By Victoria Weisfeld
If only a perceptive social commentator like Charles Dickens had dissected the significance of a particular two-family house in Pinterville, Virginia! Anyone could describe its remarkable physical appearance. Not merely divided down the middle like a discordant married couple, the two mismatched halves of this duplex were also physically split, with the disheveled half, on the left, hanging back some twenty feet or more, while its tidy neighbor sat primly forward. It takes a refined sensitivity to the myriad disorders of body, mind, and spirit to fully understand how such a physical setting might work on the people who lived there.
Some forty years ago, Mrs. Cordelia Faye Watters owned the house to the west, more nearly on the corner. Her late husband Percy had bought it for her as a wedding present in 1960. But before the bride had finished piecing the quilt for their bed, the Vietnam War made Cordelia a twenty-year-old widow, shell-shocked and lost as any battle veteran.
On an emerald May morning in 1970, densely hot and humid even by eastern Virginia standards, Cordelia sat on her front porch, which was painted white as good intentions, fanning herself with a paper funeral parlor fan. The air vibrated with the hum of insects, and, through a lace of static, a baseball game crackled out of the old radio keeping her company.
Sharp hammering sounded from the front yard of her neighbor, Abraham Typp. She frowned. She couldn’t see him from where she sat, but she could picture him in his dirty overalls and no shirt, three days’ growth of beard, his skin running with sweat. He was most likely pounding a scavenged car bumper or wavelets of corrugated roofing amidst a farrago of rickety sawhorses, snarled cords of power tools, and, circling menacingly in the tall grass, rusting fins scavenged from 1960s automobiles.
“Sculptures,” he called his assemblages of splintery wood, fading plastic, metal and what-all, but Cordelia knew junk when she saw it. She swished her pleated skirt to chase a yellow jacket hovering near her knees.
Her own front yard was so different, its small lawn divided in two equal squares, deeply bordered by pink and white impatiens. In the left square, a purple gazing ball rested on a pedestal—“a Victorian gazing ball,” she told to her friend Adalee.
Any minute Adalee would arrive to drive them to church, to Pastor Henry’s birthday celebration. Cordelia clutched her present, six white linen handkerchiefs she’d embroidered with his initials.
Around the porch corner, Abraham sang in time with his pounding. “A pretty girl is like a melody . . .”
Cordelia fidgeted with the ribbon around her package. Her neighbor’s apparent shiftlessness irritated her as much as his trash and the racket.
“That haunts you night and day . . . .” He laughed as he sang.
When Adalee’s mustard-brown Buick Electra berthed in front of the house, Cordelia hurried down the front walk, skirt fluttering around her long legs.
“Oh, Mrs. Watters,” Abraham called loudly, stopping her escape. He loped along the low chain-link fence that separated their yards. The tissue paper wrapping of Pastor Henry’s gift wilted in her sweaty grip.
“What is it, Mr. Typp?”
“Here’s something for you.” He touched his forehead as if he would lift his hat to her, if only he were wearing one. He waved a brilliant white envelope. Her utter stillness must have finally registered on him, because he paused, then repeated, “For you. An invitation.” He held out the envelope.
From the corner of her eye Cordelia saw Adalee stretch across the seat to roll down the passenger-side window. “Very kind of you, I’m sure,” Cordelia said, “but I can’t talk right now. I’ll be late to church.” She turned and walked stiffly to the car, slamming the door harder than she intended.
When Cordelia returned home, a smudged white envelope leaned against her front door. It was an invitation to a reception at the town’s new art gallery, whose opening had stirred the still waters of tiny Pinterville. Members of Cordelia’s church youth group enthused that it was a sign of more interesting times to come, while most of the congregation’s older folks hoped it wasn’t.
Cordelia skipped over the invitation’s surprising announcement that the featured artist was Abraham Typp and focused on the even more surprising handwritten note: “Henry Edwards will be there.” She’d never seen Abraham in church, and she couldn’t imagine someone of Pastor Henry’s standing consorting with such a no-account.
