The Mirrors (part twelve)
These were bungalows…nice, of a middle-class type, a block of them. Brick, front parlors shortening the porch, a slope of banked front lawn—a flood measure telling the tract had been built on this century. It was the fashion in Carolee’s neighborhood to have an ornamental tree, a crape myrtle or mimosa, a magnolia…
The trees were all planted in circles of brick. Each house had the oddity of a fence, wrought-iron and painted white, running between properties, apparently to nowhere. Every several sported a lawn jockey.
“We’ll see if we can just take a walk along here,” Wright said, low-voiced. They had come partway on the only possible bus.
“You getting out? You know where you’re going?”
“Now, mister, don’t make me late starting work.”
With a smile of private cost, if any, Wright had thought to say this. Charmante was wary, working on anger. Sitting his empty bus at the stop until they’d reached the end of the block and crossed to the next, the driver had finally eased off.
They walked the six blocks on, to the place where Wright’s source had discovered Miss Roback.
During their ride, Wright had murmured a confidence or two. “First name Carolee, that’s what I heard. You don’t think it’s some other lady.”
“I would doubt it.”
This was sounding formal, another sample of that hauteur keeping her better-educated self on her own side of the aisle.
“I don’t know your first name,” she said.
“I don’t know yours.”
“Well, I might of heard someone say, but I never heard you say.”
She stared at a man who had got to his feet staring down the bus back, as though he thought they should fall silent, seeing him off at his stop.
Wright said, “William.”
The sleepy neighborhood, empty of traffic, its doors and windows shut, changed, like a spell cast…not in their wake, but up ahead. One or two people came out on their front porches. A woman with a broom. A woman carrying a table phone, trailing its long cord, wanting to show off she had it, chatting in the open air. A man drove past and slowed down.
“Lost your way?”
“No, sir. Miss Roback having some shingling done.”
“How come you brought your lady friend?”
Yes, anger, and she wasn’t sure at whom. She wouldn’t have Wright making up a lie to excuse her, when he hadn’t finished imparting what they were up to in the first place. She would have to drop a name, and it felt wrong to Charmante to violate one of Esta’s immutable laws, that all her life she’d sensed the iron core of.
“I clean for Mr. Rothesay, over on Dumain Street.”
They walked on. Wright returned the wave of a man in overalls, coming round the side of a house three or four down, balancing a ladder under his arm. Their escort drove slowly, his wheels gliding to their footpace. Through his window he whistled Dixie, and when they reached Carolee’s, Wright’s friend said, undertone, “You’uns come on back.”
Back along the fenceway, to where another man knelt on the grass before an unlatched toolbox. A woman in a grey collared dress and white apron stood on the step propping the kitchen door with her hip, holding a pitcher of tea.
“Now, ma’am, if you just take that from me, I’ll go get another glass.”
“Reckon I don’t need one special,” Wright told her.
“I’m Marian. Is it Mrs. Demorest? We can sit at the kitchen table.”
Miss Roback was not at home. The men were banging nails over their heads, which annoyance in its way cloaked this indiscreet talk, making it easier.
“How did Mr. Wright happen to end up working on her roof?”
“They got a row of houses on this street messed up from that hurricane last September. Won’t take them any time to finish. It was Bill…my Bill…I don’t know what yours likes to be called…must’ve spoke for him to Mr. Hillman. But I know what you’re saying.”
Marian dug a cigarette box from her apron pocket, and when Charmante shook her head, let this rest in her hand on the cloth. “I can talk to Miss Roback. I never saw her get in much of a temper. She doesn’t, with me, and she treats me pretty good. If you got something to say to her, it’s okay, I can let her know. But I have to know it’s not just some business.”
Well, it was a new world, drinking ice tea and eating wafer cookies in Carolee Roback’s kitchen. A new world, where the teachings of Esta still obtained. Trust didn’t flow both ways…your offense the less forgivable. You, to live in peace, needed that good opinion. You could curry it, you could cultivate it with dignity, but you couldn’t flout it. No matter how little they cared for yours.
“Mr. Wright,” she said, “is a little ahead of himself.”
“Somehow, I been and got on the wrong side of you again.”
Again they walked—it was all buses and walking, getting places—this time from the gas station to Charmante’s house, that she meant pointing out to Wright in passing (not inviting him in yet). The strung-out settlement where she and Esta lived hugged the road a mile or two between the city and the riverland.
“Well, see,” he said. “I couldn’t hardly gone knock at Miss Roback’s door, street like that. You probably never heard of a little watering hole called Rolly Carter’s. I went down and ran into Jimmy Gaylord, the man you just saw, with the ladder…he works for Hillman, the roofer. Jimmy thought he was just hearing that name, Roback…”
(2020, Stephanie Foster)