Volume 24, Number 4


Gary Jones

Almost like that of popcorn popping, she thought. Or maybe of champagne corks at a wedding reception, but more metallic, maybe with a hint of the ping of canning jars sealing as they cooled. She paused in her work and listened to the sound of a horse’s hooves pulling an Amish buggy along the street. The clop-clop, clop-clop had seemed incongruous to her when they had first bought the house, as if the real-estate agent had given them a CD with an accompanying sound track to play while they set up housekeeping.

But without the prompt of sound effects, Anne had fallen in love with the house and with its story. Richard Verran, the carpenter who had built the home, had just begun laying the bricks when he was called to serve in the Civil War. After the conflict ended, he returned to Platteville and finished his building, married a local girl, and fathered four children. This would be the perfect place to raise her children, she thought, once they were born. The house was timeless in its basic symmetry, the matching dormers above and corresponding windows below on either side of the front door, classic with its wood-burning fireplace in the front room and then upstairs, cozy with gabled ceilings in each of the three bedrooms.

The old couple that had lived in the house for almost forty years obviously loved the building, updating the kitchen and bathrooms, but respecting the antiquity of the structure. Anne felt that the home offered her a link to the past, like an anchor, like the Biblical adage of building your house on a rock, something enduring, the little pig’s house of bricks that could withstand the huffing and puffing of a Big Bad Wolf.

And at the same time, Anne could envision a future in this house. She had inherited from her grandparents furniture that had been in the family for years, items that no one else had wanted, the finish on chairs and tables scarred by time, upholstered pieces in need of recovering, beds only doubles, not kings or queens, rugs faded with time. The furnishings had looked shabby in the apartment that she and Nick had rented during the first years of their marriage, but she knew they would look perfect in this house, as if they had always been there, solid as a rock, anchored to bedrock. Let the winds blow.

Nick was less enamored with the house, pointing out the cracks in the lath and plaster walls, still visible although they had been repaired and repainted, the fact that the floors were not level, especially in the upstairs, the steps to the second floor steep and narrow and then the sloping ceilings in the bedroom along with low doorways that made him crouch when he walked. Nick was six-two and always stood straight and tall, proud of his height.

While Anne had become accustomed to giving way to Nick’s opinion in the decisions of their married life, she had prevailed in the purchase of the Verran House. Although he had persisted in his criticism, she had countered with the bargain price. He did not like the fact that they would be situated across from the university campus, that a number of houses in the neighborhood had been converted to student quarters. He would have preferred to build a new house in a subdivision, or at least purchase a well-maintained modern ranch style home out in the country, but their budget would accommodate neither option. A starter home? he had mused, weighing the possibility in his mind, and she had responded, yes, a starter home, we could buy this as a starter home.

Now, like popcorn popping, champagne corks plopping, canning jars pinging, the sounds of iron horseshoes on the pavement outside her house resonated with the past. She walked to the casement window and peered from behind the translucent cotton curtain into the street, seeing the prancing brown horse, the black buggy with tall wheels and the driver, a bearded man dressed in black, except for his straw hat and white shirt. Beside him sat a slender woman dressed completely in black, including the bonnet. Both sat as erectly as if they were being judged by their perfect posture.

The man turned to her lighted window, smiled and waved, and drove on. She stepped back, letting the curtain fall into place, her heart beating rapidly from the embarrassment of being caught spying on the couple. Of course she had every right to look out her window at passersby, but she felt as if she were gawking, staring at the natives. Still, the Amish were always friendly. It’s a public-relations program, Nick had said. They know they look weird, and because of that people tend to treat them bad, so it’s a defense mechanism. They are not really friendly people. It’s just a way of manipulating those of us who aren’t Amish, of managing to hitch free rides to Walmart.

Anne returned to her quilting frame. This front bedroom would be a nursery soon, she hoped, but for now it was her quilting studio. Nick always smiled condescendingly when she called the room her quilting studio, just as he did when she referred to their home as the Verran House. It’s not a Verran house any more, he’d remind her. I’m paying for this house. It’s the Jackson house. It belongs to me. She never argued with him, but her dream was to purchase a metal placard inscribed Verran House, 1860, and have it mounted on the brick to one side of the front door.