She intended to throw the invitation away, but instead propped it on the kitchen windowsill. Seeing it day after day, curiosity overtook her. She’d never been to an art gallery, and if Pastor Henry were there, surely it would be respectable.
Cordelia and Adalee stood uncertainly outside the Pearl Street Art Company. They’d walked the few blocks to the gallery and were overheated and a little dazed by the setting sun’s glare. Cordelia’s copper-colored dress glowed.
Inside, it was crowded and noisy with Pinterville residents, black and white, and many people Cordelia had never seen before. Everyone held glasses of white wine, and a young man with hair past his shoulders met them with a full tray.
Cordelia intended to refuse, but caught sight of Pastor Henry and his wife Merrilee talking to a young woman whose blonde hair shimmered almost to the waistline of her short black dress. They each held wine glasses, and the blonde waved hers like an orchestra conductor, directing an animated conversation.
“Yes, thank you,” Cordelia said. “I think I will.”
People stood in groups around a few spotlit standing sculptures or moved slowly along the gallery walls, where other pieces hung. They pointed out particular features to each other, smiling and nodding. Adalee started a conversation with someone from the community center where she worked, and Cordelia eased into a vacant corner. She watched the animated crowd. To her eyes, the walls displayed pretty much the same ill-assorted debris that confronted her daily.
Abraham materialized alongside her. “I’m glad you came.” Like virtually everyone there, other than Cordelia, he was dressed in black—linen slacks and a long-sleeved knit shirt. He’d shaved. He even smelled nice.
“Thank you for inviting me.” She gripped the sweating glass.
“What do you think?” He glanced around the room.
“I can’t get a good look with this crowd of people, but seeing these things here, with the special lights and all,” she struggled for something tactful to say, “they look so . . . real.”
“Even a diamond’s more beautiful in the right setting.” He smiled. “You’re used to seeing my work piled in the yard, overtaken by weeds.”
Abraham led her to where Pastor Henry and the blonde stood talking. The woman owned the gallery. From her excited manner as she shooed Abraham away to talk with the Virginian-Pilot art critic, Cordelia guessed the event was a success. A staff member bustled over and spoke in the owner’s ear. “A buyer,” she stage-whispered to them, held up crossed fingers, and hurried away through the crowd.
Pastor Henry, Cordelia soon learned, had gone to high school with Abraham. They’d been friends since childhood. “Can’t get him to church,” Pastor Henry chuckled, “but he comes by my office or up to the house every few weeks. He’s a good man. And talented.”
“I didn’t know you liked this kind of . . . art.”
“I like all kinds. Abraham’s helped me along, helped me see with new eyes.” He pointed to a piece that hung on the wall closest to them. “Look at that old window there. It could be just a broken-down bit of trash.”
“But Abraham saw the beauty in the wood grain, and he tacked on that hoe handle that has the same grain. Then up at the top he added that dried-out paint brush full of sky blue paint.”
“He didn’t even clean it off!”
“The blue paint’s the best part. Because whether you’re out in the garden hoeing, or inside your house looking out the kitchen window, the Lord’s beautiful blue sky is what’s over you.”
Pastor Henry laughed, seeing Cordelia’s baffled expression. “That’s my interpretation. Abraham would say he just had those three things lying around one day and slapped them together.” She nodded again. He squinted at her. “Don’t you believe it. Beauty in small things. In every thing.”
When Adalee approached, Pastor Henry excused himself.
“Have you seen this?” She handed Cordelia a piece of paper. “The pricelist. $2,000 some of them are. And the big ones—$10,000!”
“But he’ll never sell any at that rate!” Cordelia felt unexpectedly disappointed that the sky blue paint brush would not find a home with someone who understood it as Pastor Henry did.
“The ones with the dots”—Adalee pointed to the black dot discreetly affixed to the card next to Nothing but Blue Sky—“sold already.”
The din in the room was so loud Cordelia stopped noticing it as she patrolled the gallery perimeter, sipping Chardonnay and searching for dots. To her amazement, she found several. Each time, she stole a glance at the price sheet. Way down on the list, she noticed the title of one work—CFW.
