Werner Fenstad is lost, lost right in the heart of town. Lost. Or maybe the right word is trapped. By which is meant his two worst predicaments: having nothing to do and being among strangers. Can a person be lost and trapped? Werner can. He could have gone with Emma, the wife he loves, but he would feel even more lost and even more trapped at the Carnegie Library, where Emma is picking out books for herself and books for her to read to Werner. He could be with her, helping her pick out books. For a man ashamed of his illiteracy, the library is combat fatigue territory.
It is Thursday, the second of his two days off from the railroad. A strong urge holds him on edge, the urge to be back at their small farm hidden in the woods not far from town. The urge is to clear land, an impulse that came home with him from World War II. Rooting out stumps, clearing away rocks, and burning piles of brush and stumps lightens a darkness he brought home from the battlefields.
Werner lumbers along with no awareness of where he is, trying not to think, which only means he cannot escape the darkness. Trying not to think about what he is thinking about only makes him think about it. With the bill of his cap low over his downcast eyes and hands in his pockets, he humps up a hill past storefronts. A little girl’s excited piercing voice breaks into his gloom. On the sidewalk ahead of him a man is talking to a small old woman bent over a cane. The girl is with the old woman. Children he could perhaps wish to know, if he dared to wish it. Life has given him little experience with the little creatures, even in his childhood. The three of them are talking in front of the first display window which holds old photographs. The photographs are seldom of things with which Werner has any acquaintance. It is the oldness of the images which draws him back to the prewar world, which for Werner had been a simple and unworried life, except for one dark hour.
As he passes the old woman, a scent invades his nose and telegraphs to his memory. Horse liniment! Werner hesitates and moves on. The three of them block his view of the first window. Werner, a man with a native respect for privacy, does not intrude on what appears to be a happy conversation. Werner’s mood lifts. He feels blessed for all the quiet conversations with Emma in their house where they live a simple and easy life.
The images in the second window, photographs of old sawmills, stun Werner for the coincidence. The shock of the odor of horse liniment has transported him back to an old sawmill and its community. The black-and-white sawmills in the window are a generation or more before his childhood, but a sawmill is a sawmill. Little cards with writing on them lean against four of the nine photographs. What do they say? Do they identify the where or who in the images? He knows the what.
The odor of horse liniment lingers about him and swirls through a memory of that one dark hour in his childhood. There was a man who wore horse liniment, husband of Werner’s teacher, the first teacher he loved. Yes, loved, but not in that way, but loved in the way one loves a kind person for her many kindnesses. Later came the second teacher he has loved, his Emma, loved in that way and for her many kindnesses. The liniment-smelling man was hostler to the few horses at the sawmill, horses he dosed with the same liniment he applied to himself. He was a jack-of-all-trades at the sawmill where his father was the sawyer and his mother the cook. When the Great Depression closed down the sawmill, the owners paid Werner’s parents a nominal wage to stay on to maintain the machinery and protect the buildings. With its mere seven students gone, the nearby one-room schoolhouse was shuttered. By then Werner was too old to attend. After waiting to reach the minimum age, Werner joined the CCC’s and helped build the parks along Lake Superior’s North Shore.
Werner sneezes three times. The odor lingers. He crosses the street into the park. What was that man’s name? Well, obviously Mr. Bonhomme. What was his first name or his real name? The people doubted that he looked French. Was it a French first name, too? No. Werner became acquainted with French names in the War. He sits on a park bench near the bandstand and rolls a cigaret. The sign on the bandstand with all those words is a mystery. What could so many words have to say here in a park? Werner has been trying to quit smoking. Emma does not like the smell; he never smokes in the house or car. Among many other lessons, the War taught him to smoke. Smoking killed time, fused a bond between platoon mates, gave nervous hands a thing to do, eased grief and fear. Now it is a bad habit and a drain of money, which is why Werner switched to the cheaper option of rolling his own cigarets.
After the cigaret is smoked and field-stripped, Werner walks back to the radio and television store. The liniment lady and the little girl are walking down the hill, the little girl dancing and laughing in a high pitch that cuts through Werner. Emma would like to watch the little girl, without regret for the lack of a child of their own, or so she says.
Willy waits for Werner to reach the display of sawmill photographs. “So, I noticed you looking at the logging pictures.”
“Did you buy them somewhere?”
“Sorta. We found hundreds of old photographs in this building when we bought it. One of my sons picked out many logging pictures ’cause they interest him. Old Sig Holm tells him what’s in the photos. That’s where we get the captions. Do you know about logging?”
“Yes.” Werner’s face tinges pink. “So, those little cards there don’t name any of the people?”
Realizing the man cannot read, Willy covers their shared embarrassment by offering his hand. “Willy Erickson. My wife and I own the store.”
“Werner, do you have a television?”
“No. We got no electricity.”
“Interesting. Is that your choice? You can’t get the REA to bring it to you?”
