A YEAR OF SUNDAYS
by Neal Storrs
Adelle Shipley squints through a mesh of tight black wire and pine branches. She is disappointed to see that the curtains in her sister’s living room are still unopened. She’d hoped Odelle would be up before noon for a change, in time to have Sunday dinner with her and Gram. She backs away from the porch screen and into the cool, dark breezeway, shooing a fly off the light brown housedress she always changes into when she gets home from church. From the breezeway she turns into the kitchen, where she sees her grandmother leaning over the sink, framed by billows of steam, like a cherub midst heavenly clouds.
“Your sister up yet?”
“It was hard to tell, Gram. I didn’t see anybody through the trees.”
“You didn’t expect you would, did you? What about her curtains? Were they open or were they closed?”
“They were closed.”
“Well somebody better tell me whether your sister is coming over to have Sunday dinner with us and I don’t mean next year, I mean right now. What’d you see out in front of her house? How many cars were there?”
“Just hers was all I saw, but that doesn’t mean – ”
“I reckon I have to set out another place, don’t I? Don’t see as you give me any other choice.”
“Sometimes she has them park around in back.”
“Say what? Speak up, girl. Stop fidgeting with them durn buttons like a twelve-year old.”
“I said sometimes she has them park behind her house, even though she doesn’t care what anybody thinks. What have you got I can help you with?”
“You can tell me whether your sister’s coming over for Sunday dinner, that would be a big help. Get your daddy’s plate out of the oven and take it up to him. Watch you don’t burn yourself.”
Adelle reaches up and slips a quilted hot pad over the upside-down question mark end of a magnet hook. She bends over, opens the oven door and pinches the rim of a plate containing four carrot slices, a tiny serving of mashed potatoes, and five bites of meatloaf. She lifts the plate out of the oven and places it on a second hot pad on the counter.
“After you take him up his food you can come back down and get him his iced tea. Lord, give me strength.”
“I can get that for him now, too,” says Adelle, opening the refrigerator door. “I have two hands.” She stoops to lift a ribbed plastic pitcher and pours half a glass of tea. She opens a cabinet door and takes out a mahogany tray decorated with gold filigree depicting a landscape of flowers, birds, and a mountain lake.
“I want you to call Odelle right now, before you take your father his dinner. You know how much time your sister takes to pretty herself up.”
“I don’t think Odelle’s coming, Gram.”
“Oh, you don’t, do you? Who was it kept saying all the way back from church that if ever there was a day your sister would have Sunday dinner with us, this would be it? Wasn’t me, as I recall.”
This was true, sort of. Somewhere between Dalton County First Baptist and Shipley Manor, Adelle had given voice to the hope that her sister might get up early enough to have Sunday dinner in the main house, though certainly she hadn’t said it more than once, certainly not all the way back from church.
During the sermon, off and on, a thought had popped into Adelle’s head: Today could be the day Odelle forewent one of her most cherished rituals, one of many which, in and of itself, gave her more pleasure than Adelle was capable of experiencing in a year of Sundays. Today could be the day her younger, prettier (everyone always said) sister rose up out of bed before noon, walked through the woods to their grandmother’s house and, with dinner eaten and the dishes washed, dried and put away (by Adelle and her grandmother), settled herself in the old embroidered armchair next to Gram’s upright and listened to the conclusion of the story Adelle had begun telling last Wednesday night. Something exciting had happened to Adelle, something romantic, even, but just as she was getting to the good part Odelle had bounced up out of the chair, flicked a strand of reddish-gold hair out of her face and said, “Gotta run. I feel my hotline heating up.” And just like that she was gone, disappeared into one of the trails running back and forth between the three houses, Adelle’s, her grandmother’s, and Odelle’s. Shipley Manor, the people of the county called them, as if the three separate but barely distinguishable structures constituted one big, happy home.
“She’s probably still sleeping, Gram.”
“Well aren’t you the considerate one? She’d wake you up in a heartbeat if the shoe was on the other foot, I hope you know.”
“I know she would.”
“All I know is if somebody don’t tell me what’s going on before much longer there’s gonna be somebody in one of these three houses that gets their fanny tanned.”
Adelle sets the glass of iced tea on the mahogany tray and places a folded napkin next to it. She removes a fork from the silverware drawer and places it on the napkin. She picks up the tray and carries it out of the kitchen, into the breezeway, then into the stairwell that leads to her grandmother’s three second-story bedrooms.
Over the last five months she has visited one of those three rooms dozens, maybe hundreds of times, sometimes to bring John Shipley food he rarely ate, sometimes just to sit next to his bed and talk. Her words, for all she knew, weren’t heard, or understood if they were heard, or cared about if they were understood, but she has visited him at least once every day anyway, wanting desperately to delete the past, thwart the present, distract from the future.
She pauses on the landing of the stairwell and rubs the skin near her waist where last Tuesday night Mr. Cantwell’s hand had touched her, a place where no man’s hand had ever touched her before.
