From The Azalea Cottage
From The Azalea Cottage
Avondale, South Carolina
July 5, 2015
James Palmer Jones
Charlie Duncan settled his long slender frame onto the glider placed off to the side of the French doors leading from the kitchen onto the L-shaped front porch. He was proud of the little cottage Mary and he had selected for their retirement in the little sleepy community of Avondale located in the midlands of South Carolina.
The town was home for about 3000 residents and located about 30 miles outside of Columbia, the state capitol. If they could not find in Avondale whatever they needed then the stores in Columbia during one of their bi-weekly trips would fill the need. They would take an afternoon and complete their shopping, using a large cooler with ice to keep anything that needed cold storage and finish the day with dinner and maybe a movie.
Charlie kept one ear tuned to the stove just inside the double doors to the kitchen. He had their supper in the oven with the temperature set on low waiting for Mary to arrive home from her job. She was a registered nurse and worked 5 days per week managing the small office staff of Dr. Leland Cooper. Cooper owned a family practice and was the only medical doctor in all of Avondale. He would treat patients for all the common medical complaints but anything requiring a medical specialist was referred to other doctors in Columbia or Charleston.
Charlie was a retired U. S. Navy machinist mate having put in 31 years serving on flattops, the floating cities of the navy. He has graduated from his hometown high school in Ohio at 17. High school had been fun and he earned good grades in mathematics, English, and the sciences, but the shop classes were where he excelled. After graduation, he enrolled in the local vocational school for a 2-year program specializing in mechanics, carpentry, and metalworking. He loved working with his hands and the higher-level school provided the training that he would use throughout his entire naval career.
After vocational school, Charlie wanted to see the world and the navy seemed the best tool to provide free transportation and make a living. Along the way, he found that serving his country was something that filled him with pride.
In his 31-year hitch, he served on board five different aircraft carriers working in a variety of slots but finished the last 10 years as an auxiliary mechanic. As a member of the “A-gang”, Charlie’s work took him throughout the floating island and he became an expert in air conditioning and refrigeration, electrical and plumbing, wood and metalworking, and special systems throughout the vessel. He circumnavigated the globe 4 times and had a lifetime of wonderful memories.
His best memory was shore duty at the Charleston Navy Base before it’s closing during the downsizing of the military back in 1996. There he met and fell in love with Mary Pittman, a civilian nurse working at the Charleston Naval Hospital.
Charlie was on his first shore duty working in the repair shops on the base and needed some stiches from a minor wound caused by metal fragments from a large lathe. Mary had assisted the young doctor during the minor procedure. He had almost left the hospital without asking her for a date but summoned the nerve and retraced his steps back to her office. When he requested that she come out on a date for diner and a movie, the dark haired beauty never hesitated. They dated for almost a year and then married while Charlie still had almost 12 months remaining of shore duty. By the time he shipped out for his next blue water assignment, Charlie was the father of a beautiful little girl they named Catherine.
After the first tour of sea duty, which normally last for 54 months, the navy would assigned their ratings to 36 months of shore duty followed by another 36 months on a vessel at sea. Charlie would return from the sea and report to his next shore assignment. Mary would pack their belongings and bring Catherine to set up a new home wherever Charlie pulled duty. Within a few weeks upon arriving at their new temporary home, Mary would have the rented house organized and be out finding a new job using her nursing skills. It was while living in their second rented home that the owner placed the structure up for sale.
Mary’s folks had lived in only one home since they were married and she decided the life of a renter was not for her. She talked Charlie into buying the home. With their combined income and the off-base housing allowance he received from the navy, they easily handled the mortgage payments. When Charlie went back to sea, Mary and Catherine stayed behind in their home.
Three years later, Charlie came back ashore but to a different location. Mary decided to rent out the house and she along with Catherine moved to Charlie’s new base of duty. With the rental income from their first home making the mortgage payments and adding to a little fund for future repairs, they purchased a second home off base.
This process of buying and renting as they moved about the country paid off in big dividends after 30 years in naval service. They never lacked for finding good renters. There were always navy personnel looking for quality affordable homes to rent. It was almost an industry within itself.
When Charlie decided to put in his retirement papers, the couple had two homes fully clear of mortgages payments and two more with only a small amount left to pay off to the banks. Now they had to make a decision. Where would they live?
