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The magical geranium.


The rosy-cheeked old mansitting in the back of the parked car looked rich. He wore a fine black camel's-hair overcoat, his silk scarf was white as snow, and his hands rested on a gold-headed cane. If you looked a second time, his blue eyes were too merry, his glance too inquisitive. Such a merry look did not belong to wealth, and he was, in fact, not a rich man at all. The fine car belonged to his grandson. His son had given him the overcoat, his daughters the scarf and cane. They were always giving him things, his children and his grandchildren. They vied with one another in invitations to him. For he was what he looked to be, a merry old man. He never asked for anything. It was a rule of his. And with the perversity of human nature, everyone pressed things upon him.

He had a tiny income of hisown he had acquired by careful hoarding in an earlier day. It permitted him to keep a room for himself at Mrs. Caloway's. When he stayed in it, Mrs. Caloway fed him simply and frugally. He liked to visit his children. But if their houses became crowded with guests or if he himself got out of tune with them, he had his own place to go to. To have this was the very breath of life to him.

Today, the old man waitedwith a kind of dreamy patience for his grandson, Tom Paul, his namesake. There had begun in him a slow simmering, like a kettle that is just getting good and warm but not yet boiling. He knew this feeling would take him, in a day or two, back to his own quarters. A small thing had happened at breakfast--he was not sure what it was, but something had made him think about his mother. There must have been many years of his life, he knew, when he had scarcely thought of her. But as he got older, it seemed that the great things in his life--his work, his marriage, his children--faded away from him, and he went back to her again and to his childhood. But he was thinking only vaguely this morning. It was more of a mood than a memory. Then he saw the boy with the pot of flowers.

The lad was walking slowly, carryingthe pot of flowers in both hands. It was a small pot, and the flower was a modest flower, a red geranium with two bright blooms on it. The little fellow was intent upon not dropping it.

Old Mr. Paul leaned forwardsharply and stared at the boy. His mood was crystallized, and he was filled with the memory of sharp pain. He closed his eyes. He fought back the tide that threatened him. When he opened his eyes, he saw his grandson coming toward the car. As soon as young Tom opened the door, the old man spoke to him.

"I want to go home,Tom," he said. "I want to go right away."

"To Mrs. Caloway's? Right away,grandfather?"

"Right now. Your mother can sendmy suitcase to me. I'll want to stay at home for several days."

"Right!" Tom said. He drovestraight to Mrs. Caloway's.

She was just going out, and shewaited on the stairs until Tom took the old man up to his room, hung his coat and hat away, settled him comfortably in his big chair by the front window. Tom went out quietly and closed the door behind him. From the street he looked up at his grand-father's window. Mr. Paul was just sitting there where he had left him, but he did not look out or down at Tom. The youn man knew that he was forgotten.

It seemed incredible, looking backon it, that they really did not have any home at all. Their worldly possessions were so few and so flimsy they could all be packed into one small old carpetbag that could be carried along easily as they went from place to place. For there were only his mother and he. They were never parted, even for a day. But the fact remained, and neither of them ever forgot it, that they had no home.

He must have been about eightyears old. The ravages of the Civil War still lay on the Missouri country in the 1870s. The circumstances of his father's death his mother told him when he was older. He could remember his father. He could remember now the memory of him, mostly a soft, low voice and a soft dark beard. But his father was gone, and at that time--at the time of the potted geranium--he and his mother were alone.

They "visited." Strange that hehad never seen before that, save for this room, he did the same thing now. But they had no room then, no place of their own. No home, no home! He and his mother visited Aunt Beth, and Cousin Orinda, and Uncle Andrew, among them. Cousing Orinda was rich; Aunt Beth had only a small house, and Uncle Andrew lived in a double log cabin with a breezeway.

Wherever they went, his motherimmediately began to sew. She was not a "pretty little mother," not even then, although he supposed she was not yet 30. She was tall and gaunt, with brown arms and fierce blue eyes and straight, thick brown hair. She was very clean. She had a sachet even in the old carpetbag that had been his father's.

