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A Thousand Valleys
Judy Vinson clutched the doorjamb, pulling herself closer. She peered into the semi-dark bedroom, her eyes adjusting after a few heartbeats. Jimmy Taylor slept cross-legged on the floor in the far-left corner. His back pressed against the pine paneling and his chin hung low, bobbing from side to side. He inhaled deep gobs of air and emitted a low snoring sound as he exhaled. “At least he’s breathing,” she whispered.
Around midnight, Judy had discovered Jimmy sleeping in the corner. She startled him awake, reminding him he was in her house, a place of safety. As she steadied him into bed, he held her hand, but when she drew up the covers and leaned down to kiss his cheek, he shied away. In the moment, she chose not to take offense. She would table difficult questions for another occasion. But here he was, back on the floor at seven-thirty on a Saturday morning. How could Sara let this happen?
Troy called out from the breakfast table.
Judy exited the doorway to shush her son.
A few minutes later, she returned to study Jimmy on the floor. She wasn’t sure why the scene bothered her so much, but it did. She wanted to hug the little boy, let him know she cared, even if a complete understanding eluded her.
Could Mrs. Vogler be right? Could there actually be a Taylor family curse? Things which did not occur to most people were clear to Mildred. She had the gift, as they say. She rode with her husband on the second Saturday of each month as he picked up rent checks. All-day long, he drove his black Cadillac up and down residential streets, knocking on doors. If someone ducked him, he came back later, or called on the phone, or tucked an eviction notice between the doorknob and the frame. Renters paid, or they got out. It was that simple. Overall, the Voglers were a cordial pair and Mildred sat reposed in the passenger seat, sometimes waving to people she liked. Judy was one of them.
Sara Taylor and her son lived in a small house across the street. A nurse by trade, she provided Judy with an unforeseen colleague in the neighborhood, and they chatted often. The Voglers, however, had little reason to converse with Sara, as she paid her rent and kept to herself. She was considered an outsider to Merrill, having moved to the town after her divorce. Her father had been a teacher at the community college where Judy studied nursing. It was a strange situation, as Sara’s parents had moved to Raleigh out of the blue last year.
Again, Judy thought about the curse. How Mildred understood such things was a mystery. But Judy knew better than to question Mildred’s insight. She’d grown up in Merrill and had known the Vogler family all her life. From far and wide, people raved about the granny healer’s exploits, the gift she possessed. Judy never liked the term, granny healer, and neither did Mildred. It didn’t matter anyway, as those days were now gone. Mildred’s hands had ached for ages. She held on as long as she could, but she stopped her rounds when the pain became unbearable. Next came the low and heavy cough, steadfast in its devotion and rough in its effect. Soon afterward, Mr. Vogler was forced to purchase handkerchiefs by the box.
It didn’t take long for folks to question Mildred’s motivation and her purity. Infirmity had overwhelmed the angel with the healing touch. They sought a reason, someone to blame. She must be unclean, vile, a home for demons, or so they deduced. A few brave souls uttered the word, witch. Perhaps her powers weren’t from God after all, but from the great dragon who was cast from Heaven, or fell of his own accord, as some claim. If anyone dared to ask, they might have discovered a simpler reality. Mildred had reached the end of her road in this life. Aged, tired, and sore, there was no energy left to spare. She needed rest. So, she stopped mending and began riding with her husband, waving to people she used to know.
Judy never forgot Mildred’s gift or what the elder woman had done for the community. Some years prior, Mildred had comforted Judy’s dying grandfather when the bad cancer ate through his body. It was a terrible time for the Vinson family, a provenance of searing heartache for Judy even today. But, unable to work her magic, Mildred had offered something more powerful, a gift of empathy and gentleness and reassurance during those lingering hours. Judy would always love Mildred for it. And she had waited for the opportunity to pay it forward. If not to Mildred, then to someone else innocent and deserving.
It was the main reason Judy had entered nursing school.
Now, staring at the little boy, she reckoned Mildred might be on to something. And Judy would do something about it. She would step in, fill the empty void Sara had created in Jimmy’s heart. Some might claim it wasn’t Judy’s place. Their opinion was of no consequence. Her decision was final.
She picked up a small box of toys from Troy’s dresser, studied it in her hands. The move would be a bold one, and Troy might not like it. She held her breath for a moment, exhaled. It was the right call. Her son would get over his feelings. The year was passing fast. Last week it was Christmas. Two days ago, the start of summer. Now it was August. If Troy got too angry, a new Christmas was around the corner. She could make it up to him.
She flicked the overhead light switch, illuminating the bedroom. “Time to get up, honey,” she said.
Troy called out again.
Judy snuck a glance at Jimmy and left the doorway.
