Nearly seventy years of a life well lived ain’t nothing to cry about, Pastor Simmons said. He mopped beads of sweat from his shiny bald scalp with a handkerchief. Rejoice and be happy. The cancer took him too soon, but ol’ Samuel’s gone up. He’s with the Lord now. Shouts of “Amen” echoed through the old, clapboard church.
The service for Samuel Douglas was a spirited affair. They never called it a funeral at Bethel Baptist Church. Today, the program read “A Celebration of the Life.” Mourners, nearly one hundred strong, squeezed shoulder-to-shoulder into the worn oaken pews. Old men in somber suits sat next to old women waving paper fans in the late-August heat. Up front, Samuel lay in a cherry wood casket like a man deep in slumber, his face a stiff mask under a layer of heavy makeup. The corners of his mouth angled slightly upward below a neatly trimmed moustache. He wore the navy-blue suit and red-and-black striped tie that he had selected years ago for just this occasion. The clothes fit him loosely now; he had grown thin in his final months.
Samuel’s family occupied the first pew. His youngest daughter, Glynnis, sat to the left, wearing an expression somewhere between fatigue and boredom. His only son, Michael, sat in the middle between his wife Alma and fidgeting twin girls. And to the right sat Samuel’s eldest daughter, Marilyn, head bowed, arms wrapped about her midsection, rocking slowly back and forth. Even now at forty-five, she felt like an orphan, alone and adrift without her father.
Every so often, Marilyn lifted her head to survey the crowd. She wanted to join them, stomping and clapping and praising. She wanted to believe that Samuel had gone up.
After the funeral, a black stretch limo dropped the family off at the Douglas’ home. The house stood on two acres of low-lying marshland pressed up against the Georgia coast. His ancestor, a freedman named Henry, had built it in the 1870s. Henry had thought that it deserved a name, like the plantations of his youth. He called it Magnolia Lane, after the trees he cleared to build the house. Samuel was the sixth generation to live at Magnolia Lane. Like his mother Belle, grandfather Wesley, great-grandmother Lucille, and great-great-grandfather Benjamin, he had been born in this house, and he had died here.
Marilyn stayed behind on the front porch while the others hurried inside. The morning sky had teased with hints of blue peeking through the gathering clouds; now it was a grim blanket of white.
“Nice service,” Glynnis said as she brushed past. She’d driven up last night from Tallahassee. Her scarlet-red Audi sat gleaming in the driveway. She wore a floral print dress ending at mid-thigh; a matching head wrap covered her shoulder-length twists. The attire had raised eyebrows at the church. No doubt that had been the intention, Marilyn thought. They were fifteen years apart in age, but that was the least of what separated them.
“You comin’ in?” Michael asked. He’d taken an early morning flight down from Atlanta with his family in tow. He had just turned forty and had taken to wearing glasses in the past year. Marilyn noticed the first silvery strands peeking through at his temples.
“In a minute,” she said. “I just need a chance to clear my head.”
“I understand,” he said, and gave her shoulder a squeeze. “Take as much time as you need.”
He meant well. He always meant well. But he didn’t understand, couldn’t understand, what she felt in this house. Even as a child, her mind was never quiet here. As far back as she could remember, she had heard voices at Magnolia Lane. It had frightened her when she was young. She hadn’t known then what she was hearing. How could she have known? The voices were faint, indistinct, like a quiet murmur that played inside her head. Once, when Marilyn told her father what she heard, he told her not to worry. The ancestors were watching over her, he said. She was the fortunate one. It wasn’t until grandma Belle passed that she finally understood. She could hear Belle clearly; her voice was strong inside these walls. There was no mistaking it — the sing-songy quality that betrayed just a hint of the Sea Island patois. It was Belle’s voice that sang Marilyn to sleep in the nights after her mother died. It was Belle’s voice that comforted her later as she sat alone by Samuel’s sick bed. Now that Samuel was gone, it was his voice that she heard above all the others.
Marilyn forced a smile as guests from the church streamed in, bearing condolences and an excess of food. Eunice, the Sunday school teacher, arrived first. She handed over a pot of Brunswick stew.
