Wretched (Part I)

At the end of Western Avenue, near the bridge that seemed to lead to miles of nowhere, a motel named The Swan was perched on top of a hill.   It was an ordinary hill and the motel was just a plain but decent sort of place.  It was on the north end of the town and had running water, clean linens and a hot bath if you wanted one.   But not much else.  There wasn’t even a working soda machine.   Not in 1942 anyway.  We didn’t even have electricity until 1939, if I recall correctly.

My father, Amos Lee Johnson, was the son of two Swedish immigrants.   He had retired from decades of working as an auto mechanic when he bought The Swan for $500.00 in 1937 from a man named Felix Carpenter.  Mr. Carpenter owned the bank in town and he made a little extra from various other properties like The Swan.  

The motel was profitable mainly because it was the first one in town you drove past if you were heading north on Route 51.  But in 1937 Mr. Carpenter retired and decided to sell a few of his rentals along with the motel.

Agatha, my father’s second wife, who he married in 1935, helped manage the motel with my father.  I tried to help them as best I could.  I did a lot of laundry, made the beds and dusted in between going to high school and working as a part time maid for a few of the wealthier families.

Sometimes I heard Agatha whisper under her breath, “Thank God you’re still young and spry.”  She was only fifteen years older than I was, but she was always very maternal.

Matter of fact, when my father met her five years after my own mother died we became close almost right off the bat, and occasionally as I grew older I had to watch myself and not slip and call her mother.   Agatha didn’t like that because she felt it was disrespectful to my real mother, Harriet. And out of a sort of sadness we all kept quiet about almost anything to do with my mother.  I only heard the story of my mother’s death from a concussion she suffered while horseback riding many years after it happened.  When she died I was still a very little girl.

Once I cried on Agatha’s (we called her Aggie) shoulder after Nolan Peterson, a boy two years my senior, hit me at school when I told the teacher he was stealing money from the orphan children’s fund.  He would wait until everyone left the room and steal it.  Aggie told me that she would, “take care of it.”  And the next day he stood in front of the entire class and apologized profusely.

Yes, we were blessed to be at The Swan and the small two story green house nearby where we livedPapa knew it too.

Once Aggie got scared at the beginning, when Papa first bought the motel and she suggested we should move out west, all three of us.  Aggie had a cousin who had recently started working at a Boeing plant and she thought we could make good money if we moved and joined him and his family.  But papa said, “No.  We’ve got it good!  The furthest I’m moving is when they take my body and bury it in the cemetery.”  That was the end of that discussion.

Aggie was always one to plan and dream though.   Occasionally I would find her sitting by the radio in the kitchen listening and she would have a distant, sweet look in her eyes.  One day, it was a Saturday I think, in the spring, and I remember she was sitting there listening to the radio when she suddenly stood up and said, “Clara, you need a proper debut.”  She walked over to the cupboard by the window and pulled out yards of pink chiffon and lace.

“Aggie!  What’s that for?” I asked in awe.

“I’m going to make you a dress.  You need a pretty new dress.”  Then she shuffled to the sewing machine and laid the fabric down gently.

“Aggie!”  I slightly stammered because I just couldn’t believe it.

“Listen, the other day I was walking down the street and out the door of the library came Missy Turner.   I said, ‘Well, hello.  How are you today Missy?’ and we talked a little.  And then she told me that she was going to college in the fall and that her mother and father were so proud and she went on a little bit too much about it, and I thought, ‘This isn’t right.  Our Clara is just as smart as Missy Turner.’  I about cried.”  Agatha then came close to me and took my hands in her hands and with bits of fire escaping from the flames in her intense and large blue eyes she said, “You know your papa and I can’t pay for a college education, but I’ll be damned if I just sit around and let you wither on the vine.”

Three weeks later we had a party.  It was a rainy night.  Mr. Westvold came with their six children.  Mrs.  Westvold was Aggie’s best friend.  They regularly sat, had coffee together and gossiped.  But on that particular night Mrs. Westvold was sick with a cold and Walter Westvold brought his six kids alone.

