Love in Coolidge County
By Dena Hunt - Valdosta, Georgia, USA - 15 September 2013
“I ain’t one of your students,” said Micah Tomlinson, through one side of his crinkled lipless mouth, squinting his eyes at her against the smoke that struggled to rise in the heavy July air. A cigarette hung down from the other side of his mouth. He was looking up at her from the middle step of the porch, though looking upward and defiance were hard to do together.
“No,” Nelda answered downward, not unaware of the superiority of her position. “No, Mr. Tomlinson, indeed you are not.” Her gnarled hands grasped the elbows of her skinny arms in a gesture as close as she could come to what she would have called “decisive,” and she, too, squinted as she glared downward at him in answer to his defiance. “Indeed, now you are not even in my employ. So, if you could just gather up your tools --“ She raised her pointed chin in the direction of the tool tray he’d set down behind him on the walkway. She wanted to finish her sentence, but he didn’t let her. Dropping his head so that she was talking to the top of a dingy baseball cap, he removed the cigarette from his mouth by pinching it between his thumb and forefinger, hawked loudly, and spat on the step. Then he flicked the cigarette into her petunia bed, turned and went down the steps to pick up the handle of the long metal tool tray and walked away.
She paused for just a moment, taken aback a little by the abruptness of his turning away from her while she was still speaking. Then she went down the steps to close the gate behind him as he threw his tool tray into the back of his pickup with a loud metallic thud. If she didn’t close the gate, every stray dog in the county would be in her garden, urinating and defecating and digging holes.
“Those cigarettes will kill you, you know,” she said with superior wisdom to his departing back.
He didn’t turn around, though, didn’t even turn his head over his sweat-soaked khaki shoulder to reply, giving the impression that he didn’t care whether she heard him or not: “Something going to kill everybody, sooner or later, like it or not. Might just as well like it.”
Nelda turned and walked back to the house, her arms hanging down by her sides, and her fingers curled as though they were tempted to make themselves into fists. Micah’s truck—a mix of faded blue and rust—started up and took off with an almost deafening guttural noise as she went back up to the porch to get her watering can. She had to fill it three times in order to feel certain she had removed the thick brown sputum from the step. She poured some of the water over the lavender and white petunia bed where Micah had thrown the cigarette, deciding not to remove it from the plants—tobacco was a good pesticide. The screen door slammed behind her. How she’d get the roof fixed now, she didn’t know.
The big brown ceiling fan over the kitchen table was making a worry noise. The roof had to be fixed. Micah Tomlinson was one of only three handymen in Coolidge County who might have been willing to go up on the roof and replace about five shingles during the heatwave. Fortunately -- in a way -- the county was also suffering a draught, but the next time it rained, there would definitely be a leak.
The roof had to be fixed. How was Nelda going to get it done? She had already tried the other handymen and Micah had been her last hope. All she’d said, when he arrived an hour and fifteen minutes later than he said he would, was, “Mr. Tomlinson, I expected you at seven o’clock.” You wouldn’t think that would make someone spit on your porch steps and leave. She had only wanted him to make some kind of excuse, not a real explanation -- she didn’t expect that much -- so that the difference between his promised and his actual arrival time wouldn’t hang there right out in the open as the embarrassing fact that it was. All she wanted was a little help from him to excuse it. After all, she couldn’t make up his excuse for him -- he had to do that much himself. She sighed: But Micah Tomlinson had a purpose of his own. What he’d really wanted was an excuse not to work at all. And she had unknowingly provided it.
It seemed to happen that way all the time. She could never get anything done if it had to be done by somebody besides her, no matter how nice she was about asking. Why was that? It wasn’t as though she were asking for any favors -- she was very willing to pay for it.
Standing at the sink and washing the breakfast dishes, she decided that she had no other choice but to go up on the roof and fix it herself. The doctor had told her about her osteoporosis and said she’d have to be careful about falling now, because her bones would break very easily and wouldn’t mend like healthy bones. But what else could she do? The roof had to be fixed.
