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Simple Sarah and Slippery Sam
By Elizabeth K. Burton
Thursday, July 03, 2003
Finalist: 1999 Writers of the Future
Miss Sarah Pettigrew lived all her life in a little blue cottage on the northeast corner of Willard Square. She had been born in the house. She would die in the house.
That’s what the grown-ups all said, anyway. I used to shudder delightfully when they said it, being a morbid sort of child with an imagination given to things dark and mysterious. I could imagine Miss Sarah’s lonely ghost wandering the tidy rooms of her spotless house, frowning in dismay at a speck of dust on her polished sideboard or a cobweb dangling sluttishly from a ceiling corner.
It was the era when everybody liked Ike, England’s queen was somebody’s mom, and preachers and parents were beginning to issue dire warnings of what evils awaited teenagers foolish enough to sell their souls for rock ‘n’ roll. In our little town, the young people still preferred Frank Sinatra and Patti Page and traveling by the carload to the next town on Friday nights for burgers and a movie. It was a time when the height of etiquette was minding your own business and assuming others would extend you the same courtesy.
I liked Miss Sarah. She was a sweet, uncomplaining woman of what they used to call a certain age.” I wasn’t sure what that was (and gave up asking after I was threatened with a spanking if I asked such a rude question again), but I guessed it must have meant “pretty old.” To a ten-year-old, a woman of thirty-five was on the very verge of the grave.
She had pale yellow hair braided and wrapped around her head in a neat coronet and pale blue eyes that always seemed to be focused inward, seeing some special place no one else could see. She had a soft innocence in her face that turned its commonplace features into something almost pretty, and her smile -- a little tentative, a little shy -- always got an answering one no matter how grumpy the person she was smiling at.
Her parents had died within weeks of each other just after her eighteenth birthday, leaving her with a trust fund they had scrimped to save so she would always have enough to live on. She kept a flower garden in her side yard that bloomed from early spring to late autumn, and a vegetable garden in the back that kept her neighbors in carrots and cucumbers and peas and tomatoes all summer long.
“Simple Sarah.” That’s what else the grown-ups called her. By now I knew better than to ask, so I made sure to eavesdrop every time her name came up in one of those semi-whispered conversations that occur at afternoon teas and card parties. I soon understood that Miss Sarah “wasn’t like other people.” She was “a little light in the head.” (I thought that was a wonderful thing to be. Imagine going around with a light shining inside your head. That was before I found out it meant people considered Miss Sarah a little stupid.)
I can’t say whether she was or not. She certainly had no trouble taking care of herself and her home. She baked the most delicious chocolate chip cookies -- soft and chewy and buttery and so full of chips and nuts it was a wonder they held together long enough for us to eat them. Her door was always open to us kids, and we had a strict rule that anybody who took advantage of Miss Sarah would answer to the rest of us.
“Good morning, Miss Sarah,” we’d shout on our way to school or play, waving at her where she stood smiling by her white picket fence.
I don’t know why she singled me out. I wasn’t any different from the other tangle-haired, raucous rugrats that tramped to her back door regularly, usually following the scent of cinnamon or chocolate baking. Maybe it was because I sometimes stayed to help her clean up or dropped by when I knew her garden needed watering.
I almost didn’t realize what was happening. Miss Sarah didn’t say much most of the time, just smiled her secret smile and passed the cookie plate. One day, as I was putting away the lawn rake, she suddenly appeared behind me with a basket in her hand.
“This is for you,” she said, her voice a sibilant sigh I had to strain to hear.
“That’s okay, Miss Sarah,” I said, embarrassed that she might think I wanted to be paid for my work.
“No,” she insisted, thrusting the basket at me. “This is for you.”
I took it from her and looked inside. There was a paper plate wrapped in waxed paper inside through which I could smell peanut butter and chocolate. I started to take it out to see what was underneath, but she touched my wrist with a feather finger and shook her head.
“It’s for home,” she said, and then she toddled back inside, closing the door with a firm click.
I finished what I was doing and ran for home, my curiosity gnawing a hole in my patience. Through the front door to the tune of my mother’s shout and up the stairs to the room I shared with my older sister, Amy, who fortunately was off somewhere necking with her boyfriend.
