The Fire Within
by Harry Buschman
There are few towns smaller than Mapleton, New York, and when something happens to a person in a small town it doesn’t go unnoticed. Everybody knows about it.
Our town is not only small in numbers but the numbers are far apart. In winter a month or more can pass before neighbors meet face to face, so we keep in touch by phone. It can be difficult getting to church, so we are not conscience stricken when we use winter as an excuse for not going. In the dead of winter the snow lies so deep even the plows give up and you can’t let the livestock out for fear of losing them.
When December comes, Louise Lassiter’s General Store is about the only place you’ll find a live person to talk to, and you can be pretty sure that person will be sitting around the fire in the wood stove that sits in the middle of her cluttered store. Circling the stove there are four high-backed chairs with crocheted cushions that Louise’s mother made many years ago; the chairs are usually occupied, but if you wait long enough somebody is bound to move along and a new face around the fire is always welcome. While waiting for a seat, the new face will shake down the stove, take out the ashes and bring in an armload of wood – then, and only then, will he feel free to sit, put his feet up and pass the time of day. Yes, I said “he”, it’s almost always a man and a man can’t just walk in and sit down.
Louise doesn’t offer invitations or take part in the men’s conversation, but she doesn't object to them being there and that’s a side of her character the men of Mapleton admire. It’s as though she doesn’t care if we’re here or not. She does of course, because when winter passes the torch to spring in Mapleton the fire wood mysteriously disappears from the wood box out back and the four high-backed chairs are put out on the front porch.
But while the fire burns within there are four of us you might come to recognize in time. We are, what you might call, regulars. We’re a scruffy bunch to be sure, unshaven, elderly for the most part, and each of us knows, (or thinks he does) just about all there is to know about the world in general and the town of Mapleton in particular. There is Landers, whose memory takes us back repeatedly to the days when the road that splits the town in two was dirt – dusty in summer, snow covered in winter and ankle deep in mud in the spring. Sherlock, (who is able to put the flimsiest pieces of evidence together and find an answer convincing enough to satisfy us) is our voice of reason. There is Moe; so far as we know, the only black man in Mapleton. He has been here so long he is whiter than we are. In his youth he played double “A” ball for Binghamton, and although he now walks with a cane he talks about his playing days as if they were yesterday. Lastly, there is me, whose only contribution to the mix is the minor gift of putting words to the story that follows.
There have been times when we felt guilty for not lending a hand to help Louise when stock arrived at the truck dock out back. We might even have felt a momentary pang of conscience while we watched her grunt and sweat and wrestle bags of feed and kegs of nails to their proper place on the sales floor. We often marveled at her strength and industry, always ready and willing to shift our feet and make room for her as she struggled by. She was at her best in those moments; face slightly flushed and distraction in her steel gray eyes. When she finished she would grunt with satisfaction, wipe her nose on the back of her hand, and then, if no women were in the store, she would walk to the front door, open it wide and hawk up a honker.
The store originally belonged to Louise’s father, and she inherited her industrious attitude and imposing physique from him. To watch her manhandle a barrel of molasses or a bag of feed was a revelation. She could hold her own with any man in town. She was, on the face of it, as much a man as a woman – maybe more so. Her forehead might have been more finely chiseled, perhaps her brows more expressive – and of course there was the absence of a beard. But there were men in town with longer hair and a bit more of a sauce to their walk than Louise. We, who by the grace of her hospitality, sat about her wood stove in the Mapleton General Store, watched her with respect and were convinced there wasn’t a man in town worthy of her.
We were somewhat in awe of her as well. None of us knew exactly what to make of Louise. She was nothing at all like the townswomen of Mapleton. Strange, we treated her as a man, (as a matter of fact we called her Lou) but we thought of her as a woman.
We didn’t realize it, but Louise thought of herself as a woman too - no question about that now. She would have been one far sooner, however, if her mother hadn’t died and left her bull of a father to care for her. When she was little he would sit in the kitchen across the table from her and say, “You gotta help me in the store tomorra y’know – y’ain’t gonna no school picnic. The fertilizers’ comin’ in tomorra, y’gotta clear a place in back, y’hear?” There was always the store, “the store!” It was her father’s grand passion – stronger than his love for her or her mother. Louise grew up as an unpaid and overworked employee of the Mapleton General Store – there was no time for friends and the cherished secrets that all young girls share with their friends. She lived and worked in the company of rough men in an atmosphere of earthy language and boorish behavior.
