The Pleasures of Life Dept.
A love story incognito
By Maria Johnson
Want to hear a cool love story?
OK, but no real names and dates.
Because if you see real names and dates, you’re eyes will glaze over and your mind will dash away, and you’ll feel no connection.
Which you should.
Because there is one — to Greensboro and to life in general.
So, here is the story of a couple – we’ll call them Dee and Jim — who were each other’s second loves. Bonus points if you figure out their real identities before the end. If you want to cheat as you go, check the footnotes.
Dee was born in Greensboro, in a very religious home. Her family moved away when she was a baby. Eventually, they landed in Philadelphia, where her father went bankrupt.
Times were tough, so Dee’s mother took in renters. Meanwhile, Dee married a lawyer, her first husband. He was a good guy. They had two boys.
Right after Dee’s second son was born, a nasty illness swept the city (1). People were hurling blood and dropping like flies. Dee’s in-laws died. Then her husband died. Then her infant son died on the same day as her husband.
Boom, black hole. Four family members gone.
Dee was 25 and widowed, with a toddler son. They went to live with her mother.
One of her mother’s tenants, a guy named Aaron, had a friend from college who wanted to meet Dee. So Aaron introduced them. Incidentally, Aaron later shot and killed a dude and somehow avoided going to jail, but that’s another story, maybe even a hit Broadway musical (2).
But back to Dee and Jim.
They would have seemed like an odd couple to most people.
Jim was seventeen years older than Dee, and he was generally described as taciturn, which is a nice way of saying he was a cold fish.
Dee, on the other hand, was ebullient, which is a fancy way of saying she was full of life.
Jim was a little guy, 5-foot-4, maybe 100 pounds soaking wet. A real shrimp.
Dee was 5-foot-7, and let’s just say she was a substantial woman.
Jim was crackling smart, a well-known writer and thinker (3).
Dee didn’t have much schooling, but she had off-the-charts people skills.
Both of them had suffered broken hearts. Jim had dated lots of women, and he’d been engaged once, but his fiancée jilted him.
Dee hadn’t dated much, but she’d lost half a family.
They hit it off. Jim wooed her in writing. Sometimes, he recruited other people to write for him. One time, he got Dee’s cousin to write: “He thinks so much of you in the day that he has lost his tongue, at night he dreams of you and starts in his sleep calling on you to relieve his flame for he burns to such an excess that he will be shortly consumed.”
Mmmmhmmm. He had it bad.
Jim proposed to Dee in writing.
I’m not sure of his exact words, but it was along the lines of, “Will u marry me?,” only in very nice handwriting.
He was double-espresso-and-a-Red-Bull nervous, waiting for her reply, which also came in writing. She was traveling, you know, taking her time.
But, of course, she said yes. One can only assume that she didn’t want him to burst into flames. Plus, he was down with adopting her son.
But the marriage cost Dee: Her church kicked her out because Jim wasn’t one of them, but she was OK with it. She’d probably had her fill of the church after they tossed her pops for not paying his debts. And frankly, being outside the church freed her up to chuck the grubbies and dress with some flair.
She and Jim moved to Washington, and Jim took a big job (4). He traveled
a lot, and met a lot of foreign big shots.
Dee was an outstanding hostess, one of those people who remembers everyone’s name and makes you feel at ease no matter where you come from or what you think about politics and such. She entertained a lot, and I mean a lot, mainly because the president and vice president of the company were widowers, and when it came time for soirées, they were like, “Boiled potatoes, anyone (5)?”
So they gave Dee control, and she did it right. She threw lavish dinners and weeknight cocktail parties called “squeezes” because everyone wanted to squeeze in. Even Jim, who was a rather uptight fellow, loosened up in her presence, showing off his knowledge of wines and telling funny stories.
Like I said, Dee was a live wire, a bit of a rebel. She wore turbans spiked with feathers. She befriended people from different social classes. She gave money to charities. She served ice cream atop little custom-made dishes that looked like urns. She dipped snuff. She was an all-around spunky lass.
Jim loved her.
And she loved him.
They chased each other around the house. Sometimes, houseguests saw her pick him up and carry him around, laughing. In his letters, he sent her “a thousand kisses,” even though she dipped snuff, which is saying something.
Maybe because she was liberal with affection — or more likely because other people were gunning for his job — people whispered about her carrying on with the president. The whispers were never proven. You know how people are.
Eventually, when Jim got the top job, he and Dee moved to a huge house, and she decked the halls. Called in designers. Hung red velvet drapes. The works (6).
Then, just when Dee had the place looking dope, war broke out (7).
One day, the shooters stalked Dee’s neighborhood. The security guards at her house split. Jim was off, fighting. Dee was left with a few others (8). They were like, “Let’s get the hell out of here.”
And Dee was like, “Not without that painting?”
And they were like, “WHHAAAAAAAA?”
And Dee was like, “That’s a really important painting on the wall, and we’re not leaving without it (9).”
So they tried to take the painting, but it was bolted to the wall.
And Dee was like, “Bust up the frame, and take the canvas.”
And they were like “What-EVER.”
So they busted up the frame and got the canvas, and one of them started to roll up the canvas, and she pitched a fit.
“Don’t roll it up, knucklehead! You’ll ruin it!” she said, or words to that effect.
And they were like, “If you weren’t so cool, and we weren’t so afraid of being shot for running, we’d leave your sorry turbaned ass here.”
Again, I paraphrase.
The enemy set fire to the house a few hours after Dee left.
Later, she found Jim and they returned to a roofless, smoldering heap.
The acrid smell of smoke clung to Dee, and she never forgave the rat bastards who torched her crib (10).
But she and Jim hung in there. They started over again. They found another place to live, and Jim carried on with his career.
When he retired, they moved to the country. He worked as a university president for a while (11). He died at age 85. Dee moved back to D.C., mortgaged the farm, and lived a somewhat impoverished life, mainly because her son, the one whom Jim had adopted, turned out to be a gambler and a drunk. You’re welcome, kiddo.
Dee died in D.C. at the age of 81. She was buried there, but later, her remains were dug up and moved to a Virginia graveyard, where her spirited bones lie next to Jim’s (12).
R.I.P., Dolley and James Madison.
Maria Johnson is a contributing editor of O.Henry. If you want to know more about Dee, check out the Dolley Madison Collection at the Greensboro History Museum Admission is free. OH
1 Yellow fever
2 Aaron was Aaron Burr. The musical is Hamilton.
3 He wrote most of the Federalist Papers and the Constitution, and he wrote and sponsored the Bill of Rights. He’s known as the Father of the Constitution.
4 Secretary of State under Thomas Jefferson
5 The widowers were President Thomas Jefferson; first-term veep Aaron Burr; and second-term veep George Clinton (no, not the funky one).
6 The house was the first White House.
7 The War of 1812
8 Her assistants and house slaves
9 The painting was Gilbert Stuart’s famous portrait of George Washington
10 The British
11 At the University of Virginia
12 At Montpelier, their former plantation, now a National Historic Landmark in Orange County, Virginia.