A thrilling Thursday eventide to you! Here’s the second part of “Undelivered Valentines.” Part I can be reviewed, reread, rehashed, reanimated, or revived here. I had hoped this part would be a tad shorter, but it says what it needed to, I think. Conclusion will be posted, fingers crossed to ward off evil, tomorrow. Hope you enjoy this unfolding.
Undelivered Valentines: Part II
A Serial Story
by Leigh Ward-Smith
Sandy, our realtor, couldn’t provide any concrete information, but she pointed me to Mrs. Cole, who lived two streets over, “near where the Dawg’s Leg Tavern used to be,” she said, as if that would be helpful to a transplant like me.
I didn’t know how to begin, so I just took a gulp of air and knocked on the door. A fat red tabby one-eyed me from the sturdy rocker on the front porch but didn’t bolt as I creaked up the stairs.
I’d prepared my speech.
Hi, I’m Jamie Meadows, from two streets over. My daughter and I just moved earlier this summer and our realtor suggested we see you. We found an old—no, no, drop that word; it sounds negative and judgmental—letter in our house and wondered if you might help us find the rightful owner. It seems to be an undelivered Valentine or something like that.
I only hoped Em and I would be successful later today, when we tromped over to the town library and history museum.
The door opened and an elderly woman in a white and flower-patterned blouse and black pants stood before me, squinting. I wasn’t sure whether she got many visitors, but as I wondered, she began to smile.
“Hello, Miss. Can I help you?”
I folded my hands calmly in front of me and began my spiel.
“Oh, yes, I’d heard someone moved into the old Lincoln place. No relation to the former president, that I know of. Please do come in, hon. Sit a spell, and we can talk it over. I just made a peach cobbler that you’re welcome to share.”
* * * *
Mrs. Cole, who insisted I call her Wilma with an “we’re all adults here, sugar,” kept her open kitchen in what seemed to be 1950s-or-so era style, although I was certainly no expert in décor, architecture, or the furniture or woodworking arts. A simple round laminate-topped table for four, ringed into a circle of green foliage that intertwined, with an almost lime-green set of vinyl chairs on sturdy metal legs were fairly cushy for a short chat. I couldn’t imagine that they’d be terribly comfy for a long meal. Perhaps there was a dining room elsewhere. Or perhaps she just liked round tables; there was plenty of historical precedent for it, of course, I mused.
Occasionally a current of air would whoosh in from someplace, and I thought I caught a whiff of fried chicken.
Although I thought I was being subtle, I suppose I must have looked rather nosy swiveling my head from time to time to look around her kitchen, because Wilma began to talk about—what else?—food.
“Between you, me, and the fencepost, fried chicken should be made only with lard. With a mess of greens and fatback on the side. Mmm, mmm.”
I became a vegetarian several years ago, but I had to admit, the chicken from her dinner last night did smell good. But any food that goes with the word mess, does an oxymoron make in my book.
Noticing my wrinkled nose, Wilma went on. “But you didn’t come here to talk about tips on Southern cookin’ I learnt from my Momma so long ago.”
Turns out, Wilma’s sister—“an old-maid teacher, dearie. Did you know she lived with me and my family in this very house for right-near 70 years, outliving my husband, Eugene”—was named Gladys. But Mrs. Cole said she couldn’t remember any suitors of Gladys’ who were named Thomas. A Richard, yes, but no Thomas.
I was saddened to hear Gladys had died in the last decade, and she didn’t know of any way to find out if the letter had been meant for her sister.
She shuffled over to a cherry-wood roll-top secretary desk in the hallway just adjacent, and put on the eyeglasses from a silver chain around her neck.
Squinting as she looked at the large leather-bound book, Wilma moved back to me and laid the opened book, with pages that were brittled by time, gently in front of me with a sigh.
“This is her. My little sister Gladys. I reckon she was ’bout 16 there, workin’ in the town mill, which ain’t here anymore, thank Heaven. ” I noticed a distinct drawl poking holes through her—either consciously practiced or subtly assimilated over time—Midwestern accent.
She had brown hair piled in curls and what looked like a simple light-colored dress. In her hand, she held a dark, one-feather hat. Below the photo, someone had written 1912.
Until a younger woman poked her head through the swinging kitchen door where we sat having milk and cobbler, I was ready to chalk this one up as a friendly getting-to-know-you chat and not a fact-finding mission.
“Gram? Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t know you had company!”
“It’s alright, Sadie dear.” Wilma nodded to me and smiled as she did. “Sadie, this is Miss Meadows. She’s here about the Lincoln place.”
“Really?” I noticed that the whites of her eyes enlarged and her eyebrows took a hike upward. If she hadn’t been more polite, she might even have gaped.
Still, I plodded on. “Uh, hi, I’m Jamie Meadows. Please call me Jamie. Your . . . grandmother here has been very kindly giving me some background on town history.”
She shook my outstretched hand gently. “Oh, how nice for Gram. She’ll talk your ear off.” She turned one cheek to the side, toward me, then shielded her mouth and whispered, “she’s actually my great-grandmother, but I don’t like to dwell on that.”
“Sadie girl, I ain’t dead yet. No need fer keepin’ secrets either. I know I’m older’n Methuselah’s housecat.”
We both had to laugh at Wilma’s phrasing, if not the look of sheer, joyous aggravation.
Wilma is turning out to be the South’s version of Lucille Ball. I wonder if sister Gladys was her Ethel. Either way, she reminds me a bit of my own grandmother.
