Needlework, The Novel
Julie completed the first draft of her novel, Needlework, in 1997. After discussions with her agent and a publisher, she began revising that draft until her illness made it impossible to continue. I have compiled the latest versions of Needlework I found in her files.
I am publishing that compilation of her novel, a chapter at a time in serial fashion, on AllanShowalter.com. All posted portions of Needlework can be accessed at Needlework – With Links To Published Portions.
Julie Showalter was the fiercely intelligent, sexy, and loving woman with whom I had a outrageously wonderful marriage that ended with her death in late 1999 from cancer diagnosed the week of our wedding nearly 20 years earlier. She was also a brilliant scholar, the mother of our two sons, and a prize-winning author. Many posts on this blog are about her and still others consist of her writings. Julie’s Story is the account of our unlikely romance, Information can be found at Julie Showalter FAQ.
Needlework – Chapter 11: PDF Download
To download a PDF version of Chapter 11 of Needlework by Julie Showalter, go to Needlework: Chapter 11 – PDF
Needlework – Chapter 11: Manuscript
Needlework – Chapter 11
“Hot as a firecracker,” people kept saying the day of Uncle Clete’s funeral. “Hot as Hades.” “Hot enough to fry eggs on the pavement, if you’ve a mind to.”
We had to compete with holiday activity when we arrived at the funeral home, even though the Fourth of July parade wasn’t until afternoon. Someone dressed in a clown suit with Piggly Wiggly’s head was handing out suckers and balloons in the parking lot. We walked to the mortuary past the last-minute shoppers picking up cookout supplies and parents who’d brought their kids to see the pig.
It was a small funeral, family only. Granno was on the front row with the four of her children who were there. Spouses of children and other grandchildren filled rows two and three. Pauline, Aunt Lila, and Fred came in almost last. Everyone held their breath when Granno saw Aunt Lila. She whispered to Daddy who was on her right. He patted her hand and spoke to Aunt Baby next to him. The whole row shifted and there was a place for Aunt Lila next to Granno.
The whole family watched as Uncle Buddy walked over to Granno, took her hand, and said, “I’m sorry for your loss, Mrs. Hopewell.”
“Thank you, Arthur,” she said. And just like that, twenty-eight years of silence was ended.
After decades of hating Aunt Lila and Uncle Buddy, for just that moment Granno rose above her pettiness and old grudges. Or maybe she was just too tired to fight.
But other than Granno acting nice for once, the funeral wasn’t anything like I wanted for Uncle Clete. What made me maddest was the sermon. In a town the size of Eunice, you’d think the preacher would have to know Uncle Clete, would have to have something personal to say about him. But he didn’t. He talked in generalities, and even then he talked about what Uncle Clete wasn’t instead of what he was.
“This was not an important man in the world. This was not a mayor or a congressman.” I looked around, expecting everybody who loved Uncle Clete to be as mad as I was, but everybody was crying or nodding. Even Daddy didn’t seem to care what was being said. “This is not a man who ruled a large corporation or ran a bank.” What would they do if I stood up and yelled? He’s the man who invented corn dodgers. He made yeast rolls you can only get from one person left on earth. But the sermon went on, “This was a man beloved by family, by friends. A father.” He nodded at Pauline. He saw Aunt Lila beside her and hesitated. Her being there was probably the only thing he hadn’t planned on, and it stumped him for a minute. He looked from Aunt Lila to Granno and back. “A husband,” he said finally. “A brother. A son.”
It was all so short, it made you wonder if it was worth dressing up in black clothes for. When we all walked past Uncle Clete’s coffin at the end, he was no longer wearing his ring.
We drove from the church to the cemetery in hot stuffy cars. Every now and then a string of firecrackers went off somewhere.
The cemetery, like the rest of town, was flat, brown, dried out. No trees broke the monotony, no interesting variety of gravestones. People who don’t brag in life aren’t likely to want to stand out from the crowd in death. An occasional gash of color. Plastic daffodils or carnations, probably placed on graves on Memorial Day over a month before, the green of their leaves and stems as much a shock as the red and yellow flowers.
