It wasn’t my business and I didn’t like to hear it, but of course I cared, and I tended to agree. Something was wrong between Blanche and Charlie.
Wanda, my stepdaughter, said it first. “Blanche has kinda taken a turn, don’t you think?”
A turn from us, she meant. We weren’t sure why, or whether her “turn” was a cause of trouble between her and Charlie or an effect of it.
Wanda and I were resting on my back porch, refreshing our dry throats with water after picking runner beans in the garden. I’d been glancing at the sky, wondering if rumors of an early winter might be correct, for the air was cool for the first day of September. My early corn was finished, the stalks already brown and dry, and the second planting had thin, undeveloped ears that needed more time.
“Blanche hasn’t been going to Piney’s like she did, helping with your granny,” I said.
“Yep, that too.”
As easily as she’d abandoned her children, Blanche had dropped her attachment to Lucie Bosell, a devotion we’d always found odd. This change meant Wanda’s Aunt Piney now had the burden of her mother’s care, with only a girl for help, Blanche’s teenage daughter Ruby.
It was hard to know what went on in Blanche’s mind, but we could imagine she felt as any of us would about events affecting her family in recent months—the death of her father, Simpson Wainwright, then the arrest of her young sons, Robert and Ralphie. She’d been unhappy with Charlie about the arrest, though the boys had spent only one night in jail. Admittedly, Wanda and I felt more sorrow for Piney, Simpson’s widow, who’d raised his grandsons with loving care. It was for Piney’s sake that Wanda had made what I thought was an extreme choice. Thinking there might be hope for the younger boy if he could get away from the influence of his brother, she’d decided to raise him herself. To do that, she’d abducted him, certain he wouldn’t willingly leave his brother.
With the cautious agreement of Blanche and Piney, Wanda and her uncle had grabbed the boy on Main Street and driven him safely away to the farm. I still couldn’t get over the fact that she cared about this boy. He and Blanche’s other two were the children of Raz Cotton, known thief, suspected murderer, and one of the kidnappers who’d tied Wanda and left her in a place so remote she would have died if she hadn’t managed to set herself free.
In retaliation, not many days after Wanda snatched Ralphie, his older brother stole a litter of puppies from our shed and drowned them. Then he’d run away, fearing punishment, we decided. Most people in town might be saying “good riddance,” but I knew Piney and Blanche were deeply wounded.
Still, Wanda didn’t think the changes in Blanche were due solely to the absence of her wayward sons. “I stopped at their place before I come here. You know how Charlie’s always off somewhere, doing his deputy work or looking to buy or sell some horse. Blanche said he don’t have to be away so much. She said he leaves to get away from her.”
I took a long drink of water and wiped the sweat from the glass with my dirty hand, smearing the glass. I heard disappointment in Blanche’s voice every time she said Charlie was out of town.
I could never predict what Charlie might do next. He and Blanche lived ten minutes away, but I hadn’t seen him for weeks. “Maybe he leaves to get away from all of us,” I said.
Wanda shrugged. “He never was the kind to be settled. Blanche looks like she’s given up. I told her he might stick more to home if she took better care of herself. The house too.”
“You said that?”
“You bet I did. It’s bad, Ma. She never let things go like that before. She said she don’t see why she should bother when he don’t notice nothing.”
Blanche’s father had been relieved when she married Charlie, hoping he’d “steady” her, but our family had worried. Charlie also needed a stabilizing influence, and we didn’t think Blanche was it.
I looked at the buckets of beans to be snapped, washed, and packed in jars before the day’s end. “I should try to do something for Blanche. Do you think she’d clean up if I invited her to Sunday dinner?”
“Maybe if you made it an order.” Wanda showed her wicked grin, daring me, knowing I wouldn’t go that far.
“Blanche used to be so pretty. Maybe instead of inviting her for Sunday I could ask her to sit with us at the Labor Day picnic. Charlie too, if he’s home.”
Wanda handed me her water glass and stood to leave. “If you want her to be at the picnic I’ll tell her to look presentable, but don’t count on Charlie, ’cause you know he ain’t good at sitting down with folks. If he happens to be in town, he’ll likely be patrolling the picnic grounds with the guards.” She nodded toward my garden. “Better pick what you can in the next few days. Uncle Russell says we’re gonna have an early frost.”
Frost? The air was chilly, the sky clear and the shadows sharply defined, which according to old-timers meant frost was possible. My second plantings of corn and beans weren’t ready, and scores of small peppers and slowly ripening tomatoes hung on the vines. “Fingers crossed,” I said.
For Winkler miners, the first Monday of September was the best day of the year—the day they were paid not to work. It was a thing their fathers would not have believed possible, a benefit of their union contract. Their fathers could not have imagined a contract, either.
Because Barlow and I were close to Randolph Bell, the mine owner, we knew he considered the paid day of rest a necessary evil. From the start, he’d put on a good face about the costly holiday, endorsing the Labor Day picnic and donating brown bottles of root beer and three roasted pigs. Nearly everyone in town attended the picnic, including families whose wage earners were not employed by the mine. My husband was the company store manager, not a miner, but he also needed a day of rest, so I was glad the store would be closed that day.
