Elizabeth is Mal-Mal Miller’s real name. The eponym Liz, like with Hollywood actresses, is the preferred calling in Petersburg. Folks in places like the post office or Skip’s gas station call her Liz. Names like Elizabeth sound far too formal for those that speak a country dialect.
“Me and Bill’d go out dancing at the legion sometimes, but never did we go nowhere fancy. That was the extent of our social life here in this little town. Hell, there ain’t that much to do unless ya like to fish like my husband did. Never had to sign that name much in life either– Bill signed for everything as William. We never were the church going type, using fancy names and such. Elizabeth is just too fancy for ‘round here. We have always been poor. Isn’t the queen’s name Elizabeth?” Liz chuckles, her stomach, flat now, no longer moves like Santa’s.
“Ya know what? When you get as old as me, a name don’t matter in life. Everyone I ever see calls me mom or Mal Mal. You realize we all have lives of royalty despite how poor ya are. Yup– been plenty of things– but always Liz and poor. There were rough times here. The electricity got cut off many times, but before yah knew it, things got going again and this place would light up like any palace with lots of laughing and cheerfulness inside. You can call me Liz, if you don’t mind. Never did much like my real name. Bill and Liz the two-steppers– that’s what they called us at the Legion.”
Liz giggles again before softly blowing the surface of her Maxwell House coffee. Her hair, now permed in curls with most of the color faded to a shade of polished steel, shines like a bumper on a old chevy pick-up after a good scrubbing with a Brillo pad. She had her hair done once a week when Bill was a brick layer, back when the shade of her strands were much darker. Long, thick hairs were wrapped almost mummy-like in hundreds of bobbie pins and a coating of aerosol infused Aqua Net hair spray. When she kissed her grandchildren and got all excited, holes formed in the atmosphere over Petersburg.
Liz takes her first sip of coffee and unconsciously begins to check a hair-do that is no longer so heavy and tied to the top. It has been so long since she had the chance to sit down with a stranger and talk about her life like she did at the beauty parlor in Huntingdon. It’s nice for someone from outside the family to stop by to talk to. She regrets that her perm is not as fancy with guests coming by.
“I had a beehive, ya know. Just imagine that! Bill was bald and liked hair all done up.”
She sometimes wishes, with a thick head of hair late in life, that the beehive style was still in. Her hair-do in the Seventies was shaped like a cake pan. The straight strands were heated in curlers under a fancy space-age chair with a magic helmet with a bubble inside that could not be popped when little hands reached inside, with Mal Mal’s permission of course–an to attempt to fizzle an optical illusion within a child’s eye.
“Yep. Charlie was always in my hair and he loved those hair dryers at the salon. He used a curling iron in my hair when I’d let him. I’d just sit there in the livingroom watchin’ Gun Smoke and he curl it all day if I let him. I didn’t mind and thought nothin’ of a boy who likes to play in a girl’s hair– his granddaddy liked it. Thought nothin’ of it. Didn’t have the money to have it fixed
at the time anyway. That’s why I get it permed now.”
“I Told Charlie when he was little that there was a guy that worked in the beauty parlor in Huntingdon that was better than all the girls but ya had to wait for him. There was always a line for his business. Can’t remember his name though– Bill would never wanna wait outside long enough to get my hair done up by that good lookin’ man. Hair is easier like this. Wash it every day now. Charlie? He was always was a little funny like that– but he’s got a heart of gold. Love ‘em all. I don’t even know how many grandkids I have now. Seems like one comes along almost every month or so with great-great grandchildren in the picture. Bobbie Jo is due soon. You should see ‘er. Pretty as can be, like her Mom Marg. Never liked to eat but now she has to cause she’s pregnant. She is so beautiful– should see her glowin’. Poor Bobby Jo’s just ‘fraid of gittin’ fat like I wuz after all of mine but I told her she sure is pretty pregnant.”
Liz’s hair was piled by stylists in a parlor in Huntingdon all afternoon on Saturdays. Grandchildren who were being baby-sat in those days rested on her knee when her hair was drying. Poor Bill had to wait outside in the family’s convertible car and smoke cigarettes just waiting for Liz to get all dolled up to go out dancing at the Legion later that night. Buns were piled like real devils’ food cake above eyes that slanted somewhat downward in irresistible Tammy Wynette stand- by- your- man, bluesy fashion.
