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STYX CREEK BRIDGE BY LOIS JEAN THOMAS JANUARY 2024 When Peggy Piper and I ran into each other at the Nashville, Indiana, IGA last month, we literally ran into each other, when she broadsided my cart with her cart as she came around the end of the next aisle. Both of us were delighted to see one another. We calculated how long it had been since we had last seen each other. We determined that it had been around 50 years ago when I was at her house just a few days before I left for college. “Where have you been, Mariana?” Peggy asked. “I've been living in Tippecanoe County,” I told her. “I stayed in West Lafayette after I graduated from Purdue University. I just moved back to Brown County about a month ago.” “So, what brings you back here to humble little Brown County?” she asked. “Well,” I said, “I'd been wanting to move back for quite some time. My parents still live here. They are in their 90s now, and I wanted to be closer to them in their last years.” “Welcome back,” Peggy said. “What were you doing all those years in West Lafayette?” “I raised my daughter Jenny, and I had a career as a speech therapist,” I told her. “So, what have you been doing since I last saw you.” “Nothing very exciting,” she said. “I've worked in factories, and I've done some retail work. I finally retired five years ago. So now, I can focus all my attention on family issues. Believe me, that keeps me busy.” “I can't believe that we have been out of touch with each other for so many years,” I said. “I'm really sorry about that. I want you to know, Peggy, that my friendship with you was such an important part of my childhood. I hope that we can be friends again, now that I'm back in the county.” Peggy Piper and I were classmates and best friends, grades one through six at Helmsburg Elementary School, and then grades seven through twelve at Brown County Junior and Senior High School in Nashville. Peggy was undisputedly the prettiest girl in our class. Everyone called her “Pretty Peggy Piper.” She had long black hair, the darkest eyes I had ever seen, and a flawless caramel-colored complexion. Her face seemed too perfect to be something that could be found in nature. Her beautifully formed features looked as if they had been carved out of marble by a Renaissance artist. Standing there in the grocery store talking with her, I could see that, at age 71, she was still pretty Peggy Piper, although her Long, black hair was now short fluffy white hair. I knew how old she was, as when we were in school together, we had enjoyed the fact that our birthdays were only three days apart. And I had just celebrated my 71st birthday a week earlier. When we were in school, Peggy had always been very tiny. I was again surprised by how small she was. Her head reached hardly any higher than my shoulder. When we were in school, Peggy’s beauty did not lead to popularity. She had a reputation of coming from a trashy family. Our classmates would chant the nursery rhyme: “Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers,” except That they would substitute the name Peggy Piper for Peter Piper, and instead of her picking a Peck of pickled Peppers, they substituted a variety of nefarious activities. This never failed to hurt her feelings, but no matter what people said about her or her family, I still liked her. Anytime I heard anyone saying anything bad about Peggy, I stood up for her. I know that meant a lot to her. “Where are you living now Marianna?” Peggy asked me as we stood in the checkout line with our carts full of groceries. “My daughter Jenny and I are renting a little cabin north of Nashville,” I told her. “Jenny got a position teaching 3rd grade at Helmsburg Elementary School. So, everything worked out perfectly for us to move back here together. Several times I've gone to the school to help her out in her classroom. That sure brings back a lot of memories: writing out arithmetic problems on the chalkboard; practicing our cursive on wide- lined paper; You and I would run around the blacktopped playground, hand-in-hand, when we should have been walking, sometimes, falling down and skinning a knee.” “I think that between the two of us,” Peggy chuckled, “one of our four knees would get skinned every week.” “That's probably true,” I laughed. “Remember how many times we got in trouble for running on the blacktop? And then we would have to stay in for the next few recesses.” “So, where do you live now, Peggy?” I asked her. “Would you believe?” she said, “I'm still Living in the old family homestead on Styx Creek Road.” My memories of spending time in the Piper household were suddenly so vivid that they overwhelmed me, and I thought I was going to collapse. “Do you live there alone?” I asked her. “No,” she said. “My brother Joey lives there with me, now. He and my brothers Len and Ben have all pitched in to do some remodeling of the place. So now, it's in better shape than it ever was when I was growing up. I actually have running water in the house now, and a bathroom. I love living there.” I could still picture that ramshackle old farmhouse. The thought of it being remodeled and updated delighted me. Not only were Peggy and I best friends at school, but we had also been seatmates on the school bus driven by Old Harlan Walker. Mr. Walker resided at the East End of Gatesville Road, where his bus route began. His first stop on his long route was to pick up the rambunctious Mitchell boys, who lived across the street from him. There were so many Mitchell boys and they all looked alike with their hazel eyes and blonde crew cuts. I never learned all their names and I couldn't tell one from the other. Then, Mr. Walker would drive west on Gatesville Road toward Bean Blossom, next stopping at the Sawyer house, where the sweet little Sawyer girls got on the bus, along with the Peterson kids and the Wolf kids, who lived across the road from them. By the time Mr. Walker’s bus arrived at my house, where he picked up my two sisters, my little brother, and me, along with the three Bailey kids who lived across the street from us, the bus was almost full. Mr. Walker Insisted that we sit three in a seat so that no one was left standing in the aisle. Sometimes, he had the first and second graders sit on the laps of the older girls, to create more room. Then, before we reached Bean Blossom, we had to pick up the Johnnies, Johnny Brown, and Johnny Curtis, and then, the Miller girls. In Bean Blossom, we picked up the Adams boys and the Bradley kids. By then, the bus was filled to capacity. It seemed that the most logical thing would have been for Mr. Walker to drive west on State Road 45, directly to Helmsburg, to drop off the little kids at the elementary school, and then drive the middle and high school students to the school in Nashville. Instead, we had to stop at the intersection of State Road 45 and Styx Creek Road, which ran north and south. Mr. Walker was unable to turn south at the intersection, because his bus couldn't make it through the covered bridge that spanned Styx Creek. So, all the kids who lived on the south end of Styx Creek Road had to walk to the designated bus stop, which was at the bridge, in order to board the bus. The South Styx Creek Road kids were the Martins, the Tanners, and the Pipers. The kids from the North end of Styx Creek Road virtually never rode the bus, as their parents drove their children to school in carpools, it was probably just as well that those kids didn't get on the bus, as the other kids would have, most certainly, given them a hard time. Everyone called North Styx Creek Road, Rich Creek Road, and they called the kids who lived there The Rich Creek snobs. The houses on North Styx Creek Road seemed palatial to me, compared to the ramshackle homes on South Styx Creek Road. Whenever Mr. Walker heard the term Rich Creek Snobs thrown around on the bus, he would yell at the offending party. One day when I was in 4th grade, when the bus stopped to pick up the Bradly kids, Tina Bradly tried to sit next to me. I told her I was saving the seat For Peggy Piper, so Tina sat in the seat behind me. She tapped me on the shoulder and said something that really upset me: “I don't know why you want to be friends with Peggy Piper. My parents told me to stay away from the kids that get on the bus at the Styx Creek Bridge, because they're trashy people, especially the Pipers.” “That's not nice,” I snapped at her. “Well, Peggy Piper isn't nice.” Tina retorted. “She's nicer than you are,” I said. Then Tina started crying, and Mr. Walker yelled at us. “What's going on, girls?” he asked. “Tina is saying mean things about people,” I told him. So, Mr. Walker decided to separate us. “Tina,” he said. “You go on back and sit with the Sawyer girls. And make sure to watch your mouth.” After Tina left, I slid over to make room for Peggy Piper. When we stopped at the bridge, she bounded up the bus steps and scooted in next to me. Our friendship bond grew ever stronger but was confined to school and the school bus until we were in 5th grade. At that time, Peggy began inviting me to go home from school with her and spend the night. I wanted to do that, but my parents wouldn't allow me to spend the night at the Piper house. Mr. Piper worked intermittently in factories in Columbus, and my dad was a supervisor in one of those factories. Once Mr. Piper started working for him, but he quit after a couple of months, leaving my dad shorthanded. My dad said that Mr. Piper was a lazy drunk, and that he was allergic to a hard day's work. Needless to say, he had no respect for him. I begged incessantly to go to Peggy’s house. Finally, my dad relented. He told me that I could get off the school bus with Peggy and spend an hour at her home, but that he would then come to get me. The first time I went to Peggy’s, I found her family to be so different from mine. The Pipers fascinated me. While my mother maintained an Immaculate, beautifully decorated home, the Piper Home always seemed rather grungy. They lived a more rustic lifestyle than my family did. While my parents had four spoiled children, who received everything they wanted and then more. The Piper family members limped along with few material