Muscadine Lines: A Southern Journal

Good Night Irma

Rose Murphy


Down south, way deep in the south, in the gulf shores panhandle, along Highway 98, better known as the National Alligator Highway, you will find a wonderful town called Three Palms, Florida.  It has three palms beside the welcome sign as you come in and at the leaving sign, as you leave.  Most folks do not leave often.

In fact, there is one person, Irma Jordan, who has been a lifetime resident.  She lives in a 1960’s brick ranch house, nearly in the center of town.  That is exactly the spot she will be the rest of her life, in the middle of the entire goings-on in Three Palms.

Her husband, Earl, lives with her.  He is retired from the metal plant.  He can be seen at the “Special of the Day” café for a cup of coffee between 8 and 10 any weekday morning.  Otherwise, he will be found sitting on his front porch, rocking in his worn chair, occasionally waving at the passing cars.  He has become a fixture of the town.

Irma had a son, Danny.  The summer before Danny went to Vietnam, she was so depressed.  She had a bad feeling he would never come back.  She was right, always was about feelings like that.  Therefore, Earl and Danny wanted to help her feel better and lift her spirits, so they actually built/installed one of those radio towers in the backyard patio.  Just like the local WWOW station had.  Someone owed Earl a little money, which someone never paid, so the radio tower appeared that summer.  Where someone gets and brings you a radio tower for a payment is beyond anyone’s thoughts.  Nevertheless, where Earl did get this radio tower was a secret he continued to keep from the others.

It worked for Irma too.  She loved having that huge, silver, flashing, high frequency thing out there.  Like Big Mart, if you build it, they will come.  Folks all over the county came to see it up close.  Irma knew exactly what to do with it, how to make it work for her.  She began to feel as a local celebrity.  Earl and Danny got it put up with the help of some friend and some heavy equipment.  It took ten days, a few permits but Danny and his father had the radio tower up and working before anyone realized how quick it could happen.  It was the talk of the town.  Irma loved it.  She thought it shined up as a big Christmas tree and it was all for her.

She had a shelter and her patio table and chairs near, which she ordered out of a department store catalog.  She also bought special radio equipment to use.  She could tap into the local WWOW station at the end of town, every night at eight p.m. for an hour-long program she created, called ‘Goodnight Irma.’  She was extremely well at tapping into the local station during those times and interrupt anything Oscar Matthews had playing.  He tried to complain to the mayor, but seeing the mayor was Irma’s little brother Bill, it was a losing fight for Oscar and finally he gave up.

Irma’s program was an incentive one for the time.  She would study all the prices of the grocery stores and sales at the local department stores to let the townspeople know where the best buy was.  She thought every wife in town needed her for this important information.  The stores were not certain they liked it or not.  It kept competition going.  She would say, “Cranes grocery has light bread for only 75 cents a loaf, but at the Giant Market, you can get milk at 85 cents a gallon, along with eggs for 25 cents a dozen.  It kept the stores on their feet.  Irma felt she was doing a great service, not to mention listening close to the gossip going around, in case, this would be help for her fellow neighbors.  She also felt the good people of the town could not sleep without her program.  Earl and Danny thought it kept her mind off a Danny’s going to Vietnam.

They were right.  Irma perked up.  On the nights of her programs, she would wear those funny cat’s eye glasses with the bifocals, have her hair teased to her beehive, wearing a new polyester double knit dress, her best long earrings, even though no one would see her from her back yard.

She wore her best dress and had her hair extra teased when she saw Danny off on the Greyhound along side Earl.  She kept a brave face on, the way home; she never was one to let herself become too emotional in front of other people.

  When she gave the updates for local places to go that week, she began to also expand, in order to give a little local news.  This included her son leaving for Vietnam.  From that night on, she included others who left for Vietnam in her program.  She began to feel more confident, tried to feel more confidant everything would be okay.  She believed in her country, in her president, and she trusted God.  She felt safe in her little world.  Her program always ended in “Goodnight Irma.”

But even in a small town, where everyone knows each other and lives the quiet life, where folks try ignoring the problems of the rest of the world, tragedy will still happen.  It was time for this town, as it hit many other towns, to get their time of sadness.  It came unexpectedly.  Living away from any nearby bases, the messenger arrived about three short weeks later after Danny left; a telegram came to the door.  Earl saw the young boy get out of his car.  He walked to the door, as Earl saw through the through the lace curtains in the window before Irma.  Earl went to the door, but Irma had seen the boy walking up the walk as Earl did.  She just stood still from behind, near the safety of her kitchen, watched, and fought the chill, the numbness which began to overtake her.

The boy did not have to knock. Earl opened the door and received the telegram in the brown envelope.  He thanked the boy and tipped him.  The boy went away without thanking him, as if maybe the boy already knew.  Earl looked at the envelope and thought that the boy who delivered it was not much younger than their Danny was.

Earl did not open the telegram; he only laid it on the table by the phone.  Then he sat in the recliner.  It was his safe place, a Christmas gift Danny bought him long ago.  The vinyl had long since been patched and duct taped, but Earl loved it so.

 Irma walked in, with the appearance of being in control, put on her fancy glasses, and picked the telegram up to read, trying to be as strong and steady as she was expected.  Though her hands shook.  It said,

“We sincerely regret to inform you your son died in the line of duty, three days ago, in Saigon.  He died helping to save a village from the red communist party.”

Irma put down the telegram, calmly, walked out to her tower, and sat at her Sears and Roebuck patio table.  She turned on her equipment and for a little while, the small shelter stayed quiet.  Then she said, “Hello, this is Irma.  This will be my final announcement on the air.  My son, Daniel, was killed in Vietnam 3 days ago.  He was the perfect son.  He grew up here all his life, went to the Palms High School, worked summers at the Stop and Treat Drive-In.”  She began to break up, but kept on, “He was loved very much by Earl and I, as I know he was by y'all, too.”  Silence.  “This is my last time I will speak.  I have retired from the Goodnight Irma show.  Goodbye.”

As she walked inside, she saw Earl turn off the radio.  She thought it was just like him to expect her to go to the radio tower at this moment.  She said, “How about I make you a little something special to eat?  It is suppertime after all.  We have to get ready; people will be coming over, with their casseroles and good wishes.  I have not cleaned the house all week.” She began to ramble, while looking lost and confused.

Earl suddenly stood up and grabbed her hard, his arms holding her close.  They cried together.  They just stood there, holding each other.  A mixture of missing and loving Danny and afraid to let go of one another, afraid to face what was going to need planning.  They knew a part of them was missing already and always would be.  So they kept holding on.  They did not know what else to do, they just held on.

 

Outside the tower glowed in the darkness.

___

Rose Murphy was born and raised in the South. She writes fiction and nonfiction and has a mystery in the works.

 

© Rose Murphy

Muscadine Lines: A Southern Journal ISSN 1554-8449, Copyright © 2004-2008