The Belle by Jesse Roth

It started with a sock hop.

………“SKEETER!”

………Good Lord that woman can shout at me like it’s her job. I’m still waiting for her to notice that I’m 20, home from my second year of college, and capable of getting myself out of bed when I need to. I’m just glad she didn’t yell my full name. When I hear someone yelling “Sarah Josephine Bolton,” I’ve learned that I don’t want to know what comes next.

………Before I can climb out of my pre-teen-sized rickety loft, my bedroom door creaks open and there stands Marie Bolton, tough-as-nails businesswoman, farmer’s wife, and my mama. Sometimes I can’t figure out what kind of crazy had to possess her marry Dad: Jack Bolton, hometown hero and factory worker-turned-farmer. I don’t know how, but they balance each other, ying yang style. Dad always says “business suits and muddy boots keep this world turning round.”

………I swing my leg over the bed’s railing and step onto the kiddie ladder, making my way to solid ground. When I turn around, Ma’s hands are on her hips.

………“It’s 9:30, Skeet. I thought you had to be at Tom’s an hour ago.” I roll my eyes at her and search through my still-packed college bags for my work clothes and dad’s Rockford Tigers baseball cap.

………“No, Mother.” That’s what I call Ma when I’m as annoyed as she is. As I pull on an old t-shirt, I explain again: “He said we can’t pick any more sweet corn until this afternoon, he wants it to be fresh for the Sock Hop event tonight.” I’d told her this twice yesterday. “I’ve gotta be at the Belle at 11.” Ma has successfully woken me up an hour early, so she goes back the way she came, hunting down her next victim. Before she’s halfway down the stairs, she starts in on my older brother, Tank.

………“TODD HENRY! If you leave your muddy boots on my living room floor one more time—”

And so the day begins.

………I find dad’s hat, frayed and faded from over 30 years of ball games and borrowers. It will always be my favorite, no matter how much Ma gripes about the “ratty old thing.” I stare at myself in my small, horse-etched mirror. My mom’s eyes stare back. Brown because we’re full of shit, Dad says. Her eyes and his fiery temper are the only traits I got from my parents. The rest of me is a mutt-like mix.

………I remember being told once, in third grade, that I was adopted. I wasn’t even sure what that meant, but I figured since Lonny Higgs stuck his tongue out after saying that, he deserved a punch in the jaw. Of course, Ma hadn’t enjoyed that incident, but Dad got a good chuckle out of it. Bookworm Skeeter, not Tank, was in the principal’s office for fighting. That was the first time he’d ever let me wear his hat, saying I could wear it to school to cover the shiner on my left eye from Lonny’s knobby knee.

………My fingers brush over the soft tufts of string that stick out of the frayed seams. I slip my ponytail through the hole in the back, securing the relic to my own noggin. I grab my shoes and head downstairs for breakfast.

………I’m kind of excited, even though it’s Saturday and I’m going to be working all day, and most of the night. Tom Avery, my neighbor and it’s-a-long-story almost relative, is the man. He has cancer, again, and still, every time it snows he can’t wait to bring his tractor to your house when and plow the snow out of your driveway. After breakfast, I jump in my car and make the 4-mile journey into town, my mind drifting to Tom and his interesting life.

………A few years back, a sort of tiff arose between the owners of neighboring properties near Main Street. A vacant church sits in the middle of our one-stoplight town, right next to Diesel’s Auto Repair. John Diesel had been using the vacant parking lot behind the church for his business, and when the owners found out, they demanded that Diesel pay for every month he’d used it. The church hadn’t been an active house of God for nearly 15 years, and he’d been using the parking lot as his own personal shop extension. When Tom’s wife came home from the grocery store with the gossip, he went to the owners and offered to buy the place.

………Tom bought a church to help his friend. There’s a big brass bell that sits on the church’s front lawn, so Tom renamed the place the Belle. It’s the social center of town now, host to concerts, benefits, reunions, and parties. That’s where I’m spending my Saturday.

