By the autumn after our graduation from college, I was pregnant. Jim, the boy who had scratched out a living for his fatherless family, was now himself a man and a proud father-to-be—and even more attentive to me than ever. That high school boy who had to be prompted to divulge anything more than the best time to prune blackberries was now a man boasting to all who would hear that his beautiful wife was going to have a baby. Soon everyone in Locust Hill knew about my condition, knew that the old farmhouse sitting atop Locust Hill would soon contain a new life and knew that the Russells, after a hundred years, would continue here for yet another generation.
Sandie simply shrieked in joy at the news, as I knew she would. “Imagine, you a mom and me an aunt!” she cried. And Lucie showed in her own much more subdued, genteel way perhaps the greatest change of us all. When we told her, she brightened with a smile greater than I had never seen her show before—a smile that seemed to speak of both happiness and great relief—as though in her heart she were saying, “One part of my life’s work is ending, but now a new and joyous one is about to begin!”
In short order Jim, the woodworker-farmer, produced an ancient oak cradle from some dark corner of the barn that I had never visited, refinished it, polished it, and proudly placed it in our already cramped bedroom to await its newest sleeper, albeit six months earlier than necessary. The cradle had been Sandie’s, he said, and his and his father’s and his Uncle Ed’s and so forth on back through Russell history to the first child born on this farm, a baby girl named Mary, who was put to sleep each night in this cradle made for her by her father, Darius, with the wood of an ancient oak tree that had grown on the hillside above Lost Creek, or so the family legend declared. At times, the cradle had been passed back and forth between branches of the family so that always each Russell child could maintain the tradition by spending at least a few nights in it. Only Uncle Ed’s daughters forsook it for their children, born as they were out of state, and thus broke the tradition, just as they forsook their father’s farm. Still, here was the cradle again, ready for use by a new generation of Russells, each nick in its renewed oak wood like a chapter in the family’s history. And our children were about to give the cradle the most use in its already long service.
As for me, I could hardly have been happier, and oddly enough, happy without the least bit of the apprehension that some of my girlfriends expressed at their first pregnancies, or the horror with which my mother recalled hers. Apparently, Jim was right about my being a sturdy fertility goddess! Besides, by now, despite the difficulties we’d encountered, I was confident in our ability to make a success of our marriage, the farm, and the rearing of children. I wondered only about the housing arrangements. When our baby outgrew the historic Russell cradle, then what? Where would the child’s room be? Especially if another baby should need that cradle!
My mother took the news of my pregnancy with more positive emotion than I had guessed she would. But after the initial smiles and congratulations, she pointed out that I was too young and too poor to start having children. I reminded her that she was three years younger than I when she had Eric and that we had more money than she and Dad not only had when I was born but probably had currently. She wasn’t pleased by that claim, and truthfully I wasn’t entirely sure if it was true, but at least we didn’t lapse into the fiery animosity that my engagement and conversion to Catholicism had sparked. Mom remained controlled and at least seemed not unhappy at the prospect of becoming a grandmother for the first time.
My brother Eric, though four years older than I, and now lagging behind me in achieving life’s great milestones of marriage and parenting, seemed surprised. “Are you sure you’re ready?” he quizzed me.
“Well, if I’m not, it’s certainly too late now!” I pointed out.
“And your Jim, is he really ready to be a dad so fast?”
“We’re ready,” I assured him and then pointed out that, since he, Eric, rarely returned home, he really didn’t really know Jim at all, having met him only on our wedding day.
My father, as always, was more openly and sincerely elated and hoped this news would cause Eric to become more serious about starting a family with Donna. He congratulated Jim and me but then quizzed us about our finances, as he always did. “Will you be able to afford this child? How will you provide for it? What about college? After all, my grandchild shouldn’t have go without anything!” We assured him that the child would be adequately cared for and probably wouldn’t start college right away.
The children, once they started, came along like a proud Fourth of July parade over the next twelve years—five of them in all. Unlike my mother, I had no problem with weight gain during or after pregnancy. After the first child nothing much changed in me physically, nor did it after any of the others. My figure returned to normal each time (well, more or less); men still looked at me, even when I had the children clustered around me; Jim still loved me; and far from resenting the children as a burden in any way, despite some economic hardships, we welcomed each of them.
