By F.J. Nita Wilson
Nelda Rose stood on the train station, listening to the whistles and cat calls from the young men going off to war. The radio in the little stationmaster’s office played “Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree”, but she could barely hear it for the roar of the train going into the future without her. From the crowd of men and boys, hanging out of the windows reaching to touch the skirt of her dress she saw a boy… maybe eighteen. He was standing still and handsome in the cross section between two cars; his eyes looking into hers, asking questions she couldn’t answer… would she wait for him? 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 was awakened by a baby’s cry.
The sun was already up; she’d overslept. She dreamed this dream for the hundredth time but in the cold light of day, there was no baby crying, as there were no babies left to cry. They were all grown and gone.
Nelda Rose 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’d 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 so worn out and wobbling from so many walks, it was a miracle it moved. Her one solace… as she got bigger the babies got smaller but there were always more.
When she was seventeen she was carrying her own baby on her right hip and one inside of her, and her young husband had left to live in the bottom of a whiskey bottle. His eyes; unlike the eyes of the young soldier on the troop train, had never asked the questions.
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 without a baby on her hip for the first time in her life. But this year God blessed her with ‘pretty’. Truth be told, she’d always been pretty, but no man ever said the pretty words; just the young soldier’s eyes declaring her beauty in her faded memory and recurring dreams. Discovering she was pretty came swiftly and unexpectedly. She’d gone to town to send a package to the daughter in Memphis, and twenty dollars to pay the gas bill. She saw her reflection in the window of the little post office; a beautiful woman standing ghost like, trim and willowy with soft curls falling around her face. 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 man on the train. On the evening of the third day Nelda Rose approached her mama shelling peas on the back porch.
“Mama, I 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 crept into the second saying, restraining a need to run up to her mama and fling her arms around 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.
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, her right arm, her constant and sweetest companion… the child who hadn’t had a childhood, very little love, no attention but… 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. Maybe God decided to make her pretty one day, and in his infinite wisdom bestowed the gift of beauty on her; a modern miracle so small nobody but herself would notice, but what was she to do with it? The only miracle was… Nelda Rose had time for herself. There was time to see herself in the stove hood while heating the coffee pot, and God knows she even had time to put on a little lipstick instead of biting her lips for color on her way to church.
“Honey, I just don’t know what to say. Are you tell’n me you didn’t know you was pretty?”
“Yes.” She sat on the porch swing next to her mama.
Mama had always envied her daughter her good looks, and looked for the same in her own face, but too many years and dirty floors had taken any resemblance of pretty she ever had.
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 except that no-good husband of hers that came down the lane for a couple of years to use her up like a bag of rice and then move on to the next bar. 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 black crow.
Mama went inside and brought out a framed picture. 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. 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 picture. Nelda Rose was dumb struck. Where had her life gone? Had each of the babies taken part of her and left her soul naked? 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. She must have been about fourteen with a figure twice her age and on the way back she stopped for a passenger train going through town. It was a troop train full of young boys standing and sitting chock a block in those train cars looking all the world like a muddy box of used 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. 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. But there was one among them who stole her heart and took it with that train. She remembered those eyes staring into hers causing her body to awaken and yearn. After her young husband ran off and she was lonely for the touch of a man, she’d remember those eyes and yearn again… still wanting 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 lived through the war? How many slept in shallow graves so far away from home. Did he remember the pretty girl on the platform?
“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 of the one you hurt, and repair the damage…” Mama searched for the right words for her apology. “The person’s soul has already started healin’ and all you can do is just set back and ask Jesus for forgiveness.”
“Mama, why are you feeling bad… because I discovered I was pretty?”
“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 her 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 that week or just show up for dinner one night and complain about the noisy kids. 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’ll remind you ever day.” Mama got up off the swing with the picture held tightly to her breast. 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 discovering the beauty around her. She felt as if 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.
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 those days of all those 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 a fine 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 a bird and his pretty feathers. It was needed though, it had a job, the very presence of the bird reminded everyone that there was great beauty in the world to be appreciated and enjoyed.
Mama turned on the radio and the strains of “The Tennessee Waltz” were floating around the porch gathering momentum and building a romantic desire in the lonely young woman. Nelda Rose had never been to a dance. She wondered again where the young soldier was. Where had he taken those eyes and his questions that she needed so badly to answer?
Jeb 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 wouldn’t stop now even if he thought he should. He’d left his heart at this very station 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. 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. 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 knowing that he’d make this trip to find her. He knew he’d find her; 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 felt there were other lives and other places, but in this life he’d find her and she’d be ready for his touch and know him. 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. 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 country road to his ladylove without flowers. He stopped by the side of the road and picked a handful of honeysuckle and wild jasmine.
Nelda Rose was on the front porch watering the ferns she nurtured in the big clay pots. There was someone coming down the long dusty drive. Some vague feeling of remembrance touched her hairline, crawled into her scalp and across her head as she took off her apron, and smoothed her hair. She bit her lips to create color and became aware of her heart beating. Would he ask her to dance?