She’d painted the buildings bright white, posted signs, and advertised in county newspapers as well as the Minneapolis Star Tribune, that the farm was for sale. 1970. A new decade. She felt ready to start a new life.
Her only offer for the land came from Midwest Farmlands, Inc. Trembling as she signed the papers, her mind filled with Gregory’s mortified expression.
Weeks later, a dusty pickup rolled onto the weeping willow-bordered, gravel driveway. A vaguely familiar fellow got out. His grayed hair looked as if spatters of paint had fallen upon it. Lines etched his tan-without-the-sun face.
He gave a slight bow. “Senora Rasmussen?”
“Yes, that’s me.”
“I know you, I believe.”
Suddenly recognizing him, she said, “You’re the boy from the Memorial Carnival all those years ago.”
“Si. Carlos Rivera. You’re the same pretty-as-a-rosebud, golden-haired girl.”
This kind of flowery talk bewildered her. Gregory had considered her to be nice looking. He used to say, “This’ll look real good on you,” when giving her a new beige or gray dress.
“I bring men to the Red River Valley from Mexico each spring for working the sugar beets.” The man humbled his tone, “I wish to purchase your buildings to accommodate them.”
What would people think? She led him through the house, anyway, stopping to describe different areas. Upstairs, she said, “This is the main bedroom,” with an offhand gesture toward the white comforter-covered double bed. “You and your wife could sleep here.”
“I have no wife.” His animated face went as blank as a fallow field.
Gregory also would have thought the transaction that followed inappropriate, like overalls at a wedding or funeral. However, with no other options, Martha Rasmussen sold her buildings to Carlos Rivera, and before he took possession, she bought a little white house in nearby Chambers, Minnesota, town of 2,500.
Opening day of the 1943 Memorial Carnival, Martha Larkin stood at the midway watching a group of migrant workers playing a ring-toss game. The winner’s dark good looks spoke to her of exotic places. He accepted a pink teddy bear, scanned the crowd, settled upon her, and sauntered over.
“I’m Carlos,” he announced. “May I please present you with this gift?” His black-as-a-wishing-well eyes widened.
“Oh…I’m Martha, but I couldn’t accept it.” Heat rose from the tips of her toes upward as she turned away.
He stuck the teddy bear under his arm and fell into step next to her.
Soon, Martha found herself led to the dance tent, and cajoled into twirling dizzying circles to Ole Olson’s Polka Band.
As the music came to a close, Carlos pulled her close and whispered, “You missed our Cinco de Mayo Festival.”
She breathed in his scent of Brilliantine, wondering what he meant.
Older ladies from the Chambers Lutheran Church, like judges at the kids’ talent show, scrutinized them.
Martha chose to ignore these ladies.
Her days spent with boring-as-church-sermon tasks left plenty of time for daydreams. While her parents ran Larkin’s Five and Dime, Martha cared for her two younger brothers, cooked, and did housework. Her mother preferred standing at a cash register and endlessly chattering with anyone who tarried. Her father stocked shelves and ignored their weed-filled yard. Many nights they failed to come home, rather carousing at Poppy’s Tavern.
After that polka, Carlos and Martha strolled around the carnival grounds. He surprised her by taking a hand in his warm one. Behind the Flag Pavilion he challenged her shyness with a forbidden kiss.
The next Monday, between errands, Martha stopped by Shirmer’s Drugs and Fountain for a chocolate phosphate, imagining another meeting with Carlos Rivera. While sipping the fizzy, sweet liquid, she sensed someone approaching. Hoping she’d conjured him up, Martha nudged the revolving stool around and saw Gregory Rasmussen, who hadn’t been drafted, gossips said, due to flat feet.
“Mind if I join you?” He sat down like an entitled town official.
“You have.” She knew him slightly as an occasional customer at the Five and Dime.
Milly Banks ambled over and reached for a pencil tucked in her pinkish-gray bun.
