My days in the McCleoud house were uneventful at first. I had my little room off of the kitchen. "Not much to look at," Rosa Mae had declared while showing me my new space, but then again she had never lived in a convent. There was a large picture window that looked out to the little park across the street. The small single bed was placed in the middle of the far wall with a small nightstand next to it. Adjoing the room to the right was a small bathroom with shower. I was told I could do my wash on Sundays after the house's laundry was finished. Saturday afternoons were mine to do as I wished garnering any events being held in the house. Everything I needed was right here, and I was grateful.
The cleaning schedule was easy enough to follow. The misses was given breakfast in bed, which I brought to her promptly at 8 AM each morning. The mister was usually out the door so fast I never saw or heard him leave. Some days he never came home at all. I had been living and working in the home for nearly a week before our paths crossed.
"I'm Ian McCleoud," he had said in his gruff, booming voice. "You must be the new housekeeper Maria."
"Myrna sir," I said correcting him, "Can I get you anything?" He was standing in the kitchen pouring himself a cup of coffee from the pot on the stove. A tall robust man with red hair and a red handle bar mustache, he was dressed in a tailored gray wool suit that conformed to his physique nicely. Reviews of his productions were in the papers often and from what I had heard and read he was quite successful.
"No, no thank you. Just wanted a cup before I was off." He took a seat at the small table in the kitchen and whipped his paper open smartly making a resounding crack that echoed off the tiled walls. His thin tapered fingers turned the pages with ease, and often I could hear him mumbling under his breath, "Gaudy! Gaudy! Who the hell does he think he is? No talent hack telling me what my plays should be. Hah!"
I tried to stay under the radar. I had heard many, many different things about this man. He was described as a domineering, a perfectionist that demanded nothing but the best from his staff, his actors, and even his wife. He achieved and enjoyed the finer things in life and as long as you stayed in his good graces, you might get a few scraps thrown your way.
I wasn't looking for any handouts. I wanted to earn my keep and inch forward in my plodding way. I hadn't given much thought to my future. Survival seemed to take up too much of my time. It wasn't that I was without ambition, there wasn't a lot available for a woman back in those days. You got married, you had kids, and you were supposed to be happy with that. Old Landford had assumed I hadn't married due to my father and being out on the farm - it wasn't that at all. I didn't want to be married. It didn't interest me. I wanted my own life and I wanted to be the one setting down the rules that govern it.
After my mother had died, my father let me know I would be taking her place in every way. Initially I hadn't understood what that meant. After a few years he tired of me and just demanded I take care of the house and the farm. He tilled the fields and on Saturday nights went into town to satisfy the other needs his kind needed. The drink became worse for him after that. Soon the fields were overrun, and I had to learn to drive the tractor as well. It wasn't that I didn't want to go to town - I didn't have time.
It had been my 28th birthday when I found him face down, stiff as a board on the front porch. It was Sunday morning and I had assumed the night before he had went into town for his weekly binge of alcohol and cheap sex. The night before had been the coldest we had in a long time - 10 below to be exact. The fields were covered in snow and I was going out early to clean out the stalls and warm up the animals.
Apparently he had tripped up the stairs and shattered his skull on the old iron spittoon he kept by his rocking chair. Blood and bits of brain were frozen to the boards. A frozen puddle of urine was encircling his groin. I hadn't known what to do. We didn't have a phone, and I didn't even know who to call. Finally I saddled Morning Child and rode out to Old Mr. Landford's house.
When Mama had been alive we attended Sunday school faithfully. Young and robust with the spirit, Old Reverend Landford had been a spectacle to see while he pounded the pulpit and demanded the simple folk to give up their evil ways of moonshine and incest. Mama had been a simple woman of simple taste. She would throw on her mother's shawl and wrap her shiny pale hair in a bun which bobbed in the sunlight as she nodded her head to the Reverend's every word. Afterwards he would stand outside the door shaking hands with his parishioners. When he would come to Mama he would always say "Why Mrs. Eula Daughtry. You are always a site out there in that pew, with your beaming smile and righteous eyes. Why you even make me want to give up my sins!"