Charlie’s parents were both gone while Mary’s folks were retired and living east of Charleston. Therefore, South Carolina was the state. They settled in Avondale because Charlie decided he did not want to live near the sea. 31 years was enough. He was going to be a landlubber from now on. They sold the house with the highest property value and purchased the Azalea Cottage. The sale of their first home was free of capital gain taxes but not so were the other properties. To reduce their tax obligation, each year since then, they had sold off one of the other properties.
From the sale of the renter properties, they had a nice bank balance for their retirement. Charlie’s pension was coming in every month, and Mary had a regular paycheck. Their financial affairs were in good shape.
Catherine was every bit the joy that Charlie and Mary could have hoped. She was a happy child and just as smart as Mary, far more intelligent than Charlie could have dreamed. Catherine graduated near the top of her high school class and chose a path towards earning her own medical degree on a full scholarship. Now she was in her third year as a medical student at New York University.
For himself, Charlie knew he could not sit idle for the rest of his life. He was a man that loved to use his hands and he could fix almost anything made from wood or metal.
The first project was remodeling the cottage. Aluminum screening enclosed the large L-shape porch but the first spring experience with the pine pollen quickly prompted Charlie to enclose the porch with double pane windows. He extended the heating and cooling ductwork under the house to make the porch usable year round. Now it was his favorite place.
Once the house was finished, close neighbors started asking him to do little repair jobs to their homes. At first, it was just one or two projects but as his reputation grew, so did the request for his services. Suddenly he had more requests then he wanted and had he allowed, it would have become a full-time job.
Charlie started a home remodel business. He carefully selected the name for the company to reflect the type of work he wanted to do. Three Day Home Repairs. If he could not start and complete the project in 3 days, he turned it down. In addition, he only worked Tuesday through Thursday. He was far too busy with other work to leave the cottage for more than three days.
Monday was for general cleaning, washing clothes, mopping floors, and cleaning the bathrooms and kitchen. Fridays he allocated for larger projects, windows washing, mowing and trimming the yard, and working in the garden. If Mary were going to work 5 days per week, he would not have her come home to a house full of work.
The Azalea Cottage was about 1800 square feet of internal living space and another 300 square feet with the enclosed porch that they used year round. It had three bedrooms, one converted to an office, and two full baths. Plenty of storage space for their needs and a large laundry room. The detached carport was large enough for Mary’s Grand Marquis and Charlie’s 4-wheel drive F-150 he used to haul his tools and equipment.
The house set on a ¾-acre lot with a small front lawn and lined on both sides by rows of azaleas bushes. The back yard was nearly 3 times larger than the front and towards the rear was Charlie’s workshop, the size of a normal 3-car garage. Here he stored his utility trailer for his work in one bay and the riding lawn mower and a workbench in the middle section. The right bay was the envy of any man that loved to work with their hands. Metal and wood lathes, drill press and sander, a combination table saw and a radial arm saw. Saw horses, vices, and any hand tool that could reduce the amount of time and labor for any project. A lover of woodworking could get lost in the shop.
Charlie rose from the glider and entered the kitchen. He checked on their supper. All was well. They were having frozen left overs of meatloaf and scalloped potatoes. He would put on some frozen lima beans from their freezer. Their inventory of frozen vegetables from last year’s garden was getting low but fresh vegetables would be coming on from the garden in a few months if the summer heat did not burn them out.
He retook his place on the glider. The street was quiet this Friday afternoon. They lived on a dead end street with only one house between their property and the woods at the end of the street.
Charlie thought about his week. He had returned late last night from a 3-day trip to Buffalo. An old friend had passed away and he had driven north alone for the funeral. Mary had stayed behind due to the number of other employees at the clinic being off on vacation.
James Palmer Jones has been retired from the navy for over 20 years. He had served similar as Charlie, but left the service as a master chief machinist mate. He had been Charlie’s first on-board instructor and they had served together twice while both were in the navy.
As brothers in arms, they had been inseparable while on the water or in any foreign port of call. Charlie had felt like he had lost a brother with JP’s death.
James Palmer Jones had only been in the navy about ten minutes when other naval men twisted his name into John Paul Jones. At first, he had been good-natured about the puns and he would laugh them off with all the other jokes that came his way with connection to the famous sailor from American’s history during the Revolutionary War. Over time he grew weary of the jokes and adopted the shorten name J. P. Jones. He kept insisting that his friends call him JP, or not to call him at all.
