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 !  Roadside Lilies

Short Story

by

David E. Booker


 

          Mrs. Reese drove the trowel into the ground. She'd had enough of "ditch lilies." They clutched roadsides like abandoned summer afternoon daydreams. Blooming one day, dying the next. And like daydreams, nothing stopped them. They grew in the worst of soil, along the steepest of hills, poking their happy orange flowers through tangled undergrowth, thriving on neglect. She couldn't stop them from growing in this wilderness her husband said was a good place to live. But here in her yard she could drive them away.

          She wedged the blade beneath the tuberous roots and started prying. She heard them snapping. She rocked the trowel back and forth, working it deeper into the soil. Just a little more, she thought. She reached out and pulled on the flower's leaves with one hand, but it would not budge. She rocked the blade more, and then tried again. Still, it would not come free.

          Sweat ran easily down the bridge of her nose and canted into her eye. She stopped and wiped her brow. She blinked several times, trying to stop the stinging sensation. It felt as if a bee had attacked her. But on this summer day, even the bees were hiding. She wanted to get this done now. Before he came home. Before she changed her mind. She looked up at the small frame house. It gave her no joy. Not like the home in New Hampshire he'd made her leave. There she had a vegetable garden and a flower garden. Here she had ditch lilies. She reached down and tugged on the lilies with both hands. The clump budged but not enough.

          She lifted her straw hat and wiped her forehead again, shifted the weight on her knees, and pried further down. She gritted her teeth. The soil was red and hard and locked together by the heat of the sun. This was taking longer than she thought. She realized she should have brought the shovel, but she was determined to make these lilies bend to her will. Today, July 15, 1942, she was forty and this was what she had to get done. Tomorrow, it wouldn't't matter.

          Mrs. Margaret Reese awoke hating her life. And at times during the day, she hated her husband. He had brought her to Tennessee. It would never be home. Despite what he said about a new start, she wondered if he had done it because he was punishing her for the death of their two daughters. Jessica, the first, died before she was six months old. The second child was stillborn. Maybe he hated her because she couldn't have any more children. Maybe he even hated her because he was too old for this war and would never have any sons to tell made-up war stories to. Or maybe he brought her here simply because he thought she was weak and would leave him and go back north to her sister's. Maybe that's why he had not said "Happy Birthday" when he left this morning to make his mark with this T-V-A. Whatever his reasons, she was sure they were a mixture of things. She had been married to Mr. Frank Reese long enough to know his reasons were as thick as this moisture-laden heat. She wiped the sweat from her forehead for the third time and realized she had done little to earn it.

          When he had told her this move was his chance, their chance to do something for their country, she didn't know what to say. Their second daughter had been dead less than a year. Ten years had passed since the first child and though it was foolish to try, they had. The memory had finally become distant enough. Now it was re-enforced with a new one. So when he said Tennessee to her, it was just a word, it had no meaning in her world of grief and failure. She had scant knowledge of where it was and what it meant, and even less knowledge of this Tennessee Valley Authority. That name sounded threatening, like a river run wild. One of her New England neighbors had said that's exactly what it was, Roosevelt run wild. But Frank said rivers were what this TVA was about. Taming them, building dams on them, turning them into electricity. She didn't understand it, but that didn't matter. There was a war on, and this was just another part of it.

          In the two months before the move, she tried to find out more. Her sister Donna, the family artist and outcast, gave her a poem about Tennessee called "Anecdote of the Jar." She had copied it from a book by a Connecticut man named Stevens. It began with the word Tennessee and ended with the word Tennessee, and in the middle it talked about a jar and the wilderness surrounding that jar on a hill in Tennessee. She did not understand the poem and when Frank told her they might not wind up in Tennessee, she shook her head and gave up.

          Now, here she was in Tennessee, and on hot days like her birthday, with no wind and all the humidity in the world draping off her skin, she felt as if she were living in a jar, the glass bending the light to focus on her. She knew that was silly, but maybe this wilderness was getting back at her. She shifted the straw hat and was about to try again when she heard jangling on the road behind her. She turned and saw Bob Jaynes pulling his cart toward her, guiding it with his one good arm.

