All the Good Stories Are Taken
I had been teaching American Literature at St. Cloud Tech High School in St. Cloud, Minnesota. The plan was to teach five years, save five thousand dollars, and take a year off to write my novel. I found an ad in the St. Cloud times: an old farm house in Buchanan, Minnesota, was for rent. In the heart of the heart of the country, as William Gass would have said. “Rustic” the ad said.
I called Bernard Boiko, the retired farmer who owned the farmhouse, the same day and arranged to meet him the following Sunday.
Bernard, his miniature collie, and I talked beneath what Bernard said was a hundred-year-old oak, which still had an old inner tube hanging from one of its branches, affectionate patches bandaging its leaks.
Very rustic the place was, and it stood next to a graveyard. No electricity, no indoor plumbing. Ever since I’d been a little boy, hunting Chippewa arrowheads in our backyard, the past had tugged and dragged at my heart. The sentiment carried over into my professional life as well; I’d never been able to use a computer; I’d found an Underwood typewriter in a hock shop once and was still using it. Maybe it was the round keys that fit my fingers like suction cups.
“I can let you have the place for a hunnert a month,” Bernard said, “providin’ you’re willin’ to do some upkeep.” I looked around. The garden was gone to weeds. The roof on the barn sagged. An old threshing machine stood on a hill to the east. If this was upkeep, I didn’t mind. “That an’ a hunnert dollar damage deposit,” Bernard said. “Had some hippies stay here once who left the place a mess.” Bernard looked up at me---he was barely five feet tall---from under the brim of his International Harvester feed cap, as if he was expecting me to dicker. Some God-like kindergartner had formed Bernard’s nose with modeling clay and added seeds for eyes, set too close to his nose.
“You’ve got two cords of wood that’ll take you through the winter if it don’t get too cold. I’ll throw that in. And if you need electricity, you can rent a generator in town at Swenson Hardware. Can’t do nothin’ ‘bout the plumbin’.”
I spied an old shed with a half moon on the door half a football field behind the house next to a small grove of willow trees. Should be fun during the thirty below weather we Minnesotans were so proud of. I wondered if there was still such a thing as a chamber pot and if I’d use it if there was.
“Me and the wife, my boy Pete and his wife live over in that stand of trees,” Bernard said, gesturing toward a Harvestal silo and a big red barn in the distance surrounded by giant white pines. “The wife made me build her a new house when the contractor said it would be cheaper to build new rather than put in plumbing and wiring. I couldn’t bear to see the old place go. I was born up in that second floor bedroom.
“Had some trouble renting this place since the stories spread.” Bernard rubbed his nose with his hand and wiped it on his none-too-clean coveralls. “But maybe I shouldn’t be tellin’ you about that.” I noticed he was missing a thumb on his right hand and his hands were misshapen from arthritis. That must hurt like a bitch, I remember thinking.
The collie jumped up on me, getting mud on my jeans. “Get down, Spud,” Bernard said.
“What stories are those, Mr. Boiko?” I asked, ruffling the cute little dog’s ears.
“Those foolish hippies said the place was haunted,” he said, lifting his cap to scratch his head, revealing an old-fashioned white-wall haircut. “I’m sure glad you’re an educated fellah.”
Bernard and I shook hands, me stupidly squeezing too hard, as I’d forgotten about Bernard’s arthritis. He winced some but didn’t swear at me. I gave him a check for the two hundred.
“Ted Krause,” he said. “Is that Deutsch? The neighbor to the west is Deutsch. Hoffman his name is. Most of us around here is Pollack. I should warn you, Krause. I don’t like Pollack jokes. Unless I’m tellin’ ‘em that is. Hear the one about the Pollack hockey team that drowned?” Bernard waited a beat, his timing almost as good as Henny Youngman’s. “Spring training,” he said, wheezing, his way of laughing.
