Undelivered Valentines: Part III
A Serial Story
by Leigh Ward-Smith
She found Emily sitting idle on the front-porch swing reading Watchers by Dean R. Koontz. Her back was sloped Thinker-style, elbow triangulating with her knee and propping up her chin.
An untouched peanut butter and strawberry jelly sandwich sat on the small table with a couple cans of soda, one already empty.
Jamie pictured a Lilliputian Snoopy piloting one of the insects that buzzed in an endless elliptical pattern around the sandwich and open-mouthed can.
“Super, you found the sandwich and the sodas.”
“You know, we both should cut down on our soda consumption.”
By that point, Jamie knew the teen had tuned her out, so she decided to inject some fun into the conversation.
“I was thinking of getting a Mohawk in my hair and a skull tattoo as well. Would they look good on me?”
“Mmm-hmm.” Emily nodded slowly.
“That President Bush sure is a hot guy; I think I’ll steal him from Barbara. Will you help me?”
The clicking of nails on a wooden floor skittered to a stop just inside the front door entryway of the house. But only a trebled yelping jangled their attention, just as a dog-blur slapped the screen door open a moment later and bolted out.
“What’s up with him?”
“He’s been like that this morning, kinda freaked I guess, so I came out here for lunch.”
“Hmmm. You mean, you came outside for a sugar frenzy?”
“Well, that was a good talk,” Jamie intoned sarcastically.
Looking up suddenly from her book, Emily locked her green eyes on Jamie’s. She noticed they had darkened a shade or two.
“I miss Dad.” Jamie noticed a tremor in her tone and wondered if a hug would be the right thing to do. These days, she never knew whether to cut a path through the chaos or just let Emily captain her own ship.
Well, damn the torpedoes anyway, she thought, grabbing the girl in a clasp and pulling her close.
To Jamie’s conflicted relief, Emily lowered her head to her mother’s shoulder. The long blonde curls
trickled over Jamie’s shoulder. She could tell the girl was biting her lower lip to avoid crying.
Instinctively, Jamie began to silently recite lines from a poem she had always enjoyed, Stanley Kunitz’s “Night Letter.”
She entombed the words in the sarcophagus of her ribs, its hinges hanging silent for her daughter’s sake:
. . . What the deep heart means,
Its message of the big, round, childish hand,
Its wonder, its simple lonely cry,
The bloodied envelope addressed to you,
Is history, that wide and mortal pang.”
* * * *
That they had to walk to the library was bad enough. Fortunately, Emily thought, I don’t know any kids in town yet.
Her thoughts were multidirectional: I wonder if my eyes are still red-ringed from earlier? I hope Rusty is okay in his crate in that creepshow of a house. Should I tell Mom where I found the letter? And, at last, a lingering Why?
“C’mon, walking is good exercise, helps the joints,” her mom had turned to cajole with the wave of a hand.
Emily was almost surprised when a snicker escaped her. Maybe Cheech and Chong ought to look into it, then.
“If you prefer, I can pretend I work at the Ministry of Silly Walks,” her mom had turned around completely and stopped to continue the conversation. Her arms were akimbo.
“Uh, no, please don’t.”
“Alrighty then, I’ll continue along. Eight paces ahead enough separation for you today?”
“Ha-ha, you’re so funny, Mom.” Not, she thought but didn’t add.
If a neighbor had been watching out the window, he might have spotted a curly headed teenage girl with a dark purple backpack, hunched over as if rolling a boulder uphill, and a woman and her doppelgänger striding ahead, the shadow stringing out as it reached backward in an attempt, it seemed, to envelop the girl.
Emily was glad they were splitting up research duties. She had become a microfilm expert last year at her school, when Mr. Nguyen had her honors English class visit the library to learn the various research tools available, so she was going to tackle the library while her mom ventured to see if the history museum, housed in the same three-story, red-brick building, was open.
