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John Pietz  

The Flute Harp 

We knew that Elsa May liked to drink gin, because there were years of empties out behind her grove where she dumped her trash. She ran an apple ranch near the lake, what most people would call an orchard but what she called an apple ranch. We were hired out to prune the apple trees during the winter, spray the baby apples in the spring, and pick apples in the fall. I did this for two years, my junior and senior year in high school. 

Marvelous Marvin was my friend during that time. He was called Marvelous Marvin because of his musical talent. He could play a multitude of tunes by whistling through his hands - Broadway show tunes, Italian opera, popular hits, the national anthems of major countries, all by bringing his hands together as if praying, then blowing through the knuckles of his thumbs. Amazing Grace, the Star Spangled Banner, and Close to You - these were some of my favorites, especially Close to You - he had a way of warping it, satirizing the hell out of it. He also did birds, like hoot owls, mourning doves and loons. He called it the flute harp. He did it everywhere, in the school hallways, the class rooms. Sitting in the high school gym during a basketball game you could hear Marvelous Marvin doing his flute harp. There wasn't too many moments when Marvelous Marvin wasn't doing the flute harp. He was kind of obsessed with it, maybe in some kind of unhealthy way. 

Ten years earlier, Elsa May's husband had died in a car accident on a bridge over a dredge ditch. It was rainy and he had been drinking, it was told. Ron Svoboda, the county sheriff at the time, found his car all mashed up against the bridge guard rail. He had driven over that bridge hundreds of times. Some thought that maybe the sun had broken through the clouds and that the glare had gotten him. Jake George May was a farmer, a semi-professional bowler, and an inventor who had five patents, one of which was a little hand held device that looked like a shoehorn and enabled you to peel an orange into one continuous spiral. 

Elsa May was near forty and part Mexican, her face smooth and dark, with small sunburst wrinkles around her eyes that made her look like she was always about to smile. She was from New Mexico originally, she had told me once. In New Mexico, they have apple orchards on the foothills overlooking the mountains. She wanted to go back there, she said. She wanted to go back there and be with her family, her people she called them. 

 Hearing her say this over Kool Aid one summer day, batches of clouds swaying overhead, I answered that I might go there too, someday. 

"There's a whole world out there. You can go out and get anything from it at this stage." She had a pink scarf tight around her graying black hair. I looked down the apple rows to see if I could see Marvelous Marvin. I had a hard time taking it when people said things like that, the future, what some people saw in it for me, things that they had probably lost for themselves. 

She poked at the ground with a stick. Her face, around the eyes and lips, was starting to sprout little hairs, a vegetable kind of hair that was coarse and black. She squinted into the sun. "I've got some sandwiches in the Frigedaire if you're hungry." 

I didn't much feel like eating. Marvelous Marvin and I had gone out drinking the night before. The lake near Elsa's farm had a public access, and we had parked there to sip a bottle of Southern Comfort Marvelous Marvin had bought from his older sister. There was a moon out, and its reflection on the water was undulating and bright. It had put Marvelous Marvin in a sentimental mood, and he had launched into a sloppy rendition of Close to You, followed by a three tone plaintive loon call. 

Elsa May's kitchen smelled sweet and slightly rancid, like old oatmeal cookies. The wood on the shelves and cupboards was sticky, gummy. The red linoleum floor creaked. The tap water tasted like farm water, iron-like and ice cold. 

On Elsa May's mantle, which was also sticky and gummy, the varnish dissolving in the hot August air, there sat a photograph of Father Mountain and Elsa May taken in front of a zebra. The picture frame had a little metal plate that said Como Park Zoo. Father Mountain, the local priest, had considerable hair, white and shocked. He had an unusual amount of hair for a fat man. The picture struck me as unusual, so I slipped it under my shirt to show Marvelous Marvin. 

