Chapter 46

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May 24, 1942

South Lawn, Sarah Lawrence College, Bronxville, NY

Dorothy approached the South Lawn from Mead Way. After leaving her room, she decided that what her butterflies needed was a nice, quiet walk down the tree-lined street that ran along the southern end of the campus. The sight of an expanse of green grass crowded with ruler-straight rows of light brown wooden chairs brought a memory. Without thought, her fingers found the fold of ribbon on the collar of her graduation gown. Against the somber black of the heavy material, its shade of red darkened further, to almost a blood-red. The image tendrils in her mind was of a storm on a summer’s day. The emotion that tinted the faded image was of sad nostalgia, the melody of a tale of discovery and loss. Since the day in August, three years before, Dorothy found the two emotions linked in such an intimate way as to make them one. She smiled to herself, as she’d come to understand that life almost always involved leaving behind the comfortable familiarity of youth and over-coming new challenges. And, if those two elements of life are not a prescription for creating a state of mixed emotion in a person, then nothing is.

The temperature approached 70 degrees when she left the dormitory. She was the last resident in the building, her friend and roommate Eliza, had invited Dorothy to stay with her at her parents home in Philadelphia for the summer. Dorothy thanked her friend, but remained in the room at McCracken Hall.

The atmosphere on the, small, private campus in the suburbs of New York City was one of subdued excitement, if for no other reason than the influx of strangers and near-strangers as families and friends arrived for the Commencement ceremony. Dorothy decided to put on her gown, her mortar board under her arm and get away from the last-minute chores of the day.

Commencement was scheduled to begin at 1:00 pm. The guest seating formed two rectangles facing the most imposing building on campus, Westlands. Three stories of brick and mortar, it’s triangular gables divided the slate roof into three, almost equal sections; it was the effect of the last gable that the architect had been most proud of, one roofline extending to the side, almost to the ground. It provided the sense of an anchor to the earth, the soaring peaks bound and secure. The impression was of many more spires than it possessed, a castle in the wooded shadow of the city, Westlands was the very heart of the campus.

A fieldstone wall divided Westland’s formal patio from the expanse of manicured grass of the South Lawn. A growing line of cabs waited, in Sunday politeness, as family and relatives arrived. Like a chance dam of fallen branches across a spring-swollen stream, people gathered at the entrance gates; once through, the guests would spread out in multiple streams, across the lawn towards the seating area. Children, siblings of the day’s graduates found their own, preferred seating, among the trees and hedges that formed the boundaries between campus and the surrounding residential neighborhood. While these future Sarah Lawrence students ran and played, their parents reacquainted themselves with the grounds, pointing out changes to the campus to their spouse who would often feign interest, lacking any emotional investment in the small collection of tudor style buildings. The real prize for the returning students-turned-adults was to encounter former teachers, who walked among the guests, regaling spouses with tales of their students greatest accomplishments and most embarrassing moments, with an all too frequent disregard for the distinction between the two.

Dorothy walked towards the center aisle that divided the rectangle of wooden chairs, now beginning to fill with family and friends of the graduating class. As she passed the rearmost row of chairs, she felt an arm insinuate itself inside the crook of her right elbow, a man’s voice, with the confidential tone of a person trying to secure a favor, came from slightly behind her,

“I wont’ be any trouble because I don’t eat a thing…and I won’t try to manage things because I can’t think. Won’t you take me with you?”

Dorothy turned to see Hunk Dietrich smiling at her.

Hunk was holding hands with a young woman who Dorothy felt she should recognize. She stood to shoulder height of Hunk, had a good figure, short brown hair and dark eyes that blazed with intelligence; she also wore a wedding ring on her left hand.

“Hi, Dorothy It’s me… Becky. Becky Stillworth? From the Circe Free Library?”

She smiled with a friendly confidence that seemed beyond her apparent years, looking to be all of twenty years old.

“I’m sorry,” Hunk spoke quietly, “Dorothy, this is my wife Becky. Becky, this is…”

The two young women were already in an embrace that spoke of a connection that made the social niceties of a formal introduction altogether unnecessary.

Dorothy stepped back and looked at the young couple. Becky’s hand had already found Hunk’s and they stood together and smiled back at her in way that spoke of a relationship still in its formative stages. Hunk, easily four inches taller than Becky, his posture broadcasted a surprising assertiveness and, less surprising, pride in being very obviously bound to the woman at his side.

Becky, for her part, presented a quiet watchfulness, looking up at her husband when he spoke, yet never in a way that implied that anyone else was ignorable. It was an attitude that was both protective and totally confident in their relationship.

“So, what have you been up to?” Dorothy spoke to a space somewhere between the two. A glance at their inter-twined fingers made clear that two people had become parts of something more than, and different from, merely a man and a young woman.

“Becky is finishing up her residency at the university in the Fall!” Hunk’s voice conveyed a pride, not simply in the former Becky Stillworth’s accomplishments, but a pride in the fact that she was his wife. Becky smiled quietly, again, with a confidence that was softened by the way she looked at him, as he answered Dorothy.

“And, you, Hunk? I’m ever so happy to have you here at graduation, but what are you doing and why, since clearly I must ask, are you in the uniform of an Army Lieutenant?”

Dorothy did not miss the change in Becky’s face at her mention of Hunk’s clothing. The girl showed a subtle, yet clear withdrawing. It was as if the topic was not something she wanted to discuss, or for that matter, even acknowledge.

“I’m going overseas as a special correspondent.”

“A war correspondent?”

“Well,” Hunk laughed. That he leaned slightly towards Dorothy, which required that he lean slightly away from Becky, spoke volumes. The hours of discussion between the young husband and even younger wife over the merits of a bold adventure, surely nights of carefully parsed pleading arguments against risking a future, played out on Becky’s face, “…more as an author correspondent.”

Dorothy raised an eyebrow, wanting to align herself as neutrally as possible, the topic was clearly highly charged, yet her curiosity out-weighed her caution enough to encourage Hunk to explain further.

‘Well, you remember how I ended up here, on the East Coast after I left Circe and, how before she left that summer, Eliza promised she would mention me to her father. Well, once I completed the last course I had for my degree, I went to his publishing house and, well, I asked for a job.”

There was a fierce humility in Hunk’s voice. It hinted at, (since it was humility), the courage it took, not merely to ask the wealthy owner of a Philadelphia publishing house for a job, but rather the courage necessary to ignore the part of him that insisted he was a simple farmhand from Kansas. The voice that said, ‘you might have a brain, but you don’t have any right to associate with successful people the likes of Theodore Allen Thornberg… the 3rd!‘ And yet, Hunk Dietrich had done just that.

“He said yes, absolutely! Well, to say I was surprised would be an understatement. It was a very good day. Better than I realized, because it wasn’t more than a year after starting, when Ted told me he was opening an office in Chicago and he wanted me to help get it up and running.”

Dorothy watched as Hunk went from looking directly at her, to slowly, a glance and then a longer glance, to looking at the young woman at his side.

“One day, during a quiet lunch by myself on a bench in Washington Park. At any rate, I was sitting quietly one August day when I heard a beautiful girl’s voice,”

With a private smile, Becky pushed her elbow into Hunk’s rib cage, he laughed and looked down at her with such intense and un-conditional love, that Dorothy stepped back in surprise. Not surprisingly, neither noticed.

“…Hunk? Is that you?”

Hunk looked back at Dorothy, his expression full of the grace of emotional integration that some few, lucky couples experience. It showed in the intense pleasantness of his smile, anchored in some undefinable way to his love for the young woman.

There was a soft swell of music from the loudspeakers just behind the dias at the far end of the lawn.

“Is that for you?” Hunk looked around, there were now more people seated than there were empty chairs.

“Yes. It’s time for me to get ready. Don’t you two go anywhere afterwards. We need to catch up on so much.”

Dorothy walked quickly away, her robe streaming out behind her, as she headed towards the dais.

***

“We conclude today’s Commencement Ceremony with the Valedictorian of the Class of 1942, Dorothy Aurora Gulch,” President Warren announced to the family and friends sitting on the South Lawn of Sarah Lawrence College.

The applause was strong and solid as Dorothy rose from her seat at the edge of the dais and walked to the podium. As she shook hands with the College president, the applause was punctuated by a very enthusiastic whistle, from the last row of the black-robed ranks of the Class of 1942.

“Aurora!! Give ’em hell.”

Dorothy looked up and immediately spotted Eliza, her classmates leaning outwards away from where she sat, grinning. Dorothy smiled and gave her friend a thumbs up.

“Thank you, President Warren. Thank you, Class of 1942. It’s an honor to be here and I am grateful to have the opportunity to speak on this most special of days.”

Dorothy scanned the crowd and saw Emily Gale, seated in the middle of a row, two rows back from the graduating class section. She was sitting, the Commencement program clasped to her chest, and staring up at the stage. She was wearing her gold wire-rim glasses and an expensive, but very conservative dress. ‘Easter Morning church service clothes,’ Dorothy thought with a smile. At that moment, Emily Gale noticed Dorothy looking back at her and, as Dorothy watched, her adoptive mother reached out her left hand to the empty seat to her side. She began to turn in her seat, her face showing a memory of something forgotten and let her hand return to holding the program. Dorothy felt a twinge of something like sadness, and, for reasons she had learned to not bother trying to understand, remembered a day in Astronomy class during her Junior year. The professor mentioned ‘star pairs’, of which increasing numbers were being discovered as the science and telescopes improved. Standing at the podium, looking at the woman who raised her, she heard his voice, ‘there are rare, but, we suspect quite numerous, given the size of the galaxy, what we call companion stars. A pair of suns locked into an internal orbit with one star always the dimmer of the other.’

Dorothy thought about how inseparable Emily and Henry Gale were, and how the woman looked so much smaller with the seat to her side empty. In the pairing of Henry Gale and Emily Sauvage, a union as permanent as any joining of celestial bodies bound by their own gravity, Henry was immediately identifiable as the companion star. He did not feel, nor did he act as an inferior to his wife; he simply accepted the fact that she was the dominant member of the pair.

Emily Gale sat alone, with an uprightness that managed to increase the impression of space between her and the people around her, all sitting in matching wooden folding chairs. There was nothing in Emily Gale’s face that would make a person hesitate to smile hello, seeing her as being of an age to identify her as a parent of a graduating student. She would look around at the other parents and they would smile a greeting, Emily would nod in acknowledgement. And remain sitting, very much in the center of her chair. She viewed her role as necessary to the process, a child could not graduate from college without having a parent to make it all possible. In her form of modesty, Emily accepted all friendly greetings as acknowledgment of her success in raising a daughter to adulthood.

Dorothy put the papers she carried in her left hand on the slanted surface of the podium. Only Constance Warren, President of the College, in her slightly elevated chair, could see the papers. As she watched the young woman prepare to speak, a whisp of wind caught the top edge of the sheets enough to lift them, held at the bottom by Dorothy’s quick reflexes; she saw the pages were completely blank, smiled and made a mental note to follow this woman’s career.

“We of the Class of 1942 face a world at war. A world that appears bent on self-destruction. We look around and realize that, although we are still very young, we are called to stand up with the people who, only a short time ago, sheltered us, picked us up when we fell down, and soothed our fears when night’s terrors came to visit. As women enjoying the benefits of attending a very special institution of learning, we have all worked hard at our studies over the last four years. The hours of study and preparation often left us, at the end of a long day, feeling worn down by more than a girl should be expected to bear under. And yet, we do not have to look far to see how many others, women and men, are being asked to labor under much, much more difficult and dangerous conditions.
However, my address is not about the work we face as we leave the campus of Sarah Lawrence. Most of us are from gifted and privileged families and though labor is a relative term, we will enjoy opportunities not available to many young women in this country. Women, girls really, who are working in factories and mills, meeting the demands of the war effort.
My address is not about war.
My address is not about opportunity. All though those are surely what we will be confronting tomorrow and the days that unfold as we leave the safe and secure campus here in Bronxville.
My address today is about love and it is about family.
We read each day about the increasing casualties of the war overseas. And, if we read carefully, we will see the casualties echoed here, in our country, safe from the ravening armies, the bombardment from invisible planes flying through the night to destroy people and cities.
Life seems especially full of tragedy and sorrow in this new decade. Families are torn apart, by bullets and bombs, by fear and by hate.

When I was a young girl I thought I was alone in the world. I knew I had a family because they were there and took care of me and I worked and did what any daughter would do, work and share in the family life.

But I thought I was alone and I had to go to another world to find out that I was not alone. It was only by going to another world and finding people who I could help and be helped by to achieve what we needed to, only then did I begin to realize that love is not something that we get from another, but it is a feeling that is given to another.”

Dorothy paused and looking towards the back left of the audience caught Hunk’s eye. He smiled.
“I have a family. It is a family I know and it is a family that I learned about only after time had passed. I thought that family and home were a place, a group of familiar faces. I once believed that I had found my way back to home after being taken away by chance and the forces of life and nature.
Home and family, I found, were more than addresses and names. I searched for a mother that I did not know I had lost and when I found her, believed that I was losing her. She taught me, in a very short space of time that love is not a thing to be held on to,”
Dorothy reached up to the collar of her white gown and touched the ruby-red ribbon that she’d pinned there.
“…love is a quality that makes up who we are. Love for another, a father or a daughter, is not because they are sitting at the family table or sleeping under the roof or, ”
she looked around at the faces arrayed before the stage,
“gathered together to celebrate a transition from childhood to adulthood. Love is within the person and nothing can change that. And although it is better to be able to reach out and touch and hug a loved one, when that is not possible, through the intervention of others, the love itself is not diminished.
I once said ‘Theres no place like home’ and it meant a lot to me. But I’ve come to realize that no matter what home looks like, the people in our lives that matter cannot be taken from us, at least in the way that is important, our love for them.
Remember that as we go out into a world seemingly bent on destroying that which makes it most wonderful, that the love of the family is the one thing that will transcend death and distance.”
The End

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Chapter 45

Featured

August 11, 1922  Circe, Kansas

Almira managed to pull Sterling into a half-upright position, his head resting against her breast, by finding the section of slanted stone where, minutes before, they both spoke quietly of their life. She had to use her left arm to push herself into a balance with his far greater bulk. With most of Sterling’s weight now on her chest, Almira let herself fall back against the still warm stone. Feeling the support behind her back allowed her to focus on the too-silent man in her arms. For the first time she began to see the red of blood, seemingly everywhere. Glancing down at herself, she saw a dress in tatters, one shoulder and breast completely bare, the torn fabric twisted into an oblong of wrinkles, like a wash-cloth carelessly thrown from a bath. Her right hand was traced in red, along the inside of her fingers and across the tops of both forearms. Her left was holding Sterling’s head still, fingers entwined in hair damp with blood. Gently, she ran her right hand across his forehead,

“Are you hurt?”

Even as Sterling spoke, Almira felt the muscles in his arms and chest tighten as he tried to sit upright. She felt something like an electric shock through her scalp when she looked down and saw blood, a bright red splotch in the center of his shirt, grow and spread.

“Yeah, babe. I’m good. You look a little beat up, though.”

She leaned slightly forward against the weight of his upper body as she felt his right arm move behind her as he pulled himself closer to her. He tried, with slow success to look up into her eyes from where he rested, beard stubble scraping towards the side of her breast. She felt a decrease in weight as he managed to raise and turn his face to look up at her, his eyes laughed but coughing seized him.

“If I get my nose broken one more time, I swear I’m just gonna leave it that way. At least I won’t have to dress up for Halloween.”

“No, don’t make me laugh!”

Sterling tried and failed to sound like he was capable of laughter. A tiny spasm grew into coughing that sounded like a man drowning. Worse than the sound was the spreading of the red stain, now showing liquid pooling in the folds of his once-white shirt.

“I won’t. We’ll just sit here and rest. And then, in a little bit, we’ll get up and wash ourselves in the spring and go back home. After all, we don’t want to alarm our daughter.”

The coughing stopped, but the field of red that marked the center of Sterling’s shirt and formed the center of Almira’s life at the moment, grew.

“Almira?”

“Yeah babe?”

“I need a little more time before we move.”

Her hand, now smeared with blood, both hers and his, grasped his hand that was moving towards her, a hopeless attempt to touch her face.

“No, Sterling, we don’t have to get up now.”

She felt the man relax slightly, as if resting and considering his counter point in an engaging conversation. The silence grew and she spoke, in an un-intentional whisper,

“It just struck me that the most important times in our life together have been you and me leaning against something very solid. We fell in love with our backs against a mill wall, we conceived our daughter with a stone wall that stood silently and protected us from the winter wind.”

Almira looked down at Sterling and saw his eyes begin to focus on some distant point. A tiny, shiny-reflective drop swelled from the corner of her eye and began to descend her cheek, washing the red stains as it moved, leaving behind a very small trail of clean flesh, a defiantly innocent mark on her face. Sterling looked back at her, her heart stuttered as a voice in her mind said, ‘he’s farther away now, you can see it in his eyes’. His voice brought her back to the rough stone ground and the growing darkness,

“Funny, for some reason all I can think of is that book you love so much. How does it start?”

Refusing the part of her that wanted to cower away, somewhere, anywhere but where she and her husband sat covered in blood and bound by love, she recited in a voice that carried the wonder of the tale,

“The author gives some account of himself and family. His first inducements to travel. He is shipwrecked, and swims for his life. Gets safe on shore in the country of Lilliput; is made a prisoner, and carried up the country.”

Almira, watching Sterling’s eyes come back from their distant focus, felt his voice as much as heard it. A vibration through her body that matched the words she spoke and gave them a strength that she was incapable of imparting alone. The green walls of cedar and cottonwood trees seemed to grow taller and straighter, somehow took on a slightly red color. The man and the woman remembered and, by remembering, shared what they had created together with their love, until, all too soon, Almira was reciting the words alone.

***

August 11, 1922

Almira stood in the open doorway and looked at the two men and Emily Gale standing around the dining room table. Emily, Aurora still in her arms, immediately turned away, as if to hide the sight of the child. Almira recognized Gareth Herlihy, now older, heavier and somehow smaller than when last they spoke, half a continent and a lifetime away. The man standing next to him looked like someone she might have met, but could not imagine where or what his name was. The howl of distant wolves in the wilderness echoed from her memory.

“My God!”

“Dear sweet Mary, mother of God”

“There you are!”

The three adults spoke nearly as one, yet conveyed a response that could not have been more different.

Almira Gulch, the glaringly bright early afternoon sunlight served to obscure the details of the shape in the doorway, cast a 5 foot 2 inch woman-shaped shadow. She stepped into the house and stood in the center of the room. To the right was the large stone fireplace surrounded by comfortable seating and to the left, a large rectangular dinner table. Plain wooden chairs along the two long sides and chairs with armrests at either end, illustrating the natural caste system of household furniture. On the table was a pitcher of water and three glasses. Standing along the side of the table farthest from the front door were Emily Gale, Captain Gareth Herlihy and Judge Lucius Delemonte. They were frozen in their personally characteristic reaction as Almira stepped into the house, the sun glare of the outside diminishing, allowing her to be seen in all her terrible detail.

Her blue dress was torn at the right waist, a long, downward flash of white of her underwear. The blue fabric seemed to be of a pattern, until the light shifted and it then appeared to be shades of blue and finally, the eye made it’s inevitable and necessary adjustment, the wispy brushes of red on the field of white where her dress was torn, came into clear view. The blue fabric was uniform but was soaking wet.

The front of her dress was torn from both shoulders, her right breast in plain view, anatomical details of this most female part of the body obscured by a wash of red. The color varied, brighter towards the center of that part of her clothing that, tangled with undergarments remained in position, shell-shocked guard of an outpost  overrun by barbarians intent not only on defeating, but of defiling the enemy. The blood darkened towards reddish-brown over her shoulder and down her arms.

Almira Gulch stood in the middle of her home and stared with eyes that burned, hers a face as fiercely painted as any warrior of the vanishing tribes native to the area. Her nose was bent to the right, its original prominence allowed an angle that an average normal nose would not. Blood red was the dominant color. The whiteness of her flesh became the accent, rather than the background. Streaks ran, bloody glaciers of tears creeping down her cheeks. The brightness of the red was refreshed by a tear at her hairline, a cut, hidden in that hair plastered against her scalp.

“We have the child. I have papers. This man is a District Judge and appointed by the State of Kansas. I have been assigned as legal guardian to look out for the welfare of this poor child. And if you know whats good for her, you’ll just go away.”

Almira turned towards the sound of the voice, seeing only the flashing of the spectacles and the oblong shape of her child. The sharp-edged woman, though younger in years, made her think of the Norn, that inhabited the myths she would read as a child, held Aurora so that her face, eyes closed in sleep, faced away from the room and its occupants. She felt a relief at Aurora being turned away and so spared the sight of her mother dressed in blood and pain. She felt her heart begin to break, a sensation as real as the dull ache of her damaged face, deep in her center. Almira, a vast wasteland dream landscape growing and threatening to drag her away, stepped forward.

Emily Gale continued, her voice taking on a slightly ragged, sing-song lilt.

“Here’s his order allowing me to take her. To be her mother, to provide her with a life that you cannot, being a fugitive from the law and all. And before you can try to deny it, this is a policeman, a police Captain and he has a Warrant for both of… for you. From the look of you, I’d say this came not a moment too soon. It’s for the good of the child.”

Almira Gulch looked at Emily Gale. She looked at Gareth Herlihy who had a look of horror on his face that was mixed with something of regret. The other man took, in the manner of a priest performing a mass, a folded piece of paper from inside his suitcoat and moving a pitcher of water to the side, laid it down on the dining table. The Honorable Lucius Dellamonte took a small leather case from the small briefcase that he placed next to the document and looking down at Almira, said,

“This is an Order from the State of Kansas. It is an involuntary custody order conferring the right of locus parentas, involuntarae, to Mrs Emily Gale. If you sign the bottom here, it will go much easier on your child. This man,” he glanced to his left at Gareth Herlihy, “is a policeman and, temporarily an Officer of the Court. From the looks of you, his services are needed, but of greater importance, he has, in his possession, a Warrant for the arrest of one Sterling Gulch.”

Gareth Herlihy stared at Almira Gulch, the memory of a winter night in Lawrence grew in his mind with unexpected violence which made him step to his left, inadvertently bumping into the dining table. The force of his leg hit the table sufficient to jolt the pitcher of water, causing water to spill out onto the table.

“Watch that! You oaf! Water! Get it away from my papers. Thats an official document!!”

Emily Gale managed to shriek, without raising her voice.

Almira Gulch stared at the paper on the table. Aurora began to cry.

“We’re done here. Captain Herlihy I believe you have a Warrant to serve. Once you’ve done that I believe that Judge Delemonte has the Writ of Seizure of the farm to make all this neat and tidy.”

Emily Gale began to speak to the child in her arms, her tone becoming insistent, as if the fervor in her voice would make the child’s distress less noticeable,

“So you see, Dorothy, everything will be as it should. The Law says that arrested people cannot own property, at least not in this state. It wouldn’t be proper.”

The Honorable Lucius Delemonte looked up over the top of his glasses,

“Well, Herlihy? Do you have a Warrant or don’t you? I haven’t got all day. This only works when the property is held by known criminals.”

Gareth Herlihy’s right hand went to the inside pocket of his suit coat. Pulling back the lapel  with his left, the silk label of Brooks Brothers drew his attention. He heard the memory the CEO of the Essex Corporation, Frederick Prendergast, as he whispered in a voice at once condescending and imperious, “Don’t worry about the money, Herlihy. You do your job and the Corporation will take care of you. Hell, my tailor will have your suit ready before you can go home and pack. I won’t have a representative of my company looking like some common flatfoot. Do this one thing and we’ll give you a gold watch, a medal and you can go back to your little wife in your little house and enjoy retirement.”

Looking at the small woman, any modesty afforded her was from the dark, grainy rust color of blood, Gareth Herlihy took the Warrant from his pocket. Holding it carefully, in two fingers of both hands, he turned to face the thin-faced woman who stood at the table, the child held in the way a bird of prey, intent on not killing its prey until returning to its nest.

“No. I don’t think this is going to happen today. No matter where it is we are, I am still the law in Lawrence.”

He tore the long document into two pieces, then tore those pieces crosswise. He looked at the woman with the child and the Judge with the glasses and put the pieces of paper in his pocket.

“I’m done here, Delemonte. I saw a car out by the barn, if the owner of the property,” he looked at Almira,  ‘Mrs Gulch doesn’t mind, I’ll drive myself back to town. I’ve a train to catch.”

Emily Gale turned on the Judge,

“Delemonte! Are you going to let him get away with that? What kind of goddamn judge are you, do something!”

“Emily, there’s nothing I can do. His Warrant was issued by a Massachusetts court, I have no jurisdiction. He can do whatever he wants to do or not do.”

“I don’t care about jurisdictions! I want whats right for this child and this farm is supposed to be mine. All of it.”

“You’ve got the child. For once in your life, be satisfied with what you’ve managed to take. Let it go, there’s no basis for a seizure of a person’s property without due process, which in this case, would be an arrest. No arrest, no Writ of Seizure.”

The Judge walked out of the house in time to see Gareth Herlihy drive out of the open gate and head out County Road #2. He got into his own car, started the engine and waited.

Emily Gale looked at Almira Gulch,

“Very well, I’ll bide my time. I may not be able to get the deed right here and right now, but I have friends and I have money. Just stay out of my way and maybe I won’t get you arrested by a new Warrant. I have the child. She is now my child. Leave it be, keep your distance or I’ll be back for you and your little farm. From what I guess, you’ll be too busy, working alone to be stirring up trouble with talk about the child.”

Emily Gale backed away from Almira, towards the front door, keeping the child’s face away from seeing the woman standing alone in the living room.

***

After the sound of the Judge’s car dwindled into silence up County Road #2, Almira walked to the leather sofa that faced the cold fireplace. She picked up a leather-bound book from a side table, a black and red Navajo blanket from the back of a chair and wrapped herself into a woolen cocoon. Clutching the book to her chest underneath the blanket, she sat in the center of the couch and stared at ashes that rose like grey snowdrifts under the grates of the cold hearth. The single, tiny trail of un-stained flesh on her cheek slowly grew wider. Silent tears flowed from her heart down her face, the dried remains of blood carried away slowly.

***

The night followed the day, as it always must. Sometimes the dark serves as a hiding place for the things we fear, other times it lets us escape and be alone with the things that exist only in our minds.

The light of the car’s headlamps washed across the living room, running up the walls, disappearing in the doorways of the rooms to the back of the house. Stopping it’s motion, it illuminated the figure of a woman, a shawl of black and red, sitting motionless in the center of a sofa facing the dark fireplace. The shadow of the woman created another figure, sitting in the chair to the far side of the sofa, a silent and dark companion. Neither moved at the sound of voices that rode the footfalls as they crossed the porch and stopped at the open front door.

“Hello! Anyone home?”

A woman’s voice came, in a less forceful tone, to the right of the man’s,

“Seth, I think I saw someone when we drove up. It was a woman, I’m sure of it.”

“Well, I know I saw the sign, it said ‘Almira’s Keep’ right there at the gate,”

Seth Allger turned from the door and looked at his wife,

“This is the place. Look, over there, that building, that can only be the, what did Micael say in his letter, they called it ‘the dormitory’. I know we have the right place. But he said there was always a light on.”

“Maybe we should come back during the day. When it’s not so dark. Come on, I don’t want to intrude on anyone.”

Seth Allger felt the hours of driving from Kansas City pull down on his arms, as he stepped off the porch to where his wife waited. As his foot hit the ground, he heard the squeaking of the screen door, followed by the wooden clap as it slammed shut and, almost immediately, the voice of his daughter from the interior of the dark house.

“My goodness! There’s a woman here.”

Stepping back up onto the porch, Seth called out,

“Claire! Be careful. We’re strangers and this is not our house.”

Seeing a lamp on the wall to the left of the doorway, Seth struck a match, put it to the wick and watched as the light grew. The room came into view, black turning to grey, dark rough shapes turning into furniture. He spotted another lamp on an end table in the living room to the right and lit it as well.

His daughter Claire, her long blonde hair white in the soft glowing of the lamps, was crouching in front of a woman who, wrapped in a blanket of some sort, was sitting on the sofa, facing the fireplace. Seth turned and called out to his wife, still standing next to their car,

“Evelyn, bring the first aid kit. There’s a woman here who seems to have lost a lot of blood.”

Turning back, Seth smiled. His young daughter, Claire, was gently cleaning the silent woman’s hands with a rag that she dipped in a pitcher of water. His smile was in part because he knew for a fact that there was no pitcher of water in the living room when he looked around, after lighting the second lamp.

Almira, far away in a dream of flying from the high wall of a castle, felt her hands being pulled towards the earth. She looked away from the distant mountains that seemed to guide her silent flight. The pull on her hands was gentle and, somehow, carried a message of love and with a sigh, let her path through the air be changed.

“I’m Claire. What is your name? Is this your house? We are so tired from driving. Can we stay here.”

Almira Gulch pulled her arm out from the cocoon of blanket and pulled the girl to her side,

“I couldn’t think of anything better than to have you and your family stay the night.”

***

August 11, 1939  St. Mary’s Hospital  Circe, Kansas

Dorothy sat and looked over at the woman in the bed. She sat assuming the chair would be where it needed to be, behind her, next to the narrow bed. The light in the room seemed to grow and brighten. Looking around, she realized that it was night-time dark outside the windows and that, where there had been orderly rows of people sitting, there was now a crowd, moving, without grace towards the building. There were two chairs on their sides in the grass, looking existentially hopeless, like a boat on dry land, sitting in the sand, too far from the sea. As she stared out the window, a commemorative program flew, like a bird with paralyzed wings, and stuck to the glass of the window.

She looked at the woman in the bed.

“You’re my mother, aren’t you?”

“Yes. Yes I am.”

“Why did you abandon me.”

The look in the eyes of the woman in the bed was not what Dorothy expected. Her second question came from a place inside that she thought she had long locked away. Surprised at the anger that clutched to her words, Dorothy looked and could not see even a hint of what she’d expected to see in the face of the woman; the look of a stumbling rebound of contrition and rationalization. Instead, she saw in the eyes of the woman, a small woman who barely raised the covers of the hospital bed, a look of sad pride. The look in this woman’s eyes startled Dorothy Gale. There was a focus into a distance that was clearly beyond the walls of the Charity Ward, beyond the town in distance and in time.

The woman seemed to pull herself from her memories and focused on the girl with a ferocity that caused Dorothy to lean back in her chair.

“I had no other choice.”

Confused, Dorothy sought the most jagged part of her feelings, feelings that seemed so dark that to expose them would create an eternal night, extinguishing all hope. She closed her eyes and, with a tiny regret blunting the edge of her painful words said,

“Did you love me?”

For the second time, what she saw on the face of the woman in the bed, a face at once familiar as her right hand and as distant as the moon, was not what she expected. Dorothy saw tears in eyes nearly shut. And then she heard the woman begin to laugh.

It was a laughter that was at once joyous and full of near unbearable pain. It was the kind of laughter that very close relatives share on the day of the death of someone very close to both.

“I have never stopped loving you, you are my child. I love you still. That has never changed. Time can only change things, it can’t change or reduce or destroy love. Time is only skin deep. It cannot touch what we are within, if we do not let it.

***

Dorothy sat, not taking her eyes off the face of the woman in the bed. To her right, through the last window, the trees were beginning to look like paint brushes, pulled one way and then another. There was a sound, distant behind the whistling of air through the gap in the wood-frame windows, a deep, almost subterranean roar. It grew slowly. Outside on the west lawn the audience for the groundbreaking ceremony were walking towards the front entrance to the hospital, some faster than others. There were those, mostly the younger people among the gathered, who every few steps would turn around and, continuing to walk with the crowd, only now walking backwards, would stare toward the southwest, as if watching for something approaching. For it’s part, the sky in all directions was some shade of grey. And somehow …familiar.

***

Hunk Dietrich burst through the double doors of the Ward C,

“It’s a twister! It’s heading this way. Come on! Everyone is in the basement, under the main building. It’s the only safe place!”

Dorothy saw a flash of something bright fly by the windows, followed by the crash of glass. Immediately afterwards, she saw another bright object, one of the folding chairs from the neat and civilized rows on the west lawn. This chair was about six feet off the ground as it passed the window. It crashed through the last window where the ward branched off the main hospital building.

Hunk had moved towards Dorothy’s end of the aisle when the first chair went by and was no longer standing just inside the double doors. This was fortunate, as the impact of the second chair drove shards of window glass across the far end of the room, geometrically deadly pieces of glass embedded in the wall, like transparent arrows.

Dorothy stood up next to the bed and reached for the blankets that covered Almira.

“Come on. We need to get you out of that bed and down into the basement.”

She turned to Hunk,

“Hunk you get on that side of the bed. The quickest and safest way to get Mrs. Gulch to the basement is if we carry her in the bed sheets.”

“No. I won’t be going with you. I’m staying here.”

“What? What are you talking about? Do you see what’s going on out there? Do you see the folding chairs crashing through the windows? Wait, if you turn, you should be able to watch my adopted mother’s podium find a home on the roof. We can’t stay here. It’s not safe. There’s a tornado, in case you can’t hear that roaring sound.”

“I do hear it. It’s alright, Aurora. I promise you it’s going to be alright.”

“How can you possible say that?! That’s a tornado heading directly towards this hospital and nothing can stop it. And if there’s anyone who knows what tornadoes can do, its me, so don’t tell me what will happen.”

Dorothy felt a hand on her shoulder.

“Dorothy, it’s going to be alright. We, your mother and I, need to stay here. And I agree with you, you know more than most people how powerful storms can be.”

Dorothy turned to see Nurse Griswold standing next to her. Through the window behind her, the view of the west lawn was all but obscured by blowing debris coming from past the parking lot, headed towards the back of the hospital.

“Dorothy! We have to go.” Hunks voice became insistent. “This part of the hospital does not have a basement. It sits on a low stone foundation. If we don’t leave right now, we will not get to the shelter in time.”

Turning back to the bed, Dorothy saw the old woman struggling with something on the collar of her hospital gown. Something very red. She was pulling at the ribbon attached to the collar.

Dorothy leaned over and saw that a single stitch held the ribbon in place. She pulled and it broke. The ribbon, free of the thin thread that held it in place, un-folded. Released from long restraint, it flowed into a very red, almost ruby-red ribbon barely a half-inch wide and about six inches long.

Almira look up at Dorothy with eyes at once victorious and at peace,

“This is yours. This was given to your father before you were born. He loved you more than you can know and I wore it the day he died. I’ve kept it as close as I could over the years, just for this moment.”

Almira put the ribbon in the palm of Dorothy’s hand, folding her daughters fingers over, enclosing the red ribbon.

“I meant it when I said that love is not a possession that can be taken away and it’s not a place that can be destroyed, it is a connection between people. I loved your father more than anything on earth. We both loved you more than anything on earth because you are the best of both of us.”

Dorothy felt a strong hand on her upper arm and Hunk, with an urgency that seemed to cause him more distress than her, looked her in the eye and said,

“Now. We have to go.”

“One more thing, my daughter.”

The very small woman with the very prominent nose reached towards the metal table to the left of the bed, faltering as the sheets and blanket restricted her efforts. Claire Griswold reached with an efficient grace into the single drawer and handed a leather-bound book to the woman in the bed.

“Here. My life is marked by the words in this book. Take it and share it with those you love.”

Hunk Dietrich walked down the aisle, his right hand around Dorothy Gale’s upper left arm, and pulled her along towards the double swinging doors and safety of the storm shelter below the hospital.

Dorothy’s last sight of the room was of a tall blonde woman seated next to a bed with a small, older woman lying in it. They appeared to be in conversation.

***

Wichita Times Tribune August 18, 1939

“The tornado that passed through Circe last Friday was example of the peculiar nature of that type of storm. The path of destruction was of uncommonly limited scope. Crossing town limits at West Main Street, it inflicted little damage to the stores and shops.

‘The twister’, according to Silas Fremont, who was about to leave the Circe Free Library when the funnel cloud moved along the street, ‘it took a left turn, just as pretty as you please, right up the Commons and blew bloody hell out of the fountain and then, as god is my witness, turned again and took a bead on the hospital.’

Damage to the fountain was considerable and early assessments put it ‘beyond repair’. St Mary’s Hospital is where the oddity of tornado damage was most clearly demonstrated. After moving across the West Lawn, where the dedication of the new wing was hurriedly evacuated, it hit the part of the hospital that housed the Charity Ward, resulting in its total destruction.

Dr Thaddeus Morgan, who was one of the first to leave the basement shelter, reported, ‘I hesitate to use the term, but the destruction was one of surgical precision. Nothing remained of the old Charity Ward, yet the two swinging doors in their frame still opened and closed. Alas, they open on nothing but dirt and stone.’

A surprising lack of debris was left on the scene after the passing of the tornado, which withdrew back up into the clouds after striking the hospital. There are reports of two women being in the ward at the time of the strike, But records show only one women, Almira Gulch, as being in the hospital at the time.

No bodies have been found or recovered.”

Chapter 44

Featured

August 11, 1922 Circe, Kansas

‘The crying rock’, the name given by the Shawnee, had somehow escaped being renamed upon the arrival of the settlers. A notable exception, as the second assault of any conquering force is to re-name an area’s natural features. It is a re-drawing of the map, both literally and figuratively. This strategy is especially devastating when it was applied to an indigenous people who lacked an aggressively utilitarian relationship with nature. After all, what claim of ownership might a native enforce on property, when they didn’t even know the legal name of the place?

In the cleft of a granite outcropping, shielded by a grove of cottonwood and red cedars, ‘the crying rock’ produced an endless supply of very, very pure water. Refreshed by an un-detectable process of exchange, the level of water in the small pool never changed. The fresh water replaced the old which, in turn, sank back into the bedrock. There was no obvious outlet for the water, it did not form a stream that grew into river, to flow away across the land. It was simply a pool, shaded by trees, surrounded by granite.

Surrounding the pool, a ring of red cedars and cottonwoods created a natural shelter from the extremes of the seasons. In the winter, the wall of green held back the cold wind that, like waves on the shore, crashed against any obstruction or variation of the level earth. The cedar and cottonwood, like any effective shield, gave and bent before the force of winter’s wind and, by doing so, survived. In the summer, the spring’s waters prevented the roots and lower branches of the trees and bushes from falling prey to the heat of the summer sun. The height of the surrounding greenery allowed light to penetrate only at midday. The afternoon hours, when sun’s heat was most damaging on plants and people, found the interior space surrounding the spring, in dappled shade as the sun descended towards the western edge of the world.

The sun had just set on the private horizon of the tops of the surrounding trees. Stillness descended as the cooler shade crept across the grey-into-green floor of the space. The pool, half inside the cave and half out, onto the chance leveling of the earth, had a smooth shoreline, as the grass gave way to hard-packed earth that became impenetrable granite as it slid into the water of the pool. The space around the pool of the spring was only 20 feet from any edge to any other edge. The rock walls of the cave extended outwards, forming a slightly titled back-rest before it blended back into the ground.

***

After we ate lunch I found the point along the smooth rock wall with the angle to the ground that created the perfect back-rest. I sat, manuscript and satchel to my right, upright enough to reach my papers and yet did not have to bend over too much to write. Almira found me to be a suitable cushion between her back and the granite and leaned back against my chest, my legs serving nicely as arms of her newly discovered chaise lounge. She stared off to the left at the dapples of light that chased each other over the roof of the cave, the wind pulled at the top branches of the shading trees.

It was quiet, the dry sighing of the branches of cottonwood trees accented the shade of the private space.

Almira had a book open in her lap. They both remained un-read, artifacts of a life and effort that waited patiently for us beyond the living green wall. Time passed in shared quiet, for us measured in minutes, for the sheltering trees it might have been years and to the spring that bubbled from the granite, time was a quality of existence, not a measure of quantity elapsed.

“Are you glad we met?”

Almira smiled at my question, I felt her tracing her happiness along the ridges of muscle and tendon of my forearms, crossed, encircling her,

“I would have no other life, Sterling.”

I pulled her closer, my face slid through the soft waves of hair and I held Almira’s right hand up in front of us,

“What a beautiful ribbon you have around your wrist. Are you borrowing our daughter’s clothing already?”

Almira laughed, turned her head slightly, her fine, brown hair forming a delicate veil,

“It’s the ribbon that you used to secure Aurora’s blanket as we drove home the night she was born. It’s my single favorite article of clothing, I’ll have you know.”

“Yeah, its funny, I remember I first saw it the night we turned up on Teddy and Simone’s doorstep. It was in a basket of cloth and yarn next to the couch in the living room. I swear I just barely glanced at it. What caught my eye was it’s incredible ruby-red color, but I didn’t stop to pick it up or anything. It was, if you recall, a very odd night.”

I felt the weight rock against my chest, her silent acknowledgement of our first night in the house that became our home.

“Anyway, I was coming back from my last trip out to the car, you were already upstairs in our room,”

“Well, I was…we were very tired, and our daughter-to-be made it clear that she wanted me to stop getting up and down so she could get some rest!”

I felt Almira laugh soundlessly, the vibration of amusement rippled down through my chest. She tensed for a second, repositioned the side of her head, as if searching for a sound, interrupted by her own laughter, itself silent. Just as suddenly she relaxed, as I continued,

“It must have been the last trip to get something from the car as I walked through the living room. I know I looked around the room, it being late and all, not a person in sight. Then, as I was about to go up the stairs, I heard Simone’s voice right behind me!”

We laughed, sharing the memory of the first encounter with our host’s tendency to be observed only when she desired. Neither of us ever felt threatened by Simone’s ability to be in one place and then another, without being seen traversing the space between.

“Anyway, I turned and there she was, right behind me. She looked at me, took my hand and pressed the ruby ribbon into my palm and said the strangest thing.”

I felt a shudder ripple up Almira’s back. I remember an expression my mother would use, usually when a chill breeze might sneak under a warming sweater, ‘I believe that somebody just walked over my grave’. I pressed my arms along Almira’s sides, holding and warming us both. She smiled into the distance, searching for a sight too far away to see.

“She said, ‘Here, Sterling, this ribbon will hold an angel to the earth and keep the devil at bay.’ Our friend Simone was wonderful, but she would come out with some of the strangest of things at times.”

I looked down at the manuscript that lay open in the leather portfolio spread open on the flat rock to my side. I was in final re-write of my second novel and felt a familiar reluctance to see it end. There was a joy at the thought of creating a world that others, people I will never meet, could enter and discover strange lands and places.

The red and black Navaho blanket seemed to float over the packed but dry soil that spread from the edge of the pool out to the surrounding evergreen. The dark clay of the ground fading into a pale green as it approached the low fronds of the living wall that protected the entrance to the natural spring, which in turn, gave rise to the shallow cave that contained the pool of water.

***

“There you are.”

Her head on Sterling’s chest, the deep male voice sounded more distant than possible, given the clearing around the spring was, at best, 20 feet across. One section of the wall of green opposite where she and Sterling lay, took on a darker shade that formed a man’s shape which pushed the branches outward.

Herschel Goloby stood over Almira and Sterling Gulch. He held an oily-dark gun in his right hand and a pair of handcuffs in his left. He threw the shiny metal into Almira’s lap.

“You, put them on him.”

Almira felt the muscles in her legs and forearms tighten in the pre-conscious response of most animals when, facing a threat, decide to fight rather than flee. She shifted her weight on what had a second ago been the comfortable (and comforting) surface of her husband’s torso. Sterling, who was responding alike, through the increased tension of his muscles provided a stable platform for her leap.

Springing up and towards the man with the gun, Almira found her intended trajectory altered by an un-expected motion from behind, as Sterling began his move. Mid-flight, Almira realized that she would not hit the man full-on. Instead, Sterling’s push forced her to the right.

Surprisingly quick, for a man of his size, Herschel Goloby, brought his gun around, in a swiping motion from right to left and caught Almira full in the face, as she closed the distance between them. The soft, wet crunch as the gun barrel impacted the side of her nose was louder than the battle-scream that was her only warning of her attack. From the corner of her eye, she saw Sterling grab Herschel in a two-armed hug. Even as the bigger man attempted to bring his gun arm back from striking Almira, there was enough delay to allow Sterling to trap his arms. Almira hit the feathery trunks of the row of red cedar that formed the wall to the right, her shoulder and back impacted on the spiny branches.

Herschel Goloby found himself in the grasp of a 6 foot 2 inch man trapping both his arms, pinning them to his sides. The small woman lay on the ground to his left, her face blood-red from where the sight at the end of the gun barrel scored a deep gash. He found himself unable to move his arms as the other man pulled him away from the woman on the ground and towards the pool of water. His instructions to bring the man back alive forgotten, Herschel twisted in an effort to break free of the bear hug the man had on him.

Sterling grabbed Herschel’s gun hand and spun to his left. Both men, locked in mortal embrace, rotated in a counter-clockwise direction, a lethal pirouette that, immediately unstable, caused them to fall towards the edge of the spring.

Almira pushed herself half-upright, wincing at the pricks of the cedar branches under her hand. She shook her head and was rewarded by lightning bolts of pain. The knife-edged shocks radiated through and around her eye sockets, bony fingers extending around the sides of her head and meeting in the back at the base of her skull. With an oddly dainty and careful motion, she wiped the blood that flowed down from the cut over her left eye enough to clear her vision and looked for a weapon. On the ground, nudging her thigh, a forgotten lover at the end of a movie, was a rock the size of a soft ball. Careful not to bend her head, she felt the tickling wetness of blood getting blocked by her eyebrows, Almira picked up the rock. Getting one foot planted on the ground, and pushing off from her thigh, she managed to stand. She looked at the two men, now on the ground at the edge of the silent pool.

Sterling and Herschel were entangled on the ground, heads at the edge of the spring, where the granite rose from the earth, forming a crescent shore. Sterling was lying half on Herschel, his legs moving clear to find a grip on the ground that would allow him the leverage to rise. Herschel was on his back, his head on the edge of the pool.

Almira, lurched across the clearing, as much from her effort to counter-balance the weight of the rock she held in both hands, as her feet moved to remain underneath her. As she got to where the risk of tripping on the legs of the two men became significant, she spoke in a voice that hung in space,

“Sterling move to your left. Now.”

Sterling let go of whatever his hands were grappling and pushed off to the side, leaving Herschel, on his back, his head cradled by a rocky mound, half in and half out of the spring. Herschel stared at Almira, as she raised her arms over her head. 

Almira brought the rock, grasped in both hands, downwards. There was an odd ‘give’ as the rock impacted the front of Herschel Goloby’s face. This was followed immediately by a dull cracking sound, the sound sometimes heard walking over fresh snow covering an older, crusted layer beneath. The bones that made Herschel Goloby look like Herschel Goloby were driven inwards and upwards. Unfortunately for him, these shards of bone were all that protected the brain from the outside world.

Unable to counter balance the downward momentum, Almira fell to her knees. Still holding the rock, she clenched her thighs as death spasms raced down through Herschel’s’ legs and out through his arms. She raised the stone over her head, both hands clenching through the blood that coated the un-even, roughly oval shape and looked down at the man. Herschel’s face was identifiable only by virtue of location at the front of the skull. Where there should have been a nose, the most distinctive promentory of the face, there was a depression, a bloody caldera, the hollow of the lower skull showing dark and in the center, the blunted remains of a nostril. There was, somehow, still a spark of life in his open eyes. He stared back at her, his torn lips pulled back exposing broken teeth, it was the look of any animal, driven by instinct to survive at any cost. Defiance flared, not as a rational argument against extinction, rather a silent scream against the forces that provided it self-awareness and was now taking it away.

Almira made a sound, something between a scream of rage and a wail of sorrow.

The blood flowing from the front of Herschel Goloby’s wreck of a face slowed, as his head, no longer controlled by life, fell back into and under the water of the spring.

Almira let her fingers fall from the rock, now seated in the center of the man’s ruined face. A chance spasm moved his head to the left and the stone rolled to the side and fell into the water with a curiously casual sounding splash. She watched as tendrils of blood followed the rock downwards, pulled by secret currents into the depths of the inner pool.

Her ragged breath, slowed.

Almira knew that she needed to get to Sterling. She turned, tried to stand and fell. After what seemed like a lifetime, she got one foot under herself and pushed against the body of Herschel Goloby with the other. It provided her the leverage to stand and, as Newton would insist, gave motion to the body, which rolled once and slid into and down under the dark water.

***

Emily Gale watched the old sedan approach the farm. Turning off County Road #2 with the elaborate caution of a driver either very young or very old, the car pulled to a stop in front of the house, its engine coughed twice and shuddered into silence. Unlike the greeting she offered her previous, un-planned guest, she stood holding Aurora in her arms. Emily held the child carefully, slightly away from her body, subtle indications of how un-practiced she was in holding a child in her arms. An observant onlooker might have noticed the strain and tension in the wrong groups of muscles.

Emily forced herself to smile, the only set of muscles that she felt confident in relaxing, the rest of her body feeling the weight of the child in her arms. She felt tension grow in her lower arms rather than her neck and shoulders, which surprised the young woman, as her posture had always been one of her best features. The muscles of the body always tell the tales that lie in the mind. Here, in the early afternoon, it spoke of a woman who had less fear of dropping the baby than she had of the child being taken away from her. Emily Gale stood with her back to the barn and dormitory building, facing the car in a way that assured that the child in her arms would focus on her and not the two men getting out of the car.

The driver was the Honorable Alexander Lucius Dellamonte. He pushed his door open into the half-way position, the better to provide support as he moved his considerable bulk from the car seat to the dooryard. His driver’s coat, very similar in color and texture to the canvas roof of the car, had the effect of making the man appear to be a part of the car itself. Judge Dellamonte glanced up at Emily as he forced his legs down on to the dusty ground and heaved himself into an upright position.

On the far side of the car, Gareth Herlihy, Captain of the Lawrence, Massachusetts Police Department, already out of the car, stood looking at the two-story building and the red barn beyond. Emily thought of her earlier visitor and realized that this man also was more interested in the other buildings of the farm. Her frown grew as it occurred to her that the majority of the day’s visitors had an agenda other than hers. Although confident in the virtue of her actions, she found herself feeling increasingly impatient.

The dust, freed from the dirt of the yard by the rolling tires of the car, caught up with the now still automobile and continued on towards the two-story dormitory building, it’s paint fresh and clean, the red barn and the open land beyond.

“There you are….”

Emily Gale, seeing that the people she required were finally present, fought to keep the uncertainty from her voice. The child was becoming an increasingly heavy strain on her arms.

***

August 11, 1939   Circe, Kansas

“There you are…”

The voice of the tall, thin, blonde nurse seemed to hang in the air, motionless despite the air-stirring of the ceiling fans. Like propellers of a ship still tied to a pier, the slowly spinning paddles flickered the light from the round white fixtures, more noticeable as the world outside the long, low room grew darker for reasons of its own.

Dorothy Gale stared at Nurse Griswold, once again standing next to the only occupied bed in the empty Charity Ward. It was not so much that she moved quickly and gracefully from being next to her to being 30 feet away, she was simply in one place at one moment and another, the next.

“Don’t concern yourself with how I move from where I am to where I must be, come here. No! it’s alright,” the ghost of a smile accented her eyes, “walking just as you always do will suffice.”

The woman laughed. It was the first time Dorothy could recall hearing her laugh, there was an undertone of sadness almost hidden in the woman’s laughter that, had she heard it from anyone else, it would surely make her cry.

Dorothy Gale stepped up to the side of the bed. The worn brown blanket rubbed the side of her knee, it was the distant feeling of familiarity that often hid in boxes of childhood clothing or yellow-edged envelops, falling from their hiding in an old book.

Dorothy sensed movement outside on the west lawn, in clear view through the row of windows along the wall. Even as the motion outdoors registered in her mind, she experienced the sensation of the lights in the ward brightening. With the increase of light, the figure in the narrow bed became more detailed.

Dorothy’s first impression was of a very small, very thin and very old woman lying, like an Egyptian mummy caught halfway through the process of mummification, in the bed. The worn brown blanket was clean, free of wrinkles and was tucked in at the sides of the mattress, contributing to the impression of a body rather than a living person. The blankets were not so tight as to obliterate or otherwise obscure the shape of the person in the bed. The slight changes of the otherwise flat plane of the covers suggested a certain roundness to the figure. This would lead a reasonable person to conclude, ‘this is a woman, an old woman in this bed’.

Above the folded line of the top of the sheet was a face framed in greying hair. The hair had enough of its original brown to prevent the thought, ‘white hair of a very old person’ and instead, ‘brown hair of a woman rapidly approaching old age’.

The woman was not awake, her eyes were closed, her features almost inert and therefore left the person comfortable ignoring the question, ‘what does this woman look like?’ The impressions of a person’s appearance is intimately tied to the play of expressions, a frown of aggression, the smile of friendliness. All accent the emotions, (theirs and ours) and increase (or decrease) the observer’s judgement of attractive or un-attractive.

The nurse was nowhere to be seen. The moment at the side of the last bed in the row of beds was for Dorothy Gale and the sleeping woman, a ribbon of the deepest red sewn to the collar of her tired blue nightgown.

Dorothy reached out to touch the ribbon and the woman opened her eyes, slowly, as would a person returning to morning from a night’s restful sleep,

“Hello, Aurora.”

Dorothy jumped back and felt the leather and steel of a chair at the back of her knees.

Chapter 43

Featured

August 11, 1922 Circe, Kansas

The black Packard rolled quietly, to a dusty stop, directly in front of the broad porch of the two-story farmhouse. At the open gate on County Road #2, the hand-painted sign welcomed visitors to, ‘Almira’s Keep’.

Herschel Goloby sat in the driver’s seat. He did not look out through the bug-splattered windshield at the central yard of the farm. He did not stare up towards the two-story building, its window trim a freshly painted blue, that stood, the third side of a very un-even square. Herschel Goloby sat, as much a part of the brand-new, road-dirty car, as the mirrors on either side and the chrome bumpers in front and back. He did not even turn his head to the left, to look at the porch, matching pairs of windows bracketing the open front door. The screen door was shut, allowing only the stray breeze that might wander across the yard from the shade of the small grove of elm trees. Three minutes came, waited patiently and passed, yet nothing moved, inside or outside the car. The passing time was marked by the oddly dainty metallic ticking of the car’s engine, cooling from the day’s mechanical exertion.

Finally the chrome lever of the driver’s door handle tilted downwards, a mechanical bow to the master of its house, and Herschel Goloby slipped out of the car. ‘Slipped’ was the best word, as the motion that took him from sitting behind the wheel of the car to standing outside of it, was extraordinarily graceful. One minute there was a dark, man-shaped silhouette inside the car, the next, a very real and very large man standing next to it.

He stood, as quietly as he had sat, his right arm rested along the top of the open car door, his left, down to his side, the oily-gray of the gun barely discernible against the black of his trousers. Still not moving, he stared at every window, the four along the second floor, the four that lined the porch and finally, the open front door. While not lingering on one more than the others, he studied the house, including the interior of which was barely visible through the curtains of the windows and the screen door, a grainy dark scene of furniture and space.

The screen door opened with a twisting squeak, as the spring that held it shut resisted the forces that it was created to resist, and a woman stepped out onto the porch. Without a backward glance, she held onto the door and closed it, rather than allow the spring to do its invariably noisy job. The woman was thin, of average height and had light brown hair, worn in a style that spoke of a person concerned with the details of appearance. She wore silver wire-rimmed glasses, accentuating a face not naturally inclined to smiling. She was speaking, even before she could identify either the car or its occupant, her tone was one of a person who took no great pleasure in being obeyed, but would not tolerate disobedience.

“Captain Herlihy? What are you doing here so soon? It’s not yet one thirty! I was told that you would be arriving with the Judge. And that was not to have been until one thirty. It’s only one fifteen.”

Emily Gale looked over the top of her glasses, at the man standing next to the large black car. Dressed in an expensive suit of a style favored by lawyers and (successful) businessman, the man appeared as out-of-place as an anvil at a baptism. His physique would best be described as, ‘blocky and muscled’. He projected an aura of lethality, in part enhanced by the fact that he simply stood and stared at her, neither curious nor impatient. The gun at his side was not a particular cause for alarm, as men wearing sidearms was not un-common, the frontier days only a couple of coats of paint under the civilized buildings of most prairie towns.  It was the stillness in the man that was most striking. In Emily Gale’s experience, most people were incapable of standing (or sitting) completely still. There was always a glance to the side, a sigh of boredom, a twitch of a hand wanting to be in motion, the slight shuffle of a foot; all expressions of a need to not exist in a state of quietness. The man standing in front of her, on her borrowed porch, was demonstrating a state of composure that very few people were capable of, and most would do anything to avoid.

The former Emily Sauvage was proud of her innate ability to read people. Once married to Henry Gale, she naturally took the role of manager of all aspects of running their small, (but growing), farm that involved dealing with people. That the Gale farm was now one of the largest and most successful farms in McPherson County was proof of her ability. Her skill in negotiating, whether hiring itinerant laborers for Fall harvest time or sitting across a kitchen table from a farmer who could not keep up the payments to the bank, lay in knowing when to make her final offer; all depended on reading the many small tell-tales available to a person with sufficient will and desire. Looking down at the broad-shouldered man, Emily tried to decide what it was about him that was not right. She realized that there was, in this man, a complete lack of need. Making it worse was the lack of curiosity exhibited by the man. Most people, motivated by fear or by desire, demonstrated curiosity. The average person always wanted to discover what might happen next, if for no other reason than to establish if the situation was dangerous, whether the other person was a friend or foe. There was nothing in the face of the man staring back at her that hinted at uncertainty or tentativeness.

Emily remembered her first trip back East, as a young girl. She and her mother stayed with her wealthy uncle Charles. One sunny March day, it was agreed by all adults that a trip to the Philadelphia zoo would be the perfect opportunity for a young country girl to broaden her horizons. Now, twenty years later, she could almost smell the wild musk, that gently assaulted her as she stood on the far-side of dark iron bars, staring at the Indian tiger. The man at the foot of the stairs had the same look as did the tiger in the zoo. It was a look of unselfconscious assessment. And, as with the tiger, there was no sense of a rational sensibility behind his eyes. There would be no arguing, convincing, threatening or cajoling this man. Whatever his business here was, nothing short of death would prevent him from completing whatever mission brought him here, to the dusty dooryard of a small farm in central Kansas.

Without thinking, Emily glanced up towards the hills that rose from the far end of the meadows out past the barn, looking for any sign of activity. She saw none.

Herschel Goloby stared back at the woman on the porch. His expression was that of any predator who, at rest, observes movement. He focused on the woman, but in no way was she the only element in his surroundings being measured and judged. He also paid attention to the open double doors of the barn and, especially, the two-story house that rose to the right of the parking area. Herschel studied each window, door and vantage point within sight of where he stood. He’d managed to be successful in a very dangerous occupation, in large part, because of his highly developed awareness of his surroundings at all times. Herschel Goloby’s life depended on his ability to not only detect current danger, but to identify potential sources of surprise.

He looked back at the woman, who had not stopped talking, but was now standing on the edge of the porch. She was asking questions, which meant there was nothing about her that was important to him. His only concern was finding the man and the woman. If she had information that would help, he would get her to tell him what she knew. The place at the end of the map, still on the front seat of the car, was here, where he stood. There was nothing beyond, at least according to the hand drawn map. Therefore, this was the only place the man and woman could be.

Naturally, Herschel did not recognize the woman. His instructions did not specify a course of action once he arrived at his destination. There was no contingency that allowed for the man and the woman not being in this location. Since this talking woman was the only person in the location provided by the map, Herschel decided that she would have to tell him where he could find the man and the woman.

Through his life, Herschel Goloby managed to overcome his limited intellect by virtue of an exceptional ability to focus on only what he deemed important. While he never developed the degree of social skill that afforded most people the opportunity to acquire new information through communication, he was possessed of an innate sense of the emotional state of those he came into contact with, either by choice or circumstance. This was, of course, a quality shared by most other predators. To be in tune with the emotional state of the prey was always an advantage.

The woman on the porch exhibited none of the fear he was accustomed to seeing in the people unfortunate enough to be forced into interacting with him. Herschel sensed, purely on an un-conscious level, that she was as focused on a single task as was he. Everything about her indicated that, rather than being intimidated by a large, armed stranger, the woman was, in the simplest of terms, annoyed.

“Did you hear me? You were supposed to travel with Judge Dellamonte, not show up here all alone, and fifteen minutes early at that!. I trust you didn’t forget the arrest warrants. Well? Are you deaf? Answer me!”

“Where is the man and the small woman. I am here for the man and the woman. Are they in the house?”

Herschel took a single step towards the porch. Emily stepped off the porch on to the top step, directly into the large man’s path.

“You mean the Gulches? They’re not here, of course! Those two are off on a picnic, on this fine sunny afternoon. Why do you want to know that? You’re not Captain Herlihy, are you?”

Only at that moment, did it dawn on Emily Gale that this large, quiet man was not the lawman from back East she was expecting. While he had a gun, which was expected of a lawman, he showed no interest in anything, save the whereabouts of Sterling and Almira. She wished he would talk a little more, as she was beginning to think that he was a bit touched in the head, if not downright simple. Emily prided herself on what she referred to as ‘being quick on her feet’. She was completely unaware of the opinion of some (well, more than ‘some’, maybe even ‘most’) of the members of the woman’s auxiliary, that her most prominent gift was the innate capacity to manipulate people. To Emily Gale, hers was a God-given talent to make the best out of surprising developments. Whatever it might be, on this particular afternoon in August, Emily seized the opportunity.

She pointed past the two-story dormitory building, out towards where the meadow-land rose to climb into the low hills,

“Out yonder, that grove of trees, up at the top of that low hill? Do you see it? The evergreens clumping together near the top?”

She waited. Finally the man turned his head and looked in the direction she pointed,

“You go up there, up the hill, past the meadow. You’ll come to a stand of evergreens.”

She watched the man’s face begin to tense up, around the eyes, as if his mind relied entirely on only what he could see. He clearly was straining to visualize her instructions and was failing. Emily sensed that this man, while naturally dangerous, would become hostile if he felt cornered, even in something like following directions. He was getting the look that the hogs showed when it was time for their cutting.

“That greenery you see, up near the top?”

A lessening of the frown on his face indicated a growing comprehension,

“Those bushes hide an opening in the side of the hill. If you push through the branches, won’t be more than three, four feet deep, you’ll find them both. I reckon, if you’re quiet, and you strike me as a naturally quiet type, you’ll hear them before they hear you. If they’re the ones you came to see, you’ll find them there. I doubt they’re expecting a person like you, so before you go marching up the hill, move your car to the left side of the barn. That way, if they happen to come out to see if everything is alright down here, they won’t see nothing out of the ordinary.”

Herschel Goloby stared at the woman who sounded like a policeman, but spoke like a school teacher. As often happens to those of limited abilities, he had only a very limited set of memories from his childhood. In that odd way of those with exceptional minds, the few memories were possessed of remarkable detail. He remembered a day in his very brief tenure as a pupil at St. Victoria’s Elementary School. Sister Symphonia, his third grade teacher, was, perhaps, the only adult during his short academic career who did not write the over-sized child off as a lost cause. In fact, it was only due to her patience, that Herschel Goloby learned that if it was written down, complicated matters became manageable. ‘If you write it down, Herschel, you can do anything!’ Her spontaneous compliment burned itself into the ten-year-old’s mind and shaped his life.

The thin woman, with the shiny glasses and the fancy dress who stood over him and spoke in a slow and careful voice, reminded Herschel of being in school and so, he listened to what she said, his lips moving, a singer learning a song of hate from a distant choir. Without another word, he turned, got into the car, drove it the hundred yards or so, parked it, got out and walked around the front of the barn.

Emily Gale stepped back into the living room. Through the front windows, she watched as the very large, very quiet man walked past the barn out into the meadow. She frowned, however, when she saw that rather than follow the obvious and well-worn path through the middle of the field, he veered off to the right. Taking this more roundabout path made for a much more difficult climb. It did not occur to her, nor would she have been likely to care, that this path would allow a person to get right up to the top of the hills without being seen from any looking down from above.

Emily walked over to where Aurora lay, now stirring from her nap. Deprived of a familiar face looking down on her, the barely awake child began to make sounds best characterized as ‘tentative crying’. She was not hungry, having eaten only a short time before, so there was no need to cry, rather it was the absence of her mother and father that elicited the sounds of fear-tinged disappointment.

“Dorothy! You’re awake!! That’s wonderful. It’s time for lunch and then we’ll see some nice people who will let you join our family and we’ll be happy for ever and ever.”

The child looked up at the woman with the look of innocent optimism that is so much a part of earliest childhood and burst into tears.

***

Wichita Office of the National Weather Service 1:23 pm August 11, 1939

Barry Conant was not happy. The information he’d received from the NWS station in Norman, OK included reported sightings of funnel clouds. The observers in both Enid and Alva, Oklahoma, reported hail and some cloud rotation, but no funnels. The main cold front clearly was bearing down on Wichita. Suddenly the telegraph, still a mainstay in the effort to communicate across the vast prairies of the Midwest, burst into a clattering shout, as Donny Wilkerson, a long-time and therefore very reliable observer out of Hutchinson, Kansas, sent a telegraph,

‘Brief funnel cloud, dissipated, headed north towards McPherson County.’

Barry picked up the phone and, when the operator came on the line, spoke in the calm yet urgent tone of a professional meteorologist,

“Diane? Please patch me through to the police departments in the following towns.”

***

August 11, 1939 Circe, Kansas

The clicking of her heels filled the silent main lobby of St Mary’s hospital. With its marble floor and somewhat grandiose rotunda, the sound bounced around the open space as Dorothy crossed from the main entrance to the corridor that lead to the patient’s wing and the Charity Ward. With the groundbreaking ceremony in full-swing, the only noise in the building were the normal breathing-like sounds of a hospital that one usually heard only during the deepest parts of the nighttime. Dorothy glanced at the memorial plaque, inset into the wall, that informed the distracted, or bored, visitor of the fact that the hospital was built-in 1896 and was added to in 1922. Below these dates was a list, in bronze relief lettering, of every Medical Director from the original, (Dr. Martin Louis Trembaly), right up to the current, Dr. Thaddeus Morgan.

Dorothy walked quickly down the corridor, open doors to either side; most patients rooms appeared to be occupied. From a few of these, the sound of a radio, set at a volume loud enough to distract a visitor sitting at a bedside, but low enough to allow the person in the bed to remain asleep, chased after the passing girl, as if hungry for attention. The corridor ended in a ‘T’. Hallways ran off to either side, one towards more patients’ rooms and the other towards laboratories and supply rooms. Directly opposite, as she had no intention of going to the left or going to the right, stood the double swinging doors of Ward C.

Fully aware that Nurse Claire Griswold would be waiting for her in Ward C, Dorothy found herself feeling both excited and, for no reason, quite sad. She thought of her last day of classes at college, when she returned to her dormitory, and saw taxis idling in the front of the building, open trunks consuming luggage like trained tigers in a zoo. Returning to her dorm suite, she passed rooms that either were emptied of its occupant or had the disheveled look of a bedroom being un-decorated; that starkly de-personalized appearance that shows when a person is leaving one living space for a more preferred place. With an un-characteristic lack of patience, she pushed the swinging door inwards and stepped into the ward.

Ward C was empty of patients, except for one. The last patient lay in the last bed on the left. The ten beds that made up the Charity Ward were divided into equal rows of five on each side of the long room. The other nine beds were empty, their mattresses were rolled up like over-sized and un-appetizing pastry and set in the middle of the interlocking metal webbing of the un-made beds.

Dorothy looked to her left and saw Nurse Claire Griswold at the far end of the ward, standing next to the last bed. The beds on that side of the room were against the outer wall and it’s row of windows. What appeared to be a very small woman, the worn-brown blanket up to her neck, lay in the bed. The tall, blonde nurse appeared to be speaking to her.

Dorothy walked down the aisle between the empty beds. She noticed the curtains on all the windows had been pulled and she could easily see out to the west lawn. Like a too-slow turning of a stereoscope, she saw, as she walked towards the end of the room, rows of wooden folding chairs, filled with the backs and the heads of the spectators at the groundbreaking ceremony. As the frame changed at the window in the middle of the row, she stopped at the sound of her aunt’s voice, “…because God favors those he loves.”

The backdrop of sky behind the woman standing before the politely attentive crowd of well-dressed people was one of distant turmoil. The clouds rising from the southern horizon seemed to collide and pile up upon one and other, a slow motion avalanche in reverse. While mostly angry shades of grey, there were patches of too-bright light embedded in the towering walls of clouds. Fading and growing as they moved from west to east, they shot stretched patches of sunlight across the lawn. Those people hit by the random glimpses of the bluest of skies, would raise their hands up to shade their eyes, only to have the clouds collapse on the opening, the restored cloud-dim light night-dark in comparison. The leaves of the elm trees that lined the edge of the hospital grounds were turned over, their pale undersides mute warnings of an approaching storm.

Dorothy felt a surprisingly cool breeze caress her legs and watched the curtains dance inwards, trying to find greater shelter inside the wide room.

“Dorothy? There’s someone I’d like you to meet.”

Dorothy was not surprised to hear the nurse’s voice come from just behind her. One of her most vivid memories of the blonde woman, one that seemed to be her’s for much longer than the mere weeks of a summer’s vacation, was of Nurse Griswold’s ability to move without being observed. As if possessed of the power to appear and re-appear anywhere at will, she now stood in the center of the aisle opposite where Dorothy stood looking out over the west lawn.

Dorothy Gale followed Claire Griswold to the last bed in the ward.

Chapter 42

Featured

Wichita Kansas August 11 1939

National Weather Service (Wichita Municipal Airport) Midday Weather Bulletin

Head meteorologist Barry Conant had to make his first decision as the head of the newest NWS Field office. He smiled ruefully at how differently he felt about making forecasts, now that he was in charge of the office and not just a staff meteorologist. 

“Meteorology is art disguised as science. And if that doesn’t make your job difficult enough, the science it’s trying to look like, is mostly engineering. The ‘facts’ are millibars and barometric pressures displayed in gray, on white maps. The public would be just as happy if we told them we spread chicken entrails on the ground behind the weather office and took our forecasts from reading the patterns, provided our forecasts were always correct and accurate. But meteorology is a science and it not only requires having the intelligence to see the pattern, it insists that you have the guts to stand up and say, “There’s dangerous weather coming. Don’t wait, prepare.”

The speech on the last day of classes at the University of Washington was almost fresh enough to hear Professor Milger’s voice. Barry sat at his desk, the dry-clicking sound of the wall clock reminding him that the Noon Advisory was the second most read (or listened to) forecast of the day.

The evidence and the indications were there, the reports from Tulsa and Norman observers, while not coming out and saying, ‘funnel clouds’, demanded that he issue a tornado warning.

***

August 11 1922 Circe, Kansas County Road #2

Herschel Goloby stared through the dust-shadowed windshield of the black Packard. The sign read, ‘County Road #2’. His very simple plan was entering the final stage. In the early morning hours of the day, he’d stepped off the train that carried him from Boston, Massachusetts to Kansas City, Kansas, got in the car that was waiting at the station and drove west.

On the seat next to him, under the squared black shape of a Colt .45 and the barrel of a sawed-off shotgun, was a ledger. The book was spread open, the lined pages were of an off-white nearly yellow color. Printed in large letters were a series of incomplete sentences;  ‘Get on the train’ ‘Get off in Kansas City’, ‘Go to Western Union and get car’. Next to the ledger was a single sheet of paper with a hand-drawn map. In smudged graphite black, it started on the right edge of the page with Kansas City (an almost perfect circle enclosing the words), a line with route numbers drawn above it and, finally at the near left edge of the paper, where the final notation of ‘County Road #2’ was a large ‘X’. Underneath the X was written, in the overly precise letter-shaping of a child or a person with much else on their mind: ‘bring him back. kill her.’

Herschel Goloby was not in any way self-conscious about his near complete illiteracy. He often required directions, (and steps involved in certain tasks), be written out. He managed, by the simple expedient of requiring whoever hired him, to write everything out. That he was as effective as he was at his chosen work was acknowledged in the complete absence of raised eyebrows, smirk or joke about the literacy rates in New England.

When plans changed or alterations became necessary, Herschel Goloby simply found someone to write out the changes for him. It might be anyone, voluntary or otherwise, who would be told to write what he told them to write. That the handwriting of these changes (to his instructions) sometimes appeared shaky was a reflection of the mental state of the stenographer, not the person dictating.

He looked at the road sign and frowned. Herschel Goloby was, by even the most charitable estimations, a primitive man. Primitive in that he lacked both the drive and perceived need to engage with others to contribute to the common good. Herschel Goloby was bothered only when something occurred to interfere with his day or when he encountered a new or novel element that could not be ignored.

Herschel drove west from the train station in Kansas City. He stopped only twice to relieve himself, once in a small grove of trees and the second by the roadside along a desolate stretch of highway. At this last stop, the scenery consisted of nothing more than a world of wheat fields.

County Road #2 stopped leading straight ahead and now insisted that the driver make a decision. Quite a simple decision: turn right or turn left. The sign that insisted this decision be made, was planted in a cornfield that, by its orderly furrows and tall stalks was as unyielding as a plain brick wall.

Herschel decided to get out of the car and stretch his legs. Leaving the car in the middle of the road, pointed straight ahead, he stepped from the car. Looking around without any interest in where he was, he stretched his arms over his head, sweat-darkened shirt made him look like a black and white photo of victims of gangland territorial conflict. He wore a very expensive tailored business suit. Although Herschel was rarely concerned with the exact time, a gold chain crossed his vest, the chain secured a gold watch. He wound the watch every morning and would stare at the intricately crafted face, much as might a serf in the Middle Ages staring at a page of an elaborately illustrated bible. He paid a great deal of money for the watch and was quite  aware, even derived pleasure, from the envious looks from those he might show the timepiece. He wore the attire of a business man, a successful business man, if the custom tailoring was any indication. The majority of his clients were business men, (successful and otherwise), however buying custom suits was more a reflection of the lack of clothing in his size, than it was personal taste in fashion.

Herschel walked towards the rail fence that divided the field and it’s cultivated nature from the road, and it’s man-made nature, and stopped.

Sensing motion in the field, his arm went from hanging at his side to pointing ruler straight in an instant. There was a waving motion from a point about 30 feet into the cornfield. Looking down along his pointed arm, the waving motion resolved itself into a dark blue bandana. Without changing his position as additional elements resolved themselves into the scene before, Herschel saw the scarecrow, standing amid rows of corn. Being caught off guard, in his line of work, a surprise like this was in no way a source of amusement. He pulled the trigger of the .45 twice. The scarecrow’s head disintegrated, a split-second later, the wood frame that held the straw-filled man upright followed, splinters and sticks flying in all directions. Six crows flew from a grove of trees, a short distance away.

Un-zipping his sweat-stained trousers, Herschel Goloby urinated on the fence, constantly scanning the road in the three directions it provided. After a time, he got back into the Packard, picked up the ledger on the passenger side and stared at the lettering on the open page. His lips moved in slow reflection of the memory of hearing the instructions read aloud by a luckless hitchhiker. The man ran up to the car and seemed happy to have been offered a ride, up until the moment Herschel handed him the ledger and told him to read what was written on the page. Simon Lassiter spent what remained of his life reading over and over, the contents of a single page of the ledger. Finally, Herschel pulled the car over to the side of the road, on a section of road where nothing but wheat and barbed wire fences were to be seen. His passenger expressed genuine surprise at the isolated location. His surprise turned to alarm, unfortunately, his assessment of the situation came too late to change his fate. The instinct to survive is surely the more persistent of those that motivate man, Simon Lassiter, in a desperate attempt to change the unchangeable, opened his door and, nearly shouting with relief, got out and stood next to the car, “Hey mister this is great. I have some friends up yonder. This will give me a chance to…”

Herschel leaned over, extended his arm through the still open passenger side window, shot Simon Lassiter in the face twice before he could finish thanking him for the ride.

Herschel Goloby continued his drive, his instructions playing and re-playing in his head, the voice of the soon-to-be-deceased out of work school teacher, Simon Lassiter reading, ‘…bring him back and kill her.”

Chapter 41

Featured

August 11 1939 Circe, Kansas  (late morning)

“It’s about time you got here, young lady.”

Emily Gale stood at the podium, at the edge of the small stage that was set up on the west lawn of St. Mary’s hospital. A hospital employee was busily setting out wooden folding chairs in rows before the stage. The west lawn was ideal for the groundbreaking ceremony, not only for its level expanse of grass and proximity to the hospital’s parking lot, but for it’s view of the soon-to-be-demolished wing, itself the original effort to expand the hospital. A single level, wood-frame structure, it branched off the rear of the granite and brick four story main building and had housed St Mary’s Charity Ward since 1922. Windows ran along both sides of the structure and afforded half the patients within, a view of the green, tree-shaded west lawn. The other half, five to be precise, ten being the maximum capacity of the ward, were consigned to being involuntary sentinels of the service entrance and staff parking lot. The new addition, soon to occupy the space taken up by the ward and it’s one remaining patient, would be three stories tall, have fewer windows and would result, as the freshly printed programs proudly pointed out, ‘in a re-focusing of an essential community institution’.

The driving force behind the new addition stood behind the podium on the small, and currently empty, stage. Looking up, Emily Gale glared at the two young women walking across the lawn.

“The ceremony’s not for another two hours, Auntie Em!”

Dorothy looked at her adopted mother from halfway up the center aisle, newly created by the two groupings of chairs. Noticing that Eliza was no longer at her side, Dorothy turned and watched her friend talking to a tall, young man. At least a foot taller than Eliza, he had three folding chairs leaning against his leg and from the blue short-sleeved shirt, she guessed he was an intern, no doubt taking the opportunity to help set up for the groundbreaking ceremony. As he smiled, Eliza pointed towards the parking lot and her yellow convertible. He laughed, looked back towards the hospital and nodded his head. Eliza turned, caught Dorothy’s eye and winked.

“Don’t tell me how much time I have, missy. There’s more to do than you think. The ceremony will begin at 1 sharp. I’ll give my speech at 1:15 and then we’ll walk together… as a family, to the side of the old wing and turn over a shovel of dirt. We’ll make a difference to this town and even if you no longer care, the Gale family will be remembered!”

The papers on the slanted wood of the podium fluttered suddenly. The sky to the east remained as pale, hot and featureless blue as it had been since just after dawn, when the sun broke free of the horizon. To the south and west, it was a much different story. Instead of a clean, sharp line following the contours of the far distant fields that formed the horizon, Dorothy could see a dark jaggedness. Where normally the brown and beige of the fields blended with the pale blue of the sky, there were obsidian serrations, as if the increasingly dark gray clouds were fleeing something worse to the south, something that tore at the fabric of the fair-white clouds.

Dorothy glanced at the trees that grew along Cathedral Ave from the hospital entrance down to the Town Square, two blocks to the east, and thought she saw the slight paleness of the undersides of the elm and oak leaves.

“Henry! Get me something to hold these papers down with! I’ll not have my speech interrupted by a page flying wildly across the lawn!”

Henry Gale, sitting, nearly un-noticed, on one of the chairs that lined the back of the stage, looked up,

“Well, Em, I reckon I can find something in the hospital to serve that purpose, a paper weight or some sort of clip.” He stepped the single step off the stage and walked towards the hospital, veering to the right and the main entrance.

“Get Thaddeus Morgan to give you something. Seeing how we’re building him a bigger hospital, it’s the least he can do.”

The gust died as suddenly as it was born, the three pages of her speech safely flat on the lectern. Emily turned her attention back to Dorothy, still standing at the head of the aisle, facing the stage.

“My stars and garters! The biggest event in this small town since….since I can’t say when and that’s how you choose to dress?”

Emily Gale stared at the blue and white gingham dress, a very white blouse with a subtle ballooning at the shoulders. Her gaze grew increasingly critical until she noticed that Dorothy had put her hair up in braids, a hairstyle she seemed to have left behind when she went away to college.

“What about all those fancy new clothes you brought back from New York? Surely you had something a little more, well, a little more in keeping with the occasion. I guess it’s all too true what they say, some people just can’t leave their humble beginnings behind, no matter how much is done for them. For all the better things in life and the advantages of being a part of a successful family, there’ll always be those who are more kitchen than parlor. Breeding always shows in the end.”

Emily looked back down at the lectern. As much as she liked what she’d written, illustrating the dedication and commitment to hard work that went into growing the Gale property from a small family stakehold into one of the largest farms in McPherson County, she was not satisfied with the ending. With a frown of annoyance, Emily Gale stared down at Dorothy, who remained standing in front of the stage. Her friend Eliza was walking towards the parking lot, the tall young man following eagerly.

“Well, just remember, young lady, I want you up here with your father, sitting behind me when I give my speech. Henry Stuart is sending both a reporter and a photographer to write this up for the McPherson County Observer. And you’ll be pleased to know, he said he’d put in a call to a friend of his who runs the Kansas City Star. We might be in the news in the city. Won’t that be exciting?”

Somehow avoiding the nearby trees, a particularly strong gust of wind sneaked up behind Emily and roughly tousled her carefully brushed hair, like an over-excited teenage boy in a schoolyard with too much energy and too large an audience. Feeling the folds of her dress flutter and lift, she reached down, only to see the white papers rise and fly up and over the grassy lawn. Dorothy stepped to intercept them, succeeded in snatching one page in the air and stamped her right foot on the second paper, as it scuttled across the lawn. Looking up at her Auntie Em, who, with the brim of her hat forced close to her ears, seemed to be flying as she stepped off the stage, focused only on the paper under Dorothy’s foot.

“Be careful! Give me that!”

Dorothy picked up the page, added it to the one she’d caught and handed both to her aunt.

“Here. You can have them. I certainly don’t need them.”

Stepping up on the small stage, Dorothy sat in the chair at the end of the single row behind the dais.

Emily Gale stared at the three pages of words, with a scowl twisting her face, daring the words to deny her the opportunity to tell the people, some of whom were already walking towards the stage, the inspiring story of how a hometown girl from humble beginnings lifted herself from poverty to become one of the towns leading citizens. Her speech would also assign some credit to the good lord for having the sense to provide Emily Sauvage with a hard-working husband. The rest, as she smiled, speaks for itself.

***

August 11 1922 Circe, Kansas (late morning)

“Why Emily! Almira and Aurora and I were upstairs, I guess we didn’t hear you knock. Uh…you’re early!”

I was relieved that Almira remained upstairs with Aurora, when the knocking on the front door began. Despite my having told Emily Gale that the best time to come to the house was 12:30, there she was, standing on our porch at 11:45 am. Stepping past her out to the porch steps, I watched a dust cloud settle over fresh tire tracks in front of the house. Henry, his face barely visible in the truck’s rear view mirror, was headed down County Road #2. I waved at the back of the truck, as far as I could tell, Henry didn’t wave back. I turned back towards Emily and said,

“So Henry isn’t going to join you? Thats too bad, Aurora really took a liking to him that last time we visited.  ‘Hen!! Hen’ was all she could say the whole afternoon after we got home.”

“What?” Emily was already in the living room, looking at every corner of the room, a frown growing on her face.

“Henry. Your husband Henry.”

“What about him?”

She turned and looked at me, a flash of annoyance that she struggled to control.

“I thought Henry was going to be with you. You know, for lunch, here, today? Thought the two of you would be making the day of it. Here. Watching Aurora?”

Again her brows tried to control the growing anger and impatience that colored her eyes. Fortunately Almira chose that moment to come halfway down the stairs.

“Hello, Emily. I just have to feed Aurora and then we’ll both come downstairs.”

Emily spun to face Almira,

“I can help…” she broke off the sentence and confusion showed in her eyes as she seemed to struggle to make sense of what she was saying.

“Don’t give it a thought, we won’t be long. I see you brought some toys and blankets, Sterling can show you where you can put them.”

Almira walked back up the stairs and Emily returned her attention in my direction.

“I’m willing to help, you know,”

Emily’s face displayed emotions that I can’t recall ever seeing in one person’s eyes, at least not all at once, at the same time. There was an angry, flinty look in response to my question about her husband, Henry. But even then, there was, underneath, or maybe behind the anger, a shiny, hard calculation as, just for a split second, she measured and assessed. All in a blink of the eye. However, what was startling, perhaps because it occupied her face as the other emotions came and retreated, was a look of sadness. Underneath her slightly furrowed brow and subtly critical eye, was the face of a child confronting the loss of something precious. And, perhaps because it was not on the face of a child, there was not the slightest hint of accepting the loss. As soon as I saw it, it was gone and Emily had moved to the couch and was putting her things down on the table.

“I brought some milk, fresh as can be. Here, put this in the refrigerator for me. I’m sure Dorothy will be getting hungry later on.”

I stopped, startled from my own reverie, but decided that I must have mis-heard her.

***

The National Weather Service’s newest field office was located on the second floor of the maintenance hanger at the Wichita Municipal Airport

On Friday August 11, 1939 at 6:00 am sharp, the six telegraphs in the new-enough-to-smell-the-paint office of the National Weather Service, started clattering.  Most of them relayed routine reports from spotters spread out through the surrounding states, reporting the overnight and pre-dawn weather activity. At precisely 6:24 am, a spotter outside of Norman, OK reported severe thunderstorms. A follow-up from the Tulsa station added to the picture by describing the development of several wall clouds. However, no hail was observed and, within 30 minutes, the sky was clearing as the morning progressed from dawn into full daytime.

Head meteorologist, Barry Conant, was the first meteorologist assigned to the Wichita station. On this particular Friday morning, his first entry into the day’s log read:

‘Preliminary signs of tornadic activity to the south appears to have been false alarms. Seems like just another hot Kansas day.’

He was partially correct.

***

August 11 1939 Circe, Kansas (early afternoon)

Dorothy sat at the end of the single row of chairs at the back of the small stage. Between her and the gathered dignitaries, politicians, reporters and senior citizens balanced on wooden chairs arrayed across the west lawn of St Mary’s hospital, Dr Thaddeus Morgan was concluding his introduction. The Chief of Medicine had spent the previous 15 minutes explaining how critical a community resource St Mary’s hospital  was, not only for Circe, but all the towns in McPherson County.

