The closet door stood wide open and an empty cardboard box sat at my feet. My eyes brimmed with the threat of tears at the sight of my husband’s shirts, all lined up, waiting to be worn. I really didn’t know how I could have any sadness left inside of me. I wasn’t the type of woman normally prone to crying, but I’d shed my fair share of tears since Hank’s death the previous October. Once I cleared the closet of his clothes and donated them to the Ladies Aid, the last of his personal possessions would be gone.
I knew, though, that Hank’s presence in objects like the Western Auto .22 rifle would never leave the house. The reliable single-shot firearm, a Revelation Model 100 bought by his father in 1935 for $13.95, had sat behind the kitchen door since the day we’d married, and I was certain the rifle would remain there until the day I died. Seed catalogs piled up on our dinner table, addressed to him, as if he still held the hope of spring in his heart and the promise of a new crop in his gaze. Medical bills and the unpaid combine payment sat on top of the catalogs, waiting for a remittance that was sure to be late. I could never get rid of everything that belonged to Hank. Our lives were so intertwined that when he stopped breathing I thought I would too.
Hank had suffered life-altering injuries in a freak hunting accident two years before. Recovery was impossible from the start. He suffered more than any good man should have to, paralyzed from the neck down and blinded by buckshot. When Hank had succumbed at the hospital in Dickinson, I knew his only regret in death was leaving.
But he’d told me over and over again that he would have rather died instantly instead of living as an invalid. I missed caring for him, as selfish as that was.
Most nights since the funeral I’d slept on the davenport with our trusted border collie, Shep, at my feet. I couldn’t bear to sleep in an empty bed any more than I could part with Hank’s clothes. His flannel shirts and gray Dickie work pants still held a faint smell of him; sweat, worry, and love. How could I get rid of such things?His flannel shirts and gray Dickie work pants still held a faint smell of him; sweat, worry, and love. How could I get rid of such things?
It’s too soon, I thought. It will always be too soon.
Shep rustled behind me, stood up from his guard post, and stalked to the bedroom door, drawing my attention away from my broken heart with a subtle growl.
The dog was always nearby, keeping an eye on me. The frigid cold demanded that Shep be inside the house by the Franklin stove, instead of sleeping out in the barn. I couldn’t stand the thought of Shep freezing to death. One more loss would be too much to take. Hank, of course, had no use for an inside dog. Most farm people didn’t. I took pleasure in allowing a dog to live in the house. In a time of little comfort, he gave me as much company as he could.
“What’s the matter, Shep?” I said, as I shut the closet door.
Shep’s pointed ears flared alert, and his haunches drew tight. He looked like a statue cut from black and white marble when he switched from best friend to loyal protector. I recognized the stance right away and expected a bark to follow his growl. Someone, or something, had come onto our land.
I glanced over at the alarm clock on the nightstand and sighed again. I had lost track of time. There was no intruder. The women from the Ladies Aid had arrived.
“Relax, Shep,” I said. “Our visitors are here.” I wiped my face with a damp handkerchief, hoping to clear the roadmap of grief from my eyes.
A few weeks after Hank’s funeral, the pastor at our Lutheran church, John Mark Llewellyn, had encouraged me to join the Ladies Aid. I’ve never been much of a joiner, so I declined. My attendance at church remained sporadic, almost nonexistent in the last few years.
Pastor insisted that I needed more social interaction than his casual visits, so I’d agreed to a weekly meeting with the Ladies Aid—with reluctance—and told him if I liked the idea of belonging, then I would join. I was still in the deciding phase.
The women of the Ladies Aid arrived every Thursday at three o’clock in the afternoon. They were as prompt and reliable as the mail carrier, come rain, sleet, snow, or subzero temperatures. I had promised them the box of Hank’s clothes for weeks on end but had failed to deliver. This week would be no exception.
The director, Darlys Oddsdatter, drove a 1963 Fury, red as a ripe cherry. The bright color made her car easy to find alongside the road in a snowstorm; sliding off in a ditch was a common occurrence for us all. Darlys’s husband, the local dentist, Dr. Henrik Oddsdatter, tried to persuade Darlys every winter to give up her gallivanting and social duties, but she wouldn’t hear of sacrificing anything because of the weather. That woman was committed to her causes with unquestioned conviction. My sanity and entrance back into society was her latest effort. I liked Darlys’s dedication. Shep did, too. I think he saw a kindred spirit in Darlys. They both were happier when they had a job to do. She was my favorite of the bunch, if I had to admit such a thing.
