Fall 2017, Volume 23

Fiction by Susan Pepper Robbins

The Tin Can House

The A-Frame was shingled in flattened tin oil cans on the wrong side so the old names of Esso and Texaco didn’t show.  The sun shot a pale greenish light through the oak trees’ April leaves.  The tin house gave the right impression of one of the crazy projects thought up by our delicensed doctor, hammering out all those cans after using a can opener to take the round tops and bottoms off.  Those he used for decorative trim around the two doorways and four windows. Thousands of shingles nailed, one by one, three nails each, to the beams, in the 1950’s. Some people continued to go to him not in his office, of course, which had to be closed, but at his ranch house where he would invite you in and listen to your symptoms.  Not ours.  We never went back to him after the sheriff picked him up for walking in the next county dressed as a woman.  Who’d want to do that Fred asked me, serious and not meaning anything about my beige and navy outfits.

Someone saw the rescue squad go down the road, and later we heard that the team had found Watson Booker stretched out by a log near the tin can house.  In fact, at first, they had thought he was a log, he was so straight and brown, not curled up the way they thought a man would be from freezing, but Watson was stretched out in the leaves, a light cover of snow and a few leaves blown up over him, his rifle propped up in the tin can house where evidently he had been living when he wasn’t walking the roads.  He’d walk thirty miles, even more, every day, carrying the rifle.  Sometimes, people asked him to work, loading hay or wood, but there weren’t any farms left in the county, just a few pulpwood lots, so there wasn’t much heavy work, real farm work to do anymore, only running the lottery machines at the gas stations or using riding lawnmowers to cut old people’s yards. We live in a county with wireless, satellite dishes, suv’s, private academies, people who go on Australian cruises, and where a man can freeze to death.

That summer when the river had sandbars we predicted a brutal winter, and it is true that Lillian brought Tom home from Myrtle Beach in a wheel chair in December. They go to the beach in the winter because it’s cheaper. There hadn’t been anything wrong with him when they left. We all said we’d get a wheel chair too. Tom’s no fool. But Tom and Lillian are another story.

After Watson Booker had been found, Fred said now we wouldn’t have to worry about being shot by Watson.  Fred and I were walkers for the breast cancer people, and we wore the pink ribbons on our insulated jackets.  When Watson would pass us, he tipped his hat, as if it were a century ago, but his rifle was slung on his shoulder and we’d hear a shot after he got out of sight.  “Rabbit,” Fred would say.

We felt better after we joined the Cremation Society, the only club we were in.  I didn’t count the little country church as a club because Fred wouldn’t go with me after Watson Booker had frozen to death less than two miles from the church which was locked anyway. Fred asked what kind of club lets a man freeze outside its doors. He likes to try to make me see things his way. He grew up on a farm in the county and knows all the houses and their families, mostly dead.  We have lived here on since day one, our wedding day when he broke down and cried like a baby.  This humiliating scene I have never gotten beyond and will never forgive Fred for, but he often brings it up because he thinks he understands how some things, like his wedding, he calls it as if I weren’t featured, do not lie too deep for tears.  Some things should be wept over.  The heart knows its reasons, he goes on.  You can see, as I have said many times why I love this man.  This year he is reading Lacan and is struck by how we find our identities.  Looking in the mirror as babies love to do is one way.  I don’t think so.

I was imported to this life like one of those brides in the wild west only I was from Fredericksburg, up Rt. 95 from Richmond, really a suburb of Richmond, Fred says.  He sees me as a kind of exchange student here, though it’s been thirty years.

But it was a comfort knowing about the Society’s twenty-four/seven service. I had seen with my own eyes two men in nice gray suits come for my aunt and take her out of the house with great care at three-thirty that morning last year, not bumping into the walls with the gurney, and going across the yard to their van, unmarked. Much better than the three-day ordeals we were used to when people died.

