| The Edge of Town |
By Dorothy Garlock
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LILLIAN RUSSELL'S DIED!" Jill made the dramatic announcement and waited for her sister to comment. When Julie continued to wash the dishes and drop them in the rinse pan, she said, "All the wonderful women in the world are dying. First Nellie Bly and now Lillian."
"Where did you hear that?"
"Ruby May told me last night. Lillian was so beautiful, so elegant. All the men loved her." Jill lifted her arms in a circling motion. "I'm going to be just like her."
"You'll have to grow some," Julie said dryly. "She had quite a bosom. They were out to here." Julie held her cupped, wet hands out six inches from her slender body.
"And a tiny waist."
"Helped by a tight corset."
"She was beautiful"
"And old enough to be your grandma. Dry the dishes while you're grieving for her."
Jill took a plate from the hot rinse water, dried it and set it on the table.
"The men who gave her diamonds must have liked a woman.with a big bust. Diamonds show up best lying on soft white flesh."
"Soft white flesh? Glory be! Well, don't worry about it. You've got a good start for a fifteen-year-old." Julie slid a greasy skillet into the sudsy water.
"Jack said they were like half an orange stuck up there."
Julie looked at her sister and frowned. "Why would Jack be making a remark about his sister's breasts?"
"I asked him."
"Justine Jill Jones!"
Jill rolled her eyes on hearing her full name. "I hate it when you call me that."
"It's the name Mama gave you."
"I'll never know why she added Justine to it."
"She didn't. She added Jill."
"Kids at school laugh about our names. They say if Mama'd had more kids, she'd probably have named them Jericho and Jerusalem."
"And what did you say to that?"
"Nothing. Kathy Jacobs said she should've named two of us Jenny and Jackass." Jill giggled.
Julie's shoulders shook with silent laughter. It didn't bother her that all their names started with a J. She rather liked it.
"I never asked Jack about my bosom," Jill said after she placed a stack of clean plates on the shelf. "I asked him if the boys at school thought I was pretty."
"And what did he say?"
"He said... oh, he was so mean!" Jill flipped her long blond curls over her shoulder and tilted her freckled nose. "He said only the dumb ones thought I was pretty. He said my hair was like straw, my nose was so turned up he was surprised I didn't drown when it rained."
Julie laughed in spite of the serious look on her sister's face.
"Never ask your brothers if you're pretty. If you were a raving beauty they'd not admit it."
"That's when he said my breasts were the size of a half an orange."
"It's a pact made between brothers to tell their sisters that they are ugly as a mud fence even if they are as pretty as Mary Pickford."
"I hate brothers!"
"Mable Normand is pretty."
"She's in Molly O at the Palace. I want to see it, but Papa said picture shows cost almost as much as a pair of stockings and I needed stockings more." Jill sighed heavily.
"Julie, Julie, guess what?" Ten-year-old Jason came into the kitchen, letting the screen door slam behind him. He always shouted when he was excitedand at times when he wasn't. Since their mother's death four years before, Julie had become the person her brothers and sisters came to with news, hurts and needs.
Jason stumbled onto the back porch, yanked open the screen door and bounded into the kitchen, shutting the door just in time to keep the shaggy brown dog, his constant companion, from following him. Besides being small for his age, Jason had been born with a deformed foot that made it necessary for him to wear a special shoe.
"Julie, guess what?" He was breathless.
"Well, let me think for a minute. Is it something exciting?" Jason nodded his head vigorously. "Land-a-livin'! I think I know! Bananas are growing out of the old stump out by the wood-pile."
"Ah, Julie, you're so silly sometimes." Jason stood as tall as his slight frame allowed. His muddy shoes were firmly planted on the clean kitchen floor.
"Ju-lie! Look at his shoes!" Jill sneered with sisterly disgust.
"Shut up." Jason turned on his sister. "Open your trap again and I won't tell ya!"
"What's your news, Jason?" Julie poured water from the teakettle over the dishes in the pan.
"Joe... said that we're havin' a baseball game tonight. The Birches, the Humphreys, and Roy and Thad Taylor... Justine.
