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Issue #9 |

Take That

farm shed

Dell’s holding Tucker in her lap, trying to calm the baby down, when she hears the back door slam and the older kids race outside.

“Don’t go near that shed,” she yells but it’s no use. Those two don’t listen anymore.

She’s babysitting all three kids for her oldest niece, Laurie Lynn, resenting the way she, alone and in decent health, is assumed to want the precious gift of little ones filling up her days.

“It’s good for you,” Laurie Lynn said once, early on, when Dell babysat in the afternoons. She had tried to help Dell tidy up, picking up toys the kids left scattered in the living room, but these days, she doesn’t even bother with that anymore. “Kids keep you young,” she’d said.

That’s one way to put it, Dell thought.

But today that’s going to change. Dell’s going to put her foot down. When Laurie Lynn finishes her shift at the bank and comes to pick the kids up, Dell’s going to tell her niece that she can’t do it anymore, that at seventy she’s too old to care for little ones half of every blessed day, that she’s sorry but Laurie Lynn is going to have to find someone else to help.

The baby twists and wails for his mother who’s only been gone for a few minutes now. Dell hushes him. Tries the pacifier. Sings him the song he usually likes.

Nothing. Now he’s screaming and arching his back, bucking to be released.

“There, there. Your mother will be back in a flash. You can count on that.”

She holds the baby under his arms, tries to get him to stand up on her lap but he won’t have it. Instead, he bucks again, hard, then harder, and right after his forehead smashes into Dell’s head, his body slips from her arms, quick as a fish.

Dell’s too shocked at first to take note of what just happened. Then it hits her, how quiet he is. There’s an instant where she fears the worst, then relief: his wailing starts up. Then her hand flies to her forehead, her fingers tenderly feeling for what will surely become a bruise.

She holds a hand out to the boy. He landed on his butt. She looks at his forehead, feels it as much as he’ll let her, but she can’t see anything wrong. Nothing appears to be broken except maybe his little-man pride. Still, the fall must’ve scared the devil out of him.

“Come on, now. Let your Aunt Dell hold you.”

The child refuses, shaking his head and continuing to scream.

“Be that way, then,” Dell says, reaching into the big pocket of her floral housecoat. She finds a piece of hard candy. Holds it up. Eyes the boy. Does he think she’s going to give it to him? His eyes are big now, his crocodile tears slowing.

He reaches out toward her, his fingers grasping air. In the back of her tired mind, she takes note: she can’t hear the older kids playing outside anymore. She pops the candy into her mouth, the taste of butterscotch sliding through her, calming her, even as the bump forming on her head begins to throb.

“Take that,” she says staring the boy, bug-eyed, sticking her tongue out.

 

Dell hasn’t been to the shed for years—ten, at least. What could be in there? Old saddles, worn-out horse blankets, a broken lawnmower that Bernel gave her daddy that her daddy never fixed? Bernel worked for Luther, Dell’s daddy, for thirty-some-odd years but Luther didn’t listen to him about lawnmowers or horses or anything else.

“Bernel’s a hard worker,” Dell’s daddy used to say, “but he don’t have good sense.”

Once, she asked her father what does it mean, not to have good sense?

“It means Bernel don’t have a family to tell him when to quit.”

But once her daddy was dead and Dell moved back into her childhood house, she learned that a hard worker was someone handy to have nearby, especially if you don’t have—have never had—a husband. Bernel could be counted on to mow the lawn or paint the side of the house or take the horses out to feed on days when Dell was feeling poorly, and Dell did her best to make sure it was worth his time.

Wasn’t there a padlock on the front door of the shed? It might be rusted, but a rusted lock was better than no lock. Raccoons could get in through a hole in the back, the shed’s wood was so flimsy. But didn’t she ask Bernel to patch up those holes? If not, surely none were big enough for child to climb through, were they?

 

When Tucker finally wears himself out, he crawls up onto his great-aunt’s lap. She finds another candy hidden in the cushions of the sofa, this one red-and-white striped—a peppermint as old as she is. She’s not fond of peppermint, so she unwraps it and gives this one to the boy, who lies back, head in her big lap now, staring at cracks in the ceiling, sucking, sniffling.

