Chapter 1: Joshua
“I’ll tell Myrtle,” I told Constance, stetting a date for the next church social.
We were wandering down Main Street with the intent of visiting the grocery store to pick up a few vegetables for our respective families when a neighbor-- either Mrs. Stimson or Mrs. Carson, I haven’t yet deciphered-- called Constance, forcing me to continue the journey alone. I only hoped I’d remember the way.
I had only been in Grover’s Corners a few months, married to my on Mr. Soames a few longer. He was a sweet man, ten years older but kindly when he wasn’t holed up at the library or at some meeting in New York. He certainly wasn’t Adam, but he was pleasant. I console myself to know there never will be another person quite like Adam, and content myself with Mr. Soames’ finances and soft-temperament.
Now I had met Mr. Elton Soames in my hometown of Bridgewater, North Carolina, a far cry from Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire, but not at all different in atmosphere. Mr. Soames was at a conventional meeting of fellow Classical Studies enthusiasts that is held every year in Bridgewater. I was helping the older ladies from Our Lady Saint Elizabeth of Eternal Sorrows with the lunches we were serving, and Mr. Soames commented on the lovely apple pie I had made, eating two whole slices, and big ones at that.
He asked me my name, and I replied “Louella James”, as that was my maiden name, and he asked if I wouldn’t mind eating dinner with him that night. I almost said no, but Mary Ellen Perkins, my very best friend, told me I should go.
As I was walking down Main Street, I saw a messy crop of brown curly hair scampering into Mr. Martin’s Drugstore, and I could have sworn it was-- but it couldn’t be-- he was gone. I walked as fast as custom and dress would allow, entering the drugstore and searching like a madwoman for the curly-top hair.
It was a boy about seven or eight wearing a button-down and khaki knickers with dark brown suspenders. A grey newsboy cap topped his head and a satchel crossed his body, socks pulled up to the knee and scuffed brown oxfords shuffling against the counter. He was sitting on the bar top stool closest to the big glass windows of the drugstore. I sat a few stools down to look at his face, entranced and unable to look away. He was pale, with freckles all over his arms and face, a large amount collecting on the bridge of his nose and red cheeks. The boy laughed at something Mr. Martin said, revealing gapped white teeth in a wide grin and making his bottle-blue eyes sparkle under long dark lashes. His ears stuck out from under his newsboy as if he were still growing into them, which at eight, he certainly was.
I had to hold my breath at the similarity, and hardly breathed until the little boy thanked Mr. Martin and hopped out the door.
“What’ll it be, ma’am?” Mr. Martin asked.
“Do you know who that boy is?” I inquired.
“Well, sure. That’s Crowell’s boy. Joe, his name is. Got a little brother Isaiah. Everyone calls him Si though. I’m surprised you haven’t seen Joe before. He’s a staple ‘round the neighborhood with the other boys. Sounds like next year he’ll start delivering papers for the Sentinel.”
I thanked him and left the shop. How had I never seen him before? That night I went to the church choir practice with all the women: Myrtle Webb, Julia Gibbs, Constance Baker-- and in between alcoholic outbursts from the inebriated choir director, I asked Julia and Myrtle about the Crowell boys.
“Well, Joe, he’s eight, and Isaiah’s only five-- he doesn’t know any better. I reckon Joe’ll start delivering my husband’s papers next year,” Myrtle said. “Almost all the boys in the town deliver the Sentinel starting at age nine.”
“The poor things’ his mother,” Julia said. “She died giving birth to Si, so they have a tough time without a mother. I declare, Matthew has a hard time as well-- Mr. Crowell, Louella.”
“The man works at the Cartwright factory double shifts through the night to get by, so the boys are on their own to get to schooling and meals on time. All us women try to pitch in meals and caretaking where we can, but we all have children or our own to mind,” Myrtle added.
“Say, you mentioned you had a son, said he was with his grandmother in North Carolina-- you wouldn’t mind pitching in with our rotation on Thursday? I declare Rebecca seems to be coming down with something and I don’t want my house infecting a whole neighborhood.”
The thought of spending time with Joshua-- Joe Crowell was so tantalizing I agreed, and then asked what I needed to do.
“Oh, nothing much,” Constance said, turning from in front of us to comment. “They love whatever you can feed ‘em, and I usually ask Mr. Baker to help Joe with his schoolwork. Si is harmless, and is trying to read already, sitting with any book in his lap and blathering on as if he’s reading it.” She laughed.
