Twitter

 Home
 Subscribe
 Renew
 Current Issue
 Back Issues
 Events
 Workshops:
    Online
 Submissions
 Contests
 FFC Winery
 Volunteer
 About
 Blog
 Contact Us
 Terms of Use

Vol. 5, No. 4

Watermelon Days
by Tom McNeal

     Early one August evening in Philadelphia in 1926, Doreen Sullivan paid her fifteen-cent admission to the Aldine at Nineteenth and Chestnut. The attraction was Beau Geste with Ronald Colman. Doreen was early. She lingered over the encased posters in the downstairs lobby (for a long moment she stared frankly into the eyes of Ramon Novarro), then took one of the curving marble staircases to the upper lobby and sat down in a brocaded armchair. No one else was there. Doreen lit her own cigarette, something she was rarely required to do in a public place, and from her handbag unfolded a letter she’d already read three or four times. It was a funny and disturbing letter from Lulu Schmidt, her sometimes best friend who almost two years before had run off to New Orleans with Clarence Nottingham and had not been heard from since.
     It began, Dear Dory—if you receive this you must be at the same old address living with Aggie and still wasting away in Phil-a-delph-eye-aye! I got disentangled thank you from Clarence Nottingham (a big drip and how!) and you’ll never guess where I am now Yankton South Dakota—Ha! This town is full of hoot and holler—you’ve got bridge builders and train men and best of all cowboys and even a few Indians but now they dress just like us. Here’s the good part though—the males outnumber the girls 3 to 1! which means they walk up to you and tell you how you look like Lilian Gish only more so! Ha! The letter went on for three skittering pages. It ended with Come see for yourself Dory, there’s jobs and men galore who if they think I’m Lilian Gish will think you’re Greta Garbo Ha! She’d signed, Your everlasting friend Lulu Schmidt.
     People had begun to mass in the upper lobby, their talk light and expectant. Beyond the auditorium doors the pipe organ was playing. A boy materialized beside Doreen and said, “How ‘bout I escort you in?” He was hatless with his hair slicked back and parted down the middle. He was neither good-looking nor bad. He looked, in fact, more or less like all the other boys Doreen saw every day. Coolly, she said, “No, thank you, I’m waiting for someone,” which was true in only the most abstract sense, but she didn’t give the boy another look.
     Thirty minutes into the movie, Doreen went out to the lobby for popcorn. When she got to the counter she was surprised to find not only that she didn’t want popcorn but didn’t want to return to the movie. She drifted outside. Normally Doreen came out of the movie house refreshed, and the lights and voices and laughter of the street would slip into her bloodstream like alcohol, but tonight everything seemed worn out by familiarity. The warm night air smelled faintly sour. She wore a thin, sleeveless dress over a light camisole, but the stares of men, which she usually craved, had no effect on her. There were places to go—there were always places to go—but she felt only like returning home, where Aggie would likely be entertaining one of what she called her gents.
     Doreen had grown up believing her mother to be dead and Aggie to be her older sister, but one day when Doreen was fourteen she came upon a box of documents that included her own birth certificate. The space for the father’s name was blank. Agnes Lee Sullivan was listed as the mother. When confronted with the document, Aggie didn’t blush or stammer. She said, “Why, you little snoop!” And then, “Well, now you know.” And finally, “It’s kind of funny, this morning you didn’t have a mother and, presto, tonight you do!” (In truth, little had changed—Doreen still called Aggie Aggie.)
     When Doreen stepped into the flat tonight, there was a man’s hat on the center table. It was a snap-brim fedora with a nicely creased crown. Doreen picked it up and did what Aggie always did when handed a coat or hat to hang. She ran her fingers over the material—soft felt—and checked the label—LORD & TAYLOR. Not Saks Fifth Avenue, Aggie would’ve said, but not bad.
     Doreen glanced at Aggie’s door. It was closed. If she waited for it, she would hear a laugh. In men, Aggie looked for what she called the three m’s—married, moneyed, and merry—and she gazed upon the boys Doreen brought home with a frozen smile of disapproval. Aggie had produced the same smile a few weeks before when Doreen told her she’d taken a new job at Kresge. “Managed by a man and staffed by girls?” Aggie asked. Doreen’s cheeks pinkened and Aggie pressed her advantage. “Twenty cents an hour?” she said, and Doreen, glancing away, had murmured, “Fifteen.”
     Doreen used the bathroom and went to her room. She double-bolted the door from within (surprisingly often the merry men returning from the bathroom would try the wrong door). The room felt close. Doreen shed everything but her camisole and slip, switched on a black table fan, and opened wide the room’s two windows. She pulled back the bed cover and lay atop the sheets with three pillows plumped behind her bare back. She lit a cigarette, drew the smoke deep into her lungs and held it for a moment before exhaling, reaching for her handbag and again unfolding Lulu Schmidt’s funny letter.

 

~

When Doreen Sullivan started work at WBDY in downtown Yankton three weeks later, she brought with her from Philadelphia an attunement to fashion that the citizens of Yankton had rarely seen outside of magazines—her bobbed hair was marcelled into deep horizontal waves, she wore a wide ribbon in her felt cloche, and she sported a scarf with a King Tut motif. She also used a scarlet lipstick to form her lips into a fresh cupid’s bow that both her male and female co-workers, privately and for different reasons, found unsettling. Shortly after Doreen arrived, a station employee named Monty Longbaugh came in early one morning and very slightly repositioned his desk so he would have an unobstructed view of her as she worked.

