Green Hills Literary Lantern

 

 

 

 The Good News

 

I saw them at the Lafayette County fair in Marseilles.  They caught my eye because they looked kind of cute, an older couple riding the merry-go-round, little kids all around them, squealing, waving to their parents, some barely able to hold on by themselves.

Now, when I say an older couple, I’m not talking about as old as me.  One more year with the postal “service” as they call it now and you won’t see this boy driving up and down these country roads anymore back aching from sitting in the passenger seat steering with my left hand and working the brakes and accelerator with my left foot just so I can cram a fistful of third class rubbish into farmer John’s mailbox.  Sixty-four years old.  Still a bachelor, of course.  I gave up dreaming about any other kind of life a long time ago, don’t even get embarrassed anymore to go out to a café by myself, look at that sad old fart, all alone.  I have a lot of friends.  Everybody is friends with the mailman.

Anyway, as I was saying, not as old as me.  Forties, maybe.  The woman older than the man.  They looked cute, happy.  Riding those horses, when he goes up she goes down, and then the other way, like it’ll happen on those contraptions.  Sometimes they’d reach out and touch each other’s hand when they passed.  It’s good to see people happy.

I watched them until the ride ended and they got off the horses, and when I saw the funny way the man walked, kind of like a sailor or a bow-legged cowboy, I realized I knew him and the woman, too.  They were Brenda and Stevie Temple, Harv Temple’s kids.  I’ve known them all their lives.  Stevie, now, I haven’t seen much of him since he went away to college and then got that job in Little Rock, but it shouldn’t have taken me so long to recognize his sister seeing as how I deliver mail to her and her worthless husband, Will Krause.

I couldn’t wait to tell Harv I saw his kids riding the merry-go-round.  I knew he’d get a kick out of it.  I like to deliver good news.

 

I generally make it around to Harv’s farm around 10:00 in the morning, one of my first stops.  He hasn’t slowed up any, still goes full-bore working that farm, so he could be off anywhere when I come by with the mail.  But if he’s up by the farmhouse and sees me coming, we’ll holler hi at each other and like as not chew the fat for awhile, and it’s happened a time or two on a cold day that he’s invited me in for a cup of coffee.

The next day after the fair—or actually Monday after I was in to Marseilles on a Saturday—I didn’t see him up by the house, so I parked the Chevy in his drive and went to look for him.  I found him in the tractor shed.  He was down under the IH banging around on something.

“Come out of there, Harv,” I told him.

He came out of there and shook my hand without wiping his off first, and I got oil all over my hand, which had been the idea.  Ha ha.  I cussed him and we both laughed.

We go back a long ways, sleepover friends in grade school, me at his house and him at mine.  I remember the first time I stayed at his house—I couldn’t have been more than six or seven—he told me I had to take my socks off before I got in his bed, and I swore I never took my socks off when I slept, but that was a lie.  I was just embarrassed to death because I hadn’t washed my feet like my momma told me to, and they were that filthy.  We almost got into it, but finally I took them off, and then I started to cry when I saw him looking at my dirty feet, even though he never said a word.  His momma came and took me into the bathroom and stood me up in the tub and washed my feet.  It wasn’t to humiliate me, not at all.  It was a gentle thing, a loving thing, like out of the Bible.  The next morning when I got up, there were my socks, washed and dried and laid out on top of my shoes.  I came away thinking the Temples were just about the best family in the world.  My family, the Borlands, well, we weren’t anything to brag about.  I don’t have any stories about my family.

“Guess who I saw at the county fair Saturday?” I said.

“I wouldn’t even try,” he said.  “Who was it?”

“Your kids.”

“My kids?”

“Stevie and Brenda!”—like he’d forgot their names.

“Stevie and Brenda were at the fair?”

“Yessir.  Guess what they were doing?”

He said “What?” in a strange little voice like he didn’t hardly have enough breath to get the word out.

“They were riding the dad gum merry-go-round together!”

He flared up like a struck match and said, “So?  What’s wrong with that?”

“Who said anything about it being wrong?  I thought they looked kind of cute.”

When he saw that I didn’t think there was anything wrong with it—I guess at first he might have thought I thought they were too old for a kiddy ride—he went one-eighty the other way, grinning and nodding.

