Hekate

Persephone by Author Ellen J. Perry

 

“By dimpled brook and fountain-brim,
The wood-nymphs, decked with daisies trim,
Their merry wakes and pastimes keep:
What hath night to do with sleep?
Night hath better sweets to prove;
Venus now wakes, and wakens Love.
Come, let us our rights begin;
’Tis only daylight that makes sin,
Which these dun shades will ne’er report.
Hail, goddess of nocturnal sport…”

John Milton, Comus (1634)

 

Although she had experienced horrible nightmares growing up in the Louisiana bayou, Nadine Brunet’s most recent dream was more terrifying than anything she remembered from childhood. Early that morning she woke up soaked with sweat, panting, fumbling for her water glass and reaching out to defend herself against something that wasn’t there. Then her bedside table lamp started to flicker, the usual sign from her grandmother who had died four years earlier. The three-way bulb went from light to lighter to lightest, over and over again, until Nadine calmed down. “Oh, Mamere,” she whispered, “help me.”

Nadine lay still on the narrow bed in her dorm room wondering who she was, how she’d ended up in northern Louisiana, and what her nightmare meant. Well-intentioned but clueless students sometimes asked her, “What are you, exactly?” They tried to get her to claim a certain ethnicity, join one of the various hyphenated groups on campus. This frustrated Nadine because her identity was hard to explain. Nadine’s mother’s family belonged to the Houma Tribe; her father was of African and Haitian descent. She had been raised primarily by her grandmother and rarely saw her parents; they dropped in and out of her life as they pleased, together or separately. She came to college from Louisiana swampland and the swamps of her home were eroding, disappearing – the coast, the culture, all of the Louisiana she knew was fading. Nadine felt like she was disappearing, too, drowning in stagnant water.

Just before she died Mamere looked at Nadine’s golden face and told her, “Find a way out, boo, before the land falls away from your feet.” To keep herself afloat Nadine read every book she could find, performed well in her high school’s advanced classes, took on part-time jobs at restaurants, and applied for scholarships with the help of a guidance counselor. She had no confidence in herself, so despite her dedication and work ethic, she was astonished when she heard back from a university that all her expenses would be covered and she was welcome, invited, wanted. Could it be? Was it possible that Nadine could study Greek mythology, voudon, Cajun folkways, and environmental preservation, and then write papers about how all of these traditions and belief systems and facts worked together? That’s what she had claimed in her application essay that she wanted to do, and the Admissions people told her, essentially, “Go for it. Come on!”

Now she was going for it well into her second year but feeling deeply troubled and afraid. During the daylight hours she could hold it together by reading, writing, studying, researching, working. At night, though, Milton’s “dun shades” overwhelmed and haunted her, made her feel inadequate and unworthy. Who was she – a bayou girl – to act like some big scholar, some privileged college student who had leisure time to listen to and discuss ideas with smart people?

If Nadine’s nightmare was any indication, she was sinking fast. In the upside-down world of this dream she had taken a long streetcar ride from her home to a location that was a strange blend of New Orleans and a Mexican barrio; she didn’t know exactly where she had ended up, but she felt hopeful because a friend was supposed to meet her there. Nadine disembarked along with the other passengers in order to meet her traveling companion and explore the town.

Nadine roamed around in the dark, looking for her friend by the light of the flashing neon signs along the sidewalks. There was no moon. Panic set in as she realized her phone didn’t work and she couldn’t even remember her friend’s name or where she lived. Everyone around her spoke a different language; oddly-proportioned people floating by stared at her, pointed and laughed. Panic shifted to terror when a group of wild revelers wearing Mexican death masks and elaborate Mardi Gras costumes accosted Nadine, calling her terrible names and knocking her down onto the dirty street where they took turns kicking her. She managed to regain her footing and ran, stumbled, fell, ran again trying to find the place where she’d been dropped off.

Just as she spotted the back of the streetcar, though, it rolled away with all the other passengers tucked safely inside. How had they known when to get back on? Nadine tried her best but couldn’t catch up; exhausted, she stopped running and stood still in the darkness alone. Sensing an awful presence behind her, she turned around to see the most fearsome of the masked attackers walking toward her. He jeered, “How are you getting home now? It’s too late, too late for you.”

Nadine remained for a while in bed that morning after the nightmare, staring at the ceiling and focusing on breathing steadily until her alarm went off and startled her into motion. Daytime, up up up – go, get going. No time for thinking about it. Just go, do. These words and phrases she repeated to herself as she showered, dressed, nibbled on a breakfast bar, and darted out just in time to make it to her first class. She sat in the front row as usual, glancing at the other students around her; opening their laptops, they had no idea she had just experienced such a terrible nighttime vision. Nadine wondered if they ever felt like they were slipping, groundless in the world.

Probably they would never admit it if so. They’d find various ways to cope, maybe drink the sinking away on Bourbon Street during spring breaks at Mardi Gras, maybe go to mass and confess everything later in secret, maybe fill the lonely spaces with cheery Instagram and Snapchat photos. The point was that few people ever said anything real out loud, but Nadine felt like screaming. She knew she could either scream or slink back to the bayou in shame. Desperate for meaningful human connection, she gathered her courage and went after class to see her advisor.

Nadine knocked softly on the office door that was halfway open, only the high back of a huge leather swivel chair in view as she peeked in. “Dr. Clemmons, I know I don’t have an appointment, but my name is Nadine Brunet and I wonder if – ”

“Come on in, Nadine,” called a familiar voice that seemed to be coming from somewhere other than the chair. Nadine cleared her throat and walked forward. The chair didn’t move but a rustling drew Nadine’s eyes toward the ceiling. There, a petite, almost ethereal woman with a pomegranate tattoo on the inside of her wrist stood on a stepladder looking through books on her many shelves, frowning. Nadine recalled the surprise she’d felt when she was first introduced to this sprite-like figure. The sprite didn’t turn immediately, but focused still on her shelves. “Now, I know I just had that one,” she said. “A student was asking me about it. Well, anyway. Thomas Moore, you know of him?” She turned then, looked Nadine in the eye and added, “Dark Nights of the Soul?

