Short Stories

The Thistle Dance

Some in the family blame Aunt Hilda for what happened during the festivities.

After all, neither of her first two husbands lasted long. She married the first when she was past forty. The breathless couple was honeymooning in a cottage on Lake Koshkonong when a thunderstorm swept through. They were in bed, admiring the curtains of rain and counting the seconds between the flashes and the rumbles, when Aunt Hilda realized that her saucy red Mustang convertible was turning into a swimming pool. At her urging, the groom threw on a raincoat and went out to put the top up, only to be struck dead by lightning.

The insurance settlement enabled Aunt Hilda to start a bakery in Stoughton.

Outside that very same cottage, her second groom, an avid golfer angry at the clouds for ruining his game, shook a defiant nine iron at the heavens and, in a flash, passed on to some fairway in the sky.

I think that’s when she began her collection.

My earliest memories of her were the bearhugs. When I was little, they engulfed me so completely that daylight and air became things of joy. So did those hugs, though, because there was so much love in them. Whiffs of cinnamon and nutmeg, too.

I grew up with the realization that love, for all its piquant sweetness, could be smothering.

So I was steady on my feet when Alex and I fell for each other. I had never given carpenters much thought. But when he came over to trim a six-panel door, he smelled of sawdust and leather and his eyes smiled when he talked about wood grain. I cringed as I watched his fingers dance around the whirring blade of the miter saw, but he worked with easy precision.  

I was overdressed for the occasion. Jeans without holes in the knees, the pink Eiffel Tower t-shirt, a matching hair tie. I hadn’t gone to that trouble for the plumber or the cable guy, but for some reason, the arrival of the carpenter was different.

Since I was standing there, Alex provided a running commentary on what he was doing. As he was measuring the reveal between the hinges and the trim, we veered onto the topic of flowers. It turned out that he knew a lot about invasive species.

During my blathering, one of his pencil marks went awry and he had to go back to the garage to re-cut the 45-dregree angle on the trim.

“Sorry,” I said. “I’m distracting you.” I started to leave.

“You’re good,” he said with a reassuring smile. “Maybe I’ll make a how-to video. I kind of enjoy doing the play-by-play.”

Well, he enjoyed taking walks, too. As we ambled though the nearby conservancy, he’d tell me about bench sanders and truing and I’d tell him about trigonometry and calculus. We talked about river birches and cattails and drainage, and suddenly everything seemed so fascinating.

Because she was my closest living relative, a visit to Aunt Hilda was a given for my first real romance. So, about a hundred kisses into our relationship, I asked Alex if he was ready to take things to the next level.

“I’d love to know what that is,” he wheezed, “as soon as you stop crushing me.”

“Sorry,” I said, easing up on the embrace. “It’s kind of a thing we do in my family.”

Aunt Hilda was living on the east side of Madison by then, in a squat craftsman style house with a garden full of thistles.

“Is that really necessary?” Alex asked when he saw the lightning rod.

“If you knew Aunt Hilda, you wouldn’t have to ask,” I said.

When he’s talking plants or carpentry, Alex radiates confidence, but when he’s meeting people, he can be shy and self-conscious. So, I didn’t tell him much about Aunt Hilda. I thought it best to let him discover her for himself.

The porch was so packed with rickety ladder-back and rush chairs that we had to squeeze our way to the front door. We got no answer when I knocked, so I took Alex by the hand and led him inside to get the full effect.

It was all we could do to get the door open. Sofas and chairs stood cushion to veneer with tables, dressers, headboards and vanities–the accumulation of a lifetime, several lifetimes actually. Over the years, Aunt Hilda’s houses had become repositories for the generations. No one else in the family had room for an eight-foot Italianate dining room table and eight tall chairs, so Aunt Hilda took them in. No one wanted the 1917 Montgomery Ward sideboard, so Aunt Hilda adopted it. She dusted the relics and restored them when she got around to it.

I tried to read Alex’s face as he took it all in.

“Nice rosemaling,” he said, studying the colorful swirls of birds and flowers that graced the  living room wall. “Are those thistle blossoms?”

Aunt Hilda hailed us from the kitchen. She wriggled past a parlor organ and a mahogany potty chair to get to us.

I braced myself for the big hug, but she settled for wrapping an arm around my shoulder and squeezing. “Glad you caught me,” she boomed. “I was about to take the day-old to the food pantry. Where you been, Shelley? I was ready to file a missing person report.”

 “Oh, you know. Grad school,” I said, steadying myself on an antique floor model radio. It let out a howl and I jumped.

“Damn thing’s got a tube off kilter,” Aunt Hilda said, bending over to unplug it from a power strip. “Rolfe was going to come over and poke at it, but his pacemaker’s on the fritz, so he’s got his feet propped up. He’ll have more time after the festivities.” She straightened and put her hands on her hips. “Is this Alex or one of the other suitors you’ve been raving about?”

