The Shadow Of A Star Chief
By Carol D. Bradley
Eleanor Davenport always wore gloves. Her wardrobe was filled with crinolines, expensive shoes, and fine dresses that enhanced her trim figure. She embellished her hats with extra ribbons, a bow or feather. Her gloves were embroidered with delicate flowers; the stems were ribbons of thin green silk.
I marvelled at her while my brother and I squirmed under our mother's scowls in the pew on Sundays. I thought Mrs. Davenport looked like royalty. Perhaps that is why, after her sister died, she always sat alone, close to the front. Most townsfolk thought royalty was uppity.
Eleanor Davenport drove a sea mist green 1959 Pontiac Star Chief with sweeping fenders, a continental kit and whitewall tires that always looked brand new. The hot summer sun glinted off the windows and made me squint as I held up my hand like a salute to shield my eyes. She drove out of the Church parking lot with the window rolled down and wore a large, feathered straw hat and white cat-eye sunglasses. A gloved hand floated close to the open window with a tortoiseshell cigarette holder aimed like a loaded pistol.
I didn’t know how much the shadow of that car, and Eleanor Davenport, would loom over my life.
“She’s quite the dame,” my father said, as we all stared at the Star Chief parked on the side street beside the bank, a small, whimsical smile on his lips. I don’t remember my mother’s words, only her bitter tone.
“She’s got a boyfriend,” my mother purred as my father wheeled our station wagon onto the main street. My father shot her a look over his black framed glasses.
“No-o-o,” he said.
“Why not? She was certainly attractive in her day.” I thought Mrs. Davenport was quite attractive.
“Her day wasn’t that long ago, you know,” my father said. “No more than yours.”
“Mildred told me at Bunco. By the way, it’s my turn to hostess Bunco next month. I want it to be a nice show with nifty little sandwiches.”
I tuned her out and watched the watery heat mirage hover above the street. It made Mrs. Williams, walking nearby, look wavy and unstable under the weight of her advancing pregnancy.
“Look at that,” my mother hissed, flicking her head toward Mrs. Williams. “She shouldn’t be out in public in that condition.” I wondered what was wrong with Mrs. Williams’ condition. My father spun the big steering wheel to back into a spot, looking over his shoulder and his big glasses.
“I have to go into the bank,” was all he said. I went in with him, trying to match his long strides. My mother went to Mr. Longstaff's General Store to buy a few groceries. The fuss she made about fresher produce at this particular store was a bit too loud when anyone was nearby. All our groceries came from Mr. Longstaff’s store. None of the other stores allowed people to buy on credit.
I don’t recall any of the women in town having a job, except Eleanor Davenport. She typed letters for the bank manager on her grey Smith-Corona typewriter. I watched her sitting at her big wooden secretarial desk wearing a prettydress, her back straight. She didn’t look at her hands while she typed. I thought she was magic. Perhaps that was another point of resentment against Mrs. Davenport: no one valued her independence. No one thought being a housewife was a real job and there was nothing shameful in being pregnant.
My mother volunteered with the ladies auxiliary at Church. They needed something to distract them from their lives. Unremarkable lives full of child-rearing, gossiping, housecleaning and husband-feeding. My mother had a talent for painting. There was a neglected art book with drawings of Blondie and Dagwood in a trunk in the basement. She gave it up. Her invalidism was complete.
The ladies relished their Bunco, a dice game where the players moved around to different tables to keep the conversation fresh. My mother enlisted my services when Mrs. Williams’ labour forced her to cancel. She made me have a bath and wear a dress.
We all helped set up collapsible card tables in our TV room in the basement. “Not there, over there! Make sure everything is perfect!” she commanded, fluttering around with her hair wrapped on wire rollers. I rolled my eyes at my father as we exchanged a conspiratorial grin behind her back.
All the Bunco fuss made me curious. I occupied my place for the game. There were extravagant tinned salmon sandwiches with the crusts cut off, iced lemonade and small gifts my mother wrapped in fancy cellophane paper for the high scorers. A booby prize for the lowest scorewas wrapped in newspaper. I ate several little sandwiches, more than my share, and wondered why we didn’t have food prepared with such extra attention more often.
I came to understand, years later, the main attraction was the gossip and comradery between these sometimes lonely, desperate women trapped in circumstances they had little control over even though many of their friendships were strained, cold and competitive.
Mildred kept my mother busy; I knew she wouldn’t notice how many sandwiches I ate. They were huddled together deep in whispered conversation in the corner. My mother looked sad. Mildred took long drags on her cigarette, feigning sympathy while spiking their lemonade with gin.
