Calamity’s Child

Letters to Edison [excerpt]
June 1903
Electric, Montana

Dear Mr. Edison,

I will finish this letter soon and mail it off with our parts order and please expedite the return so Carl will get his parts. I have to finish telling about what happened that day Jane showed up and I have some questions that I’m sure you can answer for me. On that particular day, I ended up walking out to the fields thinking about how I missed my dog, Bain. (Bainbridge happens to be the name of Carl’s dental college in Ohio.) Whenever Carl shows me how to coil the imaginary gold leaf prior to insertion in the oral cavity he says, “this is how we did it in Bain­bridge.”

The day Marcus brought Bain into Chez Carl the critter came over to me a curious (not a coughing) puppy – wondering what it was I was up to on the floor. I didn’t notice it right away, ’cause sometimes my eyes might not be seeing right and Carl was yelling something that day about how rough my denture work was and Bainbridge, Bainbridge, Bainbridge, when I felt something wet and cold poke me in the cheek and it was this big, ugly dog sniffing me. Bain was sly a sly dog from the first. He knew most of my secrets eventually. Bain was part dog, part moose, brown body with a black face and the softest ears that made the telling of secrets easier. I told him everything, which makes his return even more urgent. I need to get him back before the whole world knows everything. Now that he’s disappeared, Mr. Edison, I lay awake at night, listening to the coyotes repeating a story I’d told Bain and nobody else. Like I said, he is a sly dog.

Mr. Edison, in your article in Columbia you say it is the entities that rule our lives. I have been considering your statement and was wondering about the nature of the entities. I had to ask Mr. Kuzma what an entity is. I have been thinking about the story you tell about that time when you cut off the skin on your thumb and then the skin came back. Is it true that the fingerprints were the same as before? Didn’t you have a scar? If there’s something inside us telling our fingertips how to grow, where does that something go when we die? Maybe, after leaving the body, the entity moves like a butterfly landing on a flower. How do the entities know where to land? Once a person knows the character of an entity is that knowledge an invention or a discovery? I reckon you’d find that an invention. If an entity landed like a butterfly on you while you were out in the wind hanging laundry on the line, what would it feel like? Is it like a kiss on the hand? Or is it like an itch that makes you crazy?

*    *     *

That night, Carl butchered the fatted calf for his visitor. He built a fire in the pit and had the dead animal turning on a spit. It looked like it was going to be a late night. I didn’t know where Carl had gone, but when I got back from Kuzma’s he’d set out a table and chair in the shade in the backyard and Jane was sitting there with a glass of beer at her elbow. She was getting up to turn the cow over when I came up to the house. When she saw me, she straightened up and shouted, “Hey you. Andy. Have you seen my revolver? It’s missing.” She turned her hip to me to show the empty holster. “You didn’t take it, did you?” I shook my head and tried to walk past her into the house.

“I’d understand it, if you had taken it: every girl wants her own gun. And it ain’t just for self-protection.” I pretended she wasn’t there and kept walking.

Carl was inside and he told me to make up some cornbread for dinner. Carl went outside and came back a few minutes later leading that Jane person into the kitchen. They didn’t pause, but went down the hall to Carl’s dental office.

Carl keeps his office in a room off the bar. He has a fancy chair with a headrest that doubles as a vice. It has handles and spring-loaded levers all around the bottom of the seat and you can just about launch a person to Kansas if you get the settings right and press them all at once. I know because I’ve tried a couple of times, but haven’t got the combination right. Carl started locking up his office after I strapped one of the Sweeney boys in there and left him overnight. Carl’s also got a small chaise lounge that patients recover on and a woodstove that he uses for melting paraffin and making coffee. He’s got a couple of magazines on the coffee table. The subscriptions ran out years ago, but Carl says that nobody reads in a dentist’s office anyhow, they’re too scared. He keeps illustrated magazines of the Spanish War. Some of the drawings are especially gruesome – this is to Carl’s liking, since he looks at them over and over again. I tried to throw them out, but he stopped me. “Pictures like these, Andy, help to set the mood.” He also has several copies of the American Magazine and Columbia – especially those issues that have your articles in them, Mr. Edison.

