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Part 1

by Phyllis Martens

In the strong sunlight of an early summer afternoon, the cool dark shadow of the house lay across Tante Lieze's yard like a cutout of black paper. Heinrich, following the path toward the back of the house, stopped in the shade and set down his suitcase. Men's work shirts and pants hung on wires strung between two iron poles. Not Dietrich's--he was long gone. In the neighbor's garden, bordered by straggling red and orange zinnias, a small girl in a faded pink sunbonnet knelt pulling weeds. She paused to watch the approach of the man.

Heinrich picked up the suitcase--leather, old, with many straps and buckles--and continued toward the back entrance of the house. Under his heavy black hair his face was flushed. He stumbled over the iron mud scraper but caught himself on the handrail.

He pushed open the basement door with his foot and started down the cement steps, shifting the suitcase from step to step ahead of him. At the bottom he abandoned the suitcase and started across the dim room. His foot struck the floor drain--he lurched and stopped with a furious exclamation. He could hear Lentya's scrabbling noises in the other room. Pulling a handkerchief from his pocket, he wiped his face and neck, and opened the door.

Lentya, listening with her head raised, uttered a harsh burbling sound. He stepped past her and sat down by the table.

Across the small room Frieda sat on the couch crocheting something out of pink string. She watched Heinrich with her bright curious eyes. Her flat cheeks were highly rouged. "Na, Heinrich, vout deist?"

Heinrich glanced at her, frowning. "Where's Lizzie?"

"She went to Stoez's. She was out of sugar. She needs it for Lentya's zwieback. Zwieback soaked in coffee with sugar, that's what Lentya eats. If there ain't no sugar, she won't eat it."

Heinrich snorted. "Lizzie shouldn't feed her that stuff."

"Na nay, she should give her something else. Nice vegetables from the garden. Lentya spits everything out...."

He cut her off with an exclamation and leaned his head on his hands. Lentya, who had been listening intently, now crawled toward him. When her groping hands touched his trouser leg she stopped. "Ah--ah--ah!" she cried, pointing toward her mouth.

Frieda burst out laughing. "She wants you to give her candy. Yesterday Wienscha brought her corn candy in a little sack, from the dimestore, a nickel worth."

Heinrich pulled the clinging hand away impatiently. "I don't have candy. When is she coming back?"

"Oh, I guess pretty soon. She has to walk slow, her legs bother her." Frieda was surveying him with great interest. "You been drinking again? I can smell it."

Heinrich snorted but did not answer or look at her.

"Ah-ah," Lentya insisted, pointing at her mouth.

Frieda got up and rummaged in the cupboard. "You can give her this peppermint. Ma always get nice white peppermints from Klaas. He gives her extra for Lentya."

"Give it to her yourself," Heinrich said, turning away.

Frieda put the peppermint into the groping hand. Lentya began to suck on it noisily, drooling. "She slobbers something terrible," Frieda remarked.

She returned to the sofa. "I saw old man Steuke drunk last week, on Tuesday night when I was walking home from Dickman's house. He couldn't walk by himself. Steve Olsen was holding him up under the arms, from behind. Old man Steuke goes to Quevli's all the time and gets drunk, he...."

"You talk too much," Heinrich interrupted irritably. He got up, went over to the high window and peered out.

"I saw Mrs. Reimer at Ben Franklin's dime store. She said somebody could run over old man Stueke and he wouldn't even know it. She said Peters is in trouble too."

Heinrich jerked around. "Which Peters?"

"The one from Gessel. The preacher."

"You're crazy! He doesn't drink!"

"Na nay," Frieda said complacently. "He doesn't drink. He went bankrupt. He has to sell his farm at auction. Mrs. Reimer said...."

"Dummheit. Peters isn't bankrupt," Heinrich exclaimed. He sat down again at the table and put his head in his hands.

"Jah, jah, he is," Frieda affirmed. "Mrs. Reimer, she told me. She's second cousin to Peters' wife--they was both Radtkes. She said Peters don't know hot to farm, he...."

"Can't you make that girl stop slobbering!" Heinrich gestured impatiently at Lentya.

"Better leave her alone," Frieda advised without moving. "If she starts screaming you can't stop her. The people upstairs get mad. They pound on the floor with the broom. They told Tante Liesze they'd call the marshal...."

"Yes, yes, I know all that," Heinrich said, irritated. He got up and began walking up and down the narrow room, glancing out the high basement window.

Frieda settled back comfortably. "Mrs. Reimer said Peters' machinery is always breaking down, he don't know how to fix it, he just ties it together with wire. She said...."

"There's nothing wrong with Peters! He's a good man!" Heinrich darted an angry glance at her, then sat down again, his back to her, frowning.

"Oh, jah, he's a good man," Frieda agreed. "Mrs. Reimer said Peters built his outhouse in the wrong place, the wind always blows the smell right to the house...."

