LONG CREATIVE NONFICTION
MARY JO ROBINSON-JAMISON
IF YOU WANT TO LIVE IN KIMBALL, MINNESOTA
You’ll have to buy produce at Les Robinson’s Red Owl
if you want it to be fresh.
You’ll have to ask how Myrtle’s tomatoes are doing.
You can’t say too much to Myrtle
because it’ll be all over town
and she won’t get it straight anyway.
You’ll have to know Butch Knaus is famous for his meat market.
In ’69 he shipped pickled turkey gizzards to the Humphrey wedding,
and Johnny Cash actually stopped by one summer for sausage.
You’ll have to know not to buy fruit at Weingarten’s General Store
because it’s never fresh. They’re open on Sunday after church,
but Les will open the Red Owl if you call him.
You’ll have to know you pick up your mail at the post office.
There are no street signs. No house numbers.
The H’s, I’s, J’s, and K’s are all on one page in the phone book.
You’ll have to know the nearest doctor is twenty miles away,
but an ex-Viking receiver, turned chiropractor,
is at the remodeled Standard Oil station on Tuesdays.
You’ll have to know that when more than three or four people are on Main Street
in suits, there’s a funeral.
Winkelman donates a pile of calendars to the Church of St. Anne every year.
Under the Good Shepherd in white robes at the top it says:
Winkelman Hardware and Funeral Home
1. River of Goods
In 1958, a river of goods flows through the back door of the Red Owl from a truck in the alley. Boxes flood the floor of a building erected when teams of horses still clopped down the street to the railroad. Les and Gen Robinson, and their two daughters, put more than a thousand items into place, facing front, every Wednesday. Products patiently wait to be plucked, one at a time, from the yellow shelves by customers who sail down the aisles behind silver carts pulled from a nest at the front door.
Almond extract in tiny brown bottles, oxblood shoe polish, pillows of metallic thread wound into Brillo pads. Blue glass bottles, which hold Mrs. White's Liquid Bluing, are corked like wine. Fig Newtons. Knox gelatin in a tiny orange box with the picture of a black and white cow on the front and a recipe for tomato aspic on the back. Maraschino cherries. Sardines. Silver pails of sorghum. Red metal flasks of Prince Albert pipe tobacco wait. Identical princes pose, one behind the other, with identical ascots, canes and Edwardian mustaches. Lumpy paper cartons full of Double Bubble bubblegum. Every item has traveled through unknown hands from unknown lands. In the meat case are picnic hams in nets and head cheese that isn’t cheese. Green and white waxy Armour Star lard boxes atop the meat case sit next to a dusty brown radio tuned to WCCO. Sometimes, a giant red-brown lobe of liver lies flaccid inside the meat case. Dark with blood it leaves a trail on the pitted aluminum pan like a jellyfish.
2. Before the Lights Are On
A barn-red frame surrounds the thick glass pane on the front door of the Red Owl. Under the paint, raised curlicues from another age texture the heavy old front door. As Les unlocks the door, the two walls of plate glass which angle out toward the street amplify the way his shoes sound on the gritty cement steps. Les slips his fingers in the handle below a curled metal tongue. It’s a generous space for a thumb, reminiscent of a spoon. Appropriate for a store full of food. His wife, Gen, is right behind him hugging the small box of yellow accounting pages that track purchases made on credit.
Les will write on the windows before he cranks down the red and white striped awning. Before the lights are on in the store. Before tight rolls of nickels and quarters are cracked like eggs and spill into the drawer of the register. Before Gen puts the short stack of yellow charge sheets back in their drawer, and cigarette cartons come out of hiding behind tall shelves of candy. Before the bread cartons are flattened and tied with the same supple copper wire they came in. Before ground beef is pulled from its berth in the bottom of the black waxy case with silver rounded hinges. Before the raspberries, Mrs. Petty brought in yesterday, are back at the end of the only checkout counter, instead of keeping cool atop the butter where they spent the night. Before his daughter, Mary Jo, clips the wires so they dance atop the wide pristine cardboard flaps. Before the cool morning air silently moves from one warm loaf to the next when each plastic bag contracts and clouds with condensation.
Les tosses his jacket on the counter and heads for the back room. When he returns, he presses the latch with his right hand and walks outside with an old Campbell’s mushroom soup can in his left. The can, filled with liquid chalk, he will stir with the small splay-bristled brush sticking out of it. He can’t sing worth beans, but as he faces the empty glass to the left of the front door, the wooden handle of the brush clicks against the can with a definite rhythm. His white sleeves are rolled up. Tie tucked inside his shirt so only the knot is showing. No green grocer’s apron on yet. Les taps the rim twice to remove excess liquid and writes “RED OWL BREAD 3/$1.00.” To the right of the front door: “Fryers 29cents/lb.” From the period after ‘lb.’ a thick white line moves left to underline the phrase. It doubles back, becoming more and more insubstantial as it goes until it disappears to the right of the phrase. So fine, it’s only the width of one splayed bristle.
Ernie Hokkala washes up in the mud room behind the kitchen just before dawn. He eats the hearty breakfast Ruthie put on the table while he was doing the milking. Then he heads down the dirt driveway in his pickup with one elbow out the window and an old grease-spotted hat on his round head. It’s mid-summer and the line of sow thistle and crab grass between the ruts of the driveway is shaved off to a uniform height. He thought he'd drive the three miles into town for a can of chewing tobacco. His tilted mailbox points across the road to his pasture with a few trees, haphazard grasses, a scattering of large rocks, and the dark water of a pond. The sound of the engine climbs stepwise with each new gear. Then, Ernie flies down the straight-away with a plume of dust behind him. Early summer mornings. Best thing ever. The scent of alfalfa washes the cab of his pickup with optimism.
Ernie looks out at land sliced up like a pan of bars. A jigsaw of different colors and textures. Agriculture has done that. Land was scoured of groves of trees and quartered into sections. In Litchfield, a few miles away, Ernie remembers a sign about a battle between Lakota and American pioneers. There’s more sky to see here than there used to be, before the land was cleared for farming, but nothing like the prairie sky in western Minnesota. A couple hours to the east, the rolling ground ends at the cliffs of the Mississippi. “Mid-westerners.” A good name for us, he thinks.
