By Kevin Wallach
Introduction – I wrote this in 2013 when I spent my 52 weeks pursuing writing short stories. Back then I wasn’t looking to be published. Instead, I was seeking a revelation I believed Ray Bradbury had intended for those he advised to write one short story per week for one year. I believe I found something, although I suspect the real benefit of the 52 week short story challenge differs from one writer to another. For me, the resonating feeling I took away from that year of writing is that writing is a process of self realization. You come out gradually in your works. That baring of one’s soul can be unsettling for some. It was certainly that way for me. And so sharing my short stories was extremely difficult for me to do.
This is one of the longest stories I wrote that year. I share it here in the hope that others experiencing paralyzing self doubt will find the courage to show their stories to others. You may find that your most valuable lessons are learned when you open yourself up to criticism.
Part 1 – The Funeral and the Quiet House
The dirt on Timothy Goode’s hands smelled of sun and sea water. He held his fingers to his nostrils and breathed deeply as he watched the last of the dirt pushed onto his uncle’s grave by the noisy machine. Now alone among the folding chairs and the mound of freshly moved earth, Tim could grieve and think about his uncle. He looked up at the slate gray sky and wondered if any of that stuff he’d been filled with as a kid was true. Was Uncle Vernell watching him from heaven? He remembered he had asked his uncle about faith and God once.
“What do you want with religion?”
This as Tim recalled was the question he received in response to his question to the old man.
“I don’t know that I want anything to do with it really. I just wanted to know what you thought of it all.”
“Well, don’t tell your mother I said this, but I think you’re too old for fairy tales.”
“Mom believes, but I don’t think she expects that I do too.”
“I love your mother. She’s my favorite niece. But she’s not the most critical thinker.”
“Does that mean you don’t believe?
Tim had smiled when he said this but not with sarcasm, just trying to keep the conversation friendly.
“I don’t really know if I believe in a god who listens to us but I do feel something inside. It’s hard to describe though. Does that make any sense?”
The fireflies had come out that night as the two talked about their curiosity and their disappointments. In the end, just before bed, his uncle had said to him, “Tim, do you know what every religion in the world that had a prophet has in common?”
Tim had shaken his head.
“I think the messenger was always waiting for those who followed him to realize they didn’t need him at all.”
Tim wrinkled up his brows and said, “What do you mean Vern? I don’t get it.”
“I mean that regardless of whether a person has or doesn’t have the divine in him, he can’t make his follower anything that person couldn’t have been all alone. The good prophets probably wanted everyone to realize that goodness was already in them. They just needed to cultivate it and practice it. The false prophets probably lived in fear of anyone realizing those things.”
“So you think maybe Jesus just wanted the disciples to take what he said and practice it after he left them? What about all that other stuff Mom believes in?”
“I don’t know Tim. I never knew. That’s one of the things my own mother and I could never see eye to eye on. She believed all of it. Even the parts that made absolutely no sense to me seemed to be easy for her to believe. Your mother seems to have that ability too. I guess I don’t.”
Tim couldn’t sleep that night after he and Vernell went off to their separate rooms in the old house. He just laid still and listened to himself breathing and to the noisy June bugs in the pecan trees outside.
The memory began to fade quickly as the cool afternoon rain rolled down Tim’s forehead and off the tip of his nose.
Now the dirt on Tim’s hands and that smell of sun baked earth reclaimed him. He was back in the cemetery and his uncle was deep in the ground. Tim’s heart sank and for the first time in over a year he cried. As if the tears had been stored up all that time he let loose and sobbed until his ribs ached and his knees became jelly. He didn’t really know how long he had been there in the moist ground with his knees digging in each time he rocked himself and his hair collecting small clumps of dirt each time his head touched the wet grass. But suddenly a voice like music told him to stand up and brush himself off and get in out of the rain.
“Tim, hon, do you need a ride home?”
Tim tested to make sure he could speak, making a little choking noise before softly saying, “No, but thank you Judy.”
Judy was Vernell’s next door neighbor and Tim always suspected they’d been more than friends. But Judy, like his uncle, was a private person and if you wanted to be her friend you didn’t ask too many questions. She would take prying as disrespect. Tim assumed as much.
Judy helped him up off the ground, but only as a sort of symbolic act. Tim could easily have lifted Judy off the ground from a sitting position, had he wished to. Judy was trying to be the motherly one Tim needed and had lacked for so long. His own mother had sent him to live with his uncle when she became too sick to care for her son. That had been many months ago. Tim had hardly spoken with her for weeks before his uncle’s death. She had been too weak to travel for the funeral. And he had no idea what her wishes were now as far as his living arrangements were concerned. But sooner or later he imagined he would have to leave the old house on 12th Street, and that would mean either going back to his mother’s house or living with one of his brothers. He decided that was far more than he could bite off at the moment. There would be time to think while the arrangements were being made to summon all the friends and family members named in Vern’s Will.
