The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug. Mark Twain

Friday, April 1, 2011

Kate Winn and her Garden

Sometime in the first half of the 20th century, I'm not exactly sure when, there might have existed a mythical New Hampshire town called Standish.  The people of Standish were quite usual, which is to say they were unusual, each in their own way.  Standish was (is?) equal parts Winesburg, Ohio and Castle Rock, Maine, with just a dash of Lake Woebegone.  I'll share some of the tales here - I look forward to your thoughts, reactions, and even your ideas for more of the odd residents of Standish.  Below, please enjoy the story of Kate Winn and her curious garden.

Kate Winn and her Garden
excerpted from Standish, a New Hampshire Town

          The clearing of a throat, “tut, tut!”, and then: “Mrs. Winn.”
          The woman on her knees in the dirt, hidden beneath an enormous floppy white hat, looked up.  On the other side of her whitewashed picket fence, on the McClintock Street sidewalk, stood three ladies.  They were the executive committee of the Standish chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution, but they were not here in that capacity.  They were also the executive committee of the far more powerful and important Standish Garden Club.  Mrs. Turner loomed on the left, tall and erect, her taut face exhibiting disapproval as though she smelled something unpleasant, her sharp brown eyes darting about as if the corner of McClintock and Leavitt was the sort of neighborhood where one’s life was in danger.  On the right shuffled Mrs. Sexton, mousy, nondescript and insufficiently haughty, but of impeccable pedigree and wealth.
          Mrs. Butterworth, who always stood in the middle, conjured images of a mobile fire hydrant.  She was short and fat, though she preferred the descriptor stout if any was needed at all, and usually red of face, especially on warm late mornings in June.  Like her two lieutenants, she lived on the side of town that did not include McClintock or Leavitt Street, but rather more enviable and correct addresses like Pinebrook Circle and Morning Glory Drive.  As Kate stood, wiping her mud-caked hands on her blue denim trousers, she smiled pleasantly at her visitors.  Kate smiled at everyone, even the Negro who brought the milk, and it simply was not proper.
          “Hello,” Kate said.  She knew better than to offer a hand to these ladies, who would not take it.  Under her floppy white hat Kate retained the last vestiges of pretty girlhood and flyaway salt-and-pepper hair that refused to be bound in any kind of bun or other appropriate arrangement.  She had rounded shoulders, a middle-aged middle, and was barefoot.  Mrs. Butterworth and the other ladies did not return the greeting, although Mrs. Sexton appeared to be on the verge of blurting out a courtesy before a glare from Mrs. Turner quelled the impulse.
          “We have decided,” Mrs. Butterworth stated royally, “that your flowers are of sufficient quality this season to warrant entry into The Show.”  This was the Standish Flower Show, also called The Show, which somehow could not be confused with the Standish Craft and Quilt Show, or the Standish Automobile Show, and certainly not the Standish Volunteer Fire Department’s Music and Comedy Show. 
          “Thank you,” replied Kate, and that was that, and the ladies were gone, marching off up McClintock toward Middle Road and thence to more suitable parts of town. 
          This was news indeed, thought Kate, who turned to gaze at her garden, still smiling.  Her flowers smiled back at her in all their glory, the delphiniums and peonies, irises and daylilies.  She had labored for years with these plants, digging and tending, watering and weeding, and the results had always been modest at best.  She had never been invited to display her flowers at The Show before.  This spring, of all springs, her efforts had finally yielded forth in a blaze of color and fragrance that could not be ignored by Mrs. Butterworth, Mrs. Turner, and Mrs. Sexton.  Kate knew it was not any magical increase in her ability or attentions that had made that difference.  No, this year her husband Tom had helped her. 
          Tom had always been proud of Kate’s garden, whether the blooms were small or large, whether the colors were bright or dull.  He also knew it kept her busy while he was away, as he so frequently was, working at the railyards, and the thought of her happily tending to her flowers sustained him during many of the double shifts he endured.  So when he died after his fifth heart attack the previous fall, Kate had chopped him into pieces in the basement and buried him in her garden.
          In the weeks before the Standish Flower Show, Kate spent almost all of her time in the garden.  She knew her flowers were the match of any in town, and that the ladies of the executive committee had had no real choice but to include them in The Show.  That did not make up for years of brusque dismissal, of class disdain and outright contempt.  The Winns had not been poor, but they had certainly never been rich.  Tom had been a union man on the railroad, ate his meals from a lunchbox, and voted for Democrats.  Mr. Butterworth owned a bank, Mr. Turner an import business, and Mr. Sexton was a dead lawyer.  They played golf at the exclusive Swasey Country Club, ate at the Athenian Gentlemen’s Room, and gave money to Republicans.  Naturally, their wives had little use for the wife of the likes of Tom Winn.
          The day of the show was the best of June days, bright and clear and warm and perfect.  Kate put on her best white dress and loaded her best flowers in baskets in the bed of Tom’s old truck.  Together, she and the flowers made their way to the high school gymnasium for the Saturday show.  They arrived early and found their place at the back of the vast room, almost behind the folding wooden bleachers, underneath a threadbare banner that proclaimed the forgotten accomplishments of a school basketball team from years before.
Kate laid out her flowers with care, and noticed that since they had been cut their colors were more vivid and their scent even more sweet and strong. 
