A Serial Book Written in Twelve Monthly Episodes
The residents of The Coach House Trailer Park are just as run-down as the park itself. In fact, they’ve all come here to die. Then one day, on a crisp January breeze, Willow Goodhope sweeps into the neighborhood. She moves into the lonely little shack on the other side of the driveway, bringing her potted plants, her Elderberry gifts, and her outrageous laughter. The Coach House residents can’t resist her charm as she breathes new life into hardened hearts, but there’s something about Willow, a terrible sadness that hovers at the back of her enigmatic eyes, and it has everyone talking, wondering, worrying. Kathy overhears her sobbing in her kitchen. Doc catches her burning letters in her fire pit. Myra swears she drinks alone out on her patio in the middle of the night. Patti knows the beautiful girl is after her husband, and Eddie and Donny, forever-feuding brothers, are competing to see who can make her smile first, even though they’re both fairly sure she’d prefer her men with real jobs, real homes, and real teeth. What–or who–is haunting the mysterious Willow Goodhope of Elderberry Croft? Will her new “family” be able to rescue her before it’s too late?
Part 3: March Whispers
Joe smacked the back of his neck for the third time in less than ten minutes. How come they always found that one spot? Besides that, it was only March, for Moses’ sake, and the bugs had arrived far too early.
It was turning out to be a warm spring in Midtown, Southern California. The rain, like a woman, just toyed with the affections of gardeners such as him, offering little more than a load of sweet-talk and a string of no-shows. Joe Sanderson looked up at the sky with its full-to-bursting clouds and thought of the sugar-lipped woman he’d sent on her way just yesterday.
“Go on,” he’d said, shooing her off his front porch. “Go on home, now. I’m doin’ just fine on my own. Don’t need you comin’ in here, wipin’ counters and scrubbin’ floors.” Mm-mm, but that Vivian sure looked lovely standing there with her hands on her round hips, eyebrows arched like twin angry cats, arguing that he did, indeed, need someone around to take care of him.
“Joe, Baby, whether you like it or not, you’re getting old. You’re getting too old to see the dirt that’s collecting in the corners. You’re getting too—”
“Woman, if you tell me I’m too old for one more thing, I might just have to drag you back inside and prove to you that age has nothin’ to do with any of the important things. Is that what you want?” Vivian had flushed, waved her red-nailed fingers, and trounced down the steps ahead of him.
Yes, trounced. She was one of the few women he knew who could trounce and look good doing it.
So what the Sam Hill was he doing sending her away again?
Joe thrust the old shovel deep into the soil of his yard at Space #9. He’d worked this ground every year since he’d moved in, and after all this time, golf-ball-sized rocks still worked their way up to the surface. And the older he got, the more he felt the jarring clunk of spade versus stone all the way up into his shoulders. Sometimes, after a long day spent in his garden, he’d have to sit just, waiting for feeling to come back into his hands.
Today, between the bugs, and the stones, and the hollow place Vivian always left behind, he didn’t know how much more he had in him. He leaned the shovel against the fence and picked up his hand trowel instead. He’d take it easy today; let his heart recover a bit.
“Morning, Joe!” It was Patti next door, slipping outside ahead of her husband to set up a chair for him. Richard, wedging his walker against the screen door, ambled out, his slow, shuffling steps a testimony to his new determination to make life a little easier for his saint of a wife. Joe was glad. He didn’t like to see a woman looking old before her time, and up until that Willow Goodhope got ahold of her, Patti Davis looked plum used up. Now, between her new hairstyle and the way her husband looked at her these days, the woman seemed to have come more than a few steps back from the grave.
Willow Goodhope. He’d met her briefly when she was out front whispering with the Davis boy last month. She’d been baking; he could tell. She smelled like boysenberry pie.
Now there was a woman with a secret or two. Joe knew it like he knew the color of his own skin. Secrets. They were like ghosts; always hovering, always slipping in and around the way of things, whispering nonsense in the ears of those who could hear them.
And Joe could hear them, yes, indeed.
In fact, that girl’s secrets were so busy keeping her busy that Joe was hesitant to get in the way. It wasn’t like him to ignore a new neighbor; not that there were many new neighbors in The Coach House Trailer Park. As Kathy Kekoa liked to say, “This is the final parking lot of life. We’re all just sitting here, waiting our turn. This is where we’ve come to die.”
Well, Joe knew that to be true, and he was having a hard time figuring out what that girl was doing here. And apparently, Richard Davis was trying to figure things out, too. Richard had been on his front porch nearly every day since she moved in. Joe might be old, but he wasn’t deaf, and he could hear the discussions between the man and his wife. Richard wanted Ivan, their son, to strike up a relationship with the girl, but Ivan Davis was dead-set on just being friends. His heart belonged to another, and Joe got the sneaking suspicion that the Goodhope girl’s heart wasn’t as untethered as she’d like everyone to believe.
The way he figured it, she was hiding something over there in her little cottage. Or hiding from something. He just didn’t know that he wanted to get all caught up in that kind of drama, not at his age, anyhow. A damsel in distress was more than he could resist, but it was also more trouble than he needed right now. As long as he didn’t get too curious, he could just keep to himself, plant his spring garden, play games with Vivian, and live out his days in this parking lot at the end of the road of life.
“When you gonna plant yourself a little vegetable garden, Miss Patti?” he called out, waving his hand-trowel over the fence at her. The woman loved to talk about plants—she was always asking him what he had growing—and he kept offering to help her put a few tomato plants or collard greens in the ground on her side of the fence. Now that was the kind of helping he was happy to give.
“You know, Joe,” Patti replied, leaning against the rail at the top of her steps. “I was actually thinking that it might be good for both me and Richard to do something about this place. I know we could use the exercise and sunshine. I just…” She faltered, and Joe thought he understood why. It was always hard to start something new, but he nodded reassuringly, ready to pull out the stops to convince her to give it a go.
