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Authors: Reba White Williams

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BOOK: Angels
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We walked over to the house—the four of us and Peter in a new red collar Mary Louise gave him. Peter struggled against his leash. He’s devoted to Coleman, but there’s a lot of yard dog in him—he looks like the Guthrie dog, but in some ways he’s like his mama—and he doesn’t like being penned up. He wants to roam free, and to accompany us when it’s his idea, not ours. So far he’s not big enough to put up much of a fight, but I worry that we’ll have trouble with him eventually.

It’s not far to Fairways, but the driveway is long, and you can’t see the house from the road. When we turned the bend in the weedy rutted drive and I saw it, I felt sick. The shutters were closed, and the face of the house was blank. So much paint had worn away, the house was grayer than white. The grass was knee-high and full of weeds and sandspurs, and the shrubs were overgrown and tangled with kudzu vine—that pesky vine will take over if you turn your back on it, and it kills everything in its path. The air was still and hot and humid, and the house and grounds were silent, as if the birds and insects had abandoned the area when the humans left.

“It’s like Sleepin’ Beauty’s house, but nobody here’ll ever wake up,” Coleman said.

I knew what she meant. I thought of Edward Burne-Jones’s painting
Briar Rose
,
and all those thorny vines around Sleeping Beauty, who looks more dead than asleep. The temperature was in the high eighties, but I shivered. A goose must have run over my grave.

Olivia would have hated seeing her house so rundown. She’d been forced to abandon it when she became bedridden, and after that, she waited for death in the nursing home for more than a year, asleep most of the time. She’d left instructions that her body be cremated and her ashes sprinkled in the Good Hope River where it meets the ocean. She didn’t want a religious service or any kind of ceremony, and Mr. Sherrill had honored her wishes. Maybe that’s why the house was so forlorn: its mistress left and never came back, not even for her lying-in.

Ida read my mind. “We should have a memorial service for Olivia,” she said.

“But she didn’t want a service,” I protested.

“She would have, if she’d known about Coleman,” Ida said.

As soon as she said it, I knew she was right: with Coleman back home, Olivia
would
have wanted a service. Coleman should know how much her grandmother was loved and respected. Just about everyone in Slocumb County would come to say goodbye to Olivia, and to offer Coleman their condolences. We’d arrange a service as soon as we could.

Despite the burning sun, the house was dark and clammy. It reeked of damp and rot, that moldy odor that makes it hard to swallow or breathe. When I turned on the lights and saw the interior of the house, I felt even sicker than when I saw the outside. The walls were streaked with water stains where the windows leaked, and the paint on the woodwork was peeling. Mice had left signs everywhere. The parlors on either side of the staircase entry hall and the hall itself had been stripped of furniture and decorations. Lighter marks on the walls were ghostly reminders of the pictures that once hung there. They were family portraits by unknown artists, but I’d have thought they were worth keeping for their sentimental value. I guess Olivia was totally out of sentiment. We didn’t see a stick of furniture until we got to the kitchen, where the poor woman spent her last months before they took her away.

The kitchen used to be cozy and attractive. There’s a fireplace and a potbellied stove as well as a modern range, and a dishwasher and a refrigerator and a big freezer—all the “mod cons.” But rain had leaked in here, too, and what with the stains and the stench and peeling paint, the kitchen looked and felt derelict. The fridge and the pantry and the freezer were empty; someone must have come in and cleaned them out. Thank goodness we didn’t have to deal with spoiled food on top of everything else.

The shabby brown corduroy sofa piled with blankets and pillows in one corner of the kitchen was where Olivia slept and spent her days, mostly watching the huge television set opposite the sofa. In a small room next door to the kitchen, shelves were stuffed full of books. Books and the TV must have been her only company most of the time. We all stopped in now and again—whenever I visited the TV was on—but days and nights must seem endless when you are alone and ill.

Until we went upstairs, I couldn’t imagine why Mr. Sherrill thought clearing the house would be a big job. Getting up there was a challenge—the steps are worn and rickety—and we held tight to the banister and watched where we put our feet. When we reached the second floor, I couldn’t believe my eyes: the entire floor was crammed with boxes and trunks and furniture. No antiques; I suspect she had a dealer come and get all the good stuff. But what’s left should sell in a yard sale. The attic was full of boxes and furniture, too, and cobwebs and dust. Luckily, the roof didn’t leak, and the attic was the driest place in the house. What in the world could Olivia have packed in all those boxes? They were sealed, with no labels to tell us what was in them.

