As if from a long ways off, Gracie Evans heard the hushed squeaks made by her rocker answered by the rocker beside her. The hollow sound she made when she tapped her high top, black shoes against the porch floor, Melinda Applegate’s shoes echoed. In spite of herself, the rocking motion lulled Gracie. Her eyelids grew heavy. Her head jerked, nodded and jerked again. She relaxed back against the rocker, and closed her eyes.
Later that afternoon, Gracie stirred when sweat tickled her scalp beneath the two dark gray braids crowning her head. Feeling droplets seep from her hairline and trickle down her cheeks, she roused. She slipped her hand into her skirt pocket and pulled out a large, red handkerchief to swipe her face.
Squaring her hunched shoulders, she straightened in her rocker and gave a slight shake of her head to clear it. The layers of calico and cotton petticoat she wore acted as a funnel to trap the uncomfortable heat radiating up from the floor. At that moment, she imagined she felt like the
glass shade on a kerosene lamp that had just been lit, warming up and in a very short time too hot to touch. Gracie grabbed a handful of her brown skirt. She discreetly raised it just enough that her shoes showed and vigorously shook the material several times to let some of the hot air escape. The only other relief came when she stirred the breeze in front of her face by waving a paper fan in short, fast strokes.
Silently, Gracie chided herself for dozing off, then excused her napping with the fact things were bound to be this way. Boredom is what she got in return for retiring from her farm. She straightened up and tried to read the black print on the large sign posted near the picket fence gate. She couldn’t make it out. Leaning forward, she squinted and failed again. At first, Gracie feared her eyesight had gone bad. With a measure of relief, she realized heat waves shimmering over the shaggy, brown grass blurred the words.
She mumbled to herself, “No need to read the sign. I know it says Molly Moser’s Rest Home For Women. I ain’t too senile yet to remember where I live or that this town is Locked Rock, Iowa.”
She sighed and leaned back again. Every day, she tried to resign herself to the fact that Moser mansion would be where she’d live for the rest of her life. However, she saw no harm in wishing for some excitement to spice up the long days.
Across the street, a door banged. Earl Bullock paused long enough in the shade of his house to straightened his straw hat, before he ambled toward Main Street. Gracie wondered if he or his wife, Sara, ever suspected what transpired next door to them at night. Out loud, she said, “Where do you suppose old Earl’s headed on such a hot afternoon? It’s not like him to leave home this time of day since this hot spell started.”
Melinda failed to answer. Gracie looked away from their neighbor long enough to glance beside her. Melinda stirred slightly. The petite woman raised her sagging head and mumbled, “He’s probably shopping for Sara. With as hot as it is, I’d send my husband to fetch for me if I had one.”
Gracie paused to think about that statement while she studied a string of black ants that paraded by her feet. As if the heat had got to them, the tiny insects struggled to crawl over the peeling, blue paint at the edge of the porch. Melinda’s idea seemed as good as any other for a person to be outdoors in the middle of the day, taking the full brunt of the unrelenting, August sun.
That is, until she looked up to see Earl disappear through the saloon’s batwing doors. “It don’t appear Earl’s after anything for Sara unless she wants a beer. The last I knew, she’s a teetotaler. Not many folks in town this afternoon, Just lookee there where most of the buggies and wagons are parked. Over at the saloon hitch rack,” Gracie criticized in her brassy voice.
Melinda rubbed her eyes with her finger tips then leaned forward to peer around Gracie. “Humph,” she replied, shaking her head with enough energy to cause her mass of gray curls to bounce like tiny springs. “I wonder at the way some people spend their time. I pray they’re as faithful about going to church as they are their patronage at that place.”
On days the weather permitted, Gracie and Melinda watched from the Victorian mansion’s large porch. Neighbor watching gave Gracie something to do besides sit and twiddle her thumbs. She considered it a harmless past time to while away the endless hours. Besides, it was downright obliging the way the neighbors divided up the day for her without knowing it. Gracie’s conscience plagued her a little for being nosy, but she’d excuse her actions. What she saw after dark she kept to herself. After all, she had her limits about what she’d repeat. What went on across the street at Rachel Simpson’s house she didn’t intend to share with anyone not even Melinda.
