Rich and Clyde turned off the Lincolnton-Stanley highway and felt their way along; it had been a number of years since they had been to Cousin Irene’s house. They both remembered the time in the past when the family reunion had been held there.
“It was a nice ‘un,” said Clyde, remembering back to the reunion. The Carpenters had a family reunion every summer for a long time until so many relatives had died off or moved away that it became impractical. Clyde, the elder of the two, had half seriously suggested maybe meeting over at a local cafeteria but the response was unenthusiastic, so the reunion just died a natural death. Shortly after that ending Clyde had approached Rich, the younger brother, with the idea of visiting some of their older cousins. Rich was all for it, and that was how the two of them found themselves in the little community of Iron Station.
As they proceeded down the dirt road things started to look familiar and soon they spotted the old farmhouse. Cousin Irene was in her mid-nineties but was blessed with a quick mind; she had a confident air about her and spoke in a rapid fashion. Both Rich and Clyde had always liked her and when Clyde had approached her about the visit she had invited them to lunch. Cousin Irene’s daddy had been very entrepreneurial; he had managed to work an owner financing deal in the midst of the depression for 800 acres, which he immediately began cutting the timber off and had paid off the note in three years.
“You ‘member when we had the reunion here and Uncle Russell jumped up on that bulldozer and pushed over that big poplar tree?” Rich asked his older brother.
“Sure do,” said Clyde. “That was the same bulldozer that he cleared the land with after he cut off all the timber and I think he dug out that pond with it also.” Rich recalled how when he was about eight years old their daddy had brought him fishing there and Uncle Russell’s wife, Bertie, had fixed them meat loaf for lunch. Both Uncle Russell and Aunt Bertie were long gone, Uncle Russell having hastened his departure with thousands of filterless Lucky Strike cigarettes and a serious mixup of cans. He had been burning brush and the fire wasn’t catching right and he had picked up a can of gasoline which he thought had been kerosene to throw on the fire; the ensuing explosion had caused a very serious burn on one of his legs.
Clyde brought up the explosion; “ya know, you’d think people would color code them cans, but I guess they didn’t think ‘bout it,” he said.
“That was the same thing that happened to Uncle Roy,” he said, and Rich nodded in agreement.
“Story I heard from Momma was that their younguns were bad sick with measles or mumps or ‘sumpin and Uncle Roy and Aunt Lucille had been up all night and were awful tired and the fire was about to go out in the pot-bellied stove and Uncle Roy had thrown what he thought was kerosene in the stove and it blew up,” Rich said. “Course he was in the hospital burnt bad but was doin’ well until he caught pneumonia, and that took him away from here.”
“Bein’ 12 years older than you I remember when it happened; it was horrible, them having three little boys and all,” Clyde said. “I remember Momma talkin’ ‘bout how Aunt Lucille carried a pocketbook that had been smoked up in the fire around for ages after that and how you could still smell that burned smell.”
“Yep, people oughta color code them cans,” said Rich, as they pulled in the driveway of Cousin Irene’s.
It was just after the second world war and Dave Hoffman had just cranked up his old car; he was going to make the journey up to Lincolnton, pronounced locally as “Lankern”, to help out his son Kelly. Kelly had never been the sharpest youngun’ but he had changed for the worse since he had returned from the war.
“Seems like his mind has slowed down or sumpin,” Dave thought to himself as he set off on his journey. Kelly had not been wounded but would become awful nervous when an airplane would fly low over the house; he had been known to run out of the house screaming and hide in the woods until the noise was gone. It was a curious situation, but one which Dave did not delve into.
“For whatever reason, at least they had given him a pension, albeit a small one,” Dave thought out loud to himself as he traveled the dirt road toward Highway 321. Of course the pension helped out, what with Kelly not being able to work; additionally, Kelly had recently gotten married, and his new wife, Essie, worked in a cotton mill as a spinner. That job helped out quite a bit, but they still could not afford a car; that was why Dave found himself going to Lincolnton to take them grocery shopping. Additionally, Dave always pitched in some money; he was not “well-heeled” but he could spare some and it was his baby boy. When Dave arrived at the little house where Kelly and Essie lived he got out and walked up on the little porch. His son and daughter in law were sitting there but another man was with them.
“Mr. Dave, this here is Arnold; he works second shift over at the Mariposa mill where I work. Dave shook hands with Arnold, a not bad looking fella.
“We are rentin’ a room out to Arnold, to help us get by,” Essie said. Kelly had gotten up and walked over to where Essie and his daddy were; he was sporting a sheepish grin as he said “in these times we can use all the money we can get.” Dave assured his son that he was aware of that and after they sat a while Dave and Essie and Kelly got in the car and drove up to the A @ P grocery store. Kelly pushed the cart around as Essie looked at her list and crossed things off as she found them. When they got to the checkout counter Dave slipped Essie twenty dollars. As Dave and Kelly were going out the door Essie called out “I forgot one thing, but I can pay for it myself.” While Dave and Kelly loaded the groceries into Dave’s old car Essie asked the cashier a quick question and went down an aisle, returning with a small package which she stuffed into her purse.
“Well, I be,” Cousin Irene caroled as she opened the door. “So glad you all could come.” Rich and Clyde wiped their feet on the mat and came into the house. Both of them could smell something good as they got inside.
