KEEPING QUIET

by

Kathleen Glassburn

 

 

One of the stories Lily told her daughter started like this: “On a Saturday summer night in 1946, Thor barged into my life.” She was the youngest of five children who never referred to him as their “father.”

Lily and Carl Doty lived in an apartment upstairs from his widowed mother in the little town of Chambers, Minnesota. Carl, home from serving in the Navy, worked at the flour mill and tended bar weekends at Bernie’s, a few blocks away. On this night, even though her husband was gone so much, Lily felt nothing but peacefulness and pleasure rocking and nursing Sheila, her three-month-old baby girl, until she heard a clunk—clunk—clunk of heavy boots on the wooden steps that clung to the house’s back wall. A bang—bang—bang of a fist on the door followed. She was sure that her mother-in-law, a heavy sleeper, had long since gone to bed downstairs. Lily almost didn’t answer the door. Who could be stopping by after 9 p.m.? But, she would later tell Sheila, “I couldn’t hide there like a frightened mouse. I was a wife and a mother. An adult.”

Sheila pictured Lily buttoning a bodice with one hand, pushing fine blonde hair back, and tucking a pink blanket around her. Then Lily answered the door.

Standing under the porch light, brown felt hat pulled down so that it almost concealed his heavy-lidded, pale-blue eyes, a fist raised and ready to pound again, stood the father Lily hadn’t seen since she was a child. “I stared at him, speechless.”

“Been to Bernie’s. Heard about my new granddaughter.” Thor’s voice was gruff as an ogre’s.

Sheila imagined Lily pulling her close, so tight that she yowled.

“You never stopped while he hulked at our door.”

“Great lungs.” Thor stared into Sheila’s flushed, scrunched features.

“Several times I tried to cover your face with the blanket.”

Tiny fists flailing, Sheila tossed it aside.

“Your look seemed to declare, ‘Do not touch!’”

“Aren’t you going to invite your father in?” the ogre said.

Lily thrust out her pointed chin and, for the first time ever, stood up to her father. “I have to put my baby to bed.” With that she slammed and bolted the door before collapsing against it. “A minute or two later, I heard his heavy boots descending the stairway.”

A bit past 2 a.m. Sunday morning, after the bar closed, Carl tiptoed up those same steps. He entered the apartment and found lights ablaze as well as his wife wide awake and frightened.

“Why did you tell him I was here?”

“Never did!” Carl’s brown eyes snapped, darkening to almost black. “If I find out who told, they’ll answer to me.” His fists clenched, ready to strike. “The boss would’ve let me come home early if we figured Thor was headed this way.” Bernie Olsen, along with everyone else in Chambers, knew of Thorvald Norstad’s meanness.

“It’s all right,” Lily said, relaxing now that Carl filled the apartment with his presence. “He won’t come back. Sheila was in my arms and yelled as soon as I opened the door. She scared him off.”

Carl gently held Lily. “Don’t worry. I’ll never let him hurt you again.”

“He gazed into the bassinet at you.” She would smile at Sheila. “His face, a moment before scary, returned to an easy smile, dimples deepening. He touched your cheek at your very own dimple and said, ‘None the worse for her ordeal.’”

“Little as she is, Sheila has good instincts.”

“You’ve got a headache, don’t you?” Carl lifted Lily’s chin. “Let’s get you into bed.”

Sheila later knew he poured her a tumbler full of whisky too.

Lily ended her story with, “You sensed danger and wickedness the minute it came near.”

This became her mother’s myth: Sheila attracted good and repelled evil. Though sweet of face and disposition, she possessed a powerful voice to go along with her fiery red hair.

Lily also said, “You’re the strong one. Take care of your little brother.” According to other stories of her mother’s, Tommy, three years younger than Sheila, was weak like herself and seemed to attract trouble wherever he went.

* * *

Each summer as Sheila grew up, the Norstad side of her family never failed to gather for a picnic reunion in some Minnesota town to which the relations could easily drive. These get-togethers were always the same. Women toted covered bowls and platters of fried chicken, potato and macaroni salad (with mayonnaise that soon curdled), fruit salad, and homemade pickles, as well as cherry and apple pies, chocolate and angel food cakes, peanut butter, oatmeal raisin, and sugar cookies. The married women, housewives all, tended to the set-up, serve-up, and clean-up—while catching up.

