Minty Wilcox to the Rescue

Lost Dog

An Old Kansas City Story

Tuesday, July 5, 1898, shortly after noon

Kansas City, Missouri

As Minty Wilcox hurried home, she mentally reviewed the symbols from Mr. Gregg’s shorthand system she’d studied that morning at the Kansas City Business College. A pretty woman of nineteen years, she wore a white jumper dress with navy blue trim around the square neck—over a shirtwaist of course for modesty—that gave the dress a nautical air. A jaunty seersucker sailor hat with a blue and white band sat on top of her light brown hair and she carried the old waterproof black bag she’d used in high school over her shoulder.

She’d just crossed Tenth Street when shouts up ahead on the avenue pulled her out of her reverie. On the steps of a vast white Victorian pile near the other end of the block, a woman in black held up a broom as if it were a baseball bat. It looked like she meant to take a swing with it at two children standing on the sidewalk below.

“My gosh!” Minty said when she recognized the children as her youngest siblings and the woman as their neighbor as Agnes Shackleton. Minty promptly lifted her skirts to mid-calf and ran sprinted the rest of the way down Penn.

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In this prequel short story to her calendar mystery series that feature mystery,  romance, and touches of humor here and there in old Kansas City, Juliet Kincaid introduces Minty Wilcox, her female protagonist. Intent on gaining the skills she needs for a career as a business girl, typing and taking dictation in short hand, Minty nevertheless runs into considerable interference with her goal. A mean-spirited neighbor accosts Minty’s younger brother and sister and a sweet little lost dog. Minty’s mother doesn’t approve of her daughter’s plans to have a career. And several flirtatious gents distract Minty from her tasks.

Read the story as an eBook for only $0.99 (or for free on Kindle Unlimited) at www.amazon.com/dp/B0752SWBG1

Watermelon on the Fourth of July

A Reminiscence

Writing “The Barn Door” and “Lost Dog,” prequel stories set on July 4 and July 5, 1898, to my calendar mystery series, reminded me of a trip Mom, Dad, Dotty, our short-legged beagle mix, and I made one summer not long after they bought the first car I can remember our having: a used, white and light blue ’54 Chevy two-door.

Later Dad discovered a short cut to our destination, the farm in Clarion County, PA, where my grandmother Willman grew up. But the first time we visited there for that Independence Day back in the fifties—before there even were interstates—we came in through Lamartine, a town of maybe forty households, a general store, a school and the Methodist church. (You won’t find it on any map because the name was later changed to Salem.) The tiny town stretched along a country crossroads, north and south, then east past Daddy’s aunt Maude and his cousin Walter Kurtz’s houses, and on down the hill between sloping fields planted in wheat.

At the bottom of the hill, Daddy turned right onto a rough dusty road. As we drove between what Dad called the water meadow and the family’s wood lot, I sat up straight for the first view of the house across the pond. Built in 1877, white with black shutters, it had two windows upstairs and two down, balanced on either side of the front door, up a few steps from the yard.

I loved the house when I first saw it and fretted restlessly in the back seat to get inside it even as the car bumped up the lane past the pond, past the house, past the garden and stopped by a decrepit corn crib. The substantial barn, built by my great grandfather Shirey in the Centennial year of 1876, stood farther up the hill on the right.

By the time we went to family reunions at the farm, milkweed and slender scrub oaks, seven or eight feet tall, had over-grown the yard in front of the barn at the lowest level. But my uncle George Hickman kept the lane mowed up and around the barn to the big doors on the other side. Beams a square foot spanned the big space up there. Dad said they’d come from the property itself.

No doubt the logs for the cabin where the family lived at first came from there, too. The year after the barn went up, my great grandfather Shirey, undoubtedly with the help of his neighbors, built the house around the cabin, then tore the cabin down, leaving a V-shaped house.

After Daddy parked the car, Mom opened the passenger side door, and Dotty slid out, trotted around the car and squatted over some spot of grass indistinguishable from the rest except for her contribution. Mom, Dad, and I gathered our suitcases from the trunk and wrangled them toward the house beyond a line of big, dark pines in the side yard. A stocky man of medium height with thin, dark hair and black-rimmed glasses, my uncle George, came out, saying, “Here, here, let me help with those bags.”

