By F.J. Wilson
Nelda Rose stood on the train station watching the train pass, listening to the cat calls from the young men going off to war. The radio in the little stationmaster’s office was playing “The Tennessee Waltz” but she couldn’t hear it for the roar of the train as it flew by going into the future without her. Then from the crowd of men and boys, hanging and yelling out of the windows reaching to touch the skirt of her dress as it was pulled up and out by the suction of the great engines, she saw a boy- maybe eighteen. He was standing still and handsome in the cross section between two railroad cars; his eyes looking into hers. In the split second it took for the train to pass, his eyes asked questions she couldn’t answer. He asked for permission she didn’t know how to give. He asked her to stop him from going to a war he knew nothing about and he asked her to wait for him. But with all that asking he hadn’t made a sound. She watched him until the train passed down the track and even after. She could still feel the questions from those eyes and wanted so badly to say, “Yes”. She became aware of the music coming from the little radio in the stationmaster’s office as she turned towards home and walked across the tracks watching the red of the caboose turn to dark brown in the distance. The music became a baby’s cry as she awakened from the dream once more.
The sun was already up and she had overslept. She dreamed this dream for the hundredth time but in the cold light of day, there was no baby crying; there were no babies left to cry. They were all grown and gone, dreaming their own dreams waking in their own homes beginning days of their own.
She was the oldest of twelve children born to tired parents on a tired piece of land in the heart of pine trees and wild sumac in the woods of Mississippi. She never had a childhood or girlhood nor had she ever been to a dance. She didn’t remember a time she wasn’t carrying one of her Mama’s babies on one hip and pushing another in a hand-me-down stroller; worn out and wobbling from too many walks with too many babies in too many years. She didn’t own a dress without baby pee or spit up stains and her earliest recollection was feeding a baby almost as large as she. The one solace was that as she got bigger the babies got smaller but there were always more.
When she was fourteen she ran away from home and married a boy of sixteen she hardly knew and certainly didn’t like; thinking it was the way to grow up and leave home. When she was sixteen she was carrying her own baby on her right hip and one inside of her and the boy had left for parts unknown; a husband who came and went so fast, she hardly remembered his name. Maybe he died, maybe not, she didn’t care. The only thing she knew was that his eyes had never ask the questions; not like the eyes of the young soldier on the phantom train in her memory.
So she moved back home and finished raising her Mama’s babies and her own babies and her Mama’s grandbabies until the last grandbaby left home at fourteen to follow a bad man with a carnival up to Memphis.
Nelda Rose turned thirty-nine and didn’t have a baby on her hip for the first time in her life. She always thought of herself as happy. Who couldn’t be happy surrounded by the bright eyes, warm smiles and gentle chatter of babies and young-uns? But she’d always remember it as the year God blessed her with pretty. Truth be told, she’d always been pretty and no amount of babies had robbed her of that and no years had taken it away but no man ever said the pretty words to her. She had only the memory of the young soldier’s eyes declaring her beauty in her faded memory and in her recurring dreams. So the day she discovered it for herself was a revelation from Jesus. It was a sweet revelation as good as any baby’s toothless smile. The miracle of discovery came swiftly and unexpectedly. She’d gone to town to mail a package to the baby in Memphis - a sweater like the hundreds she’d knit before - and $20.00 to pay the gas bill. She happened to see her reflection in the window of the little post office. She saw herself super-imposed over the platform of the empty train station behind her. There she was a beautiful woman standing ghost like - trim and willowy with soft curls falling around her face waiting for a troop train that passed years ago and was never coming back. She walked around for days looking in mirrors, window reflections, and the lids of old coffee cans seeing if the pretty was still there or if it’d passed like the troop train. On the evening of the third day Nelda Rose approached her Mama shelling peas on the back porch. Nelda came shyly out of the kitchen door and not knowing how to approach the subject she just mumbled; simply, without emotion, without vanity, as one would just state a fact of the weather.
