Novels

Layers of Being ( part 3 )

August 25, 2016

Peacock departing

A Chicken Is a Person Too

My new tenant disappeared, her rusty Volvo leaving a trail of blue smoke behind it. I was not aware of her destination but knew her mode of transportation was shaky at best. It was moments like this that I wanted my children to see what they had done to me. Maybe observing this would give them a different perspective about boarders. One way or another I was going to have to accept what I had done.

I checked the upstairs bathroom for toilet paper and put out fresh towels, pretty sure Jenny did not possess any. I left a copy of the ‘house rules’ lying on her bed. Annie went into great detail with the list in order to keep things running smoothly. I didn’t disagree with her suggestions but was surprised that people would need such details spelled out. Rules were so needless when common sense should be the only rule.

Those small details taken care of, supper was the next project to attend to. I did not expect to rent the room so soon, shy of food for my guest/boarder tonight. Shopping for a few items necessary and begin a regime of planning regular meals. I hardly cooked much living by myself, with the exception of when Myra came by. Normally planning was a matter of making something quick and easy, a piece of cheese or hot dog. The boarder will expect something more substantial than a turkey sandwich or bowl of Campbell’s soup. I decided chicken to be a good choice for her first supper in the house; everyone likes chicken.

The day was still warm for walking the short distance to town and the market. Bestway Supermarket was only a few blocks away. I had walked that path many times before, each step a known footfall, no surprises. I knew every crack and broken sidewalk along the way each with a story to tell though silently denying the listener. I could have gone to the corner market a couple blocks away but they didn’t have a meat section except for a few packaged cold cuts. Besides, I get a three-percent discount as a retired employee of Bestway. Some employees complained about the small discount believing that Bestway was still making plenty of money; they were right, of course. However, there was nothing forcing Bestway to give us any discount at all, so I accepted the few extra penny savings without complaint.

The walk was not a long one but often interrupted by friends and neighbors, wanting to inquire about my health, any local scandals and the weather, a popular topic, which never ceased to be in the forefront of every conversation. One could always rely on the weather, should one feel stumped for conversation. Good, bad, same and uncertain weather made for interesting speculation, though few could predict change. Rain was a concern for farmers. Hot days drove many of us indoors. And snow was an opportunity to remember how to drive in such conditions without totaling one’s automobile. With a degree of dread I began passing Nora Dunning’s house.

“Looks like rain,” grumbled Nora Dunning leaning on a broom. “I think those communists are changing our weather, weird experiments, you know. Sneaky people, they are. Don’t know why our government doesn’t do something about that. Before you know it we’ll all be speaking Russian or Chinese. And you should set an example by taking along an umbrella John. God knows the young people of today are careless of such things. Elise would never have let you out like this, that’s for sure. No umbrella? Irresponsible!”

She was winding up not quite finished with her tirade and added, “I’d keep an eye on that Sven Olson too. I don’t like the way he talks about the communists having good ideas like socialized medicine. Next thing you know we’ll all be on some state-owned farm growing turnips. By the way, I heard you have some young girl at your place. I hope to God you’re not getting crazy, seeing young girls now. Mid-life crisis, hogwash! It’s disgusting, old fools with young women. So many of you old men go through that. From what I hear she’s pretty young. There are laws about that too or there should be. Elise would never approve. I’m sure of that too.”

This was her usual rant with my boarder thrown in for good measure. Nora always thought it was going to rain and had an extreme dislike for the communists, wondering which one of us in Freiburg might be an unpatriotic ‘commie’ sympathizer. She had a running list of people whom she felt were ready to overthrow the government or preach socialism to the innocent. None of this was ever true, of course. She was still living in the McCarthy era, even supported him for president when he ran for office. She also knew every small thing that happened in the town of Freiburg. Her speculation did not rely on truth or accuracy, playing no role in her accusations and opinions.

In all the years I’ve lived here Nora has placed herself at the front of her house to intercept all who pass imparting the warning she felt we should know. Always armed with a broom but never really sweeps with it, she gives herself reason to be there. It would be far too obvious otherwise to post yourself on the street waiting for victims.

“Hi Nora,” I answered with a smile. “You don’t have to worry about me and young girls. I’m taking in boarders now. My kids thought a boarder might help keep me company and bring in a little extra cash. The girl is a student at Wyandotte University. Hard to say yet but she seems okay.”

“I heard she is some communist, hippie type,” grumbled Nora shaking the handle of her broom. “You can’t be too careful. She’ll be planting crazy commie ideas in your head. Peace, love and all that stupid garbage is just another way to control us. It’s all a ploy to brainwash you. She sounds dangerous to me, commie for sure.”