“Hello, beautiful people,” a voice called out from behind him.
He realized, then, that Patti hadn’t faltered at all. She’d been distracted by a red-haired firefly flitting their way, surrounded by her whirlwind of secrets.
Willow Goodhope stopped at the fence-line between Spaces #9 and #10, speaking to everyone collectively. “Did you all know that Joy is my middle name?”
“Is it?” Patti was smiling like she’d just swallowed a glass of sunshine, and Joe eyed her, still marveling at the changes in the woman.
Willow let out a laugh the size of a Loblolly Pine tree, and he shook his head, not even trying to hold back his own smile. Boy, that woman could laugh!
“Not legally, no. It’s really Eve. But today, I’m going to imagine that it’s Joy, and see what happens to me. Don’t you think calling something by a new name can turn the world inside out?”
“Speakin’ of names, I hear you gone and named that little shanty o’ yours.” Joe waved his trowel in the air to shoo off a pesky fly.
“That I did, Joe. Elderberry Croft. Isn’t that perfect? I named it after the little elderberry tree growing by the stream. Have you seen it?”
“No, I can’t say that I have. One of these days, maybe I’ll swing by and take a peek.”
“Oh yes, do! And speaking of new names,” she continued, picking up the conversation where they’d veered off. “Does anyone know what my little house was called before I moved in?”
“Child, that little house o’ yours was a hotbed of iniquity back when The Coach House was havin’ its heyday on the stagecoach line. I don’t think you really want to know what it used to be called. Let’s just say, your little love shack saw its share of pretty lights long before you moved in; red ones.” Joe chuckled, hoping to take the snagged edges off his gritty words, not sure exactly why he tossed them out there like that.
But Willow only guffawed again. “I know! I look around at those four walls in there and praise the Lord that they have a thick layer of paint over them, separating me from anything they’ve seen.”
Joe shook his head. “No amount of paint could wipe that kind of sin clean. At least John Bishop was a prayin’ man; I know that for a fact.”
“Well, did he name it?” Willow leaned over the fence toward him.
“Listen, Miss Willow. Men don’t name their houses. That’s a woman thing. Right, Richard?” Joe rocked back on his heels and thrust a chin toward his neighbor.
“Good morning, Willow.” Richard spoke kindly, making Joe shake his head again. If he didn’t know any better, he’d say that man was smitten. “Joe’s right. This is Space #10. Joe’s place is #9. You’re in Space #12.”
“Yep. John Bishop lived and died there, and never called it anything but Space #12,” Joe confirmed.
“What?” Willow’s eyes went all big and round at his words, and he had the decency to feel remorse. What was he thinking, letting something that morbid slip out of his mouth?
“He didn’t die in your house, Willow.” Patti crossed her arms and shot a glare at Joe.
“Well, I guess that’s not such a bad thing, dying in one’s home,” Willow surprised them all by saying. “I mean, if I had the choice of where I’d want to be when I took my final breath here on earth, I think I’d want it to be in my own bed, too.”
“Well, now, there’s the first bit of sense I’ve heard come out of your mouth today, child. You keep talkin’ and I bet you’ll have friends all over this retreat.” Joe always called The Coach House Trailer Park a retreat. ‘Park’ made it sound like they were on some kind of playground, and he’d had a bad experience in the neighborhood park when he was growing up, being the only colored boy on the swings. But he did think of this place as his retreat, as his place to while away the days in his garden, watching the changing seasons, and entertaining the likes of Vivian.
Vivian. He let the sound of her name swirl around inside his head. Who-ee! That woman! He could only handle so much of her in one setting, but handle her, he did. His hands were itching for her right now, and he squeezed the handle of the trowel, feeling the grit of dirt in the creases of his palm, and in the more tender skin between his fingers.
“Well,” Willow’s voice drew him back to the moment they were in. “What was he like? And how did he die? Where?”
Richard cleared his throat, and Joe let him tell the story. “John lived in your place for nearly thirty years. He was like a fixture here. In fact, he was already living here when the Swifts bought the park. There was always some kind of project of his out on the patio; a radiator, an old refrigerator he was taking apart or putting back together. But if you ever needed help getting your car started, or your water heater repaired, John was the man to call. He didn’t say much, but he always had his hands busy doing something.”
“Remember that awful carousel horse he found?” Patti shook her head. “He thought he’d stumbled across a treasure because so many people were collecting them for a while. But that thing was terrifying! A horse with fangs? It’s no wonder the carousel owner tossed it He probably had parents trying to sue him for giving their kids nightmares.”
Joe chuckled, nodding. “That was truly a demon-horse, Miss Willow. You’d be walkin’ along, mindin’ your own business, carryin’ your laundry down the way, when all of a sudden, you’d feel something watchin’ you, something’ breathin’ down your neck. Sure, it stood still as a statue up there under that eucalyptus, but there was no doubt whose eyes were followin’ you. Demon horse. Wasn’t it, Richard?”
Richard nodded and continued his story. “John was a good man, but he usually just kept to himself if no one needed him. It was Doc, the fellow that lives over the garage up front, who noticed John’s absence after not seeing his car parked out front for three or four days.”
“Poor thing. Myra—you’ve met Myra, haven’t you?—started calling all the local hospitals looking for him. When a week had passed, Doc insisted that Eddie call the police.” Patti said it with the emphasis on po, then nodded at her husband, indicating that he take over again.
“They found him that same day. He was in his car parked at a turnout up the mountain road a bit. The police said it looked like he’d pulled over to rest and just never woke up. No evidence of foul play.”
The Goodhope girl chewed on her lip as she listened to them, and Joe watched her, appreciating the way she was paying such close attention, as though she really cared about what had happened to the dead man.
“But all alone like that?” Her voice came out small, tight. “Did anyone come for his things? Any family?”
“No. The man never married. He had no one that any of us knew of. I think we were the closest thing he had to a family, those of us here.” Patti shook her head. “Eddie said there wasn’t even anyone on his rental agreement to notify.”
