"Gingham Ties "

“Son, can I see you before you leave?” Franz asked, rising from the couch to retrieve his coin purse from the roll-top desk.

Ehren stopped in the doorway, his grip on the handle keeping the winter wind from blowing the door shut. “They’re waiting for me. What do you want?”

Franz kept his composure, lowering his head slowly. “I’d like to hear a little more respect in your voice. For one thing, you know the rule about the door.”

Ehren remembered right away and closed it behind him.

Franz knotted his hairy arms across his thick chest. “Every day at work it gets harder to find wood scraps around the floor at the mill. With winter almost here, more men are taking scraps home with them. The other day I saw a man at the tepee stealing some of the slabs that hadn’t been burnt yet. I don’t know how much more I’ll be able to bring home before the cold spells start up.”

“I’m sorry, father. I forgot.”

“I don’t want to sound like I’m coming down on you, but we have to watch out for things like that.”

Ehren nodded.

“You may leave when I have said what I need to say, so I need you to listen. How long has it been now since you turned ten?”

A month.”

“Yes, a month. I haven’t forgotten about the conversation your mother and I had with you. We think it’s time.” He paused a few seconds to see how his words would sink in. “You have school tomorrow, yes?”

“Unless it snows. Widow Sloan said her knees have been aching.” The floorboards creaked as Ehren rocked impatiently.

“Unless it snows.” Franz thought about his long walk to the lumber mill in the morning. “Well, if there’s snow on the ground when you wake up, I need you to give this back to your mother.” He loosened the leather tie and fished around in the coin purse for the right amount. “Take this,” he said, revealing a grimy coin in the palm of his hand.

He watched his son take the piece and bury it deep in his trouser pocket.

“Your mother needs a bottle of milk and a loaf of bread for supper tomorrow evening. You’ll get the best deal at the Johnson’s store. Do you know where that is?”

Ehren nodded. “Across from the rail station. He’s always complaining about the train whistle.”

Franz returned the coin purse to the desk and rolled the cover shut. “Son, I need you to listen.” He walked over to him and rested a strong hand on each of his son’s shoulders. “Is this something you’re ready for?”

Ehren said quietly, “Yes, sir.”

“Then I need you to give me whatever’s left over when you get home.”

“Okay,” he said, feeling for the door handle.

“Hold on. There isn’t any need to hurry. I’d feel better if you left the money in your room by your school books, so you’ll remember it in the morning.”

“But Pop? I’ll be wearing these clothes to school tomorrow.”

“You heard me. Run along now.”

As Ehren hurried to his room, Franz caught a glimpse of the tear in the back of his son’s trousers.

He turned back to the roll top desk and repositioned it snugly against the wall to keep the draft from blowing through the hole in the bricks. Last year’s first winter storm had been stronger than anyone had expected. The family had been reading together in the living room, the wind howling like an unseen spirit through the spaces in the walls. The thundering sound had startled Adeline, who had broken into tears when the old sycamore tree knocked in that section of the wall. Mr. Johnson had warned him the tree might be too close, so Franz had measured it himself. Somehow, he’d been wrong. Adeline had sat a long time at the kitchen table, wrapped in a blanket, staring through her tears out the window at the storm. That night was cold.

“I’ll be back by dark,” Ehren hollered, shutting the door securely behind him.

Through the narrow doorway into the kitchen, Franz could see Adeline leaning over the wash basin. The ties at the back of her apron dangled from beneath her dark brown hair and the back of her waist, adding colored gingham trails to her plain dress. This last summer, a woman from the church had given her the blue and white fabric, but when she’d laid out the pattern, there hadn’t been enough for an entire dress.

When the kettle whistled from behind Franz in the living room, Adeline turned around, drying her hands on her apron.

“I’ll get it,” Franz said.

She seemed surprised to see him standing there. “Thank you,” she said, letting her apron fall to her knees.

Atop the wood stove which stood alone in its area of the living room, the kettle continued to whistle. He adjusted the kettle rag on the handle before carrying it to the sink in the kitchen.

“Watch your hands,” he said as he poured the hot water into the basin.

