Ada Mae stood at the kitchen sink looking out the window. She just couldn’t believe she’d been living in this house for almost seventy years. She glanced at the clock over the stove; the girls would be arriving in just a little over an hour. Girls, she chuckled. Girls she’d gone to school with, girls she’d fought and cried with over the years. The same girls who’d swapped boyfriends and lipstick. Covered for each other when things got sticky. Shared homework and rides to the movies, and eventually raised babies together. Later of course, much later, they’d helped each other bury husbands. Ada Mae’s Johnny had been the first of such buryings, so she was sort of used to it they always said. But through all those years, once a month come hell or high water, they had Sunday together in one of their homes. It was a proper tea party of the old fashioned variety as Cora Lynne always called it, with fine English bone china, fresh scones and homemade jam and butter.
Today it was Ada Mae’s turn to host her friends, and she took a keen delight in setting a fine table with her grandmother’s delicate little tea cups and saucers laced in feathery green vines and tiny blue roses. She even had her grandma’s Spanish lace tablecloth. Lord, how old that thing must be by now. Of course there were flowers, there were always heaps of flowers at Ada Mae’s, dripping from every table, every vase, every window in the house on even the smallest occasions and every one of them from her own garden.
Ada Mae had just pulled a sheet of blueberry scones from the oven and set them to cool by the window when she heard a light rapping at the back door. She knew it wasn’t any of the girls, they always came round the front door and right into the parlor. Then she heard the knock again, just as lightly as before. So she walked over to the back door and peeked out through the lace curtains and saw a tattered looking young man standing on the back porch next to the canning sink. Oh, what now, she thought angrily. But she saw the young man’s ragged coat and torn pants and the sad kind of embarrassed look in his eyes. She quickly thought better of her impatience. This young man had come to her back door. In the old days that meant something, and Ada Mae being a good and charitable woman opened the door wide and took a good long look at the stranger before nodding briskly and ushering him inside.
“You best come in. I got food here,” she said, smiling when she saw him wipe his feet on the mat before crossing her threshold.
He was tall and wiry, with long shaggy blond hair tied back in a rag of some kind. His old brown coat was torn at one sleeve someone had made a pitiful attempt to mend it with a bit of red thread. Ada Mae shook her head and thought he was one sorry looking sight but certainly harmless, and she was the best judge of character there was in all of Seven Oaks.
“Thanks ma’am,” the young man said, a broad grin warming his face. “If I could just sit here for a few minutes, I’d really appreciate it.” He eased himself down on the old wooden chair next to the window and openly admired the tray of cooling scones.
Ada Mae eyed the man carefully, her eyes narrowing behind her tiny wire frame glasses. “You looking for work are ya?” she asked.
“Work? No ma’am, not looking for work,” he replied.
“Well, I can feed you, but then you gotta move on, I have folks coming in a bit,” she said firmly while gesturing towards the elegantly set mahogany table just visible through the kitchen door. Then she fixed a plate with two hot scones and a pat of butter and poured the young man a steaming cup of English Breakfast tea.
“Oh, I appreciate it ma’am, I really do. And I won’t be no bother, I promise. I’ll be on my way real soon,” he glanced around the kitchen.
Ada Mae continued to look the fellow over. There was something she couldn’t quite figure.
“You from around here? I don’t think I’ve seen you around before.”
“No,” the young man said, turning to look at her full on and making Ada Mae a little nervous with that sad smile of his. “Not from around here. Just passing through.”
Ada Mae noticed he hadn’t touched the scones or had so much as a sip of his tea and she was wishing he’d just finish up and get on his way.
“You got family?” she asked, trying to shake the butterflies that were starting to gather in her belly. “You on your way to see your kin?”
“Yeah, sort of,” he replied. “On my way to see somebody, not kin though.
“In these parts?”
“Nearby,” he replied.
Ada Mae realized she was holding her breath, not really scared of the young man exactly, but wishing more than ever he’d get on his way. She’d heard about folks, women who lived alone mostly, who came to regret the charitable gesture to strangers. She had a feeling, and she wasn’t usually off her mark when she got a feeling. The young man got up and walked over to the window. Using one finger to push aside the lace curtains, he looked into her backyard garden.
“What’s your name, son?” she asked, hoping a little small talk might ease her growing unease.
“Don’t worry Ada Mae, I’m not here to hurt you,” he said turning the full dark light of his gaze upon her.
Ada Mae gasped and covered her mouth with the back of her hand as she dropped into the chair by the sink. They just stared at each other for a couple of minutes, she took a deep breath and let it out slow.
