This is the beginning of one of twelve short stories from my book, “Christmas on Pleasant Hill”, available from Amazon. Half of all the profits from this book are donated to 3Cs Nursery School. It’s set in College Hill, a Cincinnati neighborhood, so it has an added appeal to locals. This redemptive story, “The Refuge” draws on our neighborhood’s fascinating history as a stop on the Underground Railroad:
No one had told Charise that her grandmother had died. The funeral was over by the time she heard. A lawyer had sent her a letter requesting that she contact him concerning the estate of the deceased Olivia Anderson. She had stared at the paper until her hand began to shake. Then she drank a bottle of her boyfriend’s Red Stag and slept
That had been a relapse; she had actually been sober for over two months when the letter arrived. When she emerged from her stupor, it was to her boyfriend, Damon,
grinning down at her. He picked up the almost empty whiskey bottle, took the last swig and said, “I knew pretty soon you’d be giving up on that sobriety crap.”
Two days later, Charise stood in the front yard of her grandmother’s Cincinnati property, shivering in her leather jacket, wishing she had brought up a winter coat from Nashville. She had packed in a hurry, while Damon was out so he could not talk her into taking him with her.
She had wanted to be alone, but now she wondered. Standing in front of the glorious old house in the quiet and the cold, she wondered if the loneliness might do her in. It was a grand Victorian frame house, built in the 1850s, recently painted a bright yellow with white trim and green shutters.
That had been Grandpa’s last big job before his stroke. He had painted first floor trim while the grandkids got on tall ladders to paint the rest. Why, Charise wondered, why hadn’t they inherited the house instead of her – those cousins who were always there, always helping?
She was reluctant to call her family until she met with the lawyer. She would just have to wait, for three days. That was the earliest the lawyer could schedule her to go over the will. She hoped anxiously that there might be a note for her, something personal from her grandmother. In the meantime, she would go through the house, plan what to do with its contents and find a realtor to put up the place for sale.
She zipped her jacket, cold but reluctant to go into the house. She had bare feet in high-heeled sandals, skin tight crop pants, a silk shirt and the inadequate jacket. Her bracelets and necklaces were like ice on her skin. She never thought of being comfortable any more, only of looking hot. It was the uniform of the life she had chosen. Damon liked a good looking woman. That was the first thing he’d told her. He walked into the club where she was sitting with some friends, surveyed the room, saw her, walked straight to her and said, “You are by far the best looking woman in this place. You might be the best looking woman I’ve ever seen, and I keep my eyes open.”
He’d bought drinks for her and her large group of friends and took them all back to his place, dazzling them with his black swimming pool, his collection of African art and his limitless supply of Cinderella weed. A week later she’d moved in with him.
She walked a winding path to the center of the garden. Even in December it was beautiful, with the pond and the statue of a little girl holding a basket, smiling bravely into the wind. Dead leaves whisked across the path in front of her, stirring up memories. She saw Grandpa on the porch, rocking back and forth in the white chair, staring into the woods as he sucked on the pipe his wife would not let him smoke in the house. She saw her cousin leaning on a carved porch pillar, wiping his face on his shirt, drinking a pop after mowing. She saw Grandma on the other side of the pond, gathering an armload of lavender to dry and make into sachets for the drawers.
A strange little cry escaped her throat. It was out before she knew it was coming – despair at how memory brought the past alive, then left you bereft. This empty yard was what seemed surreal. Grandma and Grandpa both gone, and Charise estranged from the whole family…. This was a bad idea, coming up here early and alone. How did she think she could stay in this place, alone?
She thought about the bar down the street that had live music on the weekends. She would go down there, just for dinner. Just for company. Tears spilled over her cheeks, running mascara. When Grandma was done in the garden, she used to call Charise and say, “Come in with me, baby. Keep me company in the kitchen.” Charise could see her on the steps right now, scooping a loose, strong arm toward her. “Now Baby. It’s time.”
