The Last Norwegians on Russell Avenue

by Debra J. Stone

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First thing in the morning, Edie saw a note from Mitch Anderson, plant supervisor at the mill, folded over and taped to her locker. She was to report to his office ASAP. The whirling sound of the sewing machines meant the first shift girls were already busy making the cloth flour sacks. No time for a cup of coffee. She gripped the baluster to climb the short, steep stairs to Anderson’s office.  She worried about the sweat marks under the armpits of her blouse, if they were large enough to be seen. Edie walked through the open door; Anderson gave her a smile full of crooked teeth and beckoned her to sit on the steel folding chair next to his desk.

She sat with her back straight in the uncomfortable chair and folded her hands. Hands with ropey veins, a forefinger with the scar of a puncture wound from a sewing machine needle when she momentarily lost concentration, palms chapped from the rough cotton materialhands showing fifty seven years of hard work. Anderson walked behind Edie, shut the door, placed his hands on her shoulders and began a gentle massage. She sensed him looking down her blouse, eyeing her breasts. She held her breath, then expelled it, mumbling in her thick Norwegian accent Anderson always made fun of, “Please stop.” Edie moved forward in her chair.

“Ya said in your note we’re gonna talk about my raise and promotion,” she said.

“Well we can talk about that too, after.”  

She stood, turned around, and took several steps away from the chair; Anderson bellied her against the desk with his oversized gut.  A thin layer of flour dust covered the cluttered papers on the desk. The office was tiny, the big wooden desk with an office chair on rollers barely fit in the room, let alone Edie who was several inches taller than her boss.

Anderson tried to kiss her. His breath stank of coffee and cigarettes.  She smelled the Brylcreem, his hair greasyfull of it. She couldn’t help but think of the jingle: Brylcreem, a little dab a do ya; Brylcreem, the girls will love to put their fingers through your hair!

“C’mon, girl. You ain’t stupid.”

“Ya got no right ta do dat, I’m a married woman.”

“You’re still a good looking woman.” Edie knew that was a lie. Her hair was beautiful—plenty of people told her. Edie knew she was plain and big-boned. Her husband Norm said her hair was the prettiest thing about her.

“I ain’t gonna tell, we can keep it between you and me.”

“Ya sonofabitch get off me!” She screamed and pushed Anderson hard. Before Anderson fell against the chair, he grabbed and ripped her blouse—buttons flew across the room, exposed her white bra, the new one she bought from JC Penney’s.  Flour dust danced in the sunlight that shined from the narrow window.

“C’mon, Edie, be a good girl. You know what you gotta do for me. Just touch me. Let me squeeze them big titties!” He grabbed her arm, twisting it behind her back. Edie cried out in pain, but the flour mill drowned out the sound. She twisted around and kneed Anderson in the groin. He let go of her arm and doubled over, bellowing like a castrated bull, “Alright, bitch. You pay for this, you hear me! You ain’t got no more job here. Don’t you show your face here!”  

 Edie pulled her blouse together, didn’t bother to shut the door behind her. Sonofabitch, she thought. All she wanted was to be a boss, earn her and Norm some extra money to put away for their old age so their lives could be softer. She’d been working in the flour mill nineteen years, since World War II, the first woman hired after the mill lost men to military service. Next year, 1964, she would have had twenty years seniority. She knew more about the flour mill business than Anderson ever would.  

Edie headed towards Washington Avenue, walking away from the screech of rusted wheels on loaded boxcars bringing wheat from Western Minnesota and the roar of Saint Anthony Falls that powered the beast, the name her and the girls called the mill. The beast had taken away her good eyesight, too many hours spent in a half-lit room. Her back curved from hunching over a sewing machine, expected to meet a quota of two hundred flour sacks a day.

It was only the first of June, but it already felt like July. The heat clung to her like a child to its mother. Sweat beaded on her forehead. Edie suddenly felt the weight of what just happened. She had no job. For the first time since she left Norway, she would be without work.  She had to slow her breath to keep away the panic. She sat on a city bench, waiting for the Washington Avenue bus. The noise of the beast still rang in her ears. Wheat dust clogged Edie’s lungs as she coughed up phlegm, spat in her handkerchief, folded and tucked it back in her skirt pocket. A pair of swaying winos enjoying their afternoon high took no notice of the plain, brown haired woman dressed in a safety-pinned blouse and plaid skirt.  

