fiction

Margrethe’s Winter coat is published!

I am so happy to announce that the 2019 Evening Street Press spring issue contains my short story, “Margrethe’s Winter Coat.” Follow this link to read it.

This story is loosely based on my paternal grandmother’s life. She always scraped our teakettle clean when she came to stay with us where I grew up on an Iowa farm in the 1950s. She was just a little bit of a woman, but buckets of determination were to be found in the way she bore down on the inside of that teakettle to free it from lime and calcium deposits from our well water. I love the remembrance of her doing that so much, I wrote a poem about it and named my writing business Gritty Teakettle LLC. You’ll find a gritty teakettle in this story, too. I welcome comments.

Nan

margrethe’s winter coat

by nan lundeen

The box makes an appearance at 8:05 a.m. From the corner of her eye Margrethe Schneider watches her daughter-in-law heave and shove the cardboard box loaded with old winter clothes for Lutheran World Relief across the kitchen floor to the back door. The old woman turns from the sink and catches a few words sounding as if they come from a distant cave. “Carry to the car . . . snowstorm . . . Robert’s.” Lydia shouts as she slaps tape on the box, perspiration beading on her forehead. “Otto!”

Her hearing aid rests on the windowsill where snow and cold air poke at the cracks. Snow already and two weeks until Thanksgiving. She likes the nutty scent of his pipe tobacco. He must be sitting in his chair reading the paper enjoying his second cup of coffee—he says she makes the best coffee.

            She scrubs an eggy plate and wonders if Penney’s still has that navy winter coat she wants. Stylish. Covered buttons, not those cheap plastic ones, nein. Remember the knitting bag, she tells herself. She’ll finish the red wool scarf to go with her new coat tonight, yet. Lydia thinks she’s a scrawny old biddy like to die before she gets enough good out of a new coat. Humph. When Hans was alive—no money for herself. Now she has plenty, ja, thanks to William.

            Hans. Humph. Always tight with the money from the time they boarded the steamship in Hamburg; 1887, it was. Traveling in steerage on the cheapest tickets so he could afford land in the new country. Thank the good Lord for William. He did good by her, running the farm after Hans passed. A noisy baby, though. She’d held little William, born at sea, close to her breast to protect him from ravenous rats and mice and gave him the teat to silence his cries the moment he screwed up his face on the jam-packed ship.

She wrinkles her nose, remembering the stench from unwashed bodies on the ship and then in the bumpy, clanging immigrant cars that carried them to Davenport, Iowa. Slept sitting up on hard benches because Hans refused to pay the conductor a dollar, twenty-five cents for a straw mattress to throw on the floor.

            Margrethe’s shoulders tense when she senses Lydia coming up behind her. Lydia’s brittle voice punctures her silent word.

“Mother! What did you do with your winter coat?’ Margrethe can hear when someone stands close to her and hollers, but careful not to smile, keeps her face impassive, deaf to questions about her old coat. “I found your boots, but your coat ain’t in the closet. Just leave those dishes. I’ll do ‘em later. I want to get you out to Robert’s before the snow gets worse. I hate those dang country roads.”

She hears Lydia huff in frustration at her silence, and soon the woman’s ever-present scent of Ben-Gay has left the room.

Hot water swishes over the plate. A thorough rinse, the water feeling good on her hands. A smile creases Margrethe’s wrinkled face at the thought of her youngest. Robert was a happy man with a ready laugh before he hurried to enlist after Pearl Harbor. Margrethe had gotten down on her knees for him every day, as she had for Peter. He came back from the war quiet, his laughter stilled, but he came back, but he came back, danke Gott. Built a good life with Jane and Karen, ja. Bought a new Singer! And then Jane bought one of those new-fangled steam irons—so easy to press seams. Already 1952, and times change.

She tucks a stray hair back into the tight bun at the nape of her neck and turns to dismantle the stove top, removing grates and wiping down the porcelain surface with a blue and lilac dishcloth she had crocheted. Wrenches the lid off the teakettle and peers in. Caked with lime already. She hunts fruitlessly under the sink for vinegar—Lydia must have moved it again—and hurries into the front room, dishrag in hand, where Lydia stands hands on hips glaring at her husband. Otto knocks pipe ashes into the ashtray which stands beside his chair, strikes a match, and draws anew on his pipe.

            Margrethe asks where is the vinegar. Lydia looks at her blankly. Did she talk German again? Lydia leans in toward Otto, her lips moving, her face flushed.

