Much madness is divinest sense
To a discerning eye;
Much sense the starkest madness.
‘Tis the majority
In this, as all, prevails.
Assent, and you are sane;
Demure—you’re straightway dangerous,
and handled with a chain.
I never could hear the ghosts argue. Oh, I believe Emmy could. She couldn’t lie in the course of casual small talk, so I can’t imagine her stretching the truth about anything as important as the ghosts arguing. I just never heard them myself. Never have figured out whether I was disappointed or grateful about that, either. If I’d heard them, maybe the whole fiasco would have ended up differently. We’ll never know. I have to add it to the list of things I’m going to quiz the Almighty about someday. He’d better have an afternoon or two reserved for me.
During the Emmy’s competency hearing, the thought occurred to me to try saying I heard the ghosts going at it late one night, seeing as I lived in the house after Emmy moved into the camper in the side yard. I bounced the idea off of Ben, without saying I’d be lying, of course. I’ve read enough murder mysteries to know your lawyer can’t knowingly let you lie under oath.
“Miriam.” He just looked at me, eyes locked onto mine, unblinking. Shook his head slowly. “I wish we’d all heard the ghosts. I’d love to have the judge spend the night in the house to hear Gideon and Leona arguing about whatever Emmy says they argue about. But no one will believe you.”
He had a point. I was always quiet, dependable. Unnoticed. People talked around me all day, then seemed shocked when I knew anything other than the Dewey Decimal number of the book they wanted. Librarians are supposed to be quiet, but Emmy suggested more than once that I overdid it. “Let loose. Skinny dip at the Fourth of July Pontoon Regatta. Get drunk at Jingles and leave with a stranger from Milwaukee.” Lives of quiet desperation—maybe that is me. Never Emmy, though.
Maybe that’s why we were friends. She sucked deeply from the marrow of life, to continue the Thoreau allusion, while though I might attend the barbeque, I would not even nibble the lean portion. I’d get napkins for all the people with marrow dribbling from their chins as they laughed and danced, heedless of the problems they would have getting barbeque sauce off their shirts later. I studied life; Emmy lived. Big difference.
The first inkling I had that Emmy was headed for trouble was from the gossip at my cousin’s bar, Jingles. Just as Mayberry got all the news at Floyd’s Barbershop on the old Andy Griffith Show, Frenchy’s bar was where everyone got their news in Nicolet, Wisconsin. I worked there when he needed a break to go hunting or fishing, or for town council meetings since he got elected—although most of the meetings ended up being held at Jingles so everyone could eat Frenchy’s trademark brat hoagies and down Old Style while pretending the town had important business. With one stop light, 600 residents, and a handful of businesses--all catering to sportsmen or tourists--there wasn’t a lot of real business for the council. Planning the Fourth of July Regatta, the Fire Department Halloween Dance, making sure the ambulance drivers knew where new trailers were put up in the deep woods—that’s about all the business they could summon up. They had lots of time for eating brats and trading fish stories. I first saw trouble coming for Emmy when I was subbing for my third cousin Frenchy at Jingles, his bar.
It was spring when all hell started breaking loose, and I guess Emmy brought it upon herself. It’s acceptable in small towns to be eccentric, but when you start acting on your weird ideas, you upset the locals. Big mistake.
The crowd at Jingles was united in their opinion: Emmy Arden was crazy. How crazy was the topic of conversation that night.
“She’s been crazy since she was a kid. She was the one who flunked science, remember. She wouldn’t kill a frog. First time in her life she says boo, and it gets her flunked outta class.” Micah shook his head, still amazed at reclusive Emmy standing up to a teacher fifteen years earlier.
“Naw, she didn’t flunk. Her mom started spitting fire about it, and Emmy drew a poster of a frog’s innards to pass.” Randy Duval was knew what he was talking about. Twelve years of teachers with no imagination created seating charts that left him copying off Emmy Arden’s tests and quizzes. If there had been a Carter or Brown their age to sit between Arden and Duval, he might not have made it to graduation.
“No kidding. I always wondered how she passed to tenth grade. Still, she grew up fishin and huntin. Why couldn’t she dissect a frog?”
Delores, Frenchy’s wife and bartender, slid tankards of beer to the three men. “You just leave Emmy alone. She ain’t bothered you none. And pay your tab fore you forget. Wayne, you still owe from last weekend, too. You shoulda seen him, boys--following that Milwaukee girl outta here like she was gonna take him back to her cabin. He wouldn’t of got lucky with her even if he’d been carrying a rabbit’s foot and tripped over a four leaf clover.” After money was passed over the table to Delores, she returned to the bar, shaking her head. “City girls.”
“A gentleman doesn’t tell,” Wayne said primly above the laughing comments of his friends.
“Then there ain’t nothing to tell, ‘cause you sure ain’t no gentleman.”
“You guys seen Rory tonight?” Steve Calvert crossed from the door to the table where Micah, Randy and Wayne held court most evenings. Calvert looked out of place in this hole in the wall bar, wearing clothes that looked more golf course or church meeting than the standard tee shirts under flannels with worn jeans and work boots the other people at Jingles preferred. “I just left a school board meeting and I need to tell him what his fool sister has done. Maybe he can talk sense to her.”
