My Mother was a world class encourager and protector of her family. It made her a successful teacher and a creator of meaningful relationships. I rediscovered one instance of her skill here. The short story to which she refers follows.
Brett…..I wanted to comment on the story you sent to the Chicago Tribune. I didn’t have time until today. It seems that over the years you have absorbed so many things that make up my life. I guess I didn’t realize that you were paying such close attention. That story of grandpa is both real and fictional and yet so much more real than not. You showed him in the light of what he really is….a caring soul but at the same time concerned about what made him happy at the moment. He didn’t always make the right decisions and still doesn’t. But he is not a bad man. He grew up in poverty and bettered himself and thus his family. I was encouraged to go to college and so I bettered myself. Because of that I was able to marry a man who had the same wants as I did and you were able to benefit from that. My father was not a good fit for my mother and thus the problems that evolved along the way. I think her death was due in part to not being fulfilled. Somehow you were able to capture so much of what happened along the way even though you put it in fiction form. That amazes me. Your writing gets better and better the more you write and even if you struggle to get this first book published, I’m sure you will be successful down the road.
I am proud of the fact that you have gotten this far. You are doing what I always wanted to do, but did not drive myself to do. I have faith in your ability to pursue this. You have been a writer for years whether you know it or not. You always have my support and love….Mom
Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain
by Brett Ramseyer
Harold sauntered toward Edith on his now shaky knees. The sound of the polka music limbered up his joints and made him young again. For the first few bars of any favorite song he felt as vibrant as nineteen again, instead of eighty-five.
He smoothed his white ring of hair in place and waltzed, left-right-left, through the round tables of the Elks banquet hall. The space to move these days grew as many of his old friends did not come anymore. Harold visited dozens for the last time in sparsely populated gatherings in parks of trees, flowers and stones.
By the time he reached Edith the steady um-pa-pa of the polka neared its finale, but he could not help saying, “Come on old girl. Let’s show ‘em how it’s done.” Together they cleared a path through the less graceful and feeble. Harold’s knees were the smooth cushion, his hands the expert guides, but his breath gasped out in short supply and the last measure could not pass soon enough. As Edith and Harold parted to clap for the band the break of their flowing link immediately zapped him forward in time sixty-five years and the force of the temporal travel sent him reeling in a sideways stumble. He caught himself on a chair trying to recover charmingly. The sudden jolt to his tailbone sent blood screaming upward like the weight on a carnival game that left the bell of his cheeks resonating a pink glow.
Masking his fatigue behind a smile he rested until his breathing stopped rasping audibly from across the room. He could not hide his embarrassment from Edith who moved away to dance with another man to escape the uncomfortable wheeze of age.
Rejection! Harold “Rejection” Verbeck let himself fall into his silver Skylark without Edith. “I can never do anything right,” he said to himself while the practiced flood waters rose in his eyes. They rose short of crest because his sagging shoulders could still shrug off some things.
He turned to his friend. Harold ran his finger over the radio dial, the soft pale cheek of his love. Instantly music filled the car and wrapped him in the embrace that made him forget and covered the din of rain that fell in his sad heart. The radio played and played and Harold drove with no place to go for a time. He cut through the dark of years and blurry memories. He passed them like neon truck stops that grow long in the side windows of a three a.m. haul. The cool unhurried voice of the nighttime disc jockey rippled through the car like a soothing stream. He cued Merle Haggard and promised Willie Nelson on the horizon. Soon the blue hot headlights danced ahead, coasting gracefully toward him
Floating as one across the barn floor the long skirted beauties and the eager boys home from the Conservation Corp camps of the north kicked off their work week crust. The long hard bodies worked up a posture of men and spent twice as much. Money they sent home to their parents, but cash was theirs. It festered like poison ivy in their coarse cracked hands. A dime for the dance and two bits for the haircut they wore slicked back over their ears eased the itch. The naked bulbs swaying from the haymow of Sullivan’s barn cast a golden glow of prosperity over all even though those long skirts were hand-me-downs and no country boy’s shoes shined.
Harold followed George through the crowd of faces. He could hardly believe that he walked to the VanWinkle school only two miles from here in 1926. Those “Goddamn Pollacks” always stole his lunch from his pail and tossed the pail and Harold into a snowdrift. He remembered looking up and blinking back cold flakes and hot tears, but never telling his teacher, Miss Wolters, when he walked the last quarter mile to the little red school house. Old classmates whirled around the floor. He recognized no one from his childhood because his parents moved so often. Ruby Creek. Claybanks. Twin Bridges. Woodland Park. He recalled the earthy names of the wide spots sprouting in the road where his family settled, well lit from time to time like anxious autumn birds flapping from limb to limb. If he saw the Pollacks he thought of socking them in the nose now that he was nineteen. The weight of a double bit axe of the north sowed confidence in his swelling shoulders.