            Otto turns his head, winks, and turns back to Lydia who pivots on her heel and stomps in her black oxfords to the laundry room off the kitchen.

            “Here!” She thrusts the jug at her mother-in-law. A frown line marks the bridge of her nose. “You better not be starting on that dang teakettle again.” She hollers at a slightly lower

decibel than usual as if she wants to sound kinder for Otto’s benefit. “Roads are gonna be bad, and we have to drop off the box for World Relief at the church.”

            Ja, ja, mein Gott! Her son will not drink his coffee from water boiled in a dirty teakettle while she’s out to Robert’s. Good thing she baked rye bread yesterday. It will last him til she gets back. Wiping her hands on her bib apron, Margrethe pours vinegar in the kettle and sets it on the gleaming stove. After it boils and cools, she’ll apply elbow grease using her hand-made knife, a keepsake from her fourth child, brown-eyed, blond-haired Peter. She clicks her tongue as she remembers Hans mocking Peter, saying he had cow eyes. Ach, only twenty-nine and in his grave already, so lonely over there in France. But he did good, fought and died in the Second Battle of the Marne in 1918, a battle they say helped turn the tide against the Second Reich. Not like those Osterbergs. They were good neighbors—made hay together every summer, but they sent their boys back over to fight for the Fatherland in both world wars. There was never a question for the Schneiders.

            “We’re American now!” Hans had declared, bringing his fist down on her kitchen table, two years before Peter gave his life for their new country. She’d agreed with Hans on that, glad to be American and grateful for the rich Iowa soil that, with hard work, gave them a good living. And that Hitler! She shudders. She misses the farm, where standing at the sink she saw broad fields waving corn in the summer, snow-swept in winter, not a view of the neighbors’ garage, like now. Never minded the work. Every summer, putting up hundreds of jars of garden vegetables, butchering chickens, and the boys and Hans killed a hog every fall. Hans made his own sausage. Very popular, Hans’ sausage. Humph. The corn crops were good, even carrying them through the Depression, Hans gone already in 1920. Although one year, or was it two? Hail took all four hundred acres. But they were spared tornadoes. Hit all around them. One spring, took the neighbor’s barn. Nothing left but sticks.

            Otto comes through the kitchen and squeezes her arm on his way to the basement to stoke the furnace. Ach! What time is it? Here she is staring out the window, yet. She counts back: five years already she lived with Otto. She knows he can use the rent she insists on paying. Rubs her shoulder. Not too bad today. Straightens herself. She made it to age eighty-four before willpower wasn’t enough to shovel coal into the big farmhouse furnace. The fire sometimes went out in the middle of the night, and she wasn’t about to call William out of his warm house three miles away in bed with Clara. She’s stopped asking Otto whether the want ads have jobs. He makes ends meet with that janitor job evenings over to the elementary school. Tightens her jaw. That lumber company should have found different work for him after he fell off that ladder and broke his arm in three places. Three places! Drei!

            Snowing harder now, swirling around the driveway. Otto’d have to shovel before they could leave. Iowa winters are just as bad if not worse than German ones.

            The hot vinegar she pours down the drain steams her glasses. Peter’s knife in hand, she scrapes, thinking of the old country. As a child, she forced herself to ignore the smell of cows and pigs under their farm home in Schleswig-Holstein because the critters kept them from freezing in winter. She scoops out the caked leavings from the kettle and raps the spoon against an old newspaper. She glances out the window, and in her mind’s eye sees cousin Augusta, her pug nose red with the cold, rolling a big ball of snow for a snowman. Long gone now and bearer of the only news from the old country. Wrote that Margrethe’s parents died before World War I began, first Mutter of pneumonia, and Vater a year later of unknown causes. Mutter’s face faded with time, but her hands stubbornly hold onto clarity in Margrethe’s mind. The powerful hands of a big woman, large-jointed, strong thumbs, but ah, so gentle when she sat Margrethe down to braid her long hair. When she had to leave home to go to work, Margrethe had been unable to make the braids, so her bun was born. She takes after Vater, who had been slight and nimble.

Would she have boarded the steamship in Hamburg if she’d known she’d never see them again? What choice did she have, three weeks married and eight months pregnant? At the time, she refused to think about the finality of their goodbyes, but Mutter knew. And she saw it in Vater’s robin’s-egg-blue eyes—tears of sadness that she hadn’t lived up to their expectations, but twinkles of happiness she would have a better life—ach, no promise of a happy life with Hans, but she never told them what he had done.

