by Eve Fisher
The Stark girls. You say that name in Laskin and you’ll hear legends. There were three of them: Nell, Paula, and Olive. Nell and Paula were strong-willed, hot-tempered matriarchs and school teachers who trained innumerable generations of children through sheer terror. Olive was just plain crazy. She was the one who, each time one of her successive small Pekinese dogs died, laid him out in a roasting pan, sealed the cover on with wax, and entombed him in the attic. Rumor had it that there were ten of them, though that proved to be a lie: there were only four. After Olive died, her daughter Matt went upstairs and pulled all four roasting pans out of the attic and buried them in the back yard.
Olive died relatively young for the Stark family: she was only seventy-two. I remember my grandmother, Nell Stark Thompson, sitting at the kitchen table, giving a sigh and saying, “She always was the runt of the litter.” Aunt Paula, who was sitting across from her, snorted and said “It was the drink. I always knew it would catch up with her.” So my grandmother got right up and went and fetched the bottle out of the cupboard and poured a drink. For herself alone. Aunt Paula might have made me and everyone else in Laskin shake in our shoes if she looked at any one of us, but she just brought out the worst in my grandmother. And vice versa. Aunt Paula got so mad she got right up and walked out of the house.
Aunt Paula was always mad. Basically, life had handed her a raw deal. By rights, she should have married a rich man and moved to Washington, D.C., where she could have moved in diplomatic and political circles and had elegant teas, and she didn’t think that was asking too much. It wasn’t like she wanted to move to New York and wallow in sin. I never could figure out how she came to marry Frank Olson, who farmed a section two miles northeast of Laskin. Uncle Frank was a nice man -- the Stark girls all married nice men -- but he wasn’t ever going to set the world on fire. He certainly wasn’t ever going to leave that farm, much less South Dakota, and go to Washington, D.C. He barely made it to Huron, and then only for the State Fair. To compensate, Aunt Paula stalked the streets and classrooms of Laskin, enforcing manners and mannerisms everywhere she went, perpetually and publicly appalled at the conditions under which she had to live.
My grandmother took life a lot easier, with plenty of tolerance for the normal vices of life. The Stark talent for furious obsession was limited, in her case, to the English language, above all in her classrooms, where God help the poor student who could not tell a participle from a gerund. It was just as well. Aunt Paula and Aunt Olive were burdens enough for a small town with no real concept of psychological treatment, and one more might have broken the town’s spirit. As it was, everyone liked Mrs. Thompson, despite her pedagogical strictness, because of her cheerful personality and giving disposition, and because whenever her sisters got to be too much you could always go and complain to Mrs. Thompson, who would explain to you that her sisters were crazy and always had been and you should know better than to expect sense out of either one of them. It was the closest thing to therapy Laskin had.
My grandmother had only one child, my mother, who moved to Sioux Falls as soon as she could find a job. Aunt Paula had six, four boys and two girls, and every one of them went into the military. I suppose it was for the relaxation. Aunt Olive, who married John Stark (a distant cousin) in one of her better spells, had two, Martha and Harold who, according to Aunt Paula, personified the reasons cousins shouldn’t marry. Harold was a meek man according to my grandmother and a milksop according to everyone else. He was short and surprisingly pudgy for a nervous accountant with dyspepsia. Martha was the dead spit of the notorious Martha Jane Canary in everything from appearance to morals, and everyone called her Matt. She left home at thirteen, and came back periodically for rowdy visits that were mostly spent at the Norseman’s Lounge. She was a true Stark, with a bad temper, a strong thirst for drink, and a great laugh, and she was the only adult I ever knew who always told me the truth. I never could understand why everyone talked about her in whispers.
Actually, when I say that all the Stark girls married nice men I was giving John Stark more credit than was his due. He was, by all accounts, friendly, likeable, good-looking, easy to talk to, and in general a real nice guy except for one fault: he stole. From his employer, the Laskin Bank. He and Ole Nelson, a fellow teller, took off one Friday morning for lunch and took most of the town’s cash with them. It was payroll day, which made the haul even better. Something like forty thousand dollars, and fifty years ago that was a lot of money. What he ever did with it was a mystery, because when he was caught in Chicago two months later, he only had fifty bucks on him. He was brought home, tried, and sent to prison, but he was released about two years later, dying of tuberculosis. Since Aunt Olive took him back, most people didn’t feel that he’d gotten off easy. He died at home.