I moved in the same day. I’d been living in a furnished apartment, and a teacher isn’t cursed with much of a wardrobe. The farmhouse was really antiquated: a hand pump for water, a claw-footed bathtub, stairs so narrow I had to go upstairs sideways, the steps creaking so much I was afraid they might give way at any moment. But they never did.
I bought a bag of lye and dumped it down the outhouse hole, just in case the Ebola virus was lurking down there. Then I found a toilet attachment for people with back problems that would work perfectly in the outhouse. I didn’t fancy a splintered behind. “I need to comb the garage sales for Montgomery Ward catalogues,” I told myself. Too bad nobody was around to appreciate my wry sense of humor. I went to a hardware store in Buchanan, which was only a half mile or so from the farm, and got that generator and an electric sander so’s I could refinish the floors. Anything to avoid writing. Took me two weeks, and by the time I was finished, I had added a good thousand dollars to the value of the place, if I do say so myself. Bernard just kind of “harrumphed” when he saw the new floors. I could see the wheels going around, probably planning how he was going to keep the damage deposit when I left. We’d go to the mat if he tried that. I fancy myself an assertive person.
“Bernard,” I said, tweaking Bennie just a big. “It’s been two weeks and still no ghost. I’m kind of disappointed.”
“Oh, I ‘spect she’s just feelin’ you out.” Bernard wheezed again, but he’d hesitated too long. “Kind of like those boxers I used to see on Friday night fights. Whatever happened to those?”
“Don King,” I said.
The next Friday was the Fourth of July, so I walked into town and watched the parade. I didn’t want to become one of those people who was alone so much that he started talking to himself. I tried to spark a conversation with some of the natives, but most just smiled and moved down the street. They must have thought I was some kind of provocateur sent to pollute their minds with Communist propaganda. Must have been the beard, the ponytail, and the sandals with no socks.
I went on location the next day, notebook in hand. Rain clouds were rumbling overhead, and the wind ballooned my nylon windbreaker so much I was afraid I’d wind up like Dorothy and get blown to Oz, there or Kingdom Come. Designs in the clouds, a tank crushing trees; a B-52 shitting death. Splotches of rain began to stain my notebook. But I endured and spent four hours---I hadn’t realized it was more than a half hour---checking out the graveyard. One fellow, Pyotr Tomich, had “World War I veteran” inscribed on his tombstone. My imagination went wild on me: I had Pyotr watching his best buddy Dirk get killed; I fancied Pyotr hating his first sergeant and later thanking him when he realized the hell the Sarg put him through had saved his life. Then I realized I was rewriting ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT. Scrap that one. Then I noticed Pyotr died in 1975; ironic that, old Pyotr was most proud of an experience that probably scared the shit out of him while he was going through it. Probably a clerk typist to boot. And his parents had most likely tried to get him a farm deferment, if there was such a thing in those days.
There was a story there. I just didn’t know what it was.
As I walked around, I began to fill in the lives of the people buried there. Rodia Wielinski worked in the brickyard. His twin boys were the pride of his life. They played second base and shortstop on the Buchanan Beansnappers. Rodia’s wife Freda taught in the one-room schoolhouse west of town. It was still there, a lot worse for wear. The bell was gone, the paint was chipped, and some asshole had put up a TV antenna. Soon I had a whole passel of lives scrawled over ten pages in my notebook. But then I realized I was writing a prose version of SPOON RIVER ANTHOLOGY. Nuts, what next, THE GHOST AND MRS. MUIR?
I went back inside, boiled water on my wood-burning stove and took a bath in the claw-footed tub. Tomorrow I’d wash my clothes in the old-fashioned, ringer-style washing machine. That would kill a good three or four hours. There was something about washing clothes the hard way that I liked. Time slowed down; my blood pressure had to be at its lowest rate ever. Maybe there was a story in that. Something about modern Luddites who try to destroy Silicone Valley with an A-bomb they’d made from directions they found on the Internet. I’d always had an aversion to technology, epitomized by the electric toothbrush and the TV remote control. Was it Salvador Dali who predicted 25th Century man’s appendages would wither and his brain swell, resembling a first-trimester fetus?
