I write as a witness to what I have seen.
I write as a witness to what I imagine.
–Terry Tempest Williams
Irene was nineteen. She was about to become Mrs. John N. Napier. Her mother told her all would be fine. Mr. Napier was seventy-one.
On a recent cold November morning, I began my morning routine of starting a fire in our great room wood stove. When I pulled out a newspaper from the kindling box to use along with some small cuts of wood, I noticed the paper seemed unusually old and yellowed. To my surprise I had two entire “Richmond Times-Dispatch” editions. One was dated 9 January and the other the tenth. But what widened my eyes was the year . . . 1967. They must have come in as packing material in some mail-order delivery.
I opened this time capsule, intrigued to see what was happening in Virginia and the rest of the world in 1967. I had just graduated from college the year before and was about to be drafted. Tucked back on page 11 of the 10 January edition was an Associated Press story of the wedding in Covington, Kentucky. The brief account quoted Irene as saying her “childhood environment” had prepared her for such a wedding. I doubted that a 19-year old young woman in backwoods Kentucky in 1967 would have used “childhood environment” in conversation.
Irene’s father, 74 at the time of the wedding, was 30 years older than Irene’s mother. Irene’s new husband, a retired school teacher and postal clerk, attended elementary school with Irene’s father.
I wanted to know so much more, since Irene was just four years younger than I was in 1967. What happens to a young woman her age when she marries a man so much older? What kind of life did she live?
I wanted to ask my sisters and all the girls I knew from my schooldays what it would take to marry a man old enough to be their grandfather. After getting past the jokes about inheriting a fortune and becoming a widow on your wedding night, the marriage was just too kooky. I know a few of my high school sweethearts hooked up with “older men” who were perhaps in their early twenties when the girls were fresh out of high school. But no one stretched the limit more than a few years.
I could see my mother rolling her eyes. My grandmother Julia would have slammed her hand down on the table with a loud smack and muttered, “What the hell’s wrong with those people?” Julia ended up in rural Appalachian Ohio in 1907 after a homestead fling in Oklahoma went bust. The farm my mother grew up on was not far from Cincinnati on one side of the Ohio River and Covington on the other. Julia had strong opinions, and I imagine her saying, “No skunky riffraff like that lived in our neck of the woods. We would have run ‘em out.”
Irene’s story keeps rolling around in my head. I never knew any Irenes when I was growing up and I don’t know any now. The name is old fashioned to me. In classic mythology, Irene was one of the Horae, the goddesses of the seasons, of cyclical death and rebirth, and sometimes of social order, usually given as three in number, with the names Dike (Justice), Eunomia (Order), and Irene (Peace).
I started to wonder about this Irene and how her life turned out. Was she a victim whose parents ushered her into an unseemly marriage? Was she close to her grandmother who had also agreed to her daughter marrying a man thirty years older? Irene’s grandmother was probably the same age as Irene’s father and now husband. Did Irene’s younger sisters tremble that they might be next? Did her father still command her to his will when she and her husband visited? I imagined them all around the Thanksgiving table, young Irene carrying her first of many children. My wife Jody shuddered at the image of the old man putting his hands on this young flesh.
All her mother told her was, “Do what he says and don’t mouth off.” Grandma probably stood mute, except to add, “That’s the only way.”
What kind of child was she, what kind of “childhood environment” did she have? I imagine her telling me, “I’d lie on the grass beneath the lilac tree and breathe until I’d almost faint. In those days I also would spin around and around until I was so dizzy I couldn’t stand up.” Other times she would tell herself, “Press hard against the wall like that bat did. Don’t let daddy know I’m in the room. He’s so angry I want to disappear.”
Did she cherish old picture magazines? Did she share a bedroom and sleep with six other siblings? How clean were her clothes? Did they have tears or were they mended with patches? How long did she have to wait to use the house’s only toilet? How often did she fall asleep at night listening to the party downstairs: poker chips, ice cubes, and her mother shuffling cards? How did the tang of her mother’s particular words differ from that of her father’s? Did she have a transistor radio to listen to pop tunes? Did she fall into uncontrollable giggles whenever she was frightened? Oh, I have so many questions.