“We’re sure gonna miss your daddy,” she said. “The younger men, they don’t come to church anymore, you know.” Samuel laughed at that. That’s ‘cause they’re scared of you.
“Don’t know what I’m gonna do without Sam,” said Mack from the VFW as he hobbled up the steps. He offered a meatloaf wrapped in foil. You gonna have to find someone else to cheat at spades, old man.
The Kersey sisters, Mavis and Martha, pulled into the yard in their metallic blue Cadillac. They had to be mid-eighties by now, and they were cute in that way that only the old can be, like a smaller, wizened version of their younger selves.
“The rain is coming. I can feel it,” Mavis said as she crossed the lawn with her halting gait. “My arthritis is already acting up.”
“You ladies still driving, I see,” Marilyn said, helping Mavis up onto the porch.
“That’s right, and we gonna keep right on drivin’ ‘till somebody pries the keys out of our hands,” Martha said.
They kept coming, these friends of Samuel, until thirty or so filled the living room and the parlor and spilled over into the kitchen. Chicken and rice, potato salad, pork ribs, gumbo, fried catfish, cobblers, cakes and pies lined the dining room table. The rich, meaty aromas of Marilyn’s childhood filled the house.
Glynnis served up the food while Michael tried in vain to corral his five-year-old girls. Marilyn caught bits and pieces of conversation as she moved through the rooms. The old folks traded stories, laughed, and sometimes cried.
“Did I ever tell you how me and Sam shipped out to ‘Nam together back in ‘69?” Mack said when she approached. Of course he had, but Marilyn let him tell it again, like she was hearing it for the first time. “You know, we took to callin’ Sam peanut head ‘cause, turns out, he had a head shaped just like a peanut when they shaved all his hair off.” Samuel loved this story. And I still looked better than you.
“That was a cryin’ shame, too” Willa Mae, the hairdresser, chimed in. “Your daddy used to come into the barber shop all the time back then. He had that good hair too, all soft and curly. How the army gonna go and cut all that off?” The two friends laughed until they were nearly out of breath, an easy familiarity born of years of shared experience.
Willa Mae grasped Marilyn’s arm and leaned in close. “You and Michael, you got Samuel’s hair too, you know. Isn’t that right, Betty?”
“Sure is,” Betty said. She’d been the dispatcher at the sheriff’s office for as long as anybody could remember. “Now Glynnis, she got her mama’s hair.” Marilyn felt her body tense. Samuel wasn’t going to like this. Listen to ‘em. Starting all that stuff up again.
Marilyn inched away, suddenly wanting nothing more than to leave the conversation behind. Hemmed in by the crowd, though, she couldn’t go far.
“Yes, yes, Ms. Dalia,” Willa Mae said. “Hadn’t thought about her in years. Just took the child and went down to Tallahassee.” Samuel was agitated now. You all drove Dalia out of here. You know you did.
“No surprise there,” Betty said. “Sam should’ve known a woman like Dalia wasn’t gonna stay ‘round for long. What with her bein’ a . . . you know, a dancer.”
“Too bad he didn’t find himself another good, church-going woman after his wife died,” Willa Mae said. Judge not, that ye not be judged. Isn’t that how it goes, ladies?
Marilyn’s mind grew full, too full. She made her way toward the front door, excusing herself along the way, and stepped out onto the porch in search of respite. Out here, outside the walls, her thoughts were her own again.
“So, you thinkin’ of leaving Savannah and moving into this house for good?” She turned to see Pastor Simmons walking out the screen door onto the porch.
Marilyn hesitated, caught off guard by the question. “I . . . I don’t really know yet, Pastor,” she said.
“I just thought, you know, with the divorce and all, and you livin’ up there in Savannah all by yourself now, that you might be thinkin’ of comin’ back home.”
She offered a tight smile. Her ex-husband had sent a wreath, but she’d known his absence wouldn’t go unnoticed. Her son, Trevor, had moved out to California and hadn’t been able to travel back on short notice.
