Mrs. Kitty McMeekin, formerly of Loris, South Carolina sat on the back step of her little house on Lafayette Street in Beaufort and watched her sheets blowing on the clothesline. She was no different than every other young wife up and down the street who, after seeing their husbands off to their farm, shrimp boat, or Piggly Wiggly jobs busied themselves in the never-ending industry of dusting, scrubbing, and laundry.
She'd spent the morning engaged in these activities inside the one bedroom house she shared with her husband, Mr. Jesse McMeekin, and now rested in the relative coolness of the 90 degree shade on the porch. The oscillating fans in the windows did their level best to keep the house comfortable but by mid-morning the stifling Lowcountry heat won out, the fans simply blowing the hot air around, and one was better off just going outside, even though it wasn’t much better out there. The poor azaleas, so beautiful a few months ago, now looked sad and dusty, and Kitty’s laying hens avoided the sun by taking shelter under the spreading branches of the oak tree in the corner of the yard, scratching and pecking in the soft fine dirt.
Kitty leaned back on her hands and stretched her legs in front of her, pondering what she could see of her feet over her baby. Mostly all she could see were ten very puffy toes, the sight of which made her somewhat thankful that she couldn’t see the rest of her feet. She knew it would probably depress her. This was Kitty and Jesse’s first baby, due in one week and they were, of course, hoping for a little boy whose name would be Jesse Gene Buchanan McMeekin but would be called Bucky. They hadn't discussed girl names since, of course, the first baby would need to be a boy, but Kitty had secretly picked out the name of Aubrey Dew, just in case.
Wash day was always tedious for Kitty. It seemed that the laundry was never-ending, even with just the two of them, so she wondered what it would be like after the baby was born. When she and Jesse got married her mother had given them, as a wedding present, her old Speed Queen washer which was nice to have but Kitty had heard that Fordham's downtown had just started selling automatic washers and dryers like the ones she’d seen on the television commercial during Search for Tomorrow. An automatic washer was the stuff of dreams - and a dryer, too? It was almost unimaginable.
She knew, though, that as much as she dreaded Wash Day she couldn’t really complain about her Laundry Lot in Life. Her friend, Ruth Ann Tomlinson, lived just a few houses down, and she did all her laundry by hand in a bucket of water with a cup of Duz laundry soap added to it. Then it was into a bucket of clean water with the sudsy clothes, the clothes then rung out by hand and carried out to the clothesline in a wicker basket. At least Kitty had a machine with an agitator and a ringer so, even though each piece of clothing needed individual attention, the machine did most of the work for her.
Kitty wished that she could get an automatic washer and dryer for herself and then she could give the Speed Queen to Ruth Ann. But there was no sense in dreaming of such things. Jesse had a good job selling cars at Suggs Motor Exchange on Carteret Street, which allowed for a little savings in the bank, but the hospital would need to be paid when the baby was born so there was nothing to spare for such luxuries as a washer and dryer. Kitty had a small secret fund to use for the baby’s first birthday, but that was not to be touched. The Sears Roebuck in Savannah offered baby pictures for a penny a pound and she felt that a trip to Savannah to get the baby’s picture taken would be worth sacrificing a little for.
Feeling lethargic from the heat, Kitty heaved herself off the step and went inside to take one more inventory of the baby’s layette. She had a fear that she would get the baby home and, in the middle of the night, realize that she was short a nightgown or that she had failed to buy enough cloth diapers. The screen door slammed behind her, startling the ancient orange marmalade cat that, in spite of regular and consistent reprimands, she found snoozing on the kitchen table. “Serves you right”, Kitty muttered. It could be said that Kitty’s mood lately wasn’t at its best, but most everyone around her was forgiving. So when the phone on the kitchen wall rang and sent the cat airborne, Kitty could only laugh at its misfortune.
“Hey, Kitty….it’s Clara. How’s the baby?”
Kitty instinctively placed her hand on her belly. “He’s fine today. It’s so hot, though, his Mama’s ‘bout had it”.
“Oh, sweetheart. Just a little longer. Hey, have you seen the paper today?”
Kitty wiped a hand across her damp forehead. “No. Why? What happened?”
“Nothin’ happened. But I wondered if you’d seen what Fordham's is advertising.”
