By Jeanne DeWitt Voorhees
Mabel Hopkins and Norman Chadwick tied the knot on November 23, 1981. The wedding was at the Hopkins family homestead, then occupied by Mabel’s Uncle Willie, the snuff king of Ryefields, Mass. A crony of Willie’s, a justice of the peace, performed the ceremony. Norman never went to church, and wouldn’t countenance a church wedding.
Most of the people in the community of Ryefields thought it was a match made in Heaven and said so, in the various sidewalk and over-the-fence discussions that were a mainstay of village mythmaking. Thirty years old and alone in the world (except for Uncle Willie on Mabel’s side), Mabel and Norman had found each other.
No one knew much about Norman, except that his father, Zeke, had been the sole surviving offspring of Luke and Norma Chadwick, and had left Ryefields some forty years previously after some kind of argument. No one really knew what it was about, but rumors abounded. Zeke had had no more contact with his parents that the town was aware of. Then one day, a couple of years after Luke and Norma died together in their sleep, Norman had just drifted into town from somewhere out west to take up the reins of his grandfather’s work. He’d settled in smoothly to tend the fair-sized peach orchard, hauling his produce to Boston himself, in his 1963 Ford Econoline panel truck which smelled faintly of fermenting peaches. He sold the surplus at a busy roadside stand in front of the house. Off season, when he wasn’t pruning peach trees, he canned the snuff with Willie, which was how his acquaintance with Mabel had shifted into overdrive.
Mabel had a steady job as the most efficient secretary the headmaster of the nearby St. Phillip’s Episcopal prep school had ever had the good fortune to hire. She also coached all the school plays. The headmaster, the Reverend Mark Goodwill, was fond of repeating that the school would fall apart without her, even as he reluctantly parted with the modest salary she browbeat him into paying her.
Once she and Norman had become a permanent item, Mabel quit her job. After three weeks training her replacement at St. Phillip’s to her exacting standards, she threw herself into the peach business. Soon she was turning out peach chutney, peach preserves, and peach pie for Norman’s farm stand. Mabel was a real go-getter.
From his grandfather, Norman had inherited the orchard and the panel truck, as well as a tired old house that eased in a westerly direction. Mabel couldn’t wait, she said, to get her hands on the tilting house and re-do it from cellar to attic—just the two of them, working together, one room at a time, starting with the kitchen which carried the same pervasive, too-sweet smell of overripe peaches as the van. Mrs. Plaisted, who held court at the combined grocery-post office, had been heard to remark that even Granddad Chadwick’s coffin had smelled peachy.
For the wedding party, Mabel made corsages out of white rayon flowers with little ribbon streamers on which she lettered “Mabel and Norman” and the date. She made vases from Orangina bottles to set on the card tables in Willie’s front parlor for the reception. She made flowers for the vases out of fabric scraps and discarded telephone wire, carefully matching fabrics with the colored wires. Mabel just reveled in creating beauty out of throwaways. She was ahead of her time on the recycle trail. Mrs. Plaisted was sure, she told her husband, that Mabel would soon find a use for all those peach pits.
Mabel’s church friends and academic associates, Willie’s lodge brothers, Norman’s wholesalers and Grange cohorts—just about the whole town—turned out, the women to cry at the wedding and the men to make off-color jokes at the reception.
They went to Cape Cod for the honeymoon. Norman bought Mabel a little prism. She hung it from the rearview mirror of his old Ford Econoline to remind them of the sunshine that would fill their lives. It swung back and forth, beaming out rainbows as they drove.
Three days into the honeymoon, while Mabel was out on the beach collecting shells to glue on mirrors and picture frames, Norman left…took off in his ancient Ford Econoline with the Cadillac emblem welded to the grille and the Fleetwood insignia on the rear door where it should have said Ford. He’d done a professional job, filling in the holes from the Ford logo with fiberglass, then painting over them. He left a note, pinned to the pillowcase with a tie tack Mabel had decorated for him with a tiny periwinkle shell. He didn’t really like shells, he said, he was sorry, she kind of bored him.
He took the traveler’s checks.
Mabel couldn’t believe it: boring? She belonged to the Book of the Month Club; she read the Christian Science Monitor every day; she Kept Up.
First, she sat stunned. Then she wept. Finally, she wired her great uncle for bus fare back to Ryefields. The bus only went to Newburyport. She cried the whole trip. Willie was too busy with the snuff to come and get her, so she spent the last of her ready cash on a cab and a box of Kleenex. She cried all the way to Ryefields, too, with the cab driver trying to comfort her.
