Opening section of Al Schnupp's GOODS & EFFECTS
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- Published: Monday, 29 March 2021 15:45
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Hannah was told by Deacon Stahl her husband would not be given a church funeral.
“The cemetery is reserved for those confirmed in the faith,” Mr. Stahl reminded Hannah, eyeing the tray of cinnamon rolls on the counter.
Hannah opened a drawer and withdrew a sharp knife.
All her life she had attended Creekside Mennonite Church.
Slowly she cut into the soft, glazed buns, separating a corner pillow from its neighbors.
Just before her eleventh birthday, Hannah had confessed her sins, accepted Jesus as her savior and was welcomed into the fold.
She opened an overhead cupboard and selected a small plate. Bone china, rimmed with a wreath of ivy leaves and delicate violets. A gift from her grandmother.
Hannah’s conversion had been followed by several weeks of carefully orchestrated instruction in the ways of the church. On a cloudless spring morning, the sunlight blanching the plain white walls of the sanctuary, she was baptized along with two other girls and a stout lad, looking like he preferred pledging himself to the devil.
“My eye tells me those rolls were made by Eddie,” Mr. Stahl said, licking the corners of his mouth.
“Indeed. They were.” The bakery, in just a few short months, had shamed its competitors.
“Eddie’s quite accomplished,“ sniffed Stahl, “at doing a woman’s work.”
Hannah lifted the bun, placed it on the plate and handed it to Deacon Stahl, along with a fork.
“And my sons?”
Ignoring the utensil, the deacon lifted the roll and bit down. He registered his satisfaction before speaking.
“Your sons…” He paused, as if to say, “Might I have a glass of milk?”
Hannah crossed her arms.
“They are innocent. Too young to recognize their standing in the eyes of God. We will permit them to be interred in the cemetery.”
Hannah bit her lower lip. She nodded. “Thank you.”
There are certain smells that capture and celebrate life on the farm, Hannah thought. Fresh mown hay, it’s aroma as lifting as a hymn. The smell of seasoned corn, chopped into fodder, with its traces of vinegar and heady, ground reeds. Although Stahl was no farmer or tender of livestock, Hannah thought he smelled like neglected sheep.
“The areas in red are unclaimed. Perhaps you would like to pick out a plot for Gerald and Simon. I’ll have the groundskeeper prepare the site.”
Hannah shook her head. “I want my sons buried by their father.”
“Oh?” Stahl shifted in his seat. “If it’s a matter of cost, I’m sure I can find someone to purchase them for you.”
“Thank you, Mr. Stahl. I’ve made up my mind.”
“If I could ask, where will you inter your family?”
Hannah walked to the open rollup desk and pulled an envelope from one of its compartments.
“I’ve spoken to the Director of Zoning at the Kalb County Courthouse. I was granted permission to bury my family on the farm.”
Stahl was puzzled. “I would think a child of God would want his kin buried in a proper graveyard. One sanctified by the church.”
“Would you like the plate of brownies to take with you?”
“Well,” Stahl stammered, “would you like me, or Pastor Lentz, to say a few words at the services?”
“What were you thinking?”
“Certainly, scripture seems in order. Something edifying. Perhaps a passage from Psalms.”
“I’ll let you know,” Hannah concluded.
“Wonderful. I’ll be happy to assist.”
“But I would like to select the passage,” interjected Hannah.
The deacon raised his eyebrows. Resisting the urge to confront Hannah, he simply said, “Brownies would be lovely.”
“Give my regards to Naomi,” she said, her eyes clouding over. “She knows I love her homemade banana ice cream.”
The Mercer farm, nestled in the rolling hills of northeastern Missouri, had belonged to the family for nearly sixty years. The farmhouse, barn and surrounding outbuildings were tucked on the side of a hill, above a meadow that bordered a small stream. Cultivated fields spread out along the south-facing property.
Often, when Hannah drove from the main road down the lane to the farm, observing the landscape, she understood why the practice of quilt-making was so popular in the region.
On the crest of the hill, above the farm, a solitary tree fingered the sky. Simon called the tree Periscope.
“Periscope? Isn’t that an instrument to observe other ships at sea?” asked Hannah.
“The tree is observing the sky,” Simon had replied.
After Deacon Stahl departed, Hannah pulled on a pair of boots. She walked out the lane, turned left and walked uphill. For a long while, she stood under the wide branches of Periscope, deep in thought. She continued onward, down the north side of the hill to her nearest neighbor, Frank and Norma Paulson. She found Frank, replacing the carburetor on his rusted, arthritic tractor.
He tipped his cap. “Hannah.” He wasn’t sure how to proceed.
Hannah waved her hand. “It’s alright. There’s nothing to be said.”
