Copyright ©Piper Templeton
I don’t know if God gifted me with a curse or he cursed me with a gift. It happens out of the blue. I may go years without this thing visiting upon me. Then, boom. I feel something, I see something, I know something. And it’s never good.
My premiere episode occurred back in 1978. Just divorced from husband number one, I found myself entering my thirties and living on my own for the first time in my life. He left to move in with the girlfriend, and I got to keep the uptown house and all the bills that went with it. So I knew I could weather financial hardship. When my daddy died, mama struggled, working extra shifts as a nurse’s assistant just to get by. I quit high school so I could work and bring in money to help care for my younger siblings.
So never one to get trapped by life’s quicksand, I made a plan. To supplement my office job income, I start selling Avon. I’m a good talker, and I like cosmetics and perfume. So I figured sales commission could cover groceries at least. I even developed a marketing plan. Instead of only distributing Avon books in my office building and in my uptown New Orleans neighbourhood, I drove out to the suburbs and beyond.
My best customers lived in the Liberty Lane subdivision tucked between the Mississippi River and the swamps in a town nestled between New Orleans and Baton Rouge. In my green Ford Pinto, I’d drive by pastures surrounded by broken barbed wire until I came to the yellow arrow sign on a corner by a general store: “No Outlet.” I’d take a left-hand turn and come upon the ranch style homes with detached garages set on huge plots of land surrounded by woods.
Every woman on this street loved to see me, Mathilda Dupre, coming. Francine Hessy said Candid fragrance line drove her husband crazy. In a good way. When I told her about the layering—shower gel, lotion, perfume, powder—her pupils started dilating. Poor Anne-Marie Maguire bought Charisma, but it didn’t pay her back with any charm. Nice enough woman but fallen logs showed more emotion. Several of the housewives got into the Colorworks! “not your mother’s makeup” makeup line. If it made them feel younger, who was I to argue?
I knocked on Anne-Marie’s door. With everyone else, I mockingly said, “Avon calling,” when they opened it. Not with her. She was all business. I must have looked a sight with my home permanent, loose satin forest green pants, and print top. It took me by surprise when she offered me a cup of coffee. I sat in her living room while she got the coffee. A crucifix and family pictures hung on her panelled walls. I focused on one of a young man, college age, I assumed. I figured that was her son.
“What a good-looking boy your son is,” I said when she came back in.
When I saw her stricken face, I knew her son had passed away. Now, that wasn’t my “aha” moment when I realized I possessed some kind of sixth sense. No. That was pure ole perceiving human emotions.
She served me a cup of coffee and said tersely, “My husband and I lost Matthew in an automobile accident seventeen months ago.” We sipped coffee and chicory and when I asked if she wanted to talk about Matthew, she held her hand over her heart and shook her head.
So after delivering the rest of my goods throughout the neighbourhood, I got back in my Pinto, radio blaring to my theme song, “Staying Alive,” when Pauline Priggett flagged me down as she stood in front of her mailbox. “Mathilda! Mathilda!”
I screeched on the brakes, turned the radio down, and rolled the window down. “What’s up?”
“You got any of that Skin-So-Soft on you?”
“I got some at the house. I can bring it next time.”
“Shucks. I’m out and the mosquitoes are eating me alive when I garden.”
“I just delivered two bottles to Anne-Marie. Why don’t you ask her to borrow some, and I can be back Saturday with more?”
“What’s the matter? She’s a nice enough lady.”
“I haven’t talked to her in so long.”
I shut off the engine and whispered loudly: “Did you know Matthew?”
She nodded. “Tragic. So, so tragic. What do you say, you know? All the neighbors brought them casseroles after, but then, what do you do? We never were close friends. So it’s hard to go knock on her door and act normal. I wave to her when I’m outside and see her or her husband. If I could pretend to know what they’re going through, that would be one thing. But I don’t know what words to offer them.”
Her front door opened, and a man walked over to the detached garage.
“Come meet my Avon lady, Alvin,” called Pauline.
Her husband walked across the well-manicured lawn as I got out of the car.
“Alvin, this is Mathilda Dupre.”
He smiled warmly and extended his hand. As he came closer and I got a look into his news anchor polished face, that’s when it happened. Now this vision/gift/curse/sense is not a blueprint. It’s an incomplete and ambiguous knowing that comes from deep down inside, but it’s a certainty that I feel right down to the marrow in my bones When I looked at Alvin, I knew that this well-groomed, well-mannered man had something to do with Matthew’s death.
We shook hands as I tried not to stare at him. “Pauline and I were just talking about poor Matthew Maguire. I just learned from his mother that he died in a car accident.”
Alvin nodded grimly. “He was such a bright, handsome boy.”
“Alvin tutored Matthew in math. He’s an engineer,” Pauline said proudly.
“Where did it happen?” I asked, keeping my eye on Alvin.
