am a ranth (AM-ah-ranth) n.
1. Any of various annuals of the genus Amaranthus having dense green or reddish clusters of tiny flowers and including several weeds, ornamentals, and food plants. Also called pigweed.
2. An imaginary flower that never fades.
The town had moved the Confederate Monument from the square to the gates of Springforth Cemetery some twenty years after the War of Northern Aggression, and General Robert E. Leewho stood atop the mossy marble with a scowlhad never quite recovered. The general was listing, slowly sinking in the boggy soil, his finger pointing no longer at the ghostly Union brigade ahead, but just down and to the left, toward the new Ideal Laundry Factory, as if to demand extra starch. The stony glare of the good general was the last thing Emma Hanley's grandfather saw as he sat at his mahogany desk in his office, pondering a lost factoryforeclosure by some outfit up North was imminentand an astonishing sweep of bad investments. As he swallowed the muzzle of a Colt .45, William McCann peered at the general, who seemed to look back at him approvingly, a kinship that comes from being beaten down by Yankees.
William McCann's self-inflicted gunshot on that brilliant spring day in 1908 made a mess of things. But then, he never did have a head for business. In those days, a man was born with his fortune, and occasionally he increased it, but he never lost it. And McCann, who'd never quite cottoned to the textile industry, hadmanaged to lose everything, as his widow, Josephine, quickly discovered. The tree-lined estate in town went first, the family's seasonal residences nextthe seaside place in Charleston, the summer bungalow in the Blue Ridge Mountainseverything inside them auctioned off, crated, and shipped down to the pickle forks and finger bowls, how could they?
They could; they did. The wealthy in Palmetto had little sympathy for downfall brought about by a gentleman's folly. Travel lust, for example. Seduced by the lure of far-flung jungles, perilous crags, and shimmering deserts, McCann had, for some time, been obsessed by exotic botanicals. He fancied himself a plant hunterignoring his failing business and leaving behind his wife, Josephine, for months at a time, appeasing her with promises of civilized travel fit for a woman upon his return.
A pity, many in the town noted, that shortly before her husband's unfortunate firearm accidentfor that is what the family thereafter referred to it as, an accident, a man simply cleaning his gunJosephine McCann had already sent a steamer trunk to Paris, in preparation for a season with her daughter, Angeline, on the Continent. That voyage was canceled, the trunk recalled. Without means, the McCann women found themselves stuck in Palmetto, South Carolina.
The financial snarl untangled, the fortune unspooled, and the McCann women's property shrank to a dot on the map, to a single address: Amarantha staid Victorian at the edge of town, built on a whim a decade previously, on land McCann had purchased purely for its rich, well-drained soil, fierce fecundity, and eastern light.
At Amaranth, the widow Josephine insisted decorum remain. Linen napkins, yellowed as old teeth, were used at all meals, as well as a few remaining pieces of silverware, the handles heavy as guns. In time, daughter Angelinewho had not been a debutante, having lost that privilege along with other trappingssettled for a young soldier as a husband, a doughboy. The poor soul lost his mind on the battlefields of France and never found it again. Angeline moved from her brief newlywed venture backinto Amaranth with her mother. Six months later, Emma arrived, born into a household of women pining for escape, who continued to insist they were trapped in a decidedly lower station in life, a station from which there was no leaving the town, at least not in any sort of civilized fashion.
But that was going to change, finally. For on this unseasonably warm April morning nearly eight decades after her grandfather's firearm mishap, Emma Hanley, seventy-two, found herself just days away from embarking on a journey of a lifetime. The Trip, as her husband, Harold, referred to itoften while rolling his eyesa cruise to Europe.