As soon as their minds cleared from their nap, Gracie decided it was time to move to the north end of the porch in line with the Jordan house. Leaning forward, she plucked a heart shaped leaf that drooped down in the round opening. “Morning glories sure grow fast. I had our holes cleared awhile back.” Gracie tilted her head toward one shoulder then leaned the other direction, inspecting the hole. “Can’t see a thing with all them leaves in the way,” she growled. Tossing the leaf over the edge of the porch in behind the petunias, she snapped off another one. “Pect I’ll have to clear the holes in the other vines before you know it.” She peeked through the hole to make sure her view was unobstructed. When she was satisfied with her efforts, she settled back in her rocker.
A back door across the street banged. Dan Jordan came into sight, carrying a scrap pan and water pail. Dan’s large, watch dog, a black with white patches, slick haired mixed breed, lifted his head and uncurled in his hollowed out spot under the oak tree. He stood and stretched, watching Dan place the containers on the ground. When his master spoke, the dog’s tail wagged in rhythm with his swaying backend. He pattered to the man, dragging the clattering chain attached to the log, tool shed. Dan bent over and scratched the dog behind the ears, before he went back into the house.
An hour passed. Gracie jerked out of her stupor at the sound of a slammed door. Quickly, she leaned forward to peek through her hole. Dan, a Jewel Tea Salesman, tromped down the porch steps with his wife, Mavis, right behind him. “Lookee there!” Tapping the floor with her foot to start her rocker, Gracie reached over and patted Melinda on the arm to wake her. “Mr. Jordan’s suited up for work with Magpie marching right behind him. She looks as mad as an old wet hen again.” Gracie stopped rocking and straightened her bent shoulders. Pointing a crooked finger, her head bobbed up and down in anticipation of a good show. “Magpie sure favors that red dress. She wouldn’t look quite so stocky if she’d wear other colors. What do you think?”
“I think you shouldn’t call her that name. One of these days you’ll slip and call her that to her face. Mark my words, from what we’ve seen of that woman’s temper lately, you’d be sorry you did,” reproached Melinda. Grabbing her white blouse tacked to her ribs, she shook it. “I’m glad I left my corset off. It’s way too hot for that today. Maybe we should go sit in the parlor.”
“Hold your horses! Let’s see what the Jordans do first,” barked Gracie.
Dan, a tall, handsome man with broad shoulders, halted abruptly at the end of the yard.
He whirled around and peered down at his shrieking wife. “For Pete sakes, keep your voice down. The whole neighborhood will hear you.”
Mavis glanced around at the nearby houses and across at the mansion. Her face contorted. She defiantly squared herself in front of her husband with her hands on her hips and glared up at him. “Oh fiddlesticks! Those two old prunes on the Moser porch probably couldn’t hear a stick of dynamite go off if it was under one of their rockers so don’t put me off with that excuse. I want some answers, and I want them now,” demanded Mavis, jabbing a finger in his chest.
Gracie’s smile dried up, but she listened without comment. She knew Melinda was right about Mavis’s temper. It wouldn’t do to laugh at her peculiar habit of wearing the same red dress most of the time or at her thick, black hair pulled back in a large chignon, making her head look too big for her body. Not within range of her hearing anyway.
“I told you I have a sales meeting. That’s why I’m going to be late. I’m looking to get a good commission from this kitchenware sale if I swing it. We can talk about anything you want when I get home. Now go in out of this heat, Sugar Pie. See you tonight,” cooed Dan as he walked away.
Waving her hands in the air, Mavis muttered to herself as she spun around and headed back to the house. Gracie cocked her head, straining to catch a word or two, but from that distance, she couldn’t make out what the angry woman mumbled.
Sauntering down the street with his hands in his pants pockets, Dan whistled, In The Good Old Summertime.
“Did you hear what Magpie said about us?” Gracie asked indignantly.
“I heard, and did you hear what they said? They can see us sitting over here,” worried Melinda, disturbed by that fact but a bit distracted as she watched Jordan calmly amble toward them.
Noting the look on her companion’s face, Gracie stated what she thought Melinda was thinking. “It don’t seem right how easy that man can act as though nothing is wrong right after he has a fight with his wife.”