possessions. Peggy never had more than three shabby school dresses at any given time. The other students made fun of her disheveled appearance. I felt so sorry for her. Because she was always smaller than me. I began to give her my outgrown clothing. She and her mother both appreciated that very much. So, when we were in 6th grade, she was wearing my 4th grade clothing. The other girls noticed this, and teased Peggy, Calling her Mariana Junior. This made me very angry. And I ended up getting in trouble for slapping the girl who was the ringleader of the teasing. Unfortunately, I disliked Mr. Piper, Harold, the moment I laid eyes on him. I had no reason not to like him. Perhaps my view of him was colored by the derogatory things my father had said about him, or maybe it was because his appearance was so repulsive. He was a very tall, thin man, with dirty scraggly hair and an unkempt beard. While I was pretty sure he was white, it was hard to tell the color of his skin, because his face, arms, and hands were perpetually unwashed. He had the strangest light-gray eyes, the likes of which I had never seen before. They made him look eerie, not quite human. I couldn't make myself look straight into those scary eyes. Mrs. Piper, Carolina, was as beautiful as her husband was ugly. She was a tiny, plump woman with jet- black hair, dark brown eyes, and flawless, caramel-colored skin. She looked like a full-grown version of her daughter Peggy. As I had done with her husband, I developed an instant impression of Carolina Piper. I loved her. Because of the color of her skin, I assumed that she was of Hispanic Origen. I found Carolina Piper to be kind and easy to talk to. She always welcomed me warmly into her home. Finally, I asked Peggy about her mother's ethnic heritage. “Why don't you ask her,” she said, “She'll tell you.” So, I did. Carolina informed me that she had been born and raised in Texas. And that both of her parents had come from Mexico and moved to Texas, settling down and raising their children close to an army base in El Paso. That was where Carolina had met Harold Piper, who was from Indiana. So, the two of them moved with their growing family to Brown County 10 years after they got married. I couldn't imagine how Carolina, with her beauty and her sweet, graceful ways, ever fell in love with the likes of Harold Piper. But they seem to be happy together, living in their shabby old, two-story farmhouse. I soon learned that there was no running water In the Piper home, and that they used an outhouse for their personal business. So, taking a bath or washing dishes or clothing at the Piper House meant filling a metal bucket with water from the pump in the backyard, then heating it on the kitchen stove. Some of the family members, especially Harold, did not undertake the complicated bathing process often enough. I wondered how Carolina could stomach having to share a bed with her husband. During the summer months, bathing was less complicated. It simply involved taking a dip in the creek. Carolina always warned Peggy and me to stay away from the Creek when Harold or the Piper boys were down there taking a bath. All of the Piper children had inherited their mother's good looks, her perfect features, and dark coloring. However, all the boys were tall and lanky like their father, so they ended up being striking young men. Len and Ben were the oldest boys, identical twins. They were around 19 years old when I first met them. They were high school dropouts and were working on a construction crew. Sometimes I would be at the Pipers’ house when the twins came home from work with their tool belts slung on their skinny hips, looking tough and handsome. As good looking as they were, I didn't like being around Len and Ben. I thought they were mean, and I was afraid of them. They called their sister “Princess Peggy,” and accused their parents of favoring her. Peggy really did have a princess quality about her. She carried herself like someone who deserved special treatment. But as far as I could tell, the family pride was all tied up in Len and Ben. The dingy Piper living room was virtually devoid of decor, except for one picture that hung on the wall. It was a glossy full page magazine photo from a national magazine. It was a stunning shot framed by a rough, handcrafted wooden frame. The photo was of Len and Ben, as adorable little 8-year-old boys wearing striped overalls and engineer’s caps. They were standing in front of the Styx Creek Bridge. The caption under the photo said, “Len and Ben Piper of Helmsburg, Indiana, playing at the covered bridge on Styx Creek Road.” I figured the photo was a family treasure. Carolina Piper once said of Len and Ben. “I'm sorry that my boys didn't finish their education. But them working helps to keep this family afloat.” I knew that was her way of saying her husband didn't work enough to support the family on his own. I loved going to the Pipers’ home and spending time with Peggy. She was so much fun to play with, as she had such a great imagination. The two of us created our own games. Peggy would assign magical qualities to ordinary things in the yard: a tree, an electrical pole, her mother's clothesline, the mailbox, or a shrub. Then she would come up with some kind of plot, which we would then play out. It was usually my dad who came to pick me up from the Piper home at the end of my allotted time there. It always seemed as if he came far too early, just when Peggy and I were right in the middle of one of our imaginary games. Then one day, it was my mother who came to pick me up. Mrs. Piper invited her into the house for a cup of coffee. The two women seemed to get along very well, and it seemed as if they became instant friends. I eavesdropped on their conversation, and heard Mrs. Piper say, “Thank you so much, Mrs. Harper, for allowing Marianna to come over and spend time with Peggy. I don't think Peggy has ever had such a good friend. I love looking out my kitchen window and watching the two of them playing in the yard. Those girls are so much alike. They are two peas in a pod.” I hoped that Mom would not tell Dad what Mrs. Piper had said. I figured he would never want to have his daughter compared to a Piper child. Surprisingly, what my mom said to my dad was this: “I sat and talked with Mrs. Piper for a while. She seems to be a very nice person, and a very good mother. I really think that it would be OK for Mariana to spend the night there. I believe Mrs. Piper would take good care of her. Dad nodded, as if he agreed with Mom. The next day on the school bus, I told Peggy that I was now allowed to have a sleepover at her house. We were both so excited that we started bouncing in our seats, and Mr. Walker had to yell at us to settle down. Truthfully, there was another reason that I enjoyed spending time in the Piper household: and that was the Pipers’ third son, Roscoe, who was three years older than Peggy and me. He looked a lot like his two older brothers, tall and slender, with his mother's black hair and dark complexion. He was the only one of the Piper children who had inherited his father's unusual gray eyes. Only, in Roscoe’s face, they looked ethereal, almost angelic, rather than scary. The first time I saw Roscoe Piper, I thought he was the most beautiful boy I had ever laid eyes on. He did not have the rough edge to his personality that Len and Ben had. He was much gentler. I think that from the first time Roscoe, and I met, there was a spark between us. At first, we were only playmates. I was somewhat of a tomboy, and Roscoe enjoyed sports and other outdoor activities. We would play catch in the yard. Roscoe let me use his old baseball glove. I loved using something that spectacular young man had once used. It made me feel close to him. Sometimes, Roscoe and I would go to the basketball hoop at the Tanner house next door, and Roscoe taught me how to dribble a basketball and to do a layup. I felt so proud when I finally mastered those skills, and Roscoe was proud that he had taught me. There was quite a slope to South Styx Creek Road. Sometimes in the winter, when there was enough snow on the ground, Roscoe and I would drag a rickety old sled all the way up the road to the bridge. Then we would go on the thrilling ride down the road. Roscoe would be in the front, and I would sit behind him with my arms and legs wrapped around him, my cheek pressed against his back. I loved every minute of that time. A forest, known as the Styx Creek Woods, surrounded the three homes at the south end of Styx Creek Road, extending out for acres in all directions. During the warm weather months, Roscoe would take me by the hand and lead me into the woods, where he would point out the different species of trees: Black Walnut, white ash, shagbark hickory, sumac, sugar maple, black gum, oak, tulip poplar, sassafras, and wild cherry. And he knew all the wildflowers as well: violets, Dutchman's breeches, wild hyacinth, trillium, Jack in the pulpit, bittersweet, and Jacob's ladder. One summer day, we came upon a large patch of bluebells, and the experience was absolutely magical. And the sight of a tulip poplar tree in full bloom was lovelier than anything I could imagine. In the fall, our footsteps would crunch across the layers of multi-colored, dried leaves that had fallen to the ground. One day, Roscoe showed me an enormous wild cherry tree with roots that ran above ground like giant snakes. One of the roots partially encircled the massive trunk, creating a seat where two people could snuggle up and get cozy. And that is what Roscoe, and I did. Carolina was never keen on the idea of us going into the woods. “You be careful where you take her,” she said to Roscoe, the first time we were about to set out for a walk. “I would never forgive myself if something happened to Mariana. No one would ever forgive us. It would be one more thing that people would hold against the Piper family.” Carolina’s words chilled me. I understood her concern. If any woods ever had a bad reputation, it was Styx Creek Woods. It was well known that hunters hunted illegally out of season in the woods, so there was always the danger of being hit by a stray bullet. It was rumored that drug deals took