Patti Meredith grew up in Galax, Virginia, and has lived in Alabama, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Tennessee. She currently lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. She holds an MFA from the University of Memphis. Her stories have appeared in Still: The Journal and Appalachian Heritage.
A Short Story
By Patti Meredith
Agnes didn’t show surprise or alarm seeing her ex-husband’s slumped shoulders framed in the back door window of her father’s house. She didn’t even pull the navy pinstriped robe tighter at the waist before opening the door.
“You’re out early,” she said. Three years had passed. He looked as hang-dogged coming in as he had going out, maybe a little fuller in the face, hair thinner on the top.
He sidestepped past her into the kitchen. “I never liked to put off.”
“That’s the truth,” she said like she kept a count of what was and was not true.
She went to the cabinet and reached far back to where a heavy white porcelain mug Tom always liked hung on a hook. He took a seat at the round oak table while she lightened his coffee with half and half. Sly strands of early gray streaked her dark hair that made a cape around her shoulders.
“Sorry about your daddy,” he said.
She stopped a smile and handed him the mug. “He was sorry about you, too.” She wore her father’s robe, the one he’d fancied Sunday mornings on the front porch with his pile of big city newspapers.
“I know it’s rough, him being gone,” Tom said.
Agnes pulled a chair out from the table and took a seat. “I was just a heartbroken child when Mama died. This is hard in a different way.”
He shifted in the narrow, high-backed chair and rubbed his forehead as if to bring forth what the trouble was. “You and your daddy were two of a kind.”
He’d exhausted the phrase back in the day when he used the words as accusation. Agnes assumed the sentiment still held malice.
Tom crossed his arms, reared back, and with what Agnes recognized as a struggle, looked straight at her. “Mama said he went fast and the church was full.”
“Dickie said he’d seen you around.”
“Said you’d moved in down here and you were sporting your daddy’s clothes.” Tom bobbed his head forward as if greeting the pinstriped robe and stripped pajamas.
She shrugged “What’s it to you?” She asked the question like she’d wanted to for a long time and kept her sight on Tom, letting him know she expected an answer.
“Well.” He drew out the word sliding past small talk to the hard truth. “Folks just wonder if you’re crazy is all. If you’ve gone off the deep end, around the bend, off your rocker.”
“Ah,” she said, “and they sent you to judge?”
“Yes,” he said.
She laughed that opened mouth laugh of hers that took the newly acquainted by surprise. “Funny how little it takes to be deemed sane,” she said.
“It is,” he said, chuckling until his belly shook. “It is.” He wiped his face. “Oh, me.” Sharing a joke with Tom felt good but Agnes knew that wasn’t what he’d been summoned to do.
When she first showed up in town dressed in her daddy’s clothes, folks thought that was all right – it being winter and her being tall – but Easter came and Agnes appeared at First Baptist in a seersucker suit. The old folks didn’t fault her. Old folks are acquainted with the comfort of reaching into the pocket of Grandma’s old sweater and finding a wadded Kleenex and a hard stick of Juicy Fruit. But the middle aged grew nervous.
Grief had turned Agnes bold, and any attempt to talk her back into her own wardrobe only precipitated a thin-lipped smile. In June Agnes perused the cracker choices at Kroger wearing faded Bermuda’s and a stained golf shirt that hung near about to her knees. Some were spooked seeing that sharp nose profile just like her daddy’s. The town decided, with some hesitation, that the only person who ever seemed to understand Agnes at all was that odd Tom. One contact led to another, and so on and so forth, until a phone number was found.
Agnes’s ex had moved on in a variety of ways. He’d relocated sixty miles south to Wytheville, remarried a skinny hygienist with a couple of kids, and attained a commercial license to drive an eighteen wheeler, a profession he’d romanticized as a boy but put aside when he and Agnes married.
Agnes, the private schooled daughter of old money, and Tom the Pentecostal preacher’s boy made for an uneasy match causing all who knew them to take cover like the newlyweds were a bottle rocket lit and aimed in a dangerous direction.
With the loss of his wife to an early cancer, Mr. Price had raised Agnes using the same calculated logic he relied upon to run his lumber business. He sent her away from Glade Valley for a northeastern education and exposure to worldly sensibilities with the expectation that she would latch on to a proper life, but parental designs, flawless in the mind, hardly ever withstand the idiosyncrasies of flesh and blood.
Agnes came back to Glade Valley with a Bachelor of Fine Arts and a vague notion of the future. She ran across her old classmate Tom working in the paint department of Vass-Kapp Hardware where he helped her choose a pale yellow semi-gloss to update her frilly pink bedroom.
