‘For $400, this president was assassinated while attending the play, Our American Cousin.’ ‘Lincoln,’ says Muriel, not bothering to look up from her crossword. That was the softball easy question. She knows the other answers already; there are only so many assassinated presidents. You either know them or you don’t. The contestant on the TV, a postal clerk from Lexington, Kentucky, looks like she might. ‘For $600,’ the host asks, ‘this president was assassinated at forty-six, making him the youngest president to die in office.’ ‘Kennedy,’ says Muriel, pencilling Madras into the spaces on the crossword, but writing Madrid in the margin, just in case. She and the postal clerk keep going. ‘For $800, this president, assassinated in 1901, was the last US president to have served in the Union Army during the American Civil War.’ Good clue, thinks Muriel to herself; ‘McKinley,’ she says to the TV. The postal clerk gets the answer. ‘For $1000, this president, assassinated in 1881, was shot just four months into his term as president.’ ‘Garfield,’ they both say, while Muriel writes the word komatik in the crossword. The show goes to commercial and Muriel gets up to make her tea.
‘For $1000, this Roman emperor was both the great-great grandson of Julius Caesar and the star of this 1979 cult film.’
The 1979 Northwest Lutheran Women’s Convention was held in Billings, Montana. Over thirty ladies from Muriel’s church alone, more than any other church in town, enough so that they had their own bus for the drive across the state. She packed the freezer with three days’ meals for her husband Chester; the last of their children had just left home for college. The ladies on the bus told jokes and sang the old songs the whole way from Parkton to Billings. The trip alone was enough for Muriel; she loved the picnic lunch at Glacier National Park, all those rolling hills of wheat and the bison grazing near Great Falls. The convention theme was ‘Women and Family’ and the worship uplifting. Pastor Boffmann, the keynote speaker that year, had the ladies energised by the end of his closing address. All those bake sales and layettes for the poor, and education packs sent with the missionary service to foreign countries, that wasn’t empty; it was humanity. Muriel was proud to be Christian.
The other ladies felt it too. It was all so good and happy and honest, in the old-fashioned sense of the word. Norma Bonquest suggested they go paint the town red after dinner. ‘No husbands and just us gals!’ Norma had said, and Muriel felt as free as a teenager again, walking arm in arm with her best chum to the Saturday matinees or going to an afternoon tea dance with the gang. They met in the lobby, a few ladies from other churches coming along. It was a June evening, Muriel remembered, warm, and crickets chirping outside. Ellen from the church choir was still alive; the cancer had started, but no one, not even her, knew that yet. Muriel and Ellen had always gotten along so well; their kids were the same age and the two families shared Cub Scouts and Brownies, traded skates as kids got bigger, and went to the lake together in the summer. Muriel and Ellen could walk into each other’s kitchen without calling first. It was Ellen who was next to her on the sidewalk that evening, and Muriel can still recall the smell of the flowery perfume Ellen took from her purse in the hotel lobby, spraying just a little on her wrists and rubbing them together so her warmth would hold the smell. When Ellen died the next summer, Muriel tried to find that smell again, going the morning after the funeral to the big department store downtown, and walking slowly around the perfume counters with her mouth tight, aware the salesladies were carefully ignoring her, but Muriel didn’t care one bit.
On that evening in Billings, everything was still perfect. Kay Mayes, up front, told her joke about Saint Peter and the Norwegian pastor from Seattle, and when she messed up the punchline, they all laughed anyway. Ellen slipped her arm in Muriel’s and they walked the rest of the way to the ice cream parlour like that, Ellen and her perfume, Muriel and her happiness.
It was still only seven thirty when everyone had finished their ice cream; some headed back to the hotel to finish packing and get to bed, but Muriel was thankful when Norma Bonquest said the night wasn’t over yet.
