Bonnie Jo Campbell

Molly’s Bed

        The creek running below Molly’s bedroom window was full of ducks yakking. They yakked about field corn ripening and about snapping turtles snapping and about the days getting shorter this autumn, and the noise woke Molly from a dream of roto-tilling next year’s garden with her two donkeys, Jack and Don Quixote. In the dream, she had harnessed the donkeys to drag a plow, and as soon as the blades broke up the soil, tomato and bean plants sprang up. Every May, Molly planted three acres of vegetables, the biggest garden around here, and she planned one way or another to keep on, even if she had to do it without the Ford tractor. This July, after thirty-five years of faithful service, the engine had finally blown. During the school year she worked as a junior high lunch lady, but the summer months were all for the garden. September and October were hellish busy, especially now with canning tomatoes, but there was no law saying a woman couldn’t work hard.

        “Damn noisy ducks,” Molly said. “Get the hell out of here, fly off south, won’t you?“ She would miss those ducks when they disappeared in a few weeks, but from her ex-husband she’d gotten the habit of lying in bed cursing them this way, and she was a woman of habits.

        “Dumb ducks,” said another voice, quietly.

        “What?” Molly sat up to make sure she was awake.

        “Dumb ducks,” said a man’s voice.

        “Is there somebody in my bed?“ Molly’s bed was bigger than a king-sized, so big that they’d had to special order the mattress. Her ex-husband didn’t think any smarter than filling the whole room with a bed. Molly was always having to keep her kids from jumping around on it.

        “It’s just me,” said Wendell Wagner, who’d been repairing the furnace last night. Molly had debated long and hard about whether to spend money fixing the furnace, knowing she might not be able to afford fuel oil this winter anyway. She ought to figure out how to heat with wood, but last night she’d been cold and the kids’d been cold and so she’d called Wendell. He was good with an old oil burner, and he’d never overcharged her, and ever since that fancy-dressed fool wife of his throwed him out, his advertisement at the hardware store said he was available any hour of the day or night.

        Wendell said, “You told me I should stay the night if it got too late.”

        “You’re supposed to be on the couch.”

        Molly’s husband had taken off at the first whiff of spring a year and a half ago, and Molly had survived without him by sticking to her routines. She’d planned to never lie down with one of them cheating, troubling sons of bitches again, but here she was, lying with a fellow in the very bed her husband built. He’d built it from some particular hickory wood, and for some reason got the idea of hitting the headboard with a chain to make it look old, and then he shellacked it. It wasn’t three months after he’d finished the monstrosity that he left town. Molly wondered if he’d built a bed for the gal at the bottle gas company, too.

        Molly said, “I put a quilt and a blanket out there on the couch for you.”

        “I must’ve walked in my sleep,” Wendell said. “Or maybe that big yellow dog was lying on the couch.”

        In fact, Wendell had followed the sound of Molly’s snoring to her bedroom, and he had climbed into the enormous bed slowly and quietly, so as not to disturb her, and he’d stayed way over by the far edge. Wendell would never have dared climb into a regular bed with a woman, but he figured that in a bed this big a woman wouldn’t even notice him.

        “You’d better not be naked,” Molly said.

        “I don’t think I am.” Wendell lifted the blanket. “Nope, I’m not naked.”

        “Good thing. Cause if my kids had come in here and found you naked, they’d do terrible things to you.”

        “What kind of terrible things?”

        “Oh, one fellow who crawled in my bed, they stole his trousers and filled them up with stinging nettles. The way he howled after putting on those pants, you’d’ve thought cannibals were cooking him.”

        “I still got on my trousers,” Wendell said. “My shirt, too. Is that a true story you’re telling me?”

        “Another sleepyhead fool, they drug him out and tied him up him between my two donkeys,” Molly said. “Those donkeys pulled on him until he got to be a very tall man.”

        “I’m already over six foot.” Wendell turned toward Molly in the bed, smiling as much as he dared. “Do you prefer a tall man, Molly?”

