It's said that it's love that makes the world go 'round, that in all of this world, the greatest is love.
They also say this world belongs to something quite the opposite, that evil walks it in the darkened corners and in shadows, and there's always been plenty o' those in Cooperville, even more now that the spring is dry and the town is dead. The closed up shops in Monarch Square makes the quiet ominous and foreboding. I reckon I'll be leaving here, soon enough. Momma's gettin' on, 'tho she ain't goin' the way Aunt Flossie did, she still has her wits about her. But she's weakening with age and as soon as momma goes the way we all must one day go, I'll leave this town, and the secret no one would ever believe if they knew it will go with me.
"It's a shame what old man Cooper's let that house get to. It used to be so beautiful!" Momma would say every time we passed the Cooper house in our station wagon.
That statement would echo whenever I passed that house riding my bike, carousing with my friends in the neighborhood on our way to the bowling alley, or to King's Hardware.
"It's a shame what ole man Cooper's let poor Alice Monroe Cooper get to. He should've sent her to a good hospital, lord knows he can afford it. Alice Cooper used to be so beautiful!"
Momma would look up at the columned verandah surrounded with fancy iron trellis where Mrs. Cooper would sometimes be seen, bundled up in a rocker reading a book or just sitting with old man Cooper, and momma would wag her head in earnest pity.
The years of talk of Jefferson Davis Cooper and his Alice are strung together in my memory like garlands of pearl onions, each layered with the judgments and opinions of the inhabitants of that sleepy Southern town of my birth. Not one of those whose opinions and judgments making up the skins of those pungent pearls ever knew what really lay in the heart of the last one. Most here are simple, vegetable souls.
Jefferson Cooper's grandfather built the town around his textile factory, one of the few Southern industries that survived the Civil War and the Yankee invasion. Although the factory operated well enough to keep this small town alive, The Monarch Company never regained its ante-bellum glory, the slogan of which was, "The Finest Cottons and Silks Made This Side Of The Orient."
"Oh, that Jefferson Davis Cooper was the orneriest kid in grade-school," Momma would tell. "Just 'cause his pappy owns The Monarch, Jeff figured he owned the rest of us. It got to where we's just so sick of Jeff Cooper and his high-and-mighty airs we just snubbed 'im, made him the butt of our jokes in high school. T'weren't that difficult, he sure wasn't much to look at with those bug-eyes, turnip-nose, pillow-lips and the personality of a junkyard dog. I remember one time he asked Stella Thompson, now Stella Wyatt, to the Fall dance. She told him, 'not if you was the last boy in Cooperville.' Homeliest girl in town wouldn't go to church with Jeff Cooper. Sure as rain, that little ole bucktoothed Emmy-Jane Greer laughed at him when he asked her out to spite Stella. . .No, Jefferson Cooper couldn't attract flies if he was covered in manure!"
So, momma said, the whole town was shocked into a millisecond of silence when Jefferson Davis Cooper returned to Cooperville after the war with a showgirl from New York City on his arm and a three-carat diamond paperweight on her left hand. She was a porcelain beauty named Alice Monroe.
"Of the Monroes of Massachusetts!" Momma would declare as if she were personally responsible for the match. "Don't know what that pretty gal sees in that ugly rascal. Must be that ring and that big ole house."
"Oh, Myrtle, how you go on," Aunt Flossie would say to momma across tea and cookies. "You all're so mean to Jeff Cooper." Aunt Flossie was my dad's older sister and she always talked to momma like she was her kid sister. "You know that Jeff's just the sweetest man since he came back from fighting in France. . ."
"Why Flossie Mae, everyone knows Jefferson Cooper didn't fight no war in France. He enlisted as a cook, for heaven's sake."
". . . and as I was sayin', he even held the door open for me at Fosters Drugs and paid for my soda. And you know, that little Alice is the sweetest thing, though she don't say a whole lot, just smiles and nods her head like a little china doll. She did somethin' good to that boy, somethin' like magic. You remember how worried we all was when his his momma went and killed herself after findin' out about ole Cooper and them little Aiken boys . . ."
"Oh now you hush Flossie!" And momma looked askance at me but I'd heard the story about Ole man Cooper molesting the Aiken twins no less than a gazillion times. And how it was Mrs. Cooper that found him with them in the old outhouse and killed herself with arsenic behind it. Old Mr. Cooper never made it to jail, the Aiken's pa up and gunned Cooper down in front of the courthouse before he could be tried. Mrs. Aiken took her boys and moved to Tupelo.
