By Bettyann Moore
The sun was barely up and Main Street still deserted when June Fisher plunked her ample bottom down on the white rocking chair outside Jordy’s Five & Dime. She huffed a sigh of satisfaction and settled in for a long siege; she hoped the others wouldn’t be late.
She pulled her knitting bag onto her lap to check her supplies. The three-color straw bag, emblazoned with JAMAICA on the side, had been her best purchase to date. June had never been to Jamaica, nor anywhere outside of Minnesota for that matter; she’d picked up the bag at the Goodwill on half-price day, a bargain at 50 cents. The other finds that she wore that day included a baby blue sweatshirt with Tampa stitched in yellow across the bosom and a black ball cap with NY on its peak. June was a walking travelogue.
June poked around in the bag. Needles and yarn, of course, plus the scarf she’d been knitting for three years, now a good six feet long; a bottle of water and another with orange juice spiked with vodka – it could be a very long day; a deck of cards and cribbage board – June was Norwood’s cribbage champion four years’ running; and one Depends buried beneath it all – sometimes when she got to laughing, well, it was just prudent. Why, just thinking about the looks on The Boys’ faces when they saw her and the rest of the Stitchin’ ‘n’ Bitchin’ Club today was enough to set her off.
“Ha! About time!” June said, looking up from her task. Cora Lee Johnson was mincing down the sidewalk in ridiculously high heels toward her, butt sashaying in tight capris. “Damn fool,” June muttered, looking down at her well-worn Keds. Cora was a Georgia transplant and still had to learn the ways of the Midwest.
“Yoo-hoo, June, here I am!” she called out, though she was within ten feet of June now.
“I can see that,” June said dryly as Cora Lee wobbled up and stood before her.
Cora Lee planted her hands on her hips and looked around. “Which one should I take?” she asked, nodding toward the other chairs.
June waved her hand in the air. “Any one that tickles your fancy,” she said. “The bouncy metal ones can be right comfy.” June couldn’t help it, whenever she was around Cora Lee she started talking like an extra in Gone with the Wind. Bless her heart, though, the woman never seemed to notice.
“Land!” Cora Lee cried, whipping out a handkerchief and wiping off the well-worn chair. “Ain’t this Doc Kirby’s seat?” She settled into it and rocked it tentatively.
June glared at her. “It ain’t Doc Kirby’s seat more than it is anyone else’s,” she said, wincing at the ‘ain’t’. “That’s why we’re here. Where’d those other two get to anyhow?” she added, looking around. “It’s nearly 7 o’clock. I told them ...” She was interrupted by squealing tires and the loud muffler-less gunning of an engine.
“My word!” Cora Lee said, fanning the exhaust away with her hand. “Will Fern never get that big ol’ beast serviced?” The two women watched as Fern, with Delia riding shotgun, maneuvered her 1973 Cadillac Fleetwood into a parking spot.
“Thank heaven she doesn’t have to parallel park that monstrosity,” June muttered. As it was, when Fern killed the engine and it was blessedly quiet again, the car was still a good two feet from the curb.
Delia Olson wrestled with the big door then heaved it open. She went around to the trunk and pulled an aluminum walker out of its cavernous depths. Once she had it opened, she pushed it around to the driver’s side where Fern and her oxygen tank waited. The two slowly made their way to the Five & Dime. The walker, complete with a bulb horn, streamers and a wicker basket, sported a sticker that declared: Wipe That Smile of Your Face! I’m OLD, not cute! Though it was months before football season, Fern Stapleford was decked out in purple and gold, the colors of her beloved Vikings.
June could never resist. “I hear the Vi-QUEEN’s quarterback has to wear training pads to practice,” she said, taking over for Delia and helping Fern into a chair.
“And you call yourself a liberal,” Fern shot back, “and a feminist at that.”
Fern always did have June’s number. Properly chastised, June dropped back into her chair. Fern beamed a fond smile in her direction. The two had been friends since childhood.
Delia fussed with the walker, making sure it was close at hand, then leaned over Fern to make sure there were no kinks in the NG tubes. Fern slapped at her hands.
“Quit twittering about, Delia,” she growled. “Give me some air!”
“But that’s what I was trying to … oh, ha ha, I get it,” Delia said, backing away. She gave Cora Lee a hug, then settled into the chair next to her. All present and accounted for, and not a minute too soon.
“Here they come,” June said, nodding down the street toward Dottie’s Diner.
“I don’t think they see us yet,” Cora Lee said, giggling.
“I’m so nervous!” Delia declared. Fern snorted, not an easy thing to do with tubes in one’s nose, but she had perfected it.
