As I’m going over the new book, I find the character of Mrs. Simmons to be my favorite. She always has a story to tell, a way to take the darkest events and make them both clear and somehow beautiful. Here’s a snippet - as I get closer to the end of the project and a new novel nearly completed:
“I don’t think any of us truly knows what sanity feels like.” Michael chuckled. “Not really, not with all the things we’ve seen. Do you know what I call sanity?” He looked around the room, all eyes on him. “Mrs. Simmons’ cooking - the sanest and best thing I’ve ever encountered.” They laughed as Mrs. Simmons scooped soup into bowls.
“Awww, Michael, you are the best.” She set a bowl in front of him and squeezed his shoulder. “Did I ever tell y’all about my Aunt Alma?” She distributed the bowls, checked on the pot pie in the oven, and sat down at the counter. “Now they said Aunt Alma was crazy, or maybe it was senility setting in too early. I can say she didn’t always operate with a full deck, but she was my father’s little sister and I loved her. I remember once Daddy took my sister to Washington, D.C., a big trip with her government class for a couple days, and left me with her. He called several times, I guess feeling guilty that he couldn’t be both my mother and father. Anyway, there I am with Aunt Alma. The day starts with grits and eggs, and then Aunt Alma pulled a wheelbarrow out from under the porch. ‘We need to go to town,’ she said.” Mrs. Simmons laughed.
“Now I had been in town with my father many times, of course, although he never pushed a wheelbarrow through the streets, but I followed Aunt Alma as she picked up odds and ends from the trash set out on the curb. I had thought we were going through town to maybe do some shopping or have a soda in the drug store, like it was when my Daddy took me to town, but Aunt Alma had a different agenda, a different picture she was painting in her head.” Mrs. Simmons tasted the soup, studying it on her tongue as only good cooks understood, and nodded, deeming it good.
“Aunt Alma’s trek through town took us beside the river, where she hitched up her skirt and waded into the water, pulling things out of the muck. I sat on the bank, wanting to join her in the water, but hearing all the cautions in my head that Daddy had spoken of nails, leeches, drowning, and polio, so I just watched, knowing that she was crazy as a loon, but intrigued and loving her anyway. She pulled an old metal bicycle wheel out of the water as though it was made of solid gold and carried it to the shore, rinsing away the dirt and decaying rubber. She placed it in the wheelbarrow with reverence, as though it was the Holy Grail, and not just a bent piece of metal. She walked back in the water, washing off her hands, and reached down in the muck again, pulling free a metal pipe about three feet long. ‘ Glory be!’ she declared, and turned to me. ‘You are a lucky piece, little Ruth, maybe even a Godsend.’ She rinsed the pipe in the water, whistling a tune I remembered from church, an old spiritual about being beside the river.”
“As I went down in the river to pray, studying about that good ole way,” Lucy sang, and then stopped herself, laughing. “I have no idea where that came from.”
“That was the song,” Mrs. Simmons beamed at her. “Yep, that was the song. Anyway, Aunt Alma put that pipe in the wheelbarrow, still humming.” Mrs. Simmons chuckled and shook her head. “And then she took a rag from her satchel, wiping off the water and mud from her legs. Maybe she wasn’t as crazy as people said. She got cleaned up, but didn’t put her ‘city’ shoes on again until she had walked through the woods barefoot and stepped onto the concrete of the road. She pushed that wheelbarrow through town as though it was the finest car, or a carriage that held royalty, and she parked it in front of the drug store where we stepped inside and had lunch. I was at the age where I had almost put away the fairy tales of youth, and was entering the realities of life, but I sat at that booth, and I wanted to believe every story she had ever told.
“Now, Aunt Alma was still attractive woman. Her hair,” Mrs. Simmons touched her own, “was like mine, but had never been cut and ended in the middle of her back, the weight of it all straightening the curls. She was slim, unlike me.” She patted her belly. “And you know what I saw? Everyone watched her as though she had an answer they could never hear; they admired her, but they had to hate her, you know? They had to talk about her because if they didn’t just push her down and away, they may see something in their own lives that they didn’t like.” Mrs. Simmons stood slowly, picking up the bowls, and carrying them to the sink, checking on the pot pie. “Aunt Alma and I had a nice lunch,” she leaned against the counter, looking above them and back into the past, “and when she stood up from the booth and paid the bill it was as though the whole room paused, watching her in fear, jealousy, and reverence. I followed my aunt out of the drug store as though I was a princess following my queen. We finished our lap through town and headed home, sharing turns holding the wheelbarrow as we walked. We didn’t talk, because Aunt Alma didn’t talk a lot, and most of the words she said tended to be over the heads of the people she was attempting to communicate with. When she pushed the wheelbarrow in the yard, she took me by the hand. ‘You go cook. I’ve left the instructions on the counter, and after dinner I have a surprise for you. Don’t look out the windows!” She laughed mysteriously, pushing the wheelbarrow around the house.
