2874 words (11 minute read)

Chapter Four:  Bessie

Halfway up the staircase, I stumble. I put my hand on the banister to steady my legs. Maybe I need a glass of water after my walk home. When I arrive at my room, I consider resting for a moment. No, I don’t want to keep Johnny and Mr. Davis waiting. It’s time to change and check on the flower project.

My sister frowns upon my frumpy after-work attire, but why risk spoiling a good outfit once I’m no longer at the office? I hang up my clothes from the day and pull out my brown house dress. The dress swings back and forth on its hanger. It is sort of dull and matronly. Where’s the other dress I sometimes wear after work? I sort through the options in my closet. There it is—a soft blue shirtwaist dress with white buttons and white piping around the collar. I hang the brown dress back in the closet and slip on the blue one instead. I step into my everyday low heel brown pumps, tuck a few wayward strands of hair back into place, and adjust my glasses. All ready to check on the flower project.

On my way downstairs, I pay attention to each step.

“Mmm. What’s for dinner?” I ask Mrs. Henderson as I enter the kitchen.

“Oh, just a pot roast,” she says.

“It’s way more than just a pot roast,” Edna complains. She glances up at me. “I like that blue dress on you, Bessie.”

“Thank you, Edna. It’s such a pleasant evening, I thought it might be a nice change.” I pour myself a glass of water and down it quickly. Family legend has it pots boil over and cookies burn if I so much as walk past the stove, so I try to limit my time in the kitchen. Florence likes to say my mother sent me out to work in the garden to keep the kitchen from catching on fire.

“Johnny and Mr. Davis are already out back.” Mrs. Henderson pulls the potato masher out of one of the kitchen drawers.

“Thank you. Everything smells heavenly.” I put my empty glass in the sink. I don’t think pot roast burst into flames during my visit, though I catch a glimpse of Edna checking the oven just to be sure. My legs feel much better as I head out to the garden.

Mrs. Henderson and I started the kitchen garden during my first spring in Bartlesville. It’s not large, but it has enough room to grow a nice selection of herbs and a few vegetables. Edna’s husband built the sweetest white picket fence around it a few years ago with an arbor over the gate. The flower project lives in several old soda crates Johnny and I got from Lonnie’s Ice Cream Parlor.

“Aunt Rachel’s favorite color is always the most fun,” I hear Johnny explaining to Mr. Davis. “She loved the color of lilacs and it’s tricky to find flowers with the right shade. Most are too purple. This year we’re growing something called ‘Love in a Mist.’ It’s this one here.”

“Did you know your Aunt Rachel well?” Mr. Davis asks him.

“No, sir,” Johnny replies. “I think maybe I met her when I was a baby, but I don’t remember. She died when I was really little. Come to think of it, I never met any of the folks who are buried in Claremore. I know all their favorite colors, but I never knew them.”

“Alright gentleman, how are our young flowers coming along.” I pass under the glorious arbor smothered in deep blue clematis. “Yes, yes,” I say looking over the crates, “we should be ready by Saturday, don’t you think, Johnny?”

“Well, I was a little nervous about the marigolds when Mom wanted to move things up a week, but I think they’ll be big enough to plant in another five days,” he replies.

“Did you tell me why you all are going this Saturday instead of on the holiday next Friday?” Mr. Davis asks Johnny.

“My mom has the next two Saturdays off from work,” Johnny explains, “so if the family visits the cemetery this Saturday, she will have three days off in a row next week—the holiday on Friday, Saturday, and then Sunday. She says it will be like a mini-vacation. She works really hard. If anyone deserves a vacation, it’s my mom.”

A twinge of envy digs in when Johnny speaks so sweetly about Florence. He cares for me, too, but nobody loves an aunt the way they love their mother.

“Makes sense. I’m trying to keep up. You’re a busy family. This is a fine operation, Miss Blackwell,” Mr. Davis declares as he waves his hand over the flower project.

“Thank you, Mr. Davis. We take our Decoration Day flowers seriously around here.”

“You most certainly do. And what’s your favorite flower, Miss Blackwell?”

“Yeah, Aunt Bessie, I don’t know yours,” Johnny says.

“It’s hard for me to pick a favorite flower, but growing up I loved the wild black-eyed Susans that covered the meadow next to your grandfather’s store.”

“What kind of store did your father own?” Mr. Davis asks.

“Oh, tell Mr. Davis the story about Grandpa’s store,” Johnny says.

My throat feels dry and I have trouble swallowing.

“I already told Mr. Davis I leave the storytelling to your Uncle Eddie,” I respond.

“Please?” Johnny asks, staring up at me with his big brown eyes.

