Illustration by Gwen Richlen
Two weeks after her husband, Farhner died, Clarice cut up the empty boxes of Cheerios she'd been saving, got out a dusty roll of duct tape, unearthed six used paint stirring sticks from Hatcher's Hardware and set to making signs. In the very back of the kitchen drawer that was ﬁlled with old bank statements, yellowed obituaries, stray Christmas cards, rubber bands from the newspaper, outdated Bible study assignments and pencils with stale erasers, she found a broken black crayon. On the backside of the Cheerios box cardboard, she wrote in her neatest hand. With Farhner's hammer, she knocked the signs into the hard, dry, front yard grass. Like crude tombstones, they informed:
Farhner Entered Eternal Rest July 23, 1999. I Thank You All For Inquiring. Farhner Will Be Truly Missed. Now, Bereaved As I Am, I Need To Rest. PLEASE DO NOT KNOCK ON MY DOOR NO MATTER HOW SORRY YOU ARE. Clarice Barlow.
For the seven years following his stroke, Farhner Barlow had been what Clarice called a ﬁxture on the porch. Everyone who walked by, drove past, visited, solicited or delivered anticipated Farhner's presence there on the porch. He'd wave with his one functioning arm and say, "Hey," the only word his brain still transmitted.
"He was a ZIP code unto himself," the mailman told Clarice when she was on her way in from pounding the signs. "I never in my 31 years with the post o∞ce have seen one human being get as many sympathy cards as Farhner Barlow. It's the talk of my sorting station."
The cards were still jamming her mailbox. The condolences were from long-ago customers on Farhner's City of Richmond garbage route, men and women who remembered his kindness over the years, and old
service buddies. People who failed to follow the obituaries and who were just now hearing about Farhner's passing, second-hand.
Clarice set the cards and Farhner's hammer down on the marble-topped washstand in the front hall. She looked around her cramped house ﬁlled to su≠ocation with the heavy, dark mahogany furniture they'd gotten here and there from people in the country.
She'd once seen a TV special on the Royals with all their estates and castles. She'd had to turn the volume up to understand the narrator's prissy accent. Some princess had caused a ruckus with the Royal Family by going out and buying herself some brand new furniture, most likely on credit. Clarice suspected it was Danish Modern or something practical in Formica. "Good heavens!" the a≠ronted narrator stated. "The Royals don't buy furniture. They inherit it." Like her and Farhner, the Royals had to take in everyone in the world's orphaned furniture no matter if it suited their taste, stuck out or blocked the only window in the room.
How many times had she gotten the call from her mother, an aunt or one of her multitude of cousins? Old Mrs. Ruhamah up in Louisa County had gotten too feeble to ﬁx and do for herself. She was moving to a trailer parked in her daughter's side yard. Mrs. Ruhamah said you had admired that chi≠orobe in the front upstairs bedroom that time she took you up there to show o≠ her quilts. "Oh, Clarice, you remember her from church! Always wore that funny sloped hat," the helpful cousin would say, trying to jolt Clarice's memory and add to her guilt at not wanting to take the bereft furniture. She never did remember; she always took the furniture.
Farhner, a garbage man and certiﬁed to drive city equipment, would borrow a crib-sided ﬂat bed truck from the City of Richmond's Vehicle Maintenance Yard. O≠ they'd go, on a Saturday, in the early days alone, later with the children, later alone again, with the vaguest directions. Sometimes they'd be headed deep into Goochland County past Howard's Neck, or into King and Queen, King William, even way up near Loudon County, looking for Mrs. Ruhamah's place. They'd know it by the 25-foot-high, 200-year-old boxwood edging the driveway. They'd know it by the painted white tires, rick-racked all around, and ﬁlled with petunias and marigolds. They'd know it by the "Rabbits 4 Sale" sign at the end of the dirt road. They'd know it by Mrs. Ruhamah standing in the yard with an apron full of chicken feed, wearing that funny sloped hat, even though it was Saturday and no church meeting was scheduled, not even Busy Hands.
