THE POET LAUREATE OF MALCOLM’S DINER
by C. Billingsley Adams
Someone tapped on my shoulder today when I was feeling all bluesy as my long-time friend had just recently died. The last of my real friends, I guessed, as good friends are mighty hard to come by and at my age of sixty five, I’ll probably never meet another. Other friends had been in and out of my life over the years, but they had all been forgotten, died, or moved away to be near their offspring in their golden years. But not me, nor Selma. We had decided that we weren’t gonna die and we weren’t gonna move anywhere to be near our kids as we both had the idea that if our kids had cared that much about us, then they wouldn’t have moved away so far to start with. My own lives about three states away but Selma’s son had moved clean across the country and hardly ever came to see her. That was all okay though, as long as we had each other, Selma and I. But, Selma did die and I was feeling so alone. Until someone tapped on my shoulder.
The funny thing about this tapping is that when I looked up, there was no one there. Just my imagination playing a trick on me, I thought, and I tried real hard to believe that. Better than thinking that it was Selma, come back to haunt me. She and I had sometimes talked about such things, about haunting each other after death.
“I’m gonna do all those traditional things that ghosts do,” she once told me. “I’m gonna knock things over and slam doors shut. I’m gonna pull old Jessie’s tail and make her yowl and run away with her hair standing on end.”
“You better not!” I said, “Cause that would make you one of those poltergeist ghosts. They’re all mischievous like that. And, I don’t want you to be a ghost. I want you to be an angel.”
“Spirits gotta have some fun, don’t they?” she asked. “I can be your angel and a ghost too, can’t I?”
“And, what about you, Ruth?” she continued her queries. “What you gonna be if you go first? You gonna be a ghost or an angel?”
“I don’t know yet,” I replied. “Guess I’ll just have to wait and see what it’s like on the other side. I just may be so busy reuniting with all my relations gone before that I just might not have any time for either of those things.”
But none of that speculating seemed to matter much now that Selma had gone. Now that I was feeling so lonely already, even though it had only been a week or so since she was buried at Magnolia Park Cemetery next to her long deceased husband, Sam.
“Selma, is that you?” I asked into the air around me. Air that didn’t turn chilly like you always hear from those ghost hunter people that you see on the TV. No. The air around me was warm. Warm and soothing, like an opened oven on a cold winter’s morning with the scent of a pan full of baking biscuits waffling out to calm me. And that’s when I knew, I think, that Selma was not a ghost, but an angel. A sweet angel come back to comfort me.
After that I felt Selma real close to me for a few days, just being near and offering a soft touch when I needed it, until I had reached that place where I could laugh again at some antic that Jessie, my aging Golden Retriever, would do, and which I did when I saw old Sally Sue coming down the road on her bicycle that didn’t have any brakes and almost run into a privet shrub before she could stop it.
“When you gonna get those brakes fixed?” I hollered out at her. “You needs to get ’em fixed before you go and kill yourself, running out into traffic or sumpthin’.”
“I can always drag my feet when I wanna stop. Ain’t been hurt yet!”
I never had felt too close to Sally Sue. She lived up on the hill above me and she was a bit of a weird one. Some folks thought she was just a little batty, like her belfry was full of vermin and all that bat fluttering about and mice scurrying around and chewing on her brain cells that what they did up there kept her from thinking real clear. Not to mention, too, that she had a way of talking to herself all the time. I tried to eavesdrop one day when I was out trimming my roses and she was coming by. I was just curious as to just what she might be saying to herself but all I could make out was that she had a plumbing problem in her kitchen and was on the way to the store to buy some of that stuff that you pour down your drain and hope that it will dissolve the grease-ball down there that was stopping the thing up. Not very interesting so I never tried again to hear what she had to say to herself. Like folks were saying, she was a bit touched but she wasn’t real creative in the skill of conversation like a touched person ought to be. Why couldn’t she talk to herself about little green men from Mars or burglars that come in the night to steal her cats? Real ‘cat burglars’, ya know. Geez, I suddenly think to myself. I’m the crazy one.
Selma was the creative person in my life and one time she did something real good. She wrote a poem and sent it off to one of those journal magazines. And they printed it too and even sent her a free copy of the publication. And Maggie, a waitress down at Malcolm’s Diner, where most all the working stiffs in town have their breakfasts and coffees, made a copy of it and taped it up there on the back side of the cash register for everybody to see. Then the whole town was bragging about Selma being a published poet and saying how she put our little village on the map.