George lead the way and that put a slow rising scowl on Harold’s face. He wanted to be leading and not George, but some pretty girl around the floor. His thick black hair shone brightly when he bumped into George who stopped short. “Well Harl, let me introduce my sister, Ella, to you,” George spoke so softly that it almost felt like a whispered secret. His kind and gentle voice never overpowered a room with volume, but pulled people into him like a hug from and old friend. They listened to George because of quiet mystery yet never stood disappointed when imagined secrets dissolved into simple honesty. Still, Harold heard only “Ella.”
Her eyes grabbed first, blue. Then her smile played more warm light on Harold’s face than all the lights in the hayloft that accentuated the golden glow of her hair. He was in love. Without even asking he whisked Ella out into the center of the barn where he could speak the best, with his dance. His true peacock prowess steered the blue-eyed girl around the bouncing boards while her eyes mirrored the cerulean iridescence of his feathers. Farmers picked banjos, the squeeze box moaned, the bass drum thumped and the Depression exalted if for only a measure. The honored barn crouched under the joyous crowd ready to spring off her foundation.
The band flourished through their staccato finale and forty circles broke to applaud with appreciation. Harold coughed and nearly choked on the hay dust that the skirts and heels tossed into the air. Ella spoke first to end the awkward pause.
“How do you know George?” she asked in the waning din.
“Come again darlin’,” he said over his shoulder as he tried to lead her out the open double door.
“I said where did you meet my brother?”
“Oh George,” said Harold grudgingly stalling on old George before he could move to the more interesting territory of himself. “He was my crew boss in the three C’s. A real good fella, George. He showed me how to scale timber and I showed him how to cut it down in record time.”
“He works hard.”
“We all do up there, sometimes more at swatting flies than chopping logs.”
“Is that what you do? Chop logs.”
“No not me. I’ve bigger plans.” Harold walked again down the earth ramp to the picnic tables under a gnarled maple where older married girls stood with their dress sleeves rolled up past their elbows. They ladled warm lemonade out of wash tubs and kept mournfully sober eyes on the younger guests who might pop off into the brambles for an improper tangle. He plunked down a nickel for two cents worth of drink and waved away the change before he handed a tin mug to Ella.
“Thank you.” She nodded. “What are those plans?”
“Girls mad with short answers?”
“You’re a quick one. I don’t remember George mentioning such a clever sister.”
“He didn’t discuss a handsome dancer either.”
“I guess we shouldn’t invite him to the wedding then.”
“It wouldn’t be right…” And they reeled toward the band. The coiled rope tied to the hayfork cast eerie shadows that grew long on the walls and swept over the floor as the dangling bulbs swayed to and fro in an undulating rhythm. The two barely sipped mugs sat impatiently on a table.
The waitress leaned over to clear the torn packets of sugar and tiny cartons of creamer. Her orange truck stop smock piped in brown desperately clung to her. Between her breasts a quarter-sized button strained against the weight of her caffeinated boredom. It held back the bait to lure in someone’s stare. Her double slung trap snapped Harold’s neck, who tilted left reaching his back pocket to extract an exorbitantly large tip from the life file of his swollen wallet. The vinyl covered bench below him groaned along with “Ain’t That a Shame” warbling out of the jukebox. These restless sounds gave harmony to the melody of her transplanted Texas twang in the empty Junction City diner.
“You want another cup, Sugar?”
“I do if you’re pouring, Doll,” said Harold from behind his practiced grin. For a short man the charm must flow easily. For a trucker it must pour out often and this night it stood ready to trickle out cool and measured in his hands. He peeled back two foil creamer lids and cradled the tiny white corrugated cups like dice in his right palm.
She took her turn to lean in while she squinted through the script of his name curling in blue over his breast pocket. “That regular or unleaded, Harold?”
“Full strength, Evelyn,” that he read from the waxy iron on tag she wore over her heart. “Beautiful name, for a beautiful girl,” he said as he pulled his hand off the oft passed five dollar bill resting at the edge of the table.
She stopped with her left arm on her hip and a tight grip on the steaming glass pot rimmed in orange. “Is that the best you got?” she demanded with a smirk. The scalding woman and pot sloshed violently over Harold. “I’m not just the truck stop tart giving out a taste to every Jake on a brake.”
“Did you want me to lay out a ten? It’s only twenty-five cents a cup still, isn’t it?”
She hung for a second before she laughed two short bursts through her nose. She shook her head in silent apology. “I – I been on since six. I had the tail end of the dinner crowd and now it’s –” She craned her neck back over the chrome lined counter to one of the hideous white cat clocks whose eyes and tail shifted back and forth in a nauseating sway of seconds. The plastic balls bulged out in panic as if strangled by time, but the kitty’s low rent kitsch wagged on. “Nearly two thirty in the morning. I’m beat.”
