Mrs. Brennan’s secret
Even as Louie sat in her kitchen for the first time he knew what his police badge compelled him to do—now that they’d found out why her egg crates gurgled
Louie Zimmel never got married. A horse kicked his left knee and smashed it when he was nineteen years old, and the accident cost him his only girl friend. She was ashamed to go dancing with a boy who had a crippled leg, and in two months she was married to a Watkins man who would tap his foot to the song of a meadowlark. Louie, thirty years later, was still single. He sí ill walked w'ith a limp, and he was scared to death of women.
That is why he tried to look busy when Mrs. Cash, the new hotelkeeper's wife, burst into his egg-grading station to make her accusation.
"Do you know what that Mrs. Brennan is up to?” Mrs. Cash demanded. She raised her elbows like a hawk sunning its wings in the early morning.
Louie, the egg-grading man and towm policeman, had known for tw'enty-eighl years what Mrs. Brennan was up to. He crossed his good knee over his bad one and lifted an egg to the candling light. “What’s she up to?” he said.
“Now, now,” said Louie.
“Now, nowd” said Mrs. Cash, her voice rising like the sound of wine being run into a bottle. “I said, she’s bootlegging!”
Louie returned the A-large egg to its container. “Evidence.” he said, picking, up the same egg again. “Mrs. Cash, rumors are rumors,
but evidence is evidence. How can you honestly make such a charge?”
Mrs. Cash ran her long thin hands dow'n over her flat chest and stepped from the doorway of the otlice into the egg-grading room. “Mr. Zimmel. Do you remember when that witch of a woman brought in her eggs?”
Louie nodded. He remembered her footsteps on the wooden sidewalk that morning, as he had remembered for thirty long years the way she said his name, the color of her eyes and their last dance together.
Mrs. Cash closed the insulated wooden door with DO NOT ENTER printed across the front. “She left a crate in your office an hour ago.”
“She does every week,” Louie said.
“I sent my husband over for some eggs, and he took those by mistake.”
"They were for the storekeeper.”
“There was a note in the top that said as much.”
When Louie spoke again his voice was trying to be calm under the woman’s shrill assurance. “Mrs. Brennan doesn't own a hotel. Maybe the eggs were in payment of her debts.”
“That's right,” said Mrs. Cash. Her teeth flashed in the semi-darkness. “And so were the four bottles of chokecherry wine in the bottom
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of the crate. Try to explain that away!”
Louie dropped the egg he was holding. But it was almost as if he had thrown it.
For years he had noticed a gurgling sound in Mrs. Brennan's egg crates. The storekeeper sold a number of ungraded eggs, and insisted on getting those from Mrs. Brennan’s hens. He had never explained why, and Louie had preserved a kind of innocence by never asking. When a man buys his eggs ungraded it implies a gentlemen's agreement—a mutual acceptance of the good with the bad—and as the eggs were never lifted to a candling light, so the lid of the crate was never lifted to show why the eggs gurgled.
“This is a breach of provincial law,” said Mrs. Cash. “It’s a matter for the
Mounties. And if you don’t have them in town by two o’clock. I’ll get them myself.”
“Mrs. Brennan couldn’t pay a fine,” Louie said. “You'll be sending her to jail.”
Mrs. Cash snorted and opened the big door. “She’s breaking the law.”
“And she’s supporting herself,” said Louie, pushing back his chair. “She hasn’t cost the taxpayers a cent since her husband disappeared into the north.”
Mrs. Cash stepped into the tiny office that opened onto the street. “The law is the law, Mr. Zimmel.”
“God dixie, woman!” Louie moved his stiff knee and struggled up from his chair. “Mrs. Brennan is in a tough spot. Try and do her justice.”
“Justice!” said Mrs. Cash. “Don’t you get fifty dollars a month for being the town policeman?”
“Sure”— Louie waved his hands, searching for an explanation —“sure I'm the town policeman. But listen to common sense—”
Mrs. Cash went through the open front door and stepped down onto the wooden sidewalk. “I have the evidence locked up in our cooler.”
“Just think about it,” Louie called. “You got to think about feelings a little. You’re sending a neighbor woman to jail.”
A dog started up from the shade under the sidewalk, but Mrs. Cash, without glancing to either side, marched stithy across the dusty street.
Louie slammed the door and reached for the broom and dustpan to clean up the egg. His cap was hanging on the handle of the broom. He took the cap and tried to straighten the broken brim. After a moment he swore softly, and he Hopped the cap onto his head.
