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To Fight Aloud is Very Brave

ISSUE:  Winter 1983

She does not use the wheelchair. It is folded against the wall near the ice-cream packer, the wheels and frame shining like nothing else in her store. The chair she sits in is of a dirty green, its tiny wheels invisible, its torn seat protected from her bulk by a thick pad of stained, corrugated foam rubber. By lifting her bandaged right leg off the floor and propelling her chair with her left foot, she can move about the store, and even to the bathroom in her adjoining house, but for most of the day she sits behind the cash register. There she has built her little fortification, and there she sits, a sentry without relief, for 15 hours a day.

Her nephew never tires, during his semiannual visits, of observing how the townspeople have learned to wait on themselves. A customer who wants a pack of cigarettes will enter briskly, step behind the long counters filled with what used to be called penny candy, remove a pack of cigarettes, cross the store to take a bottle of Pepsi Cola from the refrigerator, a loaf of bread from the freestanding bread counter, and a Police Gazette from the magazine shelf. (She does not sell Playboy or any of the newer slick magazines, but she has always had a good supply, at least since her mother’s death, of True Confessions and the other old pulps.) Then he will come to the counter to pay up. “Well, Sarah,” he will say—even the children call her Sarah, though she is over 80 now—”Looks as if State better hire a new football coach if they can’t play no better’n that. Why they almost lost that game yesterday.”

She only nods or says, “Yes, I believe that’s true.” Except for those long months in the isolation ward of the hospital, when the doctors were threatening to amputate her leg, she has been to every home game since 1959, when she attended her 40th Homecoming. Now she goes to the games less uncomfortably, letting James Mabler lift her wheelchair into the trunk of Reddy, her 1949 Buick. The last time that she insisted on walking to her seat, when her nephew came up for the Stanford game three years ago, the nickel-size calluses on the soles of her feet hurt so badly that she had to gasp at nearly every step, even while letting her walker shift much of the weight to her arms. The walk from the parking lot to her seat on the 45-yard line had taken more than an hour. At the end of that game her nephew’s wife had taken charge. She had simply ordered one of the men at the first-aid station to bring a wheel chair to carry Sarah back to her car, and Sarah had gone along without a word. The nephew and his wife could not decide whether Sarah had acquiesced because she recognized the reality of her pain or because she could not bear to keep the store closed for the extra hour it would have taken her to walk to her car. The store, they agree, is her life. She insists that she wants to die there, and she will not choose the other death that they and the other relatives keep urging on her. She will not sell the store and move to a Home.

On the counter beside the old register she keeps a column of cans of Skoal, “the smokeless tobacco,” and an open carton of Marlboros, her fastest selling brand of cigarettes, for the customers she doesn’t know, the few who come to her to be served. If she feels unusually tired, she will even send one of those strangers behind the counter upon being asked for a less popular brand—unless a loitering neighbor happens to be there to serve the stranger. But she herself takes all the money and gives all the change.

Her register is just an old adding machine, long ago broken so that the tape registers nothing when someone pushes the keys and pulls down the arm. For the state sales tax she keeps a stack of tops from cigarette cartons, which she covers with long columns tallying her receipts. She keeps one- and five-dollar bills in the open drawer of the old machine, but the coins for change come from smooth round wells in an oak drawer below the counter. Customers who watch closely may perceive an even deeper layer. In a lower drawer under the counter sits a green plastic pouch. Here she slips in the tens and twenties as they come in, and she has stacked the Kennedy half-dollars in the drawer beside the pouch.

All these receptacles stand open. The drawers under the counter are too heavy and deep for her to open and close, and the drawer of the register no longer has any connection to the lever that used to open it while ringing up the total on the tape. Dust, corn chips, and remnants of other old snacks give the open drawers a film of grease and grit around the money. From the green pouch on Mondays and Tuesdays she pays cash for the weekly supply brought in and set up for display by the bread man and milkman, and under the pouch she keeps her receipts for these transactions during the last 40 years.