Cute little wart, she thinks, now that he’s quiet. 

She pulls back the curtains behind the sofa. A crow lands on the windowsill, lifts a leg and eyes her sideways, then flies away. She shouts out the window, “You come back here, you two. You’re scaring your Aunt Dell.” But she can’t see them, can’t hear them. 

At 12:30 As the World Turns will be on. Dell wants those older kids inside by then. On the porch she calls them by name, Brayden, then Natalie, trying to make sure her voice doesn’t sound scared. Then she shouts both names, louder this time, her voice disappearing into the wet spring air.

“OK you two. You’ve made your point. Come back inside now. It’s time for lunch.” 

Wouldn’t that be her luck? To lose two of three kids on the very day she’s going to quit?

Across the street at the gas station she can see Genie bent over somebody’s car, inspecting the engine. She’d recognize his skinny butt anywhere. 

 

Before she agreed to babysit Laurie Lynn’s kids, Dell sat down at every day to watch her soap and eat her lunch. She arranged on a tray a bowl of macaroni salad, a piece of unbuttered toast, and a glass of ginger ale with two cubes of ice. She liked to sit in her father’s old La-Z-Boy recliner while watching a drama in someone else’s town unfold. She thought of the characters on the soap as friends of hers, friends whose lives were filled with excitement in a way hers was not. There was Emma who was happy that Seth was home now. Lily and Dusty who nearly got carried away. Frannie who was so close to remembering the truth. Familiar faces. Other people’s troubles. An hour to herself. 

Her soap gave her time to forget the aches and pains that plagued her as they plagued anyone her age, time to forget that her mother died too soon, tripping on a loose tile leading to the basement one afternoon in late June, and that her father practically died after, though for another twenty years his large angry body still lumbered about, complaining. She forgot about her horse that had something wrong with its eye. She forgot about the small stings that happened regularly at church, the way Bishop Cranston went on and on about how the whole purpose of life was kids and grandkids, the way Izzie’s brother liked to corner Dell to say Izzie wanted Dell to know if she ever needed some family time to let Izzie know because Izzie had a guest room in her house in Olympus Cove just waiting for her. Dell did not want to stay in Izzie’s guest room overlooking Salt Lake and she did not want Izzie’s brother pressuring her to visit. She had known Izzie all her life, since the two were children in Tremonton’s McKinley Elementary School, and she knew perfectly well Izzie’s invitation was Izzie’s way of showing off, that Dell would have to listen to Izzie’s stories about her sixteen grandkids, a rundown of who’d made honor roll and who’d joined Pep Club and on and on and, “Oh, Dell, don’t you get lonely sometimes?” Izzie liked to ask. As if Izzie cared. During her soap, Dell forgot all about Izzie and the bishop. She forgot about everything during that hour.

She forgot about how that whole year she lived in the Beehive House, when she was eighteen, Margaret and Shirley basically ignored her, and that finally, Dell did her best to ignore them too, once going so far as to pretend she had water in her ears when Shirley said hello to Dell when they passed carts at Kmart one Saturday morning, not so many years ago, in late July.

She forgot how her own sister, Mimi, didn’t even sit next to Dell at church anymore, and in fact, often looked at Dell as an object of pity. Mimi would stand there in in Fast and Testimony meeting, bragging about how grateful she was for her temple marriage and for her kids, especially Laurie Lynn, when Dell knew—and didn’t everybody else in the ward know too?—that Mimi and Laurie Lynn didn’t even get on all that well.

She even forgot that she’d once mourned that she’d never had a family of her own. Instead she drifted pleasurably into the mess on TV that everyone made for themselves. 

Dell lifts the baby and puts him into a high chair in the kitchen. Then all at once, the front screen door opens and slams shut and both kids appear, young limbs going in every direction, their bodies still burning off that sugary cereal Laurie Lynn feeds them for breakfast.

“Well, howdy do to you too. You ‘bout scared your Aunt Dell to death,” Dell says, spanking Natalie on the rear end, adding, “Now both of you wash your hands.”

“We were hiding from you,” Brayden says, pulling a chair up to the kitchen sink.

“In the shed?” Dell asks. “You know I don’t want neither one of you going near there.”