“You were born right upstairs,” the Pastor said. “Be awful strange not havin’ a Douglas livin’ in the house.”
“It would be strange, wouldn’t it?” Marilyn said, as if the possibility had occurred to her for the first time.
“Forgive me for asking,” Pastor Simmons said. “It’s probably too soon for you to be worrying about that. It’s just that I know ol’ Sam always said the house had to stay in the family. I figured he’d be passing it down to the three of you kids.”
“To tell you the truth, I hadn’t thought much about it.” That wasn’t the truth, though. She’d been thinking about it for weeks, ever since Samuel had told her that the house was to be hers, and hers alone. She was the fortunate one.
Pastor Simmons gazed wistfully around the yard. “Yes, keep the house in the family,” he continued. “Pass it along to Trevor and Michael’s girls some day.”
“I don’t think Trevor would ever come back to live here, Pastor,” Marilyn said. “He says it’s too slow down here. Too quiet for him.”
“That’s what they all say when they’re young,” the Pastor said. “They all got to run off to New York or Hollywood or some such place looking for excitement. Thing is, though, down here, everybody knows your name and where you come from.”
Marilyn smiled. “And they know all your business, too,” she said.
The Pastor laughed at that. “Well, we’d just be real sorry to see you all go, Marilyn.”
“That was a real nice eulogy you did for Daddy,” was all she said. She didn’t tell him that she’d been thinking of using her divorce settlement to follow Trevor to California. A change of scenery. A fresh start. Didn’t she deserve that?
“Well, I tried to do him justice,” the pastor said. “I think he would have liked it.”
“He did,” Marilyn said softly. “He liked it a lot.” He’d told her so.
* * *
Later, as the grey afternoon melted into early evening, the guests took their leave in twos and threes. The first drops of rain splattered on the front porch steps. “Get home safe,” Marilyn repeated like a mantra as they flipped open umbrellas and fought a futile battle with the wind.
Michael sent Alma and the girls off to spend the night with a cousin. Only the three siblings remained in the house. Marilyn and Michael rushed to move the patio furniture into the garage as the storm gathered intensity. The wind thrashed the ancient live oaks and whipped the Spanish moss that draped carelessly over the branches. Marilyn grabbed one end of the rattan sofa and Michael took the opposite end.
“Careful now,” she said as he walked backwards down the porch steps. They shuffle-stepped across the yard toward the garage. “Watch the vines, too.”
“Where do you want to put this?” Michael asked, resting his end of the sofa on the oil-stained cement floor. Marilyn motioned with her elbow toward the far right corner of the garage.
“Let’s set it over there,” she said. “We’ll have to slide those boxes over to get it up against the wall.”
Michael pushed his glasses up on his nose and scanned the labels on the stack of cardboard boxes arranged in two neat rows, one on top of the other.
“That’s my stuff, isn’t it?” he said.
“Yes, that’s all yours,” Marilyn said. “Daddy packed up your room after you left.”
Marilyn lowered her end of the sofa and ran her hand over one of the boxes. “This one, this has all your formal clothes: the tuxedo Daddy got you for your prom, your graduation gown, the black suit you wore to mama’s funeral. It’s all in there.” She slid her hand to the next box. “And this one’s got your books, all the college books you kept up in your room. He didn’t know what to do with them all. You were always going on about how much they cost, so he figured he’d keep them for you. I told him there was no need. You’d probably never look at them again. But he said no, let’s keep them just in case.”
Michael moved closer and examined the neat black lettering scrawled across the side of another box. “These are my trophies,” he said.
“From back when you ran the 400 meters,” Marilyn said. “Remember how proud Daddy was?”
“I’m surprised he kept it all,” Michael said softly.
“He kept everything,” Marilyn said. “All my things are still up in the attic.”
“So, listen,” Michael said. “I’ve been thinking about the house.” He took off his glasses and squeezed the bridge of his nose. “I was thinking that maybe we should consider selling.”
Marilyn was quiet for a moment. She wanted to make him wait. Finally, she spoke.
