Five years later I could still vividly remember the moment I broke Hank Hakes’ nose with my foot after he broke mine with his fist. I could still hear the sick crunch of bones under my heel and still clearly see in my mind his glazed eyes before they closed and his face fell into a pool of blood on the carpet.
I knew if I didn’t remember how Hank had beat me and I had fought back, I might let my walls down, and then my son and I would be left vulnerable again. I wasn’t about to let that happen.
Maybe that’s why I felt so uncomfortable when my best friend Emmy Lambert said she couldn’t wait for me to meet her cousin from North Carolina. The truth was, I had met J.T. Wainwright years before when we were both children, and the memory wasn’t one that overwhelmed me with an interest to meet him again. He’d been a scrawny kid with big ears, messy red-brown hair, and freckles all over his dirt-smudged nose. He had also been loud, obnoxious and downright rude. Imagining that in a 27-year-old man wasn’t making the meeting any more appealing for me.
“This isn’t an attempt to set you up, Blanche, I promise,” Emmy insisted. “J.T. is moving up to work with daddy in his construction business and I just want to introduce him to some people up here. I’ve invited your sister and brother-in-law and your parents too.”
I finally agreed to attend the dinner, hoping Emmy would change the subject.
Emmy tapped her finger against her chin her eyes focused on the ceiling. “But, if I was setting you up, J.T. would definitely be a good one. He’s handsome, well-built, a former football player, and Southern, which is always a plus. . . .”
I knew Emmy had added the Southern reference because she was originally from North Carolina as well.
“Emmy, you know I’m not interested in dating anyone.”
“Okay. Okay. I am just saying…in case you change your mind.”
“I can assure you, Emmy, that I won’t.”
Emmy sighed. “Blanche, you have to get back on the dating horse someday.”
“Do I really? Jackson and I are happy the way things are now. We don’t need anyone messing things up for us.”
“But what if a man simply adds to your happiness? Not every man is like Hank, you know.”
I handed Emmy the papers Daddy had asked me to drop off for Emmy’s father and smiled. “That’s something we can discuss another time. I’m meeting Edith back at the shop for a dress fitting.”
Stepping out onto the street into the sunlight I paused and smiled, shaking my head as I laughed at how Emmy had tried to “sell me” on her cousin. I knew she meant well and wanted to see me happy, but I didn’t feel I needed a man to make me happy.
I walked down the sidewalk, the smell of bacon cooking at D’s Diner wafting toward me, reminding me I hadn’t had time for breakfast that morning before I left the house. Sunlight bounced off cars parked along the street and Fanny Bleiler, town librarian, waved at me on her way to the library.
“Oh, Blanche! I just love the dress!”
My sister Edith twirled in front of me a half an hour later, the bottom of the dress I’d made for her swirling around her in a blur of dark red.
She slid her hands down the front and resting them on her hips, she admired herself in the full-length mirror. “Do you think Jimmy will like it?”
I stuck the pin I had been holding between my lips into the pincushion next to the sewing table and stood, admiring the view of my older sister filling out the dress I’d made for her. I didn’t have to look at how it fit her to know her husband would love the dress she was wearing.
“He likes anything you wear, you know that. You could wear a garbage bag and he’d fall all over himself trying to get to you.”
Edith tipped her head back and laughed, dark curls spilling across her bare shoulders. “You think so? Even with all this extra weight I have on my hips?”
“I know so.”
Edith turned, admired herself in the mirror by looking back over her shoulder, eyes traveling down below her waist.
“It doesn’t make my – “
“Your bottom is fine,” I said with a laugh. “But I can loosen the fabric a little in that area if you like.”
Edith wrinkled her nose and tipped her head to one side as she studied her reflection. “Nah, I think this is going to work fine for our anniversary dinner. More than fine. You’ve done such a beautiful job, Blanche. Thank you so much.”
Edith, who possessed curves in all the right places, had always been beautiful, but she never seemed to believe it. As a teen and young adult, she’d always needed some sort of reassurance of her beauty and worth. At one time in our lives that reassurance came from the attention of boys – lots of boys.
But six years ago, Edith began to see herself through the eyes of someone more important than the next boy in line – God. When she realized God loved her for who she was – faults and all – her opinion of herself shifted and she began to understand that she was loved – not for what she did or how she looked, but for who she was inside. Even with that realization Edith still had days she worried about her appearance. What was different now was that she worried exclusively about how one specific person saw her – her husband, and one-time high school sweetheart, Jimmy Sickler.