She found Tom exotic compared to interchangeable fraternity boys of means. The night before she and her father were to leave for a European holiday, a journey her father had meticulously designed, she and Tom eloped. She jilted Rome for a honeymoon in a musty tent beside the New River where the newly weds conjured their dreams by campfire light. They vowed to live off the land as organic farmers and the next week set a trailer beside his mother’s house.
Mr. Price was none too happy with his daughter’s choice, but he had not become one of the county’s richest men by miscalculating the ways to manipulate a mind. He’d lost his wife to a devil he couldn’t outdo, but he’d be damned if he’d be forsaken by his girl. Mr. Price neither condemned nor congratulated the couple. He studied the circumstances and awaited his next move.
Agnes took to wearing cotton housedresses and a floppy brimmed straw hat. Tom planted pretty rows of corn and beans, tomatoes and squash. They drove quart baskets of what the bugs didn’t eat to the Roanoke Farmer’s Market ninety miles away hoping the city folks would pay for their trouble.
The second season brought torrential rain and Tom and Agnes could no longer pretend to dream. That September when Agnes called her father for his birthday, the last rite of a rebellious daughter, Mr. Price appeared merciful when he suggested harvesting lumber might suite her husband. And, it did. Tom took to the smell of pine and the feel of sawdust. In a year’s time, Mr. Price had entrusted his son-in-law with his lumber business. The trailer was abandoned. Agnes and Tom built a house by the river, a contemporary cedar with decks and skylights.
Mr. Price pulled Tom and Agnes close, so close Agnes became reliant once more on the rhythm of her father’s approval and required his smile for her own wellbeing. Her tides rose and fell according to her father’s moon. Tom, too, felt the pull and was lulled like a dinghy tied to a vast ship for a good long while.
He had come from less than nothing in a town with sharp class lines and it felt good to fill up his gas tank and have the attendant wave him off, to open his locker at the country club and find a fresh bottle of Jim Bean. His accounts stayed paid in full all over town. People who’d never looked his way tilted their heads to hear every word he spoke.
Agnes likewise became enamored with the life she never meant to lead. They kept an organic garden, a nod to their dream, and she built herself a studio for a potter’s wheel. They fancied themselves “other,” and acted accordingly. Tom and Agnes came to the world from opposite ends yet claimed a mutual fascination for what they recognized as absurd. Their disdain for all things conventional kept them entertained. And oblivious.
The insurgence of national superstores had rendered the lumberyard obsolete. Mr. Price, who had known for years the decline would come, found subtle ways to undermine Tom’s efforts to diversify the business while simultaneously feigning disappointment in his son-in-law’s inability to overcome the competition.
Agnes, wedged between the two, held to the notion that her father would never allow Price Lumber to fail, that he’d find a way. “Daddy is never without a plan,” she told her husband.
Tom wanted to believe her, so he did.
Tom had at first resisted the request to come speak to his ex-wife about her wardrobe. He’d left Agnes in a hurry with only a cryptic explanation. “Ask your Daddy,” he’d said before driving his red pick-up into the night with only his border collie, Otis, in tow.
The divorce was swift and sanitary. Black signatures on white paper.
But after a time memories became muddled and his reluctance to return was overruled by an ever-present hankering for what the head doctors on late night radio called closure. His curiosity became more tenacious during solitary hauls from one coast to another when recollections, distorted by scenarios of what might or might not have been, challenged his certainty.
Tom pointed to the lottery tickets neatly aligned in a wooden napkin holder on the kitchen table. “Still playing your Daddy’s numbers?”
Agnes dropped her sharp chin like her Daddy used to and lowered her already contralto voice, “Bound to hit one day.”
“Bound to,” he said. He threw his head back and shut his eyes. “8 -7-19-22-38-5.”
“You play them too?”
“We’ll split it 50/50 then.”
“Be on the news with a big check.”
“What will your wife have to say about that?”
“Probably, “Where’s the checkbook, darling?””
“She calls you darling?”
“Nah, not really. Not so much.”
Agnes snorted, “Darling.” She took a sip of her own creamy coffee. “So, darling, shouldn’t you be getting on back home to take the kids on a pony ride? Pack a picnic? Toss a little ball in the back yard? Light the grill and roast some weenies?”
“No point being snide.”
“I’m not being snide. Just trying to meet you where you are, breaker-breaker-one-nine, come in Teddy Bear.”
Tom held up his hand as if to call a truce. “Let me start over. Hello Agnes. People in town are worried because you’re going around in your daddy’s britches and that’s just not normal.”
Agnes stood up, “You haven’t changed a bit. Still overly concerned about public opinion.” She brought the coffee pot and cream to the table and refreshed their mugs.
“I bet your hygienist doesn’t know what you’re talking about half the time,” she said, stirring his coffee. “How much are you home, anyway? Can’t be much.”
