Authors: Alison Preston
Tags: #Mystery: Thrillerr - Inspector - Winnipeg
The Geranium Girls
© 2002, Alison Preston
Print Edition ISBN 978-0921833-83-3
Ebook Edition, 2011
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced, for any reason, by any means, without the permission of the publisher.
Cover design by Terry Gallagher/Doowah Design.
Cover photo of Alison Preston by Tracey L. Sneesby.
Thanks to Jan Beverage, Brenda Bourbonnais, Gail Bowen, Michael Bromilow, Eric Crone, Jacquie Crone, Steve Colley, Terri Colley, Adrienne Doole, Vic Ferrier, Susan Gifford, Kate Graham, Catherine Hunter, Lorraine Pronger, Reg Quinton, Cathy Small, Larry Small, Chris Thompson, and especially Karen Haughian and John Preston.
Thanks to the Manitoba Arts Council for its generous support during the writing of this book.
We acknowledge the support of The Canada Council for the Arts and the Manitoba Arts Council for our publishing program.
National Library of Canada Cataloguing in Publication Data
Preston, Alison, 1949-
The geranium girls
PS8581.R44G47 2002 C813’.54 C2002-901554-5
Signature Editions, P.O. Box 206, RPO Corydon
Winnipeg, Manitoba, R3M 3S7
Baby Frouten trudges the quarter mile from her home on the edge of town to the Texaco station on the highway. Sweat sluices between her fat thighs as she struggles against the white heat of the July afternoon.
She goes to see her friend, Hank the Bear — the burly man who owns the gas station. He lets her sit on a bench and watch him while he works. Hank is her only friend; he looks out for her, tries to keep the bad boys away. But she has had her share. Hank can’t always be there.
Cramps start up in her belly, worse than the ones that come when she bleeds.
“May I use the biffy, Hank?”
“Of course, Baby. No need to ask.”
It’s more than an hour later when Hank rolls out from beneath Dick Wilson’s nearly new ’62 Ford and sees that Baby isn’t there. He also sees the bright red spots on the cement and thinks for a second that they’re petals. He follows them outside to the washroom at the side of the garage.
A dizziness comes over Hank. And he can’t tell if the buzzing sound he hears is in his brain or if it comes from the flies lighting on the crimson pool that seeps out from under the door.
“Baby!” he shouts and tries the knob.
“Baby!” he roars and kicks the door down with one go.
No one knew; she was that fat under her cotton shifts.
Hank cuts the cord with his pocket knife.
“Hang on, Sweetheart.” The words catch in his throat, unheard.
No one man could move Baby Frouten, not even Hank the Bear. He fears it may be too late to help her anyway. He wraps the tiny boy in a clean rag and phones the hospital to tell them what has happened. The closest ambulance is in Morden today — a good twenty minutes away. Hank careens through town in his pickup truck — drives to the hospital with one hand on the wheel. The small bundle rests quietly in the crook of his right arm.
On the way, he passes Doc Waters and the day orderly, Fred Briggs, in the doctor’s car. They’re on their way to tend to Baby at the gas station. Hank shouts out the window, “I’ll be back to help in a minute, as soon as I drop this little tyke off.”
Baby bleeds to death by the time they get to her.
A blessing, some say.
Baby’s older sister, Hortense, is left to care for the newborn. The two women never knew their mother and their father had been killed eight months ago in an accident at the feed lot where he worked. Not that he would have been much good raising another kid. He wouldn’t have won any prizes for the job he did on his own girls.
And as for the father of the infant, it could be anyone.
So Hortense brings up Baby’s son. It’s a job she wants. Maybe she can teach one boy some manners, teach him in such a way that he will know better than to hurt the likes of her sister who died.
And he could be used for other things. She can picture a few scenarios that look pretty good from where she stands.
Hortense keeps the boy on a short leash that she tugs too hard. She does more than that, but only away from the eyes of the town.