There were a number of things inthat carpetbag--except money. They never had any money. The brass insignia from his father's Union army uniform were pinned to the lining. A few worn, much-read letters of his father's; his father and mother's "permission to marry," written out on foolscap paper; his grandmother's worn old Bible with all the family names in it. There was linen underwear for both of them and yoked shirts for him, with homespun pants. A pair of shoes, too, though he did not wear them often. His mother's good black silk dress, with the garnet pin and garnet earrings, was folded intoan old pillowslip. The calico Mother Hubbard dresses she wore daytimes and when she was sewing. There was, too, a set of charts, which were her means of living. He could see them yet, unfolded and spread out on the floor, with rows of little perforations, so that she could mark out the size of pattern needed. One was for a gored skirt, one for a basque, one for a jacket. There was nothing she could not make with those patterns, along with her clever hands and her big sharp scissors.

They were always welcome. Aslong as there was sewing to do, they were as welcome as they could be. Tommy, taught he must always be a help, was a good little guest. He watched younger children and kept them from harm. He filled woodboxes and carried water. He got along with other children and just accepted what came his way, without asking for anything. His mother taught him that he must never ask. No matter what it was or how much he wanted it, he must never ask. They were poor, she told him. They were dependents. He thought of himself and his mother as "widows." God pity the widowed and the fatherless!

But the time always came when allthe sewing was done. There would be a few days of visiting. Then it was suggested that his mother could help with the work, because there were so many mouths to feed, or go stay with a neighbor with a new baby. And she would "get her back up." She was willing to sew. She was not willing to cook or clean for her board and his. There was, in her mind, some great distinction.

She would begin to write letters. Orword would come from some relative that she was needed. She would pack the old carpetbag and bid farewell all around, and they would start out, all too often on foot. They would walk through the whole long summer day on the empty, dusty roads and come at evening to a new place, 7, 10, or even 12 miles away. Tommy loved those journeys, though he did grow bone tired.

So they left Uncle Andrew's oneday in late spring and move to Cousin Orinda's. Word had been sent to them that Cousin Orinda's daughter, Marlene, was going to be married.

Tommy was happy and his motherwas happy too. She was always gay when they were alone. She talked about his father, about the home they would share someday. She had heard they paid good round silver dollars for bonnets and jetted basques in places like St. Louis. As it was, no one ever thought of paying her.

Cousin Orinda had a big hosue. Thehouse and the farm were on the edge of the railroad and the little town where Cousin Welch Wilson owned the grain elevator. They were not rich at all, compared to modern standards, but they were rich for then and there. They had mahogany furniture, green velvet upholstered, in the darkened parlor. There were big, square bedrooms upstairs, and he and his mother were taken to one at the back of the house. It was not so nice a room as the others they looked into. But it was clean, and there was a cot bed for him and a clothes press. His mother unpacked the carpetbag. Cousin Orinda was a very thin woman with black eyes. Tommy was afraid of her. Her husband, Welch Wilson, was a huge, fat, soft man with gray eyes and gray hair. Then there was five-year-old Damon, and Marlene, who was to be married.

When Tommy and hismother had washed away the dust of their day's walk and his mother had combed her hair and his, she dropped her hands on his shoulders and spoke to hims softly: "You must be very good here, Tommy. Cousin Orinda is contrary."

She was trembling a little. He knowshe was tired, and both of them were hungry. They went downstairs. He was footsore and the carpet felt wonderful. He could smell beef cooking, and his mouth watered. There was a hired girl named Sarah who was putting plates on the table. Cousin Orinda and Cousin Welch were in the parlor. There was company.

His mother paused at the parlordoor, and Cousin Orinda said, "Come in, Amelia. Let Tommy go out in the yeard with Marlene and Damon. I guess you don't know Marlene's beau, LAban Applegate, do you?"

Tommy lingered in the door longenough to look at the remarkable young man who rose to greet his mother. He was very tall. He was all golden, hair and beard, and he wore a fringed doeskin hunting jacket. He looked over his mother's shoulder and winked at Tommy. Tommy ran out-of-doors at once. Marlene and Damon were in the yard. Marlene had a pail of milk, and she was coaxing a brindle calf to drink from it.

"Hello, Tommy," she said. "Didyou see Mr. Applegate?"

"Yes," Tommy said. "Yes, I sawhim."

Damon hopped about, and Tommysaid, "Let me help. I'll hold the pail so he can't budge it." He got down on his knees and held the pail.

Marlene let the calf back into thebarnyard, and they stopped at the pump and washed the milk from their hands and rinsed out the pail. It was a wooden pail bound with brass.