“We sure could dance. Be careful. This coffee’s hot. Ya wanna spoon? I stirred it already for ya. Bill was a mason. He made those steps you’re sittin’ on. Liftin’ all them bricks made ‘em stiff as a board. Dancin’ was good for him. Had to keep him moving. Bill didn’t step inside many formal places. He only go inside a church when his own kids got married in them. His son Francis carved a devil face out of wood in high school and Bill put it up in our kitchen right next to my Last Supper velvet painting. Took the damned thing down when he died though. Ya should have seen what color the paneling was in the kitchen behind that face when I took down that devil.”
“My Mom and Dad were always part of a church. I never thought one of my own offspring would grow up to become a writer though. Dear God, wonder what side of the family that came from. Wasn’t the Miller side, I can tell ya that much. My Mom and Dad mustiv’ been Methodists. Hell, I don’t remember fer shure. Bill and me never went to church like that. Not a lot of people from around here go– ya’d think this town would be worse than it is. We’d sometimes get groceries and stuff from members in that church up on the hill. They’d bring by big boxes of groceries every Sunday around noon. We’d take ‘em all right– always promising to make it up that hill one Sunday, but never really waking up on time, but forever grateful for that food that we lived on. Did ya see that church comin’ here? Can’t miss the damned thing coming down Goosegreen on yer way here. Younz must of seen it. They call that road that comes down to intersect with Goosegree ‘Church Hill’.
“The kid’s went sled ridding down that hill in winter. They almost give me a heart attack just thinkin’ ‘bout them over there. Charlie and his brother Bill’d do it to. He ever write about that? They wuz all about the same age– my kids and my first grand kids. Lou is my oldest. Had her when I was fifteen or sixteen, I think. Then she had Bill and Charlie when she was still so young. My youngest, Steve and my daughter Marg set up an old truck hood at the bottom of that steep hill and they would jump it like they wuz riding motorcycles while gliding on those damned forsakin’ sleds that Bill kept nailed together for them.
“Bill and Charlie wuz the same way as Steve and Marg. Little things flew like bats out of Hell down that steep hill in winter. Lou didn’t seem to care either. I’ll never forgot the day Charlie came in with a black eye that Marg gave him with a pop can. Didn’t even cry. No wonder he writes. He forgave Marg. I remember that…wondering why he put up with Marg like he did. Yep– don’t surprise me that he’s that way. A writer? Ya know my son Dave has a son who can write too– his name is Charlie too– that’d be Charlie Miller. His school put one of his poems in the Huntingdon Daily News. Maybe it does run on this side. Could be the Mennonite blood, I suppose. They say it runs thick in me. Bill and me never understood the church and Bible reading like everyone else and lived a life far from that our grandparents knew. Maybe we are to blame for the way the Charlies are with words. I don’t know. Now just look at all the people coming around here like I’m famous or something.”
“One thing I do remember is my dad sittin’ with his feet up on my good kitchen table on Sunday’s when he and mom came over after church to see their grand kids on Sundays. Always wore white gloves here and dressed up fancy for church. Mom gave all of ‘em a silver dollar when she’d see them. We wuz damn near starvin’ to death and couldn’t squeeze much out of them for important things. They’d fill the pockets of the kids, not given Bill and me an extra dime, scared to death we might go out dancing on it.”
“Bill and me went out dancin’ anyway. Our friends went to the legion, not church. We figured we was always gonna be sinners not good enough for the rest of them Fiberglass workers. Wasn’t hurtin’ no one in the way we lived our lives on public assistance. Just mindin’ our own business, raising our kids and living life simple.”
The smell of nearby Juniata River in late morning slowly makes its way across Liz’s large lawn. The flavor of the coffee seems enhanced due to the damp scent of a muddy river all around.
“My Dad found Christ after he quit drinkin’. I’ll always remember him singing that song “That Old Rugged Cross”. Ya know that one? Neither me or Bill like going somewhere where people get all dressed up just to pray and not have a little fun in life. I was so pissed at Dad for putting his feet up on my good table that Sunday, even if he was in his good shoes. I yelled at him for that. Told him this was my house! Lost respect for the church after the day my daddy thought cause he just came from church he could act like that. Who did he think he was? Church seemed to change Dad in a way that was snooty.”