“No, not the shed,” Natalie says, opening the refrigerator. “Can I have some grape juice?”

“Wash your hands, first, hon.” Dell gets the Wonder Bread out to make two sandwiches for the older kids. “Then you can have grape juice. But please don’t spill.”

“Under the side window,” Brayden says. “We could hear you talking. We could hear Tucker crying too. We stayed real quiet. We’re spies. I’ll bet you had no idea we were right there, under the window. Practically under your nose, in fact.”

The baby’s all smiles now. Feast to famine, Dell thinks, sobs to grins. He’s so young, he’s forgotten about his fall to the floor. Thank heaven he landed on his butt. Even his forehead looks perfectly fine. Dell, on the other hand, can feel a bump on hers turning hard, soon to blossom into a bruise.

“Then we got bored,” Natalie says. “So we looked into the shed.”

“Not ‘we,’” Brayden says. “Me.”

“Yeah, that’s right. I held Brayden up.” She puts her arm out to show off what strong muscles she has. 

Dell cuts the sandwiches and lays two plates on the table, listening as the two describe their afternoon. They had looked into the shed, where they claimed they saw nothing and besides, Natalie’s arms were beginning to ache, so they quit that and raced around, quiet as can be, pretending they were spies. They observed the following along the perimeter of the shed: a Coke bottle, a swarm of fire ants, and a brittle yellow newsletter from 1974—nothing in it either could read, not like the one they once found in Dell’s basement last summer, dated June 1937. That newsletter contained stories both thought were hilarious. Barbara Janice Peterson wins first prize for her maraschino cherry cake. Brayden called it a mariachi cake.

Dell pours herself a glass of grape juice and looks at her watch. Her head is throbbing. 

As the World Turns will be over now.

 

Laurie Lynn prefers the soaps on ABC—General Hospital and One Life to Live and All My Children—and pesters Dell to watch them instead of As the World Turns. Laurie Lynn wants a daily update on her show, but Dell won’t do it. For one thing, she’s loyal to her soap, which moves as slow as a cat waking from a nap. For another, Laurie Lynn can read, can’t she? Let her subscribe to Soap Digest if she’s so anxious to know.

Soaps have taught Dell about the modern world, how divorce is commonplace, how birth control never works. When Ruby Marie says Frank and his wife are fighting all the time, Dell knows what will happen next: Ruby’s son will soon be filing for a separation; a custody battle will follow. Something will happen that sets into motion another set of somethings.

Once, when Laurie Lynn was pregnant with her first and still married and not working afternoons at the bank just yet, she had time to fuss over Dell. She’d come over and spend whole afternoons, helping Dell shuck corn or cut up cucumbers to put up jars of pickles.

“Who acts like that?” Laurie Lynn asked one day, when someone was screaming at someone else on TV. She was washing Dell’s hair at the time, what she now does on Saturdays only. Dell’s head was tilted back, her thinning hair under the faucet of the kitchen sink. There was water in one ear and soap dripping down the front of her shirt. Laurie Lynn was gentle with Dell then in a way she never is now.

“It boosts the ratings, hon, that’s all,” Dell said, but what she was thinking was, Who acts like that? Your own blood, that’s who. And your blood don’t even have to be your blood.

 

When she hears Laurie Lynn’s car pulling into the drive, Dell tells the kids to turn the TV off. “Your mother’s here.” A dancing teapot with a grin on its face is cheerfully singing to a set of tiny teacups, urging the babies to line themselves up.

Brayden pulls a sucker out of his mouth long enough to say, “It’s not over yet.” 

Dell wonders where he found the sucker.

“You stink,” Natalie says, and at first Dell thinks Natalie’s talking to her but then the stench hits her: the baby, Tucker. Another diaper in need of another change.

 

Every day for the past three months, after Laurie Lynn takes the kids home, Dell no longer sits down to watch the local news like she used to do. She doesn’t make herself a snack. Instead, she lies down for a nap. She’s always more exhausted than by rights she believes her body ought to be. Some days it’s not only a nap. She goes without a proper dinner and goes to bed early, eating Goldfish crackers in bed and drinking lukewarm ginger ale straight from the can.

