FICTION

Christmas Grouch

ELLIS PARKER BUTLER December 15 1934
FICTION

Christmas Grouch

ELLIS PARKER BUTLER December 15 1934

Christmas Grouch

ELLIS PARKER BUTLER

OLD SAM TRAPP came in from the bam to get the ball of twine that should have been in the kitchen table drawer but was not. It was the middle of the afternoon and his wife had gone to town in the car, and lordy only knew where she had put the twine. As he hunted here and there for it he got madder and madder, muttering under his breath at first and then talking right out loud.

“Confounded wimmen!” he ejaculated. “Never leave things where a man puts them; never around when they’d ought to be. She might have knowed enough to leave things where I put them. Where in tarnation did she hide that twine, I want to know?”

He looked on the pantry shelves, but the twine was not there. It wasn’t anywhere, as far as he could see.

“Be dumbed if I can see how wimmen find places to hide things in,” he complained. “Always pokin’ things away where a man can’t find hide nor hair of them. If a man run his farm that way he’d have a pretty howdy-do.”

He did not think of the hoes he had left in fence comers, lost for a whole season, or of files he had laid down somewhere, never to be found again. He was in no mood to think of them. The calendar on the kitchen wall said this was the twenty-third of December, and his wife was just as liable as not to get all keened up in town seeing the Christmas displays, and go and buy some dumb-fool present for him, something he did not need and did not want— money thrown away foolishly.

"Be a dumed sight better if she went and left things where I put them,” he said, lifting the lid of a brown jar and putting his hand in it. His fingers went into something soft and mushy, and he growled and wiped them on his overalls.

“Beats all how some folks get all het up about Christmas,” he said to himself. “Ain’t no sense to it, grown folks actin’ like a lot of kids,” for it was only three years before that his wife had gone Christmas silly and bought him a patent rocking chair that he had no more use for than five legs on a cow. Certainly he had used it. He used it every evening and on Sundays and whenever he had time to sit down and read the weekly paper or the farm journals, because there was no use letting it go to waste and it was the most comfortable chair in the house. But he had told her then that enough was plenty.

“I don’t want no more of this Christmas foolishness,” he had said. “I don’t take no stock in it. We’ve gone past the time when we’ve got to act like a couple of young ones. I don t give you nothing and I don’t w^ant you should give me nothing.”

Just as you say, Sam,” his w'ife had answered meekly enough. “Seemed as if you might be tired of settin’ on a hard chair, and Loftus was offerin’ this one at a bargain.” Well, don’t you bargain me no more Christmas bargains, he had told her. “I can buy me what I want when I want it. I don’t give and I don’t want to be give to.”

The more he hunted for the ball of twine the madder he became, and he was poking into this and that in the kitchen, muttering to himself, when the telephone bell jangled.

Aw, shut up!” he threw at it, because he detested the

telephone. Not once a week did he have occasion to use it himself, and he would have long since yanked it from the wall if it had not been for his wife. She liked the telephone. It was a party line, fourteen or fifteen farmers on it, and for the women it was as good as a local newspaper. Everyone listened in, up and down the valley, when the bell rang, and everyone knew that everyone listened in. That was expected. All the bells on the line rang whenever anyone put in a call. It was an invitation to hear what someone was saying.

Old Sam Trapp, busy hunting the twine and boiling with irritation, turned and glared at the instrument. The call, he thought, had been three rings and then four, which was the Trapp call, but he had not been paying close attention. He was going to let the blamed thing ring, but it occurred to him that it might be his wife calling him and he could ask her where in tunket she had put that twine, and he went to the telephone.

“Yah? Who is it? What you want?” he shouted roughly.

TT WAS NOT his wife. It was not her

voice at all, and he did not need to be told whose voice it was. It was a voice he recognized instantly and that anyone on the line and anyone in the valley would have recognized. It was the voice of Mrs. Joe Springer—Mrs. Allura Springer. It was a pleasant voice, cheerful and optimistic, and the voice of one always in a good nature, always ready to laugh on the slightest provocation.

Mrs. Allura Springer was not only the best natured wroman in the valley but the friendliest and the biggest. She was so big that she refused to know how much she did weigh.

"My goodness,” she would say, “I don’t know how much I come to any more. I stopped getting on scales when I went to two hundred and twenty-five, and all I say now is that I’m plus.”

