Authors: Fannie Flagg
The Newspaper Woman
he moment Cathy Calvert heard the loud siren of the ambulance as it sped past her downtown office, she knew she would have a story to write. Cathy, a tall thin woman in her early forties, with dark brown hair, was the owner-editor of the small weekly newspaper. She did most of the reporting herself, and from past experience, whenever an emergency vehicle was called to Elmwood Springs, it was either an accident or a serious mishap of some kind. She walked outside to see if it was a fire engine or an ambulance, but missed seeing it, and was surprised to hear the screaming siren cut off so close to town. Usually when an ambulance or a fire engine had been called, it was headed on out to the new four-lane traffic stop, where people were always crashing into each other, or else it was headed on out to the mall. Since Weight Watchers had moved next to the Pottery Barn, people trying to walk off those few pounds before they weighed in had sometimes overdone it and fallen out with heart attacks.
She went back into the office and grabbed her camera and her pad, and ran over to the spot where she thought the siren had stopped. As she came around First Avenue North, she saw that it was an ambulance, and it was parked right in front of Elner Shimfissle’s house. “Oh no,” she thought, “don’t tell me she’s fallen off the ladder again.” When Cathy reached the scene, Tot was standing on the sidewalk looking very distressed, and ran up to her. “She’s done it this time. She fell clean off the ladder and knocked herself out, and Norma is going to have a fit. Macky just called her to come over.”
Cathy suddenly forgot about writing her story and became just another concerned friend of Elner’s standing around feeling helpless. After a while, when so many neighbors had gathered and there was nothing she could do to help, she suddenly felt funny about being there with a camera. She didn’t want anyone to think she was there as a reporter, so she asked Tot to call her and keep her posted about Mrs. Shimfissle’s condition, and walked back up to the office. Although she was concerned, she was not overly concerned, because Elner Shimfissle was a pretty hearty old gal, who had fallen off things before and lived to tell the tale. Cathy knew firsthand Elner was a tough old bird in more ways than one.
Some years ago, after Cathy had graduated from college, she had taught a class in oral history at the community college, and Elner Shimfissle had attended with her friend Irene Goodnight. Both had been excellent students with interesting histories. Cathy had learned from that class that looks could be deceiving. For instance, at first glance, you never would have suspected that Irene Goodnight, a plain-looking, quiet grandmother of six, had at one time been known as “Goodnight Irene,” and with teammate “Tot the terrible, left-handed bowler from hell” had won the Missouri State Champion Lady Bowlers title three times in a row. And if a stranger were to meet Elner for the first time, they never would have guessed that underneath that old lady façade she was still as strong as an ox.
In exploring Elner’s history with her, Cathy had learned that during the Great Depression, when her husband, Will, had been bedridden with tuberculosis for over two years, Elner had risen at four every morning and with nothing but a mule and a plow had single-handedly kept their farm going. She had somehow managed to survive one of the worst floods in Missouri history, plus three tornadoes, had taken care of her husband, and had grown a crop large enough to feed them and half their neighbors. The most amazing thing about it to Cathy was that it had never occurred to Mrs. Shimfissle that it had been anything extraordinary. “Somebody had to do it,” she said.
Before she had taught oral history, Cathy had always wanted to be a writer, even dreamed of one day writing the great American novel, but after a few semesters she ditched the idea completely and went into journalism. Her new philosophy was “Why write fiction? Why read fiction?” Scratch any person over sixty, and you have a novel so much better, certainly more interesting than any fiction writer could ever make up. So why try?
Oh No, Not That Robe!
hen Norma finally got across town and pulled up to the house, the ambulance was already there. She had arrived just in time to see Aunt Elner, to her great dismay wearing that old brown plaid robe she had begged her to throw away years ago, being shut into the back of the ambulance. Norma jumped out of the car with her purse and all the papers and ran over, but before she could get to Aunt Elner, they had already closed the doors and were driving away. Then Norma and Macky both got into his car and started down the street, following behind the ambulance. As they drove the forty-five minutes to the Kansas City hospital, Macky, who was very concerned, didn’t say much, just an occasional “I’m sure she’s going to be fine, Norma, it’s just better that they take a good look at her and make sure nothing’s broken.”
But Norma wasn’t listening and did most of the talking all the way there. “I don’t know why they didn’t let me ride with her, I’m her closest family member, I should be with her, she’s probably scared to death, and why is she still wearing that ratty old brown robe? It has to be at least twenty years old, and it’s falling apart at the seams. I got her a brand-new one out at Target last week. When she shows up at the hospital in that thing, they are going to think we are just plain old white trash, I don’t know why she has to always act as if she didn’t have a dime in the world, I said, ‘Aunt Elner, Uncle Will left you plenty of money, there’s no reason in the world you should run around in the yard wearing that ratty old robe,’ but would she listen to me? No…and now this.”
