Monday, January 23, 2017

The Preacher and His Wife by Mitchell Toews

In Hartplatz, rural Canada, a neighbourhood scandal brews when young Sarah reports that her grandmother's engagement ring has gone missing; by Mitchell Toews.

On Barkman Avenue, right behind where the dance hall had been and where the bakery was now, stood a one and a half story stucco house. It was a small place. The rear entrance was at the top of a short porch made of whitewashed, rough-sawn two by four lumber. From the porch, one could - in comfort - hang or retrieve laundry from a complicated clothesline pulley system that extended out from the wall. It was not the usual style of clothesline, but one made with a series of bespoke wooden reels that wound the cable through a cluster of sheaves of varying diameters.

Painted to resemble metal, the sheaves consisted of two pieces of router-edged plywood; conjoined like back-to-back pie plates. The luminescent paint used gave the profusion of pulleys the look of a metallic garden of sunflowers. When the woman who lived there managed her wash, she could be seen pushing or pulling wet sheets and many large bakers' aprons with apparent ease. The wash line was a frequent recipient of heavy loads and the complicated design was for more than just appearances - it offered a clever mechanical advantage.

The woman's husband would stand behind her on the porch, his long arms akimbo and his blocky, knuckled hands on the back of his hips so that his small belly protruded. He watched for signs of abrasion or mis-threading of the cable and pulley myriad. These people were my paternal grandparents.

Regardless of its unimposing size and humble design, the house was - to my cousins and me, at least - a place of distinction displaying a proprietary singularity that made us proud.



All family congresses were held in the tiny house and we sat packed as tight as two-yolks in a shell. Chair legs intersected like a village of miniature wigwams, and above that, our arms and forearms were in constant contact; sometimes linked. Our Zehen freundshaft heads - complete with high, overhanging brows - bobbed as one as we laughed or bowed in prayer or swiveled to see the facial expressions of the storyteller of the moment. The incoming newlywed uncles and aunts who found themselves part of this household became used to the close quarters. They soon grew adept at stepping over overlapping legs and socked feet as they picked a path through from the kitchen to the living room, doling out fresh coffee and buns with jam while a dozen conversations hummed and budgies squawked in their cages.

One of Grandma's most entertaining habits was her practice of re-naming household items. She was skilled at finding an appropriate nickname for pieces of furniture or a broom or a certain shelf used to hold preserves. The names sometimes offered a hint as to the duty or appearance of the named article and just as often delivered wry social commentary in the bargain. She had so many names and they were so arcane in their provenance that a favourite part of any gathering was to hear the back-stories of the various inanimate Jakob Wiebes and Owlah Redekopps. For example; "Jakob Wiebe" was a cast iron frying pan that always seemed to smoke profusely - like its namesake, a skinny, seedy fellow with no money for a proper winter coat but who always had cash for a fresh pack of store-bought cigarettes; one smouldering continuously between thin, blueish lips.

"Owlah Redekopp", or "old Redekopp" was named for the former owner of a fancy walking boot. Grandpa, who had once operated a shoe shop when he was not too busy arguing about religion, had separated the expensive sole from its leather uppers and cut it into a wedge shape appropriate for a doorstop. This leather implement kept the inner porch door open in summer and was an integral part of the predictably complicated ventilation system that Grandpa had devised. The door was held open by the diminutive "Owlah Redekopp", so placed to clear the way for "air conditioning" - a miniature windmill outside ran a blacksmith's bellows hooked to the back of the house and vented into the kitchen. On windy summer days the bellows would frequently shoot bursts of air through the venturi of the porch causing dishtowels to fly up in the kitchen and pictures to rattle from their hanging places on the walls.

Grandma liked in particular the idea of Owlah Redekopp - who was Hartplatz's richest and most ostentatious man - figuratively holding the kitchen door open in silent subservience. She liked to add with twinkling eyes that he was the source of a lot of hot air, but she still believed he had a good sole.



My little sister Sarah, who it sometimes seemed had been animated from a Norman Rockwell painting, was a particular fan of the various aliases at Grandma's. Sarah would be sure to walk through the house - which stood next to ours, only 17 running steps from door to door - and do a rote daily catalogue of the various stoic objects. Sarah was short, red-haired and freckle-faced. Energy spilled from her like a too-full jam-buster. She was just as sweet, but also blunt with no filter between the thoughts that occurred in her rapid-thinking and gymnastically nimble mind and her constantly moving lips.