"Oh Reverend," she would guffaw. "What sins could you possibly have?"
In the end Old Landford had too many sins for even God to accept and he was stripped of his congregation. After that he took to the same moonshine business he shouted about, and eked out a living selling his wares in old mason jars from the bed of his pickup. He was the only townsperson I felt comfortable going to. Even after Mama's death he would come by sometimes to sell Daddy some hooch or make an even trade for a few chickens or a runt pig.
That morning must have been a rough one for him too for when I knocked on his door at the ungodly hour of 9 am he was barely out of bed. Stumbling to the door in his sweaty, stained long underwear he stared at me with bleary eyes and unshaven jowls.
"Eula, Eula Daughtry? Is that you? Have you come back for me?" His tone was winsome and hopeful. I didn't have the heart to lead him on.
"No sir." I said. "This her daughter Myrna. Mr. Landford, Daddy has done taken a tumble up the steps and I 'spect he's dead. I need you to come out and take a look for me."
Mr. Landford wobbled on his feet weaving from side to side while holding on to the door handle for support. "Dead you say?" he asked feeling the harsh reality of the day hitting him in the face as well as a cold breeze coming through the holes in the crotch of his long johns.
"Yes sir. His head is all busted across the porch. I didn't get down to see if he was breathing or nothin', but he's plum froze solid. Don't know anyone who could live through something like that."
Mr. Landford wiped his face and spat out onto the ground missing my shoe by an inch. "All right, let me get my coat."
By the time we made it back the sun was high in the sky and Millie was mooing to be milked. Mr. Landford slid off of the back of Morning Child's saddle. He wordlessly inched his way over to Daddy's still corpse. Leaning over he whistled through his teeth, "Henry, you've done it this time," he said backing away and shooing away the stench.
"Myrna," he instructed. "You ride on in to town fetch Sheriff Wattlee and tell him what has happened."
Sheriff Wattlee hadn't been too surprised at my news and drove his squad car out to the farm. The roads weren't completely clear and he had to hike the rest of the way to the farm. None the less he made it there well before I did, and the mess along with Daddy's body was no longer on the porch. The two men were talking quietly amongst themselves and when I approached they abruptly quit speaking. Mr. Landford was staring intently out at the trees behind the house and Sheriff Wattlee suddenly found the dirt and his boots very interesting.
I walked up to them with trepidation. I hadn't really been around too many other men than Daddy, and he was a piss poor excuse, so I wasn't really sure of the ways of others and why they suddenly acting this way. I knew he was dead. I was the one that told them. They were keeping something from me. It wasn't the first time I had seen this done. Act like nothing's happening, and the girl won't think anything is happening.
Twelve years ago when I had been sixteen I had come upon Mr. Landford - then Reverend Landford, and my father talking together much like Mr. Landford and the sheriff had been. I had just gotten back from going into town for some cinnamon and flour that Mama asked me to get from the General Store. She wanted to make a spice cake to take to one of the ailing ladies in her prayer group.
At first they wouldn't tell me anything. Finally I pushed enough and Daddy told me that he came and had been cleaning his shotgun at the table when it had accidentally went off and shot my mama plain in the chest. At that moment she was lying on their martial bed quickly bleeding to death beneath the compresses they had laid across her. I immediately rushed to her side and tried not to be frightened by the blood.
She had no clothes beneath the blanket and she shook uncontrollably. Her hands were clasped over her wound in prayer and I could hear her silently whispering for forgiveness for her sins. She also asked God to watch over me and keep me from evil. Her silvery hair fanned across the pillow and her skin was slick with sweat. I knew it wouldn't be much longer and I didn't know if she could even hear or see me.
"Mama," I said placing my hand across hers. "Are you goin' be okay? You want me to get you anything?"
