Volume 29, Number 4

Never Was Right

Britomarte Van Horn

“Well, you know,” Aunt Ida said with a tinkle of a teacup, “Delilah never was right since the bank robbery.”

I almost fell out of my bush. It was hard work to stand on one of the branches and strain my head right up under the window where all my aunts were having tea. Even then, I couldn’t hear much.

All I heard after that jaw-dropping announcement was whisper, whisper, whisper.

Henry came up on me after that and cleared his throat until I turned to look at him. That low-down snake took a deep breath and pretended to shout out to his momma, Aunt Ida, that I was in her camellia. I got outta that bush so fast I ripped my skirt. If I pricked my finger mending it, Henry was going to pay.

I scrambled out of the alleyway and stalked off down the wooden sidewalk through town towards my own house, Henry chasing to keep up with me. He hollered out for me to wait, and I sniffed and stuck my nose up in the air. I regretted the sniff immediately.

A Seattle street is not something you want to smell too well, believe me. My momma told me that back East, places had sewer systems to keep all the privies flowing away from the houses. Here, they flowed right into the streets. On a hot day like today, nobody went outdoors who didn’t have to.

“Why you gotta be so mad?” he finally asked, running around me to stop in front of me and plant his feet so I’d have to talk to him or go around him. He held his arms out to the side, too, so I’d have to step off the sidewalk into the prickly weeds on one side or the road on the other, which might as well have been called a sewer. “It’s Friday, come have some fun.”

In that moment, I wanted to push Henry into the privy muck of the street even if he was my best friend.

“I was gonna hear something good,” I said. I grabbed my skirts and swished them a little, trying to get a breeze going around my ankles. The rip caught on a nail from the mercantile building I was standing next to, and I scowled.

“What could you hear that was that good with just our mommas talking to each other?” he asked. “They’re the last people I’d want to listen to any more than I already gotta.”

“Well, Mister Ignoramus, that’s where I heard that you failed your last vocabulary test and Is-He-Lizzie’s gonna keep you for extra schooling this summer,” I said.

“Ignoramus” was on the list of words we were both supposed to know. It meant someone who doesn’t know anything at all, and it suited Henry perfectly.

Henry flushed a deep red, but then his face cleared, and he laughed.

“That was one of the words I did learn,” he said. “Means idiot, doesn’t it? You got me pretty good, Minnie.” He reached out and punched me on the shoulder, like the boys did to each other, but a little more gently. Another flush went across his cheeks, but paler, so light I hardly saw it.

My own face was hard-put not to smile back at him. Staying mad at Henry was one of the hardest things I made myself do back then, when I was eleven-years-old and just thinking about putting my hair up in a few years and what that might mean. It was still in two long yellow braids over my shoulders when I was eleven, and I was always hitting Henry across the back of his thick skull for tugging at one of them.

Henry stuck his tongue out at me suddenly then, and I grinned at him.

Once I smiled, I couldn’t even pretend to be mad, and he knew it. He dropped his arms and stood to the edge of the sidewalk, so I could step forward and walk next to him.

He asked me what I’d heard, and I pulled him into the shade of a tin roof to whisper what I’d heard about Aunt Delilah.

His brown eyes shone like a piece of polished quartz.

“I’ve never heard a bit of this,” he breathed. “Listen, is there space in that camellia for two?”

“Not hardly,” I said. “You might be able to sneak in and listen at the keyhole, though. You know Aunt Ida won’t fuss if she catches you.”

“Might have to do that,” he said thoughtfully. In the next moment, he was standing tall again and quivering like a dog that smelled a juicy bone. “Why don’t we go ask her?”

“Ask who?”

“Ask Delilah!” he said, grinning and tapping his toes and all but dancing a jig right there on the boards.

I finally did hit him, right on one shoulder. He yowled, and I hissed at him to hush.

“If she’s not right, what does that mean? If she’s a crazy lady, she might haul right off with that shotgun she keeps and blow us across the street.” And if she’s not, I thought, it might upset her for us to pry into her business like that, and I didn’t want to hurt her feelings. She was real quiet compared to the other ladies in town, who bustled and chattered like hens in a coop, but she was nice.

Henry saw the wisdom in what I said right off, and we headed to the schoolyard to see if anyone else had heard about Aunt Delilah getting mixed up in a bank robbery.

Walking past my house was a mistake, though. My momma saw us through the kitchen window and shouted us inside to cut out triangles of red, white, and blue cloth for the commencement bunting.

There was almost a week to go until the graduates walked the stage at the university, but she was fretting herself over it every day. “It’s the first class,” she kept saying, mouth full of pins. “It has to be right, and Lord knows they don’t have the money to make a proper celebration for them.”

After Henry told my momma that his own mother would be waiting for him and slunk away, leaving me with enough work for five of us, my mother stirred the bean soup for dinner and cast anxious eyes at me.

“You are cutting neatly, aren’t you?” she said. “Maybe you should stir the soup, and I should go back to the bunting.”

“No, no,” I said. “Look how neat I’m cutting.”

