|Photo by David Benbennick|
by Bettyann Moore
The last time any of us saw Minnie Pennywell she was chasing after the 5:10 Greyhound, scrambling and leaping over half-frozen mud holes in her black high-button shoes, skirts hiked high above her knurly knees.
Lockjaw Summers, tipped back on his orange crate on the porch of Meyer's Store, was the last to have words with her. Imagine, Lyle “Lockjaw” Summers – who once spent three hours in the company of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and afterwards when pressed for details replied, "He's a nice enough fella.” – having the last words with Minnie Pennywell! If there was any message for me, any hint that she would be back, Lyle wasn't saying.
Minnie spent a great deal of time in Lockjaw's company in those last few weeks, hunkered down, elbows on her knees, in a cane-backed chair she'd pulled up close to his crate. Those of us who walked by ... and all of us did at one time or another, busily flitting in and out of Meyers' for this and that ... could see Minnie's lips moving with surprising speed. She paused only to take in great gulps of air as she talked to Lyle in a low and hissing voice. Her chair has been put into service propping open Meyers' door in this sweltering heat, but Lyle sits, head cocked at a curious angle as if he is still hearing her, still listening – she would say – as none of us ever did.
In all fairness, to myself and the rest of the good people of Farrell, we tried to listen to Minnie, tried to hear what she was really saying.
"If you would just listen," she bullied us, "you would hear the pain all around you. If you would listen, you would hear your own pain." Well, we were listening, I'm sure, but we heard nothing unusual.
When she said she was lonely, didn't we invite her to sing in the town choir despite her squeaky soprano?
"Anything that is too stupid to be spoken," Minnie replied to the invitation, "is sung."
Minnie spouts quotations and wears them like a fine chain around her neck. The people of Farrell would have gladly hung her up by that chain after that remark.
They didn't, of course, but if they did seem to ignore her afterwards, who could fault them? Ignoring her was a luxury I could ill afford, though. The room we shared at Clayton's Boarding House echoed with the distemper of her moods. Overflowing waste cans, great piles of soiled laundry and grey, twisted sheets littered our small domain. Minnie held forth from a cross-legged position upon her unmade bed while I sat perched on the only chair in the room, her captive audience of one.
Often, as I sat there, I tried to imagine her as a young girl. Did she always strut and preen so? What adult in her life taught her to smoke in that way, cigarette dangling from her lips, smoke tearing her right eye? Did the child that she was look into a mirror and say "This face is angry and should be framed in black"?
I made the mistake – which would have been a small one with anyone else – of asking as she paused for breath, "Why do you wear only black?"
She choked on the smoke she'd inhaled, dislodging her cigarette onto her bedspread. She sprang up, pressed her face so close to mine that I could smell her tonsils and hissed, "I'm in mourning, Charlotte. I am in mourning for all the words that have died, spoken like prayers, evaporated into the thick air of indifference."
I would have asked her what she meant by that, but behind her smoke rose from the bed and though the word "indifference" hung between us, I could not be indifferent to the reality of that.
She moved out shortly thereafter and began spending her days with Lockjaw. It was rumored that she took to peeking beneath the bonnets of babies in their carriages to see if they had ears. She was convinced, it was whispered, that people were breeding earless children, so unnecessary those appendages had become.
On the day Minnie left, people tell me that Lockjaw spoke to her. Customers in Meyer's store were struck still by the rusty, whirring sound of his voice. It was too low to hear, but it droned on and on and the people who could see Minnie's face said she sat there slack-jawed, listening. Apparently, though, he said something she didn't want to hear and when the 5:10 bus lumbered past, she jumped up from her chair, shouting, "Stop! Stop!"
The bus driver was not one of us. He heard her. He stopped the bus and it carried her away.