“Mama, do you think I’m pretty?”
“Speak up girl, I can’t hear you when you mumble so.”
“I said, I think I’m pretty, Mama.” Emotion and embarrassment had crept into the second saying straining a need to run up to her Mama and fling the news of her good looks onto those strong shoulders, but she stood still; waiting to see the reaction. Maybe she’d been wrong maybe her Mama would put things right and she’d go on as before. What was before? Before was filled with care giving and nurturing babies who sucked her body dry and gone on to their own lives their own babies. What was before was gone and couldn’t be now, but she didn’t look dried up she looked flushed and pretty.
Mama put down the pan of half shelled purple hulls and looked up at her oldest and prettiest daughter. The only child left at home now - always her right arm, her constant and sweetest companion - the child who hadn’t had a childhood- not much love and attention and never complained. How had this sweet soul gotten to be this old and not known she was the prettiest woman in the state of Mississippi?
“Nelda, baby you know you’re beautiful. What’s all this about?” Mama was so proud of her for not letting her beauty turn her head by the devil’s vanity.
“I didn’t know it, Mama. I think maybe it just now happened.” Nelda Rose had considered that possibility; that maybe God just decided to make her pretty one day and so, in his infinite wisdom had given her ‘pretty’; a modern miracle so small nobody but herself would notice but what the hell was she supposed to do with it?
She had no clue that the only miracle was an empty house and plenty of rest and time to herself. There was now time to brush her teeth and look at her reflection instead of pulling little hands out of cold cream; time to remember to wash her own hair instead of washing little heads hiding their eyes from the stinging soap suds. She had time to see herself in the stove hood while heating the coffee pot, instead of countless baby bottles tested on her worn out wrist. God knows she even had time to put on a little lipstick instead of biting her lips till they turned pink on her way to church with a baby on each hip.
“Honey, I just don’t know what to say. Are you tell’n me you didn’t know you was pretty?”
Nelda Rose shook her head.
“Yes.” and sat on the porch swing next to her Mama.
Mama could tell this was important to her baby girl but it was the damnedest thing she’d ever heard. She always envied her daughter her good looks and caught herself many times over the years staring in awe and wonder at the beauty this girl wore so naturally. Mama always looked for a sign that her own face could be a part of this beautiful portrait she knew as her daughter but too many years and dirty floors had taken any resemblance of pretty she ever had.
She got clumsily up off the swing and walked into the kitchen and down the long dark hall of the old house and into her bedroom. She opened the tall armoire that was her Mother’s before and took out the only family photo album she possessed. She was shaking her head in wonder as she came back out onto the porch and joined Nelda on the swing.
Of all her children this one should have had beaux bringing bouquets of Zinnias and wild honeysuckle on those long, sultry summer nights. There should have been men walking up the long sandy driveway carrying gifts with promises of love and happiness; suitors with handsome good looks and good jobs. There was never a one. You couldn’t count that no-good husband of hers that came down the lane for a year or so to use her up like a bag of rice and then move on to whatever mischief he was meant to do. Mama knew the young men coming to call could smell the hopelessness of their pursuit before they started up the drive. This girl had no time for life; she had no time for romance and she had no time to dance, and the guilt of this sat on Mama’s shoulder like a big ole black crow.
She sat close enough to her daughter to open the album across both their laps. She pointed to a picture of a little girl, four years old, sitting on the old sofa in the parlor holding the back of a baby’s head steady for the camera. Then Nelda Rose looked at the little girl close up for the first time. It was she with long brown curly hair and large honest green eyes. There they were; perfect features for the face of a budding young beauty. Then as the album pages were turned Nelda Rose began to see her childhood for the first time and then herself as a young girl, then young woman - very pretty - but all pictures were shared with children of different ages. She couldn’t believe what she was seeing. She actually existed before this moment; even before yesterday when she discovered her new self. She was a laughing, happy young girl. She must have enjoyed her life; she was happy in the pictures. But then as she examined each of the photographs, each baby in the picture, not herself, drew her attention to the day and year. Not her feelings on that day or year but those of the children; they were more important than her own self.
