The Landlord’s Trunk
© Charlene Tess 2010
“What’s in that old trunk, Auntie Marg?” Paula asked.
“Just some old clothes and things. It’s been here for years.”
“Can we see?”
“Nothing much to see.”
“Please,” the girls insisted, “just a quick peek?”
The shabby, old trunk had occupied the corner of the living room ever since the family first rented the small house. Years ago, Marguerite’s father had opened it and investigated the contents. She remembered clearly how he stared for a long time at two inexpensive, framed prints of card-playing dogs before he slammed the lid shut and issued a stern warning to Marguerite and her brothers.
“Don’t you youngin’s open this trunk again. It don’t belong to us. We may be poor, but nobody can say we’re not honest.”
She was the only one left at home. They were all grown-up now and moved away except for her. God knows why she had stayed. She sure didn’t.
Marguerite had long since learned to amuse herself. She looked forward to the visits from her two nieces.
What could it hurt, Marguerite thought as she lifted the heavy lid and looked inside. A fine linen tablecloth cross-stitched with an intricate filigree pattern lay on top of the framed pictures. A teapot sat next to four pale pink, bone China saucers and four tiny matching cups trimmed with hand-painted roses and green swirling leaves.
“Wouldn’t it be fun to set the table and have a tea party?” Jane said.
A slow smile spread across Marguerite’s face. Why not? It wasn’t stealing. She’d put everything back just as it was. Yes, she would do it—just this once.
The deepest layer of the trunk held a lovely summer hat of pristine white straw piled high with scarlet, silk azaleas and white daises. Near the bottom lay a dress of pale lemon gauze and white organdy. Marguerite lifted it out of the trunk carefully. She had seen one like it before in a catalog. The long, flowing skirt cascaded to the floor. She unfolded it gently and fingered the sleeves before replacing it carefully.
“Aren’t you going to try it on?” Paula asked.
“Of course not. It’s not mine.”
“Just wear it to the tea party,” Paula said.
“Come on, Auntie Marg. It won’t hurt nuthin’,” Jane said. Marguerite looked back and forth between the two animated faces. An adventure was in progress.
“All right, you win, but you are two are a bad influence on me,” Marguerite said. The twinkle in her eyes belied her stern tone-of-voice as she snatched up the dress and disappeared into the bedroom.
A short while later, a tall, elegant, young woman emerged. To the girls she was a vision in yellow and white. Her brown hair was tucked beneath the hat perched on her small head. Her cheeks and lips were touched with rouge and her blue eyes sparkled.
Three ladies sat down at the table transformed by the magic of linen and lace. Marguerite poured the tea and teased them by offering lemon and cream—imaginary luxuries. They chatted and laughed and pointed their little fingers skyward each time they lifted the delicate cups to sip. They were all so caught up in the magic of the party that no one heard the old truck pull into the yard.
Marguerite almost dropped the dish in her hand when she looked up into the eyes of the angry, old man standing just inside the kitchen door. She stood up suddenly, as his gaze raked her from hair to hemline. The children scattered like sparrows leaving her alone to face his wrath.
After the girls left she carefully replaced everything in the trunk and then fried some pork chops and potatoes. She jumped when the screen door slammed.
“Your meal’s ready, Pa. Just sit down.”
He ate his supper laboriously, his false teeth clicking out a staccato rhythm. “You can’t keep your nose out of trouble can you?” he asked between bites. “You’re stubborn and you’re spiteful.”
She didn’t answer him.
“I’m talking to you, girl. I won’t have you and those brats nosing around where you don’t belong. You can just tell your brother to keep them kids of his away from here if they can’t behave.”
Marguerite looked out the kitchen window into the darkness of the New Mexico sky. Her knuckles were white against the cabinet where she stood, but she did not cry. It remained her one defense against him. He would be calm by tomorrow. His anger raged swift and savage, but his memory was short.
The following morning he ate quickly and then put the frayed felt hat back on his head. “Got to take a load of cans to the recycle center. Won’t do to be late. As it is, a man could sit in his truck for hours waitin’ in line—even if he gets there before sun up. Don’t expect me ‘til you see me.”
Her oldest brother Adam appeared at mid-morning the next day—the time he would be the least likely to run into their father. Someone was with him, but with the hot sun in her eyes, she could not make out who.
Adam stepped down from the pickup.
Marguerite kissed his cheek. “Good to see you, Brother.”
“My girls told me Pa was stormin’ again. You all right?” he asked.
“He was, but he’s over it. I’m fine. Just fine.”
“This time. What about the next time?”
“I don’t expect there’ll be a next time. I plan to keep my hands out of where they don’t belong.”
