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Authors: Ellen Gardner

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BOOK: Veda: A Novel
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“You Mrs. Ames?” The man who answered my knock asked. When I nodded, he pointed at the stairs. “It’s up there. Your husband said to let you in.”

I followed him, holdin on to the handrail. He pushed the door open and the smell of urine and mildew almost knocked me over. There was one big room with cracked linoleum, water stains on the ceilin and walls, and two filthy windows. An iron cookstove and a washbasin stood in one corner. I wondered if Raymond had even looked at it.

“That there’s the kitchen,” he said, “and that bucket’s for fetchin water.” He turned to leave. “Them your younguns in the truck? I hope they’s quiet.”

I went down the stairs and got the kids, and Mr. Burris started bringin up my things. “Veda,” he said, lookin around, “you know you don’t have to do this. You can stay with us as long as you need to.”

I felt like cryin. I wanted nothin more than to git back in the truck and return to where we had a decent house and good people to look out for us. But I couldn’t. Raymond was my husband and he’d got us this place to live. I knew I had to stay.

It was supposed to be furnished, but there was only a metal bedstead with a dirty mattress, a table with two chairs, and a freestandin cupboard. For a closet there was just some brackets nailed to the wall with two shelf boards and a broomstick between em. I looked around for a place to put Bubby down. I didn’t want him on that filthy floor and I knew it would take Raymond the better part of a day to set up the crib. I spread my coat on the linoleum, put Bubby on it, and told Rosalie to make sure he stayed there.

“Good,” Raymond said when he showed up and saw us. “I brought some groceries.” He set the sack down and kissed the kids.

I’d seen a woodpile by the stairs when I come up, so I sent Raymond back outside to git some, then I built a fire in the stove and sent him to fetch water. When the water was hot, I started to clean and Raymond went to work settin up the crib. The room got warm and the smell of Purex covered up the other odors. Bubby fell asleep and Rosalie started to sing, “Wock a bye baby, in the twee top” to her doll.

I found a roll of shelf paper in one of the boxes I’d brung with me, white with tiny blue and pink flowers, so I got my scissors and started linin shelves. I finished one and bent down to pick up another sheet of paper, and when I stood up, I hit my head on the cupboard door.

“Goddammit!” The words hung in the air like smoke.

“Oh, no, no, Veda,” Raymond said, comin to stand over me. “You mustn’t take the Lord’s name in vain.”

“I’m sorry,” I said.

“You need to pray, Veda. Say, ‘Get thee behind me Satan.’”

“Git thee behind me Satan,” I mumbled.

“Say it again.”

“Git thee behind me Satan.”

I was mad enough to spit nails and I knew Raymond knew it. When I bumped my head a second time and “Goddammit” slipped out of my mouth again, he give me that sad, “my wife is goin to hell” look, but he didn’t say a word to me about prayin.

I despised that apartment. A dozen times a day I had to take the stairs to “fetch” water or bring up wood. Bubby was always gittin over close to the stove and there was only Rosalie to watch him. I was scared to death he’d git burnt.

We were only there a couple weeks before Raymond lost his job. I was furious. I knew he couldn’t help bein laid off, but if he hadn’t been in such a damn hurry to git us away from Mr. Burris, he could of made sure the job was goin to last.

Raymond left us there and went back to trampin from place to place, pickin up whatever odd job he could git. He’d be gone for five or ten days, then turn up out of the blue. Rosalie always warmed up to him right away, but poor little Bubby didn’t. He’d bury his head in my shoulder or hide behind my skirt, and it took longer ever’time for him to git used to his daddy.

Raymond couldn’t seem to keep any job. Sometimes it was ’cause he wouldn’t work on the Sabbath, and other times it was ’cause the job shut down. I managed to pay rent and buy some groceries with the little money he sent but, like ever one else, I had to use ration stamps. I didn’t mind doin my part for the war effort, but the stamps confused me. I had a awful time keepin track of how many points it took to buy a can of peas or a sack of flour, or how much sugar you was allowed. Me and the kids lived on Carnation milk, Cream of Wheat, and canned peaches, and I tried to keep enough food in the house so when Raymond showed up there would be somethin for him to eat.

Those ration stamps were about the only connection I had to the war. Raymond wasn’t in it, and since I didn’t have a radio, I didn’t know what was goin on. Mama wrote me about President Roosevelt’s fireside talks, but I never heard em. When I went to the store, I sometimes seen the newspaper headlines. Always spellin out JAPS in big ugly black letters. None of it seemed real to me. Once I bought a newspaper and read about the Japanese Americans bein put in camps. I thought it was awful, but the whole country was scared I guess.

