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There Was a Lady ((Story Two, to ”Voices Out of Saigon")(Revised 8-24-2008))
Mrs. Caroline Abernathy paced slowly as she reached her front yard, coming up alongside the mansion from her backyard. In the hot afternoon the huge, square house, and thereof, the premises seemed peaceful, tranquil, as it had for almost one-hundred and fifty years. The old mansion was part of her husband’s family heritage, Cole Abernathy, whose grandfather came to North Carolina and built it, gave it to his son, whom gave it to Cole. Fathers and grandfathers had been raised there. They, like Cole had died in that there mansion, in turn they had expected their son, Langdon to die in it too, but that no longer was a preference, Langdon had been buried now, he had died in a taxi in Saigon, a year ago to this very month, October, 1972.
Caroline believed that Langdon was actually responsible to die there, that their lives were intertwined not only with the Abernathy name and for it to be carried on to eternity on earth, but soil likewise was in the veins of the Abernathy family, the soil, dirt it all came along for the ride, one for all and all or one. When he chose to go to war, the family felt as if he cut himself off from them. He had a strong sense of justice yes, pride for his country too much perhaps, as if it was a duty almost to lay his life down for the many, and one he needed to match with his family heritage. Caroline had thought that perhaps, once Langdon returned home from Vietnam, there would be a renewal, a rebirth on the Abernathy plantation. There was some unpardonable outrage when he left-but that could be mended, but now dead, full possession of the land, and the name, and the mansion remained in a dying household, this was the unconscious, turnabout, in her mind. She was simply masquerading, that life had purpose, there was none now, life was anything more than, a bag for her bones waiting, as she received her aches and pains, from growing age, she’d be in the family cemetery soon, and the way she was thinking, the sooner the better.
So very still was the tranquil woman of Abernathy’s family tree.
Caroline crossed over into the front yard towards the wooden fence, that parallel the country road, she walked, she now remembered how a year ago, this month about this very time in the day, her son, Langdon, in his early twenties died, and brought so much grief to his father that his heart gave out; he had became a crazed, hate ridden old man, now buried among the graves also. It had been learned, on the day he died, his grave was already dug in the family cemetery, he had been digging it for a week prior, and in the proper time his will gave out, without surprise to him, there was no substance left in it. And now from beyond the grave, Caroline had been stuck one final blow, she had to live life alone. There was no remaining flesh and blood.
She remembered how Langdon and Cole would be throwing the football to one another, treading on the grass, catch it and throwing it back, even running on the front porch to catch it falling over chairs and newspapers and lamps, and sodas, it would seem it wasn’t much fun watching them, in that she wanted to join in, and felt she’d be out of place, and now she moaned: why should I have cared.
And now, to stack one on top of the other-her defense, and refusing to plead for her life with her minds eye, her second self, old Josh had died ((Josh Jefferson Jr., born 1890) (died 1972: 82-years old)) the negro stable hand; he would help Langdon up on his horse, tell him stories in at Christmas (like Josh’s father Silas would do, and Silas’ father, Old Josh, who came from the Congo, back around 1813, he African name being Zam, who was a slave down in Ozark, Alabama all his life, minus his first ten years of life, and after the Civil War he remained on the Hightower plantation) he was like a grandson to him, he worked for Cole’s father, and his father as well back before the turn of the century Josh Washington Jefferson (Born 1853-1903), Josh’s father worked for the Abernathy’s for fifty-years, perhaps more. It’s the way it was, family to family (often times from the cradle to the grave), thus, the house had seen a lot of Langdon Abernathy, and expected him to carry on the family saga, in that very house. And now, to Caroline, it all was smoke, simply smoke, all clouded. She didn’t know, or understand, what Langdon was thinking at the time he chose to go to war, and not college, he could have avoided it. But Cole, her husband seemed to understand more of what it was about, man to man, men could see what such things are about, but she couldn’t. “We didn’t want to smother him,” she told Cole, “but one day he just broke out of his growing pains and said, ‘mom, it’s time,’ and I cried, because I knew what he meant, and I told him, ‘you can have it all, right here’ and he told me, ‘I don’t want it all mom, only my share of life.”
“Why couldn’t he take a little of it at a time,” that is what Caroline told Cole. There was no answer, a rhetorical question, at best, but he was a man, a man that was about to come out and claim what he thought he wanted, what was best for him, instead of hanging around someplace he didn’t want o, someplace he had hung around for years. He had packed up his belongings, heavy eyed, and left that day he went to the Armory, down in Fayetteville, and now she buried him, among the graves which he had violated in the sense of he was buried too soon. She was the funeral, in fact. Oh Betty from New Orleans and others were there, but she really was the dead one at the funeral, it was as if the funeral was for her that would have been her will, if indeed, God would have allowed it. And everyone at the funeral watched and listened, everyone wondering what Caroline would say. And she said next to nothing. I guess it was all finished for her, now all she had to do was wait or get revenge.
