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Archive for March, 2011

The Highest Point

I once wrote a story that included a character, Vanessa, who made a stunning quilt. She worked on it for months, and her family didn’t pay much attention—until the afternoon that one sister went up into the attic of her parents’ home and discovered Vanessa’s source of material. The patches for the quilt had been harvested from the trains of the family wedding gowns, bridesmaid dresses, and every other carefully preserved special-occasion frock. It caused quite a stir in the household—vandalizing a bridal gown being akin to blasphemy—but I liked the idea (still do). I think it’s a decent metaphor for the way that we collect memories and piece them together into a mental patchwork. This memory-quilt grows larger over time and begins to pile up at our feet; eventually the older sections become dusty and obscured. But one shift in position and a dim memory can be illuminated again, appearing as fresh and vibrant as the day it was added.

I was on a local bus, sitting on the long front bench that faced the middle aisle, when one such moment of illumination occurred. A young woman sat next to me, talking on a cell phone. 

The bus crossed an intersection near the university. The young woman on the cell phone said, “I’m on the bus. Yes. Why are you outside?  Oh! I see you!”  And she started waving with great enthusiasm.

From my seat next to her I saw the sidewalk in front of Racanelli’s Pizza, where a young man stood out front with his phone, waving equally enthusiastically at our bus.  I, and the other passengers who noticed what was going on, laughed. Embarrassed, the young woman said softly, “Oh, now everybody on the bus is laughing at me.”   

That brief incident illuminated a memory from my college days. The summer of 1980 I was in Japan with three fellow college students from Blue Ridge Assembly conference center, participating in an exchange program with the Tokyo YMCA Hotel School.

Julie, Dave, Jeff and I worked for three weeks at a conference center in the mountains of Nagano prefecture. Mostly we worked with the kitchen staff: the thin, gentle head chef, Nakagawa; Shigeo, an expert in martial arts; Kuichi, with a heart-shaped face and brushy short hair; and Hideo, who shuffled around in black slippers as if too exhausted to pick up his feet. They and the rest of the staff assigned us innumerable minor tasks: filling salt and pepper shakers, shucking corn, dipping ice cream into small bowls, cleaning and refilling the square glass marmalade dishes, shredding cabbage for curry. While working, we taught each other our native languages. They taught us to say, in Japanese, “I hear, and I obey.” In retaliation, we taught them to say, “Quitting time!”

When it really was quitting time, they swept the four of us away to sushi restaurants, bars, local temples, ice cream shops, and sites of historical significance. One excursion took us to Nobeyama Station: “Japan’s highest railway station,” Nakagawa announced. Then we drove a mile or two further up, where a stone monument rose from a gray stone base beside the tracks.

Nakagawa stopped the van. “Highest point of Japanese railroad,” he said gravely. Kuichi smiled as if it were an excellent joke, but they all seemed proud of the marker. We regarded it for several long minutes before driving back to the conference center for a round of ping-pong and casual vocabulary drills.

Then our days ran out, and it was time to return to Tokyo to prepare to fly back home. Two Nobeyama administrators and the kitchen staff saw us off at the train station. A sad group, we huddled under a single umbrella in the spitting rain. The kitchen staff evidently decided it was too wet to hang around; they told us good-bye and sprinted for the parking lot. They didn’t even turn around as they jumped in the van and peeled off.

Julie watched them leave, sniffing back tears.  “We don’t know anybody in Tokyo,” she said, as the administrators settled us on the train with great care.

Soon we were chugging out of the station, moving slowly up the mountain as Julie and I continued to sniffle.

“They are fine,” Dave assured several passengers who seemed concerned about our well-being. He added, “They are sad because we are leaving friends.” Unfortunately, that set Julie and me off again.

Jeff tried to distract us. He pointed out the window. “Look, there’s the marker at the Highest Point. Remember when we came up here with the guys?” 

“Stop it,” Julie said. “I’m trying really hard not to cry.”

But we did look. We could see the top of the marker through the window. 

And then we saw the kitchen staff. They had driven up to the Highest Point and climbed the little hill that the marker post was on, and they were waving at the train as it passed. We jumped into the aisle of the train and waved like mad. They actually spotted us through the window—you could tell by the way their faces lit up and their mouths opened in exuberant shouts that they had seen us—and waved even more madly.  Then they were behind us, and gone.