Bea wrote that Rheba and Flossie had got married to the Loemen brothers, Howard and Ira, in a quick ceremony at the courthouse. Two weddins at once. The brothers had both joined the army and were bein sent overseas.

Livin in Canby would of been unbearable without my kids. Bubby with his husky laugh and Rosalie sayin all her cute and funny words. She liked to sing and I taught her ever song I could think of. “Down in the Meadee in a Iddy Biddy Poo,” “Itsy Bitsy Spider,” “I Love You a Bushel and a Peck.” We sang “Ring around the Rosie, pocket full a posies, ashes, ashes, all fall down,” and collapsed on the floor in giggles. And ever’time we made any kind of noise, that old devil downstairs pounded on the ceilin with what I imagined to be the handle of his pitchfork.

Sometimes the things Rosalie said left me not knowin whether to laugh or cry. Once when I went for water and come flyin back up the stairs, she was on her knees in front of her brother. She had her head bowed and her eyes closed.

“Git ahind me Satan, dammit,” she said, “git ahind me Satan, dammit.”

I had to go back out the door so she wouldn’t see me laugh. It got my attention, though, seein her repeat what she heard like that. I had this bad habit of mumblin to myself about Raymond, how he ought to be workin instead a prayin, how he wasn’t never around when I needed him. But seein what a copycat Rosalie was turnin into, I started tryin real hard to keep my thoughts to myself. I knew I’d be in big trouble if she repeated any of what I said in front of her daddy.

Our place didn’t have a yard and there wasn’t a park or nothin close by, so the only time we got out was when we went to the store. If it was rainin, I bundled Bubby into the buggy and dressed Rosalie in her coat and rubber boots. I loved watchin her run and jump and dance through the mud puddles. But at night I was scared. We were only a block from the railroad tracks, and I could see hobo camps in the bushes from my window. It give me the creeps, them bein so close and me and the kids alone most of the time. And I hated the trains. I felt like they was runnin my life. The 7:00 a.m. was my alarm clock, I put the kids down for naps after the 2:15, and the one that come screamin through at 3:00 in the mornin gave me nightmares.

.

16

August 17, 1942 (Mon.) [Max. 87°, Min. 50°.] Continued clear and hot, but more breezy and tolerable. We picked hops again today. Our little boy’s 2nd birthday. I bought him some cake and ice cream this evening. His poor little face is badly sunburned from the hot sun in the hop yards.

H
OP VINES HUNG LIKE
rugs on a clothesline. I hadn’t wanted to bring the kids along, but there wasn’t anybody to watch em. I put Bubby on a blanket in the only shade I could find and told Rosalie she had to keep an eye on him. Then I went and got a basket and started to pick, lookin back over my shoulder ever few minutes.

They’re funny little things, hops. The size of a man’s thumb and sticky. The best way to pick em is to grab ahold of the vine and pull down real fast so a bunch of em come off at a time. By noon my back ached and I had big white blisters on my hands. I looked over at the kids. They weren’t in the shade any more. Bubby’s hat was off and his little face was red as a beet. I turned around. Raymond was a couple rows behind me, pickin the hops off one at a time, singin, “Jesus loves me” (plop) “this I know” (plop), like a kid on a Sabbath School picnic. I finished fillin the basket I had and went to check on the kids. I’d already turned in four baskets and Raymond hadn’t even filled two. At this rate, we’d be lucky to make six dollars between us.

When we got home I was so pooped I could barely move, but I managed to fix supper. Poor little Bubby was so tired and sunburnt, he fell asleep eatin his birthday cake. I hated the thought of takin the kids back to that field again, but we signed on to pick, so we didn’t have a choice.

When the landlord upped the rent to thirty dollars, Raymond told him we wouldn’t be stayin. Said he had a hunch he could get work shakin prunes in Roseburg. I should git the kids ready and we’d go down on the Greyhound Bus.

I was so sick of livin in that apartment I was willin to go just about anyplace, and besides, Roseburg was closer to my folks. Raymond wanted to ask his brother Norman to drive up and git our things, but I didn’t want Norman usin his gas rations to do us a favor. Nothin we had was worth it. We put as much as we could in the baby buggy, filled the suitcases, and left the rest.