She felt as if the air had been smacked out of her. Her initials! Just looking at the title made her self-conscious. Was he making fun of her? Was that why he invited her?Flushed with embarrassment, Cordelia set out to find this other self.
She zigged and zagged through the crowd. Finally, there it was. A standing metal sculpture as tall as she was. Some of the reshaped metal looked as though it had come from old cars. Glossy black and gold metallic pieces were arranged side by side like the two-tone cars of her childhood. Brilliant chrome wound around and through the larger metal folds and valleys. On each side metal projections arced upward. She flashed a glance around the gallery to see whether Abraham was watching her, wanting to see her reaction, but he was lost in the crush of people.
A man standing with his back to the sculpture brushed against a projection. The whole heavy structure started to move. Cordelia gasped and reached out to catch it—and would have been crushed had it actually been falling—before she realized the sculpture was simply revolving. It was meant to turn. Now she recognized what the projections were—wings, wings to catch the wind. She smiled.
The sculpture was so well-balanced it rotated easily despite its weight. She stepped closer and glimpsed an amethyst glow deep inside the metal folds, like a secret. As she looked closer and turned the piece, the spotlight overhead revealed other hidden colors and areas where bare metal was etched with delicate patterns of flowers and birds. Cordelia hadn’t noticed Pastor Henry come up beside her.
“Like it?” he asked.
“What does it mean?” Her voice was hushed. She wanted a translation, like the one he’d given the window frame.
“Stand back a bit.” They carefully stepped several feet backward in the crowd. Head cocked, Pastor Henry considered the sculpture. “To me,” he said slowly, “it looks like hope, or, maybe, aspiration.
“Look how at the bottom it’s heavy and dark,” he continued, “but the higher you look, the lighter the colors and more open the structure. A solid foundation, reaching toward the light. The shapes of the—what are they, fins? wings?—pull the eye up. Very nice. Inspirational.”
“But there’s lots we can’t see from back here. Flowers and birds and bits of color,” Cordelia said.
“Like life, right?”
“A lot of little things?”
“A lot of unseen things. Or beauty we can see only when we try.” He smiled and patted her arm. “Merrilee is waiting. We’ll see you Sunday.” He started to walk away, then stopped. “What’s it called?”
“CFW,” she almost whispered.
Pastor Henry looked puzzled, then broke into his loud friendly laugh. “It’s beautiful,” he said and gave her a small salute.
When three young men with Yankee accents—obvious University of Virginia students—flocked around and started exclaiming over the piece, Cordelia felt a little proprietary pride. She peeked at the list: $16,000. The students also had a list.
“Oh, wow! He wants a lot for it,” one said.
“Fab-u-lous,” another agreed. “But how they’ve priced it, he must not want to sell.”
Cordelia gathered her courage and spoke up. “Why’d you all come to an art show in a little bitty country town like this?”
“We’re big fans of Abraham’s,” one said. “He comes up to Charlottesville to give lectures every semester. We’ve heard him three or four times.”
“He’s so cool,” another chimed in.
Cordelia nodded, as if it were common knowledge that her neighbor, Mr. Abraham Typp, successful artist in the medium of found objects, was an inspiring university lecturer. This new image of him almost—but couldn’t quite—click into place..
On the Tuesday morning after the art show, Cordelia stood in her living room and, not for the first time, raised her arms, mimicking the posture of CFW. She clucked at her foolishness.
The piercing whine of a chain saw started next door, followed by several loud crashes. The din particularly annoyed her today, because her banker, Conrad Greene, was due any minute. He planned to retire in July and wanted to introduce her to the new associate who’d take over her account. “Know your customers” was Mr. Greene’s watchword, and he’d walked the few blocks to her house numerous times—a familiarity only a small-town banker could afford.
When Percy was killed, Cordelia had no family to advise her, and Mr. Greene spent many hours explaining her finances and answering questions from a twenty-year-old raised in a rural town—more precisely, a crossroads with three stores and a service station. Percy had paid cash for the house, using proceeds from the sale of the substantial Tidewater peanut farm his parents had left him, so she owned it outright. Mr. Greene proposed investing the remainder of her money, and together they calculated that between the returns on the investment, her widow’s pension, and Percy’s life insurance, she could live comfortably, if modestly.