“She’s kidding,” I told him with a nervous smile. “Yes, this is Alex.”

After an awkward hesitation, he reached out and took her hand as if he was about to kiss it. “Nice collection you have here.”

Was he serious or was he messing with us?

“This is my family,” Aunt Hilda announced. “Four generations in the form of furniture. We get along real well.” She put her fist to her mouth and coughed. There were tears in her eyes. “The prairie-style dresser and the dropleaf table belonged to my husbands.”

Husbands? A questioning look from Alex.

“She’s a widow,” I said.

She continued. “The goddam drawer glides in the dresser are shot. But the table’s as sturdy as ever.”

“Gotta love those claw feet,” Alex said.

He sounded serious.

“That table’s like you,” I said. “Solid. Built to last forever.”

“You never know,” Aunt Hilda said with a tilt of her head. “That’s what we thought about your Uncle Magnus.”

“I don’t think I  remember Uncle Magnus.”

“That’s his dry sink over there. He looked steady as a rock. But during Bjorn Pederson’s overlong funeral, he died.”

“That’s terrible.”

‘Yeah, but kind of convenient, too. On a brighter note, why don’t you invite your suitor to the festivities?”

The festivities?”

“Sure, darlin’. What else?”

 Alex backed into a lamp and grabbed it to keep it from going over. “I wouldn’t want to  barge in on your party.”

Meeting people was hard enough for him. Crowds made him downright skittish.  

Aunt Hilda gave my shoulder a squeeze. My joint popped. “What party? Didn’t Shelley tell you? I’m getting married again.” She went on, as if in confidence. “Now, listen, I hope you haven’t looked into this young man’s police record.”

I blinked. “What? Why would I do that?”

“Some of the young folks do, you know. I think it takes all the fizz and pop out of getting acquainted.”

Alex took a breath. “I do have one thing.”

I didn’t want to hear this.

“When I was in Lake Geneva, I thought I had the parking app down, but I got a ticket. It turned out I was paying for a spot in Rapid City, South Dakota.”

Aunt Hilda roared. “Bring him to the festivities!”

On the way to the car, I told Alex he had to be there or risk hurting her feelings. In addition to family, she had invited lots of friends, including two Somali volunteers at the food pantry, who now greeted her in Norwegian when she came to drop off the day-old fattigman and kringle. This was different though. My first real boyfriend.

The wedding and reception were to take place at Arnoy’s Brewpub near Waunakee. When we got there, I warned Alex that things might come a little unglued. “My family can be boisterous and overbearing,” I said.

“Is that a brewpub,” he asked. “It looks like a church.”

“It was a church,” I told him. “The Lutherans outgrew it.”

“A brewpub,” he repeated. “Well, think of the possibilities for baptisms.”

Aunt Hilda looked beautiful. She was wearing a black lace shawl over a silk burgundy blouse and a long floral print skirt. Her black hair had maroon highlights.

 “I expected a corsage of thistle blossoms,” Alex whispered as the bride and groom stood face to face where the altar had been.

“Thistles are pretty once you get past the prickles,” I said.

Aunt Hilda and Rolfe tied the knot with about eighteen biblical words and a peck on the cheek. The reception followed at once, with music by an eight-piece fiddle band and lubrication from kegs of Arnoy Skull-Knocker Stout. Watching over the proceedings were several stained glass saints whose raised hands seemed to be encouraging a lively time. I clung to Alex and introduced him around. My relatives stood too close and talked too loud.

Aunt Hilda and Rolfe started the dancing with a polka, and suddenly, the fragile groom was as nimble as a flea.

The Somalis were so quick to learn the steps that I wondered if Aunt Hilda had given them lessons during her visits to the food pantry.

The night became a whirl of color and sound. Of faces, hands and feet, and raised voices. It was a  feast of love until Rolfe collapsed.

The fiddling trailed off.  People crowded around the fallen groom and the bride kneeling beside him.

“You should’ve went easy on him,” I heard somebody say.

“He looks like he’s dead!” cried one of my girl cousins.

Amid a confusion of consternation and suggestions, Alex stepped back and got out his cellphone.

Aunt Hilda stood up and commanded, “This won’t happen again! Get up, Rolfe!”

For too long, the only sound was the whooshing of one of the kegs.

The groom raised his head and looked around with a bleary smile. A cheer went up and somebody yelled, “Welcome back, Rolfe!”

Alex and I drifted outside and into the parking lot. The light from the church spilled across the lawn and into the surrounding woods.

Alex let out a breath.

“You okay?” I asked.  

“Never better,” he said.

The dandelions were out in full force. I picked one and held it out to him.

“If I were a flower, this would be me. Easily overlooked in the crowd.”

He took it and held it up to the light. “But when a guy takes a good look, something rare and wonderful.”

I smiled. “And what would you be?”

