Dennis Vannatta


". . . over the hill, on down the road, no more than a hundred yards after you crest it. It'll be on your left, set back ten yards or so from the road. You remember. Don't forget to check and see if those storm windows are still there. Those storm windows
cost money. Somebody could get some good use out of them."

"Gotcha. I'm on my way."

I started up the hill on what had once been a road and might still be considered one--if you were driving a Conestoga wagon instead of a Honda Civic. I'd brought the Honda instead of the Dodge Caravan I use to transport my orchids to flower shows. I thought Aunt Jill would have an easier time getting into and out of the Honda. It's low-slung, though, and I'd gotten halfway up the weedy, deep-rutted dirt road when the bottom started to scrape on rocks the size of bowling balls, so I had to stop.

That pretty much defeated the goal of the drive over from the nursing home in Marshall--to let Aunt Jill see the "old homestead," as my sister Debra and I called
it, one more time.

It was Debra's idea that I take her. Debra lives in Cleveland now, so it's easy for her to make all sorts of suggestions about what I should do with things back here in Arkansas. She returned for a visit over Easter, spent a couple of days with me trying to correct all that's wrong with my life--"Don't tell me you're happy living like this, Chuck, don't even try to tell me that"--then spent a couple of hours with Aunt Jill at the nursing home. She concluded Aunt Jill wasn't going to make it much longer and had about
given up hope, and it'd be nice to take her back for one last look at the old homestead out in the boondocks ten miles from Marshall.

What could I do? It wasn't like Debra was making it all up. The old lady was suffering from arthritis and congestive heart failure. She could barely walk. The end was near, no doubt, no doubt. It was altogether likely she'd enjoy one last look at the farm where she was born and spent most of her life. She'd never married, never had children, and I was the closest living relative. So I volunteered my services.

I walked on up the road. I'd put off the ordeal until summer, which was a mistake. The sun was beating down, cockleburs caught in my socks, and a grasshopper flew up into my face and about gave me a coronary. I may not live in Cleveland, but I'm no Daniel Boone, and I'm no kid, either. Aunt Jill may still call me "Chuckie," but little Chuckie was
fifty-three his last birthday.

When we'd gotten as far as we could make it in the Honda, I said, "Well, that's it. I'm not tearing the bottom out of my car. We'll have to turn around and go back."

That's when the stuff hit the fan. She'd looked forward to this trip for days, she said. She might not get another chance to see the farm she'd worked by herself for years and years, where her momma and daddy had lived and died, where she'd been born and she and my own father had played as children. I didn't understand, she said. I didn't know what it was like to be old and dying with not a thing to look forward to. I'll admit that my patience with whining is limited. On the other hand, I'm hardly the "walled-off" person, whatever that means, Debra accuses me of being. I felt for Aunt Jill, even if her complaints made her less than pleasant to be around.

So I put the car in park, shut the engine off, and said, "Okay, Aunt Jill, okay. Have it your way. But what do we do now?"

She looked at me. "You go take a look around. You can't expect me to walk up that hill."

Of course not. Her legs are enormous. She suffers from fluid retention and takes two water pills a day, but they didn't do much good. Once the skin on her knee split and soaked her bed in the nursing home. Sup hose help a little. The nurses put them on her every morning, except when I come to visit, and then she'll tell them, "My nephew's here today. Chuckie'll do it for me." Do you wonder why I don't see her more than once or twice a year? Debra acts like I ought to drive up here every other day. Easy for her to say. She doesn't have to put those sup hose on her. Besides, my life isn't as free from responsibility as Debra apparently thinks. I have not only my orchids but also FiFi the 4th, my Pekinese, to look after. I can't take FiFi into the nursing home, and leaving her at the vet's upsets her so she won't eat for two days afterward. She's abandoned to the tender mercies of that quack too much as it is, what with her intestinal problems and all. (Debra, petless, thinks my attachment to Fifi is grotesque. It seems I'm damned if I do, damned if I don't. If I don't wear my emotions on my coat-sleeve, I'm "walled-off." If I show affection and concern for a devoted animal, I'm somehow perverse. Fair? Oh well, she's my sister, and I still love her--especially when she's in Cleveland.)