She went to her uncle’s because she really had nowhere else to go. Her last night in her cute little apartment over Bill Carson’s garage had been on the eve of her wedding. She’d moved most of her belongings to Norman’s house earlier. The new tenants moved into her apartment the next morning, as she left for Willie’s, and Norman collected her antique spool bed to replace the one Granddad and Grandma Chadwick had died on. Now, she didn’t feel, somehow. As if she belonged in Norman’s sunset-drawn house, even if he didn’t appear to have returned.
Willie gave her space…and Norman’s old job, drying and packing the snuff. Mabel, however, discovered that she was allergic to snuff. She’d never spent much time around it before. The minute she set foot in the barn, where the snuff was drying, she began to sneeze. She couldn’t even park her car in the barn. She sneezed when she unloaded Willie’s work clothes from the hamper. And she sneezed at noon when he came in and sat opposite her at the table in the clothes he refused to change for lunch.
Willie told her she was next to useless if she couldn’t work with the snuff. His was a small but thriving business, with orders from Tupelo to Tasmania. He was damned, he said, if he’d pay her for the housekeeping—after all, he was giving her room and board free. Besides all that chatter of hers bored him silly.
Her old job with the headmaster was, of course, filled, and she didn’t feel up to looking for another. Instead, she packed up her clothing and art supplies—the same gear and the same suitcase that had travelled to Cape Cod and back— and leaving the rest of her belongings at Willie’s, she went to live at Sol Pine’s Cabin Community on the edge of town. At first, she went through a low period, where she just sat in her cabin. Sol gave her a weekly discount because it wasn’t the tourist season, and he paid her for cleaning the cabins he did rent. When she wasn’t cleaning cabins, which was most of the time, she sat and ran a little wind-up plastic ladybug across the scarred and be-ringed bureau top. Back and forth it went, buzzing furiously, slowly sliding one foot forward, then the other.
She went to the Congregational Church every Sunday, as she always had, with her head held high. She could feel them whispering about Norman leaving her before the marriage was a week old. “Tossed out before she had a chance to grow stale,” they joked. She overheard similar comments. The joke was on them: Norman thought she’d already gone stale. Norman thought she was a bore. Attending the regular women’s Circle meetings, but couldn’t think of anything to add to the talk. “What do you think, Mabel?” Smile, nod, shrug. She didn’t want to bore them. So, she said nothing. She avoided eyes in general now.
Soon, though, she was bored herself, going to those meetings and never saying a word. She sat in self-incarcerating silence, drinking her coffee and choking down the driest cakes she’d ever eaten. She didn’t remember any of the Women’s Circle members ever making such dry cakes: chocolate sawdust, marble sawdust and lemon sawdust, all dryer than memory. She drank gallons of coffee, just to swallow the cakes.
Then she’d go back to Sol’s and wind up the ladybug.
She tried the toy on every surface of the cabin. She lay flat on the carpet, chin on the floor, to get an eye-level view of the creature’s performance. It didn’t work so well on the carpet because of the worn spots, and the cigarette burns. It would move slowly across the low pile, its high-pitched buzz becoming the mow of a petulant cat as it labored over a scuffed spot. Mabel strained with it, willing it to move on. On the tile of the bathroom floor, the ladybug tended to slip. She couldn’t quite get down to its level, either; the room was too small for her to stretch out. Once, she cracked her head on the basin while straightening up to rewind the ladybug.
So the bureau became its racecourse. She could crouch on the floor, her nose resting on the bureau top, eyes following the whirring creature that proved to her that something in this world still moved at her command. She made bets with herself. Could she wind it enough to make it go from the scorch mark to the tumbler ring without over winding? She developed a fear of over winding. With the second hand of her no-nonsense Timex, she timed its plodding from the carved initials “LJL + PRL” to the mark that looked like dried blood—was it L’s or P’s, she wondered. Probably cough syrup.
Now and then, in a burst of her old spirit, she made cute little cards, decorated with watercolor flowers and the shells she’d brought back from Cape Cod. Amid the shells and flowers, she wrote directions for operating the Community’s various machines: Coke, ice, washing. She wrote detailed instructions for removing the commonest stains from travel-ravaged clothes, and posted them beside the clothes racks of every musty cabin. She was a regular Heloise of the working-class traveler.