Pauline spoke up. “Right off the highway up there. He lost control of his car, and it landed in the swamps.”
“Less than a mile from home,” said Alvin.
“So no other vehicle was involved?”
They both shook their heads. I started shivering and shaking a little inside.
“Are you okay?” asked Pauline.
“Sure,” I answered. “I just get a little shaken up hearing about teenagers dying.”
“If you’ll excuse me, ladies, I’m going to go check the air in my tires.”
Now, I’m quick on my feet, and there’s nothing shy about me, so I went for it. “Would you mind terribly if I watched? See, my husband used to take care of all that, and before him, I never owned a car. I took buses everywhere.”
“Sure, follow me.”
Alvin showed me the tire gauge and opened his station wagon door. “See,” he said pointing to the sticker inside the car door, “this tells you what pressure gauge your car’s tires should be.”
He walked me through the steps as he checked each tire. When he got to the last one, he handed me the gauge. “Your turn,” he said.
“Watch me blow out your tire.”
He laughed. “That’s impossible.”
After I checked it, I said, “I wonder if that’s how poor Matthew’s car ended up in the swamp. A blow-out maybe?”
Alvin placed the tire gauge on a shelf and sat down on his work bench. He shook his head and looked down at the floor. “Nothing like that was found.”
“No alcohol or drugs?”
“Not a trace. He was a good kid.”
“It’s a wonder a young kid like that couldn’t get out. The swamps aren’t that deep, I don’t think.”
“Natural water’s treacherous,” Alvin said.
Near his workbench, I saw a wood carving in progress. “Look how beautiful that is,” I said. “A fleur-de-lis?”
He nodded proudly.
“You made that?”
“I’m working on it. It’s hobby of mine. I like to come out here and escape, take a fresh, ripe piece of wood and recreate it, place my mark on it.”
“I bet all those gorgeous wood carvings in Pauline’s curio cabinet are yours!”
“They sure are.” He beamed.
I knew I found a way to keep the conversation going on: Get the man, or any man, to talk about something he’s good at.
He carried on about his craft, and then said, “So Pauline tells me you’re recently divorced… I’m sorry to hear that.”
“Eh, don’t be,” I said, waving my hand. “He chose someone else, simple as that.”
“You must be so hurt and angry though,” he said gently.
“Hurt, yeah. Angry? Nah. That’s a pretty useless emotion, I find. I was upset, a little heartbroken. See, now I’m not one of these martyr women taking the blame for everything because Lord knows he had no business cheating, but I pretended a lot, faked my way through a lot of that marriage.”
He leaned in, eyes intent. “How so if you don’t mind my asking?”
“Well, I married him because someone else shattered my world. I was young and ready to get married and figured we could make a go of it. My husband made me laugh, he worked hard, and we both loved the Beatles and eating in diners. I thought we could build a life, but the facade crumbled.”
I watched Alvin listening to me. As much as I love to gab, I didn’t make it my practice to telegraph the contents of my heart so easily to near strangers. But I hoped my verbal memoir would beget some sort of insight into him. His face showed genuine empathy. How could this kind, considerate man have anything to do with that boy’s death? Yet the feeling only intensified as I talked to him.
“How did he know you were pretending?”
“You eat, sleep and breathe next to someone enough, they know. Unless they’re hiding behind denial.”
“Denial as a survival technique, yes. So the someone that shattered your world, is he still around?”
“Yep. He plays jazz guitar all around the French Quarter clubs. A musician that’s quite in demand. He started out a street musician. That’s when I met him. I’d fix a lunch for us and go sit out there with him as people passed and gawked. He plays amazingly. Amazing musicians get a lot of temptations though.” I shook my head at the memories of bliss and heartache that simultaneously combusted in my heart. “Now and then, after I was married, I’d steal away just to go sit in the back of a smoky club and gaze at him.” I chuckled. “I’d wear this big hat like something out of “Alice in Wonderland” so he wouldn’t recognize me. Then I’d go home and tell my husband I was at my book club or card game or something like that. I guess we’ve all done crazy things for love.”
“And we all have done crazy things in the French Quarter.” He raised his eyebrows.
“What kind of crazy things?” I asked, grinning. Before he could answer, Pauline poked her head in the side door.
“I was wondering what happened. Dinner’s about ready, honey.” She turned to me. “Would you like to stay? Nothing fancy—pork chops and Kraft dinner—but you’re welcome.”
I knew Pauline was only being polite, so I declined. “I’ll be back Saturday with your Skin-So-Soft,” I told her. Then I could engage Alvin some more.
As I walked toward the driveway, my pulse moved at a different beat and my senses sharpened. Saturday couldn’t come soon enough. The conversation tumbled around in my brain. I almost bumped into a young guy walking up the Priggetts’ driveway.
“Sorry, darlin’,” I said. “I’m a million miles away.”
“No problem, ma’am,” said the kid.
“You don’t have to ma’am me,” I said with a smile.
