Buttoned Down Life
By Ann Hite

The summer Emily Stewart finally lost her reputation as a shy, spinster, red Georgia clay coated anything that stood still for more than a minute; dust particles rode the blazing rays of sun, clinging to clean, white bed sheets, flapping in the stifling wind. Housewives took to hanging their laundry inside while husbands complained as they fought for order in the tangle of clothes strung throughout the upper floors of their houses in Cove. But, Emily didn't worry. After all, she was alone, and at fifty-five, her wash was easy enough; her few articles took up space in one of the many empty bedrooms of her old two-story house. The loneliness, on the other hand, for the first time in her life, took on new dimensions, a well-defined face, and grew like a healthy fat baby, working the air like the dust, which the town blamed for any mishap as if it were a living being and the drought was a secondary condition. Emily's beloved books refused to hold her attention; instead, she found interest in the dryness of her hands and the wrinkles on her forehead. Normally not a woman of fashion, she became unsettled with her once white collar, now copper-tinged, on her choir robe. If not for her obsession to obtain a fresh robe, she would have missed a conversation between Pastor Morgan and Bea Weehunt; a conversation that drove her to accept Pastor Morgan's invitation to dine at his home the following Saturday.

Emily rummaged through the choir storage room with hopes of
finding a suitable choir robe. Voices from the church office grabbed
her attention. Of course, a good Christian would have revealed her
presence, but she stood, robe in hand and listened.

"She'll only die of shyness." Bea, in all her prissiness,
counseled the pastor. "The poor thing just hates crowds, always has. If
she's not careful, she will die a lonely old woman, rotting away in a
decayed old shell of a house."

Pastor Morgan cleared his throat. "She is one of the best Sunday
school teachers Open Grove Baptist Church has. I'll not insult her. She
can decide for herself. Besides, if I'm not mistaken, she has read all
of Mr. Barker's books. She's quite a fan of Cove's first celebrity."

"She'll never come. And, I'm glad someone has the time to read
books. My days are taken with looking after my home."

"Oh really, it's good to know with Scott's passing and your
boy's departure, your days are full."

Bea's voice took on that pitiful sound; the one she used thirty
odd years earlier to steal Scott Weehunt from her. "It's a tad lonely.
The Good Lord knows I keep busy. Books, besides the Bible of course,
seems a waste of good time."

"One can never learn too much."

Emily took the streetcar, crowded, bodies pressed against each
other, excitement lacing in and out of the noise, bound for Atlanta.
Five and Dime in Cove had a variety of merchandise, but the welcome
dinner for Markus Barker, writer of Christian inspirational books,
seemed more of an occasion. The hat hung next to a powder blue summer
dress with matching lemon yellow, linen buttoned-down coat in the
of Riches' Department Store. She walked inside and signaled the first

The hat fit snug on her head with a perfect cuff around the edge
and a blue linen bow on the left side. Her blonde curls escaped, wispy,
and made her think of a time years before when she flirted with a
door-to-door traveling salesman. Mother had intervened, but not before
the salesman made plans to meet her that evening in Atlanta. She risked
her reputation by telling Mother a lie. The salesman, handsome in a kid
sort of way, treated her to an evening of food, conversation, and
dancing. She kissed him hard before she took the streetcar. He promised
to stop the next time he was through town. Funny how she could remember
his laugh, the way his eyes smiled, and the way she felt when they
danced, but she couldn't recall his name.

"You must try on the whole suit, Madam."

Madam? Never had she been call Madam. The dress fit to her
slender figure, accented by the coat. "The heat will kill me."

"But, you look so elegant." The young sales girl smiled from the
dressing room door.

"I'll take it all!" Was she completely mad? Blood rushed through
her veins, pumping life into her body. No, she was alive!

The afternoon of the dinner, she ran a bath, adding lavender oil
made from a lavender bush that grew in her herb garden; the strong
loneliness ebbed with the cool water that filled the claw foot tub as
the afternoon sunlight filtered through the bathroom window. A muggy
wind stirred the curtains, and she hoped the dust would not tinge the
blue and yellow fabric of the dress and coat hanging in her bedroom.
sun painted the clouds pink and red as she sunk into the water and
imagined a different life. The lavender scent coated her body with an
oily sheen as an image of Markus Barker-retrieved from an old memory, a
book jacket-presented a quandary: she imagined herself a writer with
talent that exceeded Mr. Barker's. And, these sorts of ambitions,
assumptions that she could surpass, kept her from imagining what it
would be like to make love to a man; this was her downfall. How could
she possibly meet a man if she couldn't even imagine beyond the initial
attraction? Scott Weehunt chose Bea over Emily because he knew her to
have a chilly attitude. The salesman never returned because he found
nothing within her to drive his return. Her naked body lying in the
water was near perfect, no childbirth sags and bulges, unmarked by
Somehow, tonight would be different.

