My Southern Legitimacy Statement: You can easily hear it when I talk, and even other southerners ask me where, exactly, I’m from. I have deep roots in the coalfield south. I am from a working class, multigenerational mountain family, most of whom still live in Harts, WV. I was one of the few who left and, after some misadventures, earned a MA in English, as well as a PhD in Human Development from Virginia Tech. I write creatively and professionally about intimacy, aging, and coalfield Appalachia. And even though I live in New England these days (!), I still eat soup beans and cornbread for supper.
Of A Certain Age
Peg stood in front of her closet trying to decide what to wear. She tried to think of what was stylish now for women of a certain age. She didn’t want to dress like a teenager, but she didn’t want to seem too matronly either. Did she have anything timeless? That’s what she wanted to say, that her attractions were timeless.
Her husband, Rick, had been dead many years. She was only 51 when he died from complications of black lung disease. She’d dated a few times since his death, but the budding relationships had died on the vine. She blamed herself. She felt right away that they only wanted a wife, someone to cook and clean for them. But this time it felt different. She was attracted to Jamey. She liked him as a person. She wouldn’t mind being a wife to him.
She remembered how throughout her fifties she’d been proud of her hourglass figure, even if she had been a few pounds heavier than she liked. These days a paunch threatened to force her into new pants, while her legs and hips grew thinner each month—she felt increasingly birdlike.
The phone rang. It was her daughter asking if she’d watch the kids while she went to the store. Shortly before Peg turned 60 her daughter came back home, fleeing an abusive marriage with two kids in tow. After a year of living together, Peg found a used single-wide trailer in good condition and at a good price. Peg and her daughter had it set up on the other end of the property so that the kids could easily run back and forth between the houses. But sometimes Peg had to set limits with how much childcare she would do. She wouldn’t miss church to babysit.
Jamey had been coming to church for the last few weeks. At first Peggy hadn’t paid him much attention. Like all newcomers she hoped he’d come back, become a part of their communion of believers, but she’d seen enough come and go that she didn’t get her hopes up. Contrary to her expectations Jamey kept coming to church. It had been over two months. And what’s more he’d begun to show Peg attention, although she wondered if his attentions were just in her imagination. He was older than her, but tall and strong. Virile, the word came to her unbidden.
On the drive over the mountain, Peg decided to be bold, to find a way to sit beside him at the potluck after church. She arrived at the church twenty minutes early and put her contribution to the potluck—a chicken noodle casserole and brownies—in the kitchen. She’d been a part of the congregation for decades—it was a home to her—and didn’t bother turning on the lights when she walked into the kitchen. As she came back out the door she met Jamey face and eyes.
She jumped and said, “Oh!” She felt the slow rise of a blush creep into her cheeks.
“I’m sorry. Did I scare you?” He asked with a chuckle.
“Just a little. Did you bring a dish?” she asked noticing the pot in his hands.
“Yes, some chili. It’s one of the few things I can cook good.”
As she planned, they sat next to each other at the potluck. He even noticed that she was coming towards him and patted a seat next to himself. They talked about the preacher’s message, forgiveness, about their grandchildren, and how they hoped it would be a mild winter.
When they got to take their styrofoam plates to the trash their eyes met. There it was again, a meaningful glance. Self-conscious smiles. She wasn’t imagining things. She wanted to squeal like a girl.
After the potluck, Jamey felt restless and excited. He got into his car but didn’t want to go home. He felt a stirring in his loins that he hadn’t felt for a while. He’d go to the park and drive around—for old time’s sake. Nothing had to happen. Once he started going to church he’d decided to stay away. But it was such a nice, sunny evening, a drive through wouldn’t hurt anything.
“I gotta get to the park for a while. Was you heading to mommy’s?” Julie asked.
“You’re still doing that? I thought you was getting too old,” Sylvie said.
“Not too old until I’m too old. I don’t do it much though, only when money’s tight.”
“How will you know when you’re too old?”
“No dates,” Julie said laughing.
“Well, you must not have gone through the change yet. You ain’t gonna want to do it then.”
“Why not? I don’t want to now, don’t mean I can’t.”
“It hurts. Once you go through the change, a man will make you hurt like hell.”
“The pay out still worth it?”
“Well, I can’t pass for a twenty-five year old. But they give me enough. Most of the time.”
“You need to find one to marry you, give you some security.”
“The ones that come at the park are already married. That’s why they see me.”
