Georgianna Jeans is a retired horse trainer and animal lover. She grew up in Florida, but has lived and worked in the horse industry in California. She lives in one of the prettiest southern states on the map, with her husband and spirit cat Jasper, who graciously lent his name to a character in Wafford Springs before passing away. She may be contacted via email at: GigiWrites@Yahoo.com.
by Georgianna Jeans
by Georgianna Jeans
Published Jun 13, 2014
Genre: FICTION / Family Life / General
In Wafford Springs, Silence Speaks Loudest of All . . .
The small town of Wafford Springs, Florida never really recovered from the scandal caused by selfish, beautiful Lil Stallings, who twisted men around her finger. Lil is gone, but she left heartbreak and sorrow behind. When her mother, Mattie Stallings, receives a letter from Lil, it’s the last thing she expects. She and her brother Lester Canfield are utterly unprepared for the news: Lil is sending her daughter, Dessa, to live with them. Mattie and Lester are full of apprehension…what if Dessa is like Lil? They can’t endure that pain again, and neither can the community. But what they don’t know is that Dessa is a unique child—a child who unnerves Lil to the core, and whom she and her revolving string of lovers must get away from…a child who sees everything, but keeps to herself; a child who responds to her mother’s abuse and neglect with a wisdom beyond her years. Dessa’s arrival will cause a shake-up in this sleepy Florida town…bringing opportunities for change that none of them expected. Luminous and rich, with beautifully drawn characters and a compelling story, Wafford Springs is a story of betrayal and redemption, of small-town politics and community spirit…all surrounded by life on the farm, and the personalities of the animals who are as much a part of Wafford Springs as the people are.
Dessa Stallings was eight when her mother abandoned her. Not the left on the side of the road or on the church steps type of abandonment, but the got rid of—don’t want you anymore type of abandonment—just the same.
Her mother was smoking at the kitchen table, clicking her long lacquered nails together as she watched the smoke feather around her head, while her newest boyfriend, Joseph Meeks, leaned against the kitchen door frame.
Lil Stallings watched Dessa make a jelly sandwich, waiting for the right moment to spring the announcement. She watched her child carefully place the pieces of bread side by side on her designated plate, knifing out the grape jelly, and folding the pieces of bread together gently so as not to tear the fragile, tissue-thin slices. Lil wanted to make the bread stretch, so she cut slices thin enough to see through. Dessa wiped the jar with a dishcloth and replaced the jelly in the icebox, then closed it without making a sound.
When Dessa had taken her seat at the kitchen table, Lil stubbed out her cigarette and jumped up in a huff to get the milk her daughter had forgotten.
Lil was going to scream if she had to witness another slow-motion dance of glasses, containers, and cloths, all in the whisper-quiet manner of Dessa’s, which made Lil want to grab a glass and the bourbon—straight up, thank you very much.
“Now Dessa, I want to talk to you,” Lil said, smacking the glass in front of her daughter and spilling milk from both sides, which Dessa would clean up later. “I need to talk to you and you’re making it difficult for everyone.” Lil’s eyes flicked to Joe, who silently willed her to continue. He was right, she had started down this path and she needed to finish it. “You need to be big about this and not make a scene.”
Dessa put her sandwich down without taking a bite and regarded her mother with calm, clear eyes.
“I—that is, we—” Lil said, while flicking a finger between herself and Joe, “think it would be best for everyone if you went down to Florida to see your grandmother. You know...stay with her for a while. Maybe go to school there for a year.”
Dessa watched her mother’s shoulders rise and fall with her every breath, the dark hair she pampered with shampoos and rinses being moved by the breeze from the open window.
Lil waited for a reaction, a raised eyebrow, or a twitch at the corner of the child’s mouth…something, for crying out loud…and when it did not come she snatched her cigarettes and lighter and pulled the blue crystal ashtray closer.
God, she thought. It was like pulling teeth.
Lil lit another cigarette with great flair and shoved herself into the padded back of the chair, at the same time, flinging the match with Olympic precision into the tray.
The thumbnail on Lil’s right hand instinctively found the nail on her middle finger, coming to rest right under it for a nice howdy do before it was drawn away, creating a sharp click; then down the rest of the fingers the thumbnail went. Click, click, click, until all the perfectly manicured fingers were greeted. She rolled the cigarette around in the ashtray, giving it a quick tap before bringing it to her perfect, painted mouth.
