The Lost Chapter from A Shadow Life
By Leta McCurry
I’ll never forget the first time I saw Laura Oakley.
I was shot up and on fire with fever and pain, lying on a narrow bed in the war casualties ward of the Minnie Tapp Memorial Hospital in Dallas not long after the Armistice of 1918. The only thing I had on my mind was how to get somebody to put me out of my misery for good when I felt a cool hand slide under my head and raise me up. A cup of water touched my lips and a voice said, “Welcome home, soldier.”
I looked into a pair of brown eyes the exact color of Mama’s secret recipe chocolate cake. The kindness I saw there flooded my eyes with tears that dribbled down into stubble on my cheeks. Now, you might think a six-foot-four pig farmer from the Texas hill country would be too shamed to cry, but you would be mistaken. I tell you, after wading through body parts of men and mules in the Argonne Forest, with the blood of your dead friends thick on your face and filling your eyes so you can’t tell a Kraut from a tree, well, a few tears… they don’t amount to nothing.
When Laura leaned over me and brushed the hair back off my forehead with her fine pale hand, all of a sudden it seemed like life might be worth living after all.
“Where are you from?” Her voice flowed over me, warm and sweet, like the honey that always covered my hands when I robbed the hive up in the old cottonwood at the farm.
“Kendalia, down in the hill country.”
“I love it down there, especially when the bluebonnets are in bloom.”
“Yes, ma’am.” It was all I could think of to say. Laura smiled and moved on to the next soldier.
The man in the bed on my left didn’t know who he was or where he was but the man on my right told me Laura was a volunteer who visited the military ward every weekday. From then on, Laura was the reason I bothered to open my eyes every morning.
She was tall, taller than a lot of men, but you could tell she was strong even though her frame was slim. Her skin looked smooth and soft, the ivory color reminding me of the bit of Irish lace Mama had brought from Ireland and kept safe in her top dresser drawer.
All the men were in love with her, not because of how she looked but because of who she was. She had a gentle way about her that made you feel like you were special, and no matter how sick you were, you just knew you were going to be okay because Laura said so.
Laura stopped by my bed and talked for a few minutes every day, just like she did with the other men but I didn’t want to be lumped in with the other men. I wanted to be extra-special but I could tell Laura was a genteel, educated girl by how she talked and how she acted. She was so far above me, it was like she was the sun and I was a little petunia in Mama’s flower bed; I could feel the warmth of her shining but I’d never be able to touch her.
So I just watched as she moved among the hospital beds in the ward, stopping for a few words with everyone, squeezing the hand of a kid too young to be coming back from a war, writing a letter for a man who lost his arms, and always smiling. I held those few minutes she spent with me every day close to my heart and I still think it was Laura that speeded my recovery. Even though I understood all my yearning would come to naught, I lived in dread of the day I would be discharged and never see Laura Oakley again.
Then one day a miracle happened, though it didn’t feel like a miracle at first. Laura said “Hi” as she walked right past my bed without stopping to talk like usual. I didn’t know what to make of that and fretted and stewed all day. Then, a little before supper, she came back, pulled up a chair and sat by my bed. “So, Mr. Pig Farmer Milo French, what do you do down there in the hill country besides raise pigs? Do you have a wife and a passel of youngsters to keep you busy?”
Well, I tell you, I was so billy-whacked by this turn of events, it took me a few minutes to come to myself and say, “No, ma’am, just pigs, ma’am.” I felt like I was chewing my words way too much before spitting them out.
Laura laughed and took my hand between hers. “Call me Laura, Milo. Ma’am makes me feel like an old lady.”
“So, it’s just you and the pigs down there all by your lonesome?”
“No. Mama and Papa are still there. But Papa is getting old. I’ll be taking over one day.” It made me proud, telling her that because it was not a small thing. My family had been pig-farming that land as long as anybody could remember and even longer.
“You’ll have to tell me all about it.” Laura stood so the orderly could deliver my supper tray. “We’ll talk some more tomorrow.” She waved and walked away.