She had machine-pieced the quilt, a traditional pattern that was called Wrench because of the stylized representation of the head of that tool: the center of each block was a plain square, and around it a configuration of four small squares and four large triangles in a print fabric. Theoretically, the wrench would fit over the square head of a bolt, and turn, turn, turn. Unto everything there is a season.

You’re throwing a wrench into the works! Nick would say whenever she tried to protest a decision that he had made, insisting that they buy a less-expensive washing machine, rather than the one with the features that she considered essential, or that he needed the luxury car not for his own comfort, but because it would make him more credible with sales clients. Ultimately he would shout her down and she’d shrug in agreement. Quilting was compensation; she could not control all aspects of her life now—her mother had warned her that a successful marriage depended upon compromise—but she could shape a quilt exactly as she chose.

In the public library she had checked out books on quilting, admired the photographs of finished quilts and carefully examined each of the traditional patterns before she had chosen Wrench. Her mother had given Anne her old sewing machine when she purchased a new one. Mom made crazy quilts of fabric scraps she had hoarded from the years when she used to make dresses for Anne, her sisters, and herself. She hand-embroidered the borders of each piece using a variety of fancy stitches, and after she had assembled the finished blocks, tied the quilt with yarn. She had given one to Anne as a wedding gift.

Originally Anne had thought that she, too, would make crazy quilts, in part because of the craziness of her married life, smiling at the secret irony. Nick did not want her to work, wanted her to stay home with the children, but he wasn’t ready to have children just yet. He’d let her know, once he was better established in his career.

But the traditional quilt patterns she found in books intrigued her, the order that quilters had brought to such a vast assemblage of fabrics, different colors and prints. From one of the books Anne had learned that early quilters often salvaged fabric from garments that could no longer be worn, an essential recycling for women who lived frugal lives. She found the practice satisfying, especially as she knew that Nick would grumble if she wasted money buying expensive fabric for her hobby.

Nick wore cotton boxer shorts underwear in colorful prints, many of them plaids, and the elastic waistbands would begin to sag while the fabric was still in good shape. One day he came home with several packages of new under shorts and told her she could use the old ones for cleaning rags. But as the material was in good shape, she decided to keep them. The boxers reminded her of the time when she and Nick were dating, when they had gotten serious and their relationship had become physical, the excitement of their intimacy, his greedy attention to her body and her abandonment to his desires.

But that had changed now that they were husband and wife. He still desired her, true, but not the way he once had. Not with the intensity, nor with the frequency. If she were to talk to her mother, a conversation she would be far too embarrassed to have, she knew her mother would sniff and say, that’s marriage, dear.

Don’t put a wrench in the works!

She had carefully cut the elastic waistbands from the boxers, and then trimmed along each seam, disassembling the shorts into pieces of fabric. At Walmart she had purchased an inexpensive poly-cotton blend of fabric in navy blue, a neutral color that she thought would best go with the various prints in Nick’s old boxers. She made paper patterns from the wrench design she had found, and had begun the assembly-line process of cutting fabric pieces on the kitchen table, once Nick was off to work.

Cutting the pieces had not taken too many days, as Nick often left for work early and returned home late; working hard, he said, and often so exhausted that he went to bed early and fell asleep almost immediately. She had not told him about her quilt project. It would be a surprise, when she had finished and it lay folded across the foot of their bed.

She sewed in her quilting studio, her mother’s old sewing machine resting atop a folding table, the light from a window falling across her work. She kept the ironing board set up in the room and the iron plugged in to press open the seams once she had snipped the ends of the thread. From time to time she would take the blocks she had pieced into their bedroom and place them on the bedspread for a preview of how the quilt would look. The dark navy blue fabric tied the blocks together perfectly, just as she had hoped, and gave them an Amish look, at once somber and colorful.

At the Medical Center where her gynecologist gave her periodic exams and prescribed her birth-control pills, Anne admired authentic Amish quilts that had been framed under glass and hung from one wall of the reception room. Each time she waited to be called to her appointment, she studied the quilts, examining the precision of corners, the evenness of hand stitching, models for her own work, standards of excellence to follow and, occasionally, to exceed.