Maybe the Jacobses and Evan Johnson. He helped at the Humphreys' today, though he ain't expecting no payback."
"Who cares about him?" Jill snorted.
Jason knew he would get the full attention of his younger sister when he mentioned the Taylors. Jill had been eyeing both Roy and Thad Taylor even though Thad was Joe's age.
"Joe told me to get out the bags we use for bases. I hope mice ain't chewed 'em up."
"Haven't," Julie corrected. "When was it decided to have a ball game?" She stopped working on the greasy skillet to give her full attention to her brother, who was inching toward the door, eager to be away.
"I dunno. They'll be done hayin' by midafternoon. Pa said to tell ya they'd noon at the Humphreys'."
"Then I'll go to town this afternoon. We'll have a light supper."
"Can I go?"
"No. You can help Jill watch Joy."
"That's . . . girl work!" Jason snorted.
"Just right for a sissy-britches," Jill said snippily and took a handful of forks from the rinse pan.
"Shut up, Jus-tine!" Jason drew out the hated name because he knew that it would irritate his sister. "You're so dumb, you stink. I gotta go."
Julie grabbed a towel to dry her hands and went to the door to see Jason hurrying across the yard.
"Jason," she called. "Where's Joy?"
"Find her, please. She may have wandered off."
"Ah, Sis, I wanta go back."
"Honey, it's a good mile to the Humphreys'."
"I don't care," he shouted. "I told Joe I'd come back after I told ya. Jumpin' catfish! Here comes Joy. She's been in the mud.
I ain't touchin' 'er."
Julie went out onto the back porch and looked at the small girl. The blond curls that she had dampened and brushed around her finger to form fat curls not two hours ago were speckled with mud, as was Joy's face. Mud covered her feet and legs up to the cuffs of her drawers, which came to just below her knees.
"Ah, Joy. You're a mess. You can't come in the house like that. Go to the pump. I'll come wash you off."
"I didn't mean to, Julie." The child's impish grin told her sister that she was not a bit sorry.
"I'll do it." Jill leaped down the back steps. "Come on, stinkpot."
"I ain't no stinkpot, Jus-tine." Joy's hero was Jason. She had learned from him a way to irritate Jill. "Jus-tine, Jus-tine, Just-tine," she said again and again, then stuck her tongue out and wriggled it.
Julie went back into the kitchen. At times her heart ached for Jason. He never complained about his foot, but she knew that he wished he could run like the other boys. Tonight at the ball game, he would bat and one of his older brothers would run the bases for him. She also wished that Jill would be kinder to him. The two were always hissing and snapping at each other like a dog and a cat.
Julie was finishing up the dishes when Jill came in, draggingJoy by the hand. The screen door slammed shut behind them.
"Here's this good-for-nothin' kid. I put her clothes in the tub on the porch."
Julie looked down at the small girl and shook her head. Joy's nakedness didn't seem to bother her at all.
"I don't know what we're going to do with you. You can't stay clean for a minute."
"Ya can shoot me." Big solemn eyes looked up at Julie.
"Shoot you? Where in the world did you get an idea like that?"
"Joe said it to Papa. Papa said, I donno what to do with ya.' Joe said, Shoot 'er.' "
"They were teasing."
"I'm not so sure," Jill said. "Come on, brat. We'll get you some bloomers, unless you want the boys to see your bare behind."
"I don't care," Joy replied sassily.
Julie rolled her eyes toward the ceiling. The name Joy was so right for the little one; she was the joy of the family. Her hair was curly, her eyes large and blue as the sky. Bright as a new penny and precocious, she was in danger of being terribly spoiled by doting brothers and sisters.
Julie put the kitchen in order. As she hung her apron on the back of a chair, Jill, with Joy in tow, came through the kitchen on the way to the front porch. Julie went upstairs to the room she shared with her sisters and changed out of her dress into a white blouse with a drawstring neckline and a blue skirt. Julie knew herself for what she was: a strong, slim woman with clear skin, a wide mouth and the responsibility of raising her siblings weighing heavily on her shoulders.