“What she’s having.” Gregory pointed at Martha’s drink, and commenced to tell her about coming back to Chambers for a long visit. With hair the color of tan linoleum, and thirty years old, his clear blue eyes proved to be as easy to read as letters on the church’s welcoming sign. When she dug in her purse to pay for the phosphate, he grabbed the bill. “I’ll get it.”
Martha politely thanked him and headed toward the door.
“Be seeing you soon,” he called after her.
Walking the few blocks back to the Larkin house, Martha moved Carlos’ face over for Gregory’s no-nonsense, Norwegian features. Smiling at the prospect of two interesting men, when most had been sent off to fight the war, she tiptoed onto the cement path, trying to avoid cracks. In the front hall she greeted her two brothers.
Together, they said, “Mom and Dad are at Poppy’s.”
A frown crumpled Martha’s even features. She wanted to answer a letter from her pen pal, Lina Martinez, who lived in California, but she couldn’t let the boys go hungry. Whipping up a meatloaf, she managed to push to the back of her mind drinking that would take place at the tavern, reasoning, They are grown-ups.
About half past eleven, after long since tucking the boys into bed and collapsing on a rocking chair, she dozed over her letter. A knock came at the front door. With no hesitation, she answered it. In Chambers nothing more notable than a tractor stalling outside the town hall ever happened.
Sheriff Johnson stood under the porch light, hat in hand. “I’m so sorry. There’s been an accident.” He brushed the felt brim as if to make sure it was free of dust.
For many months after the 10 pm train from The Cities crashed into her father’s old Ford, Martha prayed for sleep, while her parents intruded, laughing and smelling of beer, with her mother urging, “You can make it…” even though red lights flashed.
The undertaker had kept their coffins closed, saying, “Nothing much I could do with the mangled bodies.”
A joint funeral took place in the white clapboard Lutheran church that her parents had seldom entered. Martha always took the boys to Sunday School, which she’d also been recruited to teach. There were no close relatives, so the filled sanctuary held a mishmash of townsfolk, mostly friends from Poppy’s. Poppy herself, wore a red silk blossom bobbing on her massive bosom. She said, “We sorely miss your dear parents. Please stop by.”
Martha nodded, vowing, I’ll never set foot in that place.
Days later, several church ladies called on her to see about care for the boys. They peered into spotless corners.
“I’ve graduated and I’m eighteen years old. I can handle matters fine,” Martha assured them.
A long-time salesclerk soon after contracted to buy the Five and Dime.
Carlos Rivera stood on the front porch one afternoon. “Will you accompany me to the carnival again…for more dancing…to raise your spirits after this great tragedy?”
She pictured the pink teddy bear resting on her pillow, but declined his invitation.
Along came Gregory Rasmussen another day, filling the front porch with his presence. “You must let me help.”
“Why? You’re not family.”
“I bought some land a few miles from here.”
“What about The Cities?”
“Tired of working indoors.”
Gregory leaned down and drew her to him.
Martha inhaled the smell of laundry soap, and relaxed into the safety of his strong arms.
The next day, she took the grieving boys to the month-long carnival.
Carlos approached as she bought three candied apples.
“Will you please ride with me on the carousel?” Multicolored ponies spun by in a blur.
The older boy said, “We can take care of ourselves.”
She moved toward Carlos, but then thought of Gregory and his land and inched back. “We’re leaving.”
They hustled away with the younger boy fussing, “Just got here!”
“I’ll take you to the matinee instead. The Wizard of Oz is playing.”
She began to imagine how more than a hug would feel with a grown man like Gregory.
The carnival’s last day, Martha walked with him toward the Home Crafts Exhibit. Milly Banks greeted them with a look of suspicion crossing her rouged face.
Soon after, Martha stopped by Shirmer’s and Milly told her, “You be careful of that Rasmussen fellow. I saw him in The Cities with a bleached blonde — not natural like yours.”
Once they’d had a few dates, Gregory said, “You’re everything I’ve ever wanted. I love your innocent ways.” Plans began for a wedding at the Lutheran church, after he said, “You must bring your brothers to live in my new house…’til they’re full grown.”
