Max watched Amanda pat Lily’s arm. He’d seen this girl dressed like a hooker then like the girl next door. He had caught glimpses of humor and rudeness. This morning she had proved resourceful, helpful and honest. After the incident in the department store she had become almost surly, but now she was acting quite kindly. He realized he had taken a chance when he handed her his wallet. Andrew would have a conniption fit if he knew. But crouched on that floor with Lily he saw Amanda’s shoe poking around the corner; he knew she was listening. She hadn’t interrupted but she’d stayed close. In the quietness, he’d heard her sniffling, crying. He sensed that child had a heavy load. Something was tearing her apart and for reasons he couldn’t begin to understand, Lily and he were supposed to help. Max couldn’t figure how he knew that, but half the time anymore he couldn’t figure out how or if he knew anything.
He rubbed his eyes. Later he would take a stab at finding out what was going on with her. He certainly had no intention of dropping her off on a street corner in Knoxville. At least that possible conflict had been delayed. He needed some recovery time. Lily’s breakdown, awful as it was, postponed Knoxville.
“Ladies, let’s get back to the Inn. We old folks are going to need a little rest. The young one is going to have to fend for herself a while.”
He slid out of the booth and stood awkwardly. Amanda rose also helping Lily to her feet. He put the tip under his coffee cup, reached out to take Lily’s arm, but she pulled back gripping tighter to Amanda. Lily’s lower lip trembled.
“Can I go to sleep now? You never let me go to sleep.” Lily accused. She looked up at Amanda. “That man, what’s his name?”
“Max.” Amanda said gently not able to look up at Max. Ouch, that must have hurt. Not that she cared, but it had to hurt when his own wife couldn’t remember his name.
“Max. Why can’t I remember that? That man is mean to me.”
“No, Lily, Max isn’t mean.”
“Yes, he is! He never lets me sleep.”
“No, Lily,” Amanda began. Max interrupted by touching her shoulder. When she looked up she saw his watery eyes with a quick shake of his head. Her eyes shifted quickly to her feet and she was silent.
Back at the motel Max helped Amanda get Lily settled under the covers. She lay on her left side with her right knee pulled up to her chest. He watched her settle into the bed. The experts said she would gradually pull into a fetal position, but for now she slept pretty much as she always had. When she was asleep, he leaned over and smoothed back her hair from her face and kissed her gently. Amanda sat on the other bed simply watching. He couldn’t read her expression but heaven knew he’d never unlocked the mysterious way women’s minds worked.
He finally rose. His legs felt especially heavy today. With a nap, a good dinner, some time with the box of old letters, maybe even a little TV and then a good night’s rest, he’d recover. Tomorrow they might make it to Knoxville, but with the way things were going so far, Max wasn’t going to count on it.
As he started toward the adjoining door, Amanda spoke for the first time since the restaurant. He paused.
‘Later, would you tell me about this Greta? The one Lily thinks I am.”
“Ah, Greta.” He pondered that. “Tell you what, Amanda; could you wait until we are on the road in the morning?”
“Sure, no problem. You don’t mind do you? I mean she’s not like the “bad seed” is she?”
“Hardly, though I suspect she had her doubts about that. She was Lily’s older sister. Tomorrow, Amanda.” He waved to her as he stumbled slightly over the threshold. “The lounge chair in here is calling my name.”
Max pulled the door shut behind him. Just as he settled into the chair, he heard the deadbolt click on the adjoining door. Amanda wasn’t taking any chances. Sleep came as a warm tingling upward from his legs spreading out over his whole being.
Two hours later he was awakened to a distant orchestra playing the “William Tell Overture”.
“Millie!” Max said, “Good to hear your voice.”
“Yours, too, Pops. Andrew came in for lunch just a bit ago and we were wondering where you all were now. Peggy and Barry both told us you and Momma Lily had a young traveling companion. Everything going ok?”
“Fine, just fine, Millie. We are still in Cookeville. Momma had a little episode while we were out shopping this morning.”
“Are you ok? Is she ok?”