"Myrna," she rasped. "Myrna, Myrna my daughter?" I was named after her best friend while growing up. The other Myrna had fallen out the back of a wagon and broke her neck killing her instantly.
"Yes, Mama, it's me. You all right?" I knew she wasn't. I guess a small part of me hoped that my mother was as invincible as she had always seemed to me while growing up. I couldn't live without her. Who was going to take care of things?
A small trickle of blood escaped her mouth and she coughed shivering even more. "I just wanted him to see. To see what it's like - to feel the way he makes me feel. It's not right to do your own wife that way. It's not." She gasped for air, gulping like a fish out of water. "How could I stoop so low?" Those were her last words.
Just then Daddy came in and told me to dress her. He couldn't very well let the whole town see her this way. Reverend Landford had gone to fetch the sheriff, just as I had after Daddy's tumble. He paced the floor, raking his hands through his hair. In his day Daddy had been a handsome, solid man - 6'2 with dark wavy hair, dark eyes and a chiseled face. In the years after mama's death the drink would stoop him making him shorter and his hair would become thin and sparse. It was then he told me of my new role in the family.
We buried Mama quietly out in the back yard under the old Oak tree. She loved to sit out there in the summer time shucking corn, and peas. When I was a child Daddy hung a swing from the strongest branch and he and Mama would take turns pushing me on it. Her tombstone was simple and I did everything I could to keep the area free from weeds and to bring her fresh flowers.
No one believed the story about the cleaning gun going off by itself. Everyone, including me, knew my mother was having an affair with Reverend Landford for spite. My father was the worst of the philanderers. There wasn't an unhappy widow, or spinster in town. Their houses were always in great shape thanks to my father's handy work, and for his other talents they walked around with bright happy smiles plastered across their faces like maniacal clowns out for vengeance against those that wouldn't laugh at their antics. Despite this mother my mother was missed in the town. If you needed a good mending job on one of your fancier dresses, Sister Daughtry was the one to take it to. If you needed someone to calm down your horse that had just seen a snake, Sister Daughtry could lay her hands against the wildest of beasts and leave them with a serene sensibility. Most of all, if some passage in the bible still didn't make sense after the Reverend's sermon Sister Daughtry would explain it to you like you were a still a child coming to realize the dangers of the world.
They knew, as I did, that even the best of us have a need for revenge. The most pious and devout can only take so much abuse and then there has to be conclusion, an end, a grave release from the torment. Some blamed the reverend, some blamed my father or they blamed them both, but they never blamed my mother. She was just a victim of circumstance. The only one who blamed my mother was of course my father.
Before the reverend had left to get the sheriff I heard my father talking quietly to him. "Listen, I know you didn't have anything really to do with this. She's to blame. Damn women! It was the serpent that made her do it. She made you do it. She knew I wouldn't be here and she knew you were weak and you would come over. It's not your fault- they're evil, every last one of them. Look at what Eve did to Adam? Wadn't for a damn woman we'd still be livin' the high life in paradise." I never head the Reverends' response. If my father tried to sell this line to anyone else, no one bought it. The death of my mother was the last straw for his parishioners and he was replaced. My father's endless supply of widows and spinsters dried up, as well as their money for the repairs he supposedly did.
I guess Old Mr. Landford had felt guilty and that is why he had gone so far out of his way to help me after Daddy died. I can't say the experience was a total loss. I learned to speak better at the convent, and I got a better education. All in all despite my questioning the validity of the faith, it was the most enriching year and half of my life.
That's why I knew by looking at Mr. McCleoud as he ranted and carried on about his reviews that he nothing to offer me beyond my pay check, and the roof over my head. He was like my father. Thought that we all owed him something and as long as we were cow-towing to him then we were spared. There was only one who refused no matter how much he pushed. One who would not be silenced, who would not be beaten back, and who no matter how much she endured would always stand tall and that was Rosa Mae McCleoud.