Before my father-in-law Henry married Celia, his fourth wife, at seventy-two, he asked me about it. “Well, if you love her, then why not?” What I wanted to say was, “Damn, man, haven’t you had enough after 3 failed attempts.”
Giving him the benefit of the doubt, two of them left him for other men they were having affairs with and one he left because she got hooked on drugs and wouldn’t get help. All three took him to court, claimed abuse, lessons learned from daytime television, but no judge or jury, mostly women, bought the fiction they peddled. Nonetheless, he took care of the children and continued to serve his country through the Guard and work full time, qualities I admired.
“What does Jane think about her?” He was always concerned what my wife, his daughter thought. He respected her as much as he could a female after all he’d been through, mainly because she had worked for big companies, companies he’d invest in on the market. Jane also had her master’s degree and was pretty up front with her opinions, a characteristic that attracted me to her.
“She likes her,” I said, and she did, but she liked his last girlfriend the most of all his wives and girlfriends. Barbara had class, but was struck down with a form of MS, and declined quickly. He stuck by her side until the end.
“You know she didn’t go to college.” He clearly had pedigree reservations, mostly because she was country and wasn’t educated. I nodded and understood. She was a syrup-sweet old woman who played the role of simpleton and could’ve earned a Grammy. Problem is she had come to live the role to an extreme in daily life. Even though town folks knew her first husband and their son-in-law were questionable characters in a Southern drug trade, growing and selling marijuana among the loblolly pine thickets, she played dumb when they got caught, and she covered for them when the bust came after a night copter spotlighted the crop.
“Well, I’ll be,” she’d told state police. “I’ve never seen a thing and I’m pretty good at seeing things. Ya’ll want to come on in and have some tea? I can pretty much account to where they’ve been and what they’ve been up to the whole time.”
They drank her tea and listened to her drone on about everything from how to make eggnog at Christmas to how to trap rabbits from getting into her garden. One of them even nodded off at hearing the dissertation. Celia’s husband went to jail after three years of appeals from their cracker-jack attorney. She divorced him once the evidence stacked up against him, but didn’t broadcast it. It helped her not lose “their” property, which became hers in the divorce. He’d died in his sleep from a heart attack and we heard Celia believed he’d called to the guards for help, but they didn’t respond to night calls from prisoners.
Of course, Celia continued to maintain his innocence all over town. “They [the mysterious criminals from South Florida who invade good country people’s land to grow their drugs] are experts and never get caught. We never suspected a thing.” Mostly they’d come at night when everyone had gone to bed is what Celia told everyone, followed by, “Ya’ll better look out if you got some land. Their doing this so the hard working, salt of the earth, go to jail and lose their land, so the Cubans can invade the South and take over. Castro’s behind it. Always has been!” Part of it sounded right to some, but others knew better.
Fortunately, Henry made sure the two of them did have a prenuptial agreement, and we were glad to hear it. He’d worked hard to have his business set up so he’d have a little something come retirement, and even in his early seventies, he worked a little, piddling around in the woods and looking after trees. I’d ridden with him through the woods, him chomping on a fat cigar and pointing at trees as if he were scanning a playground of children and could tell their family genealogy by looking at them, their features. Not only that, I’d seen him walk up to a curled rattlesnake, machete in hand, bend down looking it straight in the eyes and take its head off, the rattlers still shaking and body still flopping around. He knew the mysterious endangered creatures of the forest–the red cockaded woodpecker, the indigo snake, the gray bat, the Florida panther—and he fought to save them, but not the rattlesnake, as common as the Brown Thrasher.
“Supposed to get a dusting of snow tonight. Last time was 1972.”
“Yes,” I said. I did remember the snow from childhood and it has been strange for us. My brothers, sister, and I were in it as quick as we could dress, building a snowman, throwing snowballs at each other, and rolling down from the yard into the ditch. Despite my mother’s calls from the front door, “Ya’ll get out of that ditch. Don’t get wet. Ya’ll hear me?” we kept up our pace all morning while the snow, what we thought was manna from heaven, fell. We felt like we were living in our Christmas snow globe that rested on the mantle next to our stockings we shook up every year and gazed into until my little brother dropped it on my sister’s Ms. Beasley doll, it busting and soaking her blond hair, cutting her glasses, and ruining her poke-a-dot blue and white dress.
“We better get on back.” Henry zipped his jacket and shivered. “I just wanted ya’ll to know.”
“Will you two have a wedding?”
Henry laughed. “I don’t think so.”
“Bye ya’ll,” Celia said, shutting the door and waiving at our children.
Jane entangled my arm in hers. “You know the kids really like her. She has an air of what I think a grandmother should be like. I sure do hope it works out for them. He deserves happiness at the end.”
“Agree. And he seems like a school kid. There’s quickness in his step and a school boy’s twinkle in his eyes.”
As Henry’s 4×4 truck backed down our drive, his pointer finger lifted off the steering wheel.
“You think she talks too much?”
“Well, probably, but I guess it’s the country drawl that gets me. I wonder if she speeds up on coffee.”
Jane laughed and we walked inside. A week later, they were married in a small, country church by her former minister with two friends as witnesses. No one else attended, and they went to the beach for two days to get away.
Celia moved into his house and began, like the three wives before her, to place her things around, like a dog marking its territory–pink plates on the walls, furniture rearranged, a thorough cleaning, new flowers in pots. It lasted for two years until Henry developed brain cancer and was gone in a month.
The only thing Celia got was his military retirement because adult children weren’t eligible; however, if she lives another fifteen years, she will have received more than anyone. For the first year, she played the widow role well until she didn’t return calls and couldn’t make events. Though my wife had finally accepted and overcome, as well as anyone could, losing a mother and step-mothers, neither of us could move beyond the loss our children must have felt at being abandoned by someone who had become the grandmother. We concluded the loss was much like the knowledge that Santa isn’t real. Our children would never quite capture that feeling again and part of their hearts hardened. Part of me wanted to find marijuana plants, put them in her yard, and call the police.
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Niles Reddick’s newest novel Drifting too far from the Shore has been nominated for a Pulitzer. It will debut in August. Previously, he published a collection Road Kill Art and other Oddities and a novel Lead Me Home. His work has appeared in anthologies Unusual Circumstances, Getting Old, and Happy Holidays and has been featured in many journals including The Arkansas Review: a Journal of Delta Studies, The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature, The Pomanok Review, Corner Club Press, Slice of Life, Faircloth Review, and more. He works for the University of Memphis at Lambuth.