I lay awake most of the night trying to figure out what just happened. Maybe it was nothing. Just Laura being her usual kind self, but I really didn’t want to believe that.
I held my breath all the next day, waiting to see if she would single me out for special attention again. Sure enough, at the end of her shift, she rolled a wheel chair up to my bed and said, “You’re so much better, soldier, I have permission to take you down to the lounge. The orderly will bring your tray down there so you can have supper by the fire. That suit you okay?”
My chest puffed way out when I saw the other men watching Laura wheel me out. If my leg wasn’t still so gimpy, I would have gotten up and danced. Laura wheeled me to a table in front of the fireplace in the lounge and sat across from me.
“So, Milo, do you have brothers and sisters?”
“No. I had an older brother who died as an infant and a younger sister who died of scarlet fever when she was nine.”
“Oh, I’m sorry.”
“I never knew my brother and I have trouble remembering my sister. I know I should but it gets harder all the time to even remember what she looked like.”
“I never had brothers or sisters so I can’t imagine what something like that would be like. It must be hard.” She waited for the orderly to put my supper tray on the table then continued. “So you’ve lived all your life in … where is it?”
“You went to school there?”
“Yes. I went through the eighth grade at primary school just down the road from the house, but I had to take a bus to high school.” I laughed when I remembered what a dust-up me going to high school had been.
“What’s so funny about riding a bus to school?”
“Oh, it’s not that. It’s just that my Mama’s a sight to behold when she gets her dander up.” I buttered a biscuit and took a bite. “You see, boys in that part of the country don’t usually go to high school. Most drop out even before eighth grade to help on the farms. Papa thought it was stretching things for me to finish primary school, so when Mama decided I should go through high school, Papa thought it was time to put his foot down.”
“Papa didn’t count on Mama pitching a hissy fit that could have set a pack of hound dogs to howling all the way over in Louisana.” I couldn’t help it; I laughed until tears rolled down my face, telling how Mama was so determined I finish high school. “So I ended up being just about the only boy in that part of the country with a high school diploma. I can’t tell that it makes any difference at all to the pigs but I’m glad to have it.”
Then I went quiet for a minute or two as I stirred the green beans around on my plate and thought how silly this probably all sounded to Laura. It was likely she had even gone to college. She seemed to know what I was thinking because she put her hand on mine and said, “Milo, don’t confuse intelligence with education. I can tell you have more natural intelligence than some men I know who have four years of college.”
I didn’t know what to say to that. Nobody had ever said such a thing to me before. I just know that hearing her say it made me feel so good, like sinking down into the warmth of a feather bed on a cold night.
It wasn’t but a few days before I was out of the wheel chair and using crutches and we went down to the lounge every afternoon. Every night she would sweet talk the cafeteria into a tray for both of us so we could have supper together, then we’d sit by the fire having coffee and talking about anything and everything.
I couldn’t get enough of her. This was a real genteel girl, but she never made me feel she was better than me. Me, a pig farmer. We took to holding hands while we talked and she started staying later and later. Then she started coming in for a few hours on Saturdays just to see me. One Saturday afternoon she asked me, right out of the blue, “Have you ever been in love, Milo?’
“No,” I said. “Not yet.” I didn’t tell her how I made a fool of myself over Prissy Calloway when I was thirteen and she was a grade ahead of me in school. I was so mortified when she chose to share her lunch bucket with Joe Bob Dorell instead of me, I figured that love business wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. I expected I’d grow old by myself then drop dead someday, probably in the pig pen. That had all seemed like a fine idea until I met Laura so I had to ask, “Have you?”
‘Yes. Well, I think so. I was eighteen and he was twenty. Ryman’s father was a school teacher and Ryman was working to put himself through college. He was hired by our gardener and we got acquainted quite by accident. Then we started finding ways to spend time together. My father exploded when I told him I wanted to marry Ryman.” Laura stopped for a minute and looked at her hands in her lap. “I explained that Ryman was poor but he was working his way through college and wanted to be a lawyer. Father would have none of it. He said Ryman was most likely studying to be a gigolo.