Sol stuck non-skid vinyl flowers on the bottoms of all the bathtubs, and Mabel wrote:
“These daisies have a calling;
They won’t do you harm;
They keep you from falling,
And breaking your arm.”
Norman had completely vanished. He didn’t even show up in Ryefields when the holiday season began its inexorable approach. It occurred to Mabel that someone should drain the pipes at his house. She still thought of it as his house. It was no concern of hers. Norman, wherever he was, should have thought of that. Maybe the heat was on. Maybe there was fuel. Maybe there was a fuel bill. Who would pay it, she wondered. Maybe Mrs. Plaisted had looked after all that. Maybe she herself would check on it. Sometime.
She continued to go to church, sitting in the back pew and beating a quick exit after the benediction. On the first Sunday of Advent, a family group lit the candles on the Advent wreath during the service. In a few years, it might have been Norman and Mabel and a couple of little Chadwicks. Not now. By the third Sunday, she couldn’t bear to watch another family group lighting the candles. She stayed in her cabin. She stopped going to church altogether. She’d had enough of the sideways glances, and pity enough for herself, didn’t need anyone else’s. She summoned up enough of her old self to set up the tree in the church narthex for the Sunday school to decorate. It was her traditional job, and Mabel felt the tug of responsibility. But she didn’t stay to chat or answer any nosy queries.
Sally and Sol invited her to Christmas dinner at their house. She said she was spending the day with Willie. They pretended to believe her. Willie never celebrated Christmas, although he always sent her a card signed, “Uncle WM.” He usually went hunting, season or not. But Mabel had always had her Christmas family of St. Phillip’s boys; she had been Mother Christmas to those students who were unable to go home, wrapping a gift for each, and cooking up a traditional New England Christmas dinner. Her cornbread and sweet red pepper stuffing was renowned.
It became a chore for Mabel to clean cabins on Wednesday mornings then shower and do her hair and dress for Women’s Circle. Her friends would all be chatting about Christmas, a magpie chorus of gifts, shopping complete and incomplete, menus, husbands, mothers, sisters, nieces. But mostly husbands.
It was the Christmas season when Mabel had always come into her own. She’d shown up at meetings in the past laden with new decorations made from pine cones and milkweed pods, felt scraps and bottle caps or slightly used wrapping paper. This year, Mabel had no ideas. The shower stall poetry had been her swan song. Mabel’s creative talents had up and vanished along with Norman.
“Mabel, didn’t you bring anything?” someone asked, trying to make the situation appear normal.
Mabel chewed on a forkful of dry pound cake.
“Thought you’d have saved some of those peach pits,” Mrs. Plaisted said with thinly disguised glee. Mabel swallowed, yawned and swallowed again.
“Advent calendars, did you make one this year?’ the sexton’s wife interjected desperately.
Mabel gulped coffee, swallowed again, and shook her head. She left early. The women agreed that they’d tried everything they could, Mabel was just a lost cause. No one wanted to suggest a psychiatrist.
On Christmas morning, she drove over to Willie’s, entered by the cellar door, and spent the day alternately watching TV and dozing. She skipped the women’s circle meeting after Christmas, too.
“Oh, Mabel, we missed you,” the Reverend Goodwill’s missus gushed in January.
Did they? She skipped more meetings. By late January, she ceased her church activities altogether. She stopped setting her hair. She sat and watched the ladybug buzzing and sliding across the bureau top. It had an almost unquenchable vitality once she’d wound it up. She was winding all her own juices into the ladybug. None left over for Mabel.
Some people still called, reluctant to give up on her, but fewer and fewer now. Mabel had headaches, a cold, an allergy, too much work. Finally, the calls trickled to a stop. She had to get ahold of herself, the neighbors said. She’s not the first woman to be jilted or whatever, even if it was on the honeymoon.
An editor from a small newspaper, who happened to stay the night at the Cabin Community while researching alternatives to glossy motels, saw her signs and spot-remover advice. He asked her to write a neatness and cleaning column for his newspaper. He liked her folksy style. Mabel did not think she was folksy. “Do it, Mabel,” said Sol’s wife, Sally. “It will give you a new interest.”
“Maybe,” said Mabel, and scuttled back to the ladybug. She wound it quickly, and as quickly forgot the editor.