He also has a small, windowless workshop, a large closet, really, where he makes his dentures and keeps his safe. He’s covered the walls with pasted calendar pages and prints. He’s stuck them up with dental plaster; the dust is all over everything in the room. He lights the workshop only by the bunsen burner that also keeps his coffee warm and heats up metals for his fillings. My father’s blasphemous proud of his dental work and the research he has conducted to further the cause of dentistry here on the frontier. I don’t know if it’s true, but he says the best thing he’s ever done for dentistry is his procedure for breaking and re-setting jaws to cure overbite. He says one day he’ll write a scientific article on the “talum usum aere figere dente” (application of brass knuckles in certain operations), but he says he’s still in the research stages. I will let you know when his article is ready for publication. Carl’s denture work is more popular. He specializes in making sets of dentures that look just as nasty and discolored as the patient’s original teeth. Coffee-colored, tobacco-stained, and gap-toothed, my father’s denture work is the wonder of Montana.

Carl and his patient were still in his office when I put the cornbread on the stove, so I went out to turn the cow.

*    *     *

When the locals began showing up, Carl dished out the cow with beans, sauerkraut and cornbread. He doesn’t usually put on a feed like this and when word spread, people came in who normally wouldn’t and grabbed a plate. They set up along the bar and at all the tables around the room and I heard a lot more talking and laughing than I usually heard in my father’s bar.

By the time I finished washing up the supper dishes it was already past midnight. I like to sit in the dark far corner of the saloon. Carl stores some barrels in that corner and a couple of them stand between me and the bar, so if I’m quiet Carl doesn’t notice and he forgets to chase me off to bed. But the night this Jane showed up I didn’t really have to worry about being quiet, it was so loud with people carrying on. A new piano player had come in on the same train as Jane, but he hardly had a chance to play; people wanted to listen to Jane’s stories about her travels.

I watched Carl working the bar, laughing at these stories this hand-kisser was telling. I’ve never seen him laugh like that, Mr. Edison. I guess usually when Carl laughs everybody gets sort of quiet. The stories didn’t seem that funny to me. I worry for Carl’s immortal soul sometimes from all the cussing he does, but he’s a saint compared to Jane standing at the bar with a tumbler of whiskey in her big hand.

The men seemed to have forgotten all their arguing and card playing and picking on each other and they lined the bar calling out questions and peculiar notions that came into their heads. They asked Jane again and again about Hickok and how did he manage to get himself killed when he was so fast with a gun? She laughed and remembered out loud how some of them bad hombres used to shoot like regular coughing goddamn puppies. And they laughed kind of nervous-like ’cause they all knew she meant Carl (that was his patented phrase and nobody ever said ‘coughing puppy’ around him, except me maybe when I was in my room and the house was quiet and I knew that he couldn’t hear me. Then, sometimes, I whispered ‘coughing puppy’ or even, ‘coughing palomino,’ because I knew it was a magic phrase and maybe I’d get some of Carl’s power if I could master it). But Jane, she just threw it out there as though she had all Carl’s words down and the cowboys were scared because nobody ever kidded Carl, but I saw Carl throw his head back and laugh. He slapped the bar with his hand and the barrels along the back wall jumped with his pounding.

Back of the bar’s a painting of a naked lady. It’s been there since Carl bought the place. He’s whitewashed the walls and hung his framed magazine pictures up there (one of them is of you, Mr. Edison) where the mural of a naked woman used to be (the cowboys called her Rosie). The whitewash has started to fade and the outline of Rosie re-appears under the white paint. She’s reclining on a big red couch. I think it’s supposed to be a couch covered in drapery, but it looks like that rocky patch over in Eberson’s field. Her thighs are big and she’s crossing her knees and she has her hair piled up on the top of her head. Her face is turned to the side and maybe it’s because it’s been painted over, but it looks like Rosie’s two eyes are on one side of her nose. They’re beautiful brown eyes with long lashes. I don’t get to see her face very often because Carl has hung a portrait-photograph of you-know-who looking thoughtful where Rosie’s head used to be and Carl has a landscape of the Wizard’s Lair over her bosom (she has a large bosom, Mr. Edison) and we forget about Rosie mostly, except when a newcomer like Jane shows up and starts asking about her. This happened now and the cowboys gathered around, marveling at Rosie’s wonderful persistence.