Mostly Lily listened to the other women, especially her older sisters, Magda and Selma. They sat at a long stretch of tables, carried over and lined up by the men. Lily sipped from a bottle of Hamms and occasionally dropped in a remark about some ongoing health complaint—headaches, cramps, lack of energy—while the rest of the women concentrated on weddings, new babies, and funerals.

Since Sheila didn’t want to play softball with the cousins, she was told by her mother to stay nearby. At the fringes of clustered adults, she sat trying to read her book.

Off to one side the men lounged beneath shade trees on lawn chairs and blankets, smoking, drinking beer, and talking livestock, crops, weather, and upcoming harvests. Only Carl Doty worked in the city, but he held up more than his share of the conversation with details about a demanding, always frustrating job as an electrician where he answered to “that dumb shit” shop owner.

After the men and the women, still grouped separately, had stuffed themselves with too much food, and tongues had loosened from plenty of alcohol, before packing up to leave, a time came of painful recollections. They nibbled at crumbled cookies, and most of them drank strong, black coffee. The Norstad siblings compared hurts and shames—wicked deeds done to them by their father. These early evening ponderings closely resembled what might have been called “group therapy sessions” rather than end-of-the-day summings-up.

This telling ritual started for the men when Carl said something like, “What do you think the Old Man did with his riches?”

The two Norstad brothers, Hans and Peter, would shake their heads, befuddled by the mystery of it all, and regretful because he sure hadn’t given anything to them. Meanwhile the other men sat, not saying a thing, perhaps disgusted by the nature of Thor’s misdeeds or bored by the repetition.

Thorvald Norstad deserted his wife, Emma, and children when Lily was only eight years old. The siblings blamed him when their mother died a few years later, her illness caused, they concurred, by difficulties maintaining a farm situated on dry, barren land. Magda and Selma finished bringing up Lily and cared for the house, while Hans and Peter managed the fields and livestock. Occasionally the family received word from renters that Thor, roaming the countryside, had sold some of his more productive land. Alliances with several women, apparently resulting in no half-siblings, were also reported. To the brothers’ and sisters’ relief, the last one to see him had been Lily, way back in ’46.

With this part of their memories covered, the men would slip into talk of other paternal abuses perpetrated on all of Thor’s children—beatings, deprivation of food, lack of proper clothing.

Off to their side, still sitting at the picnic tables, the married-in women spoke loudly of their own troubles. Magda and Selma, in tones so quiet that Sheila barely heard, spoke to Lily of terrible things Thor had done “to his own daughters.”

Aunt Magda, glancing over toward her brothers, whispered to Aunt Selma, “At least…weren’t violated…personal ways.”

“…lucky ones…” Aunt Selma whispered back.

“…never the same…” Revulsion twisted Aunt Magda’s ruddy features.

Aunt Selma would return to the handiwork in her lap. Scrutinizing it—pulling on a thread here, tying a knot there—commenting no further.

“Lily…favored one…spared,” Aunt Magda seemed compelled to say. Then stated, “He was long gone when you were still a child.”

“I had some beatings,” Lily would respond. “Mama died before I was grown.”

“You were far from alone. You had us.” Aunt Magda swept a hand to include Aunt Selma. “What were your trials compared to the loss…”

“Quiet now. What’s past is past.” Aunt Selma reached her own hand out to stroke Lily’s shoulders, scrunched up to her ears.

The picnics ended with important things said: offenses recounted, assurances repeated.

It was not their fault.

* * *

On this particular picnic, held at the Pine Falls City Park when Sheila was thirteen, politics was a big topic because of the upcoming national election. Democrats all, Uncle Hans said, “Do you think Kennedy can possibly win…being a Catholic?”

“Here’s hoping,” Uncle Peter said, and the rest of the Norstads nodded.

“That shouldn’t make any difference.” Carl had grown up Catholic, yet watched as his converted wife and children headed off to Mass every Sunday without him.

