Indiana Christmas

(Adapted from The Prince of Alexandria)

Rod Lee awoke shortly before midnight and stumbled down the narrow stairs, hoping his bumping against walls and furniture would not awaken the others. A struck match allowed him to locate a candle. Its soft glow illuminated the kitchen enough to end his collisions. He fumbled through the icebox for the pitcher of buttermilk. The rich, thick liquid began to calm his nerves, which had taken on the habit of continuing to receive messages from his brain all hours of the night.

Tomorrow would be his third Christmas since his return from Egypt. How he missed the adventure of reporting the struggle of a nation rebelling against the Ottoman Empire, British Empire, and any other foreigner who sought to rule it.

Although he had planned on accepting a position at a Chicago newspaper after returning from Egypt, life had intervened. After much reflection, he had accepted Patty Pierson’s proposal “to be lonely together.” Now Rod knew the life of a farmer on the land his mother-in-law Mrs. Pierson had deeded to his wife Patty.

“Two’s company but three’s a crowd.” Mrs. Pierson had said when she moved to a friend’s boardinghouse in Evansville. “Besides, I’m all farmed out after sixty-three years of living on one.”

Soon any lingering loneliness either Rod or Patty might feel would be banished. She lay sleeping on the soft straw-filled mattress, their first child growing inside of her womb. Thoughts of fatherhood troubled Rod. Faced with a crossroads scarier than any of his earlier ones, he knew this decision would chart the course for the rest of his life. Talking it over with Patty had only complicated the issue.

“You have to decide, Rod. I love you and will back you up either way,” she had said.

Being offered a position at the largest newspaper in southwestern Indiana seemed a deal too good to be true. But acceptance would mean much time away from his soon to be born child because their farm was fifteen miles from town, a journey of two to four hours, depending on the weather and disposition of whichever horse carried or pulled him there.

As was his habit, Rod moved to the front parlor. After positioning firewood over the faint embers, he sat next to the hearth in his favorite overstuffed chair. Its footrest bore a permanent indentation from Mr. Pierson’s years of resting his boots on it. The notebooks Rod wrote in were larger than those he had filled as a journalist. Now they were the kind used by college students for essays. Into them went whatever came to mind, scenes with characters he understood but doubted any reader would.

When Patty had given him a copy of Ben Hur for his last birthday Rod devoured its pages in three days. He glanced at the dog-eared book. If another Indiana writer can write like that then maybe I can too.

By the time Patty joined him downstairs, Rod’s pencil had dropped to the floor and his head was quivering in response to his snores. Soon the aroma of breakfast stopped the snores, replaced by stretches and yawns.

“Better get up, sleepyhead! We have to meet Ma for church in town.”

Rod shook the stiffness from muscles and joints as he staggered to the kitchen. He put his head beneath the pump above the metal sink and pulled down on the handle until his hair and neck were soaked with icy water.

“At least the pipe didn’t freeze up again.”

After drying off with a dishrag, he went back upstairs and dressed. Then he poked his head into the smallest bedroom to wake his younger brother.

“Better get up or you’ll miss Santa.”

The twenty-two year old boy-man stirred.

“Merry Christmas, Billy.”

“Christmas?”

“Come on down for breakfast.”

Billy jumped out of bed and stubbed his toe against the leg of his dresser. Dancing on one foot to relieve the pain, he threw an undershirt, socks, and pair of drawers onto his bed. Then he fished his “Sunday meeting go to church” blue suit from the closet. Five minutes later, the image in the mirror convinced him he would pass Rod’s inspection. Billy had a man’s fully developed body, the mind of a young boy. For him, the lure of what lay beneath the Christmas tree was stronger than the delicious smells drifting to the second floor.

“Looky there! Which ones is for me?” He pointed at the presents before he touched the bottom step of the stairway.

Rod watched from the doorway separating the front parlor and the kitchen. “You know Mom will tan your hide if you open up her present when she’s not here, little brother. Come on in and eat.”