In the spring, rectangular fields resemble lines of corduroy. Now that the corn is up and waving, the lines have softened. From the corner of his eye, Ernie sees the rows of corn ruffle by like a deck of cards. Every time he slows down to turn a corner, bits of gravel snap back at the underside of the truck. Getting to Kimball means lots of right-angled turns. For the last quarter mile, a creek runs parallel to the road. Eventually, as he approaches Highway 15, the gravel road he’s on intersects the wide, smooth, elevated tar of a state highway. Another right. Ernie passes the Texaco station made of fieldstone and the grain elevator silos, crosses the Soo Line tracks, and drives a half block up the hill from the creek to the center of town.
At the Red Owl store, Ernie asks for snoose. Gen hands Ernie the can like a hockey puck from the shelf behind her. The green label says “Copenhagen.” He recognizes Gen’s daughter putting out the bread. She’s been to the house. Karen used to play dolls and catch bugs with her in the corncrib when they were little.
Even though it’s so early that the lights in the Red Owl aren’t on yet, it wouldn’t occur to Gen to turn him away. It wouldn’t be polite. Ernie leans both overall-covered hips back against the counter. He is glad he didn’t tell Ruthie he was comin’ into town. She would have handed him a grocery list. Ernie looks totally at ease while Les and Gen scurry around to get the store ready for the day. It almost looks like it doesn’t matter to him where he is. Maybe that’s from a life on the farm. Maybe not. It wouldn’t occur to Gen to lean against a tree in Ernie’s pasture on a beautiful morning, but Ernie leans back against her checkout counter and crosses his ankles. His thick, permanently stained fingers tug at the thread hiding under a paper label at the rim of Copenhagen.
4. Arthur Godfrey on the Meat Case
The first aisle comes to a dead end at the waxy black mausoleum of a meat case. Its silvery hinges are big enough to secure a bank vault. On top, next to the wall, is a brown rectangular radio. And that old dusty radio has a voice. Granted, not its own voice. Radio announcers on 8-3-0 WCCO permeate the air in the store in 1950’s the way food coloring spreads through water.
Arthur Godfrey broadcasts from Hawaii and plays ukulele while Les chops a pork loin with his giant cleaver. It is hard to hear the radio when Les sharpens the cleaver. He holds the metal sharpening rod and cleaver at acute angles and rubs them together as he walks. Les drops the tools on the perfectly square butcher block table with a clang. Whap. Scrape. Whap. Slide. When Les is finished with the pork loin, each curved chop is edged with a creamy white ribbon of fat and laid on the long aluminum tray in the meat case in a neat braid. Les keeps a box of red vinyl numbers under the stainless-steel meat slicer (the same slicer that once sliced off the bit of his thumb, the day he just put the severed bit of flesh back on his thumb and wrapped it up in clean white cloth.) Today, he inserts numbers into pre-cut slots on a white square embedded with skinny stick pins.
The radio tells listeners when to expect the next storm or flood or tornado. It’s farm country. Weather can make or break you. A forecast is akin to prophecy for a people depending on the sky to make a living from the ground. Jack Benny, Amos N’ Andy in the morning. ‘Boone and Erickson’ every afternoon. “I’d Love to Be an Oscar Mayer Wiener.” “Snap, Crackle, Pop, Rice Krispies.” “You can trust your car to the man who wears the star.” “See the U--SA. In your CHEVrolet!” Every program has a jingle. Through a speaker covered with dusty brown burlap, listeners hear about golf ball-sized hail, Minnesota Twins scores, and, eventually, the voice of John Glenn from his capsule in space.
5. If the Walls Could Talk
As a building, I have lots of advantages. I don’t need sleep. Never been sick a day in my life. I do need maintenance, but I’ve seen businesses come and go ever since Teddy Roosevelt. I can afford to take the long view. There is a down-side to being inanimate, immobile. Oh, how I envied that radio over the meatcase. A dusty brown box, for heaven’s sake! Envy is a flaw that tuckpointing will not solve.
If I had a voice, I could have told them how Berniece Hentges put Starkist Tuna into her black pocketbook. How that pyramid of Aunt Sally’s frosted cookies would never hold. How the freezer’s compressor, gasping during the night, was on its last legs. How Dennis Lutz looked up at the convex mirror on the ceiling and admired the silver studs and chains on the front of his black leather jacket while his buddies bought spearmint gum, only a week before he and his buddies broke into the store. I could have reminded Gen that she was shy herself, before she scolded her girls for not speaking to the customers. I could have told her that her girls were going to be fine.
Gen wrote thin letters to her mother every Sunday night. At Christmas, she received cards postmarked ‘Minot’ from a high school friend. Gen prepared crustless sandwiches from white Red Owl bread, potted meat, sliced olives. and pimento while the other women made bandages in her living room. That’s when it was her turn to host the Mission Circle. Otherwise, she only saw those women kneeling in a pew in church, or from her spot behind the checkout counter, She was a much a part of the store as the other fixtures. Other than her girls (who weren’t that much help most of the time) she and her husband ran the store. Eleven hours a day, six days a week. I wanted to ask her why she kept herself in the store without a break. I wanted to tell her to be listed as an owner of the store, or at least an employee, so she’d qualify for social security. I wanted to ask her if she ever wanted to go out the front door and take a walk.
If I had a voice, I would have told everyone what I heard at night. How the air enjoyed itself and softened when the radio was turned off and all the people were gone. How there was a negative whoosh in the absence of butcher paper being ripped from the roller, the clanging of carts yanked in or yanked out of the nest, cases of canned goods being kathumped to the floor, and from coins being dropped one by one into the cash drawer.