The mold and mouse smell was even worse upstairs. Ida wheezed and coughed—she had asthma when she was a child, and she’s always had a weak chest. How would we ever get through all this mess when less than an hour here made Ida sick?

Dinah

Coleman poked at a few boxes, but we needed knives to open ‘em. “Stinks in here,” Coleman said, wrinkling her nose.

Miss Ida coughed again. “Smells bad, honey, not
stinks
,” she said in a hoarse voice. “But I agree. It’s damp and moldy, and I think a mouse died.”

“Let’s us go home,” Coleman said.

Aunt Polly frowned. “Coleman, this is your house, and these are your belongings. We have to decide what to do with everything, so they can sell the house.”

“Mr. Sherrill said we could move things to our house. Let’s us move everything,” Coleman said.

Aunt Polly looked shocked. “But Coleman, that will be a terrible extravagance. A lot of this stuff is probably trash, and after we look at it, we’ll have to pay to have it taken away. No need to move it first and pay twice. There could be two or three big van loads of things here, and the movers will have to come from Wilmington—that will be very expensive. We’ll need to have a yard sale, and we shouldn’t waste money moving things we’re going to sell—the sale should be here outside the house. But we’ll have to get some help with the yard—” She broke off. She sounded tired just talkin’ about all there was to do.

“This place is makin’ Miss Ida sick. Listen to her coughin’. And look at Dinah. She’s pale as a ha’nt,” Coleman said.

Aunt Polly turned to look at me. “Haunt or ghost,” she said to Coleman, but I could tell from her face I must have looked as bad as I felt. I was sick to my stomach from the smell, and like Miss Ida, havin’ trouble breathing. I wanted to leave mighty bad, but Aunt Polly was right: we had work to do.

“We’ll ask Mr. Sherrill to get all this stuff packed up and sent to our house,” Coleman said, with that stubborn look she gets. “We won’t have any movers and trucks comin’ out here from Wilmington, either. I’ve figured out just how to do it.”

My heart, which had sunk down to my toes when I thought about spending weeks clearing this house, jumped back up to my chest, then settled down. That’s exactly what Coleman said about the produce stand: she’d figured out just how to do it. I believed her, too. She was always comin’ up with things I never would have thought of. That child is some smart, and good as gold with it.

“I’ve seen lots of farmers ‘round here with mules and wagons. They can pack us and move us—it won’t cost much. No sense payin’ big-city movers to do it,” Coleman said.

“But Coleman, they’re busy farming,” Aunt Polly protested.

“They can work here nights when it’s cool. Their families can help, and with a bunch of folks workin’, it won’t take long. The money for the move will stay around here, not go off to Wilmington. We’ll have the sale at our house, where people come to buy from the stand, and to see you and Miss Ida, and where the yard is shady and cool, and looks nice. Our place don’t look haunted or smell terrible. Nobody will want to come to this house. Let’s us go home,” Coleman said.

“Not
don’t
, doesn’t,” Aunt Polly said, but she stopped arguing. I could tell she wanted to get away from that house as much as Miss Ida and Coleman and I did. Anyway, Coleman was right: the money for movin’
should
stay in the county, and a sale
would
go a whole lot better at Four Oaks than here. And the people packin’ us up would tell the world about the yard sale. They’d be better than ads in the paper or on the radio.

Everybody had to talk it over, and Miss Ida had to ask Aunt Mary Louise what she thought, but I knew Aunt Mary Louise would agree with Coleman, and she did. Coleman asked if she could call Mr. Sherrill about it, and Miss Ida said she could. I don’t know what either one of ‘em said, but Coleman came back smiling. It was settled.

Sarah Ann volunteered to organize the move, and she got it goin’ quick. We sat on the porch evenings, watching the wagons roll empty on their way to Fairways and coming back crammed full. The lightnin’ bugs flashed all around us, copyin’ the stars in the dark sky, while men and boys stored the furniture in the barn and the boxes in our empty rooms upstairs. The night smells—the river, the piney woods, the honeysuckle—and the night sounds—frogs and owls and a splash in the river now and then when some critter caught a late supper—were all around us.

Everybody workin’ stopped in for a glass of tea or lemonade before they went home. They all came again every evening until the job was finished. After five nights, Fairways was empty, and the boxes and furniture were where we could get at ‘em and breathe clean air while we unpacked.

