutes later-still stubbornly silent-she watched him pull the wagon down the road by a length of stiff wire twisted to the handle.
Go on, then! Run to town and listen to every word they say! And come back with coins jingling in your pocket! And read up on bees and apples and anything else you want! But don’t expect me to make it easy on you!
Gladys Beasley sat behind a pulpit-shaped desk, tamping the tops of the library cards in their recessed bin. They were already flat as a stove lid, but she tamped them anyway. And aligned the rubber stamp with the seam in the varnished wood. And centered her ink pen on its concave rest. And adjusted her nameplate-Gladys Beasley, Head Librarian-on the high desk ledge. And picked up a stack of magazines and centered her chair in the kneehole. Fussily. Unnecessarily.
Order was the greatest force in Gladys Beasley’s life. Order and regimentation. She had run the Carnegie Municipal Library of Whitney, Georgia, for forty-one years, ever since Mr. Carnegie himself had made its erection possible with an endowment to the town. Miss Beasley had ordered the initial titles even before the shelves themselves were installed, and had been working in the hallowed building ever since. During those forty-one years she had sent more than one feckless assistant home in tears over a failure to align the spine of a book with the edge of a shelf.
She walked like a Hessian soldier, in brisk, no-nonsense steps on practical, black Cuban-heeled oxfords to which the shoemaker had added a special rubber heel which buffered her footfalls on the hardwood floors of her domain. If there was one thing that ired Gladys worse than slipshod shelving, it was cleats! Anyone who wore them in her library and expected to be allowed inside again had better choose different shoes next time!
She launched herself toward the magazine rack, imposing breasts carried like heavy artillery, her trunk held erect by the most expensive elastic and coutil girdle the Sears Roebuck catalogue had to offer-the one tactfully recommended for those "with excess flesh at the diaphragm." Her jersey dress-white squiggles on a background the color of something already digested-hung straight as a stovepipe from her bulbous hips to her club-shaped calves and made not so much as a rustle when she moved.
She replaced three Saturday Evening Postmagazines, tamped the stack, aligned it with the edge of the shelf and marched along the row of tall fanlight windows, checking the wooden ribbing between the panes to be sure Levander Sprague, the custodian, hadn’t shirked. Levander was getting old. His eyesight wasn’t what it used to be, and lately she’d had to upbraid him for his careless dusting. Satisfied today, however, she returned to her duties at the central desk, located smack in front of double maple doors-closed-that led to wide interior steps at the bottom of which were the main doors of the building.
Overdue notices-bah!-there should be no such thing. Anyone who couldn’t return a book on time should simply be disallowed the privilege of using the library again. That would put an end to the need for overdue notices, but quick. Gladys’s mouth was puckered so tightly it all but disappeared as she penned addresses on the penny postcards.
She heard footfalls mounting the interior steps. A brass knob turned and a stranger stepped in, a tall, spare man dressed like a cowboy. He paused, letting his eyes scan the room, the desk, and her, then silently nodded and tipped his hat.
Gladys’s prim mouth relaxed as she returned the nod. The genteel art of hat doffing had become nearly obsolete-what was the world coming to?
He took a long time perusing the place before moving. When he did, there were no cleats. He went directly, quietly, to the card catalogue, slid out the B’s, flipped through the cards and studied them for some time. He closed the drawer soundlessly, then scanned the sunlit room before moving between the oak tables to nonfiction. There were library patrons who, ill at ease when alone in the vast room with Miss Beasley, found it necessary to whistle softly through their teeth while scanning the shelves. He didn’t. He selected a book from the 600’s-Practical Science-moved on to select another and brought them straight to the checkout desk.
"Good afternoon," Gladys greeted in a discreet whisper.
"Afternoon, ma’am." Will touched his hat brim and followed her lead, speaking quietly.
"I see you found what you were looking for."
"Yes, ma’am. I’d like to check these out."
"Do you have a card?"
"No, ma’am, but I’d like to get one."
She moved with military precision, yanking a drawer open, finding a blank card, snapping it on the desktop off the edge of a tidily trimmed fingernail. The nail was virgin, Will was sure, never stained by polish. She closed the drawer with her girded torso, all the while holding her lips as if they were the mounting for a five-karat diamond. When she moved, her head snapped left and right, fanning the air with a smell resembling carnations and cloves. The light from one of the big windows glanced off her rimless glasses and caught the rows of uniform silver-blue ringlets between which the warp and woof of her skull shone pink. She dipped a pen in ink, then held it poised above the card.
"Parker, Will," she transposed aloud while entering the information on the first blank.
"And you’re a resident of Whitney, are you?"
"Ahh…" He rubbed his nose with a knuckle. "Rock Creek Road."
She glanced up with eyes as exacting as calipers, then wrote again while informing him, "I’ll need some form of identification to verify your residency." When he neither spoke nor moved, her head snapped up. "Anything will do. Even a letter with a canceled postmark showing your mailing address."
"I don’t have anything."
"I haven’t lived there long."
She set down her pen with a long-suffering air. "Well, Mr. Parker, I’m sure you understand, I cannot simply loan books to anyone who walks in here unless I can be assured they’re residents. This is a municipal library. By its very meaning, the word municipal dictates who shall use this facility. Of a town, it means, thus this library is maintained by the residents of Whitney, forthe residents of Whitney. I wouldn’t be a very responsible librarian if I didn’t demand some identification now, would I?" She carefully placed the card aside, then crossed her hands on the desktop, giving the distinct impression that she was displeased at having her time and her card wasted.
She expected him to argue, as most did at such an impasse. Instead, he backed up a step, pulled his hat brim low and studied her silently for several seconds. Then, without a word, he nodded, scooped the books against his hip and returned to the nonfiction side where he settled himself on one of the hard oak armchairs in a strong shaft of sunlight, opened a book and began reading.
There were several criteria by which Gladys Beasley judged her library patrons. Cleats, vocal volume, nondisruptiveness and respect for books and furniture. Mr. Parker passed on all counts. She’d rarely seen anyone read more intently, with less fidgeting. He moved only to turn a page and occasionally to follow along with his finger, closing his eyes as if committing a passage to memory. Furthermore, he neither slouched nor abused the opposite chair by using it as a footstool. He sat with his hat brim pulled low, elbows on the table, knees lolling but boots on the floor. The book lay flat on the table where it belonged, instead of torqued against his belly, which was exceedingly hard on spines. Neither did he lick his finger before turning the page-filthy, germ-spreading habit!
Normally, if people came in and asked for a paper and pencil, Miss Beasley gave them a tongue-lashing instead, about responsibility and planning ahead. But Will Parker’s deportment and concentration raised within her regret for having had to deny him a borrower’s card. So she bent her own standard.
"I thought perhaps you might need these," she whispered, placing a pencil and paper at his elbow.
Will’s head snapped up. His shoulders straightened. "Much obliged, ma’am."
She folded her hands over her portly belly. "Ah, you’re reading about bees."
"And apples. Yes, ma’am."
"For what purpose, Mr. Parker?"
"I’d like to raise ’em."
She cocked one eyebrow and thought a moment. "I might have some pamphlets in the back from the extension office that would help."
"Maybe next time, ma’am. I got all I can handle here today."
She offered a tight smile and left him to his studies, trailing a scent strong enough to eat through concrete.
It was mid-afternoon. The only things moving in town were the flies on the ice cream scoop. Lula Peak was bored to distraction. She sat on the end stool in an empty Vickery’s Cafe, grateful when even her brassiere strap slipped down and she had to reach inside her black and white uniform to pull it up. God, this town was going to turn her into a cadaver before she even kicked the bucket! She could die of boredom right here on the barstool and the supper customers would come in and say, "Evenin’, Lula, I’ll have the usual," and not even realize she was a goner until thirty minutes later when their blue plate specials hadn’t arrived.
Lula yawned, leaving her hand inside her uniform, absently rubbing her shoulder. Being a sensual person, Lula liked touching herself. Sure as hell nobody else around this miserable godforsaken town knew how to do it right. Harley, that dumb ass, didn’t know the first thing about finesse when he touched a woman. Finesse. Lula liked the word. She’d just read it in an article on how to better yourself. Yeah, finesse, that’s what Lula needed, a man with a little finesse, a better man in the sack than Harley-Dumb-Ass-Overmire.
Lula suppressed a yawn, stretched her arms wide and thrust her ribs out, swiveling idly toward the window. Suddenly she rocketed from the stool.
Christ, it was him, walking along the street pulling a kid’s wagon. She ran her eyes speculatively over his lanky form, concentrating on his narrow hips and swaying pelvis as he ambled along the town square and nodded at Norris and Nat McCready, those two decrepit old bachelor brothers who spent their dotage whittling on the benches across the street. Lula hustled to the screen door and posed behind it. Look over here, Parker, it’s better than them two boring old turds.
But he moved on without glancing toward Vickery’s. Lula grabbed a broom and stepped into the sun, making an ill-disguised pretense of sweeping the sidewalk while watching his flat posterior continue around the square. He left the wagon in the shade of the town hall steps and went inside.
So did Lula. Back into Vickery’s to thrust the broom aside and glance impatiently at the clock. Two-thirty. She drummed her long orange nails across the countertop, plunked herself onto the end stool and waited for five minutes. Agitated. Peeved. Nobody was going to come in here for anything more than a glass of iced tea and she knew it. Not until at least five-thirty. Old Man Vickery would be madder than Cooter Brown if he found out she’d slipped away and left the place untended. But she could tell him she’d run over to the library for a magazine and hadn’t been gone a minute.
Deciding, she twisted off the stool and flung off her three-pointed apron. The matching headpiece followed as she whipped out her compact. A dash of fresh blaze orange on her lips, a check of the seams in her silk stockings and she was out the door.
Gladys Beasley looked up as the door opened a second time that afternoon. Her mouth puckered and her chin tripled.
"Afternoon, Mizz Beasley," Lula chirped, her voice ringing off the twelve-foot ceiling.
"Shh! Read the sign!"
Lula glanced at the sign on the front of Miss Beasley’s desk: Silence is Golden. "Oh, sorry," she whispered, covering her mouth and giggling. She glanced around-ceiling, walls, windows-as if she’d never seen the place before, which wasn’t far from the truth. Lula was the kind of woman who read True Confessions, and Gladys didn’t stoop to using the taxpayers’ money for smut like that. Lula stepped farther inside.
"Oh, sorry. I’ll tiptoe."
Will Parker glanced up, scanned Lula disinterestedly and resumed his reading.
The library was U-shaped, wrapped around the entry steps. Miss Beasley’s desk, backed by her private workroom, separated the huge room into two distinct parts. To the right was fiction. To the left nonfiction. Lula had never been on the left where Parker sat now. Remembering about finesse, she moved to the right first, drifting along the shelves, glancing up, then down, as if examining the titles for something interesting. She removed a book bound in emerald green-the exact shade of a dress she’d been eyeing over at Cartersville in the Federated Store. Classy color that’d look swell with her new Tropical Flame nail polish-she spread her hands on the book cover and tipped her head approvingly. She’d have to think up something good to entice Harley to buy that little number for her. She stuck the book back in its slot and moved to another. Melville. Hey, she’d heard of this guy! Must’ve done something swell. But the spine was too wide and the printing too small, so she rammed it back on the shelf and looked further.
Lula finessedher way through a full ten minutes of fiction before finally tiptoeing past Miss Beasley to the other side. She twiddled two fingers as she passed, then clamped her hands at the base of her spine, thrusting her breasts into bold relief.
Gladys tightened her buttocks and followed where Lula had been, pushing in a total of eleven books she’d left beetling over the edges of the shelves.
Lula found the left side arranged much as the right, a spacious room with fanlight windows facing the street. Bookshelves filled the space between the windows and the floor, and covered the remaining three walls. The entire center of the room was taken up by sturdy oak tables and chairs. Lula sidled around the perimeter of the room without so much as peeking at Will. She grazed one fingertip along the edge of a shelf, then sucked it with studied provocativeness. She turned a corner, eased on to where a bank of shelves ran perpendicular to the wall and moved between them, putting herself in profile to Will, should he care to turn his head and see. She clasped her hands at the base of her spine, creating her best silhouette, watching askance to see if he’d glance over. After several minutes, when he hadn’t, she grabbed a biography of Beethoven and, while turning its pages, eyed Will discreetly.
God, was he good looking. And that cowboy hat did things to her insides, the way he wore it low, shadowing his eyes in the glare of the afternoon sun. Still waters,she thought, taken by the way he sat with one finger under a page, so unmoving she wished she were a fly so she could land on his nose. What a nose. Long instead of pug like some she knew. Nice mouth, too. Ooo, would she like to get into that.
He leaned forward to write something and she ran her eyes all over him, down his tapered chest and slim hips to the cowboy boots beneath the table, back up to his crotch. He dropped his pencil and sat back, giving her a clearer profile shot of it.
Lula felt the old itch begin.
He sat there reading his book the way all the "brains" used to read in school while Lula thought about bettering herself. When she could stand it no longer she took Beethoven over and dropped it on the table across from him.
"This seat taken?" she drawled, inverting her wrists, leaning on the tabletop so that her breast buttons strained. His chin rose slowly. As the brim of the cowboy hat lifted, she got a load of deep brown eyes with lashes as long as spaghetti, and a mouth that old Lula had plenty of plans for.
"No, ma’am," he answered quietly. Without moving more than his head, he returned to his reading.
"Mind if I sit here?"
"Go ahead." His attention remained on the book.
"Hey, how about that! I’m studyin’ B’s, too." She held up her book. "Beethoven." In school she’d liked music, so she pronounced it correctly. "He wrote music, back when guys wore wigs and stuff, you know?"
Again Will refused to glance up. "Yeah, I know."
"Well…" The chair screeched as Lula pulled it out. She flounced down, crossed her legs, opened the book and flapped its pages in rhythm with her wagging calf. "So. Haven’t seen y’ around. Where y’ been keepin’yourself?"
He perused her noncommittally, wondering if he should bother to answer. Mercy, she was one hard-looking woman. She had so much hair piled onto her forehead it looked as if she could use a neck brace. Her mouth was painted the color of a chili pepper and she wore too much rouge, too high on her cheeks, in too precise a pattern. She overlapped her wrists on the table edge and rested her breasts on them. They jutted, giving him a clearer shot of cleavage. It pleased Will to let her know he didn’t want any.
"Up at Mrs. Dinsmore’s place."
"Crazy Elly’s? My, my. How is she?" When Will declined to answer, she leaned closer and inquired, "You know why they call her crazy, don’t you? Did she tell you?" Against his will, he became curious, but it would seem like an offense against Mrs. Dinsmore to encourage Lula, so he remained silent. Lula, however, needed no encouragement. "They locked her in that house when she was a baby and pulled all the shades down and didn’t let her out until the law forced ’em to-to go to school-and then they only turned her loose six hours a day and locked her up again, nights." She sat back smugly. "Ah, so you didn’t know." Lula smiled knowingly. "Well, ask her about it sometime. Ask her if she didn’t live in that deserted house down by school. You know-the one with the picket fence around it and the bats flyin’ in the attic window?" Lula leaned closer and added conspiratorially, "If I were you, I wouldn’t hang around up there at her place any longer than I had to. Give you a bad reputation, if you know what I mean. I mean, that woman ain’t wrapped too tight." Lula sat back as if in a chaise, letting her eyelids droop, toying absently with the cover of Beethoven, lifting it, letting it drop with soft repeated plops. "I know it’s tough being new around town. I mean, you must be bored as hell if you have to spend your time in a place like this." Lula’s eyes made a quick swerve around the bookshelves, then came back to him. "But if you need somebody to show y’ around, I’d be happy to." Beneath the table her toe stroked Will’s calf. "I got me a little bungalow just four houses off the town square on Pecan Street-"
"Excuse me, ma’am," Will interrupted, rising. "Got some eggs out in the sun that need selling. I’d better see to ’em."
Lula smirked, watching him move to the bookshelves. He’d got the message. Oh, he’d got it all right-loud and clear. She’d seen him jump when her foot touched his leg. She watched him slip one book into place, then squat down to replace the other. Before he could escape, she sidled into the aisle behind him, trapping him between the two tiers of shelves. When he rose to his feet and turned, she was gratified by his quick blush. "If you’re interested in my offer, I work most days at Vickery’s. I’m off at eight, though." She slipped one finger between his shirt buttons and ran it up and down, across hair and hard skin. Putting on her best kewpie doll face, Lula whispered, "See y’ round, Parker."
As she swung away, exaggeratedly waggling her hips, Will glanced across the sunlit room to find the librarian’s censoring eyes taking in the whole scene. Her attention immediately snapped elsewhere, but even from this distance Will saw how tightly her lips pursed. He felt shaky inside, almost violated. Women like Lula were a clear path to trouble. There was a time when he’d have taken her up on the offer and enjoyed every minute of it. But not anymore. Now all he wanted was to be left to live his life in peace, and that peace meant Eleanor Dinsmore’s place. He suddenly felt a deep need to get back there.
Lula was gone, cleats clicking, by the time Will reached the main desk.
"Much obliged for the use of the paper and pencil, ma’am."
Gladys Beasley’s head snapped up. The distaste was ripe on her face. "You’re welcome."
Will was cut to the quick by her silent rebuff. A man didn’t have to make a move on a hot-blooded woman like that, all he had to do was be in the same pigeonhole with her. Especially-Will supposed-if he’d done time for killing a whore in a Texas whorehouse and people around town knew it.
He rolled his notes into a cylinder and stood his ground. "I was wonderin’, ma’am-"
"Yes?" she snapped, lifting her head sharply, her mouth no larger than a keyhole.
"I got a job. I’m workin’ as a hired hand for Mrs. Glendon Dinsmore. If she’d come in here and tell you I work for her, would that be enough to get me a library card?"
"She won’t come in."
"I don’t believe so. Since she married she’s chosen to live as a recluse. I’m sorry, I can’t bend the rules." She picked up her pen, made a check on a list, then relented. "However, depending upon how long you’ve been working for her, and how long you intend to stay, if she would verify your employment in writing, I should think that would be enough proof of residency."
Will Parker flashed a relieved smile, hooked one thumb in his hind pocket and backed off boyishly, melting the ice from Gladys Beasley’s heart. "I’ll make sure she writes it. Much obliged, ma’am." He headed for the door, then stopped and swung back. "Oh. How late you open?"
"Until eight o’clock weekdays, five Saturdays, and of course, we’re closed Sundays."
He tipped his hat again and promised, "I’ll be back."
As he turned the doorknob she called, "Oh, Mr. Parker?"
"How is Eleanor?"
Will sensed that this inquiry was wholly different from Lula’s. He stood at the door, adjusting his impression of Gladys Beasley. "She’s fine, ma’am. Five months pregnant for the third time, but healthy and happy, I think."
"For the third time. My. I remember her as a child, coming in with Miss Buttry’s fifth grade class-or was it Miss Natwick’s sixth? She always seemed a bright child. Bright and inquisitive. Greet her for me, if you will."
It was the first truly friendly gesture Will had experienced since coming to Whitney. It erased all the sour taste left by Lula and made him feel suddenly warm inside.
"I’ll do that. Thanks, Mrs. Beasley."
"Miss Beasley. Oh, by the way. I got a few dozen eggs I’d like to sell. Where should I try?"
Exactly what it was, Gladys didn’t know-perhaps the way he’d assumed she had a husband, or the way he’d rejected the advances of that bleached whore, Lula, or perhaps nothing more than the way his smile had transformed his face at the news that he could have a library card after all. For whatever reason, Gladys found herself answering, "I could use a dozen myself, Mr. Parker."
"You could? Well… well, fine!" Again he flashed a smile.
"The rest you might take to Purdy’s General, right across the square."
"Purdy’s. Good. Well, let me go out and-Oh-" His thumb came out of the pocket, his hand hung loosely at his hip. "I just remembered. They’re all in one crate."
"Put them in this." She handed him a small cardboard filing box.
He accepted it, nodded silently and went out. When he returned, she asked, "How much will that be?" She rummaged through a black coin purse and didn’t look up until realizing he hadn’t answered. "How much, Mr. Parker?"
"Well, I don’t rightly know."
"No, ma’am. They’re Mrs. Dinsmore’s eggs and these’re the first I’ve sold for her."
"I believe the current price is twenty-four cents a dozen. I’ll give you twenty-five, since I’m sure they’re fresher than those at Calvin Purdy’s store, and since they’re hand delivered." She handed him a quarter, which he was reluctant to accept, knowing it was higher than the market value. "Well, here, take it! And next week, if you have more, I’ll take another dozen."
He took the coin and nodded. "Thank you, ma’am. ’Preciate it and I know Mrs. Dinsmore will, too. I’ll be sure to tell her you said hello."
When he was gone Gladys Beasley snapped her black coin purse shut, but held it a moment, studying the door. Now thatwas a nice young man. She didn’t know why, but she liked him. Well, yes she did know why. She fancied herself an astute judge of character, particularly when it came to inquiring minds. His was apparent by his familiarity with the card catalogue, his ability to locate what he wanted without her assistance and his total absorption in his study, to say nothing of his eagerness to own a borrower’s card.
And, too, he was willing to go back out to Rock Creek Road and work for Eleanor Dinsmore even after the pernicious twaddle spewed by Lula Peak. Gladys had heard enough to know what that harlot was trying to do-how could anyone have missed it in this echoing vault of a building? And more power to Will Parker for turning his back on that hussy. Gladys had never been able to understand what people got out of spreading destructive gossip. Poor Eleanor had never been given a fair shake by the people of this town, to say nothing of her own family. Her grandmother, Lottie McCallaster, had always been eccentric, a religious fanatic who attended every tent revival within fifty miles of Whitney. She was said to have fallen to her knees and rolled in the throes of her religious conviction, and it was well known she got baptized every time a traveling salvation man called for sinners to become washed in the Blood. She’d finally nabbed herself a self-proclaimed man of God, a fire-and-brimstone preacher named Albert See who’d married her, gotten her in a family way, installed her in a house at the edge of town and gone on circuit, leaving her to raise her daughter, Chloe, chiefly alone.
Chloe had been a silent wraith of a girl, with eyes as large as horse chestnuts, dominated by Lottie, subjected to her fanaticism. How a girl like that, who was scarcely ever out of her mother’s scrutiny, had managed to get pregnant remained a mystery. Yet she had. And afterward, Lottie had never shown her face again, nor allowed Chloe to, or the child, Eleanor, until the truant officer had forced them to let her out to attend school, threatening to have the child legally removed to a foster home unless they complied.
What the town librarian remembered best about Eleanor as a child was her awe of the spacious library, and of her freedom to move through it without reprimand, and how she would stand in the generous fanlight windows with the sun pouring in, absorbing it as if she could never get enough. And who could blame her-poor thing?
Gladys Beasley wasn’t an overly imaginative woman, but even so, she shuddered at the thought of what life must have been like for the poor bastard child, Eleanor, living in that house behind the green shades, like one buried alive.
She’d almost be willing to give Will Parker a borrower’s card on the strength of his befriending Eleanor alone, now that she knew of it. And when she marched back to nonfiction and found a biography of Beethoven lying on a table, but "Bees" and "Apples" tucked flush in their slots, she knew she’d judged Will Parker correctly.
Calvin Purdy bought the eggs at twenty-four cents a dozen. The money belonged to Mrs. Dinsmore, but Will had nine dollars of his own buttoned safely into his breast pocket. He touched it-hard and reassuring behind the blue chambray-and thought of taking something to her. Just because people called her crazy and she wasn’t. Just because she’d been locked inside some house most of her life. And because they’d had words before he left. But what should he take? She wasn’t the perfume type. And anyway, perfume seemed too personal. He’d heard that men bought ribbons for ladies, but he’d feel silly walking up to Purdy and asking him to cut a length of yellow silk ribbon to match her yellow maternity dress. Candy? Food made Eleanor sick. She pecked like a sparrow, hardly ate a thing.
In the end he chose a small figurine of a bluebird, gaily painted. She liked birds, and there wasn’t much around her house in the way of decorations. The bluebird cost him twenty-nine cents, and he spent an additional dime on two chocolate bars for the boys. Pocketing his change, he felt a keen exhilaration to get home.
On his way out of town he passed the house with the tilting picket fence surrounding it like the decaying ribs of a dead animal. He stopped to stare, involuntarily fascinated by the derelict appearance of the place, the grass choking the front steps, the rangy morning glories tangling around the doorknob and up a rickety trellis on the front stoop. Tattered green shades covered the windows, their bottoms shredded into ribbons. Gazing at them, he shivered, yet was tempted to investigate closer, to peek inside. But the shades seemed to warn him away.
They’d locked her in? And pulled down the shades? A woman like Eleanor, who loved birds and katydids and the sky and the orchard? Again Will shivered and hurried on with his cargo of two chocolate bars and a glass bluebird, wishing he could have bought her more. It was a curious feeling for a man to whom gift-giving was foreign. The exchange of gifts implied that a person had both friends and money, but Will had seldom known both at once. Though he’d often imagined how exciting it would be to get gifts, he’d never expected this exhilaration at giving them. But now that he knew about Eleanor Dinsmore’s past, he felt provoked by a great impatience to make reparation for the kindness she’d been robbed of as a child.
Would she still be peeved at him? An unexpected ripple of disquiet swept through him at the thought. He stalked along, studying the ground. The wagon rattled behind him. How do a man and woman learn to make up their differences? At thirty years old, Will didn’t know, but it suddenly became vital that he learn. Always before, if a woman harassed him, he moved on. This was different, Eleanor Dinsmore was different. She was a good mother, a fine woman who’d been locked in a house and called crazy, and if he didn’t tell her she wasn’t, who would?
Eleanor had been miserable ever since Will left. She’d been churlish and snappy with him and he’d been gone nearly three hours on a trip that should have taken only half that time and she was sure he wasn’t coming back. It’s your own fault, Elly. You can’t treat a free man that way and expect him to come back for more.
She put supper on to cook and looked out the back door every three minutes. No Will. She put on a clean dress and combed her hair, twisting it tight and neat on her head. She studied her wide, disturbed eyes in the small mirror on the kitchen shelf, thinking of his face trimmed with shaving lather. He ain’t comin’ back, fool. He’s ten miles in the other direction by now and how you gonna like choppin’ that wood in the morning? And how you gonna like mealtimes lookin’ at his empty chair? And talkin’ to nobody but the boys? Closing her eyes, she wrapped her fists around one another and pressed them to her mouth. I need you, Parker. Please come back.
As Will hurried up the rutted driveway he heard his own heart drumming in his ears. Reaching the edge of the clearing, his footsteps faltered: she was waiting on the porch. Waiting for him, Will Parker. Dressed in her yellow outfit with her hair freshly combed, the boys romping at her ankles and the smell of supper drifting clear across the yard. She raised a hand and waved. "What took you so long? I was worried."
Not only waiting, but worried. A burst of elation ricocheted through his body as he smiled and stretched his stride.
"Studying takes time."
"Will!" Donald Wade came running. "Hey, Will!" He collided with Will’s knees and clung, head back and hair hanging, making the welcome complete. Will roughed the boy’s silky hair.
"Hi, short stuff. How’s things around here?"
"Everything’s peachy." He fell into step beside Will, helping to pull the wagon.
"What’d you do while I was gone?"
"Mama made me take a nap." Donald Wade made a distasteful face.
"A nap, huh?" Reaching the bottom of the porch steps, Will dropped the wagon handle and lifted his eyes to the woman above him. "Did she take one with you?"
"No. She took a bath in the washtub."
"Donald Wade, you hush now, you hear?" Eleanor chided, her cheeks turning suspiciously bright. Then, to Will, "How’d you do?"
"Did good." He handed her the money. "Miss Beasley at the library took one dozen eggs for twenty-five cents, and I sold the rest to Calvin Purdy for twenty-four cents a dozen. It’s all there, a dollar twenty-one. Miss Beasley said to tell you hello."
"She did?" Eleanor’s palm hung in midair, the money forgotten.
"Said she remembers you comin’ in with Miss Buttry’s fifth grade class or Miss Natwick’s sixth."
"Well, imagine that." Her smile was all amazement and wide eyes. "Who’d have thought she’d remember me?"
"She did, though."
"I never even thought she knew my name."
Will grinned. "Don’t think there’s much that woman doesn’t know."
Eleanor laughed, remembering the librarian.
"I’ll bet it was pretty in the library, wasn’t it?"
"Sure was. Bright." Will gestured in the air. "With big windows, rounded at the top. Smelled good, too."
"Did you get your card?"
"Couldn’t. Not without you. Miss Beasley says you’ll have to verify that I work for you."
"You mean go in there?" The animation left Elly’s face and her voice quieted. "Oh, I don’t think I could do that."
Yesterday he’d have asked why. Today he only replied, "You can write a note. She said that’d be okay and I can bring it next time I go in. Have to go in next week again. Miss Beasley said she’ll want another dozen eggs."
"She did?" Eleanor’s elation returned as quickly as it had fled.
"That’s right. And, you know, I was thinking." Will tipped his hat brim back, hooked one boot on the bottom step and braced a hand on the knee. "If you were to pack the extra cream in pint jars I think I could sell it, too. Make a little extra."
She couldn’t resist teasing, "You gonna turn into one of those men who loves money, Mr. Parker?"
He knew full well there was more than teasing behind the remark-there was her very real aversion to town. A recluse, Miss Beasley had called her. Was she really? To the point of avoiding contact with people even if it meant making money? She hadn’t even bothered to count what he’d handed her. He supposed this was something they’d have to work out eventually. "No, ma’am." He withdrew his boot from the step. "It’s just that I don’t see any sense in losing the opportunity to make it."
Donald Wade spotted the brown paper bag and tugged Will’s sleeve. "Hey, Will, what you got in there?"
Will reluctantly pulled his attention from Eleanor and went down on one knee beside the wagon, an arm around the boy’s waist. "Well, what do you think?" Donald Wade shrugged, his eyes fixed on the sack. "Maybe you better look inside and see." Donald Wade’s hazel eyes gleamed with excitement as he peeked into the bag, reached and withdrew the two candy bars.
"Candy," he breathed, awed.
"Chocolate." Will crossed his elbows on his knee, smiling. "One for you, one for your little brother."
"Chocolate." Donald Wade repeated, then to his mother, "Lookit, Mama, Will brung us chocolate!"
Her appreciative eyes sought Will’s and he felt as if someone had just tied a half-hitch around his heart. "Now wasn’t that thoughtful. Say thank you to Mr. Parker, Donald Wade."
With an effort, Will dropped his attention to the boy. "You peel one for Thomas now, all right?"
Grinning, he watched the boys settle side by side on the step and begin to made brown rings around their mouths.
"I appreciate your thinkin’ of them, Mr. Parker."
He slowly stretched to his feet and looked up into her face. Her lips were tipped up softly. Her hair was drawn back in a thick tied-down braid the color of autumn grain. Her eyes were green as jade. How could anybody lock her in a house?
"Boys got to have a little candy now and then. Brought something for you, too."
"For me?" She spread a hand on her chest.
He extended an arm with the sack caught between two fingers. "It isn’t much."
"Why, whatever-" Elly excitedly plunged her hand inside, wasting not a second on foolish dissembling. Withdrawing the figurine, she held it at shoulder level. "Oh myyy… oh, Mr. Parker." She covered her mouth and blinked hard. "Oh, myyyy." She held the bluebird at arm’s length and caught her breath. "Why, it’s beautiful."
"I had a little money of my own," he clarified, since she hadn’t bothered to count the egg money and he didn’t want her thinking he’d spent any of hers. He could tell by her expression the thought hadn’t entered her mind. She smiled into the bluebird’s painted eye, her own shining with delight. "A bluebird… imagine that." She pressed it to her heart and beamed at Will. "How did you know I like birds?"
He knew. He knew.
He stood watching her, feeling ready to burst with gratification as she examined the bird from every angle. "I just love it." She flashed him another warm smile. "It’s the nicest present I ever got. Thank you."
"See, boys?" She squatted to show them. "Mr. Parker brought me a bluebird. Isn’t it about the prettiest thing you ever saw? Now where should we put it? I was thinkin’ on the kitchen table. No, maybe on my nightstand-why, it would look good just about anyplace, wouldn’t it? Come in and help me decide. You too, Mr. Parker."
She bustled inside, so excited she forgot to hold the screen door open for Thomas to scramble inside. Will plucked him off the step and got chocolate on his shirt, but what was a little chocolate to a man so happy? He stood just inside the kitchen doorway with the baby on his arm, watching Eleanor try the bird everywhere-on the table, on the cupboard, beside the cookie jar. "Where should we put it, Donald Wade?" Always, she made the boy feel important. And now Will, too.
"On the windowsill, so all the other birds will see it and come close."
"Mmm… on the windowsill." She pinched her lower lip and considered the sills-east, south and west. The kitchen jutted off the main body of the building, a room with ample brightness. "Why of course. Now why didn’t I think of that?" She placed the bluebird on a west sill, overlooking the backyard, where the clothespoles had been repaired and now stood straight and sturdy. She leaned back, clapped once and pressed her folded hands against her chin. "Oh, yes, it’s exactly what this place needed!"
It needed a lot more than a cheap glass figurine, but as Eleanor danced across the room and squeezed Will’s arm, he felt as if he’d just bought her a collector’s piece.
If Will had been eager to make improvements around the place before his trip to town, afterward he worked even harder, fired by the zeal to atone for a past which was none of his making. He spent hours wondering about the people who’d locked her in that house behind the green shades. And how long she’d been there, and why. And about the man who’d taken her away from it, the one she said she still loved. And how long it might take for that love to begin fading.
It was during those days that Will became aware of things he’d never noticed before: how she hadn’t hung a curtain on a window; how she paused to worship the sun whenever she stepped outside; how she never failed to find praise for the day-be it rain or shine-something to marvel over; and at night, when Will stepped out of the barn to relieve himself, no matter what the hour… her bedroom light was always burning. It wasn’t until he’d seen it several times that he realized she wasn’t up checking on the boys, but sleeping with it on.
Why had her family done it to her?
But if anyone respected a person’s right to privacy it was Will. He needn’t know the answers to accept the fact that he was no longer laboring only to have a roof over his head, but to please her.
He mended the road-oiled the harness and hitched Madam to a heavy steel road scraper shaped like a giant grain shovel, with handles like a wheelbarrow, an ungainly thing to work with. But with Madam pulling and Will pushing, directing the straight steel cutting edge into the earth, they tackled the arduous task. They shaved off the high spots, filled in the washouts, rolled boulders off to the sides and grubbed out erupted roots.
Donald Wade became Will’s constant companion. He’d take a seat on a bank or a branch, watching, listening, learning. Sometimes Will gave him a shovel and let him root around throwing small rocks off to the side, then praised him for his fledgling efforts as he’d heard Eleanor do.
One day Donald Wade observed, "My daddy, he didn’t work much. Not like you."
"What did he do, then?"
"He puttered. That’s what Mama called it."
"Puttered, huh?" Will mulled this over a moment and asked, "He treated your Mama nice though, didn’t he?"
"I guess so. She liked him." After a moment’s pause, Donald Wade added, "But he din’t buy her bluebirds."