Plumes of heat fled the doused pavement, the kind of blacktop that you can smell radiating rain. Occasionally a car or a pick-up truck would clatter by, and one rusted-out, two-tone blue-and-white truck hit a rut as it passed. Out bounced a couple of dried cornstalks, almost as if the bumper sticker conveyer had purposefully spat the remains into the air. Emily watched as their brittle, brown forms whorled to the earth.
There was just enough standing water to make even the trucks and tractors skate past with a wsshhhhhh. Emily began to get the feeling that the town of Dunharrow itself was trying to keep something about itself secret. Something important.
After triggering several creatures both great and small, causing almost the entire block of School Street to resound with yips, yaps, a basset-y woof-woof, and even a few quacks, they arrived at the steps of the library/museum building, which was sitting atop a steep hill, imperiously looking down from its eaves.
“Whoa, sorry!” A boy carrying a blue tub almost bumped into Jamie on his way out, her way in. Emily saw him go over to the nearby book drop-fox, kneel down, and unlock it. He then began shoveling books, tapes, and magazines into his tub, not terribly careful.
He looked like he might be 16 or 17, so Emily wondered whether she’d see him at school in just a couple weeks. As she passed by him, he began to re-lock the box and rise, so she thought she should hold the door open for him. Reverse chivalry or full-frontal feminism? Emily mused.
“Thank you, Miss,” he caught her eye as he twisted the tub sideways to fit through the door. And he gave a slight smile. His nametag said Jud.
As they entered the building, they were met with a long, squeaking hallway of wooden floors leading in several directions. A sign pointed to the right for the main desk and reference, floor two for fiction, upstairs on floor three for the history museum, and left for children’s and young adult.
All three creaked the floors as they entered, but Jamie instead heard knuckles of wood cracking on gnarly hands. Was the floor itself nervous, bored, or simply ready to open up and show her the exposed roots of the town’s secrets? She hoped for the latter.
After arranging to get temporary library cards and unfettered use of the few PCs in the reference section, they parted ways.
“You’ve got your watch, right?
“Meet back down here at, what do you say, 3 o’clock?” She peered at her own unfashionable plastic-banded Timex.
“Yeah, works for me,” Emily concurred.
* * * *
“Ohmygod, I didn’t hear you there,” Emily turned to see who had successfully sneaked up on her as she searched old newspapers on microfiche, beginning with 1911, for any references to the Lincoln house or someone named Thomas or Gladys.
She instinctively clutched at sternum level, flexing her fingers in what he thought was a vulnerable gesture. A wing protecting a soft or sad something.
He shrugged apologetically. “Sorry ’bout that. Guess I just know where all the squeaks and squawks are on this floor,” he said. “I’ll have to remember to make more noise in the library next time.”
She smiled and looked down at the ballpoint clutched in her left hand, speculating at what had brought the cute book-dropbox guy nearer.
“It looks like you’re looking at old newspapers of some sort there. Can I help you find anything, maybe the Native American newspapers?”
“Hmm. I hadn’t considered those, but I’ll keep them in mind in case I need it. But I’m pretty good with the card catalog and microfilm and stuff. My English teacher last year made sure of that.”
“Oh yeah? Who’d you have, Bradshaw or Burns?”
“Neither. I’m new here, so my teacher was at my old high school in Maryland.”
“Aha, that explains so much,” he stroked his chin to look philosophical even though hair had stubbornly refused to sprout there thus far. “I didn’t remember seeing you around at school.”
As you can imagine, practically everybody knows everybody at Sanders High. . . . Yep, we’re the infamous fightin’ chickens. Feel free to laugh anytime.”
“You’re kidding, right?”
“Nope. Guess you haven’t done orientation yet?” He moved to sit down in the chair adjacent to her instead of just nervously bouncing from foot to foot. “Indeed. Colonel Sanders of fast-food chicken fame is from Indiana, not Kentucky. Not this town, but still Indiana. Henryville, I think, so we Hoosiers are hellaciously proud of that fact.”
