Amongst the Loblollies - A Short Story
By Jennifer Pellechio-Lukowiak
Beneath the swaying trees the breeze dances across my upturned face. This is probably the last warm day before autumn’s chill, I thought as I relished the afternoon heat on my bare shoulders. Looking out toward the Newport River I watched the lowering sun glitter the surface in gold and I smiled.
I have known this view intimately for more than four decades. We first found this property on one of our earlier dates, an impromptu picnic of pimento cheese sandwiches, sweet pickles, and a chilled bottle of wine we grabbed at the grocery store before jumping into Cal’s Jeep and driving toward the inner banks from campus. This became our spot. We would come here after class on Wednesday’s, on Saturday afternoons if there wasn’t a home game on campus, and on public holidays when classes were cancelled. We’d make love on the scratchy wool blanket Cal kept in the back of the old Wagoneer and wrap ourselves up in it afterwards while napping in the late day sun. The longer we dated the more we came here to plan our future, or at least the future we thought we’d have. We’d live on the coast, we assumed, and we’d have four children, two boys and two girls. I’d run my own interior decorating business and volunteer on various local committees in my spare time. Cal, along with his fraternity brother Shep, would open a financial planning and investing firm and spend the weekends fishing on the river.
Oh, how naïve we were, I chuckled to myself.
Back then the land hadn’t yet been parceled off but in time, not long after our ‘I do’s’ and before the children, we came out here and saw a listing agent’s sign haphazardly stuck into the mucky soil. On a whim we borrowed money from my daddy and decided it was here, on this favored spot with a view of the estuary, we would build our home. Oh, Cal’s parents were livid – moving out to the sticks of North Carolina did not sit well with them, they preferred the city life and expected us to live in Raleigh as their family had for generations. My parents and my brother lived in Wilmington, so they were pleased we’d be nearby.
Before we even broke ground, we knew the screened porch would sit low off the back of the house facing the water. It would be surrounded by the loblolly pines and because of the way we planned the porch and surrounding deck – even in the hottest weather it remained shaded and comfortable. Through the seasons and over the years so much around this house ebbs and flows; the tides rise and sink and rise again, the marsh grasses turn dusky grey in the winter and vibrant green in the spring, the tadpoles grow into frogs and the ducks raise up from ducklings, but the loblollies never change. Tall and resolute – they guard our home and buffer the sandy shoreline. In the loblollies I share my deepest thoughts, my wistful dreams, and confide my secrets.
I shifted in my chair and took a long deep pull of my cigarette. On my 70th birthday I started smoking again. I know, I know – it’s a terrible habit and one that I gave up when Cal and I started trying for a baby, but now, in retirement, I allow myself just one solitary Camel on Friday evenings along with my pre-dinner bourbon. The sweet scent of pine and salt lace the air, mingling with the smoke from my cigarette makes me feel young again. My transgressions remain safe amongst the loblollies.
As I bent to reach the magazine on the coffee table, I felt an unfamiliar twinge in my lower back. I shifted again in my seat and the discomfort subsided.
“I guess it’s time to play, What’s That Pain?” I stated to the boughs above me, an infuriating game that started shortly after my breast cancer diagnosis. Cal and I were always so careful in what we told the children about my illness, they were so young. Of course, it was impossible to hide my bald head and stints in the hospital, but I kept my tears to myself, behind closed doors, and out here with my trees. Now, long after active treatment has ended, I still have to accommodate all kinds of aches and pains and go through the rote questions every survivor has memorized … Is the cancer spreading? Is it a new tumor? Is it scar tissue? Fat necrosis? I wish I could confidently place the blame on getting old.
Our children – not the two and two we had intended, the universe had other plans. We tried for years to get pregnant, it was fun in the beginning but after a while it became sad and disheartening. But we pursued and finally, our son Harrison arrived. He was a sweet gentle baby, easy to please, quick to smile, a joy! If I could have had another three just like him, I would have. Harrison was 8 when I found out I was pregnant with Ruby. We were delighted … at first. Lordy, that girl was born full of piss and vinegar. Colicky, irritable, woke up in the night if so much as a flea farted. She was a difficult baby and a tantrum throwing toddler all of which prepared us for her teenage years, which were no better. Cutting class, sneaking out to meet her friends and sneaking boys in under the cover of darkness, she sure kept Cal and I on our toes. Now however, Ruby is my closest confidante, she was worth the wait.
Another confidence the loblollies kept – I nearly ran away. Can you imagine? I would have been a 55-year-old runaway! What kind of mother runs from her family? And while many would think it was simply a mid-life crisis or my needing a long overdue vacation – it was more than that. Between the stress of raising the children, working, keeping up our home, and managing my health I was completely sleep deprived. Insomnia is cancer’s best friend. The breaking point one evening was an ongoing disagreement between Cal and I regarding money that came to an all-out argument after dinner. He went up to bed in a sour mood and I sat out on the porch until I knew everyone, including the dog, was asleep.