Her Uncle Henry sat to Dorothy’s left and, next to him his wife, Emily, who was writing frantically on the three sheets of paper in her lap. Each time the audience applauded, she would scrawl a note in the margins. Henry caught Dorothy looking at her stepmother, winked and leaned back in his seat so she could see the pages, each an angry field of cross-outs and corrections.

Emily Gale’s efforts to revise her speech was made all the more difficult by the wind that ruffled the pages in random bursts and breezes. To make matters worse, fast-moving clouds would slide in front of the sun without warning, and the light would switch from glaringly bright to squinting dark without warning. Leaning to her right in order to see around Thaddeus Morgan’s ample backside, Dorothy studied the crowd of Sunday-dressed people sitting on their uncomfortably hard chairs.

A couple just arriving caught her eye, as they walked, hand-in-hand across the lawn. They managed the peculiar ‘slow haste’ that people attempt when late but hope to avoid the attention that running would attract. The young woman wore a dark skirt that, even at the distance Dorothy was, was obviously tightly fitted. Despite the weather and fit of her skirt, the girl wore a sweater, sleeves draped across her shoulders. Being August-hot, the sweater clearly was inspired by some residual modesty, as her blouse was tight and the temperature high. Her companion was tall in a dark suit that did not quite fit. Despite the effort to dress formally, the lack of a neck tie was obviously deliberate.

Dorothy stared and almost let her stiff cardboard, commemorative program drop to the ground as she realized that the young, almost well-dressed man was Hunk Dietrich. Dorothy scanned the audience and spotted Eliza among the guests. The look on Eliza’s face made Dorothy wonder if her friend could read minds, as the grin on her face, a deliberate turning of her head towards where Hunk now sat, made it clear that she, too, recognized the couple.

Dorothy watched as Hunk pulled the chair out for the young woman. Something in her response to having her chair held, made her appear much younger. Even from up on the stage, the girl’s figure was quite noticeable and, with a second jolt of recognition, Dorothy realized that Hunk was sitting next to Becky Stillworth. She was the part-time library worker, full-time high school senior-to-be, who’d stopped Dorothy in the Town Square earlier in the summer, wanting to talk to her about college.

“Every small town has its heroes and, all too often its villains. These are the people who till the land and sew the cloth; every civilization that rises, does so because of the blood, sweat and tears of hard-working people. Every small town has members who, through luck, talent or ambition, rise up and make a difference. Circe is no exception.”

Turning her attention back to Dr. Morgan, Dorothy realized that he was about to introduce her mother. ‘At least then’, she thought, ‘they can get out their silly silver shovels and pretend to dig a hole and all this will be over’. Dorothy’s luggage was already in Eliza’s car, the plan was to drive for Kansas City as soon as they could get away from the ground-breaking ceremony.

Dorothy watched as Hunk leaned and whispered something to Becky Stillworth. Whatever he said caused her to smile and when she smiled, his face lit up in a way that Dorothy thought she would never have seen in the man she thought she knew so well. It was an expression of a happy confidence in himself and a fierce joy in the obviously new relationship.

From the corner of her eye, Dorothy saw movement in the windows of the Charity Ward. It was a flash of white that moved with an uncanny smoothness past the windows closest to the main building on to the left, towards the far end of the ward.

At that moment a cloud slid between the sun and the west lawn of St. Mary’s. Sharp glints and pale reflections in the glass windows were extinguished, and, in that second of slight darkening, Dorothy saw a woman standing in the last window. She had very blonde hair and was staring at Dorothy.

“May I introduce to you a member of the Gale family, Mrs…”

Thaddeus Morgan stuttered in surprise as Dorothy stepped off the stage and, without a glance back, walked towards the front entrance of the hospital.

“…Mrs Emily Gale. Please join me in giving her a warm welcome. She will tell us a little about the journey that brought her to this exciting day.”

A sudden burst of wind ranged across the lawn and rolled over the gathering. It was startling not because of its strength, (although it was, in fact, one of the stronger gusts of the afternoon), what caused people to make sounds of surprise and small noises of fear, was its temperature. Like a rogue wave amidst a normal, and therefore non-threatening, sea, the wind pushed against the women and pulled the hats from the men’s heads. For a day that started with temperatures in the 90s, the coolness of this last wind made the hair rise on the back of the neck of many in the assembled crowd.

Emily Gale cursed the wind and approached the podium, her attention so focused on the three sheets of paper that held her speech, that she did not notice the main door of the hospital closing behind a determined young woman.

***

August 11 1922 Circe, Kansas (early afternoon)

“Come on, Sterling, let’s get going.”

Almira pulled my right hand, turned me in the direction of the dormitory and we walked around the corner of the building, leaving Emily Gale standing on the porch holding Aurora.

Of course, I’d still be standing there, ten feet from the front of our house, waving at our daughter, setting records for variations on the expression, ‘bye bye’. Aurora laughed her enjoyment of the show I was putting on and mimicked my waving. Her 18-month-old attempt to duplicate my gestures were mostly, ‘b’ sounds with a long vowel. She waved her arms and kept it up as long as I did, all the while, bursting into gurgling laughter.

Emily stood on the porch holding Aurora and smiled cheerfully when the first of the ‘bye byes’ began. Her smile. began to flatten out after only about five minutes, as she tired of the game. For a woman several years younger than Almira, Emily Gale managed to look every bit the stern schoolmarm, standing ramrod straight in her long, too formal dress that looked suspiciously brand-new. Her wire-rim glasses added a steely outline to her eyes. ‘But,’ I thought, ‘no one would buy a dress just to babysit for a neighbor for a couple of hours. Would they?’

“Come on, Sterling, the sooner we have our picnic lunch, the sooner we can get back to our normal lives.”

Almira pulled me along as we waded through the still mostly green grass of the meadow that marked the transition from the level terrain on which the house and the barn and the dormitory building were built, to the gentle slope up to the low hills that rose, like a battlement in the northwest section of our property. We’d decided to take a picnic lunch and blanket out to the spring. This announcement did little to stop Emily’s somewhat frenetic suggestions that we take the whole day for ourselves. With a look I would normally associate with the word ‘fervor’, she actually suggested that we take a trip into Kansas City. She assured us that if we wanted to get away for an overnight trip, it would be no trouble at all.

I caught Almira’s eye and smiled and she relaxed and smiled back at me,

“We all walk before we crawl, Emily. Lets see how Almira and I do with a picnic out at the springs for a couple of hours. Then, maybe for the next time, we might try something more ambitious, we’re very new at this parenting thing, you know?”

“Don’t you agree, dear?”

I reached out and took Almira’s hand and succeeded in breaking the growing intensity in her eyes. My wife is the most patient woman in the world, she has brought together parties that were at the point of physical conflict and, by her calming and peaceful guidance, allow them to come together in agreement. I have also seen my wife, at the time a girl of no more than sixteen, nearly kill a man three times her size. Even as she stood over him, his screams of pain filling the union hall, she remained silent. But in her eyes then, that winter’s night there was the rage-triumphant scream to give pause to any valkyrie of ancient legend. I saw a growing coldness in Almira’s eyes and thought it best to help her focus on the positive.

She held Aurora out to Emily Gale. Emily held our daughter and walked towards the front door. I took advantage of the momentum and broke the spell that threatened to overcome my wife.

I had my arm around Almira as we stood at the wall of evergreens that protected the spring that flowed eternally from the earth, our choice for a picnic lunch. I looked down over the gentle slope of the hills, the meadow we’d just crossed still showing our bent-grass path from the barn. The dormitory and our home just beyond it looked like a midwestern fairy tale castle.

Almira leaned into me and said with a mischievous grin,

“Well, husband-of-mine, I’d say we’re certainly not in Lawrence, Massachusetts, anymore. Wouldn’t you agree?”

Chapter 40

Featured

July 5 1922 Lawrence, Massachusetts

Lizabeth Addams happened to be kneeling in front of the open bottom drawer of a filing cabinet, when she heard a small metallic click behind her. It wasn’t a particularly loud or forceful sound, nowhere near the startling assault on the ears of a dropped water-glass, shattering on the floor, or the frantic yelp of the dog, who sleeping too near a doorway, has his tail stepped on by a half-asleep owner, trying to get to the bathroom late at night. This quiet but somehow, hard click was the kind of sound that triggered the small muscles buried under the scalp to tug on the outer ears, pulling them forward in a vestigial reflex meant to help locate a threat. It was a sound that caused goose bumps to grow from the flesh and pull on the formerly smooth and comfortable fabric of the young woman’s expensive blouse. An ancient, yet still vital corner of her brain was doing nothing less than attempting to expand a nonexistent mane. An atavistic strategy to appear larger and more fearsome. The rationale was simple, whatever the unseen threat, it might choose to move on, seeking weaker, easier prey. The modern woman, who was Lizabeth Addams, however, simply felt a sudden chill and pulled her sweater closer around her.

Rising, Lizabeth felt the fingers of her right hand curling in, as if grasping an un-seen object, as she rose from her crouch and faced the office. She maintained a physical contact with the polished wood surface, as if to anchor herself or perhaps, to provide a leverage point, should sudden movement became necessary.

She recognized Herschel Goloby immediately. He was not a small man, however there was something to the way he carried himself that made him seem larger and threatening. Herschel Goloby exuded a sense of violence barely restrained. It was as if he was always about to spring forward. His shoulders, a rounded block of granite, balanced over a body that managed, by virtue of a certain economy in motion, to give the impression of grace and deliberateness of movement.

Herschel Goloby, like a basilisk from childhood fairy tales made real, stood in front of Lizabeth Addams’ desk. His eyes held an intelligence that seemed to flutter, like a guttering flame of a candle, melted down to the last shining pool of wax. Intelligence and cunning were the brightest lights, self-awareness the least; both flashing from deep in his eyes, a slow-motion explosion.

Lizabeth caught herself about to make the sign of the cross, certain that any indication she felt threatened would result in more attention from the man than she wanted; the actual amount being, none whatsoever. She walked three steps back to her desk. Like an apprentice ironworker, gripped by the yawing depths to either side of a narrow beam, yet all too aware of the need to appear confident and un-affected by fear; she donned the superficial friendliness of the professional receptionist and tried to smile. The thought of smiling at this man died quickly and senselessly, like a baby sea turtle running the sandy gauntlet to the safety of the ocean. She stared at the ledger on her desk with the desperate interest of a starving but illiterate woman, trying to make sense of a restaurant menu.

Lizabeth caught herself glancing towards the closed-door of her boss’s office and thought, ‘You bastard.’ Her fear was mixed with a resentment for feeling an almost infantile desire that Frederick Prendergast come out of his office and protect her. The strength of her desire to be rescued by the appearance of her employer made her angrier than she was frightened and looked up and said,

“Yes, may I help you?”

Lizabeth forced a smile onto her face, brushed a wave of brunette hair from in front of her eyes. The causal gesture prompted a sense memory of the pleasure she felt while dressing, the thought of how her choices would please her employer, was almost instantly spoiled with a soured taste of regret. With almost childlike impatience, she tucked the errant wave behind her ear and looked into the dark void of Herschel Goloby’s face, the rumble of his breath crawling from his chest, transforming into words like baby crocodiles born in a tangle of damp life.

“I am here to see your boss. Mr. Frederick Prendergast.”

There was a slight delay between the sentences, making it sound as if he had memorized the ten words.

Before he could complete his statement, Lizabeth was across the room, hating the thought of turning her back to the man, who remained, again silent, standing in front of her desk. She opened the inner office door.

“Mr. Prendergast? Mr. Goloby is here to see you.”

***

August 7 1939 Circe, Kansas

As Dorothy rode up to one of the wrought iron benches that circled the granite fountain in the Town Square, she thought she saw Hunk, standing and talking to someone off to the side, at the top of the staircase of the Circe Free Library. That she chose to leave her bicycle leaning against a bench, rather than in front of her destination, St Mary’s Hospital, betrayed a caution that she might, herself, be unaware of.

She turned towards the library, looked once more and was certain it was Hunk. Whoever he was talking to was not visible, as they stood in the alcove formed by one of the faux Corinthian columns and the massive front wall of the library. The sun was behind Dorothy, at an angle to the front of the building, the result was that whoever Hunk was speaking to was cloaked in the dark of the shaded corner. From the downward tilt of Hunk’s head, the person was significantly shorter and, from the slow but assertive gestures, mostly likely a girl or woman. Turning and walking across the Town Square towards the hospital, Dorothy was struck by her own lack of curiosity, even that bemused thought fell from her mind as she got closer to the reason she rode, alone on her bicycle, into Town. Soon, she started up the broad staircase at the entrance to St Mary’s hospital.

***

“So, Becky, one more year of small town high school and you’re off to Chicago?”

Hunk Dietrich, pulled out of the library more by the attractive power of the young girl’s enthusiasm than the tug on his arm, stood smiling down at Becky Stillworth, his back to the street. It was not until much later in the day did he reflect, not only on his conversation outside the front entrance, but in his choice of position. He was not simply blocking the sun, shining over his shoulder into the girl’s eyes, he stood in such a way to shield her from the un-wanted attention of those who might happen along. This created a question that before his trip into town, this particular August morning, would never have occurred to him. Especially since he’d only recently made the decision to leave his current employer, Emily and Henry Gale. Why he felt the need for privacy, or, more to the point, the need to protect Becky Stillworth’s privacy, was a question that grew in his mind more rapidly because, he suspected, of the very significant change in his own life.

Becky Stillworth stood in the shaded alcove and looked up at Hunk Dietrich and felt an excitement that seemed more personal than simply relaying the good news of her acceptance by the college of her choice. She felt a growing optimism about her life that was, at once, exciting and somewhat frightening. Her habit of protecting her truest dreams by keeping them private was born of necessity, as those around her were ill-equipped to support and encourage her dream of going away to school to study medicine. There was, in fact, only one person who did not chide her for being un-realistic or withhold their attention because they felt she was getting too snooty, that person was Hunk Dietrich. Since the day she started her part-time job at the library, she found in the farm hand a willingness, not only to listen to her give voice to her dream, but to return the trust by describing his own ambition to acquire an education beyond that which was available to the average farm hand. His value to his employer, as a very hard worker was sufficient to mitigate their natural tendency to make fun of him. As long as it did not interfere with his work on the Gale farm, his dream was tolerated.

The cool touch of the stone wall on Becky Stillworth’s back pulled her skin tight, small buds of goosebumps caught pleasurably at the fabric of her blue pattered blouse. She found that the space she stood in with Hunk was, somehow, growing increasingly small. The air they shared became increasingly comfortable, as if she provided a place to store the heat of the sun that he absorbed as he blocked the light from striking her directly. She felt good.

Her enthusiasm changed when Hunk said ‘off to Chicago’. It was a strange feeling, to anticipate missing a place, like her hometown, as she did not think she had any strong attachment to the town or her classmates or even her parents. She loved them and all, but they did not share any part of her ambition to become a doctor. A sense of loss washed over her, amplifying the cool of the library wall. At the same time she felt drawn to the warmth of sun.

“But it’s still a year off and there’ll be lots of time to talk and do research. I can help you with your college studies between now and then, Hunk”

“I’m leaving Circe, Becky”

The space the young man and younger girl shared, hidden from the surrounding every day world by the shade from the towering stone column, was an illusion. However, as with some illusions and the underlying feelings for most relationships, it’s effect was real as far as they were concerned, standing on the stairs of a public building in the middle of the day, wanting privacy without being conscious of a growing need to be together.

***

August 7, 1922 Circe, Kansas

“Hey, babe, lets call it quits for the day,”

Sterling looked up from the dark of the tractor’s engine compartment, which in turn, stood in the half shade, half bright sunlight of the open barn door.

Almira spoke from the triangle of cool shade, cast by the gable end of the barn. Aurora rode at her hip, every bit the loyal crew sitting in the crow’s nest of the tall ship, feeling its way into an unfamiliar harbor. Aurora reached towards her father with one, still somewhat pudgy, hand while clutching the cloth of her mother’s dress.

Feeling her long, light brown hair dislodged by her daughter’s now frantic waving, Almira tossed her head back, trying to clear her vision. The prominent ridge of her nose interfered  with what should have been an efficient, even graceful motion, of her head, as any mare tossing her mane would amply illustrate. Her too-often broken and not properly healed nose was not, however, the distracting and un-attractive disfigurement it would have been on another woman. Almira had eyes that were possessed of a depth and glowed with an intelligent kindness that was more than equal to the centermost feature of her face. She stopped trying, now having more, rather than less, hair in her face. Catching sight of the smile growing on her husbands face, she laughed,

“What? Am I looking like the original pioneer woman? Because if that’s whats prompting the grin, I can assure you, Mister, that you are very mistaken!”

Lacking the maturity that would convey the more subtle inferences of adult conversation and still not possessing the capacity to link emotions to her still immature speech center, Aurora waved both her arms, trusting that her mother would not let her fall. The Gulch family shared their laughter.

“Lets take Emily up on her offer.”

“What offer?”

“To babysit Aurora, one day next week.”

“I don’t know, Sterling.”

Sterling and Almira sat at one of the three wooden tables set up in the shade of the elm trees just outside the Dormitory. Aurora lay on her quilt, content to reign over the quiet afternoon at the now empty Gulch farm. The last guest had left the morning before, gratitude and promises of repayment trailing from the car like earth-bound confetti.

“She told me that she’d love to come here and give Aurora her lunch and watch her nap. She thought we might enjoy having an opportunity to go into town by ourselves or maybe just go for a ride or a walk or…”

“What does she want?”

“Not sure.”

The two lapsed into a comfortable silence, the stray sounds of their daughter serving as an anchor to their individual and private speculation on Emily Gale’s offer. The Gales, along with the other farmers in Circe, welcomed Sterling and Almira into their community, if for no other reason than they all were engaged in the same struggle with the same opponent, weather and nature. Sterling discovered that he had a certain aptitude for agriculture and farming. His enthusiasm and willingness to help anyone needing an extra hand, went a long way to being accepted by the people of the small farming town. Almira found her own reward in making welcome the people of the road who, by luck or, increasingly, by word-of-mouth, knocked on their door, hoping for a chance to rest and recover what for many was a search for a new life. The people who stayed with them, for a day or a week, would repay the hospitality by offering to help with the work and labor of the farm. Almira’s talent for organization served her very well, she would always find appropriate (and productive) tasks for everyone who asked how they might help.

Neither Sterling nor Almira could remember when their farm acquired the name ‘Almira’s Keep’. Through whatever the grapevine that existed connecting the homeless with the wanderers, visitors began to refer to the farm by that name. It came as little surprise that one morning in May, a couple shyly complimented them on the beautifully painted sign at the gate. An unknown guest had taken it upon themselves to put up a carved relief and painted sign that read, ‘Almira’s Keep’.

“Well, I think she’s just trying to be neighborly. We’ve done really well with our place here. Your opinion on the natural goodness of man is turning out to be more than optimism. The best example would be the Clendersons. Their stay made the difference between getting through harvesting next month on our own and having to ask Ephraim Hardesty or one of the others for help.”

“But, I like Ephraim.”

“So do I and his wife too, she’s one smart woman. Anyway, Zeb Clenderson’s innate talent with machines and his willingness to help, our tractor and other equipment is as good as new. You wonder why, seeing how they’re such good people, hardworking people, they end up here, on the way to elsewhere.”

“It hurts to see people so alone out on the road, their lives resting on four wheels and some sheet metal. I wish we could do more.”

“Well those literacy classes of yours are really something. I’m sure I saw one or two local farm hands at the last classes you held in the dormitory, last month.”

“I enjoy doing it. Though I swear I overheard Emily Gale, one Saturday when I was at the drugstore say something to one of her friends about ‘uppity laborers’. I kind of doubt I’ll be seeing any of the laborers from the Gale farm any time soon. I get the distinct impression that she doesn’t approve of the adult classes I’ve been teaching.”

Almira smiled, and looked down at Aurora who was now sound asleep on her side, quilt pulled up to her mouth.

Sterling reached over and took her left hand in his and smiled,

“But what we’re doing here is good. It’s good for the travelers who get to stop and rest and talk to others with the same problem, and its good for the local workers and laborers. Maybe it’s not organizing a union for thousands of workers or writing articles for a big city newspaper, but there’s nothing in the world I’d rather do than be here on our farm with you and our daughter.”

“Well, I guess charity should begin at home. Tell your girlfriend Emily that she’s welcome to come and watch Aurora one day next week.”

***

August 7 1939 Circe, Kansas

“Miss Gale?”

Dorothy was about to push her way through the double swinging doors of Ward C. As she walked up the corridor, she thought she saw a figure in white through the two rounded-square windows in the grey metal doors. It was the figure of a tall, blonde-haired woman and it moved from the right to the left.

Dorothy recalled her last meeting with the Nurse Griswold. She’d promised to return and now, finally felt there might be some answers to the questions that, like layers of nacre, smoothing over an irritant and forming a pearl, had built up around her original question she’d demanded of a very old and very asleep, Almira Gulch.

“Miss Gale!”

Doctor Thaddeus Morgan’s voice had the quality that opera singers envied, he could project great emotion, at very low volume. Like a miniature opera hall, his voice somehow seemed to be coming from in front of her, between where she stood and where she wanted to be. Feeling an undefined opportunity slipping away, she stopped and waited in the corridor.  The sound of distant voices announcing matters of life and death in the perfectly enunciated, thoroughly devoid of human emotion tone of the hospital intercom.

Dorothy took one look back towards Ward C, thought she saw someone move from left to right and turned to face the approaching hospital director.

‘Yes, Dr. Morgan?”

“I’m glad I caught you!”

Dr. Thaddeus Morgan prided himself on being able to speak without sounding out of breath, despite the fact that he was,

“Your suggestion at dinner last week was quite apt. Your friend, Mrs. Gulch, is responding to the IV drip. She is not yet conscious, but is showing definite improvement.”

Dorothy was surprised at the sudden feeling of conflict. She wanted more than ever to go to the bedside of the old woman who had become the focus of her summer at home and, at the same time felt a fear, a fear of what she might hear.

Up until this moment, Dorothy Gales’ only goal in life was to get Mrs. Almira Gulch to answer her question. More specifically to have her explain what had happened since she left for college to change how the town of Circe regarded the old woman. Dorothy found a growing reluctance, a self-consciousness, at the prospect of actually speaking to Mrs. Gulch.

Up until that moment, in her mind, it had been all about Dorothy Gale’s questions. The thought of having a conversation, and in the process, perhaps being asked questions, made her feel very uncertain. It was a very un-settling feeling.

Chapter 39

Featured

August 4, 1939  Circe, Kansas

“You do remember that the ribbon cutting is next week, don’t you? Are you in such a hurry to get back to your little friends in New York that you’d deprive your parents the courtesy of attending? It’s not as if we haven’t struggled for years to send you to your precious school. I think you owe your father that much, don’t you?”

Dorothy sat across the breakfast table, the years of conditioning compelled her to pay attention to her mother. There’s a saying that there’s good even in the bad, and so it was with Dorothy’s relationship with her adopted mother; Dorothy was not surprised by the older woman’s reaction to her announcement of the change in plans for her return to school in New York. For her part in this well rehearsed and practiced scene, Emily Gale twisted her spotless napkin into a shape that looked, for all the world, like a strangled white bird and glared at the girl. In the semaphore of non-verbal familial battles, the older woman’s eyes proudly proclaimed that she still had the strength to withstand the abuse that was inevitable when raising an ungrateful and selfish child.

“If it helps any, I’ll be going with Eliza to her parents home in Newport to spend a week or two before school starts. You’ve alway said that college was as much about meeting new people and having new experiences as it was studying and getting good grades.”

The sudden sharpness in Emily Gale’s eyes, a glint every bit the sudden spark created when two hardened surfaces strike each other; the motion was direct enough to multiply the energy and yet, sufficiently oblique to avoid mutual annihilation. Dorothy turned in her chair, looked out through the curtained windows and absently rubbed her fingers. The unconscious motion in pale imitation of her mother’s silent violence against the table linen. She felt an itch that originated, somehow, from inside her hands. As commonly happens, rubbing her hands together provided a feeling of relief that lasted right up to the moment the massaging became destructive of the flesh it intended to soothe.

‘I guess I must be a Gale.’ Dorothy thought with bitter relief, ‘I see an opportunity to take advantage of her and I don’t have the slightest compunction or hesitation at inflicting pain.’

“Why yes, Aunt Em. I’ll be there for the ribbon cutting ceremony. Eliza and I plan to leave immediately afterwards and drive to Kansas City. I know how important the day is for you and how hard you’ve worked. Uncle Henry and I will be there for you.”

Turning back towards the table, Dorothy realized that her adopted mother was no longer at the table. Without a sound she’d left and was sitting in her small office on the far side of the adjoining living room. The matter of when Dorothy would leave home had been resolved to her satisfaction, so had turned her attention to matters of greater importance.

***

August 5, 1939  Circe, Kansas

“Hi Becky. Have some overdue books I believe I need to return.”

Hunk Dietrich, eyes adjusting to the indoor dusk of the library, smiled pleasantly towards the young girl on the far side of the Main Circulation desk. He felt an unexpected excitement at the high school senior’s response to his greeting.  He found himself thinking,  ‘… minus one destroyed family, a few years off my age and I might be carrying flowers instead of these overdue school books’.  He smiled openly at the simple and un-affected welcome on the face of the young girl. Becky Stillworth, only 17 years old, was young enough to react without contrivance, simply shared her happiness. There was, in her response to Hunk’s greeting, an un-intended display, in the focus in her eyes, the tilt of her head, of the beauty and passion that was, as yet, an un-realized quality.

Hunk was certain, glimpsing the split-second image reflected in the girl’s eyes, that his decision to leave the Gale farm was the correct one.

“I got accepted to the University of Chicago!”

Becky’s happy excitement made her statement as much a lyric of a song as a recitation of fact. She moved around the desk with the natural grace of the young, still free of the chains of life’s lessons, both good and bad. As she moved through the dusty-hushed atmosphere of a library in the middle of a summer day, she left a wake of simple and unadulterated joy as she came to stand in front of Hunk. She came to a stop near enough to feel the press of his chest, advancing and receding with each breath. Surprised Hunk simply stopped breathing and smiled,

“I knew you could do it, kiddo. There ain’t no stopping you now!”

As Hunk Dietrich stared down into Becky Stillworth’s face, the exuberance of a happy teenage girl evolved into a silently confident attitude, the transformation from gifted young girl into talented young woman, now complete.

Throwing her arms around his denim shoulders, Becky Stillworth hugged her friend and ignored the frowns of the middle-aged library patrons. Further back in the shadows of the reading room, the quiet smiles of the older patrons rang like silent bells.

“Come on! Lets go outside so I can tell you everything! I’m so happy!”

Hunk smiled and let Becky lead him outside, content to dream for a short time before he had to leave and discover what life might be prepared to offer ...if he found the courage to demand it.

***

July 3, 1922  Circe, Kansas

Almira Gulch walked out through the back door of their farmhouse, walked along the far side of the barn and along the rear of the two-story building they called ‘the dormitory’. She planned to approach un-noticed, where her husband Sterling was painting window trim and her daughter Aurora watched from the lawn, shaded by young elm trees, in the relative safety of her playpen.

The farm’s former owners, Teddy and Simone Baumeister, planted elm saplings at the right front corner of the building, even before they finished construction. Their hope was that with time, they would provide shade from the summer sun, the time of year when people want to enjoy meals outdoors. The three-year-old elm trees were beginning to spread enough to provide a cool spot for Aurora Gulch to sit outside and watch her father paint.

As Almira quietly approached, she could see Aurora in the center of the quilt that was spread over the grass, a safe and comfortable surface, suitable for sleeping babies. Or, as it happened at this moment, wide-awake babies. Surrounding the child, a protective enclosure was created by inter-locking sections of wooden fencing. Fashioned from light weight maple, each section was three feet in height and four feet in length. The vertical slats, sanded and polished smooth, were as far apart to allow a free view, while keeping Aurora safely confined. It had been a gift from the first guests that Almira and Sterling had as new owners of the farm. Micael and Lisa Davis presented them with the hand-crafted playpen as they left, the end of their three-week stay.

“Wish we had more to give you in repayment of your hospitality. I found the wood in the barn, it didn’t seem to be in use and, well, I made this for your daughter.”

Micael Davis leaned the five sections of lovingly polished wood, complete with a large red ribbon bow, against the front porch railing,

“My Lisa found the ribbon in our things, though I can’t remember packing away any ribbon when I loaded up the car back in Canton.”

Almira returned Lisa Davis’s shy smile with a wink,

“We just wanted you to know how much we appreciate your letting us stay and rest up a bit.”

Almira put her baby in Sterling’s arms, stepped to the edge of the porch and hugged both Lisa and Micael; Lisa’s eyes grew shiny with emotion and Micael’s eyes grew wide in happy surprise,

“We’re grateful you could stay with us. You helped us realize that we made the right decision buying this place. If ever you’re passing through these parts, our home is your home.”

Almira took Aurora back and leaned against Sterling, his left arm around her shoulders. They stood on the porch and watched the Davis family drive out through the gates, turn left and disappear into the distance, down County Road #2, headed west.

Now, on a warm August day, Almira stood watching Sterling paint the last of the window frames. He used his left hand, his right arm while useable, did not allow the fine motor control painting trim required.

A little more than 18 months old, Aurora seemed to be a normally developing child. More and more frequently she found reason to stand on her own two feet, although if her father was anywhere near, Aurora would plant herself down wherever she might be and hold out her two arms and stare at him until he picked her up. She would smile and batter his face with soft, rounded fists, her heartfelt reward for his help. The wooden enclosure provided her with the opportunity to be outside while allowing Almira and Sterling the freedom to attend to the many chores involved in running the farm.

After her first birthday, Aurora settled into a daily routine of sleeping and growing and though they had no prior experience with children, both Almira and Sterling would describe their daughter as a quiet child. Aurora was inclined to roam whenever given a chance, however, when put down on the quilt in the playpen, she seemed content to sit and watch the nearby adults. With the onset of warmer weather, more and more time was spent outside, as Sterling worked on one or another of the endless daily chores and repairs.

Almira stood just around the corner of the building and watched her daughter watch her father. As Sterling dipped his brush and spread the paint over the thin boards surrounding the windows, Aurora did not simply stare at him, a life-sized mobile, hung over a baby’s crib to randomly attract their attention; she was watching him. Almira was startled when, as Sterling ran his brush up and down along the window she noticed Aurora’s tiny right hand moving in a similar motion. Less precise a motion, of course, her still pudgy arm uncertain but enthusiastic. However, whenever Sterling stopped, so did Aurora. For no reason Almira thought, ‘Gulliver’s Travels’. Taken by half-formed images of a warm room surrounded by chairs and books, she dismissed it as another outbreak of her notoriously active imagination and walked up to the father and daughter working in the shade of a small grove of young elm trees.

Sterling stopped painting and said,

“Hey was that Emily Gale I saw leaving here a couple of hours ago?”

“It most certainly was, our neighbor, and your old flame… ”

Almira watched for the delayed response on her husbands face….

“Well, she was stopping by to be neighborly and invited us to the fireworks celebration in town. Seems like some of the bigger farms chip in and put out a spread on the town square and even pay for the fireworks.”

“You might want to take Aurora, she’s old enough now to not be frightened by the noise and the lights. Your old husband, on the other hand, will be staying here, possibly under the covers, at least until all the merriment is over.”

Sterling continued painting. Almira walked over and, stooping under his outstretched left arm,  faced him with her back against the shingles of the side of the building. She smiled and looked up at him. The difference in their height, at least a foot, allowed him to continue painting, or at least pretend to continue painting. Each time he bent to dip his brush in the paint can, she would remain where she was, forcing him to brush his face on her head and along her face to her chest.

Almira stood and smiled as, apparently delighted with the new entertainment, Aurora made sounds of baby laughter and cooing sounds.

***

July 4, 1922  Lawrence, Massachusetts

“Freddy, here’s that list you wanted. I had my Registrar type it up yesterday, just before I left Hanover. Mrs. Tompkins, who’s been to every graduation ceremony since before you and I got out of goddamn high school, made a crack about it being the oddest list of graduating class biographies she’s seen in a long time. Nevertheless, those of us charged with keeping Dartmouth at the top of the ivy-covered heap, recognize the value in keeping our more successful alumni happy.”

Nigel Fiske sat in one of the two chairs that faced Frederick Prendergast’s desk. The same age as Frederick, Nigel tended to the ‘over’ side of overweight and had difficulty sitting in the short-backed visitor’s chair. Across his ample gut, the gold links securing his Phi Beta Kappa key appeared strained, a mongrel’s chain drafted into use securing a rusty freighter at dock. To his left, Lizabeth Addams stood, a stoic look turning her patrician features to the far side of 30.

“Well, Nigel, I’m happy you could come down and enjoy the holiday with Constance and me. I trust you’ll find the accommodations I’ve arranged, to your liking.”

“Yes, Freddy I’m enjoying my visit to your little mill town,

Nigel Fiske’s left hand snaked around Lizabeth’s waist,

“and your Miss Addams here, has promised to show me the best position to enjoy the fireworks.”

The President of Dartmouth College rubbed the side of Lizabeth Addam’s hip with his free hand and grinned like a schoolboy running to the woodshed with his first deck of nude playing cards. For her part, Lizabeth stared out the windows behind the CEO of the Essex Corporation, as if searching for a familiar landmark. The longing on her face held a hint of self-loathing.

Frederick Prendergast stared at his secretary, looked down at the sheets of paper and said,

“Nigel, your Endowment Fund is in luck! This list is exactly what I’ve been looking for since, well, a while now. I have some last-minute matters to attend to, what say we meet for drinks, 3:00 o’clock this afternoon?”

Nigel Fiske beamed at the mention of Endowments and pushed himself towards the forward edge of his chair, the risk of falling to the floor offset by the momentum that would allow him to stand without having to lean on the young woman.

“Splendid idea, Freddy! I’m sure Miss Addams and I can occupy ourselves…”

“Sorry, Nigel, I need her myself. It’ll be less than an hour. I’ll see that you don’t get lonely, at least for too long.”

A look of stubborn petulance crept from Nigel’s mouth towards his eyes. He considered strategies to convince his host to change his plans, however, the effort to steady himself took more of his attention than he’d planned. To make matters worse, the young woman had stepped forward towards her boss’s desk and deprived him of a steadying arm.

Frederick Prendergast looked back down at the papers on his desk, one graduate’s biography outlined in red.

“Miss Addams? I believe that Captain Herlihy is scheduled for a brief visit this morning,

He looked at his pocket watch and then back at the woman and smiled,

“Go ahead and send him on in when he arrives. I want to get this work done so we can enjoy the Fourth.”

***

“Alright, Herlihy, I’ve got a town to manage and this Fourth of July extravaganza ain’t running itself. Lets get this done.”

Sitting at his desk, behind him the July green of the Commons was decorated in the blue and reds of the Fourth of July celebration. Frederick ran his index finger down the typed list and looked up at his visitor.

“You ready?”

The Chief of Police of Lawrence, Massachusetts, not bothering to sit, had a small notebook and a pencil in his hands.

“Her name is Emily Gale. She’s the sister of Cyril Sauvage, the late Cyril Sauvage, decorated and dead war veteran and the former college roommate of one Sterling Gulch. She lives in a small and pointless town by the name of Circe. According to my source, Mrs. Gale recently made a large donation to Dartmouth and, given the size of her gift, the Dean followed up and established contact with her.  In a reply to his letter, she went on at length how she enjoyed her visit to Hanover when she was a girl and now that her brother’s roommate had moved to her hometown, she felt she should do something in honor of her brother’s memory.

The bastard’s in fuckin Kansas, can you believe that?”

Gareth Herlihy stood silently. This matter of finding a suspect of a murder, now nearly 10 years in the past, had been the glue that kept him and this man behind the desk joined over the years. He waited in silence because he knew that Frederick Prendergast enjoyed explaining how clever he was to people he was certain were not.

“This time we have the son-of-a-bitch. If, that is, you don’t fuck this up again. I’m not taking any chances this time, Herlihy. Miss Addams has your train tickets and a generous retainer’s fee. Go to Kansas and bring me back the murderer. And his little wife, too. There are three return tickets in the envelope. Just to be on the safe side, I’ve had what passes as local authorities out there in Kansas notified of your arrival. They will not say or do a thing until you get there. Understand?”

Gareth Herlihy felt tired and at the same time, felt a rising sense of relief, wanting only to put an end to this matter of who murdered a woman and a man during the 1912 walk out at the mills. This, he decided as he stood and pretended to listen, was as good a point as any to end his career in law enforcement and enjoy his hard-earned retirement.

Still without a word, Gareth Herlihy put the note-book in his pocket, walked out of the office. As he passed her desk, he took the large envelope held out by the young and very attractive secretary.

As soon as the outer office door closed, Lizabeth Addams heard Frederick Prendergast’s painfully smooth and charming voice creep from the small intercom on her desk,

“Miss Addams, I don’t care what you have to do, but find Herschel Goloby and get him here before the end of the day.”

Chapter 38

Featured

1921 Winter (outside of Circe, Kansas)

Approaching the sign, ‘Topeka City Limits’, the car slowed from a self-confident 40 mph to a doubtful 25 mph; having surrendered to uncertainty enough to allow this decrease of speed (and determination), slowed further to 20… 15 mph. A blue Jordan sedan, it was packed (inside) and loaded down (the roof and trunk lid) with items not commonly associated with an afternoon drive or even, for that matter, a short stay with relatives in a nearby State. That the oblong rear window reflected light at all implied the decision to give up some storage space in exchange for the added safety afforded by a rear window. It was easy to guess, given that furniture and carpentry tools were among the items packed in and on the car, that the occupants had little interest in seeing where they had been. Their location, the west bound lane of Route 75 on the edge of the last decent-sized city in eastern Kansas and the time, a mid-afternoon Sunday in January, provided for very little likelihood of cars lining up behind them, horns trumpeting demands that they make a decision and get moving.

The two adult occupants of the dark-blue Jordan, like a pair of tropical fish, leaned toward the inside of the car’s windshield seeking some extra guidance from the sign that read: ‘McPherson County 100 miles’, and below that, a highway marker, ‘Route 56 West.’ Turning and facing each other in unison, both receded to the interior and the car turned left towards the afternoon sun.

As did a number of families in the early 1920s, (many, many more as the decade advanced), the Davis family drove west. Modern innovation, a labor pool increased to flood levels by the end of a war and simple bad luck, put Micael and Lisa Davis in the position of having to leave the town of their childhood and, for too short a time, the place where they planned to create and raise a family. The decision to leave appeared the only alternative to waiting in the hope that something would change and Micael would be able to find work. When there are no options and the clock is ticking, moving to another part of the country felt like a more acceptable fate than waiting for the sheriff to come to your door and announce, with a degree of embarrassment, having known you all your life, that you no longer could live in the house you poured your life savings into only a few years before. Taking everything that would fit in the car on which they were still making payments and driving towards a distant part of the country that seemed to lack the problems that afflicted Dayton, Ohio seemed to be the only responsible action a man, trying to provide for his family, could take.

Micael and Lisa Davis packed up their car and drove west, mercifully spared the irony of placing their hopes in following the setting sun. Micael Davis was one of the few born with that special talent for being able to fashion useful, and often beautiful objects, from chunks of wood and pieces of trees. His wood-working skill provided a comfortable life for his family, until innovation and industrialization, in gross and crude imitation of his craft, managed to produce substitutes that were deemed acceptable by people who had less and less money for handcrafted goods. Sears and Roebuck was among the first corporations that found the means of providing mass-produced, but reasonably priced coffins into which the nails of a slowing economy could be driven. Craftsmen, as desperate as anyone deprived of a market for what they created, found themselves working on production lines, modern-day serfs in the service of a new king.

“We’re doing the right thing, aren’t we, Micael?”

Lisa’s voice was soft, her words edged with the tension she felt and tried to hide. It was a tone that her husband would remember more often in their bed as a newly married couple, their lives then still un-defined. Here, in the front seat of an automobile on an empty highway, there was passion, but it was the passion of a mother to protect her children and a wife’s willingness to face adversity at her husband’s side.

“Yeah, Lisa, we are. We’ll drive this car wherever the good Lord and the road takes us. I’ll get you and the girls to wherever it is we’re meant to be. Starting over don’t scare me none, long as you’re by my side.”

Micael, stared at the highway map, colorful and full of ridge folds, he spread and flattened it against the steering wheel, a paper coat-of-arms on a mass-produced shield.

“It looks like after this Route 56 goes on for a spell, maybe a couple more hours, then County Rd #2 picks up and runs straight on through McPherson County. Can’t say I like how far and few between the towns are out here, but the Jordan’s a good car and the tank is still mostly full. I reckon the shorter route is better. The quicker we get to California, the sooner our family can get back to being happy.”

“The girls and I are happy, Micael. As long as we’re together that’s all that really matters.”

Lisa reached over and put her hand over Micael’s, lightly enough to be felt as love and support, but not enough to betray the fear that she felt trying to grow within her.

***

The early afternoon light cast slanted marble columns across the open living room of the Baumeister home. The fireplace glowed with a quiet energy, warmth extended well into the room, ventilation cleverly arranged to spread the heat throughout the first floor (and up through vents in the ceilings). Directly in front of the rubble-stone hearth was a brown leather couch, to either side, leather arm chairs. Between the couch and the fire was a low table of beautifully polished wood. Covering the top were, ‘The Jungle’, ‘Walden’, ‘Woman and the Nineteenth Century’ and, (of course) ‘Gulliver’s Travels’ the crafted-leather covers bound the furniture to the fireplace.

Farthest from the front door and turned just enough to allow a view both of the fireplace and out the windows overlooking the front porch, Almira sat, her legs curled under her slight form, amid a nest of blankets. At first glance she appeared to be dozing, head tilted slightly downward, light brown hair formed a crest overhanging her face. In her arms a baby slept, all soft-flesh pink and showing the random sleeping movements that slowly turned the soft blanket folds into perfectly fitted clothing.

Without moving, Almira smiled slightly and said,

“Hi, Simone.”

Her voice had a quality of stillness, though to describe it as ‘quiet’ would be like calling the ocean ‘a large body of water’, however, the physical effort required even for this short greeting was enough to cause waves of light brown hair to slip and tumble-down and over her eyes.

“It is with no small pride that I’ve developed the ability to move in a manner some call graceful, even more say soundlessly, but you, my young new friend, are among the very few people I do not seem to be able to approach undetected.”

Simone smiled, wrapped her pale shoulders with a blanket from a neat stack near the front window and sat at the far end of the sofa. The blanket was covered with the black and red geometric patterns favored by the Shawnee. It managed, by virtue of expert weaving enhanced by the flickering firelight, to entice the eye with the illusion of depth that bordered on frightening. In stark contrast, the older woman’s blonde hair framed dark blue eyes, that while focused, always seemed to be looking somewhere else, somewhere far away. Simone Baumeister possessed a presence at once contradictory while resisting description.

Almira glanced at her host. The ticking of the grandfather clock provided a wooden counter-beat, to Aurora’s newly started heartbeat. The child lay against Almira’s breast, feeding complete for the moment; she took up the other major chore of a newborn’s life: sleeping. There were moments when, mother and daughter, their breathing in sync, Almira could feel, like the tiniest of drums, the syncopation of life, a triple time counterpoint to her own slow and steady heartbeat.

Almira had a passing vision that combined ferocious machinery and soaring brick walls that rose and as quickly sank, as a fading horizon, the opposite of the experience of the alert sailor, at the end of an ocean-crossing, catching the first sight of land rising from the horizon.

“I think he’s happy here.”

Simone spoke without preamble or context, as if answering in anticipation of a question.

Almira, her child asleep at her breast, glanced up and spoke with a voice that declined to disturb the air until it had crossed the short distance to its intended recipient; a maternal ventriloquism allowing conversation while permitting the sleeping to remain asleep.

“Yes, for all his concern and protectiveness, Sterling seems to have allowed himself to relax. The past year has been difficult. In the way of men, the greater the demands, the less he admits to himself how difficult his life has become. Carrying the world on his shoulders, accompanying his wife across the country to both escape and to discover an alternative to a life suddenly untenable; all without complaint.”

Simone shifted her gaze towards the double windows and the hills that rose from the meadows behind the newly completed dormitory building,

“He loves you more than he knows. But this child that sleeps in your arms, so much a different matter! Your Sterling is only beginning to sense the boundless love he has for your daughter. For the moment, he’s like one raised in a highland wilderness, and finding a mountain stream, follows its downward course. This man may read books, talk to travellers and educate himself in all matters concerning streams and rivers and oceans, accepting that by finding one, he would surely know the other, both the stream and the ocean are nothing more than water in different volumes, he tells himself, certain that knowledge is a substitute for experience. However, nothing can prepare him for the moment he stands before the ocean, the waves grabbing his legs in a hungry lover’s embrace, the salt tang intoxicating him. Sterling sees the child, and like the distant glimpse of the sea through gaps in the forest, he begins to suspect how much a child, a daughter, can mean to her father.”

Almira felt a twinge, like the chance tickle of a reed on the side of the leg when swimming in unfamiliar waters, a hint of future panic, the broken memory of a fragment of a dream. Fields and wolves, dark shapes in the underbrush, appearing only to disappear. Before she could turn her attention, the dark forms blended into the darker recesses of her mind.

“Your husband would be happy anywhere in the world as long as you and his daughter are there, wouldn’t he?”

Almira felt the cold recede as suddenly as it appeared, replaced by the warmth of her child’s face against her skin, the smell of life floating like a new angel’s halo.

“Yes, Simone, he is happy wherever his family is.”

“But it is not so simple for you, Almira Ristani, is it?”

Almira tried to recall if, perhaps in the course of a lazy afternoon conversation, she’d told Simone her maiden name. She immediately dismissed the thought as inconsequential. Despite the fact that she sat a mere ten feet away, try as she might, Almira could not quite bring Simone Baumeister entirely into focus, she remained, as the image seen in a telescope held in reverse, clearly in sight with fine details just out of reach. Deciding that her host was a woman of good intent, Almira chose to smile and maintain her watch over her sleeping baby.

“You have a gift. More of a power, really. Can you see how it can be both? What you’ve accomplished in your relatively short life may seem to exist only in the context of the places you have lived and the people you have known. Your friend Annie and Sister Aloysius and all the people who you’ve helped, have all been a part of your life, but they are not the reason you’ve been so successful in your work. You look around at your new home here, at the vast spaces and the slower pace of life and can’t help but wonder if your talent, your work itself, has any place in this strange land.

But you, of all people, know that men and women and families are the same no matter where you are; the real difference lies in how time passes, the speed of life. Even, and especially here, in this place where days are replaced by seasons and the very earth itself is an active part of people’s daily lives. Fortunately, my young friend, you are of the small number of people who thrive on bending the world to your will, it is that you are able to affect the lives of others that you enjoy, every bit as much as the outcome of your efforts.”

Seeing Aurora sleep peacefully, Almira glanced up through the veil of hair that shaded her eyes,

“What I was very good at, back East, was simply getting people to accept that what they have in common is more powerful than what they think makes them different. All my work with the labor unions sprang from that simple insight. But that was in an environment, a social context, that was very, very different from life out here. I could do what I did because the workers I organized numbered in the hundreds, the thousands. All I needed to do was help individual men and women see the power they might harness once they joined together as a group.  I am, I suspect, a woman of the cities. I’m not so sure there’s a need for my talents in a place as different as this.”

Simone raised a very light blond eyebrow and Almira looked back and smiled in appreciation of the woman’s simple, subtle and quite non-verbal gesture. Had Simone Baumeister stood on the couch and shouted while waving her arms, there would have been no discernible improvement over her silent effort to command Almira’s attention.

Laughing as much at herself as in a sharing with the other woman, Almira continued,

“I don’t really know anything about the culture or the economy of this part of the country. Sterling, my gifted husband, is a man who can paint a world with words. He can tell you the history of this town, this state. In the course of doing that, telling you a tale, he weaves the mundane facts of daily life in the farmlands of Kansas.
This place is starkly different from New England. When I lie awake in the early morning it feels threateningly alien, as if, while I slept, I was flown to a very foreign country and everyone acts as if I belonged there. On our visit to the Gale farm, Henry Gale gave quite the enthusiastic tour. His knowledge of agriculture and farming was altogether impressive and his love for the life was quite apparent.

The thing is, as you said, I know people and where there are people who have become successful and wealthy, there are people who are powerless. As much as I might hope and dream of a future that would be otherwise, where there are working men and women, there are bosses. And the workers always live at the mercy of the bosses.”

Almira felt a familiar passion rise. Though to a stranger the force of her words and the fire in her eyes might convince them she was angry. She did not feel anger, she felt a need to help the powerless discover the power that she believe was within all people. To help people stand up to power was what burned within the petite form curled in a leather arm-chair, her baby in her arms, her mind pacing the room, alive with the joy of a worthy struggle.

“Theodore and I will be leaving Kansas this year, in late Spring, I think. We wanted to find someone to carry on our work here. We both think you and Sterling and Aurora would be the perfect people to assume that role.”

Almira turned her head slightly to look at the fire, a silent chill crept up her back onto her shoulders and said,

“Thank you, Simone, that means a great deal to me. But I’m surprised that there wouldn’t be a line of people, especially the other farmers in the area who would jump at the chance to take over your farm.”

“You’re half right, Almira. Your Sterling’s friend Emily Gale has long coveted our little farm. However, it’s in the ‘taking this farm over’ aspect where you are mistaken. Theodore and I not only have established a successful farm, more importantly we have created a refuge. We’ve spent years here working so that people, total strangers who find themselves at our gate, can find welcome. When they leave our home we know we’ve helped people. Yes, we have a profitable working farm, but helping strangers in need, people for whom there are no guarantees of happiness is the reason we are here.”

“I will say that, as people who stood on your porch on a dark night, you have succeeded in creating a safe haven in an otherwise cold and somewhat hostile land. I also understand what you mean about finding the right kind of person, the person who holds the same values as you and Ted. But surely there are kind people living and working in Circe or in the surrounding county who make suitable owners.”

Almira looked up from Aurora, who was, in the mild movements of a baby, waking from a comfortable sleep, to find that Simone was now within arms reach, sitting at the near end of the sofa.

“Almira believe when I say that you are one of the most intelligent women I’ve had the pleasure to know, but on this you’re mistaken, more likely, I’m not expressing myself as clearly as I should. I’ll suggest that you’re mistaking the kindness of the meek for the love of those in need, which is a virtue found only in the strong. The meek are kind, but their’s is a gentle charity, more the personal demonstration of virtue. There are those who have a drive and the will to intercede on behalf of those in need. You and Sterling are both kind, but more importantly, you are also very strong people. In a farming community such as ours, out here in the near wilderness, kindness is all too often left in the pulpit of the Churches, fodder for an inspiring sermon to motivate the parishioners to do more for those less fortunate. If we sold our farm to a kind but meek owner, they would lose the treasure Teddy and I have built here in less than a year. On the other hand, were you and Sterling the owners, stewards, if you prefer, then the likes of our neighbor Emily Gale would have no more success convincing you to sell out to her than she’s had with me and my Theodore.”

Almira smiled with a look in her eyes that confirmed Simone’s assessment.

“No, you’re correct. Since arriving here, I’ve wrestled with the fear that I’d left my talents and skills behind, in the city. But a larger part of me knows there are people out here in this vaster part of the country who would welcome my help. On a smaller scale, to be sure, but worthwhile nevertheless, one person or one family at a time.”

There came the sound of heavy boots outside on the wooden porch.

As the two men walked through the door, Sterling was saying,

“Well that does sound like an interesting proposition. I need discuss it with Almira… oh you’re here!”

Teddy Baumeister stood in the open door and spoke as if addressing a crowd of strangers,

“There! Did I not say that my friend Sterling here is a very smart young man?”

The young couple and the older man and woman laughed, and in her blanket, the very young child seemed to smile as well.

***

“Don’t you think we should stop, maybe the next town?”

Lisa Davis stared out her window, the blue of a cloudless day took on a darker hue, as the sun moved towards the horizon, abandoning the world to night.

Micael heard the fear in his wife’s voice, it was a minor note really, a tone that a stranger would not have detected. He, being nothing anywhere close to a stranger, heard concern for their two children. The Davis’ had spent one night sleeping in the car and although everyone passed the night quietly, the following day, he noticed his daughters staring with longing at every house they passed.

“Yeah, Lisa, I’m with you on that.This County Road #2 seems to take us right through a small town called Circe. We should be alright, as long as the map isn’t wrong.”

***

Dinner with Simone and Ted Baumeister was always enjoyable. They had an improbably long dinner table set up on the opposite side of the open front room. Other than the rough-hewn support columns, there was nothing to block the view of the fireplace on the far wall. The kitchen was at the back of the house. The first floor was designed to encourage people to eat and talk and be together.

Teddy liked to cook, so Simone would set out the table and act as host, ferrying out dishes and platters of whatever struck her husband’s fancy to prepare. He and I found an old, but still very serviceable, cradle in the attic, and as soon as Almira was able to join us, Aurora, when not in her mother’s arms, had her own place at the Baumeister’s dinner table.

“So tell us, you two, would you like to settle down on this farm that my Simone and I have built?”

After Ted and I returned from our walk, Almira and I accepted our host’s offer to watch Aurora so that we might go for our own walk. There were a couple of hours of comfortable daylight left and we certainly had a lot to talk about. I took Almira up to the spring in the hills. We sat together, the still pool reflected both the blue sky and the grey of the cavern. We sat together, our backs against an unyielding surface and remembered when we first met. The water was not quite warm, yet not chilling cold, the rock surrounding and protecting it held a warmth that managed to make the ancient stone somehow comfortable and we remembered how we’d travelled together, running from and running towards the world.

Without warning, Almira spun around and, knees outside of mine, sat facing me. Her twice broken nose, a crooked deformity on a lesser woman, was transformed by the dark power that lay just below the surface of her eyes. I saw such passion for life that I knew there was nothing I wouldn’t do to protect her, and there was a strength that promised I would never die alone.

As I stared, almost helplessly, into her eyes she started to grin. Resting her forehead against mine, sitting on my crossed legs, she laughed with what could only be described as the joy of the two of us being together. I let her laugh and felt her body and her spirit.

“Well, husband of mine, shall we till the earth and join the company of the landed gentry?”

I felt such a torrent of love that I had to join her in laughing, otherwise I feared I’d either dissolve into tears or stand and howl at the sky.

“We are surely destined to change this place, wife of mine. Our family will grow and flourish in this vast and empty land.”

Back at the dinner table I looked at out hosts. Theodore Baumeister had a way of beaming with confident good will, while his wife Simone had a quality of both being and not being, that rather than being disturbing, had a way of instilling peace and calm. I took Almira’s hand and said,

“We’d be honored to continue the tradition you’ve established here. We shall draw up the agreements, sign the Deed and record it at the Town Hall in Circe, first thing tomorrow.”

As I looked at Almira, there was a glow to her face. The happy silence of the room was broken by the sound of a car engine, creeping to a stop and sighing into quiet.

We all sat in silence as we heard two sets of footsteps cross the porch and, from outside, came a woman’s voice,

“Do you think we should bother them, Micael, it’s beginning to get dark.”

Then a deeper, more resolute voice,

“We can ask, if they tell us to go away, we’ll still be together.”

I looked at Teddy and Simone. Simone was now crouched next to Aurora’s cradle adjusting her blanket and Teddy simply said,

“Well, Mr. and Mrs. Gulch, you would appear to have company!”

Almira was already standing and holding her hand out to me. I took her hand in mine and we went to see who was at our door.

Chapter 37

Featured

Winter 1921 Circe, Kansas

The Christmas season was snowless and un-seasonably warm. Old-timers, always willing and ready to offer their opinions on historical precedents, were in their marginalized glory. Holding forth at the luncheon counter of Randall’s Pharmacy on Main Street or around the wood stove in the open stock room of Crane’s Farm Supply Store, over on West Main, most prefaced their assessment with, “Oh, this is surely the warmest winter since….”

On at least three days in December, the senior members of Circe society could be found gathered in small groups around the granite fountain (that had no water) in the center of the town square. Being across the street from the Library provided a safety net against the dimming of the midday sun or a surprise arrival of the north wind which constantly prowled the open lands surrounding the small town. The warmth of the reading room provided a small, barely noticed irony, as the old timers continued their debates in volumes that were hushed and subdued only to the speaker and very definitely not to the other patrons of the library.

In 1920, in Circe, the Christmas decorations on storefronts and public buildings looked smaller, somehow less enthusiastic. The lack of snow deprived them of a uniform white backdrop, always most flattering, for the colorful ribbons, bows and wreaths. In a small town like Circe, where people labored to a day’s exhaustion eleven months of the year, the decorations tended towards what one might charitably describe as ‘frantically festive’. Traditional holiday reds and greens, when set against the earth-tone shades of a dry winter, took on the look of overly ripe vegetables.

Residents of Circe awoke to find snow on the ground only twice in the entire month of December. On those two occasions, the night’s accumulation was too puny to resist the winter sun and by afternoon melted, withdrawn into the still soft earth.

Simone and Theodore Baumeister loved all the holidays, but Christmas most of all. For one of them, this affinity was a direct result of a natural disposition to caring for others; for the other, a physical resemblance to the central figure in most Christmas tales, surely did not hurt.

Teddy Baumeister enjoyed Christmas so much so that every year, as Halloween approached, he would announce to his wife, (and anyone else within earshot), that the time had come for him to grow the beard he was always meant to have.

“It’s also a very good excuse to put on weight. My Simone is always after me about eating too much, but for the Christmas season, she makes an exception.”

Teddy Baumeister broke the silence after two hours of working on what he and Simone called, ‘the dormitory’. Even though we’d just arrived, little more than a month ago, it was obvious that the holidays were only a ‘single day excuse’ to interrupt the endless labor of farming. Through the months of January and February, the ground frozen solid, whatever work could be done was moved indoors. There was always equipment to be repaired and maintained and, as a break, the occasional day spent on the moon-scape of the winter prairie, mending fences and rescuing strayed livestock. For the Baumeisters, there was also the building of ‘the dormitory’, now just about complete and ready for occupancy.

Most of the farms in this part of the country needed to employ transient labor; planting and harvesting demanded man-hours well in excess of that necessary to maintain a small farm during the other three-quarters of the year. Usually living quarters were thrown up, ideally as multi-use structures. By chance of geography, the Baumeisters chose to buy a farm located on one of the primary routes west. Travelers, both those in search of work and those in search of other essential qualities of life, passed by the Baumeister farm in greater numbers than they did the other farms. Visitors who might stop on their journey, drawn to the light in an otherwise dark landscape, would find welcome. In addition, being a working farm, those who sought an opportunity to earn a little money, would be offered whatever might be available.

However, it was during the times of year when the demand and need for transient workers was low that the Baumeisters demonstrated their essential nature and character. Travelers and workers were met with charity and welcome. As a result, the Baumeister farm did very well year round, as people usually returned kindness with kindness. Their small farm was consistently more profitable at the end of each year than most of their neighbors.

Simone and Theodore’s plan to build ‘the dormitory’ grew from need. It was not a need to acquire. It was not a need to increase the profitability of the farm. It was, in a sense, as self-serving a need as either of these. The Baumeisters enjoyed helping people. They discovered the need to build an extra building, one that would allow them to never be in a position of having to turn a person (or a family) away. The building was nearly finished when Almira and I arrived. As so many before us, drawn to the lights of their home, driven by a need to be welcomed. I was more than happy to help, even if the damage to my right arm cut back on my carpentry skills.

“She indulges me, I know, but to the ends of the earth I would go for her.”

Ted Baumeister put down the backsaw he was using to trim the bottom of the last interior door that needed to be finished,

” ‘Theodore,’ she might say one morning at breakfast, ‘I read in a magazine, down at Randall’s Drugstore about a special mineral water found only in one remote corner of the Dakotas. They said it has near magical properties…’

…well, Sterling, I must admit that, before she could finish telling me what drinking this water might do, I would have the car started and kissing her goodbye.”

I looked up from trying to plane the bottom edge of the last interior door left to be hung. Although I had it laid out on two saw horses, putting the bottom edge at just the right height, I struggled to complete this relatively simple task. My right arm has good days and not-so-good days in terms of stiffness and mobility and unfortunately, today was not a good day. I thought about nailing the door to the saw horses, so it didn’t slide every time I took a pass at it with the plane. I must’ve had the look on my face that Almira refers to as ‘patient frustration’ because Ted stopped with his monologue and, after staring at me for a minute, started laughing. Theodore Baumeister had the kind of laugh that novice writers often refer to as ‘contagious laughter’. The fact of the matter is that it would be more accurate to refer to it as ‘infectious laughter’. All that was necessary was to be in the same room, or not the same room, he was not an overly quiet man, and his laughter became your laughter.

“Ted, I believe you. Lets hope that the two women in the house don’t take a hankering for some Champagne from France or sausage from Germany, or there’ll be no one to feed the cows!”

I smiled, happy to have a non-war-damaged-arm reason to put down the wood plane for a minute. Ted stood up straight, which in his case involved a risk of hitting his head on the top of the door frame, and set his backsaw next to my wood plane on the currently table-like interior door.

“I agree with you, Sterling, my friend. We are lucky men that they, your Almira and my Simone are modest, down to earth women both. They would not send us on frivolous journeys. There is, of course, a third in the house, a woman to be…”

I walked to the window and looked towards the farmhouse,

“Aurora, my sunrise. No, I have not forgotten. I would more likely forget that the earth was under my feet or the sky above my head. I feel odd, and in a way embarrassed, to say it aloud, but it sometimes scares me how much I love that child.”

“Come lets you and I take a walk. The sun is high, your child is safe, I want to show you something.”

We crossed the fields, the winter stubble of corn stalks failed to obscure the neat parallel rows of the previous planting, a natural corduroy terrain, evidence of the endless encroachment of man. Off to the right, destroying the ruler straight horizon, grew a rounded terracing of rising land, small groves of trees and low bushes, making the increasing elevation difficult to detect. As we veered towards the hills, the corn fields turned into meadows and grasslands, the soft vegetation now stiff and textured by the winter’s cold.

We approached a row of cedar trees, feathery trunks showing pale red, branches reaching skywards with a peculiar and somewhat disturbing grasping appearance. Teddy turned to me and said ‘ten paces in, turn around and walk backward for the last 6 feet. Watch out for the hole,’ and disappeared into the prickly green branches.

I did as he suggested and when I turned, (after stepping backwards the last six steps), I found myself in a small clearing. The space was about 20 feet from wall of evergreen bushes to wall of evergreens. The space was dominated by a small cavern that half-covered a pool of water, clearly some sort of natural spring. Ted was sitting on a ledge created by an out-cropping of the bedrock; beginning deep within the cavern it ran along the right side of the darkened space, out into the open and ran to the right along the hillside that sheltered the cavern opening.

The pool of water was mirror-still. The air in this space felt more comfortable than it should and there was a quality of motion to the water. It wasn’t so much beneath the surface, rather it was a quality of the still, clear water itself.

“The Shawnee tribe made this part of the Plains their home, ranging across the land up to the Rockies. At least they did until the white man came bearing gifts. The Indians thought of this spring as a sacred place. I don’t remember the word in their language, but ‘the crying stones’ would be the best translation of the name they gave it. It never changes, never runs dry. Water comes up from somewhere within the earth and fills the pool to the same level. No matter if there is a drought dry enough to wear away the soil or flooding downpours that scrub the land of all features; the pool is always at the same level.”

Ted’s words parted the curtain of blue-grey smoke in front of his face as he concentrated on getting his pipe lit. He’d draw on the pipe, with a slightly slurpy inhale, watch the release of smoke from the carved bowl when he stopped. Several times he would take the pipe from his mouth and, after looking down into the bed of glowing tobacco, tamp it very slightly, puff, examine and puff again. After about 5 minutes, he looked up at me as if I’d just walked into the clearing, smiled and with a broad gesture said,

“Come, Sterling! Come and sit. I have a proposition for you.”

***

Summers End 1939

Dorothy Gale stood at the corral fence. Its first section began at the corner of the barn that faced the farmhouse. It then ran a short length, interrupted itself with a wide swinging gate and, anchored in the ground once more, headed out to the pasture land. A now controlled expanse of otherwise open land.

The cool dampness of the wood fitted itself against her forearms as she leaned on the top rail. The air was still, the sky improbably full of towering clouds, rejected troops of an army arriving at the battlefield a day after armistice. Blue, grey and an occasional patch of black, the clouds had such texture and dimension, Dorothy unconsciously tightened her grip on the fence, the animal mind now alert, signaling the threat of being crushed by an avalanche from the sky.

‘Little wonder that, in all the myths down through the ages, the world begins with giants roaming the earth,’

Dorothy thought, as she scanned the horizon. Although surrounded for a thousand miles by hills, grass and mountains, the expression on the young woman’s face would be instantly recognizable to any open-ocean sailor.

“Mind some company, roomie?”

Eliza Thornberg stepped next to her friend. Dorothy half-turned her head and smiled. Eliza nudged her friend with her shoulder and took up a similar position, standing at the fence.

“My god, the sky is beautiful.”

Eliza stared at the sky above the western horizon, the blue that was hatching from the now blurry clouds, was the color of easter eggs. As she watched, hazy clouds evaporated, creating a hole in the far distant clouds, it felt like she was looking into the sky of another world.

“How do you people not go crazy? There is nothing human about this place, there is nothing that I can walk to and touch. I think I understand some of what you’ve told me about growing up in this place.”

Dorothy made a sound like ‘surprise interrupted by another, more surprising event’, looked out from the corner of her eye and said,

“You wouldn’t believe me if I told you.”

Eliza turned towards her,

“No, I probably wouldn’t if you weren’t my friend. However, Miss Dorothy Gale, you are, so it doesn’t matter what it may sound like to a stranger.”

Eliza turned and leaned back against the fence, looking towards the farmhouse. She felt her natural self-confidence return, the vast and un-controllable fields and too far horizon no longer distracting her,

“Hey, Dorothy, sorry about my bitchiness back at the house. No excuse for it. Except maybe ‘wide-open spaces hysteria'”,

Dorothy laughed,

“There is such a thing, right? Glamorous sophisticated girl from wealthy family succumbs to the near silent charm of the natives, only to witness the callous mistreatment of her best friend at the hands of her immediate family. At Sunday dinner. I read about it last semester in psych class. It’s a real thing. So it’s not my fault.”

Again laughter grew between the two and the rough-hewn boards of the corral fence pulled deeper on the young arms, as if resenting an implied lack of respect.

“No Eliza, I’m the one who should be apologizing, I’ve been a terrible host and a rotten friend. Your surprise visit is the best thing that anyone has ever done for me…”

Dorothy paused and looked out towards County Road #2 as it formed a limit to the growth of the Gale farm, at least in a northerly direction, she seemed to catch herself and resumed,

“…and all I’ve done is drag you to a hospital, send you off with a farm hand to another farm and put on a demonstration of the perfect un-grateful daughter. Wait a minute, except for the un-grateful daughter thing, that pretty much is all there is to do in this place.”

“Hey girl, don’t give it a second thought. If our positions were reversed and you paid me a surprise visit at home, I’d probably take you to a museum, maybe go hear the Philadelphia Symphony and perhaps some sail….”

Eliza noticed the expression on Dorothy’s face,

“Yeah, no difference!”

“But seriously Dorothy, you’re my friend and that’s all that matters, right?”

“I guess.”

“And you and I, we’ll head off to Newport even if only for a week or two before school. It’ll be fun! We’ll make the boys believe they’ve died and gone to heaven and spoil everything for when they get back to Havard and Yale, and their Ivy League girl friends ask them about their summer vacation!”

“Sounds like a good idea.”

“So what is it that’s eating at you? I’ve only known you for a year, but that’s a year living together, which everyone knows is the equivalent of 5 years if we just lived in the same town, going to the same school. Is it the old lady in the hospital or is it something with your Aunt Em?”

“Yes.”

The wind rose and when Eliza turned towards her friend, Dorothy’s face was obscured by her dark hair, blown in random waves that seemed to make her face at once un-recognizable while never really changing.

“I can’t say why, but I suddenly need to know who my real mother was.”

“Does your Aunt know?”

“I think she does.”

“So ask her,”

“I can’t, Eliza. Aunt Em and Uncle Henry are the only parents I’ve ever known. This farm is the only home I’ve ever know. As far back as I remember, I’ve always been here.”

“Sure, but it’s normal for a little girl, hell, any kid, to want to know who their mother and father are, or were.”

Eliza stopped as she heard Dorothy’s voice, quieter and calmer, as if they were sitting in a library and she was showing Eliza something in a dusty reference book.

“When I was about seven, I started asking about where I came from and where my father and mother were. At first Aunt Emily and Uncle Henry pretended they didn’t hear me, ignoring my questions and counting on a child’s lack of tenacity. It wasn’t very long after I started to ask them about my parents, when one of the girls in my class, for no reason I can remember, decided to call me ‘Little Orphan Dorothy’. Her name was Linda Renaude, huh, funny the things we remember. Anyway, when the name-calling started I made the mistake of asking her to not call me that.”

Seeing Eliza’s understanding smile, Dorothy added,

“I know! But I was only seven years old, I didn’t know about mean people. Up until then the only people I had regular contact with were Aunt Em and Uncle Henry and whoever we had working for us. In any event, I asked her to not call me that, that it was mean and my Aunt and Uncle were my parents. That, as any mature person knows, made her certain that she was on to something.

Finally, one Friday towards the end of the school year, Linda got some older friends, they were in the third grade I think, to join her and they started following me around at morning recess calling out, ‘Little Orphan Dorothy, Little Orphan Dorothy….’.

For whatever reason, maybe because Mother’s Day was that weekend, I stopped trying to ignore her and instead, pushed her down in the dirt. Everyone stood and stared and no one said anything and I remember feeling surprised at what I did and started to cry. Yet even though she was laying on the ground, Linda said in a real mean way, “Thats why you’re an orphan, Little Orphan Dorothy”.

I stood over her and said, in a quiet and calm tone of voice, ‘Don’t say that. It’s mean and it’s not true.’ But she wouldn’t stop and suddenly I kicked her in the stomach and when she turned over with her hands around her middle, I kneeled on her back and started pushing dirt in her mouth and saying, ‘It’s not nice to be mean’ and kept making her eat dirt. One of the other girls ran to get a teacher and I stayed on Linda Renaude’s back until I felt myself lifted into the air by Mr. Collins, the janitor. He carried me back to the school-house and I had to sit outside the principle’s office until my Aunt Em arrived. The principal  asked her if I ever acted violent before and if there was any history of violence in my family. Aunt Emily denied that I’d ever done anything like this before, but when the principle asked about any family history, Auntie Em got very quiet and I saw a look in her face, an odd look, like she was afraid of something.”

Eliza felt something like fear cover and un-cover her, like the curtain during the recent dinner, it was there and then not there. A lightest of touches and a repeating of this light feeling of fear, as if to remind her that it wasn’t her imagination. She chided herself for such feelings and listened as her friend continued,

“Somehow she convinced the principle that I was under a lot of pressure because of my school work. She said something that at the time I thought was odd, something about being on the library committee and how she was also a donor to the library book fund. The principle, Mr. Ryan, sat very straight in his chair and stopped smiling. He then suggested that it might be best for me to go home early, just this one time. I can remember the ride back to the farm, like it was yesterday. I was sitting between Aunt Emily and Uncle Henry, who was driving. He still had on his overalls and Auntie Em was dressed like it was a Sunday, she even had on her gold rim glasses. Finally, I asked them to tell me who my parents were,

“Auntie Em, I love you and Uncle Henry and would never do anything to be unkind, but where are my mother and father?”

Emily looked over at me, glanced at Henry, who hadn’t taken his eyes off the road since we pulled away from the school, looked out her window and said,

“Dorothy, both of them are gone. Your father died in a terrible and unnecessary fight with another man. Your mother, well, she never recovered from it. She came to me and asked me to, ‘Give the child the home I cannot.’ She made me promise to never speak of her or the fight, to anyone, ever. Even you. She said, ‘I want what is best for my baby. Don’t ever discuss us with anyone again.’ And she went away.”

My aunt Emily turned to me as we rode in the truck and said,

“You don’t want me to break my promise to her, do you? It would hurt everyone if I did. Since you’ve decided to ask, you are the one who has to decide to keep the promise.”

I sat back on the leather seat, rocking just a little from one side to another as we passed along a rough part of County Road #2. Even now, telling you about that day, I have a feeling of falling, falling into a well, and I said, ‘No. Auntie Em, I wouldn’t want to hurt anyone, especially her.’

We got home and Aunt Emily made my favorite dinner and we never spoke of my real parents again.

Eliza put her arm around her friend, leaning her forehead against Dorothy’s shoulder,

“Shit. Hey, I’m sorry. Here I was thinking that, ‘At least her mother didn’t go and die on her like mine did’. It must have been so hard for you to not know what happened to her, to them.”

Dorothy looked briefly towards the farmhouse, in time to see Hunk step up on the porch of his cottage. He waved, but Eliza was looking at her and she was too far away in her memory to wave an acknowledgment. Hunk stared for a second more than necessary and went into the small house.

…Eliza reached over, ran her left hand through Dorothy’s thick brown hair, sweeping it back against the side and give the length a twist. Leaning further back she said,

“Wait, now that I have the barn and the bales of hay in the background, I think I can picture you. What a pretty farm girl you must have been”

After a moment of silence, both girls began to laugh.

Chapter 36

Featured

The newborn child, wrapped in woolen blankets (embroidered with the name ‘Packard’ along one edge) stared up at her mother as Sterling drove the car towards the Baumeister’s farm. He never completely took his eyes off the baby or his wife for the 20 minutes that remained. Sterling Gulch managed to drive the seven miles to the farm almost entirely using only his peripheral vision. Two young people and one very, very young person travelled alone together, over the gravel road under canopy of the prairie night sky.

Almira, fine brown hair stuck in flattened clumps to the smooth skin of her forehead, looked at her baby and said,

“My God! We created this? How is that even possible.”

Sterling, leaning across the seat, left hand on the steering wheel, his right arm around Almira and the child, laughed,

“Well, dear, when a man and a woman loves each other very much… Ow!”

Almira, her eyes shining in the darkened interior of the car, joined her husband’s laughter,

“You did well, my husband. She has your nose and jaw line, for which I’m very grateful.”

Sterling Gulch turned and put his hand gently under Almira’s chin, the slightest of pressure, without changing the downward tilt of her face,

“She has eyes like a nighttime sun. She has your eyes, Almira. And I am very grateful for that. But what this child does not have is a name. She should have a name. Although ‘our beautiful daughter’ is enough for me, we really should give her a name by which others may know her.”

“Agreed, Sterling. You are the writer and creative one in the family.”

Almira stopped and somehow smiled directly at Sterling without takes her eyes off the baby,

“What a change in that word there is now, we are a family. So, husband, what is our daughter’s name?”

“Aurora”

Almira smiled at the baby, as tears turned her eyes into pools of dark light,

“Aurora, welcome to the family.”

The car moved along the road as new lights in the distance grew into windows and figures stepped from the porch, as the car came to a halt.

Simone and Teddy were both, somehow without reflecting headlights or glowing with the red glow of the brake lights, at the passenger side of the car as Sterling turned off the engine.

“Welcome home.”

Chapter 35

Featured

Dorothy Gale frowned as she watched Hunk Dietrich sprint towards the house, trying to run out from under the growing hail. Through the dining room window she could see the hail as it bounced off the ground, in that oddly delicate way that hail has, at least at the very beginning of a storm. The hail that bounced off Hunk as he ran, grew from little more than white raindrops to pea-sized ovals of ice in the short time it took him to cover the distance from the barn to the house. She heard the double thump as Hunk, deciding to forgo walking up the porch stairs, jumped the last six horizontal, and three vertical, feet to the protection of the covered porch.

The tops of the trees bent to the wind in an odd, undulating motion that made her think of fronds of kelp responding to an approaching storm. It was as if the branches were trying to root themselves in the black-heavy clouds beginning to surround the farm. That the wind was constantly changing speed and direction was more un-settling than a stronger steady wind. The conversation in the dining room of the Gale home shifted from being the center of everyone’s attention, to being an unintended contrast to the sounds of wind and hail everywhere other than the inside of the house. Adding to the growing tension was the sight, through the flapping curtains, of inverted leaves on the trees, their pale undersides giving the elm trees an ominous and slightly ghostly appearance.

Hunk backed through the swinging door from the kitchen, brushing ice from his shoulders as he turned, seeking Eliza Thornberg’s attention.

“Your car’s in the barn, my lady. It’s as safe there as anywhere in these parts, at least at this moment. And best of all, it won’t be full of dents and broken glass after the storm passes.”

Emily Gale and Thaddeus Morgan stood behind their chairs, Hunk’s precipitous departure had ended all chance of a civilized conversation over Sunday afternoon dinner. Emily shot Hunk a look of disapproval only to see that he was giving everything he had to being noticed by the young woman from Philadelphia. She immediately looked at her husband Henry, always her most reliable go-to person, whenever she had the need to lash. He was sitting and eating his meal, oblivious to his wife’s quandary, a host without the power to maintain a balanced interaction among her guests.

Neither Dorothy nor Henry Gale moved from their places at the round dining room table. Eliza Thornberg moved from her place closest to the windows and stood in front of Hunk, her expression deceptively intense.

“Are you out of your god-damned mind? What were you thinking? Did you forget to put in your brain this morning? That hail drumming the roof is the size of golf balls!”

Hunk smiled into the angry girl’s face. His confidence grew, in no small part fueled by the adrenaline that remained in now unnecessary abundance after his run through the pelting hail. Hunk’s normally guileless smile shifted, exertion twisting a normally pleasant and open smile into a grin.

“Who says chivalry is dead? Weren’t nothing, ma’am. I was glad to do it.”

Adrenaline, after the precipitating event, is often slow to flush from one’s system. Much like a person stepping from a dark room into one that is brightly lit, Hunk struggled to re-assess the signals he was receiving from the people in the dining room. He was clearly the center of attention which, for 99% of the time, was not where Hunk Dietrich enjoyed being. His confidence began to shrink as Eliza’s expression remained unchanged. A smiling appreciation of his spontaneous action was nowhere to be found in the girl’s face. She did not appear to be amused; to the contrary everything in her manner conveyed disapproval. Worse than her not smiling back, worse even than her getting angry, was the scorn that seemed to be just under the surface of Eliza Thornberg’s face. There was a near palpable sense of a gulf between her and the other people in the room. Her expression was the same that an explorer, greeted by the eagerly friendly natives of a primitive and unsophisticated land, might wear. Hunk felt an all too familiar feeling of dismay grow like predatory vines through his mind, self-consciousness providing all the thorny bite needed for it to capture his mind.

“No, Hunk, I’m not thanking you for going out into the storm. I’m asking you what you were thinking about, going out into that hail to rescue a ….car. A car, Hunk, not a person trapped in a dangerous situation, not even an animal. That I might understand, but a car.”

Hunk’s confident smile shimmered with uncertainty, doubt growing like rot in an apple, the visible signs only a hint of the depth of the decay.

“You’re still looking at me like I’m speaking Swahili. Don’t you get it? I don’t care about the car! Hell, it’s not even my car. It’s a loan from some man I met once, a man who wanted to suck up to my father. The stupid thing could get struck by lightning and burst into flames and I wouldn’t have left the table until dinner was over.”

Hunk stared, fear and uncertainty re-asserting an all too familiar hold on his face. The conversation that floated above the dining room table fluttered like an over-sized moth, suddenly successful in its effort to find the brightest (and most dangerous) light. Dorothy looked up from her plate and looked at Eliza and Hunk the way a person stares at a friend at a masquerade ball, knowing that under the mask was a person very well-known to her.

Eliza turned from Hunk quickly enough that his face was obscured by the wave of brunette hair. As light as the touch was, he recoiled as if stung by a swarm of hornets. Seeing the stunned looks in the eyes of her host, she tried to restrain the vehemence in her voice,

“What is it with you people? Tell me how I’ve only been here a week and can’t appreciate the subtleties of life in the country. I get how direct and forthright and ‘tell it like it is’ you people are supposed to be, but I sure as hell know greed and insecurity when I see it. As nice and friendly every one has been to me, there’s this thing about possessions that you have that’s really un-attractive. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that the people where I come from aren’t as prone to greed and wanting more than the other guy, but they don’t cover it up with all the wholesome, pious ‘aw shucks’ crap that I see around me.”

From the suddenly nighttime sky, came the rumble of thunder. Hunk pulled aside the white curtains and stared towards the southern sky. His eyes and ears strained to see and hear something in the distance. Blown by the wind, the curtain wrapped itself around his waist, an oddly intimate embrace.

“Sorry to interrupt everyone’s lunch, but this might be a good time for you all to move it down to the shelter.”

“No, Hunk. I’m not going down there. I’ll wait here. If you’re right about whats coming next in this storm, what’s the worst that can happen? I’ll get sucked up into a tornado? The last time that happened, my life actually improved, at least for a while. Don’t you agree, Auntie Em?”

“Now you’re just talking crazy, young lady.”

Emily Gale staring at the girl, addressed her dinner guest,

“See, Doctor Morgan? This is exactly what I was telling you. She insists on being defiant.  What have I done to deserve this kind of disrespect? I should think that given how we’ve provided for her all these years, allowing her a better life than she would have had… otherwise. For all my sacrifice, this is what we get, demands and disobedience.”

“‘Dr Morgan‘? What exactly are you talking about, Aunt Emily? What has Dr. Morgan have to do with this family. Not counting, that is, that damn hospital wing that means so much to you. Sounds like you’ve been sharing a lot about our family with Dr. Morgan. Did you tell him about my visions after the Storm of ’37? Did you go to him, demanding that he do something, give you a potion, a medicine that will make your ‘niece’ behave? Did you hope he would suggest something to restore me to being a useful part of the Gale Farm?”

Dr. Thaddeus Morgan, his expression betrayed his regret at not taking the less responsible path and staying with his wife this Sunday afternoon. Hearing the distant growling of thunder, he looked around the dining room; he felt an actor on stage, in a play he was shanghaied into the role of good-natured foil. He decided to remain silent, confident his cue would be obvious or, better yet, the action would focus on one of the other players.

Henry Gale continued to enjoy his meal. He sat, a look of contentment on his face, comfortable not participating in the conversations flaring up in the room. His expression, one of acceptance for what he knew was good and resignation to the things that were bad. The secret to his composure being that he knew he had done well to procure one and could only endure the other. When he did look up, a pause between bites of roast chicken and the occasional sips of cold water, his face projected a peacefulness more commonly observed in the face of soldiers after learning that the order to charge into the enemy’s guns, but not yet hearing the actual order. He looked around the dining room and saw nothing but responsibility, debt and a fleeting promise of happiness. He looked back at his plate and continued to eat.

Eliza Thornberg sat down in her chair. The white linen curtains behind her, given life by the increasing wind, draped themselves over her shoulders, a momentary bride.

Hunk’s posture was a perfect illustration of the fight/flight instinct. Like all animals, when first aware of an approaching but undefined threat, his body portrayed the simplest of all life’s decisions. Survival required action, debate of options, a luxury.

Dorothy turned in her seat towards Emily Gale and the hapless Thaddeus Morgan. Emily looked around the dining room and felt sad and angry. As she watched her adopted daughter turn her attention on her, Emily Gale spoke first.

“Dorothy Gale! You don’t know how lucky you are. You have a hardworking father and mother who wanted only whats best for you and the family. No matter who tells you otherwise.”

Dorothy began to feel the need to get up and run, out of the room, out into the yard, out into the path of whatever storm happened to be heading towards her. What kept her seated was a belief, more of a fragment, of a forgotten memory. There was something that, once she discovered it’s nature, would make sense of her feelings. It had something to do with travels, but ever elusive it slipped from her mind.

She looked around the dining room and had the sudden conviction that everyone wore a disguise. She frowned at her own thought, she knew quite well who was who and  was certain no one was wearing a disguise or mask or hiding any secrets.

But’ a small voice in her head spoke up, meek yet bold, as if a mouse before a man, ‘you also once knew that there was nothing beyond the rainbow and you were totally certain that scarecrows couldn’t speak, witches were not real and every day life was to be lived and not questioned. Didn’t you?‘ There was the lilt of hope in the last words. It was more a reminder of something that she misplaced, but not thrown away.

Dorothy Gale felt dismay spreading like a yawn from her thoughts to her feelings, the tired that was just behind the yawn was how she felt when she returned to Circe after the Storm of ’37. Then, as this Sunday afternoon, she looked around at the townspeople and her family and friends and had to resist the desire to ask everyone, “I know who you are here, but who are you really?” The changes from her time in… the other place, were such that she did not feel that she had changed, that instead, the world around her had changed. As it did, or did not.

Increasingly feeling like a stranger in her home and hometown, Dorothy Gale realized that the cure was simple but the price was high. She could go back to her life being Dorothy Gale, the painfully normal farm girl who had been adopted by the prominent Gale family and raised almost like one of their own children, or she could find her real mother.

***

“Remember that night last spring, out in the corner of the yard at your father’s house?”

“You read to me, from my Gulliver’s Travels.”

Almira’s voice rose from the dark side of the front seat of our car, the small orange glow on the end of my cigarette a tiny fire, lighting the woolen hills of blankets she had gathered around her for our drive home through the cold Kansas night. The other side of the front seat was extra dark because Almira had taken the three blankets, (that she made the sales manager give us when we bought the car right off the showroom floor), and built herself a …. not a nest.

While great intelligence is an asset in any man or woman, what set Almira apart was her passion. Her will to love, to bring together, to fight when necessary and to protect those in need of a champion; despite the fact she was as near to bringing a child into the world as possible and still be able to run to the car after an excruciatingly tedious social occasion, what she had created on her side of the Packard’s front seat was not a nest.

As a mother-to-be, my wife was not a member of one of the gentle and kind and complacent families of God’s creatures, fashioning warm and dry nests, from pieces of branches and threads of straw meant for comfort as they brought new life into the world, trusting in nature and good fortune that she might be over-looked by the larger (and hungrier) varieties of God’s creatures at her moment of weakness.

Almira had taken the new, very expensive brown woolen car blankets and built a den.