I crested the hill and started down the other side. I didn't see any house. It'd been well over twenty years since I'd been out there, of course, but you'd think Aunt Jill would have the right place. My grandmother, Aunt Jill's mother, died when I was around ten and then my grandfather seven or eight years later. I hadn't been out to the farm since his death, but Aunt Jill continued to live there another twenty years--sort of playing at farming, I suspect--before she had to give it up and move into a little house in Marshall, then the last few years living in a nursing home.

While she was still on the farm, I'd drive over a couple of times a year from Little Rock,
calling ahead of time. She never insisted on me driving out to the farm but would agree to meet me in Marshall for lunch at The Pie Shop or Clarke's Café. She was an independent woman, strong, and I admired her a lot. She had more guts than I did, that's for sure, living out there all by herself. That life hardened her over the years, I suppose, and made her a sterner woman, and today, with her advancing years and medical problems, she is too often self-pitying. When we were little, though, Debra and I always looked forward to visits to the farm, at least in part because of Aunt Jill. She could always make us laugh, and, although there was little money for extras on the farm, she'd never to fail to "hide" a stick of gum for us under the bobby pins, bits of pencil, and clip-on earrings in the carnival-glass jar on her dresser. She'd play Chinese checkers with us. There was one marble with an imperfection, a sort of crease on one side, that she called "Buttsy," wrinkling up her nose and snickering when she said it like she was telling a vaguely dirty joke. She was our favorite aunt. I'm not sure why she never married.

I kept on walking down the hill. The road ran straight down to the floor of a little valley, then across the valley, then angled up until it disappeared among the trees of the hillside beyond. No house.

I was about ready to turn around when, over to the left, I saw something amongst the weeds. I waded through the weeds until I was right up to it: a slab of concrete attached to a rectangle of concrete blocks in the middle of which, almost reclaimed by weeds, rose a mound of charred wood. The remains of a house, obviously, its concrete-block foundation and the concrete slab, no doubt, having been the porch. I tried to conjure up the house where I'd visited my grandparents, eating cold fried chicken and apple pie on Sunday afternoons and holding my nose in the fly-swarming outhouse out back. How absurdly little of that remained. No house, no outhouse, no barn, no out-buildings at all.

I trudged back up the hill, down the other side toward the car. On the way I decided, well, Aunt Jill would never know the difference, why not tell her what she'd like to hear? It'd be a kindness.

"Bad news," I said when I'd recovered sufficiently from the trek to speak. "Those storm windows are gone, just like you figured. But the rest of the house is pretty much intact."

"Really? Did you go inside?"

"Yes. Cobwebby. And dusty, of course. Other than that, though, things were in surprisingly good shape."

"Was there anything left inside?"

"Anything left? No. It was empty. You took everything when you moved to Marshall, remember?"

"Yes, but, I mean . . . Did you go into the bathroom?"

"Bathroom. Yes. I poked my head in there. Empty."

"What about the fixtures? I installed a Peerless faucet in there myself. It cost me twenty-five dollars, and that was twenty years ago. That's a dynamite faucet, still a lot of use in it. Was that Peerless faucet still there?"

"I don't remember."

"Well, if it's still there, that's my property. I can read a contract. That outfit just bought the land, said the house wasn't worth anything to them. So that house and whatever's in it belong to me."

"You surely don't expect me . . ."

Evidently she did. I didn't understand what it was like, she pointed out once more. What else did she have in her life? The nursing home took everything. She could sell that Peerless faucet for ten bucks, she bet. Then maybe she could buy me a birthday present.  Or she just might give me the Peerless faucet outright. They didn't make them like that any more. What else did she have to give me?