Lil drew the smoke as deep into her lungs as she could and let it out slowly, feeling it medicate her thoughts and relax her muscles. The thumb, not quite as anxious now, slid back and forth over her lower lip.
There! Lil thought. Something! She was sure she saw the slightest glance to the left from the girl, out the window toward the school.
“I have already spoken to your teacher. Your last day was today. Not that it was doing you any good anyway. It will be a clean break.”
Lil took another deep drag. She was getting to the end of her cigarette, and so to the end of this nightmare of a conversation.
The meeting with Margaret Manning, Dessa’s teacher, had been anything but clean. First, there had been concern over Dessa’s departure, and when Lil didn’t share the same concerns, there had been pleading.
“Mrs. Stallings, I don’t think you understand the setback this extended trip might cause.”
No, Lil didn’t understand and sat arrow-straight in her chair, smoothing her skirt.
“We were just beginning to make some progress. A good deal of progress, actually.”
Progress? Lil wanted to laugh in Margaret Manning’s round face. Where was all of this progress, she would like to know?
Lil slid her right foot to the side of the chair so she could better study the polished leather of her shoe and the sinuous curve of the perfect heel. A gift from Joseph. New things had such a nice effect on Lil. At least for a little while. She turned her foot back and forth. It was all she could do to keep from reaching down and running her hand over the calfskin. She loved what the fashion industry was doing with shoes in 1915, and couldn’t wait to see what the ‘20s were going to offer.
Margaret Manning felt like screaming. She wanted to shake the beautiful woman in front of her. Shake her until her teeth rattled.
“You know Dessa has special needs.”
God almighty! Lil was sick and tired of the word “special” being associated where her daughter was concerned, and let out a loud snort while placing the much-admired shoe back under her chair.
Margaret Manning with her sugar sweet, here comes a cavity voice didn’t have to live with Dessa, did she? She didn’t have to put up with the grey eyes Lil could not read. The eyes that saw everything but revealed nothing. Margaret Manning, who was clearly a goody two-shoes, and would never understand what it was like to be the center of attention, having to make explanations to company about the strange child sharing Lil’s home. The strange ghost of a girl Lil swore had been switched at the hospital. Her own child elsewhere in the city, being raised in some unknown home, admired by everyone who was fortunate enough to lay eyes on her.
Lil had to put a stop to the ridiculous mewling from Dessa’s teacher. The whole thing was pathetic—besides, she felt one of her headaches coming on, so she stood up to leave.
Margaret was not put off by the gesture.
“Mrs. Stallings, won’t you please reconsider and keep Dessa here, at least until the end of school? This way she can be a part of the end-of-year program and say goodbye to her friends.”
Say goodbye? Lil wanted to laugh. And what friends was this poor deluded woman talking about? It was starting to sound as though the teacher hadn’t even met Dessa. Lil was done.
“It’s Miss Stallings, and no, I will not. Arrangements have been made. Her grandmother is expecting her and I will not break her heart.”
Lil had mailed the letter the previous week and had no idea, nor cared what her mother thought about the extended visit. It was all going to happen just as she and Joe had planned, and that was the end of it.
“Very well, if your mind is made up and I cannot convince you otherwise, we will do the best we can with the time we have left.”
Lil fingered her right temple and took a deep breath while heading for the door and stopped.
“No, Miss Manning, you haven’t understood a thing I have said. Dessa has chores to do between now and the time she leaves, and will not be returning after today.” Lil turned and was out the door, click-clacking down the hallway.
Margaret sat staring at the empty room. She felt like crying.
“It’s Mrs.,” the teacher said as she fingered her wedding rings. Rings that were hard to miss.
Margaret was about to reach for her things and make an early day of it when there was a knock at the door. Charlotte Miller, the school’s principal, opened it before she could reply.
“That couldn’t have been good. I saw her leave and thought you might need someone to talk to.”
Margaret motioned for her friend, who had seen and heard just about everything, to take a seat. It turned out Charlotte Miller could still be shocked.
Out on the city street, Lil took a deep breath and fished a cigarette out of her purse. What she wanted to do was forget the whole morning, but she had a little farther to go before she could take refuge in her room under the covers beside her man. Christ, was this day never going to end?