* * *
Jimmy’s right leg straightened, and his foot bumped against the wall. His left elbow banged against the steel rail at the bottom of the single bed. He gasped, opened his eyes. Troy’s oak bureau rested in the background. A pair of Levi’s had been flung over a top drawer. Still half asleep, he closed his eyes, drifting. An imaginary glass ashtray sailed by his head as he ducked. It bounced off a wooden television cabinet behind him and banged against a tile floor. Jimmy reopened his eyes, focusing, awake. This was Troy’s bedroom. No one would hurt him here.
The living room phone rang.
Chair legs slid across linoleum. Judy’s shoes tapped against oak flooring. “Hello?” Her tone grew louder. “I know, Carl. But we’ve gotten nothing from you in three months. I can’t keep asking my parents for help.” Jimmy snuck down the short hallway. He spied around the wall, scanning. Troy sat in his usual place at the dining room table, head down, cheeks on his fists. Judy paced back and forth in the living room. Jimmy moved fast to avoid detection, ducking behind the wall again, exhaling. “You cannot do that,” she said. “It’s not right.” The clanking sound of a fork against a plate. Momentary silence. Was she still on the phone? “Carl, I understand. But the landlord expects money today.”
Jimmy rambled back to the bedroom and slithered into his jeans. While straining to eavesdrop, he located one tube sock on the dresser, the other under the end of the bed. He dug through a chaotic pile in the closet, finally locating his shoes. He tied the laces. Her voice lowered to a muffle. Jimmy heard the pain in it.
In the bathroom, he stared into the small mirror, steeling himself. He ran water and brushed his teeth. He combed his hair as Judy had taught him. He pulled the embroidered hand towel from its rack and wiped the sink. Once satisfied, he folded and stuffed the towel into its home on the wall.
He eased through the living room. Judy twisted the phone cord with her finger and the oval rug bunched up, and she stopped and kicked at it with her foot. She whispered a bad word and stared through the window with the receiver pressed hard to her right ear. “Fine!” She slammed the receiver into its base.
Jimmy slid into a seat at the table.
Judy plopped onto the couch. She snatched a pack of cigarettes from the end table, tapped the pack against her palm. She lit one with a WWII era flip lighter, pulled a deep drag. Her shoulders hunched against the couch’s backrest. Her toes angled together like a pigeon. She exhaled a large puff of smoke. It pushed upward toward the ceiling, vanishing into the woodwork.
“You should eat breakfast before your mother gets here.”
She pointed towards his plate, forcing a half-smile.
“Yes, mam,” Jimmy replied, shrugging.
Early morning sunlight crawled diagonally across the table. Jimmy munched his toast and sipped orange juice. He wiped his mouth with a napkin, gazing out of the bay window at the pine trees in the front yard, sunlight on his cheeks. He followed several spindly trunks to their puffy tops. Weren’t they afraid of bugs or getting chopped down? Wonder if they liked one another?
They sure spent a lot of time together if they argued.
Judy stood, stretching. She stabbed her cigarette into a brown ceramic ashtray and put on a Jim Croce album.
Music filled the house.
Troy exclaimed, “Yeah!” He leaped from his chair and ran to his mother. The pair boogied and waltzed around the room, laughing, mouthing the words to “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown.”
In the middle of the song, she nudged her son toward the table. “Get up, dummy,” Troy said.
Jimmy looked down at his plate.
Troy glanced at his mother, shrugged his shoulders. She removed the needle from the record. The house fell silent.
“Go make the beds in your room.”
“Ah, Mom. I hate making beds.”
She raised her eyebrows. “I don’t care.” She pointed toward the hallway, stifling a smile. “Now, go.”
Troy’s shoulders fell. “Man.”
His feet shuffled toward the bedroom.
“What we need is some real music.” She put on an Elton John album and glided over to Jimmy at the table. Her hands electrified him as she tugged him to his feet. He coasted into the living room, following her lead. She smiled and pulled away, swiveling her hips, and mouthing the words to “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart.” She curled her finger, beckoning to him. “Come on, honey,” she said. “Let’s dance.”
“It’s just you and me now. It’ll be fun.”
Jimmy tried it for her sake. Fists against his chest, he flared his elbows outward. He raised and lowered them in time with the music. He forced an awkward grin while craning his neck.
Troy entered the hallway. “Ha, Ha. You look like a chicken. Bwack! Bwack!”
Judy shot Troy a fierce look, pointing. He scurried back to his bedroom. He landed on a bed and tumbled into a wall with a loud thud. “I’m okay in here,” he called out.
“Good to know,” Judy replied in a loud voice.
Jimmy had retreated to the kitchen table. He studied the clump of pines and the brown cicada shells on the bark, wondering if it hurt to leave things behind. Judy gasped and caught herself as she turned to face him. He didn’t acknowledge her concern.
