Dec '02 [Home]
Chapter Three from Oradell at Sea
Oradell was almost adopted by the Talkington family when she was eleven. The crisis came at the end of the year her dad Hugh Riley stayed dry for nine months and got religion. That year he washed and shaved every day and was a janitor at the Baptist Church as well as at the Company store. Oradell had a good year too. She was in the Christmas performance at school, and Hugh came to see her. She made her best grades ever, especially in arithmetic and elocution, but she did just fine in spelling and Colonial Times too. Neither she nor her dad cussed or smoked or chewed tobacco even when they were having supper alone. Hugh was putting by money to take Oradell on a big shopping spree. He was going to buy false teeth for himself.
by Meredith Sue Willis
At that age, you are still young enough not to look a gift horse in the mouth. Oradell was so happy with the way things were going that she had decided she would go down the aisle at church to accept Jesus Christ as her personal Lord and Savior. But she waited too long, and Hugh turned up one Sunday morning asleep in the basement stairwell of the church, disheveled and stinking.
After that, things went back to normal for a while, with Hugh drinking and neither one of them going to church. Oradell liked being able to cuss again, but she missed dressing up for Sunday School.
One day Hugh lifted his face off the table while Oradell was sashaying around like a movie star and trying to get a glimpse of herself in the shaving mirror. He said, "Well if that ain't the damnedest thing."
Oradell said, "What's the damnedest thing?"
"You got titties. A scrawny little thing like you, and you're going to have big titties like your ma. And your legs ain't bad either. If I was a artist, I'd paint a picture." Then he fell back to sleep.
If he had stayed awake, she would have yelled at him for making comments about what was no business of his, but he didn't, so Oradell got the dishrag and wrapped it around her waist in a sort of high-rise girdle to see if she could make her breasts look even more like a movie star's.
She and her dad only had the one room with the kitchen table and the stove and the couch where he slept and her cot behind a clothes tree where she hung their clothes and gave herself a little privacy. Usually she liked hearing her father's night time grunts and groans, but this night Oradell came swimming up out of sleep and found him screaming and throwing punches at something invisible. She tried to go back to sleep, but he started kicking over the chairs, so when his back was turned, she ran out and knocked next door at the Pierces. She chose the Pierces, even though they were not very friendly and colored, because both of the grown ups were always sober.
She pounded on their door and cried, "Mrs. Pierce! Mrs. Pierce! My daddy's seeing a ghost!"
Mrs. Pierce came to the door wearing a man's sweater over her nightgown. She took off the sweater when she saw how Oradell was shaking and put it on her. Then she went over to Oradell's house and looked in the window, shook her head, and grunted. "He's having the dee-tees, little girl. There's nobody can do a thing about that except Jesus. Does your daddy talk to Jesus?"
"He did for a while," said Oradell. "But he stopped."
Mrs. Pierce shook her head and grunted some more and said, "Well, I expect you'll have to sleep at my house tonight."
Oradell was afraid of Mr. Pierce, but she was more afraid of the dee-tees, so she went inside. Mrs. Pierce put her on their couch, but made her pray for a while first, both of them down on their knees, and then Oradell on the couch and Mrs. Pierce praying some more. She liked it pretty well and fell asleep to the sound of Mrs. Pierce talking to Jesus. When she woke up, Mr. and Mrs. Pierce were arguing in the kitchen, but then he went to work, and Mrs. Pierce gave Oradell some toast with butter and jelly. She said, "Listen here, little girl, if your daddy goes off with the dee-tees again, pick up your pillow and come on over here."
She did it once more, on a night when she knew Mr. Pierce was working his night job. But then her father ran off, and she went over to live with the Talkingtons, so she didn't have to bother Mrs. Pierce anymore.
Looking back, when she thought about it, it occurred to her that there were people like the Pierces and Talkingtons who took care of her. She had maybe been better off than she thought, back when she used to feel sorry for herself. She was always jealous because Sarah Ellen Talkington had a big house and a mother and father, and jealous of the Pierce kids because their parents sent them on the street car to Fairmont to the school for colored kids who were going to be leaders of their people someday.
But the truth was, people kept an eye on Oradell, and the Talkingtons were seriously thinking about adopting her. Mr. Talkington, the store manager, and his family lived on the West Side. They owned their house, not the company. A store manager's salary was not really enough to own a home, but Mrs. Talkington was a member of one of the oldest families in Marion County, with an uncle who was a judge and one who wrote for the newspaper. Mrs. Talkington had created a select small society for herself even in the mining town of West Fork. She founded a gardening club and was the president of the Fidelis Class at the Baptist church. They had meetings with refreshments and sometimes discussed the welfare of poor people like the ones out on Shacky Hill where Oradell lived.