“Not yet. Is it somethin’ good?”
“Well I guess it could be if you’re the right person. Here. Let me read it to you. Hold on a second.”
Kitty heard Clara rustling the newspaper, looking for the advertisement. Jesse’s sister lived on Lady’s Island and lived a somewhat isolated life, so she could be easily excited over things that other people didn’t really care much about. For instance, one time Clara had read in the newspaper that Mr. George Milligan had given notice that "no trespass would be allowed on his cemetery lot, located between the graves of Mrs. Frank Hardee and Mr. Horace Carter in Evergreen Cemetery". This had given Clara something to talk about for weeks as she speculated just what might have happened to motivate Mr. Milligan to place such a notice in the Island Tribune. She finally came to the decision that a Witch Doctor had visited Mrs. Hardee in her final resting place and left trinkets of voodoo behind. This, in her mind, had been the motivation behind Mr. Milligan’s strong warning away from his future resting place. She reckoned that a person couldn’t be too careful in matters of resting places and voodoo.
“OK, here it is.” Clara was back. “Ladies of Beaufort”, she read:
“Here is your opportunity to win a set of Westinghouse Laundry Twins (the Laundromat and Dryer). Nothing to write, no box tops to send in… All you have to do is to be sure your twins are born on September 23, 1953 and Westinghouse will award a set of Laundry Twins free to your twins! Call Fordham Hardware, Westinghouse dealer in Beaufort, for particulars!”
For a moment, Kitty thought hard. Finally, she said, “Given that I’m not havin’ twins and tomorrow's the 23rd, it would probably be easier to send in box tops.”
“But maybe they’ll make an exception for you if you have the baby on September 23! I don’t know anyone around here that’s havin’ twins and they can’t just advertise it and not give it away.”
“Well, that’s nice” Kitty responded “but I don’t think I’m eligible. Plus, little Bucky isn’t due until next week. Thanks for lettin’ me know about it anyway.”
“That’s OK” Clara chirped. “I’ll just start workin’ on thinkin’ positively about them givin’ it to you anyway.” Clara was not easily defeated.
“That’s great, Clara. Just don’t wear yourself out, now.” Kitty could sense the edginess in her voice but it was, as she had said, so hot and this was just a ridiculous conversation. Surely, did the people who wrote this advertisement really think that she could just will herself to deliver on September 23, twins or no twins?
“I gotta’ go, Clara. The cat’s on the table again.”
“OK sweetheart. Go put your feet up and I’ll start workin’ on my positive thinkin'.”
Jesse loosened his tie as he walked through the front door of his little home. This was his favorite part of the day – coming home to Kitty - although lately, it was true that she'd been a little less than overjoyed to see him. It was pretty hot in the house, though, and he knew she was starting to tire of carrying little Bucky around. He didn’t completely understand it, but his friends at work told him just to bear with it; the baby would be here soon enough, and things would return to normal. He was grateful for his friends who were willing to give him very good advice and keep him thinking straight in a time when things often seemed a little confused.
He found Kitty sitting with her feet propped up on a chair, glaring at the cat who was blissfully snoozing away on the table.
“Hey, honey” he said, kissing her on the forehead and walking to the refrigerator to get himself a glass of lemonade. “I thought that cat wasn’t supposed to be on the table.”
“I’m willin’ him to die”, she said without taking her eyes off the cat.
Jesse turned to look at her. He thought for a moment that if anyone could be successful at willing something to die, her look could probably accomplish it. “What’s for supper?” he asked. Slowly she turned to look at him. He thought for a moment that the look she was giving him was unchanged from the one she was giving the cat.
“Hey, I’ve got an idea!” he quickly said. “Let’s go down to the Dairy Nook and grab a burger. We can sit outside. It’ll be a little cooler there.”
“Great. By the way, your sister called today.”
Knowing his sister, he was prepared for what was coming next. “Oh?” he responded. “And what did she want?”
“She didn’t WANT anything. She felt the need to tell me that if I could manage to have twins tomorrow that I could get a brand new, still-in-the-box, automatic washer and dryer from Fordham's. Laundry Twins they’re called. All this while I was in the middle of piles of laundry.”
“Well, that’s impossible. You aren’t due until September 30.” he said. Kitty closed her eyes. Was it just the people around her or was everyone missing the point?
