Jessica Martinović: Mr. Thomas’s Gift

The wide-open field across the road was not dotted with life like most fields around this area of Kentucky. No cattle or horses or even goats or sheep roamed there. Instead, it looked untouched and imperfect with its overgrown patchy grass, green and golden-brown, with sprinkles of purple and yellow weeds that looked maybe like wildflowers but were just plain old weeds. The landscape was tarnished-looking with the yellow patches, scorched from the sun, but it was also incredibly beautiful, wildflower weeds and all.

There was an old abandoned barn that seemed to be ready to collapse at any moment. Lining the road was a bent, flimsy looking fence that at one time was brand new and useful. The land was broken into weaving hills that told a story about the history of this land and how it got its shape, although I didn’t know that story.

The hills rose up so that from where I was standing in the funeral home parking lot, one couldn’t tell what lay just over them. That’s what I liked and what I also found frustrating about that view. It made me curious. I liked the mystery in not knowing what was over those hills, and yet I could have cried for not knowing.

I stood there, just fourteen years old, thinking about those hills and about what it would be like to go wandering over them, stopping to explore the barn along the way, when my dad’s hand gently landed on my shoulder, startling me back to reality.

“Are you all right, Louise?” he asked, calling me by my full name, rather than the usual “Lou,” signifying that he was genuinely concerned.

I looked up at him, dressed in his one good suit, stiff from underuse. His eyes were red, and he looked tired. His only brother, my Uncle Estill, had died a couple of days earlier. We drove to where Estill had lived in Kentucky from our home in Indiana for the funeral and to take care of the things one has to take care of when a person dies. I wasn’t sure what all that entailed, but I knew we’d be staying for a week or more. We were Estill’s closest family.

“I’m all right, Dad,” I assured him. I wasn’t sure if that’s what I should have said. I wasn’t sure if it was better to say I was okay or to say how devastated I was. I wondered if I should cry or if I should hold back emotion. I felt guilty that I hadn’t cried once since finding out Estill had died, but, truthfully, it didn’t feel possible that he was really gone. It was my first experience with death, and I found it incredibly uncertain and confusing. I wondered at the enormity and the weight of death—of the fact that a person could be there one moment and gone the next—and tried to make myself feel that, but it was too much to grasp.

So I said I was all right, and I turned to go back into the funeral home with Dad.

I was happy for Estill to see that there were many people there, most of whom I didn’t know. Probably his friends from around town and lots of our distant relatives that I may have seen once or twice in my life. There were family members I did know, too, and I liked hearing them stand around, telling stories about him. Although they were ones I’d never heard, they characterized him in a way so familiar to me that it felt like he was right there in the room with us.

During the funeral service, I kept my eyes averted from the casket at the front of the room until Mom was invited up to sing a song. I admired how she kept from crying yet let her emotion sink into the lyrics. I knew how broken she was feeling. The song was called “Rank Stranger,” the one she most loved to hear Estill sing as he plucked at his guitar strings.

As Mom stood up there at the small podium, and as I heard her voice as thick and sweet as syrup, I felt myself drifting into the song and my eyes wandering toward where Uncle Estill lay. I could only see the tip of his nose and the tops of his hands that were folded over his belly. I stared at those hands, imagining them to be rising and falling with his breath, and I waited for him to sit up and sing right along.

“They’ve all moved away,” said the voice of a stranger.

“To a beautiful land by the bright crystal sea.”

Some beautiful day, I’ll meet ‘em in heaven

Where no one will be a stranger to me.

After Mom took her seat, the preacher stood at the podium and shared stories about Estill. They grew up together in those hills of Kentucky. He told us that their dads were competing moonshiners.

“I remember arguing with Estill in grade school about whose dad had the best ‘shine, though neither of us had probably ever tasted it.”

Everyone in the room laughed lightly, and it felt like we were all one being, united somehow in our grief. I looked at Mom and Dad and my older sister, Jenny Sue. Despite their tear-streaked cheeks, they were smiling up at the preacher, too, and I thought about how I didn’t know it was okay to laugh at a funeral. But it seemed appropriate here at Estill’s service. Very few of my memories of Estill did not involve him cutting up and acting like a big kid.

After the preacher spoke about Estill’s life and about heaven, the whole room felt heavy again, and then they played the final song.

The choking sound and the first few lines of lyrics that came out of the speakers startled me at first, and I thought it must have been a mistake. It was a song I’d heard many times, only at family get-togethers, and not until after Estill had a few drinks.

