Charley Miller knew right away it was Mrs. Szotchka. He knelt down and touched her arm. The skin was already cold even with the late day August sun still beaming its warmth from just above the treetops. She must have been lying beside the highway for a while to be this cool. Not much traffic on old Highway 70—Charley had to be the first to find her. He stared a long minute at her deep leathery wrinkles. She had the weathered and worn face of an old seaman. There were a thousand stories carved into those deep wrinkles. A more peaceful look seemed to be emerging now—and maybe even a little air of satisfaction—as if the unspoken scars of her life were suddenly healed.
It would have been a perfect evening for fishing, but Charley had to stop his truck to see what all the fuss was about. There were untethered goats standing at the side of the road looking saddened and confused. The smallest one was frantically pacing. These must be the goats she so often spoke of. They were her children—her treasures, as she called them. She had names for every one of them, but they all escaped Charley’s mind for now.
As Charley approached, her tribe hesitantly allowed him through their protective circle. He immediately recognized the high-top Redwing work shoes she was wearing. They looked just like the badly worn ones he had thrown out a year ago. The broken laces were knotted and re-knotted to hold them secure. Her left arm was clutched tightly to her chest. Her pitchfork had fallen by her side. She must have been gathering up the tall grass that the road crew had recently cut.
Most, including Charley, didn’t even know her first name. Everybody just called her “Ol’ Lady Szotchka.” She was simply an unsolved mystery.
A passing car was a welcome sight on this lonely highway. It stopped. It was the Baker brothers. They saw Charley’s old truck on the side of the road and thought he might need help.
Jesse jumped out from the passenger side, “That’s that Ol’ Lady Szotchka ain’t it?” he asked as he stared down at her lifeless body. Jesse, the oldest was thought by many to be the smartest of the three brothers. He was the one that finished high school, so he usually did most of the talking. John the designated driver this evening was the biggest. He could handle twice the beer that the others could, so he was always the driver. Joey the youngest stuttered and the more he drank or the more nervous he got, the more he stuttered. They had been out bar-hopping. It was Friday night. Their work week was done. Most people thought they were good boys—a little rough around the edges, calloused hands from the chainsaws and axes they wielded all week. They were always willing to lend a hand to someone in need but never shied away from a confrontation either. They were the lead suspects in more than one Halloween out-house tipping. Maybe they were loose and undisciplined, but they never hurt anybody.
Jesse agreed that they would drive into town to call the sheriff, but not before he probed Charley to see if he knew anything about that money she had socked away—everybody knew about it he insisted—probably buried up there somewhere. “She p’ertects it with that double-barreled twelve-gauge,” Jesse claimed adamantly.
Charley admitted he had heard the stories, but never believed any of them. Charley and everyone else he knew of never saw her carry anything more menacing than her pitchfork. Jesse finally assured Charley he would call the sheriff from the payphone at Bob’s Filling Station. He needed to be careful, so the sheriff could not see that they had been drinking. They didn’t want their Friday night carousing cut short. Charley would stay behind and wait.
Tom Peltz was just about to lock up the sheriff’s office, “Is that the poor old lady that I sometimes see walking along the highway?” he asked.
“Yeah, that’s the one. It’s Ol’ Lady Szotchka,” Jesse confirmed. “She’s stone cold dead.”
“Okay, I’m just closing up here,” Tom said. “I’ll see Charley out there in five minutes. I’ll need to fill out some paperwork.”
* * *
When she was alive, she looked like she was a hundred years old, maybe five feet tall if she straightened her stooping shoulders. No one knew for sure, but Charley pegged her closer to seventy-five, maybe eighty. Those old Redwings she was wearing had to be at least five sizes too big for her.
As near as any of the locals could recall, she had been on that forty acres what seemed like forever. She would walk the half mile into town every week. She didn’t drive; she walked everywhere and always came into Charley’s general store.
The neighborhood children were frightened by her. They would mock her and giggle from a safe distance. Her glaring dark eyes would burn holes through them, but they didn’t care—they had the strength of their numbers and distance as their security. She would soon silently turn away and go on about her business. The kids were just being kids—but to tell the truth, she frightened some of the adults too.
John Rivers warned Charley about Ol’ Lady Szotchka when he bought the little store from him fourteen years ago. She even scared Charley a little the first time he saw her come in, but he soon grew to find her harmless and sometimes even a bit amusing. She had yellowish-gray hair which was mostly covered by a shabby scarf tied under her chin—a “babushka” she called it. Winter or summer, she was never seen without it.
She would search through the shelves and find a damaged or dented can of beans, fruit, or something with a torn label. Sometimes Charley would even put a dented can where she could easily find it, knowing that her tattered and faded apron would transport that find along with any other newly found treasures up to the check-out counter.
It was a little game they played that she always won. She reminded Charley a bit of his own grandmother. Even with her raspy broken English Mrs. Szotchka could argue and negotiate like a Philadelphia lawyer.
“Meesta’ Milla,” she would say—she always called him Mr. Miller, and he always called her Mrs. Szotchka.
“Meesta Milla, szhu know you can’t sell ‘dees—you have to tro’ dem out,” was always her opening argument.
If she had teeth, she didn’t bring them into town with her. She would miserly pluck a few pennies and nickels from her leather coin purse as an offering for her findings. If she had an old Indian head penny, she would offer that first, taking greater care to hold onto the shiny newer ones. That worn purse looked like it was as old as she was. Charley saw the corner of a dollar bill sticking out once—she deftly pushed it back to safety.
There was the time she found a leaking five-pound bag of flour. Charley taped it up and told her to take it if she could make use of it—he’d have to throw it away anyway. He couldn’t help but feel sorry for her. Mrs. Szotchka nodded what could have been perceived as a thank you, and she promptly strode from his store looking certain she was doing him a favor.
One day Charley asked her about her limp. Without even looking up at him she simply said, “Gout.”
Charley knew she played the same routine over at Glen’s Market down the street. He and Glen talked about her often. There were some of the folks around town that suspected her husband may have left behind a little money when he supposedly died from the pox thirty years ago—or maybe it was an accident of some kind. The mysterious bounty compounded itself as the whispers passed from person to person and barstool to barstool.
The word was that the Szotchkas had come up from Chicago in the early thirties. He had some kind of business dealings down there, but it was never exactly clear what kind of commerce was involved, or why they needed the quiet solace of Coolidge Springs. They bought forty acres with a house and a barn just outside of town, paid cash and kept pretty much to themselves.
There were some reports of him buried up there on a hillside. No one knew for sure.
*** END PART 1 OF 3 ***