While Will considered this, Donald Wade voiced another surprising question.
"Are you my daddy now?"
"No, Donald Wade, I’m sorry to say I’m not."
"You gonna be?"
Will had no answer. The answer depended on Eleanor Dinsmore.
She came twice a day-morning and afternoon-pulling Baby Thomas and a jug of cool raspberry nectar in the wagon. And they’d all sit together beneath the shade of her favorite sourwood tree and relish the treat while she pointed out the birds she knew. She seemed to know them all-doves and hawks and warblers and finches. And trees, too-the sourwood itself, the tulip poplar, redbud, basswood and willow, so many more varieties than Will had realized were there. She knew the small plants, too-the gallberry and snow vine, the sumac and crownbeard and one with a lovely name, summer farewell, which brought a winsome tilt to her lips and made him study those lips more closely than the summer farewell.
Those minutes spent resting beneath the sourwood tree were some of the finest of Will’s life.
"My," she would say, "this is gonna be some road." And it would be all the charge Will needed to return to the scraper and push harder than before.
The day the road was done Will whispered his thanks into Madam’s ear, fed her a gold carrot from the garden and gave her a bath as a treat. After supper, he and Eleanor took the boys for a wagon ride down the freshly-bladed earth that rose firm into the trees before dripping to link their house with the county road below.
"It’s a beautiful road, Will," she praised, and he smiled in quiet satisfaction.
The next day he tightened up a wagon, replaced two boards on its bed, hitched up Madam and took his first load of junk to the Whitney dump. He took, too, a note from Eleanor, and Miss Beasley’s eggs, plus several dozen more and five pints of cream, one which never made it farther than the library.
"Cream!" Miss Beasley exclaimed. "Why, I’ve had the worst craving for strawberry shortcake lately and what’s strawberry shortcake without whipped cream?" She chuckled and got out her black snap-top coin purse.
And though Will checked out his first books with his own library card, just before he left she remembered, "Oh, I didfind some pamphlets on beekeeping while I was sorting in the back room. You need not return these." She produced a mustard-yellow envelope bearing his name and laid it on the desk. "They’re put out by the county extension office… every five years,mind you, when the bee is the only creature on God’s green earth that hasn’t changed its habits or its habitat since before man walked upright! But when the new pamphlets come in, the old ones get thrown-useful or not!" She blustered on, busying her hands, carefully avoiding Will’s eyes. "Why, I’ve got a good mind to write to my county commissioner about such outright waste of the taxpayers’ money!"
Will was charmed.
"Thank you, Miss Beasley."
Still she wouldn’t look at him. "No need to thank me for something that would’ve gone to waste anyway."
But he saw beyond her smokescreen to the woman who had difficulty befriending men and his heart warmed more.
"I’ll see you next week."
She looked up only when his hand gripped the brass knob, but even from a distance he noted the two spots of color in her cheeks.
Smiling to himself, Will loped down the library steps with his stack of books on one hip and the yellow envelope slapping his thigh.
"Myyy, myyy… if it isn’t Mr. Parker."
Will came up short at the sight of Lula Peak, two steps below, smiling at him with come-hither eyes. She wore her usual Betty Grable foreknot, lipstick the color of a blood clot, and stood with one hip permanently jutted to hold her hand.
"Afternoon, ma’am." He tried to move around her but she side-stepped adroitly.
"What’s your hurry?" She chewed gum as gracefully as an alligator gnawing raw meat.
"Got cream in the wagon that shouldn’t be sitting in the sun."
She smoothed the hair up the back of her head, then, raising her chin, skimmed three fingertips down the V of her uniform. "Lawzy… it’s a hot one all right." Standing one step below Will, Lula was nearly nose to navel with him. Her eyes roved lazily down his shirt and jeans to the envelope on which Miss Beasley had written his name. "So it’s Will, is it?" she drawled. Her eyes took their time climbing back up, lingering where they would. "Will Parker," she drawled, and touched his belt buckle with the tip of one scarlet nail. "Nice name… Will." It took control for him to resist leaping back from her touch, but he stood his ground politely while she tipped her head and waggled her shoulders. "So, Will Parker, why don’t you stop in at the cafe and I’ll fix you a ni-i-ice glass of iced tea. Taste good on a hot one like this, mmm?"
For one horrified moment he thought she might run that nail straight down his crotch. He jumped before she could. "Don’t think I’ll have time, ma’am." This time she let him pass. "Got things to do." He felt her eyes following as he climbed the wagon wheel, took the reins and drove around the town square to Purdy’s.
That woman was trouble with a capital T, and he didn’t want any. Not of it or of her. He made sure he avoided glancing across the square while he entered the store.
Purdy bought the cream and the eggs and said, "Fine, anytime you got fresh, just bring ’em in. I got no trouble getting rid of fresh."
Lula was gone when Will came out of the store, but her kewpie doll act left him feeling dirty and anxious to get back home.
Eleanor and the boys were waiting under their favorite sourwood tree this time. Will gravitated toward them like a compass needle toward the North Pole. Here was where he belonged, here with this unadorned woman whose simplicity made Lula look brassy, whose wholesomeness made Lula look brazen. He found it hard to believe that in his younger days he’d have chosen a woman like that over one like this.
She stood, brushing off the back of her skirt as he drew up and reined in Madam.
They smiled at each other and a moment of subtle appreciation fluttered between them. She boosted the boys up onto the wagon seat and he transferred them into the back, swinging them high and making them giggle. "You sit down back there now so you don’t tumble off." They scrambled to follow orders and Will leaned to extend a helping hand to their mother. He clasped her palm and for the space of two heartbeats neither of them moved. She poised with one foot on a wagon cleat, her green eyes caught in his brown. Abruptly she clambered up and sat down, as if the moment had not happened.
He thought about it during the days that followed, while he continued improving the place, scrubbing walls and ceilings, finishing the plastering and painting walls that appeared to never have seen paint before. He put doors on the bottom kitchen cabinets and built new ones for above. He bartered a used kitchen sink for a piece of linoleum (both at a premium and growing scarcer) with which he covered the new cabinet top. The linoleum was yellow, streaked, like sun leaching through daisy petals: yellow, which seemed to suit Eleanor best and set off her green eyes.
She grew rounder and moved more slowly. Day after day he watched her hauling dishpans and slop buckets out to slew in the yard. She washed diapers for only one now, but soon there’d be two. He dug a cesspool and ran a drainpipe from underneath the sink, eliminating the need for carrying out dishpans.
She was radiant with thanks and rushed to dump a first basin of water down the drain and rejoice when it magically disappeared by itself. She said it didn’t matter that he hadn’t been able to find enough linoleum for the floor, too. The room was brighter and cleaner than it had ever been before.
Hewas disappointed about the linoleum for the floor. He wanted the room perfect for her, but linoleum and bathtubs and so many other commodities were getting harder and harder to come by with factories of all kinds converting to the production of war supplies. In prison Will had read the newspaper daily but now he caught up with world events only when he went to the library. Still, he was aware of the rumblings in Europe and wondered how long America could supply England and France with planes and tanks without getting into the fighting herself. He shuddered at the thought, even as he took his first load of scrap metal to town and got a dollar per hundredweight for Glendon Dinsmore’s "junk."
There was talk of America actively joining the war, though America Firsters-among them the Lone Eagle, Charles Lindbergh-spoke out against the U.S. drift toward it. But Roosevelt was beefing up America’s defenses. The draft was already in force, and Will was of age, healthy and single. Eleanor remained blissfully ignorant of the state of the world beyond the end of their driveway.
Then one day Will unearthed a radio in one of the sheds. It took some doing to find a battery for it-batteries, too, were being gobbled up by England to keep walkie-talkies operable. But again he bartered with a spare can of paint, only to find that even when the battery was installed, the radio still refused to work. Miss Beasley found a book that told him how to fix it.
The particular hour he coaxed it back to life, "Ma Perkins" was on the air on the blue network. The boys were having their afternoon nap and Eleanor was ironing. As the staticky program filled the kitchen, her eyes lit up like the amber tube behind the RCA Victor grille.
"How ’bout that-it works!" Will said, amazed.
"Shh!" She pulled up a chair while Will knelt on the floor and together they listened to the latest adventure of the widow who managed a lumberyard in Rushville Center, U.S.A., where she lived, by the golden rule, with her three kids, John, Evey and Fay. Anybody who loved their kids as much as Ma Perkins was all right with Eleanor, and Will could see Ma had gained a faithful listener.
That evening they all hovered close to the magical box while Will and Eleanor watched the boys’ eyes alight at the sound of "The Lone Ranger" and Tonto, his faithful Indian friend, whom he called kemo sabe.
After that, Donald Wade never walked; he galloped. He whinnied, shied, made hoof sounds with his tongue and hobbled "Silver" at the door each time he came in. Will playfully called him kemo sabe one day, and after that Donald Wade tried their patience by calling everybody else kemo sabe a hundred times a day.
The radio brought more than fantasy. It brought reality in the form of Edward R. Murrow and the news. Each evening during supper Will tuned it in. Murrow’s grave voice with its distinctive pause, would fill the kitchen: "This… is London." In the background could be heard the scream of German bombers, the wail of air raid sirens and the thunder of antiaircraft fire. But Will thought he was the only one in the kitchen who truly believed they were real.
Though Elly refused to discuss it, the war was coming, and when it did his number might be called. He pushed himself harder.
He put up next year’s wood, scraped the old linoleum off the kitchen floor, sanded and varnished it, and began fantasizing about installing a bathroom-if he could come up with the fixtures.
And in secret, he read about bees.
They held, for him, an undeniable fascination. He spent hours observing the hives from a distance, those hives he’d at first believed abandoned by the insects but were not. He knew better now. The appearance of only a few bees at the hive opening meant nothing, because most of them were either inside waiting on the queen or out in the fields gathering pollen, nectar and water.
He read more, learned more-that the worker bees carried pollen in their back legs; that they needed saltwater daily to drink; that the honey was made in stackable frames called supers which the beekeeper added to the tops of the hives as the lower ones filled; that the bees ate their own honey to survive the winter; that during summer, the heaviest production time, if the laden supers weren’t removed the honey grew so heavy it sometimes crowded the bees out and they swarmed.
Experimentally, he filled a single pan with saltwater one day. The next day it was empty, so he knew the hives were active. He watched the workers leaving with their back legs thin and returning with their pollen sacks filled. Will knew he was right without even opening the hives to see inside. Glendon Dinsmore had died in April. If no supers had been added since then, the bees could swarm anytime. If none had been taken since then, they were laden with honey. A lot of honey, and Will Parker wanted to sell it.
The subject hadn’t come up again between himself and Eleanor. Neither had she produced any veiled hat or smoker, so he decided to go it without them. Every book and pamphlet advised that the first step toward becoming a beekeeper was to find out if you are bee-immune.
So Will did. One warm day in late October he followed instructions minutely: took a fresh bath to wash any scent of Madam from his body, raided Eleanor’s mint patch, rubbed his skin and trousers with crushed leaves, folded his collar up, his sleeves down, tied string around his trouser cuffs and went out to the derelict Whippet to find out what the bees thought of Will Parker.
Reaching the car, he felt his palms begin to sweat. He dried them on his thighs and eased closer, reciting silently, Move slow… bees don’t like abrupt movement.
He inched toward the car… into the front seat… gripped the wheel… and sat with his heart in his throat.
It didn’t take long. They came from behind him, first one, then another, and in no time at all what seemed like the whole damn colony! He forced himself to sit motionless while one landed in his hair and walked through it, buzzing, the rest still in flight about his face. Another lighted on his hand. He waited for it to drill him, but instead the old boy investigated the brown hair on Will’s wrist, strolled to his knuckles and buzzed away, disinterested.
Well, I’ll be damned.
When he told Eleanor about it, she made up for the stings the bees had foregone.
"You did what!"
She spun from the cupboard with her hands on her hips, her eyes fiery with anger.
"I went out and sat in the Whippet to see if I was bee-immune."
"Without even a veiled hat!"
"I figured you never found one."
"Because I didn’t want you out there!"
"But I told you, I rubbed mint on myself first and washed the smell of Madam off me."
"Madam! What in the sam hell has she got to do with it?"
"Bees hate the smell of animals, especially horses and dogs. It gets ’em mad."
"But you could have been stung. Bad!" She was livid.
"The book says a beekeeper’s got to expect to get stung now and then. It comes with the job. But after a while you get so you hardly notice it."
"Oh, swell!" She flung up a hand disparagingly. "And that’s supposed to make me feel good?"
"Well, I figured since I read it in the pamphlet it must be the right way to start. And the book-"
"The book!" She scoffed. "Don’t tell me about books. Did you wear gloves?"
"No. I wanted to find out-"
"And you didn’t take the smoker either!"
"I would have if you’d have given it to me."
"Don’t you blame me for your own stupidity, Will Parker! That was a damn-fool thing to do and you know it!"
She was so upset she couldn’t countenance him any longer. She spun back to the cake she’d been making, grabbed an egg and cracked it against the lip of the bowl with enough force to annihilate the shell.
"Damn! Now see what you’ve done!"
"Well, if I’d have known you were gonna get mad-"
"I’m not mad!" She fished out a smashed shell and flung it aside vehemently.
"You’re not mad," he repeated dryly.
"No, I’m not!"
"Then what are you hollering about?"
"I’m not hollering!" she hollered and rounded on him again. "I just don’t know what gets into men’s heads sometimes, that’s all! Why, Donald Wade would’ve had more sense than to go out there into a beehive with no more protection than a smear of mint!"
"I didn’t get bit though, did I?" he inquired smugly.
She glared at him, cheeks mottled, mouth pursed, and finally swung away, too frustrated to confront him any longer. "Go on." The order came out low and sizzling. "Git out of my kitchen." She slammed another egg against the bowl, smashing it to smithereens.
He stood five feet away, arms crossed, one shoulder braced indolently against the front room doorway, admiring her angry pink face, the spunky chin, the bounce of her breasts as she whipped the batter. "You know, for someone who’s not mad, you’re sure makin’ a hell of a mess out of those eggshells."
The next thing he knew, an egg came flying through the air and hit him smack in the middle of the forehead.
"Elly, wh-what the hell-"
He bent forward while yolk ran down his nose and white dangled from his chin, dripping onto his boots.
"You think it’s so funny, go stick your head in a beehive and let them clean it off for you!" She stabbed a finger at the door. "Well, git, I said! Git out of my kitchen!"
He turned to follow orders but even before he reached the door, he was laughing. The first bubble rippled up as he reached the screen door, the second as he jogged down the steps, scraping the slime from his face. By the time he hit the yard he was hooting full-bore.
He shook his head like a dog after a swim and cackled merrily. Behind him the screen door opened and he spun just in time to form a mitt for the next egg she let fly. It burst in his palms, against his hip.
He jigged backward, chortling. "Whooo-ee! Look out, Joe DiMaggio!"
"Damn you, Parker!"
"Ha! Ha! Ha!"
All the way to the well he laughed, and kept it up while he inspected his shirt, stripped it off and rinsed it and himself beneath the pump. He was still chuckling as he hung it on a fencepost to dry.
Then the truth struck him and he became silent as if plunged underwater.
It caught him like an uppercut on the chin, snapped him erect to stare at the house.
She cares about you, Parker! And you care about her!
His heart began pounding as he stood motionless in the sun with water streaming down his face and chest. Care about her? Admit it, Parker, you love her. He scraped a hand down his face, shook it off and continued staring, coming to grips with the fact that he was in love with a woman who had just fired an egg at him, a woman seven months pregnant with another’s man’s baby, a woman he had scarcely touched, never kissed and never desired carnally.
He began moving toward the house in long, unhurried strides, feeling the awesome thump of his pulse in his breast and temples, wondering what to say when he reached her.
She was already on her knees with a bucket and rag when he opened the screen door and let it thud quietly behind him. She went on scrubbing, riveting her attention on the floor. The boys were napping, the radio silent. He stood across the room, watching, wondering, waiting.
Go on, then. Lift her to her feet and see if you were right, Parker.
He moved to stand over her, but she toiled stubbornly, her entire body rocking as she scrubbed with triple the energy required for a simple egg.
He’d never called her by her first name before and it doubled his awareness of her as a woman, and hers of him as a man.
"Eleanor"-spoken softer this time while he gripped her arm as if to tug her up. Her head snapped back, revealing green eyes glimmering with unshed tears.
She was angry, so angry. And the tender tone of his voice added to it, though she didn’t completely understand why. She dashed away the infuriating tears and looked up the considerable length of him, to his bare, wet chest, his attractive face still moist with well water, his hair standing in rills. His eyes appeared troubled, the lashes spiky with moisture. His skin was brown from a long summer’s shirtless labor, and he had filled out until he looked like a lean, fit animal. The sight of him sent a thrill through her vitals. He was all the things that Glendon hadn’t been-honed, hard and handsome. But what man who looked like that would welcome the affections of a plain, crazy woman seven months pregnant, shaped like a watermelon?
Eleanor dropped her chin. He tipped it up with one finger and gave her face a disarming perusal before letting a grin tip the corner of his mouth. "You got one hell of an arm, you know that?"
She jerked her chin away and felt his charm seep through her limbs, but nothing in her life had led her to believe she could attract a man like him so she assumed he was only having fun with her. "It’s not funny, Will."
Standing above her, he felt disappointment spear him deeply. He dropped to a squat, his gaze falling on her hands, which rested idly over the edge of a white enamel bucket. "No, it’s not," he replied quietly. "I think we’d better talk about this."
"There’s nothing to talk about."
She suddenly made an L of her arms and dropped her face against her knuckles.
"I’m n-not." Whatever was wrong with her? She never cried, and it was embarrassing to do so before Will Parker for absolutely no good reason at all.
He waited, but she continued sobbing softly, her stomach bobbing. "Don’t…" he whispered, pained.
She threw back her head, rubbed the tears aside and sniffed. "Pregnant women cry sometimes, that’s all."
"I’m sorry I laughed."
"I know, and I’m sorry I threw that egg." She dried her face roughly with her apron. "But, Will, you got to understand about the bees."
"No, you’ve got to understand about the bees."
He held up both palms. "Now wait a minute before you say anything. I’m not going to lie to you. I havebeen in the orchard… a lot. But I’m not him, Eleanor, I’m not Glendon. I’m a careful man and I’m not going to get hurt."
"How do you know that?"
"All right, I don’t. But you just can’t go through life shying away from things you’re scared are going to happen. Chances are they never will anyway." He suddenly dropped both knees to the floor and rested his hands on his thighs, leaning forward earnestly. "Elly, there are bees all over the place. And honey out there, too, a lot of it. I want to gather it and sell it."
"Now wait a minute, let me finish. You haven’t heard it all." He drew a deep breath and plunged on. "I’ll need your help. Not with the hives-I’ll take care of that part so you don’t have to go near them. But with the extracting and bottling."
She glanced away. "For money, I suppose."
"Well, why not?"
She snapped her gaze back to him, spreading her palms. "But I don’t care about money."
"Well, maybe I do. If not for myself, for this place, for you and the kids. I mean, there are things I’d like to do around here. I’ve thought about putting in electricity… and a bathroom maybe. With the new baby coming, I thought you’d want those things, too. And what about the baby-where you gonna get the money to pay the doctor?"
"I told you before, I don’t need any doctors."
"Maybe you didn’t the day the boys got stung-we were lucky that day-but you’ll need one when the baby is born."
"I’m not having any doctor," she declared stubbornly.
"But that’s ridiculous! Who’s going to help you when the time comes?"
She squared her chin and looked him dead in the eye. "I was hopin’ you would."
"Me?" Will’s eyebrows shot up and his head jutted forward. "But I don’t know the first damn thing about it."
"There’s nothing to it," she hurried on. "I’ll tell you everything you need to know beforehand. About all you’d have to do is tie the-"
"Now, wait a minute!" He leaped to his feet, holding up both palms like a traffic cop.
Riveting her eyes on him, she got clumsily to her feet. "You’re scared, aren’t you?"
He stuffed his hands into his back pockets, gripping his buttocks. A pair of creases appeared between his eyebrows. "Damn right I’m scared. And it doesn’t make a bit of sense, not when there’s a qualified doctor down there in town who can do it."
"I told you once, the town’s got no use for me, I got no use for it."
"But that’s cr-" He stopped himself short.
"Crazy?" She finished for him.
"I didn’t mean to say that." Damn his thoughtless tongue. "It’s risky. All kinds of things could happen. Why, it could be born with the cord wrapped around its neck, or breech-what if that happened?"
"It won’t. I had two that come out with no trouble at all. All you’d have to do-"
"No!" He put six feet of space between them before facing her again, scowling. "I’m no midwife, goddammit!"
It was the first time Elly had seen him truly angry and she wasn’t sure how to handle him. They faced off, as motionless as chess pieces, their color high and their mouths set while Eleanor felt uncertainty creeping in. She needed him, but he didn’t seem to understand that. She was afraid, but couldn’t let it show. And if what she was about to say backfired, she’d be the sorriest woman in Gordon County.
"Well, then, maybe you’d better collect your things and move on."
A shaft of dread speared through him. So much for love. How many times in his life had he been through this? Sorry, boy, but we won’t be needin’ you anymore. Wish we could keep you on, boy, but-No matter how hard he worked to prove himself, the end was always inevitable. He should have grown used to it by now. But it hurt, goddammit. It hurt! And she was being unreasonable to expect this of him.
He pulled in a deep, shaky breath and felt his stomach quiver. "Can’t we talk about this, Elly?"
She loved the sound of her name rolling off his tongue. But she wasn’t keeping him around as an ornament. If he was going to stay he had to understand why. Obstinately she knelt and returned to her scrubbing. "I can do it alone. I don’t need you."
No, nobody ever had. He’d thought this once maybe it’d turn out different. But he was as dispensable to Eleanor Dinsmore as he’d been to everyone from his mother on down to the state of Texas. He could give up and simply walk away from this place, away from her, but whether she loved him or not, he was happy here, happier than he ever remembered being, happy and comfortable and busy and achieving. And that was worth fighting for.
He swallowed his pride, crossed the half-scrubbed floor and squatted beside her, resting both elbows on his knees. "I don’t want to go… but I didn’t hire on here to deliver babies," he argued quietly, reasonably. "I mean, it’s"-he swallowed-"it’s a little personal, wouldn’t you say?"
"I guess that would bother you," she returned tightly, continuing to scrub, moving to a new patch of floor to avoid his eyes.
He considered long and hard, fixing his attention on the top of her head. "Yes… yes it would."
"Glendon did it… twice."
"That was different. He was your husband."
Still scrubbing, she said, "You could be, too."
A shaft of hot surprise sizzled through his veins. But what if he’d misunderstood? Weighing her words, he balanced on the balls of his feet, watching her rock above the scrub rag as the wet spot spread. Her cheeks grew flushed as she clarified, "I mean, I’ve been thinking, and it’s okay with me if we went ahead and got married now. I think we’d get along all right, and the boys like you a lot and you’re real good with them, and… and I really don’t throw eggs very often." Still she wouldn’t look up.
He contained a smile while his heartbeat clattered. "Is that what you want?"
Then look at me. Let me see it in your eyes.
But when she finally glanced up he saw only embarrassment at having asked. So… she was not in love, only in a bind… and he was convenient. But, after all, he’d known that from the first time he’d walked in here, hadn’t he?
The silence remained tense. He stretched to his feet and crossed to a window, looked out at the backyard he’d cleaned, the clothespoles he’d sturdied, thinking of how much more he wanted to do for her. "You know, Eleanor, it’s silly for us to do this just because you put up some ad in the sawmill and just because I answered it. That isn’t reason enough for two people to tie up for life, is it?"
"Don’t you want to?"
He glanced over his shoulder to find her watching him with face ablaze.
I’m pregnant and unbright and unpretty, she thought.
I’m an ex-con woman-killer, he thought.
And neither of them spoke what was in their hearts.
At length, he glanced out at the yard again. "It seems to me there should be some… some feeling between people or something." It was his turn to flush, but he kept it hidden from her.
"I like you fine, Will. Don’t you like me?"
She might have been discussing which new rake to select, so emotionless was her tone.
"Yeah," he said throatily, after a moment. "I like you fine."
"Then I think we ought to do it."
Just like that-no harp music swelling out of the heavens, no kissing beneath the stars. Only Elly, seven months pregnant, struggling to her feet and drying her hands on her apron. And Will standing six feet clear of her, staring in the opposite direction. The way they’d laid it out made it sound as exciting as President Roosevelt’s Lend-Lease Program. Well, enough was enough. Before Will agreed, he was going to know exactly what he was getting into here. Resolutely he turned to face her.
"You mind my asking something?"
"Where would I sleep?"
"Where would you want to sleep?"
He really wasn’t sure. Sleeping with her would be tough, lying beside her pregnant body and not touching it. But sleeping in the barn was mighty lonely. He decided to give away no more or less than necessary. "The nights are getting pretty cool out in that barn."
"The only place in here is where Glendon slept, you know."
"I know." After an extended silence, "So?"
"You’d be my husband."
"Yeah," he said expressionlessly, realizing she wasn’t too thrilled at the prospect.
"I… I sleep with the light on."
Her eyebrows lifted. "You do?"
"I’ve been up at night and seen it."
"It’d probably keep you awake."
What was she doing arguing against it when the idea made her have to fight for breath?
He thought long and hard before trusting her enough to reveal a crack in his defenses. "In prison it was never completely dark either."
He noted a softening in her expression and wondered if someday he could trust her with the rest of his vulnerabilities.
"Well, in that case…" The silence welled around them while they tried to think of what to say or do next. Had this been a regular proposal with the expected emotions on both sides, the moment would undoubtedly have been intimate. Because it wasn’t, the strain multiplied.
"Well…" He rubbed his nose and chuckled nervously.
"Yes… well." She spread her hands, then linked them beneath her swollen belly.
"I don’t know how a person goes about getting married."
"We do it at the courthouse in Calhoun. We can get the license right there, too."
"You want to drive in tomorrow, then?"
"Tomorrow’d be fine."
"We’d better start early. We’ll have to take a wagon, ’cause the boys’ll be with us. And as you know, Madam’s pretty slow."
"Nine o’clock then?"
"Nine should be fine."
For a moment they studied each other, realizing to what they’d just agreed. How awkward. How incredible. Self-consciousness struck them simultaneously. He reached up to pull his hat brim down, only to discover he’d left his hat hanging on the fencepost. So he hooked a thumb in his hind pocket and backed up a step.
"Well… I got work to finish." His thumb jabbed the air above his shoulder.
"So do I."
He backed up two more steps, wondering what she’d do if he switched directions and kissed her. But in the end he followed his own advice and left without trying.
Falling into bed that night, Eleanor lay wide-awake, thinking of the day past, the day to come, the years ahead. Would she and Will live peaceably or fight often? Fighting was something new to her. In the years she’d been married to Glendon, they’d never fought-perhaps because Glendon was just too lazy.
In the place where she’d grown up there was no fighting either. And no laughter. Instead, there had been tension, never-ending tension. From her earliest memories it was there, always hovering like a monster threatening to swoop down and scoop her up with its black wings. It was there in the way Grandmother carried herself, as if to let her shoulders wilt would displease the Lord. It was there in her mother’s careful attempts to walk quietly, carry out orders without complaint, and never meet Grandmother’s eyes. But it was greatest when Grandfather came home. Then the praying would intensify. Then the "purifying" would begin.
Eleanor would kneel on the hard parlor floor, as ordered, while Grandfather raised his hands toward the ceiling and, with his scraggly gray beard trembling and his eyes rolled back in his head, would call down forgiveness from God. Beside her, Grandmother would moan and carry on like a dog having fits, then start talking gibberish as her body trembled. And Mother-the sinner-would squeeze her eyes shut and interlace her fingers so tightly the knuckles turned white, and rock pitifully on her knees while her lips moved silently. And she, Eleanor-the child of shame-would lower her forehead to her folded hands and peek out with one eye at the spectacle, wondering what it was she and her mother had done.
It seemed impossible that Mother could have done anything bad. Mother was meek as a violet, hardly ever spoke at all, except when Grandfather demanded that she pray aloud and ask forgiveness for her depravity. What was depravity? the child, Eleanor, wondered. And why was she a child of shame?
While Eleanor was small Mother sometimes talked to her, quietly, in the privacy of the bedroom they shared. But as time went on, Mother grew more tacit and withdrawn. She worked hard-Grandmother saw to that. She did all the gardening, while Grandmother pulled back the edge of the shade and stood sentinel. If anyone passed on the road, Grandmother would hasten to the back door and hiss through a crack, "Ssst! Get in here, Chloe!" until in time, Chloe no longer waited for the order, but scuttled inside at the first glimpse of anyone approaching.
Three were allowed near, only three, and these out of necessity: the milkman, who left his bottles on the back step; the Raleigh man from whom they bought their pantry stock; and an old man named Dinsmore who delivered ice for their icebox until his son, Glendon, took over. If anyone else knocked on their door-the school principal, an occasional tramp looking for a free meal, the census taker-they saw no more than a front shade being bent stealthily from inside.
Eventually the truant officer began coming, pounding on the door authoritatively, demanding that it be opened. Did they have a child in there? If so, she had to attend school: it was the law.
Grandmother would stand well away from the drawn shades, her face a deadly mask, and whisper, "Silence, Eleanor, don’t say a word!"
Then one time the truant officer came when Grandfather was home. This time he shouted, "Albert See? We know you have a child in there who’s school age. If you don’t open this door I’ll get a court order that’ll give me the right to break it down and take her! You want me to do that, See?"
And so Eleanor’s schooldays began. But they were painful for the colorless child already a year older and a head taller than the others in her first grade class. The other children treated her like the oddity she was-a gawky, silent eccentric who was ignorant of the most basic games, didn’t know how to function in a group, and stared at everything and everybody with big green eyes. She was hesitant at everything and when she occasionally showed moments of glee, jumping and clapping at some amusement, she did so with disquieting abruptness, then fell still as if someone had turned off her switch. When teachers tried to be kind, she backed away as if threatened. When children snickered, she stuck out her tongue at them. And the children snickered with cruel regularity.
School, to Eleanor, seemed like exchanging one prison for another. So she began playing hooky. The first time she did it she feared God would find out and tell Grandmother. But when He didn’t, she tried it again, spending the day in the woods and fields, discovering the wonder of true freedom at last. She knew well how to sit still and silent-in that house behind the green shades she did a lot of that-and for the first time, it reaped rewards. The creatures learned to trust her, to go about their daily routine as if she were one of them-snakes and spiders and squirrels and birds. Most of all the birds. To Eleanor, those wonderful creatures, the only ones not restrained to earth, had the greatest freedom at all.
She began studying them. When Miss Buttry’s fifth grade class went to the library Eleanor found an Audubon book with colored plates and descriptions of birds’habitats, nests, eggs and voices. In the wilds, she began identifying them: the ruby-crowned kinglet, a spirited bundle of elfin music; the cedar waxwings, who appeared in flocks, seemed always affectionate and sometimes got drunk on overripe fruit; the blue jay, pompous and arrogant, but even more beautiful than the meek cardinals and tanagers.
She brought crumbs in her pockets and laid them in a circle around her, then sat as still as her friend, the barred owl, until a purple finch came and perched in a nearby pine bough, serenading with its mellifluous warble. In time it descended to a lower branch where it cocked its head to study her. She outwaited the finch until eventually he advanced and ate her bread. She found the finch a second day-she was convinced it was the same bird-and yet a third, and when she’d learned to imitate its call, summoned it as effortlessly as other children whistled up their dog. Then one day she stood like the Statue of Liberty, the crumbs in her palm, and the finch perched on her hand to eat.
At school shortly thereafter, a group of children were exchanging boasts. A little girl with black pigtails and an overbite said, "I can do thirty-seven cartwheels without getting dizzy." Another, with the fattest belly in class, boasted, "I can eat fourteen pancakes at one time!" A third, the most notorious liar in class, claimed, "My daddy is going on a safari hunt to Africa next year and he’s taking me with him."
Eleanor edged close to their exclusive circle and offered timidly, "I can call the birds and make them eat off my hand."
They gaped at her as if she were lunatic, then tittered and closed their ranks once again. After that the taunts were whispered loudly enough so they wouldn’t fail to reach her ears-Crazy Elly See, talks to birds and lives in that house with the shades pulled down, she and her batty mother and her battier grandma and grandpa.
It was during one of her truancies from school that she first spoke to Glendon Dinsmore. She was late heading home and came bursting from the woods, clattering down a steep embankment, sending rocks tumbling to the road below, startling a mule which brayed and side-stepped, nearly overturning Dinsmore’s wagon.
"Whoa!" he barked, while the animal nearly splintered the single-tree with a powerful kick. When he’d gotten the beast under control, he took off his dusty felt hat and whacked it on the wagon seat in agitation. "Lord a-mighty, girl, what you mean by stormin’ outa the woods that way!"
"I’m in a hurry. Gotta get home before the schoolkids walk by."
"Well, you scared poor Madam out of her last-year’s hair! You ought to be more careful around animals."
"Sorry," she replied, mollified.
"Aww…" He thumped his hat back on and seemed to mellow. "Guess you didn’t stop to think. But you be more careful next time, you hear?" He glanced speculatively at the woods, then back at her. "So you’re playin’ hooky, huh?" When she didn’t answer, his look grew shrewder and he thrust his head forward. "Hey, don’t I know you?"
She crossed her arms behind her back, rocked left to right twice. "You used to deliver milk to our house when I was little."
"I did?" She nodded while he scratched his temple, pushing the hat askew. "What’s your name again?"
"Elly See…" He paused to recall. "Why, of course. I remember now. And mine’s Glendon Dinsmore."
"You know?" He gave a crooked smile of surprise. "Well, how about that? Don’t come to your house no more, though."
Elly scuffed the dirt with her toe. "I know. Grampa bought an electric refrigerator so we wouldn’t have to have ice delivered no more. They don’t like people comin’ in."
"Oh… so… I wondered." He motioned along the road with a thumb and offered, "I’m goin’ your way. Can I give you a lift?"
She shook her head, clasping her hands more tightly behind her back, making her dress front appear as if she’d tucked two acorns inside. He was a grown-up man by now, a good seventeen, eighteen years old, she figured. If Grandma saw her coming home in his wagon she’d end up doing hours on her knees.
"Well, why not? Madam don’t mind pullin’ two."
"I’d get in trouble. I’m s’posed to come straight home from school and I ain’t supposed to talk to strangers."
"Well, I wouldn’t want to get you in trouble. You come up this way often?"
She studied him warily. "Just… sometimes."
"What you do up there in the woods?"
"I study birds." As an afterthought, she added, "For school, you know?"
He raised his chin and nodded widely, as if to say, Ah, I see.
"Birds is nice," he offered, then picked up the reins. "Well, maybe I’ll run into you again someday, but I better not keep you now. So long, Elly."
She watched him drive away, mystified. He was the first person in her twelve-year experience who’d ever treated her as if she weren’t either crazy or a child of shame. She thought about him during prayers after that, to take her mind off her aching knees. He was a rather scruffy-looking fellow, dressed in overalls and thick boots, with only enough beard to make him look prickly. But she didn’t care about his looks, only that he treated her as if she weren’t some oddity.
