Grownups are all Alike

When I was a kid, you didn’t go to summer camp because that was what grandparents were for. They would feed you better, make sure you were bathed and clothed and worked hard in the garden, and, most importantly of all, keep you for two whole months for free. It was a whale of a deal. My mother sent me off every summer, which was probably good for both our mental healths.
My grandparents lived in Laskin, South Dakota, population 2500 and a major urban center in that part of the state. They used to live on the farm, but Granddad’s heart got bad so they got someone else to farm it on shares and moved into a big old house that Grandma’s grandfather had built when he got too sick to farm any more and moved to town. When he died, he’d passed the place on to Grandma’s father, who lived there until he died, and plans were to continue the tradition. You might say it was the Thompson Family Retirement Home, except everybody still worked hard and there weren’t any nurses hanging around.
Their house came with a lot big enough to grow a good-sized garden and a few fruit trees. The far end of it sloped down to the creek, which could get pretty high when it rained and then dry out to dust in no time flat. Grandma always warned me not to play down there, but it was hard to resist, especially since Granddad took me fishing there on cool mornings. In the afternoon he slept, and I made the rounds.
Laskin, or so it seemed to me at the time, was made up almost entirely of old people living in old houses full of old treasures, telling old stories about old times. At least, our neighborhood was. Which was fine with me. I thought they were pretty interesting, one way or another, which was good since my afternoon rounds were not voluntary. Grandma parceled me out shamelessly to run errands and do odd jobs. She called this being helpful and neighborly. Looking back, I can see it was a great way of getting me out of her hair for a few hours so that Granddad -- and maybe even Grandma -- could take a nap in peace. So I shopped for Miss Fan and Miss Icey, weeded Mrs. Winfred’s garden, read to Mrs. Wright, dusted Mrs. Oldham’s china closet, and in general was run ragged by half the town. There were times I thought of rebelling, but Grandma would have killed me, and besides, I always got paid, either in cash or in kind, so I kept at it.
The summer I was eleven was the summer everything got strange. The night before I arrived, a nurse up at the Laskin Hospital, Mary Carter, finished her evening shift, walked out to her car, and vanished. It was on the Sioux Falls news and everything. The police said they were doing everything they could. They showed a fuzzy photograph of her as the newscaster asked us all to call in if we had any information as to her whereabouts. Granddad looked at the photograph and shook his head.
“Poor girl,” he said.
“Girl!” Grandma was indignant. “She’s in her forties if she’s a day. I don’t know where they got that photograph.”
“Do you think she was really kidnapped?” I asked, breathlessly. This was about the most exciting thing that had ever happened in Laskin, at least in my memory.
“Oh, I doubt it,” Grandma said sternly. “It’s probably just the Change. Some women get like that in their forties. Almost as bad as men. Anything to get attention. She doesn’t have a husband to run off from, so she runs off from her job. But enough about that. Let’s take our iced tea out on the porch.”
All the next day I wondered what it would be like to just get in a car and go away, anywhere, somewhere, just vanish. Being too young to worry much about money, it sounded romantic in the extreme. I half-promised myself that when I grew up, I’d do it, too. At least once.
Two days later they found Mary Carter’s car behind a brush pile at Hutchinson’s Gravel. There was no sign of her, although rumor had it there were blood stains on the front seat. Grandma retracted her menopause theory and started talking about homicidal maniacs. She also started keeping an eye on me, which put a real crimp in my day. No more wandering down to the creek at all, even with Granddad.
“But we just want to go fishing!” I wailed.
“Do you want your grandfather to have a heart attack while some homicidal maniac attacks you?” Well, no, I didn’t. “Then you’ll just stay away from there.” I had to agree, even though I couldn’t really see why a homicidal maniac, if one existed, would kidnap nurses by night and then come clear over to the other side of town just to spend the day lurking down by the creek.
