Getting On In Years
Johanna slowly lifted her body up from the bed with a heavy sigh and a realized her age was catching up to her. The backs of her burgundy felt slippers had been purposely squashed down to make them easy to slide on. As if bearing testimony to how old she was feeling that morning, she looked at the purple blood vessels that criss crossed her feet and ankles like a Rand McNally map. These were not the smooth white feet of her youth.
Waking this morning was especially hard as her sleep had been interrupted by the noise made by Mitzi’s convulsive seizure at two in the morning. Somewhere in her fit, she knocked over the flower pot with a loud crash. Everything was becoming too much for Johanna.
She loved her house on a quiet street just within walking distance of the village, but that walk was becoming more difficult with each passing day. Making ends meet was hard too, when she and Papa retired they didn’t foresee the rising property taxes and inflation making the necessities of life so very expensive. Their vegetable garden helped them put food on the table, but since Papa died a year ago, working it alone was getting to be too much. Even the regular yard maintenance such as mowing the lawn and clipping the hedges was much too tiring. Unlike Levitown, where the lots were pitifully small, the lots this far out on the island were sizable. That, and she and Papa purchased an extra lot adjacent to the one upon which the house was situated. The extra lot gave her added privacy from the house on that side. The house on the driveway side was shielded by lilac bushes.
On those rare occasions when her older grandchildren visited, they would put up a volley ball net and/or a horseshoe range. After, they would take turns pushing the lawn mower and mow the lawn. This helped Johanna a little. Still, she couldn’t afford to pay someone in between their visits to mow or to rake leaves and shovel snow.
All things considered, soon she would have to move to a small apartment, but that saddened her too. She had lived here so long and had so much in common with many of her neighbors. Many, like her, emigrated to the United States in the early 1900’s. Mostly, if she moved, she would miss the summer visits from her grandson, Jack. His parents sent him to visit for his entire summer vacation. A more wholesome atmosphere for him than the city. Would he come to visit at all if she were in an apartment?
On one of his first visits, Jack made friends with Wolfgang, aka Wolfie, who lived on the street behind Johanna. Johanna never understood why Wolfie was so obsessed with war. He was born in Germany, but in 1949, so the war ended before he was born. Maybe, while in Germany, he played with older boys who remembered it. Johanna wasn’t too happy with Jack and Wolfie always playing war. She, a gentle person, didn’t care for the violence. If it made Jack happy and he wanted to stay with her the entire summer, she would look the other way.
When Papa was alive the boys asked him where in the yard they could build a trench, and he gave them a location in the fallow part of the vegetable garden. With eagerness, that only a nine and ten year old could have, they dug for days until they had a mighty fine trench. It was eight feet long by three feet wide and four feet deep. They would make pop pop sounds as if shooting and roll into the trench to return fire with their play guns. Wolfie and Jack would do this for hours.
Jack was very disappointed when he returned the next summer and found Papa used the trench to dispose of all the autumn leaves, the rotting garden vegetation and all the fallen apples from his seven apple trees. Jack’s disappointment soon disappeared when Papa gave them another location for a trench and the two boys set out with determination and a purpose to dig a trench again. It was with the fervor, only young boys have. Digging with gusto to prove how manly they were.
It was a win win situation. Once the hole was filled to the brim with garden waste, Papa (and now Mama) would start covering the rotting vegetation with the soil that the boys had removed. As the vegetation rotted and settled, they would add more soil. Thus, the vegetable garden became enriched.
“Acht!” she said, as she forced herself to a standing position. She threw on her faded blue chenille bathrobe and went to the kitchen, scuffing her slippers as she walked. The percolator was on the stove and the coffee grounds from yesterday were still in the basket. She filled the pot with water and re-perked the already used grounds to get every last drop of coffee out of them. She sat, drank her flavor lacking coffee, and stared at the broken flower pot and dirt in the sink, knowing that she would have to deal with that mess sometime today. Right now, it just made her sad.
“Guten Morgen Johanna!” a voice called from over the side hedge.
Johanna wiped her hands on her apron, tossed the last bit of soil into the hole she was covering and looked over to see her neighbor Nathalie Pfeister. “Busy body, no need for her to see what I am doing.”
“How are you Nathalie,” she replied as she leaned on her shovel.
“I am well Johanna.”
Nathalie and her house mate, or maybe it’s her sister, Susanna, lived in the house next door. On any reasonably nice day, sometimes 2 or 3 elderly gentlemen could be seen sitting in their rocking chairs sunning themselves on the porch. Nathalie and Susanna supplemented their income by taking in elderly men who could no longer care for themselves. They cooked for the men and provided neat and tidy bedrooms for them. As the men became more disabled, Nathalie and Susanna would bath and dress them. Many of the men came on their own accord when their spouses died leaving them lost as to how to tend to a house and cook. Others were brought there by their children when it was deemed they were no longer safe in their homes. The services provided by Nathalie and Susanna were much more reliable and comfortable than the neglect found in convalescent homes. In return, the men would pay about two thirds of their monthly social security checks to them, about $50.00.