Four men had just left the diner and were deep in conversation as they headed toward the cluster of chairs as they had for the last 25 years, but only in good weather, of course. It was Minnesota, after all. In winter they held down a corner table at Dottie’s for the bulk of the day. Dottie grudgingly allowed it; Doc Kirby had saved her life once. But Dottie was gone now – even Doc Kirby couldn’t save her from old age – and a young couple up out of Chicago had taken over. “Sorry,” they had told ‘The Boys,’ as they were called, “we can’t afford to tie up a table for that long.” The Boys still sat as long as they could over oatmeal and coffee, but eventually they had to vacate their spots. In the winter, that was a problem. It wasn’t as much fun to sit in someone’s living room, without an audience, and solve the ills of the world. On fair days, though, there were “their” chairs in front of the Five & Dime. Until today.
June, Fern, Delia and Cora Lee saw the moment when one of the The Boys’ finally noticed that something was amiss. Mikey Poston was ahead of the others and in mid-stride came to an abrupt halt. The women had a hard time keeping straight faces when the other three men collided with Mikey’s backside. Doc’s cane had somehow gotten tangled in Jake Norquist’s legs and while he and Bob Markham worked to keeping everyone upright, Mikey stood there gawking.
June, with the best vision of the four, read Mikey’s lips. “Holy shit!” the former minister cried.
The other men peered over Mikey’s shoulders as the women, one by one, brought out their needlework.
As the others bent to their tasks, June kept one eye on the men and gave a running, whispered commentary.
“They’re just standing there ...
Now they’re huddled around Doc and his mouth’s going a mile a minute …
Mikey keeps looking our way and making gestures. Hard to tell if they’re obscene …
Looks like Jake wants to go back to the diner; he’s pulling on Doc’s arm, the coward …
Bob just spit on the sidewalk, yuck, but he’s always doing that …
Looks like a consensus has been reached. Bob and Jake are going back to the diner and Mikey and Doc are headed our way. Steady as she goes, ladies.”
The two men made quite a pair. Doc, ivory-headed cane in hand, was dressed in a starched white shirt, creased grey pants and a matching vest from which a pocket watch dangled. Mikey wore his typical shiny black jogging suit with white racing stripes down the sides; it swished when he walked.
“Why Pastor Poston, Doc Kirby,” June said, pretending to be surprised when the swishing stopped and the two men stood within the circle of chairs. Mikey had the decency to blush. He hated to be reminded that he was once a preacher, defrocked years before for shenanigans with a married parishioner. Fern kept her head down, but June saw her smirk.
“Ladies,” Doc said, turning to each of them. He would have tipped his hat if he were wearing one. “It’s a beautiful day in Norwood,” he added, doing his best Garrison Keillor impression. Mikey shifted next to him. If it were anyone other than Doc, he would be elbowing him in the side.
“A tad on the chilly side for this southern girl,” Cora Lee said, batting her eyelashes and earning her a frown from June and Fern. Delia simply nodded and kept at her cross stitch.
“It’s perfect,” Fern declared, shutting down her oxygen tank and reaching into the basket of her walker to pull out a pack of Marlboros. “What?” she said, when Doc gave her a look. “They’re ultra-lights.”
“Stopping for a bit while out shopping?” Doc asked casually.
“Oh, hell no,” June said. “We’re here for the long haul. It’s the perfect place for our Stitchin’ and Bitchin’ group, right, ladies?”
The others murmured their assent; Fern took a defiant drag off her cigarette.
“But ...” Mikey began. Doc put a cautioning hand on his shoulder.
“Well,” Doc cut in, “enjoy your day, ladies. It’s an old doctor’s joke, but it works for your, uh, group as well: Keep them in stitches!” He laughed at his own joke while Mikey furrowed his brow and cocked his head. Doc took hold of the pastor’s elbow and steered him down the street toward the diner.
The group held its collective breath until the men were safely inside, then broke into loud cackles, even Delia.
“Oh my stars!” Cora Lee cried, trying to catch her breath. “Did you see the looks on their faces? And Doc Kirby! Butter wouldn’t melt in his mouth!”
“Oh-oh-oh,” June gasped, clutching her gut. “I have a stitch in my side!”
Everyone went quiet, then burst into new laughter.
“Stitch! Oh my God, stitch!” Fern sputtered, then was wracked with a choking cough. Delia leapt to her feet, farting loudly, and sent the women into new fits. Fern had to turn up her oxygen intake.
By then the town was bustling and not a few heads turned their way. Shoppers going into Jordy’s gave the women wide berth, but smiled just the same. Jordy himself came out and gave them the eye, though he just shook his head and ducked back inside. The women finally went quiet when Sheriff Kleinschmitt’s black-and-white came cruising down Main Street.
June looked around at the women, her friends. Her family. Two divorcees, one widow and June herself, never married. She’d gotten over the anger at people who assumed she was “unmarriagable” or, the usual, a lesbian. Fact of the matter was, it simply never entered her mind to give up what she had already. Of course she’d had lovers, some for years and years, though few knew that.