But time passed without any trace of Mary Carter. A week, then two weeks, and she wasn’t on the news anymore, and out of sight, out of mind, right? Grandma relaxed and I made the rounds again and Granddad and I went fishing again, and then, out of nowhere, came horrible news. A thirteen year old girl from one of the Hutterite colonies disappeared. The police got on it right away, with search parties swarming out from the colony, around Lake Howard, through Laskin, and down to the gravel road on the edge of Herv Ullman’s farm, six miles outside of town, where her body was found the next day.
The adults were all pretty grim-faced. They were also pretty tight-lipped around me. Laskin still lived in the 1950’s or perhaps even the 1930’s, where young girls were supposed to be innocent and ignorant and should be kept innocent and ignorant as long as possible. So they whispered about it to one another, and I picked up what I could: words like “assaulted” and “strangled” and “raped.” I knew what they meant. It was the whispering of them that made them so frightening.
Of course, most people now assumed that Mary Carter had also been killed, though some said we shouldn’t give up hope. But that poor Hutterite child haunted everyone. It threw a sinister light on any disappearance, and there was another one. Around the same time as Mary Carter’s disappearance, a fifteen year old from Herman named Jane Seaton had disappeared. At the time, everybody thought she’d simply run away from home. She was “wild,” had been causing a lot of trouble at school and at home, and had last been seen talking to a young punk in the Pamida parking lot here in Laskin. But now a whole lot of people, including her parents, whose attitude had practically been “good riddance,” were frantic and desperate to find her alive.
My grandmother put all of this together and panicked for probably the only time in her life. She called my mother and suggested I’d be better off back home. My mother told her of the two gang-related shootings and four robberies in our neighborhood, not to mention the serial rapist who’d been stalking the local college campus for about a year, and summed it all up by saying I was still safer where I was. This didn’t do a thing to comfort Grandma, but it did ensure that she kept me in Laskin, in a condition that was very close to lock and key. No creek. No rounds. No errands. No leaving the house without her or Granddad right along side of me.
“But what about Miss Fan and Miss Icey?” I wailed, suddenly wild to work for others. Wisely, I picked the two Grandma knew were my favorites. “Who’ll take care of them?”
“Matt Jensen will run any errands they want, the same as he does when you’re not here,” Grandma said, wounding me with her intimation that I was not indispensable. “You are not going out of this yard.” And she made it plain that if any strange cars or people were in the neighborhood, I wasn’t to go out of the house. It was like being in prison. And it was no comfort to know that every other child in Laskin was in the same boat.
So it was actually a relief when the Wrights, our next door neighbors, finally came back from Minneapolis, where Mrs. Wright had undergone some sort of medical treatment. I never did know what was wrong with her, but she was bedridden ever since I could remember. When I saw Mr. Wright lift her out of the car to carry her in the house, I could tell she still was. Her treatments were endless, expensive, and ineffectual. “More prayer, less medicine,” was Grandma’s prescription, but she kept it to herself and invited Mr. Wright over once he got Mrs. Wright settled in.
Now usually Mrs. Wright’s health was a topic of all-absorbing interest to Grandma, but this time she made the briefest inquiries possible and then plunged into a recitation of recent events. The poor man was completely shocked, especially about Mary Carter.
“Why, she nursed Emma the last time she was in the hospital down here,” Mr. Wright wailed.
“Now I thought she might have,” Grandma said triumphantly. “What was she like?”
“She.... Well, she was very nice.”
Grandma rolled her eyes at the absolute incapability of men to remember anything of importance about future crime victims. “I mean, what was she like? Was she one of those flirty kind of nurses or was she serious or cold or professional or what?” Grandma asked.
“Oh, she was very professional,” Mr. Wright said. “Very good. Emma said she was the only nurse who could hit her veins the first time and not turn her into a dart board. I just can’t believe -- well, we’ll just have to hope that she comes back unharmed.”
“It just puzzles me,” Grandma said. “I can understand some pervert chasing after a young girl like that poor Hutterite child, but they just don’t usually go after middle-aged women.”
