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MRS. HUBBLE’S PENANCE by Mark Scott Piper

Perhaps you’ve heard of me. C. Jasper Colt? The writer? Maybe you’ve read some of my novels of the Old West. The Western thrillers featuring retired gunslinger, Montgomery Chase, have become my bread and butter. If you’re a fan of the genre, you probably know my real name is Alan Gregory and that the “C. Jasper Colt” thing is a pseudonym I chose for its Old West panache. But this story isn’t a Western… and it’s not about me.

It’s about a woman I met many years ago, back when I was a fresh-faced kid just out of college with aspirations of becoming the next Jack London or Elmore Leonard. Her name was Abigail, but at her insistence everyone called her Mrs. Hubble. She was the most intriguing woman I ever met—trust me, I’ve done an exhaustive study of the species. I promised Mrs. Hubble I wouldn’t reveal her secret until long after she was gone, and I would never betray her trust. But it’s been nearly twenty years since she’s passed away, and it’s finally time to tell her story. I played a part in it, and some of what I did might seem… questionable, but I’m pretty sure the statute of limitations is up by now.

My MFA advisor at the University of Iowa Writer’s Workshop had recommended that I find myself a quiet little town where I could focus solely on honing my writing skills. He’d suggested “quaint” Clements Bend, Nebraska, up in the corner of nowhere, near the Wyoming and South Dakota borders. He’d passed through the place on his way to teach at Iowa that summer and pronounced it idyllic.

When I arrived in Clements Bend in the spring of 1985, I’d just turned twenty-four. The town square was a few blocks from the one-room train depot. Surrounding the square like a sincere but over-the-hill militia stood The Clements Bend Bank, June Bug Bakery, Carlyle’s Food and Drugs, a tavern called The Schooner, and Wilcox’s Liquor and Tobacco Shop. Slouching just off the square was a run-down two-story town hall, which I learned also served as the sheriff’s office, courtroom, jail, and town council meeting room. Clements Bend seemed to have missed the bus when the rest of us left the Fifties behind.

Wilcox’s shop is where I met Mrs. Hubble. I’d been discussing my need for a place to stay in town with the proprietor, a huge man with a full beard, who’d mastered the art of talking without ever removing the pipe from his mouth. Mrs. Hubble came in to purchase a half-pint of cognac and a pouch of tobacco.

Wilcox mentioned my quest for lodging to Mrs. Hubble, who looked me over carefully as if assessing my worthiness. “As a matter of fact, young man, I have a room I might be willing to let above my garage. I suppose it might suit your requirements. It’s just a few blocks away. You’re welcome to come by and examine it if you’re so inclined.”

I offered my best friendly smile to put her at ease, in case she might have any suspicions I had ax-murderer tendencies. “Sounds good to me. I’ll stop by later this morning if that’s convenient.”

“I trust Mr. Wilcox will provide directions.” She narrowed her eyes at him.

Wilcox smiled and nodded.

“Then I’ll be expecting you at eleven thirty.” With that, she turned and marched out the door.

Mrs. Hubble must have been around sixty when I met her. She looked just the way God meant little old ladies to look—I was still young enough to assume all people in their sixties were on their last legs. Her snow-white curls framed a pleasant, still attractive face that seemed proud that it displayed the lines of age. Her clear blue eyes sparkled, and her small mouth always seemed to be on the verge of a smile, as if she knew something you didn’t. She carried herself with a simple elegance, and even though she couldn’t have been more than five-foot-two, I soon learned she had an inner strength and sense of élan that made her quite formidable. By the time I showed up in Clements Bend, she had been a fixture in town for so many years no one I talked to could recall exactly when the Hubbles arrived.

Wilcox passed on to me the local assessment of Mrs. Hubble: “Everyone in town loves her. She’s the sweetest person you’re ever gonna meet. Always has a kind word and a ready smile that just lifts you up.” He shook his head slowly. “Quite an accomplishment when you think about the kind of life she’s been forced to endure.”

I raised an eyebrow.

“That husband of hers? He’s bedridden. Has been ever since before they moved here. He was a decorated war hero. Served in Europe during dubya-dubya-two. A paratrooper I hear. Suffered some kind of horrendous injury that made him a cripple. Earned himself a Purple Heart for it.” He frowned. “Small compensation y’ ask me. Anyway, he never leaves the house. Some say he’s suffered more than just physical damage, if you know what I mean.” He half-smiled. “Poor woman’s got her hands full that’s for sure. I’ve never seen a wife more in love with her husband, though. Mrs. Hubble’s a saint. Ask anybody.”

I glanced down the street in the direction she’d gone. She was a block away in the midst of an animated conversation with an older couple.

