The Black Cadillac
by Mark Spencer
part 1 of 2
The Arkansas Democrat, January 4, 1949 — The recent death of Mrs. Ladell Bonner of Monticello, known fondly by her friends as Dell, has brought sadness to a wide circle of friends extending into many states. Possessed of a charming personality and lovable disposition, she believed that to be loved was to love others. She practiced her philosophy of life in her everyday living: never feeling that anything was too hard to do for a friend. A constant companion of her mother, she first thought always of her.
And then suddenly and with a gasp, a sucking in of cold air that not only burns her lungs but her whole body, Ladell is awake... and cannot remember driving to the town square or parking in front of the post office, but here she is, sitting in her 1947 Hudson, the key pulled from the ignition and grasped in her red-gloved hand along with her post-office box key and her house key.
Getting as bad as Mother with her old-lady spells of forgetfulness and dozing off at odd hours, Ladell tells herself. She shivers at the thought of old age speeding up behind her like that big black Cadillac on the road to New Orleans back in ’45. It was ready to slam right through her until she swerved off the road into that muddy ditch where she got stuck... forever. The Cadillac never slowed, just drunkenly swayed and went right on into the steel-gray horizon, not even a wink of its taillights.
She reaches for the driver’s door handle, but she hesitates. A man, a woman, a little boy on the sidewalk blur past her with rainbows attached to them like tails. The post office bows toward her like a giant jelly mold, then straightens back up.
She shakes her head. She takes deep breaths, her lungs still burning but not as badly, closes her eyes and then opens them, and, finally, the world comes into better focus but is still fuzzy at its fringes. Mr. Hyatt, the pharmacist from the drugstore, walks past, his white smock gleaming in the bright sunlight. She waves to him through the dusty windshield, but he doesn’t see her. Strangely enough, a black Cadillac is circling the square, much like the one that was almost the end of her outside of New Orleans.
Well, never mind, she decides. She smoothes the front of the red dress she wore for Mother’s Christmas party last week, just in case Prentiss surprised her. She straightens her red hat, checks her crimson lipstick in the rear-view mirror. At first, her lipstick looks smudged, as if Prentiss had been kissing her. He has no respect for her make-up. He’s fifty-six years old but as frantic as a teenage boy.
In the window of the drugstore next to the post office, a grinning Bing Crosby wearing a Santa’s cap moves a mechanical arm up and down, as if saluting her with his Coca Cola bottle. A mailman is removing a Christmas wreath from the post office door.
Here it is... the Monday after New Year’s — good God, how did it suddenly get to be 1949? — and she hasn’t seen Prentiss since August. She wishes he were here to smudge her lipstick. After all, she’s not that old, not like Mother. Her crimson lips smile in the rear-view mirror. Ladell is fifty-four, but everyone tells her she doesn’t look even forty. She tells everyone she feels twenty.
And suddenly — good God! — she really does feel twenty. Her entire body feels as light and vibrant as a hummingbird. It must be because she’s lost so much weight. Last August, Mother told her she looked fat. Now she weighs ninety-three pounds.
* * *
In the post office, the people around her begin to blur again, and her key doesn’t want to work in the small door of her box. Then it does and she reaches in blindly, hoping to pull out a letter bearing a Minneapolis postmark, the only clue that it’s from Prentiss. No return address. Only “L. A. Bonner, Box 144, Monticello, Arkansas,” typed on the envelope and a purple three-cent stamp. It has never happened, but she shudders at the thought of opening a letter with a Minneapolis postmark and finding it to be from... someone else: He’s my husband! You will never have him. He and his money are mine.
Her hand grasps... something. A bulky little envelope stuffed with several pages of stationery — he’s written a great deal, trying to make up for his long silence!
But then she lifts the envelope to her eyes and sees that it is from her Christian Science friend, Marie, who always scolds her for expressing any kind of frustration, longing, or pain. “All is illusion,” Marie will write, her penmanship marked by large curlicues and a total disregard for the lines on the cheap yellow school-tablet paper Marie is fond of in her proud frugality. “Nothing is real except the love of God. Even death is not real.”
