Read The Twelfth Child Online

Authors: Bette Lee Crosby

Tags: #General, #Fiction

The Twelfth Child (3 page)

BOOK: The Twelfth Child
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When Livonia saw this happening, she would come to Abigail Anne’s side and lead her off to some other interest—a new path that needed exploring, a new flower that needed planting, stories of women who, bold as brass, marched into Washington, DC and pestered congress to give them the right to vote. “Same as men!” Livonia would say, and a big smile would stretch across Abigail’s face. The child’s favorite was always stories of the fair-haired girl who lived in the glass snowball. When Livonia shook the ball, a flurry of flakes went flying, and as the snow drifted down she told tales of the girl’s life—enchanting stories of friends and parties and far-flung adventures. But once the story ended and the snow settled, Abigail would be saddened because the little girl was still sitting there with her dog alongside a big Christmas tree. 

“Why can’t we
see
the parties?” she’d ask.

“Because they happen in our imagination,” Livonia would answer. “Magic happens inside our heads, people can’t
see
magic.”

 

 

Abigail Anne Lannigan

Seventy Years Later

 

T
he first time I laid eyes on Destiny was back in 1994, when she rented the old Meyerson place—it sat cattycorner from mine. By then, the house had been empty for four, maybe five years; the windows were near black and the grass so tall that from June ‘till late October the front yard had the look of a wheat field. It broke my heart to see the place in such a state— especially when I’d think back on dear Margaret Meyerson and the hours she spent squatted down by that flowerbed. She truly did love those flowers.  The summer before she died, I caught sight of her picking aphids off the geraniums and shaking her head as if those little bitty bugs were the most worrisome thing she’d ever laid eyes on. Anyway, I’d begun to believe that poor house was on its way to ruin; then one morning I looked across and there was Destiny. She was perched on a wobbly kitchen stool, her yellow ponytail swishing back and forth as she scrubbed at those windows. I watched her for a good long while—watched as she’d wipe and shine one window then move on to the next. Dirty as those windows were, you’ve have figured it to be a full day’s work, but when she finished the windows, she started in on the yard. She hauled out the old lawnmower Ben Meyerson kept in the shed and took to muscling her way through a tangle of knee-high grass. I must say, it was good to hear that lawnmower again, it brought to mind the way Ben took care of the place. His lawn wasn’t much bigger than a picnic blanket, but twice a week he’d haul out that lawnmower and set to work. You knew without looking that it was him, ‘cause he’d be whistling some out-of-tune song you couldn’t quite recognize. Back when Ben lived there, I’d find my morning paper carried right to the doorstep and slipped inside the screen. Every time I mentioned something about how nice that was, a grin would slide across Ben’s face but he never did take credit for doing it. After he went to live with his daughter in Schenectady, I’d find my paper over behind the bushes or at the far end of the drive.

Destiny lived in the Meyerson place for a good two months before we actually spoke in any sizeable measure.  Oh, she was neighborly enough, toot the horn and wave as she drove by in that little red Pinto—it had the look of a piecework quilt, one green fender and a patch of blue tape on the side window— but once she rounded the corner, she was gone for the day. She left early in the morning and didn’t get back ‘till after dark. Whenever she was home she’d be working on the house. With the windows wide open and no curtains or shades, you could see her plain as day—scurrying up and down the ladder, painting and polishing. I’d heard tell she actually had a full time job in the bookstore downtown but that didn’t stop her from scrubbing and cleaning the way she did. I certainly had to admire the girl’s industriousness.

One Saturday morning in the early part of October, I went out to fetch my Middleboro Tribune and it was nowhere to be found.  I’d gotten somewhat used to it being behind the wisteria, but this time it wasn’t there.  And, it wasn’t up under the porch, where it had also landed on a number of previous occasions—those delivery boys could be fairly irresponsible at times. I started thinking maybe it hadn’t come yet and was about to quit looking when I spotted the Cooper’s paper on the far edge of their drive. It stood to reason that if their Tribune had been delivered, mine had also; so I kept searching, poking and prodding my way through every bush along the walkway. Finally, I spotted the darn thing hanging off the edge of the roof; the plastic wrap was snagged in the gutter and it was dangling there like it was right ready to drop. So, I got hold of a broom and took four or five jabs at it, but it wouldn’t budge. By then, I was pretty well winded and about ready to give up, but Destiny came trotting over with that wobbly stool hooked under her arm. “I’ll get your newspaper, Missus Lannigan,” she called out.  