Ever since the third robbery, she has hidden less money around the house. Oh, you will find an occasional cache even now, a mixing bowl full of quarters and dimes in the oven. But the third robbery persuaded her at last that it was even better to let the banker know how much money she had than to let hoodlums carry it off. The earlier robbers had angered her without frightening her. The first pair had been mere burglars, young boys who broke a window and were after cigarettes and some change. She was sure she knew who they were, although she couldn’t prove it. Well, they hadn’t even come through the open door between the store and the house. Lying on her cot within a few feet of that door, she had heard the glass fall when they broke a pane to unlock the window, but they had escaped, giggling and stumbling, before the police arrived.

The second group were burly thugs, but they did not harm her. One of them, wearing a stocking over his face, pushed open the unlatched door between the store and the house, and without the slightest pause walked, as if familiar with the house, directly to her bed. While his two henchmen were ransacking the drawers of her desk, he put his knee on her chest and pressed his open hand against her face, pushing the back of her head so deep into the feather pillow that she could feel the outline of the green pouch. Lying absolutely still, and staring up past his sweaty fingers, she hoped that his other hand would not reach under the pillow, and she concentrated on resisting the impulse to lift her head. At a signal from the others, who had apparently found a leather bag of coins, the knee left her chest, the hand went away from her face, and all three men had left the building before she was able to make her toothless, panting speech intelligible to the police.

That time she had been able to reach the telephone beside her cot, although she had not dared to reach a little farther for her teeth. She knew that if she fell out of bed again she would have to wait till morning to be helped to her feet. Charles Smyser had one of her keys in his service station across the street, and Dick Drager, the bread man, would have him open the front door and check the floor of the house if the door was still locked at 7:00 in the morning. Once she had simply slid off the high stool at her kitchen sink; the stool had given way as she had begun to lower her bulk onto what she had mistaken for the center of the seat. Hitting the front edge of the seat instead, her hips had slid down along the legs until she ended up sitting on the floor. At first she had laughed too hard to be able to find the wind to lift herself up, and then she had tried soberly three or four times before she resigned herself to leaning her back against the stool and waiting the twelve hours till morning. It took at least two men to get her onto her feet, and Charles Smyser prudently employed three, one on each upper arm and one bracing her feet and steadying the walker to accept the weight of her arms as soon as she had been brought upright.

On the morning after the third robbery, all Charles Smyser had to do was call an ambulance. He found her lying on the floor, her head in blood and her hips in urine; these robbers had knocked her on the head while she was counting the day’s receipts, and they had found not only the green pouch (which they emptied and discarded) but the family Bible, some money in a mattress upstairs, a small diamond ring, and a pearl necklace. Since they had cut the telephone wires, she could not have notified the police even if she had been wide awake.

After that robbery, she made regular deposits in the bank. She has no clear estimate of what treasure remains upstairs, for she has not been up there in seven years, not since the first time the ulcerated sores on her leg began to send out red streaks, across the calf and up toward the knee. When she returned from that month in the isolation ward, she set up her cot in the alcove under the stairway. There the policeman found her when he got Charles Smyser’s key and entered the house, sloshing through the flooded store on the night the creek overflowed. He brought her wheelchair to the bed and told her that all houses along the banks of the creek had to be evacuated. “I’m not going anywhere,” she said. “You just go on and tend to the other people. I’ve never left here in 55 years, and I’m not going to run away now.” Only when he said that if she was determined to stay in that bed he was going to have to climb in there with her, only then did she let him help her into the wheelchair.

Back to the hospital she went after the flood, without even stopping in at the store. She was only 79 then, but in no condition to clear out that muck or to bring her bandages into contact with it. She let her 81-year-old brother worry about it. It served him right, she said, and she never did thank him when Clara telephoned long distance and insisted that a husband had to return to his ailing wife. After all, if he hadn’t gone oft with Clara as a missionary to China right after he graduated from seminary, he might have settled in a church near home, and Sarah might not have been condemned to work all her life in the store and to clothe his children for him all through the Depression. Now that Mother and Father were gone, and his own children grown and scattered all over the country, he could just come home for awhile and keep the family store going.

