By Robert O'Conner
Laurence Lipke died October thirty-first,
nineteen hundred and eighty eight. He died in his kitchen sometime
after 2AM. No one knew.
Charlie Harris’ boy, Arnold, who
works at Tyler’s market found him about a week later when Laurence
failed to show up at the bulletin board in front of the store to
check on hidden messages. I don’t know if anyone but Arnold and I
knew that Laurence checked that board each week. If they did, no one
ever mentioned it. Laurence was lying on the kitchen floor; a bag of
lemon drops in his right hand and a copy of The Odyssey by Homer in
his left when Arnold came looking for him. It was Arnold who called
The state of Nebraska buried him
two days later up at that little cemetery where highway 24 turns
right to head out towards the flats and on into Dunning. No one came.
I didn’t know and I was working or I’d have gone. At least I say
I had sort of lost track of
Laurence during this last six months since his dog died. Well, since
I hit her with my car, I should say. It wasn’t my fault, really. She
had broken her rope and ran out from the Lipke yard and straight
under my tire as I was coming home from work. She was probably
headed for the schoolyard to search out abandoned lunches. That’s
what Laurence fed his dog and he gathered them in the late afternoon
from the assortment of trashcans that lined the play yard at
Well, she darted out and I hit her.
It was always so hard to see anything on that corner the way Lipke
had let that yard grow over and the trees hiding the road, and all.
Anyway, I hit her and that was that. Old man Lipke had been close on
her heals and had seen the whole thing. It was terrible. I thought
the old man was going to die too, right on the spot. He yelled at
me, yelled at the dog, yelled at the air, and yelled at God till his
voice broke and he slipped into sobbing, great horrible sobs, thick,
deep, boots-sucking-through-mud, heart breaking sobs. And that’s
what they were, I suppose, heart breaking. He didn’t have anyone or
anything but that dog. I felt bad but there wasn’t anything I could
do. I offered to bury the dog but that just make him madder. He
picked her up and carried her back into the thicket he called a
yard, all the time saying, “bad girl! bad girl!” through his tears.
I just felt rotten. I never saw Laurence again after that.
We had met the day I moved to Mills
City. It was a rainy, soggy, miserable October day and I was feeling
miserable to boot. I didn’t know it rained in Nebraska. I thought it
was always dry and hot, but not that day. That day was wet and
sticky and the air smelled of wet dry grass, oil and mud. The road
in front of the house the company had rented for me had just been
oiled to keep the dust down. A coat of the gray brown goo now stuck
to my shoes and left footprints behind me on the stairs.
It hadn’t been a move I had wanted
to make but the company had moved and I with it. I didn’t have many
belongings so the move wasn’t hard in that way, but I hadn’t wanted
to leave California and head east to land I wasn’t familiar with and
had no affinity for. Not that there was anyone I was leaving. But I
had liked my apartment in Fresno and life had gotten comfortable.
Well, there was Norma, but she
probably didn’t even know I had left. I tried to call her for a week
before, but she never returned my calls. Her answering machine said
she was away for a few days, but a few days had run into a week. I
was due at the new job site by Monday to set up the receiving
section for the shipment of chairbacks and leg sets due to arrive by
the following Friday from Asia.
I worked for Allied Furniture
Sales. We assembled twenty-four sets of eight chairs a week. And I
was in charge of shipping and receiving. I had only gotten the word
I was being moved to Mills City a week before I had to leave. I
barely had time to pack my things and let my apartment go. Norma and
I hadn’t seen each other for a couple of weeks before that. We had
traded a few words about expectations, having them and not having
them, the day she found out the company was relocating me and not
going to relocate her, and now I had left town without a goodbye.
We had been seeing each other, now
and then, since she started working in the office last May. I
wouldn’t say we were going together, or anything like that, but we
went to the movies together, from time to time, and had breakfast at
the commissary together five days a week. That didn’t constitute
‘going together’ to me, but I guess it did to Norma. Anyway, I was
feeling pretty lousy as I moved the last box from the back of my ’79
Pontiac, slammed the door shut with my muddy foot and headed up the
stairs to my new house on Loftdale Road.
“You’re not gonna’ like it
It was Lipke returning from
his lost lunch search with his dog Millie. Laurence Lepke was a
short man, almost as round as he was tall. He had a few gray hairs
shooting out from under an old baseball cap with a red bird on it
and what looked like a woman’s rhinestone pin across the front of
the cap pinned over the bird that read ‘Emilia’. He had on a long
heavy wool topcoat, which had probably once been brown and black
converse sneakers. You know the high top tennis shoes that kids get
to wear in grade school. And they were unlaced but tied around the
shoe tops to his ankles with string.
“You talking to me?” I
“Who the Hell do you
think I’m talking to?”
“ Well, what did you
say to me?”
“I said you’re not
gonna’ like it here, you damned fool!”
At this point in my
life his description seemed appropriate to me so I replied,”How did
you know I was a damned fool?”
“You got those
smart-alecky shoes and people hearabouts ain’t gonna’ like ‘em. I
don’t like ‘em and I don’t give a damn what other people think.
Where the hell are you from? You ain’t from around here?”
I looked down at my
shoes. I had on the only ones I owned, brown wing tips now cloaked
in Nebraska mud and oil. I looked up. “I’m from California. here to
work in a new factory built here in Mills City. You live around
“Hell yes I live around
here. That’s my house there,” He pointed to hedgerow or bramble and
tangle that bordered my yard. “And you can just stay the hell out of
my yard and out of my way!”
Friendly, I thought.
This is going to be great!
“Well, have a good day,”(you
old shit) I said in my most cheerful tone. I just wanted to get into
the house, shut the door, the old man and Nebraska outside, and get
a drink. Laurence wandered off talking to himself and that old
brindle dog and tossing sandwich wrappers on the side of the road.