That was the year spring rushed through the town, barely stopping. By April, a morning stroll produced clammy sweat at the nape of one's necka sure sign of an approaching brutal summer. But this harbinger of a merciless season did not overly concern the people of Palmetto, as it would have years before, back when a cruel season made airless lint-filled mills suffocating, left crops dead, farmers unpaid, and children unfed. Now, there was central air, office jobs, and grocery stores. Cable television brought news all day and all nightreports that the Berlin Wall might soon fall, rumors the Japanese were buying up Hawaii, hotel by hotel. There was a rosy-cheeked president well into his seventh decade for whom Emma Hanley did not much care, though she did find some use for him: When Harold protested that Emma and he were too old to take the Trip, she reminded her husband that the Leader of the Free Worlda man for whom Harold had twice votedwas even older.
That was the spring when Emma's life took a dramatically new course, and it all started that Saturday morning in April 1987, a day when Emma was happier than she'd been in yearsstudying her itinerary, wondering about comfortable shoes and all-weather cloaks, peering at her husband across the stack of maps and Fodor's Guides on the dining room table, nodding pleasantly as he announced he would soon be heading to the Biscuit Basketfor his daily coffee klatch. For in the last few weeks, travel plans had brought to the Hanley marriage an unexpected spirit of compromise. Nowadays, when Harold sucked his teeth or stayed too long at his breakfasts, all Emma had to do was think of the Trip, and a thrill like harp strings would thrum inside her, and she would be happy again.
"Look here at this mess," Harold said now, holding up the morning newspaper. "No respect for the dead." Emma glanced up from the brochure she was reading on converting foreign currency. CEMETERY VANDALS STRIKE AGAIN! the headline on the front page of the Palmetto News screamed, and there was a picture of the general himselffestooned with toilet paper and what appeared to be Hawaiian leis, looking, appropriately enough, drunk and rakish. Behind the statue, streamers drooped over the rusty iron spires of Springforth. Harold studied the article. When he read silently, his lips moved. "Says here, kids done it," he said. "Teenagers and their parties." He shook his head.
"Perhaps someone at town hall will remember now to fix the memorial," Emma said cheerfully. There had been talk about repairing the Confederate Monument for years, and restoring the cemetery, and doing something with the old mill and all the rest, but then the town would forget, and nothing happened. It was as if the people of Palmetto just stopped seeing the statues, the shuttered cotton mills, the vandalized graveyards. They drove right by, sealed behind their tinted car windows, sipping their travel mugs, nodding their heads to music. Even the McCann saga had apparently been wiped from the town's memory. Although the old cotton factorywith the McCann name fading on the brickremained, and there was still a McCann side street and, for a short time, a shopping center with the name, no one except Emma herself and her friends Miss Gibble and Lila Day associated the McCann name with lost fortune or with penniless women lamenting their strangled fate. Come to think of it, Emma reflected now, perhaps the town's collective amnesia wasn't such a bad thing after all.
"Gonna be a hot one today," Harold said, reading aloud nowthe detailed weather forecastcomplete with humidity levels and wind directionsin that halting way that set Emma's teeth on edge. The Trip, she thought, the Trip.
She smiled. "Good, it will be nice to get away. They say that London is cool this time of year."
Harold grunted in agreement. He remained a reluctant traveler. Now that they had a little savings and an abundance of time, he had finally agreed to venture overseas because, as Emma reminded him, he owed her this favor. He owed her because decades of installing appliances meant Harold had spent years in women's kitchens, which led to having coffee with them, or iced tea and a slice of pound cake, accompanied by long talks and she didn't know what all. She didn't care to speculate. Oh, Harold had cultivated himself quite a following in Palmetto, all right, though Emma had never put her foot down. Well, perhaps a few times, many years before: knock-down drag-outs that ended with seething anger, threats of leaving, a violent clashing, damp sheets, and, nine months later, a child. Three of these battles had names: Will, Dora, and Bobby.
"More coffee?" she asked.
"I'll get some Sanka later." He put on his jacket. "Sure you're not coming?"
"Not with all the things I've got left to do."