"Lord, what a thing to happen in Cooperville. And to the founding family," Flossie's head would bob. "And we were all so worried about young Jeff . . ."
"Well, some of ya'all was worried."
"It's just beautiful, you know, seein' how Jeff looks at that little doll of a woman-girl as if she were the only thing in the world."
"I declare!" But momma wasn't venomous. "Flossie, I'm gonna roll you in cornstarch and bake you into a pie! Hero." Momma looked wistful. "Well, like I always say, 'there's someone in this world for everyone.' Just never figured Jeff Coopers'd be such a darling, and I'd bet my bloomers her family never thought hers would be that pouty-faced cuss neither. Of course that diamond and that house must count for something. And to think he even hired her a Negro servant!"
Aunt Flossie's brow would knit in eleven rows of hooks-and-pearls when the scuttlebutt disagreed with her or anyone she thought was right. "That voodoo hag from Suqualena might be able to cook, but from the look of her, I'd say housecleanin' ain't one of her better ables." And then her brow would smooth the minute it suited her. "And you know I heard it that Alice's daddy was pleased as punch when Jeff offered to marry her. Seems he didn't like the crowd of actors she'd taken up with. Least that's what Myra Jackson says."
"I still don't see what she sees in him . . ."
Other talk was different. Like the talk in front of King's Hardware on Saturday nights when me and a few other boys would hang out shooting marbles, listening to the men tell stories and sometimes sneak a beer from one.
"I heard that Alice Cooper's daddy sold her into marriage with Jefferson Cooper. Uh huh, that he owed a good chunk to some hoodlums up in the city. Heard she tried to run off, so they drugged her and got her on the train," Ray Butterfield would say.
"Jeff Cooper saw her in a playhouse in New York when he was on his way home and was smitten mightily. Offered a thousand dollars for her hand but she wouldn't see him." Ellery Laughton would say through pipe smoke.
Benjamin Thompson, the porter at the train stop would say, "When they got to the station that first night, Alice tried to take off soon as she lit from the train steps. Jeff Cooper caught up to her and knocked her cold with one wallop. Explained it that she was just a little on the crazy side. Even showed the conductor some papers that said so, and well, you know we just let it slide on by."
Ellery would shake his head, the pipe smoke a zigzagged veil over his face. "Damn shame if it's so."
"Well, you know ole Jefferson Davis Cooper ain't no sweetie. Heard this little wife of his ain't neither. Heard tell she's just stage trash, not even in the chorus line. Calls herself an 'understudy.' Probably studies under the leadin' man." Benjamin would drawl.
Ellery would laugh a knowing, raunchy laugh. "Now you know them city boys, especially them actor types is fairies."
"Heard ole' Harriman say that old negra from Suqualena ain't nothing but a lookout keepin' that Monroe girl under thumb. But you know how that no-good Harriman lies." Ray Butterfield would say.
And so on, so that most people who had seen them together had two different stories to tell. Though everyone claimed to be, no one was really friends with the Coopers. Jeff Cooper never had any friends after his parents died. Not even after he come back with his wife.
"Oh that Monroe girl's an uppity type I heard. Prefers moonin' at home to goin' out and meeting folks," Cammie Renfro would point her nose upward.
"I heard she only speaks French. Can you believe it?" Aunt Flossie said as if speakin' French was like having a set of gold teeth.
"Who told you that?"
"Sarah Davis, and you know she's a Cooper cousin."
As far as anyone knew, no one else, save the old Negro servant woman, had ever been inside the Cooper house since the elder Mr. and Mrs. Coopers' old-style holiday celebrations ceased years before. Not until the summer of '59, my fourteenth year, when Jeff Cooper and his wife, now married two-and-a-half years, reportedly went to see her family in New York. Word was the trip was to have lasted two weeks into the first week of August. In the last week of August, a man showed up in town at the law office and told Lewis Newman, the town's attorney, that Jeff Cooper's wife had taken ill up North and preparations were to be made for their return. The man from New York had some construction workers come in to the Cooper House and install an elevator next to the staircase and widen the doorways in Miss Alice's rooms, and the old Negro servant woman got her basement rooms fixed up nice. Or so it was said. The rumors went on like pestilence.
"Heard from Yonneway that Miss Alice ain't got the shrinking sickness, that she tried to run off again up in the city and he up and broke both her legs so she'd never walk again," Benjamin Thompson said through a wad of Prince Albert.