So that’s how I met Laurence
Lipke, if you call that meeting. I ran into him again about two
weeks later when I was returning home from work in the evening. The
set up at the factory was not going well. The assembly crew needed
more training if we were to make our quota by the end of the month,
and we were running behind in getting our orders out. The heat that
I had expected of Nebraska was here. The rain on my arrival had been
a fluke. The weather soon turned wickedly hot, and I was hot and
tired and more than a little stressed when I saw Laurence coming out
of his thicket. “Hey, old man! You were right. No one likes me so I
thought maybe I could come over and visit with you since you’re the
only friendly person I’ve met here. What’s for dinner?”
“Dumb ass!” Laurence
returned. “Why don’t you go the hell back to California!””
“Right then! I’ll be over about
Laurence headed on up the road
towards Tyler’s Market without even a backward glance.
I headed for the refrigerator for a
beer, or two. That’s about all there was in there anyway. I hadn’t
had much time to shop for groceries or much inclination to cook
anything with the weather so hot and muggy. I didn’t do a lot of
cooking anyway. I boiled some eggs once in a while, and I could make
a pot of stew that usually lasted about a week. Mostly I ate at the
commissary or grabbed something from a quick mart on my way home.
Then, of course, I had always eaten at Norma’s on the weekends.
I grabbed a beer from the cold and
surveyed the interior for hints of food. There was some cheese
spread and a couple of pieces of unwrapped pressed ham peeking out
from the back of a shelf their corners turned up in the air, dry and
iridescent like a sultan’s shoes. I’ll pass on that, I thought. Some
leftover fried chicken from Licken’ Chicken on Hanover Street I had
picked up on my way home two nights before beckoned slightly. Maybe
latter on that, but first the beers. I popped one open and picked up
I had been calling
Norma’s number just about every evening when I got home. I still
felt bad about leaving without talking to her again. She still
wasn’t answering. The machine was still on and it still said she
would be gone for a few days. It had been over three weeks now. How
long is a few days!
I finished the beer,
grabbed a second and a third to take with me and went out on the
porch to catch the last of the evening sunset and to escape the heat
inside. My house was on the outskirts of the town. You wouldn’t
really call it the suburbs here. There were only a handful of houses
in this area of Mills City and about four handfuls in the main town.
I could see the water tower from my porch. It was wooden but had
been painted silver maybe twenty years ago. The silvering was
chipping off in great patches, and across the side had been written
in red letters ‘Mills City’. Some of those letters had come off
with the silver paint and it read more like ‘Mil-- -ity’ now. To my
right was the Lipke house; somewhere in that pile of decaying brush,
he called a yard. To my left Nebraska stretched out towards the west
like an old tawny blanket thrown on the ground and abandoned, its
folds rising and falling gently as it disappeared into the dying
sun. Tomorrow was Saturday. I would have to work all weekend again
and still I wouldn’t be caught up.
I had worked for Allied
Furniture for four years. I suppose that’s why they moved me when
the company relocated. I had made a fair salary but had saved almost
nothing. I was more into spending than saving, though I had nothing
to show for it. I certainly hadn’t spent my money on clothes. One
pair of shoes and two pair of slacks, both of which were in dire
need of cleaning, and three dress shirts made up my work wardrobe.
Three pair of jeans, two sweaters, two plaid polyester shirts and an
assortment of socks, boxer shorts and T-shirts made up my casual
I had one camelhair car coat that
was to hot for Nebraska and even for California most of the time. It
had been a Christmas present from my aunt and I had had it for 10
years. I used to have a denim one but I left it in a bar one night
and couldn’t remember where it was. So I didn’t have much in the way
of clothes. In fact, I didn’t have much of anything. I had saved a
few books, some I had read, some I was going to read later. No
furniture either. The apartment in Fresno had been furnished when I
No, I mostly spent my money on
beers and cards. I liked to play cards and sometimes I got lucky.
Mostly I didn’t, but it passed the time. I didn’t take much to being
around people but playing cards is sort of an automatic thing. You
don’t even have to look up to see who else is playing. The money
goes out, the money comes in, but mostly the money goes out. I
didn’t even have a TV anymore. I had one but I had given it to Norma
and I went over there to watch the game on it on Saturdays and
Sundays while she fixed dinner.
Anyway, I didn’t have much money
left when I got to Mills City. The company had given me a little
stipend to get me settled and starting work, but that was running
out. I needed that next paycheck.
The following month was
a disaster at work. Four of the men that had been hired for assembly
had been let off by the shop foreman when he caught them taking
chairs home after hours. That left me with a short crew of twelve
men still in training and gaining very little ground. We were
getting more and more behind when on the seventh week we were given
notice. The plant was going to close. Due to unforeseen events,
Allied Furniture was closing its doors forever. I was given one
months severance pay, my salary for the last seven weeks; my house
would be paid for till the end of the next month, and thank you
Seems Allied Furniture
was ‘allied’ with some shady doings in Fresno which had led to the
move and those dealings were catching up to them. Something about
drugs and money laundering or so the foreman told me. I always
wondered how the company made any money selling those crappy chairs.
Well, that was about
the shape of things for me in Nebraska back in June of ’87. I was
35. Eli Remick lately of Fresno, California, jobless and didn’t know
where to look for one. I had about $3,250 in the bank with my
severance pay. That was more than I had had in the bank at one time
in 15 years. I was going to make it last. Besides, I hadn’t run into
any card games as yet because I was too busy working. I still called
Norma about every night. Well, every night and sometimes twice. The
message machine was off and she wasn’t answering the phone. Rent was
paid up here for another six weeks. I had beer in the refrigerator
and a chair on the porch. Life was looking strange.
But as time went on it
It was about 3: in the
morning on July 5th when I smelled what I thought was
burning tires coming from the Lipke house. The evening before had
been a cacophony of sound with fireworks, horns and sirens going off
till past midnight. The residents of Mills City celebrated
Independence Day with flags, noise, beer, burnt hot dogs, corn
relish and chips, but mostly noise. Cars full of teenagers kept a
constant cloud of dust in the air on Loftdale Road heading in and
out of town, honking, shouting and tossing firecrackers out the
windows. I had heard Lipke’s Millie howling for hours. The noise
must have really gotten to those floppy ears.