After all the Bunco tables and dishes were cleared up and the cigarette smoke had dissipated, my brother Wes and I sat in our pyjamas watching TV. The unfinished, cavernous TV room exposed the floor joists up to the plywood floor above. The tiled floor had a giant checkerboard in the middle. Sometimes we played checkers with painted black and red tobacco tin lids. Sound echoed.My father came home late. His shoes made a loud, authoritative clomp on the tile floor.
We had never heard our parents argue before that night. "I Love Lucy" was on TV. All I remember was my mother’s voice: desperate and angry, mixed in with Lucy’s laugh track. She sat there, waiting for him in the living room, ready to throw his betrayal in his face. I stared at the TV, seeing nothing. I glanced at Wes. His eyes were wide and blank.
My father's low voice muffled his words. I didn’t understand everything but I recognized Eleanor’s name and my mother saying he shamed her. When his chair scraped the floor and his loud shoes moved toward where I imagined her sitting, I clamped my cupped hands to my ears to block out the sounds. Wes sat transfixed.
I would recall that night many times throughout my life as dark and frightening.
Later that week, I rode my bike around town. Eleanor lived on the last street. A For Sale sign hung on her fence between the red geraniums. She was taking down the white lace curtains from the open kitchen windows. She smiled and waved to me.
“Hello, Julie.” She had a happy voice.
I called back “Hello, Mrs. Davenport,” and wondered if her moving away had anything to do with my mother yelling her name that night after Bunco.
No one ever talked about that night. Images and suspicions worsened over the years in all our minds. My mother let her bitterness and accusations of everything my father did build like thunderheads. My father began to swallow his anger with rum.
The shadow of that Star Chief would darken many nights for my parents, and all our lives went on. My brother and I grew up and moved away from that dusty prairie town. No one ever heard from Eleanor Davenport again.
I moved to a big city, then another, had two children and a career. I blamed my parents’ misery and lack of trust for my failure in finding true love. Not until middle age and looming retirement did love find me. My husband and I retired early and moved to a small dusty town in the mountains of Mexico.
The day I first saw Eleanor dawned like every other; quiet, calm, lush and green with not a wisp of a breeze. I drove into the village. In the small plaza, señoras set up collapsible tables under ragged tarps to sell fruits and vegetables. I had no reason to look up from the rickety table loaded with bright red tomatoes at just that moment. The street is always busy and boisterous. I caught a glimpse of a big car with whitewall tires. I held my hand up, salute-like, to shield my eyes from the radiant sunshine. Through the open car window I saw a tiny woman with a flowered straw hat in the driver’s seat.
“It can’t be,” I said to my husband that afternoon. “She’s got to be well into her 90’s.” I had no idea what Eleanor’s age would have been when I was a child. Every adult looked old.
“Do you remember Eleanor Davenport?” I asked my brother. We talked on many Sunday mornings.
“Sure,” said Wes. “She had that great car. Why?”
“I think I saw her in the village here. She’s driving a different car, a big Cadillac, but it sure looked like her.” I could sense his reluctance in the silence. He was remembering her too, remembering a big car and the long shadow it cast that had not yet seen the light.
“She’s got to be well into her 90’s,” he said.
“Yeah, I thought the same thing.” reaching into memories of sunny, small town days.
“What do you remember?” Wes, a few years older than me, always knew more. He told me about the night we were watching TV in the basement. He heard the entire argument.
Wes went on; “She threatened if he wouldn’t end it with Eleanor, she would expose him to the community as a liar and a cheat. He told her over and over they were friends and all they did was talk.”
I sat there, listening to the story of the night our parents started hating each other. The night our lives changed forever. I looked out the window at the flowers blooming in my garden, and wondered if it really was Eleanor Davenport living so close. Was she looking out at her garden, too? Did she have any regrets?
“I always thought Dad was having an affair with Eleanor." Wes said."That’s why she moved away. The Church ladies were pretty hard on her.”
“An affair?”My voice was edgy, incredulous. “I didn’t hear Dad’s responses. All I remember was Mom saying something about Eleanor.”
Stories lost in time came back to me of my parents in their youth. He was a proud, vain man; my mother, beautiful and compliant. They met in a summer Bible Camp when my father was destined for the Church, according to his overbearing mother. She believed he married beneath his station. My mother never let him forget any fault my grandmother wouldn’t acknowledge. Only after he died did she once again pick up a paintbrush.
Wes and I talked a little longer. “How are the grandkids?” I asked. “Growing like weeds.”
“How’s the weather?” The same small talk we had for decades.
