Sue Gambel walked down to the sheep lambing barn in the cool of a balmy, sunny morning sweet with the smells of the purple and green-leafed Hall’s honeysuckle she had planted in great beds by its doors.
She let her husband, Leon, deal with the uglier aspects of farm life while she reveled in holding and helping with the newborn lambs, and tending her flower beds. Inside, her home was her domain, decorated and cleaned to her own pace of life with a niche allowed here and there for Leon to live in.
They had once been called the blonde twins by knowing neighbors, a little boy and a little girl who had grown up to marry. Now nothing much intruded to bother her life.
Might as well go in the barns to look at the lambs, she told herself. They would be frolicking in the mild morning chill. Leon would be out in a moment to feed all the sheep before he left for Kansas City to visit some men in the produce market north of downtown about the possibility of selling farm-raised lamb in shrink-wrap packaging to be wholesaled directly to stores, something that could be a value-added product for local farmers.
She was only halfway down the center aisle, between pens that extended outside for ewes with lambs a few days old, and lambing stalls to the inside for the newly born animals, when she saw a pile of furry tan animal laying next to the fence, nearly at the other end of the barn.
Sue paused before her curiosity overcame her, thinking she really might want to go back for Leon before she looked at whatever it was. It had the field-brown color of a wild animal. But, no, she would look at it anyway. After all, she was a grown woman with little to fear.
“Oh,” she said, inhaling a breath of air involuntarily. It was a dead coyote, all stretched out life-like, its golden-brown hair still sleek, a small bead of blood visible at the tip of its black, pointed nose.
She thought for a moment that perhaps their Great Pyrenes sheep guard dog, Buddy, had killed it, but it was marvelously unmauled, and Buddy wouldn’t bring it into the barn.
And then, “snuff, snuff,” Sue heard a little too loudly in her left ear from something closer to her than it should be.
She froze in place, wondering if she dare scream for Leon. Or, perhaps she had been hearing things. The hairs on the back of her neck were rising.
“You are a woman. Why are you in Leon Gambel’s sheep barn?” asked a voice from only a foot behind her. “You smell good, don’t smell like sheep.”
“Uggh,” Sue sucked wind in a small way as she turned to face a small slender man who was tilting his head to look at her in a most bird-like way from under dark bushy eyebrows. He was standing there patting Buddy’s head, the dog that ought to be guarding her and the sheep.
“She’s my wife, Oswald K. Underfoot,” said Leon Gambel who had just entered the barn from up the aisle. “You just haven’t met Sue because she’s been in the house when you’ve been here. What are you doing here Oswald K. Underfoot?”
“Brought you a gift to pay for my keep, see. Sneaky, sneaky Leon Gambel, didn’t even have to say you saw Oswald K. Underfoot’s name on a bulletin board this time to get his help. I just came to help, brought you a gift for rent, see. Been out hunting Charlie, snuff, snuff, sneak up on him in the night before he kills sheep, brought him in to show Leon Gambel.
“Glad you have a wife, Leon Gambel. Don’t suppose she was ever in the Nam. Not many women were.
“Oswald K. Underfoot, myself, I slept in a lambing stall last night, and Buddy the dog comes in to check me from time to time. I moan a little without the rest of the platoon, but I’d have gone down a hole to get this Charlie if I had to, always was good at going down the holes. Don’t suppose a round boy like you ever did that did you, Leon Gambel. No, you wasn’t in the Nam.
“I like this barn just fine, snug and tight. It will suit me. Charlie’s shelling my position. Can’t stand it, Leon Gambel, had to come to your place.”
“What do you mean, shelling, Oswald K. Underfoot? There’s no way there could be any shelling at your place. You’re safe there. You must be having nightmares. The Vietnam War’s been over for decades.”
Oswald K. Underfoot’s eyelids spread wide to show the whites around his dark eyes.
“KA-BOOM!" he hollered doing a jumping jack to clap his hands above his head so hard that Sue jumped involuntarily, and Buddy whined.
“KA-BOOM, they go, and soon they wijll come screaming in black pajamas with the coyotes and bobcats and pumas to bite poor Oswald K. Underfoot back, and yeow, yeow, yeow I will go,” Oswald said, clinching his long white teeth together in an open grimace. “Oswald K. Underfoot will live here until they stop shelling.”
“Oswald K. Underfoot, what’s really going on? Slow down, and say it in plain ordinary life terms what’s happening over at your place. You can’t really come here to live, you know.”
Oswald K. Underfoot gulped slowly, closed his eyes, and struggled to speak very slowly.
“Yes, Leon Gambel, Oswald K. Underfoot understands you need reality. I will try to say it in Leon Gambel’s world instead of Oswald K. Underfoot’s world.
