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Authors: Reba White Williams

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BOOK: Angels
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“Not
ain’t
, isn’t,” I said, but before I could tell her we didn’t allow dogs in the house, let alone in our beds, Ida beat me to it. Ida never raises her voice, but she laid down the law: no dogs in the house. Coleman didn’t talk back, but I could see she was determined that Peter would live, and live with her. We were in for it again.

We reasoned with her for hours. We told her Nana would be worried if Coleman took her puppy, but Coleman just smiled, because after Nana moped around a while, she’d wandered off. It seemed she’d had enough of full-time motherhood. She came back ever so often to nurse the puppy, but she didn’t stay long, and we had to supplement her milk with table scraps, despite what we’d told Coleman about our inability to feed a dog. We explained that the puppy would grow up big and ugly like Nana. Coleman knew better: Peter would grow up beautiful. And truth to tell, Nana must have been acquainted with the Guthrie’s poodle, because after Coleman washed and brushed the puppy, his fur was honey-colored, and not short and coarse like Nana’s, but soft and wavy. I couldn’t resist petting and cuddling him, he felt so good.

We said Peter would be dirty and have fleas. Coleman said she’d wash him, and she’d ask the Herb Lady for a flea potion and special soap; she’d pay for them by working in the Herb Lady’s garden. (Rena lives far out in the country, and how Coleman would get there and back was a mystery, but never mind that.) When we told her Peter would be unhappy indoors, Coleman declared he’d be a lot unhappier if the owl got him.

Finally, we offered the unanswerable excuse: as we’d said from the beginning, we can’t afford to feed him.

Coleman looked serious. I felt sure she understood, and she was going to give in. I was relieved: we really
can’t
afford to feed a dog.

“I’ve been studyin’ how to make us some money,” she said. “We’ll have us a roadside stand and sell corn and tomatoes and peaches and berries and such, and Miss Ida’s cakes and all. I’ve figured out just how to do it. There’ll be plenty of money for food for Peter, and more besides.”

Ida and I exchanged glances. Where had this child come from? There hasn’t been a “go-getter” like Coleman in our family in living memory. A roadside stand? We couldn’t possibly have a roadside stand. Who would build it? Run it? And is it really appropriate for two old ladies and two little girls to do something like this? What would people think?

Dinah

Soon as Coleman said “roadside stand” I wondered why we hadn’t thought of it before now. Everybody goin’ to the beach has to drive through Slocumb Corners. People say the fruit and vegetables for sale at the beach aren’t real fresh, and the prices are as high as a cat’s back. Ours would be right out of the garden, and cheaper. Lots of folks passin’ by would stop at our stand, and those who came to pick up Miss Ida’s cakes and fried chicken and ham biscuits, and the ladies who have fittings with Aunt Polly—they’d all buy from us. I saw how it would be a big success.

Good an idea as it was, I don’t think Miss Ida and Aunt Polly would have let us do it, but while we were discussin’ it, Aunt Mary Louise stopped by, and as soon as she came through the door, Coleman told her all about the stand. Aunt Mary Louise said it was a real good idea, and the Byrds would help; they’d bring things to sell, and work at the stand.

Now, Aunt Mary Louise’s mama was Miss Ida’s nurse when Miss Ida was a baby, and Miss Ida and Aunt Mary Louise slept in the same crib, and grew up side by side, and they’ve always been best friends, so Miss Ida sets a lot of store by what Aunt Mary Louise thinks. She still looked worried, though, and I believe she was wondering how we’d get it built, and how we’d pay for lumber and nails and all. But before you could say boo to a goose, some of the big Byrd boys had built that stand, and we were in business. They’d also made and set up two wooden picnic tables and benches in the shade near the stand. They’d even painted a green sign with gold letters: Slocumb Corners Produce and Baked Goods.

