Authors: Janice Daugharty
TWO SHADES OF MORNING
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Janice Daugharty on Smashwords
Two Shades of Morning
Copyright © 2009 by Janice Daugharty
Cover art by Stephanie Whilden
All rights reserved. Without limiting the rights under copyright reserved above, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form, or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise) without the prior written permission of both the copyright owner and the above publisher of this book.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, brands, media, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. The author acknowledges the trademarked status and trademark owners of various products referenced in this work of fiction, which have been used without permission. The publication/use of these trademarks is not authorized, associated with, or sponsored by the trademark owners.
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“Fans will rejoice to see Daugharty do what she does best: showcase one character, setting her off against a thousand daily details, like a diamond nestled in the shards of lesser gems.” USA Today, of
Like a Sister
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Nobody ever believed much about Sibyl Sharpe, least of all that she would die, and yet death is the first thing I heard about her. “Little Robert Dale Sharpe’s marrying a gal from Orlando they say ain’t got long to live. Some kind of rare blood cancer.” That was the talk at the post office, and from that day on, I was hooked on the mystery of her death—so young and alive and dying.
“Why would a stropping young man get mixed up with somebody about to die?” they said.
I expected an invalid, simpering and wan, an ephemeral wraith who would languish on the sick cot in the old farmhouse next door, while Miss Lettie, Robert Dale’s spinster sister, did her best to see to the poor thing’s needs. But, as it turned out, Miss Lettie got one whiff of her fancy sister-in-law’s perfume and took off to live in Tallahassee so she could be close to her mama in the nursing home. They said. And before her scored tracks could be swept by the spring rains, they were bulldozed to Bony Branch with the house. Not a nail remained on the raped plot and only a scattering of choice oaks. Even the pecan orchard, which had kept Miss Lettie in pocket change, smoldered in the century-old rubble that took a good three weeks to burn out.
From the window of my and P.W.’s mobile home, I got my first look at Sibyl. She was standing on the yard-turned-lot with a silk turquoise scarf billowing from her neck. She wore a white leather jacket and brown ski pants—ski pants were trickling into fashion in Little Town in sixty-four, though we rarely saw snow in North Florida. Seeing her so lithe and confident in those pants made me self-conscious of my plump thighs and my childish zeal over the one snow I’d witnessed in my nineteen years. Snow wouldn’t faze her. Sibyl Sharpe had class if she had a dime.
I wasn’t jealous, then; that came later. Then, I just watched her out of curiosity. I could tell right off that she was a few years older than Robert Dale—a flaw! Not that I was looking for flaws at the time, but I discovered them, and I was glad. Maybe, at first, I was a little miffed at what I considered the absent razing of a seasoned house and grove, an accumulation of emotional relics. I’d always been close to Miss Lettie and her mama, and it seemed that those two old porch-sitters had been bulldozed to Bony Branch along with their precious jars of blackberry jam.
After parading about the lot, Sibyl got into Robert Dale’s pieced-together pickup and juddered up the sandy road, and I went back to watching Phil Donnahue.
One morning down and two hundred to go, give or take a day, watching Sibyl.
The next morning, she came again, this time tooling along the road in a sporty red Cadillac convertible. I hung my last towel on the clothesline, watching her from beneath my arm. I could feel the eyes of my elderly neighbors watching too. As far as I knew, none of them had ever seen a new convertible in Little Town either.
Sibyl parked in the shade on the ramp between lots and slid out with a white note pad. Alternately writing and glancing about her lot, she leaned against the car, then hoisted herself onto the hood with an air of having been born accustomed to fine things. Her back was to us—it always was, even later when she faced us.
Her lot was first on our dirt road, branching off the main highway leading into Little Town, right at the city limits sign. Though Little Town was no city: we had one grocery store, a public school, a courthouse, a post office, a new service station, three churches and a street light set to blink on red at the main intersection. Little Town, the county seat of Monroe County, one of many hamlets scratched out of flatwoods on the Georgia/Florida line, growing then, but not grown, or so it seemed in that decade of promised growth. As time passed, I learned that the town had been grown then but I had not.
Over the next few months, I watched what Sibyl had sketched materialize. Brought up to detest extravagance, I was relieved to see a shell-home construction crew lay the foundation for a three-bedroom house. How much can you lavish on such a basic house? Well, when the sides rose above the average roofline, I decided Sibyl’s house was MODERN HOMES’ number-three model, top of the line. And although the house was beyond mine and P.W.’s means, it still seemed within reason. I’d heard that Robert Dale had made a decent profit on his tobacco crop the year before, the market looked good for the coming season, and credit was cheap. But soon it was clear that Sibyl had set her sights on a two-story house—model number-three modified—the only upstairs house in Monroe County space was where plentiful and people were scarce.
