By Michael Anthony -
It began as a perfect summer day. The kind I had dreamt about during the final week of school. Though only the first of July, it was already hotter than usual. Then again, that whole year had been anything but. Sixty-four degrees on Valentine’s Day. Snow mid-April. No rain the entire month of June. Momma said the garden likely wasn’t going to produce enough for us to preserve come autumn. Little did we realize canning would be the least of our concerns.
I lay in the shade of the maple tree in our front yard, the grass tickling my neck. Overhead, a woodpecker attacked one limb, then another. Enormous white clouds sailed by like ghost ships in an endless sea. The world was a myriad of colors. Vibrant blue sky. Leaves in all shades of green. The dull umber of the unpaved lane on which we lived. Then, of course, there was the blurred scarlet head of that crazy bird. Tat-tat-tat. Tat-tat-tat.
My parents had been renting this house on Loganberry Lane since before I was born. So, it was the only home I knew. Having been built as servant’s quarters some hundred and forty years earlier by Azariah Huber, it sat midway between County Line Road at one end and the home of Azariah’s great-granddaughter, Miss Adelaide Huber at the other. That’s it, exactly two houses on a dirt road most people sped past without even noticing. It was as though we didn’t exist, which, truth be told, wasn’t all bad. No one selling steak knives or vacuum cleaners or some miracle spot remover. No Jehovah Witnesses either.
As the main route between Beamerville and the quarry, trucks rumbled up and down County Line Road from dawn to dusk. I saw Miss Huber pull out of her driveway and aim her big old Mercury Marquis towards the corner. Even with that pillow on which she sat, Miss Huber could barely see over the enormous steering wheel. She would only look straight ahead, and, most assuredly, wouldn’t wave. Momma used to say Ms. Addie, as she called her, drove like a woman on a mission. I wasn’t quite sure what that meant, but it sounded right.
Miss Addie, had been the music teacher at Valley Middle School. That is until she and the janitor, Johnnie Malcolm, were caught in the teacher’s lounge doing more than discussing school policy while wearing a whole lot less than many folks do in the privacy of their own bathroom. Mr. Malcolm left town that same week. Miss Addie wasn’t about to flee the home that had been in her family for generations.
Reluctantly, she retired from teaching and, under pressure from Reverend Tillerson, also resigned as lead organist for the First Congregational Church. In the years that followed she was seen around Beamerville only when she ventured out to food shop at Robbins Market or Olivia’s Emporium for clothes. Other than that, we’d hear her playing that antique grand piano which commanded her parlor. Sometimes it was a mazurka by Chopin. Other times, it was Scott Joplin’s “Magnetic Rag”. We could tell Miss Addie’s mood by her musical selection.
Fearing such an “immoral hussy” would corrupt their sons, or daughters, parents no longer sent their children to Miss Addie for private lessons. Momma wasn’t swayed so easily and told me that good people don’t abandon friends, especially not when they’re needed most. She bartered my doing yard work for Miss Addie in exchange for free piano lessons. So, every Thursday at four I’d walk down to Miss Addie’s. Even on summer vacation.
Between scales and exercises to strengthen my fingers, Miss Addie would share stories of when she was my age. She’d tell of boys coming to call on her, only to be chased off by her father, or learning to drive on a tractor. More than once she’d whisper that as I got older I should trust my gut, especially when it came to ‘affairs of the heart’ as she referred to them. “Never let anyone force you to do something that makes you feel uncomfortable.” I had the impression she spoke from personal experience. Our private moments were special.
When I’d get home after the lesson, I’d jot down in my notebook what Miss Addie had said. To this day, her admonitions still hold true.
Though her income had pretty much dried up, Miss Addie wasn’t wanting for money. Her ancestors had settled here in the eighteenth century and amassed large land holdings. Over the years, the Hubers had sold off a piece here and a piece there. That left only the houses on Loganberry Lane and three hundred fifty acres that stretched from the Huber home clear to the river. She was what folks around here called “well off.”
Miss Addie’s Mercury sped past me to the intersection and without stopping made a hard left.