By the time Charlie was accepted within JP’s circle of friends, nobody ever referred to JP by the previous nickname. The man’s reputation as a master chief machinist mate was legendary within the navy and no one would dare to mess with a legend.
As Charlie stood alongside the gravesite of his old comrade, his mind went through a thousand memories of his ten years with JP before the older man retired and took his pension to live with his wife’s family back in Pennsylvania. They had kept in touch with each other despite the generational difference in age. They were good friends and naval shipmates. That is a bond, which can never be broken.
Charlie was standing on the side of the grave away from JP’s wife of nearly 30 years, his three children, and an unknown number of grandchildren. The widow, Amber Jones, welcomed Charlie with open arms during the receiving hours at the funeral home prior to the services. She introduced him to her family and Charlie tried to remember as many names as possible.
He had some nice memories of Amber and a few diners at their home during time spent on shore. Sometimes Mary had been able to come along. However, most of his memories were with just JP and himself. Working together onboard ship or in one of the huge machine shops on a navy base.
Of course, there were the many liberties calls when the big ship would enter a US Navy base or foreign port. Whenever possible, he and JP would take liberty together. As married men, they respected their wedding vows and avoided the strip joints or other places of interest that tried to separate a sailor from his money. Normally they would find a nice restaurant and enjoy food not prepared in quantity to feed thousands. Afterwards they would look for a quiet bar and enjoy their time drinking a few beers. If they were in a foreign port, they would try to find good local brews but would always return to the ship sober and ready for their next watch.
Charlie took his drinking habit from JP. The older man had told him a number of stories about his early drinking days before he married Amber. He had lived a single man’s life and enjoyed the opportunities that came to a single man.
The afternoon sun beat down on Charlie’s back. The dark suite he had worn for the burial service was soaking up the heat and he wished now he could have worn something less heavy. The sunshine made he think about one of the last foreign liberty calls with JP.
The ship was in harbor at Fleet Activities Yokosuka in Tokyo Bay. They had made liberty and JP was taking Charlie to a restaurant he had visited several times in the past. This was going to be JP’s last visit to Japan and they were going alone. They rented a car and drove about 15 miles outside the city. The restaurant was in the country and after removing their shoes, the hostess took them to a table next to a window overlooking the rear of the property.
The time was in early February and Japan was experiencing colder than normal winter weather. The daily high was only in the low thirties and a recent snowfall covered the normal bare countryside.
JP was staring out the window. The look on his face seemed to put him miles away. Charlie followed the look of his friend. “How many times have you been here before JP?”
JP jerked his head away from the view through the window and looked back towards Charlie. “What? Oh. I’ve been here twice before but never in the winter. Normally you can see a pasture field rising slightly behind the restaurant. The snow cover reminds me of a time many years ago when I was home for my first liberty from sea. My parents were excited as all get out about my coming home. They had organized this big party my first night home, invited all the neighbors to come over for a barbeque and drinks.”
JP stopped talking and turned his face once again towards the outside. He seemed in deep thought as he reflected on the old memories. Charlie could see a small smile creep onto his face. A smile that was reminiscent of the old JP he had heard a few stories about from older shipmates.
He decided to through a longshot. “It must have been quite a party to hold long memories.”
JP turned back to face Charlie. “I was young, single, and just home from a long stretch at sea. At that time in my life, I was not interested in a neighborhood party. I was hoping to get into town, maybe find a few old friends of mine, and maybe hook up with something that did not smell of diesel oil. Something very soft that smelled like perfume or lilacs. I’ve always had a soft spot for the smell of lilac.”
Charlie laughed. “I assume the neighborhood party was not about to offer any earthly delights in the way you were hoping.”
JP lowered his head, swinging it side to side as he laughed and snorted. “Not a chance. My parents lived out in the country just like this area. All the homes had large lots and there were maybe 50 or 60 yards between each house. Everybody had lived in their homes for years. I was the youngest person at the party by almost twenty years. Hell, most of the people were like parents to me. I loved them all but none of them smelled like lilacs.”
Charlie could feel something was building in JP’s story. “So what happened that night?”