Something about Elsa May had always given me the impression that she had things to hide. Her husband Jake was a bit of a rooster, to hear my father tell of it, implying that she had suffered. My mother said that Jake was a charismatic man, who unfortunately had never amounted to much. The pinnacle of his professional bowling career came when he won a sixty-two Dodge Dart in a tournament in Sioux Falls, but the bowling had faltered after that. My grandmother, who had known his parents, said that things had come too easy for him. He was a jack of all trades but master of none. A tireless dancer, she had added with a cackle. 

"Cock of the walk," said Marvelous Marvin, retelling his take on things, which came from his parents. "Left poor Elsa May home alone on Saturday nights," he said looking sagely out over the apple trees. "Beat her up too. She is a sad, lonely, bitter woman." Marvelous Marvin looked at me. This was his father talking through Marvelous Marvin. It wasn't him. 

I pulled the photograph out of my shirt and showed it to him. He let out a whoop. Father Mountain amazingly casual in a t-shirt. Elsa May in a scandalous low cut dress that looked like it was from the fifties, long and purple and out of fashion. Father Mountain had a mischievous grin, and this made Marvelous Marvin whoop again and put his hands to his mouth and let fly the wild call of the horny loon. 

"He buys his cigarettes at the store near the parsonage by going in the back door and picking out a carton and holding it up to Frank Kadanza at the front of the store so he doesn't have to meet any customers," said Marvelous Marvin. "He gets his booze the same way, by coming in first thing on a Monday morning when no one else is there. And he's getting his nookie right here with dried up old Elsa May," he said, his eyes wide with mock surprise. 

 That night at the lake, after we had talked about Deb Miller and her prodigious bosom and the texture of bosoms, which I knew nothing about except from what I had seen in the Sears catalog and witnessed from my Swedish piano teacher, who liked to stand behind me and drape her capacities on my shoulders - I was ignorant of them by and large, attracted and repulsed at the same time, after that topic, talk turned to Elsa May. The problem of Elsa May and Father Mountain. The Como Park Zoo. Father Mountain flagrantly out of uniform in that t-shirt. The Como Park Zoo was in St. Paul, four hours a way. There had to have been a night spent together on the way. Maybe some motel in Shakopee or St. Peter, the latter a more delicious choice. 

We reviewed the gossip on Elsa May. She was a bridge player, active in the Catholic church and the hospital association. Supposedly had family money. How she rented out all her land, and how Bjorkland, who rented it, sometimes was three months late with his cash rent and she didn't care. She had other source of funding, mysterious sources. There were rumors of Texas oil wells and patent royalties. Apparently the continuous orange peeler wasn't much of a success, but there were stories of significant patents on electric motors. The current book did not include an affair with the local priest. We figured we had something. The question, asked Marvelous Marvin between meditative sips of Southern Comfort, would be how to prove it. 

I admired Marvelous Marvin just then. He had this weird self-absorption, yet he could rise to an insightful worldly viewpoint that I envied. His father ran a feed store and smoked a pipe. He was a professional fence leaner, as my father called him. And somehow Marvelous Marvin had some of the precocious wisdom about the world that is bestowed by a father who is a professional fence leaner. He put down the bottle and blew a sad tune then, I think it was My Wild Irish Rose or something. He was thinking. 

"We'll tail them both. You follow Elsa May and I'll follow Father Mountain," said Marvelous Marvin looking at me out of the edges of his eyes. "We'll blow this fucking thing wide open." 

 I was driving a sixty-nine Chevrolet Impala with linkage problems at the time. The linkage on the steering column would seize up at inopportune moments, like at intersections, train crossings. The procedure would be to open up the hood and pop up the little linkage levers manually. It worried my mother some. 

It happened again as I was slowing over the bridge where Elsa's husband died, and so I coasted over to one of the bridge posts, a foot wide piece of steel with rounded rivets, a rusty dent in one side. I parked and walked to the railing. It was a sizeable dent, probably the one that had flattened her husband Jake. 