But he was dead now, and there were no more males to take on the legacy, and Mrs. Abernathy was past her prime, and her husband had died, and old Josh Jr. had died, all in one year-all the men were gone: Josh, Cole and Langdon, all up in the family graveyard, a plot of land carved out to make a cemetery, where all the other family members were buried-
So all that was now left in this big house was Caroline, her sister, Betty Presley ((former: Hightower )(younger sister by twelve-years)) came up from New Orleans to stay with her, but she never stayed long, her husband being in a wheelchair and all. She came up to the funerals three times in the past year, each time collecting cloths when she left, along with helping Caroline go through the hard times you might say. Consequently, she lived in an unmanned house, at this point sleeping on the sofa, in a six bedroom mansion, and Betty tended to some of her needs.
Betty had chosen to return and help Caroline during these depressing days, insisting her daughter could help her husband move about the house, she so often did anyhow, while she helped Caroline for a three month period, sufficient probity and honor among sisters, you might say, good will and validating her concern, she stayed, over the objections of her husband.
Caroline thought that was alright for her younger sister Betty to come and help, but felt she could take care of herself, looking out her big bay window, murmuring to herself,
“I really don’t need help,” and perhaps she didn’t, but it didn’t hurt, and so she helped and watched her older sister without impatience, feel whatever she did, chose to do, ended up doing, would be right, not because she did, or would do it, but because, she always thought things out, and would not allow anyone to step in until she did what was right.
For weeks, each morning they would see each other in the kitchen, right around 7:00 a.m. She’d get up a little earlier, and play janitor, clean up the place before Caroline arrived. Actually they both were pretty much precision with this arriving for coffee and chitchat in the mornings.
She, Caroline was a strong woman, square shoulders, and full breasted, for her short height they stood out firmly as did her shape, peered and healthy, she being all of five-foot four inches tall, only fifty-years old, having; her husband was sixty-one when he died, a year ago. He told Betty to take care of Caroline, Caroline heard him on the phone say that, she also heard him say:
“You know what caused her to go into this semi state of silence, this frozen anger state the psychologist calls it, you know why, I don’t need to tell you, and who knows what she is thinking, and she will no longer go see Doctor Wright down in Fayetteville, says he’s a quack, along with this and that. She’s always busy, but I know Caroline, she’s thinking, and it is about young Langdon’s girlfriend over in Vietnam, that Vang girl, and that three year old, or is two and half year old boy, Josue, of his, if it is really his, take care of her if I die please.” Caroline said,
“I’m going down to the creek,” to Betty; Betty thought nothing of it, she did that almost everyday, it was quiet and near the graveyard, there one could contemplate or listen to the water to calm themselves, look for the fish, listen to the frogs, she even did that when Cole was alive, it was not like she had not done it before, in her mind she said: I love you Betty but I don’t need you, not really, I know how to do what I got to do, and where I got to go to do it, and how I will get there, I got there before, I can do it again. She was going to do, what Cole knew she might do, what she was warning Betty about. He just thought it, and he knew she’d some day do it, Betty still unaware of what, her brain unprepared, without comment, and then Betty saw a letter on the table, the dinning room table her eyes opened up wide, it read:
“Don’t follow me, I am going to disappear for a while, I do not need you, but if you wish you and your husband can stay on the plantation, I’ll return in a month or so, I need to take this sudden journey, and it will be a sudden return I expect. I will miss early October and the autumn leaves, the changing of the leaves, I so much enjoy, and the November breeze. It is my contention, or has been to set things right, I know I am acting like the Jury and the Judge, but life has become shapeless for me, disturbing, and for me slovenliness has crept in. Take care.”
(Signed, ‘Your sister, Caroline.’)
Fine, Betty had read the letter Caroline left for her, and she said, perhaps what Caroline expected her sister to say: ‘It’s her business where she’s going, I’ll just head on back to New Orleans.’ That’s what she said, and that is what she did. Caroline went onto Saigon, Vietnam.
Caroline had a picture of Vang and the boy, and she went from one market place to another looking and talking to the locals, with her guide, Yang, it was all of a month before Yang said to Mrs. Abernathy,
“We no can find this Vang girl, maybe back in Cam Ranh Bay!”
