Citizen of the Century (2012)

1

I imagine the Home of the Famous Fatburger is gone now, replaced by an L.L. Bean Express, but I don’t know for sure; that’s something I’ve never bothered to check on the internet. All I know is that it was still there when I got back from all my adventures. And the world around it, too.

So far, at least.

I don’t know about the Bean Express because that was my last day in Lisbon Falls. I went back to my house in Sabattus, caught up on my sleep, then packed two suitcases and my cat and drove south. I stopped for gas in a small Massachusetts town called Westborough, and decided it looked good enough for a man with no particular prospects and no expectations from life.

I stayed that first night in the Westborough Hampton Inn. There was Wi-Fi. I got on the net — my heart beating so hard it sent dots flashing across my field of vision — and called up the Dallas Morning News website. After punching in my credit card number (a process that took several retries because of my shaking fingers), I was able to access the archives. The story about an unknown assailant taking a shot at Edwin Walker was there on April 11 of 1963, but nothing about Sadie on April 12. Nothing the following week, or the week after that. I kept hunting.

I found the story I was looking for in the issue for April 30.

2

MENTAL PATIENT SLASHES EX-WIFE, COMMITS SUICIDE

 

By Ernie Calvert

(JODIE) 77-year-old Deacon “Deke” Simmons and Denholm Consolidated School District Principal Ellen Dockerty arrived too late on Sunday night to save Sadie Dunhill from being seriously hurt, but things could have been much worse for the popular 28-year-old school librarian.

According to Douglas Reems, the Jodie town constable, “If Deke and Ellie hadn’t arrived when they did, Miss Dunhill almost certainly would have been killed.”

The two educators had come with a tuna casserole and a bread pudding. Neither wanted to talk about their heroic intervention. Simmons would only say, “I wish we’d gotten there sooner.”

According to Constable Reems, Simmons overpowered the much younger John Clayton, of Savannah, Georgia, after Miss Dockerty threw the casserole at him, distracting him. Simmons wrestled away a small revolver. Clayton then produced the knife with which he had cut his ex-wife’s face and used it to slash his own throat. Simmons and Miss Dockerty tried to stop the bleeding to no avail. Clayton was pronounced dead at the scene.

Miss Dockerty told Constable Reems that Clayton may have been stalking his ex-wife for months. The staff at Denholm Consolidated had been alerted that Miss Dunhill’s ex-husband might be dangerous, and Miss Dunhill herself had provided a photograph of Clayton, but Principal Dockerty said he had disguised his appearance.

Miss Dunhill was transported by ambulance to Parkland Memorial Hospital in Dallas, where her condition is listed as fair.

3

Never a crying man, that’s me, but I made up for it that night. That night I cried myself to sleep, and for the first time in a very long time, my sleep was deep and restful.

Alive.

She was alive.

Scarred for life — oh yes, undoubtedly — but alive.

Alive, alive, alive.

4

The world was still there, and it still harmonized. . or perhaps I made it harmonize. When we make that harmony ourselves, I guess we call it habit. I caught on as a sub in the Westborough school system, then caught on full-time. It did not surprise me that the principal at the local high school was a gung-ho football freak named Borman. . as in a certain jolly coach I’d once known in another place. I stayed in touch with my old friends from Lisbon Falls for awhile, and then I didn’t. C’est la vie.

I checked the Dallas Morning News archives again, and discovered a short item in the May 29 issue from 1963: JODIE LIBRARIAN LEAVES HOSPITAL. It was short and largely uninformative. Nothing about her condition and nothing about her future plans. And no photo. Squibs buried on page 20, between ads for discount furniture and door-to-door sales opportunities, never come with photos. It’s one of life’s great truisms, like the way the phone always rings while you’re on the john or in the shower.

In the year after I came back to the Land of Now, there were some sites and some search topics I steered clear of. Was I tempted? Of course. But the net is a double-edged sword. For every thing you find that’s of comfort — like discovering that the woman you loved survived her crazy ex-husband — there are two with the power to hurt. A person searching for news of a certain someone might discover that that someone had been killed in an accident. Or died of lung cancer as a result of smoking. Or committed suicide, in the case of this particular someone most likely accomplished with a combination of booze and sleeping pills.

Sadie alone, with no one to slap her awake and stick her in a cold shower. If that had happened, I didn’t want to know.

I used the internet to prep for my classes, I used it to check the movie listings, and once or twice a week I checked out the latest viral videos. What I didn’t do was check for news of Sadie. I suppose that if Jodie had had a newspaper I might have been even more tempted, but it hadn’t had one then and surely didn’t now, when that very same internet was slowly strangling the print media. Besides, there’s an old saying: peek not through a knothole, lest ye be vexed. Was there ever a bigger knothole in human history than the internet?

