Mother and Child
by Robert Watts Lamon
Dan Ferguson was a confirmed bachelor. Of course, he had already had his nights of women and song -- and a touch of wine, too, if the truth were known. Yet now, in his forties, he hadn't anything good to say about the human female, not after his wife ran off to the "greener pastures" of Atlanta, a place Dan considered an affront to the noble soil of the Old Confederacy.
But spring was coming. Day by day, it sent its messages -- the blossoms on the fruit trees, the red-maple flowers tinting the blue sky, the growing chorus of birds. On the first weekend in March, he began work in his garden, tilling the big square near his farmhouse, planting the early vegetables, pausing occasionally to look out over the awakening countryside. In a few weeks, he would plant his yellow corn, squash, and beans, and, still later, his tomatoes and melons. And just as important were the two fields he hoped to yield money crops -- white corn and soy. He was hoping for a wet summer.
The spring was putting him in an odd frame of mind. He would look in the mirror and count the wrinkles in his face and look for more under his chin. Despite his professed attitude toward women, he would recall the few pleasant moments of his married life. He was in such a wistful mood, one evening, when he closed his garage. That was his business -- Dan's Garage -- in the town of Bedford, North Carolina. Fixing cars had helped him keep his farm and buy the tractor and plow and other equipment he needed to work it.
Dan had spent a long day at his business, and it was dusk when he pulled into his driveway and rode past the big oak tree. He noticed a light on in his living room. Did he leave it on? Pulling into a wooden shed, he parked next to his tractor. He was wary in approaching the front door. As he turned the key in the lock, he thought he heard a woman's voice -- but how could that be? When he opened the door, sure enough, he found a fine figure of a woman standing in his living room. She was likely in her mid-thirties and blonde and wore a plain dress. Standing beside her was a boy, maybe ten years old, with the same light hair. He wore jeans and a plaid shirt.
"Well -- uh, good evening," Dan said, for want of other words.
"I hope you'll forgive us," the woman said in a gentle voice. She gazed at Dan with pale blue eyes. "My son and I were wet and cold. We needed shelter."
"I hadn't noticed any rain. Are you homeless?"
"For now -- yes. We were on our way to Virginia to visit friends. There was an accident. Our car was -- a total loss."
"I'm glad you weren't hurt. How did you get in the house?"
"We just -- walked in."
Dan gave firmness a try. "Did it occur to you that this was private property?"
"Please don't be cross," the woman said. "We haven't hurt anything."
"Momma did your breakfast dishes," the boy said.
Dan admired the boy's forthright manner. He was growing into a man.
"Well, that was sure nice of her. Did you all have dinner?"
"No," the woman replied. "We haven't eaten since morning."
"I reckon I have enough to feed you. By the way, I'm Dan Ferguson. I run Dan's Garage -- yonder in Bedford."
"I'm Annabel Cole -- and this is my son, Johnny Cole. I'm a right good cook."
"So am I," Dan said.
"All right--let's work together."
As it happened, they worked well together. They fixed country steak, boiled potatoes, greens, biscuits, and coffee -- and a glass of milk for Johnny. After dinner, Annabel and Dan did the dishes, while Johnny read the Farmers' Almanac.
"It's good he learned to read," Dan said. "You never know these days."
"I schooled him at home. He's got -- potential."
Dan noticed a sudden sadness in her expression -- a cloudy, faraway look in her eyes. The sadness worried him. He was getting to like this woman who had suddenly appeared in his house -- though he still wasn't sure how.
"I see you have a deck of cards," she said pointing to a kitchen shelf. "I play a mean game of Hearts."
"Now that's good. I was getting tired of Solitaire. Let's try a few hands."
And so, with the dishes dried and put away, Dan and Annabel played cards and talked about farming, on his farm and on her family farm in South Carolina.
"I've got tomato plants in the barn," he said at one point.
"When do you transplant here?"
"In May -- first cloudy day. I've got my early crops planted -- lettuce, turnips, carrots, radishes, collards."
"Sounds like a right fine garden."
"Say -- let me ask you. I'm looking for someone to work the front desk in my business. You'd answer the phone, make appointments, fill out repair bills, keep time, write checks for me to sign -- that sort of thing. It's a small business. I've got three mechanics working for me. I think you'd fit right in."
"No, I can't -- not anymore." The sad look was there again. "I'd love to -- but I can't."
Dan didn't really understand her answer -- not then. "Well -- I sure would like for you to change your mind."