And he had come. He hated the store, its filthy floor and its dirty magazines, the mass of cartons in the storeroom and the stacks of cigarettes, cigars, and chewing tobacco on display. Not even the beloved smell of Lebanon bologna, remembered from childhood and fresh enough to compete with less welcome odors now, could overcome his reluctance. But since the store was literally his sister’s home, from which there was no way of detaching her house, he felt he had to come to help her recover from the flood. Right at the time of the Watergate scandal, then, with two hired women working alongside him to scrape down the mud to the ordinary stuff that had made the floor look extraordinarily dirty even before the flood, he found himself laundering money.

The water had come up to the second shelf of a storage cabinet, 14 inches above the floor, leaving a thick layer of sludge on one of Sarah’s legendary stacks of paper money. Sheridan agonized over keeping so much money in the house overnight, but the manager of the bank said that the bills would have to be cleaned up before they could be accepted for deposit. Sheridan dumped the bills into a net bag, the kind used for protecting lingerie in washing machines, and ran it through a hot-water cycle in Sarah’s machine. He shook the clean, wrinkled bills into a small carton and, after an anxious night, took them to the bank first thing in the morning, but the manager snorted that he could not accept all those crumpled bills. Sheridan took them back to the store. One of the women waited on customers, and he himself pressed the bills with Sarah’s steam iron. Then, while his sister lay unaware in the hospital 15 miles away, he won the victory for which she never did forgive him, not even after the robbers’ assault had persuaded her to put her money in the bank.

He went through the entire house looking for the money. He found bills everywhere: under the bowl of artificial fruit, in birthday cards dated February 13, 1927, and even in the copy of Main Street that he had given her for Christmas in 1921. There he found a 20-dollar bill, but most of the money was in ones, fives, tens, and coins. He found 42 silver dollars in a paper bag stuffed in a tin labeled SUGAR. He got out an old Gladstone bag, filled it with the money, snapped it shut, and grabbed the handle. But he could not lift the bag an inch off the floor. He strapped two of her old belts around the bag for support and called Velma out of the store to help him. Together, after locking the store, they staggered toward the bank three blocks away. The people who greeted them didn’t seem to understand what the burden was until the breathless pair, each with hands clasped under the bag, turned in at the bank. Sheridan rented a safe deposit box in Sarah’s name and asked that all the coins be put in it. He did not even take time to count the rest of the cash. He told the manager to count the money, credit it to Sarah’s account, and send a receipt or deposit slip. The store was reopened within 40 minutes after they had locked it up.

When he gave Sarah the receipts at the hospital, she was furious. “Never you mind how I was going to protect it,” she said. “Those were my private belongings. You had no right.”

Sitting out there on the edge of the highway, with the threshold scarcely one step above the level of the road, the building invited robbers, and Sheridan knew that her immobility and the rumors of hidden cash made it all the more vulnerable. Yet he did feel the touch of sympathetic shame when he remembered some of the sights that his search had inevitably exposed. Whatever she thought of the challenge to her stewardship of her property, he knew that the violation of her privacy was worse. She wouldn’t care about his seeing the quilts their mother had sewn, with the neat signature embroidered on every one and “the Depression Year, 1933” on her favorite. Those were for his daughters anyway. Nor was it all those flat boxes of handkerchiefs, each packed away with its gift card in the cedar chest after the box had been opened and the thank-you note sent at Christmas or her birthday. No, the trousseau, the hope chest, was the worst. Not so much the size 54 bloomers and green silk polka dot pajamas or the embroidered linen sheets, as the very idea that she had given such material nourishment to ordinary hopes. He agreed silently that although he would act no differently if he had to decide all over again, he had no right.

