I’ll tell you why she jumped. That bastard husband of hers couldn’t keep his pants zipped. She put up with it, for the kids. But then, he was the one who split. She and me were best friends in high school. I stayed here in Lynchburg, Central Virginia for college, now bookkeeper at the newspaper. Junie, she jumped at the chance to get out. That chance was a fast-talking UVA senior named John Miller, promised to take her to New York. He did, a dozen years and four kids later, she came back. Her family wasn’t a whole lot of help when she did. Junie told me, first words out of their mouths, Where are you going to live now? How are you going to support your children? I guess she shouldn’t have expected a cuddly reception, the way she ran off with John middle of senior year, her Ma still in the hospital. Irregardless, you’d think they’d care about their grand kids.
Then, her place, not on the other side of the tracks, under the tracks. Five people in a small falling apart apartment, she and the girls in the bedroom, boys on a pull-out next to the kitchen. Couldn’t turn around without bumping into someone. Didn’t visit much, never quiet, Junie frazzled, no place to perch. The girls were older and missed their daddy. Junie said he took them for carriage rides in Central Park, often, it seems, with one of his lady friends. The boys didn’t know their father at all. Especially the little one, only fourteen months when Miller walked out the door. And he was a cute one, little Henry was, a tow head, serious a lot, but when he broke into a smile, he’d melt any heart, did mine every time.
First year down in Lynchburg, Junie worked the cosmetics counter down at Woolworths. She had a touch there. Man that hired her let her arrange her schedule for the kids. Still and all, didn’t get paid for that hour it took to remove sample splotches of Relentless Ruby and Undaunted Red from her nails. But doing well enough to pay somebody to watch the kids. And I helped out when I could. Then Woolworths got a new manager. She couldn’t seem to please that man. Always on her. They fought. He let her go. Economy so bad, no work for her, not even housekeeping. Home all day. Kids yammering for something. I stopped by one Tuesday after work, she was snapping at them, even smacking them for no reason. The way Arleene’s cheek turned bright pink, the scared look in her eyes. I shooed Junie out of the house. Told her to go for a walk. Think maybe she learned a lesson from that. Junie said for some days after, Arleene walked around the edge of the room keeping away from her. Maybe it was only a week later she looked at her.
Then, and it was the oldest, Lizzie, twelve, told me in private, she was fretful about her mother. She came home from school, found her mother slumped over the kitchen table, crying, the baby bare-assed, playing in his poop on the floor. Junie didn’t drink or anything, not after her Pa’s example, she was tired, and I think lonely. Lynchburg wasn’t at all the way she described her early days in New York, on the town most nights.
* * *
One afternoon, just back from work, got a breathless call from Junie. “Dottie, I do hope and pray you are not busy tonight, because you will never guess what, but Franklin, remember him, my first manager, is back in town for a night and asked me out to dinner, at the Virginian, no less.”
Of course, I agreed to come over and watch the kids. I found her in a blue silk dress, pleated skirt. Good choice, it moved with her. She went all out on her hair, twisted and piled it up on top of her head. And she used some of the old tricks on her face, highlighting the eyes, framing the mouth. From three feet, she was a stunner, up close, a look at her eyes, dusty gray stones, that’s what looked at me.
Before going out, she sat down with the four kids, Henry on her lap, told them she was going out to dinner with a friend. She kissed them hard, so hard they pulled away, then walked out the door. Didn’t turn around, see their faces, hear them hollering goodbyes at the window. At the end of the sidewalk, she turned toward town and the river. It’s the James River that runs through town, you know.
She wasn’t home by eleven, I got worried. Called the Virginian Hotel for Franklin, that’s the name of her previous manager. They knew him, but he hadn’t been there for three months. Too late to call other restaurants. Knew it was useless but called her folks. Beyond caring. Nothing to do but wait. Sun came up, still wasn’t home. Boys started to stir on the sofa bed. Little one, Henry, cried “Mama.” Started shrieking at the way I was holding him, worse when I set him down, girls tumbled out of their room, tousled sleepy heads looking for Junie’s face. Got them settled down a bit with cinnamon toast and milk. Then, “Where’s Mama.” Told them we were going to organize a search party. While they were dressing, called the police. No news, but they promised to look around.
The five of us set out. At the bridge, looked down, saw a piece of driftwood, followed it twisting in the current. Just before the bend, it hit some rocks and slid under the water. Right there, I caught a glimpse of blue silk. So did Lizzie. “Mama, that’s Mama down there.”
“We should get her,” Arleene insisted.
Haywood’s Restaurant at the far end of the bridge. Called the police again. Ordered hot chocolate, extra whipped cream, for everyone and sat them in an Indian circle on the floor of the restaurant, held hands, I explained, “It was dark, your Mama was looking at the star shine on the water, wasn’t paying much mind, you know she could be that way, and she slipped.”