“The Boston Strangler,” was Granddad’s contribution.
“He assaulted old women,” Grandma retorted.
“It’s just all so unbelievable,” Mr. Wright said. “Emma will be terribly upset.”
I saw my chance. “I’ll come read to her tomorrow and take her mind off of it,” I said brightly.
Now to appreciate the full irony of this you have to realize that when I found out at the beginning of the summer that the Wrights were out of town, it had been a major relief. Mrs. Wright was, as I say, bed-ridden, and the most interesting thing about her was that her bed was right in the living room, which I thought was kind of neat because she never had to worry about getting up or dressing or anything like that. There she was, and that was that.
But other than that she was so dull. She found reading in bed uncomfortable, so every Tuesday and Thursday I’d go over and read aloud to her for an hour. She got, for reasons passing understanding, the Wall Street Journal and the Sunday New York Times, neither of which had comics or anything else of interest to me. Sometimes I thought I’d die of boredom, working my way through those long, dry, dusty articles about business and finance and politics. Mr. Wright sat in on these sessions fairly often, and something in his face told me he was dying for “Peanuts” or Ann Landers as much as I was.
But Grandma had kept me on such a tight leash that suddenly reading to Mrs. Wright, complete with Lawrence Welk playing in the background, seemed like a real treat. Grandma, fully realizing this was a remarkable change in attitude, gave me a sharp glance that I avoided for fear of deflation.
“We’ll see,” Grandma said discouragingly. Then, to Mr. Wright, she said, “You’ll let us know when Emma feels up to it and then we’ll see about sending this ball of fire over.”
“Well, I appreciate your even thinking of letting Linda come over. I know I’d be afraid to let her out of my sight with all this going on,” Mr. Wright said.
“Well, now, we know you’d take as good care of her as if she were your own,” Granddad said.
“I would,” Mr. Wright promised. Suddenly his voice sounded fearful. “Why, I’d never forgive myself if anything happened. And Emma so weak, maybe we’d better not --”
I sighed and got up off the porch swing.
“And where do you think you’re gong?” Grandma asked.
“I just want to get something to drink,” I said. Grandma nodded, and I went in the kitchen and wondered if I’d ever be free again.
It didn’t look likely. The next day word came that Mary Carter’s body had been found floating in the marsh at the north end of Lake Howard, near the golf course. And there was something horrible about it, worse even than her being murdered. I could tell by everyone’s expression as they whispered to one another, though all I could hear were scattered words like “Battered in” and “Closed casket.” This was right after the funeral, which had been extremely well attended. We didn’t go. Instead, I had a nightmare in which Mary Carter rose up from the lake, dripping and faceless, and my screams woke up the whole house. Grandma made me some hot milk, while Granddad put his arm around me and put a shot of whiskey in it, and the next day no one said anything about it.
No one was saying much of anything. That was the quietest summer I can remember. It was killing hot, too. The news said we were breaking heat records all over the place, which seemed more of an achievement at ten at night than it did at one in the afternoon. After lunch, hot and sweaty from eating and washing dishes, I’d go out on the front porch and watch absolutely nothing go by all afternoon. Sometimes, around three in the afternoon, with nothing moving and nobody out and all the windows and doors up and down the block shut tight and not a sound out of anything, it seemed like I was the only person left alive. I’d run indoors and stand outside my grandparents’ bedroom and be so glad to hear Granddad snore it makes me blush to think about it.
The Wrights’ return hadn’t helped me a bit. What with the heat wearing on her body and the unsolved crimes wearing on her nerves, Mrs. Wright was doing worse than usual.
“She’s just not eating,” Mr. Wright said to us one day on the porch. “And she’s not sleeping, either. I swear, if she doesn’t get better soon, I’m going to take her back to Minneapolis, and if they can’t do anything for her, then I’m going to take her right on over to Rochester and hang the expense.” Mr. Wright and Grandma both shook their heads. “But,” he continued in a cheerier voice, “Emma wanted me to tell you how much she appreciated that beef jelly you brought over. She’s just sorry that she was napping. She said it was ridiculous that here, when she can’t sleep hardly at all, she was caught resting during the day. But I swear to you, that’s the only sleep she gets any more.
