From the Relief Society Magazine, January 1941 –
“Genuine American Oriental – Greatly Reduced”
By Norma Wrathall
Lying on her bed in the cool semi-darkness of drawn window shades, a handkerchief over her eyes, Helen Curtis was able to think back over the events of that day; but not without, even now, faintly shuddering. It had been the most harrowing day of her marriage of eighteen months, although it had started innocently enough. Drawing her shawl up until only a tangle of blonde hair could be seen on the pillow, she tried to sink more deeply into oblivion, even to shutting out the sound of Harry’s mumbling as he attempted to rebuild the fire in the kitchen range.
Helen had wakened that morning with the throbbing headache that had come to be the usual thing lately. She lay there for a few moments wondering why Harry was so determined to get up at daylight, and trying to shake off the feeling of oppression that seemed to fasten her to the bed. Her husband had left the kitchen door slightly open, and she could hear him grumbling as he poked in the stove. Presently she realized what was the matter: she had put the peelings from half a dozen oranges into the cold stove the night before. After a few minutes, she heard him bang the stove lids triumphantly and depart for his chores, so she dressed and began to prepare breakfast.
A number of irritating little things had contrived to give the day a bad start. First, there was the trouble with the stove. And she had forgotten to buy a new can of Harry’s favorite breakfast drink (which she privately thought had the flavor of burnt toast soaked in hot water), so she made hot chocolate instead. He sat tasting it grimly. Then, when he cracked the egg, it came from its shell in a solid lump instead of the soft jelly which he preferred.
“H’mm,” muttered Harry, “can’t you remember to take an egg out on time, Helen, when all you have to do is to lift it from the water? There’s something about a hard-boiled egg …”
“Boil you another?” queried Helen.
“No time, no time. Late now,” he answered hastily. His jaws worked vigorously as he ate. “Got to help Tom Billings today. He’s coming to help me a day next week. And you know what Billings is – up before daylight and out to see if the neighbors are about.” He sliced off a piece of bread and buttered it thickly, running his tongue around under his lips as he did so.
“Yes, I know,”laughed Helen, glancing at the clock. “It’s 6:30 now, and by the time you get over there, he’ll say it’s the middle of the forenoon.”
“Sure. And now listen, Helen, I’ll be back early enough for all the chores, but you might just slip out and turn some water into that trough in the sheep corral. Go out a little before noon. I’ve got a few rams in there. A fellow wants to buy one or two, and I don’t want to keep all of them to feed anyway.” He gulped down the rest of his cocoa, making a face. “But don’t go near that pen where I put Nimrod – he might jump out.” Harry’s weather-tanned face stared earnestly into hers. A light crease had formed between his eyebrows, for he was one who took his work seriously. Helen nodded agreement as he went out.
Wearily, she finished her orange juice, feeling a little peevish that Harry had not noticed that she was not eating breakfast. Then she began to clear away the dishes. A pot of Persian violets stood on the round flower-shelf above the sink window, where the rising steam would keep the flowers and foliage fresh, and their faint fragrance wafted down to her as she worked.
Her kitchen work finished, Helen progressed to the living-room. Somehow, after they had furnished the rest of the house, they hadn’t much money left for the living-room. So Harry had brought his desk and a few odd chairs from his mother’s home; Helen had found the leather-covered rocker which her mother had put in the attic when her father bought the new living-room suite. And, because they couldn’t afford a good rug, they had painted the floor. Harry had said he would buy a rug in the spring. But spring had come, and fall, and now it was spring again, and still there wasn’t a rug. Helen sat down drearily in the leather rocker and viewed the room.
The months had taken their toll of brightness from the paint, and one of the small rugs was beginning to fray at the edges. Dusty footprints showed up plainly on the worn floor. Helen was warm from hurrying with her work. As she thrust her damp fair hair back from her forehead, suddenly she felt too tired to clean the floor. She leaned back in the old chair and closed her eyes, thinking of Mrs. Mainwaring’s rug.