The Talkington daughter Sarah Ellen had always been nice to Oradell. If they hadn't been friends, Oradell would never have agreed to try living with her family. Sarah Ellen was pretty to look at and easy to boss around. She giggled whenever Oradell decided to cut up and be silly. Oradell never, from earliest childhood, underestimated the value of a good audience. She would have preferred to live with Grace Howard, who was on her own side of the river, but Grace couldn't top the Talkingtons' offer which included a private bedroom, a bathroom shared only with Sarah Ellen, and a little light child care from time to time. It was, everyone agreed, just what was needed for Oradell Riley, a spirited girl who could use some rough edges filed down.
They failed on that score, thought Oradell. They forgot that even a diamond in the rough is still the hardest damn thing around.
So one raw Saturday morning at the end of March, Oradell went to stay with the Talkingtons. She stuffed a pillow case with her underwear and her blanket and slammed the door behind her. There was no key, but since she was still hoping her daddy would come back, she wouldn't have wanted to lock him out anyhow. She was supposed to go to the Company Store and get a lift with Mr. Talkington when he closed up at noon, but she misunderstood and walked all the way to the West Side, carrying her pillow case of clothing.
Oradell was just reaching an age when whole pages suddenly turn over in your mind. She had got her period and her breasts, and her father's defection added to her sense of one door creaking toward closure while other ones opened. This was the first time, for example, that she saw West Fork. That is to say, she saw West Fork every day, but this was the first time she saw it as one whole thing.
She had always known that different people lived in different parts of town: the colored people except for the Pierces lived out the road beyond Shacky Hill; the Italians lived on Mud Street; and the Americans had the other streets. People like the Talkingtons and the mine supervisor and the high school principal and the manager of the movie theater lived on the West Side. But this day, she saw it all in order, spread out before her.
Shacky Hill was one and two-room houses. It was the only section of West Fork where Italians and Americans and Negroes lived together, because the shacks were so bad that nobody cared who lived there. The only shack that was kept up at all belonged to the Pierces, who were famous for refusing to be segregated. The Pierces were from somewhere else, nobody was sure where, because they didn't talk to anyone. They moved to town during a time when the mines were hiring Negroes, which didn't last long. When Mr. Pierce was laid off, he got a job as janitor at the grade school and a night job as extra janitor at the high school. Mrs. Pierce did special spring cleaning and holiday cleaning for a few people, but she would never accept a job as a domestic for one family alone, and she never took cast off clothes from anybody.
Living in the shacks was regarded as an eccentricity on the part of the Pierce family. Everyone figured the Pierces had to be crazy to live next to white people like Hugh Riley and the Polks. There was an old widow up there too who was just plain destitute, but she hardly ever came out of her house because she was afraid of the Polks. The Polks, stringy haired and red knuckled, quarreled and fought and broke things. They gave Shacky Hill its alternative name, Polkville. They were so outstanding, that in later years, people started using Polkville not just for Shacky Hill but for the whole section of West Fork beyond Mud Street.
That day, nobody was awake at the Polks except three little kids who threw rocks at Oradell and her pillowcase full of clothing. She threw back the same rocks. She saw for the first time how rutted the road was up here, and she saw Mr. Pierce, as usual on a Saturday, out repairing his roof. He frowned at Oradell, and Oradell frowned back. At the curve in the road, she looked out at the hills surrounding and at the brown swollen West Fork river and the freight trains and the tipple at the mine. She went around the curve and started down Mud Street. In the summer the small houses had vines and flowers, but at this time of year you saw they weren't all that much better than the shacks.
Hugh always promised to show her which house was the one where her mother was born, but he never did. Oradell had finally decided he didn't know. Her mother was an Italian, although born in West Fork. She had been born after Oradell's Italian grandfather got blown up in the West Fork Mine Explosion. Then Oradell's Italian grandmother died, and then Oradell's mother, a little orphan baby, was boarded out with someone, and she herself died too early for Oradell to ask questions. Oradell sometimes wished she had some Italian relatives who knew who she was and grew vegetables and made their own wine.
So that morning she saw how little difference there was between Shacky Hill and Mud Street.
At the bottom, she saw the Downtown, which in those days had the Rialto movie house and a feed store and Miller's Department Store as well as the Company Store with its brick pillared front porch. At the gas station, you could choose to go across the river or up to the mine. Near the river, the houses were a little larger and a little better made, and most of the Americans thought they were just about that much better than the foreigners. At least, that's how Consolidation Coal Company treated them. One row of American houses, the one where Grace Howard lived, had a boardwalk and a view of the river and the play grounds on the bottom. The company had made an effort to do things nice in West Fork. They had put in those swings and the baseball diamond and the boardwalk in front of Grace's house. They had given a plaque to the High School, and they built a really fine house on the West Side for the mine Supervisor.