Later, when Muriel told the story to her bridge club, she stressed that not one of them had known. ‘We thought it was a historical drama,’ she said. ‘It was such a nice theatre and just across the street. With a title like Caligula, what would you expect?’ The other three women paused, cards held tight. ‘So,’ said Catherine, ‘what was it?’ Muriel leaned forward, carefully, giving the words the seriousness they deserved: ‘A porno.’ ‘No!’ they had all said, shocked, and Catherine, subbing for Betty who was having her cataracts done, said ‘What did you do?’ ‘We sat through it, every last bit!’ Muriel said, still indignant. ‘We had paid for our tickets and the manager refused to give us a refund. What else could we do?’ The other three women, all young brides during the war and each knowing the value of a penny, nodded their heads in agreement.
The winter was a long one and it is still only February. Joe, her son who never married, came home for Christmas, so she had some company for a few days, but her other kids had all moved away years ago, and they had married and had kids in their new cities, and now even those kids, Muriel’s grandchildren, were starting to marry and have their own children. Everyone was so far away. They were good, her kids; everyone took a turn coming to visit Muriel for a week or so every couple of months. She thought they must have a script they shared, each one always saying the same thing; ‘Mom, don’t you think you’d be more comfortable in Riverview? They can look after you there.’ But no, she didn’t think she’d be more comfortable in Riverview. She had her things and her things were in her house and her house was in her yard and her yard was in her neighbourhood and her memories were in all of those places. In Riverview you got a room, and a room wasn’t big enough for a life’s memories. Riverview was for old people ready to die, and while she was old, she wasn’t thinking about dying anytime soon. Better she stayed where she was. The young couple next door got her groceries each week, and now that the man had retired, he kept her walkway shovelled in the winter and the lawn mowed in the summer. Church sent the minivan on Sundays, the driver coming to the door, helping her carefully across the porch, out to the waiting van and familiar faces. No, she was fine, thank you.
She likes the evenings best, when she knows the whole street is settled in at home, houses warm, supper dishes cleared away, and TVs turned on. It is a comfort to know that each house is doing the same thing. Muriel sometimes looks out through the curtains across lawns to her neighbours’ houses, driveways filled with cars and everybody home, porch lights on.
Muriel pulls the TV tray closer to the sofa, gets up and carefully walks to the kitchen, doing the trip in small goals of sofa to television to armchair to kitchen door to counter to oven. She makes herself a cup of tea and takes her time carrying it back to the living room. Jeopardy is about to start again. Tea on the TV tray next to the crossword and pencils, carefully easing back down onto the sofa, reading glasses on, TV volume turned up high. For thirty years Alex Trebek in her living room nightly, asking questions while she finishes the crossword and has a cup of tea.
The postal clerk picks the next question. ‘Triplets for $1000,’ she says, choosing the only unasked question in that column. ‘For $1000, these three bones make up the hip.’ Muriel looks up.
Chester had been a good husband. He hadn’t asked too much of her, didn’t have any radical thoughts, accepted that the house was her domain, and worked a steady job. They’d married just before he shipped out for Europe, had children when he got back, and when they had enough children, he knew to stay on his side of the bed. He didn’t talk about the war and she didn’t ask. Chester died a few years after he retired. They’d been able to travel a little in those last few years, and, all in all, he’d been happy with his life.
Things were different during the war. With the men gone, women went out to work. During the four years Chester was overseas, Muriel worked as a shipfitter in the Tacoma shipyards. She loved it. She loved the noise and clang and excitement, she loved the sense of urgency in the work, she loved feeling that she was part of the big effort to win the war, and she believed that what she did was helping to keep Chester safe somewhere over in Italy. When it came time for the harvest back on Chester’s folks’ farm, she always got special leave to help out Joseph and Agnes for the month. She liked that too. With most of the hired men gone, it was just Chester’s mother and father. Chester’s brother enlisted and was killed in the South Pacific in May of 1943, but that August his widow Louisa still took the bus from Portland to lend a hand.
