Dial M for Murder

Saturday night. All the kids old enough to stay up past 7 pm are sent to the movie house under orders to

          Behave! and

          Watch out for each other!

The movie house is a skinny, dilapidated clapboard building at the end of Main Street, across from the Town Hall. Inside, the floor is slanted so that the seats in back are almost as high as a balcony and the seats down front are about three feet from the screen. A few farm couples and newly marrieds are here and there along the sides, but mostly it’s kids: little kids in the front row, settled in with one box of malt balls for every three kids; rowdy boys in the middle rows, where they can torment the younger ones with beebees and popcorn projectiles; and teenagers way up back so they can make out for two hours uninterrupted. The behemoth projector is up a half-stair, run by an unkempt, child-hating, and surly man—the only person in town who knows how to make it work.

Josie is too big for the front row but doesn’t want to get close to the boys, who will surely pour something down her back or stick her pigtails in grape Nehi, so she stays down front and scrunches as low as she can in her seat.

She doesn’t much like the movie; there are no horses or cowboys or pretty girls.  A man who isn’t very nice whispers with another bad man to do something to the woman in a long white dress. The music gets spookier and spookier as the men get meaner and nastier. Josie scrunches deeper and holds her arms tight across her chest. It’s nighttime in the movie now; the woman in the long white dress is alone in the house when the phone rings. She looks frightened when she picks it up.

          Hello ….. No answer. She jiggles the hangup button on the phone.

          Hello …. No answer. Jiggle. Press. Press. Press.

          Hello? .... Jiggle. Jiggle.

          Hello? ...

One of the bad men creeps up behind her, holding a scarf toward her neck….

          Hello? ....

Josie is scared. She doesn’t understand why the phone rang, why the woman keeps saying Hello, who the man is. As the music reaches its sinister crescendo, she cannot bear to look any more. She jumps up from her seat and makes her way to the back of the movie house and out into the tiny lobby. Nobody is in the ticket booth. The candy stand is closed up.

Josie wants to go back to Grandma’s. Now.

She steps out into the street. Even though it is Saturday, the Town Hall is dark and empty. Josie knows her way in the daytime, but everything looks different at night. Down to the left, the water tower stands on its spindly legs like a monster bug. A few cars and farm trucks are parked haphazardly on the street, but no one is around. The curtains in the café are drawn; the black windows of the bank look like eyes. She walks past the store—closed, the only light a dim bulb over the counter in the back. She walks further up the street to where she can see into the Bar. The inside glows with yellow lights, thumps with noise and people talking loudly, but she knows she is not supposed to go in, and even if she did, the people in there would probably make her go back to the movie house and wait for her cousins to take her back to Grandma’s. She hurries past, holding her coat tightly against her body.

Main Street is tarred for the length of its three blocks; at the corner, the street becomes a dirt road. Once she passes the big town tree the huge grain elevators loom up in front of her. She knows where she is now; all she has to do is turn here and go past the silos and down the road and the house will be there. She’s still scared, though, and the woman’s frantic voice saying

          Hello ….

          Hello? ...

echoes in her head. The road seems to go on forever, past the crossroad out to the cemetery, past a heap of railroad ties and barbed wire, past several more trees, now rustling in the night wind.

          Hello …

          Hello …

          Hello? ….

She runs now, nearly losing her footing in the rutted road. At last she sees the familiar lighted windows. She races across the gravel driveway and up the steps to the back door, lets herself in and walks through the deserted kitchen to the front room. The room is filled with smoke. Three card tables are set up and all the big people—aunts and uncles and Grandma and Grandpa and Mother and Daddy are all smiling and holding fans of cards. Somebody slaps down a card with a cry of triumph.

One of the aunts looks up and sees Josie in the doorway.

          How was the movie?

          I didn’t stay.

          Who brought you home?

Josie lifts her chin and squares her shoulders.



August 29, 2021, 9:19:11 PM

Nebraska Stories