There is no graphic sex into this story. This is actually pretty much true story, with names, places and some other details changed for privacy. Special thanks again to Sbrooks for the editing. Any remaining errors are entirely mine -- probably added after his assistance. I made some significant changes.
It’s not like I hadn’t been warned about Maitland girls my whole life. Everybody knew. A Maitland girl would always be beautiful. A Maitland girl would always be clever. And funny. And make you feel lightheaded and dizzy with rapture.
But most of all, a Maitland girl would always be faithless.
Steady just wasn’t in them, as my Mamma would say. She’d certainly warned me enough times about those Maitland girls. The whole clan of them, she’d insist, had been put on this Earth by the Devil himself to confuse and perplex men. They could, she said, hypnotize men with their eyes and words and ever-swaying hips.
It didn’t matter what family name they took if they married – O’Malley, Smith, Robard - it’d never change their nature. They’d always be Maitland girls and they’d always flicker off to chase a brighter light, a momentary pleasure without a second thought.
You’d better, they said, look close at your children to see who their real father was if you took up with a Mailtand girl.
Steady just wasn’t in them.
So as I walked slowly up the path to the front porch of my farmhouse, I could hardly claim to be surprised that my wife Jenny was standing next to my best friend Mark, with his baby girl balanced on one hip.
My son Tommy was staring fixedly at me from behind Jenny’s blue calico dress, confused and lost. Mark was gently touching my son’s shoulder, jaw set in hard determination, as of someone seeing a storm approach and knowing it’d have to be weathered.
Jenny was frozen between fascination and horror, eyes wide, one hand reaching out as if to touch me across the ten feet between us, seeking to prove I was real. Or not real.
I’d listened to my mother growing up. I stayed clear of fickle Maitland girls and their magnetic eyes. Though I’d certainly seen them. They were like burning comets, brilliant against the background of dour, church-going people of the county. Flickering from boy to boy in school, and man to man out of it.
My best friend Mark and I heard more stories about Maitland girls and their appetites for pleasure from the older boys – the ones that’d fallen for them and been cast aside. The only Maitland girl close to our age was Jenny Maitland, a bright-eyed, impossibly lovely girl, who was never with the same boy for four months. We’d passed words occasionally, friendly enough, but I’d wisely stayed away from her until she ran off to the City, chasing that something that Maitland girls were always seeking. I’d been worried that I was next on her list of conquests, and my Mamma would have killed me if I’d taken up with a Maitland girl, so I breathed a sigh of relief when she disappeared from school.
I’d not found any other kind of girl that suited me either, and when I finally came of age, after Mamma passed away from fever, I sought a bit of adventure with the Navy before settling down to farm the rich Southern Indiana soil. Mark would have joined up as well, but he’d lost half a foot to a carelessly dropped ax when he was four. But he encouraged me to go, to have fun for both of us. So for four years I’d kicked around the world wearing the whites of a Navy sailor and working in the radio room of a cruiser, though I always knew I’d always be coming back. I sent him postcards and letters relentlessly.
Philippines, Macao, Hong Kong, Singapore, Fiji, Hawaii, San Francisco. I met plenty of girls – mostly exotic, and not one I think Mamma would ever have approved of. We certainly had fun though.
Eventually, I knew I had to return – I missed farming; I missed the soil, the seeds and the solid land.
Mark met me at the train station, in the mid-summer heat, and we walked over to Mrs. Strickland’s boarding house. Mark stayed there when he was in town. He worked delivery for the cord factory and was always making his rounds from town to town, sometimes into the City. He had half a dozen girls he saw in various tops on his route, but none that he was serious about.
Mark chatted on and on about the postcards as I carried my sea bag up to his room, now our room.
Then he stopped suddenly and a sly but sad look crept across his face.
“Best hurry up John, supper’s down in the main room in 10 minutes and you won’t want to miss it. Mrs. Strickland’s got no patience for boarders who can’t be seated on time. And you don’t want to miss it.”
He seemed a bit odd about the way he said that and I was still puzzling over it after grace while the food was being served out by a skittish girl with lank hair and lifeless, hollow eyes.
The food was okay, but it wasn’t so great it’d have been a tragedy to miss – it was solid, plain fare, although there was plenty of it.