Jimmy ran a car repair business with his father and was someone I’d always wanted to see Edith marry but never thought I would. He was too sweet and polite for her during a phase of her life when only loud and adventurous would do. His looks, with soft brown hair and dark brown eyes, could have been described as more “choir boy” than “bad boy” and for a couple of years bad boys were on the top of Edith’s dating cue.
When Edith finally learned to see herself the way God saw her she began to realize her worth wasn’t in how many boys loved her. She also realized Jimmy had been the one constant in her life, always there to comfort and support her even when she seemed to reject him.
I unfurled a roll of fabric, spreading it across the cutting table. “Allie Davenport wants a summer dress in this fabric, what do you think?”
Edith snorted, tipped her chin up slightly and looked at herself in the mirror, pulling the top of the dress slightly down to reveal her shoulders.
“I think Allie should worry more about the fact that everyone in town knows she’s running around behind Larry’s back with Jason Taylor than a summer dress.”
“Edith! That’s awful!”
Edith raised her eyebrows and propped a hand on her curvy hip.
“I know it’s awful. Larry proposed to her only a month ago – she’s going to break his heart.”
Edith had changed a lot since we were children, especially after she had started attending church more and even more so when she married Jimmy, but she still possessed a tendency to gossip and judge.
“God’s still working on me,” she liked to remind me.
I knew what she meant. God had been working on me as well in the last five years and he still had a lot of work to do. There were many days I looked at myself in the mirror, measuring tape hanging around my neck, a pencil tucked behind my ear, and laughed at the irony of someone who had once hated sewing now working as a dressmaker. As a teenager, I couldn’t thread a needle, let alone create an entire fashionable outfit for the women in town or hem pants for the men. While I had once silently cursed the idea of attending sewing classes with my mom and sister, sewing now supported me and my 6-year old son Jackson.
“So, why do you think Emmy wants you to meet her cousin?” Edith asked, still admiring the dress in the mirror.
“She says she just wants to reintroduce him to us, so he knows some people in town now that he’s moved up here to work with her dad,” I said. “But she’s probably like everyone else who thinks Blanche needs a man to fix her life.”
Edith frowned as she turned to look at me, then pursed her lips together in a disapproving expression. “Everyone? I’ve never said you need a man to fix you, so not everyone says that.”
I sighed as I folded the fabric for Allie’s dress and laid it on a shelf behind me. “Well, Mama and Daddy and Emmy then. Not you. Still, I don’t know why they all don’t understand that I like life the way it is right now. I’m content. Jackson is happy. We’re doing well.”
Edith folded her arms and leaned back against the sewing table, a smile tugging at her lips. “And you don’t have to let anyone in and risk being hurt again. Good plan.”
I playfully tossed a rolled-up piece of tissue paper at her. “Hush your mouth, as Emmy always says.”
Edith laughed. ‘Well, it’s true and you know it is.”
The front door to the shop opened and our father stepped inside, briefcase in hand, grinning as he saw Edith trying to reach to unzip the dress from behind.
“Well, you look nice, Edith,” he said. “Special occasion?”
Edith smirked and shook her head, tugging at the zipper. “Daddy…you know it’s Jimmy and my anniversary next week.”
“Oh? Is it? You’ve only mentioned it ten times in the last few days. I must have forgotten.”
Gray speckled Daddy’s sandy brown hair and small wrinkles marked the skin along his eyes. He’d taken his suit coat off, wearing only his button-up dress shirt, and started to loosen his tie.
Edith playfully slapped her hand against Daddy’s shoulder as she walked past him toward the changing room. “Very funny, Daddy.”
“You ready to head home, kid?” he asked me. “Mama’s making fried chicken for dinner and I bet she’d love a break from that crazy kid of yours.”
I laughed, knowing my mama never called my son crazy and loved the days she spent with him; playing with him, cooking him lunch and helping him prepare for Kindergarten, which he would start attending in a few months.
“I’m anxious to see him,” I said, gathering my measuring tape, scissors, and extra thread spools and shoving them in the top drawer of the sewing table. “But I doubt Mama wants a break from him.”
Daddy smiled. “I have to agree. She does love that boy.”
