In those days Pierre, Illinois, was all peace and quiet, and that suited Odile Johnson just fine. Sure, frog songs filled the night air, but it was the sort of noise that let a body be alone and not mind it much. It was summer, and there was no school to teach, so the days were quiet, too. Sometimes Odile thought the rest of the world forgot she existed. Although she was still of marriageable age, she spent her time in her parlor or her garden, while the other young women in town had families to look after and church meetings to attend. Odile might go half a week without seeing another soul; to remember that there was a "rest of the world," she listened to the old cathedral radio on the table in the parlor, particularly in the evenings when the signals were strongest from St. Louis.
On that Saturday night in 1948, Odile was knitting a bedspread for her cousin Betsy's wedding. While she knit and purled, "Twenty Questions" played over the radio, and she remembered how her mother would glare when Odile answered the riddle aloud. She thought, Who will remember me when I am gone?
And then it happened.
A lightning-fast series of crashes left the radio's arched shape splintered and dust raining from a hole in the ceiling. The crackle of the radio was replaced by the sandy settling of the plaster. Odile struggled to piece it all together.
Her first thought was that some of the older boys, maybe Johnny and Willie Krieger, were bored on a Saturday night and thought they'd give their teacher a scare. But then reason prevailed. Whatever it was had come through the roof and not the window. It had come through the roof, struck the radio, and ended up behind her mother's vacant chair.
Having set aside her knitting, she crossed to the corner of the room and knelt to reach behind the wing-backed chair. There was a small object lying on the wool rug, and she yanked her hand back because the thing's warmth startled her. Gingerly, she wrapped her fingers around it a second time and dragged it out.
No bigger than a plum, the deep grey rock did not look like much in the cradle of her hands. One side was smooth, and the rest jagged and stony. She lifted her eyes to the ceiling again. Nothing made sense. She moved to peer through the hole and up into a late-evening sky of periwinkle.
As her mind worked over the details, she heard the fire department's bell ring across the two miles from town. Panic flared in her blood. They were coming to her, and she did not desire that sort of attention. She went to her bedroom, where she deposited the rock in the first box she laid her hands on and slid it to the back of her closet.
In the parlor she discovered a ribbon of smoke rising from the radio and the acrid hint of copper in the air. She hid the radio in the corner cupboard, then doused the light, and took her sweater from the hook by the door.
Out on the porch, the honeysuckle covering the trellis released its perfume into the cool, dewy air. She struggled to put her arms through the sleeves of the woolen cardigan, but managed to regain her composure before she could see any headlights on the country road. Odile arranged herself in one of the wicker chairs facing the dusty road and took a deep breath.
She expected the fire truck, but she was dumbfounded to see five automobiles following the pumper. There had never been that many vehicles at any one time on the gravel road that led away from town.
The men got out of their sedans and trucks and filled her yard. As accustomed as Odile was to having the attention of her students, these grown men staring through the June dusk embarrassed her. She was the school teacher, the "Miss," and an old maid at thirty years old, sitting at home on a Saturday night, and the only person who would make them forget that was standing with them.
Without having to see his Studebaker with its painted doors reading Pierre Feed Co., Odile knew that Ernest Palfrey would be there. When the fire truck headed down Main Street toward her house, and word spread quicker than flame that there was trouble at the Johnson place, he would not be able to help himself. Even if he were out with one of those Whorley gals at the drug store or the diner, Ernest would abandon his date and the congealing white gravy of his country-fried steak; he would come because he had not spoken to Odile since her mother's funeral. It took every effort for her not to squirm like one of her young students under his gaze.
As the men got out of their automobiles and the pumper, she could see the other men look at her and then back at Ernest; she didn't know what they expected, but she was sure their wives would want to know all about it. Even the sheriff was curious, but it was a re-election year for Virgil Dietz, so he squinted as if he were inspecting her.
"Miss Odile?" Virgil said, motioning to his two deputies and the firemen to spread out over the yard. "Everything all right out here?"
"Of course it is." She pulled her sweater together against spring's last breaths. "What's all this about?"
"Ma'am, in town we saw—" He stopped to cough a little, and put a hand on his hip. "What we saw was a ball of fire heading right for this place."
"Is that right? A ball of fire?"
