S&R Fiction: "Theodore Roosevelt's Eyebrows," by Teresa Milbrodt


To live in North Dakota you must like driving. You must value a landscape where there is never much between you and the horizon. The four of us grew up here so space is second nature. We are accustomed to towns such as Lost Point—six hundred people, a grocery store, a gas station, a bank, and a motel with one of those big orange flashing emergency road signs out front that no one uses because there are no road emergencies. The motel is full for two weeks every summer due to traffic to and from the Badlands and Montana rodeos. Fifteen or so years ago when we were still in high school we dreamed summer romances with young men from exotic places like Tampa and Fort Lauderdale, but we got sensible jobs at the bank and married people from here because everyone does.

The eyebrows, which might be considered our town’s only notable attraction, are not advertised in any tour book. Many who pass through don’t notice the wooden sandwich board outside the grocery store. Below the price for a two-liter of pop and a gallon of milk, it reads “See Theodore Roosevelt’s Eyebrow Hairs” in black block letters.

We admit that we don’t always look at the eyebrow hairs when we’re in the store because we’ve seen them so many times. They’re displayed in a small rough-hewn wooden frame on the wall behind the register, neatly arranged in the shape of two raised eyebrows on the white cardboard backing. The rest of the grocery is unremarkable–there’s a cooler for dairy products and another for drinks, shelves of crackers and chips and cookies and bread and lunchmeat, a rack of candy bars, and a basket of wrinkled apples.

Lenn owns the grocery, sits behind the counter and nods at us on Monday when we walk in to buy sandwiches and bags of chips for lunch. He’s thin and balding, has dark gray hair with lighter wisps around his ears. His eyes are hazel, a little sad, but he’s the kind of person who always looks sad.

Lenn’s grandfather knew Roosevelt, who was a deputy sheriff and a rancher here for two years. A few of our great-great-grandfathers knew Roosevelt as well, but they weren’t big talkers, didn’t pass on many stories, so Lenn is the only one who repeats those tales to our kids and the occasional tourist heading to Billings.

When he rings up our purchases, Lenn asks about our children. We say they’re fine, doing well in school. We discuss the unseasonable weather since it’s always oddly hot or cold or dry or wet. Just before leaving we cluster around the cash register and Phineas (who’s in charge of opening and closing new accounts) whispers to Lenn about a “For Sale” sign in front of another house on Main.

“A shame,” says Lenn.

“But of course you’d never consider leaving,” Phineas says to him.

Lenn shakes his head. We mirror him. We do not think about moving to larger towns because people here need banks, need to cash their checks, need to pay their mortgages, and need us to provide that service.

During our afternoon coffee break, Phineas says he heard Lenn might sell the eyebrows.

“Myrna at the gas station said there was a guy from Grand Forks in town the other day.” Phineas nods. “He drove a big white boat of a car and told her he offered to buy the eyebrows from Lenn. I bet he’d pay Lenn enough to retire and then some. If Lenn sold those eyebrows, he’d sell the store, too.”

We say we don’t believe the story because Myrna is the sort who likes to spread rumors, but when Phineas is in the main vault and no one is waiting in the lobby, the four of us discuss the matter in quiet voices. We agree that if the eyebrows leave town, so will Lenn. That little bit of history connects him to his grandpa and dad and all the people who used to be out here. But Lenn wouldn’t sell the eyebrows. Other folks wouldn’t appreciate them like we do. Helen says we should go question Myrna ourselves, but none of us want to do the talking.

That evening we return to the store to buy groceries for dinner. We watch Lenn for signs of discontent, but we don’t know what they’d look like. It’s just a rumor, but still we have a hard time sleeping. We can’t tell our husbands because we don’t want the story to go around, but in the morning we are grumpy and out of sorts when we get to work.

* * *

Lenn reprimands anyone who calls Roosevelt “Teddy.” His first wife Alice called him Teddy, and after she passed he wouldn’t let anyone else do that. His nickname was Teedie. From Lenn we know that Teedie was a young guy when he moved out to North Dakota, after Alice and his mother died within a day of each other. We understand why he came–country like this is good to help you put things in perspective, gives you so much work to do you forget everything else. We come from people who were not unlike Teedie, ones with wanderlust and a work ethic who left the old miseries of the east for the new miseries of the west. Back then North Dakota was a place for assorted wanderers, dreamers, mourners, and outlaws. Some say not much has changed.

If you ask Lenn for his favorite story about Teedie, he’ll tell you how three men stole Teedie’s boat after he moved out here. He caught up with them, sent the boat back with another man, and walked the bandits to town for trial. Teedie kept awake for forty hours reading Tolstoy, and when he was done with that he read a dime store western one of the outlaws had on his person. Teedie gave the novel back when they reached town and said he could write a better one. These are stories that make the eyebrows dear to us, that make Lenn dear to us. They remind us of the small ways we are special, the particular people who have lived here, although we are not as hardy as they, too accustomed to central air and heating.