Marcus came in the door then carrying his old accordion and Jane insisted he play them funny goddamn Bohemian songs he used to play in the old days. Marcus obliged, playing songs I’d never heard him do before. They did sound happier than what he usually played. But despite the whooping, hollering, and foot stomping that Marcus put on, nobody laughed. Carl got quiet and several of the older cowboys, big, leather-faced men, put their heads down on the bar like they didn’t want the others to see their faces in the yellow glow of Chez Carl’s big electric light. Marcus sang:

O, the grass grows high
where the cows go by
away on the long yerba night.
Will you sing for me
my Molly McGee
on the trail
by the sad Rio Grande?

O the proud Brahmin bulls
of the Kansas cow towns
carry ticks by the score, or more (or more).
Will you sing for me
of the rough chapparal
on the road
by the sad Rio Grande?

From the Yellow Slave Lake
to the Brown Musselshell
the cows wander ‘way from me.

Will you light up that smoke
my Molly McGee
on the trail
of the sad Rio Grande?

At the end of the night when I was starting to nod, I woke up as the usual crowd of them with any money left set off for the whorehouse down the street. They talked Jane into going along and she went saying something about being interested only if they had some pretty ones.

Carl went about locking up, dragging the passed-out drunks outside where he left them on the front porch. The night was warm and wasn’t going to hurt any of them, so Carl could just leave ’em there: a big mess of men on the boardwalk.

I crept down the hall past my bedroom to the room that Jane had taken. The door was open, so I went in. Hanging on the wall was the coughing pistol she’d accused me of stealing. On the floor, by the side of the bed, she had a small traveling box and thrown across the chair by my old dresser, were her saddlebags.

Through the window I saw the full moon rise on the horizon and from a long ways off I thought I heard the train whistle calling. It was probably only Carl though, scraping the chairs in the bar along the half-enameled floor. In a minute or two he’d be ready to head across the street and turn off the Yellowstone Power Company for the night. I slipped out the door and ran back to my room.

It is now very late and I have to be up early. I’ll close here, Carl will wonder why it took so long to send out our order for parts.

Good night, Mr. Edison,

your friend,

Andrea

P.S. Carl says we’re still waiting for the repair parts we need for the commutator I wrote to you about in April.

P.P.S. After I finished writing I heard Jane come in the back door and walk down the hall, but instead of passing on to her room two doors down she opened my door, walked in and sat on the foot of my bed. She took off her hat and scratched her head for several minutes, muttering to herself, I didn’t know if she was talking to me or not. I’d left my French lesson on the bed and she picked it up and looked at it, turning the pages over, wondering. I shifted in my bed and she looked up surprised and said: “what are you doing in here?”

“This is my room.”

“Oh.”

“Yours is down the hall.”

She indicated my book and said: “Say, it looks like you like to read. I’ve got a book you can read. I wrote a book. It’s my oughttabiography, full of things I ought’ta done.”

She pulled a folded pamphlet from her back pocket and handed it to me. The cover had a picture of Jane dressed in buckskin, holding a little squirrel gun.

“I usually sell them for two bits,” she said, “but you can have that one there, gratis.”

I took the pamphlet and studied it for a few moments. “It says here you were a scout for General Custer and you rode for the Pony Express,” I said.

“Would you read that part to me?” she asked. “I like that part about the stage robberies and I never get to hear it anymore.”

“Can’t you read it?”

“No. I can’t read.”

“But you said you wrote it,” I said.

“I did write it. I learned the writing business all right, but I never had any patience for reading. Writing seems reasonable, because you know what you’re putting down there on paper, but when you pick up something to read, god knows what you’re getting into.”

I sat up and read aloud the story of the death of Bill Hickok in Deadwood. She grasped my hand as I read and wept until my bedclothes were damp.

“Darling, that is such a sad story,” she said.

“Yes’m, it is. I heard Carl say that you had a daughter.”

“A sweet little girl. That’s in there too.”

“Was Hickok her dad?”

“Why, yes. Wild Bill was the father of my little girl. She can read and write letters and shoot from a galloping pony and drink tea with her goddam little finger stuck out if she needs to.”

“What’s your daughter’s name?” I asked her.

“I call her Janey, but her name is really Elizabeth.”

“She must be a young woman by now. Is she married? Where does she live?”

“She isn’t that old. She’s still my darling little girl.”

“But Bill Hickok died twenty-five years ago, Miss Jane.”

“I know that. Don’t you think I know that? Don’t you think I think about that every day? My little daughter was born in the petrified forest and everything moves slower in the petrified lands. Plants, minerals, children. You might think you’re living life at railway speed in the petrified places, but you’re not: you’re still a young kid in spite of yourself. In fact, I’ve spent a lot of time petrified myself – that’s how I’ve managed to keep my looks, honey. You’ve seen how all the boys are still crazy about me. But I had to give my little girl up you see, even though she was petrified.”