"Yes, ma'am." His cheeks reddened. "It was green."
"I haven't seen anything like that around here." It was getting darker by the second, and she hoped it was dark enough that they couldn't see the hole in the roof.
The sheriff swallowed, then said, "We'll still take a look around just to make sure nothing's out of place." He signaled that his men should fan out around the house.
"When was anything ever out of place around here?"
"We'll take a look all the same."
She thought she might vote for him after all.
As the men disappeared, Ernest remained and approached the porch steps. "How've you been, Odie?" he asked, glancing at Virgil as he passed. Ernest was pale, too pale, and with a twinge she realized that it was on her account.
"I've been well," she said. After eleven months, those words were inadequate like an apple pie lacking cinnamon.
Tom Woehlk, one of the deputies, reappeared. "I smelled something burning at the side of the house, Virg."
All three pairs of eyes turned and blinked at her.
"One of the electrical outlets sparked." She was ashamed of how easily the lie parted her lips. "Shorted out my radio."
"Nothing serious, I hope," Virgil said.
"Just a spark."
The rest of the brigade returned to the front yard, each giving Virgil a nod upon his return. Barely hiding his disappointment, the sheriff cleared his throat and apologized for bothering her, and she thanked him for his concern.
Ernest watched each of the men as they reassembled, his thumb tracing the ring that held his keys. As they turned back to their vehicles, he stepped closer to the porch, but he glanced over his shoulder at Virgil and swallowed whatever it was that he had wanted to say.
The men piled into their automobiles, but she waited until the taillights of Ernest's Studebaker were as small as pinholes before she went indoors.
In her bedroom, she opened the closet door, and knelt down on one knee. She stretched to the back and pulled out an old hatbox burned yellow with age. Sitting on her creaking single bed, she slid off the lid and extracted the warm rock, holding it in her right hand. It was silly to hide it, but her mother would have done the same.
The thought of her mother compelled Odile to look at what else was in the hatbox folded in the tissue. She lifted the paper with her left hand and ran her fingers over the revealed textures of brocades, taffeta, and charmeuse. There was the faint scent of lavender water, the only scent her mother had allowed her to wear, and that was only because it had medicinal uses, too.
When Odile was sixteen, she sewed together silk and satin into a beautiful frock of rich browns, greens, and greys with creamy lace cuffs, all from the scraps of the dresses her mother made for the fine ladies of Pierre. In that robe Odile had felt like a movie star, a beauty worthy of Ernest's attention. Her mother called Odile's handiwork an "atrocity of extravagance" and forbid her to wear it. Even during the war's ‘make-do' campaign when patchwork was patriotic, Odile was only allowed her old cotton dresses. So Odile had wrapped the frock in tissue and placed it in a box at the back of her closet, where she had all but forgotten it. Seeing it now, she allowed herself to smile as recollections surfaced.
That summer when she was sixteen, there had been a handful of clandestine Sunday drives out toward Hennessey's Pond. Each time they headed down the dusty road, Ernest smiled like the cat that had caught the canary, barely able to speak he was so pleased. Odile remembered smiling, too, while the wind dragged its fingers through her hair. One night she came home without the red satin ribbon that tied back her hair and figured that it had been tossed by the wind to the side. At school the next Monday, Ernest had been playing with his key ring, twirling it around his finger at the start of class. The flash of red caught her attention; her ribbon had been wound around the ring. Ernest winked at her, and she was glad that he had something of hers.
The weight of the rock in her palm pushed aside nostalgic thoughts. She didn't know what to do with the thing. It looked ordinary like she could just chuck it into the yard and no one would be the wiser. She could toss it, but she liked the feeling of having a secret, so instead she enfolded the fallen rock in a few lace-trimmed handkerchiefs, hung the frock in the closet to air out, and went to the kitchen for a glass of cool milk before bed.
The next morning, after an uneasy sleep, Odile woke to a low rumbling. Her eyes opened and blinked against the light. She reached for the clock and held it in front of her eyes. It was past nine; she had overslept and was missing the Sunday service. She got out of bed, went to the west window, and raised the shade to investigate the commotion.