     In the early twenties, Monty Longbaugh had not quite made a name for himself as a cowboy balladeer and then had looked around for stabler employment. For the past two years he’d been reading the WBDY weather and farm reports in a consoling voice perfectly suited to solemn stories. In 1925, when he started at the station, Yankton was a river town of just under six thousand, set out on tableland that gently sloped down to the Missouri, the town’s uncertain southern boundary. Monty liked the town. He liked living in one of its neat, white-fenced neighborhoods, and he liked working in one of the stout red stone buildings that dotted its commercial district.
     The Stapleton Building had housed the Birney Seed & Nursery Company since 1913, and it was Henry Birney, the founder’s son, who had grasped the happy commercial implications of radio transmission and quickly purchased the license and frequency designation for WBDY, built its facilities on the Stapleton Building’s third floor, and, when the station’s transmitters were fortified to five hundred watts, had himself hit upon its first slogan: “WBDY, Your Big Buddy on the Great Plains.”
     Weekday mornings, the station aired a show called Neighbor Macy, the Farmwife’s Companion, hosted by an exaggeratedly amiable woman who dispensed budget-stretching recipes and practical domestic tips. She also sold a number of household products available only by mail order from WBDY. For the past four months, and with growing boredom, Doreen had been processing these orders. One day she noticed a red envelope among the shifting sackful of white. It was addressed to Neighbor Macy, Mail Order, but off to the side of the address, neatly printed, were the words Attention Doreen. Doreen slid her letter knife under the sealed flap. On the enclosed sheet of paper—also red—were the words I must talk to you before another sun sets. Signed, Monty Longbaugh. When Doreen looked up and searched out Monty Longbaugh sitting at the far reach of two dozen desks, he was staring back with an expression that somehow seemed both hopeful and forlorn. Doreen had seen the look before. Nothing important had ever come of it, but it had been the source of some nice presents.
     They walked down the street to Wilkemeyer’s Drugs. It was cold. In the street, wheel tracks ridged the frozen mud. He ordered coffee and she sipped lemon Coke from a glass that was soon printed with lipstick. In a tight voice, he asked her about the weather and why she’d come to Yankton and how she liked living there and what her relations thought of it. Doreen kept her responses breezy. She told him if it got any muddier she thought the whole town would slip into the Missouri and she’d only come to Yankton because her friend Lulu Schmidt had written letters singing its praises but then two weeks after she got here Lulu Schmidt went back to a man in New Orleans named Clarence Nottingham, who, it turned out, was Lulu’s husband! She said her sister Aggie in Philadelphia was her only living relative and that her sister Aggie thought Yankton was just across the crusty bog from Timbuktu. After the last of these answers, Doreen gave Monty Longbaugh a saucy smile and said, “Was that the reason you needed to talk to me before another sun sets?”
     Monty Longbaugh shoved his coffee away. He spread his hands and ironed them along his thighs, twice, which made Doreen think of a comic movie where a rural type was about to go after the greased pig at a state fair. Monty cleared his voice and lowered his eyes. “Well,” he said in a low voice, “it’s like all my life up until now I’ve been sleepwalking, and now I’m wide awake.”
     Monty Longbaugh lifted his eyes and allowed them to rest fully on hers. They were black-brown and their wet glisten made her think of a staring deer. None of the three m’s applied to him and the m for money never would. Aggie would’ve said, “Would you excuse me half a half a minute?” and left without looking back. Doreen said, “What was it that woke you up?”
     His gaze broke from hers and shifted to the plate-glass window that gave onto the street. To Doreen, his long smooth pure white face seemed suddenly and shockingly handsome. “Why, you were, of course,” he said. “What woke me up was you.”
     The sauciness slipped from Doreen’s smile. She didn’t know what to say. She said, “I never expected to be anybody’s Prince Charming before.”
     He turned and gave her an open smile. “Well, I never knew I’d been asleep,” he said. He’d reclaimed his normal voice. It was a nice voice, low and assuring, his radio voice.
     She leaned forward. She spoke in a whisper. She said, “Wait till I kiss you. Then you’ll know what waking up is.”

 

~

When Monty proposed marriage five weeks later, Doreen thought, I don’t know, and said yes. “Next Sunday?” Monty said. Doreen nodded. The union was witnessed only by the officiating judge’s wife. Monty made the informal public announcements, often with Doreen standing uneasily nearby. She kept the news from Aggie—she knew the kind of judgments her return questions would contain—and was relieved when their already haphazard correspondence ceased completely.

