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Volume 1, Issue 4
Winter 2005:

A Social History

Michael A. LaCombe

Cell 2 Soul. 2005 Winter; 1(4):a5

A century or so ago, there lived in western Maine an Indian squaw notorious for her medicine. For this and other reasons she was often regarded by the settlers of that area as eccentric. She walked a trail running east and west and would frequently stop at various cabins for food and drink, trading assorted poultices and words of advice to those who would have them. And as there are in any age, there were along the trail those who remained skeptical, and refused any and all hospitality to the old squaw. In retaliation, she placed a lasting curse on the localities where these skeptics lived.

With the passage of time, the squaw's trail became asphalt highway, twisting through small villages and hurrying past country mostly, on its way west to New Hampshire. At its extreme western end, in the mountains of western Maine where few people live even today, Eugene and Elizabeth Chase arrived from Connecticut to retire to a farm. Eugene embraced the nature surrounding him like a zealot newly converted to religion. Especially he became fascinated with wild mushrooms and, with certain cautionary measures, regularly gathered them to eat. Encumbered by an emphysematous chest diseased through long years of smoking, Eugene would puff along through the woods, stop to catch his breath with a gaping, wide grin, and resume his chase for fungi.

A scant mile down the road stood a general store of the sort one sometimes sees when driving in the country, a store seeming always to be open, lit by bare incandescent bulbs, with sagging front steps and single iron rail worn bright over the years by the coarse hands of customers. The window of this particular store displayed a few jugs of maple syrup covered with several layers of dust, three pairs of cloth work gloves, ten quart-size cans of stewed tomatoes arranged pyramid style, and assorted brands of bug repellant in various strengths and sizes. The display was never changed, remaining as it was a testimony to country eclecticism. The store was run by Walter and Cleona Shackleford who, in rotating shifts, together operated the store fifteen hours a day. Or separately, rather, for Walter and Cleona were never there together. They did not, it was commonly known, get along. If one could sound the sweep of Walter's psyche, plumbing depths of which even he was unaware, the truth would tell that, in reprisal for his own abusive, drunken father and punishingly submissive mother, Walter abused Cleona, and severely so.

A small town an hour further west into New Hampshire offered a bar where Walter could go afternoons to drink and smoke, and laugh with the men, replenishing his maleness so that he might return home to victimize his wife. There he would perch himself on any vacant stool, veined face flush, and expound with raspy voice on the rain or lack of it, ice-out time, and the general nature of things, between long, slow drags on his cigarette. And while Walter was absent, Elizabeth, who by now had become a frequent customer at the store, could lean across the counter, resting as much of her considerable weight on her elbows as the counter-top would allow — and sympathize with her new-found friend. Elizabeth's strength had always been in listening. She would hold her head in her hands, elbows on the counter, and look deeply into her friend's sad eyes, absorbing every halting detail. Since it was never asked for, Elizabeth never offered advice, though she held a quiet impatience for Cleona's mousey manner and passive acceptance of her husband's continual abuse. Nor did she add to Cleona's pain by talking about her own happy marriage, or her deep, abiding love for Eugene. Elizabeth always left promptly at six to get her husband's supper — huffing out the door to squeeze her corpulence between seat and steering wheel of her Buick — and hurry home to fry up whatever mushroom treasures Eugene had found that day. But she might return to Cleona in the evening, if Eugene could spare her and if it seemed her friend especially needed her that day. Often in the evenings together at the store, the two women would stand on the steps — the one massively wide and expansive, and the other slight, small, withdrawn — hugging themselves against the evening chill to watch the setting sun. And often they would wonder whether Walter would be too drunk to complete the winding drive home, an apprehension that sometimes took on the quality of prayer.

This stretch of road was patrolled by Bill Cummings, assistant deputy sheriff, part-time rural mail carrier, and owner of thirteen Short-horn cattle. Bill stopped at the store almost every day, and always at five, to buy two donuts, a hunk of cheddar cheese, and two half-pints of milk. These he would nurse along through the evening shift, to get himself to quitting time. He had a habit of leaving his squad car door ajar, to lend a sense of urgency to his visit, it may be supposed, as well as an air of brevity. Each visit to the store found the women in quiet conversation. Bill sensed his own intrusion, watching Cleona and Elizabeth draw away from each other, smile and nod nervously at him, making up things to say.

