He'd protested at first. "Don't you think she'd be better off in one of those homes, Mother?"
But Helen would hear none of it. "How will she take care of herself? No stranger is going to look after her as well as we can."
"Couldn't she just stay in the house, then?"
"Now how long do you think it would be till the whole town knew? She has enough trouble with people taking advantage without these young fellows around here getting the idea they can have their way with her."
Lester had to admit that she had a point. Helen had always been fiercely protective of Melinda, and Melinda was pretty dependent on them. This did seem to be a way to manage the situation without getting all of Heaven in an uproar over it.
So instead of arguing further with Helen's decision, he'd done his best to make the girl comfortable in her exile. He set up the rollaway bed for her, built a little table and bench, brought out an extension cord to run off the light in the chicken coop so she could see after the sun went down, hauled up the old platform rocker so he could sit sometimes and keep her company. He brought her books to look at, quilt patches to work on, and a Ball jar full of fireflies with holes poked in the lid-hoping it would amuse her as much as it had years before, when she had tried to read by their light.
They didn't talk much about her situation. She never seemed to question the appropriateness of her punishment. There had been rumors at school the year before about Gloria Montgomery, a girl over in Montpelier, who graduated from high school and went off to social work school in June. Everyone seemed to know that girls didn't go to college and even if they did, no one went in June. It was pretty clear that Gloria had made a big mistake, was p-g, would be gone for a few months, and then reappear slimmer, without a whit of college education. Perhaps, Melinda reasoned, Gloria had been sent to a barn, too.
Melinda and her father sat quietly most of the time, or Lester read a bit from the Bible or from Volume D-E-F of the Wonderbook Encyclopedia, which Melinda had bought some years back at an estate sale.
As close as they got to be, though, it embarrassed Lester to be the one she hollered for when her water broke. He had to keep reminding himself that he'd delivered dozens of calves, and this was surely no different.
At the midway, there was still a hint of dew on the grass, and everyone was sleeping in. The night had been still and hot; sleep hadn't even been an option till well after midnight. Helen took care that no one saw her stop near the tent of Madame Gajikanes, the Gypsy fortune-teller, nor saw her place the basket at the door. Then she got back into the Kaiser and drove on.
She made a stop at Clara's Kitchen, parking up the street so her footpath to Clara's would take her by early-riser Ida Mueller's yard. There, Helen stopped to compliment Ida on her beautiful flowerbeds, and stayed to chat a full fifteen minutes about the winning lima beans at the Centennial Fair. "Fordhooks," Ida said in summary, "are always the best bet."
"That's a fact," Helen agreed. "You can always count on Fordhooks."
At Clara's, she discussed the new elementary school principal with June Wade, who took her order for black coffee and white toast. June had heard he was a young fellow, not much more than thirty. "He'll have his hands full with all those Bickle children running around the hallway," Helen opined.
After breakfast, she strolled up the street to Herman's Market and picked up a loaf of Korn Krust bread. On the way back to the car, she waved through the window of Charlene's Beauty Shop to Minnie, helmeted in the dryer, first customer of the day.
At home again, she checked on Melinda, who was inside now, tossing in her sleep. She sponged the girl's forehead, and cleared away the teacup. Then she went out to the barn, to make sure there were no obvious signs of it having been used as an inn. Lester had put the bed away, moved the rocker back to the porch and brought the books and sewing projects inside. Helen dismantled the extension-cord lighting system and liberated what were left of the lightning bugs. Next, she went to the summer kitchen, where a peck of Kentucky Wonders Lester had picked that morning waited. He had already fired up the old woodstove and started water heating in the canner. She slid the pot aside, lifted the burner, and looked once over her shoulder to make sure he wasn't around to watch. Then she pulled an old photograph from her apron pocket and tossed it onto the bed of burning coals. She watched till the flames crawled completely across the image before replacing the burner. Only then did she allow two or three tears to surface before drying her eyes on her apron hem and turning her attention to stringing the beans.
Copyright Jan Maher 2000. All rights reservered
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
- PW Starred Review
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