"I'd love to -- but I can't."
Anyway, it was past his bedtime. "Do you want a lift somewhere?"
"No, no -- we'll manage."
"I could drive you to the inn -- in Bedford. Save you a walk."
"Don't fret -- we'll manage."
But how could they manage? -- in the dark, on a narrow road, with several miles of woods and fields in every direction?
"Well, now -- look," Dan said, mulling things over, not wanting to appear forward. "I've got plenty of room here. I put in extra beds for my former in-laws. If you need a place to stay -- "
"I'd love to stay here," Annabel said with wide blue eyes and a smile.
"Johnny might like the bunk bed," Dan said. "There's a bigger bed for you, and you'll find clean sheets in the closet. I sleep downstairs -- get up early."
"Do you go fishing?" Johnny asked, putting the Farmers' Almanac back where he found it.
"I sure do -- plenty of fish in the pond yonder."
"Go ahead and get ready for bed, Johnny," Annabel said.
Johnny said goodnight and climbed the stairs. She lingered and spoke to Dan.
"Thank you so much. I hope we won't be too much trouble."
"To tell the truth, I've enjoyed your company."
He noticed a happy kind of glow on her face -- one that she kept as she glided up the stairs.
The next morning, Dan was up and dressed by five o'clock. As he was buttoning his shirt, he smelled breakfast. When he opened the door to his room and reached the kitchen he found Annabel busy and breakfast nearly made. It was a good old stick-to-the ribs breakfast -- eggs, country ham, grits and gravy, toast and coffee.
"Today, I have to fix cars in Bedford," he said as they both sat down to eat. "Are you looking to stay for a while?"
"You just go right on. I can find things to do."
"Uh -- I wouldn't mind if you stayed on."
Once again, her face had that glow. "I'd like to sort of stick around."
"You may need to put Johnny in school."
"I can teach him here."
After breakfast, Dan put on his baseball hat with "Dan's Garage" stitched above the visor. "I'll look forward to seeing you."
"Bye, bye," she said with a smile and a little wave of the hand.
Dan meant what he said. All day, as he put in new spark plugs, a new radiator, a new muffler, and drained crankcases, he thought about Annabel. At the end of the day, he took off his coveralls, as usual, but before putting on his jeans and shirt, he washed his hands extra times with plenty of soap. Looking in the mirror, he noticed his face was dirty and scrubbed it clean. And finally, fully dressed, he put a nice part in his thinning hair. As he walked to his pickup truck, it occurred to him that he might be in love. He paused for a moment to think about that. But then, he just laughed and climbed in the truck and headed for home.
When he pulled into his driveway and rode past the big oak tree, he stopped the truck and stared at his two big fields. They were plowed. He could see the furrows in the late afternoon sun, all properly aligned with the contours of the land. When he pulled into the shed, he noticed the tractor was still warm. Annabel greeted him halfway to the house. She wore a fresh gingham dress; her face was red from the sun. She extended her hand, and they held hands all the way up the walk.
"You plow a straight furrow," Dan said, laughing.
"I've plowed lots of furrows."
"How did you hook up the plow?"
"Johnny gave me a hand. I figured you'd want that cover crop plowed under."
"That's right. Where's Johnny?
"I gave him one of your fishing poles. He's yonder -- at the pond."
"Maybe we'll have fish for dinner."
Sure enough, Johnny came home waving a string of bass and bream. Dan and Annabel cleaned the fish and pan-fried them. They made mashed turnips and a salad, and the three of them sat down to a family-style dinner and with family-style talk.
"Johnny," Dan said. "You're a good fisherman. This weekend we'll go to the pond and try some of my lures. I'll show you how to use them."
"Yes, sir. I'd like that."
"I'll come too," Annabel said. "I like to fish."
"I'm not surprised. You can do most everything else. Johnny -- you like to read?"
"I've got Treasure Island and Tom Sawyer. You're welcome to them."
"Oh, yes. I'd like to read them."
These dinner-time scenes became a regular event at his farmhouse as Dan continued to shelter this mother and child. His relationship with Annabel remained chaste, something he thought might change, though it didn't matter all that much. Yet he grew more and more dependent on her. He would smile when he noticed a new button sewn on his shirt, the kitchen swept clean, or the weeds gone from the garden. The whole farm had acquired a special glow. It was no longer a mere collection of shapes, but a joyful, welcoming place.