To Walk In Fear
By Selma Thomas
To walk in fear, is to walk in courage
Otherwise we’d never walk at all
We must tread among the rocks and sand
to reach our destinations,
our realizations of hopes and dreams
Else, we’d never walk at all
but stand stagnate here, and never know
the courage to be found in fear.
Maggie wasn’t just a waitress. She was an actress too. Most of her stage work had been for community theater, but she was forever auditioning for roles in our one professional theater, over at the county seat. It was called The Florence Theater and sometimes shows featured famous actors that were on hiatus from Broadway or Hollywood.
Soon after posting Selma’s poem, a show was coming through that featured a performance by a well-known star named Zumar. His leading lady had fallen ill and, due to the rush of it all, the company was looking for a someone ‘with experience’ to step into the part for the three day local run.
“I was real scared to be auditioned for that show with Zumar in it,” she confessed later but she did and she was awarded the role. “It was reading Selma’s poem every day that gave me the courage,” she said.
And a customer named Rebecca, stopped by the diner on her way out of town one day as Selma and I were having our coffee there, saying that she just wanted to give Selma a hug. She had finally found courage in her fear, she continued, and it was the poem that inspired her to pack everything she could in her old station wagon and leave. She had taken violence from her abusive husband for six years, being too scared to leave him before as he might come after her. But she was leaving now. She was ready to stand up to him and follow her own dreams for a good life, with a good job, a good man, and a houseful of children.
Another resident, Michael Gates, whose wife Norma had recently passed, shed an open tear after reading the poem. She had suffered a long illness and he, after caring for her for months, realized that it was fear that kept him from fully rejoining the everyday world of living, until he read the poem.
“I had watched Norma fighting for her life,” he said, “and then she just gave up. And, I gave up a little too. What else could I do? But the poem, Selma’s poem, made me realize that it was courage that kept me going all that time. I am proud that when Norma needed me, I was there.”
All this attention embarrassed Selma but she was proud of it all too. Proud of being able to help people but for also being recognized for accomplishing something. She spent the better part of the next year writing more poems and sending them off to publishers. No more was ever wanted by the magazines though and she finally just gave up and quit. I felt right bad for her and begged her to keep writing and she did. Just never did try to get any more of them published.
When I was sitting with Sally Sue and enjoying a cup of coffee one morning at the diner, a few weeks after Selma’s death, the local handyman for hire, Pete, came in and joined us. He had gone over to her house to help her son to move out her furniture and haul it over to the consignment store, he reported, and told me that the son had found a manila folder full of Selma’s poems. He didn’t want them for himself so he threw them into a big dumpster that he had the trash people haul right up into the front yard.
Other stuff that the son didn’t think was worth selling, like her little chairside table with the wobbly leg, old family photographs, and memorabilia stuff was thrown out too. Like the Australian lorikeet feather she had picked up after one of the winged creatures had escaped his cage at a wild animal park nearby and spent a few days perched in her front yard chinaberry tree. She was just thankful, Selma had said, that it was only a bird that had escaped and not one of those big animals. Said she just couldn’t imagine the scare if she woke up some night with a giraffe having his neck all bent over and poking his head through her open bedroom window, like they do the car windows when the tourists drive through, looking for a food handout. Sometimes she would place the feather in the band of her old brimmed hat that she liked to wear whenever we went out shopping the yard sales. We didn’t much like yard sales because each of us already had enough junk in our houses that we didn’t think we needed to be buying more but it was something fun to do and a way to get a curious glimpse into other people’s lives.
I went by that afternoon, feeling Selma by my side, just as her son was leaving in his rental economy car, and explained that his mother was my very best friend and asked his permission to retrieve the folder from the trash. He didn’t care, of course, seeing no value in an old woman’s rants and raves, even if they were set in her thoughtful and laborious form of poetic prose.
“Hope you’ll help me to get out of here,” I spoke out loud to Selma as I lowered myself down into the depths of that metal dump.
“You’re getting more like me, everyday,” a voice spoke aloud, echoing against the sides of the vacant top walls of the container. “Talking to yourself, like that.”
Didn’t sound like Selma, I thought as I looked up and saw a head, darkened by the back light of a setting sun.
“That you, Sally Sue?” I asked, shading my eyes against the horizon’s glare.
“Yep!” she responded. “What you doing down in there, Ruth? A little dumpster divin’?”
“Well, first off, I ain’t talking to myself. I’m talking to Selma!” I said.
“She down in there with you?”
“Why yes, she is! And we’re looking for that folder Pete told me and you about. The one with her poems. Son told me that he didn’t care if I took it, right before he left town. He was pulling out when I got here. Said everything in here was garbage, as far as he was concerned, and I could take anything I wanted.”