“It’s all right,” he said. “Sit down a bit. No one else in the place.” She slid in across the booth from him.
“He’s right,” called over the cook from the grill who wiped the sweat off his high forehead with his white hat. “Nobody here. I’m goin’ out back for a smoke. Mind the counter.”
“I didn’t mean any harm,” continued Harold. “It’s just funny.”
“My name doesn’t make me laugh.”
“No, it’s just all the girls I’ve loved before – their names. They all started with the letter ‘E’.”
“That include your wife?” she asked tapping his banded finger.
He nodded slowly and sheepishly in wolves clothing. “Her too – Ella.” He twisted the ring around the fat of his finger and could not pass it over the swollen knuckle. “Let’s not dwell on her. Those problems are almost twenty years in the making and a few thousand miles down the road in Michigan.”
“Lord, how can you stand it?”
“No, the endless miles all alone.”
“I hum,” and Harold mmmed out a garbled mouthful of notes as he stood up next to the table. “Care to dance?” he asked holding out his hand.
“I don’t recognize the tune.”
“‘Ain’t That a Shame.’”
“It is if you’re hummin’ Sweetie.” Evelyn replied with her mouth slightly parted and head aslant.”
“No, that’s what I was humming,” he said confused.
Evelyn’s laugh rose up from the booth and covered the sound of the rigs idling in the lot. It washed over the diner like a clean cloth wiping crumbs to the floor. Her giggles pushed Harold a little dejectedly into the booth and she pitied him. He did not look up.
“I’ll just stick to bein’ the hostess.” She pushed the five back across to him with her palm flat on the table. “It’s on me this mornin’.” She grasped the pot with her other hand as she prepared to fill his empty mug. Harold inched his fingers out slowly over the cold surface where he met the warmth of hers. His eyes came up to the cream in his other hand that she invited him to mix in the black delta of her stream of coffee. The two clouded like agitated silt while they poured.
Down in torrents the spring awoke sobbing. The salt on the roads washed off the dashed yellow lines and collected in the widening pot holes of the season where spinning tires would eject it over the guard rails and into the snow crushed lawns. Harold’s long driveway past his darkly shaded house lay an oily track of mud that led to the white cinderblock garage.
There, tools and compressors, chains and ropes found the home and resting place of Verbeck Trucking. On the odd weekends Harold would give two quick tugs to his multi-noted horn and sound the song of homecoming. It would scatter through the surrounding cherry orchards bobbing the blossom petals like a swarm of bees collecting pollen.
Harold made the turn off the highway several hours before he could put the tractor to bed. He did not seize the cord over head. The Grand Haven tie up cost him two hours and he feared Ella would be asleep. He stepped mournfully out of the cab into rain, but quickened to save a soaking. He ducked under his jacket fumbling with his keys, dropped them on the piston of his knee that sent them forward into the slurping expanse of a four inch deep puddle.
He ran now past the overhead door around back to the rusted service door. He expected to grab the spare key dangling from a hook hidden by the molding over the door. Instead the door swung freely back and forth on its hinges. Once in out of the rain Harold shook of his drenched jacket. He reached for the wall switch that sparked the bare bulbs screwed into the two porcelain sockets hung from the center trusses. He walked over to his work bench to discard the saturated coat and to find the necessary wrenches when the shadow froze the moment in memory. On the wall a pendulum quavered agonizingly, back and forth, sounding of faint rain soaked footsteps down a lonely corridor.
Harold turned not knowing what he saw. The naked lights silhouetted the ankles. He circled apprehensively to the front of the garage and gasped at the face in the light, the eyes bulging blue, the legs swaying time, and the rope coiled tightly. A rusted folding chair lay kicked flat a few feet away from the body. He walked forward slowly and righted the seat. He stumbled into it and sat below her for an eternity with his head in his hands.
Above Ella stiffened in the breeze that squeezed past the open door. She pinned a note above her heart, “In case you’d miss me – I chose the garage.”
The white blocks of the garage and overhead door stained under the steady drip of the metal roof. Harold Verbeck sat idling in his silver Skylark with the high beams garishly shining off the building and lighting up the rain slicked yard. A man with tousled hair wearing two different shoes snapped open an umbrella to see what fool parked in his yard so late. He circled gingerly around the driver’s side window rolled completely down. A dark spotted hand conducted the air slowly and the man spoke, “Hey buddy what the hell are you doin’ in my yard this time of night?”
Harold stared straight ahead at his old garage while the radio softly played. The man began to speak again when and undecipherable melody sobbed out of Harold’s soul.
Now my hair has turned to silver
All my life I’ve loved in vain
I can see her star in heaven
Blue eyes crying in the rain.