“Aw, shucks. I always have to wait all of the time for everything.”

“You’ll live.”

They devoured the bacon, eggs, and toast without talking. Each realized there would be hell to pay if they arrived late at the worship service. That hell would not be delivered by the preacher but by Mrs. Pierson, who preached that being late for one’s own funeral was the only tardiness acceptable when it came to church gatherings. Christmas day especially made her vigilant for laggards.

After breakfast, Billy helped Rod to hitch the horses to the sleigh. Though winter had officially begun only days earlier the roads already were clogged by enough snow to make travel by wagon too slow and treacherous. As he had for every Christmas since age three, Billy wore a long red cap with a white ball dangling from its pointed end. Riding in the sleigh transformed him into one of Santa’s elves as he handed out aliases.

“You’re Santa, Rod, and I’m your elf!”

Patty, seated between them, elbowed him in his ribs. “Who am I then, Billy?”

“Mrs. Claus, silly. And that’s another elf in your belly.”

They laughed. The fifteen-mile trip to Evansville was spent singing every Christmas carol and Yuletide hymn Billy knew, all thirty-seven of them. Mrs. Pierson’s icy stare when they entered the otherwise warm church let them know they had missed too much of the organist’s prelude before the service. It lasted a full hour every Christmas. Rod let his wife and brother first enter the pew where Mrs. Pierson sat so they could serve as a buffer. From painful experience, he knew she was willing to chastise wrongdoers with whispered rebukes during the service. When Billy sat next to her she trembled. Her face grew beet red as she snatched the cap from his head.

“No hats in church!” Her hiss reminded Billy of snakes he had stumbled across in the cornfields.

Billy grabbed it back and placed it gingerly in his coat pocket. “I forgot, Grandma. Sorry.”

Rod chuckled. Billy had yet to grasp the concept of a mother-in-law. After much confusion he had decided his sister and brother’s respective mothers-in-law were his grandmothers-in-law.

“That’s because my real grandmas and grandpa died already. So Rod and Sarah went out and found me one new grandpa and two new grandmas by getting married.” He always explained to any who asked about his extended family.

The service was short.

Pastor Henkhauser knew most in attendance morning were itching to get back home for Christmas dinner, gift exchanges, and merrymaking, not listening to his pontificating so he trimmed the sermon to half its normal time. Speaking of the Babe in the manger surrounded by farm animals and visited by shepherds, he tossed his pitch to the farm families who made up over half of his congregation. He also mentioned the Three Kings of the East. Based on their elaborate gifts, they were certainly shrewd operators when it came to finances. That platitude was a nod to the businessmen, bankers, and so forth in attendance.

“Let us become like the shepherds and three kings, worshippers of our Savior Jesus Christ born in Bethlehem so long ago.” His conclusion created a stir in the children. Just one last hymn to endure.

As its last words faded the most anxious children exited the pews without parents and ran to the social hall next to the church. Their mothers, sisters, aunts, and grandmothers had spent the previous week baking; those goodies now filled the hall with aromas summoning the youngsters. Any who hesitated would not be able to slip some of them into pockets for the ride or walk home before stuffing cookies, brownies, and gooey pieces of walnut-studded fudge into their salivating mouths.

Rod was the first adult to follow the children into the hall. Close on his heels was Mrs. Pierson, describing every piece of music her daughter had missed during the worship service’s prelude, all “wonderfully played by my good friend, Annabelle Erickson.” Oblivious to the treats, Rod scanned the hall for a safe harbor from her monolog.

Like they say, Any old port in a storm. He hurried to Stewart Daloy’s side, even though he was known to use any occasion to talk politics, even a holiday celebration.

The Daloys hailed from Kentucky. Rumor had it that Stewart’s father had been part of the Ku Klux Klan Klavern that had crept across the Ohio River into Indiana and burned a farmhouse serving as part of the Underground Railroad to the ground. The story continued with the Daloys later fleeing from Kentucky because of trouble with law enforcement. Since settling on a farm near Evansville, the family had led a quiet existence, which ran counter to tales of supernatural goings-on involving its males every full moon.