“No, I don’t think so Nora. She’s just a kid who likes to dress like all the other kids, its fashion of a sort. Besides, it’s really none of my business as long as she pays her rent and doesn’t break anything.”

“Hmmm!” retorted Nora another thought brewing in her twisted brain. “Say hello to Myra for me; I don’t see much of her these days. It doesn’t look right, you two carrying on like that, you know. I think the both of you should get together, permanent like, married. It’s not healthy for a man to be by himself. You’ve been a widower far too long. Myra is exactly the right kind of woman for you.”

Nora swept the sidewalk in front of her house as she continued her rant, small puffs of dust rising from the sidewalk. I could see she wasn’t finished with her lecture.

“This is a Christian town, John. Now, that young gal you have living in your house is a concern. Hippie girls are into all sorts of wild things, wild ideas, strange politics and talking about peace all the time. Where would we be if we were always peaceful? We’d be British today, John. Some king would be telling us what to do and taxing our tea. Democracy would be a word unheard of in this country. I warn you; watch her closely, John.”

“I will Nora. Got to rush or I won’t get supper on the table,” I replied, glad to escape the avalanche of accusations.

Nora can trap you for an hour or more with all her criticism, hearsay and suspicions. I wondered what made a person that way, firmly convinced that our military needed to be in Vietnam fighting the Godless communists. It didn’t matter to her how many of our men were killed or permanently maimed. I did not share her enthusiasm to place our men in harms way. Basically to keep the peace in Freiburg, no one ever spoke much about God or politics. Benign non-confrontational subjects were perfectly acceptable and safe.

 

It bothered me when Nora brought up the subject of my sister-in-law Myra. Our relationship was no ones business, especially Nora’s. Myra was Elise’s younger sister. She really brought me through those tough years after Elise died. We see each other often, enjoying each others company. Nothing serious ever developed from it, though it was true that we occasionally shared some intimacy but that’s an issue I don’t like to dwell on. Myra is a fine woman and doesn’t seem very interested in a fixed relationship. She has never married and is happy that way. Freiburgers don’t seem to understand something like that. Single women are old maids after eighteen, not necessarily by choice. Few women ever choose to adopt that status voluntarily.

I never quite said it but I talked, roundabout marriage with Myra. Whether it was someone else or me, she said there aren’t any men she felt any deep passion for. She would not consider a relationship or marriage without passion, an emotion not shared by many men in our community. She felt too many people lived in relationships that were as dull as the undecorated bags at Bestway. She wanted and demanded more from life. Myra put off discussion about our on-going trysts. She felt fine about it while I felt guilty.

Myra seems to be content with her three cats and noisy Amazon parrot named Buster. To Myra, a man underfoot is a burden not an asset. She and I had several intimate moments, most likely due to the emotional stress I suffered from Elise’s passing. We do things in times of grief that don’t follow the rules of life. That was a time when we both needed some warmth and love. Still, I felt guilty and unfaithful to Elise and still do.

Myra would spout, “It’s only sex, John. It’s not like she’s still alive.”

We agreed not to let it become an issue and remain close friends with a few interludes of intimacy. There was no doubt Nora Dunning has her opinions and suspicions about Myra and me. She had no proof, or anyone to verify any of this. The comings and goings of people are watched by many in this town, not much escaping the gossip-mongers in Freiburg.

Nora has lived in Freiburg all of her life. She is now 85 having outlived two husbands and her brother. She is a small woman, skinny and shriveled, wearing a perpetual frown, which fits well, considering her paranoia and negative approach to things in the world. Nora saw the glass mostly empty rather than half-full. There was a time when her craziness almost got her into trouble. She had become slightly notable around here the year President Kennedy was assassinated.

Nora Dunning, not a timid soul, continually wrote to Congress and every political representative she could think of. For the most part this was never a problem, as Nora’s letters were summarily ignored, a polite response by some clerk with a rubber stamp and the official’s name. It was the letter she had written to the FBI, which created a stir. Nora, right or wrong, sent a letter to the FBI suggesting knowledge of those responsible for planning and killing Kennedy.

The FBI looking for information check out all leads about the assassination, Nora’s, one of them. Within less than a week from posting the letter, Nora had three FBI agents at her door. Initially, she was put off by the questions feeling she needn’t answer without proper representation. FBI or not she demanded a search warrant or a letter from the President.

“I think I need to have my lawyer or something,” she complained. “I’m an American and know my rights. You can’t badger me, young man.”