          As the morning wore on, the gymnasium filled with the women of Standish who had been selected to display the products of their flower gardens.  Kate knew most of them by sight but very few by friendly acquaintance.  These women were not the wives of the brakemen or the porters or the postmen.  These women were the wives of Standish society, and a good share of their hands had never seen the dirt of the earth, but rather relied on paid gardeners to tend their plants.  Kate found that she scarcely cared, especially since her flowers were unquestionably the most stunning of all.  People began to linger by her table, putting their faces near the blossoms and inhaling deeply.  Those who did so wandered away with broad grins on their face, cheeks rosy and eyes unfocused, as if they had shared a bottle of wine.  It did not take long before the women from the other displays, irked by the lack of attention for their flowers, began to investigate the disturbance.
          “Who let her in here?” demanded Mrs. Finkle, her face thin and pinched, her skin as blotchy as the faded rose petals on her table. 
          “Those don’t even look real,” howled Mrs. Proulx, her massive jowls jiggling, drooping along with her wilted peonies.
          When both women crowded closer, with the intention of further chastising Kate, they instead breathed deeply of the fragrant blooms, more vibrant than ever on their simple wooden folding table.  Insults and accusations forgotten, Mrs. Finkle and Mrs. Proulx instead called out to the executive committee.
          “Come and see these delphiniums!” cried Mrs. Finkle.
          “The lilies are divine!” declared Mrs. Proulx.
          There was a commotion along the next aisle over, and though she could not be seen behind the tables, Mrs. Butterworth could be heard steaming along, clearing a path with her imperious glare and impatient “tut, tut!”  Within moments she appeared breathlessly at Kate’s table, elbowing her way through the gathered crowd, Mrs. Turner and Mrs. Sexton alongside as ever.
          “What’s all this, then?” accused Mrs. Butterworth wheezily.
          “I told you it was a mistake to invite her,” jeered Mrs. Turner.  “Even if her husband is dead.  Sympathy is wasted on the lower classes.”
          Mrs. Sexton said nothing, though her eyes seemed to apologize to Kate, who simply smiled.
          “Good morning,” she greeted the other women.  “Such a beautiful day, and so many beautiful flowers.”
          “Tut, tut,” snapped Mrs. Butterworth.  “We shall see.”  She waddled closer to the flowers piled on Kate’s table, and greedily inhaled of the irises.  A profound change came over that red face then, as clear as if an eraser had just swept across the chalkboard of her mind.  Her eyes shone, and her chubby mouth split into a wide smile.  Without so much as a glance at the others, she began to dance.
          Now, it was not the first time anyone had seen Mrs. Butterworth dance, but there is dancing and there is dancing.  This was not a stately waltz at the Swasey, nor even a somewhat less dignified but still excusable polka.  This was, undeniably, a jig.  And not a refined or contained jig, but one that carried Mrs. Butterworth down the aisle and back again, and then up onto a nearby table, where her flailing feet scattered the blossoms so carefully arranged there.  A stunned silence descended then across the gymnasium, except for Kate’s laughter, and the clapping of her hands.
          “Well!” shouted Mrs. Turner.  “Get down, Pearl!”  Pearl was Mrs. Butterworth’s first name, but she paid little heed and continued to dance, her hands grasping the corners of her dress and lifting the hem upward, allowing her stubby legs to kick higher and higher.  Mrs. Turner, her mouth open in shock and wrath, turned to berate Kate, but caught her long nose in a pile of delphiniums.  As you would expect by now, a similar change came over Mrs. Turner, but instead of dancing, she threw her head back and began to sing.  No opera or anything so elite and cultured, but rather a vulgar sort of bluegrass, which few, if any, in the room had ever heard before.  It was loud, it was full of crude language, and it was not close to in time with Mrs. Butterworth’s gyrations, but this seemed to make little difference to the two. 
          Kate laughed, and many of the others in the gymnasium laughed, even those Mrs. Butterworth and Mrs. Turner considered equals, if not friends.  Even within the upper class there are gradients, and the two women now behaving like intoxicated college freshmen had always made it perfectly clear they were better than anyone else, and so now their humiliation was a source of amusement to all.
          “Mrs. Winn,” murmured Mrs. Sexton, a look of concern on her face.  She pointed toward the faces of her fellow executive committee members.   Kate looked, and saw that despite the ongoing apparent enthusiasm of both song and dance, there were signs of strain apparent as well, perspiration and, Kate noted with alarm, small trickles of blood from the nose of Mrs. Butterworth and the ears of Mrs. Turner.  Neither was accustomed to this sort of sustained effort, and it had quickly become dangerous to both.
          “Tom,” whispered Kate.  “Tom, enough.”
          It ended as suddenly as it began.  Mrs. Butterworth sat down hard on the table, which collapsed and dumped its burden into Mrs. Turner, the result being that both women came to rest on the floor in an exhausted, but largely unhurt, heap. 
          “Thank you,” said Mrs. Sexton, who went to help.  She paused, and turned back to Kate.  Reaching inside a bag she carried, she withdrew a large blue ribbon, which she laid atop the pile of flowers at Kate’s table, then scurried to Mrs. Butterworth and Mrs. Turner.
          As you might imagine, there was a great deal of talk about that particular Standish Flower Show, and for a long time.  No small dent was made in the implied moral authority and cultural dominance of Mrs. Butterworth and Mrs. Turner, who never made another trip to the corner of McClintock and Leavitt.  Mrs. Sexton could be seen there once in a while, on quiet spring afternoons.  And Kate Winn’s garden, though never quite as colorful or as outstanding, remained the most beautiful in town for years to come.      

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