9.

The road south east from Sparta cuts through flat, open farmland. The clouds hung low and heavy over the fields, where small tobacco and corn plants were beginning to grow, timidly. The hills behind were covered in white puffs of flowering pear and wild dogwoods. Arthur was humming to himself, and drumming his fingers on the steering wheel.

I closed my eyes, remembering the drive as it had been in the autumn of my sixteenth year. That day, the sky was a bright, clear blue, and the hills were gold and orange and red. Grandmother lectured as she drove. “I might have known,” she said, “I might have know, you being your mother’s daughter. I should have barred the windows. I shouldn’t have let you out of the house. Just school and church and home. Oh but Jesus, didn’t I try to do right by you?”

I was quiet. I was seven months along, and in my belly I could feel the stretch and swift kicks of our baby. I knew he was a boy. I could feel it deep inside me, and  in a dream, saw him born and wild and cartwheeling around the yard. We stopped for gas in Chattanooga, and as the clerk pumped gas, Grandmother turned to me and laid a hand on my knee.

“Caroline. If you’d only tell me who the father is, we could make this right. We could do this differently. I’d sew you a wedding dress, my girl.”

How close I came in that moment, and how often I’d relived what might have been! I had loved Arthur deeply, maybe even wanted to marry him, but I was so young that it felt as if whole worlds would have shattered. Tears filled my grandmother’s eyes, but I was silent. “Alright, then.” She said, thin lipped.

When we arrived at the home in Marietta, she wouldn’t even walk me inside. She pulled up to the edge of the gate, helped unload my suitcases, and drove away. She never even turned off her car.

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7.

The storm that had threatened all night broke the next morning. I laid in bed, listening to the sound of the rain on the window, the thunder shaking the pains of glass. I heard the kettle whistle in the kitchen. I headed down for breakfast.

“Coffee, Carolove?” my grandmother asked when I entered the kitchen.

“Yes, thank you.”

She still wore her robe and slippers. “I couldn’t sleep last night, thinking bout those flowers,” she said as she poured.

“Oh?”

“Mrs. Jesnsen swore her boys were visiting their grandparents in Altamont this weekend. I’ve never seen a whole yard of flowers wilt thata way.”

She had fixed biscuits with strawberry jam. We sat at the table where she read the paper in the mornings, reading aloud any parts she thought would interest me.

“Oh, Caroline!” she exclaimed. “Look here! They’re doing Midsummer at the playhouse this weekend. Won’t that be fine?”

I took a deep breath. “I’m sure it will be, but I won’t be able to go.” She eyed me curiously over the top of her paper. I spoke slowly. “You see, I’m leaving today on a trip for a while. I’m not sure exactly how long it will take.” She was stunned silent. “I’m sorry to give you such little warning. I only decided yesterday I would go.”

“Well where are you going?”

“I’m going to find him.”

“Who?”

“Him.”

She shook out the paper and folded it with a coolness I’d seen her adopt before, though not often, always in moments of conflict. She rose slowly and walked to the window.

“May I remind you of our agreement, Caroline?” she asked, her back to me.

“I remember it.”

“I said that you could live on with me, that I’d continue to support you, to raise you, so long as you swore that, under no circumstances, would you see that child again. You swore.”

“I’m not a girl anymore, Grandmother. I don’t need you to support me or raise me.” I stood. “I’m grown. I have to do what I think right. I have to live by my own ideals.”

“Hmph,” she sneered. “Ideals, indeed. You and your mother didn’t have half an ideal between the two of you, obviously.” Her tone grew biting. “May I remind you how you begged? How you cried? You sat right there in that chair and sobbed. I could have thrown you out. Many would have done. But I let your dresses out for you so your classmates wouldn’t know, so the whole town wouldn’t know. I-I lied for you!” Her voice faltered as she said this. “I lied, against my own scruples. I paid for your stay at that-that facility” she could barely say the word, “in Marietta. And all for this?” She slammed her hand down hard on the table. “I won’t allow it, Caroline. I will not let you leave me!” She collapsed in her chair, sobbing.

It was as pathetic a tantrum as I’d ever seen a grown person perform and I did not take it lightly. It almost worked its purpose. I knelt beside her chair and put my head in her lap, as if I was a dog. She stroked my hair lovingly, smoothing it neatly. “Haven’t I loved you as if you were my own child?”

“I love you, too, Grandmother,” I said softly, “With all my heart.” I rose and kissed her on the cheek.