One of Aunt Mary Louise’s connections—nobody can keep straight who’s a niece and who’s a cousin in the Byrd family, so when we don’t know ‘zackly what the relationship is, we say “connection”—Sarah Ann, was out of college for the summer and waitressin’ at the beach. Sarah Ann hated waitressin’—she’s too brainy to want to spend her time serving hamburgers and clearing tables—so Aunt Mary Louise called her home and Sarah Ann took over the stand—pricing, pasting labels on the canned food, asking friends and relatives what they had to sell, foraging all over Slocumb County. She had everything organized lickety-split. I do believe Sarah Ann could organize the entire state of North Carolina, and people say she’s goin’ to get even better at it ‘cause Sarah Ann is going to business school and get her MBA after she graduates from East Carolina. Goodness knows what she’ll organize then. (Maybe she’ll go to Washington and help the Congress. Aunt Polly says they need all the help they can get.)

We’ll sell lots of vegetables and fruit. Everybody has too many tomatoes or squash or butter beans or whatever when they’re in season, and we can’t can or freeze ‘em fast enough before some spoil. We can’t give ‘em away either, because everybody else has too many, too.

We decided to sell home-canned food to make life easy for the beach people: spaghetti sauce and soup mix and chili, and jars of strawberry preserves and cucumber pickles and pickled peaches. The Herb Lady brought over candles—there’s lots of power failures at the beach—and lotions for sunburn and skeeter bites. Sarah Ann’s beekeeping sister brought little glass pots of honey, and a Byrd cousin who’d learned grass-weaving in Charleston brought a bunch of baskets she’d made.

For the opening, Miss Ida and I made cookies and cakes and fruit pies and cupcakes and sandwiches. We made lemonade, too, and iced tea. We didn’t have a grand opening; we just filled the stand and waited. Every car full of hot, thirsty people stoppin’ to buy spring onions and lettuce and peas and new potatoes had to have some of that lemonade or tea, and cookies to go with it, and some to take with ‘em. Lots of folks bought sandwiches and cake and drinks and had a picnic at one of the shady tables.

Coleman’s face was one big smile at the end of the day, and so was mine. I asked her how she thought up the produce stand, and she said she saw ‘em by the road on the way up from New Orleans, and she’d wondered why there weren’t any around here. And when she learned how Miss Ida and everybody in Slocumb Corners could cook and make delicious preserves and such, seemed like travelers would want ‘em, too. But the big reason she thought of it was she’d prayed to the Lord to show her the way to help save Peter from the owl, and He’d put the stand in her mind.

Nobody said anything more about Peter, and he moved in. Miss Ida fixed a bed for him in the kitchen, but he howled all night and nobody could sleep, and after that, he slept in the bed with Coleman and me. Sometimes in the night, I reach out to pet him; his tummy is warm and round and fat, and his fur is so soft, he feels better to hold and to snuggle up to than the cuddliest stuffed animal. He’s good company, and he never lets Coleman out of his sight if he can help it. He doesn’t bark except to announce a visitor, and we all like that. He earns his keep. Every day and night I thank the Lord for bringin’ Coleman home, and for how she’s made our lives so much better, and for the produce stand, and for Peter.

JULY
Polly

Mary Louise is picking up Dinah and Coleman to take them to see Granny Byrd. Granny’s first name is Corinne, but she’s very old—over a hundred, it’s said, but I don’t think anyone knows for sure—and everyone calls her Granny. She looks every day of her age; she’s shrunken and as wrinkled as a walnut. But her black eyes sparkle, reflecting her love of life and others, and she has more curiosity than a houseful of cats. She lives with her great-niece Eloise Byrd, a retired nurse in her sixties and vigorous enough to take on a dozen centenarians, but I think Granny Byrd keeps her hopping. Granny’s cottage is near Mary Louise’s house, so Mary Louise can look in often, and Granny’s front garden is the prettiest in the county—full of old-fashioned flowers like pinks and larkspur and snapdragons in the summertime, and daffodils and tulips in the spring.

You don’t pay a call on the old lady these days; you respond to a summons. I suspect she wants to get a look at Coleman. She knows Dinah, of course, but she’s never showed much interest in her. She probably asked Dinah along to be polite, but I have a feeling Granny and Coleman will hit it off. I wish I’d been invited. I’d like to listen to those two chatting.

