STORIES BY JOHN
A place for original short fiction.
This is my contribution to the third of four volumes of stories based on Old Time Radio shows. The remise for this volume is a mash-up of sorts. We were to take two unrelated radio shows and have the characters meet but to stay true to the characters of both shows. Mary Noble Backstage Wife was a popular and long-running soap opera from the Frank and Anne Hummert production stable of shows. Lum and Abner was a comedy show equally popular and long-running created and written by Chester Lauck and Norris Goff. They also performed all the character voices. In many markets the syndicated recordings still air. And I grew up listening to the show locally on WNXT and WPAY from the late 1960s through the 1970s. Currently there is a comic strip available through GoComics.com by Donnie Pitchford.
Two things you need to know about Mary Noble Backstage Wife: Mary was a saint and Larry, her husband, an ass -- always.
IT’S THAT TIME AGAIN 3:
Even More Stories of Old-Time Radio
Edited by Jim Harmon
Mary Noble: A Backwoods Life with Lum and Abner
by John Leasure
All she really wanted to do was to curl up with a good book on her patio with maybe a cool glass of iced tea. But Mary Noble found herself on a tour bus, sitting next to her husband Larry Noble, heading to Atlanta from Cincinnati working on a “bus and truck” show, hoping to find success on their way to Broadway. She had given up on her book sometime around Louisville, so to pass the time Mary flipped through the most recent issue of Variety, the show business Bible for the industry, trying to find something interesting to read.
“Oh, Larry, look! They’re still trying to talk Gable into Gone With the Wind,” Mary leaned over to show her husband the item.
“He continues to say no. Why don’t they just leave it at that?” Larry Noble, himself an accomplished and respected Broadway star, looked at the item. He stiffened and ripped the paper from Mary’s hands.
“It says here that Cukor is to be in Atlanta through August talking to more unknowns about Scarlett.” He crushed the paper and looked out the window at the passing landscape. “Does this look like we’re getting close to Atlanta?” he asked his wife.
“I don’t know. How far is Atlanta from Cincinnati?”
“What I mean is, does this look like Georgia to you?”
“I don’t know, Larry, darling, I’ve never been to Georgia. Why are you so tense all of a sudden? I’m sure the driver knows where he is going.”
“I just have to get to Atlanta, Mary. It’s imperative,” Larry said emphatically.
“What’s going on, Larry. This isn’t like you.” Larry Noble leaned over to his wife and whispered, “My agent is arranging for me to speak to Cukor while we’re in Atlanta.” He looked around to make sure no one was listening and continued, “He was supposed to send me confirmation in Cincinnati before we left.”
“No, and now we see that Cukor is going to be in Atlanta. I don’t understand any of this.” Larry looked out the bus window again. “But does it take this long to drive from Cincinnati to Atlanta?”
“Why are you going to speak to this director, Larry? Aren’t you signed for the run of the play?”
“This play is not going to Broadway, Mary. Have you read the notices?”
“Well, they’re getting better, dear,” Mary said meekly, having actually read a few more of the reviews than her husband.
“I thought we’d go on the road and this thing would be fixed, but the changes are getting worse. So I told the agency to put me up for Gone With the Wind right away.”
“For what role?”
Larry pulled back from his beautiful wife. “Well, what role would you think, Mary?”
“Ashley Wilkes?” Immediately she knew she had chosen wrong.
“Ashley Wilkes? That’s a supporting role. Is that what you think of me? A support player?” Larry Noble tried hard to keep his voice under control and not be heard by others.
“Oh, Larry, not at all. But you haven’t read the book. Ashley Wilkes is an important character—” Mary said valiantly, but was cut off by Larry.
“Honestly, Mary, I would have thought you’d have known I would be perfect for the role of Rhett Butler.”
“But what about Gable?”
“What about Gable? He has turned it down again. He doesn’t want to work with Cukor, that’s clear, and the studio wouldn’t want a lesser director to handle this important a picture.”
“But, Larry, darling, every time it’s discussed who should play Rhett Butler, people want Gable,” Mary said gently.
“Well, what do the people know?” Larry asked, and slumped in his seat, closed his eyes, and ended the conversation with his wife. Mary folded the paper and looked at her husband. His agent wouldn’t be setting up the meeting if there wasn’t a possibility for Larry to play the part. She also understood how important the selection of the right actor was for this movie. People had taken this book to their hearts and had high expectations for the movie. Part of those expectations was for Gable as Rhett Butler.
While Mary Noble fretted over her husband’s own expectations, she noticed a sign along the road. It read “Pine Ridge 50 miles.” Pine Ridge? Just how close were they to Atlanta? The answer to some of the Noble’s questions were in the little town of Pine Ridge, Arkansas and in a place called the Jot’em Down Store.
“Yeah, yeah, I have, Elizabeth,” shouted Abner Peabody into the receiver of the phone on the wall in the Jot’em Down Store. “What’s that? No, no ain’t seen anybody what looks like they be from New York yet.” He listened intently, nodded his head as if in response to the caller. “Well, shore I will. This here is big news fer Pine Ridge! Uh huh, talk to ya later.”
Abner hung up the conical earpiece onto the side of the phone, shaking his head. “I swan to goodness, Lum. This here Broadway business has folks all riled up.”
Lum Edwards, Abner’s partner in the Jot’em Down Store, looked up from his paper. “Elizabeth makin’ shur you got the tickets?”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah. She heard tell they was sold out for the show and figgered she better check. Acts like I don’t have sense enuff ta get tickerts fer a show.” Abner shuffled over to his rocking chair opposite the counter at which Lum sat behind. The sound of the screen door snapping shut brought their attention to a young man in a long white grocer’s apron coming through their store’s door. Neither one moved to get up as the young man came over to the counter and looked at the sitting Abner Peabody.
“Here are your tickets, Abner. I got the last three for ya from Squire Skimp.”
“I thankee, Dick. I knowed if anyone could get me some it’d be ole Dick Huddleston,” Abner said as he took the envelope from Dick and fanned the three tickets in his hand. “Elizabeth and li’l Pearl will certainly enjoy this.”