All the Westvold kids were very well behaved of course, but Aggie was busy anyway fusing over the two youngest because she wanted to help her sick freind, which left most of the hosting up to Papa and me.  Since Papa was a quiet man mostly, I greeted people at the door and went in and out of the living room and kitchen the entire time.   I didn’t get much of chance to talk with our guests.

But, I have to say, I did look glorious in Aggie’s dress.  It was the best looking dress I ever had.   And that is not a lie.  Agatha was a very talented woman and it was really beautiful fabric.

Missy Turner stopped by for a few minutes.  She brought her beau Rex Holland with her.   He gave me a stationary set as a gift and Missy brought some of her mother’s famous berry compote.   Even though Agatha was busy giving a bath to the two youngest Westvolds, Sammy and Martha, she took a moment to watch in pride as Missy admired my dress.

The Stevens family and their Uncle Jake were there too.  The Browns, Bertrands, and Tulefsons made it to the party for a little while.  I think it was kind of a success, except that there weren’t too many boys around my age who showed up.  And of course that was distressing to my Aggie who kept asking Papa, “Where is so and so?”   Or sometimes she would ask mothers why their sons hadn’t decided to accompany them.

I felt bad for Aggie.  She was delighted by how lovely that dress looked, but I knew she felt the night was a big flop.   And so I felt rather sad too actually because she had tried so hard.

After the party was over I asked to take a walk down to the gas station nearby and buy a bottle of pop.  Of course, Aggie and Papa agreed, provided I took a flashlight and was back before 10:30.

I loved taking walks outside in the evening in those days.  When the 40’s started it was like a curtain was opened in the heavens and all the rain that had been stored up for the last decade fell on the earth.  Everything was so green.  The trees grew and grew and the grass was lush like a big blanket covering the ground.

At just the right hour you could hear the meadowlarks and the crickets together.   And when the wind was strong enough the mosquitos and other bugs didn’t bother you at all.  Of course, if we had lived farther out in the country my father would never have let me go for walks so late at night because he would have worried about coyotes or other wild creatures.  But we lived enough in town for him to feel safe letting me.

However, that night, as I approached the gas station I saw a man holding a gun to the attendant’s back.   I was in absolute shock and froze in place in the darkness, still dressed in my pink chiffon.  It occurred to me that I could run home and tell my father but I was just too overwhelmed to move.

Within a few minutes the man got back in his car and drove away, barreling at top speed toward Main Street.  I’m sure he drove past The Swan shortly thereafter.  

“Jimmy!”  I ran to the station and found a shaken Jimmy sitting on the ground by the pump with his head in his hands.  He looked up at me, and while his mouth was permanently ajar and unmoving his eyes registered and communicated the full weight of his horror.

“Jimmy.  Are you alright?!”  I reached down and tried to comfort the teenage Jimmy.  He usually was one of the most cheerful people in town and I had never seen him looking this way.  Actually, people always found out the latest news about their neighbors and relatives from Jimmy.  But at the moment he was beyond terrified.  His hands were literally shaking at the sides of his overalls when he finally stood up.

“He just.”  He gasped for breath after swallowing his words and then continued, “That man came out of nowhere see?  He was friendly at first, just like a regular customer.  But I turned around for a second to put the pump away and said, ‘You gonna want your windows washed too?’ and then he just stuck the gun to my back.   He said, ‘I’m going to drive away and you’re going to pretend you never saw me!  Got it?’  And I said, well, I couldn’t say nothing so I just nodded.   Then he got in his car and was gone.”

I didn’t know what to say.  We stood there speechless.    The crickets and distant setting sun were an eerie backdrop to such a frightening moment.

“Jimmy, can we use the phone?”

“Sure.  Who should we call?”

“How about Sheriff Thompson?”

“Good idea.”

My father was mortified when Sheriff Thompson walked me back home that night.  He wasn’t particularly happy to discover the reason but I knew he was relieved it wasn’t something worse.   Then my Agatha gave the men cookies and milk at the kitchen table.  And there I stood, still wearing my pink dress.  The longer the night went on the more I started to wonder if the dress, despite its beauty was cursed.

“I don’t reckon we’ve ever had a robbery or theft in town for the last ten years.”  Sheriff Thompson shook his head back and forth and the tips of hair on his thick blond and gray mustache caught traces of milk that soon disappeared.  I watched as he meticulously ate the butterscotch cookies and milk.  He was a very well mannered man.  The only conspicuous thing about him was the wild flock of hair above his thin lips.

