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Keeping the House: A Novelby Ellen Baker
HOME OF MRS. CECILIA FRYT
412 W. FIRST STREET, PINE RAPIDS, WISCONSIN
Tuesday, June 13, 1950
Dolly, her brand-new sewing basket hanging from her elbow, set out for Cecilia Fryt’s bearing a fresh plate of Lacy Raisin Wafers, clutching a note in her fist that read “412 W. 1st.” It was a perfect June day, and Dolly, having breezed through her ironing and the rest of her chores this morning, would have preferred to stay at home sunbathing in her backyard with a good book, but she hadn’t dared turn down the invitation she’d received Sunday at church. Having grown up in a small town, she knew in her bones the Herculean efforts that newcomers had to make to get accepted into the best circles, and she wouldn’t have her yet-unborn children suffer because she hadn’t had the sense to help out the Pine Rapids Ladies Aid.
Dolly didn’t know Pine Rapids very well yet, though she knew that the Bear Trap River carved a rock-stippled, elongated S through it, with a babbling rapids punctuating its eastern bend. (Everyone who was anyone, she had been told, lived south of the Bear Trap, but not too far south.) And to find the address on the note, she knew enough to walk straight up Jefferson Avenue to First Street, where the busy downtown hugged the south side of the river’s S.
She turned left onto First Street at Holman’s Market, hurrying along the sidewalk that ran between the storefronts and an unbroken row of Fords, Chevrolets, and Buicks that were nosed up to it. She nearly bumped into a man who was transfixed in front of the lawn mowers in the window of Wasserman’s Hardware, and he turned as though angry, but once he saw her he just raised his eyebrows and smirked, tipping his hat back on his head. She blushed and walked faster, watching that she didn’t collide with anyone else, though it was hard to avoid some of the women who were so intent on their shopping.
It was only three blocks before she left downtown behind, and she was grateful for the shade of the tall maples that lined the sidewalks. Scanning the house numbers, she wondered if Mrs. Fryt could possibly live in the house that Dolly had fallen in love with the day that she and Byron had driven into town in their Chrysler, pulling the trailer loaded with their belongings. She could see the house up ahead, sitting high atop the hill above the river like an aging queen on her throne, three stories of disintegrating dove-gray clapboard and melancholy stained glass, trimmed in an aged white, with a stately front porch and third-floor windows on the side and in front that poked up like pointed caps.
Of course, Byron had just snorted that day when she’d pointed it out to him. “Falling apart, looks like,” he’d scoffed. “Someday we’ll have a brand-new house, Doll. Modern. Nothing old-fashioned like that for my girl.” But for Dolly, it had been love at first sight, though the corner of the porch was caving in and the roof was pockmarked with missing shingles. She had gazed longingly back as the house grew smaller in the Chrysler’s rear window, until it slipped from view.
A block before the grand house, the north side of First Street became all brambles and birches, as the road curved to hug close up against the Bear Trap, and a hill began to rise to its south, so that all the houses were up a set of stairs from the sidewalk, first four steps, then six, then eight, then ten, as the hill got progressively higher. The number 412 hung from the railing of the last set of steps, which led to a tepid green house with a pinched look about it. To reach the dove-gray house from here, Dolly would only have to cross the avenue and run up the hill. She climbed Mrs. Fryt’s steps wistfully, watching the beautiful house all the way up and even as she stood on Mrs. Fryt’s porch, waiting for an answer to the doorbell.
Mrs. Fryt’s door opened reluctantly, as though it was unenthusiastic about visitors, and Mrs. Fryt greeted Dolly with a grunt of assessment. She was taller than Dolly, and stout, with iron-gray hair swept up in a bun, and a face like an old potato. She looked Dolly up and down with caterpillar eyes behind her glasses, eyes that were the same color green as her house. Dolly thought the house had taken the years better than Mrs. Fryt, who must have been nearly eighty.
“Well, come in,” the lady said, without a smile. Dolly obeyed and, once inside, had the immediate sensation of being flattened. Profusions of flowers danced across wallpaper as far as the eye could see, while more than two dozen spider plants dangled from the ceiling, as well as from several coat trees stationed at intervals throughout the room. Chairs, lamps, a radio, and even the upright piano, all festooned with lace doilies, appeared hard-pressed to hold their heads up in the fray; lace curtains hung bravely at the windows. On the lace-covered coffee table was an issue of The Saturday Evening Post and a blue glass vase filled with yellow tulips. The air smelled slightly of mothballs.
