By Eugene Coghill
Usually the clock on the wall lurched forward at half speed at this hour in the afternoon, and rarely could drivers be found that were in abundance of eagerness to take on any late afternoon runs into the city. The dusty drivers lounge and adjoining dispatch office had the stench of stale cigarettes and cigars from the onslaught of endless smokers that had puffed there over the past 17 years. Three oversized card tables placed side by side served as office furniture for the drivers to fill out their paperwork. For the most part the small office served quite efficiently the needs of Topshelf Cab Company. Topshelf Cab had a long distinguished history of serving the surrounding communities of Wilmington North Carolina. Business was quite steady all year around and they would often see spikes several times during the year due to high school proms, graduations, and the ever popular beach resort properties along the coastal waterway.
A small color TV sitting on a wobbling corner stand, was the only distraction from the chirping and loud crackling of the airways as information was passed between the drivers and dispatch. It had only three working channels that came in very clear, and thankfully they kept the drivers entertained with a variety of news, sports and mid-day talk shows. As a matter of fact it was often believed that before the daytime shifts ended, the driver who got the chance to watch the Jerry Springer show had to make running commentary for all the other drivers who missed it. And even though none of them were good actors, the dispatchers would look forward to the daily antics and amusement of listening to the wild stories that often provided far more entertainment value than the Jerry Springer show that played faithfully every day.
It was not unusual to find Howard Bond over exaggerating his southern accent, to humor the three or four drivers that always seemed to be in the office at that time of day. Over the years his rough life had made him the ultimate cynic, but he did a very good job of disguising it while on the job. He was known throughout the community as one of the nicest drivers Topshelf had on staff. And often he was requested and preferred over the others. Driving his cab was his distraction from too much drinking and a marriage that was heading south at a record pace. While other drivers were putting in just enough to make ends meet, Howard was driven to make every dime possible. He valued the extra buck, and the surest way to get on his bad side was to prevent him or interrupt him from getting it. He let it be known on quite a few occasions that he did not appreciate the way dispatch would send him out on a call that had cancelled within two or three minutes of his arrival, and opted not to pay full price, so as not to lose a customer over a fare dispute. The customer is always right, was not a slogan he loved. As a matter of fact for him it was more like him against the world. He had a fast buck to make and sometimes a little too much kindness and patience kept him from making top dollar. At the end of the day his frustration was mounting thinking he was getting a bad deal.
He had his reason for the hardened style he had gotten used to. His marriage was in trouble and yet he only stayed out of loyalty and for the two kids that were still in high school. Money was always tight and his wife, Luann made sure that it stayed that way with her endless and often needless shopping. The kids never went neglected,” but my God Luann, do they really need $100 sneakers,” he once asked. Every time he got behind the wheel of his cab he was keenly aware of just how many trips he would need that day to feed everyone and keep the utilities on. He was sure to remind Luanne, every time he called her, although she mostly ignored him, knowing that his love was steady, because after all any other man would have left a long time ago. In the back of Howard’s mind, he thought that after the kids grew up and moved out, the worse would be over, and then it would be pointless to leave, although he never let Luanne believe anything other than a packed suitcase was in the bedroom closet.
Howard was relaxing in the battered lazy boy recliner when the dispatcher yelled out, “Howard got one rider to be picked up at 178 White Street, going to the other side of town over there at the Peaceful Meadows home. It’s a good fair, and then you can take it on home. Sounds like a nice lady, be gentle with her, do you want it?”
“Yeah, I’m on it. I remember the last time you sent me to Peaceful Meadows, and that old man stiffed me. Talking about his pension check did not come and he would have to pay me when he gets out. Don’t send me on a dud this time of day; I am not in the mood. Do you know what I have to go home to?”
“She is good for it Howard. I think it’s about time you showed some of that charm you are so famous for, now get out of here.” A hearty laugh could be heard by the young dispatcher as Howard stepped into his cab. While most of the drivers had a certain disdain for the cabs they drove, Howard took special pride in his mobile office. The blue 1991 Ford Crown Victoria had been his latest car assigned to him as a special reward for putting up with very demanding business executives for two weeks at the local resort, during the mid summer water festival. It was an annual event that took place, and it drew lots of high paying customers. As a matter of fact it was a windfall for the cab drivers, because it was well known that the local law enforcement and surrounding sheriff’s departments, increased their revenue by nearly fifty percent as a result of DWI citations that were issued during festival weeks. Many of the out of town business travelers just opted to block out two weeks and hire dedicated cabs and drivers exclusively for their party. And they paid extremely well, for the extra perks that normally do not accompany cab fares. Perks like drives to lovers lane with local ladies that were also getting well paid for services rendered.
After checking the tires for air pressure and going under the hood checking fluids and tugging on the belts, Howard slams the hood and sits down behind the wheel. He makes a few notes on his notebook to be sure to close out his day when this fare is done. After a quick flip of the local county map he checks in with dispatch via radio and drives off.
Standing in the kitchen and looking out the back window she takes a deep sigh, knowing that her favorite view will no longer be available to her. The sun lights her thin pale face, and it is only then that the glistening tears in her eyes can be seen. She thinks of years of sounds that echoed around the house, such as the laughter of local kids playing out in the back yard, and the smells that were always flowing from the kitchen. “How did it all come and go so quickly?” she thinks out loud. Turning to her left she slowly walks about ten feet to the adjoining small bright yellow bathroom and stops just outside the door. She stands in front of the old antique cabinet that now serves as the place where all sorts of cold medicines, remedies, and every medical aid known to man now resides. A lighted vanity mirror sits neatly in its cradle. As she steps closer she reaches out her hand that now has a visible shake and tremble. Upon picking up the mirror she frowns at the distorted view and it takes her a moment to realize she is looking at the convex side. Her frown gives way to a smile after the discovery and thinks ‘Girl you need to do something drastic about that face, you may be going to the old folks home but you don’t have to go there looking like death. There might be a reason to stay alive over there.’
