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Sunday Journal essay: Artifacts of Miss Edna's hard, solitary life

I never danced on a grave, but did steal something from the dead, once. I spied it, pried it loose, flattened it against my belly beneath my blouse and walked away without contrition.

It happened one sultry late-summer day when ocher leaves are as omnipresent as the sun a half-hour before high noon. I felt myself liquefying in line while waiting my turn to take a number.

"Who was she?" I asked the fidgeter in front of me.

"Nobody," he said.

"Everyone is somebody," I suggested.

"Name was Miss Edna," drawled the clerk recording the details off my driver's license. "You be biddin' on the house?"

"I'm sorry?"

"Cuz it hasta be moved. Otherwise, it'll be bulldozed in two weeks' time.

"Land ain't fer sale. Yer No. 76. Next."

The house was one of those classic Cracker shacks built on a farm axed out of a forest that encroachment slaughters and sacrifices to almighty developers. Where highways supplant front yards claimed by eminent domain.

Miss Edna's epitomized such woe, its slats of ill-fitted wood slapdashed together and embalmed in asbestos shingles that the sun blistered into coarse curls. Rust stained the ridged metal roof, inside and out. You could peer through her windows and peek through her walls.

"Did you know Miss Edna?" came a voice.

I turned to see a wisp of a girl, all blond and bowlegged in mismatched plaids and stripes, with dangling plastic beads being balanced on broken fingernails.

"No, I didn't. Did you?"

"Of her, mostly," she conceded, evading my eyes as she spoke. "Mom died birthing her. Dad made her pay for it until he croaked."

"Never married?" I asked.

She sighed.

"Eloped on horseback to the forest. Honeymooned, camped down by the Silver River. But the old man hunted them with dogs. Beat the boy bloody. Strapped his broken body to a horse and whipped it away."

"Dead?"

"So's been said. Dragged her back and got a judge to, you know, wipe all records away?"

"Expunge."

"Expunge," she nodded. "After that, he treated her like scum. Least is, that's how I heard it." Welling up, she turned away and ambled off, mumbling, "A kind woman. Always kind."

The contents of Miss Edna's home were displayed without a modicum of dignity. Dozens of handmade patchwork quilts had been unceremoniously dumped on makeshift tables. The balance of her belongings were heaved from windows, shoved off porches, or dragged by the brown paper bag full into the red clay yard and left to decay until sold to the highest bidder.

Feeling vicariously forsaken, I found myself standing alone in her pillaged kitchen. The fusty stone fireplace yielded remnants of charred chair legs, rags and rubbish sprawled onto gnawed linoleum, exposing holes in sagging floorboards. A rubber hose running through an outside wall was tied to a wire clothes hanger, nailed to an overhead beam and aimed at a gray metal washtub. It was flanked by a contaminated toilet and corroded sink, all exposed in shamefaced view of anyone entering unexpectedly.

The rest of the house was bone bare, except for an unsung satin dress bequeathed to the back of a closet door, a laundry tag dating from 1931 still pinned to its mother-of-pearl buttons.

And there, thumbtacked to the wainscoting above the lintel, hung a cardboard souvenir sign, with bits of silver glitter flecking off two embossed words.

"Jesus wept."

Marguerite Quantaine is an essayist living in Florida. She can be reached at quantaine@aol.com.

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Sunday Journal essay: Artifacts of Miss Edna's hard, solitary life 02/06/10 [Last modified: Friday, February 5, 2010 2:40pm]

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