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Tommy Hays' ( www.tommyhays.com ) latest novel is The Pleasure Was Mine, which was published in March by St. Martin's Press. He has written two other novels- Sam's Crossing and In the Family Way, a selection of the Book-of-the-Month Club and won the Thomas Wolfe Memorial Literary Award. Hays is Executive Director of the Great Smokies Writing Program at the University of North Carolina at Asheville and Director of Creative Writing for the Academy at the South Carolina Governor's School for the Arts and Humanities. He is also a member of the National Book Critics Circle and is a contributor to Our State magazine. Hays received his BA in English from Furman University and his MFA in Creative Writing from the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College. He lives in Asheville, NC with his wife and two children.
Sam's Crossing (1992)
In the Family Way, Random House (1999)
The Pleasure Was Mine (2005)
The day before I was to meet Jackson and Newell up at Jones Gap I took Irene on our regular afternoon ride. We were driving through the north Greenville countryside or what was left of it. What hadn't been eaten up by the strip malls, the Wal-Marts and the Home Depots. Then we got into fancy developments--developments with big brick entrances and names like Millard's Farm or Swire's Creek or Wykle's Woods that had sprung up. They had kept the names, but they had lost the places. Probably a lot of the old timers had been forced to sell their land to pay off the nursing homes. Rolling Hills my ass. More like Rolling Bills.
The quality of the scenery didn't seem to matter to Irene, as long as there was some. I could have ridden her around the same block for an hour, and she would have been as entertained as if I drove her to California. She enjoyed going to ride, even though she wasn't always real clear who this ugly old coot was who took her.
"Newell and Jackson are coming tomorrow," I said. "Jackson's spending the summer." I had been telling her this ever since Newell had called. Some days she heard me. One day she even said, "Put clean sheets on the beds." Today she just sucked on the straw to her iced tea and looked out the window.
"Newell wants some time to himself. Probably a good idea, don't you think?" I glanced over at her. "With all that he's been through."
She looked out the window.
"But the boy," I said. "I'm not sure what I'll do with him."
She set her iced tea in her lap and reached for the door handle for about the nineteenth time, but I had taken it off. A few weeks ago, she had unlocked the door and opened it while we were going sixty miles an hour and would have rolled out into traffic if I hadn't caught her arm. So I took off the inside door handle.
I became so busy perseverating on Newell and Jackson coming that I stopped paying attention to where I was going. Lightning, followed by the crack of thunder, brought me to my senses. I was driving down a road I had never seen before in my life. I had managed to get us out into the country all right. We were driving beside a big pasture and there was nobody around except a couple of jerseys. And it was clouding up.
I drove to the end of that road thinking I would come out somewhere familiar, but I didn't recognize the road name. The next road I turned onto wound through woods I had never seen before. I thought I knew every nook and cranny of Greenville County.
It was nearly 4:30, when I was supposed to have her back for supper. The dining hall ladies would be fussing. They liked to get the residents in and out of there so they could go home. I looked for somebody to ask directions, but there wasn't even a house around. Just woods, giving way to fields, then more woods, which were dark in the first place, but then it had been getting darker till it was almost like night-time. The lightning flashed and the thunder sounded on top of us. It was fixing to pour.
"I'll be goddamned," I whispered. "We're lost, Irene." I looked over at her as she was taking the top off her iced tea. "I wouldn't do that..."
A little spilled into her lap. Mostly ice. The way she cried out and tried to jump up out of her seat, you would have thought a snake had fallen into her lap.
"It's all right," I said, pulling to the side of the road, putting my flashers on. "It's just a little tea." I swept the ice out of her lap and dabbed at her dress with my handkerchief. She clenched her teeth and shook her head, tears welled in her eyes.
"It won't stain," I said.
But she wasn't looking at her dress. She was looking out the window. She made a low, eerie moan, a sound I had never heard her make. Then she looked back at me, and for a moment she was her old self, seeing what her new self had become.
"Worried about getting lost?" I asked.
She shook her head.
"I'm so sorry, Irene." I took her hand. "I wish there was something I could do."