It was part of the Hanleys' new unspoken agreement: He would pretend to demand Emma come along to his morning coffee klatch with all those adoring widow women as vigorously as she would decline. With the Trip on the horizon, Emma was perfectly happy to send him off to the Biscuit Basket, and he knew it. Her interests remained elsewhere: across the Atlantic, where, according to their itinerary, they would be within a week at the dazzling Dutch Capital of Amsterdam with its quaint, cobbled streets, steeply gabled merchants' houses, and famous museums and galleries. Yes, thought Emma, after thirty-seven years of marriage, she and Harold were enjoying some well-earned equilibrium, at least temporarily. A regular cease-fire. For what was marriage buta treaty between two warring little nations, a congress of conflicting desires and wills?
"There is one little thing, before you go," she said.
"What's that?" He stood at the door in the black jogging pants he'd taken to wearing these days. His tan Windbreaker was zipped, the baseball cap pulled down, hiding his eyes. He was waiting to be dismissed. It was twenty after eight. In ten minutes, he'd be out the door. You could set your watch by him. Emma's husband was a man who'd established times for everythingbedtimes, meals, and bowel movements. Daylight saving time presented a quandary every six months in the Hanley household, until Harold, with a shot of prune juice and a stack of Reader's Digests, reset himself. Try to drag a man like that across the ocean and to a different time zone.
"Could you help get my old trunk down from the attic?" she asked.
Ah, the travel trunk. One of the few possessions Emma had brought to her marriage.
When she'd met Harold, Emma had still been living at Amaranth. It was a rooming house by then, run by Mrs. Leonard Anderson, a jowly and coarse woman whose meaty arms waggled as she beat eggs; she was glad to have a fine lady like Emma as a tenant, quiet and minding her own business among the cacophony of boisterous, drunken fools who swarmed the place.
While there were respectable rooming houses in the town for maiden ladies in 1950, Amaranth wasn't one of them. But how could Emma leave? That place was a kind of purgatory, a parallel world that both tortured and flattered her with memories of better times. The chandelier in the foyer, stripped of its crystals, blinked dimly and swung in crooked, precarious arcs. The strips of torn cabbage rose wallpaper in the hallway waved vaguely in the drafts of cold air. The red carpet, trod upon by steel-toed work boots, offered a pink threadbare path up the stairs.
Emma had been teaching the lower grades for nearly a decadeby then. Her grandmother was long gone, her mother, with whom she'd shared one drafty room on the second floor, had been dead all of six weeks, and Emma found some comfort in going through her grandmother's travel trunk daily, sorting her grandfather's botanical sketches. She'd kept the trunk since she was a young thing, cherishing it like a hope chest. Instead of putting away linens and finery for an impending marriageprospects were too dim for thatEmma had stuffed the steamer with magazines, a crumpled atlas or two, and a bundle of vintage postcards from Rome, Paris, and London that she'd happened upon once at a flea market. And there was also the small, sad worn wad of money that her grandmother had stashed there for an emergency, an occasion that, Emma reflected, not only had arrived, but also, for a very long time, never stopped.
In those weeks after her mother died, Emma checked the train schedules every Tuesday, taking along her emergency fund, zipped in the side pocket of her satin-lined pocketbook. A one-way ticket could take her very far, indeed. Once, she even approached the station ticket window, close enough to see the bearded, weary man there talking on the black phone while eating his lunch, close enough to see the nervous, timid red-headed woman reflected back in the glass.
