The Good Life _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ Mark and Rebecca Spencer
After we started courting, I learned the small details of the first ten years of Meg's life. She lived them up in Akron , where her father had made jeep tires at the Firestone factory during World War Two. I learned about the small clapboard house with rats and about the smell that came from the smoke stacks of the rubber factories and about the clashing and clanging noises of the nearby train yards, where she and her older brother picked wild greens for their supper sometimes because her father would lose his paycheck in a poker game and where her brother was crushed to death between two train cars one day while playing hide-and-seek with her. After the war, her father decided he'd had enough of smoke and rubber. He wanted a life of green pastures and milk--he was determined to have a dairy farm here in Adams County . But by the time I learned those details of her early life, I had known her six years and her father had obtained and lost his dairy farm and had then become a drunk, then a wife beater, then a missing person, and Meg and her mother were living in the town of Peebles.
The first time I saw Meg, she was standing in front of my fifth-grade class, waiting for Miss Shaw to introduce her. Meg looked down at her old brown shoes. I could see the straight part in her straw-colored hair, which she wore in pigtails. She had on a green-and-white plaid jumper over a white blouse that had gone a bit gray and was frayed slightly at the cuffs and collar. Her knees were skinned up. Her calves were skinny as broom sticks. As Miss Shaw's introduction of her rambled off into a lecture on Akron being the tire and rubber capital of the world, Meg looked up at us only once, gazing briefly at some point in the back of the room with huge brown eyes. I thought this new girl looked like a bug. She didn't smile, and over the years she seldom did--because of her overbite. Sometimes kids made horse or mule noises when she was around. Her life would be made harder by the fact that she earned straight A's. A chance at any kind of popularity was made impossible by her winning spelling bees.
But I liked something about her from the start. Her looking like a bug was not a bad thing. I had a bug collection, in fact. What really struck me that first time I saw her and continued to draw me to her was her eyes--her huge brown, clear eyes. As I got older, I speculated that she must be able to see more or better than other people. She didn't often look at a person directly; she tended to look at her feet or at some distant landscape when people spoke to her. But when she did look, she seemed to look intensely, as though she saw things in you that were deep inside and secret.
And as the years passed, I liked her being smart. My daddy was always saying that Mama was the smart one, that our family would have been visited by disaster countless times if it hadn't been for her. So I had the idea that a smart girl was a good thing. Although Daddy was always crediting Mama with saving him, she often referred to Daddy as her hero, and that too, I realize now, had something to do with my attraction to Meg's quiet sadness. I liked the idea of making a sad person happy--of being someone's hero.
Each day at recess, Meg stood near Miss Shaw at the edge of the dusty playground instead of playing. She observed the other kids. Some huddled in groups to tell secrets. Some played tag or hopscotch. I did chin-ups on the monkey bars or played baseball in the green field next to the playground. Occasionally, I'd look over at Meg. She looked tiny and pale next to the bulldog image of Miss Shaw squarish in her overcoat, her jowls thick.
One day, Miss Shaw was called inside the school building by the principal's secretary, leaving us kids unsupervised, and Jim Bob White started throwing pebbles at Meg. I was the pitcher in a baseball game when Nancy Pettinger started yelling, "Stop it, Jim Bob! Leave her alone, Jim Bob!", and I looked around to see what was going on.
Jim Bob had a fist full of pebbles. He flung them one at a time. "Horse Teeth!" he called her. "Mule Face!" Jim Bob White had tiny dark eyes in his fat red face, had a harelip, and was missing half his yellow teeth.
Meg backed away, covered her face with her arms.
"Toothpick!" He tucked his lower lip under his teeth and mumbled, "Fuck Tooth."
Some kids started laughing. I wondered why Miss Shaw didn't come back. Somebody yelled at me to pitch. I looked around. I looked at the boy standing at home plate with the bat, a scrawny boy I was good friends with. I'd have to pitch an easy one to him straight down the middle, and he'd probably hit a little grounder. But I didn't pitch to him. I looked back at Jim Bob just as he threw a pebble that hit Meg's forehead, and she cried out. Jim Bob laughed and stepped closer to her.
I don't remember thinking about what I was going to do. One second I was standing in the ball field, wearing my well-worn, sweat-stained ball glove and holding the scoffed-up baseball. The next second I was on the playground, down in the dirt, and I had Jim Bob's red crew-cutted head in a headlock. Jim Bob's flesh was mushy. He smelled like sweat and peanut butter and chicken manure. He yelled, "Let me go!" I squeezed his head, then let go. Jim Bob got up and backed away, saying, "Jesus, Fuck Wood, you in love with Mule Face or something?"
I stepped toward him and punched him in the stomach. It was like putting my fist into a pillow. Jim Bob went down in the dirt again, and I sat on him and began punching his face, feeling his teeth give a little beneath my knuckles, but Nancy Pettinger screamed, "No! You better not!"
I looked around at Nancy, who had hair piled on her head in a woman's hairdo and a thin, sharp nose. She was squinting and had her mouth pursed in a perfect imitation of Miss Shaw. She said, "I'll tell. I'll tell everything. You'll both get in trouble."
Jim Bob said, "Get off, Fuck Wood."
His mouth was bloody, and as I pinched Jim Bob's fat right tit, I leaned down to his ear and I whispered, "My favorite thing to do is slaughter hogs. Remember that, fat boy." He kicked his legs and said, "Shitshitshit!"
Six years later, on our first date, Meg and I were driving home in my sputtering old Model-T Ford after seeing It's a Wonderful Life at the Fullerman Theater when she said, "You really wanted to hurt Jim Bob that time on the playground, didn't you?"
I slowed the Model-T to negotiate a sharp curve. The headlights lit up the trees that grew close to the road.
