As Opal Pratt wooshed out a breath, she plopped into her ancient, front porch rocking chair and put her creamy mug of coffee on the wobbly table next to her. That’s when she looked up and saw it. It was odd, confusing. Her property, where sat the house of her birth and years before of her parents’ residence, sat some ways up the dirt lane from the two-lane highway into and out of Vicksburg. She didn’t know in inches or feet or partial miles what the distance was, but it didn’t matter. It belonged to the Pratt family. Always had. And yet, there was an odd sight down toward the highway.
Opal took a sip of the hot coffee and studied the scene. There was a man just adjacent to the east of her lane. He had a three-legged contraption with something on top that looked like a camera or telescope. He would bend over, look through the thing, then wave one way or another to the other man holding a flag on a long pole some ways off. It didn’t make any sense. She watched them move back and forth and around, and she frowned.
The man with the tripod also noticed her and called a break to his associate. He walked south to Opal’s porch steps.
“Afternoon, ma’am.” He tipped his hat.
Opal did not speak. She only looked at him.
“Ma’am, it seems that perhaps no one advised you that we would be here today.”
Still no response from Opal.
“Since that front piece is being sold, it’s required that a survey is performed on that particular plat, so we’re here to take measurements to ensure the correct property lines.”
Opal only heard the word “sold” and finally spoke. “It’s my land. It’s not much, but it’s belonged to my family since before I was born.”
“You’re Miss Pratt, correct? Your family has owned this little piece of land back here, but that section up front by the highway isn’t yours. You didn’t know that? I’m sorry, but the rightful owner passed away and his children are selling it to someone. At least that’s what I’ve heard. They don’t tell us much except to survey it.”
“How could that not be mine? It’s been open land with my trees and lane and view for all my life. No one has a right to it. I just don’t believe any of this. I don’t believe you.”
“I’m very regretful, Miss Pratt. That’s all I can say. I don’t know what else to say.” He observed his shoes for a minute or two, tipped his hat again, and walked back down to his chore.
Opal couldn’t feel if she was more confused or angry. Selling part of her property? Not at all. After rinsing her coffee mug and taking Goldie out back to do his business and chase a couple of squirrels, she was no less aggravated. She called Lemuel.
“Girlie, just because we once courted, I don’t know why you keep callin’ me every few years. Ain’t there nobody else you can bother?”
“There’s a problem with my land,” she said.
“There’s problems with a lot of stuff over there.”
“Can you just be civil and help me?” Opal didn’t want him to hear her cry.
“Well, tarnation. What is it?”
Opal explained what she’d seen and heard that afternoon and how distressed it made her. “What can I do, Lem? Momma and Daddy left me this place and this land.”
“Well, it’s for sure not much,” said Lem. “What you need to do is call the county registrar of deeds. There will be records there to tell you just what you own.”
“You know I can’t do that. I wouldn’t know what to say, and I can’t talk to those people. It would be too much. Couldn’t you do that for me? Please?”
Lemuel made a quiet noise something like a growl.
“Woman, you turned down my proposal, but every time things go south over there, you call and expect me to fix it.”
Silence. Opal was certainly no coquette, but Lemuel Parker was the only person, and she didn’t know many, who could figure this out.
“Dang it all! All right. I’ll make a call. Don’t go messin’ with those men in the meantime.”
Three days later, Lem made a disappointing return call to Opal.
“I don’t take no pleasure in this,” he said. “Your mom and dad shouldda made this clear long before they departed this world, but that front land ain’t yours.”
“What? No, no that can’t be right,” moaned Opal.
“I’m sorry, girlie. It’s true and you just need to listen. You got a lot less than the three-quarter acre you done thought you had. The front piece done been sold. You’ll have an easement on the lane so’s you can come and go from your little house. That’s all there is to it. Nothin’ else you can do. Done. I’m courtin’ a woman over closer to Beederville, so you probly don’t need to be callin’ me no more.”
“I understand. Thank you, Lem. Good luck with the lady.”
A few days later, Opal saw a crew arrive up front with equipment to level and smooth a piece of that land before setting in the ground a wooden frame that she guessed must be the prospective size of the building that she would hate forever. Only a day or so after, a big truck with a large, round churning thing on the back showed up and vomited thick gray matter into the frame. She looked in her encyclopedia. Cement most likely. No workers came back for about three days. It must have allowed for the goop to solidify.