“Dad had an affair with Eleanor Davenport,” I said to my husband after I hung up. Was that really her, living in our village? I had to find out. Ruby would know.
Ruby Saleen, an 80-something quintessential southern belle with a smooth drawl, a matter-of-fact attitude and a wardrobe of chandelier earrings, lived just up the road from us. Ruby knew everyone and everything about the goings-on in the village.
“Do you know a woman that drives a big Cadillac?” I asked her over a morning coffee on her patio.
“Sure, that’s Eleanor. She has lived here longer than even me and I’ve been here 35 years. That woman has got to be into her 90’s,” she said between sips of sweet tea and long drags on her Marlboro Menthol.
“She’s like you. She says she’s writing a book. Apparently, she had quite the time...in her younger life I mean,” Ruby said. I wanted to hear more. “I’m still waiting and it’s been more than 15 years.” She laughed a deep raspy smokers’ laugh.
“I would like to meet her sometime,” I said, reaching down to pet Ruby's little dog. “Perhaps I could talk with her about writing her book.”
“Well, I’m having tea with her on Saturday. It has to be tea. I don’t think she has ever tasted coffee or a shot of bourbon, for that matter. I’ll tell her I’m bringing you along.” Ruby never seemed to need permission.
I was anxious that Saturday morning. Eleanor hadn’t left my thoughts since I saw Ruby. I didn’t want to burst into her life and say; “Hello, I’m the daughter of a man you screwed around with 50 years ago. Thanks for ruining my mother’s life.” My plan was to meet with her under the dubious expectation that I could help her with her book. I hoped she would fall for it and not think me presumptuous. Ruby got into my car with a waft of cigarette smoke and a smile; dressed to the nines, as usual, glittering earrings dusted her shoulders. Her little dog sat in the crook of her arm like a handbag. I wore a nice summer dress on the conservative side and spent more time than usual on my hair.
“Well, don’t you look lovely,” Ruby said in her southern drawl that always makes me smile.
“Thank you.” I tried not to look nervous.
Her Cadillac was parked in the driveway, waxed to a reflective shine; whitewall tires without a scuff. I remembered my brother and memaking faces like a fun house mirror in the gleaming reflection of a mist green Star Chief. Her small house had white lace curtains in the windows. She met us at the door.
“Hello Ruby.” Her voice was firm and gentle as they embraced. It was nice to see warm, genuine friendship between two women. She wore a cotton dress with a full skirt and a fitted bodice and ballet flats. She was still quite the dame.
Ruby waved toward me; “This is Julie. She’s a writer too. I sure hope I see that book of yours before I die.” Eleanor offered her graceful hand; a hand coddled in gloves for decades without lines or blotches. She wore pale pink lipstick on her small mouth and a confident smile. Her keen eyes never left my face, eyes that took in everything like a circus guesser.
“Hello Mrs. Davenport,” I said taking her hand.
“Please,” she said. “Call me Eleanor.” I felt at ease in her warm presence.
She served tea in fine china tea cups and squares on matching sandwich plates. She decorated her kitchen with cherry tea towels and a crisp linen table cloth embroidered with flowers and thin ribbons for stems. The floors were tiled black and white, like a checkerboard.
I don’t remember what the conversation was about. What’s your age? Your last name? Your hometown? ; irrelevant questions she either already knew the answers to or didn’t care.
I looked at her lovely face and knew what my father saw in her even after so many years. She was polite, refined, her voice clear and soft like music, joyful music.
On my second visit, Eleanor placed an old hat box on the kitchen table after she poured tea. This was where she squirreled away all the details of her life.
“I haven’t looked in here for years. This is all I have left. I didn’t know where to start. I want to do this before I....pass on.” Eleanor was looking in the box, keen eyes brimming with flashes of years long gone. I guessed she didn’t have any family left.
I stood to open the lid. It was like a treasure chest, filled with flower covered journals, yellowed newspaper clippings of celebrities on the Italian and French Rivera; photos of her with the dashing Prince of Monaco; a party at the Cannes Film Festival in 1959. In one photo, with her head tilted back, she was laughing, dabbling her feet in the water with her shoes in one hand and her Count’s arm in the other. His eyes twinkled only for her.
That summer, I drove into town every Saturday to visit with Eleanor. We pored over souvenirs of her life. She told me about the Italian count who had proposed marriage until his mother stood in the way. His mother thought he was marrying beneath his station.
“Perhaps it was for the best,” she said. “I didn’t want a life of misery and resentment.” She looked into my eyes like she wanted to say more.
