From Final Days With Fran and Millie…
It had been many years, probably fourteen at least, maybe fifteen, since Victor had been back to the place of his birth, the place of his childhood. His sister, Millie, had never left. His other sister, Fran, had left as a young woman, married, had children, lost her children, lost her husband, moved back in with Millie, and now lay dying in the back bedroom. Victor was coming back now, of his own will, and at Millie’s specific request. He had received the letter two weeks before:
My dear brother, Victor,
Frances is dying. Will you please come see her and say your goodbyes? Stay as long as you can. I remain,
Your faithful sister,
Victor’s hometown was set in the middle of Tyler County, not that it mattered the name of the county, nor the name of the town. It could have been any town, as long as it was small, and it could have been any county, as long as it was rural, and in the South. Somewhere in the South. The town happened to go by the name of Cophelia.
He had been born in the very house he sought out, 78 years before, between his older sister, Frances Camilla Stevelin, and his younger sister, Elizabeth Mildred Stevelin. He lived his life right between the two of them, one a year older and one a year younger, the two sisters as different as night is from day, as some say. He was kind of twilight in nature himself, or perhaps mid morning, depending on the day.
Sometimes he wondered why there was no acceptable word in English for mid morning. Twilight worked fantastically well for its time of day. Not still daylight, yet not nighttime either. What term could be acceptable for not still morning, but not yet done with the morning ideal – the sunlight still filtered – if it shined at all? He wondered this, only due to his profession giving him the luxury and time to wonder such things. He was a professor of English Literature at a small Southern university, or he had been at one time. Now retired, he was just Victor.
How he arrived back at the house he grew up in on Larsen Lane, in Cophelia, does not really have much pertinence. Some 78 year old males are still able to negotiate time and space well enough to get from one point to another. Millie hadn’t given that much thought – did she ever give much thought? – when she wrote her urgent plea for him to come home. Victor hadn’t thought about his boyhood home road being named Larsen Road in a long time. When he had first realized as a lad that he had an interest in words, and the etymology of words, he wondered how a Swedish name like Larsen had snuck into Cophelia. He knew no Swedes there. Nothing else of Swedish influenced moniker lay within the town boundaries that he knew of.
There the house sat, on Larsen Lane, a dead end road that ended in a bean field currently. When Victor was a child it had ended in a cotton field, and he remembered hearing as a child that his own great grandfather had at one time owned that very cotton field at the end of the road. He wondered if his great grandfather, either as a boy or as a man, perhaps as an old man, had ever walked the same steps he walked, ever trod soil now covered over with pavement that was now itself even grown old.
There the house sat, but it was now encased with bars. Bars everywhere. Over each window rested black iron bars, vertical bars, such as one sees at an old fashioned jail. He noticed the houses surrounding the one he sought out were now decrepit. A general sense of neglect and disrepair lay heavily over the somber stillness, as a fog covering a field on a cool morning.
Rooftops sunk in, cars parked in yards, grass no longer grass, but patches of collected weeds, shocks of green milkweek and crabgrass here and there. Dirt for ground cover. His father, Felix, hunched over an old contraption of a fertilizer spreader, dressed in thin cotton coveralls and a broad brimmed hat, meticulously doling out nutrients to an accepting and luxurious carpet of thatch… his father carefully doing that all of a sudden appeared in his mind, so many years before. What would his father think of this? Where had the grass his fathered nourished gone to? Were these patches the bastard descendants of that lovely sod of his father’s virile years?
Victor stopped on the cracked and buckled sidewalk for a few moments, taking it all in. This was all part of coming home to Fran, and to Millie.
The roar of a large car came to him from down at the corner where Larsen Lane intersected with Hobbs Street. Victor had always enjoyed that name, Hobbs. He had wondered if a Mr. Larsen had known a Mr. Hobbs, and had Mr. Hobbs been English, and had they ever compared notes of their respective old countries.