“Emma and me don’t want it.”
“We got a battery-run radio.”
“Those batteries are gonna get hard to get. We’ll never see battery-run radios ever made again. I can still get the tubes and maybe I can scrounge up some of those big batteries. Just let me know. How do you come to know about logging?”
“I grew up in a sawmill. My father was a sawyer and my mother was the cook.”
“Not around here. Up in Superior Forest?”
“Yes. Long ways up . . .”
“So do you recognize anybody or anything in the pictures?”
“Those are a ways back before my time . . . but one man in that picture looks like a younger man who I knew when he got older.” He points at a photograph.
“Come inside and look at the picture up close.”
“No. Well, you see, my wife Emma is coming along this way soon. I better not miss her.”
“That’s simple. I’ll bring it out.” Willy retrieves the picture and hands it to Werner. He watches Werner’s face. Some emotion is traced around Werner’s eyes. “Is it your man?”
“Maybe, but the man I knew wasn’t a blacksmith like this guy . . but he could do a lot of things.”
“You knew the man well?”
“No . . . he stank of horse liniment, you see, like that old lady with the little girl. I guess it was her smell that made me think it was him. But this man does look like him at a younger age. It’s kinda fuzzy.”
“Horse liniment! I haven’t heard it called that in a few years.” Willy senses a story, maybe his second good one in one day. “Tell me about him anyway, would you?”
Werner stares into the photograph for so long Willy is about to apologize for asking. “He darn near killed me . . . you see, I can’t read.”
“He tried to kill you ’cause you can’t read?”
“No . . . there was a one-room school right near the sawmill where we lived then. The teacher Mrs. Bonhomme tried hard to teach me to read but I couldn’t figure it out. She figured there’s something wrong with my brain. I couldn’t ever make sense of letters. She told my parents she’d seen it before. She’d taught a few years. She would read the other school books to me or have younger kids read stories to me to practice their reading. I could do most of the other stuff. I was pretty good at arithmetic. If they read history to me I knew it. Mrs. Bonhomme said kids like me who don’t read were good listeners. Mrs. Bonhomme was good to me, the other kids were too, except one boy sometimes. She give me close attention ’cause I felt so dumb.”
“Now how does the man come into this story?” Willy points at the man in the photo. Werner analyzes the image again. Is it him? Mr. Bonhomme was big-shouldered like the fuzzy black-and-white man.
“The kind teacher was Mrs. Bonhomme. Oh, I said that, didn’t I? Mabel Bonhomme. Her husband was the man who darn near killed me. My mother said it was a mystery why she married him. She was no kid when she married him neither. Mother said somehow sometimes good women married bad men. They’d only been married a few years when it happened. She was maybe forty-five or so, but he was older. He stank of that horse liniment. We had some horses around for winter skidding. He was good with the horses and used the liniment on them and himself. My father said some men are good to people and bad to animals, and some men are good to horses and bad to people. Anyway he stank of horse liniment. I knew that from that day he attacked Mrs. Bonhomme and me.”
“I bet he was drunk.”
“Never thought of that . . . no, I don’t think he was. Some days he just had dark moods and everyone let him alone.”
“So he went after you and your kind teacher?”
“I was in after school being punished by helping clean up the school. I sometimes just stayed after to help her even though I hadn’t been bad. Mrs. Bonhomme liked things clean, and it got real dirty around a sawmill. This boy John made fun of me again for how stupid I am. I shoved him against his desk. I didn’t punch him or anything. Just shoved him away. Mrs. Bonhomme made him stand in the corner and me stay after school. I was sweeping, and Mrs. Bonhomme was telling me I wasn’t stupid. I was, I guess twelve, or so. We didn’t have grades in that school. Mr. Bonhomme come in and ordered Mrs. Bonhomme to get home and cook him supper. He looked at me and said he knew what she was doing with me . . . using me, you know what I mean?”
“She got real mad and told him to get out. He went after her, hitting her. I went after him from behind. So he threw me against a wall and went back after her. She tried to get the poker from the stove, but he threw her against her desk. She curled up in a ball on the floor. He was shouting at her, calling her bad names. I got the poker and hit him in the back. I guess I shoulda hit him on the head. He turned ’round and grabbed the poker and picked me up and said he was gonna kill me for trying to kill him. He punched me in the chest, and I couldn’t breathe. He was a strong man no matter how old he was. He threw me down on top of Mrs. Bonhomme. He said he was gonna stomp us both to death.”
Werner stopped to take a deep breath. Willy was assuming that Werner seldom told this story. Werner stared into the photo. “This could be him. Too bad you can’t smell in pictures.”
Willy asked, “So I know he didn’t kill you. What happened to Mrs. Bonhomme?”
