Are those tires rumblin’ down the road?
I squint at my wristwatch. Stopped. Like it has been for nearly two years, Hank, ya dummy.
Sun’s draped over the sofa. Mailman’s been by hours ago. Wall calendar’s yellowed. That’s no help. But it’s Tuesday if memory serves me. No chicken trucks on Tuesdays. And the manure stench is only a four on my stink-o-meter. So poop truck’s a good month out. No other reason to be on this road unless you’re a tractor. And the corn isn’t even knee high by the fourth of July.
Try number two and I get these bones out of the sunken recliner.
Hank, you groan like an old man.
Tell me somethin’ I don’t know.
I stick my nose between the curtains. A rooster tail of dirt road follows an old box truck. Whoever it is ain’t wastin’ time.
The same rickety trot I chase crows from bread dough risin’ on the porch ledge gets me to the screen door. The truck roars past. Miller’s Movers. We’ve been on the move since 1946.
Me too. Give or take.
Brakes slam, tires skid, and dust smothers the ditch weeds. A clunk of the shifter and the reverse lights brighten. Back-up beeps drown out the clicking locusts.
They’re pullin’ into the ol’ Shiloh place. That For Sale sign has been knocked over, rustin’ for … well, that rapscallion, Davey Shiloh, who’d throw tomatoes at my house, is old enough to be eatin’ bread ’n’ butter behind bars.
Why would anyone hang their hat here? Ain’t nothin’ but chickens, corn, and me. The money bags who own the village of chicken barns, along with the acres I used to farm and yonder, stay far from the fowl fertilizer. Fowl fertilizer.
Good one, Hank.
No doubt their kin would turn their nose up at the place. That house is the spittin’ image of mine. No prize. At least that’s what Bonnie used to tell me. She’d said the same about me. Probably still does. I ’spect she’s right in both regards.
My knees creak like they’re in competition with the screen door as I ease onto the porch rocker. Two husky fellas in orange Mike’s Movers T-shirts shuffle to the house with beaded lamps, a poufy flowered couch, green velvety chairs, and boxes with who-knows-what pokin’ out the top. I ain’t been to a parade since I was eight hands high to a horse. This is as good as any. Wish I’d thought to bring some tea. But that’s a lot of standin’ and sittin’ to wet a broken whistle.
Why hadn’t I learned to whistle? If Bonnie were here, she’d say I was too busy doin’ and sayin’ nothin’ to learn to whistle or pay her any attention. I did pay attention. And a lot of it. Guess I forgot to tell her as much. But when I did think to say somethin’ it’d be the wrong somethin’. After while, it was easier to just keep sayin’ nothin’.
Of all things, the boys carry in a purple kitchen table. Bonnie would’ve thought it tacky or offensive, I bet. But Bonnie ain’t been here since before the front shutter unhinged on one side. So Hank, what do you think about a purple table? I think a purple table … don’t fit. Other than the ditch flowers, the only color in this day-to-day is corn green, dusty white siding, and the faded blues and browns of my clothes and furniture. And I’m sure I ain’t never seen the likes of who own a purple table. Just happens, I got a front-row seat.
After utility vans visit, wakin’ the lights and pipes I suppose, I haul this string bean in for some supper. I flip a cheese sandwich on the griddle and turn an ear to the hum of a vehicle. I grab a cucumber and my sandwich and drop onto the porch rocker as a yellow Volkswagen putters into the Shiloh drive.
The rocker creaks as I shift forward. The corn stops rustlin’. The locusts stop fidgetin’. Even the clouds stop driftin’.
The driver’s side door flops open. It’s a woman. She’s a woman. She lifts a hand in greeting and starts ’cross the road. Toward me.
I’ve never seen a woman as glorious as this. Hair the white puff of a seeded dandelion with a chickweed purple swath smoothed to the side in a sparkly barrette. A pink and blue floral muumuu sways from her broad hips as free and easy as corn silk in the breeze. Fingernails the color of bubble gum grasp my porch handrail. Beige orthopedic shoes, with a yellow plastic daisy on each, tramp up the steps.
