HomeSouthern VoiceGentleman Caller

Gentleman Caller

by Diane Thomas-Plunk

Opal Pratt didn’t recognize the old pickup truck that turned off the main road onto the dusty lane to her house. She was sitting in the front porch rocker as was her late afternoon habit, particularly now when the Mississippi summer settled in and she could catch a breeze out there.

A tall, lanky man stepped out of the truck when it stopped near her porch. There was a familiar look to him, but Opal couldn’t place him. He approached the bottom porch step and tipped his hat.

“I’m Lemuel Parker, and I come to court.”

Opal blinked. She didn’t know what to say, but he surely did.

“I been drivin’ by your place a lot and seen that you only have the one rocker, so I brung my own.”

The stranger hoisted a new-looking rocking chair from the bed of his truck and hauled it to the porch, setting it down on the other side of a little table next to Opal’s chair. He sat and began rocking, looking straight ahead.

Opal stared at him. “Mr. Parker … ”

“Lem. Folks call me Lem.”

“All right, Lem. Sir, I don’t know you and you don’t know me. You can’t just show up and say you’re here to court me.”

“I seen you here and there. I go to the Pleasant Valley Baptist Church just like you, and I seen you there by yourself, but you never noticed me. Seen you at the Piggly Wiggly, too, but you didn’t see me. I asked around. Folks speak highly of you, but they don’t know you much. So I’m thinkin’ I’m an old bachelor. You’re an old maid, no offense, and maybe we’d travel better in the same yoke.”

Lem rocked.

“Just like that?” Opal asked.

“We got time. You’ll see.”

His shirt and bib overalls were clean with hardly a stain. He wore a light-colored straw hat, the kind with lots of deliberate holes like men wear in the summer. He was clean-shaven, but plain of looks with what seemed a perpetual squint. Opal wondered if he needed glasses, but all in all, he was presentable.

Opal offered sweet tea and Lem accepted.

“I’m not partial to talkin’ about myself,” he said, “but some things need sayin.’ I own my house free and clear. It belonged to my Ma and Pa. I got seven acres with it, and I got a good-size truck patch for my table and for sellin.’ I raise fine vegetables—corn, okra, tomatoes, squash, snap beans, potatoes, melons, you know. I get a good crop. I do carpentry and handy work, mostly in the winter. I make some furniture like this here rocker.”

Opal pulled a hanky from the belt of her dress and dabbed her face and neck, swabbing away summer sweat. She pushed up from the chair and went into the house without a word to retrieve the iced tea pitcher. Refreshing their glasses, she put the pitcher on the little table and returned to rocking. She’d never been courted before, and she didn’t know the process and etiquette.

About twenty quiet minutes later, Lem rose and tipped his hat again. “Miss Opal, that bottom step is mighty shaky. With your permission, I’ll be back tomorrow about the same time, and I’ll fix it.”

Opal nodded, and Lem started away, stepping firmly on the bottom step to demonstrate its instability. Opal spoke his name as he opened the truck’s door. “Lem, pleased to meet you.” He smiled broadly for the first time.

The next morning, Opal did her chores in the small house and found herself looking forward to the afternoon. She gave a thorough sweeping to the porch and cleaned the table and the two rockers. Two chairs. She stepped back and smiled at them. There were two chairs now. She decided to make brownies and brew more tea.

Opal hadn’t dated when she was a teenager. She knew she was plump and plain and not the kind of girl who boys looked at with so many pretty girls around. She’d gone out into the world to work at the shoe factory after graduation, but only for a couple of months. It hadn’t worked out, so she came home and there she stayed even after both parents had passed. Opal wasn’t afraid of people. Didn’t shun them. They just made her uncomfortable. She was good-hearted and congenial, but there had never been romance. For all these years she’d been content to be a home girl, but now she was over fifty and had a gentleman caller. The thought made her smile, and she turned up the radio.

Lem arrived on schedule and unloaded tools and a long plank of lumber.

“I had this good piece of wood. I’ll replace both steps so they’ll match. Won’t be no trouble.”

He set to work quietly while Opal watched and rocked. Lem worked silently and with deliberation. He took careful measurements, then repeated them for accuracy. He never hummed or whistled. Opal concluded that he was a serious, meticulous man. Good traits.

When he was done, Opal invited him into the kitchen for tea and freshly baked chocolate brownies. He wandered around the kitchen and living room as she got plates.

