My God, he was a beautiful man. The way he sat on a horse. Or the way he rolled a cigarette. Charlie Freeman. I couldn’t take my eyes off him.
I loved my husband all right; don’t get me wrong. The minute I married him and went off with him to that Godforsaken patch of Montana, I knew I’d done the right thing. I wasn’t so young any more; chances looked slim. When Tom came along and asked me to marry him, I was happy to do it. I wasn’t a good-looking woman; I was too tall and bony for those times. I’ve shrunk some now, but look at my feet. You can tell how big I must’ve been to match them. ’Course, that was the day for big women, but busty, not flat with no waist to speak of, like I was, and no hips.
The first time I saw a picture of Kate Hepburn, my heart stopped. All my life, I’d thought I was nothing to look at, and here millions of people were paying good money to look at someone who looked just like me. My granddaughter tells me I’ve got style. Maybe I do. Maybe I did then; something made Tom look at me. And Charlie.
So I went off to Montana with Tom and we set up a store together, with a post office on the side, and he did the running around part of the business while I minded the store.
Tom knew when the irrigation ditch went in, that country would grow, and it did. We got there just in time to welcome all the new folks and make ourselves a tidy business. I liked store-keeping, and I liked being away from the folks back home. I’d had a good time back home; my brother and I still write to each other regular. But when I left, I felt like I shook off a lot of stuff that squeezed me down. Here, I didn’t have nobody to tell me to tend Sister’s baby for her, or to check on Aunt Mat every Sunday. There wasn’t nobody asking me if it wasn’t time I got married. I was married and I’d fooled them all — I’d up and left them. I was running a business, and I liked it, and I felt like I was someplace that was finally big enough for me. I didn’t have to worry I was going to step on something.
Tom was good to me. “That display looks nice, Fae,” he’d say. Or, “Things are a lot handier around here since you rearranged the stock.” He’d always give me credit. One time we got in a couple of soap savers; he swore they’d never sell. I sold them. He liked to say that I’d soft-soaped the soap savers. He wasn’t much for jokes, but when he’d come up with one, he’d hold on to it.
I talked him into stocking dictionaries. He thought that was a big mistake; we’d never get rid of them. “Where’ll you put ’em?” he said. “Next to the bag balm?” Those dictionaries took hold right away; they ended up in a lot of parlors. And they were used. People were starved for information. Tom said I had good instincts.
Then up come Charlie, by train, from Chicago. He was hired by the water company to ride the ditch and check the equipment. We thought he was single. In that country full of men, he stood out. We women — the handful of us — sparked up when he came around. He’d stop by the store for some tobacco, and I’d find myself fixing my hair quick when I saw him come in. He knew it, too, the way he’d slide into conversation with every woman he met. You could tell he’d had some good times with the ladies, and that he wouldn’t mind having more.
Then up come his wife Rose and their five kids. They settled out on the place the company gave them, handy to the ditch and nothing else. I don’t know how that woman kept herself from going crazy in the winters, with the snow and nobody to talk to.
She stuck it out, though, and before long, there were six kids. Didn’t seem to stop Charlie. He’d hit town, spend a few days drinking, maybe get in a couple of fights. Then he’d sober up and go home. Meanwhile, Rose’d be riding his rounds, making his reports like he was still on the job, while minding six kids who were hungry because their dad wasn’t back from town yet with the groceries.
She seemed happy, for all that. She’d get into town sometimes for church, and she just looked . . . happy. Her kids were a wiggly bunch of towheads, muddy around the face and knees. She loved those kids, you could tell, the way her face lit when she looked at them. People liked her. She worked hard, and we respected hard work. People liked him, too. He could get you pepped up with his jokes and his easy talk. But her, she was one you could count on. And she could bake a fine loaf of bread. They didn’t have much. She liked to pass out bread to people who’d helped her. She was a proud woman.
