(Continued—p. 2 of 3)
“Ma’am, I just wouldn’t feel right stayin’ here with you. It don’t seem right. I’ll be fine in the truck.”
“That’s nonsense, Mr. Brown. I’m a fifty-year-old widow, not a twenty-year-old maid. I would consider it an insult if you turned down my hospitality. Besides, there are too many coyotes about to go sleeping outside in that truck.”
To that, Matthew Brown had no retort. He retreated to his ample plate, and despite his inhibitions, succumbed to his hunger. He knew little about his hostess, but he certainly had decided that she could cook. The display of country-fried steak, gravy, corn, and those sweet lima beans was enough to put his mind at ease, for the moment.
“In the morning, you can take my truck to town, call your wife, and get that silly part, and everything will be fine. Will she worry terribly?”
“I told her I might have to stay a night down here, but I didn’t really expect to. I reckon she’ll worry quite a bit.”
“I begged Simon for a telephone, but we are simply too far from town to get a line. Not that my husband ever tried to please me, even when he could.”
For a few minutes they were silent and enjoyed their meal, the ghost of Mr. Delahanty momentarily suspending conversation. The dining room was simple and comfortable, but also had an understated elegance; it matched the house and the land perfectly. The entire house was decorated as though a photographer was due at any moment, to feature each room in a how-to article of a decorating magazine. It was clean and fragrant, and Matthew felt at ease and out of place simultaneously.
“How many children do you have, Mr. Brown, if I may ask?
“Two girls, ma’am.”
“Why that’s remarkable, I have two girls. They’re worthless, but they’re mine. Darla is twenty-seven and Sally is twenty-four, and, like me, they both married good-for-nothin’ farmers. How old are yours?”
“Twelve and fourteen. Ain’t married yet, but they’re a handful, I know that.”
Mrs. Delahanty laughed freely and even Matthew allowed himself to chuckle some at their shared burden of raising two daughters. She suggested, since their plates were wiped clean, that they move their discussion of the rigors of parenthood to the living room, and he consented. She refilled their iced tea glasses and they each took a spot in the front room, he on the sofa and she in a rocking chair. The room was as expertly beautified as the rest of the house, maybe more so. A grandfather clock stood guard in a corner, ticking but keeping bad time. She sat with her legs crossed, still in her blue dress, and he remained on the edge of his seat, afraid to lean against the fine furniture. The light that came through the large picture window glowed yellow, fading into dusk.
“My daughters hate me, Mr. Brown. They’ve never said that they do, but they show it, and I see it. They think I was too hard on them, that I pushed them too hard.” She looked at the floor as she spoke, smiling a resigned smile. “I wanted them to do better than me, like any good parent. I thought they had it in them to be more than farmer’s wives, because I knew I had it in me to be more than a farmer’s wife.” Then she looked at him, still smiling. “My husband was not good to me, you see. Not good at all. He struck me from time to time.” Matthew shook his head. “But that wasn’t the worst part of Simon Delahanty. What hurt the most was the way he always made me feel worthless, and insignificant, and stupid. He didn’t thank me for anything I did; mostly he just told me how I did it wrong. For twenty-nine years, that was it. I did my best, and he told me it wasn’t good enough. I was never good enough.”
She paused, and he felt like he should say something. “If you don’t mind me sayin’, it seems like maybe he wasn’t good enough for you.”
Her smile broadened. “Oh, you’re a sweet one, ain’t you.” The clock’s rhythm and the crickets of sunset filled the room, as the natural light dimmed and dimmed. “Did you know that I write poetry, Mr. Brown?”
“Would you like to hear one? My husband thought it was foolishness. He told me not to write, but I did anyway.”
“I’ll hear a poem ma’am, if you’d like to say one.”
She recited it from memory.
“I dream of a life that’s not my own
And a place that isn’t here.
Where love is felt and grace is shown
And no one lives in fear.
A place without the sting of shame,
Without the scars of hate.
I know this place, it has a name,
It lies through Peter’s gate.”
“That’s very pretty, ma’am. Very pretty. My wife used to read me poetry, years ago. We sat out on that old porch swing, and she read it to me. I don’t reckon I paid mind to the words too much. I just liked to hear her…”
His voice dissipated, and he stared at his shoes, embarrassed by his moment of honesty.
“And why doesn’t she read to you now?”
He continued to study the floor. He knew he shouldn’t be talking so candidly with this strange woman, who before today knew nothing of the Matthew Brown family, but he answered her. “I don’t know, ma’am. I reckon we don’t do a lot that we used to.”
They sat quietly for a few minutes, and he thought of his wife. He felt empty then, and longed to be on the road home. Mrs. Delahanty rocked slowly, holding a well-darned old sock; her smile was gone, and she kept her eyes from meeting Matthew’s during their silence. Darkness had finally covered the house like a great palm from above, and the few lights in the house struggled to push it back.
It was he that spoke first. “I reckon I better be gettin’ to bed, ma’am.”
“I don’t miss my husband, Mr. Brown. I may have told you earlier today that I do, but I don’t. I don’t want to be alone, but alone is better than being with him. I’m glad he’s dead. I am.” He stared at her, eyes wide. “You must think I’m awful. Of course you do.” She laid her face in her hands, and he barely heard her say, “Will God punish me, Mr. Brown? Do you think he will?” She was crying.
He took a moment to reflect seriously on his answer, for it was a serious question. “Ma’am, I know that a man and his wife should love and honor one ‘nother till death do they part. After that, I don’t know what the rule is.”