Adeline moved out of the way and busied herself with the dishes that waited on the counter to be dried. “A few ladies from the church talked to me again today.

Franz looked up at her.

“I was in town getting some butter from the mercantile and was on my way back when Mrs. Radcliff saw me. I tell you, that woman may have the best of intentions, but she’s as hard as a grindstone when you try to get a word in.”

Franz nodded slowly once.

“She’s the one that fancies her hats and dresses. So I thought I’d ask what we should do when a cow stops milking, not that I thought she’d be the one to know, but maybe the women she was walking with.”

Finding the basin full, Franz returned the kettle to the stove in the living room, and Adeline’s voice got louder so he could hear from the other room.

“But she jumped in right away telling all about the community picnic they were having this weekend after services and the roasts and casseroles that the ladies are all bringing. Then she asked if we were going to be able to make it, and I didn’t know what to say. I never know what to say to things like that.”

Franz paused in the doorway. “What did you tell them?”

“There was no proper way to answer her, especially after she’d gone on and on about all that everybody was bringing. I can hear them now, talking about their dishes and dresses. So I told her that we were going through a sort of tough stretch and probably wouldn’t be able to bring anything.” With a tattered grey rag, she dried another dish and stored it in the cupboard above the counter. “Then she said that it wouldn’t be a problem, that it was a community picnic, and that I needn’t worry myself over such small things.”

“I wish that whole crowd would leave us be. We’re making it just fine without their help.”

“That may be the case, but I get the feeling they aren’t going to leave us alone.” She undid the apron at her waist.

“Is there something wrong with the house? I patched the shingles up by the stove pipe and checked the outside for anything that needed fixing.”

“Franz, the house is fine.” She reached around her neck to untie her apron, but Franz took the ties from her. She looked over her shoulder at him as he loosened them. “It’s late, and these things can wait until tomorrow. I’d like to relax in the living room until Ehren gets home. We could read.”

She hung her apron neatly on the hook by the door and waited for Franz to come to her, where she took his hand and wrapped it around her waist.

The chilled morning air bit at his skin, but Franz was thankful Widow Sloan had been wrong about her knees again. For now, his coat was enough to fight back the cold. In a few weeks, the formidable frost would begin its slow march across the river valley, and he’d have to start wearing his soiled gloves on his way to work for added warmth. The sun’s orange glow had begun to light up the tips of the spruce trees on the horizon. He had only the bridge left to cross, and he’d be at the lumber mill. At his side, his gloves and lunch hung secured in a canvas sling that, if he was lucky, would be filled with wood on the walk home.

A mist clung to the trees that lined the river. As he began his climb up the bridge, he stared down at errant log being carried swiftly northward with the current. It was when he looked up that he noticed the smoke billowing from inside the mill. Not sure what that meant, he sped up his walk. His first job of the morning had always been to light the tepee, the pile of scrapped wood that burned all day, every day. Inside, he punched clock and walked past the tepee. Sure enough, someone had done his job, and seeing his spot on the green chain already filled, he hurried on his gloves.

Working the green chain meant relentless physical labor. The logs would run back and forth in the carriage with the blade on the headrig doing its work, and someone at the carriage would send the new slice off down the assembly line. At each turn in the line, a man would flip the raw board onto its new track, over and over through the different saws until it was trimmed up how it needed to be.

“Everyone’s here early today,” Franz yelled, flustered and trying to make himself heard over the deafening combination of saws, conveyor belts, and clanking boards. He grabbed a hook and filled in alongside Jakob at the carriage.

“Started cutting ten minutes ago,” Jakob yelled back.

Franz secured his hook in the end of a new slice and dropped it onto the track. “What do you mean ten minutes ago?”

“Ten minutes ago’s what I mean. Millwright walked through with the manager and told me to light up the tepee. Asked where you were.”

Franz coughed on some sawdust. “Can’t hear you.” The ruckus of boards and saws made conversation difficult.

“I said the millwright walked through ten minutes ago and told me to light up the tepee. He asked where you were.”

