Maria Shippe is a young woman that everyone loves. So, why is Rob and his mother unsure?
Maria Shippe was the sort of relative who rushed in to comfort the bereaved regarding the loss of a mother or father, wife or husband. In this case, it was both a father and husband.
Maria Shippe was also my initial awareness of the beauty of woman. And the danger.
Maria was in her thirties, and married to an obese man with a multitude of health problems. When he was able, Rennie Shippe drove a tractor and trailer truck cross country. To talk to Rennie was to talk trucks and, it was assumed, to love them as much as he did. Maria and Rennie lived in a trailer on the outskirts of town. Our relationship to the Shippes was distant at best, Rennie was the son of my adoptive mother (formally my grandmother) Rita's first cousin Kenneth Shippe, which made Maria a second cousin-in-law by marriage.
But Maria was an outgoing, sociable kind of girl. She would often decide to visit her parents-in-law at around the same time that we would make a similar decision. Rita, who had a penchant for liking just about anyone and guilty of “taking in the stray,” soon grew to like Maria and Rennie. In some way that I don't quite remember, this liking of the Shippes turned into a close relationship after my adoptive father Pete (formally my grandfather) had died a year after my biological mother. Most likely, Maria had as much to do with this bonding as Rita did, although for quite different reasons. It wasn't long before Maria made the two-hundred plus mile trip down to our house on a regular basis and usually stayed for a few days at a stretch. When she wasn't at our place, Maria drove us to hers and returned the favor. As a result of her being a girl from the country that knew practically nothing about the central New Jersey area, it wasn't difficult to get Maria to drive Rita to Newark to settle certain affairs concerning Pete's passing. In this regard, Maria was the perfect person for the job (although not quite as ignorant as one would think).
There were stories and rumors about Maria. That she was somewhat mischievous as a teenager, hung around boys too much for the taste of the local conservative crowd and often got into trouble. These stories were told to Rita by a variety of sources, but this information fell on deaf ears. Rita liked Maria, and so did I. She was fun to be around and extremely helpful.
As I went through my father's possessions one evening, Rita brought to my attention something of importance: four or five small money bags filled with pure silver coins that dated from around the time of the Civil War to the 1920's. In all, there must have been close to five-hundred of these interesting artifacts. Rita explained that these coins were acquired by Mr. Lutz, Pete's boss, on a trip to Las Vegas many years before. They were given to my dad as a token of appreciation for his years of service and friendship. (Pete used to take Mr. Lutz's two sons with him on deliveries into New York City and to other states when they were small boys. Through the years, he had grown quite attached to them.) It was Pete's desire that these coins would go to me someday. They were kept in a strongbox until that time.
“How much are they worth?” I asked Rita.
“I don't know,” Rita said, “but I bet quite a lot. They're pure silver, and most of them are over a hundred years old.”
“Can we find out?”
“When Maria comes down in a couple of days, I'm going to give them to her to get appraised, and then have her put them in her storage box at the bank.”
“Why can't we get them appraised here, in town?”
“Because Maria knows someone up by her. And she has a storage box at the bank. She has the same bank that we do.”
Well, it was interesting, that's for sure. Maria already knew about my coins before I did. She happened to know an appraiser. She happened to have a storage box at the same bank that my mother and I had our savings accounts at up home. Maria lived a good ten miles away from our bank in Orbson, Pennsylvania. It would have been more convenient for her to have a bank in her own town but, of course, that wouldn't have been convenient for Rita and me. After all, Maria was looking out for our convenience, not her own.
Maria arrived a couple of days later; her cheerful self, as always. She took us to the store, we went out to eat. We visited friends and relations in the area. Everyone loved Maria.
“So, I talked to Rennie the other day, and he thinks it's a good idea if you guys find a place to live up by us. I could take you where you want to go, just like now. But it would be more convenient.”
“I would love to get out of here, honey, that's for sure,” Rita said. “Rob would, too.”
“Of course. Rob would go to Union Valley schools. He would make a lot of friends there. Unlike here.”
“Well, if Rennie and you can find a place--”
“We're already looking,” Maria said. A smile. “The next time I take you guys up home, we'll go around and look at a couple of places.”
“That will be good, honey.”
Rita turned to me. “Rob, go get the strongbox upstairs, so Maria can take it back up home with her.”
I did as I was told. Maria's eyes grew wide at the sight of the box in question.
“God, that's heavy.”
“Well, don't worry. We'll see how much these are worth. My friend has been in the coin business for years. And I'll put them away for you so they'll be safe.”