“What do you think it is then that caused it?”  My father enunciated each and every syllable with a faint Swedish brogue.

“I don’t hava clue, except I seen folks driving through on their way to Minneapolis more often lately.”  He shook his head back and forth and frowned a bit.  “I hate to say it.  I don’t like to assume the worst of people, but at times you kinda have to wonder what this world is coming to.”

“Boy you sure do.  You sure do.”  My papa jerked his head in agreement as his strong chin rested on his chest.  His hands were folded together a few inches down.   A solemn look was etched permanently across his tender but manly face.

Since nobody had acknowledged me for a long while I didn’t see the harm in leaving the room and heading up to bed.  I had reached the middle of the stairs when I heard Aggie interrupt the men and ask, “Did you see our Clara tonight?  Isn’t she something?”  The two men fell extraordinarily silent in response and I could just imagine their faces as they sat there.

“Why, by golly, you betcha.”  Sheriff Thompson quickly recovered and the sounds of more cookies and milk being served could be heard.  I quietly sat down to listen.

“She’s such a nice young lady.  I feel so bad!”  Agatha was about to start on her regularly paraded story about how I was left without a mother at a young age and had been such a miraculous child considering the heartbreak I endured.  Then she went on, among other points of praise, about how lucky she and my father were to have my help at the motel and what a hard worker I was.  I was embarrassed and a little secretly thrilled by her bold and brazen endorsements.

And to be clear, Aggie wasn’t trying to convince Mr. Thompson to court me himself.  Not at all.  But she rightly assumed that what she said at that gingham covered, cozy kitchen table would certainly not stay there.

“Oh.  Well…”  Sheriff Thompson paused for a moment before continuing.  He chuckled a little and then resumed, “I have a favor to ask you come to think of it.  My nephew, Andrew, is coming in town next weekend with his mother, my sister, Bertha.  You remember Bertha, Amos?”

“Why yes.  She almost married my brother.”  My father sounded quite serious.

“By golly!  You’re right.  I had almost forgotten that.”  The two men laughed and you could hear traces of their youth in their voices.

“Oh.  She was the one who married that farmer from Newton?  Right?”  Agatha apparently knew of her too.

“Yes.  She did.  They have three boys.  Andrew is the youngest.”

“Yes!  The two oldest are away in the Army right now.” Agatha added quickly.

“God bless them.”  My father said.

“You betcha!”  Sheriff Thompson concluded.

“Anyway, why, Andrew is going to be visiting with his mother this Tuesday and, why, we just don’t have room for them.   The upstairs rooms are filled with my brother and his family right now.”

“Oh that’s right!  Your Aunt Cornelia just passed away recently didn’t she?”  Agatha sounded as if she had finally sat down at the table.

“She did.  The funeral is on Thursday.”

“I’m sorry.”  I could picture my father shaking his head in sympathy.

“Thank you.”

“She was the best pianist we’ve ever had at St. Mark’s.”  Aggie said sweetly about Mrs. Cornelia Briggs.

“Thank you.  She loved that piano.” Sheriff Thompson recollected fondly.

The room was silent for a moment before the sheriff continued.  “So if you and the Missus don’t mind, it’d be awfully nice if you’d save a spot for my sister and her son at your place here.”

“You bet.”  My father answered matter-of-factly.

I walked up the steps finally and sitting down on my bed I peered out the window at the street below.  The light from the porch was the only light outside for as far as I could see.  I looked at the faint lines of roads in the distance and considered the robber.   I wondered if he would return, although that seemed highly unlikely.  I imagined him driving past our motel as he arrived in town and it frightened me.  As I laid down and stared up at the ceiling, observing the shadows around my room I silently prayed he would never return.

The next day I woke up to hear the sound of Aggie cooking downstairs.  In my room, by the foot of my bed was a vent in the floor to the kitchen covered by carpet.  I could hear almost everything below me.  Aggie and I would have entire conversations between floors there occasionally.