“Petrified? You mean, like a stone?”

“Well, she wasn’t quite like a stone. She just didn’t move very fast. She was slow to grow. I think she spent extra time in every year. But I’ve not seen her now since I gave her up to adoption.”

“Even though she was petrified?”

“I think that being petrified made the girl even more attractive to folks. Except you know you gotta feed kids and watch out for them; and a petrified child is harder to watch out for cause they’re such slow growers.”

“I’ve heard about petrified forests, but I never heard about petrified people–”

Jane said: “I think it has to do with all those underground minerals and things. The Indians believe these places to be holy and they avoid ‘em because none of ’em want petrified children running around – an Indian child’s gotta be on her feet and helping out from a young age. It’s the way of the Cheyenne you know to avoid petrification.”

“Where is she now?”

“I don’t know, child. I stay away from her. She has a fine respectable life. She don’t need no disreputable old woman getting in the way.”

“How do you know? Do you ever write to her?”

“No writing,” Jane said.

“I could write a letter for you.”

“You could?” She thought about it for a moment, moving her lips and she looked off somewhere to my left. “No. We better not,” she said and then she stopped and looked at me out of the corner of her eye. “You want to know about her?”

I nodded.

“Wait.”

She went down the hall, a little steadier than when she came in. After a few minutes she returned with her traveling box. She set it down on the floor. I sat up and looked over the side of my bed as she sat on the edge and opened the lid of the box. She rummaged around inside, taking out some old clothes, a dress, rubber boots, a few extra shirts.

“Miss Jane, I’d wash those for you, if you like.”

She grunted something in response, lost in her search. She pulled out parts to a broken shotgun wrapped in oilskins. When she set it on the floor, shotgun pellets rolled under the bed. She had a bundle of her pamphlets tied up in twine. She reached deeper into her trunk, pulling out more hardware: bits of coffee mills, cigar tins, empty medicine bottles.

“Here it is,” she said. She uncovered a small rag, a gunny sack with the faded lettering ‘bea…’ The sack had a couple of holes knocked out on the top and sides.

“What is it?” I asked as she put it into my hands.

“That’s my darling’s christening gown,” she said.

“Mmm.”

“Here,” She took it back from me and ran her hand under the unravelling fabric. Her gnarled fingers caught and twisted in the moth-eaten holes of the gown.

“Dammit,” she said as a fingernail tore the cloth.

“But do you see?” she asked. “Do you see?” And she moved her hand gently inside the gown. Her eyes searched out my own and I nodded.

“I did all the lace work myself,” she said.

“It’s lovely, Miss Jane. It looks like a butterfly. Yes, like a butterfly caught in a net.”

She stopped the motion of her hand when I said that and we watched the dirt brown of her wrist and the dark-veined back of her hand through the gray burlap gown. And it did look a little something like a butterfly – or maybe a prairie dog – caught in a net.

“It took me weeks of work,” she said. “I used a 20 gauge loaded with birdshot. For the really fine Armenian lace here,” and she showed me the shotgun-laced hem. “I soaked the cartridges in pigfat so’s the pellets stuck together and they made this nice bricbrac. Oh, remember how her tiny body filled out this old gown?”

She fixed me with her eyes, and I nodded ‘yes’ or maybe I meant ‘uh huh.’

“Why did it take weeks if you used a shotgun?”

She looked at me to see if I was pulling her leg – pretending not to know about the uses of firearms in lacemaking. “Oh honey, when you make a lace like this you don’t shoot directly at the fabric. Like all the important things in life, girl, you aim in-directly. That’s how it’s done. Why, a straight-ahead shotgun blast would tear big ol’ holes in this little dress. And the sooner you learn that, the better the whole deal will go.”

She folded it up reverently before stuffing it back into the bottom of her traveling box. This done, she replaced her hat on her head and left, taking her box with her.

Kevin Ducey lives in Madison, Wisconsin. His book of poems, Rhinoceros, is available from Copper Canyon Press. His fiction, nonfiction, and poetry have appeared in Exquisite Corpse, Crazyhorse, Sonora Review, AGNI, Hotel Amerika, The Pinch (River City), Beloit Poetry Journal, and other places.