The graveside service was rushed. A prayer, a touching of the coffin, a “dust to dust.” No one wanted to hang around. Somewhere, if not in the cars, then back at the house, there was a place to escape the heat that was baking us in our dark clothes. I think we all felt beaten down, by the sun, by the quickness with which Uncle Clete had been disposed of, by how impersonal it all was.
As we were leaving, Mr. Wilson stopped Aunt Baby, and spoke to her in his soft, professional voice, “Mrs. Henderson, I believe you said you’d take care of the bill today. Would you like for me to drop by your mother’s house later?”
Her reply was twice, maybe three times as loud as her normal speaking voice, meant for everyone to hear. “No, Mr. Wilson. I think we’ll just settle up here and you won’t have to bother my family any more.” In a gesture worthy of the stage — no, more, worthy of a strong Texas woman who could stare down rattlesnakes — she walked to the hearse and dumped her purse on its hood. She picked out her checkbook and a pen. “Now, I believe it was $1,600.” She wrote the check with a flourish, ripped it out, and handed it to him, as if she wrote such checks every day. Still speaking in a voice I had never heard from her, she said, “I can’t promise that no more Hopewells will die. But I do promise that you’ll never get another dime of our money.” Then she turned to me. “Jan,” she said. “I don’t think we should leave these flowers here. Someone might try to resell them.”
We rode back to Granno’s house in hot cars filled with the smell of wilting carnations. In spite of everything, Aunt Baby had made us feel good about ourselves. Daddy chuckled, “She was like the Queen of Sheeba. A $6,000 coffin wouldn’t have made Clete’s sendoff any classier.” Aunt Baby had let everyone know that Hopewells weren’t trash.
Back at the house, the first order of business was to figure out how to cover the check. If Aunt Baby didn’t get the $1,600 back to her profit sharing in thirty days, she’d have tax consequences. Aunt Maureen had gone through Uncle Clete’s papers and found a $200 burial insurance policy. If it was still good, and if they got to keep the $185 check from social security, there was $1,215 to be split up. That much was discussed in the living room. Then Granno’s cousin Feckla arrived, and everyone shut up. Hopewells did not air their finances in front of outsiders. “Jan,” Daddy said, “you let people in. We’ll be back in a while.” The two brothers, two sisters, and daughter went into the back bedroom and closed the door.
“Hopewells only,” Mother sniffed. She sat next to me on the couch with her internal adding machine going. “If Ralph kicks in, it’s a six-way split. Over $200 for our share. I don’t know how I’ll swing it. He’s sold one house in three months.” She drummed her fingers on the arm of the couch. “I should be the one in that room. I’m the one who has to figure out how to pay the bills.” She stared at the bedroom door. “I just know he’s doing something stupid in there. He’s making some kind of gesture, acting the big man. You know your father.”
The door to the back bedroom opened. When Daddy came out, Mother grabbed him. “How much is our share?”
“A little over four hundred.”
“That doesn’t divide out. How is it that much?”
“We divided by six, but Pauline has more troubles than she can handle right now. I told her we’d pay her part.”
“Jimmy, we do not have four hundred dollars.” “The commission on that sale will cover it.”
Mother was speechless for a minute. Her head drooped and I thought she was crying. Daddy stared at the wall, ashamed, I could tell, but determined, too. He wasn’t going to yield on this. Then Mother gave the biggest stoic, resolute, pull-it-all-together sigh I’ve ever seen. When it finished, her shoulders were square, her chin was up, and she was smiling. She reached up and put her cheek against Daddy’s, nuzzled into his neck, kissed him behind the ear. “You’re right, Jimmy,” she said, “we’ll manage some way.”
All I could do was grin like an idiot and try not to cry. They were so beautiful together and I loved them so much. It’s a wonderful thing to be proud of your parents.
The living room was hot. Granno kept it dark inside, convinced that it was cooler in the dark. It wasn’t. Fans borrowed from neighbors, brought by relatives, hummed and stirred the air, turning from side to side, side to side. I walked into the kitchen where someone had put a bag of ice in the sink. I filled a glass with ice and then poured tea.
Aunt Baby, Aunt Maureen, and Quilla sat at the kitchen table, going through the cards from the funeral flowers. “Ricky and Lorna Rogers?” Aunt Baby read a card. “I remember a Ricky Rogers, but his wife’s name was Alice.”