“Look Mama that was the Easter Mary Frances got her dress caught in the car door, and there she was in Church, Easter morning, with half a skirt.”
But sitting next to Mary Frances in the old photo was the most beautiful young girl about to turn into a young woman. Nelda Rose wondered what the young girl had been feeling about herself? All she remembered was the joy of holding Mary Frances and how she had worried over the child’s dress. Nelda was dumb struck. Where had her life gone? Had each of the babies taken part of her and left her with nothing? She did have one memory of herself though. It had turned into a dream that was visiting her almost every night now. But it was the memory of the event itself that so filled her with joy; she couldn’t give it over to the light of day for years.
She was sent to town to sell eggs and all the children were down with the measles so she made the trip alone. Walking without thoughts and without notice of the beauty of the day she had to get back and help Mama with the sick babies. She must have been about fourteen, tall and willowy with a figure twice her age and on the way back she had to stop for a passenger train going through town. It was a troop train so full of young boys and men looking handsome standing and sitting chock a block in those train cars looking all the world like a muddy box of crayons - too many greens and browns stuffed into the box helter skelter. The whistles and calls from the boys headed to parts of the world she would never see filled her head and ears for days as she worked with the babies and did her chores. Those young yearning voices bellowing the eternal call of the male heading into battle leaving the young maidens unattended and untouched still filled her mind. All their last thoughts of pretty girlfriends and wives were given voice to this one girl alone and mesmerized. Nelda Rose watched that train and listened to the shouts until she could no longer see the caboose nor hear the longing voices for the pretty girl they’d never touch. But there was one among them who stole her heart and took it off with that train. She remembered those eyes staring into hers and causing her body to awaken and stir and yearn. After her young short marriage failed and she was so lonely for the touch of a man she’d remember those eyes and yearn again. She saw the eyes, the questions un-answered and her want and longing to be able to say, “Yes”. She wondered if that boy on the train remembered her and if so where was he now? How many of those boys had lived? How many slept in shallow graves so far away from home. Did he live and still remember the pretty girl on the platform?
Mama sat next to Nelda Rose sadly seeing one more time what she’d done to her daughter.
“Sometimes baby, life just goes so damned fast and out of control that it runs over people. Then when you try to gather all the broken parts and repair the damage you find that the soul of the broken one has already started healing and all you can do is just sit back and ask Jesus for forgiveness.”
“Mama, why are you feeling bad? Because I discovered I was pretty? Why are you sad?”
“ Such a simple thing, such an easy thing, and I aint never even bothered to tell you. I just thought you knew. How can a Mama never at least tell her girl she’s pretty? Was I that unknowin’ of you, child?”
Nelda hadn’t meant to make Mama feel bad. She’d been through so much. If Nelda had to take care of all those babies, Mama had to carry them for nine months wondering if her husband would send money this week or just show up for dinner one night and complain about the noise from the kids. She watched as her Mama had given something of herself to each of her children but there was never enough of anything to give to them - never even enough of herself.
Mama leaned into her daughter and traced her face with two fingers gently like a moth with half a wing. “Nelda Rose, you’re the most beautiful woman I’ve ever saw and if it gives you pleasure to know that, I will remind you ever day.” Mama got up off the swing with the album held tightly to her breast as if this was the only way of hugging all her children close at once and smiled back at her daughter as only a Mother can. She walked back into the kitchen and Nelda saw her painful progress down the hall to the bedroom.
The light was wearing out and dying under the big magnolia trees down by the creek. Birds were calling obscenely for each other to come to roost and Nelda was seeing beauty around her. She kept feeling like she should run in and start supper but there was no one to feed. She wasn’t hungry and Mama would probably eat a bowl of cereal in her room while listening to the radio and reading the small town paper that told of births and deaths and folks coming from out of town. Her Mama savored that little paper like a man savors a good cigar after dinner and she looked forward to it all day.