That night in the house that was now uncomfortably quiet, Tim went down into the basement to get a book. He hoped to find it where he’d left it. He felt childish feeling afraid, but he was spooked by that silent house, much like he had been as a little boy when he first visited with his mother, father, and two brothers. He had lived in the house, and it had grown on him. So being afraid was different than back then. He wasn’t sure what made him uneasy.
Down in that cold place there was nothing for Tim to fear. Other than dust which might lead to a nasty cough, the basement was full of nothing but shelves full of books. Vernell had a lifelong love affair with books. Not that she would admit it but most people who knew him figured Vern’s wife left him over his obsession with them.
The book Tim wanted was “To Kill a Mockingbird.” He guessed it would still be where he’d left it after finishing with it. He’d read it mostly because of Vern’s persistent nagging and then wound up admitting he liked the story. Now he wanted the book because of what was tucked away inside it. He never told Vern what he’d found as he was reading the last chapter. In there, folded up tightly between two pages was a letter his mother had written to Vern when she was almost the same age as Tim. It was around the time her mother had died. In the letter she had said things that she probably never said to her father or anyone else for that matter. Vern would understand his niece because of how close he and her mother had been. Tim wanted to be certain that the letter stayed with him regardless of where the books went. He suspected that Vern would leave at least some of the books to him, but he didn’t want to take any chances. Now that his mother was ill that letter might be one of the only pieces of her he’d have to hold on to.
Up above his head, Tim heard footsteps. He could tell by the sound that someone was walking up the steps to the front porch and by the tempo he assumed it wasn’t someone in much hurry. The doorbell rang and he heard the shuffle of feet on the creaky boards above. Tim made his way up the stairs and out through the dining room toward the den where Vernell had liked to sit and read at night. He opened the door and the breeze brought in pale, withered magnolia petals that had collected against the jamb. It was Judy, and she had brought food. Tim inhaled deeply and his stomach convulsed a bit as growling noises emerged from deep inside it.
“Tim your mother called me and asked me to check on you. I brought something for you, just in case you didn’t eat.”
He smiled and shook his head.
He ate quietly from a plate she brought along with her. She had also brought silverware and napkins as well as a thermos of ice tea. The glasses she found in the neat cupboard above the toaster.
Judy had loved Vern, and she suspected that everyone in town knew, but she still felt an obligation to his family to be respectful. Times had changed and so had people in town but Judy had not. She still felt that what was proper was proper regardless of the time or place.
While Tim ate, Judy looked at the frames on a shelf in the far corner of the room. She wanted badly to take a picture of Vern in his Army dress uniform from the shelf. She wanted to wipe the dust from the glass. She wanted to do this but she only stared for a moment now and then at it, recalling clearly how young she’d been when the picture had been taken. If Vernell had chosen to stay rather than join the Army back then she wondered if everything between then and now would have been different for them both.
Tim also wanted to mourn openly but he refrained for Judy’s sake. So they sat together and each one by himself and herself.
Judy had noticed the book next to Tim on the old leather couch. It reminded her in the most bittersweet way of how close and yet how distant she and Vernell had been after he returned from the service.
“Is that Vernell’s copy of To Kill a Mockingbird?”
“Yes. I just brought it up from the library.” Everyone who knew the house called the basement the library. Judy smiled. It was one of the few things Vern would ever openly take pride in, that huge collection of books downstairs.
“Did you know I bought that book for him?” Judy asked as she leaned to touch the spine of the book.
Tim shook his head as he tried to scrape the last of Judy’s mashed potatoes from his plate’s edges.
“I gave it to him after he and I had a disagreement one day about Truman Capote. Your uncle said that Harper Lee wasn’t a very accomplished author and that she was really only interesting for having been close friends with Truman Capote. I argued that she was quite good and told him he should read her book before passing judgment. He, of course, said he would and didn’t. So a month later on his birthday I gave him that book. He was impressed with it in the end.”
“My mom loves this book. Vern loved it too.” Tim paused and wiped his face before looking up from his food to face Judy.
“Would you like to have it?”
“The book? Lord no Tim, I don’t want to take that from you. You keep it.”
Tim frowned. There were things he’d always wanted to ask Vern and Judy but never felt right asking.
Judy hugged Tim tight and took the plate and silverware from him.
“Let’s wait until the estate is all settled and make sure Vernell didn’t have different plans for it Tim, okay?”
