April 1952. Mayhaw, Texas.
My marriage to O’Dell Peyton was already over when he washed up on the shores of Zion. Of course, no one knew it was O’Dell when the little boy came running from the bayou, bellowing to Cecil at the tire shop that he’d discovered a drowned body. Fact is, no one even knew O’Dell was missing. If someone had asked where he’d been keeping himself, I would’ve said, “Oh, you know O’Dell. He’s got The Book of Knowledge encyclopedia route for all of East Texas. Wouldn’t surprise me if he’s sold to half the people in Tyler by now. Goes over to Kilgore some, too.”
The truth was O’Dell left me and our two girls the second week in February. I found the note tucked in the sugar bowl, telling me he’d met a woman who appreciated him. I’d spent two months chewing on that, hot as a pistol one minute, crumpled in grief the next, trying to figure out where I’d gone wrong.
Aunt Cora said, “Georgia, there are plenty of men out there. You’re lucky you found out now, while you’re still young and have your looks.” Aunt Cora, bless her, had yet to find a man in Mayhaw suitable—or willing—to marry her. And looks had nothing to do with it. She could still be a movie star pinup.
Which was totally immaterial in light of O’Dell’s drowning. I only mention it because you have a whole different knot on the inside from a husband who’s unfaithful than you do from one who’s dead.
We buried O’Dell on the second Friday in April. Mary Frances, his mother and a widow herself, clung to me like cellophane. Two bereft figures bobbing for air on the surface, entwined by grief at our roots. Still, it felt unnatural for me to plan the funeral in light of the circumstances. Mary Frances should have had the honor, but widowhood had not been kind to her, and her fragile constitution rendered her incapable. We all breathed a sigh of relief when she showed up in matching shoes and wearing a dress instead of her usual bathrobe.
A motley pair we made. The anguished mother and the betrayed wife sharing a pew, each wrapped in our own thoughts. If she knew O’Dell had deserted me, she’d not once let on. I still took the girls to see her on Sunday afternoons and had baked her an angel food cake for her birthday on St. Patrick’s Day.
Aunt Cora told me the morning of the funeral, “Georgia, I didn’t raise you to forget your manners. O’Dell might’ve been a two-timer, but you’ll carry your head high and make me proud. His poor mother don’t know up from sic ’em, and she needs you to lean on today. I’ll take care of the girls.”
So I sat with Mary Frances while Aunt Cora sat between Avril and Rosey and drew pictures of Peter Rabbit to keep them quiet during the service. Afterward, Aunt Cora shooed me into the Garvey’s Funeral Home courtesy car with Mary Frances. She and the girls hitched a ride with someone else, and I heard later they stopped for ice cream at the Sweet Shoppe on the way home.
The cemetery sits on a rise outside of Mayhaw, inland from the bayou but nestled in its own sheltering grove of sweet gums. The funeral procession wound snake-like along the road, past the courthouse on the town square toward the outskirts. Cecil’s Auto Repair and Bait Shop on the right. The Stardust Tourist Cottages on the left. And beyond that, Mayhaw’s backyard neighbor, Zion, huddled along the banks of the cypress swamp. Wavy pencils of smoke rose from Zion, thinning to nothing as they reached the sky. I squinted to see if I could get a peek, but dense pines cradled whatever lay inside, the undergrowth like swaddling clothes. My heart inched up a notch knowing the boy who found poor O’Dell lived in that tangle of forest. Must’ve darn near scared him out of his britches.
Beside me, Mary Frances sat rigid, hands folded across the handbag on her lap. Her face, stuporous with grief, mirrored my own unspoken turmoil. Did O’Dell call my name as he tumbled through the murky waters? Or that of his new lover? What he was doing in the rain-swollen bayou was a mystery in itself. Perhaps he’d come to his senses and gone out on his fishing boat to figure out a respectable way to come crawling back to me and the girls. It’s easy to give a dead man the benefit of the doubt. Trickier, though, was the burning question: Were we still married in the eyes of God when O’Dell capsized?
Our courtesy car jerked to a stop inches from the hearse that carried O’Dell. A look of alarm flashed on Mary Frances’s pasty face. “What’s happening?”
I craned my neck. “Looks like a logging truck ahead of us. Creeping along like a box turtle. Guess it’ll take awhile to get out to the cemetery. You want a mint?” I pulled a Starlight mint from my pocket and held it out.
She shook her head, sighed, and then snapped open her purse, took out a blue glass bottle with a milk of magnesia label, touched it to her lips, and took a swig. I was feeling dyspeptic myself, but I knew it wasn’t milk of mag in the bottle. Mary Frances had her own kind of medicine. Pretending not to notice, I rolled down my window and looked at the Stardust.
Weeds had grown up over the winter. No travelers in front of the units, which were in dire need of freshening up. A feeling, akin to pity, twisted my gut. Guilt, too. I’d not been out to visit with Doreen and Paddy in a month of Sundays, Paddy being my uncle twice removed on the Tickle side. The other branch of the family, according to Aunt Cora. The way Paddy told it, he seized the opportunity when he saw it. Before the Depression, lots of folks passed through Mayhaw, needed a place to stay. I thought it was brilliant, and although he hadn’t made a fortune, he’d done all right. Until he found out about the lung tumor.
My mind went back to the day when cherry-red paint outlined each window and washtubs full of geraniums greeted guests by their front doors. A magnificent neon sign pulsed red, blue, and yellow lights then, visible from one end of town to the other as it beckoned the weary travelers. The sign still rose to the heights, but now one point of the star had cracked, and no neon flickered. My own heart sputtered. Cupping my chin in my hand, I crinkled my eyes, almost able to imagine when Mama and Daddy had first brought me to Mayhaw, and we stayed at the Stardust. We’d been in cottage number five, right in the middle. I ran my fingers over my cheek remembering the pattern the chenille bedspread left on my face while I was supposed to be taking a nap. Mama and Daddy were arguing, screaming at each other, so I kept my eyes shut tight until Daddy slammed out the door. Later we changed clothes, found Daddy out in the car smoking a cigar, and went to visit Aunt Cora.