What were the smells of her childhood house? I imagine wet, dirty laundry, cigarettes, whiskey, food gone bad. Maybe her only real protection, or so she thought, was her tequila-breathing Uncle John, who always knew what to say, crying out “stop this wickedness” whenever her father would go on a rage and life really disintegrated. “Nobody beats a child when I’m around, you hear!” he would bellow. But then Uncle John tried to molest her.
Before her parents arranged her marriage, I can see how she might have only had sex with one boy, usually out doors or in his worn-out pickup. His hair would be slicked back with brill cream jell. For sure, he tucked a pack of cigarettes into his rolled-up t-shirt sleeve. At one time she probably wondered what she had done to make him dump her. She aged the night he pushed her out of a moving car. Her eyes lost some twinkle and she always afterward carried money in her purse, just in case.
A female friend of mine rooted for a big coronary to have felled Mr. John Napier just at the moment Irene slipped off her dress and crawled into the wedding bed. But that probably never happened. Maybe he was more savior than dirty old man and gently initiated her into womanhood. I hope he was kind and considerate. Perhaps he treated her with respect and listened to her. There’s always a chance he provided a good home, helped raise the kids, didn’t drink to excess, and wasn’t a womanizer.
In the best of all worlds, maybe she enjoyed her marriage and found frequent peaceful moments when she could hold her first son as she sat on a bench near a small pond her husband dug for her. The pool could have been beside a flower garden she tended with care. She might even have had a pride of cats she doted on and who draped themselves on her bed on winter afternoons. I can see her trying on various new dresses she bought at her husband’s urging. He pushed her to continue her schooling and encouraged her to paint more of her still life bowls of fruit. All possibilities in his favor.
But perhaps he was just a “badder,” the name she gave men who abused her, and snuffed out what remained of her childhood. Maybe he slapped her around and used his favorite threat when she talked back to him: “Your jawbone want to lose another tooth?” He might well have been a terrorist rapist whenever he could nudge his aging libido into action, seldom bathed, never brushed his teeth, refused to change his underwear, and tracked his muddy boots into the house.
I can see Napier criticizing her shape because of her scoliosis. He probably made her sleep with her face in the pillow to correct an upturned nose. “I hate him. I want to slowly sink my teeth into his butt.” When she finally left Napier, I can see her putting up an Elvis poster and sleeping with her nose out again.
I think of her in terms of the decades that followed her marriage. Had she stayed with Napier, how many children would she have had by the time she was twenty-nine? Would she or he have still been alive on her thirty-ninth birthday? Did she still share Thanksgiving meals with her parents along the way? Did she take a lover when the old man fell sick from diabetes in his mid-eighties? Was she still there when he was buried on some hillside grave or had she long fled?
Then again, maybe she died in childbirth or just wore out young from neglect and overwork. Did she find solace in alcohol or drugs? Did she forget deodorant and fail to buy toothpaste? Did she walk around with grimy stains around her neck and under her arms? Were there cigarette burns on the skirt, a hem mended by her own hand? A lingering stink, perhaps of ham from the hogs she butchered, hung up to age, and then hacked apart.
I continue to worry about her and have so many unanswered questions. My mind swirls thinking of what happens to a young girl married off to a stranger more than fifty years her senior?
One dismal possibility is that she ended up in some derelict bar dancing topless to a bunch of hooligan bumpkins. Maybe she became so hateful that you could light a cigarette from her glare. Who could blame her? There must have lingered some deep hurt within her that made her the equivalent of a collapsed nuclear power plant that refused to cool off.
I can see her mug shot with that mop of big hair that needs some untangling and a good scrub. She’s sporting a prison tattoo on her fleshy forearm, a crude impression bearing witness to whatever meaning is hidden in the image of a speeding tractor trailer burned into her skin. I can almost see the sign on the back of her truck: “How Is My Driving?”
