|Jaden would wrap breakables, I would pack. Jaden would label and tape, and I would move boxes to the garage. Our little system worked nicely. Moving, it occurred to me, was a two-sided coin. On the one side, there’s always the thrill of what awaits the new life, but there’s usually a touch of sadness at leaving behind the old life. Jaden and I had been in Nashville for several years, and while we had been in Nashville, we had changed, aged, and so had all the folks back home. In fact, we had traveled home many times for funerals, and it was depressing to me. I remembered one of the last things my grandmother Peacock had said to me. “Max, I wish you lived closer. I just don’t get to see y’all enough.”
And, she was right. We didn’t get to see each other enough. I had seen her for years growing up, day in and out, and then once I had moved, I was sad that I just couldn’t stop by and see her. It made the times we traveled home even more meaningful. Stopping by her house, we’d sit on the porch, drinking chicory coffee and eating a piece of pie she always made when we’d visit. One day I had a strange thought. If I only went home once a year for Christmas, I would probably only see her five or ten more times and that was if she lived another five to ten years. It was an odd sensation, and I think that thought planted a seed deep in my soul. I will go home and if I happen to die in this strange place, I will still be sent home to where my people are. God, please lead me home.
A month later, we were making the trek home to Granny Peacock’s funeral and though I did not cry, the lump in my throat could not be swallowed. Jaden knew how hard it was for me and I think it was hard for her, too, because it simply reminded her of her distance from her people, too. And now, packing pictures of family in a box, I am telling them quietlysince Jaden might question my sanityI don’t know if you helped arrange for us to come home, but if you did, thank you. I hate to leave friends and this beautiful land in Tennessee, but thank God, I’m going home again. And I wondered if Granny Peacock had something to do with it.
Though I was a Christian, I don’t think I was the Biblethumping Christian that many professed to be, but I did believe in a spiritual place, where things could line up, and like the magic of Disney, paths could be altered. I glanced out the window and imagined my grandmother sitting, poised like Mary Poppins, on a cloud and waving at me, and I waved.
“Max, what are you waving at?”
“Shooing a fly.”
“This box is ready. You look zoned out. Are you okay?”
“Just realizing how close we are to being back home.”
“I’m very happy about this, Max, especially since we are going to have a little one.”
Later in the afternoon, Jaden went over to one of her school teacher friend’s house for a going-away gathering. The teacher, a dainty, delicate woman named Mame was sweet as could be, and seemed doll-like, but was rather odd. She was several years older than us and had remarried, but hadn’t told her own grown children she had remarried. She hadn’t even told her mother, according to Jaden, who said it would simply kill her mother to know she’d married again. I thought it strange, but Jaden said when her grown children would come, her new husband would leave the house for a few days until Mame’s children had gone. I told Jaden I thought that was beyond strange, but what had been hilarious was when her ex-husband found out she was married.
The Orkin man was spraying her ex-husband’s house and asked if he was kin to the couple with the same name as his on a certain road. Knowing the road and namesince she had kept her ex-husband’s namehe was aware it was his ex-wife’s house, but didn’t know she had remarried. He was certain she might be living with someone and had called to bless her out and tell her she wasn’t living right and she should set a better example for her own children and her students. I thought there was something wrong with the whole story, and it just didn’t seem normal, but I saw the humor in it. As soon as I had said it, I could hear Aunt Ophelia, “Don’t judge a book by its cover, praise God.”
Though Jaden wasn’t opposed to my going to the party, no one else had been invited outside the circle of school teachers, and I told Jaden I would prefer to simply rest.
Once Jaden was gone, I laid down in our bedroom and promptly fell asleep. When I awoke, I was thirsty, having apparently slept with my mouth open and it being really dry because of the ceiling fan. I had been asleep for two hours. I turned on the news, looked outside as the sun was setting, and watched the traffic on I-65, and the barges on the Cumberland. Nashville was beautiful, and though I would miss it, I could always come back and visit.
Jaden finally got home shortly after eight o’clock. I was beginning to get concerned, but figured they just couldn’t stop talking.
“Sorry, I’m getting in later than I thought. We just talked and had the best time, and guess what they all went in and gave us?”
“A $250 gift card to Target.”
“Sure was. We can use it for whatever we want, either for the baby, the move, whatever.”
“Well, I think I finished packing everything, and I have my clothes loaded in my Jeep.”
“What time are you leaving?”
“Mid-morning some time. I’m in no rush, but I do want to get to Aunt Ophelia’s house before dark.”
“I’m going to go on to bed.”
The next morning, Jaden and I had our last cup of coffee together on the balcony, and I watched the traffic on the Interstate, the barges and tugboats on the Cumberland, and the Nashville skyline, trying to absorb the picture one last time. Nashville, a metropolitan city, was the home of country music, but it would be a bustling place even if not associated with its label of “country music.”
I packed some of Jaden’s belongings that she would need to prevent her from lifting anything to her car when she arrived in a couple of days, and we kissed and hugged goodbye.
I was on the Interstate by eleven and drove without stopping until I was past Atlanta, and even then, I pulled off the road long enough to fill up with gas, get a diet Coke and a pack of cashews. Jaden and I talked briefly by cell phone. She mainly wanted to see if I was making good time or not.