“We’ll be needin’ some fresh paint in here. Might need to do some work on the cabinet doors in your kitchen. It’ll fix up nice enough.”

Opal bristled. “Lem, I’ve got tea and brownies for you. Why don’t you wash up and come sit at the table? I don’t know that my house needs fussing over.”

Lem scrubbed his hands and arms and looked out the kitchen window to the back yard. “Yes’m, Miss Opal, we’ll wait on paint. I don’t see no vegetable garden out back, though. Don’t you keep some kind of garden?”

“I never had much luck at it. Momma tried to show me, but after she passed, so did the garden. It doesn’t matter.”

“It’s not too late in the season,” said Lem as he hung up the towel more neatly than when he’d grabbed it. “I’ll put in a few things for you next week. I’ll show you how to keep them watered and weeded.”

He sat at the old oak table and acknowledged his fondness for the brownies by consuming three of them in quick order. Opal couldn’t take her eyes off the crumbs that clung to his chin. They drank their tea quietly. The big window fan caused an acceptable breeze today.

Lem rose and started for the front door. “Time for me to be goin.’ Tomorrow’s Saturday. How ‘bout you fix us supper tomorrow evenin’? I bet you whip up a fine meal.”

Opal agreed and accompanied him to the front door. She’d never made a meal for a man other than Daddy. And then Momma was telling her what to do. She’d have to think hard about the best things to prepare. She’d have to go into Vicksburg to the Piggly Wiggly for groceries. Opal realized that she should have been the one to extend the invitation, but it probably didn’t matter. Lem wasn’t shy about saying what he thought or wanted. Courting took a lot of thinking. But still, she was being courted and that counted for a lot.

The next evening, well before sunset, Lem appeared at the dusty screen door with a bouquet of daisies in his hand. Opal’s face was already flushed from the heat of the kitchen, but she felt the color deepen as she accepted the flowers. Another first.

As the evening progressed, Opal set out what she hoped was the best meal she’d ever prepared. There was sweet tea, of course, with sprigs of fresh mint; meatloaf topped with thick tomato gravy; mashed potatoes with rivulets of red gravy sneaking down the white chasms; green beans cooked with salt bacon; and fluffy biscuits fast from the oven that were just waiting for butter and honey. Aromas mixed and swirled throughout the kitchen.

Opal put the daisies in a glass jar of water and placed them in the center of the table. Lem smiled at Opal and the bountiful repast.

“This will surely taste as good as it looks. What a fine job.”

“And there’s peach cobbler for dessert,” said Opal as she removed her apron and sat next to Lem. “I always liked a cobbler with peaches instead of berries, don’t you?” She’d only just found the recipe in Momma’s recipe book.

Lem was already taking a forkload of meatloaf and savoring the result. “I’m thinkin’ anything you’ve a mind to fix will be mighty fine with me.” He nodded at her, affirming his enjoyment throughout his first and second helpings of everything. He was just as enthusiastic about the two bowls of cobbler. Finally, he leaned back and patted his belly when he’d had his fill. “You’ll fatten me up for sure, won’t you, little girl?”

This is good, thought Opal.

They sat on the porch after supper and were grateful that the heat had softened a bit. He told Opal what vegetables he expected to plant in her yard on Monday and explained the process in precise detail. She tried to listen carefully, but it bored her.

 

Lem stood to leave. “We should go to church together tomorrow. No cause to be sittin’ separate any more. I’ll be here at 10:30.”

They walked to the edge of the porch. “Those new steps look real nice, Lem. Thank you kindly.”

He stepped down onto the first stair and turned, making him not much taller than Opal. He removed his hat, leaned in and kissed her lightly on the lips. “That’s the first one,” he said with a wink.

Yes it is, Opal thought. The very first.

Opal was ready Sunday morning, wearing her best dress, robin’s egg blue with a white collar and delicate embroidery on the bodice. Lem arrived promptly and drove them to church. He had told her that she was a fine figure of a woman. When they entered the sanctuary, Opal started into her usual place in the last pew, but Lem stopped her and took her hand. “We’re not sittin’ in the back row, little miss. We’re down-front people now.” She was self-conscious as they walked down the aisle maybe making a spectacle of themselves. They were plow horses, not show horses. She was grateful to hold Lem’s hand to stop hers from shaking and prayed that she wouldn’t stumble.