After the first week of babysitting, she planned to tell her niece she couldn’t keep this up, not every day, that she was too old for this, that she’d already raised Mimi and both her brothers, what with their mother and her constant headaches, the ones she complained traveled from her head to her heels in a straight agonizing shot. In her mind, she’d worked out a compromise with her niece: how about one day a week? 

But the days went by and weeks piled up and she never got around to proposing her new plan. She told herself, maybe it wasn’t a good time because Laurie Lynn was in the middle of a divorce. Her husband didn’t drink or fool around on her, but Laurie Lynn said she didn’t like it. How he just sat around all night after work, how he didn’t want to do anything. Every day he drove in a carpool to Thiokol the way a lot of people around here did—either Thiokol or the La-Z-Boy factory; those were the two reliable places you could find a decent job. But then he came home from work and collapsed in front of the TV, Laurie Lynn said. He didn’t even go camping on weekends with the Scouts anymore. She was still young! She wanted, she said, someone with more energy, someone fun.

Dell thought Laurie Lynn sounded ridiculous. If Rick were her husband, she’d just put blueberries in his oatmeal to give him a boost or maybe start buying Coke, a jolt of caffeine early in the day, good for some people, no matter what the Word of Wisdom might say. There were other ways besides a divorce to deal with low energy.

Of course, now that she’s working, Laurie Lynn’s tired all the time too. Laurie Lynn complains every day about how exhausting the bank is, counting out five-dollar bills for Horace Mattsen who refused anything larger than a five. Her feet always hurt. “Look at these blisters,” she’ll say, taking off her shoes. Dell wants desperately to look away or to say, “Buy a pair of comfortable flats, then.” But she doesn’t. She didn’t.

Three months went by like this. Dell didn’t said a word. She knew Laurie Lynn didn’t have money for a real babysitter and Mimi certainly wasn’t going to take the kids. Mimi made that perfectly clear. “I’m not going to spend my last days raising another crop,” she told Dell once after church, the only place the sisters saw each other anymore. It made Dell feel small and foolish, as if in babysitting every day she was tending to a crop of worm-infested corn. 

 

“Hello, hello,” Laurie Lynn says, reaching into her bag. “Guess what I brought?” She produces three packs of Smarties, stolen, Dell knows, from the bank’s communal candy dish.

Brayden and Natalie jump up and squeal. Dell hands Tucker over to Laurie Lynn.

“Good grief, how long have you let him go on like this?” 

Dell starts to say she was on her way to the bathroom to change the baby right when Laurie Lynn arrived, but something in her sputters and stops. Laurie Lynn disappears into the bathroom. Dell can hear her saying to Tucker, “You’re quite the mess, aren’t you, little man. Let’s get you cleaned up and go home.”

Whatever resolve Dell had earlier wilts. Maybe she’ll tell Laurie Lynn tomorrow when her niece washes and pins her hair, let her know in a more leisurely way. She can’t babysit so much, at least not every day. 

Right now, she wants to lie down. 

 

When she sleeps that night, she sleeps like the dead. On Saturday, she wakes early, checks her forehead in the bathroom mirror and sees a bump the size of a quarter. She should have iced it last night, but she was too tired. Laurie Lynn will be over at noon. She can’t wait for Laurie Lynn to ask her what on earth happened. Maybe if her niece thinks Dell can’t be trusted with the baby, she won’t have to worry about quitting, about getting up the gumption to say she can’t babysit so much anymore.

But at ten o’clock, Laurie Lynn calls to say she can’t come over, after all. Something to do with the Relief Society. A service project. Making baskets for the homeless.

Dell doesn’t bother to ask what the homeless can do with baskets. Instead she hangs up, deciding she’ll do something useful today and go have a look at the shed, something she should have done a long time ago.

She goes outside in her housecoat and slippers. Down the front steps, she pauses at the edge of the lawn. It must have rained a bit last night because today it’s muddy. She ought to have worn a proper pair of boots. She doesn’t want to ruin these slippers, pink silk with black piping all around, from Z.C.M.I. Diana, her brother’s wife, had given Dell these for her birthday the year she turned sixty-five. So she turns around and heads back up the stairs, changing into a pair of rubber boots when she hears someone knocking.

