The woman struggled to pull the last of the china from the hutch. The heat was still coming in waves over the dry grass outside the dining room windows and the wood of the bottom left cabinet had finally succumbed, warped a bit and made her pull harder than she’d expected. Her left forearm ached as she carried the serving pieces to the table.
While she used a dusting rag to wipe her face and neck of dust and sweat, Marta Stone took stock of things. All the wood was shiny with wood oil, the mirror streak-free and her mother’s keepsakes smartly arranged on the doilies she’d crocheted for them. She’d taken a feather duster to the wallpaper and pictures and, as usual, thanked herself for choosing that particular shade of green that held the dust invisibly in its creamy gray floral pattern.
Inside the breakfront, she knew, were freshly laundered and lightly starched linens: a good table cloth for guests; two daily table cloths; and three sets of hand embroidered tea towels. She’d even washed the red and green holiday runner she’d sewn herself from a dress that had worn enough in the elbows and seams to be resistant to further mending.
“All kipppy!” Her son might say to her.
She’d risen with the sun as she had every day of their marriage. Unlike Samuel, however, Marta liked a little leftover dinner for her breakfast. A little cold stroganoff and hot, black tea was just right. She’d listened in to the radio until Elsie Beebe came on, and then turned it to NBC for some music. She’d never taken to the dramatic series. Preferred a little swing music. There was enough drama in her own mind, thank you very much.
She took a deep breath as her brow started popping with sweat beads almost the second after she’d cleared the last. It was hot; still mid-summer hot although it was already September 3. The blinds did some good against the glare, but nothing could keep out the dust from the warm wind that had persisted over these last few weeks.
Marta moved back to the chair, sat down and started dusting off the rest of her wedding china. She’d taken out every bit of it that morning and one by one, cleaned them of their recent layer of dust. There was a pile of now dingy, irregular sized rags in a pile to the left of the chair.
Every once in a while, as she’d adjust herself in the chair, the wicker seat creaking in opposition to Glen Miller or The Andrews Sisters, Marta would lift her face to the blowing curtains, eyes blinking against the fine dust, and check for the sound of footsteps on the wood planks of the front porch. It was just to the right of the dining room windows, and the table had always been the best place to wait for him.
“All done,” she whispered but stayed in her chair, the last rag lying in her lap while she rubbed her left forearm with her right hand.
The year was closing into itself. Marta and Samuel were not farmers, but their neighbors were. The August harvest had been pitiful, and no one expected any more in September or November. Seemed to Marta that the world was closing into itself, too. She wasn’t college educated like her son, but she listened intently to the news on the radio. To President Roosevelt when he talked to them during his Fireside Chats.
She also didn’t have much use for the Bible. She went to church on Sundays because that’s what made a community. Even so, these last years might be making a believer out of her. First the big Crash. Then, drought and year after year of bad harvests. Men leaving their women and children behind to go somewhere, anywhere they could find work. The worst of it though, according to Marta’s thinking, were the bad men marching across Europe. Franco might be the devil’s own child. And, this Hitler.
Marta swooshed away a few flies from in front of her face. The hot air just kept on moving across the fields, pushing through her blinds, parting her curtains and laying down an endless sheet of dust into her house. Seemed sometimes like the wind and the radio waves were carrying the same message Pastor Rooks preached from his wooden pulpit. She swore all those tendrils of evil were gently ricocheting against the walls of her empty house and forming a new reality to bear.
She started to feel the anxiety creep right through her skin and stood up so quickly the rag on her lap dropped right onto the table instead of the floor. Marta picked up the rag, and cut her breath off by leaning over to scoop up the rest of them off the floor. She saw the yellow fuzz of her slippers and realized she was still in her housecoat and needed to get changed.
Dropping the rags one at a time into the laundry bin along to “Plop-plop, fizz-fizz, what a relief it is…” chirping out of the kitchen radio, Marta did begin to feel some relief and indulged in a little one-two-three down the hall to their bedroom in time to the Tommy Dorsey horns that followed the advertisement.
The bath water was running, the temperature tepid. There was no truly cold water these days. She pulled the sheets off the bed and walked back down the hallway to drop them on top of the soiled dusting rags in the laundry bin. She’d get to them after her bath.
A loud knock sounded in the dining room. She was alone in the big farm house so she backtracked a little and turned down the radio and placed her hand on the phone, ready to reach the switchboard if need be. After a minute or so, and satisfied enough that her heart stopped beating itself into a dither, she put the handset down inside its Bakelite cradle and walked to the dining room.
The serving pieces were on the table, still waiting to be restored to their bottom cabinet, and the chair stood upright at the angle she’d left it. However, the little tripod table with the cutlery box on top of it had tipped over. The cutlery box was remarkably intact, albeit on the floor, but a few silver spoons had slipped through the space where the lid had separated from the box proper.
Sighing a little, she moved quickly, up righting the little table that had been Samuel’s mother’s and replacing the spoons into their rightful, velvet beds. She was about to close the lid of the box when she heard a terrible sound; somewhere between a gurgle and a piercing scream.
Turning slowly, Marta realized with genuine disappointment that the sound was coming from her throat, through which stuck a medium length, but very sharp and relatively thin fillet knife. She could see how nicely she’d polished the knife, as well as the blood trickling down her throat and into the neckline of her housecoat in the mirror that she had just cleaned a few hours earlier.
She stepped forward, reaching out as if to grab the tall, enamel and silver covered carafe, a gift sent to her from Germany by her son before the war, and which presently sat on the table, close to the edge.
The man, now on the other side of the room, thought she meant to grab at him with her old woman’s claw. It terrified him so he backed up into the hallway outside the dining room and waited until she fell and eventually, stopped twitching.
Fletcher didn’t know if the woman was dead, but she wasn’t going to harm him none anymore, so he walked around the left side of the dining room table and dug his hands into the box of silver forks and knives and spoons, dropping them by the fistful into his extra shirt, the sleeves and waist tied off to make a bag.
After a quick trip to the bedroom, and another, small handful of pearls and gold, Fletcher walked to the kitchen and turned the radio off. There wasn’t much to eat. The old woman had been alone in that house for at least a month. He’d come upon the pitiful little funeral a few weeks earlier. Gravestone read,
Samuel Robert Stone
February 1, 1868 – August 9, 1939
Loving Husband and Proud Father
Fletcher filled his belly well enough even on the widow Stone’s meager provisions, and then took the bath that she’d started. Weren’t no use wasting all that water. He slept like a baby on the big feather mattress, and then switched up his dirty clothes for some of ole’ Samuel’s clothes.
He determined to grab the last of the hard-boiled eggs and bread from the kitchen, and then head out that way, the back way. Fletcher threw the food on top of the silver and jewelry, and switched on the radio before letting the screen door snap shut behind him. Didn’t want anything to sound out of place should someone come snooping.
He had to pass by the little cemetery on the way to the path through the trees, down to the railroad tracks where he’d put a few days between himself and the widow. Fletcher knew the dead could really do some harm if you didn’t pay them no respect. He noticed an older headstone, same size and stone as ole’ Samuel’s. It read,
March 21, 1894 - July 15, 1918
Lord, what fools these mortals be!
The son, seemed to be. Made him still for a minute, wondering about the meaning of that one, until he lost interest and headed across the dry lawn to the trees.
The crunching of the dead grass was loud under his new boots but even so, Fletcher managed to catch the excited radio announcer from Marta’s kitchen crying out, “The second world war is upon us…”