Sometime around ground hog’s day, Mabel noticed her hands. The skin was scaly. Her wedding ring shone form behind cracked knuckles, mocking her. Why hadn’t she removed it? She tried, but her knuckles were swollen from the cleaning work and lack of attention. She held them out, momentarily divorcing them from her own body. Whose hands were they? They weren’t Mabel Hopkins’s hands; they were Mabel Chadwick’s. That’s where they came from, from the futile, quiet Mabel who had supplanted Mabel Hopkins. Mabel Hopkins had lovely hands, everyone said so.
“You have beautiful hands,” the Headmaster used to say, watching the pale ovals tap dance across the typewriter keys. The nails that mesmerized her now had never known polish or buffers or creams. They were ragged. She tugged in panic at the ring. Should she remove it, she might transform back to Mabel Hopkins again. The ring stuck stubbornly at the skin-stretched, flaking knuckle. Mabel Chadwick jumped up, turned, stared at the room. She glanced at the mirror, at an image she didn’t recognize; some strange sorcery had erased Mabel Hopkins. In her place was a woman with a face the sepulchers hue of a fading Easter lily.
Now, both Norman and Mabel were missing.
She glanced down at the ladybug sitting silently on the bureau top, its gluttonous mechanics waiting for her gift of life. She wound it up, holding it to her ear, listening…to the whirr of the tiny motor as it measured off seconds of her wasting life.
A hard second look at the mirror convinced her. It is a mirror. And that is Mabel. Mabel Chadwick. Boring, empty Mabel Chadwick. Her cracked hands, he chewed fingertips, reached tentatively to stroke the cheeks…tried to smooth the furrows that had formed between the eyebrows, patted the life-drained hair. Searching.
A soft thump, then stuttering. She looked at the ladybug lying on its back on the carpet. Unwatched, the poor thing had wandered off the bureau. Its whir had static in it, a little hiccup. Z-z-z-t-t-z-z-z. She bent and retrieved it, gently stroking the red plastic carapace as the motor stuttered to silence. Tucking it in her pocket with the vague aim of keeping it warm, she went off to clean cabins.
Guests occasionally left newspapers and magazines in the cabins, and Mabel hoarded them, no matter the content. She took them back to her own cabin, smoothed them out and folded them properly, then read them. Uncle Willie was probably enjoying her monthly book club selections; he hadn’t forwarded any of her mail, even though he knew where she was. She couldn’t get up the energy to face the postmaster, or go to the library, so she had nothing to read but discarded periodicals.
Toward the end of February, she opened a week-old sensation-seeking supermarket tabloid. A story, dated Tucson, caught her eye. There was a muddy picture of a body, cowboy hat covering the face. The reported had dubbed him the Desert John Doe in a story that rated national attention because the man didn’t carry any identification—and because the vultures had discovered him before the highway patrol did. According to the article, he’d been lying not far from a beat-up Ford Econoline panel truck, practically a collector’s dream, the reporter enthused. This classic vehicle, strangely, lacked registration plates. The van had a Fleetwood logo on the cargo door. A prism hung from the rearview mirror. In the man’s pocket were a St. Christopher medal and a mass card with a picture of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. The police were trying to trace him.
Mabel wondered why he never told her he was catholic.
She re-read the article. She’d consider assisting the police, she thought, but not right now. She checked the date. It occurred to her that something besides Norman had been missing from her life these last few months. A slow Madonna smile, indicative of her new status, lit the corners of her mouth, drew them hesitantly upward. She smoothed down her apron with wondering hands, already protective.
Mabel Chadwick took the ladybug out of her pocket. She put it on the bureau and watched it plod across the burn mark. She tried it on the carpet, and when it stuck, she sighed. She tucked it, still running, in her pocket and went outside. She wound the thing up and set it down on the pavement. Starting her car, she rolled backward, then forward into her slot. She didn’t even hear the crunch.
With a purposeful step, Mabel walked back into her cabin to gather up her belongings. The peaches needed her attention. Had Norman stuck around, she might’ve had to raise the new addition according to his apparently lapsed beliefs. People had a habit of getting their religion back when they had kids, and Mabel Hopkins, whose people came over on the Mayflower, wasn’t about to raise her child Catholic.
About the Author:
Jeanne DeWitt is a Mainer whose first short story appeared in the Portland Sunday Telegram when she was 10. She dropped out of the University of Maine years later and began writing ads for Macy’s. Since then, she has written features about subjects from pigeon races to school drug problems. Her short stories have appeared in two university literary magazines and a Long Island newspaper. While living on Long Island, she was a member of the Ashawagh Hall Writers Workshop. Jeanne has a BA from Long Island University and MA from Middlebury College. She is working on her first novel.