During the time she'd been conﬁned after Farhner's stroke, she'd vowed to herself that when Farhner's time came, before she called Bliley's to carry away his lifeless body, she'd call the Salvation Army and have them haul away all this heavy furniture that had weighed her down all these years. She might keep the wrought iron telephone stand and the magazine rack by the toilet, for convenience. She'd eat o≠ the ironing board, standing up, sleep on the rollaway, watch television (she'd keep that on account of "Guiding Light") while sitting on the crates full of bric-a-brac Mrs. Ruhamah and her kind insisted Clarice take.
You'd have thought somewhere along the line she'd have learned not to say, "Oh my, I don't believe I've ever seen a souvenir of Tangier Island quite like that." Or, "Those dishes remind me of the time we all got snowed in and lived for a week on Cousin Birdenia's apple sauce and Mrs. Browder's watermelon rind sweet pickle." With that comment, she had gotten not only Birdenia's mismatched dishes from discontinued supermarket promotions, but also Mrs. Browder's entire stock of canning jars. Once, she'd remarked to a widow, who'd buried three husbands, on her collection of gallstones displayed in the china press. The UPS had delivered them to Clarice's doorstep within days of the widow heading o≠ to Florida with husband number four. Clarice did admit the crystal salt and pepper shakers full of gallstones were ones she'd have chosen for herself, had she ever had the opportunity to choose anything for herself, her taste.
But Farhner had died in broad daylight, in plain sight. He just keeled over one day on the porch amidst the array of geraniums and ferns. Both plants, now profuse, had begun as slips potted for her in 2-pound co≠ee cans by Mrs. Pirkle's sister-in-law over in Fluvanna. She'd called to Farhner that "Guiding Light" was just about to start and that she'd be rocking him in shortly. Unfortunately, no one had o≠ered her a wheelchair so she'd had to glide and slide Farhner about on the runners of the upholstered rocking chair they'd inherited from cousin Eulalia's choir director. She'd had no choice but to call the rescue squad before the Salvation Army. It was the UPS man, delivering Mrs. Haynie's extensive porcelain cat collection, who'd noticed that Farhner had ﬁnally died.
Clarice had endured the funeral Farhner had always wanted. She had abided by his wishes to have the congregation sing his favorite Tennessee Ernie Ford song, "Sixteen Tons." "St. Peter don't you call me ‘cause I can't go. I owe my soul to the company store," the grieving gave forth, feet tapping, tears ﬂowing.
She'd said, "Well, bless your heart for coming." And, "Aren't you sweet," to all the people from the City Vehicle Maintenance Yard, to all the people from church, to the accumulation of cousins on her side, to all of Farhner's people, even to the neighbor lady down the street who Clarice suspected had more than a passing interest in Farhner. Then she'd come home to face the pound cakes and potato salad, the hams and Parker House rolls, and her life Farhner-free.
She tasted and compared all 17 pound cakes that were testimony to Farhner's way with the ladies, especially the ones who baked. She'd concluded that two were from mixes and one a frozen Sara Lee. It had been dressed up in a doily, sprinkled with confectioners' sugar and wrapped in Saran and foil, disguised to look homemade. Three had been baked with margarine instead of butter. Like a judge in a bathing beauty contest, she rated each one on looks, ﬂavor and congeniality. She kept the ﬁve semi-ﬁnalists for herself and turned the rest, with the one slice missing, over to her children, who were all practicing one kind of dietary restriction or another.
The children returned to their own busy lives, leaving Clarice with the expected platitudes and admonitions.
"Now, Mama, you just call us if there's a thing in the world you need."
None of them had wanted any of the furniture, bric-a-brac or gallstones. But they hadn't wanted her to dispose of them, either. Oh, no! It wouldn't be home without the marble-topped washstand in the hall, the whatnots, the wardrobe. "Whatever you do, don't give away a thing!"
Take this; keep that. She'd taken Farhner just as he was. She hadn't tried to change him, polish him or reduce him in any way. She'd kept him and kept house for him for 46 years. Now, for the ﬁrst time in her life, she was alone.