“This is not a trial Mrs. Dunning,” said the FBI agent in a stern voice. “You are not a suspect, so there is no need for legal council. We would just like answers to our questions, nothing more. Do you understand?”

“Of course I understand,” she snapped. “I understand perfectly. Commies ask their citizens a lot of questions too, I might add. Maybe the FBI is becoming like the Soviet KGB. Obviously, you bunch of idiots haven’t read all my letters, which doesn’t say much for your investigations so far. I’ve sent you names and no one has bothered to do a thing.”

Her accusations were well documented in Washington DC. There had never been any basis for the FBI to dig deeper, her claims could not be substantiated. The agents looked at one another in disbelief. They excused themselves for a brief period to hash over the information Nora gave.

“Earl do you think this woman is a 51/50?” said the lead investigator. 51/50 is a code name for a crazy person.

“Most likely. I’m sure there isn’t a code for this kind of person,” returned Earl looking at his watch. “Maybe we can wrap this up quickly and can catch a plane back to Washington before noon. There has got to be better leads to follow than this one. We’re just spinning our wheels with this nutty old woman.”

“I agree, Earl. We’ll give her the standard ‘We’ll be in touch.’ routine. We better ‘red-flag’ this one for the future. No sense in wasting anymore Bureau’s time on an old coot. I doubt we’ve heard the last word from Mrs. Dunning.”

Nora was not thoroughly convinced the FBI was not in on the Kennedy Assassination Plot. She expected more of an in-depth interview, disappointed when they left a few minutes after arriving. They also refused to listen to her accusation about Sven Olson and completely ignored her theory about Salvation Army underwriting the plot with donated money.

“The uniforms even look like Soviet uniforms,” she complained. “It should be obvious to you eggheads. They’re probably not even Christians but atheists hiding behind the sham of charity. Did you ever consider that?”

An article in the Freiburg Daily Press told of Nora’s encounter with the FBI. Details were provided by Nora, who did not feel the FBI took the Kennedy assassination seriously. The Daily Press left out many of Nora’s accusations including the one regarding the Salvation Army. The entire article took up two paragraphs and was buried on the fifth page. The article only made it because it had been a slow news day, with no change in the weather forecast.

 

 

On my way to Bestway Supermarket I stopped at Olson’s Hardware and told Sven about my new boarder. Sven was second generation Scandinavian in this country holding onto some of the verbal affectations of his grandparents. We exchanged the usual pleasantries and spoke briefly about Nora Dunning’s latest diatribe. Sven was slightly more irritated since he was the one who had been targeted. Nora never made anything easy for anyone.

She had argued with Sven about replacing a simple faucet washer. Sven insisted a simple ten cents washer would fix her problem. She would not hear of it and demanded a new faucet to replace the one she had previously purchased. It had been on sale, which she returned three weeks later expecting a refund at original, full price. The argument ended with Sven giving her the sales price refund and she calling Better Business Bureau to complain. Luckily, everyone in town knew Sven to be an honest man and would never think of altering their business or personal relationship with him.

 

“Dat voman is making me crazy,” he growled, his face turning red at the mention of Nora’s name. “She vas standing in front of da store yelling ‘Communist’ for tventy minutes. Can you imagine dat? She is old voman and I cannot touch her. I call police and dey make her go avay.”

I could sympathize with Sven, glad not to be included in any of Nora’s hit lists. Sven was a big man with large strong hands, well suited for the hardware business, which required hard-working people, Sven fitting the part to a T. His Nordic influence showed in his speech, though he had never been anywhere near Europe. He was a generous man often giving to the local charities without comment or complaint. He believed that everyone should live a better life and never go hungry, practicing what he preached.

 

After leaving the hardware store I was greeted warmly by my former fellow workers at Bestway. Things were a bit turned upside down with remodeling, new floor tile being put down the old green tile chipped up and replaced with a light color. Corporate headquarters wanted their stores to look bright and cheery, surveys indicating lighter floors and special shelving provided an atmosphere conducive to buying. This was all ridiculous, of course; Bestway was the only supermarket in town. The small Mom and Pop stores could not compete on the same level, existing as a convenience when a trip to the large market was impossible. But corporate mentality cannot to be trifled with. After considerable sums of money are paid out researching such things, they justified the expense by insisting on changes. After all it was their money to waste.

Hank Cole had taken over my old job having been assistant manager for the past four years. Hank was an easy-going guy, attending to the problems in the store with a levelheaded approach. Months of training and his hard working personality came through when it was time to move up. That’s what was needed in a store like Bestway, especially in Freiburg. He had a comfortable relationship with all the other employees. If the workers are happy, then the customers will be happy. This had been discussed many times over the phone with corporate before I left.