Her lane was only a quarter mile down from the bridge. You could see her place along the dredge ditch towards the lake, her place a ship of trees in a shimmering sea of corn. The ditch carried all the nitrate fertilizer pollution into the lake, which was choked with green algae spears and twenty-pound carp as big as five-week pigs. I remembered something else about Jake, that he had once owned a speed boat. I had seen it when I was six or seven and was with my father, who had had some business with Jake. No one swam in the lake, much less water-skied - it was too green and slimy, unless you were crazy or drunk, that is. I remembered Jake running his speedboat on the lake and pulling water skiers, probably his hired farmhands or his drunken bowling buddies. Elsa maybe, Elsa in a chartreuse two piece swim suit that set off her black hair, the green waves in her wake flopping over like plowed soil. 

I took out my binoculars and watched the place, heat waves wrinkling up from the corn. 

It was a wooden speedboat that was reminding me of Elsa's kitchen, wood and plastic with metal hardware, red Formica with aluminum counter trim held with little metal screws. It was an old scow back then even. 

By deduction, Marvelous Marvin had chosen Tuesdays as the likely trysting day. Wednesday afternoon there was release time. Wednesday night there was mass. Thursdays there was Knights of Columbus in the basement. Fridays he had to prepare for Saturday catechism class. Monday he was busy taking flowers to the sick. Tuesdays were left. Marvelous Marvin knew the Catholic religious week, why I never knew since he was Missouri Synod Lutheran, however wayward. 

There was a road along the dredge ditch, along the corn field. It led to her apple orchard and I started down it, the sun singing in the sky. The road was muddy and I slid some, then made it to the edge of her grove and the rows of honey suckles and apple trees. Heat and clouds were accumulating. I had my father's super eight movie camera. I walked along the back row of suckles until I could enter the grove and see the house. Her car was there, a new 72 Mercury. She had a dog, a part Norwegian elkhound mutt with bad eyesight and a bad heart. He stood alertly by the clothesline, sensing me vaguely. I watched for a half an hour then found a grassy patch and fell asleep in the sun. 

 We got our first break in the case a month or so after we initiated our surveillance. We'd lost interest for lack of evidence, and the surveillance, diligent for a few days, had tapered off to a few drunken sojourns to the public access near her farm, where we'd park and sneak over to her place and spy on her from the safety of the grove. 

I was in chemistry class when I heard the emergency signal come from the hallway. It was Marvelous Marvin on the flute harp doing his imitation of a British ambulance. He was breathless when I found him. According to his uncle, Father Mountain had visited the liquor store at nine o'clock that morning and had purchased a six pack of Blatz beer and a pint of Cumberlands gin. 

Our plan was to conduct surveillance that night, but when I got home I found a phone message waiting on the kitchen table. It was from Elsa and she wanted me to call her. My heart went to my stomach. Had she seen us snooping around? Had Marvelous Marvin's fence leaning father broadcasted it all over town? I called her right then because I couldn't take the suspense. She wanted to know if I could come out there that evening and help her move a refrigerator up from the cellar. 

There was a big blue Lincoln parked in front of her house, one I recognized. At the door she was dressed in blue jeans and a plaid shirt, and behind her, wearing a sweat shirt, stood Father Mountain. 

 She smiled at me, and I had the sudden revelation that she was pretty, her eyes doe-eyed, her hair curly around her face, suppressed with a yellow scarf. She had some wrinkles, true, but she had such pretty dark eyes, and a full head of hair that if undone might be sort of wild, I decided. 

We moved boxes around down in her damp mildewed cellar, and there was a complete ease about her, an ease of just talking and listening and making you feel at ease at the same time. She was completely natural with Father Mountain, whom she addressed as Father. I decided there was nothing there, though it was clear they were friends. He called her Elsa May in a fatherly way, maybe repeating her name too much. I was pretty sure there was nothing there, but I wanted to consult with Marvelous Marvin first. 