First came Jim Junior, who was quickly nicknamed JJ. He looked like his father, acted like his father, talked like him, and when he was old enough to walk, followed his father around the farm like a tiny shadow, asking questions about everything he saw and trying to do everything his father did. It was comical to see how the child mimicked the father in nearly every respect, including Jim’s purposeful, trudging walk. By the time he was six, JJ stomped across the fields like an old man, full of purpose and determination. His greatest joy as a toddler was riding the tractor on his father’s lap. “To-day tac-tor day, Dad?” he’d ask each morning. And if his dad answered, “Yes, JJ, it’s tractor day,” he would dance in little circles with excitement. (Now that was one thing I’d never seen his father do!)
As he grew older, JJ gradually acquired his father’s knowledge of farming, nature, and weather forecasting. He also developed the leadership skills that he would later need to direct the work of our growing set of farm hands and did so by helping us rear his younger siblings. He even served, as his father had, at the Locust Hill Volunteer Fire Department. His brothers followed him in service there and his sisters helped in their turn each year with LHVFD fund raisers.
But most of all JJ’s leadership grew out of his knowledge of the farm, his focus on completing each day’s work, and his own exemplary conduct, rather than any formal training in management. As he focused each day on the tasks at hand and made decisions based on his knowledge of plants and soil and weather, those around him learned to do so as well and together they prospered. Oh, and when the time came, his father made sure that JJ got a botany degree from WVU.
But JJ’s birth had created a housing crisis for us, just as I thought it would. Even though Sandie would be leaving soon for Morgantown, putting Baby JJ in her room would only work until she came home again for Christmas holidays. And even if her genial nature permitted her to tolerate the little intruder at Christmas and Spring Break, sharing her room with him for the entire summer was way too much to ask. Nor did renting seem like a good option for us since all the county’s furnished apartments were in town, much too far away from the farm. Nor did our savings of $10,000 permit us yet to buy a lot and then build and furnish our own home; the mortgage payments would be more than we could reasonably manage. For the first time I was beginning to think my father might be right about our taking on too much.
Then Uncle Ed and Aunt Evelyn offered to help. With their daughters grown and gone, they had a big farmhouse with two large furnished but unoccupied bedrooms as well as an extra bathroom, all on the second floor. Jim and I could have the upstairs in exchange for a reduction in the price of the silage we sold to Uncle Ed. Since we weren’t making any money on the silage anyway, that wasn’t a great loss. I suspected that this offer was actually the result of conferencing between Lucie and Evelyn, who had always been close and both of whom were very practical farm wives. I don’t believe that Uncle Ed, a highly independent and narrowly focused man, would ever have thought of this arrangement on his own, except perhaps for the part about a cost reduction on silage.
While only a temporary solution, Ed and Evelyn’s offer at least gave us time to save more money against the day when we could afford our own place. And so we moved across Ridge Road into the other Russell household when JJ was just over a year old. We had to put the daughters’ twin beds together to accommodate Jim and me (the idea of separate beds being quickly rejected) while JJ now graduated to a regular baby’s crib, which we placed in the other bedroom. At least our new beds didn’t squeak much, at first!
Aunt Evelyn proved to be a wonderful companion and seemed more than just a little happy to have the house occupied again, while Uncle Ed, rather like his nephew, spent all of his time in fields, in his case worrying over his dairy cows or in the barn milking them. We minimized our intrusion on our landlords by spending our days at the homestead farm with Lucie, who watched over JJ as I helped Jim in the fields or worked on the farm’s financial records, paid bills, placed orders, and talked on the phone, constantly it seemed to me, with customers and vendors. Still, I think Jim and his uncle became much closer than before, both of them being so much alike, and I now had the advantage of two older, caring women to guide me through these early years of marriage and child rearing.
Not that Jim and his Uncle Ed didn’t spar every now and then, especially over the topic of organic farming. I remember one morning at breakfast, which we always ate with Ed and Evelyn while taking our other meals with Lucie at the homestead, Uncle Ed offered that his cows didn’t really care whether their feed was grown organically or not as long as there was enough of it. By now he always had his eyes on just how much acreage Jim was devoting to vegetables instead of corn and alfalfa.