Mark nodded in the direction of the kitchen where the broken mouse of a girl had disappeared.
“You know who that is, right?”
I shook my head.
“C’mon John, think.”
When I still couldn’t get it, he sighed.
“That’s Jenny Maitland.”
“Bullshit.” I meant it, too. There’d never been a Maitland girl so scared or lifeless.
Mark gazed toward the door. “Seriously. She came back like that from the City about two years ago. Hardly talks at all. Don’t touch her, it’ll set her off. I brushed her hand one day picking up a roll and she ran from the room in tears.”
“But...” I stopped. It seemed so impossible for the light to dim in a Maitland girl. And Mark was an inherently gently soul, one of the kindest people I’d ever known, nobody could fear him.
We waited as she brought out cake. When she put my slice of Red Velvet down with trembling hands, I whispered her name.
She jolted, nearly flipping the cake over and jerked back staring at me cowed, like a dog that’d been kicked.
She didn’t answer at all.
I dropped my eyes and pretended I hadn’t seen her reaction, even though we both knew I had.
“It’s nice to see you Jenny. Been a long time since school.”
She shivered like someone had crossed her grave. She seemed to steel herself a little, watching me warily.
“J-john? It ... it’s been a while. Are ... are you back?”
Her voice was fragile, unused, like old paper that’s been folded too long and doesn’t want to open anymore.
I looked back up at her, but tried not to stare at the dark eyes too hard. “Just got back from the Navy. I’ll be looking for a farm to buy. I miss planting.”
“That’s ... nice.”
She hesitated for a second, mumbled something I couldn’t hear and scurried from the room.
Mark was staring at me with his head cocked to the side. “That’s the most I’ve heard her say since she came back. She wouldn’t hardly talk with me at all.”
I knew what Mark was hinting at – he had a thing for lost kittens. He’d talked me into putting more than a few baby birds back in their nests when we were growing up.
Despite some resistance on my part, Jenny became as a much a project as finding a farm. Just trying to get her to smile was the first part.
I whispered a few words with her every day at dinner. Telling her about the wonders of Hawaii and China – not the girls, of course, but the strange birds and beautiful flowers. Descriptions of the vast, crowded, Asian cities made her shake and pale.
She was wary, guarded. But eventually she finally even began to initiate our brief conversations.
We had a rhythm, a brief conversation as she cleared dishes from dessert and brought out coffee. Four or five sentences exchanged cautiously, from a bit of a distance. She never, ever, handed anything directly to anyone, she set things on the table or picked them from the table – keeping her distance all the while. After it got to be too much, she’d bolt from the room to hide in kitchen.
It took months even to get that far.
Mark had been off on his route for a couple days when I finally decided she had to smile or I’d go crazy. I searched through my sea bag until I found a bundle of embroidered silk ribbon – I’d pick handfuls of them up in Hong Kong and give them to the girls in Hawaii just for fun. I chose one that seemed to suit her. It wasn’t much, a light blue silk strip with gold edging and some song birds on it.
I was the only one there with Mark gone, so when she had put my pie down, I pulled the ribbon from my pocket.
She looked at me with a diminished wariness – she’d started to trust me, but I wasn’t sure it’d ever be complete trust.
I held the ribbon up “It’s not much, but I can’t help thinking this would go better in your hair than in the bottom of my sea bag.”
She studied the ribbon with a hint of wonder, a tiny spark of that Maitland girl in her eyes. She even stretched her hand out toward it for a second.
“It’s from Hong Kong...”
Sudden panic crossed her face and she bolted for the kitchen.
I’d always let her go before, but something told me she needed someone to follow, to help her.
I threw my chair back and strode after her.
She was cringing against the cabinets in the far corner of the kitchen, trying to stand, but huddled in on herself, trying to shrink to nothing. Trying to hold in sobs that fought their way out in shuddering gasps, forcing their way through clenched teeth. Eyes closed and leaking tears.
I stopped a few feet away and knelt.
“Jenny.” Softly. As softly as I could speak.
Her eyes shot open and she looked wildly around, then riveted on me kneeling in front of her.
“Whatever it is, whatever happened ... Jenny, I’m not it.”
I held the ribbon up.
