Authors: Jane McCafferty
They sat and talked a bit, staring straight ahead, and though their bodies weren't touching they could feel each other. And then Jimmy's father in a black suit and baseball cap (which apparently was a kind of uniform he never took off) and Wendell in red overalls come walking out of the pavilion, and Jimmy says to Gladys, “That's my boy and father walking this way.” And Gladys almost got up and ran, thinking the boy's mother would soon be stepping out of another pavilion. But Jimmy touched her on the arm, first time ever, and said, “The boy's without a mother.”
She swallowed. She was only seventeen, and on a beautiful May evening with a struggler who's watching his child and father walk toward him, a girl feels romantic. She thought Jimmy's wife must've died of a terrible disease, but the truth was Jimmy never had a wife, just a girl he got pregnant, a girl who ran away seven months after the baby was born because she was a young and wild tobacco-chewing colt from the Blue Ridge Mountains and Jimmy was off at war. The girl had left the baby with her mother, then Jimmy came home from the war and grew attached to little Wendell. You could feel how he loved that boy. If the two of them were standing behind you and you didn't know it, you'd turn around anyhow because you could feel it. The love, I mean.
Really Jimmy was only twenty-two years old, but when I met him I was sixteen and thought, Now who is this older man Gladys drug home? because in Jimmy's expression there was age and a kind of wise look. He wasn't usual. He was a college man thanks to the GI Bill. He was tall with these blue eyes welled up with kindness, a kind of weight that kept him separate, cut off, like you didn't really know him. He was looking at you kindly but from a distance.
I believe he was lonely and Gladys always noticed loneliness in people, and felt for it.
The two of them were so in love it made me nearly sick to be around. Jimmy came out to the farm with Wendell and some Ballantine beer stashed in his old Ford every evening, and half the time they'd leave the child with me, and I'd sit and swing him on the porch swing, and tell him little stories, but my mind was on them, knowing how they'd be drinking and talking deep and using their hands out in the dark field. The swing would squeak and whine, squeak and whine. The one-night stands I'd known did not seem sweet next to the love my sister had with Jimmy. I felt inside like I was empty then, so empty I had to be as fat as I was just to store the emptiness. I would sit and sit and swing Wendell and hum “Ain't Misbehavin'” like I was cheerful. That has always been my way. Wen smelled like a milk mustache and cut grass. We'd look at the summer moon bright in the sky, we'd hear crickets, and the squeak of the swing chains, we'd smell the dark roses growing up the side of the house, and every three minutes he would say, “Where's Daddy?” till it drove me crazy and I began saying, “Daddy went up to the moon. See him there?” or “Daddy's in Paris selling Bibles” or “Daddy's joined the Chinese Circus.” That just amused old Wendell, he was so smart. He'd joke right back. “He joined the circus?” he'd say, “Is he the man on the flying trapeze?” And you could tell that even though he was only three, he was being sort've sarcastic.
“That's right, he's the man on the flying trapeze, Wendell, hope he don't fall.”
“Oh, me too!” smart Wendell would say. He loved me for telling him these little tales, he really did, but I wanted love from someone more my size.
Gladys weren't the same after Jimmy. Before Jimmy at night we stayed awake talking in the twin beds, two sisters on nine acres with six cows and two parents. Gladys was not always serious. Not at all. She could talk down-to-earth too, and we would compare the boys we knew (some only in our imaginations), who was the good lover, who was the lover that hurt, who was the lover who couldn't hurt if he tried. We would tell each other what the boys said in passion and how their voices changed after passion, how they didn't want a thing to do with us then, their fine bodies all rigid and twiny and their eyes off to the new horizon, and how we were glad because they were all a bunch of wood-tick hicks from Dover. (Take the
) They were so dumb when they went to the movie theater and saw the sign saying
SEVENTEEN AND OVER PERMITTED
they went home and rounded up seventeen friends. That kind of thing is what we'd say in the dark when we were two foolish girls before Jimmy came on the scene.
“Tell me about Jimmy,” I'd say on those summer nights after Jim and Wen drove off in their Ford.
