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Eleanor by Steve Carr. My first short story published in Literally Stories, June, 2016.

My first short story published in Literally Stories, June 2016.

Eleanor by Steve Carr

There near the edge of a cliff overlooking a broad open area of grassland outside the town of Wall, South Dakota stands Eleanor’s house. It is a huge wooden structure built in the 1940s and one of the few houses built along the ridge looking toward the Badlands and along the road leading from Wall to the Badlands National Park. It is a weather beaten house, with the remnants of the bright white paint that covered it peeling from the weather-worn wood, and a single slightly tilted chimney of red brick sticking up at mid-roof. There is a wrap around porch, the back of which I was told offers an amazing view of the pink, the beige and purple layers of the Badlands formations miles away, and the ability to see antelope, coyotes and even a few buffalo that roam freely through the tall prairie grass below in summer and a blanket of drifting snow in winter. In the front of the house, leading from the porch to the gravel path that leads from the driveway to the house is a ramp that was built to accommodate Eleanor’s husband who had, later in his years, become unable to navigate the stairs.

Eleanor no longer lives in her house, of course, and now it stands empty and shuttered against the outside world. She has moved to Ohio to be nearer her sister and away from the memories of the house and of the Badlands, and of her husband. There is a for sale sign in the dirt that was once Eleanor’s garden, but few people have inquired about the house that is being sold for Eleanor by the bank in Wall. The few people who knew Eleanor and her husband and still able to drive, slowly pass the house sometimes and gaze at in wonder, for it was truly a beautiful place years before. But those who remember Eleanor and her husband are now few in number. Most of those, but not all, who had known them are either deceased or living in nursing homes or retirement homes in Rapid City or Sioux Falls. No one bothers the house, and tourists who drive by it look at it as a relic of another time, something to imagine as once grand, but now just another fossil of an earlier time, much like the Badlands themselves.

For those few who do remember Eleanor, for she was the more remarkable of the husband and wife, recall driving by and seeing her watering her red and yellow roses that she had planted in the dry soil and brought to life with tender loving care each summer. That anything other than weeds and patches of grass grew in the dirt was an amazing thing to most of those who lived in Wall, and beneath the glaring summer sun that cooked the earth around Wall during the summer it was considered practically a miracle. People drove up from Wasta, a few miles west of Wall, and down from Pierre, about fifty miles north, to see Eleanor’s roses and take pictures of the garden and the house. But as I said, that was years ago. All the roses have been dead many years now, and only a few rocks remain that mark the path that Eleanor had made to wind through her garden.

Binnie Grimes who still lives in Wall with her daughter who runs a souvenir shop on Main Street next to Wall Drug Store will say, “it was a glorious place out in the middle of nowhere back in its day” when asked about Eleanor’s house. “But Eleanor was very unusual.”

Eleanor was born in New Underwood, a small town between Wall and Rapid City, of wealthy parents, her father being a banker and her mother a former Vaudeville star who gave it up to move to South Dakota to be with her husband and give birth to her first child, Eleanor. The bank caught fire and was totally destroyed years ago, but by then Eleanor’s parents had both died while relatively young and left money to Eleanor that afforded her the resources to build the house after she married Daniel. Less charitable tongues claim it was Eleanor’s money, and not Eleanor’s wit and charm that seduced Daniel into proposing in the first place. While Eleanor had always been rather plain, Daniel was a strikingly handsome man, tall and muscular with thick wavy hair and a face befitting images one sees of Greek Gods. Binnie Grimes commented, “it was not the first time that a good looking man had married a homely woman for her money and it certainly won’t be the last time.”

By design or accident Eleanor and Daniel never had children, and what few relatives other than Eleanor’s sister either had living, few if any ever visited them at Eleanor’s house.

“I never heard tell of any visitors at Eleanor’s,” Binnie Grimes will tell you. “They were always kind of a secretive pair, although Eleanor in those first years here was an infrequent guest at some of the better homes. Other than that you would only see them come to town to buy groceries once a week but mostly they stayed to themselves at that house. Lord knows how they passed their time other than Eleanor working on her beloved rose garden or sitting on that porch.”

If Eleanor learned anything from her parents it was her father’s frugality and her mother’s affectations. It is a common story among those few in New Underwood who are still able to remember her that Eleanor was, despite her drab looks, destined to be a great actress who performed with her mother in local stage productions put on during the Fourth of July picnics or during the Christmas pageant each year. Ben Thornberg who played Joseph during a staging of the Nativity has a newspaper article in his scrapbook that he keeps in an old box in his closet that raves about Eleanor’s “inspirational reenactment in bringing Mary, the mother of Christ, to life at the New Underwood Methodist Church this Christmas season.”

If Eleanor ever had aspirations to become a movie or stage actress would be a guess, no one knows if she did or not. Certainly with his good looks Daniel would have made a name for himself in Hollywood, but again, if Eleanor had an opinion about it one way or another no one ever knew, and so like much of the lives of those who lived on the edge of the Badlands when lives were led in secret, there is no way really to uncover fact from fiction.

Binnie Grimes, propped up in bed with a pillow cushioning her back, will tell you “people around her knew even less about Daniel. The young women in town used to drive by that house in hopes of seeing him up on a ladder, shirtless with his broad tanned back glistening in the sun as he put another coat of white paint as he did every summer. It was shocking and quite a thrill I can tell you,” she will say with a laugh of a young woman of twenty.

