For Thanksgiving, a Bailey White Short Story
It's a Thanksgiving Day tradition on All Things Considered for commentator Bailey White to read an original short story. With the author's permission, npr.org reprints the story below.
By Bailey White
"And now I'm going to put in just a liii-ttle bit of cobalt blue right here," said Bob Rigsby, dabbling in his watercolors, and in the angled mirror above his painting table they saw the back of his freckled hand make several little dashes at the paper with the brush, then steady, and then the blue leaked out the tip of the brush, spread across the paper, and soaked gratefully into the oval of rose madder still wet from the last stroke. There was an audible gasp, for there in the mirror, to everyone's amazement, was the side of a rose -- the delicate pink of its petal's edge, the shadowed curve, and the pale bulge at the base of the bloom.
Bob Rigsby looked up and stretched his back. He had a friendly, likeable face and a shining bald head, its little feeble hairs now illuminated in the bright light like a glowing halo. "You have to paint what you see, not what you think you see," he said, smiling at several of the old ladies on the front row.
From where she stood at the back of the room by the table of sandwiches and lemonade, Della couldn't see their faces, just their feet reflected at the top of the angled mirror. They were the peacefullest feet she had ever seen -- no crossing and recrossing of ankles, no shifting to ease an aching hip, no impatient scuffing. They were the feet of happy, attentive listeners. Della smiled. This painting class was by far the most successful of all the cultural events she had put on at the nursing home. There was something mesmerizing about Bob Rigsby -- his open face and his gentle lessons in watercolor philosophy and horticultural history:
"This very rose that I am painting today may have been planted by Thomas Jefferson himself at Monticello," he was saying, and he went on with storytelling smoothness to describe the Roundabout Walk, the grove of trees, and the distant mists of the Blue Ridge Mountains. There was the soporific swish swish of the brush in the water and the little tap tap against the glass, then a deft stroke, and there went a wavery crimson stripe streaking up through the pink and white. Suddenly in the middle of all that peace and quiet old Lila Hardwick yelped, "Monday!"
"Oh, Lila," someone scolded. There was a general grumbling sound, and an impatient scuffle as the contented feet in the mirror shifted irritably.
Bob Rigsby sat up and looked out at them sharply. "Monday?" he said. But the concentration was broken, and people began gathering up canes and walkers. Della announced in her clear, bright voice that it was time for a break. Some people stumped off to the bathroom, some clumped up at the back table for their sandwich and lemonade, and several hung over Bob Rigsby's painting table, peering down at the picture in amazement, as if they could not believe the real thing would look the same as what they had been watching in the mirror.
"How did he make it do that?" said Emily Hancock, and "Now don't it look just like a rose?" said her husband Harold, and "I have never seen a rose stripedy like that," said Lucille Patterson.
Bob Rigsby was free to have this lunch break to himself in the visitors' lounge or to smoke a cigarette in the Memory Garden, but instead he took his plate and cup into the thick of it and sat right down between old Miss Lila Hardwick and Miss Ethel Livingstone. He handed Lila a cucumber sandwich. "What made you say Monday?" he asked.
Miss Lila didn't say a word, but Miss Ethel Livingstone smacked in exasperation. "I don't know why in the world they keep giving her that Alzheimer's test," she said. "They ask her all these questions, and she never knows anything. She never knows what day of the week it is. It's Thursday, Lila!" she shouted to Miss Lila, and then aside to Bob Rigsby -- "She doesn't know who the president of the United States is either. She always answers Roosevelt when everyone knows the correct answer is 'George W. Bush.'"
Miss Lila munched and munched and munched at a mouthful of sandwich, never taking her eyes off Bob Rigsby's face. It was hard to believe anyone could chew white bread and mayonnaise and thinly sliced cucumbers that long. Finally she swallowed.
"Out by the washhouse," she said.
"There's no such thing as a washhouse anymore, Lila!" snapped Miss Ethel, then to Bob Rigsby, "She just wants to think it's still 1933, because she was the queen of the Rose Show in '33."
Miss Lila wore thick glasses slid way down her nose, and her face had shrunk away from her eyes in her old age. It could be disconcerting to be fixed by that magnified gaze, but Bob Rigsby did not waver.
"My mother grew those roses," said Miss Lila.
"What roses?" he asked, leaning closer.
"Uh oh," thought Della. "He's apt to get himself into trouble. I'll have to look after him."
Bob Rigsby was a distinguished artist. He was a Dolphin Fellow in The American Watercolor Society, he had been a consultant on the design of the recently issued longleaf pine postage stamp, and one of his rose paintings, a Mister Lincoln, hung in the White House. Plus, he was just such a nice man.
"What is it that makes people want to feed you?" asked Della.
"All that butter and mayonnaise," said Bob Rigsby. "And look at me! I'm already fat!"
It was the evening after that first session, and partly out of gratitude and partly out of curiosity Della had brought Bob Rigsby supper -- the leftover sandwiches, a little salad, and a bottle of wine -- and they sat in the front windows of his apartment and looked down on Main Street.
