“Scares the wits out of folks, Celeste Harrison does.” Mrs. Percy was reporting the daily news to Mr. Percy, who was trying to read the daily newspaper over his morning coffee.
“Are you listening to me, George?”
“Well, Hal Kemper was at the post office yesterday, visiting with Mrs. Hume in front of of the Uncle Sam Wants You poster. Hal told me Mrs. Hume had just picked up a letter from her John Jr., who was on a destroyer in the Pacific. ‘He says he doesn’t care if he never sees a drop of ocean again in his life,’ she told Hal, ‘my little John Jr., who was so sure the Navy was the best place to be.’”
“That so?” said Mr. Percy with a tinge of interest. George Jr. was also in the Navy, in the Pacific, and sometimes the Percys felt like the war in Germany was all they heard about, when what they cared about was what was happening in the Pacific.
“So then Ted Waters came in to check his box – you know, he has one of the big ones, down low, Ted thinks he’s so important with his railroad job. And right behind him came Celeste, her eyes all glazed over like she wasn’t seeing anybody or anything . . .”
Celeste was walking with those sad eyes staring straight ahead. She had on her regular white tennis shoes and blue skirt and blouse, but her skirt was twisted around a little so the buttons were halfway to the side, and her red-brown hair looked like it hadn’t been combed that day. Hal Kemper, who was better friends with the Harrisons than anyone in the post office that day, went up to Celeste and said, “Hello there, dear.” Then he saw her eyes, liquid and wistful.
Everything in Marshallville, at least what didn’t get settled on the counter stools of Bowen’s Drugs, pretty much centered around the post office. The town was inordinately proud of its having finally been built, all solid and stone-fronted, a few years back, before the end of Mr. Roosevelt’s second term. They thought it said something dignified and important about the town, those shallow stone steps leading majestically up to the big, brass front door, and rows of shiny mailboxes inside reflecting sunlight onto the marble floors. The sunlight lent a strange cheerfulness to the draft instructions and ration book applications stacked along the side tables.
There was even a loading dock in the back so Mr. Jenner the postmaster didn’t have such trouble with the big mail sacks from Richmond as he used to at the old place behind the grocery store. Fred Simpkins put up a regular cedar hitching post for the horse he’d started using on R.F.D. routes after the rattling Dodge broke down once too often. “She’s rural,” Fred said in defense of the old mare; “She’s free, and she delivers without gas ration coupons. I guess we can cover the Rural Free Delivery routes together just fine.” Like Hal Kemper before him, Fred had lost a son in Germany. He said riding those country roads every day made him feel close to his boy again.
People lowered their voices kind of automatically when Celeste walked in that day. Celeste had gotten engaged to Joey Fishburn the night before Joey left for the war two years back, and he’d been killed no more than a couple of weeks later. She closed herself up in her room, wouldn’t even come out for meals for a week, they said, although her mama begged and begged, and when she did come out all the shine had gone out of her. Celeste and Joey had been at the Grange dance that night before he left, everybody remembered; they’d seemed like the happiest couple in the world then.
After Joey got killed it took Celeste a good six months before she smiled. And even then it wasn’t a real smile. At first, people were sympathetic. Everybody liked Celeste, little thing who worked at the dime store her daddy had run since the twenties, and Lord knows everybody hated to lose Joey. But Mr. and Mrs. Fishburn were back rolling bandages for the Red Cross within a week of burying their oldest boy. Went right on working in their Victory garden and leading bond drives and told everybody they were dedicating themselves to getting this war over before the other kids got to be draft age. And people started to think, well, nobody’s coming through this without heartache.
By the time of the July 4th memorial services for Marshall County’s dead heroes, over a year since Joey’d been gone people were wondering when Celeste would pull herself together. Once a friendly sort, Celeste took to staring at the ground everywhere she went. Got downright skinny, too. She spent less and less time helping customers in the store, mostly sat in the back room winding up new rolls of grosgrain ribbon or counting out cards of bobby pins.
And then Sam Stringer came home, one arm useless and his hearing nearly gone from a shell burst. Sam had been sweet on Celeste too, long before Joey came into the picture. He suffered from a slight stutter and terrible self-consciousness, owing to a bad complexion and funny jug-ears, and he had never gotten anywhere much with the girls. Folks thought the stutter seemed worse sometimes now, since his discharge.