The question seemed at first to indicate clairvoyance. Did the sprite know about Nadine’s dark night? But then Nadine recognized the question as a title and wished she could say she’d read the book. “Well, Dr. Clemmons, I. . .”

“Please call me Tyler. None of this ‘Dr.’ business. Too many big egos around here now, they’ve forgotten we’re all human. What can I do for you?”

Knowing her advisor was busy and she had to act fast, sum things up, get to the heart of the matter, Nadine thought of several smart and professional responses she might offer – things like, “Thank you, Dr. Clemmons (she just couldn’t manage the first-name familiarity); I need a bit of direction in terms of my Graduation Plan,” or “I’d like to get your advice about the possibility of pursuing a double major,” or “I very much enjoyed your lecture last week entitled ‘The Symbology of Monstresses in Greek Myth.’”

What came out instead was, “I want to go home, Dr. Clemmons.” Nadine burst into tears.

“Oh!” Tyler exclaimed, taking Nadine’s heavy backpack from her bent shoulders and noting with sadness her advisee’s apparent need to hold to titles. Well, she’d work on that again later if she could keep Nadine from going home. “Sit down,” she said gently, “right here in this awful lumpy chair I inherited from the dean and keep meaning to replace.” Tyler looked at her watch, set the backpack against the wall, closed her office door, and pulled a smaller chair to the edge of her desk. “I’ve got time. That tenure review committee meeting can wait. I bet even old Dr. ‘I-Only-Read-Literary-Works-Dating-from-the-Counter-Reformation’ Keller can get things started without me.”

Nadine settled in the lumpy chair and reached for a tissue to wipe her eyes and nose. Every time she thought she had control, fresh tears would come. Tyler gave her time, pretended to fuss with the papers on her desk as if still looking for the lost book, wondered out loud what might have happened to it. “You know, every place I’ve worked,” she said, thinking she might know the source of Nadine’s problem, “the English department has had the weirdest people in it. Hard to deal with. Plus the higher-ups always put me in an office near the craziest of them. What’s wrong with English people, you think? Did one of them upset you?” Tyler asked the question without turning from her search, watching Nadine out of the corner of her eye. But as soon as she saw the tissue in her advisee’s lap, she let the papers go and moved the chair closer to Nadine’s. “I bet,” she said, “it was Fred Hollingsworth with his regular rant about how Margery Kempe and Julian of Norwich were schizophrenic and we shouldn’t pay any attention to what they wrote.”

“No,” Nadine said, “It’s not the English people. Though they do seem to get upset about little things and then tell on each other to their students.” Tyler laughed. Nadine sniffled. “I just – it sounds so stupid,” she said and then stopped.

“If you want to go home, whatever it is can’t be stupid,” Tyler reassured her. Nadine looked at her advisor and swallowed against the aching in her throat, willing the embarrassing tears not to start again; she hadn’t expected this kindness when she came and, as usual, didn’t feel deserving. Finally she said, “I had a terrible nightmare and I’ve lost my way. I don’t know what I really want, what I’m supposed to do. I’m on a scholarship and I feel like if I don’t talk to somebody right now I’m going to quit school and disappoint everyone, let people down, especially the ones who believed in me enough to send me here.”

“I have a niece,” Tyler said, “who’s about your age. Laura has had every opportunity in the world and then some. She took a few college classes, went on safari, dilly-dallied around in Europe, nearly married an Irishman whose name she couldn’t spell just because she liked the sound of his voice. Her dad, my brother, had a fit about all of it but I told him, Laura will find her way. We all just have to try things, do the best we can to discover the great love of our lives.”

Nadine said, “The last thing I want to do right now is look for love.”

Tyler smiled. “Great loves aren’t just people, you know. They can be. But sometimes a great love begins with the initial pursuit of an idea or a symbol. This really vague, nebulous notion we’re passionate about can then lead us to the right path.”

Nadine thought about this.

“Don’t think too much about it!” Tyler cautioned, waving her hands frantically. “Just respond. Ok here goes. If you quit school tomorrow but had one last opportunity to take a class this afternoon, say a two-hour seminar or workshop on any person, place, or thing – what would the subject be?”

“Hekate,” Nadine said without hesitation, surprised by how quickly the answer came.

Tyler sat back in her massive chair, silent for what seemed like a full minute. Finally she said, looking straight into Nadine’s watery black eyes, “Well, I’ll be damned.”

Right then a loud banging on the office door caused both women to jump as if reacting to an electrical shock.

“Dr. Clemmons,” the voice on the other side of the door boomed, “Just curious about whether you feel like gracing us with your presence today. I know Dr. Lightfoot would like at least to pretend that we the committee members are as concerned about his tenure status as he is.”

Tyler rolled her eyes and answered, “I’ll be there in ten minutes, Dr. Keller. In the meantime maybe you boys can figure out how to take meeting minutes without arguing about the necessity of semicolons so that I can actually complete my advising session with a student.” Tyler stood up, marched around her desk, and shouted through the door, “Which is real work, by the way, as opposed to what you’re doing with, air quote, organizing that Ignatius of Loyola conference. Your administrative assistant shouldn’t be having to put the panels together and you know it.” Then she shouted over her shoulder, returning to her desk, “Read A Confederacy of Dunces, for God’s sake!”

“That’s a funny book,” Nadine said, going with the flow of this tiny woman’s enormous fiery energy.

“Funniest thing ever,” Tyler said as they listened to Dr. Keller storming off. “I love it when Ignatius goes to the movies and eats his ‘current popcorn’ while the ‘auxiliary bags of popcorn’ sit waiting on the seat next to him. Kind of like the popcorn is on the right hand of God.”

Nadine was getting her spirit back. She offered up a quote she’d memorized from the novel: “‘I have a valve which is subject to vicissitudes which may force me to lie abed on certain days.’”

“Good one!” Tyler said. “Oh, that John Kennedy Toole. Bless his heart, what a complex man. Died at 31. But not before writing his masterpiece. Ok, Nadine, back to Hekate: how is she part of your masterpiece?”

