The soft drink machine ate her last quarter, she kicked it and cursed. A Camel cigarette hanging from her lip, she dug through her purse searching for a lighter. He was sitting on a bench beside what looked like his grand daughter sharing a McDonalds hamburger and a cup of Ramen noodles. Unsnapping the pocket of his Cowboy shirt, the man pulled out a box of Diamond safety matches.
“May I?” he asked. The smell of sulphur filled the air. She sat across from them and took a drag.
“I tell you one thing,” she said exhaling slowly, ” This dang discount store only gives you 2 fifteen minute smoke breaks a day and 30 minutes for lunch. How are people supposed to live these days with so much stress?” She looked at the teenager sitting beside the old man and said, “Sweetheart, you sure are a pretty little thing. What’s your name?”
“Magnolia” she answered.
“Oh how sweet, just like the flower… Well, Magnolia, Let me give you a little advice.
Men are going to try to take advantage of a cute little doll like you. Most of them are scoundrels… No offense.” she nodded his direction. “You wouldn’t know it by looking at me now, but I used to turn a few heads in my day. I had plenty of choices, but I settled…” She inhaled deeply. “I guess we all get what we deserve. I could be living in a Villa in France right now instead of supporting a low life husband and our good for nothing children. I bet your Mama already taught you that, didn’t she?”
Magnolia shook her head. “No Ma’am, she didn’t. I don’t have a Mama.”
“You don’t have a Mama? Oh good Lord! Every little girl needs a Mama. How else is she supposed to learn how to be a lady? Did your Mama get killed or something? Oh, I hope not. That would just be too awful.”
The gentleman stood up, looked at his watch and said, “Magnolia, it’s almost 12:45… time to walk you back to school.” He put the empty cup of noodles inside the McDonalds bag and tossed it into the garbage can.
Magnolia reached up, put her arms around all six foot seven of him and said, “Paw Paw, I’ll be fine; see you after basketball practice..” She kissed him on the cheek, walked across the street and opened the front door of Trenton High School.
“Good Lord, you are a tall drink of water!” she said. “Did you play basketball in high school?”
He nodded ‘yes’ and added, “For Alabama when I was in college.”
She said, “And you taught Magnolia, didn’t you? Well, that’s what men are good at. It’s terrible sad, that girl not having a mama to teach her womanly things and all.”
He smiled and walked toward the store.
“Are you going inside?” she asked.
“Yes” he answered. “I need to buy some thread and lining for Magnolia’s gown; her pageant is on Saturday night.”
“Your wife must be a seamstress.” she said.
“She was when she was with us. My wife passed on five years ago, breast cancer. It’s just Magnolia and me now.”
She shook her head, “Family tragedies always choke me up. Just like when Anna Nicole lost her little boy and then died her own self. She left a baby girl for those two sorry men to fight over. This whole world is going to hell in a hand basket!”
“Yes Ma’am, it may very well be. But Magnolia and me… we’re doing just fine. Thanks for concerning yourself. Anyway, at my age I’m better off teaching her womanly things than free throws. It’s just the way things work in life. Well, I guess I should get on back to my shopping now. A real pleasure talking to you.”
She threw her last cigarette onto the ground and snuffed it out with her shoe.
Still in her nightgown, she sat down ignoring the doorbell. Mothers and children with fundraiser tickets or soul savers selling salvation and guilt. It was hot on that Thursday morning in August, even by Texas standards. She fidgeted in the still air. Pushing the buttons of her old RCA console, finding the right one. The picture hesitated, flickered and went black. She cussed, blaming it for Bob Barker’s s departure from ‘The Price Is Right’. ” Game shows stink now.” she grumbled. Beads of sweat like tears moistened her cheek. She wiped them away with her arm tasting the salt. Picking herself up from the chair, she made her way to the freezer door, opened it and stepped into it. Eyes closed as she breathed deep; the frosty mist as dense and frigid as her life.
By 11 am a therapeutic gin and tonic sounded mighty good. After all, she had nowhere to go and nothing to do…
The doorbell rang, “Not again!” She tipped the glass and emptied its contents.. The sipping was done. Walking with purpose to the door, she flung it open with pitched anger, “What now?”