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During the interval between the battles, the cavalrymen gave a demonstration of how to fight from horseback. They set a watermelon on a post and rode past it, striking it with sabers.

“That’s what they’d do to the enemy’s head,” Walter explained.

“Isn’t that something?” Mary said. “Ruining a perfectly good watermelon.” She would not wave her flag for that.

For the second part of the battle the Confederate forces lined up near the woods, the Union Army at the road.  Both armies rolled out their cannons, and the cavalrymen’s horses danced on one side.

The Union advanced, shot their cannon, and immediately lost five men in a hail of rebel gunfire.  One soldier died spectacularly, twitching horribly on the ground.

Mary shuddered. “That’s Ruby Willow’s boy,” she said. 

Walter patted her arm.  “It’s all in fun, Mary,” he said.

The rebels advanced; the Union moved forward to meet them. Cannons fired, rifles popped, and soon more bodies lay scattered across the field.  A brief quiet followed.

“Is that it?” Mary asked, but as soon she’d spoken, they started again.

“They’re having a great time out there,” Walter said.

Mary looked at him, surprised.  “Walter Evans, you’re jealous,” she said.  “Before I know it, you’ll be wanting to get out there.”  She turned to Katherine.  “Where do they get those patterns?”

When the battle was over, the dead rose and the two armies, reconciled, marched around the field with horns and drums, led by the cavalry.

“That was great,” Walter said.  “I’m sorry we haven’t done this before.”  He tapped Mary on the arm with his flag.  “I’ve been thinking, Mary.”

“Really?  And I didn’t even smell wood burning,” Mary said.  But she said it in a funny way, and Walter laughed.

“I was thinking you could move into the new house and use all of the old house as your salon.  Then you could expand as much as you want. What do you think?”

Mary squinted, watching the soldiers turn at the corner of the field.  They were coming closer.  “It’s something to think about, I guess,” she said.  The soldiers marched past, out of step.  “It’d be nice to get away from the perm smell at night,” she admitted.

“Huzzah, huzzah!” some of the soldiers shouted.

Mary waved her flag at them, delighted.  “What do you think about that?” she said.  “I’ve always wanted to hear somebody say ‘huzzah.'”

 END

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A good-sized crowd had gathered at the battlefield by the time they arrived. Reenactors dressed in reproduction Civil War uniforms directed them to a gravel parking lot.

“Where do they find those clothes?” Mary asked.

“There are patterns for them,” Katherine said.  “Everything is historically accurate.”  She used an irritating, know-it-all, cruise-director voice, but Mary let it go.

After parking they made their way to a two-story white house to the far right of the battlefield. A white banner marked with a red “H” hung from an upper-story window.

“Now this house was used as a field hospital,” Walter explained. 

A costumed boy standing nearby said, “They told me the doctors used to cut off the arms and legs of wounded soldiers and throw ’em out the windows! What do you think about that?”

“I don’t think much of that, young man,” Mary said. “I really don’t. Good heavens.”

They toured the hospital and the reenactors’ campsites. Mary walked beside Walter, remembering the days when she’d first started going out with him and how shy she had felt. In those days she had been unusually conscious of her own hands, never quite knowing what to do with them. She felt like that now.

In the gift shop, Walter bought flags for them to wave.

“Thank you, Walter,” Mary said. A flag would give her hands something to do, and she smiled. Being pleasant was less of a strain than she’d feared.

“They’re getting ready to start!” Katherine called.

The first part of the battle was short and uneventful.  The rebels advanced, the Union Army advanced, then both retreated after firing only a few rounds.  The highlight of the exchange occurred when the cavalry—two Confederate soldiers on horseback—burst out of the woods. The cavalry carried several messages back and forth, and more shots were fired.  Quiet settled on the battlefield as drifts of smoke from the guns sharpened the spring air.

“Well,” Mary said, “somehow I thought there’d be more to it than that. I never even waved my flag.”  She waved the flag now. It was a weak sort of wave, but it made Walter laugh.

“Are you having a nice time, Mama?” Katherine asked, smirking.

Mary considered whacking her with the flag, but did not.

Tomorrow:  The conclusion of “The Battle of Bentonville.”

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Bubbles followed as Mary lugged her laundry to the new house.  She went into the back door and set her basket in front of the washer.  Bubbles ran inside like he owned the place.

“I’m here,” she called.