“I don’t know about masterpiece, but I think she might be my great love,” Nadine said while wiping mascara smudges off her cheeks, still surprised by the Hekate revelation.

“What do you love about her?”

“She’s misunderstood. People think she’s evil, a witch, out late stalking, the Queen of the Night looking for trouble and casting spells like a mean spirit on the bayou.”

“Who is she, really, then?”

Nadine said, excited, “She’s a cool triple goddess who protects women, advocates for powerless people, watches at crossroads and entryways, holds up two torches so that lost souls can see. She even helped Demeter find Persephone and became Persephone’s friend. Nobody remembers that part.”

“You’re right,” Tyler said, touching her pomegranate tattoo. “Tell me more.”

“Hekate did all kinds of good. She looked out for older folks, made sure babies were delivered ok. She knew her plants and healing herbs, poisons too. Never married, preferred solitude. Had dogs and owls with her for company.”

“Think about this,” Tyler said. “Hekate is a powerful, ancient symbol that still resonates today. She represents change, transitions, passageways; she reminds us that new beginnings are scary as hell but part of the human experience, and they can be liberating or devastating depending on how we interpret them.”

“I guess I’m in transition right now,” Nadine said. “I’m at a crossroads where I have to make a choice, and it’s dark and I feel so alone. I don’t know if I should stay at school, go home, do something else…”

“Well, no wonder you’re drawn to Hekate. Her torchlight will get you through this. You know, you can teach people something about mythology one day. You might share the lessons of archetypes and myths with others who are hurting, feeling lost.”

Nadine let this possibility sink in.

“If you decide to stay in school,” Tyler said, “come back and see me this same time next week. We’ll figure out a plan together, something you feel good about. Maybe by then my Dark Nights of the Soul book will reappear and you can borrow it. Moore writes a lot about myth and struggle in there.”

Nadine felt like crying again, this time tears of relief. She hugged her advisor, and suddenly she thought she might. . . and then she did. “I’m grateful, Tyler,” she said. “For everything. But I don’t think I’ll try the first name with the other English people.” Tyler smiled and hugged her closer.

“Hey, this is my great love,” Tyler said, blue eyes beaming. “It’s what I do. Now if I’m not here next week, run tell the dean that Dr. Keller is holding me captive in the English department lounge and forcing me to listen to him lecture at length on the Council of Trent.”

Smiling, Nadine left Tyler’s office and strolled to the library to read some scholarly articles about Hekate. She attended afternoon classes, ate dinner, met her roommate at the yoga studio, completed an assignment due the next day, and finally settled down for bed. Nadine endured more turbulent dreams that night but woke up at 7:30am feeling steady and grounded. Her bedside table lamp shifted by itself from light to lighter to lightest, three times. Right next to her lamp on the table she saw Thomas Moore’s book Dark Nights of the Soul.

Mamere, Tyler, Hekate,” Nadine whispered, “Triple Goddess, thank you.”

Truck Stop

Solstice by Author Ellen J. Perry


“She keeps the home fires burning
while I’m out earning a living in a world
that’s known for its pouring rain.
She keeps the home fires burning;
oh, and it’s her warm loving
that keeps me returning again and again.”

Don Pfrimmer, Dennis Morgan, Mike Reid, “She Keeps the Home Fires Burning” (1985)

 

Goddamn Ronnie Milsap. What the hell does he know? Blind in more ways than one. That’s awful, I take it back. I’m ashamed of myself, having such ugly thoughts about a nice man who was born and raised right near where I grew up in the mountains of North Carolina. But I can’t help it because here I am by myself on a Saturday night in the loneliest place there is, a truck stop just off 26 somewhere in South Carolina, cussing at poor blind Ronnie Milsap when all he ever did to me was record this stupid song that’s blasting on the radio and making me mad.

I decide to tell the cashier about it. Her nametag reads BERNICE.

“This song makes me mad, doesn’t it you, Bernice?” I ask.

“Shoot, I got more’n a song to be mad about,” she says, popping her gum. Bernice has skin the color of coffee beans and can’t be any more than 22 years old. I realize with a start that at 44, I could be her mother.

“I been here eight hours straight already and ain’t nothing waiting on me at home but a two-year-old that’s teething,” Bernice says. “He cry all the time. My brother and his girlfriend watching him. ‘We want kids,’ they said. Well, they don’t now. Every five minutes they calling me here at work, talking ‘bout where the Legos at, where the Cheetos at. Bossman say he gon fire me if they don’t quit tying up the phone line, and I need this job, girl. My son’s daddy stay at Cross Anchor, can’t count on him for nothing but trouble. He finally out of jail now on probation.” Bernice gestures to my pack of Combos. “Is that all?”

I nod and feel bad again. First I had ugly thoughts about Ronnie Milsap and now I’ve aggravated Bernice who’s just trying to get by. But, see, her just getting by is part of what makes me mad. The other part is, hardly anybody will talk in plain language about real stuff; most people just keep everything bottled up, boiling on the inside. Well, not me. Not anymore. There’s nobody in line behind me, nobody here at the truck stop but me and Bernice and an old man in overalls eating a hot dog at a corner table, so I pay for my junk food supper and let it fly.

“Bernice,” I say, leaning on the counter and popping a Combo, “all these songs that make it seem like women are supposed to be home tending the hearth while the man is out working and providing – doesn’t that make you mad? Us women are doing all of it, every bit of it, working jobs to pay the bills and then coming home to work a second shift, and here’s Ronnie Milsap singing ‘she got something cooking for me tonight.’ Well, that sure as hell makes me mad!”

Bernice glances over at the man eating a hot dog.

“Chester,” she says, “you hearing this?”

“Mm,” Chester grunts. He doesn’t even look up from his newspaper. Which also makes me mad.

I follow Bernice to a table near Chester’s where she sprays greenish soapy water all over the formica. “Here, I’ll wipe it down,” I say. She looks at me funny but hands me a rag and lets me help. While Bernice rattles around in the supply closet to get a mop, I start in with my life story. I tell her about how I married Wayne at 20, put myself through nursing school, had two miscarriages, kept Wayne going while he trained to become a paramedic, finally gave birth to a son Gabe, raised Gabe, survived a cancer scare, took on extra shifts after Wayne lost his temper at work and then his job, buried both my parents who died of heart disease one right after the other, and pushed through exhaustion and stress for years until finally a month ago I couldn’t stand it anymore.