Well, we’re big rock singers, we got golden fingers, and we’re loved everywhere we go. We sing about beauty and we sing about truth at ten-thousand dollars a show.

I looked to Mom and Dad, eyes wide. They were smiling—laughing, actually—and yet after just the first few lines, they were both also crying more than I’d seen them cry since we found out about Uncle Estill’s heart attack, and I knew the song wasn’t a mistake. I’d thought funerals were supposed to be quiet and respectful. But as I watched Mom and Dad start clapping along to the song, I knew what they were thinking. They were seeing Estill and the way he’d sing this song in his goofy southern drawl and how he’d egg on Dad to sing along with him duet-style. Estill would bob up and down, strumming his guitar emphatically, and Dad would shake his head, but sing along with him, stomping a foot in the dirt to the rhythm, and they’d look like two big kids.

I want to see my picture on the cover. Wanna buy five copies for my mother.

Wanna see my smilin’ face on the cover of the Rollin’ Stone.

I started clapping along too, seeing what they were seeing, thinking about what a beautiful and appropriate tribute it was to Estill. I started laughing, hysterically even, and then, for the first time since Estill’s death, I cried.


Over the next few days, Mom, Dad, Jenny Sue, and I stayed at my great-aunt Isabel’s house. Isabel had been married to my dad’s uncle, and she lived in the same town as Estill. Dad was born in that town too, but when he was just five and Estill was in his early twenties, their parents moved to Indiana. Estill had already bought his little house and had a job, so he stayed behind.

I was looking at that house now. It stood all alone, surrounded by a yard and then many trees and hills, with creeks appearing here and there. Estill’s house looked so out-of-place in all that green. It was like when someone litters by throwing a beer bottle or a Burger King bag out the car window on a country road, and it lies there, looking like it doesn’t belong with the countryside behind it. That’s how Estill’s house looked with its worn white siding and tin roof.

I turned my eyes away from the house. I’d tried to avoid going inside it as much as I could in the last few days. I couldn’t stand seeing Estill’s guitar sitting quietly in the corner, looking lost, waiting to be played. I couldn’t take the sound of my parents and other adults talking about what they would do with Estill’s clothes and his car and house and bank account. They were so matter-of-fact, and I knew my parents were just going through the motions, trying not to let the reality sink in just now until they finished taking care of business. I knew things would be different when we got home and they could take a minute to sit in the quiet and realize that Estill would never come pounding on our front door again, having driven hours from Kentucky to Indiana unannounced to stay with us for the next month, as he did so many times. I knew they would miss that welcome disturbance in our lives.

I took a deep breath and went into the house, asking Mom what I could do to help. Mom handed me a cardboard box, and I did my best to go through the motions, too, taking dishes from the cupboards and stacking them neatly. To avoid thinking about anything else, I focused on how each dish felt in my hand—the weight of each one and the way it felt cold where it touched my hand—and the gentle clinking sound they made when I stacked them.

Mom interrupted my meditative state by saying, “Lou, honey?”  I jumped, dropping a plate into the box, making them clink more loudly than I intended.

Mom was looking at me with her eyebrows drawn together. “Why don’t you go for a walk, Lou?” she asked, and then she smiled and nodded a little, letting me know it was all right to leave when things needed to be done.

I thought about protesting, but then I nodded, grateful, and left Estill’s house.

There were many places in the hills of Kentucky where a person wouldn’t want to walk on the road, since people drove too fast around the curves and might not see pedestrians or bikers. But Estill’s road was off the main one. It was a quieter road that led to a little mini-town with a grocery store and a bar and a family restaurant. Aunt Isabel’s house was within walking distance too. I’d trekked from Estill’s house into that town many times with Jenny Sue.

This time, I was taking the route slower than usual, lost in thought, when I noticed a little path cutting through the trees off of the road. It wound to the right, but the trees were thick with greenery, so I couldn’t see much. I hesitated, but then decided I’d only walk up the path a little ways, just until I could see where it led.

I didn’t have to go far, though, because soon after following the curve to the right, I saw that the dirt path led right to a set of old-looking stone stairs that climbed up a small hill to a little cottage. I felt breathless looking up at it because, unlike Estill’s house, it didn’t look out of place with its natural surroundings. It seemed to belong, like the whole thing was being swallowed by the growth around it. It had vines growing on its sides, and the hill that was the yard was uncut and sprouting with tall grass and weeds. The cracked stone steps were blanketed in clumps of moss and clover. And, to my delight, there was a front screened-in porch stacked floor-to-ceiling with books.