That seemed a big part of why she married him. She was proud of him, the way he looked and could talk to people. She was a scrawny woman, and plain. I think it made her feel pretty to be with him.
Of course, pretty don’t get you far. They had tough times, with him drinking and all. Word was, he beat his boys. Lots of people did back then. We didn’t think about it, like they do now. He beat his cows, too. That didn’t sit so well with folks. We thought high of our livestock.
Their barn burned on her birthday. In town, we could see the black tar-paper smoke — we could smell it. A bunch of us rode out to help; it was all gone when we got there. The two of them were staring at the ashes, the kids lined up beside them. She turned when she heard the wagon, and welcomed us like we were regular company. It hits some folks that way, when something bad happens — it seems to settle them. She wiped her face with her apron and invited us in; she fixed coffee and gave us some bread. The men went back out and left me with her. We sat silent for a time. I was thinking of Charlie.
She broke the silence. “Today’s my birthday,” she said.
I’d been looking out the window. I turned back to her.
“Harry did it,” she said. “I was baking my cake. It was chocolate — the one I do for the kids. This one time, I thought I’d have a cake for me. I put it in the oven, and I saw Charlie head for the barn, hollering. Harry must’ve been out there playing with matches. I know he was. Charlie’ll probably go after him for this.”
I looked at her. I always go dumb at troubles. I never liked paying calls on sick folks or widows. I was always glad for the store, so that I could say I couldn’t get away. I don’t mind fires so much, or bad storms — times when you have to fight hard to save things. I can pitch in as long as it’s needed. But when it comes to sitting with folks who’ve been through bad times, my mouth goes dry and I lump up, feeling how miserable they are and how tough the world is, and I can’t think of a thing to say. I’d come out to help fight the fire, and got there in time for the sitting.
The cake burned in the oven while they tried to save the barn. I can still smell the burnt chocolate. I stayed because I couldn’t go home without Tom, and because I wanted to see Charlie. Turned out he didn’t come in. He went out to the pump to wash up, and kept on going. We were a perfect match. I couldn’t stand to sit with folks who had troubles, and he couldn’t stand to be sat with.
The men shuffled back in after a while. They’d seen to the stock that Charlie had got out of the barn, and they herded the kids back to the house, all except Harry. Rose found him later up a tree. Charlie never laid a hand on him; that’s how bad he felt.
Charlie and I were seeing each other a lot by then. I didn’t think anything of it when he kept coming around the store to talk. Lots of people were eager for conversation. Then he started telling me when he’d be back, and I got to looking forward to his visits. There I was, married five years already to a good man, a man who took care of his family, and I was flaming up when Charlie Freeman came into the store. We got to going out back, taking advantage of an odd hour here and there. I was a lost woman, I tell you. At home, I hardly saw my husband. I couldn’t see anyone but Charlie, Charlie with his curly black hair that made my heart jump when he shoved it back off his face.
Family trait, he told me. Not his family here, but his brothers and sisters back home in Illinois. He was proud of the family he came from. He never talked about Rose or the kids. He liked to pick out a present for his little girl sometimes, but he never talked about her. Maybe he felt some guilt, maybe not.
I felt enough for both of us. I couldn’t believe what I was doing, how I couldn’t stop myself.
Charlie stopped us in the end, in the only way he knew how — he found another woman. He didn’t come around so often, then he came only to buy something, always at times when I couldn’t leave the store. He’d shift from one foot to the other, and try to duck my questions. “I dunno,” he’d say, “I’ve been busy. I’ll come by soon.” He wasn’t a man who could face unpleasantness.
Grace Miller was a big, redheaded woman; she favored rough language. Her husband was her size. Lord, they could fight. It didn’t matter where. They fought at home, and they fought when they came to town. They’d start in cursing each other, and pretty soon one would reach out and hit the other. Palm Sunday, they got going in the middle of the churchyard. All of us women huddled together while the men grabbed whatever they could — arms, mostly — to try and stop them. They didn’t feel comfortable grabbing a woman that way, so they concentrated on him. They got them apart finally. She straightened her hat and went on into church.
