Thursday, January 22, 2015

Short Story: Ol' Lady Chensky

Ol' Lady Chensky

 By Ronald Nitke


COOLIDGE SPRINGS, NO. WISC. - 1964

I stopped the car. I couldn’t just leave her lying there on the side of the highway.

My new six-dollar lure would not be tested this evening, and the walleye population of Pike Lake would be safe another day.

Several goats protectively surrounded her, as if they were mourning. It had to be her. I knew she lived near here and heard she kept goats, but had never actually seen them.

As I approached, her tribe hesitantly allowed me through their circle. Her left arm was clutched tightly to her chest. I touched her lifeless arm; the skin was cool. Her pitchfork was by her side. A peaceful look was on her face, and maybe even a little air of satisfaction.

Most, including me, didn’t even know her first name. Everyone just called her “Ol’ Lady Chensky.”

I drove back into Coolidge Springs and called the sheriff. Luckily, he was still at his office in Parkfield, only five miles away.

“Is that the old lady that I sometimes see walking along the highway?” he asked.

“Yes, that’s the one. Her name is Chensky.”

“I’m just closing up the office,” he said. “I can meet you there in about ten minutes. I’ll need to fill out a report.”

When she was alive, she looked like she was a hundred and ten, maybe five feet tall if she straightened her stooping shoulders, worn and weathered, like a crusty old seaman. No one knew for sure, but she was probably closer to seventy-five, maybe eighty.

As near as any of the locals could recall, she had been on that forty acres for what seemed like forever. She would walk the half mile into town every week. She didn’t drive, walked everywhere… and always came into my store after stopping at the post office.

The neighborhood children were frightened of her, but they would mock her and giggle from a safe distance. Her dark eyes would burn holes through them, but they didn’t care. They had the strength of numbers as their security. She would soon turn away and silently go about her business.

John Rivers warned me about her when I bought this little general store from him fourteen years ago. She even scared me a little the first time she came in, but I soon grew to find her a bit amusing.

She had yellowish-gray hair which was mostly covered by a shabby scarf tied under her chin… a “babushka” she called it. She was never seen without it.

She would search through the shelves and find damaged and dented cans of beans, or fruit, or something with a torn label. Sometimes, I even put one or two cans where she would easily find them, knowing that her tattered and faded apron would transport her trophies up to the check-out counter.

It was a little game we played that she always won. She reminded me of my own grandmother. Even with her raspy broken English, she negotiated like a Philadelphia lawyer.

“Mr. Miller,” she would say, (she always called me Mr. Miller, and I always called her Mrs. Chensky). “You know you can’t sell ‘dees, you have to tro’ dem out.”

If she had teeth, she didn’t bring them into town with her. She would miserly pluck a few cents from her leather coin purse as an offering. That worn purse looked like it was as old as she was. I saw the corner of a dollar bill sticking out once… she deftly pushed it back to safety.

One day, she found a leaking five-pound bag of flour. I taped it up and just let her have it. I couldn’t help but feel sorry for her. Mrs. Chensky nodded what could have been perceived as a thank you, but she promptly strode from my store, certain she was doing me a favor.

Some of the folks around town suspected her husband may have left behind a little money when he supposedly died from the pox thirty years ago… or maybe it was an accident of some kind. The sum compounded itself as it passed from person to person and barstool to barstool.

The word was, the Chenskys had come up from Chicago in the early thirties. He had some kind of business dealings down there, but it was never exactly clear what kind of commerce was involved. They bought forty acres just outside of town, paid cash, and kept pretty much to themselves.

He was reportedly buried up there on a hillside, but no one knew for sure. There was no stone for him in the town cemetery.

One or two of the townsfolk thought they heard someone say they had seen a big black sedan with whitewall tires going into their property about the time he disappeared. One or two other rumors had him simply sneaking off to town one day for tobacco, and he just caught the southbound train never to be heard from again.

In the summer, Mrs. Chensky could sometimes be seen walking along the highway, toting home some treasure she had found in the dump. Or after the town crew would mow the tall roadside grass, she could be spotted with a pitchfork gathering up the freshly cut fodder for her goats. She would carry the hay up her dirt path to a small barn near her shack… forkful by forkful.

The Goats
There were some accounts that she had been seen petting and coddling, or even kissing her goats when the naked winter trees allowed some sight into her property. Some suspected the goats even frequented her house.