“Why’dja have Dick git the tickets, Abner? They twern’t hard ta buy. Ya go down to the school office and tell the sectatary how many.”
“I know that, Lum, but by the time I got down there, Squire had bought up all the tickets and wa’sellin’ ’em hisself,” Abner said.
“Why couldn’t ya have jest bought three from the Squire then? He was a sellin’ ’em, ya say.”
“Some things got said, and the Squire jest set himself that I wasn’t gittin’ tickerts.”
“Some things got said?” Lum asked, now smiling and giving a side look to a sheepish Dick Huddleston. “Like whot?”
“Oh, he was a tellin’ folks that the play was all about him since Cornie Cobb wrote it and him workin’ fer the Squire and all. And I jest said that their play was called ‘The Southern Gent’man’ and it couldn’t have been ’bout the squire!” Abner giggled a bit at the memory. Lum guffawed out loud and slapped his hand on the counter.
“Ole Squire got hisself a little worked up, huh?”
“A little?” laughed Abner.
“Why, he turned purple in the face and spit and sputtered all over his desk.”
“I told Squire that these were fer Elizabeth, Pearl, and a friend of Pearl’s,” cautioned Dick.
“Oh, I’d say Pearl has real friendly feelin’s toward her pappy, Dick,” laughed Lum.
“Why, shore she does and why wouldn’t she?” demanded a confused Abner. “Pearl likes her papa jest fine! Who says she don’t?”
“Nobody says anything of the sort, Abner. Simmer down. Dick said he told Squire the tickets would go to Elizabeth, Pearl, and a friend of Pearl’s. He meant you!” explained Lum to a still perplexed-looking Abner. “He didn’t want to say yer name or he wouldn’t git the tickets neither, so he said a friend of Pearl’s.”
“Well, which friend of Pearl’s is she wantin’ to take instead of me?” asked Abner, getting a bit riled himself.
“She ain’t taken a friend, Abner. Dick jest said that—”
“Now you calling Dick a liar, Lum? Well that don’t seem right. Dick wouldn’t lie or anything. Never knew him to,” Abner accused.
“Lum’s not callin’ me a liar, Abner. I told the Squire there’d be a friend of Pearl’s. You’re friendly toward Pearl, ain’t ya?” asked a very patient Dick Huddleston.
“I’m her daddy! Of course we’re friendly! How redikulus is that?”
Lum looks at the other grocer. “You might as well leave, Dick. I’ll try and ’splain it to him. It’ll be all right.”
“I do need to get back to my store,” Dick said slowly, looking back and forth between the two older gentlemen. “We can settle up later, Abner.”
“There ain’t nothing to settle, Dick. I’m a’comin’ to the show irregardless of who Pearl wants to bring!” said an all but defiant Abner.
“He don’t mean that, Abner. He means fer you to pay him fer the tickets later.”
“Well, if ’n I’m not goin’, that there friend of Pearl’s can jest pay!”
The phone rings a set number of rings and then falls silent. “I think that’s our ring, Abner,” said a relieved Lum.
“Hmm? Oh, yeah.” Abner shuffled over to the phone, mumbling to himself. “Hallo, Jot’em Down Store, Abner Peabody speakin’.”
At that moment Dick Huddleston took his leave of the small store as Abner cupped his hand over his exposed ear to try and hear the other party. “What’s that? A person-to-person call for a Mr. Larry Noble? Who’s he? Well, yes, ma’am, this here is the Jot’em Down Store, but there ain’t no Larry Noble here. What’s that? Shore I can take a message, jest a minit.” Abner pulls the receiver away from his ear and says to Lum, “Take this message down as I says it.” Abner goes back to the phone and says, “All right, go ta head! Uh huh! Uh huh!”
“Abner! Whot’s the message? All I’m a gittin’ is some uh huhs!” Abner waves him quiet as he nods his head into the phone.
“Yeah, yeah, I got that. Thankee!” Abner hangs up the phone and looks at Lum. “Well, ain’t that strange?”
“What’s the message? Or have ya forgot already?”
“Huh, no, I ain’t forgot it. The New York operator said for a Mr. Larry Noble to call his agent in Atlanter per his telegram.”
“What telegram?” asked Lum.
“I don’t know because we don’t know no Larry Noble.” The phone rings its combination of rings again. “Hallo, Jot’em Down—huh?” asked an interrupted Abner. “Well, hi there, Miz Hanks. Yeah, that was a New York operator. I could tell by her akscent. They talk funny up there. Hmmm? Was you listen’ on the party line? No, that were our ring—hmm? Yes’em, she said Larry Noble. He is? Well, mebbe so, then. Uh huh, goodbye now.”
“Abner, what in tarnation is going on? Whot were them calls about?”
“Well, the first one was jest whot I said—somethin’ about this Noble guy. But Miz Hanks called, you know Monty Hanks’ wohman? She was listenin’ on the pary line, sez she thought it was her ring, but you know whot a gossip she can be and all. I remember Elizabeth sayin’ she—”
“Abner, we all know how Miz Hanks is, what did she say?” Lum asked in that tone he got when he was just stretched to the limit. Abner knew the tone and decided to answer directly.
“She says this Larry Noble feller is a big Broadway acter in New York City, and she figgers he’s coming here with Cornie’s play.”
“Okay, but I got ’nother question,” Lum said, scratching his head.
“Whot’s that, Lum?”
“What’s an agent?”
“We’ve stopped, Mary,” observed Larry. “Driver, driver! Why have we stopped in the middle of nowhere?”
Mary looked out the window and saw Hiram Bloom, the show’s producer and principal backer, standing in the road with a group of people talking. Larry also saw them and climbed over her, heading out of the bus to find out what he could. Mary followed, hoping to keep Larry calm in his current state. Once outside, Mary saw the large convoy of busses and trucks carrying the cast and crew on their trek through America’s heartland.
People up and down the line got out of their vehicles, stretching their legs. Up ahead Mary saw Larry approaching Mr. Bloom and the author of the play, a young man named Neil Kalb, talking with several of the drivers.
As she approached, she could hear Larry calling out in his largest stage voice, “Bloom, what in creation is going on here?”