I tuck my feet under the rocker. A man ought not meet a woman such as this with dirty toes. Say somethin’, Hank, ya ol’ fool.
“I had to come over and meet the likes of you before I do anything else today.”
Me? Why would she be wantin’ to meet me so badly?
“All of my life, I’ve never seen a cucumber eaten in such a manner. And now that I’m on your porch steps, seen a lid used such as that.”
What’s she talkin’ about?
I don’t want to take my eyes off her but curiosity gets me. I’m holdin’ the cucumber like a hammer, a bite right out of the side. On my lap, the grilled cheese rests on a pot lid.
You’re a mindless duff, Hank.
Her red-smeared smile, as wide as an ear of corn, shows a tooth missin’ in the back. I’d give her one of mine if I could. I’ve always had too many, crossed and crammed like they’re fightin’ to get out the front.
“What’s your name, neighbor?” she says, warmer than Bonnie was on her friendliest day.
“Hank,” I croak like a darned bullfrog.
“Hank? That’s a dog’s name!” She booms a jolly laugh that puts St. Nick to shame.
Come to think, Grandpappy had a droopy, skinny huntin’ hound that bears my ’semblance. Might be, I was named after a dog. I’ll be doggone.
Good one, Hank.
“I’m Gladys. I’ve always been told it’s an old woman’s name. But wouldn’t you know it, that’s exactly what I became. So, Hank, since I’m an old woman with an old woman’s name, and you’re an old man with a dog’s name, does that mean you’re an old dog?” She cackles and I grip the rocker, waitin’ for the shutter to rattle off its last hinge.
Gladys. Loud color from the bottom to the top. Like a gladiola. Gladys the gladiola. “Every dog has his day, I reckon.”
She turns a coy shoulder. “Is this your day, then, Hank?”
She giggles and swats her hand at the air. “After I get settled, I’ll have you over for a meal so we can get to know each other properly. I’ll treat you right. Even cut up a cucumber.”
She’s havin’ her fun. Suppose I am too.
I lift my hand to wave but she’s already headin’ down the stairs. Well enough. I was holdin’ the cucumber.
Four days of porch sittin’ and wavin’, checkin’ the contents of my hand first, and Gladiola yells ’cross the road to come to dinner ’round six.
I start out nearest I can get with a broken watch and knock on the front door. I cross my fingers and twiddle my thumbs, hands feelin’ like they should be doin’ somethin’. Cause you done brought nothin’, Hank. And you’re barefoot. Dirty toes and all. Ya spent too much time waitin’ and not enough time doin’. If you was a respectable gentleman, you’d made some bread to offer. I’ll beat a path back, put on some shoes and least snatch a jar of pickled beets.
My feet hit the steps as the front door unsticks from the frame.
“Normally, a man waits till his belly’s full to leave.”
Gladiola’s a vision in pink lips and a red muumuu with blue flowers embroidered ’round top.
“I was headin’ back fer beets. And shoes.”
She wallops out a laugh that tickles me like fizz from a peach Faygo.
“Beets and shoes, huh. You are the funniest man I’ve ever had the pleasure.”
Nobody ever accused me of bein’ funny. Nor take particular pleasure in my company. ’Specially Bonnie.
“Come on in now. Nobody’s expecting pomp and circumstance. Just you is plenty good for me.”
My cheeks heat akin to a young buck bein’ asked to the Sadie Hawkins dance. I lower my head and slip past her through the doorway.
If the scent of cookin’ peppers and smoked meat isn’t enough to stop me in my tracks, the living room is. There’re more things to look at than a wall of dime-store candy jars. A sundry of patterned material hangs over end tables and window stands, filled with baubles, vases, and trinket boxes. The browned wallpaper is covered in frames of all kinds and sizes with photographs of oceans, cities, and countryside I ain’t never dreamt of. “Ya been to all these places?”
I suppose corn has its charm if ya ain’t looked at it long as I have. But don’t seem right to leave any of that for this. “Why ya come here?”