No one ever attempted to approach her near the path or her shack. No family. No friends. No visitors. The fear of the unknown outweighed the curiosity.

There was a son, Ludwik, believed to be in Chicago now, about four-hundred miles to the south. He didn’t stick around our sleepy little village long… must have been fifteen or sixteen when he left.

I heard he started calling himself Louis, and did some odd jobs around town to earn a little money. Most figured he probably caught the next train or bus out of town as soon as he could save the fare. No one claimed to know for sure.

Mrs. Chensky never mentioned him, or any other family. Louis never returned to Coolidge Springs, the locally proclaimed vacationland of the north. Not much activity here… not enough to hold the young man’s attention.

The sheriff was there in ten minutes, like he said he would be. Tom Peltz had been the county sheriff here for almost twenty years. He removed his hat and admitted he’d never actually spoken to her, and didn’t know much about her, other than what he heard. He didn’t get out that way much. We both knew she never bothered anybody.

He had called the county nurse before leaving his office.  She drove out and said, “Yup, she’s dead.”

Carol was all business. She would call the funeral home and they could send out the hearse. No need for an ambulance -- too late for that. She signed something and her work was done.

Since I probably knew Mrs. Chensky as well as anyone, the sheriff asked me to go with him up to her home as a witness.

We herded the goats up the trail, through the aspens and alder overgrowth, into the rickety old barn. Summer vegetation kept the house and barn totally secluded from the highway.

Ol' Lady Chensky's House
It was just after eight p.m., but the setting sun was still good for another hour of light. Plenty of time left for a quick check of the place.

The well was out the front door twenty paces to the left. The outhouse was twenty paces to the right… its silhouette in the setting summer sun. Her garden was halfway between. It was safely protected from her goats and other predators by a rusty chicken wire fence.

We ventured into her tiny four-room farmhouse. No electricity. The drafty shack offered little protection from the mosquitoes that were beginning to mount their evening assault. It was apparent that the goats freely roamed the house.

The pine floor boards creaked over the dugout root cellar below. I checked out the murky cellar… nothing more than cobwebs and a few mason jars of sauerkraut and raspberry preserves. Tempting, but I left them down there.

There was an old steamer trunk at the foot of her wrought iron bed. Neither the unpainted front door, nor the trunk, was locked. In the trunk were some of her winter clothes, a faded white wedding dress, a pair of brown lace-up baby shoes, and one pair of knitted baby booties… pink.

Tom found a tin box under the old clothes. It looked like, at one time, it may have been a bright red. It too, wasn’t locked.

Being aware of all the stories, the sheriff smiled at the thought of what he might find. He motioned me over. “Let’s have a look,” he said. “This should put to rest all those rumors and unsolved mysteries.”

Inside were two gold wedding bands, along with some old photographs that were neatly bound with string. The largest was an eight by ten wedding portrait of a handsome young couple taken at Lakeside Studio, Chicago, dated 1914. It looked like the bride was wearing the same wedding dress that was in the trunk.

Another picture, a souvenir postal, taken in the same Chicago studio: same couple, but in it, the young lady is holding a baby. A boy about three, or four years old, is standing in front of the adults. That must be Ludwik. The four of them looked like a proud little family…very well dressed. She was much shorter than the man.

There were a few other pictures that looked even older of other unidentified people; her parents, or other relatives, perhaps. Other than the deed to the forty acres, there were no insurance papers or any other valuables. No birth certificates. No death certificates. Along with the neatly bundled pictures was a folded hand written paper. The language was simple; humble… the penmanship was shaky but stylish.
“To whom it may concern:

     “When I die, I want the portrait of my husband, Joseph, to be buried with me. That is most important.
     I want the casket to be a simple pine box. There is some money in a jar in the woodbox. Take that and the rings for the expenses.
     Please give my goats to Charley Miller for his big yard on the edge of town. They are Bessie, Martha, Francis, Hank, and Little Billy, he’s the youngest. They all know who they are.
     All my other belongings and land can go to Ludwik to do with as he wishes. He is in Chicago. He has a telephone, but I don’t know the number. I think the operator can get it for you. Call him collect.” 
Signed - Anna Chensky: dated May 2, 1964"
She had written that only a few months ago. The sheriff had to move some kindling wood, but the jar was where she said it would be. Inside were thirty-eight well-traveled one dollar bills.

They looked like they may have been there a long time… hardly the much ballyhooed fortune whispered over clotheslines and between Saturday-night barstools.