Sheila assessed her father, noting how his dark features stood out against so much blondness.

The others, all Lutherans, grew silent, eyes cast down, except for Aunt Magda, who said, “I don’t care if he is Catholic. Jack Kennedy is a fine-looking man.”

“With such a beautiful wife and little girl.” Aunt Selma pursed her lips. “She’s expecting, you know.”

Once the presidential election and the mundane had been fully discussed, once the food and alcohol had been consumed, the siblings got around to the same old thing—the cruelties of Thorvald Norstad.

“What do you suppose he did with the return on your crops?” Carl began the litany.

“Put it toward another repossessed farm.” Uncle Peter’s white stripe of forehead wrinkled toward his receding hairline.

“Profited from that owner’s bad luck,” Uncle Hans’s back slumped turtle-like.

“Those farmers got a share. More than Hans and me ever saw,” Uncle Peter added.

“The hell you say.” Leroy’s words were hoarse from a constant wad of tobacco. He was Cousin Beverly’s second husband and a newcomer. Sheila found him to be strange—the way he nudged Ronnie, Beverly’s older child, and leered at the girls; the way he talked to Beverly’s daughter, Laurie, criticizing her ten-year-old ruffly pastel shirts in a teasing way that still made the girl squirm.

Sheila wanted to holler at him to leave Laurie alone. Of course she stifled her words.

Also there was the way Leroy listened so intently to the men’s stories.

“It’s every word God’s own truth,” Uncle Hans said. “He was watchful and wily as an old wolf.”

Thor had cheated his sons only once. He offered the boys parcels of land and a percentage of the profit for their labor. After harvest he secretly pocketed every cent. Peter and Hans, from then on, sought out dependable wages paid by honest local farmers.

Sheila had heard too many stories about her awful grandfather. She decided to sneak off to her father’s Chevy, parked across the baseball field, where she could finish her book—Gone with the Wind—undisturbed. Edging away from the adults, she saw that no one looked at her anyhow. Waving cigarettes, spilling coffee or beer, fussing with handiwork, they wouldn’t miss her.

She hunched down in the car’s backseat and, as dusk gathered, read those last few pages. With Scarlett’s words, “Tomorrow’s another day,” Sheila held the book close and wept. Gradually her misty-gray eyes closed, and she dozed off, never putting it down.

“Wha’cha doin’ out here all by yourself?”

Sheila awakened with a jolt by the sound of Leroy’s gravelly voice. She kept her eyes tightly shut. He must be headed to the outhouse. If I stay quiet, he’ll go away.

Leroy eased open the car door and slid in next to her. “Why d’ya want to be holed up with a book?”

She’d heard him ask questions like this of other girl cousins: “How come you wear that orange lipstick?” or “Is that all you do—play softball?” or, to his stepdaughter, Laurie, “Don’t you want to help your mother with the food?  Make the men happy?” These girls—there were four in addition to Sheila—turned fidgety, stammering confused replies.

“Because this is where I want to be.”

“Snippy—snippy.” Leroy’s lip jerked up in a sneer.

“You can’t make me feel bad.” Sheila clenched her jaw.

“Why would I want to do that?” Leroy took Sheila’s book, fingers trailing across the front of her yellow halter top. He moved in close enough so that she could smell his spicy aftershave and a sharp, acrid odor underneath. “What’s special about this?” His words were tinged with amusement. “Gone Wi—”

Sheila grabbed for it but Leroy held the book high and rested his other hand on the back of her neck. “You want?” That hand squeezed hard enough to make a sharp pain shoot up to her head. “Be nice.”

She stretched to a taller sitting position, and Leroy’s hand slid down, resting on the bow at her mid-back. She gave him a shove and frantically peered toward the faraway adults. Talking and talking and talking. Please see me trapped. No one looked her way. Scarlett came to mind and Sheila said, “Get away from me!” She jabbed Leroy with her elbow.

“You’re a tiger.” He grasped her wrist. “Real uppity.”

“If you don’t leave this car this minute, I’ll scream so loud they’ll all come running.” Would anyone notice?