“Seems like you know everything. You tell me.” Soon after he remarried Tom spotted Agnes hiding in plain sight behind dark glasses, slumped in the seat of a car parked across the street from the yellow bungalow he shared with his second wife. Fake flowers sprang from planters shaped like frogs and a stone plaque adorned with the Ten Commandments sat nestled in the boxwood hedge. Tom had imagined Agnes’ pleasure at seeing him living the kind of life they’d once ridiculed.
“Your old running buddies couldn’t wait to let me know you’d moved on,” she said. “I was never their favorite.”
“I don’t recall your friends giving me the high five,” he said. “But that’s neither here nor there. I’m going to have to head back pretty soon. Toss a little ball, as you say. So, let’s keep this about you. What’s with the dress-up?” He looked at her and did not blink.
She turned back to the counter and put the coffee pot down. “Is it crazy to be sad?”
“No,” he said.
She turned to face him and folded her arms. “After your daddy died you swore you saw him at Wal-Mart.”
Tom scratched his head. “I did see him at Wal-Mart.”
“Nobody thought you were crazy.”
“Nobody but you ‘cause you’re the only one I told.”
Tom had stood in the kitchen, the plastic bags of groceries seeming to stretch further his long arms. “I saw Daddy,” he’d said.
She’d nodded without reserve. There had been a time when not a doubt lay between them.
She sat back down and scooted the chair closer to the table. “I’m just holding on, don’t you know,” she said.
“I do know,” Tom said.
They feigned interest in the coffee, as if both would soon be asked to comment on its flavor. How could it be, he wondered, that the repartee came more easily with this woman he hadn’t seen in years than with the one he woke up to every morning?
Tom put down the mug. “Why don’t you take some of that money you’re bound to have hid in your mattress and go see Chef Boyardee like you’ve always wanted to, go kiss the Pope, have yourself the Italian buffet?”
“Mmmm…” she said. “Jet set.”
“Yeah, go to a nudie beach.”
“You go too.” She said it fast, like a trick with words.
He pulled back. “I can’t, Agnes.”
“You and your pursuit of the simple mind.”
“Simple life,” he said.
“Simple, but mine.”
She pushed her chair back with so much force Tom imagined the scrape left a scar. “Mother, you. Now Daddy,” she said. “Everybody leaves one way or another.”
“You need to get out of this town…”
“…and marry a hygienist? Drive a truck?”
“Something,” he said.
“I never blamed you for burning it down,” she said. She leaned forward and pressed her long fingered hands flat against the table as if aiming to prove there was nothing to hide. “But it hurt Daddy to see all he’d worked for go up in smoke.”
“You believe it was all my idea?” he said.
She shook her head. “Don’t.”
He didn’t know what a lie would look like on her face, but he’d seen fear. Her eyes widened and her mouth grew tight.
“Why are you doing this?” she said. “Did you hate him that much?” She lifted her head in a way Tom used to call patrician. “He kept you out of jail, you didn’t have to leave.”
Tom’s head dropped with the weight of a notion becoming truth. “Good God, Agnes, surely you know I set that fire because he wanted me to. And he would have seen us both in jail if I hadn’t left. That was the deal I made.”
“That is not true,” she said. “Stop it. Stop it right now.” She pushed herself up out of the chair and backed against the counter.
“He was never going to let us have a life,” Tom said. “Never. The son-of-a-bitch played us like the fools we were.”
“Daddy told you to burn Price Lumber to the ground?”
He stood not bothering to rearrange the chair beneath the table. “You know how he was.”
Her lips trembled but no words of defense, denial, or salvation formed.
On the road back to his reinvented life Tom replayed that Fourth of July three years past. He was standing on a golf green with Mr. Price when Eddie Mayo sped up in a cart.
“Your place burnt up,” Eddie hollered. “Lumberyard’s gone.”
Tom remembered how the old man reached down and picked his ball out of the cup. “Well, that’s a natural thing for lumber to do. Burn. Right Tom?”
The week before he and Tom had walked the yard surveying the surplus inventory. “It would take nothing for all this to go up in flames,” Mr. Price said. “Of course, that would be the best that could happen now, financially speaking.”
The police report claimed the fire was an accident due to frayed wiring. The town held its own trial. Old man Price was too proud to do such a thing, people said, and who else was there besides that husky son-in-law? It didn’t take long for Tom to catch on that after initially waving off the authorities, Mr. Price had begun using innuendo to fuel the rumor that Tom was the culprit.
“Got a call from a state investigator this morning,” Mr. Price said one evening when just the two of them sat on the porch with glasses of bourbon and imported cigars. Pungent smoke wafted between them. “He has more questions and wants to come down this week to look around. Might be best if I meet with him alone.”