Tim nodded and grabbed the last of a piece of bread from the plate as Judy stood to leave for the kitchen. They said goodnight when she returned and then Tim went off to bed. He had dreaded bedtime before but Judy’s company and the meal had helped. He wrote an email to his mother before laying down for the night and then slept soundly and without the intrusion of dreams.
Judy sat up and watched the clear night sky. She listened to music softly on her back porch and watched the moon travel its arc through the leaves of the magnolias.
Part 2 – News and Waiting
As dawn broke Judy was sleeping and Tim was up cleaning and packing. He expected his mother would want him to come home even if she would still be in the hospital. He was almost finished packing when Judge Martin, who was Vernell’s attorney as well as the attorney for nearly everyone in town, knocked on the den window and waved cheerfully at Tim. He let himself in, the door rarely ever being locked and him being as close to family as Judy. He had news for Tim and wanted it to be delivered privately rather than publicly at the reading of the Will the next day. He spoke slowly and rarely let his eyes break from Tim’s. When he finished Tim exhaled loudly and put his face in his hands. Judge Martin waited for him to look up and let him know through speech or expression that he understood what he’d been told.
“It’s a heck of a lot to hear at one time, I know. Believe me, I was surprised too when Vern came in to change things with his estate.”
The boy nodded and finally looked up. He attempted a look of confidence, but was pretty certain he still looked stunned. As the judge was headed toward the door Tim asked the one question he knew his mother would want him to ask.
“Judge Martin, is everything settled between you and Vern in the estate, or do my mom and I owe you something?”
“You don’t need to worry Tim. Vernell made sure my fee was taken care of long ago. But even if that wasn’t the case you wouldn’t owe me anything. The town’s going to miss him Tim. I’ll miss him a lot too. Your uncle was a good friend.”
Again a nod was the most Tim could manage. Judge Martin left him alone once more. Now the packed bags made less sense though and he felt certain he’d need to talk with his mother’s doctors before he gave her the news about the estate.
A dilapidated leather-bound copy of “The Grapes of Wrath” rested on a table next to Vernell’s favorite chair. Tim knew that inside the pages of that book was the combination to the old safe which was hidden behind a set of shelves down in the basement. He opened the book and sought out the page with the numbers scrawled in faded pencil. He found a pen lying nearby and wrote the digits onto the palm of his hand. Then he went to the safe and for the first time in his life opened the ancient treasure chest which had fascinated him for as long as he could recall.
The smell of old books is probably something a person either loves or hates. Tim, like Vernell, loved the smell. What rose out of the safe as its airtight seal broke was a cornucopia of entombed book scents. As if he had unearthed a lost library as old as words the gust of acidic, musty air engulfed him. He clicked the rubber covered thumb switch on an old flashlight and peered into the dark box. Amidst the many things stored there Tim found the ones he was looking for, the deed to the house and deeds to two other pieces of property. One, the larger one, was a vacant lot near the center of town almost across the street from the fire station and the diner he and Vern often went to on Saturday mornings. Tim put the documents back into the accordion folder they’d been in to start with and locked the safe up tight.
On the way up the stairs Tim lost his footing and nearly fell face first. The thudding of his heart beat time inside his ears. For a moment he held both of the wooden stair rails with an iron grip and set himself down as he tried hard to catch his breath. He collected the papers he’d dropped but one wasn’t on the stairs. He knew it must have fallen under the stairs, so he began carefully making his way back down. With flashlight in hand he worked his way through boxes labeled “outdoor Christmas lights” and looked for a sign of the page that had dropped when he fell. The page rested on a small, dusty cardboard box far underneath the bottom few steps. After pushing boxes aside he reached the page and tucked it back into the folder he held under his left arm. Inside the box the page had been lying on were old picture frames. Tim carefully placed the tattered folder on the floor and opened the flaps to get a better look at them. Most were empty, many without glass. But a few still contained snapshots or studio prints. One in particular looked like it must have been made when Tim’s grandmother and Vernell were small. They were surrounded by people he didn’t recognize, but he was pretty sure about Vern and Grandma Rose. The frame was cracked at the top so Tim carefully pulled the photograph out and put it in with the papers he’d been taking upstairs. Suddenly feeling very much alone, he headed up the stairs, this time with a great deal of extra caution.
Coming out of the basement stairs into the sunlit kitchen he paused for a moment and thought back to the first week he’d spent living in the house.
In those early weeks he had been resentful of his mother’s decision to send him to stay with Vernell and hadn’t fully accepted how sick she was. Vernell, always the patient one, had let Tim vent.
“Nothing personal Uncle Vern, but I’m not going to be here long.”
“Have you said that to your mother?” Vern had asked.
“No, I can’t tell her that.”
Tim’s recollection of the conversation was fuzzy, but he did remember that he and Vernell had wound up going for a walk through town. They’d stopped at a vacant lot overgrown with weeds.