So, the house grew between the old oaks, imposing and new, but still a featureless shell, incongruous in its surround of renovated mill houses and our mobile home, backdropped by woods and fields. Come spring, the smell of paint covered the wisteria festooning the oaks, and Sibyl and Robert Dale moved in. Almost every day for two weeks, big trucks from companies we’d seen advertised on tv brought rounds of furnishings: appliances, furniture, pictures, lamps and rugs. And sometimes the trucks would haul off saggy padded chairs and heavy dressers and chests, which Robert Dale and Mae, one of his Negro field hands, had lugged in only the week before. According to Mae, Sibyl couldn’t lift anything because of her condition. “She look fine to me,” Mae added, suspicious but proud to be rescued from the fields to work as a maid and privy to tidbits of gossip with which to tempt us. Aunt Birdie—not my real aunt—at the farthest reach of the road, across from Mama and Daddy, was first in the neighborhood to pay our fancy neighbor a visit.
On that warm and windy March afternoon, she came hobbling up the dirt road with a jar of mayhaw jelly and stopped by to get me. She’d pressed the collar of her blue-print housedress, and I could tell she hoped to look merely presentable, without making a statement, which she doubtless would end up stating anyway. She was as curious about Sibyl as anybody else and acted mad at the world because she’d let her mind seduce her body into something so trifling. “I got things to do waiting on me at the house,” she said.
I slipped on a wrap-around skirt and caught up with her, already limping along the road toward the stark white house. Pain from her bunions showed on her face, and the bunions showed through snips in her canvas shoes, which she called tennises. “A little housewarming present,” she said, justifying the jar of mayhaw jelly clutched to her bosom. Working her freckled lips, she spewed snuff juice to a hedge of greening dog fennels.
“I guess I oughta get them something.” The wind filled my skirt, exposing my plump knees. If I didn’t hold it closed, she’d try to sew a snap on the opening.
“Next thing you know,” she said, “Little Robert Dale and his old lady’ll be in abathing in the backyard.” She laughed, her seething brown eyes settling on me. “How in the world you reckon Little Robert Dale’s gone come up with the cash money for all them fancy doings?”
“He did all right on his tobacco last year, Aunt Birdie.”
“Looks to me like he better go to doing better than awright.”
I wouldn’t have argued with her old-fashioned notions about money even if I’d disagreed. Nobody argued with Aunt Birdie. “Lil ole gal was probably pore as a church mice, coming up.” She ducked to spit. “Got holt of a little money and went to putting on airs.”
“Aunt Birdie, that ain’t no way to talk about somebody dying of cancer.”
“You think you’re not dying? or me? your mama and daddy?” With her meeting freckles and faded red hair, she looked smithed of rusty iron.
Heading across the shady yard, we saw one of Robert Dale’s Negro field hands setting out roses on the east side of Sibyl’s house. In the center of the rose bed was an oval pool, swirling with gold fish, and a charcoal cat poised on the lip of concrete.
“Punk!” called Aunt Birdie. “That you setting out tea roses?”
“Yassum, sho is now.” Punk stood and wiped his sharp face on his shirt sleeve.
“How come you ain’t out yonder setting out tobaccer?”
“Mr. Robert Dale say he want me to do Miss Sibyl’s yards from here on.” He shook potting soil from a plastic bag to the bed.
“Well, I be dogged!” Aunt Birdie said. “I bet that’s the first time anybody round here ever bought dirt.”
“Yassum, sho is now.” Puck grabbed a chunk of concrete and hurled it at the cat. It spirited away in the paisely shadows of the oaks.
“That your housecat, Punk?” asked Aunt Birdie.
“Huh! Ain’t none of mine,” he snorted. “Belong to Miss Sibyl.”
“Don’t she know them lil ole shiners won’t last till the sun goes down with that cat?”
“Yassum, I done and told her. Say she get some more.”
Stout and self-satisfied, Aunt Birdie wrung the neck of the jelly jar with her rough hands, gazing off at the house while the leached red bun on her neck released tendrils to the wind.
“Let’s go on in, Aunt Birdie,” I said—enough of dissing Miss Sibyl and she in her own front yard.