“Did you—was there a service?” Willow actually looked like she might be ready to cry.
“Oh, honey. They don’t do services for folks like John. He had no one. There was no one to plan one.” Patti smiled gently as she reiterated her own words.
“So…what did they do with him? With his body? I—I’ve just never really thought about it before.” Joe could see the inner workings of her head trying to line up with her heart, and her ghosts were respectfully silent.
“In the old days, they called it a pauper’s burial. In some places they still do, certainly back home where I’m from. But here, well, I think they’ve gone all politically correct and call it a county burial or a state burial or some such nonsense. But there’s a spot in most cemeteries allotted for penniless folk or those without kin, like John Bishop was. It’s a perfectly respectable place, Miss Willow. Now don’t you be worryin’ yourself over him. He’s doin’ just fine where he’s at these days. Probably busy keepin’ the good Lord’s fleet of Cadillacs runnin’ for him.”
She stood silent for so long that Joe felt the need to change the subject. “I’ve been meanin’ to compliment you on your place, by the by. You sure have made it out to be quite an eyeful. From one gardener to another, I’m impressed.”
“Thank you, Joe. Coming from you, that’s a high compliment.” Willow dropped into a quick curtsey. “And now I must be off. I just wanted to stop and say ‘hi’ to all of you. Have a wonderful day!” And with that, the girl flitted away, her little comet-tail of shadows swishing after her.
Joe was putting the last of his supper dishes away when there was a light tapping at the front door. He glanced up at the clock on the wall above his sofa; he had to call Vivian in exactly thirteen minutes. Eight o’clock, every night. That was their arrangement. If he didn’t call her, she got worried and started calling him, then his sisters, then his nieces and nephews, and pretty soon the whole family was up in arms about him lying dead on the floor in his underwear, with no one around to cover up his sorry backside.
Well, whoever it was would just have to make it quick. He pulled open the door to find Willow Goodhope standing on his front stoop. “Well, good evenin’, Miss Willow. What brings you to my door tonight?” He wouldn’t have been more surprised if it had been Vivien herself.
“I brought you something. I wanted to thank you for telling me about John Bishop today. I haven’t been able to stop thinking about him, about how he made Elderberry Croft his home before it was mine.”
“Well, goodness, child. What does that have to do with me?” In her arms she held a square twig basket with a cloth draped over the top, but the aroma wafting into his living room made him think of Mama on baking day. Whatever she had in her basket was fresh out of the oven.
“I don’t know, really. I was feeling so joyful earlier today, even the tale of that poor man didn’t get me down too much. But once I was all settled in for the night, I couldn’t stop thinking about him; that he died alone. No one even waved goodbye as he passed from this life into the next.” Her eyes glistened with emotion as she spoke, and Joe felt his defenses beginning to crumble. “I started making him a pie before I realized I’d have to eat it all by myself. Then I thought of you, and I became certain that this pie was actually for you, not John. So,” Her eyebrows rose in question. “I was wondering if you might want to take a few minutes and celebrate his life with me. Over this.” She held up her basket.
Joe paused incrementally, but it was enough for her to notice. “Oh dear. I’m interrupting your evening, aren’t I? I didn’t even ask if you were busy. Here. For you.” She thrust the basket toward him, and when he took it, she smoothed the hair away from her face in a nervous gesture. “I’ll check in with you tomorrow, okay?”
“No, no, Missy. You come on in. I just have to make a quick phone call, lest the alarm bells go off all over Los Angeles, and my over-zealous family members start rumors about me breathin’ my last.” He grinned and stepped back from the door. “Make yourself comfy. I’ll be quick.” Carrying the basket to the round captain’s table where he ate most of his meals, he set it down in the middle of the marquetry checkerboard top. Picking up his cordless telephone, he dialed Vivian’s number and waited for her husky answer.
When he reached her answering machine, he was actually relieved; still trying to figure out how he was going to explain that he couldn’t talk with her because he had another woman waiting for him on his sofa.
“Vivian, honey, I have a neighbor over here needin’ my time right now. I’ll call you when we’re through. No later than nine, I promise.” That should smooth her ruffled feathers a little, although he knew she wouldn’t be happy about having to wait. He could picture her now, fluffing her hair and putting on the last coat of lipstick for the day. She liked to look her best when she called him; she said it made her feel like there was less distance between them when she gussied herself up for him. He laughed when she first told him so, but she’d set him straight.
“When I’m slouching around in my pajamas and hair-rollers, I don’t want to talk to anyone, Joe. But when I look good, I love imagining you sitting across the table from me, appreciating every ounce of my effort.” Well, in a way, it made sense to him. He never left the house, not even to garden, without a clean pair of socks and underwear on, because it made him stand up a little straighter and feel a little more like the gentleman his mama always said he was.
As he hung up, he eyed the girl sitting with her legs crossed, as prim as a schoolteacher, flipping through one of the TV Guides from his coffee table. She’d taken off her green hooded cape and laid it over the arm of the sofa. Her hair reminded him of drying tobacco leaves, and her skin seemed almost translucent, so that if he looked closely, he might be able to make out the striations of the muscles beneath her flesh. When she raised her eyes to meet his, however, he caught a glimpse of the shadows lurking there, of the veil covering the truth behind them. On second thought, there was nothing see-through about this creature sitting in his house, and he still wasn’t so sure about keeping company with the likes of her. Or her ghosts.
“So, Miss Willow, is it time to celebrate?” She leapt up and crossed to the table, pulling the cloth back to reveal the contents of the basket she’d brought.
A golden-crusted pie, the edges rippled and thick, oozing with deep red syrup from the leaf-shaped slits in the top shell. This was no store-bought bakery item; this was the real deal, and so fresh it was still hot enough to warm his hands over.
“What have you gone and made there?”
“Have you ever had elderberry apple pie, Joe? I hope not, because this is one of my specialties, and I want it to be a first for you.” The shadows slipped away, unable to hold their ground in her excitement.