"I heard she tried to run off with one of her actor friends from years ago, and JD Cooper broke his tinkerbell balls, then went and made Miss Alice look like that Simpson girl that weren't born right, if you know what I mean," Ellery Laughton said.
Ray Butterfield took a long swallow of beer then belched authoritatively. "Cooper ain't never been one of us, but that li'l Monroe gal sure is as pretty as they come, I hear. I wouldn't blame him for keepin' it any way he can. But iffen she is got the shrinkin' sickness, why, he oughtta leave her with her folks up in the city."
"Oh, ain't it just awful!" momma shook her head. "Beautiful Alice Cooper has the shrinkin' sickness!"
"The what?" my aging aunt Flossie cupped her hand to her ear.
"THE SHRINKING SICKNESS," momma yelled. "I think it's called 'emmess,' you know, like Mrs. Ingall had. YOU REMEMBER MRS. INGALL?"
"Emily Ingall? She's sick all her life . . ." Flossie rambled.
Momma just shook her head.
It took until mid-October for the Cooper house to be readied. By that time the rumors had only just begun to slow a bit and more rumors'd begun that Miss Alice wasn't coming home, that she'd gone ahead and ditched the old man for her former life as a stage actress.
"Jeff Cooper ought to come home and lick his wounds and get on with it," momma said one night over fritters.
"I hear Ray Butterfield say he's bringin; her home next week, in a wheelchair 'cause o' her legs bein' . . ." Momma's look said I'd best not finish the sentence.
"Micah Dean, I'll whup ya if ya don't stay away from King's after dark. You hear me?"
Cammie Renfro from across the way from the Cooper's let everyone know the minute she saw a brand new Cadillac sedan pull into the drive on a howling night, expelling Mr. Cooper who retrieved from the tinted rear seat of the car what Mrs. Renfro supposed was Alice Monroe ("But it was so dark and rainy, I really had to strain my eyesight!" Mrs. Renfro'd said). The front door opened before they got to it and Mrs. Renfro supposed it was the Negro woman who let them into the house.
For years afterward, Jefferson Cooper hardly left his own house. The Negro servant, whose name we thought was "Jessa" and who hardly spoke a word, did the marketing. Jefferson Cooper went to The Monarch once a month to oversee. The bills were paid by post and within a few years that stately mansion, the only pride of Cooperville, became overgrown, dilapidated, decrepit. It looked fairly haunted. We'd sometimes see Miss Alice, bundled in shawls no matter the weather, sitting still and silent on the upstairs verandah. Sometimes Cooper sat with her. But no one but that Negro woman and Jeff Cooper ever came out or went inside the house, and after a year or two, it was only the Negro
"It's a shame what ole man Cooper's let that house get to. It used to be so beautiful!" Momma said as we passed the Cooper house on the way home from my daddy's funeral the September I was eighteen. He'd just retired from The Monarch, had himself a little garden in back and the shed all full of junk ready for tinkering and he just keeled over from a heart attack.
"What?" Aunt Flossie croaked from the back seat.
"It's a shame what ole man Cooper's let poor Alice Monroe Cooper get to. Why, I don't think she's lifted a hand to wave to me in over a year."
I looked at momma. "Momma, Alice Cooper's not moved in that chair ever."
"Well she used to wave now and again when I went by. Cammie Renfro says she waves to her sometimes." Momma wagged her head. "Poor Miss Alice. Ole Man Cooper should've taken her to a fancy hospital years ago. Heaven knows he can afford it."
"What?" Aunt Flossie insisted.
"There's never even been a doctor called to the Cooper house. I think what Ellery Laughton thinks, I think . . . "
"Psht! Now you just keep that ol' gossipin' Ellery L. Laughton outta this conversation," momma interrupted me. "You know what your daddy'd say. Ellery's an old hen, him and the rest of that bunch of beer-swillin' no-counts. 'Handymen' my white ass. Ellery Laughton wouldn't know melted taffy from his dick."
"What?" Aunt Flossie persisted.
"Oh hush, Flossie, ain't no one talkin' to you," momma scolded into the rearview mirror.
"Well I thought I heard you say the kettle was whistlin'. I's just wonderin' how you coulda heard it from here," Aunt Flossie said haughtily.
Momma looked at me and rolled her eyes. "Poor old thing. Wish I could take her out back and shoot her like we did that ole dog when he couldn't walk no more. Wonder if she even knows where we just been. Poor Micah." Momma sniffed, wiping her eyes.