“Hello, Stewart.” He thrust out his hand. “Merry Christmas.”

“And Merry Christmas to you, Rod.” When Rod kept glancing at Mrs. Pierson, Stewart turned to see the distraction. “Avoiding your mother-in-law, eh? Can’t say I blame you. She’s bent my ear more than once about the evils of the Klan.”

“The Klan? Everybody knows they’ve dried up around here for the most part.”

The two moved to the table laden with various strengths of apple cider and received cups of the strongest batch of hard cider from the server.

“Yes, I reckon so. It’s a sign of the times. Ever since old Abe Lincoln invaded the South and freed the nigras things have all gone downhill in this once great nation of ours. The Republican Party has just about destroyed this country even though it’s only been around for what, thirty years, now?”

“Thirty-three years. It started in 1854.”

Stewart smirked. “The boy knows his history. Give him an A plus.”

“I read a lot.”

“Uh huh. So tell me, was Lincoln really offering to let the freed slaves go on down to South America and set them up on land after the war ended but they turned him down?”

“That’s the way I understand it.”

“Hot damn! Too bad he wasn’t as good at convincing them slaves as he was when he dragged the North into the War.” He finished his cider. “Tell me, you a Democrat or one of them daggum do-gooder Republicans that always thinks he knows what’s best for everybody?”

“Depends on what the candidate stands for. I vote on the issues, not the party.”

“One of those independent types?” He shook his head. “You all are the hardest ones to recruit.”

“Recruit for what? Your Democrat Party?”

“That’s just the start. We also got us some mighty fine organizations that support our efforts. That’s how we finally sent us a Democrat back to the White House.” He raised his empty cup in a toast. “Here’s to the honorable President Cleveland.”

Rod raised his cup halfway as his thoughts grew into a rant.

I’m not obligated to reveal anything to someone who likes organizations that help elect Democrats who change Reconstruction into Jim Crow laws that put the Negroes back onto a kind of plantation to keep them all in line. I know he’s talking about the White League and Red Shirts. From what I heard they’re out to replace as many Republicans with Democrats as possible. It’s no different here than it was in Egypt when it comes to those willing to kill innocent people for their cause. Some of those White League and Red Shirt boys are worse than the KKK ever was when it comes to vigilantism. They’re like armies.

To dull his senses against Stewart’s worldview, Rod returned to the cider table and held out his cup for a refill. The smiling matron who wielded the ladle gladly obliged him. Sipping the hard cider every few minutes to make sure it still tasted fresh, she was feeling her special brand of Christmas cheer. Rod sampled his second cup as Stewart droned on about how “the South will rise again.” His speech was fueled more by his cherished beliefs than any alcohol.

Soon, the warm room and hard cider lulled Rod into a twilight sensation. He imagined he was a part of The Christmas Carol his mother had read to him as a child. The only question is whether I am the faithful clerk Bob Cratchit or the miserly Ebenezer Scrooge, Rod wondered as his eyelids drooped.

His memory drifted back to Christmas Past.

He was a farm boy, harvested from Indiana soil near where the Wabash River runs into the Ohio, who turned sixteen and had moved north. His parents claimed a better life could be reaped from Chicago than might be had from the land, no matter how fertile it proved to be.

An uncle let Rod live in his basement in exchange for a couple dollars each week from his nephew’s pay, earned at a slaughterhouse. Squealing pigs, bleating sheep, mooing cows beg for their lives, their pleas for mercy answered with razor sharp knives to throats and clubs hammered to heads. Slice open the abdomens; pull out the hot steaming organs, bowels crammed with feces and bladders with urine squirting on him until he was covered with filth. Lift the carcasses onto hooks and send them down the line to the skilled cutters of meat, surgeons creating roasts, steaks, chops, ribs, bacon, stew meat, and sausage. Only the brave are allowed to live in our meat factory – the cockroaches, rats, flies, and maggots that feast to their hearts’ content! Go home and take a long, hot bath. But the smell of blood and excrement and urine lingers.