Nelda couldn’t believe how beautiful the old place looked this time of day. How come she hadn’t seen it all these years and how come she didn’t put some time away for herself in all the days of all the years? How come she was so blind to the world around her? She’d have trouble taking time for herself even now. Wasn’t she just itching to make supper? Wasn’t she even now wondering if the clothes were folded from the last batch off the line? This was going to be hard; maybe Celine would come back and let her keep the baby. The baby would sure be a lot better off with her and Mama than God knows what was going on with Celine and her bad news boyfriend in Memphis.
Her thoughts were interrupted by the scream of Mr. Flurry’s peacock. She could just see it through the trees strutting its full plumage out by his barn. There it was, just spreading beauty, like good perfume a blast of ecstasy up against the browns and grays of the old cypress barn, bringing color to the world of dirt, horse manure and tractor tires. Not a place for such as him and his pretty feathers. It was needed though, it had a job, its very presence reminded anyone who saw that there was great beauty in the world to be appreciated and enjoyed. Mama had turned on the radio and the strains of the “Tennessee Waltz” were floating around the porch gathering momentum and building a desire in the lonely young woman discovering her world from the porch. Nelda Rose had never been waltzed. She wondered again where the young soldier was. Where had he taken those eyes and his questions that she needed so badly to answer?
He got off the train in Magee and stood on the old platform looking around to get his bearings - tall and slim, still nice looking, his shirt tucked and pinned under the stub of his left elbow. He was still not sure he was doing the right thing but he couldn’t stop even if he thought he should. He left his heart at this very station so many years ago. The sight of the young girl saved him during the war. Her face and generous green eyes came into his head like spring on a bad winter while he tried to sleep in muddy trenches. Her eyes came out of his dark unconscious - waking him up and bringing him back from death after he was shot. They smiled above him as he went under the ether scared and helpless. Those eyes appeared sometimes out of nowhere during his life since the war, giving him hope, courage and the will to go on.
Before his wife, before his children, this phantom girl was his imaginary love and lover. His wife knew it; she lived with it for years and she died knowing it. The knowledge was too much for her anymore and her love for him stopped. So she had stopped - relinquished her space on earth - and vanished into the world some call death freeing him to seek what he needed and could no longer live without.
He felt it, the pulling, the tugging, the knowing, that he’d make this trip to find her. He knew he’d find her; hadn’t he been called as sure as someone had picked up a phone? Hadn’t he answered the need to be here? Yes, he’d find her. This wasn’t the first time he’d loved her; he knew there were other times and other places and there would be more to come; but in this life he’d find her and she’d be ready for his touch and know him as well. Oh, yes she’d know him and his touch and she would fit well against him in the dance.
He walked across the street to the little newspaper office. He asked the questions of the old man sitting behind an ancient typewriter. It was easier than he ever imagined it could be. She was known as Nelda Rose and she was within walking distance. She was divorced and single and just a few more minutes away. He half walked, half floated out of the little newspaper office. How electric this strange and happy feeling, like the first remembered Christmas, when you dream of a thing and there it is, real and touchable. But with the anticipation of love, the happiness turns to thunder bolts in your gut and you think you may die from having to contain the turmoil. He needed flowers. A gentleman caller didn’t walk down a long country road to his ladylove without flowers. He looked around and saw the little florist shop on the corner. He bought a bunch of sweetheart roses and left the shop.
Nelda Rose came out onto the front porch to water the ferns she nurtured always in the big pots. She thought she saw someone coming down the long dusty drive. Who could it be at this time of day? Some vague feeling of remembrance touched her hairline and crawled into her scalp and across her head. She became aware of her heart beating. Who could this be at this time of day?