“Moon Pies and Dime Whistles,” by s. smith

Aug 20th, 2009 | By | Category: Prose

The wind was a constant, a dry, gritty west wind that in winter ranted and wailed across the   prairie like a madwoman on roller skates. In the dead of summer it was almost always a sighing, an incoherent but incessant babble.

There was madness, Mrs. R. thought, in that wind and in the empty horizon. Madness enough to launch a level- headed man off a windmill. Frowning, she squeezed that thought from her mind and focused on freeing a row of sturdy beet tops from a blitzkrieg of sandbur.

Granted the wind was mad, yet today it was also a comfort. All morning it had been murmuring through the ragged shelterbelt, plucking a near melody from the rusted carcass of a 1917 Gleaner.

Within the wind there was the frantic skitter and plop of hoppers as they collided with tomatoes, beans and squash like a pinball game gone vegetarian. There was the musical table talk of a family of thrashers as they dined on the hoppers. And there was the indifferent whine of the bull racks as they raced eastward along Highway Fifty, a quarter mile and half the world away. Other than that, there was silence.

She straightened and stood, unfolding in sections, bracing her back with her gloved hands, like a woman far older than her thirty-four years. The Co Op thermometer by the back porch read one hundred and two. She had been weeding for an hour, unaware that day had turned molten around her. Fireworks exploded behind her eyes. She gripped the bean trellis to keep from falling.

After a moment she walked to the shade of the windmill. She ducked her head under the stream of clear water spurting into the stock tank and took a bandana from her bib pocket, soaked it in the tank and squeezed the bandana over her grimy face.

Through the porch window she glimpsed her uncle’s frayed panama hat,   on its peg by the back door. With that hat she could weed for another half hour, while her young daughters napped next to the family’s one oscillating fan.   The problem with grabbing the hat was the back door. It was on a precariously short spring. One bang and the girls would be up. All four of them.

The front door was more forgiving. If she could just sneak into the house through the front door, retrieve the hat and slip out the back porch, she could finish up the weeding. And then the afternoon would be hers, all hers, to while away reading, or listening to the radio, or . . .

“Hey! Lady!”

Two boys on rundown bicycles waved to her from the front gate. She motioned them to shush and then picked across the goat- head infested yard to confront them.

“What?” she whispered.

“We’re selling this stuff,” the smaller of the two boys answered in a hoarse whisper.

They looked to be about the same age. Although they had a comical fat and skinny disparity to them, she guessed them to be of the same family. Both wore faded t-shirts, ragged denim cut- offs, cheap sneakers. There was nothing unusual in this; the whole damn county was a pocket of economic distress.

“What stuff?” she asked.

“This stuff.” The smaller boy held out an old Nesbitt’s Orange pop bottle. It was filled with a dubious brown liquid, capped with aluminum foil, and secured with a rubber band.

She wrinkled her nose. “What is it?”

The bigger boy took it from the smaller boy and extended it over the gate to her. “The abuelo makes it,” he explained.

” Why?” she asked, having nothing to do with the proffered bottle.

The boys exchanged a puzzled shrug.

“What does he do with it?” she asked patiently.

“He puts it on stuff,” the bigger boy said.

“To make stuff grow,” the smaller boy coached.

“Yeah. To make stuff grow.”

“What kind of stuff?” she asked, now genuinely interested.

“Tomatoes and beans and … stuff. It makes stuff grow real big!”

“In our huerta the pepinos grow this big!”   His companion showed the size of the cucumbers with outstretched hands.

“And the tomatoes are like baseballs. And the melons are big as soccer balls!” the smaller boy bragged, nodding at her spindly garden. “The abuela has to chop the roasting ears in half to fit them in the pot!”

“Oh yeah?” Mrs. R. fought a grin.

“The abuelo’s corn is so tall we have to climb on the roof to pick it!”

“Cool. Does your abuelo have a recipe for this wondrous elixir?”

The boys exchanged a guarded look. “It’s a secret.”

“Oh. A secret.” She shrugged and turned to go into the house.

“But see, this bottle is for sale.”

“Yeah, Lady. One bottle, one time only,” the smaller boy added.