For three generations the farm had been in Chester’s family, homesteaded by his great-grandparents. It had been tough to keep it going through the war years, but it was tough for everyone, so there was no point in complaining. They were all up with the sun, Agnes cooking for the family and the few hired men too old or too drunk to go to war, everyone out in the fields to bring in the wheat. After supper, the men might spend an hour out in the barn repairing equipment, while in the kitchen, Muriel and Louisa, talking about their lives, put up bottles of preserves and jams from the fruit trees planted long ago outside the kitchen window. Before going to bed, the family sat together in the parlour, Agnes reading the evening prayers. After the final ‘Amen’, it was an effort for Muriel to climb the stairs on sore feet, change into her nightgown and brush her hair before collapsing in the old double bed, Louisa next to her. ‘No need washing two sets of sheets,’ Agnes had said, putting them in together to share.
The days and nights moved one into the next, with no sense of where they were in the week, only that there was wheat and sun, then jam and dark and sleep, that the war kept going outside the farm and some or all of their men weren’t coming back. Late in the night, two or three weeks into the 1943 harvest, the house had settled into still quiet, except for the sound of her father-in-law Joseph snoring in the next room. Muriel had fallen asleep right away, but now lifted hazily awake, thinking someone was calling her. It was Louisa whispering Muriel’s name, Louisa’s hand at the back of Muriel’s shoulder, and then, after a pause, Louisa quietly closer, hesitant in kissing her neck. Muriel woke into alertness, but with a sense of uncertain panic. She didn’t know what to do. Muriel had prepared for her wedding night carefully: she read all of The Rules and Etiquette of a Married Christian Woman’s Life. ‘Between husband and wife there is a special relationship; the duty of a wife is to be patient, understanding that men have certain needs.’ In the dark, Muriel thought Louisa smelled of plums, and Louisa’s mouth was soft on her neck in a way Chester’s had never been. Louisa said Muriel’s name again, and moved even closer, her stomach and breasts against Muriel’s back. ‘A woman has a role as the guardian of the family. Men have physical needs, and women need to be accepting.’ Louisa’s fingertip traced the line of Muriel’s collarbone, shoulder to throat. She whispered in Muriel’s ear ‘This is my favourite part of you.’ They were alone in the dark. Muriel, sick with fear but urgent with something she’d never felt before, took a breath. She rolled over to her sister-in-law.
If the night had been cloudy, things would have ended differently. If the moon had been lower, Muriel would have been lost. That night though, the moon was high, with light enough through the window to see shadow. Muriel lay back against the pillows, nightgown pushed up above her waist. Louisa, naked, her feet dangling off the bottom of the bed, rested her head on Muriel’s thigh, the taste of Muriel still wet on her mouth. Muriel was about to whisper ‘thank you’ when she saw the doorknob turn.
In that split second, Muriel saw everything that would happen. She knew what Chester would have to do, and her parents, and her friends, when they found out. Muriel chose to save herself. She kicked Louisa as hard as she could. Louisa tumbled to the floor as Agnes opened the door to check on the muffled noises she’d heard through the wall. Agnes’s eyes saw Louisa sprawled naked on the floor, then a second later, Muriel, sitting up in bed, frantically pulling the quilt to her chest over her nightgown. ‘It’s her! It’s her!’ sobbed Muriel. Agnes turned back to Louisa, her eyes filled with revulsion, and she slowly said, ‘You whore, you filthy, dirty viper. Pack your bag and get out.’
In the morning, Louisa was gone. Agnes never told Joseph, but she told Muriel to always remember to forget what had happened. It was the Christian thing to do.