“Yeah, Donald, I tell you it’s the darnedest thing how those two have taken to each other lately.  You’d never have guessed it the way they were at each other’s throats when they were kids.  You remember what Brenda said the day we brought Stevie home from the hospital?”

It almost brought tears to my eyes to hear him ask that question, like I was a member of the family right there for the birth of his son and rode in the car with them on the way home.  The truth is by then Harv and I had gone our separate ways.  Oh, we were still friends, but in high school he’d started dating Roberta Miller while I hadn’t had much time for extracurriculars, working in the cafeteria like I did and helping the janitor sweep up after basketball games and PTA meetings because we never had two nickels to rub together, us Borlands.  Then after high school of course he got married, and he had his life and I had mine.  Deliver that mail.

“No, I don’t recall,” I said.

“This was on the way back from the hospital after Stevie was born.  Brenda was riding in the back seat beside Roberta, holding the baby.  For a long time she doesn’t say anything, just stares at her new little brother.  Then finally she points to him and says, ‘Can I stick my finger in his eye?’”

Harv let out a big whoop and slapped his thigh.  “Lordy did we laugh.  But I got to tell you, it was touch and go there for awhile.  I mean she hated him.  She’d had it all to herself, you know, until Stevie.”

“That’s only natural.”

“Sure.  She’d been the princess, and now here comes the prince.  I didn’t think she’d ever get over it.  On his part, well, it’s kind of hard to warm up to somebody who never has a civil word for you. . . .  Hey, guess what I caught them at the other day?”

“What did you catch them at?”

“Playing croquet!”

“Croquet?”

“Playing croquet.  We had an old set I’d forgotten all about, up in a closet someplace.  Brenda or Stevie, one of them, got it and set it up over at his place, and I go over there and they’re out on the lawn playing croquet.”

“I’ll be damned,” I said.  I wasn’t quite as floored by it as Harv was.  Still, it’s not the sort of thing you see every day.

Harv had the biggest grin over the idea of his kids playing croquet.  Then he looked off into the distance and said sort of wistfully, “If Roberta could see them, she simply would not believe her eyes.”

It hasn’t been all silver linings in Harv’s sky.

 

I heard Harlon Ter Kerst say once, “Children are a blessing in those rare moments when they aren’t being a trial.”  If Ter Kerst’s were trials and him with all that money, bank president and all, well, I don’t expect you’d get Harv Temple to argue with him.

Not that Brenda and Stevie were bad kids.  No, they were great kids, always sir and ma’am, never gave their folks any trouble that I know of, made good grades in school, Stevie on the basketball team and Brenda queen of something, prom or homecoming or something, had a crown in her hair, I remember that.

That good start, all that promise, that’s what makes it hurt so later on when things don’t turn out like you’d hoped and had every right to expect.  I know it had to hurt Harv and Roberta because it hurt me, and I'm not even blood kin, nothing to them except the mailman who was friends with their daddy back when Moses was in short pants, maybe somebody their daddy would tell stories about, maybe not.  What would there be to tell about me?  Not the one about my dirty feet, I hope.

Brenda, pretty as a picture and sharp as a tack, fought it out for class valedictorian if I remember correctly, sassy thing, too, but in a good way, independent, spunky—Brenda you figured would dust her feet of little Prospect in no time.  And she did go to the junior college in Harrison for a year or two, did well, knocked the top out on grades like you knew she would.  But then she met a guy, got a little too frisky, had to get married, moved to Springfield, had another kid, then the father joins the navy and Brenda moves back home with the two boys, Jesse and Jake, neither one of them would look you in the eye.  Harv set her up in an apartment in Prospect, and she got a job doing something for the school district, I forget.  Then she met up with a guy that made her first husband look like a prince among men, ran off with him, leaving the two boys with Harv and Roberta.  Things didn’t work out with Prince Charming—big surprise—and Brenda was back with the folks long enough to hook up, as they say these days, with Will Krause, on the farm next to Harv’s.  Will inherited it after his folks died in that wreck on U.S. 65.  By now he’s sold off all but maybe thirty acres, which he pretends to farm but mostly shoots pool with boys half his age down at The Sombrero.  I guess he’s not a lot of fun to be around because Brenda’s two sons moved back in with their daddy in Springfield, and now Brenda has to pay child support.  Guess who foots that bill?

“What are you going to do?” Harv says over and over.  “Grin and bear it.”