She took the bottle and held it to the midday sun. Squint as she might she could not see through the opaque liquid. “How do I know this isn’t ditch water?”

The boys raised their hands in aggrieved innocence.

“The abuelo made it just this morning,” the smaller boy testified.

“He said the words over it and everything,” the larger boy affirmed.

“He made it for the duraznos. They aren’t doing so good on account of the rain not coming. The abuela is worried. She says she won’t have anything to can up. They are turning ripe and only this big.” He showed her a circle about the size of a tennis ball.

“Well, I hope they snap out of it.”

“They are. They were swelling up when we rode under the trees. We could hear them,” the larger boy assured her.

With a frown she re-examined the greenish black liquid. “And your abuelo is willing to spare some of this miraculous elixir?”

“There was only the littlest bit left in the bottom of the bucket.” The bigger boy shrugged.

“So you want to buy it, Lady?” The smaller boy asked.

“How much?”

“Two dollars.”

“For a bottle of water? I’ll give you a quarter.”

“No way, Lady. This is valuable stuff.”

“Then you’d better pedal your peddling down the road.”

Shading their eyes with grubby hands the boys surveyed the length of the heat -warped road before them and sighed in unison.

The smaller boy reasoned, “Look, Lady, you’re new to the neighborhood.   This is my primo, Jorge.   I’m Efrain. Now Jorge and me, we want to give you a good deal so we can do business again. The abuelo would charge you five bucks for this one little bottle.”

“Maybe I’ll drive over and barter with the abuelo myself.”

An uneasy look passed between the boys.

“Lady, we want to go swimming.” The smaller boy pointed wistfully down the highway to the village of Pierceville. “The city pool costs a dollar to get in. Me and Jorge only got fifty six cents.”

“The river is free,” she answered, pointing to a line of broken cottonwoods snaking along the sand hills to the south.

“This is August. There isn’t even a mud hole left.

She nodded. This indeed had been the state of the mighty Arkansas the last time she’d crossed the bridge. Her eyes fell on her stock tank.

Efrain read her mind. “We been splashing in a stock tank all summer. School starts next week. We want to swim in blue water that goes over our heads.”

“With a sproingy diving board,” Jorge added wistfully.

The two dollars in question were two of maybe six dollars hoarded in her grandmother’s tea pot to take her own daughters for a day of blue water swimming and pizza. But the cousin’s fifty-six cents was so much closer to their two dollars, than her six dollars to the twenty she would need, that Mrs. R. sighed and fished two quarters and eleven dimes out of her bib pocket. “A dollar sixty?”

The boys frowned. She shrugged and pocketed the change.

“For fifty cents we can split an ice cream sandwich. We haven’t had ice cream all summer,” the smaller boy said quietly.

“Times are hard all over,” she observed..


“Mrs. Riesinschlachter,” she corrected.

“Mrs. …Huh?”

“Riesinschlachter,” she said slowly, pointing to the new letters on the shiny mailbox.

“Wow! Is that really your name?”

“Well, it was my husband’s name. I guess he gave it to me.”

“Can’t he give you a dollar?”

“He died. A couple of summers ago.”

“Was he the guy who fell off the windmill?” Jorge asked.

“No,” she frowned. “That was my Uncle Jack. He died last September. He used to live here. I spent my summers here, when I was your age. When he died he left me this house, a quarter section of tumbleweeds, and 56 jars of dimes. This place is a little rundown, but a windfall for a poor widow. With solid planning and a little luck… well, who couldn’t use some luck? My husband was a good man, but grape headed when it came to the bones and stones of workaday life. Always blowing his principle on moon pies and dime whistles, Uncle Jack used to say. He left us pretty much…”

The boys were not listening. They were peering down the dusty road with shaded eyes.

“Look, L … Missus R. Lets do this.” Efrain snapped the foil off the top of the bottle, walked through the gate, and dumped the contents of the bottle on six spindly scarlet runner beans tethered to an old TV pole next to the house.

“Efrain, es too much!” Jorge hissed.

Efrain ignored him. “Now, L …Missus R., you give us the two dollars. And if you are not amazed, truly and absolutely amazed, at the results, me and Jorge will chop those goat heads out of your yard. Every one of them. And paint the fence. All that for a mere two dollars. If you are not one hundred percent impressed with the beans.”