Darlys didn’t seem to mind an inside dog. The other two women of the Ladies Aid, Anna Jacobsen and Lene Harstaad, held Hank’s view of animals in the house. Such a thing was an abomination, but they were too polite to say so. At least so far. Lene was uncomfortable in Shep’s presence. Her judgmental gray eyes were easy to read. Anna ignored Shep. As far as I could tell, that was her way of dealing with things she didn’t like.
As I opened the front door to welcome the women into my house, a strong gust of wind pushed in right along with them. Darlys led the women inside, wrapped up in a blue parka heavy enough to keep any Eskimo warm. Her snow boots could endure an Arctic expedition, and I envied the comfort of her feet. A plaid scarf protected her face, and her hands were jammed inside creamy lamb’s-wool mittens bought at the A. W. Lucas department store, over in Bismarck. Darlys looked like a tall, blonde-haired Swedish fashion model no matter the time of day or the reason. Anna and Lene were dressed for a January day, too, only their hats, gloves, and scarves were all homemade, like mine.
Darlys took off her mittens and fussed over Shep. He barked and wagged his tail with so much happiness I feared it would fall off. Lene and Anna stood back at a safe distance with twin frowns on their faces.
After our hellos, I swept the intruding snowflakes back outside where they belonged, closed the door, and took the coats and hats from my visitors. Once my arms were fully loaded, I motioned for Shep to follow me. I put the coats on my unused bed and closed the dog inside the bedroom. He didn’t howl or whine in my absence, thank goodness.
“Oh, your house feels nice and warm, Marjorie,” Darlys said with a bright smile, heading straight to the kitchen. She had managed to freshen up her red lipstick while I was away.
The women brought food every time they visited me. They wanted to make sure that I was eating. I’d gone down a dress size since Hank had died, and I was on my way to losing two. I wasn’t hungry most days, even though I knew I needed to keep my strength up. Food didn’t taste good, and eating alone was something I didn’t think I’d ever become fond of. I’d loved to cook for Hank.
Darlys brought cold summer sausage and Ritz crackers. Anna brought Jell-O salad, a church pitch-in staple made with canned fruit, marshmallows, and a healthy dollop of whipped cream. Lene, the oldest of the trio, nearing sixty, brought sandkakes, a delightful Norwegian shortbread cookie filled with some of her famous homemade strawberry jam. My mother had baked sandkakes, and I couldn’t resist them—or strawberry jam. Lene knew that.
“Oh, that wind’s gonna pick up later, don’t ya know?” Anna said. She was near my age, in her mid-thirties, dressed in flannel-lined denim pants and an oversized pink sweater that was a Christmas gift knitted by her mother. Anna had three children old enough to leave with her next-door neighbor for short stretches of time. She made herself clear that volunteering for the Ladies Aid was time for herself, so her kids didn’t drive her crazy. They were all out of diapers, under ten years old, and full of energy. She always said things like that with a smile, but I thought she really meant what she said.
“You’ll be wantin’ to get home before the snow picks up, then,” I said.
Even with the sweater on, I noticed a little pooch in Anna’s belly that hadn’t been there before. I wondered if she was pregnant, but I didn’t say anything. I’d wait for her to bring the topic up. Pregnancy was something I was never in a hurry to talk about anyway. Hank and I had tried to have children over the years, but that never came to be. As it turned out, not being able to conceive had been a blessing. I didn’t have a child to raise on my own.
Lene chimed in, “More snow comin’ tomorrow, too.”
I knew that, of course, had heard the forecast on the radio. No matter the season, every conversation in North Dakota started with the weather. Lene was a wheat farmer’s wife, like me. She and her husband, Ollie, owned a little over three thousand acres east of town, halfway to Gladstone. They had reason for the weather to be on their minds as much as anyone did.
“That time of year,” I said, eyeing Darlys in the kitchen. She’d made herself at home and put the percolator on. The welcome smell of strong, fresh-brewed coffee filled the house. “Be a surprise if there was no snow and wind, now wouldn’t it?” I wanted to say that wet weather was good for the winter wheat crops, but there was no need to say that any more than there was a need for Lene to give me a snow report.
“Oh, ya betcha,” Lene said.