“That can’t be.” Franz tried to think over the noise of the mill. “I left on time.”

“Maybe you did and maybe you didn’t, but the manager went and cut two men last week.”

Franz shouted, “I heard about that. I never heard why.”

“No one I know’s heard the reason yet either, but I’ve seen both of them men punching in late and fairly often. I wouldn’t start in like that if I were you.”

Franz grunted as he pulled down another board, the wet sap adding to the thin layer of sludge that already coated his gloves. He’d be able to wipe some of it off at the end of the day, but the rest would stick, adding stiffness and color to their aging look.

“How’s the family?” Jakob yelled.

The question made Franz think about Adeline’s trouble with the women from the church. “They’re fine.”

“What about that son of yours?” he hollered back.

“Fine.” How he hated the word. “Turned ten a month ago.”

“Is that right? My boy turned a year older just last week. Twelve years now. They grow up quick don’t they?”

The carriage slid back, and the headrig sawed off another section. Jakob flipped it with his hook.

“What?” Franz yelled.

“I said, ‘My boy’s twelve now. They grow up quick.’ ”

Franz exaggerated his words to be understood. “Seems that way.” He grabbed the next board and glanced over at the man working his spot on the line.

“Sure does. Told me next summer he and a friend want to pack the Rhine all the way to the coast. At thirteen. Can you believe that? Wants to follow the river north a ways and see some of the old towns. Says his friend wants to ride one of the old steamboats still running the river.” A fresh log rolled down and lodged into place on the carriage. “Well, I stopped that right there. Said no way he’s taking that trip. That I needed him around come summer.”

Needed him around come summer. Franz looked those words over like a fresh-cut piece of lumber. What might he need Ehren for this summer? Something more than a trip to the Johnson’s. Still, that wasn’t such a small thing for a boy, being trusted with money. If a man can’t take care of the things in his care, he’s not a man. Nothing is more important.

Jakob hadn’t returned to the job, so Franz was handling all the unfinished planks that came down off the carriage. The logs were coming through slower than they had earlier in the day, and he let out a sigh that relaxed his shoulders. His grime-covered gloves had already earned a day’s pay.

The close of the day brought with it a certain focus. No matter where he found himself along the green chain, the last hour was always the clearest. The fatigue in his forearms, the tinder in the tepee, and the often sigh of someone near him, they were all there, only faded far in the distance. Headrig, carriage, board. That was all there was. Things were clear.

After the closing whistle, Franz gathered the wood scraps from the floor and stored them in his canvas sling with his gloves. In an hour the sun would disappear behind the horizon trees, and the crispness of the evening air, which had already begun to settle on the ground, would snuff out any remaining heat.

Canvas sling hanging from one hand, he started up the slight incline of the stone bridge that crossed the river. He looked up to see Jakob disappearing down the other side. When Franz yelled after him and didn’t get a response, he hastened pace to catch up. By the time Franz reached the top, he’d gained much ground. Jakob was walking slowly.

“Jakob!” he hollered again.

His friend turned this time and waited. Franz lumbered down the decline, the jostle on his body not as heavy as usual because of the half load of scraps in the sling.

“May I walk with you, friend?” Franz asked. They had traveled the longest stretch of the trip together before, but not often. As Franz approached, Jakob buried his hands in the pockets of his lengthy, timeworn jacket. It looked only many years older than Franz’s.

He laid his free hand on Jakob’s shoulder. “Thank you for waiting. This walk can be lonely.”

They passed a horse-drawn cart brimming with old straw.

“I didn’t see you after lunch,” Franz said.

“Doubt many did.”

“Did the millwright reassign you?”

Jakob didn’t say anything.

“Where did he have you finish up the day?”

“He didn’t.” Jakob’s shoulders dragged as though under a great weight.

“I don’t understand.”

“There wasn’t any work for me after lunch.”

“But no one filled your place when you left. You could have returned to the carriage.”

“No, I couldn’t.” Jakob exhaled, his tired breath a visible cloud. “Millwright let me go. Said it didn’t have anything to do with me. Said the logs are just coming in slower and that he had to let men go.”