The West Side was, of course, where Talkingtons lived, where Oradell was going to get adopted. She crossed over the river, and climbed up the steep brick street past the school, crossed the street car tracks and Route 19 and finally climbed again to the big brick and stone houses where the cream floated on top of the skim milk.
Oradell was pretty tired by the time she started up the steps to the Talkingtons. The steps had several landings, and she found out later that almost no one ever used the steps. People always took the more gradual driveway. She sat down on one of the landings, and looked back where she had come from, saw the whole thing again from this side: road, street car, river, and town. Hills humped around it all. She saw too much, more than she could understand. Too much! she thought, and a lonely hole opened up in her stomach, and she started to cry, just sobbed away for a long time with her pillow case full of blankets and underwear and skirts pressed against her middle.
Oradell wasn't a crier, but this day, not knowing if her dad would ever come back, and suddenly seeing the whole town like that, she had a feeling that she was missing something she needed. That she might not ever get it.
She cried herself out, until the heat of walking and climbing had dissipated and she started shivering in her cotton dress. A street car trundled past, and some boys were playing an imaginary game of baseball with no equipment outside the Trolley Stop hot dog stand. A Ford roadster backfired, and a dog was barking all the way over on the baseball diamond on the East Side. She picked out Grace Howard's roof and the Company store and the Rialto. Behind everything, hills, yellowish brown fields, reddish tree tips.
"Daddy should of took me with him," she said. "I would of gone if he'd only askt."
She climbed the rest of the steps, and sat down again on the stone porch, the cold coming right through her dress and underpants. She could hear Mrs. Talkington on the phone inside, but she didn't go in. After a while, Sarah Ellen came along the side of the house. She didn't see Oradell, so Oradell said "Boo," and Sarah Ellen screamed, and Oradell laughed and felt better.
Sarah Ellen took her inside and introduced her to the new baby, no different from any other baby Oradell had seen. Grace Howard's new baby had a wee-wee and this one had a crack, but they both were toothless with the tiniest fingernails in the world.
Oradell was much more interested in the house: spacious with highly polished wood floors, carpets, big chairs with fresh slipcovers for spring and lace curtains and a new floor model Zenith Radi-organ with a walnut finish cabinet. Oradell got her own little room with a lavender chenille bedspread. Between Oradell's room and Sarah Ellen's was the bathroom, which was probably Oradell's favorite place in the whole house. It was as big as a bedroom, with a free standing lion-footed bathtub and a porcelain sink that Oradell and Sarah Ellen needed a stool to use, and a huge commode with a wooden seat.
"I'd just as leave sleep in here," said Oradell, not really planning a joke, but when Sarah Ellen laughed, she made the most of it and climbed in the tub and pretended to snore. Then Sarah Ellen climbed in too and they pretended the tub was flying them to a movie set in Hollywood, and they had a long discussion about which movie and which leading man.
All in all, getting adopted went pretty well that afternoon. They had a snack of mayonnaise and sugar sandwiches, and Mrs. Talkington went downtown to the beauty parlor, and Oradell and Sarah Ellen played with the baby.
It was dinner time when Oradell began to have the strange feeling again. It was probably a kind of homesickness, because this was going to be the first time she had ever slept anywhere but on Shacky Hill. Some people, like Mrs. Talkington, saw Oradell's life as disorganized and shockingly unsupervised: Oradell always the last child playing outside in the dark, Oradell cooking for her father, or else they didn't cook at all and he just brought home hunks of cheese and baloney and Nehi orange from the Company store. But Oradell had always slept at home, except for those two nights at the Pierces'.
Mrs. Talkington explained that they ate in the dining room on Saturday night and Sunday dinner. Sarah Ellen and Oradell set the table, and Oradell, for all of her cutting up and joking, paid close attention to how the fork went next to the folded napkin with the crocheted corners, and the spoon outside the knife. Oradell always felt through her whole life that the one thing she knew was the rules for how to set a table, and she learned them from Sarah Ellen Talkington.
Even Mrs. Talkington's cool eye looking her over and insisting that she have a more thorough wash was okay. She was used to women dragging her off the street and checking her for lice or giving her a fresh toothbrush and comb.
But by the time they finally sat down at the table—with darkness outside and the electrified chandelier and a little music playing elegantly from the Zenith, Oradell felt that everything was like a picture, but she herself was not in it. There was Mr. Talkington with his broad shoulders and glittery glasses, and Sarah Ellen quiet and light colored like him, and Mrs. Talkington with her dark hair and cold fish-eye. And Oradell felt silence falling even as the Talkingtons said this and that: a bronze-aired spaciousness that was the distance between each of them.
Oradell remembered that she wasn't going to go home, that she was going to have to pee in the big commode in the bathroom as big as the shack almost and then go to bed in that room all by herself. There was a kind of heavy trouble suspended over her head, and she had the feeling it would be best not to look up.
