Thursday, December 04, 2008

Marvin's Money - a short story

When the dogs started raising Cain out front Bess went straight to the front door and peeked through the lace curtains. Time was she would have just thrown the door wide open without looking. The dogs carrying on like that meant company, and used to be company was always welcome at River View. But times had changed, and now she always looked first. The young man standing on the front porch looked harmless enough. He was dressed in ragged jeans and a tee shirt, his thin face showing his fear as he glanced back over his shoulder at the hounds. He was about 16, barely driving age, Bess thought. She figured he most likely turned off on the wrong road and got lost.
She opened the door and ordered the dogs into silence. The young man stepped inside quickly, slipping past Bess without so much as an ‘excuse me’. Then he pulled the screen door closed, leaving the dogs outside whining in frustration.
“They don’t bite,” Bess assured him, “they’re all bark”
“I wasn’t scared! Did you think I was scared of the dogs? I wasn’t scared.”
Bess smiled. “Well, some folks are. They do make a lot of noise.”
The young man thrust his hand into the pockets of his worn jeans, jingling change with his fingers as he stepped further into the room, craning his neck around to look all around the room.
“Are you here by yourself, Ma'am?” Bess didn’t like that question, the hairs on the back of her neck started to prickle with unease.
“No, I’m not by myself. My husband’s at home. Did you want to see him?” Bess leaned out the screen door. Harley had come out of the barn and was looking up toward the house. She motioned for him to come.
Harley threw her a look when he came in. He wasn’t happy with her. He was always reminding her not to open the door to a stranger when she was alone in the house. She was sure she would hear all about it later. For now, though, he kept most of his attention focused on the kid.
“What brings you way out here?”
“Oh, I was just kind of looking for a place to hunt. I hear there’s a whole bunch of deer hiding out up here on these bluffs.”
“You heard that, huh?”
“Yeah, I heard there was some bucks with really big horns.”
“Yeah, you know, like a whole tree branch on their head?”
“I know. We most generally call them antlers, though.” Harley’s voice was mild.
“Yeah…antlers.” The kid didn’t even know enough to be embarrassed. He had moved away from the foyer and was wandering through the living room, looking over the framed family photos on the walls. Bess watched in horror as he picked up her favorite glass bluebird, turned it over in his hands, and carelessly put it back down too close to the edge of the end table. All the time his eyes kept moving, roving over everything from her knitting basket beside her chair to Grandma's mantel clock above the fireplace. He’s acting like this is a gift shop, Bess thought indignantly, like he can’t find what he’s looking for…
Without invitation, the young man unceremoniously seated himself in Harley's favorite chair. “You have a real nice place here,” he announced.
“Thank you.” Bess responded automatically. She stood uncertainly in the middle of the room, torn between the habit of good manners and her growing sense of unease. She would usually offer refreshments to any guest, however uninvited. But she really wanted this insolent young man out of her house, and offering him a cup of coffee might prolong his stay. When she saw Harley sit down on the sofa across from the boy, she followed his lead and perched uneasily on the edge of a rocker near the kitchen door.
The boy had picked up the bluebird again and was tossing it casually back and forth between his hands as his eyes continued to roam over the room.
“I don’t believe I caught your name?” Her husband waited for a response, but the boy sat there with a little smile on his face and didn’t say a word. After a minute, Harley tried again, “my name is Johnson and…..”
“I know who you are," the boy interrupted. "And I know your wife’s name, too. Bess? Isn’t that right? And your son is Jim Johnson, the sheriff of the whole damm county, right?"
“You know my son?”
“Sure. I know him.”
“I guess Jim must be the one who told you about the hunting out here?”
“Yeah! Jim told me to come on out and hunt. But I thought it’d be, you know, polite, to stop and talk with you folks first.”
“That was real..polite..of you.”
Bess watched the stilted conversation in silence. Every word out of the kid’s mouth made it more obvious that he didn’t know her son at all. Jim was very protective of River Bluffs' 400 acres. No one hunted out here anymore. Not even Jim.
Harley didn’t challenge the kid on his lies, though, so she held her tongue, waiting and watching.
“Let’s go for a walk.” Harley’s voice was still quiet and genial. “I’ll show you the best hunting spots.”
Naah..I think I’d like to just stay in here a while, where it’s nice and cool, you know?” The boy stood up and stretched, making the tattoos on his forearm jump as he flexed his muscles.
She saw now he wasn’t as young as she had first thought. Although his face was smooth and thin, his shoulders were broad under the loose tee shirt. He walked to the front window. Now he was between Harley and the door. “Sure seems strange to look out and not see nobody,” he commented as he pulled the lace curtain aside. “The last house I passed must be a couple miles back. That’s a long ways to your nearest neighbors, huh? Don’t it make you nervous, living way out here all by yourself?”
“No, why should we be nervous? We have company all the time. We have a lot of friends. But we haven’t heard from Jim for quite a while, have we, Bess?” Harley looked across the room, straight into Bess’s eyes for a moment as he spoke, then casually turned back to the boy. “I guess that’s why he didn’t tell us you were coming out.”
To Bess, the message was just as clear as it always was when Harley said those same words. He would never tell her directly to call Jim. But if he hadn’t heard from him in a while, or if there was a chore he needed Jim’s help with, he always let her know with just those words. “We haven’t heard from Jim in a while” meant “Call Jim!”
There was a phone in the kitchen. Bess stood up. Somehow her voice came out calm and steady. “Would either of you fellows like a cup of coffee, or a Coke, or anything?”
“I’ll take a cup of coffee, if it’s fresh,” Harley answered quickly. “Why don’t you make a new pot? How about you, son? Would you like a cup of coffee?”
“Don’t suppose you have any beer?”
“Maybe. I’ll go look.” Bess hurried across the hall into the kitchen. The phone was hanging by the backdoor. She thought about going on through the door and down the road to Hendersons. But it would take a good while to get there, and they might not even be home. And she couldn’t just leave Harley. She grabbed the phone and dialed Jim’s number.
She was trying to explain the situation when she heard the kitchen door open. She knew he was there. Right behind her. She hung up the phone and turned to face him. He wasn’t playing with the pretty little blue bird any longer. Now he had a big ugly knife.