The sun was shining and dust particles danced in the light above the dresser near the window.   I felt the coolness of my pillow for a moment longer before finally forcing myself to get up and find my way into the day.  The wooden floor at my feet felt chilled by the briskness of the morning air.   After making my bed and getting dressed I walked downstairs for breakfast.

At the table was a glass of orange juice, boiled eggs and toasted bread with butter.  Papa sat reading the morning paper and sipping his black coffee.    The steam from his cup softly drifted from the white milk glass cup and saucer.   Fuzzy, our calico cat, crawled around the kitchen and finally found comfort at the foot of the cast iron pipe stove.  He curled up and licked his paws in ease.

Aggie sat in the rocking chair near the pipe stove and rested her eyes for a moment before Papa cleared his throat to announce that he wanted our total attention.   We both glanced at him in anticipation.

“Now young ladies,”  he said as he lowered his paper.  “Tomorrow is when Andrew and his mother are going to be here.  We need to make sure their room is made up special.”

“I think it’s clean already, but I’ll make sure and dust it too.”  I quickly responded before yawning.

“I’ll go get some flowers to put in a vase in the room.”  Agatha added as she tilted her head back like something had suddenly occurred to her. “I bet there are some roses in Tilly Westvold’s garden she’d be willing to part with.”

“Grand.”  Papa said brightly as he lifted the paper back up to finish reading.

They were simple chores really, but for some reason Aggie seemed particularly anxious.  “They need to feel welcome.”  she kept saying.

I was aware that my Agatha was hoping something would come of meeting Sheriff Thompson’s nephew.  She seemed to know the family well and thought highly of them.

“They’re such nice people.”  she repeated several times with coyly raised brows, as if to subtly prod me in their general direction.

By two o’clock when I had returned from my last class of the day I found my way into the front door only to hear Aggie cooking something in the kitchen with a fury.  The loud clicking sound of her whisk beating wildly against the ceramic bowl in her other hand combined with her fretfulness about every little thing that day had set me a bit on edge.  But then I saw her standing there, her entire being shook with the ferocious movement of her wrist.

She was working incredibly hard just so I could give this relatively unknown woman and her son a good impression.  And, I felt very loved by my Aggie.   Guilt crept over me as I scolded myself for feeling anything but entirely and completely grateful.

“Agatha how can I help?”  I questioned her sheepishly.

She paused and turned around for a moment, wiping her forehead with her arm and finally her hands on her worn blue apron.  Then she sighed loudly.

“I know!”  She snapped her fingers and half smiled.  “You should go to Tilly’s garden.  I think she has some roses ready now.”

“Have you already been there today?”  I asked surprised.  We didn’t have a phone in the house and Papa made Aggie keep the phone in the motel for business only.

“Yes. Twice.”  She was nearly breathless.  “Once to ask her for the roses and then I realized I needed to borrow her recipe for crepes.”

“Crepes?” I was puzzled and intrigued.

“Yes.  I’m making this cake for the club meeting tonight and then tomorrow morning I’ll make crepes.”

“Do they like crepes?”  I asked.

“Oh, I’m sure they will.  I had crepes once at a neighbor’s house when I was little.  They were a French family.  Crepes are delicious.”

“Oh gee, that’s wonderful.  Thank you.”  I felt unnerved and excited at the same time.  “Well, I’ll go get the flowers then.”  I turned to leave.

“Make sure to thank her and invite her over for coffee in an hour.”  Then she added almost giddy, “Oh, and tell Tilly I’m making crepes for certain!”  She chuckled with excitement.

“I will!”  I yelled from the living room as I opened the door leading to the yard.  I walked outside then and found my way to the back fence and garage in the back where the car was parked.  Once inside the car I slowly backed out of the driveway and then headed southeast toward Tilly’s.

Their house was located just outside of town on a farm nestled in a grove of trees.  The hip roof red barn in the back was next to the windmill and the chicken coop.   A tire swing danced in the breeze just beyond.  Their garden laid just behind the last weeping willow to the right.

But, before reaching the Westvold farm you had to cross over a bridge and then drive up a steep hill.  And I always hated driving there alone.   Our car often felt like it would tip backwards even though I knew it wouldn’t.  It wasn’t that steep, but it still scared me, especially at night.