“Oh, she died,” Aunt Maureen said. She lowered her voice to a whisper, “a lump in her breast the size of your fist before she saw the doctor about it. Then it was too late. Just wasted away to nothing. Left him with those two little boys. He married a grass widow from Clute. They say she’s good to those boys.”
The funeral was over; Mother and Daddy were back together. For the first time in days, there was nothing to keep me from thinking about the wedding, Richard, the farm, the life I was going back to. A place where I could hide from all the troubles in the world. But right now it felt like I didn’t need to hide from anything. Yesterday Daddy had told me he loved me. He’d put his arms around me and rested his chin on my head. And today, Mother and Daddy were acting like grown-up married people. Daddy had said I didn’t need to worry about taking care of them. Wouldn’t it be something if that was true?
I wandered out of the kitchen into the living room. Feckla and Aunt Artie were discussing health and nutrition. Mother was listening. “I go to the Weight Watchers now,” Feckla said. “They use the positive reinforcement. Not like the Tops. I used to be one of the Tops. In the Tops they make you put a wooden pig in the front yard if you gain the most weight. I lost a lot of weight at first in the Tops, but I started gaining it back and had to take that pig. That’s the negative reinforcement. I don’t like that. Now at the Weight Watchers it’s all set up on exchanges. You get your bread exchange, your three fruits, and so on. It’s all done on scientific principles. And you get a card to help you remember.
See.” She rummaged in her purse, pulling out balled Kleenexes, old grocery receipts, and gum wrappers before coming up with a plastic card. Aunt Artie inspected it then handed it to me. “And their meetings are real entertaining,” Feckla went on. “Last week we were all supposed to bring in chicken fat — a pound each. I brought mine in a Blue Bonnet margarine tub. Then we put all the chicken fat in a box on a scale to look at how much we had to lose. Now some of those girls there are fat as mud, so we didn’t have enough fat to show how much they had to lose. But our group leader, she thinks on her feet. She picked one of the fattest girls and said, ‘Betty, how much have you lost?’ Betty said, ‘Twenty-five pounds.’ So we all looked at twenty-five pounds of chicken fat and thought of how it used to be on Betty. Now that’s the positive reinforcement. I like that better than a pig in the yard.”
Someone’s sister-in-law from Lubbock, a pretty woman of about thirty, joined in. “You know, I got offered a job at one of those fat places. I went in to see about a bookkeeping job and they said it was part time bookkeeping and part time being a Shining Example.
Kind of a spokeswoman. I was supposed to say I’d lost thirty pounds on their diet.” “But you’ve always been skinny,” Aunt Artie said.
“I know. And it made me feel kind of funny, dishonest like. But they pointed out that lots of people have lost thirty pounds on their program but none of them could keep books. I would just represent one of them.”
Feckla was speechless, but she recovered. “Well, I’m sure it wasn’t the Weight Watchers. They have ‘before’ pictures of all their leaders.”
“Fat’s trouble,” Aunt Artie said. “It was fat and blood pressure that killed Vernon Watson. The fat was squeezing his heart and the blood pressure was getting stronger and stronger.
His heart just exploded, finally. They did an autopsy and all they found was little pieces of heart. It just blew up.”
As I have said, my family had a reverence for doctors and a reluctance to ask questions. They combined superstition, comments overheard from doctors and nurses, commercials showing people with test tube stomachs, with a dollop of common sense and came up with their view of the workings of the human body. Sometimes I thought we sounded like primitive people trying to explain the universe. “Some people said it was because of those nitroglycerin tablets he was taking,” Aunt Artie went on. “But I don’t think so. I think it was the fat and the blood pressure.”
“Oh, blood pressure will do it,” Feckla said. “Just look at how my ankles are all swole up. It’s all that blood pressure doing it. Seems like maybe I should stick them with a pin and let some of the pressure off, but the doctor told me not to do it.”
I handed back her Weight Watchers card and walked outside. All the men were on the porch. They had taken off their suit jackets and loosened their ties. Daddy’s shirt sleeves were rolled up two turns, the way Uncle Clete always wore his when he was cooking.