Wilcox brought me back to the moment. “Every Tuesday morning at ten on the dot, she comes in the shop to pick up her half-pint of Courvoisier VSOP and a pouch of a special blend of tobacco I put together especially for her husband—a mild burley with a touch of Black Cavendish liberally braced with rum—I call it Hubble’s Blend. Even printed up some labels for it. Mr. Hubble also apparently likes his nightly nip of cognac.” He chuckled. “Hell, I figure that a nightcap and a good pipe-full is about all the pleasure the poor guy gets.”

At eleven thirty, as commanded, I showed up at Mrs. Hubble’s two-story wooden structure near the center of town. The sky-blue walls and gray trim looked to have been recently painted, as did the garage and the room over it. That room would be my bare bones accommodation—single bed, hot plate, small refrigerator, a table and chair, one window with a view of the house. But the rent was cheap, the place was clean, and I had to admit, the starving-artist-in-a-garret atmosphere appealed to me. I took it at once.

I soon discovered that the garage beneath my room had long ago been converted into an artist’s studio. To my surprise, Mrs. Hubble was a painter of some repute—good enough to support herself comfortably on the proceeds from her art. Her work was unique. The backgrounds were “incomplete,” sometimes with touches of color, sometimes with portions still just black-and-white sketches, but the focal point of each piece was vividly colorful and amazingly realistic. It was as if the subject of each painting was trying to escape from an unfinished canvas. I found her paintings astonishing.

She explained that she sold her work through an agent who had agreed never to reveal her location or personal details. She signed her paintings simply “Hubble,” giving others an opening to assume they were the work of a man. They sold better that way.

Didn’t take long to discover Mrs. Hubble’s feisty personality and her wry sense of humor. She proved to be more intelligent and insightful than most anyone I’d ever met, including in graduate school.

Mrs. Hubble participated only occasionally in the town’s social life. As she described it to me, her idea of a social outing was a stroll along the streets of Clements Bend every Tuesday and Saturday, shopping for groceries and other necessities. She told me she always made it a point to be friendly and outgoing, to exchange local gossip with whomever she happened to run into. Originally some townsfolk implied that her devotion to Hubble was downright angelic, but she set them straight: “I’ve made a vow, and it’s nothing particularly extraordinary for a wife to support her husband through the bad times as well as the good.” She admitted to feeling relieved when the local gossips finally stopped probing her about her husband and his health.

I felt a lump in my throat whenever I thought about how difficult it must be to devote your life to a loved one so severely crippled that there was no hope of recovery. At the time I felt I was witnessing the greatest example of pure love I would ever see.

During my time in Clements Bend, I became the nearest thing to a close friend Mrs. Hubble had; as far as I could tell no one else ever called on her at home. She never told me any details of Mr. Hubble’s condition, although she once went off on a heart-felt rant on the horrors of war and what it did to the men who were forced into service.

Shortly after I’d settled in, she invited me for tea. We sat in her kitchen, which featured well-preserved appliances from around twenty-five years ago, including the matching Harvest Gold stove and refrigerator. I didn’t see a toaster. The simple wooden table looked handcrafted, as did the four matching chairs.

When she asked, I told her my reason for coming to Clements Bend.

She offered a wry smile. “Ah, so you fancy yourself a writer, do you?”

That outmoded expression took me back a bit, I couldn’t be sure if she meant it as sarcasm or merely a statement of fact. Whatever her motivation, her remark struck home. At this stage in my career I hadn’t published as much as a short story, but I certainly “fancied” myself a writer.

I felt my cheeks burn. “All I can say at this point is that I’m serious about writing.”

She chuckled. “Oh now, don’t get yourself all worked up, Alan. I’m not one to make snap judgments about another person. I’m sure you’re talented enough, but I hear it’s not so easy to make a living writing fiction.”

“You’re right. It can be a tough road. But I’m determined to give it my best shot.”

“Then you’ll be successful. I don’t know how good you are, but I do know that commitment and perseverance are often just as important as skill.”

We met frequently after that, sometimes for afternoon tea, sometimes for a much-appreciated home-cooked meal. She told me she looked forward to cooking for someone who actually had an appetite, which I took to mean her husband didn’t, or couldn’t, eat much.

I posed the question of meeting her husband only once. Mrs. Hubble scrunched up her face and stared at me, teeth clenched. “Mr. Hubble is not up to meeting anyone. I serve as his sole contact with the outside world and I will remain so.” She eased out a pent-up breath. “Please do not propose intruding on our special relationship again.” She narrowed her eyes at me, a cobra about to strike.