Now she waits for Patrick Connolly. He shuffles in every morning at nine to watch the Donahue show, and she is glad for the company, although she dislikes the show as heartily as the Connolly sister who won’t have it in the house. Forty years ago Sarah could not have imagined sitting beside a man while watching an interview of a father whom a surgeon had transformed into a woman. (Forty years ago, she remembers, nobody would have performed the operation, or dreamed of staging the interview.) Forty years ago Virgil Warren might have taken one of his new Oldsmobiles for a spin before putting it on the showroom floor, and he might have asked her to ride on up to the college dairy with him for an ice cream cone. For the thousandth time she thinks that she should have married Virgil when he asked her, and she enjoys the little game of believing he might not then have been stricken dead while moving her bales of Sunday papers into the store.

Patrick shuffles in, more tentatively than ever. “It’s too dark in here,” he complains, but with a pleasant mildness in this tone. Fleda Stambaugh comes in right behind him, and he turns, unseeing, to address her presence. “Would you mind helping me, please? You see, I was injured—got some sparks in my eyes—when I was welding down at the Standard Steel Works before you-uns was born, and—”

“It’s all right, Mr. Connolly, just give me the bottle. It’s me, Fleda.”

“Well, only one drop in each eye now, Fleda.” He reaches into the bulging pocket of his jacket and brings forth a small plastic bottle. He tilts his head back and holds one eye open, then the other, as Fleda releases the drops. He blinks, says “That’s better, thank you,” and glides shuffling behind the cash register.

He has all his valuable papers and his favorite mementoes on his person, for fear they will be stolen by someone in his sister’s house. “I have bad neighbors,” he says. Before he leaves the store, he will offer to show Fleda the identification badge from his years at the Standard Works, and he will remind her that his wage there was once 75 cents for a twelve-hour day. If she shows any sign of hearing him out, he will remove from his sweater pocket not only the badge but other packages of envelopes, bound with a flat rubber band. Then he will take his daily walk to visit his wife’s grave.

“Does he really talk to her in there, Sarah?” Fleda asks after he has gone.

“They say he does. Ina Mae claims she heard him one afternoon when she went over to tend her mother’s grave. He thinks she’s lonely, and of course he is, too.”

Fleda has come to help before the nurse arrives. While Sarah trundles her chair to the bathroom for her midmorning relief, Fleda scrubs a six-foot-square section of the floor behind the cash register. The Visiting Nurse has threatened to stop coming and to have Sarah packed off to the hospital if the filthy conditions are not cleaned up; by an unsatisfactory compromise Sarah has agreed to have the floor under the ailing foot washed twice a week.

When Sarah calls from the bathroom, Fleda enters the house to stand behind the swivel chair. Sarah has the green pouch in her teeth. Groaning, she presses down on the fleecy sole of her slipper and the heel of her bandaged foot, heaves her hips upward as she bears down on the arm rests beside her toilet, and rises trembling from the seat. As she twists her body 90 degrees, so that her back faces the open doorway, Fleda deftly presses the front seat of the chair against the back of Sarah’s legs. With a great gasp of pain and relief, Sarah manages to bend her knees and drop into the chair, with Fleda braced firmly against the back, and Fleda’s left hand snatches the pouch just as Sarah’s teeth release it, while the body is still subsiding into the chair.

The wheezing and panting do not stop until just before the nurse arrives. It was when the nephew saw how much effort it took Sarah to get up from her chair and onto the walker that he made his most impassioned plea for selling out. Either because she could not bear the pain of pressure on her calluses, or because her knees could no longer shift so much weight, rising from her chair had become a heroic achievement, and he realized when he actually watched it that she must be unsure of the outcome every time she dared to make the effort. He saw it in her fingers and her forearms. She dug all eight fingers into the underside of the oak counter behind her cash register. He could see her forearms tremble as she rose slowly out of the chair, and, especially in the moments of suspense when it seemed that her knees might not succeed in shifting her center of gravity, that she might sink back into the chair, he felt himself cheering her spirit onward and upward. She breathed in gasps so rapid, yet with so many little groans, that he first feared a coronary or stroke and then almost wished for a swift, fatal one.