Watching the returning crew from her porch while she had coffee tended to give her indigestion, but it was hard not to maintain a vigilant watch on the progress of the abomination. She would take a sip, then cross her arms and cause the rocking chair to roughly lurch back and forth as if the chair itself was angry not merely its occupant. When she wasn’t in her chair, she found it necessary to forcefully sweep her porch several times a day. When she thought the laborers were noticing her, she went inside and watched from her picture window. Walls and windows went up without her approval.
It was going to be a house, and it was taller and wider and nicer than hers. There had been, and probably still was, a clump of white crepe myrtle trees across the highway that bloomed all summer and gave her great pleasure. Unfortunately, she wouldn’t be able to see them any more.
“Only the back of what’s going to be surely an ugly house. Oh, cabbage and cauliflower!” she thought.
It was October, and there were some rain days when no work was done on the house. Opal was tempted, despite the rain, to slosh down and poke some holes in things. She knew it was wrong, so she resisted. She didn’t want to get wet anyway.
The weather dried up, and bricks were stacked in place. It was going to be a nice house. Then the exterior of the house was complete, and other smaller trucks arrived periodically to do things inside. Work was moving quickly now. On a Thursday, a man came to her door.
“Good morning. I’m running the job on that front piece of property, and I wanted to tell you about our next step.”
Opal didn’t speak. She just looked at him.
Awkwardly, he began again. “Well, we’ve been told to pave the front part of the lane and then a driveway off of it to the new house up there. We want to do it quickly before more weather moves in, so we’ll start working on the weekend. That part of the dirt road will be closed for Saturday, Sunday and Monday. I wanted to let you know today so you can get anything done tomorrow that needs doing.”
“You can’t do that,” Opal said without blinking.
“Beg pardon, ma’am?”
“I said you can’t do that. I do my grocery shopping on Mondays at the Piggly Wiggly in Vicksburg. You can’t trap me here.”
“I wish there might be another way, but there’s just the one road up to your house. Couldn’t you shop tomorrow or Tuesday? Would it be that much different?”
“Yes, it would.” Opal took a step back and slammed the door before hiding in the kitchen to throw some unbreakable bowls and pans.
On Friday there was no work going on at the brick house, so no one would see her drive out to the highway for her errands four days early. They shouldn’t have the satisfaction of seeing her have to change her habits.
The checker at Piggly Wiggly noted that Opal’s purchases were double the amount she usually bought. Next, she went to the service station that gave green stamps and had the tank filled to hold her for the duration. She slowed down as she approached home and was relieved that there were still no workers. She turned onto her rough, potholed lane for probably the last time. If she’d known curse words, she might have used them.
On Saturday morning, she was fixing a little breakfast for herself and Goldie. She had turned on her favorite radio station and was pretending to sing while she scrambled eggs, but Patti Page got drowned out by calamitous noise from the front. Afraid of whatever might be there, she peeked out the window. She’d been locking the door ever since the difficulties had begun. What was the current assault?
A big truck was spitting out a load of rock and maybe that was sand. It sounded like a mountain was collapsing. After breakfast, she took Goldie out back for his business, but Opal had to work to keep him in the back yard. He growled and barked and wanted to go to the front and chew on some miscreant. He finally took time to . . . well, you know, and they went inside.
The noise of Saturday was no match for the stink of Sunday. Opal didn’t know the name, but she knew the black asphalt produced a sickening smell that she couldn’t close out of her house. A driveway from the newly paved road to the back of the brick house was also being poured. She hadn’t been able to go to church.
On Monday, all was quiet from the front property, but the road was blocked and the smell remained. He had been right. She couldn’t go anywhere. On Tuesday, the wooden barricades were gone, but Opal was suspicious. She wasn’t about to leave the house only to get stuck or laughed at on the new road. Fortunately, she had enough food to last.
Nearly a week later when her supplies were dwindling, the moving truck arrived. November was getting chilly so she pulled on a sweater and once again took her coffee to the porch, but treated her rocking chair more gently. After all, it was where Momma died. A very large truck like the ones she’d seen up and down the highway had pulled into the brick house’s driveway. There was seventy-five yards or so from her porch steps to the back driveway of the new house so she had to squint to snoop at the furniture being carried in. It was nice, maybe new, and maybe nicer than at the preacher’s house. As the carrying-in began, a new model car arrived next to the mover’s van. A woman emerged and looked in Opal’s direction, upon which Opal grabbed her coffee mug and went inside. There will be no fraternizing with the enemy.