I didn’t mention Mr. Soames was out of town. Again. As usual. Not that I minded, but my arithmetic only went so far. I silently prayed the homework would be minimal.
"Ladies, are you quite finished?” Simon Stimson asked slightly irritated. “We would like to continue rehearsing if that’s all right with you.”
The four of us let out a similar giggle and flipped through our hymnals to find “Jesus the Good Shepherd”, a song which we sang neither in tune nor in unison.
I don’t know why I should be nervous. They’re an eight-year-old boy and a five-year-old boy. Hardly menacing. I felt my pulse rise anyway as I awaited the Crowell boys’ arrival.
When they did appear on my porch, they were glistening with sweat and had stockings smeared with dirt.
“Hello ma’am,” Joe said, grinning shyly at my shoes.
“Mama!” the younger boy, Si, called, wrapping his thin arms around my hips. Joe quickly detached him.
“I’m sorry ma’am. He doesn’t usually do that. Si didn’t know our Mother, so all he knows of her is the pictures we have, and I guess he confused you with her,” Joe apologized.
“Don’t worry Joe,” I replied, crouching to Si’s eyelevel. “Si, you may call me what you like. Joe, you too, except ma’am. It makes me feel so old.”
“Yes Mama Soameths,” Si said with a slight lisp. Now that I looked at him, he was almost a copy of Joe except the shock of stick straight coffee-colored hair that stuck out at odd angles from under his own newsboy cap.
“Now are you two hungry?” I asked, to which Si nodded vigorously and Joe smiled. “Food it is. I made a potato casserole and some asparagus for you boys.”
“Asthparsaugust!” Si exclaimed, taking off his shoes and sitting at the kitchen table. I had never seen two little boys so excited to eat green vegetables.
“Si, slow down,” I admonished him. “You’ll stunt your growth.” Despite myself I smiled warmly as both boys stopped to grin at me before returning to eat, only slightly slower than before. When they finished Joe and Si cleared their plates to the sink, thanking me for making dinner.
I looked at the two boys, finally taking in their dirty stockings. “Joe, how’s about I wash your stockings while you do your schoolwork?”
“Oh, you shouldn’t bother yourself ma’am--Mrs. Soames,” Joe said.
“Now, I won’t hear of it,” I said, insisting. “You shouldn’t walk around town in dirty stockings.”
So while Joe practiced his arithmetic, I got my wash bucket out in the yard to scrub down the stockings and hung them out to dry. Si came out and wandered among my garden.
“I like those plants. My favorite color isth blue. Joe says Momma used to grow Bluebellth in her garden,” Si said, sitting next to my Bluebell patch.
When he looked up at me, my breath caught in my throat. He looked so like Joshua, if his hair was like Joe’s chestnut curly mop. And his eyes were as big as Joshua’s used to be, just like Adam’s.
“Well here’s a sprig for you,” I heard myself say, using the scissors in my apron to cut a few blooms and pinning them to Si’s shirt pocket.
“Mrs. Soames?” Joe called.
“My Da’s probably heading home about now. Si and me should be getting home.”
“Okay sweetheart,” I told him, taking down the stockings from their clothespins and helping Si get them back on. As we left the house, I asked Joe, “ Can you help me get to your house?”
Joe nodded and scampered ahead just like I’d seen him do on Main Street the other day.
Mama, look how fast I can run! Run with me Mama! Joshua’s voice echoed into my head as Joe kept running, and I only returned to reality when Si slipped his small hand into mine.
“I like it at your house, Mama Soameths,” he said, smiling, breaking my heart.
Mama! Look at this stone! It’s shaped like a heart, just for you!
We reached the Crowell home as Mr. Crowell reached the picket fence encircling the property.
“Daddy!” the two boys cried, running toward their father.
“Hello. I’m Louella Soames. Mrs. Webb couldn’t mind the boys today, so--”
“It’s so nice of you ladies to watch my boys. They’re always on their own,” Mr. Crowell said. “Tell them that. None of them ever manage to walk the boys home so I can thank them. Goodnight Mrs. Soames.”
“Mr. Crowell, may I have the boys join me for dinner tomorrow?” I heard myself ask, as if I had no control over my voice. “It’s just, the other women, they have their own children to tend to, and Mr. Soames is never home. I get lonely at my house the nights I eat by myself.”