Genie of all people. Genie who wanted for years to get a job at the La-Z-Boy factory but couldn’t get one. Genie who works at the gas station across the street. Genie who for years now hasn’t done more than wave to Dell while filling up someone’s tank or nod politely from the chapel at church.

“Hey there, Dell,” he says. He’s holding a brown paper bag. “I’ve got a banana cream pie here from some fancy bakery in Salt Lake.” He explains that a customer whose clutch gave out when they were driving to the Salt Lake temple wanted to thank Genie for bailing him out. The thing was, Genie’s wife, Shannon, doesn’t eat sweets and she doesn’t want him eating sweets either. “So I wondered, is this something my old pal Dell might like?” She’s half a mind to be offended, as if he’s calling her fat, which she’s not, but it’s true, she likes banana cream pie. Something inside her stirs when he calls her his old pal.

“Well that’s hard to say no to, Genie,” she says. “Why don’t you come in? I could fix you a piece to eat on the sly, if you’d like. I won’t tell your wife.”

Which is how the two of them, nearly ten years after he’d last been inside her house, came to be eating pie together on a Saturday afternoon.

It’s not till she’s finished the last bite of her piece that Genie asks what happened to her. Her hand flies up to her forehead. She’d forgotten all about the bump, which surely must be turning bluish and green.

“Oh that, it’s nothing. Just a run-in with one of Laurie Lynn’s.”

“Those kids look like a handful,” Genie says shyly. “I seen ‘em running around your property.”

“They’re not too bad,” Dell says, scraping her fork through the last bit of cream, just a smidgen left on her plate. “Actually,” she says, laughing, “they’re worse than that.”

Genie might be a lot of things—married now, for one thing—but he was not someone to lie to. She remembered the texture of his hands in the old days, running their way up her thighs as she stood at the kitchen sink, how smooth they felt, what a surprise that had been. She remembered how he’d said for months before he did anything about it that his coming here just wasn’t right. He was lying to the Lord. He was breaking the law of chastity. He would lose his temple recommend. Sure enough, he did lose his recommend, though, bless his soul, he confessed without naming any names. He protected Dell, telling the bishop there was someone he was seeing, yes, someone he was doing things with that he ought not be doing, someone he couldn’t go without— a woman from up in Logan, he couldn’t say her name. Something about this—how easily he lied for her, so she could still show her face in the ward—moved her, made her wish she hadn’t let him touch her that first time so easily because maybe then he would have wanted to hold on a little longer.

Soon after that, he met Shannon, a divorcee from Brigham City who’d performed in musicals at Heritage Community Theatre. She had been written up in the newspaper, praised for having nearly perfect pitch. Dell was happy for Genie, at least, she pretended to be. It’s not like she was going to marry him, anyway. A man twenty years younger? Hardly a penny to his name? Hands covered in grease and dirt?

“Dell, I hope this isn’t out of line,” Genie says when they’re standing at her door, saying their goodbyes, “but do you want a priesthood blessing? That bump on your head looks like it hurts something awful.”

All at once, Dell does. She falls into the couch. She closes her eyes. He places his hands on the top of her head—the first touch outside Laurie Lynn washing her hair that she’s had in years—and says, “In the name of God the Eternal Father, his Son Jesus Christ, and by the powers of the Melchizedek Priesthood, invested in me, I ask you, Lord, to offer a blessing to Sister Ardelle Henderson, to protect and honor her, to help that conk on her head, too, to be healed.”

His hands are warm. She wishes her hair weren’t dirty but what can she do?

He continues, asking the Lord to lighten Dell’s spirits, for her place in the world to be recognized, and when he concludes, in the name of Jesus Christ, Amen, she surprises herself. Now he’s got her crying.

When she stands, she thanks him. Then, out on the porch, standing in her housecoat and thick boots, she sees she’s embarrassed Genie with her sudden tears. He looks down and says, “Take care of yourself, Dell.” 

“I’ll try.”

He tries to shake her hand and ends up patting it, instead.

She thanks him again for the pie. There’s that. A few more pieces of leftover pie.