I’ve done too many drugs, Charise thought. Her brain had floated in and out of delusion too many times, so now memories turned into ghosts that seemed real. With a great effort of will, tears still flowing, she got her suitcase out of her car and went into the house. Once inside she expected more hauntings that would tear her heart with remorse. She deserved that. But being back in the entry, seeing the hallstand draped with familiar hats, and the grand curving staircase, she felt welcomed, she felt home. Her courage rose. She would not go to the bar. She would get groceries, come back here and face the music, let all the memories whack her in undulled sobriety.
She put down the suitcase and ran her fingers over the floral picture carved into the newel post of the stair railing; she had etched it on paper as a little girl, rubbing with the side of a brown crayon. She looked into the first room on the right, the office where Grandma did her paperwork and needlework. She had liked to look out the front window on her garden as she worked.
Charise looked into the work basket, remembering knitting lessons. There was a half- finished scarf still on two needles. It was not like Grandma to stop in the middle of a row. Maybe she was knitting when she had the heart attack… Charise dug her fingers into the scarf, tears now running down her neck. She found a tissue, blew her nose, and walked into the dining room. She stood in the big room, always light-filled, looking at the rich scarlet walls hung with quilts, local art and historical scenes of Pleasant Hill. What a legacy. The thought crept up on her – this is mine. She said it out loud, low, to the empty table and chairs, ‘This is mine.’ She smiled at the sweet fantasy of it – of keeping this heavenly house.
But not for long. Damon had crunched the numbers. She had no income. Even though the house was paid for, it was still far too much for her to keep up with taxes, utility bills and maintenance costs. She knew that even with a good job it was too much for one person.
“It’s a money pit, babe,” Damon had said, emphatically. “Don’t you be letting family talk you into trying to hang on. You call me if you start to feel the squeeze. I’ll straighten them out…”
Charise shuddered. Something had kept her from even giving him the address. She forced her eyes to the largest painting in the room, the one Grandpa said would never let them forget where they came from. It was a romanticized picture of black people working in a cotton field. Women in bright dresses and turbans smiled as they bent over the plants, a few in the foreground laughed as they balanced full baskets on their heads. Grandpa had said to Charise, “They might look happy, but those baskets are heavy and that sun burns. You do not want to spend your days doing that kind of work. That’s why our families came up here.”
Now she looked at the bottom right of the picture, expecting a gash, or at least an ugly line. It looked fine. She had to squint from inches away to see the slightest line showing that the canvas had been repaired. She realized that she had been holding her breath, and released it in a big relieved sigh. She went into the adjoining kitchen. If the heart of her childhood could be located in one place, this would be it, right here helping Grandma chop food, reading her recipes, listening to her stories. Charise had lived in an apartment nearby with her mom and dad, but here with Grandma and Grandpa was where she always wanted to be.
Back then, Grandma had been the cook for the house’s owner, a remarkably kind woman who welcomed Olivia’s grandchildren any time. Grandpa had worked first shift at a factory, then done a few chores at the house in the evenings and all day Saturday. The owner had no children, and when she had died, she had preferred to leave the house to this faithful couple who had lived with her for years, than to some distant relative. Charise’s grandparents had been stunned. Their parents had been poor farmers in Alabama, and suddenly they found themselves owning a mansion on six acres, along with all its contents.Even years after it happened, Grandma would pause at her work of chopping or mixing or scrubbing, look around and say, “I still can’t believe it’s ours. It’s like I got to go to heaven early.”
Charise noticed a note on the counter. It was in her cousin Tanya’s round, loopy hand. “Welcome back to Cincinnati. Your mom said you were coming up sometime this week. I left you some soup in the freezer and cornbread like Grandma used to make.” Charise shook her head, astounded at this kindness. After how she had treated the family, she was afraid that no one would want to speak to her, let alone Tanya.
This story will be continued in the next post…