Edith stepped out of the dressing room in a button-up pink shirt and a flared light blue skirt, hooking her long, curly hair into a ponytail. “Speaking of being anxious to see someone, I’ve got a husband to head home to and cook up some dinner for.”
She hugged me quickly and kissed Daddy’s cheek. “Thanks again, Blanche. I’ll swing by next week to pick it up. I don’t want Jimmy to see it until that night.”
Locking the door to the shop, I thought about how I’d spent the first year after my divorce floundering, trying to get my footing as a single mom at the age of 20. I stayed home with Mama, helping her cook and clean and care for Jackson, but rarely left home, even for church, keeping myself emotionally locked up in the solitude of shame. Eventually, I took a part-time job at the library, began attending church again and visiting the sewing circle meetings with Mama on Wednesday nights. I also started writing a column for the local newspaper.
I’d left the library job when Doris Thompson asked me if I’d be interested in helping her in the sewing shop. I agreed and a year later Doris semi-retired, working three days a week at first and then one day. Six months ago, she’d signed the business over to me and remained on as landlord only, collecting a reasonable monthly rent from me.
“I have to stop and drop my column off to Stanley before we head out,” I called to Daddy over my shoulder, walking down the sidewalk and sliding a folded stack of papers out of my handbag.
Daddy grunted and looked disgusted as he opened the driver’s side door. “I’ll wait for you in the car. I can only feign politeness for so long with that man.”
I grinned as I walked, remembering Daddy’s dinner rant a few months ago about editor Stanley Jasper’s editorial about the war in Vietnam.
“What’s that fool even talking about, saying we should get involved in the conflict over there?” Daddy said, fuming as he read the paper. “There is no way we should be sending our boys over there. Who does that man think he is? Moves in here from the city and then acts like he knows it all. I am telling you – I have half a mind to go into that office and tell that editor what an ignoramus he is.”
And Daddy did go into the newspaper office, but he came out even angrier than when he’d gone in. Stanley had refused to budge and told Daddy if he had a problem with the editorials that ran in the paper he was welcome to stop buying it.
Stanley’s name was off-limits in our house and Daddy wasn’t thrilled with me submitting a column to the newspaper but said maybe my lifestyle column would help to offset the drivel Stanley wrote on the opinion page each Sunday.
The newspaper office buzzed with the noise of reporters on the phone, typewriter keys clicking, the press in the back running, and sports reporters commenting on the latest home run by Mickey Mantel.
Reporter Jerry Simms looked up from his typewriter, sliding a pencil behind his ear. He jerked his head toward Stanley’s office door on the other side of the office. “You know the drill. Hand it to Stanley so he knows it’s here.”
Stanley wasn’t originally from Dalton. He’d grown up in Philadelphia and was a transplant, referred to by many in the county as a “flatlander,” a term used affectionately when people agreed with him and with a sneer when they disagreed with him.
I found Stanley where I usually did when I came in to drop off my column; behind his desk in the middle of a cloud of cigar smoke, pounding out a story on the typewriter.
Leaning back in a large, black leather chair, his feet propped on top of the desk, a sheet of paper in one hand, a cigar in the other, Stanley’s black hair, streaked with gray, was disheveled as usual. His jawline was unshaven, circles darkened the skin under his eyes, and his clothes were wrinkled, his shirt untucked.
He moved the paper to one side as I stepped inside the door and stuffed the cigar in the corner of his mouth.
“Good column last week, Blanche,” he said around the cigar. “I never thought I’d get so caught up in the story of a pregnant cat.” He shrugged and pulled the cigar from his mouth, holding it between his index finger and thumb. “It’s like I told you before, small town people eat that stuff up.”
I wasn’t sure if the comment about small-town people was a compliment, but I chose to accept it as one since it was as close as Stanley was probably going to get about a column he saw as “soft news.” In journalism lingo, soft news was considered low priority and traditionally thought of as inferior to the harder news. From what I could see, though, it was often the “soft news” that created more of a buzz at the local diner in a small town each morning.
“Well, this week we have an update on the cat and her kittens,” I said. “I’m sure the small-town folk you speak of will love that too.”
The newspaper’s typesetter, Minnie Wilkes, sashayed her way into the office and snatched the column from the top of Stanley’s desk.
She turned and looked at me with bright green eyes and long, dark eyelashes, made even darker by heavy, black eyeliner and brown eye shadow. “Hey, Blanche. I love typesetting your column. It’s way more interesting than the political stuff Stanley writes.”