Hiram Bloom, while new to the Broadway scene, was an old hand at defusing angry employees. So this was Broadway, schmoadway, it’s all dealing with employees and getting them to do what you want. “How are you, Larry, Mary?” Mr. Bloom nodded and smiled that fake smile Mary hadn’t trusted since the first day.
“Oh, we’re fine Mr. Bloom.”
Larry would not be put off. “Why have we stopped here—wherever here really is, because this isn’t Georgia, is it?” Mary noted the wave of her husband’s hand indicating a road sign that read: “Bug Tussle 50 miles, Pine Ridge 10 miles.”
Since she was hired as both secretary and bookkeeper for the tour, thereby saving two salaries because she was Larry’s wife and they wouldn’t have to pay her, she had studied the route they were to travel. Mary was sure she would have remembered names like Bug Tussle on the maps she had.
“We’re having engine trouble with one of the trucks and need to get to a garage fast as we can,” said Mr. Bloom in an all too calm a voice and a too rehearsed manner. “It’s fortunate we’re close to Neil’s hometown of Pine Ridge. He tells me we can make the necessary repairs there.”
“How long will this delay us getting into Atlanta?” demanded Larry.
“Only a few days. It’ll give you extra time to go over the changes before we open in Atlanta. Wouldn’t want a repeat of Cincinnati, would we?” Mr. Bloom smiled as Larry became livid.
“I did not forget my lines in Cincinnati. I was giving a dramatic pause. Doesn’t anyone in this company know a dramatic pause when they see it?”
“Of course, Larry. Still, we’ll have a rehearsal in Pine Ridge tonight.” And with that, Hiram Bloom turned his back on Larry Noble, dismissing the star. Mary hurried after her husband, back to their bus with the other actors. But something was bothering her about this unexpected breakdown.
“Do you think he’s buying this story?” asked Neil Kalb, the play’s author.
“I don’t care. We keep him away from Atlanta or we lose him before New York,” Hiram Bloom said. “The future of this enterprise, my dear Cornie, is centered on Larry Noble. My other partners were willing to risk money on an unproven writer only if a confirmed Broadway star was in the cast. He’s expensive and difficult sometimes, but he does fill the seats. And he has an out in his contract if there is a movie offer. When I saw that telegram from his agent—well, that could be trouble.”
In the bus Mary looked through the bookkeeping register, vaguely remembering something she saw in Cincinnati. Larry was fuming in the seat beside her, but she found what she was looking for at last.
“Larry, darling, look at this.” Mary tried showing the books to her husband.
“I’m going to miss the chance of a lifetime all because of engine trouble,” lamented Larry.
“No, look at this. It didn’t make sense in Cincinnati but now it may,” said Mary, shoving ledgers in front of him. “Look at this. These entries in the ledger were made yesterday before we left for Atlanta.”
“So there are new figures for travel. This proves what?”
“They increased the budget for travel and lodging before they left Cincinnati. It’s as if they knew we’d be out on the road longer. But how could they?”
Larry looked at the ledger in frustration. “What is Bloom playing at anyway?”
Back at the Jot’em Down Store, word of the theatrical company’s arrival was spreading as Cedrick Wehunt came into the store and found Lum on the phone and Abner in his rocker.
“Yes’um, we’ve heard they stopped about ten miles out,” Lum said into the phone. “Yes, it’s real excitin’ and all. Yes’m, terrible shame about Cornie’s grandmother.”
“Oh, you’ve heared it already,” Cedric said in a low voice so as not to disturb Lum.
“About the play people bein’ just round the bend? Shore. The party line’s been on fire ever since Tolly Morgan saw them through the woods on his huntin’ trip,” explained Abner. “He must’ve run hisself pert near ta death ta get the word out so fast.”
“Yes’um. His wife said he came barrelin’ through the woods so fast she thought he was being chased by a bear or somethin’. Say, what’s that Mr. Lum is saying about Cornie’s grandmother?” asked Cedric.
“Huh? Oh, I don’t know. I got tired of talkin’ on the party line, and Lum took over in case somethin’ important was bein’ said.” Abner turned to Lum and called out, “Say, Lum, what’s that about Cornie’s grandmother? Thought she was daid already.”
“Hush Abner—what’s that Miz Collins? No mam, I wasn’t tellin’ you to hush, I was tellin’ Abner to hush and he—what’s that? Yes, ma’am, he’s a talker, all right. Hmm? Yes, ma’am, I’ll tell him that. Bye now.” Lum hung up and walked over to his partner’s side. “Miz Collins says yer rude ta intrerrupt a conversation like that. But thankee either ways, ’cause my ear was ’bout turnin’ into collie-flour fore long.”
“Well, Lum, that’s the most ridikalous thing I’ve heared you say in a while. How could yer ear turn into collie-flour? Have you ever seen a ear turn into a vegetable, Cedric?”
“Abner, I didn’t say m’ear was turnin’ into a vegetable—”
“Now, Lum, I plainly heared you say that, didn’t he Cedric?” Cedric looked at the two friends and made a decision.
“What was that you was sayin’ about Cornie’s grandmother, Mr. Lum?”
“Oh, Miz Collins was jest sayin’ how sad it were that Grandma Cobb ain’t alive to see Cornie’s sucksess,” Lum explained. “But even if she were here, she wouldn’t believe it.”
“She wouldn’t, huh?” asked Abner.
“Well, who wouldda thought a boy with a name of Cornelious Cobb would grow up and writ a play about his hometown and all?” asked Lum.
“Is thet what the play’s about, Mr. Lum? Here ’bouts?” asked a now interested Cedric.
“I spectalate that’s it. Why else would Cornie be bringing his play through here? I figger he wants ta get some of what they call local color for the play,” said Lum.
“Local color? Why it’s already in color, Lum. This ain’t no movin’picture. People’re live up there on the stage and in color,” offered Abner.
“Thet’s not whut I ment—” argued Lum.
“Less a course they put on make-up and make themselfs black and white, but I cain’t figger why’d they do thet,” finished Abner.