Sam went to work carrying the mail route on the north side of the tracks, which included the little gray frame Harrison house with its unruly primrose bushes spilling all over the yard. At lunchtime, or when the store was closed, Celeste would usually be rocking in one of the wicker chairs on the front porch, and Sam, if he happened to be delivering the mail while she was there, would tip his hat and ask how her mama was getting along. Mrs. Harrison never had been too strong. If Celeste ever looked up, or more than nodded, nobody saw it. Sam would smile and keep on walking his route.
Things got to where Celeste just seemed to shrink. Like her dresses had been cut from a pattern one size too big. Barnaby Wills bumped right into her on his way home with a big bag of groceries, scared Barnaby half silly. But he said when he apologized, and reached out to help her keep her balance with his free hand, she jerked away. “Kind of shivered and jumped back,” he told Hal Kemper, “and I was only trying to be gentlemanly.”
“Kind of shivered?” Hal had said. He was thinking that seemed more like what Barnaby himself did. Barnaby had come back from the last war shaken but all in one piece, only to lose the first Mrs. Wills to the flu epidemic right after. Barnaby said, “Well, you just got to suck it up, you know, suck it up,” so many times that he developed a reflexive shoulders-back-take-a-deep-breath move almost like a tic.
“Yep,” he told Hal, “and jumped back like a rabbit. I was just doing the polite thing, too, you know.”
Hal and Barnaby, who were both getting on in years and were among those the town called The Oldsters, shook their heads over how strange some of this younger generation could behave, “Clean forget how to be polite, too many of ’em,” Hal said. Barnaby, that afternoon at the post office, allowed as how Celeste had certainly been trained up to accept an apology.
Sam Stringer went on about his business after he got the mailman job. He courted May Ellen Murphy for a little while, twice to the movie at the Marshall Theater. May Ellen was a good six or eight years older than Sam, but some folks thought it might just be a good match. Others said they thought Sam couldn’t put Celeste Harrison out of his mind and wasn’t it a crying shame that she looked to have turned to stone.
Mrs. Harrison, outside on one of her better days, told Mrs. Percy, who was hanging out the laundry in the next-door yard, that she was right worried about Celeste, “Looks like she’s just so sunk in the melancholies,” Mrs. Harrison said.
“Doesn’t perk up, even when that Sam Stringer comes calling?”
“Well, Sam’s not exactly come calling, though I think he would if she’d give him half a chance. I got after her about that for a while.”
“Yes, but she just looks past me; doesn’t answer at all.”
“Maybe you’d better call Doc Weatherell,” said Mrs. Percy, dropping the leftover clothespins back into the cotton bag that hung at the end of the wash line. “You said Doc seemed to help her in those first months after Joey got killed, when she acted so sick.”
“I reckon I might oughta.” Mrs. Harrison’s frail shoulders sagged.
And sure enough, Mrs. Percy saw Doc Weatherell’s car out front another week or so later. Mrs. Harrison was seeing him to the door, and Mrs. Percy thought she saw Mrs. Harrison wipe her eye with the corner of her apron. So later that day she took over a chicken casserole and asked if everything were all right, “Oh, I just don’t know, Nelda, I don’t know at all,” Mrs. Harrison said.
“Doc Weatherell didn’t have any suggestions?”
“He says . . . maybe Westbrook . . .we just can’t . . .” and Mrs. Harrison sat down heavily at the kitchen table and put her face in her hands. Westbrook was the sanitarium in Richmond, and everybody knew more folks went in than ever came out.
A few weeks passed, though, and Mrs. Harrison never said anything more about Westbrook. Maybe, Mrs. Percy thought, Celeste would just snap out of her doldrums. People need to grieve a little, then snap out of it, Mrs. Percy told Mr. Percy over breakfast one morning. Said it looked plain wrong for Celeste to spend the entire rest of her life shut off from everything and everybody, missing out on the rest of the world, never having conversations about important things that go on every single day. Mr. Percy said some people might find that a perfectly acceptable way to live, “Just doesn’t look right,” Mrs. Percy said, clearing the plates.
“Mmm,” said Mr. Percy into his newspaper.
Mrs. Percy scraped the crumbs and table scraps into the green rubber colander in the corner of the sink and put the dishes carefully into the dishpan of hot suds to soak for exactly five minutes.
“George,” she said, “how long have we lived here next door to the Harrisons?”
Mrs. Percy picked up the blue figurine in the kitchen window, wiped the sill with a damp cloth and placed the figurine back in precisely the same spot. Then she straightened the tie-back of the blue curtain to remove a slight rumple in its fold, “George.”
“Sorry. What’s that, dear?” Mr. Percy folded the newspaper back just a bit and peered absent-mindedly over the top at his wife.
