Thanks, Rich Heiser, for this seed sentence! April 11, 2018
“Sometimes, when you relocate, you need to purposely DRAG your heart with you.”
Sometimes, when you relocate, you need to purposely DRAG your heart with you.
Vernon’s heart strongly resisted relocating. He knew it was better by far if your heart drags you instead of the other way around. But he couldn’t see that happening. Maybe if he forced a relocation, his heart wouldn’t have any choice in the matter.
Life had lost its inspiration. Days followed each other in predictable measure. Get up. Walk to the coffee shop. Talk with the same people about the same humdrum events. Avoid politics. Return home. Go to his studio. Open the blinds to let in what light could enter through the narrow windows. Pick up a brush. Paint. It was increasingly difficult to find motivation and he knew that above all, he needed change.
Life had become a comfortable jacket. Worn in some places, a bit frayed at the edges, maybe even boring to wear at times. But he knew the smell of it and how it warmed him on a bitter cold night as he painted in his dark and drafty studio. Damn! He needed a nip of smooth scotch now and then to make up for the chill wafting through those worn window panes. He’d talked with the local realtor more than once, trying to work up the nerve to sell this place before it was so out of date it was only good to raze to the ground. It had its charm and some young upstart might be fool enough to be taken in by its gables, multilevels, curving staircase, and rusty pipes. He could take the money and settle into a snug townhouse somewhere with warm electric heat and a brightly lit studio. Let someone else tend to the trees and grass. Spend more time painting. Be inspired to care again. Profits from the house along with his latest commission offered comfort for a few years and would allow him time to find the right place and explore new techniques.
But it was hard to let go of the dream home his parents had built. Since early years as a small boy, he had stared out the windows at the big old apple tree, watching it bud, bloom, prop up bird nests, turn into shades of brown in the fall, and stand bare until snow piled high on its branches. He grew up in this old house. Knew it’s secrets. Had his own secrets hidden in the back corners of his mind. But one, long dormant, was pushing to the surface.
The article had been buried deep within yesterday’s newspaper. He still wasn’t sure how it caught his attention. “Woman seeks information on her roots.” It might not even be her, but somehow, he knew it was. With her name, it couldn’t be a coincidence. And his secret held her answer.
He stared at the canvas in front of him. Her face formed itself in the spontaneous splashes of deep purple dripping down the amber staircase he had dabbed in yesterday. Would this woman want to know what he had to tell her?
Dropping his brush on the table, he poured one more thumbs-width of scotch into his glass and slumped into the chair. Remembering.
Steering his way home through alleys, to avoid Snarly Gander’s local thugs, he had almost hit her. Slamming his brakes, he had skid to a stop, got out and approached the slowly moving wraith with the bright red beret sliding off the disheveled hair.
“Ma’am?” The shadow turned to face him. Her face. He couldn’t shake the memory of that wretched face for years. Her left eye and lips swollen from a brutal punch, makeup smeared across her cheek, dress ripped, and belt askew. But what haunted him the most was her swollen belly.
“Sir…help me. Oh, God, please help me! Help us!”
He led her to the car and set her into the back where she could lay down. She was shaking so hard, he wasn’t sure she could sit upright.
“I’m getting you to the hospital.”
“No!” She wailed, arms flailing in protest. “You can’t! Please! They’ll kill me!”
She shook her head. “Can’t say. They’ll kill me!”
“Where’s home? I’ll take you home.”
“No! They’ll look for me there! Somewhere else. Anywhere! Help me, please!”
“Got a family?”
“No more – they kicked me out. Please, I have nowhere!”
So he took her to his home. What else was he to do? He knew those mean streets. Filled with men who fought to run the local booze racket and women who did what they could to survive.
He set her up in his parent’s old room with its faded morning glory wallpaper until he figured out what to do with her. Three months later he still hadn’t figured it out. By then it was far beyond figuring. She was fast approaching a delivery day and he still didn’t know her name. “Corrina” she told him, but every other woman was Corrina ever since that damn song had hit the clubs. He figured it wasn’t her real name, but it didn’t matter anymore. He was already hiding her, so why not add her name to the list of secrets?
Corrina insisted on secrecy. “If the father finds out where I live, he’ll kill me. The baby. And you. He tried the night you found me, but the bartender intervened by kicking me out the back door and announcing drinks on the house.”