JP straightened in his chair and rested his elbows on the tabletop. He laced his fingers together finally tilting the right index finger towards Charlie. “This stays between us brothers, right?”
Charlie tilted his own head. “Brothers until we die.”
JP leaned in a little closer to Charlie. “My parent’s home was at the edge of an older section of town and next to a wide gully. On the other side of the gully, a development company started a new housing subdivision. They were building those new ranch homes. All one-story houses the younger newlyweds were buying up as fast as the contractors could build them.
“One of the new home owners was a deputy sheriff with the local office and my father invited him over for the party. It seemed since the guy and his wife were about my same age, my parents had taken a real shine to them. Well, they showed up somewhat late, as everyone else at the party was getting ready to leave. It seemed he worked a swing shift on the department and this was as early as they could arrive.”
JP slowly shook his head. “This guy was big. I mean about 6 feet five inches tall and probably 250 pounds. When he walked into a room, everybody noticed. At least they did until his wife walked in beside him. She was something, Doris Day beautiful. She had the perfect smile, the bluest eyes, with little freckles along her nose. That girl could make your heart stop.”
He stopped talking for about a minute and Charlie waited for the story to continue. JP took his partly empty bottle of beer and reset it further away from the table’s edge. “They only stayed about half an hour. The husband, Larry Whitfield I think was his name, was so full of himself. He was the big cop, and most of the time they were at the party, he talked about some big bar fight he broke up or some big arrest he made. The whole time his wife just stood next to him with her fingers looped inside his belt. Just looked up at him and smiled. I was never so envious of any man before.”
“What was her name?”
“Samantha. Samantha Whitfield.”
Charlie smiled back to his friend. “So what happen?”
JP let a little grin appear on his face. “Nothing. Nothing happened at all until they were getting ready to leave. They were among the very last to leave and I walked with my parents to the door. It was winter and I handled them their overcoats. Larry took his but I helped Samantha with hers. When she finally zipped the coat closed, she offered me her hand. You know, as a goodbye gesture. I took her hand as anybody normally would but she took her middle finger, and curled it inside my hand and rubbed it against my palm. Man, my arm felt like I had grabbed a live electrical wire.”
Charlie laughed again. “So what happen next?”
JP’s head swayed side to side again. “She just kept a normal smile on her face the whole time. She wished me a happy vacation and hoped they would see me again before I had to leave to return to my ship.”
Charlie took a sip from his beer bottle. “So nothing happened.”
“Not that night”, was JP’s reply.
“I was home for two weeks. Several times, I would drive my mom into work at the Kroger store. She was a cashier. That gave me a car to drive and I would visit some friends during the day. A couple of times, when I was coming home, I would see Samantha out in the yard working. She would always give me a big wave and smile. One day, close to dinnertime, I arrived home as she was at the road getting the mail from the mailbox. I stopped the car just to say hello. She was very friendly and told me I just had to stop over for a drink before I needed to ship out. I told her I would be happy to visit and asked when Larry would be home. With him working those swing shifts, I never knew when he had duty.”
JP paused. “She looked at me with those big innocent blue eyes. Just told me the Larry was on duty but had called earlier and would be working a double shift. She did not expect him home until after 7 a.m. the next morning. I should come over anytime for that drink.”
“Well, let me tell you. I could hardly swallow my food during dinner. Afterwards I just sat around the house. When my mother asked if I was going out I told her I wanted to stay home with her and dad. She was so happy.”
Charlie was slowly shaking his head. “Okay. You’ve got me hooked. What happened next?”
JP looked out the window and then back to Charlie. “Several times during the evening I would walk to the window and look at her house. The weatherman had been calling for a snowstorm to move in and I would tell my parents I was just checking the weather. They bought the story.
“At 10 p.m., my parents went to bed. I stayed up a little longer but finally went up to my room. We had a two-story home and their bedroom was at the front of the house but away from Samantha. Mine was in the back and I could see her house out the side window. I would look out the window every few minutes checking on the lights in her house. It was completely dark except for a light in the back of the house. I think there was still the light above the kitchen sink burning. I waited until almost 11 p.m. and finally grabbed my coat and slipped down the stairs and out the back door so my parents would not see me if they happened to look out their own bedroom window. I needed to walk up the hill about 25 or 30 yards to make my way above the gully where it finally leveled out with the land. So I make a big u-shape path up, over, and down into her yard. I got to the back door but before I could knock, Samantha opened the door. Damn near scared the hell out of me.”