Lil was never sure what Dessa did or did not understand, and that afternoon was no different. Her daughter regarded her from across the table, taking the news of her departure without a flinch. Sometimes Lil wanted to yank the child’s hair just to get a reaction. And still the silent child came with her own set of sounds. Noises that drilled into Lil’s brain. Doors that snicked quietly shut making Lil jump. The rustle of pages being turned in a book and knives against glass—that had to be the worst. Christ, she wanted to shout to the skies. No more jelly jars! The moment she returned from the train station after seeing Dessa off to her new home, she would throw them all away.
She would also get rid of the old milk bottles the girl used as vases for the flowers she picked and brought into the house. Well, some really weren’t flowers, though, were they? More than once Lil had come into the kitchen after a long night to see a weed taking up space on the table top. A weed, for crying out loud! This was the thing of beauty Dessa thought warranted a vase? The hideous yellow thing staring at Lil while she got her much-needed coffee, mocking her as she lit her first cigarette. Lil should have told the sniveling teacher that one. She wondered what the teacher would have said on that score. Lil let out another sigh. The thought of the apartment childless and weedless spurred her on.
“You have never met your grandmother, Dessa, so it will be like an adventure,” Lil said to the smoke. “It will be fun,” she purred to all ten nails. “A nice break from the city,” she assured the ashtray.
With a final flourish of nails and smoke, Lil pushed away from the table and past Joe, who turned to follow her, but not before he allowed his dark eyes to roam around the kitchen. A kitchen that would soon be his. His and Lil’s alone.
Leaving Food and Friends
Dessa picked up her sandwich, keeping it level so the jelly did not escape the sides. With each bite she replaced the sandwich on her plate and gave her mouth a blot with the napkin in her lap. After eating half, drinking the rest of her milk, and cleaning up, she wrapped the remaining sandwich in a napkin, and pulling the sleeve of her sweater over her hand, left the apartment.
Once she was down the steps, Dessa took a right and went straight into the alley that ran beside the apartment. There at the back of the building, against a dumpster and beside the wooden fence that separated the alley from the vacant lot, she placed the remains of her dinner. Dessa never saw who came to retrieve the food she left; she only knew someone or something did, and that was good enough.
Dessa walked back toward the apartment steps sliding her hands across the wooden slats of the fence. Many afternoons had been spent here. Here among the dirt, and errant trash, and of course the boys from the surrounding streets. Boys who were up to three years older than Dessa, but had welcomed her into their fold, nonetheless.
The children met in the vacant lot to play games or sometimes to just hang out. Some came to smoke, others to avoid the alcohol-induced fights at home, but mostly they came together in the fading light to enjoy each other’s company. Friends, brothers, and cousins growing up in the shadow of St. Maria’s steeple, taking shelter under the eaves of the surrounding buildings, huddled together in camaraderie and friendship.
When Lil Stallings first pulled her four-year-old up the steps of the New York walkup, directly across the street from the old church, it was this group of boys Dessa saw. Dessa would watch them from the kitchen window on chilly winter afternoons, and as the weather warmed, from the distance of the alley, standing between the rotting and fallen boards.
It was a bright fall day when a baseball smacked the fence post next to Dessa, and Ryan Walsh ran to retrieve it—skidding through the sand and throwing a shoulder to the fence post. He was hoping the little girl would flinch back, and when she didn’t, he let out a breath and smiled.
Ryan and Dessa stood facing each other. Ryan Walsh was seldom at a loss for words, but he did not know what to make of the child who stood in front of him. He hadn’t succeeded in getting her to flinch or giggle like the other girls. His mind was turning over these facts when Branagan O’Riley started chiding him to hurry up.
“Christ on a pony, Walsh,” Branagan admonished. “What’s the holdup?”
Trotty Donahue, who was kicking at the dirt next to Branagan, groaned at the mention of the Lord Jesus riding ponies instead of the sacred donkey that bore the King of Kings over the palm fronds that fateful Friday. He squeezed his eyes shut and pushed away the image of the Savior galloping around on some untamed Welsh nightmare, the Lord’s very life in peril. Trotty wanted to smack Branagan in his blasphemous mouth, but then he would have to repent for that on top of everything else. He would be forever in confessional not to mention the trouncing he would get from his father for taking up the priest’s valuable time. Trotty just hated the Lord’s name being taken in vain—and why couldn’t his friend remember that? It went against every fiber of his Catholic being. It just seemed to only bother Trotty. He was forever crossing himself and saying Hail Marys under his breath, trying to make up for his associates’ lack of respect.