“You’d really be okay with selling the house?” She stood, hands on hips, surveying the stack of boxes in front of her. “Look at all of this . . . all these memories.”
“We’ll always have the memories,” Michael said. “Memories are in your mind, not in a house. I don’t think we need piles of stuff to keep our memories, do we?” He patted the box of textbooks. “These things . . . they’ll just get moldy in all this humidity. They probably already are. Anyway, who’s ever going to look at them again? Dad should have gotten rid of them a long time ago.”
“What about your kids?” Marilyn said. “Maybe you’ll want to show them these things some day when they’re older.”
Michael laughed. “I doubt it. Hell, they probably won’t even know what a book is by the time they really start reading. Everything’s electronic these days.”
“Well, maybe they’d still want to come down here,” Marilyn said. “Maybe you could bring them down during summer vacation. They could play down by the water like we used to and—”
“And fight the gnats and mosquitoes? And sweat all night in that old house with no air conditioning?”
“Oh, come on, now. It’s not that bad. We can put ceiling fans in the upstairs bedrooms.”
“Trevor doesn’t make it back here much, does he?”
The words stung Marilyn, just as they were intended.
“The thing is . . .” Michael hesitated. “The thing is that I could really use the money. I’m trying to buy a new house in Atlanta. See, Alma thinks we need more space for the kids. You know, little people are expensive.”
“Don’t you have any good memories of growing up here?” Marilyn said.
Michael’s eyes lingered on the boxes. Then, he turned toward door. “We’d better get back up to the house and get the rest of the furniture. The wind’s picking up.” He crossed the garage with deliberate strides.
* * *
Marilyn and Glynnis stood together in the kitchen washing the dishes. Darkness had descended outside. A slender branch smacked the window above the sink and Marilyn jumped.
“You heard them, didn’t you?” Glynnis said.
“Heard who?” Marilyn said.
“Those old women. They’ve got a lot of nerve to come in here talkin’ about me and my mama.” She plunged her hand into the sink full of soapy water in search of another plate. “You’d think they’d have better manners, as old as they are.”
Marilyn kept her eyes trained on the fork in her hand, drying each prong separately. “No, I don’t think I heard anything—”
“Of course you did. I saw you standing right there next to them,” Glynnis said. “And you didn’t say a thing to them.”
Michael came into the kitchen carrying an armload of dishes. “This is everything from the dining room.” He set the stack down on the counter.
Glynnis turned to Michael. “Can you believe she didn’t say anything?”
He held up a hand and shook his head. “Whatever it is, leave me out of it.”
Glynnis dropped her dishrag in a wet heap on the counter. “That’s why I don’t come here. That’s why mama had to leave here in the first place.”
“I don’t think we really need to go through all this again,” Marilyn said. “Not today of all days.”
“You should’ve said that to them,” Glynnis said. “Because they sure didn’t have any problem bringing it up today.”
“Glynnis, calm down,” Marilyn said. “I understand how you feel, but—”
“I will not calm down,” Glynnis said. “And no, you don’t understand how I feel. They would never disrespect you that way.”
Marilyn placed a hand on her sister’s shoulder, but Glynnis shrugged it off. “All I want is to sell this house and leave this godforsaken town once and for all. Just leave these people to their gossiping and hating. They’ve got nothing better to do around here anyway,” she said as she stalked from the room.
Marilyn listened for Samuel but he was quiet. She knew he’d always felt Glynnis’ pain, but he’d never been able to fix it.
Michael rubbed his eyes. “I think she’s right,” he said. “I mean, about selling the house and moving on. Maybe it’s time for all of us to move on from this place.”
Marilyn gathered up the dishes and set them down gently in the soapy water. Now, Samuel spoke to her. Remember what I told you. This is your house. You are the fortunate one.
“Marilyn, did you hear me?” Michael’s voice brought her attention back to the room. “I said I’m going to bed. I’ve had enough for one day. You gonna be okay?”