After a moment of standing quietly Tim had asked why they’d stopped.
“This place belonged to my grandparents. There used to be a house here they’d lived in when they were first married. When your grandmother and I were in our thirties the house had to be torn down but before that I remember her bringing your mother to play on the swing set that was in the back yard there, right where that pile of cinder blocks is now. You could probably go digging through the weeds and find the bald spots where the legs of the a-frame stood for all those years. I played on those swings and so did your grandmother. That was long after our family had moved out, but most of the people the house was rented to over the years became like family. We kids were always welcomed here. It’s so strange seeing it so empty and lifeless.”
Tim couldn’t think of anything to say so he just patted his uncle’s shoulder and smiled.
After that they walked home with little said and ate a light dinner in the dining room adjacent to the kitchen. That night Vern had left a note on the bathroom counter for his nephew to find the next morning. Tim recalled the note and remembered he’d saved it in the drawer in his night table. Scaling the stairs in a bound he went off the find the note. Under a handful of loose change and some ticket stubs he found it where he’d left it all those months ago.
I’m no good at making people feel better but I wanted you to know it’s breaking my heart too that you and your mom can’t be together. I know you need each other. I don’t expect you to confide your worries or troubles in me but if you need me to listen I’m here.
The brilliance of Vernell’s wit had not been lost on Tim when he’d first read the note. As a little boy, Tim had struggled in his first attempts at saying his uncle’s name, and for a while Vernell had become Uncle Ern. The V sound was one the child just couldn’t manage to pronounce. Now in his late teens Tim understood how subtle and gentle a joke the old man had dropped. After that things had gradually warmed up in the house. But that was not the last time Tim succumbed to childish anger. The cracked window in the dining room was a reminder.
The moment was crystal clear in his mind. He’d been on the phone with his oldest brother Art at the time.
“Have you been to see mom at all Art?”
“You know I haven’t Tim. Is this going to be one of those conversations where I’m the bad guy and you’re pretending to be dad?”
“ You really are a jerk sometimes Art.”
“Listen, as much as I’d love to hear more about what’s going on with you, I have to go.”
“So does that mean you won’t go see mom at the hospital this week?”
“I’ll see what I can do. No promises. I’ll try to call you in a few days. Love you buddy.”
“Love you too Art.”
Instead of hanging up the phone Tim had tossed it and cracked a pane of glass. The moment he did it he had wanted to run. Then almost instantly Vernell came in with arms full of groceries.
“What happened to the phone? Geesh, what happened to the window?”
They had talked and after the whole conversation had been dredged up Tim felt sick.
“What do you say we drive up and see your mom this weekend?”
That weekend they did make a six hour drive to visit with Lee at the hospital. They’d met with her doctors, and Tim had gotten to see his next older brother Will. That was the last time Lee and Vernell were together. It brought her spirits up and helped Tim adjust to being away from her. After that he had only been to see her twice but that first trip home had meant a lot to him.
Now it was time to talk with his mother’s doctors again but this time by telephone. He was nervous, not knowing what he would say.
Lee Goode had already confided in her two older sons that she did not expect to survive another year. Though she’d fought hard to beat the cancer, her health had continued to worsen and without a miracle or a lot of money her chances of beating the odds were slim. Tim’s older brother Will had shared their mother’s vision with his younger brother against her wishes. He knew the baby of the family wasn’t a baby anymore and didn’t feel right keeping things from him. Before Vernell had a stroke, he and Tim had talked about every possible way in which they might come up with the money to pay for one or more of the treatments Lee’s insurance company had refused to cover. In the last days of his life Vernell had even talked with the bank about taking out mortgages on his house and a vacation home he owned on an island off the Georgia coast. He never had the chance to see the whole thing through. But as Tim had learned from Judge Martin, Vernell had managed to finish at least one thing, the amendment of his estate papers.
Tim’s hands were shaking as he picked up the phone. He had no idea how to reach the hospital or the particular doctors treating his mother but he had a brand new yellow legal pad and a fresh pack of disposable ballpoint pens. He was intent on getting everything done that day and not wasting a bit of daylight.
The sun set that day on a house that was filling to the rafters with family and friends. If the previous days had been lonesome for Tim then this was the opposite. He found himself making excuses to visit the basement just to clear his head. He had accomplished what he set out to that day and now more than anything he wished Vernell was there to watch the daylight fade and listen to the crickets tuning up for the night’s performance. Judy called to him as she took slow steps down the basement stairs. He called back and asked if she knew if his brother Art had arrived.
“I’ve not seen him, but I can ask Will next time I see him. Did you eat anything?”