Miss Olivia’s good china and silver were long gone, but the kitchen cupboards were stuffed with old dishes and pots and pans and such. All of them will go in the yard sale with most of the furniture. We’re movin’ a few of Miss Olivia’s things to our room: a white-painted desk and chair that belonged to Coleman’s mother for Coleman to use for schoolwork, a beat-up bookcase where we’ll keep our books (Miss Ida said we can paint it and the other old furniture white, including the table I’ve been usin’ as a desk), night stands for either side of the bed, and a pair of china lamps with pink roses on ‘em. The lamps don’t work, but the big Atkins boys are electricians—they have a shop downtown—and they can fix ‘em. The lamp shades are dirty, but Aunt Polly says she’ll show me how to clean ‘em.

Most of the boxes are full up with fabric Aunt Olivia put away to make clothes and slipcovers an’ all—there’s so much, we could open a store. She’d packed up lots of clothes, too; she must have kept everything she ever owned. Dresses and coats and suits and nightgowns and robes and slacks and sweaters, and I don’t know what all, and hundreds of books.

We dusted the books and put them on the shelves in the room the Judge—that’s what everybody calls my granddaddy—used as his office. Aunt Polly said he kept his law books on the shelves when he worked in there, but they went to my daddy when the Judge died and were sold to help pay bills after Daddy was killed. Miss Ida said the Judge’s office was the library in the olden days, and she likes seein’ it full of books again. She’s already calling it “the library.”

Mr. Sherrill came out and looked at the books. He said some were valuable, and after discussin’ ‘em with Miss Ida and Aunt Polly, he took some away to sell. He and Coleman talked a long time, and after he left, she said Mr. Sherrill was arrangin’ to have Aunt Olivia’s freezer put in our kitchen and our old one in the produce stand so we can sell frozen food. Aunt Olivia’s sewing machine is comin’ to our house, ‘cause Coleman wants it for her own, and to learn how to use it. The other Fairways appliances will be installed in our kitchen—we’ll sell ours at the yard sale—and he’s sendin’ somebody over to hook up the TV in the library. Aunt Polly shook her head and said it was an extravagance, but Miss Ida is happy over it. I thought maybe she was looking forward to seein’ the news and such, but she told me it was about watchin’ picture shows—she used to go to the shows, and she loved ‘em, but she hasn’t been to see one in years. I’m so excited I can hardly stand it. I’ve seen a few picture shows at school, and now we can watch ‘em on TV, and we’ll look in the paper every day to see what’s playing.

When Aunt Polly and Coleman unpacked the clothes, they looked like Christmas morning after Santa’s been. They shook things out, unfolded some, hung some up, and folded others. They laid things aside for the yard sale, but a lot of it they kept for us. I think we’re all about to get new clothes. I can hardly wait.

Coleman talked to Aunt Mary Louise about Aunt Polly’s sewing room, and two big Byrd boys came over, knocked down a wall between the sewing room and the bedroom next door, and doubled the size of the room. They put in shelves to store the fabric and painted the walls cream color. With two machines and a lot of space and everything handy, Coleman and Aunt Polly can sew together and have the best time, like Miss Ida and me in the kitchen. They’re making curtains for the room, and the boys hung two big ol’ mirrors—kinda shadowy, but good enough—from the Fairways attic for when people come for fittings. It looks real nice.

Mr. Sherrill brought Coleman a box full of pictures of her granny and granddaddy, and her Mama and Daddy when they were children, and when they were in school, and when they got married. He said there are some family letters and papers in the box, too, and best of all, he brought her a big Bible with all her family names in it. He showed where Aunt Olivia had written Coleman’s name when she was born.

Coleman put her finger on her name and looked up all big-eyed at Mr. Sherrill. “This is my birthday? December twenty?”

We all stared at her. Mr. Sherrill spoke first. “You didn’t know, Coleman?”

“No, sir. That Gloria told me how old I am, but she didn’t know my birthday. I guess nobody did, ‘cept Daddy, an’ he never said. When people asked me, like at Head Start, I made up a birthday.”

I nearly cried. Five years old and never had a birthday party. Never even had a
birthday
. I didn’t know what to say, but Aunt Ida spoke up. “Honey, I wish I’d known you didn’t know. I’d have told you. Your birthday is in our Bible, too. Well, never mind. You’ll be six on December twentieth, and we’ll have a big party.”

BOOK: Angels
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