“I’ll die if you go,” she said when I reached the door. I had heard such threats from her before. She had said this when I’d proposed taking the GED and starting school at the Ladies’ College in Murfreesboro, when I’d tried to take a position as a secretary in Nashville, and when I’d suggested that I could board with a former schoolmate in Chattanooga and work as a waitress. In years’ past, it had been enough to stop me.  

This time, I managed a smile. “You had better not,” I said. I grabbed my bag from where I’d left it by the door and pulled an umbrella from the hall tree. I shut the door behind me.

I walked to the depot in the rain, my shoes and stockings soaked by the time I arrived.

Arthur was waiting outside the depot in his grey Ford. He didn’t get out of the car. I knocked on the passenger window and he popped the trunk. I threw my bag in and slid onto the front seat, shaking the umbrella out and running a hand over my damp hair. “What’d you tell your grandmother?” he asked.

“The truth.”

“How’d that go for you?”

“About as you’d imagine. She says this’ll kill her.”

“It won’t.” Arthur turned his blinker on, made the three lefts around the town square, and we headed out of town.

Turn the page.

6.

When I was sixteen, the way to visit the preacher’s son was this: I would wait until my grandmother fell asleep, listening in bed for the house to quiet down. Then I would climb barefoot down the redbud beside my window. I would unlatch the gate, my feet wet with dew as I slipped my way through the fence post in the back garden. I passed houses, shut tight and locked, and in my youth I pitied all those trapped inside, ignorant of the fresh blue air of the night. I stomped my way triumphant through the old school yard. I couldn’t get to him fast enough.

He was always waiting at the edge of the forest. He would take my hand and lead me through the dark bodies of the wood, to the stone outline of the house that had burned down long before. We laid on the earth, the needles of Virginia Pine pressing their fine lines in criss cross shapes across my shoulders. In those days, I thought only of him and the way his hands felt on my skin, the glow of his shoulders in the moonlight while the stars winked down at us from beyond the shadows of the trees.

At twenty-three, once the house was still I walked down the stairs, moving slowly. I yawned my way through the front gate. Out in the town the hush of the night made me shiver. Older, I looked on the quiet houses with longing. I pictured the peaceful families, the children snug in their rooms and the fathers and mothers sleeping close together. Each porch light, each shut door was a reminder: “You may not have this.” I hugged my sweater tighter around me.

The woods were darker than I remembered them, still I met them like an old friend. A meadowlark at the forest’s edge called a welcome. A fox scurried across my path. The wind clicked the branches together and rustled the budding leaves. The woods are not quiet. They are singing always.

He was there, leaning against the snaggled trunk of a fallen maple.

“You came,” he said with a smile.

“I came.”  I sighed deeply. The crickets hummed around us.

“I just wanted to talk to you. We haven’t spoken in ages, it seems like.”

“It has been a while. Christmas before last? Or longer, even?” I pretended I couldn’t remember. It had been three years since we’d last spoken, and I’d thought of him more often than I’d wanted during that time. Tears came to my eyes. I was glad it was too dark for him to tell. “I’m sorry for that, really.”

“It’s alright,” I said, “We’ve both been busy.” This was a lie. I was embarrassed at how little I’d let my life become.

“I know. And I haven’t been here much, but I’ll be home all summer, and I was hoping it could be like old times.” He laughed a little. “Well not like old times, exactly. Only we could be friendly-like. I’m planning on meeting Scotty over at the dam tomorrow for fishing, if you want to come.”

“I can’t.”

“Well, maybe Tuesday, then. I might head up to the falls.”

“No, Arthur. Because actually, I’m glad I can tell you now.  I’ve decided to go to him. The boy.”

He was silent a moment. The wind blew harder, the branches bowing around us. His face looked hard and stern in the dark.

“Why?”

“I don’t expect you to understand. I have to.”

“What will you do when you see him?”

“I’m not sure. Bring him back with me if I can. Make sure he’s alright, taken care of.”

“When will you go?”

“I plan on leaving tomorrow.”

“Where is he? Marietta?”

“I’m not sure. I’ll start there.”

He turned his back to me and kicked at a tree stump. “Damn… This could turn into quite the scandal.”

“I don’t expect anything from you. Nothing. I never did.”

“I know.”

“I always figured there was no point in us both suffering. That hasn’t changed.”

