Spring/Summer 1998, Volume 15.2
Louise Farmer Smith
Louise Farmer Smith (MA, Yale U) has worked as an English teacher and congressional aide and has published in The Virginia Quarterly Review, Antietam Review and elsewhere.
Mother said Great Uncle Wendell looked like an angel in his casket. The undertaker had given him pink cheeks and such a sweet smile I felt happy and sat there in the pew, swinging my patent leather Mary Janes, and decided that if anyone in this world had a chance of being sinless, it was probably Uncle Wendell. We all knew he had lost his only girl friend to a fatal case of measles, and it was easy to believe that he had grieved for her for sixty years and gone to his grave hoping to see her on the other side. The sweet, boyish look on his face, resting there on Primrose Funeral Home's satin pillow, suggested an immaculate kind of happiness.
He had taken up farming a tiny acreage after retiring from the telegraph office in 1940. For the next ten years Sunday dinners at our house were accompanied by the low clatter of his fork, held in calloused old fingers, tapping out messages on the edge of his plate. None of us knew the Morse Code, and we all just took this as part of his idling, like the tuneless whistle he made while he fed his livestock.
His place had chickens to which he scattered corn, and hogs to which he also scattered corn, forcing the poor beasts to walk about the farmyard nibbling like hens, thereby keeping themselves very thin. Mother laughed. "The widest parts of those hogs are their heads," she said.
The cows, Patsy and Sally, went dry because Uncle Wendell was too shy to take them to the neighbor's bull. He would unlock the gate between the pastures, but that was as far as he would go in meddling with their passions. He kept the dry cows on as pets. And he kept everything else he'd inherited with the farm—the rusting plows and harrows, the dead tractors and combines, the innumerable hoops of wire and bales of fencing—scattered about the place just as he'd found them.
I was twelve the winter Wendell died, so I got to sit with the grown ups in the pew next to my Great Uncle Sloane, Wendell's older brother. It was an easy funeral. Nobody had to come too far or cry too hard, though I did feel Sloane sighing and swallowing during the service. But afterwards at his big place he sliced the ham with the elegant composure we expected from him. He was my favorite relative, a person I could count on when something funny happened at the dinner table—like Wynona. claiming Grover Richmond had proposed to her, something a twelve year old like me wasn't supposed to understand anyway. I'd look over at Sloane and see him drop his jaw without opening his mouth and give me a sideways, big-eyed-look.
He was over eighty and given to staring spells, and on top of that he was probably the most grieved of us all by his younger brother's dying, but everybody relied on him to guide us through the day. Minnie, his sister-in-law, widow of another brother who died long ago, had on her brown dotted Sunday dress and laid on the ham, black-eyed peas, biscuits, and green beans, along with all the jello salads, banana cakes and pies the neighbors had brought in.
Everyone came—my family, all the Mullinses and Wynona. After dinner Mother sat down in the rocker with the baby, and the twins fell asleep in Dad's lap. Ted and Nelva Mullins were stuffed and laid out on the big Victorian furniture in Sloane's parlor. The whole family was hardly moving except the Mullins boys who were scuffling under the dining room table and Wynona, Sloane's niece.
Wynona, a woman about my mother's age, was his closest and least favorite relative. I figured this out from listening. No one knew all the things I'd figured out except Sloane. He always saw me listening. And he gave me a glance now when Wynona brought up the Hutchenreuther plates.
"I wonder who will get the plates?" she said, sitting on a straight backed chair and addressing the lamp shade next to her. She had on her purple suit with the big lavender flower stitched on the shoulder in a permanent corsage. She'd done her hair a more innocent blond for the funeral.
"What plates?" It was Ted Mullins's wife, Nelva, her face pulled tight by her skinned back hair; the rest of her was fat—soft and white and slick as Crisco. Ted Mullins was basically the same shape as his wife except his head was put on low, so his shoulders rose up behind his ears. Ted was Wynona's second cousin. He and his wife and four kids had driven over from Seminole for the funeral.
"The Hutchenreuther plates, of course," said Wynona fingering the lavender buttons down the hip of the tight suit, "the only thing of value the poor man had."
Nelva Mullins pulled forward in the easy chair and her skirt rode up showing large white knees above the rolled hose. "How valuable?" she asked.