She wasn’t okay, and she wanted to tell him so. She had so many things to say. She wanted to say that she had been the one who had comforted him when their mother died; that she had been the one to pick up the pieces after Dalia took Glynnis away; that she had come back to Magnolia Lane to nurse Samuel through his final days, even at the cost of her marriage. But she could hear the weariness in his voice, and she let the moment pass.
Marilyn sat alone in the empty kitchen as the storm’s wrath arrived in its full fury. The wind rose to a full-throated roar, its brutal gusts striking blow after blow. Magnolia Lane convulsed under the onslaught, creaking and moaning like it might come apart at the seams. Sheets of rain drove hard against the sides of the house in undulating waves, threatening to breach the windows and pour in around the frames. She squeezed her eyes shut and let the sound wash over her, until it was the only thing that she could hear.
* * *
The morning broke crisp and clear, as if the wind and rain had washed the world clean. A rich, earthy scent hung in the air; a songbird trilled outside the window. Marilyn rose early and busied herself preparing breakfast in the kitchen. She gently kneaded flour and shortening and buttermilk into coarse biscuit dough, just the way Belle had taught her. She pinched off handfuls of dough, patted them into shape, and dropped them into a greased baking pan. She hummed the tune that had popped into her head.
I don’t feel no ways tired. I’ve come too far from where I started from.
It was Samuel’s favorite, and soon he joined in.
Nobody told me that the road would be easy. I don’t believe He brought me this far to leave me.
Hearing footsteps descending the back staircase, Marilyn gathered herself, wiping her hands on the crisp, white apron tied around her waist. Michael entered the kitchen, acknowledging Marilyn with a slight wave of his hand.
“Morning,” Marilyn said, sliding the pan of biscuits into the oven. “Did you get much sleep?”
“All I could hear was the wind,” Michael said.
“Coffee’s on the counter, nice and strong,” Marilyn said.
Michael poured the steaming coffee from Belle’s old, metal stovetop percolator.
“Breakfast will be ready in a few minutes,” Marilyn said. “I’ve got scrambled eggs, grits, pork sausages and Daddy’s favorite buttermilk biscuits.”
Michael stared up at Marilyn, then back down at his cup, carelessly swirling the coffee just below the rim. “Have you given it any more thought?” he said. “I mean, about selling the house?” He kept his eyes trained on the vapors rising from his cup.
“I have thought about it,” she said. “Got some good advice, too.”
Michael gave his sister a quizzical look, but said nothing.
“Here’s what I propose,” Marilyn said. “I’ll buy you out, you and Glynnis.”
“You’ll what?” Michael said. “How are you going to do that? How can you afford that?”
“I’ve got some cash from the divorce settlement,” she replied. “It should be enough.” She opened the oven door and peered in. “A few more minutes on these biscuits.”
“And what about you?” Michael said. “You’re going to stay here in this house alone?”
No, not alone, Marilyn thought. Not alone at all. “I’ll be fine,” she said. She handed Michael a platter of sausages. “Here, put these on the dining room table.”
Later, standing outside in the driveway, Marilyn bid goodbye to Michael and Glynnis.
“Are you sure you’re going to be okay with all this?” Michael said, looking out over the debris-strewn yard. “I could maybe come back sometime and help you get things fixed up.”
“Don’t worry,” Marilyn said.
“But I could—” Michael said.
“She said she didn’t need any help,” Glynnis said. “We need to get a move on. I’ve got to drop you off, and I’ve still got a four-hour drive back to Tallahassee.”
Marilyn watched as Glynnis backed the Audi down the driveway and disappeared from view. She turned and stared back at the house. Window screens, ripped from their frames during the night, lay on the front lawn; wooden shutters dangled from their hinges. A riot of branches and leaves littered the ground beneath the giant Magnolias that stood barren now, like scarecrows with spindly arms outstretched.
Marilyn leapt over a pool of muddy water then climbed back up the porch steps. Standing just inside the front door, she said, “We’re going to fix this place up really nice, Daddy. Just like it used to be. Maybe add a gazebo out back.” He didn’t say anything, but Marilyn knew he was smiling.