Walter came to the doorway. He’d been reading; his thin gray hair was in corkscrews all over his head.  He had a habit of curling his hair around his finger while he read.  Then Mary remembered that Walter had everyone in the world on his side, while no one was on hers, and she stamped out the spark of tenderness she’d felt on seeing him.

She filled the washer, poured in the entire sample of Tide detergent, and slammed the lid down.  Her neck grew red as she struggled to figure out the settings of the new machine. She could feel Walter watching her. At last there was a click and the sound of water filling the tub. “I’ll be back in 30 minutes,” she said.

“Pretend you’re at the laundromat,” Walter suggested.  “Come visit awhile.”

Mary hesitated, then followed Walter into the living room, where he sat down with his book and settled Bubbles on his lap.  Mary picked up a magazine and flipped through it as if she were waiting for a doctor’s appointment.

“Did Katherine talk to you about the battlefield yet?” Walter asked.

Mary had found an article about historic Edenton, with pictures of lovely Victorian waterfront homes.  “Mmm-hmm, she did.”  Her head came up, as she remembered where she was.  She grew cooler.  “Why?”

“You going?”

Mary went back to the article.  “I’m not interested,” she said.  “I’ve told Katherine that a hundred times. Are you going?”

Walter nodded. Mary didn’t see him because her head was still down. 

“Well, Walter?”  Her voice sharpened.  “Are you or not?”

“Yes,” Walter said.  “I answered you the first time—I nodded my head.”

“And I guess I’m supposed to hear your brain rattle?”

Walter smiled. “This is the first time this place has felt like home since I moved in.”

 * * *

Saturday morning was clear and sunny.  At the last minute Mary called Katherine and said she’d go to the battlefield. “I’m tired of everybody thinking I’m hard to get along with,” she said. “Pick me up. I’ll go to your dang battle reenactment.”

Tomorrow:  Part 8: The Better Angels of Her Nature

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On Wednesday morning, two men from Bentonville Appliance knocked on the back door. Mary was up to her elbows in suds, shampooing Doris Stokes.  She snatched up a towel and ran to the door.

“Evans? We got your new washer and dryer,” the lead delivery man explained. “Where you want ’em?”

“Oh, not here,” Mary said. “They go in the new house.”  Noticing their blank expressions, she pointed. “It’s right there.  That new house.” 

The men turned and looked. “Anybody home over there?”

“Oh, shoot,” Mary said. “No, Walter’s at the dentist this morning, naturally. Doris!” she called over her shoulder, “I’ll be right back.”

She showed the men where to install the new appliances and asked them to stop at the old house when they were done so she could lock the house again. She hurried back to the salon and found Doris bent over the sink, rinsing the shampoo out of her hair.

“My head got cold,” she said apologetically. Mary finished Doris’s set and had just gotten her settled under the dryer when there was another knock at the door. 

“We’re supposed to pick up the old ones,” the deliveryman explained. “See, it was a trade-in, is what it was.”

Mary stared at him. “Walter Evans is trying to rout me out,” she said.  She blocked the doorway, tempted to stand and fight.  But she crumbled almost immediately.  She had no idea what kind of mysterious deals Walter had made with Bentonville Appliance. 

* * *

Of course it figured, Mary thought, that they’d take the washer away just when she had a pile of laundry waiting. 

“Go to Daddy’s and use the new one,” Katherine said. 

Mary thought about that.  “Go ask him if it’s all right,” she said.

Katherine rolled her eyes.  “Mama, you are the most ridiculous thing.  Get your laundry and march over there and do it!”

But Mary refused to go until Katherine called first to ask Walter if she could.

“Of course he said yes,” Katherine told her.  “What did you think?  Now, Mama, we’re leaving at 10 on Saturday to go to the battlefield.  I wish you’d act like a human being and go.”

“It occurs to me that plenty of human beings have never seen the reenactment of the Battle of Bentonville,” Mary said, “and they’re none the worse for it.  I may be wrong.”  She hefted the laundry basket onto her hip and clenched her jaw. “I hope your daddy got a free sample of detergent with that new washing machine, because I’m not hauling mine over there.”

Tomorrow: Part 7: Blockade Running

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Mary turned up the volume. A reporter was interviewing some of the men who were camping at the battlefield as part of the reenactment. They looked nasty, like they’d been rolling in the dirt and eating bark and leaves.  Mary wondered what kind of shape they would be in by Saturday. And the Riddick boy’s beard truly was the saddest-looking something she’d ever seen growing on a chin.