If I had a voice, I would have told them about the scent of Memorial Day geraniums brought in from the sidewalk for the night and stacked on the nest of carts. How they infused the darkness with acrid green. For a few weeks in mid-summer, the aroma of ripening cantaloupe dominated the air over the checkout. How hints of fermentation rose from under the grate where the loose grapes would fall. In December, lutefisk barrels were brought inside for the night. The roof cracked in the cold. I would have told them all how old narrow floorboards creaked from so many years without bark. How one metal piece ticked against another inside the dairy case. I would have told them how the yellow wooden shelving designed to tip back ever so slightly, at night, leaned back just a few degrees more.
6. Freight Day
I don’t give much thought to what touches my walls. Except on Wednesdays, when I was the Red Owl. Every Wednesday an eighteen-wheeler stretches across Minnesota Highway 15 just north of the main intersection of our small town. And then I watch, immobile and helpless, as an eighteen-wheeler backs into the shoebox alley behind my south wall. The semi snorts and jerks as the pug-nosed cab folds at the neck and stares past its long silver side with the giant Red Owl logo, at the narrow opening behind it. Even at mid-day there were no cars on the road to speak of, but Les, in his green grocer’s apron (a tiny Red Owl embroidered at the top) stands on the yellow dotted line to help direct the driver. There are more snorts, squawks, hisses, and squeals as it slowly uncurls and eventually calms down to a low tremor within the walls of the narrow alley. Once settled, the whole vehicle shakes at random times as if it has caught a momentary chill, before returning to the perpetual diesel grumble. My brick wall and the white clapboard wall of Lohman’s Barber and Beauty on the north side amplify the engine’s complaint. The trailer of the semi almost fills the dead-end alley, but every Wednesday, the truck comes to a stop just inches away from the hinges of the Red Owl's back door.
Years ago, Les came in this same back door with something he had jerry-rigged at home. It was a right-angled ramp made from plywood scraps and yellow shelving to go from the back of a truck to the back of the store. It looked like Frank Lloyd Wrong had created the thing. But it worked! One end sits well back on the floor of the trailer. The other is supported by a tower of the sturdiest cases of canned goods Les can find in the back room that day. Boxes like 48 oz. tomato juice cans, dog food, or Van Camp’s pork and beans, are piled up until the stack is waist-high, but below the level of the trailer’s floor. Les must have been inspired by roller-derby rinks because the inner side of the plywood elbow has a curved wall. Here, each box bounces off, spins around and uses gravity to slide down the final section of the ramp to someone’s outstretched arms. That person spins around and walks through the store to deposit the box close to the where the merchandise will eventually be unpacked.
When the trucker puts down his metal ramp (which looks like a ladder with tiny silver rollers on skinny metal rods) on top of Les’s plywood contraption, the whirr and slap of freight day begins: Kellogg’s Corn Flakes, Harvest Queen green beans, banana gondolas with the occasional refrigerated scorpion, Gerber Junior Vegetables, giant paper sacks of brown sugar stitched with thread, bumpy burlap bags of Idaho russets, Armour Star lard, Aunt Sally cookies, Cream of Wheat, cases with 48 oz. cans of Hawaiian Punch, pillows of Puffed Rice, Folger's, Tide, Drumsticks, Dreamsicles, orange juice concentrate frozen in cans that burn fingers even in July, cases of paraffin, Heinz ketchup in bottles, whole chickens packed in ice, maple syrup, long yellow tubes of Oscar Meyar Braunschweiger, Kerr lids, Bing cherries. Every Wednesday, these things made those metal rollers sing.
7. The Pursuit of Beauty
Annette Lohman, fresh from applying permanent wave solution to the white boney rods on Vi Heller’s head at her shop next door, leaves traces in the air of chemical hair product as she goes by. She doesn’t usually shop at the Red Owl. On her way to the checkout, she passes Gen’s daughter, Mary Jo. stocking Gerber’s strained carrots. The grip on Annette’s cottage cheese is a little tighter than necessary. Mary Jo wonders if today will be the day when Annette finally complains.
Smoke drifts out the rear end of the trailer from the bags of dry ice inside. It leaves the taste of metal hanging in the air. The driver stands at the edge of the dark trailer with a pack of cigarettes rolled up in one plaid sleeve above a bare arm and oversized gloves. The giant silver hinges let the doors fold back flush with the sides of the trailer, but this alley is too narrow for that. The trailer doors have to stay partially open. Some Wednesdays they get away from the trucker and slam into the beauty shop wall. Inside Annette’s shop, there is a flurry of startled cries, the rattle of pink curling rods, and the rise and fall of a disturbed flock of black plastic capes. Afterwards, women's bottoms (swaddled in the print material of gathered skirts) squirm back into the cushioned swivel chairs. The pursuit of beauty resumes.
8. The Corner
Most mornings in early summer, flimsy wooden flats of geraniums, broccoli, cabbage, petunias, onion sets, and young tomato plants are dropped gently on the sidewalk and lined up for sale. The older daughter is sent to water them with an aluminum sprinkling can half as big as she is. She runs the water in the sink in the back room. It is the same sink with a rounded rust stain in the far corner where Gen bathed her as an infant when the young family lived in back of the store. After Mary Jo fills the sprinkler, the cover grates against the spout with every turn. On the wide slanted sidewalk the water makes broad, soothing, dark lines as it runs into the street. These generous cement slabs were poured long ago, back when the town was convinced its growth was inevitable, and progress was a happy thing.
There are no stoplights in town, not even at this intersection where City Hall’s siren blares every day exactly at noon. The corner post office, next to the Red Owl, sits beside the highway across from Kimball’s City Hall, built when Teddy Roosevelt was President. The front door of the post office sits diagonally at the top of cement steps. It keeps one eye on Highway 15, and the other on the city street it shares with the Red Owl. Only people who do legal transactions need to know the names of the streets. Gen’s weekly letters from her mother, and the manila envelopes from Red Owl’s head office in Hopkins, are simply addressed: Kimball Minnesota. Main street doubles as a blue highway running north and south in the center of the map of Minnesota. Its smooth, new, unending black ribbon of tar rises to the middle like a pound cake. From the post office, Highway 15 rolls down-hill and intersects the railroad tracks near a handsome little brick depot.