After a year of slaughter he begged his way into a copyboy position at one of Chicago’s newspapers. A year later he was entrusted with a beat no one else wanted. “Make sure your gun is fully loaded,” Rod’s editor said as he sent him into the city’s bowels to prowl its back alleys and dig up sources who would just as soon pee, spit, or vomit on him as answer his questions. Those sources’ stories always led Rod into the tombs of city hall, where corrupt judges, bureaucrats, and politicians joked among themselves as the city’s neglected hundreds of thousands struggled to survive. The people you’re supposed to serve are honest; something you’ll never be became Rod’s unspoken mantra as those in power stonewalled him. Krauts, micks, Pollocks, wops, Swedes, yids, Czechs, Russkies, freed slaves from the South, come one, come all. Chicago calls. And how they love to procreate once they get there!

At age nineteen he moved to the opportunity the many daily papers offered in New York City. He worked for three of them over the next two years. His apprenticeship as a journalist was under the tutelage of down-to-earth older men who had labored in the field for as long as forty-seven years. Rod had naturally gravitated to those with minimal formal education. He had little choice. The college-educated writers wanted nothing to do with “that hick from Indiana.”

Restless, Rod found himself on a ship bound for Egypt in 1882. He arrived as the Egyptian military sought to overthrow their ruler, who was backed by the Ottoman Empire. Soon, the entire country was in chaos, with Egyptian Moslems killing Egyptian Christians and Jews and foreigners with impunity.

England, America, and other nations sent ships filled with troops to restore order or evacuate their citizens from Egypt. It was then Rod met Private Benjamin Worthington of the English Army.

Thinking of Worthington transported Rod into Christmas Present.

No matter how hard Rod had tried to conjure up a story adequate to be the next Great American Novel, he had grown increasingly frustrated. Why couldn’t I have been a soldier like Benjamin Worthington? Then I would have more than enough to write about.

Worthington had fought in Egypt and Sudan against the hordes of Muhammad Ahmad, the Mahdi who many Moslems in the region believed would conquer the world for Islam after a Jewish antichrist first conquered the earth. Now he was battling rebels in Northern India, some of them hashish eaters crazed beyond any thought of self-preservation.

He is a modern day Ben Hur, Rod thought. Say, perhaps I can write a novel based on English soldier Benjamin Worthington’s adventures.

He was returning for a third cup of hard cider to conjure up the ghost of a Christmas Yet to Come in which he had become a famous novelist when Patty hugged his arm.

“Excuse me, dear, but we have to head over to Ma’s place.” She smiled at Stewart Daloy. “I’m so sorry to break up your conversation, Stewart, but we have to leave now. Mother is waiting for us.”

Stewart glanced at Mrs. Pierson, who was tapping her foot in eight-eighths time with arms folded. “Of course, my dear lady. A Merry Christmas to you and yours.”

Rod sighed as they walked to their horse and wagon. I guess I’m just like clerk Bob Cratchit, he thought. That means Billy is Tiny Tim. He glanced at his slow-witted brother. Except instead of a bum leg like the one Tim had, Billy has a bum head.

Since marrying Patty, Rod had endured marathon Christmases. Morning worship was only the beginning of his longest day each year. Next came dinner with Mrs. Pierson. The day ended with supper at home during a visit from his parents.

Mrs. Pierson still called Evansville a town even though its population was exploding from about 30,000 in 1880 to 50,000 by 1890. City or town, it contained all her weary soul desired. Best of all, church, doctor, dentist, friends, library, and stores were all within walking distance of her boarding house. She had grown so accustomed to strolling to her every destination she refused to make the thirty-mile roundtrip to visit Patty at the farm.

“All that bouncing on the road on top of a wagon or buggy is just too hard on my joints,” she had explained a month after moving.

