Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Spring in Fairhope, 1922

This is an excerpt from the novel That Was Tomorrow, which takes place in Fairhope in 1921-22. It centers around the bohemian community of Fairhope of those days, particularly the teachers at the School of Organic Education. The protagonists all moved to the town as disciples of Marietta Johnson, who was a world-famous proponent of the progressive education movement, and had founded her school as a demonstration of that educational theory. "The Sieve" is the nickname the two young women, Amelia and Avery, have for the cottage they are renting, which has a very leaky roof.

It was still March, but Fairhope was already in the full bloom of spring. Days were sunny, the sky was light blue with little puffs of clouds here and there, and flowers opened their faces on footpaths, roadsides, and in the trees. The first blossoms had appeared as splashes of mauve on redbud trees, but the neighboring dogwoods, with their layered branches now shelves for their white four-leaf blooms, completed the look of lacy color dotting the town.
Years before, the locals had gathered in a civic group to plant azalea bushes around the perimeter of Knoll park. At at this time of year the big, raggedly uneven bushes came into bloom all at once, as if blanketed in pink. Color was accented by large azaleas in white, and there were shades of pink that bloomed in sequence, finishing with the stylish deep, almost red shade known as “Pride of Mobile.”
A wisteria vine, planted on a magnolia tree adjacent to the school’s library, broke into a profusion of lavendar blossoms which exuded a heady sweet fragrance into the breeze. The vine actually connected two trees, and would one day grow big enough to climb on; already it provided a seat between the trees, and the flowers opened with a sweet, springtime smell that would be unforgettable to generations of school children.
Although the temperature usually hovered in the low 80s, humidity was not so high as usual, and it felt at if one could inhale spring itself. The air had a lightness to it that seemed to transfer to the mood of people.
More and more often, Jim Holloway was a visitor to The Sieve. As his romantic relationship with Avery grew more intense, Amelia was more comfortable avoiding the intimate vision of them together, leaving the place to them to go to watch the sunset on the pier, then take a walk around town, sometimes with a book, sometimes taking a notebook to write down ideas for class projects. Some evenings she spent at The Gables, talking with Capt. Cross, who could answer many questions, particularly about history. He recommended books to her, and lent her his copy of Tolstoy’s short stories.
This night, when Amelia came into the parlor at The Gables, Idella Cross presented with an envelope, with her name on it, in Maxwell Taylor’s unmistakable handwriting.
“Mr. Taylor asked me to give this to you,” she said.
“Max? How strange!” Amelia said.
“Oh, I wouldn’t think strange,” Mrs. Cross said simply, and walked away, into the kitchen.
“My Dear Amelia,” read the letter. “I must talk to you. Please meet me at the northeast corner of Knoll Park, Magnolia and Bayview, at 8 P.M. Maxwell Taylor.”
Amelia was somewhat anxious reading this. There could be some bad news that Max wanted to reveal, or some personal situation. Perhaps he was going to be called away for a family emergency, or perhaps he was in some sort of trouble at the school. It was half an hour before the appointed time and there was nothing for Amelia to do but bide her time at The Gables until then.
Capt. Cross was working on a Mozart sonata on the piano, and she had a Rousseau book to read about the nature and needs of the child. She chose her favorite chair in The Gables’ main room, a threadbare old carpet rocker which had the smell of years of musty dust to it. All the same, the book was hardly relaxing, and Capt. Cross’ struggle with Mozart did little to ease her tension.
It was hardly a five-minute walk to the spot designated by Max’s missive. He would be coming from the cottage at Bancroft and Pine Street where he rented a room. She decided to walk down Fairhope Avenue to the Knoll Park corner. It was dark now, a night not unlike when she and Max walked this way to Marie Howland’s, when she got her first look at the little town illuminated by Southern moonlight.
Max was standing near a dogwood tree at the edge of the park. When she got close enough, he said, “Good to see you.”
“Hello, Max.”
What was he going to tell her? Tree frogs were deafening for a moment.
“I see you got my letter,” he said, with a smile curling one corner of his mouth.
There are people, she thought, whose faces are simply not designed for smiling. He fixed her with his eyes, although they seemed to be trembling in a strange and inexplicable way. All she knew to do was look back at him firmly, hoping a steady gaze would relieve the anxiety he seemed to be feeling.
“Yes, although the postal service might be disappointed at the loss of revenue.”
I never thought of that.”
Again there was silence but for the frogs.
“I thought this would be a nice place to meet.”
“And so it is. The night reminds me of our first meeting, walking Marie Howland home.”
He nodded, and clearly began to think about that night.