A few days after my stroll through the graveyard, Bernard’s son Pete, a big man, at least 6’3”---had to be the milkman’s kid---showed up with a bag of seed potatoes, feelers poking through the burlap. Peter and Greta Boiko lived in a trailer next to Bernard’s new house. Peter was farming the land. “The old man says you can have these,” he said. “It might be a little late to plant, but if we get a better than average amount of rain, you might get some pretty decent spuds. He says you can borrow his tiller.”
“Thanks, Pete,” I said. “Tell Bennie I’ll bring him some if I can get them to grow.” I’d feel like God if I could get those potatoes to grow. I’d never planted anything before, not even flowers. I had a tough time getting house plants to live.
One day I was upstairs digging around in this little closet I found, when I noticed some names carved in the wall, Trinka and Franziska, and a date, very hard to see, but I swear it was 1888. This place was older than I thought. Once again my imagination took off. Trinka had been chosen from the orphan train line-up. Her adoptive father worked her like a draft horse, stacking wheat, picking rocks, pulling up tree stumps, plus her regular chores, scrubbing floors on hands and knees, cooking for a battalion of threshing hands. Nah, sounded too much like LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE. What the hell, I had to write something. If I didn’t get at least a practice novel done, I’d have nothing to show for my year off when the other teachers asked about it. Big mouth that I am, I’d spread my plans all over school. The librarian, Neal Cruikshank, had sniggered like a snot-nosed third grader when I’d told him about wanting to take a year off and write. In the olden days I would have slapped his face for him with a wet leather glove and said, “Choose your weapon, knave!” Axes at three paces. Even that was something out of Mark Twain.
Wild erotic dreams that night. A blond girl with pneumatic, child-bearing hips and corn flowers in her hair. I woke up sweating. The indentation next to me was warm, and when I lit the oil lamp, there was a corn flower on the pillow. The ghost Bernard had mentioned momentarily came to mind. Nah, that was for National Enquirer fetishers. In the morning, the corn flower was still there. Probably dragged it in from when I was working in the garden, and the scent had triggered the dream. I went out to check the garden. There were cornflowers growing in a little patch of weeds next to my newly plowed turf.
The Morrison County Historical Society was located past the paper mill a half mile or so down the road. The librarian, Mrs. Dobmeier, a pleasant-looking woman who reminded me of my principal at Tech, Mrs. Atwood, primarily because of her dyed auburn hair and the glasses hanging from a chain around her neck, said, “You can look up Trinka Boiko on our computer. Would you like a cup of coffee? And when you’re finished, would you mind signing our register? We need to assure the board that the public is using our facility.” The coffee was great, and she served it in a nice china cup.
No Trinka Boiko. As usual, I was way ahead of myself. I returned my empty cup to Mrs. Dobmeier and said, “Best museum coffee I’ve ever had. I’ll be back to sign your book at least once a week. Do you have a phone book?” She reached under the counter and handed me a slim volume. Sure enough, St. Stanislav graveyard had a cemetery board. They’d be able to tell me exactly where to find Trinka Boiko if she was there. I slapped my forehead. What made me think she hadn’t married? I went back to the computer and typed in the name Boiko. The name Thaddeus Boiko came up. He had died in 1902, original homesteader from Oswiecim, Poland. Holy Cats! The Polish name for Auschwitz.
All they had on Thaddeus was his obit. Now what? Why not talk to Bernard? He could tell me all about Trinka. Sure he could. Most farmers had the free time to keep tabs on their genealogical backgrounds. Bernard was about seventy. He was born around the first world war, so there had to be another Boiko in there someplace, Bernard’s father. Nothing in the computer about him, though. Must’ve been a non-believer. Had himself cremated with no obituary. Some of these old farmers were awfully stubborn. Thaddeus and Bernard’s pop, if he hadn’t been excommunicated, were probably buried in the same place. I’d ask the cemetery board if they could tell me where.