The next morning, before church, Dell puts on a robe and goes outside to pick up the newspaper. There is the sharp smell of spring in the air, lilac bushes gearing up to bloom. She moves down the stairs slowly since everyone—Laurie Lynn, her sister, even Bernel—says don’t fall, because if you fall, then what will we do? As if she’s trying to cause them trouble.

She picks up the newspaper, wet with dew. Takes in the fresh air. Walks back up the concrete stairs built long before she was born, the stairs she’s known forever. She’s out of breath when she reaches the top, winded as she opens her own screen door. 

If Dell were from someplace else, someplace softer, less lean, someplace where the chemicals from the local factory didn’t run easily and invisibly downstream, someplace where the walleyes in Willard Bay weren’t right now turning a suspicious shade of gray, she might go inside and pour herself a glass of lemonade. She might summon strength to go down those stairs again. She’d have the foresight this time to take a hammer with her, something she’d tuck in the pocket of her housecoat to bust the lock off that worn-out shed. In the shed, she’d find a hidden treasure: money in the pockets of her father’s old overalls. She’d gasp at the sight, then gather the bills up, go inside, count them one by one, astonished and surrounded by cash, lying there in her bed. 

And with this money, this good fortune that had been hiding in plain sight? She’d take care of herself. She’d get her hair cut and colored, all the gray put out to pasture, maybe at that fancy salon in Ogden, the one that lets its clients wear thin blue robes over their street clothes so as not to let the dye ruin their blouses. Maybe she’d even buy herself a plane ticket to Chicago, Illinois, to see the Tiffany Diamond, which she knew about because her brother had gone to Chicago not so long ago, to the Natural History Museum. He’d seen the Diamond and told Dell all about it. 

Why not? Dell believes in the fanciful, after all, believes in plots with strange twists, believes that Joseph Smith had a vision in the sacred grove, that an angel delivered to him those mystical plates, that he translated the plates with the help of two stones, restoring the gospel of Jesus Christ. 

Why shouldn’t Ardelle Marie Henderson be privy to a little magic like that? 

Why shouldn’t she find that money, do something special with the cash, maybe take an even fancier trip than her imagined one to Illinois? Why not a cruise, say? And not just her but her whole family, or at least some of them? 

There would be a great deal of discussion about where they might go and finally she would put her foot down. She would say Alaska because Alaska was a place she’d never seen, had always wanted to see, who knows why. Maybe she’d seen a picture of the glaciers in the glossy pages of a National Geographic while waiting for the dentist to see her to put in a new crown. Maybe she’d take her sister Mimi, her niece Laurie Lynn, her niece’s kids, all three. They would shiver on the deck of the ship, waiting to see whales, peering into the dark water, squinting, Natalie squeezing Dell’s hand hard. 

But no whales appear. 

There is no diamond for Dell. 

This is another story. 

 

What happens is this: before Dell opens her screen door, her right knee buckles and she thinks, she’d better sit down. So she does. Right there, on her front porch, she remembers the strangest things. The shape of funnel cakes. The scent of her mother’s rosewater perfume. The softness of Genie’s blue work shirts he used to leave on her bed while he took a shower afterward. The look on her father’s face right before his last breath. Like a child, she thought. Finally calm.

When her heart flutters, it doesn’t occur to her to think she’s dying. Instead she wonders how on earth a flock of crows got inside her. No need to answer, though, since by the time she gets herself upright and back inside the house and onto her couch, her blood doesn’t feel like her blood anymore, her body isn’t her body. The crows are spreading their large black wings now, pushing against her ribcage, taking her home.

When she falls to the ground, she’s thinking, isn’t that the strangest thing? There’s a grape juice stain on her flower-patterned carpet. That’s the last thing her mind takes in. Birds. Grape juice. Ocean. Mauve. 

Two weeks from now, she’ll be buried when the last of the late-spring storms rolls in.

 

Under a tweed coat, Natalie wears a new Swiss Dot dress, the one Aunt Dell got for her last year. Brayden wanted to be a pallbearer, which he pronounced paw bear, but his mother said no. “A six-year old shouldn’t be the one to carry a coffin.” Instead he sings a primary song—“Mother Dear”—but replaces “Mother” with “Aunt Dell,” spitting into the microphone as he sings off key. Tucker, the youngest, sits on Laurie Lynn’s lap, sucking on the edge of a hymnbook. He’s just starting teething. 

