by Phyllis Martens
The air was cool now, and fresh after the stuffiness of the basement. The sun shone clear in the west and a breeze had spring up. The washing flapped on the wires.
Heinrich walked rapidly toward town past the neat white houses, each in its green yard planted with peony bushes, lilacs and small evergreens. Here and there a woman worked bent over in her garden, wide in the hips, head tied up in a kerchief. Small children climbed shrieking on piles of bricks or chased each other across the yard. Heinrich walked by without speaking to anyone.
Near the park he heard hammering--Schroder's men were building some kind of wooden platform in the middle of the park. He remembered that the German Band was going to play that night--everyone would be in town.
A woman was coming towards him, tall, smartly dressed. A girl in white stockings walked beside her, carrying music books. "It's Herr Jentzen!" the girl cried, and stopped. Heinrich recognized her as one of his pupils. He prepared to greet her, but the mother, eyebrows arched, took the child by the elbow and moved her firmly past. "But mamma, I want to talk to Herr Jentzen!" he heard the child protest. The mother said something in a sharp tone.
Heinrich stared after them; then turned on his heel and hurried to Steuke's. It was the restaurant owner's father who was the town drunk.
The small restaurant smelled of fried pork and coffee. Heinrich strode past the men sitting at the long counter and sat down at one of the small tables toward the back. A young girl in a white blouse and black skirt, blonde hair tied in a knot, took his order.
A stout man in overalls and blue workshirt stopped, then eased himself into the chair opposite, nodding genially at Heinrich. "You don't want to eat alone, company's free," he said. "I'm Congers from Gessel. Came for one of Johann's oil stoves for the wife. She's tired of burning wood." He put out a large hand.
The farmer regarded him with interest. "The school teacher, eh? Wife died ten, eleven months ago? Guess you ain't married again?"
Heinrich glared at him.
"No offense. Life's better with a wife, all I meant. Somebody to cook, iron the shirts. Who's got the kids?"
"My sister Helena."
"Good, that's good. They got the money to do it." He winked at Heinrich. who snorted and did not answer. The waitress came up with a bowl of cabbage soup and a place of rye bread.
"Well, hel-lo," Congers said to the waitress. "What kind of borscht you got there? Not much meat, I see. Oh well, I got to eat. Bring me the same. Tell Steuke to stir up the thick stuff from the bottom. Famine's in Russia, not here, tell him." He patted the girl on the arm. She smiled and walked away. "Wife cooks better soup," he told Heinrich, "but Steuke's girls is better-looking."
Heinrich poured water into his soup to cool it. "Listen, I heard Peters is selling his farm. You know him? The preacher?"
"Jah, sure, I know him. The wife goes to church there. Me, I kinda give up on it. I go to sleep every time--work hard all week, Sunday, the minute I sit down I'm off. Anyway he preaches too high for me."
"Is he selling out?"
"Could call it that. He's bankrupt." Congers settled back in his chair, which began to tip. "Darn chairs. Why can't Steuke get something decent? Peters, you know--he ain't nothing of a farmer. Got his head in his books when he ought to be out fixing his machinery. Them things don't take care of themselves. God ain't gonna work no miracles on machinery, not even for a preacher. Bad luck, too. We call him Hail Peters, always hails along that stretch of land."
The waitress brought Congers' order. "Gimme some of that rhubarb pie," he told her, pointing with his knife. "And coffee, black." She nodded and left.
"What's he going to do?" Heinrich asked.
"Who, Peters? Work for Sloan, selling seed. Not much of a job but it's steady." Congers dipped a corner of bread into the soup and lifted it, dripping, to his mouth.
Heinrich watched him in disgust, then said, "Peters should get a job in the Cities. He's too smart to be selling seed for a living." He added, "I hear they pay their preachers pretty good up there."
"Could be." Congers continued eating. "Nobody stopping him. Got to admit, his wife looked a bit down in the mouth last time I seen her. Can't blame her. They're moving into the old Schmotzer place. It's a mess, I can tell you. Give their boys something to do, clean it up."
Heinrich ate in silence, then said suddenly, "And you, how much did you pay him?"
"Pay who--Peters? What for? He don't work for me."
"No, no, your church. What did the church pay him for preaching?"
Congers wiped his mouth on his shirt sleeve and slowly leaned back. "Country churches don't pay preachers. Ain't got that kind of money. Preachers have their farms, gardens, work during the week. Of course we bring the family something--corn, sack of potatoes, clothes other children grown out of. Try to see they're getting by."
