Thursday, July 2, 2009

Nell, and the Bible Salesman

A chapter from my novel, Sweet William

A flowered dress and canvas shoes
live with the whisper of time, always moving,
so don't wait till you're dead to live,
time is now for the using.

A week after William left the hospital, Martha gave him her car. "I don't want to wait till I'm dead," she said.

They were sitting on chairs on the front porch of Nell's house drinking iced tea. Nasturtiums had taken over the front yard. William loved their wild exuberance. When he touched them they gave off an odor that reminded him of being a child, but he couldn't think why.

The car was parked in the street and was very dusty. Someone had printed "wash me" on the back window. When William asked Martha who had done that her eyes twinkled.

"I did," she said.

Martha was dressed in a long flowered dress and canvas shoes. She was wearing a purple sweater and a purple hat.

"I'll wash the car for you," William told her.

"You better. That's why I brought it over. It's yours." Martha laughed at the look on William's face.

"You give me five dollars for it so we can make it legal." She held out her hand.

Nell watched through the kitchen window as she remembered another window of her childhood's story.
"Sunny!" Nell's mother called into the summer evening. There was no reply. She whistled this time. It was a whistle she was proud of, loud and shrill, like a man who had practiced all his life.
She heard an answering trill from down the street. Nell came galloping up the street with her pony tail swinging. She had been growing her hair since she was five. She was ten now and it was long and thick. She was barefoot and flushed and had the sweet smell of girl sweat on her skin. Rosy took a breath of the moment as Nell put her arms around her and squeezed.

"Hi, my Precious Mommy," she said.

Nell always lavished affection on others. Even as a baby she had curled herself into her mother's bosom and would have been content to snuggle there forever if her mother would let her.

"Dinner's ready." Rosy disengaged her daughter's arms and pretended a frown. "I thought you were going to help me fix it."

"I'm sorry," Nell replied. "Beverly and I were building a girl house."

"You mean a club house?" Rosy asked

"No, a girl-house... just for girls, Mom, no boys allowed."

Nell and Rosy sat eating hot dogs and beans and salad at the small yellow Formica table in the kitchen. The sun had turned the sky to pink as it settled into the horizon. Nell could see it through the window framed by red curtains.

"Look mom," she said and pointed at the colors. They lived in a small rental house. There was just one bedroom, a living room and a kitchen. Nell slept in the bedroom now. When she was nine, her mother moved her own things into the living room, and told Nell it was not because she didn't love her, like Nell had thought, but because a young girl needs her privacy.

There had always been just the two of them. Rosy was a single parent. She worked hard to make a life for them that resembled the lives of the girls at Nell's school. She knew how important it was to feel like you fit in.

"How was your day?" Nell asked.

Rosy was a clerk at a department store. She didn't make a lot of money but she liked her job. She liked people. What she told Nell was, "I'm comfortable... so comfortable that a customer today stood for twenty minutes telling me about her life."

"You are comfortable," Nell agreed, nodding her head and taking another bite of salad. "So comfortable," she repeated, as she laid her head on top of her mother's arm that were resting on the table and started making snoring noises.

Rosy and Nell both laughed into the evening of that day... an evening like so many others in that red and yellow kitchen.
As Nell watched William and Martha, she thought about that window from her childhood. It was where she had first seen Patrick and she was not a little girl anymore. It was a summer day, so hot and humid that all the windows in the house were open and the fans were going. She had been standing in front of the window fan, looking out and letting the air blow against her face. She had an ice cube in her hand that she was rubbing up and down her arms and around her neck. She closed her eyes and remembered just what she was thinking about.

She was thinking how much she wanted a man to run his finger up her arm like this ice cube, making goose bumps, when there was a knock on the door, and she jumped, feeling somehow guilty for her thoughts. She could see the front porch from where she stood. A man stood there. He was tall, with short sandy-colored hair and lots of freckles. He was looking at her and grinning. She went to the door and opened it. He was selling Bibles. She hadn't really paid much attention to what he was saying, she just watched his face, the way his lips moved, the straight line of his teeth, the crease that appeared by his eyes when he smiled. She wondered if this was fate. She had been wishing for a man and this one had appeared.

He told her he was going to college and was selling Bibles door to door, to support himself and to help his family. He told her about his three younger sisters and one brother and how his mom was sick and his dad was having trouble making ends meet. She bought a Bible of course, although, she didn't have much money herself. She was trying to get through beauty school and help her mom by working part time at the local department store. She bought a Bible, even though she already had one. How could she not buy a Bible from this man? It would be almost sacrilegious. The truth was, she would have bought anything from him.

She had never been tongue tied. Usually, words flowed from her like music from an early morning song bird. She tried to think of something to make him stay longer. As she went to get her money she thought she could offer to cut his hair, then realized how stupid that would be. Then she looked down at her hand where the ice cube had almost disappeared. Ice tea, she thought.

"Would you like a cold glass of ice tea?" she asked. "You must be awfully hot."