She survived Clayton. It would be best, I told myself, to let my knowledge of Sadie end there.

5

It might have, had I not gotten a transfer student in my AP English class. In April of 2012, this was; it might even have been on April 10, the forty-ninth anniversary of the attempted Edwin Walker assassination. Her name was Erin Tolliver, and her family had moved to Westborough from Kileen, Texas.

That was a name I knew well. Kileen, where I had bought rubbers from a druggist with a nastily knowing smile. Don’t do anything against the law, son, he’d advised me. Kileen, where Sadie and I had shared a great many sweet nights at the Candlewood Bungalows.

Kileen, which had had a newspaper called The Weekly Gazette.

During her second week of classes — by then my new AP student had made several new girlfriends, had fascinated several boys, and was settling in nicely — I asked Erin if The Weekly Gazette still published. Her face lit up. “You’ve been to Kileen, Mr. Epping?”

“I was there a long time ago,” I said — a statement that wouldn’t have caused a lie detector needle to budge even slightly.

“It’s still there. Mama used to say she only got it to wrap the fish in.”

“Does it still run the ‘Jodie Doin’s’ column?”

“It runs a ‘Doin’s’ column for every little town south of Dallas,” Erin said, giggling. “I bet you could find it on the net if you really wanted to, Mr. Epping. Everything’s on the net.”

She was absolutely right about that, and I held out for exactly one week. Sometimes the knothole is just too tempting.

6

My intention was simple: I would go to the archive (assuming The Weekly Gazette had one) and search for Sadie’s name. It was against my better judgment, but Erin Tolliver had inadvertently stirred up feelings that had begun to settle, and I knew I wouldn’t rest easy again until I checked. As it turned out, the archive was unnecessary. I found what I was looking for not in the ‘Jodie Doin’s’ column but on the first page of the current issue.

JODIE PICKS “CITIZEN OF THE CENTURY” FOR JULY CENTENNIAL CELEBRATION , the headline read. And the picture below the headline. . she was eighty now, but some faces you don’t forget. The photographer might have suggested that she turn her head so the left side was hidden, but Sadie faced the camera head-on. And why not? It

 

was an old scar now, the wound inflicted by a man many years in his grave. I thought it lent character to her face, but of course, I was prejudiced. To the loving eye, even smallpox scars are beautiful.

In late June, after school was out, I packed a suitcase and once again headed for Texas.

7

Dusk of a summer night in the town of Jodie, Texas. It’s a little bigger than it was in 1963, but not much. There’s a box factory in the part of town where Sadie Dunhill once lived on Bee Tree Lane. The barber shop is gone, and the Cities Service station where I once bought gas for my Sunliner is now a 7-Eleven. There’s a Subway where Al Stevens once sold Prongburgers and Mesquite Fries.

The speeches commemorating Jodie’s centennial are over. The one given by the woman chosen by the Historical Society and Town Council as the Citizen of the Century was charmingly brief, that of the mayor longwinded but informative. I learned that Sadie had served one term as mayor herself and four terms in the Texas State Legislature, but that was the least of it. There was her charitable work, her ceaseless efforts to improve the quality of education at DCHS, and her year’s sabbatical to do volunteer work in post-Katrina New Orleans. There was the Texas State Library program for blind students, an initiative to improve hospital services for veterans, and her ceaseless (and continuing, even at eighty) efforts to provide better state services to the indigent mentally ill. In 1996 she had been offered a chance to run for the U.S. Congress but declined, saying she had plenty to do at the grassroots.

She never remarried. She never left Jodie. She’s still tall, her body unbent by osteoporosis. And she’s still beautiful, her long white hair flowing down her back almost to her waist.

Now the speeches are over, and Main Street has been closed off. A banner at each end of the two-block business section proclaims

STREET DANCE, 7PM — MIDNITE!

Y’ALL COME!

Sadie is surrounded by well-wishers — some of whom I think I still recognize — so I take a walk down to the DJ’s platform in front of what used to be the Western Auto and is now a Walgreens. The guy fussing with the records and CDs is a sixty-something with thinning gray hair and a considerable paunch, but I’d know those square-bear pink-rimmed specs anywhere.

“Hello, Donald,” I say. “See you’ve still got the round mound of sound.”

Donald Bellingham looks up and smiles. “Never leave for the gig without it. Do I know you?”

“No,” I say, “my mom. She was at a dance you DJ’d way back in the early sixties. She said you snuck in your father’s big band records.”

He grins. “Yeah, I caught hell for that. Who was your mother?”

“Andrea Robertson,” I say, picking the name at random. Andrea was my best pupil in period two American Lit.