“My, what a lovely home you have,” Dolly said.
“Dorothy, is it?” Mrs. Fryt said, her potato chin flapping.
“Dolly,” Dolly said. Oh, this was going to be a disaster. She began to worry that she hadn’t dressed correctly for the occasion: Mrs. Fryt probably didn’t approve of the red ballerina slippers she had just purchased at Birnbaum’s, or her glossy red fingernail polish. And her dress – white, flaring, sleeveless, trimmed in red – was probably too risqué for the Ladies Aid. Well, she was here now, and might as well make the best of it.
She smiled. “I brought some cookies for you, Mrs. Fryt.”
“Why, look there! It’s our newest member!” Emerging from the parlor was Corinne Olson, who had been the one to issue Dolly the invitation. Taking Dolly’s shoulders in her large hands, Corinne looked down at Dolly with a wide smile that narrowed her blue eyes to tiny slits. Her hair, done up in a twist, was so fine and blond that whatever silver there might have been blended right in; a wisp of it had escaped, and skimmed the side of her powdered full-moon face. She wore a blue dress with a delicate white floral pattern, and the girdle underneath was obviously too tight for her full figure. The essence of Corinne – the delicate scent of her powder, especially – reminded Dolly of her grandma, and Dolly swallowed back a lump that rose inexplicably in her throat.
In a blur, the wafers were whisked away, and then Dolly was in the parlor, where the floral and lace theme was perpetuated, only the spider plants being fewer. A brightly patterned quilt on its frame stretched almost the width of the room, and two ladies were seated working on it, facing the parlor door. They stopped their conversation and looked up at Dolly with matching Lutheran smiles.
At Dolly’s side, Corinne Olson brushed her hands together. “Thelma, Jeannette – meet Dolly Magnuson, if you haven’t met her before. She and her husband are new in town – just about a month now, isn’t it, Dolly? She’s moved here from Minnesota and doesn’t know a soul, and so, when I met her at church on Sunday, I said for her to come on over and we’d put her right to work!”
As the ladies greeted her, Dolly felt much too vivid, her hair too black, her lipstick too red. Most of all, she felt much too young – the other ladies all looked old enough to be her mother, if not her grandmother. But, as Corinne Olson sat down facing the window, knees under the quilt, Dolly sat to her right, holding her sewing basket in her lap. With a glance through the fringe of lace curtains, Dolly noticed that the window provided a perfect side view of the grand dove-gray house across the street.
One of the women across the quilt stuck her needle into the quilt top and reached to shake Dolly’s hand. “I’m Thelma Holt,” she said, smiling warmly despite the weariness that showed in her night-blue eyes. She had stylish salt-and-pepper hair, and her elegant sapphire blue dress looked store-window perfect. Her hand was thin but strong; a double strand of real pearls encircled her wrist, and she wore a matching pearl necklace. She had the look of a woman whose husband was somehow important in town – Dolly wondered who Mr. Holt was.
The mousy woman to Thelma’s right smiled a little in Dolly’s direction. “Jeannette Wasserman,” she said quietly, though her eyes, behind a pair of thick glasses, stayed on her work. Her nose twitched once like a rabbit’s.
Mrs. Fryt was making her way around the quilt to sit next to Thelma. “Now, Dolly,” she said, as she squeezed her prodigious rear end behind the quilt frame and lowered herself into a chair, “mind you aren’t like some of the others and only come when it strikes you as convenient. This is important work we’re doing here, making this quilt to raffle off at the fall bazaar. I’m sure Corinne told you, the fall raffle is our biggest fund-raiser of the year. And this year, we’re trying to raise enough money to buy a new organ for the church. We Lutherans may be in the minority in this town, but we do what we can.”
“This quilt pattern is called Wild Goose Chase,” Corinne said, laughing. “Not that we think our goal is unreachable!”
“I’m sure Dolly will do just fine,” Thelma said. “Do you have a smaller needle, Dolly?”
Dolly looked at the needle she held between her fingers, which was a good two inches long. It was the only size she had ever used for all the sewing she had done in her life, which admittedly wasn’t much. She greatly preferred shopping at department stores to constructing her own clothes, and she had always pawned off on her mother whatever hemming and mending couldn’t be altogether avoided. “Smaller?”