They lived in the house closest to Rose and Charlie. Matter of fact, Grace came over to help when Rose had her last kid. She wasn’t the housekeeper Rose was; she liked to have a good time. She came into town any time she could, with her husband or without him. She’d spend a long time in the store just looking at stuff, and hankering. She’d always buy at least one trinket, something pretty to look at — a thermometer, maybe, with flowers on it, to hang on the wall.
We had a celluloid dresser set that we’d put in the window. Every woman in town came to look at that dresser set and ask about it. You could see how they felt when they handled it, their rough hands tracing the blue flowers on the celluloid. Some of them would hold up the mirror and look in — be the Queen of Sheba for a moment. Then they’d put it down quick and be back at the counter, asking for a pound of coffee.
We had that dresser set a long time. Then Grace marched in one day and banged down her money. I took my time wrapping it. I hated to see that dresser set go, to her especially.
Charlie came in the next day for tobacco. He owed us money. I couldn’t get anything else out of him by that time, so I asked for his money. He laughed at me, said I got money out of him the day before. He was proud he’d bought that dresser set for Grace. They both were proud, strutting together, showing off. He started coming to church even; they’d always get together to talk after. I don’t know how I stood it, standing there with the other women, all of us watching and clucking together over those two.
Rose and I got to be pretty good friends. I think she and I were both glad to be where we were. We both came off farms; I was a Hoosier and she was from Illinois. We both liked the openness here. And we were both glad to be on our own. We were strong women. She had to be, living with Charlie. He must have gone for strong women. Rose and me and Grace — we were none of us afraid of life. Oh, Rose could seem meek; she could fool you. But she was one of those quiet, strong women who’d stick no matter how tough things got. I often wonder how things turned out. When she left here, it didn’t seem like life was going to be anything but tough for her. I bet she made a go of it; she had it in her.
She was a determined woman. She wanted those kids educated. They couldn’t get to school in the winter from way out where they were, so she worked on Charlie and worked on him till he rented a house in town for the winter. Then she was the one enjoying the town life, while he was all alone out in the country.
That’s when I got to know Rose. Turned out she suffered from headaches like I did. She swore by cut potatoes placed on both sides of the head. Myself, I favored a bag of salt warmed in the oven and laid over my eyes. We both felt better having someone to suffer with. It was hard for her to make friends; I think she’d had a lot to take from her own family. They’d downed her. She didn’t say much, but little things here and there made me think so. She sent them a postcard every once in a while, and sometimes she got a letter, but not often.
What I remember most is how she bought those big red Indian Chief writing tablets. I asked her once what she did with them all, and she said oh, she just liked to write things down, things she’d heard or recipes or bits of poetry. She must’ve filled a dozen of them. I’d like to know where those tablets are today.
She usually came in when the kids were in school, so she had just the baby. She was so tender with that baby, talking to him like he was a person already. She was like that with all her kids. She listened when they talked to her, and she was always careful to answer back.
She was awful sharp with Charlie, though. I don’t think it made one bit of difference to him; just made it easier for him to go in the end. There was no holding him. Kindness wouldn’t have done it, so you might as well nag. He wasn’t made for settling down.
When Charlie started seeing Grace Miller, I about went crazy. I remember standing in the store, cutting dress lengths. I could feel the tension pushing my chin into my throat. I thought I was going to choke to death right there, with the scissors in my hand and Mrs. Bessie Rowan asking me about shrinkage.
I didn’t though. I went on cutting and rang it up and got myself through another day of sickening for Charlie. The man didn’t deserve it. I knew it then and I know it now. He was a bum.