Jesse knew he needed to be careful. He didn’t need his friends at work to tell him that what he said next could change the course of his life for the next several hours. Maybe even the next several days. He walked over to her and knelt in front of her.
“Honey, do you know what? You’re beautiful. You’re beautiful with one baby. You’d be beautiful if you were having six babies. And who needs a set of Laundry Twins anyway? They’d just use up electricity and where in the world would we put them?” He looked at her hopefully.
“Let’s go get a burger”, she said.
That night, as Jesse lay snoring beside her, Kitty stared at the ceiling. She was very uncomfortable and the warm, humid night did nothing to make her feel any better, even with the fans running. She turned to her side and stared at the wall. She was still uncomfortable. She turned to her other side and stared at the other wall. No change. Finally, she realized that the only place she might find any rest was sitting up, so she got up to move to the easy chair in the living room.
And then it happened. It wasn’t the momentous, gushing event that Kitty was convinced would happen in the middle of church, creating a puddle on the pew and alarming the old men around her. It was more of a slow and steady trickle of warmth running down her leg. She stopped suddenly, trying to interpret what was happening. Was this her water breaking? Slowly she moved to sit down on the edge of the bed then hesitated, no – that wasn’t a good idea. She thought of moving to the bathroom but she was uncertain that this was the best course of action, either. So she did the only thing she could think of that made any sense.
She started screaming.
Jesse, so abruptly wakened from his sleep, tried his best to fly out of bed but got tangled in the sheets and, in his fight to extricate himself fell to the floor, arms and legs flailing. On finding success in his fight with the bed linens, he ran to Kitty.
“What is it!? What is it!?”
Kitty’s screams subsided to a flurry of nearly incomprehensible words. “Water! Baby!” she repeated over and over again.
“You need water? Here. Sit down, honey. I’ll get you some water.”
“NO! NO! Water! Baby!”
This conversation repeated itself several times before Jesse finally realized he was going to have to get control of himself and get control of the situation. He put both hands firmly on Kitty’s arms, looked directly into her eyes, and said, “Honey, I need you to calm down and tell me what’s wrong!”
The eye contact from her husband seemed to calm Kitty slightly, enough for her to create a somewhat intelligible sentence that conveyed the message to Jesse that her water had broken.
Jesse stared at her as if he'd never seen her before. Then, “OK. OK. OK. Be calm. I’m calm – you be calm, too. I mean, I know it’s hard for you to be calm but try anyway. OK. Stand right here. Or should you sit? No, just stand here. I’ll get my shoes.”
And Jesse dashed off to find his shoes, leaving Kitty standing in the middle of the bedroom, warm water dripping on her feet.
“I’m sorry, Mr. McMeekin, but you can’t go with your wife” the starched and stoic nurse at the desk said to Jesse.
“Those are the rules. No exceptions. You’ll have to wait here” and she pointed vaguely at a small waiting room where another man sat, smoking a cigarette. From the look of the ashtray beside him, he was either an obsessive chain smoker or he’d been sitting there a very long time. Jesse took a seat beside him. If he had to sit in a waiting room while his little Bucky was born, Jesse figured it would help to have some companionship.
“Wife havin’ a baby?”
The smoking man looked at him hard. “Yeah.”
“This your first?”
Eighth.” And he closed his eyes and took a long drag from his cigarette.
Jesse couldn’t think of one thing to say to that so he just grunted and stared at the linoleum floor. The hours slowly ticked on. The sun came up and lit the nurses desk through the window. At one point a nurse came out and told him that things were progressing but it would be a while longer and no, he still couldn’t come back. Fathers were not allowed. Hadn’t they explained that to him already?
At lunchtime Jesse went to the vending machine down the hall and bought a pack of Nabs and a Coke. He stopped at the Nursery window where babies were lined up, sleeping away, not a care in the world. His heart beat a little faster at the prospect of his Bucky wrapped up tight in one of those little beds.
At suppertime Jesse went back to the vending machine and bought another pack of Nabs and a Coke. Could it really be taking this long? When Jesse was a little boy his dad had raised cattle but calving never took this long. He didn’t think this was normal but the nurse at the desk seemed very unapproachable so he decided that if something was wrong they would tell him and he went back to the waiting room. While he’d been at the vending machine for the second time, the nurses had come to get his waiting room companion so he was all alone when he got back. He had no choice but to sit and wait.