place at several locations in the woods. One day, the week after Roscoe and I went on our first walk, there was a story in the newspaper about a young man's body being found in the woods hanging from the limb of an oak tree. It appeared to be a suicide, although the police could not rule out foul play. My parents never knew that I went on walks in the woods with Roscoe. If they had known, they would have insisted that I never set foot in the woods again. Actually, they would have forbidden me to ever go to the Pipers’ home again. But I never was afraid of the woods. Roscoe was there with me, and that's all I needed to feel safe. The only difficult thing about all this was that when I was at the Piper home, I always felt torn between spending time with Peggy and spending time with Roscoe. The two of them actually fought over me, accusing each other of hogging me. Mrs. Piper would have to jump in and settle their dispute. Usually, she would tell Roscoe that I had come over to spend time with Peggy, and that he needed to leave us girls alone. That was not necessarily the way I wanted things to be resolved. Of course, if we included Peggy in our games of catch, or invited her to accompany us on our walks in the woods then the whole problem of who I was supposed to spend time with was resolved. We even invited Peggy to sit with us in the seat made by the wild cherry root. Of course, Peggy had to make a fantasy game out of that. She decided that we were waiting for a giant bird to swoop down and carry us on its back to some exotic faraway land. Even Roscoe got caught up in that game. In addition to Peggy’s three older brothers, there were three little boys in the Piper household. I had, of course, dealt with Joey, who was three years younger than Peggy, on the school bus. Since the older girls often held the little kids on their laps to create more room on the bus, Joey always wanted to sit on my lap. But when I would agree to hold him, he would pinch me and pull my hair, and then try to kiss me. I felt like slapping him, but I didn't want to get in trouble for misbehaving on the bus. So, I started insisting that he sit on his sister Peggy's lap. And she did slap him when he got out of hand. Joey was such an obnoxious little fellow, who seemed to be in constant trouble both at home and at school. Whenever I came for a visit with Peggy, he would follow us girls around, teasing and tormenting us. He would go into Peggy's room without permission, messing with her things, and with mine as well. Carolina would yell at him and swat him on the backside. He would whine that “Princess Peggy” never got into trouble for all the bad things that she did. I couldn't stand Joey. He got on my last nerve. But Little Harold was another case. He was a sweet-natured boy, two years younger than Joey. Little Harold always wanted to please, to be helpful. If there was one favorite child in the Piper household, it was Little Harold, Mr. Piper's namesake. And no one begrudged Little Harold the privilege of being his parents’ favorite, as he had earned it. Whenever I got off the bus for a sleepover with Peggy, Little Harold would meet me and insist on carrying the duffel bag in which I had packed my pajamas and my clothes for the next day. He was a perfect little gentleman. And finally, there was Benji. He was barely two years old when I first met him. He was the most adorable child I had ever seen, with the same dark coloring and perfect features as the other Piper children. Peggy and I liked to make a baby out of Benji. We carried him around and held him on our laps. “I love Benji so much,” I said one day. “I want to adopt him and take him home with me.” “Not if I adopt him first,” Peggy chimed in. “You girls are so silly,” Carolina said. “Nobody is going to adopt Benji. He has parents.” It took me some time to figure out that Benji was Carolina’s grandchild, not her child. He was the son of Ben and Ben's girlfriend, the lovely Norma Allen. But Carolina seemed quite happy to raise Benji along with her other little boys. However, Norma would sometimes come and take Benji for a few days. Because Benji was so attached to Little Harold, he never wanted to leave without his brother/uncle. So, sometimes Norma would take both little ones for a few days, giving Carolina a much-needed break. I was always puzzled as to why Ben and Norma didn't get married and get a place of their own. Once, I asked Peggy about it. “Do you know who Norma's father is?” She asked me. Then she explained to me that Norma was the daughter of a prominent local judge, The Honorable Thomas Allen. “Ben wants to marry Norma,” she explained, “and he has asked her several times. I think she wants to marry him, too. But her father won't allow it.” “Why not?” I asked. But before she responded, I knew the answer to my question. It was because Ben was the son of Harold Piper, and despite any effort on his part to prove that he was a good guy, he still carried the stigma of his father's reputation. I didn't ask any more questions because I didn't want to hurt Peggy's feelings. But I said one more thing, “I feel sorry for Ben and Norma, because they are in love with each other, and they have a child together, in my opinion, they should be allowed to get married.” “I know,” Peggy said. “It isn't fair, is it? But life never is fair.” I knew she knew that from her personal experience. Because no matter what she did, she too, carried the stigma of the Piper reputation. Once, Peggy told me that she and Rascoe joked and made bets about who was going to get pregnant next, Norma, Carolina, or one of Len's girlfriends. “Girlfriends,” I said, “How many girlfriends does Len have?” “Two or three, Peggy” said. “I can't keep track of them. They come and go. Len is busy with the ladies. But Mom has told both boys that Benji is the last grandchild she is going to raise.” Although we were both very young, my relationship with Roscoe deepened over the years. One day when I was 13 and he was 16, we were standing in the yard after a game of catch, when he said, “Lets run to the Styx Creek bridge. I’ll race you.” I already knew that Roscoe ran like a cheetah, and that I had no chance of beating him. Of course, he quickly left me in the dust. As I approached the bridge, he was standing there with outstretched arms. Without thinking, I ran into his arms, and he kissed me. It was the sweetest thing that had ever happened to me. As he caressed my face, he said, “Mariana. I want you to be my girlfriend. I know you are so young. Maybe you are too young right now to be anyone’s girlfriend. But you will be ready in a couple of years. I just know that you and I are meant to be together.” I don't think I said anything at that point. I just hugged him tightly, trying to convey to him that I fully agreed with the idea of being his girlfriend. “We belong together,” he said. “We belong to each other. I know your heart, and you know mine.” Then he gestured, indicating an invisible cord connecting our two hearts. After that, the words. “I'll race you to the bridge,” became the signal that we were about to have a kissing rendezvous on the bridge. Always, Roscoe would get there first, and always, I would run into his arms. I loved spending the night in the Piper home. Peggy’s room, which was upstairs, was as dreary and unfurnished as the living room and all the other rooms in the house. The only bed in the room was the narrow cot that Peggy slept on. Although she usually offered me the cot, I generally slept on blankets on the floor. I actually felt more comfortable on the floor than I did on the cot. Sometimes, after Peggy and I had gone to bed for the night, Carolina would come up the stairs and cover me with one more blanket. That felt so comforting and nurturing. I craved that kind of motherly attention from her. My favorite night for a sleepover with Peggy was Friday night. Because every Friday night was a time of celebration in the Piper household. None of the working men in the family had to go to work for the next two days, and they were determined to enjoy their time off. When I would get off the bus with Peggy and walk with her down the road to her house. We would go around to the back door and into the kitchen, where Carolina would be cooking an ice cream base. Sometimes she would let me stir it while it was cooking. I loved being a part of things in the Piper household. When Harold would come home, Carolina would tell him to fire up the charcoal grill. She would put together a platter of meat for him to grill ribeye steaks for him, Len, and Ben, and hamburger patties and hot dogs for the rest of the family. Then, while Harold started the grilling Carolina would have Len and Ben start churning the Ice cream in their old-fashioned hand-cranked machine. Once I asked Len and Ben if I could help “No!” Len snapped, “this is a man's job.” When the food was ready, the family would gather at the picnic table in the backyard, where everyone would enjoy the feast. Harold, Len, and Ben would each enjoy two or three beers with their meal. They would ask Carolina to bring them more. But she would shake her head and hold up her palm, indicating that they had had enough. Then, the family would gather in the living room, where two broken-down couches sat on either side of the room. There would be a pile of instruments in the center of the room, several guitars, a banjo, a fiddle, and a mandolin. Harold would always have a harmonica in his shirt pocket. Most of the numbers the family band would play were bluegrass tunes, such as, “Foggy Mountain Breakdown,” “Rocky Top,” or, “Blue Moon of Kentucky.” Harold would usually pick up the fiddle, and the sweet strains of his bow on the strings would soar above the other instruments, the guitar and banjo played by Len and Ben. However, he would sometimes put down the fiddle and pull out his harmonica instead. Every now and then, the band would play a sweet ballad, such as “Barbara Allen,” “In the Pines,” “Mockingbird Hill,” “Red Wing,” “The Cuckoo,” “Little Liza Jane,” “Oh Shenandoah,” or “Danny Boy.” Or they might play a melodic little gospel song, such as “Angel Band,” I'll “Fly Away,” or “Down to the River to Pray.” Then, Len and Ben would begin singing in beautiful