“What is that wonderful aroma?” Rich asked, sniffing the air.
“Made some meatloaf; you always took on so over mama’s,” Cousin Irene said. “Come on in and set down.” She pushed her walker in front of her and went into the living room; she was recovering from a hip replacement. The guys took a seat while Cousin Irene maneuvered over to her easy chair.
“I got green beans and mashed taters and biscuits in addition to the meatloaf,” she volunteered, “and blackberry cobbler for dessert. If you boys are willin’ to do some crankin’ we can have some homemade ice cream to top it off,” she added. Rich and Clyde nodded their assent enthusiastically and then they fell into conversation with their first cousin.
“Ya know, I was talkin’ to cousin Ann Thornburgh the other day and she was asking about whether or not there were any of Kelly and Essie’s people left; then I membered that they didn’t have any younguns and Essie had been an only child. When I was talkin’ to Ann the other day she brought up something that I remembered from a long time ago and I was wondering if either of you might remember it.” Both men shook their heads and she continued.
“Well, I don’t mean to speak ill of the dead, but I reckon it ain’t such a terrible sin since Granny even talked about it,” Cousin Irene said. “Y’all remember that they took in a guy that worked with Essie, rented him a room. Said it helped them through hard times, what with Kelly drawing that little pension and not being able to work,” she added. The brothers were listening attentively but had no idea where the story was going.
“I remember overhearing momma and daddy talkin’ about how there were rumors that maybe that renter and Aunt Essie were carrying on,” Cousin Irene disclosed.
“Seems like I do remember something ‘bout that; seems like Granny mentioned it in front of us one time,” Clyde said. Granny had lived with Clyde and Rich’s family, their daddy, Russ being the baby of the family. Cousin Irene was nodding her head; “when I was talking to Ann I brought that idea up and turns out she had heard the same rumor. Now mind you, it ain’t like everybody in the world was talkin’ about it, but apparently it was out there,” Cousin Irene said, and got up to go check on the food. Clyde and Rich were reflecting on the conversation that had transpired until Clyde broke the silence.
“Didn’t Kelly die kinda young?” he said, looking at his brother.
“Probly something to do with the war,” Rich suggested, and they both got up to go into the dining room in response to Cousin Irene’s call that “lunch is ready.”
It was noon, two hours before second shift time. Essie always cooked lunch for everybody; today it would be just for her and Kelly, Arnold having been called into work for some kind of emergency around eleven.
“See ya at the mill,” he had called to Essie as he winked at her and stuffed two butter and sugar biscuits into a paper sack. Essie had a special surprise for Kelly today; she was going to bake cupcakes, his favorite dessert. She didn’t even worry about anything else to eat; she ate very little and she knew that Kelly would make a meal out of hot cupcakes and butter. Essie bustled about the kitchen while Kelly was whittling on the front porch; those were her husband’s two faavorite pastimes, whittling and eating. Essie was going over things in her head; yes, she had sent off the life insurance premium two weeks ago, so everything should be alright there. As she mixed the cupcake batter she stopped to dissolve two tablets in a little water and then mix them in with the batter. She loaded up the cupcake pan and soon the smell wafting from the kitchen had Kelly sniffing at her side. Essie pulled the cupcake pan out and turned it upside down on some wax paper, having remembered to grease the pan. They popped right out and Essie put three on a plate, sliced them down the middle, and put a large pat of butter inside. Kelly was grinning like an urchin at his seat at the table when she placed the plate in front of him. Essie watched as he devoured the cupcakes, then fixed three more for him. He took care of these just as quickly, along with a cold glass of buttermilk. Essie smiled as she watched her husband eat; she put the remaining tablets of Rotenone in the sink and ran water over them until they were dissolved and gone. According to her research it would all be over by the time she got home from work. After Kelly went back to whittling she took the two remaining cupcakes out into the back yard and crumbled them up over near the outbuilding where she had seen a couple of rats the week before. “Come and get your supper, babies,” she cooed, waved goodbye to Kelly on the front porch and went to work.
The three first cousins were back sitting in the living room after their sumptuous meal.
“That was mighty good, Cousin Irene,” Clyde said, Rich nodding in agreement. “Tasted like your momma’s cookin’.”
“Ya know we were talkin’ out Uncle Kelly and all,” said Rich, “Irene, you got any idee what killed him?”
“Well, I do know there some rumors, but nothin’ came of it,” Cousin Irene said.
“What you mean?” Rich asked.
“The story I heard was that the police became involved; turns out that they have to come out and check on things when a person dies alone. It’s called an unattended death, and they just check to see if anything odd is goin’ on. Story goes that they did exactly that very thing, “cause when Essie and Arnold got home from work they had found him lying on the front porch dead,” Cousin Irene said.
“So I guess that the police didn’t find anything out of order?” Clyde asked.
Cousin Irene just shook her head; “No, but I do know that Essie and that Arnold feller were married inside a month, and I reckon that there musta been some life insurance involved ‘cause within a year they moved into a nice brick house out on the highway. I know the government pays a little on the death of a veteran but nothing like what it would take to buy that brick house. I guess maybe Cousin Ann may be right after all.”
“Whatcha mean?” said Clyde.
“She thinks there mighta been something curious about it,” and the three of them nodded in agreement.