Miss Brompton Falls 1938
From behind a curtain of stitched-together potato sacks that blocked off the inventory section in the rear of Pendleton’s General Store, Gertie peered out at the facing rows of chairs on the showroom floor. The rowboat, pot-bellied stove and claw-footed bathtub had all been shoved to the side to make room for the chairs borrowed from the Methodist Mission.
There they were, the hayseeds and Johnny workadays, lumbering in out of the late morning sun to take their seats. The women in their flowery hats fanning themselves, arranging their pasty legs, sharing gossip and lemon drops and sticks of black jack gum. The men with their cowlicks and decks of cards in their front pockets and sweat stains under their suspenders. Each clutching a raffle stub they’d received when they’d paid their 10 cents admission.
Gertie, wife of the proprietor, sighed to herself as she listened to their talk.
“Say, how are you, Lenny?”
“Your son Teddy working on that asphalt crew?”
“With Jennings? Nah. He’s helping Franks build the new dairy.”
“That’s fine. Why not come over Sunday? Millie’ll do her welsh rarebit. We’ll listen to Tommy Dorsey on the new Philco.”
“Kee-rist,” Gertie muttered. She withdrew her head and closed the curtain.
She couldn’t help but think of something Jacks Martin had said in a roadside breakfast joint along the highway years before. His fingers had run up and down her spine as they’d sat side by side in a booth watching the locals. “Wake me when something living comes in,” he’d said, his coffee-heated breath igniting the blood in her ear.
“Whazzat, Gertie? Whadja say?” This was Jacinda Billings, whose face looked pudgier and moister than usual due to an over application of blush. Jacinda was one of two other contestants who were waiting back in inventory with Gertie, all three in their Sunday church dresses, though it was Friday.
“Nothing,” Gertie said. “I think Slats is getting ready to start the show.”
“Who’s that?” said Jacie, sticking her nose out. “Oh, it’s just Abe Handleman.”
Abe, the town’s last surviving Civil War veteran and sole judge of the 1938 Miss Brompton Falls Pageant, was being led, an agonizing inch at a time, by his granddaughter toward his seat of honor in the front row.
“Hey Jacie, maybe Flo Ziegfeld will come in later,” said the third woman, Stella Freemont, who was gathering up sheet music. Gertie liked Stella for her sharp tongue, for not always saying the expected things about dress catalogues and sales on cantaloupe, things that made you die a little inside each time you heard them. “Maybe on account he’s looking for sunflower seeds and wood screws. But maybe he’ll like your song, Jacie, and take you to Broadway.”
Jacinda’s nose crinkled. “I was just asking.”
“Get back, Jacie,” Gertie said. “They ain’t supposed to see us yet.”
Gertie knew what she was really anxious for, that the man from the Brompton Falls Gazette would come to take their pictures so Jacie could buy extra copies to send to her people in Duluth.
As far as Gertie was concerned, a picture was a bad idea. Not bad enough to think seriously about what was hidden in the drawer beneath Henry’s cash register. But if the guy with the camera did show, Gertie would have to take a powder, maybe play sick from the heat and slip out the back. That would be embarrassing for Henry, which she wouldn’t want, the poor sap, but she’d have no choice.
Gertie had made a stink already when Henry had asked her to pose along with the other two wives in front of Orville Billing’s feed emporium with their arms around a mule that had a blanket over its back with the words “Brompton Falls Beauty Pageant 1938” printed on it. Gertie refused, saying the mule just made it too ridiculous, and Christ knew that was true enough. Henry grumbled, shuffling his feet, saying he’d make up the flyer without the photo but it wouldn’t nearly be as eye-catching or as funny for the folks.
“Folks like a mule,” he’d said.
No photos. Not ever. Except for her wedding photo with Henry taken at the town hall, which was in a frame on the mantle in their rooms above the store.
Slats, Stella’s husband and head pharmacist at the Rexall, got the crowd going with a Minnesota joke about a guy named Sven catching a fish. Rubbing his hands together in his green plaid suit and spectacles, he reminded Gertie of a myopic grasshopper. But at least Slats knew how to tell a joke. Sometimes Henry would try to piece one together when he and Gertie were lying in bed at night, something he’d heard a customer tell that day, and all she could think was: “I wonder what that sounded like before he murdered it.”