As the salesman strolled in front of the mansion, he glanced over at the porch as though he had just seen the women. Waving, he called, “Good afternoon, ladies.”
Gracie managed a curt nod before she looked away. She had no intention of acting as though his presence on the street was any concern of hers. In an attempt to be courteous, Melinda raised her hand in a half hearted wave.
After Dan was out of hearing range, Gracie fumed, “I could tell that woman a thing or two about what we old prunes can hear and see. I ain’t that old. Could tell her a thing or two about her dudie husband, too.”
“Like what? He’s a good salesman. I bought an Autumn Leaf clock from him once.” Melinda gave her a curious look.
Gracie smoothed a wrinkle in her skirt and muttered quickly, “Ah, I’m just letting off steam.” Inwardly, she chided herself for letting her tongue get ahead of her thinking. She thought she knew the reason behind the Jordan fights, but she had to be careful not to reveal more than she was willing to tell.
“It wouldn’t be too smart to tell Mavis anything if you want to keep listening in on their fights. Would it?” Melinda waited, studying Gracie who took some time to think about her answer.
“No, reckon it wouldn’t be smart atall.”
If the Jordans realized how well Melinda and she heard their fights, the couple might be more discreet. If that was to happen, Gracie didn’t see any reason to sit on the porch in the afternoon heat.
“We should feel sorry for Mavis what with all the problems she has with her man. If she wasn’t so disagreeable all the time, she’d probably be a nice person,” lectured Melinda, always looking for the best in everyone.
Gracie studied the Jordan place thoughtfully for a moment. She shook her head. “I doubt it. She reminds me too much of Bessie Brown. She always stayed disagreeable just like Magpie. On her good days, I could walk right by her, and she’d stare mean like at me. Other times just looking at me was enough to make her want a fight.”
Melinda looked puzzled. “What did you do that upset this Bessie all the time?”
“Nothing. That old gal was born plain mean just like Mavis Jordan.”
“Gracie, I doubt that anyone is born mean,” disagreed Melinda. “How did you ever manage to make peace with Bessie?”
“I shot her,” said Gracie, calmly. “Oh, Gracie!” Melinda cried. Her face paled as her blue eyes widened. She slowly shook her head and managed to utter, “You didn’t do that, did you?” She leaned close and peered at Gracie intently. “You’re pulling my leg. Aren’t you?”
“No, I’m not. It was either me or that cow. The older I got, the harder it was to get out of her way when she charged at me.” “Oh my goodness! Bessie was a cow.” Melinda took a deep breath and flopped back in her rocker, patting her chest. Giving Gracie’s admission some thought, she reconsidered. “But still in all, it seems to me that’s a drastic thing to do to your own cow.”
“At the time, I felt like that’s all I could do,” answered Gracie, with a shrug of her shoulders. She studied a crack in the floor and traced it with the toe of her shoe to keep from looking at Melinda.
“What do you say we go in for awhile out of this heat? Please,” begged Melinda. “Let’s see if Aunt Pearlbee made some fresh lemonade.”
Gracie scowled. Wanting to change the subject so she wouldn’t have to move, she opened her mouth to complain about the heat and decided that wouldn’t do any good. Melinda would find her complaining another excuse to go inside. On the other hand, Gracie didn’t feel guilty about voicing her opinion. Being dissatisfied with the weather was human nature and not just one of her old age gripes. In the winter, everyone in Locked Rock complained about the knee deep snows and cold temperatures, and they grumbled about the heat and dry spells in the summer.
When she farmed she spent most of each day outside, and she didn’t want that to change. Besides she came to the conclusion a long time ago if she had her pick of either miserable season, she’d choose summer. Her old bones could stand heat a sight better than cold, and after all, this was August. Mother Nature would cool the temperature down soon enough. In no time at all, she’d have no choice but to be stuck indoors.
Gracie glanced from downtown to across the street, reminding herself she wouldn’t miss much now. Nothing interesting happened until darkness set in. She might as well give in to Melinda’s pleading, besides she was thirsty. “I reckon a glass of lemonade would hit the spot.”
Gripping the rocker arms, she strained to lift herself to her feet. She felt a twinge of envy, watching Melinda. That spray, little woman could get out of her rocker twice as fast and was already opening the screen door.