Laurie Lynn rocks the baby absentmindedly, thinking about the money her mother will inherit from Aunt Dell, not one dollar of which Laurie Lynn, who fixed her great aunt’s hair every single Saturday morning, who did all of Dell’s shopping right up to the end, who was good to her aunt, better than her mother ever was—will ever see.

After the funeral, Laurie Lynn lets herself in to Dell’s house—she’s still got a key—and helps herself to three bars of lavender-scented soaps, pristine in perfect white wrappings. In the drawer of one of the bedroom dressers she finds a gold-edged fan. When she flips the fan open, a picture of a white crane surrounded by irises unfolds from between its ribs. She slips it into her purse, knowing her Uncle Randolph, the engineer, brought it back from a business trip to Japan.

 

A month after the funeral, Bernel cleans out the shed. Mimi asked him to do it.  She said she couldn’t pay him but if he wanted anything from it, he could help himself. Bernel isn’t surprised. Everybody knows Mimi’s a tightwad. But Bernel’s no dummy. He smiles, says yes, speaks slowly so as not to disrupt the image Mimi and others have of him: country bumpkin, an apostate and a fool, old Aunt Dell’s handyman, a leftover from Luther’s long-forgotten world. 

“At least your daughter’s still willin’ to stop by,” Bernel used to tell Luther when the old man complained his boys couldn’t be bothered to come to town anymore, that his oldest daughter, Mimi, was useless—the kind who would breeze in and out, full of advice, happy for any gift he might have of cash but little else.

“At least you’ve got Ardelle,” Bernel said. Luther agreed though he would never say it: Dell was the prize. 

As he pulls into the gravel driveway and turns off his car, Bernel recites his mantra for life: he may be poor, but he’s not stupid. He was more of a son to the son-of-a-bitch, Luther, than the old man’s sons were, and a shitload better than Mimi was to the old man. Now it’s true, Dell was a different story. She was good to her parents. Loyal. Not half bad to Bernel either. Paid up when she said she would. A fair wage, too. But Dell’s gone and buried now. And there’s likely a pretty good lathe in the shed that Bernel wants his hands on. And Luther’s old rifle—that would be worth something now, a near-pristine antique. Why shouldn’t he get his fair due?

He cuts off the rusted lock and kicks open the rotten wood door. What he finds in the shed surprises even him: saddles that will sell for a couple of hundred apiece. The lathe, yes, and not just the one he figured was there. There’s that one and another, both in excellent shape. And all those raggedy overalls of Luther’s? The ones Luther wore every day of his life? The ones Bernel saw Dell packing up one day? She was teary eyed, all torn up. “I just can’t throw them away. Not yet,” she’d said. Well, here they are, full of cash in the pockets. Every single one.

He counts as he goes, then stops and decides it isn’t safe here, that he’d better just pack up the overalls and lathes and everything else in the back of his truck and sort through the pockets at home. Yes, that’s what he’ll do. Take his own sweet country time. He doesn’t want to miss a single pocket, a single dollar. 

When he’s done, the pockets will yield $3,012. It’s mostly in fives and tens, the bills Luther preferred to carry as he made his transactions, selling a Ford, buying a Chevy. Luther knew cars better than anyone for a hundred miles.

He’s sweating when he backs his truck up. The sun’s just starting to set over the mountains. In the field nearby are two of Dell’s horses, one black, one brown, young muscles gleaming. Who will get those? Mimi? Who will feed them now? Bernel wonders briefly, then moves on to what’s ahead—a shower, a cold beer, his own solitary bed. One horse turns to the other, mute and unblinking, vying for a warmer spot in whatever’s left of the sun.

 

Photo courtesy of Greg Morris; view more of his work on Flickr.

Marilyn Abildskov is the author of The Men in My Country. Recent essays and short stories have appeared in Gettysburg Review, Prairie Schooner, StoryQuarterly, Southern Review, and Best American Essays 2018. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area and teaches in the MFA Program at Saint Mary’s College of California.

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