She had used the excuse so often that Patty claimed, “you sound like a parrot that only knows one sentence.”

Even on Christmas day Mrs. Pierson refused the luxury of a short sleigh ride. “Come on, Rod. You’re going to walk home with me. Ain’t had a chance to talk with you yet.” She turned to Patty. “You and Billy meet us over at the boarding house. Since you’ll get there ahead of us go ahead and help Mrs. Olson with Christmas dinner.”

Rod groaned as the sleigh turned at a street corner. A similar mile-long walk with mother-in-law last Christmas had become a question and answer session. Maybe if he counted his steps he could tune her out. He had reached number forty-two before her opening remark made him lose count.

“I hear you’ve been planting your seeds somewhere besides my old farmland.”

“Huh?” He could not recall helping any neighbors during planting seasons, only during harvest every autumn.

“Don’t be bashful, son. I’ve been itching for a grandchild nearby me for years now. With Patty’s sister and brothers living way off in St. Louis, Chicago, and Indianapolis, I don’t get to see their kids much at all. I look forward to spending what time the good Lord has left for me by enjoying the children you and Patty are having.”

“Children?”

“Land sakes, boy. You men folk may be good at making us women folk with child but after that you’re not much good at all. Patty told me she’s only four months along. Any fool can tell just by looking that she looks like she’s eight months along. She’s carrying at least two, maybe three.”

Rod stopped. “Three?”

“Of course that’s really rare. But twins run on our side of the family. Twins run on your side at all?”

“I think I remember Dad talking about some second cousins who are twins.”

“That explains it.” She chuckled, the first time she ever had done so when talking to him privately.

By the time they arrived at the boardinghouse the first shift was already feasting at the dining room table. It consisted of the five other boarders. One of them kept asking about Mrs. Pierson.

“Where’s the Pierson woman? It’s not right to eat dinner without her, especially seeing how it’s Christmas and all.”

“We already told you three times, you dolt. She’s going to eat with kinfolks.” The boarder who considered himself the head rooster of the house waved a knife at him.

“Eh?” The forgetful man leaned forward until the knife grazed his nose and cupped a hand behind an ear. “She’s going to eat in the kitchen?”

The three elderly ladies at the table carried on their own conversation, mostly about how they wished that some family member or even a distant relative would come to visit for the holiday. As each finished their allotted portions of ham, sweet potatoes, green beans, a slice of bread, and piece of fruitcake, an “excuse me” was spoken and they moved to the parlor.

The house was a large two-story Victorian with seven bedrooms. Mrs. Olson, the owner, slept in one. Any vacancies were filled within a week. Mrs. Pierson had invited Mrs. Olson to eat with her guests. After the dining room table was cleared and reset with clean china, silverware, and crystal, the second shift sat down. Billy and Rod said little. The women spoke of Patty’s being with child and whether she would give birth to two boys, two girls, or one of each. Between mouthfuls, Mrs. Pierson called for bets.

“How about you Roger?”

“Put me down for two bits on two boys.” He looked up from the checkerboard in the parlor. “Put knucklehead here down for four bits on two girls.”

“Okay.”

“How come there’s two of them?” Billy asked Rod. “I don’t know how to be an uncle to more than one at a time.”

Rod shrugged and returned to the daze he had entered. He waited until they were in the sleigh and waving their goodbyes before seeking an escape from his fears. “It’s not really twins. Your mom is just putting me on, right?”

“I don’t know. But she’s always right about such things.”

He guided the horses into a slow trot. “Well, I guess that kills my idea of going back to newspapering someday for good. With two kids, I’ll have to stick to farming just to feed them.”

“Let’s stop off at the Courier’s office. Just to say hello.”

“It’s Christmas. There won’t be anyone there.”

“Tom told me to have you stop by.”