They had met while she was the youngest resident at Mrs. Sims' Boarding House for quiet, church-going, non-smoking ladies. She had walked to her job managing the sundries at Bootie's Rexall. "Oh, I'm in charge of sundries. I have no idea how the limeade's made," she'd say when customers accosted her on the street and pressed her for the secret to making the fountain limeade so tart and sweet in the same drop.
Sundries included everything that wasn't under the jurisdiction of the pharmacist, Dr. Billy Bootie, who wasn't a medical doctor but who knew just as much. He concocted his own remedy for athlete's foot fungus in the basement of his store and also dispensed a sure-ﬁre treatment for mange. Mrs. Roberta Eanes ruled the soda fountain with its Heinz 57 varieties of canned soup, tuna ﬁsh sandwiches toasted, sweets, ice cream, fountain Coke and secret recipe limeade. After Dot, the cosmetics clerk, ran o≠ with one of the highly medicated customers, Clarice took on cosmetics, too. The comic books and magazines were part of her domain.
That's how she met Farhner. He was o≠ duty, had already done a day's work hauling garbage and was still neat as a pin in his o∞cial City of Richmond coveralls. She'd seen him sneak a splash of Old Spice from the tester before heading her way. That day was the ﬁrst Tuesday after the 12th of the month, his day to collect last month's magazines and comics. She'd just ﬁnished neatly cutting the masthead from the covers of the unsold issues to send back to the distributor for credit. Farhner, on his own time, would collect the unsold issues, their masthead snipped, sort them by interest and distribute them free. The comics went to the Crippled Children's Hospital. The others would go to the Richmond Home for Ladies, the Veteran's Hospital or the penitentiary. Farhner had a regular pass-along route that he'd cleared with the distributor so there'd be no misunderstanding of his intentions.
His intentions were all too clear when he asked Clarice to go with him to Tantilla Gardens Saturday night to dance. The boarder ladies, all widows or spinsters, had insisted that she go. Get out some. Dance. You're only young once.
Six months later Clarice and Farhner were married. They honeymooned at Buckroe Beach, at Mamie's Beach Hotel. Every evening, after eating Mamie's seafood platter with coleslaw and cornbread, they'd stroll to the amusement park. There they rode the merry-go-round, danced at the pavilion, ate cotton candy and soft ice cream. They wouldn't leave until Farhner won his brand new bride a kewpie doll in a carnival game of chance.
Farhner valued routine and hard work. Until his stroke, he never sat still an instant. He had his garbage route where he knew most of his customers by name and ailment. He had a regular schedule of ﬁxing and doing, mowing the lawn, repairing the children's bicycles, polishing his Ford, driving to the country to pick up Mrs. Ruhamah's chi≠orobe and delivering magazines to shut-ins until he became a shut-in himself. Then Clarice and Farhner's life became a study in slow motion.
The day Mozelle Watkins diagnosed Clarice as deep into widow's paralysis was the day that was to change Clarice's life. After the ninth straight Sunday of Clarice missing church, Mozelle took matters into her own bossy hands. She signed Clarice up for a Senior Souls ﬁeld trip to the public library to learn Surﬁng the Net. Clarice assumed it was a crochet class.
Bright and early Monday morning, the church bus rattled up to the curb in front of Clarice's house. For an instant she thought, like old times, it was Farhner at the wheel. She'd been sighting him a lot lately, though she hardly left the house. Once, she thought she saw him advertising reliable tires on "Guiding Light." She climbed up the bus steps, toting her crochet satchel full of yarn, hooks, and her close glasses. "How you, Mrs. Barlow?" Clayton, the driver, greeted. "Was some kind of sad about Farhner. I don't drive the bus near as smooth as him so I'm o≠ering Pepto- Bismol chewables before we head o≠."
The ride to the library had been jerky and gossipy. Pastor Hewitt was introducing new hymns. What had been wrong with the old ones? Elsie Lane's granddaughter was expecting twins with no promise of marriage. She should never have been allowed to go o≠ to college up north. They o≠ered prayers for the sick list, which no longer had Farhner Barlow topping the a≠licted. Just as Mozelle was going into greater depth over her chest pains and disagreement with the HMO doctor's diagnosis, the bus lurched into the library's loading zone.