The next time she escaped to the woods she found a spot high above the rocky bank behind a juniper bush where she could watch the road and remain hidden. From her secret perch she waited for him to reappear. When he didn’t, she was surprised to find herself disappointed. She watched for three days before giving up, never fully understanding what she’d expected had he come along the road as before. Talk, she supposed. It had felt good to simply talk to someone.
Nearly a full year passed before she ran into him again. It was autumn but warm, a day of bright leaves and dusky sky. Elly was stalking bobwhites, the little lords of the fencerows whose voices she loved. Unable to flush any along the fenceline, she headed into the woods to search in heavier cover where they roosted in bevies on the ground, facing outward. She was calling in a clear whistle: quoi-lee, quoi-lee, when she flushed not a quail from the sumac bushes, but Glendon Dinsmore from over the next hill. She stopped in her tracks and watched him approach, cradling a gun in one arm. He raised the other, waved, and called, "Hey, Elly!"
She stood sober, awaiting his arrival. Stopping in front of her, he repeated, "Hey, Elly."
"Hey, Glendon," she returned.
"How you doin’?"
"Doin’ all right, I reckon."
They stood for a moment in a void. She appraised him smilelessly, while he appeared pleased at having run into her. He looked exactly as he had last time: same overalls, same scruffy beard, same dusty hat. Finally he shifted his stance, rubbed his nose and inquired, "So, how’s them birds of yours?"
"What birds?" Her birds were her business, nobody else’s.
"You said you was studyin’ birds. What you learnin’?"
He’d remembered for a whole year that she studied birds? Elly softened. "I’m tryin’ to call the bobwhites outa hiding."
"You can call ’em? Golly." He sounded impressed, unlike the girls at school.
"Sometimes. Sometimes it don’t work. What you doin’ with that there gun?"
"Huntin’! You mean you shoot critters?"
"Deer, I do."
"I couldn’t never shoot no critter."
"My daddy and me, we eat the deer."
"Well, I hope you don’t get one."
He reared back and laughed, one brief hoot, then said, "Girlie, you’re somethin’. I ’membered, you was somethin’. So, did you see any bobwhites?"
"Nope. Not yet. You see any deer?"
"Nope, not yet."
"I seen one, but I won’t tell you where. I see him almost every day."
"You come out here every day?"
"Me too, during huntin’ season."
She pondered that momentarily, but any suggestion of meeting again seemed ludicrous. After all, she was only thirteen and he was five years older.
Frightened by the mere thought, she spun away abruptly. "I gotta go." She trotted off.
"Hey, Elly, wait!"
She halted twenty feet away, facing him.
"Maybe I’ll see y’ out here sometime. I mean, well, huntin’ season’s on a couple more weeks."
"Maybe." She studied him in silence, then repeated, "I gotta go. If I ain’t home by five after four they make me pray an extra half hour."
Again she spun and ran as fast as her legs would carry her, amazed by his friendliness and the fact that he seemed to care not a whit about her craziness. After all, he’d been inside that house; he knew where she came from, knew her people. Yet he wanted to be her friend.
She went back to the same spot the next day but hid where he couldn’t see her. She watched him approach over the same hill, the gun again on one arm, a fat cloth sack in his other. He sat down beneath a tree, laid the gun across his lap and the sack at his hip. He pushed back his dusty hat, fished a corncob pipe from his bib, filled it from a drawstring sack and lit it with a wooden match. She thought she had never in her life seen anyone so content.
He smoked the entire pipe, his lumpy boots crossed, one arm resting over his stomach. When he knocked the dottle from his pipe and ground it dead with his boot, she grew panicky. In a minute he would leave!
She stepped out of hiding and stood still, waiting for him to spot her. When he did, his face lit in a smile.
"Fine day, id’n’t it?"
One day was pretty much like the next to her. She squinted at the sky and remained silent.
"Brought you somethin’," he said, getting to his feet.
"For me?" Her eyes grew suspicious. Where she came from nobody did anything nice for anybody.
"For your birds." He leaned down and picked up the fat sack tied with twine.
She stared at it, speechless.
"How’s your bird studyin’ comin’?"
"Oh… fine. Just fine."
"Last year you was studyin’ them for school. What you doin’ it for this year?"
"Just for fun. I like birds."
"Me too." He set the sack near her toes. "What grade you in?"
"You like it?"
"Not as much as last year. Last year I had Miss Natwick."
"I had her, too. Didn’t care much for school, though. I dropped out after eighth. Took the ice route then and help my daddy around the place." He gestured with his head. "Me and him, we live back there, up on Rock Creek Road."
She glanced that direction but her eyes dropped quickly to the sack lying on the forest floor.
"What’s in it?"
The shy blue grosbeaks might like corn. Maybe with it she could get closer to them. She should thank him, but she’d never learned how. Instead she gave him the second-best thing, a tidbit of her precious knowledge of birds.
"The orioles are my favorite. They don’t eat corn, though. Only bugs and grapes. The grosbeaks, though, they’ll prob’ly love it."
He nodded, and she saw that her reply was all the thanks he needed. He asked more questions about school and she told him she studied the birds sometimes in library books. Sometimes she brought those books to the woods. Other times she came with only a tablet and crayons and drew pictures which she took back to the library to identify the birds.
Out at his place, he told her, he’d put up gourds for birdhouses.
"The birds love ’em. Just drill ’em a hole and they move right in."
"How big of a hole?"
"Depends on the size o’ the bird. And the gourd."
In time he pulled out a watch and said, "It’s goin’ on four. You best be gittin’."
She got only as far as the deadfall beyond the nearby hill before dropping to her knees and untying the twine with trembling fingers. She stared into the sack and her heart raced. She plunged her hands into the dry golden kernels and ran them through her fingers. Excitement was something new for Elly. She’d never before had something to look forward to.
The next day he didn’t show up. But near the sumac bushes where they’d met twice before he left three lumpy green and yellow striped gourds, each drilled with a different-sized hole and equipped with a wire by which to hang it.
A gift. He had given her another gift!
All of the hunting season passed before she saw him again on the last day. He sauntered over the hill with his shotgun and she stood waiting in plain sight, straight as a needle, a flat, unattractive girl whose eyes appeared darker than they really were in her pale, freckled face. She neither smiled nor quavered, but invited him straight-out, "Wanna see where I hung the gourds?" Never in her life had Elly placed that much trust in anyone.
They met often after that. He was easy to be with, for he understood the woods and its creatures as she did, and whenever they walked through it he kept a respectable distance, walking with his thumbs in his rear overall pockets, slightly bent.
She showed him the orioles, and the blue grosbeaks, and the indigo buntings. And together they watched the birds who came to take up residence in the three striped gourds-two families of sparrows and, in the spring, a lone bluebird. Only after they’d been meeting for many months did she lift a palmful of corn and show him how she could call the birds and entice them to eat from her hand.
The following year, when she was fourteen, she met him one day with a glum expression on her face. They sat on a fallen log, watching the cavity in a nearby tree where an opossum was nesting.
"I can’t see you no more, Glendon."
"Because I’m sick. I’m prob’ly gonna die."
Alarmed, he turned toward her. "Die? What’s wrong?"
"I don’t know, but it’s bad."
"Well… did they take you to the doctor?"
"Don’t have to. I’m already bleedin’-what could he do?"
She nodded, tight-lipped, resigned, eyes fixed on the opossum hole.
His eyes made one furtive sweep down her dress front, where the acorns had grown to the size of plums.
"You tell your mother about it?"
She shook her head. "Wouldn’t do any good. She’s tetched. It’s like she don’t even know I’m there anymore."
"How ’bout your grandma?"
"I’m scared to tell her."
Elly’s eyes dropped. "Because."
She shrugged abjectly, sensing vaguely that this had something to do with being a child of shame.
"You bleedin’ from your girl-place?" he asked. She nodded silently and blushed. "They didn’t tell you, did they?"
"Tell me what?" She flicked him one glance that quickly shied away.
"All females do that. If they don’t, they can’t have babies."
Her head snapped around and he shifted his attention to the sun peeking around the trunk of an old live-oak tree. "They shoulda told you so you’da known to expect it. Now you go on home and tell your grandma about it and she’ll tell you what to do."
But Eleanor didn’t. She accepted Glendon’s word that it was something natural. When it happened at regular intervals, she began keeping track of the length of time between the spells, in order to be prepared.
When she was fifteen she asked him what a child of shame meant.
"Because that’s what I am. They tell me all the time."
"They tell you!" His face grew taut and he picked up a stick, snapped it into four pieces and flung them away. "It’s nothin’," he said fiercely.
"It’s somethin’ wicked, isn’t it?"
"Now how could that be? You ain’t wicked, are you?"
"I disobey them and run away from school."
"That don’t make you a child of shame."
"Then what does?" When he remained silent, she appealed, "You’re my friend, Glendon. If you won’t tell me, who will?"
He sat on the forest floor with both elbows hooked over his knees, staring at the broken stick.
"All right, I’ll tell you. Remember when we saw the quails mating? Remember what happened when the male got on top of the female?" He gave her a quick glance and she nodded. "That’s how humans mate, too, but they’re only supposed to do it if they’re married. If they do it when they’re not, and they get a baby, people like your grandma call it a child of shame."
"Then I am one."
"No, you ain’t."
"No, you ain’t! Now that’s the last I wanna hear of it!"
"But I ain’t got no daddy."
"And it ain’t your fault neither, is it? So whose shame is it?"
She suddenly understood the cleansings, and why her mother was called the sinner. But who was her daddy? Would she ever know?
"Am I a bastard?" She’d heard the word whispered behind her back at school.
"Elly, you got to learn not to worry about things that ain’t important. What’s important is you’re a good person inside."
They sat silently for a long time, listening to a flock of sparrows twittering in the buckthorn bushes where the gourds hung. Eleanor raised her eyes to the swatches of blue sky visible between the branches overhead.
"You ever wish somebody would die, Glendon?"
He considered soberly before answering. "No, guess I haven’t."
"Sometimes I wish my grandparents would die so my mother and me wouldn’t have to pray no more and I could pull up the shades in the house and let Mother outside. A person who’s good inside wouldn’t wish such a thing, I don’t think."
He reached out and laid a consoling hand on her shoulder. It was the first time he’d ever touched her deliberately.
Eleanor got her wish the year she turned sixteen. Albert See died while on circuit… in the bed of a woman named Mathilde King. Mathilde King, it turned out, was black and gave her favors only for money.
Elly reported his death to Glendon with no show of grief. When he touched her cheek she said, "It’s all right, Glendon. He was the real sinner."
The shock and shame of the circumstances surrounding her husband’s death rendered Lottie See incapable of facing even her daughter and granddaughter thereafter. She lived less than a year, most of that year spent sitting in a hard, spindle-backed chair facing one corner of the front parlor where the green shades had been sealed to the edges of the window casings with tape. She no longer spoke except to pray, or forced Chloe to repent, but simply sat staring at the wall until one day her head slumped over and her hands dropped to her sides.
When Elly reported her grandmother’s death to Glendon there were again no tears or mourning. He took her hand and held it while they sat silently on a log, listening to the woodlife around them.
"People like them… they’re probably happier dead," he said. "They had no notion of what happiness is."
Elly stared straight ahead. "I can see you whenever I want from now on. Mother won’t stop me, and I’ll be quittin’ school to stay home and take care of her."
Eleanor removed the tape from the shades, but when she pulled them up Chloe screeched and huddled, protecting her head as if from a blow. Her manic fright no longer held any connection to reality. The death of her parents, instead of freeing Chloe, cast her deeper into her world of madness. She could do nothing for herself, so her care was left to Eleanor, who fed and clothed her and saw to her daily needs.
When Elly was eighteen Glendon’s father died. His grief was a sharp contrast to Elly’s own lack of emotions upon the deaths of her grandparents. They met in the woods and he cried pitifully. She opened her arms and held him for the first time. "Aw, Glendon, don’t cry… don’t cry." But secretly she thought it beautiful that anyone could cry for the death of a parent. She cradled him against her breast, and when his weeping stopped, he expunged his residual grief within her virgin body. For Elly it was an act not of carnal, but of spiritual love. She no longer prayed, nor would she, ever again. But to comfort one so bereaved in such a manner was a prayer more meaningful than any she’d ever been forced to say on her knees in that house of shadow.
When it was over, she lay on her back, studying the pale gold sky through the tender new shoots of spring buds, and said, "I don’t want no children of shame, Glendon."
He held her hand tightly. "You won’t have. You’ll marry me, won’t you, Elly?"
"I can’t. I have to take care of my mother."
"You could take care of her just as good at my house, couldn’t you? And it’s gonna be awful lonely there. Why, we could take care of her together. I wouldn’t mind having her live with us-and she remembers me, doesn’t she? From when I used to deliver ice to your house?"
"I never told her about you, Glendon. She wouldn’t understand anyway. She’s crazy, don’t you see? Scared of the daylight. She never goes out of our house anymore, and I’m afraid if I tried to take her out she’d just plain die of fright."
But Chloe died anyway, within a year of her parents, peacefully, in her sleep. The day she was buried, Elly packed her few meager possessions, closed the door on all those drawn shades, boarded Glendon’s wagon and never looked back. They drove to Calhoun, picked up a wedding license at the courthouse and were married within the hour. Their wedding was not so much the consummation of a courtship as a natural extension of two lonely lives that were less lonely when combined. Their married life was much the same: companionship, but no great passion.
And now Elly was marrying again, in a similar way, for similar reasons. She lay in her bed, thinking about tomorrow, a lump in her throat. How was it crazy Elly See never ended up making a marriage that was more than a commonsense agreement? She had feelings too-hurts, wishes, wants like anybody else. Had they been sealed inside her so long that they’d become dried up by all the years she’d been forced into submission and silence in that darkened house? Nobody had taught her a woman’s ways with a man. Loving the boys was easy, but letting a man know how you felt about him was another thing.
Why couldn’t she have said, Will, I’m scared you’ll get hurt out there with the bees? Instead she’d thrown an egg. An egg, for mercy sake, when he’d done so much for her and only wanted to do more. Tears of mortification stung her eyes and she covered them with an arm, remembering. Something strange had happened when he went away laughing instead of angry. Something strange in the pit of her stomach. It was still there when he returned to the house for supper, a feeling she hadn’t had before, not even with Glendon. A highness, sort of. A pushing against the bottom of her heart, a tightness in the throat.
It came again, strong and insistent as she pictured Will, all lank and lean and so different from Glendon. Shaved every morning, washed three times a day and put on clean britches each sunrise. Made her more dirty laundry in one week than Glendon had made in a month. But she didn’t mind. Not at all. Sometimes, ironing his clothes, she’d think of him in them, and the feeling would come again. A tumble in her stomach, a rise in her blood.
When he had come into the kitchen earlier, and had taken her arm, naked-chested, dark-skinned and still wet from washing at the well, she’d felt almost lightheaded from it. Crazy Elly, wishing Will Parker would kiss her. For a minute she’d thought he might, but he hadn’t after all, and common sense told her why. ’Cause she was pregnant, plain and dumb.
She curled into a ball on the bed, miserable, because tomorrow was her wedding and she’d been the one who’d had to do the asking.
On his wedding day Will awakened excited. He had a secret. Something he’d been working on for two weeks and had finished by lanternlight last night at two A.M. Stepping from the barn, he checked the sky-dull as tarnished silver, promising a gloomy, damp day. Women, he supposed, liked sun on their wedding days, but his surprise should cheer her up. He knew exactly when and how he’d present it to her, not until it was time to leave.
They met in the kitchen, feeling uncomfortable and anxious with each other. An odd start to a wedding day with the bride dressed in a blue chenille house robe and the groom in yesterday’s overalls. Their first glances were quick and guarded.
He brought in two pails of bathwater, set them on the stove and began building a fire.
"I suppose you were hopin’ for sun," he said with his back to her. "It would’ve been nice."
Smiling to himself, thinking again of his secret, he offered, "Maybe it’ll break up by the time we leave."
"It don’t hardly look like it, and I don’t know what I’ll do with the boys if it rains. If it does, should we wait till tomorrow?"
He glanced back over his shoulder. "You want to?"
Their eyes met briefly. "No."
Her answer made him smile inside as he headed for the chores. But at breakfast time the tension escalated. It was, after all, their wedding day, and at its end they’d be sharing a bed. But something more was bothering Will. He put off approaching the subject until the meal ended and Elly pushed back her chair as if to begin clearing the table.
"Elly… I…" He stammered to a stop, drying his palms on his thighs.
"What is it?" She paused, holding two plates.
He wasn’t a money-hungry man, but he suddenly understood greed with disarming clarity. He pressed his hands hard against his thighs and blurted out, "I don’t know if I got enough money for a license."
"There’s the egg money and what you got for selling the scrap metal."
"Don’t be silly. What will it matter after today?"
"A man should buy the license," he insisted, "and a ring."
"Oh… a ring." Her hands were in plain sight as she stood beside the table, holding the dirty dishes. He glanced at her left hand and she felt stupid for not having thought to take off her wedding band and leave it in her bureau drawer. "Well…" The word dwindled into silence while she pondered and came up with one possible solution. "I… I could use the same one."
His face set stubbornly as he rose, pulled his hat on low and lunged across the room toward the sink. "That wouldn’t be right."
She watched him gather soap, towels and bathwater and head for the door, pride stiffening his shoulders and adding force to his footsteps.
"What does it matter, Will?"
"It wouldn’t be right," he repeated, opening the back door. Half out, he turned back. "What time you wanna leave?"
"I have to get me and the boys ready to go and the dishes washed. And I suppose I should pack some sandwiches."
"An hour and a half?"
"That should be fine."
"I’ll pick you up here. You wait in the house for me."
He felt like a fool. Some courtship. Some wedding morning. But he had exactly eight dollars and sixty-one cents to his name, and gold rings cost a damn sight more than that. It wasn’t only the ring. It was everything missing in the morning. Touches, smiles, yearning.
Kisses. Shouldn’t a bride and groom have trouble restraining themselves at a time like this? That’s how he always imagined it would be. Instead they’d scarcely glanced at each other, had discussed the weather and Will Parker’s financially embarrassed state.
In the barn he scrubbed his hide with a vengeance, combed his hair and donned freshly laundered clothes: jeans, white shirt, jean jacket, freshly oiled boots and his deformed cowboy hat, brushed for the occasion. Hardly suitable wedding apparel, but the best he could do. Outside thunder rumbled in the distance. Well, at least she didn’t have to worry about rain. He had that much to offer his bride this morning, though much of his earlier elation over the surprise had vanished.
In the house Eleanor was on her knees, searching for Donald Wade’s shoe under the bed while upon it he and Thomas imitated Madam, kicking and braying.
"Now settle down, boys. We don’t want to keep Will waitin’."
"Are we really goin’ for a ride in the big wagon?"
"I said so, didn’t I?" She caught a foot and started forcing the brown high-top shoe on. "Clear into Calhoun. But when we get to the courthouse you got to be good. Little boys got to be like mice in the corner during weddings, y’ understand?"
"But what’s weddings, Mama?"
"Why, I told you, honey, me and Will are gettin’ married."
"But what’s married?"
"Married is-" She paused thoughtfully, wondering exactly what this marriage would be. "Married is when two people say they want to live with each other for the rest of their lives. That’s what me and Will are gonna do."
"That’s all right with you, ain’t it?"
Donald Wade flashed a smile and nodded vigorously. "I like Will."
"And Will likes you, too. And you too, punkin." She touched Thomas’s nose. "Nothin’s gonna change after we’re married, ’cept…" The boys waited with their eyes on their mother. "’Cept y’ know how sometimes I let you come in with me at night-well, from now on there won’t be no room ’cause Will’s gonna be sleepin’ with me."
"Can’t we even come in when it thunders and lightnin’s?"
She pictured them four abreast beneath the quilts and wondered how Will would adjust to the demands of fatherhood. "Well, maybe when it thunders and lightnin’s." Thunder rumbled at that moment and Eleanor frowned at the window. "Come on. Will should be comin’ any minute." Distractedly she added, "Lord, I got a feelin’ we’re gonna be soaked before we get to any courthouse."
She helped the boys into jackets, donned her own coat and had just picked up the red sandwich tin from the kitchen cupboard when the thunder growled again, long and steady. She turned, glanced toward the door and cocked her head. Or was it thunder? Too unbroken, too high-pitched and drawing closer. She moved toward the back door just as Donald Wade opened it and a rusty Model A Ford rolled into the clearing with Will at the wheel.
"Glory be," Eleanor breathed.
"It’s Will! He gots a car!" Donald Wade tore off at a dead run, slamming the screen, yelling, "Where’d you get it, Will? We gonna ride in it?"
Will pulled up at the foot of the path and stepped out in his coarse wedding attire. Standing with a hand draped over the top of the car door, he ignored Donald Wade in favor of Eleanor, who came onto the porch in his favorite yellow dress covered by a short brown coat that wouldn’t close over her stomach. Her hair was pulled back in a neat tail and her face glowed with surprise.
"Well, you ain’t got a ring," he called, "but you got a jitney to ride to your wedding in. Come on."
With the sandwich tin in one hand and Baby Thomas on her free arm, she left the porch. "Where did you get it?" she asked, moving toward Will like a sleepwalker, picking up speed as she neared.
He let a grin quirk one corner of his mouth. "Out in the field. Been working on it whenever I could sneak in an hour here and there."
"You mean it’s one of the old junkers?"
"Well… not exactly one." With a touch at the back of his hat brim he tilted it well forward, his eyes following as she reached the Ford and circled it with a look of admiration on her face. "More like eight or ten of the junkers, a little bit of this one and a little bit of that one, held together with baling twine and Bazooka, but I think it’ll get us there and back all right."
She came full circle and smiled up into his face. "Will Parker, is there anything you can’t do?"
He relieved her of the red sandwich tin and handed it to Donald Wade, then plucked Thomas from her arms. "I know a little about engines," he replied modestly, though inside he glowed. With so few words she’d restored his exhilaration. "Get in."
"It’s actually running!" She laughed and clambered under the wheel to the far side while the idling engine shimmied the car seat.
"Of course it’s running. And we won’t have to worry about any rain. Here, take the young ’un." He handed Thomas inside, then swung Donald Wade onto the seat and followed, folding himself behind the wheel. Donald Wade stood on the seat, wedging himself as tightly against Will as possible. He laid a proprietary hand on Will’s wide shoulder. "We ridin’ to town in this?"
"That’s right, kemo sabe." Will put the car in gear. "Hang on." As they rolled away, the children giggled and Eleanor clutched the seat. Pleased, Will observed their expressions from the corner of his eye.
"But where did you get gasoline?"
"Only got enough to get us to town. Found it in the tanks out there and strained the rust out of it with a rag."
"And you fixed this all by yourself?"
"There were plenty of junkers to take parts from."
"But where’d you learn how?"
"Worked in a filling station in El Paso one time. Fellow there taught me a little about mechanics."
They turned around in a farmyard which was far neater than it had been two months ago. They motored down a driveway which two months ago had been unusable. They traveled in a car that two weeks ago had been a collection of scrap metal. Will couldn’t help feeling proud. The boys were entranced. Eleanor’s smile was as broad as a melon slice as she steadied Thomas on her knees.
She turned shining eyes toward Will. "Oh, it’s a grand surprise. And my first time, too."
"You mean you never rode in a car before?" he asked, disbelievingly.
"Never. Glendon never got around to fixing any of ’em up. But I rode on his steel mule one time, down the orchard track and back." She shot him a sportive grin. "The noise like to shake m’ teeth outa my skull, though."
They laughed and the day lost its bleakness. Their smiles brought a gladness missing till now. While their gazes lingered longer than intended, the fact struck: they were chugging off to the courthouse to get married. Married. Husband and wife forever. Had they been alone, Will might have said something appropriate to the occasion, but Donald Wade moved, cutting off his view of Eleanor.
"We done good on the driveway huh, Will?" The boy cupped Will’s jaw, forcing his direct attention.
"We sure did, short stuff." He ruffled Donald Wade’s hair. "But I got to watch the road."
Yes, they’d done good. Guiding the wheel of the Model T, Will felt as he had the day he’d bought the candy bars and bluebird-heated and good inside, expansive and optimistic. In a few hours they would be his "family." Putting pleasure on their faces put pleasure on his own. And it suddenly didn’t matter so much that he had no gold ring to offer Eleanor.
Her elation dimmed, however, as they approached Whitney. When they passed the house with the drawn shades she stared straight ahead, refusing to glance at the place. Her lips formed a grim line and her hands tightened on Thomas’s hips.
Will wanted to say, I know about that house, Eleanor. It don’t matter to me. But a glance at her stiff pose made him bite back the words.
"Got to stop at the filling station," he mentioned, to distract her. "It’ll only take a minute."
The man at the station cast overt, speculative glances at Eleanor, but she stared straight ahead like one walking through a graveyard at midnight. The attendant gave Will the twice-over, too, and said, "Nasty weather brewin’, looks like."
Will only glanced at the sky.
"Feller’d be happy to have a car on a day like this," the attendant tried again while his eyes darted to Eleanor.
"Yup," Will replied.
"Goin’far?" the man inquired, obviously less interested in pumping gas than in gawking at Eleanor and trying to puzzle out who Will might be and why they were together.
"Nope," Will answered.
"Goin’ up Calhoun way?"
Will gave the man a protracted stare, then let his eyes wander to the gas pump. "Five gallons comin’ up."
"Oh!" The pump clicked off, Will paid 83 cents and returned to the car, leaving the attendant unenlightened.
When they were on their way again and had left Whitney behind, Eleanor relaxed.
"Someone you know?" Will inquired.
"I know ’em all and they all know me. I seen him gawkin’."
"Prob’ly ’cause you’re lookin’ right pretty this mornin’."
His words did the trick. She turned a wide-eyed look his way and her ears turned pink. Cheeks, too, before she transferred her attention to the view ahead.
"You don’t need to make up pretty words just ’cause it’s my weddin’ day."
"Wasn’t makin’ ’em up."
And somehow he felt better, having spoken his mind and given her a touch of what a bride deserves on her wedding day. Better yet, he’d made her forget the house with the picket fence and the gawking gas station attendant.
The ride took them through some of the prettiest country Will had ever seen-rolling hills and gurgling creeks, thick stands of pine and oaks just beginning to turn a faint yellow. Outside, the mist put a sheen on each leaf and rock and turned the roads a vibrant, glistening orange. Wet tree trunks appeared coal black against the pearl-gray sky. The road curved and looped, the elevation constantly dropping until they rounded a bend and saw Calhoun nestled below.
Situated in a long narrow valley, the lowest spot between Chattanooga and Atlanta, the town stretched out along the tracks of the L & N Railroad, which had spawned its growth. U.S. 41 became Wall Street, the main street of town. It paralleled the tracks and carried travelers into a business section that had taken on the same rangy shape as the steel rails themselves. The streets were old, wide, built in the days when mule and wagon had been the chief mode of transportation. Now there were more Chevrolets than mules, more Fords than wagons, and, as in Whitney, blacksmith shops doubling as filling stations.
"You know Calhoun?" Will inquired as they passed a row of neat brick houses on the outskirts.
"Know where the courthouse is. Straight ahead on Wall Street."
"Is there a five-and-dime somewhere?"
"A five-and-dime?" Eleanor flashed him a puzzled look but he watched the road beyond the radiator cap. "What do you want with a five-and-dime?"
"I’m gonna buy you a ring." He’d decided it somewhere between the compliment and Calhoun.
"What’s a five-and-dime, Mommy?" Donald Wade interrupted.
Eleanor ignored him. "Oh, Will, you don’t have-"
"I’m gonna buy you a ring, I said, then you can take his off."
His insistence sent a flare to her cheeks and she stared at his stubborn jaw until the warmth spread down to her heart. She turned away and said meekly, "I already did."
Will shot a glance at her left hand, still resting on the baby’s hip. It was true-the ring was gone. On the steering wheel his grip relaxed.
Donald Wade patted his mother’s arm, demanding, "What’s a five-and-dime, Mommy?"
"It’s a store that sells trinkets and things."
"Trinkets? Can we go there?"
"I reckon that’s where Will’s takin’ us first." Her eyes wandered to the driver and found him watching her. Their gazes locked, fascinated.
"Oh-boy!" Donald Wade knelt on the seat, balancing himself against the dashboard, staring at the town with unbridled fascination. "What’s that, Mommy?" He pointed. She didn’t hear and he whapped her arm four times. "Mommy, what’s that?"
"Better answer the boy," Will advised quietly, and turned his attention back to the street, releasing her to do the same.
"A water tower."
Baby Thomas repeated, "Wa-doo tow-woo."
"What’s that?" Donald Wade asked.
"A popcorn wagon."
"Pop-cone," the baby echoed.
"They sell it?"
"Goll-eee! Can we git some?"
"Not today, dear. We got to hurry."
He watched the wagon until it disappeared behind them and Will mentally tallied up the remainder of his money. Only six bucks, seventy-eight cents, and he had to buy a ring and a license yet.
"What’s a theater?"
"A place where they show movies."
"What’s a movie?"
"Well, it’s sort of a picture story that moves on a big screen."
"Can we see it?"
"No, honey. It costs money."
The marquee said Border Vigilantes,and Will noted how both Donald Wade’s and Eleanor’s eyes lingered on it as they passed. Six measly bucks and seventy-eight measly cents. What he wouldn’t do for full pockets right now.
Just then he spotted what he was looking for, a brick-fronted building with a sign announcing, WISTER’S VARIETY-HOUSEWARES, TOYS & SUNDRIES.
He parked the car and reached for Donald Wade. "Come on, kemo sabe, I’ll show you a five-and-dime."
Inside, they walked the aisles on creaking wood floors between six rows of pure enchantment. Donald Wade and Thomas pointed at everything and squirmed to get down and touch-toy cars and trucks and tractors made of brightly painted metal; rubber balls of gay reds and yellows; marbles in woven sacks; bubble gum and candy; six-shooters and holsters and cowboy hats like Will’s.
"I want one!" Donald Wade demanded. "I want a hat like Will’s!"
"Hat," parroted Thomas.
"Maybe next time," Will replied, his heart breaking. At that moment the only thing he wanted worse than a ring for Eleanor was enough cash to buy two black cardboard cowboy hats.
They came to the costume jewelry and stopped. The display was dusty, spread on rose taffeta between glass dividers. There were identification bracelets; baby necklaces shaped like tiny gold crosses; little girls’birthday sets-rings, bracelets and necklaces-all dipped in gold paint, set with brightly colored glass gems; women’s earrings of assorted shapes and colors; and beside them, on a blue velvet card, a sign that said, "Friendship Rings-19¢."
Will studied the cheap things, stung at having to offer his bride a wedding band that would surely turn her finger green before a week was up. But he had little choice. He set Donald Wade down. "You take Thomas’s hand and don’t let him touch anything, all right?"
The boys headed back toward the toys, leaving Will and Eleanor standing self-consciously side by side. He slipped his hands into his hind pockets and stared at the fake-silver rings with their machine-stamped lattice designs covered with crudely formed roses. He reached for one, plucked it from the card and studied it glumly.
"I never cared much before whether I had money or not, but today I wish my name was Rockerfeller."
"I’m glad it ain’t, ’cause then I wouldn’t be marrying you."
He looked down into her eyes-eyes as green as the fake peridots in the August birth rings-and it struck Will that she was one of the kindest persons he’d ever met. How like her to try to make him feel good at a moment like this. "It’ll probably turn your finger green."
"It don’t matter, Will," she said softly. "I shouldn’t have offered to use my old one again. It was thoughtless of me."
"I’d give you gold if I could, Eleanor. I want you to know that."
"Oh, Will…" She reached out and covered his hand consolingly as he went on.
"And I’d take them two to the movies, and afterwards maybe buy ’em an ice cream cone at the drugstore, or popcorn at that popcorn wagon like they begged for."
"I brought the egg and cream money, Will. We could still do that."
His gaze shifted to the ring. "I’m the one that should be payin’, don’t you see?"
She released his hand and took the ring to try it on. "You got to learn not to be so proud, Will. Let’s see if it fits." The ring was too big, so she chose another. The second one fit and she spread her fingers in the air before them, as proud as if she wore a glittering diamond.
"Looks fine, doesn’t it?" She wiggled the ring finger. "And I do like roses."
"It looks cheap."
"Don’t you dare say that about my weddin’ ring, Will Parker," she scolded him with mock haughtiness, slipping it off and depositing it in his palm. "The sooner you pay for it the sooner we can get on down to the courthouse and speak our words."
She turned away blithely, but he caught her arm and spun her around.
"Eleanor, I…" He looked into her eyes and didn’t know what to say. A lump of appreciation clotted his throat. The value of the ring honestly made no difference to her.
She cocked her head. "What?"
"You never complain about anything, do you?"
It was subtle praise, but no poetry could have pleased her more.
"We got a lot to be thankful for, Will Parker. Come on." Her smile flashed as she grabbed his hand. "Let’s go get married."
They found the Gordon County courthouse with no trouble, a red brick Victorian edifice on a crest of land framed by sidewalks, green grass and azalea bushes. Will carried Donald Wade; Eleanor, Thomas as they ascended a bank of steps and crossed the lawn, gazing up at the rounded turret on the right, and on the left, a square cenotaph to General Charles Haney Nelson. It sat sturdily on thick brick arches culminating in a pointed clock tower that overlooked the chimneyed roof. The mist was cold on their uplifted faces, then disappeared as they mounted the second set of steps beneath the arches and entered a marble-floored hall that smelled of cigar smoke.
"This way." Eleanor’s voice rang through the empty hall, though she spoke quietly. Turning right, she led Will to the office of the Ordinary of the Court.
Inside, at an oak desk beyond a spindled rail, a thin, middle-aged woman-her nameplate read Reatha Stickner-stopped typing and tipped her head down to peer over rimless octagonal spectacles.
"May I help you?" She had a cheerless, authoritarian voice. It echoed in the barren, curtainless room.
"Yes, ma’am," Will replied, stopping just inside the door. "We’d like to get a marriage license."
The woman’s sharp gaze brushed from Donald Wade to Baby Thomas to Eleanor’s stomach, then back to Will. He firmly grasped Eleanor’s elbow and ushered her toward the breast-high counter. The woman pushed away from her desk and shuffled toward them with an extreme limp that dipped one shoulder and left one foot dragging. They met on opposite sides of the barrier and Reatha Stickner fished inside the neck of her dress to pull up an underwear strap that had slipped down while she walked.
"Are you residents of Georgia?" From beneath the counter she drew a black-bound book the size of a tea tray and clapped it down between them without glancing up again.
"I am," Eleanor spoke up. "I live in Whitney."
"Whitney. And how long have you lived there?" The black cover slapped open, revealing forms separated by carbons.
"All my life."
"I’ll need proof of residency."
Will thought, Oh no, not again.But Eleanor surprised him by depositing Thomas on the high counter and producing a folded paper from her coat pocket. "Got my first wedding license here. You gave it to me, so it should be okay."