I haven’t seen him doing a lot of grinning lately.

I was surprised by the way Brenda did but not shocked, if you follow me.  A woman in love will follow her heart over a cliff.  Stevie, now, that’s the one I can’t figure.  You’d peg him for a little Harv, hard-working, responsible, serious—maybe too serious. He was never one of those teenagers who’d cut up and down country roads at night hollering and playing mailbox baseball, drinking beer and throwing the bottles into your yard.  And of course you’d be grateful for that.  Still, you’d like to see the boy open up a little more.  He had friends, sure, but you were never sure how close those friends were.  You were always surprised to see him standing next to someone.  He seemed more natural off by himself.  Never saw him with a girl.  Never.  Doesn’t make him a bad person or a loser, of course.  Believe me when I tell you that you can have a life built around a career—doctor, lawyer, mailman—and although that might not be the kind of life you’d order up at the life store if they sold them that way, still, it’s a sort of life.  And that seemed like it was the route that Stevie took.  The JC in Harrison, then on to the university in Jonesboro, gets his degree in accounting or computers or something, then a good job in Little Rock.  That was I’d guess fifteen years ago and that’s the way it stayed, him doing OK, enjoying his life I guess as much as you can enjoy life in a big city like Little Rock.  But then about a year ago he got laid off along with about half the country.  Couldn’t find another job.  Moved back to the farm.  Not Harv’s farm but the farm just across the creek in back of Harv’s.  Well, Harv owns that one, too, but he always called it Stevie’s farm because he bought it for him with the idea that someday he’d come back and work it.  Well, Stevie came back, all right, but he works it about as hard as Will Krause works his thirty acres.  Stevie’ll come over and help Harv out once in awhile, help him bail hay, drive the tractor a little, but full bore for-sure farming, he just has no interest in it.  Spends all day on the computer (“online,” Harv calls it, a thing I haven’t quite figured out yet).  Claims to be studying up to sell real estate but mostly he plays video games, Harv says.

“Grin and bear it,” Harv keeps saying, and I keep waiting for that grin.

It’d be an easier load for him to bear if he had a little help, but he lost Roberta probably ten years ago now.  Breast cancer.  Not that he talks about it much.  He’ll bitch about Brenda and Stevie until the cows come home, but Roberta?  It’s like that’s a private pain for him alone.  I can’t imagine what’s it’s like to lose a wife, but it must be damn bad.  Probably about as bad as never having one in the first place.

 

It was a few days before I saw Harv again.  He was puttering around with those planters Roberta had made out of a wooden barrel sawed in half.  He’d put yellow flowers in them.  Chrysanthemums?  I like flowers fine but couldn’t tell you the name of any of them except I guess a rose.  Everybody can name a rose.

“You’d make somebody a good wife,” I hollered out the window at him because you don’t normally see a man out in the middle of the day fooling with flowers.  He came on over to the car.

I said, “You got all the farming done you need to do this year, I expect.  That’s the reason you’ve got time for planting daisies.”

“Haven’t you ever heard of taking time to smell the roses?” he said.  But he didn’t look happy.  He glanced back at the house.  “Yeah, I ought to be working, but I had to come back to the house and talk to Brenda for a bit.  She came over.”

He wouldn’t look me in the eye.

“Anything wrong, Harv?”

“Aw.”  He jerked his shoulder and looked back toward the house but not all the way, like he wanted to see it but at the same time didn’t.  “It’s Brenda and that husband of hers.  That Will Krause.  They’ve been at it again, and whenever that happens, I got to hear about it.”

“That can be hard on a daddy.”
“Oh, it’s not that he beats her or anything like that.  He doesn’t abuse her.  I don’t want you getting the wrong idea.”

“I’m not getting any kind of idea, Harv.”

Why had he said that about a beating?  He wouldn’t have brought it up unless he was thinking it, would he?  Or maybe I’ve been watching too much Perry Mason.

Before either one of us could think of the next thing to say, Brenda came out of the house.  She was carrying a box, pink and white with some kind of writing on it.

“Bye, Pop!” she called out and waved big enough that I thought she might be including me in it, so I waved back along with Harv.

“She looked mighty happy there,” I said.

“She’s always happy when she’s going to see her brother.”

“What was that she had in that box?”

