Today we celebrate the re-release of Where Wings Should Be, the debut novel of our friend and fellow contributor, Stepehen A. Balga Jr. A small novel about a big God! Congratulations, Steve!
An old woman. A young girl. A life lesson.
A Good Tree
I didn’t want to help Aunt Helga.
The thought of spending an entire week at a tumbledown farm in the middle of nowhere was bad enough, let alone having to spend it with my no-nonsense, German-to-the-core great aunt.
“Please, Jen,” my mom said, as though I had a choice. “I wish you’d give her a chance.”
I frowned, picturing the prickly old recluse who everyone said I resembled. Being the youngest branch on the family tree at fifteen, with no definite plans for the summer, it had fallen on my shoulders to help Aunt Helga with her housecleaning. That’s how I found myself waiting on the stoop that humid July morning, when her mud-brown Plymouth pulled to the curb.
After a long, hot drive (Aunt Helga thought air conditioning was frivolous) we arrived at her farm. I glanced longingly at the creek. How wonderful a quick dip would feel, I thought. Aunt Helga had other ideas. She bustled about, assembling corn starch, cleaning cloths, and a stack of old newspapers.
“We start with the windows, Okay?”
“Why me?” I grumbled, slapping my cloth against a streaky pane.
That evening, with the supper dishes drying in the rack, Aunt Helga brought out a battered deck of playing cards. Old Maid, I thought. How appropriate. After five hands, I dropped into the four-poster bed in Helga’s guest room and was lulled to sleep by the whir of crickets and the sound of the wind sighing in the trees.
The next morning Aunt Helga heaped my plate with raspberry pancakes. “Today, the floors,” she announced as she set my plate before me.
When we’d beaten the rugs, scoured the plank floors, and polished the mopboards, Aunt Helga declared that it was time to rest. I rubbed my aching shoulders and carried the dog-eared copy of Little Women I’d found in Helga’s bookcase to the shade of a weeping willow tree.
I sat for a moment, enjoying the mild summer breeze. Aunt Helga stood at the clothesline, the hem of her housedress swaying as she pegged up a load of wash. A low, cheerful sound drifted across the yard, blending with the twittering of robins and the rumble of a tractor in a far-off field. To my surprise, I realized Aunt Helga was singing.
I read all afternoon beneath sunshine and clear blue skies. Finally Helga appeared carrying a pitcher of lemonade and two frosty glasses. She eased herself to the ground beside me, chuckling as her old bones creaked.
“You must be thirsty, Jenny, yes?”
I sipped from my glass, savoring the cold, tangy liquid. Aunt Helga rested her head against the tree and closed her eyes.
“It is a good tree,” she said. “Strong and kind.” Aunt Helga had a way of saying things that left me stumped for a reply.
“I heard him call to me last night,” she said. “My Joe.”
A chill shivered down my back as I thought of the picture on her mantle of a thin, smiling boy in workingman’s clothes. A boy who’d worked too hard, I’d heard it said, who’d died too young.
“He is with me always,” she said, as if hearing my thoughts. “In the skies and in the wind. But mostly here, in the trees.”
I looked into her eyes, which were suddenly soft and moist. “What do you mean?” I asked, setting my book aside.
Running a gnarled hand along the tree trunk, she began her story. “I was teaching in the old brick schoolhouse when the railroad came to town. The year was 1929. All day long the immigrant men worked to lay the tracks. Such loud men, swinging hammers, filling the air with good German folk songs. Every morning when I walked to school, Joe would be standing at the fence.
“Guten morgen, schoolteacher. How are you today?” he’d say.
Such a handsome boy. But girls were not so bold then as they are today. I walked past, my head held high, but my hands,” she made a gnarled fist. “I held my hands in my pockets so he wouldn’t see how they trembled.
“Then one day, snow came. Such excitement! I had to let the children go home early. I was walking from the school when I heard a voice call out beside the fence. ’Children, watch! I am going to throw a snowball at the teacher!’