That rug would be perfect on this floor. Mrs. Mainwaring was moving to Chicago and had to sell a number of her things. Among them was the rug, a genuine American Oriental. Helen could hear the soft, aristocratic voice assuring her that, although she had paid more than twice that amount for it, she would sell it for fifty dollars. “A buy, my dear. Simply a buy.” Helen reflected drearily that it might as well be twice the amount as far as she was concerned. Her mood deepened as she considered that soon there would be more expenses. She visioned the living-room floor growing more and more shabby as spring and fall and spring again followed each other in swift succession. Her lips drooped at the thought of it.
It was some time later that she left the house to do the chores Harry had directed.
Helen had lived all her life in the country but was really not accustomed to farm problems, for her father had always worked at the mill ten miles out of town. His only concession to country life had been a garden which he tended after working hours. Try as she would, Helen could feel no real interest in the farm, and she was secretly afraid of the animals on the place. When she walked about with Harry, listening to his enthusiastic explanations, the livestock seemed docile enough. But when she went alone to do some small chore, the animals viewed her with surprise and with faintly disturbing suspicion. And if the cows ever found a weak spot in the fence it was when Harry was away, never when he was at home. Too, there was the time when Old Matt, the plow mare, had tangled her front feet in the wire fence, so that Helen, afraid to go near the agonized creature, had run to a neighbor for help. Only, in her excitement, she had forgotten to close the gates, and some stray animals got in, trampling the hay in her absence. It was with some trepidation, on this warm spring forenoon, that she approached the barnyard.
Everything looked peaceful enough. The rams were resting at the far end of a small pasture opening from the corral. Helen finished her work of turning cool water into the trough. Then, as she turned to leave, she heard a plaintive “baa.” glancing toward the pen where Harry kept his prize ram, she saw that Nimrod had overturned his trough. “Poor thing. You’re thirsty,” she murmured. Cautiously, she went nearer to the pen. Nimrod viewed her placidly, breathing with regular, little gasps as he chewed his cud, his eyes peering out from under the thick wool. Helen looked about, found a bucket hanging on a peg and filled it with water. But she would never dare go into the pen; so, armed with a long stick, she mounted the gate, leaned over, and tried to right the trough. There! At last she had accomplished it. She straightened up. Click! In some way, she had loosened the catch.
Impelled by her weight, the gate suddenly swung open. And Nimrod, with a sprightliness unlooked for in his erstwhile docility, leaped through the opening with a wild “baa!” and cavorted to the other end of the pasture to join his comrades.
Taken aback, Helen stared for a moment at the departing Nimrod, then decided not to risk trying to get him back into the pen. A few hours of freedom would not hurt him. She started toward the house.
A row of old apple trees divided the lower part of the lot from the dooryard, partially cutting off the view of the corral. As Helen paused a moment to break off a blossoming branch, she saw a man standing near the back porch. Helen recognized him as a livestock buyer, but not one with whom Harry did business.
“Good day, lady. Is the mister at home?”
Helen replied that he was not.
“Heindmann is my name. Any livestock to sell? Any sheep, rams, lambs, or pigs? No beef today.” The last part of his remark was a statement.
“Well, I don’t think so. He said something about selling some sheep, but I really don’t know – you’d better wait until some other time.”
“Mm – sheep, is it? I got a order for one ram. Give you a good price, lady.” His eyes traveled carefully over Helen’s face.
Suddenly, a wild idea leaped into her head. Well, why not? Surely she could make a decision once in a while without consulting Harry.
“How – how much do you pay for rams?”
“Oh, I have to see him first.” A shrug rippled the engulfing folds of his brown suit. “I treat you fair.”
“‘Well, there’s a bunch of rams down in that pasture by the corral. You go down and look at them. I’ll wait here – it’s so hot.”
She sat wearily on the step as he hurried toward the barnyard. Presently he returned, a satisfied expression on his sharp little face. “I pick out fine ram. Pay you fifty dollars. Spot cash.”
Helen remembered dimly having heard Harry and Tom Billings talk about how you had to haggle to get a fair price from these buyers. But she didn’t believe in haggling. besides, it was such a coincidence. Fifty dollars – just the amount she needed for the rug.
“Well …” she hesitated. “I guess it will be all right. Do you want me to help you catch him?”
