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The Affair of Love
There was a huge crowd for the death of Miss Erin Sanders. Her poor, dear widowed mother burst into tears before she even saw the open casket where her sweet, blue-eyed, red-haired daughter lay. Twenty-two was too young to die. “Tragic,” Miss Bessie May, the elderly town librarian kept saying as she dabbed at her eyes with a tissue. “Simply tragic, that poor, darling child.”
To which Lucy Thomas, the town gossip replied, “Yes, Elizabeth, it really is. Poor girl. Have they said how she did it?”
Miss Bessie shook her grey head. “I heard she drowned herself,” a voice whispered conspiratorially from behind them.
The two women turned to the younger woman who sat behind on the old pew behind them. “Really? Oh, dear, what a horrible way to die…” Lucy muttered, shaking her hair.
“I heard an overdose,” whispered another woman. “Either way…I can only imagine how her mother must feel. Poor, poor dear.”
Poor dear indeed. The mother of the late Erin Sanders was the fragile beauty Maybelle Sanders. Maybelle was ever thin and pale. Her curly hair framed her delicate features and traced down her slender back. Her eyes were the oddest shade of grey, like the clouds on a stormy day. She was the loveliest girl when she married Matthew Sanders, the son of the town mayor. He died later in the war in Iraq, leaving his poor, beautiful, and ever-faithful wife with a young teenage daughter.
Erin looked more like her father than her mother if truth be told. “If his daughter was born a man ‘stead of a woman, she’d be his spittin’ image!” declared Jack Walsh, the town drunkard once.
She was painfully shy, though, Miss Erin Sanders. So shy was she that she spent most of her childhood lonely. The whole town said it was something she would grow out of, and they were right. By the time she was eighteen, she was head over heels in love with a young man, four years older than her, by the name of Edward O’Connor. He really was a handsome and courteous young man—unlike so many of the other young men drinking and smoking up a storm and flirting with the loose women of the town.
He was clean-shaven, a good boy—an art graduate of the University of Tennessee. Of course, everyone expected the most brilliant, radiant and outgoing girl in town to get him, but they soon found themselves presently surprised when he began showing interest in Miss Erin Sanders. The ladies of the church laughed and gossiped among themselves. “How long do you think it will be?” asked the children’s Sunday school teacher. “Not to be…nosy, of course, but how long?”
“Surely, only a few months!” declared the minister’s wife. “I should think a year at the most!”
The minister’s wife was correct. They met in January, and February 14th, Valentine’s Day, young Edward knelt before his nineteen-year-old love and asked her to marry him. Then, on May 5th, they became the radiant couple. “Their wedding invitations were beautiful,” mused Erin’s best friend, “All silver and blue and announcing their marriage…so elegantly.”
Then, something unexpected happened. Edward decided to join the army, and Erin supported him wholeheartedly. He left to fight in the war overseas.
Naturally, Edward wasn’t the only one to leave, and the women of the town busied themselves by tying bright yellow bows all over to show their never ending support. There was one fence in particular—at the intersection of Fox Hole Street and Magnolia Avenue, which they covered with yellow ribbons and placed a big American flag right in the center. Ever so often, some of the women would go by and switch the older ribbons with new ones. As the war continued, they eventually stopped replacing the ribbons on the chain-link fence, and over time the ribbons faded and became old.
A few years later, all the ribbons and the flag were ripped down along with the fence, and a big store was put there. It brought much business to the little town, especially after the highway was built connecting the tiny town of Antebellum, Tennessee, to the rest of the world. Soon, the place was booming with new stores and fast food restaurants on every corner.
Erin’s favorite of these was the new high-end grocery store that sold only the best of imported foods. They had some sort of chocolate she liked, and her best friend put a bar of it in her casket, much to the amusement of her peers and the displeasure of her elders. “Can you believe she’s disrespecting poor Erin like that?” one of the women had whispered.
There was another reason that Erin visited the store for, and that was the kind words of the young cashier—the skinny, blue-eyed Irish boy named Brian O'Connor. He was always kind to her. The store manager said so. Erin was a faithful respectable girl, though, and anyone in town would say they were only friends. Poor, lonely Erin must feel so sad without her beloved Edward by her side, but she was so brave for continuing to maintain the house and wait chastely for his return.
After Edward became an alcoholic and shot himself in the head, the town felt even worse for the new widow. The pastor’s wife went to Erin’s house every Saturday afternoon to visit her, usually bringing a tray of cookies or such. Erin held up surprisingly well. She didn’t become a recluse, as many of her neighbors feared, and she didn’t drown in despair. She kept her senses, and although she was more quiet like she’d been in her childhood, she took up writing poetry. A few of her poems were published in the town newspaper, The Antebellum Post. They were on the second page in the January 31st paper, right behind the announcement that Miss Georgia Higgins had turned one-hundred and one years old.
