Part 49: Dinner With Earl
A few dances later, we came to realize the time was slipping away from us and morning was preparing to enter afternoon. Knowing we had to be at Earl’s place at one, Summer went up to her room to change and I retired to mine to do the same. I didn’t think something as formal as tux pants were required. I slipped into some jeans and a t-shirt advertising a 70’s glam rock band called Angel. Perhaps I thought it would make me look younger, but taking a glance at myself in the mirror I realized it didn’t matter. When you’re in love there’s no need to worry about such things.It makes you feel like a teenager anyway. Or at least it should.I emptied the pockets of my tux pants before hanging them back in the closet. The envelope Gunboats had given me I set on the bed. Sitting down, I fought the temptation to pull the paper out and read it. He had said I would know when the time was right. What if right now was the time? I got up and walked to the door. I glanced out in to the hallway and up the staircase to see if Summer were coming down. She wasn’t. I started to pull the paper out of the envelope and realized it wasn’t just one document but several folded up together. I unfolded them and took a look at the first one. It was a handwritten page, a feminine script that appeared to be a correspondence from Hope to Gunboats. The date at the top told me it was from the war and the first line revealed exactly what it was, her final letter to the man she believed to have lost. I didn’t have time to read it as Summer’s steps sounded on the stairs. I slid the papers back in the envelope and folded it up, stashing it in my pants pocket for later.
I stepped out in the hall to find Summer had changed into nice slacks and a loose fitting blouse with ruffled sleeves. In her hand she held the t-shirt she had been wearing earlier.
“You can have this back now.”
I looked at the shirt, advertising Pink Floyd’s The Wall in conjunction with the tearing down of the Berlin Wall. “You keep it,“ I said. “Looks much better on you.”
She smiled and kissed me lightly on the cheek. “We’re getting serious now if you want me to wear your shirts and stuff.”
“As long as you don’t expect me to wear your underwear,” I replied.
“You do have to take the fun out of a relationship, don’t you?” she giggled.
The drive to Earl Cash’s place was as it was the first time around, a quiet excursion down dirt roads that got narrower with every turn. Avoiding the ruts where the water runoff had washed away the dirt and gravel, we turned into his drive, another dirt road that ran through a field up to the white fence encircling his yard. We sat there a few minutes, both having our own trepidations about this, I’m sure. The last time we’d been here Summer had told him to go to hell, and I had informed him the world wasn’t waiting for him anymore. Hopefully things would go a little better this time.
With a brief kiss for luck, we got out of the car and walked up the flower lined path to Earl’s front porch. Last time we were naïve, this time I felt like the scarecrow walking down the corridor to Oz the great and terrible. I glanced over at Summer and she gave me a look that said, we can do this. We started our walk up the porch steps, and the various wind chimes seemed to signal our arrival. The flag that read SUMMERHOME blew softly in the early afternoon breeze. Before we even had a chance to knock on the front door, Earl was there, opening it and inviting us in. He wasn’t dressed in work overalls this time, but wore nice khakis and a clean blue shirt. He smiled at us both, and even reached out his hand to shake mine with a “thank you for coming.” It was like seeing a different person than the Earl from our earlier visit.
The interior of the house, which we never got to see the first time was very homey. It looked nothing like the house of a single man. Everywhere you looked there were flowers and birds, in the form of pictures on the wall, knick knacks on highly polished end tables, lamp shade designs, and as he led us through the kitchen it was a country woman’s paradise. Towels, washrags, napkins, curtains…all were done up with country ducks and other barnyard animal designs. Summer looked around the room with a surprised look on her face, and as we followed our host into the dining room, we noticed a large table covered by what looked like a homemade table cloth decorated with daffodils, the same flower that lined the front walk. On the table, a feast was set out like it was Thanksgiving: Turkey and dressing, cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes and gravy, corn , green beans, homemade rolls.
“Hope you guys didn’t have a big breakfast,” he said with a grin.
“Wow,” I said. “Who else is coming to dinner?”
“No one, you’re it.” He waited for us to be seated. I held the chair for Summer as she sat down and I gently slid her closer to the table. Then I sat down in the place he had set beside her. Kudos for seating us together and not on opposite sides of the table. Earl stood behind his chair and nervously said, “I don’t normally do this, but let’s say grace.”
I reached for Summer’s hand and we bowed our heads.
He cleared his throat and began with a shaky voice,“ God, thank you for family and friends who have gathered around this table, thank you for this food and fellowship, and forgive us our sins against you and your bible. Amen.” He raised his head and smiled. “Alright, you eat , I’ll starve.”
