An Old Friend
The company store was small – barely big enough to hold ten people all at once. And yet it was the most important of all the places in town, except for the church of course. It was a bank, a general store, and a meeting place. Within its walls, the life blood of the community flowed, and all of the citizens gravitated to it.
Standing in the back of store, Grace found herself staring. Not at the same old things she saw every time she came to town, but at a stranger standing near the front counter – a man she’d never seen before. One who looked entirely out of place in a Virginia mining town.
Heavens, she said to herself.
He certainly wasn’t a miner, nor a farmer. No dirty overalls or soot-covered clothes on him. A dark blue shirt, free of creases or fading. Brown pants, clean and neatly pressed. He could have been a banker or a lawyer – some profession that required professionalism and intelligence. Or, judging by his good looks, he could have been a celebrity. She had never seen a moving picture before, but she and Ollie had once seen a celebrity magazine full of beautiful women and handsome men from Hollywood.
The lean, muscular physique. The square jaw and golden head of hair. Was he a movie star?
Turning away, she shook her head at her own silliness. Why would a movie star be here in the middle of nowhere?
Stupid, stupid, she thought.
There was lots of bric-a-brac in that part of the store...ceramic washbasins and pitchers, barrels of grooming brushes and small sets of furniture. Various pots and pans hung from hooks, as did several styles of mirrors. She came to stand in front of one. It was a full-length one, and she looked at herself.
Poor and plain was what she saw. Not ugly, to be sure. In truth, she did not think herself entirely unattractive. Blue eyes and long eyelashes were a feature that many a young woman desired, and it was one of the few blessings her father had bestowed upon her. But her hair was thin and straight, and all she could do with it was keep it pulled back in a knot or a braid. As for the rest of her…
She let out a sigh of disillusion. Nature had given her long legs, a slender neck, and a reasonably sized bosom. But the curse of being poor had kept her childishly skinny, and over that gaunt frame was one of only two everyday dresses she owned. Both were made of flour sack. They had been pretty dresses at one time, despite the humble material they were born of. One was white with tiny red flowers on it, and this one was yellow with green spots. But both were terribly worn and faded – nothing like her Sunday dress, which was her best. Ollie’s mother had given it to her as a Christmas gift, along with a pair of fine slippers. The dress was dark green with tiny white dots and lace trim around the hem and sleeves. Looking at herself, she wished she was wearing it now. But no. It was only for Sundays, and forbidden during the rest of the week.
Very slowly, her eyes came up to look. She didn’t want to look, but she found she could not help it. And she felt her heart quicken.
Oh, lord! He’s looking at me!
Her insides were all aflutter. Who was he? Why was he looking at her? Her face was flushed – it felt on fire. With her head down she moved towards the front of the store, where her father and her brothers offered security and protection. A strange contradiction, to be sure. The men who so often bullied and abused her were not above protecting one of their own – with force, if necessary.
But she was not swift enough. The man stepped in front of her, and she tried to turn back.
"Hi Gracie," he said.
She turned, seeing him up close for the first time. What eyes he had! As bright green as a field of spring wheat! But what shocked her more was that he knew her by name. Her look was one of curiosity. And uncertainty, to be sure.
"How do you know who I am?"
A little grin rose up in the corner of his mouth. "You don't remember me at all, do you?"
Odd, how he spoke with a slight accent – a tone that was much like hers, although not as thick. He was well-educated, it seemed. And his smile! It was dashing, and for a moment, it robbed her of speech. She managed to shake her head in response as he reached out to offer her his hand.
"Charlie," he said.
She felt no recognition, as it seemed he expected. He tried again.
Now her face blossomed with recognition at the name. She smiled at him, putting her hand in his to accept his gentle shake of greeting.
"Well my goodness!" she said. "I would never have known it was you!"
He shrugged. "Time changes everything, I suppose."
She nodded, marveling at the sight of an old childhood friend. "How did you know who I was?"
He turned his eyes up a little, as if to contemplate an answer - that crooked smile still shining on his face.
"Well," he said, "Some faces you forget. And some, you always remember. Yours hasn't changed much."
She smiled, her eyes playful. "Is that good or bad?"
He chuckled slightly. "It's good. Your face was one I always took a fancy to."
She smiled at the compliment, blushing - feeling a sense of foolishness coming over her. She cast her eyes away for a moment, wondering where her good sense had gone. They had known each other as children. He was just a few years older than she was. Why did she feel so unsure of herself? She tried to speak, to break the awkward silence, though her voice was low and shy.
"You look so different, Charlie."