I crept inside and changed out of my clothes and climbed into bed beside Cal but couldn’t sleep. And the longer I stayed in bed the angrier I became. Listening to Cal snore like he didn’t have a care in the world made it even worse. Throwing back the covers I got up out of bed in a snit, went to my closet and packed my overnight bag. In went my favorite jeans, a sweatshirt, a tank top, some underwear, and a pair of sneakers. I slid my feet into a pair of flat sandals and pulled a pair of shorts on up beneath my nightie. I grabbed some toiletries and went out the back door. Keys in hand I heard a twig snap behind me, and I jumped. Our neighbor Jeannie was outside walking her dog through the tree line.
“Where are you headed to in the middle of the night Trudy?”
“Oh, Jeannie – you scared me! I…uh…I don’t know” I stammered and began to cry. Jeannie was an older woman, a military veteran who had been single for as long as we had known her. She was a good neighbor; kept her property neat and minded her business.
“What’s happening Trudy? You’re not ill again, are you?”
“Oh, heaven forbid! No – I’m fine. No wait - I’m not fine. I’m tired. So goddamn tired! And I feel that I’ve reached the end of my rope, and that rope is fraying.”
Jeannie then asked if I was overwhelmed, and once I thought about it, I was indeed overwhelmed. Overwhelmed by adulthood – which seems magical when you are growing up but now, cemented firmly into its center, it’s hard. It’s filled with equal amounts of joy and pain but so often the pain lingers and the joy in fleeting. So yes, in a word … it is overwhelming. I dropped my bag inside the carport next to my Explorer and hung my head in embarrassment.
Only the loblollies knew that after that night, I began to meet Jeannie down at the dock on her property. Oh, now it is not what you think! We met and we smoked the marijuana she grew in her shed. Hey, I went to college in the 70’s – I’m quite familiar with smoking grass, or at least I was. Jeannie had awful PTSD from the time she spent in the Gulf War and her long military career. She learned to manage it through marijuana, and then decided to study agriculture using the GI Bill. She used her knowledge to develop and grow her own strain – and my, my, my, it was wonderful! So, when the days became untenable, I would leave a small lamp lit out upon the deck railing as a signal. Jeannie would wait for me on her dock, and we would smoke and talk and smoke some more. She told me about her experiences in the service and I would tell her about Ruby’s antics and my ongoing aches and pains. I would go back home to my bed feeling so unburdened I was actually able to sleep. Jeannie was my savior for many years. And then, one warm rainy spring evening, Jeannie passed away peacefully in her sleep.
For months I sat on the porch looking for a sign from Jeannie. Cardinals, butterflies, ladybugs. I took them all to mean she was still with me. When I pass – will people look for signs of my continued presence? I hope I have meant as much to someone as Jeannie meant to me. I hope my family will see the loblollies swaying and think of me watching over them.
And no, I never did run that decorating business. Wait, I lied. I did do some decorating for about a year, then I met the Mayor of Beaufort when his wife asked me to decorate their home. In the time I spent there, I would overhear conversations between the mayor and his staff. I was never shy about voicing my opinion if the subject matter was important to me, simply from the perspective of a concerned citizen. He valued what I had to say and made me an offer to be his administrator and copy editor. I could set my own hours and even work from home if I needed to. Working for Mayor Brady wasn’t my passion, but it was interesting, and it helped pay the bills. I’m retired now and fill my days going to yoga a few times a week and I take a baking class on Friday mornings at the community college. Cal and I meet in town on Wednesdays for our long-standing lunch date. One thing that did happen as planned, Cal and Shep spent plenty of time fishing on the weekends, but instead of opening a financial planning firm they forayed into accounting. Shep’s daughter Alanna runs it now that Shep retired and Cal has mostly retired, though he still works with a handful of clients just to stay busy, which is fine by me – I don’t need him hovering around the house all day.
I can smell our dinner simmering inside, a pot of crab chowder spiked with sherry and a bit of cayenne. I also placed some fried green tomatoes and buttermilk biscuits from my baking class in the oven to keep warm. I looked up at the trees as they rustled in the breeze. The sky is turning that shade of inky purple that signifies the coming of autumn out here on the inner banks. I snuffed out my cigarette in the potted plant beside me; Cal will be home shortly.
Yesterday, when I was at the fish market picking up the crab I ran into an old acquaintance from college. She and I chatted a while – she had just moved to the other side of the river in her recent retirement. She had raised her family up north; New Jersey I believe she said, anyway, she remarked that I looked well and clearly life had blessed me. There was a bit of insinuation there, that perhaps I had been some pampered southern belle cartwheeling through life. She told me about the early retirement package her company had forced upon her and the strained relationship with her daughter. Oh, if she only knew … if she could only see the scars that bisect my body and the psychological ones that have stolen my peace. The many sleepless nights I spent anguishing over Ruby, and money, and Cal’s blood pressure, and Harrison’s stressful job. But you can’t see those – those things are what I keep hidden, beneath my clothes, behind my sunglasses, and amongst the loblollies.