Stanley rolled his eyes. “Thank you, Minnie. Your opinion is duly noted, though not asked for.”
Minnie winked at me as she walked out of the office again.
Stanley stuffed the cigar back in his mouth and moved the paper he was holding back in front of his face.
“Keep up the folksy stuff, Blanche. It sells papers. And that’s what we’re in the business of doing, selling papers.”
Outside the office, standing in the sunlight, I looked out at the town I’d gone to high school in and thought how strange it was to still be in the place I’d thought I’d left behind that day I’d left it as a teenager. In front of me, the town square was postcard-worthy, a gazebo in the middle of it. Behind the square sat one of the oldest banks in the state, Community State Bank, and next to the bank the Dalton Theatre, built-in 1893 and only slightly renovated since then. Down the other end of the street, Bert’s Pharmacy was wedged between an antique shop and D’s Diner, and a few blocks over was Holden’s Supermarket. Across the street from the supermarket was the post office and two blocks away from the post office was the building where I’d spent many of my days after school, waiting for Daddy to finish at the office and drive us home – The Dalton Public Library.
I’d never felt like I’d fit in at school or in this town and that feeling was even more prominent after I’d returned with a baby and without a husband. There were days I was sure the judging eyes of people were on me when I walked into Bert’s Pharmacy or Holden’s Supermarket but the feeling was probably something I’d conjured up in my own mind. Since coming home, I had earned a General Education Diploma, started attending church again, began running my own business, writing for the local paper, and slowly working my way back into the community.
I still struggled with feeling out of place, still kept my eyes downcast most of the time, but more and more I lifted my eyes to see kind expressions and nods of greeting. Eventually, I began to feel less like the outcast I’d always thought I was.
“So, Blanche. . .”
Anytime Daddy started a sentence with “So, Blanche. . .” I knew he was about to suggest something I needed to do or should have done.
I shut the passenger side door behind me, tossed my coat into the backseat and looked at him, bracing myself for whatever conversation we were about to have.
“I’ve been thinking . . .”
A ‘So, Blanche’ and a ‘I’ve been thinking….’ in less than thirty seconds meant this was going to be an uncomfortable conversation.
“I think I should teach you how to drive so you can have a little more freedom.”
I let my breath out in a heavy sigh. I wasn’t interested in learning how to drive, perfectly content with Mama or Daddy driving me where I needed to go. I was completely intimidated at the idea of learning how to push in a clutch and shift gears and everything else that went with driving.
“You’re almost 25, Blanche,” Daddy continued. “You’ve been home five years now. I don’t mind driving you where you need to go, but I think it’s time you start, you know, spreading your wings a little bit, gaining some independence. I love having you and Jackson living with us, you know that but someday, well, you will – or you could – you might – meet someone and . . .”
“Daddy . . .”
“Well, you might. I mean there are plenty of eligible, good men in this county and it is possible you will, you know . . . Ah. You might want to drive out and meet him somewhere or – “
I could tell Daddy was nervous by the high number of “you knows” he was uttering. I knew he and Mama were old school and felt Jackson needed both a father and a mother, but I wasn’t willing to marry someone just to look good to others or fulfill my parents’ wish that I be a married mother instead of a single one.
It was hard for me to believe it had been five years since I had left Hank and returned home with a one-year-old on my hip and a heart full of hurt. In the same way, I could remember the night I fought back, it still felt like yesterday when I’d heard the gunshot echoing in my parents’ house the night I thought Daddy had killed Hank.
“Y-you could have killed me, you crazy old man!” Hank had sputtered in disbelief, looking at the ground in front of his feet in shock.
“I could have, and I still can,” Daddy told him. “Now go before I have to.”
When the taillights faded into the darkness that night I closed my eyes against the tears and wondered if Hank would try to come back again someday. He never did. His mama told me one day when I took Jackson to see her, like I did every week, that she’d got a letter from Hank a year after I’d left him, saying he planned to move out west. That was the last she’d heard from him. I knew it broke her heart that her oldest son never contacted her, but I could tell that seeing Jackson helped relieve the pain. I’d seen Hank once before he left to go out West, but he hadn’t seen me, and I never told my family about it. I didn’t know if I ever would.
“I’ll think about the driving lessons,” I told Daddy, hoping he would change the subject now.