It was a folding knife with a long thin blade. A skinning knife, some portion of Bess's mind noted remotely. She couldn't take her eyes away from the bright gleam of the blade as it flicked back and forth in his nervous hand.
"Who are you calling, Grandma? I thought you come in here to get me a beer?"
"I...I was just getting's in the refrigerator." She forced herself to look away from the knife. She didn't want him to see how frightened she was. But it was too late. He knew. She could see it in his mocking smile and in the coldness of his dark eyes.
He moved closer. She couldn't help flinching, but he only reached over her shoulder to grab the receiver of the wall phone. The acrid stench of his sweat surrounded her as he stretched the coiled plastic line out between their bodies. His eyes never left hers as he slowly brought the knife and the telephone receiver up in front of her face and sliced through the cord, silencing the insistent buzz of the dial tone.
"Leave my wife alone!" Harley's voice was rough in the sudden silence.
The boy spun around and threw the phone receiver against the wall. "I haven't touched your wife, old man! Not yet!" He grabbed Bess, pulling her in close against his left side, the knife in his right hand hovering near her face. "But I could. Anytime I want to, I could. So you both better just quit messing with me."
Harley had stopped just inside the kitchen door. Like Bess, he couldn't seem to take his eyes off the bright blade. "Messing with you?..."
"Do you think I'm stupid? Old Miss Sunday School Teacher Johnson jumps up and says she "might" have a beer in HER refrigerator? You think I'm so stupid I can't figure out she could have some other reason for running off to the kitchen in such a great big hurry?"
"Okay, Okay....just let go of my wife and tell me what you want. Whatever it is, you can have it! Just let my wife go!"
"Now you're the one who's stupid. You know what I want. And as for your wife, she's gonna stay right here beside me while the three of us look over this fine big house of yours. I don't have to see the whole thing. You can just go straight to the safe."
"Safe? I don't have a safe!"
"Safe, strong box, cedar chest, hatbox...hell, I don't care what you keep your money in! Just show me where it is!"
Harley unsnapped the chest pocket of his overalls and pulled out his wallet. "Here, take it, I think there's about two hundred in there."
"I didn't come out here for your wallet! I came for your money - your real money.
"But this is my money. I don't -
"Harley, stop! Please don't lie! Give him the money. He's going to hurt me if you don't."
Bess looked past the knife, staring straight into her husband's eyes, willing him to understand. "Please! He knows you don't like banks. Somebody must have told him about all the money you've saved, about how you like to look at it and count it him where it is Harley! Just show him!"
Harley stood for a long moment, his eyes never leaving his wife's face. "It took me a long time to save that money."
"You better listen to Miz Johnson, old man, she's making sense."
"Yeah. I reckon she is." Harley turned and pointed back through the door. "The money's right down the hall in the closet."
The boy smiled. "Show me." He grabbed Bess by the upper arm and forced her along with him as he followed Harley. As they passed through the kitchen door, Bess tripped and fell heavily into the wall. The boy had to let go to keep from being pulled down with her. He jumped back, cursing as she hit the floor with a thump.
"Oh, dear Lord, I think I broke my hip! Oh, it hurts so bad! Ohh!" The thin, quavering wail was the frightened cry of an old woman.
Harley tried to get to her, but the boy stepped over her body and gave him a push. "First the money! She's not going anywhere."
"Okay,'s right here, under the stairs" The closet was about eight feet down the hall from the kitchen door. Harley opened the door and stepped back, revealing a dark narrow doorway.
"It's in there?"
"Yes. Everything I've saved is right back there in the back of the closet. You want me to go in and get it and bring it out to you?"
Harley started into the closet, but the boy grabbed his arm and pulled him back. "Wait just a minute. You seem awful eager all of a sudden. I bet you got a big old shotgun in there with that money."
" I just want you to get the money and go, so I can take care of my wife! There's nothing in there except money, I promise you."
"Well, I think I'll just see for myself, just the same. Where's the light?"
"It's a chain in the ceiling. Right up over your head."
The boy took a step into the closet and reached up to find the chain. The weak light of the 40 watt bulb was enough to show the surprise on his face when he looked toward the back of the long narrow closet. He was so intent he didn't notice when Harley stepped back and gently closed the heavy closet door.
Bess was on her feet coming down the hall when Harley turned around. “I thought you broke your hip!”
"No dear, I just didn’t want to go into the closet with him.”