………Tom gives me and my brother a job every summer, picking sweet corn. He says I’m Vice President of Operations. I think he does it because I’m the only girl around who genuinely enjoys running a money-losing, but community-building produce operation. Tom makes a lot of money farming, so he grows and sells sweet corn cheap to anyone who wants it. He also does events like the sock hop, and he cooks corn, burgers, and other good food for the community in return for donations to the Belle.

………He’s also near 60, and fighting his second battle with cancer, so he can’t stand outside in the hot sun all day and count ears of corn, so all the figuring falls to me. Every August, I am happily recruited to help hand-pick, sort, bag, and sell the best sweet corn in Ohio.

………I’ve never tasted an ear of corn better than Tom’s Silver King variety. It’s the best, especially this summer; these dry spells have nearly killed everything that was green, so most of the produce around is sad-looking. But Tom just isn’t one to be bested. Instead of throwing in the towel and watching his corn wilt like a Valentine’s bouquet, he spent hours every week hauling water back and forth to those fields in big farm tankers. By picking time, Tom said he’d dumped over 30,000 gallons of water on his two-acre crop. It paid off; he’s got the only fully mature sweet corn in 6 counties. All that free press is boosting corn sales and attracting new people to the Belle, since he slips flyers and other informational handouts into the bags of corn.

………I park in front of the Belle and I spot Tank to my left, carrying two big bags of ice. He props one bag against his leg, freeing a hand.  He reaches into his pocket like he’s got something for me, and pulls his hand back out, middle finger flying. He thinks he’s funny. As I undo my seatbelt, I feel my phone vibrating in my pocket. It’s my boyfriend, Jay.

………“Hey baby!” I say. “I just got to the Belle. Are you on your way?”

………“I wish I could, but Dad forgot to tell me that we are moving Grandma into her room at the nursing home today. We won’t be done until late afternoon, and Dad thinks we should all stay and eat dinner with her, it being her first night there and all. Forgive me?” Jay is the type of guy who will feel really bad about letting you down, but then try his hardest to make it up to you later. It’s one of the many reasons why I love him.

………“There’s nothing to forgive,” I say. “But can we see each other tomorrow?”

………“Duh!” he shouts into the phone. We say our long, mushy-lovey goodbyes, and then I hang up.

………I hop out of the car and walk over to Tank.

………“Having fun yet, Fattie?” I ask.

………“Hey, Saddlebags,” he says. This is the closest Tank and I ever get to sibling love, “’bout time you got here, we’re already finished with most of the setup.”

………“Well, I wanted to give you some time to actually accomplish something, that way Tom can keep paying you.” I grab the ice bag he sat down to flip me off, and we make our way into the church, where Tom’s other farm hands are setting up chairs and using traffic cones to rope off the block of Spring Street that runs in front of the Belle.

………After I set the bag down in the industrial-sized freezer, my vision is cut off by a pair of large, skinny hands. Then I hear a deep voice in my ear say, “Guess who?”

………I stand up straight, and sniff the air like a bloodhound. “Let me guess,” I say, pretending to be puzzled, “someone loosed fairy dust onto a mannequin at Hollister, and now he’s flying ‘round Rockford spooking people and trying to get them to guess who he is.”

………“Now why do you say that?” the voice asks, hands still clamped tight over my peepers.

………“Because there is no way in hell that any one man could put enough cologne on his body to stink up an entire church, unless he was stuck in a trendy clothing store all day, every day, for years.” I move my hands to my face and move the larger ones out of my eye sockets. “Hey, JB.”

………“Oh, hey,” he says, our usual greeting.

………JB is one of those guys who has no clue that he’s good looking, and he just thinks it’s his friendly disposition that has all the girls following him like stink follows a skunk.

………“Do anything fun last night?” I ask.

………“Oh, you know,” he says, and I do know.

………“Well, it was Friday. Hot date with Emma Stone?”