She wiped sweat from her brow, then realized her right arm felt odd; the usual added weight of her pocketbook was missing. In her haste to find safety pins, she left it in the locker. Tears began to form, but she quickly brushed them away. She wouldn’t cry. Anderson and the mill weren’t worth it. She’d have Norm get her pocketbook. No sense in going back.

Shade trees had not been planted on the boulevard in this part of Minneapolis. In her younger days, when money was tight, she walked the four miles to save on street car fare but age had caught up with her.  The grey, concrete sidewalks absorbed the heat of the day. It seeped through the thin soles of Edie’s cheap shoes; her legs throbbed.  By the time she’d reach Russell Avenue North, her face would be hot pink. The sweat down her back itched. She looked both ways, crossing the rusted railroad tracks.  She needed another moment to rest. “No buses have come this way for a while,” said two elderly women pushing a cart filled with fresh cabbages, corn on the cobs, and red ripe tomatoes. They passed Edie and continued their conversation to each other in Norwegian. Edie closed her eyes, letting the homesickness move through her. At that moment, she wanted to be a girl again and feel the warmth of her mama’s arms wrapped around her body, listening to mama’s heartbeat, reassuring Edie that all would be right in the world.

The women’s voices returned Edie to the one thing she regretted in life—leaving her mama weeping in the doorway of their home in Norway, not looking back to wave when she climbed into the wagon that took her to the ship. She had told her mama there was nothing in Norway. She wouldn’t be back—America would be her new home. A pinch of guilt stung Edie every time she sent money home. Now mama was dead and papa long dead. Sometimes she thought she’d go back to Norway to visit mama and papa’s grave but she’d be a stranger, a foreigner in the country of her birth. Even her Norwegian wasn’t good anymore.

It was still early afternoon when Edie walked down Russell Avenue North carrying a grocery bag from Red Owl with a quart of milk and Wonder Bread. Sjuard often dropped by on his way to work, drinking all of the milk in the refrigerator and making himself a sandwich. Why his wife, Elsie, couldn’t make one for him was a mystery to Edie.

Edie entered the two story, two bedroom stucco bungalow she and Norm bought a year after she started working at the mill. She recalled standing in the middle of the living room of her new house. She sniffed, but no odd odors lingered from the past, only the smell of fresh oak floors. Lately, more colored people had bought houses on the block. She told herself the changes on the block didn’t matte—Homewood was still a nice neighborhood. But soon Edie and Norm would be the last Norwegians on Russell Avenue.  

The new colored neighbors on each side of Norm and Edie’s house could hear them going at it that evening because Norm had come home drunk again, most of his paycheck spent at Stand Up Frank’s Tavern.

“I lost my job and ya drinking up all the money.” Edie tossed the tomatoes into the glass bowl on the kitchen counter.

“It’s late, don’t want no supper now,” Norm slurred his words. “And whatcha mean you lost your job?” Edie was silent and continued to cut radishes for the salad. “I’m asking you one more time, whatcha mean you lost your job?”

“It was Anderson, he put his hands on me and I kneed’em in the nuts.”

“Whew!” Norm started laughing. Edie threw the glass salad bowl. It broke into two pieces on the linoleum kitchen floor.

“It’s not funny— drunk fool! He was trying to rape me!”

“Well, whatcha want me to do, get my Smith and Wesson out of the attic and shoot him?”

She wanted Norm to beat the shit out of him then shoot him. But she was a Christian woman.

“I don’t need ya in jail. I just want my pocketbook, that’s all, no money in it.” She shrugged her shoulders. “Just a couple of bus tokens and my new Avon lipstick.”

“Nei da!”

“I came to this country for a better life than what I could find in Norway. Since the day I got off that ship I worked—never pretty like my sister, so I couldn’t marry a rich man and live in a big fancy house. I married you. Thought you and me could make a life for ourselves. But no. You come home drunk with no money!”

“C’mon Edie. We do have a good life.”

“I worked for nineteen years for the beast and what did I get—not a raise or promotion—I got that man putting his hands all over me. Norm I’m tired…tired.”

“I’m gonna do something, Edie.”

“Watcha gonna do with half a leg? You’re lucky the Ford plant kept you on.”

“Just because I got half a leg don’t mean I’m half a man!”

Edie bent down to pick up broken glass to throw into the trash. “C’mon. Eat.”

“I told you I’m not hungry.”

“Uff da! Ya eating, so help me, and set the table!” Norm reluctantly pulled out dishes from the cabinet.

