Tim Eady’s father worked for Mrs. Burton during the winter months when the construction crews were laid off. Occasionally, Tim’s father landed inside work hanging cupboards or finishing baseboards. This year, all the new homes were completed on time inside and out. The first flakes of snow saw the departure of a handful of families for Florida or one of the Carolinas, seeking work to tide them over.
Tim’s father would have gone, but his mother said it made no sense to pull Tim and his two sisters out of school for three months. The girls had started third and fourth grade in the fall. Tim was in his junior year. Besides, his mother expounded, Tim could hunt again this year, and they’d be near family come Christmas. Not to mention Florida never had snow for Christmas, and what’s Christmas without snow? Tim’s father grew up with fireworks in Charleston for Christmas, but he just shrugged his acquiescence.
Mrs. Burton lived on the outskirts of town and drove a faded, red Ford pickup. She wore a plastic bonnet over her hair whenever she went out, rain or shine. Every day found her in heels and pearls with a lace hankie tucked beneath her watch band on the underside of her wrist. When Mr. Burton died, she went right on living at their farm instead of selling and moving in with her sister in town. From the porch of her home she fended off foreclosure and potential suitors with Mr. Burton’s double-barreled shotgun. She also grew shrub-sized, pink begonias in wash tubs on that porch.
Canning, gardening, and tending chickens kept Mrs. Burton involved, as she called it, and gave her purpose in life. She also baked and attended Bible study, joined missions’ teas and volunteered at the library, participated in the fair and collected clothes for the migrants who worked the lettuce farms every summer. Much to her shame, she could not sew, but a few frenzied days of her clicking knitting needles produced some of the finest afghans to ever grace the back of a couch.
There were no animals in her house save only a yellow canary in a cage in the living room. The bright little bird never sang until the day his mate died, and then he chirped his fool head off every waking moment of the day. Mrs. Burton thought this morbidly hilarious. She had one of her church friends make a double-layered cage cover of black fabric to place over the bird when she needed it to shut up. She wasn’t unkind to animals. She just believed they belonged outdoors. She fed hundreds of strays and wouldn’t kill a snake in her yard. In autumn, when the corn grown on her land leased by others had been harvested, she walked boldly among the cattle let out to graze the stubbled fields.
Tim’s father started with fence repair, and since there were miles of fence, he was guaranteed steady work. But his father wasn’t the one to prolong a job just to draw out a paycheck. Tim hunted the woods skirting Mrs. Burton’s fields and occasionally stopped to talk with his father when he worked the fence closest to the woods. A sharp crack in the distance always brought his father’s head up and a smile to Mrs. Burton’s face. Then she’d drive the truck back in the direction of the shot, stopping to pick up Tim’s father, and together they’d find Tim and the deer he’d killed. She waited in the truck while Tim and his father loaded the deer in the bed.
“Now Tim, you put plenty of them newspapers down under that doe when you hang her in the barn. At least an inch thick. Sprinkle saw dust on any blood that soaks through, you hear?”
“Rake it up and throw it all in the burning barrel with the paper and guts when you’re through, son.”
Then she’d drop his father back off wherever he’d been working and drive Tim to the barn where he’d dress the deer. There was a handy block and tackle setup with a crank handle for hauling the deer up toward the rafters. Tim supposed Mr. Burton had rigged it for getting heavy stuff up to the loft. Mrs. Burton brought him hot tea and sandwiches, the same delivered to this father, and when the job was done, she’d drive him to Fulmer’s to have his deer processed.
As a reward for feeding the family, Tim’s father allowed him time off from helping with chores to tan the hides of any deer he shot. Mrs. Burton graciously let him use her barn as a workspace. It took Tim a few tries, and a lot of trips to the library, but through his trials and errors he became skilled at producing supple, quality leather. That Christmas, everyone in his family and Mrs. Burton received moccasins. The following year, he sold his hides and earned such a reputation that hunters began bringing him their hides for tanning. Tim’s father let him keep the money he earned, so Tim made sure his father saw him spending it on jeans and shoes for school, fabric for his mother to make his sisters’ dresses, and books for the three of them. Reading was the only thing he had in common with the girls.
When the fences were done, Tim’s father worked in and around the barn. Tidying and repairing kept Mrs. Burton’s farm neat as a pin which always humored Tim because she was a bit of a pack rat. At least the newspapers in the empty stalls were stacked neatly as were the towers of plastic flower pots from the nursery. If she had one of something, chances were she owned at least a dozen of whatever it was. Radios, all in working order and dusty, lined the shelves next to the wood chipper. Scythes and shovels stood like troops at attention five deep against the walls of her garage. More canning jars than she could use in a lifetime even if she broke half of them waited patiently in the cellar next to coils of chain covering the floor and shoe boxes full of different sized knives. But Mrs. Burton wasn’t stingy. From her own personal stores she’d supply whatever need demanded filling.