Johanna only vaguely got to know the names of some of the men as they passed through Nathalie and Susanna’s care. Many lasted only a year or two after they arrived, succumbing to their ailments and passing on. They were soon replaced by a new person. Johanna could tell when one of the men was doing poorly; she would notice repeated visits from Dr. Rogers. His car would be parked curbside as he made his frequent house calls.
“Johanna did you hear the bad news?”
“No, what is wrong?” thinking another gentleman passed.
“Last night at the Bahnhof Pub, in the village near the railroad, a group of men were holding a poker game in the back room. Seems they hold one every Thursday night. It’s common knowledge among the men in the village, the police know, but they look the other way.”
“Yah, I have heard of the poker game. Papa was invited years ago and even then the stakes were too high for him to afford. Only the town bigwigs can afford it.” And she thought to herself, “Yah, the shop owners who know we can’t get into town and overcharge us for everything.”
“This morning when the milkman came by, he told me this: Last night a man broke into the back room and shot the owner Fritz, Joe Cassidy and Jack Wilbur to death. He thought Harry Wiegel was dead, so he left. Harry is critical but will probably survive. The robber stole all the money in the pot.”
“Oh, how awful,” Johanna gasped as she lifted her fingers to her mouth grabbing her chin. “Did he have to shoot them? Couldn’t he have just taken the money and been satisfied?”
“The robber has a long history of violence and being in trouble with the law. Harry was able to identify the man before he was taken to the hospital. The police caught him without the money and they brought him to the station.”
“Das is gut,” said Johanna with a sign of relief.
“No, is nicht gut,” Nathalie emphatically shouted. “The police handcuffed him to a big wooden chair and then turned their backs. The man picked up the wooden chair and walked out of the station into the woods.”
“How could they do something so stupid?”
“They found the chair with the arm broken off in the woods. The very same woods that are across the street.”
Indeed, the town hall and police station was situated just the opposite side of the woods from where Johanna and Nathalie lived. About 3 miles away.
Nathalie nodded in agreement. “You best be getting inside and locking your doors. I am going inside now and staying there. Susanna, I have an old table leg in the house; we keep it handy to use as a club.”
Johanna returned to the garage to put back the shovel and dwelling on what Nathalie told her, her thoughts again wandered to the benefits of getting an apartment. She took out a lawn rake and raked more of the fallen apples. If she did one section of the yard at a time, she could handle it. She put the apples into a wheel barrow and dumped them in this year’s pit. It was already smelling of rotting apples. Wolfie and Jack, had raked the whole yard for her, two days before Jack left to go back to school.
She and Papa never sprayed their apple trees to prevent worms, it was too expensive. The trees were old and they yielded many small and wormy MacIntosh apples. To not waste anything they would spend hours cutting away the bad parts of the apples and only saving a little nub of usable apple. Papa was really good at peeling apples, he could always cut the skin in one long continuous snaking spiral. Johanna would use the little nubs to make apple fritters, put up some apple sauce in jars and make an occasional apple cake
After she finished raking, she picked some of the last tomatoes of the season and some greens for lunch; a little parsley to sprinkle on her salad. That and a piece of cheese should serve her well. Lunch was good. It was already 2:00 o’clock so she laid her weary body down for a little nap.
She didn’t mean to sleep so long, but one look at the ticking clock told her she had slept until 3:37 pm. She plodded into the kitchen to have another cup of second-go-round coffee left over from the morning.
Johanna heard a noise as the cellar door opened. As quickly as Johanna heard the noise and realized the bulk head must have been unlocked, he appeared. There was no mistaking who he was. The handcuff was still dangling from his wrist and his fist clenched a hammer up in a threatening manner.
“Listen up, do what I say, and you won’t get hurt. I am hungry and I need to rest, then I will be on my way.”
Johanna’s brain was swimming with so many thoughts. It’s like when people say they see their whole life flashing before them. The thoughts just filled her head. The first thought was that he was going to hurt her no matter what he said. The second, was, “what a short man”. He stood about 5 foot 6 inches and probably weighed no more than 140 lbs. “No wonder why he used a gun. This shrimp couldn’t scare anyone unless he had a weapon.” And, he had a hammer and Johanna was scared.
“Okay, I will fix something” she said, hoping that fixing a meal would buy her some time and a miracle would happen. Maybe the police would come door to door; maybe Nathalie or Susanna saw the man enter the house; maybe he would fall asleep from exhaustion.
Johanna got up and went for the back kitchen door.
“Hey where do you think you are going?” he said as he raised the hammer up.
“The refrigerator and pantry are out here.” In these old houses, Wolpert houses, they called them, there was a locking door from the kitchen to the back porch. It was referred to as the “back porch”, albeit, the porch was indoors not out. The “back porch” had another locking door leading to outside and the back steps. The purpose was so the door to the kitchen could be locked, while the door to the outside remained unlocked. This allowed the ice man to come in and deliver ice to the icebox whatever time of day he arrived. Now the Frigidaire stood in the space once home to the icebox.