My God, I wondered, just how hideous is this vegetable of a husband? Is he mentally deranged? Is he dangerous?

Mrs. Hubble proved to be a master at adroitly shifting conversations away from her life and her domestic situation. She seemed much more interested in the dreams and plans of someone young and self-centered enough to jump at the chance to talk about himself and his writing.

She proved to be a font of knowledge and common sense. She offered me insights into how to make relationships work—and had I taken her advice, perhaps one of mine would have lasted. She knew more about the world than anyone I’d ever met, even so, she remained genuinely humble and kind to the core. That said, she didn’t hesitate to take me down a few notches when warranted. Even today, when I find myself feeling a bit too much the celebrity, too self-important, I think back to those conversations, and I regain my perspective. Before long she became my friend, my confidante… and my first reader.

I’d been there about a month when Mrs. Hubble first asked to see some of my work. I was only too happy to show her a draft of the opening chapters of my very first magnum opus. I expected praise, or at least a smile and an implication that she liked it—the way family members generally respond to any writer’s work. That’s not what I got. She offered some positive comments about my ability to turn a phrase, and she thought my main character “had potential,” but she pointed out a number of flaws in my prose style. More devastating, though, was her pronouncement: “You seem to be more interested in demonstrating how clever and witty a wordsmith you are than in crafting a compelling story.” That hurt.

After drinking myself into a stupor that night, I reviewed my work in the more objective light of a new day. Damn it, she was right. I started over. And I noticed that once I got past my self-conscious wordplay and let my protagonist take the reins, the story quickly took on a life of its own. My writing instructors had hinted at this same problem—they referred to it as overly focused on “voice”—but I never understood it clearly until Mrs. Hubble drove the point home. In short, she made me a better writer.

I established a routine. I rose early, brewed a pot of coffee, powered down something quick and easy for breakfast, and settled in front of my trusty IBM Selectric by seven. I saw Mrs. Hubble nearly every day, and my friendship with her grew steadily. I always found our conversations enlightening. I may have discovered very little about her personal history, but I learned a hell of a lot about life.

As much as anything, though, she hammered home the importance of following your creative instincts. It was in my garret above her garage that I completed a draft of what would become the first of the best-selling Montgomery Chase novels—although it would take nearly three years to get it published.

* * *

I’d been boarding with Mrs. Hubble a little over three months, and I was really starting to get some momentum going on the novel. I pulled the last page of my most recently completed chapter out of the typewriter—I think it was Chapter Seven—and placed it lovingly on the manuscript stack. I hopped up, racing with adrenaline and anticipation, as always when I finished a chapter. I was anxious to get Mrs. Hubble’s reaction; patience has never been my strong point, especially when I’m on a roll. I gathered up those latest eighteen pages and headed out.

First, I checked her studio. Empty. So, I strolled through the kitchen door, anxious to present her with my latest effort. She wasn’t there. I called out, but no one answered. I hailed her again, louder this time. Still no response. I tapped the pages into a precise stack, set them neatly on the kitchen table, and headed out into the hallway. I checked the living room, the foyer, and even the bathroom. All to no avail. I shouted her name and started up the stairs. No one answered. Now I was worried.

I approached the door that seemed likely to lead to the master bedroom and knocked gently. I said her name softly. I had no desire to wake her husband, but I was afraid something might have happened to her. If she’d fallen and hurt herself, Mr. Hubble wouldn’t have been able to provide much help.

I opened the door a crack, just enough to be able to see inside the darkened bedroom. When my eyes adjusted, I could make out two large windows, both shrouded with black and red velvet drapes. I stepped inside. The beautiful, dark maple four-poster bed featured an elaborately embroidered red-and-gold canopy. But no occupant. In fact, only the left side of the mattress and its pillow showed the indentations you’d expect when someone had spent many a night there. I didn’t need to look into the tall mahogany wardrobe; the hairbrush, cold cream jar, and other female accoutrements neatly arranged in front of the large mirror on the top of the dresser made it clear that this was Mrs. Hubble’s bedroom. I discovered nothing to indicate a man had ever shared it with her. A forehead slapping moment if ever there was one. It made perfect sense, given her husband’s condition, that they would have separate bedrooms. But where was she? And where was Mr. Hubble?

I’d come too far to quit now. I tried the other rooms upstairs that seemed most likely to be bedrooms in an old two-story house like this. I came across no other beds or any clue another person slept in any of the rooms. I did discover, though, a room completely devoid of furniture, housing instead stack after stack of cardboard boxes. Not really surprising. Doesn’t everyone commandeer an empty room for storage? The room smelled of cardboard, but I caught the hint of another pleasant, strangely exotic aroma. One of the boxes turned out to be full of unopened half-pints of Courvoisier Cognac VSOP. Same with several others. Then I unearthed the source of the scent. I reached into one of the matching storage boxes that lined one wall and pulled out a pouch of tobacco. It was labeled “Hubble’s Blend.” I opened it and inhaled the distinct aroma of a mild burley with a touch of Black Cavendish liberally braced with rum. I unsealed several other pouches and was met with the same pleasant reward. None appeared to have ever been opened.