………She’s JB’s favorite actress. His birthday was last week, so I got him Easy A, his favorite of her movies to add to his collection. He spends every Friday at home with her. I try not to judge him for it.

………“‘There’s a higher power that will judge you for your indecency,’” I quote.

………“‘Tom Cruise?’” He quotes back.

………We double over in fits of laughter as Tom’s black truck pulls up.

………“Good morning!” he shouts. JB and I meet him in front of the church marquis. “Beautiful day for a sock hop, isn’t it?” He hugs us both, and then hands me a flat box full of donuts, his ritual Saturday brunch for everyone. I make my rounds, dishing out sugary goodness to the farm hands and volunteers.

………We spend the next hours filling coolers with pop, setting up tables, shucking corn, and running to and from Barry’s Market to pick up bread loaves, butter, and ketchup.

………The vintage cars pull in a few at a time. The Sock Hop and Cruise-In take up the whole street. I finish setting out the plates of food and stop to survey the area.

………Tom sure knows how to throw a party.

………6:00 rolls around, and people start flooding in from all directions, hauling lawn chairs and hand fans, looking for the best spot to park their butts, a place that is close enough to the action, but far enough away that the music doesn’t deafen them. The band’s equipment is all set up, but right now the Golden Oldies station is blaring up and down the street, washing over the cars and people. Tom walks up to JB and me, holding two notepads and two pens.

………“You ready?” he asks. JB looks at me, and then back at Tom. I try to hide my smile.

………“Ready for what?” JB says. He looks back at me and notices my failed attempt at playing it cool and says, “Skeeter, what have you gotten me into?”

………I take a pad and pen from Tom, and motion for JB to do the same.

………Tom walks away, chuckling and shaking his head. “Go easy on him, Skeet. He’s not used to your gumption.”

………“It’s just like taking orders at the ice cream shop,” I say, mentioning his former summer job. “You just ask people what they want to eat.” I turn around and gesture to the street in front of us.

………“You mean you brought me here to be a waiter for the entire street? That’s AWESOME!”

………He likes being challenged, and even if he didn’t want to do this with me, he’d never tell me so. I know this about JB. We dated for almost 10 seconds. But most girls mistake his willingness to help for a sign of deep affection, instead of seeing what it really is: JB is uncomfortable telling people “no.”

………We start our first round with Clois and Sallie Dunham.

………“Hi there kids,” Clois says. “How’d you get roped into spending your Saturday night with a bunch of old geezers like us?”

………I smile and say, “Just lucky! Would you like me and my trusty sidekick to get you some food?”

………And so it goes. JB and I do one full circle together, and then we split up as needed, taking corn on the cob, burgers, and sundaes to everyone on the street.

………The band plays for a few hours, and everyone is having a good time.  Mark Burns, local plumber and head singer of the Cane Switch Boys, announces last chance for 50/50 tickets, and calls out the name of the next song he’s gonna sing, Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the USA.” On cue, Tom walks out into the lawn chair crowd with a large American flag, and stands in the middle of the street. The band starts playing, and then Mark’s deep voice comes through the speakers:

………“If tomorrow all the thing were gone, I’d worked for all my life

………And I had to start again, with just my children and my wife…”

………Tom holds the flag pole tight, gently swaying to the music. I pull out my phone and record the beautiful scene before me. Hundreds of people have stopped talking. Many are standing with their hand over their heart, eyes closed, quietly singing along. I breathe deep, humbled by this rare moment of peace and love.

………I pan from side to side, capturing my town one face at a time. Then I zoom in on Tom, still holding the flag. He’s stopped swaying, and his eyes are still closed. But they look scrunched shut, like he’s in pain. The song’s almost over.

………“God bless the U S –”

………Before the final note, I hear the flag pole clatter against the pavement. A collective gasp is heard. Many people run to Tom and to the flag. I run into the street and crouch down. Someone scoops the flag up and runs it back inside the Belle. I turn my attention to Tom.