What is known by those who ever inquired is that Daniel was the son of a rancher near Spearfish, a small town north of Rapid City, who met Eleanor during WWII while on leave and at a USO dance at the Alex Johnson Hotel in Rapid City. But that is all that is known. He neither hunted, fished, played poker, nor did anything else that most of the men in Wall spent their idle time away from their wives doing. He and Eleanor would be seen walking together, hand in hand, across some grassy field inside the park, or sitting together during the summer on the porch sipping lemonade and looking out over the landscape late in the evening just as the sun was setting.

The only other person who would accurately remember Eleanor and Daniel was Joshua Marsh, the doctor who came to Wall from Rapid City once a week for many years and knew most everyone in the area. Now in a nursing home in Sioux Falls, he spends most of his time watching television in the recreation room, being held into his wheelchair by a belt put their by nurse’s aids who were also in charge of feeding and bathing him But his memory glows brightly.

“Mad as a hatter,” he said of Daniel, “always was, from the first time I met him when he and Eleanor first moved into that new house they had there in Wall.”

It was easy to imagine that the rumors about Daniel being with Eleanor because of her money being true. Why would a man with Daniel’s physical attributes remain apart from society, keeping only the company of the one person in his life that cared for him and protected him unless there was a good reason? Rumors related by Binnie Grimes of him being seen walking naked in Eleanor’s garden may have had more to do with Binnie’s wishes than actual truth.

“It was the war that made him peculiar,” Doc Marsh contended. “He was probably right as rain before joining the Army. He caught influenza while in the war. World War I that was. But as crazy as he was he still had an eye for the ladies, and they in return were drawn to him like moths to a flame.”

For nearly forty years Eleanor and Daniel lived in the big house. As they grew older together the town of Wall grew just a little, pumped up slightly by the popularity of Wall Drug Store which proved to be a tourist attraction worth visiting on the way into or out of the Badlands National Park. Those born years after Eleanor and Daniel lived in that house look on the slowly decaying structure with the same indifference that seeing the same rock formation in the distance year after year evoked. It means nothing to most of the young people and new arrivals to town, and what few vague stories that still circulated about Eleanor and Daniel were neither interesting nor titillating enough to hold anyone’s interest. In those later years when Eleanor came to town to buy groceries she came and went with few interactions with anyone, always with sunburn on her nose and cheeks from working in her garden in the summer, and clothed in a heavy wool coat and leather gloves in winter. But Daniel, growing infirm, was rarely seen.

Binnie Grimes said “one day he just wandered off.”

On a cold winter’s day Eleanor had returned home from a trip to town to buy a few items at the grocery store and found the front door open and Daniel gone. It was reported in the Wall sheriff’s log that Daniel had been reported missing by Eleanor, that a group of Wall citizens had gathered outside Eleanor’s house and from there took different directions in search of him, but no trace, not even footprints in the light dusting of snow that lay on the ground was found. Suspecting something sinister, the sheriff searched Eleanor’s house, going from one well-kept room to the next expecting to find Daniel’s lifeless body, but of course it never happened.

“It’s a mystery, but so are the Badlands,” Doc Marsh said, ending his conversation about Eleanor and Daniel.

Eleanor stayed the remainder of that winter searching for her lost husband. That spring she made a visit to the bank president and asked him to sell her house for her, that she was moving to Ohio to live out the remainder of her life with her only sibling, a younger sister. The furniture, china, crystal, paintings, clothes and other odds and ends were auctioned off in Sioux Falls and Eleanor moved away and was not heard from again, although the bank continues to send her monthly reports regarding the inability to sell the house.

“Not all questions in life can be answered,” Binnie Grimes likes to say. “I think the Lord God wants things to be hard to figure out sometimes so that we remember our place.”

Down the same road that Eleanor and Daniel’s house is on, but nearer to town, is the remains of what some business people in Wall hoped would be a theater attraction for those visiting Wall. What is left is a stage for plays and concerts and some rows of seats, both stage and seats badly worn by weather and neglect since they were built. The backdrop is the same as for everything else on the road, the Badlands. The theater attraction never took hold and after two years the idea was abandoned as was the site itself. It sat idle and continued to rot in the summer heat and winter cold until Sister Mary Allocious of St. Francis church in Rapid City happened upon it five years ago. She was immediately taken with the location with the inspiration of staging religious plays for Wall’s tourists and passersby.

“What a card, that one!” Don Murbank of the only ice cream shop in Wall said of her. “She still wore that long black thing and veil just like nuns used to wear before they became more modern. She would walk down Main street in the blazing sun with a tin can in her hand and ask tourists for coins to go toward renovating the theater so that, as she liked to say, ‘God could shine his light on Wall.’ People were afraid to refuse her so I think she made a lot of money doing that.”

Sister Allocious is remembered by mostly every adult in Wall. Most describe her the same way; a stern looking woman who never smiled, thin as a rail, and single minded in her quest to revitalize the theater. According to everyone she talked about it more than she did religion itself, and more than one Catholic in Wall, and there aren’t that many of those, were offended by her neglect of more churchly matters, which Sister Allocious was quick to remind them that “churchly matters and the salvation of your mortal soul is exactly why the theater should be rebuilt.” While Sister Allocious maintained, even as she was recalled to St. Francis, that the man’s voice crying out in his suffering she was hearing coming from beneath the floorboards of the rotting stage was Jesus, but if you were to talk to Eleanor, and if she chose to tell you, which would be unlikely, it was a man far from being Jesus.

Steve Carr

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