“I’ve had apple pie. And I’ve had elderberry pie when I was just a boy. But I don’t believe I’ve ever had the two combined. So I suppose it’s your lucky night, Miss Willow.”
“Ha! I think it’s your lucky night!” Willow released her laugh, startling him all over again, and making him chuckle in response. Why could he not wrap his head around her? She seemed part timid child, part wild woman, and he couldn’t find a comfortable place to situate himself between the extremes. She pulled a knife and a pie-server from the basket and waved them in his direction. “Find us some plates and forks, Joe. I’m serving it up.”
He eyed her with hooded lids. “There’s no poison in that, or any other such drug, is there? You come over here talkin’ about dead men, and now you’re tryin’ to feed me pie. I don’t really know you very well, Miss Willow. What if you’re tryin’ to kidnap me? Or rob me? Or put me into an everlastin’ sleep? Don’t you read your fairy tales?”
She laughed again and promised she’d take the first bite.
“I still have my doubts about you,” he said. It sounded like a joke, but he meant every word. “For all I know, you’re one of those black widows. Except you’re not black, and I don’t believe you’re yet a widow.”
The light in her eyes flickered, her smile faltered, and her shoulders drooped slowly, like he’d just poked a tiny hole in her. She blinked a few times, then began methodically cutting the pie, releasing a fresh burst of sweet-tart aroma into the air. Joe, realizing he’d inadvertently slipped into dangerous territory, decided that since he was there already, he might as well find out what he was up against.
“So am I correct in assumin’ you’re not a widow?” He kept his voice low, soothing, like a papa would speak to his worried little girl.
Willow stilled, her hand holding the server poised in mid-scoop. Then she lifted eyes filled with emptiness to his. “You are correct, Joe. I am not a widow.” But all around her the air breathed with tangled emotions and subtle contradictions.
Well, well, well. Two can play the game of stubborn, Miss Willow. “Then are you married?”
“Joe,” she lifted a generous slice of pie from the dish. “If you don’t bring me your plate, I’ll have to put this directly into your hand, and although it might taste just as delicious that way, I guarantee it will be a whole lot messier.” The look she gave him was kind, but set, assuring him the conversation about her marital status was over. Joe crossed to the cupboard and brought down two plates, then studied her as she dished them up.
“I have ice cream,” he finally spoke. It was the closest to an apology he was willing to give. Here this little thing wanted to come over here and impose on his private life, but when it came time for turn-about, she wasn’t up for letting him in the front door. He pulled the carton of vanilla from his freezer and dropped a scoop on each plate. “So are you plannin’ on givin’ a speech for John before we eat?”
Willow’s relief at the change of subject was evident, and he took note of the deep breath that seemed to inflate her once again, bringing her shoulders and her chin back up. “Nope. No speeches from me. Just pie. But I have a question for you.”
“Shoot,” Joe nodded, and waved his fork in the direction of the couch, indicating she should sit again. He needed a little distance between them in order to keep his head on straight.
Her words slipped out, haltingly at first. “I…I just wondered why people here at The Coach House didn’t have some kind of…memorial for him. A barbecue, or something. I mean, everyone needs to be acknowledged, in living and in dying.”
“Well, now,” he said, adjusting his thoughts to the direction of her question. “I don’t know. I guess no one thought to take it on.” He shrugged like a teenager, and took his first bite of pie.
His knees actually got weak as the tangy-sweet fruit pastry filled his mouth, making the muscles of his jaw clench. The crust was dense and flaky at the same time, and the apples were cooked just the way he liked them; sliced thinly and sautéed in butter and cinnamon. The elderberries gave it a wild taste, reminding him of the endless days of summer when he was a boy. He pulled one of the tall stools out from the table and sank into it, savoring the combination of flavors on his tongue.
“Do you know, I used to live next door to a farmer named McGregor. Just like that Peter Cottontail, Miss Willow. Me and my little sisters used to steal fruit from the McGregor’s boysenberry vines. Every once in a while, he’d come upon us, our fingers sticky and our mouths dyed purple.” He chuckled at the memory. “In hind sight, I don’t ever remember him bein’ too angry. In fact, it seems to me that he must have let it slide more often than not. He was always lookin’ out for Mama; that man was. He bought bread and pies from her every time she baked.” He paused, remembering more. “You know, now that I think on it, she used to buy her fruit from him, then he’d pay her double that for a pie or two.”
“He sounds like a good neighbor.” Willow was taking small bites, attentive to his every word. She didn’t ask him about his papa, and for that he was glad. It still gave him a gut-ache when he thought back on the day his mama received her Western Union telegram. She’d held on to his narrow, eight-year-old shoulders as though they could handle the weight of a woman’s broken heart. He’d stayed upright until she pulled herself together enough to make dinner, then he’d gone outside and crumpled on the ground beside his papa’s truck. It took all night and half the next morning before he was able to come to grips with the fact that he was now the man of the house. It was McGregor who found him there, who offered him a hand up, his first cup of black coffee, and a ham sandwich made on Mama’s bread.
“Yes, I can say, in all sincerity, that McGregor was a good neighbor. I remember this one time, when all three of my little sisters were sick with some terrible cough that wouldn’t stop; that man gave Mama a ride to the hospital in the middle of the night. I thought those girls were goners, but we didn’t have the money for a doctor. I suppose he must have paid for it himself.” He took another bite. “Lordy, Willow Goodhope! This pie’s bringin’ back all kinds of memories. There was this other neighbor who looked out for our family, too, especially us kids. Her name was Delphinium Dupple. Now what kind of mother would name her poor child Delphinium Dupple?”
“Maybe she didn’t,” Willow replied. “Maybe your Delphinium had a nice, benign last name, but then married a man named Dupple. There’s no reasoning with love, you know.”