“I walked proudly, but my knees, how they shook. SPLAT! I turned to see Joe, his eyes sparkling like the snow. Never was I so angry as then! I threw down my books and made a snowball. I chased him. Round and round the schoolyard I ran. When I caught him…splat! Ah, such pretty laughter he had. ’Now that we are acquainted,’ he told me, ’I shall come and court you.’”
Her hand caressed the trunk. “He planted this tree that spring. ’When this tree is old and strong,’ he told me, ’we will have loved each other for a very long time, you and I.’
Aunt Helga looked into my eyes. “He never saw it grow. That summer he died with scarlet fever.”
“I’m so sorry,” I said softly.
“You take what the good Lord gives you,” she said. “Nothing more and nothing less.”
I took a good, long look at Aunt Helga. For the first time I didn’t see a brittle old recluse. Beneath the lines that time had put on her face, I saw a girl, not so much older than myself. A girl who, having once known the joy of true love, had chosen to live alone with her memories rather than settle for anything less.
I don’t know what I would have said, if anything. From out of nowhere a fat raindrop splashed my cheek and Helga struggled to her feet. “My washings!” she cried. “They will be wet!”
I dashed across the yard, stopping when I lost my sandal. My aunt ran on ahead. She was halfway to the clothesline when the sky opened up, pelting us with shimmering beads. Aunt Helga stopped in her tracks. Laughing, she threw her arms wide and embraced the rain.
Story by Jean Pike
Photo by Elizabeth Pike
Jackie woke up early, pulled on his blue jeans and his sneakers, and set out before it was light. The sloshing of his feet on the leaf-scattered earth harmonized with the squeaky wheeled wagon, which followed like a cheerful red shadow as he walked. He strode past the pond, not stopping to skip stones. Not today. He set his shoulders instead toward the winding path that led to his pumpkin patch. Today, Jackie had a mission.
He kicked a tin can as he walked, all the while feeling as though he’d burst with his secret. He passed a row of cattails and couldn’t resist plucking on from the earth. He beat its head against a fence rail and blew on it, filling the autumn air with its snow. He pulled out his jackknife and cut a few for later. Then, remembering what day it was, he set them in the wagon and continued on.
Jackie’s mother was the brightest star in his heaven, the only star, since his dad died the year before. Today was mother’s birthday and he wanted to get her something special. A diamond necklace, maybe, or a sparkling silver bracelet.
The path dipped and rolled before him, into a valley and through a grove of pines. Jackie pulled his wagon up short at the edge of his pumpkin patch, smiling as his secret swelled inside him. He counted ten good-sized pumpkins, and at least a half dozen smaller ones. As he began to calculate, a frown chased away his smile. How much did a diamond necklace cost, he wondered?
He pulled out his knife, and as solemn as a surgeon, severed the pumpkins from their stems. He laid them gently in the wagon, careful to place the smaller ones on top. He stripped off his sweatshirt as he worked, a small, bent figure beneath a sailor blue sky. Around him, the trees echoed birdsong and wind hush, softly weeping lemon, red and orange…
When he’d placed the last pumpkin into his wagon, he sat on a fallen tree to rest. He collected handfuls of pinecones and laid them in the wagon, filled his tin can with acorns; little happy-faced men in brown berets he’d use for throwing practice later. He glanced up and saw a shiny red kite tail in the top of the tall oak tree. He shimmied to the top, cut it free, and laid it in the wagon.
He trudged to the end of the road, and finding the perfect spot, began to set up shop. He arranged the smallest pumpkins near the front, filling in the gaps with bunches of Black Eyed Susans that grew by the side of the road. Finally satisfied, he took out his marking pen and drew up a sign: PUMPKINS TWO FOR $1.00
He sat out the afternoon, chin in hands, until the sun began to cast long shadows across the road. His heart leapt and fell as an occasional car approached, slowed, and rumbled on. He sat until he knew it was very late, then pulled his wagon, as heavy as his heart, toward home.
By the time he reached their small farm, the red ribbon was trailing, bedraggled, in the dirt behind the wagon. He pulled it free, threw it on top of his lead, and went inside to lay the table for supper. He’d just set out the plates, when he heard mother’s car in the driveway. He turned from her when she entered the house, too ashamed to meet her eyes.