“All I was a sayin’ was that the play is called ‘The Southern Gent’man’ and since it’s been a while since Cornie was around here, he’s a needin’ to refresh hisself on how it all is ’bout here.”
“Hmm, yeah, that do sound right. But ifn it’s about here then mebbe Squire Skimp is right and he’ll be in it,” Abner said.
“Is Squire Skimp in the play, Mr. Abner?” asked an ever more confused Cedric with the direction of the conversation. “I never knowed he did any actin’.”
“Abner jest meant that the Squire was a boastin’ that Cornie probly writ his play about him since he used to work fer the Squire,” offered Lum.
“Oh, I remember now. Cornie worked to pay the rent, didn’t he?”
“My, yes, the Squire used to take ’vantage of thet boy somethin’ fearce. I ’member ’Lizabeth bein’ awfull upset seein’ the boy run errands for the Squire day and night. Day and night,” Abner added for emphasis.
“Doc Withers said the boy was thin and sickly and needin’ dosin’ of Horlick’s Malted Milk Powder and Tablets jest ’bout ever day,” offered Lum.
“Then why would Cornie writ a play about ’im?” asked Cedric.
“That would be the question, Cedric. That would be the question.”
“We’ve stopped again, Larry. We must be in Pine Ridge already,” Mary said as she was gathering her bags.
“This doesn’t look like much of a place, Mary. I don’t even see a garage anyplace close,” Larry said as he opened the bus window farther and leaned out. “Or a hotel for that matter. Just a building with livery written over it, but it does have a gas pump. Oh, Mary this is just terrible. I’ve got to find a phone right away!”
“Abner Peabody, you git yerself right back in here!” called out Lum from the front of the Jot’em Down Store. “Yer actin’ silly. Theys jest people!” Lum was closing the screen door and shaking his head when a tall, darkhaired man barreled past him and into the store.
“Is there a phone in this place?” asked an exasperated Larry Noble.
“Yessir, over on the wall there—” started Lum, but Larry was already grabbing for the phone and yelling into the horn. “Operator! Operator! I need to place a collect call to New York. What? Yes, New York City. Where else? Yes, to the Zoller-Hoffman Agency at Main 247. Yes, I’ll wait.”
Abner came in and looked over at the phone. “Who’s thet, Lum?”
“I don’t know. One of the play people, I recken, but he’s in a big hurry callin’ New York and all.” Both partners were so engrossed in watching Larry they failed to see Mary Noble struggling with a large burlap bag coming into the store until the screen door snapped shut, causing all three men to jump and look.
“Oh, ma’am, here, let me hep you with thet,” offered Lum. “Abner, take her bag there.”
Abner took the heavy load and nearly toppled over from the unexpected weight. “I don’t see how a small thing like you got this bag inta here atoll.”
“Oh, thank you so much. Mr. Bloom gave the mail for the company, and I need a place to sort it. They say our hotel isn’t quite ready yet,” explained Mary.
“Sorter right cheer on the counter top, Miss. We ain’t too busy right now. Jest that feller over there.”
“That’s my husband, Larry Noble. I’m Mary,” she offered her hand, and Lum reached over Abner to shake it.
“I’m Lum Edderds, president of this here establishment, and that there is my partner Abner Peabody.”
“Nice to meet ya, I’m sher,” stammered Abner. “Are you an actatress with the play people?”
“Me? Oh, no. But my husband, Larry, is one of the actors.”
“Say, did you say he was Larry Noble?” asked Lum.
“Yes, that’s him. Have you seen any of his work?”
“No, ma’am, but we got the strangest phone call fer him today,” Lum said.
“Phone call? Here? From who?”
“Werllssir, it was from someone called an agent in New York, and he was to call this agent in Atlanta per the telegram,” recited Abner.
“What telegram?” asked a perplexed Mary.
“We don’t know, mam, that’s all was said. Did someone send you a telegram from where’s you were stayin’ before?” offered Lum.
“No, but Larry was expecting a telegram or a phone call in Cincinnati. We left without anyone contacting him.”
All three are drawn to an angry, exasperated Larry Noble on the phone, “What do you mean they won’t accept a collect call from me? He’s where? Atlanta? AHHHHHH!” Larry threw down the phone and looked up into the startled faces of Lum, Abner and his wife Mary.
“My agent’s in Atlanta!”
“That’s what the message said!” Abner smiled at the desperate actor but Larry only growled.
“Larry, your agent called here earlier today and left you a message saying to call him in Atlanta per the telegram,” Mary started calmly.
“What telegram? What number is he at? How far are we from Atlanta?”
“That one I can answer fer ya. Yer a good two day’s ride from here in a car, ifn ya push it,” reported Lum.
“Bloom! Bloom! Where’s Bloom?” yelled Larry as he left the store in a dead run.
“I’m very sorry for all of this. Larry isn’t usually like this, really, but he’s been under a strain with the play and all,” Mary apologized.
“Oh, shur that’s fine, but he do need to calm down a bit,” observed Lum.
“Lum? Abner? Are you guys here?” called out a voice as a young man came through the door.
“Cornie? Cornie? Is that you? By golly, it is him, Lum!”
“Cornie?” asked Mary.
“Oh, Mrs. Noble, I—well, you’re all going to find out that Neil Kalb was born Corneilious Cobb, known as Cornie to one and all in Pine Ridge, Arkansas,” announced the young man. “This is my home town.”
“And we’re mighty proud of ya, boy! We was jest sayin’ how we shor thought a lot of yer grandma and how proud she’d be right now!” smiled Lum as he patted the young man on the back. Mary suddenly saw the change in Neil, and he was again the little boy called Cornie.
“Yes, she’d be proud. And I hope others will be, too, after tonight.”
“Tonight?” asked Mary.
“Well, that rehearsal Hiram was talking about is a performance here tonight!”
“Yessir, right there in the high school audiotorium! Tickets went like wild fire when folks found out,” laughed Lum.
“And just when did they find this out?” asked Mary, growing suspicious.
“Oh, day afore yesterday, weren’t it, Lum?”
“Yessir, a phone call was made to the high school and people got on the party line and announced the preemare of ‘The Southern Gent’man’ by Cornie here hisself.”
