Leeds: Personal Essay

By Tom Kimball

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CINDY NEVER PLANNED to put an actual blade on the old weathered axe handle that she kept behind her front door. To folks in Leeds, Alabama, an axe handle was more like a weapon, and I felt a tad bit safer with it clutched in my hands as Stubby and I walked home that night.

To us, Cindy was the life-hardened, heavyset, thirty-year-old landlady whose office looked over the entrance of our apartment complex. Her thing was to give the Mormon elders nicknames when they transferred in. She named Elder Proctor “Stubby” because of his height. Then, even before I’d driven to Leeds from my old area in Tarrant City, she’d saddled me with “Wings” because Stubby had told her about my family ties to early Mormon leaders. Newly named, I also met Charley, the fifty-year-old Sicilian maintenance man who lived in the apartment next to Cindy’s office.

I was barely settling into my first week when Cindy came to our apartment and told us that Charley’s wife had just killed herself. Apparently his spouse had been waiting for him to come home. No words were exchanged, but he could tell she was high on pills. She looked him in the eye and shot herself in the chest.

Stubby, Cindy, and I stood graveside with Charley as his wife’s family gathered under a tent. We stood as a hired minister offered words and the family dispersed. We four stood together as workers arrived, lowered the casket, and filled the hole with dirt. We stood as the sod was replaced leaving a rectangular seam in the grass. We stood silently by Charley until, in defeat, he pulled off his hat, scratched his head, and walked away.

Cindy urged us to come to Charley’s apartment that evening for Sicilian meatballs. The same family who had stood under the shade tent now streamed through his apartment eating his food, pulling pictures from the walls, removing jewelry and clothes from the bedroom, taking dishes from the shelves and knickknacks from the end tables. We watched, amazed, until everyone left and the apartment was quiet. Charley surveyed the carnage as Cindy explained to us that the wife’s family were addicts and would sell what they considered as “inheritance” for drugs. That’s when Charley reached into a high cupboard and pulled out a serving bowl covered with butterfly prints: the one thing he had chosen to hide from the family. His wife had loved butterflies.

I came away from that day with a new sense of the suffering and ugliness that inhabits the world.

Stubby and I served together in Leeds for the better part of six months and Charley would often stop us as we entered the complex, gently insisting that we eat with him. Back then I didn’t know the difference between Italian and Sicilian food, but I liked what Charley cooked and we probably spent more time in his kitchen than we should have.

Charley never talked much during our visits; when he did it was usually about food or apartment politics, but one time he said, “My wife is in hell, isn’t she?” I looked to Stubby who, with a lift of his chin, handed the question back to me. “With respect,” I said, “God gives everyone a fair chance, no matter who they are or what they did, even after they die. That’s what I believe.” Charley thought a moment, and then nodded. That was the full extent of religious discussion with Charley over the better part of six months. Before we left that evening I asked Charley if I could use his bathroom. “Leave two quarters on the sink,” he muttered. So I did. Stubby used it after me and left an I.O.U.

One evening, Charley stopped us on our way in and said that an old boyfriend had attacked Cindy. At first I was worried, but then I remembered the night we answered our door to find a grinning Cindy standing there casually making small talk while picking at her bloody fist. We finally got her to tell us that she had been in a fistfight and had opened her hand on some poor guy’s tooth. She just wanted to come by and rattle the Utah elders. It worked.

Nevertheless, we ran to her apartment where we found her pistol resting on the coffee table, signaling she meant business. When I saw the large fingerprint bruising around both of her wrists I exclaimed, “Holy shit, the guy must be a monster!” Hearing me curse, the clouded look on Cindy’s face lifted a bit as she gave us the goods. She said that she wrenched one hand out of the guy’s grip and then dragged him to the door where she got hold of the axe handle and began swinging. He let her go and drove off.

Allowing her to vent, things cooled and we eventually got around to just being us again. With a few guarded laughs she glanced at her wrists and then began sidling us toward the door, “Best ya’ll go on home now.” On our way out, she picked up the axe handle and handed it to me. He was still out there: six foot five, drunk, probably stewing in his pickup somewhere.

Sometime after Page and I were married, I took her to Leeds and Charley actually answered the door when we knocked. After we’d visited for a bit, I asked if I could wash up and Charley gestured toward his bathroom. I found my two quarters still sitting in a soap dish next to Stubby’s I.O.U.

It has been a very long time since that last visit. I hope Stubby, Cindy, and old Charley are getting their fair chance at things. Cindy let me keep the old axe handle. It rests in a corner next to my bookshelves.

 

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