“Mercy me,” Mrs. Fryt said. “I suppose you’ve never quilted in your life.”
“Corinne said you all would teach me,” Dolly said.
Thelma tsked at Mrs. Fryt. “Of course we will, Dolly,” she said, digging into her own basket beneath her chair. She came up with a tiny needle and held it up to Dolly, who nearly had to squint to see it winking in the sunlight. “Here, use one of mine. The smaller the needle, the smaller your stitches will be. And that’s what we want, small stitches.” Thelma smiled encouragingly, and Dolly reached out to pinch the needle from her hand. It was no thicker than a piece of thread.
“Now, take some of my thread, too, Dolly,” Thelma said, rolling a spool across the quilt. “And you’ll need a thimble.”
Dolly retrieved her thimble and her tiny scissors from her basket and snipped a long piece of thread from the spool. Now there was the problem of getting the thread through the tiny eye of the needle.
“What does your husband do, Dolly?” Thelma asked, Dolly imagined to distract everyone from her struggle with the needle.
“He’s part owner at the new Chrysler dealership,” Dolly said, poking the thread.
“Oh, yes!” said Thelma. “Roy Ostrem’s new place.”
“What this town needs with another car dealership, I’ll never know,” Mrs. Fryt grumbled. “We already had one.”
“My husband was in the war with Roy Ostrem,” Dolly explained. “That’s why we came here.” Finally, she got the needle threaded.
“Good, Dolly,” Thelma said. “Now put your thimble on the middle finger of your right hand. You’ll want to tie a single knot at the end of the thread, then you’ll put your left hand under the quilt and use your thimble to operate the needle. You see the three layers of fabric: this beautiful top that some of the ladies pieced together, then the cotton batting in the middle, and then the backing. To start, you just put your needle through the top but not through the bottom, all right? And then pull it right back out the top. Your knot should get stuck there in the middle, in the batting. That way, we just have nice stitching showing on both the front and the back of the quilt when we’re done. Why don’t you show her, Corinne?”
Corinne, still trailing the aroma of powder, reached over and quickly accomplished what Thelma had explained. So quickly, in fact, that Dolly still didn’t exactly understand. But she took the needle from Corinne with a grateful smile, anyway.
“Good!” Thelma said. “Now, to stitch, use your thimble to push your needle from the top all the way through the three layers, until you feel a prick on your finger below. But don’t pull your thread out the bottom. Just use the thimble to angle the needle right back up through the top, and you’ll do this as many times as you can at once.”
“And try not to bleed on the quilt,” Mrs. Fryt put in.
Thelma laughed at the look on Dolly’s face. “You’ll feel a little prick on your finger, that’s all. You’ll build calluses, after a while.”
“Watch me, Dolly,” Corinne said, and Dolly observed as with a few deft flicks of Corinne’s wrist her needle sliced through the quilt’s three layers, and four teeny stitches appeared. Then Corinne grasped the needle between thumb and forefinger and pulled the thread all the way through.
“There,” Corinne said. “We’re quilting ‘by the piece,’ you know, so that means all you have to do is go around the edges of each individual piece. Try to stay in about a quarter inch.”
Dolly blanched. There had to be about a thousand triangles in the quilt – scraps left over from the ladies’ sewing projects of the last three decades, Dolly assumed – arranged in an eye-popping pattern of lights and darks that formed diagonal lines around solid muslin squares. And she was expected to sew around each triangle?
But the women, evidently of the opinion that Dolly was now prepared for a career in quilting, had already gone back to their own stitching. Dolly inwardly sighed, and decided she might just as well try.
“Dolly’s husband’s just as cute as can be, by the way,” Corinne said. “I met him at church. He reminds me of the Mickelson boys, you know? Blond-headed, handsome, like they were?”
“Mercy me,” Mrs. Fryt said, stitching. “Do we need another thing in this town to remind us of the Mickelson boys?”
“Who’re the Mickelson boys?” Dolly asked, wrestling with her needle. She had pushed it down through the three layers of the quilt, but she couldn’t get it to angle back up again properly. Not even once, let alone five times.
“They were neighbors of mine,” said Mrs. Fryt, jerking her head toward the window behind her.