A couple of weeks slid by. It was only a few days before Thanksgiving. Opal’s living room fireplace happily crackled blue and yellow flames and warmed the living room and kitchen. Opal was satisfied with her radio shows and with the attention required for crocheting a new, harder pattern she’d seen in a magazine. She hummed along with the popular songs. Until there was a knock at the front door.
In the country, you don’t look out a peephole before opening a door so Opal was surprised when she saw the well-dressed woman from the brick house standing on her porch. The woman, probably in her forties, was dressed exactly as she was raised and just as one who’d live in such a nice house. She wore gray wool slacks that had sharp creases and fit perfectly. The darker gray sweater was so soft looking that it must be cashmere. She’d learned of that from one of the rich ladies at church. When the woman moved her head, there were glints about her ears. Gold or diamonds. And there she was smiling on Opal’s porch.
“Hi there. You must be Miss Pratt,” she said. “I’m afraid we caused some disruption in your life with all the construction up front. I’m so sorry.”
Opal ignored the cue to reply and invite her inside, though she knew that good manners dictated so. Momma would have scolded her.
“My name is Camelia Hillboro. Friends call me Cammy.” She looked around Opal’s shoulder hoping it would garner an invitation into the house. Opal was immovable.
“Okay, anyway.” Camelia pushed on. “It’s almost Thanksgiving you know. I’m having just a very few friends to enjoy the holiday at my new home. It’s just me up there, and I truly hope you’ll join us. I think you’d enjoy my friends, and I know they’d love to get to know you. I certainly would.”
Camelia paused again for a response.
“Thank you, but I have other plans.”
“I’m so sorry,” said Camelia with sincerity. “If your plans change, please come on up. We’ll eat about three in the afternoon, but come any time. I plan on an abundance of good food. Please think about it.”
Opal had no intention of thinking about it although the woman’s heartfelt invitation touched her. Of course, she’d lied. Since her young friend Billy Jamison had disappeared into the foster care network, she was sometimes heartbroken and always alone. Because Billy’s small family bore no resemblance to a normal family, he would have come to her house for a modest Thanksgiving celebratory meal – and they’d have been earnest about their blessings of friendship. But he wasn’t here any more. Her parents were dead. Her dear friend Francine/Frances had been sucked up into the city. And Opal had declined her only suitor. She was completely alone except for her aging dog, Goldie, who’d once been Billy’s pup. She had, however, bought a roasting chicken at the Piggly Wiggly along with two Irish potatoes. She wasn’t sure if she’d bake the potatoes or cream them, but she’d just have a Thanksgiving meal of her own without those fancy people up front. On her way back home from the store, she’d even stopped by the table set up on the road just out of Vicksburg where the old lady sold her pies. Opal bought a custard pie and knew it wouldn’t go to waste.
Mid-day Thanksgiving morning, Opal went to services at the Pleasant Valley Baptist Church. The sanctuary was warm and decorated with fall colors and vegetables. They made her smile, and they made her hungry.
She was back home and, having poked into life the living room fire, she was studying the chicken to decide how to proceed with it. With the knock at her front door, she startled out of her reverie and slipped around the side of her stove area so she couldn’t be seen from the living room window. Flattened against the wall, she held her breath as if the person at the door could hear her. After a time, she was certain that whoever had been at the door was gone, so she went to peek out. From the living room picture window, the porch looked empty. She slowly squeezed open the front door and heard it push something as it moved. She wanted to go to a knee to peek around the partially opened door, but doubted that her heftiness would allow her down and knew that it would never let her back up. From her angle, she studied the yard and lane and, seeing nothing, peered around the partially opened door. The item being moved was a large dinner plate covered with tin foil. Miss fancy lady thought Opal couldn’t provide her own Thanksgiving meal or wouldn’t have actually gone somewhere. Harumph!
Opal reached out enough to quickly move the plate to the left of the doorframe where it wouldn’t be bothered by openings and closings. Once again, she looked about and then slammed the door.
Back in her kitchen, she located a pan for the chicken and wondered about how drippings appear and what she should have done to make dressing. Just cutting it up and frying it was certainly an option at this point. She knew how to do that. Momma should have taught her better. She started peeling her two potatoes, but the contents of the mystery dinner plate continued to tempt her. It was chilly outside, so the contents weren’t likely to spoil, but perhaps it should be in the frigidaire. Goldie knew Opal was thinking about food and so whined for his share. After tending to him, Opal walked quietly to the picture window and peeked around the cheap curtains. Seeing nothing, she opened the door and grabbed the plate so quickly that no human without super powers could have spotted her.