Muriel was confused amid all the smells of Nordstrom’s perfume counters that morning after Ellen’s funeral, confused lost. It was all so big and so busy. The different perfumes layered heavily in the air as she walked between the counters, a saleswoman at each, pert with thick make-up. Muriel couldn’t pick out the individual scents; she couldn’t find anything close to Ellen’s flowery smell. Burning, musky perfumes for women with shoulder pads clouded the air, closing in, and making it hard for her to concentrate. The funeral had been awful, Ellen’s husband silent and unmoving in the pew, so the casket procession couldn’t leave the church, and afterwards everyone crowding Muriel to say how sorry they were. Muriel couldn’t go to her usual little perfume shop near the neighbourhood grocers. She needed anonymity; she couldn’t bear the thought of someone being friendly or familiar or kind to her right now. The perfume section at Nordstrom’s was the best idea, but now that she was here, she just couldn’t breathe.
Kennedy’s assassination in November 1963 held Ellen to Muriel’s memory. Christmas was subdued and then New Year’s Eve arrived. Ellen and her husband hosted the party, determined they would all have fun. Thirty couples squeezed tight into the living room and den, some dancing to a Perry Como record, drinks in hand. Anyone walking in the front door would have said the house smelled like a good time: hairspray, Brylcreem, bourbon, and the midnight buffet, nearly ready.
Ellen was in the kitchen at the stove, carefully transferring cocktail meatballs to a polished chafing dish with the exaggerated concentration of a woman who has had too many highballs. Muriel next to her at the counter, had a small tray in one hand, crackers arranged around a seasonal mousse, the recipe from the latest Ladies Home Journal. ‘My feet are killing me and pass me the toothpicks, will you?’ said Ellen, reaching across Muriel and taking them herself. Ellen eased out of her kitten heels for a second, shoeless feet stretching on the kitchen floor. In the dining room, people were talking about the pictures of Jacqueline Kennedy in LIFE Magazine, her brothers-in-law Bobby and Edward at either arm, walking her down Pennsylvania Avenue leading the funeral cortege.
Ellen and Muriel were doing the same, Muriel picking up her drink. ‘Imagine it for the poor children, a father gone like that, and Jackie losing a baby only in August.’ Muriel knew Ellen was still a bit lost herself after a miscarriage in the spring. She had spent most afternoons that April sitting at Muriel’s breakfast table crying. As she spoke, Ellen’s hands stopped arranging toothpicks and cubes of cheese. Muriel turned to her friend; this wasn’t the time for tears. ‘You know what? This girdle feels like I’m trussed up in a python,’ said Muriel, and Ellen laughed.
The midnight countdown started on the other side of the kitchen door. ‘The girdle’s worth it; you look a million bucks in that dress,’ said Ellen, and she stepped gingerly back into her heels with a little unsteady sway, reaching a hand out to Muriel’s hip for balance. ‘Especially here,’ she said. ‘This is my favourite part of you.’ In the other room the midnight cheers started, and impulsively, Ellen, smiling, leaned over, and kissed Muriel’s lips. ‘Happy New Year,’ she said, and Ellen turned to take the cheese tray out to the party, Muriel following a minute later, one woman walking out to kiss her husband, the other to let herself be kissed.
At Nordstrom’s, that morning after the funeral, Muriel couldn’t find Ellen’s smell, and she felt herself getting angrier and angrier.
Leslie Bower had started her new job in Cosmetics that morning, perm glossed into place, silver eye shadow arched high. Leslie had not an ounce of common sense but enthusiasm in buckets. That’s why the manager sent her out on the floor with a handful of perfume samples. She was the one who stepped in front of Muriel. Leslie sprayed her with the latest signature fragrance. It’s difficult to say who was more surprised at what happened. A few minutes later, locked in a cubicle in the ladies room, arms wrapped around her waist, Muriel sobbed in choking gasps, wanting to wail but trying to be quiet. Muriel had slapped the saleslady with the sum of her fury at every bit of unfairness in this life: Ellen buried this morning at Fairmount, and Chester sitting at home reading the newspaper, waiting for Muriel to come home and make his lunch.
‘Ilium, ischium, and pubis,’ says Alex Trebek on the TV, and Muriel, half a century later, can still feel the weight of Ellen’s hand on the curve at the top her hip, the force pushing down.