Keeping the Fires Warm
Like a clap of unexpected thunder, the screen door of the post office thumped as Johnnie Moore yanked it open, causing hospital-green paint to fleck off the frame when it hit the wall. Without a pause or a greeting she demanded, “My railroad check here yet?”
Bea clenched her jaw, refusing to glance at her young co-worker, Ann, fearing the giggle that was sure to ensue. The split second of anger at Johnnie was replaced by bubbling hysteria, the same as every time Johnnie came buffaloing in. Afterwards, when they were alone, Bea and Ann would compare notes and laugh like drunks. “Yes, it’s here.” You crazy ole bat, I told you it was here when you called me an hour ago. But she didn’t say what she was thinking, just took the brown envelope, slid it on to the counter and waited for Johnnie to stroll on her merry way.
“I’m gonna cash it.”
Bea nodded. You told me that an hour ago, same as you tell me every time you get your check. But she didn’t say that either. Johnnie always cashed her check and never deposited a cent; Bea’s friend at the bank had shared that bit of juicy gossip. “You don’t wanna wait too late ’til the bank closes.”
On Johnnie’s face, plain, small-eyed, and slightly piggish-looking, a frown appeared. “I’d like to sell Mama’s house so’s I wouldn’t have to depend on this thing.” Only she said “thang.” Waving the envelope, she barely missed hitting Ann in her usual melodramatic fashion .
Ann was captivated, as usual, watching Johnnie’s coarse, grey moustache dance on the woman’s top lip. “Just the two bedrooms, isn’t it?” she asked absently. Little Eva sang about locomotion and that’s what the moustache was doing with Johnnie’s exaggerated speaking; it was doing a locomotion.
With a choking sound, Ann turned away to pretend to cough as Bea gave her a warning look. Oh please don’t start laughing cause we’ll never stop.
“Two bedrooms. Yep. It’s a fine place…Jim Walters style.”
Style? “Well. Maybe you can get a buyer.” Bea said.
Johnnie had one of her blank-stare moments, then nodded. “It’ll have to be moved cuz that’s our land.”
“How much do you think to get, Johnnie?”
“I reckon at least a hundred thousand.”
Bea blinked. A hundred thousand ? She would have to tell her friend, a realtor, that one; it would be worth an hour of giggles.
Johnnie slid a worn dollar bill across the counter, pulled from the pocket of her baggy jeans. “I need a stamp. I didn’t wash my hands this morning.”
Bea paused. “Oh?” With Johnnie, the train of her thought was generally derailed.
“Electricity is out. Been out since yesterday but Gene Mitchell is gonna come out and look at it.” Theatrically, she looked around, saw no one else in the building, and used a low voice, “You know about him, do ya?”
“About Gene?” Ann had been dating him fairly steady for going on a year.
Sour breath proceeding her, Johnnie leaned closer, “He was arrested last Tuesday.”
“He was. He went into the grocery and took a box of that sweet cereal right off the shelf, opened it, and started eating it while he walked out the door.”
Ann’s eyes went wide but then she and Bea saw that it was one of those times when Johnnie just checked out of the motel again and left a vacancy. When she was this way (Bea called it having a BAD SPELL) , she was likely to make up anything about anyone. With concern, Bea said maybe Johnnie should head home to make sure she was there when Gene arrived to check the electricity (which might or might not really be working now that they knew it was a BAD SPELL).
“Yep. I need to get going. And you know the gov’ner might be stopping in.”
“Governor Clinton?” Bea asked, knowing that Johnnie might mean someone from a movie or any governor from any state in history.
But Johnnie’s face was blank as paper, mouth gone slack. For a second, no one spoke or moved, then Johnnie’s features became animated once more. “He might. I have to go and thank you Bea and have a good day, Ann.” All without pause. Turning, she slammed back through the door, more paint flecked away, and she was gone.
Bea looked at Ann.
Ann looked at Bea. “Ummm. She shaves her moustache sometimes.”
“Yep. Sometimes she does.”
Like a spring uncoiling, Gene Mitchell (who didn’t steal cereal and had not been arrested on the past Tuesday or any other day), climbed out of his truck, hitching up his painted-on blue jeans while simultaneously spitting a stream of tobacco juice. Dust coated his boots as he went to the porch, noticing that Johnnie had let the place go.
“Look here, Gene Mitchell,” Johnnie began, “nothing is working.” She flipped switches, snapped a lamp off and on, motioned him to the kitchen to show him the refrigerator wasn’t working either. “It isn’t working.” she announced angrily.
“Well now, Miss Johnnie, seems you’re right. Can you show me the breaker box?”
He followed her to a built-on garage, not surprised when he opened it and found the circuits thrown. They flipped back off as soon as he switched them on.
“Ah. Well, something is shorting it out. Have you plugged anything new in? Right before it went off?”
“Yes. My electric blanket.”
“That might be it. Where is your bedroom?”
He followed her again to a plain room that displayed more dolls than he could count, an impressive soda-can pyramid, and several dozen afghans. Pulling back sheets and afghans, he didn’t see a blanket at all. “I don’t see your electric blanket. Is it in the other bedroom?”
Gene sighed. Ann had called him while he was driving out, to warn him that Johnnie wasn’t making a whole bunch of sense. Worrying about fire danger, he began to search, looking or frayed cords, over-loaded sockets, anything that might have thrown the breaker. Nothing. “I can’t find a thing, Miss Johnnie.”
“It’s Dale Evans doing this.”
“Huh? Roy Rodger’s wife…that cowgirl from about a hundred years ago?”
“No, Gene Mitchell, are you plumb stupid? My dog, Dale Evans.” Now she looked ready to slap him, “Use your brain. Yanno, I found her been fifteen years ago on the side of the road. Someone left her…you wouldn’t throw a puppy out would you, Gene Mitchell?”
“No Ma’am. I like dogs.” His head was beginning to throb. “I wouldn’t throw any poor animal out. But….you say she…Dale Evans, the dog, caused this?”
“Happy Trails…” Johnnie sang.
Frustration filled his mind. He walked back through the house, searching. Bathroom…nothing there….
There was a cord, same yellowed shade as the wall, snaking from the electrical socket, up though the window which was open just enough for it to fit. “This cord goes outside?”
“Yes…course it does since there aren’t sockets out doors, Gene Mitchell. God-grant-me-a-farm but you are thick headed today.”
Gene walked outside.
At the sink, Gene washed his hands with hot water and soap . The water and lights worked fine now. Johnnie sat at her table, watching him.
“Okay, Ma’am…all fixed.” He wanted a cold beer something fierce. He wanted a hug from Ann, but he wasn’t going to get a hug for this experience; this was something he wouldn’t tell. “Miss Johnnie…how long’s she been dead…your dog, Dale Evans, I mean.”
“Two weeks.” Her voice was sad. “I used Homer’s shovel to bury her myself before this cold snap came.”
“You did a fine job, Ma’am. But Miss Johnnie, tell me something…” Pause. “Why’d you go back and put that electric blanket in her grave?”
“To keep her warm, Gene Mitchell. To keep her warm.”