Marvelle peeked around the bedroom door at her 42-year-old, 250-pound daughter propped up against pillows in the bed, asleep, TV blasting, an empty pint of mint chocolate chip ice cream on the night table beside her. That gal needs a man, she thought as she closed Cassandra´s door. She moved down the hall and through the kitchen without turning on a light, then eased out the back door as quiet as she could considering she had arthritis, a walker and a 10-pound pocketbook to contend with. When she got to the bottom of the back steps, she stopped, tied her pocketbook to the top rail of her walker and set off down the driveway toward the road. The gravel made walking tough, especially since her pocketbook banged against the walker every time she moved. She wished again they´d had the money to get the driveway paved last year. But gravel was expensive enough these days. Lord, them big rocks did hurt her feet right through her shoes, though.
When she reached the end of the driveway, Marvelle stopped and looked back toward the house. She could see the flickers of the TV light against the window shade in Cassandra´s room. She shook her head. M-m-m. Yes, lord, might be if that gal had a man she wouldn´t need no sweets, nor television neither.
Marvelle faced the road and looked both ways before turning right toward Ruth Ann´s house, about a mile away down Stamey Dairy Road. Couldn´t afford no sweets when I was a girl, she thought. Maybe I wouldn´t had to get married if I´d had me some sweets. She laughed. That Jesse was a sweet one, though. When it suited him.
Walking was easier on the pavement and she settled into a steady rhythm: lift the walker, set it down, take two steps. It was slow going. At one time Marvelle had thought she´d get around faster with one of them walkers on wheels, but when she tried it at the store, the dang thing raced right out from under her and she nearly broke her back. No, this way was slow but steady and certain. She´d get where she was going. She always had before.
After a while she stopped to rest. Standing in the middle of the two-lane blacktop, she cocked her head and listened to the summer night sounds–crickets, owls, the far barking of dogs. She squinted and made out the dark humps of cows in the pastures on both sides of the road, and the darker stands of cedar and pine growing along the fence lines.
Funny how them same trees seemed to grow in most every pasture she´d ever seen in North Carolina. Riding down the mountain on the train with Jesse and the young´uns, into the foothills and right down to nearly flat land, the trees was the only things that didn´t seem to change much. She left the only home she ever knew in this world to follow that man, and so had to take comfort from any little thing that reminded her of home, even trees.
Moving away from Madison County had been like tearing off a piece of herself, and after 50-some years she still felt like an outlander in Davis, especially with Jesse gone now. But Davis was her children´s home, and so it would have to be her home too. She´d thought about moving back to Madison when Jesse died, but decided she was too old to make such a change. She had to settle for what she had, though the pissy little hills around Davis would never measure up to Madison, weren´t big enough to amount to nothing, not even high enough to see any distance, certainly not enough to rest her eyes against, make her feel surrounded.
Eh, Lord, it was a mystery, the way a woman could love a man and despise him at the same time, need him as much as breathing, and still sometimes wish the fool was dead. Heaven knows that Jesse led her a chase nearly 60 years. Didn´t seem like it could´ve been that long though, long time to be married. But the time she´d been without him, 11 years now, seemed even longer. Lord, lord. Time had a way of slipping past without telling a body.
Suddenly a breeze carrying sharp onion scent blew across the highway, washing away the sour meaty smell of cow shit. Oh, that smell! So many nights as a girl, she laid on the hill behind her house, wrapped in a scratchy horse blanket to hold off the chill, the wild onion like perfume, the night sky sparkling like God´s own tin-punch lamp. She dreamed dreams then about climbing up and looking over the mountains into the faraway places, never going, just looking. But them dreams never took into account a flatlander from Davis come to Madison County to work the talc mines.
Marvelle first laid eyes on Jesse when he got off the train at Barnard one Saturday morning. She was waiting on her mama to get back from visiting her sister in Asheville. Jesse stepped down from that train like a young Abraham Lincoln, only handsomer, tall and clean-shaven, eyes sharp as an eagle´s. Marvelle had sat up straight and blinked her eyes to test him. When he stopped, turned, and lifted a hand to help her mama down from the train, Marvelle knew he was real.
Her mama spoke to him, looking up into them eyes and smiling kindly, and like a dream he followed her over to where Marvelle waited. When he got closer she could see them eyes was silver gray as the rocks she sat on, and twinkled a little bit when he smiled, like mica. He was a smiling man, always looking like he was in on a great big joke didn´t nobody else know about. Quiet he was, but with a way about him that made Marvelle pay attention.
Jesse and her mama had struck up conversation on the train from Marshall. Turned out he needed a place to stay, and her mama told him about Velda running off, and them having the empty room. That was how he was brung to her, like a gift somehow. Her mama brung him and told him, this here´s Marvelle, the one I told you about, the one who stayed.
Marvelle had locked eyes with Jesse and hadn´t been able to break a-loose. Even when they walked up the road home, him alongside her mama and Marvelle following behind, she couldn´t forget them eyes. She studied the back of his head, a nice-shaped head with smooth clean hair. The clothes needed some work though. Marvelle figured it wouldn´t be long before she´d find a way to take needle and thread to them. Jesse couldn´t be going around in them raggedy overalls, not living under their roof. They was poor, but they was always clean and decent. All except Velda.
