The Christmas Eve Walter Holdenfield left his pregnant wife he drank so much the owner of the jook-joint had to take him to Dothan Regional for alcohol poisoning. When he awoke in the hospital the next day he was still stubbornly angry with her and decided to teach her a lesson by staying at the local Y. It wasn’t until four days later when he felt his underwear sticking to the backs of his thighs that he finally decided to go home.
But she wasn’t there. Loretta had decided that enough was enough and she had meticulously packed everything that was hers and left all of Walter’s belongings behind. She was so careful in her packing that the home looked as though it had ever only housed Walter himself. He ravaged the drawers and boxes but there was no photo, no piece of jewelry, no memento whatsoever of her anywhere to be found.
Walter searched everywhere for his wife. If there was no reconciliation to be had between the two he still hoped for some news of his child. But there is no finding a woman once she truly wishes to never see you again. There is a force that protects them so vigilantly that you could pass them on them on the street and never see them beside you. This happens because their hearts are not yet ready to face you again. Often the hearts heal-up and you can find them just as simple as finding your own nose, but by then most men have given up the search.
Five years later Walter had given up the search. Ten years later and he’d forgotten that he ever did search and by fifteen years he’d forgotten himself. Isn’t that what happens when you immerse yourself so deep into finding something? You forget what it was you were looking for in the first place, and then you have to fight to remember yourself in all of the forgetting.
And so, fifteen years later, Walter was still in the house, and he was still a denizen of the jook-joints on the outskirts of Dothan. It was in one of these dirt-road social pillars on a particularly cold and dry night in December that Walter happened to engage in a conversation with a woman he presumed was from Louisiana named Evangeline.
He had been in the bar for perhaps a full day. He had wondered in sometime after breakfast under the pretense that he’d be out by noon. This fooled no one, of course. By the time Evangeline walked in his vision and speech were so blurred it was lucky he still sat upright in his seat. She strode up to the bar and pulled up a seat two over from Walter. Because there really wasn’t much need to impress customers to keep them returning the owner hadn’t bothered using stools that matched for over a decade. This made Walter, who really was a rather large fellow, an entire head lower than Evangeline. When she spoke for the first time and ordered a glass of Southern Comfort in a heavy accent from the Bayou it awoke in him a memory of a face, youthful and lovely. You northern boy’s don’t know nothin bout takin care of us southern girls Loretta had said to him. They were in high school and Walter was the new boy. Fresh from Chicago. He’d wanted to tell her that Chicago was in fact the Mid-West but she was so pretty he didn’t want to argue with her. After all she was fresh from New Orleans and was also the new girl and that meant he was in competition with all the other boys. How young they were then. How in love he knew himself to be.
This memory sobered him a little and he glanced up at Evangeline. “I loved a girl with a voice like yours once. I married her too. Then I left her.” He chuckled to himself.
“She must have had a smoking problem to have the voice of a sixty-year old lady,” Evangeline replied incredulously.
“You know what I mean,” he smiled at his reflection in his cup. “Sweet. She had a sweet voice.”
Evangeline didn’t respond but she turned her entire body to face Walter. She assessed him as a prospector would a piece of land. A man in his late forties he looked much older with his gray hair and downtrodden face. He wore the pale blue top and navy blue trouser uniform of a Janitor. What one presumed was once an athletic frame now drooped in all the places liquor makes you droop; eyes, belly, heart.
“So,” Evangeline smiled, “ Walter tell me what done happened to this sweet voice.”
She pursed her lips and shifted in her chair. “You sholl’ don’t know nothing bout no southern girls. How you affected that girl walter? What you did to her?”
“Nothing,” he sighed not looking up from the glass before him. “Everything. I asked her to marry me right out of high school. But she wouldn’t. We went to Alabama state together, but I couldn’t survive school like she could. I dropped out halfway through my first semester. And I made her feel guilty for it. I begged her to come back to Dothan and marry me. Said I’d move mountains to make sure we had a good life. Turns out I wouldn’t move a muscle for it.”
