Thursday, November 11, 2004

Chapter Three

Make me an Angel
that flies to Montgomery
Make me a poster
of an old rodeo.

"What do you want for dinner?"

Abe looked up from his morning paper and smiled. His mother was still beautiful and strong and he knew he was so very lucky to have her.

"I don't care, Mom. Whatever you cook will be delicious."

"You got so thin, Son. I had no idea you weren't eating right while you were here. Didn't they feed you at that school? Don't they have a good cafeteria? What was I paying all that extra money for, to make sure you were fed properly, if you just ended up so darn thin? You're still a growing boy!"

Abe broke out with a hearty chuckle, leaning back in his chair.

"Mom! I think I've pretty much grown all I'm going to now. I'm just always going to be pint-sized, I guess."

"Oh stop it!" Martha shushed him. "You're a bigger man than most I know. It's not what's on the outside, it's what's on the inside. ... What's that got to do with why you're so thin?"

"I don't know, Mom. I guess ... I guess it just wasn't your cooking, is all. It was okay for what it was. But it didn't stick. It seemed so watered down, so thin. Some of those cold winter days when the temperature would drop down to 40 and 50 below, and there would still be classes -- I swear those professors were nuts -- and most of us would be hanging out in the cafeteria in between times, trying to get warm with their watered down hot chocolate and soups so thick you could stand your spoon up in them. It wasn't the good thick, either. This was pure starch, to make the watery versions seem more ... 'hearty fare'." Abe stuck both hands up in the air, to signify making quotation marks around the PR put out in the college brochures.

"But we figured it out early on: the cooks, who I swear came from the Army or prison or something, would take whatever was left over from dinner the night before and throw it in a big stock pot, fill it up with water, throw in some frozen vegetables and rice and try to make it turn into soup, as if by magic. Then, before serving it, they must have thrown in a bunch of flour or corn starch or something, because there was our dinner, looking back up at us the next day, suspended in cosmic glue."

Martha laughed and wiped down the metal frame around the steel kitchen sink. Her laughter was infectious, bubbling up from her depths, a great effusive explosion that ended with a hanging chime tinkle.

Abe loved making his mother laugh, because it sounded so musical but mostly because it was so easy to do. She laughed at everything in her sweet innocense, as she watched the wild life that would come into camp, curious or hungry, at the miner's basic attempts at humor, and now since their return to town, she laughed at the antics of neighborhood dogs, as people walked them by their fenced yard, and at the crows who had too much personality for their own good, those the Natives referred to as "Grandfather," or "Uncle," believing they were ancestors, reincarnated as Heckle and Jeckle.

"Well, how about some good old stew? We still have a bit of moose meat left over from the neighbor's hunt and we haven't had that for a while. Some good, sturdy stew, the thick and stick to your ribs kind, and I promise not to suspend it in any glue." She rang out a tinkling chuckle and finished drying the breakfast dishes.

Martha remembered that morning like it was yesterday. They hadn't been moved into their new home very long. Abe had gotten a job at the local grocer's, stocking shelves, sweeping and mopping aisles, even running the cash register when there were long lines of people in a hurry to get home with their dinner fixins after work.

She had felt guilty not working, but Abe had insisted that she just stay home and enjoy herself, for the first time in her life.

For the first time in her life.

Martha had been working, non-stop, for 60 years, since she was a small girl, performing chores on her parent's farm. She woke up at 5 a.m. to feed the dogs and cats, to wash up any dishes in the sink leftover from the night before, while her mother helped milk the cows. She had to get herself dressed, washed up, and make her bed. She remembered. She had very important chores.

As she grew, her chores became more complicated and more varied, making longer and longer lists, till it seemed every minute of every day, starting before the sun came up and continuing till long after the sun had set, Martha's hands were busy.

And now she didn't know what to do with herself.

Abe sat on a cold, wooden bench inside the police station, swirling the watered down hot chocolate around in his paper cup, from the vending machine. He looked up at the clock on the wall for the hundredth time: it read 6:05. In the morning.

Any hour now, the court clerks would be coming in to turn on lights, start the coffee brewing, start shuffling papers, and glancing at the print outs of the arrests made the day and night before, to see how to stack the incoming cases for arraignment.

Martha Bernard's name was on the top of the list. She would be called, first thing. Right after the judge had hung up his coat and put on his long black robes, right after the bailiff had cleared his throat, calling "All rise!"