“I’m sorry. Horace was a mighty fine man.”
Before he could continue, Hannah interrupted. “I have a favor to ask you.”
“Sure. Whatever you need.”
“But in exchange, I want you to pick out a cow for yourself. No arguments.”
“What’s the favor?”
“Would you dig the graves for Horace and my sons? On the hilltop. Under the sycamore.”
“I suppose I could borrow a backhoe from Jesse….”
“Whatever it costs, I’ll pay.”
With the heel of his shoe, Frank made a small depression in the dirt.
“The church won’t have anything to do with Horace,” she said.
“It would be my honor,” Frank conceded.
“I can’t think of a better resting place,” added Hannah.
Frank inclined his head and gazed into the distance.
Hannah registered his concern. “It’s taken care of. You won’t be breaking the law. How’s Norma?”
“It’s one of her better days, I think.” Instantly he regretted his choice of words. “She’s fine. A new medicine.”
“I plan to hold the service on Sunday,” Hannah explained.
“Do you want me to…?”
“Yes, if you could cover their graves after the service, that would be appreciated.”
Frank removed his cap and wiped his brow. He nodded several times.
“You’ve been a wonderful neighbor,” Hannah added. She reached out and touched Frank on the forearm.
“You’re not leaving, are you? You’re not getting rid of the farm?”
“I’m not saying anything at all. You’ve been a wonderful neighbor. That’s all.” She turned. As she walked away, passing the house, she thought she saw Norma looking out through the tired, yellow kitchen curtains.
Theo and Olle Jansson were strapping, nineteen-year-old twins, of Swedish stock. Whenever Horace needed to hire an extra hand, he enlisted the pair. They were blessed with rugged good looks, square jaws and a mop of unruly, playful blond hair. It was impossible to distinguish between the two until they smiled. Theo had a set of perfectly-cast teeth; Olle was gifted with a mouthful of ill-shaped, ill-formed teeth. Rather than distract from Olle’s charm, his curse enhanced it. Along with Horace, the trio had replaced the roof on the equipment shed, built a small dam across the stream, and raced to harvest acres of alfalfa before oncoming storms.
At Hannah’s request, the twins arrived at the farm at eight-thirty on Sunday morning. Olle had borrowed their uncle’s open pickup truck and they sped up the driveway, the radio blaring, the deep-ribbed tires kicking up dust.
Theo, turned down the radio and reminded Olle this was no time to be jovial. They were on a somber errand. Olle spun the trunk around and backed it up to the front porch. The pair jumped out. Hannah greeted them just outside the front door.
“Would you like a glass of juice?” she asked.
“I’m more inclined to believe Olle,”Hannah said.
She lead them to the living room where she pointed out the piano.
The pair lifted the upright Schimmel as though it were an empty cardboard box. They carried it through the kitchen, out the front door and placed it gently onto the bed of the pickup.
Hannah was there with two glasses of cold, pressed pear nectar.
“I had no idea you play piano, Mrs. Mercer,” Olle said.
“Oh, I don’t. This belonged to Horace.”
The brothers exchanged unknowing looks.
“Horace was quite accomplished.” She let her hands rest on the keys. “Ellie will be playing.” She returned to the living room to retrieve the stool, which she handed to Theo.
“There’s no need to unload the monster. Just leave it on the bed of the truck.”
Theo elbowed Olle.
“Yes, boys, the gorgeous Italian Catholic Ellie. Give a Mennonite a piano and you get three chords. Played loudly. Horace had his standards. Which I aim to honor.”
Theo climbed aboard the truck, to hold the piano and Olle took his place behind the driver’s seat. Slowly, they made their way down the driveway and up the hill to Periscope.
If folks at Creekside Mennonite Church had issues with Hannah’s choices - which indeed they did - they put them aside for the day. Members of the congregation showed up to offer their support and condolences. There would be time, tomorrow, and the days that followed, to chatter.
How does a wife, a devout Christian, prepare a funeral for a husband who professes no faith? Horace reserved his reverence for the sight of delicate, growing crops, a cow’s affection for her calf, the beauty of a Bach sonata.
To open the ceremony, Hannah requested that Ellie play Raindrop by Fédéric Chopin. It was a piece Horace hoped to master, attempting with each study at the keyboard to find its subtle shifts in atmosphere. The rendition was not perfect. Ellie stumbled each time she turned a page, but she quickly regained her composure and slipped back into the song’s gentle rhythm. The crowd listened intently, introduced to a friend they hadn’t previously recognized.
Deacon Stahl, looking apologetic but with a tone of defiance, recited The Lord’s Prayer.
