Follow-up: Mark Barrett and I lost touch and years later, my onetime neighbor and self-appointed running coach approached me in Little Rock’s Park Plaza Shopping Center. I heard my name and stopped. Turning around, it took me more than a few moments to recognize the person standing in front of me. The years had not been kind. My once-handsome, adorable young neighbor was no longer young; no longer fit; no longer handsome.
We talked briefly-- mostly about our lives on 36th street-- in a town we’d both left for different reasons. When there was nothing left to say, we hugged, said our goodbyes, then went our separate ways.
Over time, I didn’t reflect on that chance meeting until, more than five years after my Great Wall Journey, a friend emailed an obituary. My dear, long-ago neighbor and running coach, Mark, had, at the age of 48 years old, voluntarily left this world.
At the time, I was in China teaching…too far away to attend the funeral. Later, I learned from a reliable source that Mark drank heavily, took drugs for depression and—after losing a multitude of jobs—was unable to work. Like many of us, Mark had too many demons and too little strength to fight back. I signed the online registry and mourned the loss of my dear friend.
But my involvement with Mark didn’t end with his obituary. Years after living in China, leaving China, and moving/living in other places.... I, at last, found myself back in Arkansas. I bought a house in Little Rock, had my storage from more than twenty years delivered, and began yet another....new life.
Unpacking the endless stored boxes from long ago, it became clear that most of the clothes were outdated while many items were no-longer usable.
Stopping by the nearest Goodwill Store’s donation platform to unload my car’s trunk, the attendant said he had misplaced his receipt book; if I wanted a receipt for tax purposes I would need to go inside the store.
While the inside clerk was writing a receipt, I glanced around the store. On the far wall, hanging with a menagerie of photos, plaques, outdated calendars, and empty picture frames, was a classic painting of a handsome young man. Drawn to the young man’s eyes, I walked closer to get a better view and immediately felt a connection. When the clerk handed me the receipt, I left the store.
That night and all the next morning, I couldn’t stop thinking about the painting. I went back to the store and asked if anyone knew who’d donated the painting and how long it had been in the store? No knew anything except: the painting had been there for months and was marked twenty dollars. The store manager said I was the only person who’d shown interest in the painting so—she would mark it down to ten dollars.
I hung the portrait on an upstairs bedroom wall where it stayed for five years; the identity of the young man in the painting remained a mystery. One night, unable to sleep, I decided to write. Needing a change of scenery, I took my laptop upstairs—to my favorite bedroom—but instead of writing, I found myself distracted by the portrait. I felt the young man looking at me, trying to communicate.
Studying the portrait, I sensed something familiar in the young man’s eyes and was suddenly reminded of my one-time neighbor, coach, and young friend, Mark. Could the subject in the portrait be Mark?
I posted a photo of the portrait online-- on Facebook-- asking if anyone recognized the young man. I also posted the name of the artist, Markissia. Almost immediately a new Facebook Friend, living in Tarpon Springs, Florida, recognized the artist as one of his friends and contacted her. Markissia verified she had painted the portrait but didn’t remember the name of the person in the portrait. Several weeks passed and, unable to think of much else, I searched the internet.
I easily found Mark’s parents, now living in Little Rock, and also found their telephone number. Mark’s father, Milton, now ninety years old, seemed glad to hear from me. I told him about finding the portrait and mentioned tracking the portrait’s artist to Tarpon Springs, Florida. He said he vaguely remembered taking the family to Tarpon Springs one summer, a very long time ago. He said his son Mark, somewhat of a budding artist at the time, had posed for a portrait but no one ever saw it. In fact, he believed his son, Mark, had forgotten to pick up the finished painting before the family left Tarpon Springs. I asked if I could bring the portrait to his home so he could decide if it was, indeed, Mark.
Mr. Barrett sounded interested but commented on being extremely busy and asked if I could call the following week to arrange a convenient time. I called the next week....and the following week… and the week after....and no one answered the phone. I left message after message but my calls were never returned until....