I relished every minute with Eleanor, not only for the free-wheeling, exotic lifestyle she lived with the rich and famous on the beaches of the Mediterranean; but for the tender and turbulent times with her Count and his family.
Over the weeks, my needs faded.
She pulled another journal out of the box. The label stated the name of a dusty town on the prairies I knew so well.
“This was when I went to stay with my sister Violet when she was ill. There was no point in staying in Italy. I arrived there only for Violet to pass on after a few months.” I opened the cloth covered book with trembling hands.
Then I saw his name: John Morgan, my father. I stifled a breath caught in my throat. Eleanor spoke about the gentleman she met and became friends with. He was gallant, educated and attractive, not like the other men in the town.
“He sat in my kitchen drinking tea some evenings,” she picked up her cup and slowly sipped her tea. “He needed someone to talk to. His wife was so busy with children, trying to keep up appearances with the Church ladies, all the while struggling with a limited budget. She couldn’t confide in any of her friends about her situation for fear of judgement. Women were expected to put up and shut up in those days.” There was no judgement in her voice, only kindness.
I imagined my father sitting there in her cheerful kitchen, his skinny legs crossed high at the thigh, always right over left. They discussed books, philosophy and history; conversations neither of them had with anyone else in the community.
I knew now that Eleanor had not had an affair with my father. She was only being a friend to a man attempting to bolster faltering hopes and dying dreams. I knew she had compassion for my mother lost in a world of keeping up appearances; wearing threadbare, homemade clothes so he could buy a new car and build a new house. I knew Eleanor would never be anyone’s mistress, ridiculed in a small town where appearances meant more than genuine friendship and petty gossip ruined lives.
I forgave my parents’ flawed, influential relationship. They were doing the best they could with what they had in a life doomed by family meddling and interrupted by five years of war that stripped away their sheltered expectations of life.
The long shadow cast over my heart was gone.
I misunderstood her laboured sigh for difficulty in recalling distant memories. I didn’t know how ill she was and this would be the last time I would see her.
I went there the next Saturday morning. The Cadillac was gone. I went to the door; there were no lace curtains. I peeked in the windows. The empty house and checkerboard floor gleamed back at me.
I drove straight to Ruby’s and burst onto her patio. She came to the door saying, “Oh Julie, I’m so sorry. Eleanor died.”
I barely heard her next words. Something about Eleanorbeing sick for a while but never telling anyone. “Isn’t that just like Eleanor? …never admitting to getting old.” Ruby attempted to fill the uncomfortable void of my silence.
“When?” I said in an unrecognizable voice.
“Sunday. Her son came over from Italy to consult her doctors. He spent all week emptying out her house before he called me. He said she left a few things for me...and a letter for you. He came here on his way to the airport.”
“Her son? From Italy?” Eleanor hadn’t told me about a son.
“I thought you were writing her life story?” Ruby looked at me like I was daft. “He left last night.”
“She left me her hats.” Ruby sighed, motioning to the stack of hat boxes on the floor inside the door. I pushed past her to see them, expecting the old hat box with all the souvenirs to be one of them. It wasn’t there.
“Here’s the letter to you.” Ruby said with a note of concern in her voice.
“I’m sorry.” I said. “I was expecting a box with photos and newspaper clippings. Did you see one?”
“No…just the letter. He gave away the furniture and threw everything else out.” She handed me the envelope. I slid it into my pocket. I wanted to read it, alone.
I thanked Ruby and left while she waved a hand and offered a coffee.
I sat down in my garden with a cup of tea in a finechina cup and opened the letter:
If you are reading this I did not come home from my appointment with the doctor. I have been ill for a while. I am sorry for not telling you but I so enjoyed our time together, I did not want to spoil it with such trivialities.”
“Trivialities?” I said out loud to the air. “You were dying, Eleanor!”
“You gave me something very special. You gave me your friendship and I cherish it and will for eternity.”
I stopped again; tears filled my eyes. She was thankful we became friends. I felt hideous for my false pretentions that brought us together and what our family thought she was all those years.
“Finish your book, Julie. You will be a wonderful writer. You deserve the happiness you have fought so hard for. Whatever you decide to do with the partial story I gave you, I am joyful in the giving.
Your loving friend;
PS You look exactly like your beautiful mother.”
Ed. Note: Carol Bradley is Canadian now living and writing on the south shore of Lake Chapala with her husband and two rescue dogs. Carol writes short stories, memoir and fiction, about regular people overcoming adversities. She is currently in research for a historical fiction novel set in 17th century New England about an ancestor executed for witchcraft.