“Simon’s favorite book was Charlotte’s Web,” explained Hannah. “On many occasions, Simon asked Gerald to read the story to him. Not because Simon couldn’t read, but because he loved being near his brother and hearing his voice.” She paused, slowly opened the book, swept her hand across the page, and read:
These autumn days will shorten and grow cold. The leaves will shake
loose from the trees and fall. Christmas will come, then the snows of
winter. You will live to enjoy the beauty of the frozen world, for you
mean a great deal to Zuckerman and he will not harm you, ever.
Winter will pass, the days will lengthen, the ice will melt in the pasture
pond. The song sparrow will return and sing, the frogs will awake, the
warm wind will blow again. All these sights and sounds and smells will
be yours to enjoy, Wilbur – this lovely world, these precious days….
Hymnals were distributed. Ellie waited patiently on the bed of the truck, seated on the stool, her hands resting on her lap. Hannah nodded and Ellie began to play What a Friend We Have in Jesus, which the assembled mourners sang enthusiastically.
Have we trials and temptations?
Is there trouble everywhere?
We should never be discouraged;
Take it to the Lord in prayer.
Hannah seemed to hear the lyrics for the first time, from a new perspective. We should never be discouraged. Until now, she hadn’t doubted their honesty. The words arose from roots that reached to her childhood. There were as true and dependable as stuffed dolls, birthday cakes and the yellow bus that ferried her to school. Until now.
That evening a neighbor, Harlen, came to help with the milking. Hannah joined him, patting the rumps of the cows so as not to startle them, washing down teats and slipping suction cups over their utters. Harlen distributed feed along the length of the trough, then walked the center aisle, scooping up droppings. Neither one spoke a word.
Back in the kitchen, Hannah opened the refrigerator and studied its options. Nothing appealed to her.
The air was still and warm. She grabbed a shawl, threw it over her shoulders and began climbing the hill. Halfway to her destination, she dropped to her knees. Perhaps now it would be possible to cry.
She returned to the farmhouse and gazed at its unrecognizable silhouette, unable to express her grief. A solitary light burned in the kitchen.
Hannah walked up the barn’s embankment, an earth-packed ramp leading to the second floor of the wood-bone structure. She threw open the doors and stepped inside. Before her was a green and yellow 1955 International Harvester Metro van. It once belonged to Horace’s uncle, who used to deliver baked goods to grocery stores in several counties. The glass pane in the driver’s door had been replaced with a roll-down window. When Horace acquired the vehicle, he removed the storage racks and used the truck to haul bags of seed corn, fertilizer and farm supplies.
Hannah pushed aside the sliding door and slipped into the seat, unable to recall the last time she drove it. The keys were still in the ignition and the engine roared to life on the first try. Hannah released the brake lever, nudged her foot against the gas pedal and eased out the barn. She parked halfway between the barn and farmhouse, where she had an unobstructed view of the makeshift graveyard.
She stared numbly out the window, at an incomprehensible truth. Five Paws jumped on the shallow hood of the truck, causing a startled Hannah to jump and knock her knee against the gear shift. She opened the door, gathered Five Paws in her arms and returned to the cab, where she leaned against the door. She wrapped the shawl around Five Paws and herself and waited for sleep.
In the morning, Hannah was awakened by the sound of crows that routinely held a stakeout on the milk house. Five Paws was seated on the dash, staring at her.
She turned her head and gazed at the front door to their home. It was no longer familiar. It seemed to be sealed shut by a sheet of plywood, its edges nailed tight. She looked in the side mirror. The two large doors to the second story of the barn remained open.
If she were to drive anywhere, she should have her license. But the card was in her purse in the house. She decided against getting it. It didn’t seem to matter if she were caught breaking the law. Five Paws continued his steady, unbroken study of Hannah.
Absent a license and unsure if the vehicle registration was current, Hannah fired up the truck and rolled down the lane. After a few hiccups, the engine settled down.
She rolled down the window and drove to Martin’s Feed Mill, just outside Adele. One could smell the scent of ground barley and oats before rounding the curve, crossing Calico Creek and catching sight of the mill behind a cluster of trees. Hannah immediately spotted Larry, seated on the loading dock next to the scales, mending burlap bags.
Larry Zimmerman stood and raised his cap, saluting the freakish truck with its bulldog snout, cat-nose grill and oversized tires.
Hannah pulled up next to Larry. She rested her left elbow on the window ledge, tapping her wedding band lightly against the steering wheel.
“Morning, Mrs. Mercer.”
“Larry, could you come out to the farm after work?”
“Sure.” He cocked his head and looked skyward. “Your spark plugs could use a cleaning. What’s up?”
“I have a job that needs muscle. The pay’s good.”