It was well on to 1:00 A.M. before
it died down. Anyway, I finally got to sleep by 2:00 with the help
of a cold six-pack of Coors, but was awakened soon after by the
acrid smell from next door. Thinking the house might be on fire, I
jumped up and did a quick look around. It wasn’t my house. It was
coming from the thicket at Lipkes. Against my better judgement but
thinking perhaps I could help or should at least check to see if
Lipke needed help, I went over.
was the first time I had ever gone over to Lipke’s or even looked
into his yard to any extent. The shrubs and trees made a tangle that
was impenetrable even to the eye. Years of growth and regrowth had
made a mat of vegetation which hung like a dense canopy over a
skeleton of branches and vines which held more cobwebs and spiders
than it did leaves in its dark interior. A small narrow path led
from the road to the house through this labyrinth of tangle and I
made my way in the dark brushing dried leaf filled webs out of my
way. I was taller than Lipke by at least a foot so I finally stooped
over to get to where the path had already been cleared by his short
thick body. The house was unkept and rundown much like the old man
himself. I could see the flicker of light as if from a fire coming
from the back side of the house and lighting up the trees behind.
Carefully and so as not to be seen I peeked around the corner of the
house. I’ll never forget what I saw that night in July of ’87. And
I’ll probably never really understand it.
In the glow of the firelight
was Lepke, in what looked to be blue and white striped pajamas. He
had a bright colored golden weaving with pictures of running deer
with men chasing them wrapped around him. And he was wearing a hat
on his head. A hat different from his baseball cap. It was a hat
with four corners each topped by a different colored ribbon, red,
blue, yellow and violet, which hung down well below his waist. And
if this wasn’t strange enough, there was his dog, Millie dressed in
a blue satin child’s dress or that of a small woman walking on her
back legs! Walking! I should say dancing. They were both dancing in
front of a fire, which was giving off thick black smoke.
He held her paw in his hand while they danced a sort of jig. I could
barely hear him singing something low but I couldn’t make out what
he was saying. It was the damnedest thing I ever saw! I think I was
right about it being a tire that was burning but I think I was dead
wrong about going over there. I left as quietly as I had arrived not
even bothering to duck as I pushed through the cobwebs on the path
and back to my house.
I didn’t sleep much
that night. The spectacle kept replaying itself before my eyes.
Laurence Lipke dancing with his dog Millie, in a dress, a blue satin
dress! What had I seen? Some sort of Nebraska 4th of July
celebration? I think not!
I was more than a little
spooked by the whole ordeal. Crazy is crazy but this was weird.
Nothing like this in Fresno that I knew about.
That was Saturday.
Monday I had an interview with Jim Tyler. I had put my name in a
Tyler’s market over two weeks ago looking for work. Tyler’s was
close to my house so I wouldn’t have to drive into town. I could
walk it in 15 minutes if I wanted. The interview went well. There
was a position open for an assistant manager. Jim’s daughter Mary
had done it for years but she was going back to school in Omaha to
get her degree in education and I was just the sort Tyler’s market
was looking for, or so Jim told me.
I had decided to stay in Mills City
at least till I decided where else to go. I wasn’t going back to
Fresno. I had no work there and Norma still didn’t answer the phone
or answer the letters I wrote her. So, I started at the market the
following week. I had never done this sort of thing, but I was
competent at managing workers of which counting myself there were
only five. There was Charlie Harris who drove the delivery truck and
brought supplies in from the wholesale house in Keith County on
Thursdays, and his son Arnold who stocked shelves, cleaned, bagged
groceries and sometimes helped Charlie with deliveries on holidays.
Laura Johnson was chief cashier, and her helper was Emma Lee Collins
who also baked bread and sweet rolls on Mondays. Some of which were
sold to the elementary school for lunches and some sold at Tyler’s
at the counter.
My other duties involved ordering,
overseeing the staff and making sure the shelves were kept stocked,
and the store cleaned, tallying the daily receipts and making
deposits at the Commonwealth Bank down town.
There was a larger supermarket down
town but Tyler’s took care of the people who lived in the West End
here. This small little community enjoyed a smaller market where
everyone knew everyone else. The market was sort of a meeting place
for mothers to pick up their kids after school and for old men to
sit and tell lies to one
Jim Tyler had been hurt in a
thrashing accident years before when the machine caught his overalls
and pulled him into the blades. Both his legs were pretty badly
chewed up and he couldn’t walk. He was confined to a wheelchair so
he sort of was the store greeter and official checker player. There
weren’t many men who could beat Jim at the red and black game. As a
mater of fact the red and black game was about the only game in
town. I never found a card game that played for anything but
matches, so I saved my money. I didn’t make a lot but there wasn’t
much to spend it on either.
The first day I went to
work I asked Jim about Lipke.
“Old Laurence! He’s
harmless. Stays to hisself mostly. If you want’a know about Laurence
ask Arnold. He knows him ‘bout as well as anybody.”
“Well, I live right
next to him and he does some pretty strange things!”
I didn’t want to come right out and
tell him what I saw on the morning of the 5th. I was
hoping to get a little more information, though. So I asked again
what he could tell me about the old man.
“Don’t know much,
really. He’s always been here as long as I can remember. Sticks to
hisself a lot, like I say. Whole family lived there once but I guess
they all died off but old Laurence.” Jim scratched his chin. “There
was an old woman. I remember that. Not his mother, maybe a sister or
something. You ask Arnold. He might know.”
It isn’t that I forgot
about asking, but I got busy and stayed that way the rest of the
week just trying to get the hang of how the place ran. It wasn’t
till late on Friday evening, just about closing that I saw Lepke out
in from of the market looking at the billboard and the notes posted
“Arnold, that’s old
man Lipke out there. What’s he doing? What’s he looking at?”
“Oh, a… Mr. Lipke gets
“Yeah, he finds them
there in the evenings, usually on Friday.”
“What sort of messages?
Who leaves them?”
“Well…I don’t rightly
know who leaves them but that’s where he finds them.” said Arnold
quickly scooting off to sweep somewhere out of sight or read one of
those Greek myths he found so interesting. If I couldn’t find Arnold,
he was most likely in the vegetable cellar where it was cool reading
from those old books he carried around. Anyway, he got off somewhere
so as not to be questioned anymore about Lipke’s routine.