There had never been enough money, nor could she abandon her duties as wife and mother, to visit them before they were gone.

She blinks against the bitter vinegar smell and her eyes, ringed by creases, water, remembering how after Germany invaded Poland in 1939, cousin Augusta fell silent. If she did try to mail letters to America, they never made it. Several months after the war ended, she opened Augusta’s first letter with trembling hands. Starvation had claimed three of their

neighbors, one a six-year-old girl. Augusta didn’t know how her village would survive the approaching winter. Coal and wood were scarce.

Mein Gott! she was grateful when the Lutheran World Relief started up in October that year, glad she could knit hats and mittens for the annual November clothing drive at St. Paul’s, knowing many of the boxes would go to Germany. Blessed with strong hands and big-jointed thumbs like Mutter, her knitting needles clacked every time she sat down. Seven years, the war ended seven years ago, already. She bears down, gripping the knife.

The acrid vinegar smell fills her nose. Her forehead aches. But vinegar is her friend. After she scrubbed her husband’s pus and blood off the kitchen table with her own lye soap, she wiped down the floors and walls with hot vinegar water—the table, ja, her mind skips to William’s proud twelve-year-old smile when he and his brothers, Peter and Walter, carried it into the kitchen. William had crafted it from heart of pine, and it was sturdy enough to bear his father’s weight while the doctor lanced Hans’ infected middle ear. He died right there on her table from an abscess on the brain. She shrugs—penicillin had yet to be discovered. How many years was Hans gone now? She counts. Thirty-two. With him, a violent end, a violent beginning.

She’d been scrubbing the floor on her hands and knees in the Schneider household back in the old country, working as a maid to help out her folks, when their only son Hans came up behind her and forced her into a brutal embrace, the result of which was William and marriage.

For years, she set her jaw and tolerated his use of her body, giving birth at home to nine children, no cries breaking the silence until a child found voice.

            Rinsing the kettle with hot water, she captures the dregs in the sink strainer which she knocks against the waste basket to empty out.

            A change in the house’s atmosphere when the back door slams behind Otto on his way out to the car with the box for World Relief. She watches him open the garage door, heft it into the trunk, and grab the snow shovel.

            There. That is done.

She plucks her hearing aid from the windowsill and takes it to her room where she tucks it into her pocketbook. She’ll need it at Robert’s. Her visit couldn’t have come at a better time, ja, because tomorrow, the boxes, including the one safely in the car now, will go from the church to the World Relief, and German winters can be so bitter. Jane said they were driving into town to Penney’s tomorrow to buy wool for two new skirts Karen needs for school. If Penney’s doesn’t have the coat in petite, she’ll shorten the sleeves and hem, herself. Until then, she’ll make do with her spring jacket.

The End

Margrethe’ s Winter Coat was first published by Evening Street Press Number 20 Spring 2019

the first mother

Eve huddled in the scrawny shade of an olive tree.

She knew she shouldn’t be there. She had plenty of work to do, a meal to prepare and a house to clean.

 But there she sat.

 “What can I do?” she thought. “I can’t mourn Able because I’m scared of what will happen to Cain. I can’t help Cain because I’m too busy missing Able.”

 With tears trickling down her cheeks, she thought – just as the mothers who came after her would think.

 “I know this is my fault. What did I do wrong? How could I have failed Cain so much?”

 Looking up at the searing sun, she thought back over the short lives of her two sons.

 Cain, the eldest, was just 19 and a shepherd. She would have characterized him as a gentle man who could sooth the most frightened lamb. And now he was lost and frightened.

 Able. Her younger son has been a brawny youngster of 16, one who spent long hours tending the fields and nurturing his plants. When harvest was ready, he brought the first and the best of all his crops to her. Now she would never see him again except in her dreams.

 “His blood calls out to me!” she thought. “But I can’t forget Cain, who also needs redemption and help.”

 Thinking back to the Garden before she and Adam sinned and were forced out into the world full of work, pain and sorrow, she knew things could have been different. But who made it different?

 “The serpent tempted me with the fruit of the one tree God told us not to eat. But it was just one little fruit. Who knew that the knowledge of good and evil could be so devastating? So maybe it’s the serpent’s fault,” she thought.

 After mediating a bit, she shook her head slowly.

 “No, I was the one who decided to eat. Yes, the serpent enticed me. But I had a choice and I chose. As soon as I realized the sin – and how great it was – I sought cover. I found Adam and invited him to share the fruit of the tree. I thought if he refused, maybe God would forgive me because my husband was such a good man. And if he ate, at least I wouldn’t be alone in my sin.”