Dinah

Granny Byrd has a kindly way with her, and her hearin’ is good, but she’s so old I’m afraid she’ll dry up and blow away. I’m scared to touch her for fear she’ll break; kissing her hello is scary. Her eyes look right through you. Even when I haven’t done anything bad, I feel guilty when I’m near her. She never looks down at her fingers, which are always knittin’ or crochetin’ or shellin’ peas. I like her house. It smells like peppermint and has a lot of handmade things in it—patchwork and crocheted doilies and hooked rugs. And she has a black-and-white cat named Penny (short for Penguin) that sleeps in a basket by the hearth and purrs real loud. But I can never think of a thing to say to her.

Coleman just walked in and started talkin’. Of all things to talk about, she brought up angels because there’s a big picture of three angels on the wall in Granny’s house. Coleman took one look at that picture and said, “That’s mighty purty, but real angels don’t look like that. Well, maybe in heaven they have wings and halos and wear long white dresses, but not here.”

I worried Granny would be mad at her, talkin’ that way about angels, like she knows all about ‘em, but Granny looked at her with those see-everything eyes, and cocked her head like Peter does when he’s listenin’. “Have you seen angels, honey?” she asked.

“Oh yes, ma’am,” Coleman said, soundin’ surprised. “Haven’t you?”

“I can’t say as I have,” Granny said. “I thought the big ones look like that picture, and maybe little ones have hair like yours.” She was smiling, so I thought she was teasing. I looked at Aunt Mary Louise to see what she made of this angel talk. She wasn’t smiling. She looked real serious, maybe worried. I think she wasn’t happy about Coleman’s angels talk.

“I never met a little angel,” Coleman said. “The ones I’ve met are grown-up, and look just like anybody, but they act like angels. That’s how I know that’s what they are.”

“Oh, I
see
,” Granny said. “That’s a good way to tell.” She looked at me and Mary Louise, and I think she could see we weren’t easy with the conversation. She turned back to Coleman. “I want you to come back to see me real soon, so we can talk about angels some more. But before that, I want Mary Louise to bring you to our church. When you hear our choir, you’ll think you’re hearin’ a chorus of heavenly angels.”

“I’d like to come again, Granny. And I’d surely like to hear that choir. In New Orleans I was a Methodist, but I used to go around and listen to the choirs at the other churches. I wish I could sing like that,” Coleman said.

“Oh, honey, all God’s children should make a joyful noise to the Lord, and He’ll think it’s beautiful. He loves the sounds of children’s voices,” Granny said.

Coleman sighed. “I don’t know, Granny. That Gloria used to tell me I sounded like a crow, and I shouldn’t sing
ever
.”

“Hmph. Sounds to me like that woman took too much on herself. She’s interferin’ in the Lord’s business when she says something like that. God made all things, and the Lord made your voice. You sing by God’s will, and for His glory,” she said, real firm-like.

Granny sounds like she feels about that Gloria like I do. I can’t help thinkin’ bad thoughts about a woman who treated Coleman the way she did. Anyway, after that, they got off angels and religion and singing, and talked about the produce stand, and I was glad.

I felt kind of funny when Coleman said she’d seen angels. I believe in angels, and I don’t doubt her, but I never saw an angel, and I feel uneasy they’re close to Coleman. I don’t believe an angel turns up unless you need one bad, like you’re in danger of bein’ hurt. I hope she doesn’t see ‘em now that she’s home. With all of us around, I don’t see why she’d need angels. Aunt Mary Louise must have seen I was worried, because she reached over and squeezed my hand.

Granny thought we should sell cut flowers at the produce stand, so people can buy bunches to take to their houses. She said lots of people around Slocumb Corners have flower gardens, and they’d like to sell some to the beach people. She said, “Man cannot live by bread alone, and the stand should offer beauty, too; nothing is more beautiful than God’s flowers.” Aunt Mary Louise said it’s a good idea, so I know it will happen.