No one understood exactly why Edward became an alcoholic. He’d returned in the late autumn to his ravishing Erin, who stood at the airport and waited for him, her hair and make-up neatly done, and wearing her favorite green jacket against the light drizzle. Although no one would admit it later, both Edward and Erin’s friends smirked and teased among themselves about what an exciting night it would be for both of them. He stayed a week, and Erin waved him off when it was time for him to return to war.
On December 23rd, he called his best friend Cole Baker and asked for a ride from the airport. He was going to surprise Erin by being home for Christmas. Edward told her specifically he wouldn’t be able to come home for Christmas sometime in early August. After she told the neighbors, several of them invited her into their homes. No one ought to spend Christmas alone. Erin refused graciously and thanked everyone for their concern. “She’s a perfect and respectable example for all these young’uns to follow,” remarked the elderly Miss Maples, as she sat on her antique couch, enjoying a cup of coffee with her twelve-year-old granddaughter.
Her granddaughter merely rolled her eyes and scowled at her reflection in the window. “If you say so, Mamaw.”
Edward arrived on December 25th, and Cole later told everybody about how excited his friend had been at the thought of Erin waiting for him inside. The war affected him very deeply, though, and that night he went out and became flat-out drunk. He stumbled around town and even smacked Jezebel Madison on the rump.
Jezebel was the most expensive prostitute in town, and everyone knew it, but for the most part they glanced the other way. Naturally, the old church ladies tsked and shook their heads at such a disgrace and horrible example to young women. Erin O’Connor, on the other hand, was a paragon of virtue, and young women should strive to be just like her. In fact, so caring was she that Erin had led the making of care packages for the soldiers in Iraq and helped the other women make ribbons to hang on the chain link fence.
Edward was no longer the courteous gentlemen from Bristol. He was the poor, haunted wretch who took Erin’s credit card to the liquor store and demanded alcohol on December 27th. “He’s going back in three days,” Erin confided to her best friend. “I worry about him.”
Poor, young Erin. Twenty years old with an alcoholic husband, traumatized by the horrors of war. Edward returned to Iraq, and some mused that he probably shouldn’t have went. Erin in a vain attempt to distract herself began going out more with the girls and guys to see movies and shop at the new mall recently added over the land that used to be Mister Jenson’s cornfield. Back when the town was younger and more rural, Mister Jensen used to plot out with his wife Miss Dolly to make a corn maze for the children to enjoy every Halloween. He died at the age of eighty-seven, and Miss Dolly sold the land before moving in with her daughter down in Biloxi.
The judge that declared Erin and Edward’s divorce was from Mississippi, too. The town was scandalized. It surely was because of Edward, still suffering from the lingering trauma of the war. He moved, who knew where to. Miss Erin stayed in the big, lonely house. She stopped going out with friends, so dismayed and saddened by his rejection of her. Poor Erin, twenty-one and alone. Her mother tried to convince her to go to the community college; she’d always had good grades in high school.
Edward came back, and he was fatter with red-rimmed eyes. He drank a lot, so much that the men of the church attempted to help him. Someone even suggested asking John Daniels for advice.
John Daniels went and got a degree in psychology, and he worked in some big city and while he lived on the hill along Cobbler’s Street in what everyone in town thought was a mansion. He was best known for the extravagant Christmas lights he decorated his house in each year. In the end, no one could bring themselves to ask him for help. He might live in Antebellum, but he was still one of the city-folk. He was from up north, too, and even though the Civil War was over long ago, there was still little love between the Yanks and the South. Admittedly, he did Erin some good. Talking to him helped her, she claimed. She’d go see him a lot after Edward lost his senses. It was John that finally convinced her to go to college and get a degree. She chose English, deciding to be a teacher at Antebellum High School.
Antebellum High School had one English teacher. She was an eighty-year-old woman Miss Rosalie Fitzgerald. She was also the biggest old maid in town—in more ways than one, although to be nice many people referred to her as being ‘statuesque’ or ‘pleasantly plump.’ She’d taught not only Erin’s mother but her grandmother, too, and a few of her aunt and uncles. After more than fifty-five years of teaching, she was finally considering retirement, and many of the students encouraged her, delighted by the idea of a younger, more attractive, and assuredly more exciting teacher.
The university was a few hours’ drive, so she rented out an apartment while she went to college and lived off the scholarship money. Every break, she’d visit her mother. It was during her Christmas break that she saw Edward. She tried to speak with him, but he ignored her. Some say he even threw a beer can at her when all she tried to do was help.