“Yeah, I remember.”

“You gave me a life to bring out to the world that night. A life that’s some of me and some of you.”

I slid my right hand over across the seat and felt her reach out and grasp it.

“You gave me my own life back, that night, Almira.”

“It’s always going to be you and me, and our child, isn’t it?”

Almira shifted in her blankets, leaned forward with both elbows on the dashboard, her chin in her hands and watched as we drove across a flat and simple landscape.

“Remember the times we sat huddled together outside the mill? You and me surrounded by the brick walls? we could escape the cold and the hard times in that small space, because I had you and you had me. The world, that world out there, is only where we pass through, it does not define us. Our love, and only our love, defines and gives us meaning.”

I heard the smile and confidence in her voice as we drove through the dark.

The Gale farm was not all that far from where we were living with the Baumeisters, at least not far by local standards. If it were a summer day and I was alone in the car I could have made the trip in 45 minutes. It was neither. This Sunday’s evening drive looked to be about 90 minutes. Which was not a bad thing. Since arriving in Circe, Almira and I have not had a lot of time alone. Simone and Ted were wonderful hosts, but that they were the only other people in the large farmhouse did nothing to decrease the feeling of being in a fish bowl at times.

“I love Simone and Teddy, but It’s good to be alone. As guests in someone’s house, even up in our room, I never feel, you know, like we’re alone. It’s nice to be with you, seems like its been forever.”

Almira seemed to read my mind. It was a talent that I had come to grips with and it’s mostly a good thing.

“Once the baby arrives, I suspect that moments like this will become a bit of a luxury.”

Almira pulled on the back half of her blanket den and I saw her eyes, the familiar intensity in them triggered not-unpleasant ripples to run through me.

“How do you do that?”

I laughed, but softened it by pretending to concentrate on the road ahead, which now was a ribbon of lighter dark against a nearly black background. The flattened cones of light ran ahead of the car, the stars, somehow, provided enough light to make out the prairie landscape on either side of the road.

“Do what?”

“Change your size at will. At one minute I see a shy 16-year-old girl, reading a book on a hand-me-down couch in a musty union hall, the very next minute I watch you make politicians, business men and stevedores hang on your every word. A very cute mammal running circles around the huge dinosaurs who roar and make like they will rule forever. And you, my powerful inheritor of the earth, just wait and bide your time.”

“Well for one thing I don’t know if I like your choice of similes. And besides, I do not change size and make myself the center of everything!'”

Our laughter gave the noise of the car on the gravel road a run for its money.

“Well, thanks for coming along, babe. If I had to go through that alone, I don’t know if I could have made it to desert.”

“Henry Gale seemed like a nice enough fellow. His wife Emily, well, Emily is a very impressive young woman. She’s accomplished a great deal with what she had, with where she came from.”

Almira spoke more to the passing scenery, as if by understanding the geography, she would better understand the people living in it.

“You, my dear wife, possess the mind of a politician and the heart of an angel. Emily Sauvage inherited money from her uncle Charles. It was only after an unsuccessful attempt to make it in Philadelphia society, that she returned home and bought a run-down farm with part of her rather sizable inheritance. Everything else she has done since then was evident in the eyes of the 16-year-old girl, fresh from Kansas, when she visited her brother at Dartmouth.”

“And you, my dear husband are gifted with an imagination that lets you see the world in a grain of sand and the ambitions in the eyes of a lonely girl. It is you who has the heart of an angel. All that most of us would have seen in her eyes, then or now, is a desperate need for material things in the vain hope of securing social status. All in the service of making her feel a part of a world that she doesn’t believe she belongs.”

I was, as always, impressed by Almira’s talent for people. The Sunday dinner at the Gale farm went exactly as Emily Gale had planned it and it was successful in re-assuring her that she was on the path to a happy life. Henry showed us the barn and the livestock and the equipment, still shiny and new. His enthusiasm for farming was simple, sincere and the one relaxing aspect to the entire afternoon. The dinner, of course, was in Emily’s domain and was not as enjoyable.

“Well, thank you anyway, babe. Once I handed over Cyril’s envelop, I was pretty much ready to leave and get back to the Baumeister’s. Have I told you what a genius you are at bringing out the best in people.”

“One odd thing.”

I looked over at her, light brown hair providing a decorative fringe to the brown woolen blanket she wore as a hood,

“Odder than the small bedroom on the far side of the living room? The one where someone had painted a row of animals along the top of the wall, just below the ceiling?”

“Very observant!”

I laughed at the burst of pride in my chest at her two-word acknowledgment.  I suspect that when I’m old and in my 50s, I’ll still feel as good when Almira compliments me.

“And very diplomatic of you not to ask about it. But, there was a moment in the kitchen. I had a casserole dish in each hand, was turned to leave to put them on the table and she was standing there, next to the door to the dining room and staring at me. I didn’t say anything, just stood there. Finally, almost to herself, Emily said, ‘Dorothy is what I will name my child. No matter how long it takes, that’s the name I will give her and that will make her mine.’
She looked up, as if seeing me for the first time, laughed and said, ‘So much to do, a good hostess never rests.'”

The dark sky arced and connected ‘back there’ to ‘up ahead’, as we drove to our temporary home with the Baumeisters.

What?”

I saw a frown of pained surprise grip Almira’s face. It was gone as soon as I turned to look closer at her. My foot came off the gas pedal but my left hand tensed on the steering wheel.

“Nothing. Your little friend Emily may know how to read, but is far from a good cook. Something I ate, maybe some of whatever was in that orangey yellow casserole dish. Gas. It’s not enough that I feel like I have to pee whenever I… stand up or sit down? I get to have gas too!”

She laughed, curled her legs up on the seat between us and looked up through the passenger side window,

“So much space. If I look at the right angle, it’s like I’m flying over the land and I ….oh!”

Now both my hands tried to change the placement of the indentations carved into the steering well.

ohh!!

The note of surprise in Almira’s voice was replaced by an upturn into fear, followed immediately by a sound that I’ve never heard from her. Out of nowhere came a memory of one time my father took me to Roger Williams Zoo. There was a new exhibit, an African lion and the newspaper said that the curators believed she was pregnant. My father and I stood at the edge of the moat that encircled the lion exhibit for at least an hour. We never once saw the lioness. I remember being disappointed and my father saying, ‘Sometimes, son, things go according to our plans. But pretty much nature does what she does on her own timetable.’ As we turned to walk away, I heard a roar from the depths of the cavern-like enclosure. It was a sound of fear mixed with triumph that I never heard again, until just now.

“My god!”

I looked frantically through the windshield and, twisting, out through every window, searching for something in the vast darkness that I could recognize. I looked back at Almira, she was pulling the blankets against her shoulder and pushing her feet against my leg. Hard.

“Sterling…. I think it’s happening…”

“But the doctor said… you are supposed to have the baby in January…”

The look on her face made me stop talking about doctors.

I brought the car to a complete stop, but kept the engine running. A part of me was thinking that we would at least be warm, a much bigger part of me was looking for a direction to run in, to take Almira someplace where people knew what to do. I even got out, stood on the running board and looked up the road in the direction of the Baumeisters. I did resist the urge to climb on the roof and wave my arms, as the sounds of my wife in distress grew and made the featureless landscape darker than I would have thought possible.

“OK, if you can hold out just a little longer, I’ll get us back to the Baumeisters. Simone will know what to do.”

Sitting up a little, Almira caught my eyes and held them by force of will,

“This, dear husband, is not a matter of learning. This is a matter of our baby deciding to join us ahead of schedule.”

“But if I drive real fast… ” I saw a look of exasperation grow in her eyes, “Ok, then I’ll drive real slow and we’ll be closer every minute and then…”

Almira reached from where she leaned up against the car door and grabbed my hand and held it tight. Encouraged, I continued,

“And if we can get close enough, I’ll use the horn and they’ll hear us and they’ll come to help you.”

Her grip tightened to the point where it felt like the bones in my knuckles were rubbing directly against each other,

“We’re alone out here, Sterling. The time is now. The baby is not going to wait. I need you to help me. It’s just you and me”

Her eyes began to focus somewhere I would never see and she made a sound, nearly the same as the one that I heard as a 10-year-old boy. This time my father was not standing next to me to explain what I must do. I suddenly knew that, as it had been the first night we met, on a winter’s night years before, I needed to hold her and know that she had the strength to do what had to be done. And she would know that I would be there and never let her go.

In a brief lull, in the quiet of the car, land and fields and night animals still, as they witnessed Almira’s cries, I brushed back a stray veil of dampened hair from her eyes. She looked up at me and smiled,

“Almost there, husband of mine, we’re almost there.”

“I am here as I have always been and will always be, wife of mine. You are the center of my world.”

I felt her grip increase and after the passage of time I could not count, her cries were replaced by a smaller cry. I pulled her close and she and I formed a shelter between us, three of us now.

Chapter 34

Featured

“Are you sure you’re feeling up this?”

The Baumeisters waved from the porch as Almira and I drove out through the always open gate, turned right and headed south on County Rd #2.

We’d accepted their invitation to stay with them, at least until we made a decision where we would spend the winter. Given Almira’s condition, we didn’t need any convincing that settling here in Circe, at least until the baby was born, was the right decision. Even more importantly, there was something about Ted and Simone that made me feel welcome and, not being a person to quickly make friends, that’s saying a lot. Almira is, in her way, more comfortable around strangers, from the look on her face, as she walked through the front door just a few nights before, you’d have thought that she’d lived there all her life.

Simone and Ted Baumeister were in their late thirties and, at the moment, alone in the large farmhouse. Ted showed me what he referred to as, the ‘dormitory’ the day after our arrival, explaining that he’d just completed the interior and it was ready for whoever needed a place to stay. I started to say something about how it would only take a little time to move from the large second floor bedroom, when he interrupted me,

“Nein! Not you and Almira! Our children, they have all grown and moved on, this dormitory, I built because, well, because we are able to build it. You’d be surprised at how many people pass by our small farm here. Many are looking for work, some seeking direction, all need a comfortable place to rest for a short time from their journey. But you and little Almira, you are different. You, I think, you are family. You will stay with us in the house, for as long as you wish.”

I looked past the two-story building at the barn, about 100 yards further back from the road. It had corrals and pens on it’s far side, and beyond, lay fields, now in frozen slumber awaiting the warmth of Spring to awaken them. Ted and I walked back towards the house,

“I appreciate it, Ted. I don’t know how long we’ll be staying in Circe, but I know I like it here and Almira loves it. My wife is one of the most self-assured women I’ve ever met and she always finds the best in the people; her work with the unions makes that a very valuable quality. I saw something in her face the other night, when Simone opened the door and welcomed us. There was a relaxing, a letting down of her guard that made me believe in miracles. For the first time since we left Providence, I saw an expression on her face that told me she felt at home. Thank you. I won’t burden you with the details, but it is quite remarkable.”

Ted Baumeister, a very large man, easily six-foot three, put his arm across my shoulders as we walked up the porch stairs. At a volume that was something a little quieter than a roar, he announced our return,

“Simone! What is for dinner!”

Almira and Simone were sitting on a sofa that faced the over-sized fireplace, there were books everywhere. Some open on a low table, passages illuminated by the flames of the warming fire, several lying on the floor, a modern fairy ring surrounding the two women. Almira had one book in her lap, pointing to a passage that surely was in support of whatever point she was about to make to Simone, who had her own book, resting on the arm of the blue and gray fabric sofa. She looked up and laughing said,

“Exactly my question, Teddy. You and Sterling there, be sure to let Almira and me know in plenty of time to free ourselves of this avalanche of words and ideas. We are starving!”

We all laughed and Ted Baumeister and I headed for the kitchen.

***

Watching the road ahead, I noticed the scarecrow in the field that we saw the night we arrived at the Baumeisters. It was still in the same part of the field, except rather than left arm pointing, it’s right arm was pointing in what would have been the opposite direction. I felt a twinge pulling at the scar tissue on my face, ‘Well, Sterling’, I thought, ‘chalk one up to long-term effects of shell shock on memory.’ I followed the County Rd #2 to the right and after about twenty minutes I could see in the distance, still just a smudge below the razor clean horizon, a farmhouse and barn, both set at the end of a long fenced driveway.

Almira was quiet since we left the Baumeister’s. Ted and Simone referred to it as ‘the Keep’, an odd but somehow reassuring term for their homestead. She stared out the window, her eyes focused somewhere not on the maps and certainly not a place merely a physical distance away. I knew the look and I knew that all I could do was not worry and be available to her. Eventually she would return, as she always did, sometimes happy, other times exhausted, as if she’d crossed some immeasurable distance, exploring places not found on any motor club map.

I turned left off County Rd #2 at a gate marked: Gale

The barn, to the right as we approached the compound was freshly painted very red, the corral fencing was all new, un-broken and barely worn. There was a small structure next to the barn, a low one story building that seemed to serve as storage of some sort. My knowledge of working farms and farming now exhausted, I drove into the area, that friends back East would refer to as ‘the dooryard’, that lay between the barn and the house and parked the car.

The house had a wide porch lined with windows and a door at the far left end. Very similar to the Baumeisters. One look at Almira confirmed that it wasn’t that similar to the Baumeisters.

“You know that I will turn this car around, right this instant, all you have to do is say the word. You know that, right Almira?”

She smiled, a hint of reserve in her eyes, like a lone cloud in a clear sky,

“We are here, husband of mine, together we can stand up to anything the world might decide to throw at us.” A look of a 16-year-old grew in the depths of her eyes, “But, let’s make this quick, shall we? Simone said that she had some herbs that will tell us the sex of our child-to-be. I’d rather be there, having a beautifully odd woman pretending to know things about me than to be here at a stranger’s house, a stranger who will claim to know things about us.”

We got out of the Packard and went up to the door and knocked and waited.

***

“Sky don’t look so good.”

Eliza Thornberg, sitting next to Dorothy on the porch of the Gale house, titled forward in the rocking chair,

“The hell you say, Mr. Fonda! It’s warm, the sun’s out and there’s not a cloud to be seen anywhere. I think I had you up too late, last night! It looks to be a near perfect August day.”

She leaned back and let the half-round motion of the chair lift her legs up to the porch railing. Looking from under the brim of her straw hat, she looked towards Hunk Dietrich and, turning slightly, winked at Dorothy in the chair next to her.

Dorothy smiled tentatively, trying to recall if she’d ever seen her friend wearing a straw hat. She was fairly certain she had not and her smile faltered as it dawned on her that not only was it not Eliza’s hat, it was Hunk’s.

Hunk walked slowly across the dirt yard that between the farmhouse and the barn and the small cottage that served as his living quarters. He ate most of his meals with the Gale family, at least except during the winter months, when the demands of his correspondence classes kept him indoors, studying. There remained only a few more courses to complete in order to earn the college degree that formed the center of his private, personal life. Hunk stopped halfway across the yard and stared up at the sky. Having lived his entire life in the Midwest, he was very attuned to the slightest of changes in the weather. In a part of the country that otherwise appeared to be quite plain, in geographic character, the High Plains and the wide area that bordered them was prone to surprisingly dramatic (and lethal) outbursts of weather. Snow in the winter could show up at the end of an otherwise springlike day; rain, absent for months arrived with a pent-up ferocity to flatten crops and wash out roads. Almost in compliment to the plainness of the geography, the truly dangerous weather came with very little advanced warning. The tornadoes, often hidden in the night dark, sprang from the belly of thunderclouds, mindlessly destructive children, hungry for destruction.

Hunk stopped moving when Eliza rested her feet on the railing. She wore a skirt that, when simply standing, engaged in an innocent conversation, was of a somewhat provocative style, given the social context of a small rural community in the American Midwest. When the legs behind the skirt’s brightly patterned folds were tipped upwards, the resulting display of the female form moved into fashion territory much less commonly encountered on a working farm, in the middle of Kansas. Not that her dress slid up past her knees, at least not that much. The back half of Eliza’s legs was what caused the young farm hand to stop in his tracks. Like a slightly arabesque tent down a side aisle, part of a traveling carnival, the tented view of the Eliza’s legs held both promise and threat, neither explicitly stated.

Hunk stood, stuck in a patch of indecision as he wrestled with his conflicting response to the sight of the two girls, sitting on the porch waiting for Sunday dinner to begin.

Eliza smiled at Hunk, shaped by both affection and a touch of gleeful cruelty. She genuinely liked Hunk. She certainly found him physically attractive, although he carried a bit of the ordinary in his polite, deferential manner. While she found that quality sweet, in her experience it almost always was followed by boredom. At odds with this characteristic response, Eliza felt a visceral response, as physical as a sneeze, to her memory of the previous evening with him as they sat at a window booth in a forgettable diner in an equally forgettable town and Hunk Dietrich became someone else. It was not so much he became an exaggerated version of his normal self, as happened all too often when boys get drunk on liquor or love. The outcome of infatuation was usually that the big gets bigger and the unpleasant becomes awful. The transformation in the man in the diner was more akin to when a person is so distracted that they forget to be weak and simply act from the heart. The effect of this simple naturalness was overwhelmingly powerful. Even if she had not found Hunk Dietrich attractive, the previous evening would not have progressed differently.

Now, with a radio whispering a tune somewhere inside the house, Eliza Thornberg wrestled with her sense of control and was grateful that it was the daytime-normal version of Hunk standing in the middle of the yard in front of the Gale home.

“No, Eliza, sorry to say but you’re not from around here. There’s something in the air.”

Hunk’s tone was just a little more assertive. It was an echo of the previous evening, strong enough for Eliza to feel suddenly less confident with her feet on the porch railing. She sat forward, her satin D’orsays flat against the smooth boards of the porch.

Dorothy, still frowning, rocked back in her chair,

“Hunk’s always been good predicting changes in the weather. Out here, they call it, ‘having a weather eye’. It means he can sense a change before it happens. It’s a gift and he’s almost always right about whether it’s going to rain or be hot or have tornadoes destroy your town.”

The edge in Hunk’s voice seemed to fade as he turned his head and spoke to Dorothy. He was now standing at the railing opposite Eliza, leaning with both elbows on the rail, hands together, pointed at Eliza opposite him.

He looked at her and smiled,

“I like the idea that back East at your school, the worst thing they have for weather is snow. No surprise…. storms. I like that.”

Eliza, uncertain why, felt uncomfortable. Hunk turned towards her, locked eyes and she remembered.

“Well, we do have blizzards back East! We even had a hurricane pass by three years ago. They’re not exactly tame and safe.”

Hunk smiled in a way that made her feel like she had no idea who any of the people around her were and why she was among them,

“Sure, I’ve read about the wind and the tree damage. Huge storms that move slowly up the coastline. But around here, the storms are more…personal. And sometimes, there’s a storm that comes looking for you. And no matter where you hide, if it catches you, it will take you away.”

“I think I’ll go help Margherita set the table for dinner. I believe Auntie Em invited Doctor Morgan and his wife for dinner.”

“You want some help?” Eliza suddenly found herself wanting to be doing something boring.

“Nah, I can handle it”

Hunk vaulted the railing and crouched in front of Eliza, the suddenness and implied strength startling her into rocking back in the chair.

Smiling, Hunk put both hands on the ends of the armrests and tipped the chair forward. Eliza frowned and her temper, flared like a spark in dry pine needles, her eyes grew dark and was about to speak when,

“Dinner time, everyone!”

Hunk held out his hand.

Eliza felt the flare of temper, like a backfire out of control, spread within her. Her need to control and perhaps to hurt someone was replaced by a simple and plain feeling of need.

***

“So, Doctor Morgan, I understand that in a week or so, the construction will be starting!”

Emily Gale’s voice had a jagged trill to it that, had it been heard from a 6-year-old girl in the middle of a surprise birthday party, would not have been overly noticeable. The strained light-heartedness made each phrase of her attempt at dinner conversation, all the more brittle. The light in the room ebbed and flowed as clouds grew in the sky outside, the tone of her voice as jarring as biting down on a scrap of aluminum foil hidden in a fork full of picnic potato salad.

Henry Gale sat in his ‘good clothes’ at the head of the table. Being a round table, it was so purely on the basis of Emily’s announcement, ‘…and Henry sits there, at the head of the table’. Henry focused his attention on his plate, as if somewhere in the patterns of gravy and mashed potatoes there might be discovered a map to a secret treasure.
Hunk sat closest to the kitchen door and the two windows that opened out to the porch. Behind him, the mid-afternoon sunlight began to draw curved-geometric patterns on the white linen curtains as they swayed in the growing breeze. To his right, Eliza Thornberg sat and tried to appear interested in conversation that kept dying and being pulled from the ashes by the host. She was looking at Doctor Morgan and Emily Gale, but was exquisitely aware of Hunk Dietrich next to her, every few minutes twist in his seat and lean back to glance out the open windows behind him. Each time he did so, his leg would press against Eliza’s and a feeling of dismay would grow stronger inside her. Feeling a blush creep up from the top of her blouse, laying claim to the sides of her face, Eliza began to think that it might be time to think about returning to Philadelphia.

She was distracted from her distraction by the sound of Emily Gale prodding her dinner guest with pointed questions intermixed with obvious flattery, all mixed together like a child’s mud pie, clearly determined to demonstrate a skill that she did not possess.

Dorothy was seated to Thaddeus Morgan’s right. The Doctor was bracketed by Gale women and had a look that any nurse at St Mary’s would recognize. It was the expression he wore whenever walking into the operating room knowing that there was little chance of the patient’s survival. It was professional stoicism at it’s best. Dorothy picked at her food like a farm hand sitting on a porch whittling, waiting out a passing rainstorm.

Thaddeus Morgan looked to his left, Emily Gale sitting painfully upright, the look on her face the determined optimism of a spoiled child about to sit in the lap of a department store Santa Claus and said,

“Well, there is much left to do before the bulldozers come to the doors. We have almost all the primary functions of the old wing moved to temporary quarters. My wife, Eleanor is over-seeing that part of the transition. A very talented administrator, my wife.”

Dr. Thaddeus Morgan, directed the last part of his answer to Eliza, who, in turn, leaned forward in her seat and nodded as if she was interested in hearing the qualification of the Medical Director’s wife.

“She regretted not being able to join us today,” he spoke now more to the table at large, as he recalled the morning, “she takes her duties at the hospital very seriously. Too seriously at times.”

Emily Gale was clearly less interested in the fact that the Medical Director had confidence in his wife’s abilities than she was in how soon the old wing of the hospital could be torn down.

“So, Thad, you expect to start demolition in a week to 10 days, do I hear you correctly?”

“Well, Emily, as I said, most of the equipment and fixtures have been re-located to other parts of the hospital. Of course, we still have one remaining patient in Ward C.”

Thaddeus Morgan watched Emily slice the roast on her plate with an expert efficiency that reminded him of the head surgeon in medical school. At the beginning of the semester of Thad Morgan’s second year, Doctor Alphonse Wolff would look over the body of the cadaver in front of him and say with a cheerful smile to the interns, “Gentleman, dinner is served.” Bringing himself back to the present he stared at Emily Gale, as she continued,

“Just move her out! From what I hear she doesn’t do anything but lie there, taking up space. Put her in the children’s ward. Put her in the morgue for all I care.”

Thad Morgan looked uncomfortably around the dining room table, as if searching for understanding or, failing that, a sympathetic ear.

“One simply doesn’t move a patient willy nilly, not someone in her condition.”

“Well, I never…”

Emily sat back, linen napkin twisted between her hands, eyes circled the room, looking angrily at someone to swoop down upon.

Eliza Thornberg was leaning forward in her chair, staring at her plate, brows pursed, an  expression of frustration mixed with a touch of fear. Hunk Dietrich was leaning away from the table towards the open windows, his expression one of alertness. Henry Gale continued to eat, shoulders relaxed, long-accustomed to the piercing talons of his wife’s temper and her inability to tolerate frustration. He continued to quietly enjoy his food.

“Listen, Thaddeus if you think all my plans and money are just going to stand by and….

“Will Mrs. Gulch wake up?”

Aunt Em’s head swiveled on her shoulders. No other part of her body moved, she simply turned her head and glared at Dorothy. Dorothy, for her part, looked intently at the doctor. Something flickered in Emily Gale’s eyes, something like doubt and fear.

“Will she ever wake up again?” Dorothy repeated quietly, as if she were asking about the weather.

“Young lady! Dr Morgan is the head of the entire hospital. He does not take care of everyone there and certainly does not look after an old lady like that Miss Gulch, lying in the way in the indigent ward.”

“It’s Mrs. Gulch,”

“What did you say?”

“Nurse Griswold told me that her proper name is Mrs. Gulch.”

“Who did you say told you that, Miss Gale?”

Thaddeus Morgan turned to face Dorothy, his considerable bulk almost obscuring Emily Gale who was also starting to stand up from the table, as if to move around the doctor.

“Nurse Griswold. A tall, thin woman with long blonde hair and the most curious way of moving. She told me that Mrs. Gulch is suffering from dehydration.”

Like a choir of badly trained monks, singing out of sync, the intake of breath came from all the people around the table at the same moment, a collective gasp.

“Nurse Griswold said Mrs. Gulch was ‘a girl trapped in an old woman’s body and just needed someone to help her get free.'”

Emily Gale stood up and spoke at the same moment as Dr Thaddeus Morgan tried to re-assure the girl and settle himself,

“Well, Miss Gale, medicine is not such a simple matter of how things look and do not look, there are tests and ….”

“That will be enough nonsense at my table, young lady…”

Somewhere in the distance there was a tapping sound. It began slowly and the sound of each individual tap grew in force and volume.

Hunk was already walking past the open windows, the curtains, now blowing inwards, wrapped themselves around his legs as he passed, headed towards the kitchen.

“Hail. And, unless I’m mistaken, lightning is moving this way. I think this might be a good time to tell our guests the location of your storm shelter, Henry.”

Hunk stopped at the door and looked at Eliza,

“Maybe I can rescue your pretty yellow convertible, ‘Liza. Stay close to Dorothy.”

Chapter 33

Featured

‘Route 56 West’

Below the black, Highway Gothic letters, too small to be read from the inside of a car in the westbound lane, were the words: ‘National Old Trails Road Association’.

The black enamel paint was still shiny, surely not more than six months old. I let the Packard coast past the sign, leaning over my sleeping wife to read the legend under the ‘Route 56’. The vegetation at the base of the signpost was barely rooted in the grayish red soil. The Highway marker was planted in the no-man’s land between the packed gravel roadway and the farm fields that paced the road as it fled to the West.

Back behind the wheel, I got the car back up to cruising speed. The writer in me took over, as it occurred to me that the sign we’d just passed was best appreciated by drivers racing down the road. As both a highway route marker and a symbol, it truly represented the whole, rather than the parts. Route 56 was as big, (or long) as the State of Kansas was wide. I smiled to myself, grateful that Almira was asleep, as she surely would’ve instantly intuited the reason for my slowing down and staring at the sign. She would have said something to the effect that life offered some of us more splotches of color on our palates than it did for others. Although she would sound like she was teasing, I would see a reflection in her eyes that reminded me that we were one whole person in two, very different bodies.

Driving through the middle of Kansas, between Council Grove and Circe, I couldn’t decide if the three-strand barbed wire fence, never far from the road, was there to protect the endless fields from the highway or to protect those of us who flew over the prairie in our cars and trucks from something more primeval lying just beneath the grassy floor of the rolling hills.

Next to me, Almira moved in her sleep, a small sound escaping her lips, barely discernible against the rumble of the car engine. Only her face showed in the mound of blankets that she had gathered around her when we left Council Grove.

‘Circe 17 miles’

Almost as a postscript, less than a quarter mile beyond the shiny modern highway sign, there appeared a second signpost. Nearer to the fence than the roadway, this signpost seemed to be a refugee from the surrounding fields. More than a simple wooden post, the upright was the former trunk of a mid-sized cedar tree. It’s branch knobs weathered smooth, feathery bark long since peeled down to the inner heartwood, sun and rain bringing out a grey-red color. Nailed to this post were hand-painted signs: Sante Fe NM – 570 miles * Winslow AZ – 862 miles * Barstow CA -1,275 miles and San Diego CA – 1385. The lettering of each was clearly done by different people, at different times. You couldn’t help but sense a different intent in each. Like tea leaves from a fortune teller’s cup, each small painted rectangle offered a clear invitation to the promise of a new and better life. Leaving behind the familiar, the un-stated cost.

Although the distance from Kansas City to Circe was only 200 miles, we decided to break it into two days of driving. This wasn’t only for the obvious reason that one of us was an eight months pregnant woman. We’d both been experiencing a curious reversal of the normal urgency that people experience when the end of a long trip draws near. This feeling established itself as soon as we stepped off the train from St Louis.

That we’d picked Circe as our destination was not an entirely random choice. Circe was the hometown of my friend, college roommate and Army buddy, Cyril Sauvage. As men often do, when mortality becomes a significant part of daily life, we made a battlefield promise to each other, that the survivor would deliver a final letter home. This responsibility was made less onerous by the un-stated fact that to be burdened by the promise meant that life continued on; it was a secret gamble on life.

Being that I survived the war, I was honor-bound to keep my promise to Cyril, who did not. When the time came to leave our home in Providence, the cost of my survival asserted itself and Circe became our destination.

We were driving to the home of Cyril Sauvage’s sister, Emily. I met Emily Sauvage once before, while a freshman at Dartmouth College. Cyril and I were roommates in the Pike House dormitory. Though a year ahead of me and an engineering student (to my liberal arts), we got along well enough. Late in the fall semester, Cyril’s mother and sister travelled to New England to visit. I recall that Emily Sauvage, for whatever reason, went to great lengths to appear older and more mature than her actual 14 years. On the next to the last day of their visit, while Cyril and his mother attended a formal tea at the Dean’s home, I took Emily on a tour of the campus and the town of Hanover. Emily seemed quite impressed by the sometimes over-done attempts at sophistication so often found in an Ivy League school. For my part, I admit to having been a little immature, even for a college freshman and sort of showed off a little. I was quite convinced of my charm and was somewhat irresponsible on a couple of occasions as we visited a bar or two in town.

It was the envelope in my satchel, my promise to Cyril to deliver it home that jogged my memory to remember receiving at least two letters from his sister after her visit. I think I might have written one letter in return back. But life took over and I was soon caught up in my life as a future writer and part-time small-town Casanova. As it turned out, I left school after my first year and my wanderings lead me to a mill town a hundred miles away. Through no effort on my part, only the good fortune that comes to some, I managed to find a life that waited in the form of a girl in a mill town. A girl with eyes that saw my soul and reflected the potential good that I had long given up on ever achieving. It was only when I returned to school, after marrying Almira Ristani, did I re-connect with Cyril, who was, by then, in graduate school. One night after exams, sitting in a bar, he convinced me that joining the American Expeditionary Force would be the best way that I could prove to my young wife that I was responsible enough to be the head of our yet-to-be family.

Now, in the dying light of an early December afternoon, I looked at the small signs growing off the long dead cedar tree and thought that maybe California would be a better last stop.

“You know what I miss the very most about our home back in New England?”

Remaining mostly hidden in her private cavern, Almira remained quite still. I turned my head,

“Indoors.”

I laughed and the pile of blankets next to me shook as Almira giggled from under the covers. She had a gift for laughter that you might liken to musical genius or perfect pitch. She was capable of expressing amusement in seemingly endless variety. Everything from a belly laugh to rib-cramping guffaws that make you feel at risk of dying for lack of breath to a polite but sincere laugh that not only did not interrupt the eye contact of a close social interaction but enhanced it. Everything from the childishly enthusiastic energy of a giggle to a barely noticeable snicker.

“Where are we now, babe?”

“About an hour from Circe.”

She said nothing, content to look out through the windshield,

“Hey, Almira I’m sorry to drag you all the way out here into the middle of nowhere….”

“No! I’m the one who dragged us out here.”

“OK we’re both responsible, but for different reasons.”

The skeletal winter trees stood lining the ridges that ran along the highway. Harsh brown jagged silhouettes clawed at the cold blue sky, threatening the sun with the ancient anger of the winter season.

“You know, we don’t have to stay. I’ll give them Cyril’s letters and his medals, pay my respects and we can be on our way.”

“I appreciate that. And if it were just you and I, my answer would be, ‘Yes, lets you and I stay on the road’. If my destiny is to become a vagabond union organizer traveling with a published author searching the countryside for truth in this new century, I wouldn’t hesitate. But it’s not the two of us, it’s the three of us. Our family. Our love has made us more than just a woman and a man trying to make sense of a cold and all-to-often cruel world. You and I have created one more chance for the world to get it right. We are a family now.”

Almira spoke with an intensity that I’ve heard directed at me only in our times of sharing love or when standing before an audience of people showing them how to better live their lives. Riding along Route 56, headed west, her passion banished the limitless horizon and towering sky that surrounded us. There was only the two of us and our soon to be born child.

“You know, once we get settled here, or where ever we decide is home for the three of us, I was thinking that I’d take a quick trip back East.”

She watched me in a silence that was louder and more jarring than anything I heard in my entire war year.

“Wait! Hear me out. I have friends from college who are now well connected businessmen. A couple of classmates are very successful attorneys. I thought I’d go and sit down with this Herlihy guy and put an end to the questions and suspicions once and for all.”

No.”

“I’m sure that once I talk to the authorities, they’ll strike us from their list and we’ll never hear from the Lawrence Police again. It’s the only way.”

Appearing ahead in the growing dark, like a ghost forced to wander the same corridors in a haunted mansion night after endless night, was a white square to the side of the road, ‘County Road #2’ in black letters against a once-white background. It stood at an intersection, a loyal solider unaware that the battle-lines had been re-drawn, determined to fulfill his duty despite the lack of reinforcement. The intersection, like so many we’d driven through in the last two days, was simply the point where two roads crossed at right angles. For a part of the country that seemed to be nothing but wide-open spaces, there was an oddly contentious feeling to these four corners in the middle of nowhere. Two ruler-straight bands of tar and gravel meeting at a single point on the map, a physical manifestation of a point between ‘here’ and ‘there’. Of course, each road existed only because they maintained their own definition of ‘here’ and ‘there’. It seemed to be as basic, and sadly hopeless, an example of the plight of all of us wandering the earth.

I turned right onto County Road #2 and accelerated, the hope of catching up to the setting sun still strong, despite the dark in my rearview mirror.

Almira slept fitfully in her nest of blankets and pillows next to me. Being eight and a half months pregnant made the drive from Kansas City difficult for her. Being 5′ 2″ made creating a relatively comfortable space in the front seat of the Packard possible, given enough pillows and blankets. Fortunately for us, Kansas City was large enough to have several car dealers and among them a Packard dealership, the only car brand to offer a sedan. The thought of driving 200 miles in an open car, even with a canvas roof, was not a welcomed prospect. A direct result of my father’s shrewd business sense while he was alive, and very ample Estate, we didn’t hesitate to buy the sedan that sat on the showroom floor of Hudson-Jones’ Packard dealership on Fulton Street in Kansas City. The car was large, comfortable and, being this year’s model, even had a heater. Almira sat behind the wheel, her arms extended straight out in order to have her hands on the wheel and still reach the pedals and looked at the salesman and said,

“Throw in three of those driving blankets and we’ll take it.”

The car was as comfortable as we might have hoped and, after a day of writing letters to send to Edward, (who would re-post them from the Providence post office), we set out for Circe, Kansas and the home of the sister of my friend Cyril Sauvage. Emily Sauvage, now Emily Gale, lived outside of Circe on a farm she and her husband Henry bought with money inherited from an uncle back East. I got in touch with her once we’d left Providence and she was expecting us, ‘sometime in December’.

The day grew dim as we drove north on County Rd #2.

Awakened by the slowing of the car, Almira sat up on her side of the front seat.

“Where are we, Sterling”?

Her voice was quiet and, somehow, confident. It was the tone of a woman accustomed to being called upon to make a decision, yet always open to the opinion of others.

“We seem to have come to a fork in the road.”

As forks in the road go, this was a wide fork, more like it was the joining of two separate paths than the splitting of one. Opposite us was a rail fence that ran both to the right and the left, off into the distance at a shallow angle. There was still enough light to see that behind the fence was the winter remains of a cornfield.

“What the hell is that!”

Almira sat forward in her seat and pointed off to the right. A hundred feet or so, back from the road as it disappeared to the right, was what looked like a man wearing a straw hat, standing among the stubble of the previous season’s harvest.

After a second Almira laughed.

“A scarecrow! Finally something that reminds me of home, out here in this endless outdoors!”

There was a softening of the edge to her voice, her initial caution now relieved of the potential threat.

“Outside of town, back home, there was a small farm that ran along the edge of the Merrimack that we used to walk out to see, on summer days. It had a small herd of cows, three horses and cornfields. But they were normal sized fields, the kind you could run through with your friends on a summer day, not like these monstrosities out here. You could get lost and die before finding your way out of one of these fields.”

I looked at her as she stared, her eyes peaceful,

“Then it’s to the right we go?”

Her smile broadened,

“Well, it seems like the best choice, does it not, husband of mine?”

“Indeed it does, wife of mine.”

We drove up the road, which fortunately was maintained as all the roads to this point. The light of the sun was beginning to bleed redly into the horizon, the clouds, emboldened by the sun’s decline, gathered like wolves surrounding the dying glow.

I saw lights in the distance, on the left side of the road and pressed on the accelerator.

“So, we might have gotten a bit off the track. If I learned anything fighting in the war, it was: when it starts to get dark, find a place where you can watch all approaches and have something solid at your back.”

I turned in through a pair of rough-hewn wooden gates, both pulled back to the sides in the open position. On the road, just before the gate, was a sign, very artistically painted that simply read: ‘Baumeister Welcome to All’

I parked in front of the two story farmhouse, got out and walked around to the passenger side door. The house had a covered porch running across the entire front and lights glowed behind the curtains at each of the four windows. As I closed Almira’s door, I saw a  large building a hundred yards of so away and to the right of the farmhouse and next to that, a small grove of trees.

I knocked on the broad wooden door, Almira stood to my right. While I knew better than to ask that she stay in the car, I did insist that she stand slightly behind me, at least until we knew who we were dealing with in this large and well-kept farmhouse.

I could hear a woman’s voice, increasing in volume as she moved about the interior. At once distant as if she were in a room to the back of the house, then nearer, but almost immediately sounding distant again.

“Teddy!! Are you down there?”

“Mein lieber abwesend gemachter Ehemann!”

“Oh alright. No! Stay in your workshop, I’ll see who it is.” ( her voice grew louder)  “Coming! I will be there in a…”

Frowning, I looked at Almira standing next to me, her car blanket wrapped around her shoulders. She was smiling.

“Such a night this is….”

I heard a latch being thrown and a chain rattling, heavy links giving off a dull clinking sound as she withdrew whatever lock there was on the inside.

The door did not so much open as the light grew from a narrow pointed vertical bar, broadening into a doorway sized area of illumination. As dark as it now was behind us, we could almost feel the warmth of the light bathe us as we stood on the porch.

“Come in, please! Come in”

The first thing I saw was a woman’s face, surrounded by light. As she stepped back and my eyes adjusted, the light resolved itself into the interior of the farmhouse. But not all the light. A surprising amount of it stayed in place, surrounding the woman in the open doorway. The first thing I saw was her hair, it was the lightest shades of blond possible, without being white. The woman was tall, nearly as tall as I was and her eyes were very blue. The description ‘willowy’ shouldered all other adjectives from my mind. She looked at me and smiled.

She looked to my right where Almira stood, the blanket like a cowl over her head, held in a folded bunch at her throat, spilling open down her front, bulging belly and down to just brushing the tops of her shoes.

I glanced down at Almira affectionately. I looked back at our host, thinking to introduce ourselves and was startled that, somehow, she was now standing in the middle of the room, still looking at Almira. Granted it had been a long day on the road, but I would swear that this woman essayed the slightest of curtseys, a barely-noticeable downward nod of her head. It was enough that her long blonde hair flowed forward around her face, in the briefest of waves.

Almira pulled the blanket from her head and stepped forward.

The blonde woman smiled and said,

“Welcome.”

Chapter 32

Featured

A matinée at the smallest of drive-in movie theaters, Eliza Thornberg sat and watched in her car’s rearview mirror as Hunk Dietrich walked out from behind the barn, past the two-story dormitory, across the open parking area and towards her convertible. Tom Hardesty walked next to him. Hunk, upon spotting her car hesitated slightly, turned and began to walk backwards. Still talking to Tom, his back now to the car, Hunk accepted the offered flask, took a quick drink and handed it back.

As if seeing him take a last swig wasn’t enough, Hunk’s gait had acquired an odd skip, almost as if he was considering clicking his heels. His head was bent, self-consciousness asserting itself. Eliza started the car and watched as the tall, thin man approached. He seemed to take a new notice of his surroundings, almost as if he was surprised by where he found himself. He ran his hand through his hair and tried, unsuccessfully, to maintain a more upright posture.

Hunk was reaching for the driver’s side door before he noticed Eliza behind the wheel, shook his head in bemusement, walked around the back of the car and got in the passenger side. The car started moving even as Hunk pulled his door closed.

Eliza drove the convertible along County Road #2 at a leisurely 35 mph. The smell of prairie grass, wheat and dust infiltrated the interior of the car. Even with the top down, the dry but earthy scents mixed with the scent of her perfume and the slightly masculine smell of the leather upholstery.

The afternoon sun was just beginning to sear the tops of the low hills on the distant western horizon. Hunk slouched in his seat; his arms crossed along the top of the door, rested his chin on his overlapping hands and stared at the horizon.

“The thing about this part of the country? It’s too goddamn big, it’s too open and nothing is surprising. The problem with a land so plain and simple is that the real danger isn’t from up ahead, it’s from below. You don’t die in Kansas from riding off a cliff, you die when your horse steps in a chuckhole and throws you ass over teakettle to break your neck on the plain flat ground. The one moment of distraction when you believe you know what to watch out for and then, from below, the thing you weren’t expecting. The problem with this part of the country is that it’s all ‘outdoors’. People got to eat and so you work for that first. The earth is so stingy that it takes a man every hour of nearly every day to force the land to yield anything to sustain life. And that’s only if you’re lucky and the hail or the heat doesn’t swoop down on you out of nowhere and destroy it all before you can pick one ear of corn or a bushel of wheat.”

Hunk twisted his head around, laying his right cheek on his hands,

“But you wouldn’t know anything about that, would you Miss Thornbird?”

“Hunk! Are you drunk?”

“What? How can you say that! I’m not Hunk! Sure, Tom Hardesty is a good ole boy who doesn’t belong in this ring of hell anymore than I do. He was. But not me, I’m not stupid like these people around this farm…town…place.”

Hunk smiled and without lifting his head, tapped the side of his head with one finger.

Eliza stared and, after a moment, began to laugh.

“You people out here! Either this is the largest open-air insane asylum in the world or I’m the crazy one and you’re all just humoring me.”

Eliza leaned to her left and put her head out into the cooling late-afternoon air, her thick brown hair trailing behind her as she raced over the Kansas road at 50 mph. Hunk leaned over towards her, hand to the side of his mouth, as if not wanting to be overheard.

“Or maybe it’s both. As Socrates said, “A night cap? How nice of you to offer!

‘Είναι το σημάδι ενός εκπαιδευμένου μυαλού για να είναι σε θέση να διασκεδάσει μια σκέψη χωρίς αποδοχή του.’ Or as the bumpkins in Circe, Kansas would be unlikely to say, ‘It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.‘”

The open car spilled laughter along the roadside, like a yellow school bus full of over-stimulated children returning from a field trip to a museum.

“Alright Mr. Fonda, I may be a very pretty socialite, but I’ll have you know that I do have a brain.”

“What?!”

Hunk seemed startled and surprisingly sober and slid down in his seat, as abruptly as if someone had pulled down on his legs.

“I may have met Mr. and Mrs. Gale only yesterday, but I know a predatory matriarch when I see one. I am not taking you home in your current condition. Not that your being drunk matters to Emily Gale,”

“I’m not… yeah, you might have something there.”

“…are you finished illustrating my point? Emily Gale doesn’t care about you; she cares about what effect you might have on her.  I’m not doing you a favor; I’m saving myself the bother of listening to a tedious apology for your condition. And I’m sparing my friend Dorothy the residual bad temper overflow from her loving mother.

So you and I are going to go get a little cup of coffee. Or a lot of little cups of coffee, as many as it takes for you to pass muster.”

Eliza looked over and saw Hunk, eyes closed, hat tipped forward over his eyes as he dozed in the seat next to her as she drove towards Circe.

“So, Hunk, did you grow up around here?”

Sitting in a booth in McAllister’s Diner on West Main St, Eliza found that, with the sun now beginning to graze on the horizon, the plate glass reflection of the man across from her threatened to compete with the flesh and blood version.

“Are you ready to order, hon?”

The waitress looked at Hunk and spoke to Eliza; the order pad in her hand had more used pages rolled back on itself than blank pages. The disinterest in her eyes confirmed what the pad proclaimed; it had been a busy day at McAllister’s. Hazel Delmonte glanced at the clock on the wall and counted the minutes remaining to her shift.

“Coffee’s good for me and necessary for my friend here.”

Eliza smiled at the waitress and watching as she wrote the order without looking down at the pad, was gripped by a sudden desire to be back home in Philadelphia. There was something about this woman who moved like an old person pretending to be young, the tiredness that showed more in her shoulders and hips than in her face, that made her want to be anywhere except Circe, Kansas. Hazel Delmonte (as it was sewn above her left breast) had very dark eyes. Even the obvious fatigue at the end of a 12 hour shift could not completely dull the sharpness and focus in them. Eliza looked at the woman’s face and thought that she’d seen her somewhere before. She immediately chided herself for indulging in schoolgirl romanticism and continued,

“Hey, Henry! When was the last time you had something to eat?”

Eliza read the menu displayed in black letters on the wall over the glass cases of pies and other deserts. Looking back at the waitress she said,

“Better add a ham sandwich to that order, Hazel. We wouldn’t want to excite my friends digestion too much, you know?”

Hazel had started towards the counter as soon as she heard ‘ham sandwich’, clearly hoping to discourage a more elaborate order, but stopped and looked at Hunk and then at Eliza and smiled,

“You’re kidding, right?”

Eliza looked up and thought, ‘this is a girl who got kidnapped and there was no one to pay her ransom.’ She focused on the woman’s face, ignoring the beige-on-blue coffee stains like a garter on her left leg, the fraying of the white piping along the breast pocket, a desperate lacy frill to her pale blue uniform. Without the distraction of the ceremonial dress of a member of the waitress class, Eliza saw a woman who clearly was a captive in a land that was not her natural habitat. Standing next to their booth, in a diner in Circe was a woman possessed of a natural ferocity and passion that, in another time and another place, the lives of everyone around her would have been forever changed. The flash of savage anger in the woman’s eyes made Eliza feel at once proud and yet, very sad.

“Yeah, in a way. It’s just that I’m visiting from out-of-town and my friend here has been kind enough to show me the local sights. He also spent a little too much time working at this farm called ‘Almira’s Keep’. Hunk, my trusty native guide here is clearly not accustomed to drinking in the afternoon.”

Eliza saw Hazel’s expression soften when she heard ‘Almira’s Keep’. Her expression showed an unsuspected fondness once she determined that Eliza was not teasing or criticizing Hunk. Hazel looked at Hunk and spoke to Eliza,

“Yeah, well we small-town folk know life doesn’t always announce its plans for us ahead of time. And we don’t expect outsiders to know as much about us as they think they do. But seeing how you’re with Hunk and you’ve been invited out to Miz Gulch’s place, I’ll make an exception.”

Hazel’s smile showed less teeth and Eliza returned the smile,

“So are we going to eat or what?”

Eliza heard a chuckle from across the booth. It was not the sound of a country farm hand trying to hide his inadequacies; it was a man comfortable with his assessment of a situation and overwhelmingly confident in himself. She glanced first at the reflection in the plate-glass and was startled by what it portrayed. He smiled at her with such self-assuredness that were it not a reflection, she would have felt intimidated by the tall, thin man sitting across from her. He looked at her and said,

“Let me tell you about a girl who wanted a family so badly that she found a way to go to another world. And despite her courage and love for the people she found there, she also had the kind of determination that few people ever witness, let alone possess. The girl, possibly at home for the first time in her life, accepted the fact that she had to leave. She realized that to find her home and her family she had to return to the place she ran away from and discover the truth about herself and her place in the world.”

***

Dorothy Gale sat on the front porch and stared across the dirt yard between the house and the barn, out towards the horizon. Being in central Kansas made ‘staring off into space’ almost literal. The August sun had crept to within minutes of setting fire to the distant hills. She usually enjoyed this part of the day, the far distant horizon glowing brighter and brighter, an ever-elusive pot of gold offering a direction to those seeking it. Dorothy had both the advantage and the misfortune of being one of those people who, failing to find what they think they’re looking for, maintained an unshakable confidence that she would know it when she saw it.

She sat alone in a rocking chair on the broad, sheltering porch of a very well-kept house that was at the center of a well-managed farm, and wished she were somewhere else. At the moment, ‘somewhere else’ was defined as going into town with her friend Eliza Thornberg and Tom Hardesty and Hunk Dietrich. That was, in fact, her plan and intention for the evening. Her growing impatience for the return of her friend caused her to turn inward, as if by having to wait for her friend required justification of her desire to get away from the farm.

“Dorothy!  Dorothy Gale! I need you to come in here and talk to me.”

The voice of her mother came from within the house. However, because she sat on the porch, which was mostly outside, the sound came out of both the windows that ran along the porch and the door that opened into the kitchen. Out of nowhere, the memory of a class on Greek mythology intruded, like a fish desperately trying to swim away after being thrown into the bottom of a boat. The teacher had written the names of various Greek myths on slips of paper, put them in a bowl and made everyone pick one. Whichever myth they drew would be the topic of their presentation at the end of the semester. Dorothy’s slip of paper read: ‘Polyphemus’.

Dorothy muttered, ‘No One’ and walked into her parent’s house.

“What do you mean, you’re not leaving?”

Emily Gale, dressed in what Henry Gale would refer to as his wife’s ‘go to meeting, go to town, get outa her way clothes’, sat at the roll-top desk in the small room. One of two bedrooms in the original floor plan of the house, it had been converted to use as an office. A double set of windows looked out over fields of clover that ran from a distant grove of sycamore trees right up to the edge of the house.

Emily Gale’s desk was the centerpiece of the room. It was also the most expensive piece of furniture in the entire house. An exquisite example of furniture making, the roll-top desk was a wedding gift from her uncle Charles Sauvage. An exceptional combination of form and function, the rolling top was a work of art. Crafted from such thin slats of maple that, when in closed position, the double S curve felt like a solid piece of carved and polished wood. The top had a lock, of course, and Emily Gale kept the only key on a worn and frayed blue satin ribbon that she tied around her neck each morning.

It was in this small, sparely furnished room that Emily spent the majority of her daytime hours. At this desk she kept the books and ledgers for the operation of the Gale Farm. She also maintained the records on the tenant farmers working the adjoining parcels that, combined made the Gale Farm one of the largest farms in McPherson County.

In addition to the roll-top desk, there was a tall, heavily embossed bronze floor lamp standing at attention to the right of a pink and black brocade armchair. To the left, a small bookcase. The room and its furnishings projected an atmosphere of calculated seriousness. Those called to this room while Emily Gale was working found themselves thinking about being outside. Most visitors to this office stood before the desk. On the rare visit from a person of sufficient status to warrant being invited to sit, a minister or perhaps, the director of medical services at the hospital, the brocaded chair offered only a temporary illusion of comfort. No one other than Emily Gale sat at the roll-top desk.

In contrast to the somber and business-like furnishings of the room, the walls were painted a very light blue. Clearly the original paint, the blue had, in most exposed sections of the wall, faded to a grayish pink color.

Dorothy Gale, as a young and headstrong 10-year-old girl, did, one rainy October afternoon, explore the office while her adopted mother was away. Thwarted by the locked desktop, Dorothy found her curiosity focusing on the single narrow closet. Full of old overcoats and summer dresses that looked to Dorothy to be much too festive to be worn by Emily Gale, there was a single shelf above the hanging clothes holding boxes of letters and old ledgers. It wasn’t the contents of the closet that captured her attention (and imagination), it was the wall. Moving the boxes down to the floor, Dorothy stepped back, halfway out of the closet and stared in wonder at the band of colorful farm animals painted in a row, just below where the wall turned into ceiling. It was a repeated pattern, probably a stencil of some sort, of bears, lions, tigers and, incongruously, several sheep. The band was only about 4 feet in length. It stopped abruptly, before reaching the abutting wall.

Now, standing in the doorway of her adopted mother’s office, Dorothy Gale began to regret telling Emily that she would not be spending August with the Thornbergs. At the end of the previous school year, Eliza had invited Dorothy to her family’s summer home in Newport. Emily Gale enthusiastically approved, as she felt her daughter would benefit by time spent with civilized people. The distinction between ‘civilized people’ and everyone else varied according to circumstance and mood.

“I distinctly recall your telling your father and me that you would be going to your friend’s summer home in August. Are you saying that I heard wrong?”

“No, you didn’t mis-hear me. It’s just that I’ve changed my mind. And, besides, I didn’t know that Eliza would be stopping here and surprising me.”

Dorothy noticed her mention of Eliza Thornberg caused a weakening in the set of Emily Gale’s brow. By involving her friend by name, she’d complicated Emily’s strategy for bringing her daughter back in line with her plans.

“So tell me, what is so important that you would give up a splendid vacation?”

“Well, I just think I need to spend more time here at home. You don’t know how different things are in the city.”

Dorothy regretted the statement even before she saw the focus return to the other woman’s eyes. Emily Gale sat straighter in her chair, a gleam growing in her eyes.

“You’re not the only one who knows the world beyond these farm fields. I’ve been to the city too, missy. I know all about the fast-pace of life. I know more than you give me credit for, young lady. I know, for instance, that you’ve been spending an unusual amount of time at the Charity Ward of the hospital. Don’t look shocked, there isn’t much that goes on in Circe that I don’t know about. That’s the trouble with being young; you forget that the adults were once just as young and just as smart as you think you are now. So, what is it you’re after?”

Dorothy looked over her shoulder across the living room and through the windows that opened out on to the yard. She could see the small cottage that Hunk called home. It was obvious that he wasn’t back from spending the day with her friend Eliza.

Emily Gale continued,

“What is it you think you need to learn from that woman? I assure you, I can tell you everything there is to know about Almira Gulch and her ‘farm’. She’s been nothing but trouble and a bad influence on this town since she first showed up, back in 1920. Too much smart talk and always meddling in affairs that don’t affect her. Nothing but trouble with that no-account husband of hers.

To think that Sterling Gulch was capable of writing beautiful poetry. At least he claimed that he wrote it. But then, I was a very young girl, very far away from home for the first time. We all travelled to see my brother start his second year at Dartmouth, the first Sauvage to attend college. Don’t look surprised. All the way to New England by train, and when we arrived, I felt like I had stepped into another world. It was like I stepped into the books I read as a girl, the people spoke with odd accents and the buildings were so close together! And even something common as roads, they seemed so exotic, twisting and turning over the hills and forests, so unlike Kansas.

Sterling Gulch was my brother’s roommate at college and you’d think that would have made him best of friends. But your old woman’s husband talked my brother into enlisting and going to war. He might as well just shot Cyril right there at Dartmouth. It would have saved him the trouble of going to the other side of the world to be killed.

Did you know that your mysterious sleeping woman was wanted for questioning by the police? No, I’ll bet no one out at the ‘farm’ ever say anything about the murder. That’s right! The police came all the way from New England to try and question her and that husband of hers. No, I know that look! They didn’t arrest her. Obviously! For all her conniving she was a persuasive woman. From the minute she arrived here in Circe, nothing but politics and rights and strikes and unions. She was always stirring people up, making them discontent with their lot in life. There’s nothing good about Almira Gulch. You’d be wise, missy, to put her out of your mind. You have the chance at a life that most girls here in Circe only dream about. Go with your friend Eliza and learn what life offers for those who are blessed with status and wealth. Even though your father and I enjoy having your here, you should get on with your life. That’s how much you mean to us and the kind of people we are. Not many women would put their daughters future ahead of their own, I can assure you. But I imagine that that’s just because we’re blessed by the lord to have a higher nature than most of the people in this town.

My wish is simply that you go have as good a life as your father and I could arrange for you.”

***

“Stay, there’s so much good you could do here in St. Louis. Frankly between here and the West Coast, there isn’t much for you to organize. A lot of small farms and smaller minds. Subsistence living is the binding principle of the social order, with no modern industry, there isn’t sufficient need to give life to a worker’s movement.”

Roxanne Matthews, who had become very much a friend to Almira and Sterling in the short time they’d spent in St. Louis, stood in the doorway of the private compartment as Sterling and Almira Gulch got settled in for the 8-hour train ride to Kansas City.

“Thank you, Roxanne, we’re both glad to know that there’s a place in the middle of this very large country that would welcome us.”

Almira hugged the older woman as Sterling put their satchels on the floor,

“That’s right, we’re only going to visit Kansas. The decision of where the Gulch family will put down roots is anything but final.”

Sterling smiled at his wife. Almira crossed her hands across her middle, the ghost of a shadow flickered in her eyes.

The train pulled out of the Union Station in St Louis bound for Kansas City and points west.

“Do you think we’ll have any trouble finding a place to stay?”

Almira broke the silence after an hour of staring as the trees grew shorter, the greenery more sere and the horizon raced into the distance. The land was very different and became more so as time passed.

“I think that as long as you and I are together, nothing can hurt either one of us.”

Almira took off her shoes and turning away from the window, the last buildings on the edge of St Louis turning into trees, as if construction in reverse. The sky reached down farther and farther as they crossed into the open land to the west.  Almira, her back against Sterling, her feet up on the bench.

“Are we really going to start a new life for our child?”

Almira nestled in the shelter formed by the back of the bench and the chest of her husband, her book open in her lap. She looked down, as if hoping to discover a new page in the book. Before her were the words, originally spoken in a delighted wonder by a woman who saw the 4-year-girl in her lap every bit a miracle of the potential of life.

Feeling the edge of his jaw pressed against her head, morning stubble barely cushioned by her hair, Almira both heard and felt his voice, as Sterling began to read aloud,

“I attempted to rise, but was not able to stir: for as I happened to lie on my back, I found my arms and legs were strongly fastened on each side to the ground; and my hair, which was long and thick, tied down I the same manner. I likewise felt several slender ligatures across my body, from my armpits to my thighs. I could only look upwards, the sun began to grow hot, and the light offended mine eyes. I heard a confused noise about me, but in the posture I lay, could see nothing except the sky.”

Chapter 31

Featured

“I think we lost ’em. What do you say we slow down a bit?”

I leaned forward, elbow on the dashboard and looked directly into Almira’s eyes. As focused as she was on driving, I didn’t want to risk distracting her, as we barreled down Clark Ave in the dead of night.

“No, dear. We haven’t and we can’t. Look out the back, and over to the right. Wait for the cross street coming up….. now!”

“Oh yeah. Damn!”

My mood was not improved by the sight of a pair of headlights racing across the opening in the city block created by the intersection.  We must have been doing fifty miles an hour, fortunately the streets were pretty much straight lines and right angles. The blocks of tenements, factories and, increasingly, storefronts and office buildings, were divided by compass-square intersections. The approaching traffic signal, swaying on cables over the next four-way intersection, demanded my attention.

“Traffic light up ahead, babe.”

Almira, being the woman she was, pressed the gas pedal closer to the floor, in response to my warning. She wanted to be sure I saw the other car that was racing along a parallel street. Our respective paths terminated in the center of St. Louis, which, in a peculiarly Midwestern literalness, was actually at the riverfront.

“Watch now…there, see it? Maybe three blocks back. They’re gaining on us. Our new friends are very much still on our tail. Of course, not counting the winos and extra hardworking girls, we’re the only two cars out on the streets of St Louis at 1:33 in the morning. They’re not going to have a problem keeping us in sight.”

Given the fact I was the only passenger in a car driven by my eight months pregnant wife, and therefore able to twist around and look in any direction I wanted, the headlights on the car behind us were not hard to see. Like the eyes of a predator in chase, occasionally blinking its eyes, the headlights of the car behind us would flare, then fade as they raced past cross-streets and the occasional vacant lot.

“Yeah, I see them now.”

Looking over at Almira, I was struck by two distinct yet overlapping impressions.

Despite being very pregnant, she was able to sit behind the wheel because she was all of 5′ 2″ tall. Her overall size being on the petite side, allowed her to sit forward enough on the seat to reach the pedals, without her mid-section interfering with steering the car. Part of the trick to this was in her posture. Almira sat very erect, her shoulders back, spine ramrod straight. She conveyed a certain prim and proper attitude by how she sat at the wheel. If you ignored the buildings passing at blurring speed from front to back through the car windows, my wife was the picture of a proper young woman, out for a bicycle ride down a quiet country road.

Contrasting this impression of a leisurely ride in a car was her face in the passing streetlights. The forward motion of the car produced an odd effect; the light coming in through the windshield illuminated her from the bottom upward, her face and eyes being last. And in the light they belonged to a woman possessed of such feral intensity that, were she not my wife and the woman I loved, I would’ve had to fight the impulse to run, or unable to do that, look away.

There was an energy about her that I’ve witnessed only twice before in all the time we’ve been together. It was not that she appeared under strain, the tendons of her neck remained smooth beneath her very pale skin, if anything she seemed almost relaxed behind the wheel. She gave the impression of a person focused on everything and yet nothing in particular. Almira projected a serene competency that was almost palpable, as we raced at suicidal speeds through intersections heading towards downtown St. Louis. And our pursuers were catching up. Even at the distance between us it was clear this was the same shiny black Lincoln that’s been parked or idling nearby, from the moment Almira and I stepped off the train in Union Station.

Almira focused intently on the road ahead, checking the rear-view mirror with only the briefest of glances. Being so late, (or early, seeing as it was well past midnight), most of the traffic lights at the intersections were in blinking mode. Extending straight ahead of our car they formed a solid row of round yellow lights, pointing to the riverfront and our hotel.

By chance or by design, the stoplights were synchronized in their blinking. Viewed through the windshield of our car, they appeared to be one long string of lights, except for the very last. Oddly enough this last shone with a steady green light, a silent promise of passage, provided we got that far. I sat back and said,

“Well, dear wife, on the basis of the evidence and information before us, the only reasonable course of action is to…. follow the yellow lights.”

Without looking away from the road stretching out before us, Almira smiled and said,

“When in doubt, go faster, my love, go faster.”

Almira’s eyes weren’t exactly shiny, however, a chance reflection of a street light off the plate-glass of a storefront, produced a glint, a spark of unnatural light.

“When the devil is chasing you, dearest husband, you have the advantage. It can see only where it is you’re going. You are the one who knows where the chase will end.”

I laughed to myself as a portion of my worried mind briefly expressed sympathy for our pursuers.

In the car, grayish-blue light brightening then smoothly fading as we drove through intermittent daytime, the intensity in Almira’s eyes grew, the expression on her face, fiercely exultant.

Rough shards of memories of the war, my true military medals and decorations, seemed to rattle in the back of my mind. demanding an audience. I’d seen men wearing the very expression I saw on my wife’s face, men who no longer thought about surviving, only of the approaching battle. My favorite professor in Officer Candidate School used to end nearly every class in the 3 months of ‘advanced training’ with the pronouncement, “Gentlemen, not only is ‘the best defense a good offense’, it will more often than not be your only course of action. The alternative being to sit and wait for the enemy to make his choice of action.”

With a certain sadness I looked over at Almira. I could see that she was, once again, running into battle in a land that I would never know. It gave me confidence in our immediate survival and made me hurt for my inability to help her. I knew that I would do anything to protect her, but feared that I would not be in time to keep her from going farther, perhaps, too far into that place where she was so powerful.

I took out a Lucky. my lighter and raised my eyebrows in invitation to Almira, who laughed,

“Well, only if you have some moonshine to go with it. Otherwise, I’d better focus on the road ahead, as I’m about to surprise our friends.”

I felt a stray memory of the war, torn free from the wall of feelings that had finally become impervious and all but opaque. The memory, mostly flashes of physical and emotional sensations, was of the moment before being ordered out of the trench. It was late morning and the plan was for us to charge an enemy emplacement. Leaning against the claybrown dirt edge of the trench, like the railing of a pew in church, I let the fear soak into the dirt as I crawled up and out and stood in the first steps of a run. At that moment I felt nothing but a sense of quiet peace. Now, riding in an expensive car, in the middle of a December night, I let the bluish cigarette smoke pull itself up over my eyes, the hard edges of concrete, metal and glass became much less threatening.

The long black car full of company goons currently gaining on us as we raced towards the Mississippi River was courtesy of the management of the Curlee Clothing Company. Founded by a man from Alabama who decided to take a certain innate ability to dominate the weak and dependent away farming and apply it to clothing manufacture, the first Curlee store was opened in Dothan, Alabama in 1912. A man of great intelligence and little virtue beyond a drive to bend the world to his will, Shelby Curlee was not what you would call a natural champion of workers rights. From my reading on the train from Philadelphia, Curlee was rabidly anti-union. His tactics included forcing all new workers, even the most unskilled, to sign yellow dog contracts upon employment. The threat, of course, was not just that they could be fired, rather the more coercive element was that they would not find any work, anywhere in St Louis. Management tactics like that made the Essex Company, back in Lawrence, seem positively liberal.

During our first few days in town, two very large men spent most of their day sitting in a car outside the Claremont Hotel where we stayed. They’d always look like they’d just arrived, were just leaving or were waiting for someone from the hotel. As we began to spend more time away from the hotel, they’d follow us, always at a discreet distance. At first, the surveillance was very low-key, just obvious enough to be sure that we understood that we were being watched. A trip to the museum or a stroll along the river meant that somewhere, within a block of the museum, or at the point where the river walk rejoined the city sidewalks, there would be two very large men leaning up against the fender of a car, reading a newspaper, or sitting on a park bench. They were our constant companions, although it would be more accurate to say, ‘Almira’s constant companions’, since it was her visit to St. Louis that prompted this unwelcome attention.

Having been invited by delegates of several of the newly formed unions, Almira’s days quickly filled up with meetings and appearances. Neither of us was surprised when our host, the head of the local garment workers union, pointed our un-official companions out, sitting on the fenders of their car, across the street from our hotel. We both laughed when Roxanne Matthews, secretary of the International Ladies Garment Union (ILGU), said casually,

“They’ve got you on their list. Avoid going anywhere alone, and by alone I mean the two of you. We have people who’ll accompany you when you leave your hotel. Your best protection is to always be in public view, be sure there’s a crowd, not matter what you do. I mean, if you go out to a restaurant or the museum or even walk along the river make sure there’s plenty of people around. These people won’t do anything if there are a lot of witnesses.”

We weren’t planning on staying in St Louis very long, however since we were, my wife was immediately in demand. In our time in New York and Philadelphia, Almira’s days were divided between training and education and politics and socializing. There, the bulk of her time was spent in what she loved the most, teaching. It was different in St Louis. Most of the requests for her time was to attend social functions, meeting with union-friendly politicians, civil servants and other community leaders hoping to enhance their standing with their own constituency by having lunch or dinner in the company of my highly esteemed wife. Not that Almira wasn’t very good at this aspect of her profession, she had a natural gift for commanding attention and a skill at presenting ideas that captivated people wherever she went.

***

The car chasing us passed through a parallel intersection (in a sense, another form of the same intersection that we were driving through), at nearly the same second. I could see, looking past Almira and out her window, the man in the passenger seat of the other car. I had the odd thought, ‘Maybe he and I are the champions and are meant to fight. The outcome of our contest to determine the future.’ Then I saw the slightest hint of a smile hiding at the corners of my wife’s mouth, and it was clear that it was she and the driver in the other car who were the knights in this contest. My role was every bit the passive squire. I was attending to Almira, she was the champion in this contest. The battle was, in fact, already engaged.

“Now would be a good time to close your eyes, darling. I need to make our friends understand exactly who they’re dealing with,”

Almira did not take her eyes off the road, though she did shift in her seat, just slightly.

She reached forward, turned off the headlights and stepped on the accelerator. We were approaching a section of the city, just a block from the police station, where there were two missing streetlights. Maybe the sense of security from being in running distance to St. Louis’s finest, lessened the urgency to replace the broken bulbs. The result was that in the center of the block, the street was nearly as dark as the night that surrounded us. Almira slammed on the brakes and, once stopped, backed our car between two buildings. We sat in an alley between Salzmann’s Fine Fur and Jewelry (since 1879) and Solomon’s Shoes. Almira turned off the car’s engine.

The city was as quiet as any night in the wilderness. Instead of the distant howling of a predator or the nearby rustling of underbrush by nocturnal prey, there were random whistles from late working factories on the far edges of the city and the mechanical groans of trains, linking together, a post-industrial midnight orgy, heard from the train yards that huddled by the river’s edge.

I looked over at Almira and she held a finger up as a signal to listen and I heard the angry squeal of brakes. It sounded to be from about 2 blocks back the way we’d come. Our pursuers were clearly confused, our easy-to-follow car lights having suddenly disappeared. After a minute’s pause, surely to allow for some quick arguments in the car, we heard gears grinding as the driver, no doubt on the losing side of whatever discussion of strategy that had just concluded, let his frustration interfere with his driving. A slight squeak of tires told us they were turning, and two blocks down our street, the headlights of their car lit the intersection.

The long black car turned in our direction and seeing nothing, no tail light receding in the distance or any other sign of another car, accelerated in our direction. As I watched, they raced through the first block. I heard the engine in our car start-up.

Looking over at me, Almira held her index finger to her smiling lips, for all the world a girl anticipating the arrival of the guest of honor at the surprise birthday party she’d arranged. We drove out of the alley and turned left into the street heading towards our determined pursuers. Our car moved very slowly, clearly Almira wanted to stay in the dark, in the middle of the block, for as long as possible. I saw the headlights of the other car closing the distance between us. As soon as they crossed the intersection and entered the much darker section of the block where we sat, Almira hit the accelerator and, a few seconds later turned on our headlights. For reasons I never found necessary to ask, though I could easily guess, she held the button of the car horn down as we raced towards the rapidly approaching car.

The other car swerved to our right, little more than fifty feet away. Whether it was defective or there was something in the road, their right front tire chose that moment to blow out. Their swerve turned into a skid and the driver, no doubt more skilled in physical intimidation than was he in driving, slammed on his brakes, which had the expected result, and the car began to skid. Their speed was such that they no sooner started to skid than the front and back wheels hit the curbstone. The Lincoln stopped skidding and began to roll. Had they started their turn even a second earlier, their path would have been blocked by the bus stop kiosk. The passenger was ejected through his own window, to his misfortune, his path was blocked by the top of the bus stop shelter. He appeared to fold over and under the leading edge of the shallow metal roof. Neatly divided at the waist, his legs on the top of the roof, his head and torso, continued under the enclosure. The car managed one-half additional roll before it hit the plate-glass window of Muriel & Stanford’s Fine Furnishings. There was a tremendous crashing sound, snapping and breaking of wood and fabric adding an oddly less jarring note to the scream of rubber and metal.

Almira continued on her path up the street to the intersection, turned right and then right again. Now on Market Street, we rode along in the now quiet St. Louis night, down to 4th Street and the Claremont Hotel.

***

“I’m sorry, Captain Herlihy, Mr. and Mrs. Gulch are away.”

Captain Gareth Herlihy stood on the steps of the very imposing house on Loring Ave, on the East Side of Providence, Rhode Island and silently cursed Frederick Prendergast and the Essex Company. Gareth Herlihy was respected by the men of the Lawrence, Massachusetts Police Department and widely regarded for running one of the most effective and progressive police departments in New England.

‘So why are you still an errand boy for that fop Prendergast, and the damned Essex Company, Gareth?’ he would ask himself every time he found himself on a train bound for Providence RI. Not blind to the facts of life in a New England mill town, he found resentment growing whenever he had to endure a meeting with the CEO of the Essex Company. Owning the textile mills meant that the Essex Company owned the city and it’s citizens and, more to the point, it owned the police chief. The meetings, mercifully infrequent in the last few years, always ended the same,

“Herlihy! Do I have to spell it out? You persist in making me think that I do! I don’t enjoy this, but until the murder of Robbie Maclachlan is solved I will keep sending you where I must, to get me the people who are key to this case. We’re approaching the tenth anniversary of the strike and the murder. Go to Providence and get me new information that will help close this case or, bring back some suspects. I don’t care which!”

Standing on the doorstep on a grey-cold December afternoon, Captain Gareth Herlihy was feeling displaced frustration, an occupational hazard, but real nonetheless.

“I understand what you said, I’m more interested in where they went than in hearing that Sterling Gulch and the former Almira Ristani are not at home.”

Gareth Herlihy felt the muscles in his right arm tense and reminded himself that force was not always the most effective way to get people to provide the information he needed. Besides, there was something about this tall grey-haired man standing in the doorway that put him on edge. His success in becoming the chief of police in a very tough town was in no small part due to the quickness with which he sized up the other guy. Not only was this talent important to his success, it had, at times made the difference between life and death. This man who dressed like a butler had the eyes of a killer. It was obvious that there was no point in trying to intimidate him. If anything, he seemed mildly amused at the conversation.

‘Well, Gareth,’ the Captain of the Lawrence Police Department thought, ‘you’ve travelled four hours on a cold and drafty train to get down to this god-forsaken state, lets not leave empty handed.’

“If your employers happen to send you a post card from their travels, I don’t suppose you’d mind forwarding  it to my office?”

Gareth Herlihy, one of the toughest police chiefs among those charged with maintaining law and order in the industrial cities of New England, stepped forward with his card in his right hand. He managed a smile that seemed to falter and fall into the expressionless gaze of the tall man in the butler’s uniform. Finally, Edward, with an upward twist to the corner of his mouth said,

“Rest assured, Captain Herlihy, that should new information be vital to your investigation, I will personally deliver it to you.”

***

On the four-hour train ride back to Lawrence, Gareth Herlihy sipped from his flask and thought about retirement.

***

Asleep in the Presidential Suite of the Claremont Hotel, Almira Gulch had dreams of flying and her tears flowed down to the pillows.

Awake in the Presidential Suite of the Claremont Hotel, Sterling Gulch had serious doubts about his responsibility to the man who talked him into enlisting and going to war. He wondered whether California might not be a better place to end the journey with his wife and family-to-be.

Chapter 30

Featured

When beginning a trip that’s only partially dependent upon reaching certain and specific geographic destinations, there is no better time of year than summer’s end. The advantage of Autumn, compared to the other three seasons, is that it’s muting of nature’s beauty, encourages travelers to focus more on the people, rather than the places that make up a journey.

Sterling and Almira Gulch left Providence, Rhode Island in August and had only a single specific destination. They knew that ‘the journey,’ as they called it, would end once they reached a small town in the mid-Plains region of Kansas, by the name of Circe. It was their itinerary that was the interesting thing about Almira and Sterling’s journey. That they imposed no particular timeframe, schedule or deadline for arriving in Circe, Kansas, allowed them complete freedom in the path they took. That they needed to leave Providence and wanted to end up in Circe was the full extent of their discussion prior to getting on board the first of many trains.

The young couple did not, however, get on a train bound for Kansas City, Kansas. This fact spoke volumes about their feelings towards the trip. Without becoming entangled by inference and innuendo, inference and innuendo that might help acquire an insight into their motivations, in the simplest of terms, Sterling and Almira Gulch needed to get out of town. They needed, (or felt the need) to become, ‘unfindable,’. This somewhat clunky term was preferred over the more common, and certainly more potent phrase, ‘to go into hiding.’ In purely objective terms, they were hiding from the authorities from Lawrence Massachusetts. Specifically the Chief of Police, who was representing the interests of the Essex Company, owner of the city of Lawrence.

Subjectively speaking, Sterling and Almira Gulch were hiding from the past. To be fair, only one of the two would have acceded to that attribution of motive. Neither felt a need to discuss with the other the appropriateness of this attempt to avoid contact with the authorities. That they agreed that it was the best course of action was not in question, sharing how they perceived the outcome of not running, was. However, neither felt the need or desire to bring it out in the open.

Much like a binary star system, two suns with their own planetary systems locked in a larger, slower but far more significant rotation around a single common center point, Almira and Sterling maintained very distinct public and professional lives. It was this center point that allowed both to flourish and develop as individuals. They both grew in their respective professions far more than they would have as solitary individuals. While one might observe that each of the two suns of our binary system, each with their planetary systems were, in fact, self-sufficient and therefore truly successful in their own right, no one could argue that the sky would have shone as brightly were they not bound together.

And so, with nothing driving them to walk down the streets of Circe sooner, rather than later, the couple allowed their interests to determine the path they took to Kansas. Being young and being a new couple (in all ways), they grossly underestimated the changes in their lives that was a direct result of Almira’s pregnancy. Because they were young, they were able to believe that Almira, being six months pregnant, would not have an effect on their very loosely drawn plans to get to Circe Kansas.

Almira and Sterling arrived in New York on August 12th. The train car, was full of light and fresh with drafts of sea-scented air as it traveled along the New England coastline. The future seemed near and almost touchable, as the couple spoke of their plans. As they crossed Connecticut, conversation consisted of small, happy sketches of their hopes, (secret and shared) and snapshots of memories, (shared and still re-tellable, one to the other). As the day passed and the sun raced ahead to await them in the west, the ocean gave way to cornfields and pasture land. Eventually the fields rose from the earth in shapes of homes and stores and other commercial developments. The structures grew taller and more complex and closer together along the path of the train. Finally, after passing through the exhaust fumed canyons of the city, the train descended into the earth and traveled green-tiled tunnels to Grand Central Station. The wisps of air through the windows became more metallic than salty, the exhausts of machines tinged with a smell of industry. The conversation in the compartment turned quiet and cautious, in the flickering darkness.

Almira responded to the changes first, unconsciously pulling her jacket around her midsection, an ancient instinctual effort to protect against an un-specified threat.

“Are you cold?”

Sterling turned in his seat to face Almira. His shoulders broad enough to almost entirely block the sight of the steel and concrete tunnel walls.

“No, babe, just had a chill.”

Almira Gulch had the rare ability to inspire self-confidence in people. While many are able to inform another of their own confidence of success, it’s another thing entirely to be able to project emotional certainty. The first offers opinion, the second allows the person to believe it to be a fact. Almira had that gift. Sitting in a private compartment on a train speeding underneath the largest city in the world, she thought she felt a chill. What she felt was not so much a drop of temperature as it was a sudden, unexpected dip in her sense of confidence. It was as if the child within her had upset a certain balance, the natural equilibrium that Almira maintained with the world and people and demands that surrounded her each day. She did not like the feeling, but chided herself for being selfish.

“Bill Lawrence said he’d have a car waiting for us. Be good to get to someplace that doesn’t move.”

Sterling buttoned Almira’s jacket as the two sat, the subtle, near constant jerking motion of the train changing from side-to-side to a front to back pulling and pushing. She smiled and held his left hand as it deftly looped the last button into place. Looking out the window, she was surprised to see the concrete and steel scenery replaced with people and colorful signs as the train came to a complete stop at the platform.

Sterling gathered the satchel that contained his notes and manuscript and the single bag that held Almira’s notebooks and her copy of Gulliver’s Travels and stood at the compartment door.

“Want to go explore the world with me?”

“Anytime, my husband, anytime at all.”

***

Almira Gulch received a very sincere welcome in New York City. Her efforts helping workers successfully organize in Providence and other cities had earned her the respect of labor professionals throughout the Northeast. She was recognized as an expert in education, which all agreed was the most critical first step in organizing a predominately first-generation immigrant workforce. Almira had a talent for encouraging people to see that the path to a better life started with an education, an education beyond the minimum requirement to work in the mills and sweatshops and factories. She was effective because she was able to instill in people a belief in their own inherent worth and competency. Her peers admired her; her students loved her. It wasn’t a question of whether Almira would find work during their stay in New York, it was a question of drawing limits on the demands on her time and her energy. Almira Gulch loved her work, and the city was a place where she came into her full potential both as a teacher and a union organizer.

Sterling Gulch’s daytime life was all about writing his novel. For him, the demands of the days in New York City were without a specific schedule or (an) organizing rationale. Unlike Almira, Sterling did not have specific obstacles to be met and overcome. Nevertheless, his days were full and, in ways, more demanding than his wife’s. His work was difficult for that very reason, the lack of a defining organization. Sterling talked to people, and whenever the opportunity presented itself, he listened to their stories. He spent hours and days in museums and coffee shops, sat in on park-bench debates and poetry readings, stood in front of soapbox orators, and he stopped to read the curled paper messages glued to abandoned buildings, searching the smeared print for secrets and insights, like the Dead Sea Scrolls of modern urban life. Sterling felt the power and the life of his story grow as he fed it the words and memories, hopes and fears from all the people he could engage. His was a need that demanded that he see in others what he could not see within himself.

Because they had the resources, both financial and personal, their time in the city was a full, invigorating time in their lives. New York City, their first stop, became a second home for Almira and Sterling Gulch on their journey to Circe.

***

The estate Seymour Gulch left to his son and daughter-in-law was greater than anyone would have guessed. Seymour Gulch was not from money. Nevertheless, he was able to provide his small family with a comfortable lifestyle from his income as a teacher in the Providence school system. When he had the good fortune to encounter an opportunity, he had the foresight to recognize its potential. Moreover, he possessed the courage, (at the time, some called it recklessness) to invest everything he had into a new company, ‘The Electrolytic Marine Salts Company.’ With the capital from the original five investors the company become quite successful. The value of stock in the company started to rise from the first day of business. Word spread that the firm’s proprietary gold-from-seawater process was successful. The company’s stock went through the roof. Everyone wanted to own a piece of the Electrolytic Marine Salts Company. By the end of the first year of business, the original five investors, which included Seymour Gulch, became quite wealthy. The investment in the initial offering was not, however, Seymour’s most canny investment decision. His shrewdest decision was to sell his stake in the company after the first year, even as the value of the stock continued to soar. He had no trouble finding a buyer for his holdings. His decision to cash out was met with not a little derision from the business community. As a matter of fact, he encountered the most scorn from one of his business partners.

“Great wealth requires great courage, Seymour. It’s probably for the best that you step back at this point from our Company. We’re about to enter a phase that’ll make us such riches that the Carnegies and the Morgans will look like paupers in comparison.”

Edgar Rosenfeldt, along with Seymour, was one of the original five partners. He stood next to Seymour’s car, outside the offices of the company’s law firm, Edwards and Angell. Seymour had just completed the sale of his ownership in the Electrolytic Marine Salts Company.

“I’d say that I’ll miss you, but I pride myself on always being honest. The truth is my share of the company will be that much greater for your selling out. I should be saying, ‘Thank you’!’. I’m sure you’ll do alright. Have a nice life.”

As Seymour got into the backseat of the car, Edgar, feeling especially gregarious, leaned over, intent on getting a laugh from the driver. Edgar Rosenfeldt took pride in being popular with those he called, ‘the hired help’ and never missed an opportunity to demonstrate his innate bonhomie. Slapping the roof of the limousine loudly, facing the open driver’s window, he started to speak. His overly broad smile and small piggy eyes was met with an expression on the driver’s face that was neither resentful nor obsequious, rather it was a look of frank appraisal. Edgar straightened up abruptly, started to speak, looked again at the driver and walked silently back into the towering office building.

“He certainly seemed quite sure of himself, didn’t he, sir?”

Edward’s eyes in the rearview mirror flashed a glint of humor in the slightest upwards movement of an eyebrow.

“I suppose, Edward, that to be great, one must be willing to take chances. Fortune favors the bold. Or so I’ve been told.”

“Quite. A fellow Butler,” Edward smiled very slightly, “who served in the Rosenfeldt household, once remarked that the family’s fortune came from an odd involvement in the tulip mania, many years ago. The staff would often joke about ‘old money.’ As they say, ‘what goes up….’ shall I continue, or would Mr. Gulch prefer some quiet to savor an equally quiet victory?”

The two men laughed as the car left the business district and drove up Thayer Street, past Brown University and the quiet residential streets that overlooked the Seekonk River.

***

On their seventh weekend in the city, Sterling sat and looked at the typewriter. Smiling, he pulled the sheet of paper from the Olivetti, its metallic clicking marking the passing rows of words and laid it face down on the neatly stacked pages to the left. He pushed back from the desk with the air of a man completing an arduous but very worthwhile task. He looked at the 12pt Times Roman, double-spaced stack of paper that was his completed novel. From the living room across the central hallway of the townhouse, opposite the study where he did all his typing, he heard a voice.

“Sterling, can we stay in tonight? Really not feeling well.”

The speed with which Sterling crossed from the study to the sofa where Almira sat curled up in a quilt, provided a simple affirmative. His response time, however, spoke volumes about her husband’s priorities.

“Anything wrong? Is it, …are you, …what can I do?”

She smiled as a memory of her mother played across her mind. She remembered blankets on a threadbare rug, a towering bookshelf, and an open wall formed by the legs of 3 dining room table chairs. It was where a very young girl sat safely, in a corner of the Ristani living room, watching her mother sew while sitting at the kitchen table. Precocious and bold, Almira could remember the feeling she had as child, that she was working with her mother, the books that lay around her slowly yielding their secrets in the single main room of the Ristani apartment in Lawrence.

“Here, come sit with me. Everything is fine with our future and still-un-named child. Her mother is just tired after a day spent helping a middle-aged Romanian man understand how a 19-year-old girl from County Cork could be instrumental to his job unloading raw silk. It didn’t help that the sponsor of the workshop asked everyone to bring a little something for lunch. Knish, pierogies and boiler room coffee is not recommended for women who started their day throwing up the previous night’s dinner.”

Later that Saturday night, after the distant sounds of trains and taxis and late-night revelers faded into the canyons of the city; Almira sat up in bed.

“Your book, it’s almost done, isn’t it?”

Although completely asleep when his wife began to speak, Sterling attempted to reply before awakening,

“What? Who’s cooked, there nothing there, dark… What, did you say something?” 