When Emily walked into Pastor Morgan's home, a hush fell over
the parlor; all eyes were on her. Bea Weehunt-her homemade dress did
nothing to deter her still youthful beauty-sat on the velvet sofa
from Markus Barker. The old familiar urge to run washed Emily from head
to toe. Markus Barker looked at her, and if a turn of the head could
push a person away, Bea would have landed in the floor.

Mr. Barker stood and extended his hand. "You must be the fabulous Mrs. Stewart. But, I must say, you're nothing like described. I hear you are an avid reader. What books do you suggest?"

She took his hand in hers; the body heat radiated through her glove. "Miss Stewart, Mr. Barker. I'm sure you were told I'm the town spinster. And, I love all books of the serious nature. I just finished 'Tender is the Night'."

"If you're the town spinster, I must see the town's beauty. And, I love Fitzgerald."

"You're too kind." She stared him in the eyes.

"We all urged Emily to find a husband when she was young and give up those books, but she just plain out refused, poor little thing. She's just so shy; she'd rather read than talk."

Mr. Barker laughed, releasing Emily's hand. "There is much to be said for the quiet type. Independent women choose their own life style. We could all learn from some of their choices. I, unlike some of the boors of today, see women as a real asset to the growth of this country, not merely flowers for decorative purposes." He motioned her to sit. She took the seat next to her former schoolmate and noticed Bea still had the same mole on her chin; the mole two innocent schoolgirls imagined made her a silent film star, elegant; with a closer look, a hair grew from its middle.

"Emily, here, is just so precious to our little church, what with her teaching Sunday school and all. I imagine this helps since she has no children of her own." Lines formed around Bea's eyes as she smiled.

Mr. Barker chuckled. "I have no children. This may be shocking, but I never wanted any, can't tolerate the curtain climbers for long." Everyone in the room took a breath at what seemed like the same time.

"But, Mr. Barker, don't you want to leave your name, some part of you, behind?" Bea placed her hand to her chest.

"I have my books for that. Besides, my brother has four boys that should take care of the name surviving."

She smiled. "I, like you, Mr. Barker, leave the raising of children to the more experienced."

"You must call me Markus, Miss Stewart."

"And, you must call me, Emily."

"Emily is such a beautiful name." And, so went the dinner in honor of Markus Barker.

That night, after the party, Emily warmed milk in her kitchen-she always had warm milk before bed-when someone knocked on the front door.

Bea stood in her housedress. "I wanted to talk to you."

Emily glanced up the staircase. "I guess for a few minutes." She opened the door, stepping back into the foyer. "It is my bedtime."

Bea stepped inside, closing the door behind her. "I just wanted to tell you, well." She pushed at the carpet's edge with a worn down house slipper. "I've missed you all these years. I mean, I never meant no harm when I married Scott. I know you loved him, but he asked me. Believe me you didn't miss a whole lot. Tonight, I saw what a beautiful woman you've become. That Mr. Barker sure had the eye for you. But, watch that one; something is wrong with a man who doesn't like children."

Emily pulled the frumpy robe around her tighter, glancing around. "Thanks for the advice, dear Bea. No hard feelings. Scott was years ago. I was but a child. I never would have been content with him; my mind moves too fast. You were the one meant to marry Scott. Events happen for a reason."

Relief washed Bea's face. "Good. Good. I want you to come to dinner with me. We're both single now. I eat alone most nights."

Emily gently turned Bea around to face the door, talking the whole time as if she spoke to one of her Sunday school students. "I would love to have dinner with you. You'll find being a woman on your own isn't so bad."

Bea stopped, turned her head, and looked Emily in the eye. "That's only because you have never known a man. It's awfully lonely."

"You would know better than me, dear Bea." Emily opened the door. "Come for a nice talk anytime." The wind swirled the dust from the porch rails and floor while thunder sounded in the distance like a far-off train moving into a station.

"You're a good soul, Emily." She took a couple of steps and paused. "I wouldn't wear that suit again. People might think you're uppity."

"Thanks Bea. I'll give your advice some sound thought." The sky lit up with the flashing force of electricity. "You have a good night." She pushed the door closed and locked it for the first time in her life.

With a tray of warm milk, she climbed the stairs to her bedroom. Poor Bea with all her silly rules lost track of the young girl, who dreamed of stardom, missing the most important part of life, the part that
allows the soul to soar free, past the expectations of others. She burst into a torrent of giggles as the house shook with thunder.

"What are you laughing at, my dear?" Markus Barker, bare-chested, sat propped against several pillows.

"Oh, old times." Her cheeks heated with the sight of him.

"Did I hear voices?"

"Yes, Bea stopped by with some sound advice."

Markus's eyebrow shot up. "Oh really, and what was that?"

"To stay away from you." She sat the tray with two glasses and a pitcher of warm milk on the bedside table.

He pulled at her wrist, taking her into his arms. "And, I hope you told her how insane she was?"

Emily laughed as rain pelted the windows and the lights flickered. "That horrid dust will be gone, and life will go back to normal."

"Life has a way of doing just that." Markus laughed as thunder shook the room and the lights went out.