“You want me to bring my toolbox?”
“That would be useful. And bring Jake.”
When Hannah returned home, Frank was milking the cows.
It touched Hannah how, without consulting her, Loretta showed up the day after the accident. At Creekside Mennonite, Loretta had assumed the role of battlefield nurse. Her favorite job was overseeing the creation of scrapbooks for the infirm. Rolling up the walkway in her wheelchair, Loretta stopped at the porch edge and handed Hannah a note.
“This is a list of the men who’ll be helping with the milking.” Written on the back of a calendar were the names of those who had volunteered their services. Twice a day, Sunday through Saturday, someone was scheduled to perform the chore. Every farmer at Creekside Mennonite was on the schedule. But the list included a number of Lutherans, Methodists and freethinkers, too, who, without prompting, assumed it was their duty to volunteer.
Five Paws led the way to the milk house where Hannah scooped up a dipperful of milk from the cooling tank and poured in into a tin can.
“How much is a cow worth these days?” Hannah asked Frank.
“I’d estimate two hundred. Two twenty, tops.”
“If it’s okay,” Frank said cautiously, “I should ….”
“Throw down some silage. Sure. You want me to move the bins aside when they’re full?”
“That would save me climbing up and down.”
With the morning chores completed, they met at the outdoor pump, where they washed down their hands.
“Well, you have a free cow coming, Frank. That leaves nineteen. If you want, I’ll sell you the whole herd for one seventy-five a head. It’s up to you.”
“That’s a mighty generous offer.” He paused. “Let me take it up with Norma.”
His words stung Hannah. She turned away and took a long, slow breath. It wasn’t just that Frank was considerate enough to include his wife in the decision – something most farming men simply wouldn’t do. It was that his words reminded her she no longer had someone to turn to and ask for advice.
She sat on the edge of the concrete slab that supported the outdoor hand pump. “Could I trouble you to do me a small favor, Frank? Could you go into the kitchen and get my purse? It’s on the desk, I’m sure. And while you’re there, could you get the meatloaf and scalloped potatoes from the refrigerator and bring it out?”
“Sure. Anything else?”
“No. Not at the moment.”
With Frank inside on the hunt, Hannah looked at the truck and smirked. “What are you looking at?”
Frank reappeared and sat next to Hannah, placing the items between them. He included a fork and glass of root beer in the inventory.
Midmorning Hannah began to wash the truck. She only intended to remove the months-long accumulation of dust acquired while stowed in the barn. When she rubbed the rag across the logo Whitman’s Bread and Baked Goods, the edges of the letter peeled away. With a putty knife, she was able to remove the hand-painted lettering without damaging the undercoat.
Hannah consulted the milking schedule. Dewey Hansen. From the milk house phone, Hannah called Dewey and asked if he could come an hour earlier than planned. It was not ideal, breaking the herd’s routine, but Hannah wanted an uninterrupted evening.
The afternoon was spent as much as possible clearing the upper bay of equipment. She moved the cultivator, crimper and tedder into a side shed. She parked the harrow next to the bailer, between the corn crib and tool shed.
Larry and Jake showed up at five. They were high-school dropouts who formed a five-man country band, CornDogs. Simon and Gerald adored Larry and had fought for his attention whenever they visited the feed mill. He had an easy swagger, wore garish belt buckles, and shared Red Hots which he kept in a snuff tin.
“We brought you a few bags of sorghum,” Larry announced. “Seems they were just sitting in a corner of a boxcar, unclaimed.”
“I’m not a charity case, Larry,” Hannah said. “Take them back.”
Larry ignored her demand. “I don’t know why you requested Jake,” he said, giving the bass player a sideway glance. “You said you needed muscle.” Suddenly his mood grew somber. “I’m terribly sorry, Mrs. Mercer. It ain’t right. There wasn’t a better family in all of Kalb County.”
“That’s the nicest thing anybody’s said to me these past few days,” replied Hannah. A simple, heartfelt apology. Not laced in religious platitudes.
“What’s on your mind?”
“I would like you to move all the furniture from the house into the barn.”
An awkward silence settled on the trio. The boys exchanged looks, searching for an explanation that might make sense to them.
“You would like us to move all the furniture from the house into the barn?” parroted Jake.
Hannah nodded. “It might make for a good song!”
Larry was the first to laugh. Jake and Hannah joined in.
“Whatever you say.”
Hannah pointed to the nearby wheelbarrow and Red Flyer Wagon. “We’ll stack the dishes in here. Leave the clothes on their hangers and hang them on the clothes line or over the porch railing. The heavy stuff can be walked right in the barn. Leave the piano where it is.”
Jake suggested they move the large, bulky items first.