She looked at herself closely in the mirror as she braided, coiled and pinned her waist-length, wheat-colored hair to the back of her head. She had thought about getting a bob, but she feared what it would do to her already rather "unsteady" reputation. Her thick dark brows were slightly arched. Lashes, long and lush, framed light brown eyes that were both quiet and quick. Julie sighed. Nothing about her would cause a man to give her a second look. She was foolish, very foolish to dream that one would.
With a wide-brimmed straw hat set squarely on her head to shade her face as much as possible, she picked up the cloth bag she would use to carry home the few things she planned to get at the store.
On the porch she paused to give last-minute instructions to Jill.
"If I'm not back by the time Papa and the boys get here, tell them I'll be here by suppertime. Be nice, Joy, and pay mind to what your sister tells you."
"Do I have to?" The little girl's merry blue eyes twinkled up at Julie.
"Yes, you little imp." Julie smiled fondly at the child. "Come give me a kiss."
"Are you going to the library?" Jill asked.
"Is there something you need to return?"
"No. I'd love to read The Trail of the Lonesome Pine and Girl of the Limberlost again. If they're not in, get Ramona or Freckles or A Knight of the Cumberland."
"You've read those books... several times. Why not try something new?"
"I'd rather read something I know I'll like. Old Miss Rothe made us read Ivanhoe and Lady of the Lake. She thought they were romantic. I thought they were boring!"
"Agnes Rothe is a good teacher."
"She's an old maid! Bet she's old as Papa."
"She's a good teacher even if she is old!" Julie retorted as she left the shade of the porch, stepped out into the bright July sunlight and walked down the lane toward the road. Sidney ran out from under the porch to follow. "You can't go, Sidney." Julie stopped and pointed a finger at the shaggy dog. "Why aren't you with Jason?"
"Jason didn't want him to go to the Humphreys'," Jill called.
"Why not? He always goes with Jason."
"There's a kid over there that's scared of him. The Humphreys have to keep their dog tied up."
"Go back and stay with Jill and Joy, Sidney. You can't go to town." She waited until the dog had settled down by the porch step before she was on her way again.
Julie breathed in deeply; the air was tinged with fresh-cut, sweet-smelling hay. Buttercups and broom clover grew along the edge of the lane. Bees buzzed amid wild honeysuckle. Beams of bright sunlight slanted down through the trees. The grove was alive with the cheeps and chirps and rustlings of the birds. A mockingbird scolded her from the high branch of a towering oak tree.
The summer day was serene and beautiful.
A pompous rooster was picking and scratching in the lane ahead. The chickens were confined to the chicken house only in the winter. The rest of the year they were as free as the wild birds to roam the farm wherever they wished. They never ventured far, however, from the security of the farmyard, where from dawn to dusk they could be found picking up grain, undigested tidbits from animal manure, grass and all the insects they could catch.
Julie had to smile when a rooster, upon finding a choice morsel, called his harem of hens with a "Tut, tut, tut, tut." A couple of gullible fat hens came running, but there was nothing left for them. The rooster made a great show of being a good provider and strutted away. Having the fluffy white hens at his beck and call seemed to do great things for his ego.
Julie had been born on this farm in the room across the hall from the parlor. She had walked the mile to town and the additional quarter mile through town to school from the time she was six years old. Living on the edge of town, she had been considered a country girl and had not been invited to the socials held by her classmates, even though she had been a favorite of the teachers and was one of the prettiest girls in school.
Her school days had come to an abrupt end the summer she was fifteen. She tried hard not to think of that terrible summer or the following winter at home taking care of the family and her mother, who had never fully recovered from influenza. As she walked along the hard-packed road, Julie's mind roamed. Like all young girls, she had dreamed of a handsome man who would fall madly in love with her and take her away.
The dream was becoming dimmer and dimmer. Besides, the chance of finding such a man in Fertile, Missouri, was about as likely as waking up some morning and finding the sun coming up out of the west.
Was her lot to be the old-maid sister living out her life here on the farm? The boys would leave, marry and start families of their own. Jill was so pretty, she'd have no trouble finding a husband. Already the boys were eyeing her, even if Jack wouldn't tell her so. He'd told Julie he'd punched one boy in the nose for talking about Jill's bosom.