I pulled out the plate of cookies, shaking off the wrapping and stuffing one into my mouth with no idea of etiquette. Underneath was one of Miss Sarah’s white floursack dishtowels, snowy and giving off a scent of fresh air, detergent and sunshine. I tossed it aside and then stood for a moment staring.
I didn’t mention that Miss Sarah made lace. Tatted lace, crocheted lace -- yards and yards of cotton spiderweb woven with the twist and loop of a shiny steel hook. In the bottom of the pedestrian little shopping basket, wrapped in crackly blue paper, was a masterpiece of delicate art. I took it out and held it up, grasping the generosity of the gift despite my ignorance of fashion.
“Margaret Kosczynski, how many times must I -- where did you get that?”
My mother stood in the doorway, staring at the wondrous cloud of lace with even more astonishment than I.
“Miss Sarah gave it to me for raking her lawn,” I said. “She had it in the basket under the cookies.”
Mom came in and took it from me, holding it up so the light from the window cast a filigree shadow on the wall. I looked at the swirls and loops and picots and for a moment it seemed I saw something there -- a picture or a word, something I could see clearly if I just knew which thread to follow.
“We’ve been looking all over for lace for Amy’s veil,” Mom said, firmly folding the gift into a square and wrapping it in the dishcloth.
“It’s mine!” I cried, reaching for it. “Miss Sarah gave it to me, not Amy.”
“And what use would a hoyden like you have for a lovely piece of lace like this?”
She turned to leave, taking my present with her, and all I could think of was that it was mine. I snatched it from her hand and ran down the stairs and out the door. I heard her calling me, demanding I come back, but I kept going, the precious lace clutched to my chest. I took it down by the river and tucked it into a hollow tree that was my secret treasure trove, full of shiny stones and bird feathers and all of the many strange and wonderful mysteries I had found on my walks through the woods and fields. I had an old cookie tin there for perishables, and I put Miss Sarah’s lace in that, still in its blue paper cocoon. I knew I was in trouble. I also knew there was no way Amy was going to get my lace.
I sat by the river, listening to the distant rush of water and thinking of the way the tracery of the pattern had seemed to hold a secret, a mystery meant only for me.
I have to keep it, I said to the part of me that was cringing in anticipation. Miss Sarah gave it to me.
I stayed there as long as I could, but it was autumn and the nights had a bite of frost. I went home at last and kept my secret. A piece of Miss Sarah’s lace was worth a spanking.
That was the beginning. After that, I spent a lot of my free time at Miss Sarah’s, and one day she sat down and showed me the first steps in learning the art of lace. She had infinite patience and only smiled when my clumsy fingers made knots instead of picots and the thread grew brown and dirty from too much handling.
We made cookies and pulled taffy and baked bread, and all the while I never considered that I was learning anything. Miss Sarah never criticized, never told me I was hopeless. She was my friend, a grown-up child playing house.
Until he showed up.
It was just after Christmas. There had been a snowstorm the night before that left nearly three feet of hard labor on the ground. I managed to clear a yard or two of Miss Sarah’s sidewalk before my aching back sent me indoors for a cup of hot chocolate and a sugar cookie or two. While I was catching my breath, he knocked on the door.
“Afternoon, Miss Sarah.”
I knew his voice, even hearing it all the way from the kitchen. Sam Huddleston. He lived in a rundown shack down near the highway and earned his living doing odd jobs and car repairs. There was gossip he had one or two less savory enterprises going, but no one had any real proof and it was hard to find a better hand with a car engine. “Slippery Sam,” we kids called him, driven to suspicion by some innate childhood instinct that whispered “danger” whenever we saw the man. Maybe it was the hard, nasty tone at the bottom of his voice whenever he spoke to us, or the way his eyes never seemed to land on something and roost there.
It might have been the way he always managed to find an excuse to touch the older, prettier girls.
Now, sitting in Miss Sarah’s kitchen wrapped in the smells of apple and nutmeg and ginger, I heard her murmur a response. What was he doing here? I wondered.
‘I just noticed your walk and driveway haven’t been cleared,” his voice boomed in the hallway, overly hearty and with a strange undertone I wouldn’t recognize for another five or six years when I knew a little about seduction. ‘I’ll just go ahead and take care of it for you.”
I set my cup down and walked to the kitchen door, which was at the opposite end of the hall from the front one. Slippery Sam was silhouetted against the late afternoon sun, a dark, looming shadow tipped with yellow fire.