But the Dakotas were hard on Teedie like they were hard on our great-great-grandparents, like they are hard on us. Teedie lost most of his money when all his cattle died within two years, so he returned to New York and politics. Our great-great-grandparents were luckier, managed to keep half or even three-quarters of their herds, enough to keep going. The ones like Teedie whose cattle died moved back east, resettled in Chicago and Cleveland and Pittsburgh. It’s likely their great-great-grandchildren are still there, breathing car exhaust and jockeying for parking spaces. We think about them every other week, our distant cousins, while we stare out the window to Main Street and wait for the next deposit or withdrawal or irate question about a monthly statement. People who work in Chicago banks do not understand sky. They do not understand space. They do not know smallness like we do. We feel sorry for them.

On Wednesday when we stop at the grocery to buy lunch, there is a big white car parked outside the shop. We can’t breathe for a moment. It must be the man from Grand Forks. But inside the store we find two young Hawaiian-shirted tourists standing by the register. We exhale deep relief while Lenn tells the tourists how his grandfather and Teedie had a correspondence even after Teedie was sent to the White House.

“The letters started the eyebrow-shaving bet,” Lenn says. When he talks he holds his hands slightly apart and looks at them intently as if the words of his story were materializing between his fingers.

He explains how Roosevelt was sure his simplified spelling plan would be a success with the American public. It would have changed the spelling of certain words to make them look more like how they were pronounced. Altho instead of although. Distrest instead of distressed. Rime instead of rhyme. Teedie sent out an order for many public documents to be printed using simplified spelling, but Lenn’s grandpa said he didn’t think it was a good idea.

“Grandpa told Teedie people would stick with what they knew,” says Lenn, “even if certain words were more difficult. So they made the bet. The loser had to shave his eyebrows. Of course folks hated simplified spelling. One day this wooden box got delivered to the store. Grandpa opened it and there were a whole bunch of hairs and a little picture of Teedie with no eyebrows.”

Lenn glances back to the framed eyebrows as if he expected them to change shape when he wasn’t looking. After a moment he starts talking again.

“On the night Teedie passed,” Lenn says, “my grandpa couldn’t sleep. He came to the store at four in the morning and sat by the little case with the eyebrow hairs and nodded off. They were just a bunch of hairs then, nothing fancy. When Grandpa woke up he found the hairs had arranged themselves in two lines. Two raised eyebrows. Been like that ever since. Grandpa liked to joke, but he seemed real serious about that one.”

While Lenn totals our purchases, we stare at the eyebrows ourselves, hoping for a twitch, a curl, a little gesture, but they are still. When we return to the bank, Phineas asks about the man from Grand Forks, if that was his car. We shrug.

“It belonged to a couple of tourists,” says Helen. “I don’t know about that Myrna. She likes to talk sometimes.”

* * *

People are born into town; they don’t move here. It’s too difficult to get used to living with one bank and one grocery and a post office the size of a gas station. We can already tell which of our children won’t stay more than two seconds past high school graduation. All of us had cousins who couldn’t get out of town fast enough, so we were given the things no one else was interested in taking. We have framed black and white photographs in our living rooms, pictures of dour-looking people sitting in parlors or on tractors. Our kin. We examine their hard and victorious faces. They insist we can’t leave, but they don’t understand that no one else is moving here. There are too many tiny yet practical concerns in places like these. Who will take over the grocery if Lenn leaves? Will we have to drive forty miles for bread?

As we eat dinner we notice our hands smell of money. Our kids talk about end-of-the-year class trips to Billings. They talk of moving to the city for college or office jobs and the pleasure of multiple traffic lights. We know we will stay like our grandparents stayed. We must honor the memory of rugged people and wrought iron family tradition. We must keep paying down our mortgage because we’ve had it for fifteen years already and it would be a shame to give up. We must remain because this is home and too many people don’t know what that means anymore.

On Friday morning Phineas swears he saw a For Sale sign in front of the grocery as he walked to work, but it’s not there when the four of us peek out the bank window. We glance over to Lenn’s store all morning, waiting for the sign to reappear, waiting for that ominous big white car.

By lunch we’re not sure what to think—if Lenn changed his mind or if the sign was a mirage. We smirk at Phineas and tell him he needs to get glasses and stop listening to Myrna, but when he’s in the office with a client closing an account we twirl our pens on the counter and keep looking out the window.

* * *

Lenn’s house is at the edge of town, a little wood frame cabin, and he’s been known to let travelers spend the night on his couch while storms blow through. He tells us stories after they’ve gone—the couple from Des Moines trying to get to the family reunion in Seattle, the college students from Memphis heading to Boise to visit friends, the lady from Spokane driving down to Florida to see an old high school sweetheart.

We speculate Lenn is a prairie Casanova and has romanced more than one wayward tourist lady. We want to imagine him as slightly more dangerous and romantic than we think he really is. Twenty years ago there was a woman who stayed with him for three or four days in January, even after the roads were passable, and sat beside Lenn at the register every day. We didn’t know who she was and Lenn didn’t tell us, though her car had Arkansas plates.