But she´d run off with some stranger, a traveling man, and even though Velda was her twin, Marvelle didn´t much care if she ever laid eyes on the girl again. She´d had a bellyful–16 years worth–of Velda´s nonsense and living in Velda´s shadow and she was tired of it. Marvelle felt like Jesse was a sign, something new and good coming in the house right after something bad went out.
As she stood in the door of Velda´s room, it bothered her for just about a minute to think of Jesse in her sister´s bed, and she thought of switching rooms, but instead she drug Velda´s feather tick outside, slung it over the porch rail, and whaled the tar out of it. She beat the dust out, beat a few feathers out, beat all trace of Velda out, beat it till she set into sneezing and had to quit.
Once the bed aired out, Marvelle took down Velda´s curtains and scrubbed the walls and the floor and the windows. She brung the tick back in and made up the bed with sheets white from bleach and hanging in the sun, inhaling the clean smell as she flung them over the bed and tucked them in. She took and put more feathers in the pillows and plumped them up and got her own good candlewick spread out of her hope chest.
Marvelle stood smoothing the bedspread over the pillows, brushing her hands back and forth across the nubby material, tickling her palms. The room seemed brand new, like nobody ever slept there before. She didn´t hear Jesse until he dropped his suitcase on the floor. Her head jerked up and her face went hot when she seen him standing there in the door, just standing there watching her. He smiled that slow smile. Didn´t set foot inside, but somehow he filled up the whole room.
Marvelle got so hot she thought she might swoon over. They was a funny feeling in her chest, and a funny feeling kindly like a itch in her woman´s parts. She watched Jesse studying the room, taking it all in before he looked at her again. Then she remembered how dirty and sweaty she was, her hair all stringy and hanging around her face. She jerked her hands off the pillow and run to the door where Jesse stood. He didn´t move to let her pass, just stood there looking. Her breath come fast like she´d been climbing. After a minute, he reached out a hand like he might be fixing to touch her cheek, and her heart went flippety right down to her belly and then up to her throat. She ducked under his arm and run out the house, out the yard, up the mountain just as fast as she could go.
She run till her legs quit and her breath give out, then flopped down in a laurel slick where she couldn´t see or be seen. Her breathing got slower and slower and she began to be amazed at herself. What on earth had possessed her? The same thing that made Velda do what she done? Marvelle laid on her back with her arms behind her head and stared up at the waxy dark green leaves blocking out most of the sky. It was hot under that laurel, hot and still. She found herself praying for Jesse to be gone when she went home, wishing that he´d never come, but then all of a sudden she was thinking what it would be like if he was there with her, hot and sweaty together under the laurel. What would happen if he was to come up there and find her? She closed her eyes and felt the whole world spin. Something had shifted, and life would never be the same again. He would be there when she went home, and already she could tell there would not be much waiting. Already everything had speeded up faster than she ever dreamed it could.
And now here she was, an old rip, couldn´t run even if she wanted to, much less do any of the other things she used to do. Marvelle stopped again to catch her breath and leaned on the walker. What did she know about anything back then. Lord God, that girl was just a fool, a fool over a man, a boy really. She hawked and spit and cleared her throat good. Seemed like she´d passed in a blur from that hot-faced girl to a dried-up old woman, with all the years and the children and the living in between just shadows now. She used to wonder how it must feel to grow old, watching first her granny, then her mama, but now she knew first hand, and mostly she didn´t like it. She used to think a body got used to the idea as years went by, maybe even welcomed age, or at least the wisdom that come with it. But she didn´t feel one bit smarter now that she did at 16. And they was times she hated her own wrinkledy, saggy face in the mirror. She´d long ago stopped trying to understand how the days and years can sometimes drag so slow while you´re living them, but once they´re gone, seems they went real quick, too quick.
Marvelle sniffed, then sniffed again. That was one thing about this flatland she´d never got used to in all the years since Jesse brung her there in 1942–the smell of cow shit in the summer. Maybe it was due to the heat down here. It stayed cooler in the mountains and didn´t stink as bad. Cows must have a poor sense of smell, else they´d never be able to gag down a bite with that stink clogging up their heads. She´d never liked cows the way Jesse did, even after working with them 40-some years. They just wasn´t interesting creatures, not like dogs or pigs or chickens. Or people.
She picked up the walker and set off down the road again toward Ruth Ann´s. She knew they´d be needing her, Ruth Ann and Ashley. Now there was a pair if ever they was one. Both hardheaded as the day is long and bound to fight every chance they got. They was too much alike, that was their trouble. They needed somebody to step in from time to time, and who better than her? Hadn´t she lived long enough to know a few things about raising children?
She stopped, looked up and squinted. Seemed like she must´ve passed Ruth Ann´s house by now. It´d never took her this long to walk a mile before. None of this part of the road looked familiar at all. Suddenly, Marvelle seen lights in the distance.
“Lord,” she said. “Looks like Ruth Ann´s got every light in the house on.” She started walking again, then stopped as the lights grew brighter, blinding her. She meant to yell for Ruth Ann to open the door and let her in, but the brightness confused her so she couldn´t think what to say.
“Well, I´ll just wait right here,” she thought. “Sooner or later somebody´s bound to see me standing here and come open the door.”