 “No, I can’t do that to Adam. Yes, he had the same choice that I did. But his wrong choice didn’t make my wrong choice any better,” Eve thought.

 Eve looked up again. She’d been here a long time and the sun was now low in the sky.

 “Maybe, just maybe,” she thought, “it’s God’s fault. After all, he was the one who gave us the choice. He knew what I was going to do before I did it. How is that real choice?”

 Pondering ever more deeply, the woman realized she couldn’t blame God. She would not be human if she didn’t have that choice. God may have had foreknowledge, but he didn’t force the choice.”

 There it was – all her fault. She sat with the tears trickling through the fingers.

 “Mama,” she heard. “Mama, where are you?”

 She looked up. Flying down the path was Tamara, her youngest child. The beautiful 5-year-old sang as she ran.

 “Mama, I couldn’t find you. Where did you go? It’s scary when you’re not around,” Tamara said as she sank down in the hard dirt beside her mother.

 Eve knew then that God had given her an answer for her pain.

 Yes, she had sinned. Yes, both her sons had paid for that sin.

 But she had another chance. She had Tamara, who she could teach to be thoughtful of others and God, to thank God for all her blessings and to think before she acted.

 Eve jumped up and pulled Tamara up by the hand.

 “Come along, child. We have much to do,” she said. “We have to prepare flowers for your brother Able’s grave so he’ll know we are remembering him. We must fix a lunch for your brother Cain so he can leave and find shelter elsewhere. But he’ll know we are remembering him.

 “And even more, we must laugh and sing and find your father. He is sad and we must cheer him up,” Eve said. “You are my sunshine. You must help me make the desert a home again.

 And they did.

the day he lied

By Mary Ellen Lives

 

Bulldog went to the VFW canteen to drink because they had draft beer for seventy-five cents and he could usually find someone to buy, someone who knew about the uniform in the basement. They let him keep it in a locker down there for free. “I can’t have it in the park with me,” he told his brother. “All I got is that tarp.” Bulldog spit when he said the word, saliva flinging between his two remaining lower molars.
 
 His brother took the napkin from under his beer glass and wiped the Formica topped bar between them. “What happened to your plate?”

 

“My plate?” Bulldog said it like it was an ugly foreign word.
 
“Your lower plate.” His brother tapped his own mouth. “For your teeth.”
 
“Oh, that thing.” Bulldog brushed his hand through the air. “They stole it from me when I was in the hospital. Damn doctors.”
 
“Another one, Bulldog?” the bartender asked.
 
Everyone at the canteen called Bulldog by the nickname bestowed on him while in Vietnam. Or, more correctly, the nickname he said had been bestowed. Rumors that Bulldog never served overseas sometimes floated through the VFW. But, if doubted, he had the uniform in the basement to show them, red stripe of a non-commissioned officer down the leg. He could produce his corporal stripes too, along with his Vietnam Service Medal, Cross of Gallantry, and Bronze Star. But no one at the VFW questioned him to his face. Though they were tough types, all military men and women, and any of them could have beat him in a fight, dissipated as he was, they knew to respect other vets’ realities.
 
“One more round for my brother and me,” Bulldog told the bartender, a Gulf War veteran. “Did you meet my brother?” He casually poked the air with his thumb. “This here is Johnnie, with an ie, like a girl.”
 
Sitting on the stool beside Bulldog, Johnnie winced.
 
“Our mother always wanted a girl, didn’t she Johnnie? But all she got was us. Guess she must have had an inkling that would be the case when she named you.”
 
“Nice to meet you,” the bartender said. “Same thing?” He held up the fluted beer glass.
 
Johnnie nodded and pulled out a ten dollar bill. He was paying tonight. It was the least he could do after not seeing Bulldog for over a year. If their mother had still been alive, she would have given him hell for feeding his brother’s addiction. But what did it matter? Bulldog would get his beer one way or another.
 
“So, Scott, what are you going to do when winter sets in? You can’t stay in the park under a tarp when it snows.”
 
No one but Johnnie called Bulldog by his birth name anymore. He paused before answering with a shrug. “I’ll think of something,” he said. “Maybe I’ll hitch down to Florida to see my big brother.”
 