“It’s just a ribbon, and I can’t use it, but you can.”
Her eyes tracked the ribbon like it was a cobra.
“It’s yours Jenny, all you have to do is take it. From a friend to a friend.”
I think it took every bit of strength in her body, soul, and mind to reach the thousand leagues of that three feet and catch just the trail end of the ribbon with two shaking fingers.
I slid backwards then stood and walked back out to my pie. Not looking, not making eye contact and hating a world that could damage anyone so badly.
She didn’t come back out and I didn’t see her for two days – Mrs. Strickland served me, and kept shooting me wordless looks that I couldn’t decrypt.
On the third day, a different girl was there, a little brighter, and her hair was tied up in a light blue gold-edged ribbon.
“That ribbon looks perfect on you, Jenny.”
She gave a weak, pallid smile. It was hesitant, but it was the first smile I’d seen on her.
After that, every day got better. Mark conspired with me – and against me in a way. His plan went further than mine and I didn’t realize it for a while.
Mark wanted to save Jenny, he saw her as another lost baby bird, but as much as that, he saw how happy helping her made me and he managed – over and over, to be gone at just the right time to make sure that she and I had time together.
She could touch my hand eventually and those touches actually lingered after a while. I was seeing her as something more than a project, something more than just a friend. I teased her a little and she even managed to tease back a little.
It was just before Christmas when I told her that for Christmas all I wanted was a kiss on the cheek.
She paled, then, instead of running to her kitchen, she pulled out a chair next to mine at the table.
“John.” She held up a hand to stop me from talking. Her voice was firm, almost ice edged.
“I appreciate everything you’ve done. But you know I’m a Maitland girl and...” she drew in a breath and looked away with suddenly glassy eyes “ ... and everyone knows Maitland girls aren’t good for anyone, just trouble waiting to happen.”
I reached over and took her hand – she shivered, but let me hold on, even holding tight for a minute. “I’m not everyone Jenny, and I don’t think you’re trouble.”
She looked down, closing her eyes. Her voice, when it came, was the voice of the dead. “I’m ruined John. You wouldn’t be my first or even my tenth. Not even my hundredth.”
She opened her hand, expecting me to pull away.
It took me a second to understand that.
But I’d been a sailor, I’d been to Macao and Hong Kong and Singapore, so the understanding came. And it only took a second longer to realize I didn’t care. I tightened my grip on her hand. “I could be your last, Jenny. That’s all I’d care about.”
She started to shake and I pulled her over, unresisting. She started crying and couldn’t seem to stop for a very long time.
She whispered her story to me, with her face pressed against my shirt. It wasn’t particularly surprising and I’d known most of it once the understanding had dawned.
She’d chased her dream into the City.
But Cities are living, ravenous things, and they devour young women by the hundreds.
It was the usual story – beginning with a dapper guy with devilish charm and an oil-smooth manner that led to an arrest and two months in a grey stone tomb.
She’d wanted to leave after that, but the man proved more devil than charm and she, like hundreds of others before her had been trapped, imprisoned in a “club for gentlemen”. Selling the only thing she had, just to survive. After a while she looked for a way to end her survival. She was building the courage to hang herself. Only a horrific gang fight had saved her, killing most of the guards at the club. She had fled in the confusion with some stolen money and come back to her home to hide from life.
She fought me, but only weakly, and only because she felt she owed me every chance to walk away. I didn’t of course. By spring, we were married and living in a Sears Model 113 Modern House on 25 acres just outside of town. She wore ribbons in her hair every day. I even had a local seamstress make up more when I ran out of ribbons from my seabag.
She’d sworn loyalty “till death do us part,” and she’d meant every word – there wasn’t – couldn’t be – a more devoted wife on the planet. I saw her watching me from the kitchen window while I worked the fields, waiting for me to come back to her.
And when she gave herself to me, it was all of her – eagerly and with everything she had. In some ways it was an affirmation to her that she was worth something, to me, to herself. That she hadn’t destroyed her happiness, because she could take what had been corrupted and make it a source of joy.
I’d never have believed I could be that happy. And Mark’s ridiculous grin when he saw us together was tolerable because he really had been there for us. The two of us became three when she had Tommy.
For four years we were happy.