|The sign always stopped people.
It challenged them. It made them wonder if they were the right person.
Such a simple sign:
FOR SALE - TO THE RIGHT PERSON. 160 ACRES WITH 3 BEDROOM, 2 BATH HOUSE AND OUTBUILDINGS. NO OTHERS NEED STOP. INQUIRE WITHIN.
I put the sign out every spring when the grass started greening, the flowers started blooming and the trees started budding--when hope seemed born anew.
The burgundy car slowed, then went on past. I kept watch, though. Sometimes I feel almost psychic. I knew the car would be back. Fifteen minutes later, the same car drove past again. As I watched, the driver stopped, made a three-point turn and stopped again facing the sign. Only the ones who were challenged by the sign turned around twice. The lookie-loos would drive past the second time, but never turned around.
I stared at my reflection in the window. It was how I felt: a shadow of the woman I'd been, now pale and gray and wrinkled. With my nose and chin, I looked like a plump wicked witch. Oh, there was a time when I...
I whistled, and my babies came running, Mimi lagging behind as usual. "Sentado." My babies sat with a thump, tails wagging. Henri, Mimi, Jean Luc, Franquois, Dominique. French names for German Shepherds. I liked the irony. And I had trained them with Spanish. "Vamos." The dogs left the room. I knew they would wait until the car was in the yard before they appeared. It was their house, too, so they got a vote.
The driver pulled into the yard slowly, either looking the place over carefully or displaying good manners by not stirring up a lot of dust. If I was lucky, it was both.
With the wisteria hedges by the road, the house was hidden, so it surprised most folks when they finally saw it. It wasn't a fancy house, but we maintained it and the outbuildings. Everything was clean and mended and painted. I think what surprised folks the most, though, were the cars out in the pasture. A car for almost every year cars had been built. All waxed and washed, they gleamed and twinkled in the spring sunshine.
The burgundy car had stopped now, and the driver rolled down the window. It was a young woman. She applied fresh lipstick and ran a comb through her dark hair. She wanted to be the right person and was working hard to make a good impression.
She got out of the car and closed the door gently. She stared over the roof of the car then closed her eyes and breathed deeply of the good, clean country air. I wondered if she was thinking of visits with grandparents or an aunt and uncle. She seemed at peace. When she turned, she stopped but didn't freeze, a good sign since my five babies faced her. And my babies are very impressive sitting at attention.
She dropped to one knee, and I saw her mouth moving. My babies didn't move.
I slipped out the front door, and into my "poor, ol' country woman" act. I never understood why city folk think anyone who lives in the country is uneducated, uncivilized, and uncouth, but that's what they expect, so that's what they get.
The young woman's attention was still on my dogs.
"They won't take your scent unless I tell 'em."
The young woman jumped. She stared at me, rather rudely, I thought, then turned back to my babies.
"They're beautiful. And well trained," she said. Her voice was low and soft with a trace of a Southern accent.
"I know. I trained them."
"Well, they sure are beautiful animals." She brushed the dust off her pants and ran a hand through her dark auburn hair and pulled off her sunglasses. Her eyes were brown - wide and clear. I was favorably impressed until she spoke again.
"I saw your sign."
A proper young Southern woman would never jump straight to business like that. Of course, my babies were staring at her, so she could have been more nervous than she showed.
"Think you're the right person, do ya?"
I opened the picket fence gate and called my babies by name. I waved a hand toward the young woman, saying, "Amiga, amiga."
I turned to her. "Give 'em your hand, slowly -- and one at a time."
The young woman held out her hand. Each of my babies stepped forward politely, sniffed, then sat. When they were done, I clapped my hands once. "Vamos." My babies left -- silently and quickly.
"Spanish?" she asked.
"Yes. Just commands. My dogs are my friends and protectors."
The woman looked as if she wanted to say something but held her tongue. She shook her head slightly then stepped up to me, her hand extended. "I'm Maggie Brown."
Her grip was friendly and firm, but not too firm for an old hand gnarled with arthritis. "I'm Martha McFitch. Pleased to meetcha."
"You have a beautiful place."
"Well, Maggie Brown, I'll tell ya, my Homer and me, we bought this place the first year we was married. There's been a lot of living done here. And a lot of dying, but that's life. Me and Homer have had a awful lot of good years here. C'mon, I'll show ya around."
Maggie walked beside me, quiet-like, her eyes big and round, like a kid on Christmas morning. "Tell me why you want a place like this. And is that a 1998 Buick?"
"Uh, yes, it is. It's a Regal. About wanting the place, well, my husband and I would like to get out of the city. Too much crime, too many people, just too much of everything."
"Maggie, I expect by now ya realize you're the right person, don't ya?"
"I hoped so. That's a very unusual sign."