Delia was the group’s most tender-hearted member of the little group. Horribly neglected as a child in a family of 13, she jumped right into a marriage with a dimwitted alcoholic that promised – and delivered – more neglect. June and Fern had spent hours on the phone and in person, telling her she was wonderful. It wasn’t until Delia had spent three days crawling around on her hands and knees because she’d broken her ankle and Dimwit was too drunk to take her to the doctor, that Delia finally woke up. Up until then, neglect, to her mind, didn’t equate to abuse.
Five days into kindergarten, June knew that Fern would be her friend. In a land of Norwegian blondes, Fern stood out with her coal-black hair. The other kids teased June because she could already read and preferred to curl up on the play corner rug with a book rather than taking a turn at the clay table. One of the boys – a particularly snotty-nosed bully – took exception to that and when the teacher’s back was turned, he ripped the book June was reading out of her hands and sat on it. Shy, easily intimidated June made no move to get the book back. She popped her thumb into her mouth and let silent tears fall – she’s since learned better than giving a bully such an easy target, thanks to Fern’s tutelage over the years. The young Fern marched right over to the bully and pushed him over, grabbed the book and returned it to June. Then she plunked herself down and asked June to teach her to read. They’ve been sharing books, and so much more, ever since.
June, Fern and Delia met Cora Lee while volunteering at the Sundown Rest Home where the oh-so-Southern woman was visiting her dying father. Newly divorced, she’d never been anywhere north of the Mason-Dixon Line, but as her daddy’s only living relative, she’d come to care for him when his dementia had gotten too severe for him to live alone. Why he’d retired in Snow Country, no one knew, but ever the good daughter, Cora Lee moved into his tiny apartment, cared for his cats, and trooped off to the Sundown every single day. Done volunteering for that day, the three women came across Cora Lee standing outside the rest home crying her eyes out. No, she wasn’t upset about her daddy, it was the sudden snow storm which had buried her car and ruined her sweet suede (open-toed!) shoes. Despite the frequency of such occurrences, and the fact that her father had died eight years ago, Cora Lee stayed on, still tending those cats and living in that tiny apartment.
June couldn’t imagine life without any of them. If she was feeling low, they could always make her laugh, they helped out even before she knew help was needed and they even took part in crazy schemes like taking over The Boys’ coveted Main Street position.
“That was just Round One, you know,” Fern reminded them, breaking into June’s reverie. “The Boys can’t stay in the diner all day; they’ll be out here sooner or later.”
As if they had been summoned up, the four men came out of the diner, Doc leading the pack, as usual. They strode toward the women.
“Bob Markham looks mad,” Delia remarked.
“He’s looked that way ever since they took Wayne Newton off the jukebox down at Bitsy’s Bar and Grill. In other words, for a long, long time,” Fern said, causing another round of laughter.
Delia bit her lip. “Just the same,” she said, “I wonder what they’re going to do?”
“Oh, for pity’s sake,” June said, “they’re a bunch of old guys and we’re a bunch of old women. They’re not going to do anything.”
“Guess we’re about to find out,” Cora Lee whispered as the men strolled up.
The townsfolk on the street knew it wasn’t going to be another shootout at the OK Corral, but most of them found reasons to linger nearby just the same.
“Ladies,” Doc said, then cleared his throat. “It appears that you’re having a bit of fun at our expense.”
“Oh, we’re having fun all right,” June replied, “but I don’t know as you and the rest of these gentlemen have anything to do with it.”
“Bull!” Bob Markam said over Doc’s shoulder. Doc shushed him then turned back to June, whose smile had gotten wider.
“Traditions play an important role in a small town such as Norwood,” he said. “Why, if it weren’t for tradition, mayhem would be the order of the day. Crime would run rampant!” He was warming to his subject and the women were having none of it.
“Are you actually saying,” Fern said, incredulous, “that if you and your gang didn’t sit here every day that crime … I’ll say it again … crime would run rampant through the streets of Norwood?” More than a few townspeople drew closer as her voice rose.
“Well, not precisely,” Doc sputtered. “It’s more like a metaphor for tradition and ...” he seemed at a loss for words.
“Why, I think I know what Dr. Kirby is alludin’ to,” Cora Lee said, sounding even more Southern than usual. “Why, without tradition we wouldn’ta had slavery and votes for white men only, Jim Crow, children workin’ in coal mines and sweat shops ...”
Delia chimed in. “Don’t forget good old-fashioned wife beating,” she said. “Spare the rod, spoil the child! Isn’t that how tradition had it?”
Doc Kirby shuffled his feet while the other three men clenched their fists as their sides.
“Hear, hear, now,” Jake Norquist said, taking a step toward the women, “you got no right to go calling us names!”
