Muscadine Lines: A Southern Journal

Pumpkin Bread

River Huffman


Even before the rumors of last November, my neighbors had complained that I don't keep up appearances. The picket fence is beyond repair, the front door is cracked, a rusty thermometer, advertising a bank that's been closed thirty years, hangs on one of my front porch columns. But each continues to serve a purpose and will not be replaced with contemporary inferiority just to calm a few restless tongues.

The day I met Helen Lefevre it was forty-six degrees Fahrenheit. I dressed accordingly in preparation for an early lunch at Mildred's Diner, the only eatery still open downtown. I wanted to get ahead of the gossip-and-stare regulars and spread a little flattery on a so-so redhead waitress. I had a few minutes to kill before they opened so I meandered through the neighborhood, listening to the shrill blackbirds and the sad rhythm of scraping rakes. The old folks were out, bundled like infants, hauling leaves to the curb in yellow wheelbarrows and black trash bags as if this might keep death from their doors for one more winter. I waved to them but didn't slow enough to be detained by self-pitying rhetoric.

Past the old school playground I turned down Morrow—an avenue of Victoriana prominent in the town's history—and found myself lingering for a look at Lefevre House: two tall, angular stories, yellow and white with stick-and-ball fretwork and a turret-like room with stained glass. I recalled days of recess, watching from the monkey bars and wondering what it was like inside, what it was like to be rich, not to work or go to school, and what was hidden behind the stained glass. I was revisiting that old curiosity when I heard a feminine voice over the cry of the birds.

"Good morning."

The Widow Lefevre stood tall, slim, and stately in the shadow of the porch, fingering her mail. She must have thought I was staring at her. She was fifty-three. I was twenty-five. Dr. Lefevre was nine years dead.

"Good morning," I returned. "I was admiring your house."

She stepped into the light, smiling. I stopped.

"Have you ever been inside?"

"No ma'am."

"Well please come in. I could use your help with something, anyway." Her voice was regal.

I followed her through the arched foyer, into a ritzy living room—warm, aromatic and softly lit. A light air—Bach, she said—played in a remote part of the house. She turned to me as if suddenly remembering something.

"By the way, I'm Helen Lefevre. I'm not feeling my age today so please humor me by dropping the ma'am and calling me Helen."

She offered her hand, which I shook twice as I stammered my name.

"The reason I asked if you've ever been inside is I thought maybe you were a friend of my daughter's."

"No. I know who she is, but we've never met. She's older than me."

This amused her. "Well the next time she calls I'll tell her I met you, and what a charming young man you are. Please have a seat while I check something in the kitchen."

I sat on one end of a brocade sofa and scanned the room. Vaulted ceilings, oil paintings, well placed accent lamps, a cherry credenza holding an arrangement of dried stalks. Everything a perfect blend of luxury and comfort.

Helen slipped back in and sat in a red leather chair with her legs over the arm and her hands behind her head. She watched me as if trying to read my mind.

"That's pumpkin bread you smell. Like it?"

"Never had it."

"Imagine that. I hope you’ll have some. It's done now, but it has to cool before you get the full flavor of the spices. In the meantime, tell me something..."

She grilled me—the way all old money does—on my family history, who I was related to and if I knew so and so. She was amused that in a town of a few thousand we had no mutual acquaintances. I gave short answers and awaited each question like I was being interviewed; she played with the braided fasteners on her blouse. She had only minor wrinkles, more chestnut than gray hair, and eyes the color of delphiniums. I knew that I was seeing the afterglow of rare beauty.

She eventually came back to the bread.

"...unless of course, you have other plans. I don't want to detain you."

"Well, I was on my way to City Cafe for an early lunch."

"Charming," she smiled. "Don’t let me spoil your appetite, but you're welcome to stop by on your way home. The bread makes a great dessert and I'll have coffee to go with it."

"Sounds good."

She rose. "Well, if you'll follow me, please sir."

My face must have betrayed confusion. She laughed, not rudely, but with polish and sparkle. "Remember when I invited you in I said I needed your help with something?"

I probably blushed.

She led me back to the foyer and guided me up a winding staircase to the second floor. We paused outside a tall, narrow door while she caressed the porcelain knob with her thumb.

"You'll have to excuse the cold in here," she said. "I haven't used this room for a long time. I keep it closed off."

She led me into a round, empty room with no other light than the amber glow of stained glass.

"This was Charles'—Dr. Lefevre's— private study. There's no light bulb in the fixture. I have one here, and a ladder, but I’m afraid to do this when I’m by myself."

I took the bulb and climbed dangerously high before I was finally able twist it in. She steadied the ladder and cautioned me. When my efforts yielded no light she brought me another bulb, this one she knew worked because it came from her bedside lamp. She was already pushing the switch before I could get it in. Still nothing happened. She folded her arms over her breast and gave herself a squeeze.

"Do you think I need to replace the light fixture?"

"No, this one is fine. It still works. You just need minor electrical work. I can see about doing it later."

"The sooner the better. I've got plans for this room and I'm eager to get started."

I came down and we leaned on opposite sides of the ladder, discussing plans and pasts and how quickly the former becomes the latter, and what a good man Dr. Lefevre had been. She hunched her shoulders, rubbed her arms and reminisced about her early years in the house. Her words echoed in the emptiness and each sentence became an amber cloud...

She smiled suddenly, held out a forearm, "Shall we?" and gave me a quick tour of the house, ending downstairs in the foyer, where she repeatedly expressed her gratitude and asked me once again to stay for coffee and bread.

"It should be ready now."

"Well..." I thought about what awaited me at Mildred's: grease, salt, static-scored country music, and a skinny red-head with less personality than the average biscuit. I wondered why I'd ever started my day in that direction.

Helen was smiling. I’m not sure how, but I'd amused her again. She stepped toward the kitchen, stopped and spun energetically, throwing her hair across her face and leaving it there until she finished asking:

"Do you take cream and sugar?"

I answered automatically.

We sat facing each other in a bay window seat overlooking the side yard, where yellow leaves twirled to the ground in cold wind and branches bobbed in soothing rhythm. Inside was warm, perfumed with fresh coffee and autumnal spices. She served the bread on rare bone china she’d inherited from her mother. A little fragile for my habits, but serving its purpose.

***

River Huffman chronicles life in the farm and factory South where his family has lived for several generations. His most recent works have appeared in Flashquake and Heavy Glow. He is a member of the Tennessee Writers Alliance.

© River Huffman

Muscadine Lines: A Southern Journal ISSN 1554-8449, Copyright © 2004-2012