One fall day, when winter parkas were in order, Sarah ran into our house to announce that, "Grandma can't find her engagement ring and she is pretty sure that the Preacher's wife has it."

"What?" my mother said, stopping in mid-paw as she dug through a box of warm clothes to outfit us for winter. Grandma's ring was her lone extravagant luxury and unlike other items of some beauty in her possession - furniture and rugs for example - this ring had no redeeming practical use. It symbolized love and fidelity and was purely a thing of pleasure. Grandma loved her ring, which had set a much younger Grandpa back almost a whole season of timber cutting in the Redekopp forests south of town.

"That's impossible," Mother said, with no opportunity for rebuttal, standing up straight with her hands on her aproned hips. "Grandma wears her ring all day, except to sleep, bath, wash her hands and wash the dishes." When not worn, the ring was always in a tray next to her sink in the bathroom or in the little red cup ("Rudolph") next to the kitchen sink or in her nightstand drawer ("Tina Wiebe") beside her bed.

(The real Tina Wiebe had been Grandpa's first and only other girlfriend before Grandma came on the scene. Grandma took sinister delight in popping her engagement ring in "Tina's" mouth-like drawer each night before bed.)

"And besides," Mother continued, gesticulating with a woolen metz, "there's just no way in the world that Mrs. Feeblecorn would TAKE Grandma's engagement ring."



"It's preposterous!" Aunt Lydia declared, as she twisted around to inspect the seam of her nylon stocking.

"Oh bah, jo! I know!" Mother said, her face a frown. "But you know the Feeblecorns better than anyone. I haven't heard how things have been for them, but I do know that Pastor Feeblecorn lost money on that investment idea, over in Winkler."

Aunt Lyd ("Aunty Didly" to Sarah, who had trouble pronouncing 'Lydia') was troubled. She picked an eyelash out of the corner of her eye with a long fingernail and pursed her lips as she considered the situation. "Mary Rempel is my oldest friend. We were in choir together, we took piano lessons together, we both graduated from high school the same year and she would have come to Teacher's College with me if she had not married Leonard Feeblecorn!"

My mom clucked her tongue as Sarah and I sat dangling our legs at the kitchen table. She stood up to get more tea for Aunty.

"What will Mom do? She loved that ring. I am sure she is heartbroken. And to think that Mary Feeblecorn somehow took it? It makes no sense," my mother concluded, replacing the cozy on the teapot.



Later that dismaying week, my sister Sarah and Grandma went together to pick up a few groceries at Vogel's store. No one had summoned up the nerve to speak to Grandma about the predicament, but my aunties and uncles had been talking among themselves. Somehow, the Feeblecorn clan got wind of the accusations and were unhappy.

As Grandma and Sarah walked into the store to the tinkling announcement of the bell, a winter hat-topped row of faces turned as one countenance to greet them. At the head of the line of women sitting on straight-backed wooden chairs was Aganetha Feeblecorn, who was the mother of Pastor Feeblecorn.

"Mrs. Zehen," Mrs. Feeblecorn, said with stiff formality, glancing at her dour sisters. "Found your way here, I see," she added, cold as a Danzig frost.

Grandma acknowledged her, a bit confused, and shepherded Sarah past the row of dark Melton coats and leather boots.

"Why is she such a GROUCH?" Sarah chimed out in her tinkling voice. "She looks real MAD," she said, scowling at Mrs. Feeblecorn, who peered archly down through her eyeglasses at the russet-topped dervish.

The line of women left together and when Grandma paid Mr. Vogel, she took the time to ask him about Aganetha Feeblecorn's strange attitude. As Sarah drew stick figures in the condensation on the store window, Mr. Vogel stood with his arms folded across his chest and told Grandma what he had heard.

Grandma nodded her head and murmured, "Nah jo," repeatedly as he recounted the story. With Sarah becoming restless, Grandma finished her interview with the tall Russian man and took Sarah by the hand to hurry home.



That evening, we had an impromptu, plenary family dinner at Grandma and Grandpa's. It was not a holiday, nor a birthday nor an anniversary - so this was strange.

After the meal and with the dishes put away, Grandma stood up and tapped a spoon against a teacup. The conversation stopped and the family held their collective breath, unsure of what to expect.

"A while ago, when I was making borscht, I thought I lost my engagement ring," she said, after taking a long, courage-giving breath. Hearing the subject, everyone stopped moving and the room became quiet, except for Grandpa, whose eyes were merry and whose long, bony hand covered a grin, I noticed.