She pulled the plug in the sink to let the dishwater drain out and took up a drying towel, trying to remember where she’d stored the extension ladder. If she had to fix the roof herself, she’d be very careful, and she’d do it first thing in the morning when it was cooler. As long as there was enough light to see, she should be all right if she was careful. But it was a two-storied old farmhouse and the roof had a pretty steep pitch.
Nelda put the clean dishes away and tried to remember where the ladder was. In the last couple of years, she had started to remember things long ago better than she remembered recent things. Things like Rev, for example. She’d thought about Rev all day long yesterday. She had dated Reverdy Johnson in her senior year of high school. That was back when very few girls at Coolidge County High went on to college -- and the few who did became teachers, then returned to Coolidge and married doctors or lawyers. The wives of Coolidge’s doctors and lawyers were almost always teachers. Teaching was a very ladylike job, like hospital pink-lady volunteers but with a little paycheck that gave them the right to be called “professionals.” Teaching wasn’t masculine and didn’t take time away from home and husband, which was what really mattered. Usually, they’d teach until they got pregnant, then leave their jobs and stay home until their own children were in school. Sometimes they’d return to teaching then. Younger teachers in Coolidge were either fresh out of college or well into their thirties. The custom not only kept young mothers at home where they should be; it also kept the professional branch of the upper middle-class pretty much defined. The upper class was fixed, consisting of about half a dozen families, who had their position by birth more than by profession or wealth, though they all owned a lot of land, farms rented out, or timber farms with hired managers. The land had been in their families for more generations than anyone could remember.
When Nelda was a senior in high school, about one-third of the girls in her class were already wearing engagement rings, with plans to be married in June after graduation. She sometimes felt a little bad about not having a ring herself. Not having a ring meant she would get a job instead of a husband, probably as a clerk in a store or as somebody’s secretary, if she didn’t go to college, and she had no interest in going to college.
That was probably why she’d started dating Rev. He was a nice boy. He didn’t try to kiss her on their first date -- always a bad sign -- but waited until they’d gone out several times, and after they’d dated about three months, he asked her to go steady with him. She said she would, so he gave her his class ring to wear on a chain around her neck, but she never got an engagement ring to replace it.
When they graduated, Rev went to Viet Nam and got killed just two months after he got there. People felt sorry for her even though they’d never got engaged, as though that had just been an oversight somehow -- something that would probably happen when he came home on leave. But the truth was that it was never mentioned between them. The truth was that they really didn’t have any special feelings for one another at all. Nelda sometimes thought about how they talked, how they acted with each other, holding hands in public, and the perfunctory, dry, good night kiss when he brought her home. It was what they did simply because it was what everybody did, not really meaning anything. When she heard that he’d been killed, what she felt was shock, not grief. Later on, months after the news of his death was old, she did grieve, silently and privately, when she was alone -- though she didn’t know why, didn’t know what she was grieving for.
She thought about Reverdy all day long yesterday, and sometimes she found herself talking to him—talking to him like maybe she should have done back then and didn’t. I didn’t love you, Reverdy. Did you want me to? If you did, you never said so. If you wanted me to, I would have. And she sat right there in the swing on the front porch with a dishpan full of beans in her lap, picking over them, and found that tears were dropping down onto the beans. My goodness. You’ve been dead over half a century. Why am I crying about it now? She took a Kleenex out of her apron pocket and wiped her eyes. Because, I guess, because -- Reverdy, you were wasted. I don’t mean your life was wasted by dying so young. I mean YOU. All that was you and that was supposed to be loved by somebody was wasted. She remembered him on the basketball court, in the blue and gold rayon shorts and shirt of the Coolidge County Wildcats, the number 19 on his shirt, his black hair stuck to his forehead by sweat. I wish I had loved you….
