A Stranger Came




It was thirteen miles from their house to the IGA, but it seemed like a hundred because Hattie’s mother was such a pokey driver.

There was nothing to do but stare out the window at a gauzy moon, or at least it looked like the moon, but then again maybe it was just a stain the moon had left behind.

A large shed with Harry Becker Farm no. 6 written across one side marked the halfway point of their trip. When they reached it Hattie turned to her mother. “Now tell me again what’s in there,” she said.

“I get tired of telling you! It’s a celery farm! Now be quiet.” she said.Talking while she drove made her nervous.

But Hattie was tired of being quiet, “And Harry Becker has a whole slew of German prisoners working in the celery. Our President has a friend named Winston Churchill and he has so many prisoners he has run out of places to put them, so he ships them here to us. I wonder what they look like,” she said.

“I’m sure you’ve seen them. They come into town, but they look just like us. Unless you hear them talk, you can’t tell.”

“But the Japs you can tell. When Harry Becker couldn’t get enough POWs, he went to our prisons in Arkansas and got Japs to work for him,” Hattie said.

“Be quiet now; the news is coming on.” Mother reached for the volume knob and turned up the radio. There were rumors of a prisoner exchange between the Germans and the Americans, and she hoped her brother, Hattie’s Uncle Ralph, would be part of it.

First came drums and horns. Then a voice said, “Liberty ship returns to New York Harbor. It’s believed to have on board POWs badly needed for our farms and factories.”

To their disappointment, the news ended then with no mention of the longed-for prisoner exchange,

“Aren’t the POWs afraid we’ll kill them? Why don’t they run away?””

“They thank their lucky stars to be here. They get food, medicine, everything they need right where they are on Harry Becker’s farms. He even pays them,” Mother said. Then she added, “I suppose.”

“Are the Germans nice to Uncle Ralph like we are to them?” Hattie asked.

There was a long pause. “Check my purse and make sure I have my ration book,” Mother finally said.

“I saw you put it in there. I don’t need to look”.

The two of them were making the trip while the baby took his morning nap. He was four months old, and it was April, the fourth month of the year which was1944. Hattie noticed things like that.

Her father was supposed to come in from the barn and check on the baby while they were gone, but Hattie didn’t believe him when he said he did.

“Hell! Stay home with the baby yourself if you feel like that,” he said.

But that was just to be mean.

After they found out Uncle Ralph had been captured by the Germans, they stopped sending Mother to the store alone. They tried once. She didn’t return for a long, long time, Finally Father got in the truck and went to look for her. The faded gray Oldsmobile was in the parking lot, and she was in the produce aisle, her cart still empty. “What the hell are you doing?” Father said.

“Should I buy oranges or apples?” she asked.

Since then,Hattie went with her.

“Be quiet now. I need to concentrate on driving. We’re coming into town,” Mother said Her knuckles, as she gripped the steering wheel,were white.

“I’m going to look for Germans,” Hattie said.

“Be nice. We need them to do our work.Our men are soldiers now.”There was a weariness in her voice.

“Like Uncle Ralph?”

She pulled into the parking lot and stopped. “OK. We’re here,” she said.

Hattie jumped out, slammed the car door, and hurried inside.Since the day her gym teacher had told her she was the fastest runner in the class, she liked togo top speedup and down the aisles before mother came in and made her stop.

“Get back here and help me,” Mother called when she spotted Hattie at the end of an aisle. “And stop running!”

Hattie pretended not to hear. She rounded the corner just in time to collide with someone. She got a glimpse of flowers on a long print skirt as they both went down. A woman moaned, and a man reached out his arms to help her get back to her feet.

Their slanty eyes flashed with anger. Their skin was darker than Hattie’s, but not so dark as the coloreds who sometimes came to town on Saturday nights.

To Hattie’s surprise, Mother didn’t scold her. Instead she stepped between her and the angry couple.

“Go get some grape jelly,” she said. “And stop running!”

Hattie knew the jams and jellies aisle well.Buying jelly was a secret she shared with her mother.

“I just don’t have time to make it myself, but your father insists, so I buy it in the store and empty the jars into my own jars. Your dad only thinks I make it.”

“Now isn’t this better than store-bought jelly! Aren’t you glad I make you make your own!” her father said while he ate his toast, and Hattie stared at her plate.

Eventually they were ready to check out with their groceries. The cashier handed mother her change and her ration booklet; He placed a red cinnamon candy on top of it. “For your little girl,” he said.

Sometimes Hattie could sneak potato chips or chocolate sauce into their cart, but this morning she had been extra busy avoiding the couple she had crashed in to.

“The moon is gone,” Hattie said as they headed down the road for home. “The kids at school say the moon’s made of cheese.”