When completed, it was a two-story white clapboard. Before long, Gregory had built a chicken coop, pig shed, and large barn — all painted white.
“Why not a red barn?” she asked.
“I like my buildings bright and white and pure — like you.”
Their honeymoon trip to Moorhead efficiently answered Martha’s questions about married life. Still, sometimes those old daydreams about a different sort of being surfaced. She learned to shoo them away, concentrating on folding towels, scrubbing the floors, stirring a kettle of chicken dumpling soup.
Gregory possessed an instinct for farming, and he provided enough money to care for the boys, in addition to the blessing of two sons. There also was enough extra for him to occasionally buy her some simple piece of jewelry bearing a religious emblem, like a cross or a dove. She’d thank him with a big hug, hoping for extra attention that night.
Days rolled along without much disruption until Gregory took sick with what doctors called pancreatic cancer. Not sure of its location in his body, from their expressions Martha knew that soon she would be back in charge. By this time, her unmarried sons and brothers had moved to The Cities where they all worked at a sugar crystallization plant.
Diagnosed on a Friday, Gregory departed on a Wednesday, mere weeks later. His last morning, lying in their double bed under the white comforter, he strained to say, “You’re young. I ‘spect you’ll marry again. Choose wisely.” And, after a pause to summon his strength, he mumbled, “The buildings need painting before you sell.”
Within hours, she quietly sang his favorite song, “From this valley they say you are going…” as Gregory passed. She closed his sunken eyes and waited, holding his scratchy, work- worn hand until a tremor shook her as he crossed over.
After the funeral, Martha awoke one morning and drove to Chambers hardware store where she bought plenty of white paint. Gregory had wanted her to hire a few men, but this was the least she could do for him, she decided, with no idea it would take three summers to complete. The whole time, his dog, Shep, curled up in the grass, solemnly watching.
Shortly after the move to her very own house in town, late one evening while watching the news, Martha’s phone rang.
“This is Carlos.”
“Mr. Rivera…I hope everything’s all right.”
“You must visit.”
“To see the changes. I want your…approval.”
“That’s not necessary.”
“Okay. I’ll drive out tomorrow.”
“No. I will gather you at noon. You must stay for a meal.”
Martha hung up — bemused.
“Please, I am Carlos.” He helped her into his pickup, with a smile that turned up on one side like he had some secret to share.
“Then you call me Martha.”
“Martha — like the wind whispering through the willows.”
Carlos talked with enthusiasm about how much his workers appreciated their new living arrangement. However, a quarter mile from the farm, his face turned wary, and he pulled to the side of the road. “It will seem strange.”
“I’m sure it’ll be fine.”
Rolling into the driveway, a myriad of colors splashed before her eyes. The house was bright pink and chartreuse. The chicken coop was yellow and orange. The pig shed was green and red. The barn was purple. Even the windmill was turquoise. It felt like entering a carnival.
“Your men have been busy with more than beets!”
“What are your thoughts?”
“I’ve never seen anything like this.”
“You have never visited Mexico.” He leaned out the pickup window and patted a collie that put its front paws on the running board. “Do you like it?”
“It takes my breath away.”
“This is good?”
“It’s good.” Martha recalled worried glances from the women and furrowed stares from the men when she recently entered church. Maybe they figured she’d be devastated by the changes at her old farm. Maybe they thought this served her right — for selling to outsiders. “It’s beautiful!”
Reassured, Carlos brightened. “Time for tacos.”
“You will like them.”
They went into the spicy-smelling, goldenrod-colored kitchen. His dog trotted past Martha and headed straight for a cushion.
This took her aback. Animals belong outside.
Carlos served the meal, and after a couple bites, Martha said, “These are tasty,” as shredded cheese spilled onto her plate.
“A bit.” She sipped at what he called “sangria” from a green stemmed glass, and began to giggle. She stepped over and petted the collie who leaned into her touch.
“Amigo likes you.”