“Ah, yes, but I’ve changed.” Far off, lightning flashed without sound. “I’m coming with you.”

“You don’t have to.”

“Let’s just be discreet about it, okay?” I nodded. “We can take my car,” he offered.

“Fine. Meet me at the bus depot. Around noon, let’s say?”

“Alright…” He sighed deeply. “I’m not going to tell my parents. I’ll tell them I’m going camping with friends from school.”

“Of course.”

“Cari…” He dropped his head, as if he spoke the words to his shoes. “Does he look like me?”

“I-I really couldn’t say, not now. He didn’t so much when he was a baby. He was darker. More like me.”

He took a deep breath. He seemed relieved. “Until tomorrow, then.”

“Until tomorrow.”

Turn the page.

5.

Somewhere, my boy was seven years old.  

Mr. Timmons, the owner of the florist shop on the square, came by at dawn with his sheers at the ready. I heard him slam the door of his grey Studebaker and watched as he considered the yard. Milkwhite daffodils bobbed their heads as he walked through the garden. He knelt down, cupped a blossom in his hand, and released it after a pause. Standing, he looked about him. Then he left, without clipping one.

 I slipped down the stairs, my bare feet silent on the cold floor. Grandmother was already in the kitchen, brewing water for coffee. “Caroline?” She called softly. “Is that you?”

I was silent on the landing. After a moment I heard her rustle her way to the back room where she did the washing.

I unlatched the four locks, saving for last the deadbolt, slipping the key out from a string I hid around my neck, tucked in my nightgown. When I reached the porch, I closed the door behind me without a sound.

The flowers had begun to droop. They were yellowing some too, and the petals, when held between my fingertips, showed the start of wrinkles. The vines that wrapped around the house were browning, and as I watched, the petal of a pearly rose loosed itself from its bud and fell in sweet pendulum swings to the ground. I knelt and brushed a faded iris against my cheek.  

The flowers were dying, even while spring was in full blossom all around them.

“Caroline!” Grandmother called from the front door. “What are you doing outside in your nightgown? Get inside, girl.”

I collected myself with a few deep breaths. “Of course, Grandmother.”  

She put her arm around my waist as we walked back inside. “Why on Earth are you out here in your nightgown? We’ll be late for church if you don’t dress quickly. ”

Up in my room, my hands shook as I buttoned my dress and fastened my belt. There had been winters when he was younger, when I had worried about what I would do if the flowers never bloomed again. Those were dark Februaries and Marches, and each morning I would hurry to the window to see if any green pushed up in the yard. How faithfully the flowers had come till now! They had never drooped or wilted before. Not even in times of draught. I fumbled with the clasp on my shoe and willed myself not to cry.

“Caroline?” my grandmother called from the foot of the stairs.

“I’m coming!” I called back. I met my grandmother at the front door. She was wearing a dark blue dress with a faint green paisley print on the skirt. Her thinning hair, which was speckled grey and white, was smoothed into a neat bun at the nape of her neck. She wore thick tan stockings and flat black kedettes. Her glasses hung around her bosom from a gold chain, and her pocketbook bulged with her Bible.

“Your hair is a mess, Caroline.”

I looked quickly at the mirror in the hall tree, trying to smooth some of the fallen strands. She smiled softly, took my head between her hands and carefully unpinned my braids, holding the bobby pins between her teeth as she gently rebraided my hair. Her fingers worked quickly.

“There now,” she said as she released me. She looked at our joint reflections in the glass. “Pretty as a picture.”

Out in the yard, the flowers still drooped. Grandmother did not notice. “Let’s hurry or we’ll be late, Caroline.”  She reached out her hand to me, then linked her arm with mine. I must have seemed upset, for my grandmother said quickly, “I love you, my girl,” as we walked along.

“I love you, too, Grandmother.”

When we arrived at the baptist church, most of the congregants were still milling about on the sidewalk. Grandmother nodded as she swept past the usher, taking a program with enthusiasm. As ever, we sat in one of the front pews where almost the entirety of our view would be the preacher and the pulpit. My grandmother took out her Bible from her pocket book, found the opening passage, and marked her place with the ribbon. Then she folded her hands neatly in her lap. The organist began, “A Closer Walk With Thee,” the choir singing from behind us on the balcony. The rest of the congregation filtered in, and Pastor Denton entered from a door off of the stage. He wore purple robes with sleeves so long and full his hands looked diminutive peeking out from the cuffs.