Early one morning I answered my phone and a woman asked to speak to Miss Sally. She didn’t volunteer her name but said she’d heard several of my phone messages and believed I should know the truth.
The woman said, “Mark died in the nineties. His father cleared out Mark’s apartment and stored all his belongs—including a portrait—in the storage shed behind his house. The caller related that only a few years ago Mark’s older brother, Milton, a well-to-do medical doctor in West Virginia, had died-- quite suddenly.
When Mr. Barrett learned of his remaining son’s death, he immediately cleaned out the backyard storage and took everything to a Goodwill store. The caller said Ms. Barrett was nearly hysterical when she learned of her husband’s actions but could do nothing.
The woman caller, describing herself as a home care worker, said she asked Mr. Barrett how he could so easily dispose of his son’s personal items and he’d replied: “The only reason I stored Mark’s items was because his brother, Milton, wanted them. Well, Milton--my successful son-- is dead and his worthless brother—Mark--died without amounting to a hill of beans. I don’t need any reminders of Mark’s life. Shortly before he died, Mark had the nerve to tell me he was gay!” I thanked the woman for contacting me and hung up.
Who can explain why I was chosen to find the portrait in a Goodwill store or why I was compelled to buy it and bring it home? How can I make sense of the fact a new Facebook Friend “just happened” to live in the same town with the artist and the two of them “just happened” to be friends? Equally coincidental was the unknown home care worker who “cared enough” to return my phone message. By doing so, she solved the complicated mystery of the portrait.
I’ll always believe a power—far beyond reason, reality, and explanation—knew Mark needed someone to care about him; to care about his life; and-- about his death. Recently I relocated the painting to my bedroom so I can see it every day. Mark, my dear, sweet young neighbor—my running inspiration from so-long-ago—has found his final resting place with me.
PS…Within months of becoming my new Facebook Friend from Tarpon Springs, Florida.... and connecting me with the mysterious Portrait’s Artist…my new Facebook Friend unexpectedly died. Some truths are not meant to be understood.
As a young wife and mother, my daily schedule consisted of raising two daughters, producing/ directing/hosting an early morning television show, teaching voice students, and conducting charm classes. I was also a homemaker who, day after day, prepared meals, cleaned the house, and did the laundry.
One unseasonably warm December afternoon, I took a few minutes to sit on the patio while both girls napped. Consistently tired and weak, I looked for every excuse to rest. I had no idea that, in only a few hours, my life would drastically-change forever.
My next door neighbor, a high school student, saw me outside and walked over. After the usual niceties, the mannerly young man asked about my health, remarking that I looked weak and thin. I explained I was still recovering from the birth of my second child and major kidney surgery. The longer I talked the more emotional I became and soon was unable to control the tears. The young man, obviously embarrassed, listened politely as I confessed my husband’s affairs, the financial pressure from supporting myself and my daughters, and my reliance on prescription pills to control the anxiety, panic attacks, and depression.
Promising a solution, my neighbor insisted we go to the high school track the next afternoon. My first attempt to walk around the track was a miserable failure. Two days later, thanks to my neighbor’s persistence, I complete my first-ever walk around a high school track. Not wanting to disappoint my young friend, I continued following his training suggestions. Every afternoon, accompanied by both daughters, I walked around and around the high school track. Sometimes my young neighbor joined us and other times, his encouragement was simply a phone call.
Several weeks passed and my “coach” decided I needed bigger challenges. He suggested I walk around the blocks in our neighborhood and within ten days, my pace increased from fast walking—to jogging. It wasn’t long before I could jog three miles without stopping. Each morning at five o’clock, while the rest of the world slept, I jogged the neighborhoods.
Near the end of summer, a few days before the beginning of school, my young neighbor/coach stopped to check on me. He seemed happy I’d stopped taking the pills. At that moment, neither of us could have imagined how running would not only save my life—physically and mentally—but would someday propel me to China.
