Buying the blue linoleum

Tuesday, September 4, 2001

Editor's note: This is a chapter from Jean Bell Mosley's book "Wide Meadows" that was first published in 1960.

Aunt Hannah and Uncle Joe were out first visitors after the linoleums. Lou met them at the door: "You got any tacks in your shoes?" she inquired ungraciously. But after all, we felt very proprietary about the linoleums and wanted them to last our lifetimes.

Aunt Hannah said when she got back to the city she was going to send Mom a length of blue-checked oilcloth for the table that would just put the finishing touch to the kitchen, so we watched the mailbox closely. One day there were letters for Lou and me both. We didn't often get mail and were pleased to have some of our own.

We sat down on convenient rocks and tore open our letters, which read:

Dear Madam:

We know that you are pleased with the merchandise recently ordered. Enclosed is a convenient self-addressed envelope for your first installment payments of $1.00. This amount is due and payable on the first of each month. If payment is not received promptly, a small interest will accrue.

Yours truly

"What do they mean?" I asked, looking at Lou who was still starting at her letter.

"Search me!" she shrugged her shoulders eloquently.

"Maybe they didn't get our money," I proposed.

"Naw, they wouldn't have sent the linoleums if they hadn't," Lou said.

" ... first installment of $1.00," I reread. "What an 'installment'?"

"That means there's something more to come. The very next month there was another perplexing letter just like the first one, with a few cents interest added, just as promised, for not having received the first installment, which the company knew was just an oversight on our part.

In the same mail was our farm magazine again, and there, still on the back, as our linoleum, still offered for $1.98.

"What does that word 'down' mean?" I asked.

"I don't know. I see that a lot," Lou replied.

"Hadn't we better write them and tell them we sent the money?" I asked.

"Yeah, their address is still there isn't it?"

I scanned down through the fine print, my eyes lighting on the word 'installment.' I backed up and read it all then - the biggest belated piece of reading I ever did. I stuffed it into Lou's hands with glittering eyes and paralyzed my tongue.

I watched her eyes travel down the page and saw the pupils get big and alarmed.

"It says they're fifteen dollars, doesn't it?" I asked, stumbling along backward, trying to look up into her face. "And we pay a dollar a month until they're paid for?" I hoped I was wrong.

"Wait a minute, now," Lou said, emphatically, more to the linoleum company than to me, and we sat down by the roadside and read it again.

"Well what did they put that $1.98 up there in great big figures for?" Lou demanded, defensively.

Lou looked at the warts on the back of her hand a long time. She picked up some pebbles and threw them desultorily across the road.

"Well, don't cry." She looked at me witheringly. "We'll just send the money."

Send the money?

"Well, money's not the hardest thing in the world to get," she said, but I thought she was whistling in the dark and three months later I was sure of it.

We gleaned a few more sacks to patch, dug bushels of May apple and sassafras roots, and sold a gallon of wild strawberries. When James Adley got the school instead of Lillian, we even took the new kittens to town and tried to sell them door to door, first for a quarter, then a dime, and finally a nickel. We sold only two, and them for a nickel. Uncle Hayden came out one Sunday and gave us a dime apiece which we carefully hoarded in the old to tobacco can we kept under the mattress. We were always a month behind and sometimes, when we couldn't raise two dollars -- two dollars and fourteen centers really, counting the money order and postage -- we could go ahead and make the payment on first one and then the other. It was a sweating nightmare to be so in debt and trying to keep it form Mom and the others. We haunted the mailbox for fear one of the notices would fall into her hands. We had to have our Fourth-of-July quarters instead of getting ice cream and soda, and never again did they have a Gettysburg Address contest. We were sorely tempted at Sunday school when it came time to drop our pennies in the collection plate. Many a tie I was ready to throw up my hands and quit, or at least lay the problem before Lillian, but Lou said she had her own troubles and disappointments, what with not getting the school she wanted so badly, or any school at all for that matter.

"The berries will be ripe pretty soon," Lou said, "and we've got those three hens setting. We'll be able to sell the chickens this fall to meet the payments."

We begged Dad for space in the cornfield and sold roasting ears. It wasn't so bad in the summer when you could raise things and we came to respect the good earth like we never had before and to wonder what people did, how they ever had a sense of security without the land to fall back on.

We got embarrassed asking the neighbors for sacks the minute we thought they had an empty one. Lots of times they had only good ones, too, and we didn't ask for them. We had a few shreds of ethics left, but they were getting frazzled.

"You kids going into the sack business for good?" Mr. Stacey asked one day when we stopped by to see if they had any more.

"Oh, we're just trying to raise a little money," Lou replied, struggling to muster some cheer. Mr. Stacey was president of the local school board and we didn't want to make any rash confessions that would reveal our former foolishness. It might harm Lillian's chances for the school in the future.

"Why don't you take magazine subscriptions?" Mr. Stacey asked. "Look here," he said, rummaging on the table for a magazine. "See right here on the back, it says, 'Make $50.00 or more a month selling magazines."

Lou and I didn't bat an eye.

"That's just to hook you," Lou said, knowledgeably.

Mr. Stacey looked at us sharply, a little glint of respect in his eye.

"You mean you don't believe it?" he demanded, only half serious.

"Oh, you could probably make fifty dollars, but read the fine print," Lou stabbed at it with her finger, "and see what it says."

"You always read the fine print?" he questioned.

"Yessir, we do now," I said, heartily.

He began laughing and patted us on the shoulders. "That's right, kids. Always read the fine print," he commended. "Be better if that new schoolteacher had read the fine print," he remarked.

We wondered what he meant by that.

"Pretty shrewd kids," we heard him say to Mrs. Stacey as we went out the door.

"Now shrewd enough," Lou said, bitterly. The strain of keeping if from the rest of the family and raising the terrible money every month was telling on us.

We struggled through the summer, a nickel here, a dime there. The chickens hadn't turned out well. Too many of them died when little. And to think we'd still be at it this time next year if the interest kept accruing. And it did.

"Do you think any of the AT&T stock is in our name?" I asked Lou.

"You know what?" she said, sinking to even lower depths and dragging me along, "I think AT&T stock is old Anabelle, Trudy, and Trixy!'

Then one late summer day we came into the kitchen to find Mr. Stacey there. Mom and Grandma and Lillian were all seated around the table looking seriously happy.

"So," Mr. Stacey was saying, "our fine Mr. James Adley signed two contracts, thinking he'd pick the better of the two schools. Some people will sign anything, you know. And he was held to his first contract, so we let him out of ours." He folded his glasses and put them away in the case. Lou and I drew nearer.

"Well," Mr. Stacey continued, rising, "we're mighty happy that you'll teach the school for us, young lady, at this late date." He looked at Lillian. The full import of his visit came to Lou and me in a knee-weakening flash. "You know," he said, turning to us, "I told the school board we couldn't go wrong on hiring Miss Lillian here when even these little ones have more judgment than to get involved without reading a thing. I believe they're the ones who swung the deal." He laughed heartily and Lou and I joined in even more heartily.

Neither Mom nor the others knew what he was talking about, but we enlightened Lillian a little later when we had her alone. Lou was never one not to press an advantage when she had it. And, of course, Lillian came to our rescue with her first paycheck and paid off the balance without ever letting Mom know, we think.

"We ought to do something nice for Lillian," Lou said one day, thumbing through the magazine. "Here's a diamond ring we can get for just selling ... " I flew out the door and slammed it jarringly behind me.

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