      To Doreen, the marital state seemed different, but not unpleasant, and she did her best to do exactly what Aggie had never done. She made curtains for their rented house (crooked, though she hemmed them twice) and painted its dingy rooms (in the morning she noticed that drips had hardened on walls and trim boards alike). In the spring she spaded a garden, but the carrots bent as if they’d hit metal and slugs tattered the lettuce. Winter nights, she tried to teach herself knitting, then began weaving rag rugs, which were homely but at least freed her from the reading of unfathomable directions. Doreen began to realize that she missed going to work. She missed going to dances. She missed putting on her camisoles and beaded chiffon dresses and feeling goose bumps in the cold. She began to hate housework and laundry and cooking horrid meals her husband indiscriminately praised. In the first weeks of their courtship, she had loved sitting naked inside Monty’s old wool robe and listening to him sing his cowboy tales—“Little Joe the Wrangler,” “The Strawberry Roan”—but he had proven a heedless, exuberant lover, one who, even when he chanced upon some happy ministration, seemed never to remember it on later occasions, and over time Doreen had grown first indifferent and then secretly hostile to the sentimental stories his ballads contained.
     Two winters passed, one longer than the next. The stock market crash meant little to most citizens of Yankton (few had had money to invest), but it was the latest in a long line of bad news stretching back almost ten years, the cumulative effect of which Monty reported in his daily farm report. He might try a joke or anecdote afterwards, but when he reported Chicago wheat at ninety-seven cents a bushel or feeder calves at a nickel a pound, his voice was low and somber.
     In the third summer of their marriage, a record drought hit the northern plains. The wind blew. Dust settled over fields and houses. Gardens, lawns, and pastures browned. Temperatures shot up and seemed not to fall. At night families laid out blankets on Ohlman Hill hoping for some refreshment. One night when Monty and Doreen both lay awake in their screened sleeping porch, he rose to look at the thermometer and then went to the kitchen. When he came back he said, “It’s 2:40 a.m. and eighty-six degrees.” After that they didn’t speak. He’d wrapped some chipped ice in a wetted washcloth. He lifted her gown and began damping her ankles and legs with the cool cloth. The pleasantness of this surprised her. She closed her eyes and lifted her buttocks so he could push the nightgown past and made murmuring sounds of a type Monty had never before heard. The hot spell continued, and several other nights Doreen, without opening her eyes, would in a whisper ask him to go fetch his iced cloth and he, as if in a dream, would begin moving about.
     Doreen became pregnant. She told no one, and didn’t quite believe it herself until the fact became undeniable. When finally she announced the news to Monty, he was so pleased that his expression collapsed, his eyes moistened, and he had to turn away in embarrassment. This had a strange effect on Doreen. “I’ll need to slow down,” she said. “I’ll need to do less around the house.”
     “I can cook,” Monty said. The sudden expansion of his spirits nearly seemed visible. “I know a couple of pretty good camp meals.”
     Doreen almost felt Aggie’s presence in the room. She seated herself carefully. “And the cleaning,” she said. “Someone will have to clean.”
     The town’s two baby doctors were Carlton Johnston, a genial but clumsy man, and Jennie Murphy, whose custom of presenting herself in men’s suits made some citizens standoffish, but Doreen preferred the gynecological intrusions of an eccentric woman to a butterfingered man, so it was Dr. Jennie Murphy who delivered the baby in the early morning hours of April 5, 1931. Toward the end, between coaxings to push, Dr. Murphy repeatedly muttered, “That’s the stuff!” and “Now we’re cooking!” When finally the baby was expelled, it was taken quickly away by the nurse while Dr. Murphy did some stitching and daubing, then removed the soiled bedding. A minute or two later she returned, adjusted her suspenders, buttoned her sleeves, and slipped into her suit coat. She laid a hand on Doreen’s forehead to check for temperature. Then, making to go, she looked down at her patient and said, “You did splendidly, Doreen,” which for no reason whatsoever made Doreen want to cry. Monty returned with the baby swaddled and pinkly clean. “Girl,” he announced, beaming. “A dandy little girl.” Doreen looked at the baby’s squinchy face, wept hopefully, and fell into a hard sleep. Some indeterminate time later, she awakened confused. The room was dark and the windows were rattling gently. In a faraway room a baby was crying. The clock said one-fifteen, but the dark was not the darkness of night. Doreen called suddenly for Monty and after a time a nurse appeared. She closed the door quickly behind her to muffle the sound of the baby’s crying. “Where’s Monty?” Doreen asked.
     “He’s gone to the station on account of the storm,” the nurse said. She was stout, middle-aged, and veiny in the cheeks and nose. “It’s terrible dust. Middle of an afternoon and the autos outside are passing with their lights on. Mr. Longbaugh on the radio called it a black blizzard and I thought, Well that’s close enough.” The window glass shuddered. A moment later, Doreen became again aware of the dim, stretched-out cries of a baby. The nurse said, “It’s a funny storm. Edna Arlene don’t like it.”
     “Edna Arlene?”
     “Your baby. Mr. Longbaugh said that was her name, after his deceased mother.” She waited a second. “Should I bring the baby in now?”
     The nurse thought Doreen would say yes, and so did Doreen, but when she opened her mouth she heard herself say, “Not for a bit yet.”
     “You just rest then,” the nurse said, and when she came close to arrange Doreen’s bedcovers she brought with her the faint smell of liquor. Doreen closed her eyes. Outside, behind the wind, there was a steady drone that became a kind of silence.

