I stopped abruptly, losing sight of the pavement, remembering, too late, that this was the day. All over Winkler and Barbara Town, the lights had just gone out. I listened, waiting for my eyes to adjust, no more alone on the main road than I’d been a moment before, now straining to hear what I could not see.
There was no hum of car engines, no huff of steam, no footfalls, just my breath, visible in a meager glint of starlight. The sky was deep blue, a clear night. Somehow, without light from the street lamps, the air felt colder. Everyone predicted a hard winter, a prediction that made sense, for we’d had a hard summer, a hard year. But we also agreed 1931 would be better. We were eager to start the new year, two days from now. It couldn’t be worse, we said.
My walk from school had been mostly dark, for the town’s few street lamps produced only small islands of light. Still, they showed the way in a town that every day felt shabbier and more deserted. For the past year, a single shift at the Winkler Mine had worked one to three days a week. In most people’s judgment, we were barely hanging on.
In preparation for today, Barlow and I had cleaned our old oil lamps and lanterns. I needed to start carrying one, especially on these short winter days. Better yet, I needed to come and go while there was light to see. I’d stayed late at school, preparing lessons for my class of fourth, fifth and sixth graders, determined to make the next day better.
A glow ahead affirmed my location. It had to be Glory’s shop in the old Eat and Sleep, one of few establishments that had opted to pay for the increased cost of electric lighting. I turned cautiously onto our unpaved lane, full of ruts dug by torrents of rain this fall, and like so many things, left unrepaired. Now I saw two other lights, one in the distance, at our house, and one bobbing toward me. I waited, listening for the steps, hearing the thump of a cane, seeing a wider glow and finally, the figure behind it.
“May Rose?” He held the lantern high, allowing me to see his face.
“Barlow.” I sighed in relief. “Thank you.”
“This is the day. I’m relieved you’re home.”
I took his arm and held the lantern so he could use the cane with his right hand. He didn’t always use the cane, but it helped him on rough ground. When his steps were more certain, mine were as well.
The end of our electricity had been predicted, worried over, scheduled and announced, a necessary cut-back. Everything had cut back—work, wages, and the population of Winkler. Half the company houses were empty, surrounded by weeds and bits of trash. Still, we heard Winkler was more fortunate than other mining towns. Many were entirely boarded up.
It seemed we talked of nothing but the slumping demand for coal and its falling price. We did not need newspaper headlines to tell us commerce across the country had drastically slowed and the world was in an economic depression—the evidence was in front of our eyes, and in too many empty bellies. Randolph said as long as he could keep the mine working even a few days a week, he’d be able to provide power to the store and hospital and to businesses willing to pay a higher rate, like Virgie’s theater and Glory’s sewing shop in the Eat and Sleep building. Barlow said we might lose our telephone too.
“I can tell you’re tired,” he said, squeezing my arm.
“It was a long day.” It was also my first day, quite enough to convince me I was no teacher. I was too ashamed to admit it and too proud to give up so soon.
“You didn’t take your bicycle this morning?” He sounded tired too. I worried about him managing the store with only a part-time clerk.
“I took it, but I told Miss Baldwin to ride it home. I think the walk from school is getting to be too much for her. Really, Barlow, I don’t know how she gets through the school day.” I’d felt exhausted after my first hour.
“Maybe this will be her last year to teach,” he said.
“I’m not sure the school can survive without her.” Both our children were pupils in Miss Baldwin’s mixed classroom, Freddy in the ninth grade group and Hettie in the seventh.
“But if she retired, what would she do?” Where could she go, he meant. For years, Miss Baldwin had boarded with us during the school year and gone “home” to her sister’s house in the summer. Near the end of last summer her sister had died, and while she’d left Miss Baldwin a small inheritance, the house had gone to a granddaughter who’d promptly sold it. Miss Baldwin never showed her worries, but that didn’t mean she didn’t have them.
We paused at the steps to the porch to finish our talk before joining everyone inside. The oil lamp at our front window made dark shadows of the porch chairs. I was sorry to lose our electric power, but we would adjust. No one in the house had complained, though the lamps would mean less clarity for reading at night, and cleaning and maintaining the lamps meant more work.
“I have two bits of news,” Barlow said. “First, we had an inquiry today.”
“A prospective resident. Ben Bigelow came to see me this morning. He was wondering if there was space in the boardinghouse for his sister, a Miss Handy.”
“There isn’t,” I said.