………“Tom? Can you hear me? Tell me what I can do to help,” I plead.

………His eyes flutter open, and shut just as quickly. “Eye mying…” he whispers. He’s really pale, and his breath comes in short, weak puffs. His wife, Darla, kneels next to me.

………“Oh honey,” Darla says. “You’ll be okay. That new chemo is strong.” Darla has spent hours and hours of her life riding with Tom to the hospital, so she’s no stranger to medical emergencies.

………“What?” I ask him in a panicky voice. “Tom, I don’t understand. Stay with me. Call an ambulance!” I yell to no one in particular.

………“I’m…dying,” he says quietly. No one else hears him.

………This has happened before. Tom’s gumption gets him into trouble. He pushes too hard. I’ve found him in a number of places: collapsed on the barn floor or slumped over the tailgate of his truck. The chemo dehydrates him, so I’m expecting that this is the problem again.

………The crowd creeps closer; trying to see what’s going on. I look up, searching for help, afraid we are going to get smothered. JB’s eyes meet mine. I plead silently. He nods and starts directing the mass of bodies to get off the street, out of the way of the approaching EMS truck. They load him onto a gurney, and I move to pull my hand away and let Darla get in beside Tom. He doesn’t release it. Even sick and weak, Tom’s grip is strong. I am dragged to the doors of the truck.

………“Tom, Darla’s coming. She’s right behind you,” I say, but he shakes his head viciously, protesting my attempt to leave his side.

………“Go with me,” he says. I’m stunned into immobility. This isn’t my place.

………“Tom, I—” I start, but he cuts me off.

………“Please, Skeeter.”

………I resign and climb into the truck, squeezing myself in so that there’s room for Darla next to me. She doesn’t question my presence, and I can’t figure out why I’m here.

………Tom doesn’t let go of my hand even when the ambulance pulls into the Hastings ER parking lot. With me in tow, he is wheeled to a vacant room, where doctors and nurses buzz around like honeybees. As I’m about to be kicked out, Tom beckons me closer. I lean in towards his face, now red and hot from the discomfort he feels in his chest.

………“I have to tell you,” he says, and then is seized by a wave of pain.

………“Don’t worry about it,” I say, trying to console him. “You can tell me later.”

………“No, he argues. “No time…Sarah.” We lock eyes.

………He never calls me Sarah, ever. I nod, afraid, like I am with Ma, when I hear my real name. I suddenly feel like I’m going to faint. I’ve never dealt with something like this before.

………“Yeah Tom?”

………His chest rises and falls in tandem with the blips on the hospital equipment. His breathing is labored, but mine has stopped.

………“I’m your dad.”

