Charles Hayes, a multiple Pushcart Prize Nominee, is an American who lives part time in the Philippines and part time in Seattle with his wife. A product of the Appalachian Mountains, his writing has appeared in Ky Story’s Anthology Collection, Wilderness House Literary Review, The Fable Online, Unbroken Journal, CC&D Magazine, Random Sample Review, The Zodiac Review, eFiction Magazine, Saturday Night Reader, Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, Scarlet Leaf Publishing House, Burning Word Journal, eFiction India, and others.
Ester (A Mother)
The years following World War II were a time of beginnings. Peace was beginning, families were beginning, and America was beginning to take a new shape. It was expected that people would try new things and go new places. But among the ancient mountains, known as the Appalachians, things did not take on change like the rest of the country. Few roads were built through the mountainous hardwood forest of this rugged area. Life held on to those things that could provide the most relief from an isolated existence. In the areas where coal was found, men mined it, lived by it, grew old and died by it. Their women raised their children and provided the men with what they could as the trains and trucks carried the product of their labors and most of the money out beyond the mountains to the growing cities of the Northeast.
Some of that coal began its journey near the little town of Matoka, West Virginia. Located along the train tracks that carried much of the traffic, Matoka was the home of a family of merchants that owned and ran the town's only feed store and a small movie theater. Of that family was Ester Williams and her two older sisters. There had been an older brother but he had gone down in a bomber during the war. Ester's father was also deceased but her mother still lived and managed the two small businesses. They were an industrious family that knew the value of money. Ester, however, was the least business oriented among the family. Instead, she was more interested in music and loved to play the piano and sing, leaving the matters of business to the rest of the family. Her family supported her in this and considered her to be more or less their contribution to the arts. Consequently, she became quite good. In the tough environment of the coal fields such an individual could hold a place that was, while rather different, respected and sometimes admired. The struggle of mining life sometimes required a softening of the hard edges that necessarily developed. Music could do that.
Ester was unusual in more ways than just her avocation. She was a twice married single mother. Many years earlier, she had eloped with her high school sweetheart, a handsome but penniless boy named Ben.
During the heights of the great depression Ester and Ben returned to Matoka after marrying. Neither had any way to earn a living. Ester’s family had enough to help them out some but Ben came from a poor family who didn’t have enough to even pay off their debts at the coal company store. Plus Ben hated coal mining and could not hold a mining job. Mining was tough.
It wasn't long before Ben, whose character strengths did not match his good looks, succumbed to depression, borrowed a gun, and shot himself.
He was buried following a small funeral with only his mother and father and the Williams family in attendance, his prior popularity having vanished among the staunch conservative community. Ester’s family paid for the funeral and burial. The expenses were never discussed between the two families nor did they stay in contact. It was like nature had annulled the marriage between Ester and Ben. Ester returned to her music and the rest of the family continued their trade while Ben’s little family, now childless, returned to their life in the coal camp. The great depression was no respecter of persons--life was luck and it must go on.
Sitting on the front porch of the family home in an old rocker, Ester recalls the days of her marriage to Ben and wonders if they played a part in her leaving Buddy, her second husband and the father of her two year old son. Determined to let the past be the past, she quickly tries to dismiss this thought. But Buddy is her son’s father and that is different. It will never be the past.
She can’t help but remember the day that she left Mathews, Virginia for good, Or the letter and phone calls from Buddy begging her to come back. She felt sorry for him but told him that it was over. Did she do the right thing? Like a film in her mother's movie house, it plays in her mind, different parts and times flashing forth like a Picasso.
A naked baby boy barely able to walk, struggles toward the ocean waves, falls face first into the sand, giggles, and rights himself. The brilliant blue and white mixes with the wind and sounds of surf to flood his senses. As he nears the froth of the receding surf Ester suddenly runs to the water's edge and grabs him. Ester is a stoutly built woman wearing a modest bathing suit of the post World War II era and the child is Charles, her son. Telling herself that she had better keep a close eye on him, she looks to the sky and determines that the sun will soon be too hot. Holding Charles, Ester bends down and picks up the little shovel and bucket and carries them to the grassy top of the sand dune where a little red wagon sits. Putting them and her belongings in the wagon, she pulls on a smock, puts cover on her boy, and pulls the wagon along a sandy street that runs through the seaside fishing and farming community of Mathews, Virginia.
Ester and Buddy, a fisherman jack of all trades met after the war at a USO social in Bluefield, West Virginia where Buddy was awaiting military discharge. Ester had wanted a child beyond all else. And Buddy in his Merchant Marine uniform seemed like a God send to a young unmarried woman from a small town. Both were in their thirties and looking for a place to enjoy the expected peace and prosperity that would come. Times were giddy and, though they were from different backgrounds, they married quickly and headed to the Virginia shore where Buddy was from. However the good times never really had a chance because Buddy was prone to drink and many times the money that was needed to make ends meet was spent in the local fishermen’s bars. Plus the crab boat that Ester’s family bought them for a wedding present was hardly broken in before Buddy got drunk and sold it for far less than it was worth. Even though she was granted her wish and became pregnant, that sale broke Ester’s will to keep the marriage going. She left Buddy and went back to Matoka to have Charles.