There were days when Edie thought about a divorce. But the next day all would be forgiven—she didn’t hold grudges. She knew Norm tried hard. He worked every day and even put in over-time.  She loved him and he her. When Norm lost his leg in the car wreck, the thought of losing him pulled her down to her knees to pray every night next to the empty space in their bed. They were both tough but soft.  He loved Sjuard, her adopted nephew, like the son she could never give Norm. They would get by—they’d had tough times before. Sjuard always said, “Ma you can squeeze a dolla so tight you can hear it holla!” That boy was the light of Edie’s life.  

~

Thelma Kendrick—a neighbor one house over—walked over to Edie hanging laundry on the clothes line strung between two Elm trees in the backyard. The clothes would dry slowly in the hot and humid August morning. Russell Avenue wives who didn’t work often stopped by each other’s houses to share neighborhood gossip.

Jim told me the flour mill was shut down. Anderson got a job at the Ford plant on the paint line,” said Thelma.

“Too bad,” said Edie. “Norm already told me. Says he swaggers around like he owns the place. Talking about all the women he had at the flour mill. He needs to keep his big mouth shut. The men say they’re tired of it.” Edie stared straight ahead, kept her back to Thelma and continued pulling clothes out of the laundry basket. Her hands began to tremble.

“Edie.”

“Ya.” Edie said wanting her to get on with it.

“He said something terrible about you and Norm hit him; they started fighting.” Edie’s heart raced in her chest. She was certain if she turned around Thelma could see the movement of her chest through her blouse.

“How do you know?”

“Jim called me to tell you. The company tried to reach you but you must have been out. Norm’s got a broken jaw.”

“Uff dah nei!”

“I’m telling you I don’t know how his wife puts up with him. Rosemary is a saint.” Thelma made the sign of the cross. It usually annoyed Edie but she barely noticed this time. She wanted something terrible to happen to the sonaofbitch. She wanted to believe there were trolls to cast an evil spell and turn Anderson into a water bug so she could crush him—grind him into the ground with the heel of her shoe. With Norm in the hospital with a broken jaw, Edie wondered if the mortgage could be paid. She ran numbers through her head.

“That man doesn’t have any shame. You alright, Edie? Jim is gonna take you to the hospital. He’ll be home any minute,” Thelma said.

Edie walked over, sat on the back steps, and buried her head into her hands. Thelma sat next to her; not a word was spoken.

~

It was early November—a cold, damp day. Edie was walking slowly, looking through all of the saloon windows on Washington Avenue when she found Anderson in McAffee’s. When she saw him, it summoned up everything she had suffered—the smell of Brylcreme lingering in her nose, his stubby fingers ripping open her blouse, his high pitched, mocking voice exaggerating mispronounced words she spoke, his leering eyes assessing all of the women’s body parts like they were prized cattle ready for auction, Norm’s broken jaw. All of it bubbled in her head like a cauldron of hot tar. Maybe if she’d been hired at the Curtis Hotel all of the bubbling in her head would have stopped. But a fifty-seven-year-old woman didn’t have the same luck as the young girls—to be hired as a hotel maid.

The gun was heavy in her pocketbook. She had found the 38 Smith and Wesson with the brindle colored handle in the attic inside the wooden steamer trunk Norm’s father had painted with red roses so it would stand out from the hundreds of others aboard the ship to America. Anderson was sitting with his back to the door. It was already half past five and McAffee’s didn’t stay open much longer. The saloon wasn’t big. The mahogany bar took almost all of the space except for three small tables next to the door where patrons who didn’t want to stand at the bar could sit and eat a cold beef sandwich on rye. McAffee was tending bar. Besides Anderson, there were two old men sitting at a table eating sandwiches.

Edie entered the saloon, shouted, “Do you remember me, Anderson?”

Anderson turned around, “Nope.” And smirked, “Should I?”

Edie pulled the gun out of her pocketbook and aimed for Anderson’s head, pulled the trigger. But the bullet found its way to his belly. Anderson bellowed and doubled over. His right hand went to his gut and blood spurted through the fingers as he fell down to his knees. Edie had found the monster in herself.

“Put down the gun. Please lady!” said McAffee. He pointed his sawed off shotgun at her. Edie, stunned by the kick and the noise of the gun, dropped it. She was mesmerized by the blood.

She heard sirens as a young police officer politely asked for her name. The cold steel of the handcuffs encased her wrists. And that was the last thing Edie felt. Only her bones held her upright as the reporter snapped her photograph for the front page of the morning Tribune newspaper.

On the day President Kennedy was shot, no one noticed Edie. On that day her lawyer and a police officer walked her from the city jail to the court house. Norm told her Anderson lived. The judge read the charges against Mrs. Edie Haavik and she plead guilty. The words echoed in her head.