“Hello, Jackie.” She pulled him close. In the waning daylight, he thought he saw tears gathering in her eyes. “Thank you for the presents,” she said softly.
He nodded, feeling flags of shame spread across his cheeks.
When they’d finished their meal, Jackie went outside to gather kindling. He worked quickly as night fell, spooky, black as cats, around him.
Back inside, the house was cozy with firelights. The pinecones and acorns he’d gathered crackled and popped from the hearth, putting a good, woodsy scent in the air. He found mother in the kitchen, pulling a tray of roasted pumpkinseeds from the oven. She smiled when she saw him in the doorway.
“A special treat,” she said.
He ate them, one at a time, savoring each salty drop. Mother pointed to a bowl filled with orange pulp. “Tomorrow we’ll have pie.”
Jackie stared at his shoes. “I wanted to get you something nicer,” he said.
“Why, these are wonderful gifts, Jackie. Gifts from the earth. From the heart. The best kind of gifts in the world.” She held out her arms, and though he was a big boy now, nearly ten, he climbed into her lap and snuggled close. Over mother’s shoulder he saw cattails and Black Eyed Susans arranged in his tin can on the hearth. They danced in the shadows of the room. Glinting like diamonds in the firelight.
Photo by Elizabeth Pike
Story © M. Jean Pike 2001
*This story first appeared in the Fall, 2001 edition of Folklore! Magazine.
It was nearly 5:00 when I pulled up in front of the house on Euclid Avenue, my last job of the day. I was more than an hour late, which probably meant I wouldn’t be getting a tip. Which wasn’t good. My gas gauge was on empty, and besides that, I’d hoped to stop off for a beer at Marty’s after work. Tess and I had gotten into a screaming match that morning, and I was in no hurry to go home.
As I gathered up my tools, my glance moved over the trim, white house with its green shutters and its rose bushes. Not the ritziest place on earth, I thought, but neat and homey looking. The kind of house Tess dreamed of owning, some day.
Tess worked as a teacher aide. Between that and my job at Paperhangers, we managed to keep the rent paid and food on the table. But we could never seem to keep a dime in our savings account, and that was the main reason for the fighting. But I didn’t want to think about that, so I collected my ladder and my paper tray and headed toward the house.
My knock was answered by an old lady wearing a lavender pantsuit and pink lipstick.
“Good afternoon.” She was soft-spoken, slightly southern. “You must be from the remodeling center.”
“Wonderful. I’ve been expectin’ you.”
Walking into her house, I noticed that the scent of roses had carried over to the inside. The lady had filled several vases with the red and white roses from her garden. They looked flamboyant in the plain, white room.
“The guest room’s this way,” she said.
The room was small and square, with a single bed and a night stand on one wall and a chest of drawers opposite. I calculated that the job would take me a half hour, at the most.
“It’s really a walk-in closet,” she said, almost apologetically. “But I’m trying to make it as comfortable as I can. My granddaughter is coming to stay for a few weeks. Do you think this will work for the space?”
She unrolled a wallpaper border, an old-fashioned pattern with butterflies and wildflowers. The bright purples, blues and golds were a striking contrast to the cream colored walls, and I told her as much.
She smiled. “I’ll leave you to it, then. Let me know if need anything.”
I set up my ladder and my water tray. I measured the wall, cut my strips, and mitered the corners. I’d just climbed up the ladder when a voice boomed out behind me, nearly making me lose my footing.
“Hello there, young fella!”
An old man stood in the doorway, his brown pants pulled up to his chest, tufts of white hair springing wildly from the sides of his head.
“Afternoon,” I mumbled, hoping he’d go away.
“I used to be a handyman myself,” he said.
“Really? What sort of work did you do?” He stared at me with a blank expression, not answering.
“We’re getting the room all fixed up,” he finally told me. “Someone’s coming to stay… Can’t think who.”
He continued to gaze at me with his watery eyes.
The woman appeared in the doorway. “Let’s let the young man work, Harry. Come on, your soup’s ready.” She took his hand and he reluctantly followed her from the room.