Vernon snooped as deeply as he could to find out who was at the Green Mill that night. Kip the bartender was as closed mouthed as they came and who could blame him? His livelihood depended upon confidentiality. Couldn’t blame a man for doing his job. But after months of accumulating bits and pieces of information he figured it out. And understood why Corrina refused to talk. He didn’t push her on it. She already had more than most to handle.
Corrina’s belly grew. You could see the baby’s feet kicking as it squirmed around. She let him feel her belly as it moved. At night, he thanked God for Corrina. “God, you know I never wanted a kid or even a wife. Don’t want to be responsible for anyone but me. But it’s been a nice surprise to have them with me for just a little while. Just don’t make it forever.”
He did insist on one thing. He wanted someone there to deliver the kid.
“Corrina, you gotta have a midwife.”
“Yeah, sure. Okay. I’ll let you know when.”
She didn’t. He should have known. She announced labor pains with a loud moan in early morning. Lucky woman, that Corrina. The kid popped out in three hours. Arrived at 4:14 on the nose. For some reason, he always remembered that. He cut the cord, washed the squalling baby in warm water and wrapped it in a blanket, hands shaking all the while. He’d only seen Molly deliver her pups when he was eleven and watched a cinema of a baby born to pioneers, but it was enough. He and Corrina, they got through it okay.
“Valarie. Her name is Valarie.”
“She got a last name?”
“Davis will do just fine.”
Six weeks of a nighttime crying baby made it hard to get up in the morning to go to work. But that little Valarie was hard to resist. He’d go pick her up to shut her up when Corrina was napping, and she’d coo and giggle until he grinned. Then she’d settle back into his arms and gaze into his soul with those deep blue eyes. It made him wonder, for the first time, what caused existence and how a baby survived to adulthood. And how God was smart to make babies cute, so you could tolerate their constant disruption to life. That Valarie was a real eye-opener for him. Something to consider as a strange gift. But he found himself relieved when Corrina announced it was time for the two of them to move on.
“Where you going?”
“I got old friends with kids. I can live with them until I get a job and on my feet. I wrote them I’m a widow and they want to help.”
He gave her money for a trip and food along the way, but she wouldn’t tell him where they were headed. “It’s better that way. You saved our lives and never questioned me for the truth. You may not understand but when you took me into your home, you took a big step closer to death. God must have been looking out for us both.”
He took them to the bus station and waved them off. All he knew was that the destination on the front of the bus said “New York” but it could have dropped them off anywhere along the way – Corrina and her tiny Valarie.
Well, he’d carried them along with him in his own way, pulling the memories out occasionally to ruminate over, but never seriously considered doing more. Until that damned newspaper article.
“Woman seeks information on her roots.” Valarie Davis. Philadelphia. Her mother, Corrina, was deceased and she sought any living relatives. Vernon wasn’t a relative, of course, so wasn’t under any obligation. But he couldn’t let it rest. It nibbled constantly at the edges of his thought until he gave in and pulled out the map. A flight to Philadelphia offered a much-needed change into his stale life. Maybe he’d been too comfortable for too long.
He wrote a brief letter to the address in the paper and a reply arrived only a week later with an address. “It’s a coffee shop. I hope you respect my caution, but until I meet you I prefer to not share my address.” Of course he understood. After all she was Corrina’s daughter and he was glad she’d been raised well. Her handwriting was neat, forming sentences with proper grammar, and a neatly hand-drawn sparrow on a branch on the bottom indicated her interest in art. Something they could share in common.
He bought a flight, arrived, and checked into a quiet motel. In the morning he arose to get to the coffee shop before she arrived. He was nervous and chuckled to himself. “Relax! It’s not like she’s an art critic or interviewing you for a show.”
He found a booth and ordered a coffee, black, wishing he had a few drops of hooch to add to the mix. Just to ease his nerves.
Corrina walked in, or at least her close copy. Tall, slim, self-assured. Her clear blue eyes scanned the room and found him.
He nodded, gesturing for her to join him and motioning to the server.
“Thank you for coming. I had no clue where to start looking except Mom told me I was born in the Grand Crossing neighborhood, so I posted in local papers. You’re the only one who answered.”
“Yeah, it’s because no one knew the name of Corrina Davis except me.”
“Now I know why Mom insisted my nickname was ‘Vernie’. You can call me that. Everyone else does.”
“Corrina did that?”
‘”Yes. She said it was to honor someone special in our life. But she never said more than that. She was always tight-lipped about anything before my birth and I learned early to not push her about it. It always put her into a deep depression. I learned to let it be.”