I listened to The Traveling Wilburys at least twice. I also listened to some older CD’s I owned. Tom T. Hall, Joe South, and Emmylou Harriswho I jokingly told Jaden I would run away with if she ever invited me. I loved her voice and her natural look. Jaden told me to go ahead, that I might get a BMW after all.
I finally pulled in to Aunt Ophelia’s about dusk. The peacocks were down in the woods, screaming, and I called Mama and Daddy to let them know I was there in case any locals decided to call them and tell them a strange vehicle was at Aunt Ophelia’s. I unpacked, got organized, and decided to get a good night’s sleep before I started to work the next morning at the Apalachee. I also decided I would clean and rearrange Ophelia’s furniture around, so we’d have room for some of our things, even though most of it would end up in a secured storage facility in Tallahassee, but that work could wait a day or two.
The next day, the drive to Tallahassee wasn’t bad at all. It took about forty-five minutes, and the more I thought about it, the more it occurred to me that Jaden often had a forty-five minute commute with traffic in Nashville. I met the doorman, Jack, who was Effie’s cousin. He was kind, and I could tell by their eyes they were related. It’s funny how you can tell these little things, and of course, I don’t know if I would have made the connection if I hadn’t known. I filled out human resources paperwork related to social security, health care, and so forth, and Ms. Lola came and welcomed me officially to the Apalachee. We toured the facility again, but this time I was introduced to every employee on the property who was at work. Given there were three shifts, some employees I would have to meet later.
Finally, Lola looked at her watch. “Max, I can’t believe it’s lunch already. We should grab a bite. I’ll bet you’re starving.”
“No, not really,” I responded. “I didn’t even realize the time.”
We walked to the café, took seats, and ordered salads. Lola explained that I could charge breakfast, lunch and dinner anytime I wanted and they would either deduct it from my paycheck, or I could simply pay it. She said she’d only been stiffed once in all the years she had owned the place. Lola talked a little about her family, and particularly her husband’s decline, and I was surprised when she shifted the conversation to my family.
“Max, I knew some of your family.”
“What do you mean?”
“First, my uncle was engaged to your Aunt Ophelia. They met in the restaurant here at the Apalachee. She was a beautiful woman, very regal. I remember imitating her as a child. I knew your grandparents, too, but not well, and I remember your Great Aunt Helen.”
“That’s amazing,” I said. “I wondered why you asked me if I would commute or live here when you hired me.”
“Yes, I think we went to your family farm once. I remember a pond, the old bungalow, the peacocks.”
“What happened to your uncle?”
“He was killed in a car accident.”
“So, then, that means he was Ophelia’s first fiancé. She was engaged to two other men, both of whom died. One with the flu in the epidemic and one in the Korean War.”
“That sounds right. They loved to go for rides in his convertible Thunderbird, and I remember him telling her they would always be together.”
Part of me wondered about the mysterious rider, the logger who hit Aunt Ophelia claimed he saw the day she was killed. It’s easier to imagine it to be true than try to investigate it, but part of me felt like calling him over in Waycross, where he lived, to ask him what the fellow looked like, but I figured it would make a better story to tell. “And you knew my great Aunt Helen?”
“Vaguely. There was something wrong with her. It seemed to get worse from what I recall, but you know adults didn’t talk about things like that much back then and certainly not around children.”
“What were her symptoms?”
“She was brilliant, very quiet, but she could make predictions. I remember her telling me I would one day own and run this hotel, and I was fascinated by that thought. Of course, I was just a child and it didn’t take much to fascinate me then. But I do recall that my uncle bought a lot of oil stock from her prediction and hit the jackpot. I also think your grandparents did, too. In fact, there were some men from Washington who came here to talk with her and your grandparents shortly after they did that. I think they suspected something fishy. She began to suspect everyone. I don’t think she was outright paranoid, but she was walking a thin line. She was truly a mystery, but she did begin to tell people things that upset them, and once in a while, there was a scene at the hotel. I think your grandparents finally decided to send her for some rest and relaxation at a new facility. I don’t really know what happened to her after that, and of course, Max, this is all from a child’s perspective many years ago.”
“Apparently, I read in an old letter in a trunk that she was given a prefrontal lobotomy and died a year later at the state hospital in Milledgeville.”
“That’s sad. I don’t know that she ever told anything that wasn’t true. Looking back, it was as if she had a sixth sense, an intuition, and she could read people very well. If she told people the truth, even at the hospital, then people wouldn’t have liked that.”
“True. I guess it’s too long ago to check it all out now, and I’m sure there would be no records. Plus, most of the people who would have known something about it would probably be deceased. Anyway, that is amazing. You have helped me more today than you’ll ever know. Thanks.”
“Well, what are you and Jaden going to name this little girl?”
“Ophelia, but maybe we’ll give her the middle name of Helen.”
“I think that would be splendid.”
Our conversation was interrupted by her cell phone ringing. Her caller was the hospice nurse telling her that Mr. Smith’s breathing had become somewhat labored, and she should come home. I asked if she was okay, and she replied, “You’re never really ready to let go, but you have to.”
Niles Reddick lives in Tifton, Georgia with his wife and two children. Author of the short story collection, “Road Kill Art and Other Oddities,” he was a finalist for an Eppie Award in fiction. For more information on the author, visit his website at www.nilesreddick.com.