Bulldog grinned a goofy, closed-mouth smile and craned his head toward Johnnie. There was little resemblance left between them. They both had the same Roman nose and deep set brown eyes under slender brows, but that was it. Johnnie lived a good life, with a wife and two kids. Retired as assistant chief from the Fire Department down in Coral Grove, he owned a Harley and a fishing boat. His physical appearance reflected his contentment. He was healthy, tall, with laugh lines at his temples and a little paunch of a belly. Bulldog was emaciated and hunched, limping and indifferent.
 
“You won’t be hitchhiking anywhere with that leg.” Johnnie nodded toward the walker that rested to the side of Bulldog’s stool. “How long you been using that thing now, two years?”
 
“Hip wasn’t set right.” Bulldog gulped down the beer placed before him. “Damn doctors at the VA don’t know crap.”
 
“You were supposed to rehab,” his brother said. “You left the hospital instead.”
 
“What do you know about it?” Bulldog glared at his brother. He pointed a tobacco stained finger. “I don’t remember seeing you there.”
 
Johnnie didn’t tell Bulldog how he had been keeping tabs on him, didn’t remind him of the nightly phone calls while Bulldog was in the veterans’ hospital having tripped over the curb in front of the liquor store, breaking his hip but saving his bottle of beer. He didn’t say that he could always find out where his brother was, how Bulldog was doing, just by calling the VFW canteen. Instead Johnnie asked, “Why’d you leave that apartment you were in?”
 
“That flop house, you mean?” Bulldog scowled. “It stunk.”
 
“That wasn’t the house. That was you. You stink like hell right now.”
 
“What do you expect?” Eyes wide, an incredulous look came over Bulldog’s scraggle-whiskered face. “I live in the park. Ain’t no fancy bathroom there. I got a friend who lets me shower at his place sometimes but I got to wait till his wife goes out. He comes down and gets me when the coast is clear. Haven’t seen him in a while.”
 
“Hey, Bulldog.” A fat fellow at the end of the bar called out. “You been over to the college yet?”
 
“God, no. Why would I go there?” Bulldog spoke with a sneer turning up his lip.
 
“They’re doing an exhibit on the war, The Vietnam War, that is. They got it in the library center. You should go see it.”
 
“What the hell for?” Bulldog said. “I don’t need no exhibit to remember that damn war.”
 
The man waved his hand up and down. “Yeah, yeah, I know. But they have some neat stuff in there.”
 
Johnnie looked down the bar at the man. “What do they have?” He was interested in anything to do with Vietnam.
 
“Grenade launchers, Claymore mine clickers, all kinds of jungle gear.” The man rattled off the list. “They even got a body bag on display.”
 
“I sure don’t need to see any body bags,” Bulldog said. “I seen enough boys put in them things to fill a museum myself.”
 
“Bullshit.” They all looked toward the other end of the semi-circular bar where a bald headed man sat nursing a clear, iced drink. “You never saw no one put in a body bag, not if you was in the field.”
 
Bulldog sat up straight and pushed back the greasy ball cap atop his slick black hair. “What you mean ‘if?’ Marines, 124th Infantry. We were knee deep in it.”
 
He leaned toward the bartender who was there to collect their glasses, refill their beers. “Who is that guy?” Bulldog asked under his breath.
 
The bartender whispered back. “Don’t know. Never saw him before.”
 
“What’s the name on the roster?” Johnnie referred to the clipboard they all had to sign when they came in. You had to belong, or know someone who belonged, to a VFW Post to drink at the canteens.
 
The bartender slid the clipboard across the bar to Johnnie.
 
“Infantry or not,” the bald man said, “you never saw bodies put in bags while in the field. I was there, and I never saw no bodies in bags. We covered them with our ponchos and took them out on litters. They were put in bags later.”
 
Johnnie placed the clipboard back on the bar. The man’s name on the roster was indecipherable, a scribble.
 
“You trying to start a fight, mister?” Bulldog said. “’Cause bad hip or not I swear I’ll show you what for if you’re calling me a liar.”
 
“That’s not what he means,” the fat man said. “You don’t mean that, do you, mister?”
 
“I’m just saying it can’t be the way he tells it.” The bald stranger pushed his drink away. “A lot of guys are running around these days pretending they was there when in truth they weren’t. If they start talking body bags, that’s a tell. You only see that in the movies. It wasn’t like that in country.”
 
Bulldog was up now, having grabbed hold of his walker. He was rounding Johnnie’s stool, a mean look on his face. “Come on now, Scott,” Johnnie said.
 
“I’ll show you the truth,” Bulldog told the bald man, “if you want to see it. You got the guts to be wrong? If so, come downstairs with me.”
 
