Standing by his truck at a pump at the Mobile gasoline station in Wasta, Jake Meggers said, “Even though Wasta is a small town, I’m one of the few people who actually knew the folks who built that house out there on highway 1416.”
It was extremely hot and the air was still. Heat rose up from the concrete in visible waves.
Jake took off his white Stetson and wiped sweat from his bald head with a red handkerchief. “Tom and Louise Forman were well educated, but building that house across from the mudflat wasn’t very smart, if you ask me.”
Heading west on I-90, the town of Wasta seems almost hidden. Entering the town there is a fork in the road that leads either to A Street on the left or up Elm Street on the right. The quietude of Wasta is immediately apparent. It’s a place of modest homes and few businesses. It shows no signs of wanting to be a tourist attraction like it’s nearest neighbor, Wall, which is less than five miles east.
“I’ve lived here my entire life,” Jenny Tompkins said. Jenny Tompkins runs a beauty parlor out of her house on Pine Street. “The house out by the mudflat was built the same year I was born, forty years ago. Unless you want to see that part of the Cheyenne River, there’s not much reason to go out there.”
She tapped her lit cigarette with the end of her index finger, knocking ashes onto the front stoop of her house. “Mary Forman was the same age as me and we went to elementary school together. As soon as she was old enough, her parents sent her away to some private boarding school. The Formans were wealthy. They had to have been to build a house that size practically in the middle of nowhere.”
About the size of half a football field, the gray, soupy, sticky six foot deep mud of the mudflat borders a shallow, slow moving narrow stretch of the Cheyenne River. Dead trees stick out of the mud at intervals, their bare, broken limbs reaching up as if grasping for a lifeline. On the other side of the river is a ten foot wall of dirt and rock. Cows meander through prairie grass along the plateau above the wall.
“This really isn’t part of Wasta’s town limits,” Breed said. Breed Watkins was Wasta’s mayor. “But we’ve sort of adopted it as ours, mainly because of the Forman house, which as you can see is the only structure along this stretch of highway 1416.” He pushed his blue ball cap back on his head. “It’s the only house ever built along here.”
“The mayor doesn’t know what he’s talking about,” Jake Meggers said. “Dan Huffman and his wife had a small house on that exact spot. They sold the property to the Formans. His wife is dead but he’s in a nursing home in Rapid City and though I think he’s going on ninety, I visited him recently and his mind seems clear as a bell, so you can ask him yourself.”
The Dakota Care Nursing home is a long, rectangular, one-story red brick building surrounded by well manicured grounds of lush grass and tall cedar pines. Wood benches are placed along a narrow walkway on the southern side of the building.
Even though it was warm, there was a pleasant breeze that carried the scent of pine from the trees. With the assistance of a male aide and using a walker, Dan Huffman shuffled to the bench and sat down. His face was brown as leather and a topographical map of wrinkles. He had no teeth.
“Sure I can tell you all about the place me and Doris had out there in Wasta,” he said. “That was many years ago though. I had been in the Army and had just come back from serving in Korea and didn’t have much money. Doris didn’t want to live in town. She never was one for being social. So we bought that bit of land near the river. I built the place with my own two hands. Building a house is a pretty simple thing to do.” He started to cough and spit out a wad of phlegm onto the walkway. “What was I saying? Oh, building a house. You here to have me teach you how?”
Inside Jenny Tompkins’ house, Celia Grant was seated beneath a hair dryer and reading a People Magazine while the dryer loudly whirred. Celia was extremely thin, to the point of looking emaciated. Her lips and eyes were surrounded by many small wrinkles.
There was only one station for doing hair and it was set up where a dining room used to be. Everything in the house was pink; the walls, carpets, upholstery on the furniture.
Jenny had her bleach blonde hair tied into a bun on the top of her head. “Sure, I knew Dan and Doris Huffman. They lived over on B Street when I was growing up. That’s the thing about living in a town this size. You get to know everybody. Dan was always friendly, but his wife stayed to herself and didn’t seem interested in talking to anyone. I think she was probably happier when they were living further out.” She took a drag on her cigarette then exhaled a smoke ring. “I wonder if you’re born a anti-social or life makes you that way?”
Celia Grant pushed the dryer up. “I think you have the heat set on too high,” she said. Her voice was high pitched, as if she was on the verge of shrieking.
Doris rolled her eyes and got up from her overstuffed pink chair and went over and adjusted the heat setting on the dryer then lowered it on Celia’s head, then came back and sat down again.
“You should talk to Celia sometime. She was friends with Louise Forman,” she said.
At his house on North Elm Street, Jake Meggers sat on his porch swing drinking a large glass of lemonade. After each sip he shook the glass, making the large ice cubes clink against the glass.
