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
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
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
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
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
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,
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
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
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
"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.
Copyright © 1997 Blip Magazine Archive