Fixin’ to Settle Down
by Paul Hunter of Seattle, WA
an excerpt from Mr. Brick and the Boys
Wouldn’t you know it, right in the middle of all that fixing and building on my new place, somehow tryin’ to make a go of it, make a ranch, out of the blue I met someone, and all the puzzle pieces that hadn’t made sense started to drop into place with not much more than a love-tap. I think that’s how you tell if you’re on the right track, when all at once the hard things start gettin’ easy, and the easy things just kinda sort themselves out. You can get awful tired of protecting and defending yourself, tired of treating folks around you like the strangers they’d rather not be, while you shut yourself off, thinking your own silly thoughts. When you feel yourself open like a plant to the sun after a long hard winter, it’s worth takin’ a look around to see what shined on you, that maybe shook you awake.
And there she was, Muncie Hays, the pretty brandnew meter-reader come around for the Rural Electric. She made the outfit look good, in a green and gold vest and a green hard hat with a gold lightning bolt down the front, with dark curly hair to her shoulders. She looked all set to jot down the meter numbers on her clipboard, but said she didn’t know where the meter was, so knocked on my front door to ask. Rebel had barked, jumped up and went for the door, but quit barkin’ right away since she was already talkin’ to him, and he musta liked what she said. I had been makin’ myself a little lunch, but went and told her I thought it was inside the barn door to the right, but might be on the outside come to think of it, so I better come along if she’d wait a second and make sure. I said To tell the truth I’ve never looked at the thing, and might have to wipe away the dust so you can do your job. I turned off the burner under my grilled cheese sandwich, set the skillet aside, then showed her the way out the kitchen door and up the hill to the barn. Rebel tagged right along. I brought along a rag and sure enough needed to spit and scrub to get through the grime to where the little wheels in a row were creeping around. The meter was outside the barn, on the shady side this time of day. She said she had a flashlight in her car, but I’d said Don’t bother, I got a flashlight sitting right next to the fusebox inside, and went and got it.
While she was working over her clipboard, I saw the name tag on her vest and said Do you mind me askin’ what kind of a name is Muncie? She held up a finger without looking up, wrote down the last number, then said, Sorry, I can’t do but one thing at a time. I need to keep the messups to a minimum if I want to keep this job. Always a good thought, I said. She looked me in the eye, smiled and said What was that you were wondering? I said Your name, and pointed. Oh, she said, that’s where my mother’s from, upstate Indiana. Where I was born. Nice enough little place with some industry and farming, used to be a real busy place when the railroads first came through, though since then it’s died down some.
What do they do there?
Used to be they made all manner of glass jars and bottles, and castiron auto parts. That’s where the Ball Brothers built their glassworks, after natural gas was discovered. Gave money to set up Ball State University there. My mother says when she was a girl they had a whole row of foundries blazing round the clock.
What does Muncie mean?
It’s an Indian word, the name of the town first settled by the Delaware people in the 1790s. They’d been moved west by the Army, out of New Jersey and Delaware, then got moved again in the 1820s. The white settlers who bought the land from them liked the name of Muncietown but after a while shortened it to just Muncie. My mom liked it anyhow, said it just meant a belonger, one of the tribe.
I said I like it too. Then said So Muncie, would you care to take a little lunch with me? To which she nodded and grinned, lifted her hard hat and shook out her hair for the first time in that way she always had, that caught the sun.
So we went back to the kitchen. I made her a grilled cheese sandwich to go with mine, and opened some cans of tomato soup to warm in a pan. We talked about a little of everything, slow and easy. After lunch I showed her around some more. She liked my cow dog, Rebel, and she liked the only horse I had then, which was Hazel, who was the best. I know now the only reason I ever got anywhere near Muncie was because she got Hazel. That mare was kind to me, and always behaved, but she really listened to Muncie. Hell, she adored her. Pretty much quit following me, took to following her around instead. That’s how it is with a good horse, they get attached, and you can’t hardly blame ’em. Somebody really watches and listens to you, gives you their heart, what else you gonna do but return the favor?
Turned out Muncie’s name on the birth certificate was really Marybeth, but her parents had moved west to Colorado to follow her dad’s job with the Ball Company when she was three, and they just started calling her Muncie as kind of a reminder, since they missed all the friends they had back there. When I asked if they ever went back, she looked me in the eye and said You know the answer to that one. I said Yeah, I s’pose I do. Still, she never quit smiling.
That afternoon felt like a good start. She went on back to work, still smiling, and I went back to what I’d been doing, which was fencing in a garden patch near enough to the well that I could run a hose and pump water. I’d lost my first garden to the deer the year before. I’d let Rebel out the kitchen door to run ’em off in the night, but that was a silly game. Now I was set to get serious. An eight-foot fence should about do it. Once that was up I could line out some rows and start pokin’ seed in the ground.