“I had some of the brisket Uncle Norman and Aunt June brought. And I had some of the German chocolate cake you brought. I’m not really that hungry though.”
Judy flipped a switch to see better but found the light didn’t work. Tim rustled through some boxes and lit a rusted electric lamp to help her manage the last few steps.
“You sure you don’t want something else to eat?”
“No thanks, I’m fine. Did you see Judge Martin when he visited me today?”
“I waived when he was walking up but we didn’t speak. Was it a good chat?”
“He gave me good news for mom. I’m really not supposed to talk about it until tomorrow when we all meet with him but I don’t like keeping secrets. You don’t mind if I tell you do you?”
“No, I don’t think I do. You have me on the edge of my seat though. I know how sick your mother is. What’s the news?”
“Uncle Vern knew that if mom could just get some of the more expensive treatments she might have a chance to live. He left almost all of his savings to her. I talked with her doctors today. Two days from now she could be moved to a new hospital. She just has to agree to do it.”
Judy sat in silence and reached out to hold Tim’s hand. They sat together like that for a moment, and then she got up and walked over to the lamp. She took a small makeup compact from her purse and erased the signs of her tears as best she could with a travel pack of tissues. When she turned back toward Tim he was still sitting just as he’d been when she stood. He waited for her to speak.
“I loved him. I guess you knew though. I’m guessing your mom and everyone else knew too. But you know this is the first time I’ve said it. I never even told him.”
Judy caught site of the boy’s expression and realized what he had thought about her and his uncle.
“Oh. No Tim. No. We didn’t ever have that kind of relationship. By the time my husband passed Vern had been divorced for many years but for some reason he just never seemed ready to move on. I think he loved me too but I never could bring myself to ask him. I don’t know why now. I can’t figure out for the life of me why we waited so long to say what was in our hearts. And I waited too long. I guess you could say he did too.”
“Judy, there’s something else I need to tell you. You know that vacant lot Uncle Vern owned, the one close to the fire department in town?”
“Sure, I know the one.”
“Vern left instructions for that lot to be gifted to the town on the condition that the town agrees to build a public library there. He left some money for the library and donated most of the books here in the basement to it. He also left enough money from the sale of his vacation house for just about everything else the library would need in the beginning. He left instructions that the whole thing be yours to guide from start to finish. He wanted the town to offer you the option to run the place for as long as you like. He wanted the library to be dedicated to you.”
“Tim, I can’t even remember the last time we had a library in town. I’m fairly certain it was when Vernell and I were children but I’m not even sure of that. I don’t know what to say. All the times he and I talked about what a shame it was that there wasn’t a library here. I never dreamed he would do something like this. But I should have known he’d find some way to amaze me and not leave me the chance to show him how amazed I was. You know how bad he was with public displays.”
They both laughed at that and then Tim was the first to gesture toward the stairs.
“We should probably get back up there.”
The two of them didn’t discuss anything of real importance after they went back upstairs. They both had to spend some time with old friends and family they’d not seen, some for years. Tim was tired, and his eyes showed it. It was very late that night when his oldest brother Art finally arrived with his wife Rebecca and their small son and daughter, both sleeping in their parents arms.
Tim hugged his brother and sister-in-law and went up to bed. Morning was coming soon and they all had to be awake in time to meet with Judge Martin.
In a dream that night Vernell was alive once more, and he and Tim were walking through town near dusk, just as they’d done dozens of times. The image of Tim’s uncle was idealized and kept shifting from the old man to the young Army Sergeant and back again. They passed skyscrapers and a water fall before coming to a baseball diamond. None of these places existed in the town, but in the dream they seemed perfectly at home there.
Vernell turned at the point when they both stood on home plate and handed Tim a compass. He smiled and pointed toward the outfield. Tim could see people emerging from a line of trees just past the backfield fence. They were waving and calling to Vern in many different languages. Then the old man was gone. The people at the tree line were gone too. Tim was alone and the ball field was now a shallow lake full of giant gold fish.
Tim awoke at around four in the morning, freezing and rolled up into a ball on the bed. The blankets were in a mess at the foot of the bed, and the pillow was hanging near the edge, far from where it started. He rubbed his eyes and looked across the room at glowing blue numbers on the clock. He moaned and got up. This wasn’t the first time he’d failed to make it through a night asleep, and he knew it was no good trying to go back to sleep. Down the stairs to the kitchen he went in search of leftover food and a book.
When Tim first came to live with his uncle he’d not read a book for two years unless he was forced to. Of all Tim’s manners his attitude about reading was the one thing Vern had little patience for. A canister of coffee with The Good Stuff scrawled on the glass in permanent marker reminded Tim of a book Vern had insisted he read. After he’d set the coffee maker up to brew a pot and found one of his favorite mugs he cut a piece of chess pie and then made off to the basement with a flashlight in hand.