I didn’t realize I was gawking at the house open-mouthed until a raindrop landed on my bottom lip. I looked up and saw that swirling gray-blue clouds were beginning to cover the blue sky, and it began to rain harder. I could have run back to Estill’s or to Aunt Isabel’s, which is what Mom would be expecting me to do, but instead, to my surprise, I ran forward on the path and darted up the stone steps.

It was unlike me to do this, especially without much fear or hesitation. But something seemed to have changed in me after Estill died, although I wasn’t sure how to pinpoint what exactly that change entailed. But it seemed to make me more willing to take this risk.

When I got to the house, I did hesitate a little, but before I could think about it too much, I slipped through the wooden door onto the screened-in porch, and any fear I may have had dissipated as I was hit with the glorious smell of old books. So many times I’d gone into Dad’s reading room at home just to open an old book and flip through the pages, taking in that scent.

I had a chill from being rained on, but I forgot about it as I ran my fingers along the stacks of books, checking the titles. There were many I didn’t recognize, but some that I did. Leo Tolstoy, Ernest Hemingway, and Miguel de Cervantes were names I was familiar with, thanks to my Dad’s library, although I didn’t really comprehend most of what I’d tried reading in them. Still, I’d read a few pages here and there, anxious for when I would be well read someday and when I could keep up with conversations about the stories.

Mom wasn’t a reader, and Dad was a blue collar worker; but people were surprised when they found he was an avid reader. He had a couple of friends who were more obviously intellectuals—although I didn’t know what they actually did for a living—with whom he would meet up for coffee and talk about what they were reading lately. Even when I was little, he let me come along sometimes during those get-togethers, and I’d sit, mesmerized by their conversations, wishing I could join in and also that I could drink coffee.

The rain was completely pouring now, but the porch was protecting me and the books. From one of the stacks, I pulled out a collection of works by Herman Melville. I opened it to Moby Dick, which was on my list of things I wanted to read. I wasn’t even through the first page when I was startled by the front door of the house opening.

It only took a moment for the old man to notice his intruder. I actually worried I’d given him a heart attack when he saw me. He jumped back a bit, and I stood quickly. I wasn’t a particularly short girl for my age, but even when standing, I had to look up to him. His features reminded me of mountains, gray and pointy. He had icy blue eyes, and his white beard came to a point far below his chin. Even his eyebrows and mouth looked triangular, and his hair was jagged and unkempt.

If I’d been feeling brave—or reckless—before, that bravery had escaped me, and now my eyes darted toward the door, which I couldn’t reach without passing him. My legs felt stiff and unable to move, but I imagined that if he started toward me, I’d punch him in the jugular with my knuckles, knee him in the groin, and dash out the door.

But truthfully, he looked more frightened than I was, and although he was tall, he seemed feeble. His eyes narrowed a bit, and I thought he looked angry.

“Who are you?” he barked.

I’d dropped the book and held my arms out slightly, like I was walking on a balance beam, braced to escape.

“Louise Clemons,” I answered, and I hated how weak my voice sounded.

“Clemons,” he said. “Any relation to Isabel Clemons?”

“She’s my great-aunt,” I told him, feeling slightly relieved to make this connection.

“Hmm.” He watched me a moment, eyebrows drawn together. “She know you’re here?”

I wished I could keep from stammering, wanting him to think someone knew where I was. I tried to sound confident when I told him, “Yes, she does. I saw your books and asked her if I could come read them. She said to ask first. I was just about to knock on the door to ask you.”

He eyed me skeptically. “You looked mighty comfy sitting on the floor there cross-legged with that book wide open. I don’t think you had any intention of asking me.”

“I did so,” I said, a little forcefully, and he raised his eyebrows.

After a couple moments of quiet, he glanced down at the book I’d dropped and then back at me. “How old are you?”

I watched him carefully and said, “Fourteen.”

He turned a little like he was going to go back in the house. “I don’t have any kid books,” he told me.

I straightened up a little, my fear seeping out of me, replaced by some annoyance. I may have gotten my love of reading from my father, but I got my stubbornness from my mother.

“I’ve read many of these books before,” I fibbed.

He stopped and watched me. “What were you reading when I came in?” he asked.

