Other Delights by Brandon J. Johnson
A man needs a few things to be consistent in life so he doesn’t blow away. One of those things for me is Saturday breakfast at Maxwell’s Friendly. That’s what the sign says now since Jamey Presnell got drunk years ago and swerved off the road between the sign out front and the restaurant. That stupid looking after-market spoiler on his Mustang just barely grabbed the “Lunch” and ripped it plumb off the sign. Max just left it that way so long that we all started to call it Maxwell’s Friendly.
Last Saturday we all sat in there like normal. It used to be four of us, but Ernest bowed out last year. We toasted his empty seat with sweet tea just before we toted his casket. Now it’s me, Rick, and Ham. Rick’s a good old boy we went to school with. We, is me and Ham. Hamilton Smith and yours truly, Edgar Burns. We grew up next door to one another and been unofficial brothers since we helped stand each other up to start walking, or that’s how mama tells it.
Ham always knows what he wants. When Doris or Sharon come around to take our order, they just go ahead and write his down: two eggs scrambled, sausage, grits, and toast. We all drink coffee, so that’s decided. Rick usually gets pancakes, but he’ll mix it up occasionally. I always give the menu a look just in case, but I usually go with what Ham’s having, although I swapped sausage for bacon.
“Well, what in the hell’d you do wrong yesterday?” Ham asked Rick.
“I done forgot, but she’s got a running list. I’m innocent so far today.”
“And it already seven a.m.! You musta left Joyce asleep.”
I’d heard all this carrying on enough to where I about had it memorized. They quit when Doris came to take our order. Not much changed around Maxwell’s Friendly, but one would sneak in every so often. Doris dropped a whopper on us.
“You want any whipped cream for your pancakes, Rick?”
“Yea, something new Max saw at Denny’s. He ain’t never beat them, so he’s tryin’ to join ’em.”
“I think I’m good on that, Doris.”
“All right. Thank you, boys,” she said and walked off.
“Say, y’all remember that album with that girl on the front covered in whipped cream?” Rick asked.
“Sure do,” Ham said. He knows his music and is damn particular about it. He listens to Christmas music in the dead middle of summer sometimes. Never says why, but climb in his truck and you’ll hear “Let it Snow” and it ninety degrees outside. One time I asked him, if he listened to Christmas music in July, what did he listen to at Christmas?
“Christmas music,” he told me.
“What was that thing called?” Rick asked.
“Whipped cream,” Ham said, “Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass, Whipped Cream and Other Delights.”
“That’s it!” Rick said, “it’s a wonder they got away with that damn cover. Can’t remember a bit about the music, but I never will forget that cover. Hell, that wouldn’t be nothing now. I asked my granddaughter what she was watching the other day and she showed me some gal gyratin’ all over the place in her underwear. They’s more fabric to a cotton ball than on that girl.”
The first song from that album started playing in my head as soon as Rick mentioned it. It got louder when I went out and got in Ham’s truck to head back. We swap off who drives, and this time we got in his Ford, Old Blue. Old Blue ain’t blue, it’s red. Ham just thought it was funny, but it usually took other people a while to catch on.
“Let’s ride around a little bit. You got anything going on today?” Ham asked.
“Nothing that can’t wait ’til I get back. Where we riding to?”
“How ’bout through Jonesville and back around on Quarry Road. That sound okay?”
So we headed on down the hill through Brentnel into Lowground proper, down by the rec center and crossed over 22 into downtown.
“Remember when the Confederate monument was in the middle of the traffic circle?” Ham asked. Of course I did. They used to hang Christmas lights off of it. It was just a normal stop light now, and we rolled on through. We were barely past the courthouse when Ham pulled a flask out of his coat.
“Damn, son. A little early for that ain’t it?”
He just looked at me. It was a whole book’s worth of a look. I could see back through all the thousands of pages of our lives. On the other side of Ham a bright orange flash went by. It was the maple in the front yard of the black funeral home, and all of a sudden I could hear that brass band blaring. I should have remembered, and I was amazed he kept it together at breakfast, even with Rick talking about it. I should have picked up on it sooner, but he said it all with one word.
It filled the cab just like that rotten bourbon smell. I said, “Hell yea, give me some” when he shook the flask at me. The burn and them memories settled down into me.
“It is that time of year. Sorry, you know what a morning will do to an old man,” I said.
“Ah, that’s fine. You wouldn’t think it would be any kind of deal after fifty years, but let that first cool breeze hit my face in October, or that first leaf turn orange, and it’s back on me like a flood.”