“Hey, there, Maggie,” he said without enthusiasm. “How’s that pretty sister of yours?
“My name’s Margaret,” I said boldly, made brave by the knowledge I had time to make it out the back door before he could reach my end of the hallway.
“Well, you tell Amy I said ‘hello’, you hear? I’ll be done in a shake, Miss Sarah.
He said something else too low for me to hear and then left her to close the door after him. She stood there staring at it for so long I began to worry.
“Miss Sarah? You okay?”
She turned to face me, her face shining like the sun on the snow outside.
“He thinks I’m pretty.”
The hot chocolate curdled in my stomach and the taste of sugar and nutmeg on my tongue turned bitter. Even a child can sense when something evil is near -- maybe better than people older and wiser. I wanted to shout at her that Sam Huddleston was wicked, an evil, rotten blight who wasn’t fit to spit on her shadow. I wanted to run and lock all the doors and windows to keep him away. I wanted to tell her his compliment meant nothing, that it was only intended to get him some advantage.
All of that ran through my head, but none of it got to my mouth. How could I say that, knowing it would cut her trusting heart to ribbons? Had anyone in her life ever thought to tell Miss Sarah she looked pretty?
So I just smiled as best I could.
“That’s nice, Miss Sarah,” I said. “Could I have some more chocolate?”
Within the week, the news that Slippery Sam was courting Miss Sarah was everywhere. He dropped by to do little repairs on her house. He spent an afternoon getting her garden tools cleaned and oiled for the coming spring. Finally, they were spotted in Cavelton at the movie theater, waiting in line.
“Mrs. Perletti said they were holding hands and looking at each other like two regular lovebirds,” my mother said to my father over breakfast one Saturday morning.
I knew that tone of voice.
“Sam’s a good man,” my father said around a forkful of scrambled eggs. “We’d have had to buy a new car this year except for him.”
“It isn’t decent, Harry, and you know it. Not with Miss Sarah.”
I agreed with her, but somehow I didn’t think our reasons were the same. I knew better than to say anything. As long as I kept quiet, they usually forgot I was around.
“Miss Sarah’s as entitled to--”
He lowered the paper in time to catch her dip of the head in my direction, and I knew I wasn’t going to learn anything more here. I swallowed my milk in a gulp and dashed out of the house, wondering why my father couldn’t see what Sam was really like -- and what it was Miss Sarah was just as entitled to.
I certainly saw no reason to believe Slippery Sam had undergone a personal epiphany and discovered his ethical side, but in public he was a model citizen. That led to my spying on him, anxious to learn if I might just possibly be wrong about him.
I wasn’t. Concealed in one of the old wrecks distributed around his house like monuments to the automotive industry, I saw him bring home the “bad girls,” pawing them and laughing when they squealed with pretended delight. Once I crept up close to a window through which the faint sounds of the radio tinkled and peeked inside. I didn’t exactly understand what it was I saw them doing, but I knew it wasn’t something decent people did unless they were married to each other.
The rest of the winter passed, and each time I went to visit Miss Sarah she looked happier than before. Her birthday came in late March, and the day after she showed me the ring -- a fake diamond big as an almond.
‘I’m getting married, Margaret,” she said, blushing as pink as her throw pillows. ‘I’m going to marry Sam and have a little girl of my own.”
They were married in May, when the flowers in her garden bloomed in erotic profusion. The whole town turned out for the wedding, but from the conversations I overheard both before and after the ceremony I decided most were there because the others were. There was a lot of head shaking and tongue-clicking over the impropriety of Miss Sarah’s getting married, but despite my best efforts I never found out what it was. I did find out it had nothing to do with who she was marrying.
Sam moved into the little blue house and made it clear soon after that my visits were no longer welcome. Miss Sarah no longer waited by the picket fence in the mornings to greet us on our way to school, and the little blue house began to look slightly abandoned. The shades were always drawn now, and the grass on the front lawn always seemed to need mowing.
A month after the wedding, I saw Miss Sarah in the grocery store. The far-seeing look in her eye had gone flat and empty, and there was a great bruise down the side of her face.
“Miss Sarah, what happened?” I gasped.
‘I was bad,” she said in her tiny voice. ‘Sam wanted another drink and I said it would make him sick. He said I was his wife and I had to do whatever he wanted me to and not talk back.”