“That’s mighty nice of you, Mrs. Soames. I’d be awful indebted to you,” he answered, taking his worn cap from his head and bending it in his hands. “As long as the other ladies don’t mind, I’m sure Joe and Si would love to. Right boys?”
“Yessir, Papa,” Joe said.
“Then I will see you boys tomorrow. See to it you don’t muddy up your nice stockings at school,” I teased them, before setting off toward home.
Sitting on my porch that night, drinking in the last of the September sunset, I thought about Joshua. Images flowed back to me-- Joshua and Adam running through the cobbled streets of Bridgewater while I screamed to Adam to be careful with him; Joshua drawing me pictures of the Sunsets and of our little family: Adam, Joshua, and me; looking at Joshua’s big eyes the day he was born and naming him “Joshua Michael Cleary”; the night Adam proposed and I could feel the little baby kick as I kissed him; holding Joshua’s five-year-old hand as they lowered Adam into the ground at Bridgewater cemetery.
That last image made my throat catch. Adam Cleary, my high school sweetheart, first husband, father of my son, and one true love. I am married to Mr. Soames now, but that is the true example of a cordial relationship as compared to the romantic chaos Adam and I shared.
And he was gone. Not even in the Grover’s Hill Cemetery where I could visit daily, but deep in North Carolina with Joshua, in the homeland, with his stone reading “Adam Joshua Cleary: Semper Fi”.
This was before our navy adopted the phrase; Adam had always liked it, having a knack for Latin and a devotion to me and Joshua and his friends. “Semper Fi” means “Always Faithful”. And he was.
I smiled to myself, thinking of my happy memories of Adam, but just as quickly as these came, the torturous ones of Joshua came as well, almost kicking me out of my chair.
I had been in the embroidery club at our church, waiting for our boys to come in from school, when Mr. Castle from the bookshop came running in. My heart dropped.
“I tried to help Louella! I really did!” He cried, breathing heavily so I almost didn’t make out his words.
“It’s… Joshua… Main… Street…”
I remember taking off running, praying as loud in my head as I could, hoping I would find Joshua laughing on the curb. It had only been five years since Adam’s death: I couldn’t take any more sadness. And yet…
I reached Main Street and pushed through the crowd.
Joshua, little ten-year-old Joshua, lay sprawled in a terrible position on the brick street. His bright blue eyes were just as vibrant, but now they were blank, staring vacantly up at the sky while blood pooled behind his cracked skull on the pavement.
The suspenders I bought him-- the navy straps with brass fasteners that he admired in the Wilkins’ shop for weeks-- were covered in dirt and caked blood.
I screamed, falling over my baby, my Joshua. They told me the horse spooked and kicked him down, but I didn’t hear them. I just held his face in my hands and cried, hot tears dripping on his face.
The church bells ringing brought me back to Grover’s Corners, but I had the most frightening dreams that night.
Dreams of Joe and Si with vacant stares, locked behind barred windows. I woke up sweating swearing to always protect my boys-- Joe, Si, and Joshua. Always.
Chapter 2: Joe
Those boys grew fast. They shot up overnight, coming to my house everyday, until I’d turned around and two years had passed. Two years of New Hampshire frozen winters and browning summers. Joe turned ten, Si turned seven, and I made them each two years of birthday cakes, inviting the neighborhood to play games and chat in the yard.
Mr. Soames was around once a month-- business in New York kept him away-- but now I wasn’t so lonely. I had Joe and Si every afternoon.
Joe started the paper route, taking over for Myles Christian’s boy. He would walk the route for three years before giving it over to Si. Si was already excited, seeing Joe leave early in the morning with a bag of still warm newspapers to toss.
Joe was getting very good at his maths and sciences. He hadn’t told me, but I think he will go to Massachusetts Tech. He’s very bright. Even brighter than Mrs. Webb’s Emily, and she’s three years older than him. I don’t dare say that in front of Myrtle-- she’s very proud of Emily’s accomplishments. And she should be-- Emily’s smart. Just not as smart as my Joe.
My Joe. He wasn’t mine, but I liked to think of him as mine. He looked so like Joshua. Because Joshua is buried in Bridgewater Cemetery, I can’t visit his grave, even though I send my Ma money every year for his birthday for her to buy some of Eliza Smith’s carnations and bluebells-- Joshua’s favorites. And even though he’s so far away from me, spending my afternoons with Joe bring him back to me.
I’m sure by now Joe has grown tired of my many stories about Joshua, but he listens all the same. It’s not because he loves me-- he just respects all the people of the town.
