The Maid's Version

A Novel

By Daniel Woodrell

Little, Brown and Company

Copyright © 2013 Daniel Woodrell
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-316-20585-6


She frightened me at every dawn the summer I stayed with her. She'd sit on theedge of her bed, long hair down, down to the floor and shaking as she brushedand brushed, shadows ebbing from the room and early light flowing in throughboth windows. Her hair was as long as her story and she couldn't walk when herhair was not woven into dense braids and pinned around and atop her head.Otherwise her hair dragged the floor like the train of a medieval gown and shehad to gather it into a sheaf and coil it about her forearm several times towalk the floor without stepping on herself. She'd been born a farm girl, thenserved as a maid for half a century, so she couldn't sleep past dawn to win abet, and all the mornings I knew with her she'd sit in the first light and brushthat witchy-long hair, brush it in sections, over and over, stroking hair thathad scarcely been touched by scissors for decades, hair she would not part withdespite the extravagance of time it required at each dawn. The hair was mostlywhite smeared by gray, the hues of a newspaper that lay in the rain untilheadlines blended across the page.

She spooked me awake daily that whole summer of my twelfth year, me awaking tosee her with the dawn at her back, springs squeaking faintly, while a bone-handled brush slid along a length of hair that belonged in a fairy tale of somesort, and maybe not the happy kind. Her name was Alma and she did not care to becalled Grandma or Mamaw, and might loose a slap if addressed as Granny. She waslonely, old and proud, and I'd been sent from my river town near St. Louis by mydad as a gesture of reconciliation. She was glad I'd been sent and concernedthat I have a good time, a memorable summer, but she was not naturally given tomuch frolic; the last hours of play she'd known had been before World War I,some game now vanished from childhood that involved a rolling wooden hoop and ashort stick. She tried taking me for long walks about the town of West Table,going to People's Park so she could watch me splash in the pool, let me pullweeds in the garden and throw a baseball against the toolshed door. It was thesummer of 1965, but she still did not have a television, only a radio thatseemed always to be announcing livestock prices and yield estimates. There was atwang stretching every word Alma said, but for days and days she didn't saymuch. Then came a late afternoon when I was dramatically dispirited, moody andbored, foot idly kicking at things I'd been told not to kick, a sweltering daythat turned dark as a sinister storm settled overhead, and we sat together onher small porch in a strong wind to watch those vivid actions break across thesky. Storm clouds were scored by bright lightning, and thunder boomed. Her dresswas flapping, her eyes narrowed and distant, and she cunningly chose that ragingmoment to begin telling me her personal account of the Arbor Dance Hallexplosion of 1929, how forty-two dancers from this small corner of the MissouriOzarks had perished in an instant, waltzing couples murdered midstep, blowntoward the clouds in a pink mist chased by towering flames, and why it happened.This was more like it—an excitement of fire, so many fallen, so manysuspects, so few facts, a great crime or colossal accident, an ongoing mysteryshe thought she'd solved. I knew this was a story my dad did not want me to hearfrom her lips, as it was a main source of their feud, so I was tickled and keento hear more, more, and then more. Dozens were left maimed, broken in theirparts, scorched until skin melted from bones. The screams from the rubble andflames never faded from the ears of those who heard them, the cries of burningneighbors, friends, lovers, and kinfolk like my great-aunt Ruby. So many youngdead or ruined from a town of only four thousand raised a shocked, grievoushowling for justice. Suspicions were given voice, threats shouted, mobsgathered, but there was no obvious target for all the summoned fury. Suspectsand possible explanations for the blast were so numerous and diverse, unlinkedby convincing evidence, that the public investigation spun feebly in a wide,sputtering circle, then was quietly closed. No one was ever officially chargednor punished, and the twenty-eight unidentified dead were buried togetherbeneath a monumental angel that stood ten feet tall and slowly turned blackduring year after year of cold and hot and slapping rain.

Alma yet lived in a small room with a small kitchen in the back portion of herlast employer's house, and it was tight living. Her bed and the couch I slept onwere five feet apart. Her sleep was chatty; she had one-way chats with peopleshe'd once known or her sleep invented. She sometimes mumbled names I'd heardaround the dinner table. She often wept without sound at night until tearsshined her neck, and made dull daytime company for a boy unless she was addingwrinkles to her story. When in the telling mood she'd sit on the porch for hoursstaring toward the dry white creek bed out back while drinking tea to keep hervoice slickened, leaving each used tea bag in the cup when adding a fresh oneand more water, soaking every penny's worth of tea into her cup until she sippedbitter trickles between four or five derelict bags. She would at times leave thepublic horror and give me her quiet account of the sad and criminal love affairthat took her sister Ruby away from us all, left us with only pain, many darkmysteries, and a woman's hat with a long feather in the band.

