who believed in meat and potatoes; people who opted for color television as opposed to divorce. And the people of Honey Creek believed strongly in culture and in stature, and they put a great amount of their time and money into building a community based around this factor. They wanted to be recognized as a reputable town so badly they could taste it on their tongues as they fell asleep at night.
Those same people, living in Honey Creek, were happy to learn that a museum was being put up in the empty lot at of Davis and Greenleaf. It was to be a museum filled with people of importance. George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and even the current President, John F. Kennedy, were to be remembered. It was to honor baseball players like Babe Ruth and local stars like Jim Douglas, who played baseball in college. The museum would make 1963 their year. It was something that they could call their own.
The corner had previously held an empty lot where weeds grew rampant and the neighborhood dogs buried their bones. James at the Kensington Corner Store was embarrassed by the empty lot across the street, and was the first in line to vote "Yes" on the new building. "Yes" to open up a new museum that would make do for a better view and certainly bring in more business for him, filling his usual hours of nothing to do but watch the flies buzz up and around the freezers.
So the people of Honey Creek thought it would be appropriate to ask another local hero of sorts to do the honors. He was once a fireman who was well respected for his selflessness and devotion to the profession. He was popular among everyone for a time. It was Timothy B. Jackson whom they wanted to cut the ribbon at the opening. He was a man who had given back to the community and a man worthy of the coveted position. And to top off the ceremony, a yellow ribbon was to be wrapped around the whole structure, perfectly in line at each corner with the white strips of wooden siding. Mrs. Willis, who had thought of the ribbon idea herself, suggested "lemon meringue" to be the color of choice. Her husband, the mayor of Honey Creek, thought it was a splendid idea and they purchased the ribbon for $.09 a yard at Gina's.
Because of the type of man Timothy Jackson was, he couldn't be asked to do the honor directly. He had to be caught by surprise, sniffed out like a fox in the woods. At the time, he had been sitting at his kitchen table, his legs folded under the chipped red top, the New York Times spread out before him. Below the paper was a page of funnies he had swiped from a local paper on his walk with Walton, the beagle, earlier in the morning. He was waiting for his wife to leave for the knitting club before he would bring out the brightly colored stolen goods, the simple cartoons that always caused him to wheeze as he giggled. Alice Jackson knew nothing of his late morning rituals. She took him to be a serious man and he saw no reason to change her mind. He liked that she believed he lost himself in politics, that his mornings were spent reading about the French in Vietnam and the American duty to help.
And so the precious pages sat below the heavy black and white text, undetected by Alice as she put the last of Timothy's breakfast on his plate. She put the pan in the sink, wiped the counter briefly and grabbed her bag from the doorknob. She walked towards Timothy and put her hand on his shoulder. She kissed him on the forehead, attracted to him even with the loss of hair on the top of his head and liver spots resembling Walton's dappled fur. He smelled of baby oil and Binaca. She looked at her husband fondly before wrapping herself in a tweed coat and embracing the morning air.
He watched her through the kitchen window as she walked solidly down the walk, waving to the neighbors who were spending their morning raking leaves in the brisk October breeze. She climbed into the car and shut the door, squinting from the glare of reflected sunlight on her face. As the sound of the motor grew faint, Timothy scuffled back to the table, ready to indulge in his comics.
Just as his fingers folded back the crisp newspaper, the phone let out a piercing ring. The eggshell-colored machine seemed to announce the call proudly, being the first it had received in days. The cord bounced with each tone and begged to be answered. Timothy heaved himself up from his chair, breathing heavily as he walked toward it. He secretly hoped he would slip and fall before he reached the phone. It had been so long since he had wanted to be social, since he had wanted to answer rehearsed questions and force a laugh at a tired joke. But the phone fell easily into his hand as he lifted it from the receiver.
"Ah, Hello?" he answered, his knees quivering slightly before he leaned against the counter.
"Mr. Jackson? Is this Timothy Jackson?" The voice sounded scratchy and far away.
"Yes this is he."
"Oh great! I was hoping you'd be home. I know that most of the folks around here tend to have busy days. Anyways, this is John Price from the Honey Creek Board of Humanities and I was hoping you would do Honey Creek a favor, if it wouldn't trouble you too much." The man sounded like he had rehearsed this speech many times before he had dialed the numbers. "You weren't on your way out the door, were you?"
