So that's how I came to Argus. I was the girl in the stiff coat.
After I ran blind and came to a halt, shocked not to find Karl behind me, I looked up to watch for him and heard the train whistle long and shrill. That was when I realized Karl had probably jumped back on the same boxcar and was now hunched in straw, watching out the opened door. The only difference would be the fragrant stick blooming in his hand. I saw the train pulled like a string of black beads over the horizon, as I have seen it so many times since. When it was out of sight, I stared down at my feet. I was afraid. It was not that with Karl gone I had no one to protect me, but just the opposite. With no one to protect and look out for, I was weak. Karl was taller than me but spindly, older of course, but fearful. He suffered from fevers that kept him in a stuporous dream state and was sensitive to loud sounds, harsh lights. My mother called him delicate, but I was the opposite. I was the one who begged spotted apples from the grocery store and stole whey from the back stoop of the creamery in Minneapolis, where we were living the winter after my father died.
This story starts then, because before that and without the year 1929, our family would probably have gone on living comfortably in a lonely and isolated white house on the edge of Prairie Lake.
We rarely saw anyone else. There were just us three: Karl and me and our mother, Adelaide. There was something different about us even then. Our only visitor was Mr. Ober, a tall man with a carefully trimmed black beard. He owned a whole county of Minnesota wheatland. Two or three times a week he appeared, in the late evenings, and parked his automobile in the barn.
Karl hated Mr. Ober's visits, but I looked forward to each one because my mother always brightened. It was like a change of weather in our house. I remember that on the last night Mr. Ober came to visit, she put on the blue silk dress and the necklace of sparkling stones that we knew had come from him. She wound and pinned her dark red braid into a crown, and then brushed my hair one hundred light, even strokes. I closed my eyes and listened to the numbers. "You didn't get this from me," she said at last, letting the hair fall limp and black about my shoulders.
When Mr. Ober arrived, we sat with him in the parlor. Karl posed on the horsehair sofa and pretended a fascination with the red diamonds woven into the carpet. As usual, I was the one whom Mr. Ober singled out for petting. He put me on his lap, called me Schatze. "For your hair, Little Miss," he said, pulling a green satin ribbon from his vest pocket. His voice was deep pitched, but I liked the sound of it in counterpoint to or covering my mother's. Later, after Karl and I were sent to bed, I stayed awake and listened to the grown-up's voices rise and tangle, then fall, first in the downstairs parlor and then, muffled, in the dining room. I heard both of them walk up the stairs. The big door closed at the end of the hall. I kept my eyes open. There was darkness, the creaks and thumps that a house makes at night, wind in the branches, tapping. By morning he was gone.
The next day Karl sulked until our mother hugged and kissed him back into good humor. I was sad, too, but with me she was short of temper.
Karl always read the comics in the Sunday paper first, and so he was the one who found the picture of Mr. Ober and his wife on the front page. There had been a grain-loading accident, and Mr. Ober had smothered. Therewas a question, too, of suicide. He'd borrowed heavily against his land. Mother and I were cleaning out drawers in the kitchen, cutting white paper out to fit them, when Karl brought the piece in to show us. I remember that Adelaide's hair was plaited in two red crooked braids and that she fell full length across the floor when she read the news. Karl and I huddled close to her, and when she opened her eyes
I helped her into a chair.
she threw her head back and forth, would not speak, shuddered
like a broken doll. Then she looked at Karl.
"You're glad!" she cried.
Karl turned his head away, sullen.
"He was your father," she blurted.
So it was out.
My mother knew she'd lose everything now. His wife was smiling in the photograph. Our big white house was in Mr. Ober's name, along with everything else except an automobile, which Adelaide sold the next morning. On the day of the funeral, we took the noon train to the Cities with only what we could carry in suitcases. My mother thought that there, with her figure and good looks, she could find work in a fashionable store.
But she didn't know that she was pregnant. She didn't know how much things really cost, or the hard facts of Depression. After six months the money ran out. We, were desperate.
I didn't know how badly off we were until my mother stole a dozen heavy silver spoons from our landlady, who was kind, or at least harbored no grudge against us, and whom my mother counted as a friend. Adelaide gave no explanation for the spoons when I discovered them in her pocket. Days later they were gone and Karl and I owned thick overcoats. Also, our shelf was loaded with green bananas.
Excerpted from The Beet Queen © Copyright 2012 by Louise Erdrich. Reprinted with permission by HarperCollins Publishers. All rights reserved.
The Beet Queen
- paperback: 368 pages
- Publisher: Harper Perennial
- ISBN-10: 0060835273
- ISBN-13: 9780060835279