I held up one of her triangles and one of mine and held them in front of each other and turned them around, so she could see that they were just the same size, with no careless marks or fraying from the shears. I didn’t want to stir the beans, I could feel the heat from the other side of the room. It may have been only June, but it was right hot out.

“Neatly,” she said, frowning into the pot of beans. “You cut neatly, you don’t cut neat.”

“Yes, ma’am,” I said.

“How was your day?” she asked. “School’s wrapping up next week, are you getting good marks in all your subjects? I don’t want to hear about you failing anything.”

“Like Henry did? Henry is an ignoramus,” I said. The word still felt good in my mouth.

She stopped stirring.

I gulped and kept my eyes on the fabric strip I was cutting.

“Minnie Dryer, I don’t want to hear you say something like that about one of your classmates again, do you understand me?” she demanded.

“Yes, ma’am,” I said.

“Not only that, I have heard too much slang from you lately.”

“Sorry, ma’am.”

“If I hear one more ‘fixing to’ or ‘cutting neat’ out of you, I’m going to keep you home one day to copy lines from Godey’s until you learn how a lady speaks and writes. You’re growing up fast, Minnie, and you’re going to be up and married before you know it. I want you to be a lady, who attracts a good man, not some common—” she broke off and took a deep breath, shutting her eyes and smoothing down her skirts.

“I understand, ma’am,” I said. It made me half-sick when she talked like that, like my future was all planned out, and I would be married any day now. I wasn’t even putting up my hair yet. “I will be more careful. I—” I almost said swear, and stopped. “I assure you, I will take more care with my speech and my diction.”

My mother made a disbelieving noise, but she started stirring the soup again. I breathed out. She was a real bear for language. I had never gotten less than a hundred percent on any spelling, vocabulary or grammar exam, out of fear of what she’d do to me.

“Mama?” I asked a little later, after cutting out about thirty triangles. “I heard something a little strange today. I was wondering if you could enlighten me about it.”

I was real careful with how I said it, as you can imagine.

“Yes, Minnie?”

“Well, I was,” I hesitated and then found the right excuse, “I was walking past Henry’s house to give him his primer back, he’d left it at school, and I told Miss Ordway I could take it to him. So, I was walking past Henry’s house, and the other ladies were in there working on a banner for the graduates, and I heard one of them say something about Aunt Delilah and a bank robbery.”

I wished I hadn’t asked when I peeked at her and saw how thin a line my momma’s lips had made.

“Are they still on about that?” she asked. “Disgraceful.”

“Was she a bank robber?” I blurted out.

An image of Aunt Delilah came to me, a rag tied around her face and a gun in her hand, crouched down low in the street with her skirts in the mud and muck.

“Absolutely not,” my mother said in her firmest voice. “She is a respectable woman with a good head on her shoulders, and she would never get mixed up in anything foolish or illegal, do you hear me, Minnie?”

“Yes, ma’am,” I said, sounding as meek as I could.

* * *

Two days later, after a weekend of church and bunting, I was still burning with curiosity. I stuck around through the little-kid lessons and sent my own sisters back home, waiting around the school building until it was just me and the teacher.

She called me up to the front, her grey eyes dancing.

“If you’re going to loiter, you might as well be useful,” she said, handing me a rag and an empty pail. I filled the pail from the pump at the back of the room and carried it to the board, wiping down the chalk dust and rinsing my rag every few feet.

When I’d finished the boards, she set me to scrubbing slates while she sat at her desk. I didn’t even think about running off. I was already two inches taller than she was, but even the boys who were almost men grown and towered over her obeyed when she bossed them. Is-He Lizzie may have been tiny, but she was a great hand at bossing.

She was a cool, calm woman, too. That’s how she got her nickname. So many times, she’d go out walking with a man, and one of her friends would say “Is he going to propose?” and she’d say that he already had, and she’d turned him down.

After a while, her friends would just turn to her and say, “Is he, Lizzie?” and she’d shrug. Never did find a man to suit her.

“Miss Ordway?” I finally called.

She looked up from the papers she was grading and waved her hand for me to go on.

“I heard someone say that Mrs. Delilah Higgins was a bank robber,” I said. I crossed my fingers behind my back. I knew from my momma that Aunt Delilah wasn’t any bank robber, but I knew that she couldn’t help but correct anybody who was wrong.

Unfortunately, she didn’t take the bait.

“No, Mrs. Higgins is not a gun-toting criminal,” she said. “She owns a store, and she runs it quite well. I use her as an example of a woman not needing a man to succeed in business. If that’s not exciting enough for you, perhaps I could set you to write an essay on her, and you could learn your fill of her life.”

I gulped. What was it with my momma and Miz Ordway always trying to get me to write something? Born schoolmarms, all of them ladies from back East.

“Do you know why people were talking about her and a bank robbery?” I asked. It was pressing my luck, and I knew it.

“No,” she said, and that was that.

After I washed three more slates, a young woman knocked on the door of the schoolhouse. She was pretty, with smooth brown hair and big eyes, but she looked too old to be enrolled with the rest of us.