Brother Markov’s fiery sermon droned on. Despite his dramatics, it took all of Opal’s concentration to think of how to behave sitting next to … her beau? Should her hands be in her lap? Should their arms touch? Should they share a hymnal or hold separate ones? So many mistakes that could be made and right here in full view of the congregation and the eyes of God.

Lem seemed to have no such fears. At the end of the service, he aimed them straight toward the preacher, who greeted them with obvious delight. In the past, Opal had avoided the crowd at the door and the necessity of greeting the pastor. She ducked out the side door instead. Today was different.

People who Opal had seen in church for years without a howdy-do were coming up to the couple, calling them by name, shaking Lem’s hand, some women hugging Opal. Even the county sheriff and his wife said hello to them. Opal knew that this should be one of the good parts about pairing up. Instead, she was resentful that becoming a couple should make so much difference. Wasn’t she a person before Lem?

“It’s time you seen my place,” said Lem once they were in his pickup truck. “We should go there for our Sunday dinner, and I’ll show you around. I can’t spread a feast like you done yesterday, but I have cold, sliced ham and some tomatoes, and we could pick corn for you to boil. It’s pert sweet right off the stalk.”

“If you have corn meal, I can make cornbread pretty fast.”

Lem laughed in Opal’s direction. “You’re sure gonna fatten me up, girlie.”

The gravel road from the highway to Lem’s house was long. They’d traveled a ways before Opal saw the white, two-story house with two chimneys and a wide, wrap-around porch. It wasn’t fancy big, but it made her wonder what Lem thought of her modest home.

Lem led her through room after orderly room. There was nothing snooty about it, but it was light and airy and had a proper feel about it. Lem gave the credit to his Ma. He’d just kept it up as she left it.

They walked outside where he proudly pointed to the large truck patch. It was abundant. It flourished.
“Summertime money comes from here,” Lem explained. “I do right well with it. Look at that,” he exclaimed suddenly, pointing up.

Two bald eagles were drawing winged patterns in the sky. They didn’t fly in unison as ducks and geese do when migrating. They flew in separate circles, but regularly caused those invisible designs to intersect. They clearly soared and hunted as a pair.

“They’re in a ways from the river and the tallest trees,” said Lem. “Ain’t that a pretty sight? They mate for life, you know. We ain’t startin’ out young, but ain’t we smart as a pair of eagles?”

In the Parker kitchen, Opal tested the skillet of cornbread as Lem picked a couple of ears of corn from his truck patch. She had water boiling on the stove ready for the yellow ears. They would only take a few minutes and would be sweet as dessert once they were dripping with butter. She set the table with his Ma’s nice dishes and they soon sat down to a simple but tasty Sunday dinner.

“This will be our home pert soon,” Lem said as he buttered a cornbread slice.

“Here? What about my house?”

“We’re gonna sell your place. It’s not much. I got this big house and seven acres and a money-maker truck patch. Sellin’ yours just gives us some cushion money. You just got an acre, right?” Lem busied himself with his dinner, not noticing Opal’s concern.

“It’s a little more than an acre. I’ve lived there all my life, Lem.”

“Well, no matter. We’ll be better off here.”

On Monday, Lem planted a small garden behind Opal’s house and instructed her on tending it. “Growing some of your own produce will save you money for puttin’ away for the wedding. It’ll give you somethin’ to do with your time, too,” he told her. “I don’t know how you fill up your days.”

I’d rather save for a television set, Opal thought.

His habit now was to be at Opal’s every day. He was up at dawn, worked at his truck patch, sold the yield at his roadside stand, and managed to get some time at his carpentry shed perfecting the special orders. Then he went to Opal’s. He’d check to make sure she was keeping up her garden, do light chores, sit on the porch to rock and then have a big supper that Opal increasingly struggled to make special every day.

By now, he gave her a kiss every time they met and every time they parted. When they sat next to each other, he’d pat her ample thigh. At first, it gave her stirrings, but then it didn’t. Lem fetched her for church every Sunday and took to bringing her flowers each time. Members of the congregation continued to greet them like they were special. The preacher started dropping hints about when he’d be called on to perform a ceremony.

By the time the pin oak leaves were falling on Opal’s property, Lem had convinced her to let him paint the interior of her home. She thought the newly white walls glared at her. He worried about the water stains on the floor of what had been her parents’ room where she now hung laundry to dry in cold months.

