Lula, at forty, was too old to be a whore, and too smart to be a madam. Scratching a living from the arid Oklahoma soil did not appeal to her.
She never did cotton to book learning. At least, not the kind of learning offered at the town’s one-room school house. It squatted at the edge of town like a carbuncle, and oozed out generations of pasty-faced, sausage-curled sons and daughters descended from the town’s early settlers, fat with their sense of privilege and authority.
The schoolmarm was no better than that sorry school. Elma Ratchette, the hatchet-faced widow, simpered after Parson Pritchert, round as a beer barrel and windy as a prairie breeze before the clouds busted open (and then there were his sermons).
Thin and grizzled as the whiskers on a spider’s leg, Elma was quick to bring her ruler down on the heads and shoulders of the town’s less-fortunate students, those too poor to afford shoes and the others who fell asleep and dreamed of doing and questioning, rather than suffer her mind-numbing prattle.
But Lula was smart. She kept her head down and her eyes open.
She saw that most of the town’s work was done by those of moderate and little means, and that the student who missed school did so because he was learning his family’s business of tending the fields. She knew that a girl who slept through class in the daytime had likely been up all night helping to deliver a new sibling to the family. And that sometimes, the beating they received from that dried up old hag of a schoolmarm was nothing to the walloping they’d receive at home.
She saw that innocent cruelty in a sausage-curled brat often grew to judiciously-dispensed kindness in a young woman or man. They’d received their wallopings too, and made a choice to question and choose differently than what they had been taught.
She learned that it wasn’t always a question of choice, it wasn’t always consistent, and you couldn’t tell just by looking at a person. Lula saw that by listening and accepting, she could open a door, perceive the fire that glowed within, and help the embers settle into a slow, sustainable burn.
Those school mornings that Lula had spent dreaming were never wasted. The crack of the ruler across her shoulders only made her more determined. She had the brains to nurture the community she wanted to build, but not the means. She used all her assets, including a gift for long-term planning, and the bonus of exceptional patience.
She opened a saloon in the center of town and bought into the General Store. She spent her afternoons serving whiskey and wit, and her nights walking with the Goddess moon. And when the young women came to her for advice, she smiled. When they came to her with a sneer, she laughed.
© Liz Husebye Hartmann (2016)
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