The book Vern had wanted Tim to read was “The Call of the Wild” by Jack London. Tim had instead read “The Sun Also Rises.” That had been sufficient to get his uncle off his back for a week. He read it impatiently in the beginning, but after a few days he started to remember why his brothers had argued over books when he was very young. They would engage in verbal battles as if the characters in books they’d both read were close friends. They argued over authors and the value of particular works. This was something their father had instilled in them. Frank Goode believed that the only path to critical thinking was through literature. Their mother inserted her belief in hard math and sciences, but the older boys were too much like their dad not to love reading more than most other things. As Tim waded eyes deep into Hemingway’s prose he felt himself relating more to the characters than to real people he knew in town. Weeks later it was rare to see him without at least one book in his grasp each time he returned up from the basement.
Between a copy of a volume of short stories by Twain and a coverless hardback edition of “Brave New World,” he found London’s novel about a dog reconnecting with his own roots. “The Call of the Wild,” Vern had promised, would light a fire under Tim’s rear and make him want to read more. Now Tim intended to love the book even if just to honor his uncle’s memory. He suspected though that he would love it without needing the obligation to do so. Vern had rarely been off target about things. He was humble, but he knew a lot and had a good sense of people’s needs and wants. His own needs and wants seemed to be the only ones that ever really confused him.
The book Tim held had been purchased from a college library book sale and still had the crinkly plastic cover over its dust jacket. Crisp crackling and popping announced the opening, and the textured first page whispered as it slid under his fingers. Two pages in there was an inscription. Vern had left a short note for Tim, probably the same day he first urged him to read the book. It said simply
“Live in peace so you can hear even the most timid voice inside you asking for your attention.”
All around him the basement was silent, and he recalled Vern saying he’d put all the shelves down there because it was the only place quiet enough to hear the books calling. Tim closed his eyes and listened. He heard nothing but a cricket chirping outside one of the tiny basement windows, but somewhere inside he imagined his uncle’s voice saying
read them all.
Tim wasn’t alone in being restless. Will had not been able to sleep much either, and now that it was getting close to six he didn’t feel as awkward about roaming the old house. He met Tim coming back in from the basement stairs at the entrance to the kitchen.
“Did you make coffee bud?”
“Yep, you want some?”
“I’ve already had two cups.”
“I’d better get another one then before you drink it all. Hey, why didn’t Shelly come?”
“She had to stay home. She finally got a substitute position at the high school and they’ve been calling her a couple of times a week, most weeks.”
The steam ran out of the small talk they’d been sharing, and both of them looked at their mugs.
“How bad is Mom Will?”
“I can’t really say. I just know she looked worse last time I was there.”
“When was that?”
“About two weeks ago I think. Shelly went to see her just a few days ago and said Mom was up walking and asking for something from Grant’s Deli.”
The two of them smiled. Grant’s Deli had been the place where they’d celebrated birthdays, engagements and their father’s retirement. Lots of family pictures had the weathered décor of Grant’s in the backgrounds.
“Will, Uncle Vern left a lot of money to Mom,” Tim blurted out.
He continued, “I got the news from Judge Martin. He didn’t feel right making me wait because he knows Mom can’t make it to the presentation of the Will, and he knows how sick she is.”
Will set his mug down. He opened his mouth to speak, paused and then motioned for Tim to continue.
“I already spoke with Mom’s doctors about moving her to another hospital and starting new treatments. Nothing can happen without Mom’s consent but I don’t think she will say no.”
Now the older brother stood shaking his head and chewing a fingernail.
“Tim, do you think Mom will really agree to spend that money? You know as well as I do how she is.”
“I was hoping you and Art would help me convince her if she doesn’t say yes right away. Will you help me?”
“Sure I will buddy. Of course I will. I just don’t know. It’s always tough to predict what Mom will do, you know?”
Just as Tim was about to speak a brilliant bolt of amber light pierced the thin curtain behind him and lit one of Will’s blue eyes. Without thought, trying to cover his eye, Will dropped his mug. The crash echoed through the silent house and anyone who was not awake found themselves waking.
“I better clean this up and put some clothes on before Aunt Vivian gets down here. I can just hear her now asking why a grown man is walking around in a Cookie Monster tee shirt and boxer shorts.”
“She’ll make a bigger deal about your tattoo Will, but you probably should clean up the glass. I think Katelyn is walking now and Art will hit the roof if she steps on that.”
“What time did Art get here?”
“Sometime before midnight I think. Becca and Ronnie came too. I haven’t seen Ronnie in almost a year. He’s huge.”
“Yeah, he looks a lot like dad did at that age from what mom says.”