The car came nearer. Ancillary to the sound of the car came the sound of the music within the car. Victor had heard such music before, once. In a not very nice neighborhood in a large city. He had escaped that music before – he did not agree with it being termed music at any rate – and here it had come and found him again. He watched the car, a long white Cadillac proceeding toward him, angling this way and that, as if the pavement under the tires was full of small breakers.
The car slowed, almost imperceptibly, as it approached him there on the sidewalk and turned in front of him, right into the driveway next to his boyhood home. He remembered his uncle driving into that very driveway years before, probably soon after World War II, and in fact that uncle – it was Uncle Red – had driven a Cadillac, too. Though he looked nothing like this man driving this Cadillac.
The car engine turned off, but the music continued for a moment longer. Seemingly louder now that the engine no longer accompanied.
“Rifella!” The music continued still, a quite conspicuous rhythm going nowhere and repeating itself.
“RIFELLA!!!” Victor saw the driver lean up inside the car and turn a knob to stop the music. The front window came down halfway; a puff of smoke, gray smoke on gray air, came out of the window.
“RIFELLA!! Get yo’ ass out here! Now, bitch!!!”
Victor didn’t know what to do. The Cadillac, and the man in the Cadillac yelling for whomever Rifella was, in a most inappropriate way, sat between him and his projected path to his own boyhood home. His boyhood home where Millie sat, undoubtedly in some overstuffed living room chair, if not in a wheelchair, and where his other sister Fran lay dying, probably in the back bedroom.
He wondered if Millie had heard this man yelling, and if Fran had. What if Fran had perished just at that moment, or a moment before, and her last vision as she floated up to glory was of her little brother standing flummoxed. Solitary and still as a statue of an old man – which he felt himself to be, particularly at that moment – and the last sounds she heard with what was left of mortal ear had been that dreadful, incessant beat of the music along with the verbal outburst of this man, who obviously had no manners to care about an old lady dying in the back bedroom of her childhood home.
Not knowing what to do, Victor did nothing but stare. The curiosity that incessantly germinated within him found good soil and sprang up suddenly. He leaned over a bit, not 12 feet from the open window of the car, and peered into it, looking over his glasses. He smelled the cigarette smoke, though the gray fog had since dissipated.
The man honked the horn now. BBBBRRRRRRRRRUUUUUUPPPPPPPPP. Immediately after the honk ended, the man turned in his seat and rose to get out of the car, seeing Victor standing there looking at him.
“What you looking at, old man?” he sneered, head immediately cocked.
Victor knew himself to be an old man, indeed, and if that wasn’t enough, he was a small man physically as well. How many times in his 78 years had he wished he could take care of a young punk like this?
“Excuse me, young man, I don’t mean to stare, certainly. I just wondered what year your car was, for I once had a Cadillac about that year…”
“Yeah, man, maybe you had a horse and buggy Cadillac, huh?” The young man sneered and bobbed his head up and down, evidently pleased with his self-perceived quick wit. Victor saw that he had tattoos up and down his skinny white neck, metal plastered over his front teeth. He did not look well, and he had wispy, old man type hair.
The man turned toward the house and yelled, “Rifella!! I ain’t waitin’!”
Then he turned back to Victor and grunted, “You ain’t got no ride now, huh, old man?”
Victor shot back, “You know… pardon me, but I didn’t catch your name.”
“My name’s Chase… like I chase the ladies, ya know?” The man squinted a little and searched restlessly through his pockets, looking for cigarettes, and finding none. He leaned back and reached into the open window of the car, grabbing the pack off of the dash.. He looked back at Victor.
“Oh?” Victor extended his hand. “Do you catch them, or do they run away?”
“Yeah, that’s good! You some kinda comedian or something?”
“Yes, I am, in fact! Vaudeville! Heh heh…”
Chase stared at him, ignorant.
“Mr. Chase,” Henry went on, undaunted, extending his hand to Chase. “I’m Victor Stevelin, and it’s very nice to meet you!” He smiled broadly.