Mary watched the end of the report and was washing her cup and fork at the sink when the phone rang.  It was Walter, inviting her to supper the next night. She consulted her appointment book.  “I’ve got a 5:30 trim,” she said.  “I should be finished and cleaned up by 6:30.”

 “I’ll be here,” Walter said.

 Tuesday, after her last appointment had gone, Mary wasn’t sure whether she ought to take time to change clothes or not.  It was already 6:35.  She called to let Walter know she was running late.

 “No problem,” he said cheerfully.  “I hope you’re in the mood for spaghetti.”

“I’ve been in the mood for it all day,” Mary said.  “I figured I better get in the mood for it, since it’s the only thing you know how to cook.  Give me 10 minutes.”

Walter and Bubbles met Mary at the door.  “Come in, come in,” Walter said.  He looked tall and solid.  Tiny dots of red sauce freckled the front of his blue shirt.

Mary went into the dining room.  “Everything looks so nice,” she said.  “Where’s the picture we were going to hang on that wall?”

“I’ve been meaning to hang it,” Walter said.  “Trouble is, I don’t have you here to get me to do it. Sit down, and I’ll get the food on the table.”

Walter had prepared salad, spaghetti, and garlic bread.  Mary helped herself to salad, then layered pasta onto her plate.

“You know, Mary,” Walter said, watching the spaghetti, “if you aren’t ready to retire yet, we could put your salon in that extra room next to the utility room.”

“We’d have to put in a sink and tear up the walls,” Mary said.  She ladled sauce onto her pasta and passed the dish to Walter.  “It’d be more trouble than it’s worth.  Besides, I’ve been thinking about expanding in the old house. I could cut a door between the spare room and Katherine’s old room, then put in another sink and chair and hire somebody to do all the latest styles.  Maybe I’ll hire a manicurist, too.  They’re real popular.”  

Walter shook his head, dazed.

“But that’s just what I’ve been thinking about doing,” Mary said calmly.  “That don’t mean I’ll do it.  Pass me the garlic bread, please.”

Tomorrow:  Part 6: A Thunderbolt From the Hand of Mars

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Bubbles stood in the middle of the road, licking a dead rabbit.

Mary waved apologetically to the driver of the car as she pulled Bubbles off the rabbit and carried him away.  Bubbles stiffened, holding his short legs straight out while he was moved.

The car passed, and Mary handed Bubbles to Katherine.  “Hold him for me while I check the mailbox,” she said. She crossed the road to get her mail, shuddering when she passed the dead rabbit.  “Should we move this thing off the road?”

I’m not touching it,” Katherine said. She popped Bubbles lightly on the head. “Shame, Bubbles. Shame. Mama, you left something in the mailbox.”

“That’s your Daddy’s mail,” Mary said.  “Oh, good, my checks came.”

“Checks?” Katherine’s voice rose.

“I opened an account with money from the shop.  I couldn’t use Walter’s money for my bills.”

“You do this all the time,” Katherine said.  “You get a crazy idea in your head, like not wanting to move into the new house, and you don’t care how inconvenient it is for everyone else.  You’re the hardest-headed somebody I ever saw.  I don’t know why we all put up with it.”

Mary flipped through her mail with her head down.  Finally she said, “Believe it or not, Katherine, I’m not trying to be hard to get along with.  I’m just not ready to give up and sit down for the next 20 years.”

“I don’t care if you work 12 hours a day,” Katherine said, “as long as you live with Daddy in that new house which he built especially for you.” 

“You should be thrilled,” Mary said.  “How many times have you told me I was stupid not to be more independent?  Well, I’m independent now, Katherine.”

Katherine blew smoke at the sky and patted her braid.  “This isn’t independence,” she said.  “It’s orneriness.”

After Katherine left, Mary watched the news while eating a Lean Cuisine.  I am not ornery, she thought. Tears caused the picture on the television screen to sharpen, then blur. Mary wiped her eyes quickly with a napkin. That was Jean Riddick’s son on the news!

Tomorrow:  Part 5: Consorting With the Enemy

Want more fiction to read while waiting to find out why Jean Riddick’s son is on TV? My short story “A Heart Like Pluto” has been published in Mused: The BellaOnline Literary Journal.  Read it online, or download the pdf–either way, it costs you nothing.

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