He shrugged. "I know. People can't call me pudgy anymore. The army took care of that."
"You're a soldier?"
"A former soldier. But I served my two years, so now I can move on to other things."
"So what brings you back here? How come you ain't in Richmond?"
Charlie's face lost its cheerfulness...his mouth forming a grim line. "My father is sick. He won't live very long. Maybe a month, if that."
She felt a little pain in her heart. "Oh, Charlie, I'm sorry."
Without thinking, she reached out to touch his arm. Just as quickly, she drew it back, fearing that she might have been too bold. She grasped for something to speak of, and it came out in a slight stammer.
“Are you still living with your aunt and uncle?"
He answered with a small nod. “For the time being. I’m hoping that before long, I’ll have a place of my own. And a family of my own.”
“You’re married?” she asked. For a moment, their eyes met. Please say no, she silently pleaded. Please say no. He smiled at her.
What a strange sense of relief she felt at that moment! And then a feeling of disappointment when she saw him look at his watch.
"I should go. I have to see my father." He was all seriousness for a moment. And then the smile returned to his face as he looked at her. "I hope I'll see you around now and then."
She nodded and smiled back, unable to get words out without making a fool of herself. What was it about that smile of his that stole her senses, making her feel so funny inside? She could only nod her head as he tipped his hat to her. Turning with a smooth stride, he walked away...and she felt a deep desire to call him back.
“Grace Ellen! Come on now, girl.”
Her father’s call brought her to attention in an instant – the rough timbre of his voice like that of a battle-hardened general. She hurried to join him and her two younger brothers. Robert and Matthew, aged eight and ten, sat with their legs dangling over the back of the wagon, fussing over a bag of butterscotch candies they were supposed to be sharing. On his way to his spot in the driver’s seat, John took off his hat and smacked them with it, each across the face.
“Quit that foolishness or I’ll take a switch to both of you!”
Two brothers who were always arguing over something stupid. A father who was always in a dour mood and was prone to solving arguments by using the back of his hand. It was all routine, and Grace gave no thought to it as she climbed into the wagon, settling herself into a far corner behind the front bench.
For once she was glad to be disregarded. At times it was a blessing, for it allowed her some time to think without being harassed.
She sighed. Oh, Charlie, she thought. He certainly wasn’t the shy little cherub she had known as a child. Her brothers, and pretty much everyone else, had been quite cruel to him – teasing him for being a bit chubby, and calling him a girl because of his curly blond hair.
But he was nothing to laugh at now.
I hope I'll see you around now and then, he had said.
She smiled to herself, wondering how soon that would be…
* * * * *
She felt the bowl of fruit slip from her fingers. It hit the floor...just as her father's hand struck the back of her head – a hard blow that made her neck ache in response to the sudden movement.
"Watch your fool hands! Them peaches are for your mama's dessert cobbler."
Nodding, she knelt down to clean up the mess.
Her father loomed over her for a few moments before moving on. But he didn’t have to be close by for one to feel his intimidation. He was quite skilled at it. John Langdon was not particularly tall, nor was he broad shouldered or heavy of muscle. He had, in truth, the thin frame of any other miner. In a crowd of men, he had no distinct feature of masculinity that would make him stand out.
But his eyes – oh, those piercing eyes! Bright blue, cold. Terrifying to those that knew well enough the spirit of cruelty behind them. And inwardly, Grace cursed herself for forgetting it.
Fool! Pay attention, pay attention!
She wasn’t usually this way. Normally she was wary – ever vigilant, fearful of committing offense or making a mistake that would bring swift retribution. Never had she been so distracted.
But hiding a smile, she could not help thinking what a pleasant distraction it was.
Later that night as she lay in bed, she thought of the way Charlie had looked at her...with that smile. No one had ever looked at her that way before. If she'd been a believer in magic, she would have sworn he'd cast a spell on her, to make her heart beat so and send her thoughts reeling this way.
Then a moment of sense returned to her, and she chastised herself for her wild thoughts and feelings.
Grace Langdon, you are ridiculous. If there were such a thing as magic, why would it be wasted on the likes of you?
She wanted to be logical - to think with her head, and not her heart. And yet, it was the voice of her heart that spoke louder. And she sent a prayer to heaven, hoping for the granting of just one small wish…
* * * * *
Out in the bean patch, she sat on an overturned bucket. Her back was bent low, her hands searching the leaves for the hateful little vegetables. The afternoon sun was hot, causing sweat to drip into her eyes, and once again she ran her sleeve across her face. For a moment she sat up to take a breath...to stretch her back, which ached miserably from the way she was forced to crouch down. She sighed, bending back to resume her work...and she jumped in sudden fright, startled by one of the barn cats as it pounced on a field mouse. Fury drove her up to her feet. Rocks flew from her hands.