“Who knows?  Some game or other, probably.  Something to play with Stevie.  Say, you know what I caught them playing the other day?”

“Croquet.”

“Oh.  I already told you that one.”

I wished I could take it back, the croquet answer, because it would have given him pleasure to tell me all over again.

I watched Brenda walking off past the barn.  “Say, if she’s going over to Stevie’s, I could give her a ride.  I’ve got a few stops to make, but I’ll be around to his place in probably twenty minutes.”

Although Harv’s and Stevie’s farms are back to back, Harv’s fronts on to county road FF and Stevie’s on to GG.  I go down FF to 445, then over to GG.  About twenty minutes.

“That’s OK,” Harv said.  “Brenda likes to walk.  Besides, she’ll beat you over there. You just go down the pasture to the soy bean field and then follow the fence past the cow pond until you hit the creek.  This time of year it’s shallow enough you can walk across on the rocks and not get your tootsies wet.  Then you go across Stevie’s pasture, and there’s his house.  Ten, fifteen minutes, tops.  She walks it from Will Krause’s place, too, cuts across his milo to my soy beans, then across to the cow pond.  Maybe five minutes longer that way.  She told me today she might have to find a new route, though, because that asshole she’s married to was on to her.”

“On to her about what?”

“I guess on to her going over to visit her brother.”

“So?  What’s wrong with that?”

“Not one goddamn thing,” Harv said, glaring at me like I had a Vote for Will Krause button on or something.

I left him to his flowers.

*  *  *

 

My next stop is Will Krause’s place, and there he was waiting for me by the mailbox.  No big surprise.  I see Will more often than I do Harv.  You can spend a lot of time waiting by mailboxes when working is against your religion.  He must be on the lookout for that million-dollar check from Customers Clearing House.  Well, Will, look in one hand and shit in the other and see which fills up the fastest.

He came over to the Chevy and I handed him his junk mail and as he reached for it I took a gander at his knuckles, but they weren’t bruised or cut up.  I don’t believe he beat Brenda, at least not that day. 

I hadn’t planned on saying anything to Will, but he held on to my side-view mirror and said, “You see Brenda over at Harv’s?”

“I didn’t pay much attention.  I just deliver the mail,” I said.

“Ah,” he said like that was just what he expected.  “So she’s gone over to Stevie’s again.”

“So what if she did?  He’s her brother, isn’t he?”

“Yep, he’s her brother all right.  Well, I’ll tell you something. I know where that path goes.  One of these days I’m going to follow her over to Stevie’s, and then we’ll see what we shall see.”

“You better be darned good and careful what you’re doing, Will Krause,” I said.  “Harv Temple told me that if he caught you on his place, he was going to set fire to your behind.”

That was a lie, of course.  Don’t know what caused me to say it.  I guess I wanted to scare him.  But he didn’t seem scared.

“Harv Temple,” he snorted.  “You can invite Harv Temple to kiss my rosy red ass.”
I wasn’t going to stick around to listen to that kind of talk.  I stepped on the gas and gunned it away from Will’s mailbox.  He jumped back fast.  I was hoping I’d run over his toes, but I don’t think I did.

 

My luck took a turn for the better, and I didn’t see Will Krause again until Saturday night.  Happened in town after the basketball game.  Prospect isn’t big enough for a football team, so our season starts early, in October.  I go to every home game rain or shine and sometimes join the caravan to away games.  Prospect finished second in the state in 1959, I guess the biggest thing that ever happened around here.  They weren’t anywhere near that good when Stevie Temple was on the team, but I was proud of him anyway like he was my own son.  I guess he’s as close to a son as I’m ever likely to have, and Brenda to a daughter.  And then to hear Will Krause say what he did about those kids.

He was horsing around with a bunch of his worthless cronies outside The Sombrero, which I had to walk past to get to the Y’All Come Inn where I go after basketball games and have a piece of pie and coffee and rehash the game with the good old boys there, sort of a tradition with me.

I don’t know whether Will said what he said because I was passing right by then and he wanted me to hear it or not.  Probably not.  I’m everybody’s friend when I’m delivering the mail to them, but I’m pretty much invisible otherwise.  They don’t know I’m here.

Anyway, I was walking by The Sombrero’s and Will was standing there with a beer bottle in his hand and a smirk on his face, and then he says, “You know how I know Brenda wasn’t a virgin when she married her first husband? . . . Because she can’t outrun her brother.”