PS: In a few days, I’ll share how Mark--- my dear, young neighbor--- crossed my path again…years later…in a very emotion and meaningful way. It’s just another example of how there are no coincidences in my life.
The little girl in me is thinking that....just maybe...this life is merely a "Rehearsal"....and our "next life" will be:
The Real Performance...........................................
Toward the end of my year as Miss Arkansas 1958, my mother applied a new pressure; she warned me to start looking for a husband or a job. When I reminded her of my plan to pursue a singing career, she countered “You’re not going to use my money to chase some childish dream. Just be happy to stay in Arkansas and sing for weddings and funerals and an occasional concert. That should satisfy your ego.”
Like a broken record, she repeated the same words, again and again. “You are almost twenty years old and it’s time for you to be on your own. You can get married or find a job but, you’re not living in my house anymore, spending my money. And, don’t try whining to your daddy because I manage the money and I make the rules!”
One day, after speaking to The Pine Bluff Rotary Club’s noontime meeting, a one-time neighbor approached me about being his date for a party. I had other plans and politely suggested he could ask me again. Unfortunately, he did.
A few days later we went to the movies and, later in the week, had dinner at the Country Club. That was enough for me; I had no interest in seeing him again. Nearly ten years older, Jack chain-smoked, had bad posture, and had a nervous (and nauseating) habit of picking his nose. Kissing him reminded me of the time I kissed a toilet seat (one of the Pollyanna Club’s initiation requirements.) But desperation can sometimes force compromise and, needing more time away from my mother (at the time, everyone my age was away at college) I finally agreed to a third date—then a fourth. When I wasn’t performing Miss Arkansas duties, I dated Jack.
My final night as Miss Arkansas could best be described as unremarkable. Pageant audiences have no interest in the outgoing queen; she’s history. The night was packed with excitement as the crowds anticipate the announcement of the next Miss Arkansas. Before crowning my successor, I delivered the traditional farewell speech, sang one last song , and in traditional beauty queen style, walked the runway for the last time. I was now, officially, a Has-Been.
Two hours later, Jack and I had dinner together. During the meal he placed a ring box beside my plate saying “Here’s your dessert.”
I accepted the engagement ring for one reason: It would keep my mother off-my-back for a few more weeks. Not once did I seriously think about getting married or ever wonder about breaking the engagement. I simply trusted that something magical would happen just as soon as I returned to the Miss America Pageant…this time... as a guest performer. I visualized myself making some serious connections while in Atlantic City---then moving to New York City and working while pursuing a singing career and--- living far from my mother.
Every night I said my prayers and added the same postscript: “And please God, help me break-free of my Mother—forever.”
BUT, as most of you probably know by now....my Mother controlled my life completely and..I never got my chance to "try" for a singing career. I had no choice but marry Jack Perdue.
From the age of nine, I studied piano with a teacher named Mrs. Easter. She was strict and demanding; cold and overly-critical; but I learned to play well under her tutelage. When I was almost fifteen years old, my teacher arranged for a professional pianist and composer—in town for a concert appearance—to spend the afternoon at her music studio to judge and evaluate her piano students. The well-known musician, probably in his thirties, listened to my recital pieces and when I finished, began talking with me.
Several times, Mrs. Easter rudely-interrupted our session to ask when he would finish with me, stating other students were waiting their turn. He patiently replied: “So far, of those I’ve auditioned, Sally demonstrates the most promising talent. It is important for me to hear her complete repertoire.”
The piano judge seemed fascinated by my left hand, asking how I had developed such strength and clarity in that one hand. When I explained I was left-handed, the judge opened his briefcase—pulled out one of his original composition—wrote a few words--- then scrolled his name across the top and placed it in my lap.
The music, “Piece for Left-Hand only” seemed quite appropriate. Grateful for his praise, high scores, and the autographed composition, I extended my hand as a thank-you gesture. To my surprise, the judge put his arms around me in an affectionate hug.