“I ran in the house, excited, still a child who understood miracles happened more often than not. I walked into the kitchen anxious to read the note and continue the adventure, and the phone rang. It was my dad, who had gotten a call from someone in town that I was in danger. I assured him that I was safe, almost hating him for taking the magic away, and finally, assured that I was not near death, he let me go. I approached the counter where I could see her instructions, battling the conflicting sides of myself, the child who knew miracles happened every moment of every day, and the young adult who had to accept that fairy tales didn’t actually exist.” She pulled heavy bowls from the cabinets, setting them on the table in front of them, but not actually fully present.
“Finally, fighting all I knew or thought I knew, and my father’s worries that were always present in my mind, I approached the counter and read her note. The instructions were simple, but she had drawn them out in a treasure map.” Mrs. Simmons chuckled as she folded paper towels into dinner napkins. “She outlined the steps from the stove to the refrigerator and the heavy pot I was to place in the oven. I followed her instructions, slowly regaining the excitement of youth, of magic and miracles, and then followed the map to my bedroom, where the note insisted I clean it.” She laughed. “I did as the note dictated, making the bed, dusting the dresser, and before I was done, she called to me from the back door. ‘Ready?’”
“I jumped. I was ready for a miracle, or at least a path between the two worlds of belief and death. ‘Yes, ma’am, I am.’ ‘Take off your shoes, and come to the back door,’ she ordered. I did as she said, almost tripping over my feet to get my shoes off and ran to the door. She waited, taking my hand as I descended down the stairs, and I once again felt like a princess, following my queen, as she showed me what she had built in my name. I stood there for a moment trying to understand not only what I was seeing, but also how she did it. It seems the pipe and wheel she had found in the river that day were the final pieces, and I watched as water came out of the pipe, pouring onto the wheel, which spun heartily, sending the water into a river that Aunt Alma had made.” Mrs. Simmons moved away from the table, opening the oven, and pulling out the heavy pot pie.
“The banks were quartz rock, and they reflected the sun low in the sky, lining the bottom of a pool she said was safe for me - no nails, no leeches, and no polio. The water spilled out of the wading pool, over a dam made of quartz and bricks she had picked up in her travels, and cut three ways: one path set off into the pines, the other into her garden filled with flowers and a few vegetables, and the third deep path, carrying the most water into a wonderland of small buildings set beside tree trunks, with colorful doors nailed into their roots. She had taken the smallest things, bending or cutting them, to make our town square, but instead of the road that divided the town in reality, she left a gentle stream, with more rocks lining the bottom, safe for feet.” Mrs. Simmons carried the heavy pot to the table, and began scooping out their meals with an old metal spoon.
“I stood there, fighting the two sides of myself; one part of me wanting to call her crazy, and the other side just loving her beyond reason. She had made this place for me, taking the worries of my father as serious and real, and wanting to give me a world where kids were safe. She gave me the whole town as a wading pool, created from the pieces she found along the road.” Mrs. Simmons carried the heavy pot back to the stove, and sat with them at the table. “Aunt Alma. Her feet in both worlds and still taking time to ensure I could see the beauty and feel the magic.”
“They took her away to the state hospital after that, and I only got to see her one more time before …” Mrs. Simmons bit her cheeks, “ before I guess she went back to the river. I’ll never forget that weekend, though, my feet in the water and feeling safe.” She paused and realized she’d held the group’s attention for too long. “We should say a prayer.”
“I think we did just did.” Michael wiped his eyes.
“Yes,” Danny and Lucy said at the same time and glanced at each other over the table.
“Literally the best prayer I’ve ever heard.” Pam held up her water glass in the air. The others raised their glasses as Mrs. Simmons stared down in her bowl, fighting tears over losing a wonderful woman who she never had the time to love as much as was deserved. A single tear escaped, falling into the steaming bowl.
“To Aunt Alma,” Mrs. Simmons held her glass in the air. “Amen!” She smiled.