~

Doreen had no experience whatever with babies, and to the degree she’d thought of them at all, she’d sketched them in as sleepy, genial creatures, pleasing to dress up and roll about in buggies, but Edna Arlene was none of these things. She was drooly, colicky, and overly covetous of her mother’s touch. At night she would not sleep alone—Doreen would rock her to sleep, but the moment she set her down in the cradle and let go, Edna Arlene awakened screaming, so Doreen finally brought the baby to bed, where she slept between her and Monty. During the day, the baby cried when awake and napped only when held. Doreen’s exhaustion was complete.

     She hadn’t exchanged a word with Aggie for over two years, but now dashed off a penny postcard. Did I mention I was a missus and a momma? Edna Arlene is my baby girl, cute as a button but a demon for ceaseless screaming. Advice? Love, D. The return card read, Dear Yoked Up in Yankton, Must be in the bloodlines—you were a Banshee yourself and saved from sacrifice only by use of earplugs! Love, A.
     One day when Monty was off at the station and Edna Arlene’s shrill cries were like a strafing, Doreen wanted more than anything to clamp her hand over the baby’s mouth and face but instead laid her down screaming among pillows on the floor. She went out on the front porch and closed the door, but the cries pierced the walls. She began to walk. When she reached the corner of Fifth and Mulberry, she stood for a full minute meaning to go back, but didn’t. Instead she walked the five blocks more to Wilkemeyer’s Drugs and bought a package of Lucky Strikes. When she thought the girl at the register was staring at her, she said, “The neighbor’s watching my baby.” Doreen made a little laugh. “That baby’s a handful. It’s awful nice to be out for a minute or two.” She hurried back to the house, uphill, breathless, and was at first terrified when she heard nothing at all from the room where she’d left the baby. But Edna Arlene was nestled among pillows sleeping so calmly she seemed hardly to breathe. Doreen lay down on the floor beside the girl and on an impulse leaned close to lightly kiss her smooth forehead, which snapped Edna Arlene awake and started a fresh course of screaming.
     By the second year the crying had somewhat abated. Edna Arlene would play quietly as long as Doreen or Monty was within eyeshot. And though the girl made syllable-like sounds, they didn’t evolve into intelligible words. If she was hungry or otherwise needed something, she made a series of urgent guttural squeals that Doreen couldn’t help but think of as piggish. When Doreen raised the subject with Monty, he was unalarmed. He said that he himself hadn’t spoken until his fourth year and that big tongues ran in his family. “Big tongues?” Doreen said. She’d never heard of tongues hereditarily big. She considered writing Aggie about it, but instead took the girl to Dr. Murphy, who peered into Edna’s mouth and, pinching the tip of the suspect tongue, waggled it side to side. Then she released it and said, “Well, it’s good-sized all right.” She smiled at the girl and turned to Doreen. “Your daughter will talk when she’s ready. She might lisp and she might not, but in any case it’s nothing to worry about.” In all other ways, Dr. Murphy said, Edna Arlene was perfectly normal.
     When Edna Arlene began to talk shortly before her fourth birthday, she did in fact lisp, which her father found endearing. He began to use it on the radio. After reporting, for instance, that the WPA boys were in town cleaning Marne Creek and widening Main Street, he said, “Well, as my baby daughter likes to say, ‘Thank goodneth for mitha Woothevelt.’” Listeners responded favorably, and the observations Monty Longbaugh passed as his lisping daughter’s soon became the standard closing element in his news summaries.
     Edna Arlene liked hearing her father’s voice on the radio, and enjoyed it when he talked in the funny lisping voice. One morning, at the end of the eleven-thirty market, weather, and news, Monty Longbaugh said, “Well, as my baby girl said just the other night, ‘God muth not’ve been payin attenthin when he made up gwathhoppeth.” Doreen, sitting smoking a cigarette, didn’t laugh, but Edna Arlene did. Then she asked her mother why Papa didn’t bring that baby girl home to visit.
     Doreen asked what baby girl she was talking about and Edna Arlene said the one on the radio that talks like that.
     Doreen stared for a moment at Edna Arlene, then began to laugh. It had become a husky, hollow laugh, rattly, as if there were in her throat tiny dry leaves she couldn’t expel. Edna Arlene’s first five years had corresponded with drought and other assorted maladies. Hopper swarms defoliated fields and formed horny encrustments on the walls and porches of lighted houses. Whole herds of anthrax-infected cattle were shot and bulldozed into mass graves. Civic-minded hunters brought to the Red Cross blood-stained flour sacks weighted with rabbits for the hungry. Barbers gave free haircuts to those who couldn’t pay, and the town’s two banks consolidated. At night, tramps congregated around cookfires along the riverbank south of Burleigh Street. It was a life as distant from Philadelphia as Doreen could imagine. She said, “Edna Arlene, the girl your papa’s imitating on the radio is you.” She wanted to stop, but couldn’t. She said, “It’s you everybody’s laughing at.”
     Edna Arlene’s body stiffened. Her face contorted and her lower lip doubled downward. She was about to cry, but instead she did something surprising. She turned stoic. Her eyes settled. Her face became itself again. “No,” she said, “thath not twue.”
     Doreen’s voice softened. “The world’s full of hard truths, little miss, and the sooner you learn it the better.”
     Edna Arlene went to the sewing room and slipped into the knee well of her mother’s Singer. From there she could see what her mother couldn’t. It was true that Monty Longbaugh on the radio was her father, but not exactly, because Monty Longbaugh on the radio was always someplace different, where he was somebody different and where he had his own radio family that was different, too. That baby girl her father talked about on the radio couldn’t be herself, Edna Arlene, because she didn’t sound like that girl her father talked about, not one bit, and, besides, she never said the things the radio girl said. She’d never said anything about God not paying attention when he made grasshoppers, for example.
     To a surprising degree, Edna Arlene was able to believe what she told herself that day. Still, she began to talk more quietly and less often, so people wouldn’t make the same mistake her mother had.