Heinrich snorted. "That's it, then! Peters speaks four languages, has a seminary degree, and he's supposed to support his family on that piece of a farm and live on handouts! You Gessel people are rich enough, you could pay him a decent salary and never miss it!"
Congers' eyes narrowed. "A lot of preachers doing it just fine."
"Peters is different. He's not cut out for farming."
Congers, taking his time, smeared butter thickly on his bread. Finally he said, "Don't believe in paying for preaching the Word. Man preaches for money, where's the Spirit of God? Old Vogle, preacher when I was a kid, used to say, don't mix money and the Word, it's like mixing soda and vinegar, nothing but fizz. Nope, he gets the Word free, he should give it out free. Don't want no money-crazy man behind the pulpit."
"I don't suppose you farmers would be money-crazy with them big accounts Al Smear at the bank says you all got!"
Congers cast him a hard sidelong look. "Al Smear's got no business talking about our bank accounts. Anyway we work plenty hard for it. Peters got some things to learn."
"Listen," Heinrich said, his voice rising, "I taught school, I know what it's like to study by oil lamp three or four hours every night. It's a different kind of work, and it isn't easy. Peters is no fool. He's an educated man. He could take over a church in the Cities and do a good job."
Congers sat back, thumbs hooked into the bib of his overalls, and regarded Heinrich with cool amusement. "Why don't he, then? I'll tell you why. His wife won't leave Gessel because of her family, that's the whole of it. Man who can't manage his wife ain't worth a hill of beans. When I moved to Gessel I didn't ask my wife for no permission. If she'd of objected I'd of slapped her one. But-I didn't have to. She knows who wears the pants. I try to keep her happy, buy her a couch or stove now and then. That's what women want, a little present in one hand and the back of the other if they're sassy."
Heinrich looked at him with contempt but said nothing.
The waitress brought pie on a small plate and a mug of coffee. Heinrich stared moodily at the floor while Congers ate. Finally he leaned toward Congers, gripping the table. "Listen, pay Peters enough so he won't go bankrupt. Don't make him leave."
"If it's the Lord's work, the Lord will reward him," Congers said easily, and beckoned to the waitress for more coffee.
"Doesn't the Scripture say, don't muzzle the ox that treats the corn?" Heinrich said, his voice loud enough that several men at the counter turned their heads.
"Right handy with the scriptures, eh? I admire that. Look, nobody asked him to do all that studying. Preacher over to Muletown says he gets his sermons while he milks the cows Saturday night. Good farmer too. People respect him."
"That's what you call God's word--something the guy dreams up while he's milking?"
"Why not? He says the Spirit moves him while he's out there in the barn, sitting quiet." Congers sat twirling his fork between his fingers, glancing toward the waitress busy behind the counter.
Heinrich seized his head with both hands. "Bunch of fools!" he muttered.
Congers started up, then slowly relaxed, keeping his eyes on Heinrich. "Be careful who you call a fool. I got my job and you ain't. Don't think we don't know about you." He paused to look Heinrich hard in the face. "Let me tell you, Jentzen, too much in the books, a man gets the big head. And that goes for you too."
"Dummheit!" Heinrich shouted, and banged his fist on the table--uneven on its legs, the table jumped, the spoons clattered in the bowls. The men at the counter stopped talking and turned around. The waitress, coming up with the coffee, halted.
Congers half rose from his chair. Heinrich stood facing him, fists clenched as if to strike the man. Instead he said rapidly and with great intensity, "Listen-pay him something. Don't ruin him. He's a good man."
Congers said nothing, but handed his mug to the waitress for more coffee and then sat down, still watching Heinrich. The men at the counter, seeing there would be no fight, turned back to their eating.
Finally Congers said, softly but with eyes like steel, "Nobody going to listen to you, Jentzen--getting fired for being drunk on the street ain't no recommendation for good works."
Heinrich turned on his heel, flung some money on the counter and went out.
It was growing dark. The street lamps had already been lit. Small children ran around screaming, trying to stamp on each others' shadows. Their mothers stood talking near by. Buggies and cars with thin wheels drove down the main street. The stores, open to accommodate the farmers coming into town for the summer concert, hummed with business. People hurried through lighted doors, congregated in the aisles between shoeboxes and stacks of overalls. Men standing in huddles laughed uproariously, slapping each other on the shoulder.
In the park, long planks had been set up on barrels in front of the brightly lit platform. A few people were already sitting. Young girls fluttered like white birds near the trees, arms intertwined. Young men in bow ties strolled along the paths that crisscrossed the park. The band members were gathering on the platform. They wore natty straw hats with red and blue ribbons, white shirts with black armbands, and carried instruments.