"That it is, that it is. There's a story behind it, but that's for later. Now this barn here, me and my Homer built it so he'd have a place to work out of the cold. We built it ourselves during the spring one year. Put the baby in a crib under that tree yonder. Later on, we insulated it and put the pot-bellied stove in when the cold started biting at Homer's knees so bad."
"My husband would love a shop like this," Maggie said as she stepped inside.
"It's a place a man can be proud of, that's for damn sure," Homer called as the door closed behind us.
"Homer, come on out and meet Maggie Brown."
Homer rolled his wheelchair from behind a late model Chevy sitting in the middle of the barn. A worn plaid blanket covered his lap and the stumps of his thighs. I performed the introductions and watched Maggie carefully. She never flinched from shaking hands with Homer -- not like most folks. Most folks act like amputations are contagious. Her eyes stayed on Homer's face after that first look-see. I liked her just fine for that.
"This is truly a shop any man would be proud to call his own," Maggie said.
"The dogs had a sniff of Maggie and guess what, old man? She drives a '98 Buick."
"Is that a fact, missus, is that a fact? That's a pleasure to know."
Maggie looked puzzled and smiled a little bit uncertainly then shrugged. I figured she chalked it up to husband and wife verbal shorthand.
"We'll get out of your way and let you get back to your tinkering. I'm sure Maggie's got better things to do than spend the day jawing with two old folks. I'll finish showing her around."
We were almost out the door when Homer called out, "What color you say that Buick was, missus?"
"Burgundy, of course," I said, somewhat sharply, I'm afraid.
"Shoulda known, shoulda known," Homer said. "What time you fixing to feed the dogs, missus?"
"Half hour or so."
"I'll be up to the house directly. And sure pleased to meetcha, Maggie Brown."
Outside clouds covered the sky and the temperature had dropped. Maggie's arms pebbled with goose pimples. "Them two buildings yonder are for storage. A long time ago we butchered meat in one and did laundry in the other, but them days are long past."
Maggie's head bounced back and forth like one of them little wire dogs you used to see on car dashes. "We built that little house when our folks started getting on in years. It worked out real fine. First Homer's folks, then mine. Homer's considerable older than me. Then each of our boys, as they got old enough to need a little independence. I was agin it at first. Seemed like a waste of money, but that little house turned out to be a blessing."
"I thought I might use it as my office. I'm a writer. In fact, I was out doing some Sunday driving looking for ideas when I saw your sign. My first thought was to do an article, but when I pulled through the gate, I fell in love," Maggie said, her eyes twinkling. "I just know my husband and I will be happy here."
"I'm sure you will be, hon, I'm sure you will be." The dogs joined us as we headed to the house. I opened the back gate, but Maggie stared at the cars. "I bet you're wondering about them cars, aren't ya?"
"Well, yes. It seems a little, well, odd," she said.
"I'll fix ya a cup of my special herbal tea and tell ya all about it."
I opened the back door and let Maggie in, glancing at the cars myself. Ten cars to a row and five rows. Every sixth car was the same color - white, blue, green, brown, black, red, and then white again. The rows and columns were as straight as crosses in a military cemetery.
The blues ranged from powder blue to navy to metallic to that awful blue GM came out with in the mid-70s. The same for the greens and the reds. The newest car was a black 1997 Ford Crown Victoria. I smiled at the cars. They were Homer's babies. Come spring, Homer moved each car, mowed the grass and washed, waxed and polished every one. I closed the door behind me, still smiling. Maggie and the dogs faced each other.
"Jean Luc," I said.
Jean Luc moved forward and nudged Maggie toward a chair. Once she was seated, I clapped my hands twice and the dogs collapsed to the floor like used up stuffed animals.
"Are those peaches I smell?" Maggie asked.
"It's peach scent. I got in the habit years ago of making my own scents and making 'em strong. It helped block the smell of lye soap and rendering fat. Homer and me are so used to it, I forget to let some air in."
"Oh, it's fine. It's a little strong, but it's a lovely fragrance."
"I knew in my bones the right person would come today, so I already had my special tea ready. It won't take but a minute for the water to boil." I put a plate of my sugar cookies on the table then some thick earthenware mugs, spoons and napkins.
"You said you were out Sunday driving. Do you need to call home and let your husband know you'll be late?"
"Oh, no. He flew out earlier today and won't be back until next Friday."
"That's a real shame. A young girl like you being apart from her husband."
The tea kettle whistled.
"You sure have your dogs well trained."
My babies lay on the floor as if they hadn't a care in the world.
"They're good friends. I feel right guilty when we have trouble getting meat for them and they have to eat dry dog food. A dog is a meat eater and should eat meat, but.... Well, meat is mighty dear for five dogs."
I poured boiling water into my only teapot. It was chipped, but it still brewed tea. "It needs to steep a few minutes."
"You said it's your own blend?"
"Yep. When you don't have a lot of money, you learn to make your own or do without." I pushed the plate of cookies closer to Maggie.
