I am a old, old woman. I stopped countin long time ago, but let’s see, yes, it is, I’m eighty-two. And a half. Can’t forget that now. I been here so long I remember when this little house looked kinda nice, instead of the paint-peelin shack it is nowdays. But that’s all in the past now. I got so many grandchildren and great-grandchildren I can hardly think fast enough to remember they names as I’m shoutin out the door at em to put they coats on and tie up them shoes. Like to jump out my skin every time the phone rings and they tellin me I got a new one just born. I’m still laughing, at least I got that.
I been thinking a lot about Orval lately. Damn fool. I’m not one to swear much but he knows he worth that. Said to me through TB coughs, Don’t you marry nobody else Mill, don’t you do that. I swear I never picked my eyes up from the floor long enough to look at a’other man without smelling Orval’s hospital bed and feelin the touch of his TB skin. Couldn’t after he said that. Don’t you do it, Mill. I knew he wouldn’t say that for nothin. I knew it was coming from the heart, but he so rarely showed it to me, I couldn’t argue with a dying man’s words. I can’t think clear enough to say what I mean bout all this. It was all a long time gone, an I just got to keep my mind on the good times.
TB does funny things to a body. One my girls, LouAnn, got it too. Spent a year in bed after her father died. Same hospital. And ever time I’d walk through that big oak door entrance I’d hear him, Don’t you do it, Mill, not that. And I knew I wouldn’t. I was thirty-four years old. It’s a cryin shame.
Orval’s buried out in that old pioneer cemetery with all our other relatives. And I’ll be buried with him, over fifty years later after I never did it, lying right next to him, maybe wishing I had, who knows. I’m sidetrackin myself now, gettin all jumbled up. LouAnn and I went out to that grave once. Oh we’d go a lot but this is one time in particular I ‘member, when her daughter asked me why I never got me another husband. Well the tears they came all right, welled up in my big dumb eyes like a doe and I told the truth. “He asked me not to.” Plain and simple. Don’t you do it, Mill. And there’s loudmouth LouAnn, my girl, saying to me, “Why’d you let him do that to you?” Do what? Didn’t let him do nothin. Man was dead! I coulda done what I damn well pleased.
And don’t think there weren’t no men. I wasn’t so bad. Had five babies and still looked good stoopin over laundry baskets and pickin peas. Red hair, that’s me. That’s the one all right. I tell all the kids me and Orval met at church, but this old girl’s got some secrets too you know. And that’s one stays hidden. They been getting me spillin all kinds secrets to em lately, preyin on me like the history books been burned or some nonsense. I can look into any white face in this county and tell you what happened. But my grandkids, they wanna know what it’s like to pick cotton. I tell em, no, no, that is one thing you do not wanna know.
Orval came out here first. Everyone told me California was the Promised Land, and I believed em all right. I’m still here ain’t I? Nobody never saw me packin up or givin up. I worked all day and night if I had to. And my kids helped me after Orval passed on. Wasn’t easy, Lord knows it wasn’t, but I did it. Didn’t need no man neither. But oooh how I wanted one.
My son come over t’other day and fixed up my doors. Now I can just sit in the kitchen and keep warm. T’other two rooms don’t matter. All the good times is in the kitchen. Everybody knows that. I used to make a mean chicken and dumplings. All the kids, my grandkids that is, used to beg me, hanging onto the sleeves of my robe hollerin bout chicken and dumplings, squeakin their plastic shoes all over my old floor. Couldn’t take they minds off it once they stepped foot in my house till them dumplings met heaven in their mouths. It was always Orval’s favorite too don’t you know. Which is why I never did like to make it for them kids. But they’d set to beggin for it till I gave in to shut up that whining and racket.
I do go out sometimes though. Usually I get up at six and prowl around outside, talk to my alley cat, Mister Man, and scatter my broken eggshells in the dust. Nobody knows me here anymore ‘cept the Auers across the street. Mostly Mex’cans live here now. Everybody else done moved on and I don’t understand Spanish. Ever time I see Mrs. Auer now though—husband died long time ago—all she talks about is Pretty Boy Floyd. I like to never figured it out till one of my grandkids said they remembered that story. I thought for sure girl Auer had a screw loose somewhere. I still think she does, I just don’t like to say that you know. Best to keep that stuff quiet.
