Susan Duke: In Due Season
The old iron bed had known better days. The springs creaked as the solitary figure tossed like a leaf snatched by windy gusts. In two years, the woman had failed to adjust to the extra space left with her husband’s passing.
She sighed, sat up, and swung bare feet to set on the braided rug on the wooden floor. Might as well get up and face it head on. It was coming whether she liked it or not.
“I hate change, Petey,” she whispered to the beagle still snoring under the bedroom window. He whimpered as his paws twitched, chasing fantasy rabbits. She smiled and then rubbed her hands over her face. Both usually slept soundly as if drugged, especially when she could leave the window open a crack or two. Last night, though. . .
Helen frowned. She stood and glanced into the softening dark. Why couldn’t people just leave her and Petey alone? Well, it must be Wednesday, and that meant her friend Vivian was coming out to push her for a response, one that could be a life altering answer.
She felt a slight pressure on her knee and looked down. The dog stood silently by her side. “You’re right, pup. It’s almost time, and this is our time.” She stepped into worn slippers.
The pair walked through the cabin, not needing to switch on the lights. Both knew by heart the paths of least resistance around familiar furniture and their lives’ acquisitions.
Before she opened the heavy pine door, Helen pulled on a man’s bulky sweater. She liked wearing Gil’s clothes. It kept him near.
They stepped out and were swallowed by gray stillness. The woman and dog stood quietly for a minute to take in the moon’s last work of the July night. Glowing light like from a movie screen danced off Gil’s red pick-up sitting in the drive-way--an old friend waiting for requests. She crossed the porch to the vintage oak chair and sat. The dog settled next to her.
A smile of sweet satisfaction stretched seemingly from ear to ear on Helen’s tanned face. This secret belonged to her. Most people would never know it, never experience these sensations like nothing they’d ever felt before--too busy as they scurried around like field mice, getting ready to dash off to their all important high paying jobs. She’d been like that once.
She shivered slightly in her worn, cotton nightgown and pulled the sweater closed. Only two buttons remained. She yawned and stretched both arms overhead. The summer sun would warm the day soon enough. Helen Bays didn’t have to hurry, didn’t have to ask permission of anyone just to sit in her rocker on her front porch.
She reached down with her left hand and scratched behind Petey’s floppy ear. The hound moaned with pleasure. “I dream about this sometimes, Pete. When I wake up, I can’t believe it’s real.”
Petey whined as he sat up and faced the woods east of the cabin. Helen puffed up her chest with clear, country air. Suddenly she heard the sound she’d been waiting for coming from the trees as if something large was approaching through the hickories and red and white oaks. It raced against the frosty, white light to beat the morning.
As dawn broke with just a hint of yellow on the horizon, cool, sweet wind rushed over Helen’s front yard to sweep over her and the brown and white dog. They both inhaled deeply and sighed as their lungs filled. In ten seconds, the morning wind was gone, moving to another place to wake up more woods and animals, to alert their senses.
Helen stretched again. “Boy, I love this time between the end of night and the new day when Earth takes her first breath. That early wind really puts life back into our blood. Doesn’t it, Petey?”
She chuckled as the hound ambled off the porch to re-visit old scents where the yard ended and the deep woods began. He marked his territory and looked back at her.
“Any coons come up during the night?”
She rocked slowly, not anxious to rise. Nothing could cast a shadow on this glorious morning. At sixty years and alone except for Petey, Helen felt content except for a small itch she couldn’t quite scratch. After Gil had died, she’d wrestled with the decision--stay in Illinois near their old life or move here to northeast Missouri.
Funny, but while they were working and raising their kids, she didn’t care that much to visit Gil’s pride and joy, the vacation home he’d built on ten acres near Kirksville. He’d loved to hunt deer and wild turkey and to bring his son and friends to the cabin.
After the death of a loved one, some people need to remain in their fixed life style. Comfort zones, the experts called it. Clinging to the past. Nothing wrong with that.