See, Ham never married. He was voted class flirt our senior year, and he dated all of them. He’d kept on as he got older. They’d called him the most eligible bachelor in town for decades, to the point where it got to be a joke. The women got fewer and farther between, and every new one had less chance of sticking than the last. It was all Constance. Her sister was the model on the Whipped Cream album cover, but Constance was prettier.
She came to town to teach elementary school. He first told me about her the evening after school started when he came over and we threw the baseball around. He was a janitor at the school even though he could have gotten him a good job like any of us did at any one of the factories, but he didn’t want to do that. I guess he knew something that we all learned forty years later.
“Man there’s this new teacher in third grade. Good God, Egg. I walked into her classroom and couldn’t stop staring. Dumb kids couldn’t even realize what they had in front of ’em.”
Ham calling kids dumb was real odd. He was always talking about them kids doing something funny or getting sick. He’d hand over his lunch if one of them didn’t have none.
“Well…” I prodded him.
“I’ve never seen another quite like her. You can see it the way she holds her shoulders back.”
“Flat-chested or shirtfull?” I was interested in specifics.
“Oh, uh, she’s got plenty. But, Egg, she’s got something about her. Looks like she knows some secret no one around here even knows they don’t know.”
“Do what?” I asked. Ham could always wind a phrase around making any sense.
“She’s just got some other thing. I can’t explain it.”
“Well, you going out with her?”
“Hell, I didn’t even have the guts to speak to her.”
That was late August. By September he asked her out, and by the middle of September she said yes.
We took another swig as we headed out of town and got on the Jericho Road. This was countryside like we were used to. We both worked in town, but we’d grown up out in the valley.
“It was the damn tree,” Ham said, “I saw it starting to turn. I was doing good before that. Hadn’t even thought about her an ounce.”
“I told you to cut that thing down twenty years ago!”
“And then I went home and found the book. I can’t decide if it would be worse to read it again or to just look at it sitting on the coffee table.”
He’s said to me many a time that it was like the turning leaves cast a spell on both of them, but she was the leaves and he was the tree. The brighter those leaves got, the more on fire she was for him, and then when they started to wither, that fire withered too.
That big old maple tree mattered because it sat across the road from the Williams Creek School where Ham and Constance worked. It was especially burnt into his memory because she had picked up an orange leaf from under it and stuck it in a book she gave him. He wouldn’t cut down the tree, and he wouldn’t burn the book. It’s called Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. He makes me hide it every year right after he finds it where I hid it the year before. Most years he don’t start looking until October, and he usually finds it before November. I’ve gotten good after fifty years. One time I just took it home with me for a while instead of hiding it and tried to read it, but, Lord, I had to put that thing down right quick.
All this mattered because the whole rise and fall of Ham and Constance took all of one October and no more. He’s said to me many a time that it was like the turning leaves cast a spell on both of them, but she was the leaves and he was the tree. The brighter those leaves got, the more on fire she was for him, and then when they started to wither, that fire withered too.
Constance was a whole nother kind of woman. She didn’t have a churchy scowl or the extra girth we were used to. Constance was trim and full. No doubt, she would have looked better on that album cover, but there was more to it. Ham told me one time,
“Man, I ain’t even thought about gettin’ in her britches. It’s something way more than that.”
I’ll admit it to you right now, she was easy to fall in love with. I almost did myself. We thought we were from the sticks, and we were, but she was from the sticks up in the mountains, and she acted like she’d been all over, and she had been to college, but not much farther. She knew some Spanish, and she dressed like she was out of a catalog. She had them other teachers’ heads just a spinning Ham said. Ours were sure enough spinning, too. Ham was like a dog in heat. As that October wore on, he fell deeper and deeper.
We could have never known it then, but that other thing about her was what doomed it all from the start, and it was the same thing that had decided long before she’d ever taken the job, that she’d only be in Sutton County, or anywhere, for so long. Her and Ham had different ideas. His love for her was pure as driven snow. It was like nothing I’d ever seen. I looked in his eyes and I saw what all the love songs talked about. I saw what all the paintings tried to paint. It was written and painted all over him. All he had was one of them wicks, and she burnt it slap out.
We crossed over 321 with another swig and got into the valley talking the same old nonsense we always did. This was good because we’d gotten off of talking about Constance. Ham said he thought the Tarheels would be something this year. I said how much we needed rain. It hadn’t gotten real cold yet. The afternoons could still bake you. He kept going on past my house, and neither of us said a word.
We didn’t need to talk about what happened between him and Constance, we’d talked it to death for the last fifty years. We knew how it went down, we’d circled the whole thing and thought through it from every direction, but that didn’t shut Ham up.