Gertrude Washington had long realized that she had been loved like no other woman. Even now at this fragile moment in her life, she smiles when thinking of just how cherished she was to her husband of 57 years. And because he made her feel like a queen, she took advantage of every opportunity to look the part. It was very well known that she was beautiful and at will she commanded the attention and affection of boys and men when she was younger. She had left a trail of broken hearts and unfulfilled fantasies of countless men who had crossed her path before getting married. She carried grace into her golden years and her beauty did not easily reveal the fact she had completed 92 trips around the sun.
She came into the world a small fragile baby girl and very sick. Her parents Lloyd and Henrietta Washington stayed up all night when she was born thinking that it would take a miracle from God above if she ever were to survive. Just a week prior some test revealed a major problem with the development of Gertrude. It seems that her body had surpassed the organs and they were not fully functioning in time for the 4 November arrival date.
The doctor told Henrietta that some heartbreaking decisions would have to me made during the last 24 hours prior to her going into labor, and none of the decisions would be good. It all boiled down to having the baby and allow her to come into the world undeveloped and be able to function almost as a vegetable, or do the unprecedented and unheard of idea of delaying the birth way past the expected arrival date, by up to five days. The accompanying risk would be both to mother and child.
However the child stood a far greater chance of having fully functioning organs, if she survived the delayed birth. Doctor James E Ferlazzo was very frank and direct when he told Henrietta, “There is a real strong possibility that one or both of you may not survive this. A decision is going to have to be made on whether or not to hold labor or allow as scheduled. Once we start the procedure to hold labor there is no turning back and we cannot go in again to open up your passageway. So I am afraid you will be making a life or death decision for you and your baby before we start. I will give you some time with your husband to think about it. Please just let my staff nurse know, and please know that we will do everything in our power to bring you both through this. You will be in my prayers as well.”
Now she was faced with yet a new adventure, and perhaps her last, but she was still looking forward to the trip. While going through the rest of the house over the past hour, she had to stop several times to cry and just let the memories come and take her back to happier times. She had been a widow of about five years and it was so very hard for her to adjust to life without the only man who was willing to put up with all she dished out. There were piles of boxes stacked in rows in the kitchen and she felt how strange it is to know that that all the things that went into making that house her home was inside of those boxes. All of the walls were bare, no picture plates, no funny clown plates hanging above the kitchen window. No tattered roller blinds that would spring up and snap from being wound too tight.
White sheets lay over most of the furniture and the floors lay bare. Now it was very easy to see the outline of the rugs that had been placed there over the years. There was a very distinctive creek that could be heard as you enter the dining room. She felt more and lonelier as the day dragged on, and her memories was her only visitor. She wondered if it was a blessing or a curse to have outlived every other soul in the family. The family tree was large both from her husband’s side and hers, but yet by the grace of god she was the last branch still hanging on while the winds of time had claimed all the others.
She was ever thankful and always acknowledged that God had blessed her richly over the years. But even still, now she wondered if he would be merciful enough to not let her languish in her old age.
Peaceful Meadows was not her choice. She would have been content to stay in the house and let the firemen come and find her collapsed on the bathroom floor. She had long forgotten that is exactly why she was going to Peaceful Meadows, because two years ago she slipped and fell while attempting to get out of the bathtub. She was not discovered for about 13 hours, after a visiting neighbor called and got no response. The neighbor broke the window to the back kitchen near the bathroom and called 911. That fall was a beginning of several events that had everyone convinced except Gertrude that she could no longer be able to live by herself. Although she was very good at acting like her momentary lapse in judgment and memory was due to medications or not getting enough rest, it was even more evidence that she would never be as sharp as before.
The county Department of the Aging and Assisted living, had no doubt that she needed help from the different assessment test they had conducted with her doctor’s permission. Gertrude’s foster son, Eugene, had been a strong advocate for getting her the help she needed. Furthermore he was really upset that the county delayed to take action for a couple of years, and that Gertrude as a result was at risk of injury. She had fallen about five times, backed the car out of the garage and knocked the garage door completely down, and allowed someone to embezzle over $115,000 from her savings account. She had access to matches and was cooking with a gas stove. Furthermore, it was no secret that ‘mom’ could let bullets fly if the mood would strike her. She kept a loaded shotgun and pistol in her husband’s closet. And she was no stranger to using them; as a matter of fact she had quite a legacy for doing so.