Rita handed Maria the keys to the strongbox. “Here you go, honey.”
Maria laughed. “Yeah, I don't want to forget these.”
One morning shortly after Maria had left, I woke up and made my way downstairs to find Rita sitting in the recliner in the living room. It was obvious that she had been up for hours. She just sat there and stared at the wall with a strange look on her face. Her facial expression scared me, because she looked like someone who had seen a ghost. In truth, this was because she had.
“He came to me last night.”
“Pete, your father.”
“Pete's dead, mom.”
“I know. But he came to me.”
I don't know why this came as a surprise. My family on my mother's side had a reputation for being clairvoyant. My Aunt Rawling (Rita's younger sister) often had visits from her deceased husband. Aunt Rawling was also a practitioner of the Occult. She could tell fortunes and cast spells-- skills taught to her by an ancient Amish woman. With her shocked white hair and cold, blue eyes, Aunt Rawling resembled a witch. One time, my aunt cast a spell on a woman at work who had done her some wrong, and the woman paid dearly by having her hands burnt severely by a pan of boiling hot water. Rita could often see things that no one else could see. Often when we went to church, Rita would see statues of Jesus or the virgin move or smile. Try as I might, I could never see anything but a statue.
“Did he say anything?”
“He said to be careful. And not to sell the house.”
“I don't know. But that's what he told me.”
I didn't totally believe Rita. I thought that Pete had also told her something else, but that she wasn't telling.
A call came from Maria. She had found a few homes in the area that might be suitable, and she wanted to come down to take us up to look at them. She also made another suggestion, that it might be a good idea to get our car registered in Pennsylvania at this time, with her name on the registration. This was something that was talked about by Maria and Rita in the past. Apparently, Maria's car was on its last legs so, of course, Rita thought it a good idea to allow Maria the use of our brand new Cougar when necessary. After all, since we were going to move up by Maria anyway, it did not seem like a far fetched notion. According to Maria, all that was needed was a Notary Public to make the change. And, just as Maria knew a coin appraiser in the area, she also happened to know a Notary as well.
“What about the coins, honey? Did you get a price for them yet?”
“No, not yet. My friend still has them. He's been swamped, lately.”
So, it was decided that Maria would come down to get us the day after tomorrow. But there was to be a slight difference this time. For some reason, my uncle Rog was going to tag along. Why was he coming? I had no idea, but I knew that I would soon find out.
When Maria had arrived the appointed morning, Rog had already been at our house for at least an hour.
“Maria, I want you to meet my son, Rog.”
“Hi, Maria,” Rog said.
“Hi,” Maria said. She was obviously nervous. “Nice to meet you.”
Rog was an imposing sort of man, six feet tall and well over two-hundred pounds, with rock hard German features. He wore his brownish-blond hair short, and his blue eyes peered out at his world behind black plastic, square framed glasses. Another aspect of Maria's demeanor besides nervousness at this point was confusion. She didn't (as I still didn't) know why Rog was there. It was obvious that Rog's coming to Pennsylvania with us was not mentioned to Maria.
“Yeah, I'm coming along. It's been years since I've been in that area. Plus, I didn't go to my step-father's funeral or to my sister's (referring to my adoptive father Pete and my maternal mother Kitty), so I want to visit their graves.”
“Oh. Alright. Sure.”
In a few minutes, we all climbed into the Cougar. Maria would drive, Rita would sit up front, with Rog and me in the back. Maria's car would stay at our place (Rog was driven down by his wife), and when we had returned, she would drive back up home. For some reason, I believed that it would be the last time Maria would need to make that trip.
The trip up was uneventful. There wasn't much conversation. I felt a tension in the car that day with Rog's presence that was never felt when it was just Maria, Rita and me. We got up home around noon. One of the first orders of business was to go to Kitty and Pete's grave sites, who were buried in the same plot as my great-grandparents (Charles present, Loreli absent for another seven years).
From the cemetery, we went to look at the houses in the area that Maria had chosen for us. There were approximately three of them, in about a ten mile radius. Out of the three, maybe one was somewhat attractive. All of the houses looked like they would need quite a bit of work. Of course, Maria knew various carpenters, plumbers and electricians who would give a fair price. Rog was silent during this whole process, and played the part of an observer. Whatever his reason for coming, it definitely wasn't to help choose a house. Nor did I believe that he primarily wanted to visit the grave sites of departed, immediate family members. But still, the question remained: why was he here?