“Quitting her job? That’s old news. Becky told me after school.” Juicy tidbits of gossip often travelled through Micah, whose wife taught third grade at Principal Calvert’s school.
“How’d she... never mind. I just need to talk to Rory. Talking to Emmy lately’s like talking to the Oracle at Delphi. I never have a clue what she means.”
“Hell, she’s always been like that,” Wayne claimed.
“Just cause you can’t handle no word bigger’n...” Delores interrupted before Randy revealed his idea of a big word.
“Rory just pulled up, Steve. And Micah, you don’t get no refill cause Becky called and you’re supposed to go home. Anybody else want one, ask now. I’m going back to the house to put the kids in bed, and you ain’t gonna bother Miriam to deliver drinks all the way cross the room to you bums.” The men looked faintly surprised when Delores mentioned my name. People often seem to forget when I’m around.
Delores slammed the back door quickly, probably hoping that no mosquitoes got in before the latch clicked. The running joke was that mosquitoes were our state bird. The smell of Deep Woods Off and Cutter were more common than any drugstore cologne.
The small, one room bar looked almost like a Jehovah’s Witness church from the outside, nondescript worn siding, no windows, weeds around the foundation. The neon sign with their logo, a huge Northern with a mouthful of fishing lures dangling, blinked the word “Jingles” at people who happened to wander off the main highway, such as it was, heading into the deep woods. Regulars knew that if the sign was lit, the bar was open. Unlit, go back up the highway a mile to the gas station if you’re desperate for a cold one. No reason keeping set hours when other things might come up. On rainy days and in the winter, Frenchy might open before noon and make sandwiches for anyone who dropped by. On nice days, or if the fish were biting, the bar might not open til supper dishes were done. It just depended.
Delores was the only regular waitress, although in a pinch I filled in waiting tables. A seasoned waitress wasn’t needed to keep up with the crowd since there were only three tables and four booths. Jingles could seat about forty people, counting the stools at the bar, although twenty was considered a very respectable night. During tourist season--summer fishing and winter snowmobiling--they might be at standing room only, with the pool table and ancient video games making noise til closing.
In the winter evenings, a child would often be sitting at the bar, practicing spelling words or coloring a map of the U.S. Delores and Frenchy had three children, one in Becky Laplant’s third grade. Delores could run to the house several times each evening, tucking in children and supervising bath time, since their house was just behind the bar. The four cabins they rented throughout the year were down the slight hill, on the edge of the lake. Four cabins waterfront--that’s why the couple didn’t worry too much about regular business hours. They would never be rich, but they had waterfront property in prime tourist territory, so they knew that regardless what happened with the bar, the kids could go to college. Not that anyone expected the kids to go to college, of course. Only five kids from my high school class of 127 went to college—four boys and me, all to the University of Wisconsin. Not that I really needed my library science degree to run the Nicolet Public Library, but the diploma looked impressive on my wall, I guess.
Tonight, though, Jingles was quiet. An older couple was in the booth on the side by the lake, watching the loons catch fish at dusk. Two fishermen from downstate ate sandwiches while deciding whether to try night fishing in a cove they had heard was especially good this time of year. And Rory Arden was walking in, still in his work clothes--an oxford cloth shirt with Arden’s Hardware stitched on the pocket.
“Steve, there you are. You must’ve left messages for me every place I’ve ever been. What’s so urgent?”
Steve inhaled, then put on the expression that countless elementary age children had seen when they were called to the Principal’s office for a serious talk. “Have you talked with Emmy?”
“Not today. Not for a week or so, I guess.” We all knew what Calvert’s expression meant, though. “What dumb-assed thing has my big sister done this time?”
“She quit her job. It wasn’t much, I know--but she had a paycheck and benefits. I kept it off the agenda tonight, so the school board hasn’t accepted her resignation yet. If you can get her to take Rory shook his head. “I don’t know, Steve. She’s pretty stubborn. Did she say why she was quitting?”
“Something about she didn’t need the job as much as other people did. In fact, she submitted a list of several single mothers who she thought would do a good job and appreciate the chance to work.” Rory looked surprised. This piece of information must not have filtered through the grapevine yet, since the men at the nearby table stopped bantering to eavesdrop.
“Yep. Good candidates, actually. But Emmy’s experienced, and I hate the thought of trying to break in a new cafeteria supervisor this close to the end of the school year. ‘Course, Emmy volunteered to do the training for free, if we chose one of her suggestions.”
“I better go find her. Did she give any clue what she’s going to do now? Any hint of a plan?”
Steve shook his head as Rory zipped up his jacket. “You know, my folks were characters. I realize that--just us kids’ names prove it: Emerald, Aurora and Amethyst. What kind of people do that? My parents. Even though they weren’t too tightly wound, I know they’d think Emmy’s gone off the deep end. She’s getting worse--but it always sounds so reasonable when I’m talking to her.”
“I know. Believe me. Why do you think we’re the only school cafeteria in the state to have a vegetarian entree option every single day?”