The stories circulate to this day of shots that rang out from 178 White Street over the past 40 years. Some shots found their target, of unsuspecting deer, snakes, possums, etc. Other bullets barely missed their target of the human kind; more specifically, the husband kind. And then there is the unique incident that a platoon of Marines would rather forget. The night they got lost while out on a navigation and training patrol and became disoriented in the woods out behind Gertrude’s house. As they were accustomed to being very quiet in the woods, they knew they were lost and was trying to cut across her spacious property to get back to their proper location. This rustling in the trees and bushes did not go unnoticed by Gertrude. She immediately got up in the middle of the night and grabbed the shotgun and a box of shells. She ran to the back door and opened it and called out into the black night. “Who is out there? Hello; “She waited another minute or two while repeating and hoping for a response. She could clearly hear the noise of the platoon size unit. “OK, well since you seem to have a hard time talking and listening, perhaps you can feel.” At that time without even a hint of hesitation she pulls the trigger on both barrels and fires off two shells into the black tree line where she heard the noises coming from. Thank God the Marines were already lying down in the prone position. Immediately all over the property, flashlights were turned on and whistles blew. The officer stood up and began yelling, “Don’t shoot, stop shooting! We are Marines, we lost our directions. . Stop shooting there are about 50 men out here!” Within a few minutes the entire quite neighborhood was aware of the nearly disastrous encounter the Marines had with Gertrude. One of the Marines commented, “We should sign her up, she is not afraid to engage friend or enemy!” The platoon let out an uproar of laughter.
Upon pulling into the drive way, Howard was immediately awe stuck by the vast array of flowers that were in full bloom in the yard. The house was relatively small compared to the spacious plot of land it sat on. A very large oak tree towered over the entire front entrance of the small gravel driveway, which was lined with large white stone blocks that were evenly spaced. A wagon wheel in original condition was roped to a thorny rose bush in the center of the front lawn. Oddly enough several smaller trees had white washed trunks that were in stark contrast to the dark bark that protected them.
Howard wondered just briefly, if the lady inside was a complete mystery, or was she just like the thousands of other riders, who had come and gone with no hint of the life tale they had to tell. Over the years Howard had heard it all, and yet nothing at all. He learned to ignore some of the gibberish people do when they feel uncomfortable riding with a stranger. If he had enough time, while driving with his passengers he would glance up in the rear view mirror and come up with a one liner to gauge the mood. One thing for sure Howard did not tolerate was wasted time at the pick up or drop off. Normally a couple toots of the horn followed by one or two minutes of waiting, then he would call into dispatch and mention a no show and ask for another dispatch. See that was easy money, because he still got paid half the fare just for showing up. So it was no big surprise that on several calls one busy afternoon, he had a few customer complaints of him not waiting. Other complaints that day cited Howard driving off when the rider was clearly visible from his rear view mirror, running franticly and waving their arms.
After putting the car in park and looking at his passenger sheet, he thought perhaps a little more personal customer service will assure that this trip to Peaceful Meadows resulted in good pay with a hefty tip. Walking up the wheel chair ramp to the front door made him soften a bit as to who may be inside. He rang the door bell and peered through the window and noticed how strangely bare the enclosed front porch was. He thought of his own home and how vastly different the atmosphere was there. Peace and tranquility was something he longed for, however over the past several years’ life with Luanne seemed to bring non-stop tension. His drinking increased as a means to suppress the pressure building up inside. His marriage was no longer an oasis of comfort but rather an endurance of tolerated mental and emotional anguish. Just where had all of the good times gone from the early years?
Upon hearing the door bell, Gertrude buttoned the remaining top buttons on her blouse and walked into the living room to the front door. As a safety habit she would peep out the side of the blinds to see who was on the other side of the door. Even though she was in a very safe neighborhood and no crime had invaded the small community all these years, she used common sense. Opening the door, Howard was greeted with a warm smile as Gertrude enthusiastically welcomed him to come inside.
“Howdy, maam, my name is Howard Bond and I will be your Topshelf driver today. May I help you with your bags, please?”
“Howard, come on in and make yourself at home. I just have to put a few final touches on this place. Should be about five minutes. I only have one suit case. It is very heavy so watch your back. It is in the room to your right on the bed.” Gertrude slowly turns and makes her way back to the kitchen. There she opens a linen closet that is overstuffed with bath towels and wash clothes, and pulls out a bright yellow table cloth and drapes it over the china cabinet.
After giving the bathroom one more last look, she goes into the dining room and stares out the large plate windows. It was her favorite room for a view of the sunrise, and the many mornings of breakfasts and pleasant conversation with her husband, Broderick seem to her like a warm blanket of security to her soul. It was there in the dining room that she felt at peace, and it was her space for as long as she needed it. She especially liked watching how the dew looked on the fresh cut grass, and would open all the windows of the house to let the smell of the outdoors in. How she hoped the views at Pleasant Meadows would be as nice and serene as this. Of course she knew she would no longer be in total control of her life anymore and that bothered her a great deal. Over the years she had become very set in her ways and was increasingly more difficult to please. And no one could seem to quite do things to her liking, which is why she fought so hard to maintain her solitaire existence in the house.
While stepping into the bedroom to get the suitcase, Howard saw the covered furniture and the rest of the house seemed to have a museum like atmosphere. The wooden floors loudly echoed his steps as he walked, and the creaking seemed even louder. The bedroom had another door on the opposite end that led out into the dining room. Looking out it he could see her standing behind a draped chair staring out the window. She looked so fragile, and wondered what of her life that had led to this day. He stood in the doorway and called out, “maam are you OK, and do you need help with anything.”
“Oh! I did not see you standing there.” she was startled. In a faint and barely audible voice she said, “there is not much more help for me, I’m afraid.” After a long silence, she continued, “please excuse my manners, my name is Gertrude Washington.”
“It’s OK, maam, Gertrude is a lovely name. And please you be sure to take all the time you need to get yourself together. I am going to take the suit case to the car and I will be back to check on you. It is not a problem at all.” Howard turns and walks over to the bed to find the large tan suitcase overstuffed and bulging at the sides. He smiles and thinks how in the world did that tiny woman in there ever close it. And just why women really pack everything to include the kitchen sink, even though they won’t use half of it.