Nelda went to the pantry and cleared a place on the shelf for the beans she’d canned yesterday and tried to remember the last time she’d used the ladder. If she could remember what she’d used it for, she would remember where she’d left it. She was stacking the jars when it suddenly struck her that it didn’t really matter about the roof. Here she was, hunting down unwilling handymen, enduring their shiftlessness, and now having to go up there and do it herself anyway—and for what? What did it matter? Because the roof would leak if it ever rained again? So what? For a moment the thought frightened her. She’d had such thoughts quite a few times recently, these “so what?” thoughts. It wasn’t like her to think that way—not at all. She’d always taken care of things—always. It would never occur to her to just not do something that needed doing, whether it was grading papers, cleaning the house, going to Sunday School, canning beans, or fixing the roof, or whatever else needed to be done.
She sat down at the table, reflexively wiping the tablecloth with the dishtowel she still held in her hand; she pushed her glasses back up the bridge of her nose with her finger and just sat there for a moment. Now why did I wipe this table? Did it need wiping? No, she decided, it didn’t; it was just habit. But—and the answer came like a little ray of light—it was a good habit. She had to smile. That little answer was like a little blessing; it was the answer to all the so-what questions she’d asked lately. Because it’s habit, that’s why, and because it’s a good habit. When the questions came now—all the why bother? what difference does it make? so what? questions—she’d be ready, she wouldn’t be caught off-guard any more. But having an answer now, and a good answer, didn’t explain why the questions came in the first place. She’d never asked herself such questions before. Just like she’d never thought about loving or not loving Reverdy Johnson before.
Nelda had never married. It wasn’t some big decision she made. It just didn’t happen. That fall, after the news about Reverdy’s death came, she went off to college to become a teacher. It didn’t happen while she was in college and it didn’t happen when she returned to Coolidge County to teach fifth grade at the elementary school. It just never happened. She dated sometimes, and sometimes she dated one man almost long enough for people to consider them a couple, but then they either married someone else or moved away. Gradually, people stopped expecting her to marry, and she stopped expecting it herself.
Finally, when she was in her thirties, there was Daniel. He was a coach over at the high school. His wife had divorced him, leaving him and their twelve-year-old boy, and going off to Atlanta to pursue a journalism career. Everyone felt very sorry for Daniel, and when he and Nelda started dating about six months after the divorce, everyone was happy for both of them. The relationship lasted about eight months.
Nelda had always liked Daniel. They were both members of the First Baptist Church, and she’d known him for years. At first, dating seemed awkward to both of them, but after some minor fumbles, they settled into the new roles they played in each other’s lives, in the community, at church, and at school functions. They became a real couple. And Nelda had taught Daniel’s son, Jimmy; she already had a good relationship with the boy. Marriage seemed inevitable.
But it didn’t happen. They’d sat right there on that brown tweed couch in front of the television in Nelda’s living room -- and decided not to marry. Both of them. And it seemed to surprise both of them, too. Johnny Carson was on the Tonight show, Daniel had his hand on her bare leg -- she was wearing blue shorts -- and both of them had their bare feet up on the coffee table.
“Right about now is when I should be proposing, you know,” he said, for no apparent reason.
“Yes, I know,” Nelda answered. “We should probably be talking about whose house we’ll live in, yours or mine, or whether to buy a new one. Things like that.”
“Yeah,” Daniel drawled the word out slowly, then turned abruptly and asked, “Well, do you want to do it?”
She raised her head from the back of the couch and looked at him. “No.”
“I don’t either,” he answered. And right there on that couch then they made love -- the only time they ever did -- with Johnny Carson’s jokes and the audience’s laughter in the background. It was the only time they’d ever felt really close -- the way they knew they should feel, and didn’t. They didn’t see each other much after that. Daniel took a coaching position over in Henry County. He sold his house in Coolidge, and he and Jimmy moved away over the summer.
Nelda knew then that she’d never marry. She was only thirty-four, but it was too late. She was already made, already shaped, formed into the person she would always be, and she knew it. From that point on, there would be no more forming -- it was done. Like a loaf of bread taken out of the oven, already baked, it can’t be made into a cake or some other thing now. Its nature is to be a loaf of bread, nothing more, nothing other. She would not be a wife, she would never be a mother. She was what she was.
