In the weeks following Big Jim’s funeral Ida began making plans for what would be her future. Even though Jim was gone, she could set things right by finding James.
The last time she heard from him he was living in Plainview, a town ninety-seven miles north of Rose Hill; a place she’d never before been to. Plainview is where she would start her search. No major highway ran by the town, but there was a back road that wound across a seemingly endless stretch of flat land; land that was barren and without a gas station or roadside stand where you could stop for a sandwich or cold drink. Ida took a bottle of Pepsi Cola from the refrigerator, tucked it into her purse, then pulled on her sensible walking shoes and climbed into the car.
When she started out, Ida felt optimistic, certain she’d find James and just as certain that he’d welcome the thought of returning home. Never mind that thirty years had passed, never mind that he was now a man in his fifties; Ida pictured him as only slightly older than the nineteen year old lad who left home, his hair still dark, his face without the creases of age. She even imagined the possibility he could be married and she delighted in thoughts of a grandchild, a feisty little tyke who would scatter toys throughout the rooms and bring the sound of laughter back to the empty house. In her handbag Ida carried the picture of James. It was the one she had taken the week after graduation, the one where he was leaning against the side of his green Pontiac and smiling the smile of a man without a care in the world.
Ida arrived in Plainview shortly before noon, drove to the center of town and parked the car on Market Street. Once she stepped out onto the street, the thought of ‘what next’ settled on her and ripped loose a bit of the optimism she’d started out with. The town was bigger than she thought it would be. And busier. Much busier.
A few doors down Ida spied a coffee shop where people hustled in and out. That seemed as good a place as any to start. She walked in, sat on a counter stool and waited. Her thought was to start up a casual conversation with the waitress and then work her way around to asking if the girl knew James; but she never got the chance. Before she could pull the picture from her purse, a group of businessmen came in, hungry for lunch and in a hurry. Moments later three ladies followed and before long every seat in the luncheonette was filled. Ida waited, thinking the rush would slow and the girl would have time to talk. But it didn’t. As soon as one group left, another took its place. After lingering over a single cup of coffee for nearly a half hour, she climbed off the stool and left.
Her next stop was the drug store, where the pharmacist shook his head and said that he couldn’t recall ever seeing such a man. It was the same at the dry cleaner, the hardware store, and the library. Ida had considered the library a long shot anyway since James wasn’t one for reading. After she’d thumbed through the Plainview telephone directory, and stopped in every store on Market Street, Ida drove crosstown to the Post Office. She handed the elderly clerk the last postcard she’d received from James. On the face of the card was a picture of the three-story Elgin Hotel, but no street address.
“I’m looking for a young man who may have been living at this hotel,” Ida said. “Of course by now he’s most likely moved into a more permanent residence, so I was wondering if you might—“
“The Elgin burned to the ground years ago.” the clerk replied.
“Years ago?” Ida repeated sadly.
He nodded. “In fifty-eight, or maybe it was fifty-nine.”
That postcard was the last time she’d heard from James, maybe it was because— “Oh my God,” she gasped. “Did anyone die in the fire?”
The clerk shook his head. “Not to my recollection.”
“What about injuries? Was anyone severely injured?” Ida conjured up a picture of James, still a young man but sitting in a wheelchair, incapable of speech, unable to call out for her.
“Un-uh, the place was empty, it closed down a year or so before the fire. When Hilda Wilkins owned the Elgin it was a nice hotel, but after she died it pretty much went to ruin.”
After a good fifteen minutes of chit chat about how the town had changed and not for the better, the clerk agreed to check and see it they had a listing or change of address for James Sweetwater. He disappeared into the back room and after a lengthy absence returned only to say there was nothing.
“Nothing?” Ida repeated. “No address? No change of address?”
It was late in the day when Ida left the post office. By then her legs were tired, her feet ached and her heart was weighted with more than thirty years of worrying about James.
On the drive home the sky turned from day to dark, and the road seemed to grow longer. The weariness of the years spread throughout Ida’s body. It made her arms heavy and her legs feel as though they had turned to stone. The sorrow of all that had been lost plucked her heart from its rightful place and dropped it into the pit of her stomach; that’s when she began to sob. She’d been so determined, so convinced she could find James, that the disappointment now felt unbearable. When she pulled into the graveled driveway, the house appeared even larger than it had when she left. Larger and emptier. She climbed from the car and walked toward the door, her shoulders hunched forward, pushing her into a slow step by step movement. Once Ida opened the door, the only sound to be heard was that of a grandfather clock ticking—counting off the seconds, minutes and hours of loneliness that lay ahead.
Not thinking of food, she climbed the stairs and fell across the bed she’d shared with Big Jim. In the fifty-six years they’d been married, she had never once slept apart from him, and now apart was all there was. While the sky filled with stars, and the moon rose, Ida wept. She thought back on the night it all began…
It was in the spring of 1954, when Big Jim told the boy if he wasn’t going to college, he’d have to get a job and pay ten dollars a week for board. There’d been a big row over it and James, in that cavalier way he had of talking down to his daddy, said life was too short for nothing but work.
“There’s a lot of fancy living outside of this little peapod town,” James said, “and that’s what I’m after.” Then he continued on with the statement that ultimately pierced his daddy’s heart. “I’m too smart to end up like you Daddy, way too smart.”
Such an attitude rankled Jim to the core; he’d grown up poor and gone to work when he was not yet thirteen. As a boy he loaded trucks during the day, tended a gas station at night and worked in the print room of the Rose Hill Chronicle on weekends. It mattered not that it was long hours or demeaning work, what mattered was that in time he’d made something of himself. Now, when Jim owned the largest house in Rose Hill and had enough money to send his son off to college, the boy looked down his nose at such an opportunity.
Angry words flew back and forth for nearly two hours then James turned and walked out the door. He stopped for one brief second, looked back, and said, “Bye Mama.”
That fleeting moment was the one that Ida had held onto all these years. She told herself James hadn’t wanted to go and for a long while she blamed Jim for allowing such a thing to happen.
During the first year or two Ida searched for James numerous times. She called the friends he’d known, places he’d frequented, even a few young ladies who occasionally came knocking on the door. It was always the same story—James had been there and gone. When there was no longer a trace of where he’d been, she held to the belief that he would sow his wild oats and then return home. The months became years and years turned into decades but still there was no word. With the passing of time, Ida settled into the unhappy realization that the boy did not want to be found. Although in many ways they were different, Big Jim and his son were very much alike—both of them proud and stubborn. On bad days when the sky was black and her heart heavy, Ida told herself that in time even the most stubborn heart would grow weary of carrying such a grudge, but it never happened.