Just then my mother found us, and she dragged me away.
“That’s none of your business, Margaret Elaine,” she snapped. “Miss Sarah made her bed, now she’ll just have to sleep in it.”
Suddenly, no one wanted to know Miss Sarah. When we passed her house on the way to school, all of the other kids turned their heads away. I was the only one who searched the lace-draped windows looking for her face so that I could wave and tell her she hadn’t lost all her friends. I never saw her, though. The house stood mute, the only witness to the tragedy within, the tragedy I felt responsible for. I should have said something. I should have told her, made her see him for what he was. Now it was too late.
Summer came and went, and fall arrived in its Joseph’s coat. Last year I had raked Miss Sarah’s leaves, and when they collected in a thick mat on the lawn this year I decided to take a chance. I gathered my courage and went to her house, checking first to make sure Sam’s truck was nowhere in sight.
I hardly recognized the woman who answered the door. She seemed decades older and stooped with a weight too heavy for her narrow shoulders. For an instant her eyes lit with the old light when she saw me, but then the spark died and dark fear replaced it.
‘I saw your lawn wasn’t raked, Miss Sarah,” I blurted before she could send me away. ‘I’ll do it for you.”
She was silent for so long I wondered if she had forgotten how to talk, shut up in this house with no one but a man in love with her money for company.
‘I guess you can,” she agreed finally.
I stepped off the front steps and started to work, and a moment later she returned with some bags for the leaves. I finished the front and had worked my way around back, which is why I didn’t know Sam had come back until he snatched the rake out of my hand and threw it against the side of the house.
“Who sent you?” he shouted, grabbing me by the arm and shaking me.
“Nobody! I just came to help Miss Sarah.”
“Don’t lie to me! They sent you to spy on me. I see them staring at us when we go into town.”
‘Let me go! I just came to help Miss Sarah.”
His face was twisted with rage and his grip on my arm was enough to break the bone. The pain brought tears to my eyes, but that only seemed to provoke him more.
‘I’ll teach you to lie to me.”
We were standing next to Miss Sarah’s vegetable garden, now gone to weeds and neglect. He reached and grabbed up a stake that still had dried strands of cucumber vine on it and, turning me around, began to beat me with it. I screamed and cried and struggled to break free, but he was too strong. He might have killed me if the noise hadn’t drawn the attention of the neighbors.
“What’s going on?” someone yelled from down the block. “Is somebody hurt?”
It seemed to slice through his madness, and he let me go. Sobbing, my buttocks and legs a flaming mass of pain, I staggered home and crawled up the stairs to my room. I wanted comfort, wanted someone to be outraged and go kill Sam Huddleston, but I didn’t dare say a word to anyone. My parents had forbidden me to see Miss Sarah or go near her house, and I was sure they would consider this my just punishment for disobedience. I told them I had slipped and fallen down the stairs. A trip to the doctor got me salve for the wicked bruises that covered me from waist to knees and a lecture about not running in the house.
When I could move without agony, I went to my treasure tree and pulled out the piece of lace. I shook it out, watching the breeze catch and waft it as if it weighed no more than a thought, and then held it against my face as I wept for myself and for Miss Sarah.I don’t know how long I cried, but when I finally ran out of tears the length of lace was soaked with my grief. I seemed to feel much better. Even my bruises were less painful.
Slippery Sam first fell ill right around Halloween. I didn’t see him myself, but my father had taken our car to him to have a tune-up and he told my mother later that Sam said he’d been having headaches off and on that were making it hard for him to work. Thanksgiving came and went, and there was talk that Sam had finally broken down and gone to a doctor about his headaches. There were tests, but nothing resulted from them to explain either the pain or the way he continued to lose weight no matter how much he ate. Finally, one night, he went to bed and woke the next morning too weak to get up.
Still, no one went to see Miss Sarah, although she bore the burden of Sam’s illness all by herself. I was still interdicted from seeing her, but even the disastrous end of my earlier visit hadn’t dimmed my sense of loyalty.
It was shortly after Christmas, one of those surprising, mild December days that happen to remind us we won’t always be surrounded by snow and ice. I had gotten new roller skates and wanted to try them out, so I went to the playground by the school. My path took me right past Miss Sarah’s house, and to my complete surprise she was outside, standing next to the picket fence just like before.