"My day has just begun, Mr. Price. What is it that you would like me to do for you today? Is this something political? I'm really not interested if it is. I like to keep to my own opinions." He tried his best to sound busy.
"No sir. Well, actually, this is a matter of great importance. Have you heard about the museum that is being put up here in town?" the man asked.
"Yes Mr. Price, I know about it. I hear that it should be completed fairly soon. Aren't they aiming to have it up right around Thanksgiving?"
"Well, yes they are Mr. Jackson. And I myself hear that the citizens of our promising town have a great amount of respect for you. They say you used to be quite the man of the community. One of our outstanding citizens. Chief of the Fire Department and President of the Board and all. No parking violations, no run-ins with the law of any kind. They say you even graduated both high school and college with an outstanding GPA." Timothy laughed; as if this were something that mattered now in his old age. "And I hear that you've lived here your whole life, am I right?"
"Yes indeed. Now tell me, what is it that you're getting at?"
"Well you see, Mr. Jackson, this museum is about recognizing role models and people of stature who bring honor to their home towns. We want to send out a good message about citizenship, encourage the grade school students to work for their community. Seeing as you have been such an excellent example of good citizenship, and one of the most admired residents of Honey Creek, I have been given the honor of asking you to cut the ribbon at the opening for our museum. Wha'd'ya say, Mr. Jackson?"
Timothy stared at the tiles on the floor, at the brown carpet that crept slowly down the hallway. He twirled the cord of the phone in his wrinkled fingers and cleared his throat. He felt clenched. Clenched and afraid that he would end up saying yes.
"Can I think about this a little? Talk it over with my wife?"
"Mr. Jackson, take all the time you need. But we would really love to have you, you know, so please put some honest thought into this, really and truly. We'll call you back at the end of the week."
Timothy thought it over with Alice in bed that night. Wearing her long pink cotton nightie, she had pulled back the covers and patted the seat beside her. The bed gave way under the weight as his bottom pressed into the paisley sheets and the constellations peeked in through their east-facing bedroom window. Alice thought the offer was a flattering one for Timothy, and that he should take it at once. It's not every day one gets recognized by their home town, not every day someone wants you to cut a ribbon. "Why, I've been volunteering at the middle school for 15 years now and not so much as a bouquet has graced these hands of mine. You shouldn't even have to think about it twice. It's been so long since we've had anything like this."
Timothy wriggled his toes inside of his socks. Alice kissed him on the cheek and held his dry hands between hers. His hands were so comforting and familiar to her. In a way that she could never describe in words, holding those hands of his allowed her lungs to sigh and her body to relax. Neither had ever spent a night alone since the day they wed. Since July of 1926, after the reception at Briggs Park across from Hedge Way, back before those years when they lived off potato skins and slept in moth-eaten sheets, Alice had never once woken without Timothy breathing beside her. She was proud to have a husband whom her town admired so greatly. Kissing him again on his nose, she told him to get some rest and to call them back in the morning and say yes.
Though he was not quite sure why, Timothy called Mr. Price and declared that he would cut the ribbon. Maybe it was because of the boredom that crept through the house, or the pressure he felt from his wife. Or maybe it was that he had spent years ignored and unnoticed in his old age, and now he had some opportunity to shine again. Whatever it was, he agreed.
After the news had been spread, the people of Honey Creek began the preparation. Miriam Henson, the clerk at the bank, called her sister from Chicago and invited her down for the opening. Theodore Mathews, the local comedian, pulled down his old suit from the attic, excited to blow away 6 years of dust. Ms. Bletchley had her 2nd grade students make posters to decorate the telephone polls in their neighborhoods. Outside, a buzz was filling the autumn streets of Honey Creek. It lingered in the branches of the trees and swept through the busy streets at rush hour. The whole town was chit-chatting away. Even the mayor was eager. It had been months since he had anything to do but sit in his office and review files on sewage regulations and health inspections. Darlene Rivers, who usually organized the Thanksgiving Day parade, had proposed to make a day of it. A holiday almost. Everyone will take the day off and there will be block parties and potlucks. And the ribbon-cutting should be done around noon, she decided, so that everyone can have a few hours to tour the halls filled with great citizens. With each red mark on the calendar, and the reassuring noises of construction, the people of Honey Creek spoke more and more of the event that would be taking place. Outfits were picked out and apple cider arrangements were made for those who wanted to wait out the crowd before venturing down the hallways of the new building.