Moby Dick.”

He eyed me. “You’ve never read that before?”

I wanted to lie, but instead I said, “Well, no.” I thought he looked a little smug then, so I added, “But I have read Benito Cereno.” My face flushed, and I searched my brain for any piece of information I could remember from my dad discussing Benito Cereno with his friends. I only remembered the title because I liked the way the name rolled off my tongue.

“Oh yeah?” he said, one eyebrow raised.

I nodded, my face burning.

“Well, that’s one I’ve never gotten around to reading,” he told me. “How is it?”

“It’s great,” I said. He waited for more, so I offered the only thing I remembered from my dad’s conversations. “It makes you consider what it means to be an American.” I tried to sound confident, but I hoped he wouldn’t ask any further questions.

His mouth twitched a little, and I thought he might smile. It made his expression seem a bit softer. It quickly hardened, though, and he said, “Well, you shouldn’t go around taking other people’s things.”

“I wasn’t taking anything,” I told him angrily, “and if you didn’t want people looking at your books, you shouldn’t leave them outside.

He started to respond, but just then, a woman came through the wooden screened door onto the porch. I hadn’t noticed her coming up the stone steps. She wore a nurse’s uniform and carried a large black bag with her, which was glistening, covered in raindrops.

“Afternoon, Mr. Thomas,” she said, smiling brightly. Although I didn’t know her, I was comforted having her there.

“Afternoon,” he grumbled.

Despite his grumpiness, she didn’t break her cheery demeanor. “And who’s this?” she chirped.

“Louise Clemons, ma’am,” I said.

“Nice to meet you, Louise. Are you a relative of Mr. Thomas?”

“No, she isn’t,” he interrupted.

I started to say, “Is your name Louise?” but thought better of it. “No,” I told her. “My great-aunt lives up the street, and my uncle lived down the road the other way. He passed away recently, and my family’s here to take care of things. I just stopped by to look at Mr. Thomas’s books.”

“I see. Well, enjoy.” Then to Mr. Thomas, she said, “I’ll go get everything ready, all right?”

He nodded, looking irritated.

When she was inside, he said, a bit softer than before, “I don’t let anybody borrow my books, but you can come here and read them if you’d like.” He turned to go, but paused in the doorway and said without looking at me, “It was nice to meet you, Louise.”

The rain had slowed down, and I stood there, wishing I could keep reading, but deciding it was best to go. As I came off the last stone step onto the dirt path, I looked to the house and thought that it wasn’t as pretty and magical-looking as when I’d first seen it. Now it looked old and temperamental, like Mr. Thomas.

That night at supper, I told my family about the house, and after a scolding from Mom and Dad about wandering off and trespassing and how dangerous and irresponsible that was, I found out from Aunt Isabel that Mr. Thomas was a grumpy old man, but that he was perfectly harmless. The two of them went to school together, although I thought he looked much older than she did. She said that after his wife died and his daughter moved away, he almost never left that house, and when anybody did see him at the grocery store, it was like pulling teeth to get anything more than a grunt out of him.

I felt a little sorry for Mr. Thomas then, and I thought that it must be lonely to be shut up in that house all alone. After some convincing and some reassurance from Aunt Isabel, Mom and Dad said I could go there for just a little bit to read the next day. It seemed that they were happy that I was at least showing interest in something, rather than spacing out and not really being present, the way I had been most of the time lately.

I did go to Mr. Thomas’s house the next day. I thought about knocking on the door to let him know I was there, but I decided against it. Although part of me wanted to try to cheer him up by giving him someone to talk to, the other part of me just wanted to read quietly by myself, rather than put up with such a curmudgeon.

It was sunny outside, so I took the book and read on the stone steps. I started with Moby Dick, but there were so many books I wished I could read that after just a few pages, I put the Melville book back and picked another. I delved into the world of each story for just a little bit, but I didn’t dwell there for long. I was like an explorer bouncing from one place to another, trying to take it all in.

Mr. Thomas didn’t come out, but the nurse did come by, so I was sure she told him I was out there. I learned that her name was Elizabeth.

I came back the next day, and again, I was uninterrupted by Mr. Thomas. But on the third day, I heard the front door open, and there he was.

“Come in here, Louise,” he called. “I’ve got lemonade.”

I wanted to tell him not to be so bossy, but it was a nice gesture, so I didn’t.