“Okay, I’ll try,” I say. I don’t want to stutter in front of Mr. Davis, but I also don’t want to disappoint Johnny. “The first thing you need to know,” I pause and swallow one more time, “is my father was a notorious storyteller. Come to think of it, he may have been a better storyteller than store owner. I’ve often wondered if the reason he opened a general store in the first place was simply because he needed an audience on a daily basis.” I pause and take a breath. Mr. Davis seems engaged. So far so good.

“The story goes something like this: Daddy won the building from Old Man Bushyhead in a late-night card game. When he showed up the next day ready to move in, Old Man Bushyhead refused to budge, so Daddy took dead aim with his shotgun and gave Mr. Bushyhead ten minutes to pack and run over to his son’s place down the road.”

Mr. Davis smiles and delightful little wrinkles appear around his eyes. I lean back against the gatepost. Guess my legs are still a little wobbly. I hope I’m not coming down with something.

“There weren’t many wooden buildings in Oolagah back then,” I continue. “Most folks still lived in dugouts.”

“Dugouts?” Mr. Davis asks.

“Yes, dugouts. They were a type of house built by digging out a section of a hill. They usually had one front wall made out of logs. Some had partial roofs, but most were underground. There wasn’t much milled lumber in Indian Territory until after the turn of the century. I suppose Mr. Bushyhead’s wooden house looked mighty fine sitting there nice and close to the big road. It had a porch, a large front room, and a small kitchen and sleeping room in the back. After he moved in, Daddy turned the front room into the store and lived in the back. He planned to provide basic necessities so folks wouldn’t have to travel into Claremore all the time. He carved the words ‘Blackwell’s Store’ into a piece of wood and burnished it with charcoal. Our Cousin Waya helped him put up a post and hang the sign out front. But in all my days, I never heard anyone refer to it as ‘Blackwell’s Store.’ Everyone in Indian Territory called it the ‘Pack and Run’ after the story about Old Man Bushyhead’s expedited shotgun departure.”

Mr. Davis chuckles. “For someone who doesn’t see themselves as a storyteller, you did a great job.” My face warms with his compliment.

“Of course, there’s the story that gets told and then all the stories that get told after it,” I say. “I’ve heard my father tricked Old Man Bushyhead into thinking he had lost his house in the card game—that he took advantage of the aging gentleman’s failing memory and tendency to drink too much whiskey if it was offered to him. I also heard Daddy had been eyeing the property for quite some time and had been waiting for an opportunity to force Old Man Bushyhead out so he could lure a wife to Oolagah with the promise of a store and a wooden house!”

“Which one do you think is true?” Mr. Davis asks.

“Oh, knowing my father, they could both be true.  He was always working a plan to get something he wanted. While my brother Eddie gets his storytelling genius from my dad, my sister Florence appears to have picked up the planning piece.”

“Did you ever ask Grandma if Grandpa lured her to Oklahoma with the promise of a store and a wooden house?” Johnny asks.

“You know, sweetheart, I never did,” I pause. “Your grandfather could be quite charming when he wanted to be.”

It’s not a lie. My Daddy could be charming when he wanted to be and cruel as soon as he decided to stop being charming. I bet he made plenty of promises to win my mother’s hand and then broke them all. Johnny doesn’t need to hear any of those stories.

“Well, Mr. Fuller,” I say, changing the subject, “let’s get everything watered and head inside to wash up before supper. We don’t want Mr. Davis to be late for his first meal at Henderson House.”

“I’m on it Aunt Bessie,” Johnny replies as he grabs the watering can and heads out of the garden and over to the water barrel on the other side of the garage. Mr. Davis and I walk together under the arbor. He stops just outside the garden so I stop, too. There’s plenty of shade this time of day. A warm and windy day has given way to a pleasant evening with a slight breeze.

“He’s a swell kid,” he says.

“Yes, he is, isn’t he?”

“It’s nice you two are so close. I’ve been away from my nephews for so long, I’m not sure I could pick them out of a crowd.”

“Where do they live?”

“In Joplin, Missouri.”

“Is that where you’re from?” I ask.

 “Yep, it’s where I was raised. My mom still lives there, and my sister, Helen. She’s married with two boys. I guess they’re about fifteen and seventeen now—a little older than Johnny. It’s one of the reasons I’m excited to be back in this part of the country. Bartlesville is only a couple of hours from Joplin by car.”

“Are you planning a visit soon?”

“I’d like to go for Independence Day. It’s been a long time since I’ve been to a good old-fashioned Joplin Fourth of July celebration.”

“What makes a Joplin Fourth of July special?”

“Oh, the usual. A parade, marching bands, fireworks, and tons of ice cream,” he grins. “Other than flowers, what makes a Memorial Day in Bartlesville special?”

“Do you like to fish, Mr. Davis?” I ask.

“It’s been a while, but as a matter of fact, I do.”