“Good morning, Miss Sarah,” I said.
“Hello, Margaret. Would you like some cinnamon buns? I just made them.”
I stopped and stared at her. Gone were the stooped shoulders and the empty, flat eyes. This was my old friend, returned from the grave of her mistake. She smiled at me.
How could I resist? I followed her in through the front door and back to the kitchen, inhaling the familiar smells of baking and lemon polish. As I passed the stairs, I thought about the man lying helpless upstairs and felt a fleeting sense of satisfaction before I talked myself out of it on the grounds it was un-Christian.
The cinnamon rolls were wonderful, and there was ample hot chocolate, the top thick with a raft of marshmallows, to wash them down. When I was too full to consider another bite, we went back up the hall to the living room and Miss Sarah sat in her chair and took up a piece of crochet work.
“That’s a pretty hook, Miss Sarah,” I said, staring at the magnificent thing of gleaming gold she was using to work the black thread. It was longer than her regular tool with an odd, flat handle engraved with curious shapes.
“My mamma gave it to me. She got it from her mamma. I can’t use it all the time, though. It’s only for special.”
Her hands dipped and wove, knotting the ebony cord into an impossibly intricate pattern. Like the lace she had given me, it seemed to hold meaning if only I could follow the thread.
She finished the row and then shook out the piece for me to see. It was exquisite, woven of starless night and shadows.
‘I’m almost done,” she said. “Another week, I think.”
She showed me where she had hidden my own work, keeping it from the relentless hands of her husband, and we spent the next hours working together quietly, creating beauty out of evil memories and good. When it came time for me to go, she tucked a wrapped roll into my coat pocket.
Sam Huddleston died in agony one week later, his mind alert and his body a rotting husk. The volunteer ambulance drivers who went to pick up the body looked pale and sick when they described in hoarse whispers what they had found. Everyone went to the funeral, eager to see the widow and hoping to find her the same as ever in order to assuage their guilty consciences. All they saw was Miss Sarah, sitting in simple serenity in the front row of folding chairs wearing a dress of black taffeta she had made herself and with a cascade of handmade ebony lace around her head.
I went up and sat beside her, taking her tiny hand in my equally small on.
‘I’m glad he’s gone,” I blurted, unable to help myself even though I knew it was incredibly impolite.
“He isn’t gone.”
Her voice, so sweetly matter-of-fact and assured, sent a chill up my spine. Had all the trouble driven her crazy?
“Miss Sarah, he’s dead,” I said, as gently as an 11-year-old can manage. “He’s there, in the coffin. He’s gone.”
She smiled that tranquil, Miss-Sarah smile and stroked the lace that lay on her lap.
“No,” she said, holding it up for me to look at and then laying it gently back down “He’s right here.”
She was looking right at me, and I was no good at hiding my feelings. My disbelief was all over my face.
“Here, I’ll show you.”
She took my hand and laid the lace across the palm. It moved.
I snatched my hand away and stared at the drape of delicate web. It must have been my imagination. I reached over and picked it up.
It wasn’t my imagination. The lace quivered in my hand, and then, deep in the back of my skull, I heard him screaming. Over and over and over. Screaming in pain and horror and despair, his soul entangled in the strands of her web forever.
“Sam was bad,” Miss Sarah murmured, taking the lace from me and smoothing it over her dress. “He shouldn’t have hurt you. You’re my friend.”
Miss Sarah died last month as quietly as she had lived. The balance of her trust fund and the proceeds from the sale of her little blue house and its contents were given to a charity that helps what we call “special needs” children now. Yesterday I received a package in the mail from my mother.
“You always liked Miss Sarah, and when I saw this at the auction I thought you might like to have it to remember her by,” her note said.
The package contained a long jeweler’s box, the kind you put a bracelet in. Inside the box, gleaming against midnight blue velvet, was the gold crochet hook.
I thought of Miss Sarah and I would swear I caught a gentle whiff of sweet dough and chocolate. I thought of the long afternoons sitting in silent companionship, our hooks flashing in the slanted lines of sun. I remembered the gleaming oak of a casket and the wail of terror woven in the twisting elegance of black lace.
I closed the box and put it away in the very bottom of my yarn basket.
Keeping it for special.
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|Reviewed by Tricia a
|Oh my goodness, this is a GREAT story!!|