"It's mine," Marlene told him,"and so is the calf. I'll take her with me when I go to my new home. Pump the bucket full again, Tommy. Let's water my geraniums. I want them all in bloom for my wedding."

Tommy pumped, and he and Marlenecarried the full pail around to the east side of the house. There, in a bed, the geranium plants were set out. Each one was budded, but there were no blooms. They poured out a dipper of water on each plant. Marlene plucked off a big leaf and crumpled it and rubbed it in Tommy's hands.

"That will take the calf smell off ofyou," she said. His nose was filled with the pungent, spicy fragrance, and he put his hands up to his face and inhaled a great gulping breath.

"Don't you think Mr. Applegate ishandsome?" Marlene demanded. "He's so pretty I can hardly eat for looking at him! He was a drummer boy in the War Between the States. Did you know he was in your father's regiment and knew your father? He's a surveyor now for the railroad company."

They went in by the kitchendoor. Sarah turned and spoke to Marlene.

"Supper's most up," shesaid. "You'll have to hurry if you change. Your ma said Tommy'd eat at the second table with me."

"He'll do no such thing!" Marleneflared. "I won't eat at the first table myself if Tommy doesn't! Mr. Applegate and I will wait for him!"

Cousin Orinda came to thedoor and listened to Marlene. The young girl looked at her mother, her head thrown back. Cousin Orinda said to Sarah, "Put a plate for him, then," and to Tommy she said, "Mind your manners!"

Tommy did not answer. Hismother had taught him how to act. He sat at his place beside her and didn't so much as open his mouth, save to put food into it. He scarcely heard the adult conversation. But he became aware that Mr. Applegate was watching him.

Mr. Applegate said, "It's true,then!"

Tommy wiped his mouth andlooked at Mr. Applegate. "what?" he asked.

"That boys have hollow legs!" Mr.Applegate said.

Tommy looked at his mother. Shewas smiling, so he laughed, too.

The young man said, "He is likehis father, Mrs. Paul. He's like the lieutenant. Save he'll never have the black beard his father had. He must be a great comfort to you."

"Yes," Tomy's mother said,"but I need to get settled, so he can go to school every winter. I've taught him to read and do his sums, but it's not enough. His father wanted him to have schooling. I though," she said, turning to Cousin Welch, "I might someday have a place of my own and buy a sewing machine and have people come to me to do their sewing and pay me cash for it. Do you think I could do that?"

"It hardly sounds respectable tome," Cousin Orinda said. "A woman living alone? And where would you get the money? Women have small judgment in money matters. No bank will lend to them."

"Men don't always havegood judgment either," Amelia said. "I once had the money. There was quite a bit from my husband--$900, all told. The judge would not let me administer the estate. He appointed a man we hardly knew, and he put it all in railroad bonds. Not your railroad," she said quickly, looking at Mr. Applegate. "this was one that never got off of paper onto the tracks. I'd have bought a sewing machine and charts and things for trimming--passementerie and braid and buttons--and set up a dressmaking and millinery shop of my own. But now the money is gone!"

"You'd have done somethingas foolish as he did, no doubt," Cousin Orinda said.

Marlene began to talk inher soft, quick voice. She told Mr. Applegate Amelia would make her wedding dress. They had sent away for white satin, and it had come.

"It will be the prettiest dress thisside of the Mississippi," she added with satisfaction. "My geraniums will bloom, and we'll put them in my little clay pots and place them all along the carpeting and make the parlor look like a flower garden."

Mr. Applegate looked happy tohear all this. But Cousin Orinda came back to Tommy's mother.

"Amelia should marry again,"Counsin Orinda said acidly. "she needs a man to protect her. She cannot afford to expose herself to gossip, borrowing for a millinery business, trying to live alone!"

"Everyone should be married,"Mr. Appllegate said happily. "I'm for that!" He looked at Marlene.

"I've been married once," Tommy'smother said. "It was perfect. I never want to be married to anyone else."

Cousin Welch Wilson put anotherpiece of meat on Tommy's plate. "Eat just a little more," he said, "then we'll have pie."

"I'll not look at the cloth tonight,"his mother said when they rose. "Tommy and I are tired."

The went to their room. He didnot want to wash the geranium off his hands, and his mother let him go to bed with his palms still fragrant.