As he stepped out onto the sidewalk, shading his eyes from the sun, Mrs. Cash pretended not to have been watching and disappeared into the square, two-story hotel that was the town’s only brick building.
Louie slapped his pockets, looking for his ring of keys. All he could find was his badge.
WHEN the chokecherries were ripe along the Battle River, Mrs. Brennan would drive down, to her secret places in an old buggy, and she would pick two milk pails and a cream can full of chokecherries. Then she would get sugar and yeast from the storekeeper, on credit, and she would make wine. When the dandelions were in bloom, she would walk along the railroad track and pick the yellow blossoms until she had filled a gunny sack. For hours there would be a copper boiler and a galvanized washtub sitting on her stove, and she would be out splitting wood on a hot day. Or when the rhubarb was ready along the north fence of her garden, she would go out and fill apple box after apple box with fresh, juicy, mouth-twisting rhubarb. And one evening as the sun went down behind the town’s five grain elevators, she would lift a. brass funnel from bottle to bottle, and she would pour a long stream of wine from an old granite water dipper, into the funnel.
Mrs. Brennan was always busy.
But now, today, as Louie approached the big unpainted house where she lived alone, everything seemed suddenly deserted. The house and chicken coop were set behind a poplar grove on a corner of town land that was virgin prairie, and Louie came upon them unexpectedly. Where the founders of the town had dreamed that skyscrapers would grow, an old horse was drowsing in the sun. Chickens bathed and slept in the dust beneath the caragana hedge, and everything was so still that Louie felt he was driving into an, ambush.
When he braked his jalopy to a stop in front of the porch, there was still no sign of Mrs. Brennan.
Quickly he turned off the ignition and climbed out of the Model A. He had sawed off the back end of the car and had built a small box over the hind wheels, and now, urgently, he lifted a sack of oyster shells out of the box, as if to sandbag an emplacement in the face of enemy fire.
Louie twisted on his bad leg as if someone had touched his ribs with a knife.
Mrs. Brennan was standing at a corner of the house, holding up the bottom of
her apron, a grape basket full of eggs on her free arm, a smile bright on her brown face.
“Here's a sack of oyster shells,” Louie said. He noticed that her nose was peeling a little from the sun.
“Oyster? . . . Well, thank you,” Mrs. Brennan said. She tried to move one of her hands.
“Wait.” Louie dropped the oyster shells and snatched oil his cap and began to put the eggs from Mrs. Brennan’s apron into his cap. “You’re probably wondering what brought me.” He stopped to pick some straw out of his cap. “I was driving out this way . . . and the storekeeper mentioned you could use some oyster shells.”
Mrs. Brennan nodded her agreement. When she could let go of her apron she picked an egg out of the basket and held it up. “Look at this.” The shell had been cracked by the weight of the hen's body. “It’s my Leghorns,” she said. “They need calcium or something.”
“Wouldn’t that frost you,” Louie said, looking away from her dark brown eyes, which were not concerned with the egg. He picked up the sack of oyster shells and set it on the porch beside the skate blade that was used to scrape shoes.
“I appreciate your doing this,” Mrs. Brennan said. “. . . But I haven’t got a penny in the house right now.” She brightened again. “Maybe 1 could give you—”
“No, no, no!” Louie protested. “Not at all.” He had told himself he would find an excuse, he would lessen the trouble. And now all she did was offer more evidence. He handed her the cap full of eggs and started to get into the Model A. “I just wanted to ... 1 really . . .” Again he stopped.
“I’m fixing dinner right this minute,” Mrs. Brennan said. “At least you can stay for a bite to eat.”
Louie tugged at a shoe lace fastened to his belt and brought out his watch. It was 11.30 a.m. The RCMP detachment was forty miles away, and he would have to allow them an hour for the drive. “It’s nearly dinnertime,” he said. “I guess I better hustle along.”
“Come in and sit down for a minute,” Mrs. Brennan said. She indicated that he would have to open the door. “You can’t be in that big a hurry.”
Without giving Louie a chance to reply, she led him into the house and offered him a chair by the kitchen table. She put the eggs in the pantry and stuck a piece of wood in the fire. After she had moved the tea kettle, she began to stir a pot of stew that was simmering on the back of the stove.
''Where do you eat your meals now?” she asked, lifting a wooden spoon full of small onions and bits of carrot and rich chunks of beef.
“I still live at the hotel,” Louie said. He noticed some chokecherries in a Roger’s syrup pail sitting on the table. “There’s nowhere else to stay.”
“I hear some new people took over the hotel.”
“A fellow by the name of Cash came down from the city. He runs the beer parlor and his wife runs everything.”
