If you’ve read Tangled Roots, you will recognize Bess and Marvin, an older farm couple who lived on the bluff overlooking their river bottom crop land. This story was cut from the final version of Tangled Roots and I thought you might enjoy getting to know Marvin and Bess a little better.
When the dogs started raising Cain out front Bess went straight to the front door and peeked through the lace curtains. Time was she would have just thrown the door wide open without looking. The dogs carrying on like that meant company, and used to be company was always welcome at River View. But times had changed, and now she always looked first. The young man standing on the front porch looked harmless enough. He was dressed in ragged jeans and a tee shirt, his thin face showing his fear as he glanced back over his shoulder at the hounds. He was about 16, barely driving age, Bess thought. She figured he most likely turned off on the wrong road and got lost.
She opened the door and ordered the dogs into silence. The young man stepped inside quickly, slipping past Bess without so much as an ‘excuse me’. Then he pulled the screen door closed, leaving the dogs outside whining in frustration.
“They don’t bite,” Bess assured him, “they’re all bark”
“I wasn’t scared! Did you think I was scared of the dogs? I wasn’t scared.”
Bess smiled. “Well, some folks are. They do make a lot of noise.”
The young man thrust his hand into the pockets of his worn jeans, jingling change with his fingers as he stepped further into the room, craning his neck around to look all around the room.
“Are you here by yourself, Ma’am?” Bess didn’t like that question, the hairs on the back of her neck started to prickle with unease.
“No, I’m not by myself. My husband’s at home. Did you want to see him?” Bess leaned out the screen door. Marvin had come out of the barn and was looking up toward the house. She motioned for him to come.
Marvin threw her a look when he came in. He wasn’t happy with her. He was always reminding her not to open the door to a stranger when she was alone in the house. She was sure she would hear all about it later. For now, though, he kept most of his attention focused on the kid.
“What brings you way out here?”
“Oh, I was just kind of looking for a place to hunt. I hear there’s a whole bunch of deer hiding out up here on these bluffs.”
“You heard that, huh?”
“Yeah, I heard there was some bucks with really big horns.”
“Yeah, you know, like a whole tree branch on their head?”
“I know. We most generally call them antlers, though.” Marvin’s voice was mild.
“Yeah…antlers.” The kid didn’t even know enough to be embarrassed. He had moved away from the foyer and was wandering through the living room, looking over the framed family photos on the walls. Bess watched in horror as he picked up her favorite glass bluebird, turned it over in his hands, and carelessly put it back down too close to the edge of the end table. All the time his eyes kept moving, roving over everything from her knitting basket beside her chair to Grandma’s mantel clock above the fireplace. He’s acting like this is a gift shop, Bess thought indignantly, like he can’t find what he’s looking for…
Without invitation, the young man unceremoniously seated himself in Marvin’s favorite chair. “You have a real nice place here,” he announced.
“Thank you.” Bess responded automatically. She stood uncertainly in the middle of the room, torn between the habit of good manners and her growing sense of unease. She would usually offer refreshments to any guest, however uninvited. But she really wanted this insolent young man out of her house, and offering him a cup of coffee might prolong his stay. When she saw Marvin sit down on the sofa across from the boy, she followed his lead and perched uneasily on the edge of a rocker near the kitchen door.
The boy had picked up the bluebird again and was tossing it casually back and forth between his hands as his eyes continued to roam over the room.
“I don’t believe I caught your name?” Her husband waited for a response, but the boy sat there with a little smile on his face and didn’t say a word. After a minute, Marvin tried again, “my name is Johnson and…..”
“I know who you are,” the boy interrupted. “And I know your wife’s name, too. Bess? Isn’t that right? And your son is Jim Johnson.”
“You know my son?”
“Sure. I know him.”
“I guess Jim must be the one who told you about the hunting out here?”
“Yeah! Jim told me to come on out and hunt. But I thought it’d be, you know, polite, to stop and talk with you folks first.”