I told her I didn't want anything, but that seemed to upset her even more, and she had tears in her eyes. Aunt Jill, that strong woman. Now so old, so feeble.

It'd always struck me as a funny name for her. An old maid aunt ought to have a name like Edna or Eunice. Jill is a name you don't hear much anymore either, but I don't think of it as an old-fashioned name. Quite the contrary, I associate "Jill" with youth, zest, class, grace, beauty--and much more than that. It's hard to say exactly what I mean. Think of Jill St. John. No, not that Jill. If you'd seen my Jill, now . . .

Her name was Jill Bennett. She lived across the alley and three or four houses down, a big house, her father a doctor, I believe. She was two years younger than I, and for the longest time she was just one of the bratty neighborhood girls whose existence I tried not to acknowledge. But then--she must have been ten or eleven--she hit that pre-pubescent stage, got tall and bewitchingly gangly. She'd often trip when she tried to run, and she couldn't catch a ball. Still, there was something about her patient, self-deprecatory smile when she shrugged and picked up whatever she'd just fumbled that implied, this too shall pass, and then you'll see.

I think I fell in love with her a little, as boys will do.

Once we were playing truth or consequences in the Bennett's large back yard, and I refused to tell the truth about why I quit going to Junior Cotillion (refused not because it was too embarrassing but too prosaic: I quit because I didn't like it. Too noisy.  Too many people). My consequence was to kiss Jill. She rolled her eyes but didn't go "Yuck!" or run away but instead stood there and then turned up her face with that vaguely amused abiding patience, and then when I brought my face close but couldn't bring myself to actually kiss her, she was the one who finished it, closed the gap and as I turned my face to the side brushed my cheek with her lips. How soft they were.

Not long after that, Jill's family moved, and I never saw her again--except in my mind's eye. There, I'd gaze at her strange gangly grace, and I'd feel her soft lips on my cheek. As I grew older, so did she, in my dreams, older and more mysterious and more beautiful. And more mine. That Jill-of-my-dreams set an uncomfortably high standard for the women in my life, I can tell you that. Or perhaps I should say the "hypothetical" women in my life.

End of Jill Bennett anecdote, which has nothing to do with Aunt Jill anyway except to
illustrate how absurd the name seems for this miserable old woman, nothing to look forward to but death, sitting in a dusty Honda Civic, tears in her eyes.

"Okay, I'll go look for the damn faucet."

"Watch your language."

Up the hill, down the hill. Puff puff, pant pant.

I sat down on the concrete slab to rest up for the hike back to the car. Under the summer sun, that concrete felt like it'd just come out of an oven. As soon as I could manage, I started back up the hill. Down.

Once I was back to the Honda, it took me about five minutes before I could again form words.

"You were right," I wheezed. "That faucet must have been a good one. Someone's made off with it. All the plumbing fixtures. Everything that could possibly be removed from the house. All gone. Other than that, though, the house is in pretty good shape."

"What about the mulberry tree?"

"Mulberry tree?"

"Yes, mulberry tree. Off to the side of the house. Surely you remember that mulberry tree."

As a matter of fact, I did remember a tree. Debra and I used to play in it. It was wonderful for climbing.

"I thought that tree was a maple."

"No, not the maple! The maple was in front of the house right next to the road. The mulberry was off to the side."

I tried to think. I had to be very careful what I said next. But then I decided, no matter how I responded, Aunt Jill couldn't expect me to go and bring her back the tree.

So I said, "Yes, now that you mention it, I do believe the mulberry was still there."

"Good! Maybe when you were little, you remember there was a heart carved on that tree, and some initials inside the heart."


"No? Well there was. On the back side--that is, the side away from the road--about four feet up the trunk. A heart with two initials. One was a 'J.' I'll bet you can guess who that was for. Now, what do you think the other one was?"

"I told you, I don't remember seeing the heart. I don't even remember the tree."

"Well, go over and take a look and come back and tell me."

"Go? . . . Are you fu"-- . . . Are you kidding me?"