Almira laughed and continued,

“We should get back on the road. I’ve done as much as I can with the people here in the city. They’ve got the organization and just have to grow the membership. The hard part is done. Speaking of growing,”

Almira sat with her legs crossed Indian style with a wall of pillows between her and the edge of the bed. Sterling, covers now drawn over his head, lay to her left. She crossed one arm over herself and with the other moved the pillows into a protective wall. She smiled at the thought of how often the turning points in her life took place in small, secret places of her own construction. An alcove created by towering brick walls of a ravenous mill, a converted blacksmith shop with a forge-fire blunting the icy punch of winter, the circle of loving arms and legs in the middle of a blood-washed street, hundreds of strangers as guards and even the corner of a backyard boundary wall, away from the light of the plentiful resources in a huge home, all were small encampments where her life was renewed.

She held the quilts and blankets back as Sterling turned to face her and slid over underneath the covers. The darkness allowed the two to see a future in which the three of them would be together, each separately demanding of the world what was needed and giving back what they could,

“So, my love, let’s thank the Lawrences and get back on the road. We have places to see and places to be and, as long as we have a coat to share…”

Almira ran her fingers through his hair, raising a finger to trace the inner surface of the blanket affirming the momentary permanence of their quiet, dark shared space,

“… or a blanket that keeps the world at bay, we will have all we need.”

Sterling slid his right arm between Almira’s shoulders and the pillows and, as she kept the quilt suspended over their bodies, extended her legs out and the two slid together. The world they shared with the approaching third member of their small tribe evident, made their joining both gentle in the love they were bringing to the world and, at the same moment possessed of a fierceness that jumped from Sterling into Almira. It was from Almira that the passion escaped into the otherwise silent world outside the quilt.

***

“Sorry to see you kids leave so soon. In any event, Ted Thornberg’s expecting you. No, I told him that all you needed was enough time to go over your manuscript. Very bright young guy, he knows you’ll want to be on your way. Ted and I did a deal with your father back in ’12, made a ton of money. In fact, Ted financed his publishing business from the proceeds of that one deal. He’ll treat you right. And, Almira? You and his wife Diana should really hit it off,”

Bill Lawrence leaned over towards Almira as the limo sped down 2nd Avenue,

“She’s pregnant too, very pregnant. Hell, she might have the kid while you visit. Nice girl though.”

Getting out of the car, Almira and Sterling walked across the wide sidewalk towards the entrance of Grand Central Station; Bill Lawrence leaned out the car’s window.

“Stay in touch.”

Almira and Sterling Gulch felt the train start forward as it left the station. Almira Gulch felt the lurch simultaneously with a slight kick in her middle as she held her worn copy of ‘Gulliver’s Travels’ on her lap. Sterling Gulch heard the rumble as a train passed on the adjacent track, speeding towards New England and felt a burning sensation across his face as his memory surprised him in the compartment, miles and years from the war.

***

“He’s very taken with you.”

“What? Who? Who’s taken with me, well, who besides most guys that have a pulse and can see.”

Eliza didn’t bother to laugh, or for that matter even smile. She was focused on keeping up with the middle-aged woman who lead her away from the picnic tables, across a small pasture and up into an area of hills and rocky outcroppings. A glance back over her shoulder showed the Gulch Farm spread out in the wide, nearly flat valley. At the rear of the barn, the second largest structure in the small compound of buildings, she could see Hunk and Tom Hardesty working to unload a truck.

“Why, Hunk Dietrich, of course.”

Eliza frowned, as much at the fact that the older woman did not sound out of breath as her slightly disapproving tone of voice.

“Henry? You must be joking. Anyone can see Hunk only has eyes for a certain well-intentioned farm girl. A girl who also happens to be my best friend.”

“…Watch your face.”

Phyllis let go of the branches as she disappeared through what seemed to be an impenetrable grove of juniper bushes. Eliza ducked just in time to avoid being hit in the face. As she did, she caught a glimpse of the other woman’s shoes, stepping down a steep decline hidden just beyond this wall of green vegetation. Turning her back, she pushed through the cedar and smiled as expecting the drop-off, found footing and did not stumble as she walked down into the clearing where the woman stood, waiting.

“Nice spot. Bring the boys up here a lot, do you?”

Walking further into the clearing, Eliza realized that she could smell the spring before she saw it. As if cut into the side of a birthday cake, the opening was 15 feet across, 10 feet tall in a roughly conical shape. Just within this shallow cave, the pool of clear water threw light in rippling patterns across the stone of the ceiling.

Phyllis McCutcheon stood at the edge of the pool,

“So Miss Thornberg, what is it you wish to know about Almira Gulch?”

Looking around Eliza noticed an outcropping of stone just where the opening to the cave became a part of the surrounding hill. It provided a place to sit, not inside the cave and not completely exposed to the sun that, at this time of day was still very unrelenting.

“Frankly Phyllis, I don’t give a shit about the old woman. I do care about my friend. She can’t seem to let go of a need for information from the woman in the hospital bed. I’ve asked her, and all she says is, ‘she took my dog and made me leave Circe.'”

Phyllis McCutcheon stood quietly and watched as Eliza got up and began to pace along the edge of the pool.

“In the year I’ve known her, Dorothy’s never once mentioned a woman who stole her dog, and while she left Circe to go to school in New York, I can’t recall her ever telling me anything about traveling. Funny thing about all that talk of travel…”

Phyllis looked up at Eliza, her head tilted in silent encouragement,

“I remember when I took her to Times Square. It was the beginning of the Fall semester, and I didn’t know her that well, she was nice, but she kinda kept to herself. I decided, ‘lets show the country girl how different life in the big city can be.'”

Eliza saw the very slight elevation of her listener’s eyebrow, and stopped,

“I wasn’t being cruel, I wanted her to relax and enjoy being at Sarah. And besides, the other girls were starting to make fun of her, so I figured something like that would give her a chance to fit in.”

“I didn’t say anything,” Phyllis spoke quietly,

Eliza found a loose stone beneath some bushes and threw it into the pool and watched the other woman. Seeing no reaction, she continued,

“Anyway, we all went downtown and Dorothy did seem impressed. Hard not to, with all the lights and noise and the people. You know, Times Square on a Saturday night, right?”

Seeing no reaction, Eliza continued, now joining her companion in staring into the bottomless water of the spring,

“The odd thing wasn’t her reaction, the thing I remember was in mine. I watched Dorothy Gale, fresh off the farm, blue-checkered dress and all, take it all in, very methodically. There was none of the gaping jaw, wide eyes that show on the faces of most people. No, Dorothy was analyzing, assessing the situation. I distinctly remember thinking, ‘This girl is not impressed. She’s clearly been in stranger places than Times Square on a Saturday night. And, from the way she’s looking everywhere, she’s also been in some pretty dicey situations.’

So what gives with my friend seeming desperate to getting some old, sleeping woman to answer her questions?”

“It’s really quite simple. Your friend, Dorothy Gale was raised to see Mrs. Gulch as being exactly the opposite of what she is as a woman. Her adopted mother, Emily Gale, filled your friend’s childhood with stories that depicted Almira Gulch as nothing more than an evil, selfish and greedy witch.

The truth of the matter? In terms that a silver spoon-fed girl like you can relate to? The fact is Almira Gulch, that ‘old woman in the hospital bed’, gave her life up for Dorothy’s.”

Eliza stared as Phyllis McCutcheon walked back through the green wall of cedars that protected the spring, opening a way through the thick spiny branches with her forearm.

“Wait! What the hell do you mean ‘gave up her life’? I saw her last night, and she was breathing, didn’t exactly talk much, but definitely alive. Hey! Come back here…”

As Eliza stepped into the opening in the bushes she heard,

“…And watch the branches.”

She managed to close her eyes as the thick, bristly swath of cedar limbs hit her face and chest, stinging tears under closed eyelids.

She broke free of the bushes in time to see the figure of Phyllis McCutcheon cross the pasture that lay between the wooded hills of the spring and the clear fields surrounding the farm buildings.

“Hey! Answer me!! What do you mean, ‘she gave her life!”

The woman, halfway across the grassy field turned and spoke in a voice that although not a shout, carried to Eliza’s ear as perfectly had she been standing with her hand on her shoulder,

“For a student at Sarah Lawrence, you seem kind of dense. Good thing you’re such a sexy girl, maybe you could make a name for yourself in the movies.”

Eliza Thornberg laughed as the other woman continued to walk towards the farm. She decided that she liked the quiet middle-aged woman and thought that they would become friends.

Chapter 29

Featured

Circe, Kansas, straddled the border between fertile low-river farmlands of the eastern half of the state and the upwards rise to the Great Plains. Elevation increased from 680 feet above sea level on the state’s border with Missouri to a high of 4,000 feet. In McPherson County, the terrain was best described as ‘un-decided.’ A 100-mile wide band running north to south was neither thick forests and verdant farmland, as found in the east, nor was it the flat, high plains prairie land to the west.

The town of Circe was the center of a patchwork of corn and wheat fields, interrupted by small forests and medium-sized lakes. The land in this middle zone, steadily rising (while flattening out) towards the Plains did not make for effortless farming. Farms spread out between and among the low foothills, the price of every successful crop always very dear. The essential elements of labor and water were anything but in ample supply. Planting corn, and sometimes wheat, along with raising livestock, families bet their lives on their efforts to wrestle life from the land. In this semi-arid climate, water was a most precious commodity. It commanded a high price from those who needed it, imbued those who controlled it with the power of life and death and brought about an end to those unfortunate enough to be caught between the two.

To the northeast of Circe, on the western side of a small range of foothills, was a natural spring. Hidden in the cleft of a granite outcropping and shielded from view by a grove of cottonwood, an endless supply of cold water bubbled up from the earth. Although it never stopped bubbling, the level of the water in the small pool never changed. The new water replaced the old which, in turn, sank back into the bedrock. There was no other outlet for the water, it did not form a river to flow away across the land. It was simply a pool, shaded by trees, surrounded by granite.

The English translation of the Shawnee name for this simple wonder of nature is ‘the crying stone.’ The spring was considered a sacred place. Warriors believed that its waters would hasten the healing of wounds. Mothers believed that babies bathed in the crystal cold water would become great men or powerful women. Medicine men knew that this was a place where the gods touched the earth. Many a shaman spent a lifetime trying to learn what might be learned, to gather what power might be found in this connection between the world of man and the earth.

In 1898, Theodore Baumeister and his wife Simone, German Mennonites, took advantage of the Enlarged Homestead Act and bought two hundred fifty acres of farm and forest land about twenty miles to the north and east of Circe. Theodore and Simone left Germany with a dream of finding a place where they could build a home for themselves. Being members of a faith that was at the time very mobile, they planned not only to farm the land but to create a place where others might find safe harbor. They built the farmhouse and barn first. They raised cattle and hogs, and planted the fields with corn to provide a buffer against the sometimes violent swing in prices at the slaughterhouses in Kansas City.

The Baumeisters did well with their farm and managed to save the money needed to bring their dream fully to life. They built a large two-story structure they called the meeting-house, siting it between the farmhouse and the barn. Simone planted elm trees, as she could see in her mind a time when mature trees would offer shade in the extreme heat of summer in Kansas. The meeting-house provided sleeping quarters on the second floor and a dining and living area on the first. It was completed in 1910 and by 1912, as word spread, it provided a home to wanderers and pilgrims. Mennonites and Mormons and travelers from all parts of the country. There was always the sound of life in the meeting-house, no matter what time of year. Mennonite churches across the Prairie States spread the word of this refuge, and the meeting-house was always full.

But not long into the second decade of the new century, drums of war were being heard in Europe. Slowly at first, but as insidiously as the corn blight that starts at the very edges of a field, the politics of strife spread across the country, reaching into the wide, isolated communities of the Midwest. The simple and hard-working people of Circe began to wonder what it was those people did out there at ‘that German place.’ Eventually, the farm was sold to a young couple from ‘Back East’. The Baumeisters stayed on and lived out their days, working the farm, making strangers welcome.

The farm, known since 1927 as ‘Almira’s Keep’, was essentially the same as it was in 1912.

***

The sun, in the middle of an afternoon in the first week of August was every bit the monstrous orb found in a six-year-old child’s first attempt to draw a sunny day. The sun was looming, un-relenting and without the seasonal restraints offered by the other nine months of the year. The rising columns of red and silver in thermometers acquired a more ominous appearance; warnings of danger, rather than a reassurance of a comfortable afternoon outdoors. Very much the difference between a strong wind making a row of flags and pennants flap in colorful excitement and the triangular red flags stretched into solid, pointed wedges by the winds of an approaching hurricane. The sun ruled the sky without mercy and without promise of respite.

Hunk Dietrich thought it probably would get over 100 degrees before the sun set. He looked over at Eliza Thornberg and amended his weather observation to include, ‘women don’t sweat, they glisten.’ Hunk was in a good mood at the moment, sitting with Dorothy Gale’s college roommate at a picnic table in the shade. He felt the silence at the table grow from companionable silence to simple lack of conversation. The self-confidence he felt while talking and driving her car was nowhere in sight. Desperate to keep the silence from marking him as an inept companion, Hunk decided on a non-verbal strategy to re-establish his qualifications and ultimately, his right to sit with an attractive young woman. He stretched. Arms moved upwards and both legs outwards. Seeing the reaction of the girl, he realized he was out of danger, for the moment.

“So Hunk, who are these people? I see at least three groups of people who obviously are not related. Everyone in the dining room over there seems to be friendly with everyone else. What the hell is the story here, Henry?”

Sitting on the unpainted wooden bench, Eliza Thornberg appeared as comfortable as any wealthy young woman seated in the summer parlor of a Newport mansion or dining at a wrought iron table on the patio at the Tavern on the Green. In contrast to Hunk’s half-rolled up sleeves, sweat-darkened collar and trailing shirt tails, her clothing made her look at home. As was the case when wearing expensive clothing, Eliza looked naturally beautiful. Her light blue silk blouse appeared to float around her body, emphasizing her figure without being, in any way, obvious. A small area between her shoulder blades found the fabric held close to the skin, the only indication of the extreme temperature. A barely noticeable tiara of glistening sweat was beginning to creep along the edge of her hairline, her dark brown eyes alive. There was a humor to her expression that softened the sharp edges of her smile.

Hunk relaxed, hopeful at the pleasant tone to Eliza’s voice. Hunk always felt confident and self-assured when someone asked him for information. He leaned across the table, as if careful to avoid being overheard.

“They’re just people. You know, folks who’ve lost everything…trying to survive… Wait, sorry, I guess I forgot.”

“Forgot what”?

Eliza didn’t bother looking at her companion, interest in her surroundings was beginning to fade. The lack of intonation in her answer hinted at a growing boredom.

“You know, most of the people of the country losing everything and hitting the road, desperately trying to survive? The Great Depression, 20% unemployment…. bread lines. Go ahead you can stop me when any of this sounds familiar.”

Hunk stared at the girl, the gulf between their worlds a chasm. He felt a sudden desire to move away, go somewhere else, do something different. The where and the what were irrelevant.

As if overhearing the economic plight of their parents being discussed, a group of children ran close to the table. Their feet (and youthful energy) kicked up low clouds of dust. Like smoke cloaking the flames of low fire, the plumes of seared earth made the humid air feel much warmer. The sudden slam of a screen door made Hunk and Eliza turn towards the house and watch as Phyllis McCutcheon approached their table.

Hunk stood up and walked towards her, glancing briefly at Eliza he said,

“There’s someone who I want you to meet, wait here.”

Eliza took a pack of cigarettes and a Dunhill lighter from her purse, said with unmistakable indifference,

“Take your time, Hank.”

Hunk met the approaching woman at the edge of the shade cast by the small grove of trees next to the dormitory. Phyllis McCutcheon was a middle-aged woman, her worn, but expertly mended dress seemed to suggest an indifference to her appearance. After only a short time in conversation with her, this indifference showed itself to be more an absent-mindedness. Phyllis McCutcheon was one of those people for whom responsibility was the most important thing. She thrived on responsibility and helping others. People like her were always in demand. Unfortunately, (for people like Phyllis McCutcheon), this demand was in limitless supply. The people in her life would demand her help and she would attempt to comply. Her wardrobe was the first casualty in the daily battle to live up to the expectations of others.

Almost always of good cheer, Phyllis came across, to friends and strangers alike, as a woman who was always busy. At times this had the effect of making her appear pleasantly harassed, but never so much as to cause her distress. It was evident that she understood that the responsibilities she held were far too much for one person. However there was also a certain underlying optimism, she appeared certain that, given time and patience, everything would work out for the best.

“Phyllis, hi!”

Phyllis stopped in the middle of the yard between the dormitory building and the smaller farmhouse. She looked up just in time, barely avoiding bumping into Hunk, who was standing directly in her path.

“Hunk! What a pleasant surprise.”

Only slightly shorter than Hunk, she held out her notepad, as if it’s pages of indecipherable pencil marks constituted a passport. It was, to her, sufficiently informative to provide greetings, instructions, and acknowledgment for anyone she encountered in her very busy days. Hunk stood in front of her and waited. He’d known Phyllis since she decided to stay and help Almira Gulch run the farm/sanctuary/rooming house on the outskirts of Circe Kansas and knew that silence was not inappropriate.

Her arm moved very slightly upwards, as if to present her notes, he waited until the woman caught up with herself.

“It’s good to see you. Who’s your friend? She’s very… pretty. Will she be staying or…”

Hunk smiled, her fragmented speech a reminder of why he liked Phyllis McCutcheon. She had a sense of the incredible bounty in the world if one only took the time to look for it. The two of them very much a pair of castaways standing on the shore of the deserted tropical island, taken with the wonder of what they saw, seemingly unaware that they were shipwrecked and alone. There was, in their respective capacities to ignore immediate circumstances, security in their ability to make the right decisions and take the right actions when the time came, or circumstances demanded. Hunk recalled when Phyllis announced her intention to stay permanently at the Keep. During breakfast, Henry Gale went on at length describing the new and, apparently permanent, resident at the Gulch Farm, finally, his wife, Emily looked over at Hunk and said, “Sounds like another fool in paradise, Hunk. You two should get along.”

“I want you to meet someone.”

Hunk reached out his hand and stopped about an inch short of the woman’s arm. Keeping his hand at her arm, almost but not touching, he turned towards the picnic tables. Without seeming to notice the lack of contact, Phyllis turned with Hunk, and they both stood and looked at Eliza Thornberg, about twenty feet away.

“This is Eliza Thornberg. She’s a friend of Dorothy Gale, and I brought her to show her around Circe.”

Eliza looked at the two, waved her hand and seemed to laugh to herself.

Hunk waved back and looked at Phyllis, who then also waved.

Eliza put her hands to either side of her mouth and in a voice meant to sound like a shout, said,

“Pleased to meet you, Phyllis. My friend Henry has been doing a great job as tour guide, but I think he just hit his limit in the social graces. Would you bring him over so we can talk in the shade?”

Phyllis smiled, her eyes seemed to turn inward slightly, her posture, relaxed up to this point became a little more assertive. She turned and put her hand on Hunk’s arm, smiled and said,

“Hunk, your new little friend wants us to go visit her. Shall we?”

Hunk felt his stomach twist a little, a feeling that usually accompanied his efforts to interact socially with others. He looked at Phyllis,

“Visit we shall.”

Hunk put his right hand on his hip and Phyllis put her left arm through and held his forearm, and they walked towards the tables in the shade. Phyllis began to point to various parts of the farm as if she were showing a visitor the farm for the very first time. Hunk played along and nodded on occasion.

Finally, they stood in front of Eliza Thornberg who smiled at the mid-aged woman, held out her hand but remained sitting.

“Miss Thornberg, this is Phyllis McCutcheon. Miss McCutcheon, this is Eliza Thornberg.”

The three laughed.

“So, Henry here says,” Eliza saw the look of question on the other woman’s face and added, “when I first met Hunk, I mentioned to Dorothy that I thought he looked a lot like Henry Fonda. I still do. Don’t you? In any event, I was curious about the woman who owns this place, Mrs. Gulch, Almira Gulch? When I mentioned this Mrs. Gulch at the breakfast table this morning, Dorothy’s mother, Emily, got a very strange look on her face. It was a look of both hate and guilt, not a pretty sight. I wasn’t even slightly tempted to ask her why she looked like someone had just thrown a rock through a priceless stained glass window. I’m definitely not a shy girl, but I knew better than to pursue the topic of Mrs. Gulch.

In any event, I promised Dorothy that I’d hang around here until it was time to go back to school. I get the distinct impression that if that old woman wasn’t lying in a hospital bed, I wouldn’t be here because Dorothy wouldn’t be spending her summer vacation in this backwoods hole in the wall town.”

Eliza reached across the table and put her hand on Hunk’s arm, smiled and said,

“I’m not disparaging your little town; you know that, right?”

Hunk laughed and to Eliza’s surprise, reached over and tousled her hair, leaving it sticking out every which way. Stunned into silence she stared at Hunk who proceeded to pat the more disheveled hair back into place, smiled and said,

“Eliza girl, I have not the slightest doubt of your good intentions.”

Phyllis sat and observed the interaction. Finally, she seemed to remember the notepad in her hand.

“I’ve only been here at the Keep three years, but I can tell you that Almira Gulch is one of the most remarkable women I’ve ever met.”

Eliza lead forward,

“Hey, Hunk!! Could you lend us a hand in the barn?”

The three looked up to see Tom Hardesty walk around the corner of the meeting-house,

“Eliza. How’re you Miss McCutcheon. Hey Hunk, we’re trying to load a truck, the lift stopped working and all I have is a winch and some halfway old guys. Could you lend us a hand? Won’t take but a minute.”

“Go, Hunk. I’ll wait here. Miss McCutcheon here is about to tell me the real story of Dorothy’s old-woman-in-the-bed.”

“The heck with that! What are we, old ladies sitting and waiting for the menfolk to do everything for us?”

Phyllis McCutcheon smiled but she locked eyes with the startled young woman from Philadelphia.

“Come with me, ‘Liza, I’ll show you a most wonderful cave in those hills up yonder, and while we walk, I’ll tell you about my friend Almira Gulch.”

Chapter 28

Featured

“Good afternoon, Mr. Prendergast!”

Nodding to the cabbie leaning against his car in front of the train station, Frederick waved and continued across the street. The driver managed to get the back door open and was in the process of bowing, something that Edgar Revoir would never dream of doing with any other fare. He found, in increased tips, that sometimes the silly things paid well. By the time he looked up, the man in charge of all of the Essex Company’s mills was receding, (upside down, from Edgar’s perspective) into the distance.

Frederick Prendergast decided to walk to his office from the train station. He enjoyed walking, though of late, his schedule rarely allowed him the pleasure. This particular Friday afternoon, he decided otherwise, and set out towards his office overlooking the Lawrence Town Commons.  He chose to cross the Merrimack River by way of the Duck Bridge. To his right, between the silver-painted lattice of iron girders, he saw on the western horizon, the mushroom tops of a row of thunderstorms. Along their bottom edge, where clouds touch the earth, flashes of light made clear the weather that night in Lawrence. From where he stood, in the middle of the bridge, it was quite easy to imagine an approaching army, destroying each and every town in its path.

Frederick smiled to himself, ‘Rather fanciful thinking, isn’t it, Frederick? Not exactly the kind of thinking that’s going to get you that seat on the Board of Directors. Focus! You have a problem that you need to solve. Save the poetry for Miss Addams; she’s easily impressed. The men on the Essex Company’s Board of Directors are not’.

The memory of the morning he’d spent before the men who owned the Essex Company returned with eye-squinting force. Taking in one last glance at the row of brick mills that lined the banks of the Merrimack, he resumed walking toward the center of Lawrence and his office.

The announcement of an emergency Meeting of the Board arrived at the very end of business on Wednesday, quite by surprise, as was intended, Frederick assumed. The message was simple: the Board of Directors expected him in Boston that Friday morning. No agenda or any information that might provide insight into the purpose of the meeting. The note, signed by Barry Willoughby did nothing to improve his mood and, in a fit of anger, shouted through the closed-door of his office,

“Miss Addams! You will be staying late today. I need you to help me prepare for a meeting this Friday.”

That there was silence from the outer office told him his secretary was prepared to aid him in whatever manner he required. In less than a minute, the door opened and Lizabeth Addams, tall, pale and clearly concerned with the sudden emergency, stood silently and waited to learn how she might be of use.

His plan was to travel to Boston Thursday afternoon so as to be more relaxed and prepared to deal with whatever surprises the meeting might hold. Looking at his secretary, Frederick picked up his telephone, called his wife and told her to have his suitcase packed and ready to take to the train station. He could hear his wife repeat his instructions, presumably to one of the domestics, told her not to wait on him as he would be working late and hung up the phone. He looked up at the young woman and, watching her face, said,

“Miss Addams, be so kind as to book two tickets to Boston. Seeing how last-minute this meeting is, I’m going to need you with me. Please make the hotel reservation for tomorrow night. No, I don’t believe dinner reservations will be necessary. I suspect we’ll be much too busy to have time to dine out.”

Now, crossing Canal Street, the threatening clouds blocked from view by the tall mill buildings, Frederick felt relaxed. He looked down the ruler-edge streets, saw people and vehicles moving purposefully in and out of the mills and smiled. The six mills were the heart of Lawrence, Massachusetts and he, Frederick Prendergast III, was in charge of it all. He liked the feeling.

He stopped at a small market on Methuen Street and stared at the brown-wicker baskets of fruit displayed to the right of the entrance. From the small, dark interior came the sound of voices. The words were of a language he didn’t understand, but the tone was one of surprise, that quickly sharpened to what could only be suspicion. Finally one voice, smoothing into quiet resignation took human form, standing in the doorway.

“Good afternoon! Mr. Pren-a-gustae! Tell me what I get for you this summer day! Some delicious apricots perhaps?”

Frederick smiled at the shopkeeper. He complimented himself on his ability to read people.

“Don’t they look delicious! Tell me, do you grow them yourself or are they from a farmer that you’re keeping secret? These are the best-looking apricots I’ve seen all summer. I’ll let you in on a little secret, Alonzo, I just spent the morning in Boston and I saw nothing like this anywhere in that great city.”

Beaming with pride, Alonzo Gianelli put six of the pinkish fruit into a brown paper bag and rolled the top closed. Looking at the shopkeeper, Frederick rubbed his thumb and first two fingers together and raised his eyebrows. Alonzo glanced back towards the interior of the market, and smiled,

“No. For you, no money! You let us come here to this wonderful country, we work hard, it is our gift to you!”

Frederick felt a surge of pride at the loyalty of the shopkeeper and, without another word, turned and walked towards the Commons. Behind him, from the interior of the little market, renewed sounds of a foreign language spilled out onto the street, the first words expressing surprise, the remainder degenerating into anger.

Frederick walked into his outer office and frowned at the sight of the vacant desk. He immediately recalled that he’d given Lizabeth the rest of the day off, on her promise to come in over the weekend.

“They’ll be laying traps for me the minute I leave the meeting,” Frederick spoke to the mirror reflection of Lizabeth Addams, very early that morning in Boston’s Hotel Touraine. “I need your feminine wiles to keep that son-of-a-bitch Willoughby from sand-bagging me with the nominating committee.”

Staring out the window, thinking about the morning’s meeting in Boston, Frederick Prendergast felt a familiar mix of exultation and fear. As he’d expected, Barry Willoughby took charge of the meeting. For more than an hour, in the richly appointed Board Room overlooking the Charles River, Frederick was threatened and cajoled; a seat at the Board Room table and the loss of everything he had attained, the first if he succeeded, the second should he fail.

“You need to do something about these fuckin unions, Prendergast! Every year since that goddamn strike, they’ve got stronger and more organized. Right under your Dartmouth-educated nose. You need to do something, and you need to do it now!”

Frederick was proud of his understanding of human nature, more precisely, the nature of humans when drawn together into a group. Years before, he was asked by his friend Stephen Shearing, the Dean of the new Business School at Dartmouth, to address an incoming class. He began his speech by saying, “Gentlemen, when you’re managing people remember that everyone plays a role. It is their role that will dictate how aggressive or how passive the person appears and know that people aren’t always aware of the role they play in a group. The loudest person is usually not the most powerful. Never forget that, you need to watch the person who seems least threatening.”

As much as Barry Willoughby appeared to be speaking for the Essex Company, Frederick knew better. He quietly endured the young man’s tirade; being lectured on basic management practices by this 30-year-old heir to a family of slave traders was not the most difficult part of the meeting. Getting the Board of Directors to stated explicitly what they wanted him to do was the real challenge. Finally, the young man sat down and was silent. Frederick reflected that perhaps there is a limit to the amount of manure one can pack into a bushel basket. He caught himself before a smirk could form, alert to the scrutiny of the eight other men in the room.

“Mr. Prendergast, we have the utmost of confidence in you in this matter.”

Philip Tudor, son of the man who single-handedly created the ice trade, making his fortune selling frozen water to the wealthy families of the Caribbean, began to speak. His tone was almost conversational, as if he and Frederick were sharing a lunch in a quiet restaurant. ‘This is the man you need to fear,’ Frederick thought, looking across the wide conference table.

“Our friends in New York and Philadelphia are also having difficulties with their workers. Regrettably, not all politicians understand the reality of business. There is increasing pressure from the government on us to ‘treat workers with dignity’ or some such anarchist nonsense. We applaud your creativity, Frederick, in your efforts to counter the influence of those who would destroy this great country of ours. Your ‘God and Country’ parades immediately following that strike were inspired. You managed to interrupt the momentum that was building over the death of that striker, at precisely the right moment.

However, we need you to do more. We need you to find the person responsible for the killings that day. A face. Get us that person; we’ll take care of the rest. Our friends in New York and Philadelphia and Providence will be very grateful. In fact, there might even be a seat here on the Board. Provided you are successful, of course. Are we understood?”

“Perfectly, Mr. Tudor. I’ve already set into motion certain efforts, both of a legal and, shall we say, extra-legal nature. We are not sitting and waiting for them to come to us, I assure you.”

“Always the conniver. That’s one of the things I like about you, Prendergast.”

“Why, thank you, Mr. Tudor. I won’t let you down.”

Frederick Prendergast, alone in his office, nodded to himself in agreement with the remembered conversation. Turning his desk chair to face the windows, he watched the thunderstorms approach. This storm was unusual. Summer thunderstorms normally approached from the southwest. But everything seemed to be changing in the world, fortunately he knew the path laid out before him would take him where he was meant to go.

Placing a writing pad on the desk, he started his list.

***

Almira felt the muscles of Sterling’s arm tense with the crack of thunder that crashed through the house. Lying on her side, with his arm draped diagonally across her chest, his left hand encircled the top of her right thigh, gently, protectively. She smiled to herself. His sleep was never peaceful, at least not since returning from the war. Sometimes the night’s quiet was broken by a simple mutter, thoughts and feelings not formed enough to shape actual words, like dough being kneaded, not yet bread. Other times he would cry out, sometimes in pain, other times in warning, always in fear.

This particular August night, Almira felt the weight of his arm, and thought, with a renewed sense of wonder, of the first time they came together. Since that time, she would still smile self-consciously to herself, ‘the young girl never actually grows up, does she, Almira?’

Despite the warning of the day-bright flashes of lightning, the thunder rolled and boomed through the night. With each crash, she felt his muscles steel-tense beneath his skin, his body a flesh and blood shield across her naked form. Even at those moments, Almira felt his fingers on her thigh with the softest of touches, as if only to reassure himself that she slept on, undisturbed, through the dark crashing of the storm.

Sleep was an abandoned hope as Almira lay and tried to imagine the life that she and her husband would claim. Almira found the registered letter hidden in a cupboard, higher than Gertrude, the housekeeper, could reach without a step-stool. The letter, addressed to Sterling Gulch had ‘Deposition Subpoena’ stamped in red on the front of the envelope. The return address was: The Office of the Clerk, District Court, Lawrence, Massachusetts. She knew that a discussion would be forthcoming the following day.

Almira walked out the back door of the house and crossed to the garage. She saw Sterling and Edward leaning over the open hood of the car, low muttering between them indicated that they were discussing a problem of a mechanical nature. Standing in the sunlit opening of the double garage doors, Almira’s shadow drew their attention. Edward looked up almost instantly with the sudden darkening cast over the engine compartment. Sterling continued staring intently at a part that seemed just out of reach. She heard Sterling mutter a single word, ‘shit’ and slowly pulled himself up and out of the confined engine compartment, a breech-birth leaving oil and grease and resignation covering his face and looked at her.

“That’ll be all for now, Edward.”

Edward nodded to her and, without a glance towards Sterling, walked out of the garage and into the house.

Sterling sighed, wiped his oily hands with a rag that was only slightly less oily and turned to face his wife.

“When were you going to tell me about this?”

Almira threw the envelope towards the car.  Catching the air just right, it took flight, making it through the air as far as the car’s windshield and came to rest, just above the windshield wipers.

“I needed some time to think. I saw no reason to burden you with it until I came up with a plan.”

Feeling her anger grow, Almira walked to the long black car and got in on the driver’s side.

“Time for me to learn to drive this, wouldn’t you say?”

Closing the hood of the car and getting in the passenger side, Sterling pointed at a black, mushroom-shaped knob to the left of the steering wheel,

“Pull that out halfway and push that black button to the right. As soon as the engine starts, grab the first knob and get ready to push it in…gently.”

Almira felt a grin begin to grow and, instead, frowned at the car’s dashboard, as Sterling continued his very precise and ordered instructions.

Glancing up, Almira saw the envelope resting on the glass and angrily punched the starter button. The car’s engine immediately turned over and began to roar with a steadily increasing sound.

“The choke!! Push in the choke.”

She looked to her right, Sterling’s face held a loving smile as he reached across the car and pushed on the choke. The engine quieted to a normal running speed.

Failing her effort to stay angry, Almira laughed and said,

“That was simple enough. Let’s take a drive!”

Later, after a very, very quiet dinner, as he cleared the dinner plates, Edward looked at Almira,

“I understand that you’ve learned to drive, Mrs. Gulch.”

Almira smiled, watching the butler’s face closely. She knew Edward had a very, very subtle sense of humor.

“Why yes, Edward. Mr. Gulch was kind enough to show me how to start and stop the car. As for the rest, practice makes perfect. Will you be wanting to borrow my bicycle?”

Edward raised one eyebrow slightly,

“Well, I was going to ask you if you wouldn’t mind running a few errands for me, strictly household related, of course.”

“Of course.”

Laughter came as a welcome relief after the strained formality of the dinner, at the overly large table in the very formal dining room of the Gulch home.

“Let’s go to the library, Sterling. You and I need to talk,”

Almira didn’t bother to wait to see if Sterling followed her out of the dining room. She went immediately to the desk that faced the french doors overlooking the patio. The library was one of her favorite parts of the large home and she was sitting when Sterling finally walked in and sat on the leather sofa. She held the letter from the Lawrence Courthouse, fingers pressing on diagonally opposite corners. With the pinky finger of her right hand, she flicked the envelope, causing it to twirl between her hands.

“Why you’re in luck, young man! Come closer! Madame Almira’s magical envelope knows all and tells all. Tell us, mighty envelope, ‘When was the foolish man going to tell the princess in the tower that he had a summons from the evil wizard in the north.'”

Almira felt a growing fear blossom within her as the white envelope spun between her fingertips. Not far behind the fear was a growl of anger, and this she feared more. ‘And that, Almira, is proof that you are crazy. Stop tormenting Sterling, he loves you and was trying to protect you.’

“I don’t want to interrupt the conversation that’s obviously going on behind the beautiful eyes of my beloved, but may I say one thing?”

At the sound of his voice, Almira pulled her mind from the white twirl of the letter and was surprised to find Sterling crouching next to her at the desk.

She turned and locked eyes with him. She saw something in his face, a momentary understanding, as if a memory had re-formed itself and held a new meaning, the opposite meaning that it had before.

Almira felt something pulling her away from him. Yet the pull of his love, after a brief look of uncertainty, blazed anew in his eyes, pulled her to him more than her fear could hold her away. She wanted to understand it, and yet, there was a part of her, the part that made its presence known with nothing less than a growl subsided within, to that part of her soul that she suspected but did not understand. She reached out to Sterling.

“What are we going to do?”

She watched his face and it was the face of a person who saw her, not simply as desirable but as necessary, necessary to his life.

“I hear Kansas is nice this time of year.”

Sterling swiveled the desk chair so that she faced him directly, his left arm rested along her right leg.

“Wait! Hear me out.”

Almira felt the tension in her body seep out at the touch of his arm. A smile grew on her face as he continued,

“I have an envelope, no! A different envelope. That my friend from college, Cyril Sauvage, gave me before he left for the war.”

Almira frowned at the mention of the name. Cyril was the upperclassman who successfully talked Sterling into enlisting in the American Expeditionary Forces.

“Anyway, it’s addressed to his sister Emily. And I found it in a bag the other day… well, you know, the point is, the envelope triggered a lot of memories. Cyril used to talk about life growing up in Kansas. His father was a blacksmith in the small town of Circe. Yeah, I know, like the Greek myth. So, my beautiful wife, how about we go and see what life in America’s heartland is like?”

Almira felt relief that the future was, once again, being described in terms of Almira and Sterling Gulch. Since his return from Europe and through his long recuperation, her dreams maintained a theme, of being alone and having lost something that she could not recall. The thought of Sterling leaving, even though it would be to protect her from the increasingly aggressive pursuit by the police and the Essex Company, was intolerable. She would wake up from a night of one of these dreams looking frantically around (in the way of such things), looking first in the opposite direction from the reassurance that the fear was unfounded.

Mistaking her silence for reluctance, Sterling continued,

“Wait! Hear me out! I have everything planned out and,”

He saw the look return to her eyes and hastened,

“and it will work even better with it being both you and me! Money’s not an issue; my father left me more than we need. The house here, I hope you’ll agree, but I thought that we just put it in Edward and Gert’s name, very quietly, of course,”

Encouraged by Almira’s smile, he continued,

“and, leaving the house as if nothing has changed will slow them down. Since we’re in no hurry, I thought we’d spend some time traveling. There are people in New York and Philadelphia that you’ve been working with who would appreciate a visit from you. Gradually, over a few months, we move south and then out towards the West. We’ll stop in this Circe place and see if there isn’t a union or an oppressed workforce or even a parochial school that would welcome the talents of my wife. What do you think?”

Almira ran her fingers through her husband’s hair as he sat on the floor in front of her,

“I’ve never doubted that you will always take care of me. Even as you know that I’m quite willing and capable of taking care of myself…”

She smiled more to herself and the thing within, the now-quiet source of an occasional growl, the tiger within,

“But it will not just be you and me searching for a new home,”

She took his right hand, curled fingers not yet recovered and placed it below her breast, her hands covering his damaged hand, both to shelter it from the world and to introduce it to the life, not yet demanding attention, that grew within her.

***

We decided that it was best to leave on the earliest train.

Once the primary decision was made, the rest was pretty much scheduling, at least until we got to Kansas. Our first stop was to be New York City. Almira had some work to finish up with Rose and the Garment Workers. I called a friend of my father’s, a business associate by the name of William Lawrence. A real estate guy who had invited my father in on a couple of deals in the city. They both did pretty well. He was very direct and a very, very busy man,

“Sterling! Great to hear from you! So sorry about your dad, he was a helluva a businessman and one of the smartest people I’ve ever met. A place to stay in the city? Say no more. I’ve got a building in Harlem that I just took as collateral on a loan. Very nice. All ready to move in. It’s yours for as long as you need it. Now, I gotta a college to run, can ya believe that? The things we do for women! See ya kid. Say hello to that little woman of yours and stop by and see us when you get in to town.”

Edward and Gertrude took the news that we were leaving as well as I would have expected.

We left on a Tuesday morning. It was summer bright and warm for seven in the morning. Edward drove us to the Station and handed our bags over to the porter. The three of us stood outside and looked at each other. Rather, Almira and I looked at each other and Edward watched everything around us.

“Very well. I recommend limiting contact with us here,”

Edward said as a start of his farewell, and revealing how well-informed he was of our situation and plans to disappear for a while.

“Of course, it goes without saying, if you need something, let me know.”

Almira stepped forward and hugged Edward with a kind of possessiveness that, were he any other man, I would have felt a twinge of jealousy.

“I want you both to know how much I have enjoyed serving your family. You are now on your own, and you must be on your guard. I know you have the strength and the courage to protect the both of you.”

I stepped forward, extending my hand,

“Thank you, Edward. A vote of confidence coming from you means a great deal to me.”

“Begging Mr. Gulch’s pardon, I believe I was addressing Mrs. Gulch.”

He actually winked at Almira, and we all laughed.

Chapter 27

Featured

Sterling and Almira Gulch rode north, there remained only stops in Westerly and Kingston before their train arrived home in Providence, Rhode Island. Perhaps a chance insight into their relationship, Almira sat on the bench that faced south and her husband sat opposite, looking forward to the north, towards their destination.

The train passed not a few seaside villages, but only three small towns. Towns with enough of a mobile population to justify actual train stations. The three towns were much alike, at least to the casual visitor, (and surely there is no more casual a visitor than a passenger on a train, on their way to somewhere else) in that all three offered a Main Street which gathered quaint shops and practical hardware stores together in a row, this central street was lined with very old and stately Elm trees. The size of the trees left no doubt as to the permanence of the town, as if, intimidated by the overwhelming size and sophistication of New York and Boston, they sought to assert the considerable cachet of a genuine Old New England Town.

“Your speech went well.”

Sterling Gulch looked at his wife, sitting on the worn leather bench opposite him in the small private cabin. She covered her legs with her overcoat, as much for a sense of stability against the rocking of the car as for warmth. She was writing in her notebook. When she smiled, he felt waves of infatuation more commonly experienced by those much younger. Smiling at this thought, he was struck by how it seemed that whenever he was with Almira the world somehow became new. He embraced the feeling.

“Thanks, and thank you for coming with me on this trip. It’s meant more than you can know to have you there.”

Almira had been invited to a union event commemorating the 11th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire. Members of unions from all over the country gathered in Washington Square Park. That she was invited to speak was not a surprise. Almira maintained a close relationship with union leaders throughout the Northeast, and the event’s sponsor, the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union was the most organized and active of them. The ILGWU was very supportive of her work to organize the mills and factories of Providence, Rhode Island. That the signature on the letter was that of Rose Schneiderman, was a surprise when she opened the letter only a month before.

“Sure, I’ve worked with a lot of the people from New York and Boston and, of course Lawrence. They’ve all been more than willing to help, but Rose Schneiderman!”

Almira sat at the too-large table in the formal dining room, the opened letter beside her plate.

“You will, of course, be accepting the invitation, Mrs. Gulch”?

Edward spoke as he backed through the swinging door from the kitchen, two dinner plates in hand.

Sterling smiled and Almira laughed. Since the death of Sterling’s father, Seymour Gulch, both Edward and Gert Rogers insisted on continuing the ritual of dinner being served in the formal dining room. Out of respect for their 20 years of service to the Gulch family, Sterling and Almira did not override the butler and the housekeeper. The young couple accepted the fact that, no matter how much they would have preferred to have Edward and Gert join them for dinner, neither would be comfortable with such a change.

“Well, only if you insist, Edward,” Almira smiled.

March 25th, the day of her speech, fell on a Wednesday and despite it being the middle of the workweek, Washington Square Park was crowded with workers, men and women, young and old.

As she walked to the front of the small stage, Almira realized that she would barely be seen behind the podium. Clearly the majority of speakers that day (or the organizer’s image of the speakers) were much taller than her own 5′ 2″. Without hesitating, she walked around the podium and stood at the edge of the stage. Looking out over the faces of women and men gathered in somber celebration, Almira thought of her friend Annie LoPizzo, the vivid memory of her pulling Almira by the hand and running down Canal St, coats flapping in the spring air, simply for the joy of running. Feeling the spirit of her friend touch her, Almira threw the 4 typed pages of her speech up into the air. The wind, always somewhere nearby during the month of March in New York City, lifted and carried them over the crowd, black and white surrender flags offered to the army of people standing and waiting for her to address them.

“I was going to talk about the struggle and the fight. I was going to describe the sacrifices all of you have made. When I wrote the speech that you now see flying down towards 6th Avenue, I planned to list our reasons for demanding the right to earn a living for our families. I was going to talk about the struggle. I wrote, in that speech, about the forces rallied against our cause. I would have, if I gave that speech, reminded the bosses, even though they’re not here to listen, that all their efforts to hold us back only add to our resolve to win this struggle. Because, as I would have said, we know that they are not going to stop with just breaking up our unions. They want us to fear them and retreat. To retreat to a place where, with time, we might begin to wonder if maybe we are less than equal, not deserving of the simple dignity that is our birthright. I was going to talk about the loss and the death and the suffering of those who died here, 11 years ago.

But those words and those thoughts are the words and thoughts of war. I see here today, on this warm March day, not battle-weary soldiers. What I see here are the faces of everyday working men and women, embracing life and working to give their families a better future. I thought, as I threw my speech into the air, that those white pages were surrender flags and felt ashamed. But only for a moment. I realized that if I’m surrendering it’s only because I refuse to fall into the trap set by those who hold power. I refuse to believe that what we are doing, the effort we all are making, the price we are paying, is a war. Not because war always demonizes the other side and makes them the enemy. But because as humans we are prone to believing that if the other person is not human like us then it’s acceptable to treat them as non-human. And to treat another as a non-human is to become less human. The casualties of war are felt by all, even …especially when the war is over. I refuse to become a soldier to fight in a war that those with power would have us fight. 

We have the power. When we let others define us they win. And we become slaves. We are not slaves. We are workers!

My friend Annie LoPizzo once said to me, ‘Come, Almira! Embrace life! To hell with those who want to make you feel like you’re something that you know you’re not.’
This union, all the unions, are ours, not the bosses. Together we have power and the only thing the owners and the bosses respect is power. Accept the power you have, each of you and together we will change the world!”

After the cheering died down, Almira suddenly felt very, very tired and sat and listened as the remaining  speakers went before the crowd. Within an hour, the speeches ended and the crowd began to dissolve. Preferring to wait until the crowd had dispersed, Almira watched, fascinated, as the single mass of people started to fracture into many smaller groups, these smaller groups gradually shed individual members (from the outer edges first), until there was no sign of the crowd beyond the trampled grass and pamphlets and flyers, like autumn leaves lying on the ground. Almira begged off on the numerous invitations to dinner with various dignitaries, preferring the company of her husband to the avid and sometimes hungry attention of those who professed to admire her work.

Now, as the train carried the two home, Almira felt an undefinable calling, from within her body. It was not yet a voice, just the awareness of the presence of another, a whisper of a voice not yet able to speak.

“No, seriously, you were really good. You need to write more. People respond to you. I saw it today, in the faces of all those people, they will follow you down any road that you choose. They sense that you’re willing to give all of yourself to them and that’s such a rare thing in these modern times,”

Sterling sat straighter on the bench, on his side of the cabin and held out his left hand. Almira stood and let him draw her to him. Next to her husband, his arm draped across her, both bandolier and shield, they both watched out the windows towards their future.

“Annie would be proud.” Sterling whispered into Almira’s ear.

***

Hunk felt good. And that made him somewhat uncomfortable. He glanced towards the passenger seat and what he saw made it worse. The girl, right arm cushioning the top of the door, rested her head on her forearm. The wind blew her long, dark hair into a cloud of browns and dark brunette. He was taken aback by her beauty and …something else. He thought, ‘Hunk, this has been a good day so far. Don’t go and ruin it by forgetting who you are and who that girl is.’ Without thinking, Hunk tapped his left brow. It was a habit he’d developed to remind himself to not forget.

Hunk Dietrich was not un-happy with his life. He enjoyed being happy the way most people enjoyed holidays and surprise birthday parties. Despite there being nothing surprising about the arrival of Christmas or a birthday, people usually acted surprised, as a way of expressing their happiness. It was a way to accentuate their enjoyment rather than imply that the celebration was totally un-expected. Hunk Dietrich viewed his experience of happiness in much the same way. It wasn’t that he didn’t accept the emotion, it was just that, for the most part, it was a surprise when it happened. For Hunk Dietrich, happiness was like the weather, it simply happened. He neither expected it, (as a part of his life) nor refused it, (when it happened).

Hunk struggled to keep his eyes on the road ahead. ‘Which at the moment is increasingly difficult to do!’ he thought with a silent laugh. The pleasurable tone of his day overcame his characteristic reserve and pushed his mental laugh out into a spontaneous grin.

“What?”

Eliza Thornberg turned in her seat and, with an expression both quizzical and challenging, stared at him. Hunk felt a boyhood flush rise from his body and lay claim to his face. His ears grew warm, his body seemingly intent on raising the red flag of the socially vulnerable. As with most animals upon realizing they’ve become the object of attention of a predator, Hunk froze into immobility and he stared at the girl.

“You know, Hunk, if you think about it, driving a car has a lot to do with the road ahead and the road ahead is …over there.”

Without taking her eyes off Hunk, Eliza leaned across the seat and turned his head to face forward. She brushed the shoulder of his jacket off with a light motion, her smile removing any doubt who was in control.

“Well, of course, I knew that!” Hunk laughed.

“Although, Miss Thornberg, here in Kansas our roads are very easy. The only question drivers around here ask is, ‘Do I want to go this way?'”

He reached over the steering wheel with his left hand and pointed towards the back of the open car, “‘or would I rather go that way?'”

Hunk took his right hand off the wheel and, crossing it over his other hand, pointed forward.

“Of course, people do sometimes go both ways.”

“I surrender! I’ll go which ever way you want!” Eliza laughed and Hunk put both hands on the wheel as the car sped north on County Road #2

***

“What can I do for you, Mrs. Gale?” Thaddeus Morgan smiled at the woman seated on the other side of his desk. He immediately berated himself for his lack of social skills, in particular in matters concerning members of the Board of Directors of his hospital. This deficiency was all the more costly when the Board Member was also the person donating all the money to build a new wing.

“Why Thad, I’m not here to ask you for anything! Heavens, if anything, I’m here to see if there’s anything I can do to help you with the hospital expansion project,”

Emily Gale sat in one of the two visitor chairs before the Director of Medical Services’s desk. She had her hands folded in her lap and was seated in the exact center of the leather chair. Her back was ramrod straight. She barely seemed to make an impression on the seat cushion. The impression that she conveyed was one of ‘perching on the seat’.

“…anything more to help, that is.”

Thaddeus Morgan watched as Emily Gale smiled her somewhat bony, birdlike smile and thought about his grammar school years. Unbidden, the memory of Billy Turmaline, his 6th grade nemesis, returned with such force that he felt, just for the moment, ten-years-old,

“Gimme your lunch and my book report, Fattius, and I might let you go.”

Thaddeus Morgan stared at the ground. He wanted to say no. He wanted to refuse to hand over the lunch his mother gave him less than 15 minutes before. He desperately wanted everything to be different. It wasn’t. With practiced smoothness, his shoulders slumped and he stared at the ground. He felt the bag and the book report pulled from his hands. His other school books were torn from his grasp.

“Lucky for you I’m in a good mood today Fattius…. and I better get an ‘A’ on this or tomorrow won’t be a good day…. for you!

The laughter of the small group of boys that followed Billy skulked up the sidewalk as he walked happily towards the schoolhouse. Thaddeus Morgan remained standing on the sidewalk, feeling the sting of a single, hated tear. To prevent the release of any more weakness, he kicked at his geography book which lay splayed open on the ground, sending a fan of crudely colored pages into the quiet street.

“What I really am concerned with, Dr. Morgan, is your timetable. How are you progressing with the transfers of those patients in the Charity Ward?”

Emily Gale’s inflection on the words ‘patients’ and ‘Charity’ were smelling salts to the distracted hospital director. Much as he preferred to get along with wealthy patrons, he took his responsibility to all the patients of St Mary’s more seriously than most would ever understand.

“We have three patients remaining. Mrs. Oppenheimer is leaving tomorrow. Her family is taking her home to stay with them. We can do nothing more for her here. That leaves only Mr. Gunn and Mrs. Gulch. Mr. Gunn, I fear, is not long for this world. We’re doing all that we can to make him comfortable, but the injuries he suffered in the War are finally catching up to him. It’s a shame. To see a man survive all that he did 20 years ago and live a useful and productive life, only to have age exact its final price. Despite the fact that mustard gas destroyed a significant percentage of his lungs, Mr. Gunn had the will to live. However, it happened when he was young and otherwise healthy. Sadly, old age is doing what the war could not and he lies there in his bed, slowly drowning. No longer able to force his body to work twice as hard to offset the damage done to it. It took 20 years, but the Great War is about to claim another life.
And last, but surely not least, we have Mrs Gulch. Rather a mystery with her. When she was brought here, she seemed perfectly healthy for a woman her age, except she could not be aroused from sleep.”

“I’m not interested in the medical history of these… patients. What I am interested in is how soon will demolition of that wing begin. There’s a great deal of work to be done building the new Gale Wing, but none of it can begin until we tear down the old, outdated part of the hospital.”

***

Edward stood next to the car as Almira and I walked down the granite steps from Union Station. It was still light and people walked away from the train station and along the sidewalks of downtown Providence. With the car idling, Edward stood on the driver’s side and watched as we approached. As we drew closer, I realized that Edward was not only looking at us, he was watching everyone approaching our path to the car. To the casual passerby, he was a tall, thin, silver-haired gentleman dressed in the clothing of his profession. If, however, they got close enough to see his eyes, they probably re-assessed their impression of him as an elderly ‘gentleman’s gentleman’ who spends his days overseeing a domestic staff. There was something about him that projected an air of competency. And, for whatever reason, from our vantage point descending the stairs, it seemed that anyone whose path took them past the car waiting at the curb were inclined to give Edward a wider berth than they did for the cab drivers that were also parked nearby.

Edward nodded to me. When he looked at Almira, his face changed in a remarkably subtle way. He went from looking like a hawk to looking like the alpha male wolf awaiting the return of his pack, all in a blink-and-you’d-miss-it second.

Edward took the two suitcases I carried, set them on the sidewalk and opened the car door for Almira. I walked around the car with him, opened the trunk and he put away our suitcases. In a moment, we pulled away from the Station.

“How was your trip, Mrs. Gulch?”

“It was quite a long train ride, Edward. But, as always, it’s good to be home. I assume you and Gert have kept the house from burning down or being converted into a speakeasy?”

My wife has a power to charm those who seemed most indifferent or intimidating. I would swear that I saw a grin appear in his reflection in the rearview mirror.

“Well, might I ask Madam if she minds that we take the long way home?”

We all laughed as Edward drove up the steep incline of Waterman Street and headed home in the gathering dusk.

“Would you mind giving me a hand with the bags, sir?”

Almira was already in the house. I walked to the back of the car where Edward stood, holding both suitcases, I shut the trunk lid.

“Thank you, sir.”

“Is there something you need to tell me, Edward?”

“Nothing of major import, sir. I didn’t want to bother Mrs. Gulch with it, really a minor annoyance.”

I waited.

“We received another visit from that policeman, Captain Herlihy, while you and Mrs. Gulch were in New York. I informed him that you were away and I was not certain when you would return.”

“Did he have anything to say to that?”

“No, no message. He simply said that he had a matter that would be of interest to you and that he would be calling again sometime.”

“Odd. I suppose we’ll just have to wait until then.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Is there anything else, Edward?”

“I must confess that, at the time of this Herlihy fellow’s visit, I considered impressing upon him that his visits were not welcomed. Was I wrong to allow him to leave with the belief that he could return?”

“No, you did exactly as I would. For now. And, lets keep this between ourselves, shall we?”

“Very good, sir. My feelings precisely.”

As we walked into the house,

“Edward!  I’m not seeing any hoochie coochie girls or jazz bands! What kind of butler are you! ”

***

Hunk stopped the car at the sign, ‘Almira’s Keep’.

“So, this is the place that woman in the hospital that Dorothy’s so obsessed with lives?”

“Yep.”

“Are those children I see, back there by that barn? I’m surprised. She seemed kind of old to have kids. And a little too comatose.”

“Don’t know who those kids belong to, probably part of one of the families, stopping for a spell on their way somewhere else.”

“Really, what is this place?”

Instead of answering, Hunk turned into the driveway, drove past the two-story farmhouse that faced the road and parked to the side of a large two-story building. It looked like it might have started life as a barn but remodeled into something more appropriate for use by people. Through a row of windows that ran down its side, Eliza could see people sitting at several long tables, from the rise and fall of conversations that managed to escape to the outside, it would seem that lunchtime was in full swing. Looking up to the window along the second floor, white curtains waving in the occasional breeze, Eliza felt safe assuming that it housed some sort of sleeping quarters.

Hunk got out of the car, walked around the front of the yellow convertible and opened the door for Eliza.

“It’s a farm. We do a small trade with them, sometimes exchanging livestock for labor during planting and harvesting season. It’s also a place for people who need a meal or a place to sleep or a place to stay or just a safe haven. Guess this place, I guess it’s a lot of things.”

Hunk walked towards a grove of trees where several picnic tables were set up, all but one currently occupied.

“Dorothy’s never mentioned this place. But from everything I’ve heard from her and her folks, I get the idea that this woman, this Mrs Gulch, is not very popular with the locals. Yet there is something about this place, what did it say on that sign, ‘Almira’s Keep’? Something about this place that’s really special. So what gives, Henry?”

“All that’s true, if you only asked Emily Gale. Even Dorothy would be inclined to give that impression, but Dorothy is a complex girl, so I wouldn’t bet my life that she would insist that people who knew Almira Gulch would think poorly of her. But look around. Most of the working people in town, especially the working poor would tell you something very different. And, if you somehow talked to all of the families that travel through these parts, all their earthly possessions tied to the trunk of the barely working cars, searching for their homes, they would tell you that Mrs. Gulch is very special.”

Chapter 26

Featured

Eliza walked down the aisle that ran the length of Ward C, without conscious thought, she found (and held) to the very center of the space between the rows of beds. All but three of the ten beds were empty. They were, in fact, more than empty; five were metal frames, a rolled up mattress lying on the zigzag network of wire that provided support for the thin mattresses. Only the three occupied beds still had visitor chairs and, of the seven empty beds, half lacked a nightstand.

Eliza could see her friend Dorothy, standing silently at the far end of the room, a conscripted sentinel, guarding the near-dead in St Mary’s Charity Ward.

Mrs. Eloise Oppenheimer (according to the white card held by shiny metal brackets on the end of the bed), lay in the first bed on the left. Seemingly awake and conscious, she watched in perfect silence as Eliza walked past the end of her bed. Eliza paused, looked back at the woman and, raising her hand in a chest high wave, saw nothing in the old woman’s face that indicated that she was there at the end of the bed. Mrs. Oppenheimer reminded Eliza of a cat she had as a little girl. The cat, a grey Siamese named ‘Theodora’, would sit in one of the window seats that overlooked the patio and surrounding formal gardens of the Thornberg home. Playing by herself, Eliza sometimes found it amusing to try to frighten the cat, approaching the window from low along the row of bushes, suddenly jumping up in front of the window, waving her arms. Invariably, Theodora would remain as she was, sitting and watching out the window. Never once could she remember seeing Theodora show any sign of being caught by surprise or otherwise startled. The cat sat on the window seat cushion and, with the minimum amount of head turning, followed the antics of a young girl on a manicured lawn, playing out adventures to add excitement to her solitary childhood. Mrs. Oppenheimer reminded Eliza of Theodora, only her stare held less humanity.

Further down the aisle, about halfway to where Dorothy stood, Eliza saw what at first appeared to be a rolled-up mattress, laying in the middle of one of the beds. As she drew closer, the mattress became a man, a very obese man, covered in a light brown blanket, head propped up at an angle between two pillows. The reason for this awkward position became apparent as she walked past the end of the bed. Wheezing sleep sounds, like the cries of a drowning man heard from a distance, a distance too far to make rescue a reasonable thought, followed her as she walked down the aisle. The sleeping man fought to find a rhythm to his gasps, propped up by worn and flattened pillows. She hurried past, less afraid of waking the man and having to deal with questions than she was of being captured by the silence of a stranger’s last breath.

Eliza reached the end of the aisle. There was a row of windows along both walls that formed the corner of the room. Beyond the glass, lay the receiving area of the hospital, the scenery was black asphalt and white concrete, the growing darkness broken only by the firefly light of orderlies standing in the dark, smoking cigarettes and talking quietly. On the nightstand next to the bed, a small table lamp threw light in a conical plume up to the ceiling. The meager light it cast seemed brighter as the windows became more reflective with the deepening of the darkness outside.

Dorothy stood very still, her brown hair pulled back on either side, almost into twin braids, her white sweater open over a blue and white check blouse. She was staring down at what, on first glance, appeared to be one more empty bed. Her eyes were downcast, in a sort of stubborn stare, as if demanding that the object of her concentration become something different from what it was. Following her friends gaze, Eliza caught the silent flash of a scarlet ribbon sewn into the collar of a worn hospital gown. The collar of the gown was all that showed of the woman in the bed, otherwise completely covered with a blanket. Small in stature, her face was a study in contrasts. Though closed in a very deep sleep, her eyes were beautifully shaped, set above prominent cheekbones that, in turn, lead to thin, almost severe lips. Even in the half-dark and full-stillness of the moment, she was a very attractive woman, delicate features complimenting her small size. Except, that is, for the nose. While noses are the center of the face and as such always significant to how we judge a person’s appearance, the nose of the sleeping woman was of an exceptional size and shape. As facial features went, this nose not only demanded attention, it commanded it. Sharp along its upper edge, it rose downward from the brow to create an angular promontory. Projecting from the face, this nose seemed to say, ‘hey! you have to get past me if you want to get close to the woman’.

“I don’t know what’s going on anymore. Nothing makes sense.”

Dorothy spoke, almost in a whisper, with a tone somewhere between a question and a complaint.

Eliza Thornberg felt a chill skitter across the back of her shoulders, invisible spiders racing for cover from something that frightened them. Almost immediately, her true personality reasserted itself.

Stepping across the aisle she grabbed the back of a chair and, without bothering to lift it off the floor, dragged it noisily to where her friend stood.

“Sit” she commanded. She then found another chair and, dragging it with a fair amount of racket, placed it next to the bed opposite Dorothy. Eliza preferred to make noise, given the opportunity she felt more…. alive, when there was sound filling the space around her.

Taking off her sweater, Eliza shook it out and hung it over the back of her chair. She looked around the ward once and sat down.

“OK Dorothy, now tell me the story of how you know this woman. And don’t leave anything out.”

And Dorothy began to speak,  “… and I took Toto and we ran away.”

***

Almira came into our bedroom and asked me if I wouldn’t like to come downstairs to sit in the garden with her. Cursing myself, I replied,

“Maybe in a little bit.”

I remained silent as she stood at the bedroom door, the pain, insufficiently hidden in her face, echoed the self-loathing that bloomed in my mind. Each second she stood there, poisonous air fanned the fire, which, try as I might, I could not extinguish. The silence grew and became, as silence between two people often does, something monstrous and destructive, feeding on unspoken fears.

“Alright, Sterling. I’ll be down in the library if you want to join me.”

She walked out, closing the bedroom door, which made the hateful voice inside me almost rabid with angry glee…’She closed the door? Now, even if you considered leaving here, you have to get up and open the door yourself. And when you do that, you admit that you’re the jerk. What the hell does she think she’s doing!’

The ravening voice in my mind had grown steadily stronger in the year since I returned home to an emotional landscape that seemed to constantly change. At first, the dominant emotion among my friends and family was relief that I was not killed in the war, that I did not die. This positive emotion eventually changed into sympathy. People talked about everyday matters and tried their best to act as if nothing had changed. However they could not ignore the fact of my injuries, of my crippled right arm, (that with therapy would get better) and the burn scars on my face and chest, (that wouldn’t). Sympathy, in terms of shared emotion, is like running a marathon. The beginning is chaotic and the position of the competing runners at the starting line is of little importance. Over the course of the race, however, the true pain of losing is not so much a result of being beaten by better runners as it is being left behind. The race ends at the front of the pack, not the back. Sympathy has a way of silently turning into bitterness. However, in the Gulch household in 1920, even sympathy could not last without changing, altering itself. Sympathy, without a sense of confidence or optimism is nothing more than fear with a social face. This fear was very basic, it was that, ‘the way things have always been, will never, ever happen again’.

There was a knock on the door. Before I could get up, I heard Edward speaking through the door,

“Begging Mr. Gulch’s pardon, may I speak freely?”

I decided to play along. To be honest, I didn’t want to think. To think was to give that part of my mind a chance to pull me farther into the depths that I was becoming much too accustomed to, so I said,

“Of course, Edward.”

“You need to get out of the goddamn bed. Sir. Go and suffer in the bathroom and then get yourself downstairs to your wife. You may have scars and memories that remind you how screwed-up your life is; she does not. And yet, she does not give in to her own demons. Demons, I might add, that we all must contend with, at least those of us who know that life is not neat nor does it always make sense.”

He opened the door and stood staring at me. I looked back at him.

Edward appeared to be as old as my father, however, there was something to the way he moved that made me think of ancient Sparta. Not that his appearance was anything more than that of a tall, thin, older gentleman’s gentleman. There was, however, a certain calculating shrewdness in the way he carried himself. It showed more in the slow deliberateness of his movements than in any overt demonstration of strength. He was one of those men that uncharitable strangers might describe as cold and aloof. He was anything but, however, I’ve known him since I was a young boy. Whenever my father had a problem that no one could help him solve, in the end, Edward would be there.

“I trust you won’t think I’m being impertinent, sir. You should to go to your wife, she needs you more than she will ever say. The work that she’s done in the two years that you’ve been away has taken more of a toll than she would ever admit. Quite a remarkable woman. You, if I may say so, have the potential of becoming a remarkable man. She deserves nothing less.”

I got up, the sense of un-defined hopelessness faded out, perhaps just for the moment, but it was enough time for me to move out of the room that I had imprisoned myself in for the last six months,

“Anything in particular I should know about the time I’ve been away, Edward?”

“Nothing you don’t already know, sir.”

I saw what I believed was a look of approval and felt like I did when I won my first medal in high school track. As I walked past. he said,

“There was a policeman here last year, from Lawrence MA. He struck me as the kind of man who, while not overly dangerous on his own, when directed to action by people he feels indebted to, can be quite dangerous. Captain Herlihy was his name. I do not trust him.”

I stopped and looked at him. His facial expression subtly changed, I realized that Edward, for all of his proper manners that came from a lifetime of being a butler, had a lethal side that would not stop at anything in order to protect those given to his care.

“Thank you Edward.”

“Certainly, sir.”

***

Almira sat at the desk over-looking the garden. Through the French doors, (one open and one closed), the breeze moved just enough to destroy the illusion that the lace curtains were, in fact, not finely etched glass. The brick patio outside formed a square platform, surrounded by an intricate array of perennial flowers and evergreen shrubbery. The back of the Sterling property was large in comparison to the other homes located on the fringes of the  East Side of Providence. The boundaries to the rear were defined by a brick wall that ran through a wooded section of the yard, down the sides and returned to the house itself.

On the desk, her copy of Sinclair’s ‘The Jungle’, open to the title page, on the opposite page in red ink,

To my dear friend Almira,

I wanted to give you something that had meaning for both of us and, yet at the same time be special to us individually. The world is a better place for having you in it and I am a happier woman for having known you

love, Annie

Almira let her finger trace the letters slowly. As if a phonograph needle, the sound of the words were sent directly to her heart.

“I have an idea,”

She looked up to see Sterling, standing in the open doorway. He immediately turned and walked back into the hallway, his words trailing behind,

“…stay right there, I’ll be only a moment.”

The lace curtains swayed quietly, an early April breeze drew her eyes outside the library.  She reviewed her plans for her 5th grade class, once they returned following the April break. Her thoughts strayed to the parents of her students, many of whom she knew from her work at the Union Hall on Valley Street, a small building among the vast textile mills. She smiled as she recalled when, at the end of the fall semester, Sister Aloysius called her to her office,

“Mrs. Gulch, please have a seat. You know that as a parochial school we serve at favor of the Bishop? Our parish is new and a little different from the other parishes, in terms of the neighborhoods that we include. That our parish includes the wealthy East Side as well as the working poor of Olneyville is a reflection of beliefs of the former Bishop. He felt that including the wealthier neighborhoods with some of the more …less fortunate, would result in a more ecumenical gathering. I do not disagree. However, our current Bishop is from a more, shall we say, refined background. He recently spoke to our parish priest, Father Coleman about your work with the parents of some of our students. The new union hall that you seem to be involved in, to be specific. He went to great lengths to remind Father Coleman that our parish includes business people, prominent business people.”

Almira sat and tried to ignore her growing anger.

“I just want to say that I admire you. And, as strange as it may sound, I’m grateful that you are not a member of my Order. I’m in charge of running this school, that means all of the teachers answer to me. Not being a nun, I do not have the authority to tell you what to do with your free time, away from school. However, that is not at issue, at least with me. If I judge your character correctly, you will do as your conscience tells you. If that turns out to be in conflict with the Church, in this case, the Bishop, I have no doubt that you will continue to do what you know you must do.”

Sister Aloysius got up and stood looking out the window, the ghost of a smile just visible as she turned away,

“And so, I will say, as your Principal, the Bishop would be happier if you ceased some of your …extracurricular efforts.”

Almira felt something within stir and stood, feeling a growing anger,

“Sister Aloysius, I must…”

Turning from the window, the Principal of Our Lady of Intercession school interrupted,

“That’s excellent! As long as we understand each other!”

Smiling, she continued through Almira’s hesitation,

“I believe that you are one of those rare young women who not only hear what the heart tells her, but has the courage that puts those who would try to make you conform, more at risk than they realize.”

Standing in front of Almira, Sister Aloysius, a tall woman, smiled down at her 5th Grade teacher.

“I trust that you will do what you know is right and that you will recognize your friends, even if they don’t always make it clear that they are your friends, am I correct, Mrs. Gulch?”

Almira smiled back at the nun, reached  out and touched the other woman’s hand briefly,

“You are correct. Thank you.”

Returning to the present, Almira looked up at Sterling who, once again, was standing in the doorway. He wore a heavy winter coat. In his left hand, a small paper bag, in the crook of his right arm was an old coat that she thought she’d lost. Her right eyebrow took control of the conversation,

“Wait! Don’t say it!”

After looking around the library in a theatrically cautious manner, Sterling leaned backwards and looked up and down the hallway. Satisfied, he walked to where she sat at the desk and extending his right arm, said,

“Here put this on! We don’t have much time!”

Almira felt the memory-echo of a forgotten time grow in her mind. Putting on the coat, she felt openings cut into the inner lining to allow access to the two large pockets of the old wool coat.

“Come on.”

Taking Sterling’s right forearm, she let him lead her out through the patio doors, down a flagstone path to the back section of the property. There the brick wall that surrounded the property took a 90 degree turn. When they got to the corner, Sterling took off his coat and laid it on the ground, sat with his back against the brick and looked up to her.

The feeling that flickered in her mind and echoed in her heart overwhelmed her and, without a word, she sat on the ground to Sterling’s right. He shifted slightly and, with his left hand, held out her old copy of ‘Gulliver’s Travels’.

Still holding the book out to her, Sterling spoke softly, reciting the opening words from the book she’d memorized a lifetime before,

“The author gives some account of himself and family. His first inducements to travel. He is shipwrecked, and swims for his life…”

Almira took her left arm from the coat and Sterling wrapped it around himself and the two read into the night.

***

The yellow Packard, it’s top still down, sat in the dirt yard between the farmhouse’s back porch and the barn.

“When you country people do nighttime, you don’t hold anything back, do you?”

Eliza rested her head against the back of the driver’s seat and stared up into a sky full of stars and emptiness. She felt both at peace and on edge. One was the result of being in an open car on a comfortably warm night at the end of July, the other from listening to the incredible story told to her in a nearly empty hospital ward.

Dorothy Gale told of growing up adopted, cared for but not loved. Learning about life in the raw earthiness of a barn, from a boy with the sensitivity of a man. As she listened, Eliza travelled to a place that was not of the world and yet, at the same time, was the only world  that answers to questions made a difference to the people that mattered. She heard about risking all for friendship and having the courage to protect herself and return to a home she could only appreciate for its absence. And, finally, she listened quietly as the girl told her about how she became the person she thought she needed to be. Yet, with time, all novelty becomes mundane, and she learned the harsh lesson that the only special qualities are those within.

“Hey, that story back there, at the hospital. It all happened?”

Eliza leaned to her right to look at Dorothy,

“God’s honest truth.”

“Well, I had planned on spending August at our Newport house. It has horses and boys and a secret beach on an Island just a short boat ride away. I was going to invite you to come and stay before we have to return to school.”

Dorothy sat up and turning towards Eliza, rested her left arm across the back of the seat. She idly played with the waves of brown hair that surrounded her friends’ head. Laying her own head on her forearm, she said,

“Thanks. But this thing here, Mrs. Gulch and my mother and everything. I can’t. I have a feeling, and I don’t know why, that this summer is important. Sorry.”

Eliza reached over and pulled Dorothy to her shoulder and stared back up to the distant stars.

“Then it’s decided! This year, I’ll be summering in…. what’s this hick town called?”

Dorothy Gale looked over in feigned outrage, pushed her friend’s shoulder, sat upright and pulled the door handle.

“Circe!  It’s called Circe and we’re in McPherson County, Kansas. Soon to become the most sought after of vacation destinations!”

Both girls laughed and walked to the front of the car.

“If we’re quiet, I can show you your room without waking up Auntie Em,” Dorothy took her friend’s hand and started towards the house.

She took two steps before she realized that although she still held Eliza’s hand, her friend had not moved. simply extended her arm. Instead, Eliz was looking towards the small cottage that stood next to the barn.

“You go on ahead, Dorothy. I’ll find my way. I think I’ll just say goodnight to Henry Fonda, real quick.”

She watched as Dorothy’s eyes widened enough to be noticed, even in the starlit yard,

“Well, your Hunk was the first to welcome me here, before you and your boyfriend showed up. It’s only good manners to return the gesture.”

Dorothy looked at her friend with an expression of affection and outrage, feelings that she’d become all too familiar with since meeting Eliza Thornberg.

“He’s a friend. Keep that in mind.”

Dorothy squeezed Eliza’s hand.

“And, from what I’ve gathered, he’s quite smart enough to realize that. I’ll be good.”

Eliza walked towards the single light that painted a yellow rectangle on the low slung porch.

Chapter 25

Featured

“Where the hell is everyone?”

Eliza stood in the doorway of the Charity Ward, a single book between two bookends, reluctant to let the double doors swing shut behind her. Ordinarily, Eliza Thornberg was the first one to raise both hands on the roller coaster, smile back at the man sitting by himself in the smoky after-hours bar or even, borrow a car in an unfamiliar city to surprise a friend at home in a part of the country as far from where she was raised as cornbread is to shortbread. Hearing only a single muted dinging sound of an elevator down one of the empty corridors she walked, following her friend Dorothy, Eliza was feeling more eight than eighteen years old. Standing alone, embraced by the soft rubber edges of the doors, her eyes struggled to adjust to the anemic light that coated the walls and floors of the ward.

There were lights, hidden behind dusty sconces running along the top edge of the walls, their glow spreading tentacles of light up and across the ceilings. The slowly turning fans threw shards of dull illumination back towards her, imbuing the room with a sense of motion and activity. Trouble was, there was no motion or activity in the room.

In her application to Sarah Lawrence College, Eliza Thornberg described herself as, ‘a girl who, despite having the good fortune to be born in a wealthy and powerful family, was always ready for the new and un-expected experiences in life.’ During her personal interview with the Dean of Admissions, when asked what she thought would make her an asset to the school, she said, ‘I enjoy un-covering the unusual, the darker side of life, the parts of the world that most people of my age would avoid, taking risks to see and explore everything the world has to offer. Even the dangerous things.’ The look on the Dean’s face was recounted with glee for months afterwards. Well aware of her strong academic record, her parents accused her of faking her surprise when the acceptance letter arrived. Eliza was not faking.

Eliza felt a pulling on her very expensive v neck cardigan, as a bloom of goosebumps grew high enough to catch on the soft fabric. Looking around she saw a large open room, wider than it was deep. To her right was a grey metal desk and a file cabinet. On the wall, next to the file cabinet, was a row of ten open file holders. All but three were empty. In the three were clipboards holding patient charts. There was a gooseneck lamp on the desk, throwing a stretched oval of yellow light across the desk blotter. The blotter itself had a large calendar taking up its entire surface. The days of the month were numbered in large blue-lined squares, one month per page, which could be torn out and thrown away whenever the days ended. She saw ‘August’ in block lettering along the top edge of the blotter. This struck Eliza as odd, there still being eight days remaining in July. Odder yet was the red circle around the blue square that marked August 11th

“No!”

The sound of Dorothy’s voice made Eliza jump. For a moment, her eyes remained submerged in the deep pool of yellowish light on the nurses’ desk. Suddenly disoriented, she took a step backwards, caught one heel and began to fall. She felt herself held, steadied by a strong, yet gentle grip on her arm. Feeling herself fall, she remained focused on the desk and it’s lamp and it’s calendar, seemingly the only steady point in her suddenly uncertain location. She heard a voice. It was not coming from the far end of the room where she could see her friend standing next to a low bed. The voice, a woman’s voice, came from just behind her.

“Easy now, Eliza. She needs you. Your friendship will make the difference between young Dorothy Gale merely surviving this summer away from school and coming to understand that, if she chooses correctly, a full and satisfying life awaits her. But only if you are there for her.”

Eliza Thornberg recovered her balance and whirled around, only to see the darkness in the corners, where the light was too timid to reach.

***

“You probably do not remember me, Miss…”

“Mrs.   Mrs Almira Gulch.”

“‘Mrs.’ …beg your pardon.”

Gareth Herlihy projected his best ‘confident smile’. It was his only defense against feeling out of his social class. He leaned forward from the leather sofa that Edward had guided him to, immediately upon his entry into the library. Almira stood by the French doors.

“…but we met several years ago in Lawrence. It was in the winter of 1911 and,”

“I recall, Captain. What can I do for you?”

Almira looked directly at the policeman.

“Well, I’m following up on an investigation into the death of a Union organizer and a young man who also worked for the union. Her name was Annie LoPizzo and his was Robert Maclachlan.”

Captain Gareth Herlihy’s voice grew louder, in no small part to counter his eroding self-confidence. A richly appointed library in what could only be called a small mansion in the better part of the capital city of Rhode Island was not his preferred environment. He thought with a grimace how his job would be so much simpler and more enjoyable if they would just let him deal with the lowlifes, minor criminals and run-of-the-mill drunks. Instead, less than a week earlier, he found himself summoned to the office of Frederick Prendergast, the CEO of the Essex Company. Without bothering with the social niceties, clearly they were seen by his host as necessary only with social or professional equals, Frederick launched into a somewhat frenetic rant.

“Listen to me Herlihy and listen closely. The goddamn union is getting out of hand…again! After five years of getting along with the union leaders, they went and let in some new blood and they’re desperate to keep ’em happy with their ‘power of collective bargaining’ bullshit. What a joke. They give us what we want and we let them put on a show of organizing and demonstrating and then make like they’ve wrestled some benefit from the management. But there’s a couple of new people on the board and they don’t know how the game is played. The press is out of control, so we can’t count on them. There’s a movement to demonstrate for the American Way and make sure everyone knows that all these strikes are coming from foreigners out to steal our liberties and create anarchy. The people I answer to believe that that will be enough to get our heel back on the neck of these troublemakers.

Personally, I’m not convinced that it will be anything more than a temporary fix. I need something stronger. I need you to find the vicious killer of the beloved Annie LoPizzo and the hard-working Robert Maclachlan, both viciously killed in the course of a peaceful demonstration. And the only person of interest that isn’t dead or been beaten into innocence is that little girl who was sitting in the street with the dead striker and that kid, who showed up not that much before all the labor trouble. They’re the only viable leads left. I have contacts in the other mill towns and we know they headed south to Rhode Island the day after the funeral for the LoPizzo woman. Go find them and get us some useful information. We need to nip this union growth in the bud and there’s nothing like a murder trial to get the average worker’s mind off the day-to-day routine. Don’t let me down!”

“I remember you quite well. You were a Sargent then.”

He realized, with the feeling of a person sitting in a boat without oars watching the dock move away, that somehow he was at a severe disadvantage with this young woman. He had advanced in his career because he had a talent for projecting his emotion purely by the tone and volume of his voice. He’d discovered early in his career that in a situation where he needed to exert his will on another, the words he employed were almost totally superfluous. In the world of the petty criminal, hopeless drunk and momentarily lawless citizen, Gareth Herlihy was a very effective law enforcement officer. He became Captain on the strength of his personality in the context of the weakness of the people he was charged with keeping in line.

Herlihy felt uncomfortable with the decidedly serene confidence of the young woman. Most people, of any age, when informed that the police were interested in what they might know about a crime, usually became uncomfortable, un-easy. There seemed to be something in law-abiding people who made them feel uncomfortable when they became the subject of interest to the police. That was very much not the case this Friday afternoon with the rather young woman, a girl, really. She did not seem defensive at all. Worse, her attitude showed a tendency to challenge his very right to be asking questions. Not only was the little girl, (at least someone reading his file notes that described her as being 22 years old, 5′ 3″ and approximately 100 lbs would picture a girl) but those notes did not address the face of this young woman and they did nothing to prepare a person for the way she had of looking at a person.

Now, sitting in a room that probably cost more to furnish than he spent to buy his small house on the outskirts of Lawrence, Captain Gareth Herlihy felt insecure. With a silent laugh of horror, he thought, ‘this is how my suspects must feel, after they realize that I got ’em in my jailhouse and they don’t leave unless I let ’em leave’.

Captain Herlihy did what he did best when feeling the need to re-establish control of a situation, he raised his voice, ‘blustered’ might be a reasonable, although un-charitable characterization.

For a moment, the deepening gloom of the approaching evening seeping into the dark wood panelling of the library triggered his memory of the last time he spoke to this very strange girl. It was after the funeral for Annie LoPizzo, 5 years before. The memory was cast in a feeling of discomfit, a feeling made all the more foreboding by its seeming in-appropriateness. Then, as now, the circumstances of their meeting was not a happy social occasion, but it was not, by any stretch of the imagination an overtly adversarial or negative  meeting. He was uncomfortable then too. There was something to this girl who for no reason he could imagine, made him think of a wolf. Wolves, at least when viewed from a distance, have the appearance of large domestic dogs. It was only when they got up close that the differences became un-ignorable, and first and foremost (of this difference) was in how the animal regarded man. Most dogs have a way of looking up at a man who went a long way to supporting the saying that they were ‘Man’s best friend’. Not so with the wolf. Dogs seemed to like, even look up to men. The way that a wolf regarded a man, even in a non-confrontational situation, showed that they recognized a fellow killer. This girl had that look. Not anything outwardly aggressive or threatening, there was simply a recognition of the capacity for evil in people. More than that, there was nothing in her that implied that this capacity for evil was shocking or to be feared. Wolves did not reel in horror at what a hunter might do, they recognized violence as a natural part of their world. Neither good nor bad. It made Herlihy, who was very familiar with the fallen side of human nature, hesitate. Although he was not a denizen of this dark part of the world, she clearly could see and walk among the wolves.

“And your husband, Mr Gulch?

“He is away in Europe. Fighting.”

“Oh, I see. I shall be brief then. I’m doing a follow-up investigation into the two deaths that day. Do you recall anything of that day, the day of the demonstration?”

“You mean the Bread and Roses Strike?”

The young woman smiled to herself and Herlihy was taken with a sense that he was watching a person looking through a scrapbook. It was such a strong impression that, for a second, he could almost make out images reflected in her eyes.

“Other than my friend being murdered? No. I don’t recall anything more than that.”

“And Robert Maclachlan did you know him very well?”

“I did not know him at all.”

“I don’t believe you are being truthful with me, Mrs. Gulch.”

“And I don’t believe that I care what you think, Captain Herlihy.”

“The citizens of Lawrence want to know what really happened that day and it is my sworn duty to pursue the matter. There are people and, …organizations in Lawrence who have an investment not only in the city but it’s people and they will not cease in their efforts until those responsible are brought to account.”

The police captain stood. The library door opened and Edward stood, silhouetted in the skewed rectangle of light. He had Herlihy’s overcoat and hat in hand.

“Be that as it may, I have nothing to add to your investigation, Captain.”

Almira turned to look out onto the gardens, now a darkscape with glimmers of morning in the blooms closest to the door.

“I spoke to your Sister Aloysius at the school where you have begun teaching, I try to be as thorough in my work as possible. She speaks quite highly of you. Not only of your teaching skills, but also of your volunteer work with some of the …less fortunate workers in the mills. It would be a shame if your efforts contributed to a repeat of history. I will wish you a good evening and my best wishes for your husband’s safe return from the war. For now, good evening, Mrs. Gulch.”

***

1918 Arras, France

The dream is the same dream I’ve had since landing at Saint Nazaire, a near lifetime ago. It’s always the same and always different, in the way of recurring dreams where the differences are as interesting as the dream itself. The recurring part, the part that makes it ‘that dream’ is how it begins. I hear Almira calling to me from across a field. I don’ see her because I’m not in that field, I’m working on something. In a blacksmith shop, complete with an anvil and bellows and a forge. From where I stand, I feel the heat from the forge but alternately there is a blast of frigid air that stabs my face. There are shoes hanging from the ceiling, all sorts of shoes.

Hearing the tone of Almira’s voice change from greeting to alarm, I put down the hammer and walk out the door. The blacksmith shop is clearly in a town, there is a sense of vehicles and people passing in the street outside the windows, but when I step out from the shop, I’m standing on a hill. I hear Almira’s voice again, sounding increasingly urgent. Her voice comes from a wooded hilly area in what otherwise appears to be wide open prairie lands. At this point, the differences in each dream usually appears. Sometimes she’s facing me, more and more, she’s turned away. She always appears to be holding something in her arms. But, no matter what, she is backing away from something in the woods and mostly she sounds like she’s trying to warn me of danger. But increasingly, I come out of the dream with a sense that she’s crying out for me to help her. Sometimes there are other people in the dream, but they’re all people who are looking to Almira for help. Very often the dream ends with the sound of thunder, but of late, the sound is stretching out into a longer, more personal sound, a howling, like wolves howling in a winter’s forest,

Usually, on nights of the dream, I wake to the nurse who stands next to my bed and touches my forehead with a white cloth. There is no rise of daylight and there’s no sense of the approaching of night. I lie in a single bed with an army green (which is really a brown-without-ambition) blanket and stare at the lights in the ceiling. The only thing that provides me with a sense of reliability is when the nurse appears. It’s the reverse of fading into sleep and dreams. Like a summer sunrise, I sense a lightness, becoming more and more a shape, a whiteness that descends down from the gray over-hanging sky and, drawing closer, resolves into a face, her blue eyes first and then the hair…. like quiet thunder on a cloudless day, her voice turns into words, her words reach into my mind. I assume that I am on some drug, because I always remember that I forget to ask what her name is and where we are, content to stare into her face, framed in a blonde halo.