A librarian nearly their age greeted them and addressed them as "senior patrons." The library had just installed an entire room full of computers hooked up to the Internet. The generous grant that had made the installation possible speciﬁed that weekly classes be o≠ered to introduce senior patrons to the Internet. The donor's mission was to narrow the digital divide. Clarice got the impression that the Senior Souls were this week's narrowing victims. Their instructor was a skinny, sullen young man dressed entirely in black. He had the hopes of a beard, bad teeth and a nose better suited to a larger face. He explained in a ﬂat voice that the only reason he was here was because it was better than being in jail. He was on parole, doing community service for hacking into the high school's computer system. Just as the transcripts were going out for college applications, he'd changed all the honor students' grades from straight A's to D's.
"Uum, like, if somebody had a question they wanted answered it might be the fastest way for me to, like, show y'all the Net."
Mozelle's hand shot up. "Well, now, this young HMO doctor says the pains in my chest are from stress. But I know better. When I am stressed, my ﬁngernails peel away." She held both hands straight out for all to examine. "You'll notice my nails are as strong as, well—nails." The instructor looked at his watch, counting the seconds until this presentation would be over. Then he could sit for the rest of the day in computer chat rooms, surf the ‘Net, or work on the design of his own Web site. Finally, the consensus was that they'd all sit at their computers and attempt to diagnose Mozelle's chest pains. www.gallstones.com, they all typed in, then clicked on "Go."
Clarice was stunned. She clicked onto one Web site after another dedicated strictly to gallstones. All this information on gallstones, here for the clicking, when she'd been relying solely on Dr. Rosenfeld's column and "Chicago Hope" for medical opinion and diagnosis.
Her fellow souls soon lost interest and wandered about to lament the demise of the card catalog, to criticize the library's modern furniture and to have refreshments in the library's meeting room.
The teen-age instructor, whose name was Todd, and who later revealed to Clarice that his computer code name was Hot Toddy, was surprised at Clarice's interest and impressed with her facility with the computer. Maybe he could work o≠ his sentence teaching just her.
"Oh, my," she said when she hit the site on gallstones run by a New York artist whose media was collages that used items excised from the human body.
"This is, like, so totally random," Todd said. He was clearly excited. His Adam's apple quivered. "Like, he's looking to buy gallstones and you've got some ready to sell and we're not even clicked onto an auction site. This is, like, way cool. Yeah."
She'd told the Senior Souls to leave without her. She wanted to stay behind and reﬁne her search of the auction sites. The head librarian was delighted. The library was fulﬁlling its grant, narrowing the digital divide.
Hot Toddy had made certain that Clarice and her crochet satchel got to the bus stop safely. He waited for the correct bus to arrive. He knew all the bus routes and was a "bus person" himself. "I am, like, so not into personal transportation," he said. That and he had no car. He didn't have much of anything. His father had split when he was 2. Then, after he was caught computer hacking, his mother had left town with some low-tech loser who sold light bulbs door-to-door. He lived in a halfway house with other juvenile parolees.
Clarice had ignored Mozelle's warning that the boy was a potential ax murderer. She'd taken the bus back to the library the very next day to surf the ‘Net with Hot Toddy. Two days in a row, she had missed "Guiding Light." But Hot Toddy showed her how she could not only catch up on the missed programs but also glean behind-the-scenes information and gossip about her favorite characters. She couldn't quite put her ﬁnger on the appeal of the Internet. The way it tidied up and presented vast information and opportunities reminded her of her own management of sundries at Bootie's Rexall.
This evening Hot Toddy was at her kitchen table eating the third-runner-up pound cake, unthawed but still satisfying. When she'd ﬁrst let him into her house, he'd looked around and commented: "Have I, like, clicked onto eBay.com, click furniture for online auction, or is this an ‘Antiques Roadshow' gig?" He and Clarice were trying to come up with a code name for her to use to contact the gallstone artist. She felt her heart pulse and her head clear for the ﬁrst time since Farhner's debilitating stroke. Who in this world would have ever thought that mousy little Clarice Barlow would need an alias? That she, who could barely adjust her toaster to keep it from burning the toast, was now doing deals in cyberspace?