harmony, with Ben taking the tenor, and Len taking the baritone. It was heavenly. And then Harold would jump in with a resounding bass. Despite their rough personalities Len and Ben sang with such tenderness, their voices sounding sorrowful and wistful. I would sit and listen with tears streaming down my face. More often than not, Norma was present at these Friday night jam sessions, and her beautiful soprano voice added to the harmony of the ballads and gospel songs. Whenever the men would start singing “Barbara Allen,” Ben would substitute his girlfriend's name, Norma, for Barbara. Occasionally, Harold would fit the syllables up his wife’s name into the song. It was all very sweet. Whenever they would play, “oh Danny Boy,” Norma would sing, “Oh Benny boy.” The tone of her voice, and the rapt look on her face, told me exactly how she felt about Ben. I knew that she loved him more than her song lyrics could ever express. And I felt so sorry for the lovers, who were forbidden to move forward with their love. Peggy would inevitably request that the band play her favorite song, which was “Kiss me mother, kiss your darling.” She would plop herself down on Carolina’s Lap, and Carolina would cuddle her and kiss her face. Then Little Harold and Benji would get jealous of the attention Peggy was getting from Carolina. They would tug Peggy's arms. Then she would fall to the floor, pretending that they had succeeded in pulling her off her mother's lap. Then the two little boys would scramble onto Carolina’s lap, one on each knee, where they would promptly get the kisses, they were hoping for. The band also had a repertoire of silly songs they played, which never failed to amuse the little boys, and get them giggling. These included: “Froggy went a ‘Courtin,’” “Big Rock, Candy Mountain,” “There was a man who had a goat,” and “Jimmy Cracked Corn”. Joey or Little Harold would call out. “Play the froggy song,” or “the goat song,” or “the candy song,” or “the corn song.” One time when I was sitting on the floor next to Carolina. Listening to the band I asked her, “How do the guys know all these songs?” “My husband learned them from his daddy and his granddaddy, and in turn, he taught our sons. I hope the songs will continue to be passed on to the next generation, and the next and the next, to our grandsons and great grandsons. Carolina was holding Little Harold on her lap at the time, while I was cuddling Benji. “I hope,” she said, “that these little boys will soon be playing and singing. I hope my family never loses its music.” “I hope so too,” I said giving Benji a big smooch on his chubby cheek. Roscoe generally did not play with the family band. I assumed that his father and brothers thought he was too young. But one night Harold suddenly called out, “Roscoe, jump in here.” Roscoe picked up the mandolin and began to play “You are my Sunshine.” Harold pulled his harmonica out of his pocket and played along with Roscoe. Then, Roscoe began to sing in a wistful tenor voice. It was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard, and I couldn't take my eyes off him. My heart felt as if it had melted into a puddle of bliss. I knew that I loved that boy and that I would never stop loving him. Ornery little Joey started making kissing sounds while Roscoe sang. I figured he had been spying on Roscoe and me at the bridge earlier that afternoon. Then he crooned, “Roscoe loves Mariana.” Roscoe smiled at me and continued to sing. It seemed as if everyone in the Piper family, even Mr. Piper, was fully aware of the growing relationship between Roscoe and me. Their comments told me they presumed that Roscoe and I would have a future together, even though Roscoe and I had never talked specifically about marriage. The family jam session would go on for hours. At some point during the jam session, Harold and the twins would start calling for more beer. Carolina would pull a chilled 6 pack out of the refrigerator and would distribute two cans to each of them. A short while later, when Carolina would go into the living room to pick up the empty cans, they would ask her for even more beer. “You guys have had enough,” she would say. Then she would carry the empty cans to the kitchen sink and pour the last dregs down the drain. I could tell that the amount of their drinking worried her. At some point, the mood in the living room would begin to darken. Len and Ben would start blaming each other for messing up their playing, or for singing off key. Sometimes, they would start throwing punches. One night, I went into the living room and picked up a handful of empty cans, wanting to help Carolina. But when I brought them to the kitchen, she said, “Mariana, you stay out of there. I don't want you to get caught up in this mess. Go on upstairs with Peggy and get ready for bed.” No matter what else people in the county said about Harold Piper, everyone agreed that he and his sons were talented musicians. Not only did they play at home, Harold and his sons played at various venues around the county, Including the county fair and the Bean Blossom Jamboree. One autumn Saturday during my sophomore year of high school, after I had spent Friday night with Peggy, I was helping Roscoe rake leaves in the yard. I enjoyed helping with chores at the Piper house. When my mother came to pick me up. She went inside to visit with Carolina, as she usually did. Roscoe walked me to the back door, and we went into the kitchen where our mothers were talking. When Roscoe went back outside to continue raking, I acted as if I was leaving too, but I didn't. I stood by the backdoor to eavesdrop on my mother and Carolina’s conversation. “Our children are so sweet together, aren't they,” Carolina said. “I can tell Roscoe and Mariana really care about each other. But they are so young, and I don't want them to rush into anything. Still, I would love to have Mariana as a daughter-in-law someday. She already feels like part of this family.” I ran back into the yard to pick up my rake. As I continued to work, I had a fearful thought. What if my mother told my father about what Carolina had said. I couldn't imagine what lecture would follow. And the lecture did come. The next day, my father sat me down for a talk. “Mariana,” he said. “I know you think you have feelings for Roscoe Piper. But you need to think about what you are doing, getting involved with a boy like that. In two years, you will be getting ready to go to college. You will meet a lot of promising young men there at Purdue University. Men with professional careers ahead of them. Young Mr. Piper is never going to get anywhere in life. He will never be anything more than a blue-collar worker. Just keep your head on straight until you get to college, I promise you, Mariana, that you will meet guys who will make you forget all about Roscoe Piper.” Then, he added, “I'd like to forbid you to go over to the Piper house again, but I know that won't do any good. That would just make you rebellious, and you would just find some way to get together with Roscoe behind my back. I think I need to let you figure out for yourself the foolishness of what you are doing. Just keep in mind that things will look different to you once you get to college.” My father's words made me very sad, but I heard the point that he was trying to make. Roscoe was a senior in high school at that point and I was a sophomore. Our kissing rendezvous were no longer confined to the bridge. Roscoe found secluded places on the school grounds, where we could meet up with each other during the day. What we were doing did not go unnoticed by other students, and by the teachers as well. Mariana Harper and Roscoe Piper became a well-known couple at school. We were often talked about disparagingly. “Kids would say that Mariana Harper is slumming it.” One day, my algebra teacher, Mr. Weaver, took me aside to talk to me. His lecture echoed my father's sentiments almost verbatim. “Miss Harper,” he said, “You are an intelligent young woman, and you can do so much better than to get caught up with a Piper boy. You might have strong feelings for him now, but you need to start thinking about your future.” I wanted very much to tell Mr. Weaver to butt out of my life and mind his own business. But I didn't, of course, because that kind of disrespect would certainly result in a visit to the principal’s office. Eventually word would get back to my father, and he would issue me an ultimatum about staying away from Roscoe, and I really did not want that to happen. I hated Mr. Weaver, but I wasn't alone in that, as most of my classmates hated him too. While I stopped myself from talking back to him after his lecture, I did get my revenge, of sorts, by making jokes about him at the lunch table, getting other kids to laugh at their weird teacher. The school bus was another place where Roscoe and I could be close. He would put his arm around me, and I would snuggle up to him and lay my head on his shoulder. Every now and then, we would sneak in a kiss. I suppose we knew it would be only a short time before Mr. Walker would call us out. And one day, he said, “Mr. Piper, you need to keep your hands off that girl. If you don't, I'll be having a talk with her father. I don't think you want Mr. Harper to show up on your doorstep.” My dad was a big husky guy, and I certainly didn't want him to get his hands on Roscoe. So, after that, Roscoe and I started being more careful on the school bus. While everyone hated Mr. Weaver. He was not the most hated teacher in the school. That distinction went to Mr. Wilder, who ended up being my English teacher my junior year. The students often called him Mr. Wild Wilder Wildest. He certainly lived up to that name. His oily unkempt gray hair stood up off his head at all angles. He always had a stubble of gray beard. He wore old-fashioned clothing that looked as if it had come out of a trunk in someone’s attic. He certainly was a wild and creepy guy. He had an aura about him that made my skin crawl. Mr. Wilder lived in Indianapolis, and most of his teaching career had been in the Indianapolis school system. He was constantly making veiled statements in the classroom that reflected his contempt for the residents of Brown