“But you don’t really know that for certain,” Jim replied in a firm but reasonably respectful tone.
“Well, no, it’s true that no Guernsey has sashayed over to the tractor to tell me so, if that’s what you mean, Jim,” replied Uncle Ed with a biting chuckle. Like Jim, Uncle Ed had a bit of sly humor in him that would slip out now and again.
Jim laughed also, took a sip of coffee, and then went back to his argument. “Ah, that’s only because they’re wary of your tractor driving, just as everyone else is. Cows are smart that way!” Now all of us laughed, but Uncle Ed not as much as Jim, Evelyn, and I. “However, cows do talk to you in other ways, don’t they?” Jim continued. “For example, they talk to you collectively in your farm’s performance. I believe with better silage, grown organically, the cows live longer and produce more and richer milk. They’ve been getting organic feed for—what?—about four years now. Hasn’t there been any change that you’ve noticed in that time? I’m sure you’ve got production records.” When he wanted to use it, Jim had a cunning wit about him which at this moment was laying a trap for his uncle.
Then, unexpectedly, Aunt Evelyn helped out, much to Uncle Ed’s discomfort, “Why yes, Ed, didn’t you tell me that our milk production has gone up in recent years? More than you ever expected?” Snap went the trap!
“Well, yes, it has gone up,” he confessed as he choked a bit on his coffee. Then he recovered quickly enough to add, “But that can be due to lots of other things—favorable weather, fewer illnesses, and so forth.”
But Aunt Evelyn persisted, however innocently, on Jim’s behalf, “Funny, I don’t believe that the weather has been any different in the past three or four years, Ed. And if the cows are getting sick less often—well, then maybe Jim has a point.”
Next Jim resumed his argument, coming to the cause-and-effect part and tightening the noose of logic before Uncle Ed could escape. “With feed free of pesticide and herbicide residues, dairy cows live longer and produce more. Scientific studies show that. And if the cows live longer, that means they’re healthier, and if they’re healthier, we can assume they are happier as well, can’t we?
“I suppose.” Uncle Ed conceded.
“Perhaps they’re smarter too,” Jim continued. “Notice how they avoid your tractor. Maybe one of them will come over to tell you just how good they’re feeling and how much they’re enjoying my organic silage, maybe tell you so today—when you’re not on the tractor, that is!”
“Well, they don’t look any damn happier to me,” Ed grumped. “But I will admit that production is up,” he added with the trace of a smile. He remained tight lipped, however, about just how much production was up, so I assumed that revealing this data would have only served to support Jim’s argument all the more.
Now sensing that total victory was at hand, Jim resumed, “Also the milk itself should be of better quality and be better for your consumers.”
“But even if the milk is better, the dairy just dumps it in with the ‘poisoned’ milk from all the other farms where the cows are eating what you call ‘poisoned’ silage.”
“True, but that just means that the other dairymen should be using my silage and hay too,” Jim concluded with a broad smile. “And with greater demand, I could charge them a higher price!”
Uncle Ed now silently conceded defeat, apparently not wishing to deal at all with the pricing topic. Then we all finished our coffee, without more choking, discussed Jim’s weather forecast for the week, and finally rose for our day’s labors. Uncle Ed in particular seemed eager to get going.
Our arrangements with Uncle Ed and Aunt Evelyn were settled just in time, for—double beds or not, squeaky or quiet—I found that I was pregnant again! That Russell heirloom cradle would soon be rocking with a new inhabitant.
Our second child, Catherine, was born a little more than two years after JJ. She turned out to be both the most beautiful and the most intelligent of our five children. While JJ demanded a lot of attention because he wanted to participate in everything his father did and know everything his father knew, Catherine required almost no attention at all. From an early age she was a self-contained creature who seemed to draw her considerable intelligence and purpose, even her beauty, I have to admit, from some other world. As she grew older, that beauty deepened and darkened and became more and more exotic. It was tempting to call her a brooding beauty, but it wasn’t really brooding at all, since her temperament, while often meditative, was nevertheless quite optimistic rather than sad or contemplative. Hers was, rather, a beauty that grew from self-confidence.