“She said I scared her, that I loved her too much. I still don’t believe there’s such a thing.”
“That’s the opposite of what they normally say.”
“And now there’s this, Egg. I was hoping I could keep myself from telling you, but now there’s this.”
He reached over and pulled a CD case out of the glove box. He handed it to me and didn’t say a word. I looked it over and decided it looked just about like any other and then I realized the woman on the front looked familiar, and then I actually read her name: Constance Maynard. It wasn’t no Whipped Cream album cover, but you could tell Constance still had whatever that other thing was, even though age hung on her like it did the rest of us.
“When in the hell did she take up music?” I asked after I looked it over good.
“After her second divorce. Liner notes say that music helped her ‘make sense of a new, stone world.’”
“I reckon two divorces would do it. Don’t sound like she’s changed too much,” I said and chuckled.
“No, it don’t,” Ham said, not chuckling.
“Didn’t she say something like that to you one time?”
“She said all manner of things like that. Said my love was ‘gale force’ and ‘oppressive.’”
“That girl read too damn much,” I said and hoped it would lighten things.
“I don’t know that there’s such a thing as that either.”
“Well, the music any count?”
It was November when things got real bad. Constance had said she didn’t know what she wanted and all this about too much love from Ham. She carried on like there wasn’t much the matter and they hardly saw each other outside of work. Ham acted like he’d lost his puppy, his bicycle, and his lunch. He wouldn’t do nothing but read that damn book she gave him and think about some way he could make his love look different. The way he put it kind of scared me.
“Egg, I had it. I had everything I ever wanted. Have you ever had that? It’s right there in your hands. It looks like maple leaves going orange. It feels like mist on your face. It’s all the best parts and pieces of every single thing sitting right there in your hand. She is that. That’s how she makes me feel, like all my best dreams are true. I can’t lose that.”
He acted like she still did all that when he said it, but I knew she’d stopped when the calendar turned. He was too blind to realize that she she’d already moved on. Soon she wouldn’t even talk to him. Ham went all to pieces even more. He was still in it when she went home to Hendersonville for Thanksgiving. After that he started to read the writing on the wall as much as he hated what it said. And by the time Christmas break started, she’d left town, up and quit during the middle of the school year. At least she gave them the break to find somebody else.
I can’t say I cared much for her music. Her voice was whiny and she couldn’t hardly pick the guitar. She hollered about life and death. One song was about a dog. I thought it was done when Ham turned it off.
“There’s one more song left. I haven’t listened to it yet,” he said.
“Do you want to?”
“Where did you find this CD, Ham?”
“She sent it to me.”
“Yea, she sent it to me with a card that had her number on it. Said this last song was for me.”
“She looked you up and sent you this? After not a word for fifty years?”
“Yes,” he said and waited.
“Egg, the thing is I never could buy into any other woman because I knew they couldn’t give me what she did.”
“They’s plenty of women in the world that could have give you that kind of heartache.”
“That’s not what I mean. Plenty of women could have been good wives. They would have loved me, and I could have been some kind of happy with them.”
“Well, what then?” I asked.
“I don’t think there’s a single woman in the world that can ever make me feel that kind of happy, like she did. It was everything in one instant. It was perfect. Total love that felt exactly like I knew it was meant to.”
His tune hadn’t changed in fifty years.
“And how long did she give you that?”
“For about seventeen days.”
“And that’s all you wanted?”
“I wanted seventeen lifetimes full of that feeling, Egg. I wouldn’t have any woman that gave me anything less. No one could have gotten me that high, no one ever can again. So I stopped trying.”
“That’s one way to look at it, I reckon.”
There wasn’t a whole lot I could say or argue with. He laid it all right out there, and I could understand. It killed me to think of all he’d thrown away. Nothing happened for a few minutes and then he hit the power button without a word. The last song came on. It was called “Wrong.” It was just her singing and a guitar strumming. I didn’t make much of it until the last line,
“If only I was stronger, I could have been right with you, instead of being all wrong.”
Silence weighed on us for minute or two.
“What kind of right, Egg?
I didn’t really know what to say, and then Ham looked at me and I saw that look on his face from all those years ago.
“What do I do now?”
Brandon J. Johnson is a writer, musician, and artist living and working in Asheville, North Carolina. He works as Assistant Registrar and teaches in the English and Regional Studies programs at Mars Hill University. Johnson serves as a discussion leader for the Thomas Wolfe Short Story Book Club sponsored by the Thomas Wolfe Memorial and the Wilma Dykeman Legacy. His work has been published in The Anthology of Appalachian Writers and the North Carolina Folklore Journal.