“But she ain’t leave you did she?”
“No. She married me in her last year. I got her pregnant the night she graduated. I didn’t mean to. Lord knows I didn’t want a child just yet.” He paused. The conversation with Evangeline seemed to be sobering him up greatly but he still needed time getting his message across. He shook his head slowly. “No, I did. I meant to do it. If she had my baby, I thought I’d be able to keep her.”
“I don’t get it,” Evangeline cut in. “If you was so hard up on keeping the girl, why did you leave her.”
“I walked out on pride. I didn’t ever mean to leave her. Not really.” His fingers slipped from the counter top to his lap. He seemed to be deep in thought and it was a few minutes before he continued, “She was always the smart one. How you think I felt having her unable to work cause I got her pregnant. Then I couldn’t work, not really, not enough. We just kept fighting about money. Don’t know man ever wanna fight about money with his woman. Times might change. But men don’t. We the same hunter type we been since cave man days. Your woman can’t throw your spear for you. She can cook your mammoth but she can’t kill him; not without killing you too.”
“And that’s when you started drinkin?”
“The thing about it is I miss her. I thought she’d be home when I got there. She wasn’t. My baby wasn’t. And I looked everywhere. I know she ain’t coming back to me, but I just wanted to know if she and the baby alright. I loved her. Love her.”
His look of a child who had misbehaved was amplified as Evaingeline looked down on him from her seat.
“So what you been doin since?”
“Working anything I can. I never been a day without a job since she left me.” He looked up for the first time and glanced over at Evangeline’s drink. She never seemed to pick it up but the glass was growing steadily emptier as their conversation progressed.
“Type of work you do?”
“I’ve been a farm hand, a stock man at different places. A bus driver, a truck driver, a rich folk driver. Now I’m a custodian and,” he smiled brightly, “a drunk.”
“Well honey it seems you been that for quite some time now.”
“You are no fool lady” they laughed.
“Listen,” she said tenderly. “I usually have a driver take me when I have long ways to go. My arthritis is starting to get the best of me. How bout I pay you to take me down to Florida. I got a, a god-daughter down there I need to see. I’ll pay for your own hotel room and I’ll take care of your eatin’. If you can get a couple of days off I can pay you twice what you woulda made workin’.”
“No fool not now you drunk. We can leave in the morning. You’ll be home fo’ Sunday evening come.”
They met, as arranged, the next morning at the same jook-joint as the night before. Walter was pacing out front in a white dress shirt and black pants and his ‘church’ shoes. Evangeline pulled up in a 1979 Lincoln Mark IV. She stopped the car and put it in park but kept it running. She got out and the sunshine from behind her gave her an ethereal look. Like she had some purpose in the world. Some journey she needed to complete.
“The hell you got on?” she called out to Walter.
“Well, you rich folk. This my rich folk drivin clothes.”
They stared at each other for a moment. She was trying to suppress her laughter, he was trying to look like a gentleman.
The road from Dothan, Alabama to Miami, Florida has a way of luring you from your original path. Before you know it you’ve spent an hour in some small town looking at Alligator skulls and wondering why there were Palm Tree keepsakes in what looked like any other land locked southern town. The landscape had the magic of Disney, the swamp, and the ocean all in one.
They were about 5 miles out of Leesburg when Evangeline called out from the back. “Lord lord, we have to stop here. I need a piece of pie.”
They were passing a small wooden building that seemed to serve both as a bakery and a family home. The aroma of pecans and butter and peaches brought forth another confidence from Walter.
“My wife,” he smiled at the memory, “used to make the best Sweet Potato Pie this side of the Mississippi.”
They pulled into the dusty driveway and parked between two other patrons.
“Can you get my slice for me? My legs starting to act up in this moist air” Evangeline called sweetly from the back.
“Sure, what kind you want?”
“Well if it’s that good, course I want some sweet potato pie.”