“Girl,” Bernice says, “you been through it. And to look at you, you’d never know. All tan and cute. Not no care in the world to speak of.”

“Well, I took time off work and spent the last two weeks at the beach with some girlfriends and my sister. Her husband’s family owns a condo at Wild Dunes resort on Isle of Palms. We had the best time laying out by the pool just the way we used to in high school.”

Bernice nods and we’re quiet a while, still working and cleaning. The beach trip with special women had been almost, almost, like being 18 again, young and free, our whole lives ahead of us. We collected seashells at dawn, ate shrimp and grits for lunch, and napped or read magazines until suppertime. Around 8:00 we ambled over to somewhere, anywhere on the island, drank piña coladas and watched the sun go down. No schedule, no demands, no problems.

“And now the problem, Bernice,” I say, wiping down tables furiously, “is that tonight I’m on my way home from the beach and I don’t want to go home. I just can’t face those mountains looming over me, keeping me trapped. I don’t want to deal with the mess Wayne has surely made in the house, and no telling what Gabe has gotten into.”

“Look, lady,” Bernice says. She has finally lost patience with me. “All that ain’t nothin’ compared to working at this truck stop day and night. Shit, I’d switch places with you in a minute. Two-week vacation, shit. Hey, call Wayne up, tell him I’m comin’ on home after my smoke break. You can stay here and mop for minimum wage.”

Bernice storms back toward the cash register, reaches for her purse under the counter, and jabs around in there I guess looking for a pack of cigarettes.

“It’s the song that did it!” I say, following her. “Not just Ronnie Milsap but all those old country songs. God, ‘Eighteen Wheels and a Dozen Roses’ will be coming on next.”

Bernice softens, puts her hand on her hip, shakes her head. “If I hear ‘Stand By Your Man’ on this radio station one more time,” she says, “I’m gon kill somebody.”

All of a sudden Chester, who hasn’t spoken two words this whole time to me or Bernice either one, wads up his hot dog wrapper and says, “Y’all could just change the channel.”

Bernice sets her cigarettes on the counter and changes the channel.

“Ok, Chester, you think you so smart,” Bernice says, and I’m betting it’s going to be somebody like Hank Williams belting out “Heeeey good lookin’, whatcha got cookin’.” But I’m wrong.

Jennifer Lopez’s voice fills up the room: Ain’t gon’ be cookin’ all day, I ain’t your mama. Ain’t gon’ do your laundry, I ain’t your mama. Boy, I ain’t your mama. When you gon’ get your act together? I ain’t your mama.

With those lyrics it’s like Jennifer Lopez cancels out not just Ronnie Milsap in 1985 but all the injustices women feel like they have no choice but to tolerate. How crazy! We just needed to change the channel.

Bernice’s head starts bobbing. “Ohhhhh! I ain’t your mama, no,” she sings along with Jennifer.

I join the party. “No more playing video games…”

Bernice echoes, “Things are about to change, ‘round here ‘round here.”

And then as if on cue and without looking up from his newspaper, Chester chimes in, his voice a deep baritone: “Boy, you lucky to have these curves.”

We hoot with laughter.

Right then, on a summer Saturday night in South Carolina somewhere off 26, there is no distinction between man or woman, black or white. There is no hostility or misunderstanding or resentment. Bernice, Chester, and I are just three ordinary humans living life, laughing and singing together in this truck stop that just for a moment is no longer the loneliest place there is.

 

Real Close

Real Close by Author Ellen J. Perry

Growing up in the hills of rural Wise County, Virginia, Travis Owens never imagined he’d be cleaning the swimming pool and doing odd jobs at a swanky beach hotel, but here he was at the Starlight Harbor Resort and Marina at 8:00 on a Saturday morning doing just that. Guests of the Starlight were coming to life, tumbling out of their rooms and suites (with or without breakfast vouchers) and riding the mirrored elevator down to the lobby-level Sandpiper Grille. They were indeed “guests,” not “customers,” Travis’s supervisor Wesley had told him during his training period. “We do anything the guests ask of us,” Wesley said, “and we do it with a smile.”

Travis did the minimum with this directive, smiling only when Wesley was watching and sometimes in accord with Wesley’s pep talks (especially if they matched his own sense of potential profit in smiling) but otherwise remaining near-invisible, a constant observer on the job. He noticed Wesley’s slight mouth twitch; he listened to the maids speaking musical foreign languages when they met each other with their carts in the long hallways; he spotted the differences between the guests who presented breakfast vouchers at the Sandpiper Grille and those who didn’t. Wesley always reminded the morning crew, “Take extra good care of the folks I like to call the Non-Vouchers. They didn’t come here with the coupon deal because they don’t need a deal. They have money, paid full price for their vacation or got it covered by some company or other. That means they tip way better than the Vouchers. Remember that.”

Travis remembered. And he watched. One morning while helping the servers refill guests’ coffee mugs he overheard a boy about eight years old, the son of a Non-Voucher, ask his father during breakfast, “Does it pay well?” regarding some type of software consulting job. The father went into a long story about how yes, it did, but it would be better for the boy to study law and become partner at an established firm like his Uncle John had. Both father and son sat up perfectly straight in their high-backed chairs and chewed their food slowly; they looked like a duo in a catalogue, serious and composed, their clothes neatly pressed. Travis figured they would take coffee or a low-fat muffin up to the mother later. If there was one. He wondered about the mother some but didn’t spend too much time thinking on it. Non-Vouchers were, to him, a different breed, not like real people at all. The mother may even have been a robot for all he knew, winding herself up in their bleach-clean suite so as to face the day.