“I’m not leaving, I’m not going to leave this place now, I got here and I’m staying until I find her, that trash, city trash-she killed my son, she gave him syphilis, and she died, and now she has to.”
Vang watched her, she was the jury, with her dark rim eye sockets, identical to a woman in a state of starvation, aquiline face: she looked the role she was about to play, the slayer.
“I’m going to please you more than I have,” said Yang, after he heard Vang had given him that venereal disease, and he searched high and low, all over the city, looking into unfathomable faces, intently looking in every nook and crack in the city.
And he did find her, she was in a little house (almost living in the big city like a hermit), and they, Caroline and Yang, went to the little house she had near the U.S. Military Air Base, where she worked part time, cleaning the restrooms for the soldiers. Today she, Vang wasn’t working though, she was sitting at her table with her three kids, eating some rice out of a bowl, rice with some greens mixed throughout, and to the side of her was a bowl of noodle-soup and chopsticks, and it looked like pork in the soup, but she remembered what her son said, it most likely was dog meat, and gave it a grin. There were a few old grubby looking military magazines, English, magazines lying about on the floor, reminders-for Caroline-of her son, perhaps he gave them to her, so she thought.
Vang looked to the figures in her opened doorway,
“What you do here,” she said, knowing who Caroline was; she had seen pictures of her.
Now Yang stood inside the house by the opened window.
And so there they ere, one watching the other at a very shout distance, standing in a shack of a house, six-thousand miles away from her plantation, because of a crazed thought that ran ramped through her brain, driven here to this moment, to deprive her of what she took, now all she had to do was kill her, pull out hat knife she had in her purse. Yang even turned his head, as if he was not going to watch. She knew if the tables were turned, this woman would not hesitate, she did not feel one bit sorry for her irrevocable wrong, she even had the child carry the Abernathy name. She was robbing her of the best years of her life, one that people wait for, the grandchild, and the camaraderie with her son, the element Cole had with Langdon, the one she Waite for.
“I dont know’ya,” said Vang to Yang, as if to say: I don’t know Mrs. Abernathy, what you want.
“My husband, he comes back soon,” said Vang. Mrs. Abernathy grunted. The house was a low -ceiled house filled with an odd scent of spices. Sounds of the children, she didn’t understand. Outside the window was a busy street full of venders and people walking, nothing motionless, motorbikes whizzing by. Vang now sat erect wondering what to say. She stood up, and she stood to the shoulders of Mrs. Abernathy, who had a shawl of cashmere around her-no whiter than the rice Vang was eating. Caroline looked at Vang motionless, getting a profile of her face, and produced an interrogative expression.
“You killed my boy you know,” she said.
“No,” said Vang.
The aging woman looked stern at Vang, and the white boy beside her,
“I don’t understand this all,” and she walked over towards the chair where the boy was standing.
“A right smart looking boy, he is,” commented Caroline, then gave Vang a cold and quiet look.
“You stop look at me like that, Mrs. Abernathy,” said Vang.
haven’t said anything yet, you see the truth in my face though,” Caroline said.
“Then you keep it to yourself, I dont want to hear it, and leave my house, now!” Vang exclaimed.
Yang was looking out the window; taking in all the sights, avoiding the confrontation, the one that looked as if one was developing, but had not yet. They stared at one another, coldly, they could have been both carved in stone…
She, Caroline walked quietly into the children’s bedroom; it was a little dark, passing the three beds, not a word coming from the two adults in the kitchen.
Josue, and the other two children stood close to Vang, they were talking in Vietnamese to her, Caroline could not understand; she walked around the room without a sound: touching the beds, her eyeballs holding back tears, she stopped by one bed, as if it had the scent of Josue on it, as if she knew it was his, or maybe it was her own son’s scent she smelled from the blankets. Suddenly her eyes lit up, the depression it once had, vanished for a moment, and she chanted something like a lullaby, not loud, and then moved about again. That faint little solitary glow, lingered on for the moment, fading though, like a dying candle. Then she turned, walked to the entrance of the bedroom door, swift and silent steps to the next door, the outside door that led into the street, she stood in its archway, she saw, as she turned about, Josue, her boy’s boy, leaning towards his mother, talking, whispering something. Caroline did not remark, just stood in the doorway, not touching the sides or the jamb on either side, she was silent, said not a word to anyone, not the boy, the mother, or even Yang, just stood there, and Yang said
“You better come with me now, Mrs. Abernathy unless you have to do something else here…” and she said-no longer looking at the family behind her,
“I reckon so,” and she and Yang walked promptly out of the house, and off the premises.
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