Since Catherine didn’t really look much like either Jim or me, we often joked when she was a baby we’d obtained in a mix up at the city hospital, but after Catherine’s infant features began to give way to a more stable, well-defined appearance of her own, her Grandmother Lucie produced a picture from one of those family albums she kept stashed in the living room cabinet. It was another picture of Maria Ludwig Russell, whom I had marveled at the night Jim gave me the heirloom engagement ring and whom, it turned out, our daughter Catherine closely resembled. Maria’s dark beauty had languished in the Russell blood for several generations but had now come fully to life again in our daughter.
In keeping with her exotic looks, Catherine proved to be exceptional in other ways. Throughout her school years she was always at or near the top of her class academically while also enjoying music and dance. She played the violin with considerable skill in various school orchestras and made a very striking little ballerina. Yet she never seemed concerned about being popular in the usual teenage sense, as I had been. For her, popularity either happened or it didn’t; she didn’t seem to care either way. Instead, she focused on mathematics, music, and science as her father and older brother did on agriculture and botany. What she understood at a near genius level (at least it seemed that way to me) was the logic of biology, if there is such a thing, down to the level of organic chemistry. Somehow, even at an early age, she could see the oak in the acorn and moreover could foresee the intervening stages as well. She understood deviations from biological norms also, such as plant and animal diseases.
Consequently, it was no great surprise when, in her junior year of high school, Catherine announced that she intended to become a physician. At that moment I thought, Then we’ll lose her for sure. She’ll move to a big city so that she can work in medical research; she’s ideal for it. Instead, after completing her studies at WVU and Pitt, she came home with her medical degree, a specialization in rural medicine, a pharmacist husband from western Pennsylvania named Markus Baum, and a determination to give Locust Hill a first-rate medical clinic, including an emergency care center and pharmacy, all in one building. And that’s exactly what she and Markus did.
With some seed money from her parents (we were doing quite well financially by that time), she and Markus built their clinic on a vacant lot next to Doc Willis’s veterinary clinic on Shawnee Highway; Doc sold them the lot at a reasonable price, thinking it would bring him more business too, which, I believe, it did. In short order, Catherine acquired nearly all of the patients in our part of the county who, by patronizing her medical center, saved themselves many trips into Parkeston. What is more, some lives were certainly saved over the years by the nearby availability of emergency care. The Locust Hill Medical Center (for that’s what Catherine and Markus called their business) became such a good and obviously needed institution that, once it was established, we all wondered why nobody else had ever thought of it.
With the arrival of baby Catherine, it became clearer than ever that we needed our own home. Although the second bedroom at Uncle Ed and Aunt Evelyn’s could easily accommodate our two children for a time, both Jim and I thought we would be violating their hospitality by staying much longer. Consequently, still a few thousand dollars short of our ideal target, we began to look for a suitable home or building site in Locust Hill. The more we looked and the more we thought about the problem, the more we focused on building a new home for our family rather than buying or remodeling an old one. Soon we found a partially wooded property along the south side of Washington Road, not far from the village, and less than three miles from the homestead farm. A recent increase in our revenues, thanks to obtaining a contract with the Kloss regional grocery chain and a lease on the nearby Nestlerode farm, as well as an agreement with our contractor for progress payments, allowed us to proceed with the building without tapping too much into our savings.
In planning the layout for the home, we included a downstairs office at the front of the house for me and all the Russell Farms records, which were still kept on paper and stuffed into filing cabinets at that time. Otherwise, our house plans focused on the needs of a growing family. The upstairs was a barracks-like affair, a large room for boys on one side, one for girls on the other, and a bathroom and stair well in between. A galley-style kitchen stretched along the east side of the house with a laundry room between the kitchen and my office. The laundry room also provided access to the attached garage. The kitchen flowed into a large dining room that occupied half of the rear side of the house, while a large family room with a fireplace took up the entire west side with the master bedroom, full bath, stairwell, and closet spaces in between. A full-length porch with lattice work railings fronted the house; a screened-in porch did the same across the south-facing back, which bordered the woods. The back of the garage was a storage shed that opened to the backyard. Finally, we placed a small greenhouse in one side lawn and a rabbit-proof fenced-in garden on the opposite side. It was an oasis of practicality, just as one might expect from Jim!