"Devilish beast!" It would have served the wretched varmint right to have its head cracked by a stone...and it would have served her temper as well. She needed something to unleash her frustrations upon.
From across the field, she heard the familiar sound of Ollie’s voice calling out to her. Hanging her head, Grace wished for just a moment that her cousin hadn’t come. She loved her dearly, but at times like this, solitude was more agreeable than company. Still, she was kind and gave a friendly wave. And the sight of a lemonade jug and a picnic basket helped to temper her mood.
“I went up to the house and Auntie Rachel said you were out here. So I brung you some viddles. And somethin’ to drink.”
The prospect of food, drink, and a few minutes of rest was too pleasant to resist. Ollie spread a blanket out on the grass, and as Grace swallowed the sweet contents of a mason jar, she wasn’t surprised by the subject that came up.
“So I heard that Charlie Hillard is back in town.”
Biting into a ham sandwich, Grace nodded. “Word travels fast, don’t it?”
“You know what folks are sayin’ already?”
Grace shrugged. “Ain’t no tellin’ what.”
“They’re all sayin’ that he’s come back to find a wife.”
The sandwich paused at her lips, Grace struggled for a response. On one hand, the mention of the word wife struck her with a habitual sense of displeasure – and yet, she felt a strange new sensation of impulsive and girlish excitement. And she struggled against such a feeling. It was so silly in every way. But it seemed that Ollie didn’t think so. There was a mischievous little grin on her lips.
“You know what I think?” she said.
Sipping her drink, Grace tried to be nonchalant. “What?”
“I think he’s already got one in mind.”
Was her hand trembling? It felt like it. She took a deep breath, trying to be calm, and yet preparing herself for a delightful revelation.
“And who do you think the lucky woman will be?”
She felt Ollie’s grasp on her arm, her cheek pressed against her shoulder. She was all excitement and giggles.
“Oh, Gracie! Do you think he’ll make me wait long?”
Grace blinked in confusion. “Wait long for what?”
“To get married, silly!”
Married. Charlie and Ollie. Married. Surely, she hadn’t heard that. It couldn’t be. They had only just been reunited.
“You think he wants to marry you?”
“I’m sure he does. He come to visit us last night. You know, cause’ my mama and his mama were best friends, so we’ve known him for a long time…”
She only half-listened to the story of Charlie’s visit – how he had been so charming, so pleasant. How he had spent so much time paying attention to Ollie and treating her so wonderfully.
“Gracie, are you listenin’ to me?”
Grace shook her head, trying to smile. “Sure I am. I’m sorry. It’s so hot out here, my mind is wandering.”
“Are you sure you’re all right? You look a little flushed.”
Taking Ollie’s hand, she gave it a gentle pat. “I’m fine, cousin. And I’m happy for you. I hope Charlie does marry you. He’ll be a good catch for you, and you for him.”
“You think so?”
Grace smiled at her. A genuine and loving smile. Ollie wanted so desperately to have a husband and a family – to please her mother and father, mostly. But also to secure her future. It was her only option. Who had the right to deny her such happiness?
“You’re a good girl, Olivia Langdon. You deserve to be happy.”
“Oh Gracie,” she said, embracing her. “I’m so excited. But I won’t count my chickens before they hatch. He hasn’t asked me yet, and I don’t want to look like a fool.”
Over her cousin’s shoulder, Grace let out a sigh. “You’re not a fool, Ollie. Not at all.”
It’s you who are the fool, Grace Langdon. The biggest fool who ever lived…
Suppertime had come again. The same old routine. Never changing. But tonight, it was hard to maintain an air of quiet obedience.
Ollie and Charlie, she kept thinking. Something about it just didn’t seem right. She felt herself wavering between so many emotions. Suspicion and frustration. Sadness and jealousy.
Why did he want to marry Ollie? Not that she didn’t deserve a good husband. Oh no, she was the sweetest and best of ladies. But despite the closeness between their mothers, Charlie and Ollie hadn’t really been that close as children. Was he up to something?
Filling a glass with tea, she clunked it down on the table, grumbling softly to herself.
Men were known to be deceptive, especially when it came to women. Perhaps Charlie was playing some game. But if he was, why play it with Ollie? She was such a sweet little thing, and she didn’t deserve to be made a fool.
He would never make a fool of me, she said to herself. Never. She had survived the burdens of life with six brothers and a domineering father. What could any man do that hadn’t been done to her before?
