*This piece is part of a story sequence title The Moving of Water, set in the mid-1960s in Utica, NY, grounded in the Welsh-American immigration experience. The full collection will be available September of 2018 through SUNY Press.
Mae Williams liked her days to be organized. Nearing eighty, she couldn’t do as much for herself as she wanted, so she allowed others to help, mostly women from church. In return, she’d babysit for them at no cost, as long as the parents brought the children to her apartment and picked them up. She rarely left the apartment – except to walk the one block to Bethesda Church. When her mother died at age eighty-nine, Mae moved from the house where she’d lived for forty years to the small Elm St. apartment, though the neighborhood wasn’t the best.
Most of her days revolved around church activities or occasional visitors arriving with her week’s groceries or prescriptions for arthritis and high blood pressure, or the few purchases needed to maintain her simple life – a radio she called her “wireless” that finally broke and no parts could be found to repair it, light bulbs when the existing ones burned out, tissues when one of the boxes left around the apartment had been emptied.
The apartment was simply organized, modeled on the little terrace house in Llanberis in Wales where she’d grown up – a front parlor, small dining room, tiny kitchen and pantry, and two bedrooms, one of which she used as a sewing room. In Llanberis, her mother had fretted about how the parlor might look to passersby peeking through the front curtained windows from the street – which is why during a period when her father was earning good wages in the slate mine, they bought a second-hand spinet and set it opposite the window, though none in the family could play it. They never allowed Mae to touch a key. But once, with both parents out of the house, she pressed a white key – and was surprised when it didn’t make a sound. She pressed a black key – no sound. Then she struck the white key hard and heard something – a dull reverberation from deep within.
Lewis Bowen always walked Mae to the eleven o’clock church service, and she enjoyed his company. Lately, though, she’d been worried about him – since his son had died in that overseas war, he hadn’t been himself. He looked shifty and skittish, as if he were hiding something. He’d stopped telling the jokes he used to try out on her – jokes Mae didn’t understand, though she always laughed after what she took to be the punch line. She wanted to tell Lewis something that might comfort him. But she never did, hesitant to upset the routine they’d established.
Every Sunday after the service Lewis would walk Mae back to her apartment before rejoining his family. She’d have a few hours to herself then, before one of the deacons or elders would drive her to a parishioner’s house for Sunday dinner. She knew they had organized a rotation so that no family would be too burdened – last week it was the Richards family, next week Mr. and Mrs. Parry. After dining with a succession of different families for eight or nine weeks, she’d find herself back at the first house. She hoped her hosts enjoyed her company. She couldn’t talk about the politics of the city or the nation, or the new play at the Stanley, or modern books. She made what conversation she could – about Llanberis in her youth, or stories about her aunt and uncle, and the fish-and-chips shop they kept in the village in the years when everyone spoke Welsh and went to chapel at least twice a week.
Mae was an only child, never married, so her experience was limited. Emigrating to America was the biggest thing ever to happen to her – she was nineteen, her mother thirty-nine, her father forty-one. She never owned a television – didn’t enjoy that thing always talking in people’s living rooms. She knew she repeated her stories, though no one except the youngest children ever pointed that out. Sometimes when the family hosting a Sunday dinner included teenagers, she would detect a smirk or a giggle at her expense. The father or mother would frown sternly – and the offending children would stare at their plates until finally released to the TV. She didn’t mind, not really, and she hoped they weren’t punished after she’d left. She’d been young once too, and knew that old people can seem like creatures from another world. There were, of course, stories that she didn’t tell. About drunk Uncle Robert deliberately making her mother cry during Christmas dinner when she was twelve. Or, worse, about Geraint bringing flowers the day he proposed, talking to her parents in the parlor, behind a shut door while Mae sat alone at the kitchen table.
After everyone had finished tea and dessert, Mae would be driven back to her apartment, when she’d have a few hours to prepare for babysitting – she only accepted children between the ages of seven and ten. If they were very young, they made Mae nervous – she was too old to chase them, and fearful that they might fall and hurt themselves. And if older than ten they might become bored and unhappy, staring out the window even when asked direct questions. But children between seven and ten generally laughed when she laughed, did as they were told. And they liked card games, so they would help Mae set up a card table in her dining room with cookies and juice, and she and the children would play Pennies from Heaven, Old Maid, or Canasta until eight o’clock, when the parents would arrive. The only time she ever felt a bit annoyed was when parents were late. They’d apologize, and she’d insist that it didn’t matter. But she thought they should not presume that she had nothing to do of an evening except care for their children.
Mae opened the door to see Twm Kendrick, in tan trousers and white shirt, holding a black gun, finger on the trigger, the long muzzle pointed at Mae.
“A present for his ninth birthday,” the boy’s father said. “He’s been asking for a machine gun since he saw one on TV – what was it Twm? Four months ago?”