“Now, you tell Emma not to worry, I’m just glad she’s getting some rest. She looked so thin and pale as she was lying there, sleeping. I wouldn’t have had the heart to wake her up. But you make sure she eats all that beef jelly, because there’s nothing more strengthening in the world for an invalid.” It was a good thing I was sitting on the far wall of the porch, reading, so she couldn’t see the face I made. I’d had some of that jelly once, and hadn’t been sick in Laskin since. “I just wish I could do more for her, but what with all that’s been going on around here.” She shook her head. “It’s no wonder Emma’s doing poorly. She’s not alone. None of us are sleeping right. Poor little Linda’s taken to creeping into bed with us at night, hot as it is, and --”
I didn’t hear the rest because I was so embarrassed and so angry the blood was pounding in my ears. The real trouble with grandparents is that you can’t slap them. Or tell them to shut up. And Mr. Wright was just as bad. When he left he told me to not to be afraid, the Bogeyman wasn’t going to get me. I looked at him and raged at how grown-ups think grey hair gives them the right to treat everybody else like a little kid that doesn’t have any feelings worth bothering about. But I knew that if I let my anger show, Grandma would punish me by never letting me go over. So I smiled and said good-bye politely.
That Friday, Granddad had to go to the doctor for his check up. Grandma always went with him, and when I say went with him, I mean she went into the examination room with him because if she didn’t, there were a whole lot of things that Granddad would never tell the doctor, and then what would be the use of the visit? And if she did that, and she fully intended to, then what would become of me? I couldn’t come into the examination room, and I certainly couldn’t be left to sit alone in the waiting room, and I definitely couldn’t be left alone in the house.
So Grandma got Miss Fan and Miss Icey to baby-sit me. This was humiliating in theory but enjoyable in practice, because two more lovable old spinsters never lived, even if the murders had made them nervous wrecks. The responsibility for my safety had them strung up like barbed wire, to the point that when Hickey, our mailman of twenty years, came to the door, they jumped up and snatched me away behind them as if Ted Bundy had come to call before they recognized him and gave a sigh of relief. After that, they calmed down and told me old stories until they finally relaxed into their afternoon nap.
I told my grandparents about Miss Fan and Miss Icey’s taking fright at Hickey at supper. They didn’t find it as funny as I did.
“This whole town’s going to have a nervous breakdown, soon,” Granddad said, buttering his bread.
“Well, at least they’ve arrested somebody,” Grandma said, which was news to me.
“Who?” I asked. “When? Did he do it?”
Grandma looked at me severely, but Granddad said, “She’ll hear soon enough. They arrested Vedder Haines this morning,” he said. I simply stared at him. Vedder was a half-wit who’d been living down by the bait shop at Lake Howard for years. Everybody knew he was completely harmless and scared to death of people. “I just hope it was more for his protection than any serious suspicion.”
“What do you mean by that?” Grandma asked.
Granddad chewed down a big bite of bread, swallowed and said, “Oh, come on now, Nell. Vedder? Besides, he’s never been anywhere near the colony. And no half-wit kidnapped Mary Carter and did what he did to her.”
“What did he do, Granddad?” I asked.
“Why, he took her --” He stopped, looked at me, and said, “This is no subject for the table.”
“Well, could we go out on the porch and you tell me there?” I pleaded.
My grandparents exchanged looks. “And it’s no subject at all for young girls,” he said. “It’d just give you nightmares.”
“I’m already having nightmares,” I said, which was the God’s own truth.
“So is everybody else,” Grandma said. “And will have till this whole thing is cleared up. But we don’t need to discuss it all the time.”
