ALPHONSE EXPLAINS ALMOST EVERYTHING
Mary and Ruth lifted the old cardboard box from the table and set it against the wall.
“Where did you get these plates?” asked Mary. Miss Anna handed her 7 cream colored dinner plates with pink roses around the rims. “They’re beautiful.”
“We got them from Mama when she passed,” Miss Anna replied. “She and Papa got them as a wedding present.”
“They’re from the Montgomery Ward catalog,” added Miss Hannah. “We still have the complete set, so please be very careful with them.”
Paul disappeared from the kitchen and came back in a tank top and flip flops. He washed his hands, dried them, wet his hair and combed it. Tenseness seemed to leave his body and he walked over beside the box with the diary. “What is a box of Great Uncle Alphonse’s things doing at your house?”
Sam lowered his Idaho Register newspaper. “That’s a good question Paul. Do either of you girls know how it got here?”
Miss Hannah paused from removing a large roast from a blue speckled roasting pan. “I’m not sure.” She forked the big piece of meet out onto a platter, and slid the roaster over to one of the Monarch’s burners. “Do you know how it got here, Anna?”
Anna was handing small matching bowls, each with two canned peaches to the twins. “You know I think that’s one of the boxes Sophie gave us. There were mostly clothes on top. The book was on the very bottom.” She handed the last bowl to Ruth and grabbed a large matching bowl of mashed potatoes and carried it to the table.
“Are you just about done with the gravy, Hannah?”
“Yes, it’s done. Mary or Ruth, please come pick up the bread and butter. We have a bowl of good peas from the garden too. Oh, I forgot the spoons.”
“I’ll get them,” volunteered Paul. He picked up a small blue pitcher with spoon handles sticking out of it’s throat. He carried it to the table and sat down.
Miss Hannah cleared her throat and we all made the Sign of the Cross. This was different than our weeknight dinners at home. This was more like a Sunday dinner. I had three plates full.
After Paul and I were done with the dishes, he tapped me on the shoulder. “Let’s go walk to the rock pit.”
“Me?” I was surprised he asked. He usually seemed to avoid me. I got the impression he thought I was just a dumb kid, I mean I was only 11 and he was a teenager.
“Yeah, let’s go.”
“What about the diary?”
“It’ll be here when we get back.” He goaded me with his eyes.
“Miss Hannah, John and I are gonna walk to the rock pit.”
“Don’t you want to look at the diary?” asked Ruth. “We waited ‘til after you were done with the dishes so it’d be fair.”
I looked hopefully at Paul. Like maybe he’d change his mind and wait to see what was inside it.
“We won’t be gone very long.” Paul promised, walking toward the door.” I thought we’d go throw some rocks, or something. Maybe try and catch a frog.”
I could feel my jaw drop. He saw my expression and nudged me toward the kitchen door.
“Don’t be gone too long,” cautioned Miss Hannah. “Remember, we get up early.”
“We won’t,” said Paul. Paul ushered me out the door and headed to the back of the house. His cigarettes, with a pack of matches slid into their cellophane, were laying in the weeds under our bedroom window. He bent down and handed them to me.
“I’m glad the chickens didn’t eat’m. Put these in your pocket until we get away from the house.”
I shoved his smokes in my pants. “Is this why you wanted me to come with you? So I could hold your f**king cigarettes?”
He shook his head. “No, I need to talk to you.” We walked past the house and headed toward the old rock pit. Mom said they dug it to make gravel for the road, but that was a long time ago. It was full of water now. Paul looked over his shoulder. “Ok, you can hand me my cigs.”
He tapped the pack and pulled a cigarette out with his lips, juggled the matches and struck a light. He took a deep drag and exhaled a cloud of smoke. “God, I needed that.” He took another drag and handed the cigarettes back. “Here, stick these in your pocket.”
“Why don’t you carry them yourself?”
“They won’t fit.”
“They would if you were wearing your new overalls.”
He turned toward me and shook his head. “F**ker.”
Paul smoked and walked in silence looking at his feet. “You don’t want to throw rocks or catch frogs, do you?” I asked.
“No, I wanted to ask you something, and don’t be a little f**ker about it.”
“How would you like to go to the World’s Fair in Spokane?”
“I don’t know. I guess so? How are we going to get there?”