The newspaper was only three blocks out of the way so he agreed. A cantankerous editor who had hounded Rod about coming to work for the newspaper since he had returned from Egypt, Tom had had his offers rejected with the excuse of Rod would have to spend at least four hours traveling to and from work six days a week and even longer if the roads were snowy or muddy. The editor’s greeting as they entered the front office made Rod think he, too, had heard about Mrs. Pierson’s prediction of twins.

“That’s quite a woman you got there, Rod.”

“So you already heard?”

“Huh? I was talking about the press. Patty sure knows how to drive a hard bargain.”

“Press?” Rod’s eyes darted at those who knew more than he. Patty blushed.

“Merry Christmas, Rod.”

“Huh? You already said that at home.”

Billy grabbed his arm and tugged him. “She’s talking about your real present. All the ones for you under the tree back home are just wrapped up empty boxes to fool you! Let me show you your present!”

Rod followed Billy by the tightly spaced desks of the newsroom into the back of the building and the pressroom. In a corner sat an object covered by a tarp.

“It’s so big we couldn’t wrap it up!” Billy yanked on the tarp to reveal a small printing press that had been retired years earlier.

“It hasn’t been used since we went to our modern press.” Tom pointed at its replacement.

Rod sat on a crate. “What am I going to do with a printing press?”

“Print your own paper, dear.” Patty walked over and kissed his cheek.

“Look, I’m a farmer with two kids on the way and…”

“Twins?” Tom slapped his knee. “I was thinking you looked awful big.” He pointed at Patty’s womb. “That’ll make a good story for the Courier. Don’t get many twin baby announcements. Pretty rare.”

“You’re a writer, Rod. I read some of your writing in your notebook,” Patty said.

“Okay. I know I can write. But writers don’t need printing presses. It’s like old Clancey up in Chicago once told me, ‘a writer only needs three things: notebook, good sources, and a bottle to calm your nerves so you can meet deadlines.’ So far, I’ve only needed a notebook and good sources. If I try to be a publisher and editor, I’m going to need more than one bottle!”

“I talked it over with Tom. He said that since we live fifteen miles from town you won’t be competing with the Courier much at all. He said your writing will make it successful.”

“Oh, no. You think I can be the reporter, editor, and publisher all rolled into one?”

“Don’t forget ad seller. Without the ad revenue, you won’t make it.” Tom winked. “It’s still done by one person in towns and small cities all over the West, boy. No reason you couldn’t do it, too.”

“But the farm needs me.”

“Meet your new hired hand, boss.” Billy stuck out his hand.

“What?”

“Patty says I can live at your house and eat all I want if I work real, real hard for you.”

“But you were just staying with us for Christmas and New Year’s.”

Billy shoved his hands into his pockets and stuck out his lower lip. “You’re just like Dad! You don’t want me around either!”

“No, Billy. I just didn’t know about any of this.”

“Then I can stay? Yahoo!” He ran over to Patty. His hug lifted her off of her feet. “Your plan worked out just like you said it would! I’m going outside and tell Chester and Millie it’s going to be me feeding and taking care of them from now on.”

Rod inspected the press. “It’s too big. It would never fit into the house.”

“Sure it will. We can set it up in the back parlor. I can move my things on out into the front parlor to make room.”

He turned to Tom. “I can’t believe the Courier would let someone set up a paper right next door by selling them this.”

“Like I said to Patty, you’re far enough away that it won’t matter. Besides, with thousands of people moving to Evansville our circulation just keeps on growing. Since you’ll still be working your farm you’ll only be able to publish a small paper.”

He touched the press. A faint smile buried Rod’s dour expression. “So what do we call it?”

“Billy and me already came up a name for you,” Patty said. “The Tri-State Herald.”

Rod cocked his head

“Since your paper will be read by folks in Indiana, Kentucky, and Illinois, that’s three states, right?”

“Three states?”

“We’re just a stone’s throw from Kentucky and Illinois. After you print up the papers I’ll drop them off at the post office over at Darmstadt when I go do my shopping.”

“Did you mortgage the farm to buy it? We should’ve talked this out.”