Then she would laugh, shaking all over. For all her weight she was the best looking woman in the valley—fresh faced as a child, not a wrinkle on her face—and she was one of the most active, always doing things, getting up picnics in the summer and parties in the winter, promoting spelling bees and singing meetings.

“My goodness,” she would say, “we don’t have to be dead in the shell if we do live out of town.”

“This is Allura Springer,” she said now. “I’m calling up the folks in our valley on account of it being the Christmas season and that’s a time when everybody ought to be happy if any time.”

"Ain’t interested,” said Sam Trapp.

“Oh, yes!” said Allura Springer. “Yes, you are. I just know you are. Everyone is. It’s about those poor Finneys;

we’re going to give them a Christmas. I took it upon myself to telephone up and down the valley—”

“I ain’t got no use for them Finneys,” said Sam Trapp. “Lazy, shiftless, no’count loafer, that’s what I think Ed Finney is.”

"Well, yes,” said Allura Springer in her pleasant voice. “I dare say Ed Finney don’t work as much as some, but that don’t change the fact that Mrs. Finney works as hard as any and is a good patient w'oman, doing the best she can with what she has to do with.”

“If that man of hers was worth his salt she’d have more to do with,” said Sam Trapp. “ ’Tain’t no fault of mine.”

"No, it ain’t,” agreed Allura. “It’s just the way it is, and it ain’t the fault of those six little children of theirs, either. But there it is—there they are—and it won’t hurt this valley a mite to give those children and that woman a real good Christmas for once.” Continued on page SO

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Christmas Grouch

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“I got nothin’ to do it with,” said Sam Trapp flatly. “And don’t want to have,” he added.

“Now, please,” pleaded Allura. “It ain’t going to tax you to speak of; everybody in the valley that I’ve spoke to so far is going to give something. Mrs. McKinnon is giving a turkey, and Silas Couch is giving a ham, and Will Evers and his wife say they'll give a couple of bushels of potatoes. Joe and I are giving some groceries—sugar and like that—and Eph Tallant says he’ll give a sack of flour.”

“Bunch of fools,” said Sam Trapp. “The more you give that lazy Finney the less work he’ll do.”

“But for Christmas—”

“ ’Tain’t no different from any other time. All it comes to is taking from them that has worked for it and handing it to them that is too lazy to get for themselves. One time of year is the same as any other if a man wants to be that kind of a fool.”

“But—”

“I don’t take no stock in it.”

“But—”

“What I’ve got I worked for, and there’s nothin’ to stop Ed Finney or any other loafer from workin’ for his. I won’t have no hand in pamperin’ no Finneys.”

“Well, would you mind if I asked your wife to give something?”

“Yes, I would. I won’t have her give a thing. All blamed nonsense and foolishness.” “Now I’m real disappointed,” said Allura. “I wanted everybody in the valley to have a hand in it. Haven’t you got a side of bacon?”

“Yes, I have. And I’m goin’ to keep it.” “Well, wouldn’t you give a chicken? Just a chicken, so’s I can say everybody in the valley contributed, community like?”

“I won’t give a thing.”

“A dozen eggs? Or a half dozen?”

“I won’t give a thing, I tell you.”

“Well, have you got any old clothes? Anything you don’t want?”

“If I have I’ll keep ’em.”

“Oh, I’m so disappointed!” mourned Allura.

“That ain’t none of my business,” said Sam Trapp, and he hung up. “Fool of a woman,” he muttered; “always got to be fussin’ about something or other. Never did learn to mind her own business.” He fiddled around, trying to find the twine. “Makin’ Christmas presents to them Finneys!” he scoffed. “Lot o’ blamed foolishness. Where in tunket is that twine, I’d like to know?”

T-JE GAVE IT UP and went out to the bam where his hired man was waiting with awl and needle to repair a horse collar that was spilling its inwards.

“Find it?” he asked.

"No, by hecky, I didn’t find it!” said Sam Trapp. “A man can’t find nothin’ once a ! woman lays her hand on it. Might as well ; throw it on the dump and be done with it. Make a man waste half his time huntin’ what ain’t where it had ought to be. Well, what you loafin’ there fore? I told you I couldn’t find that twine. Why don’t you hang up that collar and get to work at somethin’?”

Old Sam did not know what to tell him to do. One of the things that distressed him was that he had to keep a hired hand all winter; there was too much work for one man alone, but not enough to keep two men busy every minute.

“Sack up some of them oats,” he said. ‘”iou low to take them to town tomorrow?” the hired man asked with surprise. “Don’t believe the mill will take any oats, just the day before Christmas. They don’t mostly.”