A significant Amish community lived around Platteville. During spring, summer and fall, Amish brought their baked goods, vegetables and plants to the farmers’ market at the square. Anne enjoyed the market, but bought very little. Mostly she liked the exotic ambience the Amish brought to the event and the opportunity to see them close-up, in the flesh; more satisfying than peering out from one of her windows at them as they passed in their buggies.

The patterns of their life intrigued and sometimes baffled her, when she tried to imagine their purpose. Why might a buggy pass by early in the morning, before the sun was up? Why might a single woman be driving by her house mid-morning? And especially curious to her, why would a series of young people on a Sunday afternoon be driving by in their buggies, each a teenage couple, the girl prim in black, her hair tucked out of sight under a black bonnet; the boy in white shirt with a black bowtie and vest, driving. At first Anne had thought that these were young married couples and was appalled that they had been allowed to wed so young, as some of the couples—and altogether, they had totaled maybe fifteen buggies—appeared to be no older than thirteen. But then she realized that none of the boys had beards, some of them too young to sprout whiskers, and remembered that once they married, the men allowed their facial hair to grow.

Nick had no time for the Amish. He had laughed derisively one time at Walmart when he saw a horse and buggy tied to the Cart Corral. He would call them hypocritical bastards when he saw a family climb out of a SUV in front of Walmart, a ride they had either hitched or purchased. Once, at the bank, he had heard an Amish man joke with the teller that he had to get going, he had the old woman waiting outside for him, and Nick had seen that the old woman was not slang for his wife, but literally an elderly lady who apparently had consented to drive him around town in her car on his errands. They pick and choose which technology to use and which to avoid, Nick said. Remember, he reminded her, you saw an Amish girl checking her e-mail at the library! Hypocritical!

Anne told him that she thought the girl was a Mennonite, as her dress was a print fabric and her bonnet made of a sheer white fabric. He had laughed dismissively and told her that Amish and Mennonites were pretty much the same.

Since she had begun the quilting project, Anne’s thumb and fingertips had become roughened by the needle. While she wore a thimble to push the needle through the sandwich of fabric and batting, she had to use a finger or thumb tip against the end of the needle to hold it in place while she reached for her thimble. Otherwise she could not accomplish a running stitch, tiny and uniform like those in the quilts at the Medical Center.

According to Nick, because of inbreeding, the Amish were vulnerable to recessive genes that caused congenital birth defects. Even though marriages were sometimes arranged, bringing a spouse from as far away as Pennsylvania, they are all related, he said. It’s like marrying your sister, for Chrissake! He told the story of one brother who had died of a heart defect, and when the younger brother, who also had the disorder, learned of his brother’s passing, despite the family’s attempt to keep it secret, he lost the will to live and died, too.

Anne found that quilting calmed her. Sometimes when her chores were boring or frustrating or when she realized she was brooding about something Nick had said or done, she’d spend just a few minutes stitching at the quilt frame, and her equilibrium would return, much as if she had been meditating. And in the afternoon when she fixed a mug of tea, sipping and quilting in the late day sunlight, she felt as if all were well in God’s world.

Nick repeated a story told by a farmer of an Amish woman who was lashing her horse with a whip because the beast refused to walk any further up the hill. The farmer who lived by the road pointed out to the woman that her buggy was over-loaded and the horse was exhausted. He unharnessed the animal and led it to shade under a tree. You let that horse rest for an hour, he ordered, and then it’ll be okay.

Sometimes Anne stood admiring her quilting, noting the way that the stitching seemed to minimize any flaws in the piecing, the gentle puckering of the tiny stitches along the edges of each piece softly puffing the center, an appearance that was not only pleasing to the eye, but a tactile pleasure as she let her fingertips glide across her work. We don’t ride on the railroad, the railroad rides on us, a high school English teacher had once told her class, quoting from Thoreau. Some women had their quilts professionally stitched by quilting machines, and some women purchased inexpensive quilts that had been hand-sewn by Asian women who had no idea what they were stitching, women who were being paid sweat-shop wages and whose large stitches sometimes looked like basting. Anne’s quilt would be timeless when it was finished, classic, like the Verran House.

