There were some reports of him buried up there on a hillside. No one knew for sure. All anybody knew for certain was that there was no stone for him in the town cemetery. One or two of the older townsfolk thought they heard stories of someone saying they had seen a fancy black sedan with white-wall tires going into the Szotchka’s property about the time he disappeared. One school of thought was convinced it was a Packard—another school of thought was positive it was a Cadillac. The only agreement was that it was black, and it was not a basic Ford or Chevy. Yet, another rumor had him simply sneaking off to town one day for tobacco and he just caught the southbound train never to be heard from again.
In the summer Mrs. Szotchka could sometimes be seen walking along the highway toting home the treasures she had found in the dump—a dish, a couple of magazines or even a chair. Or, after the town crew would mow the tall roadside grass she could be spotted with a pitchfork gathering up the freshly cut fodder for her goats. She carried the hay up her dirt path to a small barn near her shack forkful by forkful.
There were some accounts that she had been seen petting and coddling—and even kissing her goats when the naked winter trees allowed some sight into her property. No one ever attempted to approach her. No family. No friends. No visitors. The fear of the unknown outweighed the curiosity. Even the adventurous Baker boys didn’t go near her.
There was a son, Ludvik, believed to be in Chicago now, about four-hundred miles to the south. He didn’t stick around the sleepy little village of Coolidge Springs long—he must have been fifteen or sixteen when he left.
He started calling himself Louis and did some odd jobs around town to earn a little money. Most figured he probably caught the next train or bus out-of-town as soon as he could save up the fare. No one claimed to know for sure.
Mrs. Szotchka never mentioned him to Charley or to anyone else. Louis never returned to Coolidge Springs, the locally proclaimed vacation land of the north. Not much activity there—not enough to hold the young man’s attention.
* * *
The sheriff was there in five minutes like he said he would be. Tom Peltz squeezed his bloated midsection out from behind the squad car’s steering wheel. Twenty-five years with Mrs. Peltz kept him well fed, but he still had a twice-daily habit of jelly filled donuts. He removed his hat and looked down on Mrs. Szotchka. He admitted that he’d never actually spoken to her in his twenty years as the county sheriff and didn’t know much about her other than what he heard. He didn’t get out that way much. Ol’ Lady Szotchka never bothered anybody. He had called Doc Ferguson, and then he called Bruce Carole at the funeral home before leaving his office.
Doc was there two minutes after the sheriff. He parked his shiny new blue Mustang right next to Charley’s old faded ’37 Chevy pickup. It made Charley’s old pickup look even shabbier. I was just something Charley used for fishing and for hauling stuff to the dump. Maybe he would give it a good washing tomorrow. Doc was the first in the county to get that sporty new Ford. He was the envy of every teenage boy in town. It had to be sent up from Milwaukee. The local dealer only had one black hardtop. That was too plain for Doc. Doc got out of his convertible, shooed the goats away and knelt down beside Mrs. Szotchka. He touched her cold neck as if he were checking for a pulse but her pale face offered the immediate truth. He quickly but gently closed her eyes and said, “Yup, she’s dead.”
Doc was all business this evening. He needed to get out to the Putnam farm—three kids were down with the chicken pox. He looked up at the sheriff eyeing his girth and said, “Tom, aren’t you a couple of months behind on your physical? You better call my nurse first chance you get—come in and see me.” He signed something, gave it to the sheriff and said his work was done here.
Tom responded with a grunt.
Bruce Carole pulled up with his black hearse just as Doc was leaving, and was almost as quick with his job as was Doc Ferguson.
Tom said since Charley was an “On Call” deputy and probably knew Mrs. Szotchka as well as anyone, he asked him to go along up to her home as a witness. They herded the goats up the trail, through the aspens and alder overgrowth into the rickety old barn. Five chickens scattered upon their arrival. The summer vegetation kept the house and barn totally secluded from the highway. The goats kept the grass neatly trimmed.
It was just after eight p.m. but the setting sun was still good for another hour of light. It was a nice evening. Plenty of time left for a quick check of the place.