He struggled to pull the suitcase off the bed, and it went to the floor with a thunderous thud.
“Howard, are you OK? Please be careful and don’t hurt yourself, because as you can see I ain’t any good for fixing you.” Gertrude was keenly aware of her frail condition. She had often told her visitors that ‘age has a way of slapping you until you respect it.’ And over the past twenty years she had been yielding more and more respect to Father Time.
“Yes, I am just fine, I thought it would be best to put it on the floor and pull it along. No need to hurt the back to impress anyone.” Howard said. And he was extra careful these days not to get hurt, mostly because he could not afford any time off of work. After an awkward battle of tug of war with the heavy suitcase, he managed to rest it in the trunk of the car and close it. Going back inside he stopped and saw blooms that made him realize the elegance of both the home and Gertrude. And without much thought, he pulls out a small pocket knife and carefully cuts a large bloom and stem. He thought it would be nice to get Gertrude to divert her mind even if just for a few moments. The picture was starting to get clearer to Howard that Gertrude would not be coming back or calling this place home ever again.
“Beautiful women should have beautiful things.” he said as he gently came up behind her and placed the rose in front of her face allowing her to smell it.
“Ah! My God, that is so sweet of you; it is just lovely, thank you.”
“You are going to be OK, miss Gertrude. I’ll make sure of that. Now don’t you worry about a thing.”
Gertrude smiles at him and says, “I don’t have much of a mind to worry with these days. I am getting more and more forgetful. Yesterday I forgot and left the tea kettle on the stove and all the water boiled out of it and I did not know it until I went to the bathroom and saw some smoke coming from the stove. It scared me nearly half to death.”
“Is there anyone who can help you with getting your house affairs in order?” Howard thought that perhaps, someone should check behind her to make sure all was taking care of. And for a moment he thought of just how sad aging and being all alone really was. It made him grateful to have a wife and two teenagers, even though he was certain that as he got closer to his own demise, they would hasten it for him, to collect the insurance money.
Gertrude laughs and proudly states, “I seemed to have outlived all the help. But I do have a foster son who is suppose to come by when he gets off of work. My social worker is handling most of this. They don’t tell me much. But I hear them whispering a lot.”
“All right, well you just take your time so you don’t forget too much. Is there anything I can do to help with here, before we go? I really do not mind.”
“Howard you are so kind, and thoughtful. I guess I shall be leaving in a minute or two.”
A few minutes later Howard gently takes her by the hand and leads her down the wheelchair ramp to the waiting car. Gertrude clutches her burgundy purse tightly, and sits down.
“Oh, my this a lovely car. What kind is it?”
“This is a Ford Crown Victoria, especially made for transporting queens like you maam.” Howard gets behind the wheel starts the car and backs out of the drive way.
“I have an old Ford Falcon sitting there in the garage. My sister gave it to me. She told me if I learned how to drive and got my license that she would buy me one. And I been driving every since.”
“Well good for you. Yes these Fords really are some good cars. I would not drive anything else. Sounds like you have been driving for a very long time. Do you still have your license?”
“No, ever since I knocked the garage door down they won’t let me drive anymore. And Eugene is scared to death to ride with me. He says I take these country roads and curves too fast. Shucks! He don’t know I been flying around these curves since before he was even thought of.”
“Well it’s time for you to get chauffeured around anyway, Gertrude. You been driving all these years, why not let somebody drive you around, so all you have to do is sit back and look pretty. And I am glad to get the opportunity to drive you over to Peaceful Meadows today.”
“I sure do miss driving, because I could jump in the car when I wanted to and go anytime. There are so many places I would love to see just one more time before going to that old folk’s jail house.”
Howard laughs out loud at her referring to Peaceful Meadows as the ‘old folk’s jail house’. “Now, Gertrude you are not going to stay locked up in that place. I bet by this time next week you will be playing a lot of games and doing all kinds of crafts and gossiping with the best of them.”
“You would be wrong. There is nothing like being in your own home, and being able to come and go as you please.”
“I understand. Well listen why don’t we get going so you can start your new adventure. Make sure your seat belt is fastened. Are you comfortable?”
“Yes I am just fine. How much is this trip going to cost? It has been so long since I had to take a cab anywhere.”
Howard briefly takes out a county fare chart for non-metered rides. The ride to Peaceful Meadows would cost more on the meter, but he had some discretion about waiting times and senior citizen discounts. According to his calculations this fare should be $27.50 to $32.50. “Well maam, I think $30.00 should cover it, but you do not have to leave me a tip, its ok. Please do not worry about all of that, just sit back and enjoy the ride and I will have you there before you know it.”
Howard pulls out into the mainstream of traffic and quickly gets up to speed to avoid impeding the flow of other drivers. He turns the dispatch radio volume down so that the irritating squelch is not heard. “What kind of music do you like? This radio here will play just about anything. I listen to some of the oldies and country, most of the time.”
Gertrude did not answer back, and Howard glanced over at her to find her staring out the window as the scenery outside blurred by. It was at that moment that he wondered just what she must be feeling and just what this final ride meant to her. Perhaps she was recounting all the times that she had driven this route herself, when her health and vigor was much more intact. He did not know what it would be like to have to relinquish so much personal freedom to someone else, and hoped that for him that day would never come. He had family and even though the thought of them perhaps showing genuine interest in him if he got very ill, was amusing, he still thought it better than to have no family at all. Gertrude was now thoroughly lost in the sights that she would not see for some time. How she longed to relive the time she and Broderick would take a Sunday afternoon drive through the town just to get out of the house and keep the four walls from caving in on her. She now missed the drives out in the country where she could stop and smell the honeysuckle and see the many different types of birds that nest along the protected woods of Prince William Forest Park.