“I don’t know much about her before I met her but will share what I can.”
So, Vernon pulled memories out from far back in the dusty recesses of his mind to share with Vernie. And the more he talked, the more he realized he had been revisiting their times together regularly all these years. More than a few times, his voice choked as he described her early days.
“You were a good baby. Happy-go-lucky. Made me laugh.”
She invited him to her home, insisting he stay a few days. He figured it as part of his adventure, so he agreed. She led him to a guest bedroom, helping him settle in.
“With what little Mom told me, she said the man who took us in was a young artist.”
“I started off slow but it’s a decent living for me now. Wasn’t in my early years, but it’s proven a good life.”
“Mom insisted I have art lessons and people say I’m pretty good. Want to see my work?”
He stood silently gazing into the room filled with sunlight, vases of flowers, and bright canvases propped against the walls. But one thing, more than anything else, caught his eye.
“Morning glory wallpaper?”
“Yes. Funny you should notice. For some reason, I’ve always been drawn to blue morning glories. It’s why my paintings focus on flowers, I think. The highest commission I’ve earned so far is of sparrows on an apple blossom branch.”
He wasn’t sure what to say. Had she really absorbed so much of his home as a tiny baby? Was the place of birth more powerful than one’s genes? God, he hoped so.
Sharing a bottle of wine, their conversation wove deeper and deeper into the night.
“So, are you going to tell me who my father was?”
“We never knew. Corrina wouldn’t tell me and I never found a clear answer.”
“But he was a gangster, wasn’t he? I always figured that’s the only reason she didn’t want to say.”
“It’s possible but I never got a clear answer from her.”
One little lie wouldn’t hurt, would it? Vernie had a good life here. She was honest, pretty, successful in her own way. From what he could see of her paintings, she had a good chance at life. Tell her that her father was the most notorious gangster in America and shatter her world? No, if her mother didn’t want her to know, he wasn’t going to be the one to ruin her life. “I always suspected some good looking young hustler took advantage of Corrina. It happened to a lot of nice young women in prohibition days.”
Hesitantly, Vernie leaned forward. “I’d like to study with you, Vernon. I’ve checked out your art in the American collection at the Museum of Art. It speaks to me. Do you ever tutor starving artists?”
He considered. Was this a gift from his heart, or a nuisance waiting to pounce? Did he want to tie himself down with someone he barely knew? But the morning glories! And the apple tree branches! Wasn’t that something? When you couldn’t explain something – when you didn’t conjure it up with your mind – when it found you…
“Possibly, but Vernie, can you come to Chicago?”
She shook her head. “Not easily. I depend on my day job to support my painting.” She slumped back in her chair, considering. Suddenly she shot upright. “Maybe you could offer workshops here? Travel here occasionally? I usually have a roommate to share my rent but she just moved out so I have two rooms and a bath upstairs you can use when you come here, until I get a new renter, of course. But we’ve just met and I’m sorry if I’m rushing things. Mom always said I jump before I plan. But it usually turns out okay…” her voice dwindled down shyly.
“Can I see the rooms?”
She led him up the stairs onto a brightly lit landing with a room on each side. On the left, to the north, was an inviting room of taupe and ivory. To the right, a sunny yellow room with ivory trim and three floor-to-ceiling bay windows surrounding a window seat. He glanced at the wall, eager of what he might see and found it. A thermostat for an electric furnace.
“I’ll do it.” The words popped out before he could consider. Too late to call them back. He was committed. Responsible. He had purpose. Someone to encourage and inspire. A daughter, you might say.
She rushed to hug him. “If you like it, and we get along okay, maybe you can rent it? That is, if you’d want to.”
If he sold his house – no, when he sold his house – he could relocate his life into this studio, which he was confident was his, earned long ago by taking in a desperate young, pregnant woman. He would take her daughter to Europe where they could tour cities of the old masters and paint, side by side, overlooking the parks of Aries. As he had settled into a steady existence over the years, he’d forgotten that long-ago dream. Hope and a fresh life bubbled up in his heart.
Long he had feared that when he relocated, he would need to purposely drag his heart with him. Today, he was confident that it was better by far if your heart drags you instead.
– Ellie Hadsall, April 12, 2018
From the author: “This story is part of my “Random Sentences; Random Stories” series. Individuals have contributed random sentences from which I write a short story. I never know what the sentence will evoke until I begin writing. The results are greatly varied and take me on adventures of insight. I hope you enjoy them!”
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