It all happened a long time ago. I don’t even know when Pretty Boy Floyd was around really, but the story was pretty good. And when girl Auer was young she like to kill me tellin a good story with the way she laughed and smoked her husband’s roll-your-own cigarettes. She had this oilcloth that didn’t match nothing in her yellow kitchen with little blue flowers that was shaped like teapots, which was funny cause we lived on Teapot Dome, still do, but of course that name was from the oil fields east of town where the government took bribes and had nothing to do with teapots. Still, we thought it was pretty good cause then that oilcloth matched something somehow. She told me this story one day we’s sittin there at the table and she lights up one them roll-your-owns and then runs her hand across the oilcloth like she smoothing down fine silk.
Pretty Boy Floyd happened to be a relative of Asa Auer’s, girl Auer’s husband, and one night soon after they got out here to California they snug as bugs in bed and get to hearing a knock at the door. Couldn’t figure what the hell it might be, so Asa gets up in his swiss cheese holey boxers and cracks his rifle real loud and yells, “Who is it?” Well, course it turns out to be goddamned Pretty Boy Floyd of all the damndest things you ever heard and there he is standing in the moonlight out in the dust. Now course Asa brings him in and’s still hobbling round in his shorts and girl Auer’s a sight, can’t figure what the hell’s goin on as a stranger gets to crouching around in the kitchen, ducking and hawing and looking through the cracks in the curtains. She can hear em both whispering but all she can see from the bed is Asa standing in the shadow of the icebox like a nutcracker with his rifle cocked across his chest but doing squat with it. Well now she knows Asa prone to fits of fancy but no way she letting some godawful stranger in her house to be messin round near her oilcloth in the middle of the night and she ain’t gonna do a damn thing about it. No sir. She gets her butt outta bed, sneaks up behind the kitchen door and before Asa can make a move, pops Pretty Boy upside the head with a milk bottle and knocks him flat out! After all the commotion Asa like to die thinking his wife just killed Pretty Boy Floyd and the cops is crawling around outside sniffin Teapot Dome this way and that. So they drag him over to the bed and lift up the mattress and stuff him up under there, between the mattress and the metal springs and he ain’t feeling a thing but at least he’s breathin. And girl Auer gets back in bed and when the cops come a knockin on the door Asa opens it wide standin in his threadbares and girl Auer sits up in her next-to-nothing nightie and the cops left muttering “dumb Okies,” and hightail it outta there. Can’t believe that’s one I forgot.
I was roaming around by the tracks t’other day thinking again about that story. Tracks about fifty feet from my door. Used to be hobo holes all through there dug into the ground where they’d sleep waitin for the mornin trains. That’s where Pretty Boy Floyd found himself the next day, waking up wondering what the hell in a hobo hole. Hmph. Poor girl Auer soon be joinin the majority.
Sometimes I get to thinking Orval was just a mean sonafabitch, dying like that, with those words. I mean I knew I could take it, a life by myself raising kids. Growing up like I did you learned weren’t nobody takin care of you noway when it came down to it. Oh sure we’d go off to church on Sundays, the children following behind the parents like all good families in the southern tip of Illinois, making our way to First Southern Baptist, which my pa joked about callin it Only Southern Baptist. It was the only church in Loreville, stood next to the only store. That was the town then, two only buildings. But aside from Sundays we worked round the farm by ourselves, doin chores with nothin but the silence of the milk sprayin the bucket beneath Honey, our cow, or the nestlin chatter of chickens in the coop. Those were my jobs but I learned everythin there I needed to know for a life without Orval. Raisin babies was nothin new either. I used to set my baby sister just outside the chicken coop while I gathered eggs, knowin the chickens were more afraid of her than she of them. That was before she got to crawlin, so she’d just set and wave her arms in the air and giggle like the chickens was playmates, funny lookin as they were. She thought they was just needin time to warm up to her. Fannie always was a friendly baby.
This is all so useless anyway. Orval’s gone and ain’t no way he’s coming back. Next time we meet’s gonna be in the real Promised Land and I’m not so sure I’m looking forward to that. I’d rather think about Fannie and Pretty Boy and girl Auer and Pa than about Orval no way. Sometimes I think those things are real again and mostly they’s the only things I got nowdays. Orval just a ghost flickerin round my house and I wonder just what it is we got to say to each other when we meet again up yonder. But I do catch a flash of somethin ever now and then walkin past his picture in the front room and I think, Well, what are your regrets, Orval? I just want to hear it, direct from the horse’s mouth, I guess. I want him to see me, in my eighty-two and a half years of high glory and my body tall and wide, and I want him to tell me, straight up and center, A promise is a done deal with a woman like you, Mill. And my lips will snap back, That’s right. I don’t know why hearing that in my head satisfies so well, but it does. And then I’m right back to the little things, to Fannie and the chickens and hoboes and grandkids and Pretty Boy Floyd, to the real things.