A furious exclamation from Heinrich stopped her. Lentya had crawled to Heinrich's chair and now sat pulling at his trouser leg. He jerked away. "Wash her!" he commanded.

Frieda rose, got a wet cloth from the outer room, and knelt to wipe the girl's face. Lentya squirmed away, whimpering. All at once she sat upright, listening.

"Ma's coming," Frieda announced.

Heinrich became aware of his sister's slow tread in the other room. A moment later Tante Lieze entered, carrying her black cloth bag. The cat slipped through the door at her heels. "Goan dach, Heinrich," she greeted him. "Lentya, the cat's in."

Lentya groped for the cat. It sniffed delicately at her fingers, then jumped into her lap and settled down. Lentya leaned over it, crooning softly.

"I told Heinrich preacher Peters went bankrupt," Frieda remarked, "but he don't believe it."

"I didn't hear it," Tante Lieze said shortly. "Here's the flour sacks you wanted from the dime store. You can look at them at home."

Frieda fingered the small parcel with interest. "Jah, I want to make dishtowels. My old ones are dirty. I can put this pink crochet around them to look nice...."

"Jah, jah, that's good," Tante Lieze interrupted. "Just don't dry the kettles with them this time."

Na nay, not the kettles." Frieda gathered her things together and stood up. "Mrs. Reimer said...."

Frieda, you go now," Tante Lieze ordered sharply. She stopped abruptly, then said in a gentler voice, "Thank you for coming."

Frieda walked slowly to the door. "Na jah, I'll come again." She looked around the room for a moment and then walked out.

"Once she gets talking there's no stopping her," Tante Lieze said. "I have to send her home. It's bad, but I can't help it."

"She's got no sense at all," Heinrich exclaimed. "George should keep her home."

"Jah,--if he was ever home himself." Tante Lieze got two cups from the cupboard, fetched the coffee pot from the stove in the other room, and poured coffee.

Heinrich drank his at once. "I need a place to stay," he told her.

Tante Lieze opened the parcel of sugar and stirred some into her coffee. "What's the matter with Tohfeld's--she asking too much?"

They told me to get out. They heard I was going to Quevli's again." Heinrich leaned his head on one hand and stared at the oilcloth, once yellow with a pattern of blue cherries but now faded and badly cracked.

His sister looked at him. "Don't blame them, Heinrich, they have children at home. Grandma Wiens might take you, she has a room. But listen, don't go to Quevli's. Drinking don't hurt some men, but you...."

Frowning, Heinrich rubbed his finger along the cracks in the oilcloth. "Where shall I go then?" he burst out suddenly. "At Quevli's at least I can joke a little."

Tante Lieze thought a long while, stirring her coffee. At length she leaned forward. "Why not go back to Montana? You have a piece of land there, people respect you. You'd find work, you're a good carpenter. Teacher, too--a school might take you.

Heinrich stirred uneasily but said nothing.

Helena takes good care of the girls. They're happy with her. She's got plenty room for them. When you're settled you can come back for them.

"Better I don't see them," he muttered.

"Go and see them. They need to see their dad." Tante Lieze shoved her cup aside and looked earnestly at her brother. "Heinrich, listen, go to Montana. You're a young man yet, you don't have to throw your life away. Build a good house on your land, then come and get the girls...make a good home for them, so they can be proud of you. They would be ashamed to see you bum around like old man Steuke. You're a fine man, educated. You don't have to stay in this town." After a pause she added, "God will help you. I pray for this every day."

"Dout meint aula nusht!" he exclaimed vehemently. "It means nothing!" He got up and walked to the window. "Before Maria died I prayed, sometimes all night. I knelt on the floor in the wash house, it was freezing but I didn't care. I promised God everything if he would let Maria live." He turned abruptly and sat down. "Now I don't pray."

She sighed. "You should talk it over with the minister."

"Who--Jauntz? I met him in the park one day. I asked him, why did Maria have to die? How can I understand this? You know what he said? He wagged his big beard up and down and said, You didn't have faith, brother. The prayer of faith saves the sick. I asked him, Then why is your father-in-law flat in bed with a stroke for seven years now? Don't you have faith--or maybe you don't want him to get well? He said, That's the Lord's will, we must accept it. What kind of answer is that, once this way, once that way?"

"Oh--Jauntz! What does he know!" Tante Lieze answered with some heat. "Have you talked with Peters though?"

Heinrich seemed not to hear her but stared moodily at the table.

"Peters--did you talk to him?" she prodded.

He glanced at her in annoyance. "Jah, jah, I talked to him"

"What did he say then?" She folded her hands and waited.

"He said, One must believe in the goodness of God because without it the universe makes no moral sense."

Tante Lieze glanced at him sideways to see if he was making fun of her. Deciding he was not, she asked, "What means that?"

He glanced at her in irritation. "God never does anything bad."

"Ach vas! Any dummstah in kindergarten knows that! That's all he said?"

He refused to answer, but sat picking small pieces off the cracks in the oilcloth.