“Are you very comfortable? I can adjust the seat if you need more room?” Howard said.
“I am just fine, Howard, thank you. Just reliving some better times down this road.”
“Yes, I know what you mean. I just love this town. I don’t see myself ever going anywhere else.”
“Oh, yes and to tell you the truth it was even better many years ago when Broderick and I were courting. The stories I could tell you about people and places in this town will take you back to Saturday nights and fast dancing at the Blue Bird, and a lot of double shots to drown out whatever else took place that night.”
The sprawling town had transformed itself several times over. What began as a rural small farming community had now become a thriving haven for businesses, recreation and entertainment that catered to the ocean resort. It had still retained its charm, elegance and beauty. It still was a one stop light town, even though there was increased traffic along the Route 1 and Highway 17 corridor that was the main thoroughfare. It was not unusual to see local car or bike enthusiasts rumble down main street on a Friday night, with pretty girls mostly local highschoolers hanging out the windows and begging the attention of anyone who wanted a rolling peep show.
The cops knew most if not all of the older generation of residents by name and several generations of families had graced the ranks of both the fire department and the police force. It was also because of the very close knit community that some of the real ugly things that happened over the years became cherished secrets among the town folks only.
Somehow after all these years the town had managed not to be infested with the gang crime and drug culture of neighboring towns of Jacksonville, or Kinston. The city mayors of both Jacksonville and Kinston had meetings in Wilmington to convene a panel as to why Wilmington was drug free when their towns had grown to epidemic status over the years. Yet Wilmington was one of the few places where southern hospitality was an attraction.
Howard on his days off would sometimes venture into town and search out new sites to see. He had become somewhat of a tour guide for the out of town passengers who always asked about the town, and what interesting things there were to do. “The whole town is interesting, and everyone you meet here is a legend.” He would often tell his riders. He loved watching their response.
The town had its fair share of ghost stories, and other dark rumors that was never mentioned at the dinner table with guests. Such as the 1963 killing of two children that the town sheriff deemed a sacrificial ritual.
Howard was amazed that Gertrude, a woman of 92, had most of her mental faculties. She seemed sharp witted, and very much in tune with what was going on around her. So he found it to be a bit puzzling that she should have to give up all of her independence. He wondered if she would stay mentally healthy at Peaceful Meadows, as most regarded it as the last stop.
“Well Gertrude, how do you think you are going to entertain yourself over there at Peaceful Meadows? With all of that time on your hands now, what do you think you will be doing? I mean you not going to be able to pick up a broom or mop; they do all of that for you over there.”
“Yes I know they do all of that, and believe me I won’t miss mopping or dusting, or cleaning windows. But I suppose I will have plenty to do. I am sure there is plenty of knitting and sewing to be done. I bet there will be enough kids coming around from time to time, making noise and disturbing my rest. I am mostly a loner so; I will love quiet time, and a lovely view outside.”
“You seem like you want to be outside and working a garden or tending to some flowers. Maybe they will let you work on some crafts to brighten up the place a bit.”
Gertrude smiled at the thought of her making the place a little bit more like home than an institution. “I bet if they leave the decorating to me, they will have to change the name!” They both laughed out loud. And just as quick as the smile came it disappeared as she said, “They won’t have much need for me. I will just relive all of my memories until my appointment comes.”
“Appointment! What do you mean by appointment?” Howard was a bit puzzled, but he had a hunch of what she meant.
“Now Gertrude you sound like a woman who ain’t planning on staying there long. Where you. . . Come on now you are going to be around a long time, you talking about reliving memories. . You can make new memories while you are there.”
“Yes Howard, but they will never match up to the ones that I have already lived. This town is not big enough to contain them all. I think that is why I have such a special fondness for this place. My best days were here. My best love, my best joy, right here.
Howard was reflecting over her thoughts and then said, “I bet you do have a lot of memories from this town. Tell me about them. What made it all so special to you?”
“Oh, I would not know where to begin; as a matter of fact it is hard to tell you. It’s the kind of thing I have to show you. I would have to show you places like my early childhood home, and some of the places we used to go and all the things that made me fall in love with this town and the people in it. And especially what brought Broderick to my life.”
“OK, I think I understand just what you mean. There are a lot of memories in this town here for you.”
While turning onto Route 1 south Howard wondered just how many times Gertrude must have traveled down this road going around the same curves. The road led outside of the town and winded its way toward the county line. It was the county’s latest completed construction project and had widened the lanes and installed guard railing. About three miles down the road was a small parking and rest area. Upon seeing it cresting the hill Howard pulled over and parked near the tree line.
“Gertrude, I have to make a very important phone call. I will be outside for just a couple of minutes. I did not want to talk and drive at the same time because that is very dangerous and it is rude to talk with passengers in the car, I hope you don’t mind.”
“No, not at all go right ahead I will be just fine.”
“Thank you I certainly appreciate you being understanding. Let me turn on some oldies hear for you. If it’s too loud you can turn it down with this button hear.” Howard turned on the radio to drown out his conversation that could be heard in the quiet rest area that had the makings of a scenic park.
Howards closes the door and walks around to the back of the car and pulls out his cell phone and dials into the Topshelf Cab office.