A row of cars were parked along the road, some with the engines still running, judging by the racket and the occasional puff of exhaust from tailpipes. There were two dozen people wandering her yard, studying the ground. Because her mother had not brought her up to yell out of windows, Odile scrambled to change into a blouse and skirt. Once clothed, she stepped out onto the front porch, gripped the railing, and hoped no one would notice she wasn't wearing stockings.
"What do you think you're doing?" she asked the man closest to her, who was inspecting the hydrangeas. The others barely raised their heads.
"Looking for the meteorite," the man said, not raising his eyes from his task. She may as well have been a fly for all the mind he paid her. "We all saw it fall last night, but it was too dark to go looking for it then."
"You're trespassing. If you would all leave, please," she said, projecting her teacher's voice into the yard. "You hear me?"
They were about as interested in her as cows crowded in shade on a sweltering July day.
"We drove the two hours from Maryville, and they told us in town that the authorities came out here." The man returned his gaze to the ground with a shake of his head. "Somebody out there'd pay good money for a space rock, girlie."
It had been at least ten years since anyone had spoken to her like that—back before she left to become a teacher at normal school—and she wasn't having it. Odile slapped her palm on the green-painted porch railing, but none of the trespassers even lifted their eyes. She turned and went into the house, letting the screen door clack behind her.
Her hand clutched the telephone handle. "Give me the sheriff," she said to the operator. The pause between each ring seemed to draw out in a lazy and exaggerated yawn. She could just see Tom Woehlk wiping the biscuit crumbs off his large belly before shuffling over to pick up the telephone.
While Deputy Woehlk was still four steps away from answering, Virgil Dietz pulled into the driveway, throwing up a cloud of dust. She slammed the telephone into its cradle and went to meet him, muttering prayers that he wouldn't look up at the roof.
"Miss Odile," he said through the mesh of the screen door.
"Sheriff," she said, clenching her jaw. "Are you here to ask these people to leave?"
"Well, I heard about all this." He glanced over his shoulder at the line of cars. He turned back toward her. "I'd like to speak with you for a moment."
She swung the door open, but as he moved to come in, she stepped out and let the door shut behind her. He glanced beyond her into the long hallway that led past the kitchen and bedrooms straight back to the kitchen. His eyebrows knit together for a moment. "You're not in church," he said. "Are you feeling all right?"
"Do I look ill, Virgil?"
"You have me there."
"I could hardly leave the house with all these people on my property," she said, folding her arms across her chest.
"I know we didn't see anything out here last night, but I have to investigate this meteor sighting. There've been reports from three counties."
She leaned back. "What happens if you find what you're looking for?"
"There's a procedure," he said. Then she saw an idea had popped into his head. "You would probably get a lot of attention from the papers, maybe even the radio."
She turned her gaze to the hay fields. "Could you at least send those people away?"
"I could use the extra eyes." He shifted his weight. "I am sorry for the intrusion upon your Sunday, Miss Odile."
Virgil turned to the railing, just as she'd done minutes before.
"Listen, here," the sheriff said, and with their bovine movements the trespassers turned their heads. "I know you all heard about the meteor that was seen falling in this vicinity last night. Due to public safety concerns, the sheriff's office is conducting this investigation. If you choose to help out, anything you find of an unusual nature should be brought to me or one of my deputies."
He stepped away from the railing and tipped his hat to Odile as he left the porch.
She rubbed her eyes, and stared out at the road. It was only a matter of time before he saw the hole in the roof. Virgil Dietz was more with it than his predecessor, who had been interested only in investigating the contents of pie plates. A few weeds were trying to come up through the tulips under the mailbox, and she saw her opportunity. Distracted as she was, she couldn't get a good grip on the dandelions, but she yanked out what she could. After pulling herself back up, she turned and did her best to look at the house without drawing attention to herself. The hole was hidden in the chimney's shadow and the search party had made its way past the house. It wouldn't be hidden from serious scrutiny, but it'd do for now.
For the remainder of the morning, Odile sat in the parlor. Normally, she had a number of chores to deal with on Sundays, such as weeding the garden, but she thought better of being outside with the trespassers. It was bad enough she had to put up with the chatter and shouts from the yard; she found herself sorely missing the static of the radio. By late morning she had dug out her Billie Holiday records to distract her from a loss of control.