“Al Capone had it,” the boy put in.
“And now,” the father continued, “he won’t go anywhere without the ghastly thing. Do you mind? It doesn’t shoot bullets, and it won’t make any noise.”
Mae said she didn’t mind, if it was just a toy.
Mr. Kendrick laughed a little too loudly. Twm scowled. She could see his finger lightly flicking the trigger.
“Now, Twm,” Mr. Kendrick said, putting a hand on the boy’s head, “you must mind Miss Williams. Do exactly as she says. Sling the machine gun over your shoulder using the strap, as I showed you. You won’t lose it that way. And remember what we talked about: no pinching, no biting. Do you understand?”
Twm nodded. Mae noticed that the boy now aimed the muzzle at his father.
“Good. I’ll be back by eight.” Mr. Williams gave Twm a little push towards Mae. “I’m sure he’ll be no trouble.”
When Mr. Kendrick had left, Mae told Twm she would give him a tour of her apartment. She planned to finish in the kitchen, when she would offer bara brith with butter. She hoped he would then put his machine gun down, and they could start a card game.
“Here are my parents,” she told him, pointing to a framed portrait of a grim elderly couple, dressed in black. “I always begin my tour with them. When that photograph was taken they were younger than I am now. Can you imagine that? They were more old-fashioned even than me.”
“You can’t see that man’s mouth because of his mustache,” said Twm. “How did he eat?”
“Oh, like the rest of us,” Mae said. “Though he used his napkin more often.”
“Are they dead?” Twm asked.
“My father passed away twenty-eight years ago, bless him. My mother two years after that.”
Twm examined the photograph carefully. “They don’t look nice,” he said. “They look as if they don’t give presents.”
“Oh, no,” Mae replied. “They certainly … well they certainly were … nice in their way.”
Next to the photograph was a glass vase of small purple flowers. Twm slung the machine gun over his shoulder. “What are these?” he asked. He touched a petal.
“Primroses. A bouquet of primroses. Don’t they smell wonderful?”
Twm sniffed, and shrugged his shoulders. “Mother’s Day was last week.”
“They’re not for Mother’s Day, dear.”
“Well, they’re pretty aren’t they?”
“They’re from a friend.”
“Did your boyfriend give them?”
Mae was startled by the question. “I was thinking we might play a card game tonight,” she said. “I love cards. Have you ever played Pennies from Heaven? Or Canasta?”
“Old Maid!” the boy shouted, a crafty look in his eyes. “I want to play Old Maid!”
“Certainly,” Mae said. “We could.”
“My dad says if you had a boyfriend, he’d be older than you and probably dead.”
“Oh, my goodness,” Mae said. She dropped onto the parlor couch.
“If you had a boyfriend, how come you didn’t marry him?”
Mae was staring at the vase of flowers.
After a quick glance at Mae, Twm grabbed the bouquet from the vase with both hands, and ran from the parlor.
“Twm!” Mae called from the couch. She saw a trail of water drops and a few primroses along the carpet, which she followed to her bedroom. A black muzzle poked out from under the bed.
“Twm,” Mae said, “I know that you’re hiding beneath the bed. You must come out.”
“I have a hostage,” he said. He thrust out the bouquet, gripped by the stems, and yanked it back under. “So don’t try anything funny.”
“Please give me the flowers,” Mae said. “They’re important to me.”
“We can set up a card table in the dining room,” she said, without much conviction.
“Why are the flowers important to you if you don’t have a boyfriend or he’s dead? Why aren’t they just flowers that don’t smell much?”
Mae walked back to the front parlor. She stared at the photograph of her parents and the empty vase. She sat on the couch, tugged a handkerchief from her sleeve and began to softly cry.
Twm appeared in the doorway, walked to the vase, and stuffed the bent, disheveled primroses back in. He spread them out, drooping and twisted.
“Good as new,” he said.
He aimed his machine gun at the photograph of Mae’s parents, and pressed the trigger. “Rat a tat a tat a tat,” he shouted. “Rat a tat a tat a tat a tat a tat.” He looked over at Mae. “Stop crying,” he told her. “I didn’t kill the hostage. The hostage is OK, see?” He pointed his gun towards the primroses. “I killed the bad people.”
“I did that for you,” he said. “I felt sorry for you.”
Mae said nothing.
“I said, ‘I did that for you.’ Did you hear?”
“It’s too late,” she said.
Mae wiped her eyes one last time and slipped her handkerchief up her sleeve.
“Can I have something to eat?” Twm lowered the muzzle. “I’m hungry.”
“Hungry?” Mae sounded bewildered. “For food?”
“I’m starving. I’m always starving.”
“I have bara brith in the kitchen.”
“My Nain made that before she died. She was like you, skinny. Skinny as a rail my dad says. Do you have milk?”