I noted the page I was on in my book, closed it, and went into the porch. There were two wooden fold-up chairs, and Mr. Thomas nodded toward one for me to sit on. Then he handed me a glass of lemonade.

I hoped he wouldn’t ask me about any books I’d read because I didn’t want it to come out that I only wanted to read all of the classics. Instead, though, we sat in silence for a long time, which was fine with me.

After a while, he did say, “Are you enjoying the reading?”


I didn’t want to be rude, so I thought I should say something back to him. “Where did you get all of these books?” I asked.

He took a few moments to answer. “Oh, I’ve had many of them for a very long time. Some were my wife’s. Some I got from my folks. Some I got from book sales years ago.”

I looked around. “But not all of these are old books. Some of them are like new. I saw a couple that were published not too long ago.”

He grunted and nodded just once, and I thought that this must be the grunt Aunt Isabel was referring to.

It didn’t seem like he was going to say anything else, so I asked, “Well, do you still go to book shops then to buy them?”

He hadn’t looked at me the whole time I’d been there. He sat, watching out the screen, and said, “My daughter sends books too. That’s where the newer ones came from.”

I nodded. I thought I shouldn’t pry, but I couldn’t help it. “Where does your daughter live?”

“Seattle,” he said. Then he stood up and grumbled, “Don’t forget to put the books back where I had them stacked,” although it didn’t seem to me that they were in any particular order.

I came back the next day, and to my surprise, he brought me lemonade again. I wished he wouldn’t have, since I would have preferred to drift into my book alone. When I wasn’t reading, my mind started wandering back to Estill and to those folded hands on his belly, the way my imagination had made me think they were rising and falling.

I had become more contemplative and a little moody lately. I wondered at the fragility of life and why a person’s life mattered anyway, when they were just going to die. I worried about something happening to my own parents, and I thought about my own life and what it meant. I was just fourteen, and it felt like too much for me to try to understand. I didn’t want to think about it, so I preferred to keep my nose in a book at Mr. Thomas’s or to try to concentrate on something around me so my thoughts didn’t drift.

But that day, and the next, and the next, Mr. Thomas brought lemonade for me, and we mostly sat there in the quiet. I made attempts at conversation, and I was able to get a little bit out of him. I found out that his daughter’s name was Emily, and that after Mr. Thomas’s wife passed away, it was just the two of them. Emily wanted to become a journalist and live in a city, and Mr. Thomas thought she should just stay put. Eventually, they got into a big argument, and she finally left to pursue her dream in Seattle. They hadn’t spoken since, although he kept track of her by having the newspaper for which she worked sent to his house every week. He read every single article she wrote, and he felt so proud, although he hadn’t called to tell her that.

I could be a little bit too nosy, and so I tried to talk more about that. I wanted to convince him to call Emily, but Mr. Thomas made it very plain when he was ready to change a subject.

In general, though, it seemed that he had come to enjoy my company, and I began enjoying our visits too. We developed a kind of friendship, and he even started calling me Lou instead of Louise. Plus, I liked being in this peaceful, quiet place, surrounded by greenery and books. It felt like an escape.

One afternoon, Mr. Thomas and I were sitting silently in the wooden folding chairs, and this time, I had unsuccessfully taken a couple of stabs at conversation, and I was feeling just a little exhausted. If he was going to interrupt my reading, I wished he would have at least said something.

I regretted this wish when Mr. Thomas said, “So your uncle was Estill Clemons?”

It surprised me to hear his name, and I looked at Mr. Thomas. “Yes. How did you know?”

“It’s a small town,” he said, still not looking at me.

I aimed my gaze back outside and said nothing.

“I’m sorry about him dying,” he said without emotion.

I didn’t know what you were supposed to say to that, since I’d never had anyone close to me die before, but I didn’t want to tell him that, so again, I stayed quiet.

“Were you close?” he asked.

We were close. Even though he lived in another state, we were close. But I said, “Yes. It doesn’t matter.”

I thought that maybe I should have just said “yes.” Mr. Thomas was looking at me. “What do you mean?”

I felt myself getting bitter in order to avoid crying. “Well, he’s gone now, so what did it matter?” I was a little embarrassed and felt vulnerable to say that to him, but another part of me felt relieved to get it off my chest. It’s what I’d been fixated on for days. When Mr. Thomas didn’t say anything to me, I went on. We weren’t looking at one another, but we were sitting side by side on our wooden chairs, each of us staring out into the green that surrounded the house.