“It’s made of dirt just like our Earth,” Mother said.

“How do we know?  Has anyone ever been there?”

“No one has gone to the moon because it’s impossible. Now stop asking questions.”

It would be nice if someone would go there and find out.”


Friday afternoon was speech time in Hattie’s classroom, and the week’s topic was someone you would want to be like. The boys chose Ted Williams except for the ones who picked Stan Musial, guys who could swing a bat. The girls wanted to be Ingrid Bergman. Others were more specific. “Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca,” they said.

Except for Hattie.

“I chose Harry Becker. He has lots of farms and prisoners of war working for him.

He started out with Germans, but he couldn’t get enough, so he went to Arkansas and got Japs from there.”

She turned to her teacher. ”Germans look like us, but Japs don’t, but they talk like us. Right? The Japs? They have slanty eyes.”

“They’re Americans from California, but our President was afraid they might spy on us for Japan so we had to put them in camps,” her teacher said.

“Why would you want to be like Harry Becker?” one of the town girls asked.

“Well, I like celery, and Harry Becker is very rich,” she said.

The girl wrinkled her nose. “I hate celery,” she said. Then the class clown called out, “But I like rich!” and everyone laughed, and Hattie returned to her seat.


As much as Hattie loved grocery shopping days, she hated washdays .It was too much work for Mother to do the washing by herself, so they waited for Sundays when Hattie would be home from school to help.The job she hated most was to turn father’s socks to get the sand out;fishing them out of the harsh water made her arms itch.

While Hattie waited to turn the socks, she petted the new litter of barn kittens and dreamed of a flying machine that would let a person travel as far as she could see in an instant. “If I could get my hands ona machine like that, I’d look at the moon and press its button,” she said to her mother who wasn’t listening.

Hattie didn’t notice a stranger come into their yard from the east.

There were no houses in that direction, just their vineyards and fields.

Who would have expected a visitor to come from that direction?  A pair of lost hunters once, but that was long ago and when hunting was in season. She came like the morning sun, passing over fields and vineyards, and silent like the sun.

The few visitors they had came up the driveway downshifting their cars, gravel shooting out like popcorn from underneath their wheels.

Hattie might have glanced her way a dozen times and still not seen her, such is the mind’s idiosyncrasy to only acknowledge what it expects the eye to see.

The woman strode to the clothesline, then paused, allowing the child to take her in. Hattie looked for their dog who should have given them a warning. He was watching the stranger too, tentatively wagging his tail.

The woman’s sturdy brown feet were bare.The cracks in her heels filled with dark soil, making them look like winding rivers on a map. Such feet would have no need for shoes.

The stranger stared hard at Hattie.

“Mama!  Papa!” The woman leaned forward and flicked her wrist. Hattie took a step back. The woman was too tall to be the one she collided with in the store, but maybe she was a friend of hers, come for revenge. Hattie hurried to her mother in the shed.“There’s someone out there in bare feet,” she said.“She wants you.”

Her mother sighed and wiped her hands on her green housedress, one of three dresses she owned, four if you counted the rayon one she wore to funerals and weddings. She raised a hand to shade her eyes and stepped outside into the sun.

The stranger exploded toward her. “They shoot my man! Somebody shoot my man!”.

Hattie’s mother pulled Hattie behind her. “What? Who are you? How did you get here?”

She looked east across the field and pushed her index finger against the bridge of her glasses.

The woman nodded. That was the place! “Yes! Yes! Somebody shoot my man!”

“Becker!  Becker!” The words came out like sticks of dynamite.

“I’ll call my husband,” her mother said. She gave Hattie a push toward the cement slab behind the house where their car was parked. Three honks was the signal for Hattie’s father that there was an emergency at home.

Hattie hesitated. “But if her husband was shot . . .Shouldn’t we call the police?

“Stop talking and do as I say.” She gave Hattie another push and returned to the shed and the mound of family laundry. She hoped to finish before the day grew unbearably hot.

The stranger chose a shady spot against the house and sat down.

Hattie studied her too flat face and wondered if people somewhere thought she was pretty.The woman threw her head back to mime drinking.Then she flicked her bossy wrist again to tell Hattie to get moving.

How could they have been so thoughtless? They would have given a stray dog a drink immediately. And still, life was such that Hattie ran to her mother to ask if it was alright.

“Take her the hose,” her mother said. Hattie makes a show of waiting for the warm water inside the hose to pass through, and then adjusted the flow to a trickle. Before she dragged it to the woman who shook her head and cupped her hand to her mouth again. She was no tomato plant. Again she flicked her scornful wrist.

Hattie’s face burned. She returned to her mother.“She wants it in a glass.