County. He made so many of such comments, that he was finally warned by the superintendent of the school district. One day in the autumn of My senior year, Mr. Wilder was giving a lecture on the Greek Epic poem, “The Iliad”. He started talking about the “River Styx.” He said the River Styx was the boundary between the land of the living and the Underworld, the land of the dead. He said, “It's uncanny how history repeats itself, with the same themes showing up at different times and in different places. You all know that you have a Styx Creek here in Brown County, and Styx Creek does pretty much the same thing as the River Styx, serving as a boundary between The land of the living and the land of the dead He went on to point out that the houses north of Styx Creek were expensive and luxurious, while the houses south of Styx Creek were rundown shacks, In other words, the land of the dead. Peggy Piper was sitting next to me during that lecture. She started crying, and she put her head down on her desk. I reached over to pat her back whispering. “I'm so sorry, Peggy. He's such a jerk.” “What's going on there, girls?” Mr. Wilder asked. “You insulted her and her family,” I told him, “Because they live south of Styx Creek. You really hurt her feelings.” As the rest of the students were leaving the room at the end of the hour, Mr. Wilder called for Peggy to come up to his desk. I watched and listened carefully to what happened next. “Miss Piper,” he said, patting Peggy’s arm. She cringed and pulled away from him. “You are an intelligent young woman,” he said, “and it's a pleasure to have you in my class. I said those things about the neighborhood on the south side of Styx Creek, to make the point that you have some control over your life. And that you can make the decision to better your lot in life.” I knew that as he continued to talk, he wasn't improving his case with Peggy. Her face was getting red, and she looked as if she wanted to punch him. Then he said, “Miss Piper I also want to point out that intelligence and beauty generally go together. You are a perfect example of that, a girl who is both intelligent and beautiful. Unfortunately, in this culture, men are expected to control their carnal instincts in the presence of female beauty. A man is not allowed to be a man anymore. That isn't natural.” Then he encircled Peggy's tiny waist with his big bony hands. I wanted to jump up and pound him with my fists. Then those terrible hands traveled up and down her sides and down the curve of her hips. Then one hand slid over to caress her plump backside. Peggy abruptly pulled away and ran out into the hallway. “Did you have a question for me, miss Harper?” He asked me. I shook my head vigorously. I wasn't about to go up to his desk. “Let me point out,” he said. “That what happens in this room stays in this room. You understand that don't you, Miss Harper?” I nodded, then got up and went out into the hallway to find Peggy. I found her slumped against the wall, sobbing and clutching her stomach. “Are you sick?” I asked. She nodded. Then the lunch she had eaten, the hour before our English class, spewed all over the floor. I didn't have a strong stomach myself, and I started adding to the mess on the floor. After we both stopped vomiting, I took the crying Peggy by the arm and marched her down to the office of Miss Watson, the school nurse. Miss Watson helped us clean ourselves up. And then she listened to Peggy’s story. “Did Mr. Wilder do the same thing to you, Miss Harper?” She asked. “No,” I said, “I just got upset because of what he did to Peggy. Because I saw and heard everything that happened.” After Nurse Watson calmed us down a bit, she led us to principal Morris’ office, where we told the story again. “These are some serious allegations, girls,” he said to us. “I hope you aren't making them lightly. I trust you are telling the truth.” “We are,” I said. “Peggy knows what happened to her, and I was right there watching it all.” “I will need to investigate this,” Principal Morris said. I knew that if he was questioned, Mr. Wilder would deny everything, and it would be his word against the word of a Piper kid. Unfortunately, I was the only witness to the incident. Although I wasn't planning to spend the night at the Pipers that night, I decided to ride the bus to the Styx Creek Bridge, and get off with Peggy, as I thought she might need my help in telling her mother about what had happened. Peggy and I sat in the kitchen with Carolina, while Peggy recounted the events of the day. Beginning with the comments made by Mr. Wilder about Styx Creek and Including the vomiting in the school hallway. As we told the story, Peggy clutched her stomach, as if she was feeling sick again. “If you girls are going to start vomiting again,” Carolina said, “Go outside. I don't feel like mopping a mess off my kitchen floor. Then she led us both out the door and into the backyard, with her arms encircling our shoulders. Peggy and I began to cry, and Carolina cried along with us. “I understand,” she said. “If that man would have put his nasty hands on me, I would have vomited, too.” Then, she said, “Girls, please don't tell anyone about this, because if Harold finds out, he'll run down to the school. And when he gets his hands on your teacher, he'll do some serious damage. Girls, I need my husband, and my children need their father. I can't have him in jail.” “Mariana, please don't tell your parents, because if your dad says anything, word will surely get back to Harold. And as I said, I don't need to have my husband in jail.” About that time, Roscoe walked into the house. He looked concerned when he saw Peggy and me crying. “What's wrong with the girls?” He asked his mother. “They had a bad day,” Carolina explained. Later, before I called my parents to have one of them come and get me, Roscoe tried to get the full truth out of me. But I knew that he was as likely to get himself in trouble as his father was, if he knew what had happened. Roscoe was 19 years old at the time, and had already graduated, and was working on the construction crew with his older brothers. I knew that in a court of law, he would no longer be seen as a juvenile. He would be tried as a grown man. And I didn't need to have my boyfriend in jail, either. Fortunately, it seemed as if the embarrassment of being questioned by Principal Morris about such serious allegations prompted Mr. Wilder to tender his resignation. So, the problem was resolved, and the case was closed. Then, in February of my last year of high school, I experienced the saddest day of my childhood. It was a Friday morning, and I was on the school bus with my packed bag, as I was planning to spend the night with Peggy. When Mr. Walker stopped at the bridge, I was confused, as the Tanner kids were the only ones who boarded the bus? I was sitting in the seat behind Mr. Walker, and I was alone, as I had been saving the seat for Peggy and her little brothers. “Where are the Pipers, and the Martins?” I asked Mr. Walker. He looked sad. “I guess you haven't heard,” he said. “Little Harold Piper was in a bad accident yesterday afternoon. He was hit by a car when he was walking up the road, pulling a sled up to the bridge. The driver didn't see the boy until it was too late. I’m sure the Piper family is pretty shaken up right now. And the Martin’s are probably shaken up too, as it was Mr. Martin who hit Harold when he was coming home from work.” “Oh no!” I exclaimed. “How is Little Harold?” “I guess he got hurt pretty badly,” Mr. Walker told me. “I don't know the extent of his injuries. I think he was taken by ambulance, to the children's hospital in Indianapolis.” Peggy did not show up at school at all that day. I fully understood why. I decided to get off the bus at Styx Creek Bridge anyway. I wanted to be there at the Piper House to help the family in any way that I could. That afternoon, when I got off the bus at the bridge, Mr. Walker said, “Should you be getting off here, Mariana,” I know you are upset. Maybe you should just go on home to be with your parents.” I got off the bus anyway, Half-expecting little Harold to run up and grab my bag, as he usually did. As I walked down Styx Creek Road to the Pipers’ house everything seemed eerily still. When I knocked on the door, it was Mr. Piper, who opened it, Sadness clouding his gray eyes. “I'm so glad to see you Mariana,” he said. “Peggy will be glad you're here. I think she will need you tonight. She isn't here right now because she and Carolina are at the hospital with Little Harold.” “How is Little Harold?” I asked. “He's not doing well at all,” Mr. Piper said, choking on his words, “When he got hit, he bounced off the hood of the car and his head slammed into a tree. The impact broke his neck, and the doctors think that he sustained some serious brain trauma.” He has suffered some paralysis. The Doctor doesn't know whether it is permanent. Obviously, he can't walk right now, and he can't talk either. When we try to talk to him, we can't tell whether he understands what we are saying. We aren't sure that he even recognizes who we are.” “Oh, I'm so sorry,” I said, throwing my arms around Mister Piper, something I had never done before. Then he guided me toward the living room and said, “There's someone in there who needs you right now.” I glanced into the room, and saw Roscoe and Joey slumped on one of the couches, looking devastated and utterly lost. I walked over and sat down between them. Roscoe put his arm around me and pulled me close to him. Tears were running down his face. I wiped them off with my sleeve. Joey started crying so hard that I had him lay his head in my lap, and I stroked his hair. “I don't want you to Leave, Mariana,” he sobbed, “stay here with us.” That is exactly what I wanted to do. Although I knew that I would have to go home the next day. Little Harold ended up staying in the hospital for a month. During that time, I spent as much time as possible helping in the Piper household. Sometimes when my mom drove me over, she brought along food for the family: casseroles, a pot of stew, a platter of sandwiches, bowls of fruit, along with pies and cupcakes. I deeply appreciated her show of support. Then one day, she drove