Hank and I secretly laughed about the floor tile replacement. Neither of us expected the store to make a penny more.

“Instead of spending all that money on the stupid floor tile I wish they’d put in new dairy refrigeration,” said Hank following me as I shopped. “I had to toss about ten gallons of milk last week because it was beginning to turn. I don’t want people complaining about something as basic as milk. Seems like such a waste, though not enough to be noticed at corporate headquarters.”

“Yep, you get used to the main office not listening to you,” I sympathized. “They don’t fix anything until it breaks. Short sighted, if you ask me.”

The mood changed as Hank followed me around the store. Mind you, he was never idle, straightening goods on the shelves as we walked along. We both believed in doing things that needed to be done, not waiting for someone else to discover the problem, worst of all a customer. It didn’t make much sense to have another worker stop their project to do something that took Hank a couple minutes.

“Looks like you’re planning to have a party, John. That’s more food than usual. You’re kids coming home or something?”

“No party or kids, Hank. I’ve taken in a boarder. She’s some kid from the university. The girl acts like she’s wired with 220; talks a mile a minute. Dresses kind of weird too. She’s a little strange maybe but seems okay. That’s the way kids are today.”

I added, thinking of the other vacant rooms. “You know, I’d like to post a notice on the corkboard here, if it’s okay with you. I still have a couple rooms available. Might be good to have someone to keep the girl company. And you never know when someone in the store will need a place to live.”

I continued my shopping, planning for several days. There was no hurry to rent out the other room but it is better to have people I know, whenever possible. Except for a few of the new bag-boys, I knew everyone in the store. I had even dated one of the women in the store. She was a nice enough gal and we enjoyed a few dinners and movies together. It was never anything serious, very casual in fact. One could hardly perceive it as a romantic relationship, since I was her boss. Most of the women working at Bestway were married, earning extra dollars to meet the growing challenge of inflation. Life was simpler in the old days. A man worked and a woman was able to be at home with the children. The change in roles did not seem like a great move forward to me, considering it was hard enough to raise children with one parent at home.

I bought enough chicken for supper and a few leftovers. It was nice to have leftovers the next day, saved on having to make lunch. Even though my parents never suffered from the lack of money, they still insisted on not wasting food. It was a good lesson and I still practiced it.

By the time I was a half block away Jenny’s old Volvo was just pulling in front of the house. By the sound of the car, it needed some serious work. Though I’m not a mechanic, I can tell when a motor is not happy. Later I heard Jenny rustling about upstairs, footsteps, tromping about barefooted. For a tiny gal, she had a substantial footfall. Kids did crazy things like running around barefoot even in cold weather.

I bent my efforts toward preparing supper, a delightful chicken stew with mashed potatoes, spinach with small white onions. It wasn’t anything fancy but a balanced meal, something Edward told me about in his days of becoming a chef. With a small amount of effort I made some dumplings to steam on the top of the stew, a nice touch though I didn’t need to make dumplings. It will be a nice surprise for my new tenant, who didn’t appear to eat very much, given her skinny body.

I sat in my room next to the window reading an article in an old Field and Stream, Bass Fishing for the Beginner. I liked to compare what the author had to say when compared with the techniques I used. Pictures of a bass lake formed in my mind, while the chicken stew was bubbling away, the smells filling the kitchen and my room with inviting pleasure. Supper was going to be good.

 

Some day I’ll have to get away and do a little fishing, I thought to myself. All my fishing gear is stuck away in the garage gathering dust. I used to go all the time. I love the smell of the pines by the lake and the quiet. Even with the kids it was quieter than around here. Strange how noisy it can be living in town. I wonder why I stopped going? Of course, Elise dying and growing kids, a pretty good reason, I suppose.

 

I’ve had these thoughts for the past fifteen years, wishing for a miracle to happen that probably never would. The truth is I could have gone fishing anytime; but Elise’s illness and raising the kids were more important, not that I regretted the sacrifice. The kids were a labor of love, Elise the woman I loved and still do to some extent. I often wonder what it would have been like had she lived.

In the early years, Elise would smile when I heralded a fishing trip. She knew, of course, I would never bring back huge amounts of fish. I could safely say food was waiting for me, my dear Elise never relying on the ‘great fisherman’ for a main course. I never caught much but had fun being away from Bestway and the everyday routines. A man needs a break now and then; Myra said she read that in some women’s magazine. Now I’m not sure I could cast a line into the water without tangling in the bushes. My daughter, Annie could cast with the best of them, a natural. Edward was the indoor type, which didn’t matter to me. His relationship to fish involved seasoning and the proper way to cooking it.