The name Liz has a whistle to it. Suits her perfectly. It sings like the trains that roll nearby all times of the day blowing steam-powered whistles to warn villagers that freight from Pittsburgh is heading East. Elizabeth is far too formal a name to use when life is lived so informally along the iron rails and muddy cricks that run through Petersburg. There is after all, a place called Elizabeth, Pennsylvania, although neither Bill nor Liz were much interested in ever driving there.
Lots of work goes by these parts, but little economic development stops by, offering good paying jobs to those who settled these rural hills of Central Pennsylvania. What happens in Petersburg stays in Petersburg. Not even Bill called Liz “Elizabeth”– only when he had to, like the day he took her childlike hand before a Justice of the Peace to latch himself indefinitely to the most cherished thing his heavily calloused hands had ever gripped. Her fair, pale skin was like a rose in his hands. He was darker– almost worn to leather by hard work at such a young age. When Liz first let Bill touch her arm with his dirty, railroad worked fingers, he nearly melted. His large ears, sticking from beneath a cotton hat, glowed like the sky at twilight, settling over Huntingdon. Just as a train whistled in the distance, she reached back to touch his rough knuckles in a kitten, play-like way.
Liz grew up on Penn Street in Huntingdon. The well-bred daughter of Paul and Ethel Price met young Bill Miller while gliding on a pair of roller skates down Penn Street. Bill was headed home up the Petersburg Pike when he first saw her. She was skating like a fine doll in the direction of the factory to practice going backwards on the empty parking lot of the fiberglass establishment. Liz’s mom Ethel worked there, but this was Saturday– the Sabbath Day for most washed-clean in the blood Christians trying to obtain the American dream. Skinny Liz, with hay-like hair blowing in the breeze, flew right past Bill, almost knocking a lunch box from his hands.
Liz’s mom Ethel worked at the factory and helped to create Owens Corning pastel shaded, fluffy, cotton candy-like insulation for houses, Liz explained all the details of the manufacturing process to Bill that day. She did circles around the shy railroad worker. Fiberglass was heated and shaped to form a transparent material as tough as steel. You had to know people to get jobs there, Liz explained as she listened to Bill complain about sore aching muscles, caused by hard work on the railroad.
“You must be real strong, having to shovel like that all day. Just look at ya– black from head to toe. I couldn’t stand to be so dirty. How can ya stand it?”
Bill just smiled and explained it was a living.
Bill learned all about Liz’s mom, Ethel Price– the woman who wore pill box hats on Sunday mornings and white gloves to match. She told him as much as she could on their walk up Penn Street to the lofty Price home. A row of carefully cut shrubs and heavily leaved maple trees hid most of the estate from the sidewalk along the street. Liz managed to walk up a long cement stairway without having to take off her roller skates. Bill, uncertain of the appropriateness of his calling, stood outside under a trellis filled with unripened green grapes while Liz went inside to tell her mom that a stranger was calling.
“Just sit out on the front porch. He’s too dirty to come in here!”
Ethel, a short woman who carried the name Kauffman with pride, before marriage to Paul Price, was a saint of the modern world. Her Amish blood was tainted with that sense of communal loyalty in a world being overtaken by corporate giants and marriage into such hostile blood as the Price blood turned her into a living machine. Jobs as well paying as those at the fiberglass factory were at the time, paradise. Liz’s mom never sat still. When not gardening, canning, peeling potatoes, dusting the house, doing dishes, she worked as fast as lightening in assembly lines at Fiberglass. Lots of mouths to feed required long hours at Fiberglass.
“You mind yer manners with my daughter, Elizabeth, young man! Would you care for some sassafras tea? There ain’t no drinking goin’ on here. Hope you ain’t a drinker, are ya?”
Ethel, who considered alcohol to be the water of the devil, was known at the Five and Dime store in Huntingdon to buy Made in China doll babies for the children of strangers. Her daughters Liz, Fran and Ethel the second watched as their mother played santa to orphan like children–children with little or next to nothing who begged their mommies and daddies for the inexpensive toys at the Five and Dime. Ethel would offer to buy them dolls and toy trucks when their mothers or fathers couldn’t afford to:–
“Oh what dolls they are. Please. Here. Let them have it!”
