Just issuing a “warning” again: If you haven’t read the first part of Blanche’s story, A Story to Tell, you might not want to read A New Beginning, which is the second part of her story. You can find the first part of Blanche’s story on Kindle or in Paperback, on Amazon (after December 17 it will be on all ebook readers and on other paperback sellers). However, you don’t have to read the first part to be able to enjoy A New Beginning.
As always, this is the first draft of a story. There will be typos and in the future, there will be changes made, some small, some large and as before I plan to publish the complete story later as an ebook. Also, sorry about the lack of indentations at the beginning of paragraphs. I can’t seem to figure out how to make that happen in WordPress.
Standing on the front steps of the church, Daddy was sliding his fingers into his front shirt pocket while he looked out over the parking lot and pulling them out again. He looked lost and I knew why. He missed the pipe Mama had talked him into giving up three months earlier, and was reaching for it out of habit. I’d seen him do it many times before.
He was still struggling with what to do with himself when the women in his life left him waiting. In the past, he’d pass the time loading the tobacco, lighting the pipe and puffing away, starring into space and thinking, or if he was at home, reading a book or the paper. I almost felt sorry for him. Mama had recently read in Life Magazine about smoking being dangerous and she wasn’t about to watch him smoke his way into an early grave, she told him one night after dinner.
I watched from the church lobby as John Hatch walked through the front door and stood next to Daddy, sliding a cigar from his front shirt pocket and sticking it in the corner of his mouth as he dug in his jacket pocket for a lighter.
“Still no pipe, eh, Alan?”
“You know you can stand up to your wife, right? You are the man of the house.”
“Yeah. I know. I just – well, I don’t want to. Plus, she’s probably right. Smoking probably isn’t healthy, like those doctors have been saying.”
John flicked the lighter and held the flame to the end of the cigar. He sucked in a long drag, blew a plume of smoke from his nose and mouth and let out a long, contented sigh.
“There are few pleasures left in life at our age, Alan, and no one is going to tell me what I can’t smoke or drink. Besides, all those studies are usually bunk anyhow. They’ll come out with a new one next year that will tell us all that smoking is actually healthy. Those scientists and doctors are always changing their minds.”
Daddy watched John with what looked to me like an envious expression. He nodded as John spoke.
Someone bumped against my arm and I watched as John’s wife Barbara stepped briskly through the front door, snatched the cigar from her husband’s hand and tossed it over the stair railing.
“Are you out here smoking on church property?” she asked indignantly.
“Well, I – well, I –“ John stammered.
“John Hatch! Really!”
Barbara shook her head and shot John a scolding scowl on her way past him. “That’s so disrespectful,” she mumbled as she stomped down the stairs.
“You know, John, you can stand — ” Daddy started.
“Yeah, yeah. Well, sometimes it’s just not worth the battle. Have a good day, Alan.”
Daddy winked at me through the doorway as John walked down the stairs looking defeated and I smiled back at him, shaking my head as I tried not to laugh.
Jackson tugged at my hand.
“When we going to Aunt Emmy and Uncle Sam’s?” he asked. “I’m hungry. That preacher just kept going on and on and – “
“That’s enough Jackson,” I said, glancing up at Pastor Steele, who was standing by the door, watching Jackson and stifling a laugh behind his hand.
Mama walked toward me, her purse looped over her arm, her Bible tucked against her chest under the other arm. “Are we ready to head on over to Emmy’s for some lunch?”
I felt my stomach tighten. I truly hoped the planned afternoon lunch at Emmy’s was nothing more than her attempt to introduce her cousin to some people in town and not to “fix me up” in some way. She’d promised me it wasn’t, but maybe she’d changed her mind since then.
Emmy’s parents, James and Ellie Stanton, were already at Emmy’s house when we arrived.
Ellie, her greying hair cut short and curled in a tight perm, hugged me as I walked inside. “Blanche, sweetie, so happy you could make it.”
She ruffled Jackson’s hair. “And look at you, you’re getting’ so big!”
“Hey, Mrs. Stanton! I’m six now!”
“I know you are! I can’t even believe it. Just three more months and you’ll be in my class in school! I can’t wait to see you every day.”