Anyhow, on that day I felt the tires roll over something peculiar on the bridge and then right as I was speeding up the hill I started to notice that the car was becoming almost impossible to steer.  I felt the car sink slightly on the right and then there was the sound of two flat tires on gravel.  By that time I had slowed almost entirely so I just turned off the car.  I wasn’t sure what to do next.

It occurred to me that it was unlikely I wouldn’t be seen if another car approached me so it didn’t seem unsafe to stay in the car long enough to really think this through.  After sitting for a moment longer I believed the best idea was to walk down the road to the Westvold farm and ask them for help.

I got out of the car, and sure enough, almost on cue it started raining.  I debated about whether or not to leave my shoes on or walk barefoot and it seemed after further contemplation that going barefoot, despite the very uncomfortable gravel was best.

As the rain poured and the sky grew increasingly dark and foreboding I noticed suddenly how desolate and dark the Westvold farm looked.  No lights were on.  The car wasn’t parked anywhere.   There weren’t any clothes hung on the line.   And I started to wonder: what if they aren’t even home?

I walked a bit further, the rain having almost drenched me entirely by this point.  Then I stood and stared.  They weren’t home.   I was almost positive.

I turned around and looked back at my car.  My muddy toes sunk in deeper as I realized just how far I had already walked.  It seemed very silly to go back to the car now.  So I kept walking.  I figured I could at least use their phone to call someone and wait for help in the warmth of their dry indoors.

Any other time I’m sure the door would have been unlocked, but Mrs. Westvold had heard about the robbery the night before and decided to lock all her doors and windows.  So there I stood locked outdoors in a deluge.

I thought about going and picking the roses out of the garden anyway but given the shape of our car it seemed unlikely to be a wise choice.  I didn’t want them to wilt.

After thinking it through for a few minutes longer I made for the road and attempted to walk back to the car.  I kept walking.  My feet covered in slimy, cold mud.

My hair fell about my shoulders and my dress felt increasingly cold and heavy.  If I had jumped in a lake with my clothes on and swam for five minutes it would have had the same effect.

Right before I could reach my car I saw the lights of another car driving closer.  And it was then that it hit me how beautiful this moment was in a very earthy sort of way.

The air was so burdened and enveloping with the mist and fog overcoming me more each second.  I was in melancholy bliss.  Green and blue danced with each other on all horizons and the headlights of the oncoming car were almost magical.   They were like torches flying gallantly over the ground.

A man sat behind the wheel.  I had never seen him before.  The car was unfamiliar too.

He pulled over to the side of the road next to me.  Our glances met quickly before he opened his door without turning off the car or halting the windshield wipers.  The lights from the car blinded me a little for a moment before I put my hand to my face.  Then he got back in the car and shut his door.  He moved across the front seat, rolled down the passenger seat window and our faces met through the rain.

A look of surprise must have been present for us both.  His handsome gaze quickly became lightened by a warm smile.  

“You’re not a Westvold.” He observed dryly.

“No.  I’m not.   I came here to visit Mrs. Westvold but it doesn’t seem like anybody is home.”

Our eyes locked for a second and I wasn’t sure of almost anything in that moment.  I felt like I was getting lost.  Quickly.  With the “click click” of the wipers and the hum of the motor in the background we observed each other.

Then he broke the moment by turning to face the road ahead.  Placing his hands on the wheel he appeared to be analyzing something.  Then he smiled carefully and declared, “Your car is completely useless.”  His grin grew again and then he paused and partially frowned.  He drew his hand to his chin and  thoughtfully patted his cheek.

“Tell you what.”  He turned his face and focused quietly but intently on mine.  “I’ll give you a ride into town.  That is, if you’ll let me introduce myself first, of course.”

“That would be very nice.  Thank you.”  I leaned over just enough to see further into the car.

“I’m Adam Westvold.  My mother is Tilly’s older sister.  We live two towns over.”  He reached his hand out into the rain from the open front seat passenger window.  I shook his hand in the rain and then when he opened the door slightly, I slid inside.

“How do you do?  I’m Clara Johnson.  I live in town with my parents.”

The light from his eyes reached mine.  I could feel myself becoming quietly amazed and my gaze lingered for a bit longer than was all together acceptable.