Since her mother never let her listen to the albums she brought back from visits to her cousins in St. Louis, Odile used to wait until her mother went into town to play bridge with some of the other women, and then she would listen to records and practice dancing—something else her mother forbade. When her mother quit the bridge club after Reverend Froelich gave a sermon about the evils of card-playing, Odile tried to make her mother understand that he meant gambling on cards, but to no avail. In the end, Odile had to put her records away.
Listening to tinkling pianos and syrupy strings behind that unusual voice, Odile read a library book, but she had a difficult time staying focused.
She hadn't expected all this fuss; now, in the daylight, she regretted her decision to hold onto the rock. She should have taken it from her closet last night and walked over the road to the Meiners' property to toss it among the corn just pushing up through the soil. Then it could have been someone else's nuisance. Now she was surrounded by lunatics who wanted nothing more than to get their hands on what she had hidden, and the biggest clue to finding it was right over her head.
She was nauseated. No way, no how, did Odile want to be front page news thanks to a meteorite, of all things. It was bad enough that Lettie Samuels probably already had several items for her gossip column in the Pierre Recorder about all the goings-on at the Johnson place. Even in her childhood, there was nothing more horrifying than seeing one's name in print. When Odile won a mathematics competition in high school, and the results were in the paper, Mrs. Johnson sent Odile to the reverend every day for a week for personal lectures about humility.
Then when her mother died, an item appeared in Lettie's column after the funeral notice: "It is expected that Miss Odile Johnson will soon be selling her property on Mapleton Route 3 after her impending marriage to Mr. Ernest Palfrey of Pierre."
How Lettie ever got that into her head, Odile never knew, but Odile was humiliated. She knew Ernest must have been, too, especially when he had never said that he was ready to apply for the license. But once the item was in the personals, he drove over to speak with Odile. That night, folks throughout Pierre saw Ernest heading out to Odile's; that sewed it up: Odile and Ernest would be married. But they had it all backward. Ernest proposed because of the item. And Odile had to tell him that she wouldn't marry him.
As soon as she said it and saw him swallow back tears, she wished she could take it back. But she didn't. She couldn't. She did demand that Lettie print a retraction, and then the whispers were inescapable. Even one of her students, Billy Woehlk, asked her if she was going to be an old maid. "A spinster," she answered him. "That's the polite way of saying it."
From that moment Odile had accepted the life she had created for herself, a life now disrupted by the noise of cars slowly rolling past, gawking at the activity in her yard. She was trapped until nightfall, but that gave her plenty of time to decide how best to patch the roof after they'd gone.
At lunch time, when she had only read about five pages of her book, there was a knock on the screen door. With a huff, Odile closed the book and went to the door to find Ernest Palfrey in the shade of the porch roof. She wondered if all this thinking about him had brought him to her. Color rose right up to the tips of her ears.
"I thought I'd look in on you," he said.
"I don't know why." She scratched at a scuff on the jamb, so as not to see that he was freshly shaven, though she could still smell the soap.
"For one thing I was on my way to the Boldts. I told Larry I would drop off some corn meal this afternoon."
"I see," Odile said, now examining the mesh of screen door. She was disappointed by the credibility of his excuse. The Boldts, to whom her mother had sold the farm when Odile finished school, lived on the next property up the road.
"For another, you weren't in church this morning. I can't remember the last time you weren't at church."
"How would you know, Ernest Palfrey?" She raised her eyebrows. "You hardly go yourself."
"I go when I need to." He shifted his weight. "Something's going on with you, Odie Johnson."
"Nonsense." Then before she could stop herself, she said, "Have you had lunch?"
"I was going to eat out here." She nodded toward the wicker table and chairs on the porch. "It's such a beautiful day."
"It is that."
"Cold chicken all right?"
She had the presence of mind to keep him out of the house and from seeing the hole in the ceiling, but it didn't occur to Odile that she could have sent him away entirely until she was in the kitchen, pulling food out of the icebox.
Giving him an extra helping of German potato salad, she prepared their plates and poured some iced tea. When she made her way to the front porch with the laden tray, she found him sitting in one of the wicker chairs turning his hat in his hands. The key ring lay on the edge of the table. The red ribbon was faded, grimy, and frayed in spots.