The lady on the phone, whose name I don’t remember, had very precise diction. Music was playing in the background. Chopin, I thought. “Thaddeus Boiko is way over on the outskirts of the cemetery under a yew tree,” she said. “Do you know where I mean, Mr. Krause?” I assured her that I did.
Trinka was buried right next to Thaddeus. The stonemason had done a really shitty job. I could barely read her name. Twinka Sanowski nee’ Boiko, born 1880, it looked like, died 1906. Twenty-six years old. Childbirth? Lots of women died in childbirth in those days. Thaddeus hadn’t worked her to death. He’d been dead for four years. A little voice whispered in my ear. “This time it’s a movie. You’ve fallen in love with a dead woman.”
“Not true ,” I answered back in a singsongy voice. “Laura was still alive in that movie.”
I had to find out how Trinka died. I had to know what she looked like.
Spud showed up that night. He’d chewed through his leash. I fed him my leftovers, took a run with him down by the creek, then found a piece of cord to use for a leash, and took him home.
The yard light was on. I knocked on the porch door, then realized I needed to go in and knock on the inside door. Strident voices. “Don’t be tracking mud onto my nice clean floor,” the woman said. Bernard imitating her whiney voice, “Quit your yammering woman. I live here, too, you know.”
Marta Boiko, Bernard’s wife, broad in the beam with pillows for breasts, florescent light reflecting off her wire rims, brandished an old scrapbook, dusting the cover with a few swipes of her weathered hand. She shuffled pages until she came to Trinka’s wedding picture. Trinka’s husband, Stanko, looked much older---bald, with a gun-slinger mustache, eyes like a chicken hawk. Trinka, her hair done up in braids pulled back around her head and pinned in back, was as flat-chested as one of the seventh graders I’d taught while practice teaching in Holdingford. She couldn’t have been more than fifteen, if that. Eyebrows raised just a bit with a mischievous glint in her eyes. And she had an I’ve-got-the-world-by-the-tail smile on her face! I’d never seen anyone smile in one of those old sepia-tinted pictures. Could those be cornflowers in her hair? A chill ran up my spine.
“You say you’re writing a book, Mr. Krause,” Marta said. “I belong to a book club, you know. My favorite is Mr. Stephen King. Have you read him?”
“Love him,” I lied. “As a teacher, though, I’m forced to read the classic mostly. Willa Cather, Sinclair Lewis.”
“He was from Sauk Centre, wasn’t he? I’ve been meaning to read that MAINSTREET book.” We’d run out of conversation, unless she wanted to tell me more about Trinka.
“I’ve always wondered how you fellahs worked,” she said. “I kinda just thought you made it all up in your head.” She reached over and grabbed some scissors she had sitting on a coffee table. We were in this sitting room just off the kitchen. Her sewing room she called it. A large portrait took up most of the wall behind Marta. It showed a man sitting on a straight-back chair with baseball-mitt hands covering his knees. His beard reached all the way up to his eyes. He was wearing scuffed workshoes, pin-striped trousers with suspenders, and a white shirt without a tie. A woman stood behind him with her hand on his shoulder. Either the perspective was off or he was twice her size. Marta followed my gaze. “That’s my grandfather, Karol Sobiech. We’re descended from John Sobieski who defeated the Turks in Europe.” She reached for this box that was tied up with twine and cut the cord.
Didn’t know anything about John Sobieski. I remembered her previous question about how I worked. “No, ma’am, we don’t just make it up in our heads. There’s lots of research involved, even with fiction. That’s why I need to know everything I can about Trinka. Right now I’m just trying to find out if there is a story there.”
“Oh, there’s a story there all right. Trinka was only thirteen when her pa made her marry old man Sanowski, and these are her letters to Tomas Kocyk, a boy who lived on the Hoffman farm at the time. I’m going to let you have them, and when I read your book, I’ll have the feeling that maybe I had something to do with it.”
A tabby came strutting into the room, reddish-gold with the air of a princess, tail held high. Marta reached down and put her on her lap. “I don’t understand, Mrs. Boiko. If she wrote those letters to Tomas, how did you get them?”