The questions that raced through my mind were obvious, but answers evaded me. Something strange, maybe even illegal, was going on here. Not only that, I had unforgivably invaded the privacy of Mrs. Hubble’s home… and her life. And I’d been warned. I methodically replaced the pouches in their boxes and did my best to make sure I left no evidence I’d been there.

I shot down the stairs two at a time, rushed through the kitchen, snatching up the pages of my chapter on the way out. I tore back up to my room, shut the door behind me and leaned back against it. It took me several minutes to catch my breath and wait for my brain to stop spinning.

Almost immediately I heard Mrs. Hubble’s footsteps as she passed by below. I peeked out from behind my curtain as she passed through the kitchen door, bags of groceries in her arms. Of course! It was Tuesday. She’d been shopping. That answered one question… but not the biggest one.

About an hour later Mrs. Hubble knocked on my door. I greeted her with a weak smile, a lame attempt to mask my confusion and my suspicion. I didn’t know who she was any more. A psychopath? A pathological liar? A murderer?

She betrayed no emotion, as she looked me in the eye. “I see we need to talk, Alan. I’ll expect you in an hour.” She pivoted on her heel and marched back down the stairs to her house.

She knew. Despite my efforts, she could tell I’d been snooping around where I had no right to. At the very least she would kick me out. At worst I could be about to meet the same fate as Mr. Hubble—whatever horrors that might include.

* * *

I knocked on her kitchen door in exactly one hour. She called for me to join her in the living room—she called it her “parlor.” I found her sitting on a pale green overstuffed chair on one side of a dark oak coffee table. She gestured for me to take a seat on the matching sofa opposite her. On the table she’d placed two small brandy snifters and an unopened half-pint of Courvoisier VSOP. She broke the seal, twisted the cork from the bottle, poured each snifter half full, and handed one to me.

She kept her eyes on me but didn’t speak for what felt like several minutes. Finally, she said, “I’m going to tell you a story, Alan. It will take a while, and I prefer you not interrupt me until I’ve finished.”

I nodded and took a nervous sip.

“Abigail Kent was born in nineteen twenty-two in a hick town in rural Tennessee. She was the youngest of six siblings and the only girl. The Kents worked a subsistence farm and some years barely managed to raise enough food to feed the family. By consensus, Abby was the most intelligent and the most precocious of them all. She questioned everything, and she was a voracious reader, borrowing books from anyone she could and reading them whenever she was able to steal a moment.”

I took in the overfull bookcases that lined three walls of the parlor.

She ran her finger around the rim of her glass, waiting for me to refocus on her. “By the time she turned seventeen, Abby had long since eclipsed what they had to teach her in the rural one-room school. She stayed home, doing her share of the chores and spending all her free time either reading or drawing. Her family acknowledged that she had artistic talent, but they considered such things no more than a waste of time. In spite of her father’s penchant for stern discipline, Abby’s independent streak made it difficult for her parents to exercise much control. Her family was convinced she was headed for trouble.

“She was pretty enough that young men showed serious interest in her, but she rejected their advances out of hand. She really didn’t care that they usually interpreted her treatment of them as embarrassing and unfathomable. She had no interest in tying herself down to a rural life with one of those country bumpkins. Besides, Abby had already set her sights on a strapping lad by the name of Clarence Hubble, who worked as a farm hand for one of the Kent’s neighbors. He was handsome and intelligent; he just had a quality about him that Abby found irresistible. Just the sight of his tall, muscular, athletic body made her knees weak. But there was a problem… Clarence Hubble was a Negro.

“Clarence knew the consequences of being seen with a white girl and made a great effort to avoid Abby. But she pursued him with a zeal that proved more than he could resist. He tried to tell her he wasn’t interested in her, but she convinced herself that, deep down, he’d fallen in love with her. And she loved him, in spite of… or possibly because of… the strong racial taboos that ruled that time and place.

“Eventually she managed to seduce Clarence, and they had occasional clandestine meetings in whatever out-of-the-way location they could find. He was Abby’s first lover and she his. Once they both navigated the awkwardness that comes from having been provided no information about intimacy, she discovered that she craved the passion and physical release of their lovemaking more than she’d ever imagined. She suffered neither the reserve nor the moral stigma that girls her age were taught to embrace. But she knew full well she had to keep her true feelings from everyone but Clarence.