There was fresh beefsteak forbreakfast in the morning, and everyone was cheerful. Mr. Applegate left right after breakfast to go to his own place for a few days. Tommy and Damon did a round of chores, and his mother disappeared, sewing, in Marlene's room. It seemed to Tommy that each day began well, but that by night Cousin Orinda was full of anger. The kinder Marlene and her father were, the meaner Cousin Orinda acted. If Damon had the smallest mishap, Cousin Orinda blamed Tommy for it.

Together the boys hunted for eggsand kept the woodbox full. They pumped water from the well for the washing and for the big, round wooden tub that sat in the sun on the upstairs gallery all day for Marlenehs bath. Tommy filled all the water pitchers in the bedrooms. He tried to do whatever he could. For he was happy until the evening meal. he did not know why Cousin Orinda seemed always angry. His mother did nothing to provoke her but was always sewing, sewing--in Marlene's room all day, in their room at night. She spread a clean sheet on the carpet so the satin wedding dress would be clean. Sometimes Marlene sat with her and they sewed together.

"Show me how to make a placket,Amelia. I won't always have you to sew for me," Marlene would say, and his mother would show her. Tommy would go to sleep with their soft voices in his ears.

Once or twice he thoughthe heard his mother crying in the night, but when he sat up, she would be still as the grave--a slender wave in the middle of the bed.

Every morning they visiteda little while she cleaned their room before they went down to breakfast. Every morning Cousin Orinda began the day by talking about the sewing, about the dark red serge for next winter, or the cream challis with green sprig in it, or the linen underthings, or the wedding dress itself. And every evening, by the time they got to the table and Cousin Welch piled food on Tommy's plate and asked Tommy's mother if she was not weary from sewing constantly, or Marlene began to praise the work his mother was doing, then Cousin rinda was angry and thin lipped and mean again.

Little as he was, Tommy began tosee that the others did his mother no kindness to show her so much praise and courtesy.

The spring days flew by Mr. Applegatecame back and then went away again and was gone for a whole week. When he came back the second time, he brought another young man with him, who was to be his best man. Marlene's school friend, Abby, came, and all the great preparations began. It was Thursday, and on Sunday was the wedding. The wedding dress was finished and covered with a sheet and hung in Marlene's room. And the red serge was finished, and the light challis, and all the other things. All day Friday his mother sewed at little things--buttons and hooks and eyes, trimming and hems, ribbons and furbelows--finishing, finishing.

Sarah turned out great loaves ofbread, and she baked pies and cakes and set them on the pantry shelves. Tommy kept up a steady trot between the woodpile and the woodbox. Tommy helped Marlene transplant the geranium plants from the flower bed to the little clay pots. He helped set them just where she wanted them, where she and Mr. Applegate would stand before the wilderness preacher. The geraniums were beautiful. Tommy wished his mother could have one. There was one particular plant with three great blooms. He forgot he was not supposed to ask for things. He looked at Marlene.

But before he could speak,she said to him,"That one is yours! You shall have it for your very own. After I'm married, you can tell them all that it is yours." She kissed him and put his thick, overlong hair back from his forehead. She said, "Never forget me, Tommy Paul."

"NEver!" he said, hisheart bursting with happiness.

There were so many at thesupper table, and there was such good food. Cousin Welch did not neglect him, though he talked to Abby and the young men too.

But he said to Amelia, "So you arealmost done. . .and a brake job, I understand."

"I can finish tonight, after supper,and tomorrow I have only to press things and help Marlene get packed."

"My things are beautiful,"Marlene said. "When all the company comes on Sunday, I'll tell them all that you made everything for me, Amelia! I never knew anyone that could sew as beautifully as you can!"

"Do you still think about startingyour own place, Mrs. Paul?" Mr. Applegate asked her.

Tommy looked up and saw the redstain his mother's cheek.

"I'd have to go to St. Louis or toSpringfield. It's so far. It would cost too much money, and I have none."

"But--don't you get paid for yoursewing?" he asked, astonished. There was a little silence, and Tommy's mother said firmly, "Yes, I am paid. I am well-paid."

Tommy and Marlene both lookedat her, surprised. Tommy was pleased his mother was being paid. It made him feel softer to Counsin Orinda.