Branagan continued his verbal onslaught to Ryan and Trotty begged him to return, just to shut Branagan up. It was only a matter of time before Branagan had the precious Christ Jesus airborne in a parachute, flailing around in the skies while shrieking his obscenity at the top of his lungs, and right in front of the church, God bless us and save us.
Ryan waved them off and studied the girl, her large dove-grey eyes holding his sky-blue ones. She stood perfectly straight and still, yet relaxed, like she could stand that way all day. The girl was hard for Ryan to judge; impossible to read. She gave nothing away as she looked at him. There wasn’t anything aggressive about her, but there wasn’t anything timid either. Ryan thought to himself that it was a perfect poker face if ever he had seen one. He was sure the staring match was going to be a complete stalemate anyway, and was getting ready to yield to the girl, grab the ball, and head back when Dessa’s eyes closed and opened in slow motion; at the same time, the corners of her mouth turned up.
Ryan let out a laugh. What a weird little girl, but what an interesting effect.
Trotty and Branagan, not wanting to be left out of anything that would make one of them laugh, joined Ryan at the fence, elbowing and pushing, demanding explanations as to the delay. Ryan shushed them both and remained fixed on Dessa. Branagan and Trotty now regarded her as well, glancing now and then to their oldest friend to see which way this was going to go. Ryan finally spoke up. He leaned against a fence post and put on the sideways grin that won him favors with mothers and schoolgirls as well as the odd teacher. “How would you like to help us?”
Trotty and Branagan stole a look behind Ryan’s back, opening their eyes in the universal will-wonders-nevercease? expression before returning their attention back to this strange set of events.
After waiting for a response and not getting one, he decided to take the girl’s silence as a yes. He pushed past Trotty, walking back to the middle of the field, talking to her the entire time, explaining as he went.
“It would be a great help, little girl, if you could throw back any balls that come out this far. You can stay where you are while we are playing, and if a ball comes this way, wait until it stops, then get it back to us. How does that sound?”
Trotty and Branagan whipped their heads back and forth, keeping up with the developments.
Dessa nodded her agreement. Ryan nodded back his approval and turned back to the field. Trotty and Branagan sprinted to catch up. Before they reached the bats and mitts Ryan turned, cupping his hands around his mouth, and yelled for her name.
“That’s Dessa Stallings,” Trotty interjected.
Ryan turned and looked at his friend. It was a wonder what Trotty Donahue knew. Trotty, seeing the looks, felt he needed to explain.
“My mom sees her mom at the shops, and people talk.” Here he trailed off. People talked about his own mother and he knew how it made him feel. He wasn’t going any further.
The three boys turned to look at young Dessa Stallings: a mystery and possibly a scandal.
“Well,” Ryan sighed. “She is going to fit right in.”
Branagan, having had just about enough of mysteries, scandals, and strangely behaving friends, raised his hands to heaven. “Christ in a sidecar, can we get back to the game?” he shouted.
Trotty, sensing impending doom at the mention of Christ the Lord riding around attached to a motorcycle, grabbed the bat and was putting distance between himself and Branagan when from own his lips flew: “Jesus, Mary, and sweet Joseph, Branagan, for the love of God and all the angels. Can’t you mind your tongue?”
Ryan and Branagan looked first at each other, then at Trotty, with mouths open. Trotty stared at them in return. Realizing what he had just said, and in the presence of St. Maria’s tower and steeple, Trotty Donahue fell to his knees and rolled to his back, staring at the clouds. Christ in a paddy wagon, he thought, now I’ve done it. I’m beyond all hope.
Dessa returned every ball hit her way that afternoon. She started by running the ball back to the players, waiting for it to come to a stop, then carrying it across the dirt to the nearest player. She did this in spite of the encouraging screams from the boys to:
“Just throw it already!”
It didn’t take Ryan long to figure out Dessa had no idea how to throw the ball, let alone heave it, so he called a halt to the game to give it some thought, ignoring the moans and complaints from his friends.
Ryan knew it would benefit the group later if he taught Dessa how to throw now, and he did so. At first the boys watched the lesson from afar, kicking at the dirt and squinting into the sun, but soon they joined in, putting in their two cents, no one wanting to be left out.