That evening when I
closed up I looked at that board and the notes posted on it. There
was the normal sort of things like hay for sale, tractor for rent,
housecleaning (I’m sure that wasn’t what he was looking at). There
was a note about canned goods, and one for quilting the following
Sunday. I didn’t see anything there Lipke would have been interested
in. I went home more than a little puzzled.
The next day I told
Arnold I wanted to talk a little more about Lipke when he had time.
He avoided me most of the day. By evening he was hurrying to make an
escape out the back with out being questioned, his pack of books
slung over his shoulder.
“Hey, Arnold!” I caught
him as he tried to slip out with out ringing the little bell that
hung to catch the swing of the door. ”Arnold, you got a minute?”
“What do ya’ need, Eli?
I was just getting home for dinner.” Arnold swung his leg over his
bike and made ready to start out.
“ What do you think old man Lipke
was looking for on that board out there last night?”
“Like I said, he gets
his messages there.” Arnold was more than a little nervous and he
spun his bike pedal with his left foot. “I better be getting home
now. Mom has a fit if I’m late for dinner.”
“ Well, ok Arnold, but
I still have some questions for you later. Bye”
Arnold pushed off on
his bike and headed up the hill to dinner and away from my
persistence. I got me a six-pack of cold ones, closed up the market
and walked home. I liked that walk. It gave me time to think. It was
Saturday evening and I had Sunday off to do nothing. As I passed by
the Lepke house, I thought I heard Laurence in there talking to
someone. Must be his dog, I thought. Don’t know who it would be
other than that. I never saw anyone go in there. Arnold made
deliveries in there sometimes. I knew that. I was going to talk to
him about that one of these days when I could get him to sit still
Nebraska was its own
sort of place I was beginning to find out. The people were sort of
simple, at least here in the West End. They sat on their porches in
the evenings and most of the weekend. They visited each other a bit
bringing casseroles to share and fruit they had just picked. This
one grew vegetables and an other made jams or preserves and they
shared. They were a friendly group as a whole. I never saw anyone
going into Laurence’s though. And for myself, I sort of didn’t mix
in right away. Oh, I had gone over to Emma Lee’s a few times already
for dinner, but other than that I’d rather just be home. Emma was a
happy little thing, well, not so little. She was stocky. Most of the
folks around here tended to be on the stocky side. She was maybe a
little more than stocky and she wore dresses she made herself. She
was proud of that. And she could cook good. I’d have seen her more
but she ground her teeth when she slept. I had met her even before I
started working at Tyler’s. She had made some sweet rolls and I had
bought a few when I got groceries on night. She started a
conversation with me right away and before I had even had my
groceries checked out, she had asked me if I wanted to come over to
her house and have some good home cooking.
That’s how we met anyway. I guess
she had been checking me out while she checked out my groceries. I
ate there a couple times a week after that. Emma’s parents had both
died when she was young so she had learned to take care of herself
when she was still a child. She was about 35 years old now, I think.
I never asked. I don’t think she had been with many men before,
though. At least not enough to fix dinner for them, and stuff.
I got a TV from the
Good Will when I made the bank deposit the week before and I was
anxious to get it set up on the porch where it was cooler and have a
beer. I had bought a used orange Strato-Lounger there as well. I
could kick the foot thing up and lean back almost flat. I was going
to move it out on the porch as well. I had one of the only trees on
the street down at this end, except for the Lepke thicket, of
course, and I thought someday I would get me a hammock to put in it.
I gave Norma a call
after awhile. I had bought a long cord for my phone so I could bring
it out on the porch. If I got a call, I wouldn’t have to get up to
go answer it. I leaned back in the recliner and dialed her Fresno
number. One ring, two, then three – no answer. I wondered if she was
still living in Fresno. I know her folks live there. Maybe she had
moved back in with them. She could have if she wasn’t working. Maybe
she was working again. I wondered where. I called again, still no
answer. Well, she must still be there the phone still rings.
There was an old movie with Tyrone Power and Jennifer Jones on the
TV. I had my beer in a little Styrofoam cooler I had bought at the
market. It was sitting right next to me. Pretty cool! I could reach
it without sitting up. It would have been nice to have one of those
sweet rolls of Emma’s about now, but I didn’t want to drive up to
her place to see if she had any. I’d just get stuck there having to
talk. Pretty good movie. Tyrone Power was some sort’a pirate, or
something. I lost track and soon drifted into sleep, three beers in
my belly and the Strato-Lounger out flat.
I woke up about 11:00
that evening. It was a little cool out now and I leaned over to grab
my car coat lying on the floor to pull over me. I could see through
the brush a light coming from the Lepke yard. I was a little curious
but not about to go over an witness any more spectacles like I had
seen a couple of weeks earlier.
Besides, I was tired and I had made
plans to go up into Hooker County the next day and do some fishing
in the Dismal River. I had picked up a pole the same day I got my TV
and recliner. Charlie Harris said he fished there in the Dismal a
lot and it was real pretty country. I hadn’t seen much of the
country as yet and this was a good opportunity. I though about
taking Emma Lee. She would have fixed a nice lunch, but I don’t know
how much fishing I would have gotten in. I thought about taking
Arnold. He knew the area his dad fished. He could show me some good
spots. Maybe I could get a chance to talk to him about Lipke as well.
That seemed the best idea. I looked on the wall in the hall where I
had written the Tyler staffs’ numbers. Oh, yes there was the Harris
number, first one on the top.
I called Arnold. His mom answered.
“Hello, Mrs. Harris, is Arnold in?”
“Yes, is that you Eli?”
“Yes, ma’am. I wanted
to see if Arnold wanted to go fishin’ tomorrow up at Dismal River.”
“Oh, that’d be nice.
Let me get him for you.” I could here her going out the screen door
in the back and yelling. “Arnold! Come to the phone. It’s that
mister Eli wants to talk to you. Hurry up now!” I liked the Harris’.
They treated me like family from the first time I met them. Mrs.
Harris was always bringing me preserves and treats over at the
store. Sometimes in the evening, she even brought a whole plate of
dinner over at closing time, with tin foil over it to keep it hot.