The next day was a Saturday, and I’ll be damned if Muncie wasn’t knocking on my door right when I’m set to pour coffee. From his patch of sunlight Rebel gave a couple little huffs, but didn’t bother barkin’. I realized later he probably already knew the score. She said she’d come to lend a hand plantin’ the garden. I grinned, said Sounds like a plan, come on in, then asked if she was feelin’ peckish. I fried up some bacon and made a couple stacks of pancakes. When we’d finished that I snatched up the calendar for a minute, then we went out and hung the tall gate to close in the fence, then got to layin’ out where all the vegetables went, with a few lath sticks and a ball of string. I told her the calendar said it was a waxing moon, so we’d plant all the crops that grew above-ground like tomatoes and peppers and berries, beans and peas, corn and squash, then wait a week or so for the waning moon to put in the root crops–radishes, potatoes, carrots, beets and peanuts and the like.
And that’s how it went. Without much fanfare we waltzed right through the summer, soon got thicker ‘n thieves, then got married in September, and drove to New Orleans for a honeymoon, since neither of us had ever been there. We walked the cobbled streets of the French Quarter, ate some fancy foods, danced to cajun music and dixieland jazz and slept late. We both loved how old and lived-in yet alive it all felt.
Muncie kept her Rural Electric job for ten years, and seemed to get the neighbors involved in practically everything we did around the place. It was only when they were set to promote her to a desk job overseeing all the meter readers in the county that she balked, since she’d enjoyed going around and seeing all the country folks, how they lived and what they did. So she took early retirement.
In our life together there seemed to be only one hitch. We couldn’t seem to have kids. Which wasn’t for lack of trying. But we had a doctor check us both out, and she said we had some fertility issues. Turned out each of us had a little something wrong. But we stopped her right there, asked if it was fixable, and she said likely not. So we left it at that.
And didn’t mope. Fact of the matter is, the years flew by. Along in there Rebel slowed to a crawl, stood in the pasture barking orders at the cows, and finally quit helping me herd ’em altogether. Then one hot day while watching me replace some rotten planks in a box stall in the barn, he dozed off and just never woke up. Which is maybe how it’s s’posed to be. Everyday life in all its glory mostly consumed us a little at a time, but left us plenty to laugh at, and meanwhile didn’t treat us wrong. Until one day Muncie complained of a little tiredness, trouble catching her breath, and we went in for a checkup. The word that came back was a leaky heart valve. But out in the hallway where she couldn’t hear, her regular doctor told me the specialists had said her heart was junk. Count on country folks not to sugarcoat a road apple.
I thought maybe the doctors just hadn’t listened so close to her heart because they thought they could see it on the outside plain as day, in what she said and did. But they seemed stricken, stood stiff and felt guilty as I did not noticing. The surgeon told me later they’d thought she had a fair chance, but really should have put her on the list for a heart transplant, and meanwhile just let her lie quiet, since her old ticker was barely holding on. But the list for new hearts was way too long anyhow. They scheduled a surgery, that turned out was already too late. She died on the table, with them working over her.
And that was it. For a while then the lights went outa me, and the air and the rest. I just didn’t sleep, lay there staring at the ceiling, couldn’t seem to get it straight that she was gone. Spent those nights in the old bed reachin’ out my arm across that cold empty place, fingering the far edge. I tried to sleep but could still smell her in the bed with me. After a week or so I scared myself, drifted off and opened my eyes one morning looking around for her smell, and realized I could only smell my own tired, sweaty self. So I stripped the sheets and pillow cases from the bed, washed a load, then hung it out on the line behind the house. When the sheets had billowed dry in the afternoon breeze, I folded and put them away. Then I got out my old Army sleeping bag, and laid it on the bed, and slept soundly for the first night since she’d died.
I slept like that, like a monk in his cell, for a month or two, till I got tired of how bad I was stuck. It was time to move along, and quit kidding myself that Muncie might walk in again any minute. The horses seemed to be looking for her too, wondering what was the matter, watching and listening. Even the calves would stand and stare. So that morning I put the sleeping bag in the wash and saddled a good young horse for a long ride in the open to think things out. I brought a canteen and saddlebag of snacks for the horse, apples and carrots, and figured we’d make do with that.
Then late in the day, weaving in and out of deep shadows in a stand of big sage brush on some federal range land a ways south I remembered how the sarge on those “lurp” patrols in the highlands would tell us, you gotta look out for each other, but you also gotta know what’s going on around you, and always look out for yourself. Otherwise you’re just killing time, expecting the one with your name on it, maybe secretly beggin’ to get it over with.
Which was me to a T. Good thing on the ride home we had apples and carrots to share, ’cause all at once I felt hungry. From then on I was at least awake because at least I slept, and tried to think what to do next. I didn’t drink myself silly, or much go out in public, or break down an’ wreck things. I just stayed home on the place and did my work, just as I had for those eighteen years, like she might think twice about death and double back. Maybe catch me nappin’. But it was a forlorn hope, and at least now I could start to say that. For a while livin’ without Muncie had felt like tryin’ to talk while chewin’ a mouthful a mush, makin’ the purest kinda nonsense. Seemed like it took forever to poke myself awake and see how a body can’t get by on roughage, without a bite a life, with a little splash of juice to spice things up.