“Mary Forman wasn’t the only one in that family who was a bit odd,” he said. “Any time I went out there to do some kind of plumbing repair it was like entering one of those mausoleums. There was so much furniture in every room and heavy drapes on every window that no matter what noise was made, it was muffled. Louise was talkative, but Tom, and Mary if she was around, which wasn’t often, acted as if their mouths had been sewn shut. I’d have lunch with them sometimes and with the exception of talking with Louise, there was almost no conversation.” He clinked the ice against the glass. “When I said I knew the Formans, what I meant was that I knew Louise.”
“The house has been empty for fifteen years,” Mayor Watkins said. “That’s longer than I’ve lived in Wasta. From my understanding the bank in Wall is handling the Forman estate since Tom and Louise’s deaths. Mary Forman lives in Sioux Falls, but from what I’ve heard she wants nothing to do with the house or with Wasta.” He reached beneath his cap and scratched his red hair with his pudgy fingertips. “You didn’t know Mary Forman was still living?” He turned and looked at the house. “I wish I had seen it before it went to ruin.”
The house sat on a leveled-off hill surrounded by tall maple trees. It was a large two story house, three stories if you count the attic, with a wrap around porch and a long set of wood steps that led up to the porch. Only patches of white paint still covered the weather-worn boards and most of the windows were broken. A brick chimney on the right portion of the roof was slightly tilted. A rose trellis at the side of the house had collapsed on itself. The yard had been overtaken by weeds and prairie grass.
“I don’t know why I keep going to Jenny Tompkins to get my hair done,” Celia Grant said. “She always burns my scalp.” She picked up a large tabby cat and sat it in her lap and began stroking its fur. “Yes, Louise and I were good friends. I think I might have been her only friend even though I’m about ten years younger than she was. She was a lovely woman, so full of life and very interesting. She had traveled a great deal and circulated in a wide social circle before meeting and marrying Tom.” She averted her eyes. “Louise never wanted to live out there, in fact she hated it, but it was better than being confronted every day with having a husband who chased after other women, including me.”
Main Street in Wall was lined with vehicles and the walkway in front of the shops and Wall Drug was packed with pedestrians, most of whom were tourists.
Benjamin Curly sat at his desk in the bank with a donut covered in maple icing on a napkin in front of him. “You have to get one of these donuts at Wall Drug before you leave town. They’re like taking a bite of heaven,” he said with a hearty laugh that caused his bulging stomach to shake. “Let’s see now, you wanted to know about the Forman house. Well, the property is still for sale, for very cheap. Since you’ve already seen it, you should know that the mudflat wasn’t always there. I don’t know what made the Cheyenne change course and begin overflowing its bank at that spot, but according to the property records when the Formans bought the property from the Huffman that land was dry.” He picked up the donut and bit into it and closed his eyes and swallowed. He opened his eyes. “I can tell by the look on your face that you thought Tom built the house with a mudflat in front of it. That would be a crazy thing to do, wouldn’t it?”
He took another bite of the donut. “Yes, Mary Forman lives in Sioux Falls, but I’m not sure she’ll talk to you.”
At the nursing home, Dan Huffman said, “My poor Doris never did take to living in Wasta. It wasn’t anyone in Wasta’s fault, they’re fine folks, but Doris liked being apart from people.” He took a sip of water through a straw in a glass of ice water handed to him by the aide. “Strange thing about the river changing course like that so soon after the Formans built that big house. Given what happened, it kind of makes you believe in fate, doesn’t it?”
With the windows down, the aromas of prairie grass and dry earth filled the car all the way to the outskirts of Sioux Falls. Mary Forman stood on the top step of the stairs leading to her porch with her arms crossed and a dour expression on her face. She looked older than she should have for her age, and although still pretty, her eyes seemed dark and lifeless; like a light inside her had gone out.
“I was in a boarding school in New York or at college in London most of the time my parents had the house in Wasta,” she said, “so I really don’t remember much about the town. I haven’t been there since the accident.” She flicked away an insect from in front of her face with her right hand. “Jenny Tompkins? Sorry, I don’t remember her.” Looking out at the broad expanse of the flower gardens in front of her house as if she has seen something in the distance, she said, “That house was a very unhappy place. My father was a difficult man and had numerous affairs, but the one with my mother’s best friend, Celia Grant, nearly killed her.”
Jake Meggers said, “I thought the mudflat had been there when the house was built, but I guess I was wrong. Time plays tricks on a person’s memory.” He paused, then said, “I guess researching a story about Wasta and the Forman house has been pretty easy for you. Wasta isn’t a very complicated place.” Pointing at a spot in the mud near a tree that had broken in half, he said, “That’s where they found the overturned car the Formans were in. Imagine dying by suffocation from mud and right in front of your own house.”