“Naturally their relationship meant Abby had to be discreet and Clarence had to be constantly looking over his shoulder, sure that if her family, or any white men, discovered their secret affair, he would be severely beaten… or worse. He took the only way out of the situation he could fathom. He enlisted in the Army in hope of becoming a paratrooper, and he was set to report for training in two weeks. Although she didn’t tell anyone—not even Clarence—by then Abby realized she was pregnant with his child.

“Her mother quickly surmised Abby’s condition, and the shouting match that followed ended with Abby locking herself in her room, crying and threatening to run away with the man she loved. She never identified Clarence Hubble. But one of her jealous suitors, Jim Bob Longstreet, had spied on Abby and had seen her and Clarence talking together—that, in itself, was enough to raise the wrath of the local whites. Jim Bob announced his suspicions to Abby’s oldest brothers, Henry and Caleb. Even for someone with little brain to work with, two and two did add up to something for her brothers. They arrived at the only conclusion they could accept—Hubble had forced himself on their innocent sister. They vowed to keep the family name from scandal. Henry and Caleb hunted Clarence down like a dog. After that night, no one ever saw Clarence Hubble again.

“Her brothers perpetrated the rumor that Hubble had gone off to the Army, but Abby knew what had happened to the man she’d loved unconditionally. And she understood she was the one most responsible for his horrible fate. She would have to live with that guilt the rest of her life.”

Mrs. Hubble paused, lifted her snifter, and took a healthy sip. I opened my mouth to speak, but she held up her hand.

“A few days after Clarence Hubble disappeared, Henry and Caleb loaded Abby into the family pickup and drove down into Mississippi. Too devastated and too weak to resist, she allowed her brothers to lead her up the steps into a dilapidated outbuilding of an abandoned plantation. Inside, leaning in a chair against the wall and smoking a foul-smelling cigar, was an unshaven, shabbily dressed white man who smelled of crude tobacco, cheap liquor, and sweat. Her brothers referred to the man as ‘doctor,’ but Abby knew his only credentials were discretion and a willingness to perform illegal procedures for a little cash or a couple of jugs of whiskey.

“The man was no better than a butcher. They poured whiskey down her as if that would be enough of an anesthetic. It was not. When the ordeal ended, he proudly assured her brothers with a laugh, ‘You Kents ain’t gonna have to be explainin’ no nigga baby to nobody.’ The brothers told no one about that night. Neither did Abby. She took to her bed, and two days later her mother informed her tearfully that, in order to avoid a scandal, they’d never be able to live down, the family had decided to send her to live with a distant cousin way off in Leadville, Colorado. Abby could have told her mother her pregnancy had ended, but she had no desire to stay in a place where arrogance and ignorance ran roughshod over tolerance and reason. She didn’t care where she went; she just wanted to leave this despicable life behind her. That night her mother gave her one last hug and what little cash she’d managed to ferret away from her pin money, and Abby boarded a train heading west. She never heard from any of her family again.”

Mrs. Hubble absently refilled our snifters. She cradled her glass in both hands, stared past me, shuddered. “Abby spent her first ever night away from home sleeping fitfully in her seat on a train full of strangers. She was so weak she had difficulty even standing. When the conductor approached the next morning collecting the tickets from the new passengers, he noticed that Abby was deathly pale, sweating profusely and could barely talk. The conductor suggested it would be best for her to rest in a vacant sleeping car where she’d be more comfortable. A concerned woman passenger helped him lift Abby up to her feet. That’s when the woman noticed the fresh blood on Abby’s train seat. When they asked, she informed them she had no family and there was no one to notify of her condition. When they pulled into the next town, the older woman helped her off the train so Abby could receive medical assistance.

“That town was Mallon, Nebraska, whose tiny post office doubled as a sheriff’s office and jail. The only other structures in town Abby noticed were Mallon’s three taverns. Someone summoned an elderly country physician, Hamilton Chapman, who proved to be a kindly man and a good doctor. He determined Abby was suffering from a serious infection, which she understood to be a euphemism for a botched abortion—though he referred to it simply as a ‘mishandled procedure.’ Dr. Chapman prescribed the medication she needed to combat the infection, and after about a week Abby felt well enough to travel again. But not before Dr. Chapman had informed her that, sadly, the internal damage she’d suffered meant she would never be able to bear a child.

“Abby boarded a second west-bound train, but now she had no intention of going to Colorado. She resolved to get off the train at the first town that appealed to her. She chose Clements Bend.