Granny’s garden is so pretty, I wish we had one. And I wish we had a cape jasmine bush like she has—I dearly love those flowers. Aunt Polly says city folk call ‘em gardenias, but around here, where they grow by every cabin that wants one, we say cape jasmine. Whatever they’re called, they smell wonderful. I wish we had an arbor with white roses growin’ over it like Granny’s, too. I could sit in there and read all day. But nobody at our house has time to work in a flower garden. Someday maybe I’ll have a flower garden of my own. Granny’s right: nothin’ is more beautiful than God’s flowers.

Polly

Patriotism runs deep in our little town, and the Fourth of July is a major holiday here. Ida and I have always been thankful that we live in a free country, and especially that we can worship freely—that’s why our ancestors came here. We want to make sure Dinah and Coleman understand the holiday and know that it’s not just about fireworks. Not that fireworks aren’t wonderful—to tell the truth, I like them as much as the children do.

Our Fourth of July celebrations are grand. While it’s still light, the young people parade on Main Street with a few homey floats and the school band playing “The Stars and Stripes Forever.” In the early evening there’s a street dance, with one of the big boys as disc jockey. They have three cakewalks for the children. This year, Ida made a lemon pound cake with lemon icing for one of the prizes; Mary Louise made a coconut cake; and Mrs. Guthrie, the Presbyterian minister’s wife, made an orange marmalade cake from a recipe she got when she visited some friends up in the mountains. Any child who can toddle joins in, sometimes clutching the hand of an older brother or sister, and they walk ‘round and ‘round in a big circle. The child standing at the marked spot when the music stops wins a cake. Dinah and Coleman walked in all three. They didn’t win a cake, but they didn’t mind—it’s the walking that’s fun, and they get plenty of cake at home.

Everyone takes picnic suppers to eat on a cloth spread on the grass in the little park by the courthouse. We always pack ham biscuits and egg salad sandwiches, a thermos of lemonade, and oatmeal cookies and brownies. We bring lots of cookies and brownies because people stroll around to visit with friends and neighbors, and it’s good to have something to offer them when they stop by to say hello. The town provides watermelons in tubs of ice, and freezers full of homemade vanilla ice cream made from Mayor Rankin’s wife’s recipe. Janet Rankin makes the best ice cream I ever tasted—I look forward to it every year.

Before we eat, one of the ministers—they take turns—leads us in the blessing, and we sing “God Bless America.” Then we have our picnic. I’ve never known it to rain on the Fourth of July. The evening air is always soft and warm, scented with pine trees and honeysuckle and newly cut grass and watermelon. Whenever I smell fresh cut grass and watermelon together, it takes me back to the Fourth of July.

When it’s full dark, the fireworks take my breath away—sparkly gold and green and white and red against the blue-black sky. Everyone stays up later than usual, and we’re always a little tired the next morning, but this year we couldn’t sleep in, because business is booming at the stand. It’s like feeding a dragon—you can’t ever let it get empty.

Today, like every July 5th since Arthur Rankin became mayor, Miss Ida is making angel food cakes, mostly for customers who’ve reserved one. Any left over, we’ll sell at the stand. This is how it is: Janet Rankin’s ice cream recipe calls for egg yolks, and she can’t use the egg whites, so she brings them to Miss Ida to use in angel food cakes. They sell well because hardly anybody makes angel food cakes from scratch anymore, and there’s a big difference between homemade and out of a box. We give 10 percent of what we make from the angel food cakes we sell on the produce stand to our church, and another 10 percent goes to the Salvation Army, in Janet Rankin’s name.

Coleman had never heard of or seen angel food cake, let alone tasted it, and she loved it. “I know why it’s called angel food,” she said. “It’s so light it could fly away to the angels. But I don’t think they eat in heaven—just when they’re here. I wonder if my angels ever tasted it.”

I didn’t know what to say, but she didn’t seem to want an answer; she just wandered off looking thoughtful.
Mary Louise told us about Coleman’s angels, but this is the first time I’d heard her mention them. I see no harm in it.
When I was a child, I went to sleep every night thinking about guardian angels at the head and foot of my bed.