“No, silly. Me, Billy, Tom, Ma, and your folks all went in together to give it to you.”

“You too?” Rod pointed at Tom. “Thank you.”

“Like I said, Rod. She talked the owner down to where she got a steal. She even got him to agree to deliver it. It’ll be at your place the day after tomorrow.”

Rod spent the rest of Christmas Day imagining how running every phase of a newspaper would feel. To his surprise, his parents were supportive of the venture. Because it meant Billy could have a greater measure of independence, their father was especially happy.

Late on Christmas night, Billy insisted Rod unwrap every empty box with his name that had been placed by the tree to hide any inkling of his real present, a printing press and a newspaper of his own. As Rod opened each one the boy-man guffawed in delight.

* * *

Christmases came and went, Mrs. Pierson had died but her Christmas spirit of giving continued on after her death.

She lingered in many memories of those she had helped. But when Billy started singing Christmas carols on the way home from church, Rod’s musing about his deceased mother-in-law’s true understanding of Christmas ceased.

“It’s too soon to be singing those!” Rod protested.

Patty squeezed his arm. “No. That one reminds me of Ma. It was her favorite one. Keep on singing, Billy.”

Rod listened as the others joined Billy, who kept up the carols the rest of the way home. When he saw his wife’s tears as she sang, Rod knew the dam of pent-up sorrow had finally broken.

The next morning the Lees journeyed to Evansville so Patty, Billy, and the children could begin their Christmas gift selections. For eleven-year-old Bob, ten-year-old Clara, and seven-year-old Stanley, it also meant compiling a wish list to be left where parents, grandparents, and uncle would find it. Rod hung around the livery stable, conversing with its owner as he fed the hungry tired horses that had pulled the family to town. When Stewart Daloy happened by, Rod accepted his invitation to join him for a snack at his home.

“Sorry to hear about Mrs. Pierson’s death.” Stewart said as he handed the remnants of yesterday’s turkey to him.

Rod was surprised by Stewart’s sincerity. Usually his words were glib. “Thanks. It’s been hard on Patty.” Rod studied his appearance. Gone were the unparted hair and beard Stewart had worn since coming of age. Fashion now dictated slicked down hair parted in the middle and his clean-shaven face, usually obtained with a straight edge razor wielded by a servant or barber. His white shoes also spoke of fashion. His suit was perfectly matched: pants, coat, and vest all the same style and color.

Rod’s one suit, worn only for church, was old-fashioned because of its contrasting colors. His outfit today was homemade: jeans and linsey-woolsey shirt sewn by Patty. His hair remained unparted and he shaved once or twice a week. I’m just the country rube in the presence of the slick city politician. If it weren’t for me being so hungry I wouldn’t even be here.

Since his election to county office Stewart had transformed his speech, manners, and daily habits. Potential voters always received his attention. Gone was the bluntness he once had used on Rod, replaced by persuasion, an art Stewart had mastered when dealing with everyone except the hardest headed or those too ignorant to understand the need for people like him to run their lives.

“Given any more thought to my last offer? I’m looking for a better writer like you for speeches and pieces for the newspapers. You have a way with words. The one I got now just doesn’t cut the mustard. He sounds too phony baloney.”

“Thanks. But I’m still trying to sell my novel.”

“Never say die. I like that. Well, just let me know if you change your mind. I imagine you could use a steady source of income. It’d be a crying shame for you to grow old out there on that farm of yours just to sell out and move to town like your parents are planning on.”

Rod frowned. Nothing escaped Stewart. While most usually knew the latest about neighbors and fellow churchgoers, Stewart knew everything about everybody. Must come with the territory of being a politician, Rod thought as he finished making his sandwich and left with it after saying he was late meeting Patty.

When he found her inside the downtown emporium she looked like a butterfly emerging from its cocoon. Gone were the drab grays and blacks she had worn in memory of her mother.