“And folks think I’m the crazy one,” Sally Sue said. “Looks like you’re on track to give me a little competition!”
“But, I was talking to Selma!” I exclaimed. “Not to myself!”
“You, and all those others, only think I talk to myself,” she replied. “I’m talking to Buddy Boy! Just like you’re talking to Selma!”
“Oh!” I replied, a little taken back by this revelation and feeling a little ashamed of myself.
“Yes. I talk to Buddy Boy, my husband of forty-five years. And if I didn’t feel him beside me, since he died, if I didn’t know he was here for me to talk to, well, I don’t think I would make it.”
“Well, get in here then,” I demanded with a false firm. A flood of emotional understanding had passed over us and Sally Sue and I had grown, within only moments into two women who understood each other. Two women who could be friends. “You and Buddy Boy both. Y’all come on in and help me and Selma find her poems.”
Sitting at my kitchen table that evening, a glass of chardonnay in my hand, I read through many of the hundreds of poems and creative musings of my good friend. Such an insight she had into the human experience. More in-depth thoughts than I even known existed. Thoughts to be shared on the register of Malcolm’s Diner.
Seeking relief from thirsty palates at the diner, Sally Sue and I had enjoyed a good morning of yard sale adventures. She had never done much of this shopping before because, as I previously mentioned, folks around just took her as being a little touched so most weren’t too welcoming to her at their homes. And even before Buddy Boy died, he wasn’t much for visiting neighborhood sales of what he termed as ‘other people’s throw-aways’ so Sally Sue, who might have been welcomed back then, didn’t want to be dragging him to places that she already knew that he wouldn’t enjoy. He didn’t seem to be minding too much now though as he was seeing how much joy these outings were bringing to his widowed wife as she was becoming more accepted. And he was probably enjoying the break of not having to converse with his widow for a while as we girls, Sally Sue, Selma, and myself traveled from yard to yard, me donning Selma’s old straw hat with the lorikeet feather, the one other thing in that dumpster that I had retrieved.
“Hey, it’s ‘Besties’ night at the movie theater. We’d get in at half price.”
Did Sally Sue just call me her ‘Bestie’? I looked over in her direction and she was grinning ear to ear. ‘Besties’ with Sally Sue? Wonder what Selma would think of this? Sure, she and I had enjoyed visiting the sales together, and she sometimes parked her bike in my yard and accompanied me on walking Jessie around the block, but ‘best friends’?
“I’ll ask Selma ’bout it!” I said. “See what she thinks?”
“Okay. I already talked to Buddy Boy and he thinks it would be a fine idea. The two pairs of us ‘Besties’ going together.” She seemed a little embarrassed about the forwardness of her previous statement and wanted to clear up any misconception that I may have but, regardless, I knew what she had meant.
“Course Selma and Buddy Boy won’t have to pay at all,” she added with a laugh. “Nobody’d know they were there ‘cept you and me!”
“Is this okay with you, Selma? My being friends with Sally Sue?” I asked later. “I haven’t been feeling so lonely lately, since she’d been stopping by.”
“Of course,” said Selma in her non-physical way. “You need a friend that is there with you, a friend to go on outings with you, to walk Jessie with you, whose tail, by the way, I have refrained from pulling!”
And so it was decided. Sally Sue and I were now to be earthly ‘Besties’ with Selma and Buddy Boy staying around as our angels. Or were they our ghosts?
Every now and then, Selma would go away for a few hours or so. It frightened me at first, as I could feel the emptiness when she was gone, until I figured out why. When I questioned her about it, she confirmed that it was true so, sometimes, when she wasn’t around, I’d take a little stroll over to her house. It was kind of nostalgic to look in the windows and relive the memories, even if the house sat bare and chilled, I could still envision the way it used to be, all cluttered up with yard sale finds but still a cozy living place too. And, well, every now and then, I’d see some real estate person taking in prospective buyers to look it over and soon I’d see them almost running out the door. I’d know then that Selma had decided she didn’t like them much and she was pulling some of her poltergeist tricks on ’em. Turning lights on and off. Opening and closing doors and windows, that kind of thing. Wouldn’t take much to scare most folks off and she and I would have a good laugh about it later.
“So, just what are you, Selma?” I’d ask. “A ghost, an angel? Or the Poet Laureate of Malcolm’s Diner?”
“Think I’m all three,” she would exclaim. “Whatever I’m needed to be at any given time, I guess.”