“It was then that Abby devised a plan to help make amends for the role she had played in Clarence’s fate. She would keep his memory alive. Abby vowed to become what she could now never be: the wife of Clarence Hubble. She would live out her days as if he were still alive. She resolved to dedicate her life to honoring him. When she took a room in the boarding house, she registered as Mrs. Clarence Hubble, telling the clerk a tale about a husband away in the Army. It was 1939 and given the fact that war in Europe seemed imminent—even though America hadn’t yet committed to joining the Allies—no one questioned her husband’s absence.

“She took on several jobs at once, willing to do nearly anything to earn money—and she stashed away all she could. Young and strong, she worked hard and lived a Spartan life. After seven years she had saved enough for a down payment on a house. In those days it didn’t take much cash to put down on a loan, but banks weren’t inclined to give a mortgage to a woman. However, by then everyone at the Clements Bend Bank knew her well, as the young wife of a man off fighting so courageously for his country. She managed to charm the bank manager into letting her occupy a home on the promise that she would maintain regular payments and that a mortgage application under Clarence Hubble’s name would be submitted as soon as he returned from the war.”

She offered me a crooked smile. “There are some real advantages in choosing to live in a small town where everyone knows you.”

“The war ended in forty-five, and the boys were all coming home. Abby soon let everyone know that Mr. Hubble had been severely injured in battle, but he would soon be joining her. No one actually saw the injured service man return, and that caused some local speculation, but she insisted to all who inquired that the great love of her life had finally come home. As she had promised, she provided a Clarence Hubble signature on all the paperwork required to officially complete the mortgage papers, and no one questioned it. Mr. Hubble, she told anyone who inquired, had been a decorated soldier, who had sustained debilitating wounds saving his comrades in battle. As a result of his heroics, he would be bedridden for the rest of his life. Soon enough, the townspeople came to accept Abby’s story. She has been living that lie ever since.”

I eased out a breath and took a sip of brandy. She stared into her glass but didn’t speak. I wanted to say something kind or understanding or consoling, but I couldn’t come up with anything worthy of what I’d just been told.

She raised her head and looked over at me. “Please do not presume that I am merely a crazy old woman who has completely lost touch with reality. Do not be so condescending as to assume I made a horribly naïve sacrifice. I know what is fitting for me given what I have done. And that’s what is important. No one else has the right to judge my actions… or my life.

“I’ve chosen to keep Clarence’s memory alive. The sacrifices I have made in order to bring that to fruition have been well worth it. I hope the charade I’ve perpetrated to his memory reflects in some small way the life that was denied him… the life I once hoped to share with him.”

She swallowed the last of her brandy and I followed suit.

“I expect your discretion, Alan. You are a storyteller, and if you ever choose to tell mine, please have the courtesy to wait until I’m gone. And promise me you won’t turn it into some sentimental drivel about unrequited love. I am living the life that is appropriate for me, as my own tribute to Clarence, and I am doing it without remorse or sadness. Whatever others might think, I know I have chosen to do the right thing.”

I set down my glass. “I’m so sorry, Mrs. Hubble. I never meant to cause you any—”

“Please, no need to apologize. I suppose I’ve always known that, sooner or later, circumstances would lead you to discover the truth.” She puffed out a sigh and looked away. “Perhaps deep down I hoped you would discover it. Maybe that’s why, after all these years, I decided to take in a boarder… to let someone else into my life… and now into the secret I have never shared with anyone.”

“You are a remarkable woman… to have given up so much for a principle.”

She raised an eyebrow. “I’m hardly remarkable, Alan. I have an enormous debt to repay. I only hope the way I have chosen to live my life has made a dent in that debt.” She stood up and cleared the glasses and the empty bottle from the table. I understood it was time for me to head back to my garret and leave her to her memories. I rose from the sofa.

“I have revealed my secret to you, Alan, because I have deemed you trustworthy.” She narrowed her eyes. “Please do not betray my trust.”

* * *

I stayed with Mrs. Hubble for over a year, setting out finally toward the end of the summer of ’86, with what I thought was a “finished” manuscript of my first Montgomery Chase adventure, Cherokee Springs. It would eventually be released as Devil’s Gulch Showdown, after my editor helped me whip it into publishable shape. After a couple of successes, I floated the idea of having Mrs. Hubble provide the cover art for my next book. The suggestion got nowhere with my publisher. When you write formulaic fiction, your readers expect formulaic covers. She’d probably have turned down the offer anyway.

I’ve lived in New York, Los Angeles, and Portland before settling in Chicago, but I’ve had no occasion to return to Clements Bend. And I’ve never revealed her secret. I sent her signed copies of each of my books as they came out—the first one dedicated to Abigail Hubble. She usually returned a pleasant note of thanks as soon as she’d read them. Those notes and her yearly Christmas cards were the only communications I had from her in the thirteen years since I left.