          "Good morning, Mrs. Reese," he said. "Got anything for the war effort?"

          "How about some flowers?"

          He looked at her and she saw he didn't understand.

          "You're out early today."

          Bob pulled the cart up beside her and stopped. He took off his hat and wiped his forehead with his shirtsleeve. "Good day to be alive, wouldn't you say?"

          She didn't know what to make of him. She'd known him from the first day he'd returned from the war, his right arm gone. "It's a hot day, Mr. Jaynes."

          "Yes, ma'am, that it is." He looked at her house and nodded. "Your house and my house a lot alike, Mrs. Reese. Built by the same man. I just live half-a-block down, you know."

          She nodded. He'd said the same thing before. She wondered if part of his injury wasn't in his head. Once or twice, he'd called her his wife's name.

          He turned his attention back to her and smiled. His left, top canine was missing. "So, why you digging up your yard?"

          She felt her face flush and wasn't sure what embarrassed her more, his question or his staring. She looked away. "I'm reworking the yard."

          "Yes, ma'am, you are." He nodded. "Been collecting scrap metal. Have any, Mrs. Reese?"

          "Not today."

          "If you find any, give me a shout." He tipped his hat. "Be seeing you, then."

          "Be seeing you, Mr. Jaynes." She watched him as he slowly moved on down the road, his cart a converted child's wagon. He looked like an oversized boy out to do mischief. She shook her head and didn't know how that man and his wife survived. He couldn't work and Mrs. Reese had heard he'd been a rounder before the war and that his wife had left him several times. But she always came back; even the time she recently left him. That's something Margaret Reese vowed she'd never do. You make a decision and you stick with it.

          She tried a few more minutes with the root, then gave in. Later, she'd use the shovel and nothing would stop her.

#

          It was dark when Frank got home. It was always dark. She heard him come in and put his briefcase down. She was an early riser, getting up every day at 4 a.m. to make him breakfast and pack a lunch for him. Sometimes even Sundays. Congress wants the dam done was all he would say when she'd protest. She heard his footsteps, even in her drowsy state. He did not tread lightly upon the world. She was turned away from the doorway when he entered. She had left him some food in the icebox, some fruit and cold chicken, but she knew he would only pick at it, if he did that. He ate very little and she sometimes wondered why she tried. Where he got his weight, she did not know. She sometimes envisioned a mistress who fed him an orgy of different foods, things an engineer liked to eat. Food that tested his courage.

          Margaret Reese was still half-asleep when he came into the bedroom. Night had already come in through the open window, but it had not brought any breeze with it. The heat that had been part of the day hung around in corners of the room, refusing to move. She could've turned on the whole-house fan, but she was afraid of leaving that much electricity on all night.

          "Peggy, you awake?"

          She felt his weight on the bed and she thinly considered turning toward him. The dip he caused was pulling her toward him. It felt like the edge of a hole opening behind her, crumbling away. Soon it would be under her. His hand on her side startled her. She felt her body rocking to and fro and for an instant thought he was trying to push her in. Then she thought he was trying to push her away.

          She turned toward him, pulling herself up and away, to the edge of the bed. She blinked and saw his hand drawn back and one eye open wide. She tried focusing on where she was. He had lit a candle and brought it into the room. One of the special ones with her favorite scent in it. It sat on his chest of drawers and cast a light that creased his face in downward shadows, almost as if he were falling down away. In his other hand, he held a small gathering of flowers. He looked comical and she felt insubstantial, so she giggled at him.

          He held the flowers toward her and laughed. "Happy Birthday."

          She hesitated, then reached out and took them. Some of the leaves crumbled in her hand. She guessed they had been in his car most of the day. She looked over at him. He was already off the bed and unbuttoning his shirt.

          "I was dreaming I was little girl," she said.

          He continued moving around, sitting back on the bed to take off his shoes.

          "And I had a broom and was trying to sweep flies out of the house . . ."

          "Uh-huh." He emptied his pockets and took off his pants. He tossed them into the same chair with his shirt.