I had on my one good dress, Raymond was wearin his Sabbath suit, and the kids were clean and combed and pretty, and when I seen our reflection in a store window, it stopped me in my tracks. I’d forgot what a handsome family we were. I threw my shoulders back and felt good clear up to the minute I stepped off the bus in Roseburg and got hit in the face with the smell.

“What’s that stink?” I asked Raymond.

He said it was comin from the mill and I’d git used to it. I put my hand over my nose and looked around. Wigwam burners spewed smoke, and logs rotted in float ponds. I wondered if this was such a good idea after all.

We walked for a long ways before Raymond stopped in front of a old brick buildin with a sign that said GRAND HOTEL and put the suitcases down. There was a heavy door and two big windows that looked like they hadn’t been washed in years.

“Is this where we’re stayin?” I asked. “They’ve a lot a nerve callin it grand.”

“It’ll only be a few days.”

The place gave me the creeps, and so did the old man that hobbled over to take our bags. He bent down and grabbed our suitcases, and we followed him up a staircase that smelled like the town, only worse.

In the mornin Raymond got a newspaper and went to look for a place to rent. He come back all excited, sayin he found a nice apartment. “Only sixteen dollars, and the lady said we can have it for twelve if I split wood and keep the furnace stoked.”

I couldn’t believe it. Twelve dollars was what the dump in Grants Pass had cost. This place was clean and modern. Even had carpet. It was ever bit as nice as what Bea and them had, and I wished Mama could see it. For days, I walked around touchin the nubby, dark pink davenport, the polished wood tables, the drapes, almost afraid to breathe. I kept expectin the lady to see her mistake and tell us to leave.

And Raymond was right about Roseburg. I got used to the smoke and the smell, and he found work in the prune harvest. His new boss was Adventist, too, so he didn’t have to work on the Sabbath. I wrote to Mama and Bea tellin em about our place and about Raymond’s new job. It lasted for almost two whole months, until the telegram came sayin Raymond’s dad had suffered a stroke, so Raymond drew his pay and we headed back to Salem.

It was a sad time after Nathaniel died. Even with the others there to help out, Myrtle clung to Raymond. I felt bad for her, but I wanted us to git back to our own life. The lady in Roseburg said she’d hold the apartment for us, but she didn’t say for how long.

When we got back the prune harvest was over, so even though the apartment was waitin for us, the job wasn’t. I was tired of bein parked in one town while Raymond worked in another one. Besides, I was pregnant again and in no shape to be choppin wood and stokin furnaces. So Raymond sent us back to live with Mama in Grants Pass and he went off to Canyonville, where he heard there was work prunin trees. That didn’t last either. He showed up broke three weeks later and moved in with me at Mama’s.

Papa was fed up. “That boy’s just plain pitiful,” he said. “He’s got two kids and a third on the way, and it don’t look like he’s ever gonna show any gumption.”

With Papa’s proddin, Raymond went to the railroad office and got hired as a section hand. I didn’t know what a section hand was, but I didn’t care. It was a real job and it paid sixty-five cents an hour. I was thrilled. He would go off in the mornin like my sisters’ husbands, and come back at night. He’d have a regular paycheck, and we’d be able to stay in Grants Pass.

We got us a house. A big, drafty place that some folks from the church let us have cheap. It wasn’t as nice as the Roseburg place, but it was close to my folks on a good-size piece of land. It had a big yard for the kids to play in, and there was even a pear orchard that hadn’t been took care of for years. Raymond was excited about the trees. He knew all about prunin. Said we’d have us a good crop by summer.

.

17

March 21, 1943 (Sun.) [Max 64°, Min 37°.] Cloudy all day but mild and balmy with a southerly breeze. A beautiful spring day, with green grass, yellow daffodils, swelling green buds and pink blossoms on the Japanese flowering cherry trees. Our baby daughter, weighing 7½ lbs., was born at the Josephine County Hospital this morning.

R
UTH ANN ARRIVED ON
the first day of spring. A healthy baby with a full head of dark hair. Like Rosalie, she was bright and alert, not colicky, and except for all the extra laundry, no trouble at all. When I was feelin good enough, I started takin the kids outside to git fresh air and sunshine. I put Ruthie in the buggy and let the other two play in the yard while I hung laundry on the clothesline. The hills around us were green, the trees in our little orchard were blossomed out, and the air smelled wonderful. I loved spring.

BOOK: Veda: A Novel
6.79Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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