All Mr. Price meant to imply chilled the warm night. “You know,” he continued, “I can make this go away, but I’d need you to leave Glade Valley, and, of course, have no more contact with Agnes. We wouldn’t want her mistaken for an accomplice.”
Tom left the next morning and although Agnes protested appropriately, Tom doubted the passion of her opposition. Since the onset of the lumberyard’s troubles, their happiness had hovered precariously between the red and black of the bottom line.
“How come you aren’t taking anything if you’re really leaving?” she’d said. “You’ll be back by sundown.”
“Not a thing in that house is mine,” he told her.
Tom guided his pickup between the broken lines that separated coming from going and pushed aside the vision of Agnes, pale and gaunt, standing barefoot in her daddy’s faded robe.
He had become adept in directing his mind from past to present. There wasn’t a damn thing he could do about Agnes. Let her live in her fantasy world, what the hell did he care. One thing he’d learned during his years among the rich: their capacity to construct a self-righteous façade knew no boundaries.
He focused on the to-do list presented in subpoena fashion the night before by his current wife, a woman chosen as penance for succumbing to the temptations of Agnes’ privileged world. A woman with no cards wild.
Faucets, window screens, weeds. The list held a gracious plenty to keep him occupied until he could climb in the cab of the eighteen-wheeler and point west. More than enough to keep his hands moving, his mind still.
Agnes watched Tom’s pickup bump down the gravel drive then closed the blinds, found the movie channel on the television, and wrapped herself in a musty afghan. She cried all afternoon over the sorry fate of one cinched-waisted starlet after another, her heart so filled with loss that even the tawdry dramatic portrayal of one soul wanting an unattainable other exhausted her. By the time Light on the Piazza came on, she was weepy and weak. None of the men the dewy eyed girls reached for as the music swelled could be mistaken for Tom even if he popped a bowler on his head and tilted the brim. Tom wasn’t built for decoration.
Mr. Price had not even put down his Wall Street Journal when she’d gone to tell him Tom had left her. “What choice did he have?”
A stunned Agnes weighed his meaning.
“Agnes. Do not confuse foolishness with courage. He was never up to the task,” her father said. “It was just a matter of time.”
Her father went back to his newspaper. She stood paralyzed, confronted by verities that, if brought to the surface like sea creatures caught in a net, would smell to high heavens. Instinctively she translated what she knew to what she needed to know in order to avoid a reassessment of her entire life.
Truth is a choice. Telling, hearing. Knowing, not knowing. Vague notions are where truth waits, patiently, until circumstance intervenes.
“Well, Tom came around today,” she said aloud when finally, after dark, she pan fried herself a grilled cheese sandwich and sat down at the table. A juice glass half full of Crown Royal sat beside the plate.
“He did,” she imagined her daddy saying.
“Yep. Wanted to know how come I was wearing your clothes.” Agnes talked with her mouth full. Then sipped the bourbon.
“What did you tell him?”
Here she paused. What clever joke to tell? No witticism came. Only the poor mean truth. And why not say it?
“Apart from you there’s not much to me. But what was in it for you, Daddy? Was I a prize or a pawn?”
Her daddy wasn’t one for maudlin moods. The kitchen got quiet.
Does there exist in the world a more deceitful duo than parent and child? The child turned inside out to please, the parent hiding the hazardous truth.
Had she and her daddy ever had a conversation that didn’t follow a well-worn script? One without posture and pose? Agnes clever, her father wise. To change would put all their careful years in jeopardy. But with one already dead, the time seemed right for risk.
“I might go to Italy,” she said. “Take some of that insurance money and spend it on wine and rosaries.”
“I had such plans, such glorious plans for the two of us,” the ghost said.
There in the dark kitchen, alone, in her daddy’s stripped pajamas, she felt cold fear in her veins recalling how he’d prodded her across the swinging bridge at Chimney Rock barely a week after her mother died. “It’s just the two of us now,” he’d said.
A mile of nothing stretched beneath them. The bridge swayed with each unsteady step threatening to flip them into the blurred abyss. She was twelve. She’d put her faith in the weight of her father’s hands.
The baggy khakis and oversized black coat looked stylish in Rome. Agnes made her way to the Sistine Chapel and waited her turn amongst the multitude. Inside she tipped her head back to confront the famous ceiling.
God and Adam. The creator resolute, the creation guileless in his trust.
Her guidebook claimed it was Eve tucked beneath God’s arm among the angels. Agnes studied the girl’s uneasy eyes and felt kinship. The wariness. The suspicion.
She studied God’s burly outstretched arm and imagined the finger not reaching to ignite life, but pointing, saying to Adam, “You go.”
Agnes let the overcoat slid from her shoulders and left it lost in the crowd. The echo of her full throated laugh turned heads.
In the gift shop she bought a postcard.