It had been near quitting time when Adelle was given the word she was wanted in the boss’s office. A large framed photograph, centered high on the wall behind his desk, showed him in a football uniform, without a helmet, posing on bended knee. He told Adelle he’d heard about Shipley Manor, the three nearly identical houses buried deep in the woods west of town. He wanted to see them with his own eyes, Southern rural residential architecture being one of his many interests.
Adelle had waited in the employee parking lot for him to pull up behind her in his little red convertible. With a honk and a wave, he signaled her to lead the way. She drove out of town into the country, regularly checking her rearview to make sure he was still behind her, that he hadn’t lost his way, or his interest. Fifty yards short of a convenience store with two gas pumps in front she’d pulled off the two-lane state road onto a gravel road that skirted a wall of pine for almost a mile before turning into an unpaved trail that ran through a quarter mile of scrub woods and came out onto Gram’s east yard. At the corner of her grandmother’s screen porch she’d veered left, following tire tracks through two acres of pine and palmetto before emerging onto another lawn, where she stopped.
Mr. Cantwell pulled up next to her, climbed out of his little red car and asked, “Who lives in the house we just drove past, your sister or your grandmother?”
“My grandmother. My father lives there, too.”
“Your father? Nobody told me about him.”
“He’s been sick.”
“Sorry to hear it. I didn’t get a good look, but I’d say the latticework on the veranda of your grandmother’s house exhibits extraordinary craftsmanship.”
“My father did it. He practically built all three houses all by himself.”
“Is that so?” Adelle’s boss backed into a palmetto bush to get a wide-angle view of her house. “I see he didn’t invest as much time in your lattice as he did in your grandmother’s.”
“That’s because that’s the one he and Mama were moving into.”
“Is that your phone I hear?”
It was. Adelle went inside and sat down at the end of her sofa. Her body sank as Mr. Cantwell sat down on the cushion next to hers. She picked up the phone, held it to her ear and waited. She knew what she was about to hear.
“You’d best tell me right now who that man is you brought home with you.”
Adelle pictured her sister in her living room, which was identical to hers except that the furniture was more expensive and stylish. Sprawled like a magazine model across her sofa, Odelle would have flicked a strand of reddish-gold hair from her eyes before aiming them through three acres of scrub pine and palmetto at Adelle’s living room window.
“It’s my boss. He followed me home. We’re finishing up some work we didn’t have time to do in town.”
“Work? Yeah, I bet work. You haven’t offered him anything to drink, I see. Don’t you remember anything I taught you?”
“We’re going over to Gram’s after we’re done.”
“What the hell are you taking him over there for?”
“Mr. Cantwell wants to look at the trim Daddy did on Gram’s veranda.”
“Now you listen to me, sister. You need to let me come over there and arrange things so that you and your Mr. Cantwell don’t get off on the wrong foot. The man has still got his jacket on, for Christ’s sake. First thing you do, always, is you take a man’s coat. Have I got to teach you everything?”
“I told you. All we’re doing is finishing up some work.”
“Okay, have it your way. I’ll just tell you one thing. Don’t screw this up, like you screw up everything else.”
“That was my sister,” Adelle said, hanging up. “She lives over there through the woods.”
Mr. Cantwell’s eyes drifted into a maze of green and brown. “And has her house a veranda as exquisitely latticed as your grandmother’s?”
You don’t need to see my sister’s house, it’s exactly the same as mine, Adelle thought, but did not say.
“No. Daddy put something extra into the house he and Mama were moving into. Some people I know resented him for doing that. Not me. I would never resent Daddy for anything.”
Adelle emerges from the stairwell into the second-floor hall and places the mahogany tray on the frayed carpet in front of the first door to her left. She opens the door of the facing room, the room in which her mother had died of breast cancer three years ago, and walks around the bed to the window.
From here the view of her sister’s house is less obstructed than the view she’d had from her grandmother’s porch. She still can’t see Odelle’s second-story bedroom window, which is around on the eastern wall. She does see that the curtains on the living room window are still closed. Odelle’s car is still parked in front of her house, so she hasn’t gone out for breakfast, as she often does in the early hours of Sunday afternoon, if she’s alone. No other car is visible on the front lawn or on what Adelle can see of the side lawn. It is behind her house that her sister occasionally instructs her visitors to stow their rides.
Adelle leaves the room, crosses the hall, picks up the mahogany tray, opens the door of her father’s room and enters.
John Shipley has managed to get himself out of bed and into a chair by the window. The chair is sturdy, straight-backed oak, sawed, sanded, painted and polished by her father’s own hands over forty years ago. She avoids looking down at his unbuttoned pajamas. She wants to remember him as he was when he was younger and stronger, strong enough to horsey-back ride his daughter from one end of the park to the other. When it was only Adelle, her mother and her father, living in a two-bedroom house on the lake in the center of town. When there was no Shipley Manor, no Odelle.
She places the tray on a wobbly TV dinner fold-up table and looks out the window. She doesn’t see what is there – her own green-shingled house behind a maze of trunks and branches – instead, through the restorative eye of memory, she sees a black Ford pickup cruising down Main Street on a warm summer evening. A little girl’s arm hanging out the window points at the buildings they pass. “Did you build that one, Daddy?” she asks, content that his answer has only three directions in which it can go, that deep inside her is about to flow, like a river of sweet, warm honey, the easeful country drawl that told her nothing in her life could ever be wrong, nothing bad could ever happen, nothing could ever hurt her. “That I did,” her father says, or “No, my daddy built that one,” or again, “No, it was my daddy’s daddy built that one.”