A few months after these first conversations, Mr. Greene returned with a lawyer, who presented her with an unexpected windfall. An anonymous benefactor, whom she understood to be one of Percy’s relatives, wished to supplement her income. Details of the arrangement were obscured in legalese, which became denser with each question she asked. All she truly understood was that Percy had hoped she wouldn’t have to work, and it appeared she would never need to.
Following Mr. Greene’s advice, these supplemental payments also went into an investment account and had grown steadily for almost a decade. They called it her “nest egg.” The arrangement obligated her to write frequent friendly letters to each of Percy’s scattered relations, one of whom was the generous soul honoring Percy’s memory by contributing to her security, and she wrote these letters with a grateful heart.
This morning, as she glanced out her front window, she saw lanky Conrad Greene striding smoothly down the block, followed by a short, red-faced young man who had to skip every so often to keep up, giving their strides a syncopated rhythm. When they reached the yard next door, Abraham called out and came to the gate to speak to them, leaning on a rake. Her parlor window, his tool handle, the blue sky, and she heard Pastor Henry’s voice, explaining. She let the curtain fall.
Soon Mr. Greene and the rotund young banker, William Reynolds, sat in her chintz-covered armchairs. If Mr. Greene was his usual calm and reassuring self, Reynolds reminded her of an eager puppy bounding into conversational thickets. He pointed to a photo of Percy in his Marine uniform. “Is that your husband?”
She nodded and told how she’d met Percy when her gospel choir made a bus tour of a dozen Virginia churches, with a four-day engagement in Hampton Roads. He wrote her every day for six months. “The only unpredictable thing I’ve ever done in my life was to marry Percy Watters.”
He asked about her neighborhood.
“It’s a lovely area,” she said. “We have some fine gardeners here. They keep their places up real nice. Except . . .” She glanced involuntarily in the direction of the adjoining yard.
“It must be fun having an artist next door,” Reynolds said.
“When Percy and I married and moved here, Mr. Typp was away in the service, and his folks lived there,” she said. “Then my husband joined the Marines and went to Vietnam. Mr. Typp came back. Percy didn’t.” Cordelia’s voice betrayed no bitterness, but she twisted and untwisted the little white handkerchief she held. “The Typps were fine people. I spent a lot of time over there when she was sick. She couldn’t do for herself at all the last few weeks. She missed that son of hers so much, him half-way around the world. But she wouldn’t let us send for him or even worry him by telling him how bad off she was.
“When the Lord called her, it was too much for old Mr. Typp.” She nodded to herself. “I found him sitting in his favorite chair, TV on, burned-out cigarette in his hand—lucky it didn’t set the whole place on fire. The doctor said heart attack. Broken heart is more like it.” Her tone stiffened. “I still hadn’t met their son.”
Reynolds noted the change in her tone. “But he’s so good to you . . .”
Conrad Greene stopped him with a look. “I mean,” Reynolds stammered, “as a neighbor.”
“What on earth are you talking about?” she asked.
“My apologies, Mrs. Watters,” said Mr. Greene. “I think what Billy means is that having continuity in one’s neighbors, especially in a connected house like yours and the Typp family’s, is a source of stability and . . . reassurance.” He studied a loose thread on his suit jacket, while Reynolds gazed out the window as if he had meant nothing at all.
Two days later she sat in the straight-backed chair alongside Conrad Greene’s desk, hands clasped tightly over her red patent leather purse, asking pointed questions about her nest egg, questions she hadn’t thought—or known—to ask years before. His discomfort was answer enough. After a half-hour of his evasions, she rose from the chair and delicately unstuck her skirt from her perspiring legs. “Thank you for your time.” Straight as the line between not knowing and knowing, she walked out of the bank.
Cordelia appeared in the doorway to Pastor Henry’s office the following Sunday.
“You’re a vision of summer, Cordelia,” he said, admiring her blue-flowered dress and broad-brimmed straw hat, but his smile faded as he took in her tired, reddened eyes. He motioned her to a sofa and sat in the armchair across from her. “How may I help?”