………I blink, and then the world disappears.

~~~~~~~~~~~~

………“Skeeter.”

………I open my eyes and see blue ones above me, big as saucers. What the heck?

………“Jay?” How did he know where I am? Where am I?

………“Sorry to disappoint,” says JB. “Jay’s on his way.” I try to focus my eyes on the ones above me. It doesn’t work very well. My head throbs. I try to scoot myself into a sitting position. I notice that I’m in a hospital bed.

………“What happened?” I ask.

………“After they brought Tom in, you passed out. Hit your head on a cart, or something. Scared the shit out of everybody,” he explains. Before I have a chance to respond, Tank pokes his head through the curtain.

………“Hey Skeet, Jay’s here.” The words barely leave his mouth before my vision is obscured by Jay’s broad shoulders. He is dressed in a nice v-neck t-shirt and faded jeans, his usual. He grabs me and hugs me.

………“Hi, Jay,” I say quietly. He says nothing, just kisses my forehead and sits down in the nearest chair. He fixes his hair nervously. Tank and JB are staring. There’s something they aren’t telling me.

………“Guys, what is it?” I ask.

………“Skeet,” Tank says, moving closer to take my hand. Now I know it’s bad. His face is red from crying and he says, “The chemo damaged Tom’s heart. He died an hour ago.”

………None of us move until Ma busts in, hysterical.

………“Oh my God, Skeeter.  Are you okay? They didn’t tell us anything! We thought they brought you here in the ambulance.” She gives me a good squeeze and looks me up and down, to make sure all my pieces are still attached right.

………“I’m okay, Ma,” I say. JB and Tank say something about needing a drink, and they leave quickly.

………“What happened?” she asks. I try to put everything together, despite my throbbing head.

………“I don’t know exactly. We were at the sock hop and Tom just fell down, all the sudden. Then he said he was dying and he wouldn’t let go of my hand, not even when they were loading him in the ambulance. He told me to come with him, so I did. When we got here, I blacked out. Right after…” I’m not sure I want to tell her this part.

………“After what?”

………I take a big breath and say, “Right after he said I was his daughter.”

………She freezes.

………Shit. It’s true.

………I suddenly forget how to breathe. I start hyperventilating and Ma grabs my face, telling me to relax, slow down. She used to do this when I was little. I’d get all worked up and start feeling faint, and Ma would have to run onto the field in the middle of a t-ball game and make me calm down.

………But right now my world is exploding.

………“Are you…” I gasp, “serious?”

………Her hands never leave my face. For the first time in 20 years, she tells me who I really belong to.

………“My sister, Josephine, was in love with Tom. They found out she was pregnant, and Tom wanted to get married. So they started planning. When Josie was 8 months along, Tom got cancer. They gave him a few weeks to a month to live. He opted for an experimental drug that had a 12% success rate. He didn’t think it would cure him; he just wanted to live to see you born. And he did, but Josie died in childbirth. With no mother and a terminally ill father, Tom signed you over into our custody. Four years later, he’d gone into remission and married Darla. By that time, we had legally adopted you. We decided it was better to just keep things as they were. I’m sorry we didn’t tell you, honey. But we couldn’t figure out how to tell you, and by the time everything was over, it was too late.”

………I’d been so focused on hearing the truth that my breathing had evened out. But the girl in the bed isn’t me now. It’s some stranger who lives in a terrible world where the parents she’s claimed her whole life are really imposters, runners up in the race to be my family of origin. Nd she’s pissed.

………“So why did you tell me Josie died in a car crash? Did any of you stop to think what would happen if I found out?” I half-shout the last words.

………“None of us wanted to hurt you. We were just running out of options,” she says.

………“Please leave,” I say quietly, irate at the thought that the truth was not the option they’d chosen. Without another word, she walks away.

………Oh my God. OH MY GOD. What? In a matter of minutes, I go from having two loving parents to being an orphan. I’m a 20 year old orphan who spent my whole life thinking that my mother is really my aunt. Aunt Marie. Uncle Jack. Cousin Tank.

………Nope. No way. This is a terrible miscommunication. It feels like right about now a meteor should crash through the roof of the hospital and kill me. The world is completely ass backwards and I’m the only one who notices.

………I sit on the bed until the nurse checks me for a final time and says I can go home. I instinctively grab my phone to call Ma, well, Marie. I don’t know. I’m saved by Jay, who knocks quietly and then enters.

………“Hey, Tiger,” he says. I smile sadly.

………“Hey.” I reply. Oh crap, he doesn’t know. What am I supposed to tell him? Should I just blurt it out? Do I even want to say it out loud? Can I even say it?

………“It’s okay,” he says, interrupting my inner monologue, “Your mom told me. I’m here to take you home. She said she didn’t figure you wanted her around right now.”

………She was right. I stand up and take Jay’s hand, and he leads me through the hospital and out into the cool night.

………We pull into my driveway and Jay shuts off his car.

………“You want me to go in with you?” he asks quietly. I shake my head.

………“Are you okay?”

………“No. I can’t even…I mean, kids and parents keep secrets, it’s what we do. We do it to protect each other, or not to hurt each other, right? But what was the point in all this? Other than to jumble me up like scrambled eggs?” I say.

………“Baby, you know they never meant for anything like this to happen. Look, they’re legally your true parents. Sure, Marie didn’t give birth to you, but do you think she could love you more if she had? And as far as I’m concerned, you act enough like Jack to be his daughter. So the names in your family tree got shifted around a little. Is that worth losing them? Is it worth them losing you?”