“Yep. Firestone,” Uncle Othel said. “They cost a little more but they last longer.” The men all stared at the street. Some were smoking. Their white shirts stuck to their backs.
“How much a set of those put you back?” Quilla’s husband Joe Ben asked.
I walked past them to the sidewalk, up and down the row of cars parked in front of the house. I looked at the Texas plates and the bumper stickers: “Impeach Earl Warren” “Honk if you love Jesus” “God said it. I believe it. That settles it.”
A blue pickup like the one David drove came up the block toward me. I hadn’t seen him at the funeral, so maybe he’d drop by. As the pickup passed, the driver, a man in his sixties, nodded to me. I let my breath out.
Back on the porch, Uncle Henry said, “Allis Chalmers makes a good tractor, but for my money, you can’t beat a John Deere.”
I opened the door to the back bedroom. Pauline was lying on the bed in the dark. “It’s O.K., come on in,” she said.
I sat on the foot of the bed. “Where’s Fred?” I asked. I realized I hadn’t seen him at the cemetery.
“He went to see a friend. He’s picking me up at seven and we’re starting home.” Her voice was tiny, frightened.
“Pauline, there are ways out. Daddy would help you. Aunt Lila.”
She sat up against the headboard. “It’s my kids. He’s a cop and I’m a drunk. Who do you think would get the kids?”
“But he hits you.”
“I don’t have any proof he ever hit me. He’ll just say what I’ve always said when people noticed the marks, ‘I fell down, I’m clumsy.’ Enough people have seen me drunk that they believe it.”
I asked Pauline the question I had never been able to ask Daddy, “Why do you drink? Doesn’t it make things worse?”
“Worse. Now there’s an idea.” She frowned, and again I could see Granno’s expression pulling her whole face down over the years. “No. I can’t see that it makes it worse. It makes some days tolerable. Other days it makes so I don’t even remember them.” She snorted without humor. “Now that’s a good day.”
“Can I help you?” I felt foolish, but I asked.
She reached out and touched my arm. “That’s sweet, really sweet. Just take care of yourself. Don’t get trapped like I am.”
“Sometimes I feel trapped, like I started this wedding in motion without really thinking it through. And now it’s like it’s just going on its own. Richard treats me like a little girl, or some kind of cute little pet.” As I said it, I knew that wasn’t the real problem. “No.
That’s not it. I act like I’m a little girl when I’m around him. That’s what we’re both used to, and I don’t know what would happen if I tried to change things now.” I chewed on my lip. “I guess I thought I’d outgrow needing him after high school. But then I got to college and it was so frightening and coming home to him so safe.”
Pauline said, “I got spooked by college, too. I was flunking all my courses, in trouble with the Dean of Women. Then, one night at a frat party, this handsome Texas Ranger came in checking ID’s. So that’s how I got out of that mess. Out of one and into another.” She smiled with half her mouth. “Sometimes I think there’s just one way out of this one.”
“You mean divorce?”
Her voice was flat. “Sure, Jan, that’s what I mean.”
On my way through the living room, I head Aunt Artie, “They thought she had that disease that’s caused by rodents, but it was her kidneys.”
Mother had joined the women at the kitchen table. Aunt Baby was talking, “A eighty-two- year old woman with a Tampax caught inside her. And Dr. Stone, who I’ve known since I was a little girl, said to me, ‘Mrs. Henderson, you tell your mother not to do that again.’ As if I could talk to her about something like that.”
Aunt Maureen interrupted, “Mama never said a word about monthlies to either of us. When I started, I thought I was bleeding to death, and she threw a rag at me and said, ‘Here. You’ll wear this till you’re forty-five.’”
The women chuckled. Mother asked Aunt Baby, “What did you do?”
“Nothing. She acted like nothing had happened and I acted like nothing had happened. But the next time she needed to see a doctor, she made me call someone new and drive her clear to Hereford. ‘Dr. Stone is just rude. He had no respect for widow women.’” Her imitation of Granno was good enough that the women broke out in laughter.
I stood there, relaxed against the counter, enjoying the family talk, women’s talk. When there was a lull, I said, “What happened to Uncle Clete’s ring?”