Which is exactly what everybody did until I showed up, I thought, but I kept my mouth shut.
We were all in a state that we needed some good news, and the next day it came. Jane Seaton had been found. Alive. She hadn’t been kidnapped at all. She had run off with the punk from the Pamida parking lot and gone to Rapid City, where a policeman had spotted her under circumstances that no one ever described to me.
“Well, where is she now?” Grandma asked of Hickey, who brought the news along with the mail.
“Oh, they’ve got her in the juvenile facility in Rapid City. They’ll probably ship her back on Monday.”
“Spitting all the way,” Grandma said sourly. “She’ll just run off again once she gets home. Well, at least she’s alive.”
I saw Mr. Wright coming back up from his garden with a load of tomatoes. “Grandma,” I asked, “can I go run and tell Mr. Wright? Please?”
Grandma looked at me. “Oh, all right. Run along. But don’t go anywhere else!” I ran off as she asked Hickey, “And what about that boy she ran off with?”
“Mr. Wright! Mr. Wright!” I cried, running up to him.
“Why, Linda,” he said, setting down the tomatoes on the back steps. “What is it? Is everything all right?”
“It’s wonderful!” I said, although why I thought it was so wonderful is beyond me. “They found Jane Seaton, and she’s alive and well and she never was kidnapped but ran off, just like everybody thought at first, and she went all the way to Rapid City and --”
“Hold on, hold on,” Mr. Wright said. “Slow down a bit. I can’t make heads nor tails out of it with you going that fast.” I took a deep breath, remembering that old people are slow, and explained it all to him again. He nodded his head. “Well, that’s the best news I’ve heard in a long time.” He smiled at me. “Would you like to come in and tell Emma?”
“Oh, yes!” I said.
Mr. Wright stepped around the side of the house and called out to Grandma, “Mrs. Thompson, I’m going to take Linda inside and let her tell Emma the good news! Is that all right with you?”
“Of course!” Grandma called back. “I hope it’ll cheer her up!” Then she went back to her conversation with Hickey and we went inside.
Inside was just as I remembered it. I knew the Wrights’ house, as I knew most of our neighbors’ houses, by heart. Mr. Wright set the tomatoes in the kitchen and called out, “Emma! Linda Thompson’s come to see us!” A faint voice called back, but I couldn’t catch what it said.
We walked into the living room. Mrs. Wright was lying in her bed, thin and pale, just as Grandma had said. Her face was all hollow, like pain was eating her alive, and for a moment, I felt frightened. The people of our neighborhood, the ones I did my rounds for, were all old and frail, but it had always been inconceivable to me that any of them could die. Suddenly I wasn’t so sure.
“Hello, Linda,” Mrs. Wright said. Her voice sounded strangely far away.
“Hello, Mrs. Wright,” I said.
“Linda’s got some good news,” Mr. Wright said. “Tell her, Linda.”
“Jane Seaton’s been found alive,” I began and told the tale in words very nearly of one syllable. She looked so skull-like that I was nervous and made a poor job of it.
But when I was done she smiled at me, very sweetly, and said, very faintly, “Thank you. That is good news.”
“Yes, it is,” Mr. Wright said stoutly. She closed her eyes and he turned to me and said, “I think she’s tired, honey, and we need to let her get some rest.”
I nodded. “Good-bye, Mrs. Wright,” I said.
“Good-bye, Linda,” she said.
When I got back home, Grandma asked me how Mrs. Wright took the news, and I told her she’d said it was good news, though she looked awfully ill. Grandma said she wasn’t well at all, and hoped God would forgive her for all the times she’d thought Emma was malingering, but it was time for dinner.
All through the meal, Grandma and Granddad discussed the recovery of Jane Seaton. Both agreed that it was definitely a mixed blessing, and both felt sorry for the boy she’d run off with, who was in jail for some reason or other. It had something to do with Jane being a minor, but I didn’t understand what statutory meant and how it could be kidnapping or rape if she’d gone off with him willingly. But then Grandma didn’t either, so I didn’t feel as stupid as usual.