“Don’t try anything lady”
Johanna went to the Frigidaire and came back with a bowl, which she carried to the sink. It was as if she and the shrimp were doing a dance. Both trying to keep a safe and respectable distance from each other. As she moved toward the sink, he stepped back and sat down at the kitchen table. That’s when she noticed that he was carrying a satchel in his other hand. She had only zeroed in on the handcuff and hammer when he first arrived, so the satchel went unnoticed. He carefully placed it really close to his foot as if he was afraid she would try to take it away from him.
“Highly unlikely,” she thought, “I am not going to try and take a satchel away from a vicious killer with a hammer.”
She ran the water and lifted a big white doughy thing out of the bowl as she maneuvered around the remnants of the broken pot and the plant it once held. Then, she took two big dough pockets and carried them to the stove, while still under shorty’s watchful eye. She grabbed a heavy skillet and put a spoonful of Crisco in it and placed the pockets in the skillet. She lit the stove, set it on low and covered the skillet. Even though the food didn’t need constant watching while reheating, she stayed by the stove. She wanted to be as far away from him as possible.
She turned the pasta pocket over and went to the cupboard to get a plate and brought it to the stove. When the pockets were done she placed two on a plate and brought them to the table and set it in front of him.
“What is this?” he snarled.
“It’s maultaschen, it’s all I have.”
“What the heck is MAL TA SHEN?”
“It’s big German ravioli. It’s filled with onions, parsley and spinach that I grew in my garden.”
Skeptical though he was, he woofed down the delicious food, as Johanna, filled the percolator with new coffee and prepared a fresh pot. A day ago, in anticipation of her friend, Berta, dropping by for a coffee klatch, Joanna made an open faced apple cake. So maybe she could appease this monster and keep him at bay while feeding him apple cake and coffee.
He did have a look of contentment on his face when he finished the maultaschen and looked more than happy to receive the apple cake and coffee. Johanna feared if something didn’t happen soon, her end was near.
Then it happened, he finished his cake and was nursing his second cup of coffee when he started to clutch his stomach. He looked as if he was having trouble focusing and he seemed to sway in his chair.
“What did you feed me lady?” By now he was seeing halos around her and everything else.
“Nothing, I swear. Maybe you ate too fast or you are nervous. Let me make you some tea, it will soothe your stomach.” She went to the sink and grabbed a cup from the dish drainer and set it in the sink where she made room next to the plant. The kettle was on the stove and already filled with water, so she just turned on the gas and set it to boil.
Meanwhile, shorty grew more and more sickly looking. He seemed confused and disoriented. “Good”, she thought. She poured the water over the leaves and grabbed the sugar pot from the cupboard. When the leaves turned the water a nice brown-green Johanna, strained the leaves out and stirred in plenty of sugar.
“This will make you feel better,” she said as she handed him the cup.
He didn’t really know what he was doing. He couldn’t really think for himself, so he did what she said and grabbed the cup and drank down the sweet dark liquid. Maybe because she was an older lady with a foreign accent, he was thinking she had some magical herbal cure from the old country.
It was just a matter of time before he passed out in a pool of vomit.
“It worked,” Johanna sighed in relief. While at the sink, Johanna had pushed leaves from the oleander plant up into the maultaschen dough pockets. They blended in nicely with the spinach and parsley and went undetected by the obnoxious little shrimp. The onions and garlic sautéed in bacon fat, helped to mask the flavor. When she brewed the “tea”, it was really a strong infusion of more oleander leaves, disguised by enough sugar to cover anything.
It was easy for Johanna to maneuver the wheel barrow up against the back porch. It was not so easy for her to roll his body onto a tarp and drag the tarp out the back porch door and into the wheel barrow. Any other woman her age would not have been able to do this. Johanna had worked hard all her life and since Papa died she had to do a lot more physical labor. Her muscles and her will to move his lifeless body and dispose of it, gave her the strength. Once she got him in the wheelbarrow, she threw another tarp over him and wheeled him to the vegetable garden. She never checked his pulse, no need. She dumped him in the apple pit, face down, and proceeded to shovel dirt to cover him. She paid particular attention to make sure there was plenty of dirt covering his head, in particular, his nose and mouth.
Exhausted she went back inside, sat down, and poured herself a cup of the coffee. It was the good stuff made from first time grounds, she ate a piece of apple cake and opened the satchel and counted the money. It was close to $4,000 dollars. “This should do nicely,” she smiled. “I will be having first time around coffee from now on.”
Tonight, she would sleep well. In the morning, when well rested, she would rake some more apples into the pit and throw some more dirt on them. A little more each day.
Maybe she would visit Wilson’s Monuments in a day or so and spend a bit of the money. For her, Jeff Wilson might make a small stone in loving memory of Mitzi to put on her grave. It was the least she could do for Mitzi. If it wasn’t for her beloved Mitzi eating the oleander, and dying, Johanna would have never thought of a way to save her own life.
Best cat a person ever owned. A tear rolled down her cheek.
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© 2018 Ellen Gregory