 

~

One Sunday afternoon in mid-August, while Monty was at work, Doreen sat on the front porch with Edna Arlene. It was hot and dry and gritty. Doreen had damp-ragged the dust from the porch chair before she sat in it. Edna Arleen played with a miniature car, painted orange, except where the metal showed through. She ran the car slowly along the top porch rail, one end to the other and back again, something she could do for an hour, trancelike, without uttering a word.

     In the center of town, a watermelon festival was in progress, and its distant music pulled at Doreen. “Let’s go to the festivities,” she said, and Edna Arlene stopped her car and turned around to stare. Doreen said, “There’ll be music and carnival acts and pyramids of melon.”
     Edna Arlene quickly tucked her car into her pocket to indicate she was ready to go.
     Doreen took the girl’s hand and walked toward the music. In the park there were sack races, seed-spitting contests, and free melon, all of which interested Edna Arlene, but Doreen was drawn to the pavement dance. It was the accordion player and his Honolulu Fruit Gum Orchestra. Doreen positioned herself among the encircling fringe of onlookers and after a while stepped onto the pavement and pulled Edna Arlene out with her, trying by her own example to coax the girl into dancing, but Edna Arlene stood miserably with her eyes down until Doreen gave up and slipped back among the nonparticipants.
     Doreen bent down and said in a tight whisper, “Little miss is a horrible lump.”
     Edna Arlene held tightly to her mother’s print skirt with one hand and her orange car with the other, and peered straight ahead.
     They’d watched perhaps three dances when a man in a cowboy hat broke free from the opposite fringe and started working his way through the dancers toward Doreen. He was a complete stranger, a tall loose-jointed man, pleasing to look at as he moved easily through the dancers, smiling and apologizing politely, nodding and touching the brim of his dress Stetson, but all the while keeping his gaze fixedly in Doreen’s direction. Doreen thought, Oh, Lord, and didn’t know whether she was hoping he was going to ask her to dance or hoping he wouldn’t. He was handsome. He was handsome, and how. As he moved nearer, Edna Arlene’s grip on Doreen’s leg began to tighten and Doreen herself was suddenly overcome with something that seemed equal parts panic and exhilaration. He wore a neatly pressed pearl-buttoned green shirt. His smile seemed playful. But his eyes, which had seemed fixed on Doreen’s face, seemed to shift just to her side. He was looking beyond her. His shirt sleeve grazed Doreen’s bare hand as he slipped past her. Behind her, she heard him say, “Well, if it ain’t Gordy McAllister! And here I thought you musta succumbed ages ago.”
     A big laugh issued forth, presumably from Gordy McAllister.
     Doreen took Edna Arlene to the free-watermelon line and found herself a bench in the shade. She waved when Edna Arlene turned to wave from line, and again when the girl turned happily as she neared the men handing out slices. Doreen felt all-overish. She closed her eyes and opened them again when a woman passing by hummed a tune vaguely familiar to Doreen. I’m Billy Jones, I’m...something something...and we’re a—, Doreen couldn’t remember it.
     Across the square Edna Arlene was eating her melon with another girl, who then led her off to a small group of girls playing a game Doreen couldn’t fathom. The girls sat stock-still in a circle for a time and then, out of the blue, two of them would suddenly stand, race to touch a nearby tree trunk, and return shrieking to the circle. The one who lost was consigned to run again against someone else. It was plain that Edna Arlene, slow and clumsy, would be doing a lot of running.
     The girls grew silent as they noticed Doreen drawing close. “It’s OK,” Doreen said, “don’t stop your game. I just wanted to tell Edna Arlene that I’m running a tiny errand and will be back in a little bit.”
     Doreen had thought she might go home for something to settle her stomach, but gravitated instead to Wilkemeyer’s, away from the hubbub. There were a few other customers, but Doreen met no one’s eyes. She seated herself in the same booth she’d shared long ago when Monty Longbaugh had to speak to her before the next sunset. She ordered a seltzer and saltines. While she waited she took a pen from her purse. She printed her maiden name on a napkin—DOREEN SULLIVAN—and stared at it in hopes of remembering what it meant to be that person with that name, but all she saw now were oddly familiar letters—the feelings that defined the name had slipped away completely. Doreen was crying before she knew it, and when a waitress she knew came over and in a kindly voice said, “You all right, darlin’?” Doreen had snufflingly nodded and said, “Oh, you know, it’s just one of those days.”
     The waitress waited a second or two. “Monty was in a little bit ago, beaming like a bride. He said if you came in to tell you he had some news that might interest you.”
     Doreen snufflingly laughed. Well, I’ve got a little news for him, too, she thought, but what she said was, “Well, I’ll be looking forward to his news flash.”
     The waitress said, “He probably spent the morning dreaming up some new way for you to make him money. That’s what my Donald does.”
     A few minutes later, while Doreen was sipping her water, the waitress came to the table with a rolled magazine, which she presented to Doreen. It was the new Photoplay, with a sultry James Stewart staring out from the cover. (In a circle superimposed on his shoulder were the words BORN TO DANCE!) Doreen looked at the waitress.
     “Keep it,” the waitress said. “I’ve already read it.”