Helen chose to leave the home she had shared with Gil for over forty years, to get away from well-meaning friends and neighbors and all of their advice. She cemented her decision the night her sister had attempted to fix her up with “a nice guy.”
Her children had initially been shocked. “Mom, you can’t move four hours away. You just can’t,” Sara had protested.
Danny had been more practical, so much like his father as his brow had creased. “For heaven’s sake, Mother. You don’t even like that cabin. You’re a city woman. What if something goes wrong? What if you get hurt?”
In the end, they had helped her sell their childhood home, and in two garage sales, items the kids didn’t want had disappeared. Helen had not looked back as Danny steered the U-Haul west.
The first night the sun had set on Helen in her new home she had felt odd, like a migrating goose that had lost her way and become separated from the flock. The first winter had been difficult, snowed in a vast quiet white. She had probably watched too much reality TV and called Sara way too often.
But John and Debbie were delighted to have Gil’s wife move down the twisting road from their place. They had been fond of Gil, Danny, and the rest of the guys who made Putnam County their temporary home during deer and turkey seasons. Within a few months of her transplanted event, the Missouri couple thought of their new neighbor as just Helen, a determined woman with pain of loss only time and hard work could cure.
Living alone was tiresome. Taking John’s advice, Helen sold her city car and mastered Gil’s pick-up with its four-wheel drive. She learned to travel to Kirksville or Unionville for supplies in fair weather. Rain turned the roads to impassible muddy ruts.
She accepted help getting ready for each season. The wood had to be stacked, a garden planted, the roof mended. So many chores to fill her hands and mind.
One spring morning, Helen had paused as she arranged wild flowers in a mason jar on the table. She had looked around the cabin. Her eyes caressed the many photos of Gil, the kids and their babies. She had taken in her favorite books piled on shelves lining the west wall... She had noted the feminine touches, her touches. She and Petey were settled. Gil would be proud.
Helen sniffed and swiped at tears tickling her cheeks. Cruising down memory lane could be bumpy.
She looked for Petey in the dawn light, but the dog had ventured deeper into the woods. No matter. He’d come back up to the cabin when he felt like it.
“Dearest Lord, thank you for this day. Each morning at sunrise, You give us an original painting in the sky--oranges, different blues and pinks over these rolling hills.” She smiled to herself and walked inside.
By eight-o-clock, breakfast dishes sat drying on the drain board. A few water spots never hurt anybody, she thought. Helen pulled on well-worn cut-off jeans and a Cubs T-shirt to weed her garden and flower patches. She wanted to make real progress before the summer sun drove her into the shade.
The rows of green beans, carrots, and onions were finally in good shape. Her tomatoes ripened on the vines. Helen straightened to ease the strain in her back and wipe sweat that stung her eyes. She glanced toward the road. Balloons of white dust multiplied and headed her way before she even saw the car.
She stopped to drink from the hose, splash cool water in her face, and rinse her hands. “These fingernails are shot,” she said to the vegetables. As tires crunched up her drive, Helen sat under a shady oak and let the tall woman come to her.
Vivian Capps attempted to brush chalky dust from her tailored maroon suit with as much success as flying a kite in a hurricane.
“Darn it, Helen. Why don’t you live on a paved road?”
“Well, ’Hello’ to you, too.”
Vivian grinned. “Sorry, but I’ve already had a tough morning. Hey! That lemonade looks good.” She plopped into a matching mahogany chair and stretched out long legs. “My lord. Is this made from real lemons?” She sipped and closed her eyes in appreciation.
Helen said, “That’s what us old retired folks do, make stuff from scratch. I’m glad you like it.”
“Where’d you get these chairs? You didn’t have ’em last time I was out.” The tall brunette squirmed in her seat. “They’re really comfortable.”
Helen pursed her lips. “The Amish near Jamesport make all kinds of stuff. But you didn’t get your car all dusty just to compliment my furniture, did you?”