Leaving the studio, I passed Ms. Easter standing in the doorway. Apparently, she’d watched the exchange between the piano judge and me. Her mouth curled in a snarl, my teacher marched me to the outside door before releasing her anger:
“Just like some common hussy, you flirted with that judge so he’d give you high marks. I have many students who play much-better than you! The only reason you won the best performance award was because you are a flirtatious little Bitch!”
Who knows why--even today-- so many women, for all my life, have viewed me as a “threat”...as someone they must immediately… hate. It's taken almost a lifetime to realize---- I HAVE NEVER BEEN THE PROBLEM. INSECURE, JEALOUS, AND HATEFUL WOMEN WILL ALWAYS BE "THE PROBLEM".
FOLLOW-UP: Forty years later--long after I’d changed piano teachers-- received a music scholarship to attend Lindenwood College for Women and moved far-beyond Pine Bluff, Arkansas for a successful life--I learned that my former piano teacher was brutally tortured and murdered.
After so many years, the case remains open and unsolved.
The divorce happened many years ago but....simply writing about it again and--- I feel the same long-ago anger rising from deep inside. Emotional pain never really leaves; it’s buried very-near the surface-- in a shallow grave.
One of the advantages of being a "big fish in a little pond" or “an old family in a small town”--- the cream-of-the-crop attorneys rally to the side of the old prominent name/old established family. The smell of old money attracts lawyers like roadkill attracts buzzards.
Eight attorneys represented my husband to vigorously-fight one small-town lawyer and me....as if we were enemy number one. For them, it was about winning and the tactics they used were slimy, dirty, and ruthless. In Jack's attempt to destroy me, he was also destroying his children's future but---he didn't care. My small town attorney was unprepared for the arrogance of the gang-of-eight. Young and inexperienced, my attorney allowed the constant bullying from the “other side” to overwhelm his simple efforts.
It took almost two and a half years to finalize the divorce. If I’d been the strong woman I am today, there would have been no concessions and certainly no "little nice girl." I would have taken my evidence public, challenged the “good old boy” system, and refused to sign any papers that did not award me and my daughters a sizeable-settlement. And, I would have slapped the face of the arrogant, condescending, bastard-judge who talked down to me like I was some mindless whore:
“Well, Miss Sally, I’ve heard all about you and seeing you for the first time---you’re not so bad looking; you won’t have any trouble finding a husband. Hell, once you get the word out on the streets, you’ll probably have something serious going on in a few months. But don’t go looking for love ‘cause you’re well-past the schoolgirl age, darlin’. Just get out there and look for some easy money. The final settlement your attorney has agreed to on your behalf, is sufficient. Jack’s giving you some financial help with the kids and that way he can claim them on his tax returns.
You’ll be getting 400 dollars a month (200 each child) until the kids are eighteen years old and you’ll receive a little alimony (350 dollars a month) but don’t forget, you’ll be paying taxes on that alimony--- which is fair to Jack and when you remarry, you lose the alimony.
The house is signed over to you and your due to start picking up the payments...beginning next month. Honey, looks like you better find that sugar daddy soon because there'll be utilities, house repairs, insurance, yard work, and all kinds of upkeep. And….don’t forget….you have to pay your attorney fees out of the 25,000 dollar final settlement you’re getting so that money won’t last long. Baby doll, I suggest you find a job real quick which wil be just fine.... it won’t hurt you to work. Now, move that cute little butt over here beside me so you can sign these papers.
And, just-like-that-honey, you’re a single woman again. You can do whatever-you-want with whoever-you-want---as long as you don’t get caught!!!!” And, just loving his “remarkable way with words”… the disgusting judge threw his head back for a full belly-laugh!
“Sugar, I’d love to let you practice on me but I’m a married man with a mean-old, jealous wife!”
As I was closing the door to the judge’s chambers, my triumphant--NOW EX--husband, stepped up to deliver the final hit. “You should know by now that...I only married you because you were Miss Arkansas…. and God-knows…you’ve been one fucked-up disappointment!
PS...Life's experiences can be fatal....if you don't learn a lesson from each one of them.