Moaning, Ladell reaches inside the post-office box again, but there is nothing. She lays the palm of her hand over her heart. Her shoulders slump. Money may be an evil, but love is a disease. Nothing is more painful, more debilitating.
Why does anyone ever want to fall...?
Then she jerks around, straightens up, feeling that someone may be watching her. Must keep up appearances! Mother always says never to get caught looking morose. Looking morose leads to the sure death of one’s social life. Ladell pulls back her shoulders, smiles. But no one seems to be paying her any attention. A banker she knows, a farmer in denim coveralls, a woman in a dowdy mud-colored dress with an array of tiny orange tulips — all of them simply come in and out without so much as a glance her way.
* * *
Ladell finds herself on the sidewalk outside the post office, Marie’s letter in her purse. People are wearing their winter coats, but she wears only her red dress. Prentiss says red is her color. It surprises her that no one is gawking at her and her Christian Dior “New Look” dress with its plunging neckline and gathered waist. Maybe everyone is in a stupor, immersed in that bleakness that follows the holidays, the world cold and brown — and Easter so far away.
Perhaps she will skip the drugstore today. She can go home and hide from Mother in the attic. But, no, a cup of coffee sounds too good to skip. She needs the smell of it.
* * *
She sits in Mr. Hyatt’s drugstore at her usual small round table in the corner, away from prying small-town eyes. Mr. Hyatt passes a small package across his pharmacy counter to an old, bent woman, who hobbles out, the door jingling upon her exit, and he moves to the soda fountain. He has failed to bring Ladell her coffee yet.
She starts to read Marie’s letter: “May you have found comfort in the words of our leader...” Ladell scans the rest of the letter. It all seems identical to the letter she received two weeks ago in response to her confession to Marie that she didn’t know whether she could... “go on.” She looks at the date at the top and doesn’t understand. The letter is dated the middle of December. It seems, indeed, to be the same letter. She mutters, “I’m confused,” then looks up quickly to see whether anyone heard her talking to herself. A love-struck boy and girl from the college sit at a table nearby but are too busy gazing into each other’s eyes to notice Ladell.
Instead of getting her coffee, Mr. Hyatt has returned to the pharmacy counter and is dropping triangular mercury cyanide tablets, one by one, into an amber bottle, his lips moving silently as he counts.
Why doesn’t Mr. Hyatt bring the damn coffee? Two sugars. Two creams.
The bell above the door jingles and a cold gush of December — no, January — chills her ankles. A couple of crisp leaves skitter through the door followed by Constable Watkins, who nods to the pharmacist, asks, “Good day, Elmer?”
“No,” Mr. Hyatt says. “I feel so bad about what happened.”
“Listen, Elmer. Nobody’s blaming you.”
“But I sold it to her.”
“You didn’t know she was going to swallow the stuff.”
“Can’t help feeling I should have sensed something. I did sense something, but I didn’t do anything. I thought she was maybe just feeling the holiday blues like a lot of people. She actually seemed pretty happy that day she bought it.”
“Won’t do any good to beat yourself up.”
“I hear they’re taking her to the cemetery this morning. I’m going to close the place up here in a minute so I can pay my respects.”
Ladell supposes she will get no coffee today. She stands, feels dizzy, has the sudden thought that maybe Prentiss will call her, even though he never has. She has told him that it would be too risky to call long distance, that the snoopy local operator, Louise, would listen in or that Mother would answer or that Mrs. Culpepper or Mr. Dunn, who share the party line, would surely pick up and know everything just by the sound of her breathing — but he’s supposed to call anyway, despite her concerns. He’s supposed to be clever, so he should know that a lady doesn’t always mean what she says.
He’s supposed to know that, as a lady, she must say certain things and do certain things but that what she really wants is for him to take the matter out of her hands. He should have surprised her on Christmas, should have swept into town on the owl train — the hell with everyone and what they think. He’s supposed to assure her that their love overrides any concerns either of them has.
In August he said to give him two weeks. Only two weeks. He wrote that she could count on his promises. Now it’s been months. Of course, back in August, they had just seen each other, had driven all over Minnesota and Wisconsin in his shiny green Lincoln, and he was giddy with his conquest of her (and she was giddy with her conquest of him).
* * *
Copyright © 2010 by Mark Spencer