“Ain’t you worried about rats around here, ma’am?”
“Aren’t, Tim—and no. The threat of death keeps them at bay.”
Tim assumed she meant the smell from his hides, and he worried that her comment had been a request to tan them elsewhere. He’d meant drawing rats all over the farm with the promise of hiding places and knew they were attracted by the smell of a fresh kill, not repelled. He let it go when she hinted at a pair of fur-lined slippers.
That year’s wood supply diminished quickly when the weather turned for the worse, and Tim’s father had to drag downed trees from the woods. They worked together bringing the logs in to the barn where his father sawed them into manageable pieces and split them. Tim stacked it on the back porch, sneaking a peek in the kitchen windows where he could see Mrs. Burton sitting at her kitchen table writing out recipe cards. On his third trip from the barn to the porch, he felt a twinge in his throat and a flush of heat on his cheeks. He straightened from piling wood and swiped the back of his glove across his forehead, moving shaggy, wet bangs from out of his eyes. As he did so, he made eye contact with Mrs. Burton who waved him in. She met him at the back door and led him by the arm to sit at the kitchen table.
“My boots, ma’am.”
“It’s just snow and sawdust. Nothing that won’t wipe up.”
Then she put her cool hand on his sweaty neck to draw him forward. He blinked like a toad in a hailstorm when she pressed her dry lips against his forehead and held them there for half a minute.
“Mm…hmmm… You’re fevered.”
Tim sniffed hard to no avail and employed his coat sleeve to stem the flow of what felt like hot water dripping from deep inside his head. The heavy canvas raked his nose but absorbed nothing. Mrs. Burton had turned to the stove to make chamomile tea, but even without seeing she knew to grab the box of tissues and place them on the table beside Tim.
A few minutes later as the kettle whistled, the indeterminate voice of Tim’s father rang out. His footfalls pounded the steps and back porch, preceding a woodpecker’s rap on the glass pane of the back door.
“Come in,” Mrs. Burton called.
“What’re you doing in here, boy? I been calling for you.”
“He’s got a fever.”
Mrs. Burton’s word was final, and Tim’s father finished cutting and stacking wood on his own.
“He don’t mean to be hard,” Tim said as he sipped his tea.
“He could take unemployment like other men do.”
“Naw, he couldn’t, ma’am. Pride won’t let him.”
“Mm…hmmm,” Mrs. Burton said into her own teacup. Then, “How are your studies going, Tim?”
“Good, ma’am. I got a B+ in Algebra and an A- in English.”
“How’s your Science and History?”
“I’m working a solid B in Science, but History is kind of boring.”
“And what grade does boring translate to, Tim?”
“A C-, ma’am.”
“Oh, Tim,” she said, placing her hand over his, “History is too important to forget.”
“It’s all just memorizing dates and the bad things people do to each other.”
She cooed like a dove behind her slim hand, and Tim understood her to be laughing at his assessment of History class.
“Yes, well, I suppose it’s the way History is presented that makes it interesting or not. Why don’t you slip off your coat and boots, bring your tea, and we’ll sit in the living room?”
Tim had never been in the inner sanctum of Mrs. Burton’s home. She never forbade him from entering; none of the jobs she had for him ever took him beyond the kitchen. She settled him on a love seat with a mound of embroidered pillows and a red and blue afghan. Tim’s size twelves stuck out, and he overlapped his feet to hide the hole in his sock exposing his big toe. A dull thud permeated the frosted windows; Tim’s father was splitting chunks of freshly sawn logs.
“Everyone remembers history differently, Tim.”
Mrs. Burton paused her rocking chair to trace her finger through a fine silt of dust on an end table. She frowned and rolled the gray film into a ball to be flicked away with her thumb.
“Did you know I used to keep this house spotless? Spotless without a single thing out of place.”
Tim couldn’t, and wouldn’t, contradict her for he had nothing to compare to except the twine tied bundles of magazines bordering the room and baskets of yarn on every available surface not taken up by a knickknack.
“Mr. Burton insisted on it. Said his mother kept a spotless house, and so would any woman fit to marry. Guess that means I wasn’t fit for marriage to Mr. Burton.”
“But you said you did keep it clean, ma’am… or do.”
“I tried at first, but my efforts always fell short. Mr. Burton could only remember how perfect his own mother was, and it’s that history that came between us.”
Tim shifted on the loveseat. He slurped tea and waited to receive whatever Mrs. Burton would say.
“Then there’s the history of excuses I made when I couldn’t be seen in public because the bruises Mr. Burton left showed up on my arms or face. Only so many times a woman can wear long sleeves in the summer or walk into an open cupboard door.”
Longing glances toward the barn couldn’t will Tim’s father to fetch him home. All he could do was watch the windows darken with twilight. The sky thickened with clouds promising snow that night.