Arnold took after his mother in that he had that same soft gentle
way about him. He even had her blue eyes. But he looked more like
his dad’s side of the family with his thick dark hair and thin build.
I had liked him right off and he liked me and took me home to meet
his family the first week I worked at Tyler’s. Arnold had been my
first real friend in Mills City.
“Hello, Eli? Something
wrong?” He was breathing hard like he had run in from the playing in
the field or from doing his chores.
“No, nothings wrong,
Arnold. I was just thinking. Your dad told me about some good
fishing holes up on the Dismal and I though maybe you might like to
go along with me tomorrow and show me some. This will be my first
real trip out of Mills City and I would like you to come with me and
give me some pointers on fishing.” There was sort of a long pause. I
could tell Arnold was thinking it over. I did know that aside from
reading he liked to fish. That’s about all he talked about at work.
He knew which fish bit on worms, which ones on salmon eggs and which
ones you had to trick with a wet fly. He had told me a number of
times how he caught the biggest fish and what he used to do it. I
could hear his mom talking to him in the background.
“You go fishin’ with
that nice Mr. Eli.”
“Guess I will go. Do you
think we’ll be back early? I want to go see Sarah Thompson in the
Sarah was in the same grade in high school with Arnold, and they had
been friends since they started Garrison Elementary together twelve
years before. They would spend as much time together as work, school,
and chores would allow.
“No problem, Arnold. We
should be back by late afternoon if we get an early start. Ok?”
“Sure then. I’ll dig
some worms and meet you at your place around 6:00 in the morning.”
“Let’s make that around
“7:00 or 7:30 then, Eli.
See you then.”
Arnold was there by
6:30 and woke me up.
“Arnold! What time is
it?” I looked at the clock. It wasn’t running. I had forgot to wind
it last night before I went to bed.
“It’s about 7:00. Thought I’d
better get here a little early so’s we could get a jump on it, Eli.”
I threw a little water
on my face put on yesterday’s clothes and we were on our way by
7:00. The drive up to Hooker County was truly beautiful. The country
was a little higher than at Mills City and verdant. The cottonwoods
had become pine forests as we got closer to Dismal River and the dry
prairie grass had given way to low rolling green hills. It was a
good drive and we arrived at the destination Arnold had picked out
by 10:00. The river’s edge had low banks at this point, and the
water flowed slowly over a pebbled bottom as it wound its way like a
glassy serpent down through the trees and into the valley below.
We fished about two
miles of the river and then stopped for lunch. I had brought some
beer and chips and Arnold’s mother had packed a basket of fried
chicken and potato salad. We finished eating I took a short nap with
my feet in the water and Arnold read. When I awoke Arnold was still
engrossed in mythology.
“What do you think,
Arnold. Have we had enough fishing for today? If we leave pretty
soon we can be home by 5:00 and you can go see your girl friend.”
Arnold blushed. “She’s
not really my girl friend, just a friend Eli. You know like Emma
Lee’s your friend.”
“Oh, like that,” I said
as we packed up the car. We had caught seven brook trout and two
shiners. “Take these home to your mom, Arnold. She’ll know what to
do with them. I don’t much cook fish.” I knew Mrs. Harris would be
On the drive back we
finished my second six-pack of beer and Arnold got a little drunk
and talked a blue streak about past fishing escapades. I though
maybe this would be a good time to talk to him about Lipke.
“You know Arnold, a
really strange thing happened the morning of the 5th. I
woke up early and I could smell someone burning tires. You know it
was coming from Laurence Lipke’s place. I thought maybe his house
was on fire so I went over there to check on him.”
“Oh, you shouldn’t have
done that, Eli. Laurence doesn’t like people going to his house!”
“ Well, you go over
there to deliver groceries some times don’t you?” I knew he did.
“Yeah, but Laurence
doesn’t like people going over there.” He was getting nervous again,
but I had him trapped in the car and I was going to find out about
“He doesn’t mind you
going there though, huh?”
“He use to have me
leave the groceries at the front of the walk, but now he lets me
bring them in the house.” Arnold fidgeted in the seat fingering his
“What’s his house like
inside?” I pressed on.
“Oh, Eli, Laurence
wouldn’t like me taking about him, Eli. He’s pretty private.”
“Well, I’m not going to
tell him we talked, Arnold. But a strange thing happened morning
and, well, if I tell you what I saw will you not tell anyone?” I was
That did it. Arnold was hooked. “
Oh, no Eli, I won’t tell anyone. I won’t tell anyone anything.”
“Well, ok then. I could
smell this burning tire smell so I went over there. I peeked around
the corner and I saw something really strange. Laurence Lipke was
dancing with his dog, Millie. And she had a dress on, a blue satin
dress. Arnold swallowed hard and looked at me like he had seen a
“You saw that!” he said.
“Yes I did and it was
We drove on for a while
and Arnold was very quiet. After about ten minutes then he started
talking and he didn’t quit till we pulled up in front of his house
on Emercy lane an hour later. He told me all he knew of Laurence
Lipke and I didn’t have to ask.
“Mr. Lipke is a very,
very special person. He is probably the most special person I have
ever met. If I tell you something you can’t never tell anyone, Eli.
You got’a promise.
“I won’t tell a soul,
Arnold, I promise.”
“Well, a few years back
I was delivering groceries to him and putting them right there at
the start of his path where I always did when I saw a woman coming
towards me from his house. She was a fair lady with real white skin,
and she had her hair tied up on her head like you see the ladies
wearing them in old pictures. Well, I hid behind the shrubs there by
Laurence’s fence and watched. I had never seen anyone around there
‘cept mister Lipke before that day. I watched and she walked almost
up to the road, but stopped just back there where it was still dark.
She looked out for a while then she turned and walked back towards
the house again. She had on a beautiful blue dress and she looked
very pretty for an old lady. I waited till she was out of sight and
I came out of hiding. I hadn’t noticed that mister Lipke was coming
home and he saw me watching. He didn’t say anything to me. I thought
he would have yelled or hit me or something, but he didn’t. He just
said to bring those groceries and come with him. I followed him to
the house. I have to tell you, I was a little scared. He opened the
door and told me to put the bag in the kitchen pointing to the
doorway at the far end of the hall. I went in and he followed. I set
the bag down on the table and turned to go bit he stopped me.