Each morning, Les Robinson heads for the corner post office. The lobby is the size of a walk-in closet. Patrons see a wall of brass doors. Each tiny door frames a numbered glass window surrounded by an open scroll etched in the brass. The dials are tiny, corrugated knobs. Les covers the distance to the cashier’s window in three ‘ka-thumps’ of his normal gait. “Morning,” he says. Clayton Linn, the postmaster, responds in kind from the other side of the wall (with all the energy a chin can muster when holding a clump of letters against a shirt.) The postmaster faces an empty grid, devoid of romance. One at a time, he slips the letters into cubicles. With each letter the narrow end of the envelope taps the loosely locked brass door on the patron side. The result is a kind of Morse code.
Sometimes Les brings his grade-school daughter, Jill, next door to the post office. She says her ‘hello’ to a shirt button three down from the collar and a pocket with tiny ink marks. She will never remember seeing the postmaster’s face. Les dials the combination for Box 76 and slaps open the door against a neighboring box to retrieve a Reader’s Digest, a U.S. News & World Report, and a thin white envelope from Gen’s mother. Next week, the family will sit at the kitchen table folding summer circulars for every post office box and rural mailbox in Kimball. Printed at the top of each one are the words: “You Get More From Les.”
9. Bottom Dweller
As a can of Vet’s dog food, I am a product that is not a big seller in Kimball, Minnesota in 1958. Most dog owners here go for the less expensive dog chow in big bags if they buy dog food at all. Only people who let their dogs in the house look for canned food. Flaubert said something like: Every thing is interesting if you look at it long enough. I have been looking at things at the edge of the bottom shelf of the Red Owl store for quite a while now. I think Flaubert is right.
It’s kind of dusty here on the bottom shelf, which tilts back a bit, but I have an unobstructed view of the aisle. Dog food is across the aisle from laundry products like bleach, bluing, and boxes of powdered detergent. A giant box of Tide with swirling blue and orange half-moons is straight across from me, but she won’t make eye contact.
Bottom dwellers rarely see faces. I'm good with shoes, though. The speed of the walker, the number of times the cart parts rattle, whether a sock is folded down carefully at the ankle or slouches against the bone. All these things are clues about the kinds of human beings moving down the aisle. My favorite shoe is a brown Red Wing work boot with a toe shaped like a killer whale and a neat wing stitched between the laces and the toe. Don't see many of those. Don't see all that many men's shoes at all. It’s women’s shoes I see. Worn penny loafers with anklets. White tennies gone gray with the little toe emerging through the canvas. Maybe a pair of Mary Jane's after a funeral. Once in a while, small P.F. Flyers flash by. Gen and her daughters wear utilitarian oxford tie shoes. Yes, it’s women’s shoes I see. They walk. Pause. Step. Stop. Reach and hold a jar. Put it back on the shelf. Move on Bend. Straighten. Pause again, before continuing a few more feet down the one-way aisle.
I wish it were August when one of the daughters unloads us into a silver grocery cart and scrubs the shelves with Comet. Bottom shelves are sheltered by the ones on top. But dead flies fall onto this tilted surface roll to the back and stay there. When the shelves are washed, I’m picked up and put into a cart. I get a different angle on things. See the ceiling for once. Faces. Or chins. We get a break from being on the shelf. So far, the box of Tide hasn’t acknowledged me. Maybe she’s too busy swirling, or maybe I’m from the wrong side of the aisle.
The bottom shelf isn't so bad. I know full well this place at the Red Owl is only a stopover. But when some lady with a dog that eats in the kitchen brings me home, I fully expect to be on the bottom shelf of her pantry. I’d best adapt. I’ve learned that my position is good for developing the imagination. You know those books with pages cut crosswise? The books where the reader can choose different tops and bottoms of the costumes printed on them? Here, it's like only having the bottom pages, and imagining the tops. A place of infinite possibilities.
10. Major Grey’s Pear Chutney
The top shelves are the worst. Mary Jo—she’s in junior high--stands on the bottom shelf and hangs on with one hand while sprinkling Comet with the other. The solid gray rings of dust turn to grime. Bugs choose to die behind maraschino cherries or 4 oz. cans of peas. Their legs stick straight up in the air. One of the legs always seems to have a crinkle in it. Her hands turn a gray- green color after a couple days. She’s never told anyone, but there’s something she likes about it all. The way perfect circles sometimes appear in the dust. This morning when she was at one end of the shelving with her feet near the dogfood, she wondered if Major Grey’s pear chutney would be there this summer.
Sure enough. On the second shelf down, near the raspberry jams and strawberry jellies, the same five bottles of Major Grey’s Cross and Blackwell Pear Chutney are there again. Dressed impeccably, as usual, in smooth brown paper drawn up from bottom to top in pleats. A skinny brown ribbon tied at the neck, glued under a foil seal at the spot where an Adam’s apple would be. Everything in place. Her mother says they had ordered the chutney for the MacKenzies. But Mary Jo only remembers Mac MacKenzie walking in their store once when she was there.
The MacKenzies live next door to the Robinson’s about a half mile east on the same long street where the store in situated. Mary Jo remembers seeing Mrs. MacKenzie smoking at the threshold of her back door in the middle of the day. It was the pink chenille bathrobe that stuck in her head. Nubby tufts of red chenille spiraled into three big roses. A dark green vine with big oval fabric leaves twisted down the tall dark-haired woman’s side. Once a year Florence MacKenzie rings the doorbell on the Robinson’s front door and offhandedly points to the fine print of the Watchtower that says the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand. The jars of Major Grey’s Cross and Blackwell Pear Chutney will always be at the store. They will stay on the shelf from one summer to the next, waiting for the end times.
A cloud of boys mill around on the sidewalk outside and wait for the driver. They show up like flies on those early summer evenings when a semi full of watermelons rolls in from Texas and parks on the deserted Minnesota street. The boys could hear the diesel engine shaking the truck like a dog’s tail. The driver is always a wiry man of short stature with the same western shirt and pearly snaps. He wears a sweat-stained cowboy hat. Hands on hips, he stands beside the checkout counter while Gen sends one of her girls to fetch a pint of buttermilk from the dairy case. The trucker throws back his head and taps the bottom of the carton for a last drop before he hands it back to Gen, who waits behind the checkout. When his large worn money pouch on a chain is back where it belongs, he nods. “Thank you, Ma’am. That was tasty.”