“I hope he wasn’t too much trouble,” Mr. Kendrick said when Mae opened the door.
“He’s certainly a hand full,” Mae said.
“Two hands,” he replied. “Sometimes three.”
Twm stood behind her, the machine gun slung on his shoulder, arms at his sides, staring straight ahead. “I’m not going home,” he announced. “I’m staying with this old lady. She needs me.”
“Of course you’re coming home,” Mr. Kendrick said. “Your mother’s waiting in the car. We’re leaving right now. And don’t refer to Miss Williams that way. It’s rude. Now, what did you and Miss Williams do tonight? No pinching I hope. And of course, no biting.”
“First I had to kill bad people.”
“Certainly you did. Bad people sometimes need to be killed.” He winked at Mae. “What an imagination. Isn’t he something else? I only wish it could translate into decent grades at school. Or at least decent behavior.” He returned his attention to Twm. “After killing the bad people what did you do? Did you bury them? Did you have a funeral? Did you say a prayer?”
“No. We ate raisin bread, then played Old Maid. I won, she lost.”
“Did she? Did she indeed? Miss Williams, if you don’t mind me asking, is that true? You played a card game with Twm?”
Mae cleared her throat softly. “Yes, it’s true.”
“You have quite the way with children, Miss Williams,” he said, nodding his head in admiration. “I think Twm will want to visit with you again.”
In her bedroom, Mae removed from the closet the one elegant dress she owned – a flouncy, joyful purple, reaching almost to her ankles but hanging loosely over her humped shoulders and boney hips. It was a dress she’d brought from Wales, lasting so long because she cared for it so well. She put on the dress and brushed her thin, gray hair with quick strokes. She fastened a string of pearls around her neck. She slipped on the shoes she’d worn to church that morning. In the bathroom she applied lipstick sparingly – one tube could last the better part of a year. The church women must have been surprised when lipstick appeared on her shopping list. They’d never seen her wear any in church – or on any occasion.
At nine o’clock the doorbell rang, as it always did. And as always, Mae walked slowly to answer it, savoring each step. She opened the door to a familiar face – Geraint, with a bouquet of primroses, which she accepted with a bow of thanks. After she arranged them in a vase by her parents’ photograph, the two sat side by side on the couch and talked – in Welsh of course – about the village in which they both grew up. They told each other stories. She spoke about her favorite cousin who’d died near the end of the First World War. He spoke about his parents, Ifor and Eluned, and the terrible years after his father lost his job because of the miners’ strike. As he spoke, she admired his soft, brown curls, his earnest expression. She never felt as if she were repeating her stories, and Geraint always seemed interested.
He’d end the visit the same way each time. “I must be going,” he’d say, glancing at his pocket watch – a watch she suspected he wore only for these visits. “I’ve kept you long enough.”
“Oh, dear me,” she’d say. “I feel as if you just arrived. But yes, it is late, isn’t it? Almost ten. How does time go by so quickly?”
“How indeed?” he’d reply, and then he’d stand.
She’d walk him to the door. In the hallway he’d turn and ask the two questions he always asked at the conclusion of his nightly visit.
“Why did you leave? Did you really have to leave?”
And she’d say, “Yes. I did, you know. I was only a girl. Just a village girl.”
“Oh no,” he would say. “You were far more than that.”
“I had to do what they told me to do. I had no choice. They didn’t give me a choice.”
And that’s when he’d look at her fully, openly.
“I had written it out you know, everything I wanted to say so I wouldn’t make a mistake. About the job at my uncle’s grocery on the high street. Everything. It was your mother who objected, more than your father. Your mother.”
She’d blush, feeling her face prickle.
“And if they had to leave, I wish they had let you stay,” Geraint would say next. “In the village with me. Or at least in Wales.”
“But you were happy enough,” Mae would say. “You married, didn’t you? You raised a family. You had a good life in the village.”
“Yes,” he’d say. And he’d say nothing for a moment. “I did marry. I had a family. But you know ….”
At that point she’d stop him. “Please,” she’d say, “we mustn’t. This has been such an agreeable visit.” She didn’t want the evening to turn sad. Not after such pleasant conversation.
That was all the urging he’d need. He’d smile, bow his head, and turn from her, walking down the hallway, disappearing as completely as if he’d never been there at all.
David Lloyd is the author of 10 books, including a novel, Over the Line (2013) and two fiction collections, Boys: Stories and a Novella (2004) and The Moving of the Water (forthcoming from SUNY Press, 2018). His three poetry collections are Warriors (Salt Publishing, 2012), The Gospel According to Frank (New American Press, 2009), and The Everyday Apocalypse (Three Conditions Press, 2002). His stories and poems have appeared in numerous journals, including Crab Orchard Review, Denver Quarterly, DoubleTake, and Stone Canoe. He directs the Creative Writing Program at Le Moyne College in Syracuse, NY.