Nancy Werking Poling :: Oscar’s Bane ::


Southern Legitimacy Statement: My regional identity is confused. Though born in Indiana, I grew up in Orlando before Disney and attended Robert E. Lee Junior High, where we flew a Confederate flag. After living in the Chicago area for almost twenty years, I now live in North Carolina. I also claim southern roots through my husband, born in Virginia. “Oscar’s Bane” was inspired by his grandfather, who lost his store in Philippi, West Virginia, and died an early death during the Great Depression. 

Oscar’s Bane

Word from Charity came through the mail. Her three sisters gathered around the letter. There were gasps of oh-no and bless her heart. When his business was thriving, Oscar had taken out a loan, Charity wrote. Now the store was worth a fraction of what he owed. “Our grocery and our home have been taken from us. Please, dear sisters, can we move back to the farm?” The answer was, of course, yes. 


The ‘29 Chevy flatbed truck carries all that remains of the Kiefers’ worldly possessions. Necessities to have on hand when President Roosevelt cleans up this mess and Oscar can take his family back to Johnson City. He’s behind the wheel of the truck, maneuvering the s-curves of the narrow road as it cuts through the mountains, staying especially watchful for ice. Charity and their son, Hanson, ride beside him. This isn’t what he expected of life back when he started out as a brash young salesman, confident he was master of his own destiny. I have failed. I have failed.

It’s dusk before the truck rounds the bend in Grundie Road where a one-lane bridge crosses the creek. Oscar turns into the rutted lane pocked with ice, passes a copse of walnut trees planted by Charity’s Grandpa Duncan when he homesteaded back in the early part of the nineteenth century. Estella, Lanie Sue, and Maude, plus Estella’s daughter Rachael, greet Charity and Hanson with hugs. Oscar, they ignore.


The wind swirls through the valley, producing a shrill whistle, making the windmill creak, rattling the windowpanes. The wind, plus all that’s going on in his mind, keeps Oscar awake most of the night. It happened quickly, the downturn in business, his inability to meet expenses and pay taxes. Charity’s sisters aren’t saying so, but he can tell by their furrowed brows when they look at him, they think he let the family down. 

Now what? A man who’s spent his whole life in town must transform himself from a businessman into a farmer. For he’ll have to do his part here.


Saturday evening. Seated next to Charity on the edge of the iron bed, Oscar inhales the medicinal scent of Lifebuoy soap. She’s running the brush through her wet hair. Seldom are they alone anymore, what with Hanson sharing their bedroom and every other part of the house crowded with women. 

“For me, please,” she says, placing a hand on his arm.

“You never cared before.”

Back in Johnson City she said nothing about his staying home on Sundays while she and Hanson went to the Methodist church down the street. Oscar got his religion later in the day, listening to Harry Emerson Fosdick preach on the National Vespers Hour. Fosdick doesn’t believe the Bible is the literal word of God, which makes a lot more sense to Oscar than all those pious words at the Methodist church.

“My sisters think I married a heathen.”

“Sunday is my Sabbath, the only day I get to relax, and I intend to use it the way I see fit.” He folds his arms, signaling the topic is settled.

“But going to church is important to them. And what kind of example are you setting for Hanson?”

“Quite a good one. I’m showing him that a man can be moral, upright, without going to church.”

“Papa,” Hanson calls from downstairs, “it’s your turn.” In five syllables his voice has changed octaves twice.

In the copper tub brought in from the porch, the sisters bathe in the order they did in childhood, alphabetically: Charity, Estella, Lanie Sue, and Maude. Except Rachael, being everyone’s favorite, takes her bath before anyone. By the time Hanson, then Oscar, get their turn, the water’s turned gray, without a hint of warmth. Men going last follows the same principle, the sisters say, as washing finer pieces of laundry first, grimy work clothes last. 

The next morning, Sunday, all are dressed in their finest, the women wearing white gloves and hats. Hanson’s pants are too short in the legs, the sleeves of his shirt end above his wrists. Oscar, in his only suit, accompanies them. To show his gratitude. Not to God but to Charity’s sisters for allowing his family to live in their home. 


A letter arrives. Cousin Floyd writes that the bank has foreclosed on his farm. Unless he, his wife, and two daughters can come live with the Duncan sisters, they’ll have to move to the poorhouse.

“They’re family,” Charity says, her tone indicating her inclination to welcome Cousin Floyd. 

“Rachael and I could give up our room,” Estella says. “We could hang an old blanket across the parlor, make it part bedroom, part parlor.”