“He's a good soul,” she'd say. Like she was an old, tender woman.
“You told me about his soul already. I mean tell me about him. Tell me how he is.”
“He's a good father, and a good man.”
“What's he say after he's through with you?” I asked her one night. I wanted her to say just one funny thing, like old times.
“Not a word,” she said. “No need for those kind of words between myself and James Gehrig Pittman.” Sometimes she'd just come right on out with his full name like that. I'd be rolling my eyes so far up in my head they might've got lost.
“Oh,” I'd say.
“Someday you'll find it,” she told me. She was eighteen now. She was going to marry him. She sat up on her bed by the window in a pale green negligee she got from our blind neighbor down the road for weeding. Her voice had a new sort of gentleness, like everything in the world was something she loved because the love she had for Jimmy just spilled right over. Her hair was long, and still dyed red, and when I think back to her face, which was filled with the prettiest, what was it,
, the kind that belongs to
, it can startle me to think we were ever that young. She was so changed. She'd say things like, Isn't it amazing we're alive, Ivy? Look at that willow! Isn't a goat the most incredible thing? I mean when you really consider it, really see it? Not to mention the stars! The Milky Way!
I was lonely then, and sure I liked the goats and the Milky Way, but I knew I was missing something, and Gladys for the first time felt almost like a stranger. I'd still lie awake at night and so would she, but between our beds it was like a dark river, her on one side with love, me on the other without.
Gladys never would look at old pictures. I suppose she couldn't bear it. And she thinks they've been trashed. She's unaware I rescued them all the day she threw them out so many years ago. I don't look either. Because I'm not one for looking, at least usually. It's a waste of time is what I always said. But sometimes now at night, now that Gladys is gone off with Raelene, which is a whole other story I got to tell you, I lay awake thinking I'm going to get up and get the pictures out and sit at the table with a glass of milk and look at us all back then. But I never do get up. I let myself drift off to sleep. I got work to do early in the morning, and Gladys isn't here helping me anymore, so there aren't many laughs in the kitchen. Not to say that Gladys was a laugh factory, but we had our times.
If I brought the pictures out I would look for the one of Gladys, James, Wendell, and myself, sitting on the steps of our house that summer they got married, a black and white my mother took. I can see the way my mother looked taking it just as good as I can see the four of us in the picture. I can see her cheap blue sneakers in the wet grass and her flowered, old, ugly dress with the hem line too long and her skin on her thin legs so white they just glowed like marble in the dusk. Wendell's already calling Gladys “Mama.” Jimmy's black Ford is not in the picture, but I would feel it on the border just the same. That picture was taken the night Gladys left the house for good. I cried for days. Maybe I'd take that one out and hang it up. Maybe because that was the first time Gladys left, and this is the second, only this time I think it's really for good.
Raelene kept writing to Gladys for four or five years, and I don't know for sure how many times Gladys wrote back. Raelene was a little girl who needed a mother substitute, I guess, and she thought she had one in Gladys, a kind of pen palâmother. But she finally stopped writing. I forgot all about her, to tell you the truth.
Then last spring, late April, when some of the early-bird counselors were up here for special training, this knock comes to the screen door one afternoon. One of the new counselors is standing out there on the shady step.
“Does Gladys Pittman live here?” she says.
“Certainly does,” I say.
“I'm a girl who used to write her letters.”
“Oh. You are?”
I was so surprised. And then in the very next instant I weren't surprised at all. That happens sometimes, one moment is so strange you feel you're dreaming, then something
and you feel “of course. It makes sense.” Like you were expecting it.
“I'm her sister,” I told the girl, and she says, “Ivy, right?”
So Gladys must've mentioned me at least once.
“That's right,” I say. “I'm Ivy, now come on in for a soda pop.”