She shut off the stereo. A smooth whoosh as she pressed the album onto its shelf. She sat near him at the table and placed her palm on top of his hand. A tingle ran through his body. His connection to her was electric, as if some unexplainable force drew them together, filling gaps, forming a complete human from two broken halves. He had briefly felt something similar with his mother before she fell into a dark depression. The shell of a person left behind was void of emotion or spark, at least for her son.
“Do you enjoy spending the night with us?” she asked.
“I love it here.”
Troy ran into the room. “Hey, what are you doing, Mom?”
“Enough fun.” She sat up straight. “Jimmy needs to finish breakfast before his mother arrives.” She pointed toward Jimmy’s plate, motioning for him to pick up the pace. “You go ahead, and we’ll sit.”
Troy leaned into his mother’s side.
Jimmy cracked a piece of bacon in half. She had cooked it to a crisp, the way he liked it.
“How are things at home?” She leaned against her chair, rubbing her chin.
Jimmy placed the two pieces on his plate. “Fine, I guess.”
“Why do you sleep on the floor some nights? It must be uncomfortable.”
“Would you tell me if something was wrong?”
“Okay,” she said, her face brightening. “Good.” She placed her palm on Jimmy’s hand once more and hugged Troy against her side.
“You’re squeezing me to death,” Troy said, grimacing.
“Now, stop. I am not.” She winked at Jimmy.
“Miss Judy, can Troy play after cartoons?”
“Not today, honey.” She stood and sighed. “Reminds me.” She ran her slender fingers through Troy’s hair. “You’d better pack a bag. Your daddy is going to pick you up later.”
“Alright!” Troy sprang up and raced to his bedroom, his feet thumping the hardwood floor.
“He won’t be back home until dinner tomorrow.”
Jimmy lowered his chin. The world had stopped turning.
She leaned over, extending her hand to stroke his hair as she had done to Troy. “Tell you what, you can—”
The doorbell rang. Jimmy peeked through the window and sighed. “Thanks for breakfast.” He offered a half-hearted shrug and slid the chair backward. Its legs grated against the linoleum.
“You’re quite welcome,” Judy said, squeezing his shoulders, offering a coy grin.
She opened the front door to reveal an obese woman in a nurse’s outfit. “Hi, Sara,” she said. “How was work?”
Sara frowned. “MVA out on seventy. Two teenagers drag racing. One lost control and hit an oak tree.”
“My word! What’s his condition?”
“Stabilized for now. Dr. Peretti sent him in an ambulance over to Memorial.” Sara’s eyes watered. “Sorry,” she said.
“Must bring back a terrible memory.” She touched Sara’s arm. “We’re glad things worked out last year.” Her voice took on a thoughtful tone. “It might be time to move on.”
“Yes.” Sara unlocked her purse. She withdrew a wadded tissue and dabbed her eyes. “You may be right.”
Judy placed her arm around Jimmy’s shoulder. “Well, this one here has a full tummy and is ready for action.” She kneeled, giving Jimmy a bear hug. He smelled her perfume. There was the tingle again. “You take it with you, hear?” Jimmy hugged her tight. She pulled back, tickled his sides. He giggled.
Sara blushed. She reached out for Jimmy’s hand. “What do you say we go home and watch your cartoons?”
“Yep. Let’s go, kiddo.”
“Sara, before you go, one more thing.” Judy picked up the box of toys from the mantle. “I hope you don’t mind. We wanted to give Jimmy a present.” She rubbed a hand over her heart as she spoke.
Jimmy perked up. “What kind?”
She handed him the plastic box.
He snapped it open to discover an array of Zama Rebellion action figures.
“Mom!” Troy kicked at the floor, rumpling the area rug. “What are you doing?”
“You, shush.” She put a finger over her lips and patted Troy’s shoulders.
Jimmy thanked Judy and left beaming with his mother.
As the pair trekked down the front steps and onto the narrow sidewalk, he looked over his shoulder at Judy. She stood smiling on her front porch, the picture of beauty and elegance and grace.
Someday he would call her Mom.
* * *
Judy shut the door, put her hands on her hips. “Last night, you told Jimmy you like your bike more than those dolls.”
“They’re not dolls, Mom.” Troy planted himself on the couch.
“Whatever you call them.”
“They’re action figures,” he said. “You shouldn’t give them away.”
“I know you aren’t happy about it. But you get to see your dad this weekend. He’ll be stuck at home. I don’t think he has much to do while she sleeps.”
Troy scowled and folded his arms and blew a sharp breath. “I can’t believe this.”
“Focus on your bike for now. Then, if you’re still upset at Christmas, we’ll get new ones.”
“Fine.” He trudged to his room.
Judy called after him. “Finish packing your suitcase and don’t forget swim trunks.” She waited for a response, but he offered none. She raised her voice. “Carl is taking you to the river this afternoon.”