Norma sighed. “I should have just taken it and burned it, that’s what I
have done. I just pray she hasn’t broken her hip or her leg. I knew she should have moved in with us, but no, she has to stay in that old house, and she won’t lock her doors. The other night I went over to leave her suppositories on the porch and her front door was standing wide open. I said, ‘Aunt Elner, don’t come running to me when you are murdered in your bed by some mass murderer.’”
Macky made a left turn. “Norma, how many mass murders have there been in Elmwood Springs?” Norma looked at him and said, “Well that’s no guarantee it won’t happen in the future…. You thought she would be all right back living in her house all alone. See…you don’t know everything, Macky.”
“Norma, try not to worry yourself into a fit, until we find out anything, OK?”
“I’ll try,” she said, but she couldn’t help but be mad at Macky, and the more she thought about it, the madder she became. The fact that Aunt Elner had fallen off the ladder in the first place was entirely his fault. He was the one who spoiled her and thought everything she did was
funny. Even when Aunt Elner had let her friend Luther Griggs park his huge, ugly eighteen-wheeler truck in her side yard for six months, Macky had taken her side, and if he hadn’t let her keep that ladder, had taken it away from her like she had asked him to do, Aunt Elner wouldn’t be lying up in the hospital right now.
Norma suddenly turned to her husband and said, “I’ll tell you one thing, Macky Warren, this is the last time I let you and Aunt Elner talk me out of anything, I
you she was too old to be living alone!”
Macky did not say anything. For all he knew, at this point, she might be right. He wished Aunt Elner had not gotten on that ladder by herself as well. He had just been at her house earlier that morning, having coffee with her before he went to work. She hadn’t mentioned anything about figs. All she’d wanted to know was, what good was a flea, and where was it on the food chain. Now he was in trouble with Norma and worried sick over Elner himself. He just hoped she had not broken anything major, or he would never hear the end of it.
Norma suddenly reached up and felt the top of her head. “My God,” she said, “I think I feel my hair turning completely white! I hope you’re happy, Macky. Now instead of just touching up a few spots, Tot will probably have to do a complete dye job on me.”
And if things weren’t bad enough, when they were within ten minutes of reaching the hospital Macky decided to take a shortcut, and of course the first thing that happened was they got caught at a railroad crossing and had to wait while a freight train passed by. With every fiber in her being Norma wanted to scream, “I told you to just follow the ambulance! Now look!” But she didn’t. It never did any good. He always said the same thing. “Norma, don’t start the blame game,” and his saying that always made her madder, so she quietly stewed and did her deep breathing as they sat and watched one railroad car after another rattle by.
“Why won’t people listen to me?” she wondered.
She had been right about her daughter, Linda. She had told Linda
to marry that boy she was dating. She had even been modern about it and had advised her to live with him for a while, but no, Linda wanted the big wedding and the honeymoon, and then what did she do? She ended up with a big divorce as well. “Why don’t they listen? It’s not as if I like being right all the time, being right is certainly not fun for me.” Being right, especially about your husband, can be painful; and sometimes you would give your left arm to be wrong. As she sat there waiting for the end of the train to pass, she thought about the events of the last few days. She had been feeling a little more anxious than usual, and now wondered if she had not been having some kind of premonition that something terrible was about to happen.
As she ran over it in her mind, she remembered she had started feeling a little anxious Wednesday morning, right after her regular ten-thirty hair appointment down at the beauty shop. “What could have set it off?” she wondered. She thought back to that morning…. She had been in the chair as usual, having her hair set, when Tot Whooten, the snow monkey look-alike, reached across to pick out a medium-size roller from her plastic tray, and dropped it on the floor.
“God dog it!” Tot said. “That’s the second time I’ve dropped something this morning. I tell you, Norma, my nerves are all ajingle. It seems like after 9/11 happened, everything has turned upside down. I was doing just fine, had gotten over my breakdown, came back to work ready to go, and then, wham, you wake up and find out that the Arabs just hate us to pieces, and why? I’ve never been mean to an Arab in my life, have you?”
“No…never met one, really,” said Norma.
“And, then you find out people all over the world hate us.”
“I know,” sighed Norma, handing Tot a bobby pin. “I’m completely baffled, I thought everybody liked us.”
“Me too, I just don’t get it. How could anybody hate us, when we’re so nice? Anytime there was a problem anywhere in the world, haven’t we always sent money and help?”
“For as long as I can remember we have.”
“Aren’t we supposed to be the most generous people in the world?” she said, sticking a pin into a roller.
“That’s what I’ve always heard,” said Norma.
“Now I read that even Canada hates us…Canada! And we just love them, everybody’s always wanting to go up there and visit. I never knew Canada hated us. Did you?”