No one counted the days more anxiously than Timothy Jackson. October melded into November, and week one and two shifted along without a hitch. Week three surprised him from around the corner, on his way to the bedroom late Sunday night. And on Thursday, the night before the opening (they had wanted to begin on the following Friday, of the Thanksgiving weekend, but Mayor Willis would be out of town for the holiday), Timothy's palms were sweaty as he helped Alice dry the dishes from their evening roast beef and asparagus.
The minute hand on his clock eyed him suspiciously, making sure with each tick that he didn't take back his acceptance of this generous offer. Picking up the last of the green bowls to spin underneath the ratted terry cloth, all he thought of was how his hands would wobble as he clutched the scissors. Even though he may cover up his fear with a smile, his hands would give him away to everyone. He would have to speak to men he had not spoken to since Eisenhower began his first term. His hands would surely reveal how terrified he was, terrified by the thought of having to acknowledge in public, once again, the death of the woman who used to be Timothy Jackson's best friend. His best friend, his only daughter, the woman who was trapped in her home, her home on Front St., the home that burned to the ground so many years ago on Timothy Jackson's watch. He would be forced to smile for a camera that may capture the panic and shame in his eyes before they could shift away from curious faces. And while he was busy worrying about his hands in the future, the bowl slipped from his sweaty, soggy fingers and crashed onto the floor, shards flying and gathering around Alice's slippered feet.
"Timothy!" She looked at him sharply, for he was not a clumsy person. "My goodness Timmy, are you ok?"
His throat was quivering; he couldn't tell her why he had dropped the bowl. He may have trusted her with his life, but he wasn't prepared for a scolding. Instead, he quickly reached down and began picking up the pieces below him, apologizing over and over again for the bowl that he had broken. Alice looked frightened but understanding, as she always did when she was uncomfortable.
"Timmy, the bowl is ok. Please just leave it on the floor. I can get it later. Really."
"The shards will cut your feet." He looked at her with such unmistakable fright that she folded the towel next to the drainer and quickly left the kitchen, padding her way across the living room towards their bedroom. Creases touched her already wrinkled face in worry. She could hear her husband slowly sweeping the broken pieces up off the tile. She was worried he wouldn't be ready for the morning. Worried that the fear in his eyes was more than just the shock of being old, of looking out the window and seeing the seasons change for his 72nd year. She sat on the bed and listened carefully to the noises throughout their home, relaxing only as she recognized his nightly steps, the lampshade switching off, the lock of the door definite in its routine. She could map his movements with his footsteps through the hall towards the bathroom, seeing his body in line between the wallpaper and discolored shag carpet.
She lay against her pillow and stared at the water stains in the upper left hand corner of their ceiling. She loved how each night it looked more and more like a tree with branches reaching across the plaster and towards the window. She closed her eyes as he entered the bedroom, visualizing his arms lifting his shirt from his back, his pajama bottoms shaken out before he put them on. Her breathing eased as he slipped into the bed beside her and wrapped her in his arms.
The hours drifted by lazily, easing through dreams and late night conversations. The buzz in the air outside had reached a high pitch. It was as if the trees were illuminated by something other than the tired street lamps. And as the dark blue sky slowly gave way to morning, the sound of alarm clocks could be heard at many houses across the town. The people of Honey Creek had been waiting for the ring, and they eagerly climbed out of bed, excited for the day.
Timothy and Alice dressed in their Sunday best, pulling on clothes they had not worn in months, years maybe. Alice picked up a wrist corsage, a white gardenia, from the florist. It looked soft and sweet against her skin before she slipped on her gloves. She had wanted nothing more than to show how happy she was to be the wife of the man her town so much admired.
Outside, the sun shone dimly, painting the red and brown leaves with the faded look of an early winter. The hours drew by slowly, though none would admit to boredom. As the 12:00 chime rang out loudly from the church by the cemetery, the people of Honey Creek began to gather around the once-empty lot. They marveled at the blue shutters next to the white-planked walls and the huge yellow bow wrapped tightly around the building. They listened excitedly as short speeches were made by members of the Board of Humanities, and clapped as the mayor ended his speech with a quote from Whitman: "The greatest city is that which has the greatest men and women."