Aunt Baby and Aunt Maureen stopped smiling. They exchanged a look, then both glanced at Mother who looked as surprised as I was that my question had dried up the laughter.
“I have the ring right now,” Aunt Baby said, “but Clete left instructions for it.”
“So who gets it?” I asked. Aunt Baby gave me a shut up while you still can look, but I was suddenly fed up with Hopewell rules that blinked on and off with no warning. One minute everybody’s relaxed and laughing and the next you say the wrong thing and bring the roof down. Either you could say what you were thinking in this family or you couldn’t. “Who gets Uncle Clete’s ring?” my voice was louder.
Aunt Baby’s chin came up with such force that you could almost hear her making up her mind. “You do, Jaynice.”
I had considered it as a possibility, but I never believed it. It was like a clue to a Nancy Drew or Trixie Belden mystery, not what it could be, not in real life.
Mother’s voice broke into my thoughts. “Why would Clete give Jan such an expensive gift? What an unusual, generous thing.” She gave a quick laugh. “You really must have made an impression this week, that’s all I can say.” Her face had lost all color and her hands fluttered around her coffee cup. “I just can’t understand it. It must be a tribute to his love for Jimmy. Or maybe he was confused. Clete was confused this week, wasn’t he?”
Aunt Baby put her hand over Mother’s. “Hush, Mildred,” she said, softly like you’d quiet a nervous horse. “Hush.” She looked at me. “Jan, I need to talk to you and Pauline about this.”
Mother stood up. “I’ll come too.”
“No, Mildred,” Aunt Baby said, “this is out of your hands now.”
Aunt Baby followed me through the living room. “Fireballs of the Eucharist,” Feckla said. “That’s what the doctors said she had.”
Aunt Baby closed and locked the bedroom door behind her. “I’ve got some serious business with you girls.” She pulled out the dresser stool at the foot of the bed. I sat on the bed next to Pauline, and we leaned against the headboard like two little girls waiting for a bedtime story. I looked at Pauline and wondered if she could take another blow. All my jealousy over the years evaporated. Part of me wanted to stop this, to give Pauline the ring and never say a word about what Uncle Clete wanted. But more, I wanted the puzzle solved.
“Pauline, the day before Clete died he asked me to write something down for him.” Aunt Baby took a piece of paper out of her purse and unfolded it.
“Like a will?”
“I don’t know if it’s legal, so I won’t give it a legal name. I just know he wanted me to read it to the two of you together. Jan, you need to know that Jimmy agreed to this.
She looked at Pauline. “It was hard for your daddy to talk toward the end. He tried to dictate this, but he was weak. Sometimes I filled in words and asked him if that was what he meant. He may not have said every word himself, but he nodded to the ones he didn’t say. If you want to see this, I’ve underlined the words he said himself.”
She cleared her throat and read. “’To Pauline and Jan. I don’t want to cause trouble, but I need to do what’s right. Pauline, I hope you understand. I hope you forgive me. I hope you girls can help each other like sisters.’”
As she read, I could hear Uncle Clete breathing in, getting a word or two out, resting, breathing in again. “All I have is my ring. I’m sorry there’s not something for both of you. I want Jan to have the ring. I never got to give her anything else.”
Aunt Baby’s eyes were magnified by her glasses. She looked from Pauline to me and back again. “I want both of you to know,” she said. “I’m certain this is what Clete meant. I’m certain he knew what he was saying.” She folded the paper and put it back in her purse.
The room was very quiet. Then Pauline said, “He didn’t trust me. He thought I’d sell it.”
Aunt Baby said, “I don’t think this was a matter of keeping something from you. I think he meant what he said. He was sorry he didn’t have something for both of you.”
“But why would he give it to Jan?” Pauline put her hand over her forehead, then looked up. “Unless he meant it to go to Jimmy. I could understand that. Did he mean it to go to Jimmy?”
Aunt Baby looked at me and said, “Jan can do what she wants with the ring, but I think that if Clete had wanted Jimmy to have it he would have said so.”