"Everything all right, Ernest?"
"I beg your pardon. It's just that I keep expecting your mother to shoo me off."
"No danger of that." After she put their plates down on the table and settled into the seat opposite him, she said grace, but she wasn't present in her thanks.
She thought of those days after she had returned to Pierre with her teaching certificate. Ernest Palfrey came by every Saturday evening, but as soon as he set foot on their property Mrs. Johnson, sitting on the porch snapping peas or shucking corn, would tell Ernest that Odile had more important things to do than waste her time with him. To her mother's mind, her daughter was obliged to be her caretaker, not somebody's wife. That's what the women in her line had done for generations. It was very well for Mrs. Johnson to expect that of her when Odile's grandmother hadn't lived past forty-five. But Mrs. Johnson was as healthy as an ox, and Odile had thought she would stay that way forever.
There was a movement at the edge of the porch that brought Odile back to the words she was saying over her folded hands. Virgil Dietz stepped into view and nodded at Ernest. "Miss Odile?"
Resisting a glance at Ernest, she straightened in her seat and addressed the sheriff like he was one of her students. "Yes, Virgil."
He reflexively squirmed, if only a little. "We've found nothing yet, but I promised Jenny I'd be home for lunch."
"Will you be coming back today?"
"Yes, ma'am. I'll be back here in a bit." He moved to go, but then stopped and turned back to them. "We probably won't find anything. They tell me that these things often break up into pieces small enough no one notices them unless they see them hit the ground or the barn or what have you. If we can't find anything by the end of the day, I'll make sure everyone goes home."
"Thank you, Sheriff."
Virgil nodded and walked down the drive. Odile and Ernest ate in silence until Virgil's truck was no longer visible.
"Are you going to keep denying they'll find anything?" Ernest said.
"What would they find?"
"You're hiding something."
"What do meteors or space rocks have to do with us?"
"Not much, I guess."
"Why does everyone want there to be something extraordinary in a hay field? It won't change anything." She pushed the potato salad around her plate. "Not for the good, anyway."
"It's nice to remember that there's more to life than what meets the eye." Ernest had put his fork down. "It was something else, that fireball. I was coming out of the drug store with a mint and chocolate-chip ice cream, when that light popped up out of nowhere, and burned its way down. I thought for sure this house would be in flames by the time we got to it."
There was a shift in his voice, and she met his eyes. She found herself wishing he would look at her like he did when she dropped pencils off her desk in high school. His eyes would raise to her as he retrieved the pencil, and the light would pool in them, looking for all the world like the purest honey and she was the bee. She knocked things off her desk so often, other kids called her names like klutz and butterfingers. But his eyes didn't look like honey now. They were fire, banked and smoldering. They had been that way since he came back from the war in Europe and found that Odile had given in to her mother's wishes.
"You didn't have to come out here," she said. "In fact, I thought that was the agreement."
"But you've got nobody to look after you now."
"I've got myself. I am capable, you know."
"All too well, I know it."
They were silent a moment, then Odile asked, "What happened to your ice cream?"
"Melted in a puddle where I dropped it in front of the drugstore." He gazed at the rows of young green corn stalks across the road, and then he picked up his keys and pushed back from the table. "I guess I'd better be moving on to the Boldts."
Odile pursed her lips, but couldn't find anything to say that was fair.
He put his hat on and peered out into the sunny day. "I sure hope they find something out there."
After he had gone, Odile tidied up the dishes. Neither of them had eaten much of the food. She returned to the parlor, thankful for the breeze that blew through the windows, carrying a cool from the river valley. With the lunch hour there was a hush in the air that had been absent all morning. Her attention drifted to the place where the radio had been.
The last argument between Odile and her mother had been about buying a new radio. Odile had been saving her money, but her mother thought it an extravagance when the old one still worked.
"Mother, we only get one station, and it's so staticky during the day," Odile had said.
"What do you need to listen during the day for? One station is plenty in the evening as long as we can still listen to Dr. Fuller's revival hour."