I hung my first strip, smoothed it out, and realized I’d left my rags in the car. As I was heading out to get them, the woman intercepted me. “You’ll have to excuse my husband,” she said softly. “Harry’s a wonderful man. He just gets confused sometimes.”
“Oh, no problem.” I immediately thought what an idiotic thing it was to say. No problem. Of course it wasn’t a problem. Not for me. I’d be out of here twenty minutes.
Back in the bedroom, I worked quickly. I was finishing up my last strip of border when out of the corner of my eye, I saw the old man return. He hovered in the doorway, like a small, sad shadow, clearly wanting some guy talk. I tried to imagine what it would be like to be him, lost inside my own mind.
“I used to be a handyman myself,” he said.
“Oh yeah?” I smoothed out the strip, wiped away the glue. “What sort of work did you do?”
He was quiet for long time and I didn’t think he’d answer.
“I did outdoor work,” he finally said in triumph. “I built decks and fences. Yessiree. If there’s anything I don’t miss, it’s trying to please people.” He lowered his voice. “People can be a real pain in the tushee.”
I grinned. “Ya think?”
He grinned back. “Darn tootin’.”
I was packing up my tools when the woman returned. “Oh, what a difference. Isn’t it lovely, Harry?”
“Lovely,” he echoed. “Someone’s coming to visit. I can’t think who…”
While the woman went to the kitchen to get her checkbook, I waited in the living room with the old man. I noticed a table filled with pictures. A photo gallery representing some fifty odd years of living. Weddings. Holidays. Old black and whites of family vacations. One of the photos showed the couple when they were much younger. The old man sat behind the wheel of an Olds convertible. The woman sat in the passenger seat, a red scarf tying back her hair. They were just beginning their journey, then. If she’d known where the road would take them, I wondered, would she still have gone along for the ride? Somehow, I felt like she would.
Looking at that picture, I felt overwhelmed with sadness. I wondered if Tess and I would be together long enough to fill a table with photographs. Not likely, I thought. Married only two years and already we were in the toilet.
I was a mess when Tess came into my life. She was lovely and sweet and I could not believe she actually wanted to go out with me. The seed of two alcoholics, I was already a drug addict by then. Tess was a Christian, and her mission in life was to straighten mine out. Scared and lost, I was happy to turn over the reins. And things got better. I found God. I found my footing. I got a job and we got married. Three years into our relationship, though, she can’t stop trying to fix me. Like an overprotective mother, she can’t let me make my own decisions. And like a spoiled child, I can’t ever seem to say I’m sorry. But there’s one thing I know for certain, my life would be utterly empty without her in it.
“Here you are.” The woman appeared with a check made out to the store for the amount of the job. She handed me a twenty-dollar bill. “You did a lovely job for us. Thank you.”
Back at the store, I took the paperwork into the office. I stowed her check in the safe and recorded my hours on my time sheet. Then I got in my car and headed across town.
Three blocks from Marty’s, I pulled into a mini mart. I put ten dollars in my gas tank. With ten left, I could easily afford to stay out until Tess gave up on me and went to bed.
I took my place in line and waited. Next to the counter there was a rack of fresh flowers. A sign read: Ten dollars. Your choice.
I got to the front of the line and put my twenty on the counter.
“Ten in gas?” the clerk said.
As she rang up my gas, I thought of the old couple, the woman doing her best to honor her vows. For better or for worse. I thought of the cold beer that would be on tap at Marty’s, and weighed it against the lifetime of regret I would have to carry if I let my marriage slip through my fingers. And I knew that if, at the end of the day, I wanted that table full of memories, it was up to me to meet Tess halfway.
Ten dollars. My choice…
“Hang on,” I told the girl. “I grabbed a bouquet of red and white carnations from the rack. “I guess I’ll take these, too.”
I knew that one act of thoughtfulness wasn’t going to fix our problems. I also knew it would be a long, rough road ahead. But more than anything else, I wanted to take that journey. So I prayed.
God, help me to be a better husband. From now on, help me to make each day, each moment count.
Because in the end, it’s the small, shared moments that make up a marriage.
Holding onto that thought, I laid the bouquet on seat beside me and headed home.
© M. Jean Pike, 2012