All Told

THE STORY OF ELLY
AND THE WILD WEST SHOW

 

Nana's got that tone in her voice. "You probably think I always been an angel," she says. The picnic chair squeaks when she crosses her legs. Sylvia splashes her feet, pretending not to hear. "Course we know I achieved sainthood when Gramp retired, but that's something else all together." Nana smiles and pats the skirt at her knee. Sylvia's own knees are muddy. Her feet, under six inches of lake water, have a yellow-green hue. She's not in the mood for a story. "Did I ever tell you 'bout my Grandma Elly?" Nana begins, more preamble than question.

"Yeah," Sylvia says, hoping to foul the works by throwing the punchline, "she missed the boat." But Nana is tricky, there's more than one twist to the tales up her sleeve. "So I guess you know all about her and the Wild West Show."

It's a horn-swoggle and Sylvia knows that it is, but she asks just the same, "What Wild West Show?"

"Old Bill Hicock's Wild West Show, of course. Grandma Elly was fixin to join. Used to spend her mornings out back with a rifle, shooting at chickens. Shooting and missing. But she was bound and determined to become a sharpshooter. She thought if Annie Oakley could do it, why so could she." Nana settles into her chair. Her voice takes on a patient, Now I've got you, tone.

"Elly grew up on a little piece of land over by where the Cherry Dale Shopping Center is now. Everytime I'm over buying shoes, I think about Elly's chickens. How she hated those birds. I remember fourth of Julys, watching her eat fried chiken like it was an act of vengence. But she was old by then, and all of this was history, her daddy's place already plowed under. It never was a farm really, just chickens and some vegitables, a clump of trees. Her daddy worked over by the train station, selling tickets and watching the trains. He was a vet, you know, lost his arm for the Union. Anyhow, that's another story.

"One summer when Elly was all grown up--of all the children, the only one still unmarried--a stranger drifted into town. He was all gussied up in a brocade waistcoat and a beaver-skin top hat. He wore his black hair greased back and smelled sweet, not clean sweet, but real city-sweet, you know, like something that comes in a bottle. Right off, Elly didn't like the looks of him. She was down by the station when he stepped off the train. Used to take the Captain his dinner, so she could sit with him and watch the trains awhile. They got on real good, Elly and her daddy, both of them sad in the same way for different reasons. They liked to watch the trains together. So Elly was there the day Russel Tinesly first set foot in Valance, and, as I said, she didn't like the looks of him. When he settled in to talking with the Captain about finding a good fishing spot, she thought she'd get up and go, soon as was polite. But then, listening to the talk, she learned how his fancy get-up was all the bonus of a little poker game. And how he'd just come in from Oklahoma and had just had his first real bath in weeks. The barber in Chicago had reccommeded Bear Lake as a good antidote to the dusty plains and so here he was with a little money in his pocket, a yearning for perch, and some time to spend. Elly forgot to take her leave. If there was one thing Russel Tinesly could do, it was tell a story and he must have talked up a storm that afternoon. By the time it got dark, the Captain closed up the ticket counter and asked Russel to be a guest in his own home.

"For a couple of weeks they got on happily enough, Russel spending his days in the shade, occasionally catching something for supper; the Captain and Elly sittin up nights listening to Russel talk. He told about driving a mud wagon out of Santa Fe, snake wrestling in Texas, and clamming off the Carolina coast. Seems he'd been everywhere and seen just about everything; and Elly and the Captain, they couldn't get enough.

"Now Olivia, the Captain's wife, was none too happy with the arrangement. She burnt every fish he brought into her kitchen and his new clothes came away from her laundering smelling scorched. The people around town weren't too happy about him either. They couldn't help but notice the new lightness about Elly's face and the sudden way she'd taken to smiling at folks. It got so's Elly couldn't sell an egg without receiving some friendly advice on the moral character of drifters. Once a man takes to drifting, they said, you cannot pin him down. The more they warned, the giddier she laughed. You see, Elly was figuring to hitch her wagon to a wild one.

"The day Russel left off fishing altogether and took to helping Elly with her shooting, Olivia packed his bag and set it on the porch. That evening over supper Russel and Elly announced their intention to wed. Russel made a fine speech about losing his heart to the sunshine of Valance and being overcome by a new and undeniable desire to plant his wayward spirit in the rich, dark soil. This of course Elly believed to be sweet-talk and took as a moving, if somewhat earthy, compliment to her own person. And maybe it was.

"They had a quiet wedding, and for a long while after, Elly watched her husband closely, waiting for the signs that would signal departure. She knew she'd have to play it just right if she wanted to be taken along. Every day she tried to show what a good travelling companion she would be, making due without the niceties, never breathing a sound of complaint. All the time showing how tough and how keen she could be. She didn't care where they went, into Dakota or up to the Yukon, by train or boat or stage, she was ready to go. All she wanted was out. All she dreamed of was adventure. So she bided her time, and she watched her new husband as he took up gardening and sang odes to the nests of the Imperial Reds. Nobody, she thought, could keep that up for long. But Russel Tinesly surprised everyone. He didn't set a foot outside Tilton County the rest of his days. That's right. And Elly, she didn't go anywhere either." Nana groans a little, getting up from her chair. "Time to fix Gramp's supper," she says.

"But Nana," Sylvia asks, "what about the Wild West Show?"

"You gotta be good." Nana says, squinting into the sun, "Any damn fool can shoot and miss."

 

1990