Vivian sipped her drink and held the frosty glass up to her forehead. She let the moisture stay. “Helen, you’re sounding more like a Missourian everyday.” She laughed.
“When we met last year at St. Pat’s, I could tell we were going to be friends. And we are.”
Helen nodded. She enjoyed going to mass each Sunday and sitting with the Capps family. They were good people. Over coffee and donuts, she and Vivian had discovered their common interest--teaching. The fortyish administrator had listened in astonishment as Helen related stories of teaching inner-city children in Illinois. She’d understood why Helen had retired after thirty-two years of bureaucratic red tape, used up materials, and parents too beaten down by the system to care about their children.
“I saw Debbie and John over at Thousand Hills on the Fourth. They said your grandchildren were visiting you.”
Helen took a big drink. “I love those kids and they love to come here. We always have fun when they visit. They left on Monday, though.”
Vivian paused to collect her thoughts. She had rehearsed her pitch to Helen on the drive over. “It’s not enough, Helen. You need a part-time job and I’ve got just the thing.”
Helen laughed. “Need? Gil’s pension covers just about everything, and mine goes straight into the bank. The taxes here are only four hundred fifty a year. We were paying thirty-five hundred in Peoria.”
Vivian drained her glass and looked at her friend. “Not money. I mean, you know, something to do.” She sighed. “I need you, Helen.”
“What are you talking about?” She’d known Vivian had something on her mind last Sunday when they’d made plans for this visit.
Vivian swatted at a fly buzzing around her head. “Can we go inside, please?”
As Vivian freshened up, Helen switched on her two ceiling fans and rinsed the sticky glasses. She leaned on the sink and gazed out the window. She set her mouth in a hard line and remembered her promise to herself. When that first grader had brought his brother’s gun to school, I vowed I’d never go back, she thought. She shuddered as she relived the children’s screams as Antoine had waved the pistol around her classroom.
Somehow she had finished that school year but had retired three years earlier than she’d expected. Teaching six and seven year olds to read was difficult when her heart skipped beats at each strange sound. She’d caught herself going through book bags and lunch boxes during recess. After her students were dismissed each day, she’d locked her door.
A cold nose bumped her calf. Helen jumped and looked down. “Oh, Petey, I didn’t hear you come in the doggy door.” She bent down and scratched his head. Tears threatened for the second time this morning. She hated giving up what she had loved on someone else’s terms. She hated admitting to herself that she had lost her nerve. Maybe it was just as well.
Vivian sat quietly at the round table in the large open room. As Helen turned, her friend said, “It’s really nice in here. With those two fans, you don’t need air conditioning.” She cleared her throat as Helen joined her. “Okay. Here it is. I’ve got a pretty good staff at a K-2 building in Novinger. Adair County isn’t affluent, but we can usually get what we need. Anyway, we’re going to have a cross-categorical class there in the fall. I’ve got a brand-new teacher all lined up but with little experience on the job. Green, you know?”
“We were all new once. You have to start somewhere.”
Vivian nodded. “I know, but this is a pilot program, and if we want to secure the funding for next year, we have to do well.”
“Mmmmm. You don’t think this teacher can implement an effective program? What’s the enrollment and how many aides will she have?”
Vivian cleared her throat again like the motor of a ’69 Volkswagen. “His name is Art Penning and he’s twenty-five years old. Paula Francis is a great aide, but she doesn’t have much experience with these types of kids. I need someone like you who’s seen and done it all.”
Helen glanced down at Petey. “I’ve pretty much decided not to go back into any classroom.”
“I know. I know. But these kids. . . they’ll make it if you’re there. At least part time, anyway.”
Helen’s eyebrows shot up.
Vivian took it as an expression of interest. “Fifteen special needs kids, aged five, six and seven. At twelve forty-five, the younger ones go home. See, that leaves only eight for the afternoons, and I was thinking you could leave after lunch, too.”