He told me to sit down.
He walked around the kitchen for a while, pacing back and forth in
front of me but not saying anything. He looked at me a couple of
times then he turned to me and said, “Do you know where you are?”
“Well, I’m in your
kitchen, Mister Lipke. I’m real sorry I was looking in your yard. I
didn’t see anything.” I was pretty scared Eli, I can tell you that.
I wanted to get out of there as soon as I could. Laurence’s place
used to scare me a lot, but it doesn’t anymore. He has a lot of neat
stuff around. He collects about everything. You know he has a lot of
old books. He gave me these,” and he patted his pack of books on his
lap. “He’s got maps for just about everyplace in the world, I bet.
And pictures of all sorts of animals from Africa and all over
hanging on his walls.”
Arnold was getting
really excited now, and shifting in the car seat to face me he went
on. “He’s got these beautiful weaving hanging on his walls. The have
scenes on them of men and women dancing in circles with beautiful
animals dancing with them. And the colors are all so fine and alive
looking. You know Eli. I think he must have traveled all over the
“I thought your dad
said he had always lived here, born here even and lived with his
Oh, I think so, Eli. He’s traveled
just the same. He knows about so many places and he’s told me about
going to some of them. You know, Eli, he went to Greece with his
sister once. They took them there when he was---- I mean Laurence
and his sister, Emilia, went there when they were back together.”
“Who took them there,
“No, Eli. I mean he and
his sister went there. He said they learned things when they went.
He knows lots of stuff, Eli. Anyway, I was a little scared that
first day and I was afraid he was going to be real angry with me for
looking in his yard, but he wasn’t.”
“That’s OK, boy.” he
said to me, and he was real nice, not mean or anything. I think he
looked a little sad but he turned to me and looked at me real
serious like. Looked me right in the eye and told me,” You don’t
have any idea where you are do you boy? I’ll tell you where you’re
at. You’re in the land between!”
Between what I wanted
to know. “Between now and then.” He said. “I’ve been expecting
someone to come, and I guess its you, boy. There are things I need
to pass on to the next one before I go. And I guess they brought you
to me so’s I could teach you ‘bout them. They said they would.”
“Mister Tyler sent me,
mister Lipke. He asked me to deliver these groceries to you. I meant
to just leave them at the path and go on, but------“
“I know, boy, but they
have ways of doing things that you don’t know they’re doing. They
sent you, I’m sure of that.” He sat down on a chair across the table
from me passed me a dish of lemon drops and began to tell me this
“I was born in this
house, boy. Arnolds you name aint it?” I nodded yes. ”Ninety two
years ago. And I’ve lived here every day of my life. Been here most
that time too. Ninety-two years! I’ve seen my parents go, and my
sister. She died when I was just nine. Caught the fever and the pox
and died in a sweat on her 14th birthday. I was just nine
then. I lived here alone after that, till they came. They weren’t
here that long the first time, just needed a place for a few weeks
they said. They stayed about a month though. ‘been back a few times
now and then.
Stay in my folks room, they do,
both of them. They’re very beautiful, you know. Got that long yellow
hair that sort of glowed and long arms, like longer than this, and
delicate.” And he held up his hands to measure a distance about half
the length of the table.
“Wait a minute, Arnold.
You said his sister died when he was nine. And who are the ‘they’
you keep talking about?” This was getting more and more confusing.
It’s hard to watch the road and pay attention, I guess. Arnold
didn’t answer. He shrugged his shoulders, sort of looked down for a
minute and went on with his story.
“That’s what Laurence
said, they come at night and they leave at night. Don’t want anyone
to see them. Said they needed a place to have that is ‘in between’
so they could come and go when they needed.
“This is that place here, boy.”
Lipke looked around the room as if searching for something hidden in
the shadows. “Did you ever read that book Homer the Greek wrote ‘The
Odyssey’? Well, they said part of the secret was in that book. They
said they had been to Greece and talked to that Homer guy. Told him
stories of places they had been and he wrote about them. Some of the
stories weren’t quite right the way he told them though, they said.
The stories about the changelings on an island weren’t just the way
it happened. They told me how it really happened. They were just
trying to help those fellas out just like they helped me and my
sister out. That Homer just put his own spin to it. He missed the
point ‘a what they were doin’. Let me read you something.” And he
got down a copy of ‘The Odyssey’ from the cupboard and opened it and
began to read.”
‘…I climbed to a rocky point of
observation and stood there, and got a sight of smoke which came
from the halls of Circe going up from wide-wayed earth through
undergrowth and forest. Then I pondered deeply in my heart and my
spirit, whether, since I had seen the fire and smoke, to
investigate; but in the division of my heart this way seemed the
best to me, to go back first to the fast ship and the beach of the
sea, and give my companions some dinner and then send them to
“He stopped there to
explain to me that this story was being told by a sea captain,
Odysseus, who had a ship full of men who had landed on this island
while they were searching for a sheep hide that these visitors of
his had hidden away. They got the wool for their weavings from this
one hide. Then he went on to tell me:
“Oh, here’s the part:
‘…They stood in the
forecourt of the goddess with the glorious hair, and heard Circe
inside singing in a sweet voice as she went up and down a great
design on her loom, immortal such as goddesses have, delicate and
lovely and glorious their work. Now Polites leader of men, who was
the best and dearest to me of my friends, began the discussion:
“Friends, someone inside going up and down a great piece of weaving
is singing sweetly, and the whole place murmurs to the echo of it,
whether she is woman or goddess, Come, let us call her.”
“He stopped again here
to tell me that she wasn’t a woman or a goddess but one of his
visitors. The Greeks had thought they were gods and goddesses
because they had just never seen anyone like them. They were so
beautiful and all, and did so many wonderful things. Then he skipped
some of the reading and began again.”
“Now here is the part
that isn’t right:
‘…So she spoke to them
and mixed them a potion, with barley and cheese and pale honey added
to Paramneian wine, but put into the mixture malignant drugs, to
make them forget their country.’