Bob Rigsby lived in an interesting place, the upstairs room over what used to be the old Farmers and Merchants Bank Building downtown. A hundred years ago it had been the office of the bank president, but it had stood empty since the 1930s, and it retained that pleasing stillness of places that have been long abandoned. Through the old ripply glass of the tall arched windows and then the lacy leaves of the elm trees shading the sidewalk they could see the row of handsome brick and granite and cast iron storefronts across the street with their dates arching in gables and pediments -- 1882, 1885, 1890.
"Don't you love minds that are almost gone?" said Bob Rigsby. "What fascinating little remnants work their way up out of the clutter of a lifetime of memory -- roses and a washhouse."
There was something solid and comforting about the space in that old bank president's office -- its elegant proportions, its thick plaster walls, its grand oak wainscoting and rift pine floor. Della and Bob Rigsby just sat for a while very peacefully without talking. The late afternoon light reflected off the white granite building across the street, so that for just a minute right at dusk, this room was filled with a filmy pink light.
"Everything I love is almost gone," said Bob Rigsby. "Little towns like this, longleaf pine woods, those old ladies today. Why, even the postage stamp I designed came out just a month before they raised the rates to 37¢."
They watched the last light slide up the wall and then everything was in shadow.
"Why did she say Monday?" Bob Rigsby mused. "The Rose Queen of '33."
The next day in the art class Bob Rigsby was talking about the history of this rose he was painting. "In our young country we know it for its connection with Thomas Jefferson," he said. "But it is a rose of great antiquity, first known in France in the 12th century, where it was called Rosamund's Rose after Fair Rosamund, an unfortunate mistress of Henry II."
In the mirror they saw his wrist twitch, and there was a new fat bud; then his hand slid smoothly across, and what was red on the brush came out a pearly gray on the paper, and there was a shadowed leaf.
Watching it in the mirror gave the whole procedure a once-removed dreamy feeling, and some of the viewers began talking as if Bob Rigsby
wasn't sitting right there.
"I heard he painted a postage stamp," said Emily Hancock.
"I have heard that a rose is the hardest of all flowers to paint," said Lucille Patterson, "and look how good he's doing it!"
"Well of course he can paint a rose, Lucille," said Ethel Livingstone. "He's a famous painter! Just think how many thousands of people have licked that stamp."
"Actually the stamp is self-adhesive," Bob Rigsby said modestly, and he painted on and on, adding a leaflet and a calyx.
"Poor Rosamund," he said, "she didn't last. In one of those long ago centuries, the last syllable of her name got misunderstood as monde, the French word for 'world,' and the rose became known as 'rose of the world."'
He rinsed his brush and looked up at them. "I am fascinated by the evolution of rose names," he said.
"Our town is known as The City Of Roses," said Miss Ethel, with school marm precision. "Over 10,000 rose bushes are planted in the municipal rose beds."
"Hybrid tea roses and grandifloras," said Bob Rigsby. "There's a bed of Queen Elizabeth outside my window." He peeled up a dried strip of masking fluid, and in the mirror they watched a white stripe appear through the pink and crimson.
"My mother grew those roses," said Miss Lila Hardwick. There was a groan. Once Miss Lila latched onto something it was hard to get her off of it.
"My mother grew those roses," said Miss Lila.
Bob Rigsby stopped and looked up. "What roses?" he asked.
"Out by the washhouse," said Miss Lila.
"Lila!" said Miss Ethel impatiently. "We're not talking about out by the washhouse, we're talking about the municipal rose beds downtown. Your mother didn't plant those roses, the city planted those roses in 1995!"
"My mother grew those roses," Lila said.
"Hush, Lila!" snapped Emily Hancock. "Your mother is dead, dead, dead!"
Lila based up and raised her chin. She leaned out and looked down the row at Emily Hancock. "I am the Rose Queen," she said. "Who are you?"
That night when Della brought him supper, Bob Rigsby was so excited he would not sit down, but paced up and down in front of the windows popping cucumber sandwiches into his mouth one after another.
"I spent the afternoon in the newspaper archives at the library," he told Della all in a rush, "and there she was on microfilm -- Miss Lila Hardwick, The Rose Queen of '33. Listen to this" -- and he read:
Over 2,000 roses were used to create this rose covered cart in which rode Morrisville's own Rose Queen Miss Lila Hardwick, a vision of loveliness
well chosen to represent our City of Roses in this third annual Rose Show. . .
"It was fabulous!" said Bob Rigsby, wiping mayonnaise off his fingers. "One of the biggest rose exhibitions in the country. They lined the walls of the tobacco warehouse with pine boughs and set up shelves all down the middle for the roses -- thousands of roses from all over the southeast. The streets were strewn with rose petals, the ice company froze roses in huge blocks of ice, there was a grand parade with 40 floats and eight bands. And for the rose queen they soaked a wicker pony cart in Barnett's Creek overnight and wove the stems of 2,000 roses into the wet wicker. They did it for four Aprils in a row, then the war came and they never could muster the enthusiasm for it again, and now 70 years later all they do is plant these pitiful mildewed Queen Elizabeths in the municipal flower beds so they can still call themselves 'The City of Roses.' It's almost gone," he said, "but look here. Look at this."
