In 1938, the year I was twelve, my hometown of Macedonia, West Virginia, celebrated its sesquicentennial, a word I thought had to do with fruit for the longest time. In school, we commemorated the occasion as we commemorated most occasions, with tableaux, one for each of the major events in Macedonia’s history. There weren’t many, hardly enough to stretch out across eight grades, but the teachers eked them out the best they could. If it hadn’t been for the War Between the States, I don’t know what they would have done. When Virginia seceded from the Union, western Virginia got mad and seceded right back into it, all except four little counties, one of them ours, that stuck out their tongues at West Virginia and declared themselves part of the Confederacy, a piece of sass with long consequences in the way of road-paving and school desks.
Tucked up in a crook between the Potomac and the Shenandoah, Macedonia was a junction for generals and railroads alike, and by the time Lee hung up his sword at Appomattox, the town had changed hands forty-seven times, six of them in one day. Our teachers dearly loved to get up a scene of the townspeople stuffing their Confederate flags up the chimney as the Union troops marched in and yanking them back down again as the troops departed. The fourth-, fifth-, and sixth-graders got the war scenes, and the seventh- and eighth-graders got the short end of the stick, because not a thing happened in Macedonia after 1865, except the roundhouse blowing up and the American Everlasting Hosiery Company opening its doors. Half the town worked in that mill and the other half wished it did, but there was not much about the American Everlasting Hosiery Company that looked good in a tableau. Sometimes the teachers gave up and killed two birds with one stone by making the seventh-graders march across the stage, waving socks, while the eighth-graders sang “The Star-Spangled Banner” behind them. In 1938, though, the eighth grade hit pay dirt, because Mrs. Roosevelt drove through town. She stopped at the square, took a drink from our sulfur-spring water fountain, made a face, and drove away. That was plenty for a tableau, except that instead of making a face, the eighth-grade Mrs. Roosevelt said, “The people of Macedonia are lucky to receive the benefits of healthful mineral water.” My sister Bird and I laughed so hard we got sent into the hall.
Once the curtain had clunked down on our tableaux and we’d been herded back into our classrooms, I supposed that Macedonia’s sesquicentennial festivities were concluded. Hadn’t we just covered one hundred and fifty years of history in twenty-three minutes flat? We had. But not a week later came the Decoration Day parade, and that, I realized later, was the real beginning of the sesquicentennial. Later still, I realized that everything began that day. Everything that was to heave itself free of its foundations over the course of the summer began to rattle lightly on the morning of the parade. That was when I first heard of Layla Beck, when I began to wonder about my father, and when I noticed I was being lied to and decided to leave my childhood behind. I have since wondered, of course, how my life—and my father’s and my aunt Jottie’s, too—would have been different if I’d decided to stay at home that morning. This is what’s called the enigma of history, and it can drive you out of your mind if you let it.
Jottie and I were packed tight on the sidewalk, together with everyone else in town, to watch the parade. Usually it wasn’t much, the Decoration Day parade, just a matter of assorted veterans looking grim and the high school marching band. But this year, in honor of the sesquicentennial, we’d been promised an extra-fancy show, a real spectacle. And that was what we got: The United Daughters of the Confederacy flounced out first, with the Ladies of the Grand Army of the Republic hot on their heels. Then the Rotary band struck up with patriotic tunes, which was a lot to manage on four trumpets and had a terrible effect on the pony brigade. The veterans marched along, a pair of girls in skimpy outfits flung batons in the air, just exactly like a movie parade, except that only one of them could catch. We even had a float, The Apple Princess and Her Blossoms, smiling on the back of a truck. Out came the mayor, waving from his big green car, and behind him was Mr. Parker Davies, who had got himself up in a sword and knee pants to look like General Magnus Hamilton, the founder of Macedonia, which put me in mind of a question I had always wanted to ask. I nudged my aunt Jottie. “How come he called it Macedonia?”
She tilted her dark eyes down to mine. “The General was a great admirer of the Macedonian virtues.”
“Huh.” That was news to me. “What are they, the Macedonian virtues?”
“Don’t say huh. Ferocity and devotion.” The Apple Princess joggled by. It was Elsie Averill in a white dress. A lady standing just behind me leaned forward for a better look, and a big whiff of Jungle Gardenia went up my nose.