She studied her hands in her lap, deciding how to begin. “I’ve learned something that’s upset me,” she said at last, “involving your friend Abraham Typp.”
He listened noncommittally, as she poured out everything she’d surmised about her finances: Abraham Typp was the source of her “windfall,” not Percy’s family.
“What makes you think so?” Pastor Henry sounded surprised.
“Conrad Greene told me so. As much as.”
“And how long do you think he’s been doing this?”
“Since he got home from Vietnam. Soon after Percy died.” She looked up sharply. “It’s all there! I haven’t spent a dime of it. All these years, it’s been a blessing. It’s made me feel secure.”
“Why don’t you simply give it back?”
“From what Mr. Greene says, the donor doesn’t want it back, won’t take it. And I don’t want to fight with him.” Cordelia squeezed her fingers, over and over. “I don’t want anyone’s charity! Especially his.” She paused to swipe at her eyes. “I feel so bad. I didn’t understand about his art and all that . . . in his yard.” Hot tears burned her eyes, and her voice trembled. “I’m ashamed.”
Pastor Henry waited.
“At the same time, I’m so angry! He’s made me beholden to him, and I never even liked him.” She took a tissue from the box on the table, as the hydrangeas patterning her dress blurred like watercolors.
“Being part of a community means taking as well as giving, Cordelia. If we can’t accept the kindness of others, how can we expect them to accept the kindnesses we want to give? By accepting kindness, we help others to be kind.”
“But this is too big—too much—of a kindness.”
“Not to Abraham, perhaps. He knows what you did for his parents. But that’s not all of it.” Almost to himself, Pastor Henry said, “I always wondered what he would do.”
Cordelia gave him a questioning look. Pastor Henry considered, then said, “Abraham and I went to Vietnam together. We enlisted together, we went through boot camp together, we shipped out together. When we got there we ended up in different units, so we went through our trials separately, but it was the same hell-on-earth. Eventually, merciful Lord, we both came home.”
“I didn’t know you were over there.”
“I don’t talk about it. But never a day passes that I don’t think about what I saw and did there and pray over it. The first time Abraham and I met up back home, we talked about the war, sure—I think it was a thirty-six-hour, full-case-of-beer talk, and you know I’m not much of a drinker!
“We laid it all out. I guess we knew we’d never take it up again. And we haven’t. Abraham said many things I’ll never forget. One was, ‘I’ll find a way to make up for it.’ No ‘how’ or ‘to who’— just ‘a way to make up for it.’”
“So, I’m that way?”
“I don’t know. Maybe.”
The sun had come around to where it streamed through the window’s colored panes, making a rainbow sash across Cordelia’s lap. When she spoke again, she asked a simple favor.
Monday morning, she went out early. She made several stops, the last to the stationery store, where she bought a plain card of heavy white paper. On it, she wrote an invitation for Abraham Typp to come to tea on Friday.
When Friday arrived, she couldn’t stop thinking that, after so many years’ living side-by-side in different worlds, Abraham would set foot in her house for the first time that afternoon. The idea of his keen eyes examining her kitchen bothered Cordelia for reasons she couldn’t quite express. Maybe it felt like an intrusion; or maybe it was because a kitchen is so freighted with domesticity; or maybe it was because the kitchen was the heart of her home, and now she knew his role in keeping it secure.
Table set, a homemade pie on her grandmother’s fancy pressed glass plate, ice tea in the refrigerator. For the twentieth time, she smoothed the kitchen tablecloth.
The doorbell rang. She untied her apron and hung it on a hook. Its tails fluttered anxiously in the breeze from the open windows.
“This tea is nice.” Abraham—dressed in a collarless knit shirt and once again the fine linen slacks—took a long drink from the glass beaded with condensation. “Best thing on a hot day. I like the mint. You grow it out back, I believe.”
Surprised he’d noticed, she said, “If I don’t pick it every day, it just takes over. Help yourself any time, if you’d like some.”
