"About time ya showed up, boy! I got lotsa stuff fer you t' do today so you best git to it."
"Sorry, John. I had extra chores to do this mornin'. I got here as quick as I could."
"Yep, that's what I figured." Ol' John Etter just nodded and went on writin' out his order list for next week's delivery from the IGA truck. I grabbed the broom and started sweepin' the floor. It'd been hot and dry for better than two weeks so the fine dust just puffed into little clouds when I stirred it up with the old worn-down broom.
After I got done with the floor, I checked the soda pop cooler and went to the back room to get what I needed to fill it up. John didn't carry a big selection, just RC Cola, Seven-up, orange and grape Nehi. I liked the Seven-up 'cause if you took a big swallow, it'd sting your throat and make you let out with a real big burp.
If you needed anything in Eagle City - I never did figure out how they come up with such a dumb name for a wide spot in the road - John Etter's General Store was just about it for our little town and for a good twenty miles in any direction. I say town but it was more like a collection of a dozen or so houses, a grain elevator beside the railroad tracks and John's place that sold pretty much everything we needed includin' gas. There was one pump out front. Of course, there wasn't no way John could make a living off just the folks around town but the store was right on the highway so he got some business from people passin' through.
It was 1946 and the war had been over for almost a year. Life was still pretty hard but it was gettin' better. Mama was still grievin' that Daddy got killed at Omaha Beach two years before. I know for a fact she ever got over that. I was eleven when he signed up in '42. He went to England first and then to North Africa and he made sergeant by the time D-Day come around. Accordin' to one of his army buddies that come to visit Mama, he never even made it to the beach when the front of the LST dropped open. Anyhow, all the time he was away he sent what little money he could which wasn't much. Mama got a check from the government after he was killed but that didn't go very far.
Even so, we were better off than some because we had a cow for milk and butter, a few chickens and a couple of acres for growin' vegetables. Daddy left an old 410 shotgun so we almost always had some kinda meat on the table, what with squirrels, cottontails and catfish out of the North Canadian River. Mama did some sewing for folks and John paid me a quarter an hour for workin' at the store. In the summer when school was out, I'd make twelve dollars a week. On top of that, John would let me take bread that was startin' to get too old and he'd sneak in a handful of hard candy from time to time. Mama would take some of the bread and some canned milk, a couple of eggs and sugar and bake up a real nice bread pudding with cinnamon on it. I'd take some of the old bread and wad into little balls to use for catfish bait.
The one thing that made us a little better off than most folks was Daddy's old Model A Ford. Since I used it to deliver groceries, John let me fill up the tank once every two weeks. Of course I had to do my own repairs when she broke down which was about every time you turned around. You can bet I knew that engine inside and out and there wasn't too many things that went wrong with it that I couldn't fix.
I don't have any brothers or sister because somethin' happened to Mama's insides when I was born and she couldn't have no more kids after that. Since there was only the two of us after Daddy got killed, I told Mama I was gonna quit school and work full time but she swore she'd take a switch to my butt if I ever said that again. She had it in her mind I was goin' to college come hell or high water. How she expected that to happen with us bein' so poor was beyond me but she was set on it and you couldn't budge her.
When I was done with the soda pop, John said, "Go git yer car, Richie. I got four grocery orders need deliverin' and one of 'em is to a new family about ten miles down the road on the way to Watonga. I guess they bought Alvin Noble's farm after he died. I'll have it all boxed up fer ya by the time ya git back.
Now, it wasn't exactly legal for me to drive because I'd only just turned fifteen but back in them days, nobody much cared. Lots of kids were drivin' tractors by the time they were ten. Even ol' B. W. Reed, the sheriff's deputy that kind of watched things in our part of the county would just smile and wave when I drove by. He wasn't exactly all gung-ho about his job. Hell, you'd damn near have to shoot somebody to get him stirred up. B. W. was pretty much a live-and-let-live kind of man.
Two of the in-town orders went to widow women who didn't get around very good. Mrs. Sanderson had to be in her 90's but she didn't show any signs that she'd be leavin' this world any time soon. I always put her groceries away and she always gave me a nickel for being so nice to her. She was pretty much 'Grandma' to the whole town.
Mrs. James wasn't all that old but she had terrible pain in her joints and she couldn't hardly walk. I don't think I ever saw her when she wasn't all doped up from her pain medicine; well, that and a little whiskey to wash it down. When I brought her groceries, she'd just point to her purse and I'd take out however much the bill was because she couldn't hardly get her twisted old fingers to work.