The woman examined Eleanor minutely, without a change of expression-pursed lips, haughty eyebrows-then turned her attention to the license while Thomas reached for a stamp pad. Eleanor grabbed his hand and held it while he objected vocally and struggled to pull it free.
"Don’t touch," she whispered, but of course, he grew stubborn and insisted, louder than before. Will set Donald Wade on the floor and plucked the baby off the counter to hold him. Donald Wade immediately tried to climb Will’s leg, complaining, "I can’t see. Lift me up." The boy’s fingertips curled over the countertop and he tried to climb it with his feet. Will gave him a yank to straighten him up. "Be good," he ordered, bending momentarily. Donald Wade wilted against the counter, pouting.
Reatha Stickner cast a disapproving glance at the faces visible above her counter, then moved away to fetch a pen and inkholder. She had to adjust her strap again before writing in the wide book.
"Eleanor Dinsmore-middle name?"
"I ain’t got one."
Though the clerk refused to lift her eyes, the pen twitched in her fingers. "Same address?"
"Yes…" Imitating Will, Eleanor added belatedly, "… ma’am."
"And are there any encumbrances against you getting married?"
Eleanor fixed a blank look on the woman’s spectacles. Reatha Stickner glanced up impatiently and said, "Well?"
Eleanor turned to Will for help.
Will felt his hackles rise and spoke sharply. "She’s not married and she’s not a Nazi. What other encumbrances are there?"
Everything was silent for three seconds while the stern-faced clerk fixed Will with a disapproving glare. Finally, she cleared her throat, dipped her pen and loftily returned her attention to the application blank. "And how about you? Are you a Nazi?" It was asked without a hint of humor while she gave the impression that she might have looked up but for the fact that the person she was serving wasn’t worthy.
"No, ma’am. Just an ex-convict." Will felt a deep thrill of satisfaction as her head snapped up and a white line appeared around her lips. He reached casually into his shirt pocket for his release papers. "Think you have to see these."
Her strap fell down and had to be hitched up again as she accepted Will’s papers. She examined them at length, gave him another sour glance and wrote on the application.
"Parker, William Lee. Address?"
"Same as hers."
The clerk’s eyes, magnified by her glasses, rolled up for another lengthy visual castigation. In the silence Donald Wade’s footsteps could be heard climbing the desk wall as he hung on it and gazed at the door, upside-down.
Will thought, Go to it, Donald Wade!
Primly, the woman wrote on, taking the information from Will’s papers. "How long have you been at this address?" she asked, while her pen scratched loudly.
Her eyes flickered to Eleanor’s bulbous stomach, the thin band of yellow showing behind the brown coat. Her chin drew in, creating two folds beneath it. She applied her official signature, and ordered coldly, "That’ll be two dollars."
Will stifled a sigh of relief and dug the money from his breast pocket. The clerk dipped below the counter, came up with an official rubber stamp and with curt motions stamped the license, tore it out, slapped the book closed-fap! sktch! whp!-and brandished the paper across the counter.
Stone-faced, but seething, Will accepted it and tipped his hat. "Much obliged, ma’am. Now, who marries us?"
Her eyes drifted over his blue denim work clothes, then dropped to the rubber stamp. "Judge Murdoch."
"Murdoch." When she looked up, Will gave her a cool nod. "We’ll find him."
Acidly she hurried to inform them, "He has a full docket this morning. You should have made arrangements in advance."
Will settled Baby Thomas more comfortably on his arm, peeled Donald Wade off the counter, headed him toward the door, then clasped Eleanor’s elbow and guided her from the office without acknowledging Reatha Stickner’s high-handed order. His grip was biting and his footsteps unnaturally lengthy. In the corridor, he grated, "Goddamn old biddy. I wanted to slap her when she looked at you like that. What right’s she got to look down her nose at you!"
"It don’t matter, Will. I’m used to it. But what about the judge? What if he’s too busy?"
"But she said he-"
"We’ll wait, I said!" His footsteps pounded harder. "How long can it take him to mutter a few words and sign a paper?" Coming up short, he stopped Eleanor. "Just a minute." He stuck his head inside an open doorway and asked, "Where do we find Judge Murdoch?"
"Second floor, halfway down the hall, the double doors on your left."
With the same stubborn determination, Will herded them to the second floor, through the double doors, where they found themselves in a courtroom presently in session. They stood uncertainly in the aisle between two flanks of benches while voices from up front reverberated beneath the vaulted ceiling. An officer in a tan uniform left his station beside the doors. "You’ll have to be seated if you want to stay," he whispered.
Will turned, ready to do mortal injury to anyone who got uppity with them again. But the man was no more than twenty-five, had a pleasant face and polite manner. "We want the judge to marry us but we don’t have an appointment."
"Step outside," the deputy invited, opening one of the doors and holding it while they filed into the hall. Joining them, he checked his watch. "He’s got a pretty full day, but you can wait outside his chambers if you want. See if he can squeeze you in."
"We’ll do that. Appreciate it if you’d head us in the right direction," Will returned tightly.
"Right this way." He led them to the end of the hall and pointed to a narrower corridor leading off at a right angle. "I have to stay in the courtroom, but you’ll find it easily. His name is above the door. Just have a seat on the bench across from it."
Neither Will nor Eleanor owned a watch. They sat on an eight-foot wooden bench, staring at a maple door for what seemed hours. They read and reread the brass plaque above it: ALDON P. MURDOCH, DISTRICT COURT JUDGE. The boys tired of climbing over the curved arms of the bench and grew fractious. Donald Wade badgered, "Mommy, let’s go-o-o." Thomas started whining and flailing his feet against the seat. Finally he fell asleep, sprawled on the bench with his head in Eleanor’s lap, leaving Will to keep Donald Wade occupied.
The door opened and two men bustled out, talking animatedly. Will jumped to his feet and raised a finger, but the pair marched away, deep in discussion, without sparing a glance for the four on the bench.
The wait continued; Eleanor got a backache and had to find the bathroom. Thomas woke up with an ugly disposition and Donald Wade whined that he was hungry. When Eleanor returned, Will ran to the car for their sandwiches. They were sitting on the bench eating them, trying to convince Baby Thomas to give up crying and try a bite, when one of the two men returned.
This time he stopped voluntarily. "Got a cranky one there, huh?" He smiled indulgently at Thomas.
"Judge Murdoch?" Will leaped to his feet, whipping his hat from his head.
"That’s right." He was gray-haired, rotund and had a jowls like a bloodhound. But though he wore the air of a busy man, he seemed approachable. "I’m Will Parker. And this is Eleanor Dinsmore. We were wondering if you’d have time to marry us today."
Murdoch extended a hand. "Parker." He nodded to Eleanor. "Miss Dinsmore." He gave each of the boys a grandfatherly glance, then assessed Eleanor thoughtfully. "You were here when I left for lunch, weren’t you?"
"Yessir," she answered.
"How long before that?"
"I don’t know, sir, we ain’t got no watch."
The judge shot a cuff and checked his own. "Court reconvenes in ten minutes."
Eleanor rushed on. "We ain’t got no phone either, or we’d’ve called to make an appointment. We just drove up from Whitney, thinkin’ it’d be all right."
Again the judge smiled at the boys, then at the sandwich in Eleanor’s hand. "Looks like you brought your witnesses with you."
"Yessir… I mean, no sir. These are my boys. That’s Donald Wade… and this here is Baby Thomas."
The judge leaned down and extended a hand. "How do you do, Donald Wade." The youngster glanced up uncertainly at Will and waited for his nod before hesitantly giving his hand to the judge. Murdoch performed the handshake with gravity and a half-smile. Next he offered Thomas a wink and a chuckle. "You boys have had a long enough morning. How would you like a jelly bean?"
Donald Wade inquired, "What’s a jelly bean?"
"Well, come into my office and I’ll show you."
Again Donald Wade looked to Will for guidance.
To the adults, Judge Murdoch advised, "I think I can squeeze you in. It won’t be fancy, but it’ll be legal. Step inside."
It was a crowded room with a single north window and more books than Will had ever seen anywhere except in the Whitney library. He glanced around, his hat forgotten against his thigh, while the judge gave his attention first to the boys. "Come around here." He moved behind a cluttered desk and from a lower drawer extracted a cigar box labeled "Havana Jewels." The boys peered inside as he opened it and announced, "Jelly beans." Without objection they allowed the district court judge to set them side-by-side on his chair and roll it close to the desk, where he placed the cigar box on an open law book. "I keep them hidden because I don’t want my wife to catch me eating them." He patted his portly stomach. "She says I eat too many of them." As the boys reached for the candy, he warned with a twinkle in his eye, "Now be sure you save some for me."
From a coat tree he took a black robe, inquiring of Will, "Do you have a license?"
A door opened on his left and the same young deputy who’d directed Will and Eleanor to the judge’s chambers stuck his head inside. "One o’clock, your honor."
"Come in here, Darwin, and close the door."
"Pardon me, sir, but we’re runnin’ a little late."
"So we are. They won’t go anyplace, not until I say they can."
As the young man followed orders, the judge buttoned his robe and performed introductions. "Darwin Ewell, this is Eleanor Dinsmore and Will Parker. They’re going to be married and we’ll need you to act as witness."
The deputy shook their hands, wearing a pleasant smile. "Pleasure, sir… ma’am."
The judge indicated the boys. "And the two with the jelly beans are Donald Wade and Baby Thomas."
Darwin laughed as he observed the pair selecting another color from the cigar box, paying no attention to the others in the room. In moments the judge stood before Will and Eleanor, examining their license, then placing it on the desk behind him and crossing his hands over his mounded stomach.
"I’ve got books I could read from," he informed them with a benevolent expression on his face, "but they always sound a little stilted and formal to me so I prefer to do this my own way. The books always manage to miss some of the most important things. Like do you know each other well enough to believe what you’re doing is the right thing?"
Taken by surprise at the unorthodox beginning, Will was a little slow to reply. He glanced at Eleanor first, then back at the judge.
"Yessir," Eleanor repeated.
"How long have you known each other?"
Each waited for the other to answer. Finally Will did. "Two months."
"Two months…" The judge seemed to ponder, then added, "I knew my wife exactly three and a half weeks before I proposed to her. We’ve been married thirty-two years-happily, I might add. Do you love each other?"
This time they stared straight at the judge. Both of them turned slightly pink.
"Yessir," came Will’s answer.
"Yessir," Eleanor’s echoed, more softly. Will’s heart thundered, while he wondered if it was true.
"Good… good. Now the times when I want you to remember that are the times when you’ll be at cross purposes-and nobody who remains married for thirty-two, or fifty-two or even two years can avoid them. But disagreements can become arguments, then battles, then wars, unless you learn to compromise. It’s the wars you’ll have to avoid, and you do that by remembering what you’ve just told me. That you love each other. All right?" He waited.
"Yessir," they replied in unison.
"Compromise is the cornerstone of marriage. Can you work things out and reach compromises instead of giving way to anger?"
"Yessir." Eleanor’s eyes couldn’t quite meet the judge’s as she remembered the egg running down Will’s face. Then honesty got the best of her and she added, "I’ll try real hard."
The judge smiled, then nodded approvingly. "And you’ll work hard for Eleanor, Will?"
"Yessir, I already do."
"And will you provide a good home for Will, Eleanor?"
"Yessir, I already do."
To the judge’s credit, he didn’t bat an eye.
"I take it the children are yours by a former marriage, is that right?"
"And the one you’re expecting-that makes three." He turned his attention to Will. "Three children is a grave responsibility to take on, and in the future there may be more. Do you accept responsibility for them, along with that of being a husband and provider for Eleanor?"
"You’re both young yet. In your lives you may meet others who attract you. When that happens, I exhort you to recall this day and what your feelings were for each other as you stood before me, to remember your vows of fidelity and remain true to one another. Would that be hard for you?"
Will thought of Lula. "No, it wouldn’t."
Eleanor thought of the jeers she’d received from boys in school and how Will was the only one since Glendon who’d treated her kindly. "No, not at all."
"Then, let’s seal it with a promise-to love each other, to remain true to each other, to provide love and material care for each other and for all the children entrusted to you, to work hard for one another, practice patience, forgiveness and understanding, and treat each other with respect and dignity for the rest of your lives. Do you so promise, William Lee Parker?"
"And do you so promise, Eleanor Dinsmore?"
"Are there rings?"
"Yessir." Will found the dime-store ring in his breast pocket. "Just one."
The judge seemed unsurprised by its obvious cheapness. "Put it on her finger now and join right hands."
Will reached for Eleanor’s hand and slid the ring partially over her knuckle. Their eyes met briefly, then skittered downward as he held her hand loosely. Judge Murdoch continued, "Let this ring be a symbol of your constancy and devotion. Let it remind you, William, who gives it, and you, Eleanor, who wears it, that from this day until you’re parted by death you will remain forever one, inseparable. Now, by the power invested in me by the sovereign state of Georgia, I pronounce you husband and wife."
It had been so quick, so undramatic. It didn’t feel done. And if done, not real. Will and Eleanor stood before the judge like a pair of tree stumps.
"Is that it?" Will inquired.
Judge Murdoch smiled. "All but the kiss." Then he twisted around to sign the marriage certificate on the desk behind him.
The pair stared at Murdoch’s shoulders but didn’t move. On the chair the boys munched jelly beans. From the courtroom came the murmur of voices. On the stiff paper the pen scratched while Deputy Ewell watched expectantly.
The judge dropped his pen and turned back to find the newlyweds standing stiffly, shoulder to shoulder.
"Well…" he prompted.
Their faces bright with color, Will and Eleanor turned toward each other. She lifted her face self-consciously and he looked down likewise.
"My court is waiting," Judge Murdoch admonished softly.
With his heart racing, Will placed his hands lightly on Eleanor’s arms and bent to touch her lips briefly. They were warm and open, as if in surprise. He got a glimpse of her eyes at close range-also open, as his own were. Then he straightened, ending the uncomfortable moment as they faced the judge self-consciously.
"Congratulations, Mr. Parker." Judge Murdoch pumped Will’s hand. "Mrs. Parker." And Eleanor’s. As he pronounced her new name Eleanor’s discomfort intensified. Heat climbed her body and her cheeks burned hotter.
Judge Murdoch handed the marriage certificate to Will. "I wish you many years of happiness, and now I’d better get back to my courtroom before they start beating on my door." He turned toward it in a flurry of black robes and paused with a hand on the knob. "You have a fine pair of boys there-so long, boys!" With one last wave, he disappeared. Darwin Ewell, also due back in court, wished them luck and hastily ushered them out.
It had taken less than five minutes from the time they’d entered the judge’s chambers until they found themselves in the hall again, united for life. The judge’s whirlwind pace left them both feeling disoriented but scarcely married. It had been startlingly unceremonious; they hadn’t even been aware that the first questions were part of the judge’s unorthodox rite. It had ended much the same-no pomp, no pageantry, only a simple pronunciation beneath clasped hands, and-bango!-back in the hall. If it hadn’t been for the kiss, they might not believe a marriage had taken place at all.
"Well," Will said breathlessly with a mystified laugh. "That was that."
Eleanor’s perplexed gaze remained on the closed door. "I guess it was. But… so quick."
"Quick, but legal."
"Yes… but…" She lifted dubious eyes to Will and thrust her head forward. "But do you feel married?"
Unexpectedly, he laughed. "Not exactly. But we must be. He called you Mrs. Parker."
She lifted her left hand and gazed at it disbelievingly. "So I am. Mrs. Will Parker."
The belated impact struck them full force. Mr. and Mrs. Will Parker.They absorbed the fact with all its attendant implications while their eyes were drawn to one another as if by polaric force. He thought about kissing her again, the way he wanted to. And she wondered what it would be like. But neither of them dared. In time they realized how long they’d been staring. Eleanor grew flustered and let her gaze drop. Will chuckled and scratched his nose.
"I think we should celebrate," he announced.
"How?" she asked, reaching down for Baby Thomas. Will nudged her aside and hoisted Thomas onto his arm.
"Well, if my arithmetic is right, I still have five dollars and fifty-nine cents. I think we should take the boys to the movie."
Excitement splashed across Eleanor’s face. "Really?"
Donald Wade began jumping up and down, clapping. "Yeah! Yeah! The movie! Take us to the movie, Mommy, pleeeease!" He clutched Eleanor’s hand.
Will took Eleanor’s free elbow, guiding her down the hall. "I don’t know, Donald Wade," he teased, turning a crooked grin on his wife’s eager face. "It looks to me like we might have some trouble convincing your mama."
Then Mr. and Mrs. William Lee Parker-and family-left the courthouse smiling.
The smell of popcorn greeted them in the theater lobby. With eyes wide and fascinated, the boys stared up at the red and white popcorn machine, then appealed to their mother. "Mama, can we have some?" Will’s heart melted. He was reaching into his shirt pocket before Eleanor could frame a refusal. Inside the dimly lit auditorium, Donald Wade and Thomas sat on their knees, munching, until the screen lit up with Previews of Coming Attractions. When scenes from Gone With the Windradiated overhead, their hands and jaws seemed to stop functioning. So did Eleanor’s. Will eyed her askance as myriad reactions flashed across her face-amazement, awe, rapture.
"Oh, Will," she breathed. "Oh, Will, look!"
Sometimes he did. But he found the study of their faces-especially hers-far more fascinating as they were transported for the first time into the world of celluloid make-believe.
"Oh, Will, look at that dress!"
His attention wavered briefly to the billowing, hoop-skirted garment, then returned to his wife’s face, realizing something new about her: she was a woman whose head could be turned by finery. He would not have guessed so from the ordinary way she dressed. But her eyes shone and her lips looked as if they were about to speak to the images on the screen.
The color film disappeared and a newsreel came on in black and white: goose-stepping German soldiers, bombs, mortar shells, the battle front in Russia, wounded soldiers-an abrupt plunge from fantasy to reality.
Will watched the screen with rapt interest, wondering how long America could possibly stay out of the war, wondering how long he himself could stay out of it if the inevitable happened. He had a family now; his welfare suddenly mattered fiercely, whereas it never had before. It was a shock to him to realize this.
As the newsreel ended he turned and caught Eleanor watching him above the boys’ heads. The gaiety had disappeared from her eyes, replaced by a troubled frown. Obviously the grim reality of war had finally imposed itself upon her. He felt a stab of remorse for having been the one to expose her to it, the one who’d brought her here to have her sunny illusions shattered. He wanted to reach above the pair of blond heads and touch her eyelids, say to her, close your eyes for a moment and go back to pretending it isn’t happening. Be the happy recluse you were.
But just as he could not ignore the battles in Europe, and America’s ever-increasing support for England and France, neither must she. She couldn’t remain an ostrich forever, not when she was married to a man of prime age for induction, one with a prison record who was sure to be one of the first called up.
The newsreel ended and the main feature began.
Border Vigilantesturned out to be a Hopalong Cassidy movie, and the boys’ reaction made it well worth the six bits Will had laid out. He himself enjoyed the show, and Eleanor’s elation returned. But the boys-oh, those two little boys. What a sight they made with their entranced faces lifted to the silver screen while the masked rider fought for law and justice on his white steed, Topper. Donald Wade’s mouth hung open when Topper galloped into view for the first time and reared up majestically, his silver-haired rider flourishing a black hat like Will’s own. Baby Thomas pointed and stared with owl-eyes, his mouth forming a tight O. Then he squealed and clapped and had to be shushed. Eleanor’s expression shifted from one of rapt wonder to childlike delight as the scenes rolled on.
Hopalong got the lady in the end, and when he kissed her Will glanced over at his new wife. As if she felt his survey, she turned again. Their profiles, illuminated by fluttering light, appeared as half-moons in the dark theater while their own first kiss came back afresh, and they were reminded of the night ahead. In that brief moment feelings of anxiety somersaulted through them. Then the finale music swelled, Hopalong rode off into the sunset and the boys set up an exciting babbling.
"Is it all done? Where did Hopalong go? Can we come again, Will, can we, huh?"
In the car there was no talk between Will and Eleanor as there’d been that morning. Baby Thomas slept curled on her lap. Donald Wade-wearing Will’s hat-pressed himself against Will’s shoulder and exuberated over the wonders of Hopalong and Topper. Though Will answered, his thoughts projected to the night ahead. Bedtime. He cast occasional covert glances at Eleanor but she stared straight ahead and he wondered if she was thinking about the same thing as he.
At home, Will tended the evening chores automatically, his mind on the bedroom he’d never seen, their first kiss today, how guarded they’d been with each other, the night ahead, a real bed and a woman to share it. But a pregnant woman, pregnant enough to eliminate the possibilities of any conjugal commerce. He wondered what a woman as pregnant as Elly looked like naked and his body felt taut with a combination of chagrin at the thought of possibly seeing her that way, and the idea of lying beside her all night long without touching her.
Had he imagined a wedding day, ever, it wouldn’t have been like this-himself in blue jeans, the bride seven months pregnant, a dime-store ring, five minutes in a judge’s chamber and a Hopalong Cassidy movie with two rambunctious boys. But the unlikely events of the day weren’t over yet.
Supper-due to their late return-was scarcely a wedding feast. Scrambled eggs, green beans and side pork. Donald Wade bawled when Eleanor refused to let him wear Will’s hat at the table. Baby Thomas spit out his green beans on Eleanor’s yellow dress, and when she scolded him he swatted his tumbler of milk across the room. Eleanor, her skirt soaked, leaped up and slapped his hand. Thomas howled like a fire siren while Will sat by helplessly, realizing that family life had some surprises in store for him. Eleanor went off to fetch a basin and a rag, leaving him to ponder the probability that if this wedding day seemed a letdown to an unsentimental fool like him, it must seem a sore disappointment to her. She returned to the fiasco at the table but he wouldn’t let her get down on her hands and knees in her pretty yellow dress, especially when she had to struggle these days to get up and down.
"Here, I’ll do that." He took the pail from her hand, trying to imagine what it must be like to carry a bride across the threshold of a honeymoon suite on the twentieth floor of the Ritz Hotel. He wished he could do that for her. Instead he could only offer, "You go take care of your dress."
She lifted her face and he saw in her green eyes the same misgivings he had, the same strain, intensified by the boys’ uncharacteristic naughtiness on this night when it was the last thing they needed. He was touched more deeply by the fact that she was near tears.
"Thank you, Will."
"Go." He turned her toward the bedroom and gave her a gentle shove.
Funny how one bit of cooperation led to another. A half hour later he found himself beside her, drying dishes, and a half hour after that, helping her get the boys ready for bed.
The pair had had a tiring day and they surrendered to their pillows with remarkable docility. While she tucked them in he wandered the room collecting their discarded clothes, small items that smelled of spilled milk and first trips to town, popcorn and broomstick cowboys. From beside a scarred chest of drawers Will watched Eleanor kiss them goodnight, smiling at the scene. Two pajama-clad boys with faces scrubbed shiny being reassured by their mother that they were loved in spite of their recent misbehavior. She had changed into a worn smock of faded brown that bellied out as she leaned over Donald Wade, kissed his mouth, his cheek; touched his nose with her own and murmured something for his ears only. And next, Baby Thomas, over the side of the crib, kissing him, toppling him into a tired heap, then brushing his hair back while he clasped a favorite blanket and stuck a thumb in his mouth.
Resting an elbow on the dresser top, Will smiled softly. Again came the yearning for things missed, but watching was almost as good as taking part. In those moments, his love for Eleanor swelled, became something more than the love of a husband for a wife. She became the mother he’d never known, the boys became himself-safe, secure, cared for.
With a pang of awe he realized he would be part of this tableau every night. He could wash freckled faces, stuff arms into pajama sleeves, collect dirty clothes and hover over their affectionate goodnights. Vicariously he might recapture a portion of what he’d missed.
The ritual ended. Eleanor lifted the side of the crib and waggled two fingers at Donald Wade. Abruptly he sat up and demanded, "I wanna kiss Will goodnight."
Will’s elbow came off the dresser and his face registered surprise. Eleanor turned and met his gaze across the lamplit room.
She noted his hesitation but saw beyond it to the stronger tug of anticipation. "Donald Wade wants to kiss you," she reiterated.
"Me?" He felt like an interloper though his chest tightened expectantly. Donald Wade lifted his arms. Will glanced again at Eleanor, chuckled, scratched his chin and crossed the room, feeling awkward and out of place. He sat on the edge of the bed and the boy’s arms clasped his neck without restraint. The small mouth-moist and smelling faintly of milk-pressed Will’s briefly. It was so unexpected, so… so… genuine. He’d never kissed a child goodnight before, had never guessed how it got to your insides and warmed you from there, out.
"Night, kemo sabe."
Will laughed. "Oh, my mistake. I shoulda checked to see which horse was tied at the hitchin’ rail outside."
When Will rose from Donald Wade’s bed, Baby Thomas was no longer lying down. He was standing at the rail of his crib with his mouth plump and his eyes unblinking, watching. Baby Thomas… who’d taken longer to warm to Will. Baby Thomas… who still intimidated the grown man at times. Baby Thomas… who imitated everything his older brother did. His kiss was hugless, but his tiny mouth warm and moist when Will bent to touch it.
Lord a-mighty, he’d never have guessed how a pair of goodnight kisses could make a man feel. Wanted. Loved.
Thomas stared at him with big hazel eyes.
"Say goodnight to Will," his mother prompted softly.
Never before had Thomas spoken Will’s name. The distorted pronunciation went straight to the thin man’s heart as he watched Eleanor settle him down a second time before joining Will in the doorway.
They stood a moment, shoulder to shoulder, studying the children. A closeness stole over them, binding them with an accord that washed away the many shortcomings of this day, leaving them with a faith in better things to come.
Leaving the boys’ door ajar, they stepped into the front room. It was dark but for the trailing light from the boys’ lantern and another on the kitchen table.
Will ran a hand through his hair, draped it around his neck and smiled at the floor. After a moment his chest lifted with a pleasured chuckle.
"I never did that before."
He searched for a way to express the fullness in his heart. But there was no way. To an orphan turned drifter, a drifter turned prisoner, a prisoner turned hired hand, a hired hand turned stand-in daddy, there was no way to express what the last five minutes had meant to him. Will could only waggle his head in wonder. "That’s somethin’, isn’t it?"
She understood. His surprise and wonder said it all. He had never expected the right to her children to come along with the right to her house. Yet she recognized his growing affection for them, saw clearly what kind of father he could be-gentle, patient, the kind who’d take none of the small pleasures for granted.
"Yes, it is."
He dropped his hand and lifted his head. A soft smile curved his lips. "I really like those two, you know?"
"Even after the way they acted at supper?"
"Oh, that-that was nothin’. They’d had a big day. I reckon their springs were still twangin’."
He did, too, briefly before sobering. "I want you to know I’ll do right by them."
Her voice softened. "Oh, Will… I know that."
"Well," he went on almost sheepishly, "they’re pretty special."
"I think so, too."
Their gazes met momentarily. They searched for something to say, something to do. But it was bedtime; there was only one thing to do. Yet both of them were reluctant to suggest it. In the kitchen the radio was playing "Chattanooga Choo Choo." The strains came through the lighted doorway into the shadows where they paused uncertainly. Across from the boys’room, their own bedroom door stood open, an oblique shadow waiting to take them in. Beyond it waited uncertainty and self-consciousness.
Eleanor fiddled with her hands, searching for a subject to put off bedtime. "Thank you for the movie, Will. The boys will never forget it and neither will I."
"I enjoyed it, too."
End of subject.
"I liked the popcorn, too," she added hurriedly.
"So did I."
End of subject, again.
This time Will found a diversion-the boys’ clothes, still balled in his hands. "Oh, here!" He thrust them into hers. "Forgot I still had ’em." He rammed his hands into his pockets.
Looking down at Thomas’s milk-streaked shirt, she said, "Thanks for helping me get them ready for bed."
"Thanks for letting me."
A quick exchanged glance, two nervous smiles, then silence again, immense and overpowering, while they stood close and studied the collection of clothes in her hands. It was her house, her bedroom-Will felt like a guest waiting to be invited to stay the night, but still she made no mention of retiring. He heard his own pulse drumming in his ears and felt as if he were wearing somebody else’s collar, one size too small. Somebody had to break the ice.
"Are you tired?" he asked.
"No!" she replied, too quickly, too wide-eyed. Then, dropping her head, "Well… yes, I am a little."
"I guess I’ll step out back then."
When he was gone, her shoulders wilted, she closed her eyes and pressed her burning cheeks into the stale-smelling clothes. Silly woman. What’s there to be skittish about? He’s going to share your mattress and your quilts-so what?
She freed her hair, washed her face and got ready for bed in record time. By the time she heard him reenter the kitchen she was safely dressed in a white muslin nightgown with the quilts tucked to her armpits. She lay stiffly, listening to the sounds of him washing up for bed. He turned off the radio, checked the fire, replaced a stovelid. Then all remained quiet but for the beat of her own pulse in her ears and the tick of the windup alarm clock beside the bed. Minutes passed before she heard his footsteps cross the front room and pause. She stared at the doorway, imagining him gathering courage while her own heart throbbed like the engine of Glendon’s old Steel Mule the time she’d ridden it.
Will paused outside the bedroom doorway, fortifying himself with a deep breath. He crossed the threshold to find Eleanor lying on her back in a proper, white, long-sleeved nightie. Her brown hair lay free against the white pillow and her hands were crossed over the high mound formed by her stomach beneath the quilts. Though her expression was carefully bland, her cheeks wore two blots of pink, as if some seraph had winged in and placed a rose petal upon each. "Come in, Will."
He swept a slow glance across the room-curtainless window, homemade rag rug, hand-tied quilt, iron bedstead painted white, a closet door ajar, a bedside table and kerosene lamp, a tall bureau with a dresser scarf and a picture of a man with large ears and a receding hairline.
"I’ve never seen this room before."
"It’s not much."
"It’s warm and clean." He advanced two steps only, forcing his eyes to range further until they were drawn, against his will, back to the picture.
"Is that Glendon?"
He crossed to the bureau, picked up the framed photo and held it, surprised at the man’s age and lack of physical attractiveness. A rather beaked nose and a bony, hollow-eyed face with narrow lips. "He was some older than you."
Will studied the picture in silence, thinking the man looked much older.
"He wasn’t much of a looker. But he was a good man."
"I’m sure he was." A good man. Unlike himself, who had broken the laws of both God and man. Could a woman forget such transgressions? Will set the picture down.
Eleanor asked, "Would it bother you if I left the picture there-so the boys don’t forget him?"
"No, not at all." Was it a reminder that Glendon Dinsmore still held a special place in her heart? That though Will Parker might share her sheets tonight, he had no right to expect to share anything else-ever? He faced the wall while pulling his shirttails out, wanting to impose nothing upon her, not even glimpses of his bare skin.
She watched him unbutton his shirt, shrug it off, hang it on the closet doorknob. Her fascination came as a surprise. There were moles on his back, and firm, tan skin. He was tapered as a turnip from shoulder to waist, and his arms had filled out considerably in the two months he’d been here. Though she felt like a window-peeper, she continued gaping. He unbuckled his belt and her eyes dropped to his hips-thin, probably even bony inside his jeans. When he sat down the mattress sagged, sending her heart aflutter-even so slight a sharing of the bed felt intimate, after having it to herself for over half a year. He hoisted a foot, removed a cowboy boot and set it aside, followed by its mate. Standing, he dropped his jeans to the floor, then stretched into bed with one fluid motion, giving no more than a flash of thighs textured with dark hair and an old pair of Glendon’s shorts before the quilt covered him and he stretched out beside her with his arms behind his head.
They stared at the ceiling, lying like matched bookends, making sure not so much as the hair on their arms brushed, listening to the tick of the clock, which seemed to report like rifle shots.
"You can turn down the lantern some. It doesn’t need to be that bright."
He rolled and reached, tugging the bedclothes. "How’s that?" He peered back over his outstretched arm while the light dimmed to pale umber, enhancing the shadows.
Again he stretched flat. The silence beat about their ears. Neither of them risked any of the settling motions usually accompanying the first minutes in bed. Instead they lay with hands folded primly over quilts, trying to adjust to the idea of sharing a sleeping space, dredging up subjects of conversation, discarding them, tensing instead of relaxing.
Presently, he chuckled.
"What?" She peeked at him askance. When his face turned her way she fastened her gaze on the ceiling.
"This is weird."
"We gonna lay in this bed every night and pretend the other one isn’t there?"
She blew out a long breath and let her eyes shift over to him. He was right. It was a relief, simply acknowledging that there was another person in the bed. "I wasn’t looking forward to this. I thought it’d be awkward, you know?"
"It was. It is," he admitted for both of them.
"I been jumpy as a flea since suppertime."
"Since morning, you mean. Hardest thing I ever did was to open that door and walk into the kitchen this morning."
"You mean you were nervous, too?"
"Didn’t it show?"
"Some, but I thought I was worse that way than you."
They mulled silently for some time before Will remarked, "A pretty strange wedding day, huh?"
"Well, I guess that was to be expected."
"Sorry about the judge and the kiss-you know."
"It wasn’t so bad. We lived through it, didn’t we?"
"Yeah, we lived through it." He crossed his hands behind his head and contemplated the ceiling, presenting her with a hairy armpit that smelled of Ivory soap.
"I’m sorry about the lantern. It’ll keep you awake, won’t it?"
"Maybe for a while, but it doesn’t matter. If you hadn’t slept in a real bed for as long as me, you wouldn’t complain about a lantern either." He lowered one hand and ran it across the coarse, clean sheet which smelled of lye soap and fresh air. "This is a real treat, you know. Real sheets. Pillow cases. Everything."
No reply entered Eleanor’s mind, so she lay in silence, adjusting to the feeling of his nearness and scent. Outside a whippoorwill sang and from the boys’ room came the sound of the crib rattling as Thomas turned over.
"Could I ask you something?"
"You afraid of the dark?"
She took her time answering. "Not afraid exactly… well, I don’t know. Maybe." She thought a moment. "Yeah, maybe. I been sleepin’ with the lantern on so long I don’t know anymore."
Will turned his head to study her profile. "Why?"
Her eyes met his, and she thought about her fanatic grandparents, her mother, all those years behind the green shades. But to talk about it would make her seem eccentric in his eyes, and she didn’t want to be. Neither did she want to ruin her wedding day with painful memories. "Does it matter?"
He studied her green eyes minutely, wishing she’d confide in him, tell him the facts behind Lula’s gossip. But whatever secrets she held, he wouldn’t hear them tonight. "Then tell me about Glendon."
"Glendon? You want to talk about him… tonight?"
"If you do."
She considered for some time before asking, "What do you want to know?"
"Anything you want to tell. Where did you meet him?"
Studying the dim circle of light on the ceiling, she launched into her recollection. "Glendon delivered ice to our house when I was a little girl. We lived in town then, my mother and my grandparents and me. Grandpa was a preacher man, used to go out on circuit for weeks at a time." She peered at Will from the corner of her eye, gave a quirk of a smile. "Fire and brimstone, you know. Voice like a cyclone throwing dirt against the house." She told him what she chose, winnowing out any hints of her painfully lonely youth, the truth about her family, the bad memories from school. Of Glendon she spoke more frankly, telling about their meetings in the woods when she was still a girl, and of their shared respect for wild creatures. "The first present he ever brought me was a sack of corn for the birds, and from then on we were friends. I married him when I was nineteen and I been livin’ here ever since," she finished.