I could still smell the smoke and closed my eyes, remembering how, later that day, Mama and Daddy left Mayhaw without me. Handed me over to Aunt Cora and never came back. The smell grew stronger, choking me, and I realized it wasn’t Daddy’s cigar at all, but Mary Frances puffing on a Pall Mall.
At least the funeral cars were moving again. I waved away the smoke and shivered, aware my mind had taken a trip back almost twenty years. Still, I couldn’t take my eyes from the tourist court, each tiny building like a spectator of the funeral procession. And for the millionth time, I wondered why, after all this time, I still didn’t know why my parents had left me. A wavy feeling passed over me. Clutching my white dress gloves in my fist, I glanced at Mary Frances, whose eyes now floated in their sockets.
Blinking, she tossed the cigarette butt out the window and unscrewed the lid from the blue bottle before hoisting it to her lips. She hiccupped and looked at me. “You and the girls are the only things left for me in this entire, whole wide world.” She tilted sideways, resting her head on my shoulder.
A white-hot pang pierced my heart as I took her thin, pale fingers in mine and patted her hand. Clear liquid dribbled from the bottle, making a splotch the size of a fried egg on the upholstery, but Mary Frances didn’t notice. Her soft snores filled the air inside the courtesy car.
The next day, Sheriff Bolander knocked on the front door. All I could think was there must have been another disaster. I pasted on a smile and swung open the screen door. “Howdy, Sheriff. Something I can do for you?”
“Matter of fact.” He jerked his head in the direction of the street. O’Dell’s ’46 Ford Coupe sat behind the sheriff ’s car, and in the morning sun, I couldn’t make out who the driver was, but he had the same sturdy build, the same slicked-back hair, as O’Dell. I held on to the screen door for support, my knees as weak as if they’d been shot with Sheriff Bolander’s pistol.
O’Dell? Alive? Then who in heaven’s name did we bury next to O’Dell’s daddy? My mind spun, a thousand thoughts jammed together, but I realized the sheriff was still speaking, and I hadn’t heard him.
“I’m sorry. Come again?”
“As you can see, they found O’Dell’s car. ’Twas over to Finney’s Landing with the keys under the front seat. Finney thought it unusual to be there so many days running.” He took a dingy handkerchief out of his back pocket and mopped his eyes. “Course, we drove it in and checked it over for evidence of foul play.”
Instantly, I thought he must be fixin’ to tell me O’Dell had been murdered by the angry husband of the woman from Tyler. Or Kilgore. Whichever it was. Maybe her dead body had been stuffed in the trunk. I shooed Rosey, who’d crept up behind me, away. A six-year-old shouldn’t be privy to such gruesome news.
Stepping out on the front porch, I took a deep breath and said, “Well? What did you find?”
I got a one-sided smirk from the sheriff. “Nothin’ incriminating, Georgia. A couple boxes of them there books he was peddling. A briefcase. Nothing to indicate O’Dell had done more than play hooky from work and spent a day fishin’. Only mystery to me is what caused him to capsize unless he’d been in the bayou since that rain week before last. One thing’s for certain: O’Dell knew the ways of the bayou.”
Contemplating how long he’d been there might’ve been important to the sheriff, but not a thought I wished to dwell on. “Did you find the boat?”
“No, ma’am. Even if it washes up somewhere, I wouldn’t count on it being much.”
“I’m sure you’re right.”
He shoved a clipboard toward me. “I need you to sign for the car.” He motioned for the driver, who I now saw was Deputy Sam Beggs, to come to the porch.
I signed the paper and took the keys from Sam. Up close, he didn’t look a thing like O’Dell. Sam’s belly hung over his belt, and he had a gap in his grin where his two bottom teeth used to be. I thanked him. And the sheriff, who tipped his hat.
“Don’t know as I ever told you how sorry I am ’bout O’Dell. Crying shame to go so young.”
“Thanks. Kind of you to drop by.”
The girls had crept out on the porch during my conversation. I picked Avril up, licked my thumb, and wiped a dab of grape jelly from her cheek.
Rosey hugged my leg, her curly head hip-high to me. “That’s Daddy’s car.” Her eyes, creamy brown, held a sparkle of what I could only think was hope. Hope that her daddy wasn’t gone. That it had all been a mistake.
“Yes, it is. Isn’t it swell someone found his car and brought it back to us?” I shifted Avril on my hip, took a step down, and lowered myself to the porch.
“I wish Daddy drove the car home, not that other man.”
“Oh, sugar, I wish that, too. I’m sorry . . .”
I pulled the girls in tight, my gaze fixed on O’Dell’s Ford. Not much to look at, and it probably had a million miles on it. But it was something. Some tiny glimmer that life goes on. At the moment, I had no idea what we’d do or how. I only knew that even though O’Dell Peyton had his flaws, it would be indecent to speak ill of him. His girls would grow up thinking he’d been on a long business trip and died before he got a chance to come home and read them a bedtime story.
The sun warmed my face, my armpits damp from the morning’s dither, but I kept the girls close. Somehow we were going to be okay. Not just okay, but good. I kissed the top of Avril’s head and got a taste of grape jelly. I licked my lips and said, “You know what? I’m starving. C’mon, girls, let’s get you dolled up. We’re going for ice cream.”
This is an excerpt from STARDUST by Carla Stewart. Copyright © 2012 by Carla Stewart. Reprinted by permission of FaithWords. All rights reserved.