Alma had been allowed to stay in school to the completion of third grade, thenwas sent to work some years in her daddy's fields before finding her way to townand becoming a laundress, a cook, an all-purpose maid. She lost two sons alongthe way, her husband, her sister, and earned but little, always one dropped dishand a loud reprimand from complete and utter poverty. She lived scared andangry, a life full of permanent grievances, sharp animosities and cold memoriesfor all who'd ever crossed us, any of us, ever. Alma DeGeer Dunahew, with herpinched, hostile nature, her dark obsessions and primal need for revenge, wasthe big red heart of our family, the true heart, the one we keep secret and thatsustains us.

It was years before I learned to love her.

Our long walks that summer did if nothing else prepare me to accept an earlybedtime, for they were tiring and detailed. At any corner or alleyway, empty lotor spruced old house, she was liable to stop and leave me in her mind,revisiting yet again insults she couldn't forgive. "That place there was home toMrs. Prater, who cheated me of near eleven dollars when your uncle Sidney was a-dyin' in bed with no medicine for the pain. He moaned constant as the wind andcouldn't catch his breath. Not even fourteen years old. She had her a fewdaughters, and one has married here and stayed—her children are namedCozzens. Couple of boys. Your big brother could whup either of them pukes thisminute without even needin' to put his sandwich down. Years to come you'llthrash 'em, too, if you should be so blessed as to come across one somewherebehind a building, or in the trees, and hear that name."

Or she'd drift in thought while staring at an empty spread of dirt and grassbetween two homes, and say, "Used to be a house here had a porch that went allthe way around, with strangler vines growing up the sides, had those windowslike eyes up top. Mr. Lee Haas lived there. He run the last dry goods near thesquare that would give us anything on tick. But his wife squawked over me bein'crazy and full of slander, the fool, and he cut me dead when most needed. Thatyear was 1933, I think." She waved a big old withering hand at the lot where thehouse had been, spit toward the grass but fell short, so she stepped fully intothe lot and spit again. "But you can forget them—God done for them, anddone 'em up good, too, during the war."

On these rambles the cemetery was nearly always our final destination. We'd makeour way through the wilderness of headstones, gray, brown, puritan white,glancing at some, nodding at some, Alma turning her nose up at others, until wereached the Black Angel, the sober monument to our family loss and a townbereaved. Standing in the shadow of this angel she would on occasion tell meabout a suspect person or deed, a vague or promising suspicion she'd acquiredwith her own sharp ears or general snooping, and when she shared the fishydetails with me it would be the first time she'd said them aloud to anybody inyears. She'd repeat herself so I'd remember. We'd then walk home, going into thefat shade under the fat trees on East Main, and stop at Jupiter Grocery, whereshe always said, "Your momma's grandpa on her momma's side worked here thirtyyears. He cut a good piece of meat." We'd prowl the aisles and assemble theevening meal, a meal usually made of the cheapest foodstuffs, some of which I'dnever before considered as food and was scared to touch—calves' brains tobe served with scrambled eggs, souse for sandwiches I'd throw behind the shed,pigs' feet and saltines, pork rind and corn pone, chicken livers by the poundthat she rendered into a bizarre gravy that was so surprisingly fine over eggnoodles or white rice that I learned to whine for it as we walked. We'd eattogether in her snug quarters, an early supper, always, elbow to elbow, watchingsquares of sunlight lose their shape along the walls, and return to the unendingtopic while forks clicked on her best plates, "What'd you learn today, Alek, andwhat use will you make of it?"

And Alma did that summer make certain that I knew this spot and that thesepictures would be planted in my head, grow epic, never leave: The Arbor DanceHall stood across the street from a row of small houses and one still stands. Ahouse with nothing to recommend it but its age, shown up meanly in sunlight andmade to look ancient in shadow. The yard between the house and the railroadtracks has become a worn patch of dust, the old oaks have withered from theirlong days and begun to founder toward earth, and no new neighbors have beenbuilt. In 1929, on this narrow span of sloping ground between the town squareand the tracks beside Howl Creek, there had been six houses, five now gone, thedance hall, and the long-demolished Alhambra Hotel. At the bottom of the yardnear the railroad ties and shined rails there are burnished little stumps whereelms that likely witnessed everything had been culled in the 1950s after theDutch blight moved into town and caught them all.