“It’s the rock quarry. I live next to the rock quarry. They are dynamiting a new vein of rock at the rock quarry. And, they are just going to keep shelling me and shelling me until they get me, and I can’t hardly stand it. Now, you have Sue Gambel to hold on to at night. Oswald K. Underfoot has nobody, they’re dead or discharged. So, I must come to live in your sheep barn for a little while before I sneak over there some night to kill one of those charlies even if he’s a good man with a family at home, maybe even an American. Now, that is it, Leon Gambel, God almighty, amen, roger that, over.”
“OK, Oswald K. Underfoot, I understand. But today, I am going to Kansas City, and Sue doesn’t feel like she can have you stay here without me,” Leon looked at his wife, who was slowly nodding her head. “You ride to Kansas City with me. You can see some sights, and have a little fun, OK? We’ll eat out. I’ll buy.”
“Oswald K. Underfoot will go to a big city? Ride point man in Leon Gambel’s car?”
Oswald K. Underfoot ground his teeth together locking the palms of his hands around his chin while he stroked his long nose with an index finger. “OK, I’ll go, and I promise to have lots of fun.”
“Nice to have met you, Mr. Underfoot,” said Sue.
“Aaah,” the little man hollered. “You call me Oswald K. Underfoot, not Oswald, not Ozzie, but Oswald K. Underfoot. Mr. Underfoot was my father.”
“OK, Oswald K. Underfoot,” said Sue blinking her eyes at her husband in puzzled exasperation.
And Leon had a chance for the next exasperations of his day on the trip to Kansas City.
Oswald K. Underfoot rocked back and forth on the front seat of Leon’s car as they drove down the interstate going “ssss, ssss,” every time they came near a semi-truck.
“OK, Oswald K. Underfoot, try to take it easy,” said Leon, who was beginning to wonder about the wisdom of the trip. Why don’t you lay your hatchet on the floor? I know I said you could bring it. But this is America. Nobody out there is going to hurt you, understand?”
They got off at Broadway to head down to the produce market with Oswald K. Underfoot down on the floor on his knees with the hatchet propped in front of him on the seat. “Are we about there, Leon Gambel?
“Yes, we’re here, Oswald K. Underfoot. Do you think you could just walk around the market for a while on your own while I go in to visit with the Picolet brothers? See, it’s a nice peaceful place, kind of fun looking at everything. See, there’s a booth with flowers in it to look at, and down on that corner they’re selling peaches. It’s a neat place. You have $20 with you to spend on whatever you want. If you need help, see that nice old gentleman in the white broad-brimmed hat and pin-striped suit. He can help you.”
“He looks like he might have been a general.”
“Well, he is kind of a general, of this place anyway.”
“Well, Leon Gambel, I can have fun. I brought $200, not $20. Oswald K. Underfoot can have a lot of fun in the city.”
“OK, Oswald K. Underfoot. This might take me a couple of hours, but I’ll be back, OK? The old gentleman is almost always there at that booth, see? You just watch that place, watch him. I’ll be back there to meet you. So, you watch for me. Leave your hatchet in the car. We’ll lock it up so nobody messes with it.”
“OK, I will watch for you, and I will have fun.”
Leon was tired by the time he got done talking with the brothers, tired from the tension of discussion, tired from the tension of the trip down with Oswald K. Underfoot. He looked around for the little man while he walked up to the man with the aristocratic finely cut features in the pin-striped suit.
“Excuse me, sir,” Leon interrupted the old man’s thoughts politely. “I came down here with kind of a strange little fellow with bushy black eyebrows, parked over there, and I was wondering…..”
“Yes, I saw him, talked to Mr. Spook, or whatever his name was. He’s the one who asked me what my command in the Nam was.”
“Yes, that would be the one.”
Joey in there told him about the burlesque district, and he got a taxi to go there real soon after you left him. Said to tell you he’d be back real soon when he thinks he’s had fun.”
“Oswald K. Underfoot in the burlesque district? You’re telling me he got a taxi cab all by himself, and just left like that when I have to meet him here to go home?”
“Yeah, I think I am tellin’ you somethin’ like that. How’d your sheep deal go with the Picolet brothers?”
“How did you know about that?”
“Nothing much goes on here that I don’t know about. It may look big, but we’re all one big, happy family. I know you drove in that side of the market, and circled to the west, and that’s your green Chevy down there. That little spook had a hatchet you made him leave on the floor—smart move that. Bernie in the flower booth was wondering about moving on him until he laid it down. Don’t worry about your little friend. He’s just nuts, not terminal. Have a Coke with me until he gets back.”
Leon Gambel drank a Coke. He ate a sample of peaches. He carried a basket of peaches to his car to take home. He heard what each of Joey’s sisters either did for a living, or the husbands and kids they had to put up with. The sun began to glow red in the western sky.
Then a yellow cab pulled up to the curb with Oswald K. Underfoot hanging out the window to watch for Leon. He had a half-shredded shirt and a swollen eye. He stepped out the back door of the cab followed by an enormous, fat arm with a snake tattooed on it that reached out to take his hand. The little man braced himself as the arm contracted to help raise out of the back seat a greatly obese woman with gold dangling earrings, black frizzy hair and several chins. She looked toward Leon with small, hard, shiny black eyes that periodically darted to the sides to look around.