“Well, you’re dead right about love. But Delphinium carried that name around with her from the day she was born. She never married, and she wasn’t ashamed to say so. But let me tell you, she was the best babysitter we ever had growin’ up. Mama worked evenins’ at a local diner, and Granny Didi, as we called her, she’d feed us our supper, make sure we had our clothes lined up for school the next mornin’, and read us into oblivion every night.”
“What did she read to you?” Willow had finished her dessert and sat back into the corner of the faded brown velour sofa, the empty plate on her lap.
“Mostly Bible stories. She had this enormous illustrated version with pictures a kid could get lost in. But sometimes she told us fairy tales and ghost stories, mostly just on nights we didn’t have to get up for school the next day. One of us was always too spooked to fall asleep after that.” He let himself sink into the memory for a moment, the rich timbre of Granny Didi’s voice rippling through him. “She had the best way of tellin’ those ghost stories. Her voice would get all low and rounded out, like she was sittin’ in a whiskey barrel. Makes my skin tingle just thinkin’ about the sound.”
“What happened to her?”
“You know, I can’t quite recall. I mean, I’m certain she’s dead and gone by now, but I don’t really know. I should call my sisters, see if they know. Jillian was especially close to her bein’ the youngest and all.” He took another bite, closing his eyes as he chewed, trying to remember. Like a gentle whisper, it came back to him, and he opened his eyes slowly.
“She was there, at Mama’s funeral. I’d all but forgotten that. She came over and wrapped her molasses arms around me, and told me she was proud of me like I was her own grandson.” He waved his fork at her. “You know, that’s a sweet memory, Miss Willow. Thank you for bringin’ it to mind.”
“I just brought you pie, Joe.” Willow’s laugh wasn’t nearly so loud as usual, but it came from somewhere deep inside, as though she meant it. “It’s what neighbors do, isn’t it? Looking out for each other. Being family to each other when there isn’t any other.”
“Hm. Are we still talkin’ about my memories, or are we back to celebratin’ John Bishop?” Joe pressed his fork into the last crumbs on his plate, leaving none of the goodness uneaten. “Or are we talkin’ about you and me now?”
Willow nodded, her eyes dropping to her hands where they held her own empty plate. “Thank you for letting me in tonight, Joe. I really needed the company.” She stood and carried her dish to the sink.
“Leave that, Miss Willow. I’ll take care of it in a bit.” He felt the pull of her, and it reminded him of what he saw in Richard Davis’s eyes when he watched her from his front porch. It wasn’t lust or wanting in a carnal way; but an echo in the bone of something needful in her that stirred up the deep places in him.
“I’m much better now. I’m heading home so you can make your phone call to that friend of yours.” She scooped up her cape and swirled it around her shoulders in one deft move, then retrieved her basket, placing the remaining pie on the counter.
“Friend? Vivien?” Joe guffawed. “That woman is no friend. That woman is my wife.”
The look on Willow’s face was priceless. It wasn’t that he didn’t want anyone knowing about Vivien. It was just easier not to have to explain her to folks. But the girl stood there, just inside his door, looking at him with those big, bold eyes.
“It’s a long story, child, and one for another day. If I don’t give the lovely Vivien a call before nine o’clock, I’m goin’ to hear no end to my neglect, havin’ put her off already. So scoot on home, now.”
“I just don’t understand. Why on earth do the two of you live such a long way apart when you’re married?”
“It’s like you said. There’s no reasonin’ in love, is there?”
“No, I guess not.” She opened the door, then turned back to look up at him. “But you will explain it to me, won’t you? When can I come back?”
“Willow Goodhope, you’d talk a cat out of his skin with those eyes of yours. Listen. I’ve seen you out and about in the early mornin’ hours. You want to know about my Vivien? You come over tomorrow mornin’ ‘round eight. I’ll have the griddle fired up and the coffee on. What will you be bringin’?”
Willow grinned smugly. “I’ll surprise you.” Then she fluttered out the door, the hem of her cape rippling as though the shadows were jockeying for position behind her.
“Don’t you come back empty-handed, you hear?” he called after her. “I won’t let you in!”
Now here it was, five minutes before eight, and his home smelled like breakfast, the gurgle of the coffee pot making funky jazz harmonies with the sizzle of bacon and eggs. His mouth watered with anticipation for the food he’d be sharing with Willow, while his mind mulled over the words he’d be sharing with her, too.
There she was, making her way up the drive toward his trailer. He watched her from the kitchen window until she turned out of sight into his gate. Before she could knock, he was there, opening his home to her once again.
“I hope you’re hungry, Willow Goodhope of Elderberry Croft.” He smiled at her pink-tipped nose and bright eyes, the chill of the March morning making her skin glow.
“Good morning, Joe. In fact, I’m starving! I’ve been up too long already. I had a cup of coffee first thing, because that’s just my morning ritual. Coffee with Jesus. Or was it two cups? Anyway, then I started baking and that really made me hungry, but I wanted to save my appetite, so I had another cup of coffee instead. I think I might start bouncing off the walls if I don’t get some food in my stomach soon!” The words poured out of her in a rush, and Joe stepped back under the barrage.
“Glory be, child! Maybe you’d better go back outside and run around the block a few times. That’s what Mama always did when we got ants in our pants indoors.”
Willow laughed, set the basket she carried—the same one she’d brought the pie in last night—on the table, and unwrapped the heavy wool scarf looped around her neck. Her cardigan was thick, with big brass buttons, and she wore fingerless gloves on her hands. “I like your socks,” he teased, pointing with a thrust of his chin. She held them up and wiggled her fingers in the air.
“I get claustrophobic when I wear gloves. Isn’t that silly? But I kinda go into a panic. My skin starts itching, and my ears ring a little, then I start to get light-headed. Can’t wear them. But these? They’re perfect for me. And when my fingers get cold, I have these lovely thingies!” She reached into a pocket and pulled out a little square beanbag. “They’re full of wild rice, lavender, and elderberry flowers. I just pop it into the microwave before I go outside, and drop one in each of my pockets. Then, when I need to warm up my hands, I do this—” She shoved her hands into her pockets to demonstrate. “And voila! Toasty warm! You want to feel one? They’re still warm from at least fifteen minutes ago, and they smell heavenly!”