She kept me apprised of the slow, steady decay of Clements Bend. The trains no longer stopped there; most businesses had thrown in the towel; and the young people were escaping in droves for greener pastures. Only those too old and set in their ways were left behind.

Then in the fall of 1998, I received my first and only phone call from Mrs. Hubble. She got right to the point. “Alan, I have been diagnosed with a rather devastating form of cancer and the experts tell me I have only a very short while to live.”

“I’m so sorry… I—”

“Please, Alan. I have little breath remaining and less time. Let me finish. I had hoped to reach eighty… but it seems my time has come early. If it is possible, I would like you to visit me one last time… before the end. The doctors tell me that I am to be confined to the hospital during my final days… and it is imperative that I talk with you in person as soon as possible. I have a rather important… favor to ask of you.”

“Of course! Anything, I’ll leave first thing in the morning. I’ll have my publicist take care of clearing my calendar.”

“I know it’s difficult for a famous author such as yourself to drop everything like this. But I wouldn’t ask if it weren’t of critical importance.”

“I can be there by tomorrow afternoon.”

“That will be fine.”

I made it to Clements Bend from Chicago in just over twelve hours by not always respecting the posted speed limits. I took a room at a Best Western off the freeway, some fifteen miles from town, but only five minutes from the regional hospital where Mrs. Hubble was ensconced. I registered under an alias—a habit I adopted after my first few book tours. I couldn’t fathom what favor she had in mind. But I knew I couldn’t deny her, whatever she asked of me.

I anticipated she wouldn’t look the same as when I had seen her last, I expected her to show the ravages of sickness and age. But lying in that hospital bed, beside the fact that she was much thinner and the lines on her face clearly mapped the years, she didn’t appear to be that sick, much less dying. Two colorfully flamboyant bouquets of flowers perched on the tiny table next to her bed, as if to mask the several intimidating IVs and high-tech medical devices they’d hooked her to.

I gave her a hug, and she did her best to return it. She was a lot weaker than she seemed.

I pulled a chair up next to bed and patted her shoulder. “How are you feeling?”

She rolled her eyes. “I’m dying, Alan. How do you think I’m feeling?”

“Oh, I’m—”

“Relax, I’m just teasing.” She managed a weaker version of her familiar crooked grin.

“Well, I see you’re as feisty as ever.” I grinned. “Are you sure this isn’t just a ploy to get people to wait on you?”

She tried to smile, but I could see even that caused her pain. “I may be able to put one over on you… but I can’t fool the doctors.” She drew in a wavering breath. “I’ll get right to the point. I don’t want the doctor… or any of those pesky nurses eavesdropping.”

I glanced toward the door. No one in sight.

“I want you to… burn my home to the ground as soon as possible.”

My eyes grew wide. Was she suffering from dementia? Surely, she couldn’t be asking me to commit—

“Please, Alan… I need you to obliterate all evidence… that my marriage to Clarence Hubble has been a lifelong… sham.”

I started to respond, but her desperate expression caused me to swallow my thought.

“I understand this is a lot to ask… and it may not be a simple task.” She paused and shut her eyes, as if holding on until another wave of pain subsided. “I would have burnt the place down myself… but they pulled me in here… before I had a chance to finish things. I hope you will be up to… the task.”

How could I refuse? This was Mrs. Hubble for Christ’s sake. I gave her a reassuring smile. “Don’t you worry. I’ll take care of it.” If I got caught, it could mean a jail sentence or worse if the fire were to spread. I was putting my career, possibly even my life, in jeopardy, but none of that mattered. I owed Mrs. Hubble.

“It must be soon. It’s possible that someone will be… nosing around as soon as word gets out, I’m no longer there. They may mean well, but I do… not want to go to my final rest… worried that those who couldn’t possibly understand… might discover my secret.” She paused to catch her breath.

I gently squeezed her hand.

She looked up at me. “I cannot bear the thought of being remembered as nothing but… a crazy old woman… and I wish to avoid becoming… a laughingstock.”

“You are neither of those, Mrs. Hubble. Trust me, no one will ever make those assumptions.”

“And I do not want people to… think of Clarence as anything but the hero he was to me. I have faith you will know how to… take care of things discreetly… and efficiently. I knew I could count on you… Alan. You are the only person to whom I have… ever entrusted… my secret.” She gestured weakly toward the door. “Now you… must go. I suddenly feel so very… very tired. I hope you realize… I have always held… a great affection… for you.”