“My uncle wasn’t perfect by any means. He drank too much. Moonshine, no less. I think he probably believed in God, but I don’t know. Anyway, people loved him. He was just one of those lovable kinds of people. He was rough and wild, but everybody liked him. Everybody wanted to be around him. But now that he’s gone. . . . I just can’t help but wonder why his life even mattered. I know that sounds bad, and I feel terrible for it, but this is the first time someone I loved has died.”

I looked over at Mr. Thomas to see what he might be thinking. He was watching me now, but his face didn’t look stern or grumpy, and it wasn’t pitying either, which I was thankful for. He seemed to be pondering what I was saying too.

That made me feel more comfortable, so I continued, “You know, every person’s life has got to matter, right? Everybody’s life has had some effect on somebody else’s even if they don’t know it, don’t you think? But my Uncle Estill . . . He went to war before. My dad remembers that. When he came back, he was changed. He’d killed a little boy, and he couldn’t look at my dad, who was just a little kid then, without feeling guilty. And later, he had a wife, Darlene, and a daughter. But their daughter died, and he blamed himself. Like that happened to her because of what he did or something. He was real sad a lot of the time, and I remember when he spent the night and he would have night terrors. He’d just wake up screaming. And he was living like he didn’t have a care in the world, just drinking all the time and always goofing around, even though I know he was actually hurting deep down. Darlene eventually left because he didn’t treat her right . . .”

I sighed. I didn’t know why I was opening up to Mr. Thomas about all this, but it felt good. I wasn’t even crying. I was sad about what I was telling him, but mostly I was confused. Everything felt so uncertain to me. Life and death were suddenly real to me, instead of just ideas that I didn’t really acknowledge. Their reality felt so heavy and mysterious and frustrating and terrifying. It made me feel so small.

“Anyway,” I said, looking down at the book I’d been reading—a collection of poetry by Emily Dickinson—that was now resting on my lap. “I know it’s not this simple, but I wish I had just one thing that I could remember Estill doing for somebody else. Just one way that I knew he made life better for someone else in a meaningful way. Even just a little thing. I know that doesn’t make sense, but I just wish I had that.”

I looked to Mr. Thomas again, and he was back to looking outside. He didn’t say anything for a long time, and I felt self-conscious for everything I’d said. “Well, don’t you ever think about stuff like this?” I tried. He still didn’t say anything, and I felt hurt and frustrated. I thought about how I’d never met a person so stubborn.

I thought he should have said something, anything, even just to be polite. I thought that he would at least care enough to do that. But he sat there in silence, his forehead wrinkled.

“Don’t you ever think about what your life means, Mr. Thomas?” I said then.

He looked at me, eyebrows raised. I hesitated, but then said, “I can see you aren’t doing so well, with Elizabeth visiting you every day. Don’t you even think about calling your daughter to apologize? Are you okay with just leaving things the way they are?”

He was looking at me now with that same face he had when we first met. “I don’t think you should stick your nose in other people’s business, young lady,” he said sternly.

I felt hot and a little shaky, like I did when Jenny Sue and I got into big arguments, but for some reason, I kept going and said, “Well maybe you shouldn’t be so stubborn and try caring about somebody other than yourself.”

He stood up then, looking like a giant with me sitting there on the hard folding chair. His pale face had a pink tint then, and I’m sure mine did too.

He looked so angry, and I realized I should try to apologize. “I didn’t mean to be in your business,” I started. “I just thought—“

“Well, I think maybe you should just go home,” he said, heading toward the door.

“Fine,” I said. Before I reached the stone steps, I heard the heavy front door slam behind Mr. Thomas. By the time I reached the dirt path, I started crying. I wished I hadn’t because I didn’t want my eyes to be red and wet when I got back to Aunt Isabel’s. I didn’t want to talk about why Mr. Thomas had yelled at me. I felt guilty for pointing out that he wasn’t well and for mentioning the hard feelings he had with his daughter. I was embarrassed for talking about the way I’d been feeling about Estill. And I was angry, too, that Mr. Thomas let me say all those things and then made me feel so embarrassed. Why didn’t he say anything?

I realized then as I walked down the road, trying to stifle tears, that I still had the book of poetry in my hands. I decided to find a tree to sit against and to read a few lines to get my mind off of things so that my face would clear up before I went home. Having the book, though, meant I would have to take it back. If I asked someone else to take it, I’d have to explain why, and I’d risk having Mr. Thomas tell them about what happened.

