An Added Bonus

by Ron Van Sweringen


Marley Mae Johnson was late opening her beauty shop Saturday morning. It was half past nine when she unlocked the door. Camilla, the shampoo girl, was waiting for her.

Saturdays were always busy at the Curl Palace. Marley had a gift for working with hair. As far back as the seventh grade in Junior High School, she dreamed of being a beautician. Her mother was against it, though, and when Alberta Mae Johnson was against something, it usually didn’t happen.

“Get that out of your head,” Mrs. Johnson said when Marley first broached the subject.

“You’re going to marry the right man, someone who can give you a respectable life,” she added.

Marley knew who the “right man” was, at least from her mother’s point of view. It was John Meeker’s son, Ralph Earle. The Meeker family owned the “Farmer’s and Merchant’s Bank” on Main street.

* * *

Alberta Mae Johnson’s father owned the largest hardware store in Opalville, Ohio. A fastidious man, successful in business and very well respected, he placed great emphasis on his social standing. He saw to it that this quality was also instilled in his only daughter.

On her twenty-first birthday, with her family’s blessing, Alberta Mae had married a mild-mannered young lawyer, William Marley Johnson, from Morgan City, Ohio. After the wedding, he took up practice in Opalville, at Alberta’s insistance, so she could remain near her family.

One year after their marriage, almost to the day, Marley was born. For several years after that, their life seemed ideal. The young lawyer had a thriving practice due in part to his father-in-law’s influence. His wife Alberta seemed to be content in her life with him and their healthy baby daughter.

Indeed everything seemed perfect until that winter evening when William Marley Johnson put on his hat and heavy overcoat to take a walk and never returned.

As the news of his disappearance spread, the town went into an uproar. Foul play or an accident was suspected. Search parties were organized for the surrounding countryside but nothing was found, until the night watchman at the B and C train yards came upon a fine Stetson Fedora. It bore the initials WMJ on the inside head band and lay hardly smudged, next to the train tracks.

The speculation was that for some unknown reason, William Marley Johnson had jumped a freight and disappeared into the night, leaving Alberta and her family behind.

Marley was six years old at the time of her father’s disappearance, and in the care of Mabel Norris, the Johnson’s housekeeper. Although she clearly understood her father was gone, Marley felt no overwhelming sadness. His influence in her life had been slight on account of her mother’s domineering personality.

Alberta Mae Johnson took to her room that fatal night, more out of shame than sadness, refusing to see any callers.

* * *

One rainy afternoon, nearly a month after her father’s disappearance, Marley and the housekeeper sat at the kitchen table, peeling apples. It was well known that Mabel Norris made the best apple pie in Opalville.

“Why do you think my father left?” Marley asked, absentmindedly making circles out of the discarded peels.

“That’s hard to say, child,” Mabel replied. “Maybe he was just a traveling man.”

Marley looked up, a question on her lips. “What makes a traveling man?”

Mabel Norris, putting her hands on her hips, replied, “My Mama used to say, a man that’s got small feet is a traveling man someday. A man that’s got big feet is home to stay. Having big feet is an added bonus. Now don’t you forget that, child.”

* * *

Marley Mae Johnson was now forty two years old and unmarried, in spite of her mother’s diligent efforts to find her a suitable husband. Marley went to church every Sunday and still lived in the house she had been born in. Life in Opalville, Ohio, was, in a word, predictable. She heaved a sigh when the last customer left the beauty shop and she gladly turned the open sign to closed.

It was the third Saturday night of the month, which meant a dance tonight at the VFW Hall. Marley’s feet hurt and she thought about not going, until she considered her other option, sitting on the sofa across from her mother, watching a rerun of Lawrence Welk.

* * *

It was hot and all of the windows of the VFW Hall were open. Two large circulating fans, one in each corner of the room, moved the heavy night air with a constant drone.

Marley sat alone at the edge of the dance floor on one of the wooden folding chairs used mostly for revival meetings down by the river. A handful of people filled the dimly lit space, some dancing under a mirrored reflecting ball while others sat drinking and talking.

Small ringlets of auburn hair formed against her damp neck in the warm breeze. She looked up just as a record by Vaughn Monroe was starting, to find a man standing in front of her.

“Sure is hot tonight,” he said, tall and angular, with the weathered look of someone who spent his life outdoors. “My name is John Folkins.” He smiled, extending a large sunburned hand. “I just bought the old Perkins farm out on Route 36. Needs some work, but it’s good land.”

“Marley Johnson,” she replied, a slow smile curling the corners of her mouth. “Nice to meet you.”

He was pleasant-looking, she thought, the kind of man you could depend on.

“I’d ask you to dance,” he stammered, “but I’m no good at it. Guess maybe my feet are too big.”

Marley couldn’t hold back the laugh that erupted when she looked down at his shoes.

“You might have something there,” she replied. “I’d guess them at about a size twelve.”

“More like twelve and a half,” he laughed, his tan face flushed with embarrassment.

“Well John, it’s too hot to dance anyway.” Marley smiled up at him.

“How about a cold beer instead,” he offered, “for the best looking woman in the place?”

Before Marley could say anything, he was off toward the concession stand.

She felt a slight tingle as she watched his broad shoulders turn. The sensation was enough to make her wonder if anyone had noticed their meeting.

“John Folkins is a nice name and he’s more than pleasant-looking,” Marley thought. She remembered Mabel Norris’s admonition, years ago that rainy afternoon.

“Remember child, a man having big feet, well that’s just an added bonus.”


Copyright © 2011 by Ron Van Sweringen

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