She was capable, mechanical. She had rigged up a ramp leading out of the storm cellar doors, a ramp with a pulley so that we could drag up the refrigerator. It struck me as we adjusted the pulleys and the ramp that she was intelligent in the way that her husband Jake had been smart, mechanical smart. Other little problems came up, and she'd talk out the solution in a good humored way, as if it were a riddle or game. 

We were all out of breath when we were done and the thing was standing up outside. Father Mountain had barely caught his breath when he shook my hand and left. I thought about his abrupt departure and how that might be significant. 

She turned to me and asked me how school was going. She was still catching her breath and I was watching her chest heave. I mumbled and blushed deeply. She seemed to consider this for a second, a hint of a smile on her lips. The embarrassment passed as she noisily undid a plastic tarp to put over the refrigerator. 

"It's going to the church," she said. She took duct tape and tore out a length, ripped it easily and wrapped it around towards me. I met her hand and took the tape, our fingers briefly sticking together. 

She surprised me and asked me if I wanted some pop. We went inside. On the counter stood a pint of Cumberlands gin, which she quickly put away. 

I sipped the pop and she poured herself a large glass of water and stood leaning against the sink. She asked me what I was going to do after I graduated from school. I was thinking how old she really was, 42 or 37 maybe fifty for all I knew. And I was convincing myself that she was indeed attractive, broadening my limited Sears catalog range of beauty. I answered that I would probably go to the University of Minnesota, where my father had gone to veterinary school. 

"So you want to become a veterinarian like your father?" "Maybe an engineer." "My husband Jake was an agricultural engineer." "Did he ever work as one?" "One year for Allis Chambers. Then he quit and we bought this farm." She seemed to say this last bit fatefully. 

The next Saturday I went to her place and walked along the rows of apple trees burgeoning with reddening apples. I was alone. It was windy and a little cooler, a clue of fall in the air. There were frantic bees in the apple trees. The change in weather had apparently alarmed them, and they were crawling on the apples, tantalized by their huge sweetness. 

I came upon Elsa May stacking wood in the apple trees. She had a plaid shirt tied around her waist and when she bent over I saw little flecks of dark wood chips on her exposed back. I was too smitten by the sight of that to say much, other than hello, and she talked for a few minutes while I sat as stupid as a stump. 

She wanted to know if we would help her take out a cottonwood tree along one of the fence rows, a tree that Bjorkland claimed always hooked his field equipment and slowed the field work. I answered that it was something Marvelous Marvin and I would do. She said that she would be going to Minneapolis to attend an Association of American University Women state meeting, which my mother also belonged to. She wanted to know if I would feed her dog. 

When I mentioned all this to Marvelous Marvin he got excited and said that we should search the place as soon as she left. 

 It was dark and her dog gave futile arthritic barks. He suspected something and hobbled to intercept us. According to my father, the old mutt probably was harboring a heart worm, a worm that lived in the chamber of the heart and ate it out from within. I petted its graying head. 

The door was unlocked. Marvelous Marvin led the way, marching straight through the kitchen and living room with its worn cable rug and picture of Jesus garnished with a few spears of Pentecostal reeds and right into her powder puff smelling bedroom. 

"She has secrets," said Marvelous Marvin loudly, dramatically. "She has secrets," he said again, this time savagely, and he made straight for her chest of drawers, a high boy with a bureau cloth covered with silver framed pictures. I laughed girlishly, excitedly. 

There were framed pictures of little girls and boys, her nieces and nephews maybe since she had had no children. They fell forward like dominoes as he pulled open the drawer. "Look," he cried and pulled out a pair of incriminating pink panties. He made sniffing noises and spread them open and dangled his tongue. "That's old Father Mountain licking her stamp. Mother of God look at these colors," and he pulled out red ones and black ones and purple ones. He took out a black bra and put it to his chest, preening, then threw it across the room. He took out a sheave of clothes and tossed them into the air. I was getting worried and cautioned him that we would never be able to put them back exactly as we had found them. 