Heinrich hurried down the sidewalk toward Tante Lieze's house. At the corner of the park he stopped, remembering the stuffiness of the basement, Lentya's slobbering and whimpering...he was too angry to go there now, he would just argue and cause trouble.
Instead he sat down on a bench outside the lighted area, behind a stand of bushes, and stared at the street, cursing Congers bitterly under his breath, as well as villages which bred such men, a fool in a county of fools. Behind him the instruments were tuning up and people were settling onto benches waiting for the concert to begin.
Anger was giving way to black depression. It was not only the loss of Maria, but that other dark anguish that had started long ago in the university. He had tries, had read feverishly, commentaries, Menno Simons, the pietists, in desperation even Lenin, books in German, Russian, English. "Of course God is there, why not?" Maria would tell him. He had scoffed at her for her simplicity, but his heart had nevertheless been warming slowly, moving nearer. Her death had been a betrayal without explanation or mercy by a deaf God. Now, here in the darkness the old despair pressed him down. Peters might believe, he could not.
It occurred to him that preacher Peters might be there. He arose and walked slowly along the fringes of the crowd. In the shadows out here people would not stop to recognize him; anyway they were all busy with their own friends and relatives.
The band suddenly struck up a jaunty march with a flourish of trumpets and the enthusiastic beating of drums. Around him people began clapping or stamping their feet to the rhythm. He did not see Peters and continued around to the other side of the park, staying under the trees.
Down a lighted path leading toward the seats he glimpsed Helena and the girls. Helena was dressed in a smart dark summer coat and walked sedately with her head high, as always. Etta and Marie walked on either side of her, clinging to her hands. Louisa skipped along arm in arm with her cousin Annscha--they were of an age and best friends. Behind them Johann walked slowly carrying little Edna. Johann's boys must be on their own somewhere, they were old enough.
He watched them until they reached the seats and found places on a bench. Johann reached into his coat pocket and pulled out a packet of something, to the evident delight of the girls who at once clustered around him. Yes, well, he could buy them something at Ben Franklin's tomorrow and bring it over, see them for a bit, tell them he was going to Montana to homestead--though they wouldn't understand that, maybe just say he was going away for a while and would come back. If they got upset, Helena would know what to do.
Now, however, he wanted to find Peters to tell him not to take that low job but go to the Cities. With all those dozens of churches and schools, surely he could find a good position worthy of him. If his wife didn't want to go, she could live with her parents until she changed her mind. Verrichte Fruh! The wrong wife had died.
He continued moving through the people standing under the trees, most of them talking with occasional glances toward the band, now playing a loud waltz. A loud voice coming from behind a stand of tall bushes stopped him. "...should have seen him." It was Congers. "Thought he'd throw his soup right in my face, nearly started a fight right there."
"What was he mad about?" An unfamiliar voice, probably a friend of Congers' from Gessel.
"Wanted us to pay Peters so he wouldn't have to work for a living. Practically begged me on his knees." The others laughed. All the anger Heinrich had felt in the restaurant seized him. He was unable to see Congers in the darkness, through the thick foliage, but imagined the thick insolent face.
"Well, he's right, you should pay Peters," a woman's voice declared. "I feel sorry for his wife, the way they have to live."
"Yeah? Well, you just go on down and visit her and the two of you can have a nice little cry together." Congers' tone was patient, patronizing--must be his wife, Heinrich thought furiously.
"Easy to be handy with somebody else's money," the other man said.
A third man spoke. "Why was he so hot about Peters? His relative or something?"
"Don't believe so," Congers said. "Sticking up for Peters because he's ed-u-cated, like him." Cool, amused. Heinrich clenched his fists and took a step forward, but stopped himself. If he got his hands on the man he would certainly choke him.
"Can't stand them high-and-mighty types, myself," the second man was saying. "Got no sense, if you ask me. Well, I guess they got to stick together, find someone they can talk to."
Congers laughed. "Won't do 'em no good, though. Us farmers run this place and they might as well know it." The group moved away in the semi-darkness under the trees.
The blood was pounding so furiously in Heinrich's head that he had to lean against a tree. He found himself hitting the bark with his fists, so hard that his knuckles were bruising. Shaking with anger, he stood until he could think more clearly. Than he walked hastily toward the street, pushing his way through the people who stood in denser groups at this end of the park, crossed the street and, almost running, made his way to Quevli's.
The whistle of the west-bound 10:40 train hooting its way through town went largely unnoticed.