The explosion happened within a shout and surely those in the house must haveheard everything on that bright evening, the couples arriving, strolling arm inarm or as foursomes, the excited laughter, the cooed words, the stolen kisses onthe way to the dance, all carrying loudly on that blossom-scented night betweenthe wars, here in the town this was then of lulled hearts and distractedspirits. A Saturday of sunshine, the town square bunched with folks in fortrading from the hills and hollers, hauling spinach, lettuce and rhubarb,chickens, goats and alfalfa honey. Saturday crowds closed the streets around thesquare and it became a huge veranda of massed amblers. Long hellos and noddedgoodbyes. Farmers in bib overalls with dirty seats, sporting dusted andcrestfallen hats, raising pocket hankies already made stiff and angular withsalt dried from sweat during the slow wagon ride to town. In the shops and shadethere are others, wearing creased town clothes, with the immaculate hankies ofgentlefolk folded to peak above breast pockets in a perfect suggestion ofgentility and standing. The citizenry mingled—Howdy, Hello, Good graciousis that you? The hardware store is busy all day and the bench seats outsidebecome heavy with squatting men who spit brown splotches toward the gutter. Boysand girls hefted baskets of produce, munched penny candy, and begged nickels sothey could catch the matinee at the Avenue Theater. Automobiles and trucks parkeast of the square, wagons and mules rest north in the field below the stockyardpens, and after supper folks made their way downhill to the Arbor ... and just asfull darkness fell those happy sounds heard in the surviving house suddenlybecame a nightmare chorus of pleas, cries of terror, screams as the flamesneared crackling and bricks returned tumbling from the heavens and stout beamscrushed those souls knocked to ground. Walls shook and shuddered for a milearound and the boom was heard faintly in the next county south and painfully byeveryone inside the town limits. Citizens came out their doors, stunned, alarmedto stillness, then began to sprint, trot, stagger in flailing and confusedstrides toward this new jumping light that ate into the night.

A near portion of the sky founted an orange brilliance in a risen tower, heatbellowing as flames freshened in the breeze and grew, the tower of orangetilting, tossing about, and the sounds dancers let loose began to reach distantears as anonymous wails and torture those nearby with their clarity ofexpression. There were those who claimed to have heard words of farewell offeredby victims in the air or in the rubble, and some must be true accounts; so manycitizens crawled into the flames to pull at blistered, smoking bodies thatturned out to be people they knew, sisters, uncles, sons or pals. As with anycatastrophe, the witness accounts immediately began to differ, as some sawdancers blown three hundred feet toward the stars and spreading in a spatter ofdirections, while others saw them go no more than a hundred and fifty feet high,give or take, though all agreed that several fortunate souls were saved fromdeath by the force of their throwing, landing beyond reach of the scorching,pelted with falling debris, yes, and damaged, but not roasted skinless,hairless, blackened and twisted on their bones.

The nearest witness to survive and offer prompt testimony was eighty-nine-year-old Chapman Eades, an ex-Confederate, veteran of Pea Ridge and the siege ofVicksburg, who lived in the Alhambra. He did not see well and could not follow aconversation in his own little room without the aid of an ear trumpet. The nextday Mr. Eades said to the West Table Scroll, "I don't know what they wasarguin' about. They was over behind the back wall and I never seen them asnothin' but shapes standin' in shadows. But they was arguin' about somethin'awful lively, then the music struck up again and all hell came callin' soonafter."

Throughout that summer human scraps and remains were discovered in gardens twostreets, three streets, four streets away, kicked up in the creek by kidschasing crawdads, in deep muck at the stockyards halfway up the hill. That fall,when roof gutters were cleaned, so many horrid bits were come across thatgutters became fearsome, hallowed, and homeowners let a few respectful leaksdevelop that winter rather than disturb the dead.


Excerpted from The Maid's Version by Daniel Woodrell. Copyright © 2013 Daniel Woodrell. Excerpted by permission of Little, Brown and Company.
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