My Uncle Clement, for instance, who had served a brief term in the state prison in Richmond for mail fraud, had what was for us a state funeral, and gave my aunt—the one gently carried out of the house a year later—her best scenes of the heart-broken widow, her sons holding her up to walk into the church and to sit with her at the dinner that followed the long service.  The minister had promised us all that we would be meeting Clement on the other side where all the rough places were smooth.  The sons, Clemmie Jr and David, inspired by the injustice they felt had been visited on their father for simply using the U.S. Postal System were both attorneys for white collar cases and had never lost in court.

Fred and I did not want such a funeral for ourselves.  For one thing, our daughters, Cynthia and Bea, were through with us and would never have shown up for such a “parade” they had said, knowing that I would like their use of Jane Austen’s phrase even if I was a little sorry they did not want to come to my funeral or their dad’s who was a much better dad than I was mom. Fred wants his ashes flying up from the car window as I drive on Route 6.  That way he will escape at least some of the limits he lives with—he means speed limits, money limits, property lines, maybe his wept-over marriage vows.

We both knew the story of Watson Booker.  He had killed his brother, gone to prison for ten years for aggravated assault, but his family wouldn’t let him come home, much less live there.  “If the black community wouldn’t take him in, we couldn’t because it would cast a light on their judgment.”  Fred settled our white guilt.  As I said, Fred knows many things.  But we did pray for Watson during Joys and Concerns at church.

Fred had a harder time with the news that postmaster who had thick red hair had been appointed and brought with him a wife who was thin and dark. Harder than with Watson Booker freezing to death near the church. The new couple could have been in a fairy tale, and yes, she ran away, though only a few miles, with a man thirteen years younger, blonde, a mama’s boy, who had had a high school sweetheart who broke his heart when she married a Richmond lawyer and drank herself to death.  So that is why the blonde young man decided to go to law school, announced it to his mother who took a third job cleaning houses to put him through the University.  He knew that the world would come to him so he let the dark thin wife of the postmaster run a few miles up to his house, three miles, and nab him, Fred’s word.  This is how Fred tells this story at one of our dinners.  The postmaster found a much better wife nearby, a plump, also red-headed, but divorced, a school teacher.  They married and were happy in her cottage at the lake. The young lawyer turned against his mother who died in a Medicaid nursing home unvisited because she would not sign the farm with the 1912 mansion on it over to him and the thin dark woman. So these two fairy-talers began renovating Fred’s great aunt’s Victorian house with a wraparound porch and two or three gables and triangle windows, balconies, boxwood walks, iris borders, wisteria vines clustered with pale grape lavender shaped blooms. He had some great old houses in his family.  “Better than the people, Fred would add.

Fred did not do so well with the story of Marci and Paul, but he kept trying and I did my part by coming up with different ways to use the venison we were given by the hunters who like to have tree stands on our hundred and twenty-three acres, what was left of the three hundred and sixty Fred inherited.

Here is how Fred laid the story out on the table, so to speak:   Marci had to move out and so she called Paul, her new boyfriend whose wife had died a little over a year ago to come help her pack up.  Paul had a truck, and he was doing exactly what she knew his friends, including Fred, and Paul’s dead wife’s friends, including me, were warning him about. A rescue.

It was true. Marci wanted to be rescued from her daughter who was getting off her meds more and more and was impossible. Running out the house naked up and down the country road, no cars that time of night except the few who drive in to make the biscuits at Hardee’s.  Even if it meant Marci would be leaving the eighteen month old granddaughter to somehow grow up with a crazy road running mother.

And there was the problem of Marci’s husband.  The divorce was not final. Marci needed help, and Paul was a helper.  He had just finished seeing his Florence through her cancer to the end.  Everyone knew Paul had been the best nurse in the world. Some things are what they are even when we know they are headed in the wrong direction.  Too soon, everyone was saying, too soon.

Marci knew and Paul knew about being unhappy, and knowing what they knew made them feel above criticism and safe with each other.  Paul had a big pretty house: Marci had nowhere to go. It was that simple, but Paul had children with children and ideas about who should live in their just-dead mother’s big pretty house. They were afraid for their dad but could see he was trying to get a life, a new one. Paul’s daughters, Janice and Helen, said the whole Marci thing—the dating and then the move—was too stupid, too sad for words, and made a comedy of Hamlet’s joke about the funeral meats leftovers used for the widow’s wedding, so they refused to go help with Marci’s move-in which involved moving their mother’s things out to a storage place and Marci’s not-as-nice things in.