“Four men come in right then and grabbed him from behind. He fought back hard, but they got him outta the schoolhouse. Mrs. Bonhomme got up to help me. She said she hadda get me outta there. Then a man come in, maybe one of the four men. He had a shotgun. He said that we were safe and my mother and father was coming. I was crying and so was she. Then in come my mother with two women from the camp. They took care of us. Mrs. Bonhomme kept crying. She was bruised up bad and had a cut on her head that was bleeding pretty good. I was bruised up, too. I was still crying I think. My mother felt me all over and said I maybe had some broke ribs.”
Werner paused for another breath and another look into the photo. He handed it back to Willy. “Don’t much matter if it’s him or ain’t.”
“What happened to him?”
“Well, a new man had showed up looking for work that day. The boss told him they’d have work for him in a week or so. The boss said he could sleep in the bunkhouse until then. Well, this new man saw Mr. Bonhomme and told the boss he had known him a few years back when he had a different name. He said Mr. Bonhomme had beat up a man real bad and then run off. The boss was not sure what to do, but the new man went after Mr. Bonhomme, not fighting, just telling him he knew him. Mr. Bonhomme gets mad and goes after the new man with a piece of slab wood. The new man had a hunting knife on his belt like most of the men did back then. When Mr. Bonhomme seen the man go for it, he shoved the man down. He was going to beat him with the slab but other men were gathering around. Mr. Bonhomme run off. When the new man explained it all, the men went to the schoolhouse. Mr. And Mrs. Bonhomme lived in the back of it. Word got around the camp real fast. My mother knew I was at the schoolhouse, so she and those other two women went there, too. So he didn’t kill neither Mrs. Bonhomme or me. I healed up pretty fast, ‘cept for the ribs. We didn’t have school for awhile waiting for Mrs. Bonhomme to heal up.”
“What happened to her husband?”
“It turns out he wasn’t her husband, not legally. They got married, but Mr. Bonhomme had bragged at the other sawmill where the new man knew him about women he had married and left, some with children maybe.”
“Did he ever come back or show up anywhere?”
“No . . . you see, the men at the sawmill told Mrs. Bohhomme and my parents that he’d never bother us again. I never asked why. I was still scared about him. Mrs. Bonhomme told me there was nothing to worry about. She kept telling me how sorry she was I got caught up in it. She stayed and taught until the Depression shut down the mill. That closed the school down with no kids around. I was too old for school by then. All us kids liked her a lot. I guess you could say we loved her.”
“I’m guessing they did not just run Mr. Bonhomme off.”
“No one told me. I was much older before I thought it over real good. It was maybe like the old west up there. The sheriff was a long ways away. ‘Cept for that it was a good way to grow up. Wish I’d learned to read. I like all the rest of my memories from before the War.”
“What became of your parents?”
“The sawmill opened back up in the late Thirties and boomed in the War. My father run the place and sawyered. By then everyone cooked in their own shack, so my mother helped my fathered manage the mill. They both died a couple years back. They was good . . . good to horses and people.”
“What happened to Mrs. Bonhomme?”
“She called herself Miss Rosen after that. I would like to know what become of her, but I don’t know.”
A deep teasing woman’s voice spoke from behind them. “Now, Werner, I assume you have not bought a television.”
They turned to her. “Willy, this is my wife Emma. We was just talking about the logging pictures he has up in the window there.”
Willy asked, “Werner, would you like to have some logging pictures? Remember, I’ve got many more than these.”
“No, but thank you. They’s all taken before my time. Thank you for showing me that picture close up.”
“Well, that’s fine. If you ever do get electricity, I’ll sell you my best TV at cost. If you ever want to look through logging pictures, come on back.”
Emma smiled and showed Willy her cloth sack of books. “Perhaps once Werner and I have worked our way through all the books in the Carnegie Library, we will get electricity and buy a television.” She took Werner’s arm and they walked down the hill. As Emma and Werner walked along through downtown, they passed a bench on which sat the liniment lady and with her the little girl dancing and singing on the bench. When they were farther down the sidewalk, Emma said, “I smelled the horse liniment on her. Were you telling Willy your story?”
Werner turned pink. “Well, yes, I guess I did.”
“Good for you. What is that now, five people you have told the story?”
“Cute busy little girl. She might be fun to teach. Or she might drive a teacher crazy. I am glad I did not end up an old-maid teacher. Teaching was a good thing to do, but all the one-room and two-room schools are being closed down. I would have to teach only one grade in a big building . . . I only have a few groceries to buy. Then we can go back to the woods where we belong.”
When Willy was left alone standing in front of the store wondering about the two stories he had heard today, Elenore came out of the store. She said to Willy in her loving but take-charge manner, “Willy, you’ve wasted too much time out here. You have repairs to get done.”
“You are right. I need to get back to the workbench. But I did not waste my time. At supper tonight I’ll tell you two stories about what bastards men are.” They both laughed.
“Wait,” Willy paused . . . “I wonder.”
“It would be quite a coincidence . . . We’ll think about it at supper time.”
©Clyde L. Birkholz 2017