"Well, I searched all over the kitchen for it and for some reason, when I was cutting the onions I had taken it off and instead of putting it in "Rudolph", where I normally would, I put my ring on this little shelf here." She motioned to a small corner shelf that held a porcelain angel figurine.

"I found the ring a few minutes later, but before I did," she walked behind Sarah's chair just then and put her hands on my sister's shoulders. "Before I found it, I was kind of upset and I suppose I was talking to myself. I was wondering out loud where I had put my ring and I might have said something that misled Sarah."

My mom's eyebrows shot up, as did Aunty Didly's. Everyone listened intently, except Grandpa whose shoulders shook, his eyes shut tight as he tried to keep from laughing aloud.

"Anyway," Grandma continued, starting to smile before recovering and shooting a fiery look of disapproval at Grandpa. "You all know how I have pet names for some of the old things I have around here. And, you also know that Sarah is an expert about a lot of those nicknames..."

She stopped her explanation to move next to the stove where two large copper-bottomed pots hung on the wall, one slightly larger than its partner. "I have not told you my names for these two - because the story about how they got their names is, well, it is a bit embarrassing for dear Pastor Siemens and his wife Anna," she explained.

"That's the Pastor that married you and Grandpa, jo?" my mom asked.

"Yes, that's right, Justina. You see, one time, on a terrible hot day many years ago, Grandpa and I went swimming at Redekopp's gravel pits. It was not long after we had been married. We went out in the afternoon, on a weekday and there was nobody there. Or, at least, that's what we thought."

At that point, Grandpa could contain himself no more and he blew like a teakettle's whistle, laying his head on the table as he shook with laughter. We all began to smile, but still did not know the joke.

"Well, Pastor and Mrs. Siemens were there swimming too," Grandma said. Then she drummed her fingers on the countertop a few times and continued, "and I guess, with it being so lonely there that day and so hot and maybe they had forgotten their bathing suits or something..."

"They had suits - their birthday suits!" Grandpa shouted out, holding his head, as several others burst out laughing.

After a roistering laugh that shook the house to its foundation and Grandma protesting loudly that this had to remain a secret and not to tell anyone, Sarah called out above the tumult in her high voice, "But Grandma! What about your ring? What did you say that fooled me?"

"Oh, jo!" she said quickly, plucking the ring out of an apron pocket and holding it up for all to see. Like I said, I found it all right, but I was so mad at myself, I put it away in the Tina Wiebe drawer for a while. I just took it out tonight."

"When Sarah was here and I was looking everywhere for the ring, she heard me say, Maybe the preacher's wife has it. You see, I call this big pot "the preacher" and this other one, "the preacher's wife", but I don't say those nicknames except to Grandpa."

"Grandma, why do you call those copper pots the preacher and his wife?" precocious Sarah asked the question we were all thinking. As Grandma began to answer, Grandpa jumped up and with tears rolling down his cheeks, cried out:

"BECAUSE THEY BOTH HAVE BIG, ROUND, RED BOTTOMS!"

9 comments:

  1. Replies
    1. Thank you! It's all imagined, but the characters are all kind of like they were. Grandpa had multiple patented inventions, etc. I have a new story - a departure from this one in many ways - published today on commuterlit.com. "The Rothmans Job" Cheers!

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  2. Charming - I loved it. My grandmother, too, had unique and colorful names for things. I enjoyed this story. Thank you.

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    1. Thank you! My bigger-than-life grandparents find their way into many of my stories. They occasionally trip on their capes... which I am sure would be to Grandma's liking.

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  3. A good story - interesting use of longish sentences that work well. Thanks,
    Ceinwen

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  4. Great Story - like a Rockwell, the way it captures a charming moment in a loving family. I admire the lack of pretension.

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    1. Scott! Thanks for the pretension comment! So much of my scribbling is from a zeitgeist long gone and arcane in the first place. I'm sure I would be more pretentious, if only I knew what to pretend to be!

      Thx also to Charlie Fish for accepting some of my work here! (He has rejected a few too, so I know he's no pushover.) I enjoy this forum!

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  5. Thanks, CH. Yes, I was messing around with form a bit on this one. It happens when you are lost in the woods like I often am. :-) I like a choppier style too - used it in "Nothing to Lose" (posted here on FotW earlier this year) and other stories.

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  6. This brought a smile to my face, for sure! Endearing characters, sweet story, and nicely told. Never got beyond naming my car and cat, but will give the naming thing a try.

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