“So, why’d you take him?” she demanded.
“Why’d you take him?” she demanded again.
“Who, ma’am?” the young man inquired softly, but it didn’t really sound like a question.
“You know who, my Johnny, that’s who! Why’d you take him so young, we was married just five years, just starting out, with a baby on the way and one in diapers. You gotta know I loved him more than life itself.” Ada Mae almost whispered these last words as the tears pooled in her faded blue eyes.
The young man sat silently watching her, his eyes locked on hers.
“Oh don’t you play with me now. I know who you are. I’m almost eighty-seven years old, you don’t think I’ve seen you skulking around? I know you, I know Death when I see him, just took me a minute to be sure is all. Now you tell me right here and now how come you took my Johnny. I got a right to know,” she demanded, glaring square into his face, her arms folded tightly across the front of her crisply starched red seersucker dress.
“Well ma’am,” the young man began, folding his arms across the front of his faded brown coat. “If you know who I am, then you must know I just can’t tell you that. It’s part of the secret.”
“Part of the secret? Well then what are you doing coming to folks like this for? Why not just let us die in our sleep, in peace?” Ada Mae’s tears had stopped and she was clearly in no mood for whatever this nonsense was all about.
“I don’t rightly know, ma’am,” the young man answered with a shrug and a sheepish grin.
“You don’t rightly know?” Ada Mae barked in disbelief as she stood up and walked over to him. “How in the Hades, excuse the expression, can you not rightly know? What kind of talk is that?”
“I just don’t rightly know. I do my part, but there’s plenty more I just don’t rightly know about,” he explained.
“Well I have never heard such foolishness in my life, in all my life! You mean to tell me you of all people don’t know the truth about the why’s and what-fors of folks living and dying? Well that just makes no damn sense. You can’t say, or you just plain won’t?” she asked, glaring darkly at him and noting with satisfaction that he was starting to squirm around in his seat.
“Can’t tell what I just don’t know ma’am. Just can’t share what’s not mine to share,” he said. Ada Mae thought he looked like some kid who’d just taken a backside tanning from the principal. She snorted and shook her head.
“Well, can’t say it does much for a person’s faith in things, I’ll tell you that much for free,” she quipped through pursed lips.
“Nothing I can do about that ma’am, not a damn thing. But what I can tell you, is what happened to Billy Maspeth’s mean old daddy,” the young man said slowly, cocking an eyebrow slightly as his voice slid into a conspiratorial whisper and a wry smile spread over his lips. At the mention of that particular name, Ada Mae grabbed a chair and set it down right next to the man and slid in along side of him knee to knee and eye to eye.
“Billy Maspeth’s daddy you say?” she hissed, a curious look of dark delight brightening her wrinkled features. “Do tell, and do tell all.”
So the two of them sat there laughing and talking and carrying on like a couple of school kids, while numerous old tales were told and long forgotten riddles solved. Ada Mae didn’t notice her friends never did arrive, the day never wore on, and the sun never set. She heard a hundred real good stories of rightful comeuppance, big favors returned long overdue, good deeds done on the sly, and nobody ever getting away with nothing they ever done wrong to anybody.
An hour later as the clock showed it, Ada Mae’s friends started knocking at the front door. Figuring she was still busy at the back of the house they traipsed around and came in through the kitchen door. They saw Ada Mae sitting in the old wooden chair by the kitchen table. At first they thought their friend was asleep. But then her head drooped onto her chest and they rushed to her side.
“Ada Mae! Ada honey, what’s wrong?” the bolder of the group, Cora Lynne cried out as the others just stood and gaped in shock, grabbing each other’s arms.
Ada Mae opened her eyes slowly, only slightly lifting her head to look at her friend.
“Oh Cora, he knocked so softly, I almost didn’t hear him. Just think now how uncharitable that would have been, if I didn’t hear him and I just left him standing out there. Why, I never would have found out what happened to Billy Maspeth’s nasty old daddy, now would I?” Ada Mae smiled faintly, and some would say there was an unmistakable flicker of pleasure in that smile.
“Who Ada Mae, who?” Cora Lynne cried again, shaking her head in fear and confusion.
“Why, the young man Cora, the young man. Now you all go on home, you hear? He and I best be getting on our way, we can’t leave folks waiting’ on us,” Ada Mae mumbled softly, a weak smile appearing again briefly on her lips and then fading.
“Ada Mae, honey?” Cora Lynne whispered through her tears.
But Ada Mae was gone.