“He’ll just find something else to fuss about.” How many times do I have to tell you to come live with us?”
“I can’t leave him. You know I can’t. He has no wife to help him.” They both knew what they’d left unsaid. Their mother had died giving birth to Marguerite.
“Mama would’ve left and taken you along if she was here to see him now. He’s run all the rest of us off with his sour ways. If he raises his hand to you I’ll….”
“He’s no danger to anyone but himself. I can handle him just fine.” She put her hand on Adam’s arm and squeezed gently.
Before Adam could climb back into the truck, a tall man stepped down in front of Marguerite, towering over her. He must have stood a good 6’4”.
“Afternoon, ma’am,” he said. “It seems Adam plum forgot his manners.”
Adam laughed. “Sorry! I didn’t mean to take so long. Bill, I’d like you to meet my little sister, Marguerite.”
“She’s a little bit, all right. I’m pleased to make your acquaintance. I’m Bill Holmstead.”
He had quite an ordinary face, really, until he smiled. She looked up into his dark brown eyes and smiled back.
“You wanna’ ride with us to pick up a load of supplies and get a Coke on the way back?” Adam said.
“I shouldn’t. Got things to do.”
“Nothing that can’t wait. How big a load did the old man have this time?”
“The whole back end of the truck was full.”
“He’ll be gone a long time. There are long lines on Saturday. You have at least two hours to waste any way you want. Come on girl!”
For the next two hours, she sat happily sandwiched between the two men as they drove up and then back down the rutted road. They swapped stories and drank iced root beer from frosty bottles. By the time she got back, she knew she wanted to see Bill again.
He offered her his large hand and helped her step down from the running board. “If I come back tomorrow, ‘bout this time of day, would you take another ride with me?” he asked.
“Yes. I’d like that.”
He picked her up in a flatbed truck. The sign on the side read “Union Furniture.” They had gone only ten miles when he pulled over to the side of the road and kissed her. “I’d like to just keep you, Marguerite and never take you back.”
Her gaze traveled over his face and searched his eyes. The honest admiration in them left her bubbling with joy.
“I have to deliver a big load of furniture tomorrow, and I’ll be gone a couple of days. When I get back, I’ll come by your place.” His gray eyes were pools of appeal. “All right?”
“I’d like that,” she said softly.
But when he returned, she wasn’t alone at the house. Her father was there. She opened the door. Her heart pounded in her chest.
“Who’s at the door, Marguerite?” her father demanded.
She glanced uneasily over her shoulder. She thought Bill would just pretend to be lost and ask for directions, but instead he gently moved her aside and stepped into the room.
“I’m Bill Homstead, Mr. White. I’m here to ask your daughter to a dance on Saturday night at the YMCA, Will you go with me, Marguerite?”
She couldn’t believe he had asked her just like that, right in front of the old man. Her face flushed pink, but the answer came out before she had time to think. “I’d like to, Bill. Yes, I would. Come for me at seven.” She did not look at her father.
She had only two days to get ready for the first date she’d ever had in her life. She was twenty-seven years old.
Her father had spoken to her only once since Bill’s truck had left a trail of dust in the yard. “How’d you meet that fella?”
“He’s a friend of Adam’s.”
“What are you wearin’ to this dance?”
She felt like a rodent trapped by the bull snake in the barn. She remained silent for a moment and then looked straight into his pale, cold eyes. “I…thought I’d…uh…borrow that dress in the old trunk. It fits me right nice.”
He snorted in protest. “You won’t, and that’s final. It don’t belong to you.” He cleared his throat, swallowed the last of his beer and took himself off to bed.
Marguerite knew what she had to do. She would not shame Bill by appearing dowdy. She would borrow the lovely, yellow dress, hide it in a paper sack and ask Bill to take her by Adam’s house to change clothes before the dance.
On Saturday afternoon, she bathed in fragrant lilac soap and then curled her hair into soft swirls. That night after supper when her father went into the bathroom to get ready for bed, she grabbed the sack and hurried into the living room.
The trunk was gone. At first she just stood dumfounded, staring at the rectangular outline of dust left behind on the floor. She turned and looked around the room, once, twice, again.
When he came in she flew in his face. “Where is it? What have you done with it?”
He didn’t have to ask what she meant. “I took it to the manager. It’s been here way too long.”
She looked at him then, with a look of hatred so pure, there was no mistaking it. “Why, Pa? Why not just this once? I’ve never asked you for anything before.”
“I’ll not say it again so you better hear me clear. Samuel White’s children don’t take what don’t belong to them.” He walked past her into his room with the narrow bed.