Jackson grinned and then darted past Ellie to pet the Stanton’s aging terrier.
Ellie was the kindergarten teacher at Dalton Elementary. She’d taken the job shortly after her family had moved here from North Carolina when her husband took a job at the local DuPont plant. When James was laid off three years year after they arrived, he started a construction business, relying on the skills he’d learned as a young man when he had worked for a local construction company in high school.
“Emmy’s in the kitchen and I’m sure Edith and Jimmy will he here soon,” James said as he closed the front door behind us.
In the kitchen Emmy was standing at the counter, slicing carrots for the salad. When she saw me, she laid her knife down and walked over to hug me, then gestured to a tall, broad shouldered man leaning against the counter. I hadn’t noticed him until I’d stepped all the way through the kitchen doorway.
“You remember J.T., don’t you, Blanche?”
The man standing before me looked nothing like the little boy I remembered from my childhood. I remembered a scrawny child with a long neck and narrow chin, reddish brown hair that stuck out in all directions, and a face that begged to be slapped. This man was muscular with a square, masculine jawline. The blue eyes were in sharp contrast to dark brown, almost black hair. His smile was inviting and warm, far removed from the childish smirk I remembered.
He held out his hand. “Hey, Blanche. I go by Judson now actually. J.T. is what my family still calls me though.”
“Ah, yes, family nicknames,” I said as I took his hand. “Always a challenge to shake.”
His hand was warm around mine, his palms rough from what I imagined were years of working construction.
“Actually, I’ve seen you since we were kids, but you probably don’t remember,” he said.
He was right. I didn’t remember meeting him since we were older. I was sure I would have remembered him if I had. That charming smile, coupled with a well filled out chest and arms weren’t something that could easily be forgotten as far as I was concerned.
“At your sister’s wedding. We had a deep conversation about the lack of diversity in the desserts of our respective regions of the country. I was up visiting for a couple of weeks with my parents and Emmy had invited me to tag along.”
Suddenly I remembered the exchange – an exchange held when I was in the midst of one of the most confusing times of my life, imprisoned in a loveless, abusive marriage and unsure what to do about it. My distracted mindset would have accounted for my failure to notice Judson’s appearance at the time.
“Yes, we did!” I said. “Cottage cheese fruit salad for us up north and red velvet cake for the South.”
I chose not to add how I’d admired his sweet personality and his smooth Southern accent the day I had briefly spoke with him at Edith’s reception, wishing my husband had been as sweet.
Judson laughed. “That’s right. See? It was very memorable and deep.”
I laughed and then realized we were still holding hands. I pulled my hand away and out of the corner of my eye I thought I saw Emmy watching me with a sly grin. I refused to look at her fully, promising myself that if she was watching me for the reason I thought she was, I’d bow out of this lunch early and give her a piece of my mind later.
“Do you need any help in here?” I asked Emmy.
She tossed the carrots into the salad bowl with the lettuce and turned to check the roast in the oven. “I’ve got everything under control for once. Why don’t you two head out to the living room to visit with Sam and everyone else?”
Emmy’s husband was already entertaining my parents and his in-laws with stories from his job as a deputy for the county sheriff department. His brown eyes were glistening with the exhilaration of regaling friends with his occupational escapades.
“I’m not even kidding,” he said, shaking his head. “I pulled up to the accident and the guy is just sitting there on the ground, empty beer cans all around him. He’s bleeding from the head and I said, ‘Sir, have you been drinking tonight?’ He looks up at me and in a slurred voice says, ‘No, sir, officer, sir. I don’t even drink. Not me. Noooo, sir.’ Meanwhile he wreaks of alcohol, I’m crunching empty beer cans under my boots, and his motorcycle is wrapped around a tree.
“He can’t even stand up for the sobriety tests, he was nowhere near his nose and he was zig zagging everywhere. I said, ‘Sir, you’re sure you haven’t been drinking? It would be easier if you just told the truth.’ He says, ‘Sir, I am a staunch teetotaler. I would never, ever, ever…’ and that’s when he tripped and blacked out at my feet. We loaded him into the back of the squad car and threw him in the cell for the night to dry out.”