Buddy, a father removed, kept phoning and pleading for her to come back until, against the advice of her family, she carried Charles back to Mathews and tried once again to make a life for them. But Buddy seemed little different than before except that his drinking was more confined to the local area and seldom did he stay out more than one night.
Buddy had been medically discharged from the Merchant Marines because he had fallen from a mast and burst his skull. A metal plate was inserted to replace part of the bone and it was said that this contributed to his behavior. His family tried to make allowances for him but they were just able to make ends meet themselves. But he was one of their own so most of them tried to keep Ester on board for his sake. This proved to be hardly enough for Ester. She had made sacrifices in order to return to Mathews. She had liked watching her baby, studying music, and playing her mother’s piano. In Mathews they could barely afford the rent for the little shack that they lived in, let alone a piano. Or even a good record player. But she had wanted to prove to her parents that they could make it so she tried to endure. It was not long though until she decided that their life could not go on like that. They were on borrowed time. This cast a feeling of melancholia over their relationship and the resulting resentment prevented both of them from honestly trying to come to grips with the situation. Frequently they would exchange guilty looks and quietly drift farther apart, each seeing their own vision of a doomed relationship.
Walking along the rutted beach road, pulling the wagon and Charles behind, Ester thinks about what will be waiting for them when they get home. When they left for the beach they saw Buddy by the station house talking with a large black man in fishing boots. The station house is a favorite place for those who like to pass a bottle around while discussing fishing or the hog prices over at the farmers auction. As Ester nears the place where the beach road joins the regular street she hears laughter coming from the direction of the station house and decides to bypass it, hoping to avoid seeing Buddy drunk.
Evening is quiet and Ester remains anxious when Buddy fails to come home for dinner. She and Charles listen to the radio until it is his bedtime and Ester tucks him in.
Suddenly a loud crashing sound comes from the front stoop.
“God Damn it Ester, how many times have I told you to keep the fucking toys out of the doorway!”
Ester hurries to the entrance and helps Buddy regain his feet. He had tripped over the wagon, knocking out one of the door panels.
“My God Buddy, the doorway is plainly clear enough for anyone who can walk straight. You smell like a brewery, serves you right. I suppose you drank up the money we were going to pay the rent with.”
“Fuck the rent we’re going to move anyway," replies Buddy as he lurches across the room and flops down in his favorite piece of furniture, a huge pink arm chair.
Ester’s eyes fill with tears.
“Just where to. We don’t have any money and the last time I checked there are no places around here that are rent free. It’s just another one of your moves because you drank up the money. I told you Buddy I can’t keep moving. It’s not good for Charles and it’s not good for us. We need a place we can count on.”
“Hell Ester, don’t start that got to get ahead bull shit again. We can take that little garden cottage behind John’s. He says that I can work on his boat to make it up plus a little extra money besides.”
John is Buddy’s older brother. He fishes for anything that he can sell off his truck over in Gloucester, mostly crab. He needs help setting and retrieving crab pots--it is hard work bringing them up and setting them from the back of his small boat. And Ester knows that Buddy can’t do it.
“You can’t stick to that. You’ve tried it and Lord knows you can’t. Besides that cottage doesn’t even have a bathroom. I told you when I came back here that I would not live like that and you promised that we could have our own place. You said it would be different. They don’t even like me. They think I’m stuck up. Buddy listen to me--I won’t do it!"
Ester is crying.
Buddy stands up, pointing his finger.
“You are stuck up and you’ll God damned do what I tell you to do!"
Ester, rushes over to Buddy and grabs him.
“Please, Buddy, please don’t do this. I won’t do it...I can’t do it...I’ll leave you, I’ll take Charles and I’ll leave. And this time I won‘t come back. Can’t you see that?”
There it is, the unspoken thought that inhabits their lives, finally said out loud.
Buddy looks down at her as she clings to him and for a moment they hold each other’s gaze. As if to terminate any tie that holds them together, Buddy pushes her away.
“Go on and leave then! You never belonged here anyway...too high and mighty for the likes of me...go on, leave, I’m tired of never being able to please you! Take the kid with you...going to turn out to be nothing but a momma’s boy anyhow... you wanted a kid...now you got one. Call it my contribution, go on, leave.”
Ester stumbles backwards and falls over a foot stool, landing with a loud thud as her bottom hits the floor. Lowering her head into her hands, her soft sobs are broken by the sound of another louder cry. In the bedroom door stands Charles, his big teary eyes searching first the face of his father and then that of his mother's.
Ester quickly stands and takes Charles back into the bedroom while Buddy, looking bewildered and lost, slowly walks out the front door. Looking at the light coming through the broken door panel, Buddy mutters, “Oh what’s the use," shoves his hands in his pockets, and makes his way toward the station house.