“Oswald K. Underfoot, am I ever glad to see you,” said Leon. “Where have you been? I was worried about you. What’s happened to your shirt, and to your eye. That’s going to turn black on you.”
“Oh, I did just like you told me, Leon Gambel. I tried to have fun. I tried to see the sights. It has changed my life forever. And, I am out of $200 now.”
“Changed your life?” asked Leon trying to take his gaze away from wondering if the frown lines around the cake-shadowed eyes of the fat woman who stared at him stoically could really be sunk a full inch into her face.
“Yes, Leon Gambel. I would like you to meet the woman I am going to marry after the three of us get home. She is Susie. I told her I was staying temporarily with you and Sue, and she said that sounded like a good name to her because her name can be Susie, too.”
“Marry her? Leon asked as the big woman towering a head over him held out her huge hand with valentines tattooed on the knuckles. It swallowed his own hand in its grip. “Oswald K. Underfoot, how can you be getting married? You can’t have known this, err, lady more than a couple of hours. Are you sure she’s…..”
Leon stopped talking as he saw the shiny black eyes fixated on him. The woman growled to him in a soft, low voice, “Mr. Gambel, Ozzie here is the best chance in life a girl like me ever gets.”
“Ozzie? You called him Ozzie?”
“Yes, she did,” said the little man, “but you still call me Oswald K. Underfoot, Leon Gambel. I have fallen in true love at first sight after a brief but meaningful conversation. Here I was, just walking through Kansas City after the cab takes me to where the burlesque is because Joey tells me that’s the most different thing to see here that we don’t have at home. I tell you the posters here made me blush even compared to that Taiwanese place that made Lieutenant Jones—well never mind. Let’s just say it pains me that my poor little Susie had to grow up near places like that.
“I’m trying to hold a hand over one eye while I go past the posters so people won’t see I’m looking at them when I see this cute little cafeteria called Ivan’s. I go in, sit at a booth, and who do you think waits on me. Why, it was Susie here, my bride to be. I look Susie up and down, and I think to myself, wow, Oswald K. Underfoot, that’s quite a lot of woman, and look at all those pretty tattoos.
“I was so spell-struck, I didn’t know what to say, so I just sort of blurted out, blurted out like this, Leon Gambel,” Oswald K. Underfoot said, hanging his head to one side with his tongue dangling out. “I blurted out, ‘Hello there, are you Ivan?’
“Sweet Susie here looks at me, and says, ‘Well, you’re a smart aleck little blank, blank, blank, ain’t you?’
“I say blank, blank, blank to you because I know, Leon Gambel, that you believe you are a nice man, and I haven’t heard such words since my First Sergeant said them, and Susie can’t help talking that way, and I was touched to the heart remembering my Fist Sergeant. She reminds me of my First Sergeant. She’s so wonderful, I think she could have been in Nam.
“After I ate at Ivan’s, we went for a walk, and before I know it, she’s got her arm around me. We came back to Ivan’s to announce our engagement, and all of Susie’s other boyfriends jumped me because they didn’t want her to leave. I decked three of them even if they ripped my shirt up. The last one hit me in the eye. Susie decked the other four. She said they shouldn’t stand in the way of her true love. So, here we are. Let’s go home.”
Leon wondered all the way home, with the big woman staring glumly at him over the backseat while she held Oswald K. Underfoot against her one-armed, what Sue was going to say. When he had looked too long in the rear-view mirror, Oswald’s Susie’s black eyes snapped at him, and she said, “Just like I said, this is the best opportunity of my life, fella. Leave it alone.”
He needn’t have worried about how Sue would take it. After the first introduction, Sue took Susie by the arm to lead her to the house saying, “We need to talk.”
Soon he could hear them laughing together, and they came out spouting nonsense about how romance works. Odd to hear a big woman giggle so sweetly. Even more odd to hear Oswald K. Underfoot giggle.
Suddenly Leon Gambel realized he was the odd person out. This feeling was reinforced when Sue spoke.
“Now Leon, you will call tomorrow to the quarry to see when the shelling, or dynamiting, will stop. Until that happens, you will sleep in the lambing barn with Oswald K. Underfoot, and Susie will sleep in the house like I do to keep things proper, and to keep the smell down. Then Oswald will go home while Susie stays with us for a time, so there is a proper courting period. When Susie and I decide the time is right and decent, Reverend Bixby can perform the marriage ceremony. Then Susie Leona Underfoot and Oswald K. Underfoot can go to their own place to live.”
Leon Gambel was puzzling over the series of events and the behavior of his own wife as he carried his sleeping bag from the house. He kept doing so for the several days ahead in the lamb barn. He just made sure that every night Buddy the Pyrenes slept between himself and Oswald K. Underfoot.
You can’t beat owning a good guard dog.
Copyright 2008, Jerry W. Engler