“Mr. Bloom intercepted a telegram for Larry in Cincinnati, didn’t he?” Mary wasn’t really asking the young man because his own sheepish look told her everything.
“Oh, Mrs. Noble, Larry can’t leave the show. It’d close if he does and this means too much to me and to Hiram too,” pleaded Cornie. Both Lum and Abner looked from one to the other as it became clear something is going on here.
“Why would yer husband leave the show, Mrs. Noble?”
“We’re supposed to be in Atlanta by now, at least according to our original schedule,” explained Mary as she reasoned out the truth. “I suspect that Mr. Bloom got that telegram from Larry’s agent they mentioned on the phone to you, Mr. Peabody—”
“Oh, you can call me Abner, Mrs. Noble.”
“Don’t interrupt, Abner—go on, Mrs. Noble.”
“Well, Mr. Bloom probably saw the item in Variety about Gone With the Wind’s director holding interviews in Atlanta and deduced Larry’s agent had arranged a meeting. Is that right, Neil?” asked Mary. Neil shook his head and didn’t look at Mary directly.
“What in Gone With the Wind would yer husband play?” asked Abner.
“He was to discuss Rhett Butler with Mr. Cukor in Atlanta.”
“Rhett Butler?” asked Lum. “Ain’t Gable playin’ him?”
“Oh, please, Mr. Edwards, don’t let Larry hear you say that!”
Later that evening in the quiet of their hotel room, Larry was still pacing back and forth, frustrated, angry and not anywhere near ready for sleep. Mary was at a small vanity table brushing her hair and watching her husband in the mirror.
“Well, this has been quite a day and an evening, hasn’t it Larry?”
“If I could get out of here now and leave this disastrous play and circumstance, I would just walk away,” sighed Larry. “How can I ever trust Bloom again? And tonight!”
“Well, it is kind of funny, Larry. You’d have to admit that.”
“Funny? What was funny about an old man in a white suit chasing me with a shotgun through the high school auditorium?”
“He didn’t even come close to hitting you. What was his name again?”
“Oh, Squire something or other. Apparently it took him until the beginning of the second act to realize the character I was playing was based on him.” Mary choked back a giggle as she remembered the yelling and screaming and threats coming from the old, but spry, southern gentleman. “And this, Mary, this was the topper!” Larry waved a slip of paper in his hand. “The telegram from Atlanta telling me that they signed Gable! If we had gotten to Atlanta on time it might have all worked out!”
“Didn’t MGM offer you another role?”
“Yes, but, Mary, I turned them down flat!”
“Why. What was the movie?”
“Some adaptation of a children’s book, Wizard of Somewhat!”
“The Wizard of Oz? Was that it?” asked Mary, turning to look at her husband. “Oh, Larry, that’s to be a big budget musical, possibly with Shirley Temple. And the book is wonderful. I read it as a child.”
“I’m better off with the play,” said Larry holding up the quilt for Mary to slide under. “After all, it’s a kid’s movie, Mary. Who will ever remember that one?”
And with that Larry Noble leaned over and kissed his wife and for the first time that day relaxed.
Published by Bear Manor Media
©2006 All Rights Reserved
For more information go to beanrmanormedia.com
Mary Noble: A Backwoods Life with Lum and Abner
©2006 John Leasure
The following is an original short story written for an anthology featuring stories written within the time period of the original broadcast years. Ma Perkins was a popular radio soap opera that was both well written and acted. It stood above many shows in all dayparts because they killed off a main character during World War II. Producers refused to ever “bring John back from the dead” as was common practice then and now in soap opera. With this in mind, I wrote a story based on an idea my Mom and Dad recounted about a family in Wellston during WW II. They received a letter from their son two weeks after being told he died. I wondered what they went through and this is the result:
IT’S THAT TIME AGAIN: NEW STORIES OF OLD-TIME RADIO
An Anthology edited by Ben Ohmart
MA PERKINS: The Letter from John
by John Leasure
Early morning in Rushville Center found the town’s only mailman, George Evans, beginning his day with a sense of mission. The Letter had finally come and he had decided to change his route so as to start closer to the Perkins home. He would catch Ma Perkins before she left for the Perkins Lumber Yard on the opposite end of the small town. He knew how important this letter would be to the newest Gold Star Mother in Rushville Center. He knew because of his own personal pain.
His son Edgar, a bright boy in school, had been lost in the Pacific war a year ago. He knew the pain Ma, as everyone in town called the Perkins widow, was feeling. She had mentioned to him after the news had arrived that John always wrote on a regular schedule. Ma had calculated that there might be one or two last letters yet to come. A few weeks had passed and no letter. But sorting through today’s mail, there it was.
Edgar had not been much of a letter writer, which always held a certain irony for the mailman. But he would have given much for one more letter; one last bit of Edgar’s thoughts before… before what happened happened. So a little earlier start and a bit out of his way and Evans would feel better with The Letter out of his hands and with Ma Perkins.
He cut across the lawn, walking past the front porch of the Perkins house, taking note that the Blue Star Flag still hung in the window untouched. Well, everyone comes to the task in his own time.
A blue star on a rectangular flag was the symbol of a family member serving his country in this awful war. Families hung these themselves with pride and a sense of duty. There were stars denoting wounded and missing in action. It was the gold star that generally stopped everyone who saw it hanging. The gold star told all of the greatest sacrifice made by the family behind the flag. It had taken his wife a few weeks before she sewed the gold star over the blue hanging in their own window. Yes, he knew what the Perkins family was going through.
This early he knew Ma, and maybe her daughter Fay, would be making breakfast before the start of their day. The large family kitchen was at the back of the house and Mr. Evans stopped a moment before approaching the back porch. It would do no good to have his own tears get in the way of his duty. He pulled his handkerchief from his back pocket, wiped his eyes and blew his nose. He couldn’t offer Ma any of the platitudes offered him by well meaning friends. No, the pain didn’t go away. And time, at least one year of time, had not made the boy’s passing any easier. Evans and his wife were able to hide the grief better, but the feelings were still there, the hurt still palpable.