“You must be cold.”  He reached into the back seat and grabbed a blanket before adding, “I’m sorry I can’t help you with your car.   Both of the tires on the right side look like they need to be replaced.”  Then he started the car engine and moved it slowly forward down the treacherous path.  “I’ll bring you to the gas station in town or to your home, if you prefer.”

“Why don’t you bring me home.  I’m not sure what my father will want to do with the car.”

“Fine.  I’ll bring you home.”  He pulled the car into the Westvold yard, turning it around.  Drops fell on the windshield, pelting down one after another non-stop.  But the “click click swish” of the wipers kept time with the pace of the rain and we drove onward.

He asked, “So why were you visiting my aunt?”

“Oh,”  I felt rain water falling from my head down to my neck, “I was going to pick a few roses from her garden.  My parent’s own a motel and my mother is good friends with Tilly.  We have guests my mother wants to impress coming tomorrow.”   I felt silly.  “The roses were for the guests, you see.”

He nodded his head and turned and studied my overall appearance for a second.  It was only a moment but I caught him paying particular attention to my hair.  He said, “You must be freezing.  You’re drenched.  It’s been a downpour for the last hour by now.”

“I am cold.”  I couldn’t think of anything else to say.

He reached over and grabbed the edge of the blanket and brought it up over my shoulder closest to him without ever removing his eyes from the road.  

“Well, you’ll be home soon.  Town is just over there.” He pointed. 

I looked at him now, his face cut an honest profile and he finally took his eyes away from driving and met mine.  I felt shy and glanced away quickly but his gaze lingered.

“Thank you for stopping to help.” I said.

“I’m glad I happened to find you.” Then he turned to face the road again.

We fell silent.  There was nothing to be said.  Absolutely nothing.

The car reached the entrance to the motel and he asked where to park.  I motioned that he should park near the fence in the yard, under the cover of the large Elm trees.

The shade provided by the soaked tree limbs and leaves left us in a sort of lovely green and gray dim light.  I turned to him and started to say goodbye and thank him again when I realized that he was being particularly still.  He just kept staring straight ahead at almost nothing at all.  Then he turned to me and I knew there was an unspoken longing between us, as if we had tumbled into place in each other’s hearts in a matter of moments.    Even though we had just met, there was an unusual and soothing sort of peace.

“I’ll have to come visit you sometime.” He finally uttered.  Then he added awkwardly, “No, I’m sorry.  I mean-”

“You should pay us a visit with your aunt.”  I interrupted.  Then I glanced down in a fit of shameful shyness.

“I will.” He looked half embarrassed by the offer even though he had seemingly been the first to suggest it.  Then, just as soon as I felt a chill from his icy response he said, “Let me help you inside.”  He got out of the car and I watched as his flaxen hair blew against the darkened sky like flickers of brightness shimmering.  I became almost scared of this power he seemed to posses over me.  

When he opened the door and I emerged under an opened umbrella.  For most of the walk to the house we walked side by side without a word, but when we were near the door he reached over and placed his hand on my back.  

I could tell that oddly enough, nobody was home here either.  It baffled me but before I could reason through it he leaned over and kissed me.   I had never been kissed before and it startled me.  I backed away.

We stood in silence under the protection of the porch roof.  He looked at me and smiled sheepishly.  “Can I still come visit you sometime?”  He tentatively asked.

“Yes.  I guess.  I drew a deep breath.  “Yes.”  I bit my lip.  “I’m sorry.”

“No.  I am.”

We stared at each other awkwardly for a moment and then he furrowed his brow, “Well,  I’m not really sorry.  I-”

“I understand.”  I quickly stammered.  I walked towards the front door and opened it but before walking inside I turned and decidedly said, with my heart brimming, “I really hope you do visit again.”

And in response he quickly walked over and stood beside me, grabbed me and then kissed me again.   This time it lasted a bit longer, until he moved away and said, “I’d like that.”   With his head down he left, then looked up suddenly before he entered his car and yelled back at me confidently yet with a sort of gentle whimsy, “It really was lovely meeting you.”

“You too!”  I yelled in return.  Then we stared at each other for a while before we waved our goodbyes and he entered his car.  And there I stood wrapped in his blanket, drenched, with muddy shoes on my front porch.

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