The well was out the front door twenty paces to the left. The outhouse was twenty paces to the right. Her garden was halfway between. It was safely protected from her goats and other predators by a rusty chicken wire fence. The snap beans and sweet peas were flourishing and much of it was ready for picking. The sweetcorn was a robust shoulder-high.
Tom led the way as they cautiously ventured into her tiny four-room farmhouse. No lock on the door. No electricity. The faded red trim on the window frames and the peeling white paint on the siding had seen better days. It was now just a drafty shack that offered little protection from the mosquitoes that were beginning to mount their evening assault.
The furnishings were sparse—a kerosene lamp on the wooden kitchen table accompanied by three mismatched chairs. There was a calendar from Miller’s General Store and an unframed picture of John Kennedy hanging on the wall. It was the carefully snipped cover of Life Magazine from August 4, 1961. Stacks of magazines that had been rescued from the town dump were neatly stacked along one wall—a stack for Look, one for Life and another one for the Saturday Evening Post.
There was a pot of stew on the stove. Tom removed the cover and gave an approving nod. The alluring aroma filled the little house. The fire had nearly gone out—just a couple of smoldering coals still in the firebox. The old pine floorboards creaked over the dugout root cellar below. Tom asked Charley to check it out. It was murky and dank—but nothing more than cobwebs and a few mason jars of sauerkraut and something that appeared to be raspberry preserves on unstable wooden shelves. Charley thought about it for a moment, but he left them down there.
Tom lifted the lid of an old steamer trunk that was at the foot of her wrought iron bed. It too was not locked. In the trunk were some of her winter clothes, a heavy brown woolen shawl, a faded white wedding dress, a pair of brown lace-up baby shoes and one pair of knitted pink baby booties.
Tom found a tin box under the old clothes. It looked like at one time it may have been a bright red. That wasn’t locked either. He shouted for Charley to get back up there—he found something.
Being aware of all the stories, the sheriff smiled at the thought of what he might find. He motioned Charley over. “Let’s have a look,” Tom said. “This might put to rest all those rumors.”
Inside were two gold wedding bands, along with some old photographs that were neatly bound by string. The largest was an eight by ten wedding portrait of a handsome young couple taken at Lakeside Studio, Chicago, dated 1914. It looked like the wedding dress in the trunk matched the one in the photo.
Another picture—a souvenir postal taken in the same Chicago studio; same couple, but now the young lady is holding a baby. A boy about three or four years old is standing in front of the adults. The boy must be Ludvik. The four of them looked like a proud little family—very well dressed. She was much shorter than the man.
There were a few other pictures that looked even older of other unidentified people—her parents or other relatives Tom surmised. Other than the deed to the forty acres, there were no insurance papers or any other valuables. No birth certificates. No death certificates. Along with the neatly bundled pictures was a folded handwritten paper. The language was simple; humble—the penmanship was shaky but stylish.
“To whom it may concern:
“When I die I want the portrait of my husband Joseph, to be buried with me. That is the most important. I want the casket to be a simple pine box. There is some money in a jar in the woodbox. Take that and the rings for the expenses. Please give my goats and chickens to Charley Miller for his farm on the edge of town. He was always good to me. The goats are Bessie, Martha, Francis, Hank, and Little Billy, he’s the youngest. They are my treasures. They all know who they are. The chickens don’t have names. I had to eat one last year. To me, it don’t seem right to eat something that has been given a name. All my other belongings and land can go to Ludvik to do with as he wishes. He is in Chicago. He has a telephone, but I don’t know the number. I think the operator can get it for you. Call him collect.”
Signed – Katerina Szotchka: dated May 2, 1965
“So—Katerina was her first name,” Charley said. “Nice name.”
“Looks like she had written that only a few months ago,” Tom said. “I wonder whatever happened to the baby girl who was in the picture. I’ll bet she knitted those booties herself.”
The sheriff had to move some kindling wood, but the jar was where she said it would be. Inside were thirty-two well-traveled one-dollar bills. They looked like they may have been there a long time—hardly the much-ballyhooed fortune whispered over clotheslines and between Saturday-night bar stools.
Her leather coin purse was hanging on a nail by the door.
*** END PART 2 OF 3 ***