I swear Si is growing more like his brother every day. He always begs Joe to let him come to the baseball field, but Joe always says he’s too young. So Si stays in the backyard, tossing a baseball up in the air and catching it. I have to holler to get Joe inside for dinner now, and even Si has to be asked twice. Not that I mind.
One such evening, I was hollering up a storm to rival the coastal rains of North Carolina. Si had already come in and was helping me set out the plates and forks so we’d be ready when Joe finally came in from tossing the ball with Wally Webb and a couple other boys his age. They didn’t dare try to play with the older boys yet-- George Gibbs and Sam Craig and the others.
“Joe Crowell! Your brother and I won’t wait all night!” I called, nodding at Si to sit down at the table as I set the meatloaf and green beans down. I was just about to tell Si to take some meatloaf when the front door slammed open and Joe came running through the house.
“I’m here May’ella!” he shouted, careening toward his chair at the table. May’ella is what he started calling me as he tried to break the habit of calling me “ma’am”, so he would start and then say “Louella”, which got shortened to “May’ella”. I rather liked it.
“Joe, shoes,” I admonished him, and a look from me sent him back in the direction he came, oxfords being removed as he hopped. When he returned he reached for the green beans, but Si kicked him under the table with his ever-growing legs.
“Ow!” Joe exclaimed, but Si was persistent.
“I said it lasth night,” Si reminded him, slight lisp ever improving.
“Aw, come on! I’m hungry!”
“Joe,” I warned.
“Bless this the Lord our food we eat today and let us never know the pains of hunger. Amen.” Joe sped through the dinner prayer before grabbing the green bean bowl and spooning it onto his plate.
“Thank you, Joe,” I said, before giving Si some meatloaf. “How was school today?”
“I wrote an essay about the American Revolution and Miss Foster said it was exemplary, and I was the only one in class who knew what that meant. I played ball with Wally and Clarence and Andrew and guess what?” Joe asked, taking one too many green beans and stuffing them in his mouth. I never would teach him manners.
I chuckled. “What?”
“Rebecca Gibbs asked to play with us! She said she could throw as well as we could, but before she could prove it, her Mama came over and told her to act like a lady. May’ella, why did Rebecca think she would throw? Only boys can play baseball.”
I laughed. Certainly Rebecca could play baseball, but it wouldn’t be proper. But as much as Joe laughed at Rebecca’s attempt to play baseball, I could see the admiration in his eyes. I swear on my own strawberry buckle, those two would wake up when they were in high school and be sweet to each other.
Just as I was about to ask Si how his day was, there was a knock at the door.
“Now who is that, I wonder?” I asked the boys, who shrugged but followed behind me as I approached and opened the door. “We were eating dinner, so you’d better have a good reason--”
I stopped. It was Constable Warren. And his face and hat in his hands told me I shouldn’t chastise him.
“Mrs. Soames,” he started, but looked at me and paused.
“What is it, Constable?”
“It’s Matthew Crowell.”
The rest of the conversation was a blur-- just the way he said that, though, I knew Joe and Si were orphans. It was the similar cadence with which I was informed that Adam had passed. Constable Warren delivered his message and bid me goodnight. I registered that Mr. Crowell had been in a machinery accident, but I made Joe and Si sit in the kitchen while I was told the news. When Constable Warren left, Joe came up behind me-- he was at my shoulders now, and gaining fast.
“May’ella, what’s going on? I know we didn’t finish supper, but my father’s coming home about now. We should go out to meet him,” Joe said, concerned. I turned to look at him.
This boy. This boy who so resembled my baby in coloring and in eyes but who was so vastly different. Joe wasn’t Joshua, but I loved him just as much. And Joe looking up at me as he still did make me realize that I couldn’t possibly hurt this boy. My Joe. And Si behind him. I couldn’t possibly-- but I had to.
“Joe, Si, come sit down with me,” I told time, and they tentatively took seats on the couch. “You see, today there was an accident at the factory. And your Papa, well he was in the accident. I’m so sorry, boys.”
“So Papa’s hurt?” Si asked. “We should go get Doc Gibbs and sing Papa songs, just like you did when I had the cold. It made me feel real better.”
My heart cracked at the memory. Si had caught a cold and I noticed when he was at my house, so I told Mr. Crowell I would care for him. I made batches of brothy soup and hot tea with honey for Si to eat and drink, and I told him fantastical stories of King Arthur and Leonardo DaVinci and George Washington. Until Si asked me to sing to him.