Julie started getting paid dates nearly twenty years ago. She was divorced for the second time, almost forty, and going to the bars after work. It happened by chance. After a couple of strong drinks she agreed to go to a man’s car. They fooled around and he gave her money afterwards. After it happened a second time with a different man she began to get more intentional about picking up dates. She rarely had to ask for money afterwards. It was understood. She’d tapped into a world she hardly had any idea existed.
When Julie got to the park she found an empty playground tucked away. A long time ago she used to get out and sit on a picnic table with short shorts. She’d smoke one cigarette after another until she attracted the attention of a passerby looking for a woman. Lately, she had a few regulars that knew her car, and occasionally she met someone at the bar. She kept things rolling that way. Repeat business was the best kind of business, she’d learned.
Truth was her circle of regulars had grown smaller and their dates more infrequent. They were all getting older and sex was becoming less a priority. She hoped someone would be out looking for her tonight.
After a half-hour she saw a car coming towards her, one she recognized. “Well, looky there. Ain’t seen him for a while.”
But he drove on by. Her heart sank, but she didn’t give up hope. He’d have to turn around ahead and pass her again to leave the park. She got out of the car and lit a cigarette.
“Here he comes,” she mumbled to herself. She grinned as he slowed down and pulled in beside her.
“Hey there. It’s been a while,” she said as she opened the passenger door. She put out her cigarette and slid in beside him. He’d always been a reluctant one and she didn’t mind initiating.
“Why don’t you move your car to the Park & Ride,” he said. “And we’ll go to my house.”
Julie liked the idea. It was rare that a man took her home, as most of them were married. Jamey was a lot older than her, but she liked him. He was kind. Maybe Sylvie was right. Maybe she should work harder to find a husband.
After helping the other ladies clean up the kitchen, she told them she’d lock up. As Peg was leaving the foyer, she noticed Jamey’s jacket hanging on the coat rack.
She felt naughty as she picked it up. She smelled it. It was definitely his. She decided to take it to him. She needed to go to the store anyway. She knew the general vicinity where he lived and would drop it off on her way back home.
She found Jamey’s house without too much trouble. Peg was pretty sure she knew how far up the hollow he lived, and his mailbox confirmed her hunch. Summer flowers still bloomed in the yard. She wondered if his late wife had planted them, or if Jamey was a gardener. She didn’t see his car parked in the driveway, but he had a garage and she thought he must use it.
Peg took a deep breath and walked to his front door, jacket in hand, and knocked. She felt so nervous, so bold. There was no answer. She waited, knocked again, and peered through the nearest window. The place felt empty. She turned and began walking to her car, disappointed.
The crunch of gravel caught Peg’s attention and soon she saw his car coming around the bend. Her heart leapt in her chest.
“Who’s that?” Julie asked.
Jamey looked up and cursed under his breath. “Stay in the car.”
Peg saw Julie in the car. She didn’t know her personally, but she was pretty sure it was the sister of a girl she’d graduated high school with, Sylvie Ramsey, at least that was her name then. Peg wasn’t close to the girls and couldn’t remember who any of them married. She tried to think, was Jamey kin to the Ramseys? Not that she knew of.
Before she could think anymore, Jamey was by her side.
He smiled and thanked her for being so thoughtful as to bring him his jacket. He tried to be friendly and casual, but Peg felt distinctly that she shouldn’t be there. Peg turned to go back to her car, wondering why that Ramsey woman wasn’t getting out of the car.
As she pulled out of the drive, Peg waved goodbye out her open window and called, “See you at prayer meeting.”
Jamey smiled and waved. When Peg drove out of site Jamey got back in his car.
“This was a bad idea. I’ll take you back for your car.”
“Are you sure?” Julie asked and put her hand on his thigh.
“Please, don’t,” he said and gently pushed her hand away.
When they arrived at the Park & Ride near the big four-lane highway she tried again. She’d give him quick satisfaction in the car. A man his age usually took a while, but she thought it worth the risk.
“Julie, I’m just not in the mood anymore. There’s your car,” he said grumpily, backing away from her.
“It’s just that it’s dark already. I can’t go back to the park and find another date.” She paused, hoping he’d take the hint. “I needed the money to get me through the end of the month. …We ain’t had good hours at the store this month,” she said, trying not to feel ashamed.
He silently got out his wallet and handed her a hundred-dollar bill.
“Will that get you through?”
“Yeah, Jamey, thanks. I appreciate it and won’t forget it. I owe you one.”
“Sorry about this evening. Go on home now, Julie.”