At the end of her recital, Will felt disappointed. He’d learned nothing of the house in town nor why she had been locked in it, none of the secrets of Eleanor Dinsmore Parker. The truth seemed strange: she was his wife, yet he knew less about her than he knew of some of the whores he’d frequented in his day. Above all, he wanted to know about that house so that he could assure her it made no difference to him. Given time, she might tell him more, but for now he respected her right to privacy. He, too, had secret hurts too painful to reveal yet.
"Now your turn," she said.
"Tell me about you. Where you lived when you were a boy, how you ended up here."
He began with sterile facts. "I lived mostly in Texas but there were so many towns I couldn’t name ’em all. Sometimes in orphanages, sometimes people would take me in. I was born down around Austin, they tell me, but I don’t remember it till I grew up and went back there one time when I was doing some rodeoing."
"What do you remember?"
"First memories, you mean?"
Will thought carefully. It came back slowly, painfully. "Spilling a bowl of food, breakfast cereal, I think, and getting whupped so hard I forgot about being hungry."
"I got whupped a lot. All except for one place. I lived there for a half a year, maybe… it’s hard to remember exactly. And I’ve never been able to remember their names, but the woman used to read me books. She had this one with a real sad story I just loved called A Dog of Flanders, and there were drawings of a boy and this dog of his, and I used to think, Wow, it must be something to have a dog of your own. A dog would always be there, you know?" Will mused a moment, then cleared his throat and went on. "Well, anyway, this woman, the thing I remember about her most is she had green eyes, the prettiest green eyes this side of the Pecos, and you know what?"
"What?" Elly turned her face up to him.
Smiling down, he told her, "The first time I walked into this house that was what I liked best about you. Your green eyes. They reminded me of hers, and she was always kind. And she was the only one who made me think books were okay."
For a moment they gazed at each other until their feelings came close to surfacing, then Elly said, "Tell me more."
"The last place I lived was with a family named Tryce on a ranch down near a dump called Cistern. The old man’s watch came up missing and I figured soon as I heard what was up that they’d pin the blame on me, so I lit out before he could whup me. I was fourteen and I made up my mind as long as I stayed on the move they couldn’t stick me in any more schools where all the kids with ma’s and pa’s looked at me like I was a four-day-old pork chop left in somebody’s pocket. I caught a freight and headed for Arizona and I been on the road ever since. Except for prison and here."
"Fourteen. But that’s so young."
"Not when you start out like I did."
She studied his profile, the dark eyes riveted on the ceiling, the crisp, straight nose, the unsmiling lips. Softly, she asked, "Were you lonely?" His Adam’s apple slid up, then down. For a moment he didn’t answer, but when he did, he turned to face her.
"Yeah. Were you?"
Nobody had ever asked her before. Had he been anyone from town, she could not have admitted it, but it felt remarkably good to answer, "Yeah."
Their gazes held as both recognized a first fallen barrier.
"But you had a family."
"A family, but no friends. I’ll bet you had friends."
"Friends? Naww." Then, after thoughtful consideration, "Well, one maybe."
He tipped an eyebrow her way. "You sure you wanna hear this?"
"I’m sure. Who?"
He never talked about Josh. Not to anyone. And the story would lead to a conclusion that might make Eleanor Parker rethink her decision to invite him into her bed. But for the first time, Will found he wanted it off his chest.
"His name was Josh," he began. "Josh Sanderson. We worked together on a ranch down near a place called Dime Box, Texas. Near Austin." Will chuckled. "Dime Box was somethin’. It was like… well, maybe like watchin’the black and white movie after seeing the previews in color. A sorry little dump. Everything kind of dead, or waitin’ to die. The people, the cattle, the sagebrush. And nothing to do there on your night off. Nothing." Will paused, his brow smooth while his thoughts ranged back in time.
"So what’d you do?"
He shot her one quick glance. "This ain’t much of a subject for a wedding night, Eleanor."
"Most wives already know this kind of stuff about their husbands by their wedding night. Tell me-what’d you do?"
As if settling in for a long talk, he rolled his pillow into a ball, crooked his head against it, lifted one knee and linked his fingers over his belly. "All right, you asked, I’ll tell you. We used to go down to La Grange to the whorehouse there. Saturday nights. Take a bath and get all duded up and take our money into town and blow damn near all of it on booze and floozies. Me, I wasn’t fussy. Take anyone that was free. But Josh got to liking this one named Honey Rossiter." He shook his head disbelievingly. "Honey-can you believe that? She swore it was her given name but I never believed her. Josh did, though. Hell, Josh’d believe anything that woman told him. And he wouldn’t hear anything bad about Honey. Got real pissed off if I said a word against her. He had it bad for her, that’s a fact.
"She was tall-eighteen hands, we used to joke-and had this head full of hair the color of a palomino, hung clear down to her rump. It was some hair all right, curly but coarse as a horse’s mane, the kind a man could really sink his hands into. Josh used to talk about it, laying in his bunk at night-Honey and her honey hair. Then pretty soon he started talking about marrying her. Josh, I says, she’s a whore. Why would you want to marry a whore? Josh, he got real upset when I said that. He was so crazy over her he couldn’t tell truth from lies.
"She was like…" He rested a wrist on the updrawn knee, absently toying with a piece of green yarn on the quilt. "… well, like an actress in a picture show-played at being whatever a man needed. She’d change herself to suit the man, and when she was with Josh she acted like he was the only man for her. Trouble is, Josh started believing it.
"Then one night we came there and when Josh asked for Honey the old harlot who ran the place says Honey’s been spoken for for the next two hours. Who else would he like?
"Well, Josh never wanted anybody else, not after Honey. He waited. But by the time she come back down he was so steamed his lid was rattlin’ and he was ready to blow. She comes saunterin’ into the Leisure Room-that’s what they called the bar where the men waited on the women-and Lord a-mighty, you never heard such a squall as when Josh jumped her about who she was spendin’ two hours with while he was left downstairs coolin’ his heels.
"She says to him, You don’t own me, Josh Sanderson, and he says, Yeah, well, I’d like to. Then he pulls a ring out of his pocket and says he’d come there that night intendin’ to ask her to marry him."
Will shook his head. "She laughed in his face. Said she’d have to be crazy to marry a no-count saddle bum who’d probably keep her pregnant nine months out of twelve and expect her to take care of a houseful of his squallin’ brats. Said she had a life of luxury, spendin’ a few hours on her back each night and wearing silk and feathers and eatin’ oysters and steak anytime she wanted ’em.
"Well, Josh went wild. Told her he loved her and she wasn’t gonna screw anybody else-never. She was gonna leave with him-now!He made a grab for her and out of nowhere she pulls this little gun-Christ, I never knew the girls there even carried ’em. But there it was, pointed right at Josh’s eye and I reached for a bottle of Old Star whiskey and let her have it. Hell, I didn’t think. I just… well, I just beaned her. She went down like a tree, toppled sideways and cracked her head on a chair and laid there in a puddle of broken glass and blended whiskey and hardly even bled, she died so fast. I don’t know if it was the bottle or the chair that killed her, but it didn’t matter to the law. They had me behind bars in less than half an hour.
"I figured things’d come out all right-after all, I was defending Josh. If I hadn’t clunked her, she’d have shot Josh smack through his left eye. But what I didn’t figure was how serious he was about marrying her, how broke up he was when she died.
"He…" Will closed his eyes against the painful memory. Eleanor sat up, watching his face closely.
"He what?" she encouraged softly.
Will opened his eyes and fixed them on the ceiling. "He testified against me. Told this sob story about how he was gonna make an honest woman out of Honey Rossiter, take her away from her lousy life in that whorehouse and give her a home and respectability. And the jury fell for it. I did five years for savin’ my friend’s life." Will ran a hand through his hair and sighed. For seconds he stared at the ceiling, then rolled to a sitting position with arms loosely linked around his knees. "Some friend."
Eleanor studied the moles on his back, wanting to reach out and touch, comfort. Like him, she’d had only one friend. But hers had turned out loyal. She could imagine how deep her own hurt would have gone had Glendon betrayed her.
"I’m sorry, Will."
He threw his head aside as if to look back at her, but didn’t. Instead his gaze dropped to his loosely linked wrists. "Aw, what the hell. It was a long time ago."
"But it still hurts, I can tell."
He flopped back, ran both hands through his hair and clasped them behind his head.
"How’d we get on a subject like that anyway. Let’s talk about something else."
The mood had grown somber, and as they lay side by side Eleanor could think of little except Will’s sad, friendless youth. She had always thought herself the loneliest soul on earth, but… poor Will. Poor, poor Will. Now he had her at least, and the boys. But how long would it last if the war came?
"Is the war really like that, Will… like they showed in the movies?"
"I guess so."
"You think we’re gonna be in it, don’t you?"
"I don’t know. But if not, why is the President drafting men for the military?"
"If we were, would you have to go?"
"If I got drafted, yes."
Her mouth formed an oh, but the word never made it past her lips. The possibility pressed upon her, bringing with it a startling dread. Startling because she hadn’t guessed she’d feel so possessive about this man once he was her husband. The fact that he was made a tremendous difference. The black and white pictures from the newsreel flashed through her memory, followed by the colored ones of the War between the States. What an awful thing, war. She supposed, in the days when Grandpa had been alive, they would have prayed that America stay out of it. Instead, she closed her eyes and forced the grim pictures aside to make way for those of the beautiful ladies in their enormous silk skirts, and the men in their top hats, and Hopalong waving his white hat… and Donald Wade in Will’s black one… and eventually when she rode the thin line between sleep and wakefulness, Will himself riding Topper, waving his hat at her from the end of the driveway…
Minutes later, Will turned to say, Let’s not worry about it until the time comes. But he found she had fallen asleep, flat on her back, lips parted, hands crossed demurely beneath her breasts. He watched her breathe, a strand of hair on her shoulder catching the light with each beat. His gaze drifted down to her stomach, back up to her breasts, soft and unsculptured beneath her nightgown. He thought about how good it would feel to roll her onto her side, curl up behind her with his arms where hers were now and fall asleep with his face against her back. But what would she think if she awakened and found him that way? He would have to be on guard, even asleep.
His eyes wandered once more to her stomach.
The quilts shifted as if a sleeping cat had changed positions underneath. But she slept soundly, as still as a mummy. The baby? Babies moved… that much? Cautiously, he braced up on one elbow until he sat over her, studying the movements at close range. Boy or girl? It shifted again and he smiled. Whatever it was, it was rambunctious; he couldn’t believe all that commotion didn’t wake her up. He resisted the urge to turn the quilts back for a better look, the even greater one to rest a hand on her and feel what he was watching. Either-of course-was out of the question.
He lay back down to worry that he’d agreed to deliver that baby. God, what had he been thinking? He’d kill it for sure with his big, clumsy hands.
Don’t think about it, Will.
He closed his eyes and concentrated instead on the goodnight kisses of Donald Wade and Baby Thomas. He recalled their childish voices wishing him goodnight, especially Thomas-"’Night, Wiw…" He tried to wipe his mind clean of all thought so sleep would come. But the light shone through his eyelids, urging them open once again.
Eleanor flipped onto her side, facing him. He studied her eyelashes lying like fans against her cheeks, the palm of her left hand resting near his chin with the friendship ring peeking through her relaxed fingers. He let his eyes roam over the button placket of her nightgown, the quilt that had slipped down to her waist, the white cloth covering her breasts. He reached out carefully-very carefully-and took the fabric of her sleeve in his fingers, rubbing it as a greedy man rubs two coins together. Then he withdrew his hand, flipped over in the opposite direction and tried to forget the light was on.
In the morning Eleanor opened her eyes to the back of Will Parker’s head. His hair was flattened into a pinwheel, giving a clear view of his white skull underneath. She smiled. The intimacies of marriage. She watched each breath lift his shoulder blades, studied his back with its distinctive triangle of moles, the hindside of one ear, the pattern of the hairline at his nape, the ridges of his vertebrae disappearing beneath the covers just above his waist. His skin was so much darker than Glendon’s, so much barer; Glendon always slept in an undershirt. Will’s skin looked seasoned, whereas Glendon’s had been doughy.
The object of her study snuffled and rolled onto his back. His eyeballs moved behind closed lids, but he slept on, his face exposed to the sun. It turned him all gold and brown and put glints of color in his pale hair like those in a finch’s wing. His beard grew fast, much faster than Glendon’s, and there was more hair on his arms and chest. Studying it gave her an unexpected jolt of reaction, down low.
She slammed her eyes closed only to realize that he smelled different from Glendon. No smell she could name, only the distinctive one given him by Nature-warm male hide and hair and breath-as different from Glendon’s as that of an apple from an orange. Her eyes opened stealthily, halfway, as if such caution would prevent him from waking. Through nearly closed eyelids she admired him, letting the sunlight shatter on her lash tips and diffuse over his image as if he were sprinkled with sequins. A handsome, well-built man. The whores in La Grange probably fought over him.
Again the queer radiant disturbance intensified low in her belly as she lay with her knees only inches from his hip, his unfamiliar man-smell permeating her bedclothes, his warmth and bulk taking up half the sleeping space. It was a shock to find herself susceptible to fleshly thoughts when she’d thought pregnancy made her immune.
Another disturbing consideration struck. Suppose he had studied her as intimately as she now studied him. She tried to recall falling asleep but couldn’t. They’d been talking-that was the last she remembered. Had she been lying on her back? Facing him? She glanced at the table; the lantern still hissed. He had left it on, could have lain awake for hours after she’d dropped off, taking an up-close tally of her shortcomings. Studying his becoming face, she became all too aware of how she suffered by comparison. Her hair was dirt brown, plain, her eyelashes thin and stubby, her fingers wide-knuckled, her stomach popping, her breasts mammoth. Sometimes she snored. Had she snored last night while he watched and listened?
She rolled toward her edge of the bed, thinking, just forget he’s back there and go about dressing as if it were any other day.
At her first movement Will came awake as if she’d set off a firecracker. He glanced at her back, the alarm clock, then sat up and reached for his pants, all in one motion.
They dressed facing opposite walls, and only when the final buttons were closed did they peer over their shoulders at each other.
"Mornin’," she offered self-consciously.
"Fine. Did I crowd you?"
"Not that I remember. Did I crowd you?"
"You always wake up that quick?"
"It’s nearly eight. Herbert’s gonna bust." He sat down on the edge of the bed and yanked his boots on. A moment later he was stalking out the door, stuffing in his shirttails.
When he was gone, she dropped onto the bed and sighed with relief. They’d done it! Gone to bed, slept together, gotten up and dressed without once making physical contact, and without him seeing her ugly, bloated body.
She sat moments longer staring despondently at the mopboard.
Well, that’s what you wanted, wasn’t it?
Then why are you sitting here moping?
I’m not moping!
Well, I’m not!
But you’re thinking about when the judge ordered him to kiss you.
Well, what’s wrong with that?
Nothing. Nothing at all.
Leave me alone.
Silence. For minutes and minutes only obedient silence hummed inside her head.
If you wanted him to kiss you goodnight, you should’ve just leaned over and done it yourself.
I didn’t want him to kiss me goodnight.
Oh, sorry. I thought that’s why you were moping.
I wasn’t moping.
But she was, and she knew it.
At midmorning that day, with breakfast eaten and his routine chores done, Will returned to the house to find the veiled hat, hive tool and smoker on the back-porch steps. He grinned. So… no more egg grenades. Going inside to thank her, he almost regretted the loss.
The house was empty, on the table, a note: Gone to pick pecans with the boys. He took the stub of a pencil, scrawled across the bottom, "Thanks for the wedding gift!" and hit for the mint patch.
Their first twenty-four hours as husband and wife seemed to set the tone for the days that followed. They lived together amicably if not intimately, helping one another in small ways, adapting, sharing a mutual enjoyment of the children and their uncomplicated family life. From the first they accommodated each other-as with the beekeeping gear-so there were no more bursts of anger. Life was peaceful.
Though the sudden appearance of the hive tool, hat and smoker was never mentioned between them, it signaled the true beginning of Will’s work with the bees. He sensed that Eleanor would rather not know when he was out in the orchard, so he kept the equipment in an outbuilding when it was not in use, and retrieved it without telling her. Only when he returned to the house with the honeycomb frames did she know he’d been among the bees.
He learned to respect them. There was a calm about the orchard that seeped into him each time he passed there, a serenity not only among the insects, but within himself for the necessity of having to move slowly while among them. But as slowly as he moved, it was inevitable that he should eventually get stung. The first time it happened he jumped, swatted and yowled, "Ouch!" For his efforts he received three additional stings. He learned, in time, not to jump and most certainly not to swat, forcing the stinger farther into his skin. But more importantly, he learned to recognize the variations in the sounds of the bees-from the squeaky piping of the contented workers as they moved about their business on humming gauze wings to the altogether different "quacking" occasionally set up by a single provoked bee, warning him to anticipate the sting and be ready to fend it off. He came to recognize the feel of bee feet digging into his body hair for a good grip, and to pluck the insect away gently before the grip became a sting. He learned that bees are soothed by the sound of human whistling, that their least favorite color is red and their most favorite, blue.
So it was a happy man who walked among the peach trees, whistling, dressed all in blue, a veiled hat protecting his face. He could never get used to the clumsiness of gloves, so worked barehanded, scraping at the hard, varnishlike propolis with which the bees sealed every minute crack between the supers. Inside the smoker, which was little more than a spouted tin can with an attached bellows, he lit a smudge of oiled burlap. Several puffs into the open hive subdued the bees, enabling him to remove the comb cases without danger. These he transported back to the house, where he carefully scraped the wax caps off the comb with a knife heated above a kerosene lantern. The first time Eleanor saw him doing so she opened the porch door and stepped outside, shrugging into a sweater, carrying a knife. "You’ll need a little help with that," she said flatly, without casting him a glance. But she sat down on the opposite side of the lantern and showed him that it wasn’t the first time she’d scraped wax. Nor was it the first time she’d extracted, nor rendered, when it came time to do those jobs.
The extracting-pulling the honey from the combs-was done in a fifty-gallon drum equipped with a crank that spun the combs and forced the honey out by centrifugal force. From a spigot at the bottom the honey was drained-littered with fragments of comb and wax-then heated and strained before the wax was allowed to separate to the top and be skimmed off. The two products were then packed separately for sale.
There was much Will didn’t know, particularly about the rendering process, knowledge that could be learned only by experience. Eleanor taught him-albeit grudgingly most of the time, but she taught him just the same.
"How do we clean up this mess?" Will inquired of the sticky drum with its honey-coated paddles and spigot.
"We don’t. The bees do," she replied.
"Bees eat honey. Just leave it outside in the sun and they’ll find it."
Sure enough, any honey-coated tool left outside soon became cleaner than if it had been steamed.
Will knew perfectly well she saw the occasional welts on his skin, but she made no comments about them and soon his body built up a natural immunity until the bee stings scarcely reacted. When he came in with a load of comb, she tacitly went into the cellar for fruit jars, washed and scalded them, then lent a hand processing and bottling the honey.
Those honey days were a time of acquaintance for Will and Eleanor. As with their first night in bed when they’d lain so still, growing accustomed to lying side by side, working with the honey lent them proximity and time to adjust to the fact that they were bound for life. Sometimes, while scraping wax or holding a funnel, Will would look up and find himself being studied. The same was true for Eleanor. There would follow quick mutual smiles and a sense of growing acceptance, each for the other.
At night in bed, they talked. He, of the bees. She of the birds. Never of the birds and bees.
"Did you know a male worker bee has thirteen thousand eyes?"
"Did you know the flycatcher makes his nest out of discarded snakeskin?"
"There are nurses in a bee colony and all they do is take care of the nymphs."
"Most birds sing, but the titmouse is the only one who can actually whisper."
"Did you know the bees’ favorite color is blue?"
"And the hummingbird is the only bird that can fly backwards?"
These discussions sometimes led to insights into each other. One night Will spoke of the worker bees. "Did you know they work so hard during their lifetime that they actually work themselves to death?"
"No…" she replied disbelievingly.
"It’s true. They wear down their wings till they’re so frayed they can’t fly anymore. Then they just die." His expression turned troubled. "That’s sad, isn’t it?"
Eleanor studied her husband in a new light and found she liked what she saw. He lay in the dim lanternlight, contemplating the ceiling, saddened by the plight of the worker bees. How could a woman remain aloof to a man who cared about such things? Moved, she reached out to console, grazing the underside of his upraised arm.
His glance shot down to her and their gazes caught for several interminable seconds, then her fingers withdrew.
On a night shortly thereafter Will came up with another amazing apian phenomenon. "Did you know the workers practice something called flower fidelity? It means each bee gathers nectar and pollen from only one species of flower."
"Oh, you’re making that up!" Her head twisted to face his profile.
"I am not. I read about it in one of the books Miss Beasley gave me. Flower fidelity."
He lay as he did every night during their talks-on his back with his hands behind his head. Silent, she regarded him, digesting this new snippet of information. At length she squared her head on the pillow and fixed her attention on the pale glow overhead. "I guess that’s not so unusual. Some birds practice fidelity, too. To each other. The eagles, the Canadian geese-they mate for life."
"I’ve never seen an eagle," Will mused.
"Eagles are…" Eleanor gestured ceilingward-"Majestic."-then let her hands settle to her stomach again. A smile tipped her lips. "When I was a girl I used to see a golden eagle in a huge dead tree down in the swamp near Cotton Creek. If I were a bird, I’d want to be an eagle."
"Why?" Will turned to study her.
"Because of something I read once."
"Oh… nothing." She twined her fingers and looked down her chest at them.
"Tell me." He sensed her reluctance but kept his gaze steady, unrelenting. After some time she sent Will a quick peek.
"Promise you won’t laugh?"
For several seconds she concentrated on aligning her thumbnails precisely, then finally quoted shyly.
"He clasps the crag with crooked hands;
Close to the sun in lonely lands,
Ring’d with the azure world, he stands.
The wrinkled sea beneath him crawls;
He watches from his mountain walls,
And like a thunderbolt he falls."
She paused before adding, "Somebody named Tennyson wrote that."
In that moment Will saw a new facet of his wife. Fragile. Impressionable. Touched by poets’ words, articulate combinations of words such as she herself never used.
"It’s beautiful," he said softly.
Her thumbnails clicked together as she vacillated between the wish to hide her feelings and reveal more. The latter won as she swallowed and added softly, "Nobody laughs at eagles."
Oh, Elly, Elly, who hurt you so bad? And what would it take to make you forget it? Will rolled to face her and braced his jaw on a fist. But she wouldn’t turn, and her cheeks burned brightly.
"Did somebody laugh at you?" His voice was deep with caring. A tear plumped in the corner of her eye. Understanding her chagrin at its arrival, Will pretended not to notice. He waited motionlessly for her answer, studying the ridge of her nose, the outline of her compressed lips. When she spoke it was an evasion.
"For a long time I didn’t know what azure meant."
He watched as her throat contracted and the florid spots in her cheeks stood out like pennies on an open palm. His hand burned to touch her-her chin maybe, turn it to face him so she would see that he cared and would never ridicule her. He wanted to take her close, cradle her head and rub her shoulder and say, "Tell me… tell me what it is that hurts so bad, then we’ll work at getting you over it." But every time he considered touching her his insecurities reared up to confront and confine him. Woman killer, jailbird, she’ll jump and yelp if you touch her. On the first day you were warned to keep your distance.
So he stayed on his own side of the bed with one wrist riveted to his hip, the other folded beneath an ear. But what he couldn’t relay by touch he put into his expressive voice.
"Elly?" It came out softly, the abbreviated name falling from his lips as an endearment. Their gazes collided, her green eyes still luminous with unshed tears, his brown ones filled with understanding. "Nobody’s laughing now."
Suddenly everything in her yearned toward him.
Touch me, she thought, like nobody ever did before, like I touch the boys when they feel bad. Make it not important that I’m plain and unpretty and more pregnant than I wish I was right now. You’re the man, Will-don’t you see? A man’s got to reach first.
But he couldn’t. Not first.
Touch me, he thought, my arm, my hand, a finger. Let me know it’s all right for me to have these feelings for you. Nobody’s cared enough to touch me for years and years. But you’ve got to reach first, don’t you see? Because of how you felt about him, and what I am, what I did, what we agreed to the first day I came here.
In the end, neither of them moved. She lay with her hands atop her swollen stomach, her heart hammering frantically, afraid of rejection, ridicule, the things she had been seasoned by life to expect.
He lay feeling unlovable due to his spotty past and the fact that no woman including his own mother had found him worth the effort, so why should Elly?
And so they talked and gazed during those lanternlit nights of acquaintance-crazy Eleanor and her ex-con husband-learning respect for each other, wondering when and if that first seeking might happen, each hesitant to reach out for what they both needed.
The honey was all bottled. The hives received fresh coats of white paint, their bases-as suggested in print-a variety of colors to guide the workers back from their forays. When Will left the orchard for the last time, the hives held enough honey to feed the bees through the winter.
He packed away the extractor in an outbuilding until the spring honey run began and announced that night at supper, "I’ll be going to town tomorrow to sell the honey. If there’s anything you need, make a list."
She asked for only two things: white flannel to make diapers and a roll of cotton batting.
The following day when Will stepped through the library doors, Gladys Beasley was immersed in lecturing a cluster of schoolchildren on the why and wherefore of the card catalogue. With her back to Will, she looked like a dirigible on legs. Packed into a bile-green jersey dress, wearing club-heeled shoes and the same cap of precise blue ringlets against a skull of baby pink, she gestured with her head and spoke in her inimitable pedantic voice.
"The Dewey Decimal System was named after an American librarian named Melvil Dewey over seventy years ago. James," she digressed, "quit picking your nose. If it needs attention, please ask to be dismissed to the lavatory. And in the future please see to it that you bring your handkerchief with you to school. Under the Dewey Decimal System books are divided into ten groups…" The lecture continued as if the remonstration had not interrupted.
Meanwhile, Will stood with an elbow braced on the checkout desk, waiting, enjoying. A little girl pirouetted on her heels-left, right-gazing at the overhead lights as if they were comets. A red-headed boy scratched his private rear quarters. Another girl balanced on one foot, holding the opposite ankle as high against her buttock as she could force it. Since coming to live with Elly and the boys Will had grown to appreciate children for their naturalness.
"… any subject at all. If you’ll follow me, children, we’ll begin with the one hundreds." As Miss Beasley turned to herd stragglers, she caught sight of Will lounging against the desk. Involuntarily her face brightened and she touched her heart. Realizing what she’d done, she dropped and clasped her hand and recovered her customary prim expression. But it was too late-she was already blushing.
Will straightened and tipped his hat, pleasantly shocked by her telling reaction, warmed more than he’d have thought possible by the idea of such an unlikely woman getting flustered over him. He’d been doing everything in his power to get his wife to react that way but he’d certainly never expected it here.
"Excuse me, children." Miss Beasley touched two heads in passing. "You may explore through the one hundreds and the two hundreds." As she approached Will the tinge of pink on her cheeks became unmistakable and he grew more amazed.
"Mornin’, Miss Beasley."
"Good morning, Mr. Parker."
"Busy today," he observed, glancing at the children.
"Yes. Mrs. Gardner’s second grade."
"Brought you something." He held out a pint jar of honey.
"Why, Mr. Parker!" she exclaimed, touching her chest again.
"From our own hives, rendered this week."
She accepted the jar, lifting it to the light. "My, how clear and pale."
"Lots of sourwood out our way. Sourwood honey’s light like that. Takes on a little color from the tupelo, though."
She drew in her chin and gave him a pleased pout. "You did do your homework, didn’t you?"
He crossed his arms and planted his feet firmly apart, smiling down at her from the shadow of his hat brim. "I wanted to thank you for the pamphlets and books. I couldn’t’ve done it without them."
She held the jar in both hands and blinked up at him. "Thank you, Mr. Parker. And please thank Mrs. Dinsmore for me, too."
"Ah…" Will rubbed the underside of his nose. "She’s not Mrs. Dinsmore anymore, ma’am. She’s Mrs. Parker now."
"Oh." Surprise and deflation colored the single word.
"We got married up at Calhoun the end of October."
"Oh." Miss Beasley quickly collected herself. "Then congratulations are in order, aren’t they?"
"Well, thank you, Miss Beasley." He shifted his feet uneasily. "Ma’am, I don’t want to keep you from the kids, but I got honey to sell and not much time. I mean, there’s a lot to do out at the place before-" Again he shifted uneasily. "Well, you see, I’m wantin’ to put in an electric generator and a bathroom for Eleanor. I was wondering if you’d see what you got for books on electricity and plumbing. If you could pick ’em out, I’ll stop back for ’em in an hour or so when I get rid of the honey."
"Electricity and plumbing. Certainly."
"Much obliged." He smiled, doffed his hat and moved toward the door. But he swung back with designed offhandedness. "Oh, and while you’re at it, if you could find any books about birthing, you could add them to the stack."
Will felt himself color and shrugged, feigning nonchalance. "Oh… ah… horses, cows…" He gestured vaguely. "You know." His glance wandered nervously before flicking back to her. "Humans, too, if you run across anything. Never read anything about that. Might be interesting."
He felt transparent beneath her acute scrutiny. But she set the jar in the place of honor beside her nameplate and advised in her usual caustic voice, "Your books will be ready in one hour, Mr. Parker. And thank you again for the honey."
Calvin Purdy bought half the honey and, after some dickering, took four more jars in exchange for ten yards of white flannel and a bat of cotton. At the filling station Will bartered two more pints of honey for a tankful of gasoline-it had been on his mind to keep the tank full from now until the baby came, just in case. While the gas was being pumped he lowered his brows and ruminated on Vickery’s Cafe, down at the corner. Biscuits and gravy in the morning; biscuits and honey in the evening, he’d guess. But to make a sale he’d probably have to face Lula Peak again, and there was no telling where she might decide to run her scarlet claw this time. He scratched his chest and glanced away in distaste. The honey wouldn’t spoil.
With a full tank of gas, he motored around the square to the library again. Mrs. Gardner’s second grade was gone, leaving silence and an empty library.
"Hello?" he called.
Miss Beasley came out of the back room, dabbing her mouth with a flowered handkerchief.
"Am I interrupting your lunch?"
"Actually, yes. You’ve caught me sampling your honey on my muffin. Delicious. Absolutely delicious."
He smiled and nodded. "The bees did most of the work." She chuckled tightly, as if laughter were illegal. But he could see how pleased she was over his gift. On the surface she wasn’t a very likable woman-militant, uncompromising-probably hadn’t many friends. Perhaps that was why he was drawn to her, because he’d never had many either. Her lips were surrounded by more than their fair share of baby-fine, colorless hair. A tiny droplet of honey clung to one on her top lip. Had he liked her less, he might have let it go unmentioned. As it was, he pointed briefly-"You missed something"-then hooked his thumb on his back pocket.
"Oh!… Oh, thank you." Fussily she mopped her mouth but managed to miss what she was after.
"Here." He reached. "May I?" Taking her hand, hanky and all, he guided it to the proper spot.
It was one of the most decidedly personal touches Miss Beasley had ever experienced. Men were put off by her, always had been, especially in college, where she’d proved herself vastly more intelligent than any who might have taken an interest. The men in Whitney were either married or too stupid to suit her. Though she had accepted her spinsterhood long ago, it startled Gladys to find a man who-given other circumstances, other times-might have suited nicely in both temperament and intellect. When Will Parker touched her, Gladys Beasley forgot she was shaped like a herring barrel and old enough to be his grandmother. Her old maid’s heart flopped like a fresh-caught bream.
The touch was brief and not untoward. Quickly, almost shyly, he backed off and let his thumb find his rear pocket again. When Gladys lowered the handkerchief she was decidedly rattled, but he graciously pretended not to notice.
"So. Did you find anything for me?" he inquired.
She produced a stack of five books, some with slips of paper marking selected spots. Curious, he tried to read the titles upside down as she stamped each card. But she was very efficient with her Open, stamp, slap! Open, stamp, slap! He hadn’t made out one title before she pushed the pile his way with his card placed neatly on top.
"Much obliged, Miss Beasley."
"That’s my job, Mr. Parker."
His smile spread slowly, formed only halfway before he touched his hat brim and slipped the books to his hip. "Much obliged anyway. See you next week."
Next week, she thought, and her heart raced. Fussily she tamped the tops of the recessed cards to cover her uncharacteristic flutteriness.
She had chosen for him The Plumber’s Handbook, The ABC’s of Electricity, Edison’s Invention, Animal Husbandry for the Common Farmer, and another entitled New Era Domestic Science.
That night after supper while Eleanor shelled pecans at the kitchen table, Will sat at a right angle to her, turning pages. He spent an informative half hour spot-reading in three of the books, then picked up the fourth-New Era Domestic Science. It covered a range of subjects, some vital, others-to Will-silly. He smiled in amusement at such subjects as "How to Choose a House Boy," "How to Clean a Flatiron by Rubbing on Salt." There was a recipe for "Meat Jelly," another for fried tomatoes, then dozens of others; a discourse on insomnia, entitled, "The Science of Sleep"; a tip about cleansing the interior of your teakettle by boiling an oyster shell in it. His finger stopped shuffling when he arrived at "A Chapter for Young Women." His eyes scanned ahead, then retreated to an essay on "Choosing a Husband." As he began reading, he slumped lower and lower in his chair until his spine was bowed, the book rested against the edge of the table and an index finger covered his grin.
You now need the advice of your parents more than ever before, the essay advised, for the young man will be attracted by you and you will be attracted by him. This is natural. If you make a mistake it may wreck your whole life. Take your mother into your confidence. There are some rules that are safe to follow in this matter. Never have anything to do with a young man who is "sowing his wild oats," or who has sown them.
Will absently rubbed his lip and peeked at Eleanor, but she was busy with the nutcracker.
Never marry a man to reform him. Leave those who need reforming severely alone. There are men who do not drink and yet who are more dangerous to you than drunkards. A man who sows his wild oats or is morally lax may be afflicted with diseases that can be given to an innocent and pure wife and thus entail upon her life-long suffering. Marriage is a lottery. You may draw a prize, or your life may be made miserable. Tell your parents if you are attracted toward a young man so that they may find out if he is a man of good character and pure in heart and life. It is so much better to remain single than to make an unfortunate marriage.
He wondered how many ignorant virgins had read this stuff and ended up more confused than ever about the facts of life.
His speculative gaze wandered to Elly. She dropped a pecan into the bowl and his eyes followed. Her stomach had grown so full it barely left room for the bowl on her knees. Her breasts seemed to have doubled in size in the last three months. Had she been a virgin when she married Glendon Dinsmore? Had Glendon "sowed wild oats" like Will Parker had? Had Elly consulted her parents and had they checked out Dinsmore’s character and found him pure in heart and life-unlike her second husband?