We would always sing silly songs and dance tunes while cleaning the dishes, and Si always like to hear me sing. When he had the cold, though, I sang other songs.
I sang the lullabies I sang to Joshua every night when he was a baby. I sang the church hymns from the choir. I sang the ballads Adam and I would sing together in high school and to unborn Joshua, like “Loch Lomond” and “My Love is Never Far Away”.
Si said my singing made him better, so I started to cry when he suggested singing to his Papa.
“No sweetheart,” I said. “Your Papa’s worse than that. He’s gone to live with your mother.”
This seemed to register with Joe, because his pale, freckled face began to splotch with pink as his summer blue eyes grew red. He rubbed his nose against his sleeve and ran into my lap on the other couch, curling up like a newborn kitten as tears of his and mine stained the lap of my skirt. He was too big for my lap at ten, but I held him anyway. Joe continued to sniffle as I tried to explain to Si.
“Papa’s gone, Si. He’s up with the angels Pastor always tells you about. He’s living with your mother and the angels, high over your head, always watching over you.”
Si, though I think didn’t get it entirely, understood enough to curl up on my other side, lip trembling and trying to overcome his lisp to ask Jesus to make his Papa an angel.
“May’ella?” Joe asked, and I was surprised he would even speak. “You’ll always be there to take care of us, right?”
"Yes, Mama Soames?” Si added. Both their bright red faces blinked up at me.
“Yes,” I replied, unable to give any other answer. I wrapped my arms around them both. “I will always be here.”
We stayed that way for a long time.
“What are we to do with them, Julia?”
“They stayed with Louella last night. Si wouldn’t leave her sight all night. When she sent him to school he wouldn’t go at first.”
“That is so improper, Julia. They should be with relatives.”
I hated Constance. I shouldn’t hate her. She was right, of course. Joe and Si should be with relatives. I’m sure they still have some in the area. They should be found properly.
But I didn’t want them to go to anyone else. They would stay with me. They were my babies more than any aunt or uncle’s children.
Julia and Constance were talking in the church hall the morning after Matthew Crowell died. I should be with them, helping them prepare for the community dinner, but as soon as they started talking, I couldn’t make my feet keep going. MY heart jumped up to my throat.
“Now Constance,” Julia said warningly. “Louella will be here any minute. You know she’s become attached to those boys. She won’t like the idea of them going away.”
“But Julia! Is she really fit to care for children?” Constance snidely asked.
“She’s cared for those two boys for over two years now: dinners and laundry and all. And she has her boy down in North Carolina from her first marriage-- that Adam man.”
Julia stood up for me, but I still couldn’t take anyone in Grover’s Corners talking about Adam. They had no right to talk about what they didn’t know.
“Oh, but Julia. I heard her husband drank as much as Simon Stimson. And her boy in North Carolina? I heard he died!” I couldn’t. I stepped out of the shadows.
“Constance!” Julia warned, nodding towards me.
“You have no right. No right at all,” I told Constance. Adam and Joshua’s mention gave me resolve. “--to talk about things you know nothing about. My Adam? My childhood sweetheart who loved me more than life itself. He didn’t drink more’n anybody else. Maybe a little, but only on especially sad days. He was an angel, and he was mine.
“And Joshua. My baby. My other angel, the sweetest little sunbeam ever come across a cloud. It was my fault, but not in that way. I should have told him not to go to town. I should have told him to mind the crossings. But he didn’t see that horse.
“Have you ever seen your baby die? See the light fly from his eyes like a sparrow? I ain’t gonna let that happen to Joe and Si. I’m going to take care of them. And that’s the end.”
By the conclusion I had tears on my cheeks and Constance looked gob-smacked. Julia had a hand over her mouth, whether in shock or in sadness I couldn’t tell. Propriety couldn’t hold me, though. Not now, when all I needed to say and had bottled up had been let out. I picked up my skirts and left the hall, walking down the spring lanes.
There were no Magnolias in New Hampshire. Back in Bridgewater you couldn’t walk twenty paces without hitting one straight with your face. And their floral scent would trail behind you like a flowery kitten all through April when they were blooming, and the absence of the scent made me feel empty.
All I could think of now was the trees from home. The Magnolias were the strongest, their blooms hiding in all of my memories, even the earliest. They swayed in the background of every Easter and birthday of my time, remembering someone tucking the fragrant flower behind a lock of my hair.