“There now, that’s the
part that ain’t right,” he said. “They told me they had put in some
sugar and that was all, but Homer had wanted to make the story sound
better. He lied they told me. Then he went on to lie saying
that----where is it? Oh, here:
‘…After they had drunk
it down, she drove them into a pig pen and they took on the look of
“That’s just not how it
happens they said, the changing part. They told me they let them
change into many beautiful animals, and just for the day. They let
animals be people for a day, as well, sometimes, but by nightfall
they were changed back again. I don’t know why that Homer fella told
such a whopper. I know they would never have done a thing like that.
They can let things change back and forth, you know. They are so
beautiful, you know. “Well, it’s all in here, anyhow.” And he put
the book down on the table. “So now I’m suppose to tell you about
them ‘case they come back and I’m gone already. They leave me notes,
you know. Messages on that board outside the market. I look for them
there on Fridays. Sometimes I don’t understand why they want me to
do things but I do them just the same. I’ve saved a lot of their
weavings here. You can see them on the walls there, boy.”
“He pointed them out to
me and told me what each one meant. He must have three hundred or
more. I’ve seen all of them now. He’s got them upstairs too.” Arnold
said, really getting into telling this story. “Then he passed me the
candy dish again.”
“Have some lemon drops.
They say sucking on these things helps to see. Lemon makes you open
up the other parts of your mind, boy. They love these things.
They’ve been good to us, my sister and me. That was her you saw on
the path today. Yeah, they’ve been real good to us,” he told me.
Sucking lemon drops! What the hell?
“But I thought you said his sister
died when he was nine?” I still wasn’t making the connection here. I
must have missed something while I was driving.
“Yes, that is what he said. Died
when he was nine, but they let her come back because of the place
being the place between and all. “
“What do you mean, she
came back from the dead?” I have to pay more attention.
“Well, they let her come back
between the ‘now’ and the ‘then’, he told me. He said they showed
him how to do the fire and what to say to open things up so she
“What do you mean ‘open
“I don’t rightly know, but somehow
he is the one that keeps the way open for them to come through.”
“The ones in the
“Well, that doesn’t
make any sense. The Odyssey isn’t a real story, I mean about real
“Leonard says it is.”
“Well, Laurence has a
screw loose Arnold.”
Arnold grew silent for
a time and I realized I had stopped the flow of his story.
“Please, go on Arnold. I’m sorry
about saying Lepke has a screw loose. What do I know. Tell me what
else he told you.”
“He said when he was
gone I would be the one to let them through.”
“Through where, to what?” This
sort of questioning wasn’t going to get me anywhere. “I mean, what
did he mean let them through?”
“He said he would show me the way
to do the fire and then I could meet them after he left.”
“Did he show you?”
“He does show me.”
“What do you do?”
“I can’t say. Laurence says it is
only for me to know or they won’t come back.”
“Have you seen them?”
I needed more
information. “What about Lipkes sister? Have you seen her?”
“A couple of times.
Mostly she’s changed.”
“What do you mean by
“Well, … I don’t think
I should talk about this part. Laurence wouldn’t like it.”
“I don’t want to get you in
trouble with Lepke, but I don’t understand what you mean by
Arnold went silent
“Well, have you seen the messages
on the board outside the store?” I was changing my line of
“How do you know that
there are any messages?”
“Leonard says so.”
“Well, I’d like to see
one of these messages. I’ve looked on that board and I haven’t seen
anything unless it was about canning preserves or making quilts.
Do you think Lipke would talk to me
“Eli, you said you
wouldn’t tell anyone!” He grew almost angry.
“Oh, I won’t Arnold. I
promised you I wouldn’t and I won’t.” I thought for a minute on how
to approach getting more of this story out of Arnold, but not having
any clear idea on how to proceed I said, “Will you let me know if
you ever see one of these messages or meet ‘them’ whoever they are?”
“Ok, I will. But you
have to promise me you will never tell anyone what I told you.”
“I said I wouldn’t tell
and I won’t, Arnold. You can trust me.”
We had come back into Mills City
and let Arnold off at his house so he could make his rendezvous with
Sarah, and went on home to mine.
I was still more than a little
perplexed. I just figured it was a strange story from a stranger old
man to scare a young boy who had been snooping a look in his yard. I
let it go. I wasn’t really that curious anymore. Just and old man
messing with a young man’s head. I turned on the TV and opened a
beer. The Major leagues were playing tonight. I sank back in the
Strato-Lounger and relaxed.
The next few weeks I
thought little of Lipke. I saw him from time to time heading up to
the schoolyard with Millie and once or twice checking out the board
outside Tyler’s, but he didn’t hold my attention anymore.
July quickly became
August and the store captured more and more of my attention. I had
put in a small glass cabinet behind the cabinet for Emma Lee’s
pastries. And we put up a sign-‘Emma Lee’s Sweet Things’. It hung
above the cabinet on wires, and Emma and Laura tied plastic flowers
and leaves on the wires and let little pieces of ribbon hang down.
It looked kind’a pretty and fancy at that. It did well too. Emma now
baked almost every Thursday night and always on Sundays for the
Monday morning crowd. I usually helped her box up the pastries after
we had dinner on Sunday. She always made a box just for me to take
home the next day. I never really got use to the teeth grinding, but
she was a good cook.
By September we had a
bona fide bakery at Tyler’s. Emma baked full time in the afternoons
at home now. She only worked at Tyler’s in the morning selling in
the bakery until noon. We put a little table out on the front porch
of the store also. Within a month, we had three. Jim Tyler liked the
additions and even got the little store written up in the Mills City
Times. We had even more business after that.
Arnold was back in
school. This was his last year at Mill City High. Next year he had
planned to go to college in Omaha with Sarah, but he said he was
thinking it over now. He said he might have other plans and places
he wanted to go see.
He use to always talk about how he
wanted to be a history teacher. But kids change their minds. I know
I did when I was a kid, almost daily. I know the Harris’ wanted him
to go on to school. But there would be time for that. He was only
18. We never talked about Laurence Lipke again, not till he called
me that October day almost a year later and told me Lepke had died.