“How many years have we been here on Maple Street?”
“Roosevelt’s first administration?”
“Exactly. Ever since we had to give up everything in Baltimore and move in here with your mother. But we’ve been careful to keep the house painted and the lawn trimmed, even when that was not easy to do.” She pulled on her yellow rubber gloves in preparation for the morning dishwashing.
“Well, now, it just doesn’t look right, the primrose bushes going all untrimmed, and Doc Weatherell here next door so much, and maybe the Westbrook people . . . . You’d think Celeste would just pull herself together.”
“Oh, I wouldn’t worry about Celeste, dear,” said Mr. Percy, ruffling the newspaper back into place in front of his reading glasses. Mrs. Percy dipped the plates into the rinse water and set them in the drainer, cups and saucers in front, plates behind.
Celeste had stayed in the doldrums until that afternoon when Hal Kemper and Mrs. Hume and Ted Waters were all there at the post office. That afternoon she had been sitting by the open window in her room, her hands lying restless in her lap, when the faint sound of music from the Grange Hall juke box floated across the three blocks to the Harrison house on Maple Street. Celeste leaned toward the music.
It was Benny Goodman’s clarinet playing “Stardust,” those notes as sweet as a meadowlark in the branches of a Japanese cherry tree. Something spun loose inside her then, raveled itself out and twined around that tune, right about the place where the clarinet sang “…the melody… haunts my reverie…” just as clear as if Peggy Lee herself were standing in the front yard singing the words. Just as clear as on that last night before Joey left, the night they had stayed wrapped together in the downstairs parlor with the record player on so low nobody else could hear, wrapped together until the sunrise slipped through the blinds and covered them in red gold happiness. Celeste’s heart cracked open when she heard the music and fell in several soft pieces inside her. She got up from the chair and walked quickly downstairs toward the far-off happiness of that mournful clarinet.
The music of the juke box floated on the spring breeze, through the open windows from the Grange Hall and across London Street into the post office where the big brass door was propped open. Right when Mrs. Hume was talking to Hal Kemper and Ted Waters was down on his knees pulling out official-looking envelopes from his big mailbox. Susan Tisdale had just asked Postmaster Jenner for a sheet of three-cent stamps. They were only half hearing the music behind the muffles of conversation. Then Celeste walked in and conversation stopped. There was only the sound of Benny Goodman’s band from across the street.
It was because she looked so hollow that Hal Kemper had tried to take her, very gently, by the hand. Celeste, though, spun around again and walked very rapidly, deliberately, out the front door and into the middle of London Street, closer to the music. Cars seldom sped along London Street, but sometimes strangers did drive that way from the highway when they were headed west through town, and everyone knew Celeste could be in danger.
Then the people in the post office saw Sam Stringer walk quickly out the “Employees Only” door on the side and into the middle of London Street where Celeste stood swaying slightly, several cars and trucks having screeched to a stop on either side of her. One had swerved halfway onto the sidewalk.
People saw Sam Stringer step to Celeste’s side. “Hey there,” he said, just like they were meeting along a garden path. “H-How you doing, Celeste?” He wasn’t touching her, just talking low and soft as he inched around in front of her. People were sort of holding their breath. It was quiet on the street, except for the sound of a few motors running and the jukebox playing at the Grange Hall.
“M-mighty beautiful music,” Sam said, his blue eyes resting quiet and steady on Celeste. “On the ship, we listened to the m-music. Before my ship went down, carryin’ my b-best buddy with it.” Celeste’s eyes lifted to meet his, with a sadness as wide as the yellow-green fields that stretched endless across their worlds. Sam drew back the hand, his one good arm, that was reaching toward her; “I,” he said, looking down at the pavement now. “I know. . .”
Slowly, almost imperceptibly, Celeste inclined her head toward the music that wafted around the two of them, binding them in a shared sorrow. She touched Sam’s shoulder light as a whisper, as if to claim that comfort. And then, in a moment few understood but no one would forget, the pall that had enveloped the town ever since that cold, December morning several years earlier seemed to lift. The cars and trucks along the road simply stayed where they were. And as the sun peeped through scattered clouds, sending just a few warming rays onto London Street, and the townspeople watched from the post office steps, Sam Stringer slipped his good arm around Celeste’s waist, and they began to dance.
Fran Moreland Johns is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in newspapers, magazines and online publications since the 1950s. She has authored several books, and she is an activist for interfaith and progressive causes. A mother of three and grandmother of five, she lives in San Francisco.