She picked another pecan clean and raised the last morsel to her mouth. Will’s eyes again followed and he absently stroked his lips. One thing about Elly-she sure hadn’t married to reform him. If he had reformed it was because of her acceptance, rather than the lack of it.
He turned a page to a section in which Miss Beasley had left a marker. "How to Conceive and Bear Healthy Children." All right, he thought, secretly amused, tell me how.
The one main reason for the establishment of marriage was for the bearing and rearing of children. Nature has provided for man and woman the organs for this purpose and they are wonderfully constructed.
End of enlightenment. Will swallowed another chortle and his finger continued hiding the grin. He couldn’t help picturing Miss Beasley reading this, wondering what her reaction had been.
From his delight over the construction of human organs the author had skipped directly to a passel of ludicrous advice on conception: If the parents are drunk at the time the child is conceived they cannot expect healthy offspring, either physically or mentally. If the parents dislike each other they will transmit something of that disposition to their offspring. If either one or both of the parents are much worried at the time of conception the child will be the sufferer.
Without warning Will burst out laughing.
Eleanor looked up. "What’s so funny?"
"Listen to this…" He straightened in his chair, laid the book flat on the table and read the last passage aloud.
Eleanor gazed at him unblinkingly, her hands poised around a pecan in the jaws of the nutcracker. "I thought you were reading about electricity."
He sobered instantly. "Oh, I am. I mean, I… I was."
She reached across the table and, with the nose of the nutcracker, tipped the book up.
"New Era Domestic Science?"
"Well, I… it…" He felt his cheeks warming and randomly flipped the pages. They fell open to a diagram of a homemade telephone. "I was thinking about making one of these." He turned the book and showed her.
She glanced at the diagram, then skeptically at him before the pecan shell cracked and fell into her palm. "And just who did you think we’d call on it?"
"Oh, I don’t know. You never can tell."
He hid his discomposure by delving into the book again.
After you become pregnant you owe it to yourself, your husband and especially your unborn young one to see that it comes into the world endowed with everything that a true, good, and devoted mother can possibly give it, both physically and mentally. To this end, keep yourself well and happy. Eat only such foods as are easily digested and that will keep your bowels regular. Read only such books as will tend to make you happier and better. Choose the company of those whom you feel will lift you up. Gossips will not do this so do not listen to croakers who are so ready to converse with you at this time.
Such capricious advice went on and on, but Will’s amusement died when he found what he’d been looking for: "Preparations for Labor." It began with a list of recommended articles to have on hand:
5 basins 1 two-quart fountain syringe 15 yards unsterilized gauze 6 sanitary bed pads; or, 2 pounds cotton batting for making same
1 piece rubber sheeting, size 1 by 2 yards 4 ounces permanganate of potash 8 ounces oxalic acid 4 ounces boric acid 1 tube green soap 1 tube Vaseline 100 Bernay’s bichloride tablets 8 ounces alcohol 2 drams ergotol 1 nail brush 2 pounds absorbent cotton
My God, they’d need all that? Will began to panic.
The opening instructions read, The nurse should prepare enough bed and perineal pads, sterilizing them a week before, along with towels, diapers, 1/2 pound absorbent cotton and some cotton pledgets.
Nurse? Who had a nurse? And enough? What was enough? And what did perineal mean? And what were pledgets? He couldn’t even understand this, much less afford it! Pale now, he turned the page only to have his disillusionment doubled. Phrases jumped out and grabbed him by the nerve-endings.
Cramp-like pains in the lower abdomen… rupturing membranes… watery discharge… a marked desire to go to stool… bulging of the pelvic floor… tearing of the perineal flesh… temple bones engaged in the vulva… proper manipulation to expel the afterbirth… stout clean thread… sever immediately… exception being when child is nearly dead or does not breathe properly…
He slammed the book shut and leaped to his feet, pale as seafoam.
He stared out a window, knees locked, cracking his knuckles, feeling his pulse thud hard in his gut.
"I can’t do it."
Fear lodged in his throat like a hunk of dry bread. He gulped, but it stayed. "I wasn’t reading about electricity. I was reading about delivering babies."
"Yes, that." He swung to face her. "Elly, we’ve never talked about it since the night we agreed to get married. But I know you expect me to help you, and I just plain don’t know if I can."
She rested her hands in the bowl and looked up at him expressionlessly. "Then I’ll do it alone, Will. I’m pretty sure I can."
"Alone!" he barked, lurching for the book, agitatedly flapping pages until he found the right one. "Listen to this-"The cord is usually tied before being cut, the exception being when the child is nearly dead and does not breathe properly. In such a case it is best to leave the cord untied so that it may bleed a little and aid in establishing respiration.’" He dropped the book and scowled at her. "Suppose the baby died. How do you think I’d feel? And how am I supposed to know what’s proper breathing and what isn’t? And there’s more-all this stuff we’re supposed to have on hand. Why, hell, some of it I don’t even know what it is! And it talks about you tearing, and maybe hemorrhaging. Elly, please let me get a doctor when the time comes. I got the car filled with gas so I can run into town quick and get him."
Calmly she set the bowl aside, rose and closed the book. "Iknow what we’ll need, Will." Unflinchingly she met his worried brown eyes. "And I’ll have it all ready. You shouldn’t be reading that stuff,’cause it just scares you, is all."
"But it says-"
"I know what it says. But having a baby is a natural act. Why, the Indian women squatted in the woods and did it all alone, then walked back into the fields and started hoeing corn as soon as it was over."
"You’re no Indian," he argued intensely.
"But I’m strong. And healthy. And if it comes down to it, happy, too. Seems to me that’s as important as anything else, isn’t it? Happy people got something to fight for."
Her calm reasoning punctured his anger with surprising suddenness. When it had disappeared, one fact had impressed him: she’d said she was happy. They stood near, so near he could have touched her by merely lifting a hand, could have curled his fingers around her neck, rested his palms on her cheeks and asked, Are you, Elly? Are you really? For he wanted to hear it again, the evidence that for the first time in his life, he seemed to be doing something right.
But she dropped her chin and turned to retrieve the bowl of nuts and carry them to the cupboard. "Not everyone can stand the sight of blood, and I’ll grant you there’s blood when a baby comes."
"It’s not that. I told you, it’s the risks."
She turned to face him and said realistically, "We got no money for a doctor, Will."
"We could get up enough. I could take another load of scrap metal in. And there’s the cream money, and the eggs, and now the honey. Even pecans. Purdy’ll buy the pecans. I know he will."
She began shaking her head before he finished. "You just rest easy. Let me do the worrying about the baby. It’ll turn out fine."
But how could he not worry?
In the days that followed he watched her moving about the place with increasing slowness. Her burden began to ride lower, her ankles swelled, her breasts widened. And each day brought him closer to the day of delivery.
November tenth brought a temporary distraction from his worries. It was Eleanor’s birthday-Will hadn’t forgotten. He awakened to find her still asleep, facing him. He rolled onto his stomach and curled the pillow beneath his neck to indulge himself in a close study of her. Pale brows and gold-tipped lashes, parted lips and pleasing nose. One ear peeking through a coil of loose hair and one knee updrawn beneath the covers. He watched her breathe, watched her hand twitch once, twice. She came awake by degrees, unconsciously smacking her lips, rubbing her nose and finally opening sleepy eyes.
"Mornin’, lazybones," he teased.
"Mmm…" She closed her eyes and nestled, half on her belly. "Mornin’."
Her eyes opened but she lay unmoving, absorbing the words while a lazy smile dawned across her face.
"Twenty-five. A quarter of a century."
"Makes you sound older than you look."
"Oh, Will, the things you say."
"I was watching you wake up. Looked pretty good to me."
She covered her face with the sheet and he smiled against his pillow.
"You got time to bake a cake today?"
She lowered the sheet to her nose. "I guess, but why?"
"Then bake one. I’d do it, but I don’t know how."
Instead of answering, he threw back the covers and sprang up. Standing beside the bed with his elbows lifted, he executed a mighty, twisting stretch. She watched with unconcealed interest-the flexing muscles, the taut skin, the moles, the long legs dusted with black hair. Legs planted wide, he shivered and bent acutely to the left, the right, then snapped over to pick up his clothes and begin dressing. It was engrossing, watching a man donning his clothes. Men did it so much less fussily than women.
"You gonna answer me?" she insisted.
Facing away from her, he smiled. "For your birthday party."
"My birthday party!" She sat up. "Hey, come back here!"
But he was gone, buttoning his shirt, grinning.
It was a toss-up who had to work harder to conceal his impatience that day-Will, who’d had the plan in his head for weeks, Eleanor, whose eyes shone all the while she baked her own cake but who refused to ask when this party was supposed to happen, or Donald Wade, who asked at least a dozen times that morning, "How long now, Will?"
Will had planned to wait until after supper, but the cake was ready at noon, and by late afternoon Donald Wade’s patience had been stretched to the limit. When Will went to the house for a cup of coffee, Donald Wade tapped his knee and whispered for the hundredth time, "Now, Will… pleeeease?"
Will relented. "All right, kemo sabe. You and Thomas go get the stuff."
The stuff turned out to be two objects crudely wrapped in wrinkled white butcher’s paper, drawn together with twine. The boys each carried one, brought them proudly and deposited them beside Eleanor’s coffee cup.
"Presents?" She crossed her hands on her chest. "For me?"
Donald Wade nodded hard enough to loosen the wax in his ears.
"Me ’n’ Will and Thomas made ’em."
"You made them!"
"One of ’em," Will corrected, pulling Thomas onto his lap while Donald Wade pressed against his mother’s chair.
"This one." Donald Wade pushed the weightier package into her hands. "Open it first." His eyes fixed on her hands while she fumbled with the twine, pretending difficulty in getting it untied. "This dang ole thing is givin’ me fits!" she exclaimed. "Lord, Donald Wade, help me." Donald Wade reached eagerly and helped her yank the bow and push the paper down, revealing a ball of suet, meshed by twine and rolled in wheat.
"It’s for your birds!" he announced excitedly.
"For my birds. Oh, myyy…" Eyes shining, she held it aloft by a loop of twine. "Won’t they love it?"
"You can hang it up and everything!"
"I see that."
"Will, he got the stuff and we put the fat through the grinder and I helped him turn the crank and me ’n’ Thomas stuck the seeds on. See?"
"I see. Why, I s’pect it’s the prettiest suet ball I ever seen. Oh, thank you so much, darlin’…" She gave Donald Wade a tight hug, then leaned over to hold the baby’s chin and smack him soundly on the lips. "You too, Thomas. I didn’t know you were so clever."
"Open the other one," Donald Wade demanded, stuffing it into her hands.
"Two presents-my goodness gracious."
"This one’s from Will."
"From Will…" Her delighted eyes met her husband’s while her fingers sought the ties on the scroll-shaped package. Though his insides were jumping with impatience, Will forced himself to sit easy in the kitchen chair, an arm propped on the table edge with a finger hooked in a coffee cup.
Opening the gift, Eleanor gazed at him. With an ankle braced on a knee his leg formed a triangle. Thomas was draped through it. It suddenly occurred to Eleanor that she wouldn’t trade Will for ten Hopalong Cassidys. "He’s somethin’, isn’t he? Always givin’ me presents."
"Oh… o’ course." She turned her attention to opening the gift. Inside was a three-piece doily set-an oval and two crescents-of fine linen, all hemstitched and border stamped, ready for crochet hook and embroidery needle.
Eleanor’s heart swelled and words failed her. "Oh, Will…" She hid her trembling lips behind the fine, crisp linen. Her eyes stung.
"The sign called it a Madeira dresser set. I knew you liked to crochet."
"Oh, Will…" Gazing at him, her eyes shimmered. "You do the nicest things." She stretched a hand across the table, palm-up.
Placing his hand in hers, Will felt his pulse leap.
"Thank you, dear."
He had never thought of himself as dear. The word sent a shaft of elation from his heart clear down to the seat of his chair. Their fingers tightened and for a moment they forgot about gifts and cakes and pregnancies and pasts and the two little boys who looked on impatiently.
"We got to have the cake now, Mama," Donald Wade interrupted, and the moment of closeness receded. But everything was intensified after that, tingly, electric. As Eleanor moved about the kitchen, whipping cream, slicing chocolate cake, serving it, she felt Will’s eyes moving with her, following, questing. And she found herself hesitant to look at him.
Back at the table, she handed him his plate and he took it without touching so much as her fingertip. She sensed his distance as a cautious thing, an almost unwillingness to believe. And she understood, for in her craziest moments she’d never have believed anything as crazy as this could happen. Her heart thundered at merely being in the same room with him. And a sharp pain had settled between her shoulder blades. And she found it hard to draw a full breath.
"I’ll take Baby Thomas." She tried to sound casual.
"He can stay on my lap. You enjoy your cake."
They ate, afraid to look at each other, afraid they had somehow misread, afraid they wouldn’t know what to do when the plates were empty.
Before they were, Donald Wade looked out the window and pointed with his fork. "Who’s that?"
Will looked and leaped to his feet. "Lord a-mighty!"
Eleanor dropped her fork and said, "What’s she doing here?"
Before Will could conjure a guess, Gladys Beasley mounted the porch steps and knocked on the door.
Will opened it for her. "Miss Beasley, what a surprise."
"Good afternoon, Mr. Parker."
He had the feeling she would have, whether invited or not. He poked his head outside. "Did you walk clear out here from town?"
"I don’t own an automobile. I didn’t see any other way."
Surprised, Will ushered her inside and turned to perform introductions. But Gladys took the matter out of his hands.
"Hello, Eleanor. My, haven’t you grown up."
"Hello, Miss Beasley." Eleanor stood behind a chair, nervously fingered her apron edge as if preparing to curtsy.
"And these are your sons, I suppose."
"Yes, ma’am. Donald Wade and Baby Thomas."
"And another one on the way. My, aren’t you a lucky child."
"Yes’m," Eleanor answered dutifully, her eyes flashing to Will’s. What does she want?
He hadn’t an inkling and could only shrug. But he understood Eleanor’s panic. How long had it been since she’d engaged in polite conversation with anyone from town? In all likelihood Miss Beasley was the first outsider Eleanor had ever allowed in this house.
"I understand congratulations are in order, too, on your marriage to Mr. Parker."
Again Eleanor’s eyes flashed to Will, then she colored and dropped her gaze to the chair, running a thumbnail along its backrest.
Miss Beasley glanced at the table. "It appears I’ve interrupted your meal. I’m-"
"No, no," Will interjected. "We were just having cake."
Donald Wade, who never spoke to strangers, inexplicably chose to speak to this one. "It’s Mama’s birthday. Will and me and Baby Thomas was givin’ her a party."
"Won’t you sit down and have some?" Eleanor invited.
Will could scarcely believe his ears, but the next moment Miss Beasley settled her hard-packed bulk in one of the chairs and was served a piece of chocolate cake and whipped cream. Though Will hadn’t actually missed having outsiders around, he found their absence unhealthy. If there was ever the perfect person to draw Eleanor out of her reclusiveness, it was Miss Beasley. Not exactly the gayest person, but fair-minded to a fault, and not at all the sort to dredge up painful past history.
Miss Beasley accepted a cup of coffee, laced it heavily with cream and sugar, sampled the cake and pursed her hairy lips. "Mmmm… quite delectable," she proclaimed. "Quite as delectable as the honey you sent, Eleanor. I must say I’m not accustomed to receiving gifts from my library patrons. Thank you."
Donald Wade piped up. "Wanna see the ones we give Mama today?"
Miss Beasley deferentially set down her fork and focused full attention on the child. "By all means."
Donald Wade scrambled around the table, found the suet ball and brought it to the librarian couched in his hand. "This here’s for her birds. Me’n Will and Baby Thomas made it all ourselfs."
"You made it… mmm." She examined it minutely. "Now aren’t you clever. And a homemade gift is certainly one from the heart-the best kind, just like the honey your mother and Mr. Parker gave me. You’re a lucky child." She patted him on the head in the way of an adult unused to palavering socially with children. "They’re teaching you the things that matter most."
"And this here…" Donald Wade, excited at having someone new on whom to shower his enthusiasm, reached next for the doilies. "These’re from Will. He bought ’em with the honey money and Mama she can embroidry on ’em."
Again Miss Beasley gave the items due attention. "Ah, your mother is lucky, too, isn’t she?"
It suddenly struck Donald Wade that the broad-beamed woman was a stranger, yet she seemed to know his mother. He looked up at Miss Beasley with wide, unblinking eyes. "How do you know ’er?"
"She used to come into my library when she was a girl not much bigger than you. Occasionally I was her teacher, you might say."
Donald Wade blinked. "Oh." Then he inquired, "What’s a lie-bree?"
"A library? Why, one of the most wonderful places in the world. Filled with books of all kinds. Picture books, storybooks, books for everyone. You must come and visit it sometime, too. Ask Mr. Parker to bring you. I’ll show you a book about a boy who looks quite a bit like you, actually, named Timothy Totter’s Tatters.Mmmm…" Leaning back, she tapped an index finger on her lips and examined Donald Wade as if a decision hung in the balance. "Yes, I should say Timothy Totter is just the book for a boy… what? Five years old?"
Donald Wade made his hair bounce, nodding.
"Do you have a dog, Donald Wade?"
Mystified, he wagged his head slowly.
"You don’t? Well, Timothy Totter does. And his name is Tatters. When you come, I’ll introduce you to both Timothy and Tatters. And now, if you’ll excuse me, I must speak to Mr. Parker a moment."
Miss Beasley could not have chosen a gentler method of bringing Eleanor around to the idea of bumping up against the outside world again. If there was an ideal way to reach Eleanor it was through her children. By the time Miss Beasley’s interchange with Donald Wade ended, Eleanor was sitting, looking less as if she was preparing to bolt. Miss Beasley told her, "That’s the best chocolate cake I’ve ever had. I wouldn’t mind having the recipe," then turned to Will without pause. "I’ve come bearing some sad news. Levander Sprague, who has cleaned my library for the past twenty-six years, dropped dead of a heart attack night before last."
"Oh… I’m sorry." He’d never heard of Levander Sprague. Why in the world had she brought the news clear out here?
"Mr. Sprague shall be sorely missed. However, he lived a long and fruitful life, and he leaves behind nine strapping boys to see their mother through her last years. I, however, am left without a custodian. The job pays twenty-five dollars a week. Would you like it, Mr. Parker?"
Will’s face flattened with surprise. His glance shot to Elly, then back to the librarian, as she hastened on. "Six nights a week, after the library closes. Caring for the floors, dusting the furniture, burning the trash, stoking the furnace in the winters, occasionally carrying boxes of books to the basement, building additional shelves when we need them."
"Well…" Will’s amazement modified into a crooked smile as he chuckled and ran a hand down the back of his head. "That’s quite an offer, Miss Beasley."
"I thought about offering it to one of Mr. Sprague’s sons, but quite frankly, I’d rather have you. You have a certain respect for the library that I like. And I heard that you were summarily dismissed from the sawmill, which irritated my sense of fair play."
Will was too surprised to be offended. His mind raced. What would Elly say? And should he be gone evenings when she was so close to due? But twenty-five dollars a week-every week-and his days still free!
"When would you want me to start?"
"Immediately. Tomorrow. Today if possible."
"Today… well, I… I’d have to think it over," he replied, realizing Elly ought to have a say.
"Very well. I’ll wait outside."
Wait outside? But he needed time to feel Elly out. He should have guessed that Miss Beasley would tolerate no shilly-shallying. He was already scratching his jaw in consternation as the door closed. At the same moment Eleanor arose stiffly from her chair and began clearing away the cake plates.
"Elly?" he asked.
She wouldn’t look at him. "You take it, Will. I can see you want to."
"But you don’t want me to, right?"
"Don’t be silly."
"I could buy fixtures for a bathroom and I’d still have days free to put it in for you."
"I said, take it."
"But you don’t like me hangin’ around town, do you?"
She set the dishes in the dishpan and did an about-face. "My feelings for town are mine. I got no right to keep you from it, if that’s what you want."
"But Miss Beasley’s fair. She never put you down for anything, did she?"
"And what about when the baby starts coming?"
"A woman has plenty of warning."
She nodded, though he could see that it cost her dearly to let him go.
He crossed the room in four strides, grasped her jaws and planted a quick, hard kiss on her cheek. "Thank you, honey." Then he slammed out the door.
Honey? When he was gone she placed her palms where his had been. She was probably the most unhoney female within fifty miles, but the word had warmed her cheeks and tightened her chest. Before the thrill subsided, Will came slamming back inside.
"Elly? I’m giving Miss Beasley a ride back to town and she’ll show me around the library, then I’ll probably sweep up for her before I come back. Don’t wait supper for me."
He was half out the door before he changed his mind and returned to her side. "Will you be all right?"
Looking up into his eager face, she bit back all her misgivings. He’d never know from her how badly she wanted him here from now until the baby came. Or how she feared having him working in town where everyone called her crazy, where prettier and brighter women were bound to make him take a second look at what he’d married and regret it.
But how could she hold him back when he could scarcely stand still for excitement?
"I’ll be fine," she repeated.
He squeezed her arm and was gone.
Will took the car, in deference to Miss Beasley. On the way into town they spoke of the boys, the birthday, and finally of Elly.
"She’s a stubborn woman, Miss Beasley. You might as well know, the reason I asked for that book on human birthing was because she refuses to have a doctor. She wants me to deliver the baby."
"And will you?"
"Reckon I’ll have to. If I don’t she’ll do it alone. That’s how stubborn she is."
"And you’re scared."
"Damn right, I’m scared!" Will suddenly remembered himself. "Oh, sorry, ma’am-I mean, well, who wouldn’t be?"
"I’m not blaming you, Mr. Parker. But apparently her other two were born at home, weren’t they?"
"Now you sound like her."
He told her about the book and how it had scared him. She told him about going off to college and how it had scared her, but how the experience had made her a stronger person. He told her about the boys and how awkward he’d felt around them at first. She told him she too had felt awkward around them today. He told her how scared Elly was of the bees and how he himself loved working with them. She told him how she loved working among the books and that in time Elly would come to see he was cautious and industrious, but he must be patient with her. He asked her what kind of man Glendon Dinsmore had been and she answered, as different from you as air is from earth. He asked which he was, air or earth? She laughed and said, "That’s what I like about you-you really don’t know."
They talked all the way to town-argued some-and neither of them considered what a queer combination they made-Will, with his prison record and slapdash education, Miss Beasley with her estimable position and college degree. Will with his long history of drifting, Miss Beasley with her long one of permanence. He with his family of near-three, she an old maid. Both had been lonely in their own way. Will, because of his orphaned past, Gladys because of her superior intellect. He was a man who rarely confided, she a woman in whom people rarely confided. He felt lucky to have her as a sounding board and she felt flattered to be chosen as such.
Diametric opposites, they found in each other the perfect conversational complement, and by the time they reached town their mutual respect was cemented.
The library was closed that afternoon in memory of Levander Sprague, who’d worked there nearly a third of his life. It was a cloudy day, but inside the building was warm and bright. Entering, Will looked at the place through new eyes-gleaming wood, towering windows and flawless order. How incredible that he could work in such a place.
Miss Beasley walked him through, explained his duties, showed him the janitor’s supplies, the furnace, asked that he arrive each day five minutes before closing so she could give him any special instructions, then extended a key.
"For me?" He stared as if it were her great-grandfather’s gold watch.
"You’ll be locking up when you leave each night."
The key. My God, she was willing to trust him with the key. In all his life he’d had no place. Now he had a house and a library he could walk into anytime he chose.
Staring at the cool metal in his palm, he told her quietly, "Miss Beasley, this library is public property. Some folks around here might object to your giving the key to an ex-con."
She puffed out her chest until her bosom jutted, and locked her wrists beneath it. "Just let them try, Mr. Parker. I’d welcome the war." She reached down and closed his fingers over the key. "And I’d win it."
Without a doubt, she was right. In his palm the brass warmed while a smile lifted one corner of his lips and spread to the other. Some poor damn fool could have had her behind him all his life and had passed up the opportunity, he thought. This town had to be filled with some mighty stupid men.
She left him, then, went home to spend the remainder of her rare day off. He walked through the silent rooms in wonder, realizing there’d be no supervisor, foreman or guard; he could do things his way, at his own pace. He liked the silence, the smell, the spaciousness and purpose of the place. It seemed to represent a facet of life he’d missed. Stationary people came here, secure ones. From now on he’d be one of them-leaving his comfortable home and coming here to work each day, picking up a paycheck each week, knowing he’d do the same next week and the next and the next. Brimming with feelings he could find no other way to express, he pressed both hands flat on one of the study tables-solid, functional, necessary, as he’d be now. Good wood, good hard oak in a table built to last. He’d last, too, at this job because he’d found in Miss Beasley a person who judged a man for what he was, not what he had been. He stood at one of the enormous fanlight windows and looked out on the street below. Levander Sprague, wherever you are, thank you.
The janitor’s room smelled of lemon oil and sweeping compound. Will loved it and the idea that it was his own domain. Gathering supplies, he went eagerly into the public area and upended chairs and swept the hardwood floors with an oiled rag-tail mop. He dusted the windowsills, the furniture, the top of Miss Beasley’s neat desk, emptied the wastebasket, burned the papers in the incinerator and felt as if he’d just been elected governor.
At six-thirty, he headed home.
The word had never held such promise. She was waiting there, the woman who’d called him dear. The one whose cheek he’d kissed. The one whose bed he shared. At the thought of returning to her, visions filled his head-of walking into her arms, feeling her hands close over his shoulders, burying his face in her neck. Of being held as if he mattered.
He felt different now that he had a job. Bolder, worthier. Perhaps tonight he’d kiss her and to hell with the consequences.
The kitchen was empty when he arrived, but his supper waited in a pie tin on the reservoir lid. The birthday cake sat in the middle of the cleared table. From the boys’ room came a spill of light and the murmur of voices. He carried his plate and fork to the doorway and found Elly sitting beneath the covers in Donald Wade’s bed, an arm around each of the boys.
"… took a scamper’round that hen house a-yowlin’ at that fox fit to kill, and when he-"She glanced up. "Oh… Will… hi." Her face registered pleasure. "I was tellin’ the boys a bedtime story."
Their eyes held for several electric beats while her color heightened and she tucked a stray hair behind one ear. Finally, she continued her tale. He lounged against the doorframe, eating his leftover hash and black-eyed peas, listening and chuckling while she entertained the boys with a sprightly story peopled with furry critters. When the tale ended she gave each of her sons a kiss, then edged off the bed and held out her hands for Thomas.
Will pushed off the doorway. "You shouldn’t be lifting him. Here, hold this." He handed her his plate and swung Thomas up, transferring him to the crib. There followed the ritual goodnight kisses, then they left the boys’ door ajar and ambled toward the kitchen.
"So, how was it at the library?"
"Do you know what she did?" he asked, amazed.
"She gave me the key. Feature that. Me with a key to anything."
Eleanor was touched, not only by his astonishment, but by Miss Beasley’s trust in him. He rinsed his dish and described his duties while she settled into a rocker and pressed one of the Madeira doilies into an embroidery hoop. He dragged a kitchen chair near, sipped a cup of coffee and watched her fingers create colored flowers where only blue ink had been. They talked quietly, calm on the surface but with an underlying tension simmering as the clock inched closer to bedtime.
When it arrived, Will arched and stretched while Eleanor tucked her handiwork away. They made their trips outside, battened down the house for the night and retired to their room to undress, back to back, as had become their habit. When he had stripped to his underwear, Will turned to glance over his shoulder and caught a glimpse of her naked back and the side of one breast as she threw a white nightgown over her head.
Dear. The memory of the simple word gripped him with all its attendant possibilities. Had she meant it? Was he really dear to someone for the first time in his life?
He sat on the edge of the bed and wound the alarm clock, waiting for the feel of her weight dipping the mattress before he settled back and lowered the lantern wick.
They lay memorizing the ceiling while memories of the day returned-a birthday gift, an endearment, a handclasp, a parting kiss-none very remarkable on the surface. The remarkable was happening within.
They lay flat, quivering inside, disciplining themselves into motionlessness. From the corner of her eye she glimpsed his bare chest, the looming elbows, the hands folded behind his head. From the corner of his eye he saw her pregnant girth and her high-buttoned nightie with the quilts covering her to the ribs. Beneath her hands she felt her own heartbeat driving up through the quilt. On the back of his skull he felt the accelerated rhythm of his pulse.
The minutes dragged on. Neither moved. Neither spoke. Both worried.
One kiss-is that so hard?
Just a kiss-please.
But what if she pushes you away?
What is there for him in a woman so pregnant she can scarcely waddle?
What woman wants a man with so many tramps under his bridge?
What man wants to roll up against someone else’s baby?
But most of them were paid, Elly, all of them meaningless.
Yes, it’s Glendon’s baby, but he never made me feel like this.
Turn to her, he thought.
Turn to him, she thought.
The lantern wick sputtered. The flame twisted, distorting the impression of the chimney rim on the ceiling. The mattress seemed to tremble with their uncertainties. And when it seemed the very air would sizzle with heat lightning, they spoke simultaneously.
Their heads turned and their eyes met.
A pause. Then, "I… I forgot what I was going to say."
Ten seconds of beating silence before she said softly, "Me too."
They stared at each other, feeling as if they were choking, each afraid… each desperate…
Then all of his past, all of her shortcomings, billowed up in a conflagration and exploded as might some distant star.
Her lips parted in unconscious invitation. His shoulder came off the bed and he rolled toward her, slowly enough to give her time to skitter if she would.
Instead her lips shaped his name. "Will…" But it escaped without a sound as he bent above her and touched her mouth with his own.
No passionate kiss, this, but a touch fraught with insecurities. Tentative. Uncertain. A mingling of breath more than of skin. A thousand questions encapsulated in the tremulous brushing of two timid mouths while their hearts thundered, their souls sought.
He lifted… looked… into eyes the color of acceptance, deep-sea green in the shadow of his head. She, too, studied his eyes at close range… brown, vulnerable eyes which he’d hidden so often beneath the brim of a battered hat. She saw the doubts that had accompanied him to this brink and marveled that someone so good, so inwardly and outwardly beautiful, should have harbored them when she was the one… she. Plain and pregnant Elly See, the brunt of laughter and pointed fingers. But in his eyes she saw no laughter, only a deep mystification to match her own.
He kissed her again… lightly… lightly… the brush of a jaconet wing upon a petal while her fingertips brushed his chest.
And at long, long last the loneliness of Will Parker’s life stopped hurting. He thought her name over and over-Elly… Elly-a benediction, as the kiss deepened, firmer, fuller, but still with a certain reserve-two people schooled to reject the possibility of miracles now forced to change their beliefs.
His hand closed over her arm and hers flattened on the silken hairs of his chest, but he remained a space apart as he urged her lips open with his own, bringing the first touch of tongues-warm, wet and still atremble. Hearts that had hammered with uncertainty did so now in exultation. They searched for and found a more intimate fit, enhanced by the sway and nod of heads that built the kiss into something more than either had expected. Sweet sweet commingling, bringing more than the rush of blood and the thrust of hearts, bringing too, the assurance that Will and Eleanor were to one another beings of great moment.
He hovered above her, bearing his weight on both elbows, afraid of hurting her. But she bade him come. Nearer… heavier… to the spot where her heart lifted toward his. And he rested upon her breasts, gingerly at first, until her acquiescence seemed unmistakable.
For long wondrous minutes they sated themselves with what both had known too little of before Will broke away, looked down into her face to find the same expression of wonder he himself was feeling. They stared-renewed-then wrapped each other tight and rocked because kissing hardly seemed an adequate expression of all they felt.
In time he hauled them safely to their sides, pressing his face to her throat, folding himself like a jackknife around her protruding stomach.
"Elly… Elly… I was so scared."
"So was I."
"I thought you’d turn me away."
"But that’s what I thought you’d do."
He pulled back to see her face. "Why would I do that?"
"Because I’m not very pretty. And I’m pregnant and awkward."
He cradled her cheek tenderly. "No… no. You’re a beautiful person. I saw that the first morning I was here."
She held the back of his hand and hid her eyes in its palm. These things were easier to admit behind closed eyes. "And I’m not very bright, and maybe I’m crazy. You knew all that."
He made her lift her chin and look at him. "But I killed a woman. And I’ve been in prison and in whorehouses. You knew that."
"That was a long time ago."
"Most people never forget."
"I thought because it was Glendon’s baby inside me you wouldn’t want to touch me."
"What does that have to do with anything?"
Her heart seemed too small to contain such joy. "Oh, Will."
He asked, "Could I touch it once? Your stomach? I never touched a woman who was pregnant."
She felt warm and shy but nodded.
His hands molded the sides of her stomach as if it were a bouquet of crushable flowers. "It’s hard… you’re hard. I thought it’d be soft. Oh God, Elly, you feel so good."
"So do you." She touched his hair, thick and springy and smelling of his unmistakable individual scent. "I’ve missed this."
He closed his eyes and gave her license. If he lived to be a thousand he’d never get enough of the feeling of her hands in his hair.
In time he let his eyes drift open and they lay for minutes, gazing, taking their fill. She of his incredible eyes and jumbled hair. He of her softly swollen lips and green, green eyes. He found himself unreasonably jealous of her early years with Glendon Dinsmore. "Do you still think of him?"
"I haven’t for weeks."
"I thought you still loved him."
She drew courage and repeated his words. "What does that have to do with anything? Do you think I’ll love this baby any less, just because two others came before it?"
He braced up on an elbow, stared at her and swallowed. He felt as if a great fist had closed around his chest. When he spoke the words sounded pinched. "Elly, nobody ever-" Abashed, he couldn’t go on.
"Nobody ever loved you before?" She tenderly cupped his cheek. "Well, I do."
His eyes slid closed and he turned his mouth hard into her palm, clasping it to his face. "Nobody. Ever," he reiterated. "Not in my whole life. No mother, no woman, no man."
"Well, your life ain’t even half over yet, Will Parker. The second half’s gonna be much better’n the first, I promise."
"Oh, Elly…" Above all the things he’d missed, this had left the greatest void. Just once in his life he wanted to hear it, the way he’d dreamed of hearing it during five long years in a cell, and all the lonely years he had drifted, and all through childhood while he watched other children-the lucky ones-pass the orphanage and gawk from the security of their parents’ carriages and cars. "Could you say it once," he entreated, "like they say people do?"
Her heart beat like the wings of an eagle, taking her soaring as she spoke the words. "I love you, Will Parker."
The sting hit his eyelids and he hung his head because nobody had prepared him for this, nobody had said, When it happens you’ll be resurrected. All that you were you will not be. All that you weren’t, you are. He lunged against her, burying his face above her breasts, holding fast. "Oh, God,…" he groaned. "Oh, God."
She held his head as if he were a child awakening from a bad dream.
"I love you," she whispered against his hair, feeling her own tears build.
"Oh, Elly, I love you, too," he uttered in a broken voice, "but I was so afraid nobody could love me. I thought maybe I was unlovable."
