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Short Story

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Short Story

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SOMETHING FOR NOTHING 

  By John Richard Lindermuth 

        Katie didn’t have to part the curtains to know who was at the door. She didn’t need Pearl’s excited “It’s him!” to tell her either. Except for the preacher and an occasional salesman, Harry Baskin was one of the few people who still bothered turning off the county road and traveling the half mile of dusty lane to her house. Besides, she’d recognized the familiar sound of the truck long before he knocked.

            “Well, if he wants to waste his time,” she thought with a frown that didn’t stay her from primping tight grey curls or smoothing her apron before reaching for the door knob.

            “Ain’t you gonna let him in, Mama?” Pearl asked.

            Katie gave her a scowl that hadn’t faded when she swung open the door.

            “Guess you ain’t happy to see me,” Harry said, smiling at her through the screened door.

            “Should I be?”

            “Hoped you might of changed your mind.”

            “Told you I wouldn’t.”

            “Can’t blame a man for tryin’,” Harry said, shrugging his narrow shoulders.

            Katie’s scowl melted and her lips twitched to something close enough to a smile that it might have given Harry hope had he noticed. He surely was a man for trying; she had to give him that. His stubbornness nearly matched hers, though what each of them wanted, neither had shown any sign of giving, despite all his visits of the past year. Well, it was too late now. She was surprised, but the fact he was here and asking made it clear he didn’t know. Now she would have to tell him, and Harry would stop coming round. The thought of that produced another frown.

            “Ain’t you gonna ask me in?” he said, fanning himself with his straw hat. “Sure is hot out here.”

            “Old man like you shouldn’t be standing around in the sun,” she said, opening the door and stepping aside for him.

            Harry blinked behind his glasses, mopped at his forehead with a bandanna and came into the cool of the foyer. “I waited until the storm was over before I headed out.”

            “Would you like some lemonade, Mr. Baskin?” Pearl asked, smiling out at them from an armchair in the parlor.

            “Thank you. That would be right nice, Pearl.”

            Katie escorted him into the parlor, and they sat down on opposite ends of the sofa. Neither spoke. Harry fanned, his wrinkled face beet red. Katie wondered how soon she should break the news to him.

            Pearl came back with a pitcher and three glasses on a tray. She poured and handed them their drinks. Harry quaffed down his lemonade, licked his lips and gave Pearl a smile. “That sure hits the spot,” he said.

            Pearl beamed, shuffling her big feet and wiping wet palms on her apron. “Would you like me to play for you, Mr. Baskin?”

            “That would be right nice.”

            Katie sipped her lemonade, avoiding Harry’s eyes which she felt smiling at her. He knew about Pearl, but he was too nice not to let the girl shine. That was one of the things Katie liked most about him.

            Pearl shuffled to the piano in her slippers, made the usual production of sitting down, rummaging through sheet music, cracked her knuckles once and lit into a lively rendition of “Turkey in the Straw.”

            Harry applauded enthusiastically as she finished and bowed with a flourish.

            “Thank you. Thank you,” Pearl said, her face split with a childish grin. “Want to hear another one?”

            “Sure would,” Harry said, refilling his glass.

            Pearl dove into “Turkey in the Straw” once more.

            Katie sighed, embarrassed for her. Forty years old and she’d never passed fourteen and that one song. But Harry clapped as strongly as before, not shaming Pearl, giving her a warm grin as though she were a recital star.

            “Want another?” Pearl asked.

            “Not right now, dear,” her mother interrupted. “Mr. Baskin’s here on business.”

            “No big hurry,” Harry said, giving her a sly glance.

            Katie looked away. “Time’s money,” she said.

            “You ready to sell, then?”

            “Didn’t say that.”

            “Would you like some cookies with your lemonade?” Pearl asked. “Ginger snaps. Mama and me made them fresh this morning.”

            “Lemonade’s just fine for now,” Harry said, tilting the pitcher to his glass again.

            Katie shifted uncomfortably, rubbing her palms on the arm of the sofa. Then, smoothing her apron over her bony knees, she dared a quick peek at him. Harry wasn’t much to look at, but he was kindhearted and the first in a long while to make her heart flutter as it did whenever he was near. She had to admit she liked him, even if he was an antique picker, just like the others who had pestered for the car none of them would get now. Yet, he was different. And, she was going to miss his visits.