Wynona. ducked her head modestly, too polite, I guess, to discuss money. "Well goodness, I wouldn't know," she said, running a painted red nail along the edge of the big lavender flower. "The value of antiques goes up all the time, and these have been in our family just for generations. Sloane's grandaddy bought them in St. Louis. But when Wendell promised them to me, I did just happen to ask a friend in the business what they might be worth, in general terms, but that was several years ago."
"Yeah?" Nelva Mullins said, pushing hard on the arms of the chair to keep her weight from sliding her back. "How much? In general terms?"
"Well, of course, it's the sentimental value, something from the family, all those Christmas dinners for so many years."
Nelva glared at Wynona.
"If the plates are perfect," Wynona said, "perhaps twenty or thirty dollars a plate."
"Good grief. How many are there?" Nelva asked.
"A perfect dozen, last time Uncle Wendell and I counted them. The day he promised them to me."
"Ted?" Nelva said accusingly.
"I never heard anything about plates." His chin on his chest, he was just beginning to doze off again.
"Don't you think, Sloane," Wynona asked, "we ought to have the reading of the will now?"
Sloane had just gotten up to move a cut glass vase off a rather small table a couple of the Mullins boys were dodging around. He looked over at Wynona. "Why?"
"Well because," Wynona said, "the Mullinses have come a long way. It'd just mean another trip with these poor children if they had to come back."
J would not be offended," Sloane said, "if they left the children home when they come for the reading of the will."
"Sloane, there is no sense in that," Wynona whined. "We are all hereSloane?"
He'd bent his knees to squint out the side window toward the driveway. Wynona probably thought he was having a staring spell and let herself go back to tormenting Nelva about the Hutchenreuther plates. Sloane plucked my sleeve, and we went outside through the back stairs hall.
When I saw the man standing beside his car, wringing his hands and saying "Sloane, Sloane, I am so very sorry for this," I thought he was a mourner come too late for the funeral. He looked much younger than Dad but had a bald head and a fat face, and his whole soft body kept swaying with apology, his hands clasped in front of his zipper. "Sloane, if my daddy knew I was doing this to you on the day of Wendell's funeral, he would just throw me right out of the firm, and I won't blame you if you tell him, but."
"What's up, Randolph?"
It was chilly out, and tall, old Sloane turned up the collar of his suit coat, put his arm around me, and set our backs to the wind. The lawyer was holding out his hand toward a young woman standing on the other side of the car, and from the fearful look in her eye, she wasn't about to come around to our side. She looked like a shy high school girl wearing a waitress uniform.
"Sloane, I should have called you. I should have called you weeks ago," the lawyer said.
"It's cold out here, Randolph. What is it?"
"And now the funeral and all the relatives here. I was afraid you might read out an old will and things would be even worse." The lawyer took a deep breath and rung his hands. "Wendell made another will."
"So?" said Sloane.
"Her!" the lawyer said looking guilty. "Her! He gave it all to her."
The girl pulled her shrunk up old blue sweater around her and looked away.
"Who is she?" Sloane asked.
The lawyer now stepped closer to us so the girl couldn't hear and whispered, "She's a manicurist."
"A what?" Sloane cupped his hand behind his good ear.
"That girl was giving Wendell manicures."
Sloane leaned forward and squinted into the face of the much shorter man. "Are you telling me that my brother was getting his fingernails painted?"
"No, no, Sloane, just buffed up, probably, maybe the cuticle."
"Men don't do that in this town, Randolph."
"Sure they do, Sloane, down at the barbershop, a few, the banker."
"Wendell was not the banker. The man didn't get a hair cut more that three or four times a year. He didn't really like barbers."
"She doesn't work at the barber shop. She works over at Parisian Lady."
"Randolph, you are impinging upon my credulity as well as my hospitality."
"See! That's why it was so hard to call you in the first place. I don't know how they met, but the shampoo girl in there told my wife that after all the customers were gone, old Wendell would come around to the back door and she'd," he nodded toward the manicurist, "let him in, and well, they'd sit at a little table in the back and talk while she…you know, soaked his fingers and…" Randolph kept leaning closer and wincing and giving me dark looks. "Well, you know," he said, "lotion and stuff, and a few weeks ago he came to my office and told me she was all alone with two little kids and asked me to make him a will leaving her his place. Now I'm sure that that's all it was, just the manicures, but now it's his property, and for me to have to come over here at a time of grieving…" Randolph shifted his weight from foot to foot and reclasped his hands.
"A man," Sloane said, "has a right to bequeath his property as he sees fit. Did you make the will?"