To my relief, the next morning Mom and Dad told me we would be leaving for home the next day. I was thankful to get back to my own house with my own bed so I could try to put all of this behind me. Part of me dreaded it, though, because I knew that leaving Estill’s house would feel so final. He would truly be gone.

I decided that I would quickly slip into Mr. Thomas’s screened-in porch that morning to return the book without being seen. When I arrived, though, Mr. Thomas was there on one of the wooden folding chairs. I didn’t notice him until I was halfway up the steps, and by then it was too late. The shadowy screen made it difficult to see if he looked angry.

I stopped outside the door. “I didn’t mean to take your book,” I said, avoiding looking at him. “I just came to bring it back.”

He stood up slowly and opened the wooden door. “That’s all right, Lou,” he said lightly. “Actually, I guess I wouldn’t mind if you did want to borrow a book every once in a while. I trust that you’d bring it back.”

I was surprised by this. It almost sounded to me like perhaps his way of apologizing. “I couldn’t do that,” I said.

“I really wouldn’t mind,” he told me. I looked up at him, and his face looked softer than before. The lines were still there where he usually had his forehead all scrunched up, but his eyes seemed gentler. And even though he was so tall and was standing a couple of steps higher than me on the porch, he didn’t look so big.

“Thank you, Mr. Thomas, but I really couldn’t. I’m leaving for home tomorrow.”

“Oh,” he said. I watched him as his eyes darted back and forth a little. He seemed to be thinking about something. “That’s a shame,” he told me. “You’re going to miss my daughter.”

I watched him. “Your daughter?”

He nodded and smiled a little. He was speaking slowly and genuinely. “I called Emily to apologize last night. She’s coming to get me, to take me home with her.”

I was suddenly so happy then. “Mr. Thomas! That’s so great!” I said. I was holding myself in place so I didn’t lunge forward to hug him.

He looked happy then, too, and his eyes were glistening. He came down the porch steps and stood by me on the grass. He seemed to want to say something else, so I waited. “Well, there you go, Lou. You got what you were looking for.”

I must have looked confused because he said, “If it weren’t for you, I wouldn’t have my Emily back. And that couldn’t have happened if it weren’t for your uncle Estill. I guess I have him to thank for that.”

I laughed, even though tears were welling in my eyes. “I guess you’re right,” I said. I wiped my face on my sleeve. Mr. Thomas was smiling down at me. It was a gentle smile, and I could tell that he was so pleased.

Then I held the book out to him. “I should probably say good-bye, then.”

His smile faded, and he shook his head. “I want you to keep that,” he told me. “My Emily sent that to me. It’s her favorite. I think she’ll be happy to know it’s being read instead of lying on that dusty porch.”

I looked down at the book and then pressed it against me. “Thank you, Mr. Thomas.” Before I could think twice about it, I hugged him. It seemed to catch him off guard at first, but then I felt him hug me back.

I stood back and then turned to go. “Good-bye, Mr. Thomas,” I said. He gave me a small wave and then watched me go. As I walked down the stone steps, I was happy to know that Mr. Thomas wouldn’t be alone for long. When I reached the dirt path, I saw that Elizabeth was coming around the curve for her daily visit.

“I’m heading home tomorrow,” I told her when she reached me.

“Oh, we’ll miss you,” she said, making a sad face.

“I wish I could be here when Emily comes.”

“Emily?” she said, looking confused.

“Mr. Thomas’s daughter,” I explained. “She’s coming to get him.”

Elizabeth stared at me with a blank expression. Then she said, slowly, “Honey, Emily died years ago. Did Mr. Thomas tell you she was coming?”

I watched her eye me as I held the poetry book to my chest. “Oh,” I looked back to the house. Mr. Thomas was inside now. “No, no. I just misunderstood.”

She nodded slowly and then started toward the house.

I realized then what Mr. Thomas had done for me. Elizabeth probably thought that he was crazy, but he wasn’t. I turned back to her and said, “If you don’t mind, please don’t mention this to him, okay?” What he’d done for me, I knew he also did for himself, and I didn’t want to take that away from him.

She smiled. “No problem. Be safe going home, all right?”

I nodded.

I watched her walk up the stone steps to the house, the house that I would always remember—like the life there, and all life—as mysterious. As both tarnished and incredibly beautiful all at once.

For more on Jessica Martinović, please see our Authors page.