“We had a terrible row. I thought Mother would side with me but she didn’t. It wasn’t but a few days before Father called me into his study and showed me a cancelled bank draft for five thousand dollars with Ryman’s signature on the back. I never saw Ryman again.” Laura looked up at me and I could see tears shimmering in her eyes. She dashed them away with her fingers.
“I have never forgiven Father or Mother for that matter. But, I will say, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve thought a lot about it. I don’t know if I loved Ryman or if it was the excitement of sneaking about and finding ways to spend time with him. Or it might have been just the excitement of defying Father. He has always ruled Mother and me with an iron fist. But, whether I loved Ryman or not, he broke my heart when he didn’t stand up to Father.”
I found myself quite pleased, not that she had her heart broke, but that she hadn’t married Ryman.
One night, it must have been after eight o’clock, this man in a funny uniform came into the lounge. It wasn’t a military uniform and he was a pretty old man. He stood by the door and said, ‘Miss Laura, excuse me, but we really should go.”
Laura sighed real big and said, “You’re right, Upton. Thank you.” Then she leaned over, kissed me on the cheek, winked and was gone.
I lay awake just about all night puzzling about who that man might be. I knew it wasn’t her daddy. And I was right. It wasn’t but a couple of days before I got to meet that gentleman and I can say I could have lived my whole life without the pleasure.
It was a Sunday. Laura generally didn’t come in to the hospital on Sunday and I was surprised to see her. She came in the morning and we walked down to the lounge. We got to spend the whole day together. After dinner from the cafeteria as usual, we sat by the fire holding hands, laughing and talking, and it got later and later. It must have been going on ten when that same man in the uniform came rushing in real nervous like.
He said, “Miss Laura, your…”
Before he could finish this really big man in a fancy suit with a fancy hat on his head pushed right in.
“Laura!” The man didn’t shout but his voice cracked just like a rifle shot. It felt like the room shook and everybody in there looked up.
Laura stood up real quick like and said, calm as you please, “Father.”
He walked right up to us and said, “What do you think you’re doing?”
He grabbed her arm and I could tell he hurt her but she only said, “Why, I’m visiting with Mr. Milo French.”
Her father didn’t even look at me. He said, “I only agreed you could volunteer in this hellhole to keep the peace and because you said it would only be a few hours a couple of days a week. Now it seems you’re down here every day and until all hours.”
“These men are coming back from war, Father, and my conscience dictates that I give whatever comfort and aid I can.”
He came right back at her and said, “I knew it was a mistake to let this get started. It ends tonight. It’s not proper that a girl like you is here at all hours consorting with riffraff.”
I tell you, Laura drew herself up and lifted her chin ‘til I thought her head must be touching the ceiling and she said in a cold voice, “I’ll have you know that Mr. French is not riffraff, Father. He happens to be a very fine pig farmer from an old Texas family in Kendalia.”
In that instant, I fell so in love with Laura Oakley, I didn’t know my name or where I was. I just knew I wanted to live out my life with this beautiful woman. Her father swelled up like a toad ‘til his face turned red and I thought he would have apoplexy right then and there.
He tightened his hold on Laura’s arm and said, ‘You will come with me this instant, Laura, and you will not come to this place again.”
I stood up. “Now, wait a minute…”
Laura shook her head at me and jerked her arm out of his grip. ‘I will come with you, Father, not because you order it, but to avoid a petty scene. I remind you that I am twenty-one now and not a scared eighteen year old. I shall return here if I wish.”
The old man snorted and mimicked her. “If you wish. Well, I’ve had about enough of your shenanigans and sass. You straighten up and behave or we’ll see how you fare if I cut you off without a dime. You understand me?”
“I understand you, Father.” She leaned down and kissed me right on the lips.