He looked around. “Dame’s Rocket.”

“An invasive species.”

“Well, so am I. Tonight.”

“Oh, no. After that immersion in there, you’re practically one of the family.”

“I’ll bet I can fix the glides on that dresser.”

I took the dandelion from him and tucked it into the lapel of his coat. “Alex, dear Alex, let’s go back in. We should make the most of the night. The dance is just getting started.”

That Special Tree

Sooner or later, you’re likely to find yourself trekking through the cold for the chance to pay good money for a dead tree.

All animals have their irrational moments. Lemmings fling themselves into the sea, black widows eat up perfectly good husbands, and we go looking for Christmas trees.

We could speculate that a tree wedged into the living room fills some deeps-seated need to have a holiday guest who doesn’t drink too much, talk shop or make a fool of himself under the mistletoe, but that’s beside the point.

You’re going to want that dead tree. You’re going to want the best dead tree you can get—That Special Tree. There are secrets to getting it. Here’s how we got ours.

We live in the city, where there are literally lots of Christmas trees for sale. All kinds of trees for all kinds of prices, already cut for your convenience. Of course, that’s not for you. It wasn’t for us either. We drove twenty-five miles into the country for our tree.

We passed several tree farms on the way. But Augusta knew that those were not for us because those trees were right there in plain sight. That Special Tree is never in a place you can find without a few wrong turns on narrow, unmarked dirt roads.

If you happen to be the man in the family, you won’t want to spoil the Christmas mystique by stopping to ask for directions. You could use your GPS, but what’s the sport in that? Anyway, you’re pretty sure you’re almost there because the road has turned to mud.

The signage was reassuring. I pulled the car onto the side of the road. Augusta, Young Charles, Wally, and I waded ashore and began our search for That Special Tree.

“What do you think of this one?” August asked.

“It looks muddy,” I said. “They all do.”

“It’s your glasses,” she told me. “Didn’t I tell you to roll up your window when we drove in here?”

Charles insisted that we buy it right then and there.

The very first tree? Unheard of. Augusta eyed it more critically. “I don’t know. It’s not quite Christmas tree-shaped.”

“It isn’t?” I rubbed my glasses on the knee of my jeans and put them back on. “It looks okay to me.”

“It doesn’t have enough room between the branches. Our ornaments wouldn’t be able to hang.”

“They would too,” Charles declared.

Augusta reached into her coat and pulled out a red glass ball. She hung it on one of the top branches. Sure enough, it just lay there like a giant cranberry.

“Come on,” she said.

“What about our ornament?” Wally asked.

“Leave it there to stake our claim,” she said over her shoulder. “I just want to look over here at this one.”

We slogged after her, over few rows and down a few trees. She stopped and posed, smiling, beside a six-footer.

“This one looks pretty good,” she chirped. “What do you think?”

“It sucks,” Charles said.

I thought of Joyce Kilmer’s line: “A tree whose mouth is lightly pressed against the earth’s sweet-flowing breast.” Something like that. Maybe Charles was just being poetic.

“It does not suck,” Augusta insisted. “And you are not to use that kind of language. Especially at Christmastime.”

“They all suck except that fist one,” Charles informed her.

Suddenly she spotted an even better one. It beckoned from afar with stately outstretched branches.

“I hope you’re kidding,” I said when I got there. “It’s about nine feet tall. We’d have to put it in the garage”

“We could keep the car in the living room,” Wally suggested.

She didn’t hear us. She was already off, lured by yet another tall, shapely form.

Frowning, Charles joined us on the forced march. “All of these trees suck except that first one.”

Augusta led us on from tree to tree, through deeper and deeper slush, in her quest to discover That Special Tree.

We did discover one thing: Our boots weren’t waterproof.

“It’s starting to get dark,” Wally observed.

Fog was starting to settle over the snow.

“Okay, okay,” Augusta conceded. “Let’s just get that first one.”

“If we can find it again,” I said, making a beeline for it. I was relying on my keen sense of direction, which can usually tell which way the sun is. It was down.

But Charles, who is an avid backyard camper, led us right to the place—to the place but not to the tree, which was riding atop a minivan on its way to a happy home in parts unknown.

“What the frig is this?” Augusta gasped as she arrived at the crime scene.

Wally put his foot on the remains. “It’s a stump, Mom.”

Charles stared into the gray twilight. “Somebody got our tree while we were out there in the dark.”

Hands on her hips, Augusta glared at the minivan as it slid through the quagmire. “They got our tree—and our ornament. This sucks!”

My eyes went heavenward. “Now what?”

As if in reply, Augusta tiptoed over to a fir tree in the next row. It was short and spindly and down toward the bottom it had a bald spot.

“This one looks pretty good,” she said cheerfully.

Charles and Wally were quick to agree.

“It does look good,” I said. “Very good.”

We had finally found That Special Tree.

Merry Christmas 2020!