“We are now. Our “traveling companion” as you called her helped. She is about Allison’s age.”
“Good grief, Pops! What on earth is she doing traipsing around the country alone? Where are her folks?”
Max started to share his suspicions about Amanda but he looked up before he answered noticing the adjoining door open and Amanda’s shadow through the partially open door. Better save that discussion for a later time, he decided.
“That still hasn’t been established, but we’ll get there eventually.”
“Huh? Oh, you have company.” Millie replied softly. Max could almost see Millie’s look of understanding. Andrew had gotten a good one in that woman. She was quick.
“What’s going on there? Have you been out and about any?”
Millie took the hint and launched into sharing the most recent event she could think. With the deft flair of a good storyteller she could take the ordinary and make it extraordinary.
“Well, I carried a casserole up to Uncle Fred’s today. I thought he might be getting hungry since Evelyn’s in the rehab center now.”
Fred was the fifth of the Carnes’ brothers, eighteen months younger than Ed.
He’d never married but lived his entire adult life in the home of Max’s oldest brother, Mitchell, and his wife, Evelyn. The couple had no children, so Evelyn had devoted her life to cooking, cleaning and taking care of both Mitchell and Fred. When Mitchell died suddenly five years ago, nobody in the family raised an eyebrow when the living arrangements of a lifetime continued.
Unfortunately for Fred and Evelyn too, Max acknowledged, Evelyn had a stroke six weeks ago. Her residence changed for a yet undetermined time to the rehabilitation center in Pembroke. The whole family wondered what on earth Fred would do. Here was an 80-year-old bachelor who had never even made a pot of coffee by himself. Millie had immediately started taking a casserole by every week and just checking in on Fred.
“How is Fred?” Max asked, anticipating a good tale.
“He’s taken up cooking.”
“Fred? Cooking? Sounds down right dangerous to me.”
“Probably. I mean, maybe not, but the place isn’t quite as tidy as it was when Evelyn was there. He’s been rolling his cigarettes on her dining room table and evidently his cooking experiments have involved every square inch of the kitchen. He invited me in to sample his stew.”
Millie’s intonation lifted on the last phrase meaningfully followed by a pause. She was baiting him and though he tried to resist, at least momentarily, he found himself lunging at the dangling interval anxious to know the outcome.
“So, did you?”
“Well,” Millie drew the word out to hint at her reluctance to enter the kitchen, let alone taste anything Fred might have cooked. Max tried to imagine the expression on her face. “You know, Pops, there he stood in the kitchen, surrounded by stacks of dirty dishes, holding a large crusty wooden spoon. I mean, Pops, that spoon had stirred more than one pot of stew, if you get my meaning. But, darn it, there he stood proud as a peacock, grinning from ear to ear.”
“Did he have his teeth in?”
“No.” Millie stated matter-of-factly, “But, he did have a cigarette dangling from his lower lip with an ash the size of Texas.”
“That would be Fred all right,” Max, laughed at the description. “So, did you sample his stew?”
“I did. Only a little bit and I closed my eyes really tight to avoid catching a glimpse of that spoon up close. And you know what? It wasn’t half bad. Now he did want me to sit down and have a bowl, but I declined. Told him I might ruin my supper.”
Max whooped aloud at the very thought of Millie’s eyes clamped shut tasting Fred’s stew. His laughter evidently drove Amanda away from the door. He saw the shadow dissipate. To check for sure, he crossed the room and peeked through the opening in the door. Lily still slept and Amanda was across the room at the table, painting her nails and watching TV.
“Millie,” he said quietly, changing tones while moving as far from the ajar door as he could while still watching it. “This girl, Amanda, I think she may be running away from something. Can’t quite figure her out. Big mood swings, you know.”
“Do I ever? We have a teenaged daughter, Pops. Seriously though, most parents don’t let their teenagers tramp across the country hitching rides with just anybody.”
“Wait a minute.”
“Pops, I wasn’t talking about you and Momma Lily. I am guessing she’d been on the road before you picked her up. Am I right?”