But what a handsome bum he was. I used to watch him talking with the other men, the way he’d slide into a joke. He’d tense up his lips for the punch line, then lean back with his hands in his pockets and ease it on out. I loved the way he’d roll a cigarette, his tongue moving slowly across the paper. Other men would go on with the conversation while they rolled. Not Charlie. He stopped to focus on his pleasures, to take time with that cigarette. But he didn’t smoke it down; he always tossed it before it was half-smoked. The anticipation was what he was after.
He was the same way in bed. He took his time leading up to it, while I worried that Tom might come in on us. We were living upstairs from the store then, so it was handy for me and Charlie. I’d hang out the “Closed — Back in Ten Minutes” sign. ’Course, it was more like an hour. How that man could linger over a woman. But when it was done, he quick put on his clothes and headed out.
Grace Miller left town on a Wednesday. She told us she was going to visit her sister in Iowa. She didn’t come back. Friendly as I was with Rose by then, I still had a thought or two that maybe Charlie would come back to me. He didn’t. He took off a week later. I knew, when I heard, that he had gone to be with Grace. We all knew. Rose didn’t let on. He left in the summer; Rose and the kids were out in the country. When she came into town, she talked big, how Charlie would send for them when he got settled in Chicago. He even wrote her a couple of times. She showed me the letters, maybe to prove he was still hers. He talked about the cattle business and this and that. Then he stopped writing. Rose had to give up the company place. She moved into town and started to take in washing.
She stuck it out pretty good — didn’t miss a Sunday at church and kept her head high. Then the state got involved, sending out a welfare lady to see her. Rose would have sent her packing, I know, but she had six mouths to feed. She lasted out that whole year, even managed a tree at Christmas. But then the state clamped down and said she had to go back to Illinois, to her family; the state wouldn’t help her anymore. For all the work she did, hauling that laundry, scrubbing people’s clothes, staying up nights ironing, she knew she couldn’t make it without that state food. She told them flat out that her family didn’t want her. But the state went ahead and wrote her folks, and they said sure, they’d welcome Rose with open arms. Open arms, they said. You know how families are. They don’t let on to strangers.
I went to the station to see her off. I liked Rose. I could tell her things I couldn’t say to another soul. We liked to talk about the country and the way things were going and how the town was run and what we’d do if we had half a chance to run things. A lot of folderol, really, but it can take you out of yourself sometimes, and make you feel bigger than you are — spark you up for all the dull stuff you have to do in a day.
We sat together, while the kids picked fights with each other the way kids do when they aren’t sure what’s going on. When the train came and it was time for her to get on, I stood next to her.
“Goodbye, Rose. Good luck to you.”
I looked at her, and I could see she was gone already, on the train and in Illinois. She was trying to be polite, but she was gone. I choked up then and couldn’t talk. I saw her eyes fill, too. We stared at each other and nodded, then her hand grabbed mine and squeezed so my ring cut into my finger. She let go and said, “Come on, kids.” She herded them onto the train. I heard her say, “So long, Fae.” Then she was gone.
I marched back to the store and told Tom I was going to take the rest of the day off. You know what I did? I cleaned house. Top to bottom. I scrubbed those floors like they’ve never been scrubbed, before or since. Beat carpets. Washed windows. I did it up right. Then I took a bath and went to bed. The next day, I was back in the store.
I never heard from Rose again. But a couple years back, one of the boys showed up in town; of course, he was a gray-headed man by then. He’d come back to see the town, to see the company place. He was one of the younger ones; he didn’t remember much. He wanted to know what Rose was like when I knew her, and his dad. He wanted to know about his dad. I told him what I could, leaving out things here and there, and dressing it up some.
That boy looked like Charlie. Had some of his charm, too. I told him so; he liked that. I had three kids myself after Rose and Charlie left. Tom and I were married fifty-two years. I did all right with Tom; we were happy together. He was a fine man. But seeing that boy —Rose and Charlie’s boy — brought it all back to me. When I think of Charlie, I still get that shiver in my stomach. I’d go with him today, if he asked me.