Dolly looked out at the house she loved – the front and back porches, the bay windows upstairs and down. The missing shingles. “I saw that house and wondered who lived there,” she said. “It looks almost deserted. But – I think it’s the grandest house!”
“Oh, you bet!” Mrs. Fryt said. “The only house in town with its own hill to stand upon.”
“They were nice Lutherans,” said Thelma flatly. She had put down her needle and was touching the pearls at her neck. Dolly wondered what it would be like to go through life being so elegant.
“Oh, Thelma!” Corinne said, laughing. “You with your rose-colored glasses.”
“Well, they did go to our church for many years,” Thelma said, picking up her needle again. “And they did do a lot for this town.”
“It’s been four years since any of that family has so much as set foot in this town,” Mrs. Fryt said. “Or that house. Ed Wojtas was keeping it heated in the winter and mowing the lawn and whatnot. They kept the electricity and the water on, and every day he’d go in there, regular as clockwork, and flush the toilet upstairs and run a little water through the pipes so they wouldn’t freeze. But now, of course, he passed away in April, and I haven’t seen a light on in there since. They’ve got one of the Peterson boys mowing the lawn now. I see him early every Monday morning, out there clickety-clicking along, always in such a hurry. Heaven only knows what shape the inside of that house is in by now. I keep watching to see if someone will come back for it.”
As though it were a lost glove, a misplaced handbag, Dolly thought. At the same time, a part of her thrilled that it was indeed vacant. “Well, I’d like to live there,” she said. “Is it for sale?”
“Mercy me,” exclaimed Mrs. Fryt. “New in town and already with designs on the Mickelson house.”
Jeannette’s rabbit nose twitched. “No one from Pine Rapids would want to live there.”
Mrs. Fryt said, “Well, you don’t live across the street from a family for going-on sixty years without coming to feel they’re yours for better and worse, Jeannette. At least, I don’t.”
“Mostly worse, with the Mickelsons, I would think,” Corinne said cheerfully.
“Oh, Corinne,” Thelma said.
Mrs. Fryt went on. “I wouldn’t have minded, when I was a young bride and Amos brought me to live in this house. I wouldn’t have minded one bit if the Mickelson house had fallen right to the ground. It seemed so pretentious to me, and every day when I looked out my window there was this reminder that we were not quite. That bay window like a little sister putting her tongue out at me: ‘Look what you can’t have. Look at who you aren’t.’”
“Well, really, Cecilia, who else in Pine Rapids but the Mickelsons would have had marble brought from Italy for their fireplaces?” Corinne said.
“But now I’d as soon put a needle in my own eye as watch it crumbling this way, you know? So slow and painful. Despite Ed Wojtas’s efforts, bless his soul. There’s just no substitute for life in a house. I suppose I’m mellowing in my old age.”
Ha! Dolly thought.
Mrs. Fryt shook her head. “A wrecking ball would be the thing, if it’s got to go.”
Dolly drew in her breath: just the thought of it! But Thelma and Corinne were nodding in agreement.
Mrs. Fryt pushed her glasses up on her nose and tackled her stitching again. “Well, it isn’t any of our business,” she said, undulating her needle through the quilt. “That’s what they told us, isn’t it? If not in so many words.”
Dolly was just ready to ask more when Corinne broke in. “Now, let’s not go airing all Pine Rapids’ dirty laundry when Dolly’s brand-new in town! She won’t want to stay!”
Dolly knitted her brow, but decided to keep quiet. It was her first meeting, after all; it wouldn’t do to ruffle feathers, and it seemed that this Mickelson family was a sore subject with the ladies. So she sat quietly and continued to struggle with the tiny needle, as conversation turned toward the best spots to pick wild raspberries, the current sale on at Wasserman’s Hardware – Dolly gathered that Jeannette’s husband owned the place – and the ladies’ chagrin that their new young pastor was unmarried. Dolly began to imagine a discussion at the synod level of the problem of sending any poor pastor’s wife to Pine Rapids to try to wrest control of the Ladies Aid from Mrs. Fryt, who, in Dolly’s mind, was surely notorious. There was no chance to turn the subject back to the Mickelson house, even when the group took a coffee break. Everyone raved about her Lacy Raisin Wafers, though, until she blushed with pleasure. It was a recipe from her new Good Housekeeping cookbook, so she felt it a special victory that they were received so well.
From the Hardcover edition.Copyright © 2007 by Ellen Baker
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