He was only 28 years old but the road to this menial job in Virginia Beach had been a long one. The middle child in a family of three boys, Travis had always felt different and a little bit alone. His brothers would stay in Wise County all their lives, he knew, surrounded by generations of family and familiarity. Travis had longed to escape the confines of home, on the other hand, and find out what else might be out there. He was quiet, thoughtful, idealistic; his older brother Jamie kidded him about how his nose was always in a book or a map, even when he grew out of his awkward phase and surprised everybody by winning medals in track and field events.

During his senior year of high school people would look at him and say, “Travis is the good-lookinest one of them Owens boys,” and he’d blush. His girlfriend Sherri wanted to get married, especially since according to Preacher Scott they’d already “fornicated” and the church’s teachings on fornication and other sin-related topics weighed heavily on her mind. “Y’all have done the deed, so you may as well seal the deal,” Jamie said to Travis at his graduation cookout. “Settle down now and make you some pretty babies. There ain’t nothing else much better to do around here anyways.” With a toddler and a second child coming, Jamie worked long hours as an Assistant Manager at Family Dollar. He helped Travis get on there too.

So Travis worked, ran, lifted weights, took Sherri out to eat on Friday nights, and generally acted like a responsible adult, but something was missing. The mountains started closing in on him so bad that he had trouble getting his breath. He talked to Sherri about joining the Navy when a recruiter came around a few months after he started the Family Dollar job. She didn’t like the idea at first but then agreed it might be exciting to go with him, see new places. Plus she knew that signing bonus wouldn’t hurt when it came engagement ring buying time.

Travis went first to basic at the big training center between Chicago and Milwaukee, cities he’d only dreamed about when tracing lines on the globe in Mrs. Smith’s middle school Social Studies class. Then he was sent to Norfolk and really found his stride. Navy life suited him; he knew he had options, opportunities, structure, the chance to move beyond Family Dollar and the life Jamie and Wise County had chosen for him. He came out of his shell and made friends, kept himself in excellent physical condition, and challenged his mind by reading books on espionage and military strategy.

Sherri came to visit during one of his leave weekends, but things weren’t the same between them. She seemed distant, cautious, while he had evolved and gained confidence. Despite his heroic efforts to show her his new world, she disliked just about everything at the base and the beach: it was too hot, there was too much going on, the water tasted funny, the people were loud. She returned home and within a month’s time started dating Travis’s younger brother Richie, which Jamie and their parents were angry about but Travis wasn’t. Richie called and told Travis, pain in his voice, “I’ve always loved Sherri.” Travis knew it was true and wished them the best without any hesitation or ill will. Released, he was completely free to pursue a new path, one that involved volunteering as often as possible for posts in Asia and Africa.

Travis found himself mysteriously drawn to one place in particular, Cape Verde off the west African coast. He loved the bright colors, the music, market fare, kiteboarding, the women who were part Portuguese and exotic, thrilling. At the market one day he approached Cristina, a dark-skinned woman in her 30s with eyes so bright blue it almost hurt to look at them. From then on she kept him both tortured and enthralled. When he wasn’t assisting with law enforcement operations for the Navy by day, Travis would meet Cristina down by the resort in Sal where she worked. They laughed at the sunburned tourists with their huge suitcases and oversized everything.

She took him to the Baia das Gatas Music Festival, the full moon celebration in August, and it felt like a dream when the sad morna played. On top of it all Cristina could dance the batuko like no one else, shaking her hips like casting a spell, and he knew he had to have her. She drove him crazy nights down by the docks where she lived in a shabby little water-front apartment that her mother, now dead, had rented years ago from a fisherman. One time Travis and Cristina were making so much noise that a neighbor came banging on the door. “Kinda busy in here!” Travis shouted over his shoulder, not missing a beat, and they laughed about that for days.

Cristina spoke mostly Creole but knew enough English to get by. She loved hearing stories about Travis’s home back in Virginia, a place that seemed strange to her, far away and uncivilized.

“You mean they push the head under the water, to baptize?” Cristina asked in horror as they lay sprawled on her tiny bed late one night during carnival.

Travis pictured the old church where he’d grown up, saw the preacher in his mind’s eye, felt the water rushing over his nine-year-old head as he dipped backwards. “Yep, right there in the river.”

“Christ on the cross,” she said, touching her rosary which was all she was wearing until he took it off, too, lifting the pinkish-red beads off her neck and moving with her to the sound of the drums outside.

Travis marveled at how real Cristina was. She was a real woman, honest and forthright, independent, wise, nothing like Sherri or the girls back home. She was her true self all the time and allowed him to discover his truest self as well. He found that he actually liked that man, the real man, covered up though he was with layers of something left over from the Puritans, maybe, and reinforced by the generations of Virginia hill country folk.

Every other day Travis asked Cristina to marry him. They could live wherever in the world she wanted – maybe Brazil where her cousins were – and she could buy anything she wanted, never again having to serve cocktails to obnoxious European and American tourists. “The Navy will move us and pay for everything,” he said. Cristina just smiled, used to empty promises from sailors and airmen who arrived at Cape Verde, charmed the women, claimed and conquered them like land, and ultimately disappeared. “Silly boy,” she said, touching his face as if he were a child. But Travis meant it. He was lost to her.

In fact he might have stayed indefinitely in this adventurous and sensual trance, like Odysseus among the sirens, except for the injury. Travis was playing soccer with his buddies from the ship and some street kids on a bright Saturday morning when his knee turned in such a way that he cried out and couldn’t stand without help; the doctor said, “Torn meniscus,” gave him a bottle of painkillers, and sent him to Spain for surgery. Missing Cristina like a lost limb, Travis counted the days until he could get back to her.

When the Navy gave Travis permission to return to the Cape several weeks later, though, Cristina was gone. The staff at the resort where she’d worked shrugged when he asked about her; one maid shook her head and said slowly, “Não compreendo.” Fear and panic swept over him. He ran to the waterfront apartment, empty except for Cristina’s rosary and a note reading, “T – must leave be back some time maybe, adeus.”