It was the bus drive to the Shakopee women’s prison that made Edie begin to regain her mind and remember all she’d given up by pulling the trigger: friends, like Thelma, her church, her job and the rest of her life changed forever. Still, she knew she would never regret shooting Anderson.

The bus drove through the city onto the highway and she was struck by how naked the city and countryside looked without snow cover. It was as if the city and countryside were mourning the dead president. Edie was surrounded by the talk of children and home by the other women prisoners. In that moment, Edie vowed she would find a way to survive in prison. She remembered the black and white wedding photograph of her and Norm and decided that would be her talisman so she wouldn’t forget the real Edie.

Norm came to visit every week at first, then once a month. She could tell it was wearing him down.  He had changed—there were new wrinkles on the sides of his mouth drawing downwards into a permanent frown. His once thick, curly brown hair was graying around the temples. She never noticed before, but on the back of his head was the beginning of a bald spot.

“I did it for us,” said Edie. She looked at Norm through the glass barrier between them.

“I know, Edie. No need to explain.”

Before the guards could see him, he pressed his lips to the glass.

Norm hadn’t kissed her in public since the day they married at the Minneapolis courthouse. She could feel his lips through the glass, moist and warm.

“Don’t you worry about nothin’ Norm, we gonna make it. Ya just take care of yourself, you hear me now.” She couldn’t talk anymore. If she’d said another word she knew the tears would flow and never stop.

“I’m gonna go on home now. I’ll see you next month.”

~

It was 1966 when Edie was released on parole after serving three years. Sjuard picked her up from the prison. The fall air was crisp, a reminder to her it could snow any day now. Edie rested her head on the car door window; the coolness of the glass relieved her anxiety. They were driving to the resort Norm bought after he sold the house while she was in prison. Norm said Russell Avenue had changed. The blacks rioted on Plymouth Avenue; everything was burned down. Everyone was moving; no one felt safe anymore. Norm convinced her that selling the house and buying a resort was the best thing for them. He said there were six cabins built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930’s—solid structures made of red pine, but the roofs needed some fixing. They had a winterized cabin and the property was secluded. When Norm talked about it, she tuned him out. It made her too sad. She wanted her old house back.

“Ma you know this Chevy Impala drives real nice,” Sjuard glanced over to Edie and grinned. “Feel that smooth leather seat you’re sitting on? Feels good don’t it?”

“Uff da, ya must of spent a pretty penny for this. You know Norm’s gonna be mad because you didn’t buy a Ford.”

“You gotta live a little Ma—get some of the finer things in life. You just can’t work and get nothing out of it.”

Edie closed her eyes and wondered about Sjuard, if he was going to turn out like her sister, his real mother—putting on airs, disguising who she was and where she came from. Maybe it’s in the blood and there wasn’t anything Edie could do about it.

When she opened her eyes again, geese were flying overhead. If only she could feel as strong and sure as those birds in flight. She thought about Norm. He always said up North would be a good place to retire; he could fish and have peace and quiet. She smiled when she thought of Sjuard and Norm on summer weekends, fishing at Glenwood Lake in Theodore Wirth Park.

They drove past woods of tall pines and lakes. All of it reminded Edie of Norway—of her mama and papa. She took a long, deep breath and turned her head before Sjuard could ask her what was wrong. She thought, before she died, she’d have to go back to Norway and plant purple foxglove and star hyacinth on mama and papa’s graves. They were mama’s favorites.  In the distance, Lake Mille Lac shimmered in the final light of the day. Once again, she had left behind the old and was starting a new beginning.


Debra J. Stone is a writer, community activist, actor and non-profit consultant for the bicycle community with deep roots in the North Minneapolis community. She is the Vice-Chair of The Givens Foundation for African American Literature and co-founder and co-facilitator of the Northside Writers Group, a community based writing group that has been meeting at Homewood Studios for ten years. Her poetry has been published in the chapbook, Bringing Gifts, Bringing News, and her short stories published by Black Magnolia Literary Journal, Tidal Basin and other literary journals. She has received a month long residency at the Vermont Studio Center, a two week residency with Callaloo and was a finalist for the Loft Mentor Series in fiction for 2015. Debra was a past participant in the 2011 Givens Foundation Collaborative Black Writers Retreat. She is currently writing a collection of short stories.

One thought on “The Last Norwegians on Russell Avenue

  1. Pingback: The Last Norwegians on Russell Avenue | debrajstone

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