“Looked that way. She was broke, hungry, dirty and madder than a Momma Bear with cubs. Still is angry, at least some of the time. Rude, too, but then she can be sweet. Tarnation Millie, I am too blame old to figure out female emotions, but I am worried about her.”
“What name does she give?” The sound of Millie pulling a pencil from the holder by the phone caught his ear.
“Amanda Smith. I think Amanda’s her name but Smith isn’t.”
“Take a picture of her, with Lily or alone.”
“Darn it! Millie, I don’t remember packing a camera.”
“Pops, use your phone and text the picture to me.” she hesitated, ” do you know how to do that?”there is a camera in Lily’s small bag.”
After a lengthy pause, Max muttered, “I ‘d do better with a camera, Millie.”
“Pops, there is a camera in Lily’s small bag.”
“There is? I’m sure I don’t remember packing one.”
“O-o-h” he said understanding. Millie laughed.
“You are going to want some pictures and I suggest you start taking some tomorrow. Get some good ones of Amanda then take them to the one-hour photo shop at Wal-Mart. Get duplicates and send one set here to me.”
“Pops, I’ll scan them.”
“Right and put them on one of those missing or found children sites on the Internet. In the meantime I’ll get on some of those sites and see what I come up with using the little bit we know.”
“You can do that?” The hedge in his voice indicated his doubtfulness.
“Watch your mail.” Max conceded. He heard Lily stirring in the next room.
“Lily’s waking up, Millie. I’d better go. Give Andrew and the kids our love.”
“Will do, Pops. Don’t forget the camera and pictures. Write it down.”
“Bye, Millie” he said pushing the off button thinking, why’d she say that? My mind is as good as it has ever been; a mental note should suffice.
Later that evening Max reclined again in the lounge chair, this time with his Bible and opened the old box. The door between the two rooms was open. Lily had awakened from her nap more communicative, but after dinner dropped into another slump. Though not like the morning episode her confusion increased. He had handed her the photograph to reassure her. She now rested on her side with it tightly gripped in her hand. Amanda sat across the room watching TV.
Occasionally, when he looked up to check on Lily, he’d meet Amanda’s eyes, but she hurriedly diverted her glance. Was she watching him? He wasn’t really sure.
His Bible lay open in his lap to Isaiah, the prophet. Until recently he’d been a regular church going man. If he recorded his life in words a typical Sunday entry in his journal would have begun with, we went to church as usual. In the last several months, he’d stayed home with Lily more and more. Lately, after he discovered the box and arranged the contents chronologically, he read a letter every night. He was now reading through Lily’s collection the second time.
On Saturday night after reading from his Bible and reading one of the letters, he would pull out his Sunday school lesson book, study the lesson for the next day and then decide the following morning that negotiating the obstacle course of getting Lily and himself ready required more energy than he could muster.
His excuses were many, but in the lounge chair in a motel in Cookeville, Tennessee, he knew they were lame. If he could take Lily to Ocean Isle Beach, he could get them to church on Sunday.
Reading the words in Isaiah 43, he felt slightly ashamed. “When you walk through the fire.” He knew his reluctance to attend church came because of pride and a lack of trust. He hated people seeing Lily like she had become. He hated asking for help, getting ready, though certainly Andrew and Millie had offered. He hated enduring the pity he read in every face in the congregation. His flesh crawled knowing people they’d known all their lives pitied him.
The last time they had attended together, Lily had sat quietly through the whole service. When he helped her up from the pew, Agnes Wilcox descended upon them jabbering nonstop. He was barely listening to her, trying to get to the exit, when he noticed from the corner of his eye that Lily was looking down at her dress and fidgeting nervously with her pearl necklace. Tuning back toward Agnes and Lily, he heard his name and the word husband.
“Max? My husband? I don’t know any Max. I’m not married. Why are you saying those things? Who are you?” The edge of fear in Lily’s voice was unmistakable.
Agnes flushed and stepped backward, sputtering, trying to say something to disengage herself from them. Finally, she managed, “Well you do look lovely, Lily. That dress is very becoming with your pearls.”