“Topshelf Cab, Randy speaking, how can we serve you today?”
“Randy, this is Howard. Listen everything is OK, the reason I am calling is inform you that I got this fare to Peaceful Meadows. She is a real nice lady and I would love to take her around the town and let her see some of her past memories just one more time before taking her to the Peaceful Meadows. I was wondering if it would be alright if I pay for the fare and a little extra from my pay on Friday. I will be a few hours taking her to different places in town. Randy she really needs this, and I want to do it for her, because she is going to be sitting over there with no one to see her and all she has left memories.”
“Well that is very kind of you Howard, and I certainly do not have a problem with that if that is what she wants to do. Just close yourself out and I will see you tomorrow afternoon.”
“Thank you Randy and I will stop by the Sunoco and fill up what I use. I just did not want her to worry about having to pay for this ride and she needs this more than you can imagine. I talk to you later. Goodbye.”
Randy hung up the phone knowing that Howard’s reputation as one of the most friendliest and kind hearted drivers was well deserved and it was random acts of kindness like this that always made him stand out from the crowd, in spite of his rough ways at times. He was glad to have Howard working for Topshelf, and giving it the kind of image that was so needed in the hospitality industry.
Upon getting back into the driver’s seat, Howard turned the radio down really low and leaned over toward Gertrude. “I been thinking about what you said about how much this town means to you, and I have decided to take you anywhere you want to go to relive and recall those moments. So you do not have to worry about this cab fare. I just got off the phone with the boss and we have decided to treat you to a ride around town because you deserve it and your whole fare is taken care of already. All you have to do is sit back and ride, and tell me all the places you want to see. We got the rest of the afternoon. Is that OK with you?” Howard then realized that this was also therapeutic for him as well. It was the welcomed escape he needed before going home. And then he added, “You see it’s like this, I want you to see as much of everything in this town as you possible can before you go over there to Peaceful Meadows. That is why I am doing this.”
Gertrude could not believe what she was hearing. “Oh thank you so much Howard. You really do not know just how much this means to me. I certainly do appreciate it.”
A few minutes later they were speeding through the back country heading out on Route 5 heading toward her childhood home. As the many crop fields and plantations whisked by her window, Gertrude was reflecting back on the time when dusty roads and horse drawn buggies loaded with hay was so prevalent. A large green farm house on the left came into view as they rounded the curve. It showed signs of aging, and was obvious it had been abandoned decades ago.
Howard was curious, “What did they do with this place after your folks died?”
“Not much, a couple of land developers were supposed to buy the place, but they decided not to at the last moment. One of my brothers kept the place up and paid the taxes on it until he got sick. Broderick and I put the place up for sale a couple of times, but it seems like nobody was interested and times were hard. Nobody was worried about buying a house if you can’t feed your children.”
She could remember better times here, when the sounds of her brothers splashing in the stream out back would always get a quick response from her mom. It seemed like every day those brothers would come into the house muddy and wet from head to toe. Floyd did not mine much, as he knew boys would be boys and often told Beatrice to let the boys alone and have some fun. Floyd was so very proud of his boys, and that was all he ever wanted was a house full of them. Beatrice thought he would be highly disappointed when she told him that the next ‘muffin in the oven’ was a girl. Back in those days it was rare to know the sex of the child before birth, but somehow she knew. And right on time, Gertrude arrived on a Wednesday morning, all six pounds, four ounces of her. She must have known she was born into a world of trouble and hard times, because she cried almost non-stop for a week. Gertrude came in this world as a bundle of joy for Floyd and Beatrice even though Floyd was mildly disappointed that it was not yet another son. Times were really hard for everyone and all the extra hands of males meant more security and strength to the family. Families had to rely more and more on each other for survival as jobs became more and more scarce. It was during this time that Floyd and Beatrice were having some doubts about having another child, because even though an extra hand would be helpful, it also meant a depleting of food and resources for years before the child would grow to the point of being productive to the family.
Howard parked the car came around to the passenger side and helped Gertrude out. She straightened up and smiled as she looked about the place. It was obvious that she felt right at home here. As Gertrude looked up at the rusty tin roof, it was quite hard to imagine some 92 years ago that this place was abuzz with activity from the local neighbors, as Floyd and Beatrice welcomed Gertrude into the world. It was a time when families had to rely on each other for survival as jobs became more and more scarce.
Gertrude realized that even at an early age her home life seemed a bit different. Yes she was normal in the sense that there were chores to do, but for her the tasks were overwhelming and seemed to go beyond what a normal child should have to endure. It was an endless cycle of chores and more chores while her brothers were relegated to all of the outdoor duties. And there was never any doubt that her mother gave the boys a lot of slack. While mom leaned heavily on her to assist with the never ending task of housekeeping. Gertrude learned to resent that over the years and longed to be outside taking on the role as a tomboy with her brothers. And every chance she got she could be found outside, milking a cow, holding onto a plow, or trying to ride a horse. Her brothers were very protective of her and would not allow anyone else to hurt her, but more importantly they would not allow her to hurt herself with her over ambitious zeal to be a tomboy. Life became very fast paced at the house while there was always something to do.
Her mom emphasized the important need for education, and made sure that her chore routine did not interfere with her daily studies. Gertrude had heard and seen some things in her home that shaped her values about life, men and how she would relate to people in the future.