A slight commotion and men’s voices caused them to glance down the hall toward the front door. “Don’t pay any mind,” she said. “I needed some work done before the weekend.”
“You keep a nice house, Mrs. Watters,” he said, appraising the kitchen. He took a forkful of buttermilk pie.
“Thank you. I’ve always tried to keep my home like Percy would have wanted.”
At the mention of Percy’s name, Abraham stared at the water drops meandering down the sides of his glass, darkly wetting the tablecloth. He folded a paper napkin in quarters and set the glass on it.
“The two of you might have been friends,” she offered. “Percy could have used a friend in Vietnam. One more, or,” she frowned, “one less.”
“Over there, a man needed every friend he could get. I know I did.”
“I was thinking about how Percy died. ‘Friendly fire,’ the major told me. That’s the friend he could have done without.”
Abraham rose abruptly and walked to the sink with his plate. “That’s wartime, all right. Being a good man doesn’t save you from being done to—or from doing. It’s pure, awful luck.”
His angry tone alarmed her, and the first words that came into her head tumbled out. “The Lord decides these things.”
“I don’t think that. And neither do you.” He turned and relaxed against the counter, arms and ankles crossed. “If you thought taking Percy was the Lord’s work, you would have accepted it a long time ago. I don’t blame you. Percy’s death was unfair, and it was wrong, but it was man’s doings, not God’s, and men have to take the responsibility.”
A terrible notion took hold of her. Almost whispering, she asked, “Did you know Percy?”
“No.” His direct gaze didn’t waver. “He was in Da Nang, and I was in the south. But everywhere it was the same chaos and confusion. Men yelling, helicopters pounding, jets screaming just above the trees. Even scarier quiet. Smothering dark nights, then blinding artillery fire. You look up and you don’t know who—son, father, husband, brother—just stepped out of the jungle in front of your bullet. Enemy, or friend? You can’t see who he is when you need to, and when it’s too late, you can’t stop seeing him.” His shoulders twitched, as if trying to shrug off an invisible burden.
The tea pitcher clattered against his glass as Cordelia refilled it. He came back to the table and sat.
She took a deep breath and fought for words to express thoughts she barely knew she had. “I will never forget Percy, but I’ve mourned him too long. You say men have to take responsibility. Well, I have neglected my own responsibilities.”
The noise outside grew louder, but Abraham’s attention never left her face. “You, irresponsible? I don’t believe it,” he said, resuming his usual pleasant way. “My folks loved you. They depended on you. Like a daughter, they said.”
She bobbed her head in acknowledgement. “Yes, but I haven’t kept up, I haven’t participated in the world like I should. It’s like I’m waiting for my life to start, and here it is, going on all around me.”
“If you want to see, Cordelia, open your eyes.” He leaned toward her.
She continued, speaking quickly. “Pastor Henry recommended me for a job at the community center where my friend Adalee works. I’ll be doing outreach, three days a week, helping folks down on their luck piece things together a while.”
“That’s what you want to do?”
“It’s a start,” she said. “One of the other days, I signed up for a business course at the community college, to learn how to use a mag card machine. Don’t ask me to explain it! I had typing in high school, and they say it’s like riding a bicycle—it’ll come back, which I dearly hope is true. Then I can work lots of places.”
“You want to work?”
“I need to be able to take care of myself, Abraham.” She locked her eyes on his. “I need to build my own nest egg. It’ll be a good thing. For me. For . . . everybody.”
The noise in the front yard stopped. Out at the street, a van door rolled shut, and an engine started. The late afternoon breeze seemed to carry in fresh possibilities.
Cordelia said, “Bring your tea, and let’s see what they’ve done to my front yard.”
The duplex remained two mismatched halves. One half, slipped back some two dozen feet, had the larger front yard, filled with this and that, selected according to the creative impulses of its owner. Its well-kept neighbor still looked to be pulling forward, but to Cordelia’s thinking, it no longer pulled away from its neighbor, but toward possibilities ahead. On the front lawn, where a Victorian gazing ball once stood, CFW slowly turned and stretched her shining wings to the brilliant afternoon sky.