I squeezed closer to Jottie. “Did he have them?” I asked.
Jottie’s eyes followed Elsie for a bit. “Did he have what?” she murmured.
“Jottie!” I recalled her. “Did General Hamilton have the Macedonian virtues?”
“The General?” She lifted one eyebrow. “The General once chopped off a soldier’s toes to keep the poor man from deserting. You tell me, Willa: Is that ferocity, devotion, or just plain crazy?”
I eyed Mr. Parker Davies, imagining his bloodied sword raised high, a little toe speared on the point. That was ferocity, I was pretty sure. “Do I have them?” I asked hopefully.
Jottie smiled. “Ferocity and devotion? You want those?”
“They’re virtues, aren’t they?” I asked.
“They surely are. Ferocity, devotion, and a nickel will get you a cup of coffee at the Pickus Café.” I made a face at her, and she laughed. The parade passed by, turned around on itself, and straggled back up Prince Street.
I thought maybe I had a chance at devotion.
Now the Macedonia Chamber of Commerce made the turn and marched by, eight men in identical tan hats and overcoats. They looked like a set of matching boy dolls, only embarrassed. Jottie chuckled and flapped her little flag. “Hooray!” she cheered. “Hooray for our brave boys in the Chamber of Commerce!”
They pretended they didn’t hear, all except one. “Jottie?” he said, swiveling around. Jottie drew in a sharp breath, and I saw two spots of pink appear on her cheeks. She started to put up her hand, let it drop, and then changed her mind and lifted it in a little wave. That set him up; now he started smiling like crazy, and even though the parade was moving again, he called out to her, “I was hoping I might see you today, Jottie, I was thinking I might—”
A man behind bumped into him then, and he had to walk on, but he kept turning around to wave at her as he went.
“Who was that?” I asked. Nothing happened, so I gave her a poke. “Who was that, Jottie?”
“Sol,” she said. “Sol McKubin.” She opened her purse and rummaged inside. “I had a handkerchief in here this morning.”
And that would have been that, if I hadn’t heard a low laugh behind me. It was Mrs. Jungle Gardenia. “Shoo-oo, good thing old Felix ain’t here,” she hooted softly to herself.
What? I whirled around, wondering who she was and how she knew my father.
She didn’t look like someone he would know. She was wearing a young lady’s dress, even though she wasn’t a young lady, and her face was white with powder. She caught my stare and wiggled her drawn-on eyebrows at me. I turned back to Jottie quick.
“Jottie,” I said, giving her another poke. “Who’s Sol McKubin?”
“Is that Miss Kissining there across the street?” Jottie squinted at the sidewalk opposite. “In that polka-dot dress?”
I looked. It wasn’t any more Miss Kissining than it was the Lindbergh baby. “You must be going blind, Jottie,” I began scornfully, but I was drowned out by the Rotary band giving their final honk on “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” The parade was over.
That was all right with me. My favorite part came after, anyway. I took hold of Jottie’s hand, and we sailed out into the wake of the marchers.
It was like a second parade, with all of Macedonia milling along Prince Street, busying themselves with the real entertainment of the day: calling out, stopping to chat, and gathering into little knots to deliver up their opinions about the ponies, the batons, the float, and the mayor’s car. I dearly loved to walk down a street with my aunt Jottie. When I went alone, I was a child, and grown-ups ignored me accordingly. Sometimes, of course, they’d stop me to offer improving advice like Tie your shoelaces before you trip and knock out those teeth of yours, but for the most part, I was a worm in mud. Beneath notice, as they say in books. When I walked with Jottie, it was a different matter. Grown-ups greeted me politely, and that was nice. That was real pleasant. But the best thing, the very best thing about walking through town with my arm through Jottie’s was listening to her recount the secret history of every man, woman, dog, and flower bed we passed, sideways out of the corner of her mouth so that only I could hear. Those were moments of purest satisfaction to me. Why? Because when she told me those secrets, Jottie made me something better than just a temporary grown-up. She made me her confidante.