Ester knows that the greyhound bus to Richmond will pass through shortly. She also knows that this has been a long time coming so it may as well be now. She will take Charles and return to her family with the money she received from them earlier and hid away. It was enough to get them on the bus to Richmond. Enough will be leftover to go by train from there into West Virginia. She doesn't know the train schedule but she knows that the major coalfields of Southern West Virginia call for much rail traffic. And that includes some passenger trains that bring the big coal company executives, their families, and the coal business in and out of the region. Along with the rich in their sleepers, there will be room for the poor in coach. They might have to spend a night in the station but that is nothing she and Charles have not done before.
There is not much to pack---a small cardboard suitcase and a small bag of toys along with a jar of peanut butter and half a loaf of bread. Ester places the food and toys, along with Charles, in the little red wagon and pulls them behind her as she carries the suitcase.
The bus stop is about a mile away and it takes her about 30 minutes to walk the distance to the shelter and bench beside the highway. She doesn't have long to wait before she sees large headlights in the distance. It has to be the bus. Nothing else that big runs through here. Stepping near the edge of the road and waving, Ester watches the bus slow and pull over.
The driver gets out and looks over at Charles setting in the wagon.
“Heading toward Richmond,” he asks, “just you and the kid?"
“Yes," replys Ester, “we have a train to catch."
“You're not going all the way into downtown Richmond,” the driver asks, “want me to drop you at the train station?"
“Yes, please. That would save us some trouble making the connection and it would be much appreciated.” Ester is glad that the driver is willing to do this. She can't spare cab fare.
“No problem at all," the driver says as he stows the suitcase under the bus and looks at the red wagon.
“Sorry I can’t take the wagon without charging you extra. The company is very strict about that. Want me to load it as well?”
“Just leave it," replies Ester.
She feels a moment of sorrow but immediately pushes it away. The wagon had served them well and Charles had few toys, she will have to get him another one. Or maybe something a little more complicated like one of those toy cars that you can pedal.
Lifting Charles and their few belongings from the wagon, Ester pushes the wagon to the side of the shelter and hopes that someone will make use of it. She pays the driver and learns that Charles can ride free as long as he is carried aboard.
Finding a seat not too far from the front of the bus and getting situated, Ester hears the swooshing sound as the driver closes the door and pulls back on the highway. A family of three is once again only two, starting a journey that is as unclear as the dark countryside beyond their window. Holding Charles in her lap as he falls asleep, Ester wonders what she can do once they reach Matoka. Her family will of course take them in but they will also expect her to find something to do with herself. Ester thinks of her music and how she might use that to make a life. Maybe she can teach.
At the station house Buddy sees the bus in the distance slow down and stop for a few minutes before continuing on. Maybe someday he can take his family on that bus to Richmond and they can have a real holiday---eat in a good restaurant, and stay in a nice hotel. Ester has complained and threatened before. One time she even left him, but she had come back fast enough. He knows it is hard for her but she will just have to give him a chance to prove to her that he can handle it. Just a little more time is needed. A man has to sometimes do things that people don't understand. That takes time. What things those are, Buddy can't quite figure. He loses his train of thought and doesn't remember where he started. Looking around and suddenly realizing that he is the only one left on the platform, Buddy gingerly slides from atop a large barrel and stumbles toward home hoping Ester will be in bed. He doesn't feel like arguing tonight. It will all get straightened out tomorrow.
As Buddy nears home he sees that the lights are on and tries to ready himself for more complaints. Noticing the broken door but not remembering how it got that way, he goes inside. It is all too quiet. Why has Ester not turned off the lights before going to bed? Only the bedroom is dark. He goes into the bedroom and switches on the light to find the bed and the old makeshift crib empty. The drawer where Ester keeps her clothes is open and empty. And the shelf where she keeps the few things for Charles is bare. A knot slowly begins to form in the pit of Buddy’s stomach and he begins to feel sick---a wild kind of scared sick. He looks all around, panic in his eyes. He even runs outside and looks under the house to see if they might be hiding there. Coming back inside, he notices that the wagon is gone. Maybe they are just walking around somewhere but why would they do that. The unusual stop of the Greyhound bus suddenly dawns upon him. In a full panic, he half runs, half walks to the bus stop to find no one there. Nothing.
As Buddy is bending over to catch his breath he sees a flicker of light in the shadow of the shelter and draws closer to see what it was. At first only the handle bar lying in the dust is visible. But the whole thing becomes visible as Buddy further examines the object. It is a child’s red wagon. The realization that while he was getting drunker he had watched Ester and Charles leave him hits him hard. Moaning from deep inside, he slowly sinks to the bench, curls like a fetus, and cries until he is unconscious.
Slowly rocking back and forth, again aware of the quiet Matoka street that she overlooked, Ester closed her review of the past and looked to her child playing along the porch nearby. She had done the right thing and she would prove it. With a resolve as hardy as her love of music, she set her jaw and swore to herself that, even if it killed her, she would make a life for herself and her son.