The pair headed indoors, thinking Hannah would follow them. They paused in the kitchen, waiting. Any moment, they expected Hannah to enter and give them instructions. After several minutes, Larry tiptoed to the window and parted the curtains. Hannah was still seated by the water pump.
“I’m not sure she’s coming in.”
“What do you mean?”
“She’s not moving.”
“So what do we do?”
Puzzled, Larry circled the room and stopped at the door. He looked out a second time, then turned to Jake, thinking. “Why don’t we start with the kitchen? When the wheelbarrow’s full, let’s see what happens.”
They both were a little spooked about opening strange cupboards and pulling out stacks of plates, frying pans, saucers and cooking utensils.
“At any time, help yourself to food,” Hannah instructed when they topped off the wheelbarrow. She grabbed the handles and headed toward the barn. By the time the Red Flyer was full, Hannah had returned with the empty wheelbarrow.
“What about the refrigerator? Do you want that?”
“Yes. But not the stove. It’s gas.”
For over three hours, Larry and Jake shuttled items to the barn, where Hannah arranged them into groupings. She plugged in the refrigerator, hung a wall clock on a hand-hewn post, attached the plugs of several floor lamps to an extension cord. She emptied the drawers and had two dressers placed inside the truck parked outside.
Larry grew more and more restless. His thoughts darkened. Was Hannah in the midst of a nervous breakdown? Was she contemplating suicide? Was she going to set fire to the house?
When Hannah declared an end to the operation, she and Jake sat on the sofa. Larry remained standing, chewing on a stem of dried hay. They waited for someone to break the silence, each in their own thoughts, serenaded by the smell of cattle.
“I would like you to have Horace’s guitar and mandolin,” Hannah announced.
“Mrs. Mercer,” protested Larry, “now ain’t the time to be giving away things that belonged to Horace.”
“I know what I’m doing.” She could see Larry didn’t agree.
“They’re worth keeping.” added Jake, “You may find a use for them. In time.”
“They belong to someone who understands them,” Hannah said.
“The CornDogs are playing Saturday night at The Stockyards,” volunteered Larry.
Hannah appeared not to have heard. “There’s one more thing. In our … in the bedroom … in the south corner, there’s a loose floorboard. Under it, you’ll find a tin and two small wooden boxes.”
“I’d appreciate if you kept our business tonight to yourself.”
She paid the boys in cash.
After waving goodbye, Hannah climbed in the truck and backed it into the barn among all the household furnishings. She got out and called for Five Paws, who scurried inside. Hannah closed and latched the barn doors. She opened the back doors to the truck, tossed some bedding and a pillow onto the floor, turned off all but one floor lamp and climbed inside. Five Paws jump onto the makeshift bed, nudged himself into the blankets and threw his body against hers.
The following day Hannah drove the car to Willmar, a town triple the size of Adele. The handsome General Store, on the corner of Franklin and Washington, was owned by Hugo Blackwell. A passionate student of the Bible, Hugo could recite a verse, foul or fair, for any occasion. His clipped, rectangular mustache conjured the ghost of a notorious German dictator.
“Mrs. Mercer! Blessed are they who mourn for they shall have the habitat of God layed upon them and all their sorrows be vanity.”
“Thank you for those kind words, Hugo. Could I use your facilities?”
Hugo pointed to a door leading to the storage area. “Through there.” He looked over the rim of his glasses. “Only toilet paper, please, in the hopper!”
Rather than retire to the bathroom, Hannah began walking between the shelves examining various boxes, looking for shipping labels, and peeling them off if they seemed agreeable. She pushed up her sleeve, scribbling on her arm any company names that were stamped onto boxes. Kansas City and St. Louis seemed the most frequent addresses. She grabbed a handful of envelopes from a trash can. Stuffing her purse, Hannah wondered how Deacon Stahl would interpret her backroom raid. She returned to the store.
“Thank you, Mr. Blackwell.”
A woman, standing across the counter from Hugo, dropped her shoulders. “I’m sorry for your loss.”
“Hugo was telling me about your circumstances.”
“I don’t think we’ve met,” offered Hannah.
“I’m Vivian. Librarian at the Ruston County Branch. Just down the street.”
“Nice to meet you, Vivian.”
She wore a small hat, pleated at the side. Her blouse was cream colored with a double row of buttons down the front. Her tan, pressed slacks appeared new.
“We have a great deal of books,” Vivian said, “that can be a comfort to people … in troubling times. If I can be of service, in any way, I’d be happy to assist you.”
Hannah offered her a frosty smile, and instantly regretted it. There was a genuine tone to Vivian’s sentiments, despite her bluntness.
“Thank you. Truly. I’ll keep that in mind.”