The Amish can be bullies, too, Nick pointed out. A town chairman, he said, told of a group of Amish men, beards bristling, who formed a circle around him demanding that the town board grant them a list of special zoning concessions. The chairman called them out on it, shouting that he’d set the law on them if they didn’t back off, and they had, grumbling as they stalked to their buggies.

In one of her quilting books from the library Anne had read that nineteenth-century quilters followed the tradition of helping a young girl assemble a trousseau of a baker’s dozen quilts in preparation for her wedding. Thirteen quilts seemed an odd number to her, counter-intuitive almost, as thirteen was an unlucky number for someone about to embark on a lifetime of marriage. The Amish women were famous for their quilts. Anne wondered if they followed the baker’s dozen ritual. She could ask Nick, but was fairly certain that he wouldn’t know. That was not the sort of thing that men talked about. Their conversation was the stuff of envy and prejudice, she thought, like adolescent boys on a playground shunning their classmates who seemed different, who in some way didn’t fit in. The cock-of-the-walk, king-of-the-hill mentality that Anne had thought offensive, even as a little girl.

Nick found fault with the Amish, too, because they didn’t buy locally, other than the cheap, plastic crap at Walmart, he said. If they had a major project, like building a barn, they had the lumber shipped to them from Pennsylvania, the Mother State. They did the same for medical needs, traveling all the way to Pennsylvania if they needed to see a doctor. And when they were building a barn or doing construction work for hire, they always subcontracted one non-Amish worker, he said, to run the power saws for them.

Anne was fairly certain that the women did not use power appliances, that they cooked with woodstoves, and when they pieced quilts, if they didn’t sew the pieces together by hand, they used those old-fashioned treadle-style sewing machines like her great-grandmother once used, the power provided by a foot-rocking motion on a swivel grill under the machine cabinet.

The worst form of outsourcing is in the baby department, Nick laughed. He reported that he had talked to a guy who knew someone, a non-Amish person, who was hired to provide stud service. Because of the problems of inbreeding, he explained, the Amish sometimes hire a healthy guy to serve as a surrogate father, except they don’t believe in the technology of artificial insemination. The guy is paid to sleep with a new bride before she has sex with her husband and hopefully get her pregnant.

I find that very hard to believe, Anne had replied.

My friend talked to a guy who was hired for exactly that purpose! Nick countered. It was a lot worse than he thought it would be, first, because those women only bathe once a week, and they don’t use deodorant. I’ve heard how the bathtub works in an Amish household. The man goes first in a tub of clean water, and then the kids next, in the same water, beginning with the oldest. The wife washes up last, using their dirty water.

But the worst part, he continued, is that the Amish demanded witnesses. While he was getting it on with the woman, the Amish elders, grey-bearded old men all dressed in black, stood along the walls of the bedroom and watched the whole thing take place! Talk about dirty-old-man voyeurism!

That seems highly unlikely, Anne protested.

New blood, Nick said. They’re willing to pay for new blood. If a guy fathers a son, he will be paid 500 bucks cash; a girl is only worth 200. Which goes to show the way they treat their women. One guy told me that his daughter was doing a research paper on the Amish for a college class. She talked to the women first, and they had plenty to say. But when the Amish men came in the room, the women all clammed up and wouldn’t say anything. You would not want to be Amish, with all you have to say!

Anne tried to talk with Nick from time to time about starting a family. She didn’t want to wait until she was well into her thirties, but Nick wasn’t ready to be a father yet, he said. He wanted to be on a sounder financial footing for starters. She explained that the chance of their baby being healthy was much better if she didn’t wait too long, but he said that women were having healthy babies at much older ages now, sometimes in their early forties, thanks to advances in medicine. Amnio-whatever the hell it is. Don’t throw a wrench into the works by pressuring me to having a baby before I’m ready!

Amniocentesis, she had told him. But she did not want to wait to the point where they would have to have a fetus examined for abnormalities and then make the choice whether or not she would abort the baby. She didn’t mention that their opportunities to make babies seemed to be fewer and fewer.