Ester Williams Hayes enrolled in a nearby teachers college and studied music. Through many years of moving around to substitute teach during the school year, while completing her teaching certificate during the summer months, Ester raised Charles as a single mother and lead many a school band as its conductor.
It was not easy. Away trips for state High School band competitions had Charles, still very young, donning his small band uniform and marching in the ranks, pretending to be the smallest music maker. There was no money to do it any other way and Charles played his part well enough that no concerns were raised. The travel and mix of older people stretched him in ways that were not so obvious at first. Later they led to a more liberal leaning in his nature. A fact that sometimes puzzled the more conservative Ester.
Charles’ father was no longer in the picture, but when Charles graduated high school Ester loaned him her car to go back to the Chesapeake Bay area and look for him. Finding only his father’s brother, Charles learned that Buddy had faded from even his own family’s picture. The last anybody knew about him was that he was in an old soldier's home somewhere. It seemed that not much had changed through those years. Fishing and hard work left little time to keep up with those beyond the immediate family.
Charles returned to West Virginia and, as Ester grew older, went forth carrying those obscure parts of his father that would bedevil him and Ester throughout life. They were the products of the hard rocks of Appalachia. Where coal was king.
A Bad Lot
Watching his laying hens chase the cracked corn, Luke Oleman worries that his decision to skip college and a draft deferment to stay home with his family and help manage their Dairy business had been the wrong one. Having graduated with the high school class of 1965 a few months earlier, he couldn’t see then how the Army would be interested in a Virginia farm boy who hated any kind of killing. But lately he was learning that temperament made little difference to the local draft board when it came to filling their quotas. Some of the older boys that he knew had been called up recently. Tossing the last of the feed, he kneels to pet his old border collie, Beau. Enjoying his love for his dog and animals in general, Luke remembers how a couple of their dairy cows had gotten nailed by a marauding bull when he was in grade school. And how he had stood up to his dad when his dad had wanted to slaughter the calves to save the milk. His dad had finally given in and let Luke raise the calves with their mothers separate from the rest of the herd. A year later he and the calves had won best of a new breed at the fair. And the State University had paid big bucks to have them in a new program at their Agricultural College.
Noticing the mailman pull up and stick something in their box, Luke smoothes Beau’s coat, stands, and goes to the mailbox with a foreboding that seems to dog him more every day. After knocking the beginnings of a wasp nest from underneath it, he opens the flap and withdraws a white envelope with a blue Department of Defense Seal printed on it. Standing in the diminishing dust from the mail truck with his stomach sinking, Luke stares at the letter that he knows is his draft notice. Slowly opening it, he tries to brace himself by thinking that Nancy will still be in college during his service. Just get it out of the way for their life later he tells himself. Reading the dreaded word “Greetings”, Luke confirms that it is his induction notice. Unable to casually continue his chores, he lowers the letter and looks down at Beau. Sensing that all is not right, Beau cocks his head slightly, lifts a paw, and whines softly.
Nancy Childers had been looking forward to her weekend visit home and the chance to spend a little time with Luke. Since starting college she had missed the boy that she had loved as far back as she could remember. Now, since getting his phone call and the news of his draft notice, there was a sadness about the coming weekend that she couldn’t quite shake. Telling herself the same things that Luke was saying---that it’s only for two years and she’ll still be in college all that time--she snaps her bag and goes to catch her ride with another student going her way for the weekend. Nancy has never really been away from home before and it will still be nice to get back to old familiar ground for a little while. The little town of Smithville doesn’t have that much going for it but it is where she and Luke had spent their lives living on adjacent farms in the outlying area. And it was their home.
Waiting for her ride, she recalls how they had fished and picnicked together through the years and how they had come to love the quietness and solitude that they shared roaming the rolling landscape around their farms. How the dying patches of snow, like little white islands in a sea of green, provided their avenues for hiking and loving over the land. Maybe Luke was right, two years could fly by and so far lots of draftees were getting stations other than Vietnam. But Nancy was no wonderland Alice. She knew that lots were not.
Luke, riding a big roan gelding and Nancy, mounted on a smaller chestnut mare, let their mounts amble and graze along the creek that runs for miles to empty into the much larger Shenandoah. Quietly they try to enjoy this last ride before Luke leaves for the war. Despite all their hopes, it had been short schrift for Luke once he finished boot camp. A draftee and no years of training to bring him up to par for specialized jobs, he was slapped with the infantry and posted to the central highlands of Vietnam to help fill the void that the increasing demands of the war were placing on America.
Coming to their favorite swimming hole, a clear pool of still water with reflections of the large sycamore trees that shelter its banks, they let the horses drink, dismount, and tie them off to some smaller trees coming up in the nearby meadow.
Just inside the lee of the sycamores there is a small raised grassy plateau that overlooks the creek and provides a look out through the trees to the meadow and land beyond. With only blankets under their arms, Luke and Nancy leave the horses and silently make their way to their grassy love spot. There, without words but with an understanding that years of togetherness has brought them, they lie together.