Lenn’s affair has birthed many versions, including rumors he has a love child somewhere in the Deep South, a young man who speaks with that unfamiliar drawl. We wonder if Lenn wants to go live where it’s warm while the rest of us spend February curled around our husbands in bed, trying to rub life back into our toes.

 * * *

On Monday a big white car is parked outside the grocery when we get to work. We don’t see a driver, but all morning we can barely count to ten and keep giving customers the wrong number of quarters.

The car has disappeared by the time we take our lunch break. We cross the street on shaking legs. Inside the store we find Lenn and a couple ranchers buying snacks. Lenn stares at the ranchers, his eyes wide and somber. Lenn got out of ranching because he hated depending on the weather. We understand that reasoning—it’s why we have jobs at the bank and leave cattle guarding to other people, heartier souls who don’t mind plowing through drifts in their pickups. But Lenn felt awful to break tradition. We watch him watch the two ranchers while they buy beef jerky and potato chips and walk back out to their pickups.

“I should have been made of stronger stuff,” he says. “Like my grandfather and Teedie.”

We try to comfort him, say how happy we are that he’s here to sell groceries because somebody needs to do it. Teedie would appreciate his effort, we say. It takes a certain kind of person to live here, whether he’s tending cattle or cereal. Lenn smiles but doesn’t believe us, though he knows we need him.

After dinner that evening, Helen asks her husband how he would feel about moving.

“To where?” he says.

“I don’t know,” she says, “somewhere else.”

Our husbands are salespeople and clerks in town. Hers is employed at the lumberyard, is handy with tools, and could probably find similar work in another community.

“I don’t know,” he says. “If you really want to move. If you have a place in mind. If you think you’d like it.” He pauses. “I thought you liked it here.”

“I do,” she says. “I just think about moving sometimes.”

“Oh,” he says.

Helen tells us about this conversation on Friday at lunch. We know our husbands would have that same reaction.

* * *

On the weekend we four carpool to the city so we can do real shopping. We take Helen’s van and three of our kids (the younger ones who don’t mind being around us yet) and make the three-hour drive. We start out at six in the morning with thermoses of coffee and peanut-butter-on-toast sandwiches. Shopping in the city reminds us of just how much Lenn has to charge in that little store, prices we don’t like but understand because everything is trucked in. Part of the reason folks in town are eager to get out is because of cheaper stuff. More variety.

By five in the afternoon when we’re on our way back to town and the kids are whiny about leaving too soon, we ponder the wisdom of a six-hour trip for a couple hundred dollars’ worth of groceries and junk from the discount store. We consider our alternate lives in the Chicago suburbs where we’d have more than one kind of cheese cracker to choose from and the apples wouldn’t be wrinkled and we wouldn’t have to wait three days for someone to repair the bank computers when they’re down. We wish Teedie would appear in a haze of dust in the bread and cereal aisle of Lenn’s grocery, made a grand pronouncement about how we should live our lives, but more likely than not he’d tell us we were on our own.

On Wednesday there’s the monthly church bake sale. The Methodists and Presbyterians and Episcopalians use the orange flashing emergency road sign in front of the motel to advertise. We buy raspberry brownies and talk about how the last road emergency was that truck accident four yeas ago. It was big news for a week. Sometimes we feel sorry for people in Chicago who have to use road emergency signs for road emergencies. Sometimes we wish for another road emergency—just a small one, no fatalities, maybe a little whiplash—because it’d be nice to use the sign again.

There is no big white car in front of the store, though we keep waiting for it to materialize. We wonder if we should all jump on the prospective eyebrow-buyer, stop him from making the purchase, or pile into his car, demand he take us to Grand Forks so we can look for nice new apartments.

We buy sandwiches to eat with our brownies and ask Lenn if he ever thinks about closing the store and doing some traveling. He glances at the eyebrows hanging over the register.

“I think about it,” he says.

We file into the street, walk back to the bank to eat our crumbling brownies and soggy sandwiches and discuss our kids’ college plans. They want to get out of here bad. We talk about how mortgage payments will be due soon, on the first of the month, so we’ll be processing a lot of checks, including ones for our own homes. It’s amazing how quickly our hands write those numbers, sign at the bottom before we can give it a second thought.

_____

Teresa Milbrodt grew up in Bowling Green, Ohio, where she developed an odd affinity for Midwestern flatness and gray skies. She received her MFA in Creative Writing and her MA in American Culture Studies from Bowling Green State University, and was then permitted to move to the Rocky Mountains.  She is the author of a short story collection, Bearded Women: Stories, published by ChiZine Publications.

Milbrodt’s stories have appeared in Nimrod, North American Review, Crazyhorse, Natural Bridge, Indiana Review, The Cream City Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, and New Orleans Review, among other literary journalsSeveral of her stories have also been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She is an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Western State College in Gunnison, Colorado, where she lives with her husband Tristan and cat Aspen. She is still adjusting to absurdly sunny January days.

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