I didn’t stop but slowed up trying to figure that joke out.  I’m slow when it comes to dirt.  I don’t think in dirt terms like some folks apparently do, like Will Krause does.  So I just sort of hesitated trying to think my way through that one when one of  Will’s cronies said something and Will said something back that it’d scald my tongue to repeat.  What they said didn’t require any thinking through, I’ll tell you that, not even by me, a babe in the woods like Harv described me once.

I’m normally not the confronting kind.  I go my way and let others go theirs even when I know they’re in the wrong because once you decide it’s your job to correct what’s wrong in others, well, then my friend you’ve got a long row to hoe.  But this was a thing—what Will said—I couldn’t let pass.

I turned to him and said, “Will, you shouldn’t say that about your wife.”

At first he just looked past me like people will do when you’re invisible.  Then his eyes shifted a little until he was looking right at me.  I could say he had a snake’s eyes or eyes like a shark or alligator, but that wouldn’t get it.  There’s nothing else in nature like Will Krause’s eyes.  Thank the Lord.

He looked at me a couple of seconds, and then he said in the mildest, most reasonable voice, “Well, Donald, I surely do wish I didn’t have to say that about my wife.  Do you think a man wants to say that about his wife?  But then I guess you wouldn’t know anything about husbands and wives, would you?”

I’m embarrassed to admit it, but all of a sudden there were tears in my eyes.  I turned and went back toward my car, almost walked into a lamp pole.

I heard Will call after me, “You can tell Stevie Temple that one of these days I’m going to catch him and my wife at it, and then I’m going to—.”  But I won’t repeat his words.  I won’t foul the air.  It’s dirty enough as it is.

 

 

The next morning I went to church and asked God’s forgiveness in case I’m going to need it, but I don’t much think I will.  God works in mysterious ways, and maybe I’m one of them.

I went home and ate Sunday dinner, pork roast and mashed potatoes and gravy and creamed peas and cherry pie I bought at the 4-H bake sale, a big dinner like it was going to be my last one.

Then I drove out to the country like I was running my route, up FF and parked it in a turn-out right where Will Krause’s farm meets up with Harv Temple’s, a little swale there, couldn’t be seen from either farmhouse.  I climbed over the fence and walked through Harv’s soy beans until I came opposite the cow pond and then crossed that fence and walked along it to the creek.  It was almost dry.  Go on across Stevie’s pasture, crest the hill, and there’s his farmhouse.  If Stevie would have been out back or had been looking out his window, he would have seen me, and then what would I have said?  I don’t know.

But he didn’t see me, and I got clear up to the back of his house.  I wasn’t sure he was even at home. I couldn’t detect any sign of life.  There was a back porch with a door and a window on either side of the porch.  I looked in the window on the left, but there was nothing but some cardboard boxes.  Then I went to the other window and saw that it was Stevie’s bedroom, full size bed with one of those bedspreads with the little knobs on it, in one corner a little table with a doily on it and a lamp, a straight-back wooden chair, a couple of framed pictures on the wall, whole thing neat as a pin.  It was the room of a fellow who meant to stay, not someone who was going to get his real estate license and then light out for Little Rock or Memphis or somewhere.

I was standing there trying to figure out whether I should be happy at Stevie staying or sad and just started to lean toward sad when I heard something from somewhere off behind me.  There was Brenda just coming up over the hill.  I scuttled around like a cockroach trying to find a place to hide, ducked into a little wooden shed.  There were some boxes with dusty canning jars and such like in them, rusty tools hanging from nails on the walls, a coil of rusty chain in one corner, and in the other that croquet set Harv was so proud of.

Brenda must not have seen me because she walked right by the window of the shed without looking in.  I got a good look at her face, though.  I’d seen her often enough but not up close or at least hadn’t paid much attention when I was up close.  What I saw was a woman who looked older than I ever would have thought possible for pretty little Brenda Temple to look.  She looked every day of her forty-odd years, plus a few.  A woman who’d lived hard, suffered.  At the same time, though, she looked happy, big old grin on her face.  Going to pay a surprise visit on her little brother.  I guess a surprise.  Well, you can’t help the years, so I guess you just have to be grateful for the happy.  I was happy for her.