            With a sigh, she started to rise. “I’ll just get those cookies anyway – in case you change your mind.”

            “Katie,” Harry said.

            She sank back on the sofa, turned to face him.

            “Katie..” he started again.

            “It ain’t no use, Harry. I can’t sell you that car.”

            Damned car. It had brought Harry and the others to her like carrion draws buzzards, fluttering around her, pestering, waving their money, making offers up to three times what she’d originally paid for it. She didn’t understand their obsession. It was only a machine. And, like her, it was old.

            She scanned the parlor and the dining room just beyond the archway, taking in the portraits lining the walls, the knickknacks on shelves and tables, the china and glass in the hutch, things passed down from her and her late husband’s families, all of them old. Though she’d sold some when short of cash, Katie could understand keeping things out of sentiment.

            But, she couldn’t fathom Harry’s customers, fools who craved other people’s old things when they had money to buy new. That just didn’t make sense at all.

            She’d bought the car when Katie was just a little tyke, and of course she’d kept it in good condition. She always took care of her things. She and Pearl had washed and polished the vehicle every week, saw that it had regular check-ups and got plenty of rest to compensate for use.

            Actually, it got more rest than use.

            They only used it twice a week – Thursday to do the grocery shopping and Sunday to go to church.

            She didn’t nurse the car through all its years because she wanted to impress anyone with its beauty or enjoyed tinkering with its parts. It was only common sense that taking care of it would assure its functioning when she had need of it.

            “I can’t sell you the car, Harry,” she repeated.

            “Oh?” he said, turning in his seat to face her.

            “The storm,” Pearl put in, “that bad one last week with all the wind?”

“It brung down that big old buttonwood right on our shed and flattened the car like a tin can stomped under your foot,” Katie told him. She paused and looked at her hands. “I sold it to the junkman.”

There, she’d said it. And now Harry would be gone from their lives like the others who had coveted the car. She wouldn’t miss the others, but the thought of not seeing Harry again brought a tightness to her chest and made her lips quiver.

Harry stared at her. He grinned and his eyelids flickered behind his glasses. “I know,” he said finally.

“You know?” she answered, confused.

“Heard about it the other day down at Staudenmeier’s garage.”

“Then why’d you come back?”

Harry reached out and took one of her hands in his, clumsily, his eyelids flickering again. “Katie, I gotta tell you something.”

She tried to pull her hand away, but his grip was strong.

“I admit,” he went on, “in the beginning, I came to buy your car and whatever antiques I could get. That’s my business and you can’t fault me for trying to make a living. But, there’s more to life than business. You don’t think I kept coming back here just because of the car, do you?”

Katie’s breath was coming in short little gasps and she could feel her face getting hot. She couldn’t speak. She sank down, hot in his grasp.

“I’ve grown very fond of you and Pearl. I like being with you. I gave up on the car long ago. I kept coming around because I hoped you’d start liking me, too.”

“We do like you, Mr. Baskin,” Pearl chimed in, bouncing up and down in her chair like a child. “We like you a lot. Don’t we, Mama?”

“Shoosh, Pearl!” Katie managed. “What is it you want, Harry?”

It was his turn to be perplexed. He released her hand, licked his lips, looked from one to the other of them. “I want.. that is, well … I was wondering.. would you and Pearl go with me Saturday to the church social down at Hickory Corners?”

Excited, overwhelmed by it all, Katie jumped to her feet. “I think I’ll get those cookies now,” she said, hurrying off to the kitchen where she could wipe away the tears flooding her eyes.

The lemonade and cookies extended to an invitation for supper and a spell of porch-sitting, and it was getting late when she finally walked Harry out to his truck.

“One thing I got to know,” he said, sliding onto the seat and closing the door.

“What’s that?”

“How come you never would sell that old car? You had a lot of good offers and you could have made a good profit.”

“I didn’t buy it to make a profit,” she said. “I bought it to drive.”

“Well, you can’t drive it now.”

“Yes, but that was God’s doin’,” Katie conceded. “Wasn’t a bad deal, though. He got me $15 and you for a car that can’t do anything no more.”

(This story originally appeared in Out of the Cradle, Winter 1996/97)


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