She wore mud stained work shoes and no socks, a lumberman’s shirt and blue jeans – no woman in town would be caught dead in clothes a man might wear. Ankle length skirts, buckle shoes with sturdy one inch heels, a string purse and a poke bonnet were the items of clothing considered proper street wear for a Christian woman in Mapleton. On the other hand no woman in town had to work as hard as Louise.
Furthermore, the townswomen had no alternative to the Mapleton General Store for the things they needed – from stove lid lifters to knitting yarn. It was the only store in town. Much as they tsk-tsked their disproval of Louise Lassiter I tend to think they harbored a secret hankering for the equality she earned in the company of men.
While she was busy in the back stacking bags of fertilizer or chicken feed, the boys around the pot-bellied stove would deplore the lack of eligible males in Mapleton and how inept even the best of them would be as a suitor for Louise’s hand. It would take a mighty man, we felt – a mountain man to claim her. We knew there was no one in town who could fill the bill, and with sly pokes and clumsy innuendoes we discussed the romantic details of what such a man might expect when he extinguished her bedside lamp. Then, because none of us could remember those particulars in our own married lives, we would hastily change the subject to something we knew more about.
Love’s a mystery, and only the good Lord can turn the magnetism on or off at will. A long hard look at every married couple in Mapleton convinces me there is no rhyme or reason for the attraction that draws a man to a woman – and vice versa.
Perhaps He had a hand in the Full Measure Manure Company’s decision to assign Freddie Flowers the delivery route that served Mapleton. In our eyes Freddie was the last person we would have chosen as a mate for Louise, but we were not blessed with God’s far-sightedness. The route to a woman’s heart is circuitous, I believe, and unlike the detours in a road under repair, it is not marked clearly. But Freddie seemed to know the route instinctively, and without a moment’s hesitation he made the right decision at every turning.
This little man, whose sparse and sandy hair always seemed to be in his eyes, whose apologetic smile was always on the brink of breaking out was just what Louise always wanted. Who would think a man from the manure company would have the manners and charm of a courtier? He called her ‘ma’am’ the first day, ‘miss’ the second, ‘Louise’ the third, and before the month was out he called her ‘love.’
He wouldn’t let her touch the manure bags. “Oh no!” he would hasten to say, “not with hands like yours. You have a lady’s hands – let me.” Then, with that sly apologetic smile he would say, “Manure is my bread and butter, ma’am ... in a manner of speaking.” He stacked them carefully, making sure the name “Full Measure Manure” faced front. Later on he would pass the time of day with the four of us as we sat on the front porch and watched his every move, then before he would leave, he would sit inside with Louise and together they would chat in voices so low that none of us could hear. Once he brought his guitar and sang her sad songs of love and yearning.
Freddie was not the man we pictured as a worthy life’s companion for Louise and it is difficult for us to admit how wrong we were. Like most men we based our estimate on our own limited experience. Life is such a snarled web of raveling that it was impossible for us to stand at one end of life’s string and see past the tangle. Freddie could – he was one of those gifted people, who when handed a hopelessly snarled fishing line, can have it back on the reel before you can say, “Bob’s your uncle.”
Louise now wore dresses – plain and simple dresses, to be sure, not cut indecently low or short, but smart enough to cling to her where it did the most good. She wore shoes with heels – plain black shoes, but with heels high enough to show the curve of her instep and reveal the firmness of the muscle in the calf of her leg. She wore a ribbon in her hair, and in the proper light one could detect a blush of rouge in her cheek. There was always the scent of lavender when she was near.
I must reluctantly admit how wrong we were. The combined weight of our years, instead of bringing us wisdom, paralyzed our thinking and made fools of us. The four of us now feel as though we have somehow blundered our way into the 21st century, and like immigrants just off the boat, not knowing the customs of the people, are trying to understand the language. Landers, the man of memory, cannot recall a similar event in the town of Mapleton – ever. Sherlock, the man of wisdom, can see no rhyme or reason to it. I just write it all down, hoping that somebody, somewhere will make sense of it, and Moe says it’s like a curve when you’re expecting a fast ball.