The chicken was unceremoniously shoved into the fridge, and Opal warmed the plate without removing the tin foil. When the big reveal occurred, she smiled at the mounds of food – white meat turkey, dressing, gravy, some special cranberry sauce she’d never seen, green beans with almonds, a fancy rice dish, marshmallow and pineapple sweet potatoes, creamed white potatoes, and something she didn’t recognize. Smiling broadly, she set the overflowing plate on her kitchen table, accompanied it with utensils and a napkin, and set about a much better dinner than she might have prepared.
Opal belched, rinsed off her plate, and cut a piece of the custard pie.
One more log on the fire, a wrap-up in her afghan, and Opal snuggled on the davenport for a Thanksgiving Day nap.
The sun was beginning its daily departure when Opal woke and thought about the pretty dinner plate. She finally decided. She put a piece of the pie on the plate and covered it tightly with wax paper. She resisted being Camelia’s buddy, but she wouldn’t be rude either. She put it on the porch and closed the living room curtains.
On the first Monday of December as Opal returned home from buying groceries, she saw that the brick house was decorated for Christmas. Colored lights lined the roof and brick border around the porch. Small wreaths hung in each window, and a large, glittery one adorned the front door. The house seemed to smile. A life-sized manger scene, complete with wise men and an angel, blessed the front lawn. Hardly anyone along the highway was that extravagant. That was a town thing.
As soon as Opal put away her purchases, she went into the room that used to belong to her parents before they passed. When they were both gone, she pushed all the furniture to the walls and hung a clothesline for drying things on rainy or too-cold days. There were also a few, sagging cardboard boxes and a couple of stuffed paper sacks. She rummaged through everything until she found what she wanted: her mother’s simple Christmas decorations. She’d decorate, too.
Opal went to the front porch and tacked up a pretty red ribbon with large, gold-looking bells attached. Maybe tomorrow she’d go to the woods out back and cut a couple of small evergreen branches to make the ribboned bells into an arrangement. She was quite pleased with herself.
In the late afternoon, she was still trying to master the new afghan pattern while being mostly distracted by Dragnet on the radio, when she heard something outside. Without snagging her sweater, she headed to the porch. The cop show had made her unreasonably bold. It was Camelia. Her gloved hands were steadying a medium-sized, decorated Christmas tree in its own stand. She seemed intent on placing it next to the porch steps.
“Please don’t,” Opal nearly whispered. “I’m not your charity case.”
Not the reaction Camelia had expected. She stammered, “I’m sorry. I only meant . . . I wanted to. I intended no harm.”
Camelia looked sad. Opal looked resolute. Camelia unsettled the tree and dragged it back to her property. Opal salved her hurt feelings with the last of the custard pie. She made a mental not to treat herself to another one.
The two women didn’t cross paths for a while. On New Year’s Day, Opal saw several cars at the brick house and thought there must be a party. This time Camelia didn’t bother to invite her. In mid-February, there was a two-day ice storm. It wasn’t as bad as ones she’d endured in the past, and she got logs to the porch before it was too hard. She didn’t know if the brick house lady knew how to manage with an ice storm, so she kept frequent watch out the front windows to see that Camelia didn’t try to drive on the ice or get outside and fall down. She never saw the woman outside, and then she saw smoke climbing out of the chimney. Good. Camelia had brought in logs and, despite the electrical outage, she was staying warm inside. It was good news.
Late March brought Easter and, from her traditional back-pew seat, Opal spotted Camelia. They exchanged smiles.
As the weather warmed in mid-Mississippi and sent psychic messages to earth, country women turned to their gardens – one for the vegetables they would eat or can through the growing months and another for the flowers that gave them pleasure aside from their destiny to work hard while the weather allowed.
Opal had assumed the routine of checking on activities at the brick house twice a day – more often if activities required. It was one of those perfect days when she saw a truck with an open back pull up to Cammy’s house. The sign on the side read “Polly’s Perfect Plants.” With effort, Opal turned around a bit the stuffed chair in front of the picture window to solve the mystery. Men pulled young-ish trees from the truck and spent great time planting them perfectly across the back of Cammy’s property. There were nine crepe myrtles. From the blooms beginning to pop on a few of the trees, the flowers would be white.
Opal couldn’t stop smiling and couldn’t stop the flow of happy tears as she walked up the lane just in time to see Cammy exit her back door with a similar grin.
“Opal, you’re just in time. I have coffee nearly ready, and it’s almost time for the school bus and the Trailways. Let’s get our coffee and go to the front porch.”