The kid kind of blushed. “Sorry about that. Do you know if the Priggetts are home? My mom made them these brownies.”
“Yeah, they’re there.”
He walked to the door and I hurried to my car. I pretended to be busy fooling with order forms, but my eyes focused on the boy. My mind hadn’t caught up to my senses yet; I just knew I had to absorb as much information as my brain could take in.
Then I saw Alvin open the door. His face lit up. After a short exchange, the young kid plodded back down the driveway. I peeked above my order forms at Alvin. He gazed, fixated, on this kid. The man lingered in the doorway staring after the boy. I drove off before he should notice me watching.
I woke up to a light rain that Saturday morning, and I drove out to Liberty Lane on a mission. I timed it early because I remembered Pauline took her daughter to dance class at this time. My heart beat faster the closer I got to the house. I wanted to dismiss this feeling, but how could I? After our talk and what I saw, I pieced together my idea of what happened. I had rehearsed over and over in my mind how to approach him with my knowledge.
“Yoohoo, anyone home?” I asked as I poked my head in the garage.
Alvin sat on his work bench carving out a new creation.
He smiled. “Come on in, Mathilda.”
I held up the bag. “I’ve got your lovely wife’s Avon.”
“I know she’ll be happy.” He reached into his pocket and pulled out his wallet. “How much do we owe you?”
“This one’s on me.”
“Thank you.” He held up a sculpted eagle. “That’s what I’m finishing now.”
So we got to talking about eagles. Then I took a deep breath and began my unofficial interrogation.
“That was a nice kid that brought the brownies the other day.”
“Brett? Oh, yeah.”
“Nice like Matthew, I suppose.”
My tone must have touched a nerve with him because I saw a little sweat trickle down his forehead. “You could say that.”
“How often did you tutor Matthew?”
He clutched the wooden bird. “Twice a week maybe. I don’t know. Whenever we could work it out.”
I breathed in the muggy air tinged with the smell of swamps, said a quick prayer, and spoke before I lost my nerve. “Mr. Priggett, don’t ask me how I know, but you and Matthew did more than study math in your tutoring sessions, didn’t you?”
His face gave him away. Sweat spurted out from places I didn’t know the body perspired.
“What are you talking about?! The nerve!”
I just looked at him, and he tried to look back. My eyes bored right through him, and he knew I could see into his soul. He dropped the carving, placed his head in his hands, and started sobbing. My initial reaction was to comfort him, but I had to stay firm.
“Tell me what happened.”
“How did you know? Nobody knew!”
“Never mind that.”
“Please don’t tell my wife. It would ruin her and the kids.”
“I want to know how Matthew’s car ended up in the swamp.”
“Dear God, you think I did it? I would never do anything like that. I cared about him.”
“You cared about him, yet you forced him to have sex with you?”
“I didn’t force him! He wanted to. I swear I wouldn’t force myself on anyone.”
“He was a kid!”
“No. He was 18 going on 19.”
“Oh, I see. A mature adult. Jesus!” I said.
He held his face in his hands and rocked back and forth.
“Listen, Alvin, you may as well spill or I’m going to think the worst.” I winced when I found my heart going out to him a little bit.
“Matthew came to me and said the tutoring sessions”—he made quotation marks in the air—”had to stop.”
“What reason did he give?”
Alvin got up and started pacing the garage. “He told me he felt dirty and ashamed.” His voice cracked. “He lived with the constant fear that people suspected. That’s all he said. He could barely look me in the eye.” He grabbed a rag and blew his nose into it. “Matthew was choking back tears. Finally, I held him in my arms, and he lost it and started sobbing. Then he tore away and ran out to the street and got in his car.”
“And that was the night he ended up in the swamp?”
I stood there wondering if the poor kid really lost control or deliberately ended his life. Alvin stopped pacing and sat on the workbench. He looked up at me, eyes wild with guilt and yet a slight relief because he finally spoke about something that festered inside of him for the past seventeen months.
We talked a while longer. Alvin assured he me had no designs on Brett or any other young neighborhood boys. I believed him. I could see how tore up he remained over Matthew’s death. So instead of revealing the whole truth out in the open, I ended up keeping it a secret between us. What would I accomplish if I told anyone? I’d break Pauline’s heart, ruin their family, and emotionally assault Matthew’s parents. Alvin’s facade would crumble one day, but who was I to choose when?
Not long after, I got Pauline to start selling Avon in the Liberty Lane subdivision. I told her the cost of gas to go out there and deliver ate up any sales profits I made. I really just didn’t want to be around Alvin, Pauline, and the Maguires holding a secret like that. I did see Alvin one time after, on one of my love missions to the French Quarter. He tucked into an unnamed bar on Bourbon Street across the street from the jazz club I was entering. He saw me and we gave each other a knowing glance.
Piper E Templeton is author of Rain Clouds and Waterfalls