Tom counted another two dollars and forty-one cents in her coin purse. Most people, including me, Charley Miller, never believed any of those so-called treasure stories of mysterious money brought up from Chicago.

The requested portrait of Joseph was hanging above the bed. The large oval frame was elegant. I would have been proud to own it myself.

The sheriff had done his duty and made the collect call to Ludwik that evening. Tom was reminded that he was "Louis" now, and although he wouldn’t be able make it, asked that the sheriff let him know if there was anything he needed to do. He wasn’t interested in the old pictures, or any other stuff. Tom left me with that and called it a day.

It seemed a simple request. “We’ve done it before,” boasted Bruce Carlton from the funeral home. “Sometimes people are buried with some of their jewelry, a Bible, favorite books, even a deck of cards, so the portrait of her husband is easy. A lot of the ladies like to be buried with their rosary. One time this old guy wanted a map of the stars… I suppose so he could find his way around up there.”

Father Francis came and said a few kind and inspirational words, but besides Bruce and his wife, there were only me and Mrs. Miller there to hear them.

In accordance with her last requests of simplicity, she was given a pauper’s funeral. Her tiny stature allowed for her to be placed in the smallest of the adult pine coffins.

Bruce carefully placed the portrait of Joseph in the coffin with Mrs. Chensky, but he couldn’t close the lid. The portrait with that elegant frame was too large for the tiny coffin.

He dialed the operator and made a person-to-person collect call to Louis. He should decide what to do about this dilemma.

It didn’t matter to Louis. He suggested they just take the picture out of the frame. What difference could it make? He was very busy.

Bruce looked at me and said, “Charley, you want this frame?”

He knew I liked the frame, and that was okay, but I still wasn’t sure what I was going to do with the goats.

The paper backing on the frame was old and brittle and had loosened over the years. Bruce cautiously began to separate the backing from the frame and uncovered the corner of a fifty dollar bill. Not just any fifty dollar bill… but a gold certificate from 1913.

He nearly choked when he found more neatly pressed bills: fives, tens, twenties and more fifties, dating as far back as the 1880’s. Most were common silver certificates, but there were more gold certificates, some red seals, and a two-dollar Union Note from 1862.

I couldn’t believe what I was witnessing, after her unabashed negotiations with me all these years. [Two cents for a can of beans… a penny for can of peaches.]

I suggested to Bruce that we call an old army buddy of mine. He was a numismatist in Milwaukee. We sorted through the treasure and gave my friend a detailed inventory of the find. He speculated that the bills could have a collector’s value of about forty thousand dollars.

Bruce could only shake his head, “Don’t that beat all? That old lady lived like a beggar and thought she was going to take it all with her when she died. I’ve never seen anything like it.”

I told Bruce we should probably call Louis again.

It must have rung a dozen times. The operator finally cut in, “I’m sorry sir, your party is not accepting the charges.”

[Author’s note: This is a fictionalized story, based on true events. Anna, in fact, lived alone with her goats just outside a small town, and she did the gathering and bargaining as described. She also intended to take the portrait of her husband stuffed with the bills with her when she died. The value stated is believed to be reasonably accurate. Names and places were changed to protect privacy.]

Ronald Nitke

About The Author

Ronald Nitke has a B.S. in business administration, and has worked many years in corporate and forensic accounting. After serving aboard the USS Sanctuary 1967-1969, he was a logger in Northern Wisconsin.

In addition to writing several short stories, he is completing the final edits for a fact-based novel involving his forensic experiences, titled, "Hidden Assets". 

He and his wife Charlene, by way of Arizona, California, and Alabama are currently living in Appleton, Wisconsin, and restoring an 1880’s farmhouse. They share their space with a Golden Retriever, Lady Grace, and a Shih Tzu, Dixie Belle.

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Other Stories by Ron:

The Courier
The Waiting Room and The Judge


“A writer soon learns that easy to read is hard to write.” ~CJ Heck


2 comments:

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed and appreciated
Ronald Nitke's Ol' Lady Chensky Story.

It reminded me of several past experiences I have had with older persons who were alone & very independent, and strong-minded.

Well done! Carol

Will Davis said...

The Short Story: Ol' Lady Chensky is and will always be a treasure. What made this story even more beautiful to me, I listened to a film score The Mission by Morrison, Ennio. It complimented Ol' Lady Chensky.

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