She opened her mouth to say something like she knew what I could do, and a sound came out, but it wasn't a whole word. She raised her eyebrows and smiled sad-like and put her hands in her lap, like she gave up. A big drop of rain hit the windshield, then another and another and pretty soon it began to pour. I cut the engine, and the sound of the rain on the roof drowned out all other sounds. Now and then it would thunder and lightning, but that didn't bother Irene. At home she used to get me to sit with her on the piazza whenever a thunderstorm came up. When we were young, she used to walk right out into storms. So we sat there, holding hands, looking out, unable to see a thing for all the water sliding down the windshield. It was like we were the last living people on earth.
I began thinking how we had met the summer she had graduated from Agnes Scott and came home to be with her father, who lived in a big rambling house on Crescent Avenue, the richest street in Greenville. Irene's mother had died when she was six years old, giving birth to a stillborn boy whom they buried in the same coffin with Irene's mother in Springwood, the downtown cemetery. And Irene's younger brother, Mills, was down in Columbia at law school. So Irene's father, J.K. Blalock, lived alone. He had hired me to paint his house. It was the biggest job I had had and took me a good part of the summer.
Irene was a tall, slender girl with soft eyes and full lips. People compared her to Grace Kelly. With Mr. Blalock at his law office downtown most of the day, I used to steal glimpses of Irene when she would sunbathe in the backyard or when she worked in the flower bed or when she sat on the front porch and read. I scooted my ladder over to her vicinity. Sometimes, she brought me iced tea and cookies. After a while she began to make lunch for the both of us, and we would sit out on the porch and eat cream cheese and pineapple sandwiches.
What surprised me was how she talked to me, like a regular person, not like some big lawyer's daughter who had been off to college and back and who knew way more than I ever would. She never made me feel stupid.
Some days her father would come home, and the three of us would sit out on the porch and have a long lunch. Mr. Blalock, a heavy man who drove a Cadillac and wore a Panama hat, would offer me a cigar and launch into some good long story. One of the things I liked about his stories was that if he was ever in them, it was to make fun of himself.
One day after lunch, I had gone back to painting at the back of the house while Irene walked with Mr. Blalock to his car. I heard Irene scream. I jumped from the ladder, tore around to the front of the house and found her bent over Mr. Blalock, who was sprawled on the drive, his hat beside him on the cement. He was unconscious.
"Call an ambulance," I said. As Irene ran back to the house, I dropped down on my knees and put my head to his chest. He had stopped breathing. Not knowing what else to do, I pushed on the old man's chest, where I hoped his heart might be. I pumped, wondering what in the hell I was doing. I don't know how long I pumped his chest. I remember blue jays jeering overhead, like what in the hell did that idiot painter think he was doing?
His chest started to rise and fall. He was breathing. His eyelids fluttered, and Irene was back standing over us, "He's coming to," she said as he opened his eyes.
"Damn!" her father said, wincing and rubbing his chest.
We were helping him lean back against the Cadillac when the ambulance showed. They had him in the ambulance in no time and Irene climbed in, too and they tore out of the drive. I was left standing there, shook up. I didn't paint anymore that day.
Turned out to be a little heart attack, the doctor called it a warning. Mr. Blalock was back at his law practice within weeks. He lost weight, quit the cigars, and took up going for long walks around the neighborhood. And I stretched out that painting job as long as I could. Even when I was done, I kept thinking up excuses to come back--some of the trim I had overlooked or stairs I hadn't sanded enough. I couldn't get enough of Irene. Finally, when I couldn't think of anymore excuses to drop by, I called her one afternoon when I knew Mr. Blalock was at the office. I dialed the number two or three times before I let it ring. I had rehearsed how I would ask her, how I would keep my cool, and how I would slowly work my way to the reason for my call. When she answered the phone, all that went right out the window.
"This is Prate Marshbanks," I said, my throat tight. "Would you go out with me on Saturday night?"
There was a pause on the other end.
"I know it's real sudden and all," I said, "And if you have other plans...."
"Sure," she said. "I'll go out with you."
It was my turn to pause. "Just like that?" I said, beads of sweat rolling down the inside of my shirt.
"Just like that," she said.