He took out a magnifying glass and a Xerox copy of an old newspaper photograph. There she was, Miss Lila Hardwick, slim and graceful and proud -- The Rose Queen of 1933. She had a little held-back smile on her lips, as if she knew more than she was willing to show, and in the angle of her head and the look in her eye there was wit and daring.
"Aw," said Della. "It's all gone."
"Look at the roses she's holding," said Bob Rigsby, and he played the magnifying glass up and down over the dim photograph. Della adjusted her gaze away, then closer until she could see -- the roses were streaked with wavery dim and dark stripes.
"I would love it so much," said Bob Rigsby, "if that rose she's holding in 1933 is this very rose I'm painting, Rosa gallica versicolor, Fair Rosamund's Rose, Rosa mundi. I would love that so much."
The next day was the last of Bob Rigsby's painting lessons, but instead of holding it as usual at 10 in the morning in the recreation room at the nursing home, he invited everyone to his apartment over the old bank building in the late afternoon. "The painting is finished," he told Della. "It will be a kind of unveiling."
It made a lot of work for Della. She had to get enough folding chairs up there, and arrange for the van with the wheelchair lift, and crank up the old freight elevator at the back of the building to avoid the narrow rickety stairs in the front.
"I think this is in violation of about eight codes," she said.
"But I need the light," said Bob Rigsby.
It was worrying at first. Della stood up reassuringly in the front of the van and explained over and over. "We are going for a ride to see Bob Rigsby's finished painting unveiled. It's a kind of party or celebration."
But Emily Hancock heard the word "veil" and got the idea that they were going to a wedding, and Lucille Patterson misunderstood Emily and thought they were going to a funeral, and Miss Ethel Livingstone kept busy trying to straighten everyone out.
"Not 'died,' but 'bride,'" she said.
"Who died?" asked Miss Emily.
But when they finally got up there and stepped out of the old creakity freight elevator and onto the second floor, there was Bob Rigsby with his soothing charm, helping them one after another to their chairs like an usher in church. There was the shuffle of settling in, a rattle of walking canes, then a general sighing sound as everyone sank down and looked around.
That elegant old room, once so stark and spare, with light as its only ornament, was now filled with color and fragrance. Bob Rigsby had lined the back wall with pine boughs, just like at the grand old Rose Show of 1933, and in front of that greenery he had set up tiered shelves draped in white, each shelf lined with roses in green bottles. They were at the height of their last fall bloom -- hybrid tea roses and grandifloras from the municipal flower beds, and from the heritage rose garden in the park blowsy damasks, sweet little china roses, and fragrant noisettes.
Bob Rigsby let everyone just sit for a minute to get their bearings and breathe in the fragrance of cool pine and warm rose. Then he began his last lesson.
"Every rose has a name," he said, and he started on the top shelf, holding up each rose and naming it: "Mutabilis, La Reine Victoria, and Mrs. Dudley Cross. Some are named for people," he said. "This gold and coral rose Abraham Darby, named for a 19th-century industrialist; this little sweetheart rose Cecile Brunner, named for the daughter of a Swiss nurseryman; this old china rose Louis Philippe, named for a French king." The beautiful colors came and went -- the velvety red of a Mister Lincoln, the delicate shell pink of a Souvenir de St. Anns, and the rich gold of a Graham Thomas, as Bob Rigsby named presidents and princesses and distinguished horticulturalists and told their stories: Devoniensis, Celine Forestier, Duchess de Brabant. It was another mesmerizing Bob Rigsby art lesson, and soon nervous hands quit clutching, worried brows unclenched, and under the chairs the feet got still.
As Bob Rigsby came to the last of the roses, that magical reflected light began to gather. "This little pink rose is named La Marne," he said, "and this rose -- "
But instead of a rose bud in a green bottle, this time he held up his painting in the last glowing light, that lovely striped rose with its shadowed leaf and its tender bud. Bob Rigsby didn't say a name. He just waited, looking right at Miss Lila Hardwick, the Rose Queen of '33.
"This rose is named -- " he prompted, and right then, out of all that clutter of a lifetime of memory she retrieved it – "The Monday Rose!" she screeched.
Bob Rigsby sank down into a chair, and mopped his face, worn out with the exhaustion of effort and accomplishment.
"That is exactly right," he said. "This rose of great antiquity, rarely seen in cultivation today, was known in the 12th century as Rosamund's rose, and is now named 'Rosa mundi' -- or in Lila Hardwick's mother's yard in the '30s where it grew out by the washhouse, The Monday Rose."
That night as Della and Bob Rigsby sat in front of the tall arched windows looking down on the empty streets of that almost-gone little town, every now and then they heard a swish and a flop as the petals of the full blown roses turned loose of their stems and spilled onto the shelf.
"I love that so much," said Bob Rigsby. "Probably the last thing in her whole life she will get right -- the name of a rose."
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