After a time, Eugene came up with lung cancer. Elizabeth, more clearly than her husband, anticipated the heavy grief to come. Eugene assumed an attitude of resignation, something he could not entirely achieve, and continued to cling to life with measured desperation. He began showering his Elizabeth with gifts, mostly jewelry made of semiprecious stones, jewelry he purchased at a mineral store east of the mountains. On some pretense or other, he managed to go there every day, and would puff up the steps and inside, leaning on the glass case to catch his breath, with the gape and grimace of a breathless distance runner. 'Anything new?' he would ask, and buy for Elizabeth whatever might be held out to him. Money had become inconsequential. He gathered, and ate for the first time, certain gilled mushrooms which he had heretofore avoided for their resemblance to poisonous varieties, terming them 'close calls,' because for him it no longer mattered. These particular species he ate himself; he would not allow his Elizabeth to share them.

And so each night the scene for them was this: Elizabeth sitting at one end of the trestle table in her great chair, fighting back her grief, wearing pendant earrings of azurite and gold, and Eugene opposite, rubbing his hands in false joy and chuckling in anticipation at his plate of sautéed Amanita caesarea.

Walter too became seriously ill, and died a lovely death between crisp white sheets in the hospital east, lapsing in and out of the comfortable coma that drink, cigarettes, liver failure and emphysema can bring. He commanded the attention of young, shapely nurses he would pinch and pat just so, whenever he had the faculty to do so. His children sat around him, lamenting the death they had so fervently prayed for, while Cleona, his wife of forty years, to whom he had forbidden entry, brooded in the hall outside. Eugene, on the other hand, was found only after hours of frantic searching, lying face down in a patch of ostrich ferns, his basket of mushrooms spilled upon the ground. The cancer, the doctors explained, had eaten through a blood vessel. Yes, they assured Elizabeth, it had been a quick and painless death.

It was in this way that the store's window display came finally to be changed. Elizabeth washed the window, cleaned out the old, tired articles, and installed as a centerpiece a large crystalline spray of amethyst that Eugene had found one day. Around this crystal the two women arranged dried statice and cornflowers, varicolored gourds, and a burlap sack of flour, with a handful of coffee beans thrown in, for completion's sake. With both of them running outside to assess — Elizabeth first, like a Holstein swollen at milking time, and Cleona tagging behind like a ragged Shelty — then both back inside again to add, subtract, or reposition, then one outside while the other stayed in the window, moving the sack of flour here or there, the whole project took the better part of one day. Elizabeth volunteered to take Walter's shift at the store, having nothing better to do, but the two women actually ran the store together, opening at sun-up, and closing late in the evening, whenever the traffic had ceased. What had once been a chore for Cleona became a way of life for both of them. And from this arrangement, Cleona gained a measure of happiness, and Elizabeth permitted a small song to enter her heart once again.

The store was less successful than before Walter's death. In truth the women barely made expenses. The boys from Stetson Town had correctly assumed that the two women would not sell beer to minors and so what had been profit for Walter was lost to the two women. But income was secondary, and whatever they lost in money, they gained many times over in happiness.

Bill Cummings came every day now, and stayed an hour or more, no longer considered an unwelcome interruption. He would laugh with them, and tease, and roll his eyes wishing out loud he were single again, or ten years younger, or both. And Cleona and Elizabeth would toss their heads and poke each other with boney elbows, and Cleona would push at Bill and go to the cooler for his milk and cheese.

For a year the two women went on in this way. They even talked of living together, if being set in their ways were to constitute no major obstacle. But this was a year also of persistent persuasion from a well-intended daughter — who finally convinced Cleona that rural life was too filled with risk, and no place for an elderly widow. Her doctor, who had cared for Walter and Eugene as well, took the daughter's side in the argument; one less patient for him to look after would be one less demand upon his time. And so Cleona, who had always permitted others to think for her, and had had only one year of thinking for herself, sold her land and the store with it and moved to the city to live with her daughter.

Elizabeth had trouble sleeping after Cleona left, and loathed the loneliness she found engulfing her. She asked the doctor for a vial of pills for sleeping, and convinced the druggist in New Hampshire that she kept misplacing them. When she had gained four such vials in this way, she kissed Eugene's picture and went to sleep.

Bill found her two days later, having had to break a window to gain entry. He was numbed by his discovery and by the sudden realization that he had in some way dearly loved and would miss these two women. Elizabeth had no children. There was only the name of the doctor on the vials for Bill to call. Yes, the doctor said, he would sign the death certificate. And it was scarcely three weeks later that Bill himself died of a heart seizure while apprehending a drunken teenage boy. It was not, the workmen's compensation board explained to Bill's widow, a work-related incident. She would have to make do.

Now there is a ski mountain near that section of road, and a condominium occupies the spot where Cleona's store once stood. Young people from the city occupy A-frames and ski chalets there, and come there from the city when the snow is fresh and deep. They wear fashionable clothes for attracting each other and silvered sunglasses for squinting into the sun, and know nothing of the curse of the old Indian squaw.

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