Lily stared at Agnes and then down at the dress, grasping the pearls even more tightly, “This isn’t my dress,” she proclaimed loudly, “It must belong to this man!” She glared at Max, “tell her, you wore it yesterday, didn’t you?” With her index finger she thumped him in the center of his chest.
Everything stopped. Silence fell where moments earlier the clatter of multiple conversations had filled the air, as people said their good-byes, planned activities or decided where to meet for lunch and whether they would beat the Baptists there. The descent of the silence and the clatter of pearls coincided perfectly as Lily’s necklace broke from her strangle hold. A chorus of pings resounded as the pearls hit the hardwood floors and rolled a myriad of directions. Immediately, the remaining crowd went diving for errant pearls or dodging them as they bounced and rolled. During the confusion, Max managed to wrestle Lily out the door and in the car.
All the way home he replayed the scene in his head. Without intending to be, he admitted he was embarrassed and angry. Not angry at Lily, Lord, he knew she couldn’t help it, but angry still, angry with himself and, God help him, angry with God.
Wednesday that week, Brother Tom their pastor for the past 15 years brought Lily’s pearls out in a sealed envelope. He told Max he wasn’t sure if they were all accounted for; some might have rolled into the vents near the front of the sanctuary. They sat out on the porch for a long time talking about everything but Lily. She was napping. Neither man mentioned the scene the past Sunday.
Max couldn’t bring himself to talk beyond idle chitchat. Often since then he’d wished Brother Tom had brought it up, but he didn’t. The incident hung in his heart like a fish bone caught in his throat. The envelope with pearls, which were imitation, rested in the junk drawer in the kitchen where he had tossed it after Brother Tom drove off that day.
Petty, he thought, blaming the pastor and the folks he’d known most of his life for imagined failings. They were at a loss as to how to help a stubborn old man who was bound and determined to act as if he didn’t need help, as if nothing had changed, when in fact, daily, the disease progressed, stealing more of Lily from him and all who loved her. He longed to know the woman he had missed so he picked up another envelope from the box and carefully unfolded the thin paper within with the now familiar script.
The sense that he was being watched caused him to look up. The child stood in the doorway watching him.
“Do you need something, Amanda?”
“Nah. What are you reading?” She asked suspiciously.
“Just an old letter.”
“An old letter?” her voice matched the smirk that twisted her face.
“Yes, an old letter.”
He had had about all he could take of the girl’s attitude, but caught himself before giving her any satisfaction by snapping at her. He just wanted her to go away and leave him alone.
“So, I can know Lily better.”
“Whoa! Are they love letters from an old boyfriend? Are they full of secrets?”
“Secrets? A few maybe.” He pondered that statement. They really weren’t secrets. Lily would have opened all this to him from the beginning, if he hadn’t been such a hard headed fool.
“Really! Do you have secrets too?”
“Me?” In spite of his agitation with this girl’s insistent probing, he chuckled.
“No, a man my age usually has very few secrets, at least not any worth writing down. Most of them have either been exposed a long time ago or simply forgotten. I doubt much about my life is secret. It certainly doesn’t escape the eyes of the Lord, anyway.”
“You mean God, right? Do, do, Do, do, Do, do, do, Do,” the smirk on her mouth and her rendition of the theme of the Twilight Zone annoyed him, but he suspected she intended to do just that. She certainly could be a little twerp when she wanted to be.
“That’s the one,” he said matter-of-factly, returning his attention to the page before him. He was way too tired to tackle theological issues tonight even if he wanted to do so, which he did not.
“My mother had secrets and she kept a journal. She wrote down lots of secrets, dirty secrets.” Her voice dripped with the haughtiness only the young can produce, it clung to him like a wad of spit on the snow. He looked up to say something only to find that she had retreated. The door between the rooms snapped shut. The dead bolt clicked.
So much for that conversation, he thought. Max tucked the box and Bible in his suitcase. After his bath, he slid between the covers on the bed and slept soundly.