“That isn’t fair. You are a hard worker. Better than most. I will talk to him. I have worked with you. There must be something I can say.”

“There’s nothing you can say.”

Jakob pointed back toward the mill. “But if he let you go at lunch, how come you are leaving only now?”

“What was I supposed to do? Go home to Lilia in the middle of the day?” Franz stepped around the mangled carcass of a rabbit lying in the road. “I can’t tell her. In our situation? I couldn’t put the pressure of that news on her. No. In the morning, I’ll wake up earlier than normal and try another mill, and if I have to, I’ll keep looking till I find an opening.”

For the next mile, they were quiet. Baleful clouds continued to find room in the sky, draping their dark gray blanket over the harvested fields that lined both sides of the road. The further away from the river he traveled, the less he could feel its probing chill. Winter was not here yet. When it arrived, it would spread from the river, conjuring its fog and creeping through the forests and across the fields.

Only the last reaches of daylight still remained when they arrived at the fork in the road. Franz stopped to open the canvas sling on the ground and unbury his gloves. He put his gloves on, then gathered the wooden handles of the sling together and extended it to Jakob. “I want you to take this. You can return the sling to me later.”

His hands refused the sling. “I can’t accept this.”

He urged the sling into Jakob’s hands. “You will offend me. Please, I insist. At home we have weeks worth, more than enough. You can bring me the sling when the chance presents itself. You will find work. I am sure of it.” With a hurried farewell, Franz turned up the collar of his overcoat and left down the road toward the far side of the town.

Franz secured the door behind him and removed his gloves, leaving them to warm on the sanded stump beside the wood stove. Ehren ran from his bedroom to greet him.

“My son. You have something for me, yes?”

Ehren held out three coins for his father. “This is the rest.”

“Is this all the rest?”

His son nodded.

“Good. Is your mother around?”

Looking up as if he wanted something, Ehren pointed toward the kitchen.

“Is that you, Franz?” Adeline’s voice sounded from the kitchen.

Franz motioned Ehren toward his room. “You did well. You may go.” Franz paused in the narrow doorway and watched his wife walk toward the other end of the kitchen, those familiar apron ties begging to be undone. There wasn’t anything he would keep from her.

“How did our son do with his task?” he asked.

“It’s there on the counter,” she said, peeling radishes into the sink. “I was right here looking out the window and saw him at the edge of the field. That look on his face—you should have seen it. Then he started running but caught himself when he remembered he was carrying a bottle of milk.”

He looked at the loaf of bread resting on a towel, alongside a wicker basket filled past the brim with food.

She continued, “Could you set the plates out on the dinner table for me? I’m almost ready here.”

“Where did all this come from?” he asked, his chest tightening as he took three plates from the cupboard.

“What? Oh, the basket. I haven’t looked through it all yet, but you wouldn’t believe some of the things in there. I know I saw some jars of jam and of course you can see the bread there on top. Three loaves.”

“Yes, but where did it come from?” He walked quickly to the table and laid out the plates.

“I’m not sure. Ehren found it on our doorstep covered with the plaid cloth hanging there on the hook when he came back from his errand today.”

“Where do those women think they get the right to do this?” He waved the last plate in his hand, the tone in his voice rising quickly. “Do we look like we need help?”

She turned off the sink and dried her hands on her apron. “What women?”

“The women from the church. We have never asked them for anything. Can’t they see that everything is fine around here? What makes them think we need their help?” The last plate rattled on the table as he set it down. “What makes them think we even want it?”

“They’re just being neighborly. They don’t mean anything by it.” Cool red patches of frustration began to form on her cheeks.

“Don’t mean anything by it? Our son went to the store today to buy the things we needed. We did not need their help. Listen!” His hand shook as he pointed toward the counter. “That basket is talking right now. Can you hear it? It tells me that the women and men at that church, yes the men too, think that I am not doing enough to support my family. It tells me that they are not happy with our family the way it is. Answer me this, Adeline.” He moved to face her, holding her elbows and staring past the brown strands of hair that had fallen across her forehead. “Are you not cared for?”