Roy Wilson was a man Paul met on his paper route. He was over 21 and worked as a waiter at the Three Willows. According to Paul it was the highest class restaurant in town. Paul and I used to go to Roy’s apartment sometimes. He always had cold Pepsi. I think Paul liked him ‘cause he bought his cigarettes. When Dad found out he said we couldn’t go anymore, but I think Paul still did sometimes . They talked on the phone a lot. When Roy called, Paul stretched the headset’s curled cord into the broom closet and shut the door.
“You know Dad doesn’t like you hanging around with Roy. He thinks he’s a Nancy Boy.”
“I told you not to be a little f**ker about it.”
“He won’t let you.”
Paul took a last drag on his cigarette, tossed the butt in the dirt and ground it under his flip flop. “He might if you say you’ll come along.”
“I don’t know.” I looked at the crushed butt. “I guess so.”
“Ok, so when we get back you’ll say you’ll go with us?”
I looked toward the rock pit. “Yeah, but I don’t have any money.”
“Roy said he’d have money. He gets like $100 in tips everyday.” I started to walk toward the rock pit again.
“Let’s go back.” He turned toward the house. “You’ll like Spokane. It’s a big city, it’s not like Livingston. Roy says he’s gonna move there. He says he could get a lot more tips, and there’s something to do all the time.”
I caught up with Paul in a few steps.
“I can’t wait until I can drive.”
“Hey, maybe if we find these coins you’ll have enough to buy a car?”
Paul nodded. “Yeah, that’d be cool.” We walked the rest of the way back in silence.
When we got to the old picket fence, he leaned over and exhaled in my face. “Can you smell any smoke?”
“It’s not too bad. I can barely smell it.”
Mary and Ruth were sitting at the table with the diary open in front of them. “You guys find out anything?” I asked.
Ruth picked up a old beat up book that had the pages hollowed out. “This is why nobody found it before we did. He kept it in here. When Miss Anna got our aprons it must have just fallen apart. I think he glued the pages with flour and water paste.”
Paul and I moved closer. The cover said, Adventure Stories for Boys. He’d done a pretty neat job. Instead of hollowing out the pages so you just opened the cover. Alphonse had cut the bottom of the book and used a long hairpin to keep a plug of glued pages in place. It looked like a quarter of the Adventure stories for Boys first pages were kept original. He’d hollowed out the rest of the pages and pasted them together. Removing the plug was the only way you could get to the diary. It was pretty tricky.
Mary turned back to the first page and handed me Alphonse’s Diary. It was written in pencil, his handwriting was a lot better than mine.
January 1st, 1912.
It’s hard to believe Christmas is over and it’s the start of a new year. I wonder what 1912 will bring? I guess God’s the only one who knows . I’ll turn seventeen this year, so it’s only four more years until I’m my own man. I better start trying to make some money if I want to see Paris and the pyramids. I’ll ask Papa if I can buy a calf to raise. I’ve got two dollars saved. If that isn’t enough, maybe I can do extra work in trade for the rest. I’ll ask him tomorrow.
January 2nd, 1912
Talked to Papa about buying a calf with my $2.00. He said he couldn’t sell me one for less than $2.50, that’s what they’re paying at the Livestock Sales. I didn’t tell him I was trying to raise money for a trip. I’m not sure how he’d take it. Sometimes I feel if I leave the farm, I’ll be letting him down. It’s still four years until I’m 21, I guess I’ve got plenty of time left to tell him.
I looked up from the diary. “Did you find anything about his secret hiding place?”
“Oh yeah, he tells all about it,” said Mary.
“He tells how he got the cows too,” added Ruth.
“Well? Where is it?” I ask.
“You’ll have to read it for yourself,” they replied in unison and walked away.
I turned to Paul, “I hate when they do that.”
He nodded, took the book from me and sat down at the table. I tried to look over his shoulder but he flipped the pages to fast. “Hey, listen to this.”
April 15th, 1912,
Our neighbor, Mr. Elliott, stopped by on his way home from town. I overheard him talking to Papa about an ocean liner named the Titanic. Apparently it hit an iceberg and sank early this morning or yesterday in the North Atlantic. He said the news is all over town. I thought I heard him say something about it being unsinkable. I guess it sank anyway. I hope there weren’t too many deaths.
April 20th, 1912
Papa, Mama and I went into town today. We got some oyster shell, chicken scratch and picked up this year’s chicks from the depot. Mama got mostly Plymouth Rocks, but she also got a dozen Buff Orpington to see how they do. More news on the Titanic. It seems there could be as many as 1500 passengers dead. 1500! It doesn’t seem possible there could be ships that big. I hope that doesn’t happen on my crossing. Still need to figure out how to earn some money.