“No, I didn’t,” said Norma. “I always thought Canada was our friendly neighbor to the north.”
Tot took a drag off her cigarette and put it back in the black plastic ashtray. “It’s one thing when somebody you know hates you, but when perfect strangers hate you, it just makes me want to put a rope around my neck and jump out a window, doesn’t it you?”
Norma thought about it and said, “I don’t think I want to kill myself over it, but it’s certainly very upsetting.”
Tot picked up a hairnet. “I say forget trying to help the whole damn world, because they sure don’t appreciate it.”
“They don’t seem to,” said Norma.
“Hell…look at France, after we went over and saved them from the Nazis, and now they say all those ugly things? Shoot, I’ll tell you, Norma, this whole thing has really hurt my feelings.”
Norma agreed. “It does almost make you not want to even try and help people, doesn’t it?”
“You got that right!” she said, stuffing cotton behind Norma’s ears. “All my hard-earned tax money going around the world, and do I even get a thank-you? I used to have faith in the world, but it’s turned out to be as bad as my own children, nothing but gimme, gimme, gimme all the time…and it’s never enough.”
Tot’s daughter, Darlene, who was as wide as her mother was thin, was working in the next booth and heard her last statement. “Well, thanks a lot, Mother!” she said over the partition. “See if I ever ask you for anything again!”
Tot rolled her eyes in Darlene’s direction, and said to Norma, “I can only hope.”
Although Norma did not like to think about it, Tot was right of course. After the terrorist attacks on 9/11 everything had changed. Even in a small town like Elmwood Springs, people had been so shocked, they had become a little crazy. Right after it happened Verbena was convinced that the Hing Doag family that ran the little market on the corner might be part of a terrorist sleeper cell. Norma told her, “They’re not Arabs, Verbena, they’re Vietnamese.” But Verbena had not been convinced. “Well, whatever,” she said, “I still don’t trust them.”
But mostly people were just sad about the shape of the world their children and grandchildren had to live in. And for those like Norma and Macky, born and raised in the forties and fifties, it was such a drastic change from that era when everyone felt safe, and your only knowledge of the Middle East was a picture on a Christmas card of a bright star shining down on a peaceful manger, not the place full of hate and rage they saw daily on the television and read about in the newspapers. All Norma knew was she couldn’t take it anymore. She didn’t want to, so three years ago she just stopped reading the newspapers and watching the news. Now she only watched the Home & Garden network and the
on PBS, and more or less just stuck her head in the sand, and hoped that somehow things would work out.
About forty minutes later, after Norma had been brought out from under the dryer, Tot continued the conversation.
“You know me, Norma, I always try to put on a happy face, but it’s getting harder and harder to keep up a good attitude. They say civilization as we know it is done for, doomed.”
“Who says that?” asked an alarmed Norma.
“Everybody!” she said, removing Norma’s hairnet. “Nostradamus, CNN, all the papers, according to them, we are on the brink of total annihilation at any second.”
“Oh Lord, Tot, why do you pay attention to all that stuff? They are just trying to scare you.”
“Well, Norma, Verbena said it was in the Bible that this is the end of times, and the way things are going, I think it’s just around the corner.”
“Oh, Tot. I’ve been hearing things like that all my life, and they’ve always been wrong.”
“So far,” said Tot, pulling a roller out of Norma’s hair. “But one of these days they are going to be right. Verbena says all the signs point to the apocalypse. All the earthquakes, hurricanes, floods, and fires we’ve been having lately, and now that turkey flu thing—there’s your pestilence right there.”
Norma felt herself starting to hyperventilate and, trying to use her “Replace a Negative Thought with a Positive One” exercise, said, “People can be wrong, you know, remember when rock and roll came out? Everybody said it couldn’t get worse, but it did, so there you go.”
“I don’t see how it could be any worse. But if the end of the world
come before I can collect my social security, then I’m really going to be mad, after I’ve been looking forward to retiring for years, shoot…Life isn’t fair, is it? Aren’t you worried about the end of the world?” she asked, picking up a brush.
“Of course,” said Norma. “I don’t want it to happen just when a little style is finally coming back. Go out to Restoration Hardware, or to the Pottery Barn, they have the cutest things now, and for great prices. I just try not to worry about it.”
“Yeah,” Tot said. “It doesn’t do any good. Verbena said she’s not worried one whit. Of course, she thinks she’s going to disappear, right before the end of the world comes and the rest of us all burn to a crisp. She said if she ever misses her hair appointment, it’s because she’s been taken up to heaven in the rapture. I said, ‘Well,
thanks a lot, Verbena,
if you were really a good Christian you would at least offer me a ride up to heaven, instead of leaving me here to fry.’”