          ". . . because they made the rooms hot with their beating wings."

          He blew out the candle and slid under the sheets beside her, bringing all his smells of manliness with him. Their sharpness kept her at the edge of the bed. They were metal and concrete and full of the harsh rhythms of his work. She had once traveled out with him to his work site, coming back with one of the other wives who drove. Despite what he said, she saw no beauty in his dam building. It was like watching big boys carving up the earth to plant something concrete in it. Their work inspired awe, but it was the awe of explosions and of growling machines rutting around in the soil. It was the same feeling she got from watching the newsreels at the movie house. Men making war as much on the earth as on each other. That's what it looked like to her as "our brave fighting men sweep into North Africa," tanks and other machinery churning up sand and soil.

          He leaned over to her. "Good night, Peggy."

          She looked over at him and realized she was still holding the flowers. She kissed him quickly and left the bed, stumbling in the dark for a vase. When she came back to bed, he was snoring. Morning would be hard on her.

#

          He was looking directly at her when he said, "I think you should drive."

          She placed his plate of eggs and bacon on the table in front of him. He had already finished a cup of coffee. She didn't know what to say. Outside, it looked as if the day was going to be gray, maybe even rain.

          "If you'd learn how to drive, then I could hitch a ride with one of the other guys going to the site and leave you the car to do your marketing and such."

          She sat down at the table. She didn't care much for breakfast. All she normally had was a cup of black coffee and maybe a piece of bread and butter or jelly. "But don't you think that would dangerous?"

          He looked over at her, reached out and patted her hand. "Times are changing." He got up from the table. "Got to go." He leaned over and kissed her on the top of her graying hair as he always had in the morning. Then he picked up his briefcase and stepped out the side door. After a minute, she heard the engine and the clanking of gears as he backed the car out of the garage. She heard the engine idling and knew he had stopped to get out and close the garage door. Then the car revved to full life again and was soon gone and she was alone. She locked the side door, then cleaned up the kitchen and the small, separate dining room, and waited for the rain. She heard the first chords of thunder as the sound of his car moved into the distance, and before he was gone ten minutes, the day began with a thunderstorm.

          The rain charged at the ground, driven by sudden winds. She watched the neighbors' dogwoods and maples swirl and bend, as if movement were a passion, one without direction or guidance. Even the ditch lilies were being buffeted about. For a moment, she felt sorry for the flowers. Then she hoped the wind would uproot them all. A large branch clattered against the brick street. Margaret Reese gasped, startled by the sound. She looked for the old oak across the road. Then as suddenly as it came, the storm was gone, leaving behind water rushing down the street and a light drizzle.

          She stepped into the hallway and picked up the phone. She dialed a local cab company and gave them her address. They told her they would have a car out in about an hour.

          "An hour."

          "Yes, ma'am. Rain's done slowed us down that much."

         But it hadn't rained that much. She considered calling another company, then decided there was probably only one cab for the entire wilderness. Thunder echoed back from Frank's direction. The storm was chasing him. She bit her lower lip and hoped it wouldn't force him to turn back.

          She walked into the bedroom, took off her apron, and tossed it on the unmade bed. She pulled the suitcase out from the corner of the closet. She tossed it on the bed, opened it, and realized she wasn't ready. She was sure she had packed it. She had gone over in her mind time and time again what she wanted to take and where she wanted to go. She wanted to go home. She wanted it like it was before this damn war started. Nobody had any ambitions then. Certainly not Frank. No, that was wrong. He had always been full of ideas. She had just always dismissed them. Her father had been full of big ideas, too, and once he acted on one, and it almost cost the farm. Her mother never let him forget it and he never tried again. It left a bitter emptiness between her parents that Margaret Reese didn't want in her life, so she chose to ignore Frank's big ideas, letting his momentary passions burn out. It had worked, until the war and the T-V-A.