Abe had not yet gotten a lawyer. Nobody was answering their phone. The calling card was empty, as was his wallet. And he'd just spent his last three quarters on breakfast.

Martha had found ways to keep herself busy, by taking up quilting with a ladies group in town. They met once a week, sometimes twice if it was nearing the holidays and they needed to finish a charity donation to raise funds by selling raffle tickets. The townsfolk were good that way. If someone was in need, it didn't take long for the people to rally 'round and make short work of medical bills or transporation bills to get someone to a bigger city like Anchorage or Seattle, that had the kind of hospital that could actually save someone's life.

She loved that about this town. It had grown so large since she had spent her winter and spring here, waiting for Abe to be born. There was a pipeline being built now, and tens of thousands of people from all over the country had invaded, looking for their own gold in those big oil pipeline dollars to be made.

Knowing they were lucky to be here, they were generous with their wages. Their earnings fueled this town's economy in ways unimagined by the planners. Real estate went sky high, as there was a shortage of homes to house them all. The cost of living also went out of sight, as the locals took every possible advantage of the worker's high wages. It was a vicious cycle and some of the fixed income people or employees still working for the same low wages they always had, suddenly found themselves victims of a bloated economy.

So Martha helped out wherever she could, volunteering at the Food Bank, sorting canned goods, organizing donated food stuffs into categories, helping big families trying to survive on a one-person income, fill their cardboard boxes with a wide assortment of items.

She also thought she might help out Abe with the household expenses by getting a part-time job down at his store, helping to bag groceries. She already had experience at the Food Bank and she was still strong, with strong arms and a strong back. She was so pleasant and smiling, genuinely loving people, that she quickly became very popular.

Abe didn't mind. He loved to hear her laughter ring out across the store. He would wonder if she was the one who had told the joke or if it was the customer, dropping by to tickle the old bag lady with a new one heard down at the lodge.

Martha looked down at her wrinkled, strong hands and twisted her wedding ring, around and around.

She'd give anything in the world to be back in that little house with her son, back at the store, placing with precision, the cans on the bottom and the bread on top.

Phyllis snorted awake and simultaneously slammed the chair back down on the floor, making her jump and grab her gun holster.

She looked around, saw where she was, looked at the clock and said, "Oh SHIT."

She jumped up, rubbing sleep out of her eyes, fixing her hat on straight, tucking her shirt into her slacks and running to the place where she had left Martha the night before.

With a long sigh, she was relieved to find Martha, sitting on the edge of the cot, her legs covered by the nightgown, her hands in her lap, her head down. Was she asleep? Or was she crying?

"Martha," she whispered quietly. She didn't want to wake her up, but if she was crying, this was not the way to greet the judge. And she was sure she only had a few minutes left before the phone rang with Detective Bronson on the other end, calling from his home, wanting a progress report on Martha.

Martha lifted her head and saw Phyllis, rumpled and disheveled. She smiled. "I tip-toed in earlier, dear, but you were ... ah ... I decided to wait a little longer. But if it would be okay with you, I really need to use the lady's room."

Phyllis exhaled loudly, a smile spreading widely over her face, relieved Martha was not only all right, but that Martha was still there.

She should have known this little old lady wouldn't try to escape, even if Phyllis had been resting her eyes for a few moments.

She showed Martha down the hall to the private rest room and stood outside with her arms folded, like a good officer should.

George liked to come into town on Saturdays. This was his reward for putting in a long day, a long week, riding herd over lazy workman that needed constant supervision. And now his perfect Mary was no longer there to warm his bed, the house had grown cold and so empty. He needed to get out on Saturday nights, to get away from the pictures on the mantlepiece, to try to fill his emptiness with a little distilled warmth.

So George liked to tip a few now and then down at the Caribou Lodge. He also liked to play bingo once and a while, because he fancied himself a Lucky Man.

And sometimes, George was very lucky, indeed.

There were always a few lonely women at the lodge on Saturday nights, all painted up, dressed up in their finest catalog-ordered frocks, smelling sweet, smiling sweetly, at any unmarried man ordering a drink at the bar.

George didn't particularly like those kinds of women. He still liked the innocent, subservient kind of real women who knew their place.

But, at least these women could be counted on for a good tumble, now and again.

And that's how George, tall strong strapping tanned rich George, got lucky.

After bingo.