"Oh no, Will… no… not you." His bittersweet words filled her with the deep wish to heal, left her throat aching as she curled around him, held his head protectively and felt him breathe against her breasts. She threaded her hands through his hair and felt him grow still with pleasure. She raked her nails over his skull in long, slow sweeps… time… and time… and time again, lifting his scent, memorizing it, impressing it forever in her senses. His hair was thick, coarse, the color of dry grass. It had grown since she’d cut it, became shaggy at the neck where she brushed it up from his nape, then smoothed it before beginning another long, sensuous stroke at the crown of his head. He shivered and made a sound of gratification, deep in his throat.
His whole life he’d longed for someone to touch him this way, to touch the boy in him as well as the man, to soothe, reassure. The feel of her fingers in his hair brought back a measure of all he’d missed. He was parched earth, she fresh rain. He, a waiting vessel, she rich wine. And in those moments of closeness she filled him, filled all the lacks endowed him by his shiftless, loner’s life, becoming at once all the things he’d needed-mother, father, friend, wife, and lover.
When he felt sated he lifted his head as if drunk with pleasure.
"I used to watch you touch the boys that way. I wanted to say, Touch me, too, like you touch them. Nobody ever did that to me before, Elly."
"I’ll do it anytime you like. Wash your hair, comb it, rub your back, hold your hand-"
His mouth stopped her words. It seemed risky to accept too much in this first, grand rush. He kissed her with gratitude changing swiftly to the lushness of fresh-sprung love. He braced higher and pushed her softly into the pillow, letting his hand rove over her neck and shoulder, suckling her mouth, spreading his fingers on her face, resting a thumb so near it almost became part of the kiss. His body beckoned to join more fully in this union. Realizing this was impossible, he broke the kiss but spanned her throat with his hand. Her pulsebeat matched the quickness of his own.
"You know how long I’ve loved you?"
"Since the day you threw the egg at me."
"All that time and you never said anything. Oh, Will…"
A swift slew of possessiveness hit him. He claimed her mouth again, washing its interior with his tongue, holding her arms locked hard around his neck. He bit her lips. She bit back. He lifted a knee and pressed it high and hard between her legs. She opened them and squeezed his thigh. He circled her immense waist and held her as if forever.
"Tell me again," he demanded insatiably.
"What?" she teased.
"You know. Tell me."
"I love you."
"Once more. I got to hear it more."
"I love you."
"Will you get tired of me asking you to say it?"
"You won’t have to ask."
"Neither will you. I love you." Another kiss-a hard, short stamp of possession, then a question filled with boyish impatience. "When did you know?"
"I don’t know. It just came upon me."
"When we got married?"
"When we bottled the honey?"
"Well, sure’s heck not when you threw that egg."
She chuckled. "But I noticed your bare chest for the first time that day and I liked it."
"You liked my chest before you liked me?"
"When you were washing, down by the well."
"Touch it." Jubilantly he flattened her hand against it. "Touch me anyplace. God, do you know how long it’s been since a woman touched me?"
"Will…" she chided timidly.
"Are you shy? Don’t be shy. I thought I was, too, but all of a sudden it seems like we got so much time to make up for. Touch me. No, wait. Get up. First I gotta see you." He piled onto his knees and pulled her up to kneel before him, holding her hands out from her sides. "Mercy, are you a pretty sight. Let me look at you." Her chin dropped shyly and he lifted it, pressed the tousled hair back from her temples, then fluffed it with his fingertips and arranged it on her collarbones. "You mean I don’t have to sneak anymore when I want to look at you? You got the greenest eyes. Green is my favorite color, but you knew that."
She folded her hands between her knees, quite overcome by this exuberant, demonstrative Will.
"I used to think if I was ever lucky enough to have a woman of my own, she’d have to have green eyes. Now here you are. You and your green eyes… and your pink cheeks… and your pretty little mouth…" With his thumbs he touched its corners and let his hands trail down to her shoulders, to her upper arms where they stopped. "Elly," he whispered, "don’t move." He slipped his palms to the sides of her breasts and held them lightly while the blood rushed to her cheeks and she searched for a safe place to rest her gaze. The dim light shifted on the folds of her nightgown as he cupped a breast in each hand, his palms too narrow to contain their prenatal fullness. Gently, he reshaped and lifted, then released them to glide one hand down the fullest part of her belly. There it rested, fingers splayed. He watched the hand, soon joined by the other to smooth the cloth toward her hips where he held it taut, disclosing the impression of her distended navel. Bending, he kissed her. There. On the stomach she’d thought ugly enough to put him off.
"Will." She found his chin and attempted to lift it. "I’m fat as a pumpkin. How can you kiss me there?"
He straightened. "You’re not fat, you’re only pregnant. And if I’m going to deliver that baby I’d better get to know him."
"I thought I married a shy, quiet man."
"I thought so too."
He smiled for the length of three glad heartbeats, then laughed. And wondered if life would ever again be this good. And decided surely tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow it could only get better.
He was right. He’d never imagined happiness such as he knew in the days and nights that followed. To roll over in sleep and draw her back against him and drift off again in a cocoon of bliss. Or better yet, to roll the other way and feel her follow, then press close behind him. To feel her hand circle his waist, her feet beneath his, her breath on his back. To awaken and find her lying with an elbow beneath her cheek, studying him. To kiss her then in the buttery light of early morning and know that he could do so anytime. To leave her with a goodbye kiss and return anxious. To step into the kitchen and find her working at the sink, glancing shyly over her shoulder then down at her hands until he crossed the room and slipped both hands into her apron pockets and rested his chin on her shoulder. To kiss-over her shoulder-awaiting the exquisite moment when she’d turn and loop her arms up in a welcoming embrace. To eat cake from her fork, braid her hair, refill her coffee cup, watch her embroider. To lean over the sink and shiver while she washed his hair, then wilt on a kitchen chair while she dried, combed and cut it, and sometimes kissed his ear, and sometimes teased him when he dropped off and she had to awaken him with a kiss on the mouth. To walk down the driveway holding hands, pulling the boys in the wagon.
Only one thing disturbed him during those serene days. Lula Peak. It hadn’t taken her long to get the news that Will was the custodian at the library. One evening within a week of his starting she walked in the back door and found Will in the storeroom gluing a loose chair rung. "Hey, sugar, where y’ been keepin’ yourself?"
Will jumped and swung around, startled by her voice.
"Library’s closed, ma’am."
"Well now, I know that. So’s the cafe, ’cause I just shut off the light. Thought I’d sashay on over and congratulate you on your new job." She leaned against the doorframe, one arm crossing her waist, the other hand dangling near the white V of her uniform collar. "That’s the neighborly thing to do, i’nt it?"
"’Preciate it, ma’am. Now if you’ll excuse me, I got work to do."
He squatted again, turning his back, minding the chair. She moved into the windowless room and stood behind him with her knee against his back. "You thought any more about what I said, sugar?" She kneaded the side of his neck. "Man like you makes a girl lay awake nights. Figured maybe you lay awake, too, what with that wife o’ yours bein’ pregnant. No sense in both of us losin’ sleep now, is there?"
He spun to his feet, took her by the shoulders and pushed her back.
"I ain’t lookin’ for trouble, I told you once before." He stuffed his hands in his pockets, feeling soiled from touching her. "I’m a happily married man, Miss Peak. Now I’m afraid I’ll have to ask you to leave,’cause I got work to do."
She let her eyes meander over him, from forehead to hips and back up. "You’re blushin’, sugar, you know that? Must mean you’re hot… let’s see." She reached to touch his face but he grabbed her wrist and held it away, squeezing hard.
"Dammit, Lula, I said leave off!"
Her eyes took fire, radiating excitement. "Well, that’s an improvement. At least we’re on a first-name basis."
"I don’t want you comin’ here again."
"Some men don’t know what they want." Like a cobra she struck, biting his knuckles and retreating in one flashing movement.
"Ouch, goddammit!" He nursed the hand and already saw blood.
"What’s it take, Parker, huh?" she challenged from the doorway, shoulders thrown back, hands on hips, eyes glinting with demonic glee. "I know things that crazy wife of yours never dreamed of. You think about it." She turned and ran.
He felt violated. And angry. And guilty. And powerless because she was a woman and he couldn’t level her with his fists as he had the men who’d tried to seduce him in prison. That night, returning to Elly, he held his feelings inside, afraid to tell her about Lula, afraid to jeopardize their new burgeoning closeness.
At the library he had always locked the front door. After Lula’s intrusion he locked the back, too. But she cornered him one night when he took the trash out to burn in the incinerator behind the building, slipping up behind him in the dark and touching him before he was aware of her presence. He shoved her harder this time, knocking her against the incinerator, cursing, raising his fist but halting himself just in time.
"Do it," she goaded. "Do it, Parker," and he realized she was sick, driven by some twisted need that scared him.
"Keep outa my way, Lula," he growled, picked up his trash can and ran.
He tried to put the incident from his mind, but found himself looking over his shoulder every time he stepped out the library door, every time he locked it at the end of the night. He grew closer to Elly, appreciated her more, soothed himself with her goodness.
Nights, when he’d return home, she’d awaken and stretch and watch him shuck off his outerwear and slip in beside her. And her arms would open and they’d lay kissing and murmuring until the hour grew wee and the moon began its descent. Though they were husband and wife, their embraces remained chaste. Sometimes he caressed her breast, but as her time grew closer she’d flinch and he was smitten by a wave of guilt.
"Elly, honey, I’m sorry. Did I hurt you?"
"They’re always a little tender, late like this."
After that he kissed and held her, but no more. She always wore her long white nightie and he knew she was shy about exposing her distorted body. Though he was tempted to do more, he never pushed, but settled for kissing and lying with their limbs entwined, their hands safely removed from intimate territory.
Until one night in early December when he’d found a note from Lula on the back door as he left work. It was graphic, obscene, suggesting how she might thrill him when he finally broke down and accepted her invitation. That night he had a dream. He was walking through a dry wash in Texas. It was high noon and so hot the earth burned through the soles of his boots. His mouth felt parched and a dull ache bowed his shoulders. He labored up a rocky ridge, panting and tired, then halted in surprise at the sight beyond the crest. A layer of sky might have dropped from overhead, so brilliant was the valley below. Filled with Texas bluebonnets, it seemed to reflect the hard cobalt blue of the bowl overhead. A ribbon of sparkling water bisected the field as he wallowed through it in flowers as deep as a man’s boot tops. He knelt to drink, swashing his face and neck, dampening his collar and leather vest. He cupped his hand again, and as he knelt, sipping, a pair of feet waded into view beneath his nose. A gauzy yellow skirt floated on top of the water. He looked up into eyes as black as Apache tears, and hair to match.
"Hola, Weel-jew been lookin’ for me?" It was Carmelita, one of the women from the whorehouse in La Grange. She had Mexican blood, enough to make her skin dusky and her lips a ripe plum red.
He pushed himself onto his haunches and backhanded his mouth slowly, eyeing her as she caught her hands on both hips and rocked seductively. Her feet were widespread, thighs silhouetted through the yellow gauze skirt. She reached down and lazily wet her arms, bending forward until her breasts hung pendulously within the peasant-style blouse.
"’Ey, Weell Parker, wot jew lookin’ at, eh?" She straightened, still with legs spraddled, and wrung out her skirt, enticing him with a glimpse of bare skin and black pubic hair underneath. She laughed throatily and wallowed to the bank. Standing ankle-deep, she began washing his face with the wet skirt. He reached beneath it and gripped her bare hips. Immediately she shoved him away, scuttled backward into the swifter water, laughing throatily. "Jew want Carmelita… come and get hur." He was stripping off his vest before the words cleared her lips. Down to bare skin, he shucked, then plunged into the cold, rippling creek. She shrieked and ran, but he caught and spun her, took her down and himself, too, into the purling water that turned her clothes transparent. He bit her nipple through the wet gauze and she shrieked again, laughing, then squiggled away, fighting against the current while stripping off her dress and flinging it back in his face. He plunged after her, scraping the clinging gauze off his head, and tackled her as she scrambled up the bank, kissing her voluptuously while her wet black hair got between their tongues. His finger was inside her before their ripples disappeared downstream, and she bucked up lustily, chuckling in a rich contralto. They rolled wildly, collecting sand on their backs. When they stopped, breathless, she was on top, urging him with practiced hips.
"Jew like, eh, hombre?" She growled low in her throat and took him in hand with little gentleness and less pause. Firmly stroking him, she let her eyes flash wickedly. "Jew will like this even more." She dove down without invitation, opened her mouth and narrowed his world to a thin corridor where carnality was all that mattered.
"Will… wake up, Will!"
Disoriented, he opened his eyes to find himself not in a field of Texas bluebonnets but in an iron bed; with a face dampened not by creekwater but by his own sweat; not with Carmelita, but with Elly. His body was swelled like a cactus in a March rain and his hand was inside Elly’s cotton underwear, in her pregnant body.
Startled, she looked back over her shoulder. He held himself rigid, too near climax to risk even the faintest movement.
"I was dreaming," he managed in a raspy voice.
"You awake now?"
"Yes." He withdrew his hand and rolled onto his back, covering his eyes with a wrist. "Sorry," he mumbled.
"What were you dreaming?"
Afraid of hurting her feelings, he remained silent, damning Lula, and the dream, and his own body for needing release. "Elly, you scared to let me touch you?"
"You touch me all the time."
Silence… then, "I don’t want you to see me. Pregnant women aren’t so pretty to look at."
"Who told you that?"
"They just aren’t."
"I’ll see you when the baby is born."
"Not for long. And afterwards I won’t look like this."
He moved his wrist and stared at the ceiling, thinking, It isn’t natural, two people lying beside each other, married all this time and never touching deliberately. "I’m gonna turn off the lamp, Elly."
No reply, so he reached over and lowered the wick. In the unaccustomed darkness they lay in the strong scent of kerosene smoke.
"Come here." He reached, closed his hand over her arm and pulled gently. "It’s time for this, don’t you think?"
"Will, I like it when you kiss me and hold me, but I can’t do any more."
"I know." He found her hips and rolled her to face him. "But I’m dying every night, wondering. Aren’t you? I’ll be gentle as anything you ever felt." He pulled her nightgown up and laid both hands on her. "I want you to know somethin’, Elly." He kissed her mouth, breathed on her, felt his heart drumming everywhere, everywhere. "I wish this baby was mine."
He explored her skin as if it were braille, leaving no further secrets. "Ah, Elly… Elly…" he murmured throatily. Then he found her hand and placed it upon himself and his breathing became a battle for air. He shuddered and ejaculated in her hand. Swiftly. Afterward he felt healed and renewed and reached for her again, to repay her in kind. But she pushed his hand away, sighed and curled close against him.
He lay holding her while emotions came to cleanse him. He thought of thanking her, but considered himself inarticulate in a moment too precious to jade with words. So he enfolded her, rubbed her back, her spine, her hair, pressing her even closer at intervals when his sense of fulfillment cried for expression.
Outside a solitary woodcock called, rising on whistling wings. The wind rested, stilling the tree tips. Off in the distance a barred owl called, like the bark of a dog at first, then, as if questioning, Who-looks-for-you? Who looks for you?
Inside, entwined, Will and Elly drifted to sleep.
And neither of them thought to turn the light back on.
Elly went into labor near noon of December fourth. She’d had a low backache all morning, then a bloody show, and by dinnertime her first two distinguishable contractions had come, fifteen minutes apart. The second hit hard enough to perch her on the edge of a chair, trying to catch her breath for the better part of a minute. When it ended she braced her back and rose awkwardly, then waddled into the front room.
Will was working on the bathroom, sitting crosslegged on the floor, whistling. He had cut a doorway through the front-room wall and sectioned off an end of the porch, which already had a window installed and the pipes jutting up from the crawl space underneath. With his first check he had proudly purchased bathroom fixtures-used, though neither Will nor Elly cared in their excitement over the prospect of having such a room. The sink and stool were stored elsewhere, but the tub was in place, standing inside the skeletal walls which, too, awaited finishing after the pipework was done.
Elly paused in the bathroom doorway, watching Will, listening to him whistle "In My Adobe Hacienda," which they’d been hearing on the radio lately. Wielding a pipe wrench, he faced the far wall. His cowboy hat sat at a jaunty angle on the back of his head. Sawdust coated its brim, and the back of his blue shirt was smudged with dirt from lying on his back in the crawl space. She smiled as he hit several sour notes.
He gave the wrench a last mighty tug that interrupted his song, then set it down with a clatter and tested the pipe junction with his fingers, picking up the tune again, softly, through his teeth. He got to one knee and picked up a copper elbow joint, bending forward while figuring the height at which it should adjoin the pipe connections on the tub.
"Hey, you," she greeted amiably, wearing an appreciative smile.
He twisted at the waist and sent her an answering grin. "Hiya, doll."
She laughed and leaned against the doorframe. "Some doll, shaped like a bloated horse."
"C’m’ere." He fell to his seat, legs outstretched, leaning against a wall stud and reaching out one dirty hand. They grinned at each other silently for a long moment. "Over here." He patted his lap.
She boosted off the doorframe and picked her way through tools and pipes scattered upon the floor to stand above him.
"Right here." He patted his lap again as she turned sideways.
"No, not that way-this way." He grabbed her ankle and planted it beyond his far hip, grinning suggestively. "Come on down here."
"Will… the boys," she whispered, throwing a cautious glance over her shoulder at the doorway.
"So what?" Gripping her hands he forced her to straddle him with her skirt bunched up to midthigh.
"But they might come in."
"So they find me kissing their mother. Be good for ’em." He linked his wrists behind her waist and settled her paunch against his belly while she crossed her arms behind his neck.
"Will Parker…" She smiled into his upraised face. "You’re the crazy one, not me."
"Damn right, woman. Crazy for you." He lifted his mouth for a long, involved kiss-lips, tongues, and plenty of head motion. It was something new for Eleanor, necking in the middle of the day. With Glendon there had been restraint during daylight hours, perhaps even less than restraint, for the idea of an interlude like this never entered their heads. But with Will… oh, her Will. He was insatiable. She couldn’t carry a stack of clean laundry through his vicinity without being waylaid, and pleasantly so. He was a devilishly good kisser. She’d never before given much consideration to the quality of kisses. But straddling Will’s lap, with his mouth wide, sucking gently on hers, with his silky tongue stroking everything reachable within her mouth, she appreciated his skill. He didn’t simply kiss. He lavished, then lingered, then drew away by slow degrees, as if he would never tire of her. Sometimes he murmured wordlessly, often nuzzled, making parting as sweet as joining had been.
The kiss ended with all due reluctance, and with Will’s nose buried in her collar, his hat fallen to the floor.
"My hands are dirty or you know where they’d be, don’t you?"
Eyes closed, face tilted up, she held his head and lightly raked his skull the way he loved. "Where?"
He closed his teeth on her collarbone, chuckled and teased, "In the kitchen, building a sandwich. I’m starved."
She laughed and pushed away in mock rebuff. "You’re always starved. What do you think I came in here for?"
"To call me for dinner?" He leaned back and grinned into her happy green eyes.
"And instead you pinned me to the floor and wasted all this time when I could’ve been eating?"
"Who wants to eat when you can neck?"
He feigned disgust and reached for his hat, plunking it on his head. "Here I am, minding my own business, puttin’ in a bathroom, when out of nowhere this woman jumps me. I mean, I got my wrench out and I’m connectin’ pipe and not botherin’ a livin’ soul when-"
"Hey, Will?" she interrupted teasingly. "Guess what."
"Well, it’s about time." He tried to rise, but she remained on his lap.
"Guess what else."
"My labor’s started."
His face flattened as if she’d struck him across the Adam’s apple with the pipe wrench.
"Elly. Oh, my God, you shouldn’t be sitting here. Lord, did I hurt you, pulling you down? Can you get up?"
She chuckled at his overzealous reaction. "It’s all right. I’m between pains. And sitting here took my mind off ’em."
"Elly, are you sure? I mean, is it really time?"
"But how can it be? It’s only December fourth."
"I said December, didn’t I?"
"Yeah, but-well, December’s a long month!" His brow furrowed as he carefully boosted her up and followed. "I mean, I thought it’d be later. I thought I’d have time to finish the bathroom so it’d be ready when the baby came."
"It’s a funny thing about babies." She held his dirty hands and lifted a reassuring smile. "They don’t wait for things to get done. They just come whenever they feel like it. Now listen, I got some things to get ready, so if you’d fix the boys’ plates and your own it’d sure be a help."
Will became a bundle of nerves. She shouldn’t have found it amusing, but couldn’t help smiling covertly. He balked at being out of her sight, even for the short time it took him to settle the kids at the table with their plates. Instead of filling a plate for himself he followed her to the bedroom, where he found her stripping the bed.
"What’re you doing?"
"Getting the bed ready."
"Well, I can do that!" he reprimanded sharply, clumping inside.
"So can I. Will, please… listen." She dropped the corner of the quilt and clasped his wrist. "It’s best if I move around, all right? It could be hours yet."
He elbowed her aside and began jerking the soiled bedclothes off the mattress. "I don’t see how you could’ve just sat there on the bathroom floor letting me make jokes while it was already started."
"So what else should I do?"
"Well, I don’t know, but Jesus, Elly, there I was, pulling at your ankles, making you sit on me." She moved as if to resume her chore, and he erupted. "I said I’ll fix the bed! Just tell me what you want on it."
She told him: old newspapers against the mattress, covered by absorbent cotton flannel sheets folded into thick pads, and finally the muslin sheet. No blankets at all. It looked so stark and foreboding, the sight of it scared him worse than ever. But while he stood staring she had a new surprise in store for him.
"I want you to go down to the barn and get a pair of tugs."
"Tugs?" His unblinking eyes grew round.
"Tug straps. From Madam’s harness."
"And you might as well start carrying water. Fill the boiler and the reservoir and the teakettle. We need to have both warm and cold on hand. Now go."
"What for? What d’you need those tug straps for?"
"Will… please," she said with forced patience.
He raced down to the barn, cursing himself for not getting the running water in before this, for not hooking the water heater up to the wind generator, for not realizing babies sometimes come early. He tore the spare harness from the wall and fumbled with the leather, removing the tugs. Less than three minutes later he panted to a halt at the bedroom door to find her poised on the edge of a hard wooden chair, back arched, eyes closed, her hands gripping the edge of the seat.
"Elly!" He dropped the tugs and fell to one knee before her.
"It’s all right," she managed, breathless, her eyelids still closed. "It’s going away now."
He touched her kneecaps, quaking with fear. "Elly, I’m sorry I shouted before. I didn’t mean to. I was just scared."
"It’s all right, Will." The pain eased as she opened her eyes and slowly sank back in the chair. "Now listen to me. I want you to take that harness and lay it out flat on the porch floor and scrub it hard with a brush and that yellow soap. On both sides. Scrub good around the buckles and even in the buckle holes. And scrub your hands and fingernails at the same time. Then bring the tugs inside and boil them in the dishpan. While they’re boiling in one pan, I want you to boil the scissors and two lengths of hard string in a separate one. You’ll find them in the kitchen in a cup next to the sugar bowl. Then as soon as the water is hot, bring some in here, and the yellow soap so I can take a bath."
"All right, Elly," he answered meekly, rising, backing away doubtfully.
"And put the boys down for a nap as soon as they’re finished eating."
He followed her instructions minutely, rushing from task to task, afraid something would happen while he wasn’t at her side. When he brought the empty washtub into the bedroom he found her drawing fresh white baby clothing from the bureau drawer-a tiny flannel kimono, a receiving blanket, an undershirt, a diaper. He stood and watched as she lovingly catalogued each item and placed it on a stack. Next came the pink shawl she’d crocheted herself, and a pair of incredibly small booties to match. She turned and found him watching.
Her smile was so peaceful, so unafraid, it brought a measure of ease to him. "I just know it’s going to be a girl," she said.
"I’d like that, too."
He watched as Elly got the laundry basket from behind the bedroom door, emptied it of dirty clothes and prepared it with a white pad, followed by rubber and cotton sheets. Then came the pink shell-designed shawl and lastly a white flannel receiving blanket. "There." She smiled down at the basket with the same pride a queen might have exhibited over a golden cradle lined with swansdown.
He set the washtub down without dropping his eyes from her, stepped around it and touched her tenderly, below one jaw. "Rest now while I bring the water."
She looked into his eyes and told him, "I’m awful glad you’re here, Will."
"So am I."
It wasn’t strictly true. He’d rather be in the car on his way to fetch the doctor, but it was too late for discussing that. He filled her washtub and went to the kitchen to clean up the lunch dishes. Returning to the bedroom minutes later, he found Elly standing in the washtub, covered with soap. She stood at half-profile to him, presenting a view of her back and the side of one breast. He’d never seen her naked before. Not out of bed. The sight stirred him deeply. She was misproportioned, bulky, but the reason for it lent her a different feminine beauty from any he’d ever witnessed. She passed the cloth down her stomach, between her thighs, cleansing the route for the awaited one, and he stood watch, unabashed, without a thought of turning away. Suddenly she was seized by a new pain and dropped into a half-crouch. Her fist closed around the washcloth, sending lather plopping into the water. Will moved as if propelled by black powder, across the room to slide an arm around her slick body, supporting her through the brunt of it. When it began ebbing, he eased her lower until she rested on the edge of the tub, panting.
He felt helpless and distraught, wanting to do more, needing to do more than simply comfort. He wished he could bear the next pain himself.
When it was over, she wilted. "That was a strong one. They’re comin’ faster this time than when Thomas was born."
"Here. Kneel down."
She knelt and he rinsed her back, arms, breasts, relieved to be doing something concrete. He held her hand as she stepped over the rim of the tub, then dried her back.
"Thank you, Will. I can finish." While he carried the tub away she dressed in a clean white nightgown and beneath the bed found a white cloth sack from which she drew several large folded dried leaves. Taking them, she followed Will to the kitchen. She stood a moment, watching him spill her bathwater at the sink. With the dipper he rinsed the tub, then mopped it with a rag. Only then did he turn and find her standing behind him, watching.
"Should you be out here?"
"You mustn’t worry so, Will. Please. For me?"
"That’s not an easy order."
"I know." She could see on his face how difficult it was for him to remain stalwart, and loved him for his valiant effort. "But now I need to talk to you about what to expect, what to do."
"I know it all." He set the tub down. "I read it in the book so many times that it might as well be branded on my arm. But reading it and doing it are two different things."
She moved close to him and touched his hand. "You’ll do fine, Will." Calmly she found a kettle into which she put the leaves, covering them with water from the teakettle. She set them to simmer on the rear of the range.
Will watched, feeling his stomach tensing more each minute. "What’s that?"
He was almost afraid to ask. It took two tries before his throat released the sound. "What for?"
"Afterwards, if I tear, you got to make a poultice of it and put it on me. It’ll draw the skin back together and help it heal. But you got to remember-don’t waste no time on me till you seen to the baby, understand?"
If she tears. The words shook him afresh. It took an effort for Will to concentrate on the remainder of her instructions.
"Only use the sterilized rags I laid on the dresser. Everything else you need is there too. Scissors, strings, pledgets, alcohol and gauze for the baby’s cord, and Vaseline for under the cotton when you bandage her. You’ll do that after you give her a bath. Make sure you keep enough warm water for that, and a tubful of cold for the sheets, ’cause you’ll have to change them when it’s over. When you give her a bath don’t use the yellow soap, but the glycerine. Make sure you hold her head all the time-soon as it comes out of me, and while you’re waiting for the rest of her body to be born, and when you give her a bath, too. But, Will, you got to remember, through it all, the baby comes first. The most important thing is to get her breathing, then bathed and dressed and warm so she doesn’t get chilled."
"I know, I know!" he replied impatiently, wishing she wouldn’t talk about it. He’d read the birth attendant’s instructions until he could recite them verbatim. It was the very images they conjured that rattled him.
Quietly she said, "Now walk with me."
"It’ll bring it on faster."
If he could choose, he’d postpone it indefinitely. The thought brought a spear of guilt for her plight, and he did as bid. He had never felt as protective as during the following two hours while they strolled the length of the small rooms, back and forth, stopping only for each new contraction. She was intrepid; to be less himself would have made him a burden rather than a support. So he held her hand in the crook of his arm and accompanied her as if they were out for a sojourn on the town green at the height of the season. He teased when she needed brightening. And soothed when she needed support. And talked when she needed talking. And learned what a pledget was when he saw a stack of carefully formed rectangular cotton pads bound in gauze.
At half past two the boys woke up and he dressed them in their warm jackets and sent them out to play, hoping fervently they’d stay out till sunrise.
Shortly past three Elly announced quietly, "I think I’d like to lay down now. Bring the tug straps, dear." In the bedroom, with a sigh she rolled onto the clean white sheet and ordered, "Tie them to the footrail as far apart as my knees."
His stomach lurched, his salivary glands seemed to kick into overtime and his hands felt clumsy. When the leather straps were knotted, leaving ample leads and loops for her legs, they appeared like trappings in a medieval torture chamber. He found them hideous as he waited for her next contraction. When it hit, it seemed to hit them both. With acute shock, Will felt the sympathetic pain rip through his groin and down his thighs just as it did down Elly’s. It was a hard one, and long, lasting nearly a minute, markedly advanced from those before.
When it ended, she rested, panting, then whispered, "Wash your hands again, Will, and trim your nails. It won’t be long now."
Trim his nails? This time he didn’t ask why. He feared he knew. In case trouble developed and he had to help from the inside.
He scrubbed his knuckles until they stung, and snipped his nails to the quick with the sterilized scissor, fighting down panic. Oh God, why hadn’t he gone against her wishes and driven into town for the doctor the minute she’d had her first pain? What if the cord was wrapped around the baby’s neck? What if Elly hemorrhaged? What if the boys came in in the middle of it?
As if his very thought conjured them, the pair clattered into the kitchen, calling for their mother.
Will went out to waylay them, soiling his sterilized hands as he stopped Donald Wade and Thomas with a hand on each chest as they charged for the closed bedroom door.
"Hold up there, buckaroos!" He went down on one knee and gathered them close.
"We got to show Mama somethin’!" Donald Wade held a bird’s nest.
"Your mama’s resting."
"But, look what we found!" Donald Wade strained toward the door but Will tightened his arm.
"You remember when your mama told you about how that baby was gonna come out someday in the basket?" They stopped struggling and gazed at Will with innocent curiosity. "Well, the baby’s gonna be born pretty soon, and your mother’s not gonna feel so good while it’s happening, but the same was true when you guys were born, so don’t be scared, okay?" He gently squeezed their necks. "Now, I want you to be good boys. Donald Wade, you get some cookies and take your brother outside, and don’t come back in till I call you, all right?"
"Now listen, I ain’t got time to argue, ’cause your mama needs me. But if you do like I say I’ll take you to the movie house one day soon. Deal?" Donald Wade vacillated, glancing from Will toward the bedroom door.
"To Hopalong Cassidy?"
"You bet. Go on now," Will gave them each a little shove toward the kitchen and the cookie jar. As soon as they were safely outside, he rescrubbed his hands, jogged back to the bedroom, closed the door with his boot and pushed it tight with a shoulder.
"The boys-I bribed them with a trip to the movie house and sent them outside with a handful of cookies. How’re you?" He moved to the side of the bed and sat on the hard wooden chair.
"I hurt." She chuckled and cradled her stomach.
He reached as if to brush Elly’s brow.
"Don’t touch me, Will. You mustn’t."
Reluctantly he withdrew his cleansed hand to sit in misery, waiting, feeling useless.
The next pain lifted her midsection off the mattress and brought Will from his chair to lean over her, watching her face contort as her knees parted and she reached up to grip the iron rails above her head. When she held her breath, he held his. When she grimaced, he grimaced. When she bared her teeth, he bared his. The sixty seconds during her contraction felt longer than his stint in prison.
At its end, she opened her dazed eyes and rolled her head to look at him. "It’s t-time, W-Will," she managed. "Wash me with alcohol n-now, and h-help me find the t-tugs."
His hands trembled as he moved to the foot of the bed, folded back her nightgown and stared. Oh, Lord. Lord o’ mercy, how she must hurt. She was swollen, distended, distorted beyond anything he’d imagined. He could actually see the bulge caused by the baby’s head just above the apex of her legs. Her genitals appeared inflamed, as if bee-stung, and they were seeping, staining the bedclothes a dim pink. He gulped, but came from his stupor when she reared up and a great gush of transparent fluid flowed from her body, wetting a wide circle on the sheet. The sight of it galvanized him into action. He knew what it was, knew it meant the baby was pressing low, preparing for its arrival into the world.
Suddenly his purpose here became crystal clear, and as it dawned all Will’s fears disappeared. His stomach grew calm. His hands grew steady. The jitters fled, chased away by the realization that he was needed by both the baby and its mother. But they needed him competent.
With a pad of cotton he generously swabbed her stomach, thighs and genitals with alcohol. It stung his own fingers where he’d broken the cuticles with the scrub brush, but he scarcely noticed. For good measure, he swabbed the tug straps before gently lifting her heels and slipping the leather loops snug behind her knees. Then he placed an additional clean folded flannel sheet beneath her.
"W-W-Will," she panted as another contraction began.
"Yes, love," he answered quietly, but stood at his post, eyes riveted on her constricting belly, watching it slowly begin to arch, watching her dilation grow with the pain.
"W-W-Wiiiiill!" It tore from her as a rasping cry while the contraction built and peaked. He placed his palms beneath her thighs and helped her through it, feeling her muscles tighten as she lifted. Only when she relaxed did he raise his eyes to her face. Beads of sweat stood on her brow. The fine strands of hair at her hairline were damp and darkened to the color of aged cornsilk. Her lips looked dry and cracked. She wet them with her tongue while he thought of the jar of Vaseline he dared not touch. Before her lips had dried, another pain arrived and with it the sight of the baby’s dark scalp.
"I see her!" Will cried. "Come on, darlin’, once more and she’ll be here!"
He waited with his hands spread in welcome, chancing not so much as a glance away from the dark hair now clearly visible. Elly’s womb arched, her legs tightened on the straps, her hands on the iron rails. A ragged scream rent the air and Will learned what perineum meant as he watched Elly’s tear. But he had no time to dwell on it, for at the same moment the baby’s head slipped through-facing backward, as promised, facedown and slippery in his waiting hands. Then, as if by some miracle, it turned to the side, following the normal course of events, and he cradled it on his palm, tiny and sleek and red.
"Her head is out, darlin’. Oh, God, she has dark eyebrows." The distorted face was frighteningly dark and marked from the rigors of birth, but the warning in the book stood Will in good stead as he told himself it was to be expected; the child would not choke from the perineum drawn tightly about its neck. Don’t panic! Don’t try to pull her out!"Easy there, now, little one," he murmured to the baby. "I got to clean your mouth out." As if Nature knew exactly what she was doing, she allowed just enough time for Elly to rest and for Will to run his finger into the baby’s mouth and clear it before Elly bore down and the baby’s lower shoulder appeared, followed by the upper, then, in one grand release, the full birth happened. Into Will’s waiting hands spilled a creature with a dark face, connected to its mother by a thin, crimped lifeline. Slippery and wet she came, filling his heart with a wild thrum of excitement, his face with a wide beam of wonder.