The ranks swelled as the day went on. The Carney brothers arrived: Kian, Brian, Aidan, and Finn, ranging in ages from eight to twelve, alternately knocking each other and hugging each other, their wispy blond hair held down by matching caps. And Bernard Quinn showed up with a black eye and split lip and was ready to punch anyone who pressed him about it, asking unnecessary questions.
The newcomers were brought up to date as to the inclusion of a girl, and everyone got on board with the plan. Not even the surly Bernie Quinn wanted to go up against Ryan Walsh, what with his face pulsing like a bad tooth. And by the time the Parry twins, William and Paul joined in, the throwing lesson was well underway, and the boys were warned, “to just do as they were told, and not to give anyone any grief on the matter.”
When the group took a break so Trotty could relieve himself again, the twins walked away for a cigarette, their heads together and murmuring in twin-speak.
“Thought I was in the wrong field,” William said.
“Till I saw the cap brothers,” Paul said.
“Then I knew we weren’t,” William said.
“Walsh has lost his mind,” they both said in unison.
The instruction took up the remainder of the afternoon, but no one seemed to mind—or they kept it to themselves. Dessa was proving to be a good student. She was small, agile, and more coordinated than they had anticipated. One boy would fold their fingers around hers, while another would place her feet and twist her body. And when the first ball hit it’s mark, making that crisp smack as balls do when the throw is perfect, the group cheered, pushed each other, and slapped Dessa on the back. She was knocked off balance but pulled back to her feet just as fast, her smile a perfect Cheshire Cat grin, her good nature shining through her eyes—and at that moment—every boy loved her.
Over the next year, Dessa became an important part of the group. It was great having a permanent outfielder and soon she went from standing just past the fence in the alley to the field. The boys would watch the balls fly over their heads, not attempting to interfere, screaming for her to get them, and she would.
When the games turned too rough and the sport turned to football, Dessa’s job was to hold on to the boys’ personal possessions. Ryan made it sound like it was the most important job in the city, and with one look to the group, pockets were emptied, and precious items were placed in Dessa’s care. Some boys asked her to hold a slingshot or a bunch of keys. Others would have her mind a rabbit’s foot or the only glove left over from a once-happy pair. She took the items and put them in her lap, covering each with her too-big sweater as if they were the most valuable and treasured items in the world.
If someone felt like sitting out a game or two, they did it by her side, tucked in together the way of best friends, never minding if their fingers grazed or knees touched, but finding comfort when they did.
Dessa looked through the fence and thought about not seeing her friends for a year. What if some left while she was gone, and she never saw them again? She called to mind and thought about each one and what they had meant to her, her memory tracing their faces.
Ryan Walsh, with his easy manner, lopsided smile, and dirty hands—no matter how many times he washed up.
The Cap brothers, who loved and hated each other with equal intensity, their identical hats holding down identical chaotic hair.
The Parry twins, who thought and spoke like one person; and the constantly bruised and battered Bernie Quinn.
Then there was Branagan O’Riley, who could put the Lord Jesus in the most amusing traveling scenarios, and of course Trotty Donahue.
Trotty Donahue, who found it hard to say a swear word even if a piano fell on his foot. Sweet Trotty, with his nervous stomach and constant need for a privy. She was going to miss him most of all. It was all too much, and the tears that pressed behind her eyes pushed out and down her cheeks. She walked to the front of the building. Covering her face with her hands, she sat down on the bottom step. The street noise of the day started taking on the softer, hushed tones of night as a full moon rose over St. Maria’s steeple, frosting the top of the church.
Cats emerged from their day places, drifting among the shadows, sniffing the air and the corners of the buildings. A large golden-eyed tabby crossed the street and into the vacant lot, slipping through the boards, and checking beside the dumpster at the far length of the fence that separated the alley from the field.
Two floors up, the man with the slick hair, dark good looks, and darker moods watched the changes outside the walkup, but Dessa saw none of it. She was remembering what was. The smells of the bakery, the sounds of the street coming alive in the morning, and the boys in the field gearing up for a game. She pushed every sight and sound deep into her memory. With her tears and her hands, she pushed. Remembering, feeling, tasting. Remembering while she could, because it was all going to slip away…slip from her life like the smoke from her mother’s lips.