Julie walked the downhill road toward town and the river beyond. It was easy walking. Coming back up the road to the farm would require much more effort. She rounded a curve in the road and the town of Fertile, a huddle of buildings scattered along the bank of the Platte River, came into view.
Only the tall red-painted grain elevator and two white church steeples rose above the two-story brick shops and the wooden residences. The town sloped down to the river where the old mill stood. It had stopped operation several years before the Great War.
Julie crossed the railroad tracks. The train station was a one-room frame boxlike structure with a cattle pen on one side and the elevator on the other. The grass alongside the tracks was charred, deliberately burnt to keep the weeds from taking over. A lumber wagon, its long box filled with large rolls of barbed-wire fencing and oak posts, rumbled past her and continued on down Main Street after the driver had tipped his hat politely. A Ford, rattling as if it were going to shake to pieces, rolled past and came to a stop in front of the drugstore, a building of heavy limestone that dwarfed the tiny jewelry shop next to it. In front of the shop was a large wooden clock that for as long as Julie could remember hadn't run.
A few automobiles were parked on the streets surrounding the county courthouse. Most merchants set aside an area for teams and wagons behind their stores. Fertile had a large and prosperous business area because it was the only town of any size in the county. The nearest large town was St. Joseph thirty miles to the west.
Behind the shops that lined the street sat neat cottages and some large comfortable houses surrounded by picket fences. Closer to the river, in the less prosperous part of town, the houses were unkempt, unpainted frame shacks, most with a cow or a horse staked out behind them.
Julie felt uncomfortable and out of place every time she walked alone down the main street of Fertile. A certain element of the population drew a discriminatory line between town people who "belonged" and those who lived on the surrounding farms and did not.
Next to the Palace, Fertile's movie house, was Carwilde and Graham's, the largest mercantile store in town. A clear glass window, installed just this year, displayed dresses and men's suits on mannequins that reminded Julie of corpses with painted faces.
"Good afternoon, ma'am. May I help you?"
Scott Graham, who stepped from behind the counter, wore his hair parted in the middle and slicked down, a high stiff collar and blue arm garters on his starched white shirt. Scott had been in Julie's class at school, but he never acknowledged that he knew who she was. Had she known that he would be the one to wait on her, she would not have come in.
"What can I do for you?"
"I need two spools of number fifty white thread."
"Right this way."
Her head held high, Julie followed him down the aisle as if she intended to buy out the store instead of two five-cent spools of thread. Scott opened a drawer on the thread cabinet and selected the thread.
"I'd like to look at the dress goods, please."
"This way," he said, as if she couldn't see the bolts of material piled on the table not six feet away.
Julie selected a blue and white check to make a new Sunday dress for Joy, who had outgrown the only one she had, and a length of white lawn to sew a new shirtwaist for Jill. She paid for her purchases and left the store, glad to leave the presence of the dandy who had waited on her.
When she passed the hotel, she glanced at a man sitting on the porch, his chair tilted back against the wall. His shirtsleeves were cuffless and he wore black arm garters, a linen collar but no tie. Their eyes met; his, friendly and appraising. He smiled and tipped his broad-brimmed hat. She felt his eyes follow her as she walked down the street to the grocery store.
She was greeted by name by the owner. The Joneses were valued customers of Mr. Oakley's. They had traded with him since he had come to town ten years ago and always paid their tab on time.
"Good day to ya, Miss Jones. Nice day for a walk into town, huh?"
"It was nice walking in, but I don't expect it to be so pleasant going back up the hill. How are the family?"
"Fit as fiddles. Little ones are growing like weeds. Wish they'd hurry up so they can give me some help here in the store." He laughed heartily.
"Don't wish your life away, Mr. Oakley. They will grow up fast enough."
"You're right as rain 'bout that. Jethro finished with hayin'?"
"They'll finish this afternoon. If we get some rain we should have a couple more cuttings before frost."
"It's been a good growin' year so far. Your corn looks good. Me'n the missus passed the field last Sunday when we drove out to visit her uncle."