The blast of an air horn, the squeal of brakes, and a thunderous explosion shattered the otherwise tranquil day. I jumped to my feet. Momma rushed to the screen door and called out, “Beckie! What was that?”
Quivering, I muttered, “Miss Addie.”
Momma flew out the door.
Saying I should stay put, she charged towards the column of smoke rising from behind the trees along County Line Road. I waited until Momma rounded the bend before following her. By the time I got there, Momma was kneeling over someone. Across the road a huge cement truck lay on its side, its wheels spinning in the air like some grisly carnival ride. Fifty feet farther down the road, Miss Addie’s Mercury was an overturned flaming heap of metal. Chrome and glass was everywhere.
Momma saw me coming towards her and thrust her hand high in the air, signaling me to stop right where I was. Convinced she was huddling over Miss Addie, I didn’t budge.
Even from that distance I could tell Miss Addie wasn’t moving. A dark puddle spread around her. Momma pulled the dishcloth from the waistband of her house dress and knotted it just above Miss Addie’s knee. That’s when I realized there was nothing below that knee.
The back of my throat suddenly went watery like I was about to throw up, which is exactly what I did. Breakfast puddled between my bare feet. Next thing I knew, I was on all fours, trying not to hurl again. Momma looked torn between tending to Miss Addie or me.
The county sheriff determined the crash had been Miss Addie’s fault for not yielding the right of way. With her car crushed beyond repair and no leg below her knee, Miss Addie never drove again. That truck driver spent six weeks in the hospital recuperating from his injuries. After rehab learning how to get around on one leg, Miss Addie spent the rest of the summer and a good part of autumn exiled in her home.
Momma and I would walk down the lane together. She to prepare Miss Addie’s meals and I to do her laundry. Not once did we mention the accident within hearing distance of Miss Addie. Momma did most everything for her including bathing her twice a week. One evening Momma told me Miss Addie would cover herself with a small towel when Momma would soap and rinse her. That didn’t surprise me because Miss Addie always acted so prim and proper. At least around me anyway.
It was just Momma and me ever since Daddy died. Now Miss Addie was part of our small flock. Claiming it hurt too much, she refused to wear the prosthetic leg that had been made for her. That thing stood in the corner of her bedroom like something out of a creepy horror movie.
Without her leg Miss Addie abandoned playing that grand piano too. Even stopped my free lessons. The gleam that once brightened her eyes as her fingers danced across the keyboard vanished along with that leg. She sank into a depression as dark as the root cellar behind her house. Even Momma couldn’t cajole Miss Addie into playing. I didn’t even try.
Nor did Miss Addie desire to listen to music on the radio or record player. Her collection of classical piano albums sat gathering dust. Rachmaninov, Gould, Rubenstein, and, Miss Addie’s favorite, Dame Myra Hess were silenced, never to be heard again.
She discouraged anyone wishing to call on her. Even Reverend Tillerson, who offered to pray with her, couldn’t get Miss Addie to relent. She had withdrawn from the outside world. I understood why.
We saw only one visitor, a short stocky man, go in and out of her home several times. I remember because his bald head reminded me of an army helmet. He usually came in the early morning and was on his way in an hour. Miss Addie never volunteered who he was, nor why he had been there. We knew she was the last surviving Huber, so it surely wasn’t a relative.
One afternoon that November, Miss Addie summoned Momma and me to her home. We sat on a velvet settee across from her bed as she lay propped on several pillows and draped with a pink chenille spread. In a voice that weakened with every syllable, she told us we had been her only true friends after her misfortunes. She apologized for being so ornery and inhospitable. Momma said we hadn’t noticed. I seconded her polite lie.
Miss Addie pointed me to a massive armoire by the window where I would find an inlaid wooden box I was to give to Momma. It was the same box into which I had seen Miss Addie put her ruby and diamond brooch as well as her gold bracelets. Miss Addie handed Momma a small key on a loop of orange yarn along with the explicit instruction to unlock the box only after her time had come. “Not a moment before.”