me to Indianapolis to the hospital, to see Little Harold. Peggy was there at the time. She was so happy to see us. She said to Little Harold, “This is Mariana, and her mother, Mrs. Harper.” his eyes showed no flicker of recognition. When Little Harold was finally discharged into his mother's care, I continued to help as much as possible in the Piper home. I helped feed Little Harold, and I learned to do his physical therapy exercises with him. One day, Carolina cried, saying “Mariana, I don't know what I would do without you.” And even Mr. Piper thanked me when it was time for me to go. Another day, after I had spent several hours doing the dishes, sweeping the floor, and taking care of Little Harold, Carolina said, “OK, Mariana, it's time for you to take a break. Go spend some time with Roscoe.” So, Roscoe took my hand and led me outdoors. “Mariana, he said, “Let's go for a walk.” He took me for a walk in the Styx Creek woods as he pulled me to his heart, he said, “Mariana. My darling, these last few terrible weeks, you have been an angel in our home. You have shown me what type of woman you will be. The type of woman I want to have in my life forever.” “Are you asking me to marry you?” I asked him. “I absolutely am,” he said. “I would be a fool not to. I never want to lose you, Mariana.” “I never want to lose you either,” I said, “but, Roscoe, you know I must go to college in a few months. And who knows where life will take us from there?” “I know one thing,” Roscoe said. “Wherever life does take us, you and I will be together at the end. I know that. I feel it deep down in my heart. In the end, nothing will be able to keep us apart.” “I sure hope that is true,” I said, suddenly feeling unsure. Everyone in the Piper household was so happy when Little Harold began to show signs of progress. Granted, it was a small amount of progress. If two people held him up, one on either side of him, he could take a few awkward steps. And if presented with a little bit of finger food, such as pretzels or crackers, he could feed himself. But for the most part, he had to be spoon-fed his meals and he had to be fed slowly, as he had difficulty swallowing, and there was always a danger of him choking. I spent hours with Little Harold, trying to teach him the names of his family members and the names of common household items used in his daily life. Gradually, he became able to say a few words. Still, he couldn’t answer questions or hold conversations. But when someone ruffled his hair or patted his cheek, he would smile. And if someone took his hand, he could squeeze their hand a little bit. It was good for the family to have some hope. It kept them all going. “It's so interesting that you became a speech therapist,” Peggy said to me as we stood in the IGA checkout line. “I remember how hard you worked with Little Harold after his accident. You would sit with him for hours, trying to teach him how to talk again? Was that why you became a speech therapist?” “Absolutely,” I said, “my experience with Little Harold certainly sparked my interest in that field.” “By the way, how is Little Harold doing now?” I asked Peggy as we moved through the checkout line. He is stable physically,” she said. “He can walk using a cane or a walker, but just for a short distance. Otherwise, he needs to use a wheelchair. But mentally he's still pretty much like a small child. He talks a little bit, but you can't hold much of a conversation with him. Right now, he’s staying in one of the nursing homes here in Nashville. It's not that far from where you live.” “Mom and I took care of little Harold at home,” Peggy continued, “Until Dad passed away 3 years ago. Without his help, it became almost impossible for Mom and me to provide Little Harold with the care that he needed. So, Mom had him placed in the nursing home. He's sharing a room with Roscoe.” Her revelation startled me. “Is Roscoe not doing well?” I asked, alarmed. I could see the pain on Peggy's face, “No,” she said “He's pretty frail. He’s had a series of strokes that have left him in bad shape. Mentally, He's not much better off than Little Harold. Although while Roscoe is able to speak pretty well, what he says doesn't make much sense.” “Now that you are here in Nashville, she said. “You should go see the boys sometime.” She looked at me questioningly, as if she was trying to determine whether she could trust me. “I will, I absolutely will,” I told her. “Mariana.” She said, “I don't want you to see Roscoe unless you can keep up your contact with him. I think it would be too hard on him to see you only once. He misses you terribly, three years ago, on his 70th birthday, before he had his first stroke, He told me something. He was mentally sharp at that time, he said that 50 years ago he and you had been at the Styx Creek Bridge, and he had asked you to promise to meet him at the bridge in fifty years, no matter where you were in the world at that time.” “He said you had promised. He was convinced that you would keep that promise.” “Because he was unable to drive at that point, he asked me to take him to the bridge. I kept telling him that 50 years was a long time, and that you might have forgotten all about the promise you had made. But he insisted that you would be there waiting for him. Of course, you weren't there.” “He hasn't been able to get over that. He is still waiting for you. He thinks that every woman who walks into his room, is Mariana. He talks to them as if they were you. Did you really make that promise to him, Mariana?” I nodded. “Yes,” I said, reflecting back. I was just a kid caught up in the moment. I was feeling so sad about going away to college and not being able to see Roscoe for a while. “Yes, I made that promise,” I said to Peggy. “At the time, I really meant to keep it. I am so sorry that I didn't.” The memories of that day were vivid in my mind. It was Roscoe's 20th birthday, A beautiful autumn day when the foliage was at its peak of color. We had gone on a walk in Styx Creek Woods, hand-in-hand, our feet crunching through the blanket of dry leaves on the ground. And then we had gone back to the bridge, where he had taken me in his arms. “I'll never forget this day,” I said to Roscoe. “I wish we could hang onto it forever.” Then he had taken my face in his hands and kissed my lips. “Mariana,” he said to me. “, “my darling love of my life, I want you to promise me that fifty years from today, you will come back here to meet me on this bridge.” “We don't know where we will be in our lives at that time,” I said to him. “I know,” he said, “You are going off to college soon and you're going to become a high-class woman. And all those college guys, the sons of rich families, will be chasing after you. And you will probably start looking down on me, thinking that I am some low-class fellow.” I shook my head vehemently, “I will never feel that way about you,” I said. “I'm telling you, Mariana,” he said. “That you don't need to go to college because I'm working now. And I am starting to make good money. I will be able to take care of you just fine. “Fifty years from now,” he said sadly, “you will be off somewhere doing something important, While I will still be here doing ordinary work. But promise me that no matter where you are in the world fifty years from today, you will come back to this bridge to meet me.” “Roscoe,” I said to him. “We will be old people by then. It will be your 70th birthday, fifty years from today, and I will be 67. Who knows whether we will still be alive by then? “ “But my darling,” I said, with all sincerity, “I will meet you on this bridge in 50 years, come hell or high water. I Promise you.” Then we walked, together, down Styx Creek Road to the Piper House. “Well,” Peggy said to me, as we stood there in line with our shopping carts. “I hope you have learned, Mariana Harper, that if you make a promise that you can't keep, someone gets hurt.” “So,” she continued. “Don't go see my brother, unless you can genuinely make a commitment to keep on visiting him. I don't want him hurt again.” “I will keep up with visiting him,” I promised her. “As you pointed out, I don't live that far from the nursing home, and I have plenty of time on my hands.” “I hope Roscoe had a good life,” I said to Peggy. Did he get married and have a family?” “No,” Peggy said. “He could have, because there were plenty of women who were interested in him but, he has loved only one woman his entire life.” “I can tell you this,” I responded, “even though I married someone else, I have truly loved only one man my entire life. As you might have assumed, I am divorced now.” I saw tears in Peggy’s Eyes. “I really wish,” she said, “that things had worked out differently for you and Roscoe.” “So do I,” I said. “Well,” Peggy said. “Mariana, you now have the opportunity to make Roscoe an important part of your life again. But as I said before, please don’t come back into his life, only to let him down again. He doesn't deserve to be hurt like that.” “Can you be there at the nursing home tomorrow evening around, 7:00?” She asked. “I can meet you there, and I will show you to his room.” As Peggy and I parted ways in the IGA parking lot, I gave her a warm hug. “I want you to know” I said, “that I cherish the memories of our time together as children.” “We will just have to pick up where we left off,” she said, “will, I see you tomorrow evening?” “Absolutely,” I said. “I'll be there at the nursing home. At 7.: O’clock.” When I got home, I sat down for a chat with Jenny. I told her all about my encounter with Peggy Piper, along with the memories of that encounter had stirred up. “Oh, mommy,” she said, “I think Roscoe Piper was your one true love I mean no offense by this, but you and my dad were never good together. And we weren't good as a family.” “I know, honey,” I said. “I know your father wasn't much of a family man, and he wasn't the dad that you deserved. I am so sorry about that.” “I'd like to meet Roscoe someday,” she said, with tears in her eyes. “I think he is the father I never had, the father I was supposed to have.” “Let me visit him on my own tomorrow night,” I said. “Let me assess the situation, and if it seems OK, then I'll take you with me the next time.” The next evening, I was in the nursing home parking lot at promptly 7:00 PM. Peggy pulled in a few minutes later. When we walked through the entrance of the facility, my heart pounded with both excitement and anxiety. “Hi, Peggy,” the nurses at the nursing station called to her. “Who are you seeing first tonight, Your mom or your brothers?” “I'll see my brothers first,” she said. “Is your mother in here too?” I asked Peggy. “Yes,” she said, “Mom was admitted here several months after we brought Little Harold here. She just can't bear to be separated from him. He's always been her baby boy, and she feels the need to look after him.” “I think the Pipers are going to take this place over,” she chuckled, “although Len and Ben and Joey and I are still going strong. I followed her to the doorway of her brothers’ room. A nurse stopped me before I went inside. “I just want you to know,” she said to me, “that when you enter the room, Mr. Roscoe Piper will call you Mariana. He calls every woman who enters his room ‘Mariana.’ We find that it's better not to contradict him, because that makes him agitated. It's best to play along with him. I hope that won't upset you too much.” “It won't upset me at all,” I said “because, I am Mariana.” “Are you kidding me!” the nurse exclaimed. “You are really the Mariana Mr. Piper has been talking about all this time?” “She sure is,” Peggy vouched. “That's Unbelievable!” the nurse said. “All of this time, the nursing staff thought that Mariana was a product of Mr. Piper's demented mind. But here you are in the flesh. I can't wait to tell everybody that the real Marianna finally showed up.” I followed Peggy into the room, where I saw two frail elderly gentlemen with full heads of thick white hair, their long bodies stretched out on identical hospital beds. They looked very much alike, undeniably brothers. To my embarrassment I couldn't tell which one was Roscoe, and which was Little Harold? So, I looked to Peggy for guidance. She led me over to the bed closest to the door. “Harold,” She said, “This is Mariana Harper. She was our friend when we were children. Do you remember her? She has come to visit with you and Roscoe.” I stroked his soft white hair. He smiled at me so sweetly. It was the same smile he had given me hundreds of times when he was a little boy. I bent down and kissed his forehead. Then I moved over to the other bed, and picked up the thin, bony hand of its occupant. “Darling,” I said, “This is Mariana. I have come to see you. How are you, my love?” “Mariana”, he chortled. “Oh, you finally came. I've been waiting for you for so long. But I knew you would come because you promised me.” “Of course, I came,” I said. “Don't ever leave me again, Mariana,” he pleaded. Peggy looked at me as if she wondered how I was going to respond. “Darling,” I said to Roscoe as I stroked his emaciated cheek, “If I have to leave for a while, I will always come back again, and again and again.” I sat on the edge of his bed and held his hand. I squeezed it. And he squeezed back. It felt good. I could feel the strength of his spirit. The spirit that was unquestionably the spirit of the man I loved. The hand I was holding felt exactly like the hand I had held so many times during our youth. “What have you been doing, Mariana?” he asked, in a plaintive voice. “I have been thinking about you,” I answered honestly. “I'll let you visit with the boys,” Peggy said, while I go get Mom.” Just a few minutes later, Peggy re-entered the room pushing a wheelchair. The wisp of a woman in the chair appeared to be in her late 90s. She was the most beautiful little creature I had ever seen. Her form seemed to be almost translucent, more spirit than flesh and blood. “Mom still likes to come down here every day to check on her boys,” Peggy said to me. “The boys are doing really well,” she said to her mother. “That's wonderful,” Carolina said. “As long as they're being taken care of, then I don't need to worry.” “So, she’s still the supermom she's always been,” I noted. “She sure is,” Peggy said fondly, as she rubbed the shoulders of her elderly mother. “We never had a lot,” she said, “in terms of material things, when we were growing up. But everything mom did for us was done with so much love.” “I remember that so well,” I said. “She even made me feel loved.” “Mom,” Peggy said. “This is Mariana Harper, do you remember her?” I scooted a chair over to sit next to Carolina. She patted my hand. “Of course, I remember, you, dear,” she said, “It’s so nice of you to come see us.” “I wouldn't have missed this for anything,” I said. “You did so much for me, when I was a child.” “It's time to go now, mom,” Peggy said. “You're starting to look really tired. I think it's time for you to lie down again.” “Mom feels the need to check on the boys every day,” Peggy told me. “Both boys seem to recognize her as their mother. They call her ‘Mommy’, I think that's remarkable, as they hardly recognize anyone else. Although, they do seem to understand that they are brothers.” Little Harold seemed to have fallen asleep. I moved over to Roscoe’s Bed. “Move over a little bit, Roscoe,” Peggy said. “Make a little bit of room for Mariana to sit down. Rascoe obligingly moved over. He patted the bed next to him, and said, “Sweetheart, it's time to go to sleep. Come lie down here with me.” “It's OK,” Peggy said, “The nursing staff won't care if you lie down with Roscoe for a little bit. It will probably calm him down for the rest of the evening.” So, I lay down on the bed and took Roscoe’s frail body in my arms. He snuggled up to me as if he was seeking warmth and reassurance. His body felt the same in my embrace as it always had. Although I could tell that his physical strength had left him; I could feel the abundance of his love and passion for me. He kissed my lips, and his lips felt exactly the same on my lips as they had 50 years earlier. “I need to leave in a few minutes,” Peggy said, “Joey will be here to spend a little time with mom and the boys, And I have errands I need to run.” “How is Joey doing?” I asked. “Well, she said, “That's a long story. Joey certainly has had an interesting life. You remember, I'm sure, how ornery he was when he was a little boy. The only person who could settle him down was Dad. And sometimes Dad was too rough on him. I would feel sorry for Joey. Unfortunately, when Joey entered his late teens and early 20s, no one could handle him. He developed a bad drinking problem. I guess he came by that honestly, considering the way my father used to drink, and he had a pattern of getting into a lot of fights. He ended up in the county jail, and then he landed in the state prison in Michigan City.” I felt very sad, to think of how Joey had perpetuated the Piper family’s reputation of being a rough and trashy family. “When Joey was in prison, a prison chaplain worked with him,” Peggy continued, “and Joey found religion. I was skeptical at first. But religion seemed to settle him down. And would you believe it, he became an ordained minister. He has never pastored a church, but he officiates at weddings and funerals and that sort of thing. And now he works as a chaplain at the county jail. Occasionally, he goes up to the state prison and works with the inmates there. I'm very proud of Joey. He has really turned his life around.” “I'm telling you all this, Mariana,” Peggy said, “In case you and Roscoe ever wanted to make things official,” Joey could officiate. “Based on the things Roscoe says,” I replied. “It seems as if he thinks we are already married.” “Anyway,” Peggy said. “Roscoe could never consent to marriage because he isn't of sound mind. Being his legal guardian, I would never let him consent to something he doesn't understand. But you could have some type of vow ceremony,” she said, “Just something symbolic, kind of like a vow renewal. Joey has done that kind of thing before.” “That’s a lovely idea,” I said. “I'll keep thinking about that.” I knew that if such a ceremony never happened. My own vows had already been written in my heart. I will be with Roscoe until the end. Until the very end. We are together at the end, just as he predicted more than 50 years ago. “I know you need to get going,” I said to Peggy. “But can you tell me very quickly? How Len and Ben and Benji are doing?” “Well Len and Ben are closing in on 80, Peggy said. “Can you believe that?” “Would you believe that Ben and Norma finally got married and got a place of their own,” she continued, “and they finished raising Benji. It seems that the Honorable Thomas Allen finally. stepped back and got himself out of the way of his daughter’s happiness. Or else Norma finally decided not to let her father control her life.” “As far as I can tell, Ben and Norma have been happy together. And would you believe that Benji is married now? And he has a son, who has a child himself. So, Benji is a grandfather now, and old Ben is a great granddaddy.” “And how about Len?” I asked. “Well, you know what a jerk Len always was,” Peggy said. “He never changed. He's been married and divorced three times. His wives can't handle all the trouble he gives them, so they kick him to the curb and then he goes out to find another one. I think he had children by each one of his wives, and maybe two or three by girlfriends. I can't keep track of all of them.” “How about you? I asked her. “Did you ever get married and have children?” “No,” she said, “I never believed that love would work out for me. I guess I had too many examples of love going wrong.” “Do Len and Ben still play music and sing?” I asked. “Oh yes they do!” Peggy exclaimed. “Now that Dad is gone,” Ben has taken charge of the family band. It now includes him, Len, Joey and of course, Benji. Benji is quite a talented musician. And I think Ben is about ready to put him in charge of the whole thing. And some of Len’s sons are in the band as well.” “By the way she continued. “The Piper Family Band plays here at the nursing home twice a month. It does mom and Roscoe and Little Harold so much good. And the other patients and staff enjoy the music as well. The staff will take the patients down to the Activity Room. Sometimes the family members of patients come as well. The place gets filled up.” “When