Then Cousin Orinda cut acrossMarlene's chatter. Her voice was thin and cold. "Impractical dreams?" she said. "A dressmaking shop! Amelia had best be grateful for the kindness of her kin and the shelter they give her and her boy. Gratitude is more becoming to a woman than outlandish ambitions. It degrades a woman to talk of money all the time. For many generations it has been the custom that dependent females should earn their keep with sewing and baby-tending and other work."

No one spoke. Tommy's stomachhurt.

Cousin Orinda could not stop. "Iwant to hear no more talk of Amelia borrowing money to set up a place of her own. It is not respectable and would cause gossip about her and those who loaned to her."

No one answered. Tommy foundhe was trembling.

Later, in their own room, his mothersat, white-faced and still but sewing. She scarcely looked at him or spoke to him. He stood before her, unable to get at her for Marlene's white petticoat she had spread across her knees.

But he said, "Motheh, let's not stayhere. Let's go away. I don't like Cousin Orinda, and, mother, she doesn't like us."

"I'll finish my work, Tommy. Whateveranyone says, if it is not true, it will never hurt me. But if I leave something that can be said that's true, then the fault is mine. Besides, Welch and Marlene have been kind. We must stay until the wedding is over."

"Mother, did she pay you? Didshe pay you silver dollars?"

"You've gained in weightand height. You've never grown so fast. Now, go to bed!"

He undressed reluctantly. Hefelt her slights and hurts in hiw own flesh. He knew now she had not been paid. Marlene and Mr. Applegate and Abby and the other young man were walking in the yard. He looked out the window at them. Damon was down there on the lawn, and he longed to be out. The room was hot and moths trembled about the candle. He stayed at the window until he could scarcely see the gleam of Marlene's light dress. He felt his mother dreaded to start moving again. But when Marlene and Mr. Applegate were married and went away to their new house, Tommy would not want to stay here any longer.

He went to bed at last. His handsstill smelled of geranium. He lay on his side with his hands clasped on the pillow. He went to sleep and dreamed. He dreamed he was walking along a road with his mother, and he was carrying the little pot with the geranium in it, when suddenly the plant began to grow. It grew so fast he had to put it down on the ground. It grew right up into a little tree, and then it spread out flat and made a roof and then grew down in a curtain all around and made a house! And there he and his mother were, sitting beside the little pot in rocking chairs, with green leaves for walls and roof and flowers growing here and there all through it. They had a house of their own. The whole place smelled beautiful. His mother was laughing, and she said, "Now I can get a sewing machine, and we will live here forever."

Tommy sat up in bed. Someonewas knocking at their door. The light was scarcely gray at the windows. It was very early morning. He got out of bed in his nightshirt, and his mother rose and opened the door. Cousin Orinda stood there with a candle in her hand.

She came into the room and put thecandlestick down on the dresser. The light shone up on her black eyes and made them look red.

"I thought you would want to getan early start," she said to Tommy's mother.

"An early start?"

"Yes," said Cousin Orinda, smiling. "Ifyou are going to walk clear to Uncle Andrew's today, you need to start at once."

Mother opened her mouth and thenclosed it again. She just looked at Cousin Orinda.

The other kept on smiling and talking. "Yourwork is finished. There's no reason for you to linger. I can press the things myself, or Sarah can." The smile slipped from Cousin Orinda's face.

Tommy crowded against his mother. "Seekingadmiration from one and all! With your independence and your spirit! Wanting to borrow money--my husband has no money to lend to you! Neither will Marlene's husband!"

Tommy's mother caught her breathbut did not speak.

"Sarah is preparing breakfast foryou and will give you a lunch to carry, and the sooner you go, the better!"

"We need no food, no lunch fromyou," Amelia said. "We will go quickly. We cannot go quickly enough. Now, please leave us!"

Cousin Orinda went out and closedthe door. Tommy's mother got the carpetbag out. Tommy began to dress. He was cold. He was trembling. The light was paling at the windows, and his mother moved about swiftly. She did not speak to him or look at him.

Tommy said, "I have something todo. Something that is mine----"

"Go ahead," she said. "Wait forme at the gate."