One day, after Selma had been missing for a long while, I walked over to her house just as three young kids came running out. But they weren’t running out of fear as they were laughing and buzzing around the yard. They were happy. And as I slowly sauntered by, Mom and Dad and someone who appeared to be an agent came out too. With a lot of smiling and handshaking going on, the agent was holding some papers in her hand that looked like they could be signed offers to the owner.
“What’s going on? Did you like this family?” I hollered out to Selma after I got on down the street.
“Yes,” she said. “I think I did. The parents seemed nice and the children were pretty polite. For children. And I really believe that they loved the house and will take good care of it. House needs a good family.”
“They make a good offer? You think your son will take it?”
“Yeah. He’ll take it. Probably getting pretty anxious. Been waitin’ for his money for a while.”
“Well, you can just live with me forever. I don’t got any house buyers to scare but you can run off all the burglars and those grabbers taking packages from people’s front porches like you see on the news. And any attic squirrels and mice that might come around.”
Selma fell quiet even though I could feel her presence. I could sense that something was wrong, something she didn’t want to have to say.
“This means you’ll be leaving soon, doesn’t it?” I finally asked.
“Yes, I’m afraid it does,” she silently replied. “I must be passing on. My essence for hanging around this old earth is getting weak, Ruth. Because you don’t need me anymore.”
“No, Selma,” I cried out even though I had known that this moment was coming with Selma being willing to give up her house. “You can’t leave me. What would I do? You’re my best friend.”
“Yes, I am, but I’m not your only friend. You have a new friend, an earthly friend, and that’s how it should be. ‘Sides that, I need to be hooking up with that fellow I used to be married to. He’s gonna start thinkin’ that I don’t love him anymore, if I don’t.”
I’d been having a particularly hard week. Maybe it was a couple weeks. I was just all wrapped up in the idea of Selma’s leaving that I wasn’t allowing myself to enjoy her company while I still had it. Didn’t even feel like getting up and putting on real clothes most days, just been sitting around in my jamas being a nag and fussing at my departed friend about my woes of impending loneliness.
“And will you tell Buddy Boy to tell Sally Sue to quit comin’ ’round all the time. She’s driving me to be just as nutty as herself. I don’t wanna be her ‘Bestie’. I just want you, Selma.”
“I don’t need for nobody to tell me anything. I’m standin’ right here and I already been told.”
I turned and was startled to see Sally Sue standing just inside my open doorway.
“I had thought you might want to go down to the diner with me. Hang up one of Selma’s poems seeing as to how you haven’t put a new one up all week. But, I guess not. And I’m sorry that I’ve become such a burden to you lately. Sure didn’t mean to. Buddy Boy thinks you’re too angry for me to be hangin’ ’round with anyway. Thinks it may rub off on me someday when I’m missing him an extra lot.”
“I’m sorry, Sally Sue,” I said. “I didn’t see you there and I was just having a conversation with Selma. I didn’t mean it, really! I was just talking!”
She turned and walked back out the door without saying another word though I was sure that she’d be having a bunch to say as soon as she and Buddy Boy got back on the road. I immediately felt shame for what I had done. Sally Sue was turning out to be a really sweet woman, now that I was getting to know her, and I have to go and hurt her like that.
By Selma Thomas
For things I’ve said, things I’ve done
I feel much sadness, feel much shame
Without ill intent, for those I’ve hurt
With a beg of pardon, I own the blame.
I was feeling really bad over Sally Sue overhearing me like that. But I was feeling a little angry too. Why should I have to lose my friend to the afterlife when Sally Sue still had her Buddy Boy? Just wasn’t fair, it didn’t seem.
“Go and make up with her,” I heard Selma saying as if she was my own conscious. “She’s your friend.”
“Who? Sally Sue?” I replied. “She’s not my friend! She’s only a nuisance, bein’ around all the time! She could never understand me like you do! ‘Sides, she’s got Buddy Boy.”
“No. She doesn’t,” I could hear Selma reply. “Buddy Boy crossed to the next dimension soon after I died and when Sally Sue had you. She didn’t need him so much then.”
I was a little startled over learning this.“Does Sally Sue know that?”
“Then why does she still talk to him all the time?”
“Habit mostly. But also because she didn’t want you to know. Didn’t want you feeling sorry for her and goin’ ’round with her just because she was all alone.”
In a day or two, I looked out just as Sally Sue came flying down the street on her old bicycle. She must have got distracted by something, maybe a bird flying over as she loved birds, and she forgot to be draggin’ her feet to slow herself down and was soon out in the middle of traffic down past the intersection with another street. Tires were screeching and a horn was blowing, and I thought for sure that she had ended up under some big SUV or something. That she was gonna be laid out in the road dead.