“Sure, I remember her.” His vague smile says he doesn’t.

“I don’t suppose you still have any of those old records, do you?”

“God, no. Long gone. But I’ve got all kinds of big band stuff on CD. Do I feel a request coming on?”

“Actually, you do. But it’s kind of special.”

He laughs. “Ain’t they all.”

I tell him what I want, and Donald — as eager to please as ever — agrees. As I start back toward the end of the block, where the woman I came to see is now being helped to punch by the mayor, Donald calls after me. “I never caught your name.”

“Amberson,” I tell him over my shoulder. “George Amberson.”

“And you want it at eight-fifteen?”

“On the dot. Time is of the essence, Donald. Let’s hope it cooperates.”

Five minutes later, Donald Bellingham nukes Jodie with “At the Hop” and dancers fill the street under the Texas sunset.

8

At ten past eight, Donald plays a slow Alan Jackson tune, one even grown-ups can dance to. Sadie is left alone for the first time since the speechifying ended, and I approach her. My heart beating so hard it seems to shake my whole body.

“Miz Dunhill?”

She turns, smiling and looking up a little. She’s tall, but I’m taller. Always was. “Yes?”

“My name is George Amberson. I wanted to tell you how much I admire you and all the good work you’ve done.”

Her smile grows a little puzzled. “Thank you, sir. I don’t recognize you, but the name seems familiar. Are you from Jodie?”

I can no longer travel in time, and I certainly can’t read minds, but I know what she’s thinking, just the same. I hear that name in my dreams.

“I am, and I’m not.” And before she can pursue it: “May I ask what sparked your interest in public service?”

Her smile is now just a lingering ghost around the corners of her mouth. “And you want to know because—?”

“Was it the assassination? The Kennedy assassination?”

“Why. . I guess it was, in a way. I like to think I would have gotten involved in the wider world anyway, but I suppose it started there. It left this part of Texas with. .” Her left hand rises involuntarily toward her cheek, then drops again. “. . such a scar. Mr. Amberson, where do I know you from? Because I do know you, I’m sure of it.”

“Can I ask another question?”

She looks at me with mounting perplexity. I glance at my watch. Eight-fourteen. Almost time. Unless Donald forgets, of course. . and I don’t think he will. To quote some old fifties song or other, some things are just meant to be.

“The Sadie Hawkins dance, back in 1961. Who did you get to chaperone with you when Coach Borman’s mother broke her hip? Do you recall?”

Her mouth drops open, then slowly closes. The mayor and his wife approach, see us in deep conversation, and veer off. We are in our own little capsule here; just Jake and Sadie. The way it was once upon a time.

“Don Haggarty,” she says. “It was like shapping a dance with the village idiot. Mr. Amberson—”

But before she can finish, Donald Bellingham comes in through eight tall loudspeakers, right on cue: “Okay, Jodie, here’s a blast from the past, a platter that really matters, only the best and by request!”

Then it comes, that smooth brass intro from a long-gone band:

Bah-dah-dah. . bah-dah-da-dee-dum. .

“Oh my God, ‘In the Mood,’” Sadie says. “I used to lindy to this one.”

I hold out my hand. “Come on. Let’s do the thing.”

She laughs, shaking her head. “My swing-dancing days are far behind me, I’m afraid, Mr. Amberson.”

“But you’re not too old to waltz. As Donald used to say in the old days, ‘Out of your seats and on your feets.’ And call me George. Please.”

In the street, couples are jitterbugging. A few of them are even trying to lindy-hop, but none of them can swing it the way Sadie and I could swing it, back in the day. Not even close.

She takes my hand like a woman in a dream. She is in a dream, and so am I. Like all sweet dreams, it will be brief. . but brevity makes sweetness, doesn’t it? Yes, I think so. Because when the time is gone, you can never get it back.

Party lights hang over the street, yellow and red and green. Sadie stumbles over someone’s chair, but I’m ready for this and catch her easily by the arm.

“Sorry, clumsy,” she says.

“You always were, Sadie. One of your more endearing traits.”

Before she can ask about that, I slip my arm around her waist. She slips hers around mine, still looking up at me. The lights skate across her cheeks and shine in her eyes. We clasp hands, fingers folding together naturally, and for me the years fall away like a coat that’s too heavy and too tight. In that moment I hope one thing above all others: that she was not too busy to find at least one good man, one who disposed of John Clayton’s fucking broom once and for all.

She speaks in a voice almost too low to be heard over the music, but I hear her — I always did. “Who are you, George?”

“Someone you knew in another life, honey.”

Then the music takes us, the music rolls away the years, and we dance.

January 2, 2009–December 18, 2010

Sarasota, Florida

Lovell, Maine

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