After that everything fell apart. Travis wandered around the harbor at night like a wild ghost, refusing to report back to base even when his friends showed up. They tried to reason with him but nothing worked. He took more and more pain pills even after his knee had healed. He drank sugar cane rum and waited every day for Cristina in her apartment. After the Navy released him with an “Other Than Honorable” discharge Travis begged for work at the resort, happy to be cleaning swimming pools and washing dishes, waiting for Cristina. He knew she’d come home soon and agree to marry him; they’d live out their lives together, travel the world, and need no one else.

One of Travis’s buddies called Jamie in Virginia who immediately withdrew money from his meager savings so he could fly to Africa. Jamie and Richie planned the trip, somehow, without letting the rest of the family in on any details right away. It would break their parents’ hearts if they knew how far Travis had fallen. “He’s just had a little unlucky streak,” Jamie said to his wife, soothing their two-year-old daughter while she cried. “That’s all, ain’t nothing to worry about. Be back before long. Can I get some more of that cornbread?” It was the Owens family’s way to keep things covered up, pretend tragedies weren’t happening: change the subject.

With the help of the police, Jamie and Richie, two men who had never before left the state of Virginia, finally found Travis huddled up in Cristina’s apartment, clutching her rosary, an empty rum bottle, and a Cape Verde help-with-translation phrase book. He moaned again and again, Dja N perde nhas amiga.  

I have lost my friend.

2

“I said,” Wesley snapped, “be sure to get the corners and edges.” Travis returned slowly from memories of Cristina to his new reality: cleaning the swimming pool at the Starlight Harbor Resort and Marina in Virginia Beach. He had come home, sobered up, dried out, and worked for nearly six months to pay Jamie back and get on his feet again. Wesley said, “Remember, the guests get what they want. And today they want a clean pool to frolic in. So get to frolicking with that vacuum.” Wesley thought he was funny.

Travis finished up at the pool when some young women, revelers at a weekend Bachelorette party, wandered toward him. They all wore the same cotton shirts over their bikinis; one shirt, white, read “BRIDE” in big letters while the other shirts, lavender, indicated “Bachelorette.” Travis had noticed this group the day before at breakfast in the Sandpiper Grille. Of course, they were Non-Vouchers; their waitress doted on them, hoping for a big tip. Travis was fumbling with the cleaning equipment when one of the Bachelorettes called out to him.

“Hey, can you take our picture?” she asked, offering up her phone.

“Sure,” Travis said. This woman was about his age, probably a few years younger. Cute. He thought he remembered her giggling the other day at the resort bar. But then again all the Bachelorettes looked alike with their tan skin, blonde hair, and perfect teeth, so he couldn’t be certain.

The ladies gathered around the bride, posing and glowing, making pouty faces, dabbing on fresh coral-colored lip gloss. Travis took picture after picture.

“Thanks,” the woman said, taking her phone back and arranging a towel on one of the Adirondack chairs. “I’m Elizabeth. Hey, can you run get me another mimosa?”

We do anything the guests ask of us, Wesley had said, and we do it with a smile, so despite the fact that Elizabeth looked like she’d already had about three mimosas too many Travis went inside to see if the bartender would fix another one. Travis didn’t drink anymore but that chilled champagne sure looked good, like a celebration. He went back out to the pool and handed the bubbling glass to Elizabeth.

“Delicious,” she said, sipping. “What’s your name?”

“Travis.”

“Can you sit down with us or are you still working?”

“Still working.”

“Ok,” she sighed drowsily, putting her DKNY sunglasses on and leaning back in the chair. “The girls and I are here through tomorrow morning then we’ve got to get back to campus.”

“Where do y’all go?” he asked.

“University of Richmond. Kappa Sigma Gamma,” Elizabeth added as if this last bit of information explained everything. Maybe it did. “Brooke’s getting married in May. I can’t believe she’ll be a bride before me! Damn.” She took another long sip.

Sorority girls, Travis thought. They were all the time staying at the resort for long weekends, living it up and spending Daddy’s money. Their shallow sameness made him sick but he smiled and smiled like Wesley said. He had to finish paying Jamie back if it killed him, which dealing with sorority brides and bachelorettes might well do.

“Have a great time,” he said, walking away.

“Travis,” Elizabeth called softly so that her friends couldn’t hear. “I’m in room 233. Michelle was staying with me but she had to leave early. Come up later to keep me company? It’s our last night.”

“Sure,” he said after a moment, brushing aside uncomfortable thoughts of what a contradiction this was. He hated sorority girls and yet he was going to room 233 to, likely, “fornicate” with one. For the first time in a long time, Travis allowed himself to indulge in the tiniest bit of happy anticipation; he would pretend Elizabeth was Cristina, just for a little while.

All day he worked on some hotel repairs and waited, thinking about what might happen. It would be nice to lounge on those big fluffy white pillows and get a little crazy like he did in the old days. Hell, it would be nice just to feel something again, anything other than that constant ache in his chest. When he spied the Bachelorette gaggle returning to the resort from the boardwalk that evening, he caught Elizabeth’s eye by the marlin fountain; she winked and slipped in the elevator. He held back until all the girls had surely scattered to their rooms, then he clocked out and ambled toward the elevator himself. Too easy, he thought.

What wasn’t easy was talking to Elizabeth once he got up to room 233. She ordered room service for them both but the food wasn’t anything to talk about and nothing else he brought up interested her. Ten minutes into this awkward visit he realized the only subject that kept her occupied was Courtland Jennings IV, her bastard ex-boyfriend who had broken up with her just weeks before and started dating a girl named Trinity from Blacksburg. “Can you believe it?” she shouted, knocking over Travis’s bottle of O’Doul’s. “Oops, sorry. I guess the maid’ll clean it up. But I mean really, can you believe it? ‘Trinity,’ what the hell.” They were sitting side by side on the couch. O’Doul’s ran down into the flowered pillows and on the otherwise spotless carpet. Travis pictured Maria, his maid friend, dealing with the mess later; he tried to dab the worst of it up with Kleenex.

Well, forget talking, Travis thought. Time to get down to business. He made a subtle move to kiss Elizabeth and she responded by shoving the shrimp cocktail to one side of the coffee table and taking off her sundress almost before he knew what was happening. She lay back on the feather-soft bed and things were well underway. Moving toward her he took his shirt off and was working on his belt when she said, flirty, “You know, I’m a Dance major at U of R. I can do a damn fine bellydance if you want a little pre-game show.”