We entered the house by way of the huge, square country kitchen ruled over by the white-haired dowager of the family, my grandmother Willman. She had as her minions  my aunt Mary Hickman and her daughters, all more reserved with our part of the family than Uncle George, largely due to a feud over money the decade before. By the fifties, the situation had reached détente, mostly I think, because Mom wasn’t about to let old grudges deny her more or less free accommodations like those in the old house with half a dozen bedrooms, large and small.

Later, I slept in a narrow bedroom just around from the stairs. Back when Dad was a kid, a maiden aunt had this room. She must have been a poor relation because the room was very spare, furnished with bed barely larger than a cot, an orange crate on end for a nightstand, and a chest of drawers. The room had two windows. One next to the orange crate that served as a nightstand overlooked the side yard and the privy. The other window on the far side of the bed looked out at the steep hill behind the house. On hot nights, the wind breathed in one window and out the other, making the little room pleasantly breezy and cool. I found some ancient novels from the 1920’s on the lower shelf of the orange crate, and inveterate reader that I already was, I tried them. They seemed quaint and a little dull.

The house didn’t have an indoor bathroom until quite a while later, after Uncle George retired, and he and Aunt Mary moved to the farm permanently. They built a bathroom, laundry room, and galley kitchen onto what had been the porch that spanned both legs of the V in the back of the house. They left the outhouse, though, and Dad visited it occasionally for old times’ sake. It was quite a ways from the house, on a narrow rill that ran down to the spring house. (The Shireys brought the drinking water into the house to the hand pump in the kitchen sink from the horse spring above the house, a good thing, considering the possibility of insufficient rock between the privy and the spring house to filter contaminants out of the ground water. My dad, the civil engineer, said it took fifty feet.)

During that first summer visit to the farm, Daddy and I went for several walks. One day in particular stands out. Dad and I climbed the long, steep hill behind the house all the way to the top. There we found several graves overgrown by prickly bushes. Field stones marked the graves, by then, shallow depressions in the earth. The graves with stones only two or three feet apart made us sad as we knew babies and children were buried there. Dad said that these graves were  probably from around the time his grandparents first settled in this part of Pennsylvania, back around 1875 or so, not all that long after the Civil War.

As it turned out, the highlight of our first visit to the family farm, at least for me, was a watermelon my dad picked up. The afternoon we arrived, we went out again in the car right after lunch, this time with Uncle George, so he could direct us to an open-air market nearby. On that hot July afternoon, Dad wore khaki wash pants and a short-sleeved shirt with the deep oval of his white undershirt showing at the neck, and rings of sweat darkening the underarms. A straw hat hid his thin, dark hair.

As we stood in front of the stacked melons, my dad said, “You don’t need to cut a piece out of it to tell if it’s ripe.” He leaned over and flicked a big melon with the middle fingers of his right hand. “See?”

“Uh huh,” I said, though I didn’t really know what that thump of his fingers against the striped green watermelon meant.

The clerk weighed the melon and Dad paid for it, twenty cents to the pound. There were lots of pounds. He hefted it up to his left shoulder and carried it over to the car. Though Dad was a short guy, only about five foot five, he’d trained himself when he surveyed the mountains of West Virginia for the CCC to stride exactly a yard every time his right foot hit the dirt.

Back at the farm, Dad got the melon out of the trunk. Instead of taking it inside to the refrigerator, already jammed with food for the forthcoming Independence Day picnic, he carried it downhill to the spring house, a low stone building built into the slope. I followed Dad into the dim, cool building. “Watch out for the well,” Dad said as he pointed to a dark square of water in the floor on the right. “My sister Esther went head over heels in there one time. Like to scare the daylights out of her. It’s deep and really cold.”

I skirted the well and followed Dad through a narrow doorway on the left and down a couple of steps. Two shallow troughs of water stretched on either side of the paved floor. I could imagine bottles of fresh milk and cream plus bowls of berries from the garden floating in those trough water. That day they held only water until Dad lowered the melon off his shoulder and down into one of them. I hunkered down and dipped my fingers in the water. It was icy cold. “We’ll come out and turn it every once in a while,” Dad said. “By the fourth it’ll be perfect.”

And so it was. On Independence Day we dined like hogs on Grandmother Willman’s Parker House rolls along with fried chicken, ham, meatloaf, deviled eggs, those weird gelatin salads that many of the women tried made back then, baked and green beans, the latter picked early that morning and cooked just with butter in a big pot. “These beans are delicious,” my mother said once she’d tried them. And that was really something since she gave few compliments, especially to Daddy’s women folk.

