Those Chandelier Earrings



Dwight Hilson

You’ll just love it here; love it. Everyone’s so nice and friendly, and the nurses—oh, silly me, I mean caregivers, that’s what they want us to call them—well, they can handle most anything. And they’re much gentler than over at Springdale. Everything’s just so wonderful, almost no reason to leave—not that they’d let us! Hew; I do like to joke sometimes. See what a fuss they’re making over you; I do believe they want to make me jealous. Don’t mind me, I’m just joshing.

I hear they put in the Westover Wing. Did you know they’re all named after the towns to which they point—like a compass? You can’t see those towns from here, which made me kinda confused, at first. I’m in the Fairfield Wing, but yours is the best. Everyone calls it the “Happy Wing” since the renovation. Those old rooms were simply dreadful: so small and dark, and the heat never could catch up with winter. When Hazel Welter caught the pneumonia, they just had to do something. But it’s nice now, and can you believe that golden-paisley wallpaper? Never seen such color in my whole life and that carpet, sort of cushiony, like you’re riding in a Cadillac.

I always liked them the best, Cadillacs, that is; always bought a white one—the dealer called it Pearl White—with chrome wheels. Herb wouldn’t ride in it; said it was my “girlie” car, God bless him. Hard to believe it’s been over 20 years since he passed. Happened the night that Boston player let New York win the World Series—still don’t know how that ball got through his legs, not that I care so much about baseball; that’s what Herb was watching before bed, so I remember. Now did I go off and change the subject? Herb used to say I liked the sound of my own voice just a touch too much; but he liked it too, I’m sure. He’d get home from the company and say, “Tell me something, honey.” And you can bet I did.

But I better keep my voice down; it looks like Shirley’s taking a nap. Let’s see how long before she stirs—oh, there you go, not long indeed, must’ve been the lunch smell. Don’t you dare ask her how she’s doing or she’ll complain like a barnyard hen; but if you ask me, there’s nothing wrong with ol’ Shirley’s sense of smell. A fresh pie would wake her from a coma. My, my, did I say that? Don’t worry; I’m sure she didn’t hear.

Now just look at that pot roast; didn’t I tell you, you’d love the food. My little Coco just adores the pot roast. Sometimes she’s a fussy little poodle but not when I bring back pot roast. She has to stay in my room, bless her tiny heart. She doesn’t have much hair left, but she’s still my little baby. Don’t know what I’d do without her. Just a puppy when I moved here, and every day, no matter what, she climbs on my lap, puts her head down, and falls asleep, her warm little breath puffing against my arm. Don’t think I’d get another, wouldn’t want to abandon a puppy, if you know what I mean. I’m sorry, that’s not one of my best jokes; but it’s against the rules anyways: Only pets allowed are the ones you come in with. Do you have a pet? Oh, of course not, no pets in the Happy Wing. We’re in the Fairfield Wing.

Did I say that already? Sometimes I lose track when I’m excited. Don’t tell Shirley but I think we’re in luck today—they might serve cake. I just love their cake. I had cake on my birthday; it was so beautiful, it had a single pink spiral candle, you know, the kind with white wax along the spiral ridges, never noticed that before. Anyway, they let me blow out the flame all by myself, but I needed help to pull it out so I wouldn’t lose any frosting. That’s the best part, the frosting—so sweet and with that ever-so-slight crust that melts on your tongue like cotton candy. I could’ve eaten the whole cake, or at least another piece, but I didn’t want to be greedy. Oh, they would’ve brought another if I asked; everyone is so nice and friendly. Did I tell you they’ll take you shopping if you want? There’s a special van, with a lift, up you go, easy as pie. Of course, I never ask—I used to drive myself. I was always a good driver. Fast too. That’s why my Herb wouldn’t drive with me.

Now I know what you’re thinking: he didn’t want to be seen in a girlie car, but, no, it was speed—I liked to get where I was going. Herb was content enough to putter along at the speed limit—can you imagine that? The speed limit. So we mostly took two cars, and I’d be ready to order a second martini by the time he showed up. Always loved to drive and I was fast too. I said that, didn’t I? Well, I started young; my pappy taught me not too far from here. A Ford Model T. Pappy sure loved that car—first in our family. He was a machinist, you know, could fix most any part all by himself. I was 12 when he told me to climb in—it looked as high as a second-story window. You didn’t need any permit or license back in ’27. I expected a nice ride but no sir; he sat me right there on the driver’s side. Couldn’t see over the wheel, and my feet were too short so he got pillows and lashed blocks to my shoes. Can you imagine? Never so scared in my life. Stalled her a couple times and could barely turn that wheel, but Pappy said I was a natural. I’ve never forgotten how he looked me clear in the eyes, saying, “Don’t ever let someone say you can’t do something, Olive—you can drive.”