I smiled, and turned to Anna. She’d snatched up a piece of sausage like a hungry little bird, then made her way to the front window. Anna was always tense when she arrived. Her husband, Nils, was the manager at the Red Owl grocery store and put in long hours; he worked from open to close six days a week. Raising the family fell on Anna’s shoulders. They’d been married a little over ten years, and as far as I could tell the union was one that looked like it was going to last.
Nils Jacobsen had worked at the grocery store for as long as I could remember. I think he started working as a sack boy before he graduated high school. Everybody knew the Jell-O and marshmallows in Anna’s salad were items that didn’t sell. Her Jell-O was always lime flavored, and the marshmallows were always stale.
“Is something the matter, Anna?” I said.
Anna stared out the window with a worried look on her face. She glanced over at me, away from the window for a second, and said, “The new sheriff was out at the Rinkermans’ when we drove by.”
“Him and the ambulance,” Lene added.
“Oh my,” I said. I ignored the unsaid comments about the new sheriff, or the curious fact that they had driven by the Rinkermans’ in the first place.
Guy Reinhardt had won the recent special election in Stark County, replacing Duke Parsons as acting sheriff. The election had been a squeaker. Guy had only won by a hundred votes or so, demonstrating the split opinion in the county. The new sheriff carried a checkered past, at least for an elected official. He was going through his second divorce, and there were rumors that he liked the taste of whiskey a little too much. I had known Guy for a long time, but I’d never seen him drunk or act out of line. Gossip was hard to avoid in a small town like ours.“Nils heard that the Rinkerman girl had wandered off, and said we should keep an eye out for her.”
Anna answered my question. “We stopped in at the Red Owl before coming your way. Darlys needed to pick up some cigarettes, you know. Nils heard that the Rinkerman girl had wandered off, and said we should keep an eye out for her.”
I gasped at the thought of a young girl out in this weather, especially a girl like her. “Did they find her, then?”
“Can’t say for sure,” Anna said. “We didn’t stop to find out, and we didn’t see anything on the way here, either.”
I knew of the Rinkerman girl, but I didn’t know her or her parents well at all. Toren Rinkerman was a welder by trade. He’d sharpened some blades and installed some gates for Hank over the years. I’d never had reason to have any direct dealings with Toren, at least while Hank was alive. The time might come in the future when I’d need use of his services, though. Most folks said Toren was the best welder within a hundred miles, and I know Hank liked his work. That was a good enough endorsement of the man’s abilities and character for me.
The Rinkermans had three sons and one daughter. The boys were grown and didn’t live at home, as far as I knew. I’d seen his girl, Tina, in town from time to time. She was hard to miss; short, a little heavy, about fourteen or fifteen, the youngest of the brood. People whispered when she walked by, or ignored her, said she was retarded, or worse, a mongoloid. I never liked such words, but that was the only way I knew how to describe the girl. Her condition was rare in these parts, so she stood out.
“Going by the Rinkermans’ place was a bit out of your way, wasn’t it?” I said.
Anna pulled away from the window but held the curtain open. “Darlys is a curious cat. Besides, I told you, Nils said to keep an eye out. We were doing what he said.”
I joined Anna at the window and stared out across the drive. I couldn’t see anything but cold white snow everywhere I looked. I felt like I was standing in front of the Frigidaire with the freezer door open. “That’s awful. I thought she was up in Grafton,” I said.
Anna agreed with a flinch. “She was, at that state hospital for the feebleminded. Nils said she came into the store about a week ago, heard they had to bring her home for some reason or another. No one knows for sure. Those Rinkermans keep to themselves, don’t ya know.”
I heard a tone in Anna’s voice that I didn’t like. I was about to press more when I considered Grafton was a six-hour drive to the northeast, but Darlys walked into the room with the percolator and a tray full of mugs.
“Well, come on ladies, let’s get this show on the road,” Darlys said.
I knew she’d heard every word we’d said, but she didn’t act like she had. Time was ticking. The weather outside was getting worse by the second, and for some reason the air inside the house was getting warmer by the second.
Maybe I wasn’t in the mood for company. I was sure that was why I was uncomfortable. That and the thought of that girl lost, left to wander outside on her own. I couldn’t imagine such a thing. There was a scent of tragedy in the air, a smell that I knew all too well and never wanted to experience again. I hoped I was wrong. I hoped I was only upset about hanging onto Hank’s clothes for a little bit longer.
From See Also Proof. Used with the permission of the publisher, Seventh Street Books. Copyright © 2018 by Larry Sweazy.