On weekday evenings, he would come home to her adoring face and laugh at Johnny's enthusiastic greeting. On weekends, in good weather, they would all work in the garden or in the fields, picking, cultivating, checking crops for damage. Dan and Johnny would sometimes mend fences, while Annabel put up preserves. For fun, they would fill a basket with food, take fishing poles, and have a picnic at the pond.
One weekend, they were all outdoors, and Dan was strolling through the cornfield when Annabel met him at the fence.
"Corn looking good, Dan?"
"Right now, yes. Come October, it should be ready for the combine"
"We got some fine tomatoes."
"You know, Annabel -- I'm thinking about buying two or three cows and a bull and starting a heard. I had one once, but I sold it off. If you stay on here, we could make more money to buy us what we need."
"Whatever you think best. I don't know what the future holds."
From her expression, Dan realized he had said the wrong thing. She never wanted to discuss any permanent arrangement. She lived each day for itself.
"You flat-plant here," she said, changing the subject.
"Dry soil. Raising the rows does more harm than good. Annabel -- are you happy here?"
"In my en-tire life--my en-tire life--I've never been happier."
That night, she visited him in his bed. For some years, he hadn't experienced that most delightful pleasure of domesticity. More than ever, he wanted her to stay on -- yes, as his wife -- but even as they whispered in the dark, she avoided any talk of the future. Yet here, in his bed, they were the same good partners that they were in working the farm. The next morning, their early breakfast was especially happy. Before Dan left for his business, Annabel kissed him and said good-bye.
That evening, Dan came home in a joyful mood. But his laughter vanished when he found the house empty. The stove was cold. No dinner awaited him -- no happy faces greeted him. He was puzzled, even frightened. He left the house, and, in the late sunlight, hiked over his land -- to the pond, along the stream that fed it, along the fence line, over the pastures he had kept mowed, through the scrub that covered what once were tobacco fields. He paused, here and there, to shout Annabel's name and listen for a reply that never came. Finally, exhausted, he returned to the house.
He was pacing the floor, hoping she had gone shopping or was visiting neighbors, when he saw the note on the table near the front door. It was written with a gentle hand. "My Darling Dan," it read. "I am sorry, but I must leave you. By the time you read this, Johnny and I will be far, far away. Please believe that I love you. Good-bye," and of course, it was signed "Annabel."
Dan's first impulse was to jump into his truck and go looking for her. But where could she be? Walking along the road? -- he would have seen her. Was she on the bus to Virginia or South Carolina? Did her family come to drive her home? He put his hand on the telephone, intending to call Sheriff Ben Elmwood, but changed his mind. What could the Sheriff do? -- Annabel wasn't a fugitive. Dan simply stood there with tears in his eyes and, at last, sat down until his composure returned. Annabel, he concluded, was just one more woman beyond his understanding.
Still, his sense of loss hung on and on. He was depressed, disgusted, but hitched himself up enough to run his business. Of course, his three mechanics noticed he wasn't his usual self. One of them ventured to ask what was wrong.
"Nothing I can't get over," Dan replied, though he didn't know when.
A few days after that, Sheriff Ben Elmwood brought his marked Crown Vic to Dan's Garage for an oil change. Dan greeted him at the front desk, took his keys, and tagged them.
"I hope things are going well, sir," Dan said, mainly to take his mind off his own miseries.
"Too bad about that woman and her young son," the Sheriff said.
Dan replied in a near whisper. "What's that?"
"You didn't hear?"
"I don't much keep up with the news."
"Well -- they were traveling from South Carolina to Virginia. They went missing -- last March."
"Yes -- anyway, a few days ago, we found their car in the river. The woman must have missed a turn -- ended up in the deep water. Their remains were inside the car. They'd been there for a long time."
"Do you know their names?"
"Yes -- the woman's name was Annabel Cole. Her son was -- "
"Johnny Cole," Dan muttered.
Sheriff Elmwood gave him a sharp look. "How did you know that?"
"I must have heard about it after all."
"You never know how or when we'll depart this earth."
"That's the truth -- sure enough."
After the Sheriff departed, Dan stood for some time, staring at the opposite wall.
© 2011 Robert Watts Lamon
Bio: Robert Watts Lamon is college educated, an ROTC graduate, and a former chemist. In addition to papers in organic chemistry, he has published an article in a security trade bulletin and several short stories in small magazines, including XAVIER REVIEW an THE MACGUFFIN. He has also contributed four book reviews to LIBERTY.
E-mail: Robert Watts Lamon
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