        “No reason you should care what I prefer,” Molly said, lacing her fingers over her stomach, glancing over at Wagner, whose thin body and bearded face were dappled with sunlight.

        Molly’s husband had been a very tall man, six foot six, which was why he thought he needed such a big bed, though Molly suspected he was just trying to sleep farther away from her, so he could sneak out of bed without her hearing. Though she hated his sneakiness, she didn’t really blame him for leaving, they hadn’t had much in common besides the kids. He’d wanted her to sell this old place, build a new house, travel around the country even. He’d gotten tired of a woman who wanted to garden all summer. When he left town, he left the gal from the bottle gas company behind too, which showed he was looking for something entirely new.

        A dog barked from outside the house. Chickens crowed in the chicken yard. The dog paused for the crowing and then barked again.

        Molly said, “But since you ask, I prefer a man who’s not a lying, cheating, sneaking son of a bitch.”

        “Should I get up and let the dog in?” Wendell asked.

        “Oh, the kids’ll let him in.”

        “You think I ought to go out the window?” Wendell said. “So your kids don’t see me?”

        Molly paused to think. “No, you’d better not. If you go out the window, you’ll make them ducks crazy, wake up everybody in the neighborhood.”

        “I hear somebody yelling in your kitchen,” Wendell said. “Sounds like your kids might be fighting.”

        “That’s just how they eat breakfast. My husband used to holler at them, but I don’t mind a little back and forth. Gets the blood moving. Warms a person.” In fact, as recently as yesterday morning she’d yelled for them to shut up, but really that was just a way she could join into their rowdy conversation.

        “Listen to them donkeys he-honking in the barnyard,” Wendell said. “They do that every morning?”

        “They figure I ought to be out feeding them instead of lying here talking to you. Why aren’t you sleeping at your own place, Wendell?”

        “It’s too quiet at my place. Never could relax with quiet. Though I do appreciate a smooth-running oil burner. Listen now.” Wendell turned his ear toward the vent near the foot of the bed.  “Do you hear that furnace kick on?  Smooth as glass.”

        They both listened for a moment.

        “That’s smooth all right,” she said.

        “And you don’t smell any fuel oil any more, do you?”

        “No telling when the thing’s going to break down again,” Molly said.

        “My work’s guaranteed,” he said. “You can call me if it breaks down, any hour of the day or night. And maybe I can take a look at that old Ford tractor you said’s got a blowed engine.”

        “You know I can’t afford to pay you to fix my tractor.”

        “Maybe I’ll do it in my spare time,” he said. “If you don’t mind it taking a while, and then in the summer you could give me some tomatoes.” Wendell could imagine working on the tractor between furnace jobs, now and again taking a break to drink some coffee with Molly and study the Ford manual—he could borrow the manual from Joe at the hardware store. He wondered if Molly would ever drink coffee in bed. Or eat breakfast in bed, or play gin rummy.

        “Why’d your wife kick you out, Wendell?” Molly asked.

        “Claimed she couldn’t stand my snoring any more. For the last two years she made me sleep on the couch. Then one day she said she couldn’t stand to look at me anymore.”

        “Well, I didn’t hear you snoring,” Molly said. “And I never liked quiet anyway.”

        “Quiet is lonely, if you ask me,” Wendell said.

        Molly didn’t know if Wendell had any more idea than she did about the business of overhauling a tractor engine. There was no law, though, that said she couldn’t give a man a chance.


Bonnie Jo Campbell is the author of the bestselling novel Once Upon a River (July 2011, W.W. Norton) and a 2011 Guggenheim Fellow. She was a 2009 National Book Award finalist and National Book Critics Circle Award finalist for her collection of stories, American Salvage . Campbell is also author of the novel Q Road and the story collection Women & Other Animals . She lives in Kalamazoo, Michigan with her husband and two donkeys.


photo by Bradley S. Pines