“Lieutenant Gulch, can you hear me?”

Now, I’m confused. I hear my name, but the person speaking is short, balding, wearing wire-rimmed glasses and is not a beautiful woman. I suppose the drugs don’t always work as well as they’re suppose to, so I tried to close my eyes.

“Lt Gulch, wake up! We need to move you. And your cooperation is really gonna make this go smoother.”

I decided that if I don’t open my eyes, then things will eventually go back to the way they’ve been since…. well, since I started having the same dream over and over and sometimes waking up to a beautiful nurse.

“Nope. Can’t do this to me, I need to get this ward up and transported outta here.  As the cops in my neighborhood used to tell us, ‘you’re coming along with us, whether you want to or not’.”

Maybe it was the tone of his voice, which had none of the poetic cadence of speeches in dreams, so I opened my eyes again and stared at Capt Tribianni (according to the white on black name tag on his shirt pocket).

“Better! Lets start with the stupid questions and then I’ll tell you the plan and I can get on to the next soon-to-be-discharged patient.”

He pulled a metal chair from somewhere to his right and sat down, crossed his legs and stared at me,

“Come on! Gave you a clue there… say something and I won’t have to put a notation on your chart that will require less from you now but will cost you too much when you get home.”

The doctor raised his eyebrow, which provided the only hair that his forehead had until you got way back on his head or over his ears.

“OK, doc. Lets do the easy parts first. I’m leaving this place. That’s neither good nor bad until you tell me where I’m leaving to…”

“Fair enough. You’re leaving and heading home. The U S of A. Long boat ride, but from what I see on the chart here, you’ll survive the trip. You’ll have company, the War is over. You slept right through Armistice Day! Now that you passed the first test by not asking me any disturbing questions like ‘how soon can I re-join my outfit’, lets deal with the really tough subject…”

“How bad am I hurt?”

“Give the man a kewpie doll!”

“I’ll give it to you straight. You have all the parts that you came over here with, it’s just that some don’t work as well and others are a little damaged. You get to walk out of here and you can sign for your stuff, provided you’re left-handed. Your right hand is going to take some time to get back to being as useful as it was when you got off the boat. So, wait, don’t ask! I’ve given this talk 13 times today already.

“You’ve been down here in the Caverns in Arras for a month and a half. Mostly because of the damage the mustard gas did to your lungs, although the shattered right arm was also part of the reason. What makes you a lucky man is that down here we’re able to prevent the influenza from completing the job that the Germans started on you. You missed the worst of it. So we’ll get you thinking about moving around a little. Then, we’ll tell you to start moving around more. You’ll start to hate the head nurse, but he’s used to that, it tells him you’re getting better. Then, in about 3 weeks, we put you on a truck that will take you to a boat that will return you to your country. Then the real hard part begins.”

“No, that won’t be a problem for me. I have a wife who’s waiting for me.”

The doctor got up and, after tapping me lightly on the knee with the chart, walked to the end of the bed and hung it on a hook at the foot of the bed.

“One thing, doc. The blonde nurse, when does she come on duty? I want to say thanks for her help.”

“Don’t make me put a note in your chart, son. All the female nurses shipped out 2 months ago, their skills were more needed on the frontline hospitals, Frankly this place is a storage facility. Haven’t seen a woman in 6 weeks.”

He seemed to be watching my face more carefully than he should, given that I asked such a simple question.

“Oh. never mind. Must be mistaken.”

He nodded, more to himself, and walked away.

Chapter 24

Featured

 

“I don’t understand why you have to do this, Sterling; maybe your college buddy Cyril Sauvage has something to prove, with his parents coming over from France and all, but you have a family… well, you have me,” Almira’s hand drifted over her mid-section as she stood washing the same dinner plate over and over, through the window at the sink, she watched the darkening of night steal the life from the day.

“It’s not just him, Almira, the whole world is at risk and if Germany defeats France then England is next and then where would our family be,” Sterling Gulch sat at the kitchen table, back towards his wife, staring into the adjacent living room, its wide picture window that looked out over Narragansett Bay was slowly turning into a mirror, as night surrounded the house and the only illumination came from the kitchen as he and his wife fought the not-yet-felt ravages of war.

“You’re so close to having your degree, I’ll be teaching in a year, isn’t that enough?”

“It’s more than enough, it’s everything I could hope for but, I need to do this…” he fell silent as the words that connected him to his wife were stalked and eaten by the wolf of aggression and politics, friendship and fear of not-measuring-up, claiming it’s ransom.

Almira Gulch looked at the window before her, the light of the kitchen created fairytale-like reflections of herself and her husband sitting at the table in the center of the room when a subtle motion drew her eye to the living room picture window in which two people showed, seemingly withdrawing from one and other, farther and farther apart, beyond any true dimensions of the physical space.

A shudder ran through the young woman, a distant calling from somewhere within her fought to be turned into sound, “…Private Gulch, the very first thing you do is determine the range of the enemies weapons and try and stay outside of it, until, that is, your commanding officer tells you to crawl over the barbwire into the next trench, do I make myself clear?”

The summer weather lingered well into September in 1918. Yellow and gold fought with green for possession of the foliage. This seemingly minor shift in hue was a subtle, yet treacherous advance into Winter. The June-warm schoolyard tempted one to believe that this year, Summer would never end. Despite this gentleness of climate, there was something wrong with the sky. The blue that spread from late morning into cloud-ragged afternoon, was, somehow, too blue. It was as if Mother Nature had something to hide, something perhaps more extreme in the way of weather. Jackets and sweaters lay piled by the schoolhouse steps, as forgotten as the lessons of the morning and the Summer only recently left behind.

Ethan McDonough stood alone at the chain link fence that defined the schoolyard of Our Lady of Intercession. A prisoner of that permanent war of childhood, he faced away from the school and the returning clumps of noisy boys and scandalized girls, looking beyond the fence. The recent squall of a recess fight had blown over, the combatants drifted apart, the winner being the one at the center of the larger crowd of classmates. Such fights were common enough, especially among boys at this age, which is not to say that the outcome wasn’t something terribly important to one and barely remembered by the other.

The newest teacher was always assigned recess duty. It served as an opportunity to earn her way into the sometimes vicious, always polite society of the teacher’s lounge. Recess duty in the elementary grades was much like life guard duties in May and September, while the elements and risk of injury (or death) are there, the spirit is, for the most part lacking.

The young woman, not all that much taller than some of the 6th grade boys, walked out into the school yard, against the tide of children withdrawing to the classrooms. The ringing of the school bell every bit an alarm that childhood was over, (at least for the next two hours). The children parted to either side of her as she walked out towards the fence and the solitary child.

“Tell me Ethan. Why were you fighting?”

“They said bad things about you!”

Almira Gulch felt the tendons on her hand tighten and, smiling to herself, reached into her coat pocket instead of to her face. She felt the softly edged paper of the envelope and the impulse to cover her face evaporated as she crouched down in front of the boy.

“And what kind of bad things…”

Ethan McDonough’s face turned stubborn, which in a child of his age is where infatuation is often hidden. The conflict played out in averted eyes and firmed jaw, the more he thought about how he should answer, the more his innate, still un-developed protectiveness showed through in his expression.

Almira thought of her practicum teacher, at the start of her final year in school, ‘You are the adult, they are children. Do not forget that but do not lord it over them. A slave will always resent their master, no matter how kindly they are treated. Children deserve more and will always seek to be treated as equals, even when they know that they are not.’

Almira smiled at the boy and, after a fleeting hesitation, his internal conflict evaporated and his face lit up with a sad joy,

“They said you was a witch and you ride a broom and you can put a curse on people!”

Almira resisted the impulse to laugh. Her own nature would respond to such an unkindness with forgiving humor. She’d learned fairly quickly that such a reaction is misinterpreted, especially by the very young. Children, along with dogs, are surely the most literal-minded of all living things. Instead, she brushed off the gravel stuck to the knees of the boy’s corduroys, battlefield decorations in silver and brown, and handed him his jacket. Her look of appreciation caused the boy to stand straighter and, a sense of pride elbowing away his shame.

***

Almira began her teaching career as 5th Grade Teacher at Our Lady of Intercession, a parochial school on the East Side of Providence, Rhode Island.  The only lay teacher on the faculty of the Catholic school, Almira felt more at home among the nuns than she did the three public schools she visited during her last year as a student. Her placement at the small elementary school was facilitated by the Placement Office of the Rhode Island Normal School. Ranked in the top three of teaching colleges in the United States, graduates of Rhode Island Normal School were always successful in securing a teaching position upon graduation.

Although Almira Gulch scored higher on her Entrance Examination than any applicant in recent memory and maintained  a 4.0 throughout her studies, the Placement Office felt that finding a position in one of Rhode Island’s public schools might be somewhat difficult. Her faculty advisor, Mr. Alger, wrote in her student record, as she began her final year, ‘This student is possessed of a certain off-putting manner and exhibits a resistance to proper management. Clearly this attitude is an understandable and inevitable consequence of her facial deformity,’ he went on to write, ‘it is the regarded Opinion of this Office that every effort be made that she might be placed in a private school, rather than a part of the State system. In no way is this intended as a reflection of the effects of her disfigurement on her ability to be an effective Teacher. It would, however be in keeping with best Teaching Practices and Principles to not expose young children to a person of her appearance.’

Sister Aloysius was principal of Our Lady of Intercession and she liked Almira from the very first interview. While Almira’s academic record was very impressive, she was much more impressed by the quiet confidence of the young woman. While her clothing was not only quite appropriate for a lay teacher in a parochial school, it’s quality spoke of a person who wanted to be a teacher more than someone who needed a job. That, the principal smiled, was almost always a good predictor of success in a school setting that was inevitably much more personal and far less burdened with the trappings of a public school system. This impression of personal preference for the values of individuality was reinforced when, looking out her office window before the interview, Sister Aloysius watched as the young woman rode into the school yard on what, she believed, was the biggest bicycle she’d ever seen. As she watched, the young jumped from the bike and spent 5 minutes re-arranging her clothing. This included putting on a hat that was in a wicker basket that was attached to the back of the bicycle’s seat. Completing her preparation, Sister Aloysius watched as this young woman deftly kicked a stray ball quite accurately back to the knot of boys who were kicking up dust with their game of kickball. The enjoyment on her face as she did so ignited a burst of laughter from the children in the school yard. The principle of Our Lady of Intercession smiled and waited for her job applicant to arrive at her office.

The interview went the normal course for a teaching position interview, reading of records, explanation of grades and awards, likes and dislikes. Finally, there came the point in the conversation where there was no longer any information or insight into the candidates schooling or qualifications left un-noted. There was, in fact, nothing left to talk about other than the applicant’s face. Sister Aloysius asked her point-blank,

‘How will you handle the looks and the stares of the more rude people? Parents of children, particularly those children who require extra attention, are not always the kindest of people. Our parish is, in large part, consisted of working poor Catholic families. Does that pose any problems that we should discuss?’

Almira smiled and replied,

“I grew up among the working poor. My husband Sterling is from the other end of the social order, where wants are few and choices plentiful. I believe I will be alright with parents from any background. After all, it is the children who are in my care, not the adults.”

“I believe that you’ll do just fine, Mrs. Gulch, just fine.”

***

“…they are wrong, Ethan. I am not a witch, although I might find myself cursing them.”

The young woman’s laughter was heard by the very young boy and his expression became that of one who has been offered a part-ownership in a treasure map.

“I understand why you were fighting. You should not get into a fight. Unless you are threatened or your friends are threatened. But why are you crying?”

“Because they all laugh at you when you’re not there and I can’t make them stop.”

Almira stood up and, putting her hand on the boy’s shoulder, turned and began the return to afternoon classes.

“Ethan? I’ll tell you a secret. Having people laugh at you is not the worst thing in the world, even though at first it feels that way. There are other ways that people are mean and cruel and as long as you believe in what you’re doing, there is nothing they can do that will hurt you. So when you see little people hiding around you, coming out in the open only when they think you are out-numbered and afraid of them, know that you have the real power. Just believe in yourself.”

***

At the end of the school day, Ethan would linger by the door of the 5th grade, a place he’d just spent 6 hours. The boy seemed to look forward to clapping erasers outside on the steps than he did any other part of the day, looking for all the world, the opposite of a coal miner at the end of a day’s shift underground. With the last of the books back in their cupboards and the classroom ready for the new week, Almira walked down the green and white tiled corridor, confident that the boy would follow. This was not such an impressive prediction as, with the focus of his dreams leaving, the hollow rooms and echoing corridors of Our Lady of Intercession held as much attraction for the boy as a crossword puzzle that had been filled in (and crossed out) in the daily newspaper.

“Well, time for me to pedal off for home, Ethan.”

Almira reached into her coat pocket and touched the envelope she took from the mailbox on her way out the door that morning. She’d resolved to wait until after school to read it. Being a Friday, a letter from Sterling (after an interval of 6 weeks since the last), would provide a small celebration. It was, after all, the end of the last week of her first month as an elementary school teacher. The intervals between his return letters grew in a curiously negative inverse proportion to how much she missed him. It was as if receiving a letter was a reminder of the increased absence, more than it was welcome communication from her husband. Accepting the books and lesson planner from the boy who stood next to her bicycle with every bit of the dedicated formality of any royal retainer, Almira put everything in the bicycle’s wicker basket, smiled at Ethan and rode out of the schoolyard and down Lloyd Street towards home.

Arriving home, Almira went directly to the kitchen. Gertrude Rogers could always be found in the kitchen, coordinating the activities of the small domestic staff. A certain self-consciousness still lingered, whenever she spoke to the cook or the maid, as if she was a little girl playing dress up. She accepted her role as the lady of the house, if only by marriage, and approached it the way that she approached most problems. The first step was to understand the problem and second, understand the other person or people involved. Despite her self-consciousness, Almira resolved to act the part of the head of the household to the best of her abilities. The staff took to her in this new role as easily as they had when she and Sterling first returned from Lawrence, Massachusetts six years before. However, Sterling and Almira lived with his parents only long enough to find a place of their own, a small house near the waterfront in the Fox Point section of the city.

Seymour Gulch never quite recovered from the death of his wife Edith who died, the year before, early in 1917. A healthy woman throughout her life, Edith Gulch nevertheless had a flare for the dramatic. Whenever the occasional cold or illness had the gall to appear in the household, she would proclaim, with a bit more enthusiasm than one might otherwise experience, that Death, himself, would soon be calling at 23 Loring Ave. Edith Gulch was, in fact, in perfectly good health up until the moment she died.

Although Sterling and Almira loved their house in Fox Point, his father’s increasing infirmity made moving back into his parent’s home inevitable. This change of residence was hastened by Sterling’s decision to enlist in the American Expeditionary Forces. Almira soon found herself the only woman in the Gulch household that did not wear a uniform. She was, nevertheless, happy to help in the care of her father-in-law. Being wealthy, while not preventing ill-health, did permit it to be suffered in more comfortable surroundings. More importantly, though less directly acknowledged, wealth, at least wealth sufficient to allow for a domestic staff, relieved the members of the immediate family of a great deal of stress that affected all when dealing with terminal illness.

“How was Mr Gulch’s day?”

Almira sat at the small kitchen table, across from Gert Rogers. It had taken several efforts by Almira to establish a less formal relationship with the person in charge of running the Gulch house. Almira’s insistence on sitting and talking with her in the kitchen served to establish that, as uncomfortable as it might be for the staff, if Almira wished to have coffee in the kitchen, it was her prerogative as lady of the house. And so it was.

“He’s still eating. In the afternoon he seems to perk up, especially when Lila is working. He’s quite taken with her.”

Seeing the expression on Almira’s face, she continued,

“But all in all, not well. Each day the night comes sooner and the morning takes longer and longer to start the day. I fear our Mr. Gulch will not see Thanksgiving. If only Sterling were home. Sorry, of all people for me to say that to, you are the one in least need of being reminded.”

“I know. But don’t feel sorry. He’s been my husband for all of six years, you’ve known him for what, 18 years?”

“Yes, ma’am. Mr. Gulch made his fortune late in life, when Sterling was only six years old. But he never let it change him or his family. Fine house, people to take care of it (and them!) sending Sterling off to school, he has always been a kind and considerate man.”

“Well, we won’t be losing him this weekend. What do you think of a picnic out on the patio tomorrow? The weather is still warm, I think he’d enjoy that!”

“Splendid idea, Mrs. Gulch. Something like that is just what the doctor ordered, whether he knows it or not!”

Pulling the envelope from her pocket, Almira placed it in the middle of the table.

“From Sterling, is it?” Gert had a way of sounding 20 years old whenever the topic of discussion focused on Sterling.

Almira smiled,

“It is. If you have another pot of that wonderful camomile tea, I would love to take some to the library.”

“Don’t give it another thought, Missus. You go ahead while I brew a fresh pot and I’ll bring it right in.”

Almira sat in the library, facing the French doors that opened out into the small garden area. She had one of the doors open, a cooling early evening breeze joined her on the couch. Gertrude arrived with tea and crumpets, set everything on the sideboard and left without a word.

Putting the cup down, Almira read,

Almira,

They tell us that we’re winning the war. I find that doesn’t make me as happy as I would have thought. Forgive the delay in returning your letters, now that we’re in Europe we spend more time doing less, at least compared to the endless shipboard time getting here. The interval (between these letters) holds greater sway over me than ever would I have imagined. With each day that passes, the world in which you and I are together moves farther and farther away and this world of guns and wounds, explosions and grief grows larger. It fills my world, both awake and asleep, the sounds of death inform most night’s dreams. But I still see you here, among the letters I write and the letters I read and it makes all of the difference in the world. That the girl who could work 10 hours a day in the roaring caves of a textile mill yet, on our brief time together in the middle of the day, eating a rude lunch of bread and cheese, bring to life the subtle thought of philosophers and thinkers, that is the part of my world that I protect from this place around me. And, my protecting this memory of the love we share, in turn protects me. The death I see around me is not all the result of bullets and bombs and yellow gases. What terrifies me more is the death of the soul that I see over-taking more and more of the men around me. It is a despair that no longer even tries to cry out in anguish, silent as the feet that keep moving and the hands and arms that keep firing the weapons that we are given to aim at those they tell us are the enemy. The real enemy is not those men, looking for all the world like the men who are dying around me, only they are on the other side of the battle-torn earth.
There was a time, a moment when you looked at me and I saw a life that would make something as terrible as this war worthwhile. I hold onto that memory. It is my lifeline to a world in which we both might soon return to.
Always yours,

Sterling

“Mrs. Gulch? There is someone at the door asking to speak to you.”

Almira brushed the single tear from her eye and turned towards Edward, standing in the library door.

“Who is it?”

Edward Fenton managed to have an expression that was at once non-judgmental and yet clearly expressed concern.

“A policeman. He said he was Captain Herlihy from Lawrence, Massachusetts and would like to ask you some questions. Shall I send him away?”

Edward’s expression of concern acquired a certain ferocity that was all the more noticeable for his butler’s uniform.

“No, thank you Edward. Put him in the parlor, offer refreshment and tell him I will join him shortly.”

***

“What, did everyone take the night off?”

Eliza walked, slightly behind Dorothy, as the two girls crossed the central lobby of St. Mary’s Hospital. Even though it was still early evening, there was no one in sight, not behind the reception desk, at the small gift shop, not even an orderly washing the silent corridor floors. Dorothy continued to walk down the hallway, to the right of the reception area. There was a sign on the wall, it included an arrow, and in black letters it said, ‘Charity Ward’.

As the two reached the end of the corridor, signs of construction become evident. Wiring outlets were exposed and sections of the ceiling had been removed. Eliza stared up at exposed pipes and conduits, those presumably serving the floor above and wondered to herself, ‘They sure are in a hurry!’

Looking  back, Eliza saw her friend being swallowed by the double swinging doors under a sign that said, ‘Charity Ward’.

Chapter 23

Featured

The second week of January 1912 brought season-appropriate cold. This return to normalcy, at least as far as the thermometers were concerned, was welcomed by the mill owners. The striking workers, unsurprised at yet another element of their world turning against them, took it all in stride. Trash barrels, roughly cut to allow a warming fire, were stationed on the corners of each block along Canal Street, like cavalry forts strung across the undeveloped territories of the early American West. In a pale imitation of the recent Christmas season, these fires offered actual warmth, as opposed to a premise to request donations. The cheerful displays of a Santa Claus standing next to a pretend cookpot hung over a fake fire was transformed into rusted steel drums full of real fire and men and women in patched clothing standing guard over their livelihood. The plummeting temperatures and rising winds tempted management to hope for an early surrender. The same cold wind whistled through the picket lines that stood at the entrances to each mill, built in place with all the determination of any desperate military commander.

“They may speak six kinds of mongrel English and treat their children like pawns in a city park chess game, but I assure you gentlemen, the winter will convince the workers to listen to our demands and return to work.”

Frederick Prendergast III spoke with a confidence that served to remind him that he was indeed, the right man for the job. Smiling at the men around the conference table, he could picture himself seated among them. He was certain it wouldn’t be long before he was also sitting, rather than standing, listening to some underling trying to make bad news sound like good fortune.

“You also told us they’d never organize. That the workforce, being mostly women, you said, they would put providing for their squalling brats and layabout husbands ahead of something as abstract and uncertain as a labor strike. You need to end this quickly, Prendergast, the press is getting out of hand. Just last night I read a story in the Boston Herald about the strike and they quoted someone referring to this as ‘The Bread and Roses Strike’! That is not good for business. Thank God it was buried on page 6. I called a friend on the editorial board of the paper and reminded him that this was an illegal work action incited by foreign anarchists.  And now, there’s this business of shipping their children off to relatives! Get this strike shut down or you’ll be joining them out on Canal St.”

Frederick looked at the faces of the ten Directors for signs of support or, failing that, at least a sign of a dissenting opinion to the hardline taken by Barry Williboughy. As the newest member of the Essex Company’s Board of Directors, he’d been Frederick’s nemesis from the first meeting. In the warm, well-lit room, Frederick was dismayed to realize that Barry Willoughby was reflecting the will, perhaps un-consciously, of the majority of the Board. The simple fact of the matter was that he had no allies and that ending the strike was his only hope, if he was to continue his rise through the ranks of the Essex Company.

“Gentleman, I have everything under control. Even as we speak, I have the police on their way to pick up the man responsible for the tragic and totally un-necessary death of a union organizer. I will release a statement to the…”

“Enough, Prendergast! The tawdry details are your concern. What we require of you is to get our workers off the street and back at the machines. Spare us the human interest stories. Get our mills running!”

Frederick Prendergast smiled, nodded his head and left the boardroom without another word. Returning to his office, he stood in front of his secretary’s desk and stared at her until she said,

“Yes sir? What is it I can do?”

“Get that goddamn incompetent flatfoot Herlihy and tell him to get over here right now. Then send someone out to find that idiot Maclachlan and tell him to get his sorry ass in here from whatever dive or whorehouse he’s holed up in!”

Frederick knew that he could count on Sergeant Herlihy.  He was not very bright but very loyal and ambitious to a fault. Robbie Maclachlan was another matter entirely. The red-headed enforcer had a bully’s heart, a very sharp mind and not the slightest hint of a sense of loyalty. He realized that he should have been quit of the man, after he botched the last job he sent him on; visit the union hall late at night and put some fear into the union rep. Frederick thanked his lucky stars that Herlihy was nearby and able to keep a lid on the mess Maclachlan made of it. He decided that he’d fire him as soon as he could find him.

Lizabeth Addams waited for the office door to slam. To her mind, she executed her duties to the greatest degree by waiting for the Chief Operating Officer of the Essex Company to have the final word. Only then would she proceed to execute his directives. She was quite aware that her boss was under a great deal of pressure and she was willing to do anything to help him succeed. She felt she owed that much to her unborn child.

***

Almira Ristani and Sterling Gulch walked along Route 110 as it followed the southward path of the Merrimack River. They walked down the middle of the road for two reasons: it was still early on a Sunday morning and traffic was nonexistent and with the sun rising to a cloudless day, it was the more ice-free part of the road surface. The decision to walk the 13 miles to Lowell, Massachusetts stemmed from their desire to find a train station less crowded with soldiers and newly deputized police. A mill town in its own right, Lowell had not yet caught the union fever. Their plan was simple: walk to Lowell, board a southbound train and pay a visit to Sterling’s parents in Providence, Rhode Island. They would have appreciated their plan more (but, of course, regretted not following it), had they tried to depart from the Lawrence railroad station instead. Even on a Sunday morning, the station had more soldiers than baggage porters. In part, this over-abundance of civil authority was the un-intended by-product of a union strategy. All workers with families, (which is to say, most workers), put their young children on trains to go and stay with relatives or union sympathizers out-of-state, well out of harm’s way. This, of course, did not fail to make an impression on the Essex Company and local officials. Within a day of the beginning of this exodus, City officials announced a new travel ban: anyone under the age of 21 traveling by train, must be accompanied by at least two adults.

‘A proper family, traveling on holiday, would surely include the nanny. And in these modern times, it’s very often the case that both parents cannot travel together. This new Travel Rule is for the safety of the children of Lawrence.  They are, after all, the first concern of the Essex Company. And, as the father of two children. I might add that certainly any loving parent will surely see the wisdom of such a regulation on travel.’ Frederick Prendergast was happy to provide a statement for publication by the Lawrence Gazette.

The winter-cold air added a certain extra character to sound itself, as the two young people walked and the signs of civilization faded back into the ‘grow-where-growing-is-possible nature of the New England countryside. Gradually, with each step over the cold asphalt pavement, the man-made sounds of machinery and motor vehicles were replaced by the life-sounds of the woods, meadows and the Merrimack River, that followed the two young people as they walked. At points along the way, the blue waters seemed shy, hiding behind groves of aspen trees and long mounds of blueberry bushes, coming out briefly wherever smaller streams dashed under road bridges for a reunion with the larger river. Crows remained the only evidence of a bird population, all other species long since taken wing for warmer climes. Of course there were still the red-tailed hawks and the giant-winged turkey buzzards, graceful predators floating high over the land, slow patient circles waiting for death to provide for them. By noon, the two covered most of the distance to their destination. The countryside began to show signs of man, as stone walls appeared to grow in the woods, running in rounded lines over the hilly terrain. Increasingly, green checkerboard squares were visible across the blue ribbon of the Merrimack, their guide and only constant companion.

They spoke very little since leaving Lawrence. There grew a connection between the young man and the young(er) woman that allowed any focus of interest by one to be immediately known by the other. A slight shifting of eyes was the equivalent of several declarative sentences (followed inevitability by questions and qualification) between people married for years. Increasingly, they were attuned to each other, to such an extent that any change in the rhythm of breathing or focus of the eyes was immediately noted. In fact, they almost always noticed the same things. Nevertheless, two people are still two separate lifes. There can never be complete similarity. That they were a couple, a man and a woman, allowed for the greatest degree of congruence, of a common outlook on the world. The complementarity of a young couple in love is a thing of wonder. It’s a ‘magic’ so remarkable that reasonable and mature people usually are blind to their sharing.

Annie LoPizzo’s funeral was quiet and it was sad, but it was not a small affair. It was very much the opposite of what she would have described, were she still alive. But, that very observation is at the heart of the truism that, ‘funerals are for the living and not the dead’.

Sterling arrived, the morning of the demonstration, at Almira’s side, in the middle of Canal Street, even as Annie LoPizzo’s life was flowing out of her, tracing the cobblestones in scarlet. He knew better than to try to pull Almira away. Instead, he sat down in the street, facing her, his longer legs encircling Almira’s, which in turn cradled and protected Annie’s body. He remained on the ground, as the striking workers gathered around the three of them. His eyes held Almira’s much as his body protected her and he waited until the girl’s spirit could let go of her friend. Finally, Almira looked up and into Sterling’s eyes with longing, powerful, yet wholly undefined. He reached over, brushed a curtain of light brown hair from her face and held out his hand. They sat holding one and the other’s hands, their arms and legs intertwined, holding the world at bay. Eventually the police and the ambulance arrived. The siren on the ambulance wailed, not needing to scream so that the crowd would step aside, each member of the throng became pall bearers in a street funeral.

Sterling took Almira back to Annie’s apartment. He sat her on the couch and cleaned the blood from her face and hair, finally he wrapped her hands in a warm wet towel. Removing her blood-stained blouse, Sterling found a heavy flannel shirt from a bureau in the bedroom, he wrapped the girl in its soft embrace and sat holding her. The light from the windows retreated and the dark of night crept in as he sat cradling her head in his arms. She slept and he sat, until the rise of the sun the next morning.

The funeral service was held in St. Mary’s, the granite and fieldstone church on Haverhill Street, across from the Commons. The priest read from a book written by strangers and spoke of a woman that he believed he knew. The union sent a single representative to the Mass. In the course of the Mass people arrived, shadows on the central aisle their only usher. They showed up, one at a time, as a couple, in small groups of friends. By the time the Mass ended, the church was full and people stood, in silent groups out the doors, now held open by the crowd, down the stairs and across the street to the Commons. Almira and Sterling returned to the apartment and awaited the people and friends, near-relatives and those who’s lives had been touched by Annie LoPizzo. Some of them would loudly proclaim their remembrance of Annie LoPizzo and the close relationship that they had, others walked in and stood quietly, simply being there and, after a time, left to be replaced by others. The older women brought folding chairs and they sat wherever they found the space, in the apartment, out in the hallway, even into the living room of the apartment across the hall, it’s own door open, an offer of additional seating. The murmuring line of people grew. They came to visit where Annie lived as much as they came to visit Almira and Sterling. The two young people provided the human essence of what Annie represented to the people of Lawrence, a hope for the future. The two very young people received the visitors and accepted the condolences and remembrances. In the middle of the afternoon’s line, Sargent Herlihy appeared and stepped past Father Deljuidace (who was sitting in the hallway, just at the foot of the stairs to the second floor apartments). He walked into the apartment and stood in front of Almira, who was sitting on the brown sofa in the center of the room. Sterling rose from sitting next to her. Herlihy addressed Almira,

“I remember you. You’re the little girl at the Union Hall that night last month. And you…”

He turned his head slightly towards Sterling, and with an expression that didn’t even pretend to be one of sympathy, said,

“…you were there too.”

Sterling looked back at the policeman. Herlihy turned his full attention back to Almira, who stared into his eyes. Herlihy seemed to shiver and immediately looked away, clearly uncomfortable and only after Almira looked back down at the book on her lap, he continued,

“Well, don’t go no wheres, you two. With Miss LoPizzo’s death there are questions that need to be answered. Despite what you may think of me, I thought the world of Annie and I’m going to find out who fired that shot. If you hear anything, anything at all, you tell me. I know that you, laddybuck, you’re a regular at some of our city’s less respectable establishments, down to the river. If you hear anything, you let me know. Do I make myself clear?”

Silence hung in the air. Finally, Almira looked up at the policeman and said,

“We will. There’s nothing I want more than to find the person who shot my friend Annie.”

The police sergeant found himself feeling sorry if there was someone that this strange girl decided was the cause of the death of her friend. He suddenly wanted to be somewhere, anywhere else, his training forced him to remain where he was, increasingly ill-at-ease until finally he managed to nod and turning, gave the young man one last glare, left the apartment.

Later that night, Sterling woke, his arms empty (and slightly cold). He looked towards the door of the bedroom and, silhouetted in the light from the living room, he imagined he saw Almira. She seemed to be wearing Annie’s clothes, but they were darker than he recalled. Sleep, never quite leaving his eyes, succeeded in its eternal campaign to keep the sleeper in the bed by convincing Sterling that he was dreaming. As he drifted off, he thought he heard a night-soft voice,

‘Back to sleep, my love. We must be traveling tomorrow. Go back to sleep. We must hurry and get back to the road.”

Sterling thought/dreamt that he mumbled in response, 

“Yeah, Almira. I’ll take us from here. No one will ever hurt you like this again.”

With the sunrise, they gathered what little Almira had kept in Annie’s apartment. Having brought clothing only as needed, since the incident at the Union hall, she had nothing with which to carry her few possessions. They both looked around the apartment for something to use as luggage. Almira came into the bedroom with a small, brown wicker basket, with double hinged top and a folding handle. She smiled with a mix of resignation and hope. Sterling had his own canvas rucksack ready and they walked from the apartment. Just as they reached the sidewalk, Almira stopped suddenly and, without a word, ran back into the apartment. Minutes later she returned and lifting one of the top lids on the basket revealed her well-worn copy of ‘Gulliver’s Travels’ nestled in the few items of clothing.

Several hours later, the police knocked on the door to Annie’s now empty apartment. They questioned the occupants of the other 2 apartments in the building. No one could recall seeing either Sterling Gulch or Almira Ristani anywhere near the building in at least a week. They had trouble remembering what the two looked like or where they might be. The police were frustrated, as there was a killer on the loose and they had every reason to believe that Sterling Gulch or Almira Ristani would have been useful to them in their efforts.

Now, in the early afternoon, at a high point in the road, clear of the pine forest that followed them from the mid-point between Lawrence and Lowell, Sterling stopped and set his bag on the sandy dirt of the roadside,

“You’ve been quiet on our Sunday walk.”

Almira stood next to him, looking down at the river as it flowed past the city of Lowell, Massachusetts. The southern bank of the river lined with tall, dark-red brick textile mills, the town growing outward, away to the south.

“We’ve come a long way.”

The girl, her overcoat open to balance the warmth of the noonday sun and (a) 13 mile walk, rested her hip against his, leaning into him.

“Any regrets?”

Sterling looked down, Almira looked out towards the crisscross of iron girders of the bridge across the river. His hand found hers and he stood, comfortable with the feel of the girl at his side. He thought, ‘Although she’s leaning on me, if I suddenly stepped away, she would not fall. I’ve a feeling that I’ll come to both love and hate that about her.’

Instead of stepping away, Sterling pushed her, very slightly at the shoulder and was rewarded with the sound of her laughter,

“No, my love. My life is with you. The town we left? It’s just a place on a map. The people gave us what they could but even though I’ll never forget Annie, I need to find the place in the world that I was meant to be,”

Taking his hand, Almira placed it over her breast and continued,

“My mother once told me, ‘Almira, follow your heart and it will always lead you home.’ My heart has lead me to you. And you and I are here. My home is wherever we might be, whether it’s a shining city full of towers and wonders or a small farmhouse with the stars as neighbors, that is the only place I want to live.”

Sterling leaned inwards and kissed her. His right hand, still on her breast, began to find a will of its own, his fingers came alive and discovered an urgent need to explore their surroundings.

“I said we were home. I didn’t say we were in the bedroom!”

Almira laughed. The couple turned and walked towards the Lowell Train Station

***

“Sergeant Herlihy is here to see you, sir”

“Send him in.”

Frederick Prendergast enjoyed problems because he knew how to solve them. He knew how to solve problems, because he knew people. He’d always had the ability to size up a man and know what he wanted. Really wanted, not necessarily what they said out loud or stated or demanded, but what they really wanted. Early in life, Frederick realized that this kind of understanding made controlling that person almost too easy. Woman, on the other hand, he smiled to himself, were much simpler. All they wanted was to be wanted by someone who everyone admired and looked up to, and he was very good at appearing to be that. Perhaps too good, a frown tugging at his face, women did have an annoying way of not realizing when the game was over. Worse, they demanded that he continue making them feel like the most special woman (or girl) in the world and, worse even than that, sometimes they tried to do something about it.

His secretary, Lizabeth Addams, stood in the doorway to his office, smiling into the room while his visitor remained in the outer office.

“Sergeant Herlihy,” she announced, with a smile that was at once an offer and a demand. Frederick stood up from his desk, walked to the windows that overlooked the city of Lawrence,

‘Come in Sergeant”

Lizabeth stared at her boss’s back and looked lost and then angry and walked back to her desk in the outer office, leaving the policeman to shut the office door himself.

“So it looks like things are beginning to quiet down, am I right, Sergeant?”

“For the most part, Mr Prendergast. The strikers are still on the street. They’re quite creative with their ideas of how to protest. They’re sending their children away to relatives out-of-state. Never seen that before.”

“We’ve never had the entire workforce walk out of our mills before either, have we Sergeant?”

“No, we haven’t. But now that the Mayor has the militia out in force on the streets, everything’s been peaceful and orderly.”

“I wouldn’t call having my goddamn mills shut down and not producing a single bolt of cloth ‘peaceful and orderly’!!”

Frederick turned to shout directly,

“…would you Sergeant?!!”

“No. Well no, but at least there’s no more vandalism or violence. We were really getting concerned, what with that Union woman getting herself killed. But with her funereal now over and done with, I think we can say we’re out of the woods on that.”

“You’ve arrested the Union leaders who are responsible, haven’t you?”

“Well, we’ve charged them with conspiracy. I don’t know how likely it is that a judge will convict them of murder, being how they were both in Boston on the day of the strike.”

“Don’t worry about them being convicted. We have them in custody and we have a good and well-behaved judge. All in all, I’d say that we’ve done a good job of minimizing the damages, one death and a few broken windows,”

“…two deaths,” Herlihy began to fidget in the green leather upholstered chair

“…what? What the hell are you talking about?”

“We found the body of a man, down off Water Street, half in the river. At first we thought he was just another drunk who had too much and drowned himself. They could smell the liquor from the street, so at first glance that seemed the case.”

But?” Frederick did not like the turn this Sergeant was causing his day to take.

“Well, the beat cop called it in and I got there just as they were dragging him up the river bank, feet first. God help me, ain’t never seen the likes and I pray I never will, but somebody took the poor bastard’s heart, cut it right out of his chest.”

Frederick stopped and stared,

“The only good thing was that he wasn’t nobody of any account. A low-life by the name of Robbie Maclachlan.”

“Goddamn it”

***

Dorothy Gale and Eliza Thornberg stood on the sidewalk that crossed from the Town Commons, ran along Cathedral Ave and ended in front of St. Mary’s Hospital. With the approach of evening, the decision was made to leave the convertible parked across from the library and walk the block to the hospital.

“I don’t care if Visitor’s Hours are over, about over, nearly over or no goddamn people allowed. I’m going in. Are you with me, or would you rather wait in the car?”

Eliza stared at her friend with the same sense of wonderment she felt when she took Dorothy on her first trip to Times Square. As then, she tried to reconcile the shy farm girl, quiet and as kind as anyone she’d ever met, with this determined and very angry young woman. The Dorothy Gale standing in front of her, in the gathering dusk in a small Kansas town was to the shy farm girl as Amelia Earhart was to Amy Semple McPherson. While Eliza Thornberg never lacked in self-confidence, there was something about her friend that made her worry.

“Yeah. I’m  going in there with you! Damn right, you couldn’t keep me out. Friends, right?”

After a slight, (really, it was just a second too long to allow even the illusion of that kinder girl), pause, Dorothy turned and walked up the granite steps.

“Well, it’s decided then! We’re off to see the woman.”

Eliza Thornberg half-sang, as much to the night air, as to her friend’s receding back.

Chapter 22

Featured

(Most towns and small cities are possessed of a sound, that conveys it’s character, in essence a summation of the life of it’s inhabitants. For a variety of reasons, this sound is especially clear and distinct during the workdays of the week. The coastal fishing/shipping port city will have the subtly insistent sound of harbor buoys, with the endless chorus of sea birds, adding a throaty counterpoint. Awake in a dusty farm/cattle town, your day will echo the earthy lowing of livestock, mixed with the woody staccato of corral gates and animals huddled together in tight desperate herds. Even the modern city, home to the more abstract interactions of men, the banking cities, they too sing through the working day, their song bright with the brass flourish of the honking of vehicles that fill the streets, a shrill melody of thousands of people occupied with getting from one point to another point, a chorus at once entirely human, yet completely inhumane.)

It was January 12, 1912 and Friday dawned as just another workday in Lawrence, Massachusetts. The dark quiet of night fades and the insistent sounds of the day grow with the light of the winter sun. This transition, of the growing sound of the dawning day, is surely the most subtle we experience in our lives. The simple reason is that we are all part of a chorus, yet always our waking life begins with a solo performance. The woman wakes to the world, sighs with contentment and, as the first murmur (or whine) from the children in the next room crawls into bed with her, changes her song. The man, pulled from a deep sleep by the motion of their bed, stretches and hearing only a sigh next to him, might begin to hum a quiet invitation, the day not yet making its demands. He hears the cries (or the laughter) from the next room, his wife’s own song leading it and he begins whatever song is necessary to get him through the day. And so it is with us all, as we join the world of the day, one (or more) person at a time, the countless solos meld and fuse into a complex, but all-encompassing chorus.

The sound of a workday in Lawrence Massachusetts was the sound of its textile mills in full production.

This workday sound is both distant and, at once, of the earth itself. It’s tone is low, like the basso thundering of the ocean on a rocky shore. And, like the roar of that ocean, the sound of the mills in full production not only was heard, it was felt, through the oft-patched soles of workers shoes, as they made their way to and from their daily stations. The sound (of the mills of Lawrence) was powerful and subtle, was felt as a persistent vibration transmitted through the granite sidewalks that surrounded them, as much as it was heard in the air.

Contralto voices whispered between the narrow aisles of the production floors of the Mills. It was the everyday (every workday) song workers sang to themselves, the liturgical hymn to their mechanical god in their brick cathedrals.

Mill workers spent their days in very small worlds, little more than the area required to support a single machine or, perhaps, a row of machines. Their job, in the most simple and direct terms, was to serve the machine. Once the shift began, the machine never stopped. Even when rest breaks and lunch were required, (by the weakest link in the production chain), the machine did not shut down, it idled. No matter how simple and routine their job, be it maintaining take-up bobbins or repairing broken threads on braider machines, as long as the machine was operating, the human must not stray, physically or (and especially) mentally. To forget what one was doing, while at work in a mill, is to risk disfiguring injury or death. As a result, it could be said that every worker worked alone. As if to assure this solitary service, the sound of the machinery was so loudly pervasive it destroyed any and all thought of communicating with others, to connect, to not be alone.

A song can include thoughts and ideas, usually as lyrics, meant to be sung. Often the words are incredibly subtle and suggestive. Then there are songs that are so rudimentary as to exist simply as a melody, without words or lyrics. This type of song appeals, not to mind as much as to the body, the appreciation of the song felt, not thought.

There was a song shared among mill workers. Perhaps it found a place in the minds of the men and women of the working class, first as a lullaby. A quiet song of hope sung to a baby, in a voice thickened by exhaustion, words nonsensical, as there was no need for words, only the tone of the singer’s voice. This song would stay with a person throughout their life, if for no other reason than it’s very lack of words and lyric message. This song served the mill workers, set to playing in their minds as the long days passed, having the effect of muting the constant raving of the machinery that surrounded them in the brick castles that lined the Merrimack River.

No song, no matter how simple and private, can remain buried if it is held and used by people, all engaged in a common task. The song that the mill workers heard as they toiled through their days grew in complexity. No longer was it the song of the weary, seeking only the promise of rest. As if in response to the never-ending demands of greater effort, more productivity, the song took on a questioning tone. And, as it must, questions that remain un-answered for too long, curdle and spoil, becoming resentful, more and more a statement of an emotion given to grow and blossom into anger. At some point further, this song of frustration turns into a song of rage, and rage, always waits for the appropriate symbol to happen along which becomes a clarion to action.

“Short Pay!! All Out!! All Out”

Clenched fists holding their first pay checks of the New Year, the workers took to the streets of Lawrence, Massachusetts.

The managers, (and their owners), believed they understood the people working in their mills. They were almost correct. Where they erred was ironic in the way that irony always expresses itself. The owners (and the managers they employed), believed that the workforce, by virtue of being predominately female (and of a variety of ethnic and cultural origins) lacked the aggressiveness and independence to organize and go on strike.

They were wrong.

The song in the minds of the mill workers, when seeing that their pay was cut, was the simplest of songs, a song for a child, only two lines, really quite catchy… ‘Short Pay! All Out!’

Sung by 13,000 women, it caught the attention of the Furies (as they might exist in the modern era). And myth or not, modern days or ancient times, the Furies have always been near… hidden in dark woods at the edge of farm fields of constant labor or perhaps trapped in the towers of the Mills of New England. They waited. Three sisters: Alecto (“the Unceasing”), Megaera (“the Grudging”) and Tisiphone (“the Avenging”) took to the January sky, ready to right the path that had been so deformed by the rich and the powerful.

On an unseasonably warm January day in 1912, the Furies heard the song that had always been there, hidden in the bright, modern song of capitalism; they now heard the contrapuntal melody of human suffering in service of the bosses. And they joined in the singing. The voices of 13,000 workers were raised enough to be heard over the machines that they served. They left the tall brick mills and took to the streets of Lawrence Massachusetts.

***

Annie LoPizzo left Building Number 5 of the American Woolen mill and stood in the middle of Canal Street. The repeated banging of metal door against brick wall behind her added a stridently martial sound to the late morning hour. She turned and faced the Mill, the Merrimack River to her back. As a living symbol of the call to action, it was clear that the only path was forward, there was no retreat or return to what once was. The streams of women who walked away from their machines increased in volume, becoming rivers flowing from the brick buildings, the few becoming many. The first groups of workers walked along the sidewalks, just as they had every workday since they could remember. But, just as a channel receiving more than its normal amount of water, overflows the river banks, women began to walk down Canal St in the middle, to the sides, around the occasional vehicle. There was a near palpable sense of freedom from the routine. Emboldened by the fresh morning air, made all the more special by the fact that they were outside… in the middle of a workday, the workers began to chant and sing.

Realizing that all the carefully plotted strategies and plans crafted by the Union committees were now totally moot, given that reality trumps anticipation every time, Annie did what came naturally, she helped those in need by taking charge.

***

Almira Ristani heard the strike begin before she saw it. Working that morning, her row of braiding machines required tending to. She knew enough not to look away as the sounds of shouting, rising from the streets poured in through the open windows. She maintained her focus if for no other reason than it was her first day back in the mill. Her caution in moving up and down the rows of whirling bobbins and take-up spools was as intense as it had been her first month at the American Woolen. She decided that she’d find out in due time what the  noise was all about.

After an hour, Almira noticed that there was no else working. The machines had not shut down, but as she stood in the middle of her row of machines (safely in the center of the aisle), she saw that the bobbins in the machines along the rows on either side of her’s were twirling empty. It was quite strange. She thought of Alice in Wonderland for no reason she was aware of, but having thought it, decided that she would say, ‘Well this is certainly curious… and curiouser’ and laughed to herself.

She stopped and walked to the end of her aisle. She saw only two people in the vast open space of the 3rd floor. The first was Mrs Monteforte. Mrs. Monteforte worked at the mill longer than anyone else, since 1897, it was said. She was very short, had white hair and only 3 fingers on her left hand. The shortage of fingers was the indirect result of a group of co-workers deciding she should celebrate her 10th year at the mill.  After returning from the lunch, on Monday in July, 1907, she nodded off while working. She returned to work after two weeks, bandaged but willing to find a way to do her job with three less fingers. She had a family that depended on the pay she brought home.

The other person left on the floor was the shift foreman, an overweight Belgian by the name of Matteo Kuiper. Friendly and not unkind to the women who worked his shifts, it was rumored that he’d fathered several children by women over the 7 years he worked as foreman of 1st shift on the 3rd floor.

One day, towards the end of November, as Annie waited by the door for Almira to join her for lunch, Matteo called out to Annie,

“Annie what will it take for you to quit that packaging department and come to work for me here? I’ll treat you better than the boss you have now, I guarantee it! Ask anyone who works for me!”

Annie laughed,

“When you get those things of yours caught in the braider so they can’t cause a girl any trouble, then I’ll consider it!”

He laughed as loudly as Annie.

“Where is everyone?”

Almira stood in the middle of the main central aisle that ran the length of the production floor.

Matteo pointed towards the windows that overlooked Canal Street. Almira walk over and saw throngs of women pouring from all of the entrances of each of the mills that lined the river.

“My God! They’re all outside!”

“I don’t know what the world’s coming to, but if I were you, little Almira, you might want to stay in here. I’m not the smartest man in the world, but I know my bosses and they are not going to let this happen without doing something to stop it.”

***

For the first time in the history of Lawrence, Massachusetts, alarm bells were heard. As a quick and effective way to warn citizens of danger or calamity, they had, until this Friday in January, remained silent. The workers, now filling Canal St didn’t hear them over the sound of their own singing and chanting. The Lawrence militia did. These citizen soldiers were called out to protect the City of Lawrence from itself. A ragtag army of weak men with weapons, predatory men with license to hurt and dull men allowed to feel as if they were finally more than; they were called to protect the city of Lawrence, which is to say, the property of the Essex Company.

“Hey Sterling! you wanna make a quick buck?”

I was sitting at a booth at the Cage & Whistle, writing and looked up at the sound of my name. Though I was through with college, (an opposing view might hold that Dartmouth College was through with me), habits are hard to break and so, my time spent writing, in the semi-public of small bars and pubs. These establishments were the barnacles growing on the undersides of the body politic in all towns and cities, large or small. They served the most destitute of people, those who had nothing, or no one, that could be mistaken for a home. I liked to sit with my pad and write, making a beer last longer than the average customer could remain sober. I was tolerated by the inn keepers because on more than one occasion I would help escort patrons who, perhaps catching too true a reflection of the emptiness of their life in the broad mirror behind the bar, out of the building before they could exact too great a price from those who offered the only home they might ever enjoy.

I saw Arron Langdon standing in the open door, the brightness of the sunlight reducing the man to a voice in a black silhouette.

“There’s something going on down at American Woolen and the coppers are looking for men to back them up.”

Hearing ‘American Woolen’ was enough to get me out of my chair. Arron’s smile as I approached the doorway, evaporated along with his anticipated bounty as I brushed him aside, nearly knocking him to the ground, as I exited the bar at a dead run. Almira was back to work at American Woolen today and any police action that involved the use of people like Arron was not a good thing.

I approached Canal St coming down Embankment St where it ends in Water Street. What I heard was refusing to make sense in my mind, it was the sound of women, many women. But not simply the sound of a group talking among themselves, it was more a collection of moods than it was the combined sound of a crowd. There was cheering and there was singing and there was cursing, carried a far greater distance by the buildings that lined the waterfront. This natural echo chamber magnified the sound. As I got to Water Street, which turns into Canal Street a block further towards the mill district, I stopped as a ragged line of cops ran towards Canal St. Though being led by the regular police, I saw Sergeant Herlihy at the head of what could only be described as a mob. I heard him shout as he walked, deliberately slowly, the better to force the group of men to listen.

‘Now, men! Listen to me! You were deputized so that you can aid the police. You are here to back up the police force of Lawrence, until the militia can take over and secure the mills. You are bodies, that is all. You are not to do anything other than what I tell you to do and that is to form a line in front of the Mills and protect them from the strikers. Do you understand me?’

He turned and lead the group of maybe 25 men towards Canal St. At the tail end of the group, cutting away to run up an alleyway, was a thin man with red hair. Robbie Maclachen moved with the quickness of a ferret and succeeded in escaping the ranks following Herlihy. My concern for the well-being of Almira grew in intensity, left worry behind and advanced directly into anger. I decided that I needed to get ahead, up nearer to the mills, where workers were now moving with a kind of vaguely random motion.

As I got closer, I heard Annie’s voice. Being Annie, her voice carried over the more random sounds of the crowd, which now filled Canal Street from Jackson Street down to the bridge at Water Street. I could hear her touch the hearts of the crowd, trying to shape the direction of the mass of workers, now cut off from one end of Canal Street by the line of police.

I heard Sergeant Herlihy, standing on the tailgate of a supply truck that was mired in the sea of people,

“By the authority of the City of Lawrence I am ordering you to disperse. Either return to your workstations or go home. Martial law will be in effect at dusk. Anyone remaining on the streets after that time, without official purpose will be considered a looter and be arrested. Go home, people. The strike is over. The Essex Company is meeting with your Union Officials even as I speak. There is nothing to be gained by this action.”

The sound of breaking glass is, in the right circumstances, one of the loudest of sounds. It was loud enough to drown out whatever else Sergeant Herlihy may have intended to say.

I heard both Annie and Herlihy desperately try to focus the attention of the mass of people, workers and militia alike.

While breaking glass can command attention, a gunshot will demand it. A single gunshot, seemingly from an alley between the mill buildings, where one wall accidentally intersected with another, forming a small alcove.

***

The sidewalk was grey. In a clearing in a moving forest of brown and beige dresses and coats, a girl sat on the winter-cold granite sidewalk. Like the river of women that flowed around them, the current of humanity pulling all past, a few with startled recognition, eddying around this one spot, the girl was dressed in grey. She cradled a woman in her arms, her legs bent to create a safe harbor from the moving figures that swirled around them. The woman laying in the girl’s arms was staring up, into the other’s eyes. It was a look seen when one searches the horizon, at the very end of a long journey; she seemed to be looking for the strange surroundings to transform into something familiar, something homelike. The woman reached up and touched the girl, very gently on the face. Her fingers were scarlet red. As she reached up, her coat fell open. The blouse was a still-life  scarlet in ruby-red, in a pattern that mimicked a woman’s form, sides of breasts like hills in spring, half covered in a blood-red snow.

The girl stared down into the woman’s eyes.

The dying woman looked up into the eyes of the young girl, seeing a storm growing in a face that, although dominated by a nose that was out of proportion to features that were, at least once, delicately formed, a face of natural sensitivity.

There came a look of sorrow and concern for the young girl, as if she were the one, too soon to leave the world.

Almira held Annie’s fingers to her face, as if that connection of touch, despite being dyed by the lifeblood of the woman, was as vital as any mother to her unborn child.

Almira looked into Annie’s eyes. There was no sound in the world. The light and sound of the near surroundings ceased to exist. There was only the face of her dying friend. In Annie’s eyes grew a look of searching, as if she was at once in a different place and yet looking to the near and to Almira from an invisible terrain. Annie’s concentration on seeing that which only she could see grew stronger and stronger.

Annie LoPizzo died, not simply by closing her eyes. She died, being held close by Almira, by continuing on, to another place. Annie’s gaze into that far distance seemed to draw her essence away, to a place that so captured her spirit, her mind, that she could see only this new place. And so, went on, leaving her body.

Almira cried, her tears burning, her hope shrinking like a glowing balloon losing it’s air until it vanished with a single spark of light.

Chapter 21

Featured

“I hope the fine, upstanding citizens of Circe, Kansas have the good sense to be behind closed doors before those two hit town…”

Tom Hardesty spoke with a smile as the two men walked across the hard-dirt yard that separated the Gale house from the working parts of the farm.

Hunk Dietrich looked out over the fields towards the black ribbon of County Road # 2, as the convertible sped away from the Gale Farm. As it shrank into the distance, the bright yellow Packard seemed to maintain a very slight lead on the dust plume that chased it up the July-dry road. An iron-leather-and-girl comet, trailed by a gold-tinged cloud, the car raced towards the East.

Hunk smiled and walked ahead to the low, small building next to the barn. It was his home, albeit on loan from the owners of the Gale Farm. It graced him with a glimmer of independence and allowed him to live, to a small extent, on his own terms. Not so much happily, as content, for the present time.

Tom Hardesty sat on the plain wood chair that, along with a spindle-back bench and hickory rocking chair, was arranged across the small porch. The tin-roofed, single story building originally served as the milk house, adjacent to the barn, built by the original owners of the farm. They were a small family of Mennonites who fled the East and ran out of momentum here, in eastern Kansas, as often happens when one runs from demons that are not physically (or morally) subject to the limitations of the flesh. The couple, Jakob and Anna Freisen put their all into what they hoped would become a working dairy farm and were moderately successful. Unfortunately, halfway through their seventh year in Circe Kansas, sickness took two of their children and a fall (from the roof of the barn), transformed Anna Freisen from loving wife into desperate widow and mother of 3 children. As she struggled to keep the farm itself from dying, Emily Gale appeared and, with a satchel of inherited money, made Anna an offer that she couldn’t refuse. Grateful to be out from under the crushing weight of the farm that killed half her family, the Widow Freisen took her two remaining children and moved to Minnesota, to live with distant relatives.

Hunk furnished the low, no-railing porch that ran across the front of the building with more seating than needed, at least since Zeke died and Hickory moved on. The two chairs, he found in an abandoned farmhouse bought at auction by his employers, Emily and Henry Gale. The spindle-back bench was a gift from a middle-aged German man he met on one of his rare visits to Almira Gulch’s place. The man was traveling west in a panel truck full of wood-carving tools and his wife. At various points in their journey they would stop and he would make furniture to trade with the local residents. The spindle back bench was the residue of a deal that went bad when the mechanic tried to steal the truck. Fortunately, the would be truck thief was too drunk to check the gas and ran out of fuel a block from his blacksmith shop-turned-gas station. The handcrafted bench was a beautiful piece of furniture and one of Hunk’s prized possessions. He told Henry that he found it by the side of the road. Hunk understood his employers better than he let on and knew that his story of finding the bench would be easier for everyone.

Tom had returned from his truck with his guitar case and, after putting the case on his half of the bench that separated the two chairs on the porch, sat back, the guitar lying across his legs. He held the Martin guitar, not playing, just holding it. He ran thumb and forefinger down each string, feeling for condition, and using his thumbnail, scraped the fingerboard at each fret, to clean off the playing grime. He seemed content to simply hold the instrument, much as Hunk, in the rocking chair on the far side of the bench, was engrossed with his pipe and tobacco. For both, there was clearly a sense of satisfaction derived from cleaning and adjusting their respective instruments.

The afternoon meal at the Gale home had concluded with the abrupt departure of Dorothy and Eliza. Conversation at the Gale dinner table, minus the two girls, became decidedly strained. Seizing the opportunity when Margherita began to clear the un-touched plates left behind by the girls, Hunk offered to help. Once standing, Hunk invited Tom to join him over at his cottage, ‘to set a spell before he left’, both made their escape. Emily Gale’s attention, which had started to crawl around the table to where Tom Hardesty had, until a second before sat, shifted towards her husband. Henry Gale glared resentfully out the dining room window, as the two younger men walked away from the house, leaving him alone with his wife, Emily.

With the distant clatter of dishes being washed and the staccato-mumble whisper of conversation between the owners now a safe distance across the yard, Hunk Dietrich and Tom Hardesty relaxed.

“Yeah, that Eliza! Can’t say I’ve ever met anyone like her. I mean, damn, Hunk! She looks like if she took it to mind, she’d kill a man and make him happy doin it.”

Hunk laughed quietly and picked up the leather tobacco pouch. Set between the two single chairs, the spindle-back bench provided sort of a workbench for the two men. Tom’s guitar case and pack of cigarettes rested on his half, and Hunk laid out his tobacco pouch, silver metal tamper, blue and white box of kitchen matches on the half on his end.

“You thinkin you have a chance there, boy?”

Hunk smiled through the bluish grey smoke from his pipe.

“Hell, old man, I can plain see she’s set her sights on you.”

Tom picked at the strings of the guitar, his left hand muting them, resulting in a series of soft round notes.

“I don’t know, Tom. You got a guitar and that ‘come here, I won’t hurt you’ way about you. Everyone knows that the young girls all go crazy for that cowboy charm.”

“You should talk! You’ve got half the ‘can’t-wait-to-get-out-of-high-school-and-show-the-world’ girls in town starin after you when you walk out of the supply store, all strong, silent Gary Cooper type. ‘Specially that Becky Stillworth down to the library. Man alive! Ain’t a boy in town don’t dream about Becky and how they’d…”

“Now hold on there, buck. Becky’s a friend of mine. No need to get all common on her…”

Hunk stared at Tom. Finally Tom strummed a single, minor chord and smiled.

Their laughter was hijacked by voices from the farmhouse.

“I don’t care what you think you know, Henry Gale. That new wing is going to happen and it’s going to happen this very summer. I will not tolerate having Circe’s High School being named after that woman. I know that I can’t change that. Why you stopped me from giving those gutless, bleeding heart biddies on the school committee a piece of my mind, I’ll never understand. Be that as it may. We’ll see how many people remember anything about the Gulch woman or that place she runs with all the transients and riff-raff, after they see the brand new Gale Wing at the hospital.”

Both men fell silent as the woman’s quiet, hard-edged words escaped through the open windows of the farmhouse and crossed the yard, like a pack of starving wolves. Hunk busied himself with re-igniting his already lit pipe and Tom, pulling out his shirt-tail, polished the headstock of the guitar, the stylized ‘M’ already glowing with the natural light of the inlaid mother-of-pearl.

Playing a series of chords, at a subdued, near-muted volume, Tom Hardesty slid out of his chair and leaned, one knee on the porch, facing Hunk and sang,

“Don’t know why, there’s no sun up in the sky
Stormy weather, since my girl and I ain’t together,
Stormy weather…

When she went away, the blues walked in and met me
If she stays away, old rocking chair will get me
All I do is pray the Lord, above will let me
Walk in the sun once more

Stormy weather…”

Both men laughed. Quietly

Meaning no disrespect, but that boss of yours, Henry Gale? Over in that big house over there?”

Hunk smiled and looked back out towards County Road #2, streaming flatly towards the darkening horizon.

“Henry? He’s one of the hardest working men in the County.”

“No, Hunk Dietrich, my father’s one of the hardest working men in McPherson County. Hell, you’re one of the hardest working men in the County. Ever’ body in these parts are hard-working. Henry Gale? He sets out to make sure to look like the hardest workin man in the County. Ain’t quite the same.”

“So what’s your point? I got no complaints. They’ve been good to me. I couldn’t of been more than nine years old when my uncle dropped me off at the church on Main St, on his way to California. Emily and Henry, they took me in, gave me a place to sleep and food to eat. I owe them for that.”

“Well, and tell me it’s none of my business and I’ll shut up, but you always seemed like you had better things in mind for yourself. What with all the book learning and such.”

“You’re right about the learning. I know there’s more to life than being a farm hand. Correspondence school is one of the things I believe will help me find out just what it is I was meant to do. Nothing wrong with hard work, of course. My father taught me that, ‘Work hard, boy, and good things will always come of it’ he always said. He worked hard everyday and provided us with a roof over our heads and put food on the table. But, I gotta say, it was my mother who taught me about learning. She’d clean house for people in town and used to bring home books, reading books, not textbooks like we had in school. She’d say to me, ‘William, there’s nothing wrong with dreaming. Dreams are like a step-ladder, if we’re smart about it, we can use ’em to get a look up towards the future. And if you don’t have a ladder, you can pile up books and they’ll serve just fine. Don’t ever forget that.’
I used to read and watch her fix dinner. She’d take whatever book she’d given me to read and put it away, just before my father got home. Not like she was hiding anything from him, she just knew him well enough not to cause him any un-necessary concern. And, if truth be known, I think she borrowed those books from the rich people’s houses that she cleaned. Didn’t quite tell them that she was doing it.”

Hunk tapped the bowl of his pipe against the edge of the porch, watched the pinpricks of light fade as the coals suffocated in the dirt. Re-packing the pipe, he struck a match and his face, lit by the flame, glowed and faded as he puffed gently to start the fresh tobacco burning.

“My father worked at the rail yards. Long hours of hard, back-breaking work. And my mom  did her cleaning. We had a happy life, me an my sisters. My world made sense, the simple kind of sense, the kind a nine-year-old boy could take a hold of and believe that things would go on the way they always had. And it did, right up until that Wednesday afternoon. The storm came roaring out of the mist and fog like a hellbound train, the sound it made was like nothing I’d ever heard. It was the sound of an angry god, bent on destruction. It turned sunny day into a hateful night lurched up through the valley and took the town with it when it left. I was walking home from school when it started. I ran for home, it was the only thing I could think, ‘get home’. As I ran, I actually started to fly, the wind was so strong as to pull me, and pieces of the neighbor’s house, up off the ground. For a second, just as I was almost to my front door, the wind stopped, skipped a beat, you might say. It dropped me, I must’ve been three feet in the air, next to the end of the porch. The animal part of me took over and I just crawled under the porch and hung on for dear life. I don’t remember much after that. Something hit the side of my head, I blacked out.”

Hunk leaned towards Tom, pulled back the hair on the right side of his head, exposing the long scar that started just above his ear and ran down his scalp to a little below his ear lobe.

“But I didn’t feel a thing at the time. I didn’t hear the storm move on, I just woke up laying in a pile of dead leaves and staring up at a blue sky where my house should’ve been. I looked around and couldn’t make sense of what I saw. Things were… out-of-place. There was a house in the middle of the street, (not my house, that was a block away, bleeding the life of my mother out onto what was left of Halloran’s Hardware store). I stood and I stared. I saw people running towards me and they were waving their arms. I couldn’t hear a thing. I just stood there and waited; eventually people came and took me to an unbroken house and they took care of me. All on a Wednesday afternoon in March.”

Tom Hardesty looked over at Hunk and taking a cigarette from the pack that was sitting on his guitar case, looked at Hunk again, after seeing a nod, took a match from the blue and white box and lit his cigarette.

“Ok. So I think I won’t ask how you feel about working for the Gales.”

Hunk laughed.

“Sounds like a wise decision, Tom. Don’t know what got me off on that subject, can’t remember the last time I told anyone about that day. So, what about you? I know what my boss plans for you and your dad’s place. Not taking a position on that affair, but since we’re sharing a smoke, let me ask, what are you planning to do with your life?”

“Don’t rightly know. What I do know is I ain’t gonna stay in this place much longer.”

“What about your Dad and your brother, Ethan? You’d be leaving them with a helluva load to shoulder. I mean, you can’t want to make it too easy for the Gales to get your family’s land. You know about running farms and I don’t mean just the back-straining physical labor. You’re good at the business end of things. You could make a go of it at that place of yours.”

“Who says that? How would you know what I know and don’t know? It them bankers, I suppose, the Gales pretty much have them in their pocket, along with the rest of this two-bit town. They can go shove….”

“Hold on, hoss! I’m just speaking my mind. Seeing how we’re passing the time and I told you something about myself, I just thought I’d give you the chance to return the favor…”

“No, sorry, Hunk. I sometimes talk without thinking, especially when it’s about the family and all. Seeing how the Town mostly thinks we’re all a no account bunch, at least since my ma up and left.”

“Ain’t really the Town, you know. It’s just some folks, folks who seem to like to follow along behind the loud angry ones. Them folks out at the Keep, that Phyllis McCutcheon for one, all have some good words for you.”

Tom leaned forward in his chair,

“How would you know about Miz McCutcheon? And the Keep? It ain’t no secret how much your boss, Emily Gale, hates Miz Gulch and everything she’s done out there for the strangers and workers passing through.”

“I know the things I need to know, Tom. Just never had a need to go around tellin everyone my business, you know? I know all about her place out there, in the foothills. The people she helps, the quiet trade she does with a lot of the small farms, like yours. Hell, I even know why one of the richest women this side of Kansas City could be laying in the charity ward at St Mary’s hospital, like anyone of the penny-less drifters that we see come through these parts so much of late.”

Hunk sat back in the rocking chair and watched as Tom become more animated, the conversation taking a turn he wasn’t expecting.

“Rich? The hell you say! Sure that’s one big spread out there and me and my pa, we do a goodly amount of barter with Miz McCutcheon, but rich? That don’t sound like the Almira Gulch I know.”

“Funny how that works, Tom. We think we know all about people when we listen to the loud ones. The angry people boasting about what they have and others don’t have, telling the world how good they are and how bad someone else is. Like that proves anything.”

“Well, I know the people out there at the Keep and they’re good people. And the people who pass through? I hear ’em talking and more times than not they’ll tell you how they heard about the Keep from other people they met on the road. Most of them are down on their luck and some of them can look pretty shady, but they have nothing but good to say about Almira Gulch. That means a lot.”

“Sure it does, Tom. It does to people who think and people who don’t like being told how to act and what to believe in. But I’m saying, the leaders of a small town like Circe? They aren’t always the people to believe, when it comes to who’s a good person and who’s not a good person.”

The two sat in silence, attending to their thoughts with the kind of relaxed reflection that usually occurs between friends following some sort of common (and) strenuous effort. It occurred to neither man to wonder how that might be, given how little in common they believed they had.

******

“Did you get a chance to go over the statement I prepared for you? You know, for when you testify before the Zoning Commission?”

Ignatius V. Torte, Esq. threw his brief case on the worn and scratched conference table. The meeting room in Circe’s Town Hall had a conference table facing a long table, behind which sat whichever Committee was in session. Opposite them, and behind the witness table. were rows of folding chairs. This for whatever public that cared to show up and listen as assorted Expert Witnesses, disgruntled neighbors and concerned citizens shared their opinions, feelings and expertise on whatever issue was on the docket.

“Of course I read it! Although I fail to see why you felt it necessary to write it out. I assure you, I’m quite capable of explaining to the committee why modernizing the hospital’s infrastructure would be desirable.”

“Well, doc, the reason’s right there. What you just said, ‘modernizing the hospital’s infrastructure.‘ My god, man, don’t you want them to approve this plan?”

“Why, of course I do!”

“Then keep to the script. All we need you to do is tell the Zoning Committee that the renovation of the old wing on the hospital will be nothing but good for the citizens of Circe. Think you can do that, Thad?”

Thaddeus Morgan felt at once ill-at-ease and angry. He wasn’t nervous. He was accustomed to giving expert testimony and was very confident. There was something about this particular hearing that felt different. And, among the differences, was the fact of the presence of an attorney, sitting alongside him at the witness table. ‘As if,’ he thought, ‘I require the aid of an attorney to talk about my hospital and what a benefit modernization would provide.’

As a lawyer, Ignatius V Torte was very well  known in Circe. This high-profile status was attributable to his excesses as well as his successes. Iggy Torte, for all his many faults, was the type of lawyer you would want if the police were knocking at the door of your home at 5:00 am. He practiced his profession as whole-heartedly as he indulged his many vices, without restraint or the slightest thought of consequences. Emily Gale found him to be the perfect person to get her plans for the Gale Wing renovation project through the hearings, reviews and final approval. Thaddeus Morgan MD, found him crude, pushy and, somehow, familiar.

“OK, they’re ready to start. Don’t screw this up, Thad.” the attorney turned in his seat and smiled at Enid Thibault, the only female member of the Zoning Committee.

***

“…and so, Dr, Morgan, it’s your opinion that the proposed renovation to St. Mary’s Hospital will, in no way, have a negative impact on the community?”

“That’s correct.”

“On behalf of the Committee, I want to thank you for taking the time from your busy schedule to come down here and talk to us about this very exciting project. The work and effort that has gone into the design and planning of the Gale Wing is quite impressive. We also want to thank Mr. Torte for his expert assistance in guiding this project through all the steps of approval. That being said, hearing from the man most responsible for the health and well-being of our community is the stamp of approval that we needed to proceed.”

Iggy Torte turned his head and grinned at Thaddeus Morgan, who remained staring straight ahead at the 5 members of the Zoning Committee. After several seconds of enthusiastic smiling, the short, sloppily dressed attorney reached over and slapped him on the back. The sound was loud enough to be heard throughout the meeting room. Thaddeus heard it echo in a decidedly odd way, as if the sound came from far away, somehow from another time.

“Way to go Fattius Morgan! Good boy! Now get outa here, regular people have a hospital to build.”

“Take your hands off me, you shyster.” Dr. Thaddeus Morgan, Director of Medical Services at St. Mary’s hospital, brilliant physician and tireless advocate for improving the standard of care available at the only hospital in McPherson County, stood up abruptly. So abruptly that his chair tipped over with a wooden clattering sound, loud enough to end all other conversation in the meeting hall. Silence dropped from the ceiling, like balloons at a political convention, and everyone seemed to be frozen in place. Finally, one voice, that of Mrs. Tremont (who attended every meeting in the Circe Town Hall that she wasn’t barred from), carried through the room,

“Oh, my goodness!”

Feeling an almost physical charge of anger, Thaddeus Morgan, ignoring Attorney Ignatius Torte’s hurried efforts to pick up the chair, bent to his right and pulled the chair back to the table. As he turned back to face the Committee, he saw a tall, blonde woman standing near the door. She was almost entirely hidden behind the bulk of Al Renaldo, the reporter for the Circe Clarion. She was also dressed in white and she was staring at him.

“Are you alright, Dr Morgan?”

“Quite fine, Mr. Hubbard, my chair must have caught on something, quite alright.”

When he turned, all he saw was Al Renaldo, busily writing in a spiral-bound notepad, the meeting room door slowly swinging shut.

“Then I’d say that this concludes the meeting. Thank you all for attending.”

 

Chapter 20

Featured

January 1912 in Lawrence Massachusetts was as un-seasonably mild as the preceding December. Hovering in the 40’s during the first days of January, the temperature was mild enough to melt most of the snow from what was coming to be referred to as ‘the Great Blizzard of 1911’. As with most damaged relationships, no matter how warm it felt walking along the city streets, during the scant hours of daylight, there was no forgetting the cold. Very much like the bitterness that springs to life within the person betrayed by a loved one, there lurked a pained enthusiasm, poised to leap upon the most inane of comments on the weather. The inevitable response, spoken aloud or in jagged-edged thought, ‘Yeah, but it’s only January. Winter’s not done with us. Just you wait and see.’ The battered wife, knocked to the kitchen floor after months of good behavior, experienced more damage to her capacity to imagine a future worth living, than to her face; the cold temperatures made the mild weather something of a promise of disappointment, rather than a sincere respite from the Winter.

The Winter of 1912 dug its icy talons into the earth. Even the bright sunlight held an edge, like the pain when touching hard ice, the skin of the fingertip sticking, as if to say, ‘No! Wait! I need to show you how cold it really is!’ The broad lawns of the Commons, deprived of the protective covering of snow, looked like a child’s first attempt at finger painting. Browns and greens mixed in urgent and broad strokes, the texture un-even, the result of the effort to apply color on top of color. The bare earth remained as hard as an Immigration official’s heart, except, ironically, in small areas bordering the south-facing walls of the Mills. The towering brick facades sank warmth into the soil at their base, as if donating a portion of the bright sunlight it stole from those most in need of its life-affirming power, the people who labored behind the walls.

On one of the milder January days, in an alcove that came into being as the result of fortunate architectural juxtaposition between the exterior of Stairwell Number 2 and an adjacent outside corner forming the southwest end of the Mill, two young people sat, sharing a lunch. Their backs pressed against the sun-warmed brick, shoulders and legs touching as much as their posture would permit. Temporarily Siamese-twins, their joining was less inhibiting of movement, while somehow offering a more intimate form of sharing. One read from a book, the other content to watch and listen as a world that neither could achieve alone was made substantial by their whispered thoughts.

“Have you given any thought to what we talked about?”

“About moving, going down to your parent’s house in Rhode Island?”

“Well, yeah that too.”

…the young man and the young woman sat together, sharing the cold January sunlight. The warmth of their touching shoulders and the strength of their legs bracing each other, caused the towering brick walls to become nearly transparent and they stared into their future.

***

Frederick Prendergast did not like his bosses.

Frederick Prendergast III was appointed to his position of Chief Operating Officer by the Board of Directors of the Essex Company. This made 15 very wealthy middle-aged men all his bosses. Having to answer to 15 different bosses would have been too much for most of the candidates that competed for the position. Frederick succeeded simply because he considered it essential to good management to know more about the people he worked for than they knew about him. During his final interview, Robert Pease, chairman of the Selection Committee, complimented Frederick, “This resume of yours, outstanding! You provide the evidence of your qualifications for the position with such meticulous detail, as to make the interview almost un-necessary!”
Frederick merely smiled. The dossier he’d gathered on Robert Pease was in no way any less complete. Knowledge was truly power.

And now they sat in carved-wood and leather chairs staring at him from the length of the board room table. Large windows offered an expansive view of Lawrence, smoke from the mills smeared across the cold blue sky, giving the impression of an improbably detailed clockwork model of the Mill Town.

Frederick Prendergast was attempting to explain to the men who owned Lawrence that their suggestion he reduce wages to match the newly mandated reduction in allowable hours was a foolish mistake. The Massachusetts law did cut back the number of hours in a legal workweek. What it did not change was the fact that the number of hours of work necessary to provide for a family, when wages were 15 cents an hour, was more rather than less. As with most politically motivated efforts to address social ills, recognition of the complete context of the problem was markedly selective. That, at the root of the problem, was not the number of hours in the work week, but the amount the Mills paid for those hours. The Mill Owners naturally chose to ignore this, as it was very much in their interests to keep wages low. The politicians chose not to recognize this fact because any attempt to include wages as part of a remedy would’ve brought a swift and incumbency-threatening response from the people in power. As with most laws meant to demonstrate the political class’s dedication to the rights and well-being of their constituents, the new law attacked the symptoms not the cause.

Lawmakers are very often the leading advocates of palliative care for the body politic. As a result, their legislative efforts to help their marginal constituency survive the cycle of low pay and high production demands was akin to the doctor who prescribes laudanum for a persistent cough. The patient appears much improved, until they die of pneumonia.

“The new law limits the number of hours that an employee can be required to work. I propose that we leave the weekly pay as it is and, very publicly, announce that all our workers are receiving a Production-Rated Raise.”

Frederick saw most of the 15 wealthy, middle-aged men look like something small had bitten them somewhere sensitive. He continued smoothly,

“We have the production figures from last year. I’ve added 30% to those numbers. We’ll call them… the ‘Safe-Production Numbers’ and tell the workers that we’re implementing this because we listened to their complaints. Because we value their contribution so much, we decided to give them all a Raise, rather than cut their pay the way the new law would have us do instead.”

Frederick Prendergast watched as the Board of Directors digested his suggestion. The reaction was as he expected, those with sufficient intelligence and avarice smiled to themselves quietly, the others, the more junior members chose to speak, intent on demonstrating their value to the Company.

‘Don’t louse this up, Prendergast or you’ll be back at Dartmouth in the blink of an eye. Try supporting your current lifestyle on the salary of an assistant professor.”

Frederick Prendergast smiled towards his 15 bosses. He appeared to be in complete agreement with every one of them.

“Gentlemen I assure you that I have control of the situation. The Mills will not slow down. We have a workforce that is divided among as many European cultures as there are countries. They may grumble and complain, but they keep to themselves in small groups. Not only that, over half of my workers are women. It’s in their nature to complain. But stand up together to resist us? Not in my lifetime.”

“Be clear on this, Prendergast, we didn’t hire you for your understanding of whatever god-forsaken rundown country these people left. We hired you to increase production. Plain and simple. Buy more machinery. Promise the workers more hours until we can get the new equipment installed and running.  We’re not running a welfare agency. We’re here to make a profit. That’s the only reason we built this city.”

***

There was a growing unrest among the workers in the mills of Lawrence as the ramifications of the new labor law became clear. Despite the diversity of language and culture of the workforce, rumor, as always, became the currency of the emotionally speculative market of ideas. Shared, exchanged and bartered in lunch rooms during the day and barrooms at night, speculation took root in the hearts and minds of the workers of Lawrence. Passion, especially in a culturally diverse community like Lawrence, is like a stew, it required a slow increase in temperature in order to bring out its varied ingredients. Fortunately there are people who, while being aware of the issues, are able to rise above the grind of daily labor. They are the ones who, for better or for worse, can bring about a focus, a coherency of thought that reflects the needs of the many.

Annie LoPizzo stood before the Organizing Committee,

“There are more and more people asking for help down at the Hall. There will be less pay and more work, if my sources are correct. For now, we can handle the demands for extra food and clothing, our members are as giving as the bosses are not. The problem that this Committee needs to address is focusing the unrest among the workers. It’s growing rapidly and will soon be uncontrollable. We must provide the workers with a sense of direction.”

The expression on the faces of the Committee spoke volumes. The four men looked smugly attentive and the lone woman nodded silently.

“We appreciate your concerns, Annie,” the chairman, Pierre Marchand, spoke with a confidence that was easily mistaken for condescension,

“However we’re finally making progress with Management. Our talks, our private talks, are about to yield fruit. We need you down at the Union Hall making certain that all who come to seek aid are provided whatever help we can afford. This is a very delicate stage of the negotiation. Further unrest among the workers will cause us problems. You understand, don’t you?”

“I don’t believe you understand the people you claim to represent,” Annie noted immediate disapproval take hold of the men, while the woman, Monique Lafrenier, let a smile slide silently from her face, clearly awaiting the outburst from her fellow committee members.

“That is precisely the reason you are in the Union Hall and not at the negotiating table. Let those of us with skills in diplomacy and negotiations deal with this situation. We’re not here to start a war with the Owners of the Mill. We’re here to get our workers the best possible deal consistent with the needs of Management.”

*****

The yellow convertible sped down County Road #2, leaving the Gale Farm in a cloud of dust that seemed to glow with the approach of the sunset.

Even before the screen door slammed, as the two girls stepped off the porch, Eliza heard Dorothy say,

“I need to drive.”

Eliza Thornberg watched as her friend moved towards the convertible at what one might consider a mad dash. Without a word, she veered to the passenger side door, got in, and leaned back in the seat.

The car was powerful, the roads were flat and their speed was hazardous.

“So, where’s this Lake your boyfriend was so desperate to get you out to?”

Eliza leaned back against the door. The wind rushing over the windshield tangled insubstantial fingers in her hair, pulling, twisting and yet, always letting go. She had to yell to be heard over the sound of the engine and rush of the wind in the open car.

The Packard roared past a small, hand printed sign that read, ‘Almira’s Keep’, headed in the general direction of the Lake, just to the north of Circe.

Instead of turning off onto to Kiowa Lane, Dorothy gunned the engine and the convertible, rocking perilously on it’s springs from the sudden change in direction, raced towards the center of Circe.

Eliza felt the heat of the setting sun fight the cooling wind that flowed in behind the triangular vent windows. Her blouse, now every bit the old campaigners vest, displayed sweat stained campaign ribbons. She looked over at her friend, who was staring intently at the road ahead.

“You don’t have to let them get to you, you know. Screw ’em all!  Thats what I always say.”

Eliza’s shouted words echoed down the street as Dorothy took her foot off the gas and let the car coast past the sign that read, ‘City Limits’. She laughed at how loud her voice sounded, absent the roar of the car’s engine.

The rough-hewn posts that anchored three strands of barbed wire that kept the endless fields from consuming the roadway disappeared and were replaced by domesticated shrubbery and green lawns. The two girls in the yellow convertible drove slowly through the outlying neighborhoods that surrounded the small town.

“I saw all this when I first drove into Town,”

Eliza slouched in her seat, resting her head on her arm along the top of the passenger-side door.

“Say what you will about small towns, Dorothy, but I’d go crazy if I had to live here. Either that or I’d marry some guy and make him get rich. …and then get the hell out.”

Her laughter bounced off the white picket fences that began to grow along the edges of the lawns of houses set, like chess pieces, in the center of small lots.

Hearing the silence from the other side of the car, Eliza turned towards her friend. Dorothy stared straight ahead, tears shining on her face. She was aware enough of what she was doing to keep the car in its lane, as it moved along at no more than five miles per hour. She wore an expression that was, at once one of disbelief and yet, held a hint of an underlying hope.

The center of town appeared suddenly. The stop sign at the corner of West Main St. and Main Street marked the abrupt beginning of sidewalks and parking meters. Stores and small shops replaced tall trees and green lawns.  Shaded front porches transformed into glass storefronts and the harsh blue sky regained dominion over the land.

“Dorothy?” Eliza sat up straighter, leaned over and put her hand on her friend’s shoulder. Dorothy continued to drive slowly down Main Street.

Eliza saw the Town Square approaching on the left and pushed on the steering wheel. The car turned in a meandering sort of arc and managed to head up the street that ran between the Square and what could only be a library. There was loud honking and shouts in the air, as the yellow convertible cut, (slowly), in front of on-coming traffic. A modern-day Moses parting a sea of rust-sided farm trucks and overly shiny black sedans.

The car at the front of the now-stopped traffic, in the opposite lane, contained a well-dressed man who leaned out the driver’s side window and shouted,

“You have no right to drive like that!! You are a menace! I plan to report you to the authorities immediately!!”

Eliza, leaning with both hands on her door, managed to stand nearly upright in the open car and locked eyes with the shouting man. Seeing the look on the face of a very angry and clearly well-to-do young woman, he fell silent,

“Go ahead and try, you fat bastard. I’d love to see you try.”

Eliza felt pleased as she watched the well-dressed man slide back into his seat, hitting his head on the edge of the window as he did so. She pushed gently on the steering wheel, and the car, coasted towards the curb. When the left front tire bounced up on the sidewalk, she turned the key in the ignition and the yellow convertible fell silent and came to rest.

Eliza got out of her side of the car, walked around to the driver’s side and opened the door. Dorothy looked up at her and got out. Spotting a wrought iron bench around a dry water fountain, Eliza took her friend’s hand and walked over to it and the two girls sat down.

“Well, Dorothy, from the looks of that fountain there, I’m sure we’re not in Central Park. I need you to tell me all about Kansas.”

Dorothy smiled, looked past the fountain, towards the horizon and the now setting sun. Eliza had a strange feeling that her friend was about to start singing, but instead spoke quietly.

“When I was thirteen and wanted to ask my mom about, you know, the things that were happening to my body…”

“Boobs, I believe is the medical term…”

Dorothy giggled and continued,

“She looked at me and said, ‘I believe it’s time that you were told the truth. You were adopted. Now don’t let anyone tell you that you’re not part of this family, you are. We really think of you as part of this family, but I’m not your mother. And don’t worry, you’re just becoming a woman. Nature has a way of taking care of things, you’ll be alright.’

“…then I met Tom Hardesty and I thought he was the one person in the whole world who really understood me.”

“Yeah, how is it they always say that? And the better ones manage to sound so sincere!”