After the ladies commenced to slice the pies and cakes, Dad went down to the spring house and fetched the melon up to the barn on his shoulder. Cold water slid around his wrist and dappled his shirt as he carried it to the picnic table outside the barn, its doors flung open wide to let light and air in to the other tables. Dad laid the melon down on the oilcloth, cut the melon in half lengthwise with a long-bladed knife. The two halves split open to reveal the pink meat and black, slippery seeds. Daddy cut the halves into quarters, then the quarters into wedges and slices. I spat the seeds out into the grass as I ate watermelon, sweet and ripe to the center, and so cold it made my teeth ache.

In the evening, we snacked a little more, though not on the watermelon, long since devoured, its seeds scattered in the grass, its rind collected by my grown-women cousins in bowls and basins to pickle for next year’s picnic. Then we waddled to the cars and drove up the lane and out the country road, back to Lamartine to hear a fife and drum corps, just like they had back in the days of the American Revolution when western Pennsylvania was the frontier. After dark we watched fireworks out over the dewy hill, so close I smelled the gunpowder. Long after dark we drove through a countryside resounding with crickets and cicada, back to the farmhouse sheltered by the hillside.

I fell asleep in the narrow bed in the narrow bedroom, not knowing how special in my memory of that day, my folks, and that melon would become, long after it was devoured and yes, the watermelon rind pickles too.

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Juliet Kincaid writes the calendar historical mysteries and the Cinderella, P. I. mysteries for grown-ups. Stories and novels of both series are available as eBooks and trade paperbacks from Amazon.

First Crush

A Reminiscence

One afternoon back in the summer of ’52, I got in such deep trouble with my mom and dad that I got spanked for it. The guy I got in trouble with was gorgeous: medium height, he had wavy black hair and intense blue eyes. He looked great in (and half out of) buckskins. And he had wonderfully toned pectorals.

I didn’t know that word yet. (I guess we’d call them his six-pack now.) So I thought of that part of his anatomy, and thought about it again, and drooled over the memory of seeing it on the screen during the next few days, as his chest. That guy had great chest, liberally displayed when the doctor dug the bullet (or was it an arrow?) out of the adjacent shoulder. The fellow bore the pain most manfully, albeit with the help of that frontier anesthetic, whiskey swigged from a jug.

The movie was The Big Sky, the actor was Dewey Martin, and I was in love, or really some sort of pre-pubescent lust. And I was so taken by his performance, well his chest primarily, that I sat through the whole movie a second time.

This was a major error of judgment because once I reeled out of the theater another two hours later, I knew I was in deep trouble. When I’d paid my thirty-five cents to the cashier and got my ticket four hours earlier, it had been bright and sunny outside. Now it was almost dark. Crying, I hurried toward the bus stop a half block down the avenue in front of the columned bank building.

Before I got to the corner, though, here came my dad bearing down on me with the yard-long engineer’s stride he trained himself to take back when he was a surveyor with the CCC. I could tell he was mad, mostly from worry I understand now that I’m a parent. Or maybe it was because we went home by cab which cost lots more than bus fare, probably to get there fast to relieve Mom of her worries. (We didn’t have a car or a phone yet.)

For supper I had cold boiled cabbage and ham. (Mom and Dad must have eaten all the onions and the potatoes she usually put in that dish.) But I was so hungry it tasted delicious. For dessert I got my licking. Dad spanked me with his bedroom slipper instead of the razor strop he used on my brother after Dale played hooky from school to go fishing down by the river when we lived in Garden Court in South Point, Ohio.

I guess the spanking hurt and I never again stayed out late without parental permission until I was in college and my parents were out of town. And Dad only spanked me the one time during my childhood and adolescence, though Mom took licks at me a couple of times, once with the bristle end of a broom for not coming right home from grade school and later on when I was in high school, with the soft side of a plumber’s friend for giving her lip.

The spanking Dad gave me didn’t stop me from thinking about Dewey Martin. I bought movie magazines like Photoplay and Modern Screen on the sly at Nick’s News downtown across the street from the library and scoured them for pictures of my favorite. One photo I found was tiny, but showed Martin bare-chested. Oh joy. I neatly cut it out with Mom’s sewing scissors and hid it in my dresser drawer among my underpants. Sometimes I’d pull the picture out and pet it.