Under the sycamores young moist bodies dappled by the soft filtered sunlight lounge side by side, touching along their length as if one, staring through the treetops to the patches of blue beyond. Lovely and placid they are in their repose until a sudden mutual hunger, fueled by memories and uncertain futures, brings their eyes back to one another.
“I love you,” Luke says, as he watches a tear fall from Nancy’s lash. “I can not remember a time when I didn’t. You are my all and all to no end.”
No longer immersed in the tranquil moments of after love, Nancy begins to cry openly as she swings her leg over Luke and takes him in.
“Oh my God Luke, I love you. You are my soul, my future. Please come back to me. I’m empty without you. Don’t get killed, please God don’t get killed.”
Breathing fast, and bursting with his own emotions, Luke lets it out as well.
“I’ll be back dear love, I’ll be back, through heaven and hell I’ll be back. Wait for me, I promise I’ll be back.”
Both weeping, their love tuned to a crescendo of passion and catharsis, Luke and Nancy truly escape the ordinary of their young lives.
Out in the meadow the roan and the chestnut lift their heads from the grass and look toward the trees as the duet of a piercing cry reaches their ears.
Amid the defoliated landscape of shattered tree trunks and shell craters, Luke and an older kid from the Mississippi Delta, known as Big Daddy, bear one of the dead to the medical evacuation helicopter touching down in the A Shau Valley of Vietnam. Rocking slightly upon impact, the chopper sends a splash of blood over the edge of the deck onto the two as they load a lumpy black body bag on the slippery deck. Covered with mud and blood, the pair quickly shove the body in past the crew chief to the other waiting crewman.
Running low as the chopper lifts off, they are clear of the rotor blades when Luke suddenly stops and heaves up a stream of vomit. Big Daddy looks on as Luke, doubled over and trying to regain his stance, instead, vomits again.
Sniffing the heavy smell of puke, cordite and smoke as if they opine his thoughts, Big Daddy says, “That’s right, get that blood gut outside ya where it belongs. I went through it first time too….God damn them that do this war and never see it…never smell it....never taste it stuck in their craw like a rotten chicken gizzard……God damn them all!”
Giving Luke a modicum of privacy for his sickness, Big Daddy looks to the sky and shakes his head.
Finally catching his breath, Luke straightens up and seems to see his stretcher mate for the first time.
“You been through this before? I didn’t think anything could be this bad. Else I would've gone to Canada.”
Big Daddy chuckles and lays his hand on Luke’s shoulder.
“Sure you would’ve, sure you would’ve. Just liken a frog woulda growed wings if he’d knowed he would bump his ass so much. People like me an’ you can’t go to Canada. We’re home boys. Now come on, let’s get the rest of these bagged boys back to their homes.”
Luke hadn’t had much experience with people like Big Daddy, but they grew tight. And when they shook hands and locked eyes for the last time as Big Daddy was getting on the chopper to leave the war and go home, much had passed between them.
Setting in the door of the chopper with his feet dangling above the skids as it revs up, Big Daddy slaps the top of Luke’s helmet and screams above the rotor noise, “Luke, you my man, you be ok now, no sweat, but you and me and all these other poor son a bitches around here, we ain’t never gonna be the same. Of all things remember that….farm boy.”
Watching his smiling friend waving from the door of the rising helicopter, Luke feels a big sorrow yet a certain jubilation that Big Daddy is making it out. And he knows that his last words are true. He will make it too…..and he will never be the same. Standing there, watching the chopper shrink to a dot on the horizon, Luke calls back a time that seems to come from another world. He remembers Nancy and their last ride together.
Newly discharged from the armed forces of the United States and still in uniform, Luke makes his way through the crowded Richmond International Airport, a choking feeling in his throat and unease in his step. The funny dress and long hair all about is a bit unsettling to the rigid standards he had adapted to during his army tour. And some of the looks he gets are down right hostile. But the worst is the way the people seem to be going about a business that somehow excites them, gives a purpose to their steps. What is it that moves them in such a way, makes them laugh and mingle together. Luke now knows in the main what Big Daddy meant about not being the same. Here, back in the world, it spooks him as he pretends a purpose--making his way to the baggage claim to get his duffle bag.
Standing near the baggage carrousel eyeing the passengers as they retrieve their luggage, Nancy, dressed in wild colors and bellbottoms, waits for Luke who doesn’t know that she is there. She has driven all the way from her Northern Virginia school to surprise him and welcome him home..
Looking at the stream of people coming to the baggage area Nancy spots the uniform first and then the tall young man that she loves. All other earthly thoughts and feelings disappear as she runs toward him. A flash of brilliant hippie color, Nancy cries out her welcome as she draws near.
“Luke! Welcome home my darling love!”
Seeing only a pretty young woman wearing wild colors and beads, Luke at first doesn’t recognize Nancy and shies from her approach.