It was pathetic. Someone suggested going to the police and letting Edward regain his sobriety behind bars. Erin shook her head, though, unable to bear the thought of him in jail. She always had the most faith in him. His suicide must’ve shook her to the core. The police found a gun at his side and one hand wrapped around a wedding photo of him and Erin. An empty bottle of gin lay half-hidden under the blankets on his bed. The town was shocked, and they clambered over one another to comfort Erin. She’d always loved him and only him. It had to hurt.
At his funeral, she wore black. Her green eyes were filled with tears the entire time. Her mother let Erin lean her head against her shoulder. Condolences were given to Erin as they would’ve been given to her if she was still his wife. She smiled faintly and tightly at everyone. Some worried she herself might turn to drinking, and it seemed they were right. She went to the liquor store that night, and many suspected she may be dead by morning. She wasn’t.
In fact, Miss Erin soon returned to school and continued her education. That was when she first began writing poetry and sending the poems home to her mother. Her mother would often show them off to the neighbors when they visited, and everyone talked about how talented she was.
Meanwhile, the younger generation of Antebellum began to grow up. Young Jessica Andrews became the new talk of the town. People wondered when she would marry Cody Philips. They eventually decided on spring, the same time many couple in Antebellum chose to wed. It was the most beautiful time of the year, when the magnolias and dogwoods were in bloom. Erin came back for the wedding and insisted people begin calling her by her maiden name Sanders. It made an interesting paradox. There was the newly wed Jessica Philips and the divorced widow Erin Sanders.
Erin did well in college and decided upon being a writer rather than a teacher. Everyone agreed she would go far. She didn’t let anyone read her first novel as she worked on it, but everyone just knew it was going to be something great. After her funeral, everyone talked about the wasted potential. She could’ve been the next Kate Chopin. Erin’s body was found in the bathtub of the hotel room she’d rented when she came for a quick, weekend visit to Antebellum. It was definitely a suicide, although the people in the town debated as to whether it was intentional or not. Most agreed that Erin would never commit suicide. She’d seemed just fine.
When she came to Antebellum, she was cheerful and happy, not the least bit gloomy. It was Valentine’s Day when she was found. The staff of the hotel respectfully left the cleaning of the room to her best friend.
Erin only had one real best friend her entire life, and that was Kate Miller. Kate had a degree in art from a different university that was closer, so it wasn’t any trouble for her to clean out her dead friends’ possessions. Most were nothing of interest—a few old letters, her purse, some perfume. Kate didn’t expect anything out of the ordinary; she and Erin never kept secrets from each other. The secrets that no one else knew were shared between the two of them over the years. No one ever found out what else Kate found in the room, and no one had any reason to believe the girl found anything else. So it was, Erin Sanders died of a drug overdose on Valentine’s Day. Those who believed her death was no accident mused that she must’ve been led by grief to take her own life. That had been the day when Edward first proposed to her; it made sense.
The good people of Antebellum buried Miss Erin Sanders beneath a willow tree in the Lanier Ford Cemetery, right beside Edward O'Connor. The trauma of war and the dangers of alcohol had driven them apart, but they could be together in heaven forever. Some of the people present would swear for years to come that they’d seen the ghosts of the two hugging, and they became somewhat of a legend in the town. They were considered a sort of Romeo and Juliet, and every year on Valentine’s Day, teen girls would make a tradition of leaving cards, candy, and flowers on their graves in hopes of gaining some sort of courage or wisdom from the pair of dead lovers.
Time changed Antebellum, and before long the rural town became urban. The next generation grew old to make way for the next. Slowly, people became more distant. The church ladies didn’t sit around and gossip in the church on cool evenings. Neighbors didn’t spend evenings or days together talking and watching their children grow up together. People moved in and out like the seasons, seeking adventure in glamorous cities like Beverly Hills and Los Angeles. Some even went as far as to go to Europe: to Paris, London, and Madrid.
Jessica and Cody actually moved out to Dublin, Ireland, for about three years before deciding to return to the States, with the excuse they wanted their children to be born as citizens of the United States, rather than Ireland. Both of their parents approved wholeheartedly with the idea and even convinced the couple to settle down close to Antebellum, so they could watch their only grandbabies grow up.
Many years later, a thirty year-old Erin Maria Olsen walked into the home of her deceased mother, Catherine, or Kate as she’d always been called. Kate died at seventy-two. Her husband Michel Olsen died at fifty from a stroke. A bit of a hypochondriac, those with dark humor joked, “Well, he always said his feet were killing him!”.
Erin had been named after her mother’s best friend, who’d died tragically of an accidental overdose on Valentine’s Day when she was only twenty-two. Since then, the day had been painful for her mother. Erin continued through the house when she came to the old and fading family Bible that her mother kept on top of the TV. She lifted it and gently blew dust off the wooden cover before opening it. She flipped through the pages of dried flowers when she found at note that appeared to have been folded and unfolded many times throughout the years. Carefully inscribed on it were four words: It was my fault.