The spanking my dad gave me also didn’t keep me from falling in love with a long series of men I’ve known only from the big or little screen. I can still list them in a long incantation of desire: Dewey Martin, Yul Brynner (another very manly chest) and . . . I’ll spare you the rest.

How about you? Who was the first star you had a crush on?

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Juliet Kincaid writes the Cinderella, P. I. fairy tale mysteries for grown-ups and the calendar historical mystery series set in Kansas City around 1900. These stories and novels are available as trade paperbacks and Kindle eBooks from Amazon. com. (And they’re always free on Kindle Unlimited.)

Dress Shields and Other Devices of Torment

A Reminiscence

Around the age of fourteen I had my one growth-spurt of adolescence and reached my full height of five foot one and three quarters. I also attained the full maturity of my glands, including those I sweat with. Soon thereafter my mother decreed that in order to protect my good clothes, that is, any article of clothing I wore to church and many I wore to school, I had to wear dress shields.

In case you don’t know about these little monsters, let me describe them. About the size of a shoulder pad, but meant to fold into the armpit instead of over the shoulder, a dress shield is an oval of layered cloth and rubber.  Many come with little straps.

Back then dress shields didn’t come in disposable like they do now, and after I wore my dress shields a few times, even my mother, the power-laundress and detergent-maven, couldn’t get the smell of sweat out of them. So I’d end up embarrassed over my possible body odor and therefore inclined to keep my elbows locked into my ribs.

My mother had other devices, too. Even now I have trouble keeping my bra straps on my narrow shoulders. So Mom came upon a solution when she discovered strap clips in a bin at Kresge’s Five and Dime close by the dreaded dress shields. This meant when gussied up for school or church in a bra, slip, and dress shields, I’d have wads of straps so thick and cumbersome that soon they slid off my shoulders and thus kept me from lifting my arms. What with the stinky dress shields under my arms and several straps across my biceps, no wonder I rarely raised my hand in high school.

The dress shields and clips weren’t the only devices of torment Mom hobbled me with. Though I never weighed more than one hundred and five pounds till I was past twenty and was, besides that, fit from twice weekly dance lessons and lots of walking, the conventional wisdom of the time said good girls wore panty girdles to hold up their stockings on Sundays and also to hold in the tummies they wouldn’t have until they got married and had a bunch of kids. Of course, a properly fitting panty girdle was guaranteed to dig grooves into the bottom of any girl as she sat through three hours of Sunday school and church.

My mom even managed to get my daddy in on the instruments of torture, for it was her contention that I was hard on shoes. Indeed, she believed this and kidded me about it until I was well into my fifties. So, to virtually every new pair of shoes, dress or casual, I got during my adolescence, Dad nailed heel taps, little pieces of metal shaped like flattened cashews. This meant, unless I wanted to make a clatter on wooden and tile floors, I had to tiptoe. On carpets, the taps tended to make me skid. Trying striding along confidently when you have taps on your shoes.

Now, to sum this whole torment up, picture me on a typical Easter Sunday when I was in my mid-teens. There I sit in the pew to which I tiptoed in my new shoes with the taps on the heels. On my little face I wear cat’s eye glasses that I push back up my narrow nose from time to time–when I’m not easing the clips that hold my straw boater firmly clamped to my aching temples like the claws of some vicious bird. Under my beige silk blouse and cashmere sweater with orange piping coordinated with a silk skirt, I wear slip, bra and dress shields into which I’m heartily sweating because of all the layers I wear including the panty girdle and hose.

From the perspective of several decades removed from that poor, challenged girl I was, I realize now that it was very hard for me to feel worshipful back then when I constantly fought my clothes. I’ve always thought going to college led me to rebel against church-going at age nineteen. But now I wonder if it was my dress shields instead.

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Juliet Kincaid writes the Cinderella, P. I. fairy tale mysteries for grown-ups featuring a favorite fairy tale heroine and the calendar historical mysteries set in Kansas City around 1900 that tell the story of Minty Wilcox and Daniel Price from newly met to newly wed and beyond.

You can buy Juliet’s novels and stories at Amazon.com as trade paperbacks and Kindle eBooks. (They’re always free from Kindle Unlimited.)

Juliet’s most recent publication is “The Barn Door,” a prequel short story to her calendar mysteries that introduces her dashing detective Daniel Price. Click on this link to go to it: www.amazon.com/dp/B073G7ZXMP