“I like the smell of chicken poop.”
I whip my head so fast, ’bout throw my feet off-kilter.
Her rooster crow echoes off the walls as she smacks my arm. It’s just a graze but I flinch like I done brushed against an electric fence. I didn’t mean to. The last time I been touched was when Fred patted me on the shoulder after chattin’ at the gas station few months back.
I don’t think she noticed. I’m glad. ’Cause I’d like to get used to it.
“Don’t mind me, Hank. I do love to laugh. Sometimes that means I act plain silly.” She rests her hands atop her round hips. “You might look at these photos and see pretty places. Hard truth is, I see a woman running from an unsavory upbringing, a cruel husband, and a mountain of bad decisions. Now, I’m not complaining. Life can’t be all lollipops. And you don’t live to be our age without stepping in it a few times. But here’s the thing. All those bad memories and feelings followed me. Might as well have been carrying them in my purse. I hung these photos to remind me of the lengths I’ve gone to forget. And that none of it made a darn bit of a difference.”
She done lived a lot of pain. I can hear it in the whispery edges of her voice. What kind of man could hurt a woman that brightens life like Gladiola do? Not a good one.
My throat goes sawdust dry. Same as when Bonnie slapped me for forgettin’ our anniversary. I hadn’t forgot ’cept that day. I was too long in the fields and wasn’t thinking ’bout the date or the secondhand pearl brooch I’d scraped the money for hidin’ in my cowboy boot. Her hand struck my cheek like a swarm of hornets. And for spite, I reckon, she threw the knife Grandpappy given me into the field. It caught the sun and I ain’t never seen it again. Same as Bonnie. And most likely one day, same as Gladiola. “Where ya thinkin’ of goin’ after here?”
“I’m unpacking my bags for good, Hank. Let my past sit on a shelf like an old book that makes you cry. When I’m ready, I’ll read a paragraph. Maybe a chapter when I’m feeling brave. One day, I hope to shut the cover and be done with it and my crying.”
She’d have a lot of chapters livin’ all she been through. Not sure my book would be worth readin’. Hank was born. Done everything wrong. Stared at corn. Gladiola’s book gonna end with corn too. “You like lookin’ at corn, then?”
“Corn is corn. I wanted a place where I wouldn’t sabotage my reading with distractions of grand scenery, restaurants, or shops. Where I could be alone but not lonely. I was browsing Google Maps, following it down this very road, and wouldn’t you know it, you were sitting on the porch.”
I’ve been sittin’ on the porch too long if they drawin’ me into a map.
“I thought to myself, there’s a man that stays put. And these two houses looked like they’ve stayed put for a long time. So I figured I’d stay put here too. You’re not planning on leaving, are you, Hank?”
“I go to the grocery ’bout once a month.”
Her pink smile grows cream corn sweet. “That’ll do. Let’s go eat.”
My toes disgrace several fringed rugs on the way to the kitchen. And I was wrong ’bout the purple table. Purple fit Gladiola like the clouds fit the sky. And there’s a plate of sliced cucumbers in the center. She been thinkin’ ’bout me. Even if it was me bein’ featherbrained.
She slides a wooden bowl under my nose with a heap of peppers, sausage, shrimp, and rice in a spicy-smellin’ red sauce.
“You like jambalaya?”
“Ain’t never had it.”
“Well, I hope you’re wearing your best skivvies, because you’re about to get your drawers blown off.”
Then, hope she likes chicken legs.
Good one, Hank.
She cozies in the chair ’cross from me and lifts her water glass as they do on TV weddin’s. “To new friends and staying put,” she says.
I lift my glass and nod. Figure that’ll do.
She clinks her rim against mine and takes a sip. “Dig in.”
The first spoonful and my mouth’s playin’ the trumpet and my toes are wigglin’.