Apparently, Maria had done her homework. One house that she had chosen was located in Rita's hometown. In fact, Rita knew who had lived in this house when she was a young girl, and had been inside the house many times before. As we were shown around, you could almost see and feel the past tugging at Rita's heartstrings. Wouldn't it be wonderful if...
but then she remembered something.
“Let me think about it, Maria,” Rita said.
“Sure, no problem. But you know if you wait too long--”
We said our good-byes to the current residents; most likely, as I recall, some cousin a few times removed. It always amazed me (and still does) how many people Rita Shippe either knew or was related to in some way in this area of a thirty mile stretch, and how many people knew her. Back out at the car, Maria turned to Rita.
“Let's go and see my friend the Notary Public about the car registration.”
It was rather interesting to watch Maria as the day wore on. Although she seemed to have gotten somewhat used to having Rog around, she was not her outgoing, cheerful self. Maria reminded me of a football team that knows it has been knocked out of the playoffs midway through the season, but has to finish out its schedule anyway. Maria's actions were those of someone going through the motions. I think she felt she was losing Rita and me in some way.
Alexandria Crenshaw was a slightly-past-middle-aged woman who lived a few miles away from Maria in a rural, secluded area. The only thing testifying to the fact that Mrs. Crenshaw was appointed by the state to oversee and verify legal or official documents was a small sign that read “Notary Public” tucked inside the screen of her back door. Mrs. Crenshaw had once served as an attorney in the area, but now was content in her present function. Occasionally, she might handle a case for a friend or relative. Her twenty-plus years on the bar had earned Mrs. Crenshaw a reputation for being fair, honest and effective.
“Hi, Maria,” Mrs. Crenshaw said. “How are you doing?”
“I'm fine,” Maria said.
“He's not bad. Not good, but not bad.”
“So, what can I do for you?”
Maria turned to Rita. “This is a relative and friend of mine, Rita B--. Her maiden name is Shippe, like mine.”
“Oh, yes. We spoke on the phone the other day about her.” Mrs. Crenshaw turned to my mother. “You used to live around here, Maria tells me.”
“I was born and raised here.”
“Who were your parents?”
“Loreli and Charlie Shippe.”
“Oh, yes. Loreli. Known around here as Laurie.”
“She's still alive and well, I hear.”
“Yes, mom is still living by herself in Blarneytown at age ninety-one.”
“Good for her. And who are these two fine men?” Mrs. Crenshaw asked.
“These are my sons. This is Rob, who was adopted after his mother, my youngest daughter, died last year. And this is my son, Rog.”
“Very good. Why don't you come into my office,” Mrs. Crenshaw said to Rita. “Maria, why don't you and the gentlemen wait outside?”
“You don't need me?” Maria asked. She was somewhat puzzled.
“Not right now. If I do, I'll call ya.”
The three of us went out onto the porch, while Rita went into Mrs. Crenshaw's office. Although I wasn't present, the conversation between Rita and Mrs. Crenshaw that day was something that often came up in conversation for years to come.
“So, Maria tells me that you want to put her name on your car registration?”
“Yes. Since we're going to be moving--”
“Is that the car?” Mrs. Crenshaw asked. She nodded towards the window where the Cougar sat in the driveway; a mechanical beast at rest.
“Yes, that's it. My husband bought it for me just before he died. It was the last thing he ever bought me.”
“May I ask you a question?”
“Sure, honey. Go ahead. Of course.”
“What would your husband think about this?”
“I beg your pardon? I don't--”
“I mean, dear, he bought the car for you. Do you think that he would want someone else's name on the registration?”
“I-I don't know.”
“Are you sure that you want to do this? Have you given it any thought yourself? Without Maria?”
“Well, I- no.”
Mrs. Crenshaw smiled. “I know. And you have to. Your husband is gone, dear. You have to do the thinking, now. If not for you, then for that boy out there.”
“You think about what I'm telling you, dear. You go off by yourself, without anyone around, and you think. And if then you decide that this is what is best for your son and you, we'll make the necessary changes. But for right now, you think, dear. Understand?”
“Yes. I believe I do. Can I ask you something?”
“How well do you know Maria?”
Mrs. Crenshaw grinned. “Pretty well. I've known her since before she was married. Let's just say that I provided her with some legal services when she was younger. That was early in my career.”
"What kind of services?”
“I'm an attorney, dear, remember?” Mrs. Crenshaw said. She laughed. “You know, client confidentiality and all that.”
“I thought you were good friends.”