We were eating lemon pie when there came a lull in the conversation, and I asked, “Grandma, when did Mr. Wright get remarried?”
They both looked at me like I was crazy.
“What on earth are you talking about?” Grandma asked.
“I mean, when did he marry this Mrs. Wright?” I asked, but a little more hesitantly. “I mean, she’s not the same woman that he was married to last summer.” Both of them were just staring at me. “Her face is different. She’s got cheekbones.”
“What in the world! Everybody’s got cheekbones. I swear the child has lost her mind,” Grandma said to the air.
“Yes, but she always used to be flat-faced. You said so yourself. Now they’re really high, you know, like an Indian, only she’s pale....” I was starting to feel a little crazy, but I persevered. “Didn’t you notice when you were over?”
Granddad looked at Grandma with an expression that made her look around the room and then say, “She was asleep. I --” She looked at Granddad and said, “It can’t be. She’s been ill, she’s lost a lot of weight. That’ll make anyone’s cheekbones stand out. Why are you looking at me like that?”
Granddad got up and walked out of the dining room. Grandma stared after him, wide eyed, and then got up and followed him to the pantry, where he picked up a jar of Grandma’s best preserves.
“I’ll be back in a minute,” he said. “I haven’t seen Emma since they got home, and I think it’s about time I did, seeing as she’s so ill.” He looked at us both and said, “I’m just going to see how she’s doing.”
We stood at the back door and watched him go over to the Wright’s house, Grandma rocking back and forth, saying, “This is crazy,” the whole time he was gone. He wasn’t gone long. He came out of their house empty-handed, with a smile on his face, which dropped right off the minute he set foot inside of ours.
“Well?” Grandma asked. “Did you see her?” He ignored her and went to the phone. “Who are you calling?” she asked.
“The police,” he said. And Grandma slid down into a kitchen chair as if she’d been shot.
It was a good thing Granddad was known as one of the most honest and most sober men alive, or the police would never have listened to him, much less come over and discovered Mary Carter, alive and well and lying in Mrs. Wright’s bed, with a whole lot of make up on to make her look ailing and old. She tried denying everything, but Mr. Wright just collapsed on the spot. He could kill his wife and mutilate her body to make everyone think it was Mary Carter’s, he could kill a poor Hutterite child who witnessed the disposal of Emma Wright, and worse yet (to Grandma’s way of thinking) assault her so that it would look like a sex crime, but he couldn’t look two policemen he’d known all his life in the eye and bluff it out.
“Even so, he damn near got away with it,” Granddad growled. “They were leaving Wednesday. To take ‘poor Emma’ back to Minneapolis. We’d never have seen either one of them again.” He looked at me and smiled. “It’s a good thing I listened to Linda.”
Grandma shuddered at the thought of how close they came to thwarting justice. “But why on earth did he let you in to see her?” she wondered.
“Oh, she was asleep. Her back to me,” Granddad said.
“Then how could you tell?”
“At first I couldn’t,” Granddad admitted. “But I’ve seen Emma Wright in bed more than any other woman on earth, excepting you, Nell.” He grinned at Grandma, and said, “Purely platonically, of course,” and Grandma slapped him. They can be so childish. “Anyway, there I was, looking down at her, as always, and it suddenly dawned on me that last year, Emma was shorter. So I figured Linda was right.”
“God save us,” Grandma sighed. “But then why on earth did he let Linda go over and see her awake?” she asked.
“Well, someone had to see Emma alive and awake and ill before they left,” Granddad replied. “I think he figured Linda would be the safest because she hadn’t seen Emma for a year and wouldn’t have her face as clear in her mind.”
“No,” I disagreed boldly. “He just thought that to a kid like me, one old woman would look just like another.”
Grandma looked at me with disappointment in her eyes. “Linda, they were both only in their forties.”
Which, looking back on it, was the most disturbing thing of all.