Edith and Jimmy arrived in the middle of Sam’s next story. After everyone was introduced, Emmy’s roast with steamed potatoes and carrots was served.
Emmy stood at her chair at the end of the table and our gazes all shifted to look at her as the meal finished. “So, everyone, I’m sure you’re wondering why I invited you all today and yes, partially, I invited you to meet J.T. and welcome him to our little town, but I – we –“ She reached for Sam’s hand before continuing, squeezing her fingers tight around his. “also have some other news I want to share with you. Sam and I are . . . expecting!”
An audible celebration filled the room and hugs were given. I was elated at the idea of my best friend having a baby, but I also felt a twinge of sadness, knowing the news might be difficult for at least one person in the room. From across the table I saw Edith’s smile fade briefly as she swallowed hard and I knew she was trying to hold back the tears. The smile returned as quickly as it had faded, though, as she stood to hug Emmy.
“I’m so happy for you!” Any sign of the tears were now gone, and I knew she was happy for Emmy, but I also knew there was an ache deep inside her.
After dinner, Emmy served her mother’s famous double chocolate cake and then everyone stood and stretched, patting bellies, and settled in the living room to resume discussions they’d started around the table. Jackson settled in the middle of it all, on the floor with the toy trucks he’d brought with him. The soft hums of pretend engines acted as background noise for conversations about memories of the year before when President Kennedy had been shot, the Civil Rights movement and Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s latest speech.
I carried my glass of lemonade onto Emmy’s front porch for some fresh air, sitting on the porch swing to admire the afternoon sun glistening off the surface of the stream running alongside Emmy and Sam’s front yard. Next to the stream was a small path that led to a gazebo where Emmy and Sam could sit and overlook their property, complete with a small chicken coup out back and a barn to house a horse and a few pigs.
Emmy and Sam had moved to this small rural homestead two years ago, opting to live outside of the small-town atmosphere where Emmy had spent most of her junior high and high school years, living with her parents in a large home on Main Street. She was now living in the country, five miles away from my parents’ home, and we were as close friends as we’d been before I’d left with Hank. We spent our evenings either on the phone or taking a walk in the country to talk and laugh. During the days, Emmy visited me at my shop on her breaks from her job as the secretary for her dad’s construction company or we had lunch at D’s Diner down the street.
She was the main person I had relied on for support during the darkest days after I left Hank, other than Miss Mazie and my friend’s Hannah and Buffy, who I had called often since I’d left.
“Do you mind if I join you?”
I looked up to see the sun hitting Judson’s blue eyes as he stepped onto the porch with a glass of lemonade.
“Of course, not. There’s plenty of room on the front porch.”
Judson smiled and I felt an odd rush in my stomach. Shifting my gaze back to the stream, I willed the feeling away. I didn’t know anything about the man Judson was now and I refused to be swept up by physical attraction like I had been with Hank all those years ago.
Judson leaned back against the railing of the porch and took a sip of the lemonade. “So, tell me Blanche, what have you been up to all these years?”
How did a divorced single mom who’d run away with an older man two weeks before her senior year of high school answer such a question? Lie or be honest? I chose to be what I hadn’t been for so long – honest and blunt.
“I dropped out of school, ran away with an older man, got married, had a son and got divorced. Now I live with my parents and my son and work as a dressmaker. I also write a column about smalltown life for the local newspaper.” I paused to sip from the glass of lemonade, winking at Judson over the edge of the glass. “That’s my Rebel Without a Cause story. So, how about you, J.T. Waignwright. What have you been doing all these years?”
I pronounced Judson’s name with an over exaggerated Southern accent and a slight wag of my head, grinning.
Judson choked back a laugh and I thought he was going to spit lemonade out his mouth and nose. He coughed and then grinned. “Well, okay then. That’s one way to fill me in. I can tell that you’re no longer the shy little girl I remember from my childhood.”
I laughed. “Definitely not shy. Sometimes life forces us to change to survive.”
Judson studied me for a moment, then smiled as his eyes trailed from my face down the rest of me and back to my face again. “You’re also not the scrawny wisp of a girl with the big hair anymore. I remember Emmy telling me at the reception who you were, and I didn’t believe it. You had definitely changed –.” His grin widened. “For the better.”