“I don’t see how this—”

“Answer me!” As if by some will of their own, his hands had moved from her elbows to her forearms, his grip tightening and beginning to shake her. “Are you not cared for?”

Her eyes dodged his, looking over at the table, out the window, at something other than him. He tried to move so he could see her face, her eyes. When he had found them or, perhaps, when she had found his, he noticed the tears. He released her elbows, backing away a step, and she turned quickly toward the counter.

She retrieved a knife from the drawer and the loaf of bread from the towel on the counter. “Can you get your son to wash up for supper?” Adeline’s voice wavered.

“Yes,” he said. “I can do that.”

“Thank you,” she said, the knife sawing through the husk of bread.

Franz walked through the narrow doorway to his son’s room and tapped on the door.

“Ehren, I need you to wash for dinner.”

“Be right there, Father.”

Franz heard his son through the door and returned to the kitchen, once again pausing in the doorway. His wife was leaning, gingham ties against the counter, her face buried in her apron.

It took him back to the weeks after his son’s birth and those long days spent pacing the hospital hallways, where the doctors had told him her seizures had stopped but nothing was guaranteed. The first week passed, and they brought him his son to hold, the head out of proportion with the body. He watched the facial expressions change, the eyes and lips sometimes squinting at the same time, and wondered how he’d take care of this small life without the help of his Adeline.

Franz went to her at the counter, his firm hands tugging awkwardly at the backs of her shoulders, urging her to fall into him. Her body collapsed into his warm grasp, and he held her, his thick arms absorbing the movement of her soft sobs.

Ehren’s bedroom door creaked open, and a moment later Franz released his wife. “I’ll fill the glasses with milk.”

She wiped her eyes and began arranging the bread on a plate. “Water for me, please.”

“Yes. Water.”

Ehren hurried through the doorway and over to the basin, the hard stream of water falling onto the cold metal. “Father, did you see the basket I found?”

Franz said nothing.

“Can we eat the preserves?” Ehren asked. “We haven’t had any since last year.”

Franz set the glasses on the table, Adeline’s at her seat in front of the window. She came near him and placed the plate of bread in the center of the table.

“Is there anything else I can do?” he asked.

“The stew. It’s on the burner. You don’t have to bring the pot over here. You can fill the bowls at the stove if you’d like.”

“Yes. I can do that.”

“Father, did you hear me?” Ehren asked. “Can we have some preserves from the basket?”

Franz took a step toward the stove but stopped and looked down toward the ground, trying to decide whether to answer his son or not.

“Yes, you may, son.”

Ehren hurried to the counter and pulled out jar after jar of jam, lining them up in front of him on the counter. After making his decision, he ran to the table, where he set down the jar of peach preserves and grabbed his bowl.

The aroma of beef stew filtered through the air. Ehren hurried to the stove and waited beside Franz for his stew. Franz filled a bowl with two spoonfuls from the ladle then handed it down to his son. Adeline and Franz exchanged an understanding smile as he filled her bowl and returned it to her. In the future, he would be more careful, more gentle. He spooned his own bowl full of stew and joined his family at the table.
“Son, would you say the blessing for our food?” Franz said.

Ehren nodded, nervously shuffling his chair closer to his plate.

Franz extended his hands across the rough hickory surface, one to his wife, the other to his son. Adeline smiled and rested her hand in his, touches of red still showing around her eyes. Her tears were his tears. She would not cry again if he could help it. Then he looked to Ehren and nodded, taking his son’s outstretched hand in his and bowing his head.

As Ehren prayed, Franz and Adeline lifted their eyes and looked into each other’s faces the way they did whenever their son prayed. The familiar whistle of the window sill turned their attention to the landscape beyond the pane where snow swirled to the ground in drifts. He hoped it would not last all night. He had to walk to the mill in the morning, and Jakob would need to find work.

Looking back at Adeline, the wife of his youth, still gazing out the window at the falling snow blanketing the countryside, he was satisfied there wasn’t anything he would keep from her and hoped they had enough wood to keep warm until this passed.

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