This is the forty-sixth part of a fiction serial, in 815 words.
Although that winter wasn’t as severe as what I had been used to in New York State, the cold weather definitely slowed Phin down. He also became unusually cantankerous at times, and I had to be very careful what I asked him. Trying to push him on why my mother never wrote to her parents, and why they never tried to contact her resulted in an unexpected fit of temper that took me by surprise.
“Ain’t no use asking me about that, Julian. None at all. I have no idea what caused the problems between Sophia and her ma, but whatever it was included me too, even though I wasn’t aware of it. First I knew was when they drove away from the hotel in the buggy, and she never so much as glanced back at us. I tried asking Susan, but every time I did, she either started crying, or shut herself away in a room. Whatever it was, I reckon it died with my wife, and your ma. Some things just never get told. You’re old enough to realise that, I’m certain”.
After that, he claimed to be feeling too tired for a few days, and refused any sessions with the tape recorder. Ann Mallory told me to pay him no mind. “He will come round, Julian, don’t you fret”.
I used the time to start on the manuscript proper. I was unable to decide at first whether to start with the letter received by my lawyer, or go back to the winter in the civil war when Phin found his mother dead. After trying both, I settled on starting the book with Phin finding his mother, and work it up to the time I found out about the grandfather I had known nothing about for all my life. It was coming along nicely by the time Phin had calmed down sufficiently to resume our sessions.
Acting as if his outburst had never happened, he smiled as I switched on the machine. “Now then, where were we, Julian?”
“You found Susan dead in the gardens, I think you said it was nineteen twenty-nine. What did you do after that, Phin? You would have been sixty-six years old at the time”.
He reached for his whiskey. Mrs Mallory had finally agreed that there was little point making him add water to it. The man was one hundred years old. What was the worst that could happen? I suspected that she was also emboldened by my offer to keep her on. It no longer seemed so essential to keep old Phin alive, I suppose. Besides, it made life so much easier for her, not having to keep arguing about whether or not he drank too much coffee, or had a whiskey at night. After a good slug of the booze, he shrugged.
“Truth be told, I did nothing much at all, Julian. Didn’t have to. I had more money than I could spend, and I took on a housekeeper, a black lady named Ella Mae. She couldn’t live in though. Back then was the same as now. White folks didn’t have no live in black women servants, ‘specially if they were a white man and widowed. But Ella Mae was worth her pay, and more. How that woman could cook. I never ate better than when she was around, I tell you. And that woman had a lot of gumption. She used to walk here from her place, six miles each way, every day, in all weathers. I offered to get her a cab each way, and she just laughed. ‘I can’t go in no white man’s cab, Mr Fuller. And there ain’t no black men driving cabs that I’ve seen’. I knew what she was talking about, after what happened to Walter, and folks looking sideways at my Susan ’cause her ma was an injun”.
When he got near the end of the whiskey in his glass, he seemed to drift off into a reverie. But he had more to tell.
“Ella Mae stayed here until forty-two. But then the airplane factories started to take on people because of the war, and they were paying real good. She left me to work in one. Not building planes, you understand, she worked in the kitchens of the big canteen. I offered to match her pay so she would stay, but she wanted to get what she called a proper job. So I advertised for a live in housekeeper, and along came Mrs Mallory. Widowed by the war, and needing money and a place to live. She’s more like a friend to me, Julian. I never actually think that she works for me. But don’t you tell her that now.”
He winked at me as he said that.
“I reckon I should go and get some sleep now, son. But we will do more tomorrow”.