“..but he broke my heart and though we stayed friends…”

“…and, then there was the Storm. I really believed, for weeks afterwards, that I had visited a place, a place where I belonged. Everyone pretended to believe me, for a while anyway. But then they stopped listening. I kept trying to tell them, not just what happened to me, in that place, but that because of it, real or not, I knew there was answer. That there was someplace where I belonged. But everyone just went back to life the way it’s always been and eventually, I stopped talking.”

“When I came back here, this summer, from school? It was even worse. In part because of you. Having a friend who wasn’t from Circe, didn’t already have friends from around here, someone who seemed to like me for myself. That made coming back ‘home’ feel even worse.”

Eliza reached over and took her friend’s hand and held it in hers.

“…so, I spent the first weeks back in Kansas trying to figure the answer to a question that I wasn’t really sure I knew. Sorry about this not making any sense, but I thought that this woman, Almira Gulch, somehow I got it into my head that maybe she could tell me something.

“Was that the ‘Almira’ on the sign that we passed on the way here? The one that said, ‘Almira’s Keep’ or something?”

“Yeah, but that’s where everything gets mixed up in my head! All my life I’ve heard that she, this Almira Gulch, was a wicked, stingy old maid. To make matters worse, just before the Storm, she came to our house and tried to take my dog away. She seemed so very mean. But then, when I got back this summer, I found out that she had the new high school named after her because she gave most of the money to re-build it. Nothing made sense. So I tried to find her and talk to her and it turns out she’s in the hospital. In a damn coma of some sort!”

“Will she get better? Enough to talk to you?”

“… I don’t know! Every time I go there, she’s asleep. But…

“What?”

“Well, this is going to sound strange…”

Eliza laughed loudly enough to make the pigeons that were stalking an old man who had just sat on a bench on the far side of the fountain, bag bird seed in his hand. Dorothy stared at her friend, but could not help herself, the tension transformed into laughter and joined in.

“If you’re going to tell me something strange, I better prepare myself.” Eliza pulled Dorothy to her side and they laughed together.

“Well, odd. Lets call it, odd. This nurse is there every time I go to try and talk to Mrs. Gulch. No matter what day or even what time of day. She is tall, has beautiful blonde hair and a way of moving that I’ve never ever seen in a person, at least a person around here. And, when each time I was there, she’d talk to me like she was Mrs. Gulch’s best friend.”

Both girls sat in silence, the hungry pigeons landed and converged on the old man.

“Well, then! Lets go!”

Dorothy looked up, she appeared tired but, somehow more at peace with herself.

“Go where?”

“We’re off to see this Nurse….”

“Nurse Claire?”

“Nurse Claire! From everything you’ve told me about everyone here in this half-horse town, she’s the only who doesn’t seem interested in using you. So, lets go!”

***

There was only two other patients in the Charity Ward of St Mary’s Hospital.

Standing to the side of the narrow bed, Nurse Griswold smoothed the blankets that covered the still form. She took the small photo of a small young boy from the top of the side table and placed it in the drawer.

Leaning over, she smoothed back a loose wave of grey hair from the worn, but peaceful face of the woman in the bed.

“We’ll soon have company. I believe that our little friend may be near to finding her way.”

Chapter 19

Featured

(The Gale Farm County Rd #2 Circe, Kansas. July 15, 1939)

(6:00 pm and the light through the windows filled the dining room with a more than passable imitation of mid-afternoon, as sunset was still hours away, at 8:55 pm to be precise. The sky was clear, blue and in no way threatening. The FarmAll thermometer on the barn showed the low 90s. A light breeze tried to sneak up and over the open windowsills and down into the house through the thin white curtains, as if to hide from the sun for the 3 hours remaining.)
(Dinner was at a round, light oak table, in the center of the room between the kitchen and the parlor. The linen tablecloth had a decorative blue border and was very obviously quite expensive. The kitchen is on the other side of a single swinging door that has a brass push plate.)

(Emily Gale, Henry Gale, Hunk Dietrich, Dorothy Gale, Eliza Thornberg and Tom Hardesty)

“Time for dinner, everyone!”

“Eliza? you sit over between Dorothy and me. Tom? right there, on Hunk’s left. (laughing) No, his other left. There, by the door to the kitchen.”

[chairs scraped over the floor, in unison, but un-coordinated, low-throated wooden screech of final adjustment]

“There! everyone comfortable? Well, I can’t tell you how delighted I am to have such a full table of guests. It’s been such a long time. Now, Henry? Why don’t you say the Grace.”

“Dear God, we thank you for this our bounty that you bestow on our family. We give praise and promise to live in your sight. We ask that you continue blessing our family that we might serve as an example of your rewards and everlasting goodness. Amen.”

“Amen”… “Amen”… “A..”

“Margherita! Please! We have a table full of very hungry young people!”

“Right away, Miz Gale, the biscuits are just coming out of the oven.”

“Well, everyone dig right in, we don’t stand any formalities here. Tom? Just pass everything to your left.”

[a sound like the branches of a crystalline forest brushed by a summer wind filled the dining room]

“Don’t forget to help yourself to the green beans. Picked them myself this morning. Margherita! Is that lemonade ready yet?”

“So, Hunk, did’ja get a chance to get out to the Lennon spread this morning?”

“Yeah, but just a quick look. There’s a passel of old equipment out there, didn’t look like much of it’s in any kind of working order.”

“Hunk! Henry! Not another word! This may not be a proper holiday, but I’m declaring the ‘No Work Talk Rule’. Dorothy’s friend Eliza here has no interest in hearing what Hunk did with his day.”

“Not at all, Mrs. Gale! I’m sure what Hunk does is very interesting.”

“You don’t know what you’re letting yourself in for, and call me Auntie Em… or Emily.”

“Ouch!”

“Are you alright?”

“Oh, nothing, just a sudden cramp in my calf, a little souvenir of a polo accident. I’d think that life on a real working farm would be quite interesting.”

“Not to hear them two talk about it! Most mornings start right here at this table and are nothing more exciting than listening to these two going over Henry’s lists of chores. You might not know it, coming from Back East, but this is one of the biggest farms in McPherson County. But interesting? Back-breaking work from sun-up to sun-down. At night, Henry’ll sit out on the porch smoking and making up a new list. Hunk over there, well, after dinner he’s always bent over one of his books, like a cur dog gnawin at a bone thrown out with the dinner scraps.”

“Well, Em, some’ll still have meat left on ’em! There’s a lot inside those old books. I take my bones where I find ’em and when I get too tired I bury what’s left for later.”

[laughter pooled around the guests, like rain-storm runoff, flowing ’round clumps of grass]

“Speaking of dog bones, the chicken is great, Mrs G!”

“Thank you Tom. Elbows off the table, please.”

“Dorothy tells us your father owns a publishing house back in Philadelphia. My family is from there, maybe we know some of the same people.”

“Don’t be tutting me, young lady! I didn’t say that I knew that many people Back East. Like I always say, family is family and at the end of the day that’s what counts…”

“Well, Mrs Gale, Daddy doesn’t spend as much time at his office as he used to, he travels a lot now, mostly New York and out to California.”

“I declare! How interesting that must be, so close to the arts and literature .. have you met any famous authors?”

“Well, my father had a party last summer, I think Scott Fitzgerald and that Steinbeck fellow were there but I’m not sure… but I didn’t actually meet them.”

“Your car, Eliza, it’s got California plates…”

“…yeah, that’s a real swell car ‘Liza  You think you’d mind if me an Dorothy borrow it later? The Lake’d be a welcoming cool place, on an evening like this.”

“So, are you living in California now?”

“No, Hunk, I was just out there with a friend, I tried out for a movie…”

“You don’t say! Can’t really say I’ve ever shook hands with a movie actress!”

“It’s nothing like you’d think…It’s really boring most of the time. Stand around a set, freezing cold, waiting for someone to tell you what to do. Of course, when the Director yells ‘Action’ ..then it gets interesting”

“Maybe you should go out there. My friend Jack is a director and knows everyone. I have a feeling that you just might be the kind of man they want for the movies I auditioned for,”

“Well, kinda busy mending fence this week, but maybe next week.”

[Laughter]

“Well, Eliza I’m glad that you decided to stop on your way and surprise me, ’cause you really did”

“That’s what friends are for, right? To surprise each other and be there when we’re needed”

“So, Miss Thornberg, what are you studying at school?”

“Don’t answer him! Hunk here will have you in a corner with his questions and you’ll never get free.”

“…really, that sounds like fun. Well, Henry… oh! sorry Mr Gale, I didn’t mean you!

“Hunk, I haven’t declared a major yet but I’m leaning towards”

“Sorry, Mrs Gale  ‘Henry”s my nickname for your foreman over there. Don’t you think he looks just like Henry Fonda in ‘The Farmer Takes a Wife’?”

“Why if that isn’t the silliest thing I ever heard, Hunk, don’t you listen! We’ll never get the Lennon Farm worked in”

“Don’t worry, I don’t see myself moving West any time soon,”

“I do”

“What was that, Tom?”

“I said, I was thinking that moving out West, might be the right thing to do…”

“Oh that’s just great! One friend drops in un-expectedly and one suddenly decides to move on! Doesn’t anything around here stay the same long enough to understand?”

“I ain’t moving…”

“I know Hunk and I love you for that…”

“Well, Missy you haven’t exactly been a hometown girl yourself. If memories serve me,  you weren’t but a month out of High School before you decided…”

“I recall that it was your brother’s Will that made College-Back-East possible!”

“I reckon seeing how your mother and I were everyday, ’til night’s dark after the Storm… ”

“You just thank your lucky stars, Dorothy, if it wasn’t for Uncle Bernard, you’d be stuck here, on this farm that you seem to think so little off…”

“I didn’t say that! I just…”

“You see, Eliza, Dorothy was hurt in the storm. After the wind stopped and people crawled out from their shelters, well lets just say you know a community by how everyone pitches in and helps one and other put the Town back together.”

“Auntie Em! I’m certain Eliza doesn’t need to hear about the storm and it’s boring aftermath.”

“What ever would make you think that! The Storm of ’37 is a part of local history which makes it a part of who we are! Of all people, I’d think you’d be the last one to not want to talk about it…. You certainly didn’t mind talking about it in those weeks right after…”

“No, Mrs. Gale. I knew Circe had a bad tornado, it was in all the newspapers. It’s just that  Dorothy’s never talked about it. Except when she first moved into the dorm and our room…”

“I don’t remember telling you about the storm…”

“Well, you didn’t exactly tell me. At least not consciously, but the first few nights, well, I thought I might need to request a different roommate! The yelling in your sleep! I still get goose bumps remembering it…. there was a tone to your voice, it was as if you were being drowned out but had to be heard,  “Let us in, please!!! It’s getting closer!!! Open up we’re out here!!’ You really don’t remember?”

[quiet rushes through the room like a winter night’s wind]

“…me, my father and my brother Ethan, we came out of our shelter that day and there was a rowboat setting right up on top of the chicken coop, didn’t crush it or nothin.  Lost two hens and had to fix the roof of the coop, though…”

“Who wants some fresh-baked apple pie?”

“You know what I’d like to do after such a good meal? Take a drive. Please save us some of that pie, Emily. Dorothy and I will have some after we get back. Dorothy? Show me this lake you’ve told me so much about!”

“Sorry, Tom…. girls only.”

*****

(The  one bedroom apartment of Annie LoPizzo  3 Union St, Lawrence, Massachusetts. December 15, 1911)

(It was 6:00 and effectively full-dark nighttime, as Sunset was nearly 2 hours earlier, at 4:11 pm.  Through the two windows, the white blur of wind-driven snow, the occasional needle-tapping of sleet on the glass lent credence to the estimate of a temperature in the low 20s and dropping.)
(Dinner was at a small, square wooden table that had three chairs that match and one that didn’t. The table was between the door and the other half of the large room, divided by a large brown sofa. The kitchen ran along the wall to the right of the table. Gas stove, white porcelain sink and a small icebox, everything was almost within arms reach of the table.)

(Almira Ristani and Sterling Gulch)

“I’m back from the Arctic… I can’t believe you sent me out in a raging blizzard for bread….”

“I’m sorry, I didn’t…”

“Hey! ‘Mira! I was kidding! … I wanted to go! ‘Though it was lucky I caught them at the Bakery just as they were closing….”

“But…”

“…and I’ve had more than a few dinners here, and I know for a fact that Annie would right kill me if I let you serve me her sausages and gravy without fresh bread.”

[laughter joined the two, comforting one and encouraging the other, a not-obtrusive maitre’d for an informal dinner]

“You changed your clothes! you look very, uh very….”

“Disheveled?”

“Well, I was thinking ‘pretty’ But I can go with ‘disheveled’ That shirt is very nice!  uh…here’s the bread! do you want to heat it in the oven first?”

“Good idea! I just need to get down the plates. No, I can get them… well, thank you, it does still hurt a little to stretch too much. Put them on the table and, please sit down.”

“Are those yours?”

“Are what mine?”

“All those books on the couch, ‘Civil Disobedience’ ‘Woman in the Nineteenth Century’…”

“Don’t make fun, those are my mother’s books, well, some of them, anyway,”

“My god! You have Whitman’s ‘Leaves of Grass'”

“Ok now, stop fooling around. Put it back on the couch, come over here and sit down. Annie made what she said was your favorite dinner…”

“I believe a leaf of grass is no less than the journey-work of the stars,
And the pismire is equally perfect, and a grain of sand, and the
egg of the wren,”

“What? Well, don’t look so dumbfounded, Almira. You know, I went to college too! For nearly a full year, anyway…”

“It’s just that I….”

“I know, you’re surprised. Sometimes I get tired how people judge me by my good looks and rugged build and then act so surprised when I say something that isn’t about working at the Mill or fishing or drinking or carousing…”

“I didn’t I mean …I don’t think, well, you do have a rugged build…”

“So you think I’m good looking…”

“Yes, no, well…. that not what I meant! I wasn’t making fun of you!”

“No, I believe you weren’t. But now since you’re bringing up looks again, I think you’re a pretty nice girl yourself.”

“Sorry, all I meant to say was, that I didn’t go to college. Hell, I haven’t gone anywhere.”

“But all those books and the talks at the Union Hall about Thoreau and Brook Farm, I naturally thought”

“Well, you thought wrong.”

“Here, come and sit and have some food. Annie spent the morning putting together this for you and I’m not sending you out into the snow and wind,”

“Well, I thought, maybe if it keeps getting worse, I could…”

“…at least not without getting some warm food into you.”

[a silence grew between the two young people. Binding rather than separating, a sense of un-self-consciousness for one, a feeling of recognition for the other It was the discovering of another person so in tune as to become irreplaceable, if a happy life was to be lived from that point forward]

“…and so I figured, why not hitch hike around, for a while. There’ll always be a school to go to later. I just wanted to learn more about life than what a Professor would tell me.”

“I’ve often thought that, if I could only leave Lawrence, and find a place where people aren’t satisfied with doing the same thing day after day, year after year. My mother was a teacher, back in the old country, and she’d tell me, ‘Almira, use that mind of yours. There’s so much to the world that you don’t yet know. Find a way to go and explore it. Remember, that no matter how far you roam, your heart will always be your true compass. Trust it and it will take you to the one you’re meant to be with and, most importantly, it will also take you home.”

“You are, you’re…. so different from any girl I’ve ever known…”

“Sure, how many girls do you know have two black eyes and a nose like a witch?”

“No! I don’t mean how you look. It’s the way you look at things and you think about things… you really are special.”

“…for a girl with such

“Now I know you’re just playing.  But the fact is. I haven’t been able to get you out of my mind, since, since that night.”

“That night, the night when I hurt that man, I hurt him real bad. I can still hear him screaming…”

“Hey don’t! he had it coming, he was an animal.”

“No, don’t get me wrong. I hurt him as bad as I could and I don’t regret it. It was the only way I knew to get him to stop, stop hurting Annie and stop before he could hurt me… I would do the same again, it’s just that… it all makes me feel sad somehow.”

“…what?”

“You!  I just called you a pretty girl. And I meant it. But just now, when you were talking about that night, I realized that calling you pretty is like calling the Mona Lisa a ‘good portrait of a woman’….
If you want to say you’re a witch…”

“I said my nose makes me look like one.”

” Well, if you’re not, then whatever spell you did cast on me worked. You’re more than pretty… you’re everything that I didn’t know a woman could be. And now that I know, I don’t really think I can go back…”

“Who’s going back? Where?  Sterling, would you be a gentleman and take this coat! I’m freezing!! Almira! you’re looking very animated tonight, I trust our gentleman hasn’t been too boring and would you please fix me a plate, I’m starving….”

“….now what is this about Sterling here going away? You can’t by the way, there are things happening down at the Mill that will soon cause everything to change.”

*****

(Almira’s Keep Pole# 444 US Highway 61, Circe, Kansas. July 15 1939)

(It’s 6:35 pm and the early evening light is still bright enough to cast shadows running towards the East of the grove of walnut trees that shaded the converted barn. The temperature inside the dining hall is 95, the temperature outside, in the shade is 87. Outside the dining hall, to the right of the entrance and in clear view of the house is a grassy area with several wood trestle tables, it’s the favored gathering area when the weather is not forcing the transient guests to remain in doors.)

(Ephraim Hardesty, Ethan Hardesty and Phyllis McCutcheon)

“Lets go sit outside.”

“Ethan, grab your plate and lets go sit out at the table by the tree yonder.”

“Really, I can’t put you to so much trouble. I usually take my meals in the kitchen, there’s so much to do.”

“It’s a fine warm evening. It’ll be my pleasure to have some company for dinner. Ethan here eats in a hurry and my son Tom, well, when he’s around.”

“Your son, Tom is an exceptional young man.”

“You know him?”

“Well, he’s here at least a couple of days of the week, helping out and taking his payment in supper in the hall. Although, I suspect he’s mostly here to learn songs and play with some of the people, the musicians who seem to like this place as they wander around the country. Like that nice Mr Guthrie. You must be very proud, your son is quite talented.”

*****

(Prendergast home 23 Haverhill St. Lawrence, Massachusetts December 15, 1911)

(It’s 6:00 pm and the wind that hasn’t let up since 3 in the afternoon can be heard howling through the eaves of the 3rd floor attic. Snow freezes on the windows, framing the Town Commons across the street with a filigree of ice. Hope for an early letup vanished with the barely-seen sun, there remains only an increasing fear of how bad the storm will be.)
(Dinner is served in the Formal Dining Room. The long dining table is set for two at the end of the table closest to the fireplace, as if seeking the most elemental of protections, as Nature demonstrates it’s un-ending power. There are candles on the table, the dominant illumination is from the fireplace, which casts an ever-changing light over the room and the diners. Nothing appears the same, from one minute to the next.)

(Frederick Prendergast, Grace Byrne)

“Are you happy here, Grace?”

“Yes, Mister Prendergast”

“Frederick, please, I get Mr Prendergast all day long from everyone. It gets so tiresome, you would think it wouldn’t, being in charge of as much as I am, but it gets so wearying. The problems that they come to my office with and layout on my desk and they get to go away, happy. Or at least relieved that there is someone to fix things, things that they shouldn’t have messed up in the first place.”

“I can just imagine…”

“But the worst are the people who I give a job to and they get so full of themselves and strut around the Mills, like they’re important and they don’t bother to actually do what I assigned for them to do. Of course, eventually it gets worse and guess who they come running to…”

“You?”

“That’s right! And they are suddenly in need of assistance”

“Well it’s understandable how they would see that you’re the person who can fix it”

“You don’t know how refreshing it is to hear someone say that, Grace! Sad to say, I don’t get even the smallest appreciation from Mrs Prendergast. With her, it’s all about the twins are sick or the twins need this, the twins have to go to school. Do you think she even knows how hard I work?”

“I’m sure she loves you and the boys very, very much. You’re all she ever talks about during the day.”

“Well I hope that’s true because I’ll be spending more time down at the Mill in the next few weeks. There are some new laws about who can work and how many hours each week. Can you believe that? Meddling with business is going to take this country to perdition as God is my judge. There are changes coming to Lawrence and I only pray that I can control the effects they’ll have on the workers.”

Chapter 18

Featured

“Dorothy! What in tarnation is going on here? Why is there a truck from the Hardesty Farm and a yellow convertible doing in our dooryard? It looks like gypsies struck rich and picked our farm to settle at for the Summer!”

Emily Gale sat in the car, passenger-side window cranked down, a reversal of the priest in a dark and quiet confessional, accusing rather than listening. Uncle Henry sat behind the wheel, resigned to awaiting further instructions. Tom’s truck, ‘Hardesty Farms’ painted on the sides, held his attention in a grip that even his wife would have trouble breaking.

Putting her hand briefly on Eliza Thornberg’s arm, a gesture of friendship, support and warning, Dorothy walked from her friend’s car towards the still idling black sedan. By chance she glanced to the right of the small cottage that Hunk called home and noticed the pair of wooden-slat doors, built into the side of a small rise in the land. She immediately looked towards the west, puzzled why she should care, as the sky was the same actinic blue all the way down to the heat-blurred horizon. As she approached the ground-shadow of the black sedan, she noted that her Aunt Emily’s voice had taken on a characteristic tone. It was her ‘summoning’ voice. As familiar with its grating as she was with the biting cold of December on the Plains, Dorothy hesitated and stopped. It felt every bit like being called before a tribunal of one, and it was all the spark her jumbled emotions needed.

Puzzled by the sight of her daughter stopping and standing in the middle of the parking area, Emily Gale turned, (her voice more than her body), towards her husband,

“Henry! I told you to have this car fixed! That muffler is so loud I can’t hear myself think!  No, don’t bother parking it, you can come out later, just turn it off,” Had she looked at her husband’s face, Emily Gale might have been concerned. Not that she ever was concerned with how her Henry took her suggestions, but this time he wore an expression that not only would she have been unable to remember ever seeing, but it did not belong on the face of her kind, gentle and complacent husband, Henry Gale. Anything but gentle and complacent. Instead of attending to her drivers concerns, she opened the passenger-side door and stepped towards her adopted daughter.

“Dorothy!! What is going on here?”

Watching her Aunt cross the yard, she felt a sudden double memory, not so much déjà vu as it was, ‘(a) memory of a dream that reflected the real life events of the day before.’ She felt a tensing of her shoulders and legs, every animal’s instinctual preparation for fight or flight, the decision still seconds away. Something about the unwavering look in her eyes that triggered a memory, heard in the voice of the nurse at the Hospital,

They live their lives believing that they know all they need to know and never realize how much more there is to the world. Surely, of all people, you can appreciate that.

The decision that ‘flight’ was her best option was neutralized when, from behind her,

“Mrs. Gale! It’s such a pleasure to finally meet you! Dorothy has told me so much about how you’ve transformed this Town.”

Eliza Thornberg stepped past Dorothy, her right hand-held out, and intercepted Emily Gale. Dorothy noted the position of her friend’s hand, palm down, fingers bent and watched as her aunt just barely avoided curtseying as their hands touched.

“You must tell me everything about Dorothy’s childhood. She’s such a tight-lipped girl when it comes to herself. Yet, I feel like I grew up here. The sun is doing nothing for my complexion, come, let’s go inside. Do you think we might have some some fresh lemonade?”

Eliza put her arm lightly around Aunt Em’s waist and started walking to the house, turning to catch Dorothy’s eye and winking a smile at her friend.

“Hey, Hunk! you bring Tom out of the barn, It looks like we’re all going to be staying for dinner.” Dorothy walked towards the house, Uncle Henry remained behind, still sitting in the black sedan, both hands tightly gripping the steering wheel.

***

Almira Ristani was worlds away from the brown couch in a drafty apartment in the Mill section of Lawrence, Massachusetts on a winter’s blizzard evening. She was dreaming of flying, which was her favorite type of dream. Her dream-body, healthy and un-marked, swooped over fields of grass, close enough to touch the green blades. She had the sense of being in a dream, without the temptation to try to control her own actions and impulses. Content (and exhilarated) simply to be loose of the world, she moved through the air without thought. Suddenly there was a change, up ahead in the un-seen distance, something was beckoning, demanding yet not threatening. The girl’s path through the air shifted of its own accord, drawn to this wordless call. With this change, a new feeling grew within her. It shaped itself as an urgency, a thing that she wanted and at the same time knew that would change her, not all to the good. Almira thought, ‘…like a wolf in sheep’s clothing, hiding under a child’s soft blanket‘. In trying to understand the source of this feeling, her aimless swooping became more deliberate. She realized that she was entering a bank of clouds, towering on the horizon. As she drew closer, lightning bolts rooted themselves in the earth and tore at the guts of the clouds that gave birth to them and the rumble of thunder grew, like waves in an approaching storm crashing on a shoreline.

The thunder of her dream transformed into a most common, (and often annoying), sound of banging on the door of Annie’s apartment. Eyes still closed, the sleepers last-ditch attempt to stay where they preferred, Almira pulled the well-worn, pale blue robe closer around her body and let her legs slip off the far end of the sofa. Like a child tentatively sampling the temperature of small lapping waves at a beach, she let her feet test the commitment of the floor to being a solid and reliable surface. As if to insist that it was up to the task of supporting her, the cold of the floor pulled itself into her soles and up her legs. Resigned now to being awake, she counter-levered her legs to raise the rest of her body into an upright position in the middle of the couch. She felt the cold creep up her legs as her sleep-weighted arms desperately practiced feeling and flexing, touching and holding. Almira Ristani was now more earth-bound girl, than sky-flying angel, even the sadness of leaving the night world evaporated like morning frost in the sunlight. Resisting the impulse to rub her eyes, a bright aurora of yellow and green still encircling both, she settled for burying her fingers in her hair. Sleep-tangled, it fell down over her face, a virgin’s marriage veil, brushed away each morning, un-claimed by anyone other than her own duty to continue on through the world alone.

Looking up, Almira saw the door slowly open, a spasm of adrenaline coursed roughly from her center outwards, her muscles tensed in primal action. She relaxed as Sterling Gulch’s head projected through the opening, announcing his arrival. Almira was stunned into motionlessness as a sudden, nearly incomprehensible image appeared in her mind. It was, somehow meaningful enough to cause her dream-self, (delaying her return to the night), to laugh soundlessly and wave as she vanished before the light.

“Anyone home? Oh, hey! Almira! Sorry! I didn’t know you were asleep!”

Sterling Gulch, a shelf of fresh fallen snow avalanching off his broad shoulders down onto the threshold, walked into the apartment, talking,

“Annie told me that she had to work today, so she asked if I would stop by and check in on you. Between you and me and the gate post, I told her that you were one of the strongest girls I know and probably not in need of being checked-up on. Being Annie, she said. ‘For such a bright young man you’re sometimes very dense. Don’t ask, just do as I say.'”

Almira laughed,

“That sounds like my friend Annie. And, for what it’s worth, you’re both right.”

Almira smiled, felt a newly familiar tug on the skin at the bridge of nose, and became aware that her robe’s light cotton fabric that made it so comfortable to sleep in, did nothing to make her feel anything other than slightly un-dressed. From the corner of her eye, she watched her left shoulder creep out from under the robe, a rebel leaving its hidden refuge in hopes of learning the enemies position. Her brow furrowed, chasing her smile back inside her. And with what she hoped was a confident, un-self-conscious gesture, Almira pulled the blanket around her shoulders. Her efforts were undone by the absurd mental  image of a queen being ceremoniously draped with the royal robes.

“Well, it’s good to see that you’re feeling better. And, looking better.” Sterling seemed to be making himself at home, putting his coat over a kitchen chair and then moving the chair  to bring the back of the chair and coat closer to the stove.

“Not that you were looking bad….anything but! You’re really a pretty girl… it’s just compared to the…”

“My face is still pretty bruised and my nose, well, I don’t think I’ll ever have the same face that I had…”

“Stronger…”

“What?”

“Stronger is what you look like now. Your nose is, somehow, better. Thats only because your eyes were too deep, they look out from a place that, if I say so myself, is pretty scary.  Like the coals of fire, burning and hungry, both at the same time.”

Almira pulled her blanket and robe tighter and was confused to find that her body was tingling with un-sourced energy, more sensitive, as if suddenly resenting the protective covering. She started to pull at her hair, which apparently decided to move about on its own, throwing itself down across her brow.

“Uh… well,”

Almira heard sounds coming from her mouth and heard a quote from Oscar Wilde run through her mind, like an unruly child,

‘I am so clever that sometimes I don’t understand a single word of what I am saying.’

She brushed her hair impatiently from her eyes, just as the young man said, with sincerity that was just barely more frightening than it was exciting.

“After the bruising fades, and you put on some weight, you’ll go from being ‘pretty’ to flat-out, howl at the moon, beautiful.”

***

“Alright you can go over and play with the other children on the swing, just don’t wander off.”

Ephraim Hardesty watched as his son ran towards a car-tire suspended from a branch of tree that grew alone, by itself in a small meadow. It grew nevertheless, abandoned by the others of its kind, reaching into the earth, putting down its own roots. There was a small group of boys and girls of Ethan’s age gathered around the swing, members of the families currently living at Almira’s Keep. The farm was refuge for the dispossessed transients, wanderers and other victims of a society in transition. Like the snake that sheds its skin, nature’s harsh requirement for growth and maturity, people and families and in some parts whole communities, found themselves no longer a part of a life they knew and depended. And so, they wandered and looked for a place where they might be useful, welcome, even valued. Until then, like the dried and lifeless scales of a shed snake-shaped husk, they wandered, blown across the countryside by chance and the rumour of opportunity. Almira’s Keep was not on any Rand McNally or Shell Auto Atlas, but was as well-known as it needed to be to serve this community, which spread along the dusty roads and secondary highways of the country’s mid-section.

Seeing his son Ethan welcomed by the other children, Ephraim relaxed. Watching as the largest child, a girl with blonde hair who appeared to be about 10 years old, pointed to each child when it was time for them to climb on the swing, he thought that the fundamental principle that provided order among people is also the simplest. The largest child saw to it that the smaller children were not brushed aside. Thinking wistfully that perhaps the country would benefit if there was more of this kind of childish concern and wisdom, Ephraim walked towards the small farmhouse. Although not nearly as large as the barns or building that served as extra living quarters (for the visitors), it was clearly the nerve center of the farm.

“Miz McCutcheon? Are you here?” Ephraim stepped into the kitchen, holding the screen door to prevent the spring that held it closed from slamming shut. In the kitchen, girls and boys, ferried platters of food out through double swinging doors, into the large dining room. The sounds of conversations from the 20 or so people, echoed back into kitchen in waves, each time the doors opened and closed.

“Yes? Who it it?”

Ephraim walked towards the small room off the kitchen and stood in the doorway. The sole occupant, a woman in her early 30’s, was seated at a battered, green metal office desk. She turned to face him, but did not get up. The office was converted from a pantry, and therefore had no window. The only light came from a gooseneck desk lamp that stared down at the wide and cluttered workspace. It’s single bulb, focused by the chopped-off cone of its shade, created a pool of light, defined by loose leaf paper shores. Two yellow pencils and one well-worn eraser seemed to float on the pond of artificial light.

“Mr Hardesty! Hello! I didn’t recognize your voice!”

Phyllis McCutcheon looked up in an absent-minded surprise. She then seemed to retreat into thought, and as quickly, she returned with a laugh,

“But then, I don’t believe I actually heard you out there calling me.”

She seemed to enjoy her joke, and continued to laugh until a frown crossed her face,

“Is it that time of month already?”

She smiled with an openness that was at once endearing and worrying. Ephraim found himself returning her smile. He realized that it was his brief interactions with her that he enjoyed most about doing business with this farm.

“I beg your pardon?” his smile reflected an anticipation that her explanation of her statement would be sensible, but in a way that would never have occurred to him.

“The hogs. I have you here on my ledger as, once a month, deliver 2 hogs for slaughter,” without looking, she reached to her right and pulled a clipboard off a hook on the wall and glanced at it briefly. So briefly that Ephraim was certain that she already knew, to the last decimal, what was written on the sheet. Her practiced glance clearly was meant to reassure whoever she was talking to that they could trust information. Even if they didn’t want to trust this woman’s mind.

Ephraim stepped further into the room and, putting his right hand on the back of her chair, placed the unfolded piece of paper on the desk.

“Here’s the invoice, for the hogs. They’re already in the pens out behind the main barn. Though, for the life of me, I don’t understand why you want me to write out an Invoice, seeing how this really is good, old-fashion bartering. But, they’re here and I’ll let you know a couple of days ahead of when I’ll need the extra men for the fence repairing at my farm.”

A barter economy has always enjoyed a healthy popularity in the agricultural strata of most societies, even in America in the 20th Century. Although not exclusively the domain of the farmers, it’s use is a more integral part of the agrarian economy than the manufacturing or service industry sectors. During the first half of the century, the use of the barter system became essential to allowing farms to continue to function. Although, to no credit to the traditional financial institutions, bartering increasingly resembled the clandestine culture of an occupied people. Membership in the barter network served it’s constituents as much by those it kept out as anything else.

Phyllis sat and watched Ephraim, as if seeing him was critical to understanding what it was he was there to say. She nodded when he mentioned Invoice, her right hand unconsciously moving several papers into a more orderly stack.

“And a good evening to you.”

Ephraim Hardesty turned and walked towards the back door of the kitchen. His left hand hit the wooden frame of the screen door when he stopped. He could see his son standing with the other children, dressed in clothes that were neither better nor worse than those of the other children. Ephraim could see the laughter in his son’s eyes. clear across the gravel parking area. Always reading, happy to watch his father work, he suddenly realized that Ethan was his son, just as his brother Tom was surely his mother’s son. One was restless always looking for whatever he thought he lacked, the other content to be with the people he was at the moment, ever curious, yet without the need to find more.

‘You could have done worse, Ephraim,’ he thought, still standing half-in and half-out the door. Two sons, a farm that, despite the sly offers to help, managed to stay a going concern. ‘You could have done worse.’ looking at the children that Ethan clearly enjoyed playing with, ‘you could have your son and your worldly possessions all here, a stopover on a road with no end, only places to rest.’

He turned and walked back into the kitchen, to the door to the small office,

“If you don’t mind my saying, for all the time you spend in this kitchen, I can’t say I’ve seen you sit down for a dinner with any of the people I see on my visits. The Keep won’t shut down if you take time to lift your feet, have a meal with company and set down the burden you’ve carried since Mrs. Gulch took ill.”

“Mr Hardesty! I didn’t hear you come back. Yes, I do seem to work a lot, but it is as I would want it. In fact, I’ll say to you that I’m grateful for the chance to work as much as I do. I can’t think of anything I’d rather be doing.” Phyllis McCutcheon remained seated, but turned in her chair to face Ephraim.

“You need to set the ledgers and the accounts and inventories aside, for just a little while, as the good lord says, ‘man does not live by work alone’.”

She looked puzzled.

“No, I can’t recall which Chapter or Verse I got that from,” Ephraim laughed and continued,

“My son Tom is off somewhere, left me note this morning saying that he was ‘going to be spending the day exploring’, whatever that means! Though he’s still very young, I thought it high time that my son Ethan come with me and learn part of what it is to run a farm. I don’t think Tom will be taking over, there is too much of his mother in him, hearing the calling of the world out there, to settle down for the life of a farmer.”

“… uh, I’d enjoy your company for dinner.”

***

“Lillian, Mrs Prendergast and the boys will be remaining in Boston, the snow is quite bad.

“I will be dinning alone. No, nothing special. If you’d be so kind as to prepare something warming for my dinner, you may take the rest of the evening off. This snow is not letting up. You should spend the evening with your own family. I can fend for myself, but if you insist, ask Grace if she wouldn’t mind having everything ready for me when I return home. Now, since the twins won’t be back tonight, she’ll have little to do. I need to attend to a few things here at the office and will be arriving home at 6:00. Be certain that she gets my message.”

Chapter 17

Featured

It snowed in Lawrence, Massachusetts the week before the Christmas of 1911. While snow in December was not unusual, the skies seeming more menacing and the first flakes far larger, was, in part, due to the contrast with the mild weather of the first half of the month. Lulled into willful denial of the nature of the winters in New England, phrases like, ‘this might be the Winter without snow’, or ‘I can remember one year, must of been ’97 or ’98, when we went this far into the Winter without snow, it was a record warm year, that year’, floated in the air along the sidewalks, as tired workers and their nervous managers passed and mixed in a collegial stream, lulled by the un-seasonably warm temperatures of the first two weeks of the last month of the year.

The snow started early on Sunday, the 17th. As people walked to church, the pedestrian niceties possessed a subtle, barely-there, tinge of relief, ‘well, this is not unusual’ or ‘about time’, as if to express their disappointment at snow falling in December might somehow make matters worse. By unspoken agreement, no-one thought to complain about the snow fall, as if to speak of it, might, somehow, cause Winter to remember it’s true nature and make up for lost time. Like an elderly teacher nearing retirement, forgetting a scheduled exam, his students knew that to remind him of the over-sight would surely cause him to come up with a test far more difficult. All, as if to prove, somehow, that he wasn’t suffering from a mental decline.

It was still snowing when the faithful left their respective churches, stepping now more carefully, as the hour of snowing changed the sidewalks and paths through the Town Common from a condition of being ‘pretty’ to one warranting, ‘be careful’. Some were clearly disappointed that their prayers had been ignored. They did not express this disappointment for the same reasons the students of the increasingly senile teacher did not mention tests. Afternoon saw no end to the snow and the weather had taken the irrevocable step from, ‘snow’ to ‘a snow storm’. The un-seasonably green grass acquired 4 inches of snow cover by 3:00 pm and the sky grew darker than the clocks would require. Often, the early evening is when a mild snow storm begins to slow and stop, this was not to be, on this particular Sunday. By 6:00 pm the grey sky had turned a mottled black and it was as dark as midnight, the wind blew with increasing ferocity, out of the northeast. Old timers recognized the early signs of a blizzard and went about in their homes, making certain they knew where the candles and the empty buckets were, already wearing an extra sweater, as if to store up warmth against a very cold night.

***

“What the bloody hell are you talking about, Herlihy. Yes, I did, in fact, attend Dartmouth College. Speak up!!  No, I have not recommended that a study be done!”

Frederick Prendergast debated whether he should stand to make his point or remain seated. Both offered a certain advantage. Looking across his wide desk at the policeman, with the too shiny badge and shoes glistening with permanently fresh machine oil stains, he decided standing wasn’t worth the bother.

Sargent Herlihy was, at first, excited to hear from his Captain that he was asked to go the office of the CEO of the Essex Company. He genuinely, if not naively believed that anything he did that came to the attention to those who ran the City of Lawrence, would surely bode well for his career. Now, standing in front of an elaborately ornate desk, a single piece of furniture worth more than he was, Sargent Gareth Herlihy was having second thoughts about his ambition. The man behind the desk was the most powerful man in Lawrence, but there was something about the man that he just didn’t like.

“At least you didn’t add to our problems. Thank you for that, Sargent,”

Seeing the cop perk up and his chest swell at the attention, depressed Frederick Prendergast more than he was when he left Church for this ridiculously un-necessary meeting. That he was meant for better things than to ride herd on cops and Mill town toughs, was apparently still being overlooked by the owners of Lawrence, Massachusetts, the real owners, the Essex Company,

“Keep an eye on that Union Hall. There are changes coming. Changes that will not sit well with a certain, unruly element in town. Can I count on you, Sergeant Herlihy?”

“Yes sir, yes you can. I’m your man.”

Sargent Gareth Herlihy left the office of the CEO of the Essex Company feeling angry. He hoped that there would be trouble somewhere in town tonight, snow or no snow. Arresting unruly suspects usually cheered him up.

***

Almira knew she was dreaming. Sometimes this was very amusing, as she would wander the world of night and explore, secure in the knowledge that everything around her, large and small, threatening and inviting, was insubstantial and therefore not a particularly real danger to her.

This dream was different. Some of the more curious elements were oddly familiar and yet, somehow, seemed to deliberately hold back some critical bit of information or insight. The threatening and frightening elements of this particular dream were more vague than usual, darkly-foreboding feelings, like a low ground fog, moved silently, as if stirred by a night-breeze.

…she was walking away from a small cottage that stood at the base of immensely tall, red cliffs. Clearly someone’s home, it’s location did not seem to enjoy the benefit of being sheltered by the towering cliffs, but actually, was at risk. And it was not that rock shards, boulders might fall and crush it, rather the danger seemed to lie in how the cliffs seemed to grow, and in the process of growing, threaten to absorb the little house, turning it’s soft, warm light into hard, cold brick. There was a sound, the dreaming girl suddenly realized, a moaning that was coming from within the bricks.

Almira started to run from the cliffs and their song of despair. Coming to the top of a flower-covered hill, she stopped running and stood, paralyzed by the sight of endless plains, spreading out before her, farther than the eye could see. Small clumps of trees, many with a companion blue lake, dotted the nearly flat landscape, she looked for and failed to find any pattern to the arrangement. Both of these other-wise quite normal and even charming features, served only to make the endless fields seem even more soul-sapping. She turned to her left and saw a man, standing at a small crossroads, just a short distance from where she stood, (this being a dream, after all, Almira smiled to herself). The intersection, in the middle of the vast prairie, really was just a smallish square of prairie grass that was more trampled into dirt than the areas around it.

“Pardon me, can you tell me where I am?” She asked the man, who appeared not to notice her sudden arrival.

“No, but I would be happy to tell you where you should try to go.”

The man, who Almira thought looked a little like Emerson, was smoking a pipe that made her add, ‘and a bit of Abraham Lincoln’. Looking directly at her, the tall man began to re-fill his pipe. Somehow it had become enormous, despite the fact that he’d been smoking when she first noticed him. He continued to focus on his pipe, until he had it filled to his satisfaction, at which point he assumed the manner of an orator,

The voyage of the best ship is a zigzag line of a hundred tacks. See the line from a sufficient distance, and it straightens itself to the average tendency.”

He looked off into the distance, as if for a dramatic effect and, then smiled to himself, while bending over to whisper in her ear,

“Even though I wrote that, I now think it’s rather obvious, don’t you? It was my good fortune to have first read it in public as a part of a sermon. Do you know how little people actually pay attention when listening to a sermon?”

Almira giggled and thought she felt something near her leg, looked down, but saw nothing.

Emerson/Lincoln stood looking at her and, with the air of an actor relaxing after a demanding performance, put his pipe away and said,

“My friend, Margaret Fuller, once said,

Two persons love in one another the future good which they aid one another to unfold.’

I rather like that one, don’t you?”

Almira found herself blushing, but nodded, her hand coming up to her face,

“and, personally, I think that this is the best we can hope for, but since I’m only a dream man…”

Again, Almira felt a warmth rise in her face and spread through her middle,

“…this is your dream about finding your way, I should try to be more sure of myself and therefore, helpful to you. So I will say,

‘If you go one way, it will be as it was. Of course, if you choose to go the other way, it will be as you hope. Neither is your choice alone’.”

Almira looked towards what felt like the western horizon, although she knew that in dreams, nothing was as it appeared to be, turned back to face the man and found only a plain field, a scattering of flowers growing in a pattern that hinted of a path.

‘Well,’ Almira thought, ‘I had better get moving’, as the far-off sound of a distant scream began to grow, coming from the direction of the tall, red cliffs…

 

The aroma of minestrone soup lifted Almira from her dream, the sound of a tea kettle gave her sleep-closed eyes a direction to look.

“Well, look who’s finally awake! Hey, good morning, sleepy head.”

Her friend, Annie LoPizzo, stood in front of the stove, in the kitchen end of the large room. Almira wrapped in a brown quilt, was lying on an even darker brown sofa, at the far end of this same room. Annie wore an apron around her waist and her long dark hair up in a bun. She lifted the kettle from the stove, poured boiling water into a small teapot and brought two cups, (decorated with a woodlands scene, done in pale blue and saucers with a gold band circling the rim), over to the low table in front of the couch. Returning to the stove, Annie brought back the teapot, a small sugar bowl and sat on the couch next to Almira, who had raised herself into a more upright position, while keeping the quilt nearly to her shoulders.

“I have to work the new Sunday second shift today. The Owners must have extra long Christmas gift lists this year.” Annie looked back towards the stove, got up and walked over to it, stirred the contents of a large sauce pan, and then arranged some plates on the kitchen table.

“It’s snowing, so I’m leaving a little early. I want to stop at the Union Hall to check on the Dombrovsky twins, before I go on to the Mill. Those girls are well-meaning and hard-working, but you’d think, with them being twins, it would be impossible to be so dumb! I’ll have to make sure that all the supplies are out on the counter. With this snow, I’m sure we’ll have people stopping by for supplies.”

Annie walked into the bedroom, unbuttoning her blouse, her apron left behind, draped on the back of one of the kitchen chairs. Pulling at the back of her skirt, she stepped out of it, never stopping, as she walked about the bedroom, gathering together the clothes she always wore to work at the Mill, clothes that were simple and fit closely to the body. She did not make this choice out of vanity, although a person would be forgiven for thinking so, as Annie had the kind of figure that men lusted for and women coveted.

As Annie stood in the bedroom doorway, wearing only her bloomers and a tooth brush, Almira found herself at once self-conscious and, at the same time, jealous of her friend’s natural comfort with herself. Her own figure was developed to quite an impressive degree, unfortunately, her self-confidence was not keeping pace with the increasingly prominent display of her feminine attributes.

“Sterling will be stopping by later, probably towards dinner, I have some gravy simmering on the stove for him. You should stay with the soup, maybe a little bread, ok?”

Almira pulled herself up on the couch,

“I’m not a little girl that you need to have someone babysit when you’re at work!”

Almira watched as Annie stopped working at her hair with her hairbrush. She saw a passing look pull at her friends face, the effort she made to resist whatever feeling possessed in that split-second showed in a slumping of her shoulders, her breasts, for just a fleeting time, made her look a woman of many more years and much more harder a life. Annie shook her head in a way that made Almira think of a horse, bridle removed after a long hard day pulling, shook her own mane and took the pleasure of feeling her hair brushing her shoulders to rejuvenate her,

“It wasn’t my idea! Your handsome and determined protector has been coming here everyday since …that night. Of course, you haven’t seen him because you’ve been asleep, healing. But he comes here every day. He sits and pretends to be interested in what my day has been like and how much work it is to run the Union Hall. And, you are never out of his sight.”

Almira looked surprised, a bit scared and yet quietly happy,

“What? You must be mistaken! You are why he is here, you’re so… so what men want. I am an ugly duckling in comparison. No, make that a ragged, under-sized raccoon. …with a very large nose.”

Annie stood and looked at Almira, and tilted her head, as if to get a different perspective, then walked over and, after brushing the girl’s hair down and to the side, stepped back and said,

“Well, now that I look, you’re right. But a very pretty, young raccoon.”

The room was silent, then both broke into laughter.

Almira Ristani hid from her thoughts nearly as much as from her emotions. To a passerby, she would seem cold, aloof and un-caring of the difficulties of those around her. However, to a friend and especially to a man who sees his life made worthwhile in her eyes, she was much, more more.  To them, she appears a small, delicately featured girl who might someday turn into a woman. Her pale blue eyes were the color of a distant horizon on a summer afternoon. However, at those rare moments when caught off-guard, the observant person might be startled by the depth in her eyes. And, if one were especially daring, ambition incited by love, they might even see in her eyes, back where the soul touches the world, a sparkle of night flashing like distant lightening.

“You know men, but you must be mistaken.”

“I do know men. And you are still very young and, probably the smartest person I know… old or young, man or woman. You have such a gift for understanding,”

Annie sat on the edge of the couch and, after brushing Almira’s hair from her eyes, put her hand over the girls heart,

“You still have so much to learn about this. And, unlike that sharp and controllable mind of yours, the heart is like the ocean, powerful and un-controllable. And you, my little raccoon, have everything to learn about that particular subject!”

Almira took Annie’s hand in hers and looked at her friend,

“Yes, I know the bruises will go away. But my nose is now different, it feels different on my face. I find myself trying to look around it. It makes me feel that I need to squint. This morning, when I looked in the mirror, I thought, ‘So this is what a young, growing witch sees when she looks in the mirror’.”

“Stop that! This instant!

Annie’s voice was angry and Almira was taken aback by it’s vehemence,

“I never want to hear you speak like that about yourself again! Ever! I am a very attractive and intelligent woman, and I have only attractive and intelligent people for friends. Are you calling me a liar? If you are, we cannot be friends. I don’t have friends who think that I don’t know what I’m talking about or am stupid or something!”

Almira felt a sudden dipping in her stomach at the emotion in her friends voice. The passion and sincerity made the prospect of their friendship being at risk, terribly real. Annie remained seated and, for the young girl, the feeling of safety in the small space between the back of the couch and her friends leg melted the cold fear and a happy sadness overwhelmed her. Almira grabbed Annie’s arm in a hug, like a child clutching at her mother’s dress, a universal signal for being in need of protection.

Annie sat and held her friends hands as the girl began to cry,

“I won’t. I promise! As long as you are my friend, then it doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks of how I look, even the girl in my mirror.”

Almira curled on to her side, being very careful in resting her face against Annie’s leg. Annie stroked the girls hair, smoothing the tangles of fine hair, as if it was the tangle and confusion and knots that created the storm within her young friend, and to comb out and untangle the very, very light brown strands, would bring peace.

Without lifting her head, Almira spoke, almost into Annie’s thigh

“Exactly how well do you know men?”

Her body shook, as she tried to restrain her giggling.

Annie raised her eyebrow and looked sternly at the girl, both began to laugh,

“Your precious Mr Emerson and Mr Thoreau, with their lofty insights into the transcendental? They are children playing with wooden blocks compared to my understanding of the ways and nature of men! Your church-leading, college-men-of higher-education have not learned the secret language of boys who would be men. Young men speak words and think that we listen, seeing only the pretty pictures they paint with their voices. We listen and we watch, and …and, if we are smart, we learn to know them from what they do not say. Most of all, for those of us who are very, very smart, we learn from what they do not tell themselves.”

Leaning over the girl on the couch, Annie tucked in the quilt extra tight on the sides.

As Annie LoPizzo closed the apartment door, she looked and saw her houseguest on the couch with her books. Some lay open, across her lap and more on the floor, in front of the couch. Leather-bound pickets, running in staggered rows in the quiet before the battle.

***

Dorothy was out of the truck and running up to Eliza before Tom turned off the engine. She grabbed her friend in a hug that spoke of the quality of the time she spent apart much more eloquently than the amount of time passed.

“How long have you been waiting? I wish I’d known you were coming….” as she broke the hug first

“I only just got here. Don’t worry about me, I’ve had Henry Fonda here seeing that I didn’t get too bored.”

Dorothy watched as Eliza smiled at Hunk, barely keeping from licking her lips. For his part, Hunk only smiled into her friends dark eyes. Like a square of paper in a pan of developers solution, the parts appeared first, the meaning, second. With a feeling of surprise, tinged with something unidentifiable, she thought,

‘What happened to my scuff and stumble farmhand, Hunk? Eliza’s good with men, but I had no idea she could raise the not-yet-living to life.’

“Well, Dee, from the looks of your cute friend in the truck, you had some plans of your own, should I come back a little later?”

Eliza started to walk towards the cottage under the apple tree, next to the barn, “Come on, Hank, these two clearly have something on their minds. Show me all those books Dorothy told me so much about.”

Dorothy felt a hand entwine her fingers, large and strong, forcing them apart, forming a grasp that was at once rough and at the same time intimately exciting.

“Wait. No need. We were just stopping by the house for…”

Before she could complete the sentence, a distant sound, growing from the East, caused everyone, except Eliza and Hunk and Tom Hardesty to turn and look out over the fields towards County Rd #2 and the approaching vehicle.

“Shit! Why couldn’t it be a tornado tearing up the road instead of them!”

Dorothy looked around the open yard area, first at the house, then the barn and then the small cottage, where Eliza and Hunk had managed to get halfway to, and then at the two vehicles, Tom’s stake body truck, with Hardesty Farms painted on its rusty blue side panels and Eliza’s bright yellow Packard, it’s black canvas top making it look like a very large bee, sitting still between the flowers in a country yard.

“Hunk! Take Tom to the barn and Eliza, you stay with me. Let me do the talking, ok?”

Dorothy looked at the other three young people, Hunk looked thoughtful, Tom looked determined and Eliza was clearly amused.

Chapter 16

Featured

Dorothy stopped at the end of the driveway at 10:15. With her left foot down for balance, she looked up County Rd #2 to the west and saw what she expected, a ribbon of tar, flat yet undulating, bound for the horizon. To her right, nearly the exact same view. There was a difference, (minor to one, very, terribly significant to another), the green and white sign announcing, ‘Circe 23 Miles’. She’d have left earlier, but preferred to avoid unnecessary attention, and waited until Aunt Emily and Uncle Henry drove-off in the truck. Now, sitting on her bike, she looked at the small book bag in the wicker basket attached behind the seat, there, to provide her with a ‘reason’ for going into town, should the need for an explanation of her whereabouts become necessary. Dorothy didn’t expect to need the books. During breakfast, Auntie Em talked vaguely about, ‘seeing to some matters in Town, stopping at the Town Hall, after Henry loaded up on the supplies from the Feed and Grain’. Hunk was at the breakfast table, as always, but seemed more introspective than usual, enough so to cause Dorothy to think, ‘something’s bothering Hunk’. She said nothing, however, her own day’s plans demanded her full attention. She woke earlier than normal, that morning, with a single thought, ‘Get an answer from Mrs. Gulch.’

Nights had not, of late, been especially kind to Dorothy.  The smothering embrace of July, with it’s hot-during-the-day, very-warm-through-the-night temperatures did nothing to help. She’d discovered that, if she found a way to exert herself in the course of the day, her nights would be more restful, or failing that, at least be mercifully dreamless. 

It was the dreams, in-between the tossing and turning, that wore most heavily. And it wasn’t the content of the dreams that clung to her mind, like prickly vines in tall grass, pulling and pricking the skin with very small, seemingly insignificant thorns. Until, that is, they embedded themselves under the skin, then their seeming insignificance was transformed into something much more difficult to ignore. Stand perfectly still, in the middle of the thorn patch and you will be spared. Try to escape, that became a different affair entirely.
It wasn’t even her dreams of Oz, with friends left behind, and it wasn’t the dreams of New York with her friends who waited there, that kept Dorothy awake at night, and spending her day wanting to find a place to sleep.

What weighed on her was the mixing, and subtle distortion, of what she loved. Her memories of Oz were of triumph over adversity, through drawing together some odd, (actually very odd) characters, and sharing the feeling of being in a place where she belonged. Her thoughts about school, back in New York, would come out of the pre-dream quiet and she’d relive the challenge of finding her way in a very different environment, with some very different people. But, as she did in Oz, Dorothy prevailed. Her feelings grew stronger and stronger for her new life in a place where variety was desirable, and routine was a necessary evil. There, with her new friends, she knew that life was meant to be an adventure.

Dorothy would wake from these dreams, half-dreams and forgotten memories of dreams, feeling terribly lost. Worse, feeling alone. Even worse than that, feeling like she did not know which of the worlds that she traveled through each night, was meant to be her world. When, on those mornings she couldn’t wait for dawns’ light to offer a direction to run and escape the dreams, the question was always the same, ‘how could she know where she belonged, if she didn’t know who she was in the first place‘.

Dorothy Gale pushed off with her left foot, letting the bicycle’s front wheel wobble, daring it to cause her to fall to the road. ‘That,’ she thought as her speed rose, ‘would serve me right and at least it would be something I could do something about.’

She rode east on County Rd #2, determined to see a sleeping woman about her life.

***

“You!”

Dorothy was not really surprised, at the sight of Nurse Griswold standing alone, (‘come to think of it’, Dorothy thought, ‘she’s always the only one in the Ward.’), at the windows at the far end of the row of beds in the Charity Ward of St Mary’s Hospital. She suspected that her own lack of surprise that Nurse Griswold would be in the Ward today, was because her visit was unplanned. ‘And, that’, thought Dorothy, ‘should make it very surprising’.

Dorothy felt her anger return. Like an old friend, it beckoned her, an offer of the worn and tired toys of youthful indulgence, ragged dolls with eyes sewn back, almost in place. This anger was from a place inside her, where feelings and emotions that were meant to hurt another person, are stored against future need. Much like the care that must be taken with curare tipped darts, it’s a dangerous balance of readiness against the very real risk of self-inflicted damage. Righteous accusation is one of the poison-tipped weapons, that, unlike simple hate and anger, absolutely must be personal. Otherwise, like a cannonball with an insufficient charge of gunpowder, there’s noise and light, but little in the way of damaging punch. Dorothy felt a need to let this mysterious woman know that she was no longer surprised, (or impressed), by the way the tall, thin nurse would appear at just the right time. She’d decided that Nurse Griswold was not a threat, but hoped to dispel the sense of ‘otherness, mysterious power’. In this, Dorothy’s age betrayed her, the conviction that the power to make her feel off-balance lay in the inscrutable aura Nurse Griswold wore, as much as her starched white uniform. What nurtured her impatience, was the attitude that this woman presented every time they met, the air of nonchalance and total confidence. It made Dorothy Gale want to shout, ‘Just wake her up and let me get my answers!’

Since returning home for the Summer, Dorothy found impatience to be her dominant mental state. Impatience with the sluggish pace of life on the farm, impatient at the lack of interesting people in Town, impatient with her life…..

“Well, are you going to ask me?”

It sounded like Nurse Griswold was standing right behind her, however, Dorothy was determined not to be tricked and refused to turn around to answer. She was utterly certain that, were she to turn, Nurse Griswold would not be standing behind her. Instead, after the inevitable split-second of disorientation, she would be standing at the far end of the Ward, just as natural as could be. Dorothy decided to take matters into her own hands, and, smiling confidently, closed her eyes.

‘Lets see her trick me now!’ she thought, feeling a surge of welcomed aggressiveness.

“That doesn’t work more than once, you know,”

the voice seemed to approach her from far away, (farther away than should have been possible, the Charity Ward only had 2 rows of 5 beds on opposite sides of the room). Dorothy resolved to keep her eyes closed, but her face started to shift into a frown, as the thought that she was being trapped by the will of someone, someone who should be in no position to do so…

“You are a willful young lady. Which can be so very good a quality. I knew a girl, not that different from you, who had such Will. But her life was different from yours, she had to find her way to where she knew she belonged. You, my willful young Dorothy, have the opposite problem.
The Will  is very often the most difficult of strengths. Until you learn to master that power, it almost always brings more trouble than good. It will make a normal life boring, and a peaceful, satisfying life seem like an un-attainable dream.”

“I don’t understand what you mean,”

Dorothy said, closed eyes looking towards the bed of the still-silent woman,

“All I want is to ask Miss…Mrs Gulch a harmless question or two. Yet every time I come here, she is asleep and you are keeping me from waking her up. If you’d get out of my way, I’ll get my answers and leave and you won’t have me bothering any more.”

Nurse Griswold’s voice was very, very close,

“You are still trapped by your Will. You know that it shouldn’t be so, that surely everyone is playing tricks on you. You know what you know and you know where you’ve been and as much as you tell everyone here about it, they do not listen. And even that wouldn’t bother you, that you don’t know. What hides in the night and tugs at your mind is that all you need to know is, where is your real home, who is your real family.”

***

Dorothy pushed through the swinging doors, one-step-short of running, and went down the corridor away from Ward C. She needed to find someone, a person, a child, any listener who, by listening, would allow her to believe that she knew where she was, and what she had to do with her life.

She stopped at every open door, sometimes just looking in, other times, if there was a person in a bed, and they noticed her, she offered a cheery hello. She tried, unsuccessfully to avoid thinking, ‘I wish you could escape this room and I could switch places, at least then I’d know where I belonged.’ Finally, she came to the Main Lobby. The high-ceilinged space also housed the Main Admitting Desk, which faced the Main Entrance and, off to the side, a suite of offices. Set off in a short corridor, really just an alcove, were three doors, frosted glass etched to identify the occupants. To the left, Finance and Accounting, to the right Medical Services and in the center,the Office of the Medical Director, which, of course, was the office of Dr. Thaddeus Morgan.

Dorothy walked towards the offices, but before she could knock on the closed door, she heard Dr. Morgan’s distinctive, over-enunciated voice. The transom window, tilted outwards on it’s chain, served as quite an effective amplifier of the conversation in the office,

“Mrs Gale, I assure you, the plans for the renovation are on track. But a project like this takes time.”

Dorothy jumped back, that her Aunt might be in the hospital was surprising, and not a little disturbing. She strained to hear her Aunt’s voice. All she could hear were short, consonant-laden phrases, in a hard-edged contralto, the thin, tight lips of Emily Gale gave her words as much warmth as the chrome on a new car’s bumpers. She knew her Aunt was sitting opposite the Medical Director, by the time of his responses. That she didn’t hear anything of her Uncle Henry served only to confirm his presence, the silent male at his wife’s side, in case there was ever a question of her authority to speak. There rarely ever was a challenge, at least not more than once.

“Yes, the architectural plans are finalized and submitted to the Planning Commission in Town Hall. Why? Because there’s a Process of Review. No, I don’t think they’re dragging their feet.”

“Yes, they do appreciate how much the Gale Wing will benefit all of Circe.”

“No, I don’t think you should go and get them straightened out. Well, no, that’s not how these kinds of projects are done. Well, I suppose, if you spoke to the Building and Planning Officials. Well, I’m not certain how appropriate this conversation is. No, I meant nothing by that, it’s simply that I am responsible to the Board of Directors… yes, I know you’re on the Board. And Chairwoman of the Endowment Committee. No, I did not forget that.”

“There are, in fact, still 5 patients in the Charity Ward. I hardly think that’s an appropriate thing to say. We have a Charter and a Mission to serve the community. Yes, the State government does have a say and most certainly an influence. I’m sure you do.”

“No, I assure you, I’m not being sarcastic. The people of Circe, all the people, rely on St Mary’s Hospital for care.”

“Certainly. I will continue to do my job, The full scope of my job. Yes, I do know that I serve at the pleasure of the Board.”

“Why sure, I’ll go with you to the Town Hall, if you want to review the applications. There have been no challenges to the Hospital Expansion Project.
Let me tell my secretary and we can walk right across the Square, get this matter straightened out, this very afternoon.”

Dorothy hit the brass panic bar of the Exit door with both hands, the double sound of the bar hitting the door, and the latch releasing, echoed behind her as she ran down the stairs. She extended her arms out to her sides as she descended the stairs. A passerby might think, ‘why, that girl is not running that fast, or maybe she’s older than she looks’. A more observant passerby might take notice that the running girl’s hands were turned, her palms, faced back, as if expecting to be grasped. And a very observant passerby, would watch as a flurry of emotion crossed her face, like shadows on a windy day. Determination stumbled into surprise, which was slowed and pulled down into disappointment, which, as the girl reached the sidewalk, still running, took hold as a frown of anger. Letting her arms fall to her sides, she ran towards the Town Square. She felt like crying, which only made her angry, the anger stirred feelings of loss and regret. She tried to outrun her feelings, leaving one behind, only to overtake another,

“Get me out of here!”

Tom Hardesty was sitting on the back of his stake-body truck, playing his guitar. Were someone to ask why he picked the back of his truck, in the Town Square, to play, he’d of said something like, “Why not?”

That answer would have told them everything important about Tom Hardesty.

Sliding off the end of the truck, just as an elderly couple made their way past, busy looking at the sidewalk two steps ahead to avoid any chance of tripping, Tom played a vamped G chord and sang,

“I‘m back in the saddle again
Out where a friend is a friend
Where the longhorn… Where the girls can be so good
… If the boys do what they should
Back in the saddle again”

Tom laughed at his lyrics, put his guitar behind the front seat and started the truck,

“Hey, Dorothy, what about your bike?”

Dorothy was turned in her seat, trying to get the truck door to stay shut. She pulled it closed, but when she let go of the torn-padded arm rest on the inside, the door swung outward. She pulled it shut again and holding it closed for an extra second, took her hand off the arm rest and watched, as it slowly swung out and open. She pulled it quite firmly, firmly enough to cause the half-open window to rattle from the impact of the door with the frame of the truck. Again, once she gave up her hold, it would swing ajar. Dorothy grabbed the arm rest with both hands and slammed it inwards, the tired-rubber gasket that lined the edge of the door barely blunting the metal smacking on metal sound. She started to slam the door closed, always allowing enough time, after the door was in shut position, to see if it stayed. It did not. As she began to slam the door faster and faster, a rhythmic punctuation formed. She turned her head towards Tom who, back against his own door, leaned towards her, his left forearm on the steering wheel,

In cadence, and with a tone, part savage and part despairing as counterpoint to the harsh sound that filled the cab with the sound of metal on metal,

“First of all, …it’s ….not ….my …bike,
second …of …all,
I …don’t …give …a ….good ….god!!damn!!”

Dorothy stopped on the last slam, holding the door shut, un-willing to let go, as if to let it, would prove that she was powerless. Her shoulders slumped, worn down by the pounding noise and stared out the half-open window. The scent of Tom’s cigarette breath and sweat moved slowly around her neck as he reached towards her. She felt the slight wood-rough callous as his other hand reached around her left side and covered her hands holding onto the armrest. His scent was a spark to her memories of their time together, as mundane as the feel of sweaty sheets on a shared bed. Tom pulled the door frame with a sudden jerk, down near the door lock and she heard a metal-on-metal click, as somewhere inside the door the latch snapped free and seated itself into the locking mechanism. She felt the tension in her shoulders vibrate and dissolve and leaned back into his white tee-shirted shoulder, morning stubble grazing, barely pulling, on her ear lobe.

Dorothy took the hand that covered hers on the armrest, turned it over so his palm faced up, her much smaller fingers fitting between his, traced a scar along the bottom of his thumb, ran a finger over the smoothed over finger tips, raised her eyebrow, ‘guitar calluses’, he whispered, his breath moving her hair slightly. Taking both his hands, Dorothy held them to her and leaned back, tension flowing from her,

“This is nice,”

A murmur/vibration in her left ear,

“Mmmm”

“And, it’s 11:00 am in front of the Public Library. We need to go.”

Tom Hardesty looked sideways at her and smiled,

“You pick the place, I’ll take you there.”

***

Hunk stepped out on the porch hearing the first fly buzzing of sound out on County Rd #2. From the small, plain porch of the small cottage, he stood and watched as a dry gray cloud of dust raced along the road, coming from the direction of Town, headed in the direction of everywhere else.

“Hunh” was his comment at the sight of the cloud, barely losing any speed as it turned and raced up to the house. The wind was just right, a light breeze that blew in the direction of the car. The result was the car stayed in the middle of the cloud, barely visible, occasionally the noon day sun struck chrome and the effect was flashes of lightning in a distant thundercloud.

The car came to a stop in the middle of the dirt area that separated the house from the barn, (and Hunk’s cottage). The dust cloud kept moving and soon revealed a yellow Packard convertible, idling and finally, with a stuttering mechanical cough, the engine went quiet, as Hunk approached the driver’s side door.

“May I help you?”

The window, dust-caked into near opacity, rolled down and he saw a remarkable woman turn to look at him.

“Yeah, I’m looking for the Gale house, Dorothy Gale. Do I have the right place?”

“You must be Eliza”

Hunk amended ‘woman’ into ‘girl’ as she smiled at him,

“Damn it! Did someone call ahead? I wanted to surprise D. All that trouble to waste!”

Hunk, smiled to himself and thought, ‘lets make that ‘young woman’ for now’, and leaned towards the open window.

“No, sorry! no one called ahead. At least not that I know of,”

“Then how could you know who I am… I don’t know who you are, so how…”

“Well, it was just a lucky guess, I guess,” Hunk started to step back a step,

“I saw the California plates and your accent is not from around here and you’re attract…young and… ”

“So, none of the girls in Kansas are to your liking?” Eliza smiled innocently and watched for the defensive stumbling to begin.

“What? Well, up until now…”

Seeing the young woman was obviously about to get out of the car, Hunk leaned forward and grabbed the door handle. But didn’t open it, rather, he waited until she looked up and nodded permission for him to open the door.

Surprising himself, Hunk held the door open with his left hand and offered his right to the girl as she got out of the driver’s seat. She reached out without looking and moved without any effort to look and see if he was going to be there for her. It was a practiced, though natural grace and very much self-assured. The impression she gave as she stood was that the sun would have sooner risen in the West, than Hunk not be there to offer her a support. She was as much what he imagined a starlet would be like in real life, as the license plates claimed California as origin. Hunk was more surprised by his eagerness to remain standing, in a place that would make it likely that he would be very close to this girl. To his credit, he recognized the sudden leaning on him, as she closed the door, as a sensual gift to worthy staff, rather than a clumsiness or imbalance. He was certain without reason that this girl was rarely, if ever, off-balance.

‘To the manor born,’ popped into his head and he unsuccessfully stifled a burst of laughter.

For the first time, the young woman looked her probable age, as she turned and said, with a slight edge to her voice, the hint of a raised eyebrow,

“What?’

“Sorry, Miss… a phrase came into my mind, quite un-invited, I might add. In my defense, I was laughing at how in-appropriate the sub-conscious can be…”

“It’s Miss Thornberg. But, hey, seeing how you’re packing a pretty sophisticated, and obviously affectionate sub-conscious, under the farmer jeans, you may address me as Eliza.”

Hunk stared in silence and, to her credit, the young woman started giggling, a split second before Hunk

***

“Aunt Em and Uncle Henry are meeting with that Dr Morgan. He’s always strutting around like he needs to make noise or people will ignore him. There’ll be no one home.”

Tom slid back into driver position, and headed the truck towards Main St. He had to reach over the steering wheel to shift gears with his left hand, as Dorothy still had possession of his right. Just as they pulled up to the Stop sign, at the corner where the blacksmith shop used to be, Dorothy seemed to notice the hand she held in her lap, looked over at him and said,

“Can I give you a hand?”

Tom laughed,

“It’s your’s for now, I will be needing it back at some point, say when a guitar needs playing or a cigarette needs smoking. Deal?”

Dorothy Gale made no move to let go of his hand and looked out the window as the houses began to turn, as they always did in Circe, Kansas, back into limitless fields and distant horizons.

“Deal”

***

I stayed where I was, next to the tiny, very battered, but suddenly quite attentive girl on the couch, as Officer Herlihy spread his presence through the room. Naturally, he was focused on Annie, but his hands were at his side and his attention was growing in intensity, like the blackening curl of newspaper, about to burst into obvious flame. Not that I didn’t like cops. Actually, I didn’t like cops. But I kept in mind, that my experience had always been about me, now, here in the Union Hall, it wasn’t as simple as a problem between me and authority.

“I’ll be needing a statement, Miss LoPizzo, from you and, er… your friends. If it had been a mere nuisance call, I could wish you a good evening and Merry Christmas. But, Saints preserve me, the lass here is awfully hurt looking and, the lad next to her, well, I don’t believe we’ve made acquaintance. You understand, don’cha?”

Herlihy continued into the room as he spoke, a trick I’d learned long ago. I sat and watched as Annie smiled,

“Why, of course, Officer Herlihy, or is it Sergeant, surely it’s now Sergeant?”

He actually started to blush and bent slightly at the waist and, for the millionth time, I felt awe and despair. Awe for the power of a strong, sexy woman, and despair for the avid vanity of my gender, when confronted with the evolutionary imperative.

“Thank you Miss LoPizzo, it was just recently I was promoted.”

“Surely it was in recognition of a criminal capture or a mystery un-ravelled,” Annie moved to between the cop and the couch,

“Let me take your coat and I’ll see if we don’t have something hot to warm you against the bitter cold outside. I just can’t imagine how you do what you do, in such dangerous and difficult conditions, and still have time to be kind to a woman working late at night.”

As Annie stepped between where Almira lay and I sat, on the edge of the couch, I felt something move under my overcoat. I started to get up but, instead, looked down at the girl, who was staring at me with an odd expression. Relaxing, I realized that what I felt was Almira’s left hand, under the folds of my overcoat. Without showing any sign of anything but being a badly injured girl, she took my revolver, and keeping it out of sight, moved it from my back pocket to under the blanket, and nestled the gun next to her thigh. Out of easy sight of anyone but an amazing girl and an increasingly pissed-off young man.

Putting the cop’s coat on the desk in the middle of the room, Annie said,

“Oh! where are my manners!! You must forgive me! All the excitement of a guest this late, and a Police Sergeant at that!”

I watched in amazement, as she actually took the cop by the arm and walked him over to where we sat. I could see the war in Herlihy’s face. Suspicion of me, concern for a hurt little girl and obvious infatuation with the woman who lead him around like a prized bull.

“Sargent Herlihy, this is Sterling Gulch, Sterling, this is Sergeant Herlihy.”

I stared at him and he stared back, the natural tension re-establishing itself, like a dog pack on the scent of an injured rabbit. Annie stepped over to the couch, and sat on the edge, butting me down further down to the farther end, and took a handkerchief from her blouse, dabbed gently at Almira’s forehead. To his credit, it took Herlihy only 45 seconds to stop staring at Annie’s cleavage and to look at the girl.

“Aye and you say, she slipped and fell?”

“Outside, on the sidewalk, terrible luck, she had her arms full of dry goods that we were bringing here. For the out-of-work children, you know.”

Herlihy leaned in, to get a closer look at the ice pack, precariously perched on Almira’s forehead above the bridge of her nose. He didn’t grab another peak at Annie until he straightened up and pronounced,

“Well, a terrible accident it is, but there’s nothing criminal about the misfortunes of young, well-meaning girls.”  He stood and looked around the room again, ending with me, now sitting at the far end of the couch.

“And, you Mr. Sterling, you I don’t recognize and I take great pride in knowing the people in my neighborhoods.”

“He’s…” Annie was standing now.

“He’s not a mute. Are you, boyo?”

Herlihy was clearly bored with the situation and hoping to stir something up, make it worth his while coming down here in the cold night. Or, at very least, give him a story to tell the other cops, as they changed their uniforms in the morning for overalls or other clothes for the part-time jobs at the Mills.

“No, sir. I’m, not. I’m down here from Dartmouth. The college, you know. Here as part of a project to study the amazing transformation achieved by the Essex Company here in Lawrence. I’m supposed to apprentice to the Management, in one of  the Mills, all under the direction of Mr. Prendergast. My Sociology Professor and he went to college together and they thought it would be an interesting experiment. You know, seeing the great City with all it’s parts, working together like an efficient machine.”

I could see Herlihy’s eyes sharpen at my mention of Prendergast, which didn’t surprise me, and then glaze over as I started heaping the bullshit on about scholarship and study, which also did not surprise me.

“Well, it’s getting late. See that you get this lassie some proper care and,” staring at me again, “try and not cause any trouble.”

Annie somehow had gone and gotten the cop’s coat and helped him into it, all while walking him to the door.

“Thank you again, Sargent Herlihy.”

Leaning against the door, Annie sighed,

“Too much excitement for one night. Time to pack it in.”

I stood next to the couch and looked at Annie and then down at Almira. Annie LoPizzo gave off a sense of energy and life that, even now, 12:45 am on a December Sunday morning, filled the room. I smiled to myself and thought, ‘the cop didn’t stand a chance’. The girl on the couch, now she was another matter entirely. Where Annie radiated energy, Almira was simply intense. Nothing you would necessarily notice, especially from a girl covered in bandages and blood traces, but there was a strength and power within her that made Annie’s natural brightness seem to dim to nearly nothing. Even with her eyes swollen, beginning to show the inevitable bruising, there was an intensity that made me want to let myself fall into them,

She tried to sit up. Annie was next to me in a flash.

“ah deed ta go nome,” as she got an elbow on the arm rest.

“You, my young friend, are coming to my house and I won’t hear any talk otherwise. Even if you do recover the ability to speak in English!” Annie looked at me,

“My apartment is on the first floor, not two blocks from here. She lives in a third floor walk-up. I won’t have her trying to go up and down that many stairs, at least until she heals some.”

“Don’t look at me, I agree! She’s the one you have to convince.”

I was speaking to Annie while looking Almira in the eyes. She had a look of uncertainty, but the exhaustion was winning out. Finally, she slumped back on the couch.

“O day, nust a while”

“There! It’s settled!” Annie smiled at a problem solved. She looked at me and said,

“Pick her up and bring her to my apartment,” and walked towards the back room to get their coats.

I looked at the girl on the couch. She looked back up to me. I’m 6 feet 2 inches tall and in pretty good condition. The girl on the couch looked to be 5 feet 6 inches, had light brown hair and a young girl’s version of the body of a woman. I looked this girl in the eyes and did not, could not, move.

“Well, come on, Sterling! It’s late! Hop to it, pick Almira up and lets go!” Annie had her coat on and held Almira’s coat, intending to wrap her in it, once I had her off the couch.

“Nope,” I said to Annie, never taking my eyes off Almira, whose eyes had become pools of fear and pain and, …something that I could not name. I stood and watched, as a part of me edged closer and closer to the depths in her eyes.

“Not until she asks me to,” still not turning away, with an effort, I added what I hoped was a lightness to my voice, “I’ve seen what this little girl is capable of and I will not do anything without her permission.”

“Oh, come on!” Annie sounded impatient, but there was a new look in her eyes, as if seeing Almira differently, because of me standing over her.

“Besides, she has my gun,”

I laughed and the tension spread more evenly among the three of us. When I looked back at Almira, there was a look that I hadn’t seen before… in anyone. It was a look that I hoped never to be without,

“Here we go,”

I picked Almira Ristani up in my arms, turned to let Annie wrap her warmly and walked towards the door. I could see Almira’s eyes close into a peaceful sleep by the time I stepped out into the cold December morning.

Chapter 15

Featured

It was around 11:00 am by the time Eliza Thornberg pulled away from the TWA terminal and started her adventure. As arranged, her car was waiting, gassed up and ready to go. She tipped the skycap just enough to make him hesitate, smiled and drove away.

With the radio turned up and the Packard’s convertible top down, Eliza sang along to the radio, as she drove west on US 50, quickly breaking free of the slower traffic that spread out, like tangling weeds in a lake, from the little businesses, stores and shops of the small towns that clustered around Kansas City. Within an hour, she passed a gilt-lettered sign that informed all motorists that they were, in fact, leaving, ‘Gardner, Kansas’, ‘pop. 783’. The sign, did, however, make a point to assure all that their return would be welcomed. Eliza drove on, out into a very unfamiliar part of the country.

US 50 South was not the tabletop-flat road she’d imagined, listening to her college roommate, Dorothy Gale, describe as, ‘a land so big, the sky went from the top of your head, straight out to forever‘. Eliza had a new appreciation for how difficult an adjustment it must have been for her friend, coming from this strangely huge, but empty land, to New York, which was also huge, but in a very, very different way. As she drove, she realized that even the hilly terrain was different from any other place she’d been, and for a girl of 19, Eliza Thornberg was very well-travelled. There were hills, but they tended to raise the roads gradually, rather than stand in the way, forcing the pavement to climb up and over them. Eliza was very pleasantly surprised by the number of lakes that sparkled in the distance, blue against an increasingly uniform light brown. She was glad her father had a business partner who, owing him a favor, was only too happy to make a car available for Eliza’s use. In fact, he’d offered to provide the use of his chauffeur, but that would have taken the adventure out of her plan. Her father maintained his normal reserve during the telephone call she made to inform him of her change in travel arrangements. He clearly thought her plan to visit a friend in Kansas was a good idea, ‘a grand adventure’ as he put it. That she was returning home, alone, might have been a factor in his positive reaction. But then again, Ted Thornberg was far too good a businessman and poker player to show his hand so easily.

The drive down the far slope of a particularly prominent hill, about an hour outside of Kansas City, caused her musical accompanist, the radio, to fade into silence. Left off by the side of the road, Fred Astaire, a very urbane scarecrow in fedora and silk suit, sang desperately at the receding convertible,

“oh, I love to climb a mountain,
and reach the highest peak,
but it doesn’t thrill me half as much
As dancing cheek to cheek…”

Feeling more alone now, the silent radio becoming just another gauge on the dashboard, clearly on empty, Eliza thought about her decision to cut short her trip to Hollywood. On the telephone to her father, she explained that she didn’t see being in the movies  as anything she wanted to do for too long a time. She added that her friend, Jack, was incredibly busy with his own work for the studios and, besides, it was just too sunny all the time. Her father seemed to accept her story at face value, no small relief to Eliza, as she recalled her first and last movie audition,

“Liza! babe! you’re home! Early! How’d the audition go?” Jack walked into the living room of the bungalow as Eliza slammed the door behind her and threw her purse in the general direction of the sofa.

Eliza stood, hands on her hips and stared back at her current boyfriend and Hollywood Insider, Jack Clayton. Fortunately for him, her anger had subsided enough during the cab ride from the studio to eliminate the danger of flying objects. It was difficult to maintain genuine fury when the weather was perfect, the streets were lined with Palm Trees and she saw Clark Gable, sitting at a table outside a small cafe on the corner of Sunset and Vine. Of course, it didn’t help that she was as angry at herself, as at her boyfriend. It was Eliza’s stated goal to become a movie star and she’d insisted that Jack help make that happen. While her first week in California was taken up with the normal sight-seeing, as appropriate to a well-heeled tourist’s introduction to the lifestyle in Tinsel Town, Eliza quickly became bored with the parties and the poolside afternoons. She reminded Jack of his promise, a promise that, in Eliza’s mind, was ‘part of the deal’.
Since the age of ten, especially during the holiday season, Eliza Thornberg endured hearing from countless doting aunts and overbearing uncles, how fortunate she was to have inherited her mother’s good looks. Less frequently remarked upon was her natural shrewdness, a talent for negotiation, which, as any successful negotiator will attest to, required a certain ruthlessness. This talent, ‘to close the deal’, was as much her father’s genetic contribution, as were her mother’s high cheekbones and hooded eyes.

Finally, Jack relented and announced one morning that a friend of his was directing a movie and did, in fact, need to cast a young woman as a newlywed living in suburbia. He seemed uncertain about the details, other than they were referring to it as, ‘an adult film’. Eliza prided herself on her sophistication, but was at a loss for the term, ‘adult film’, despite the hurried research on the film industry, prior to leaving Philadelphia. She assumed it meant the movie would be something along the lines of a ‘drawing-room drama’, like Oscar Wilde’s ‘The Importance of being Earnest’.
Basil, who introduced himself as the assistant director, told Eliza that the scene was of a romantic interlude, and that she should act… ‘un-inhibitedly in-love’. The set was a perfect replica of a modern suburban living room, complete with fireplace and a sofa. That her audition would entail doing a complete scene, was a definite boost to her optimism, her self-confidence quickly eroded when she was handed a skimpy negligee and told that all she had to do was wait for the doorbell to ring, get up from the couch, go to the door and open it.

Eliza Thornberg sat on the leather couch, the satiny material of the negligee offered no hope of holding her position, unless she put her arm on the back of the couch and leaned on her elbow. She was encouraged when Basil gave her a ‘thumbs up’ and shouted ‘Action!’

The doorbell rang, Eliza slid into a standing position and walked to the door, thinking, ‘this acting business doesn’t seem so tough’ and opened the door.

The Postman was naked. He was more than naked, he was enthusiastically naked.

Later, back at his house, Jack suggested that the scene was ‘set up’ to elicit as spontaneous a reaction as possible, appropriate to the fact Eliza had never acted in a movie before, at least that’s what he said, after Eliza stopped yelling.

Eliza was honest enough with herself to accept that much of her anger grew from the fact that it was her idea that Jack arrange for her to get a part in a movie. She even wanted to believe, if only just a little, that he had no idea that the movie was intended for a more specialized audience.

“Well, I certainly was surprised! In my defense, they did say to act naturally and my reaction was spontaneous, especially to the naked postman. I slammed the door in his ….face”

Jack apologized, well into the night, and the morning saw the two friends again. Eliza Thornberg’s dream of stardom was over and she was awake. Awake, she wanted to go home where men are not naked, at least until it was time for them to be naked, usually when told it was time.

The idea of surprising Dorothy at home in Kansas came out of nowhere. So, on July 15th, with Jack Clayton still trying to talk her out of it, Eliza Thornburg walked across the tarmac and boarded the DC3, bound for Kansas City.

As the sun moved towards evening, the miles passed. The car sped down US 50, a cocoon of leather, glass and steel, peaceful against the steady, softly-ragged sound of the Kansas air, fleeing the car at 60 miles an hour. The radio, silent since an hour south of Kansas City, would, at random intervals, spray the car’s interior with bursts of static, like dream-mutterings of a drunk at a bar, hinting at the promise of music, but serving only as a reminder of its uselessness. Alongside the highway, always, were the fields, some cultivated, most, not. The distant rolling hills only accentuated the monotony of vast land. The road ahead seemed endless, the horizon taunting, the promise of an ending, a destination where all the boredom could be cashed in for a reward. Yet, every time she reached it, it would, retreat, like a con man in a nursing home, endless lies forgotten as soon heard, hope remained just out of reach. The rearview mirror told a different tale, in it the road disappeared up an imaginary hill. It occurred to Eliza that, maybe, what she saw in the rearview mirror, was the road returning to the world she knew, the world of buildings full of busy people and shops that beckoned those with spare time, to add to the variety of their already dynamic lives. Her life back home in Philadelphia, or at school in New York, seemed impossibly far away, as if the featureless landscape that surrounded her, would, given the opportunity, swallow up the buildings and parks, museums and bus stops, digesting the energy and creativity of the masses of people, smoothing everything over with grass and small groves of trees.

Eliza was dragged from her deepening introspection by two very real and persuasive elements of life, the need to pee and a road sign (announcing ‘Emporia 20 Miles’). The fields that spread to either side of the highway, like the wings of some huge, mythological bird condemned to be trapped in the earth, began to show more frequent signs of cultivation. Soon houses appeared, like random plantings in the rolling landscape, increasing in density, growing up on plots much smaller than the horizon-spanning fields that were her companion through most of the long afternoon. Eliza was certain she’d returned to civilization when she came to a railroad crossing. The warning signs and lights seemed frivolously indulgent, in light of the fact that, from the convertible, she could easily see 10 miles up the track and 10 miles down the track. She thought, ‘well, maybe when the crops are in and the ranch hands have had too much to drink, the crossing gates serve to slow them down, at least long enough to notice a mile long locomotive’.