I have to admit I wasn’t very sad when Aunt Olive died, because I knew Matt would come for the funeral and besides, Aunt Olive had always spooked me. She had lived as a hermit ever since her husband died, which you’d think would be a hard thing to do living right in the middle of town like that. But one day she simply stopped going out, and she quit letting people in. The grass in her yard grew and grew and grew, and people started complaining. Her neighbors tried mowing the lawn for her because it looked simply awful, and was making the whole street look bad, but she took after them with a shotgun filled with buckshot, so they quit. Instead they sent over Bob Hanson, who was sheriff even back then.
“I’ve faced drunk bikers in Sturgis, I’ve dealt with some of these punks all high on crank, and none of them has ever scared me more than Mrs. Stark,” Bob told me one day. “I mean, she was crazy. The kind you couldn’t talk sense into.”
“But she didn’t shoot you,” I said.
“No. She said she had more sense than to shoot an officer of the law, but if she didn’t have the right to keep people off of her own property, what was the United States of America coming to? So I pointed out they were just worried about her, and the lawn was a sight, and that was all. And she said it was none of their business, she wasn’t keeping chickens or ferrets, just one Pekinese dog, and as far as she knew there wasn’t a city ordinance against letting God’s grass grow as high as God saw fit to make it grow.” Bob sighed. “And she was right. So I told her, Mrs. Stark, you’ve got the right to do what you want with your own land. You betcha, says she. But please, says I, don’t shoot at folks any more. Just put up no trespassing signs, okay?”
And she did. I remember them very well. They were done in red paint that looked like blood. About twenty of them, one every couple of feet, all around the property. Inside the grass grew high as your armpit, with only a small beaten down path where the delivery boy and mailman made their deliveries to her front porch. The windows were filthy, because even if she did wash them on the inside, which everyone doubted, she never set foot outside except to pick up her deliveries. I remember looking around, the first time I ever went with my grandmother and my mother, and wondering what kind of person would never want to feel the sun on their skin ever again.
Aunt Olive, that’s who.
My grandmother knocked on the door and called out, “Olive! Olive! It’s Nell. I’ve got Frances and Linda, your grand-niece out here and we’ve all come to see you!” Not so much as a sigh. “Now cut that out, Olive,” my grandmother snapped. “I know you’re in there. The whole town knows you’re in there. The least you can do is come and meet your grand-niece! You’ve never even seen her!”
Aunt Olive opened the door. She was about as pale as you’d expect -- she hadn’t been out for thirty years at least -- and her hair was like a wild white bird’s nest, and her eyes glittered like a bird’s. A predatory bird. She looked me over and I didn’t like it. “Go away,” she said through the screen door, and slammed the inner door shut. I was relieved. I’d heard about the shotgun.
Every year we made our pilgrimage to Aunt Olive’s, and every year she told us to go away. She told everyone to go away, except Harold, who visited her every Sunday. I always wondered what on earth they talked about. I asked Matt about it once and she said, “They don’t. He reads her the paper while she listens to the radio, then he takes out the garbage, and that’s it. He wouldn’t even go except he doesn’t want people to think he doesn’t care about his mother.”
When Matt came to town, Aunt Olive told Matt to go away, too, but Matt simply shouldered her way into the house if she felt like it and didn’t if she didn’t. I never worried about Aunt Olive shooting Matt, because Aunt Paula had once said if Matt wasn’t dead by now, nothing would kill her.
Over time, Aunt Olive’s became a sort of tourist attraction in Laskin. If you had relatives or friends over and the conversation had run dry and it was too early for refreshments, why, you’d take them on a walk past Olive Stark’s place. Everyone would stand on the sidewalk on the other side of the street and look for a while and then move on. Rumors grew. The kids all said that she was a witch. Since I did actually see her once a year, through the screen door, I was the recognized expert, and I had to admit if there was ever someone who looked like a witch it was my Aunt Olive. Which made me all the more reluctant about our annual visit.
Rumor also had it that she was rich. You see, Ole Nelson, John Stark’s partner in crime, never had been caught, and while most people believed Ole had swindled John, some said that John had swindled Ole and had stashed most of the cash. After all, they said, why else would Aunt Olive have taken him back, even if he was dying? Personally, I thought that rumor was a bunch of nonsense because the same people who were saying Aunt Olive was smart enough to worm the stash out of him were also saying Aunt Olive was crazy as a loon, and I figured you couldn’t have it both ways. Anyway, the rumor was there, and in a bigger town than Laskin someone would have tried to rob her, witch or not. It must have been tempting even in Laskin, but while the money was a rumor and the witch superstition, the shotgun was a fact.