Not another word was spoken by her mother all night, and Odile's frustration seethed and boiled under the surface as she ate dinner, tasting only bitterness with each bite of ham and beans. Odile washed the dishes and turned in early. As she lay in bed, she let herself consider what life with Ernest would have been like. She had once hoped that she could convince her mother that it was possible to look after a husband and a mother. And then when she came up against the brick wall that was her mother, she at least would have had him to turn to.
But after Pearl Harbor, Ernest felt compelled to join the army and was sent to England. He wrote letters that talked about a life together, but they couldn't keep her from fetching shawls and water bottles for four years, sitting home listening to radio programs, going to church on Sundays, while other young women were being wooed. When Ernest came back, she thought he would be able to get on with his life without her, but she knew her mother couldn't. Odile was the only one to look after her. She made the choice her mother expected of her, and hoped Ernest would forgive her.
The morning after their quarrel over the radio, Mrs. Johnson was not yet up when Odile came into the kitchen for breakfast. She found her mother in bed, her skin cold and her condescending smile a faint ghost over her mouth.
Her mother's final and lasting punishment was meted out in the guilt Odile harbored. She couldn't bring herself to order a new radio, let alone accept a marriage proposal spurred by newspaper speculations. She had begged Ernest to leave her be—he would be happy with someone else, maybe one of the Whorley gals? He left her alone as she had asked, but every day she was relieved that there was no news of his being engaged to anyone else.
Her face grew hot. She didn't want to think about the past anymore. Nor did she want to think about the ways she had let herself down to follow her mother's wishes.
She heard the sound of tires on the drive, and reluctantly stretched to get up and see how things were going outside. The Studebaker was there on the gravel, but there was no sign of Ernest. Odile crossed the porch and looked into the yard. He was coming from the barn's flung-wide door carrying a ladder. His face was set in a frown.
"Ernest Palfrey, what are you doing?"
"I'm taking a look at your roof," he said, setting the ladder against the side of the house. "I saw something as I was driving up."
"There's nothing to see up there," she said, but with too much force.
He leveled his gaze on her. "Odie, I think we've both had enough of your fibbing."
She opened her mouth, then snapped it shut. Hot tears spilled down her cheeks as she went as quickly as she could to her closet. She took up the hat box. Ernest's words flamed in her ears, and she couldn't ignore them: she was a liar. She would never have believed it herself until a rock fell into her house. Now she felt every lie she had ever told, big to small, that day and any day before, swirling around her, passing through her like ghosts. There was the time she said she hadn't drawn a flower inside the cover of The Tale of Peter Rabbit. Then when she told her mother she was studying with Molly Dietz, but she met some kids from school at the drug store for a phosphate. Three years ago, she told Ernest that she was convinced that the best thing for her was to take care of her mother. Last year, on the evening of her mother's funeral, when Ernest told her that he would be waiting for her, she told him that she never wanted to be a wife and that he should never come to her again. Now she was lying to the whole town about a rock that came crashing through her roof from God knows where. She had lied and lied, never brave enough to be truthful.
First she undressed the space rock, peeling back the handkerchiefs, and they fell into a soft pile of cotton and lace on her bed; in her hands it was like any old rock, but she heard it whisper of life beyond what she had known. Then she undressed herself, abandoning her blouse and skirt in a heap on the floor next to her bed. She heard Ernest's footsteps on the roof, followed by a long whistle of disbelief.
Her hands should have been shaking. A well-brought up Christian woman's hands would have trembled. But this had nothing to do with anything she was supposed to be anymore. She put on the many-colored frock and took the rock into her hands before returning to the parlor where the shades were still drawn low.
"Ernest," she said, and was answered by locusts and frogs.
There were footsteps back across the roof, then down the ladder. His shadow passed outside as he strode to the front of the house. She wished she could match her breaths to his deliberate steps. Her hands grew sweaty, clasping the space rock. He creaked on the floorboards of the porch, and there was no hesitation in his gait as he opened the door and came into the house.
He entered the parlor, stood at the center of the room, and tilted his head back. The sunlight streaming through the hole illuminated the motes swirling around him. He finally noticed her, and he shook his head.
Odile opened her mouth to speak, but nothing would come. Instead, she offered her hands with everything they held. While the breeze pushed the frock against the back of her legs, she waited for him to cross the room.
Title graphic: "Through the Rooftop" Copyright © The Summerset Review, Inc. 2010.