“Dear, Maria is the kind of girl that has a lot of good friends.”
“Oh, I see.” Rita laughed timidly.
“Now, could you do me a favor, dear?”
“On the way out, tell your oldest son to stick his head in here a minute. I would like to talk to him a second.”
“You mean Rog? OK”
“Thanks. And remember. Think.”
“I will. Thanks, honey.”
When Rita came out of the office, Maria looked surprised.
“That didn't take long. She didn't need to see me?”
“No. Rog, she wants to talk to you a second.”
Now, it was Rog's turn to look surprised. “Me? What does she want to talk to me for?”
“I don't know. Just go and find out.”
Rog went inside the house as Rita, Maria and I went back to the car.
“What's going on?” Maria asked mom. “Is everything alright?”
“Yes, honey. Everything is fine.”
“Are you sure? What about the registration?”
“Oh, she's all out of registration forms. I guess we're going to have to do it another time.”
“Out of registration forms-- but she knew we were coming.” Maria said. “I better go talk to her.”
“No, Maria, let it go. There's no rush. We'll get to it sooner or later.”
Any further protest or advancement on Maria's part was abruptly halted when Rog's massive frame came through the back doorway and down the porch steps.
“Everything alright?” Maria asked Rog when he had reached the car.
“Sure. Everything's fine. I'm ready to go. Are you?”
When Maria attempted to find out what Mrs. Crenshaw had said to Rog in an off-handed way, Rog would only reply that she needed help moving a file cabinet.
Although Maria offered to put us up for the night, Rita informed her (much to my surprise) that she had reserved rooms at our friend's motel that we stayed at when in the area. We would leave from Maria's, and Rog would drive us there in the Cougar (Maria had a second car available-- Rennie's. Rennie happened to be tagging along with a friend on a delivery out-of-state). Apparently, there was someplace that Rita wanted to take Rog in the morning, but we would be at Maria's house around two o'clock for the return trip to New Jersey. Maria, of course, agreed to this. In truth, she did not have any choice. The thirty mile trip to the motel was a talkative one.
“So, what did Mrs. Crenshaw say to you in there?” Rita asked Rog.
Rog grinned. “She said that she's worried about you, Rita. We all are.”
I soon found out where we were going to be come morning. And the real reason that Rog was needed.
“So, in the morning, we're going to the bank.”
We arrived at the bank around ten o'clock the next morning. Pete and Rita had been customers of Orbson Community Bank for years. Immediately after I was born, they began a savings account for me. I always thought it neat not only to have my own savings account, but also to have it in another state. It kind of felt like I had a Swiss bank account or something. Robert E. Ronz had been with Orbson Community Bank almost since its inception, and had been our personal banker for nearly as long. Mr. Ronz was a friendly sort of fellow, nearing sixty. There was a mole on his cheek, and he peered out at the world through steel-rimmed glasses that enhanced his dancing, blue eyes. Mr. Ronz's hair had been thinning out ever since I could remember. My parents had made quite sure that Mr. Ronz and no one else handled our financial transactions. And Mr. Ronz was only too happy to oblige. We usually spent at least an hour with him on these occasions and discussed the latest news around town. I always enjoyed these times. It was something that I always looked forward to on each trip up home.
“Hi, folks,” Mr. Ronz said. He was told that we were present and came out to meet us.
“Hi, Bob,” Rita said.
“Didn't expect to see you people up here so soon.” It had only been three weeks since our last visit to the bank.
“Well,” Rita said, “we weren't planning on it. This is a little different visit than usual. We need your help on a matter.”
“Sure,” Mr. Ronz said. “Why don't you folks come back to my office.”
The three of us followed Mr. Ronz to the back of the bank where his office was located. Mr. Ronz's office was a secluded one, separate from the main part of the bank. Actually, rather than an office proper, it was more-or-less a large niche that contained Mr. Ronz's desk, file cabinets and room for stacks of white boxes containing bank documents of various sorts. After Rog was introduced to Mr. Ronz and a few minutes of small talk was concluded, Mr. Ronz brought us to the matter at hand.
“So, what can I do you folks for today?”
Rita got straight to the point. “Do you know Maria Shippe?”
“Sure. Ken and Olivia's boy's wife. She was in here with you a few times. The last time, if I recall correctly.”
“Do you know if she has a safety deposit box here?”
Mr. Ronz sat back and pondered, then shook his head. “Well, I'll tell ya, Rita, I'm quite sure she doesn't. I don't even think that she has an account here with us. I don't see why she would. Doesn't she live out on the other side of Union Valley there, somewhere?”