Pauline was crying harsh, bitter tears. “All the way here, I kept thinking, he’s going to see what’s become of me and he’s not going to love me.” Her words were broken by sobs. “When we got here, I thought, well at least he didn’t have to see me like this. I guess he knew anyway.”
“Pauline,” I said, “There’s something more to this.” I tried to take her hand, but she pulled it away.
She was retching, she was crying so hard. Over and over, she said, “He didn’t love me.” Half an hour ago she’d said, “Sometimes I think there’s just one way out.” She didn’t mean divorce.
I knew there was a secret, and I knew everyone was trying to protect Pauline and me. “Aunt Baby, no matter what it is, tell us the truth. Nothing could be worse than what Pauline’s thinking now.”
“It’s not my secret to tell.” She watched her hands opening the clasp on her purse, closing it, opening it again. She let out a deep breath and began. “Clete wanted this out, and Jimmy said it was O.K.” She squared her shoulders, looked at Pauline, then me. “Jan, Clete thought he was your father.”
I thought of impossible possibilities — adoption, artificial insemination — before forcing myself to look at the obvious. “Mother and Uncle Clete?”
Beside me Pauline stopped crying. Her eyes widened, then narrowed, almost like a kitten stalking a bird. I could hear the murmur of the people in the next room. Beneath me a bed spring popped.
“Once,” Aunt Baby said. “An accident.” Pauline snorted and said, “Accidental fucking?”
“Young lady, I know you buried your daddy today, but there’s no excuse for language like that. This is real. It involves people we all love.”
Pauline’s laugh was hard. “Yeah. People we love. Like Clete Hopewell who screwed everything in a skirt including his brother’s wife.” She was up and pacing. “I’ve been used to the idea of him cheating on Mom as long as I can remember. But cheating on Jimmy—” She tried the door, couldn’t get the lock to slide. “And your mother,” she turned on me. “Always acting like she pees ginger ale and she was fucking her husband’s brother.” The lock gave and she opened the door.
“Pauline!” Aunt Baby’s voice stopped her. “Jimmy asked that you don’t talk about this to anyone. He doesn’t want anyone else hurt in the heat of the moment. Can you promise that, Pauline? Can you do that for Jimmy?”
Pauline said, “For Jimmy. But only for Jimmy.” She slammed the door behind her.
I couldn’t take it all in. I wanted to be a little girl, tucked in at night in her safe dark room, all the secrets and betrayals outside. I wanted my mommy to hold me. I wanted my daddy. But my mother was a liar and I didn’t even know who my daddy was. I started to cry. Aunt Baby moved to the bed and held me, rocking me back and forth, shusshing me like she had at the hospital.
When I was calmer, I asked, “Can you explain it?”
“Yes, I think I can.” She gave me one more pat and moved back to the stool.
“Like I said, it was one time and it was an accident. Jimmy and Mildred were supposed to get married in December of 1944. They’d met in Canyon where he was training, and he had a week’s leave before going on to San Diego. I guess the plan was that he’d come here, tell us, and we’d all go to Odessa for the wedding.
“When he got here Mama went into one of more dramatic heart spells. She convinced him that any more upset would kill her, and he knew that her baby marrying a girl he’d only known a couple of weeks would be a definite upset. So, he didn’t tell her.
Aunt Baby took a deep breath over what she was going to say next. “You know how much I love your daddy, and everybody knows he was a real hero in the War. But he acted the coward here. He didn’t call your mother and tell her the wedding was off. He just didn’t show up. Your mother tried to call here, but he wouldn’t talk to her.”
“I can only imagine your mother’s feelings. She took a bus up here from Odessa to look for Jimmy. He was already gone, but she found Clete.”
“So she slept with Uncle Clete to get even with Daddy?”
“I don’t think so. I don’t think she knew who Clete was. It’s for sure he didn’t know who she was. She wandered into the cafe late at night. They started talking. He gave her some whiskey. Three hours later, he helped her onto the eleven o’clock bus back home. All over in three hours.”
“Well, it was more than talk and whiskey if Uncle Clete’s my father.” “Yes,” Aunt Baby said, “it was more than talk and whiskey.”
