Mrs. Sloan was 250 pounds of female brawn topped off by a wiry no nonsense Brillo pad bun of graying hair. She had served her time honorably in the Army and mustered out a full sergeant to marry her ornery equal – an explosive bond doomed from the start.
I came to know her many years later through our occasional encounters at the common trash dump that served our adjoining properties. Sloan had become the pillar of strength upon which Mrs. Lily Weathersby, the owner of the last great Victorian house on Riverside Avenue, relied. As Mrs. Lily faded into the safety of her dotage, Sloan rode herd on the 30 rambunctious pre-schoolers who attended Mrs. Lily’s Little Blessings nursery school that kept her estate from falling into debt.
It was a low day for me then as I descended our back stairs while gripping two bags of trash destined for the dump. Things between my second husband and me were beginning to go wildly wrong. I had been raised by a mother who was insatiably unsatisfied and displeased with me, and she left me with deep childhood wounds and self doubt. Guilt, nagging fear and uncertainty constantly dogged my footsteps. Wilbur was an angry, emotionally painful man to be tied to. He knew my weaknesses and played them to the fullest.
We had recently moved to Jacksonville. I had no family, few friends and was left with little strength to summon forth what I needed to make a stand against Wilbur’s anger and accusations. I didn’t want to risk a divorce in my lonely world, and the fear of fueling a nasty nervous breakdown that had occurred a few years earlier hung over me like a waiting harpy from hell.
Sloan and I exchanged the greetings of the day when I arrived at the trash dump. She stood dangling one arm over a wooden post that supported the fence, leaning in slightly as she fished out a cigarette and lighter from her apron pocket. With single handed ease she braced the cigarette between her teeth with thumb and forefinger, and lit it in commanding military fashion. Then, she blew out the smoke, looked at me in sharp eyed awareness and addressed the moment with a lightening inspection of my countenance.
I didn’t think my distress was that obvious, but she swept me up in well-practiced scrutiny, put her free hand on her big hip and asked, “So what’s made you look like some drowning cat going down for the last time?” That did it. I launched into a full account of my woes with Wilbur, the one who made it all seem so impossible. Sloan didn’t bat an eye as she listened, but somewhere through my tale, I realized that a flood of old memories were boiling to the surface within her. Then in an instant, she fixed a hard stare far away, shifted her weight and launched into a diatribe.
“Ain’t that just like them damned men! Had one 20 years ago. Put out five kids in blood ‘n raised ‘em without a damned bit a help or thank you while he drank himself into meaness every day. Some days just into pure ragin’ meaness. Always promisin’ to change ‘n blamin’me for his trouble. ’N me just puttin’ up ‘n takin’ it ‘cause I’m blamin’ myself thinkin’ I’m too military and not female enough to be a good wife. ‘Sides, I thought those kids needed a daddy ‘n I didn’t have the money to get out anyhow. Just couldn’t get up no back bone with that son of a bitch.
Then one day I was in the bathroom sittin’ there on top of the toilet seat crying by myself. ‘N I said to God, ‘Tell me what to do ‘cause I can’t take it no more ‘n I’m just plain wore out.’
‘N I swear by god, I heard Him speak to me right there ‘n then. ‘N He said, ‘You stand up and defend yourself and those kids, an’ you be proud of yourself, ‘n I’ll be with you ever’ step of the way.’ Well, I knew what I heard ‘n I believed Him. I got up off that toilet, put my coat on, wrapped those kids up in the car ‘n drove away as far ’n as fast as I could get. ‘N that worthless bastard was too damn drunk to even know I left.
Well, I had it tough alright, but I didn’t look back. Found my way ‘n raised those kids up right with what I had in me. ‘N God stayed with me all the way. I knew I was gonna‘ be all right. Never turned back. ‘N I ain’t never let no damn man tell me what to do again.”
She took one last deep drag on her cigarette, threw it to the ground, crushed it out with her heel and headed back to the nursery school playground that rang with the chaos of squeals, kids and pre-school screams. I am not sure that she even remembered I was there. But oh, I had listened carefully. Something out there knew what I needed to hear, and I knew exactly what I had heard. Three months later, Wilbur and I were divorced.
Soon after that Mrs. Lily had a stroke and Mrs. Sloan stayed with her in the great house until she passed on. I lived on my corner for a while, lonesome but safe with a future waiting to be made. Some say Sloan inherited the great house after Mrs. Lily passed on, but I never saw her again.
Sandy Hartman www.eonwriter.com