“Right. On the road going out of Union Valley to Kinsler.”
“Uh, huh. Now I'm sure that Ken and Olivia don't have an account here. Not for years. Did Maria tell you she had one here?”
Rita related the whole story to Mr. Ronz: the coins, the offer by Maria to get the coins appraised, the claim that she had a safety deposit box and that she would store the coins in it for safekeeping. It was difficult to know exactly what Mr. Ronz thought, but he was definitely all ears.
“And you're quite sure she said this bank?”
“Quite sure. As God is my witness.”
“Mr. Ronz rose up out of his seat. “Hold on. I'll be back in a few.”
When Mr. Ronz had returned ten minutes later, his findings were conclusive: no account, no safety deposit box. There never was either, and definitely not now.
“I'm sorry, Rita,” Mr. Ronz said.
“I'm sorry, too,” Rita said. She sighed and looked at me.
Mr. Ronz leaned back in his seat once again. “You know, when I saw you in here with Maria, I didn't want to say anything. But she was pretty reckless as a teenager.”
“So I've heard,” Rita said. “In trouble with the law?”
“I don't rightly recall, Rita. She's what? About thirty-five? This was at least fifteen, twenty years ago, now. I know that her brothers were known to have a reputation as hell-raisers themselves. She did seem to settle down somewhat after she married Rennie. But still, I'd be careful. You know Rennie's health problems. I don't think he works half the time anymore, and they probably have some financial difficulties. Now, you didn't hear this from me.”
“Of course not, Bob. But thanks, anyway.”
“You're welcome, Rita. You know it. Wish I had better news to report.”
“So do I, Bob.”
After leaving the bank, we stopped and got a bite to eat before we headed on out to Maria's. The coins were gone, there was no denying it. Without any documentation, it was basically Rita's word against Maria's. So, in effect, there never were any coins to begin with. Except for one bag, which I had found after Rita died, twelve years later. I sold them to a local appraiser for six-hundred dollars. Three or four thousand dollars, unlike today, was a lot of money back in the early eighties. Enough to put a good-sized down payment on a nice, new car, or even to use towards the purchase of a new house...
We arrived at Maria's that day at two o'clock, as promised. The trip home was rather uneventful and quiet. It was decided by Rita and Rog not to make a four hour trip an ordeal for all involved. However, the tension in the car was present and enveloping, like a heavy London fog. Back at home, just before Maria left, Rita decided to deal with the matter at hand, in her own way.
“Oh, I forgot to tell you, honey. Rog took us to the bank this morning. Mr. Ronz said 'hi.'”
“Mr. Ronz. At the bank in Orbson. Where we both have our accounts. Where you have the safety deposit box.”
“I don't have a safety deposit box there.”
“Sure you do. That's what you told me, isn't it? That you had an account and a safety deposit box at my bank in Orbson? That's where you're keeping the coins for Rob, remember?”
Maria laughed nervously and shook her head. “No. My bank is in Union Valley. That's where the safety deposit box is. Why would I have an account in Orbson?”
“That's what you told me.”
“No, I didn't.”
Rita looked at Maria and smiled. “Yes, you did, Maria.” She said this in a low, quiet voice that was firm and direct, but still could be regarded as polite.
Maria was speechless.
“But, anyway,” Rita said. She held out her arms. “Give me a hug.” Maria obliged, and then obliged me.
“You take care of yourself, honey.” Rita said.
“I will.” Maria said. Teary-eyed.
“Why are you crying, for?” Rog asked. A cold stare by Rita. A Satanic grin.
Maria ignored this statement and said good-bye to Rog. She turned and walked slowly out to her car. In a few minutes, she was gone.
Rita and I never saw Maria again after that parting. We found out sometime later that Rennie and Maria had moved out of their trailer and lived elsewhere. And, as strange as it may seem, whenever I think about Maria these days, I can't help but feel a tinge of both pity and excitement. Pity, for maybe in some small way, I had provided Maria with a new lease on life. I am not one to deny anyone happiness in this life, even if it is at my own expense. Who is to say that I wouldn't have done the same as Maria in a similar situation? As much as we strive to deny it, the person that we know the least about is ourselves. And excitement, for early on it was stated that Maria was my initial awareness of the beauty of woman, and the danger. To this day, I believe this statement wholeheartedly.
For I have since come to realize that it is oftentimes the danger of a woman wherein the beauty lies.