Emporia (pop. 673) was small. Eliza drove down the Main St thinking, ‘my God, this a train stop, with an outgoing personality’. The town consisted of two blocks that began with a Lutheran Church and ended with a gas station, as if one was there to help you decide if you belonged, and the other was for when you decided that you did not. Eliza parked the convertible in front of a luncheonette, ‘Nan’s Home Cooking and Sundries’. The interior, insufficiently cooled by two ceiling fans, turning in circles slowly enough to elicit curiosity as to where the air went, was long, narrow and dark towards the back. There was a faded-pink formica counter along the left side and on the right were two small round tables, both occupied. She went to the cashier, asked for a lunch that she didn’t want, a coffee that she very much-needed, and the location of the lady’s room. When she returned she sat on a stool and looked with some fascination at the single donut, captive in a glass domed display. If the numerous fingerprints were to be relied upon, many had tried to free the pastry, all had failed. Eliza paid for her lunch and her coffee and was back on US 50 in less than 30 minutes.

Back on the road, Eliza felt more confident in her plan. She’d heard enough about Circe from Dorothy to create and maintain an image of bucolic harmony, a place where the clocks had extra numerals and the people lacked the need to push one and other. Remembering her recent experience with another dream, the dream of silver screen happiness, Eliza chided herself for being too much a romantic.

She recalled the beginning of the Fall Semester at school, meeting her roommate and deciding that she would help her to not look like she was planning on milking the cows as soon as she found some free time. Eliza Thornberg had spent every school year, since she was 12 years old, in one boarding school or another and was familiar with the stages of homesickness and new-surroundings overload. Dorothy Gale seemed to fit the mold of the newly-on-her-own college coed, a certain politeness, presented like formal attire picked for a special occasion or solemn ceremony. Dorothy deferred to Eliza in choice of beds in the double room, silent acknowledgement of Eliza’s greater experience in dormitory life. In return, Eliza went to a little extra effort to try to ease the other girl’s transition, clearly a difficult one for her. It took a while, longer than normal, for Dorothy to talk about her home. From her own experience, Eliza recognized the nearly inevitable throes of homesickness, the first instinct being to focus on there, rather than on the here. Dorothy Gale was, somehow, different from any other girl who Eliza had made a ‘home-instead-of-home‘ with, there was a subtle confidence underneath the surface shyness. It was when, deciding that the new girl needed a crash course in Life Back East, Eliza gathered a few of her friends and announced to Dorothy that ‘we’re all going downtown’ one Saturday in September that she saw the real Dorothy Gale. Eliza watched as Dorothy stood on the sidewalk of Times Square, as far from the wheat fields of Kansas as a girl could get and still be in North America.  What Eliza saw was not a girl overwhelmed by the sound and the lights and frenetic activity that was Times Square on a Saturday night, reeling from sensory over-load. What she did witness was a girl methodically assessing her surroundings, noting everything, the bustling crowds of loud pedestrians and, oddly she was giving extra attention to the rooftops of the buildings along Broadway and 7th Avenue, as if expecting a threat from above. Eliza thought about the discovery of especially spectacular natural phenomena, such as Victoria Falls, the Grand Canyon, she could imagine a tourist standing speechless, mouth open in wonderment and, at the same time, an experienced guide who would be standing and apprising the area for access points, probable trails into and out of, all in anticipation of danger. Her young roommate from the rural Midwest was very much the experienced explorer of exotic locales. She projected a sense of, not necessarily having been to a place like New York City, but definitely places as strange, if not stranger. It was the confidence of the experienced explorer. Her expression was not of a girl trying to comprehend a very, very different place from what she was familiar with, it was the canny eye of the forward scout on an expedition, noting the landscape, filing away any and all details. She had a self-confidence that Eliza could not recall ever seeing in a girl, at least not one as young as Dorothy Gale. It was clear that, although she felt out-of-place, she’d been in even stranger situations. Eliza liked this girl, with the odd clothes and exotic accent.  While they hit it off immediately, having a roommate and having a friend are two distinct states, one takes politeness and consideration, the other trust and affection. They became friends quicker than Eliza would have thought, and, looking back, it was Dorothy who made the first move from roommates to friends.

After 200 miles of fields of wheat that looked like water and corn that looked like trees, Eliza saw the sign announcing, ‘Circe 50 Miles Ahead’. She began to feel less lethargic, her original excitement began to return. As if on cue, the radio burst out with a fanfare of static, but this time it resolved into music. All rough and irritating at first, the promise of pleasure made her willing to endure the grating on her ears. With a barely noticeable rhythm, the music grew, pleasure overcoming displeasure, still without a distinct presence, but her mind began to participate. The process of adding enjoyment onto the edges of discomfort extended the pleasure, until it sprang suddenly into being, a song. And as quickly as it became a song, it become a recognizable song. Eliza didn’t bother to reflect on her good fortune of living a life that included more variety of everything than most people, especially people in the quiet, brown-on-grey farm towns, like those that passed on the left and the right of the highway,

I went back home, the home was lonesome
Since my mother, she was gone
What a home so sad and alone

Will the circle be unbroken
Bye and bye Lord, bye and bye
There’s a better home awaiting
In the sky Lord, in the sky

The music was compelling and the lyrics sad, yet somehow made Eliza try to sing along. She drove through the center of Circe, her heart gripped tightly by the voice singing of a place so familiar and, at the same time so foreign. Down the quietly-busy Main St and out the far side, along County Road #2, her hands gripping the steering wheel like the back of a pew in church. If you’d pulled her over, as she passed the city limits and asked her to tell you the name of one store, office or municipal building, she would have looked at you with a blank expression and apologized for not noticing. If you were given to paying attention to the human inside of people, you would have noted that the attractive young woman did not seem sorry and yet was very sad, neither of which she would have considered to be any of your business, thank you.

Of course, with the land being of a certain two-dimensional character, Eliza saw the buildings of the Gale Farm well before she saw the sign on the road and quite ahead of the moment that she pulled into the dirt area that separated the two-story house from the red barn, adjacent pens and a small cottage set next to a large apple tree.

Eliza Thornberg sat in the car, as the dust cloud that engulfed since leaving the small town behind, as if to hide the sight of the luxurious automobile, so out of place among the rusted metal sides of farm trucks and the tractors that moved with improbable slowness, despite the huge wheels that supported them over the roadways.

The house appeared empty, the normal subliminal life of a house in use, curtains flapping, distant doors shutting and visceral murmurs of plumbing, were all missing. The house was as silent as a bank vault. Eliza thought about leaving a note, but realized that she had nothing to write with, or for that matter, on,

“May I help you?”

Chapter 14

Featured

“I said, let her go… now.”

With my right arm fully extended, I pointed my revolver at the middle of the red-headed guy’s face. I wanted him to see the dark at the end of the gun’s barrel without having to squint. As I walked towards the counter in the center of the room. I glanced to my left and, what I saw made me hesitate, just a split second.

The girl flying backwards over the far end of the blue sofa as I made my entrance, was Almira Ristani. I knew this, only because she stretched her arms out to either side as she flew backward through the air, and, for a split second, her face was in plain view. There was a look in her eyes I’ll never forget. Framed by a jagged halo of light-brown hair, was the face of pure, animal ferocity. As for the guy who hit her, all I saw was the back of a badly wounded animal, singed by a falling tree in a forest fire. From where I stood, I couldn’t see his face, but I knew beyond certainty, that she was staring directly into his eyes. Strangely enough, I felt pity for him

The red-haired guy, with his hand buried in Annie’s thick brown hair stood, frozen like a hunting dog on point. His face showed the sly intelligence of a weasel. His eyes, unlike the rest of his body, were in constant motion. They showed no fear, just a very rapid re-appraisal of the situation. My appearance obviously changed the balance of power. The math was simple, if nothing else: 2 strong men + 2 battered women versus one loaded gun. Of course, that ‘one loaded gun’ was not more than five feet away and pointed at his face. Despite that, he clearly was not convinced that his options were drastically curtailed from what they were, a mere 10 seconds earlier,

“Sterling….don’t! Not here!

The tone in Annie’s voice added a new element to the red-haired guy’s strategic calculations. That, plus the qualified admonition, not if, but where. Uncertainty that looked like it could grow into fear, passed over his face. A quick decision and he started his retreat, only to find that his fingers were still very entangled in Annie’s hair. He looked at his hand and the hair twisted between his fingers, with an expression bordering on comical surprise. The hair he used to bind the woman to his will, now held him and prevented his retreat. He managed to relax his grip enough to let the hair fall loose and stepped away from behind the counter,

“Look, buddy, we’re only doing a job. You let me and Herschel here leave, and there won’t be no more trouble. Ain’t that right, Herschel?”

The response from the other man was an oddly prissy-sounding,

“oh I’m hurt so bad, Robbie…. I’m hurt so bad…”

Annie stepped around the counter and moved towards the fireplace. Robbie, for his part, continued towards the door, at a speed that might be called a run, except that he didn’t once turn his back on me. Without taking his eyes off my revolver, he veered towards the couch, grabbed Herschel’s arm and pulled him towards the exit. As the large man turned, his overcoat swung free, melted buttons broke apart and damage from the burning was apparent. Fabric and flesh glued together, a smudged landscape of pain. Like a Fourth of July fireworks display, a sudden odor bloomed. The harsh smell of burnt wool, firewood and something else, unidentifiable, yet terrible. Staring down at the front of his ruined coat, Herschel began to brush at the wet-dusty fabric, but his hand froze in mid-motion. He let himself be pulled by the arm, out into the night, for all a child trapped in a burning nightmare. The open door offered the winter wind the opportunity it had waited for, and under its triumphant howl, I heard,

“I’m hurt Robbie… I’m oh god hurt real bad, do something.”

“Shut up, ya galoot… she was just a little girl for christ sakes!  We need to get away from here, right now. your screaming surely will bring the coppers. Don’t know how I’m gonna explain this to that Prendergast fop… this was supposed to be a simple tear and scare”

I felt my anger re-ignite suddenly. Too much happened, too quickly, to let quiet prevail. I needed to do something, anything. Stay and help or run and catch. And when I caught, then I’d be able to forget the look on the girl’s face.

“Those guys! They’re getting away!! I’m gonna make sure they…”

“Never mind them! Almira needs us more than you need to give them a beating, Sterling! Now get over here and help me get her on the couch …Now!”

Putting my revolver back in my inner pocket, I stepped over to where Annie was crouched in front of the fireplace. Almira had landed in the space between the far end of the sofa and the wall. At first, all I could see were brown, laced shoes projecting up and over the arm of the sofa. I stood behind Annie and could see the rest of the girl, leaning halfway up against the wall, her chin against her chest, blood everywhere. I thought, ‘The last time I saw this much human blood was the first time I saw a man die‘, and almost said it out loud. Instead I said,

“OK Annie, I’ll let ’em go…for now. What do you need me to do?”

“Move the couch away…. no! wait! let me support her legs first.”

Luckily I’d resisted my first impulse to just flip the couch end over end, into the open part of the room. Annie looked up at me as, using my right knee and thigh, I slid the couch about 3 feet to the right, smiled,

“Very good! Now that you’ve taken back control of that body of yours, I’m going to need you to lift her from behind her shoulders…”  I was leaning forward from the word, ‘lift’, when she finished her instruction,  “wait! let me finish!”

I smiled at her enough to soften the hardening edges in her face, which was threatening to turn into something stern and demanding. A look like that would not have helped, a lot of my less-inspired decisions were started by someone’s look of stern disapproval. So, I waited and watched, as Annie let go of some of her own adrenaline-sparked stress. She relaxed her furrowing brow and, with obvious effort, offered me a smile, with only a hint of exasperation. I nodded that I was waiting for her to continue,

“Lift her under her arms, but find a way to have your forearms cradle her head. I don’t want her head moving too much when we move her, no telling what condition her neck is in, can you do that?”

She put her forearms under Almira’s ankles.

“On three. One…Two….lift.”

We had her up and, after a second of looking at the sofa, decided that Annie would move first, putting Almira’s feet on the charred end of the sofa. The girl couldn’t have weighed more than 100 pounds, I thought, as I stood holding her upper torso in my hands, fingers interlaced, forearms together formed something of a cradle. Taking her sweater off, Annie folded it into a wedge and tucked it where the seat cushions met the arm rest. I lowered Almira so that she’d be lying at a slant, head elevated but still straight. Annie’s blouse buttons had, apparently pulled free during her struggle earlier, now fell open as she bent to adjust the sweater under Almira’s head. I still had one arm under the girl and was inches from Annie. She noticed my distracted attention, stared at her blouse, looked back at me and laughed,

“Well, at least we know one of us made it through this evening un-scathed! But…” standing straighter, still laughing, her eyes on mine, “But then again, you could’ve accidentally shot yourself in the leg and you’d still be staring at my breasts. Men!”

I laughed, reached over with my free hand and buttoned the middle two buttons, smiling back at her,

“If my lady wishes her knight to rescue her, My Lady shouldn’t make it so hard for her knight to concentrate on her instructions.”

Our laughter, a relief from the accumulated stress, felt good. It stopped when we heard a moan from the couch.

Annie pulled some handkerchiefs from wherever it is women hide them, and, without a word, walked to the bathroom on the far side of the room. I heard water running and she came back to where I was crouching next to the couch, where Almira was bleeding quietly onto her sweater and the cushions of the sofa.

“Get me some ice,”

I vaulted over the sofa and ran out the door. The sidewalk was, as I expected, deserted. What I didn’t expect was how little snow there was on the ground. Of what there was, most was white-glazed between the cobblestones or encrusted in the gutters.

“Hurry the goddamn hell up! I need ice to slow this bleeding down!”

I decided the quickest solution was to run the two blocks down to the River, rather than screw around trying to scrape the frost off the side of the building. My hope for icicles hanging off the roof gutter crapped out, as the cold of the past week was relentless, there hadn’t been any melting in nearly a week. I ran down Bennett St. across Canal St to where the trestle crossed the river. I nearly broke my leg at least twice, scrambling down the embankment, the rough granite was mixed with loose bricks, discarded from the endless construction of the Mills. I managed to kick off a rounded triangle of ice from a frozen wave of river water, trapped on dry land by the extreme cold.

“What took you so…”

Annie looked up as I ran through the door with a 20 lb chunk of ice in my hands. I assumed it was in my hands as, now that I had accomplished my goal, I couldn’t tell what I held in my thoroughly numb hands. Had it not been for the strain on my shoulders, I wouldn’t know I was carrying anything. I walked towards the fireplace.

I saw Annie’s eyes widen before I even bothered to look down,

“Well, that might be enough,”

Annie laughed as she looked around for something to make my chunk of river ice a little more manageable,

“Here, let’s try this,”

I threw the ice against the hearth as hard as I could. Before the smaller pieces stopped skittering across the floor, I picked up a piece, about the size of a decent restaurant’s corn muffin, and, thinking for a second, started to pull off my scarf.

“You do like the straight lines, don’t you, Sterling?”

Annie took the ice from my hands and wrapped it in a clean-looking white cloth. She frowned as she felt it’s hard edges, even through several wraps of the fairly delicate material.

“Here, give me that,”

without waiting for me to respond, she twirled my wool scarf around my head, like un-winding a bobbin on one of the machines in the Mill, and took it from around my neck.

“…er, Annie?…. Brooks Brothers…. less than a year old,”

seeing her look, I decided that it’d be worth the investment of my scarf, if I could stay in her good graces. Since I arrived in Lawrence all of a few weeks ago, Annie LoPizzo remained very much at the top of my ‘to do’ list.

She wrapped the cloth-covered ice in my scarf and smashed it against the stone hearth. Rotating it with each strike, quickly produced an ice pack of manageable size. Annie un-wrapped the ice, draped my scarf over my shoulder and turned back to the girl on the sofa.

“Here, get next to her head, I need to clean up some of this blood and I don’t want her to move too suddenly.”

I looked closely, for the first time since this all started, and had a good look at the girl laying on the couch. It was, I knew, of course, Almira Ristani. But if all I had to go on was a photo of her face at this moment, I’d never have recognized her. Had I held the picture of a stranger being circulated by the police, hoping to identify an accident victim, I might have said,

“Who beat up the old crone? She looks like a house fell on her!”

But it wasn’t an old woman on this second-hand blue sofa decorated with blood and soot, it was a young girl. I realized that, somehow, despite the relatively short amount of time I’d spent with her since arriving in Lawrence, Massachusetts, she’d become important to me.

Lawrence, Massachusetts was just another place to kill some time, after I abruptly left school in New Hampshire. I wasn’t expected back home in Providence for at least a month, which was just as well, as I didn’t think the Dean of Students would be in a hurry to send my parents a letter explaining why he felt it was in the best interest of Dartmouth College that I be expelled. Of course, Dean Hopkins’s wife Christina, really wouldn’t appreciate her dalliance with the student body getting more publicity. So, leaving the dormitory, I decided to do some exploring. I suspected that, as long as Dartmouth kept receiving tuition checks from my folks and I didn’t come back, everyone would be happy. Except, maybe Mrs. Hopkins. At any rate, one cold December morning I stood on the bridge over the Merrimack River that looked, for all the world, like a moat protecting a red-brick castle. From my vantage point overlooking Lawrence, the factory smokestacks were every tower in any illustrated book of fairy tales, the Mills that lined the riverbank, like impregnable brick embattlements, beckoning the knight-errant. I recalled my Medieval History Professor saying, ‘It’s tempting to see the city, hidden behind the castle walls, as a child behind his mother’s skirts, as dependent upon the mighty castle fortress for it’s very existence. Closer, more thoughtful examination shows otherwise, that the outward signs of power were dependent on the existence of the lowly inhabitants. Men, women and children, bound by the clerical and commercial yokes of the powerful, extorted by taxation of what little wealth earned, provided the funds to create the dark edifice. Yet, even more essential, was the near endless labor necessary to create the castle, in the first place.’

The United Worker’s Labor Hall doors were open, in the un-seasonably mild temperatures, as I walked up from Canal Street. I was trying to stretch the 10 dollars I had when I left Hanover, but my hunger grew, I abdicated control and let the aroma of soup draw me through the doors. Annie stood, Persephone in homespun, behind the counter, (her command center, I would later tease her). She looked up at me, smiled and said, “Welcome.!”

 

“OK, here we go,”

Annie wiped Almira’s cheeks of the last lattice stains of blood, now beginning to dry. Dramatic shiny-flowing red turned into rusty-brown trails running from the corner of her eyes, down to her ears.

I sat, half on, half-off the couch, holding Almira’s hands together, at her midriff, when she woke. “She came alive’ ran through my mind, until, that is, I found myself having to restrain 100 pounds of frightened, determined girl. To Annie’s credit, she didn’t recoil, instead moved her arms around to the sides of Almira’s head, stroking her hair gently. For the second time, in what had to be the strangest night of my life, I saw the face of a human, stripped of whatever it is that separates us from the lower orders of animal. Her eyes searched, first for a path of escape and then, accepting her immobility, for a weak point to attack. For all of my 200 pounds, combined with the leverage of a 6′ 2” frame, I had to fight to remain in control of the girl.

Accepting that she could not get up and run, Almira lay back on the couch and looked up at me.

“Oh, good! You’re awake!” with the delighted surprise of a host seeing a houseguest coming early to breakfast, Annie’s voice was immediately drowned out by laughter. Even Almira, now recognizing us, tried, unsuccessfully, to join in.

Annie got up and quickly returned with a small pan of warm water and two clean cloths. Kneeling at the end of the sofa, she completed her cleanup of the blood on Almira’s face.

“Dank yu” Almira frowned at the sound of her blunted fricative.

“How bah…how bahhd! is it? I canth breath tru my node”

I looked at Annie for a sign of how to react, but she was looking at Almira’s face with an expression that hinted at fear, as if she was trying to convince herself that the damage was not as bad as it looked, and failing. Almira’s face looked pretty damn bad, her formally aquiline nose now had more in common with a roseate Spoonbill than the sharp-eyed eagle. Her nose, spectacularly broken, lay to the right side of her face, fortunately there was little in the way of cut or torn flesh. Her eyes were nearly swollen shut, and yet there was a sharpness and a focus to them that was not a little un-settling.

“Well, it looks…” Annie started to say, in what she clearly hoped was a confident and re-assuring tone, faltered when she looked at the wreckage of the girl’s face.

“You’ve suffered a severely deviated septum but apparently avoided any other significant maxillofacial trauma. I suspect that all…”

I stopped, Annie and Almira stared at me with a look of amazement and a touch of cautious hope.

“What?  I’m the only one here who took a couple of  pre-med courses? …well, ok, maybe I am, but surely one of the two of you have lost a bar fight and had… well, alright, alright. So you haven’t and I have and had my nose broken… maybe a couple of times,”

I stopped when I saw the look in Annie’s eyes begin to incite a grin from the girl lying on the couch between us. For an evening that had such a violent start, the three of us spent more time laughing than I would’ve believed if I wasn’t a party to it all.

“So, what do we do?” Annie looked at me, and Almira, with a very slight and careful inclining of her head, nodded in agreement.

“Gotta set your nose. Put it back in the position God meant it to be and let nature take it’s course. Had it done 4, 5 times. You’ll get your breathing back, the swelling and the black-eyes, those’ll heal on their own.”

The way I explained it sounded reasonable, and they both appeared to accept what I was telling them with complete trust and confidence. As a matter of fact, I did know what to do for a broken nose, but that wasn’t the same as doing it to a 16-year-old girl. I didn’t think it would help to tell them that it was no big deal, provided the patient was drunk as a lord and had two cops kneeling on his chest.

“So do it,” Annie looked to Almira, who squeezed her fingers and gave us the ‘don’t-blink-or-you’ll-miss-it’ nod.

“Wait!  Wait, lets not be too hasty. I know! why don’t we take Almira to the hospital instead.”

“nuh… nah kno!”  Almira forced through her swelling lips.  Although Annie seemed uncertain, she looked over at me and said, “tell us first, just what you’re going to do.”

Seeing that both women were determined to go through with my offer of first aid, I slid over on the couch, forcing Almira to bend her knees a bit, without any pain or distress that I could see, which put me at about her waist level. I had my left forearm resting on the back of the couch and my right hand on the girl’s forearm.

“Alright, you want to know what I’m going to do? You’re already lying down, that’s good, cause it’s easier that way. I’ll tell you to relax, and you’ll try, but won’t be able to. Then, as gently as possibly, I’m going to grab your nose with two fingers and jerk it to the side and slightly downward. It will hurt. But, almost right away, you’ll feel things open and you’ll forget the pain and you’ll start to think that everything’s going to be alright. And it will.”

Annie’s face took on an expression so intriguing that I almost stopped my description of how I planned to set Almira’s nose. It was a look of poignant excitement, it was also a look that said, ‘If you dare, ask me, but be prepared to be taken to some very surprising places.’

“Are you still willing?”

Again the silent assent, with no fear but something else seemed to grow in her eyes, a look of anticipation and even, excitement. I saw that Almira’s eyes were emerald-green, somehow, both dark and full of light. I shook my head, that I could have missed such incredibly attractive eyes as those of Almira’s, made me wonder how I managed to get through life this long without walking off a cliff or going blind from staring at the morning sun.

I leaned forward, looked over at Annie and reached with my left arm across and over Almira’s face, as if inviting Annie to hand me one of the cloths she had in her lap. Almira’s eyes followed the motion of my hand and watched as Annie put a folded white cloth in my left hand. With my right hand, I reached under my left arm and pulled Almira’s nose straight and slightly downward.

Almira’s eyes widened in shock and she started to gasp but, almost immediately, felt the normal flow of air in her nose. The relief of being able to breathe almost normally, stifled any cry of pain, prompted by my surprise rhinoplasty.

Annie looked at me with almost as much surprise as Almira. But with that odd expression of reminiscence, which seemed to flare up in her eyes. A brief flash of anger, like distant cloud blocked lightening, took hold of her but as quickly disappeared, a wistful sadness left in it’s place.

“Son of a Bitch!” Annie half-cursed and half-laughed in surprise.

 

“Saints preserve us! What kind of deviltry’s has been going on in here!”

From the door came a loud exclamation that, like a vicious dog on a leash, wanted to turn into accusation. The beat cop, Sargent Herlihy, stood just inside the hall and stared at the three of us, on the slightly charred, very blood stained second-hand sofa, …laughing.

“Enough with you laughing! I’m out on as Christ-cold a night as I can remember, because my captain insisted, which can only mean that someone told him to get down to the Union Hall. Someone better start explaining things. And a bonny-good tale it needs to be, judging from the looks of this place!”

Chapter 13

Featured

“I remember you! The only high school freshman ever to win the State Spelling Bee, what was the word…”

Becky Stillworth walked down the Library steps to where Dorothy Gale stood waiting,

“‘Promiscuous'”  the girl said, her face the expression of every child biting into a lemon on a dare,

Yeah, I’m pretty sure it was my own mother who got the Word Committee to put it on the list of final round words. Luckily for me, I was an early-blooming High School Freshman girl, so nothing came of it.”

Becky Stillworth walked with a deliberateness that was clearly an effort to compensate for the conspicuous awkwardness of a developing body. In the race between gangly and voluptuous, the tomboy in her was fading fast.

Dorothy looked to confirm that the very subtle twist of sarcasm on the syllable ‘mis‘, was deliberate and caught the girl watching for her reaction. Dorothy smiled, somewhat self-consciously, and decided that she liked this overly-dressed girl. Looking down at her wrist watch, she decided that she had time to spare, before embarking on her mission of the day, a visit to the Charity Ward at St. Mary’s Hospital. What Dorothy refused to tell herself, ( so effectively, as to prevent awareness of her own obfuscation from ), her timetable was built on when she believed the nursing shifts changed. She also didn’t tell herself that she was hoping to avoid one nurse in particular.

Dorothy was struck by the layers of clothing Becky Stillworth wore, even as her own blouse showed an growing affinity for her sweat-dampened skin, as the sun scared away the few cooling breezes that remained free and about, on this early midday morning in Kansas. The younger girl looked towards the Elm trees in the Town Square. Arranged in a circle, echoing the placement of the benches, which, in turn, marked the ordinal point of the round stone fountain, the full-leafed trees shaded the center of the park from the lethal brightness of the Summer sun. The two girls let their steps take them in the direction of the benches.
As they walked towards the center of the Square, Dorothy tried to steer their path towards a bench on the side of the fountain, opposite from where she’d left her bicycle, ‘Mrs Gulch’s bicycle‘.

Her desire to avoid the bicycle surprised her. The feeling was accentuated by the feeling of relief, when Becky Stillworth sat facing away from the bench with the old, battered bicycle leaning on it, like abandoned crutches, sadly conspicuous in the middle of the Town Square.

“So Becky, what’s on your mind?”

Dorothy looked closely at the girl who sat facing her, one arm along the back of the bench, left leg folded under her. She stared at the bulky skirt and the cardigan sweater, thankfully worn un-buttoned. Becky Stillworth’s figure, remarkably developed for a girl of her age, made the inappropriate clothing somewhat understandable. She wondered if the girl wearing them understood.

“Yeah, big sweater. Long skirt. It’s easier this way.”

‘So much for her being unaware of herself,’ Dorothy thought, looking at the girl with increased respect. Becky stared back, dark eyes betraying an intelligence easily overlooked by the more hormonally-inclined.

“Well, I wanted to talk, because, it’s just that you’re the only ‘College girl’ I know of, in this Town.”

Becky put an inflection on the word ‘Town’ that made Dorothy recall her own mood earlier in the morning. She laughed and said,

“I think I know what you mean, Becky. The few kids from Circe who find a way to go to college tend to never come back. And the people here that have been to college, grew up somewhere else. It’s like an unspoken law, if you have what it takes to get out of town, you don’t have to come back. Yeah, Circe is a small town in every sense of the word.”

“Can I ask you kind of a silly question, Dorothy?”

Dorothy, intrigued, looked back at the girl and nodded,

“You enrolled at Sarah Lawrence College.”

“Yes, that’s true.”

“Sarah Lawrence, as in, almost one of the Seven Sisters… in New York City.”

“Well, to be precise, the schools in Bronxville, which is a short distance from Manhattan. But yes, Sarah Lawrence College. What are you asking me?”

“Well, I guess what I’m asking you is, did you or did you not, see the three cows standing in the road, right where County Rd #2 turns into Main St. I know they were there this morning, when I came into town.”

Dorothy began to reply that she didn’t, but noticed a grin fighting for control of the 16 year old girl’s face. Their peals of laughter raced around the echoing, (and otherwise empty), fountain and spread out into the morning air. Mrs. Tremont, walking along Main St towards Randall’s Pharmacy to get her morning paper, (as she did every morning at this time, except Sunday morning, when she would pick it up after 11 o’clock Mass), stopped and glanced in their direction. Like a rabbit hearing an unexpected snap of a twig, the 85 year old widow froze, mid-stride, only her head moved. Identifying what was all too uncommon a sound in her life, she smiled at her reflection in the plate glass window of Lonnie’s Barber Shop and continued on her mission.

“Oh, that Sarah Lawrence!” Dorothy said with a grin, which tripped the switch for more laughter. Finally settling back, the wrought iron of the bench offering a very solid, although pretty uncomfortable support,

“I’ll give you the short, suitable-for-company-on-the-holidays version of how I came to be a Sarah Lawrence Coed. Someday, when we’re both old and have too much time on our hands, I’ll give you the whole story.”

Becky Stillworth smiled, and, as if only just noticing how warm the morning was, took off her cardigan, folded it lengthwise and put it behind her, to serve as a cushion against the dulled teeth of the iron bench. As if on cue, there was a honk of a truck horn, immediately followed by a distant, “Hey! Becky!!“, fortunately dopplering into the distance. Becky waved without looking away from Dorothy.

“My grandfa… my adopted Grandfather was one of three brothers who left France to seek their fortune in the New World. Just before getting on the boat to come here, Philippe, (my mother’s father), was forced to stay behind to care for his dying mother. His brothers, Charles and Bernard, went on ahead and settled in Philadelphia. The Sauvage family had been blacksmiths as long as the oldest person could remember, and once in Philadelphia the brothers set up shop and become very successful. It was, after all, only 1912, the demand for metal workers was quite strong.  Well, eventually the mother, (back in France), died and Philippe was free to leave and he headed to America.”

Looking at Becky, Dorothy was taken with the concentration reflected in the girls eyes. Seeing Dorothy’s look, she said,

“OK, I’m with you so far. Three French Brothers, One New World. Go on….”

“Well, this is where the family legends get a little murky. According to the version I got, (keep in mind, I was only 5 when they took me in), Philippe resented his two brothers getting a head start on him…a lot. Apparently he was as stubborn as he was ornery and didn’t get over his resentment until Kansas. And, there Philippe settled, opened a blacksmith shop, had 2 children, and watched one them die pointlessly young.

“Anyway, there wasn’t too much talk around the dinner table about the ‘Family Back East’, my adoptive mothers’ uncles, until Bernard Sauvage died.”

“Did I mention that both brothers were confirmed bachelors?” Becky shook her head and waited for Dorothy to resume.

“Well, they were. Bernard died last. And soon after, a letter arrived at the farm, notifying my parents that an endowment had been created, ‘For the Express Purpose of providing Tuition and Lodging to Sarah Lawrence College, for any (female) child of the Gale Family, for a Full Four Years of Education’. Well, that was somewhat interesting to my mother, but there was also mention of money being left to their niece. I got on a train in Kansas City with my Aunt Em and off we went, to attend the funeral and collect on the scholarship.

There was no one other than me at the Funeral of Bernard Sauvage or, the Reading of his Last Will and Testament under the age of 30. Among the three old-and-distant relatives sitting in the Lawyers office, smelling like mothballs, not a one had a daughter. So there we were, standing in the 30th Street Station, on a cold December morning in Philadelphia waiting to board a westbound train. Tickets to Kansas City in one hand and a full Scholarship to Sarah Lawrence College in the other.”

On this July morning, as the two girls sat talking, the sun took it’s attention away from the buildings on Main Street. Like a predator, sensing prey in a burrow, the morning sun moved it’s bright direct light closer and closer to the center of the Town Square. The change was felt in the dying of what few stray breezes survived in the shade of the Elm trees. As the encroaching light feasted on the shade, the town to the east of the park seemed to move farther away. In a curious reversal of mirages, (that) offer a clear view of distant objects, the contrast between the shade that covered the park and the sunlight that bathed parts of Main St had a sort of, magnifying effect. Far greater detail of the brick facade of First Lenders Bank and reflected light on the sign over Randall’s Pharmacy, brought everything closer.

Dorothy noted the approach of the sunlight and remembered that she wanted to be in the hospital before the Lunch hour began.

“No, what I wanted to ask you wasn’t just about going to college.”

Dorothy looked up at two boys on bicycles lingering on the opposite side of the Square, talking and looking furtively in their direction. Looking about 13 or 14, both clearly were in the throes of adolescence. Their gestures were as easily decipherable as semaphore flags between battleships as they maneuvered off enemy shores.  One of the two was apparently all for a direct assault, the other resisting for as long as he could, until finally whatever hormonally-wagered pact was struck, they jumped back on their bikes, pedaling towards where the young women were sitting.

“Hi! Becky! Hi Becky!”

The greetings were projected ahead enthusiastically, even as they were still on the other side of the fountain. This was, of course, an effort to hedge the social bet, in case they were immediately rebuffed. One of the two approached as rapidly as mechanically and physically possible, intent on a dramatic stop, locking-up the brakes on his Schwann deliberately, skidding for maximum drama. His friend approached at a more controlled pace with the resigned patience of the non-dominant half of a boyhood friendship.

The two now stood astride their bicycles staring at Dorothy and Becky, clearly receiving commands from newly established centers in their brain. Less fluent in the language of the soon to be overwhelmingly dominant sex drive, they stood still, soldiers in full uniform, rifles as clean and shiny as only non-use could account for, both were clearly hoping to figure out what to say.

“Uh, hi! Hows’ your vacation, Becky?”

Dorothy watched as Becky regarded the boys, obviously in the Summer between Grade School and High School, and smiled,

“Pretty good so far, Billy. Tommy. How about yours?”

“Good! We saw you here and wanted to say hi”

Tommy was looking frantically towards the sky, as if hoping for divine intervention to provide some way to extricate himself from the increasingly awkward feeling of standing with purpose, yet having no clue how to proceed. He looked over at his friend who was simply staring at Becky Stillworth, mouth open in the peculiar way that happens when the words in the mind get lost and can’t find their way to the tongue, which. in turn, is satisfied to simply sit in the mouth, relaxed, waiting for instructions. Both boys heard the stories about Becky and what she did to Randy Hughes out at the Lake and, seeing the opportunity and future bragging rights dared each other into talking to her. Becky Stillworth was the reigning, hopelessly-optimistic dream of the majority of the boys in the 9th and 10th grades at Circe’s only High School.

“OK that’s good! Maybe I’ll see you in the Library this Summer?”

Becky laughed in a way that surprised Dorothy. It was not mocking the boys or herself, it was as if Becky was somehow having a nostalgic look back on her High School years. Dorothy realized that there was more to this girl than the poorly hidden figure and obvious ambition.

The boys jumped back on their bikes and rode across the street towards the library, (as if to assure Becky that they had a natural affinity for learning and libraries). They stopped briefly at the stairs leading up to the Library, leaned towards each other, looked back towards the fountain for barely a second and sped off down towards Main Street. Eventually they would find a place where they had the privacy and time to relate to each other, their individual versions of what they had accomplished, before time and hyperactive sex drive could change too much of what they could remember.

“I see what you mean,”

Dorothy started to say, now certain that Becky was looking for an older girls advice on dealing with the rampant and near inchoate sex drives of the small town adolescent, (boy and girl)

“No, it’s not what you think!”

Becky laughed in a way that made Dorothy feel like the younger girl, an assuredness in her laugh that came across with much more sophistication than her age would suggest. She found herself thinking of her friend Eliza,

“No, the boys, well they’re well…predictable. I figured that out the day I started to borrow clothes from my mother. The extra sweaters and skirts? I decided, I’d just keep acting like I’m hiding the boy-bait, it just was easier, you know? If anything about high school is tough to take, it’s the other girls. Hard to make friends with girls who think that, either I’m sleeping with everyone who stares at my chest, which, for the last couple of years been just about everyone, or I’m too stuck-up to want to be friends.

“No, what I I really wanted to ask your advice about was, how you do so well, handling adults.”

Dorothy looked at Becky in surprise,

“What makes you think that I know anything about adults? I’m only a soon-to-be-college sophomore.”

“Well, you… well, everyone knows you… from after the tornado. I was just a kid, but for a little while, you were all my parents talked about, so I figured you’re used to being in the spotlight. It couldn’t have been easy, but you’re not like the other kids in this town. I mean, sure they’re all ok, but they’re from here, they fit in and this is where they’ll all stay. You left.”

“Are you thinking of running away?” Dorothy had a brief image of a traveling fortune teller, with practiced swiftness, dispelled the thought.

“No! Nothing like that…. or maybe, worse!” Becky laughed, “What I really want, is to be a doctor.”

“What is it about the people in this Town!”

Dorothy stood up abruptly, laughing and looking around the Town Square. On the other side of the fountain, which had a mat of elm leaves plastered to the dry bottom in a careful, layered pattern that made Dorothy think of dinosaur bones, an old man, alone on a bench, looked up with a desperate hope for something to happen, that had not already happened. Seeing Dorothy, he focused his eyes on the figure of the young girl and then quietly went back to staring at nothing.

Becky got up, gauging the older girl’s mood quickly,

“Well, it’s just that sometimes, I think, ‘who am I kidding?’ Sure, times have changed and we can be what ever we want to be in life.  But it’s hard, when even your own parents look at you like they don’t know who you are. The truth is, sometimes I’m not sure I know who I am.”

Dorothy watched Becky as she walked over to the fountain and stared into it’s center,

“Its just that I don’t want to be someones….  ” emotion sharped her tone, a mixture of frustration, resentment and even longing, as she turned to face Dorothy

“I think I know who I am… who I want to be, but it seems like there’s two Beckys and I don’t know which one is the real me!  When I try to talk to my parents or teachers or even classmates, I see that look in their eyes, like they’re trying to figure out who the strange girl is and how she got into their house.”

“It’s not just you, Becky,” Dorothy looked past the bench with the rusted bicycle leaning on it, towards St Mary’s Hospital.

“At least you know that you want to go to college, you know what you want to be… at least what one part of you, wants to be,”  Dorothy watched as Becky put her sweater back on, preparing to return to her duties in the Circe Public Library,

“I’m in College because my grandfather was a bad-tempered, selfish man. I have no idea of what I’m supposed to do with my life. I just know that theres got to be more to life than Circe, Kansas. I just need to work up the courage to do what my heart tells me.”

“Well, I really appreciate your talking with me,” Becky stood close and hugged Dorothy, very briefly.

“I’m glad I got up the nerve to ask you about your life. And, maybe we can talk again. For now, I have to return to my odd life with my part-time job wearing too much clothing and help the people of Circe find just the right book.”

With that, Becky Stillworth walked across the quiet street, up the stairs and into the Library.

***

Ward C was as silent as a tomb. Rather than merely being hot, the air in the room felt charged with heat, just waiting for someone to exert themselves, to strike like bats swaying from the ceiling of a cave.

As she walked down the center aisle, Dorothy felt her anger grow from the carefully tended furrows of resentment, her thoughts held tightly,

‘I don’t know why I have to keep coming back to this place. All I want is to ask a question and everyone keeps getting in my way! Well, this time it’s just me and the old lady, and I’ll get some answers if I have to shake them out her.’

The beds were arranged in opposing rows of 5, the woman she came to see was in the last bed, at the far end of the aisle, on the left side. Dorothy noticed there were four empty beds, like the keys on an old, abandoned piano sitting in someone’s barn, merely iron frames and mattresses. Stripped of sheets and pillows, the mattresses were devoid of all purpose, black and white ticking conjured images of prisoners of war, purposeless, yet still threatening.

Dorothy felt her anger slide away, now replaced by a sense of undefined danger. She looked up at the ceiling, the fans were all she saw, turning slowly, holding back the life-robbing heat of a July afternoon in rural Kansas.

As she approached the last bed, Dorothy’s anger was revived by her un-expected relief at seeing the woman still in the bed. On the collar of her hospital gown was the same blood-red ribbon. The worn-brown blanket was neatly folded across the woman’s chest, a barely disturbed straight line, like a freshly, but hastily filled grave. A barely perceivable rise and fall in the fabric to let a visitor know she was still among the barely living.

To the right of the bed was a single, worn-green metal night stand. On top was a dry, glass vase, and a copy of ‘The Jungle’, with a well-worn bookmark. Dorothy recalled the book being there from her first visit, but with a different bookmark. This one was made from plain parchment paper with a leather border, like little teeth, running along both sides. In the center, written in faded ink, was the phrase “Short pay! All out! All out!”

A small, brass-framed, photograph of a young, dark-haired boy, faced Dorothy from the top of the nightstand. She picked it up, hoping to find a notation or, at least, a date, so she might have a clue to the identity of the boy who appeared to be about 5 years old.

Dorothy looked around the ward and saw only 5 occupied beds and no one else, her sense of outrage dying, replaced by  a sense of disappointment,

To herself, aloud,

“Well, this simply is not fair! I have every right to have my questions answered! And someone needs to help me find out why I’m not being…”

Like very dry tinder on the ashen coals of a morning fire, the sound of her words allowed her outrage to flare anew. Looking down at the nightstand, she saw a single, closed drawer. As she reached to open it, she heard sounds from the woman in the bed. She was moving her arms, freeing them from the bedclothes and, at first, they seemed to be random spasmodic motions. Even as Dorothy turned to face the bed, the old woman’s hands were suddenly clutching at her face, and the sounds she made went, from anger to fear, never shaped into words, but clearly meaningful. As her hands, too long in quiet rest under the covers, began to make ineffective movements, it looked like she was hitting her own face.

Dorothy, looked on in shock, as if the statue of the Civil War general in the Park had dismounted his horse and started to give orders to passerbys. At the same moment she found her anger changing into care and concern, as she watched small wrinkled hands impacting the dry, old skin of her face with increasing force. Dorothy without thinking, leaned over and held the hands, gently but away from the women’s face. The sounds coming from Mrs Gulch subsided as suddenly as they started, the strain of her bone-thin arm muscles relaxed. Dorothy sat on the side of the bed and placed the old hands together on top of the blanket. Smoothing the grey hair that, freed from the passive restraint of the pillow, lay across the face of the still sleeping woman, Dorothy heard,

“Very good, Miss Gale. You are the woman that I felt you were when we first met.”

Dorothy did not feel the need to act surprised or shocked at the voice, one that she instantly recognized.

***

“Jesus, Joseph, Sweet Mary Malone! the blood!”

“Help me get her on the couch!”

“Sure, but I need to see some men about a beatin….

“They’ll wait! Hell, they’ll be back with their friends all too soon. We must get her head elevated and stop the bleeding…”

“Dear God, I’ve seen broken noses, hell, I’ve had broken noses, but this poor girl’s face…”

Chapter 12

Featured

‘Damn this Kansas heat!’

Walking up the stairs of the Circe Free Public Library, Dorothy looked back towards the round stone fountain at the center of Town Square. The exertion of her bicycle ride into town, deprived of the cooling breeze of her trip from the Gale Farm, was beginning to have an effect. Her body was quickly turning her delicate cotton blouse into an impromptu bathing suit.

‘To think that I spent sleepless nights in school, pining for this cardboard-flat griddle of a Town! For that matter, how is it that I’ve never seen that fountain with water in it?’

Like the first taste of a lemon-sour candy, Dorothy felt the pleasurable bite of resentment slowly bloom in the part of her mind, where feelings shape the world.

‘They’ve ignored that stupid fountain since after I got back… after that stupid tornado. Come to think of it, that’s when everyone started to change.’

Dorothy thought back to that time, only two years before. She’d survived a direct hit by ‘the Storm of ’37’ and for several month that followed, felt such love for everyone, not just her family, but also for the Town itself. Circe surely was the best place a girl could be, surrounded by family and friends. The stone fountain, once her favorite place, was emptied of water by being where a huge elm tree, tossed into the air by the debris-filled winds, decided to land. Once the tree had been cut up, (Aunt Em magnanimously volunteered her husband, Henry and Hunk Dietrich’s services to chop up and remove the 100-year-old tree. Dorothy recalled that they’d sold it for firewood to some of the harder hit farms in the area), the stonework was repaired. The plumbing, the secret pumps underneath, the heart of the fountain, never received the necessary attention. There was little in the way of spare money, in the devastated town, to restore something as frivolous as a decorative water fountain. With the passage of time, ‘the stone fountain with the wonderful jets of water, rising from its center’, as the newspaper described it on the day the fountain was officially dedicated to the local boys who fell during World War I, became ‘the stone fountain that never has any water in it’. Much as an aging person, steadily losing the capacity for physical  exertion, genuinely has no interest in running up the stairs or taking a brisk walk, the people of Circe accepted ‘the fountain with no water in it’ as theirs, the fountain they really wanted. Unfortunately, this attitude was not limited to frivolous civic monuments, as the recovery efforts had their desired effects, the shared sense of the virtue of un-qualified charity, changed, like the swelling of arthritic joints, into prudent self-interest. The spirit of communal effort ended, recovery complete, and with it, the need for giving without restraint, to those less fortunate. As for ‘the-girl-who-rode-the-tornado’, she stopped being a welcomed diversion from the efforts to re-build and was, instead, an un-necessary reminder of a difficult time for the people of Circe. In a very real sense, Dorothy, and her tales of a wondrous land became irrelevant. Library staircases no longer called out to be run up, fountains were quite acceptable as dusty granite bowls, and stories of a better place were, ‘just a mite peculiar’.

Dorothy recalled a History Professor, in her first day of classes, in her first semester, who stood before the class and, without preamble, said,

“Zhuangzi was a Chinese philosopher who said,

‘I dreamed I was a butterfly, flitting around in the sky; then I awoke. Now I wonder: Am I a man who dreamt of being a butterfly, or am I a butterfly dreaming that I am a man?’

If you young ladies hope to get the most from your time in my class, please decide immediately which you are…”

Everyone laughed, a most basic celebration of youthful pride for being among the elect.

Now, on this Summer day, walking up the broad and identical steps of the Circe Public Library, Dorothy did not feel much like laughing.

“Miss Gale? Are you alright?”

Dorothy looked up the stairs and saw the young girl looking at her with concern.

***

Her back still towards the room, Almira felt herself being twirled around, like an un-willing participant in an impromptu country dance. The effect was all the more disorienting, by the fact that her field of view was but a narrow horizontal rectangle, her scarf still wrapped across her face. The combination created what would best be described as a 5 second zoetrope. In those few seconds Almira saw: a fire burning brightly in the hearth on the right side of the room, opposite an old blue sofa; the door to the  adjacent meeting hall/storage room shut and, on the left side of this room, her friend, Annie LoPizzo. Her hair wild and disheveled, like a drunken window dresser’s attempt to combine the Perils of Pauline and the prosaic Labor Union storefront. Annie stood behind the main counter, which displayed Union pamphlets and flyers, along with a list of emergency services and resources.  All made available to visitors and Union organizers. Between Almira and the counter stood two men she’d never seen in the Hall before. One was tall, had greasy red hair and wore a suit that looked like it had been borrowed for the occasion. The second man kept looking at the entrance, as if the most important thing to happen would involve the front door. And, of course, there was Almira’s personal Orc. Addressed only as Herschel, he was every bit a wool-covered cliff, the stopping point of her twirling view of the room.

Like the rough-wooden planks of a primitive rope bridge, held in place by twisted vines, Almira’s upper arm was locked in the grasp of the big man. And, like that bridge over a tropical chasm, Almira could move to the left and to the right, but only as far as the natural extension of her shoulder and arm would allow. At full extension, she could move no further. She might as well have been leaning against one of the large Elm trees in the Lawrence Commons.

As the shock of her abrupt entrance began to fade, Almira focused on two facts:  her upper left arm was becoming more and more a part of this man who reeked of liquor, tobacco and sweat, and her friend Annie was in danger.

Marveling at the fullness in detail, emotional immediacy, and utter non-appropriateness, Almira found herself re-living an afternoon, when she was 10 years old, walking home from school. She was walking alone, her classmates who lived on the same block, had left her behind, lost in thought. Hearing an odd sound, she looked up to see a large dog, a boxer perhaps, charge towards her.

She recalled her father, one afternoon, after Almira came home from school with a tear in the hem of her skirt and a school book that had been half-chewed by a neighborhood stray, tell her that there are rules for dealing with dogs, and sometimes, people,

“There’s a good lesson here, Ali. Dogs are simple and they are direct, unlike people. If you let them scare you, they will sense your fear. If they believe you are weaker than they, it is much more likely they will attack. People are sometimes like dogs. There are certain people in the world who will attack just because they believe you are afraid.”

Almira stood very still as the dog, barking ferociously, charged at her. She let go of her fear and watched the dog calmly. It didn’t bite her, but neither did it run back into its yard, instead, it stood to her right and barked and growled at her feet. She remained still and calm. The dog did not seem inclined to leave. So Almira, talking pleasantly to the dog, started to walk towards the corner, around which her friends had just disappeared. She felt something push against her calf, just above the heel. The dog growled and bumped Almira’s calf several times. She stopped walking and the dog resumed its growling at her feet. Fear began to well up, from a place behind her chest. She tried walking, and the dog again bumped her calf, this time with an open mouth, she could feel it’s teeth. Her fear grew and took on an odd feeling of despair that made her look around, feeling, somehow self-consciousness. Almira knew that the dog would not bite her, but there was something in what he was doing that conveyed both the sense of a harmless game a dog might play and, at the same time, the very real potential of a vicious attack. Almira felt trapped by the dog. She stood still for another 5 minutes, hoping something would happen. Finally, after what felt like an hour, the owner of the dog appeared on the porch and called the dog. The dog started to run back but stopped, turned and bumped Almira’s ankle one more time and ran off without a second look back. Almira walked home, legs shaking from tension, eyes welling with tears of shame and her mind racing in anger at herself for being so inadequate.

This man, Herschel, reminded Almira of that dog, all those years ago. She knew that this time, this night, there was no one who would appear and simply call him off. The only person in the room that might have that kind of power, was the red-haired man. The problem was, at the moment, he was moving around from the front of the counter, knocking pamphlets to the floor, never taking his eyes of the face of her friend, Annie LoPizzo.

Almira managed with her one free hand to pull the scarf off her head (and away from her face), so she could take in the entire room without having to move her head.

The leader of the group was the man moving in on her friend. He had the eyes of a predator. He moved with such overwhelming self-confidence that, somehow there was the impression of good humor. This thin man with the dark, hungry eyes was clearly enjoying himself.

Almira found herself drawn to how the men were dressed. Alike, but with nothing in common. Their overcoats were commonplace enough, but all three projected a similar newness, lack of wear, clearly they were bought at the same time. It was obvious that all the overcoats were bought by the same person. Nothing of a sufficiently binding similarity as to  create a uniform, but undeniably, there was a single authority that bound the three men, now standing inside the United Workers Association Hall.

“Hey, Robbie, come on, we’re supposed to scare them a little and leave, that’s what the boss said, go there and…”

“Shut yer mouth, Liam. You talk too much.” the red-haired man, Robbie, glared. He was already behind the counter, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Annie. Showing no outward signs of fear, she nevertheless stood absolutely still, as tense as the night sky after a blinding flash of lightning, crash of thunder on its heels.

“Liam!! Make yourself useful and go stand outside. And don’t be lettin’ anybody in! Understand?”

Even as the howling wind rattled the windows, and shadows of tree limbs waved in the dark, Liam showed ever sign of relief. Almira thought she might’ve known him from somewhere. Oddly, she found herself not wanting him to leave. Somehow, he represented the only hope of avoiding total savagery. Liam didn’t say a word, although, as he shut the door, Almira saw him glance around the room, with a look of guilt and shame. Nevertheless, he shut himself outside, in the relative safety of the cold and windy night.

“Herschel! Sit the lassie down somewhere and keep her out of trouble. I need to ask our little Union whore here some questions.”

Like a rag doll held by a child, Almira felt herself dragged towards the hearth, and without a second thought, whipped around, her feet barely touching the floor, tossed towards the blue sofa across from the hearth. Unconcerned with whether she fell to the floor or landed on the sofa, Herschel turned and faced the other end of the room where Robbie was about to join Annie LoPizzo behind the counter of the room.

Almira pulled herself upright from a half-kneeling position, turning her head to keep the others in view, and pushed herself into an upright position at the end of the sofa. Looking at the hearth, a line from a children’s book came into her head,

Only please, Brer Fox, please don’t throw me into the briar patch,’

The hearth, with its granite surround, had a pile of wood stacked to the left of the firebox, and, on the opposite side were a number of pokers and tongs. Relics of the days when there would have been a coal fire in the hearth and a blacksmith, using the tools of his trade. When she first starting coming to the Union Hall, Almira noticed the tongs and pincers and asked Annie about them, “those were probably made right here in the building, 50 years ago.” Almira quickly became skilled at starting and maintaining the fire, using only the tongs.

For 16-year-old Almira Ristani, the United Workers Union Hall came to be what her corner in the living room had been, when she was a very little girl. Protected by her mother’s determination to shield her from the harsh and un-imaginative life of the immigrant family. Remarkably determined and strong-willed people, countless families, willing to cross an ocean in order to find place to establish a livelihood, would all too often find that the things that made life worth living, more than subsistence and survival, had been washed overboard in their journey to a new world. Almira discovered that the people who frequented the Hall were either those who, recently fallen on hard times, sought help to survive or were those who wanted to help others sustain hope for a better life. They were the very people she passed in the streets every day, toiled along side inside the brick prison of the Mill, were so much more than she could appreciate in the Mill.

Almira came to be a regular at the Bennett Street Union Hall. Carving hours from her week, her time would be spent organizing the inventory of supplies kept in the larger room adjacent to the front room. On those days when the work was done, Almira would sit on the worn blue sofa, tending the fire in the hearth and, in the warmth of the company of people with the desire to help others, she would explore the world through the writings of her beloved Emerson.

Almira was jolted from her thoughts by the up-tilting movement of the couch as Herschel sat his considerable bulk down next to her. He was close enough that his open overcoat covered her legs. The scent of dogs and fear flowed over the blue sofa, banishing the comforting smell of the wood burning in the hearth.

Robbie, meanwhile, with a obviously contrived look of interest, picked up a ledger from the counter, made as if it’s contents were fascinating reading, and, without a word, let it drop to the floor.

“Now, lass. I need to know something about your little operation here. I need to see your membership rolls. That’s not a bother is it?”

Annie stood her ground, managing a smile that, to anyone other than a friend, would have been quite convincing. Almira felt her stomach drop at the fear she could see growing in her friend’s eyes.

“What is it you want? This is private property, you have no right to come barging in and making demands and, frankly acting the complete ass!”

“What do I want? I want to know who it is that comes here. I want to know who it is disturbing the neighbors, we’ve had complaints, yer know. So why don’t you just hand over the list and we’ll leave you two ladies to your evening.”

Robbie’s voice began at a normal volume, rose to a shout and ended in a growl. He stood behind Annie and, on the pretense of reaching for a book on the counter, leaned into the woman. Annie spun slightly to her left, letting the forward motion of the man continue unresisted which he did with a pronounced lurch, having been off-balance when he started his pressing against her.

“There ain’t no list. If I had one I wouldn’t give it to the likes of you. Why don’t you get off and go back to your Mill bosses and tell ’em that there ain’t no one that matters down at the Union Hall.”

Annie looked around the room, trying to find something to use as a weapon. She saw a pair of tailor’s shears and was reaching for them, when the Robbie grabbed her hand.

“Looking to find something to stab with, are you? We’ll have none of that now.”

Robbie grabbed the scissors with one hand and, with his other, grabbed a Annie’s hair at the scalp.

Almira felt her entire body tense, rising from her slouched position on the sofa.

Like the dog from Almira’s nightmares, Herschel turned towards her.

“You’re good to sit so quiet like,” Herschel put his calloused hand on Almira’s thigh, her coat, having fallen open when she landed on the couch.

Almira felt the beginning of something change in her, even as she felt the increasing closeness of the man. Herschel’s scent clung like cobwebs in the dark, the nerves under her skin sparkling painfully. His hand, now on her thigh, brought on a feeling of self-consciousness, as if by being touched, she was a party to what was starting to happen. Her stomach conspired with her mind, each looking to the other, tempting the sense of panic. Her own woolen overcoat taunted her with its ineffectiveness to shield her from his assault. Something shifted in her mind, her body echoed it, in silence.

Sensing a change in the girl, Herschel grabbed Almira’s left wrist, leaving his left hand to continue its advance, pushing up along her leg, seeking weakness.

“Come on now, I’m not such a bad fella. Your friend will be alright. Come on now, gimme a kiss,”

Pulling on her left arm, Herschel leaned in, intent on kissing the very still girl.

Almira saw Herschel get closer, and felt the man get closer, tilted her head back and spit in his face.

“What the…!!! ” Herschel’s roar was met by the sounds of hyena- laughter from Robbie, still holding Annie LoPizzo by the hair,

“Fock, Herschel! If the lassie is too much for you to handle, I’ll get Liam back in to help you out.”

Keeping her wrist in his right hand, Herschel  laughed un-certainly, leaned back and wiped his face with his left hand. He turned to look over at Robbie,

“Shut it then, I’ll show you…”

Almira leaned to her right, grabbed a pair of tongs on the hearth and clasped them on a small log, burning in the front part of the fire. Using Herschel’s grip on her left wrist, she pulled herself, (and the tongs with the white ashed, red-coaled log), back towards the man on the couch. She jammed the tongs and log into his lap and continued her forward motion, leaning on the tongs, pressing them to his body.

Herschel’s immediate response was purely instinctual, he tried to back away from the assault on his body, except, he was seated on the sofa. In his effort to push back farther, to avoid the incredible heat that began to race up through his body, he lost all traction and both feet slipped on the floor, leaving the shouting man with no leverage at all. His entire world consisted of the sharp pressure of the metal tongs and the almost frigid heat of the log, which, by now, found new fuel in the cloth of his overcoat and trousers. He finally looked up and saw the face of the girl, the small helpless girl who, just a timeless moment ago had been his possession. She was now standing over him, their eyes locked and Herschel felt a new fear,

“How about a little fire, Herschel?”

Herschel began to bellow, barely human noises, that echoed of pain and fear. His feet found purchase enough that he could stand and, swinging his right arm, he hit Almira full in the face. The girl flew backwards over the end of the sofa.

Robbie, seeing the large man move spasmodically, while frantically hitting himself, arms flailing, tightened his grip on Annie’s hair. To keep from falling she grabbed his wrist.

The door to the adjacent meeting room suddenly swung open and a young man stepped into the room, speaking as he entered the front room,

“Hey, Annie the side door was open, so I…”

His eyes widen very briefly, reached into his overcoat, took out a small pistol and pointed it straight-armed at Robbie’s face,

“Let her go.”

Chapter 11

Featured

The Summer of 1939 in Circe Kansas expressed itself earlier than usual. Rather than wait until the crest of July, when the skies, scrubbed of clouds had nothing to hold back the hate of the sun, this particular year the heat made its initial appearance in the middle of June. Not to such an extent as to be spectacularly hot or otherwise noteworthy, not even to a level to dominate the casual, passing-in-public conversations of the citizens of Circe. These topics remained focused on crops, politics, dust storms (thankfully to the west) and infidelity, with only the occasional reference to how Summers seemed to start earlier and earlier each year. Though early, the June temperatures were not impressive enough to be claimed by the old timers. Deprived of relevancy, not only by age, but by virtue of woefully out-of-date practical skills, anemic civic presence or any other of the small, but expected contributions to everyday life, these old, pale, worn and leather-tough denizens of Circe, Kansas would be found gathering together at dusk, in the park, after the sun has stopped making demands that only the young could ignore or, perhaps in front of the Town Hall on the cooler (as in ‘early’) mornings. They gathered in diminished numbers, exhibiting the opposite of the force shared by a magnet and iron filings, the absence of a force drawing them to the younger, active, engaged population, bring them only other old people. Of course, weather, as one of the few constants in the world, and therefore immune to the segregation of usefulness, was bestowed upon the active-elderly, that they might assume stewardship, both the record of weather past and, by human-logical necessity, the prediction of the future (weather). An agrarian cultural’s version of the proverbial gold watch, the elderly were the established oracles of weather and climate. It remained one of the few critical functions the old were allowed to retain, not otherwise sanctioned by modern culture.

Dorothy Gale leaned her bicycle against one of the wrought iron benches that, like markers on a sundial, interrupted the smooth circumference of the stone fountain, (the one without any water), that designated the center of the Town Square. Dressed as lightly as possible, in anticipation of the heat, (which started the day with, ‘It’s Summer!’ and promised to end with ‘Hot enough for you?’), which given her ‘left-behind wardrobe’ and those items she brought back from New York, proved not to be a simple task. Dorothy was aware of the fact that in order to gain the approval of her Aunt Emily, she needed to distract and confuse the older woman’s natural tendency to judge. Painfully earned past experience  indicated that her best strategy was simply to give Emily Gale what she wanted, and so Dorothy found a blue and white checked blouse and a skirt of the lightest cotton. Less comfortable, after a year away at school, with the idea of bowing to the demands of her adoptive mother, Dorothy placated her resentful side with the reasoning that, sleeves can be rolled-up and buttons can be un-done. When she came down the stairs into the kitchen, Auntie Em smiled broadly,

“Why don’t you look like a little girl I once knew. Doesn’t she, Henry? Doesn’t Dorothy look every bit the good-hearted girl who wouldn’t disobey or utter an unkind word to anyone. It does my heart good to see how well you’ve turned out!”

Dorothy smiled and continued towards the door,

“I’m going to Town for awhile. No, I don’t need a ride, I’ll take the bicycle.”

As she rode out of the dirt-and-stray-chicken backyard, Dorothy glanced back and saw her Aunt standing just inside the screen door, head turned, talking to her husband, Henry. Had she glanced in the other direction, she might have seen, Hunk Dietrich step back from the door of his little house, remove his hat and looking thoughtful.

Walking across the Town Square towards the library, Dorothy Gale felt a sense of relief to be away from the farm. When she woke that morning, the first thing that came to mind was that she could not spend another day in the house, with her Aunt and the housekeeper. She was amazed at how everyone had changed in the relatively short time she was away for her first year of college. Dorothy dearly loved Aunt Em and Uncle Henry, and would be eternally grateful for the home they provided for her, from, well, from before she could remember. It just seemed that everyone had somewhat changed. And not just since she returned to Kansas, a few weeks prior. It was during her Senior year in High School when people seemed to begin to change. She could accept that the recovery from the ‘Storm of ’37’ took a toll on everyone. She could even accept that her own recovery had been, well, a bit prolonged. But she got over it. Other than the occasional dream that, upon awaking, colored her day with surprising emotion, she was still the same girl she’d always been.
Of all the changes, the most prominent was in her adoptive parent’s obvious obsession to make the Gale Farm into something more. Larger, more efficient, more profitable, more…  It was almost as if, after experiencing the destruction of a large portion of the Circe (and many of the surrounding farms), something inside them came to believe that in order to avoid a repeat of the ravages of the F5 tornado, they needed to do more, have more…  increase the acreage, increase the number of barns and corrals and pens.
And so, this first day of July, Dorothy Gale walked through the Town Square without conscious purpose or goal.

“Miss Gale!! Miss Gale!!”

Dorothy looked up and saw a young girl walking down the steps of the library, waving at her. She recognized Becky Stillworth, the student-librarian assistant, mostly by her very impressive figure, wrapped in what seemed like her mother’s skirt and a blouse two sizes too big.

“Could I talk to you, please?”

***

The Winter of 1911 in Lawrence Massachusetts started with a promise of moderation, the first two weeks of December being especially mild. Like the lover who refuses to accept the end of a relationship and yet, never intends to accept the change, this New England December seemed to really be different, the lack of snow and the optimistically bright sun serving to tempt people with a very well-executed lie, ‘Look! I’ve changed my ways, would it be this warm in December if I didn’t really mean it this year?’
Despite, or in that odd way of people wanting to believe the charming charlatan, even the native New Englanders felt hope for a mild Winter. Passing on the streets, winter coats un-buttoned, they would smile and say, ‘So far, so good’, as if their mutual agreement would relieve them of the guilt of having been fooled, once Old Man winter made his inevitable appearance. And each person, risking hope in a mild winter, knew that winter was waiting, like a drunk outside the door, marshalling his resolve not to give in to guilt. Inevitably the effort to seem normal, (and not drunk), resulted in an over-compensation and the worst fears of the family waiting inside would be confirmed.

Almira Ristani walked along Canal St towards Bennett St, and the United Workers Alliance Meeting Hall. Darkness had fallen early and Winter returned with a vengeance, as if by waiting until dark, the contrast with sunny mild days would be less offensive. Her wool scarf, wrapped around the collar of her grey outer coat, left as little of the actual Almira exposed to the elements as possible. Only her eyes and a necessarily exposed portion of her face was in direct contact with the darkly howling wind. The blowing of very fine snow and ice had the effect of bending and twisting the conical pools of light that punctuated the sidewalk along her path. The effect suggested that even light (which at night is surely Man’s primeval protector), was also at the mercy of the cold winter night. Almira found herself hurrying between the pools of light, as if there was danger lurking in the frigid shadows. The Mill buildings, always a fantastical sight to anyone with an imagination and a willingness to stray beyond the literal, were every bit of the ice castles of Jötunheimr, the shadow of Frost Giants darkening the already dark sky. The hanging icicles, threatening silent impalement, the frost that seemed to grow, in defiance of gravity, up the walls and over the metal-framed windows of the brick buildings, all contributed to the creations of  dark canyons in that part of Lawrence that hugged the banks of the Merrimack River.

Almira chided herself for such unpleasant fantasy and resolved to find the beauty in the Winter season, the only season that was host to Christmas. The lights in the Mills did, at first glance, appear such as to offer some hope of warmth and life. But the effort to look up at them only served to part the wrapping of her scarf, and the wind, like a starving predator immediately lurched towards the opening to the warm of her body.

‘Stop now!,’ Almira thought, in what she hoped was a stern enough voice to overcome the fact she was trying to talk herself out of being scared. Since her mother died, she had become all too aware of the lack of power her own thoughts had on her own feelings and emotions.

“Almira, my little Adventurer”, she heard in her mother’s remembered voice, “you must not be so hard on yourself!”

As a very young girl of 5 years, Almira would sit in her corner of the main room in the Ristani’s apartment and read as her mother worked on her mending and sewing. The books that were her mother’s legacy, and, in turn, her daughters escape, sat in little used bookcases. Idresca Ristani’s profession, before leaving the old country, had been that of   Teacher. Unfortunately, it had less currency in Lawrence, where what little formal education available to children of the labor class was as tightly controlled by the local Church, as any guild, back in the old country. Idresca recognized her daughter’s gifts and was grateful to be able to provide a nurturing environment for a young mind that consumed ideas and knowledge like a baby at her mother’s breast.

Almira lived with the books that her mother brought across an ocean, from halfway around the world. Her precocious daughter found herself able to leave behind the confines of the two room apartment, through the pages of Cervantes and Bullfinch and Shakespeare and Swift. However, there would be times, roaming free in worlds far from the monotony of life in a Mill Town, that little Almira Ristani would come across a word that was foreign and unknown to her. Like the laborer straining at a part that’s solidly rusted into place, she would stare at the book, brow furrowed, as if to force, by effort of will, the word to reveal its nature. She would rarely ask her mother for explanations as Almira had the gift (and very much the curse) of believing that she could reason out the unknown.

“Sometimes, you can think too much,” her mother would come over to where she sat and putting the child on her lap, “the world is more than words. if you mean to explore the world, you need to start here”, and she placed Almira’s hand over her heart, “you must follow your heart as well as your mind. Never worry about being unable, only be concerned about being un-willing. Do you understand?”

The child would look at her mother and clutched her too-big-for-5-year-hands book, puzzled by her mother’s words. In the pages of the books, the world held promise, a promise of understandability.

Now, walking alone focusing on the steps in front of her, Almira thought about the time she’d spent at the Meeting Hall helping her friend, Annie in the near-endless labor of providing help and aid to those in need. That the UWA found fertile ground in Lawrence, Massachusetts and put down roots there, came as a surprise to no one other than the Mill Owners. The Essex Corporation, of course, being the source of the idea, will and resources necessary to design and build a modern city. The first manifestation of the modern industrial/civic complex, the Essex Corp the driving force behind the very idea of designing and building a City devoted to industry (textiles).

Carried over from Europe in the hearts and minds of workers, skilled and un-skilled, the Union sought to provide a counter-balance to the power of the those who owned the City of Lawrence. That a large portion, if not a majority of the mission of the UWA was to provide social services should not be surprising. Though barely providing for their own families, members were charitable to a surprising degree. Serving as a collection and redistribution point for donations of household goods and perishables (and non-perishable food items), the headquarters on Bennett Street served both as warehouse, distribution center.

Almira helped out at the Union hall whenever she could, her job at the Mill and caring for her family left little time to spare. She found an invaluable resource in a neighbor, Mrs. Swaider, who would take care of Almira’s 4-year-old sister, Illyana. The price for this help was greater, in some ways, than anticipated, as Illyana soon came to see the Swaider household as her real home, and the adults who claimed to be her family, well-meaning strangers.

When at the Hall, and when the work was done, Almira would sit in the part of the front room where there was a fireplace, (the once-constantly heated foundry, when the building housed a blacksmith), and read. Almira reading brought to mind the flourishing of a wild orchid in the deepest of jungles, a stranger (or explorer seeking treasures) would, coming upon Almira would forget the surround wood, stone and shingles, captivated by the concentration she exuded. Thirst of curiosity had an effect on her appearance, a very attractive affect. She was in love with new ideas and new ways of experiencing the world. In the trance of reading, a passerby (or our intrepid explorer), would be see a young girl very much in love and, even in the sooty-mean world of manual labor, in service of machinery, there are few things as likely to capture a person’s heart. Some speak of the glow of love, for Almira, there was a light that emanates from those blessed with an appetite for ideas.

Almira was quite aware of the direction (and ferocity) of the December wind as she walked to the entrance of the Union Hall. The howling of the wind was loud enough to make pointless any attempt to knock on the plain metal door. In any event, it was not locked. The building formerly housed a bicycle repair shop, (and before that), the aforementioned blacksmith shop, and, its original was as an ice house. Consisting of 3 rooms, 1 large (the former stable), a smaller room that fronted out on to Bennett Street the former bicycle repair/blacksmithery and a kitchen utility room.

Were the wind blowing consistently in one direction, it would simply be a matter of waiting for the wind to pause, (as wind always does), and then, exert force. Force to hold the door from ripping off it’s hinges, or force to pry the door against the wind that would strive to hold it shut. This particular early evening in December, the wind was not settled into a particular direction. Northerly for a spell, then a change to the southwest, perhaps out of the East.

Almira walked, rather, was pushed into the front room of the Meeting Hall by a surprise gust of frigid air, her hair pressed against her head strongly enough to mute her hearing.

Putting her shoulder to the metal door, the wind insisting on joining her inside, Almira pushed with both hands, one shoulder, finally, leaning at a 45 degree angle until the solid metal click of the door latch, signaled, ‘All clear, you’re inside’.

Almira heard voices before she could turn to see who was speaking. The tone of three people, (one female two male), was not of a tone she’d expected. One was threatening with a hint of fear, the other was threatening with a clear undercurrent of pleasure and the third, perhaps the most threatening, was without emotion or interest or fear. It was the voice of a person wanting to hurt someone or break something, just because they could.

“Go home, Almira! We’re not working tonight. Leave  …now!”

Annie LoPizzo’s voice was sharp and aimed directly at her. It was a mix of confidence, concern and, most of all, urgency.

“What do we have here? Why it’s a girl. No, come in! We’ll all have a little talk, we can be friends.”

..this male voice was as confident as Annie’s but there was an insidious charm bending the ends of each sentence.

“Herschel, Make sure the door is locked.”

Chapter 10

Featured

“Confound it, Ephraim Hardesty! How can you stand there acting like a man without a care? I’m trying my best to live as a good Christian and the Bible tells us that we are our brother’s keeper. But as God is my witness, I don’t know how long I can keep the Banker and the Sheriff off of your front porch! You need to listen to my Offer. You know good and well that the Lord helps those who help themselves. And I’m here to help you! But time is running out on you!”

Mrs. Emily Gale stood in the Hardesty Farm’s backyard, in front of the wide back porch. The sun burned through the low, early morning clouds and, like a spotlight, reflected off the silver rims of her glasses. Sharp, almost painful reflections of light shot from her face. Her husband, Henry Gale, stood a couple of steps behind and to her left side, and from his posture seemed to be alternating between anger and embarrassment. To occupy himself he stared out over the half-grown corn in the fields beyond the barn. It was a Friday morning on the 1st of July and the dry dirt yard released small clouds of dust at the slightest movement, incredibly short-lived mushrooms sprouted and released dry spores. Hunk Dietrich sat in the truck, on the driver’s side and seemed to be deep in thought, everything but his eyes as un-moving as the rose-rusty cab. The morning had started warm and it was clear that the afternoon held more of the same. It promised the kind of heat that would fill the horizon with mirage fields of wheat and corn, only the gap below the wavering images betraying the illusion.

“I don’t rightly care a lick about what you can and cannot do, Emily.”

Ephraim Hardesty stood on the porch, behind him, the still figure of 5-year-old Ethan showed, daguerreotype through the screen door. Ephraim was not surprised by the visit, he had, in fact, been expecting it. The visit from Henry Gale and Hunk Dietrich a few weeks before in mid-June, was clearly a preliminary skirmish, intended not only to test his resolve but to gather intelligence for the upcoming battle. He looked at the woman standing in his yard, like a Spanish Conquistador standing in the middle of the first good-sized village, she was impressive with her attitude of fierce self-confidence. Detracting from this impression was the fact that she’d brought along her husband and farmhand. In an un-intended effect, the two men came across less as additional forces to enforce her Will, more looking like attendant to her presence. More Henry than Hunk, Ephraim knew that both men were not in his back yard by choice.

Ephraim tried to remember the 14-year-old Emily (Sauvage) Gale. The girl took memory-dim shape sitting next to Ephraim in the small two room schoolhouse, a near-lifetime ago. Randall’s Drugstore now stood on the spot where, years before, children were sent by parents eager for them to learn whatever might allow them to avoid a life of back-breaking labor, a life all too common among those who’d settled in Kansas at the end of the last Century.  Emily had been as kind and caring as her father was difficult and given to drink.  In his defense, the now adult Ephraim Hardesty thought, Philippe Sauvage was from the Old Country and, although he would give the shirt off his back to a neighbor, he was fiercely protective of his family. The Sauvage Clan, (if it could be called that), consisted of only 4 people, Philippe and his wife Eloise, Emily, and her older brother, Cyril.
Life was not kind to the Sauvages. Philippe struggled to provide for his family as a blacksmith. He had a natural gift for what, one day, would have been referred to simply as, ‘engineering’. He knew metal and he had a talent for shaping and forming it in ways that were useful. Philippe Sauvage took great pride in his work and though his customers were very appreciative of the quality and craftsmanship, many were put off by his lack of tact and charm. Parson Levine, in a well-meant effort to be charitable, described Philippe’s flawed talent as ‘explosive perfectionism’. Like many fathers, Philippe dreamed of his son joining him in the blacksmith trade. In the kind of ironic twist that’s often suspected of being fabricated just to increase the dramatic effect for re-telling, Cyril was the first (and only) Sauvage to go to college. His intelligence and ability to understand new concepts was so great that the parish priest (of St Mary’s the church that burned down in 1919, not the Hospital), through his connections Back East, arranged for a full scholarship to Dartmouth College. Unfortunately Cyril was not only a young man, he was also a Sauvage. When the drum beats of militarism grew louder in the second half of the second decade of the new Century, Cyril was unable to resist and enlisted in the US Marines. The War in Europe was ravaging France and, in that way of youth, Cyril felt the call to defend his father’s home country and carry the Sauvage name into battle. He was killed in the first day of the Second Battle of the Marne, July 16,1918.
Emily took the news of her brother’s death very hard. Her father more so, though by virtue of both culture and gender, he did not show it. He was, for all intents and purposes as mortally wounded as his son, unfortunately, his wounds took longer to kill him than did his son’s. Emily tried, unsuccessfully, to hold her family together. Eventually she was sent to live with relatives Back East, soon after a quiet August day in 1920 when her mother was killed in a tornado. Her father put her on the train in Kansas City, went back to Circe, dove into the bottle, and never saw his daughter again.

When Emily Sauvage returned to Circe Kansas, 15 years later, she was very much a different woman. She was different in all the important ways that make women different from men. Where once she’d go without, just so someone with less could, have a little more, Emily Sauvage now sought more, even when it meant that another person might then have less. After being home a short time, she found Henry Gale working for near-slave wages on a pig farm, just outside Nickerson, Kansas. With the money from an inheritance, (from her mother’s side of the family back in Philadelphia), a new last name and a burning desire to create something, Emily Gale bought an abandoned farm and set out to give it life and make it prosper.

“Well now, Emmie,” Ephraim noticed the way Emily Gale tensed when he used the childhood name. He chided himself for being cruel and continued,

“I do appreciate your efforts to keep Old Man Banker off my doorsteps, really I do. But this farm is my life and I won’t be giving up on it.”

“But….”

“…and I won’t be hiding behind a fiery woman’s skirts, like a little boy, afraid a bully has found his secret and will take it all away,” stepping back into his house, Ephraim turned and looked out over the dry and dusty yard and said,

“Oh, and good morning to you, Henry!”

Ephraim locked eyes with Hunk Dietrich, still sitting in the driver’s seat and, nodded, ever so slightly. Emily Gale turned in the direction of the the parked truck, but not in time to see the answering nod from Hunk. Instead she swung on her husband,

“Clearly this man has lost what little sense that hussy of a wife of his neglected to take with her when she took off with that Bible Salesman.”

****

“And, as our last stop, oh my, I mean the last place we will visit on today’s rounds, Ward C,”

Dr Thaddeus Morgan said, with a look of self-satisfaction for his unintended witticism. He pushed through the double-swinging doors and was well into the Ward, before he realized he was alone. The Charity Ward appeared quite empty. ‘Of people‘, he corrected himself with quite a petulant tone, ‘these patients in the beds were…well, they were patients, not people.’ The Intern and the newly-hired nurse, who had been accompanying him on morning rounds, were nowhere to be seen.

“Well, I suppose they stopped to write notes of my diagnosis of terminal happiness for that boy in the Children’s Ward. Not that there’s to be anything useful to be learned here in Ward C. By the end of August there won’t be a patient left…”

“May I help you?”

Dr Thaddeus Morgan was a man given to spontaneous, (and grandly-emotional) outbursts whenever caught by surprise, his reaction at this moment, was anything but characteristic. He stood and stared at the tall and (a word that one would also deem uncharacteristic for Dr Morgan to assign to a person), willowy blond nurse who was standing in aisle that separated the two rows of beds. She was staring at him with what could be best described as an expression of peaceful strength.

Dr Morgan, surprised that this odd description of ‘peaceful strength’ would occur to him, remained mute,

“I said, ‘May I help you?'”

There was something about this woman that seemed familiar. This observation had the effect of restoring the rightness of the world for Dr. Thaddeus Morgan. The basis of this ‘rightness’ was the fact that this hospital, St Mary’s was his, as he was the Chief of Medical Services and this woman, by her uniform, was obviously a nurse. The natural and proper order of the universe was re-established to his satisfaction.

“What is your name, young lady? Who is your Supervi…”

Thaddeus Morgan left his authority-establishing question hanging in the air, as the intended object of his exertion of managerial Will was no longer standing in front of him. She was standing at the far end of the aisle, which could not be the case, as she had been standing in front of him and now, well, now she was not. The nurse remained where she (now) was, as still as the shadow of a mailbox.

Thaddeus’s first impulse was to demand she come back and resume her position in front of him. After all, he was in charge of the hospital, she surely would obey. Instead, while be certain to keep the tall figure, in the white on white uniform of a St. Mary’s nurse, in the center of his line of sight, he walked towards her. He thought he heard a noise from the hallway outside Ward C, but for reasons that he could not express, refused to take his eyes off the nurse as he walked the 25 feet or so to where she waited.

‘She’s waiting for me. Quite patiently, it would appear.’ the thought kept Dr Morgan company, as he walked. He thought that there was something important that he was forgetting, but it kept escaping his mind.

“I’m sorry, I must be getting forgetful in my old age. I neglected to introduce myself,”

Dr Morgan had a solid respect for his conversational skills. ‘He could talk a tree out of it’s leaves, at the height of Summer‘, professor at his Medical School once said of Thad Morgan.

“I’m Doctor Morgan. And you are?”

Thad Morgan decided that he liked this woman. She must be a new hire, although that didn’t make sense, since he personally interviewed everyone hired at St Mary’s. Everyone. From the janitor to the newest surgeon, they all met with Dr. Thaddeus at least once. And seeing this woman up close, he was certain that he’d not ever met her. And yet, there was something familiar about her.

“I’m Nurse Claire Griswold. Now that we’re properly introduced, may I ask, again, what is it you want here?”

Thad smiled. There was a directness and a total disregard for status or rank or any of the social niceties essential  to the smooth operation of a hospital. He felt more at home with the situation. Even if he didn’t know this nurse, he was her superior and she would answer his question,

“I was taking the new intern and the newest nurse on rounds, for an initial orientation. I thought they were following just behind me, well, they seem to have gotten lost, which can happen here in the old wing of the hospital,”

it occurred to him, with something of a shock, that he was babbling like a 6th grade student trying to delay having to answer a question to which he should have had the answer. This Nurse Griswold was regarding him with a look that, had it been any other circumstance, he’d of been delighted, (and, not a little flustered), he suddenly realized that he was staring at this woman. Her eyes were of a  pale blue that brought to mind the wrapping paper of a present he received for his 5th birthday. It was a toy medical bag, complete with a stethoscope and a Diploma with his name on it. He remembered how his mother laughed when Thad would put on the stethoscope and try to listen to heartbeats, of anyone or anything nearby. His dog, Scout, was his most frequent patient, tolerating him in that way of seeing only love in the often un-intelligible actions of the boy in his life.

“Do you enjoy being a physician?”

Nurse Griswold asked, still standing where she was, when he last looked. This last elicited more relief in Thad Morgan than he was capable of appreciating.

“Why I should certainly say so! I’m the Head of Medical Services! I’m in charge of all medicine here at St Mary’s.”

Dr Thaddeus Morgan spoke with a pride that made some men leaders, (in the eyes of those inclined to need leaders), and with a certainty that made other men charismatic preachers. It was not simply that he spoke the truth, it was the emotion that anchored his world around him and all that he felt he’d earned.

“That’s not quite what I asked you, Thad,”

She was standing closer to him than he’d realized. Her eyes seemed to require all of his attention and though he’d noted that she was tall, he couldn’t understand how it was that he felt like he was looking up into her eyes.

“Well, yes, I realize that. And no, you’re quite correct, I really do enjoy my work…”

At that moment there was a wobbling whirling sound of gum-rubber wheels and wooden clipboards pushing through the swinging doors of Ward C. Ahead of the cart that contained mid-morning medications, was a young man and a young woman. Both looked somewhat sheepish, that expression being replaced by one of surprise.

“Dr. Morgan! We looked all over for you!” Nurse Sally Rowe spoke with relief in her voice. The young man beside her chose to let her offer the explanations for their absence. Even as an intern, he recognized that sometimes it was best to allow the Nurse to take responsibility. In case things did not work out as planned.

Dr Thaddeus Morgan caught himself turning back to Nurse Griswold, but, smiling, he said,

“Well, lets not dilly dally. The work of medicine waits for no one!”

As he led the Intern and the new Nurse out into the hall, he allowed himself one quick glance around the Ward. It was as empty of people not lying in bed as he’d thought it would be, but thought to himself that perhaps he’d stop in for a quick visit, from time to time.

***

“Come on, doll. You know you want to, I can see it in your baby-blues”

Jack Clayton stood behind Eliza and pulled her close. Eliza found this a familiar situation, what was not familiar to the 18-year-old Sarah Lawrence co-ed and heiress to the Thornberg publishing empire, was a growing feeling of ‘wanting’. She pulled herself away from his embrace, and was surprised to hear herself think, ‘There, now I can think this through’.

A naturally sexy and attractive young woman, Eliza Thornberg understood the economy of desire, were it any of the other, more conventional form of human endeavor, her talent and ability in these matters would warrant her the title of savant.
Eliza Thornberg knew people. She especially knew, men. She knew what they wanted. And, most importantly, she knew how to use this knowledge to her advantage. What was puzzling her, at this particular moment, was what it was that she suddenly found herself ‘wanting’. This was new. Desire, she was familiar with, it was, in a non-sociologically approved term, her bread and butter. This new thing, springing from Jack Clayton telling her that he needed to return to California, to the movie studio, to the film that he was working on and his asking her to join him, that was the problem. She found herself wanting to do it. The fact that he would ask, was not a surprise. Invited to the Thornberg’s by an author whose bestseller was published by her father’s company, Jack Clayton was after the rights to make the book into a movie. He’d worked in a number of successful films as a production designer and assistant producer, but reading the book (published by Thornberg Press) knew that he could turn it into a successful film. He also needed financial backers and that was in part the reason for accepting the invitation to the June party.

That a trip to California would be fun and a desirable way to spend part of her Summer was not surprising. That she found herself really wanting to accompany Jack Clayton to Hollywood, that was surprising. The ‘wanting’ is what Eliza found disturbing in that it forced her to confront the possibility of ‘not getting what she wanted’! Until just a moment ago, she had not wanted for anything in her life. Having spent the previous few days in the company of Jack Clayton, hearing him speak causally of people who made movies that had an effect on millions of people, somehow the idea of being a part of that magical (and diabolical) process had taken root with her. This realization was morning sickness of an un-planned obsession. A dream to become… another version of the girl she had been.

“I’ll go with you, on one condition,” Eliza smiled, feeling on familiar ground.

“Anything!”