The produce stand sales keep getting better and better, and we’re putting a little money in the bank. I worry what we’ll do when Sarah Ann goes back to college in September. Will we have to close down? But Mary Louise says she’ll find somebody else, and we’ll stay open full-time through Halloween, then close, and reopen for Thanksgiving and Christmas to cater to the visitors to Wilmington that come for the house tours and all the other holiday festivities.

After she said that, I decided to let go and let God. I promised Him not to worry about the produce stand anymore. I know worrying the way I do is a sin, and I pray for His help to keep my faith in Him and trust that He will provide.

Right after the fourth, Robert Sherrill, the Fairgroves’ lawyer, called Ida and asked if it was true that Olivia’s grandchild had been found. When she told him that Coleman was living with us, he said Olivia left everything she had to Coleman, except for our little legacy. (Like Ida, Olivia had never stopped believin’ Coleman was alive and would be found.) Mr. Sherrill was about to launch another search for her when he heard people say Coleman was with us. He was mighty glad she was home at last, and he’s comin’ to see her. He cautioned there wouldn’t be a lot of money, but with Coleman located, the estate could be settled quickly, and what there was, we’d probably have before cold weather. Another blessing! Coleman will need shoes and other things for school I can’t make. I need to take her to the doctor and the dentist, and I’ve been putting it off till we have a little more put by. But Mr. Sherrill told Ida if she needed money for Coleman he’ll advance it, so we needn’t worry. The Lord is always with us.

Mr. Sherrill is planning to sell Fairways, Olivia’s house, but I doubt it will fetch much. The last time I saw it, it was even more dilapidated than Four Oaks. Like us, Olivia sold most of the land. She couldn’t farm it herself, and she had no family left except Coleman. Even after she sold the land, I don’t think she could afford to keep the house up. Or maybe she just didn’t have the will or the energy. She was sick for a long time.

Before he could put the house on the market, Mr. Sherrill said we’d have to go through Olivia’s furniture and clothes and other belongings to see what Coleman wants to keep. Mr. Sherrill thought it would be a big job, and he urged us to get started right away. The estate would pay for moving whatever Coleman wanted brought to Four Oaks. After Fairways was empty, he’d have the house cleaned and start showing it to prospective buyers.

I wondered what we’d find in that house. Nothing valuable, I guessed. A long time ago, the Fairgroves were rich, but they had more than their share of death and bad luck, and when Henry and Olivia took over the property from his folks, there wasn’t much left. The Fairgroves’ bad luck continued: Angela, their only child, drowned, which nearly killed Henry and Olivia, and then Henry, a heavy smoker, got lung cancer, the tobacco disease. Tobacco is grown and cured all around here, and even if you don’t smoke or live with a smoker, you can’t help but breathe tobacco fumes. Lung cancer is a killer, and so are other smoking-related afflictions—other cancers, heart disease, emphysema, asthma, and who knows what else. Coleman talks about the demon drink and I agree, but she hasn’t yet learned about “terrible tobacco.” She may not even know how her grandfather died.

Henry was sick and in pain for a long time—lung cancer is a horrible way to die. Angela’s and Henry’s deaths took a heavy toll on Olivia, and there was no love lost between her and Andrew. Olivia thought he should have stayed in North Carolina, or if he had to go, he should have left Coleman with her or us when he moved to Richmond. She said he was in no shape to take care of a baby, which was certainly true. We weren’t happy about it either, but we made a point of not quarreling with him. If we had, we’d have lost touch completely. But he didn’t care either way. After Angela died, he didn’t care about anything. As to why he insisted on taking Coleman, none of us could understand it. Coleman was all he had left of Angela, of course, but he didn’t pay as much attention to her as he would have paid to an alley cat that raided his garbage can. Coleman’s disappearance was the final blow to Olivia. They say Olivia had heart disease, but I think her poor heart just broke.

BOOK: Angels
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