You should’ve seen the looks on all my friends’ faces when Pappy let me ramble that Ford down Main Street—and I was only 12. He said I was a natural.

By the way, do you remember that old news store past downtown, off High Street? The one just three blocks from the high school? Last time I was by there, saw a new sign saying, “The House of Love.” Thank God my Herb didn’t live to see that one. You’d think it was a cathouse, but Herb would’ve thought a Baptist church was even worse. He was Episcopalian himself but held no great affection for the pious—thought them a bunch of phonies, mostly.

Haven’t been by there for a spell. Used to pass that way on my drives to Greenwood Cemetery, but those streets got all dug up and the detour took you along 4th Street. Never liked going over there; lost my little Ruthie near that intersection. Can you believe it was a drunk driver? Middle of the day too. Pappy and Mother picked her up at high school in the coupe and never saw the son of a bitch who hit them. Oh, I’m sorry for my language, but I get so mad. We were very close and I didn’t get to the hospital in time to hold her hand. You just never lose the bitterness for some things.

I’m sorry—did I tell you about my Herb yet? Yes, let’s talk about Herb; he was the cat’s meow, if I do say so. We met in 1940 at the paper company. That’s right, National Paper. I worked as a secretary in the executive offices. Herb was one of the big shots; his grandfather started National. And let me tell you, he was tall, lithe, and had a smile that could ruin a nun. He flirted with me something awful—told me my curves could stop a freight train—but I kept my distance, yes I did. He was more than a decade older and married with two teenage girls, but I guess you could say he plain wore me down. One day he took me to lunch and said, “I’m divorcing Millie and I want you to marry me.”

Of course I didn’t say yes, not right away at least—but I knew I would eventually. Herb was a man who just wouldn’t take no for an answer, you could push or pull, but sooner or later, you had to get out of the way. He was something.

Wouldn’t be any children for me though—I knew that was part of the deal. He wanted me all to himself. It sure was awkward at the office for a while; I don’t think Herb could concentrate too well. Mr. William Logan, he was the president in those days, finally took me aside, and said, “Olive, if you don’t marry Herb soon, we’re going to have to fire him—and it’s his company.” Now I’m sure he was kidding, but I quit right then; just walked straight out the door, and do you know what? Herb was waiting outside in a brand new Cadillac, pale blue with whitewall tires, a Sixty Special. He leaned against the hood and opened the driver’s door; I can still see that wide smile, and all he said was, “Get in.” Must’ve been 100 white roses all lined up in the backseat, what a smell—if that car was black, folks would’ve thought it a hearse; we rode with the windows down; I was speechless. Everything was a blur, and when we stopped, Herb reached over and touched my ears, his fingers were warm as a lightbulb, and I closed my eyes. He kissed me, I was pretty sure, my whole body was numb, but when I opened my eyes he angled the mirror and I could see uncountable diamonds hanging from my ears, sparkling against my neck. Herb rushed out to open my door and motioned for me to look at the largest house I’d ever seen, a Tudor with elm trees framing the front door like giant green fountains. He said, “We’re home.” And so we were.

I have no regrets; he did make me feel like a queen and, you know, three times we had to buy larger jewelry safes. But I’m just chattering away. Sometimes I lose track of what we were talking about. Did I mention the bus? That was the best; we covered all of America in the bus. My Herb did like to travel, so that’s what we did—coast-to-coast, around the world—I think we stayed in every fancy hotel—everywhere, always first-class, but the bus was extra special. We rolled that thing down every back road we could find, just the two of us. Sometimes I lie on my bed with Coco, remembering those trips, and it’s like I’m living them all over again.

Herb ordered her decked out like a luxury camper: queen-size bed, lace curtains on the windows, cherry wood trim, and the whole streamlined thing covered in stainless steel—I tell you, you needed sunglasses to stand next to her in sunshine.

We’d take turns at the wheel—now I know what you’re thinking: A lady shouldn’t be driving a bus—but there was no way Herb could stop me. Of course, she was a GMC Hydramatic and a beast to steer—worse than Pappy’s Model T. My Herb fashioned a wide leather belt to hold me in the seat to get leverage to spin that wheel, and he welded an extension on the shifter so I could reach it. She was quite the cruiser, but those air brakes gave me the darnedest time.