"I think that's what Cooper did to his wife. It's what some folks, a lot of folks think."
"Oh, that's just hogwash. Jeff Cooper worships Miss Alice like his own momma. Everyone knows that."
"So, not wantin' to see her wastin' away, he put her out of her misery."
Momma looked at me like I just crapped in the seat. "And who do ya suppose that is bein' nursed in that house?"
"I don't know, could be a dummy. Like one of those blow-up dolls like Uncle Frank . . . "
"I'm gonna whup your backside, Micah Dean Chandler, and if your Uncle Frank was still alive I'd whup his ass too!" Momma gave her best threatening look. "And anyway, no one's as crazy as to read to a rubber dummy. Not even ugly ole Jeff Cooper."
It was true. On still, hot nights, if you walked by at the right time, you could hear Jefferson Cooper reading aloud to Miss Alice on the verandah under the ceiling fan, things like the Bible and James Joyce. Music often played from inside the long windows we assumed led into Miss Alice's room, Miss Alice's world.
"It's strange, a little sad," Cort Bigelow, the Fire Captain and our leader in the Junior Future Fireman's Club said. "Such devotion to a woman."
"More like sick," someone else said. "You'd think if he really loved her, if he was all that 'devoted' he'd at least let her have callers of her own sex. And what about her family? Seems weird they don't come visit her, knowing she's as sick as she is."
Cort had no answer to that.
"I heard Mable Johnson heard from Sadie Tennent that Miss Alice's family's so heartbroken that they can't bear to look at that beauty all twisted by the sickness, that they would rather remember her as she was," Momma said when I told her about the firehouse talk. "I can't say as I blame 'em and you just stick to your learning, son, fireman's good pay."
"Alice Cooper passed away?" Aunt Flossie squawked from the rocking chair.
Momma looked at me and sighed.
Over the next three years I passed my training and worked full-time as a deputy fireman in Cooperville, one of two under Cort Bigelow. Our job descriptions included park cleanup and Sheriff's backup, if there was ever a need. As is usual in most sleepy Southern towns, things passed as regular as the seasons, and with about as much excitement.
Alice Monroe Cooper was still the towns favorite scuttlebutt, the flames of which were fanned every time that old Negro servant went to Halleck's Feed and Supplies and bought twenty-five pound sacks of mineral salt, frozen brine, and red iodine.
"I can't imagine what that old woman is putting away for the winter. Nobody eats that much jerky," Mrs. Halleck would cluck.
Then the rumor went around that Old Man Cooper had a laboratory in his house and he was tryin' to find a cure for Miss Alice's disease, and the mystery surrounding the Cooper House turned into something like respect.
"I think it's perfectly adoring that Jeff Cooper would try such a thing for the woman he loves!" Momma exclaimed when she heard it from Cammie Renfro.
But things went on the same at the Cooper house, except for the worse as far as the house itself went. After years of no paint and no repairs, the century-old place was near shambles. Cort said it was only a matter of time before we'd have to go in and condemn the place, and wouldn't that be a shame after all that Jefferson Cooper's been through in life? One more coal heaped upon his head.
On a sweltering night in mid-July, Mrs. Renfro saw the old Negro servant walk from the side door of the Cooper house with her basket in hand, like she was goin' to the market. She never returned.
"I thought it was funny, you know, goin' to Lowe's Market that time of night," Mrs. Renfro said afterward.
Not quite a week later, the stench brought Sheriff Taylor to the house and after getting out of his car, he called me and Taylor's nephew, the other fireman-park-custodian-deputy-sheriff over for back up.
"Wha . . . Jesus!" David Taylor said as we got out into the scorch of the Cooper driveway next to the house. "What in the name of hell is that?"
"Dead body I reckon. That, or Cooper's got a cat the size of a horse rottin' in the basement. Here," he handed us a bottle of Vicks Vapo-Rub. "Rub some of that under your nostrils. Believe me, it'll be better."
"Have you gone inside yet?" I asked.
"Just peeked in all the winduhs, nuthin' downstairs, but this place . . ." Taylor made a face that was more eloquent than words. He handed us gloves. "Too bad we don't have suits."
We didn't bother with the front door. Everyone in town was gathering on the street as close as the smell allowed. The murmuring rose as the crowd swelled. We had a better chance of getting into the house through the back anyway, or so we thought. After trying the doors and finding them dead-bolted from the inside, we broke through a low window in the rear that went into a utility sort of room that was piled with old clothing and junk.
