(The picture is the property of Judy Harper)
They were the best of friends until he started coming around, was it his uniform or him....
Today as I sift through a box of old pictures I run across the last picture of the four of us, the Hardin sisters. The last picture, that is, of us being best friends. Oh, over the years we pretended, but the trust was never the same. We were all smiling, Andy (short for Andrea) holding Anna, Nellie pregnant with Mark, Macee and Barbara. I never had noticed Nellie's hand on his shoulder before, as he squatted by Carl, Nellie's husband.
The year was 1951, Andy had just turned twenty, Nellie having graduated from nursing school and only married a year was twenty-two, Barbara, the one on the end, was twenty-four, she married when she was sixteen. I tried to tell her she was too young, but she wouldn't listen. She was in love and knew she would spend the rest of her life with Rafe. What kind of name is Rafe, I ask you? Though he did turn out to be a nice guy. After everything that happened, he stayed. Of course, the one second from the right or the third from the left is me, Macee Hardin, at the time of the picture, the oldest, twenty-six, and soon to be Macee Dickerson. Our mom died when I was sixteen and being the oldest, the responsibility of taking care of the younger ones fell to me. Most of the time I loved taking care of them, then there were times when I resented it, such as having to quit school my junior year. When Nellie went off to nursing school, I would have given everything to be in her shoes. At her graduation, I felt so proud of her, just as proud as our mom would have been.
Barbara was the first to marry. I still think she should have waited, maybe if she had, she would have avoided what happened. Then Andy married five years later at the age of seventeen, while Nellie married two years later after graduating from nursing school. It wasn't until after what happened that we found out Carl verbally and physically abused Nellie. Knowing this made it easier to understand why she became involved even though she was married and pregnant!
I look at him, wealthy, arrogant, and selfish Timothy Winston the third. Freshly discharged from the Army, still wearing his uniform. And of course Carl Jackson, husband of Nellie.
Everyone had gathered at the homeplace for Thanksgiving. Nellie moping about the house waiting for Carl to arrive. He had called her the night before letting her know he would be in on the 10:00 a.m. bus from Montgomery. He said he was bringing a friend home with him. Our older brother Arlee, Ar for Arville after our paternal grandfather and Lee after our maternal grandfather, which really didn't matter as he went by the nickname Bud, took the car to drive to Harrison's General Store, where the bus would drop them off as Hardinville was too small to have a bus depot.
All the women were in the kitchen getting food ready for the Thanksgiving meal at noon. Dad, the kids and the men were out at the barn looking at a new tractor Dad had bought. When the door opened , we all turned, as in walked Carl smiling, his eyes glancing around the room looking for Nellie, whom he immediately grabbed up for a big hug, saying, "My, it's only been three months since I last saw you, but it seems like forever." Glancing down, "There is no doubt now about whether you're pregnant!" Carl always did have a way with words.
He turned and pulled in a man wearing a uniform, "Folks, I want you to meet a friend of mine, Timothy Winston the third. He was only in my unit for three months before we were discharged. But he's my buddy!"
He proceeded to reach out and grab him around the shoulders. Which I thought odd as Carl wasn't normally a touchy person. Shrugging, I turned back to the stove to stir the potatoes so they wouldn't burn and stick to the sauce pan. I wonder if I hadn't turned around, would I have seen anything to warn me of what would come?
I look at the picture again, I can see, now, his handsomeness and he had an air of mystery and, yes, the confidence of someone who is raised without the sense of need. At the time, Stephen and I had only been engaged a month, so we only had eyes for each other, I didn't catch the undercurrent until too late. Even though Winston only stayed with us a week, he changed the lives of four people forever.
Saturday, the third day after his arrival, I saw him and Barbara coming out of the barn. Later in the day, Nellie and Winston went across the field toward the creek to walk off their lunch. This led to more absences of Nellie, Barbara and Winston. It didn't help that Rafe took their kids to visit his family. Nor did it help that Carl started drinking. Every time he came into the kitchen, he's ask, "Have you seen Nellie?" When I shook my head no, he'd walk across to the cabinet and pour himself another glass of bourbon.
By Wednesday afternoon, I realized Nellie and Barbara weren't speaking to each other. I climbed the stairs to my bedroom for a sweater when I heard them arguing in Nellie and Carl's bedroom. Just as I opened the door I heard Barbara say "he thinks you're a fat cow!" Both stood there glaring at each other until they became aware I had entered the room.