I called Norma less now.
She still didn’t answer. I wrote once in a while, but she never
returned a letter. I didn’t know if she was still in Fresno or what.
I was spending more time with Emma, at least dinner times. I must
have put on 30 pounds that summer eating ‘Emma’s Sweeties’. By Fall,
I was big as a house.
That winter Jim got
worse and decided he had to sell the store. He just couldn’t manage
it anymore. Well, really it was I who was managing it anyway. I told
Jim that if I could buy it on time out of the profits, I would take
over half ownership and manage the store and he wouldn’t have to do
a thing except cash his checks. He took me up on it. By spring, I
was half owner in Tyler’s market and full time manager.
Arnold came back to
work full time when summer came around. I made him assistant manager
now and he had a young boy from the sixth grade, Tom Nelson’s son
Roy, to stock the shelves and sweep.
I hired two more cashiers. Laura
still worked there, and now her niece Julie was helping out. The
other cashier was Charlotte French who had moved here from North
Platte to take care of her mother. Charlotte was a fairly beautiful
lady with long black hair and sparkly eyes. We sort of hit it off
right away. Good friends, that is. I sometimes did go on picnics
with her when the Sundays were really hot and the evenings even
hotter. She had a convertible, a ’57 Chevy, bright red one with
rolled and pleated upholstery. I loved to drive that car! Charlotte
and I use to take off in that car for North Platte to dance and not
be back till early morning. That’s a car that can turn a head, I’ll
tell you that! And dancing with Charlotte was like eating ice cream
and taking a hot bath all at once. She could give me the shivers to
I thought it better no one knew we
were sometimes seeing each other. I was her boss and all, and I was
still eating about three meals a week at Emma’s. So Charlotte and I
just sort of had a fun secret between us. She didn’t grind her teeth
in bed anyway. So that’s how the summer went.
Come September Arnold
had decided he was going to stay at the store for an other year
before thinking of starting college in Omaha or anywhere else. He
was a big help. I could almost leave things entirely in his hands,
which gave me more time to drive Charlotte around in that big red
I was working late at
the store getting ready for the Thanksgiving season that October
night when Arnold called to tell me about Lepke. I had been ordering
turkeys and supplies to be delivered the first week in November and
I was deep in thought when the phone rang.
“No, I didn’t know.
Died on the 31st you say. Where did you say they buried
him? Oh, yeah I know the one, up by the flats. Thanks for calling
Arnold. Yeah, I’ll see you Monday. Bye.”
Arnold and I didn’t
talk about Lipke again till about four weeks later.
“Eli, I got something
to tell you.”
“Yeah, Arnold, what is
“Well, I’ve decided I’m
going to stay on here in Mills City for a while, quite a while. I
want to keep working at the store here, and all. And well, I have
something else to tell you. I told you I would tell you so I will. I
saw them, both of them. They were there when Laurence got buried.
And I saw them.”
“You were there? I
didn’t think anyone went.”
“Yeah, I was there. They were too
and they talked to me, Eli. That’s all I can tell you. I promised I
would and so I did.”
“Who was there,
“The visitors of
“Well, what were they
“No more questions,
Eli. No more questions.” And he never talked about it again.
I wanted to ask more but when
Arnold said ‘no more questions’ and he looked me in the eye, I knew
there would be no more answers, so no more questions. I must admit
that to this day I am still a little curious at to who ‘they’ were.
But that will have to stay Arnold’s secret, I guess.
Lipke left that house
and rundown yard to Arnold in his will. That more than surprised
everyone. Well, it didn’t surprise Arnold. Arnold said Laurence had
told him he was going to leave it to him when he left. Don’t know
what he’s going to do with that old place, but he is living there
now. He moved out of his folks house less than a week after Laurence
died and moved into that old shack of Lepke’s. His folks put up a
fuss but Arnold wouldn’t have it any other way. He goes and sees his
mom everyday after work and he still sees his dad at the store and
they fish a lot. He isn’t angry or anything, just said it was time
he lived alone.
Sarah went off to college in Omaha.
She graduated last year and moved on to New York. She’s going to be
a computer analyst or something like that. She and Arnold are still
good friends. He visits her whenever she is home. He still works at
the store. He pretty much takes care of the ordering now and he
makes sure the poster board out front has current messages on it. He
checks it every Friday with out fail. I made him assistant manager a
couple of year’s back, after Jim died. He’s a great help to me, and
gives me more time to spend with Mary Laufor, that red headed woman
who started the little diner ‘Mary’s Place’ on Loftdale Road. She
moved into town less than a couple of years ago. We sort of hit it
off. She’s got a little apartment behind the restaurant with a
double bed. I eat there about every night a week now.
Emma’s got a pastry shop down town,
but she still sells sweets to Tyler’s Market. I kept the name.
People know it and they don’t like a lot of changes around here.
Charlotte didn’t stick around here very long. She met a poker dealer
at the Stop-and-Win in Platte City one night while we were there and
she moved on to Maxwell with him.
I bought the little house next
Lipke’s. I still think of it as Lipke’s though it’s been Arnold’s
for years now. He comes over here now and then and has a beer with
me, but he really doesn’t want anyone to visit him at his place. I
guess the place is too much of a dump. He still hasn’t cleared out
that thicket that surrounds the house. I don’t know how he stands
that mess. He must be burning trash though ‘cause I see a lot of
dark smoke coming out of the back yard now and then. Must be a lot
to clean up there. Arnold has gotten himself a dog, for company
probably. I’ve see this little brown short hair from time to time
running in and out of the yard in the evening heading up to the
school yard to sniff out lost lunches. He must just let it run loose
so he doesn’t have to walk him or anything. I never see him walking
it anyway. I asked him about it the other day. He said he wanted
someone to read his Greek books to so he got the dog. He calls him
‘Larry’. You know, Arnold can tell you just about anything you want
to know about Greek mythology. I told him he should be a teacher
some day. He just smiles.
“I’ve got plans, Eli,”
he’d say and I’m happy here in Mills City.
I got a letter the
other day from Norma. It was postmarked Fresno.
I never opened it.
* * *