“Good Lord. You sit your backside down right now. Come on. Sit.” Joe practically pushed her into one of the stools. “You’re making me nervous!” He’d already set the table with plates, silverware, water glasses, and coffee cups, but he reached over and snatched up the mug from in front of her. “No more coffee for you. At least not until you get yourself together a bit. And take those things off your hands. This isn’t some Victorian tea party.”
Willow made a funny face at him, then took a deep breath as she peeled off the red gloves. “Maybe it’s more of a tea party than you thought! Look what I brought!” She whipped the cloth off the basket. “Scones and leftover elderberry filling from your pie!”
Joe chuckled when he saw them. “Scones, huh? All I see is some high-falutin’ biscuits, Miss Willow. But they sure smell nice. Thank you for bringin’ them.” Then he gave her a stern look. “Are you ready to settle down? I’m a man who likes to spend time with his food. I don’t need the accompaniment of conversation; especially not with a scatter-brained chatterbox like yourself this mornin’. It’s not good for my digestion.”
“Okay. I’m calm. Sorry. Maybe it’s not just the caffeine. Maybe it’s the spring air and the promise of a good story.” She sat forward and clapped her hands. “I can’t wait to hear about you and Vivien!”
“Well, wait you must, because I plan to enjoy my breakfast first. Besides, I think it will do you some good to practice a little patience and self-control.” Joe sat down across the table from her and reached for one of her hands, then bowed his head, not waiting to see if she understood his intentions. He’d learned long ago that explaining things like thanking the good Lord for His daily provision usually just took up praying time. No one had yet refused to at least bow their heads alongside him. He was pleased to hear her murmured ‘amen’ following his.
Willow finished her first plateful, then begged for her coffee cup back. “Come on, Joe. I can’t eat scones without coffee. I mean, biscuits. So do you like them?” She pointed at the golden pastry on his plate. “They’re made with elderberry flowers.”
“You and that elderberry tree.” Joe frowned. “Is that your tree spirit, or somethin’?”
Willow threw back her head and laughed, obviously delighted by the idea. “Well, if I believed in such things, then I’d say absolutely, yes.” She circled her redeemed mug with both hands, and held it out for him to fill. “But the truth is this. I grew up in a part of Oregon where elderberry trees are everywhere. My childhood sounds a little like yours, in fact. We weren’t what people considered well-off, if you know what I mean, but there was always something delicious to eat in our home. My mom used to take me out into the woods and, depending on the seasons, we’d find all kinds of things to add to our table. Have you ever had stinging nettle pasta? Or cattail cobs?”
Joe was beginning to understand the wild thing he saw in her. She continued. “They’re not really cobs, but when the cattails first formed their buds, Mom used to steam them, and we’d eat them like miniature corn on the cob. In fact, when I was little, I thought that’s what was in those cans of fancy mini-corn on the shelves in the grocery store.”
“You don’t say.”
“And everywhere we went, there were elderberry trees. But the elderberry didn’t just provide for us in one season. That tree is a tree of life, Joe; the ultimate giving tree. In Spring, we made bug spray out of the young leaves. It flowers from spring through early summer, and there’s so much you can do with elder flowers. The fragrance is almost intoxicating and there’s nothing better than to read or nap under those trees in the heat of the day.” She selected a scone out of the basket, slathered it with butter and some of the tart fruit filling, and took a bite, chewing it slowly. “Shade and berries in the late summer and on into winter, pithy wood for tinder in the winter and early spring. Everything about that tree is beneficial, if used in the right way.”
She ate a few more bites while Joe watched and waited. There was something about her voice that was a little intoxicating, too, and he felt like he could listen to her talk all morning. “So when I came here last December, looking for a place to stay, and I found that rogue elderberry tree growing by the little creek, I fell in love with the place. It was like God put a mark on Elderberry Croft, an X on a treasure map. He knew I needed something that He alone could give me, some kind of evidence that He cared where I ended up.” Her voice had dropped so low Joe had to lean in a little to hear. Then she fell silent altogether.
“Where is your family, Willow Goodhope?” It was a broad question, one that left her lots of room to answer.
“My mother passed away when I was fifteen.” She smiled warmly, clearly having come to terms with her loss long ago. “She died as she lived, at peace. She had cancer, and we didn’t know until it was too late. My dad survived that by sinking into his work for a while. I thought I’d lost him, too, but then he came around, and we became the best of friends. He’s still alive and kicking, but he lives in a 55-plus community. I see him fairly often; almost every Sunday after church.” Her smile brightened as she spoke about her father, and Joe nodded with satisfaction. It was good to hear a girl speak highly of her daddy.
“But here I’ve been talking about me, and I want to know about you, Joe. And Vivien. Your wife!” She shook her head and snorted. “I still can hardly believe it.”
Joe told her about how he’d stayed single on into his early sixties, taking care of his little sisters after their mother passed away, making sure that they were provided for. He put Mona through college, then Beatrice. They both became teachers in the public school system. When it came time for Jillian to go to school, she got married instead, and Joe paid for her wedding after approving of her young man.
“That’s a lot of sacrifice on your part,” Willow stated.
“Sacrifice was what my mama did after my papa didn’t come home from the war. I just made sure all her hard work wasn’t for naught.” When he promised Mama he’d look after the girls, he never thought twice about doing otherwise.