Momma and Miss Addie shared a pot of chamomile tea. I drank lemonade and watched as Miss Addie’s fingers, which had once made beautiful music, now struggle to grasp the cup. She refused Momma’s offer of assistance, but did accept one of her shortbread cookies.
Her pale skin looked nearly as translucent as that porcelain cup. Miss Addie’s eyes would flutter, close, and then reopen as though she was awakening from a dream. We remained there until the sun neared the treetops. A final shaft of golden light illuminated Miss Addie’s room like a stage and turned her wispy white hair into a glittering platinum crown. She rested her eyes again. Her breathing was nearly inaudible.
Momma whispered we should let Miss Addie rest and that we’d check on her later that evening. The western sky glowed orange as we walked home, passing in and out of the shadows of the evergreens that lined Loganberry Lane. Momma carried that box while I wondered what magnificent treasures it held. Without saying a word, she put it in the cupboard.
After a quick dinner of pork chops and collard greens, we headed back to Miss Addie’s. Momma unlocked the kitchen door and went directly to the sink where she filled a pitcher with cool water. I started down the hall towards Miss Addie’s bedroom but froze at the entryway to the parlor.
There was Miss Addie hunched over the piano, her back to us, her crutches on the floor beside her. I stood amazed at her determination. Whispering we shouldn’t startle the poor woman, Momma approached her first.
Truth was nothing could startle Miss Addie now.
Her funeral was sparsely attended by a handful of former fellow teachers, but not the principal or many members of the Congregational Church. Reverend Tillerson was there and, of course, Momma and I.
Miss Adelaide Abitha Huber was interred in the family plot behind her home on the hill overlooking the river. Her parents on one side. Her great-grandfather Azariah on the other.
The few folks there dispersed quick as June bugs. According to Miss Addie’s wishes there was no repast.
Sitting at our kitchen table, Momma unlocked the inlaid box. I was absolutely sure she had given us some of her prized jewelry. Not that I wore any. But, Momma always admired that brooch Miss Addie wore to Sunday services.
Instead of precious gems or gold, Momma found a letter from a Mr. Russell Beede, attorney at law. Momma began reading it aloud. It said that at Miss Addie’s specific direction he had prepared the paperwork to dispose of all her assets including the land that ran down to the river as well as the two houses on Loganberry Lane. I figured that lawyer must have been the bald man we’d seen going in and out of Miss Addie’s home.
Momma’s eyes filled as she read the rest of the letter silently. When Momma gasped I was sure it was more bad news. Where were we going to live?
Seems Miss Addie had donated fifty acres along the riverbank to the county for a public park. She bequeathed everything else to us. Both houses on Loganberry Lane, the remaining three hundred acres, and that grand piano. Actually, she gave that to me, requesting I keep it tuned, continue taking lessons, and promise not to sell it. I did as asked.
We moved into Miss Addie’s home where I practiced what the piano teacher in Beamerville taught me each week. Can’t say I truly mastered more than a few meager melodies. But, I tried.
An appraiser came all the way from Chicago and after a protracted examination declared the mahogany piano to be an authentic Érard. The man then added that, based on the inspection, along with the provenance documents the Huber Family had kept, he was able to confirm it was once owned by Franz Liszt himself. The appraiser recommended an insurance valuation of at least six hundred thousand dollars.
Stunned, Momma and I stared at one other through tears of joy at our good fortune and ones of sadness for our departed friend.
What with the land, the houses, and the sizeable Huber family trust we didn’t have to sell that piano or one square inch of property. We still live in that big old house at the end of Loganberry Lane where that piano remains in the parlor with a lone sheet of music on its rack.
Turns out that before we found her the evening she died, Miss Addie had handwritten a little tune she titled “True Friends.” She dedicated it to Momma and me. Each year on the anniversary of her passing I attempt to play her song. Oh, I’m sure almost anyone else could play it better, but none with more heartfelt gratitude.
Michael Anthony is a writer and artist living in New Jersey. He has published fiction, poetry, illustrations, and photographs in literary journals and commercial magazines. Most recently these include Dove Tales, Potato Soup Journal, and Minnow Literary Magazine. You can find more of his work at MichaelAnthony.MyPortfolio.com