“Well, Gram’s good for a lot of things. I remember all the history she used to teach me when I visited as a girl. Speaking of which, the Lincoln place . . . uh . . . how long you been there? Do you . . . like it?”
“Oh, only about a couple months. My own daughter Emily and I relocated here after . . . ” I couldn’t continue. That field was too freshly plowed.
“I meant to say we moved here when I got a job at the college, and we were shown the house, and it was on the larger side, and we were used to smaller apartments . . . but Em’s always wanted more critters around, so I figured, why not?” Was my smile at the end off-putting in a way that made them forget, but still be friendly in that way people are apt to do? You courteously step over the broken-ice your new acquaintance has just opened up, taking care not to fall in or to call notice to it.
“Well, we certainly don’t lack for wildlife around here, do we, Gram? Including our tom Orangey, who you might have noticed outside.”
“I did. He’s gorgeous.” We adopted a furball just like him, when Em was little. Mike and I . . .
Elaboration was no good at this point. The waterworks would probably start up if I continued further into that vein.
“But to get back to your other question, we’re slowly getting used to having so much room. Still living out of boxes a bit. The house itself is nice, but . . . ”
Give every reason for moving here but the real one. All diaspora have a seed, even if it’s shrunken. Or rotten.
. . . there are some as-yet unexplainable noises from time to time. But the evidence points to popping pipes, wind in the rafters—you know, the typical with larger, older homes.”
“Unh-hunh,” Sadie said and looked over at her great-grandmother, who had begun cleaning up at the table and putting dishes into the sink.
Sadie lowered her voice. “Gram’s a doubting Thomas, but I could tell you a story or two about that house you’re in. I would occasionally go by there, and there was one summer . . .”
Her shoulder shudder couldn’t possibly be good.
“Well, let me just say that I’m not surprised about the noises. I think the house’s story—heck, even this town’s story, not to mention Gram’s—would make a fantastic movie or novel. Or a factual book. You know what they say about truth?” She made to elbow me and her, I presume, fashionable (what did I know, I was at the South Pole in relationship to the runways of Paris, New York, or Milan?), brown and black bangles clunked together.
I didn’t know which cliché to grab by the horns. Currently, truth be told about my feelings on truth, I’d have to say truth’s a hurtful bitch, blooded red in tooth and claw.
“It’s way stranger than fiction, don’t you know!” She concluded, rather too cheerfully for the lengthening shadows of my melancholy.
“Here he is now,” Wilma chimed in. “Orangey himself. When that cat hears dishes clanking around, he hightails it inside like he’s just seen a ghost dog out in the street.”
The cat weaved a figure-8 pattern around Wilma’s legs again and again as we talked. “Dear, would you like to stay for lunch a little later; we could hobnob some more beforehand.”
I didn’t want to impose, and I figured I probably had enough to go on with my research, but I liked these ladies, antipodes though they were. So I made arrangements to visit again in a few days, when Wilma could show me the ropes on winter gardening.
“Come on over anytime, young lady. Sadie here’s stayin’ a few weeks, in from the big city. Aincha?”
I guess Wilma figured I had more in common with Sadie than with her. She might have been surprised to find out we shared some experiences, possibly even beyond sibling loss.
Phone numbers and hugs were exchanged before I attempted to scoot out the kitchen door, already a little late for my early lunch. Wilma also pressed some laden-with-delicacies, no doubt, Mason jars into my arms before I could go.
“Here, Jamie, let me see you to the front door,” Sadie said, following behind me, “I’ll help you clean up the rest of the stuff, Gram, if you’ll wait for me.”
“Don’t worry about it,” she had called back to Sadie. “I’m used to hard work. S’pose all my generation is. Or was . . .”
Wilma’s voice trailed off just as we moved out of the room in a complex choreography of social interactions. In this case, probably something informal like square-dancing, but as it was my first jig, I was nervous and sweaty. And I hoped she didn’t notice.
Certainly I didn’t expect her parting words or the tone or manner in which she told me.
“I can’t talk long, Gram . . . doesn’t know some of it. But I might know more about the Lincoln house. Years ago, it was used as a pest house. That she told me. You can look up the term. I wasn’t familiar with it either.”
After tossing a glance behind her shoulder, which caused yet another blur, this one silver and emanating from her ears, a comet tail in the now-glaring summer light of the opened door, she took a step closer and grabbed my wrist.
“Just be careful over there. You have our number. I mean,” she seemed to hedge, even un-noosing her hold and letting her hand drop to her side, “it’s an old house and everything. Hope you got it inspected for safety and all that.”
A look of pain surfaced on her face, but the microexpression would’ve been difficult for most people to catch.
“Let’s do this again sometime soon, Jamie, ’kay?”
She seemed almost sprinterly now, waving quickly twice and closing the door with a short snap after a gentle cupping of help to get my elbow and the rest of me to the steps.
If I didn’t know better than anyone that death meant Death with a big, bad-assed D—forever and ever, full-stop, never mind the amens—I’d have guessed she was trying to tell me the house was haunted. Or infested. Or something else entirely?
Small-town life had just gotten exponentially more stimulating despite no galleries.
No well-heeled symphonies. But perhaps a hell-wheeled symphony or two.
And a plague of ghosts.
And my house possibly teetering on the Everest tip of this whole juicy mystery.
The echo of coming rain percolated up from the pavement as I walked home, fingers of nature’s fragrance guiding me on toward the dim embrace of the eastern sky.
To be continued . . . in Part III