“But when I met Vivien, my whole world shook like a California earthquake. That woman pulled her smokin’ vehicle onto my auto repair lot, threw open her door before the engine had completely died, and started hollerin’ such things as my ears had never heard come out of the mouth of a woman before. I stood there, my own mouth open as my ears filled with that vile, and I knew I had to rescue her from herself. But not before I rescued her car. It was a cherry 1955 Plymouth Belvedere, its baby blue and white body in perfect condition. But I had a feelin’ if she’d had a baseball bat in her hands, that vehicle would have seen its last day.” He guffawed at the memory, but his heart beat a little faster inside the walls of his chest as he recalled her long brown legs sticking out of her short maroon miniskirt, her arms flailing in the air, bracelets all a-jingling. “To this day, my Vivien could out-curse a sailor, but it’s a rare occurrence, and for that I’m glad. She terrified me and captivated me all at the same time. I was a goner when she bent over, yanked off one of her high heels, and threw it at the windshield of that poor car.” He leaned back in his chair, and grinned at Willow across the table.
“I got to play Prince Charmin’ that day. After I helped her hobble into the front office and gave her a glass of water, I went back out and located her shoe. Then I knelt down in front of her, and cuppin’ her lovely leg in my hand, I slipped the shoe back on her foot, all the while, never takin’ my eyes off her face.” With his hands, he demonstrated his actions. “When she smiled, and said, ‘So this is where Prince Charmin’ works,’ I knew she felt the same immediate attraction.”
“Oh, Joe. That’s so romantic! So you were married and lived happily ever after, right? Except that you lived happily ever after apart.”
“Not quite, Miss Willow.” Joe stood up and began clearing the dishes, needing to stretch his legs, and keep his achingly empty hands busy. Thinking of Vivien always made them feel that way. Willow leapt up, too, and the two of them worked together to put the kitchen back in order. “Vivien had a husband when I met her. And three children by him, to boot. But he’d run out on her a month before we met, leavin’ her with the three kids, less than one month’s paycheck, and a car that couldn’t make it around the block more than twice without catchin’ fire under the hood.”
“Well, no wonder she was unloading on it.” Willow chuckled, drying the dishes Joe washed with the towel he’d handed her.
“It took the police nearly six years to locate Bob Harper, and after they did, it took another 3 years to convince the courts that she didn’t owe him a dime. So instead of givin’ in to temptation, I moved out here, far enough away that I wouldn’t be knockin’ on her door when my need for her got so bad I couldn’t hardly stand it, but still close enough to her that if she needed me, I could be there for her, even if it was just over the phone. When the day came that she was a free woman, I got in my car—that same one parked out there under the carport—and I drove straight to her job at the DMV. I didn’t bother callin’ ahead. I’d waited long enough. I pulled her up out of her seat, nearly gettin’ myself arrested for it, and hauled her down to the courthouse, cursin’ and hollerin’ about how no woman in their right mind would marry a caveman like me.” He shot her a cocky grin. “Funny thing; when we stood before the judge, she got all weepy and tender, and she said ‘yes’ to every question he asked us. We were married that day, she kissed me like there might never be a tomorrow, and I got her back to her job three days later, after makin’ sure she had no more doubts about being my wife.”
“Oh, my,” Willow sighed, dramatically fanning herself with the dishtowel.
“Oh, yes.” Joe nodded, still quite proud of the way he’d handled everything that day. “Mona stepped in to look after Vivien’s children, and I brought her here for the first time nearly ten years ago now. We talked about our future and realized that regardless of our marital status, Vivien was in no condition to move out here with me—not with three teenagers still under her roof—nor was I prepared, after livin’ my whole life as a single man, to take on a ready-made family. I love those kids, mind you, but I know how I would have felt if some man had stepped into my life when I was a teenager. No thank you. Especially not someone who knows nothin’ about raisin’ kids.” He turned around and leaned against the counter, pressing both palms down on the cool surface on either side of him. She returned to the stool she’d vacated to help him, and poured herself another cup of coffee. He rolled his eyes when he saw the face she made with the first sip. It had been sitting on the hot plate too long, and Joe knew it must taste like burnt mud.
“So, she comes out here when she can, mostly weekends, and I head that way once or twice a week. It works for us, at least for now. There may come a time when things change, and it may come sooner than later with the last of her kids gettin’ ready to graduate from high school this year. I’d love to have her here with me every day, but I sure do cherish the mornins’ I wake up with her in my arms. I never thought I’d have me a wife; I’d accepted that my lot in life was to take care of the women God had given me in my mother and three sisters. So now that he’s given me the go-ahead with Vivien Harper-Sanderson, I don’t begrudge a single moment I get with her, nor do I bemoan the moments I don’t.”
“Ten years, Joe.” He didn’t know if Willow was still struggling to understand, or just letting it sink in. She had her chin resting in her cupped palms, but when he continued, her eyes closed, as though to shut his words out.
“There’s nothin’ more painfully sweet than missin’ someone you love.”
The silence that stretched between them was suddenly filled with unspoken words, and it took everything in him not to look away from her obvious misery. “Child, you got to unload some of your ghosts. I believe you’re listenin’ a little too closely to the lies of the devil in that pretty little head of yours.” He watched for a reaction from her, but when she didn’t stop him, he continued. “I don’t know who hurt you, Miss Willow, or what you’re hidin’ from over in that little croft of yours, but I can tell you this. I’ve learned a thing or two in my life, and believe me when I say that livin’ with regrets isn’t livin’ at all.”
Willow opened her eyes, and to his dismay, her tears began to fall. “Well, Joe, sometimes we don’t choose our regrets. Sometimes regrets choose us, and there’s not a thing we can do about it.” Her voice rose like she was getting all fired up, but he didn’t think she was angry at him. “I’m not listening to the devil, even if he is hollering at me half the time. I’m trying to stay tuned to God’s voice, but sometimes even his is hard to hear. When I moved here, I made a deal with him. I told him that on the days I couldn’t hear him, I’d be out looking for someone else to listen to, someone else who needed lifting up. Last night, when I came here, it was because I couldn’t hear God, Joe. I even went outside to the elderberry tree he put there for me, and I leaned into it, begging him to wrap his arms around me, to soothe my spirit. He didn’t. Not then and there, anyway. Instead, he put you on my heart.” She used the cuff of her sweater to dab at the moisture on her cheeks. “He helped me remember the way you looked when I dropped by yesterday morning. You seemed a little beat up. Hollowed out. Needing some fortification. I thought the pie was for John Bishop when I put it in the oven, but when I pulled it out, it had your name on it.”