One trip, in the Rockies, we’d gone over one of those high passes, and on the downgrade Herb was dozing off when I woke him by hollering, “Honey, what would you do if you lost the brakes?”

I can still see how his eyes got all wide, he yelled back, “I’d pull off on the shoulder and scrape the side.”

“Well, you better get away from that door,” I shouted, “because that’s where we’re heading!”

I thought for sure she’d tip over, but we hit an embankment and I kept that wheel yanked to the right, rocks and dust flying everywhere. It worked too, but that poor bus sure looked like hell afterward. I didn’t have to tell my Herb that the new bus needed gears I could clutch down to ease off the speed. Did I tell you I’m a natural at working a clutch? Came to me just as easy as wearing diamonds—and sometimes I wore diamonds even while I was driving!

I hope I’m not boring you too much. You’re such a good listener, and I do so enjoy telling the old stories. Sometimes I think a good memory is a curse; there are a few things I wish I could forget, but not many, and I do like remembering my Herb. You have a little something on your chin, but don’t worry; when that pretty young caregiver comes along, I’ll ask her to help straighten things out. What was I saying? Oh yes, that bus—and diamonds!

One year, in the ‘50s I believe, we started at that Masters golf tournament, that’s in Georgia if you don’t know, then drove to Indy for the 500, same year Bill Vukovich went over the wall; couldn’t hide my tears that day. Then we headed west. I think we were crossing New Mexico—I remember the heat waves rippling off the desert far down the highway. Herb was sleeping, eyes tightly shut, so you can imagine I was working that accelerator pretty good, and we came behind another bus. I was just about ready to make the pass when I noticed Herb, eyes still shut mind you, flashing me that devilish grin of his. “Well, if you’re gonna pass them, why don’t we give them a show. Put on those chandelier earrings and show ’em some skin while you’re at it.”

My Herb could be such a joker. He grabbed my jewelry box and found those earrings; most beautiful ones you ever saw—four inches long, with enough flashy diamonds to satisfy a thief. Same ones he gave me when I agreed to get married. You wouldn’t believe how sunlight bounced stars off those bangles. I kept driving, my hands on the wheel as Herb fastened each post. My neck tingles just thinking how his fingers raised goose bumps on my skin.

Just as I began the pass, I pulled my top off the shoulder and jammed on the gas. I pulled up even with the driver, he could see past Herb easily, then I blew him a big, red lipstick kiss and roared ahead. Herb was laughing so hard, I thought he might fall out the door.

We stopped at a campground that night and never left the bus. Can’t remember when I took off those earrings. Some men want their women demure and obedient but not my Herb. I can tell you he made me feel like a goddess.

We were up in northern Michigan, different trip, when my Herb woke up and smelled smoke. And a good thing he did too. He pulled me out just as the smoke started thickening into clouds. We stood in our pajamas, watching that bus just exploding in flames. We decided to stick with cars after that, and Herb let me buy my own Cadillac.

I bought eight of them over the years; sold the last one on my birthday almost a year ago, March. Did you know that car had a trunk hood that would close itself? Just push a button. Hard to believe kids today won’t ever know how good it feels to slam a trunk. I did receive a birthday card from the DMV, however—a notice, actually—but it seemed a waste of time to respond.

I do miss driving. Had a daily routine: would head down Main past the Walgreen’s and elementary school, wave at the workers riverside—you know, one of these days they’ll come up with a plan that works—then across the downtown bridge; always liked the view of the old paper mill, smokestacks still chugging away. Of course, downtown was getting a little scraggly. I never saw any “For Rent” signs when my Herb was on the city council. He warned them they’d better lobby to connect the interstate with downtown, but Herb said those boys couldn’t see past their lunch plans.

But the part I liked best was visiting Greenwood Cemetery. All my family members are there; we have a section shaded by a magnificent sycamore. There’s a space waiting right next to Herb’s headstone. He wanted it to be huge—bigger than the ones marking all those blowhards he thought deserved only a mushroom patch. I miss visiting, leaving flowers, or just chatting with my memories. And I’ll tell you a secret? My Herb isn’t actually buried there. Can you believe we had agreed on a special spot to spread our ashes not two weeks before he died? For the life of me, I never expected to visit there so soon. But I didn’t drive over there, wouldn’t want anyone to see me since—I hope you don’t mind my whispering—since I buried something else over there too. Even my lawyer doesn’t know about that.

Oh good, it’s time for dessert. What do you say we ask them for some cake? Did I tell you how good it is, especially the frosting? You know, they’ll bring you cake anytime you want it; all you have to do is ask.