Cora Lee fluttered her hands prettily. “Why, we never! They’re just little ol’ metaphors,” she said. A few bystanders snickered, though some turned away.
Doc seemed increasingly uncomfortable with the way the discussion was heading.
“Ha!” he said, “looks like the joke’s on us. You won. Yessir, you’ve made your point. Lesson learned, right boys?” he said, turning to the others and hiding a wink.
“Uh … yeah, yep, lesson learned,” Mikey Poston said. Jake and Bob nodded, brows furrowed.
“So, your little group can run along home now, do your nails or something, have some nice, warm tea … getting rather brisk out here,” Doc went on, burying himself further.
“Oh, yeah, brrrrr,” Mikey said, hugging himself, “getting darn cold.”
The jaws on the four women hung open. They couldn’t quite believe their ears.
“Of all the patronizing ...”
“How dumb do you think we are?”
“What century is this again?”
June stood up, saw Bob eyeing her chair and sat back down again.
“I want to thank you, Doc,” she said, “for making this that much easier. I always thought your ‘little group’ had an over-inflated sense of entitlement, but I didn’t know you were out-and-out women-hating scurvy dogs.” June pulled out her spiked orange juice and knocked back a big slug while her friends and the onlookers held their collective breath. No one ever insulted Doc Kirby. Even the other three men moved, as a group, away from their leader.
“Stupid is as stupid does,” Fern said quietly.
Doc brought up the handle of his cane and tapped it thoughtfully against his chin for several long seconds. In the end, he spread his arms and nodded.
“Tomorrow,” he said with as much dignity as he could muster, “is another day.” The four men walked away, though they might have scurried had Doc not paced them accordingly.
There was a smattering of applause as the bystanders went on with their business.
“Why, Scarlett O’Hara is alive and well and livin’ in Norwood,” Cora Lee deadpanned.
June frowned. For all her bluster, she really didn’t like embarrassing anyone in public. She knew she’d made an enemy for life. Over some dumb chairs! She shook her head … no, it was bigger than that. It just felt small right then.
“I don’t know how they do it,” Cora Lee said, “all this sittin’ here, I mean. My derriere is already half asleep.”
“Nothing’s keeping you from getting up,” Fern reminded her.
“True,” Cora Lee said, standing and stretching. “We can go now, right?”
“Well … why? You got somewhere better to be?” June asked.
Cora Lee hedged. “Hmmm, yeah, I was gonna tell you earlier that I couldn’t stay all day.”
“What? Why?” June asked. She thought everyone had agreed that – even if it was just for one day – they’d let The Boys know that their “position” in town could disappear in a heartbeat.
Cora Lee bent down and adjusted the straps of her foot-mangling shoes. “It’s just that I’m going to Rochester.”
The women looked everywhere but at Cora Lee while she fidgeted and gathered her things together. The phrase “going to Rochester” sent chills down their spines. One didn’t just go to Rochester – certainly not to shop; that’s what the Cities were for. After living in Minnesota for almost ten years, surely Cora Lee knew by now what all Minnesotans knew: “Going to Rochester” was code for going to Mayo Clinic or to St. Mary’s Hospital, usually for tests or treatments, and sometimes, to die.
“Will you be there long?” Fern finally asked, watching Cora Lee’s face.
“Um, no, not too long … a couple of hours maybe?” She was smiling, but the smile didn’t reach her eyes.
“I’ll drive you,” Fern said, standing and reaching for her walker. Delia beat her to it.
“I’ll go, too,” Delia said. “I haven’t been to Rochester in years.” Everyone remembered then the long weeks of Delia’s chemotherapy, the hair loss, the nausea. Fern, who had driven then, too, kept a plastic bucket in the Cadillac. It was still rattling around in the trunk.
Cora Lee started to protest as tears pooled in her heavily made-up eyes.
June heaved a huge sigh and stood up as well. “Cora Lee,” she said, “none of us ever goes to Rochester alone.”
“But … but The Boys ...” Cora Lee said, waving her hands at the empty chairs.
“Hell’s bells,” June said, “The Boys can bite my big ol’ behind. It was kind of like tilting at windmills anyway. They might be giants in their own minds, but we know better.”
Fern, getting the literary reference, gave her old friend a wink. Everyone gathered their things together and slowly made their way to Fern’s big, blue beast.
“What was all that about windmills tilting? Isn’t that dangerous?” Cora Lee asked as she pushed in next to June.
“Not as dangerous as real monsters, like the ones in Rochester” June said, hugging her friend. “We’ll deal with the other kind later if we have to.”
“Looks like things might sort themselves out anyway,” Delia said, looking back and nodding toward their abandoned chairs. Several people had taken their places. “Could be a trend,” she added. And, indeed, over the course of the warm weather months, the faces and backsides in those chairs would never be the same.