"Go look and tell me what the other initial is, and then I'll tell you the story behind it. The story about the big romance of my life."

It'd been a day full of blunders for me, the first and biggest to agree to take Aunt Jill on this wild goose chase. But at that moment I finally made a smart move: I didn't waste energy arguing. I just said, okay, I'd go, and then I reached into the glove compartment, took out the pen and Post-it pad, told her to write down every blasted thing she wanted me to look for, because this was the last time I was climbing that hill. No, she said, the heart and the two initials, that was it. She didn't care about anything else.

Up the hill. At the crest, I made my second smart move of the day. I could see from there there was no tree anywhere near the house remains. No use going down, wasting time pretending. I'd never be able to tell her what the other initial had been.

Back at the car, I said, "Sorry, Aunt Jill. I must have been dreaming I saw a tree. There's no tree of any kind within a hundred yards of the house."

I thought she'd be upset, cry or throw a fit or something. But she just crossed her arms over her chest and, looking a bit disgusted, said, "Okay."

I got in the car and started carefully backing down the road until I got to a place where I could turn around. In a few minutes, we were back to the blacktop, and I turned and headed for Marshall.

We'd gone no more than a couple of miles when Aunt Jill barked out, "Slow down! Turn at this road here. Turn! TURN!"

Now what the hell? I turned onto the dirt road, which looked almost identical to the one we'd just been on.

"What's this?"

"Drive on. You'll see."

I decided that, with this day in hell, surely I was atoning for all my sins. I kept my mouth shut and drove on.

The road narrowed. Branches from the trees overgrowing the ditches on both sides scraped the fenders of the car. The ruts deepened, now and then the clunk of a rock hitting the bottom of the car. Then a steep hill, the ruts too deep, rocks too large.
I pulled to a stop.

Again I asked, "What's this?"

"Over the hill, down the other side, that's my old house."

"You mean you got mixed up before? You forgot which road to take?"

"I didn't forget anything. There's nothing wrong with my mind. That's the Graham place back there. Their house burned down Christmas Eve of 1973 when they were off visiting their daughter in Pindall."

"If you knew that all along, then why--"

"You should have brought the Dodge. I knew the second I saw the Jap car we'd never make it all the way. I had to know whether you were going to tell me the truth or lie to me. Now I know."

I sat there a minute trying to untangle the logic of that. Couldn't. Probably shouldn't have tried. She's an old woman, too much alone with thoughts that become as gnarled and twisted as her arthritic hands.

But I was losing patience, and I complained, "Let's see if I've got this right. You make me go over to the Graham place to see if I'll lie about what I find. If I tell the truth, you say, 'Oh, that's not my house anyway. That's the Graham place.' If I lie, you say, 'You're lying. That's not my house. That's the Graham place.' It looks to me like I lose either

She turned her torso around toward me as much as the shoulder strap across her sagging chest would allow, jabbed a finger at me, and said, "That's right! Now
you've got it, now you understand, now you know what it's like."

I was stunned by the depth of her bitterness, directed at me, who loved her after all. I did, I loved her. What could I do about her growing old, her failing heart, death on the horizon? Nothing. But I couldn't become angry with her. In fact, I found that rather than blaming Aunt Jill, I blamed myself for being so easily fooled. True, the general features of the landscape were the same at both homesites, but the creek at Aunt Jill's farm was only fifty yards or so beyond the house while at the Grahams' it was on the other side of the valley floor. And the Graham house was smaller, much smaller, than Aunt Jill's. And that concrete-slab porch. What could I have been thinking? The porch on Aunt Jill's
house was wooden, with a crawl space beneath it. A couple of the floorboards were loose and sagged when you stepped on them. Debra and I would run back and forth across the porch in delighted terror lest we crash through and fall into the "troll-hole," as we called the dark crawl space.

Wood, not concrete. I'd been such a fool.

I sighed. "Okay, Aunt Jill, what exactly do you want me to look for?"