          Margaret opened her dresser and threw some underwear into the suitcase. She hurried back to the closet and tugged out three dresses. She tossed them toward the suitcase. An hour might not be long enough. She didn't know what she would do if cab got here and she wasn't ready. She pushed through the apprehension, tossed a pair of shoes into the suitcase and moved back to her dresser. She opened the top right-hand drawer and took out a scarf. She heard a knocking sound. She paused, then decided she needed more underwear. It might be a while before she had enough money to buy anything new. But, she reminded herself, one suitcase was all she was taking, that way she could carry it.

          She heard the knock again. Frank?

          He had a key, but . . . .

          She glanced out the bedroom window that faced the main road. She didn't see a cab waiting. It could be on the side street. To find out, she would have to leave the bedroom. She closed the half-filled suitcase and shoved back it into the closet. Then she shut the door.

          Margaret stepped through the hallway into the living room. The dining room was behind the living room, a large open archway connecting the two. She walked to the doorway on the left side of the dining room. Through it was the kitchen and the side door. She paused, so she wouldn't be seen. "Frank, is that you?"

          No answer. Then a loud pounding, as if someone were ramming his hand into the door.

          "Open up. I'm home." The words were slurred. It took her a moment to realize they belonged to Mr. Jaynes. "It's raining. Open up."

          She waited, hopping he would realize his mistake and move on. For a few moments, she heard nothing, but as if she could see him, she knew he hadn't left.

          He pounded again. She didn't want him here when the cab arrived. There would probably be gossip enough as it was. At least she could give Frank the option of saying she'd gone to visit her sister. Margaret took a breath, smoothed down the front of her dress, and stepped to the door. She would be firm, but polite. Then she would point Mr. Jaynes toward his home and let him teeter that way on his own, even if he had been out all night getting drunk.

          Mrs. Margaret Reese planted herself in front of the door, unlocked it, and opened it. Bob Jaynes tumbled inside, hitting his head on the doorknob as he fell. He threw up as his face slapped the floor.

          Margaret yelped and backed away. Only once had Frank came home this drunk, babbling and vomiting one early morning after Jessica had died.

          She knelt beside Bob Jaynes, avoiding his vomit. It was yellow. She could feel its heat and almost taste its acrid scent. Her stomach heaved. She turned away and took several rapid breaths. She turned back toward him, rolled him over, and then slowly tugged him completely into the kitchen.

          Bob Jaynes opened his eyes as she placed a damp cloth on his forehead. "Miss Martha, my arm, is my arm gone?"

          She swallowed, then said, "No . . . no, it's still there."

          "I tried to make you proud of me." He closed his eyes and after a few sobs his body was completely limp.

          Margaret brushed a tear from his cheek, and then wiped his face. After she cleaned up the mess, she glanced down at Bob Jaynes. How oddly peaceful he looked splayed out on her kitchen floor. He was young, almost Frank's age when Jessica died. She'd asked Frank why he'd gotten drunk. He'd paused, then shrugged his shoulders. "I guess I was looking for some kind of peace." However flawed, she wondered if Bob Jaynes had found it. As if to reply, he snored lightly.

          She went to bedroom and pulled the cover off the bed. She placed it over him, and then walked into the living room with a lukewarm cup of coffee. She stared out the picture window and sighed. When the cab came, she'd help the man load Mr. Jaynes into it; then the driver could take him the half-block home to his Miss Martha. The sun had finally risen out of the clouds. Its sharp light glinted off water still dripping from tree leaves and flower petals. She looked at the lilies in her front yard. The ones she'd tried to dig up were blown over as if they, too, were asleep.

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Day Lilies

Margaret Reese had lost a child, her home, and her direction in life. She did not want to be in East Tennessee. She did not want to be dealing with World War II, with her husband building a dam, the summer heat, or the orange day lilies that sprouted up in her yard, in the ditches along the roads, almost everywhere she looked, their happy temporary faces turned toward the sun.


David E. Booker struggles to learn about web site building, writing, and fatherhood. He lives in a 100-year-old house where pieces of congealed coal dust can be heard caroming through the whole-house vacuum hose as they are sucked up from between the slats in the heart pine floor.
To learn a little more about him, go to David E. Booker >>

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