“I hope she’s a good cook,” Mrs. Brennan said.
Louie sniffed the peppery aroma of the stew, and when Mrs. Brennan turned her head, he reached over and scooped up a few chokecherries. They were big and shiny and almost black-ripe, and in a moment his mouth puckered deliciously to their astringent sweetness. “If you like lumpy mush and lumpy mashed potatoes, she’s the best cook in town.”
“That settles it,” Mrs. Brennan said. She set a loaf of homemade bread on the end board from an apple box. “You’re staying for dinner.”
“No.” Louie shook his head. “We eat at twelve, and I want to get back and wash up.” He looked around at the bright clean kitchen and thought of his musty room at the top of the hotel stairs, the dimly lit bathroom at the end of the hall. “I got to get back.”
“Now, Louie,” Mrs. Brennan said. “You ought to stop long enough to tell me about this Mrs. Cash you’re so anxious to get back to.”
“Well . . .” Louie blushed and shifted the chokecherries in his mouth. When he
spoke his teeth showed a purple tint. “If nothing else, she knows how to squeeze a nickel. She cut down on help the day after she moved in, and she’s always counting how many glasses of beer her husband gets out of a keg.”
Mrs. Brennan put some homemade raspberry jam and a lump of butter on the table. There were drops of water on the butter and it looked fresh and cool.
Louie shifted to the edge of his chair. “If she hears somebody is buying drinks somewhere besides in the hotel beer parlor, she says she’ll put a stop to it.”
“Tea or coffee?” Mrs. Brennan asked. “Huh?”
“What’ll you drink?”
“Maybe ... I got to go,” Louie said. He spit the chokecherry stones into his hand and dropped them in the woodbox.
“It’s too late for maybe,” Mrs. Brennan said. “Tea or coffee?”
Louie watched as she set two places at
the table. “Coffee,” he said. “But I guess I better wash up first.”
"You got lots of time.”
Louie looked around. “Whereabouts?” he said.
"That’s right,” Mrs. Brennan said. She looked at him quickly. “You've never been here before.”
"This is the first time.” Louie said, looking down at the worn linoleum.
"The wash basin is behind there.” Mrs. Brennan pointed at a door across the kitchen. "But the water pail’s empty, Louie. If you went out and got a pail, dinner would be ready by the time you washed.”
"Be glad to,” Louie said. He shifted his stiff leg and started to get up.
Mrs. Brennan noticed his efforts and hastened to interrupt. "Oh. excuse me, Louie. Just sit down. I can get it in a minute.”
"It’s no trouble, honest,” Louie said. He stumbled, hurrying to get the water pail, and a moment later he unhooked the back screen door and went out toward the pump.
WHEN they had finished eating, Louie looked at his watch again. Mrs. Brennan turned from the table to look at the clock sitting on top of the cabinet. “Mrs. Cash will be giving you up." she said. “It’s ten to one."
"I got a quarter to,” Louie said. He had been trying for the past hour to get on the subject of bootlegging. Mostly, as town policeman, he had to keep the men from standing on the dance floor when there was a dance in the Elk’s Hall, or at the annual sports day he would show people where to park their cars.
“That’s a fancy timepiece you got there,” Louie said, nodding toward the kitchen cabinet.
The clock on the cabinet had a shiny face with Roman numerals, an elaborate brass pendulum, and a tiny system of weights, all mounted inside a glass dome.
"It’s twenty-some years old,” Mrs. Brennan said. “My husband sent it to me one Christmas from up north.”
Louie looked down at the plate he had just wiped clean with his last piece of bread. “Guess he’s not likely to come . . .” “1 don't imagine so.”
Louie glanced again at the clock. “But maybe he could send you a few dollars if you mentioned it.”
“I don’t know where he is,” Mrs. Brennan said.
“Then you ought to”— Louie hesitated —“you ought to see a lawyer. Maybe . . . according to the law, maybe you ain’t bound—”
“Law!” Mrs. Brennan said. “What kind of a law is that, Louie?”
Louie scratched himself under the arm. “I mean, he ain't fussy about settling down.”
“I’m married to him,” Mrs. Brennan said.
Louie toyed with his fork. This was the first time in his life that he had eaten a meal alone in a house with a woman, and he thought of the man who could eat with this woman every meal, and didn't.
Mrs. Brennan got up from the table. “Guess I better get the dishes cleared away.”
Louie started to get up.
"Just sit still,” Mrs. Brennan said. “Want some more coffee?”
“No, no thank you. This is fine.” He raised the empty cup to his lips as if there was something in it.