~~~~~~~~

………When I get to my front door, I can hear Lilly, our chocolate lab, whacking her tail against the coffee table, excited that I’m home. I open it and walk in. Lilly licks my hand happily, and I sink to the carpet and hug her. It’s 3 a.m. and everyone else is asleep. I can hear Tank snoring. I know Ma is awake, because she can’t sleep until her kids are home safe. But I don’t want to talk to her.

………Tom is my father. It’s too weird for real life. I guess now I can’t refer to him as my almost relative. But that long story had an alternate ending that I wasn’t ready for.

………I bury my face in Lilly’s thick fur, glad to have someone to hug. She wiggles happily, glad for the attention. I look at her and remember the day we brought her home. She didn’t weigh more than 5 pounds, the runt. I remember Dad spending all afternoon surveying each of Lilly’s brothers and sisters. It came down to her and a big female named Cabela. Cabela was fun and energetic, but Lilly was quiet, reserved. Then Dad walked over, scooped Lilly up, and they stared at each other for a minute. An hour later she was peeing on our living room floor.

………Could I do that? Could I reconcile this new knowledge of my family and accept all of this as a part of my life?

………I sat on the floor all night with Lilly. I stroked her fur, comforted by the gentle rise and fall of her chest.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

………I stayed outside all of Sunday. I walked to my favorite spot, Two Walls. It’s just an old railroad bridge that runs over a small creek in Tom’s field, but I needed the isolation. When I got home, I headed straight to bed.

………For two weeks, I didn’t talk to anyone.

………I hate hurting Ma, but every time I pictured her in my memory, my brain stuttered over that word. Ma. Are you only someone’s Ma if you gave birth to them? Or was it like Jay said, a shift in information, but not a real change?

………Tom had favored me my whole life. He had stayed an almost relative instead of claiming me as his daughter. And Ma and Dad had raised me as their own, just like they raised Tank.