Janice and Helen were mothers of teens and were themselves Facebookers, texters, on-line shoppers who knew that sixty was the new forty, but forty could be both stupid and dangerous.  They were forty-two and forty-four and had made their own stupid mistakes, ones they’d rather not think about but were afraid Paul had already told Marci, chapter and verse. 

It did not help to say to each other that it, meaning the whole mid-life crisis dating was all stupider than stupid.  Well, maybe a little.

Fred invited Marci and Paul to dinner without telling me until that afternoon.  He didn’t forget, it was just that he felt free to invite them out of the blue, counting on me to make it all work.  That’s true love, he said in his infuriating, dark voice.

That night—no venison, but what Fred said was chicken purlieu, almost as great as his mother’s chicken purlieu,  steaming on the table in the ironstone tureen from Charleston with the ironed-thin napkins and Lenox china, we swam toward helping Paul and Marci.  How did we think we were qualified to help?  Who will help the helpers?  Nobody is who.

Fred swam on, using his powerful Australian, swim-team-at-the University stroke to tell the story of Sheila and Carl, one with a dead person under a walnut tree-much more danger in each sentence and swallow of the cheap wine we served, than Marci and Paul could muster in their little story. They would feel better about their lives, their problems, after hearing about Sheila and Carl.

It went this way, Fred, at the head of the old library table in our dining room, ladling out with his great-aunt’s silver spoon, the chicken purlieu, cleared his swimmer’s throat: “One evening, Sheila’s husband found her letters to Carl.”

Carl is my great nephew so the story by all rights should have been mine to tell.  Not a chance.

“So,” Fred has picked up the modern way of beginning, “So, Sheila’s husband whose name is lost to history put Carl’s love letters to his Sheila on the dash of his truck and his loaded shotgun on the seat.  Then he drove over to where Carl was staying, at my Merle’s cousin’s house thirty miles south of Richmond.  When Beth, the cousin of Merle and Sheila, came home that night and saw a strange truck parked in the wrong place in her yard, she was irritated.  How would her grass stand a chance.  But when Beth walked over to the truck, she almost stumbled over what looked like a large sleeping or wounded animal.

Beth panicked, ran into her house and called her nephew, this is Merle’s and her cousin, remember, Carl’s younger brother. Beth was in hysterics, but at that point, the hysterics fell into a normal range for rural North America.  She thought there was a bear or a deer out in her front yard by a stranger’s truck.  It might well have been a dead animal because her neighbor in one of his alcoholic schemes had draped a dead sheep over Beth’s fence, angry about Beth's complaints that his cows and sheep were getting out on the road.  It never crossed her mind that it was a dead person, much less Sheila's husband.  She'd never met Sheila or even heard of her, much less her husband.  Beth was not the kind of person to ask questions. She had never asked Carl about where he had been when he did not come back to her house which has an outside staircase to her attic where Carl had asked to stay when his wife, he said, beat him almost to death with the ironing board which he did not know had so much metal in it.

We said later that it was a blessing Beth did not call the sheriff.  We said that it was also a blessing that Carl had not been there in his attic room.  Sheila’s husband had had a heart attack, another blessing.  No one was murdered.  No one.  Sheila and Carl had a nice wedding in the summer. 

So, Fred let the obvious moral of the story hang over the supper party for Paul and Marci, the smears of the purlieu on the plates:  Things work out.  There does not have to be a shot fired.  Paul seemed to get it, but Marci had questions even though I felt that they were the wrong ones, like what kind of wedding was it and how much did the caterer/florist cost.




BIO: Susan Pepper Robbins is a writing instructor at Hampden-Sydney College in Virginia. Her most recent book is There is Nothing Strange (2016). Susan's previous works have been awarded the Deep South Prize and the Virginia Prize, and include One Way Home and the story collection Nothing but the Weather.