The best years of her life began then. No more restless wondering, no vague anticipation. There was a new peace. And a new sense of presence, of being present in her job with her students, in her house and the garden, its maintenance and comfort, and in her life, a presence she hadn’t really had before and didn’t know she was missing until it arrived after Daniel left. It freed her. She traveled during the summer months, took group tours to Europe, cruises to the Caribbean, even went to Hawaii one year. She took up playing bridge, made friends in distant places, and enjoyed her life, until she retired at 65, ten years ago now.
Several of the women she’d known all her life were already dead now, and those who were still active were great-grandmothers, very much involved in the lives of all their descendants, with their families, and their husbands -- those whose husbands were still alive, anyway. Life in old age was not very different for Nelda from the way it had always been: She was alone. From time to time, she thought about that, and sometimes she felt lonely. But not often. Self-pity visited her only rarely and never stayed too long. On the whole, she’d been satisfied with her life -- until recently, about the same time the so-what questions started, really.
She grabbed her straw hat from the hook by the back door and went out into the sweltering sunlight to see about the last crop of peppers. They’d be ready to pick in a few days and she could think about turning up the soil to plant some greens for the fall. The garden was old, planted back when she was in her forties. The farm -- where she’d lived all her life -- had been allowed to go fallow, but she kept a kitchen garden for her own use, for things to put up, to give as Christmas presents and as charity for the poor.
When she went to the spigot to turn on the garden hose, she spotted the dirt-encrusted end of the extension ladder sticking out from behind the Lady Banksea roses on the side of the house. “Oh, yes,” she mumbled aloud, remembering: The ladder had been used to tie up the roses as they climbed the brick chimney on the side of the house. When was that? Three years ago? She went to the side of the house and stood with her hand shielding her eyes, looking up at the climbing rosebush, green now, but in the early spring, it was a mass of tiny clusters of yellow roses, climbing up the rose-gold chimney, hand-fired brick made from Georgia red clay -- how long ago? A hundred years? At least. Every spring it hurt her heart just to look at it with the roses climbing it, making her wonder at the beauty of it.
She trudged toward the front of the house, looking for the other end of the ladder behind the bushes, but she couldn’t see it. Was it long enough to reach the roof when it was fully extended? The extension part was hidden behind the bushes; there was only one way to find out, so she returned to the back of the house and pulled it out onto the lawn, struggled with the middle extension, and finally succeeded in leaning the ladder against the roof, just below the spot where new shingles were needed.
“Oh, my,” she whispered to herself, pushing against the ladder and feeling it give and bounce a little under the weight of her hand. When it was fully extended, it didn’t seem very sturdy; also, the part at the top went beyond the roof line only two feet or so -- not much stability there. She stood there a minute, her hands on her hips, thinking, knowing that this was a foolhardy plan, but reluctant to dismiss it. After all, what choice did she have?
That evening after supper was over and dishes were done, Nelda sat in the front porch swing with her customary glass of Dubonnet, watching the fireflies, listening to crickets, and thinking about her plans for the next day. It was still so hot that she’d been tempted to put the floor fan down on the living room floor behind the screen door, but it would have discouraged the fireflies and crickets -- besides, it was just too noisy. She wanted quiet. She had found the shingles in the shed that afternoon, along with a hammer and some roofing nails. She wanted to get up very early, so she could get the roof fixed before the hot morning sun got too high. All afternoon she’d avoided looking up at the roof -- how high it was -- or at the unsturdy ladder. If it should be done, then she had to do it. There was no point in worrying about it.