“Well, you know, that’s all I can ask, I guess,” Daddy said, clearing his throat, looking at the road in front of him.
I looked out at the road too, watching as the paved road faded to dirt, dust billowing around the car as Daddy turned down the road that would take us home. I closed my eyes, tired from the long day, but also fighting back thoughts and emotions I had tried to bury for five years.
I despised myself for letting Hank abuse me with his mouth and his hands for the three years I’d been married to him. For five years I had been consumed with an inability to forgive Hank or myself for all that had happened after I’d run away with him at the age of 17. Abusing me seemed to finally give him the power his abusive father had stripped from him during his childhood.
The night I left him, he’d shoved me against a table, dragged me by my hair and tried to stop me from leaving our apartment with our son by grabbing my leg and yanking me to the floor. I could remember it all like it had happened yesterday; how I’d reached behind my head and saw the blood on my hand, how he’d hissed at me: “Why couldn’t you have just done what you were told?” and then swung around and staggered into our room, toward our screaming baby. I remembered how he’d danced around the room in a drunken rage after I’d pushed him away from Jackson, laughing in my face.
“Oh, looky here,” Hank had said, leering at me. “Little ole’ Blanche finally got her voice.”
He laughed again, leaned close to my face and sneered.
“Whatcha’ going to do with it now you got it?”
When I fought back, kicking him in the face, knocking him out, leaving him in a pool of blood, I ran to my friend Miss Mazie’s house and never looked back.
More than fighting to forgive myself for leaving with Hank at 17, I couldn’t seem to find a way to forgive myself for the danger I’d put Jackson in by staying with Hank; how I’d caused Jackson to have a life without a father.
In that first year after I left, life unfolded around me like a movie I was a part of but had no say in. I came home to my parents, a father who had barely spoken to me in three years, and a mother who welcomed me with open arms but somehow blamed herself for my smashed nose and bruised face. I pushed the emotion of those years with Hank deep inside me and the darkness of it all lingered in the darkest caverns of my heart for two years, eventually leaving me in a state of emotional numbness.
Slowly I began to feel again – laugh again, trust again, hope again, at least when it came to my family and my future. I had no interest in a romantic relationship of any kind, though, and still didn’t. I wasn’t about to let anyone break down the walls I had built around my life and heart, walls to protect me, but more importantly Jackson. I had exposed my son to darkness and pain once before. I refused to do it again.
I wouldn’t let my guard down for someone who could shatter the life I’d built for us like Hank almost had. Protecting Jackson, giving him a life free of hurt was my only goal, and I made sure I stayed away from anyone who could threaten our security.
Standing on the front steps of the church, Daddy slid his fingers into the front pocket of his shirt while he looked out over the parking lot and pulled 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 still struggled 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, staring 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 told him she wasn’t about to watch him smoke his way into an early grave.
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 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 are 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 stood 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 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 be here soon,” James said as he closed the front door behind us.
In the kitchen Emmy stood 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, inviting and warm, was far removed from the childish smirk I remembered.
He held out his hand toward me and I took it, feeling his palms rough from what I imagined were years of working construction jobs, his grip both firm and warm. “Hey, Blanche. I go by Judson now actually. J.T. is what my family still calls me though.”
“Ah, yes, family nicknames,” I said. “Always a challenge to shake.”
He grinned, still holding my hand. “Actually, I’ve seen you since we were kids, but you probably don’t remember.”
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, 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 caught Emmy watching 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 reeks 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 served roast with steamed potatoes and carrots.
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 coop out back and a barn to house a horse and a few pigs.
Emmy and Sam had moved to this rural homestead a year ago, opting to live outside of the small-town atmosphere where they had lived the first three years of their marriage, in a small apartment on Main Street. They were now living in the country, five miles away from my parents’ home, down the road from where Emmy had spent her junior and senior high years with her parents, 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.”
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 small town 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. Wainwright. 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. Dad didn’t like it, but I got a job at a local 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 some day, he offered to let me come up here and work with him for a spell, 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. And what does ‘for a spell’ mean?”
Judson laughed. “It’s Southern vernacular for, ‘for a bit’. It’s possible you may need a translator when you’re around me.”
“Well, I haven’t needed one with Emmy all these years, so I’m sure I’ll be fine,” I told him with a wink. “She just fills me in when I give her a bewildered expression.”
He sat next to me, 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. Wainwright 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.