"I ain’t asked you no questions. I said to sack up some of them oats,” old Sam said.

“ ’Tain’t none o’ your business am I goin’ to towrn tomorrow' or ain’t I. And don’t let me hear no more Christmas out of you; pack of nonsense, wastin’ a day when folks might

as well be to work. I don’t have no Christmas around here.”

The hired man shrugged his shoulders and w'ent to find the grain sacks, piled away in a tin-lined box against the depredations of the rats. Old Sam’s grouch did not bother him any; Christmas meant no more to him than it did to Sam, unless maybe he went dowm to the church after supper to see the kids get their presents off the tree from the hands of a Santa Claus. And maybe he wouldn't go; it wasn’t any great shakes of fun, just something to pass the time and maybe chin a w'hile with a girl, if any.

Old Sam was helping with the oats, fixing the sacks on the sack-holder and tying them when the hired man had filled them from the bin, when Sam’s wife drove up alongside the house in the car.

“You go right ahead,” he said to the hired man, “I’ll get me that twine or find out why.”

TJTIS WIFE w'as out of the car and loading her arms with bundles by the time Sam reached her. Her cheeks had more than their usual color, probably from the cold air of the drive from towm. The parcels, as far as Sam could see were only the groceries she had gone for. There was no chair this time, anyway.

“I was a little longer than I thought to be,” his wife said.

“Thought you was never cornin’ back,” Sam said ungraciously. “I been huntin’ high and low for that ball o’ twine I lent to you. Where in tunket did you put it, I’d like to know?”

“Why, in the kitchen table drawer, Sam,” said Sarah Trapp. “Did you look in the kitchen table drawer?”

“ ’Tain’t there. ’Tain’t nowheres,” declared Sam Trapp. “You might have knowed I’d want it, and left it where you said you’d put it. I been wastin’ the best part of the day huntin’ for it.”

He took the remaining parcels, except a sack of flour which he left for another trip, and followed Sarah into the kitchen. She dumped her bundles on the table and without taking off her hat or gloves pulled open the kitchen table drawer. She pulled it as far open as it would come and pulled forward the parts of a meat chopper and some of the other paraphernalia that accumulate in a kitchen drawer, and took out the ball of twine and handed it to Sam.

“This it?” she asked but with no sound of triumph in her voice.

“Huh !” said Sam. “Seems like you might have left it where I could see it, and not go hidin’ it behind everything.”

“It got pushed back, I reckon,” said Sarah cheerfully. “Things do, using that drawer as much as I do. You can fetch in that flour if you want to.”

Sam put the ball of twine in his pocket and went out and got the flour. He stood it on the floor, leaning it against the leg of the table.

“What kept you so long?” he asked. “Have any trouble with the car? Seems as if a woman can’t drive a car without gettin’ it into some kind of trouble.”

“The car went fine,” said Mrs. Trapp, taking off her coat. “I stopped in to see Allura Springer on my way by and stayed quite a bit. I declare there ain’t no one like Allura; she’s up to more things than anybody I ever did know'. She’s a good woman, Sam. She’s gettin’ up a Christmas surprise now for them poor Finneys that live in that shack by the creek.”

“You didn’t say you’d give anything, did you?” Sam asked hastily.

“Why, no,” said Sarah. “No, I didn’t.

I said I’d like to consult with you first, Sam. I thought you’d like me to.”

“Humph!” said Trapp. “Seems as if. Yes.”

“She’s got quite a lot of stuff promised her

already,” Sarah said, looking in the firebox

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of the stove and reaching for the coal pail. "The folks in the valley are being real generous, from what she says. Most everybody is giving one thing or another. It ought to make a real happy Christmas for them halfstarved Finney children and their poor ma.”

CAM SAID nothing but his face showed ^ what he thought. Sarah, however, did not look at his face. She spilled some coal into the stove and replaced the stove lid and the pail.

“Allura says Mrs. McKinnon is giving a turkey,” Sarah went on saying. “I think that’s real nice of her when she might as easy have given a chicken and satisfied Allura. And Silas Couch says he’ll give a ham, though between you and me I never thought Silas knowed how to cure a ham like it ought to be cured. Nor his bacon either.”

“If Silas Couch—” Sam began. Silas was said to be behind with his taxes, and Sam was going to say that if Silas Couch paid his taxes he might have some right to give away hams, but Sarah was not through talking.