Speechless, we went through room after room of rotting filth, the elegant heirloom furnishings covered with dust, grime, magazines, newspapers, and unidentifiable muck. The once-beautiful polished oak floors were dull and scratched, the sometimes deep gouges filled with black sludge. Cobwebs hung everywhere and rats sometimes peered from bookcases or from behind chairs. The kitchen was slightly less squalid, the floors and counters only marginally less filth-laden, except the sink which held putrid, maggot-infested dirty dishes. Empty food cans lay knocked over on the counter next to a refrigerator that appeared to have not been serviceable for some time. The doors all leading outside were barred by no less than three dead-bolts each.
The ceiling fans coming on startled us.
"Well, that explains the windblown look of the place," Taylor observed. "Must be on a timer, I didn't hear anyone, d'you?"
We shook our heads.
The stairs leading up were next to the entry. The elevator door stood open beside, like the house's maw, waiting. Without even a glance toward each other, we headed for the stairs, the eucalyptus of the Vicks fading like a fart in a breeze. The carpet of the stairs was threadbare, the faded wallpaper peeling.
The landing on the second floor was uncluttered by filth. Dusty, moldy and certainly in an advanced state of neglect, but nothing of the horrid squalor of the first floor. Save the intensifying odor of carrion, it was sterile by comparison.
The thickly carpeted landing was wide and large bookshelves stood against the side facing the front of the house with a settee and credenza opposite. Books lay open on the credenza, on the settee, on the floor.
I picked up a large volume and turned it over. "Mastering the Art of Embalming" was printed in yellow on the pale cover.
"Hey, look at this," David said holding out a black covered book. The words on the pages were in an unfamiliar, curling script. The illustrations appeared to be those of a cadaver, who at the ministrations of a cloaked figure, went through a sequence of sitting, then standing, then walking.
"What do you make of that?"
"That Cooper's a weirdo ain't exactly news," I told him.
Sheriff Taylor was examining the wide double doors beyond the settee. The decaying stench came from behind those. He motioned us over before trying the doors.
They opened on silent hinges, almost by themselves onto a suite of rooms unlike anything we'd seen in the house so far. These were neat, decorated in lace and frills. White crinoline couches surrounded an array of large pillows made of the same material. Different colored shawls lay draped on the backs of the couches and across the pillows, everywhere. The smell was overwhelming, coming from an open door to our left.
They lay together on the canopied, silken bed, he nearly atop her - her?
"What in god's name?!" Taylor's hoarse whisper rasped.
Jefferson Cooper lay on one side half atop what appeared to be a. . .doll? A mannequin of some type, made into a grotesque likeness of Alice Cooper? She lay supine beneath him, arms at her sides, dressed in a lace peignoir that opened down the front to expose a dark, leathery mid-section. The wizened face was painted in stage makeup; pale foundation, long, false eyelashes over marble eyes that stared blankly at nothing.
Jefferson Davis Cooper's dead, shriveled manhood was still partially sheathed in the doll's obviously false opening between spread skeletal legs. A dagger of some kind, with feathers, ribbons and human hair attached to its handle, protruded from his back.
I fought the nausea, even as I heard David Taylor lose his battle with it behind me.
The Cooperville Picayune, ran the story of a murder-suicide inside the opulent residence of the last descendants of the Cooper family of Cooperville, Mississippi. It was brief and did not mention the condition of the place when we went there. The town accepted it quietly. No one even wondered why the Monroe's didn't even come to the funerals.
"They likely want to remember her how she was," was all that was said and it was left there.
Aside from Sheriff Taylor and me and David, and undoubtedly that old Negro from Suquelena, the only other person who knew what we'd found was the county coroner from down in Meridian. He let us bury 'em together in the old Cooperville cemetery, next to the elder Cooper's.
"If I even knew where to start lookin', I wouldn't want to know," Sheriff Taylor said about the old Negro woman.
None of us ever spoke about it again.
A fire of unknown origin, not too long after our discovery, gutted the old mansion and me, Cort and David boarded up what was left of it.
The Monarch shut down and many of the folks in Cooperville've moved on. Aside from a few other elderly folks, like Sarah Davis, Ellery Laughton and Cammie Renfro, I stayed on to look after momma. With the help of the DWP in Martin, me and the Taylors keep the power on, the water running, the streets quiet, not that there's ever been a problem in the streets of a town like Cooperville. Worst things that ever happened, happened with the folks that owned it.
It's still here now. Even the gossip has died.