With a heavy sigh and a renewed sense of purpose Evans sprinted up the back porch steps. He smiled in spite of himself because the smell of fresh bread baking and possibly fresh sweet rolls came to his nostrils as he rapped his knuckles on the wooden screen door. There were benefits to starting with the Perkins home.
The knock at the door made Fay jump. She turned from taking the sweet rolls out of the oven and stared at the door. Who would be knocking at the back door this time of the morning? Fay looked up at the wall clock. It was still a little too early for Shuffle to stop by for a morning coffee with Ma. Anyway, Shuffle would have just walked on in as would her sister Evey, or just about anyone else they knew. Everyone seemed to feel they were always welcome at the Perkins home and there was no need for such formalities. So the knock on the door probably was bad news. Fay placed the baking dish of sweet rolls on the sink sideboard to cool a bit and slowly wiped her hands on her apron. What other bad news could there be? Wasn’t the news of John enough? There was another incessant succession of raps on the door. Well, whoever it was wasn’t going away. With a deep breath, and an even deeper sense of dread, Fay opened the back door.
“Mornin’ Fay, is Ma around?” The smell of fresh baked sweet rolls—and Evans had decided the smell of cinnamon meant sweet rolls—all but knocked him over as Fay propped open the wooden screen door with her shoulder.
“No, she’s already gone,” said Fay, looking a bit perplexed and worried. “They called from the dairy last night and wondered if we could return John’s uniforms. Rationing seems to have hit everywhere and they needed the extras of John’s. Can I help you?”
It seemed to Fay as if all the air let out of the mailman. His shoulders sagged and his shoulder bag dropped to the porch. Fay reached out to steady the man.
“Come on in and have a cup of coffee and a sweet roll, Mr. Evans. It’s early yet.”
The Perkins Lumber Yard dominated their end of town. It was a traditional lumber yard, but Ma had placed some household goods and hardware items along with camping and fishing equipment in the front of the store a while back. Diversification. She had read about it in a book and thought it a good idea.
Shuffle Shober had thought it silly but kept it to himself rather than make a big deal over it with his friend, Ma Perkins. Willie Fitz, however, had not been silent. He complained every time he had to dust the extra merchandise. But Ma ignored her son-in-law’s comments and with the coming of war the extra goods and services instituted by Ma had been a good move. There was less and less need for building materials as the war wore on but people needed to repair and replace things. Coffee pots, fishing poles, hammers and nails had all helped to keep the family business open and even prosperous during these lean years. Shuffle laughed as he dusted the coffee pots this morning.
Yessiree. Ma Perkins knew her business all right. And it was all the more surprising since she had come to business late in her life. Pa’s death had forced her to work the family business and continue to raise her family and provide for them.
There was Evey, John and Fay. All three were the pride of Ma Perkins, surely. But as surely they could also try the patience of Job. The three of them could fight like the dickens and say the most hurtful things. But Shuffle never heard Ma complain, or even raise her voice in anger. He knew that even though the three children were now adults, there were still problems from time to time.
The news about John had been particularly hard for Ma and those closest to her. How do you console someone over the loss of a child? Regardless of the age of the child, a mother shouldn’t have to bury her young. And even that wasn’t possible for Ma. John’s body was buried somewhere in Europe, unknown and unmarked. There had been a fine memorial service and a headstone in the family burial plot bore John’s name. But somehow it didn’t feel finished even to Shuffle, and he wasn’t family.
The jangling bell over the front door brought Shuffle back to himself. He glanced at the clock. It was still early.
“Is that you, Willie?”
“Who else would it be this early, Shuffle?” came the slow, world-weary voice of Willie Fitz. “Fay called over to the house and Evey insisted I get right on over here. I haven’t even had a proper breakfast yet, Shuffle.”
“Well, Sweet Jerusalem, Willie. What’s all so important to get you over here so early?” asked Shuffle, a bit worried now. “Ma’s okay, ain’t she?”
“Ma’s fine, but she may not be when she hears the news,” Willie took a long draw of coffee before finishing his sentence, much to Shuffle’s exasperation.
“What news, Willie? Ya said Fay called, so it ain’t her. Did Ma leave the house already?”
“Yeah. Ma took John’s extra uniforms over to the dairy. They called last night wantin’ ‘em.”
Shuffle waited for the young man to go on and had to resist reaching over and shaking the news out of him. Shuffle knew Willie had to tell the story in his own way and time. The older man poured himself another coffee as Willie settled into Ma’s desk chair, putting his feet up on the desk to tell what he knew.
“Mr. Evans shows up at Ma’s practically before dawn. Scared Fay half to death. She was sure it was bad news bangin’ at the back door.” Willie drained his cup and with a satisfied ‘ah’ sat it down on the desk.
“And was it, Willie?” asked Shuffle.
“Bad news. Was it bad news? Tarnation, Willie, finish the dang story.”
“Okay, okay. Mr. Evans had a letter from John. Said Ma had told ‘em she was expectin’ one last letter. He brought it over first thing.”
Shuffle heaved a big sigh. “That shore was nice of him. Ma was grateful and she’s gonna be late today. Is that why you rushed over here so early?”
“No, Shuffle. Didn’t ya hear me?” asked a somewhat put-out Willie. “I said Ma took John’s uniforms over to the dairy. She wasn’t home when Mr. Evans got there. Evey sent me over here to tell Ma that the letter is comin’ so she don’t miss Mr. Evans over here.”
Both men looked up at the clock. When would Ma Perkins arrive at the lumber yard and how would she take the news of the letter?
On a normal and concentrated walk, you could cross the whole of Rushville Center in twenty minutes. But on his mail route it took George Evans nearly all day to walk the town. The Perkins Lumber Yard was usually last on his route. That was why he had started early in trying to deliver John’s letter to Ma first. But circumstances had conspired against him and he had missed Ma at the Perkins home.
Fay had been kind enough to give him one or two of her fresh-baked sweet rolls and she wouldn’t take the letter either. She was firm that Ma be the one to receive it and read it first. Fay was honest enough to tell Evans she wasn’t sure she could refrain from opening the letter herself. She even understood why he had to start his regular route and surely it would be in the afternoon before he reached the lumber yard.