I took off running down the hill and was joined by a couple of other neighbors but before we could get there, we could see Sally Sue, sitting up in a ditch. She had managed to turn out of the road and not get herself killed. Had a little trouble standing up but I think that was from the fear of her near painful death with lots of potentially broken bones. Before we got to her, she had already jumped on her bicycle and was gone. Don’t think she would have minded the passing away so much, but not that way. Everyone wants to go peacefully in their sleep, don’t they? Not all flattened and broken like gettin’ run over by a car would do.
“We have to do something,” I said to an agreeable Maggie that next day over a cup of morning coffee. “Let’s have a sale, right here at the cafe! A yard sale of our own! With all proceeds going to purchase Sally Sue, a new bicycle. One with brakes. Think Malcolm will let us take over his parking lot one weekend?”
“How ’bout it, Malcolm?” Maggie called out to the proprietor through the open service window.
“Of course it’s okay!” Malcolm replied, seeing an opportunity for increased food sales as well as an chance to help out one of the town’s most colorful characters and a loyal customer.
Michael Gates, who had been privy to the hearing of this conversation and the beginning of the planning between Maggie, Malcolm, and myself, stood and left, just as we were discussing how to prevent Sally Sue from knowing that the event was to be for her benefit as she was a woman of pride which might cause her to reject the effort. And getting the townspeople to donate items and to come to shop might be difficult as most still believed that she should have been locked away, long ago, for her own well being. But, while being so often spoken, such opinions were usually said with sheepish grins, with ill-disguised compassion, and we thought that many would gladly support the cause.
Michael, in short time, returned, wheeling in a shiny new bicycle. Seems that his wife, Norma, before losing her battle with cancer, had always been inspired by Sally Sue’s spirit and at one time, decided that she, too, wanted to ride a bike around town. Wanted to live her remaining days on her own terms, so Michael had bought one for her, shiny with embellishments, with all the bells and tassels, and had parked the two-wheeler in their bedroom as an incentive for Norma to regain her strength. But she never did, was never able to ride.
“What do you want for it?” Malcolm asked.
“Well, tell ya what, I’ll take whatever you all manage to raise at your yard sale. I wouldn’t even do that if I wasn’t still paying off Norma’s funeral bills because I know that she would be so pleased for Sally Sue to have it.”
A conspiracy was then born. It was decided that the sale would be promoted as a fund raiser to help with Norma’s final expenses and Sally Sue, our secretly designated recipient, would never know that it was also for her benefit. And when word got out, Malcolm’s outback storage building, which normally held only excess paper napkins, plastic straws, and professional grade floor polishing cleaners, was soon jammed packed with donations and promises of more to come.
The bicycle was kept on full display in the diner and Sally Sue would come by and look it over dreamily each day, buying herself a raffle ticket whenever she could scrape together an extra dollar. Tickets were being sold for it but only to buyers who were privately made aware that they were not real and their cost was only a contribution. All slips added to the drawing jar had only one name, Sally Sue’s. Pride or no, she was going to have this bike, and if deceiving her was the only way to put it in her possession, then, we all decided, so be it.
The event was a success with a big dent put into Michael Gates debt for which he was mighty thankful and Sally Sue cried tears of joy when her name was drawn. Went hugging everybody around, including me, before taking off down the road on her new bicycle. An hour later, a newly arriving customer reported seeing her down by the water works, clear on the other side of town.
By Selma Thomas
Neighbors, with open and outstretched hands
Like music flowing from gazebo bands,
Bestowed songs between themselves, and you
Like rhythmic rides at a village fair revue.
“Do you think that Sally Sue has forgiven me?” I asked Selma that evening as I was laying down for bed.
“Oh, yes,” she replied with a voice that had lately been sounding a little weak.
“It’s time, isn’t it?”
“Yes, my dear,” she replied.
“Okay, my friend,” I said as I was drifting off to sleep “Goodbye, Selma. For a little while.”
“Goodbye, my dear Ruth,” she whispered.
About the Author:
C. Billingsley Adams is a playwright, a novelist, and a writer of short stories. A resident of rural Georgia, Ms. Adams has authored three novels and numerous stage pieces. Her short stories have been included in such literary publications as “Edify Fiction”, “One Person’s Trash”, the “Morsels From the Chef” Anthology by Zimbell House Publishing, “The Charles Carter Anthology” of the University of North Carolina, “Beneath the Rainbow”, “Voices From the Unknown” published by Maïa Veruca Books of Norway, and “Savannah Anthology 2016”, in which she has received both Honorable and Notable Recognitions.