The bald stranger got up from his stool. “You have me curious now.”
 
Johnnie watched him follow Bulldog down the hall, past the restroom, to the basement stairs. His brother left the walker at the top and, descending one step, one foot, at a time, held onto the railing. Without a word the bald man took hold of Bulldog’s other arm, helping him down.
 
The bartender placed a fresh beer in front of Johnnie. “’Spose he’ll show that guy the uniform.”
 
“’Spose he will,” Johnnie said.
 
The fat man said, “Well that should settle it. Bulldog wears his uniform every Memorial Day for the parade, even after he took that header in front of Bud’s Liquor. He walks down Main Street pushing his walker with a full sized flag attached to the front. It’s quite the sight. Good for free drinks all afternoon.”
 
“Can’t argue with a uniform,” the bartender said.
 
Johnnie stared into his draft, remembering the last time he had seen the Marine dress blues his brother now claimed. Johnnie left them in the attic of his mother’s house, folded in his foot locker along with a plastic box of his ribbons and medals. When Bulldog, or Scott, as his brother knew him, started wearing the uniform in the Memorial Day parade, started telling his stories, Johnnie said nothing. He didn’t contradict a word, though in fact Bulldog never went overseas. He joined the Marines, but there was a rule back then preventing brothers from serving in the war at the same time. Johnnie was already in country so Bulldog stayed in the states. He made corporal, but it was the lower rank of lance corporal and didn’t merit a red stripe down the leg. The theft of his service record rankled Johnnie but he never spoke about it, one way or the other.
 
Truth was Johnnie loved his brother, but he never liked him. Scott had always been a pest, following Johnnie around and interrupting him. Scott snickered, mocking him, when Johnnie sprouted pubic hair. Johnnie even tried to kill Scott when they were kids. He pushed him out of their tree house. His little brother suffered a bad concussion, but didn’t die. Their mother later insisted it was this fall that had affected Scott, made him into a drunk. And although Johnnie knew better, he felt guilty. He had always been the lucky one.
 
“See, I told you, didn’t I?” Bulldog’s voice could be heard as he ascended the stairs. “Maybe now you’ll be more careful when you call a man out.”
 
He came back down the hall with amazing dexterity, hardly using the walker at all. He took his seat and drained the beer in his full glass. “You owe me a drink,” he told the bald man.
 
The stranger lingered behind the two brothers. Johnnie didn’t turn around but knew the bald man was staring at his back. Johnnie could feel his eyes. “Sure,” the stranger said, “but first I got a question for this fellow you’re with.”
 
Bulldog banged his glass on the bar to get the bartender’s attention, which was unnecessary since everyone was concentrating on the three men. “Ask away,” he said. “That fellow is my big brother.”
 
The bald man came to Johnnie’s side and got in close to his face, insisting that Johnnie look at him. “Were you in the service too?” He said it slow and level, almost kind.
 
Johnnie didn’t hesitate. “Marines, ‘68” he said. “Just like Scott.” He took a long gulp of beer before he added, “But I never went overseas. I was stationed at Twenty-Nine Palms the whole time.”
 
It seemed to Johnnie that the whole bar let out a collective breath. The insulated world of the VFW canteen, where everyone’s role was dictated by their war stories, regained its order. The ground would not shift under them, not that day at least.
 
“Bartender,” the bald man said, “get that man a beer.” He pointed to Bulldog. Then he placed his hand on Johnnie’s shoulder. “And get this man a shot. Whatever he wants. Top shelf only,” he said.
 

true believer

by: Mary Ellen Lives

Stacy Carlson sped down Highway 221 holding tight to the wheel of his VW Beetle. Wind buffeted the little car, threatening to push Stacy over the yellow line and into oncoming traffic. The emergency scanner in the passenger seat beside him cackled; the Coronaca volunteer fire department was being dispatched.

They were the fourth station to be called out. That made this a big story. It was sure to run on the front page of the Maddens Examiner. Maybe it would even get picked up by one of the larger newspapers –The State out of Columbia, or the Charleston Post and Courier. Flyme Willis thundered by, passing on the left. The hulking Ford 150 pick-up created a zephyr that nearly pushed Stacy’s Bug off the road.

“Damn.” Stacy floored the gas pedal, winding out the engine. He gained no ground on Willis’s more powerful vehicle, careening up the next hill, blinkers flashing. Willis would again beat him to the scene.