“Rejoice evermore,” Hugo quoted. “Pray without ceasing.”
Hannah began a tour of the store, noting how Hugo displayed his wares. She was distrustful of tags showing two prices, with a line drawn through the larger amount. It seemed clever to keep small items at eye level and place larger products on lower shelves. She imagined rearranging the sewing supplies to make a more captivating display.
Fortunately, Hugo held his post at the cash register and didn’t cite any additional scripture.
Hannah purchased a hot plate and a small portable camping stove.
On the way home she stopped at a service station and purchased a foldout map of Missouri and a large, detailed map of St. Louis.
A few miles farther on, in the town of Ruston, she pulled into the parking lot of the Stock ‘n Go Gun Shop. She didn’t know the owner, Bernard, or his backup, a vicious-looking German Shepard named Bullet. Bernard was skeptical about Hannah’s request; he pulled out the smallest rifle in stock.
“I never sold no lady no gun before,” he sneered.
“It if weren’t for menfolk having guns, I doubt I’d want one.”
“You know how to shoot this?”
“I know how to work a sewing machine,” countered Hannah. “It can’t be all that hard.”
“This is a powerful weapon.”
“I would hope so. Otherwise I’d be throwing money in the wind, wouldn’t I?”
Bernard nervously twisted his caterpillar eyebrows. “It just don’t seem right, a proper woman like you toting a gun.”
Hannah glimpsed at Bernard’s left hand. “What are you afraid of? That I’ll form a lady’s rifle team and your wife will join?”
The barb didn’t register well with Bernard. “I was thinking the metalwork could use some more fanciful etching. Something pretty. Lacy. Feminine-like. But I’m not so sure that suits you.”
Hannah ignored his retort. She glanced at Bullet and decided to purchase the Winchester.
Back at the farm, Hannah threw open the barndoors. Light filtered through the dust. Below, she could hear the occasion click of the electric fence monitor, signifying its vigilance. She found a pair of sawhorses the height of the truck bed and laid several planks across them. After clamping them in place, she pushed the dresser that was once in her bedroom from inside the truck onto the planks. She climbed the ladder to the hay mow and readjusted the block and tackle lashed to the beam. Wrapping a rope around the dresser and tying the ends with a bowline knot, she used the pulley to raise the dresser several inches. She sawed off the legs, lowered the dresser and pushed it back into the truck. Using small angle irons and a handful of screws, she attached the dresser to the truck’s side frame.
She turned on the radio and found Horace’s favorite station, the only option that featured classical music.
Hannah pulled the drawers from the second dresser, removed the handles and stacked the drawers on their sides, creating a menagerie of shelves and dividers.
Most of the donated food, beginning to sour, was tossed in the garden compost. Preparing herself a plate of cheese, pickles and dried apricots, Hannah turned the radio dial to 98.6 and sat down for dinner. The announcer was predicting a late-evening thunderstorm. Once again Germany was in the news. The Berlin Wall, begun just a few months earlier, in August 1961, was the scene of another daring escape. Olga Segler had jumped from her window in the eastern sector into a net held by West Berlin firefighters. Although she survived the fall, she suffered a heart attack and died. Olga was eighty years old. For dessert, Hannah finished the last of Naomi’s banana ice cream, imagining the scene that played out in Berlin.
She dumped the contents of her purse on the desk and began to organize and study the shipping labels. Earlier, driving away from Hugo’s general store, while shifting into second gear, Hannah had decided to limit her search to St. Louis. Now, looking through the receipts, Hugo appeared to do business primarily with three distributors in the city. Consulting the city map, Hannah selected Cantor’s Warehouse and Supply Center. It was on the northern border of Saint Louis, the shortest distance from Adele.
She unfolded the map of Missouri. Using embroidery thread, she calculated a distance of fifty miles. She wrapped the thread around the point of a pencil, placed the other end on Adele and with this handmade compass drew a circle around her home town. Using a collection of colored pencils she began to map out several routes, each starting and ending in Adele, reaching into outlying counties, never crossing the leaded circumference.
The wind began picking up.
Several times Hannah erased portions of a route to reimagine it.
She noticed the drop in air pressure and smelled the charged air, announcing the approaching front. Five Paws paced the floor, pausing from time to time to listen to the creaking rafters. Hannah ran outdoors, to make certain the gate to the barnyard was open. Most of the cows had already taken shelter under the protective roof.
She thought of her husband and sons, their graves under the sycamore, about to face the rainstorm.
It was impossible to do any further work that night. Hannah simply sat at the back of the truck, the door open, her feet dangling, not touching the floor, listening to the sound of rain on the tin roof.