“That was real..polite..of you.”
Bess watched the stilted conversation in silence. Every word out of the kid’s mouth made it more obvious that he didn’t know her son at all. Jim was very protective of River Bluffs’ 400 acres. No one hunted out here anymore. Not even Jim.
Marvin didn’t challenge the kid on his lies, though, so she held her tongue, waiting and watching.
“Let’s go for a walk.” Marvin’s voice was still quiet and genial. “I’ll show you the best hunting spots.”
“Naah..I think I’d like to just stay in here a while, where it’s nice and cool, you know?” The boy stood up and stretched, making the tattoos on his forearm jump as he flexed his muscles.
She saw now he wasn’t as young as she had first thought. Although his face was smooth and thin, his shoulders were broad under the loose tee shirt. He walked to the front window. Now he was between Marvin and the door. “Sure seems strange to look out and not see nobody,” he commented as he pulled the lace curtain aside. “The last house I passed must be a couple miles back. That’s a long ways to your nearest neighbors, huh? Don’t it make you nervous, living way out here all by yourself?”
“No, why should we be nervous? We have company all the time. We have a lot of friends. But we haven’t heard from Jim for quite a while, have we, Bess?” Marvin looked across the room, straight into Bess’s eyes for a moment as he spoke, and then casually turned back to the boy. “I guess that’s why he didn’t tell us you were coming out.”
To Bess, the message was as clear as it always was when Marvin said those same words. He would never tell her directly to call Jim. But if he hadn’t heard from him in a while, or if there was a chore he needed Jim’s help with, he always let her know with just those words. “We haven’t heard from Jim in a while” meant “Call Jim!”
There was a phone in the kitchen. Bess stood up. Somehow her voice came out calm and steady. “Would either of you fellows like a cup of coffee, or a Coke, or anything?”
“I’ll take a cup of coffee, if it’s fresh,” Marvin answered quickly. “Why don’t you make a new pot? How about you, son? Would you like a cup of coffee?”
“Don’t suppose you have any beer?”
“Maybe. I’ll go look.” Bess hurried across the hall into the kitchen. The phone was hanging by the backdoor. She thought about going on through the door and down the road to Hendersons. But it would take a good while to get there, and they might not even be home. And she couldn’t just leave Marvin. She grabbed the phone and dialed Jim’s number.
She was still dialing when she heard the kitchen door open. She knew he was there. Right behind her. She hung up the phone and turned to face him. He wasn’t playing with the pretty little blue bird any longer. Now he had a big ugly knife.
It was a folding knife with a long thin blade. A pocket knife, some portion of Bess’s mind noted remotely. She couldn’t take her eyes away from the bright gleam of the blade as it flicked back and forth in his nervous hand.
“Who are you calling, Grandma? I thought you come in here to get me a beer?”
“I…I was just getting it…. it’s in the refrigerator.” She forced herself to look away from the knife. She didn’t want him to see how frightened she was. But it was too late. He knew. She could see it in his mocking smile and in the coldness of his dark eyes.
He moved closer. She couldn’t help flinching, but he only reached over her shoulder to grab the receiver of the wall phone. The acrid stench of his sweat surrounded her as he stretched the coiled plastic line out between their bodies. His eyes never left hers as he slowly brought the knife and the telephone receiver up in front of her face and sliced through the cord, silencing the insistent buzz of the dial tone.
“Leave my wife alone!” Marvin’s voice was rough in the sudden silence.
The boy spun around and threw the phone receiver against the wall. “I haven’t touched your wife, old man! Not yet!” He grabbed Bess, pulling her in close against his left side, the knife in his right hand hovering near her face. “But I could. Anytime I want to, I could. So you both better just quit messing with me.”
Marvin had stopped just inside the kitchen door. Like Bess, he couldn’t seem to take his eyes off the bright blade. “Messing with you…”
“Do you think I’m stupid? Old Miss Sunday School Teacher Johnson jumps up and says she “may” have a beer in HER refrigerator? You think I’m so stupid I can’t figure out she could have some other reason for running off to the kitchen in such a great big hurry?”