“I see,” she said. “Well, our teams’ name was the Mad Crabs. I kid you not. Insert sex joke here, please.”
They both laughed, and she blushed although she was trying to seem cool. She figured it was never too early to try to fit in among people her age. Not an easy feat for a girl who preferred books to beer and animals to Animal House.
“By the way, my name’s Judson, but I go by Jud. Duh, like you can’t read my nametag.”
She didn’t know whether to laugh, so she filled the uncertainty with words. “I’m Emily. Just Emily, though my mom calls me Em. Unless I’m in trouble, then it’s the whole awkward mess.”
“So, Emily, just Emily, I’m here to help if you ever need it.” He thumbed behind him and toward the main desk. “I guess I should probably look like I’m working so I don’t get in trouble. I’m only a lowly page here, which is code talk for a peasant. Basically I do the tasks everyone else shuns.”
“Like sneaking up on girls?” Emily teased.
His chin dimple surfaced for the first time, and she admired how his cheekbones came out when he was amused. “Nah . . . that’s the fun part!”
She almost swore he winked at her just then.
“Well, hope to see you around, Emily.” Again the smile and her senses were tingling. Of course Mom won’t like him. She never approves of my choices . . .
* * * *
Unlike Emily’s personal success, Jamie’s fact-finding foray did not bring her in contact with a potential date. However, it did allow her to get her hands on and print out copies of the 1910 United States Census from Shawnee County, whose margins Dunharrow hugged. Perhaps with Emily’s help, she could cross-reference or even find a more specific record as to the names of the town’s inhabitants in that time period. Then, if she found a Thomas or three, at least she’d have a surname to explore, to connect him, somehow, with Gladys. Assuming there were no other Gladys’ in town at the time.
As she was browsing the museum and trying not to play musical planks with the floorboards, she did happen to pass a glass display case about the milling industry in the area. It contained a couple period photos of the laborers in the mills and some of the tools they worked with. She did a double-take when she saw baby faces peering hauntingly from the curled photos and daggering into her. One caption read “Child laborers were sometimes used in milling, as in this photo from Lewisburg in 1910. Although this practice is no longer common, mill-village children of the early 1900s greatly aided their families, churches, and communities by going to work.”
Her motherly senses and sensibilities, which she had worked diligently to build the puny muscles of since Emily’s unexpected birth, heightened in situations like these. Scenarios of oppression, sorrow, and cavernous adversity both shook her and soldered her impression of justice with a passion for helping. Naturally, then, she interred past grievances to others in a memory box made of elephant hide and whose letters were traced with diamond-tipped pen. Time might have passed, but she believed—if anybody did, she knew now—that grief lingered, flared, glimmered, sputtered, and dimmed, but was never truly gone. Despair was dormant, languishing only for something, some event, or someone to steel-toe through that dam pinning in a tide of pent-up human flotsam and futility and let it mix with a brine of rage and righteous indignation. Both of which had been steeped for almost 100 years now.
The awful Hiroshima of it mushroomed in her mind. Suddenly.
Dunharrow was ripe for a revolution.
But who would lead it? A long-undaisied writer composing a desperate last love letter to a sweetheart back home? He who had reached through a many-decades-old veil obscuring what? And to what ends?
Or would a thirty-six something widowed college professor lead the way, when all she wanted was to be closer to her daughter and mourn and mend as a new family of two?
Jamie only hoped any coveted discoveries or faithless leaps would remain blood-free.
Sorry for the nonresolution here, folks. These characters keep chattering at me and they refuse to resolve their story. Or at least they won’t stay silent. I know where we need to go and how to get there, but honestly am getting kind of bogged. In any case, if you’re enjoying this long(er)-form fiction, kindly re-visit for the likely conclusion tomorrow (let’s say Sunday, Nov. 2)! By the way, the town and county are fictitious.