Stacy wished Flyme would stay home and stop scooping him. It wasn’t fair. Flyme had connections from thirty years of reporting, not to mention being a generational South Carolinian. His family boasted two prominent branches, one in Charleston that went back to the seventeenth century, and one almost as old that settled here in Laurens County. Officially retired from the Examiner, Flyme had parleyed his family connections into a part-time stringer job for the Courier. He showed up everywhere, with his big truck and his big head of wavy white hair. He always greeted Stacy the same way, blue eyes alight with humor. “Hey, Ichabod,” Flyme would say. “Where you been?”

He bestowed the nickname on Stacy at their first meeting. It reflected Stacy’s lean frame, tall stature, gold-rimmed spectacles, and blond hair that stood up in spiky tufts without the aid of styling products. Never having read the “Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” Stacy wasn’t sure if he should be pleased by the nickname or insulted. He toyed with dispensing a comparable moniker on the veteran reporter. Humpty Dumpty, Peter Pumpkin Eater, Methuselah – all were considered and rejected. “What can you do when the man’s first name is Flyme?” Stacy muttered. Ahead, the pick-up rounded a curve, disappearing out of sight.

Stacy let up on the gas. He might as well enjoy the ride. It was beautiful country, the Piedmont. Low hills covered with Carolina pine, furrowed acres of corn and hay. This summer however, with temperatures near one hundred and no rain for weeks, the pines were brown with an infestation of beetles. The insects attacked the drought stricken trees too weak to fend them off. Likewise, it had been a bad year for crops. The Farmers Market on the square closed weeks early for lack of produce to sell. Only desiccated stubble remained of the corn stalks, clicking like cicadas in the hot breeze. Hay fields were hit hard. Cattlemen were already feeding winter fodder to their stock.

Stacy wrote a whole feature story on the drought and its effect on the community, a human interest piece full of quotes from farmers facing foreclosure and homeowners whose wells ran dry. It was poignant as well as topical. He had visions of it getting picked up by the AP and spread to papers across the country. It could even have hit the Internet, gone viral.

His editor pared it down to nothing to free up advertising space. The story came off maudlin and hackneyed with unattributed quotes taken out of context. Stacy saw the chop job as lack of respect. He didn’t have the pedigree of Flyme Willis. Stacy wasn’t from here. He was a Yankee transplant. A refugee from Michigan winters. If a story needed to be cut, it would be his.

The property on fire was a mobile home on the lake. The fact that crews from multiple fire stations were being dispatched held promise of a good story. Maybe more than one. Stacy caught his breath at the possibility of a series, a four-parter to run a month of Sundays. His usual beat reporting on the court didn’t lend itself to follow-ups. Most were cases of meth dealers or petty robbers, motorcycle thieves. They usually pled guilty. In his three years reporting for the Maddens Examiner there had only been two murders: the shooting of a bartender at the VFW, and a vehicular homicide involving an abused wife who ran over her belligerent husband. The jury deliberated for all of an hour before finding the first defendant guilty of murder in the second. The abused woman ended up copping to involuntary manslaughter. She received a suspended sentence. Stacy tried to do a sequel on that one, but was stymied when the woman refused his calls.

Stacy didn’t have to look at his GPS to know he was getting close to the blaze. He could smell it before he saw the smoke. The air stank of odoriferous plastics, like Tupperware melted in a microwave. Mixed with that was a tarry stench and metallic tang. He turned off the highway onto a narrow shoreline road. Across from the small cottages and trailers that occupied a sheltered cove was a forest of dried pine and scrub oak. The wind blew in off the lake toward the woodland. Stacy noted a woman standing by her mailbox, cigarette dangling from her lips. Garden hose in hand, she scanned the treetops opposite with a worried expression. The rest of the cove seemed devoid of residents. When Stacy pulled in behind Flyme’s pick-up he saw the reason why. The drought had sucked the water from the lake, exposing mud flats and sandbars that were normally submerged. The vacation homes were useless.

“Hey, Ichabod, where you been?” Flyme approached from around the Coronaca pumper truck. Mopping his forehead with a handkerchief, Flyme’s Lions Club golf shirt hung limp and stained with perspiration. “The fun’s nearly over.”

He jerked his thumb at the ladder truck a few yards up. Its crew was retracting the hose. The Coronaca pumper truck was spraying water onto the shoulder closest to the woods, while an ambulance angled around the other two fire trucks idling in the roadway. All warning lights were turned off. Stacy waved at the paramedics to stop. They waved back but continued up the street.

“Nothing there anyway,” Flyme said. “No one was hurt, though the trailer is a complete loss, as you might expect. It went up like lint.”