We were strolling up the street when we came upon Mr. Tare Russell in his bath chair. He wasn’t real old, Mr. Russell, but there was something the matter with him, and he had to be rolled around town with a blanket over his knees. When he saw us, he yelped, “Jottie Romeyn, you just come over here and let me feast my eyes on you!” Then he waggled his fingers so that his Negro servant would push the bath chair faster. It didn’t seem right; that poor man looked a lot older and feebler than Mr. Russell.
“Tare!” said Jottie. “What brings you here? I’ve never known you to come to the parade before!”
“Civic duty,” said Mr. Russell. “What kind of a person would miss Macedonia’s sesquicentennial parade?”
Jottie grinned. “I’ve been asking myself that very question, Tare, all morning long. How’d you like The Apple Princess and Her Blossoms?”
He didn’t answer. In fact, he almost interrupted her, he spoke so quick. “I thought Felix would be marching with the veterans. But he wasn’t. I didn’t see him.”
“Felix is away on business,” said Jottie.
“He’s been gone all week,” I added helpfully.
“Business,” repeated Mr. Russell, bunching up his mouth. “Well. Felix works like an old mule, doesn’t he?” Suddenly, he swung around and glared at me. “Tell him, when he comes back, not to forget old friends. You just tell your daddy that, would you?” he snapped.
I took a step backward. “Yessir.”
Jottie’s little hand closed around mine. “Of course we will!” she said cheerily. “We’ll tell Felix first thing!”
Mr. Russell waggled his fingers again. “Take me on home,” he barked to his old Negro servant. “You trying to fry me like an egg?”
We watched him go, and Jottie’s hand squeezed mine. “Let’s go window-shopping,” she suggested. “Let’s pretend we’ve each got ten dollars, and we have to spend it this afternoon or we’ll lose it all.”
So we did, and we were wrangling away about whether I could borrow two of her imaginary dollars for a pink silk dress, when we ran up against Marjorie Lanz. She lived down the street from us, and she talked all the time. She started up before we could even see her. “How-you, Jottie?” she shouted from inside Vogel’s Shoes. “Look here at these sandals.” She came out, holding a big yellow shoe. “How’d you like the parade, I thought Elsie looked real pretty, the Rotary could use some new blood, don’t you think? Where’s Mae and Minerva? Oh hi, honey,” she said, catching sight of me. “Aren’t you just cute as a button?”
I was too old to be cute as a button, but I nodded, being polite.
Now she was swinging the shoe back and forth. Mr. Vogel was standing nervously in his doorway, waiting to grab her if she walked away with his sandal. Marjorie gabbled on, “I heard you’re getting yourself a new boarder, Jottie, that’s nice, with all those extra rooms you got.” I shot a look at Jottie. First I’d heard of any new boarder. “Who-all you going to get, Jottie? Hope it’s someone with more starch in him than Tremendous Wilson, I don’t know how you stood that man, is it someone nice?” She paused and looked at Jottie expectantly. So did Mr. Vogel. So did I.
Jottie gazed at Marjorie Lanz for a moment, and then she leaned close. “My new boarder is a representative of the United States government,” she murmured. She looked suspiciously at Mr. Vogel. “That’s all I can say.”
“Ooooh.” Marjorie clutched the sandal tight. “It’s a secret?”
Jottie nodded regretfully, like she wished she could tell more, and turned toward Mr. Vogel. “That’s a nice sandal you have there, Mr. Vogel. Does it come in blue?” He shook his head no. “That’s too bad. Well, Marjorie, Willa and I had better be getting along. We have to clean out that new boarder’s room. The United States government doesn’t like a lot of clutter.” She looked at me. “They like it neat as a pin. Don’t they, Willa?”
Out of pure loyalty, I nodded, and then I waited until we were three storefronts away from Vogel’s Shoes before I asked, “Are we really getting a new boarder?”
“Yes, ma’am,” said Jottie.
“Is he really part of the government?”
She smiled. “No. ’Cause it’s not a he.”
“Yes. A lady.”
“A lady in the government?”
Jottie raised an eyebrow. “Sounds like you don’t believe a word I said.”
“I do,” I said slowly. “But how come I didn’t know about it?”
She reached out to brush my hair away from my face. “I thought you did know. Didn’t you see me move all those things out of the closet? You were sitting right there on the bed.”
I tried to remember but I couldn’t. I’d probably been reading.
I was usually reading.