But it was not the roof of her house that troubled Nelda now. During supper, while she was watching the evening news on TV, she suddenly found herself overcome by a heavy sadness, at once both strange and familiar. It swallowed her up for several minutes before she could pull herself out of it and think about it—where it came from, what caused it. It was strange because it hadn’t happened to her in recent memory, but it was familiar because she remembered it from her childhood. Her mother had died from pneumonia when Nelda was very small; she had no memory of her mother. And her father never remarried. As a child, sometimes, when she was in bed at night, or playing alone in her room, she was overcome by that sadness -- and she recognized it even then as loneliness, a longing for a mother, for brothers and sisters she would never have. She couldn’t mention it to her father; it would only make him feel bad, so she kept it to herself. Pushing the wood floor under the swing now with her bare toes, she sipped the sweet drink and murmured, “Ah, yes…that’s what it was.” It was because of the roof, because there was no son or grandson to take care of this chore for her, and that had made her feel deprived -- just as she’d felt deprived of brothers and sisters when she was a child.
She smiled a little as the leaves of the sycamore in the front yard moved gently, and the fireflies seemed to get excited by the movement. The crickets even paused for a moment in their chirping to enjoy the breeze. Her father was such a good and gentle man, kind to her, kind to everyone, really. He’d run the town’s newspaper until he died of a heart attack when he was only fifty years old. Nelda missed him now. And she grieved to think again that she had not provided him with heirs, with grandchildren he might have loved before he died. If he had deprived her of a mother, of siblings -- of a family -- when he did not remarry, she had also deprived him. She sighed and whispered aloud, “I guess we just have to forgive each other, Daddy.”
A sudden thought made her stop the swing, the creaking chain was still and silent, and her feet rested on the floor. Did I not marry and have a family because . . .? The thought almost shocked her: She remembered reading in a magazine in the waiting room of the doctor’s office that people tended to make the decisions as adults that would allow them to continue the lives they’d lived as children, because it was familiar, what they were used to, unconscious of the reasons for their decisions. If they’d come from large families, they tended to have large families, and so on. Even if they’d suffered abuse as children, they tended to marry abusive partners. Had she unconsciously avoided marriage because she was continuing the solitude of her childhood? After a moment, she started the swing again -- what difference did it make now? Even if that was true, even if she herself had actually chosen the life she’d lived -- instead of it all “just happening” that way -- so what? She finished the Dubonnet, went inside and locked the front door -- a good habit, she reminded herself -- before going upstairs to bed.
The next morning, she woke before daylight and found to her surprise that the thought of deprivation was still on her mind. Deprived. She had been deprived -- of what? By whom? She turned on the bedside lamp and threw the covers aside, stretching the muscles in her legs and arms before getting out of bed. Her health was good for someone nearly seventy-six; she still had all her wits -- mostly anyway, even all her teeth. She owned her home and had enough money for groceries and bills. How on earth could she feel deprived? She got dressed in dungarees and a loose shirt, brushed her teeth, and then made up her bed, tucking the cotton chenille spread neatly under the folded pillows.
Downstairs frying an egg and buttering toast, she looked at the plastic shopping bag on the table, containing the five shingles, the hammer, and a handful of nails, and wondered again if the habit of taking care of things might not be her undoing, after all. She remembered how weak and wobbly the ladder seemed yesterday when she’d got it fully extended against the roof overhang.
She ate her breakfast without turning on the morning news as she usually did, to hear the weather forecast and find out what was happening in the world. The plastic bag awaited her, like packed luggage, and she had a sense of mission, of imminent departure. Pushing her plate aside, she sat sipping coffee, holding the cup with both hands, and thinking about whether she was deprived. Of what? Well, of family, of course -- that much was obvious. By whom? By God, maybe. Some choices are given to us, and some aren’t, she thought. Not having a mother was not a choice she’d made -- not becoming a mother herself was probably her own choice, though -- but God had played a big part in that, too. Somehow, though, she knew that it wasn’t family itself that she was really deprived of. The lack of family was a circumstance, a condition, just something she’d had to make do without, as best she could. It wasn’t the deprivation.
She put her plate, cup, cutlery and skillet into the pan of soapy water in the sink, as she usually did, with the intention of washing them later, and looked out the window to see muted turquoise streaks on the horizon. The birds were singing. It was dawn. Time to get to the roof. But she glanced at the bag on the kitchen table and changed her mind: No, better wash the dishes now, leave them clean.