The driver climbs up the wooden slats of the open trailer and somehow stands inside without hurting the melons. From the ground he seems to levitate as he busies himself reaching under the straw. Les, his daughters, and the cloud of boys, pass the watermelons through the front door of store as if they were babies. Quiet squeaks come from moist hands against the smooth green skin. Inevitably, a melon drops. Boys dive to the sidewalk like pigeons to pick up chunks of pink flesh with their fingers. The fruit is sweeter in the outside air. Juice runs down chins and a competition to see who can spit a seed the farthest begins without a word being said. When the shipment of two hundred fifty watermelons is piled three high in the aisles of the store, Les tosses a couple watermelons to the boys, who run off like they’d just robbed a bank.
The truck squawks and pulls away from the store. Packing straw, set loose during unloading, whirls on the empty main street. After all the people have gone home, drops of condensation from the air conditioner above the front door continue to drip as usual. But the Marlboro cigarettes, the jumble of Double Bubble gum, and the old bare floor listen to Southern vowels suspended above the lone checkout counter, until morning.
12. Fourth of July
When melons begin to spoil, they develop brown spots near the stem. Sometimes Les quartered those to save them from further decay. Sometimes customers didn’t want a whole melon. He could stand an oblong melon on end with one hand and slice it open in one stroke with the other. The perfect melon gives off an ‘shoosh’ when the blade begins to move through that sounds like the rain spraying up behind the tires of a car on a rain-soaked highway. And in mid-stroke, the rind ‘cracks’ as if it agrees that this was the best time to be split open. His daughter learned to plunge the sharp heel of the butcher knife into the rind near the stem. Most of the time she produced misshapen chunks, but there were a few times when the way she moved the blade, and the readiness of the melon, ‘shooshed’ and ‘cracked’ like a satisfying dive.
After the shipment had been in the store for a few days, Les asks Mary Jo to come to the store and turn the watermelons over to keep the juices moving. To save sweet flesh inside. Piled up along the floor of the center aisle, from the rows of Jell-O and all the way back to the Jenny-O noodles across from the dairy case are almost two hundred watermelons.
Dismantled piles of melons surround her on the floor like bunches of toddlers. She cradles each one, turns it over, and rebuilds the piles. She thinks of ants in their caves rolling cylindrical eggs into neat stacks like logs. These green melons bounce and ‘glub’ at different pitches. If she taps them, they are imperfect xylophone bars with Texas grit, yellow undersides, and arched backs. Some are perfectly inflated green zeppelins. Some are pale, and others have deep dark stripes. Some have veins within stripes within stripes searching for infinity.
As she works, she remembers a black and white photo of her dad and his buddy on a British airfield, posed next to waist high rows of perfectly stacked, identical bombs. GIs in baggy fatigues and upturned caps. Wholesome. Happy. Like Coca-Cola and Tootsie Pops.
13. Mrs. Unterberger
Jagged-edged shadows of elm leaves flipped from side to side on the way to Mrs. Unterberger’s today. A teen-aged Mary Jo, who gets bored helping out at her folks’s store, is glad to leave the building and get away. The sidewalks are deserted. Maybe the old heaving slabs across from Maus’s garage need not be replaced. Afterall, there are so few adults in town and even fewer children.
Mrs. Unterberger’s heavy front door has white enamel paint drips. The idea that the door will open, and someone, anyone, will see her framed in the doorway (pimples and all) is mortifying. At that moment she wishes she was back at the store stocking dog food. She becomes a turtle. Her head involuntarily retracts into her rounded shoulders. Inside, a wooden chair scrapes on the floor. Widely spaced footsteps can be heard coming to the door. The girl knows the color of her face is becoming as red as her pimples. Her eyes never leave the floor as she steps over the threshold and into the house, when Mrs. Unterberger gets to the door. She sets the groceries on her white tablecloth. A little box of strawberry Jell-O, a quart of Dairy Fresh milk, three bananas, and a can of Old Dutch cleanser barely fill the #12 brown paper bag. Her eyes go to the fold marks on the ironed tablecloth that make soft peaks above the surface of the round claw-footed table as she sets the bag of groceries down. When Mrs. Unterberger leaves the room to retrieve her purse, she tips from side to side on tiny feet. She is a shaped like teapot, soft baggy cushions on her backside.
Alone in the dining room, the girl catches an odor like cold potatoes drifting in through the door to the kitchen. She notices how cool it is inside the little white house as if there were an underground spring in the basement. She can see a scrap of the field stone foundation and a neglected white wringer washing machine just off the dining room.
There is no escape from the loud ticking clock between two African violets above the china cabinet. Not for the first time the girl notices how the entire town seems to be inhabited by ticking clocks and old ladies. Atop the closed cover of a treadle sewing machine is a sepia-toned photo. The groom's fingertips almost touch the edge of the doily ruffles that surround him. Graduation photos line one wall. Hairstyles chronicle the decades as the eye moves from left to right. Windows slathered in sheer white curtains soften the light. It is perfectly quiet. Except for the clock.
Mrs. Unterberger returns with her black pocketbook and clicks open the two tiny metal prongs that form an “x”. Inside, there’s not much more than an ironed hanky with one embroidered violet in the corner and the worn leather coin purse from which she removes two dollars and seventy-eight cents. Mrs. Unterberger asks if the Colorado peaches are in yet, then thanks the girl for delivering her groceries. And the girl, for the first time, notices how lovely the thick white permed hair looks on the old lady.
Mary Jo must have said “You’re welcome,” but she doesn’t remember saying it. Doesn’t remember walking out the door. Back outside, she only knows she feels like a weight has been lifted from her shoulders. The two soft worn dollar bills, three quarters, and three pennies pass from one sweaty hand to the other as she walks uphill, crosses the heaving sidewalk slabs, ducks under the jagged-edged elm leaves, and retraces her steps for the one block back to the Red Owl.