They clutched their hands together as their watches hit 12:20 and Timothy B. Jackson was introduced to the crowd. They all knew why he was chosen, but they listened with attention to his life story here in Honey Creek. Timothy only half-listened as they paraded his life like a slide show, conveniently leaving out the days no one wished to speak of.
The crowd looked interested if not uncomfortable. He noticed many stolen glances and the clearing of throats. He smiled timidly at Alice, who waved to him from the front row, and avoided the eyes of the men he had once known so well. He could feel those eyes boring down upon his grey blazer, seeing through this clean sheet of citizenry. He could feel the hot breath of whispers against his ears. The voices asking about the loopholes in his past: Just where was he after the fire? I hear they spent hours in the hospital, even after she slipped away just looking at the empty bed. He went into a sort of rage, you know; his eyes looked like death itself. And then he just retreated. Haven't heard much from him in years. No, now it's just Alice. Poor woman.
His hands trembled as he clutched the scissors, his own watch winding excitedly towards 12:30. And at 12:30 to the moment, the blades sliced through the lemon meringue trimming and the crowd cheered and wailed and whistled. But it also was at this moment that each television channel and radio station hushed and the insides of every broadcaster's body shook with shock and grief. The very instant that Timothy B. Jackson released the pressure from the ribbon before him was the same instant that a man down in Texas fell against the leather seats of a decorated convertible, his wife screaming and bawling as she watched the man she knew so well crumble in front of millions. While the screams and shouts were of joy and excitement in Honey Creek, they were of terror and panic in Dallas. While those in Honey Creek rushed eagerly towards the doors of the museum, those in Dallas stampeded like animals out of the streets.
Timothy and his wife Alice left the animated crowd and began walking towards home, eager to avoid the handshakes from familiar strangers. They stopped in front of the window at Richards Electronics and stood before the color television as outside it began to snow. The warmth between them slipped away quietly as their eyes watched the images on the screen. Alice raised her gloved hand to her lips, gasping as a tear rolled down her cheek. They stood there as a crowd gathered and the city became hushed. Those around them put consoling hands on weakened shoulders and the museum doors were locked as families went home and tried to make sense of the time that they were living in.
Timothy could not shake the feeling that he was responsible for the tragedy. He thought about how the ribbon had fallen to the ground just as their President's body had fallen onto the hot leather seats. He couldn't explain it. But he could feel the guilt building momentum within him. It spread like an itch all over his body, and he wanted nothing more than to move, to run so fast that it fell from him like dust.
Timothy and Alice packed their bags that night. She looked at him softly as he put their lives into cardboard boxes and left the food in the refrigerator. "Alice, I want you to bubble-wrap the TV," he told his wife, who said almost nothing the entire night. She just spoke with her eyes and the turn of her shoulders as she began to tear away the last 25 years of their lives in this home. It was only the second time their bed had been naked in the darkest hours. Only this time they wouldn't slip back in and dream until they could forget.
It was the first time the closet had been emptied of linens. They left the shower curtain and mini soaps. They emptied drawers of condiments and silverware, wrapped pictures of umbrellas and beach balls into sweaters to save room in the car.
The neighbors watched through windows as the Jacksons swept the house clean and piled box after box into their 59 Chevy in the driveway. What didn't fit they left at their doorstep, on the lawn, and by the mailbox with the red flag up in surrender. Their oldest neighbor Fred watched from his porch, a Pall Mall burning slowly in the ashtray next to him. The November air was crisp and it bit at Fred's fingers and ears as he witnessed the lives of his neighbors spill out onto the lawn. He curled his toes inside his slippers as Alice and Timothy turned off the porch light and walked towards the car. Timothy leaned towards his wife and said something that made her laugh while opening the russet door in front of her, a laugh that sounded like she really meant it.
The car puttered past buzzing streetlights and flashes of TVs that would remain on for the next few days. They passed the museum with the ribbon hanging like a defeated champion and the Kensington Corner Store that was bolted for the night. They passed the city limits of Honey Creek and the yellow lines on the pavement looked like arrows without direction. Alice covered Timothy's hand with her own and turned off the radio that had been playing too quietly to hear. His hands reminded her of half-burned oak that lay unlit in the stove: dry and cold, and yet still so undeniably strong. The lights of Honey Creek faded behind them as they left the county lines and the car turned towards the interstate heading west. The motor sped up and Alice relaxed into the softness of the seat. Their fingers intertwined naturally and for miles they could see nothing but wheat fields and a blanket of stars.