September 23 came and went. And then, at 12:08 am the doctor strolled into the waiting room. “McMeekin?” he demanded.
“Yes! That’s me!” Jesse stood quickly and reached out his hand.
“Well, son, congratulations are definitely in order. It was a bit of a long haul, but your wife’s doing great and so are the babies.”
Jesse stared at the doctor as if another head had started to emerge from the shoulder socket of his left arm. “Babies?”
“Yes, son – twins! Two girls. Beautiful things they are, too.”
Jesse could feel the blood running out of his head. He started to feel lightheaded and the walls of the room started to sway.
“OK, there….easy, now….take a seat son and let’s get you some water.”
“But I don’t understand. Two babies? Girls? How did this happen?”
The doctor chuckled. “Well, son, it’s a little late to be explainin’ it to you….”
“No! No! I mean…..the baby was a boy! And there was only supposed to be one!”
The doctor was now greatly amused at this young father who clearly had great expectations for his first son and now was trying to come to terms with the idea that not only did he not have a son, but he had two daughters. “These things happen, son. You’ll fall in love with ‘em, just like you did with their mother. Come on…..let’s go make introductions.”
Kitty McMeekin sat in the cool shade of the big oak tree and gazed on her two little babies sleeping peacefully together in the bassinet they shared. She was as surprised as Jesse when the doctor had said there were two babies. In fact, she was, admittedly, more than alarmed when the first baby, born at 11:58 pm on September 23, was delivered and safely in the arms of the kindly old nurse but the doctor started yelling, “Get another warmer! Get another warmer!” The nurse had questioned why, but the doctor just yelled some more, “Get another warmer! There’s another baby!” The nurse ran.
Kitty could hardly believe her ears. Another baby? It seemed impossible and yet, in just a few minutes, at 12:02 am on September 24, there was the second baby, red and squealing and very mad at being disturbed and dragged into the cold light of the delivery room.Surprisingly, Kitty’s biggest concern, even in the middle of the chaos and surprise of a second baby – and a girl at that - was what to name her. She had only held the name of Aubrey Dew in reserve just in case and, of course, Bucky would never do. Later, after much debate between parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles, Jesse had put his foot down and said that he would choose the baby’s name. Several days went by and everyone waited anxiously and not with great patience. Finally, Jesse announced that the second baby’s name would be Katherine Mae McMeekin and she would be called Kitty Mae. The older Kitty was quite touched at this tender decision made by her husband, who sometimes didn’t seem to understand anything at all. Apparently, he did.
The screen door slammed and Clara joined Kitty and the sleeping babies.
“Here, honey. I picked up your mail for ya.” She lowered herself into the chair next to Kitty. You know, I’ve been thinkin’ what a disappointment it was that both them babies weren’t born before midnight. Then you could’ve gotten that washer and dryer from Potts.”
Kitty smiled as she shuffled through the mail – a bill from Southern Bell, a card from her aunt in Loris, and…what was this? An envelope addressed to Mrs. Kitty McMeekin, 82 Lafayette Street, Beaufort, South Carolina. She slid her finger under the flap to break the seal and removed a brief letter, typewritten on onion skin paper, that said:
“Dear Mrs. McMeekin,
Congratulations to you and your husband on the birth of your fine twins. We hope that your little ones bring you great joy today and in the future.
As you may know, we committed to giving away a set of Laundry Twins to the mother of twins born on September 23. Unfortunately, only one of your babies was born on September 23, making you ineligible for both the washer and the dryer. However, since no other babies were born on September 23 and you did have one baby on the required date, we would like to kindly offer you the choice of the washer or the dryer.
Please contact us at your earliest convenience.
“Well, I just can’t believe it,” Kitty said. “Take a look at this” and she handed the letter to Clara.
Clara was, as expected, extremely excited. “Well, how wonderful! See, I told you it would work out! Which one are you gonna’ get? The washer or the dryer?”
Kitty thought for a long time before she answered. She looked at the clothes line. She contemplated her babies. And then she said, “Neither one.”
Clara was indignant. “What! Kitty, you can’t be serious….why, just think of how much easier Wash Day would be if you had a washer or a dryer?”