     The elusive tune streamed again through Doreen’s mind—I’m Billy Jones, I’m blankety-blank—and she gave her head a quick shake to dispel it. It was a novelty song, she was pretty sure, and she didn’t like novelty songs. She paid her bill in change, then stood for a moment outside the pharmacy wondering if Edna Arlene was still playing with those girls. She decided to walk up to the station to hear Monty’s news, but when she got there she walked by and kept walking until she found herself in Foerster’s Park, strangely quiet with the citizenry drawn to the festivities in town. She seated herself at a shady table near the rock amphitheater and pretended not to see three tramps standing and drinking some distance away, also in the shade. She read her magazine for a minute or two, then lay her arms on the table and her head on her arms. She closed her eyes. Even when she heard a crack of twigs and the definite tamp of footsteps, she kept her head down and eyes closed.
     “Everything all right, miss?”
     A male voice, a little high in pitch.
     Doreen didn’t speak.
     “You sick or something?”
     As Doreen raised her head, the tramp removed his cap. He was surprisingly young, a boy, in fact. His cheeks were pink and smooth. “What do you want?” she said.
     He shrugged. “You looked like something might be wrong.”
     “There’s not though.”
     The boy stood where he was.
     Doreen said, “Aren’t you awful young for a tramp?”
     The boy with some spine in his voice said, “I’m full sixteen.” Doreen doubted this, but didn’t say so. The boy said, “And I just think of myself as an unfunded traveler.” Then he said, “I used to have a job in Omaha killing chickens, but that ran out.” He said, “A lot of the old guys ride up in the boxcars, but I ride underneath, on the connecting rods. You never get caught riding down there.”
     Doreen gave the boy her first full and direct look. “What’re you and your unfounded-traveler buddies over there drinking?”
     “I’m not drinking nothing,” the boy said. “I made a promise I wouldn’t till I was eighteen.”
     Doreen said, “Who was that promise to?”
     The boy for the first time looked down.
     From town a rousing cheer carried.
     The boy lifted his head and said cheerfully, “Guess the prizefighting’s started.”
     They were both quiet, as if listening, but no other cheers followed. Abruptly, Edna Arlene came to Doreen’s mind, but then she thought, Edna Arlene is fine. To the boy she said, “One day from our front window I watched a tramp working his way down our street. He stopped and knocked at some houses and others he left alone. Why do you think he did that?”
     The boy’s eyes moved to Doreen’s as if pulled. “Did he come up to your house?”
     He had, but Doreen said he hadn’t.
     “Oh,” the boy said. The news seemed to disappoint him.
     She suddenly wanted a cigarette, but knew that lighting one in the presence of this tramp would seem to an onlooker familiar. Yankton was a good-sized town, but it was small at heart. She said, “You hungry?”
     “I could go for something to eat, sure.”
     “I don’t cook,” Doreen said. She opened her purse, found her package of cigarettes and tapped one out. She made a wry face and said, “Reach for a Lucky instead of a sweet.” She was searching for her matchbook when the boy said, “I got it.” He held a lighted match in his cupped hands. She leaned close, took the smoke into her lungs, and leaned away. She exhaled and stared forward. She said, “My husband does all the cooking, every bit of it, and the cleanup, too.” She inhaled again, and this time released the smoke through her nose. “He made me promise I’d never tell that to a soul”—here she fixed the boy with her eyes—“and now I have.”
     The boy said, “I’m good at keeping secrets.” He said this so smoothly Doreen tried to look behind his eyes to see if he meant something by it, but all she found was more earnestness. She said, “What other sins did you forswear until age eighteen?”
     “Tobacco.”
     “That all?”
     The color rose in the boy’s pink cheeks.
     Doreen said, “So I guess there’s one other thing.”
     The boy said, “Yes, ma’am.”
     Doreen laughed. “And it’s not snuff.”
     The boy shook his head and said blandly, “Snuff’s included with tobacco.”
     The boy’s simpleness was both an annoyance and an enticement to Doreen, and in the past few seconds she’d experienced a strange effusion of feeling that, while unshaped, she knew at bottom to be illicit. Without looking at the boy she said, “In my coin purse there’s maybe seventy-five cents. It’s all I’ve got. Go ahead and take it.”
     The boy didn’t move. She looked at him. He said, “I’d rather you handed it to me, if it’s all the same to you. So I wouldn’t be removing it from your purse.”
     She poured the coins into his cupped hands. The boy said, “Thank you, lady.” The term had a deflating effect. Doreen smoked for a few seconds, then she said, “So how’d that tramp know? How’d he know to go to just the nice houses?”
     The boy shrugged. “There’s probably marks on the gatepost or under the letter box or something. A circle means good for a handout and a circle with rising squiggles means good cook.” The boy made an odd, crooked grin. “A circle with a crosshatch means a cranky lady or bad dog.”
     As the boy was leaving, Doreen said, “It was your mother who made you promise those things, wasn’t it?”
     The boy stopped. He took a quick glance at his companions as if to judge whether they might overhear. He returned a few steps and kept his voice low. “It wasn’t my mother. It was the mother of a pal of mine. In Omaha. This was two years ago, just before him and me were going off to Oklahoma to start up with a harvesting crew. She made us both promise.” The boy had a sheepish smile, like he was trying to explain something unexplainable. “She was just my pal’s mother so I didn’t think it would matter, but then I found it did.”