We she sidestepped a sprinkler whirling switches of water to a nearby plot thriving with fuchsia azaleas. The air smelled of rich loamy soil. My own wild yard, in which I’d wrangled with Bermuda grass for a path, now seemed what it was—a fenced-off corner of cow pasture. P.W. had bragged that I wasn’t about to let a “lil ole bunch of Bermuda grass” whip me. But next to Sibyl’s progress, my efforts seemed trivial; my one year of hacking at the network of roots wouldn’t have amounted to a week’s work for Punk and the bulldozer. Sprigged centipede snaked around Sibyl’s oaks. Before, my yard had been pretty enough, even with P.W.’s junk-car lot in my back yard. Classics, he called them. “Just give ‘em a few years and they’ll be worth a fortune.” His prize find was a cream-colored forty-eight Ford convertible he’d bought from Emmet Moore in Little Town. Already, bullous vines were creeping over the fenders and choking the rubberless wheel rims.
For the first time in my life, I felt ridiculous. Again, not jealous, not then, and not as curious as confused. Robert Dale and P.W. both farmed, growing what they could on land handed down from generation to generation, as well as rented tobacco acreage. Until that summer, they had shared equipment and tobacco crops, which meant hard work, hasty gathering and curing at its peak. Not much chance of getting rich in farming, except relatively.
Any boy worth his grits worked back then, from the time he got old enough to see over the steering wheel of a tractor. Before that, he was sent to the fields with a hoe. Education was secondary; a boy didn’t need a diploma to plow the south forty or to lug a bucket of gum from the turpentine woods. Dropping out of school, on the other hand, wasn’t the thing to do either. It was good if he could handle both, better still if he could add a few basketball trophies to the case at the school house.
Nothing was required of a girl, except that she be cute and virtuous and learn to cook. All in preparation for marriage; nursing or teaching were alternatives if she didn’t find her mate by high school graduation day.
From the very first, P.W. and Robert Dale had clicked, and all through high school, you seldom saw one without the other. If they competed, it was never to impress. A new shotgun or rifle was the extent of their squandering, and they shared those guns, shared their trucks, tools, labor, even me. It’s easier to remember when I started with P.W. than with Robert Dale. With Robert Dale there was no start, just a continuous drifting current from birth. Aunt Birdie and Mama would wander up the road to the curve to visit with Miss Lettie and Miss Avie Nell, Robert Dale’s mama, and I’d play with him. There was no beginning, as there usually isn’t with families who live in the same place all their lives—they inherit one another.
“You mark my word, them two’ll wind up married one day,” Miss Lettie would say on the front porch while watching me and Robert Dale dig for treasures in the foot-tracked dirt yard.
“Could be,” Aunt Birdie would say back; and Mama, planted in one of the rockers, would change the subject because marriage implied sex.
I was always half-listening; he never seemed to listen at all. At home, I’d overheard Mama telling Aunt Birdie that Robert Dale was slow because he’d been born while Miss Avie Nell was going through the change. And the word “change,” in that context, struck me as ironically static: Miss Avie Nell, delicate and pensive, barely moved her lips when she spoke, her cultured voice throwing no farther than the edge of the high-floored porch.
I had also heard Aunt Birdie call Big Robert Dale “a rounder,” but I knew what that meant from the way she whispered behind her hand. He seemed younger than Miss Avie Nell, not only because he looked younger: he was tough and tall and there was something profoundly romantic about his swagger and reputation. His dark eyes were inset and hardened by straight black brows that grew from the jut of his deep forehead. His hair was black too, and Miss Avie Nell’s was feathery gray, done up in a bun on her nape. She was smooth and birdlike, elegantly smoking in a wooden slat chaise longue. (The other women were never without a pan of peas to shell or sewing in their laps, but she reclined like an old queen.) The odd pair didn’t fit, seemed mad with one another, and from what was said, I got the impression that whatever had happened to unpair them had happened after Little Robert Dale—junior—was born.
Big Robert Dale, a successful farmer and turpentine man, was jaded on whiskey, women and work, Miss Avie Nell resigned. Over the years I must have pondered a million times how it all connected, how Little Robert Dale came out of that stale union. A softer version of his deceased daddy, Robert Dale resembled him enough to have earned the name. He never said a word, never did a thing to make me think he was deprived, but I always thought of him as unwanted in that weird family, handed-down child to the virgin Lettie.
And then there was P.W., who came along the summer I turned eight. We met at the Twin Lakes 4-H Camp, twenty miles from home that felt like two-hundred. I was homesick and weary of wet swimsuits on concrete cottage floors, of bunk sleeping, of run-on parties and staying up, of gorging on potato chips from the mess hall venders, and the strict routine of daily craft classes—how to repair electrical cords on lamps and floor fans.