“I have a washer” Kitty responded. “And the sun dries my clothes quite well.” And with that, she stood up and left Clara sputtering in her chair. “I’ll be right back. Mind the babies, will you?”
Inside, Kitty got the telephone book out of the cupboard and turned to the inside back cover where she'd written phone numbers of close friends, family members, and the fire department. Her eyes scrolled down to the middle of the page where she located the number she was looking for. She picked up the phone, dialed, and waited until a soft-spoken voice said, “Hello?”
“Hey, Ruth Ann – this is Kitty. I have some good news for you.”
Farther down de road, just past de tree dat was struck by lightnin' in '56 but not as far as de packin' house is a li'l ole mobile home sittin' up on cinder blocks. It be dere a good while, now.....long as I can 'member, anyways. Sho', it's a li'l rusty but it was a fine thing when it were new. Mm-hmm. You'll know it by de blue door. Ain't nobody else 'round got a door dat blue. Yessuh. And don't let de bullet hole above de doorknob scare ya'. Dat was just an accident, though some might tell it otherwise.
Will he be dere? Now dat be a good question. He might be, though he keeps hours my wife shake a head at. 'Course, she don't take kindly to late hours as such, her bein' a good church-goin' gal and all. Her mama dat way, too so she cain't help herself. Nossuh. She just cain't help it, see? I had to learn my way aroun' it, but after a while it weren't so bad. I just learnt to leave it alone, see, don't poke at it or stir it up and things gen'ly work out just fine 'tween me and her. Mm-hmm. She like to dress up, see, and spend de day at church and no, I don't gen'ly go with her, though she might try at Easter to get me in a pew but dat preacher don't have nothin' to say to me dat I ain't heard before, see, so I jus' get my 'ligion down on de crick diggin' me up some oystuhs or dippin' my fishin' line in just so, ya' see....
What dat? Right. Well, nossuh, I don't rightly know if he be dere or not. Ya' see, this time o' day he might be dere sleepin' it off or if he ain't dere, run on back up de road and check de sto' at Eustis. Sometime he be dere this time of day. Ole' Cooter don't gen'ly like him hangin' 'round he store, say it be bad for business and all, but if'n he feelin' kindly to him he might be lettin' him set on de porch with his RC Cola. I love me a good, cold RC Cola, too and sometimes I join 'im, though I gen'ly don't hang out no mo' with de boys at Eustis since de wife don't like it. She say I look like a bum sittin' out dere with dem boys while dey smoke dey Camels and drink dey Co-Colas and all. She say we got a image to keep up wit' de church-folk. I don't rightly know what dat mean, but she say it so I gots to go 'long with it. Mm-hmmm.
You say you from Chahlston, enty? And what you be wantin' to know with 'im? 'Cause you know he ain't got de sense God gave a fencepost anymo' after what happened. Dat 'ting happened so long ago got stuck in he head, see, and it done festered dere so he cain't really see straight no mo'. I see you some kind o' law man. Plenty o' lawmen been down here askin' questions of him but dey never get no ansuh. He don't talk about it, see, 'cause it done stuck in he brain and he cain't get it out.
What dat? Yeah, me and him used to hang out togethuh, shrimpin' or sittin' down at de Corners watchin' de cars go by to Huntin' Island and wishin' we had one of 'dem Chevys where de top go down, see, but gen'ly we just sat and talk about life as it was and as we thought it should be. Yessuh.
De story be true? Well, sho' it be de fac' trut'. He be addled in he head but he don't know how to lie. See it go like dis. Long time ago he and Big Jim went on out to Dataw to do a lil' huntin'. 'Dey both been doin' dat for years, see, and dey knew dat island like de back o' Big Jim hand. Yessuh. All over dat island dey'd go, shootin' at squirrels and once 'dey found a 'gator so big 'dey had a hard time shootin' it, see, but shoot it dey did and when dey slice him open guess what dey found? Go on and guess.
Good lord, man! Now dat would be sump'n wouldn't it, if dey found a person inside? Yessuh. 'Dat be a good one. Yessuh. Mm-hmm.