Then were the Maples and Oaks, commonplace in Grover’s Corners, but not like the one in the Cleary’s yard. It was enormous, and the boys had built a tree house high in the clouds. They used only branches to reach it, no nailed ladder steps, so reaching the tree house reserved you a spot in at least their respect, if not the clubhouse.
When I was only twelve my neighbor Adam Cleary dared me to climb the tree house. I agreed as long as he didn’t look up my skirts as I climbed. I had known Adam forever, so it didn’t so much matter him looking up my skirts-- I knew he wouldn’t anyway. He turned tomato red when I even mentioned it.
I looked around Main Street in Grover’s Corners, lost in a memory and searching for a cherry tree. But the only cherry trees in New Hampshire were at the farm six or seven miles out of town. But I couldn’t help recall the memory.
Behind the high school in Bridgewater was a wide cherry tree, which provided shade and snacks to the high schoolers. I was sitting under it with Adam one day in our junior year, playing the stem game.
You see, its an old wives tale that whoever can tie a cherry stem into a knot using only their mouth first is the better kisser. Us kids in the town would play under the cherry tree, so much that the children call it the Kissing Tree now.
I was under the Kissing Tree with Adam, my head resting on his chest as I felt it expand and contract as we savored the sweet cherries. It was highly improper, the position we were in. Some of the older women of the town found it scandalous for a girl to be so close to a man who was not a relation, but the younger people in Bridgewater-- parents and younger-- understood our closeness.
“Have you gotten the stem trick down yet?” Adam asked me.
“Not nearly. I swear, I will never be able to do that. I must be the worst kisser in the entire world,” I replied, twirling a cherry stem between my fingers.
“Now, that can’t be true. You have a pretty smile. Someone with a pretty smile can’t kiss poorly.” I sat up, just as his lips touched mine.
That was our first. There would be many to follow, proving that Adam stood by his claim. I never did learn the cherry stem trick.
That cherry tree was a potent memory, one I knew I couldn’t face in this state, so I shook my head clear and started home.
I was in the middle of baking a pecan banana bread when the door opened and in flew Si.
“May’ella!” he shouted, jumping into my arms and hugging me tight.
“Hello Si,” I replied, squeezing him in return. “Where’s Joe?”
“Oh, he’s coming.” Si was unconcerned as he set his satchel down and began removing his shoes.
“May’ella!” Joe’s voice shouted from the front porch.
“What is it?” I asked, hustling to the door. He stood there with Constable Warren and two beat-up trunks. “Now, what is this?”
“Well, Constable Warren saw me dragging them down Main Street and offered to help.”
“The way I figure,” Bill said,” these boys shouldn’t have to walk across town to get their stockings.”
I broke into a smile. “You want to stay with me, Joe?”
“Yes ma’am, Mama,” he said, wrapping his arms around me. Further proof of how much time had passed-- his head was at my shoulder now. He was going to be a giant. Si too. But they would be mine.
Chapter 3: Elton
“Si! Wake up! You’ll be late!” I hollered, mixing the batter for my famous fluffy pancakes. “Joe! You too! High School’s waiting!”
I know. Joe is in High School. He’s fourteen. And almost two heads taller than me. Two years ago he’d yielded the paper route to Si, who’s eleven, and growing taller everyday.
“Ma? Where are my stockings? I can’t find them!”
“I set them on your dresser under your suspenders. Open your eyes!”
As soon as the first stack of pancakes were finished with strawberry preserves, Si came running down the staircase holding his shoes in his hand and hat crooked on his head. Si’s hair was still stick-straight inky-black, and stuck out at odd angles just like it had the first day I met him. No amount of admonishment or hair product could tame it.
“Joe!” I called for the sixth time that morning.
“Mama,” Si said, dropping his shoes next to his chair. “Don’t worry. Joe’s coming.” And with that he proceeded to eat heaping mouthfuls of pancakes and milk.
“Now you remember to speak to Mr. Webb about the paper route-- he told me it’s changed. And we’re going to visit your Papa tomorrow, so make sure to stop by Mrs. Gibbs’ house. She always likes to give you a bloom or two.”
“Yes, Mama, I won’t forget.”
Joe came crashing downstairs, jumping the last three steps. He too was carrying his shoes but his shirt was unbuttoned and his hat was nowhere to be found.
“Joe, how many times have I told you to be careful on the staircase? One day you’ll fall and hurt yourself. Now sit down and eat your breakfast.”