And then came the morning Emma heard an awful clatter from downstairs, and Mrs. Anderson's hearty laughter, too. Emma closed the trunk, locked her door, and ventured downstairs to the kitchen to find out what all the racket was about, the clanging and shouts. There was a new stove being put in. The other one just upped and quit on me, Mrs. Anderson told her, no telling how old. The previous stove, white enamel, heavy as God, sat upended in the corner, its doors and pipes amputated and discarded in a pile, and it hurt Emma to look at it, to remember the legions of Christmas turkeys and Easter hams her grandmother had once cooked in it. Then, from behind the new stove, Harold Hanley stood up, plaster dust smeared across one cheek, a sheen of sweat glistening on his forehead, HAL stitched over one pocket of histight dun-colored work shirt. His gaze fell on Emma, and he nodded politely, but he left those yellow eyes on her face, the heat of him shone on her and she was so alone, like freezing to death, numb and half-dead for so longshe hadn't realized how lonely! And scared? Lord, she was scared, her mother not cold in her grave, and Emma herself hibernating. There were combed grooves in his black hair. Hair oil! Only the lower-class men wore hair oil, only the workers. The room spun and left her weak-kneed, till Mrs. Anderson hobbled over with a dinette chair and said, You sit down here. Girl, you look right peaked.
And so it was that Emma found herself courted, quite suddenly engaged, and scolded by Miss Gibble, her supervising teacher, who taught the upper grades. Upon news of Emma's unlikely suitor and imminent betrothal, Miss Gibble pulled Emma aside. "You'll be bored to tears, with your mind," Miss Gibble warned. "What on earth will you talk about with that man?"
Talk? Talk didn't have much to do with it. Instead, Emma's impending marriage had to do with the certain spot on the nape of her neck that Harold Hanley had discovered. Yes, there were those who said she was marrying beneath her, settling for an unschooled appliance repairman who did not even have his high school diploma. But there were those who thought the reverse, too, that Harold Hanley was marrying an old maid teacher when he could have had a levelheaded girl better at doing things like pickling peaches or ironing sheets and scrubbing the kitchen floor with Old Dutch.
"You're not settling down. You're just settling," Miss Gibble chided, before she turned to clap the erasers over a trash can. "Now you'll never leave this town."
And what does ol' dried-up Eleanor Gibble know about loving anyway? Harold had asked later, after Emma had shared her best friend's misgivings with him. Back when Emma still shared such thoughts with Harold. What does that one know about loving?
Miss Gibble did indeed know about loving, since she'd lost her fiancé, a pilot from Mississippi, when he was shot down overGermany in the war. He'd been a blond, handsome man with enormous red protruding ears, whose smiling photograph and lock of hair stayed in a heavy gold locket tucked behind the starched white muslin of Miss Gibble's blouse. Occasionally, Miss Gibble would open the locket and gaze down at the diminutive grinning face there before slowly closing the cover again, as if it were the lid of a tiny coffin. I shall always be a miss, insisted Miss Gibble to the teaching faculty after the funeral. None of this silly talk about how there will be others. For there will be no one else.
Shortly after her marriage, Emma used the emergency fund from her travel trunk to finance a used 1949 Chevy pickup, officially launching Hanley's Appliance Repair. She and Harold moved into their '50s split-level that was all the rage then, a spec house that went cheap when the builder went broke. By then, Emma was expecting, and couldn't lift anything heavier than a teacup. They'd hardly had any furniture anyway. As for the travel trunk, it was relegated to the attic, until this day, when Emma persuaded Harold to finally lug it down.
The trunk, battered and filthy, sat now in the sunny corner of their kitchen like a mysterious stranger soaking up warmth and company.
Harold looked warily at it from the corner of his eye while he drank a glass of water at the sink, as if he still didn't believe her claims that, no, she didn't plan to take that old thing on the Trip. What Emma had in mind was finding her grandmother's travel journal. She was certain it was in there somewhere, and wouldn't that be something? To take it along on the Trip. But she kept that wish to herself. There was no use appealing to Harold's nostalgic side, for Emma suspected her husband did not have one. The past did not much concern a man who was content to live in the present, whose retirement days offered him so much fun.
"Maybe I should make Bobby get out a little this morning," Harold said now from behind her. "On the Trip, he's going to have to get used to doing things he don't like."
"Well, you can try, I suppose," she said, playing along. By pretending to insist their son accompany him, Harold was clearly assuaging his own guilt about escaping to the Biscuit Basket.