Evans stopped a moment and sorted through his shoulder bag. He was approaching the Pendleton home and he knew better than to wait until he got in front of the house to gather their mail. No one in town took as many magazines as the Pendletons. And no one received as much mail as them either. Augustus Pendleton was the town’s banker, which placed his wife, Matilda, and their snooty daughter at the top of Rushville Center’s social ladder, making them equally as important, at least to hear them tell it.
He sorted through his satchel and realized the four magazines and little package meant he was going to have to knock on their door rather than leave the mail in the box on the post outside the picket fence which surrounded the large house and yard. He sighed as he opened the gate. There would be no kind invitations here.
Evans had hardly stepped one foot on the porch when the front door flew open and Matilda Pendleton, in a bathrobe and with curlers in her hair, came flying out of the house. The shocked mailman knew the woman was talking but was so taken aback by the sight of her that it took a moment for it to sink in a bit.
“Evey Fitz called and told me about the letter. Augustus says Ma Perkins is at the bank now and wanted me to tell you to hold on until he gets here.”
The mailman handed Matilda Pendleton her mail in shocked silence as he heard tires screeching behind him. There was the Pendleton Packard suddenly pulled up in front of the house. Augustus bolted out of the car shouting to the mailman, but still it wasn’t sinking in to Evans what was going on. Why were the Pendletons involved and what had this to do with Ma Perkins? The he saw her.
“Good morning, Mr. Evans,” came the calm, sweet voice of Ma Perkins as she made her way from the car to the porch. “Banker Pendleton tells me you have something for me that can’t wait.”
“Yes, well, when Matilda called the bank and there was Ma Perkins picking up the day’s cash box for the lumber yard, it seemed silly to have her wait until this afternoon when you got around delivering to there,” blustered the breathless and self-satisfied banker.
Evans suddenly didn’t care why Matilda Pendleton was hovering so over his shoulder. He dug in his satchel and pulled out the much-discussed letter.
I came by your house early this mornin’ to deliver this letter to you, Ma,” began the mailman, “I knew you were waitin’ for it.”
“Well, land sakes, Mr. Evans, it must be important to have you come out of your way like that,” Ma said as she took the letter from the shaking mailman. It was then she recognized the handwriting and she looked into the eyes of George Evans. “Thank you so very much.”
“I—I thought it was somthin’ you needed to get as soon as possible,” said Matilda, pushing the mailman aside.
“No, no thanks, please. Just doing what we can to help others in their time of need,” offered Augustus.
“And I appreciate all of you doin’ what you done. I really do,” said Ma as she put the letter, unopened, into her purse. “Did Fay give you some of her sweet rolls, Mr. Evans?”
“She sure did, Ma,” smiled Evans as he noted the disappointed looks on both Pendleton faces.
“Well, aren’t ya going to open and read the letter?” asked a bold Matilda.
“Not right now, dear. I want to read it with the family tonight after dinner. I think that’s only right, don’t you, Augustus?”
“Of course it is, Ma. Of course it is. Well, let me take you on out to the lumber yard,” offered the banker.
“If you don’t mind, I’d rather walk to the lumber yard. It’s such a pretty mornin’, ain’t it, Mr. Evans?’
“That it is, Ma. That it is. We can at least walk to end of the block together.”
“I’d like that, Mr. Evans. I’d like that very much.”
Both of the Pendletons stood and watched the two make their way down the street. “You’d better call Evey and tell her, Matilda.”
“Tell her what? She’s gonna know what’s in the letter before I do!” Matilda turned with a swirl of her bathrobe, leaving her husband alone on his own doorstep.
Shuffle tapped the last of the old tobacco out of his pipe on the railing of the Perkins front porch. He could still hear Evey Fitz rattle on from the kitchen about how disappointed Matilda Pendleton was she didn’t hear the letter first. The woman’s laugh was enough to set a man’s teeth on edge as she stated with delight that she just might keep the contents of John’s letter secret until the next meeting of the Jolly Seventeen, the young woman’s social club presided over by Matilda Pendleton with Evey as the Vice-President.
“What do you think is in the letter, Shuffle?” asked Willie for the umpteenth time that day. The family friend scooped a bit of fresh tobacco from his pouch, tamped it down with his thumb, lit a match and took a long draw on the pipe before answering,
“I don’t know, Willie. Probably nothing more than is usual for a letter home.”
“Mebbe. But it is still a bit creepy and all,” offered Ma Perkins’ son-in-law. “Coming after his being killed and all.”
Shuffle was just about to give Willie a caution about saying something like that in front of Ma when Fay appeared at the front door, “Wash up you two, dinner is just about ready.”
The old friend smiled at Fay, a pretty young woman, who many in town called “the sweet one” behind Evey’s back. Still, Shuffle knew how headstrong Fay could be about any number of things. He also knew she had experience with loss and death. Fay’s husband, Paul Henderson, had died a few years ago, leaving the young widow to raise their child, Paulette, alone.
Though Fay was financially secure, it was Shuffle’s opinion that Fay was looking too hard for happiness in the person of a husband and father for the little girl. Fay’s trust and love had not been placed in the right man yet. Still, he knew the young woman had the strength to take most anything life could hand her, since she was the daughter of the strongest, as well as the kindest, of women, Ma Perkins herself.
“You comin’, Shuffle? Or are you just gonna sit there starin’ into nothin’?” prodded Willie.
“I was just thinkin’ there, Willie,” Shuffle said as he knocked the ash from his pipe. “I was thinkin’ how good that chicken smells in there.”
Ma Perkins said the prayer after all present had taken their places around the dining room table. Shuffle noted the good dinnerware reserved for Thanksgiving, Christmas, weddings or funerals. It didn’t pass Evey’s notice either.
“Well, aren’t we bein’ fancy tonight with the good china and all,” observed Evey, holding up the silver fork of her place setting.
“Oh, I don’t think of it as bein’ fancy, Evey. Just a special evening among friends and family,” Ma said, ending all discussion of the table setting. “Mr. Evans said he enjoyed your sweet rolls this morning, Fay.”