Slats welcomed the audience and explained that the three contestants were the cream of Brompton Falls society and pearls of maidenly beauty and deportment.
“You think he’s talking about us?” said Gertie, peeking out again.
“If he is, it’s slander, and I’ll be the first to sue,” said Stella. “Even if I’m married to him.”
“Ah, I like those words,” protested Jacie.
As they listened to Slats’ cornball routine, Gertie didn’t have to wonder what Jacks Martin would say, not just about the pageant, but about her life now among the dry goods, brooms, hoes, washtubs and Epsom salts, alongside two women who, like Gertie now, hadn’t missed a daily bath or a meal in years
It would be what he’d always said about the well-meaning chumps in Chicago or New York, or St. Louis or Frisco or wherever, who faithfully went to jobs every day as pastry chefs, bank tellers, department store clerks, truck drivers, postal workers. Honest lives lived paycheck to paycheck. “Honey, that might be life, but it sure ain’t living.”
It had been the three husbands, Henry with the general store, Slats with the Rexall, and Jacie’s husband Orville with his feed store, who had dreamed up the pageant. But it wasn’t really about showing off their wives. What with the Depression going strong after nine years, and with some folks gone fishing or to the mountains for the summer, the sidewalks were hot as hell and also empty. The 1938 Miss Brompton Falls Pageant was meant to get the locals out shopping during summer doldrums.
Where was Henry, anyway? Gertie spotted him then by the bolts of fabric. Orville, who’d been selling admissions out front, came inside with his bag of dimes and a hat filled with ticket stubs. He stood beside Henry.
Henry, with his sad kindly face, knew nothing, nothing real. Not once in the two years had he fired that revolver hidden under the register.
Jacks once said: “A man who owns a gun and never uses it is like a man who never balls.” Which either way wasn’t Jacks.
Of necessity, Gertie was against anything that put your face out for the public to see. But the store’s first quarter hadn’t been good, and summer sales looked even worse. Henry had kept wheedling her. They couldn’t do it without her, it would look strange if the other wives did it and not her. And she was fond of him, after all, and wanted his stupid store to survive, whatever good it would do. Anyway, he promised only the local folks would come anyway.
She couldn’t help notice, though, that some of the audience were fanning themselves with what looked like programs or flyers. With some kind of pictures on them. Had Henry made something up after all, on the sly and handed it around town without telling her?
As for beauty part that was, even Gertie had to say, all wet. Jacinda was a heifer. Stella had one fish-eye that was always looking up at the ceiling whenever the other one was looking right at you. And as for Gertie … she was wiry, but plain. Even poor dead Jacks had said it.
He had leaned in after that first sweet, sweaty coupling: “You got a face like a hatchet but you ball like an oil rig on fire.” Fire was right. The way she felt in that moment was like shedding the ice that entombed a stupid, failing, falling world. Feeling sun after being told your whole life it didn’t hardly exist.
She remembered first catching Jacks’ eye at the Chicago fairgrounds. A tall guy in a not half-bad suit with flinty gray eyes, eating from a bag of peanuts, watching her act. Soon, Jacks was smiling mysteriously at her over burgers at the grease pit, telling her he was a traveling man.
“But no salesman.”
After that, she left fairgrounds behind forever.
“I hear the footlights calling us, ladies,” said Stella. “Just promise me you won’t hate me for winning,”
“Can it, Stell, will you, huh?” said Jacie, who was holding a ukulele to her ear, quietly plucking to test the notes.
Gertie grimaced. “Stick the knife in and get it over.”
“Knife,” said Stella. “Easy for you to say.”
Lila Welch, wife of the pastor, Joshua Welch, was playing a waltz on the store piano while Slats did his spiel. That was Henry’s idea to ask Lila to play, and Gertie had to admit it showed smarts. First, Henry had had to convince Joshua there were no bathing suits involved. Just some displays of talent suitable for all ages. Having Lila there took any remaining curse off of anybody thinking there was anything improper, which you always had to think of, what with the Catholic League, the Protestant Wives Club and even the Rotary club sticking their oar in when they thought anything didn’t smell pleasant.