Startled almost to disappointment and feeling a little hurt by his cool reception, Nancy stops shy of her lover and searches his face for signs of something wrong.
“Are you alright, baby? You look scared.”
“I didn’t recognize you,” Luke replies. “It’s just this crowded airport and all the people. Makes me nervous.”
“Well grab your bag and let’s get out of here. We’re going home in my new car.”
Not really knowing the import of a new car compared to an old car, Luke shoulders his bag and listens to Nancy’s excited chatter about school and the life that lies ahead of them. And as they make their way to the parking lot, the unease that has dogged him since his return to the world sits on his shoulder, telling him in one ear that there is something wrong with him, while he tries to hear what Nancy is saying with the other.
“Can you feel it in your legs?” Luke says. “The horses are getting old.”
Seeing Luke more like his old self, Nancy smiles and tells herself it’s going to be OK.
“Maybe a little,” she says. “I’m not the horse person that you are. But no doubt they are older.”
For some reason Luke considers her reply inadequate and feels a bit slighted.
“Well, you don’t need to be a horse person to feel a difference in your old mount.”
Noticing his curtness, Nancy lets it pass and changes the subject.
“Do you think our spot by the creek will be overgrown?”
“Don’t think so,” Luke replies. “That’s the nice thing about sycamores. They have a natural moderating effect on their surrounding soil when it comes to overgrowth. But never mind, there is no such thing as overgrown where I been. The more there is, the better.”
A tinge of selfishness in Luke that had never been there before brings Nancy to only smile and nod. Maybe she can feel the difference in him. But again, she tries to ignore it.
About a hundred yards from the little raised spot among the creek sycamores Luke heels his big roan into a full gallop and yells to Nancy, “Come on babe, follow me and let the wind color your cheeks for pretty pleasure.”
Having no real choice since she is only a sometimes rider and since the chestnut pairs with the big roan on instinct, Nancy barely hangs on to the saddle horn as both horses gallop to their old hitching spots.
After tying up the horses Luke takes Nancy’s hand and pulls her inside the trees and up the small overlook.
Pulling her down roughly, Luke fumbles with the buttons to her blouse with one hand while trying to take her pants off with the other.
Feeling overlooked like never before, Nancy tries to get Luke to take a little time.
“Luke please, slow down. At least let me take my boots off first. I can take the rest off as well.”
“Oh darling,” Luke replies, “ if you only knew how many times I dreamed of this.”
“Me too Luke,” Nancy replies as she removes her clothes and smoothes the blankets. Lying back on the blankets, Nancy becomes a little anxious to find Luke still dressed and just staring at her nakedness.
“Aren’t you going to get undressed?”
“No need,” Luke says, as he pulls his pants down and forcibly mounts her.
To her horror, when Nancy tries to stop him, she is simply overpowered and used in a rush.
Handing Luke the reins to the chestnut after the long silent ride back to the barn, Nancy avoids his eyes and turns away. Going to her car with tears flowing down her cheeks, she gets in, starts it up and drives off. Looking ahead to the road and resisting any urge to look up to the review mirror, Nancy feels crushed and humiliated. Even now she is telling herself that this could not have happened.
Not watching her go, Luke stables the horses and heads to the dairy barn. An older and grayer Beau sits at the barn door. When Luke reaches down to pet him the old dog whines and moves away.
Eighth graders, all eager to get out of the classroom for the day, fidget and squirm as Nancy, their science teacher, tells them not to forget to study the small critters that live near their homes. As the final bell sounds, the commotion signals the end of another workday for Nancy. Feeling tired but with a sense of accomplishment, she is ready for the weekend break.
Putting away her books and charts, Nancy notices a figure at her door out of the corner of her eye. Turning in that direction, she is surprised to find a much thinner Luke standing in the doorway.
“Luke?…………What are you doing here?”
Trying to come up with the right words, Luke lowers his eyes for a moment then looks up.
“I’m sorry, Nancy. I made a terrible mistake, did an awful thing. Can you ever forgive me?”
Thoroughly surprised by this encounter, Nancy pretends to attend to her books while she too looks for an answer. Finally Nancy faces him and says, “Yes, you did Luke. And I don’t know. I know that you had a bad lot compared to most of the rest of us. But to become so hardened, what have you got to show for your sorry?”
Though glad to see that Nancy still has her spirit and confidence, Luke has to admit, “Not much, I’m afraid. Just a strong desire for us to be the way we used to be……………before I thought the war gave me privileges that were wrong. I had everything wrong but……. little by little, I think I can get it right…………..if you will help me. Can you find it in your heart to do that Nancy? We go back a long ways. ”
Walking across the room to study Luke’s eyes, Nancy ponders her reply and after a long silence takes Luke’s hand.
“Maybe Luke. Just maybe. After all, I am a teacher. Come on let’s go get some coffee and talk about it.”