The house was completed just in time, for our third child, Nathan, came along just two years after Catherine. (Jim and I were getting conception down to a fine art!) Nathan was a strong boy—robust, energetic, and athletic. On the playground, the other boys always chose him first for their sports teams, but he was rarely the team leader, preferring instead the role of teammate. He was all too willing, Jim and I both thought, to follow JJ’s lead in nearly everything rather than striking out on his own. Academically, he was a reliable B-student, quite a bit better in quantitative than verbal skills. And even though he excelled in sports as a football player and wrestler in high school, he was not the type of player a coach would ask to become team captain.
But when he went to college and took ROTC as a freshman, something in him changed. I think he finally saw that leadership duties could not just be taken for granted and always left to others; it was essential for someone trustworthy to step forward and perform them, and in ROTC he found at last that he too could be that someone. When he graduated, he served five years of active duty in the Army, mostly in Germany and Korea, and then stayed on in the Army Reserve for fifteen years more, eventually reaching the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. His reserve duties often came in conflict with his Russell Farms duties, especially in the summers, but we always managed to work through those conflicts until he finally retired from the Army and could devote himself entirely to our business. Together, he and JJ eventually became the managers of what had become the Russell Farm Alliance.
Our fourth child, born four years after Nathan, was Samuel, the contrarian of the family. As a baby, he cried more than all of the others combined, resisted new foods, even spat them out, wouldn’t take medicines, spat those out too, and threw his cups and bowls and eating utensils from his highchair, repeatedly. Only his big sister Catherine, showing remarkable maturity and patience, could get him to cooperate in daily routines, such as eating his breakfast, brushing his teeth, and staying dressed. The other children had been so good that now I thought perhaps our luck had simply run out. But as Sammy grew and developed, it became clear that he had a knack for putting his contrarian nature to good use, especially when he coupled it with his considerable verbal skills. He could convince nearly anybody of anything, including his parents and siblings. Only big Sis Catherine was immune to his disarming ways. In high school, he became interested in local politics, worked on political campaigns by making phone calls and distributing flyers door-to-door for his favorite candidates. He also became a prize-winning debater, an activity he continued at WVU. There he pursued a pre-law curriculum and then stayed on to get his law degree, plus a bride from a big Italian-American family in Fairmont, before returning home to join one of the larger law offices in town, a position offered him because of his previous political activity. Through his activism in local politics, he had already developed his own network of contacts in the county’s legal and governmental communities. And true to his contrarian nature, Sammy was our only child to settle in Parkeston rather than live in Locust Hill.
After twelve years of ongoing pregnancies, we had our fifth and final child—Carolyn, the one who looked and acted most like me. By this time, we had virtual occupancy rights to our own pew in St. Benedict’s, having shoved everyone else out with our big family, even after JJ and Nathan began serving as thurifer and crucifer, respectively.
Carolyn was bubbly; she was cute; she was completely without mystery, making her the opposite in nearly all respects of her older sister Catherine. Although an average student throughout school, she compensated for academics by excelling at a wide variety of extracurricular activities—especially dancing, singing, acting, and cheerleading. But most of all, she excelled in effervescence. From elementary school onward, she was popular with her classmates, especially the boys. And when time came for college, she marched off to Marshall University instead of WVU, returning with an elementary education degree, and became a second-grade teacher in one of the city schools, but with the ambition of eventually teaching at her old school, Locust Hill Elementary, which in due course she accomplished. With her husband, a local insurance agent, she soon added three children of her own to Locust Hill’s population, giving Jim and me a total of twelve grandchildren.
JJ and Catherine, being the oldest children, had helped us rear their three younger siblings. JJ provided them with leadership and practical knowledge—“This is how you tie a shoe, Nathan”—while Catherine gave them academic instruction, especially in math and science, which helped her perfect her own knowledge of these subjects. Then each child in turn reinforced both the celebrations (e.g. first tractor ride) and the chores (e.g. taking out the trash) with the next child in line. Only Carolyn had to delay this process until she could start it anew with her students and then her own children.