“The old man really grabbed her then and drug her, stumbling, toward the door, and her looking back over her shoulder at me. The sight of her walking out of that room felt just like when that sharpshooter’s bullet tore into me in France. My whole self just exploded into a million pieces and I knew I could never be put back together whole again. I knew it beyond doubt because, in that instant, I knew as sure as I knew my name that I could never have a life with that girl. Not because I didn’t love her, but because I did.
I didn’t have to go look at where she lived to know what it would be like. It would be a mansion. I had never seen her in anything but a nurse’s uniform but I understood that one of her regular dresses would cost more than I would earn as a pig farmer in a year. But it was a lot more than Laura being used to fancy houses, fancy clothes and fancy cars. She was used to going to fancy places with fancy people. The men she knew wore suits instead of coming in the back door every night stomping pig shit off their boots.
Laura could say intelligence and education weren’t the same as much as she wanted but she was used to talking with people who knew things. Sooner or later she would miss talking with educated people and she would start thinking I’m ignorant, which I am, of a lot of things.
So there was a lot of puzzlement going on in my head as that girl walked out the door. First, I had to think that maybe I was misreading her. Maybe she wasn’t having the same feelings as me. Maybe she was just being kind. Everybody could see that was just the kind of person she was.
The second thing I had to think on was maybe she was using me to get back at her father for running off the boy she wanted to marry when she was eighteen. Maybe she had really loved him and wanted to pay her father back by marrying somebody even worse than a school teacher’s son or she might just play me along until her father was really good and mad. But somehow, I just couldn’t swallow that pill, no matter how I tried to tell myself it could be. It just didn’t fit the Laura I loved.
The third thing was really the worst of all. Maybe she did love me enough to walk away from everything and marry a pig farmer. I know I loved her enough to do anything to be with her but what could I do? I only knew pig farming. It was who I was. Just like she was who she was, a smart, rich, beautiful girl who could have anybody she wanted.
I knew if she got carried away with loving me enough to marry me, the day would come when she would hate me. She would hate everything she thought she loved. Hate herself for loving me and hate me for letting her get herself into such a sorry life.
So, even if she did truly love me and was willing to marry me, I had to be the sensible one. I had to love her enough to let her go so that is what I did.
It had nothing to do with money, or her father cutting her off. I didn’t even know she was rich when I first started to fall in love with her. Besides that, I don’t want no man’s money but what I earn my own self.
So I put on my regular clothes and just walked out of the hospital late that night. I didn’t tell nobody I was leaving or where I was going. But I couldn’t bear being so far away from her, not just yet, so I went to one of my mama’s cousins just on the outskirts of Dallas. I stayed there a week or so until I thought I was strong enough to really walk away from her.
When I got home, back to Kendalia, there were two letters waiting from me. There was no return address on them but I knew they were from Laura. I lifted the lid on the cook stove in Mama’s kitchen and dropped them in. I knew I would be in more trouble than I could handle if I read them. But, the one thing I didn’t reckon on was how fierce Laura Oakley really did love me.
I remember it like it was yesterday. It was a Thursday, the day after Christmas in 1918. Mama had rung the dinner bell and me and Papa had come in from the barn for the noon meal. I was about to set down at the table when we heard a motor then a car door slam out in the yard.
“Now, who in the world could that be?” Mama said.
“I’ll go see.” I opened the door and Laura was standing there.
I thought I loved her and wanted her so much every minute of every day that I had just conjured her up. But it was Laura all right. She put her arms around my neck and kissed me. Mama and Papa walked up behind me to see who it was and Laura said, “You all come with me.”
And we did. We rode in that fancy car driven by the man in the funny uniform over to Boerne, the county seat. We were married by a justice of the peace that afternoon.
If I had known what Laura’s love for me would cost her, I would have made her go back to Dallas that December day she showed up at my door.
That’s what I tell myself, but I don’t know if I could have really turned away from her a second time, even now, knowing what killed her. It wasn’t the snake coiled behind a jar of peaches on a shelf in the cool, dark cellar that hot summer day that killed her. It was her love for me, a love so strong it held her on that god-forsaken pig farm. That is what haunts me.