An argument flickered across her mind but she let it pass. “Okay, but I’ll have to pay you in dimes.”

“Dimes spend the same as dollars,” Efrain reasoned.

She nodded at the wisdom of this and tiptoed into the house, past the bedroom where her daughters slumbered, and into the kitchen. In the pantry, from behind a flour sack curtain, she took one of the fifty-six jars of dimes. This one had a sauerkraut label and still packed a krauty wallop when uncorked.

Cautiously she counted out twenty dimes, making certain they were all FDR’s. She hadn’t gotten around to opening all the jars yet, but a couple or three mercury heads had turned up in each of the opened jars. She’d heard once that mercury heads were worth more. Someday she might drive into Garden City and see a coin dealer. In the meantime the mercury heads were setting on the kitchen windowsill in an empty film canister.

The dimes were an enigma. She could not remember seeing them as a child, but after her aunt died her uncle had grown downright peculiar. Each jar was labeled with a year, beginning in 1966. Some years had two or three jars; others had none. There was a method to their arrangement, and although she had not yet figured it out, she knew it was important. Her uncle had been a methodical man, even in his insanity. For a scant second she had a vision of him, dead and broken, at the foot of the windmill, his pockets full of dimes, a hatchet in his hand. She shook off the memory and returned to her bargaining.

“Gentlemen, here you are. Twenty dimes.” Officiously she counted them out. ” How about leaving me your phone number? Just in case.”

” We live over there,” Efrain pointed out a low huddle of greenery and outbuildings a good two miles down the road. “We don’t have no phone. The abuela, she thinks witches live in the wires. We’ll ride over tomorrow, to check on the beans.”

“Tomorrow? Isn’t that little early?”

“Not with this stuff.”

“You’ll see, lady.”

And they were off, down the gritty road on their way to the concrete pool and the ice cream sandwich.

She entered her house and took a weary seat on the worn, velveteen sofa that had once belonged to her grandparents. She tried to read, but the letters were wobbly and uncommunicative. Finally she dampened her bandana, swaddled her pounding temples with it, and stretched out on the sofa for a nap.

It was the shrilling of the cicadas that brought her back to the world of men and labor. And that world had grown murky. The palm frond wallpaper, the Duncan Fife dining room suite, the worn Persian carpet, the stifling silk drapes all seemed to have taken on an eerie, greenish cast. There was a note of alarm in the manic whirring of the cicadas. The starlings, perched in the cottonwoods, echoed that note in their frantic chattering.

She wondered if a storm might be brewing. The blue skies of western Kansas are infamous for turning sickly green without warning and dropping vicious, swirling assassins into the most innocuous of afternoons.

She pulled the drapes on the west-facing window and blinked hard. The entire window was blocked by something translucent, and green. She ran to the next window. That dusty pane had turned scarlet because an exotic scarlet blossom the size of a hibiscus was pressed against it. She rushed outside. Clutching the porch rail with white knuckled hands she took in the miracle.

The six bean vines had thickened and stretched beyond all credibility. They twisted in and around the old TV antenna; a tangle of lush green leaves, enormous eye- searing blossoms, tendrils as thick as cables. They twined right over the roof of the little farm house and into an ominous bruise -colored cloud.

She stepped off   the porch to confront the impossible. Tugging at the leaves she found enough footholds to carry an intrepid adventurer over the roof and into the clouds.

She sat on the porch step to think things through, but really the implications were clear. There was no sense burning daylight. Forty minutes and a bit of luck, was all she needed. She’d be home before the girls were up from their nap. If her luck was ever going to change this would be the afternoon to change it

“There comes a dime in the tides of men”, she misquoted softly, and then, just as softly, begged her dead uncles’ pardon for doubting his sanity.

She donned his old panama and tied it onto her head with the bandana. She slipped a hatchet into a hammer loop on her overalls. As an afterthought she picked up an old ball bat, tucked it into her bib, and began her climb.


s. smith says: “My name is Shannon Smith. I’m a fifth generation Kansan.   I teach high school Spanish (Hola). i am certified to teach English also, but the capitalization thing holds me back.   Back in the hippie daze folks called me Shakey.”

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