They'd gone through the entire pound cake and a pot of co≠ee before deciding her alias should be ClearIce. The gallstones proved far more valuable than she or Hot Toddy had ever imagined. To assuage her guilt at the outrageous fortune coming her way, she tossed in, at no extra charge to the New York artist, six pieces of shrapnel the surgeon had found in Farhner's body years ago during a routine hernia repair.
With the money from the gallstones, Clarice and Hot Toddy bought two high-powered computers. They brought Bell Atlantic technicians to the house to install dedicated lines. And to think just weeks ago, Clarice had been entirely satisﬁed dialing a rotary phone.
She and Hot Toddy were full of ideas. They had become not only friends but also start-up partners. Hot Toddy would work o≠ his community service hours. Then, until their start-up went public, he'd see about a paid job as the library's on-site computer expert. Clarice would coach him for his high school equivalency exam. He'd go to college on a computer science scholarship. They'd both watch "Antiques Roadshow" religiously and learn all they could about porcelain cats. The future held unlimited prospects. Hot Toddy and Clarice envisioned themselves as dot-com millionaires. They had named their company e-Rid, for people who plain wanted to get rid of their stu≠. Their ﬁrst dose of venture capital would come from the auction of Farhner's perfectly preserved City of Richmond coveralls. An anonymous collector in Japan was bidding against a Frenchman for authentic American work uniforms from the pre-polyester era. Serious money was involved.
Clarice collected Farhner's coveralls from the drawers of Mrs. Ruhamah's chi≠orobe. His care of them reﬂected the pride he'd taken in himself and in his service to his community. Imagine! Farhner Barlow's coveralls were headed for Paris, France. Clarice held them close to her before placing each one carefully in a tissue-lined box. She had a crazy compulsion to rush to the porch and ask Farhner's opinion on the turn her life was taking now. Clarice knew with her whole heart and with a peaceful soul what Farhner would say. "Yes, ma'am," he'd begin in his customary way, his voice strong and certain. "Let old Mrs. Ruhamah get too feeble to ﬁx and do for herself. Let old Mrs. Ruhamah move to a trailer parked in her daughter's side yard. Mrs. Barlow's got other plans."
About the Contest
Richmond Magazine's Fifth Annual Fiction and Poetry Contest drew more than 50 entries. The magazine's editors narrowed the field and then sent the finalists to veteran NBC-Channel 12 news anchor Gene Cox to select the winners. Cox, author of a collection of personal essays titled "Glazed Donuts," also is a guest editor for this issue. He contributed the short story "Checking Out."
Rebecca Mitchell Tarumoto is the winner of the short story contest. In 1996, she also won with her story "The Hatchers Are Dying in Reverse Order."
Tarumoto, who lives in Saratoga, Calif., penned "Farhner Was Just a Fixture" out of "place sickness for the South and her family," she says.
Tarumoto was born in Richmond and graduated from RPI. She also has a master's degree in English from University of Michigan. She has had personal essays published in the San Jose Mercury News.
"I'm just totally thrilled and honored," Tarumoto says. "I know when people send things into the contest, they have more than words invested." The judge wrote: "A beautifully crafted story advanced by creative metaphors and a subtle wit that echoes throughout."
John Sarvay wrote the winning poem, "al Tahrir," inspired by a month-long trip to Cairo in 1999. He is currently studying Arabic.
Sarvay, who works for Luck Stone with strategic and employee communications, has written for Wired magazine and the Washington Post Magazine. He also founded Caffeine magazine, which he published for a year.
A graduate of Virginia Commonwealth University, Sarvay became interested in the Middle Eastern culture after taking a class about the region's politics.
About Sarvay's poem, the judge wrote: "The writer effectively paints a vivid picture with words, yet the words do not draw attention to themselves."