“I always said the dusting wasn’t going anywhere, so what’s the rush? It’d be there when I returned from grocery shopping or running errands. But Mr. Burton wanted it done now o’clock.” She chuckled at the joke. “And the pendulum of his fist always swung on time. Sometimes in the middle of the night for no reason.”
Tim coughed until his chest rattled. He had no place to expel the viscous secretion, so he pretended to sip tea and deposited in the cup.
“So I dusted, and I cleaned, and my fingers and knees went raw from my attempts to please Mr. Burton, and people called me eccentric. Said I was too particular about my house and that it was too clean for a body to feel truly welcome. That’s the history people in this town remember.”
“Ma’am, it’s getting on dark, and my father will just about be done, I’m sure.”
“There’s a light in the barn, Tim.”
She licked her lips and said, “Do you think I’m eccentric, Tim?”
“I thought I might as well live up to their opinions of me.”
“Oh, you know. Those gossipy, ole biddies at church. I started by saving newspapers because they’re so harmless and absorbent. That’s how I justified it to Mr. Burton, by making newspaper seem useful in more ways than one. He didn’t care as long as the house was dusted. Then I save wooden thread spools, bread wrappers, and twist ties because they were easy.”
Tim thought of the coffee cans of said items stacked on the kitchen counters.
“Did you know there’s a bedroom closet upstairs chock full of peanut butter, pickle, and mayonnaise jars?”
“No, ma’am. I did not.” He chewed the inside of his cheek. “I suppose them rocks lining the flower beds were part of it, too?”
A nightingale laugh trilled from her lips, and the passion of memory glowed in her eyes.
“Exactly, Tim. I’d forgotten the rocks. And see how easy it is to mix up the real stuff with the useless? You’re such a smart boy to remember.”
Her praise solidified them in unwanted knowledge. Tim sat forward and placed his teacup on the coffee table.
“You’ll remember my history when I’m gone, won’t you, Tim?”
“Where’re you going, ma’am?”
“I don’t care if you correct them in their erroneous beliefs; I just need one person to know the truth.”
“What truth is that, ma’am?”
“I hated dusting. Can you do that, Tim? Can you remember my history the way it really happened?”
A soft silence fell between them, ruptured by Tim’s father poking his head in the back door and calling out.
“Hey, boy—I’m warming the truck, so get your stuff and c’mon.”
“Yes, sir,” Tim called back.
He and Mrs. Burton stood at the same time. She carried both cups into the kitchen and set them in the sink. With her back to Tim she said, “The only paper I never saved was the one with Mr. Burton’s obituary in it.”
Tim jammed his arm into a coat sleeve and asked why not.
“I didn’t have to. Everyone remembered for me, told me about it all the time. They never found his body, you know. They dragged the lake come spring where they thought he’d gone in, but they never found it. That lake is so big and too deep. Three in one, really.”
“What was he doing on the lake, ma’am?”
“Trying to save some little kid who’d fallen in.”
“I thought he was ice fishing. Did the kid die, too, ma’am?”
“Huh? Oh, no… I guess I was wrong. I saw a red and blue knit cap on the ice as we were driving by and figured it belonged to some kid out there skating who should of known better with the thaw making places thin. I drove back to town as fast as I could and went straight to the fire department, but it was too late. I couldn’t remember where he’d gone in. Mr. Burton was lost.”
A headache and stuffy ears made it hard for Tim to think. Finally, he asked, “Where were you coming from that day, ma’am?”
“I don’t understand? What do you mean, Tim?”
“When you and Mr. Burton were driving by the lake, where were you coming from?”
“Does it matter?”
“I don’t suppose, but you remember everything else so well, ma’am.”
“Very good, Tim. We must keep our histories truthful.” She took a deep breath. “From the hardware in Austinville.”
“Why over there, ma’am, when we got a perfectly good hardware in town?”
“Because the road back took us past the lake, Tim.”
“What did you buy in Austinville, ma’am?”
“Matches, Tim. I had a lot of stuff in the burning barrel that needed burning that night.”
Three honks from the driveway told Tim to hurry up. He zipped his coat and shoved his feet into his boots without tying them.
“You take tomorrow off, okay Tim?”
“Yes, ma’am. My mom’ll make sure I don’t escape the house for school or work once she finds out I’m sick. I’ll be laid up with Vicks all over my chest and a hot water bottle tucked in my side. She still gives me baby aspirin, but at least I get ginger ale and popsicles.”
Mrs. Burton smiled at Tim’s mother’s doctoring skills.
“Well, it sounds reasonable to me.”
“I’ll see you when I see you, ma’am.”
Mrs. Burton watched Tim and his father out of sight. In the morning she’d take a bag of horehound over and see how Tim was faring.