Perhaps it was after she was released following her sixth arrest that she sat in a corner of the bar nursing a grudge against the guy on stage twanging his ruin of a guitar. I hear the shouting and dodge the flying beer bottles as a rolling boil erupts in this den of scoundrels. It all starts when the guitarist suddenly asks between numbers, “How many a youse been in prison?” He is looking directly at her. Some people cheer as she gets up and moves toward the stage.
Who knows how the little skunk-hole drama concluded. One thing for sure, there was some serious fire on that dance floor that night. It was more than a smokin’ platform. It was scorched. Even a dedicated drunk sought distance from the two of them rolling around on the floor like cartoon characters scratching and clawing and spilling shit on each other till someone got seriously hurt. Jail was calling, too, maybe for a long time depending on how close to the bone they found their hatred.
Discovering that half-century old newspaper stashed away in a kindling box was the find of the year for me. It was a treasure trove of a time capsule taking me back to my young adulthood. So many stories whose endings I now know beckoned out to be read. Back to the future. I was delighted and fascinated by what I found: Defense official says five percent of aid to Vietnam is lost to theft “and other diversions”;Adam Clayton Powell removed from House Education and Labor committee; Red Guards run amuck in China; and Gerald Ford re-elected as republican leader in the House and Melvin Laird as chairman of the House GOP conference. Best of all was the report saying that Nixon considered 1967 as his “year of decision,” “a hint that he will seek the republican presidential nomination in 1968.” A car ad offered the “brand-new 1967 Potomac Sport Coupe” for $2,424. The Dow finished at 808.68. There’s a picture of Joe Dimaggio on the sports page talking with Frank Robinson. Another filler entitled “Hat is Symbol, also a Signal” identified the first Navajo to be elected to the Arizona state legislature. Asked about the tall black hat he wore, the man said it’s tradition for the head man of the tribe. He then added, “It’s also good for attracting squaws.” An ad for ladies wear offered a regularly priced $8 “average-leg ‘Concertina’ pantie girdle of lightweight Lycra spandex with Maidenform’s exclusive ‘action insert’ panel” for the sale price of $6. Smoked sliced bacon was $0.49 lb, garden fresh collards cost $0.07 lb, a 5-oz jar of “Chock Full of Nuts” instant coffee $0.83 lb, horse meat $0.25 lb., Pillsbury biscuits four for $0.37, ground beef $0.49 lb, and “plump and juicy winner franks” 12-oz pkg for $0.39.
And nestled away on A-11 were two short paragraphs telling us that Miss Irene Mosely had just gotten married.
I started sleuthing into Irene’s life because I saw the story had a never-ending ending, any number of private wells of sorrow. I also wondered how some people can rationalize any belief—this time something as bizarre as such a lopsided wedding—as reasonable and acceptable. What I learned is that some stories don’t come with instructions. One person’s little footprint of earth can quickly change or even disappear, corkscrewing the surroundings, making old spaces unfamiliar. Irene’s story was the prose of estrangement. Your view of its many twists and turns depend on the angle you tilt your head.
I have tried in vain to locate anyone going by the name Irene Mosley Napier in Covington. I have no idea whether she had remarried. Imagine the first names she could have given herself: Dolores, Maggie, Carlotta, Claudia, Maria, Maya. I can only guess whether they are alibis, pseudos, or indictments? Maybe some harmony in there, too, to give her music. If she’s still alive she’d be around seventy-one now, just a little younger than I am.
In trying to make sense of Irene’s plight, my wish for her is that she found herself in the end. I think of the old song, “Goodnight Irene, goodnight Irene, I’ll see you in my dreams.” I hope Irene discovered someone to love her madly, is without pain or discomfort, is not haunted by habits of worry, has plumped up, keeps the good aromas wafting out of her kitchen, stays warm in winter without the need to layer up in bulky sweaters, and has plenty of pots to catch the rain drops if she has any holes in the roof over her head. Maybe that’s enough.