The silence returned. There would be no time to talk about their father now. Some things deserved more time.
Section 3 – Goodbyes
At the gathering that day were old friends and new ones, family and neighbors and of course Judge Martin. The judge had one of his miniature collies, Evy, in tow and she was making rounds through the crowd of folding chairs and standing people in the back yard of the old house on 12th street where the last Will of Vernell Wilson would be read. Evy had been a favorite of Vernell’s and in keeping with his humor he’d seen fit to leave her a section of mooring rope he’d salvaged from a fishing boat near his vacation home and several old shoes she’d been inclined to chew on when she’d visit him on Sunday afternoons, during the judge’s walks.
The sun was making patterns on the ruddy ground through the rocking tree branches. There was just enough breeze to keep everyone comfortable. A crackle and buzz announced the ignition of a P.A. system and then there was a voice that filled the yard and bounced off the brick and wood sides of the neighboring homes.
A church-congregation-like chorus of good mornings came in return.
“We’re here today to share the treasures of my dear friend and yours, Vernell Wilson. Vern would have wanted you all to know that he regrets not being here today. Truth is he insisted I make that joke at this gathering. I am afraid it would be funnier the way Vern would have said it. He had better comic timing than I do. We all miss him greatly and today those of you who could not attend the memorial service will have a chance to say goodbye. Vern wanted this document read here in the shade of his pecan and magnolia trees so you all could recall good times you shared with him. None of us can honestly say that we were never offered a bushel or too of pecans or that we never admired the blooms on the magnolias while sharing an hour or two of conversation with Vern. Tim, Vern’s nephew, who is sitting among you today, can personally speak to the way Vern lived his life and loved life. And Judy, Vern’s nearest neighbor and dear friend can tell plenty of stories about Vern’s dedication to this community. And so I would encourage all of you to stay after I’ve finished with the Will and spend time together. Vern would have wanted that.”
All around the crowd in attendance a normally noisy cluster of homes was silent. Nearly all who lived within a mile of Vern’s house were sitting there in chairs, on benches, on stools and in the soft grass. You could hear the breeze blow the leaves in the trees whenever the judge stopped talking. Now and then there were whistles of feedback from the old amplifier but mostly it was a serene occasion. The reading took an hour and twenty minutes and after there were a few hours of gentle laughter, reunions and celebration of their mutual friend. Evy slept through much of it, happily napping on her new prizes.
As the last of those who were not staying the night at the old house were leaving Judge Martin pulled Tim and his two brothers aside to speak with them.
“Boys, I want you to take my card and call me just as soon as you’ve spoken with your mother. I will do all I can to see to it that the first deposit is made first thing Monday but if the hospital insists on upfront payment just call me.”
Art, being significantly older than his siblings felt obliged to show leadership.
“Thank you for everything you did for Vern, Judge Martin. Will, Tim and I will call you as soon as we’ve spoken to Mom. Vern’s not here to thank so I’ll thank you in his place. This gift means more than anybody could possibly know.”
Will stuck out a hand and the judge shook it firmly. Tim and Art shook hands with the judge too, Art wincing visibly as the judge gave him a respectable handshake.
The next day, the three sons agreed, they would all be ready to leave for the hospital. Tim had very little time to say goodbye to the old place and gather up the things he could carry. There would be a temporary caretaker assigned to the house but mostly Judge Martin would be seeing to the contents and the sale while Judy would oversee the outside maintenance until the property sold.
Just before he drove away Judge Martin called out to Tim.
“I’ll be in touch with you about you coming back to meet with the city council about the library. I don’t think anybody will vote against any of the things Vern requested. But I’d like you to be there if you can manage.”
“I will do my best Judge Martin, I promise.”
Evy barked out of the open window and Tim waived as they drove away. This would be the last time Tim saw Evy and because of that the image of the judge’s old gold Buick with dust clouds trailing behind it would stay with him forever.
Hours of the din of conversations and plates clanking and feet climbing and descending stairs passed and the noisiness eventually gave way to the silent cloak of mourning that had laid on the house for the last several days and nights. Art decided to get an early start that evening and after they’d all said their goodbyes Will was the only one left in the house aside from Tim. Will gathered the few things his uncle had left him which could be carried in the trunk of his car and helped Tim do the same. After eating a small supper and resting a while they wound up next door sharing those last hours of the day with Judy.
Judy had also been left a number of things, some small enough to carry with her that afternoon but others that would wait. Her stewardship of the library was a gift she anxiously awaited. The library was a central topic that night.
Will, still tired from the drive the previous day, was the first to admit defeat and turn in for the night. He was just laying his head down to get some sleep before another long drive when Tim and Judy began to speak plainly and without the diplomacy they’d both observed most of the day.
