Indian Summer

(A short story to kick off the new year, based on a snippet of a story in an 1872 newspaper.)

John Wheeler was 22 when he declared only death would part him from Mary Elizabeth Wright. He was 34 when he kept that promise.

The two were childhood sweethearts, living on adjoining farms in Virginia’s rolling hills. John would spend days in the fields with his father, and occasionally he would steal a few moments to visit with Mary as the sun was setting. They would share secret smiles at church on Sunday. In the winter he walked her to school.

As they got older, she would tease him.

“Do you love me?”
“More than life.”
“Am I pretty?”
“More beautiful than Indian summer.”

******

Then the war came, and as soon as John was old enough, he went off to fight, signing up to defend the Confederacy and its rail lines from advancing Union troops. He wrote Mary long letters in his head, and short ones on whatever paper he could get. He told her about the cold, the heat, the other boys he was encamped with. He didn’t tell her about the hunger or the pain. He knew everyone felt that. There didn’t seem much point in blabbing about it.

When he finally came back home, Mary was waiting. She was thinner, but so was he. She had been sick. He had been broken. But when she smiled at him, he felt whole, and when he smiled back, she felt stronger. They were married in the summer, a year after the war ended. They were older, wiser. They had been through a lot and figured whatever came next would be easier to take on together. They knew better than to wax poetic anymore. Life was too short, words too flimsy.

“Do you love me?”
“With all my heart.”
“Am I still pretty?”
“You are beautiful.”

******

But it wasn’t easier. Reconstruction wasn’t easy on anyone. They lived on his father’s farm. His father had died; one less mouth to feed but one less pair of hands to do the work. There was no money. John scraped in wheat harvests that barely paid for the expenses of growing them. Mary coaxed a garden along. John loved her for it, hated himself for not providing more. The winters were cold. They needed fuel. She needed medicine. She deserved better. She deserved a little hope. For that matter, so did he.

“Do you love me?”
“Of course I love you.”
“I’m not pretty anymore.”
“Of course you are. Don’t talk that way.”

******

When the baby came, they were joyous. She was a strong, healthy little thing, a springtime baby, and she looked like her mother. Still, John couldn’t help wishing she had come along a little later, that they’d had a little more saved up. He tried to believe it was a sign; that things were going to turn around. But he couldn’t keep the worry out of his mind, out of his eyes, even as he smiled at Mary, lying exhausted in the bed.

“Do you love me?”
“I’ve never loved you more.”
“If you say I’m pretty, I’ll know you’re a liar.”
“You’re the second-most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen, next to Little Miss, here.”
“What do we name her?”
“How about Lily, for your mother?”
“How about Ruth, for yours?”
“Lily Ruth. Miss Lily Ruth.”
“Lovely Lily Ruth.”

******

The baby got bigger, but things didn’t get better. Mary was still too thin, too peaked. He worried about her, but there was nothing he could do. John knew a man who had a still, and he traded corn for corn liquor. Sometimes he drank while he was out behind the plow. It made the time go faster. It made the pain go away. He didn’t feel as ashamed of himself. And it made him more fun with Lily. He’d go in and giggle with her. He knew Mary could tell, but she never said anything. She just sighed and went on with whatever she was doing. He knew she was watching; knew she was afraid he’d drop the baby or something careless. But he never did. He drank to take the edge off, not to get lost.

At night, they would lie together in the narrow bed, the windows open to let in what breeze could be found in the sultry night air, listening to Lily breathing in her crib. He would put his hand on Mary’s flat belly and wish it were rounder before rolling over, turning his back so he could drift off with his own thoughts.

“Do you love me?”
“You know the answer to that.”
“Do you still think I’m pretty?”
“You know that too.”

******

They never talked anymore. Whenever they tried, it ended in a fight, and John thought silent parents were better for Lily than screaming ones. He drank all the time now; at every meal. It was the only way to get through a day. When Mary would bring his dinner pail and a dipper of water, he would wait until she’d left to fish the flask out of his hip pocket. He would polish that off, and that kept him numb until supper, when he’d take his next pull.

One night when he came in, the bottle was empty. It hadn’t been that morning. He knew, because he remembered thinking there was just enough to get him through to next afternoon, when he could get some more. Mary was leaning over the stove, her hair in her face, languidly stirring something. He yelled. She snarled. He banged his fist on the table and advanced toward her, menacing. Lily fled the house, Mary yelling after her to go to Grandmother Lil. He was right on top of Mary now, glaring down at her. She glared back, stuck her chin out at him.

“Do you love me?”
“What do you think?”
“I think you love that bottle more. And I can see why. Pretty sure I will, too.”

It happened before he realized what he’d done. His arm flew out and the bottle in his hand swung back, a giant, awful pendulum, stopping when it connected with the side of her head. She crumpled to the floor without a sound.

He was mute with shock. His first thought, in all its ridiculousness, was to wonder why the bottle hadn’t broken. Then he was on his knees, grabbing Mary’s hands, shaking her, patting her cheeks. The worry lines were not visible in her now-slackened face, the angry pinch between her eyebrows was gone. She was his girl, his wife, his daughter’s mother.

“Mary, wake up. I love you. You’re beautiful. Just wake up.”

He felt her wrist. Nothing.

She was gone. And Lily would be back any moment.

John panicked. He grabbed his billfold and fled.

                                               Part Two

 Benjamin Newland leaned against the counter of the general store, wiping the dust from the glass with his shirt cuff. He was dawdling, waiting for Ginny Sullivan to ring up his purchases. She handed him some packages neatly wrapped in paper and twine, along with his change, and gave him her usual twinkling smile, slapping lightly at his wrist when he flirted back, both of them knowing it meant nothing.