"What about Mr. Blalock?"
"I don't think he would want to go along," she said.
"I mean don't you need to check with him?"
"I'm twenty-two," she said. "I'm old enough to decide with whom I'll go out."
"What about his heart? Mightn't it give him another attack when you tell him you're going out with me?"
"You underestimate my father."
"If I was him," I said, "I wouldn't let you go out with me."
"He likes you," she said. "And it doesn't hurt that you saved his life."
"Don't make any difference. A daughter is a father's treasure, his pride and joy. He don't want you going out with an illiterate so-and-so like me."
"You're far from illiterate," she said. "Anyhow Daddy doesn't usually test my dates' reading skills. At least not on the first date."
"You know what I mean," I said.
"Did you call to talk me out of going out with you?"
"So what time?"
"What time on Saturday do you want to go out?"
"Seven?" I pulled that out of the air, not having given time any consideration, figuring I wouldn't get this far.
"Where are we going?"
"The pictures?" I pulled that out of the air too and was thankful she didn't ask me what was playing.
"See you then," she said and hung up. And the whole rest of the week I bought the paper first thing, turning to the obituaries, fearing I would find Mr. Blalock's death notice.
Finally Saturday night rolled around. I pressed my good shirt and pants, shined my Sunday shoes, and checked my hair in the mirror for the umpteenth time. I had gotten a haircut that afternoon at B.Y's Barbershop on Augusta Road, and I looked to me like a jug-eared Mickey Rooney.
When I pulled up to the house, I felt light-headed like I had given blood. I walked up the steps and managed to ring the doorbell. I heard heavy footsteps, the door opened and there was Mr. Blalock. He looked thinner but older, his face hollowed out and frail. He smiled but looked puzzled.
"Hello, Prate," he said like he was surprised to see me. "Didn't you get my check for the bill?"
"Yes sir, I did, Mr. Blalock."
"Wasn't it for the correct amount?"
"Yes sir, you paid me exactly right."
He screwed up his brow. "Well how can I help you then?"
"Didn't Irene tell you?"
"Tell me what, Prate?"
I cleared my throat and found myself staring at the back of my hand which had tiny flecks of paint all in the hairs. I could never get out the tiny flecks no matter how hard I scrubbed. "Well sir..."
I looked down at my feet. "I'm thinking this porch floor might need one more coat, especially with all the foot traffic it gets." I bent down, rubbing my hand over the floorboards.
"Are you going to charge me for it?" he asked in a gruff booming voice, one I bet he used in the courtroom against some poor defendant.
"I'll do it for free," I said, standing back up.
"Is that why you came by? To tell me the porch floor needed another coat?"
"No sir. I mean, yes sir," I said, starting to back up. I knew it had been wrong to ask Irene out in the first place. We were from two different worlds and didn't have any business mixing. "Good night, sir."
"Daddy, that's enough." I heard Irene's voice somewhere behind him.
"Are you sure that's all you came for, Prate?" asked Mr. Blalock. He let the door swing wide. There she was standing in the foyer in a red dress and high heels, wearing pearls and earrings and looking even more like Grace Kelly. She was pulling a sweater over her shoulders. She kissed her father on the cheek. "Don't wait up."
She took my hand and led me stunned and wordless down the steps and out to the car. In her heels she was even taller, and I felt as ridiculous as Mickey Rooney taking Grace Kelly out on a date. By the time we reached the car, I had gathered enough wits to open the door for her. I stumbled around to my side and got in when Mr. Blalock came down to the car and stuck his head in my window.
"Prate?" he said, sticking his face nearly right up in mine, sounding gruff again.
"No monkey business tonight."
"No sir." My voice cracked.
But he was grinning and Irene was laughing and said, "Leave him alone, Daddy."
When we pulled away, he was standing in the middle of the driveway with his hand raised to us like he knew what was next, like he knew that it wouldn't be but a few months before I asked to marry Irene, like he knew he would say "At least she isn't marrying a lawyer," like he knew he would be all alone in that house for good, like he knew we would bring him Newell, a boy grandchild he could dote on for the four good years that stood between him and the day he was to join wife and baby in the cemetery downtown.