~

The sun was low in the sky when Doreen returned to the Watermelon Days. Almost everyone was gone, but there were more flies than Doreen had ever before seen in one place. Edna Arlene was alone, slowly walking among picnic tables, eating pink remnants from discarded rinds. When she looked up and saw her mother, she dropped the rind at hand and ran over crying. Her chin was pink and dripping with juice and her cheeks were dirty with tears. “Momma,” she said, and Doreen leaned down to take her into her arms. The girl held on as if for dear life. Doreen held and soothed her until she felt the dampness of her sleeve beneath Edna Arlene’s buttocks, then she set her down at once. “You’ve wetted yourself,” she said. She took her to the water fountain and while the girl cried in humiliation took off her clothes and bathed her. The girl bawled and trembled uncontrollably. “Wheah wuh you?” she said. “Wheah wuh you?” and for a flashing instant Doreen wanted to say in a mimicking whisper, Wheah wuh you? Wheah wuh you?, but by this time there were onlookers, two women, not close by but within possible earshot. “I wasn’t far,” Doreen said. “I wasn’t far at all. I was right over there all the time.”

     When they got home and opened the front door, the air was rich with frying meat. Monty stood at the stove tending wienerwurst and onion slices in a black skillet. Doreen in a flat voice said, “I thought Sundays were meatless.” This referred to a belt-tightening strategy Monty himself had initiated.
     “Well, we’re celebrating,” Monty said, turning. He was wearing an apron over his faded street clothes. “I’ve got some good news.”
     “Me, too,” Doreen said, “but you first.”
     But Monty Longbaugh’s eyes were now fixed on his daughter, who stood whimpering in her damp blue dress. She held her wet underdrawers in front of her, pinched between two fingers. Her face was contorted from efforts not to weep. He said, “What happened to Edna?”
     Doreen shrugged. “That’s part of my good news. She ate too much melon and wetted herself so completely I had to clean her up in a public water fountain.”
     Monty Longbaugh looked at the girl and said, “Oh, Sweetie.”
     Edna Arlene said, “Some boyth took Tootie.” Her orange metal car.
     Monty said, “I know where we can get another Tootie. I know just where.” He turned off the stove and took her hand. “But right now let’s find you some fresh clothes,” he said, sweetly, almost crooning. “Then we can come back and all of us have a wienerwurst sandwich.” In her smallest voice, Edna Arlene asked if she could have a puddle of ketchup in the middle of the plate, and her father said, “Sure you can, sweetie. Smack dab in the middle.”
     In their absence, Doreen forked a sausage and several coils of fried onion onto a slab of bread, folded it, and ate it quickly over the sink, washed down with a room-temperature Schlitz. Then she went to the front porch and smoked. It was early evening, but still hot. She sat back in the shadows, watching boys pass by on bicycles, the occasional automobile, citizens on constitutional walks. From somewhere a man yelled, “Cyrus, where are you?” Doreen recrossed her legs and waited, for what she had no idea. She thought about going in for another Schlitz but didn’t. The man called again for Cyrus.
     Eventually Monty stepped onto the porch and quietly set the screen door closed behind him, which meant Edna Arlene was asleep. He settled into the chair beside Doreen. After a time, he said, “She seemed kind of shaky.”
     Doreen didn’t speak until she’d finished her cigarette and flicked the stubbed butt over the porch rail. She said, “Somebody whose voice I don’t recognize keeps calling for somebody named Cyrus. Who do you suppose he is, this Cyrus?”
     Monty wasn’t interested in Cyrus. “Edna Arlene said you left and told her you’d be back in a little bit but you didn’t come back.”
     Doreen hadn’t looked at Monty since he’d come out, and she didn’t now. In a flat recitative voice, she said, “After I left Edna Arlene at the little melonfest, I thought I was going to come home but instead I went to Wilkemeyer’s for a lemon Coke and a magazine. Then I was going to come see you at the station but instead walked on to Forester’s Park to sit in the shade. While I was there I talked to a tramp who was sixteen and had taken an oath against all sin. After that I came home and read my Photoplay in the bathtub until I remembered Edna Arlene. I’d just added hot water and I wanted to finish reading the magazine, so I did, and then I went and got her.” For Doreen, telling her husband this version of things in this voice provided a kind of repudiative satisfaction—it made her think of the childhood pleasure of carving a swear word into a park bench.
     Monty Longbaugh said, “You went alone to Forester’s and talked to a tramp?”
     Doreen had to laugh. “Why? Did the town council write up a rule against that?”
     Sullenly Monty said, “They didn’t have to.” He waited a few seconds. “So how long was Edna Arlene alone at the watermelon festival?”
     Doreen hadn’t thought of it that way, and gave it a quick computation. Two hours, and then some. “A while,” she said. “I wasn’t keeping a logbook.” Then she said, “Look, if what you’re trying to point out is that I’m not the tip-toppest mother, don’t bother. I can see my shortcomings.” Another silence developed. Finally Doreen in a quieter voice said, “Which brings us to my own bit of news.” She made an unhappy smile and kept her eyes forward. “It turns out I’m just a little bit pregnant.”
     She felt him staring at her, but she still didn’t turn. “And that’s not all the good news,” she said. “It also turns out that our good citizens have run out of town the only abortionist who kept her kitchen clean.”
     A second or two passed, then he said, “Abortionist? What in God’s name are you talking about, Doreen?”
     She said, “I’m talking about the present situation as I see it.”
     Someone was again calling for Cyrus.
     Monty said in a small voice, “Well, whose—” but Doreen cut him off. “It’s yours, Monty. Don’t worry your pretty little head about that.”
     “Then—” His voice trailed off.
     She said, “I’m bad with one child, Monty. I’ll be worse with two. And these aren’t exactly halcyon days, if you’ve been paying attention. There’s not a lot of loose change laying around.”
     Monty Longbaugh had turned from her and was staring out toward the street. “We’ll be all right,” he said, almost more to himself than to her.
     A full minute of black silence passed. Then Doreen said, “OK, so what’s your big news then?”
     Monty seemed jerked back from some distant place. “What?”
     “When we came home you said you had some big news. You never said what.”
     In a low voice he said, “I didn’t say it was big news, Doreen.”
     “I just figured it must be, what with your breaking out the wienies and all.” Wienies, she knew, was a term her husband didn’t like.
     He said, “It seemed like bigger news at the time.”
     “Well, either you tell me your news or I’m going to walk down to the river to cool off.” When he didn’t speak, Doreen stood up.
     “I won the new-slogan contest for the station,” he said, flat-voiced. “WBDY, your Midwest address for CBS.’ Mr. Birney said the vote was almost unanimous. He said there was over five hundred entries.”
     Doreen said, “What did you win?”
     “A treasury bond,” he said. “Just a small one.” Then he said, “It’s for five dollars.”
     Doreen stepped around him and walked toward the street. At the sidewalk she stopped to look back. Their house faced west. The last slanting light turned the white fence and gateposts a buttery yellow. She looked at one gatepost and then the other. There, a few inches above the ground, was some penciling. She bent close. A circle with vapors rising. She looked up at Monty sitting perfectly still on the porch beyond the light, a hobo’s idea of a good cook.
     She began to walk.
     He called after her. “Take a coat,” Doreen.
     She pretended not to hear. It wasn’t cold and she didn’t look pregnant. She took a meandering route to the river, waiting for dark. She felt the grip within her loosen. It was what she used to feel long ago after evenings in the Aldine, the unencumbering conversion of light to darkness, of known to unknown. She liked the river best when everything slipped up from darkness, the heavy rush of the water, its murmurings and shiftings, the wood smoke from the cook fires attended by tramps standing in half-light, laughter without cheer, songs she knew were bawdy but could not quite hear. To the side of the pilings, a landing overlooked the river. A lamp fixed to the underside of the bridge’s truss beam shone down on the overlook. When she paused a few moments to stand in that illumination with her hands folded below the waist and her back straight, she could sense a stillness coming over the camps, and feel herself pulling imaginations up out of darkness.