I felt my muscles tense at his comments. I hoped he wasn’t trying to flirt. I wasn’t interested in flirting. I leaned my head against my hand, my elbow propped on the arm of the swing, remembering how tough my life had been at the time of the reception. “I wasn’t in the best place in my life back then.”
Judson nodded. “You didn’t look very happy that day.” His eyes focused on mine, his expression serious. “But you still looked lovely in that lavender dress with the purple lilies tucked in your hair.”
Warmth rushed from my chest into my cheeks as I lifted my head and studied his face for a few moments before abruptly looking past him at the oak tree in the front yard. I hoped my cheeks weren’t showing the embarrassment I felt. How had he remembered what I was wearing that day or what kind of flowers were in my hair?
“Thank you,” I mumbled, unsure how to handle the compliment.
Judson cleared his throat and sat up on the porch railing, leaning back against the support post.
“So, what about me? What have I been up to, you asked. Well, I played football in high school. It knocked that obnoxious attitude I’d had as a young kid out of me – I’m sure you remember that attitude from the summers I spent here with Emmy. I was named quarterback of the year for the state of North Carolina my senior year. My dad was sure I was on my way to play college ball, complete with scholarships.
“He already had my life mapped out for me. He was sure I’d have a stellar football career, earn my business degree and then follow him into the world of supermarkets – opening them, running them and making sure his chain grew. I got that scholarship, started playing ball at the University of North Carolina, and I even started business school, but I realized pretty quickly it wasn’t what I wanted. None of it. I hated football and I hated business school. I quit the football team and dropped out of college. I thought Dad was going to have a stroke.”
He laughed at the memory and took another drink of lemonade.
“I wanted to go to a trade school to learn how to build things, like Uncle James. It was a hobby of mine in high school that had started to become more of a passion. Daddy kicked me out of the house, so I got a job at a tobacco farm and moved into a run-down apartment over some guy’s garage. I paid my own way through trade school. When I wasn’t in class, I was in the fields and when I wasn’t in the fields I was in class or studying. It was a two-year program and when I was done training, I was offered a job with a local construction company. I worked there about a year, but when I told Uncle James about my interest in running my own construction company one day, he offered to let me come up here and work with him for awhile, learn the ropes. Since my dad was barely talking to me, I took the offer and here I am.”
He spread his arms out, bowed slightly and smiled.
“That’s my story and I’m sticking to it,” he said.
“Well, welcome,” I said. “I hope it all works out the way you hope.”
He sat next to me on the swing, leaned back and draped his arm over the back of the swing.
“So, what’s everyone do for fun around here?” he asked. “I’m not sure I’ll have much time for fun with all the jobs Uncle James has lined up in the next few months but if I do, I’d like to know what I can look forward to.”
I snorted out a laugh. “This is Bentley County. There isn’t much to do for fun. You could tip some cows I guess.”
Judson grinned. “Tipping cows sure sounds like a good time to me, unless one gets tipped on me. But come on. There must be a theater, a dance hall or two, something like that.”
“Yes, there is a theater and sometimes there are dances at the fire hall. And there is a drive-in about an hour north in New York state.”
Judson turned his body toward me and leaned forward slightly.
“So, tell me, Blanche Robbins, what do you do for fun?”
I barely had time to even ponder the question, let alone answer it.
“Mama?” Jackson’s voice called to me from the living room. “Aunt Edith says to ask you if I can have some ice cream.”
I smiled and winked, nodding toward the front door. “Fun? What’s that? I’m a mama. There’s no time for fun.”
“Yes!” I called through the open screen door. “Tell Aunt Edith you can have some ice cream.”
Judson was still watching me, still smiling. “Well, Blanche, if you ever find that you do some time for fun, I’d be much obliged if you’d let me know so maybe we can search this county high and low for something fun to do together.”
There was no question now Judson T. Waignwright was flirting with me. I cleared my throat and stood.
“I think I’ll have some ice cream with Jackson.”
I left Judson sitting on the porch swing, hoping he took my departure exactly as I meant it – a signal to him that I wasn’t interested in any romantic gestures he might be making.