So she concentrated on the mashed potatoes au gratin. She didn't know yet that you took a little of everything. When she cooked something as good as mashed potatoes with cheese on top, she and her father always sat right down and ate till there was none left.
The baby started to cry.
Mrs. Talkington immediately pulled out a hanky and pressed it to her right temple. "I was so hoping for a quiet dinner," she murmured. "Oradell?"
Oradell put about a fourth of the potatoes on her plate, scrupulously leaving enough for each of the others. She was paying attention to her dividing when Mrs. Talkington said her name. Mrs. Talkington repeated: "Oradell? The baby?"
Oradell didn't get it. She didn't particularly like the sound of babies screeching, but she knew that was what they did. She didn't see any connection to herself.
Mrs. Talkington started to cry. "Nothing is going right," she sobbed. "Nothing, nothing!!"
Oradell was shocked by that too. She had no idea that someone as big and cold as Mrs. Talkington had feelings.
Sarah Ellen and her father immediately leaped up. "I'll get the baby!" they both said.
And it was just Oradell and Mrs. Talkington left at the table. Oradell staring at her potatoes, aware that she had better not eat.
Mrs. Talkington drew back her head. "I was hoping you'd pitch in and help without being told, Oradell. That was my hope. I fully intended to treat you like part of the family, but you have to be willing to pitch in and help."
Oradell said, "I set the table and peeled the potatoes and I sliced the bread." She smelled a challenge; it both was and wasn't like when a kid in the school yard called her dad a drunk.
They came back with the baby, Sarah Ellen holding it in its little blanket and crocheted cap, Mr. Talkington hovering behind.
"Give me my child!" cried Mrs. Talkington. "Give me my baby!"
And the two of them ran over and handed over the baby, even though it had been perfectly happy with Sarah Ellen. Oradell saw now how things were here: Mrs. Talkington told everyone what to do. It wasn't like Grace Howard who just did things, and her big girls just did things, and the boys and Mr. Howard. Sometimes Grace yelled that something was boiling over or Where did they think they were going with the dishes still undried? But it was different from Mrs. Talkington crying Give Me My Child! Part of Oradell's homesickness became a feeling that she couldn't stay here.
It passed through her mind: It's either her or me.
She lay awake deep into the night being afraid of things she had never been afraid of before. Here, she almost fell asleep then jerked awake certain that someone was coming through the window to get her. She listened to every creak and heard a whole platoon of bad men marching upstairs and down the hall. Ghosts flushed the toilets. A wolf howled about death, but that turned into the baby crying again.
She lived for a month at Talkingtons, doing her best to stay out of Mrs. Talkington's way so there wouldn't be trouble. The baby was okay, and Sarah Ellen wanted to take care of it most of the time anyhow. But all along, she had this feeling that if she didn't get away soon, she would either collapse on her emptiness or else get in a terrible fight.
Then, one warm spring evening with the sidewalks and grass wet from a rain, just after dinner, her father knocked on the door at Talkingtons, a big cut healing on his cheek, and his hat low over his eyes, but with a clean shirt and pants.
Oradell squealed and gave him a big hug, and packed her things as fast as she could back into the old pillow case, and then ran down to ask if she should strip her sheets off the bed.
Mr. Talkington answered, "You've been our guest, Oradell. You leave the sheets."
And Mrs. Talkington said, "I had thought we might adopt you, Oradell."
And Oradell, full of unreasoning joy, cried, "You can't! I'm a Riley!"
And hurried off into the night with her father.
Even though she'd eaten a big dinner with the Talkingtons, she let him buy her a hot dog at the Trolley Stop, and she chattered about the Talkingtons and their bathroom and their electric waffle iron and the Radi-organ and the washing machine and how she'd had to iron the crocheted napkins, and how everyone had a special chair for sitting in front of the radio and listening to Burns and Allen and Fibber Magee and Molly.
Her father said, "I guess you'd rather live with those Talkingtons."
"Not me!" cried Oradell. "No sirree bob!"
But while it was true she was glad to be home, it was also true that she suddenly saw the shack in a different way, saw that the sink was crusty with old dirt and rust, that the outhouse needed lime. And also true that she would not soon forget how she had seen all of West Fork in order, and that she knew now she could sleep in a different house. Something had changed in Oradell, and she kept her eyes open for what was coming next.
(Meredith Sue Willis has published twelve books of nonfiction and fiction, including three previous novels, Higher Ground, Only Great Changes, and Trespassers (all from Hamilton Stone Editions), and a recently expanded edition of Personal Fiction Writing (Teachers & Writers Press, 2000). Reviews and various excerpts from her work appear on her website. Raised in West Virginia, she now lives in New Jersey.)
[Chapter Nine of Oradell at Sea appeared in the Nov '02 issue. To order this September 2002 release, see your favorite bookdealer or contact Vandalia Press, a new imprint of West Virginia University Press.—Eds.]