The lanky brunette smiled nervously. “Well, one boy requires assistance with eating. His motor skills are really low-functioning. Poor little guy.” She paused to catch her breath. As Helen looked on, Vivian opened her leather brief case and let several file folders spill onto the table.
Helen frowned. “What’s with the different colors?”
“Home district designation. We’ll be taking kids from Greentop, Lancaster, Lavonia, Unionville, Kirksville, and Novinger, of course. But, here’s the best part. It’s only seven miles for you, Helen, and you won’t have to attend any IEP meetings. Art will want your input, but that’s no. . .”
Helen held up her right hand, palm out. “Hold it. You said ‘cross-cat.’ How diverse is this population?”
Vivian fingered the files. “Pretty wide, but I know you’ll take to these kids. I just know it.” She hurried on before Helen could speak. “Stop shaking that stubborn head of yours. Take a look. Read the cases and see the need. Come on.”
Helen leaned back in her chair. Just when did she lose control of this situation? Then she uttered words she knew would change her life. “Just describe them to me.”
For the rest of the morning, Petey dozed as the two women put their heads together and sorted files. Dark-eyed boys and girls, a child in a wheel chair, a defiantly glaring black child, two Down’s syndrome girls with mousy blonde hair, all looked out from glossy photos.
“What’s the story on this little guy?’ Helen asked as she studied an image. The seven year old boy had a high forehead, prominent ears, webbed fingers on the hand that was showing, and a startled look through thick glasses.
“That’s Patrick. He’s currently undiagnosed. A real puzzle. I did get to observe him last spring in a BD class. He was extremely hyper, over stimulated by external stimuli, and he spoke rapidly with invasive perseveration. His parents are greatly concerned. They said his older sister seems normal but was starting to have academic difficulties in second grade.”
Helen asked, “Has he had a blood work up for Fragile X? If that’s it, Ritalin could aggravate the symptoms instead of helping.”
Vivian blinked. “God, you’re good. You haven’t even seen the kid, and you may have something there.”
Helen shrugged. “I’ve seen it before. Now describe the autistic and bi-polar kids to me. What about the others?”
As Vivian chronicled child after child, Helen nodded and made separate piles of folders on the table.
Vivian smiled. “What’s this?”
“If I’m to run small group activities, I want carte blanche. I don’t want to step on anyone’s toes or undermine Mr. Penning’s authority.” Helen paused.
“Well, I don’t want both autistic kids in one group. Some people believe in that, but I’ve had more success if these kids have more normal role models so they can experience interactions. Especially if the speech therapist comes in to do small group language activities. And life skills has to have a big time block. Some of these kids have toileting issues and eating skills deficiencies. I’ll bet the Down’s kids can’t button or snap.”
Vivian smiled and relaxed as Helen went on and on with ideas for the class. She eyed the guitar propped in the corner.
“Yup. Music is vital for sensory motor integration. Besides, the kids like it.”
“Fine. Bring it.”
Helen stood. “You hooked me, didn’t you? Darn. I love my life now. I don’t want to have to go to work everyday.”
“Three mornings a week?”
Helen ran her fingers through short curls. “Well, Petey, what do you think?”
The hound raised his head at the mention of his name and lowered it again.
“Thanks a lot.” Helen looked down at the faces on her dining table. Maybe she could try it for one semester. Three mornings a week. That’s not too bad. She sighed.
“Okay. I’ll help until Christmas and see how it goes, but I’m not promising anything beyond that. Standard aide pay, I assume?”
Vivian stuck out her hand. “Deal. Sorry about the pay.”
After dinner of left over pot roast, Helen and Petey once again took their places on the front porch to bid farewell to the day. She rocked slowly as the dog thumped his tail on the smooth planks.
“I’m so easy,” Helen murmured to the dusk. “I never should have asked her to describe them to me, should I, Petey?”
The dog seemed to smile at her as he contorted his body into the classic dog- scratching-behind-his-ear-with -hind-leg pose. He moaned contentedly.
Helen snorted. She would soon be taking care of her own itch. DSS
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