Then I thought, dang, what if they’re going to play croquet?  I’d better get the heck out of there.  But when I stepped outside, I heard voices.  It was a stupid thing to do, maybe, but instead of skeddadling I went toward the house to see where the voices were coming from.  I looked in the bedroom window.  The bed was still made.  Of course it would still be made.  God forgive me for even looking.

I listened and heard talking again, laughter.  It didn’t seem to be coming from inside the house, though.  Seemed like they were at the front of the house, but outside.  Maybe on the front porch.  I eased around the house in that direction.

Off in the side yard was about twenty feet of grape vine draped over a section of chicken wire fence.  I used it as a cover as I eased on around, and then there was a little dirt mound with a door in it—a root cellar, I’d guess—and I crept along behind that and peeked around and saw Stevie and Brenda.

They’d set up a card table and two chairs, no three, on the third that pink and white box I’d seen Brenda carrying out of Harv’s house a few days ago. Only it wasn’t a board game like Harv said.  It was one of those sets of plastic dishes little girls get.  I don’t have much experience with such things, but I think they call it a tea set. Tiny little plastic dishes, little plastic cups.  Brenda and Stevie each had a plastic cup pinched between thumb and index finger, pinkie in the air.  They were giggling like a couple of kids.  Having a big old time.  When they finished their tea, Stevie stood up and came around the table and said something to Brenda that I couldn’t hear and at the same time bowed at the waist like some English swell in a movie.  Brenda got up and took his hand, and they waltzed slowly around the yard, no music, and they wouldn’t win any prize at Arthur Murray’s, but they waltzed.  They stopped when Brenda put her heel through a grape leaf.  Stevie bent down, took her ankle, lifted her foot, and pulled off the leaf.  Then he kissed her ankle.  They looked so happy. 

I hunkered down behind the dirt mound and cried a little bit.  Then I left it to them.

I stopped in the shed on my way back and took one of the croquet mallets—they wouldn’t need but two of them—and decided that length of chain would come in handy, too.

I walked back up the pasture, then down to the creek.  There was a stand of trees there, including a cottonwood right by the path.  I sat down behind the cottonwood and waited.

I waited quite a while, which was all right because I needed a rest.  I wasn’t used to the walking, sneaking around, carrying that heavy chain.  I knew there was a good chance he wouldn’t come at all, better chance he wouldn’t than that he would.  But he came, and I came out from behind the cottonwood and did the work I had to do.  Then I wrestled him across the creek and up to the cow pond, went back and got the chain, back to the cow pond, wrapped him in the chain and pulled him on in to the pond.  At that point I was too exhausted to blink.  I walked back to the creek and sat down against the cottonwood and took my shoes and socks off and let them dry a bit in the sun. 

I know that someday they’ll drain the cow pond, or it’ll dry up in a drought, something, but some day they’ll find him, and some Perry Mason will add two plus two and come knocking on my door, and that’s just fine.  I’ve had a long life.  Maybe too long.

The sun is nice.  Feels good on my aching bones.  I don’t feel bad about anything.  What’s to feel bad about?  I’ve done a good day’s work.  And I can’t wait to tell Harv about his kids, those tiny tea cups, their pinkies sticking up in the air.  He’ll be happy to hear it.

I have this dream sometimes—not a sleeping one but an awake one—about starting all over again, not as a mailman delivering bills and junk mail and jury duty notices and postcards saying your aunt has died, but as a—what do you call them?—town crier or something like that from the olden days, somebody that goes around telling folks the news.  Only with me it’d only be good news.  Guess what, the war’s over and they’re bringing the boys home.  Say, Frank, supposed to be good drying weather this week, and you’ll finally be able to get out into the fields and get those crops planted.  Harv, I saw your kids, and you can quit worrying about them, they looked happy.  People are always glad to see me, glad to see me whether I’m on the job or not.  Sometimes they’ll invite me into their homes, just like I’m family.  I never eat Christmas or Thanksgiving dinner alone.  It’s a very pleasant dream.

           

Dennis Vannatta has published stories in many magazines and anthologies, including Chariton Review, Boulevard, Antioch Review, and Pushcart XV, and three collections:  This Time, This Place and Prayers for the Dead, both by White Pine Press, and Lives of the Artists by Livingston Press. His newest collection, Rockaway Children:  Stories, is forthcoming from Rising Star Press.