"Now, about them cars. I guess you could call them a hobby, but it's more than that. It's a... a..."
"That's it. An obsession. See, Homer was a mechanic. He worked at different garages until we built that barn and he could go on his own. He could fix any car made. Still can. Of course, he hated working on imports and finally just refused, telling folks American-made cars were fixable, drivable and dependable. Have a cookie, Maggie. They're homemade.
"Anyway, Homer and me got a new car after we'd been married a few years. Our old car was in real good shape, even though we got it used, on account of Homer taking such good care of it. Those car salesmen wouldn't give us nothing for it, so we decided to keep it. That's how it started. Every time we got a new car, we kept the old one. Turned out to be a good thing because Homer was able to salvage parts off them.
"Tea should be ready now. It's steeped long enough." I poured tea through my battered strainer. "Bad thing about tea is the leaves. I should get a new strainer but I always forget when I'm at the store." Maggie took a cautious sip. "Ummm, good. Peaches, I know. Maybe some strawberry and something with a nutty taste."
"Very good, Maggie. Most folks don't taste the strawberry. There's dried peaches, a few dried strawberries, dried rose hips, a few ground almonds for the nutty taste and ground peach pits, too." I poured tea in my cup and leaned back in my chair.
"We had four cars out there when Homer opened his garage. And like I said, they turned out to be a blessing. Those first few years were lean, but we made it because Homer salvaged parts.
"After a few years, Homer had built up his business and he got it in his head that he wanted to buy a car for every year we'd been married.
"You probably don't think that's very romantic, but for my Homer, it surely was. So, he searched out cars, bought 'em cheap and fixed 'em up. Every car out there will start the first time.
"Don't you like the tea, Maggie?"
Maggie nodded, but didn't speak.
"We was doing fine. The boys were all grown. Did I tell you we had five sons? And every one of them went to college. That was a strain I don't mind telling you. Even with scholarships and the boys all having jobs, it was tough. We had three at the college at one time. "The year our baby graduated, Homer had his accident. A car engine dropped on him and crushed his legs. They had to amputate.
"The boys helped out - just like when they were little, but they had their own lives and not one of them had Homer's talent. We had to shut down the garage. Homer grieved. My lord, that man grieved. And the bills. It seemed like we owed everyone in the county and then some. The boys helped out again. They paid off the doctors and paid off this place. We applied for Social Security. It covers the basics but don't leave much for extras."
Maggie opened her mouth, but no sound came out. Her hand jerked, knocking over the mug. That's why I used heavy mugs -- they don't break from getting knocked over.
"I expect I miscalculated them peach pits. We never had somebody as little as you before. I'd best hurry, so you can hear the whole story.
"Not long after Homer got home from the hospital, an old customer stopped by. He hadn't heard that we'd closed. We sat right at this table drinking tea - not a special tea like this - just plain ol' iced tea with plenty of sugar and lemon. And pretty as you please, that man fell over dead. With a heart attack.
"Homer and me didn't know what to do. That man was nice enough, but he was always two-steps on the wrong side of the law, if you know what I mean, and Homer and I didn't want to get mixed up with the po-leece.
"First, we decided to put the man in his car and drive him up the road a piece. Then, Homer saw the man's car. I told you we didn't have money for extras, so Homer hadn't been able to buy any of his 'anniversary' cars. That's what he calls them - anniversary cars. "This man's car was the right color and the right year. Well, that put Homer in a stew. He's obsessed, like ya said. He wanted that car bad.
"I drug the man out to the rendering shed and put his car in the shop until we could decide. I swear I shut the door to the shed, but, well....
"The next morning, Homer had come to his senses. We were fixing to call the sheriff and tell him the whole story, but we ran into a problem. When I got to the shed, the door was open. My poor babies must have been awfully hungry. They'd pretty much stripped that poor man's bones clean."
I touched Maggie's wrist. Her pulse was slow. Very slow. I used a dishrag to wipe away the foam at the edge of her mouth.
"It won't be long now, Maggie. After the dogs ate that man, we couldn't call the Sheriff. He might want to have my babies put down, and I couldn't have that. So we rendered what was left and fed the dogs. We burned the bones and buried the license plates and moved the car into place.
"Homer was so happy to have his 'anniversary' car. It pulled him right out of being depressed over his legs.
"A few weeks later, I wheeled him out to look at the cars and he said to me, 'Missus, God sure smiled on us when he sent the right person to die on us.'
"That got me thinking. We could advertise for the right person. I put up the sign and made my special tea. Of course, we have to hurry with the rendering a mite. Don't want the cyanide from the peach pits tainting the meat."
As I patted Maggie's smooth, still warm, cheek, I heard Homer's wheelchair.
"Thank you for coming today, Maggie. Thank for you feeding my dogs. And thank you for making my Homer so happy."