 

~

An hour or so after setting out, Doreen returned to the house. Monty sat waiting in the same place. He’d known she’d be back. She often walked; she always came home, usually with her spirits improved. She unlatched the gate. She seated herself on the porch next to him and after perhaps a minute had gone by, she said, “Pretty down there tonight.” Meaning the river.

     He didn’t speak. As they sat, the voice again called out for Cyrus.
     Doreen in a low voice said, “I think maybe it’s time Cyrus should get his little hindquarters home.”
     Monty’s laugh was sudden and caught him by surprise. It changed his mood slightly, caused some mysterious ignition of hope. He said, “Maybe Cyrus is doing something real important,” and was glad when Doreen threw in with a little laugh of her own.
     “Real important like what?” she said.
      In a low, loose voice Monty said, “Well, maybe Cyrus and somebody are conjugating a certain verb.”
     Doreen laughed easily and slid down just a bit in her chair. The tune came again to
     mind, and she hummed it for Monty, breaking in with the words she knew. “Yeah,” he said when she was done, “It’s that song from the Happiness Boys.”
     How do you do? How do you do?
     Gee, it’s great to see all of you
     I’m Billy Jones
     I’m Ernie Hare
     And we’re a silly-looking pair,
     How do you doodle doodle do?
     He sang it slow tempo in his low pleasant voice, his radio voice. It was a novelty song all right, but the way he sang it, it didn’t sound like one. “One more time,” she said. Doreen blinked closed her eyes and had a hard time opening them again. There was a handbill from Monty’s singing cowboy days. It presented his long, smooth, almost equine face framed top and bottom by a dark kerchief and a black Stetson, and that’s who, turning toward him in the dark, he seemed now to be.

Back to Top

© 2001- American Zoetrope
All trademarks used herein are exclusive property of The Family Coppola