It was no secret that Floyd has a temper, and that his overbearing attitude caused Beatrice many years of hardship and grief. He was a very hard man and quite abusive. The times that Gertrude had seen him hit her mom, stayed etched in her mind, and she vowed that it would never happen to her. She resented her mom for being so passive and taking all of the abuse that Floyd gave her. The mindset of people back then was, if you make your bed hard then you lay in it. Meaning that Beatrice had married Floyd so now she was stuck with whatever he handed out. Gertrude was bound to take another path.
Howard took Gertrude by the hand and led her closer to the house so she could get a good look at it.
“It was always something going on around here Howard. My mom really made the place special; she really made it seem like home. Most anytime you could find her out here in the front yard planting flowers, raising a garden, or in the kitchen cooking and baking. She worked so hard to keep clothes on all of us and keep us fed. She never worked a day outside of the home. She always worked right here, and of course jobs were not really to be found. So she did all that she could around here to keep Floyd up.”
“Gertrude, how long did you live here and when did you leave home?”
“Oh, I left here when I was about 15 or 16; I was a real young girl when I left home. Mom had gotten really sick and a couple of neighbors came over to help take care of her, because Floyd he was always on the go, and he really was not much of a husband to be quite honest with you. So the neighbors down the road took me in and raised me for a while, because mom was too sick to do so. And my brothers they were just about old enough to take care of themselves and they needed to help daddy around the house so they hung on for a while longer. I stayed until I graduated from school with the neighbors, and I can’t even remember their names now and they have been dead for a long time. After school I went to Washington DC, because I heard there were some jobs there. I never did come back because daddy did not treat momma right and I had a hard time dealing with that. In some ways I think he put her in an early grave.”
“Oh” Howard cuts in. “I am so sorry to hear about that. Seems like to me he would have cherished your mom.”
“He was a hard man and very stubborn, and I swore up and down that no man was ever going to treat me like that. And that I would never get a man like him to marry, or rule me and dominate me the way he did mom. It was just awful the way he treated her, and what she tolerate from him. After seeing all of that, it kind of made me mean spirited. Now do not get me wrong, yes he provided for us and took care of us as far as that is concerned, but he just did not treat the family right. Momma did not know what was going on with his money. She could hardly say anything in his presence. He was just awful. He treated her like a child.”
“What happened to your brothers?”
“Oh, yes well Aaron he went to the Army, and he was in the war you know. I think it was World War 1; yes he did very well for himself. Got married. And my other brother Dave was kind of sick also from time to time. I forgot what he had, he did not venture off to far because he got sick so often that he could barely keep a job. They both took it pretty hard when mom died. Aaron started drinking very heavy, but he did not become an alcoholic. But his marriage went downhill. And Dave he just kind of went inside of himself and got very depressed, and we never could get him back in his right mind. He never quite got over her death. And dad, I tell you, it was not long after mom dad he was dating someone else. And I tell you we were all upset about that. It made me fighting mad and I did not ever want to see him again after that. That was why I stayed gone and did not come back after mom died because I just did not think that he had done right by her. So when I had the chance to go to Washington that was my escape from all the ugliness of home at the time. I went up there, the big city, and I had never been to a big city before. Man I tell you it was so much to do. I met some people and girlfriends and we had a blast. I got a small apartment and shared it with two other girls, and I went to work. Got a job making sandwiches over next to the White House. There was a sandwich shop on Pennsylvania Avenue and I worked there for several years.”
“Mrs. Gertrude”, Howard cut in. “Speaking of sandwich, I am getting a bit hungry myself. Why don’t you and I get something to eat? I know a little place just up the road here. A great little place, very clean and that serve excellent food.”
The little coffee shop located on Route 1 was one of Howard’s favorite spots to get a good cup of Joe. It was also the preferred place to catch up on all of the town gossip. More than once he was surprised by the stories that the waitresses would conjure up about the locals on the town. Howard often wondered just how many times his name was on the lips of the very waitresses he had often given tips to.
“Hey Gertrude do you mind if I stop over here at this coffee shop and get me a bite to eat. I sure am hungry, and I have not had anything all day, and I want to make sure my blood sugar stays regulated. I would be happy to get you anything that you like also. It would be on me. It would be my honor and my treat.”
“Oh that is so sweet of you Howard that would be just wonderful. My stomach does seem to be saying something. I stirred around in the house this morning and got things together but I did not seem to get myself fed.”
The traffic was unusually light for this time of day, so Howard eased the Crown Victoria to the right hand lane and quickly whipped into the parking lot of the “Bluebird Restaurant.” After getting out he went to the passenger door and assisted Gertrude out of the car and onto her feet. “Now you just take your time, don’t rush yourself. Your pocketbook will be safe if you want to leave it here in the car, or if you want to bring it in with you, that is fine also.”
“Thank you Howard. You sure are sweet.”
“Yes, I have been coming here for years. It is a really nice place. They will fix you up just about anything you want, and they serve it up pretty quick.
Howard watched her as she slowly made her way to the front door. He thought of his own demise and the thought that he was not getting any younger. He wondered what life must be like for an aging person like Gertrude. Even though he was in relatively good health, he knew that bad health like, cancer or something worse could find him at any moment. It was because of the mercy of God that he was able to be sustained well all these years. However it did not always ease his fears of succumbing to a debilitating illness. He had enough stress in his life to give him a heart attack a long time ago. But somehow he got by with just slightly elevated blood pressure and he was taking medicine to keep it under control. When he was diagnosed with high blood pressure he was taken by surprise and was quite reluctant to think he would have to take lifetime medication. But in looking at the alternative he thought it best to obey doctor’s orders. After all he had been reading the obituary more frequent now days and always searched the pages for those people who had died in his age group. Although his diet changed often, for the most part he ate relatively healthy. Fruit cereals and bread was pretty much his main stay. Although on occasions he would splurge on calories that a single trip to the gym could not overcome. He never let the guilt consume him when he went into the local grocery store and got a whole sweet potato pie, usually consuming it in a day if not hours.