“Morning Ma,” Joe replied, ignoring my reprimand, kissing my cheek, and sitting down to eat pancakes.
“Joe,” I warned, and he slowed down. Years had gone by and he’s grown so much, but he still eats like a ravenous wolf. I am always transported back to that first evening when I tell him to slow down. Some things haven’t changed.
“Ma, Joe has to go now,” Si piped up, and a look shot between the two boys.
“And why would that be, Joe?” I asked, drying my hands with the dishcloth on my apron and turning to look at the two boys, Joe particularly. The poor boy turned a sunburnt red, mumbling something entirely unintelligible. “What?”
“He promised Rebecca Gibbs he would walk her to school,” Si explained again, and Joe shoved him.
“Joe! Not at the table,” I said. “Put on your shoes and button your shirt. I won’t let you leave like that.”
“Okay,” Joe said, finally speaking clearly. After he had collected himself and picked up his book strap, he stopped at the doorway.
“Joe?” I called, and he looked back at me. “Make sure you offer to carry her books.”
“I will,” Joe replied, smiling brightly.
Shortly after Joe’s departure, Si ran out the door, paper bag flapping as he ran.
I put on my shoes and went into the backyard with my pruning shears. I found two full-bloom tulips from my garden. Mr. Soames always like them, so I put my shears in the house and set off for the cemetery hill. It was the first Friday of April, and I was going to visit him.
When I reached the hill, there wasn’t a living soul in sight, not even Mr. Stoddard the undertaker. I walked down Avenue E, past the Craigs and the Walkers and toward where the Soames were buried.
His stone was simple. It had his name and when he was born and died, and some magnolia blossoms etched near the side. He always said he loved magnolias-- they were the prettiest flowers. He said I was his very own magnolia.
“Hello Elton,” I said, placing a tulip next to the stone. “It’s the first Friday of April. Did you miss me?” I laughed. “I reckon not. You’ve probably forgotten about us. But it’s April and the cottonwoods are blooming. I knew you always like that. Si and Joe are growing taller everyday. I know that you didn’t spend very much time with them, but you would like them. Joe is so smart. I’m sure he’ll go to a wonderful university, just like you did.”
I smiled. “I don’t know if you can hear me. I feel silly sometimes, visiting you and telling you about my life. But then sometimes in the middle of the month I’m glad I’ll visit you soon. I know you and I were never particularly close, no more than companions, but I feel like you understood more about my life than others in Grover’s Corners. You knew about Joshua and Adam and Joe and Si and never judged me. And I’m glad you found me. You picked me up out of Bridgewater and away from all that sadness. I swear if I’d lived another month down there, I don’t know what I would have done. You saved me.”
I heard footsteps crunching up the hill, and I looked around. No one. “Thanks for everything, Elton. I miss you.” I set the other tulip next to his grave and looked around again for anybody. Still no one.
“Hello?” I called. There was no one around. The wind picked up, brushing the wisps of my hair away from my face.
My throat caught. The wind felt just like Elton’s hand when he would push a strand of hair from my cheek.
I couldn’t understand my own mind at that moment. I would have thought I would be transported to a memory of Elton, but I wasn’t. I was transported to a day under the cherry tree with Adam. School had just gotten out, and it was sunny and breezy.
“Hey Louella,” he called from his group of friends. I was walking with Mary Ellen and Beth Piper from class, schoolbooks clutched to our chests as we discussed Pride and Prejudice.
“Hello Adam,” I said meandering toward him.
“Can I talk to you for a moment? It’s about our maths homework,” he grinned, and winked. My heart spasmed, and I looked around to see if anyone had noticed. If they did, they kept it to themselves.
“Sure. Mary Ellen, don’t wait. Just tell my Ma I’ll be along a little later,” I told my best friend, who nodded in the way that showed me she had seen the look between the two of us and she was reserving her judgment for later.
“Go ahead, Mike, James,” Adam said, and the boys whistled in an unattractive manner before heading off.
I was watching out friends go so I was surprised when his hand folded itself into mine. I wanted to live in this moment forever. Never let him go.
“So hello Louella,” Adam said, softer and sweeter this time.
“Hello,” I replied. He placed a warm kiss on my cheek.
“I was thinking of speaking to your father, but I wanted to ask you first,” he started, and tears began to flow out of my eyes.