A few hours later, Sheriff Jim Johnson had his deputy stand to the side with his gun ready while he opened the closet door. But it was obvious right away that the boy in the closet wasn’t going to be giving them any trouble. He was sitting on the floor. His face was wet with tears and when he looked up at Jim, blinking and squinting against the light, his red-rimmed eyes held more relief than threat. The wide planks of the floor glittered with silver and copper coins. The kid had one jar in his lap, another lay on its side spilled out.
The shelves behind the boy held rank after rank of those gallon glass jars. Jim knew another just like it sat on the bedroom dresser, ready to receive his Dads pocket change every night.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Why do I feel I can almost remember the day I was born?

Because my mother and my grandmother told me the story of that day. 

Myrtle Lillian Rogers Paul was thirty six years old and already the mother of four children. On that sunny day in May the two oldest, ten year old Glenn, and eight-year-old Nellie had walked up to the square brick school house on the hill. The two little boys, five year old Clayton, and three year old David, played in the backyard while she sat listlessly on the concrete step of the well top and watched them.

            That’s where her mother, Mattie Rogers, found her.  “I brought you some  material”, she said, “There’s not much, but maybe you can make something for one of the boys.”  Myrtie brightened up a little when she saw the fabric, but her mother still didn’t like the way she looked.

            “When are you going to have that baby?”

            “I don’t know,” Myrtie sighed, “It was supposed to have been here two or three weeks ago.”

            As soon as her mother left, Myrtie called the little boys into the house and began measuring the fabric against their narrow shoulders. There was enough for each of them to have a new shirt, if she cut carefully.

            She had the two shirts cut out and was ready to sit down at the treadle sewing machine when Mattie came back with Dr. Nichols. The two of them had already decided it was essential to Myrties health to get the baby out as quickly as possible. When Dr. Nichols gave her the injection to start her labor, Myrtie asked if she could go ahead and sew up the two little shirts while they were waiting for the shot to take effect. But the Doctor said, “No, there won’t be any waiting. You just go ahead and get to bed.”

            He was right. By the time Glenn and Nellie got home from school, she had a five pound baby girl in the bed beside her. Eight-year-old Nellie was shocked, she hadn’t known a baby was expected. Myrtie wanted to name the baby “Joy” because this was the first baby she had delivered outside of wartime or depression. Myrties younger sister, Mildred, came by after she got off work at the shoe factory. She suggested another name, “Carolyn” to go with “Joy.”

            Carolyn Joy Paul was the fifth and last child of James Gillham Paul and Myrtle Lillian Rogers. The family lived in a four room white clapboard covered house on the corner of River Street and in Mokane, Missouri.