As they stepped into the café, Gertrude took notice of the elegant setting, but dim lighting. “My goodness do they want people to trip and break their neck, I can hardly see a thing. Help me here Howard.”
“Yes maam, that is because you just came in from the bright sunshine. It will take a few seconds for your eyes to adjust to the dimmer lighting. You are going to be OK, just hang onto my arm. We will take that booth over here where you will be a lot more comfortable than the stools at the counter.”
After sitting down, shortly a waitress emerged. “Hi, my name is Beatrice; I will be your waitress for the day. Can I get you two anything to drink?”
“I’ll have some water and Gertrude whatever you like just order it and I will take care of everything. Don’t you worry about paying for a thing.”
“OK, I will have a large glass of sweetened ice tea with a lemon.”
Beatrice quickly noted the order and left the menus and hurried off to the back kitchen.
Howard decided to take this opportunity to learn a bit more about the woman who had years of experiences and memories that he could draw some wisdom from. He liked talking to the elderly as they displayed wisdom warmth and much wit that was lacking in the world. Especially his.
“Gertrude, now that we got a little time to ourselves, tell me about yourself and tell me about your kids and family. Do you have any children of your own?”
“No, Howard I did raise a few foster kids, but never had any of my own. I did manage to get pregnant once, but that did not work out well. I had a bunch of foster kids over the years. As a matter of fact the last foster child I had, Eric, he stuck with me the longest. And he has moved on now.”
“Oh well that is wonderful. You have a very loving heart. Does Eric come around to see you?”
“Oh, yes he comes by and sees me from time to time. He is in the Marine Corps and . .” Gertrude looked puzzled as she was trying to recall the details of her past accurately. She never did really want to admit that the early stages of dementia and alhemizers were upon her. It was clear to everybody else but her, which is what prompted the county department of aging to do an assessment evaluation on her.
She continued. “No I think he got out of the Marine Corps, and is now down in South Carolina I believe working as an investigator or law enforcement or something like that. He told me what it was but I can’t remember. He turned out to be quite a remarkable young man. We have had our strained relationship over the years. I love him, and I tried to do the best that I could for him. He, umm, he umm has been hurt over the years.”
“Well Gertrude you know life has a strange way of bringing out the best and the worst in all of us. But don’t you worry any, as I am sure that Eric loves you, and he will turn out to be a fine young man that you can be proud of.”
“Yes I am very proud of him. He just does not know . . . I know how he feels, he just does not know that I am sorry for all the things that caused him pain and grief.”
She played with the fork turning it over and over in her hands just as the thoughts were going over in her mind as well. “Many years ago, he had a girlfriend. She was white, and I just had a hard time accepting her because of the way I had been treated all my life by white folks. She had children, and I just thought he could do better for himself. And I said some things that really hurt him and he acted kind of harshly as a result of it. I think his life spiraled out of control for many years after that. And I do not think he has quite forgiven me.”
Howard looked at her with reflection, and thought that she was coming to terms and grip now that she was in her older years of all the things that she may have done that she was not too proud of. “Well don’t you worry none Gertrude. I am sure he will be OK; yep he will be just fine. Take a look at that menu there and order anything you like, it is own me.”
Thirty minutes later they were making their way down the busy street, heading toward the old school where Gertrude had gotten her early education.
“My, my I tell you the kids now days got good schools and everything. When I was growing up, we only had a one room school house. And we did all of our reading, math and writing in that classroom.
Howard cut in, “Yes but I tell you what, they may be getting all that reading writing and math in better schools and all of that stuff, but I do not know if they are any smarter than we were when were growing up.” They both laughed out loud.
“Yes, school was a whole lot different back then. The thing that really sticks out in my mind the most is the fact that we were not treated like everybody else. We had our own special school house, but they would not let us go out and play with everybody else. There was a white school across the way, and we could not be out and play with the other kids when the white folks were out. That upset me terrible. All the time I could not understand why they were so special. But anyway I graduated and got pretty good grades. I went on and tried to become something for myself. Back then however, you really did not know what you were going to do or be after you got out of school, because we were kind of expected to get married and raise kids.”
Over the years Gertrude’s financial status had grown by leaps and bounds, all due to the unrelenting work ethics of her husband. She often bragged that the lifestyle that she was accustomed to living these days was the direct result of his hard effort. She realized she had made a wonderful choice by marrying, and that long gone would be her days of struggles, or wondering where her next meal would be. Gone were her days of walking for blocks on in without knowing where she would lay her head when the sun went down. For a lady of tremendous wealth, you would have thought that she did not have a penny to her name. For it was one more than one occasion when she would send someone to the store on her behalf, with a grocery list exceeding 75 to 100 dollars, and yet shell out only a twenty dollar bill to accommodate the list. One of the major frustrations with her foster son was that he often seemed to have to pick up the slack financially for her, knowing that she had more than enough money to take care of herself. She often balked at the thought of giving a tip to waitresses, and lamented in anguish at the seemingly high prices at the grocery store. Even now as they sat at the table with a meal that she did not have to pay for, she commented on several occasions on the high cost of the food.