His teeth flashed. “Oh, no. I run him in easy. I just back my truck up by the gate, and pull down a chute.” He counted the bills into her hand, licking his thumb as he peeled them off, his fingers lingering over each one as if he hated to part with it. “I drive around front, so you see when I get him loaded.”
Helen went into the house, the money a soft wad in her hand. Her throat was hot and dry, and her head spinning with excitement. She felt a little guilty; but now that she had gone this far, she didn’t intend to turn back. And when Harry saw the rug, and how nice it was, he wouldn’t care. Or, at least, she hoped he wouldn’t. She would have to hurry to get the rug down before Harry got home. Luckily he was to have his noon meal at the Billings’. That would leave the rest of her day free.
For once, the old car started without any trouble. Just as she was ready to drive out, she thought of Heindmann. Then she saw him on the street in front of the house. He honked and waved, then spurted off down the road in a cloud of dust. As speedily as she dared, Helen drove the two miles to Mrs. Mainwaring’s home.
She did not know until later that while she feverishly pursued the purchase of her rug and drove home with it, Heindmann drove as fast in the opposite direction. He had a few more errands before he could leave town, and he was in a hurry to leave.
Eventually, his business led him to the farm next to Tom Billings’ field, where two men were repairing a bridge near the gate. To Heindmann, the plaintive “baa” from the ram in the truck sounded no different from that of any other sheep. But the two men who heard it, looked at each other, then toward the truck. Then simultaneously they scrambled over the fence.
Mrs. Mainwaring’s son, Jack, had come to help Helen with the rug. Together they tugged and pulled it into the room. “I’ll move all this furniture aside, or into the kitchen, Jack, while you spread the papers over the floor. Put the blinds clear up so you can see well.”
The newspapers slipped and slid about on the floor, and Jack had to stop frequently to read something from one of them. But at last they had the rug in place, and stood back to view the result.
Helen pursed her lips; her left hand lay speculatively along her cheek. “It’s lovely, isn’t it? Just pull it a little more to this corner. There!” She sighed with satisfaction, pressing her foot over the thick nap.
“Well, uh – I guess I’d better be getting on home,” said Jack, dusting off his “cords,” after he had helped Helen move the furniture back into the room. “Might be able to pick up a ride.” He ambled out.
Helen felt exhausted. With a sigh, she thrust her hands through her hair and clasped them back of her head, slumping down into the leather chair. She closed her dark-circled eyes. Now that it was over, reaction began to set in. Fear beset her. Here she had sold something of Harry’s and had spent the money without consulting him. True, he had said that he intended selling some of the rams, and fifty dollars seemed to her a fair price for one of them. But what would Harry think? Well, she would have to stop worrying and start to cook dinner – the meal she had been unable to make Harry stop referring to as “supper.” She pulled herself from the chair and adjusted the window shades so that just the right amount of late afternoon sun fell across the rug, revealing its jewel-like colors. Then she hurried to the kitchen to prepare the vegetables.
A few minutes later, attired in a fresh pink house dress, her hands and face washed and her bright blonde hair again combed into soft waves, she began to peel potatoes. Her fingers slipped in nervous haste, and the old sick headache was beginning again. She remembered that she had not eaten any lunch. But there was one orange left lying by the sack in which she had carefully placed the morning peelings. Hastily, she gulped down the orange, adding its peeling to those in the sack. Then she heard a familiar step on the graveled walk. In sudden confusion, she stuffed the sack into the stove, dried her hands, and ran into the living-room. She felt that it would be easier to tell Harry about the rug if he could be looking at it in all its glory. A warm flush rose to her cheeks, but her hands were clammy, as she turned to face him. Then her left hand flew to her cheek.
Harry strode to the middle of the room and stood with his legs slightly apart, glancing for a moment, first at her and then at the rug.
“Helen!” he barked at last. “Did you – did you sell Nimrod to that – that scumdullion – just to buy this rug?” A muscle in his cheek jerked spasmodically.
She swallowed. “No, Harry. Not – not Nimrod. One of the others. Nimrod got out of his pen.”