“Where the hell have you been”, she asked. She grabbed me by my coat, pulled me inside, and slammed the door shut. There was no light other that small bulb over the kitchen sink but it was enough for me to see those eyes and lips. Whatever guilt or doubt I had before I entered that kitchen was gone in a heartbeat. We locked lips liked I had never done before. We intertwined our arms and legs right there in the kitchen.”
JP shook his head. “We intertwined in the dining room, the living room, and sometime after that we made it to the bedroom. I am going to have to go senile before I ever forget that night. About four-thirty or five o’clock she told me I needed to go home. Sometimes, if Larry worked a double shift, he would get home a few hours early if the night had been quiet.”
JP looked Charlie directly in the eyes. “My friend, I can tell you I was worn out and ready to go home. Besides, the last thing I wanted was to be there when big Larry arrived home. I got my clothes back on, pulled my shoes on, and tied the laces. We hurried to the back door and she gave me a last big kiss. She opened the door, wished me well, and practically shoved me out the door. I can still feel the door hitting me in the back and knocking me a half step away from the house.
“The cold night air really brought me back to my senses. I had just spent over five hours with another man’s wife. I wanted to get home as fast as my legs would carry me. That was when I first notice the snow. It must have started right after I entered the home. Four or five inches covered the ground.
“Well, I hurried back up the hill and followed the same path on my return trip. I made it to my own backdoor without any problem and slipped inside the back porch. I left my wet shoes there but I doubt my mother would notice. It was nearly five-thirty by my bedside clock when I climbed into my own bed.”
Charlie laughed once again. “That is a night that you will always remember.”
JP shook his head. “It wasn’t the night that I remember most. It was the next day. I never went to sleep. Too worked up I guess. I came down in the morning for breakfast. My mother was hurrying to get ready for work and all excited about the snow. She had breakfast already made and dad was sitting there drinking his coffee. He had a truck with snow tires and chains and would drive mom in to work and then go onto the garage where he worked as a mechanic. When mom went back upstairs to finish getting ready for work, he just set his coffee cup down and looked me right in my face.”
“You had better be careful if you go outside today. It looks like we might have had a visit by a bear during the night. They sometimes come in close out here looking for food. It has been years since we last had a bear wonder in this close to the homes. I think I was even younger than you are now.”
“Bear? I’ve never heard of a bear in this area Dad, much less seen one. Are they dangerous?”
JP looked at Charlie. “Well, my dad just shrugged his shoulders. He told me the last time a bear came into the neighborhood was before they had dart guns to put the bear to sleep. They just called the local cops and they shot the bear.
“I asked him if the bears were big in this area. He just shrugged his shoulders and told me to check it out for myself.’
“Go look for yourself. He left his footprints in the snow.”
“I got up from the dining room table and hurried to the back door. Sure enough, there they were. My foot steps in the snow, perfectly clear, from the night before. Right up the hill, past the gully, and down the hill stopping right at the back door to Larry Whitfield’s house.”
JP sat back in his chair. “I couldn’t believe it. I had been so careful. When I got back to the table, my dad looked me right in the eyes. “Bear tracks in the snow, a sure sign of trouble.”
Charlie was laughing so hard he nearly spilled his own beer bottle. “So what happen? Did the Whitfield man ever find out about your late night visit?”
JP slowly shook his head. “Luck favors the foolish. Whitfield came home late due to the storm and went right to bed for over eight hours. By the time he woke up it was dark again. Overnight a warm front moved in and the snow was gone before he could discover my tracks. I can tell you this; it was the longest day and a half I ever spent in my life. I left for my trip back to the base and never saw him or her again.”
Charlie Duncan noticed the people beginning to leave the gravesite. He had been reminiscing about JP throughout the entire service. When Amber Jones approached and asked if he had time to come back to the church for a light meal, he looked the women in the eyes and told her he needed to get moving back home. He would miss his friend. JP might have lived a wild life before he met Amber. However, he had been faithful and in love with her from their first day until the last day of their lives together.
Charlie seen Mary’s car turn the corner towards their house. He quickly rose from the glider and entered through the French doors. It was time to put the lima beans on the stove.
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This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, business, organization, places, event, and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination or used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
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