is the next time the band will be here?” I asked. “This coming Friday,” she said. “Three days from now. Do you think you can be here?” “Of course,” I said, “I wouldn't miss it for anything in the world.” “Did you go see Roscoe tonight?” Jenny asked me when I got home. “Of course,” I said. “How is he doing?” she asked. “Not very well,” I said sadly. “Peggy says he is getting steadily weaker and that he talks less and less.” “I’m so sorry,” Jenny said. “I know how much you love Roscoe. He really is the love of your life. I'm going with you to see him tomorrow night, let's go right after I get home from work.” And that is what we did. When we entered Roscoe’s room, I said, “hello, my darling, I brought someone special to see you. This is my daughter, Jenny.” Roscoe smiled in delight. “I always wanted to have a daughter named Jenny,” He said, “and now I do.” “He thinks he is your father,” I whispered to Jenny. “That's so sweet,” she said. “I will be happy to be his daughter,” She pulled a chair to Roscoe’s bedside and held his hand. “Hello, Daddy,” she said. “I’ve been missing you, so, I came to see you.” “I've been thinking about you, sweetheart,” he said to her. Jenny seemed a little startled by that statement but continued to play along. “Tell me what you've been thinking about,” she said to him. “I've been remembering what we did when you were little,” he said. “Do you remember when I used to take you by the hand, and we would run up Styx Creek Road to the bridge? I used to catch you in my arms.” I knew he was remembering how he and I used to run to the bridge.” Jenny looked at me questioningly. Then Roscoe said, “And sometimes I would take you for walks in the woods and your beautiful mother would always come with us. Do you remember that?” “Of course, I do,” Jenny said. “Those were good times, weren't they?” “Yes, they were,” Roscoe said, and I nodded in agreement. As far as fantasies go, that was such a beautiful one. I was not about to burst Roscoe’s delusional bubble. On the evening of the Piper family concert. Jenny and I were there with ample time to spare. But Peggy was already there, waiting for us. She took us to the activity room, where chairs were already set up for the event. “We will sit in the front row,” she said. “I think Our family is going to take up the entire row.” I knew she was including Jenny and me in her definition of family. “Will you help me bring Mom and the boys down here?” She asked Jenny and me. We followed her down to Carolina’s room. Carolina had not yet met Jenny, so I made the introduction. “This is my daughter, Jenny,” I said to Carolina. The old woman smiled. “That practically makes you my granddaughter,” She said, “Because your mother was almost like my daughter when she was a little girl. Jenny bent down and hugged the elderly woman. “It's so nice to meet you,” she said. “I have heard so many lovely things about you.” Then Peggy pushed Carolina to Roscoe and Harold's room, and Jenny and I followed. Jenny pushed Little Harold in his wheelchair, and I pushed Roscoe in his chair. Then we went back to the activity room, where Peggy began arranging where each of us would sit, I suddenly spotted Norma in the gathering crowd. I rushed up to her and threw my arms around her, and she greeted me warmly. I recognized her as the only other woman I knew, other than Carolina, who knew both the sweetness, and the pain of loving a Piper man. Peggy put Norma at the far end of the row. Next to Norma she put Carolina in her wheelchair. Then she put Little Harold in his chair next to his mother. Next was Jenny. “Will you put Roscoe next to me,” Jenny asked Peggy, “And put Mom on the other side of him.” Peggy obliged. I scooted my chair up close to Roscoe’s wheelchair. As Roscoe was no longer able to lift his stroke-impaired arm to put it around my shoulders. I lifted it for him. Then Peggy sat down on the other side of me. ‘Do you remember how we used to sit Like this on the school bus, me in the middle, and the two of you on either side of me?” I asked. “I sure do,” Peggy said, laughing. “You and Roscoe got in trouble because you couldn't keep your hands off each other. And Mr. Walker threatened to tell your dad!” Several minutes later, the band members filed onto the stage with their guitars, banjos, a mandolin, and a fiddle. I immediately wondered who had taken over the fiddle, now that Harold Piper Senior was no longer with the band. A handsome middle-aged man came to the front and began to address the audience. “‘I'm Benjamin Piper, the second, “he said. Little Benji, I thought to myself. I remembered carrying him around when he was a toddler. The thought seemed ridiculous, as Benji was now quite a large man, just as tall as his father, but huskier than Ben had ever been. Then Benji gestured toward a tall white-haired man and said, “This fellow on the fiddle is my father, Benjamin Piper the first.” I gasped. Ben was just as strikingly handsome as he had ever been, although time had clearly taken a toll on him. Then Benji pointed to a young man who couldn't have been any older than in his early 30s. “This is my son, Benjamin Piper, the third,” he said. Then he pointed to another elderly White-haired man on the stage, and said, “And this is my uncle. Leonard Piper. No, folks, you are not seeing double. He and my father are identical twins. “Then Benji introduced four middle-aged men, Identifying them as his cousins, Zach, Zane, Quinton, and Ian Piper. They all carried the Piper good looks, and I figured they were Len’s, sons. Finally, Benji pointed to the last elderly-white-haired man on the stage. The gentleman was holding a mandolin and was wearing a suit. I was confounded for a moment, as I couldn't figure out who the man could possibly be. I thought maybe he wasn't a family member, as I had never seen a Piper man wearing a suit. Then Benji, said, “that’s my uncle, Reverend Joseph Piper, over there on the mandolin.” Oh my God, I thought. That is obnoxious little Joey, looking like a perfect gentleman. Boy, he really cleans up nicely! Then Benji said, “I have two more uncles in the audience. They are here in the front row: Roscoe Piper, And Harold Piper Junior. Up until seven or eight years ago, Uncle Roscoe played in the band, we really miss his musical contribution. Peggy stood up and went to stand behind her brothers in turn, pointing out who was who. “Then,” Benji continued, pointing to Norma, “This is my beautiful mother Norma Piper, who has always been an inspiration to me.” And, pointing to Carolina, he said. “And here is my dear grandmother Carolina Piper and that is my Aunt Peggy standing behind her. Peggy takes charge of all of us and keeps us in line.” The audience chuckled. Jenny leaned toward me and said softly, “Mommy, there sure are some good-looking men on that stage.” “Simmer down, sweetie,”” I teased her.” You need to know that you have to be careful when it comes to Piper men.” “But you did OK, Mommy,” she said, Patting Roscoe’s hand. When the band began to play, I thought about Carolina’s hope that the Piper family would never lose its music. I am so happy to say that they had not lost anything, not a single note. They played all the old favorites. Soon, I was sobbing, with tears coursing down my cheeks. When the band started playing “You are my sunshine,” just as they had fifty years ago, I bawled like a baby. Roscoe began to moan, and I realized that he was trying to sing along. “Do you remember singing this to me when we were young?” I asked him. I wasn't sure whether he knew what I was talking about, but he nodded. Since that Friday night, I have gone to two other Piper Family band concerts at the nursing home. And Jenny went with me both times. I will keep on going as long as I can, And I know Jenny will too. I am surprised that Jenny likes that kind of old-fashioned music. Truthfully, I think she's waiting for the opportunity to talk with one of the younger men in the band. Sadly, Peggy called me last night to tell me that her mother had passed away. So, I will have a funeral to attend in the next couple of days. I told Jenny that she didn't need to come with me, but she probably will. She has adopted the Piper family as her own, much as I did, all those years ago. And last week, I learned that Roscoe had yet another stroke. His doctor said that the next one will probably take him out. I know my time with him is limited, but I cherish every minute we have together. And I will continue to do what I have been doing for the past month, going to the nursing home at bedtime almost every evening. I stretch out on Roscoe’s bed with him. The nursing staff actually appreciates this. They say it has a calming effect on him. It has a calming effect on me as well. I always sleep better after having shared a bed with my beloved for a few hours. Yesterday, when I went to visit Roscoe, one of his nurses told me that he no longer calls every woman who enters his room, “Mariana.” He now seems to know that I am the one and only Mariana. According to Peggy and the nursing staff, Roscoe asks about me when I'm not there, he asks when I will be coming back. So, he remembers that I have been there, and he anticipates my next visit. Although I know that I will soon experience an enormous loss, the best that I can do Is to live every moment with Roscoe to its fullest. I will be left with beautiful memories, both from the distant past, and the recent past. I will cherish every one of them. AUTHOR’S NOTE: This story is entirely a work of fiction. If the characters resemble anyone you know, please understand that the resemblance Is entirely coincidental. What is true, however, Is my deep affection for the characters, and my love for the story‘s setting, which is of course fictional. There is no Styx Creek in Brown County, Indiana, and no Styx Creek Bridge. Helmsburg Elementary School and Brown County Junior and Senior High School are real as is the IGA store, but they are used fictionally. The nursing home where the Piper family members reside is a fictional place. I wish the Piper family band was real, and that you could all go and hear them play. I sure wish that I could. But unfortunately, they are fictional.

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