She is calm when the nurse comes in, and she has a surprise for her. “Your leg looks a little better today, Sarah. Well, what’s this? Why, it looks just like you; I like the red in your dress, and the gold frame. Will you send it to your family?”

“It’s my Christmas present to them, a few weeks late.” And there she sits, in the picture as here in stubborn life. She will not quite die here in the store as she has hoped to do even as she has fought to survive. When the attack comes at last tonight, they will take her to the intensive care unit to keep her heart going and to ease her pain, but they will not insist on trying to insert a pacemaker through the collapsed vein. The copies of her picture have already been mailed to her nephew and her six nieces, in the South, Middle West, and West, and to their eleven children, and to her surviving brother. For many of them this image will replace their own fading memories. They will remember the 86-year-old sentry seated at her post rather than the fat, lively, humorous character some of them knew long ago.

But those who fly east and north to her funeral will find that, except for the stolen family Bible, she has faithfully protected the living record entrusted to her. Every letter, postcard, birthday card, and photograph that came into the household in the last hundred years can be found in one of the cartons cluttering the dining room. Letters home from France in 1918, from China in the twenties, from colleges in Ohio in the forties. Thank-you notes from the nieces for wool suits sewn by their grandmother in the forties and for Easter and Halloween candy sent to their children by Sarah in the fifties and sixties. While one niece and her husband are down at the funeral home learning that Sarah did not really pay all her funeral expenses in advance but that her savings will easily pay for the exorbitant cost of an oversized coffin and vault, a more fortunate niece will find in the house the list of townspeople who contributed 25 cents, 50 cents, two dollars in 1898, to help Sarah’s father buy the supplies to open the store, after his right hand, mangled in a mishap at the axe factory, had been amputated. A third niece will find among the quilts patches from shirts that she will remember she once ironed during her summer visits in the thirties. By some obscure association these will bring back the sound of Sarah’s snores as the young girl lay beside her in the double bed, resisting sleep for fear of being smothered if the fat aunt should roll over. She will remember too how the bed shook the night that Sarah, having dared to conceal a farting bladder under the cushion of Grandfather’s dining room chair, did not dare to laugh until she came to bed three hours later.

For decades Sarah has been telling them that she has prepaid all her funeral expenses, even the flowers, and that she will never draw up a will, because she wants to sit up there in heaven and watch them fight over her money. As they reminisce on the day of her funeral, they will marvel at the generous will she did make; whom did she trust to take it up to the bank and set it on top of the silver dollars in the safe deposit box? And they will agree that the aunt who once took pride in being the fattest woman in the county would find some amusement in requiring an enormous coffin and in the ridiculous imitation of green grass covering her open grave on a day when every eye will be dazzled by the sunlight on eight inches of fresh snow.

No new stone will be needed. Her grave is beside her mother’s and father’s, and that of the brother who died in infancy 80 years ago. When the family is once again dispersed, the letters and photographs apportioned among the nieces, the house and the store will be sold. The swollen cans of applesauce, which Patrick Connolly was almost allowed to buy one day until the providential visit of one of the nieces intervened, will at last be discarded. Sarah never did carry out her promise to open one, taste the contents, and rule on their condition. The cartons of puffed rice in the storeroom, undermined by mice so neatly that one could not perceive the loss until one picked up a new box to replenish a shelf in the store, will also be thrown out, along with the wormy and stale candy and the spoiled baby food. The senile lawyer whom Sarah named as executor because she had taught him English in the sixth grade in 1920 may actually file the will for probate. But the most sympathetic and inquisitive of the nieces will never know by what ill-considered or deliberately malicious remark an official at the local polls in the presidential election of 1924 offended Sarah so deeply that she never voted again.


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