14. Candling Eggs
The basement of Les Robinson’s Red Owl is one large room. A pull chain hangs down from a bare light bulb from the ceiling on a fuzzy cord next to the stairs. White cobwebs wave beside the wooden steps. Optimistic spiders. There is no railing on the old wooden steps. The teen age daughter goes down the unlighted stairs to candle eggs. Something her mother usually does. It’s cool and damp. She turns on the light over her dad’s oak desk where he does his bookwork. Dozens of eggs from Kuechle's farm layered in a well-used cardboard box, sit on the desk. Neatly stacked cases of canned goods are stored behind her on wooden pallets. There is a modern gas furnace, but the coal blackened walls and octopus furnace remain. She has never walked into that patch of darkness behind the old furnace. When her chore is done, she will write AAA Large with a waxy lead pencil on each carton and walk up the stairs with a stack of eggs under her chin.
Before she starts, she rolls the eggs against her fingers to feel the pinpoint flaws and the pockmarks. Some have bits of yellow brown chicken manure clinging to the shell. Behind the desk, an empty two-pound Folger’s can juts out from the wall with an egg-size hole in the bottom. Two speckled yellowing pages are nailed next to the can with faded color pictures of acceptable and unacceptable eggs. One picture has reddish brown blotches on it. Les’s daughter switches on the dusty bare bulb mounted inside the coffee can. More convenient than a candle for candling eggs. Then, she reaches up to turn off the overhead light, conscious of that moment before the click. Profound silence is what she hears. Burning dust is a distinctive odor she smells.
She sits down on the wooden high-backed chair and begins holding each egg against the can of light before placing it in awaiting carton. Every once in a while, the girl stops her task to listen. Darkness here has a presence. The absence of light, a palpable thing. She aims her ears in different directions to hear how the static inside the whorls of her ears changes pitch. The wooden high-backed chair creaks when she shifts her weight. She turns and looks around the black basement after prolonged staring at the light bulb. Someday she will write about the sundogs materializing in every direction she chooses to look. Someday she will write about the inside of her eyeball, the jagged red circles of her iris against coal black that look as if a mirror were on fire.
In 1959, Colorado peaches appear in Midwest stores for a short time. Housewives in aprons and tight permanent waves march in just to secure Colorado peaches for the winter and more lids for their Mason jars. On freight days, Les Robinson rolls a column of peach crates on his two-wheeled cart to a spot between the short white loaf of an open freezer and the vegetable amphitheater of celery, lettuce, carrots and cucumbers. In his grocer’s apron, roped from right to left with lines of grease, Les pries open the crate. Skinny silver nails groan as they are bent backwards and pulled away from the new soft pine. And the lid, which nods in commiseration, spreads the scent of freshly split wood. Les stops to unwrap the gauzy tissue paper around a peach or two even though there is more freight waiting for him on the truck.
Near the front door, the nest of silver grocery carts rattles as Mrs. Wagner jerks one away from its sisters. The small falling flowers on her house dress swing around her knees as she pivots a cart and aims it down the aisle. She cans most of their vegetables from a garden tended by their twelve children. The red kerchief she wore to daily Mass at the St. Anne’s basement church is on her head, though a part of her remained with the rows of votive candles in bumpy red glasses. Their reflection flickers faintly between the thick short hair tucked behind her ear and the shadow of her scarf. Les greets her on his way out to the center aisle with a case of Harvest Queen Coffee in his arms. He drops it and bellows through the shelves to Gen at checkout to call Mrs. Rosenow to tell her the peaches are in.
By now the scent of fresh-cut wood and the unnamed memory of bees have made their way to one of Les’s girls working a few yards from the peaches. The she squats beside a case of Cream of Wheat. When her dad drops a box of Quaker Oats on the floor behind her, Mary Jo stands and walks over to the column of peach crates. Two unwrapped peaches wait on a bed of green tissue paper. Their siblings are bundled into long rows like the Dionne quintuplets in Canada. She cannot help but hold the piece of fruit in her palm. Feel the heft of it. The soft down. The gentle cleft between two swelling sides. Acknowledge the delicate point of it all.
4th Minnesota Civil War Military Units*
*courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society
“Kimball Papers, 1864-1894. ... Includes a journal of Kimball’s march
from Allatoona to Savannah, Georgia (November 12-December 12, 1864)
following William T. Sherman;
correspondence and miscellaneous papers,
including his attempts to receive a Civil War pension;
handwritten and published music for tuba;
and photographs of Kimball, his wife,
and the Fourth Minnesota regimental band, of which he was a member.”
It is a curious fact that “Kimball” is the name of a number of small towns in several states as well as being the name of a popular manufacturer of pianos. Many of these towns are on the prairie. Whether the manufacturer is related to the composer of tuba music named Kimball is a fact unknown to the author at this time who, incidentally, did play music on many Kimball pianos.
A granite marker commemorating Maine Prairie stands at the spot where the original white settlers who came from Maine staked their claim in central Minnesota and built a fort during the US-Dakota conflict. When the Sault Saint Marie railroad (called the Soo Line) came through to ship Midwest grain back east in 1886 five miles south, Maine Prairie churches, lodges, shops and a cheese factory picked up and moved to Kimball Prairie and the railroad. Or faded away.
The white one room country school of Maine Prairie Township between Kimball and St. Cloud was abandoned by the time Les Robinson wants to set up a place for his young daughters to play “school”. He borrows a truck and brings desks, and musty teaching materials to the basement of the home he built half a mile down the street from the Red Owl. The desks are in rows on wooden rails. Black iron filigreed sides, and perfect circles drilled for inkwells. Smooth hardwood desktops that someone had cut in one clean swipe of a saw. When Les hangs the old schoolhouse map (rolled up like a window shade) from the basement ceiling, the girls see colored slices of the world that scallop across the cinderblock wall. Greenland is larger than the US. And pink.