Lentya began to whimper. The cat had jumped from her lap and was walking daintily along the top of the bookshelf, behind a studio photograph of a young woman. "Na, du Kaut!" Lieze exclaimed. "He'll knock your picture down. Hei, get down!" The cat leaped from the bookshelf and stood by the door, meowing.

Tante Lieze rose to let the cat out, then took an old black handbag from the cupboard and gave it to Lentya. "Here, you can have your purse." Lentya jerked the purse open and emptied it on the floor--spools, clothespins, jar rings.

"What did Peters mean?" Tante Lieze asked with dignity. "I'm only a woman but I can understand something!"

"You don't understand anything!" Heinrich exclaimed. "Peters says we must believe God is good because if he wasn't, everything would break to pieces."

She thought it over. "Jah, zo es et. That's how it is."

Heinrich shook his head. "Loot at Peters. An educated man--he reads Russian, German, Bulgarian, writes for papers in Canada--how does he live? On a farm like an ignorant fool. He doesn't know farming. He should have a church in the Cities."

"It's his wife," Tante Lieze said. "She doesn't want to leave her parents."

Heinrich made a disgusted noise. "What kind of woman is that?"

Tante Lieze was silent. At last she said, "Listen, I want to ask you something. Why did God give me these children? A cripple and a blabbermouth with no sense. Why not bright ones like yours?"

"Go ask Jauntz."

She glanced at him, annoyed, then went on. "You read books, I thought maybe you found an answer somewhere." She paused. "I heard it said that Lentya was born crippled up to punish me and Dietrich because we were too proud. That's what somebody said, but I don't believe it."

He slammed his hand hard on the table. "They don't know anything! Dumma Leid! Whatever some fool says they repeat--the words don't go through their heads even, just slide in one ear and out their mouth, like a thrash machine. Who thinks around here?"

"Na jah," she said, "--they're farm people--how shall they think like you? Don't take it hard if they're simple." She looked at his flushed face anxiously and added, "They want to help."

He glared at her. "When Maria died, did they come to help? Her own sisters...they squabbled like a bunch of chickens over the furniture to see how cheap they could get it. They wanted to send my girls, all four of them, little as they are, one here, one there, to help on the farm when they grew up. That's the kind of help I got!"

"Ssshh," Tante Lieze said, jerking her head toward Lentya. "She hears. Anyway it didn't happen."

He glanced at Lentya in contempt, but lowered his voice. "Now they ask me, why don't you go to church any more. Nobody wants me at church but the old maids--they're the ones that want me. Widow Braun invited me to dinner, she thinks I'll marry her now because of her garden with the white picket fence. That crazy Sarah making cow eyes at me on the church yard. I won't go. Anyway the preacher talks nonsense."

"You can't blame the women--too few men around, and you're educated," she told him.

"So when I go to Quevli's to get away, talk with the men, they gossip all over town what a sinner I am and throw me out of the school." He jerked around in the chair and stared at the wall. "Nobody can live in this town. They're even dragging out all that stuff I did twenty years ago."

She sighed. "It's true. Nush f'gehta, nusht f'geva. Forget nothing, forgive nothing."

They sat without speaking. At last Tante Lieze said, "Go to Montana. The people are good. You can get a job, things will be easier. Helena will look after the girls, Johann has plenty of money, he doesn't mind. Just go. There's nothing in this town for you."

He stared at the floor. "I could try it," he muttered at last. "If it doesn't work out, Schroder said he has carpenter work for me over in Dumfrey." He turned to her suddenly. "My books--are they here?"

She stood up, rummaged under the bed in the corner and pulled out a cardboard box. "Take them along, you might need them." She picked up a notebook with cardboard covers. "Look, your Sunday School teacher notes--a whole book full."

He glanced at the pages, covered with fine German script. "Give it to Jauntz, maybe he could learn something."

"Take your picture of Maria along too, this time." She gestured toward the portrait on the bookshelf. The young woman in the portrait had dark hair and eyes and wore a filmy high-necked blouse with a collar of pointed lace. Heinrich did not turn his head.

"You could take the 10:40 train Saturday," Tante Lieze went on. "I can wash your clothes. Now I make you supper." She pushed the box aside and moved toward the cupboard.

"Nay, I'll eat at Steuke's."

"Well, sleep here then. You can have the couch. Lentya can come with me in the bed."

Hearing her name, Lentya crawled whimpering toward her mother. "Jah, jah, you can eat now, in a minute," Tante Lieze said.

Heinrich looked at the clutter on the floor in disgust. "You should take her to the Home."

Tante Liesze gave him an angry look. "I took care of her twenty years, I can take care of her twenty more."

Heinrich got up and went to the door. She hesitated, then walked after him. "Heinrich, listen, Peters is right. It will work out. God will help you."

"Any fool can say that," he muttered.

"And any fool can trample it under his feet!" she retorted. "But listen, don't go to Quevli's. Go see the girls instead."

"Na ja," he said, and hurried out.

(To be continued)