Walking down the corridor and out the doors of the school, Luke Oleman and Nancy Childers emerge into the bright afternoon sunlight, like old souls from a shadowed cavern, young hearts that will smile, beat on, and accept the challenge of coming home again.
Standing there with her books, smiling to herself as she turned her face to the autumn sun, she looked like a photo queen hugging catalogues of pricey wear. But when she looked aside and caught my gaze, her lips uncurled and her eyes caught mine. Beyond a need, or one that mattered not, she held on. While people brushed by to and fro, all attuned to the crosswalk glow, I held on too.
Blessed by Starbucks all about, we fell aside the crossing push to sip a cup and let it be. As cups with frothy tops passed by, their holders watching other palms, she told me that she taught, and asked about me. I told her that it was another world, I did shows for culinary flair, pleasant couples, no needs at hand, smiled and watched me play.
It was fun being with her, the scent of ivory towers brought back a time afore, and her nice looks with a mind to match, made an edge of interest something more. My wayward ways she did not seem to mind, the reach of her eyes told me that. When it was time to go, I ask for her number as we dusted about, two colors of one ilk. But she made it easy as if there was no other way, and handed me her card. She said that the number was on the back.
I called so many times but it was all for naught. Only muzak voices that asked for a note had anything to say. The disappointment was sharp at first, but slowly slid to dull, like those that had passed that way before. Time moved on to a steady click, and I just let it go.
After needy clinks of china, and mindless chatter with bellies full enough to watch, I did OK. And a fan that sometimes hung on for more to do, passed my time a little bit. But a lot I roamed the walk, that crossed the avenue. Balmy autumn, shades of orange and green, turned to windswept grey and shadows darker still. She was gone.
One night I dropped a line when I looked out and saw her smiling on. An elegant gent was at her table too. I did my show by rote, and kept my eyes where they belonged.
While walking home alone, feeling anger that she had put me on a stage, I crossed the avenue, to find a taxi parked along the curb. As I neared, the dark glass slid down to show her face, just as it had been that day we met. She said that her father had to go, would I show her where I lived?
When she left she said that she would be in touch, not to call. So deep in, with little choice, I almost smacked her face. Don’t be a spoil sport she implied, my other fans would tide me by. It was late and even if no father was, things would have to be. I took her words to heart, and it hurt to see that it was not so much.
Only fans, him and her, and me.
Like the center stage of a sprung gallows, my insides quickly seem less when I discover my former wife’s obituary on the internet. Despite all this time apart I am snapped back to that time we knew together. Wholly unprepared for this discovery, I quickly learn just how deep some things can run. Things that lie mostly dormant yet are a part of the main, always there just waiting for the right synapse. I thought that I had a much better handle on my past and what it makes of me. Thought that I would not be so taken unawares in my years. Memories of her flood my mind. And a lump in my throat tells me that it is not just in my head. Suddenly, out of the past, I am touched.
Young and new, Southern Appalachian boy and Northern New Jersey girl, a mutual bloom along a common route, we were.
Plates of drippy spaghetti held beneath our chins while our eyes smiled across the room at one another, Julie and I were oblivious to the others scattered around the austere off-campus apartment. I knew that she wanted me. She had told others. And she knew that I was looking for a steady girl. All my friends knew that. In the small underground social groups of that time word of such things got out no less than in society at large. Perhaps even more so. That was one way that I knew that Julie was not promiscuous as many other hippies were. Another was from my own interactions with her on a more intimate level. We were alike that way. Still I wanted to bring our relationship to the bed but Julie didn’t want to go that far that fast. Our impasse was well known among our immediate early 70’s counterculture. The others, most well into their own relationships, simply were socially aware. Situations like mine and Julie’s were things to keep track of. It made for a smoother trip through those times.
Like two rare birds, Julie the colorful art student, and me a drab military veteran back in school, we flashed our young wares. It seemed only natural that evening, among the community, spaghetti, and warmth, that I should try to make it with her again. And it seemed that Julie wanted that as well.
Moving to her side along the arm of the large chair where she sat, I searched her face and said, “Is it true that you really like me?”
Not surprised by my candor since we already had more than a casual knowledge of each other, Julie smiled and nodded.
“I feel the same way about you,” I said. “But I want us to start with a commitment all the way. Can you do that?”
Her eyes suddenly a little anxious, Julie slowly looked down and said, “Yes.”
My one room apartment was only across the alley in the next building so we set our plates aside and, hand in hand, quietly left the gathering and went there. The creaky old steps provided the only sounds along the climb to my place atop the old off-campus house known as “The Ghetto.”
Without saying a word or even turning on the lights we committed together and never looked back.
Poor but fresh and continuing to blossom, we passed through our studies and graduation and began our travels along the same roads as most of the rest of the country--jobs, real living expenses to pay, and a crash course in after school life.