When Mrs. Brennan turned away, he fumbled for his pipe. He unrolled a long leather pouch and tamped the pipe full of tobacco, and while Mrs. Brennan dipped hot water from the reservoir with a tomato can, he struck a series of wooden
matches on the bottom of his chair.
Louie had never enjoyed himself this way before. Now. watching from behind his pipe, he admired the surface of the flowered yellow oilcloth, beginning to glisten as Mrs. Brennan wiped it clean. Drowsily he listened to the clink of knives and forks and spoons dropped one by one from a dish towel into a drawer. He looked about, lazily, and approved the neat array on the cabinet shelves: the cups, the saucers, the gilt-edged china.
For once in his life he didn’t have to hurry out of the dining room, back to
the insulated walls of his egg-grading station. When Mrs. Brennan flung the dishwater out the back door and disappeared into the pantry, he balanced his pipe on the clean oilcloth, and for a minute he let himself doze off, into a pleasant sleep.
WAKE up!" Mrs. Brennan said. “You come to see me so seldom, 1 think you deserve a little treat."
Louie started and looked about.
There before him on the table was a glass of chokecherry wine.
“What time is it?” Louie asked.
“A little after one. You're not leaving?"
“I got to phone the police," Louie blurted.
“What’s the matter?” Mrs. Brennan said.
Louie looked away and didn’t answer. He thought of Mrs. Cash, of the four bottles of wine locked up in a cooler and waiting for the Mounties. He thought of the note on the crate of eggs. He had kept those things out of his mind for a few minutes and now they burst back in again. He had known all the time that he could not change those things, had
known even while he fooled himself in his anger; and now, his predicament admitted, he could admit to himself why he was here.
Mrs. Brennan sat down on the opposite side of the table. “That's why you came?” she said. She slumped a little.
“You got to understand,” Louie said. “That’s why you came, Louie. After all these years, that's why. It wasn't for those oyster shells at all.”
“You got to try and understand.” Louie picked up his cold pipe. “Mrs. Cash— she got hold of that last crate of eggs.” Mrs. Brennan didn’t move.
“It was a mistake, see?” Louie said. “But she knew somebody in town was making wine, and every time somebody takes a drink of wine she figures there’s a glass of beer she ain’t selling.”
“I can’t pay a fine,” Mrs. Brennan said. “I know,” Louie said.
They sat without speaking and Louie, mechanically, crossed his good leg over his stiff left knee. “If I don’t phone right away, Mrs. Cash is going to phone. And she might get a lot of people in trouble.” “Everybody drinks my wine,” Mrs. Brennan said.
“I thought maybe they did.”
“In the winter,” Mrs. Brennan said. “When they’re playing Norwegian whist or a few hands of smear, or when somebody butchers, or when there’s a blizzard on.”
“I know, I know,” Louie said. “That’s why 1 got to phone.”
Mrs. Brennan looked out the window at the old horse sleeping in the sun. “There’s a phone in the parlor.”
Louie didn’t move.
“Why did you come out here to phone?” Mrs. Brennan said.
“1 wanted to let you know,” Louie said. “I’m not blaming you,” Mrs. Brennan
said. “You couldn’t know what was in that crate.”
“It’s not that.” Louie cleared his throat and hesitated before he began. “Remember that time . . . that time my knee got hurt?”
Mrs. Brennan’s voice was small. “Yes.”
“I just wanted you to know, I ain't doing this because of hard feelings.”
Mrs. Brennan stopped him when he tried to get up and, without speaking, went into the parlor.
When Louie heard her ring for central, he picked up his glass of wine and drank it down. He liked the taste of the wine. But it was all gone in one swallow.
Mrs. Brennan came back into the kitchen. “Your party’s on the line.”
“I hope you understand,” Louie said. With one hand he pushed himself up off the chair. At the parlor doorway he turned and looked at Mrs. Brennan. Again he noticed the skin on her nose was peeling.
“Louie,” Mrs. Brennan said, “in all those years since — at least you could have dropped in for a visit. You could have just dropped in for a cup of coffee or a bite to eat.”
Louie shook his head a little. “You could have mentioned it was okay, couldn’t you?”
Mrs. Brennan did not have an answer and she turned away. Then she saw the empty glass on the table and she turned back to Louie in surprise.
Suddenly Louie smiled. He had a vision of Mrs. Cash with her head held high, staring straight ahead. At least it was not too late to mention that. “God dixie,” he said. “You wouldn’t have a couple of bottles of something I could take back to my room?”
After Mrs. Brennan returned his smile, he started walking again, limping toward the phone. ★