"Papa and the boys got it in early."
"What can I get for you today?"
"I'm walking, so I'll just take a couple of things I can carry.
Joe or Papa will be coming in with the wagon and a list in a few days. I need a can of baking powder and a small bottle of vanilla flavoring to get me by until then."
Julie waited while Mr. Oakley went to the back of the store. Her eyes roamed the neatly stocked shelves, the barrels of crackers, beans and rice and the bright red, big-wheeled coffee grinder that sat proudly on the counter. She breathed in the mixture of scents: coffee, spices, leather goods and overripe bananas. The pucker-mouthed wife of the blacksmith waddled into the store, paused to look around, then greeted Julie.
"Ain't seen ya at church lately, Julie," she said in an accusing tone.
"I've been there almost every Sunday, Mrs. Yerby."
"I meant durin' the week. Been havin' good crowds fer the revival meetin's."
"I'm glad to hear it." Julie turned to Mr. Oakley and noticed the jar of peppermint sticks on the counter. "I'll take a half dozen sticks of peppermint. The kids need a treat once in a while." As she placed them in her cloth bag, the grocer pulled a thick ledger from beneath the counter, thumbed through the pages to the Jones account and added the purchases.
"Thank you," Julie murmured, then said more loudly, "Nice seeing you, Mrs. Yerby."
"Come to the revival, Julie. Ya just might meet a man lookin' for a wife. Ya ain't never goin' to get one jist stayin' out there on the farm takin' care of them kids."
Julie laughed nervously. "I'm not looking for a man, Mrs. Yerby."
"Pshaw! Ain't a woman alive who ain't lookin' for a man. Yo're better-lookin' than most."
"Thank you," Julie said dryly.
"Ya won't have no trouble a-tall if ya just spruce up and show yoreself some. That's if ya've not got yore sights set on one of them good-looking rich fellers like that William Desmond Taylor that got himself murdered out there in Hollywood." Mrs. Yerby's laugh was more of a dry cackle.
Embarrassed, Julie angrily turned and adjusted the items in her bag. Mrs. Yerby didn't seem to notice that she had made Julie uncomfortable and continued in a confidential tone. "They ain't found out who killed him yet. I heard a feller say it on the radio. Bet it was that oh-so-pure Mary Miles Minter. Pshaw! Pure, my foot. Ain't nothin' pure in that wicked place." Mrs. Yerby picked a raisin from the barrel and popped it quickly into her mouth when she saw Mr. Oakley wasn't looking. It didn't stop her from talking.
"That awful Johnson man came to the meetin' the other night and stood out in the dark lookin' in. I told 'em that they ain't ort to hold services in the pavilion with the sides raised up so that hill trash like Walter Johnson can see what's goin' on. But they went right ahead and done it, and look what they got."
"Did he disrupt the service?" Mr. Oakley asked.
"He was drinkin' and quarrelsome. When church was over he tried to pick a fight with Stan Decker. He called him a blank-blank hypocrite, but out of respect for the church Stan just walked off and left him. That Johnson is the meanest man I ever did see. He's too mean to live, is what he is. A person can see the devil right in him."
"I must go," Julie said. To the shopkeeper she added, "Tell Mrs. Oakley I'm sorry I missed her."
"Ya better watch that little sister of yores, Julie." Mrs. Yerby lowered her voice. "It's said that man's ruined more'n one young girl in this county. Wouldn't put it past him to waylay her out in the woods someplace and have his way with her. Now that his boy is back, there's two of 'em. I heard there's a girl down in Well's Point that was sent away sudden-like."
"Thanks for the warning, Mrs. Yerby."
Julie stepped out into the bright sunlight. She didn't want to hear anything more about the town bully or his son. Her intense hatred of the man could be the one thing that would keep her out of heaven. She couldn't remember when she hadn't hated and feared him.
Excerpted from The Edge of Town , by Dorothy Garlock . Copyright (c) 2001 by Dorothy Garlock . Reprinted by permission of Little, Brown and Company, New York, NY. All rights reserved.Back to top