Much different from the freedom of academia, there were struggles and disappointments to begin with but we pulled together and found that, though times could be unpleasant, we were indeed young and stronger for the effort. We developed a rhythm to our ways, be they capital bound in Julie’s New York or excursions back to my Appalachians and the nurture of spirit that they could provide. Eventually times became less arduous and more relaxed. Perhaps it was then that our bond began to flex and grow less tight. Some of the principles of our former counterculture began to yield to the pressures of a money driven society. Avenues and uncommon roads took on a different light and seemed to beckon our growing confidence and changing priorities. We began to explore things that might have seemed too mainstream before. But not always together.
Because of her natural beauty Julie was frequently hit on by the customers of the Soho Arts Cooperative of lower Manhattan where she worked as a buyer. She would tell me of those encounters and laugh them off leaving me unconcerned about it. But the one that would do the damage she never mentioned until it was probably too late to gain a foothold in my priorities.
I had recently lucked out with a new and better paying job in the Behavior Sciences Department of Bellevue Hospital. And, being involved with the switch from the gofer class to the gofer for class, I neglected our relationship and perhaps set the stage for Julie’s excursion into nude modeling for one of the major shareholders of the arts cooperative. In other words, for one of her bosses. Since all the work was done in the cooperative studio and Julie was well paid for it she felt it unnecessary to tell me about it. That’s what she later said anyway. But when the paintings of her became so well known for the lovely model that appeared in them, it all came out. She became so sought after that she began doing it full time, making a lot more money than I did. Involved in my work, I simply chalked it up to the Southern boy, Yankee girl thing. Just different styles but likes in the heart. And I helped spend the money on higher living along the path to wherever we ex-hippies were going. Too much my thoughts were about not checking the teeth of a gift horse and not enough about there is no free lunch. Julie’s New York was lining our road with sugar plumbs while the beautiful colors and hardwood forests of my Appalachians received none of our once popular zen visits. We were happening…..and we were still young.
One late afternoon I needed Julie’s signature immediately on an investment document. Quickly, I made the short trip from Bellevue across Manhattan to the cooperative. From the Canal Street Subway exit I hustled a couple of blocks North on West Broadway only to find a sign in the cooperative front door saying, “Closed.” However when I tried the latch the door opened into a dark shop but there was light coming from the walled off back studio where her work usually took place. I was a little surprised to find that the shop was closed during her sitting or standing or whatever it was called but I had no time to ruminate about that if I was to meet the investment deadline. I hurried through the shop to the connecting door and, without thinking, pushed it open. There, my beautiful naked Julie was, her arms gripping the hind quarters of a bronze pony, while one of her bosses pummeled her from behind.
“Nooooooo!” I screamed. A primal cry like none other
From a park bench in Washington Square, I first noticed the large statue and where I was. It was very late. Though I had not eaten nor drunk anything, I didn’t know how I got there. It was much later still after I walked the many blocks up to what only hours before had been my midtown home. For a good while after that I was not all present. Just so much tissue going along by rote.
Julie and I never spoke much after that. It wasn’t long until I left for the somber blue evenings and smoky mornings of my mountains. Julie and her driver gave me a ride to LaGuardia and before I got out of the car at the drop point Julie laid a hand on my arm.
“I never would have made it without you, Richard. You know that don’t you?”
“Yes, I know that,” I replied, while getting out of the car. I was about to shut the car door when Julie suddenly slid across the seat, raised her beautiful eyes, and said, “Thank you for all your help.”
Feeling like a cracked and empty vessel headed for the scrap heap, I managed to reply without a hint of irony, “No problem, babe.”
As I turned and walked toward the terminal I heard her car door close. And then in my mind I heard that scream that haunts me still.
Landing at the Roanoke Regional Airport, I rented a car for the long drive to a property that I had bought while in New York. I needed the drive to defuse if it were possible. At needful times I had always been able to bet on the Appalachians for that. The scenery along the way was magnificent and I felt myself begin to ground a bit by the time I reached my new home.
A small but sturdy structure atop the Blue Ridge chain with a view across the valley to its parent Appalachians, my place would be plenty enough. It was nothing like where I was coming from when it came to material resources but I had provided it with all the ways necessary to keep up with my investments. And it was thoroughly stocked for new beginnings. A short hike away was my familiar Appalachian Trail and the spot where I had scattered my Mother’s ashes not so long ago. A place where silence was familiar, cherished. One day, from there, I would continue my journey down life’s highway. But right then it was a wonderful rest stop
I have come many a way since then and I have learned that most things will pass. I have new loved ones now and the peace that comes from that. But I can’t help but wonder if Julie had that blessing as well…….on that other high road. And I grieve, trying to hide it from my wife. She thinks all my nightmares are about the war. I don’t ever want to try to put into words that which is better left alone. That’s the thing about growing old as the scars of travel are sported more clearly. More baggage, good and bad. The scream is not good certainly, worse than any I have heard. But I loved Julie, and that is more the constant. Her trip is over and I have to believe it was a good and kind exit. Our travels often befool us in many ways but if mine ever take me by the place where this obituary says she is, I will leave a Rhododendron bloom to pay my respects.