The older daughter is especially fond of one thick navy colored book whose cover has edges worn to faded threads. Remnants of gold color shine from the gilt letters of “GEOGRAPHY.” And pressed into one corner of the cover is a recessed circle. The outline of the back of a girl’s head and a tiny steamship are etched inside. Longitude and latitude lines arc over both figures in graying gold.
This book with impossibly thin pages thumps open. The soft edges of the thin pages fan out into a silky incline on each side of the book. What was once a golden shine is an orangish brown sheen. On the pages are columns of numbers for coal production, photos of Romanovs in Victorian yachting outfits, color-washed grass huts in Africa, American streets where sepia-toned Model T’s teem like beetles. And under the pitch helmeted explorer in Kenya next to a tribesman, there is only one name. Without being told, both daughters know the world inside that book is gone. Like the Czar. It would be hard to find a pier long enough to reach the ocean from the Midwest, but Les, in some wonderful way, has given his daughters a steamship.
18. Oiling the Floor
On ordinary nights, sweeping up with a push broom is enough. That curious thump and swish akin to a one-legged man pushing a suitcase across the floor travels down one aisle and then the other. Most weeks, a long-handled mop with stiff black strings sits near the basement stairs. A cathedral for spiders. But every few weeks, usually on a Saturday, Les pries off the cover of a short metal barrel beside the mop. Then he swabs the floor with black oil from the barrel. The long dull strips of unfinished wood almost sigh. Les walks backwards with the mop and writes the infinity symbol as he goes. At the farthest point of each loop the mop handle knocks against the lip of the bottom shelf on either side. The repetitive knocking like the priest’s censor clicking its chain. Les doesn’t bother with sawdust. He lets the oil sink deep into the wood all day Sunday, when no one will be disturbed by the smell. Some places on the floor drink in the oil so completely that only a transparent shine remains. Other spots hold flickering prisms.
Gen doesn’t want oil tracked into the house when they get home. On summer weekends when the teenage daughters help out, Gen wants them both to wait outside in the pink finned DeSoto that’s so big it barely fits in the alley. Mary Jo will manage to linger behind the meat case, as long as she can, while her dad oils the floor. She leans against the waxy black case. In her arms is their supper of frozen fish-sticks, cottage cheese, milk, and a few spotted peaches inside a paper bag. Maybe she stays because the fumes are a short-lived high or maybe she stays to glimpse the emptiness being filled.
A couple weeks later, the same girl freezes for a moment as she restocks the ketchup when she realizes the scent of oil has gone. It was impossible to know exactly when it disappeared.
When the black wall-phone rings up front behind the counter, it’s Mrs. Rosenow, or Mrs. Hinklemeyer, or even old Mrs. Saukala (when Louise, her angular teacher daughter, isn't up from the Cities.) They call with short lists of groceries they would like delivered. Mary Jo brings a half-pound cylinder of Braunschweiger, a quart of milk, a small can of crushed pineapple, and Red Owl bread to the checkout counter. It is the first of several orders she and her dad will deliver on their way home for supper while her mom and her sister stay at the store. Until then, she and her little sister, Jill, fill the widow ladies’ orders. They pack brown paper bags with the sharp deckled edge at the top (or re-used cardboard boxes if the order is large enough) while their father gently drops the unsold trays of plants on the ledge near the front windows. Petunias trumpet red and white into the onion sets. Mary Jo’s adult-size green apron flaps against her legs higher than it used to.
Any other night but Friday (when the store stays open until 9 o’clock) the adding machine would whir as her mother checked out for the night. Her dad would give the carrots and celery their nightly sprinkle from the glass pop bottle with the perforated top. She would carry the crate of red grapes, which rested next to the vegetables during the day to the dairy case where they would sit on the boxes of butter for the night. But this is Friday. She will soon ride home with her dad. At the yellow kitchen table, they will eat broiled 4 oz. patties of ground beef and sliced-up spotted cantaloupe on cottage cheese, before he returns to the store. She hangs up her apron in the back room on a wire hook next to the oval mirror, the old-fashioned sink, and a calendar. (Every January Gen picks one up from a card table by the front door at St. Anne’s Catholic church. It always has the same pinkish picture of the Good Shepherd. Courtesy of Winkelman’s Hardware and Funeral Home.) Behind her are four hundred pounds of potatoes. One of the slouching burlap bags has a damp spot on the side where an Idaho russet has begun to spoil. They will still be there tomorrow. She is anxious to get home, to watch 77 Sunset Strip alone at home, and cut out the pattern for a new outfit she’s sewing. Besides acne, puberty has left her with the definite feeling that life is going on somewhere else. Without her.
As evening softens the sky, Les backs the green Chrysler (successor to the pink-finned De Soto) out of the shoebox alley onto the deserted downtown highway. He turns left at the corner post office onto Hazel Avenue (the name only known to the property records office) and goes one block to the square white house with a front door level with the street. Louise answers the door. (Mrs. Saukola must not have known she was coming.) It’s half a block from there to the Methodist Church and the side street with Mrs. Petty’s long driveway and empty sprawling two story house where Les knocks twice and walks into the kitchen. He and Mrs. Petty chat for a bit before she opens the door to wave good-bye to Les. Only one order left. In the back seat sits a small cardboard box full of groceries with Kerr lids wedged in the side and two crates of canning peaches. This widow lady’s house is planted on top of a hill. Deep ruts in her driveway make for a bumpy ride. Trees are sprinkled randomly across the generous lot. A distant freight train clacks beside the creek at the bottom of the hill like an old a treadle sewing machine.
Years later, Les’s daughter will write about the summer evenings when her dad balanced two crates of peaches on one raised knee as he pulled open whining back doors. About how she waited in the car after a metal spring slapped the screen door shut behind him. How she slumped against the car door impatient to get home. Wound down the passenger window with its rotary handle until the glass had disappeared. How her fingertips touched the edge of the window inside the door. Behind her, in the backseat, there remained the scent of peaches left behind from Mrs. Hinkelmeyer’s order, or Mrs. Rosenow’s, or Mrs. Saukola’s. An evening breeze washed over her bare hand, while she heard voices coming through open backdoors. The mixture of her dad's low laugh and an old woman's voice, like a delicate tea, strained by the bulged-out screen, stirred in the flickering light of towering elms.