Stacy grabbed a fanny pack off the floor of the VW. Slinging the pack over his shoulder, the digital camera and voice recorder inside bounced against his rib cage.

He followed Flyme around the fire trucks, motors rumbling, toward a smoldering pile of twisted metal and charred wood. The walls were gone. The blackened rectangle of a refrigerator teetered against mangled metal bed springs. Though the back porch steps were untouched by flame or smoke, they led only to ashes. Portions of the roof shingles covered the lawn, and bits of paper winged in the wind, settling on thorny vines and bastard pines. One of the fire crews drenched the empty carport next door.

“What happened?” Stacy asked Flyme.

“Idiot was burning and, of course, it got away from him. A red flag warning against having fires has been out for two weeks, but does he care? Not a bit. Now he’s burned down his neighbor’s trailer.”

Flyme turned to face the four fire trucks parked along the roadway. “Oh well, the boys had a good time putting it out. Took enough of them to do it. Thank God it wasn’t a double-wide.” Flyme chuckled without opening his mouth, the rumble coming from deep in his chest.

Stacy couldn’t tell where the fire pit had been, so much of the terrain was scorched. “What was he burning? Driftwood? No leaves down yet.”

Flyme swiped the rag over his face. “Books,” he said.

“Books?” Stacy removed his glasses. “What kind of books?”

He figured on Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Harry Potter–books that he had deemed immoral or sacrilegious or both, and so set aflame.

Flyme bent down, his belly leading the way to the ground. He picked up a sheet of the papers flying about. He handed it to Stacy. Stacy put his glasses on and scanned the page: capital letters, small case letters, numbers, lines. “A schematic? He’s burning electrical manuals?”

Flyme Willis shrugged. “Maybe he flunked a test.”

“Where is he?”

Flyme jerked his thumb again, this time in the direction of the smudged carport that still dripped water from the ridged overhang. A man stood underneath, watching the last of the fire trucks getting ready to depart. He had a sculpted profile, though strings of sweaty graying hair plastered his high forehead. Stacy figured his height, weight, and age as if giving a police report. Six foot, one seventy-five, Stacy stumbled on the last. This guy could have been forty, sixty, or anything in between. His eyes were deep set, like an older man, but the flesh was tight on the bones of his face. He stood casual, hands in trouser pockets, apparently unconcerned by either the puddle he stood in or the destruction he had caused.

“Have you talked with him?” Stacy asked.

“Tried to. He’s a crackpot.” Flyme took a small spiral notebook from his pant pocket and flipped it open. “Wouldn’t even give me his name. I’ll get it from the chief, though. We go way back.”

Flyme Willis stowed the notebook and the handkerchief in his pockets and turned to leave. “Won’t take me more than an hour to e-mail this off to the Courier. Stop by the house later. I’ll give you what I got.”

Stacy had fallen for that invitation before. He knew Flyme would give him bad advice and poor whiskey. He might show Stacy pictures of his late wife, but the old reporter would offer nothing that could flesh out an article.

Flyme walked back to his pick-up. The remaining firemen boarding their truck waved to him. Flyme Willis saluted. They’re probably fellow Masons, Stacy thought. They probably belong to the same Sons of Confederate Veterans chapter. Hell, they’re probably related.

He sighed. There was no big story here, just a redneck burning technical manuals on a windy day. Still it created a stir, causing four units to respond. That alone could make it front page material especially if Stacy could find an angle. He unzipped the fanny pack and withdrew the digital voice recorder. He sauntered over to the carport.

“Heck of a barbeque you had here.” Stacy showed him the recorder. “Mind if I ask you a couple questions? I’m from the Maddens Examiner.”

The man’s dark eyes swept over Stacy’s face, then went to the sky. “Ain’t got nothing to say.”

Stacy pressed the button to record. “You started the fire, didn’t you?”

“’Spose I did.” He worked his mouth, chewing the inside of his cheek.

“Why were you burning those books in the first place?”

“Devil’s diagrams.” Staring upward, the man raised his voice. “Many of them also which used curious arts brought their books together and burned them before all men. So mightily grew the word of God and prevailed.” The arsonist fixed his gaze on Stacy. “Book of Acts, chapter nineteen.”

The man nodded at the smoking heap that had been his neighbor’s vacation home. “I may have started the fire, but God burned the trailer down.”

Stacy smiled. He could see the headline now.

+++

“True Believer” was first published as a selected entry in the 2011 pixelhose.com short story competition.