Her mother sighed. “Go get her one of the jelly jars.”

“There’s some lemonade in the refrigerator. Maybe I could give her lemonade.”

“No, we do not have lemonade.”

“Yes we do. It’s on the bottom shelf.”

“You may not give her lemonade. You may give her water. Now go do it.”

Hattie filled a glass with water. Suddenly she remembered she hadn’t brushed her hair that morning.

The stranger sipped the water, then snorted, whether to belittle that it was only water or maybe that she had to ask for a glass or sit on the ground, there was no way to tell.  Hattie understood that she was supposed to feel superior to this dark-skinned woman, yet clearly they were the ones who had behaved badly. She went inside to search for a hairbrush.


When Hattie’s father arrived, the stranger jumped to her feet.

“Where’d you come from?” he said.  He was stocky and muscular from his work on the farm. His heavy face and thick neck were deeply tanned, like a squat brown toad decked out in a pair of overalls.  Sometimes he took his shirt off in the house, and then he looked like a frog with a soft white belly. His tone accused the woman of something, but what she had done wrong Hattie didn’t understand.

The woman leaned forward. “My man! Somebody shoot my man!”

“Someone shot your husband?” Hattie’s mother offered.

Hattie’s father ignored her. It was not for mousy women to deal with foreigners. “You work for Harry Becker?” His blue eyes narrowed.

“Becker! Yes. Yes.”

“Was there a fight?” He raises his fists.

“Shoot! Somebody shoot!”

“Not Harry Becker?”

“Becker! They shoot my man!”

Whether Hattie’s father was fishing for some piece of information that might give him leverage in future dealing with Harry Becker or for some other reason less self-serving, who could say?

He went inside to the telephone.

“Hello! Emory Taylor here,” Hattie heard him say.

It took nearly an hour before a late-model car pulled into the driveway and stopped at the bottom of the hill. Two men wearing button-front shirts tucked inside their trousers, got out. Hattie’s father, who had changed to a fresh T-shirt under his overalls, strode out of the house.

“Hey, Emory, How you doing?”

“Good. You guys looking for a missing worker?”

“That we are. That we are. You got one here?”

“She keeps saying somebody shot her man.” Emory waved one arm toward the east and the celery fields. What the hell’s goin’ on over there?”

The taller of the two men shook his head as if sympathizing over something. “How’s the family?”

“How’s the family? It takes every cent I got just to feed ‘em.”

Hattie stared at a beetle half-hidden by a dandelion, as if it were of grave importance.

“Give me a break. You country boys live on Easy Street, steak for supper every night. When you run out you just butcher another steer.”

“Nah. You city slickers are the ones on Easy Street.”

“Well, let’s get this worker back where she belongs.”

There was no resistance from the woman.She climbed into their car’s back seat. She had made a mistake. No one here would help her.

The men did not look back as the car headed down the driveway.

“What will happen to her?” Hattie asked.

“Who knows? She was probably tired of working, so she ran away.” Her mother shrugged.“She was just a troublemaker.”

Her father had gone back to his tractor. He drove up to them.“Have dinner ready at noon,” he ordered. He lifted his clutch foot and headed back to the field.

There was something in the look his wife gave him, something not respectful. Later when he reflected on how Harry Becker’s men were condescending, he would remember the look.

“But she said a man was shot. Shouldn’t we call the police if a man was shot?” Hattie asked again.

Her mother’s face twisted. “They could have had a fight among themselves.”

But shouldn‘t we tell the police?”

Her mother stiffened. “Don’t be such a drip! Where do you get your ridiculous ideas?  Harry Becker doesn’t go around shooting his own men!”

Hattie wondered what it was like in Japan where everyone must look like the stranger.

If she ever did invent a travel machine, she would get a map and find Japan, and look and look in that direction, and press and press the button until she got there.

She would keep the machine with her so if the people there didn’t like her, she could look her way back home again.


One day Hattie brought a picture book about Japan home from the school library.

“Look Mama!” Doesn’t this look like the woman who came to our house!”

“What woman?” her mother said.

“You know, the one from Harry Becker’s farm who said her husband was shot.”

“That never happened.”

“Yes. You remember.”

“No. I don’t. Now go change your clothes and get back here to watch the baby,” her mother said.

Hattie sat on her bed and looked at the picture until her mother called. She closed the book and set it under her pillow. If Uncle Ralph ever got homeshe’dshow him if itseemed like he’d believe her.





Patricia Temple is a retired elementary school teacher living in Alabama. He has been published in The Heartlands Today, Fugue, Wisconsin Review, Portland Review, The Acorn, Deep South Magazine, GHLL, Mobius, Whiskey Island Review and Persimmon Tree.