She had a distant look in her eyes, like she was gazing right through that rocky hill to the other side.

"Oh, it doesn't matter. Just have a look around. Tell me how the old place looks."

I felt sorry for her, despite what she'd put me through.

"Okay, but I'll make sure to look for that heart carved on the mulberry tree, and that other initial," I said, winking conspiratorially.

Aunt Jill smiled sadly. I set off up the road.

When I got to the top of the hill I half expected to find, once again, no more than scant ruins of a house, overgrown with weeds. But, although all the outbuildings had vanished, there the house stood.

I started down the hill. It was still very warm, but it was late in the afternoon now, and the shadows of the woods to the west reached across the fallow fields toward me.

I didn't have to get very close to the house before I saw that there were no storm windows. Probably there'd never been. Probably that was just part of Aunt Jill's test of my honesty. No storm windows or even window panes. They were broken out and the
window casings on the two south-side windows broken and pieces hanging at odd angles.

Once there'd been a chicken-wire fence around the house with a squeaky gate and, just inside the fence, the maple tree. The fence was gone but the maple was still there. I stopped in the shade of the tree. I could remember my father boosting me up to the lowest branch, from which I'd scramble like a monkey up into the tree. Once, it was during those "troubled" teenage years, I climbed up almost to the very top of the tree, then when it was time to go home I wouldn't come down. My father hollered at me; my mother cried; Debra tried to climb up to me, but she was afraid to go that high. It was dark before I finally decided to come down. That was a long time ago. Now I could rest my chin on the lowest branch. The urge to pull myself up into the tree was great, but I have golfer's elbow in one arm and tennis elbow in the other (without the reward of playing either sport; my orchids and Fifi occupy my leisure time), and I can't even pick up my damn briefcase without pain. So I just stood in the shade and looked at the house.

The frame of the porch remained, but the planks that Debra and I had run across--"Careful, Chuckie, you'll fall in the Troll-hole!"--were gone. The panes in the windows on this side of the house, too, were broken out. The front door was missing. One long green tendril of some monstrous plant spilled out of the opening. Inside the door had been the living room, a big red sofa with white antimacassars. It'd always
seemed dark and cool in that living room, even on summer days. To the rear of the living room was the kitchen, always hot, with the big black coal-burning stove that Grandma cooked on even after the house was wired for electricity.

Where had Aunt Jill slept? For the life of me I couldn't remember. Nor where Grandma and Grandpa's bedroom had been. I could remember nothing about the interior of the house, in fact, except for that living room and kitchen. It was Aunt Jill's home, after all, Aunt Jill's memory, her life, full to bursting, no doubt, with detail and anecdote. She'd never see that house again, though, and maybe considering the shape it was in that was a good thing. Do we really want to see clearly what has become of our lives?

Then I thought of my promise to look for the mulberry tree. But there was no mulberry tree. There'd never been one, I realized. No heart carved on that tree, no initial paired with J. Why had she sent me to look for them, then? Senility, maybe. Or living so long with the dream she could no longer distinguish it from reality. Her reality.

You wouldn't imagine it to look at her now, but before the work hardened her Aunt Jill had been rather a pretty woman, taller than my mother, erect, oddly graceful as big-boned women can sometimes be. But she never married. Why? Why? Had she really been such a strong woman? Or had she settled, without a fight, for too little?

I reached up and hooked my arms over the lowest branch of the maple, raised my legs and at the same time swung myself over to the side, and dug with my feet against the trunk. And then I was up in the tree, sitting on the branch. My arms hurt. Carefully, I worked myself up until I was standing on the branch. Then I stepped up onto the next branch, and then the next. Then I sat in a crook formed by a large branch and the trunk. My arms hurt, and after the climb down, I knew, they'd hurt worse. If I decided to climb down. I sat in the tree, suddenly thinking of Jill Bennett.

I sit in the tree. I think of Jill.


Amanda Pendergraft 1.jpg (127664 bytes)

(photo by Amanda Pendergraft)