“I thought that would be your answer, but I said I’d let him know tomorrow.”
We had space, of course. For a year we’d had only two boarders, Price Loughrie and Miss Baldwin. Miss Mahew had passed away, and Aurora Fellows had retired from the bank and moved to a cottage in Barbara Town near her friend Mrs. Dodge. For a long time there’d been no travelers to Winkler, at least none stopping at our boardinghouse.
In accepting the teaching position, I believed it might be my new life’s work as well as a transition to a time when the boardinghouse would have no paying customers. The salary had been a factor, and I’d been flattered to be asked, because I was eligible for only a provisional teaching certificate. I assumed I knew what school was like—after all, I’d been a pupil myself for 12 years and I could say I’d been the teacher of Winkler’s first school. Long ago, in the sitting room of the house shared with Wanda, I’d supervised the reading and arithmetic of six children, all well-behaved, nothing like what I’d experienced today. The youngest in that long-ago class was Ruby, Simpson Wainwright’s granddaughter, whom I’d taught to read, and the oldest was Jonah Watson, then 13, whose mathematics lessons were too advanced for me. After that year, the children had enrolled in the new Winkler school and I’d become a mother.
After one day in my new classroom, I had plenty of doubts. I had no idea how to manage the reading, arithmetic, geography and history lessons for each of my three grades, and no skill in claiming the attention of my pupils. I was not ready to tell Barlow about the chaos of my classroom. He’d assured me I’d be wonderful.
“The other news is about Wanda,” Barlow said. “She’s coming tomorrow, with the children.”
“For our New Year’s party?”
He rested his hand on the railing by the steps, added this summer in recognition that all of us were getting older. “More than that. She’s going to enroll Ralphie, Otis and Wanda Rose in the Winkler school. Said she’s taking you up on the offer to spend the winter with us.”
“You did offer.”
Ages ago. “I did. And I meant it, of course I did. But I’ve been worrying about Dessie. I can imagine the boys tumbling around, getting in her way. With her bad knees, she has such a struggle getting upstairs. I’ve meant to ask what you think of converting the dining room to a bedroom for her and Tom.”
“Hmm.” Barlow’s tone sounded like disapproval, though like me, he hoped to keep Dessie and her husband with us as long as they wanted to stay. Our ties to Dessie and Tom went way back to Hester’s boardinghouse, where Barlow and I had suffered through our first awkward encounters.
“If Wanda’s family is here, we’ll need the dining room, because we couldn’t all eat in the kitchen,” I said.
“She’s coming. Tomorrow afternoon.”
“We’ll think of something to help Dessie,” he said.
“Thank you.” Wanda’s manner of forging ahead without regard for the plans or consent of anyone else often irritated my husband, yet he appeared calm about the news of her arrival. I needed his steadiness. In these times, we all needed to stay calm.
He pressed his cold cheek to mine for a moment, then I lifted the lantern to light our way up the steps. “Let’s talk about everything in the morning,” he said. “You’ve had a long day, and Tom has dinner ready.”
Of course I was concerned about Wanda, and of course I wanted her to stay with us if that was what she needed. She’d lost too much, first her Uncle Russell, who’d dropped over in the hay field two summers ago, then three months later, her husband, her quiet source of strength. Will’s death had cut away a piece of my heart too, and I couldn’t think of him without turning weepy. Still, I hoped Wanda’s gloom wouldn’t infect everyone in our house. Our days were short, the nights were long and dark, and managing with less and less was harder than ever.
It might have been my imagination, but the soft light from the oil lamps slowed and enriched our dinner hour. We were eight at the table, including Freddy and Hettie, who also seemed subdued by the change. For Wanda’s family, the light of oil lamps would be no novelty. Electricity had never come to her valley.
We ate with the silence of people in need of nourishment until, relaxed and restored by Tom’s ham gravy, dumplings and turnips, we began to ask our usual questions about everyone’s day. As yet I hadn’t shared Wanda’s news with the others.
Finally I said, “We’re in for a bit of a change.” Everyone looked toward me with a show of concern. Tom, who was hard of hearing, put a hand behind his ear. “Say again?”
Across the table, Miss Baldwin blotted her lips with her napkin then raised her voice so he’d hear. “A change.”
“We growed up without electric,” Dessie said. “We’ll get along.”
“This is something else.”
Tom passed a platter of eight shortbread cookies. “Is it the mine, then?” He always spoke loudly, at times almost a shout, as though we were the ones who couldn’t hear.
