I sit in my parlor with the man on the phonograph.
“Can you help me find a policeman?” The man on the phonograph speaks like there is no danger. “Konnen sie mir helfen polizisten zu finden?”
I repeat the question. I am learning proper German. When the boarder asked when I will visit Germany, I said never. I can speak the language right here in Stoltzfus.
“I am lost. Ich habe mich verlaufen,” he says.
“I am lost. Ich habe mich verlaufen,” I say.
I hear a key in the front door lock. The door opens and lets in the cold air. I lift the phonograph arm before the man can ask another question.
The boarder steps inside and turns the bolt. “It’s me,” she says like I might think it’s someone else. She goes to the teacher’s college up the hill studying plants, but Stoltzfus has no wilderness, so she walks down through pastures to Wandering Creek and the marsh forest beneath the hill.
I put my feet in my slippers and walk out to the hall. Red and yellow apples fill her pockets, I see, and I remember the old trees at the college. “It is after eight,” I say. I told her I wanted her in by eight so I can wash out the tub, iron tomorrow’s dress, and take my bubble bath at half past. I don’t want to wait for her to come home and pee.
The student turns to me, and her yellow curls fall across the shoulder of her corduroy jacket. “It’s just a little after,” she says. “Just five minutes. I hurried back.”
I want to say that five minutes late one day become ten minutes late the next. “You will eat those apples?”
“Yes.” She puts her hand to her pocket, and I know that tomorrow when I go up to clean I will find apple peels in the waste basket. I told her I want no eating in her room, but today I smelled kielbasa and chow-chow. She keeps the food locked in her suitcase.
“You will get sick,” I tell her.
The girl looks at the attic stairs. “These apples haven’t been sprayed.” Most boarders would take the guest room and be glad to have it. Not her. A young salesman came knocking asking did I have a room for the month and I had to say no. I explained about the girl student and said I didn’t want them meeting in the bathroom one morning. “If I see her, I won’t take a second look,” the salesman promised. He was smiling all innocent. “It’s the first look that worries me!” I said.
“I want to talk to you, Miss.”
“What?” The boarder turns away.
“I will show you. Come and follow.” I lead her through the dining room and the kitchen, the same as when Roy and me built this house. Light shines on the yellow oilcloth I wiped after supper. The girl smells of leaves and damp, and I look to see what she tracked in. Tomorrow after quilting, I will run the sweeper. I open the bathroom door. “You made a mess this forenoon.”
The porcelain sink and tub are clean now. I pull up the shower curtain and turn out the bottom corner. “I sewed this sinker to keep the curtain closed. But you, Miss, every morning you leave the curtain open and water goes everywhere.”
She opens her hands like to measure. “It couldn’t have been more than a crack. I guess I didn’t notice.”
“Didn’t notice.” Some people never even look. “You ought to notice.” I stuff the curtain inside the rim. “Make sure it’s closed tight.”
“I will,” she says. “It won’t happen again.” She makes to go, but I’m not done yet. No, sir.
“Now, wait.” I tear a square of quilted yellow paper from the roll. “Looky here, I don’t want you using so much paper. This piece is enough.” I fold the square in half. “Every day, you sit, and I never hear a flush for ten minutes. You ought to eat raisins and prunes like my ma did.”
“Raisins.” She smiles. “That’s a good idea.”
She shouldn’t smile. This is serious. “Sit too long and you clog the hopper. Then oh, my goodness. I been here thirty-one years, and I never needed a repair, except this May eighteenth, four months before you come, I paid forty dollars for the plumber—and the hopper still don’t work right. Water leaks in the bowl, and I have to open the tank and push down the seal with my fingers. So I don’t want you flushing all the time. It hurts the plunger that lets the water in. For number two is enough. And don’t you go dropping your female napkins in there. Put them in the trash.”
She shakes her head. “I never throw my pads in the toilet.”
“Well, good,” I say, “so you don’t need to start.” One way or another, this girl makes trouble. Two weeks ago, she gives me a two-brush set with boar’s bristles and pear wood handles, not cheap. Wrapped it up nicely and added a Hallmark card. “Why did you do this?” I asked, holding up the brushes in their box. “Just to thank you,” she said. “Yours was the last room near school.” But that was no reason. “I charge you rent,” I said. Last week, I gave the brushes in the same box to my sister Belle for her birthday, with a new card. Now Belle owes me something nice for Christmas.
I pull the towel from its bar by the door and hand it over. “This is my convenience room. In the morning after you finish, you take your dirty towel with you.”
She holds the towel to her nose. “It isn’t dirty. Can’t I leave it here?”
“No. Take it upstairs.” I return her frown, open a drawer in the vanity, and take out a bath mat and a towel. “Now, watch.” I lay the bath mat on the carpet by the tub and place the towel over. “When you shower, after you open the curtain and set to get out, stand on this, yes?” To show her how, I kick off my slippers, step on the towel and shuffle my feet. I slide my feet back into the slippers so she won’t see my hose darned with white thread. “Don’t you go walking about.”