My grandmother learned to take Aunt Olive’s hermitage in stride, but Aunt Paula never did. “Something’s got to be done about it,” she would say. “She’s shaming us in front of the whole town. Never coming out, threatening to shoot people. And that house couldn’t look worse if the whole Davison clan lived there.”
My grandmother shook her head. “Olive hasn’t shot the windows out yet. And she won’t. She never could stand a draft. Maybe that’s why she’s holed herself up in there, so she’ll never have to feel one again.”
“You’re not taking this seriously.”
“I took it seriously years ago,” my grandmother said tartly. “You were the one who refused to do anything about it.”
“What, and have everyone in town know our sister’s crazy?”
“They already know that.”
Aunt Paula just sat there in her chair, quivering. She was real good at quivering. “And that house,” she muttered to herself.
When Aunt Olive died, I found out why Aunt Paula was so concerned about the house: it was hers. You see, when John Stark came home from prison and died, Aunt Olive quit paying the mortgage. Laskin being what it was all those years ago -- I don’t think the same thing would happen today -- a whole year went by before the bank decided they couldn’t wait for the Widow Stark to overcome her grief and shame enough to write a check. Even then they tried to work with her, but Aunt Olive was either in one of her bad spells or pretending to be, and refused to believe that her house wasn’t her house unless she paid a banker a ton of money for nothing but a piece of paper. Foreclosure was imminent. So, to keep the family from shame, and probably foreseeing a rise in real estate values, Aunt Paula paid the mortgage and had the house put in her name. Naturally, she never got a dime in rent, but when Aunt Olive died, that house was hers. Everybody knew it, and it was fine with Matt and Harold, who both never wanted to live in or, really, set foot in the place again.
However, nothing’s all peace and quiet where the Starks are concerned, and after the funeral nature asserted itself, red in tooth and claw. It all started when Aunt Paula pulled out the will. Aunt Olive had made it the year Harold moved out, at age thirty, to start life anew in a small apartment over Nordstrom’s Hardware Store. (He bought his house later.) This had obviously ticked her off a whole lot more than when Matt had left home twenty years earlier, because she left everything, house and contents, to Aunt Paula. The only thing she left Matt and Harold was one item each to remember her by. I couldn’t believe it, but Matt seemed to take it in stride.
“Just like Mom,” she said, peering at the will through the smoke from her cigarette. “What’d she leave me?” She read carefully and then burst out laughing so hard cigarette ash flew everywhere and Aunt Paula coughed like she was choking. “She’s left me the four roasters!”
“What are you talking about?” Aunt Paula, having made a rapid recovery, snatched the will from Matt’s hand. “That’s four posters. The four poster bed.”
“Looks like roasters to me,” Matt said.
“You read it, Nell,” Aunt Paula said, handing it to my grandmother.
“What’d I get?” Harold asked.
“The mahogany curio cabinet,” Aunt Paula said proudly.
“Oh, that’s so beautiful,” he said. “It’ll be perfect in my dining room, with that lovely antique mirror I got at that estate sale over it.”
My mother rolled her eyes. My grandmother looked up from the will and sighed, saying, “Olive never did well in penmanship. Could be roasters, could be posters, could be iron castors for all I can tell.”
“I know it’s the four poster bed,” Aunt Paula said.
“Why would she leave me her bed?” Matt asked in a reasonable tone. “It makes a lot more sense that Mom left me four roasting pans full of dead dogs.”
Harold giggled, but Aunt Paula frowned and said, “Perhaps she was trying to show her affection.”
Matt shrugged. “First time for everything,” she muttered. I guess I was looking kind of stricken, because she smiled at me and said, “Cheer up, rug-rat. Everything’s fine. Hey, you wanna come and see the place from the inside?”
Well, not really. But Matt had asked me, so I was going to go, despite my lurking fears. Matt, Harold, Aunt Paula, my grandmother, my mother and I all descended on Aunt Olive’s house. The minute I saw it, I knew that Aunt Olive was really gone: the grass was mowed. Aunt Paula had hired that done, and she’d also hired Bert Nordstrom to come and repaint the house. Little curls of paint were lying all around the house, and Bert and Pat Rolfson were scraping busily.