“I dunno if this person gone make it like Loretta.”
“I’ll take my chances”
Walter hoisted himself from the drivers seat, happy to stretch his legs. The misty Florida air clung to him like a lover relieved at his return. The dusty ground threatened to clump to his best shoes and he treaded carefully to the door of the establishment. It was a screened wooden door, to a screened wooden patio. It was through here the business was run but glancing through the window behind the bar turned serving window Walter could see that this was someone’s home.
“Hi,” a young man spoke to Walter from behind the bar. “Can I get you?”
“Let me get two slices of potato pie.”
“Ok, two-fifty. But I’ll tell you, my ma makes a pretty good Pecan Pie too.”
“Walter laughed at the young mans business savy. “Ok then, let me get a slice of that, too.”
Walter looked at the young man and saw himself at that age. Lean, handsome, hungry for success. He wondered what happened to himself. Wondered if he’d had too much faith in fate. He had waited for something great to happen to him. Waited for Loretta to come back, and now what? Was he waiting to die?
The boy handed him the slices of pie in small Styrofoam boxes along with a fork. Then he looked Walter in his face. Tilting his head this way and that.
“Thank you,” Walter walked out.
Before he made it to the car a woman about his age came strolling up to the house carrying a bagful of fresh pecans. He knew her walk. There was Loretta coming towards him like he had dreamed so many nights. Of course she was no longer a wobbling pregnant 22 year old, but he wasn’t the same handsome steadfast young man he had once been.
“Loretta?,” he choked. He cleared his throat and spoke again, “Loretta?”.
The woman looked at Walter and stopped in her tracks. Her eyes grew very very wide. Then slowly they went very very narrow.
“Walter what the hell you doing here?” she hissed.
“I-“ he fumbled and held up the pie, stupidly.
“How did you find us?
“I didn’t. I –“
“I thought sure I was rid of you.”
“Loretta?” She tried to march past him but he sat the pie on the hood of the nearest car and grabbed her, not unkindly. “Is that you?”
And without restraint he embraced her. She fought her way out of his arms.
“I can’t BELIEVE you came here!” Loretta yelled.
“I can’t neither.”
“Who told you I was here? Did you google me? What did you say to your son?
“My-“ and it dawned on him why the boy had stared at him so. “My boy.”
“He your son. Not your boy. You can’t love him now. You don’t have the right.”
“I looked for you.”
She stopped fighting and looked as though she was seeing him for the first time. “I know” she said matter-of-factly. “I didn’t want you to find us. So stop avoiding it, how the hell did you find us?”
For an answer Walter pointed at the car to Evangeline, but she had gone. Assuming that she’d gone inside Walter went back into the patio, but Evangeline wasn’t there either. He looked at the boy.
“You know me?” Walter asked in a hushed voice.
“Yes sir, I do.”
Overcome with emotion, but entirely too afraid of Loretta Walter stared at his son, his baby, his boy and soaked up every detail of him. When Lorettaentered the Patio Walter went to a corner by the bar and gestured for her to come over. She did.
“I dunno how none of this happened. I got drunk. I came back you were gone.”
“You left before I did Walter. I’m just the first to move out”
“Listen, I know I don’t deserve a thing from you. But that’s my boy. I can call him what I want, love him all I need. And now I found you. I ain’t losing you no more.”
Something about Walter’s tone eased Loretta’s fire even more.
“What’s his name?”
“Junior. So you stayin here now?” she asked. “We got a guest house. You welcome to it if you pay rent.”
Walter looked at his son who was staring back. “I have to go to Miami to drop this lady. Then I gotta pack up and take care of stuff in Dothan. I’ll be back in a week.”
“What lady?” his son asked.
“The one I came here with.”
Walter walked out into what was now a gentle rain. He peered into the backseat, thinking perhaps she’d stretched out in the back and to his surprise he found a note.
Now I told you you’d be home by Sunday, didn’t I? Car in Junior’s name now.