Chase didn’t know what to do. How many years had it been – indeed, had it ever happened at all – that another man had extended an open hand to him and expressed pleasure in meeting him? He wasn’t sure how to shake someone’s hand in a regular and professional way.
“It’s okay, Chase. I won’t bite, I’m not after your girl, and I’m not gay. Now shake my hand.” It’s all Victor could think to say at that awkward moment with his hand having been offered and now hanging in limbo. He had heard that line sometime in a movie. He had hated the movie, but the line seemed apropos.
Chase slowly extended his hand to reach Victor’s, staring blankly at it as he stretched it out, watching it as a spectator, bemused, as if some strange force was raising it up on an invisible pillow.
Two people were watching the odd exchange between this small old man, dressed in a pressed cotton shirt with a light jacket and creased pants, and this virile, misdirected young man, he with the injected green ink in his neck, the sweaty, stretchy cotton tank top with a hole in the side, his pants hanging amply down below the halfway point of his buttocks, purposefully showing off his colorful underwear.
One person watching was Rifella, looking out of the upstairs bedroom window of the house where the Cadillac sat quiet in the driveway, the two men shaking hands, putting the finishing touches on her overadorned face. Fifteen gold and silver colored earrings, hoops and straight pins stuck into her flesh in various places. Hair as dark as black painted charcoal, cut and teased to all manner of misshapen sizes and angles. Eyelids pasted with some weird pinkish shade and eyes outlined with dark lines, grossly overdone with sharp edges. She glanced down, wondering who the old man was, her highest aspirations that evening being the desire to get very drunk and have Chase pay for it. She hoped he had gotten paid that afternoon, as he was supposed to. New job for him. Third one since they’d met five months before.
She yelled as she hurried down the steps and dodged an old chest freezer sitting unused – for a decade – in the front foyer… the word “foyer” being far too eloquent a term for what that room had devolved to…she yelled to no one in particular, for no one who stayed there cared, “Going out!” She didn’t know why she bothered yelling anything.
The other person watching was Millie, from the front window of the boyhood home of Victor, the house she had never left. She had seen that boy before, the one in the Cadillac, and she didn’t like him. She didn’t like his clothes or his car, and she certainly didn’t like Rifella, and she didn’t like the things she just knew they were doing when they went out. Things she felt ashamed of even thinking.
She spoke back through the room at Fran in the back room, not turning her eyes off of Chase. “Fran, Victor has arrived! Victor is here! Oh, Fran!”
Fran didn’t hear her. Fran didn’t hear anything anymore, at least not that Millie could tell. The nurse who came, Dr. McGill, the cleaning lady, all of them said Fran was past the days of hearing anything. Millie wondered why the doctor wasn’t anymore sure about that than the cleaning lady. Millie thought that as long as there was breath in her dear sister, there might be the chance that Fran could hear her.
“Did you hear me, sweetie? Victor is here! He’s over talking to that dangerous boy in the big car. And here comes that awful woman… oh my, that scrap of cloth she’s wearing for a dress!…”
Chase backed away a step and sat back down in the car, closing the door. He stared at Victor.
Victor half waved and wiggled his fingers at Chase and Rifella, who was letting herself into the other side of the car, fidgeting with the back of her hair.
“You get paid, Big C?” she asked. “You get paid today, baby?” She pulled down the inside visor and looked closely at her face, turning this way and that, inspecting. She slapped the visor back up and settled back.
“Let’s go, man!” she said, backhanding Chase on the arm with a firm, quick tap. The car started, the music and rhythm of percussion started, the rattling of speakers turned up too loud started.
The car backed up. Victor continued to wave.
Rifella flipped the visor down again and looked at her face. “Who’s the old man?”
Chase didn’t answer. He thought of the handshake moments before.
Rifella asked again, louder, “Who’s the old man, C?”
Chase put the car into drive, looking for all purposes as if he had met a ghost.
“Well, hell, baby, I don’t care anyway. You get paid today?”
The Cadillac moved away up Larsen Lane toward Hobbs, and Victor continued to wave.