“Excuse me, but would you be my daughter Odelle?”
His drawl is cracked and feeble now, like his skin and muscles and bones. It is not unusual for him to mistake Adelle for her sister. He might just as likely have taken her for his late wife, or for one of the girls who worked at his construction company twenty, thirty, forty years ago. It wasn’t even Adelle at whom he was looking; he was looking past her at her grandmother, who strides to the wobbly little folding table, scowls at the plate of untouched food, picks up the fork and stabs mashed potatoes at her son’s pathetically half-open lips.
Adelle shrinks away to the door. “I’ll go see about Odelle,” she says. “I reckon we’ll be having dinner soon.”
“You reckon!” Gram explodes. “What have I been saying for the past half hour? You go on and see about Odelle. I got three places set, if you can manage to hogtie the hellcat.”
Adelle descends the stairwell into the breezeway, walks down the breezeway onto the porch, then down four wooden steps onto a dry brown lawn. She follows a trail that winds through pine and palmetto to Odelle’s front lawn. Halfway up the porch steps she looks up and sees her sister standing behind the black mesh of the porch screen. Odelle is wearing a T-shirt that falls just short of her knees. One hand scratches her hip, the other rubs sleep from her eyes while spinning a strand of golden hair.
“What you want to bet I can guess what brings you over here to my neck of the woods?”
“I bet you can,” Adelle falls in behind her sister as they cross the porch, enter the breezeway, then turn into Odelle’s living room.
“I imagine you’re in a hurry to get back, with dinner waiting and Gram cackling at you to do this and do that, but I got something really, really important I need to talk to you about first.” Odelle plops down on her couch. Adelle sees that her sister isn’t wearing panties. “What you got planned for Saturday night? If it’s nothing, like it always is, I got a big surprise for you.”
Adelle sits down three feet to the left of her sister. “It’s nothing,” she says.
“Then don’t you dare move a muscle.”
Odelle springs up off the couch and flies up the stairwell. Adelle hears whispered voices before her sister returns, holding a photograph.
“Tell me if you ever in your life saw a more gorgeous male body.”
Adelle sees three men on a beach, their arms draped over each other’s shoulders. They are wearing tiny green, yellow and red bathing suits, striking muscle-man poses in front of a thatched cabana with a bamboo sign over the door: CERVEZA. One of the three men is Marco, Odelle’s current boyfriend-of-the-month.
“Pretend you could make a wish and have any one of the three you wanted,” Odelle says, “other than Marco. Which one would it be?”
“I don’t believe either one of them is my type,” says Adelle.
“Well you’re sure one of their types.” Odelle points to the man in the middle. “His name’s Salvador de something or other. Marco calls him Sally. It’s his cousin. He’s from the Dominican Republic.”
“I thought you said Marco was Mexican.”
“So? Does that mean he can’t have a cousin from the Dominican Republic? He’s the only Dominican person in the whole of Dalton County and he’s yours for the taking.”
“How do you know I’m his type?”
“Let’s just say it’s possible he’s seen a certain picture of you that shows you off to your best advantage, if you know what I mean.”
“You better not have shown him that picture you took of me trying on your red dress. I’m half naked.”
“Would you believe that’s the first thing he noticed?”
“You showed that picture to a bunch of men I don’t even know!”
“I only showed it to Sally.”
“What about Marco? I bet you showed it to him.”
“Maybe I did. What of it?”
“What about Mr. Cantwell?”
“What about him?”
“Don’t you want to hear the rest of what happened between Mr. Cantwell and me Tuesday night?”
“Sure, as soon as you tell me where you’d like to go dancing Saturday night. After that we can talk about your Mr. Cantwell till you’re blue in the face.”
“How do you know Mr. Cantwell and I don’t already have something planned for Saturday night?”
“Because you just told me you’re not doing anything.”
“Maybe he’s coming out to my house. Maybe we have more work we have to do. Who’s that you got up in your bedroom?”
“There’s isn’t anybody up there.”
“You’ve never been bashful about any of your boyfriends before. What’s so special about this one? How come you won’t tell me who it is? Because it’s not Marco?”
“I believe that falls into the category of none of your business.”
“If I wanted to I could walk around back and see if there’s a car parked behind your house.”
“I don’t see anybody stopping you.”
Adelle crosses her sister’s living room, then her screen porch, then descends four wooden steps and walks around the side of the house to the back yard, where she sees, parked in the shade of an oak tree planted by their father – a tree that for some inexplicable reason had grown to be twice as big as the one he’d planted behind Adelle’s house – a little red convertible.
About the Author:
A wide variety of Neal Storrs’s work is available on Amazon, including a novel (In Times of War), a memoir he co-wrote with the daughter of Johnny Mercer, and six stories in the 2018 issue of Spot Lit magazine. In 2006 he moved from Florida to Richmond to teach French at Virginia Commonwealth University.