She opened her purse and took out a small paper bag. “Here’s your ring,” she said. “Remember, Jan, it is your ring. Don’t do anything hasty.” She smoothed her dress. “Will you be all right? I can’t sit in here with you. I need to help with this crowd and I need to see about Pauline.”
The ring was heavy and warm. I put it on my thumb and wiped the ruby with an edge of the bedspread I looked into the dome of the ruby, and I could see the past.
My mother, beautiful Mildred Hailey, her long brown hair pulled up in a ponytail, wearing full skirt and saddle shoes, gets off a bus and looks around, lost. Her face is swollen from days of crying. As she walks through the shadows, at various moments she looks twelve, fifteen, eighteen. There’s a cafe down the street with the lights still on. “Clete n’ Lila’s” spelled out in red bulbs. The sign on the door says it’s open until eight, and when she walks inside the clock on the wall reads seven fifty-five. Two men get up from a booth in the corner, leaving remnants of coffee, cigarettes, and raisin pie. They say good-bye to the waitress on their way out. Without looking at Mildred where she sits at the counter, the waitress pockets the tip the men left her and says, “Kitchen’s closed, Hon.”
“Could I have a Coke?” Mildred is close to despair. She recognizes the foolishness of her journey. The town is closed for the night. In five minutes this cafe will be closed. All she knows is the name Hopewell and a phone number. But she already knows he won’t talk to her if she calls the number.
She wants to ask the waitress about a boy, Jimmy Ray Hopewell. Does she know him? Know his family? But the waitress is busy, and Mildred is just a girl, unhappy and shy. She’s still working up her nerve, phrasing the words, when a car honks outside. The waitress shouts to the kitchen, “My ride’s here, Clete. Only one customer left.” She leaves, flipping the sign on the door to “closed,” turning out the red lights. The red blur on the street, “Clete n’ Lila’s” in reverse, disappears.
A man comes out of the kitchen. A tall handsome man. When he sees that the last customer is a pretty girl, he smiles. It’s a smile she has already fallen in love with.
Yes, it could have happened like that. Mildred the innocent, Mildred the wounded deer.
But I see another scene, just as real. Mildred Hailey gets off the bus. Her dark hair is piled high in a fashion made popular by Betty Grable. She’s wearing a plum-colored suit, her going-away suit for the wedding which didn’t happen. The peplum jacket emphasizes the slimness of her waist, the flair of her hips. The high platform heels she wears make her appear taller than she is, and they draw attention to her legs. She has saved and bartered and hoarded to have a pair of silk stockings for her wedding. The black seams run straight up her calves, leading the eye to the slit in the skirt necessary for walking. A flash of inner thigh with every step she takes. Proper, absolutely proper. Seductive. Her lips are a shade of plum at once brighter and deeper than her suit. The expression on her face seems as painted as her lips. Resolved. Angry.
As she walks through the shadows, she looks twenty-five.
In the cafe after the two men have paid, the waitress says, “Sorry, ma’am, the kitchen’s closed.”
“Just coffee.” Mildred lights a cigarette. Her plum fingernails tap the counter. As the waitress pours her coffee, Mildred asks, “Do you know a man named Jimmy Ray Hopewell?” The waitress smiles. “Know him? We had a sendoff party for him this morning. Then we put him on the bus to go fight the Japs. Looked like he could have used more coffee. The way Clete’s been entertaining him this past week, he may not sober up until he meets Hirohito.”
“Clete?” Mildred asks.
“His brother. He’s right in back. Want me to get him?”
“No. It’s nothing. A friend told me to say hello if I ever was in town. Looks like I missed him.”
The car honks, the waitress leaves, Mildred waits, thinking of revenge.
A man comes out of the kitchen, taller than Jimmy, older, definitely his brother. “Hi, handsome, she says,” blowing smoke in his direction. “Anyplace in this town to get a drink?”
I removed the ring from my thumb and put it on Mother’s pearl necklace. Everything made sense now. My father never loved me because he wasn’t my father. My mother said I was her daughter alone because she didn’t want me to know my real father. Poor Daddy
— forced to pretend to love a daughter that wasn’t his. Poor Uncle Clete — forced to deny his daughter. Poor Jan — denied two fathers by a mother who thought only of herself.
Under my dress, the ring pressed against my breastbone.