Marta looked puzzled, as if this sort of thing happened all the time. As if boys kept letters from somebody else’s wife and handed them down to future generations as a matter of course.
She stroked the cat, who snuggled up against the pillows, closed its eyes, and commenced to purr contentedly. “Och, I suppose you wouldn’t know. Tomas shot himself on the day she married. Practically burned down the barn he did. Shot himself with a twelve-gauge up in the hayloft. Sparks you know. He was the only boy, and his ma never changed a thing in his room. It was a kind of shrine to the boy, and, of course, she found the letters after he died and kept them safe. That old lady lived to be ninety-five years old and she passed these letters on to Bernard and me just before she died cause Trinka was Bernard’s relative and all and her man was dead. I’m surprised she didn’t burn them, especially that last one.”
Marta tapped her fingers on the box and looked out the window, nodding her head. There were tears in her eyes. I felt a little misty myself. “This story is almost as sad as that movie I seen on TV, the one about the priest and that Australian girl. Tomas was only fifteen when he killed himself, Mr. Krause.” “Trinka and Tomas had known each other ever since they could remember anything at all, and most everybody thought they’d wind up together, according to her letters. If it had been me, I would have run away. Some of us are lucky, Mr. Krause. I knew Bernard was the one for me when I first saw him at that barn dance I went to with my two sisters. Are you married?” She slapped her forehead. “Of course, you’re not. You wouldn’t be out here on holiday if you were. You’re not going to believe that last letter.”
I let it stand. “I can’t thank you enough, Mrs. Boiko. These letters should help me immensely. If they don’t, I guess I’d best get back to teaching.” She set the cat down on the floor, stood, and offered her hand. She had a grip like a professional wrestler.
“Come over for Sunday dinner, Mr. Kraus. I’d like to know how you’re progressing.”
I couldn’t wait to get back to my little hovel and pour over Trinka’s secret life. I made a fire in the woodstove, the temp having dropped below fifty due to the rainy, overcast weather and high winds, very unusual for central Minnesota in July. I put on a flannel shirt, buttoning it to the top, and snuggled up in the rocking chair that had come with the house, stockinged feet propped on the hot stove door, smoking some. Hurts so good.
There were twenty-five letters and Trinka had begun writing them when she was twelve.
The first one, dated April 1, 1892, said, “I helped ma bake bread today. Sometimes she’s so oppressive. I wanted to add a little cinnamon, and she had a fit. That kiss you gave me today tasted like skunk cabbage. April fool! Actually, it was sweet. I can’t wait to do it again.”
My imagination filled in the gaps in the letter. That kiss was sweet? They both went to that schoolhouse down the road. Sixteen students in grades one through eight. There was a high school in town, but most quit after the eighth grade. But Trinka wanted to be a teacher, and you needed to graduate high school in order to qualify. One day they were out in the woods scouting for leaves for a science project and Trinka and Tom found themselves alone, shuffling through the weeds looking for a larch or a poplar, one of those big leaves with the jagged edges, when Tom leaned over and bussed her on the lips.
I put a kettle on the woodstove and heated milk for cocoa. The next letter was about a make-out session they’d had. I was getting horny just reading it. Blueberry picking had been their excuse. Both of their mothers canned, and the two women obviously saw nothing wrong with letting a twelve-year-old and a fourteen-year-old pick blueberries alone in the woods.
“I know it’s a sin, Tom,” she wrote. “I’ll never be able to tell Father Padrowski about this. You’ll have to go with me. My aunt, the nun, says that it’s a sacrilege to lie in the confessional. And the priest needs special permission from the Pope to forgive it. I hope he doesn’t ask me about you, Tom. If he does, I’ll lie. I’ll go to hell for you, Tom.”
That night the blond girl with the corn flowers in her hair was back and our love making was so intense that she undid the thong on my ponytail and pulled my hair so hard that real tears came to my eyes. “Did I hurt you?” she said. In the morning, my hair still hurt. I was beginning to put two and two together. I didn’t win the math prized at my old high school in Greenbush, Minnesota, for nothing.