At this, her smile returned, little by little, until she almost laughed. “Thank you, Mr. Brown.” She remained in the rocker for a moment longer, and then quickly rose and went about collecting herself, wiping tears from her eyes, straightening her dress, and smoothing her hair. “Well, I am a foolish woman after all. Enough of this nonsense, let’s get you settled.”
She led him to a small bedroom upstairs, where the bed was already turned down and a candle was lit. The candlelight danced on the walls.
“I can’t thank you enough for your hospitality, ma’am. You’re a good woman and a fine Christian.”
She smiled at this, but it was a sorrowful smile, he thought, and she kept her eyes on the doorknob that she held firmly. “Good night, Matthew.”
“Good night…Alice.” She gently shut the door.
Sleep found him soon after his head met the pillow, the cares of the day slipping fully from his mind, and the arborist dreamt of trees. Always trees.
At eight o’clock Matthew Brown was on the road, and he felt fine. The helplessness of yesterday was replaced by progress and movement, and his spirit was refreshed, much of that refreshment due to the abundant breakfast that Mrs. Delahanty had presented him that morning. He was in her truck and headed for the closest town, Nabernathy; it was a twenty minute drive, south. Half way there, he was thinking about what she had said that morning at the table.
“A family is like that big old tree out there,” she said, “just like it. Those two great branches are a man and a woman, and all those smaller branches they produce are the fruits of the marriage. Children, grandchildren, friends, a home, land, joy, grief, it’s all there, growing from the husband and wife. And just like my tree, all those things weigh down on that union, so that if the trunk isn’t strong, the two branches…” Here she paused. “Well, they’ll just split. Won’t they Mr. Brown?”
“That sounds about right, ma’am,” he had said.
“And what should that trunk be, do you think, to make it strong enough? What must that marriage be built on, Mr. Brown?”
“The Lord, ma’am,” he had answered, without hesitation.
She smiled and said, “Well, I was going to say love, but I guess there’s really no distinction there, is there?”
As he drove on, thinking about God, family, and trees, he eventually came to the town of Nabernathy. Most would agree it was a pleasant place, though it mainly consisted of only four streets, two crossing two. The streets and shops and sidewalks were all spotless and fresh, as if, like the Delahanty home, the whole place were the subject of a feature story in a magazine. After stopping at the first pay phone he saw, and laboring to put his wife’s mind to rest about his situation, he followed the directions to the parts store, at the south edge of the town.
It was called Potter’s Parts and Service, and was perhaps the only building with a spot of dirt in the town. Along the side of the shop were featured a stack of tires, two engines, various parts and pieces, and behind the building Matthew could see a dozen cars and trucks, in various states of repair.
He entered the building and was greeted by Potter himself, according to the tag on the man’s coveralls. He was short and thin, with white tufts of hair hovering over his ears, fragile-looking spectacles balanced on the end of his nose, and covered in oil and grime. In his hands there was an unidentifiable piece of machinery, and those hands and that part were colored the same black. The shopkeeper looked suspiciously at his new customer.
“Mornin’, I’m Matthew Brown.”
“I don’t know no Matthew Brown.”
“Well, I suspect that’s ‘cause I ain’t from around here. I come in from Ohio yesterday to work on an old tree for Mrs. Alice Delahanty. That’s her truck out there,” Potter’s look of suspicion had not yet faded. “I need a fuel pump for a ’31 Ford double-A, so I can get home.”
“Work on a tree? What work does a tree need done to it?”
“I’m an arborist. I repair trees, keep ‘em maintained so they don’t fall over.” Matthew laughed an uncomfortable laugh, unnerved by the old man’s questions.
Finally, after he seemed to decide the state of one tree was not worth contemplating, Potter shrugged his shoulders and retreated to the back. “Sure, I got what you need.”
Matthew walked about the front of the shop, examining the various relics of the vehicles of years past. Then he leaned on the counter, and noticed a small boy behind it, sitting on the floor by the wall, poking a dead mouse with a dipstick.
“What ya got there, dead mouse?”
The boy did not answer or even look in his direction but continued to torture the little corpse. Matthew was annoyed by the rudeness the young one displayed and thought he ought to be at home with his mother, not playing with dead things in a dirty parts store.
Potter returned with the pump in his hand, ignoring the boy. “Six dollars.”
Matthew frowned at the price, but decided haggling was not in his best interest at the moment. He retrieved his wallet from his back pocket, and took out the money.
“So you stayed at the Delahanty’s last night, eh?”
“Yes sir. Felt wrong stayin’ at the house of a widow, with no one else around, but she gave me little choice in the matter.”
Potter’s look of suspicion returned, doubled, and he looked past Matthew’s shoulder at the truck outside. Then he looked up and down Matthew before settling his stare on the arborist’s eyes, boring into him.
“What do you mean, widow?”
“Widow, like her husband passed away.”
“Simon? He ain’t dead. He was just in here on Monday. Bought some motor oil. So he weren’t dead three days ago.”
Matthew stared at the dirty little man. “You say Simon Delahanty was here on Monday. Alice Delahanty’s husband.”
“That’s right. What’d you say your name was?”
Matthew looked at the little boy, who now had the dead creature in his hand, staring at its tiny face. The mouse did not stare back. “Sorry, I must’ve misunderstood. Here.”
Matthew laid the money on the counter, and snatched up the pump before the shopkeeper could take it back. He turned and quickly walked outside.
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Story Copyright © 2006 Stephen Benzel. All rights reserved.