We had said little to each other on the drive to the theater--a few dull words about the weather (of all things!) and homework assignments and a teacher we both liked. During the movie I had not tried to hold her hand. Then after we walked out of the theater, mumbling agreement that the movie was pretty
good, we lapsed into awkward silence once again. The date was starting to feel like a failure, and now she was bringing up this embarrassing event from six years before.
I said, "You remember that?"
"Yes. Of course."
"I got kind of . . . carried away, but . . . . Good thing Nancy stopped me."
"I hated him. I wanted to see blood."
I looked at her. She was a hazy figure beside me in the dark.
"I know I shouldn't . . . ," she said. She looked away, but after a couple of seconds she turned back to me and touched my arm. The hairs stood up on the back of my neck, and she said, "Thank you for defending me."
I nodded. I shifted into a higher gear as the road ahead stretched out straight. "You're welcome."
* * *
And I remember the first time I saw Rose. It was the first Sunday the new reverend at Grace Methodist Church was in town. The congregation filled the church to check him out. And he kept us waiting. Normally, the outgoing preacher would introduce his replacement, but the old preacher had died, and it was understood that the new preacher was going to introduce himself.
It was a hot July morning. No air conditioning. People fanned themselves with the program, the purple ink smeared by their sweaty hands. Meg and I sat near the front. I grew up Baptist. Meg was a loyal Methodist, and I figured it wouldn't matter to God if I switched, and Mama and Daddy never seemed to think it was a sin to be Methodist. So there I was, a Methodist, sweating in my dark blue suit, which my parents had given me when I graduated from teachers' college the year before. I looked at Meg beside me. She wore a white dress and white gloves and a small hat. Sweat beaded on her forehead. Her face was pale, but her neck was flushed. Her teeth pushed her lips forward a little. She seldom wore lipstick because it would rub off onto her teeth sometimes, especially if she allowed herself to smile. She would ask me whether she had any lipstick on her teeth. "You look fine" is what I always said.
We had been married only a year, having waited until I finished college. Meg had worked as a telephone switchboard operator after high school. People in our part of the county had to talk to Meg before they could talk to anyone else. When we were alone, Meg would entertain me by mimicking people's phone voices. As far as I knew, she was too shy to do her imitations for anyone else.
She quit the phone company after our wedding. Now she worked the farm with me, our very own eighty acres--mortgaged, it seemed, till the end of time.
At ten minutes after eleven the side door near the front of the church, the door the choir came through, opened. The fanning stopped. After a moment a chubby, red-faced man about thirty years old stepped through. He reminded me a little of Jim Bob White, but this new preacher was a snappy dresser in a white, three-piece suit and white spats. His dark hair was slicked back and shiny. He wore a somber look, having stopped barely inside the church as though he wanted an easy escape route if he didn't like what he saw. He turned to the choir and, very slowly, his arms at his sides, bowed like a stage or circus performer. It was also as though he were mooning the congregation. Then he turned to the congregation and bowed, mooned the choir. A little boy near the front of the church applauded until his mother grabbed his hands.
Then the new preacher grinned hugely, raised his arms, and in a booming voice said, "I'm The Reverend Rodney Johnson, and I thank the lord today for being in Peebles , Ohio , a beautiful place full of beautiful God-fearing, freedom-loving Christians. I intend to tell you about my mission here and start some serious preaching today, but first, I want to introduce my mate in this life and for eternity . . . my better half." He paused, grinned harder, turned redder. "Or perhaps, I should say my better two-thirds." He gestured theatrically toward the side door with both arms. There was again a moment of anticipation in the heavy, hot air. A bead of sweat dropped from the end of my nose. Then in the doorway appeared a beautiful young blonde woman in her eighth or ninth month of pregnancy. She walked gingerly, slowly. He gripped her upper arm and said, "My wife, Rose."
I knew that later the men of the church would huddle in small groups in the parking lot, the sun glaring off chrome and windshields and ask each other's opinion of the new preacher, to which most of the men would merely shrug, but they would raise their eyebrows a little, grin, and all agree that the fat little preacher had reeled in a fine-looking woman.
Rose was flushed and demure, the reverend holding her arm above the elbow. She nodded to the congregation, smiled, and
muttered something no one heard, but Reverend Johnson, who looked startled, lost his grin, released her arm, then got his grin back quickly.
Rose stepped forward, her eyes moving from side to side. I quickly realized she was looking for a place to sit. Some old
ladies were squeezing more tightly together and insisted that there was room. Like on the playground when I attacked Jim Bob White, I didn't think--I stood and said, "Please have my place."
Rose looked at me. Our eyes met, and I felt my stomach muscles tighten. She was more beautiful up close. She looked vaguely sad and scared like Meg on her first day at a new school. Rose said, "Thank you." Then, "I hope I can squeeze in."
I just smiled, sweat dripping in my eyes. Meg whispered, "I'm Meg Anderson. That's my husband. Fowood." Reverend Johnson was talking again, saying something about the town he had come from in Illinois and about obedience to the guiding hand of God. Nothing happened by accident, he said.
Meg listened for a moment, then leaned toward Rose and whispered, "Are you due soon?"
"Fowood and I want a child badly."
I realized I probably looked foolish standing there in the aisle, so I stepped to the back of the church to stand. The back of Rose's head seemed delicately balanced on her long neck. Her hair was in a tight bun, but there were a few loose strands behind her ears and at her nape.
When she turned her head to apparently get a better look at Meg, I saw her profile.
She was a pregnant woman and a preacher's wife, and I don't really think I had any thoughts to be ashamed of, no evil intentions. I thought that maybe her beauty was due in part to the flush of motherhood.
But in a few weeks, after her baby had arrived, she looked even more beautiful.