"She’s here, Elly, she’s born! And you were right. She’s a girl. And… oh… lord, smaller than my hands." Even as he spoke, he rested his precious cargo on Elly’s stomach while she panted in the brief natural respite following full birth. Releasing her grip on the headrail, Elly reached down to touch the baby’s head, lifting her own with an effort and smiling wearily. As her head fell back she laughed and tears leaked down her temples.
"Is she pretty?"
"She’s the sorriest mess I ever seen." He laughed in relief. Until Elly was hit by an aftershock and grunted, straining until her face shook and turned purple. He laid the baby down and tried to help Elly through the second wave of pushing pains. But the afterbirth refused to come. She fell back, panting, near exhaustion, her eyelids quivering. Another pushing pain produced the same results, and Will swallowed the lump of fear in his throat, doing what he knew he must do. He rested one hand in the soft hollow of her stomach, fitting its heel at the top of her womb and manipulating it to create a man-made contraction. She moaned and mindlessly tried to push his hand away. He forced from his mind the fact that he must hurt her to help her. His eyes smarted. He cleared them on his shoulder and vowed he’d never make her pregnant. He reached inside her tender flesh, loosening the afterbirth while kneading her soft stomach. Suddenly he felt a change as her own body took over. Her abdomen contracted and beneath his ministration the afterbirth pulled loose inside, dropping low to create a slight swelling beneath her matted hair. "Come on, Elly-honey, one more push and you can rest." From some hidden source she found the strength for another mighty effort that brought a last gush as her body delivered the afterbirth, severing her completely from the life she’d supported for nine months.
Will’s shoulders drooped. He closed his eyes, sucked in a great lungful of air, dried his brow on a sleeve and praised simply, "Good, honey. It’s all done. Hang on now." His hands were remarkably calm as he tied the first string an inch and a half from the baby’s body, leaving only enough space between it and the second stricture for the scissor to do its work. The silver blades met and the deed was done. The baby was on her own.
Breathe! Breathe! Breathe!
The word resounded through Will’s mind as he picked up the baby and watched it fold into a fetal position within his hands. Through his memory skittered the various directions for shocking a newborn into drawing its first breath. A smart smack. Cold water. Artificial respiration. But to do any of them to a creature so tiny seemed sadistic. Come on, girl, breathe!… Breathe! Fifteen seconds sped by, then thirty. Don’t make me use that cold water. And I’d rather cut off my own hand than slap you.He heard the boys come in and call from the other side of the door. They scarcely registered. His heart raced. Desperation clawed at him. He gave the baby a shake. Breathe, dammit, breathe! Panicking now, he tossed her a foot in the air and caught her as she dropped. A second after she hit his hands her mouth opened, she hiccuped, started flailing with all fours and began bawling in the puniest voice imaginable. It came in undulations-wauu, wauu, wauu-accompanied by a comical face with pinched mouth, flattened nose and the beat of her tiny fists against the air. It was a soft cry, but healthy and wonderfully vexed at being treated so roughly during her first minute in the outside world.
Will looked down into the bloody face, heard the welcome complaint and laughed. In relief. In celebration. He kissed the miniature nose and said, "Way to go, girl. That’s what we wanted to hear." Then, to his wife, "She’s breathing, and beautiful and looks as normal as a one-dollar bill." Abruptly his mood sobered. "Elly, you’re shivering." During the minute he’d concentrated on his duty, she’d been gripped by natural chills. She lay now shuddering, her exposed limbs damp, the bedding beneath her soaked. Lord, a man needed six hands at a time like this.
"I’ll be all right," Elly assured him. "Take care of her first."
It was hard to do, but he had little choice, given the fact that Elly’s directive agreed with those he’d memorized. So far things had gone in perfect, natural order. He’d proceed by the book and hope their luck held. But he paused long enough to lay the baby down and gently remove Elly’s legs from the tug straps, lower them and cover her. He brushed a light kiss on her dry lips, and whispered, "I’ll be back as soon as I get her bathed. You be okay?"
She nodded weakly and closed her eyes.
He crooked the baby in one arm, opened the door with the other and found Donald Wade and Thomas on the other side, holding hands and crying pitifully.
"We heard Mama scream."
"She’s better now-look." Will knelt. The sight of the red, squawling baby stopped their crying with amusing suddenness. "You got a baby sister." Donald Wade’s mouth dropped open. The tears hung on Baby Thomas’s sooty lashes. Neither of them spoke a word. "She just got here."
As one, they resumed bawling.
"I wanna see Mamaaaa!"
"She’s fine-see?" Will held the door open a crack and let them peek inside for reassurance. All they saw was their mother lying at rest with her eyes closed. Will closed the door. "Shh. She’s restin’ now, but we’ll all go in later and see her, soon as we get the baby a bath. Come on now, you might have to help me."
They followed as if mesmerized. "In the real bathtub?"
"No, the real one ain’t ready yet."
"In the sink?"
They screeched chairs across the kitchen floor and stood one on either side of Will as he lowered their sister into a dishpan of warm water. Her crying stopped immediately. Cradled in Will’s long hands, she stretched, opened dark eyes and peered at the world for the first time. Thomas reached out a tentative finger as if to test her for realness.
"Uh-uh. Mustn’t touch her yet." Thomas withdrew the finger and gazed up at Will respectfully.
"Where’d she come from?" asked Donald Wade.
"From inside your mother."
Donald Wade looked skeptical. "She din’t neither."
Will laughed and gently swished the baby through the water.
"She sure did. Been curled up inside her like a little butterfly inside a cocoon. You seen a cocoon, haven’t you?" Of course they had. With a mother like theirs, the boys had been watching cocoons since they were old enough to say the word. "If a butterfly can come out of a cocoon, why can’t a little sister come out of a mother?"
Because neither could answer, they believed.
Then Donald Wade remarked, "She ain’t got no wink!"
"She’s a girl. Girls don’t have winks."
Donald Wade stared at his sister’s pink skin. He looked up at Will. "She gonna get one?"
Donald Wade scratched his head, then pointed. "What’s that?"
"It’s gonna be her belly button."
"Oh." And after some thought, "Don’t look like mine."
"What’s her name?"
"You’ll have to ask your mother that."
The baby hiccuped and the boys laughed, then stood by watchfully while Will washed her with glycerine soap. He spread it over the pulsing scalp, down the spindly legs, between tiny toes and miniature fingers that had to be forced open. So fragile, so perfect. He had never felt skin so soft, never handled anything so delicate. Within the length of time it took to bathe her for the first time the tiny being had worked her way so deeply into Will’s heart she’d never lose her place there. No matter that she wasn’t his own. In his heart she was. He’d delivered her! He’d forced her to breathe her first breath, given her her first bath! A man couldn’t have a heart this full and care about whose seed had spawned the life that was bringing this bursting sense of fulfillment to him. This little girl would have a father in Will Parker, and she’d know the love of two parents.
He laid her on a soft towel, cleaned her face and ears and dried all the nooks and crannies, experiencing a growing ebullience that put a soft smile on his face. She grew chilled and began crying in chuffy, hiccuping spurts.
"Hey there, darlin’, the worst is over," Will murmured. "Get y’ warm in a minute." He surprised himself by delighting in this first monologue to the infant. A person couldn’t not talk to somethin’ sweet as this, he realized.
Will carefully tended her cord, applying alcohol, and a cotton bandage, then Vaseline against her stomach before tying the bandage down and diapering her for the first time. She recoiled like a spring every time he tried to maneuver his hand into position for pinning. The boys giggled. She retracted her arms while he tried to feed them into her tiny undershirt and kimono. The boys giggled some more. When Will reached for one pink bootee, Donald Wade was proudly waiting to hand it to him.
"Thanks, kemo sabe," Will said, and tied the bootee on a skinny ankle. Thomas was waiting to hand him the other.
"Thanks, Thomas," he said, roughing the boy’s hair.
When the baby was ready to present to her mother, Will picked her up carefully. "Now your mother wants to see her, and in about fifteen minutes or so she’ll want to see you, so you both wash your hands and comb your hair and wait in your room. I’ll call you when she’s ready, okay?"
Pausing before the closed bedroom door, Will studied the baby who stared at him with unfocused eyes. She lay still, silent, her fists closed like rosebuds, her hair fine as cobwebs. He shut his eyes and kissed her forehead. She smelled better than anything else in the world. Better than sizzling bacon. Better than baking bread. Better than fresh air.
"You’re somethin’ precious," he whispered, feeling his heart swell with love so unexpected it made his eyes sting. "I think you’n me are gonna git along just fine."
Then he nudged the bedroom door open, stepped inside and closed it with his back.
Elly lay slumbering. She looked haggard and exhausted.
She opened her eyes and saw him standing with the baby in his arms, his shirt damp in spots, the sleeves rolled to the elbow, his hair messy and a soft smile on his lips.
"Will," she breathed, smiling, holding out an arm.
"Here she is. And more presentable now." He placed the bundle in Elly’s arm and watched her tuck the blanket away from the baby’s chin for a better look. Within him sprang a wellspring of emotion. Love for the woman, welcome for the baby, and in a corner of his soul, the lonely plaint of a man who would always wonder if his own mother had ever held him that way, smiled at him with such sweetness, explored his face with a fingertip and kissed his forehead with the reverence that brought a choking sensation as he looked on.
Probably not. He knelt beside the bed and folded aside the opposite edge of the soft flannel receiving blanket. Probably not. But he’d make up for it by watching Elly lavish this precious one with the love he’d never known.
"Oh, Will, isn’t she pretty?"
"She sure is. Just like you."
Elly lifted her gaze and let it drop as the baby’s fist closed around her little finger. "Oh, I’m not pretty, Will."
"I always thought you were."
The baby’s other hand took Will’s finger. Linked by her, the man and wife shared an interlude of closeness. Reluctantly, Will ended it.
"I’d better tend to you now, don’t you think? Get you washed, and in some clean clothes."
Elly regretfully relinquished the baby, and Will laid her in the basket. Kneeling beside it on one knee, he adjusted the pink shawl around her tiny form, touched her hair with a fingertip and murmured, "Sleep now, precious one."
He rose to find Elly’s eyes on him and experienced a brief stab of self-consciousness. He was a man who’d had to learn how to talk to the boys, who’d taken weeks to feel comfortable with them. Yet here he was, after less than an hour, murmuring soft things to the baby girl who couldn’t even understand. His thumbs went to his rear pockets in the unconscious gesture that said Will Parker was out of his depth.
"I put her on her stomach like you said." Deep love softened Elly’s smile while he stood fidgeting. "I-I’ll get your bathwater and-and be right back," he sputtered.
"I love you, Will," she said. She knew the look well, the pacified one that overcame him when things got too perfect for him to contain. She knew the stance, the thumbs-in-the-pocket, still-as-a-shadow suppression that said things were working inside him, good things he sometimes failed yet to believe. That was when she wanted him close enough to touch.
"Come here first." He approached but stood a safe distance, as if touching the bed would damage her. "Here, beside me."
He sat gingerly on the edge of the mattress and she had to reach up and pull him down before she could give the hug she knew he needed.
"You done good, Will. You done so good."
"I’ll hurt you, Elly, layin’ on you this way."
Suddenly they were hugging fiercely. He turned his face against her ear. "Jesus, she’s so beautiful."
"I know. It’s a miracle, ain’t it?"
"I never knew I’d feel that way when I held her the first time. It didn’t matter that she wasn’t mine. It was as if she really was."
"I know. You can love her all you want, Will, and we’ll pretend that she is. A year from now she’ll be callin’ you Daddy."
He squeezed his eyes shut and pressed his mouth to Elly’s temple, then forced himself to sit up. "I best get that warm water now, little mother. The boys are waitin’ to come in and see you."
With a soft cloth and the baby’s soap, he sponged Elly’s tired limbs and sore flesh. Of the comfrey he fashioned a poultice, laid it on her torn skin and secured it with a cotton pledget and her plain cotton undergarments. He helped her don a clean white brassiere, clasping it for her before holding a fresh nightgown and watching her slip it on. He changed the bed and lifted Elly back into it before carrying out the soiled sheets to soak and finally going to fetch the boys, who’d waited in their rooms with the mysterious docility lent to children by solemn occasions.
They nodded silently. Will hid a smile: Donald Wade had combed his own and Thomas’s hair, slicking it down with water until both heads looked flat as wheat in a cyclone.
"Your mother’s waiting."
They paused inside their mother’s bedroom door, holding Will’s hands, glancing up at him questioningly.
"Go on then, but don’t bounce on the bed."
They perched one on each side of Elly, studying her as if she’d turned into a character from one of her own fables, someone magical and shining.
"Hi," she said, taking their hands.
They stared as if mute.
"Did you see your li’l sister?"
"We hepped Wiw give her a baff."
"And we helped him dress ’er."
"I know. Will told me. He said you both done good." They smiled, proud. "Would you like to see her again?"
They nodded like horses making a harness jingle. Elly told Will, "Bring her here, honey."
She was asleep. When he laid her in the crook of Elly’s arm her fist went to her mouth and she sucked hard enough to make noise. The boys laughed and Will knelt beside the bed, leaning forward on his elbows. For minutes they all studied the baby while awe stole their voices.
At last Elly asked, "What should we name her?" She glanced up. "You know a pretty name, Will?" But his mind went blank. "How ’bout you, Donald Wade, what do you wanna call her?"
Donald Wade had no more notion than Will.
"You got a name, Thomas?"
Of course he didn’t. She’d asked him out of courtesy, so he wouldn’t feel left out. Touching the baby’s hair with a knuckle, Elly said, "I been thinkin’ about Lizzy. What you all think o’ that?"
"Lizzy?" Donald Wade scrunched up his nose.
"Lizzy the lizard?" Thomas put in.
They all laughed. "Now, where’d you get that?"
Donald Wade reminded her, "From the story you told us about how the lizard got bumps."
"Oh…" She continued fondling the fine black hair on the baby’s head. "No, this one’ll just be Lizzy. Elizabeth Parker, I think."
Will’s eyes shot to Elly’s. "Parker?"
"Well, you delivered her, didn’t you? Man deserves some credit for a thing like that."
Lord, in a minute he was gonna burst. This woman would give him everything. Everything, before she was through! He reached for the baby’s head and stroked her temple with the back of a finger. Lizzy, he thought. Lizzy P. You’n me gonna be buddies, darlin’.He stretched one hand to Elly’s hair, and circled Donald Wade’s rump with his free arm and touched Thomas’s leg, on the far side of Elly. And he smiled at Lizzy P. and thought, Heaven’s got nothin’ on being the husband of Eleanor Dinsmore.
Will’s smile announced the news to Miss Beasley even before his words. "She had a girl."
"And you delivered her."
He shrugged and quirked his head at an angle. "It wasn’t so hard after all."
"Don’t be so humble, Mr. Parker. I would collapse in fright if I had to deliver a baby. It went all right?"
"Perfect. Started yesterday around noon and ended around three-thirty. Her name’s Lizzy."
"Lizzy. Very fetching."
"Lizzy P." She cocked an eyebrow.
"Yes’m." He fairly twitched with excitement, a rare thing.
"And what is the P for?"
"Parker. Feature that-she named that little girl after me. After a no-count drifter who doesn’t even know where he got that name. Wait’ll you see her, Miss Beasley, she’s got hair black as coal and fingernails so small you can hardly find ’em. I never saw a baby up close before! She’s incredible."
Miss Beasley beamed, hiding a swift pang of regret for the child she’d never had, the husband who’d never rejoiced over it.
"You must congratulate Eleanor for me and tell her I’ll expect Lizzy to begin visiting the library no later than her fifth birthday. You cannot get a child interested in books too early."
"I’ll tell ’er, Miss Beasley."
Those were special days and nights, immediately after the baby’s birth-Will awakening to the sound of Lizzy tuning up in the basket, rising with Elly to turn her over and talk soft nonsense to her. The two of them together, laughing when the cold air hit the baby’s skin and her face puckered in preparation for the adorable soft sobbing that hadn’t yet grown to be an irritation. And each morning, Will cooking breakfast for the boys, delivering Elly a tray and a kiss, then giving Lizzy P. her bath before washing diapers and hanging them out to dry. He changed Lizzy’s diaper whenever Elly didn’t beat him to it. He dusted the house and put the bluebird on her bedside table. He sterilized the rubber nipples and prepared the watered-down milk and got the bottles ready during the days before Elly’s milk came in. He prepared supper and got the boys all fed and changed into pajamas before kissing them and Elly and Lizzy goodbye and heading into town.
But afterward was best. After the long day when he’d return and there’d be lazy minutes lying in bed with the baby between Elly and him while they watched her sleep, or hiccup, or cross her eyes or suck her fist. And they’d dream about her future and theirs, and look into each other’s eyes and wonder if there’d be another like her, one of their own.
They had three such glorious days before the bombs fell.
On Sunday "Ma Trent" wasn’t on, but Elly was lying in bed listening to the Columbia Broadcast System while the New York Philharmonic tuned up for Symphony #1 by somebody called Shostakovich when John Daly’s voice announced, "The Japanese have attacked Pearl Harbor!"
At first Elly didn’t fully understand. Then the tension in Daly’s voice struck home and she sat up abruptly. "Will! Come quick!"
Thinking something was amiss with her or the baby, he came on the run.
"They bombed us!"
They listened, like all the rest of America, for the remainder of the day and evening. They heard of the sinking of five U.S. battleships on a peaceful Hawaiian island, of the destruction of 140 American aircraft and the loss of over 2,000 American lives. They heard the voice of Kate Smith singing "God Bless America" and the national army band playing the "Star-Spangled Banner." They heard of blackout alerts along the western seaboard, where a Japanese invasion was feared and where thousands rushed to volunteer for the armed forces. There were amazing stories of men rising from restaurant tables, leaving unfinished plates, walking to the closest recruiting office to find the line of volunteers-within an hour of the first radio reports-already eight city blocks long.
In Whitney, Georgia-a short plane ride from another vulnerable shore-Will and Elly turned out the lights early and went to bed wondering what the next day would bring.
It brought the voice of President Roosevelt.
"Yesterday, December 7, 1941-a date which will live in infamy-the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan. In addition, American ships have been reported torpedoed on the high seas between San Francisco and Honolulu.
"Yesterday the Japanese Government also launched an attack against Malaya.
"Last night Japanese forces attacked Hong Kong.
"Last night Japanese forces attacked Guam.
"Last night Japanese forces attacked the Philippine Islands.
"Last night the Japanese attacked Wake Island.
"This morning the Japanese attacked Midway Island… Hostilities exist. There is no blinking at the fact that our people, our territory, and our interests are in grave danger.
"With confidence in our armed forces-with the unbounded determination of our people-we will gain the inevitable triumph-so help us God.
"I ask that the Congress declare that since the unprovoked and dastardly attack by Japan on Sunday, December seventh, a state of war has existed between the United States and the Japanese Empire."
Will and Elly stared at the radio. At each other.
Not now, she thought. Not now, when everything just got right.
So this is it, he thought. I’ll go just like hundreds of others are going.
He was surprised to find himself fired with some of the same outrage as that conflagrating through the rest of America: for the first time Will felt the righteousness of President Roosevelt’s "Four Freedoms" because for the first time he enjoyed them all. And being a family man made them the more dear.
In bed that night he lay awake and thoughtful. Elly lay tense. After a long silence she rolled to him and held him possessively.
"Will you have to go?"
"But you’re a father now. How could they take a father with a brand-new baby and two others to see after?"
"I’m thirty. I’m registered. The draft law says twenty-one to thirty-five."
"Maybe they won’t call you up."
"We’ll worry about it when the time comes."
Minutes later, when they’d lain clutching hands in the silence, he told her, "I’m gonna get that generator goin’ for you, and fix up a refrigerator and an electric washer and make sure everything’s in perfect shape around the place."
She gripped his hand and rolled her face against his arm. "No, Will… no."
At one in the morning, when Lizzy woke up hungry, Will asked Elly to leave the lamp on. In the pale amber lantern glow he lay on his side and watched her nurse the baby, watched the small white fists push the blue-tinged breast, watched the pocket-gopher cheeks bulge and flatten as they drew sustenance, watched Elly’s fingers shape a stand-up curl on Lizzy’s delicate head.
He thought of all he had to live for. All he had to fight for. It was only a matter of making Elly and the kids secure before he left.
The radio was never off after that. Day by day they heard of an unprepared America at war. In Washington, D.C., soldiers took up posts at key government centers, wearing World War I helmets and carrying ancient Springfield rifles, while on December eighth Japanese bombers struck two U.S. airfields in the Philippines and on the tenth Japanese forces began to land on Luzon.
At first it all seemed remote to Elly, but Will brought the newspapers home from the library and studied the Japanese movement on tiny maps which brought the war closer. He worked in the town hall where recruiters were already posted twelve hours a day. Billboards out front and in the vestibule entreated, DEFEND YOUR COUNTRY-ENLIST NOW-U.S. ARMY. Across America it continued. The outrage. The bristling. The growing American frenzy to "join up."
Will found himself in a frenzy of his own-to get things done.
He finished the wind generator and hooked it to the radio because their batteries were nearly worn out and new ones unobtainable. Since the wind generator wouldn’t create enough electricity to power larger appliances, he installed a gasoline-driven motor on an old hand-operated agitator washing machine and fashioned a homemade water heater fueled by kerosene. It stood beside the tub like a gangly monster with a drooping snout. The day he filled the bathtub for the first time they celebrated. The boys took the first baths, followed by Elly and finally by Will himself. But there was no denying that the elation they’d expected upon using the tub for the first time was tempered by the unspoken realization of why Will was hurrying to get so much done around the place.
Miss Beasley came to call when Lizzy was ten days old, surprising everyone. She brought a sweater and bootee set for the baby and Timothy Totter’s Tattersfor the boys-not the library copy but a brand-new one they could keep. They were awed by a stranger bringing them a gift and by the book itself and the idea that it belonged to them. Miss Beasley got them set up studying the pictures with a promise to read the book aloud as soon as she’d visited with their mother.
"So you’re up and about again," she said to Eleanor.
"Yes. Will spoils me silly, though."
"A woman deserves a little spoiling occasionally." Without the slightest hint of warmth in her voice she dictated, "Now, I should very much like to see that young one of yours."
"Oh… of course. Come, she’s in our bedroom."
Elly led the way and Will followed, standing back with his hands in his rear pockets while Miss Beasley leaned over the laundry basket and inspected the sleeping face. She crossed her hands over her stomach, stepped back and declared, "You have a beautiful child there, Eleanor."
"Thank you, Miss Beasley. She’s a good sleeper, too."
"A blessing, I’m sure."
"Yes’m, she is."
To Will’s surprise, Miss Beasley informed Elly, "Mr. Parker was quite, quite pleased that you named the child after him."
"He was?" Elly peeked over her shoulder at Will, who smiled and shrugged.
"He most certainly was."
Silence fell, strained, before Elly thought to offer, "Got some fresh gingerbread and hot coffee if you’d like."
"I’m quite partial to gingerbread, thank you."
They all trooped back to the kitchen and Will watched Elly nervously serve the sweet and coffee and perch on the edge of her chair like a bird ready to take wing. Given a choice, she would probably have foregone this entire visit, but nobody turned Miss Beasley out of the house, not even out of the bedroom when she came to call. Will studied the librarian covertly, but she rarely glanced his way. The entire get-together was being carried out with the same pedantic formality with which Miss Beasley conducted a library tour for the children. It struck him that she was no more comfortable being here than Elly was having her. So why had she come? Duty only, because he worked for her?
Eventually the talk turned to the war and how it was spawning the most fierce patriotism in memorable history. "They’re signing up as if it was a free-ice-cream line," Miss Beasley said. "Five more today from Whitney alone. James Burcham, Milford Dubois, Voncile Potts and two of the Sprague boys. Poor Esther Sprague-first a husband and now two sons. Rumor has it that Harley Overmire received a draft notice, too." Miss Beasley didn’t gloat, but Will had the impression she wanted to.
"I’ve been worried about Will maybe having to go," Eleanor confided.
"So have I. But a man will do what he must, and so will a woman, when the time comes."
Was this, then, why she’d come, to prepare Elly because she already guessed his decision was made? To ease into Elly’s confidence because she knew Elly would need a friend when he was gone? Will’s heart warmed toward the plump woman who ate gingerbread with impeccable manners while a tiny dot of whipped cream rested on the fine hair of her upper lip.
In that moment he loved her and realized leaving her would make his going more difficult. Yet leave them he would, for it had already become understood that to be of military age and not join up was to be physically or mentally impaired, or the subject of suspicion and innuendo about one’s condition and courage.
Right after Christmas, Will decided. He’d wait until then to talk to a recruiter and to tell Elly. They deserved one Christmas together anyway.
He threw himself into holiday plans, wanting all the traditional trappings-the food, the tree, the gifts, the celebration-in case he never had the chance again. He made a scooter for the boys and bought them Holloway suckers, Cracker Jacks, Bunte’s Tango bars and Captain Marvel comic books. For Elly he bought something frivolous-the popular Chinese Checker game. It took two to play Chinese Checkers, but he bought it anyway as a portent of hope for his return.
December 22 brought news that a large Japanese landing had been staged just north of Manila. On Christmas Eve came news of another, just south of that city, which was in danger of falling to the enemy.
After that Elly and Will made a pact to leave the radio off for the remainder of the holiday and concentrate on the boys’ enthusiasm.
But she knew. Somehow, she knew.
Filling the stockings, Elly looked up and watched Will drop in a handful of roasted peanuts, nearly as excited as if the stocking were his instead of Thomas’s. She felt a stinging at the back of her nose and went to him before any telltale evidence formed in her eyes. She laid her cheek against his chest and said, "I love you, Will."
He toyed with her hair as she stood lightly against him. "I love you, too."
Don’t go, she didn’t say.
I have to, he didn’t reply.
And in moments they returned to filling the stockings.
For Will, Christmas morning was bittersweet, watching the boys’ eyes light up at the sight of the scooter, laughing while they dug into their stockings, holding them-still in their pajamas-on his lap while they sampled the candy and ogled the comic books. These were firsts for Will. He lived them vicariously with Donald Wade and Thomas as he himself never had as a boy.
Elly gave him a mail-order shirt which he wore while they played Chinese Checkers and the boys rode their scooter across the living room and kitchen floor.
For dinner they had no traditional turkey. Will had offered to take Glendon’s old double-bore shotgun and try his hand at bagging one, but Elly would hear none of it.
"One of my birds? You want to shoot one of my wild turkeys, Will Parker? I should say not. We’ll have pork." And they did.
Pork and cornbread stuffing and fried okra and quince pie with Miss Beasley as their guest.
Miss Beasley, who had celebrated so many wretched Christmases alone that she glowed like a neon light when Will came to pick her up in the auto. Miss Beasley, who had actually excited Elly about having an outsider at her table for a meal. Miss Beasley, who brought gifts: for Elly a beautiful seven-piece china tea set decorated with yellow birds and clover on a background of tan luster; for Will a pair of capeskin gloves; for the boys a pair of glass and Pyralin automobiles filled with colorful soft cream candies shaped like elephants, horns, guns and turtles, and a new book, ’Twas the Night Before Christmas, which she read to them after dinner.
Christmas, 1941… over too soon.
When Will returned Miss Beasley to her brick bungalow on Durbin Street, he wore his new gloves and walked her to the door.
"I want to thank you for all the gifts you brought."
"Nonsense, Mr. Parker. It is I who should be thanking you."
"These gloves’re…" He smacked them together and rubbed them appreciatively. "Why, they’re just… heck, I don’t even know what to say. Nobody ever gave me anything so fine before. I felt awful ’cause we didn’t give you anything."
"Didn’t giveme anything? Mr. Parker, do you know how many Christmases I’ve spent alone since my mother passed away? Twenty-three. Perhaps an intelligent man like you can figure out exactly what it is you and Eleanor gave me today."
She often said things like that, calling him an intelligent man. Things no other person had ever said to Will, things that made him feel good about himself. Looking into her fuzzy face, he clearly understood what today had meant to her, though her expression would never show it. She remained as persimonny-mouthed as ever. He wondered what she’d do if he leaned over and kissed her. Probably cuff him upside the head.
"Elly, she didn’t know what to make of that tea set. I never saw her eyes grow so big."
"You know what to make of it though, don’t you?"
He studied her eyes for a long moment. They both knew; that when he was gone Elly would need a friend. Someone to have tea with perhaps.
"Yes, ma’am, I reckon I do," Will answered softly. Then he put his gloved hands on Miss Beasley’s arms and did what his heart dictated: he placed an affectionate kiss on her cheek.
She didn’t cuff him.
She turned the color of a gooseberry and blinked rapidly three times, then scuttled into the house, forgetting to bid him goodbye.
Within five weeks after Pearl Harbor Bell Aircraft built a huge new bomber factory in Marietta. The last civilian auto rolled off the assembly lines in Detroit, and Japan had seized Malaya and the Dutch East Indies, cutting off ninety percent of America’s rubber supply. National Price Administrator Leon Henderson was pictured in every newspaper in America pedaling his "Victory bicycle" as a stand-in for the automobile. The wealthy deserted their Saint Simons Island mansions as German submarines began patrolling the coast, and the people of Georgia organized the Georgia State Guard, a citizens’ army composed of those too young, too old, or too unfit for the draft, who set about preparing coastal defenses for an anticipated German invasion. Georgia convicts were conscripted and put to work round the clock to improve seashore approaches and build bridges over which the homegrown army would defend their state.
And up at the mill one day Harley Overmire set his jaw, shut his eyes and ran his trigger finger through a buzz saw.
The news had a curious effect on Will. It galvanized his intentions. He decided suddenly that not only would he join up, but he’d join the toughest branch-the Marines-so that when he came back cowards like Overmire could never look down on him or his again. It seemed almost fated that the very day he made his decision the draft board made it irreversible. The letter began with the infamous word that had already taken thousands of men from their homes and families:
Will opened the draft notice alone, down by the mailbox, read the words and shut his eyes, breathing deep. He gazed at the Georgia sky, blue and sunny. He walked at a snail’s pace up the red clay road and sat for five minutes beneath their favorite sourwood tree, listening to the redbirds, the winter quiet. He’d rather do anything than tell Elly. Rather go than tell her he had to.
She was nursing the baby when he returned to the house, lying diagonally on the bed. He stopped in the doorway and studied her, impressing the image in his memory for bleaker days-a woman in a faded print dress with the buttons freed, her hair in a loose tan braid, one arm crooked beneath her ear, the infant at her breast. A lump formed in Will’s throat as he knelt beside the bed and laid the backside of a finger on Lizzy’s pumping cheek, then skimmed it over her delicate skin. He leaned on his elbows close to Elly’s head, his gaze still resting on the nursing infant.
Don’t tell her yet.
"She’s growin’, isn’t she?" he murmured.
"How long will you nurse her?"
"Till she gets teeth."
"When will that be?"
"Oh, when she’s about seven, eight months."
I wanted to be here to see every new tooth.
His knuckle moved from the baby’s cheek to his wife’s breast.
"This is my favorite way to find you when I come in. I could watch this till the grass grew right up over the porch step and into the house and never get tired of it."
She rolled her head to study him, but his eyes followed his finger, which glided over her full breast.
"And I reckon I’d never get tired of you watchin’, Will," she told him softly.
Elly, Elly, I don’t wanna go but I got to.
Contemplating mortality made a man say things he otherwise would hold inside. "I wondered so many times if my mother ever held me, if she nursed me, if she was sorry to give me up. I wonder every time I watch you with Lizzy."
"Oh, Will…" She touched his cheek tenderly.
At that moment his feelings for her were convoluted and he struggled to understand them. She was his wife, not his mother, yet he loved her as if she were both. For some ungraspable reason he thought she had a right to know that before he left. "Sometimes I think I halfway wanted to marry you ’cause you were such a good mother and I never had one. I know that sounds strange, but I… well, I just wanted to tell you."
"I know, Will."
His head lifted and their eyes met at last. "You know?"
Her thumb brushed his lower lip. "Reckon I knew all the time. I figured it out when I washed your hair the first time. But I knew it wasn’t the only reason. I figured that out, too."
He stretched to kiss her, his shoulder pocketing Lizzy’s head while the sound of her suckling and swallowing continued. He would never forget this moment, the smell of the baby and the woman, the warmth of the one against his shoulder, the other beneath his hand, which rested on her warm hair. When the kiss ended he stared into Elly’s green eyes while his thumb idled on the part in her hair. Slowly he collapsed to rest facedown against the mattress, still embracing them both.
"Will, what’s wrong?"
He swallowed, his face flattened into the bedding, which smelled of them and of baby powder.
"You picked up the mail, didn’t you?"
His thumb wagged across her skull. Tears stung his eyes but he pinched them inside. No man cried, not these days. They marched off to war triumphant.
"I was thinkin’," she continued chokily, "maybe I’ll make a quince pie for supper. I know how you like your quince pie."
He thought of prison mess halls and soldiers’ rations and Elly’s quince pie with a lattice crust, and worked hard to keep his breath steady. How long? How long?The baby stopped suckling and heaved a delicate, broken sigh. Will pictured her milky mouth falling gently from Elly’s skin and turned his temple to the mattress. Opening his eyes, he saw Elly’s nipple at close range, almost violet in hue, still puckered while Lizzy’s moist lips occasionally sucked from an inch away.
"I promised the boys I’d take ’em to a movie one day. I got to be sure to do that."
"They’d like that."
Silence settled, growing oppressive. "Can I come along?" she asked.
"Movie wouldn’t be no fun without you."
They both smiled sadly. When the smiles faded they listened to each other breathe, absorbing the nearness and dearness of each other, storing memories against lorn days.
"I have to teach you to drive the car," he said at length.
"And I got to give you that birthday party I promised."
They lay in silence a long time before Elly uttered a desolate throaty sound, reached up and gripped the back of Will’s jacket. Burying her face in the bedding, she held him so and grieved.
Later he showed her the letter and while she read it told her, "I’m volunteering for the Marines, Elly."
"The Marines! But why?"
"Because I can be a good one. Because I already had the training my whole life long. Because bastards like Overmire are cuttin’ off their trigger fingers and I want to make sure his kind can never make degrading remarks about me or you again."
"But I don’t care what Harley Overmire says about us."
Her expression soured as the hurt set in: he’d made such a decision without consulting her, to jeopardize the life she now valued more than her own. "And I don’t have anything to say about it, whether you go to the Army or the Marines?"
His face closed over, much as it had beneath his cowboy hat during his first days here. "No, ma’am."
He had nine days, nine bittersweet days during which they never spoke the word war. Nine days during which Elly remained cool, hurt. He took the family to the movie, as promised-Bud Abbott and Lou Costello. The boys laughed while Will took Eleanor’s unresponsive hand and held it as both of them tried to forget the newsreel which showed scenes of the Pearl Harbor attack and other actions in the Pacific that had occurred since America had entered the war.
He taught Elly to drive the car but couldn’t get her to promise she’d use it to go into town in case of an emergency. Even while practicing, she refused to leave their own land. In other days, under other circumstances, the lessons might have been a source of amusement, but with both of them counting down the hours, laughter was at a premium.
He put up more cordwood, wondering how many months she’d be alone, how long the supply would last, what she’d do when it was gone.