 

The timer bell went off reminding me to boil up the potatoes and fix the spinach. Supper almost complete, I put plates and silverware on the table. It wasn’t anything fancy, just the everyday plates. I wasn’t about to start some fancy ritual for strangers in my house. They would eat off the same plates I did. Since there was only the two of us, I set the table in the kitchen rather than the dining room. There was no sense in dragging everything in and out of the dining room for two people.

The kitchen was cozy and family-like, warmer in the winter and a little cooler in the summer. Annie used to set the table and talk to me while I was making breakfast. Those were the years when I really got to know my daughter. We enjoyed simple fare and easy conversation with little conflict, honesty in all things never any fabrication of facts in our family.

Everything ready, I thought I’d remind my boarder it was six o’clock.

“Jenny!” I yelled from the bottom of the stairs. “Supper is ready. It’s six o’clock. Better come down while it’s hot.”

Jenny appeared at the landing looking down, her expression surprised. “You were serious about six sharp? I thought like, it was some kind of general time thing.”

“Nope!” I answered. “It’s all in the rules of the house I left in your room earlier. Six sharp or you heat it up yourself afterwards.”

“Geez! How up-tight!” she exclaimed to no one in particular.

I looked at the kitchen clock and noted it was ten after the hour. I figured, the first time I might cut her a little slack. I began serving myself expecting my boarder to arrive soon. I was about half way through my meal when she popped through the door. She wore the same blouse as she had in the morning and a pair of jeans with patches of colorful hearts and daisies. A brown leather vest with fringe was thrown loosely over her shoulders. Jenny stood with her mouth open at the edge of the table staring at the stew.

“Is that a dead animal in there?” she inquired, terror laced in her words and expression.

“Dead animal? Yep, chicken; better dead than red. Don’t you like chicken? It’s top quality. This is a fresh chicken from Bestway not one of those frozen kind. Mel, the butcher picked this one out for me.”

“You mean like it was alive just a little while ago?”

“It was this morning, Jenny. Mel buys them from the local poultry farm.”

Silence hung over the kitchen Jenny looking around for someone to acquiesce with her sensitivities towards animals.

“You expect me to eat a dead animal that was alive this morning?”

“It’s sure easier than trying to eat it while it’s alive,” I said tossing in a bit of humor. “I assure you this one is definitely dead and quite delicious.”

Jenny folded her arms, glaring at the pot of chicken stew, her eyes squinting through her pink rectangular glasses. “Mr. Millerton I don’t eat dead animals,” she announced with firm conviction. “Animals are my friends, living beings with souls. A chicken is a person too, Mr. Millerton. That chicken was probably Millie or Harriet, some sweet name. How can I eat a friend?”

“I doubt this chicken had a name, Jenny,” I replied. “They raise them for that purpose, you know. They kill them quite quickly. I doubt the animals suffer at all.”

“How do you know that for sure? I don’t believe in killing animals Mr. Millerton,” she protested refolding her defiant arms in front of her.

“Not to start an argument but that leather vest you’re wearing came from an animal, honey. We need to kill animals to survive. It’s been that way for hundreds, maybe thousands of years. I don’t believe anyone wants to kill anything. It’s really nothing personal.”

I felt a lecture of some sort was coming from a girl who was barely old enough to have an opinion on anything.

“That’s my point,” she said. “It should be something personal. I can’t kill anything when I can survive just as well on vegetables. I refuse to eat meat.”

This was a dilemma I was not prepared for; my efforts to accommodate my new boarder had fallen short on the very first evening. Right or wrong the girl had convictions about eating meat. I would have to adjust.

“I’m sorry but that’s all I have to offer tonight,” I returned scanning the food on the table. “Eat some mashed potatoes and spinach. I’m pretty sure there aren’t any dead animals in there. Tomorrow I’ll try to find things to cook that don’t have animals. I can’t promise anything. You never told me you had any special diet requirements.”

I had read about some young people advocating a vegetarian diet, a lot of hippies embracing a no-meat diet. I suspected little Jenny was trying to emulate that lifestyle given her attire and manner. It was a nice sentiment but in most cases hardly practical. I did not intend on giving up my regular diet for her, though I would make an effort to provide alternative edibles for Jenny. She heaped a mound of potatoes on her plate with gobs of butter in the center and placed a healthy portion of spinach at the edge of the plate. She sulked a bit but soon succumbed to hunger, wolfing down each bite. I wondered if this was the only thing I’ll have to adjust to?

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