Inside it was like a tomb. The windows were still dirty, and it was dark and quiet and musty-smelling. It wasn’t too clean, either. Piles of newspapers and magazines were everywhere, stacked higher than my head. It was eerie. The adults all went around looking at everything, talking just as if it wasn’t possible for something to come jumping out from behind those cliffs of paper. I mean, you never know what might be lurking in a dead witch’s house. I kept tight to Matt, who I figured would be my best defense.
The old four poster bed was in Aunt Olive’s bedroom, and it looked like it was ready to fall apart. “A token of affection, eh?” Matt asked. “If you say so.” She touched one of the posters and the whole bed shook. “Won’t be any problem getting this out. Should be easy to break down. Harold, go ask Bert and Pat if they’ll give us a hand with this and your cabinet.” Harold nodded and went outside. I could hear my mother and grandmother talking to each other down the hall.
“I’ll have to ask them to get those roasters out of the attic, too,” Aunt Paula. “I’m not about to climb up there.”
“Oh, I already did that,” Matt said. “Took them out back and gave them a Christian burial.”
“What? Where?” Aunt Paula asked fiercely.
“Out back,” Matt said. “In the garden.”
“You’ll dig them right up again,” Aunt Paula ordered. Matt’s refusal was profane but terse. “Then I’ll do it myself!” Aunt Paula said, and stalked off.
And that was when I knew that Aunt Paula believed the rumors about the bank money and John Stark and Aunt Olive being rich. And thinking about the fact that Aunt Paula, of all people, could believe a ridiculous rumor like that, I realized that she was just as dumb as every other adult except Matt and maybe my grandmother, and all my fear of her slipped away. It was one of the most wonderful moments of my life. I savored it all by myself for a moment, but it was too good not to share.
“Matt,” I whispered.
“Yes, rug-rat?”
“She thinks Aunt Olive put the money in those roasters. You know, the bank money.”
Matt nodded. “You know, you may be right.”
Then Harold came back with Bert and Pat and between the four of them they got the four poster taken down and out and loaded in Bert’s truck. Next was the curio cabinet, which Aunt Paula had carefully emptied. Then we all went our separate ways.
If you’re thinking that Aunt Paula didn’t dig up the four roasters, you’re wrong. She did. If you’re thinking she didn’t find any money in them, you’re wrong. She did. Each roaster had about a hundred dollars in it, along with the remains of the Pekinese, which I thought was about the grossest thing I’d ever heard. Aunt Paula was pleased as punch. She’d foiled Matt and proved herself right, and that was about as happy as she ever got.
I was miserable about the whole thing. Aunt Olive had cut off her own son and daughter without a dime. Aunt Paula had won. Mother and I were heading back to Sioux Falls the next day, and I while usually I hated leaving Laskin, this time I was glad. I’d had enough of the family for a while, although I did wish that Matt would come down and visit us some time or another. I told her so when we went over to say good-bye.
“Well, maybe I will,” Matt said. “You never know. I get around. Hey, come on back to my room for a minute. I want to give you a going-away present.”
I went off with Matt. She had the four-poster set up, and it looked even worse, because the mattress was ripped from one end to the other. She went over to where she had an ironing board set up and said, “Linda, can you keep a secret?” I nodded. “Come here.” I went over to her. On the ironing board were all these little wads of green paper. Matt picked up the iron and started steaming one. It smoothed out slowly, to show the engraved head of Benjamin Franklin.
“That’s a --” I started to squeal and Matt glared at me. I gulped and whispered, “That’s a hundred dollar bill!”
Matt nodded. “Take a look over there.” She pointed at the mattress. It was stuffed with hundreds of little green wads.
“It’s the bank money, isn’t it?” I asked.
Matt shrugged. “Maybe,” she said. “Then again, maybe not. Depends on who’s asking.” She winked at me.
“Are they all hundreds?” I asked.
“No,” Matt said. “But there’s enough. Mom always slept better knowing where her money was.” She grinned at me. “And she couldn’t stand Aunt Paula any more than your grandma can.” She handed me a green wad. “Here, rug-rat. Something to remember Mom by.”
I tucked the wad into my pocket. Then I stood there and watched Matt iron away until my mother called that it was time to leave.