“Say thank you to the nice lady, Susie.”
“Fank ya may’m.”
Ethel taught her children the value of compassion and moral responsibilities by not doing the same favor for her own wanting children, in fear of sparing the rod.
“Ya got everything ya need already! Praise God, girls. Don’t want to spoil ya.”
“Oh yes, Mom got me those skates. We was pretty well to do– Mom working at fiberglass and all. She sure worked hard. Mom never sat still til she was real old. When her legs gave out, she took up knittin’. Little ole thing got around pretty good when she got old, didn’t she? Must be where I get it from.”
The fiberglass factory was a far cry from the world Ethel’s ancestors knew. She appreciated her job and worked very hard to keep it. Always busy. Had to be fast. Lots of demands on assembly lines. Never did Ethel stop– always kept herself going. Busy as a bee all the time, even without coffee. Always breathin’ in that fiberglass. Maybe that’s why the way she was. She couldn’t seem to stop going all the time. Life was like that then. You had to damn-near work yourself to death just to get ahead.
“Electricity was still new back then. Families that had survived generations as hardworking, land and farm laborers felt spoiled by it. The Amish are dirty and smell at times. Glad we got away from them. Always running water in a modern world. Ethel didn’t seem to mind that her daddy was forced to leave the Amish in Lancaster for making and drinking his own booze, but she would not tolerate having a husband that was lost to the bottle. She had to threaten to leave Paul to get him to stop. That’s when he learned to cling to the old rugged cross, just about the time when Bill Miller came along in Liz’s life.
Bill was a railroad worker. Every day, his overalls were covered in soot from the coal that lined the iron rails. It’s a wonder Liz ever paid him any attention on her skates. He chased her down, according to Liz–
“Yup! Was jus’ skatin’ down Penn Street. You know where the fiberglass factory is, right? Yup! Right there– wuz skatin’ in a pair of roller skates. Was one of the first in Huntingdon to have a pair, before they ‘came famous. Should of seen Bill that day– all flushed and lit up. He came up to the porch and talked for a while. I knew he was seein’ Carol Kern. You know she’s still alive? Yup! I see her at the Weiss Store sometimes. She’s always been nice to me even though I stole Bill from her. Bill ended up marrin’ me. And aww God, I was fourteen you know, and Bill, he was so good lookin’ and already a man. Always had them big ears. Should have seen ‘em when he still had hair. All dirty like that and me in my dresses. Oh hell! Just look at me now. You know I got skinny again after Bill died. Don’t eat as much. Just like the old me came rolling back. Wish he was back with me now. Hell, I’d probably put on a pair of skates just to hold him again.”
He shoveled coal all day– driving spikes through leveled pine beams that rested in a seemingly endless road of dark black coal. He walked through the Fiberglass parking lot every night at dark. The coal was not the best combustion able carbon in the world for heating a home– yet Bill carried ten pounds of it home, up the Petersburg Pike, every day. The Millers burned the surplus railroad coal in their kitchen stove. The Miller’s were dirt poor. Don’t know why I ever thought things would be diff’rent for Bill and me.
Eons before the landscape rose from the formation of the mountain chain, a sea existed there. Bill carried probably what was pieces of prehistoric plant life and dinosaurs home to burn in the kitchen stove. The Depression was hard and it hit the Millers a lot harder than it did most in America. At least there was lots of coal to keep warm.
Bill carried his gun to work too! While walking more than ten miles, to and from work, he often spotted at least a half-dozen ruffled grouses or a squirrel or few to shoot, take home to skin, and boil quickly in cast-iron pots to preserve the very soul of the game in delicacies known only to mountain-folk in times of depression.
Bill could only hope to work at a place like Fiberglass with people like Ethel Price. Following three long years on the railroad and a well-to-do girl on his arms, perhaps things would change. He wanted Saturdays off to fish again. He wanted a woman like Liz, not for the family from which she came, but simply because she was so pretty on roller skates. Unlike the squealing trains of the track– she moved in a whisper around him.