He had stayed drinking ice tea with her on the porch for more then two hours as shadows fell on the day and the afternoon breeze curled the pages of the Bible that lay on the table between them.

That had been the beginning of togetherness for Nell and Patrick, until he was drafted. They had been walking hand in hand through the park when he told her. She hadn't thought that there could be a force that could take the enchantment from her heart and turn it to dread.
She had tried to pretend that everything would be fine, that he would be fine and would return to marry her as he had promised.

They exchanged long and passionate love letters. He told her of his suffering. Killing was not in him, and he was sick inside constantly from the fear of it. He told how he had seen his friend walk into a land mine and disappear, and how after that he kept to himself, afraid that friendship would breed more pain.

Then one week she hadn't heard from him as usual. At first she tried to believe that the mail had been delayed. When she knew the truth, her world collapsed. First, she screamed and sobbed, and then she spent days in bed in a kind of protective lethargy. She lost weight and couldn't eat without throwing up. She couldn't talk. Words seemed so pointless and she was so angry at the kindness Rose showed her. She tore up the notes and cards that friends sent.

She couldn't stop the pictures in her mind. She dreamed Patrick's last moments in Technicolor. She would be there in the trenches with him. watching in the quiet of the morning. She could even hear a bird close by. She heard Patrick's loud breathing and his frantic heart beat next to her. She tried to tell him to be still, that they would be able to hear him, then he was running towards the top of a hill and she knew that was where death was. She tried to call to him but had no voice; tried to run after him but had no legs; then the hill exploded and fell around her like red rain.

So many days, then months, and finally years passed, before she could leave Patrick behind in the jungles of Vietnam. It had taken her a long time to laugh without feeling guilty or to take pleasure in the beauty around her. Even her own breathing seemed a betrayal.

Samantha Elizabeth had been one of Nell's first clients after she left Georgia, and its memories, for California. She had enough saved, that with Rose's help she was able to buy a beauty shop of her own. She told Samantha this that first day. Usually Nell was the listener, but something about Samantha gave her permission to talk about her own life. Samantha was beautiful, tall and slender with long thick hair. She had even given that little fidgety Tim his first hair cut when he was three.

Nell liked to talk, but she was a good listener, too. She listened to the women that sat in her chair looking for a new, beautiful self in the mirror in front of them. They told her about how bad or how good their kids were and about how bad or good their husbands were. Nell felt like she was the keeper of many secrets for she believed that gossip was evil. She told Samantha how her life was lived in this vicarious way, through the lives of others. She told her that she didn't have a car and that she lived close enough to walk to work and to the market. She told her that she felt safe in her little world where everyone loved her. She didn't tell her how on some nights, when the window was open, and owls hoot-hooting to each other across backyards from neighboring trees, that loneliness hit her hard and she wished for a family of her own.

Samantha had shared much of her life with Nell, also. She was happy when Tim was little and William worked for his dad. Nell would see them out walking in the evening... Tim would be between them holding their hands, picking up his feet until they pulled him into the air. She would hear him through the open window of the shop as she cleaned up, "make me fly," he'd say.

It wasn't until William's father died that Nell saw a change in Samantha.

"We never spend time together anymore, at least not doing anything fun and family. It's always work, work, work, and then, too tired," she told Nell one day as she sat in the chair as Nell attached silver foil to strands of blond.

Nell knew how stripped of pretension her clients were. It was as if they could be their true selves here. It didn't matter if they looked like witches, because when they did, they were vulnerable in every other way also, especially emotionally.

"Tim cried himself to sleep last night because he thinks William doesn't love him any more," Samantha continued. It seems like we never have time to talk, much less do what married couples are supposed to be able to do at night in bed."

Samantha's voice was angry and tears had started rolling down her cheeks.

"Why do I have to cry every time I try to tell him how I feel? I wish I was a man, then I could be a man about it." She laughed and wiped her eyes at the same time.

Nell patted a strip of foil in place and started stirring the color preparation. "Honey," she said, "That's the way married people act, especially when they have kids. You know I've never been married, but I've heard the story again and again. Makes me kind of glad I'm a lonely old maid."

Samantha laughed despite herself. "Nell, you're not even thirty yet and I know you can't be lonely. You have more friends then anyone else I know. You are so pretty too. I know you could find a good man if you wanted to."

"I don't want any man, honey, from what I hear from you girls, they just complicate life."

"Life used to be so fun when we were dating", Samantha sighed. "I remember how we would go out in that '56 Chevy of his and park. He sure wasn't too tired in those days." Nell smiled and started applying the color to Samantha's hair.

"Truth is, he's started drinking too much. He says he needs a beer to relax him, but after four, he conks out. I'm too young to sleep alone while he sleeps it off on the couch."

"You got to talk to him, honey, tell him how you feel, before the first beer."
Nell thought about that '56 Chevy and the passion that she imagined happening on its front seat so many years ago. Now, there was one just like it parked in her driveway.

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