Again, I squeezed her hand, but she didn’t squeeze back. I rang for the nurse, who sounded the emergency alarm as soon as she caught a glimpse of Mrs. Hubble. Within seconds hospital personnel swooped into the room. The pretty young nurse assured me they would do everything they could. But I knew I had heard Mrs. Hubble’s dying words. She had somehow held on until I got there. I didn’t even try to hold back the tears.

I marched to my car in the hospital parking lot and headed straight for the town. As I drove through, it felt as if a cloak of poverty and despair had been thrown over my memories of Clements Bend. The businesses now all had different names; but the buildings were the same, if badly in need of repair. The town square seemed to have shrunk considerably since I was a naïve young writer working away in the cozy garret above Mrs. Hubble’s studio. I parked around the corner from her house. It looked almost as I remembered it, but more weather-beaten and the faded, sky-blue walls had become nearly indistinguishable from the gray trim.

Once I was sure no one saw me, I slid around the side of the garage to the kitchen door. It was locked, but I easily broke the window with my elbow—a break-in technique Monty Chase had used often—and I was inside in seconds. I made a quick assessment. No gasoline or other accelerant would be necessary in an old wooden structure like this. I knew the room full of brandy and tobacco would burn easily. That’s where I set the first fire seedlings, after smashing several bottles to release the fumes to feed the flames and ripping open a number of tobacco pouches for the same reason. I also set fire to Mrs. Hubble’s bedroom and then to the parlor and kitchen downstairs. I figured that by the time anyone noticed the fire and the volunteer fire department could be gathered, the house would be beyond help. Their focus would have to be on saving the surrounding structures.

It wouldn’t really matter that no human remains would be uncovered. There might be some speculation about how Clarence Hubble could possibly have escaped—or even that he may have been the one to set the house ablaze. Just as likely, though, no one would give it a second thought. Clements Bend was already a dead town, and there wouldn’t be much concern about the details of one unfortunate fire.

As I fled the building, I had a sudden impulse to check Mrs. Hubble’s studio. When the fire from the house reached the garage, the studio full of paint and canvas would burst into flames in seconds. I couldn’t let her paintings be destroyed. Damn, I should have thought of that. She’d become a renowned, albeit reclusive, artist, and any remaining paintings would be even more valuable after she passed on. I’d donate the profits to charity.

I rushed inside, expecting to find the place full of her work. But, as usual, Mrs. Hubble had been one step ahead of me. The room contained only one painting—a portrait in her famous “half-finished” style, the focal point of which was a handsome young Black soldier decked out in World War II paratrooper gear. She had left the painting for me. Who else could appreciate its importance?

I wrapped the portrait in a blanket from my trunk and placed it carefully in the back seat. I passed through the skeleton of Clements Bend’s town square just as the fire alarm above the ancient courthouse began to sound. I rolled down my window. Amid the smoke from the now spectacularly ablaze house was the unmistakable hint of a mild burley with a touch of Black Cavendish liberally braced with rum.

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AUTHOR BIO:

Mark Scott Piper has been writing professionally his entire adult life. He holds a PhD in English from the University of Oregon, and he taught literature and writing at the college level for several years. His debut novel, You Wish, was awarded first-place gold by the 2019 American Eagle Book Awards.

Mark’s bookshelves are overflowing. Among his favorites are Christopher Moore, John Irving, Barbara Kingsolver, Stephen Crane, William Faulkner, Tony Hillerman, Fyodor Dostoevsky and Anne Lamott—all of whom conspire successfully to keep him humble.

His stories have appeared in Short Story America, The California Writers Club Literary Review, and online literary magazines, including, Scrutiny, Writing Raw, Animal, Slurve, and others. In addition, two of his short stories were Honorable Mention selections in Short Story America Prize for Short Fiction contests. You can see more of his work at www.markpiper.net.

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WHY WE CHOSE TO PUBLISH “Mr. Hubble’s Penance”:

Storytelling is a fine art. A good story grabs the reader immediately. The author may accomplish that with an intriguing title, or it may happen with an opening that piques the reader’s interest in how it sets up what is to come.

“Mrs. Hubble’s Penance” by author Mark Scott Piper is an excellent example of the latter. He sets up his narrator in the first paragraph and ends that paragraph with the superb hook: “But this story isn’t a Western… and it’s not about me.”

His second paragraph then introduces the subject alluded to in that line. Then he ends his second paragraph with another great hook, and the tale unfolds from there.

From just those two paragraphs, the author has made us a promise and made us feel confident that we are in the hands of someone of who will deliver on that promise. Indeed, he leaves us with an unforgettable piece that resonates with the reader and with the time period in which it is set.