            There was no “wrong side of the tracks” as a social dividing line in Mokane. The dividing line was “the hill”. Those who could afford it lived on the hill. Poor people lived in the river bottom at the mercy of the Missouri River.

            Although it was known as a “river town” and the low-lying streets on the south end of town flooded regularly, the river could not actually be seen from the town. The MKT railroad passed through the southern tip of the town. State Highway 94 ran parallel with the railroad, a ribbon of asphalt closely following the curve of the rails. On the other side of the two lane blacktop a wide stretch of cropland hid the river from view. Usually.

             Sometimes a wet spring or fall, or even a series of mid-summer storms, would crowd the Big Muddy out of it’s banks. Backwater would push up the little creeks and tributaries that feed into the rivers causing each tiny rivilut to become a river out of control and overflowing it’s banks.

            It was a wet year. By the time Carolyn Joy was one week old, water had begun to creep up River Street. At first it was just a glimmer on the west end of the street. Myrtie sat on her front porch with the new baby in her arms and watched the water advance until the street was a wide canal, and the porches on either side were like docks overlooking the deepening water.

 Myrtie put on borrowed hip boots to carry the baby out of the flood.  

Why are memories of early childhood the clearest and easiest to recall?

My clearest childhood memories are of Mokane, Missouri. I’ve always considered Mokane to be my home town. After all, I was born there. But the fact is the Mokane that exists today isn’t the same Mokane of my memories. That Mokane is gone, if it ever existed at all. Childhood memories are sharp, bright, clear, and totally unreliable. I know that. But I still like to cling to the picture of River Street and Smoky Road that comes back so easily when I close my eyes.

We left Mokane when I was ten years old. How that came about is a whole other story that I must write down sometime. I lived there for ten years and for some of those years I was too young to be accumulating any memories at all. But still there are many memories.

I was born in a house on the corner of River Street. I think they named it that because when the Missouri River flooded, it came into Mokane by flowing right up River Street. We lived in a wood frame house with white clapboard siding just like almost every other house in the neighborhood. There was a front porch and a front room that you stepped right into from the porch. It was called the “front room” – not the living room. There was a couch and a chair for company, but Mama and Daddy’s bed was there, too. It was an iron frame bedstead with bare springs and a cotton mattress. The bed was always carefully made up with a bedspread or a nice quilt on it.

The kids bedroom opened off the front room and then the kitchen opened off of it. There was a front porch with a swing. The tiny back porch had a well with a pitcher pump just a few steps from the back door.

 That house seems small for a family with five children when I think of it now. But when I was little I didn’t feel crowded at all.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

What will the Republicans say about Obama in the General Election?

It's scares me, thinking of all the possibilities. I like Obama. I voted for him in our Missouri primary. But the closer he gets to sewing up the nomination the more nervous I get. I'm afraid the mud slinging will be so uncontrolled everybody will get dirty.

I heard one of the conservative radio hosts today refer to him as Barrack HUSSEIN Obama. The emphasis was pronounced, intentional, and unmistakable.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Why am I so danged fat? Can I ever lose this weight?

Let's just start this off with complete honesty. It's hard to say out loud, hard to write, still, despite the evidence of my own mirror and countless frightening photographs, hard for me to admit: I am fat. At five-foot 2 inches and 229 pounds there is no denying it. I am fat, obese, morbidly obese. Not just overweight, as I have been telling myself all these many years.

The first time I really thought about being fat, I was 19 years old. Somebody bought a new bathroom scale and several of us tested it out. My father-in-law, Ed, weighed 119 pounds. My sister-in-law, Ruby, got on the scale next. She weighed 119 pounds. Then I got on the scales, and was surprised to see I also weighed 119 pounds. My husband got on and weighed 165 pounds, so we knew the scale wasn't broken.

At about six feet tall, Ed was much too thin. At five-foot-seven, Ruby looked good. At 119 pounds she was stacked. But the same weight on my small boned five inch shorter frame left me looking pot-bellied and soft. I vowed to lose weight that very moment. An hour later when my mother-in-law served up the pot roast, mashed potatoes, gravy, and apple pie, I forgot all about it.

Over the years I have made the same vow with nearly the same results so many times I can't count them all. Sometimes I stayed with it long enough to lose a little, even as much as 20 or 30 pounds. But every time I gained it all back and then some.

Just think about it. I was overweight at 119. Now I weigh 229. That's a whole extra person I'm carrying around.

This week I joined Weight Watchers. The meetings are on Thursday evenings. Every Friday morning I will post my weight here.