After eating, they meandered out for a closer look at the buildings with the dog following them.
“The best is the barn,” Martha said. “It reminds me of lilacs.”
“I will plant bushes for you.”
She tilted her head quizzically.
When they reached her front door, Carlos said, “You must join me for dinner on Saturday.”
Martha pondered this. “I’d like to.”
That night, she went onto the back porch and coaxed Shep inside. He sniffed at the old blanket bunched in a corner of her bedroom, circled a few times, and flopped down upon it.
Martha began to see Carlos every weekend. He picked her up, smelling of Brilliantine, and they went to community festivals, including the Chambers’ Memorial Carnival. With no other couples like them, there were plenty of stares, which they disregarded, being so full of their own banter.
Once she invited him to dinner — her usual company lutefisk and buttered potatoes and turnips with lefse on the side.
“I apologize for the meal’s whiteness.”
“I will teach you some of my mother’s dishes. An abundance of color and taste.”
A month passed, then, with uncharacteristic reticence, Carlos said, “This Saturday I am going to Moorhead for an overnight to check on fields. Might you go with me?”
Martha recalled that skin-to-skin tingling like gentle electrical shocks. She hesitated. What would Gregory think?
“You do not have to make this trip. I will return on Sunday.”
“No! I want to be with you.”
That first time, Carlos whispered, “Slower…much slower.”
With his exuberant ways, she’d expected his lovemaking to be the same. Instead, he behaved as if they could lie in each other’s arms forever, and her pleasure increased with subsequent visits to their hotel. When they weren’t idly talking, the excitement would start, like a long ride on a Ferris wheel. Round and round and round. Soaring to the top. Gazing across a star-studded sky, with a multitude of blue, green, red lights. And, a final explosion of white as they plummeted to earth.
Soon, it was time to prepare for his journey back to Mexico. On their last Saturday night, Carlos twisted a curl of Martha’s hair. As she cuddled closer, he said, “You must return with me.”
No matter how much she dreaded his departure, Martha had never considered this. “How can I?”
“You have no family here.”
“It’s my home. You stay. Go when it’s time to gather your workers together.”
“My mother and father are old.” He dropped the curl of hair and sat up. “Maybe I will not be able to return. We will marry upon our arrival. I will care for you in the way of Gregory.”
Martha hesitated a moment, but then said, “I want to stay here”
They slept fitfully, and in the morning skipped their lovemaking. He was quiet on the drive back, and she pressed her lips together, trying not to weep.
Carlos finally spoke as he turned into the farm’s driveway. “I will give you mementos.”
There were spices for Mexican food, a gold locket with his photo, and a multicolored quilt that his mother had made.
She had nothing to give to him except a long, fierce hug.
Leaving for town, she gazed at the lilac bushes he had planted. They might very well bloom by the following year’s Memorial Carnival.
On the Sunday after Carlos left, Martha attended church. Several ladies, now old friends, greeted her, conspicuously not mentioning all the missed services, rather asking what she wanted to make for the next week’s potluck.
They registered surprise, and one said, “What are enchi…?”
“En-chi-la-das. Spicy. Different. You’ll like them.”
“Bring your tuna noodle casserole,” another blurted out. “Everyone loves it.”
When she returned to her little house, Martha felt empty, like a canister with the last remnants of sugar clinging to its sides. She walked through the rooms, reaching her double bed where his mother’s multicolored quilt rested atop the white comforter. Bending down, she patted Shep, who rubbed his head against her hand.
By the following Saturday the yard was dotted with fallen leaves, but the sun streamed through a window as Martha savored her breakfast of huevos rancheros. She skipped making the casserole because she’d decided to skip church. Instead, she drove to Moorhead and bought paint. Bright pink for the siding, chartreuse for the trim, and lilac purple for her front door. She hurried home and brushed a splotch of each color on her house to get a feel for what would be the stunning results.
Standing by herself, Martha took in the vibrancy…as a surge of happiness filled her being…as she began to transform each wood slat to the liveliest of pink shades.
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