* * *
The old man opened the front door a crack. Bill stood there in his blue suit and yellow tie, a bouquet of spring flowers in his hand.
“My daughter won’t be going tonight.”
“What do you mean?”
“She says to tell you she can’t go to the dance.” He tried to push the door closed.
Bill put his hand out to hold it open. “She’s not going?”
“That’s what I said ain’t it?”
“I want to hear it from her!” He pushed the door open and took two steps into the room.
“Now see here, Mister….”
“You heard him right, Bill. I’m not going with you.” Her voice was firm. Marguerite stood in the doorway of her room in her old, white bathrobe.
“Why aren’t you? What’s wrong?”
“Nothing. A woman has a right to change her mind.”
Bill ignored the old man standing at his elbow listening to every word. “Was it the kiss, Marguerite? If it was, I swear I won’t do it again! I never meant to frighten you.”
Her voice softened, then cracked. “Just leave, Bill. I don’t want to go to the dance, and I can’t see you again.”
He stood there for a while just looking at her, and then he turned around and walked out the door.
She never saw him again. Adam said he gave up the New Mexico route and only delivered furniture in Texas.
Neither Marguerite nor her father ever mentioned the incident again, and she never cried in his presence. Just as there were no tears shed when he died two years later, while Adam helped to clear her meager possessions out of the rented house. As she stripped the linens off her father’s bed, something crashed to the floor and broke.
“What was that?” Adam asked.
“I’m not sure…something fell….” There on the floor lay two framed pictures. She reached down and lifted them up onto her lap.
“What in the world? Where did those come from?” Adam said.
“He had them hid under his mattress. They must’ve been there all this time.”
“What are they?”
“Just some pictures he admired. From that old trunk.”
“Well, I’ll be damned--and after all that fuss he made. What do you suppose he wanted them for?”
She didn’t answer him. A knot of anger rose and threatened to choke her. How could he have been so selfish? She had lost the only man she’d ever wanted in her life because of her father’s orders about the contents of that trunk. She pounded her fists against the faces of the shattered picture frames, imbedding shards of glass into her hands.
“Sister, stop it. Be careful.” He pulled her hands away from the glass and reached for the sheet to wrap them and stop the blood. As he pulled the sheet away from the mattress, an envelope fell onto the floor. It was addressed to Marguerite and postmarked from Texas. Adam tore it open and handed her the single sheet of paper.
It was a simple letter, dated one week after the ill-fated dance. It contained no recriminations, just one question. “Would you please come away with me and be my wife? I love you. Write me back, and I’ll come get you. If I don’t hear from you, I won’t be bothering you anymore. Love, Bill.”
She read it once and then again before handing it back to Adam. “You were the smart ones, Adam. You and the young ones. I should’ve left the old man, too.”
Adam reached out to touch her shoulder as her body convulsed with sobs. Her tears mingled with her blood, plopping wet, pink patterns on the faces of the cigar-smoking, card-playing dogs.
* * *
She had been at Adam’s for a month, trying not to get in her sister-in-law’s way. Adam had moved her in and then left the next day on important business. The wind chilled her as she walked down to the pumpkin patch in the garden. She planned to bake pies and sell them at the farmers’ market as her contribution to the welfare of the family. She had one pumpkin under her arm and was reaching for another when she heard steps behind her.
“Can I give you a hand?”
Marguerite didn’t have to turn around. She would have known his voice anywhere. It had a lilting quality—somewhere between a smile and a chuckle.
He put his hand under her elbow to help her up. His back was to the orange sun, as she stood in the shadow of his wide-brimmed hat.
“I hear you got my letter a little late,” he said.
She tried to say yes, but what came out sounded more like a croak.
He smiled, then, a crooked grin that crinkled up his eyes and cut wide dimples in his cheeks. “Adam told me.”
So that was Adam’s mysterious business, she thought. “I thought you had moved away from here.”
“I changed my route. It hurt too much knowing you lived here, and thinking you didn’t want me.”
Marguerite’s eyes mirrored the pain in his.
“I decided to come here in person this time and just say what I got to say. I think we’ve wasted enough time on tryin’ to be polite. So I’ll just get to it.” He cleared his throat and took off his hat. “I love you, Marguerite. I still do. Will you be my wife?”
She smiled, lifted up her sweet face, and stood on tiptoe to slide her arms around his neck. Effortlessly he picked her up in his strong arms, and bent his lips close to hers.
“Does that smile mean you will?”
She nodded as tears filled her eyes. And then, just to be sure there would be no mistake, she said, “I will.” Her voice sounded strong and sure.