He stopped cold, remembering Cristina’s swaying hips. He could almost hear the drums all the way from Cape Verde. “Do you know the batuko?” he asked, genuinely curious. He sat down on the side of the bed.

“No,” she said. “Is it an African dance? Maybe you can teach it to me. Come here.” She pulled him down. “What’s that thing, a necklace? Oh my God, are you Catholic? Courtland and Trinity are both Catholic. Shit.”

Travis reached toward his chest and touched Cristina’s rosary beads. He so rarely took them off that he’d forgotten they were there. But there they were in room 233, and Cristina was there, and Courtland was there. Travis lay back on the bed beside Elizabeth. They stared at the ceiling for a long time, numb, beyond sad and exhausted. “Shit,” Elizabeth said again. He put on his shirt and left the room without another word.

Travis had the next day, Sunday, off work so he decided to spend some time fishing on the pier at sunrise. He noticed there was a new hand-written sign in the parking lot – “Real Close Parking Beach/Peer” – and he laughed to himself both at the spelling and the sentiment. Real close to the real thing, Cristina, he thought, knowing he’d never see his great love again but wishing her the same joy and freedom she gave him on those balmy Cape nights.

Dellie

Dellie by Author Ellen J. Perry


Sitting on the side of her bed one Saturday morning (her body tense and rigid in contrast to her soft, worn white cotton nightgown and tattered blue chenille robe), Dellie braced for her grandchildren to come charging through the front door.  At that moment Dellie decided that she was ready for her life to be over.  With 67 years on her, she was just plain tired.  She had endured the struggle a lot longer than either of her parents and older siblings had.  So Dellie figured it was time, her death just a matter of fact that required a little advanced planning.  There were plenty of pain pills she’d been prescribed for debilitating migraines that she could, woops, take too many of by mistake.  Then “the rest is silence,” as Hamlet said.  Dellie had gotten that play off a book-trade cart and had never traded it back; Hamlet could get tiresome, she thought, but he had a couple of good points about death she’d committed to memory.  Dellie wanted silence – peace and quiet – more than anything, more than life on earth, which was damn sure full of “slings and arrows,” just like Hamlet said and just as she was certain this day was about to prove again.

Her weekdays consisted of housework, preparing to teach her Sunday school class (which was a cosmic joke because she no longer believed in anything, much less God), and baby-sitting her three grandkids, two snarly girls and one boy who at twelve was the oldest and worst-behaved of the trio.  Robby, Dana, and Michelle were as wild as the Ozarks where six generations of Dellie’s family had not so much lived as existed and tried to survive from one day to the next.  The family members’ collective experiences mirrored the landscape in northern Arkansas: rugged rocky terrain, rough high peaks and rushing rivers, heartbreak and loss lurking within the shadows of almost every steep valley.  Poverty and danger ran through Dellie’s family’s blood; there seemed no way out of such a predetermined fate.  No way out, that is, except for the quiet release that death would surely bring.  Dellie had thought more and more about it during the long hours leading up to her moment of decision on that Saturday.  She’d even gotten down a book of poems from a shelf of favorites she’d picked up from a flea market so she could have some books she didn’t have to return to the library; in a whisper, she read a line from Dickinson:  “Afraid!  Of whom am I afraid?  Not Death – for who is He?”  Dellie said to herself, “Huh.  Death is a man.  Well, that figures.”

While Dellie sat on her bed staring out the window, the grandchildren invaded her modest modular home and outright refused to catch up on their homework, preferring instead to watch wrestling on TV, forage like wild elk for her secret stashes of junk food, and beg her for money to buy more junk food at the convenience store down the road.  Moving slowly from the bed to the living room, Dellie asked the kids to do some simple chores to help out – even going so far as to put up a chore board by the TV – but they looked at her like she was crazy.  Dellie started to believe them.  She was crazy to have agreed to oversee these children while her son Dale was in Missouri for the day supposedly trying to find work.  No telling where their mother was, though the last they’d heard she was working as a bank teller in Little Rock.  She couldn’t keep a job for long, though, so her whereabouts were anybody’s guess.

Dellie finally decided she’d had enough, giving up on the Saturday chore list and retreating to her bedroom, still in her nightgown and robe at noon.  She hoped the Jehovah’s Witnesses wouldn’t come by to see what a shape she was in.  Even after closing her door she couldn’t escape the constant motion, the loud sounds booming all around her: three kids shouting and fighting in the next room, the TV volume on full blast, the neighbors bickering, a chainsaw ripping through tree limbs in the distance, cars coming and going.  Before she’d started thinking about ending it all, there were days when this disordered domestic life had almost made her want to return to the steady humming noise of the workplace where at least she’d be getting paid for her trouble.

The year before, Dellie retired from the Smithfield plant that, like many in the area, had since closed.  At the time she was ready to be done with that boring chapter of her life, ready to move forward into something new and stimulating, but fear kept getting in the way.  She asked herself once after a particularly contentious Bingo game at the church fellowship hall: “Dellie, what are you afraid of?” She knew the answer immediately: fear of disappointing people, mainly the church members, her son, her grandchildren, and most of all her dead parents who might be lingering in some in-between world and watching her every move.  This obsessive thinking started when Dellie served her husband with divorce papers just after their 25th wedding anniversary; she felt relieved but conflicted because as the family rock, she had let everybody down.  The marriage was over but the fear and echoes of failure and fragmentation remained.

Dellie’s ex-husband Frank had long since remarried, but she’d gotten word recently that Frank’s aunt Freddie (short for Freida) died of cancer up in Ohio and left a piece of property out by the lake – Freddie’s Arkansas vacation home – to Dellie alone.  Not to Frank and his new wife and family!  The property and the small cabin were all Dellie’s.  She and Freddie had stayed good friends even after the divorce; they’d shared that love of reading, of books Frank thought were a waste of time, but the gift of the cabin was such a surprise.  It was so quiet and still and perfect out there at the water’s edge.  But Dellie had the grandkids, her Sunday school class, various obligations and responsibilities.  What could be done?  She tried to accept her lot in life and wore her “Proud Grandma” t-shirts to Wal-Mart every week.  She figured she’d sell the cabin.  “How are you, honey?” her favorite check-out lady at Wal-Mart would ask her.  “Oh, just fine,” Dellie lied, smiling, hoping no one could see how close she was to giving up for good.