First prize for the raffle was a crystal punch bowl, second prize a year’s subscription to Look Magazine. Third was a year’s supply of headache powder from Rexall.
Slats introduced Jacie. She stepped forth from the curtains, arms flung out to show her uke, accepting their applause. She accompanied herself as she sang a ballad about sailors being sucked into a maelstrom. Orville looked proud in a sickly kind of way.
Abe Handleman dozed in the front row, despite his granddaughter nudging him.
Jacinda’s song drew healthy applause, mostly ‘cause of the uke, Gertie thought. Next, Slats introduced Stella, who recited “Charge of the Light Brigade” to stabbing piano chords from Lila. It didn’t go down as smooth as Jacie’s song, but good old Slats got the rubes to whoop it up afterward anyway.
Gertie was next.
She wanted no part of it. The pageant was for the birds. But Henry … Henry wanted it. As she peeked out, she found his eyes seeking out and finding hers, and his gleamed with an expectant pleasure and pride and a light that was something else. Love, maybe? Yes, that had to be it. But Gertie didn’t know or feel that light, only the fire that once was, with one person.
But that was gone. Henry was a tolerable boob who never cheated or knocked Gertie around. But mostly he was good cover. Nobody knew, certainly not Henry, that Gertie had a strongbox with seven thousand in hundreds and other bills buried behind the condemned schoolhouse.
How it came to be hers and hers alone, she blamed on that lousy cold. That was back in April ’36. She and Jacks had been laying low in that 3rd floor rooming house in Memphis. She’d been in bed most of the time or running hot water in the tub to make steam to help her breathe. Jacks had gone out to get her that soup she liked from the Chinese place on Broom. Nervous somehow, leaning on a flower box, Gertie had watched the street. The strongbox, stuffed with spoils from three different banks over the previous year, was under the bed.
Some guy in a suspiciously sharp suit had been taking the sun against a building across the way. But then he crossed toward the rooming house, out of Gertie’s sight. She’d guessed he was checking for names inside the door, not that there were any. He’d strolled away again, glancing up over his shoulder toward Gertie’s window as she ducked out of view.
There was a back way, she could have taken it then. But she hoped when Jacks returned she’d be able to give him the sign. She stayed lurking by the window.
It all happened too fast, though. Jacks appearing from around the corner with the little paper bag dangling from his left hand. A voice saying: “Hey Jacks! Jacks Martin?” Jacks’ right hand gliding toward his jacket. Gertie knew the sharp suit guy must have been waiting, just out of her view, and had drawn as he was saying the name.
Two shots fired, not by Jacks, and at least one caught him in the throat and he was down, one dark cloud spreading on the pavement from his neck, a smaller fainter one from the spilled soup in the bag.
She’d stumbled through the back alley, dragging the strongbox, the part of her brain that wasn’t completely numbed by sickness and shock telling her body what to do: Find a car. Drive far. Don’t stop.
She had thought what to do as she drove. She and Jacks had read in the paper that the bills from one of the banks, the one in Nashville, had been marked. She didn’t know which bills were which at this point. So Gertie left all the money in the strongbox, drove to Minnesota because why not, to bury it on the outskirts of a bit of nothing called Brompton Falls. She promised to herself to let the money lie for three years before trying to pass off the bills. She’d come into the store that day to buy a shovel, meeting Henry, him looking her up and down, asking if she was staying in town. Things happened from there. That was two years ago. (She’d had to make up a new name on the spot, and “Gertie” came to her from some girl’s book from her youth.)
She didn’t like singing or poems, so for her talent she did the act that first drew Jacks’ eye at the Chicago fairground in ’29. That was right before the Crash, when the world crumbled, and Jacks told her it was God’s way of showing you what people were made of, which ones would make their own way and which would lay down and die.
It was a knife juggling act. She’d worked out with Lila to play that Wagner thing about the flying banshees or whatever. Gertie had got rusty, more ways than one, living with Henry. So she had to practice plenty with the six blades. It went perfect, though, except for just one moment, when that tall mug in the city suit came in the door, eying her something intense, and one knife almost landed in her wrist, but didn’t. The guy looked familiar too. Spooked her.