“But there are some folks,” she said, “that I do think oughtn’t to be allowed to live in a decent civilized place like this valley. And who I mean is that cantankerous old Peter Stang.”

“What’s wrong with him?” asked Sam Trapp.

“Well, you would think, wouldn’t you,” said Sarah Trapp, “that a man might at least give a nice woman like Allura Springer a decent answer when she asks a question, and not snap her head off? When she goes to all the trouble of working up a Christmas surprise for poor folks?”

“The trouble with Allura Springer—”

“I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t been right there,” said Sarah, “and heard the nice way Allura talked to him. She rung him up and she says ‘This is Allura Springer; I’m calling up the folks in our valley—’ ”

She went on and repeated all Allura had said to Sam Trapp, and what Sam Trapp had said to Allura, as well as Allura had been able to remember it—about how he had no use for the Finneys, and that if Finney was worth his salt they would have plenty to do with, and that he wouldn’t donate a thing, not even a dozen eggs or a half dozen eggs— not even any old clothes.

As Sarah talked on, mighty indignant, Sam Trapp began to be sure he knew what had happened. With Sarah sitting right beside her, Allura had thought she was calling Peter Stang, but she had rung the wrong number of rings—three and four instead of four and three, probably—and she had thought Sam Trapp was Peter Stang. And she had turned to Sarah and reported to her what had been said.

“Which is none of my business,” said Sarah in a tone that indicated that she would like to make it some of her business. "A man gives or he don’t give, and that’s his affair, but I thank goodness I ain’t a browbeat and cowed woman like Peter Stang’s wife. ‘Would you mind if I asked your wife to give something?’ Allura asked Pete Stang. ‘Yes, I would mind; I won’t

have her give a thing,’ he says, and she won’t dare to, either. I call it a sin.”

“Well, now—” said Sam Trapp, quite mildly for him.

“A sin and a shame,” said Sarah, “and her working just as hard as he does, keeping things going. ‘Thank goodness,’ I says to Allura, ‘my husband ain’t that way. He’s reasonable; he’ll talk things over with me. He don’t,’ I says, ‘treat me like I was a slave that didn’t dare open my lips to say a word. He’s no Peter Stang. And, furthermore,’ I says, ‘Sam Trapp may be rough on the outside, but when it comes to it he’s got a heart in him.’ ”

SAM TRAPP said nothing. His hand was in his pocket and he turned the ball of twine around and around, looking at Sarah a little doubtfully.

“Allura says to me,” continued Sarah, “ ‘What are you and Mr. Trapp going to give for the Finneys?’ but I put her off. ‘You can count on something,’ I says to her. ‘In hard times like these it ain’t right anybody should be without a Christmas, and me and Sam will do our share, I dare say, but I hold that a wife ought to consult with her husband before she gives away of his substance.’ ”

She was filling the kettle now, and she set it on the stove and turned to Sam.

“What are we going to give, Sam?” she asked, and he coughed and scratched his beard and looked at her and looked away again.

“By hecky,” he said suddenly, “I ain’t no Peter Stang. I’ll show folks I don’t browbeat no wife of mine. What you think we ought to give?”

“We’ve got more than enough bacon to see us through,” suggested Sarah. “We could give a side of it.”

“Give two sides,” said Sam recklessly. “Give what you’ve a mind to.”

“Not unless you want I should, Sam,” said Sarah.

“Ain’t I said so?” he demanded. “Great tunket, can’t a man give a Christmas gift same as other folks?”

With that he went out and ran the car into the bam. There he tossed the ball of twine to the hired man, but the seat of the car seemed uneven and he lifted it and found a bundle under it. He felt it carefully. He couldn’t make out whether it was underwear or socks with other things, but he knew what it was otherwise—it was a Christmas present Sarah had bought for him.

“Dum me if I don’t!” he said to himself. “She’s been needin’ a new bathrobe a year or two; I’ll get her one when I haul them oats in tomorrow. Christmas ! Browbeat a wife! Huh!”

In the kitchen Sarah went to the telephone. She rang two and then one.

“Allura?” she queried, hardly louder than a whisper. “It’s all right. Me and Sam will give two sides of bacon anyway—maybe something else, too. He’s right glad to. He was just sort of out of temper when you called him up. He was looking for some twine and couldn’t find it, and it riled him.” She hung up, a smile lurking at the corners of her mouth, and went to the pantry for the jar she kept her coffee in.