When they had parted company two hours earlier, Patty was like any other Midwestern farm wife: plain, dressed in homespun clothes, hair falling past her shoulders. Now she looked like she was paying a visit from St. Louis or Chicago or New York, a lady of fashion. The clerk who had helped to pick her style had pulled Patty’s long blonde hair back from her forehead and tied it on top of her head in a psyche knot, currently the rage for city women. Her feet were pinched into long black pointed shoes half as wide as the cowgirl boots she had worn into the store. A shirtwaist hugged her breasts and hips. Though it accented her figure, Rod thought the shirt’s style made her look masculine.

“I guess you’re a Gibson girl now,” was all he could say.

“Isn’t it wonderful?” Patty spun around in front of the three tall narrow mirrors. Her radiant smile convinced Rod his wife had finally fully rejoined the land of the living.

The leg-of-mutton sleeves caused Patty’s broad upper body to appear even wider. Her years of farm labor had produced muscular upper arms and shoulders so the puffy sleeves made her look top heavy. A long blue skirt ended at her ankles. Happy because of the head to toe sales, the clerk added a pink parasol at no charge. “Be sure to use this parasol. It will protect your delicate skin.”

Rod coughed to hide his smirk. That clerk sure lays it on thick. Bet he could give old Stewart a run for his money. He scanned Patty’s face. Years of sun had tanned it beyond any hope of ever returning to the pale skinned look city women wore as a badge of honor. You can take the girl out of the country but you can’t take the country out of her.

“I hope you don’t mind all this fuss about me but this is Ma’s Christmas gift to me.” Patty smiled as she stepped onto the sidewalk to display her new look to Evansville’s residents. “When she knew she was going to die she gave me an envelope of money to use for this Christmas. She always loved the pictures of the Gibson girls in the magazines.”

Street vendors reminded the children they had not eaten since breakfast as the smell of their offerings drifted their way.

“Hot corn! Get your pure white-hot corn! Smoking hot! Piping hot! Oh yes sir, what beautiful ears I got! Get your hot corn!” The fifty-five year old man danced from foot to foot as he juggled corn on the cob that would blister his fingers if held too long.

A half block away a large black woman stirred a simmering pot as she yelled, “Pepper pot, it’s right hot and the best I got! All hot! Makes your back strong! Makes you live long! Come buy my pepper pot! You want soup? That’s what I got!”

Rod ignored them as the huge turkey sandwich from Stewart Daloy’s table digested in his belly. His children’s stomachs growled; their mouths watered. Clara tugged on her father’s arm.

“Please, Daddy! We’re hungry!” She pointed at the hot corn vendor. Bob ran to the pepper pot soup vendor and stuck his face over the steaming kettle, which was kept warm by a bed of glowing embers constantly fed with wood chips. Its heat flushed his cheeks, the smell made him lightheaded. Little Stanley smacked his lips.

“Please get them something, dear. Then you can meet me over at Mrs. Olson’s boarding house with the wagon. We really need to bring Ma’s things back home where they belong. Then I really need to go to bed early tonight.” She winked.

“Okay.” Rod grinned. Patty’s sultry voice told him the long lonely nights could now return to normal in their bed. She had not called him dear since the funeral.

Stanley and Clara had Billy blow on their hot buttered corn on the cob until it cooled. Bob gulped down his cup of pepper pot soup and took along another for the walk to the livery stable. On the way, Rod sent Billy into Stewart’s house. The politician smiled. Here was one bumpkin whose vote could be bought for a sandwich. By the time they arrived at the boarding house with the wagon, most of Mrs. Pierson’s final possessions were stacked up on the sidewalk.

“About time you showed up!” The curmudgeon of the house grumbled to Rod as he set a box on the wagon’s bed. “I’ve been itching for months to move into her old room. I was beginning to think you were going to keep it as a museum exhibit to honor Mrs. Pierson. That would’ve been a waste of space since it’s the best room in the house.”

“Maybe she wanted you to wait until the Christmas season so it could be her last present to you,” said Rod.

 

 

 

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