“We need to repair this here floor before we can sell it,” Lem told her. “This ain’t gonna look right to folks.”

His perpetual squint had begun to scratch on her nerves.

Another weeknight supper bubbled, baked, and sizzled on Opal’s stove. Lem would arrive soon. Six nights a week she fixed supper at her house. He expected her to cook Sunday dinner at his big house. Opal pulled on a sweater, poured a mug of coffee, and settled into her rocker on the front porch to wait for him. This had been Momma’s rocker. It’s where Momma had her stroke. Opal felt close to her when she sat there. Now she tried to remember Momma and Daddy together. Momma had called him a good man, a steady man, a good provider. Was that enough? Opal and Lem had been courting for months now and she still didn’t know what she was supposed to feel. Her early exuberance had dissolved.

Lem’s truck arrived predictably, tossing up a gold and red shower of leaves along the lane. He wore flannel shirts now under his overalls. She rose for his kiss and told him what delights awaited him at the supper table. Opal presented Lem’s mug of coffee sweetened to his exact specifications. He smiled as they took their usual seats in the pair of front porch rockers. Lem sipped his coffee and set it back on the little table that wobbled precariously.

“That’s one more thing that needs fixin’ round here,” he said. “I gotta steady up that short leg on this table and surely replace that old rocker you sit in. They’re not even the last things fallin’ apart over here.”

Lem went out back to see if any vegetables remained in the little garden and instructed her about what had survived the early chill and needed to be harvested the following day. Opal set the table.

Lem was good to her. Had done so much for her. More than she’d wanted, if truth be told. They had a silent supper. No need now for the noisy window fan.

“Girlie, time’s gone by. Me and you have courted proper and we need to pick a Sunday. Have our weddin’ just after church. Sunday after Thanksgiving is what I’m thinkin’, seein’ as how we’re thankful for each other. We’ll have the ceremony at the end of a regular Sunday service, then have cake and punch in the fellowship hall. The congregation would all stay for sure. They would be joyful. You need to think of a church lady who’d stand up with you. And maybe she’d help you find a right-looking dress to wear. One of my good customers will stand with me. What do you say, little girl?”

 

Opal wiped her mouth and put down the napkin on her Grandma’s table. “No.”

“No to what? We’re talkin’ about our wedding now. Tell me you like the Sunday after Thanksgiving. We need to tell the preacher.”

Opal said no.

Lem took some convincing, but eventually understood that Opal said no to all of it. He threw a freshly buttered biscuit down on his plate. It slid off onto the table and he thought to grab it before he stomped out through the front door, cursing.

Opal felt a choke of loss, immediately followed by a sweep of relief and self-sufficiency. The rapid-fire feelings surprised her. She cleaned up the kitchen, startled at her boldness and the dismissal of her suitor. Her first suitor. Her only suitor. Taking up her sweater again, Opal walked onto the back porch.

Looking toward the nearby woods, she saw him. Alone, large, rust-tinged coat, alert, black-tipped ears. The wolf stared at her as intently as Opal observed him. Had she seen glimpses of him before, or was he an apparition that teased her imagination? Now he stood brazenly at the edge of the clearing. Opal was at first frightened, then simply frozen, as was he. The brownish fur was graying around his head and muzzle. He was an old man who’d left the pack. Just as she’d left her suitor. The wedded pair of eagles would condemn Opal and the wolf as unworthy, unable to form lifelong bonds.

Opal stepped down the two stairs to her backyard, never taking her eyes from the wolf. The two fixed on each other, motionless, unblinking, neither of them fearful any longer.

The day’s humidity met an evening chill and condensed into light fog that danced around tree trunks and the wolf’s big paws.

Opal finally smiled at the wolf as solitary as she.

“Me too, old man. Me too.”

 

A Pushcart Prize nominee, Diane Thomas-Plunk was also recognized by NPR when her entry was designated a “favorite” in their Three-Minute Fiction contest. Her story, “Cassie’s Chair,” was recently a finalist in the Nivalis 2016 short fiction competition. Another of her stories, previously published online by Steel Toe Review, has been selected for the journal’s annual print edition. More than a dozen of Thomas-Plunk’s short stories and poems have appeared in Deep South Magazine, Belle Reve Literary Journal, The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature, Steel Toe Review and China Grove Magazine. Read her previous Opal stories “Opal and the Hussy” and “Ambition” in Deep South, and stay tuned for a book due out in January. 

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