The other in-town order went to a woman by the name of Rhonda Minnelli who was about the only one around who seemed to have any real money to speak of. There was always rumors about how she got it but the most common one was that she ran a whore house in Tulsa 'till the cops run her out of town. I don't know if any of that was true but it gave folks somethin' to talk about. Anyhow, she was always wearin' a fancy robe and smellin' to high heaven with stinky perfume when she answered the door and asked me to come in and put the box on the kitchen table. She never come right out and did nothin' but her robe was always about half open so you had a pretty good look at her big ol' saggy tits and she was always touchin' me and sayin' what a good-looking boy I was and that I could come by for a social visit any time. I was a lot bigger than most boys my age so maybe she thought I was older than I was. I never did go back for a social visit.
I went back to John's to drop off the money for the first three orders before I headed west on the highway to the Noble farm. I waved at B. W. when I passed his favorite hidin' place behind a billboard. He didn't wave back so I figured he was sleepin'.
The farmhouse was about a quarter mile off the highway up a dirt road. I didn't know how long the new folks had been there but none of the fields were plowed or planted and it was too late to put in any crops. I didn't see any cars or farm machinery in the yard. The house itself was a two-story frame and didn't look to be in too bad a shape; at least it didn't look like it was about to fall down. Could've used some paint though. There was a barn that looked pretty sound and an old silo that looked like it was about to fall over.
I beeped the horn twice as I pulled to a stop by the front porch. I took the heavy box out of the back seat and stepped up on the porch to holler through the screen door, "Hello! I got your groceries!"
"Come on in," said a woman from somewhere inside. "Bring them into the kitchen and put them on the table. I'll be there in just a minute."
I pulled the door open a little bit with my finger and got my foot in the gap to swing it open the rest of the way. I carried the box through the living room and into the kitchen and set it down on a round oak table and waited for someone to come out. When I heard the toilet flush, I felt a little embarrassed about my bad timing.
A woman came through a doorway and smiled. I expect my jaw might have dropped a bit because she was about the best lookin' woman I'd ever seen. She had a big smile on her face as she said, "Guess you caught me sort of indisposed. How much do I owe you for the groceries?"
It took me a couple of seconds to get my thoughts in order. "Oh, uh, it's right here." I searched my pockets for the bill and pulled out a crumpled piece of paper, flattening it out on the table. "Um, it looks like four dollars and six cents, Ma'am."
"OK. You wait right here while I go upstairs and get your money."
As she passed by me on the way into the living room and the stairway, I caught a little whiff of the same kind of lavender soap Mama liked to use on her face. The lady was wearin' a yellow and white summer dress with puffy, short sleeves that fit her body just fine. And sandals; I recollect she was wearin' sandals. Her thick, black hair was in a single braid that fell most of the way down her back.
A minute later, I heard her coming down the stairs. I just stood there tryin' my best not to gawk at her as she opened her leather coin purse n' counted out the exact amount n' handed it to me. "Tell Mr. Etter thanks for sending this out. My husband's away for a while and I don't have any transportation. Oh, and here's a dime for your trouble."
I accepted the dime and managed to rasp out, "Thank ya, Ma'am. Ain't no trouble at all."
I didn't really want to leave but I couldn't think of any reason not to so I said, "I guess I better get back. Bye, Ma'am."
I was about to take off when she stuck out her hand and said, "By the way, my name's Elizabeth Webster. What's yours?"
When I took her hand, I was struck by how soft and delicate it was. I was used to women havin' hands that were rough as corncobs from hard work and red from lye soap. "I'm Richie Dinken. It's nice to meet you Mrs. Webster."
"Well, it's a pleasure to meet you, Richie Dinken. What grade are you in?"
"I'll be in tenth grade come September, Ma'am."
"And do you go to school in Canton or Watonga?"
"Watonga. Canton's closer but it's in a different district."
"Well, I suppose I'll see you in class then. I'll be teaching tenth grade English at Watonga High starting this fall."
"Really? Hey, that's great!" The thought of having this pretty woman for a teacher caused my stomach to do flip-flops. There I was workin' up to a school-boy crush and school hadn't even started yet.
"Do you like school, Richie?"
"Yes, Ma'am! I pretty much get all A's. Mama wants me to go to college but I don't see how we can afford it."
"Scholarships. That's what you need to work for and if you're an A student, you shouldn't have any problems earning one. Come see me when school starts and maybe we can work out a plan."
"Thanks, I'd really like that. Well, I better get back before John sends out someone lookin' for me. Bye, Mrs. Webster. It was surely a pleasure to meet you."
"Bye, Richie. The pleasure's all mine."
I couldn't get the grin off my face all the way back to Eagle City.