“It’s just Wanda,” Barlow said.
There was more than one sigh of relief. Not the mine. Not yet.
I tried to smile. “Wanda and her family are moving in tomorrow.”
“Oh boy,” Freddy said. Then he looked at his father to be sure he hadn’t spoken out of turn. In adding our children to the adult dinner gathering, we’d given Freddy the seat at Barlow’s right hand and Hettie at mine so we could monitor their behavior.
“Just for the winter.” My children had learned to mind their manners, but I was less confident that Wanda’s three would conform.
“It’ll be a lively time,” Price Loughrie said.
Lively for sure. Ralphie and Otis were nearly as big as men, but they still jostled and knocked each other about like kids.
Barlow looked at Freddy and then at Hettie as he spoke. “We’ll enforce the house rules, no running, no slamming of doors, and quiet time after nine.”
Miss Baldwin spoke up. “How old are her children now?”
“Ralphie is almost 16; Otis is 14, and Wanda Rose is 10. She’ll be in my class.”
“It’ll be fun,” Hettie said.
I took a bite of my cookie. We could hope.
We had much to get used to. Overnight I left a low flame burning in our sitting room lamp, and in the morning it let me find my way to the kitchen and back.
“How about this,” I said, carrying our tray of coffee into the bedroom. “We’ll keep the dining room as it is, and the five young people can eat in the kitchen. We need peaceful dinners, don’t you think?”
Barlow sat up in bed and took his cup from the tray. “It sounds fine to me. I’m sure the kids prefer being together more than having to endure our discussions.”
I set my coffee on the night stand and got back into bed, stretching a leg close to his, savoring a few more moments of warmth and peace. “Even so, they’ll have to mind their manners.” I reached for my coffee, wondering what it would be like to live under the same roof with Ralphie Wainwright. Wanda might be able to forget he was Raz Cotton’s son, but I was always afraid he might have inherited some of his father’s criminal tendencies. I also worried about the peace of the house. Wanda’s family and mine weren’t used to being together, day after day. “Five young people,” I said, imagining arguments and loud laughter. I took my first sip of coffee, always the best. “I don’t want to offend her or cause her to leave.”
Barlow sighed. “May Rose, she’s not even here yet. You’re borrowing trouble.”
“I’m preparing myself. I want Wanda to be happy again. She’s not like she was when Homer died, thank the stars. You didn’t see her then—frightened of everything, including herself, afraid she was going to hurt somebody, and more reckless than ever. Then she met Will.”
“She might meet somebody again,” he said.
My voice began to shake, as it tended to do when I spoke of Wanda and Will, but I took a deep breath and willed myself not to break down. “I know how it is, when people we love lose the ones who filled their lives. We want them to find a new love because we think it’s the only thing that could make them happy. But Wanda doesn’t want a new love. She wants what she lost, the person she’ll never see again.”
“You’ve said Homer was a good husband, so she had two good ones. She might take comfort in that.”
Still shaky, I set my cup aside and went to the dressing table to brush my hair. “Her memories will be a comfort someday, but not soon. Maybe being here will be good medicine.”
Barlow threw back the covers and sat on the edge of the bed. “Tell me if you see something I can do to help,” he said.
My husband was a natural helper, yet he always asked if I wanted him to do more. “We do have that other problem,” I said, “and maybe it’s more urgent now. How can we help Dessie?”
“She’ll be all right—she’s never let anyone take advantage. And she likes kids, doesn’t she?”
“I’m thinking of her knees, Barlow. She can’t keep climbing those stairs.”
“What if we let them have the office?”
“I wouldn’t mind, but it’s not big enough for a double bed. Likely Dessie would prefer to crawl up the stairs than spend a night without Tom.”
Barlow took a step toward the bathroom, leaning on his cane. “I was thinking of something else. The office has a common wall with Hettie’s room, a wall that might be removed if it’s not needed to support the upper floor. We could move Hettie’s room to the playroom or let her move upstairs.”
Several years ago we’d let Freddy move into the old watchman’s room, but so far we’d denied Hettie’s requests to have an upstairs room for herself.
“Find out if the wall can come down, then we’ll see what Dessie thinks,” I said. Everything might change again. I could imagine Wanda abruptly returning to the farm, or Dessie and Tom choosing a permanent visit with the bachelor nephew in Webster Springs over residence in a house with so many children.
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