She was a pretty little thing, but not real healthy looking, with dark circles under big eyes, pale skin, long curly brown hair, and nervous to the point you want to send her up to Doctor Wichert for a Valium. She had on a big T-shirt with some rock stars on it, the sleeves cut off near her shoulder and near the one shoulder a blue angel tattoo I hoped was a rub-on. Even though it was chilly, she wore a pair of blue jean fringy shorts like they all wear in summer, with her long legs scratched up from the woods and then these little pink Chinese slippers on her feet when most of the girls wore sturdy sneakers or hiking boots. Also she wore baby pink socks to match. On her big-eyed face was some eyeliner and a little blue shadow, and it just made her look younger and paler.
I gave her a soda pop and sat at the table with her thinking Gladys was going to walk in any second. She was only out back on the stoop drinking ice water. We were on break between lunch and dinner. Gladys liked to sit out there alone in the shade on the cool cement steps. She'd pull on an old sweater. Usually she read a book, and maybe had an afternoon highball. I'd see her look up from her book and into the spring light for a second. In the distance we still had snow on the mountains. She'd squint at that bright white. Then it was back to the book.
Raelene was not easy to talk to that day. She was polite, but not easy, not cheerful, and it was like she was afraid to say, “Where's Gladys?” Like she was worried I was going to tell her, “Gladys is dead.”
So I hear the door opening and we both look toward it and Gladys is stepping inside still in her uniform and she's put her head under the garden hose, so her hair is plastered down. She had her wire-frame glasses on, but she still squinted at Raelene. She weren't at all used to having visitors.
“Who's this?” she said, and walked to the sink. She filled her glass with water, her back to us, and Raelene looked right down at her own long folded fingers.
“It's Raelene,” I said. “The girl who wrote you all those years. The little girl who prayed for Wendell.” I remember saying Wendell because I think it was the first time his name got said in that house in seven years. At the sound of it I could feel Gladys stiffen over there at the sink.
Raelene's dark eyes were even bigger now and she looked at Gladys and said, “I'm just starting to work at the camp now, so thought I'd say hello. It's been a while.”
The poor girl's face was red now, and she was smiling right through her embarrassment. And she had her chin lifted, she was a proud girl, she weren't about to sit there and let the embarrassment win, not Raelene.
Gladys slowly turned around, then said, “Well hello.” I think Gladys almost smiled. It seemed like I could hear Raelene's heart pounding behind the rock stars on the little cage of her chest.
A silence falls, and I'm coughing to fill it. I'm the one always taking care of awkwardness.
Raelene said, “The lakes are real pretty around here.”
Gladys said, “Sure are, if you like lakes.”
Finally Gladys sat down at the table, but she didn't talk to Raelene. She talked to me. About what? About rhubarb. “Aren't the winter schoolers slackers?” she said. “We were supposed to have rhubarb pie tonight. The little slobs pick too damn slow.”
After some more of this talk Raelene stood up and said, “I'll be going,” and Gladys said, “Good-bye,” and I said, “Stop back.”
Raelene walked out the door and only I got up and watched her walk back down the hill toward the camp. She was just a proud, sorry little colt in pink Chinese slippers. Gladys stayed put and said not a word, but you could feel her thinking.
“How sweet,” I said. “How sweet that she'd come here to visit you after all these years.”
“Looks like she needs a good bath,” Gladys said, and fixed herself a drink.
*Â Â *Â Â *
After a couple of weeks, when some of the campers began to show up, part of Raelene's job at that camp was to wake up Monday, Wednesday, and Friday mornings and play the guitar at 5:30
. with the younger girl campers gathered around her out on the porch of the main building where Gladys and I cooked. Raelene had a beat-up red guitar and no case. She could play decent, but her real talent was her voice. She sung pure as a night bird in a marsh. The children always made her sing the old songs like “Leaving on a Jet Plane” and “A Hundred Miles,” not the real little kids but the elevens and twelves; those girls liked to sing and feel their eyes well up with tears. “Lord, I'm five hundred miles away from home,” they'd sing and then they'd cry, partly homesick and partly happy that in the world was a song exactly about them. Raelene would stop and try to play a different tune like “The Cat Came Back,” but the girls didn't like it much. The porch is right outside the kitchen. I've heard “Leaving on a Jet Plane” for ten years of early mornings. Case you're wondering, it don't hold up.