Gladiola must see I like it, cause her eyes are smilin’, the same wide-set molasses eyes as a fawn I once came ’cross in the tall grass. I didn’t tell Bonnie ’bout her. I hid a calf bottle in my jacket and fed her ’bout a week. One day, I showed up and she was gone. Coyote could’ve got her, I suppose.
Wish I could’ve done better. Protected her. Those fawn eyes were the purest beauty I ever seen. Like Gladiola’s. ’Cept Gladiola don’t need protectin’. She’s strong. Maybe she just need someone to laugh with. I ’spect laughin’ help her through the bad stuff. She must’ve done a heap of it ’cause her smile creases run to her eyebrows.
Hold on. Those eyebrows are as smooth as the tabletop. They painted? “What happened to yer eyebrows?”
Her spoon stalls, mouth open wide, ’bout to take a bite.
You gone and said the wrong thing, Hank. Like Bonnie always accused you.
Gladiola lowers her head, shoulders tremblin’.
My chest squeezes like a horse standin’ on it. She cryin’? I can’t see nothin’ but the top of her white and purple head. Apologize, ya oaf.
I’ll just say or do somethin’ else that ain’t right. Go home, Hank. Nobody wants ya.
I skootch backward but the chair legs catch on the uneven floorboards.
A siren of a laugh rises with Gladiola’s head as her fist pounds the table, rattlin’ the silverware.
I cock my head like the hound I was named after. Maybe somethin’ comical caught her eye. I check my shirt in case I slopped it. Then my zipper.
She runs a forearm over her damp eyes. “Of all things … In all my years …”
Maybe somethin’ funny ’bout what made her eyebrows fall off?
“Okay, Hank. Eyebrows it is. You see, old lady eyebrows are different than old man eyebrows. Yours get bushy. Ours get thin. So some ladies take them off and draw new ones. I figure if it’s good enough for Dolly Parton, its good enough for me.”
“I didn’t mean no harm.”
“I know you didn’t. And Lord knows I can handle a conversation about eyebrows or anything else you throw at me. You keep saying what you want. Your eyes are the kind and honest type. There’s nothing hiding behind your words. And when you’ve known as many people as I have, you learn what a rarity that is. I’m already thankful I chose the house across from you.”
Seem like I been hidin’ from my words most my life. “I don’t deserve all that.”
“Sure you do. Just probably no one has ever told you. So it feels like a hat that doesn’t fit. But it does fit, Hank. I can tell. Leave the hat on. You’ll get used to it. You need to know what it feels like to be appreciated.”
I fiddle with the cloth napkin on the table.
Never met a woman like Gladiola. So loud and sweet and colorful. Sayin’ nice things ’bout me. Hank, ya been thinkin’ things ’bout her and done said none of ’em. And I’m bettin’ that nasty husband she had never told her nothin’ good. Like Bonnie to me. And she knows ya can’t seem to say nothin’ right.
“Yer eyes remind me of a deer I ’bout stepped on. I been callin’ ya Gladiola in my head. Cause of all yer loud color. There’s peach fizz in yer laugh. And when ya touched me, it felt like an electric fence. But one I wouldn’t mind leanin’ into. And I’m sorry fer my dirty toes.”
Gladiolas fawn eyes go headlights to glossy.
Ya done it again, Hank. They should put a muzzle on you.
“Well,” she starts in a mouse of a voice, “guess we both will be getting used to new hats. And I couldn’t have picked out a better one than you just gave me. But don’t apologize for dirty toes. Life is dirty. Some people cover their dirt with fancy kickers. But when they come off and you see what’s underneath, it can spring the curlers right off your head. Dirt is real. And I’ve never met anyone as real as you, Hank.”
Gladiola don’t mind my dirty toes no how. But she’s wearin’ plastic daisies over hers.
“Yer dirt don’t bother me none, neither. So if ya want to tell me ’bout yer book, maybe our dirty toes can sit on the porch together. And along with yer cryin’ maybe you can do some laughin’.”
Her plump fingers slide ’round my knotted knuckles. I don’t flinch. Not one bit.
Good one, Hank.
Featured image: NeroV / Shutterstock
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