He began to hand dishes our way so we could fill our plates. He waited until we had what we wanted and then he filled his own. He took a bite of turkey and then with a look at Summer, said, “I’m really glad you came.”
She took a deep breath. “I am too, but I’m really in shock.”
He raised an eyebrow. “Yeah?”
“This house is amazing. Who decorated it?”
He sheepishly grinned. “I did.”
“Yep, took a lot of time, but I was trying to get it right.”
Summer looked up from her plate. “Right for what?”
“Oh..don’t you know? For your mother, of course.”
She stopped eating. “What?”
“Look around you, Summer. You lived with your mom. Doesn’t anything look familiar? Ducks, Daffodils, country scenes…you must know they were her favorites.”
“But why? I don’t understand.”
He took another bite of dinner and downed it with a big gulp of tea. “When I first got here years ago, there was an old house on the property falling apart. I knew I was going to have to build it up again if I wanted a decent place to live. Building the new place got me to thinking. About all sorts of things. But mostly your mother. And as it all took shape, I got it in my head I would build her the house she always wanted. I knew she probably wouldn’t come here, and I didn’t blame her, but somehow it gave me a sense of purpose, made me feel like I belonged to something again, like I was good to someone.”
Summer didn’t say anything. I watched her resume eating and wondered to myself if she was trying to ignore him or if she was upset.
“I named the place after you of course, thinking maybe someday you both would see it.”
“Mother will never see it now,” Summer reminded him. I got the feeling she was trying to throw verbal daggers at the man now.
“I know. I sent her pictures though. I think she liked it.”
Summer looked up. “When?”
“About a year ago. I sent her pictures of the place and of the garden out back. I asked her to come visit, maybe stay awhile, but she declined. Some things are hard to forgive, I guess.”
“She never told me.”
“I don’t think she believed you would understand.”
“That she missed me.’
“You’re fooling yourself there. She hated you.”
“That’s what she wanted you to believe, Summer. She felt you wouldn’t understand how she could have feelings for someone who abandoned you both.”
“You’re right, I don’t understand.”
He sighed and pushed his plate away. “It was easier for her to hate me in front of you. It would be hard explaining her loneliness to you.”
“So you say she lied to me all these years?”
“I wouldn’t call it exactly that. After all, she did hate what I did. But time heals wounds they say. Perhaps the hate got less and less. Perhaps my last letters changed her heart I don’t know. We never got the chance to discuss the reasons she wouldn’t come.”
“I find it hard to believe she forgave you, or still wanted you.”
“I didn’t say she wanted me. But I do believe she wanted to set things to rest before her time, and mine, was up.” He got up from his seat. “Wait here, I have something to show you.”
We both watched Earl shuffle out of the room. I turned to Summer and patted her knee to reassure her, but she was angry and pushed my hand aside. Normally such a gesture would have killed me, but taking into account the father who abandoned her was now telling her that her mother didn’t hate him as much as she said she did, I kind of understood.
When Earl returned, Summer’s appetite had left her. She sat at the table, arms folded, like a rock refusing to budge. As he sat down, I noticed he had an envelope in his hand. He set it on the table and slid it across to her.
“I don’t know how your mother truly felt about me in the end. All I have is what she said in this, her last letter. I have to accept it as the truth, and hopefully it will help you understand her a little better. Maybe it will help you understand me. Then again , maybe not. Either way, I think she would want me to share this with you.” He stood up. “I’m going out back to sit in the garden awhile. You can sit here and read it if you like. If you want to talk, just go through the kitchen and come out the back door. “ He started to walk off. “Sorry I ruined your appetite. I guess maybe lunch wasn’t such a good idea after all.”
I watched him leave, as Summer looked at the envelope on the table. She let it sit there a moment and then reached for it. She opened the envelope and took the letter out, unfolding it carefully. I got up and gathered up our dishes as she started to read. This was a family matter and there was nothing I could do to make it easier for either party. I wandered into the kitchen to set our dishes in the sink. I looked out the back window and saw Earl sitting on a wrought iron bench in the midst of a flower garden. I watched him turn in his seat and begin to talk as if someone were seated next to him. I couldn’t hear what he was saying, but I could see the tears glistening on his cheek. I turned away from the window, not wanting him to notice me there, and returned to the dining room where Summer had similar tears glistening on her cheek as well. I knew they were crying for the same person. Themselves.
“Orchard House & The Heart Of Everything” 2016 Paul D Aronson.