Fay blushed and told the story how frightened the knock on the door made her and then how strangely Mr. Evans had acted when he heard Ma wasn’t home. When the conversation lagged a bit Ma asked Evey about the Jolly Seventeen’s new community project. Infused by the question and a captive audience, Evey regaled the family and Shuffle with talk of their plans for the coming year.
Ma looked about the table, satisfied that the most important people in her life were with her and would be present to hear John’s letter. It had not been an effort not to read the letter. In fact Ma was aware that all of this, the dinner and such, was a way to delay the reading. Ma rose as Fay and Evey began to gather the dishes and clear the table. “Why don’t we all go into the livin’ room,” Ma said as brightly as she could. “We’ll all be more comfortable in there.”
“What about the dishes, Ma?” asked Evey.
“They’ll be there afterwards, child,” Ma said as she herself went into the living room.
Evey and Fay looked at each other, shrugged their shoulders and followed the rest of the group into the large, but cozy, front room of the Perkins home. Ma was sitting in her rocking chair. She reached into her sewing basket on the floor beside her and took the letter in hand. She adjusted her glasses and carefully opened the envelope.
“Dear Ma,” began the letter.
“What’s the date, Ma?” asked Evey, as Fay shushed her.
“It’s been blacked out, Evey, so you can’t read the date,” Ma said as she searched the letter briefly for some other date. “There’s some other places blacked out along the letter too.”
“You mean someone else has read this letter?” asked an incredulous Evey.
“It’s war, Evey,” said Willie. “You know, ‘Loose lips sink ships.’”
“But Johnny wasn’t on a ship,” said a somewhat bewildered Evey.
“Why don’t I just read the letter and mebbe we can piece together dates and places later,” Ma said as she smoothed the letter and began again.
“Dear Ma: How are things in Rushville Center? I never ever thought I would miss my hometown as much as I do. I even miss Fay, but you don’t need to tell her that.”
There was the titter of nervous laughter as everyone remembered the huge fights John and Fay would have over just about everything. Fay tried to dab at her eyes without drawing too much attention to herself.
“I cannot believe I am where I am sometimes. I have seen and been in places that I only knew from Mrs. Adkins’ geography class. But I have seen none of the grandeur she talked about. I have seen rubble and all but total destruction everywhere. Between both sides, there will be little left of the Old World, as Mrs. Adkins called it. Perhaps we of the new world will be able to help the old rebuild and replenish once this war is over. And it will be over, Ma. I don’t think very soon, but I cannot imagine the other side being able to stand…”
“Land sakes, there is a whole section here blacked out.” Ma squinted a bit and could not read through the black.
She continued, “We are pressing further and further....” And more black oh, here is more of the letter…” And Ma continued: “But what keeps us going, what makes this all worthwhile is that whenever we come into a city or village the people cheer as they realize it is Americans and the Allies. Sometimes the only English word they know is freedom and they say it with tears in their eyes. At the end of a terrible battle when there is nothing but the smell of death and dying in the air, it is that one word of English that can keep us going. Freedom. Please give Paulette and Junior a hug and a kiss for me. I see the children here no older than them and I understand that I am here to prevent this kind of destruction at home. I am here to make sure my niece and nephew and maybe my own children will not have to experience this terrible pain called war. I pray that this is what they call the last great war, the war to end all wars. I cannot imagine the world surviving this again. I need you to understand, Ma, that I know why I need to be here. I understand and have no regrets regardless what may happen. Also know that you raised me well and I work hard everyday to make you, Evey and Fay and the rest of the family proud of me. I hope to be able to hug you and give you a big kiss when I get home. But if that is not to be, know that my love for all of you will be undying and forever.
Love to one all, John
P.S. Tell Shuffle I’ve become quite good at poker and I have one or two things to show him when I get home.”
Both Evey and Fay went over to their mother and knelt and hugged her at the same time. “It’s a good letter, Ma,” Fay offered.
“And it sounds just like him,” Evey said. “I swear I could almost hear his voice while you were reading it.”
“Yes, it sounds just like John. But I may have to talk to Shuffle about corrupting the young man with poker.” Ma gave her friend a sly grin.
“Now, Ma…” began Shuffle. “I can tell you for certain, Ma, that it was John more times than not who won at cards,” said Willie.
“Oh? And how would you know, Willie Fitz?” asked Evey, with hands on her hips and trying not to laugh.
“Ya done it now, Willie,” said Shuffle with a guffaw, causing everyone in the room to laugh.
Laughter, they say, is healing. If that is true, then the family and friends of Ma Perkins healed themselves that evening as they shared memories of John Perkins in ways they hadn’t been able to since the news of his death. Finally the laughter died down and Fay saw the clock on the wall.
“Well, we still have a table full of dishes to do in there, Evey.”
“Why don’t Willie and me give you a hand there, ladies?” said Shuffle, making his way to the kitchen.
“I swear, Shuffle, we do this now and they’ll jest expect it all the time,” whined Willie.
“It wouldn’t hurt you to help in the kitchen once in a blue moon, Willie Fitz,” snapped Evey.
“We’ll consider this a blue moon tonight, Willie,” offered Fay as she pushed her reluctant brother-in-law through the kitchen door.
Ma could hear the laughter and good-natured ribbing coming from the kitchen and it made her smile. Yes, John, this is the kind of an evening you died to protect and we are all grateful for it. But we’ll miss you, son.
She folded the letter and placed it in her sewing basket. There under the letter was a swatch of yellow cloth. Ma hesitated for a moment, then took it and carried it with her to the front window behind her chair. On her tip-toes she unhooked the Blue Star Flag, folded it and carried it to her chair. Slowly rocking back and forth, Ma stitched the yellow fabric, cut into a star, over the blue star on the flag. This was a job long overdue, but easier to do tonight than before.
“Yes,” Ma Perkins said to herself, “We’ll miss you, son.”
It’s That Time Again: New Stories of Old-Time Radio © 2002 Ben Ohmart
Published by BearManor Media
For more information go to beanrmanormedia.com
Ma Perkins: A Letter from John © 2002 John Leasure