"Bobby?" he called. "You sure you don't feel like a walk?"
There was no reply from the living room, just the antic whirs and boing boing sounds of morning cartoons and the smoke from Bobby's unfiltered Camels.
"No," came the groggy response.
Harold met her eyes, then shook his head, sadder than usual. "Well, I tried."
"Don't worry," Emma said now. "He's going to have to get out with us this afternoon." After a beat, she said, "Shoe shopping, Harold. Don't tell me you forgot?"
Puzzlement did a funny little dance across his features, until resignation took hold. "No. No, I didn't forget. Guess I'll pick up the medicine at the drugstore on the way back this morning. Reckon you better call and check to make sure they got it ready?"
"The extra, too," he said.
The medicine for the trip is what he meant. Bobby's pills. The extra dose to help Bobby calm down and sleep. Was it a rebuke, Harold's reminder about Bobby's need for extra medicine? Perhaps. Taking Bobby along on the Trip wouldn't be easy. But they couldn't very well leave him behind with Dora.
Dora would insist on taking Bobby to that new church over at the Crossroads shopping center. All that talk of demons fleeing, saints suffering, and Jesus appearing just ignited Bobby's own delusions. For days after his last visit, when Emma asked Bobby to do something as simple as taking out the garbage, she found herself competing with the voices of John the Baptist and Saint Paul. And the saints always won out.
"Yes, I'll call the pharmacy." Emma said. "I'll see to it they have the extras ready. You're walking?"
Silly question. Harold always walked to his breakfasts. Somehow,even in sweatpants and Windbreaker and cap, he was fine-looking. Yes, she'd have to give him that. He was slim, without the paunch most men his age acquired. And he had his own teeth and drove at night. Quite a commodity.
"I suppose Betty will be at breakfast?" she couldn't resist asking. "And the McCormick sisters?"
"Yeah, I reckon Betty and them will be there."
"I believe she mentioned that last night. When I ran into her at Winn-Dixie. FunnyBetty didn't know about the Trip. I promised we'd send her a postcard."
Harold adjusted his cap in the hall mirror.
The evening before, when Emma had encountered Betty Snodgrass hovering over the cucumbers in the produce aisle, Betty had practically purred, Oh, your husband, that Hal Hanley, he just tickles me no end! And Betty, whose arthritic hip gave her a gimpy sway like a drunken dancer, and whose thin lips shone like cellophanelip gloss at her age!whispered, in her smoker's rasp, He keeps us in stitches. Just a darling. Emma chuckled in a way she hoped resembled fondness before reminding Betty in an offhand way that she was just frantic planning their golden honeymoon, as Harold liked to call it. Emma had made that part up, of course. Harold would never call their impending trip a golden honeymoon, but a little lie like that was worth it just to see Betty's crestfallen expression.
The truth was, Emma now lacked the patience to converse with Betty or Velma Scranton or the McCormick twins about double-coupon days and the senior citizen booth at the flea market. The McCormick sisters still dressed as if they were young things, rouged and clad in polka dots and heels, sopping up sausage biscuits and milk gravy, their dentures clacking. Velma claimed she was retired from the textile industry, though Emma knew she'd spent thirty years sewing the crotch seam in dungarees. Not one of them was interested in the Eiffel Tower or Stonehenge or the Royal Tulip Garden; they had made that perfectly clear. Hal's Gals, people called them.
"I guess I better get a move on," Harold said now. The stove clock read eight thirty.
"You go on," Emma said, thereby releasing him. To the Biscuit Basket and your fans, she stopped herself from adding. "I'm sure they'll be waiting."
He stepped out on the front porch and turned to close the door behind him, not bothering to hide the delight and anticipation on his face as he finally headed out.
It never occurred to Emma he might not return.
SECRET KEEPERS. Copyright 2009 by Mindy Friddle. All rights reserved. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.