“Melinda?” A gentleman she recognized stood there. “Melinda Lynn?” His stare piercing her soul. “You may not remember me but we went to school together.”
She reached out to him… He felt cold, a respite to the heat. “Bradley!” She ran the empty glass across her forehead.
“Of course I remember you.”
She coaxed him but he stood at the door, “I can’t stay.”
“Why not? please stay a while longer.” She leaned against the door, heat pounding like a heavyweight boxer, “I want you to. I need you to.”
With a weak smile, Bradley said, “I just stopped in to say goodbye.” He lowered his head.
She pleaded, “No, no, don’t leave, where are you going?” He started to turn away, “Wait!” She dropped the glass and ran to her bedroom, rifled through a jewelry box and found a piece of her heart. She ran back and held out his class ring. “I still have it, I’ve never forgotten. Please stay.” She grabbed his icy hand.
He stepped forward and kissed her on the cheek, cold in a moment of a lifetime of heat. He turned away.
As he cleared the steps she asked, “Will you always remember me?”
Fading into the rippling hot Texas sun, Bradley glanced over his shoulder. “Always.”
Melinda picked up the paper from the porch and returned to her chair.
Rolling the rubber band off, she sifted through it. There in the obituaries for Marfa, Texas was this notice; “Bradley Mumsford, age 52 died Wednesday August 6, 2009. Arrangements pending.”
She laid the paper at her feet and turned the television back on. Wheel of Fortune was about to begin. She always liked Pat Sajak.
He had a hearing aid, wore it everyday but never turned it on. Maw Maw Ruth made him go to the doctor and get it because she said he couldn’t hear her anymore.
“Hilding! Hilding!” she’d yell while he tinkered in the workshop; lawnmower parts, carburetors, transistor radios and his cat named ’CAT’ his company. I’m not quite sure if Maw Maw ever realized that the volume was always turned off on his hearing aid, but that’s probably why they stayed married forever. Paw Paw Hilding had a knack for taking nothing and turning it into something. He was the kind of man who knew how to do most anything and everything. Cat watched him, never helped but it didn’t matter. She sat in his lap, silent.
He was a soft spoken Swede with a heart of gold but none in his pockets. He worked hard at every job he had and never complained about doing whatever it took to put food on the table, grateful for what he had. He lived in the same house with the same woman for fifty one years. It was a modest house and it suited him. Every door and baseboard was stripped, stained and finished with his own hands. He had a big garden and a small tool shed. He wore overalls stained with motor oil and his socks smelled like stale Frito corn chips. He had no grand aspirations that I was aware of, but then I never asked. I wish I had…
Fixing lawnmowers on cool mornings and having luncheon meat with rat cheese at 4 o’clock in the afternoon was what made him happy. He was a man of few words, not demonstrative but his beautiful blue eyes spoke volumes. He may have hugged me, but I really don’t remember when. He sure did love me, though. His eyes lit up when I walked in the door.
Maw Maw Ruth passed away in spring and Paw Paw lost half of himself; cancer was taking the rest. Cat had to remind him at 4 o’clock every day that it was time for luncheon meat and rat cheese. He lost interest in tinkering with tools and retired his riding lawnmower inside the dark, sad workshop. He closed and locked the door.
Cat disappeared one day. Night after night he called for her. Night after night, she answered him but he never heard her. One week turned into two then nearly three…
The last time I saw him, I said,”Paw Paw, why don’t we take the lawnmower out of the shed so you can work on it for a while. I think it would do you good.” We opened the workshop and Cat ran out. She had survived weeks on just rainwater and the occasional rat who was unlucky enough to be within paw’s reach. He picked her up, placed her in his lap and started up his lawnmower for the last time.
Paw Paw Hilding passed away one month and 3 days after Cat died. I often wonder if they ever discussed the meaning of life when they were all alone out there in that workshop. I wonder if they ever spoke at all. I doubt it.
They didn’t have to.
Separate names with a comma.