I closed the door, "What's going on between you two? Barbara, how could you say such a thing to your sister."
Raising her chin and glaring at Nellie, "She's pregnant and fat, how else could he see her?"
Confused I said, "Carl loves her pregnant, he thinks she's beautiful."
Stamping her foot, "Not Carl, Winston!"
Stunned I stared at Barbara, suddenly it all came together, the absences, the whispers and giggles. I turned to Nellie, "What's going on?"
"I've fallen in love with Winston, he says he loves me, even though I'm pregnant."
Barbara couldn't contain herself, "No, he just doesn't want to hurt your feelings. He says pregnant women are so emotional. He told me I'm the one he loves!"
I looked at both of them, just as I started to berate both of them, the bedroom door opened and crashed against the wall, Carl rushed across the room and grabbed Nellie, shaking her, "I knew it! You little slut! You're going to spoil my big chance! He's interested in loaning me money to open my own store. I knew you would ruin it for me just like you always have."He slapped her so hard she fell back across the bed.
I shouted to Barbara, "Run and get Dad and Bud, quick!" I then ran over to Nellie and stood between her and Carl. At first I don't think he saw me as he continued toward the bed, "Carl what are you doing?"
He stopped and glared at me, clenching his fists, "She's going to ruin it for me!"
Raising his fist he took a step toward us, "Carl!", my Dad yelled from the door as he stood there with his shotgun, "Go outside and wait for me!" As Carl hesitated, he raised the barrel of the gun a little.
Carl lowered his fist and walked out of the room, mumbling, "This hasn't ended."
Dad walked on into the room, "Barbara, Winston, y'all come on in here, now! Macee, you go on down and fix a pot of coffee." I hesitated, "I said now."
Later it came out that part of what Barbara had said was true. Winston had fallen in love with her, though he did say "pregnant women were emotional", it was Barbara's hurt feelings that spitefully called Nellie a fat cow.
Supper Wednesday night was quiet and troubled. Carl, even though Dad warned him about drinking too much, finished off a fifth of Jack Daniels. Nellie stayed in my bedroom, sobbing her heart out to me. I finally accepted that I wouldn't be getting any sleep that night.
Toward's dawn she did fall asleep, and I lay there watching the sky, as though by magic, turn from blue black to gray, I heard a creak on the stairway. I turned over to see the doorknob turning quietly, slowly. It stopped when whoever stood on the other side realized it was locked. I heard Carl say, "I'll get the other one then."
My heart stopped, I jumped up and yelled, "Dad, bring your gun!"
I heard the sound of a splintering door, then three shots and a thump as something heavy and soft hit the floor.
Dad yelled, "Macee, phone the Sheriff, Barbara, go in there and don't let Nellie out!"
I ran out the door as a crying Barbara ran in. I stood for a minute taking in the scene, Carl laying in a pool of blood, his gun still in his hand, those empty eyes staring at the ceiling, turning I ran down the stairs to make the phone call to the Sheriff and to Rafe, I knew he would be needed, after all there were three shots.
After the bodies were taken away, the Sheriff joined us in the kitchen. Pouring himself a cup of coffee, he brought it to the table and sat down. He turned to my Dad, "Okay, Jessie, tell me what happened." It turned into a long night.
Winston's family had his body shipped back to his home in California, while Carl's family buried him in the family plot at the cemetery of First Baptist of Hardinville.
Nellie went into premature labor and delivered a small but healthy son. She lived with me and Stephen for a year, until one day she felt it was time to move out on her on, find a nursing job and raise her son Mark.
It took Barbara a little longer to recover, Rafe had to admit her into the hospital for a month. She was so despondent. I wasn't for sure what Rafe would do. Rafe came by on the day Barbara was to be discharged from the hospital. We sat at the kitchen table drinking a cup of coffee,quietly he said "I love her, you know, I alway have. From the first time I saw her in the second grade, I just knew she was the one. She needs me for the first time in our marriage. The kids need me. I have no choice but to stay, no I want to stay."
As I said, Rafe turned out to be quite a good guy. They say time heals all, I don't think that's exactly true. I do believe time helps in figuring out ways to work around the pain and live a fairly meaningful life. But as I said, relationships are never the same.
Tuesday Morning Writings is a project sponsored by Gaelikaa and Judy Harper. The images and words are copyright of Judy Harper.