When all is said and done...
by Erin Halfelven
Saturday morning at the Delbental Feed and Seed was when the old men gathered to tell tall tales, chew “terbacky,” and carve white pine billets into mounds of paper-pale and nearly paper-thin “whittlin's.” Some of the men sat on caneback chairs, some found comfort on the hard wooden edges of the porch that ran around three sides of the feedstore, and some sat on nothing but their own heels, rocking occasionally as they reached for another billet or bent over to send a brown arc of “chaw” into the dirt.
A few of them actually carved their pale ammunition into some object decorative or useful, but many produced nothing but a growing bunker of tinder surrounding them; a material useful, to be sure, for starting wood fires that would, in turn, start coal fires but not involving such a skill as some of the septuagenarians boasted.
Bertram “Lank” Hoppe produced small tools, crochet hooks, letter openers, knitting needles and the like, each of which had a ball end cut into knobby protrusions for a good grip while the other end tended to business. Lank’s preferred wood was actually cedar instead of pine, and he perforce arrived with a box of his own billets cut by his son-in-law from the woods around his home. Every woman within twelve miles owned at least one full set of Lank’s little tools—ruddy, pretty, durable and sweet-smelling.
Ansel “Dutch” Albert had a more artistic, less utilitarian, bent to his talent. From the ever-present blank pieces of pine, he produced little animals and machines. Tiny doggies, squirrels, cows, mules, bunnies and kitties appeared with frequency. He also made toy cars, tractors, sewing machines and airplanes; he once even carved out a milking machine still attached to a cow. More rarely, he did human figures, usually choosing a more interesting wood for them.
Charlie Vanderminden admired what Dutch was doing this morning, carving out the figure of a young woman simultaneously stepping out of her blue jeans and pulling her shirt off over her head. Charlie was one of the whittlers who simply produced piles of whittlings, but he admired artistry when he saw it. “She ain’t got no undies?” he asked, chuckling.
Dutch shook his head, holding his carving up for all to see; a nearly-nude female figure in the process of getting nakeder, face concealed in the folds of the shirt. He grinned at the snorts and murmured comments of “Oh, my,” and “Ain’t that sumpin?” and “Dutch is a humdinger for sure.”
But a hiss came from the other end of the porch, “There’s a girl!” and Dutch quickly concealed his carving in his lap.
A young woman in a gingham dress took the steps at the far end onto the wooden porch. She was tall and strong-looking with chestnut hair falling around her face. Her long legs flashed shapely calves between the hem of her skirt and her rather battered-looking sneakers. She carried a pocketbook in one hand and a withy basket over the other arm.
Smiling but seeming a bit shy, she walked between the old men to the wide doors leading inside. Several of them murmured greetings and she returned a “Good morning,” politely several times, seeming quite aware that every eye of the gathered grandfathers was on her.
“That’s Bobbie Modjestyk,” said Charlie, “wearing a dress!”
“Ye-ah,” drawled Lank. “Reckon it was. Fine figure she makes in it, don’t she?”
Charlie snorted. “Last I knew, Arnie Modjestyk din’t have no daughters.”
Dutch grinned but didn’t say anything, looking down at the carving he still held between his knees.
“You ain’t keeping up with the news, Charlie,” said Lank. “Bobby grad-jee-ated high school and decided she warn’t going to be no boy anymore.”
“Like on one of them reality tee-vee shows,” supplied Abner Singletree from further up the porch. “She’s tooken some of them horrer-moans and is turning into a girl.”
“Kinda pretty, looks like her maw,” said Heber “Davy” Delbental. Lonnie, who owned the Feed and Seed was his uncle, though Davy was pushing seventy himself.
“Taller, though, near six-foot,” someone else said.
“Shoulders,” said Dutch. He put the carving he had been doing into his canvas satchel at his feet and took out another billet of wood. He preferred poplar for his carvings, sturdier than pine with more interest in the grain. He discerned shapes more than most people and had noticed the tall girl’s outline right away.
Most of the men nodded at Dutch’s comment. “She’s got some shoulders on her,” agreed Davy.
“Her paw grows timothy; she spent last summer bucking hay bales.”
All the men paused to spit, either into cans kept for that purpose or off the porch into the dirt. Really, they’d all just wanted a moment to think.
“That ain’t right,” said Lank.
Several of them nodded.
“Ain’t no job for a girl,” agreed Davy.
More nods and several murmured yeps and nopes. “Ain’t,” said Dutch with a final note in his voice.
“Someone should tell her paw,” said Charlie.
“I ‘spect he’s noticed,” said Lank with a straight face.
“No, I mean, about haybalin’—you know what I meant.”
A chuckle traveled over the porch like a summer wind in a field of tall timothy, the old men ducking their heads in amusement.
The new girl came out from the cool, dim interior, her basket now full of small items: a bottle of rose food, a bag of doggy treats, a roller for removing lint from clothes, several packets of vegetable seeds, a pair of weed-pulling yellow gloves.
The oldsters smiled at her and Lank spoke, “Looking forward to a summer off from school, Bobbie?”
“Yes, sir,” she said, polite as most younger folk in the Delbental Valley were. “I am.” She had a gentle voice, deeper than most girls but softer than any boy’s was likely to be.
“Haymowin’s starting soon. You ain’t going to be buckin’ no hunnert pound bales with your brothers and your paw this year, are you?” asked Davy.
“No, sir,” Bobbie said, smiling. “I’ll be helping my Maw cook for the men. And we’ve got gardening, and sewing, and caring for the stock, and housework to do.”
“Canning,” said Charlie. “Your maw puts up some powerful pickles. Jams and preserves, too.”
“She does, we will,” agreed Bobbie.
“Make sure she teaches you to bake them sour cherry pies, she learnt off her ol’ granny,” said Abner.
A wider smile made dimples in Bobbie’s cheeks. “She has. You come out to the house, Mr. Singletree, and you can have a slice I baked my own self.”
“I’ll do that,” said Abner. “If’n your paw won’t make me throw no haybales.”
Bobbie laughed, and the old men chuckled their phlegmy chuckles. Every one of them needed to spit, but they couldn’t do that while a girl was on the porch.
They watched her leave, heading down the street towards the dry goods store where her mother was probably picking through patterns, choosing clothes to make for, and with, her new daughter.
“Got some shoulders on that girl,” Davy commented again.
“Strong arms to hold you tight so you can’t get away,” said Lank, not cracking the slightest bit of a smile.
The other old men laughed and spat and went back to their whittling. Dutch had started a new piece while the talk went on, this one would be a tall girl with wide shoulders wearing a summer dress. Dutch could already see the finished carving in his mind’s eye and Bobbie Modjestyk showing her dimples.
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