“Get you anything else?”
“Only if you’re available.”
“Get on with you. Go feed your horses, Benjamin.”

 ******

Benjamin had lived with the dust and heat of New Mexico Territory for more than 15 years. He had been born on the train to Trinidad, Colorado, as John Wheeler shuffled off his old identity; the name chosen on a bumpy stagecoach to Santa Fe. Newland was obvious. He chose Benjamin for the biblical son of Rachel, the son of pain.

But he hardly ever felt that old pain anymore. He had stopped drinking, prayed for forgiveness, atoned as best he could. As dry as it was, he never got the old thirst. That was long over. He couldn’t even stand the smell of liquor anymore. But he dreamed about Lily occasionally. At first they were terrible, crystal sharp images of the daughter he’d left, piercing things that left him seeing her face every time he blinked. But over time the dreams faded until it was a faint image of a girl that could have been any girl. He forced himself to stop thinking about her. She was better off without him. He had destroyed her life when he destroyed her mother. He had no right to go barging back now. He was generally at peace here. He had what he needed, and nothing extra to get in the way.

“Get you anything else?”
“How about a little peck on the cheek?”
“Get on with you. Go pick your horses’ hooves, Benjamin.”

 ******

His life now was a solitary one. He’d grown older, and the sun had turned him wrinkled and brown. Another permanent side effect of his trip west was to go bald; whether it was stress or age, he didn’t know, but it meant he wore a hat almost constantly, sometimes even indoors from forgetfulness. He kept the livery stable in town; looked after horses and kept stockpiles of hay. He did his best to keep the rats down, and would occasionally look the other way when some fellows needed a place for a stag show. It wasn’t a gentleman’s life, but it was a living.

And it let him pass the time with Ginny Sullivan. Gray-haired and round-faced, Ginny was a widow about his age; she had taken over the store when her husband died after only a year out west. Benjamin wondered if Mr. Sullivan had been somehow involved in that Lincoln County business, but Ginny never said and he never asked. She had stuck it out a couple years now, and become a savvy businesswoman. The store had been one of the first buildings to have glass windows, and Ginny never wanted for coal in the winter. She was fat and happy. Her eyes twinkled behind spectacles nigh as thick as her waist, when she wasn’t squinting to read.

“Get you anything else?”
“A seat by the stove to spend the winter?”
“Get on with you. Go blanket your horses, Benjamin.”

 ******

He enjoyed visiting with Ginny. She was so wide she rolled her hips a little when she walked. He liked it. He’d had enough of rib cages and cheekbones and bony knees after the war. Sometimes he’d buy her penny candy as a joke and she’d suck on it while they talked. She was chatty, but not nosy. She was cheerful, but he could sense the sorrow behind it. He assumed it was losing her husband, but he didn’t ask. There was an unwritten rule out here that you didn’t talk too much about people’s histories, and that suited them both just fine.

“Get you anything else?”
“How about a buggy ride after you close up here? The spring flowers are out.”
“Get on with you. I have washing to do.”

 ******

Slowly, they realized the comfort they had found with each other. She accepted that buggy ride, he accepted an invitation to dinner. She balanced his books for him, he patched her roof. They played cards through the coldest parts of the winter. Eventually, it just made good sense that they’d get married.

“Get you anything else?”
“How about a ring?”
“I don’t know as I’m smitten with you.”
“I don’t need smitten. I need solid.”
“Well, I am that. I can make the floors shake.”
“Aw, you’re pretty as Indian summer.”

She gave a start and made a strangled noise in her throat when he said that. A sharp look in his direction, then she shook her head.

“Get on with you. Go muck your stables, Benjamin.”

 ******

The next time, he came in with a ring. He’d bought it off a Navajo who happened through town, and he presented it to Ginny. She pretended to be annoyed that he’d spent the money somewhere other than her store. Then she gave him a long, searching look, her nose almost touching his.

“Get you anything else?”
“Just a marriage paper.”
“Nothing from the bar over’t the saloon?”

Now it was his turn to be surprised. He hadn’t had a drink in over 10 years, certainly not since they had met. Why would she ask that? He shook his head, bewildered. She folded her arms, gave him a strange smile.

“Get on with you. Go soak your head, John Wheeler.”

Mary Elizabeth Wright Wheeler had woken up in her bed with the doctor leaning over her. She remembered the fight, but not much else. She waited for him to come home for a while; moved in with her mother while she recuperated. Eventually she gave up and decided he was gone for good. She’d sold his farm and gone north to Philadelphia, to see a doctor there about the headaches that wouldn’t go away. While she was there, she met Henry Sullivan, dry goods merchant. He was cheerful and prosperous, and called her Virginia because of her accent. It was fine by her; she couldn’t stand to be called Mary anymore. He was safe and a good provider, so when he asked her to marry him, she said yes, and became Ginny Sullivan for good. Henry had given Lily the best — good schools, pretty dresses, a place in society. Lily met a nice boy, and was married in New Jersey. When she’d gone east, they’d come west. But Ginny didn’t know what to make of the fact she’d landed right across the street from her first husband. Was it a sign? A warning? Or just one of those things?

“Mary-Gin, I guess you’d as soon not see me again.”
“Johnny-Ben, you’d guess wrong. I’m rather fond of this New Mexico you.”

 ******

John Wheeler had been 22 when he declared only death would part him from Mary Elizabeth Wright. Benjamin Newland was 62 when he kept that promise for the second time—dying of old age, in his bed, with Ginny Newland holding his hand.

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About arwenbicknell

Editor by day, author by night.
This entry was posted in Fiction and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Indian Summer

  1. llamamama03 says:

    I really enjoyed this one!

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