The miners probably cared less about the picnic than their extra day of rest, but it was an important event for their families, not only as a rare opportunity to celebrate, but also as the children’s last wild day of freedom. Tomorrow their mothers would scrub their necks and faces and hurry them off to school. Labor Day was not a day of rest for us women, because sprucing up and presenting our perfectly fried chicken, baked beans and deserts were matters of pride.
This was the first Labor Day picnic for Dessie and Tom, old friends who were now boardinghouse staff and residents, and they were eager to help deliver our best. Miss Baldwin and Mrs. Mahew had returned for the new school year, and everyone in the house would join our extended family at one table, which I expected to be quite long. All we needed for a perfect day was good weather.
That Monday began with a sharp chill, and the men of the house wore jackets when they left to help other volunteers haul table boards and benches from the store basement to the picnic area beside the river. I sent along our patched and stained dining room tablecloths with directions to claim enough table space for twenty or more.
Wanda arrived early, entering through the back door, the habit of most of our family, especially when bringing children. She now had three—her own Otis and Wanda Rose, and Ralphie, the boy she was trying to reform. I was surprised to see Ralphie, for with the exception of a short visit with Blanche and Piney, she’d kept him away from Winkler all summer. The children ran outside with my Freddy and Hettie, who’d been given orders to stay clean for the picnic. I worried about Ralphie’s influence on Wanda’s children, and mine too, even for a short visit, for Ralphie had helped keep Piney’s household in turmoil.
Dessie was packing our picnic hampers and I was at the stove, frying the last of the chicken. I must have frowned, seeing Ralphie, for Wanda said, “He’ll be all right. He’s got orders to stay in hollering distance.”
I forked chicken from the skillet into a tray for the oven and pulled the skillet of grease to the cooler edge of the stove. I wasn’t worried the boy would run away.
When I looked out again, he was in the yard with the others, all running after Candy, the puppy, who sprinted in circles, dodging, barking, and apparently enjoying the chase. We’d never told Freddy that Ralphie’s brother had drowned our pup’s litter mates, but Freddy had seen Robert steal them from our shed, so maybe he’d put two and two together. If he didn’t know now, he’d probably know tomorrow, when he started school. I could imagine the playground stories about the town bad boys, Robert and Ralphie.
I didn’t know if Wanda’s experiment was working, because she was close-mouthed about it, making me think Ralphie might be more difficult to manage than she wanted to admit. In their wild game of chase, though, Ralphie was laughing and shrieking with the others like a normal boy. Normal, normal. I scolded myself. Who knew what was normal? It was only what most people thought, how we believed most people behaved. Perhaps “most” wasn’t the best measure, either.
Soon tired of chasing the puppy, the children clambered onto the porch. “Ma,” Freddy said, opening the door. “Can we play inside?”
“In the playroom,” I said. “No running or loud voices.”
The others trooped after him through the kitchen. I doubted my children’s toys would interest the boy who’d formerly had the run of the town.
When the hall door closed after them, I said, “Does he talk about Robert?”
“Not to me,” Wanda said. “Likely he still thinks Robert was sent to reform school. We never said different. Anyway, Aunt Piney’s coming today and she’s eager to see him.”
I opened the oven door and set the platter of chicken inside to keep warm. “I’m sure the kids in town know Robert ran away. If he talks with any of them today, he may find out.”
“If he does, he does. Ralphie’s kind of afraid to do stuff on his own, so I don’t look for him to run away unless Robert comes looking for him.”
Robert had last been seen earlier that summer, hitching a ride out of town on a railroad car. Our concern for his safety was mixed with relief that he was gone and fear that he might return. Sadly, he was truly missed only by his brother and Piney, and maybe Blanche too, though the boys had clearly shown they didn’t like her. Sometimes I sympathized, thinking how their rejection must make her feel, though I also knew she’d earned it, leaving them time after time.
“Aunt Piney’s bringing her famous chocolate cake,” Wanda said. “And Granny Lucie.”
“Oh, my.” Dessie set a stack of tin plates into the wicker hamper with a look of concern. She knew all the stories about Lucie Bosell.
“We got her one o’them chairs on wheels, and Aunt Piney says Granny ain’t fought or cussed nobody for weeks, so maybe she’ll be all right today. You know Piney—she wants the best for everybody, and that includes a nice outing for a ma that never was nice to her.”
“It’s one of the reasons we love Piney.”
“Sure,” Wanda said. “But just once in a while I’d like her to get the best for herself.”
Unfortunately Lucie had not lost her mean streak when she lost her mind, but this summer she’d been easier to manage, maybe affected by the fact that Robert and Ralphie were no longer disrupting the house.
Wanda filled a glass of water and stood near the screen door. “I told Blanche about sitting with us at the picnic today, so could be we’ll see what’s going on with her and Charlie. You know I don’t love Blanche, but she can’t hardly help herself.”
I doubted we’d learn anything about them today—most couples did not display their differences in public. Still, Blanche and Charlie weren’t like most couples. Most. There it was again, that word.
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