Joe dropped his chin to his chest and let out a long breath. How could he help this girl? Mama always said that the good Lord only wanted vessels. And empty ones at that, empty vessels that he could fill. Well, I have nothin’, Lord. I have nothin’ to give her.
He opened his mouth to say so, and the words that slipped out were a surprise even to him. “Willow Goodhope, the good Lord may not tell you what you want to hear about you, but I can see now that I have clearly misjudged you and your blessed ears. Your visit last night was just what this old man needed. I was missin’ my Vivien somethin’ fierce, and I was gettin’ ready to draw some lines that I knew she couldn’t keep from crossin’ and that wouldn’t have been fair to her. You, and your pie, sweepin’ in here along with your ghosts, gave me somethin’ else to think about. Someone else, besides ugly ol’ me. I haven’t thought of Farmer McGregor in eons. And Granny Didi? Last night I lay in bed thankin’ the good Lord for the angels he placed all around me throughout my life. I’ll have you know that your name, Willow Goodhope, came up in that conversation.” He pushed away from the counter and crossed the room to the table. He didn’t touch her; she seemed fragile, almost see-through again. But he looked her in the eye and said, “But before you go gettin’ a big head or anythin’ like that, remember that even angels fall. You hear me? You’re not immune to slippin’ no matter how many good deeds you do to drown out the devil, or to fill the silence God leaves us with at times.” He bent forward, furrowing his brow to emphasize his words. “You are not immune to fallin’.”
Then he straightened. “But neither are you alone. You got your daddy, and it sounds like he’s a good man. For that I’m glad. But you also got Kathy. She’s a changed woman since you prodded her toward makin’ amends with her son. You got Patti and Richard and that Ivan boy, even if he is still tryin’ to figure out who in tarnation he is. They’re good folk, and you’ve given them a wake-up call on what’s important. And you got this ol’ fool standin’ in front of you. I may be old, Miss Willow, but I’m not blind. I can see you’re standin’ on shaky ground. So if you need a hand, or a shoulder, or someone to bake another one of those pies for, you just mosey on down here to my door.”
Willow was smiling by the time he finished his little unrehearsed speech. “Thank you, Joe.” That was all she said, and for now, he realized it was all she had to offer. He’d just have to be okay with that. He pulled out the stool across from her, sat down, and took a deep breath in. Why did she still smell like boysenberry pie and Mama? He was just about to ask her when she spoke first.
“So tell me something, Joe. Why haven’t you introduced your wife to the rest of the folks here? Word around the park is that you’re an eligible bachelor.”
He nodded. “I know. It’s the funniest thing, too. I mean, they’ve all seen my Vivien comin’ and goin’ for years. I guess people here just don’t want to be up in anyone’s business. Except for you.” He pointed a long finger at her. She pressed a hand to her chest and raised her eyebrows in mock surprise at his accusation, mouthing the question, “Me?” Then she pointed back at him.
“Well, I know you’re not asking for my opinion on this, but as you just pointed out, I’m not timid about getting up in your business. So here’s what I think. I think you should make it official. I think you need to honor Vivien as your wife while you have her; while she has you. You don’t know what tomorrow might bring, Joe. Don’t wait until it’s too late—” Willow’s voice cracked just a little, but she swallowed and went on, although a little quieter. “—to appreciate her to the fullest. Only the Lord knows how much time each of us has on this earth.”
“And how are you suggestin’ I do that?” he asked, politely ignoring the tremble in her voice. “Hang a sign out front? Throw a party?”
“Whatever it takes! Hang a sign. Throw a party. Shout it from the mountaintop!” Willow leapt to her feet and cupped her hands around her mouth, calling out in a loud voice, “Ladies and gentlemen—but especially you single ladies—this is the one, the only, the remarkable Vivien Harper-Sanderson. My wife!” Then she turned to look at him, hands on her hips, reminding him of Vivien herself. “Whatever it takes, Joe Sanderson.”
Instead of sitting back down, she crossed to the coatrack by the door and grabbed her scarf. As she wrapped it around her neck, she said, “Or you could just take a walk.”
“What? A walk?”
“Take a walk around the neighborhood, with your wife on your arm. Introduce her. People should know that she’s not just your gal-pal.” She waved a hand at the empty scone basket on the table. “By the way, that’s for your collection of TV Guides.” Then she thanked him for one of the best breakfasts she’d had in ages.
“You know, Joe. I’m used to people talking about me behind my back. I’ve heard the whispers my whole life. I don’t exactly know why; maybe I lack social graces or proper etiquette. Maybe it’s simply because I don’t mind.” She was standing at the front door, her hand on the doorknob. “But I’ve learned a thing or two in my own life, and one of the things I’ve learned, is that the best way to shut out the whispering is to live even louder. Stop letting them whisper about you and Vivien, Joe. Take a walk around the neighborhood. Live out loud.”
Joe stared at her for a few moments, then stood to see her out. “Wise words for one so young.” He held the door open for her. “I believe you’ve seen more than your fair share of trouble, haven’t you, child?”
Willow bowed her head and slipped past him, her silence all the confirmation he needed. He watched her as she made her way down the steps and out his gate, then just before she disappeared around the end of the trailer, he called out in a loud voice for all to hear, “My wife, Vivien, is goin’ to like you, Willow Goodhope. I look forward to introducin’ you to each other!”
He heard her laugh long after she was out of sight.
The End of Part 3: March Whispers
I hope you enjoyed meeting Joe Sanderson of Space #9 at the Coach House Trailer RETREAT, in Part 3: March Whispers.
Do come again in April to meet the Cat Lady in Part 4: April Shadows.