“Well, you’ve moved to the right place. Bartians love the Memorial Day Fishing Derby.”

“Bartians?”

“Yup. You’re a Bartian, now. The newspaper sponsors a fishing derby every Memorial Day out at Bar-Dew lake.” Mr. Davis raises an eyebrow. “It’s a lake between Bartlesville and Dewey—Bar-Dew,” I explain. The ease of our conversation is so unexpected it leaves me a little lightheaded.

“Gee, it’s good to be back in the Midwest,” he says with a snicker. “Folks in California just don’t have the same no-nonsense approach to naming their lakes. Tell me more about the fishing derby.”

“Well, this year the starting shot will sound at 12:01 am Friday morning and the contest will run until Sunday night at midnight.”

“Do people really go out fishing in the middle of the night?”

“Absolutely. Over five hundred people competed last year. And there are plenty of prizes,” I say as Johnny returns with the watering can.

“Are you gonna enter the fishing derby, Johnny?” Mr. Davis asks.

“Oh, no, Mr. Davis. I start my new job this weekend.”

“Right, you’re working as a golf caddy this summer.”

“Yes, sir. If there’s one thing Bartians love almost as much as fishing, it’s golf!” Johnny says. “Besides, Aunt Bessie is the best angler in the family. She won the top prize for a woman two years ago.” Johnny continues watering.

“Really?” Mr. Davis asks.

“She caught a seven-pound largemouth bass,” Johnny calls over his shoulder.

Mr. Davis glances back at me. I smile and shrug.

“No offense, Miss Blackwell, but you don’t look big enough to pull in a seven-pound bass all on your own,” Mr. Davis says in a gentle, teasing manner.

“Oh, Mr. Davis, I may be small, but I’m mighty.” I’m immediately embarrassed by my boldness and add, “Besides, the bigger fish don’t fight you for nearly as long.”

Johnny chuckles as he heads back around the garage for a refill.

“What did you win?” Mr. Davis asks.

“Three dollars’ worth of Hawaiian wigglers.”

“That’s all, for a seven-pounder?” He pushes his fedora back slightly off his forehead in disbelief.

“That’s all. The top prize for the derby was a gold-plated trophy, a case of Budweiser, and a three-dollar tackle box. It went to Horace Cheney. His entry was only six pounds four ounces, but women have to compete in a separate category,” I pause. “What would I do with a case of Budweiser, anyway?”

Mr. Davis laughs. It’s a full-body laugh and it’s contagious. I start laughing, too. As the sound of our voices mingles, I’m overwhelmed by the same familiar sensation I had when I first saw him in the yard with Johnny.

“Mr. Davis, have we met before?” I ask, peering into the hazel eyes behind his glasses.

“I don’t see how we could have,” he replies.

“No, of course not.” I look away. Oh, dear. My question must have come across as forward. What’s gotten into me? Mr. Davis a complete stranger. I force my gaze onto some weeds in the center of the path, but something pulls my eyes back to his. This time, he looks away first.

“If I had met you before, I’d remember,” he says shuffling a few stones with his shoe.

My pulse quickens. I need to get out of here. I head for the kitchen door and Mr. Davis follows. In my hurry, I step awkwardly on a rock in the path. My ankle rolls over and I collapse backward onto Mr. Davis. My shoulders land against his chest and he catches me. My head moves in rhythm with his breath. His heartbeat pulses in my ears. The embrace only lasts a moment, but it’s long enough for heat to travel from where his arms were around me straight to my face. My cheeks are burning hot. I’m blushing. I’m sure of it.

“Are you alright, Miss Blackwell?” Mr. Davis props me back up on my feet.

“Flowers are all set,” Johnny says, running up between us.

I keep my head down, looking for something I can pretend to brush off my dress, hiding my reddened face.

“Good work, Johnny,” I croak. I move slightly to keep Johnny positioned between us. “Why don’t you show Mr. Davis where he can freshen up before supper?”

“This way, Mr. Davis,” Johnny ushers Mr. Davis inside and I walk unsteadily at a safe distance behind them. Edna and Mrs. Henderson are busy getting supper ready. They don’t pay any attention to the three of us trespassing through their domain. For once, I hope my presence does set something on fire. I need time to pull myself together before supper.

Johnny and Mr. Davis head upstairs and I slip out the front door to the porch. I take a seat on one of the white rocking chairs and raise my hands to my cheeks. They’re still warm. When we were teenagers, Florence used to scold me for being an open book. “Men like mystery,” she would say, “and you’re nothing but a silly schoolgirl who blushes at the first sign of romance. Where’s the mystery in that?”

Dear Lord above, I’m not sure what happened out in the garden, but please, please don’t let my sister see my face before it returns to its normal color. Amen.