"Yes, sir, and I should have called you. When your niece, Wynona Ketcham, gets wind of this, there's going to be a real donnybrook."
"And did he sign it?"
"And do you have it with you?"
Randolph took a yellow envelope out from inside his coat and handed it to Sloane. "I am so sorry," he said.
Sloane took the will, and we walked around to the other side of the car. The girl backed away from us and turned a little to the side. I could see that her socks had crawled down into her bunged up white shoes. Her face was thin with blue gray circles under the eyes.
"Who was your husband, Ma'am?" Sloane asked.
"Tommy Jarrett," she said softly. "He got hisself killed down at the grain elevator. Smothered."
"I'm sorry to hear that, ma'am."
"And now I lost Wendell. I'm just bad luck for men." She put her hand over her mouth.
"Wendell was seventy-eight," Sloane said.
"That's right, sir, thank you."
Sloane opened the car door for her. Randolph trotted around the car and cupped his hand as though to keep the girl from hearing. "I don't need to tell you how it's going to be, Sloane. Sure as shooting. Once the relatives start squabbling, the gossips in this town will just blow this thing up bigger than… Then I don't know how you'll keep all that beauty parlor information out of the Daily which will."
"Randolph." Sloane raised a hand to stop the sputtering. "Would you take Mrs. Jarrett home, please? I'll call on you in your office Monday morning."
And that was that. Sloane was silent as we walked toward the house, and he patted me on the back as if to say don't worry, but he wasn't looking at me at all. He ducked into the back bedroom and told me to close the door and stand watch. After puffing out a long breath, he sat down at his desk, opened up the will and gave it a quick look. Then he put it in the drawer, and sat awhile frowning. Finally, he took out a long sheet of paper and began to write.
I listened at the door and could only hear Minnie cleaning up in the kitchen and Ted Mullins snoring. The kids were running around in the yard, and I guessed everyone else was taking it easy.
After he got done writing, Sloane sent me to get Minnie out of the kitchen. She took off her apron and brought a kitchen chair into the living room for herself. The others began to wake up. Mother stood up with the baby and shook down her dress, and Dad yawned and adjusted the sleeping twins. Ted and Nelva shifted and blinked in their easy chairs. Wynona got out her compact and gave her new blond do a push or two. I could see her looking past her little mirror to give Ted and Nelva dirty looks.
Sloane took a seat in his big armchair, and I settled on the arm beside him. "This is not Wendell's will," Sloane began when everyone was paying attention. "This is a precis of his intentions."
"What do you mean a pray-see?" Wynona was getting her back up already.
Sloane dipped his chin and glared over his glasses at her. "There is a lot of useless legal language in the will itself. This is just a summary of it, the who-gets-what of it, Wynona."
"All right," she said.
"To Alice," Sloane began. My mother looked up in mild surprise. "…in whose kitchen I have drunk over a thousand of cups of coffee, I leave the china cup and saucer her mother painted."
"Oh, goodness," Mother said and bit her lip. Her eyes got teary. "I had no idea he would remember."
"To my cousin, Ted Mullins, I leave all my farm implements."
"Farm implements!" Nelva shouted. "There isn't anything out there that wasn't rusted all to heck twenty years ago!"
Ted Mullins patted his wife's hand, leaned over and said, "Scrap iron, Nelva."
Sloane looked over his glasses at Ted. "Can you take care of this?"
"You bet." Ted dipped his low head. "I figure six, eight truck loads. Just have to take Monday off."
Nelva raised a superior smile in Wynona's direction. She knew that six or eight truck loads of scrap iron beat out twelve perfect plates no matter how much they'd appreciated. Wynona clasped her hands on the purple skirt, pursed her lips and concentrated anew on Sloane.
Sitting on the arm of his chair I could read his elegant, spidery handwriting, so I was surprised when he said, "To Minnie, my sister-in-law, I leave my kitchen clock."
Minnie, perched on the kitchen chair, jerked her little chin and began to blink and look about in that little hen way of hers. "Kitchen clock?" she asked. I don't ever remember Wendell having a kitchen clock, do you, Alice? Wynona? A kitchen clock?"
"I believe this was a gift to him from someone," Sloane said. I doubt he ever took it out of the box."
"Oh," Minnie said, "well that would explain it." She folded her hands in her lap and sank again into stillness. Then her whole body jerked. "But did any of you give him a kitchen clock, I mean if you did, and you want it back-Alice? Nelva? Wynona?"