The Store and The Peach
As I enter this century, my second century, I am called “The Thrift Shop.” It’s 2001. City hall, erected in the same era I was, is on the National Register of Historic Buildings. My walls have no plaque. My display windows are dusty and rain specked. The years have fallen away like the rain and disappeared. Discarded chairs are stacked against my plate glass windows. They lean against the glass where Les wrote his ads in chalk. What Gen used to say when I was the Red Owl store is still true: the plate glass windows are more valuable than anything inside.
These days I’m feeling my age. Every night I hear a few more clanks in the heating vents. I’m not sure I’m ready for another century. As I watched the eras pass, I felt the losses piling up. I come from the earth, originally, where loss is as old as the glaciers. But what is to be expected when looked at, in general, is always a surprise when viewed up close.
Althea works at the Thrift Shop on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Every morning Althea puts her coat and her turquoise lunch bag on a chair near the back, by the shelves of frayed second-hand paperbacks. Althea shops at the big Cashwise store near the mall in St. Cloud. I know she’s brought a peach because I can hear her muffled voice through the insulated cloth bag even though the bag is folded and secured with velcro.
I’ll be quiet now so you can hear.
I remember the hum of the highway. The carbon dioxide piped in to retard ripening made me woozy. It made me want to think back to a time when I was just a blossom on a tiny stem riding a breeze. Just one of a thousand in the standardized orchard rows. Of course, all of us blossoms agreed to our living conditions and chemical additives. We were taken care of. Covered with foil blankets at the first sign of frost. When the rain didn’t come as expected, drops blinked from thin squeaky pipes in the ground. I remember hearing about the dangers of the approaching water shortages, but shortsighted mass production is a danger that’s already is here. My fellow peaches and I were picked, rolled, and had a number glued to our skin. While we were still in shock, we were lined up in crates and loaded onto a truck. And they say the communists discount the individual!
Who would have thought that I’d long for the inside of a truck? At least I was with my fellow peaches! Here in this lunch bag, I’m still wrapped in the pink tissue from the day when the crates were nailed shut. It’s the pits………………….Is anybody out there?
What do I say to her?
When I was full of groceries, I witnessed the demise of fruit every day! In my defense: I am a building. What could I do? I am not supposed to have a heart. If I have one, it is, after all, made of stone. But I should have listened harder to the voices of the products passing through. Especially the ones called “perishable.”
Back when I was Les Robinson’s Red Owl, I witnessed the demise of fruits and vegetables every day. Les sprinkled water on his amphitheater of celery, carrots, lettuce and cabbage, from a glass pop bottle with the perforated cap. He sliced off browning cabbage leaves and limp sprigs of celery. Inevitably there were spotted apples, mushy potatoes, white powdery grapefruit, and the sticky glaze left on shelves by honey-brown bananas. Gen propped up a piece of ripped cardboard on the checkout counter and wrote “10 cents a pound” in waxy black pencil and put it behind the best bruised bananas and spotted peaches. Mrs. Kowalski brought some of the brown bananas home to make bread. Ida Merton might buy the whole lot. But if overly ripe fruit didn't sell that day, Gen took it home to make sauce herself. What could not be sold or eaten was tossed into an empty lettuce crate in the alley for 'the rabbit man.’ A tooth fairy who picked up the crate of spoiled fruit during the night and used it to feed his rabbits.
I’ve been quiet so long. If I don’t say anything the peach won’t know I’m here, but I will regret it for the next century if I don’t speak up.
I hear you, Peach. Walls have ears. People underestimate us all the time. Sometimes talking to a wall is actually the best thing you can do. I have been listening. You were treated as a commodity in the orchard. Untouched. Unnoticed. Except by those who watched over you in order to make a sale. But you, little fruit, are a part of everything. And yes, humans haven’t got the hang of it yet. They can do better. They don’t see that there is more than one price to be paid for our food. That there is a story larger than any of us. Even the refrigerated truck that brought you to the warehouse has a family tree that can be traced back to a place deep in the earth. I’m betting you couldn't hear the truck answer you over the noise of the compressors. I'm sorry that no one told you long ago that everything has a 'sell by' date. I want you to know I am sorry you will soon be gone.
I’m not going anywhere.
I will be right here.
Not going anywhere.
The fact that you and I are here at all happened against all odds. It is good that you are here. It is good.
Remember that I was listening. That everything is listening.
Goodbye, little Peach.
At one o'clock Althea eats her lunch while scanning the obituaries in the Tri-County News. I watch as she pulls the peach out of her turquoise bag. I watch her turn it over. She puts it down and chomps on the tuna fish sandwich with cranberries and celery. Saves the peach for last. When Althea does take a bite, the orange yellow juice drips onto her free hand. She slurps it up as quietly as she can. “The highlight of my day,” she thinks to herself. Says, “Delicious,” out loud. She watches the fruit disappearing piece by piece. The way the flesh separates into chunks. She is sorry when the peach is gone.
At that moment I would have traded a century of existence for that kind of appreciation and the experience of being held in one warm hand. A while ago, Althea closed up shop for the day. The peach and I said our goodbyes hours ago. She was still bewildered and politically defiant. Maybe she understood that she was part of everything else. I'm not sure. I know that the words I said to her were inadequate.
Do you know the Zen story about the bear above the waterfall or the one about the monk chased by tigers? Both of them are tales in which someone delights in the taste of strawberries just before he falls to his death. You have read what I said to the peach. I tried to praise existence despite its brevity. The trouble with the Zen stories, I think, is that they do not consider the point of view of the strawberry.
Mary Jo Robinson-Jamison lives in St. Paul, Minnesota where she and her husband, Kent, raised their two children. She worked with the severely multiply handicapped as a music therapist for forty years. Her work has been published in Eastern Iowa Review, Driftwood Press, Talking Writing, Talking Stick, Minnesota Voices, The Green Mountains Review and others.