“Okay, Okay…. just let go of my wife and tell me what you want. Whatever it is, you can have it! Just let my wife go!”
“Now you’re the one who’s stupid. You know what I want. And as for your wife, she’s gonna stay right here beside me while the three of us look over this fine big house of yours. I don’t have to see the whole thing. You can just go straight to the safe.”
“Safe? I don’t have a safe!”
“Safe, strong box, cedar chest, hatbox…hell, I don’t care what you keep your money in! Just show me where it is!”
Marvin unsnapped the chest pocket of his overalls and pulled out his wallet. “Here, take it, I think there’s about two hundred in there.”
“I didn’t come out here for your wallet! I came for your money – your real money.
“But this is my money. I don’t –
“Marvin, stop! Please don’t lie! Give him the money. He’s going to hurt me if you don’t.”
Bess looked past the knife, staring straight into her husband’s eyes, willing him to understand. “Please! He knows you don’t like banks. Somebody must have told him about all the money you’ve saved, about how you like to look at it and count it sometimes…show him where it is Marvin! Just show him where you keep the money you save!”
Marvin stood for a long moment, his eyes never leaving his wife’s face. “It took me a long time to save that money.”
“You better listen to Miz Johnson, old man, she’s making sense.”
“Yeah. I reckon she is.” Marvin turned and pointed back through the door. “The money’s right down the hall in the closet.”
The boy smiled. “Show me.” He grabbed Bess by the upper arm and forced her along with him as he followed Marvin. As they passed through the kitchen door, Bess tripped and fell heavily into the wall. The boy had to let go to keep from being pulled down with her. He jumped back, cursing as she hit the floor with a thump.
“Oh, dear Lord, I think I broke my hip! Oh, it hurts so bad! Ohh!” The thin, quavering wail was the frightened cry of an old woman.
Marvin tried to get to her, but the boy stepped over her body and gave him a push. “First the money! She’s not going anywhere.”
“Okay, okay…….it’s right here, under the stairs” The closet was about eight feet down the hall from the kitchen door. Marvin opened the door and stepped back, revealing a dark narrow doorway.
“It’s in there?”
“Yes. Everything I’ve saved is right back there in the back of the closet. You want me to go in and get it and bring it out to you?”
Marvin started into the closet, but the boy grabbed his arm and pulled him back. “Wait just a minute. You seem awful eager all of a sudden. I bet you got a big old shotgun in there with that money.”
” I just want you to get the money and go, so I can take care of my wife! There’s nothing in there except money.”
“Well, I think I’ll just see for myself, just the same. Where’s the light?”
“It’s a chain in the ceiling. Right up over your head.”
The boy took a step into the closet and reached up to find the chain. The weak light of the 40 watt bulb was enough to show the surprise on his face when he looked toward the back of the long narrow closet. He was so intent he didn’t notice when Marvin stepped back and gently closed the heavy closet door. He did hear the click of the bolt sliding into place. But it was too late. The thick door muffled his curses and although it sounded like he was kicking and banging with all his strength, the door didn’t even quiver.
Bess was on her feet coming down the hall when Marvin turned around. “I thought you broke your hip!”
“ No dear, I just didn’t want to go into the closet with him.”
Jim had his deputy stand to the side with his gun ready while he opened the closet door. But it was obvious right away that the fellow in the closet wasn’t going to be giving them any trouble. He was sitting on the floor, his face was wet with tears When he looked up, blinking and squinting against the light, his red-rimmed eyes held more relief than threat. The wide planks of the floor glittered with silver and copper coins. The kid had one jar in his lap, another lay on its side spilled out.
The shelves behind the boy held rank after rank of those gallon glass jars. Another just like it sat on the dresser by Marvin’s bed, ready to receive his pocket change every night.