I loved him so much, but he couldn’t possibly mean that. Adam was so perfect and better than me that he would never ask me that.
“Yes?” I nudged.
“Miss Louella James,” he started. “I believe you are the kindest and most loving person I know. And I was thinking the other day what I would be doing in a few years. Helping my father run the grocery, of course, but every image of my house had you in it, singing those beautiful songs and cooking delicious pies and giving me a kiss every morning and evening--“ He paused, and smiled. “Any future I could possibly imagine has to have you in it. I wanted to ask you if you would consider becoming my wife.”
In the memory my face broke into an enormous smile as I dropped my books and wrapped my arms around his neck, twisting my fingers in his curly coffee-colored hair. I kissed him long and sweet, and when I opened my eyes to look at him all I could manage to say was “yes”.
On the cemetery hill, however, I cried. Big long salty streaks ran wheel tracks down my cheeks, because I knew. I knew Adam was gone now. Gone for so long that he was a part of me. The part laying with Joshua in North Carolina.
The big hacking sobs that shook my body slowed as I walked back towards town, until barely a whimper by reaching Main Street. I walked slowly down Main Street, willing my memory not to turn to Joshua. But even I couldn’t overpower his memory.
I was thrown back to walking down Main Street in Bridgewater, Joshua clutching my hand. His bright eyes sparkled in the Southern sun as he giggled at some impression Adam had done before he went to the grocery store to open up.
“Daddy makes a silly duck,” Joshua smiled, and I attempted a grin. Last night had been frightening.
Mr. Cleary, Adam’s father, had gotten worse. He was wasting away, fever high and mind slowly fading. When Adam and I visited him, Mr. Cleary didn’t recognize him. He kept calling him “Lucas, Lucas, Lucas”, not Adam. And my sunny laughing Adam disappeared under a thick layer of grief. He left the house around eight and returned at ten with a bottle in hand, angry.
Angry at life, angry at the cosmos, angry that such a thing could happen to his dear, sweet Papa. He kicked a hole in the sitting room wall and I yelled at him to stop, please stop. While he was yelling how it wasn’t fair, that life wasn’t fair, he turned on me, fire in his eyes. But when he raised his hand, his face went blank, and he dropped to his knees, starting to cry.
I had cradled his head to my chest as he cried, tears hitting my face too.
“Yes dear, he does,” I told Joshua.
My baby never knew what Adam went through. He was gone too soon to be shattered from blissful ignorance.
I returned to reality when I saw Joshua down the street. But no, it was Joe with Rebecca Gibbs. He was carrying her books and holding her hand. My sweet Joe, growing up. Joe was like Joshua sometimes, but sometimes he was very different. Because he grew up. Here he was, fourteen years old, holding a girl’s books and hand just like Adam did for me.
I tried to think I wasn’t eavesdropping or sneaking around as I followed the pair down the street.
“You look very nice in that gingham dress,” Joe told her.
“Oh, well I always thought I looked silly in it when I was younger,” Rebecca replied.
“Oh, no. You look very pretty,” Joe assured her sweetly and sincerely, to which Rebecca surely blushed.
“Well, this is my house,” Rebecca said, stopping. “Thank you for walking with me. Could we walk home together tomorrow?” I grinned. I could see Joe break into a smile.
“I would like that.”
“Okay. See you,” Rebecca said, taking her books. She paused at the gate, then turned and quickly kissed Joe’s cheek before going inside.
Joe just stood there, dumbfounded. Hand on the cheek she had kissed moments before.
I had to laugh at how he was growing up before my eyes, but I couldn’t say I didn’t expect it. Ever since he talked about Rebecca wanting to play baseball, I knew he was a goner. He always liked spunk.
I hurried home to make sure I was there before Joe, putting on my apron and starting a casserole. When Joe finally reached home, his hand was still on his cheek and he was tugging at his hat.
“How was school, sweetheart?” I asked. Joe didn’t seem to notice I had spoken, only took off his shoes and sat at the table.
What its like to be first in love, I thought, even if Joe didn’t know it himself yet. When you’re like a person sleepwalking and you didn’t quite see the street you were walking on, and you didn’t quite hear everything that was said to you.
I thought about all of them. Those boys I loved. Adam and Joshua in the grave in North Carolina, and Elton in the grave here. Si on his first year of the paper route, growing tall and funny. And Joe, sweet and serious, who’s falling in love, experiencing the teenage growing pains. All five of them having some grand adventure, with me watching and cheering them on.