Tommy slipped down the stairs inthe silent house. He went into the parlor. He could smell meat frying, and his stomach curled. But he had heard what his mother said. In the parlor was the geranium Marlene had given to him. It was the one he had dreamed about, the one that would grow into a house for them. He picked it up in both hands and ran out of the house and waited outside the front gate in the dusty, rutted road. The brids were singing like made in the trees. The sun was just coming up over the rim of the world. He was sorry he could not say good-by to Marlene and Damon, to Mr. Applegate and Cousin Welch.

His mother was coming. She woreher brown merino dress and her brown sailor hat, and she was carrying the carpetbag. Her back was very straight. She scarcely looked at him, and they started out to walk. But they were not walking back to Uncle Andrew's. They were walking straight toward the rising sun.

"Where are we going?" he asked.

"We are going to St. Louis. We aregoing to walk all the way."

He was a little frightened at thelook of her. He felt they could not walk all the way to St. Louis, which was a far and legendary place. But he tried to keep up with her. The day was growing warm. The sun rose clear of the edge of the world and stared down into their faces. He was thirsty and hungry. They walked on and on. At last he could bear no more.

At last he said to her, "Mother, Iam hungry. I am thirsty, mother."

She stopped. She turned aroundand looked at him. She looked a little wild. She said, "What have you got there? What is it?"

"It's my plant. Marlene gave it tome. It's my geranium."

"You must take it back. CousinOrinda will say you stole it."

"Mother, it is mine. It was Marlene's,and she gave it to me. It's for you. "I'm carrying it for you. I want to give it to you for a present." His eyes were blind with tears, but he repeated, "I'll carry it. I'll carry it all the way."

She put out a hand and touched it. Sheput her hand up and touched his face. She looked up and down the empty road and all around, as though she did not know where she was. The bank beside her was blue with wild flowers. There was an old rail fence, and a big tree made a natural shelter over it. She sat down on the bank and leaned against the tree. Suddenly she turned from him, her arm against the tree, her face against her arm, and she began to cry. He stood there with the pot of flowers in his hand, and he was riven and overwhelmed. He could not move or speak. He had never heard her cry before, but now her sobs tore her, and they tore him too. Her carpetbag lay on the ground, and the dusty road was quiet. All the birds were still. All sounds of field and meadow stopped, and the whole earth lay crushed and silent, filled with the sound of her dark despair. And there was nothing he could do at all.

It was always hard for himto remember afterward the things that followed that stark and terrible moment, the worst of his whole life. Then far away he saw the cloud of dust, and then the rig, riding toward them, the mare coming at a trot. They were coming after the geranium! But nothing more could happen to him. He stood dumbly, clutching his flower. The horse and rig came on fast. It was Mr. Applegate and MArlene! But he could not even feel joy to see them. Not then.

They lifted Amelia from the bank. Theyput her in the rig. The carpetbag and Tommy, with his plant, went up on the back. Marlene held his mother in her arms and let her cry. Fragments of their talk came back to him even yet.

"You must forgive her," Marlenesaid. "She has a jealous heart. She can't bear to see someone else loved or praised. She couldn't bear to have you to the wedding, and everyone saying how wonderfully you had made my dresses. She can't help it, Amelia. Mr. Applegate and I will help you. We are going to pay you for my wedding clothes. We are agreed. We're sending you to his sister in St. Louis, and she'll look after you."

There was the little depot and foodin a strange house, and then the train. There was the woman who met them in St. Louis with the bright shawl over her curly head. She was Mr. Applegate's own sister. She had a parlor where Tommy's mother sewed. There was the sewing machine--a wonderful contraption that Tommy was not allowed to touch. And they lived there, and Tommy went to school.

But actually, from the time hismother sat down on the bank and wept until it slowly came home to him that they would not move again, that they really had a home, there was always that dazed and stricked interval.

He carried the little flower pot allthe way to St. Louis. It sat on the window sill where his mother sewed, and it bloomed and bloomed. They had it a long time, it seemed to him. Like all material things, it passed away, and he did not know when or how.

The old man sighed. The daylightwas fading. And there was the car, with his grandson, Tom Paul, and Tom had his luggage. But he sat on at the window, not moving. He was tired. The road had been hot and dusty, and the walk, long. He could still smell the spicy fragrance of geranium.
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Title Annotation:short story
Author:Jackson, Margaret Weymouth
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Date:Jul 1, 1987
Previous Article:Remember the alimony.
Next Article:Ben Franklin's Philadelphia.

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