The answer seemed to come instantly, taking the form of a pain that pricked at her heart. Why had he been so quick to spend time with Ollie, and not with her? Was she lacking in some way? As children, they had been such great companions. What had happened to change that?
Out in the front yard, the dogs started baying. Someone was coming up the drive. She felt her heart beat fast with excitement.
Charlie, she said to herself. Maybe she had been wrong entirely. Maybe he longed to see her after all! Trying but failing to suppress a hopeful smile, she rushed to the front window...and found disappointment. It wasn’t Charlie at all, but just another neighbor stopping by. She let out a sad sigh, calling out to her mother.
"It's Mr. Wilson come to call."
Rachel answered in a weary voice, "Come to call, and come to talk, I reckon.”
Grace snorted in disgust. "He come to fill his belly full, that's what it is." She didn't bother trying to hide her sarcasm...which Rachel immediately scolded her for.
"Don't be ugly. It's our Christian duty to be neighborly."
Grace huffed. Neighborly, she thought. That old fool is just looking for a handout wherever he can get it.
She watched as he came toward the porch, his bald little head reflecting the sun.
Troll, she thought. And then she saw his attention was caught by something. A moment later she heard her father's voice calling.
"Hey Jim, where you been? Come on in the house and sit a spell."
A noisy camaraderie soon erupted. There was male laughter and bellowing, and the heavy tread of boots on the floor. Then came the scraping of chairs as they clamored for a place around the table. Mr. Wilson sat himself down in a chair, and without pause, snatched up the glass of tea before him. Tilting his head back, he downed the contents in several loud and slurping swallows. Then he wiped his mouth with the back of his hand - and letting out a loud breath of air, he glanced up at Grace. With a smile, showing off what few teeth he had left, he pushed the glass toward her in a silent demand for more. Silently she obliged...but the moment he turned away, her lip curled in disgust.
Nasty old coot, she thought. Lord forgive me for saying it, but I hope he chokes.
"I reckon I just heard something mighty interesting," he said.
Here he goes again, Grace thought, Tellin' tales and rattlin’ on and on.
The old fool was going to dominate the whole conversation at the table. It made her want to scream and curse.
They paused to say the blessing, and then it started. He hardly managed a breath before he started talking.
"It seems old Walter Hillard kicked the bucket last night."
Grace gasped aloud at the news – all of her darker thoughts gone in an instant. Her little noise passed without notice as the conversation carried on, as if she wasn’t there. Looking to her mother, she hoped for a shared look of sadness and feeling. But Rachel seemed more concerned with keeping plates filled. Still, she did manage a few words.
"God rest his poor soul."
While she gave that small comment, Mr. Wilson continued with his own talk.
"Charlie is still up there at the house, from what I hear. His Aunt and Uncle came and had the body down to the undertaker. He'll be buried tomorrow morning, over at the Baptist Church."
As he spoke, he went on heaping food on his plate. Grace watched him in disgust as he stuffed food in his mouth. The way he was behaving, he might have been talking about the weather instead of the death of a neighbor. She wanted to walk over and slap him across his ignorant head. With a last hope of respect for the dead, she looked to her father...who, with an unmoved expression, held his glass out to be refilled.
"I heard tell that old Pastor Brown is a real fire and brimstone preacher. He shakes the rafters when he's up at the pulpit. I wonder if he'll give the eulogy."
Mr. Wilson pursed his lips. "I hope not. All of them fire and brimstone types get up there and spew the gospel for two or three hours. Land sakes...the man in the casket is dead. Throw dirt on him and get it over with."
Grace's mouth opened slightly - disgust written in every line of her face. And the revulsion only deepened as her father, giving a careless shrug, gave a few last words on the subject.
"Walter Hillard was a damned old drunk, and I’ve heard tell that his son is just the same. But we knew the old man for years and years. So I reckon we'll be there to pay respects." He took a deep drink of his tea. And as he put it down, his face broke into a smile.
"You should have been down in the holler with us, Jim. I caught me a trout like you wouldn't believe."
They started rattling on about fish, talking loud, laughing and telling tales...and that was the end of their mourning over the Hillards.
I’ll go to him, she silently vowed. I’ll do what no one else has the courage to do.
But now was not the time. If she went running off like a mad fool, embarrassing her folks in front of company, there would surely be hell to pay. Not that she cared a bit for their opinions at that moment. It was the consequences that she dreaded - having to come home and be berated, maybe even switched, and then having to hear about it every day until the end of time. No, she would have to slip away quietly, after everyone was stuffed full with their supper and too sated to care what she did.