………I missed my family. The constant ache in my chest reminded me that I was hurting myself as much as I was hurting them. But I didn’t know how to fix it

~~~~~~~~

………Today is Monday. And I’m headed to Tom’s corn patch. Tank’s going with me. We are going to pick and sell the last of the sweet corn for him.

………I slide into the passenger seat of his truck and Tank drives the half mile to Tom’s patch and parks on the west side of the field. We don’t move for a second, we just look at the rows and rows of sweet corn. My eyes move skyward, to the barns behind the patch. Tom’s barns.

………After a minute, Tank says, “Well, I guess we better get started.” But when we open the truck doors, we hear the familiar thunk of corn being thrown into buckets. We run to the east side of the field, and I stop so suddenly that Tank plows into me and we both go ass over elbows into the dirt. We untangle ourselves and start brushing dirt out of our clothes and crevices.

………“Damn, Skeeter, you could’ve—” he stops short, noticing the commotion now.

………Everyone, the farm hands and volunteers from the Sock Hop, and even some of the guests, have come out to help.

………“Make sure you check the tops for worms, Tom wouldn’t want us selling bad corn to his loyal customers.” I hear JB before I see him. “Oh hey, Skeeter. Tank.”

………I nod at him, speechless.

………“What’s all this?” Tank asks.

………“Well, since Skeeter hasn’t answered her phone in two weeks, I figured I should take over her duties until she saw fit to grace me with her attention.” JB mock scolds me, smiling slightly.

………“I’m sorry, JB. Took a while to remove head from sphincter,” I say.

………“I understand. But you’re here now, and we could use a Vice President of Operations to help us fill orders.” JB gives me a quick hug and then runs off to help sort and bag corn.

………I make my way to the fold-up table that is sitting in the shade, the headquarters for corn sorting. I start checking ends and breaking off excess stalks and husks, my hands busy and my mind at ease for the first time in days.

………Before I can get a dozen ears into a bag, Clois Dunham strides up to the table.

………“Morning, Skeet,” he says. He’s in a suit and tie, looking every bit the respectable lawyer that he is.

………“Hi Clois. What can I do for you? Does Sallie need some more corn to freeze?” I ask.

………“Well she surely does, but that’s not why I’m here. Can we talk in private?” he asks, and

………I say, “Sure.”

………We walk into the barn and he gets right to it. “I don’t exactly know how to say this, but Tom has named you in his will. He wants to give you the Belle.”

………I stare dumbly, trying to comprehend. My face contorts with effort, but I can’t figure out how to create words and sentences.

………“He stated very clearly that it was to go to you, and that you were to have full power over it.”

………“Darla.” The words choke their way out. “It should go to Darla.”

………“Darla and Tom agreed that it should be yours.”

………“Fuh…ummm…”

………“I’ll need you to come to the office sometime, to make the property yours legally, you know. Deeds and stuff.”

………“We can do it today,” I say. “Just let me run home and change, then I’ll meet you uptown in an hour.”

………We part, and I tell Tank I’m taking his truck to run an errand. I drive straight to Two Walls and run out to the middle of the bridge. Not two seconds after I get situated, Jay’s head pops out of the grass.

………“Hey there, Tiger!” he shouts. He scares me so bad that I fall right off that bridge beam and into the creek below. I come up for air, spitting algae and Lord knows what else out of my mouth and squish my way up the creek bank, into dry land.

………“What are you doing out here, Jay?” I ask.

………“I like your secret hideout,” he says, “and I figured you wouldn’t mind me using it when you weren’t here. And…” he pauses for a moment, “I wanted to show you something.”

………While I dump mud out of my shoes, Jay walks down the hill and up to his motorcycle. He roots around in the side bag for a few seconds, then he pulls out a plastic sandwich bag. With pictures in it. As he was pulling them out of the bag, he talked.

………“While you were ignoring your mom,” I cringe at his words, “I was asking her questions. And I found out some pretty interesting stuff. Guess what? Did you know that Tom was also adopted? Yep. By the Averys, when he was 2 years old. When he was 15, he found his real parents. They both died of cancer in the 70s.

………“He found out about his adoption when he was 10, and when he turned 18, he asked to be baptized into the Rockford church, the very same one he came to own years later. And guess what else? After the ceremony at the church, he came here, to this creek, and this very bridge, and he was baptized by his parents, into his new and extended family.”

………He handed me the pictures. It was all there. The church, his parents gravestones, the creek baptism, everything. At the bottom of the stack was a note from Tom, addressed to me.

………Sarah Josephine,

………If you’re reading this, it means that I spilled the beans about being your dad. But I want you to know that I never wanted to lie to you. Family is something that we all need, especially when times get hard. I bought the Belle to make this town feel more like a family. That’s why I want to give it to you. It’s where our family started. This family has nothing to do with whose DNA runs in your veins. There’s no limit to family. I’ve been rich and I’ve been poor, I’ve had money enough to see this whole dang world. But I never left home because no amount of stuff could buy you that feeling you get when you know nothing can hurt you because you’ve got an anchor-in-the-storm kind of  family behind you. Jack and Marie, me and Josie, Tank, and even that lazy dog Lil, can’t ever fail to see you through your darkest hour. Trust me, you’re alright kid.

………Tom

………Unable to move, I stood rooted to the spot, staring at the words in the crinkled Mersman Brothers Furniture paper. Jay put his arm around me and kissed me on the top of the head.

………“Skeeter,” he said, “Tom was your father, but Jack is your Dad. And Marie, she may not have started out that way, but she is your Ma. You’ve never been anything but loved, and you’ve always been exactly where you belong.”

–Jesse Roth

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