That’s me, Abigail Anne Lannigan.     

 I’d seen Destiny scamper on and off that stool fifty times or more, but this time she reached a bit too far and over the stool went. It toppled sideways and when I tried to catch hold of it so she wouldn’t fall, we both ended up on the ground, flat on our back, with that blasted newspaper still stuck to the roof.

“Oh!  I’m so sorry, Missus Lannigan,” she sputtered. Before I could explain to her that it was all my fault, she was back on her feet and tugging at my arm. “Can you get up?” she asked.  “Here, let me help you. You hurt?”

“Don’t worry about me,” I answered, “I’m fine.” Truth be known, my knee was hurting, but that was because of my arthritis. I hadn’t taken much of a fall; whereas Destiny had gone heels over head. She had a good size scrape and a sizeable welt rising up on her shinbone.  I’d seen enough bumps and bruises in my day to know that ought to have ice on it, so I said, “Come inside and I’ll patch you up.” She was so pleased; you’d think offering to put a chunk of ice on her leg was the kindest thing in the world. I looked at her great big smile and right off noticed what a pretty little thing she was; velvety green eyes, not bright like an emerald, not yellowy either, just a misty color that was so soft you’d wonder if there wasn’t a touch of gray mixed in. Elliott can claim I don’t have a speck of sense in my head, but I’m telling you, God Almighty would have trusted this girl if he’d caught sight of those eyes.

 Once we were inside the house, I couldn’t for the life of me remember where I’d put the ice pack; but things like that didn’t bother Destiny. She took an ice cube and slid it up and down her shinbone. “See,” she said, “this works just fine.” 

That morning it was a bit on the cool side so I fixed us a pot of tea and, busy as she was, Destiny sat there talking to me for well over an hour. I said, “You must have better things to do than spend time with a clumsy old lady,” but she smiled like she was having a real nice time and poured herself another cup of tea. She was a talker, Destiny, and when she got to telling a story, you’d lean in close to soak up every word that came out of her mouth. The sound of her voice was so sweet; you’d believe it impossible for a mean word to ever come from that mouth. Looking back, I can honestly say I can’t remember a single hard-edged thing about the girl; she was petite, delicate-boned, and sweet as a summer strawberry.  

Sitting at the kitchen table, babbling on like we’d been friends for a hundred years, I learned how Destiny got that strong backbone of hers—she’d grown up without a soul to see to her wellbeing. The poor child was only nine years old when her Mama ran off and left her. The woman didn’t just run off; she disappeared without a trace. Destiny was shipped off to church camp for two weeks and when she got home she found her mama’s stuff gone from the apartment. For weeks she was there, living on whatever was left in the cupboard— plain spaghetti, cereal with no milk, crackers—all the while she figured her mama was sure to come back. She’d about run out of things to eat when the landlord came looking for rent money and discovered her living by herself. A neighbor lady took her in for a few months then she was shuffled from one spot to another until she was old enough to get a job and make her own way. I knew she was a spunky little thing by the way she tackled that old house; but I sure never supposed she had all that sadness in her life. I came close to telling her about how my own papa had no use for girl babies, but I figured we’d had enough fretting about the past for one day.

Late that night, a rainstorm came up. In the springtime we get feathery rains, rain that sounds like an angel whispering; but this was a fall storm with the wind knocking flower pots to the cement and raindrops the size of grapefruits banging against the window. The noise woke me and I opened my eyes but stayed in bed. I was thinking about what a nice visit I’d had with Destiny when I heard a noise in the bush outside my bedroom window. A few months back the house at the end of the block was burgled, so I wasn’t about to take any chances. I jumped out of bed so fast you’d think my rear end was on fire and tiptoed down the hallway into the kitchen. I knew not to turn on any lights ‘cause it would give a burglar fair warning. Once I got hold of the big butcher knife, I slipped back into the bedroom and peeked through the venetian blind slats to see what was going on. Right there, on top of the wisteria bush, was that blasted newspaper. For a half-hour I laughed about what a silly old lady I’d gotten to be—but silly old lady, or not, I still had enough bravado to handle the situation without hollering for the police.