Oscar learned something from having extended credit to so many people. “I know it sounds unkind, but when you’re on a sinking boat you don’t bring anyone new aboard.”

“I’d hardly say we’re on a sinking boat. And you’re hardly the one…” Lanie Sue cuts herself off.

“What about food?” Maude asks. 

“We must trust that God will see us through,” Estella says.

“God isn’t seeing a lot of people through these days,” Oscar says. “Why should we think we deserve any better?” He hears the gasps, senses the sisters’ displeasure.

“Do you think,” Estella says, “that those prayers we lift up to our Lord at the table have nothing to do with all of us being fed and sheltered?”

“I don’t believe God plays favorites. Deserving people are everywhere. People who pray day and night are still suffering.”

It’s the most he’s spoken of late. But soon it’s as if he said nothing. They turn away and continue to struggle with what to do about Cousin Floyd and family.

“Mama,” Rachael finally says in a soft voice, “I don’t want to move into the parlor.” 

She doesn’t have to say any more, the aunts loving her so. But Charity sheds tears over their turning away a relative.


“Go hook up the mules,” Lanie Sue tells Oscar. “The soil’s dry enough to crumble in the hand.” 

How in tarnation do I do that? he asks himself out in the barnyard. The two gray mules wait patiently while he tries to unravel the mass of leather straps, which due to his efforts have become more tangled. Finally, he has no choice but to return to the house and ask her help. 

“Can’t let ‘em get the upper hand,” Lanie Sue advises as she puts everything in order. 

Reins around his waist, he makes his way up and down rows. Gee and haw, he can keep those straight, but he lacks the authority a person needs to cajole an animal along. So that halfway through the job the pair, for no apparent reason, stop, stand in place, and stare straight ahead. Soon Lanie Sue gets them moving again. 

Over dinner all four Duncan sisters, Charity included, chuckle over his ineptitude. Oscar remembers the quiet dignity of being a grocer. 


New Years Day, 1935. It was a sparse Christmas. In the attic Estella found two sweaters that had belonged to their parents, moth-eaten but with useable yarn that she unraveled and knit into socks for Rachael and Hanson. Maude gave them pencils. Charity made honey candy. 

They all sit at the scarred oak table. Oscar’s head is lowered as he uses his cornbread to soak up pork fat from Hoppin’ John.

“Hanson, get your elbows off the table,” Estella says.

“You ain’t my mother,” Hanson mutters, keeping his elbows as they were, staring at his aunt with defiance. It’s a look Oscar’s not seen before. He should remind his son not to speak disrespectfully. 

But Charity is the one to say, “Hanson Kiefer, you do not talk to an adult that way. Say ‘yes ma’am,’ you hear me?”

“Mama, I’m sick of these biddies acting like they own me.” He rises from the table and stomps out of the room. His heavy footsteps can be heard climbing the stairs. The bedroom door slams. 

Charity signals with her eyes that Oscar’s to do something. Instead, he picks up his cornbread again, soaks up more juice. Then, yes, he will do something. He scoots his chair from the table. With rapid steps he climbs the dark enclosed stairway and opens the bedroom door.

His son is stretched out on the cot, hands clasped at his waist, staring up at the ceiling. Oscar drops to the floor and places a hand on Hanson’s arm. Children take a certain kind of attention, he’s observed, the kind women know how to offer. But now Hanson’s practically a man, and Oscar still doesn’t know how to speak to him. He wants to talk about how hard it is to live with a houseful of women, say something about their both having lost Charity to her sisters. But the words don’t come, so he can only hope that his hand on Hanson’s arm says it all.


Two years have passed since Oscar brought his family to the Duncan home place. No one speaks of Cousin Floyd and his family going to the poorhouse.

The house being as crowded as it is, the air close enough they can smell each other’s breath, he’s glad to be out in the fresh air this morning. He’s chopping wood for the fire, wondering when the hard times will end.

He lifts the axe into the air and brings it down with all his might. Part way through the lifting and follow-through he drops the axe, clutches his chest. He is cold, yet sweating. He cannot catch his breath. 

Atop a knoll, the family cemetery overlooks the house, barn, and cornfields cluttered with dried stubble. When Pa and Ma Duncan died in the flu pandemic of 1918, their bodies were laid to rest up there, alongside two infant boys and a daughter who died of diabetes at the age of ten. An iron fence surrounds the chalky white slabs. Outside the fence branches of two maple trees bend toward the graves.

They bury Oscar up there. The maple trees are bare.