“Miss Ordway?” she asked.

My teacher smiled at her and stood up. “You can call me Lizzie, Clara. I’ve told you that before. How are you faring?”

The young woman smiled but looked a little nervous around the eyes.

“I’m sick with worry about this speech I’ve got to give,” she said. “I don’t know how many people will be there, and, well …” she trailed off.

“People will make rather too much of the fact that you’re a woman?” the teacher asked. She turned to me. “Minnie!” she said sharply. “Look at this woman and look at her well. This is Clara McCarty, and she’s going to be the first graduate of our university. Not just the first woman graduate, the first person, man or woman, to get their B.A. from our city’s college.”

I stared at Clara McCarty. She didn’t look terribly learned or studyish. She had a strand of hair come loose over her forehead.

“I don’t want to ever hear you say that you can’t go to college like the boys can,” Miss Ordway continued. “Or own your own shop, or, yes, rob banks if that’s what you want to do. Heavens knows women have been robbed by banks enough themselves.”

“Yes, ma’am,” I said. My mother was always fussing at me to get married, and Miss Ordway was always fussing at me not to. I didn’t know what to think about the whole affair, personally.

“Shoo,” she told me, and I ran for it. I could hear her laughing with the young woman as I left.

* * *

In school on Tuesday, Henry spent the whole day trying to catch my eye, and I spent the whole day trying to pretend I didn’t see him. My mother had found me mending my torn skirt, and she was so fed up that she made me copy the Godey’s Lady’s Book for an entire hour on Sunday afternoon. Not even one of the good stories. Just the moral bits. I blamed Henry, and I was still mad.

At nooning, I took my lunch pail out and marched to the girl’s end of the schoolyard, but Henry followed me, ignoring the sniffs and hisses from the girls around me. Even when they started teasing him about being sweet on me, he kept walking.

“What do you want?” I demanded.

“I heard the story,” he said. “I asked my momma. Don’t you wanna know?”

He was wide-eyed and wasn’t laughing, and I realized that if I didn’t find out what had him so worked up, I would die.

We climbed up a low cherry tree and threw rocks from Henry’s pocket at anyone who tried to come close and listen to us.

“So, you remember how our mommas and the aunts all came?” he asked.

“They all came from back East together to be teachers, but mostly ended up getting married instead, except for Is-He Lizzie.”

“Right, and when they first arrived all the miners made a big fuss over ‘em,” he said. “They took them on horse rides and tours of the town”—I snorted, thinking of the stinking streets—“and, well, it seemed like everyone in town was courting them, not just the men who wanted to marry ‘em.”

I nodded.

“The mayor, he was married, but he was happy to have them here, so he was taking them on a tour of the bank one day, only it wasn’t a bank, it was the back room of a store, and there weren’t any safes or anything, just barrels with notes on ‘em.”

It didn’t sound like a very safe way to have a bank to me, and I said so.

“Well, you’re right,” he said. “It got robbed right then and there.”

I gasped. “With the mayor and all the aunts?”

He nodded, eyes still wide and voice still low to keep Bobby Haspritch from overhearing us. Bobby was lurking near the tree, and I had my eye on him and a rock in my hand.

“A gun went off and Aunt Delilah hit the floor, and everybody thought that she was dead as a doornail,” Henry said. “Blood everywhere, my momma said. Of course, Aunt Delilah was fine, but she pretended to be dead, so they wouldn’t shoot her again.”

I shivered. “Poor thing,” I said.

“It gets worse,” Henry insisted. “Listen up.”

My eyes narrowed, and I thought about smacking him one for bossing me, but I wanted to hear the rest of the story too badly.

“Everyone thought she was dead, and they started talking about the funeral, and they were all arguing about what kind of cake they’d each bring,” he said. “None of ’em wanted to bring the same cakes as anyone else, because they wanted to look real capably and housewife-ly to the men they were sweet on, so they were whispering and fretting about it, and the whole time, Aunt Delilah had to lay there and listen.”

I thought about how it would be to have to pretend to be dead while all your friends were there, and none of them cried or fussed, they all just talked about what they’d bake for your funeral.

“Do you know if my momma was one of the girls?” I didn’t want to think that my momma had ever been as hard-hearted as that.

“She wasn’t,” Henry said immediately. “I asked Momma. She said Aunt Mabel was riding out with a ship captain, and that was one of the only times she ever heard your momma lose her temper was when she got back, and she heard how the other girls had done by Aunt Delilah.”

I felt a surge of pride for my own mother, who was always worried about something and wringing her hands, taking the other Mercer Girls to task for being unkind. I wondered if she’d made them write lines, or if that was a special torment she saved for me.

The bell to end the noon hour rang, and I glanced up to see Miss Ordway standing up on her tiptoes to haul on the rope attached to the clapper.

Henry hopped down from the tree and held his hand up to help me down.

I looked at his hand, and then I looked at Is-He Lizzie, standing straight and alone.

I shook my head at Henry, and I jumped.