"She's hiding things. She's got shit and we have to find the shit," said Marvelous Marvin, throwing clothes out like some digging machine. 

I told him to stop and when he didn't I wrapped my arms around him and he swung me around and we hit the highboy, knocking more pictures over. Before I could even take a swing at him, he elbowed me in the gut and hit me twice in the nose very fast. I felt blood. He didn't seem very surprised or angry. I yelled and tackled him to the bed. He wrapped his legs around me, squeezed, and started laughing. "Oh Father Mountain. Oh Father Mountain. Give it to me Father Mountain. Give it to me. Oh more, more, more, more. Holy Mother of God." 

"You fucker," I said, but there was no edge to it. I backed off the bed and tilted my head up to stop the blood. Her white bedspread had blood stains on it. Marvelous Marvin was pulling a pair of panties on over his jeans, stretching and ripping them, cooing in a falsetto. He stood and waddled to the closet, casting a dark look back to me. "You have molested me Father. Now what should I wear for you and me to walk together among the apple trees." I heard a light click on, then the sound of metal hangers dragging over the metal closet rod. 

He threw out sweaters, blouses, dresses, pant suits, working his way further into the closet, further back in time. He was crazy and sadistic. He came out holding a low-cut white party dress. The strong smell of mothballs came wafting out. He went in and didn't come out for a time. 

I lay defeated on the bed. I felt like crying. Everything would have to be set back perfectly, the pictures, the closet clothes. The white bedspread would have to be washed. The torn panties replaced. I got up and tilted my head down to test my nose, wondering if I'd find Marvelous Marvin in the closet beating off. 

He had the hangars and clothes parted, revealing a varnished knotty pine wall covered with wedding pictures, framed pictures of Elsa in a wedding dress, the wedding party, her husband Jake and his best men all decked out in matching tuxedos, their hair slicked back in fifties-style pompadours. I saw it before Marvelous Marvin, though he was only a second or two behind me. "Your old man's in the wedding party," he said. "Isn't that him?" 

I looked closely. "Look, there's more." 

There was a photograph of Jake and Elsa and my father and mother, all standing in knee deep water around Jake's old wooden speedboat, a pair of water skis between them like a pair of prize marlin. My mother looked impossibly young, my father smiling broadly, his arm securely around the swim suited waist of Elsa May. 

I was in the laundromat washing Elsa May's cotton bedspread, alone. It was late, past midnight. The half bottle of bleach I had poured in had the place smelling like a swimming pool. The rows of washing machines gleamed silently, ghostly. The headlights of Saturday night cruisers veered through the front window, and I knew Marvelous Marvin would be out there somewhere, but not necessarily telling everyone. He was still my friend, my best friend, though there were times I wished I could've beat him up. The times I'd tried Marvelous Marvin, with his quick hands, had bloodied my face. Wordlessly we had both straightened her room, the sight of my father somehow having sobered Marvelous Marvin into a responsibility of sorts. He had even been astute enough to suggest cold water for the blood stains. 

It was midnight when I returned home, the clean bedspread bulging in a sack. There had never been much mention made of Jake and Elsa May, though judging from the photographs, they had all once been close friends. From my room I heard a hoot owl, though it could have been Marvelous Marvin. And then I thought I heard my parents making love. It was a sighing, groaning sound, a sighing like the wind through the shore reeds near Elsa May's home, mourning for those lost years. 

Over breakfast the next morning I studied my father. He was graying and handsome, his hair salt and pepper like Elsa May's. My mother served him eggs and bacon with a wordless purpose that had the gravity of high ritual. He read the paper, his brow furrowed. I remembered her question about becoming a veterinarian like my father, the telling deference in her voice. And there was his big smile in the picture, the sky weedy with horsetail clouds, Jake's boat taking sickening slaps from the green viscous water. They would have been drinking, laughing, each taking turns water skiing through the nitrate-laced water, Jake and my father both celebrating their love for Elsa May. 

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