When she is busy in the house, she ties him to a chair, tightly, so he can barely move. When she is busy in the yard, she ties him to a tree, a shady spot where the mosquitoes have their way. If he cries she stuffs a wash cloth in his mouth till he simmers down.
One hot day, in 1966, Hank the Bear drives by the house and hears Hortense screaming louder than he believes possible. “Stop your whining,” she screams. Hank feels it in his bones.
He stops the truck, unsure of what to do. He offers to take the boy to Rock Lake for the afternoon, for a swim and a romp.
“That would be fun, wouldn’t it,” Hortense says. Both the boy and Hank nod gingerly, afraid of the woman’s voice echoing in their heads. Neither of them wanted to hear it again.
“Well, fun isn’t what this child needs,” Hortense says. But at least she says it quietly.
So no one interferes, not even Hank. No one wants to take it on.
Hank the Bear shudders the length of him the day he watches them board the bus for the city — the small boy in a harness and the tall thin woman, ramrod straight, who looks like she has a fishing rod poked up her ass.
When Hortense arrives in the city, one of the first things she does is buy a thin gold band at Woolworth’s. She lets on that she’s a widow; her husband died in a farm accident, she says.
With the ring on her finger, she changes her last name — goes to the Norquay Building, pays the basic fee of fifty dollars, and changes it to Keller. She can be whoever she wants to be. Hortense she keeps; she likes her first name, thinks it has a no-nonsense ring to it. There’s very little nonsense about Hortense Frouten Keller.
She and the boy live in an apartment on Vaughan Street, across from the Bay, for a few years.
The Manitoba Telephone System hires her on as an operator. She hasn’t done this type of work before but knows she will be good at it. Every morning, after dropping the boy off at kindergarten, and later, at school, she rides a bus to the telephone offices on Corydon Avenue. Hortense is a dependable employee; she takes her job seriously.
She saves up for a down payment on a house. It doesn’t take long for them to move into a place of their own, as Hortense already has a nest egg from the sale of the old place in Pilot Mound.
It was a wet spring. The ground didn’t get a chance to dry out between rainfalls. Beryl tramped through the bushes in St. Vital Park, away from the well-trodden paths. She slogged through long grass and thistles, poison ivy and mushrooms. Mushrooms in June! That’s how wet it was. Her sneakers were soaked through.
Something long, solid and rounded, like a thin baseball bat, caught her hard in the arch of her foot. She lost her balance and toppled to a sitting position in the drenched forest. With one hand sunk in the boggy soil, she boosted herself onto a fallen log where it wasn’t quite so wet. Beryl removed her shoe and massaged the sore area. I should have stuck to the regular trail, she thought. I should be home drinking coffee.
“What the hell
that?” she muttered. Something stunk; she smelled her hand. And then her gaze drifted to the ground.
Her chest clenched. It squeezed and let go, squeezed again. A female form lay next to Beryl in the woods; she had touched it. It was the shin bone that had caused her to tumble to the ground. Bone on bone. No wonder it hurt so much.
Her breath didn’t return for so long she thought she would die. She forced it. Manually — like turning off the toaster before it popped up the toast on its own — it could be done.
With her eyes she followed the long length of the girl — she was tall and very slender. Beryl hoped she was dead. Dealing with a live thing so close to death seemed beyond what she was capable of doing. She needn’t have worried. This person was gone. Beryl knew this when she forced her gaze to rest upon the face. She had no experience with long-dead bodies, but no experience was necessary.
The dead girl’s mouth was open wide. Mushrooms were growing there. Someone must have filled her mouth with dirt. How else could this be? Beryl closed her eyes for a long minute to give the face a chance to disappear. It didn’t. A colony of mushrooms was using the head of a girl as a planter.
It rained softly at first, then hard, like a punishment.
She held out her hand and the rain washed it clean.
Pain in her foot. Pain from the shin bone of a dead girl. She could still feel the hard roundness pressing into her.
She wished she hadn’t seen the face. The mushroom face. But she had; it was hers to keep. Like a birthmark, like a tattoo. Let me go back, she prayed, so I don’t have to carry this forever.