“God out? Yeah. You let that – that scamp take him out.” He groaned. “Prize-winning stock! Pedigreed! Listen, I’ve weighed his food – weighed it, mind you. So many pounds of this or that. Fed him on schedule. Why, he’ll be worth hundreds! Thousands, even!” Harry ran one hand back and forth over his sparse, sandy hair, so that it stood up in a frenzied fringe. “How could you do such a dumb thing? Don’t you take an interest in anything I do?”
Helen sank weakly into a chair. A sudden cold feeling hit the pit of her stomach. “Harry – I didn’t. I sold another ram. Harry, you said you were intending to sell one this morning.” she licked dry lips. “Harry, is – is Nimrod gone?” Automatically her foot moved back and forth across the thick pile of the rug, which she suddenly hated.
“Stop saying ‘Harry’ so much! No, he isn’t gone, but he would be if Billings and I hadn’t seen him in that truck. Lucky that old rapscallion parked right by Billings’ field.”
Helen opened her mouth to say something, but he interrupted. “We made short work of that shyster, though.” His voice lowered in a note of pride. “None of his lies for us. Why, I’d have – I’d have wrung his neck if he’d said another word.”
The whole horrible truth had dawned upon Helen. She leaned forward, her voice coming weakly from trembling lips. “Did you … Harry, you mean you – got Nimrod back?”
“Yes, I did! And twenty-five dollars more, too. Oh, I gave him another ram. Shouldn’t’ve, though. Should’ve thrashed him out of town.”
Helen noticed dully that straw and dirt from the barnyard were falling unheeded on the rug as he ranged about the room. Then he began shouting again.
“But what if I’d lost him? Whatever struck you to do such a thing as to let that Heindmann go down there and … Oh, I can’t understand you!”
Helen sat looking up at him as he waved his arms and shouted, his hair standing up all over his head, and suddenly her nerves snapped.
“No, I guess you can’t understand me, Harry Curtis. Why, you think more of that – that sheep than you do of me!” She saw him wince at the word “sheep.” Tears came into her eyes and rolled unheeded down her pale cheeks. “Why, you pamper that thing worse than a baby. You think, more of it than – ” she gulped – “than you will of your own baby when it comes.” She buried her head in her arms and sobbed convulsively.
Harry’s jaw relaxed. He swallowed twice before words came. “Say, Helen, you don’t mean … aw, honey.” He knelt beside her and began patting her hair awkwardly, as she continued,
“Just because I want to have things look nice. I work so hard to fix things up, and then you come and yell at me like a lunatic!” Her sobs broke out anew.
“Honest, I’m sorry I said all that. Why, it wasn’t your fault. That – that rapscallion, to take advantage of a woman! And the rug’s real nice. I intended to get one anyway.”
“Oh, Harry, I just felt so miserable trying to clean that old bare floor. And Mrs. Mainwaring had told me about her rug, and then he came, and I …” Helen spoke through her handkerchief as she dried her eyes and nose.
“Never mind, honey.” He stemmed the flow of words with a kiss. then he pressed a small wad into her hand. She knew that the bills had come from the same purse which had parted with fifty dollars earlier in the day. They had the same limp feeling of having been squeezed too much. “You take this twenty-five as a starter to get what you need for the baby. Gosh! It’s wonderful! Why didn’t you tell me sooner? Been working too hard.” His voice deepened with tenderness.
She rose. “I’ll have to see about supper,” she began.
“No, you don’t. I’ll get supper. You lie down and rest. I’ll put the spuds on, then go out and chore, and fix the rest when I come back in. Don’t you worry. Your old man’s a good cook.”
“Oh, Harry, you’re so good. I’ll never do another thing without asking you,” said Helen tremulously, as she went toward the bedroom.
If Harry believed her, he didn’t say so. Instead, he covered her gently with a shawl, for the evening air had grown chilly. As Helen lay there, her hands pressed her handkerchief over her aching eyes, she murmured wearily, ‘Oh, well, any day can end!”
Out in the kitchen, Harry was attempting to rebuild the fire. He swore softly, for the grate was filled with damp orange rinds. “Seems like women just can’t learn,” he muttered to himself.