“Wow, the Titanic, that must have been something.” I exclaimed. Paul nodded and scanned more of the pages. “Listen to this.”
April 27th, 1912
Big news! Mr. Elliott subscribes to Colliers and National Geographic. I saw him at the post office when I was picking up the mail. Papa only subscribes to the St. Anthony Messenger and The Wanderer. I told him about the trip I planned and he said I could borrow some of his old Geographic’s if I wanted to. He said I could borrow the Colliers too. I don’t know what Papa will say? I should probably ask, but then he might say no.
“It looks like great grandpa only subscribed to Catholic magazines,” said Paul. “I wonder why Alphonse was worried about borrowing National Geographic and that other magazine?”
“Colliers Magazine. I don’t know? Maybe he thought he wouldn’t approve of them.”
“I don’t know?” I replied. “I know as much about this as you do.”
“Ok, here’s something that tells about the hiding place.”
June 3rd, 1912
Mama and Papa left for the Saint Joseph’s Verein State Convention in Boise. They’ll be gone a week. This is the perfect time for me to make my secret hiding place. I found the extra wallpaper Mama had saved and some tin to enclose the inside. It should be perfect for the magazines Mr. Elliott loans me. I’ll start on it Saturday when Willie and George go to town.
June 4th, 1912
Everything turned out perfect! All I have to do now is wait for the paste to dry. It’s similar to the hollow book I keep my diary in, but I think I did a better job this time. I can hardly see it. Haven’t put anything in it yet.
“He must have cut a hole in the wall,” said Paul. “It sounds like he’s made a cover, and cut the scrap wallpaper to match it.”
I nodded. “Come on, read more.”
June 8th, 1912
I borrowed two Colliers and two Geographics. They fit perfectly. I never thought I’d say this, but it’s kind of a blessing I had a problem with bed wetting when I was younger. It was embarrassing at the time, but at least I don’t have to share a bed with George and Willie. I haven’t done it for years. Now I just shut my door, light my candle and nobody knows I’m reading.
“It’s in his bedroom!”
“His bedroom. Yeah, that makes sense,” I agreed.
“Whoa! Listen to this.” Paul flattened the diary out on the table.
June 20th, 1912
Mr. Elliott died. Nobody is sure when. Papa heard his cattle lowing and thought it didn’t sound normal, so he had George go check on him. George said he must have been dead at least a day. We fetched the Sheriff and Doctor Orr. The doctor said it looked like his heart gave out. I guess the coroner is going to come from Grangeville to do an autopsy. Papa said he was a good neighbor even if he didn’t go to church. I know I’ll miss him. He was the only person I could really talk to.
“Man I bet that was something. Imagine finding somebody dead.” Paul shook his head.
“Especially someone who was so nice to you,” I added.
Paul sat quietly for a few minutes. “I bet that was tough. I mean Mr. Elliott was the only person he felt comfortable telling his dreams too.” He blinked a few times.
Maybe it was the same with Roy? I thought. Maybe Paul had things he could only talk to Roy about?
Paul flicked through more pages. “Listen to this. This is where he got the cows.”
July 20th, 1912
Mr. Elliott left me 5 two year old steers in his will. I can’t believe it! I didn’t expect this. He left everything else to his brother in Humphrey, Nebraska. He never married and he didn’t have any children. I’d never thought to ask. Now I wish I would’ve talked to him more about himself. Mama and Papa wanted to know why he would do such a thing. I had to be honest, so I told them about the magazines I borrowed, and the trip I planned. They didn’t seem surprised. I should have told them sooner. I guess I wasn’t as good at keeping secrets as I thought.
July 22nd, 1912
I talked to Papa about pasturing the steers. I guess legally he could take them because I’m still a minor, but he said he wouldn’t. However, I would need to pay him for pasturing and feed. I thought that was fair. He said I could pay him after I sold the steers.
August 7th, 1912
Sold the steers Mr. Elliott left me today. I got five Double Eagles! I think I’ll buy a few yearling calf’s and raise them to sell. If I keep this up I’ll have plenty for my trip, and more. Need to talk to Papa about renting more pasture. I want to keep everything businesslike and proper. Willie and George are jealous. I think I’ll buy them each a calf of their own. Until then, I’ll put the Eagles in my special place until I decide exactly what I want to do.
“That’s all there is,” said Paul. “At least we know where his hiding place is.”
“Well, at least where it was 62 years ago,” I added. “That’s a long time.”
Paul nodded. “I bet they’re still there though. Great Uncle Alphonse was pretty clever.”