Hannah awoke before sunrise. The cows had returned to the meadow to graze on fescue before milking. Only a few branches had broken free and were scattered on the lawn. She gathered them together and threw them on a burn pile. She collected soap, fresh clothes and gave herself a sponge bath in the milk house.
Jesse Sommers was scheduled to supervise the milking that morning. More than a week had passed since Hannah inspected the garden, so she decided to harvest any forgotten vegetables and send them home with Jesse. She was filling a second basket of tomatoes when Larry drove up.
“I never did check them spark plugs the other day,” he said, leaning out the window.
“Shouldn’t you be at work?” Hannah asked, wiping her hands on the sides of her dress.
Larry winked. “I was granted parole for the day. Good behavior.”
They walked, side by side, to the tool shed.
“Anything belonging to Horace to make the job easier, help yourself.”
“While I’m at it, I thought an oil change would be in order.”
On their way to the barn, Hannah brushed back her hair. The sharp, earth-oil scent of tomatoes on her hand caused her to stop. Normally the tomatoes would be cooked down, pressed through a colander and reheated with sugar and spices. Then the sauce would be poured in Mason Jars, cooked in a hot water bath and stored in the basement pantry for her family.
Hannah’s momentary break didn’t go unnoticed by Larry.
“Are you okay, Mrs. Mercer?”
Hannah smiled weakly. “I’m going to have to learn to lie, Larry,” she said.
“To spare everyone…and myself.”
Larry choose not to press her.
The following day Hannah drove an exquisitely-tuned, wholly-agreeable truck to St. Louis. Cantor’s Warehouse and Supply Center. Hannah cruised Filmore Drive slowly, peering left and right, for the depository. It was set back from the street; a blue awning framed a single door to the office.
Hannah backed the jaunty Metro van into a parking slot and engaged the parking brake lever. Not since high school had she worn lipstick, but she applied a blushingly-red coat. She sat for a moment, clutching her purse, gathering her wits.
The receptionist was seated behind a low desk, with a container of rubber cement, gluing eraser caps onto the heads of used, bald pencils. She looked up.
“You’re lost, aren’t you?”
“No. I’m here,” replied Hannah.
Without malice, the receptionist stroked the side of her lip with her forefinger and said, “There’s a lady’s room down the hall.”
Hannah attempted a smile and shrugged her shoulders. “Oh, who’s kidding who?” She opened her purse, removed a handkerchief and wiped off the lipstick. She tucked the handkerchief back in her purse and snapped it shut, saying, “Am I myself?”
The receptionist was pleasantly amused. “I don’t know. Who are you?”
“Hannah. Hannah Mercer. My name is Hannah Mercer.”
The receptionist rose and extended her hand. “I’m Wanda. Wanda Garrick.”
“I’m here to purchase a variety of items, although I’m not familiar with your company and don’t know what you sell or the cost of your goods.”
“Do you have a license?”
“I wouldn’t drive the whole way from Adele, for three hours, without a license.”
“No. A business license.”
“I need permission to buy and sell things?”
“Yes. You do.”
“Can you give me one?”
“I’m afraid not. You must apply for one. Most likely in the county where you live.”
“You can’t sell me anything? Even if I pay cash.”
“I’m sorry. It’s the law. Cantor’s is a wholesale operation. We can’t open an account without a license.”
“Well, okay, then,” Hannah said.
Wanda noticed the defeat in Hannah’s eyes. “I suspect you want a retail license. Giving you permission to buy and resell merchandise.”
“Yes. Exactly! But I don’t understand. Why?”
“It’s a business transaction. The government wants to make sure you collect and pay sales tax.” Not a fan of government regulations, Wanda snorted.
Hannah turned and looked out the window, at the empty truck.
Wanda checked the clock on the wall.
“Have you had lunch? It’s nearly noon. Mollie’s Diner is just a five-minute walk down the road.”
“Oh, that would be nice,” admitted Hannah. “I would love some coffee.”
“Let me get a catalog, so you can get a sense of what we sell. Everything is sold in bulk, you know.”
“I assumed,” nodded Hannah. “I was hoping.”
Wanda walked to the windows, closed the blinds and flipped the Open-Closed sign on the door.
“Do you have a sample license I could see?” Hannah asked.
“We keep copies on file. Technically, the client must give permission to release any documents.”
“I understand. Of course.”
Wanda considered. “Mr. Henderson passed away recently,” she said to herself. “We’re in the process of closing his account.” She returned to her desk, extracted a ring of keys and opened the middle drawer of a filing cabinet. She flipped through a row of tabs and slipped out a folder. Wanda held up the file and gave it a flick. “I doubt Mr. Henderson minds.”