Even though all five of our kids grew up under similar circumstances, I was always amazed at how unique they were. I remember in particular what different approaches each child took to mowing the lawn. JJ paced off the area, thinking of ways to avoid stopping or even slowing the mower. He was all about managing turns and corners to achieve efficiency. Catherine actually measured the lawn, divided the area of the mower blade’s rotation into the lawn’s area to arrive eventually at a minimum number of passes by the mower over the lawn, and then devised a route that would come closest to achieving the ideal minimum. Nathan simply copied what he had seen JJ and Catherine do. When his turn came, Samuel first tried to con Nathan into continuing the mowing until Catherine intervened with a lecture on the importance of work as a builder of character. After that, Samuel adopted Catherine’s approach to lawn mowing after studying the notes she’d saved. As for Carolyn, she never seemed to cut the grass the same way twice, preferring instead to go with spontaneous inspiration, sometimes even cutting the lawn in artful diagonal patterns, first in one direction and then a week later in another. It often took her half a day to complete this landscaping artwork. The rest of the day she would spend admiring what she had done and telling us about it.
Overall, I think both the teachers and the students profited greatly from this mutual education approach. (I know for a fact that their parents did.) The younger children avoided some of the mistakes of the older two and also learned basics like reading and arithmetic much faster than they might have otherwise, while JJ and Catherine formed a dearer and more durable bond with all of their siblings than they might otherwise have done.
Most of all, the children all worked on the farms from an early age until they left for college, both the girls and the boys. As soon as they were old enough to follow instructions and perform useful work, Jim would take them into the fields. They learned to fertilize and till the soil; to plant seeds and tend greenhouse seedlings; to mulch and side-dress crops, to irrigate the fields; and to harvest, box, and weigh the produce—all the things that I had learned when I first started coming to Locust Hill. All of them also participated in the local 4-H club with their friends and cousins (for by this time Sandie and Freddy had two children also). And as they grew older, they learned to operate all of the farm equipment and thus became responsible for more serious production work. As a result of their childhoods in Locust Hill, all of our children developed a love of nature and a respect for hard work that served them well in their adult lives. I’d like to think that’s why they all ended up living so close to their original home, with JJ and Nathan even becoming farm managers and then co-owners of our business.
In addition, attending St. Benedict’s as a family gave them values that caused them to look beyond just their own concerns and incorporate the needs of others into their decisions. I also think that their sense of family and their love of Locust Hill kept them here, whereas the children of so many of our friends—whether by necessity, despair, or indifference—left West Virginia to live elsewhere.
The five children certainly filled our days with challenges but also with immense love. In a way it was sad when we realized what just a short time before had seemed like an endless procession of first steps, first words, first days of school, first report cards, band and orchestra practices, football and wrestling trips, proms and graduations, and marriages had all come to an end. Several times we were almost tempted to have a sixth child, just to start the process all over again—almost.
One day while I was in town to do some banking and deliver a bundle of clothing items to the charity closet at St. Benedict’s, an incident occurred that really made me understand just how much my life had changed since marrying Jim and moving to Locust Hill. I was downtown, crossing Seventh Street, about to step up on the corner by the hotel in whose restaurant we had eaten after my first Mass at St. Benedict’s. There on the corner as I stepped up on the curb, blocking my way, was Frankie Preston, leering at me from ear to ear. He bent forward to hug and kiss me, at least that’s what it appeared he was going to do, but I quickly extended my hand, which he then, instead of just shaking, grasped tightly in both of his.
“Why Cassie Clark, it’s so good to see you again!” he exclaimed, still holding my hand captive. “It’s been a l-o-o-o-o-ng time!” he added comically. And indeed, it had been—fourteen years at that point since I told him I did not want to date him anymore.
“Yes, Frankie, a long time. I hope you are well. And I’m Cassandra Russell now. Have been for a l-o-o-o-ng time,” I reminded him, mimicking his accentuation. He still had possession of my hand and used it to pull me from the sunny corner, where we were blocking other pedestrians, to the shade of the hotel.
“Well, I’m great, Cassie! I’m doing just great. And you guys, you and what’s his name, Farmer Jim . . .”
“James Ray Russell,” I corrected him.