Nah, dey didn't find no person inside dat gator but dey did find a bottle of Orange Crush soda wit' de top still on it. So dey drank de soda and took dat 'gator home and made stew out of 'im for months. My wife always say she wish she had some o' dat gator meat. She love her some gator meat. She make a pretty good stew no matter what you bring her to put in 'de pot but she particularly like gator meat. She say it sweet like candy. Mm-hmm.
So dey go out one day lookin' for deer, see, and story goes dey saw plenty deer but dey didn't shoot none right directly. Dey jus' wander all over dat island seein' what dey could see 'til dey come to de old ruins. You know, dey got dem ruins all fix up now, all clean and shiny with signs and such to tell folks what dey is and who be dere befo' de war, but back den dem ruins be all grown up wit' weeds and wisteria and such and it be jus' like steppin' into another world.
Story goes dey need a rest, see, so dey sit on de old well. Nossuh, dey ain't no water in it. Ain't been no water in it since befo' de war I 'spect. So dey sit down to rest dey feet and de next ting dey know, Big Jim's shotgun done fall into de well. All de way down it go 'til dey hear it clatter at de bottom.
Now dat shotgun done mean a lot to Big Jim 'cause his daddy done give it to 'im and he meant to be gettin' dat ting back. So dey look 'round and dey see dese big wisteria vines 'round and dey take it on demselves to cut one and use it to lower Big Jim down into de well. He be strong, see, so he hung onto one end of dat vine and Big Jim hung onto de other end and down, down Big Jim go into de well 'til he cain't see Big Jim no more but he can hear 'im. Yessuh. Big Jim call out to 'im, "I got de gun....pull me on up now" but as strong as he is, he cain't pull him back up. He could get 'im down, see, but he couldn't pull 'im back up.
'Dey sat for a long time dere - him at de top and Big Jim at de bottom, tryin' to figure out just what 'dey was gonna do nex'. Finally, he say to Big Jim dat it appear de only ting to be done is for he to go on back to Frogmo' and get some help. Big Jim be brave, see, so he tell 'im go on and go and he just sit at de bottom of 'dat well 'til he get back.
So he head on back to Frogmo' but it take some time, see. He had he ole pickup but sho' nuf dat ting decide it don't wanna' start so he gots to tinker 'round with it for a while before' he get it goin' and 'dat truck never could go more than thirty so it take him some time to get on back to Frogmo' and find a rope. 'Den he had to go on up to Eustis and see which of de boys could head on back with him to get Big Jim out of dat well. So by de time dey all pile in de back of he truck and get on back to Dataw it be close to dark.
Now dis be de 'ting, see. When dem boys got to dat well dey call in for Big Jim and dey don't get no ansuh. Dey call and call fo' him but he don't ansuh. So dey get all dey flashlights and shine 'em in to dat well and, lord have mercy, Big Jim be gone. Big Jim and de rifle just be gone. Just' like dat. So dey get dey flashlights and dey start walkin' all over dat island lookin' for Big Jim but dey cain't find him nowhere. He just gone, see? Just gone. Mmmm...mm.
So dey go on back to Frogmo; and call for de sheriff who live down at Coffin. By dat time it be early mornin' so de sheriff come on down and start askin' him all kinds of question, like "what you been doin' out dere with Big Jim" and "what you tink happen to him". He start gettin nervous, like de sheriff be 'tinking he done sump'n to Big Jim. He swear he ain't done nothin' to 'im and he tell de sheriff 'xactly what I done told you. Word for word, Yessuh.
So de sheriff, he get he boys out dere and dey crawl all over dat island lookin' for Big Jim but dey never find him. Big Jim never came home, neither and nobody ever heard from him since.
What dat? Well, I don't directly know what happened but here's what I tink. See, dat old well be full of dem spirits of dem people who used to live where dem ruins are now. Dem spirits all sad like and be hangin' 'round dey old house 'cause dem Yankees took it from 'em and dis be dey way of gettin it back, see. So when dey find Big Jim in de well dey start talkin' and dey use dey charms to talk Big Jim into goin' with 'em where ever it is dey go. And given he wasn't thinkin' straight 'cause he'd been in dat well for so long and dey be workin' dey magic on him, he went with 'em. And took he rifle, too. And dat be de fac' trut'. Yessuh.
Nossuh, I cain't go with ya' to find him. De wife got chores for me at home. Seem she always got sump'n on her list for me to do.