“Make sure you dry off good.” I flip the hem of her towel. To show the time it will take, I arrange on the tank lid my bottle of bubble bath, the medicated powder can, a stick of air freshener, and the little basket with plastic blue and pink forget-me-nots. Then I bend over and pick up the towel. “Once you finish, hang it up.” I shake my towel over the waste basket, fold it, and slip it over the rack where her towel was. “Like I told you, tomorrow is my church quilting from eight to eleven in the forenoon. I get up at six o’clock, I put on the hot water for my tea, and I eat my egg and see the paper. Then I go set my hair for fifteen minutes in the bathroom. So you remember, on Tuesdays, you take your shower some other time, not then, hear?”
The boarder’s face is red like when she came in. “I remember. Is that it?”
By the sink’s hot water faucet, I set her new soap bar on end in its traveling tray. “Yes, I believe.” The girl just stands there, so I clap my hands. “All right, raus!” And I shoo her back through the kitchen and the dining room to the front hall.
She opens the door to the stairs. “My mattress has a dip in it,” she says. “It gives me back aches. Is there another I could use?”
I could switch the mattress in the attic with the one from the guest room bed, but it will take more complaints before I go to the bother. “You got to turn your mattress regular. I’ll come up if you want my help. That mattress is good quality, and it’s not much used. I bought it for my Ma before she passed.”
I look in the parlor at the pictures on the table and the one showing Ma leaning away from the baby Irene on her hip. “It was Sunday, fourteen years ago this July second, and we all was ready for church. So I call up, ‘Ma! Roy Junior, Roy Allen, and Royleen is waiting. You’d best hurry, ’cause we’re near late!’ But I hear no answer, so I go up to see. There, she’s gone, lying on the bed all dressed but one glove on.”
The boarder looks at me like maybe she don’t like to hear she’s sleeping in a deathbed except she sees I’m set to cry. “I’m sorry,” she says. “It’s better that way. I hope that’s how it happens to me.”
I turn my face and sniff the tears up my nose. “Yes, if God loves you, He takes you quick, not piece by piece like the doctors took my Roy.” That in payment for his temper and his fists. With one hand I hold the other to say I’m not asking for pity, just telling an old grief. “After Ma, my daughter Royleen moved up there to get away from her brothers. But she soon run off and got married. No one used that mattress since.”
The one time I visited Royleen in her new stone-built house, I counted three bathrooms and a half-bath off the mudroom so her William could wash up from his pigs. “Why don’t you ask if I’m happy?” Royleen asked me. “Why should I need to ask?” I asked back.
The student sets her foot on the first step. “I’ll turn the mattress. Good night.” A dried leaf is caught in her blonde hair, and I almost reach out to it, but instead I take a tissue from the pocket in my dress.
“Guten naven.” I blow my nose and go in the parlor and turn off the lamp. It is too late to practice my German; I will just sit a moment before I go wash out the tub.
I see a glow on the attic steps, and I picture the girl tossing apples on the bed. Lying there, Royleen placed her open hand upon the angled ceiling and used an ink pen to trace her fingers. The wallpaper is dark enough that you hardly see it. That one fall and winter, she complained she was cold, but she could not go back to her old room now that Roy Allen had it for his own. A space heater cost too much electricity. I took up blankets and told her to open the door so the warm came up the stairs. She’d sleep better that way. But she kept it closed.
Both girls can hold their water. Like this student, Royleen would wait until she thought the house was asleep before she came down to use the hopper. But I always heard. Growing up, she’d twist her apple’s stem and count through the alphabet until it broke on the first letter of the name of the man she’d marry. She never came close to W. Twelve years and still no children, though the boys say she and her husband get along. She always tried to peel the apple in one long strip for good luck. Sometimes, she ate the poison seedcase, almond tasting. “You have to eat hundreds to get sick,” she said. “I’m not Sleeping Beauty.”
“You mean Snow White,” I corrected. Maybe she ate too many.
I like apples too, and I put up a hundred quarts of sauce, apple butter, and pie filling that autumn Royleen was a baby. We’d visit the orchard across Millersburg Road. I had permission from the owner to pick up fallen apples if me and Roy kept a look out and chased off the teenagers who parked there. The orchard is long gone and so’s the rental house. It had bad wiring and burned down twenty years ago this April.
In mid-afternoon after I finished my chores, I’d push Royleen’s carriage up the track. I’d spread her blanket where it was warm, lift out the roly-poly and smell her dry, bald head. Doc Kutzer recommended molasses for her iron deficiency, and I didn’t know yet I was mixing a double dose into the formula.
I remember one October day after harvest but before the first hard frost. Bees buzzed above fruit crushed by tractors. Ants and beetles feasting. I opened a grain sack and gathered the apples at hand, combing them from the grass. Some were bottom-bruised and some were perfect, but every one would rot if no one took them. The baby dozed in the sun, so I widened my search. I picked up every decent apple beneath the nearby trees. I had a big bag and a yen for apples. I wanted to put up as many quarts as I could. My need and the bees, the cider smell, a squirrel’s chattering down the lane—all drew me away.
How long was I gone that golden afternoon? I completely forget. What bad could happen? Nothing did.
Except when I returned, I found my baby fallen half off her blanket. All about lay the worm apples I had scorned. Leaning back, eyes closed, she had her mouth on one of them, and she was eating.
Jeff Boyer received his MFA in Fiction from the University of Massachusetts, was chosen as an Emerging Professional in Fiction by the Delaware States Arts Council, and has had stories published in Sonoma Mandala, The New Renaissance, Karamu, and elsewhere. He lives with his wife and 39 cats on five-acres in Rising Sun, MD.