“Yeah, you and that Jimmy Russell, I hear you guys are doing all right too. Got lots of farms and making lots of money out in Locust Hill, isn’t that it?”
“Yes, Jim and I are truly fortunate. Things have gone well for us. We have four children now.” (Carolyn hadn’t been born yet.)
“Four kids! Well, I guess you two have been busy!”
“Yes, we have,” I said with satisfaction and then added, “and we continue to be.”
I didn’t ask Frankie about his family. I already knew that he had been married for a while, and not to Elena, the banker’s daughter he had fawned over in high school, but to a secretary in one of the City Building offices who had eventually divorced him because of his infidelities. He had fallen far short of his father’s success and was selling used cars at his own small lot on the South Side. But without his father feeding him some choice trade-ins from the new car dealership where he worked, Frankie would probably not have been able to stay in business. Nevertheless, he continued to be oblivious to his own failures and chattered on as though he were the city mayor instead of a fallen-from-grace used car salesman.
“Just look at us,” he gushed, “both dressed in pink!”
And so we were. On this hot July day, I was wearing a sleeveless pink dress, one of Jim’s favorites, but which, now that I was standing in front of Frankie, seemed tighter and shorter than I would have preferred. As for Frankie, he was costumed in a loud pink sports coat that opened wide to reveal a lavender dress shirt. In its turn the shirt was fronted by a wide white knit tie draping over Frankie’s considerable belly bulge. The shirt was trimmed at the cuffs with large “P” letter cufflinks, one of which, I noticed, had a dark diagonal crack running across the “P”—and all of this atop a pair of white trousers, white vinyl belt (also showing some dark cracks), and white buckskin shoes with red rubber soles. This man was hardly the slender, somewhat muscular lover I had known in high school; instead, he now looked like a brash Easter egg.
“How ‘bout we slip over to the lunch counter in the five ‘n dime across the way there,” he was pointing across the street I had just crossed, “and catch up on some old times, Cassie? It’ll be my treat. It would be so good to relive those days, don’t you think?”
“How about letting go of my hand, Frankie? I might need it later.” Responding to my request he opened his hands with an exaggerated motion to release mine, as though he were an emperor granting a peasant’s wish. “And thanks for the invitation,” I continued, “but I just don’t think that would be appropriate.”
“Oh, come on, Cassie! Afraid ole Jimmy boy might object?” he asked. “Well, I won’t tell him. Besides, we’d be in public. Or are you afraid of how you might feel after we talk for a while? Is that it?” This remark he made while bending his forehead close to mine, as if to convey some wonderful secret. “Remember how good we were together?” he added intimately. He hadn’t changed—seduction on a street corner or a lunch counter. His body was different; his character was not.
“Not afraid of either one.” I replied brusquely. “It’s enough just to know that you’re doing well, just as you said. I’m glad of that. So goodbye, Frankie. Good to see you again, but I have to go now. Still have some town chores to tend to.” Then, back in possession of my hand, I turned and walked away, briskly moving down the street toward St. Benedict’s. He called after me, once, and then again, louder the second time, calling out my name. People walking toward me raised their heads to look at him, but I kept going and didn’t look back until I had reached the church. As I turned to go up the church steps, I glanced back up the street and saw that he was gone.
But as I went inside the church, I thought, How many other boys in our town have become like Frankie? And how many other girls have been like me when I was with him, girls who weren’t lucky enough to meet a boy like Jim to change them? What happened to them?
Carl Parsons, a former manufacturing manager for TRW Automotive, has had a secondary career as a college instructor of rhetoric and literature. Now retired, he serves as a Master Gardener for the University of Tennessee Extension office and contributes essays on botanical subjects to Hey, Smokies! (an online travel magazine). He has also served as associate editor for Heater, a crime fiction magazine. Currently, he is an active member of Scribophile online writers’ workshop. Born in Parkersburg, WV, he now resides in Kodak, TN. Publication Credits: • Crime Novella, Jukes, to be published in March 2020 by Dark Passages Publishing • Short story, “Judith and Phillip,” published by Foundling House (2019) • Short story, “Another Bus Ride for Sunny,” published by Spillwords Press (2019) • Two poems published with Literary Yard (2019) • Two poems published with Plum Tree Tavern (2019)