When she and Nick became serious in their relationship, and even when they were first married, she half-worried that he might be a sex addict, if there were such a disorder. But at the same time she felt a sense of power, that she could bring him to such heights of ecstasy that sometimes he seemed to almost lose control in the fervor of his passion.

But now he left for work early and many days returned home late. Sometimes he had already gotten something to eat for dinner, and many times he was so exhausted that he went to bed early and almost instantaneously fell asleep, while she lay beside him, wide awake, finally getting up from bed to creep silently downstairs and read until she was sleepy. Or sometime tiptoe into her quilting studio and stitch by a single light with the door closed until she felt that sleep might finally come.

The prints of Nick’s boxers were as familiar to her as the patterns of her own clothing. When she looked at one of the Wrenches in her quilt design, she could see Nick pulling off his shirt, stepping out of his Levis and crossing to the bed, crawling between the sheets. Or she saw him on his way to the bathroom to brush his teeth, or coming back in clean boxers after he had showered.

He took orders for agricultural supplies from farmers, Anne knew, fertilizers and herbicides and pesticides and that sort of thing. But she didn’t know exactly what it was he did. In the office. If she asked, he’d give her a dismissive wave of the hand and mutter Paperwork up the ass! Was he having an affair? she wondered, looking up from her quilt as she heard the clop-clop, clop-clop of a horse pulling a buggy along the street in the darkness. In a magazine she had read once the signs indicating that a husband might be having an affair, but she had paid little attention then, only curiosity, not concern. She was pretty sure that one of them was working longer hours than usual, going into the office on weekends, out of town trips to sales meetings and conventions.

One she remembered with certainty: buying new underwear.

Anne thought she should throw herself on a bed and weep. She should rehearse what she would say when she confronted him. She should try to anticipate the reactions he might have and plan accordingly. But she didn’t. She realized that she knew without doubt that he was being unfaithful to her. She had been a fool to ignore the obvious, to sit stitching like a devoted wife as if everything in her life were perfect.

Her parents had never liked Nick. Her mother had asked her repeatedly, Are you sure you want to get married? as if the engagement were a whim. She asked, You’re not pregnant, are you? And even if you are, you don’t have to get married unless you really want to. Her father never said much, only shook his head slowly and looked away when the subject of his new son-in-law came up.

Her sisters were less circumspect. He’s a control freak! one would yell. Cut him loose! the other would advise. Wife beater! one’d shout. I can already see him sitting out in front of a trailer drinking beer in his wife-beater undershirt, the other would say, hollering at you to bring him another. And make it snappy! But when they realized that she was going to marry Nick regardless of what they thought, they put on their wedding finery and were dutiful bridesmaids.

Her parents would help her with the divorce, she knew. Her dad would gladly write out checks for an attorney’s fees, and her mother would welcome her into her old bedroom until she got her life back in order. Anne would hate to leave the Verran House, but maybe she would get to keep it. Certainly there would be a divorce settlement. And she could get a job, working for her father’s car dealership if nothing else. He had offered her a job in the past, but Nick had talked her into refusing.

A second horse clop-clop, clop-clopped down the street, and Anne wondered if the two buggies shared a common purpose, maybe a carpentry job for a non-Amish farmer. Farmers were quick to find fault with the Amish, but they were equally quick to hire them to build a new shed or put an addition on a house, as the workers charged much less than construction companies.

Anne had a peaceful vision. She saw herself putting the last stitch in the quilt, staying up late to sew the border, and then the next morning telling Nick to fix his own breakfast. She would carefully fold the quilt and wrap it in plastic, tying it up as if it were a parcel. She would put her essentials in a drawstring cloth bag, and then she’d stand along the curb in front of her house, waiting for the next buggy to pass. She’d hold up a thumb and smile, and the stranger dressed in black, a straw hat, his dark beard full and silky, would smile back, call Whoa! to his horse as he pulled on the reins, and she’d answer Thank you! as she climbed up in the seat beside him, the clop-clop, clop-clops, becoming fainter as Nick stood silhouetted by light in a front window watching her.