She ended with a kind of bow with one knee bent. Both hands were spread like Japanese fans, each bearing three knives points up between her fingers. Slats didn’t have to work the crowd to get a response. After that, the three women had to stand together while Slats sang “A Pretty Girl is Like a Melody” with Lila’s backing, a smile like a steel trap on Gertie’s face. Then Abe Handleman seemed to come to life. After some muttered negotiating with his granddaughter, he stood and croaked in a dust-choked voice: “Miss Brompton Falls of 1938, Gertie Pendleton!”
As Slats fitted the paper crown on her head, her eyes fell to the floor where one of the flyers had been discarded. It was for the pageant sure enough. Henry had pasted together photos of the three women, including Gertie’s face from their wedding picture, veil and all. Henry must have slipped it out the frame at some point and had the boys at the Gazette reshoot it to paste into the flyer.
How many of those had he spread around town, the dumb fuck?
She lifted her gaze now and locked eyes with the guy in the city threads. The dream of Brompton Falls was over. A dull stupid dream it had been, but a dream anyhow.
The guy was Jep Hanover, the marshal from Memphis who’d shot Jacks on the street. Looking at Gertie he grinned like he’d found the matched silver cufflink he’d been missing for years. Who knew how the flyer had come to Hanover’s attention? Maybe some mook who’d seen a wanted poster in St. Paul or Duluth had phoned in a tip.
The dream didn’t quite seem to know it was over. There was Henry, kissing her on the cheek as everyone applauded, saying “You won, angel. You pick the raffle ticket now.”
Orville was grinning, holding the hat full of tickets out to her, and the rubes were clutching at their stubs, eyes gleaming greedily.
Gertie squeezed Henry’s hand, holding it a little longer than necessary. “Sure thing, Sweets,” she said.
“Elsie Sprague? Of Chicago?” said Hanover, speaking slowly and clearly in a commanding voice, but drawing blanks stares since no one knew the name. Jacks had been the last person to call her by it, the name she’d been born with.
Gertie did not answer, walking past Slats and Orville with the outstretched hat to the cash register. She lifted the keys from the ring, used the one with the green ribbon to open the drawer containing the revolver. She slid the weapon out and raised it to her eyeline, walking rapidly toward Hanover, who grabbed for his own weapon. This time too slow.
Gertie unloaded the revolver in Hanover’s face. Lila screamed as blood splattered the piano and the music sheets and a table holding lemon squares and a bowl of lime punch.
Hanover, his face a bloody mass, fell with a crash. Chairs scraped and there was more screaming. Gertie saw Stella clamp a hand to her mouth to mask a hiccupping barrage of hysterical laugher. Jacie stumbled and fell on her hands and knees, whimpering Gertie’s name in a heartbroken way.
Gertie gave one final glance over her shoulder to see Henry’s face, melted in shock and bewilderment and knew, whether she had a second or a year, he could never be made to understand.
She let the paper crown fall away as she walked out the door, holding onto the still warm gun. No one moved to stop her
She got to the store’s delivery truck, threw away the sign from the roof. The engine churned to life. Good thing Henry was good about checking spark plugs and cleaning the engine. You never knew.
She floored it. The strongbox would wait for another day.
She heard a siren but did not panic. Where to, though? The question was like a blast of fresh air to someone who’d been hiding in an airless cellar. But she knew the answer would have to be to hide again. Another small town somewhere. Another mild living death, maybe, for a few years. But it had to be better than the alternative. Even if Jacks’ voice in her head did not agree.
“Happy Days Are Here Again” sang the guy on the radio.
She laughed, a dark strange sound. Gertie was gone now, like Elsie. The siren sounded faded a little. She breathed a little easier, dropped from 95 miles per hour to 80. Just needed to reached the turnoff at Highway 22, find a place maybe in Spencer’s Grove to switch cars. She began tugging at the ring on her finger to loosen it.
Looking ahead, it was a great wide empty world, and that was the absolute best and worst thing about it.