“Good morning, brothers and sisters!” He motioned for us to take our seats. “How wonderful to see your shining faces this fine May Day. This afternoon  of course is our Spring Picnic; please join us in the side yard for games and entertainment and fellowship. One of my favorite days of the year. Today is a special day for Laura and me as well, as our youngest son Arthur has just returned from Nashville.” My stomach lurched. He was sitting in the front row with his mother. “As most of you know, he’s been there the last five years, getting his optometrist license and doing his practicum. We are so proud of him and excited as we can be to have him here with us before he moves to Knoxville this fall. I know you’ll help us in welcoming him home.”

Arthur gave a reluctant wave to the congregation behind him. He had not changed in the years away. He was leaner, perhaps, but he still looked more boy than man. Our eyes met for a moment. He smiled broadly at me. I looked away. The choir began a new hymn.

I thought of the boy. I closed my eyes and tried to resurrect the feel of him. As a baby, he smelled to me of earth and cedar trees and the way a window pane smells in a summer storm. I imagined the flowers. I pictured them more numerous than ever, spilling out into the road, bursting through the shingles of my gable. It was almost a prayer.

My grandmother nudged me hard. “Open your eyes, Caroline!”

Out on the lawn after the service the Pastor, his wife, and Arthur stood in a receiving line by the food table. Grandmother marched along. I ducked away, but I could hear the loud timbre of my grandmother’s voice and could see her and the preacher’s family through the leaves of the azalea bushes.  

“Can this truly be young Artie?” She placed one of her bony hands on his shoulder. “You’re looking awfully grown up, my boy.”

“Isn’t he? We hadn’t seen him since Christmas last. I almost didn’t recognize him!” his mother said.

Grandmother laughed good naturedly. “I know it’s a joy to you to have him home. I don’t know what I’d do if Caroline ever left for so long, though you must be so proud.”

“Where is Caroline?” Arthur asked.

Grandmother looked around, confused. “Why, she was just beside me a moment ago!”

“I’ll have to catch up with her later,” Arthur said.

I joined Grandmother at a table under the shade of a tall oak tree, along with the members of her Sunday school class. They had all been friends now for fifty years. I had grown up around them, and as much as I enjoyed many of their stories from when they were younger, I hated when their conversation inevitably turned to who had died, or what prognosis they’d received most recently. When my grandmother started up her story of her back going out three weeks prior, I excused myself.

In the field, a group of children had gathered around a pole to play a may game. The girls were weaving in and out of stationary boys, striping the pole yellow and green. When they’d wound all the way down, they began to dance the other direction. They were laughing.

“I remember when that was us,” Arthur said behind me.

I managed a smile. “It doesn’t feel that long ago.”

“Is that any way to greet an old friend?” he said, softly. I presented my cheek to him, which he kissed softly. “How are you, Cari?” He was taller. “Mother says you’re still living with your grandmother.”

“Well, yes, I-”

“Not working?”

“Grandmother needs me too much. Or so she says.”

“Ah.” He was unconvinced.

“But it seems you’re doing very well. Arrived from Nashville and off to Knoxville. Home must seem very small to you.”

“It’s easier if I stay away.”

“I do envy you that.”

Grandmother was calling. She’d already gathered her things and stood waiting for me on the sidewalk. “I’m tired, Caroline!” she yelled.

“Meet me, would you?” he said. He took my hand. “At the old place. The old time.”

“If I can,” I replied. I pressed his hand and left, ducking beneath the branches of a cherry tree. It was pale pink. There were bees on every limb, making their way from blossom to blossom.

When we reached my grandmother’s house, the flowers looked as though blown about by a great wind. The daffodils were face down in the dirt, and the vining roses on the house had collapsed, a great brown stalk dangling limply from the porch awning.

“Well, my goodness,” my grandmother said. We stopped on the front walk together, our mouths agape. “What mischief is this!” She began her march indoors. “I just know it’s those Jensen boys. I saw them over here yesterday with the devil in their eyes, scheming away. Sure as day they’ve come along and killed our flowers.” The door slammed behind her. I walked to my mother’s garden and sat on the bench, sure for the moment that the boy had died.

But then as I cried, a small sliver of a green blossom pressed its way through the earth before my feet. I knelt, and a single tear fell on it. The petals unfurled, pale white and as thin as tissue paper. And so I knew my boy lived, somewhere, he was still alive.

Turn the page.