Tim wanted to ask Judy a good many things but he chose to ask her the one thing that had been troubling him most.
“Do you think Vern would be upset if I kept the house and came back here to help you get the library up and running?”
Judy sipped her tea and looked at a lightning bug that had landed on her hand.
“Tim, I think Vern would want you to have the money from the sale of the house in case you or your mother need anything but if your heart is in something I think he’d understand. Did you ask Judge Martin?”
“No, I didn’t say anything until now. I just don’t know if I am ready to let go of this house. I would kind of like to be here to help with the library too.”
“What about finishing school? You still have your senior year and then there’s college. What about those things?”
“I was thinking of finishing high school here. I’m still not sure about college.”
“Well you know I’d love to have the house stay in your family and having you help me with the library would be great. But what about your Mom?”
“I want to be there with Mom but part of me is afraid that she’s going to be like she was before. I just don’t know if she’s going to let me be there for her.”
Judy looked at the hand where the lightning bug had been and looked around for it. She saw several at different points in the yard and thought back to days when she’d gathered them in jars and set them by her bed.
“It’s been a long time since I’ve seen your mother but I don’t think she wants to shut you out. At my age I think I know a bit about fearing loss. Vern isn’t the first person I’ve had to say goodbye to in recent years. What I’m trying to say is that I think maybe she’s been distant because your father’s death was hard for her to recover from and now she may be facing her own.”
“I guess I always knew that when dad died mom changed. When she found out how sick she was she got even harder to talk to. But she never stopped loving me. I believe that.”
“She may be trying to protect you and your brothers by not asking you to stay at the hospital or encouraging you to talk with her more. Vern said the same thing to me. Did he ever talk with you about it?”
“No, not really. I guess I didn’t make it easy for him to talk with me about mom though.”
Judy and Tim talked long after Will was sleeping and Judy probably would have let him talk until sunrise. But he grew tired and said goodnight in time to sleep at least four or five hours before time to leave. From her clay colored garden bench Judy watched a light go on upstairs next door and then go off. She finished her last cup of tea and said goodnight to the fireflies.
In the morning the two brothers had breakfast at the diner, very near to where the library would be built and then returned to Vernell’s house to collect their things and say bye to Judy. She hugged them both and accepted the copy of To Kill a Mockingbird Tim had offered days before. After they drove off she opened the book and saw two inscriptions, one in her own cursive handwriting to Vernell and the other to her from Tim. The inscription from Tim was written in carefully printed letters.
I would have been happy to call you Aunt Judy, but I’m happy enough calling you my friend. The library will be something you can be proud of, and in a way it will be a union of two people who loved each other very much. That’s what I believe.
Judy stood in the doorway of her pretty little two story house and looked at the first pages of the book. She thought about Harper Lee and how unlikely it was for Harper’s childhood town to produce a novelist. No library graced her surroundings back then. The Great Depression left most people fighting to avoid starvation. Who had time to look for books? Judy thought of the little ones in her neighborhood and the surrounding ones. A smile broke through her lined face as she considered the impact a library would have on the town. She imagined a place full of hopes and breathing imagination in and out the doorways and windows. Her love for Vernell was as alive as the first moment she became aware of it.
The following months and years saw many things. Lee Goode lived. She lived to see more grandchildren. She lived to see Tim and Will married to loving spouses. She fought and she won. And Vernell, whether he found heaven to exist or not, saved his favorite niece from disease just as much as the doctors and nurses who treated her did. He contributed only money while the hospital made the whole thing possible, but still he saved her all the same. The library was built and though Tim did not spend much time helping with it there would still be a Tim Goode plaque along with those dedicated to Vernell, Judy and Harper Lee. At the dedication of the library Judy delivered a tearful and heartfelt address to hundreds of people who had come from all over to be part of the event. In the closing of her address she said these words to the crowd but Tim knew in his heart that the words were more for his family than the others in attendance.
“We all loved Vernell Wilson and he loved us too. His love will always be with this town as long as we work together to make this library a place we can all share. Vernell’s dream was that people who love learning would be able to do so regardless of their financial situation. The doors of this building will welcome every visitor who has a passion for bettering himself or herself and believes the books inside can help. I am so grateful to have this privilege and honor to welcome you all to the Vernell Goode Memorial Library!”
Lee Goode cut the ribbon officially opening the main doors and she and Judy held the doors open as two classes of first grade students from the elementary school walked by twos into the double doors. In Tim’s hand was a small folded piece of paper he intended to secret away inside a book in the religious studies section. The note said, in Tim’s own handwritten style “Inside every living thing is a touch of the divine. You do not need a church or a person or a book to show you the good that lives inside you.”
All rights reserved. Copyright Kevin Wallach