“I just wanted to look at your storybook.”

“Go away!” Sheila let out a wail. And, like she had done as an infant, never stopped hollering until Leroy jumped from the car.

“All right. I’m gone.” He threw the book at Sheila, grazing her cheek with its hard corner. Slamming the door, he said, “You can’t fool me. You wanted attention. You’re a little tease.” He spat a long stream of brown onto the ground.

“You’re dead wrong.”

Sheila waited, rubbing her face, watching his retreating back. After he slipped like a weasel back into the group, she started to consider, Did I say something to him? Did I look at him in some way? She couldn’t think of a thing she had done.

A few minutes later she ran across the grass to where Lily sat.

Her mother casually put a thin, bare arm around Sheila’s waist. “Almost time to go,” she said, oblivious to the girl’s breathlessness. Lily’s new, white, sleeveless shirt and navy-blue pedal pushers that she had taken so much time pressing earlier in the day were rumpled and stained from serving and cleaning. “Have a good time?” She took a sip of beer.

Sheila considered what to say. I can’t upset her. A sickness would follow. She pictured her father’s fury—He’ll have hell to pay! It would ruin the picnic for everyone. “I had fun.”

“What happened to your face?”

“Scratched on a branch.”

“Be more careful. You don’t want to get a scar.” Lily stifled a hiccup and turned, with a defensive look, back to the conversation.

Aunt Magda was telling about how their mother pampered and indulged Lily. “She knew how to get her own way.”

* * *

During the dark drive back home, Sheila pressed against a corner, behind her mother. She watched ten-year-old Tommy, head against his window, feigning sleep. Her father hadn’t caught him smoking behind the pavilion.

Sheila did see him and warned, “Dad’s gonna give you one heck of a beating if he finds out.”

“How will that happen? You won’t tell.”

She never would.

After the picnics Carl would talk about his wife’s family and their ordeals for a good long while. The conversations ended when Lily said, “I sure was lucky that you came along to save me.” Carl pushed his spread hands into the wheel, steering with his large palms.

On this trip, after he had hashed over the same territory and Lily reiterated her good fortune, Carl turned to a new subject. Sensing the change, Sheila quit worrying about Scarlett’s future and tuned in on her parents.

“I don’t know what it is about Ronnie. He reminds me of the Old Man.”

Ronnie wasn’t that much ahead of Sheila—fifteen maybe. She found him to be boring with his round, bland face and heavy-lidded, pale-blue eyes.

“Why would you say that?” Lily’s voice tightened.

“His look.” Carl took a drag from a Lucky Strike. “That waiting-to-take-advantage look.”

“I don’t see it.”

“It’s there,” he persisted. “I know Ronnie’s had it hard. Good thing Leroy came along. To father the boy. Beverly’s damned fortunate she found someone to marry her with two kids in the bargain.”

Sheila pictured those nudges Leroy gave Ronnie when a girl walked by, his head swaying with the movement of her hips. And the way Laurie turned red when she got the least bit close to her stepfather.

“You can see how much he cares for Laurie. Always complimenting her in that backhand way of his.” Carl took another drag. “Mark my words, Ronnie should be watched.”

“You’re right,” Lily agreed like she always did. “So, you had a good time?”

“I enjoy being with your family. You know that.” Carl swerved onto the shoulder of the road but quickly straightened the wheel.

Sheila wondered if Ronnie was really like her long-absent grandfather. Is that how he looked? Ronnie was a tall, heavyset kid—bigger than the other boys, but he never fought with them. He stared at the girls, but he never did anything—anything that Sheila knew about. Not like his stepfather, Leroy. Sheila shivered, recalling his slithering hands. How could Cousin Beverly stand him? Did she know he acted like this? What about Laurie? Who should I tell? Can I tell anyone?

Her mother was happy. The picnic with her family had been another success. There’d be no headaches this night. Her father was happy. In his usual way, he had sparked up the Norstad family. Sheila didn’t know if Tommy was happy or not. Soon she would be home to her own room, all her books, where she could forget about this day. It would be a whole year until another family picnic.

 

THE END