The ladder had not gotten any sturdier overnight. But it’s aluminum, she thought, not likely to break under my hundred and twenty pounds. She placed one foot, in the laceless old sneakers she used as yardshoes, on the bottom rung and looked up at the sky beyond the ladder’s top. A few stars were still visible in the deep indigo overhead. She placed the tied handles of the plastic bag over her shoulder and took a deep breath as though it were a prayer.
The climb wasn’t difficult, even if it was long -- the roof was high, that was all. But as she reached the top, careful to avoid looking backward or down, what worried her more was the way the ladder seemed to “run out”; there just wasn’t enough of it left beyond the roofline. This, she knew, was the moment of real decision. This was real choice. If she moved her hands from the sides of the ladder, placed them on the rough red-brown asphalt of the roof, walked them up the roof far enough to move her feet from the top rung of the ladder to the roof -- if she did all that, no matter how carefully she did it, there would be no turning back.
And she did it just like that, making a mental note to record in memory her exact position, so that, as she descended backwards once the shingles were replaced, she would be able to feel the rung of the ladder from which she’d moved her feet so carefully, one at a time. And she would have to do that from memory -- even the slightest mistake could cause her to kick the ladder out of position and leave her trapped, unable to descend. We have to do things from memory, she thought, all the important things are always done from memory; it’s the only way we have.
She crouched on all fours, facing upward toward the broken shingles, and the plastic bag slipped from her shoulder and fell to her wrist. The hammer inside the bag crashed against the back of her hand and she gasped in pain, slightly mitigated by the relief she felt that nothing had fallen out of the bag to slide down and off the roof, because she had remembered to tie the plastic handles together. But it was her right hand, the hand she would use to hammer the shingles with, and she hoped the hammer had not broken any of the small bones in that hand. If it had, she would just have to endure it, hammer anyway, and get down somehow.
She reached the top, turned around and sat down on the run, about one foot above the broken shingles. She stared down at the shingles in the growing light, afraid to look beyond them, back down toward the top of the ladder, afraid to look outward, afraid to look anywhere except to the task at hand. “Now, Nelda,” she whispered to herself, “you just don’t need to be looking anywhere except right here, at what you’ve got to take care of. No point in looking anywhere else.”
But she did. And the first thing she saw to her left was the top of the chimney, just at the moment when the sun, rising behind her, made its first morning kiss on the rose-gold brick, bringing a sudden joy to the humble clay. The leaves of the sycamore in the front yard behind her stirred and hummed in a morning breeze, and Nelda swung one leg over the run of the roof to see the treetop, as its great silver-green leaves came alive and sang to the sun.
Her right hand throbbed in pain, and she looked at it to see that it had begun to swell. Yes, she’d probably broken one or more of those small bones on the back of her hand, and she’d have to try to wield the hammer with her left hand -- if she was able to wield it at all -- and if she could walk backward down the roof using the underside of her right wrist, she might be able to make it down, deprived as she was of the use of her hand.
Deprived as she was. She sat there straddling the run, holding the bag with her left hand and holding her right hand up to lessen the pain and swelling. Deprived of what? Deprived of love, of course. No one loved her. She had lived her life deprived of love. Whether from the pain of her hand, or the pain in her heart, she sat there on the roof of her house and wept.
The fingers of her hand were becoming numb, but she used them to wipe the tears from her eyes and look at the chimney in front of her, glowing like pink amber now in the sunrise. And to her left she could see the horizon, the rooftops of Coolidge, all touched by the coral sunlight, waking, coming to life. Here. Just right here, where she was born, where she’d lived all her life, and where she would die -- perhaps today. Every inch, every small plot and portion, was familiar to her -- and unspeakably dear. She whispered, “I love you. I have always loved you, every day and hour of my life,“ and she realized in that moment the blessedness of her life. No, she’d never known a single moment of “deprivation.“ She sat there until the tears stopped and she could see clearly, then said, “Thank you.“
She managed to lie on her stomach and hold the new shingles in place with the elbow of her right arm, nailing them with her left hand, and then began her descent down the path she’d memorized toward the ladder.