  The following day was Monday. Mondays and Fridays are when the county aide comes to lend a hand; although in this woman’s case I’d say it was more like a finger.  She does drive me to the grocery store, which is something I truly appreciate, but other than that, she hardly budges. I generally have to fix her lunch and if she stays a bit longer, I have to feed her an afternoon snack as well. “Oh, I
know
you want to watch Oprah,” she’ll say then plop herself down to listen to advice from Doctor Phil. Anyway, it was Tuesday before I got around to making some cookies—chocolate chip with walnut chunks. That evening when the lights in Destiny’s window came on, I headed over to her house. She had on paint-splattered dungarees and looked like she was ready to start working. “I don’t mean to barge in,” I said, “just wanted to bring you some of my homemade cookies.”

“Oh my, don’t they look delicious!” A real glad smile brightened Destiny’s face and she pulled the door wide open. “Come on in,” she said, “we’ll have some together.”

She didn’t have any tea but made instant coffee and set two cups on what was supposed to be her kitchen table—it was nothing more than a square of plywood on top of some cinderblocks. There wasn’t a stick of furniture in the living room or the dining room, just two tipsy-looking lamps without any shades. Destiny must have thought I was the type to frown on such a thing, because she started apologizing. 

“I’m sorry about the way this place looks,” she said.  “I’ve been working down at the book store and it doesn’t pay much so I haven’t bought any furniture yet. But, my luck’s about to change …” She laughed and rubbed her hands together like a kid with a jolly good secret. “I got a job that’s gonna pay real money,” she said. “…waitress! I was lucky enough to get the evening shift; with tips I’ll be making more money
and
have more time to work on the house!”

She gave me the only chair and perched herself atop a step stool. I couldn’t help but admire her spunk and determination; she sure wasn’t someone who let circumstances get the best of her. Elliott, who’s nothing more than a twice removed nephew, is exactly the opposite. He always has some sad story and long before he even gets to the part where he tells me what he wants, I know he’s gonna ask for another loan. Destiny never asked a thing of me; maybe that’s why I got so much joy out of doing something for her.

As we were sitting there drinking our coffee, I said, “Destiny I’ve got an old kitchen set downstairs in the basement; you’d be more than welcome to take it.”

“Thanks, Missus Lannigan,” she answered, “but, you might need that set someday. I can make do with this stuff for a while.”

I wondered what
stuff
she was talking about; the only real furnishings she had was two broken lamps and one spindle back chair. “Nonsense,” I said, “that furniture is just collecting dust. You’d be doing me a favor to haul it away.” I had a number of things she could put to good use: a kitchen set with four perfectly fine chairs, some mahogany end tables, a bookcase and an overstuffed chair you’d have thought brand new if not for the burn hole Will made in the right arm. That happened before I knew about the pitiful state of his health; although I should have guessed something was wrong when he just sat there and let the cigarette between his fingers burn down to an ash. I told her, “Destiny, I’d consider it a kindness if you’d take those things off my hands; having so much stuff around is a lot for an eighty-two year old woman to be burdened with.”

“Oh, Missus Lannigan,” she said, “I couldn’t just
take
your perfectly good furniture, but I’d be real happy to pay you for the things.”

“Pay me?” A blind man could see that child didn’t have two spare quarters to rub together, let alone pay good money for some stuff that wasn’t doing anything but dry-rotting in my basement. “Destiny,” I said, “you don’t need to pay a cent for that worthless old stuff. I’d get a lot pleasure out of giving it to you. If you don’t take it, I’ll have to call the Salvation Army to come get it.”

“I think you’re just being nice,” she said with one eyebrow stretched up like a person who doubted my intention to give the stuff away. “How about if I don’t pay you cash money, but pop over once or twice a week and lend a hand with the chores?”

“That would be right neighborly, honey. You don’t have to do any chores though, just come and sit a spell, have some tea, that’s more than enough.”

We laughed and shook hands like two big-deal businessmen; then we got back to finishing up the cookies I’d brought over. I’d made those cookies dozens of times, but somehow they tasted better dunked in Destiny’s instant coffee. 

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