“This is different,” he said after a pause. “That was before I loved you.”
“Oh, Max!”
“Now let me speak.”
She took a breath and nodded.
“I’ve given this a lot of thought. It was not something I was seeking. ‘It’ found me instead. I’m kind of a solitary fellow, pretty much independent and I’ve always been happy with that—depends upon what you mean by happy, I guess. I was content with it; I didn’t expect more—this damned town—”
“Maybe it’s all these flowers,” she said.
“Flowers and springtime, is that what you think?”
“I don’t know what to think.”
“Well, let me tell you something then. It’s not flowers and springtime! It’s—it’s a wistful scarecrow at Halloween, a pair of eyes glowing in the reflection of firelight, the music of a laugh at a folk tale. It’s delicate hands comforting a weeping child, and feet skipping with children to a tune for a pageant.”
He was warming up now.
It’s camellias and roses for Christmas on a warm day. It’s sunsets on the pier. It’s ‘A Long Long Trail A-Winding.’ It’s the accidental grasp of a hand doing an English country dance. It’s the scent of pine and wisteria in the breeze. It’s this damn, irresistible crazy quilt of a town—but most of all it’s you, my beautiful Amelia. Oh, dear God, let me say that at last. My beautiful Amelia. Okay.” He took a breath, then he launched into an imitation of Ethel Barrymore. “That’s all there is.”
“There isn’t any more?” Amelia picked up on the imitation, which was current in the day, lines in a play the actress had spoken years before. Maxwell at his best was all about the theatre.
“No?” he said, making it a question, imploring her to take it as more than he had said.
“That’s a great deal, Maxwell.”
“Yes. It’s profound. Not so deep as a well, maybe, nor so broad as a church
“Now you’re quoting.”
“Well, at least I quote from the best.”
“I liked when you were being original.”
“You did?” Now he looked at her, hopeful for the first moment.
“It’s like being in a play.”
“There are times when life is,” Max said. Now he was staring at her, trying to fathom her soul.
“This is new to me,” she said. She was not sure how to capture in words the confusion of feeling that swept over her. But she knew she had to say something.
“Dear Max.”
He stepped over to her and put his arms around her. Amelia did not resist. She knew he was going to kiss her and she would not resist.
The world of sunsets and wisteria blossoms and firelight and folk tales came crashing about her as she responded to his gentle, long kiss. There was a crescendo of tree frogs when he stepped back at last and looked into her face, still with his arms around her. She was unsteady on her feet. Caught in the moment, she could not speak. Her mind was flooded with conflicting thoughts and she felt stirrings and tingling throughout her body that she had never felt before.
All at once Max was laughing.
“You dropped your books,” he said. He picked them up from the patch of grass.“Ah, Tolstoy!” he said, looking at the top book. “How appropriate!”
“Can you blame me?” she said. “About dropping them I mean, not about the books. I feel—a little foolish.”
“Ah no, not foolish, I hope. I did my best—”
“I didn’t mean that. You did very well.”
“Yes, I know,” he said.
“I think you are more accustomed to being in plays than I,” she said.
“You know this isn’t a play.”
“What is it then?”
“It’s real life.”
“Please, Max,” Amelia said. “This is going to take me some time.”
“Oh, ‘please,’ yourself,” he said. “Do not think so much. Do not make this a problem.
I kissed you in the park, I said some things. You liked it.”
“I shall walk you home now,” he said. “And then I’ll dance all the way to my own humble abode. Then tomorrow…”
“That’s the one one-word question to which there is no answer,” said Max.
The two walked up Bayview, through the big old oak trees, both of them moved by the moon as it shone through the Spanish moss. He held her hand.
“Avery and Jim are at The Sieve,” she told him.
“That’s good, I think. They are at The Sieve, and you and I are walking down the street. Life goes on.”
She wasn’t sure if Maxwell understood the significance of Jim being with Avery.
“They are a couple.”
“Well, yes, I had hopes. Jim has had his eye on her for months, even before the
departure of the volatile Sarah.”
“I hadn’t seen that,” Amelia said.
He said nothing.
“I shall drop you at the door,” Max said. “I don’t know that I’m able to take any more excitement tonight.”
She turned to him as they reached the door and he leaned down and kissed her cheek.
“Promise me,” he said, “that you won’t think too much.”
“Not an easy promise to keep,” she said.
“Sure it is. If your mind races, just insert thoughts about Tolstoy and Rousseau.”
“And Marietta Johnson?”
“Well, Marietta Johnson too—but I think the distant gods are more comforting than those close to home.”
As she climbed the stairs, Amelia heard his voice in her head, repeating, “Tomorrow is the one-word question to which there is no answer,” and she felt the memory of the kiss suffuse her body with tingling hope.
When she got into her bed a few minutes later, she had not noticed whether or not Jim was still in the house. She wrapped her arms around her spare pillow and wished for her old teddy bear.

That Was Tomorrow is available at amazon.com., Barnes & Noble.com, iBooks, and from my website.