Over lunch, flashing her knife and fork like a conductor before a symphony of meatballs, mashed potatoes and lima beans, Wanda explained her lifelong desire: to become a stunt pilot and perform aerial feats, flying under bridges, through gorges, buzzing tornadoes. She paused and massaged her coffee mug with the sides of her hands. “I hate my job. I hate St. Louis. I hate my life.”
Hannah looked on her kindly, without saying a word.
A second later, Wanda apologized. “You know I don’t mean that.” She stiffened her spine and slapped the table. “You drove three hours. We can’t send you home empty-handed.” She folded the license and handed it to Hannah. “We’ll work something out, Mr. Henderson.”
Back at the warehouse, Wanda introduced Hannah to Katherine, a fork lift operator. For the next hour, without regard to company regulations, Katherine zipped Hannah along the corridors, selecting merchandize, stacking boxes on flats and transporting them to the Metro, in its proud, new position at the end of the loading dock.
Wanda tallied the invoice, collected Hannah’s payment and followed her to the loading dock.
“Next time you’ll have a proper license,” she cautioned.
It was dusk when Hannah drove down the lane, returning to the farm. The only light was a whisper under the porch, by the front door. Before parking the truck, she stopped, turned off the engine and began walking to the water pump. A quietness had settled over the farm, a stillness so complete, she paused, almost alarmed at the breathless air. What was it? Why the change? There was no rustle in the grass, no quiet shifting in the barnyard. And then she knew. The cattle were gone.
She found the note clipped to the screen door with a clothespin.
I accepted your offer. Naomi’s nephew from Topeka was passing
through and helped move the herd this afternoon. He’s much better
at handling cattle than me. I hope that’s okay.
“I acted too soon,” whispered Hannah, flushed with a rising sense of panic. “What was I thinking?” She primed the pump handle and drank a handful of water. It was not going to be an easy night.
Just outside Adele, on the road to Willmar, Nathan Proctor had purchased a parcel of land from his cousin, Matthew Proctor, and had built a fourteen-unit motor lodge. Entrances to each room, framed by a pair of windows, created an uninterrupted rhythm on three walls that faced the central parking lot. A lobby was tacked on the end of the north arm of the lodge. Nathan, a bachelor, claimed the room nearest the lobby, calling it home. Later, Nathan would add two small, independent cabins to his empire. The most distinctive feature was its sign – a glorious, internally-lit triangle mounted on two poles embedded in a brick planter – that promised comfortable beds, free coffee and color television.
From the outset, the lodge was not a wise investment. Few people sought refuge in this corner of Missouri. The interstate, miles away, was not a conduit for business.
To supplement his income, Nathan went to night school and became an auctioneer. To advertise his hotel, he hosted a one-hour radio show each week entitled Kalb County Speaks and interviewed local celebrities. Both were wise decisions. Nathan had a lovely baritone voice.
Hannah paid Nathan a visit.
“I intend to sell the farm.”
Nathan adjusted his bow tie. “There’s been talk of that.”
“Will you oversee the sale?”
“Mrs. Mercer,” appealed Hank, “there’s no rush, is there? Can’t you employ a hired hand to mind the farm?”
“It belonged to my husband. It is no longer a farm.”
“It’s an excellent parcel of land. Consider it an investment.”
“I can’t argue, Nathan. The land is lovely.”
Nathan shifted in his chair.
“Six percent,” Hannah proposed. “That’s your share. It’s more than fair.”
“Fair!” gasped Nathan. “It’s sinful. Nobody takes a six percent commission.”
“Everything goes. All but one half acre. The land where Horace and my boys are buried. That I’m keeping for myself.”
“If I may . . . .” Nathan ventured, “where do you plan to go?”
Hannah smiled, the smile of someone entertaining an unusual proposition.
“Would I be able to park my truck here, out of the way, perhaps out back?”
Nathan waited for clarification.
“I noticed several outdoor outlets by the laundry.”
Nathan nodded, knowingly.
“And if I could purchase electricity from time to time. When needed.”
“Why not rent a room? I could draw up a lease. One of the cottages, perhaps.”
“I’ll consider that. But, at the moment, just a place to park . . . . I don’t expect I’ll need much electricity.”
“I’m not familiar with the truck you keep mentioning. Is it large? Loud? Does it leak oil? Will its tires kick up gravel?”
“Why don’t you come to the farm,” urged Hannah. “I’ll show you.”
A sign announcing the sale of the Mercer Farm was posted at the end of the driveway. Flyers were distributed in local businesses. An ad ran in the Willmar Gazette.
Over several days, Hannah created a stencil and, using chalk, transferred the design to each side of the Metro. Slowly, with great care, she filled in the letters with gold paint: Hannah’s Goods and Effects.