Lying down in her bed a little before 1:00 her thoughts moved from Freddie to Robby, her daredevil grandson, when she heard Robby take off on the four-wheeler that his dad had given him for his birthday.  She was so tired that she didn’t even care that Robby was riding it unsupervised, didn’t make a move to call him back closer to the house.  That shattering noise he made peeling out was the final straw, and she resolved to claim Freddie’s cabin and not tell anyone where she’d be living from here on out.  She could move over there when the kids were away on a youth group camping trip in two weeks’ time.  Maybe she’d leave a note, maybe not.  The family was already torn apart so nothing more needed to be said.

Dellie could be free out there at the lake like Edna Pontellier in Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, like Louise Mallard before her husband reappeared as if resurrected and Louise died of the “joy that kills.”  Frank always told her she read too much, thought too much, went to volunteer at the library too much.  Maybe he was right.  Dellie closed her eyes and tried to drown out the annoying sound of the neighbor’s lawn mower rolling up and back, on and on, until she thought she might lose her mind.  Then the dogs started barking.  She pulled the curtains, curled up under the covers, and longed for peace.

About half an hour after Robby sped off on the four-wheeler, Dana and Michelle burst into Dellie’s room, screaming and crying, red-faced.  Dellie sat bolt upright in the bed and held the girls as they all slowly descended to the floor in a heap of horror and shock.  Robby had crashed into a brick wall of the closed Smithfield plant (which is what Dellie felt like she’d been doing for years); he just hit it, hard, drove into it at top speed.  The ambulance came but Robby had broken his neck and died on impact.  Nothing to be done.  The paramedics wouldn’t let the girls get close to him.  No one was able to tell Robby good-bye, say a prayer, or do anything to ease the boy’s abrupt transition from chaotic life to the absolute and final stillness of death.

“Didn’t you hear the sirens, Mamaw?” Dana wailed.  “Didn’t you hear us hollering for you?”

Dellie knew she would be haunted by these questions for the rest of her existence.  After all the years she’d spent being the cautious and responsible one in the family, the caretaker, the rescuer, she had heard nothing when it really mattered because she wasn’t alive enough to leave the relative safety of her bedroom, turn down the TV, ask the neighbors if they could mow another time, and quiet the barking dogs in the other neighbors’ backyard.  By the time the girls had shouted for help, Robby and Dellie were both already as good as dead.

Dellie held her granddaughters for a long time and reflected on the fact that there was only one thing left to do.  Well, two things.  She had to arrange Robby’s funeral – who else was going to do it? – and then finalize her own death.  The first task was fairly straight-forward; she called her son Dale to deliver the awful news, went to see old man Wiley down at Wiley and Sons Funeral Home, ordered flowers for the casket, wrote a short obituary for a short life.  Like a mechanized thing, not a human being, she went through the motions of the service a few days later, comforted grieving loved ones as they filed in, and managed Dale’s drunken sobbing by gesturing for the younger Mr. Wiley who took Dale to the Care Room at the funeral home.

Distant and removed as she was from the sadness of the proceedings, Dellie wondered what in the world people did in the Care Room.  Sober up with coffee?  Listen to one of the Wileys read from the Bible?  Roll around on the floor?  That got her to thinking – while the preacher was up at the front telling what a fine young man Robby had been – about her pain pills.  She had them in her purse and could start swallowing them now.  Hell, within the hour she could stumble into the Care Room, collapse, pass on to the great beyond, and people would think she’d died of grief alone, grief for her precious grandson.  It would be like a Kate Chopin story but better for the absurdity of it.  Old man Wiley could even use the same flowers for her casket that she’d ordered for Robby’s.  Efficiency had always been Dellie’s middle name.

Just as Dellie reached into her purse to locate the pill bottle and started toward the bathroom with a cup of water, June Sizemore from Dellie’s Sunday school class caught up to her.  “Oh, Dellie,” June said, black mascara running down her face.  “What a awful tragedy.  Oh, Lord, help them,” June called to the ceiling.  “Bless this sweet family.”

“Thank you, June,” Dellie said.  “I need to check on – ”

“Oh, sweet Jesus, help us, what would Freddie say if she was alive?”  June flung her hands in the air, a sodden handkerchief flopping from one side to the other like a dead fish.  “Freddie would make it all right, she’d know what to do.”

As June zig-zagged off to find the head Deacon (had she gotten into whatever booze was being passed around outside in secret?), Dellie slipped into a dimly-lit chapel way down the hall from where Robby’s service was still going on.  She sat down on a pew, surrounded by sweet silence, and considered the truth of what June said.  For sure Freddie had always made everything all right, no matter what.  She was gone but Dellie remembered the last words Freddie had written to her on that wrinkled-up hospital notepaper.

Dellie, you’ll know when to go to the cabin.  It’s yours when you’re ready.  Sit out on that front porch and breathe in the quiet and read.  Don’t you let nobody take that away from you.  Not Frank, not your grandbabies, not nobody.  That space is for you to LIVE in.  And don’t pay no attention to nobody who says you’re a disappointment or don’t deserve it or whatever you might be thinking about right now.  You’ve earned it.  I’ll see you on the other side.  Love, Freddie.

Dellie moved from the chapel pew to the bathroom and flushed her pain pills down the toilet.  Great day in the morning, she hoped she hadn’t clogged the thing or old man Wiley would have a fit.  Then Dellie started to laugh a little.  She knew she shouldn’t be laughing at a time like this but the thought of old man Wiley – or better yet, his wife Beatrice J. Wiley – coming in there after the service to find the toilet plugged up with painkillers just tickled her to death.

Oh, Lord.  It nearly tickled Dellie to death.