I worked all morning on my Underwood, and I had a good twenty pages by noon. My back hurt, so I quit and read over what I had. To me, the writing sounded an awful lot like a Harlequin romance.
That night Spud showed up again, with a dead chicken. “We’ll have to hide this, boy,” I said. “You know what they do to egg-sucking dogs.”
After I took him home, cautioning Marta about the chicken---I didn’t think she’d do anything to Spud, but I wasn’t so sure about Bennie---I read a letter dated September 8, 1893. “Last night was very beautiful, Tom. I don’t care what the church says. I could feel your heart beating. Do you think my breast are too small?”
A hundred years later and women were still worried about the size of their breasts. What would Trinka think about silicon? I got up and paced around the room. Would Tom know anything about birth control? The rhythm method was all they knew in those days, if I wasn’t badly misinformed.
One letter left. This had to be the Dear John she wrote to Tom, telling him her father was going to make her marry Stinko.
I couldn’t wait, but, just as when I’d been a little boy, I’d savor it. My brothers had always been so angry with me when we got candy. I’d eat a few bites and save the rest for when I needed a lift. I sniffed the envelope. If there’d been a scent, it had evaporated, if scents evaporate. I added another split log to the fire, stoked the flame with my poker and once more braced my stockinged foot against the stove door.
“I know I said I’d always love you, Tom,” she wrote, “but Stanko Sanowski has asked my father for my hand. I’ve told my mother about the baby, and she’s told Stanko. He says he’d welcome the child as he’d never been able to have any children with his former wife. You’re only fourteen, Tom. And Stanko owns a section of land with a brand new house.”
Trinka, Trinka, Trinka, you little gold digger. See if you get into my bed tonight. I didn’t get it, though. If she’d gone along with the wedding, why was she haunting the old house? Was Stinko impotent? Well, I guess I’d just have to ask her now, wouldn’t I?
Pain, excruciating pain. My socks were on fire. I hot-footed it over to the sink, pumped to beat hell, and doused my scalded tootsies with soothing pump water.
Sunday dinner. Baked chicken with dumplings and greens from Marta’s garden. “Will you marry me, Marta?” I said. Marta howled so loud I momentarily lost my hearing. Bernard looked as though he was going to go for his gun. He was so jealous it took awhile for Marta to convince him to leave us alone in her sewing room after dinner.
“Do you see what I mean about that last letter?” she said, taking a sip of the hand ground coffee she brought with us. It was so good I didn’t think I’d be able to drink the dishwater I was used to ever again.
“I was very disappointed in Trinka,” I said.
Marta frowned so severely I was scared she might jump up, grab me, and shake me like a rag doll. “You don’t know much about women, do you Mr. Krause? I would imagine you think Trinka had a choice in the matter and that she chose Stanko Sanowski. She was trying to let Tomas down easily, don’t you see?”
“You could be right I guess. But her wedding picture, Mrs. Boiko. She looks as if she’s just been elected Queen of Sheba.”
“I would imagine Stanko spoiled her some. You have to remember she was just a little girl.”
“How did she die, Marta? I was under the impression she died in childbirth, but the letter implies Sanowski may not have been able to father children.”
Another bombastic howl. Had to be in the nine decibel range. Kind of like jet engines or a Quiet Riot concert.
“She died in a fire, Mr. Krause. During her later years, when she began to go senile, Mrs. Kocyk began to babble about how Stanko had set that fire. Form your own conclusions, Mr. Kraus. Lots of houses burned from chimney fires in those days, especially out here in the country.”
I went back home and tried to write. I hadn’t been able to write anything since I’d read that last letter, and Trinka hadn’t shown up during the night either. I wanted to believe what Marta had said, but something told me she was wrong.
The quick brown cat jumped over the lazy dog. The quick brown cat jumped over the lazy dog. THE SHINING?