Certain that she was in control, the only place she could escape the nagging voice in her head, the voice that whispered, ‘you don’t matter… to anyone’, Eliza turned from the window,

“You must join us in Newport in August.”

“If you promise not to invite any more boyfriends from college, I will be there with bells on,” Jack smiled confidently.

“…and

Eliza was gratified to see the man’s smile falter, something like fear fraying it, yet Jack Clayton rallied his defenses and raised an eyebrow in worldly acceptance of the always-high-stakes negotiation between men and attractive young women.

“…I want to be in a movie.”

Without waiting for an answer, Eliza Thornberg stepped the few steps back, to where she’d been, her back to the man in her bedroom. Feeling his arms again capture her, she smiled and began to consider how best to break the news to her father.

Her father needed to be approached carefully. Jack Clayton wasn’t quite the typical houseguest. Stephen Lawrence, who’d ignominiously left on the night of ‘the Afternoon Social That Wouldn’t End’, too drunk to know what he’d done wrong, was already forgotten. His failure was to not recognize the expectations he was being held to, a non-forgivable sin in the world of the wealthy and privileged. Eliza was not overly concerned, attractive and successful boys from Yale were not a rare commodity at Sarah Lawrence.

Eliza had long since accepted the reality that, while she was her father’s daughter, his first love, (now that Eliza’s mother was dead), was money. And the movie industry seemed to combine his interests. And now, with her new insight into her life’s potential, very much in her interests.

 

Chapter 9

Featured

(Early) Sunday Morning

December 10, 1911

The Hammond Street Presbyterian Church
Lawrence, Massachusetts

Frederick Prendergast III and his wife Constance, walked across the Lawrence Town Commons, on a mild December morning. The bite of cold that prevailed through the night and into the early morning hours, broke, like rotted teeth on some Christmas confection, and was replaced by temperature so mild, if only by contrast, that Frederick decided that the family would forgo the carriage and, instead, walk across the Commons, to Sunday Services.

In 1848, the Essex Corporation gifted the town of Lawrence with 17 acres of vacant land for use as the town Common. Along the four streets that bordered this greenery, were, churches of a New England, variety of denominations, City Hall, the Library, (complete with Greco-Roman columns), and a row of imposing private residences. The Commons itself was of a decidedly odd shape. If one were to rise above the earth and view the arrangement of abutting neighborhoods and sections of town, one could be forgiven for insisting that the Town of Lawrence, (from this lofty height), possessed the shape of a great Chalice. The Cup formed by the green of the Commons, the surrounding mansions and houses of worship taking the place of decorative jewels and gold filigree. As a chalice, a broad and stable base was necessary and there, the stolid red brick of the Mills, arrayed along the Merrimack River, completed the image. The Chalice, as potent a symbol in human experience as might be found, also represents the most basic of elements: Water, Fire, Earth and Air. Missing is, of course, the human element. That there could not be a Lawrence, Massachusetts without people, goes without saying. It is the experiences of the different social classes in Lawrence, Massachusetts in 1911 that is most telling. Much like the different shapes of the neighborhoods and sections of town that creates this provocative image of a chalice, each social class, in part, defines the other groups and, ultimately the whole. Grand mansions were, in fact, dependent on the members of the lower class to enable them to exert their power, causing the city to grow and thrive. Even as Frederick Prendergast is determined to increase production (and profits) of the Mills of Lawrence, so Annie LoPizzo becomes a focal point of the growing dissatisfaction of the workers in those very same Mills. Surely the concept of ‘interdependency’ needs no further illustration.

As Frederick Prendergast and his wife Constance stepped through the tall oak doors of the Hammond Street Presbyterian Church, snow fell from above, released from the grip of overhanging branches by the warming temperatures. Frederick led his small family down the central aisle, to the first rows of pews. Marked by a discreet brass plaque on the end of the row, Nanny Grace Byrne sat with the twins in the second of the Prendergast pews. Without the thought (or need) to watch them get settled in, Frederick and Constance stepped to the first row.

After removing and placing his overcoat on the bench to his left, Frederick helped his wife with her coat. As he did so, he noticed, just above her ear, three snowflakes clinging delicately to her white-blonde hair. Smiling to himself, he thought, ‘Well, snowflakes, you have found the one safe place to come to rest. Given my dear wife’s disposition you may very well survive to make it out of the service in your current form!’

“What is it, Frederick?” Constance, glancing up from folding her gloves, looked hopefully at her husband.

“Nothing, my dear. I was just thinking how lovely you look this morning.”

Glancing behind them at her two sons, Constance Prendergast sent a hummingbird smile towards her husband, her eyes flickered with the hint of hope and uncertainty.

Frederick sat back in his pew, as upright as his starched-white collar. He showed no signs of the chafing discomfit he endured. He pulled and re-positioned his collar, in a manner that served to convey an overwhelming sense of self-satisfaction in his dress, and allowed the opportunity to assure himself that the somewhat dingy, yellow-grey ring inside his shirt collar was, in no way, visible to anyone sitting behind the Prendergast Family. Following on the motion of his hand to his neck, Frederick casually surveyed the congregation. He noted the absence of those who could little afford to be absent and nodded, in shared-virtue acknowledgment, to those for whom his own attendance was significant. Like taking in the vista of a magnificent mountain range, Frederick recognized other stockholders of the Essex Corporation. As the newest Member of the Board, he felt it his duty to account for the spiritual health of those who controlled the life and well-being of the City.
Frederick glanced to where his two sons sat and caught the eye of Grace Byrne. She looked back, almost startled and yet, with a hint of furtive enjoyment, held his gaze. Having established eye contact, Frederick made a point to smile, while implying that he was quite busy counting heads in the Church, and continued his survey. Looking away too soon, he missed an expression of surprised hurt that clouded the face of the 18-year-old Nanny.

Frederick Prendergast III was one of those rare people gifted, (or cursed), with an acute sensibility for his appearance. Most adults learn, acquire, are taught and imitate their peers until they become sensitive to the virtue of conformity to (whatever might constitute) the common standard of appropriate dress and appearance. If one were to liken this gift, (or curse), to the ability to sing, it would be necessary to describe Frederick Prendergast as a virtuoso. In his defense, this ‘sensitivity to appearance’ was nothing as simple as being vaingloriously burdened by up-bringing or inherited personal insecurities. Frederick Prendergast genuinely believed that, in order to help those around him aspire to more and more acceptable appearance, it was incumbent upon him to stand as an example.

Promptly at 11:00 am, dressed in traditional Geneva gown, white preaching-tabs interrupting the solemnity of the black cassock, Minister Allyn Montrose stepped up into the Pulpit and stared out into the congregation. After more than a minute of the young man staring at the congregation, Frederick began to glance around, seeing the uncertainty, like an un-expected breeze, ruffle the patient expressions on the faces of those sharing the front row of pews. The feeling of disquiet, paradoxically, all the more noticeable for the silence that held them all.

Noticing that one of the more senior members of the Essex Corp Board of Directors was staring in his direction, Frederick replaced his look of puzzlement with a frown, a non-verbal acquiescence to what clearly was a rapidly growing disapproval of the new Minister’s style. Adding to his discomfort, Fred recalled the final interview of Elder Montrose. Less than a month before, Frederick sat in the Bishop’s Office, (the Bishop held a fairly significant portfolio of Essex Corp Preferred Stock, and was only too happy to agree to Frederick’s request to participate), the conversation still fresh in his mind,

The Bishop had been quite explicit,

“Elder Montrose, for someone so young, you’re being charged with quite a difficult task. The Congregation at the Hammond Street church is rather, let us say, diverse. More than half of those sitting on the hard-wooden benches are people who work in decidedly menial capacities, in no small part to the benefit of the one-third, most of whom are sitting in the first 5 rows. They, the one-third, while in need of the true message of the Gospels, are the most immune to the message we, of the Clergy, are charged to convey. In effect, you must craft your message to teach some a lesson they feel they have no need to learn, while reaching the others with a message of inclusion.”

Frederick nodded both in approval, and support of the Bishop’s position. Remaining seated to the left of the marble and carved relief mantle of the fireplace, he asked,

“What do you think of that?”

Allyn Montrose seemed startled when Frederick spoke, as if he’d forgotten that there were three people in the office that day.
Frederick Prendergast had decided that it was both his religious and civic duty to help the new Minister to better understand the challenge that confronted him. He regarded Allyn Montrose with, what he had often been told was, a skilled eye for assessing the worth of a man, (or the value of a woman). Tall and a bit on the thin side, especially given his profession, Allyn Montrose avoided personal invisibility purely by virtue of his eyes. His tendency to move slowly and, for the most part, react slowly to those around him, were more than offset by the intensity in his eyes. Frederick thought that eyes like those in this, soon-to-be-the-new Minister, were portents of success when observed in quarterbacks of  football teams and Field Generals facing overwhelming odds on the field of battle. That he saw this quality in the eyes of the man given charge of the faithful of Lawrence, Massachusetts, made him nervous. As the new Director of Operations at the Everett Mill, Frederick was uniquely qualified to identify with the new pastor, however, as a person, Frederick was inclined to not allow himself to get too close to the hordes of workers that played such a critical role in achieving success. Fellow Harvard graduate or not, Frederick decided that he needed to test this young man’s mettle.

“So, Elder Montrose. Can you make the faithful of Lawrence truly understand and accept their responsibility to their benefactors?”

Frederick smiled as he spoke and was surprised to see the other man recoil from him. Unbidden, a voice from childhood, ‘You’re an agreeable young man, you like people, but when you smile, you use only half your lips. You must, my son, practice smiling until you can do so without appearing to be sneering.’

“Well, yes, Fred, provided if I understand what it is you’re asking.”

The new Minister recovered his composure very quickly and Frederick made a mental note to be careful in any future dealings with Allyn Montrose.

***

“This blessed December Sunday, our Sermon will begin with Matthew 25:14–30,”

Elder Allyn Montrose, began his first Sermon,

“The “Parable of the Talents” is probably one of the most direct expressions of God’s Love for his creations. It also offers one of the most direct, un-adorned by metaphor and story-telling techniques, lessons of the Bible. It is a lesson in responsibility and in opportunity and, finally, it makes clear that God helps those who help themselves.”

In the front row of the Hammond Street Presbyterian Church, one, soon-to-be-wealthy man, noted the nods of approval from several, already-very-wealthy men and congratulated himself on his good judgment in picking the new Minister. Coinciding with the nods, and quite un-noticed, were the cries of the very small children and the whispered assurance of a never-to-be-wealthy, young woman.

“With the ‘Parable of the Talents’, the Apostle Matthew tells us of a man who invests in those who are beholden to him. This man, who in today’s modern parlance, would be called a self-made man, is about to embark on an extended journey to foreign lands and, calling his servants, tells them, one by one, of his plans and assures them that he values their loyalty and devotion in the service of his house. As a gesture, he gives, to each a certain number of talents, which was the currency of the day. This was no small matter, at the time, the value of the talents he gave them was not insignificant.

After many months, the Master returns home and calls each of his servants, to whom he entrusted no small amount of wealth, to account for themselves in his absence. Now these three servants, to whom he gave the talents had worked for him varying lengths of time and, not so surprisingly, each enjoyed different levels of responsibilities.
First came the servant to whom he gave the most, being the one that had worked for him the longest. In fact, this first servant was in charge of the day-to-day finances of the estate. When asked, about the original sum he was given, the servant replied, with great humility and obvious pride that he had wisely invested his talents and increased the value of his holdings tenfold.
The second servant, being employed less time than the first, and therefore was given half as many talents presented himself to the Master of the house and reported that his holdings had also increased. He confided in his benefactor that he took the initiative to purchase as many slaves as the amount he was given permitted and and hired them out to the other farms of the valley. The Master of the house laughed and said, ‘Your industry and shrewdness makes me proud of my decision to give you those Talents’.
Finally the last servant comes before his Master and when asked to account for his use of the wealth he was given, lowered his head in shame and says, ‘I have only that which you gave me, Master. Being new in your employ I was unfamiliar with the customs of your House and assumed that the money was being entrusted to me for safe keeping while you travelled foreign lands.’ And taking from his tattered purse, the single Talent, he looked directly at his Master and said with humility, ‘I return that which you gave for me to hold in trust.’

The two other servants looked with disdain on this man and, trading silent winks, quietly left the room. The self-made man of wealth looked down on this simple man and said,

‘Evil and lazy servant! So you knew that I harvest where I didn’t sow and gather where I didn’t scatter? Then you should have deposited my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received my money back with interest!’

Turning to his guard he spoke in private, loudly enough for all in the room to hear,

‘Give it to the one who has ten. For the one who has will be given more, and he will have more than enough. But the one who does not have, even what he has will be taken from him. And throw that worthless slave into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.'”

Once again, the smile-that-sometimes-appeared-half-formed, grew on Frederick Prendergast’s face as he felt the righteous affirmation of the value invested in him that he would deliver to the Essex Corporation Board of Directors. He would return more talents than he possessed.

“In closing, the poet Milton wrote in, “When I Consider How My Light is Spent’ 

And that one Talent, which is death to hide,
Lodg’d with me useless, though my Soul more bent
To serve therewith my Maker, and present
My true account, lest he, returning, chide

This very community, Lawrence Massachusetts is as blessed as the First Servant, the one who took what was given to him and turned it into so much more. As we leave this Church this morning, let us look about us, at the Town and it’s people. Truly now, as the new Century dawns, each of us should pray to be shown the truth. Because, as today’s parable tells us so clearly, God’s gifts of opportunity abound. There is much put within reach of all, by virtue of those we’re blessed to have among us. Let us all resolve to work hard so that, by increasing the holdings of one, the potential for further opportunities will increase. Never forget, God helps those who help themselves”

Filing out of the Church, the last to leave and speak to the Minister, Frederick Prendergast III, his wife at his side, shook Allyn Montrose’s hand and said,

“Reverend, your Sermon today fills me with hope for this Town. We have both taken on roles to guide the less fortunate and help them contribute to the greater good.”

“I’m glad that you enjoyed my Sermon, Mr. Prendergast, it is men like you and companies like the Essex Corporation and the Everett Mills that help bring people to these doors. I trust that we will both be worthy of the trust that has been put on us.”

At the bottom of the Church stairs, Grace Byrne stared first at Constance Prendergast, then at Frederick Prendergast and thought of her family back in Bansha, unable to join her in this new country. The promise of a Roman Catholic priest on her behalf accounted for her being offered the position of Nanny to the Prendergast children. The increasingly un-ignorable demands being felt coming from Frederick Prendergast promised to put a reunion with her family in jeopardy. Walking ahead of Constance and Frederick Prendergast, a five-year-old on each hand, Grace felt the echo of the Sermon, “…the Lord helps those who help themselves”

Chapter 8

Featured

(Early) Saturday Night

“But Mom!! I don’t want to go out with ‘that very nice Hughes boy!’

Becky Stillworth stood facing her closet and sighed. Just to the left, from the mirror on the back of the closet door, her reflection smiled self-consciously.

Confronted with a mute row of clothes hangers and rounded stacks of too-big sweaters on the shelf above, she smiled back with what she hoped was a look of self-confidence, but suspected was more one of resignation. Becky wanted to believe that finding the perfect outfit would increase her chances of being mistaken for a girl just like the other girls in the 11th Grade, complete with the aggressively optimistic attitude that her appearance would undo how uncertain she felt.

16-year-old Becky, at 5 feet 2 inches tall, 95 pounds was the physical embodiment of every adolescent boy’s day-dreamed fantasy. She was also, for better or for worse, gifted with an intellect and intelligence that seemed to elicit surprise in everyone, especially her parents. Paradoxically, flaunting her newly developing body was easier on those around her than would challenging them with her intellectual prowess.

Resigned to her mother’s well-meant, but clearly strained effort to help her, ‘come out of her shell‘, Becky Stillworth confronted the most difficult decision of her day: what to wear.

“Well, Becky,” addressing her reflection-self, which was still off to the side of the closet, as if hoping to not be drawn into any actual decision-making, “lets take this bull by the horns and find something for you to wear that will make everyone wonder, ‘who’s the new girl in town?'”

Laughing quietly, she clumped-together, coat-hangers into coat-hangers, from right to left, trying to find something that was not brown, beige or dark green. Failing that, she went back through the clothes, in the opposite direction, hoping to find something that, lacking an actual bright color, might offer something in the way of a clever, (and hopefully), flattering design.

According to her mother, Becky was a very attractive girl who, at times, was ‘a little too smart for her own good‘.
Favoring over-sized sweaters and billowy skirts, Becky sought places where she would not standout for having her nose buried in a book. She worked part-time at the Circe Library. She joined as many clubs and student activities as she could manage. All this effort because careful research convinced her that most college admissions boards looked favorably on applicants who demonstrated a high degree of social engagement. With that thought, Becky glanced over at her bed and laughed, thinking that she had more in common with her male classmates than she’d care to admit. She’d chosen her mattress as the best hiding place for her collection of college brochures and course catalogs which, while not overtly forbidden, were not anything that she wanted her parents to discover. Late at night, after her parents were asleep, Becky would crouch next to her bed and reach under the mattress. Her choice of reading material was usually determined by the kind of day she’d had, and spent many a late-night hour leafing through college brochures. If, however, her day had been especially difficult, she might indulge herself with the full  Admissions Catalog for the University of Chicago or, perhaps Stanford School of Medicine. Alone with her dream, letting the glossy photos transport her far from the plains of Kansas and, in doing so, inspire her night’s dream.

If the saying, ‘the eyes are the window to the soul’, is anywhere near a valid observation, Becky Stillworth was either a saint or the devil. Eyes of green-flecked brown, offsetting a very aquiline nose, they could appear lost in the view of a distant land, yet without a word of warning, present a degree of focus that was quite intimidating, especially as it appeared on the face of a seemingly innocent 16-year-old High School girl.

Clarence and Frances Stillworth loved their only daughter very much and wanted only what was best for her. For all of Becky’s straight ‘A’ grades, asked to describe their daughter, they probably would begin with, ‘she has a lovely complexion, very cute figure and is interested in so many different things‘.
If  ever asked what she should do to improve her life, their first answer would be, ‘that she should find a nice boy and go steady and just enjoy life’. For Clarence and Frances Stillworth, High School was the last time a young person could live free of the worries and responsibilities that came with being an adult and raising a family.

That their only daughter was determined to go to medical school and become a doctor was simply outside of their capacity to relate. Whether she had what it took to succeed was never a topic of discussion in the Stillworth household. That Becky Stillworth made the social-familial cost/benefit calculation and acceded to her parents wishes that she, ‘go out with that nice Randall Hughes’, would surely put to rest any question as to the young girl’s maturity or, for that matter, her determination to realize her dream.

Becky Stillworth was usually right in her calculations.

***

Eliza Thornberg stood outside the ballroom. Her father’s wife’s Afternoon Social was so well received, that the decision was made, at approximately 3:45 pm, to not let it end. To the delight of the 50 or so guests, (and to the dismay of the household staff), hurried preparations for an evening buffet on the patio began, as the day turned into night.

Eliza approved of that decision and looked forward to spending more time with one of the guests, a tall man with a quietly confident manner, by the name of Jack Clayton. A friend of one of her father’s business associates, Jack worked in Hollywood and was frequently mentioned as, ‘the next Howard Hawks’. Attending the function on impulse, he found the afternoon social interesting, in an abstract, ‘high society’ sort of way, right up until the moment he spilled a glass full of Tom Collins down the front of his shirt, in a less-than-successful effort to avoid bumping into his host’s wife’s stepdaughter.

Glancing at the mirrored wall opposite the entrance to the ballroom, Eliza smiled. She liked mirrors and, to a passerby, it would be quite clear that her reflection agreed with her. Looking closer, Eliza made a mental note to increase the number of times she played tennis this summer. Not unhappy with her figure, she decided that some toning to her shoulders wouldn’t hurt. She saw Stephen before he saw her. He was drunk and hanging all over Olivia Sheraton, the daughter of a member of the hotel family. Stephen Lawrence looked up through the mass of blonde hair that he had managed, much to the dismay of the Philadelphia Debutante (1938), to get entangled in. As Eliza watched, he started to make his way towards her, like a squirrel running ahead of an approaching car, (except in slow motion). The tall, young man veered to one wall, started at it, as if expecting an explanation for his path being blocked, then, attention being drawn by a movement further on, re-oriented himself and moved forward. He walked with more urgency than advisable, given his condition.

“Eliza!! It’s you!” In a well-intentioned, if not overly ambitious attempt to present a casually confident appearance, Stephen Lawrence leaned with his left hand on the wall just over Eliza’s head.

“I been looking all over the place for you!”

“How nice.” Eliza decided that standing in one spot was only a tiny, improvement over walking away, given how that would entail being followed down the hallway by her drunk boyfriend.

“Yes. Yeah! Hey you’re looking,  …good! Where you been. I was looking…” turning to face a couple just walking into the ballroom, he announced with a drunk’s over-enunciation, in their general direction, “…this my girlfriend! Aliza!”
Unfortunately for Stephen, in his effort to turn his head, he moved his shoulders a bit more than the geometry of his position would tolerate. The motion of his upper body was transmitted down his arm, out to his left hand. This hand being, of course, the anchor upon which his entire stance was dependent. The hand slid along the wall and Stephen Lawrence (Yale ’41) followed. Along, (and down), the wall to the floor, behind where Eliza had been standing.

Seeing Stephen begin his slide along the wall, Eliza stepped away.

At that very same moment, Eliza spotted Jack Clayton coming down the staircase and, without a second look at the young man trying to extract himself from behind a small potted plant, made her way over to where he stood, waiting.

“Hey, you changed your shirt. Much better!”

***

“Here, let me get that, you always leave one end sticking out too far,” Emily Gale attached her mildly talon-like hands to her husband’s upper arms and turned him around as he stood, staring at the full length mirror in their bedroom.

“Can’t say I understand why we have to get all dressed up, when we’re just going to Doc Morgan’s house for dinner.” Henry surrendered control of the silk length of the bow tie to his wife. With a look of indulgent concentration, Emily Gale looped and tucked the red silk into a very properly balanced knot, her fingers moving gracefully and, with the last loop in place, gave the two ends a firm tug, securing it for the evening. For no reason he could account for, Henry thought of the young couple, from Back East, who took a run-down pig farm and forced it to grow into a large and very successful business. In no way prone to squeamishness, Henry did not argue when Emily took charge of neutering of the hog stock. While necessary to keeping the balance between boars and barrows at a profitable level, she seemed to possess a certain, natural talent for the decidedly drastic act of animal husbandry.

Henry Gale’s wardrobe was divided unequally in his closet between, ‘comfortable clothes‘ and ‘go to church and be seen with Emily‘ clothing. The former, mostly in the denim and chambray family of men’s fashion, the latter was purchased for him by his wife.

“Never you mind, Henry Gale. We’ve been through this too many times. Life is more than slopping hogs, managing the farm hands and adding to the homestead. Don’t you ever think about what you’ll leave behind, when the Good Lord calls you home again?”

Emily stepped back and assessed her handiwork, not only with the tie, but the man. Like most of the things in her life, his imperfections were a burden she willingly accepted.

“Of course I do! We have a fine daughter in Dorothy.” Henry saw a very subtle change in his wife’s posture and instantly regretted his choice of counter argument,

“The Gale Farm is now the largest spread in East Central Kansas,” her eyes became a little less focused, “what you’ve built here in Circe, well there are few men more proud than me.”

Emily Gale turned and sat at her dressing table, making final adjustments to her make up, the dark blue chiffon gown offset by the crystal beads of her necklace. Henry thought that she surely hadn’t aged in the 18 years since they first took up living and farming in Circe. Looking at her husband’s reflection in the mirror, Emily said with a fierce pride,

“Well, I do think about the future. Everything that we do to help the Community step out of the dark ages is a good thing. And the new Wing at the Hospital will let the generations to come know that Emily and Henry Gale were here and did something good.”

***

Leaning over the bathroom sink, Tom Hardesty finger-brushed his hair, took a half step out of the bathroom, turned back to the mirror, ran both hands through his hair front to back, and walked out into the kitchen.

“Where’s Pa?” Tom’s young brother, Ethan, was sitting on the blue and white couch in the living room, one of the two lamps in the room, illuminated the large, hardcover book balanced on his knees.

“Out in the barn”, Ethan spoke, without raising his eyes from the book.

“What’cha reading?” Tom stood behind the couch and, reaching over the 10 year old’s shoulder, turned over the cover, folding it over on the boy’s thin forearms, and read,

“[The author gives some account of himself and family. His first inducements to travel. He is shipwrecked, and swims for his life. Gets safe on shore in the country of Lilliput; is made a prisoner, and carried up the country.]”

“Hey! Gulliver’s Travels!  Mom’s?”

“Yeah,”

“I thought she took it with her.” Silence grew shadows up the walls and towards the pool of light where the 10 year boy sat, like the character in another of the books left behind in a box, alone on the shore of a strange land, trying to find companionship and understanding.

“She used to read it to me, when I was little,” Tom let go of the cover and the book fell back open, like a map to a buried treasure, the light from the one of two living room lamps illuminating the words.

“Yeah?”

“Yeah,” the silence returned, but now it was a shared silence that bound, rather than separated.

“Well, don’t stay up too late and make sure Pa doesn’t either,” Tom returned to his bedroom, grabbed the guitar case leaning against the wall and walked across the living room, through the kitchen and out the back door.

Standing in the open half of the double barn door, Tom watched as his father, pulling with both hands on a wrench, succeeded at loosening an old, rusty bolt on part of the feed-spreader that he had all apart on the workbench. Across from this lighted area, were two stalls and, down at the back of the barn, a door that lead outside to the hog pens. Past the stalls, but still on the opposite of the barn from the work area, were another set of double doors that opened out to the corral and, from there, to the pasture and fields.

“Headin’ over to the Gulch place for a while,” Tom remained standing in the doorway

“Don’t be staying too late, I need your help tomorrow. Got to make some repairs to the hog house and there’s a section of fence needs some tendin.” Ephraim Hardesty looked up from the lighted surface of the workbench. Parts of a feed spreader lay across the oil stained wood. Fastened on the wall above the bench, a grimy, somewhat torn, illustration of the spreader. Written on the bottom of the once-neatly-folded, over-sized paper was the legend, “Your Modern Spreader! Now Designed for Easy Repair”. The irony was under-appreciated by the man who toiled to keep the equipment working.

Seeing the guitar case, Ephraim put the wrench he was using down on the bench and said,

“Out to learn some more songs, are ya?”

“Yeah, thought maybe…you know”

“Lemme see…”

A bit surprised, Tom set the case down, flipped the latches and held the guitar out towards his father. Wiping his hands on a clean rag, Ephraim Hardesty took the guitar, sat back on the tall wooden stool, crossing one leg over the other, strummed a few random chords. A passing stranger would have less trouble recognizing the older man as father to the younger, than did Tom Hardesty, at that particular moment. Tom saw a man that childhood memories would suggest was someone he knew, but right then, he was seeing a near-stranger …who began to sing,

“I woke up this morning… I woke up this morning…
Woke up this morning, with the monday...” winking at his son, he sang,
Sunday morning blues.
I couldn’t hardly find… I couldn’t hardly find… I couldn’t hardly find,
my Sunday morning shoes.

Sunday morning blues… Monday morning blues…
Sunday morning blues, searched all through my bones. Monday morning blues… Monday Monday morning blues, made me leave my home. I’ve been laying in jail…
… I’ve been laying in jail, six long weeks today.”
(Mississippi John Hurt rights reserved)

Seeing the look on his son’s face, Ephraim said,

What? Do you think that your mother and I got married by accident? Who do you think encouraged her to buy this guitar?”

Laughing, Ephraim Hardesty handed the guitar to his son and turned back to his broken spreader part.

“Try to remember to ask Phyllis McCutcheon when she wants us to make the next delivery of hogs. Oh, and be sure to remind her that we’ll need the extra help to harvest the alfalfa, in a couple of weeks.”

Ephraim turned his attention back to the broken equipment, determined to restore it to working order.

***

Hunk Dietrich studied his correspondence courses and dreamed of a real life.

***

Dorothy Gale, walked barefoot-quiet down the hallway to her bedroom, after 45 relaxing minutes in a warm tub in a quiet bathroom. She put on her softest jeans and a grey cashmere pullover, (borrowed from her college roommate Eliza’s extensive wardrobe), and stood in front of the mirror on the large dresser. Tilting the lampshade to let as much light as possible shine on her reflected face, Dorothy Gale turned her head to the left and then to the right, tilted her head forward and back and finally stepped back and said quietly, to her herself,

“I do not look green! And anyone who says I’m mean…. green!!  Well, they’re just damn liars!!”

For no reason, the name, “Mrs. Gulch” came to mind and she realized that she’d forgotten all about her plan to visit Mrs. Gulch at St Mary’s Hospital.

‘Well, I’ll simply go there after Church tomorrow.”  she said, as she pulled the easy chair around, to face out the window. Dorothy sat, took out a pad and began to write a letter to her friend Eliza Thornberg,

“Dear Eliza,

‘Trust you are well. I am,  …bored would begin to tell it, and yet it’s only been 2 weeks…’

***

Standing in front of the plate-glass window of McAlleister’s Bakery, 16-year-old Almira Ristani saw her reflection. The street light, just beginning to glow in the early evening dark, created a mirror of the window, offering a glimpse of a young girl in a heavy grey coat. Her long, light brown hair formed a shawl, spreading to either side of her face. A delicately fair complexion and pale blue eyes, made her think of Titania, such was the faerie-like appearance in the plate-glass. Almira looked shyly at her reflection and, glancing up and down the empty streets, whispered,

“What has happened, have you lost your way? Surely you can find your way home, don’t be scared. I’ll help you.”

The reflection smiled, both in agreement and in sympathy.

“Come in! Just in time to help get the refreshments out! The Union committee, yes, that’s the shouting you’re hearing… is almost done with the meeting. Parliamentary intercourse you know!”  laughing, Annie LoPizzo, her white blouse open to a greater degree than one might think appropriate, at least until the day, (Saturday), and time, (6:30 pm), was noted. Her ample breasts were much like her personality: seductively intriguing, hinting at undefined pleasure to those willing to take a chance.

“Here, let’s get you some muscle to help with the coffee urns. Sterling!! Come out here! I need to introduce you to my friend and the newest member of the all volunteer union hall staff, Almira Ristani.
Almira? this is Sterling Gulch… Sterling? No, you aren’t shy, are you? Help Almira set out the refreshments. From the volume of the shouting, I’d say the Strike Committee has concluded it’s meeting for this week.” Annie moved quickly around the large open room, arranging the cakes and other donated baked goods.

“Sterling! Remember our talk earlier today. The Union is the reason for all this, if you want to help, we’re glad to have you. There’ll be time to socialize later. Work first, flirt second, is that understood?  And besides, my young friend Almira may be a bit more than you’re accustomed to, as far as the young ladies go. She’s managed to teach me some things about the plight of modern woman in today’s society. Yes, I know that you went to college too, but learning and wisdom are often two different matters.”

***

Nurse Claire Griswold stood guard in the darkened Ward C, the light at the exit, like a votive candle, cast a quiet glow over the ten beds.

****************

Saturday Night (Late)

The guttural shouting of the car muffler as Randall Hughes accelerated away from the Stillworth home made Becky think of the sound the boy made, just before their date came to a sudden and surprising end. Opening the front door as quietly as possible, Becky was only to the bottom of the stairs when she heard her father’s voice coming from the living room,

“Is that you, dear?”

“Yes, Dad, it’s me” after a momentary pause, they both laughed at the silly obviousness in both his question and her answer.

“How was your date?”

Becky was surprised to feel a flash of anger at his question, but was more surprised that she was mad at herself. She decided that it would be best to keep this conversation as short as possible.

“It was swell. We went to the movies,”

“What’d you see?”

“‘Topper’ About some people, a couple who are ghosts and this guy, Topper. Cary Grant was in it. It was good, but in a way sad. The way the couple, who were really in love, but died in a car crash.”

“And then….”

“Well, you know. We went to Randall’s Pharmacy for something to eat and just hung around. You know.”

“Well, I’m glad you had a good time. You work so very hard at your studies, it’s good to see you have some fun.”

“Sure. It’s not that I need to get away from my studies. I really want you and Mom to be proud of me.”

“We are, Becky. Your mother only wants the best for you. You know that, right?”

“Sure, Dad,”

Becky started up the stairs to her bedroom,

“Oh, and Becky?”

She stopped mid-step, fearing the worst. She couldn’t smell anything, but she feared the worst. Thinking he was smarter than her, which considering most of the girls he’d been out with, wasn’t unreasonable, Randall Hughes had spiked her cup of Coca Cola. She didn’t say anything until the car headlights were off and he pulled her towards his side of the front seat. She still didn’t say anything, just leaned towards him, which brought his attention away from the cup of soda in her right hand. She leaned away enough to see the annoyed expression on his face, just before she poured the contents of her cup into his lap. Annoyance turned to shock and surprise and then, Becky found a part of herself feeling sorry for him, he looked confused and embarrassed. Neither spoke on the ride back to Becky’s house. She got out of the car without saying or hearing another word.

“Yes?”

“You might want to find a better hiding place for your College Brochures. Your mother mentioned today that it was time to turn the mattresses. I convinced her it could wait a week and I’d take the time off from the store to help her. I put a clean wooden box on my workshop bench in the basement. You might want to put them there tomorrow after Church. They’ll be safe until after the mattress flipping is over.”

Feeling the whiplash relief of un-realized fear combined with the pleasant surprise of her fathers attitude towards her ambition, Becky ran back down the stairs and hugged her father.

“Thank you, Daddy. Thank you.”

“Now, enough of that! It’s late and you’ve had a long day. Off to bed with you.”

Pausing in front of the mirror at her closet, Becky Stillworth smiled at herself.

***

The full length dressing mirror stood alone, facing Eliza Thornberg’s bed. The covers moved, a flash of blonde hair appeared and disappeared, followed by a tanned shoulder-blade. Had the full length dressing mirror been a proper recording device, rather than a simple reflecting device, the sounds of surprise and delight, discovery and passion would have been a part of the record of late evening in Eliza Thornberg’s bedroom. This particular night, (which started out as Saturday afternoon), would be noted in family lore as ‘the day of the Afternoon Social That Continued Well into the Evening’.

For the unabridged version of that afternoon/evening, it would be necessary to consult those who attended, but were not on the actual Guest list, i.e. the domestic staff. Consulted, they would surely mention that it was the weekend that the son of a Houseguest was taken to the hospital and, they might continue, it was also the same social event that included a soon-to-be-famous Film Director, a last-minute addition to the Guest list, (this last was a detail that assured one that the source of the information was well beyond scullery girl gossip), who was also a guest for breakfast the Sunday that followed that Saturday.

“Church?” Jack Clayton looked at the girl standing, nearly nude, in front of a dressing mirror.

“Why yes, surely they have Churches in Hollywood? Big buildings? Sunday mornings, nicely dressed?” Eliza smiled as she watched her overnight guest in the mirror’s reflection.

“Dressed? As in, not naked and…. nude? That’s no fun!” Jack retreated under the covers.

“Oh, yeah.” Eliza stood at the foot of the bed,

“Thanks for reminding me! You need to join us in Newport this August!”

***

Henry was as close to fed up with Emily as he could ever remember being. The evening at the Morgans, while boring at times, was not unpleasant. His wife’s effort to manipulate Thad Morgan into supporting her plan to use the Charity Ward of St Mary’s to create the ‘Gale Wing’, was.
Long reconciled to his wife’s insecurities, he could see that his accommodations to her frequently over-bearing ambitions made him blind to the extent to which she would go to get what she wanted.

“I’m sorry, I don’t see how this plan of yours is necessary if it means poor people have to go to Topeka for proper care, away from their homes.”

***

Tom Hardesty found Phyllis McCutcheon working on inventory lists in the small room off the kitchen of the Gulch Farm. She was so focused on multiple inventory lists in front of her, that he stood in the doorway, unnoticed for several minutes. A woman of medium height, she wore her hair quite long, its remarkable fineness somehow made its length less obvious. As Tom watched, her smooth brow furrowed in concentration, as if, by forcing her eyes to increase the detail available, the problem’s solution might be all the more satisfying. She turned her ahead in the direction of the shadow that Tom cast over the table, temporarily eclipsing the bright kitchen light. Phyllis continued to stare at the young man, as if including his presence in the addition and subtraction of numbers carefully written on her ledger sheets. At a certain point she clearly needed clarification of this new factor in her work and, smiling abstractly, said,

“Tom! So good to see you! How long have you been standing there? Please come in and sit,”

following his gaze, she realized that there was only the one chair in the small room.

“Of course, how rude of me! Here, take my chair!”

Tom stepped back out into the kitchen, smiling and looking towards the larger table set up on the far side of the room,

“No, thanks, I’m good.”

Phyllis McCutcheon was one of those people who saw the good before the bad in most people. And, while many who stopped at Almira’s Farm might offer to pay what they could afford for a hot meal or a clean bed, they would move on as soon as the opportunity presented itself. When the McCutcheon party turned up at the Gulch Farm, 3 years previously, their hoped for short stay turned from days into weeks. Never being one to stand idly by as others work, Phyllis offered to help Almira in the kitchen.

Phyllis was the daughter of one of the organizers of the three vehicle caravan, an old and opinionated preacher by the name of Noah McCutcheon. Phyllis’s husband and daughter had died, within a month of each other, of influenza in 1936, in their small home outside of Tulsa. Following her father seemed to be as good a plan for life as staying where she was and so, they traveled West, drawn by the promise of opportunity and hope for a new life in a place as far from Oklahoma as was possible and still remain in the United States.

After a week of staying in the barn-turned-dormitory, their vehicles repaired and ready for the road West, Noah McCutcheon told Phyllis to get her things and join the rest, ‘of the pilgrims’ in the over-loaded vehicles. Always one to avoid an argument, Phyllis happened to be in the middle of assisting Almira with a complete inventory of the Farm at the time of her father’s command.

Surprise is often expressed with anger and, sometimes with joy and happiness. On one October morning in 1937, Phyllis McCutcheon caused both states to exist with her surprising announcement,

“Father I am staying here at the Farm. That is, if Miz Gulch will permit me to stay and help complete this inventory.”

The two very different responses indicated the respective emotional states in the kitchen that morning,

“I forbid it!”

“I’d be delighted if you would stay and help me here on the Farm.”

The two women continued with their efforts even as the sound of three badly running vehicles followed the dusty-yellow road that promised to lead to a happy life in the West.

***

Nurse Claire Griswold watched over her charges as the night wore on.

 

Chapter 7

Featured

The noon whistle cut through the constant roar of the braiding machines that filled the 3rd floor of Building 6 of Everett Mill. For each row of braiders, there were 2 braider-tenders, replacing empty bobbins of thread with full ones, spotting broken or jammed bobbins and freeing whatever caused the flow of thread-to-central-carrier to be interrupted. Braider Tenders were, predominately, women, their aptitude a result of smaller hands and, by and large, greater manual dexterity. That the machinery was rarely turned-off meant the Braider Tender needed to reach in among the spinning and whirling machines, (the bobbins spun, the carriers whirled). Only the Floor Supervisor and his assistant, (the floor Mechanic), had the ability, (and much more importantly, the authority) to slow down or stop the machinery. Like the shuttles and bobbins of the braiders, Almira and the other women moved up and down their rows, as connected to the machinery as any other part. The length of time it took them to spot and replace a broken or empty bobbin, was closely monitored by the Floor Supervisor.

Routine has the remarkable quality of transforming the unique into the everyday. People, especially strongly-motivated people, are able to get used to anything. When Almira first started working full time at the Mill, (within a month of her 14th birthday and less than 2 months after the death of her mother), she’d return home after her shift, shaking with tension. Being trained to tend the braiding machines required, well, it required tending the braiding machines.
Her first steps down the narrow space that ran between rows of braiders were within a millimeter of dead-center, as she followed Mrs. Ypres, who was assigned to train new Braider Tenders. She showed Almira how to take a bobbin from the cart at the end of the row, release and remove the empty bobbin and tie in the new thread. Almira thought at the time to ask if it wouldn’t be easier and safer to turn the machine off first. The world of the 3rd Floor Braiding Department was a world of deaf-mute workers serving overwhelmingly loud machinery, and so, communication was very efficient, she could nod in agreement or frown in question, whereupon Mrs. Ypres would move to the next section to free a stuck bobbin. The tension Almira felt throughout her first week of training was the unavoidable result of her constant effort to maintain a safe(er) distance between herself and the ravenous machinery. Unfortunately, there was a row of machines behind her and every inch gained on one-side was lost on the other.

Almira Ristani got used to the danger and no longer came home shaking from the stress, except on those days that there was an accident. The first to happen on her shift, came after she’d been working for 6 months, she didn’t see anything. Somehow, it was made worse that she heard it. She heard the scream. What haunted her dreams for weeks, even months after that first accident, was how the scream of the woman changed, as it raced down the parallel rows of machines. It was a scream at once terrified and, surprisingly with little of a message of pain. It quickly transformed itself into a cry of hopeless despair.  For one woman on one day, a brief moment of inattention, while performing a task practiced a thousand times, things went terribly wrong. This one time, God, (or the Devil), decided that the fabric of her heavy woolen sweater should catch a passing bobbin and fix itself to the machine. The first tug would be alarming to her by virtue of it’s direction… towards the moving parts of the machine. Years of safe practice made that direction, in towards the machine, so very wrong. The sweater she wore that particular day was knitted, (by her sister and given as a Christmas gift two years prior), and therefore had some give. Over the years this woman (and other women at other times) had felt such tug, quickly met with a counter pull  and the world returned to it’s proper course. This time it’s different. Maybe she was especially tired, (working double or even triple shifts or perhaps a sick child awake through the night), maybe God, (or the Devil), were not paying attention (or too much attention) and the ‘tug away from’ was met with a stronger pull towards. Even as she leaned back and away, her sleeve continues moving down her arm into the machinery. The surprise in her scream takes on a tone of horror. Her heavy jacket binds at the shoulders, and she is pulled in towards the madly-whirling carriers. The fabric of her sweater’s sleeve is now a part of the machinery and her scream of alarm becomes terrified despair. Not of pain. There is little in this woman’s arm or any other part of her body that is concerned with anything as trivial as pain. As much the antelope tripping and falling to the ground, the hot breath of a lion at it’s neck, pain is not the issue. The machinery does not notice her struggles, the 3rd floor is a place of deaf mutes working in a land of constant mechanical noise. It is only when the screams of the Braider Tender cuts through the roar of the machinery does anyone notice. Only then is the attempt to bring the machine to a halt begun. And that turning off is nothing more than a slowing down, the roar of the machines decreases and a new, all too human sound fills the 3rd Floor.

On Saturdays, the Everett Mill shut down for maintenance. The three shifts ran  but all production ended at midnight on Saturday. The maintenance mechanics would roam throughout the Mill looking for signs of weakness in the equipment and replaced worn parts so that, at the end of Sunday night, the production could begin again.

December of 1911 provided little evidence of the winter yet to come for Lawrence, Massachusetts. November had been mild and the sunshine plentiful. The Merrimack River flowed, free of ice, except along the shores, where sheets of ice, thin, white and tilted up along the embankment.

On this particular Saturday afternoon, the sky was painfully blue and the wind was harshly cold as Almira Ristani stepped out of Building 6, walking alone, at the back of the crowd of grey and brown wool women, as they poured out of the building and headed towards home.

The sudden muffling of the constant noise of machinery, as the metal door banged shut, was like the feeling of being underwater, only in reverse. The pressure of the constant rhythmically-pounding noise of the textile mill wasn’t felt until it was removed. Pulling her grey wool coat closer, one of the hundred workers leaving the Mill, Almira descended the granite stairs, turned left and walked up Lawrence Street.

Amid the sounds of tired women complaining, (about men and families), and comparing (demands of men and families) and, on occasion, laughing, (about families and children), in at least three different and distinct languages, Almira saw a flash of crimson as the figure of a tall woman separated itself from the herd of stooped backs filling the sidewalk.

“Ally! Ally!  Up here!!”

Almira, looked up from the sidewalk immediately in front of her, saw her friend, Annie LoPizzo about a half a block ahead. Standing and facing back towards her, seemingly happy to let the river of tired women veer around her, Annie waved her hand. Despite the occasional muttering of ‘O co chodzi z gym komiet!‘ and ‘Elle est celle de feu‘, she remained there, in the middle of the sidewalk and actually began to speak, as if Almira was close enough to understand what she was saying,

“Where are you going? You need to come with me!!”

“I’m sorry, I have to go home and get my little brother from Mrs Swaider’s and then I need to get dinner ready and then…” Almira, the direct sunlight and cold wind on her face, felt relaxed yet tired.

“Today is Saturday and I know for a fact that Mrs. Swaider won’t mind watching little Stefan for a couple of extra hours. That woman never met a dollar that she didn’t think she deserved. And your father’s on the Maintenance crew this weekend and… what? Listen my well-read friend, I know everything about my friends and even more about everyone else!”

Almira watched as her friend twirled and cavorted on the sidewalk… heavy winter coat flapping open, as if they were both on their way to the Town Common on a warm June Saturday.
Since her mother’s death, Almira accepted the mantle of caregiver to her damaged family. She didn’t resent her responsibilities at home and resolved to not encourage her friend, ‘Stay serious, don’t encourage her’, she thought as they walked through the cold December afternoon. Her resolve eroded quickly, despite the stern and un-responsive expression on her face. In the short time she’d known this woman, Almira recognized, as Annie LoPizzo twirled about and ran, seriousness and a stern attitude was every bit a cape of red before the bull. Smiling openly, Almira Ristani thought about her mother and how she would read to her, their small 2 room apartment transformed into distant lands and towering castles. It was in the books that her mother read from, (and soon, she would read from) that kindled a small fire that, although at times banked against the mind-numbing work and bleak lives of her co-workers, never completely went out. Annie LoPizzo seemed to sense the fire within her and was always doing something that seemed to fan the small flame.

It was only during the 30 minute daily walk home that Almira could imagine that she was a girl who could go anywhere in the world (at least as long as she kept walking). Her dreams of going to college and meeting the living people who wrote the timeless books that she read, had life and energy only in her mind, only as she walked from Mill to family- responsibility. Her new friend Annie somehow gave her hope that her dreams could survive her current life.

“You need to come with me! I have some things to show you!”

Annie LoPizzo had a natural talent for languages and mimicry. Almira decided that her friend was able to ‘speak in laughter’, a dialect of the heart that demanded neither comprehension nor understanding, only the attention of the other person. It was a simple and utterly basic celebration of sharing life. She had an energy that grew from whatever situation or moment she happened to be in. Almira looked forward to their time together, all too rare an event, as the demands of the Mill, bookended by the needs of her family left little time for herself.

For Almira, the time she spent with Annie was like walking out of a monochrome landscape and finding herself in a world of color and energy, curious movements and mysterious people. Annie LoPizzo was one of those, all too rare people, who simply embraced life. She saw each day as an adventure, filled with opportunity and danger, to be equally relished. In the company of a friend, she might run for the simple joy of movement, with a lover she would seize the passion that refused apartness, and, faced with a threat, she would attack without holding anything back, without regard to cost or even outcome.

Almira felt the enthusiasm even before she considered the request. Annie’s ideas and invitations, were they delivered written on paper, might appear a demand. They were in the context of so much energy that she could only smile to herself and let her arm be pulled in the direction which her new friend wanted her go.

The two young women ran down the sidewalk, towering soot-grimed brick wall to their left and coldly-blue water of the Merrimack River on their right.

“Come on! I want you to meet some people down at the Meeting Hall. I know you’re going to like them.”

“Well, alright. But I can’t take too much time. I must get home before long.”

***

“I really must be getting back to Town,”

Dorothy announced, after less than a half an hour in the boat and, after zero minutes actually fishing. She’d spent most of the last five minutes staring at a clump of grayish-white clouds that seemed, as they moved across the sky, to form a shape of something from a dream, not a good dream. An animal, (because, clouds always try to look like their opposites, the land-bound life on earth), squat in shape with sharp-pointed wings.

“But we only just got here!”

Tom Hardesty sat in the bow of the boat, his back against a loose seat cushion. Looking towards the shore, he saw only the old blue truck they had arrived in, a wooden dock with a single worn bench built along one side, and beyond the copse of hickory and oak that encircled Echo Lake, he saw the beginnings of the endless wheat fields. Distance when observed over farm fields, devoid of buildings or any other feature, was nearly impossible to accurately judge.  The expanse seemed to offer promise of opportunity and, at the same time, gave no clue to any path, at least a path that would lead him to the world beyond life in a large Small Town.

Tom started to sing,

“Ain’t one hammer
(Ain’t one hammer)
In this tunnel
(In this tunnel)
That rings like mine.
(Oh it rings like mine.)
That rings like mine.

Nine pound hammer
(Nine pound hammer)
That killed John Henry
(Killed John Henry)
Ain’t a-gonna kill me.
(Ain’t gonna kill me.)
Ain’t gonna kill me.”
(‘Nine Pound Hammer’ traditional, lyrics from The Monroe Brothers version )

As he sang, Tom watched Dorothy, as she alternately stared at the passing clouds and over towards the trees that bordered the small lake on three sides. She seemed at once the shy high school girl who always managed to stand out in a crowd, and a total stranger. He smiled at the memory of how determined she was to fit in, during the first two years of high school and yet, after ‘the Storm of ’37’ her notoriety as ‘the girl who rode the cyclone’ seemed to become an un-wanted burden, despite how eager she was to tell and re-tell her tale of faraway land and adventures with markedly odd characters. That their own relationship, one that he valued more than he was able to express, would be destroyed by the intensity of her need to be the center of community attention, hurt him more than he knew. She was his first experience, both of physical love making and, recognized far too late as the more dangerous, emotional love making. This was a fact that his social persona would never permit him to disclose.

Now, in the early half of a June afternoon, in a small boat, with an attractive young woman Tom Hardesty realized that he needed to learn how to avoid the life that he saw played out, in depressingly mundane detail, by his father each day. It was life of effort and passion reduced to a day-to-day routine of subsistence survival. Tom was looking for a direction, rather than waiting for permission to act. Being in a boat, (with a girl), in the middle of a Lake), did not present an overabundance of action-strategies, so he played his guitar.

Ever since visiting the Gulch farm with his father and meeting a very interesting, (and constantly changing), group of people, Tom found the time to return at least once a week. He would pitch-in and help with the seemingly endless chores that were generated by the effort of Almira Gulch to provide help to those in need. Tom took as payment for his work, permission to join in the frequent discussions and, more to his interest, the opportunity to learn songs from the itinerant musicians who, lacking shelter or a meal to sustain them on their own journeys, would stop at the Gulch farm for a brief time of rest and sharing tales of the road. Tom’s repertoire grew, both in variety and sophistication. He smiled remembering his first meeting Woody Guthrie at the farm one Thursday evening, and started to sing,

My brothers and my sisters are stranded on this road,
A hot and dusty road that a million feet have trod;
Rich man took my home and drove me from my door
And I ain’t got no home in this world anymore.”
(I Ain’t Got No Home’ Woody Guthrie)

Dorothy closed her eyes and listened to the music. The guitar providing the perfect, simple accompaniment to Tom’s singing. To her surprise she found that the  lyrics somehow resonated with a part of herself that she had thought she’d out-grown.

“My God, Tom! When did you learn to sing like that?” Dorothy said, the last notes of the song slipping through the trees on the shore and were immediately absorbed by the endless wheat fields beyond.

“Why over at Miz Gulch’s farm. I go over there every now and then and, more likely than not, after dinner someone would bring out a guitar or fiddle and play songs well into the night. There’s one fellow, Woody, he writes songs that you’d swear you heard before, the way it would make you feel. I never thought a person could play so well.”

The water didn’t quite turn to fire, but the sensation on her fingers became un-ignorable. Dorothy felt as if the water burned her fingers. She quickly pulled her hand from the water, into her lap, used her shirt tail to dry it and looked at Tom.

Dorothy Gale felt an anger grow within her at a speed that was surprising and somehow enticing. It seemed to be accompanied by a warning, that to give in to it would cause, would create… bad things to happen. Nothing that she could conceptualize, but somehow the farm where she was raised took on a sinister tone and, very oddly, her life at college seemed to fade, as if it had been years ago that she was away from Circe, rather than just a few weeks.

She struggled to sit up in the back of the boat.

“Take me back to shore. Now”

Tom Hardesty, sought, in the mundane a way to bridge the gap between himself and the girl in the back of the small boat. He hoped to make her laugh, but would settle for a smile and said,

“Hey, Dorothy come on! this is a small lake and though you can’t be sea sick, you’re looking a little green.”

***

“You know you promised that we’d go sailing today. Why are you now telling me that you want to waste time with my father’s wife’s Formal Saturday Afternoon Tea. What the hell is the matter with you?”

Eliza was very not-happy. She regretted turning down her cousin Lila’s invitation to spend June and July in Europe. 6 weeks among foreign and, presumably, attractive young men and women, (the only kind of people Eliza’s imagination was equipped to provide),  traveling to places more exotic than Philadelphia,

‘Which wouldn’t take much,’ she muttered as she stared into her closet. She felt youthful and very muscled arms encircle her waist,

“Sorry Romeo, if you’re making me go and stand around with your father, my parents and a bunch of other old people, you better save your strength. So hands off…”

Eliza un-buttoned her blouse, let it fall to the floor, reached around and un-clasped her bra and, letting it fall to join her blouse on the floor, turned to face Stephen Lawrence, current houseguest and soon-to-be-replaced-boyfriend,

“Wait…. before you go, I want you to know what you missed out on today. In a couple of hours, while we’re both telling old wealthy people how difficult the past year in school was so they can tell us how easy we have it, you can look over at me and I can smile and tell them how hard things are nowadays…”

Pushing the tall, dark haired son of the Chancellor of Sarah Lawrence College out into the hallway, Eliza stood with her back to the door and looking around her room for something to throw or break, tried to get her growing temper under some kind of control.

“Aww come on Eliza! It’s not my fault, it’s business, it’s expected of us.”

The lawn, rolling away from the patio area, was decorated in a Japanese motif. Small paper lanterns hung from trees. The serving staff all wore what Eliza thought were supposed to look like kimonos, her father’s wife was quite taken with all things Oriental.

“Excuse me!” a thin man with a receding hairline and faraway look in his eyes, walked into Eliza, spilling most of the Tom Collins he was holding, only part of it getting on her, most ended up on his shirtfront.The man looked both embarrassed and panic-stricken, as if he had broken something loud and valuable.

“My God, sorry, didn’t see you. All my fault!”

****

“Mr. Dietrich! What are you doing here? It’s Saturday. Don’t you ever take a day off?”

Becky Stillworth rose from the small desk behind the main Circulation Desk of the Circe Free Library. Being Saturday and Summer, she wore a very light blouse and shorts. That it was Summer, and therefore the number of classmates who might come into the library was quite small, she felt free to wear clothes that might otherwise invite attention. At least un-wanted attention. Looking up at the tall man with the distant look in his eyes, she smiled at the wisdom of her fashion choice.

Chapter 6

Featured

“I don’t care what your Nurse Griswold says, I want this patient re-evaluated. If it’s determined that she’s a poor risk, she’ll need to be transferred to a different facility, one that does not play as vital a role in the community as St Mary’s Hospital. Do I make myself clear?”

Like a sculpted marble altar, the ceremonial focal point of many a glorious cathedral, the still woman lay on the narrow hospital bed, shrouded in once-white linen, as Doctor Thaddeus Morgan spoke in the direction of Nurse Sally Rowe. Like an altar boy asked, at the 11th hour, to serve Mass with a new priest, Nurse Rowe looked attentive and tried her best to project an attitude of respectful obedience. She was both a new Nurse, (fresh out of school), and a new nurse at St Mary’s, (hired only the week before), and, although young, she’d assimilated the facts of life, as manifested in the healthcare profession’s caste system. Her Supervising Nurse had warned her that the Chief of Medicine was given to flights of ‘hands-on-Management’ fantasy, and might, without warning, show up on the Ward looking for errors to correct. This was her first encounter with Dr. Morgan and she was impressed by the accuracy of her Head Nurse’s description,  ‘he is an exquisitely dressed bully’

Dr. Thaddeus Morgan was 45 years of age, short (5’10”), at least 90 pounds overweight, and wore wire-rimmed glasses that no longer fit properly, which caused painful looking creases at the corners of his eyes and just in front of his ears. He had very thick brown hair worn in a style that his barber assured him was exactly like Errol Flynn’s. Thaddeus Morgan’s extremely obvious self-indulgence was clothing. Since leaving medical school, Dr. Morgan could be recognized by the exquisitely, (and expensively), tailored clothing that he wore both to his private practice, and to the Hospital. He had a tailor in Kansas City that he would visit at least twice a year for the express purpose of refining and adding to his extensive wardrobe.

Were one to note only his haircut and his wardrobe, Thaddeus would have been a singularly attractive physician. However, he possessed a complexion that benefited from an overly copious network of blood vessels. On a good day, his face had a rosy, healthy glow. During the stressful portions of these good days, rosy became florid, invisible veins appeared, like war paint across his cheeks and down the sides of his neck. As if unaware of how precariously attractive balanced against un-attractive, Thaddeus Morgan wore a remarkably exuberant mustache. To be more descriptive, a ‘handlebar mustache’ and, at the risk of too fine a point, ‘a waxed handlebar mustache’.

The result was a man who, despite holding a position of great authority, went to great lengths to inform onlookers that here was a man at war with himself.

Dr. Thaddeus Morgan was very self-conscious about his weight. It had been so, since childhood, a childhood during which the contralto singsong taunts of  ‘Fattius Morgan…  Here Comes Fattius Morgan!!’ were recorded in that horribly permanent part of the memory where reminders of how we might appear before the world are stored. The poison of such injury to the soul is, sadly, immune to logic and reason, whether dispensed by a well-meaning parent intent on consoling their child, a well-meant and usually futile strategy, or as self-administered advice and consul.  Thaddeus would often reflect on the intractability of the human psyche, recognizing how inconsequential these slights were, in light of his station in life, yet he would still feel his shoulders hunch and his eyes seek a hiding place, whenever such memories intruded on his adult reality. The tragedy of it all, Thaddeus would say to himself, (he would never speak of this aspect of his childhood, Shame being the twin gargoyle of Humiliation), is that it all still had an effect on his life as an adult. While a lifetime of education and scientific training afforded him the luxury of the insight into the nature the injury his child-self suffered, it did nothing to change anything. The permanent after-effects, the emotional reverberations, in subtle and all-to-often undetectable ways, shaped his adult behavior and therefore the quality of his life.

Not content, (better to say, unable to give the child-shaped demons the slip), to simply out-grow and therefore leave the hazardous environment of his childhood, ten year old Thaddeus Morgan endured the slings and arrows of the socially dominant, yet intellectually inferior classmates in school. Girding himself with a wall of fat, overeating became both response and defensive strategy. His studies and (their) promise of a better world, surrounded by accomplished adults who would support his efforts to excel were the light at the end of the tunnel. Finding an appropriate role model was the real challenge. In the year 1916, while still in grade school, the profession of physician seemed, to young Thad Morgan, to be the most accessible and promised the highest return for his effort. Soldier, Politician and Movie Star, as alternative goals, were all judged to be un-realistic ambitions. The first on the basis of the physical requirements, the second because of his unconscious appreciation of the fact that to be a politician was to be a person that would line up with the bullies, making snowballs (but not actually throwing them) for people like his tormentors, and Movie Star, while never considered a worthwhile or realistic goal by the young, (but in many ways, quite mature), Thaddeus, did have an effect on how he expressed himself once he began to succeed in his efforts.

So Thaddeus studied and ate and got ‘A’s. Accompanying each ‘A’ was a bruise from being pushed down, a puncture wound from a tack accidentally left on his seat in English class. Each injury, (an adult might call them minor, that adult would then betray which side of the battle they had spent their childhood), a Purple Heart in the battle ground of childhood. It was a war of attrition, and Thaddeus’s sense of self-worth was damaged from the very first sortie. The ability to feel ‘a part of’ the circle of people who made up his young world being the first casualties. As for his opponents, the dogs of this quiet war were, at least on the surface, much more merciful. For them, the cost was to be discovered later in life in the chains of social inferiority, forged by the young, worn as adults. Except, of course, for those among Thaddeus’s tormentors who might grow up to be politicians or, perhaps, very successful farm owners.

But in that quintessentially childlike way, the courage of the tormented is entirely lost on both the tormentor and the tormented. Thaddeus endured each assault stoically and twisted his own natural desire to strike out/ to strike back, inwards. His books were the punching bag that his father would never have permitted, his studies as much a martial art, preparing to win a life in which the bullies would be cast out and down, below where he would stand. Freedom from their torment by virtue of social/professional standing, was the best a very intelligent, but still only 10-year-old child, could imagine.

Returning to the town of his birth, (and subsequent torment), Thaddeus Morgan opened a practice and joined the staff of St Mary’s Hospital. He was a brilliant young doctor and a remarkably over-dressed man.

Now, on a Saturday morning, a time that he expected to find the staff at their most relaxed, he looked around the ward, seeking an outlet for his frustration. The thin layer of sweat that uniformly covered his skin, despite the relatively mild temperature, was beginning to form beads along the edge of his scalp, glistening trails down the side of his face, a condensate of fear. His white lab coat, hanging open, brought un-sought attention to his protruding stomach, all the more noticeable by contrast to the thin human shapes that gave 3 dimensionality to the narrow beds of Ward C.

“For that matter, where is Nurse Griswold!?” he looked around the room, over the tops of the 10 beds, anything below eye level, having no influence or bearing or consequence in his world, whatsoever.

“Where is who?’ Sally Rowe, very new to St Mary’s, already knew that in her profession, some things never changed. Leading among unchanged, the potentially lethal unintended consequences of Doctors acting outside of their specialty and the practical (and therefore often ignored), wisdom of the Charge Nurses. Sally started working at St Mary’s the week before and had been on rotating shifts, providing coverage and relief as needed. She had not yet met half of the nurses working in the hospital.

“Nurse Griswold! Tall, blonde, quiet to a fault. I met her on the occasion of this patient being admitted,” Dr. Morgan’s glance down at Almira Gulch was brief and, if one were not very observant, might be mistaken for a random glance. Nurse Rowe had the distinct impression that the Chief of Medicine was uncomfortable looking at the occupants in the narrow beds, particularly this one in Bed #10. Unremarkable and nearly indistinguishable from the other nine patients, but for the dark red ribbon sewn into the faded blue collars of her gown and the photo of the small boy on the nightstand, turned to face towards the center of the room, as if standing guard.

****

“I’m heading into Town.” Dorothy stood next to the battered grey bicycle after wheeling it out of the barn. The small basket on the front still had a lid, as did the larger basket behind the rider’s seat.

Uncle Henry and Hunk Dietrich stood on the back porch and watched as Dorothy, with an odd look on her face, lifted the lid of the basket on the bike’s back fender. She stood very still, shook her head very slightly and got on the bike.

Hunk walked up as Dorothy started to move, the bicycle going fast enough to maintain balance, and, standing in front of her, legs on either side of the front wheel, held the bike in place, stable enough that Dorothy was able to keep both feet on the pedals.

“I’ll be in Town later this afternoon, probably around 3 or so. I’ll be inside or out front of the Library, there’s no need to have to pedal home after a long day,” with a glance towards the porch, Dorothy nodded slightly and, released by the tall man, headed towards the gate.

Riding along the flat, dusty road, Dorothy Gale felt good. The bicycle, though showing the wear of excessive use, (and no small amount of sudden and un-expected abuse), rode well. She smiled. It had been a long time since she’d taken out off on her own, and she looked out over the wide rolling fields to either side of the road, the barbed wire of the fences implying a dotted-line-division between ‘it’s ok to keep going’ and ‘maybe you want to think about what you’re doing’.

Dorothy thought about how little physical exercise she had since returning from school. Not that there was a lot of bike riding in Bronxville, NY. The Phys. Ed. curriculum at Sarah Lawrence was quite rigorous. For freshman, it was a prerequisite and despite the obligatory complaints about early morning cold on the athletic field in September, Dorothy enjoyed the exercise, an alternative to the cars and taxis that were the normal mode of transportation.

Dorothy was planning on stopping at the Hospital and hoped to meet Tom Hardesty in the Town Square. She was certain that he would be agreeable to a fishing trip, provided he didn’t have his two girlfriends with him.

***

Tom Hardesty opened the door to his father’s darkened bedroom and spoke quietly, but very distinctly,

“Ethan’s in the kitchen, I think he’s making you some breakfast. He’ll be fine. When you get up, don’t get nervous. I took the truck, I have to run into Town for a while. Everything’s alright. I’ll be back sometime later in the day.”

Tom heard a sound of sleep-groggy assent, closed the door and walked out the back door of the house.

“Hey Ethan!  Tend to the chores. Don’t go off until I get back, ok?”

A distracted ‘yeah, ok’ floated above the head of the 10-year-old boy.

Tom got in the truck and headed down towards County Rd 28 and Town and, he hoped, a  chance to see what might have been.

***

Emily Gale stepped out on the back porch where her husband Henry and Hunk Dietrich sat, relaxing after lunch.

“This may be Saturday, but you two aren’t in Kansas City where you’d have nothing to do for the afternoon. The only Day of Rest in my book is tomorrow, the Sabbath, so if you two aren’t able to find a way to be useful, I’ll be all too happy to oblige!”

Henry Gale took a scuffed leather tobacco pouch from his left jacket pocket and, from his right pocket, a well-worn Meerschaum.

Emily stared at her husband, the challenge unmistakable. She looked at Hunk Dietrich and was unable to will him to make eye contact, as he was intently focused on carving a small block of wood.

Recognizing the battle was lost before it started, Emily Gale relented. A consummate manager of people, she decided to use the sense of relief the two men were surely feeling at their apparent success in out-witting her, to her advantage.
‘If the cattle and the hogs had as much brains as the men in my life think they have, we’d all be riding in the back of the truck headed to Kansas City’, she thought as she pulled her favorite porch chair around to face the two men.

“Well, I guess there’s no harm in slowing down a little on a nice June Saturday like today, now is there?” both men nodded slowly with the timid alertness seen in rabbits suddenly in the shadow of a hawk passing overhead,

“Henry, tell me what you learned over at the Hardesty place this morning.” Emily Gale took a small notebook and pencil from the pocket of her blue and white print dress,

“Are they ready for an Offer to save their farm?”

“Well, Em, it was kinda funny. Hunk and I got there around about 10:30. Ephraim came to the door, after we banged on it long enough to raise the devil, looking like a man who needed a drink. His boy, Ethan, just a little spud, was in the kitchen. Ephraim stepped back from the door, by way of an invite an we both walked in. Ain’t never seen a young ‘un work so natural in the kitchen as that boy. Had coffee brewin on the stove, smelled right good, wasn’t it so, Hunk? and, the boy looked like he was fixin some food up too,” Henry Gale turned his head towards Hunk,

“What’d that smell like to you, Hunk, smelled like bacon and eggs, didn’t it? Smelled real good, near as good as Margherita’s breakfast,” hearing a sudden clattering of dishes through the open kitchen window, Henry leaned to his right and spoke in the direction of the screen door, “Meaning no disrespect, Margherita! You put out the best spread in the whole of McPherson County!”

Turning back to face his wife, who was staring at her husband with a patient, and well-practiced expression, Henry continued,

“So, Ephraim sat himself at the kitchen table and stared into his coffee cup, like he was hoping it’d be something other than what it smelled like”,

“What can I do for you, Henry?” he said to me, after taking a careful sip of his coffee,

“So I told him we were just paying a neighborly visit and, seeing how it’s been going around town that he was having some troubles, if he needed some help we could maybe lend him some farm hands,”

Henry ignored the sound his wife made and looked over at Hunk, to avoid seeing the increasingly rapid tapping of her pencil on the small pad in her lap. Hunk was so engrossed in his wood carving that he didn’t notice Henry looking at him for support or, for that matter, Emily’s increasing impatience. Hunk did, finally, look up in the general direction of his employer and said,

“yeah, right good coffee it was!” averting the look in her eyes,

“…but the farm looked like it was being worked. Nothing new to the place, no repairs or anything, but clearly Ephraim is keeping up with the demands of his farm. Hard to imagine that just him and his two boys were keeping the place in such a good state all by themselves.”

Emily Gales’ impatience suddenly faded, and like a photo in a pan of clear developer solution, a look of wary suspicion began to form on her face.

***

“I have to get back to Town by 2:00 pm, don’t forget.”

Dorothy sat at the back of the rowboat, her bare feet on the cool damp wood of the floorboards. Listening to the rusty-wooden sound of the oars being pulled, she felt the rocking surge as Tom started rowing them out towards the middle of Echo Lake. Closing her eyes, she let her right hand drop into the water, tiny waves rising up the sides of her fingers as the water began to move past. The water wasn’t particularly cold, but nevertheless, she felt the skin on her forearm tighten and raise into goosebumps. Her eyes closed enough to appear to be dozing, she looked at Tom Hardesty in the center of the little boat. The act of rowing created a curious rippling effect on his body, more a sequential tensing of muscles, rather than a flowing effect. It seemed to start with an obvious tension in his upper shoulders, which lagged behind the motion of his body as he leaned backwards, pulling on the oars. It was as if the weight of the water on the flat wooden oars was transmitted up his arms, preventing his bending backwards from the waist. Dorothy smiled at the thought that what she really was seeing was Tom Hardesty trying to drag the lake up to where he sat, each time the lake moved to where he was, he’d lean back, always staying ahead of it. The muscles in his shoulders and chest became more and more defined as he rowed, his white tee-shirt beginning to stick at certain points in the movement of his torso. She also noticed that the water flowing around her hand was not as cold as she thought.

***

Tom Hardesty had parked the truck along the side of the Town Square that faced the Library. He decided, during the short ride into town, that he wasn’t going to take any chances. By sitting in his truck he limited the chance that either Nancy or Patricia would spot him. They’d both been there when Dorothy suggested they meet on Saturday, but Tom did nothing to remind them of the ‘date’ and was hoping they’d forgotten.

He spotted Dorothy as she rode an old grey bicycle up to the where the sidewalk cut through the Park, kept going to the waterless Fountain, got off her bike, and leaned it against a nearby bench and sat on the stone rim.
It was what she wore, not what she rode, that became the focus of Tom’s attention. Slacks on women was an uncommon sight, in the large Small Town of Circe KA. Her blouse looked familiar, but she’d done something to it, tying the shirt tails together, revealing her midriff that caused him to both sit up and notice. Lacking the vocabulary of fashion to analyze how the 18-year-old girl achieved this effect, his response was to mutter, “Damn!” (to anyone who might also be watching).
Tom got out of the truck, stopped after about 5 steps and returned for his guitar. Pulling it out through the open window, the guitar banged on the sill, a musical alarm ringing in the quiet morning air. He laughed, in part at his how nervous he felt,

‘Come on, Tom’ he thought, ‘this is Dorothy you’re talking about, nothing to get all worked up about.’

At the sound of the guitar, Dorothy looked in the direction of the truck and, without saying a word, got up and, pushing the bicycle along at her side, met Tom before he had gotten more than 10 feet from his truck.

“Let’s go!” seeing Tom’s questioning expression, she continued,

“To the Lake! You’re taking me fishing today!” as his expression changed from temporary confusion to more of an assessment of the situation, she put her left hand on his shoulder and said, closer to his ear than necessary,

“Unless, of course, you’d rather wait for my two best friends from High School to join us. Now if the chance to row me out on the Lake is what you’d prefer, help me get this bike in the back of the truck and we can get going.”

Tom laughed out loud, grinned to himself and thought about haylofts, and, inexplicably, tornados.

Chapter 5

Featured

Dorothy pulled herself down, back under the blanket, in the small, narrow bed. Despite the increasing early-morning heat, she was willing to endure some physical discomfort in order to remain in the thought-quiet dark of her bed. She rarely remembered her dreams, hadn’t since, well, since after ‘the Storm’. Certain mornings, however, her return from wherever her sleep-released mind took her, came with a price. This particular Saturday morning she felt restless, somehow tired from her sleep. For a brief second, in the middle of a full-body stretch, she nearly remembered her dreams of the night. Like being on a walk and coming upon a rabbit feeding just off the path, it came down to who saw who first, all she could keep retain from her near-memory, was a desire to go fishing. She reflected, as the blankets, extended by her stretching in the confines of her bed, reclaimed their hold on her body, that this thought of going fishing wasn’t fully-formed enough to be called a desire. Certainly it wasn’t in the class of the things that she knew that she really wanted, such as: finding her rightful place in the world of ‘Back East’, tying up loose ends here in Kansas, (though exactly what that meant remained a mystery), and Getting An Answer from Miss… Mrs. Gulch. Still, as she lay, arms at her side, hands now clasped, tenting the fabric of the blanket, an unintentional penitent in the shadow of an agnostic church, fishing… in a row-boat, would surely make today a good day.
She thought, ‘I’ll ask Uncle Henry if the row-boat is still at the lake house and if he wouldn’t mind taking me fishing.’

Satisfied that she had all the plan she needed to get the most from her Saturday, Dorothy started to get up from her bed, the thought,

‘And if Uncle Henry won’t, I’ll surely be able to convince Hunk to do it.’

Dorothy Gale threw back the thin brown wool blanket. The slightly cooler air of the bedroom raised goosebumps on her skin. She looked to be certain that her bedroom door was closed and seeing that it was, got up and walked to the window. (The long flannel nightgown that Aunt Em helped her pack when she left for College, was almost immediately discarded in favor of lingerie in fashion Back East. The pink silk teddy she wore was a gift from her roommate, Eliza Thornberg, and was ever so much more comfortable). Her smile evaporated as the memory of the ride home from town with Hunk, two days before, began to replay in her mind. The afternoon began without a problem, Dorothy set a time that she would be spending in the library, (a pretense to cover up her visit to the Hospital) and Hunk promised to be back at the Library at a specific time. Neither kept their promise. They apologized to each other for not being where they said they would be, and spent the 15 mile trip back to the Gale Farm, looking out the windows, silence their mutual penance. The wheat fields, in pencil-straight furrows, passed alongside, as the truck transported them from where they would rather be to where they were required to be.

Shrugging into her robe, (‘The Plaza’ embroidered on the breast, also a gift from Eliza), Dorothy thought, ‘Well, if I can’t get either of them to take me fishing, I’ve no doubt that Tom Hardesty will be more than happy to row my boat out on the lake. No doubt at all!’
Smiling, Dorothy began to get ready for the day.

Wearing grey slacks, (thinking ahead to her plans to go on the lake), and a simple blue and white blouse, her hair in braids (an impulsive decision, her hair not quite as long as it once was), Dorothy stood and looked at herself in the hall mirror. ‘A little less of a serious expression will let everyone admire your figure instead of wondering why the dark-haired College Girl is so worried’ she laughed at herself and started down the staircase. At the middle landing, Dorothy stopped and listened to her Aunt Emily’s voice from below,

“Well, I really don’t see why she doesn’t want to pitch in around the farm a little more,”

Emily Gale’s voice was jagged with frustration at her husband’s lack of an appropriate response to her concerns. Her tone betraying the strained patience more commonly observed in dog trainers and over-worked kindergarten teachers after an especially long school day.

“Good morning, Uncle Henry, Auntie Em!” Dorothy decided that if she ignored what she heard, the breakfast conversation would be much more enjoyable, “Hunk”

Hunk Dietrich sat at his usual place, slightly more than halfway between Emily Gale and her husband. He had papers stacked neatly on either side of his breakfast plate, the unread pile on his left, face down. From the congealed quality of his fried eggs, Hunk was more interested in reading than eating. He looked up,

“Good morning, Dorothy. Gonna be a warm one today, by the looks of the sky.”

Dorothy smiled back at Hunk, grateful to hear the obvious attempt to put their previous difficult time together in the past, where it belonged. She bent slightly, kissed her Uncle’s cheek while smiling over at her Aunt and sat down to Henry Gales’ immediate left. Margherita brought over the coffee pot and filled the white mug and raised one eyebrow,

“No, thank you, Margherita. Just coffee is fine.”

Auntie Em stared at the newspaper on the table in front of her. It being a Saturday, she wore a floral patterned cotton dress, rather than the more formal black skirts and white blouse that she favored during the regular workweek. Her hair was slightly less tightly bound, up in a bun and she wore her horn-rimmed glasses on a beaded necklace, rather than her silver wire-rim glasses.

“I see here that the First Notice for the Hardesty farm’s been posted in the paper. Such a shame! Ephraim Hardesty was a good farmer. At least he was, until that no account wife of his took off with that Bible Salesman. A pity really, such a good spread, for a farm on the smaller side. Are you listening to me Henry?”

Henry Gale was working on his morning list, a breakfast function that had served him well over the years, allowing him to selectively ignore his wife, during at least one sit-down meal each day.

“What was that Em?”  he put down his pencil stub and looked across the table,

“I said, I think you should take Hunk and go pay Ephraim Hardesty a visit. Ever since he took to the drink, that farm of has been slowly dying, it might make a good addition to our holdings. Plus he’s got a couple of sons, two or three, forget how many, but they might prove useful in the future, if we can cut a deal to keep him out of the bankers hands.”

Henry looked over to Hunk who nodded his agreement, then, for some reason, looked over at Dorothy,

“Maybe the two younger boys, but that eldest son of his, Tom, he’s a bad seed. Nothing good’ll come of him, a real wild one, hear tell. Too growed up to change now, but Hunk and I’ll pay Ephraim a visit today, get the lay of the land,”

A noticeably sour expression passed across Henry Gale’s face as he bent back to his List, adding one more Item to his day.

“Well, just talk to him about his farming. Don’t get fancy and try’n talk about money or bankers or his farm going on the block. You know that you always mess things up when you try to bargain. I’ll handle the money, and employees, you stick to making sure they give the good day’s work that we pay ’em for, you understand?”

Dorothy took her coffee over to the stove and, before Margherita could come out from where she was busy with her mending, poured herself a fresh full cup and walked towards the back door.

“And I need you to apply yourself just a little more, Missy! You’re only here for a couple of more weeks before you head back East. You might want to reflect on where your roots are, young lady!”

Auntie Em’s voice followed her out the door, onto the porch and the chickens, spooked by the sound, ran for the barn.

****

Unfurling herself from the barely-there satin quilt, Eliza Thornberg found herself bumping up against a shape, human by the feel of warmth, male by the out-spoken scent.  She came completely awake, although chose to keep her eyes closed, in the hope that her memory of her night travels getting to this point, might retain all it’s pleasure, without being spoiled by day’s early light.

“Oh damn!” Eliza sat straight up in her bed, as the previous evening replayed in her mind. The most unfortunate element to this particular type of recollection, is that the first things to be remembered are usually the last things that happened. In and of itself, that’s not a bad thing, what was always lacking was the reason… the justification, the context of the night before that lead her to follow the path to this early dawn bed. With the memory of what she did, came the knowledge of who it was she did it with,

“You need to get out of here and back to your bedroom in the Guest Wing! It’s Saturday and on weekends, Evelyn starts cleaning over here in the Family Wing first!!”

Eliza was answered by laughter that rose from under a pile of quilt and pillows on the far side of her bed and seemed to be headed towards her. Swinging her legs out of the bed covers, Eliza started to stand, realized she was naked, but before she could reach her dressing gown, was pulled back under the covers.

Ten minutes later, Eliza Thornberg’s blonde hair, like a volcano growing up from the ocean floor, appeared in the midst of the soft wreckage of the silk sheets and quilts. Not a second later, like a breaching whale in that same ocean, the brown curls of Stephen Edward David Lawrence’s head appeared, and beached itself on Eliza’s pillow. Laughing at the ceiling, she rolled over on her bedmate and, affecting the voice of an old Victorian woman,

“Master Lawrence! As a guest in my father’s house, you are expected to comport yourself in a manner befitting of your station in life. Only son and heir to the Founder (and current Chancellor) of Sarah Lawrence College, or not, you must stand tall and act the gentleman. Do this well and you shall be awarded a diploma”

Youthful laughter penetrated the bedroom door and spilled out into the hall where Evelyn O’Connaghy, cleaning supplies in her left hand, stopped before opening the door. Eliza had been Evelyn’s favorite ever since her early arrival into this world of wealth and power. At her employer’s side during Eliza’s birth, early one August morning at the family’s Summer home in Newport RI, Evelyn was heard to say, “Now that one, she surely will be some one’s prize and many a man’s heartache”.

This particular June morning, Evelyn decided to begin her morning cleaning in the private wing that housed the Master Suite. Despite being a weekend, when everyone slept late, Evelyn planned on being in a position to give her favorite Thornberg fair warning, should her parents take it to mind to rise early this Saturday Summer morning.

Lying in the crook of Stephen’s arm, Eliza Thornberg traced the striations of muscles with a barely-touching finger tip,

“Assuming you’ll make it back to your room without being discovered by my Father, which would not bode well for the rest of this weekend, for you, at any rate, how were you planning to entertain me, this Summer’s Saturday?”

Furrowing his brow at the thought of being discovered in bed with the daughter of his Father’s business partner, Stephen realized, once again, that sometimes the chances he took were a risk with a higher cost than he might otherwise choose. He decided that this was mostly his father’s fault. The bulk of the initial funding for William Lawrence’s College came from a group of investors headed up by Theodore Thornberg. It was a partnership of very mutual benefit. Bill Lawrence got to have his name carved in stone on the entrance to the College and Ted Thornberg got an exclusive on the publishing rights to 80% of the text books required by the new school’s curriculum.

“Well, Eliza I’m supposed to play golf with your father this morning. I have a feeling he’s going to offer me a position at his company. Maybe after lunch, you and I can do something… ”

“Get out of my goddamn bed!! Now!!”

Not bothering with her dressing gown, Eliza got out of bed and stalked into the bath, slamming the door on his unsuccessful attempt to get her to understand how business always came first.

****

The smell dragged Thomas Milton Hardesty from his nightly escape into sleep, just as it did nearly every morning. Although he couldn’t tell you exactly when this had become his un-appreciated alarm clock, pressed on the matter, he’d say that it probably was after his mother left, going on 2 years ago, right after the ‘Storm of ’37’. She packed up everything that belonged to her, including, unfortunately, the quality of mutual support essential for a family to not only survive but to thrive, when she left with her only daughter Elenn, bound West. What remained was a small farm, big and diverse enough that with a concerted and coordinated effort could provide for a small family, was in the hands of a desperately confused man and his 3 sons. The Hardesty Farm limped along after losing it’s soul. The livestock ate and grew and were slaughtered for market. Crops were planted and sprouted and waited for harvest and the Hardesty men survived. Barely. One natural calamity, (or one human inspired setback), away from complete and permanent dissolution.

Tom got up. Being a Saturday morning brought no consolation, nor provided the slightest of concessions that might off-set the previous week’s thankless labor. There were chores and there was life. One, at least, had the advantage of being predictable.

Tom recalled his meeting Dorothy Gale in the Town Square and smiled. He remembered her promise to meet him this Saturday afternoon, and the smile was replaced by a grin. Getting dressed, which could actually be accomplished without standing up from the single bed, his mind, always up for entertainment, replayed the Tom and Dorothy story. He almost decided to stay in bed with his memories. The increasingly loud morning sounds of doors opening and closing, metal kitchen utensils clattering and mutterings of morning regrets convinced him to start his day somewhere other than his bed. Tom grabbed the guitar leaning against the side of the bureau, walked out through the kitchen, where his youngest brother Ethan was trying to start a fire in the wood stove, and out on to the back porch. The morning was bright, a ground fog filled the dips between the distant fields and the air had that neutral feel that often meant a hot, dry day. Sitting on the bench that he’d built as a Christmas present for his mother when he was 15 years old, he idly strummed the old guitar. The design of this Christmas bench was surprisingly sophisticated, yet the execution spoke of an adolescent boy more focused on the reaction of the recipient than on taking the time on the final finish work. The dark stain showing more variations in color and depth than could be accounted for by its location overlooking the yard of the Hardesty Farm. Letting his fingers wander over the fingerboard of the guitar Tom felt his mood lighten. A mail-order Martin, the guitar was one of the few things that belonged to Celiia Hardesty that she didn’t take when she left. Random notes began to find other notes to join with, taking on the shape of songs, both old and new. Tom began to sing, as much to the livestock as to himself, “I’m goin’ where the water tastes like wine, wine wine and I ain’t gonna be treated this a way”. The folk song, often misunderstood by musicologists and people-from-the-city as being a lament, in fact, made the 18-year-old boy feel stronger and, somehow, more at peace.

The smell of the farm faded and a fleeting and somewhat distant smell of hay and passion replaced it.

Tom sang for a while longer, mostly songs that he’d learned from hanging around Mrs. Gulch’s place. As much by lucky accident as by design, Tom came to know a side of the widow, Mrs. Gulch, that few of the prosperous and successful farm owners of Circe were aware of, or willing to acknowledge. Her farm was something of a way station, a combination of temporary housing and permanent soup kitchen. Almira Gulch was quite well-known, almost revered, among the working poor of the region and the never-ending stream of migrant workers.  She had converted a part of her property, an old abandoned school building and one of the two barns that her husband, Sterling, had built when they bought the 500 acre farm and it was known to some, the nameless families passing through, as ‘Almira’s Keep’.
Tom’s father, despite being shaken loose from his normal routine running the farm had, somehow, struck a barter deal with Mrs. Gulch. Hardesty hogs in exchange for wheat and extra labor to help with the fall harvest. Tom went along to deliver the livestock and, afterwards, waiting for his father to conclude his dealings with the Widow Gulch, heard the sounds of a guitar coming from the converted barn. As he walked towards the source of the music, he came upon a group of people listening, rapt and near-happy expressions on their faces, as a man with an old guitar sang,

“As I went walking I saw a sign there
And on the sign it said “No Trespassing.”
But on the other side it didn’t say nothing,
That side was made for you and me.”

Both Hardesty men were still at the Gulch place when the sun began to set.

****

Hunk Dietrich awoke and lay still. He could picture every item in the small bunk house that served as his home on the Gale Farm. In one of the few, (and one might say,’therefore all the more impressive’), exertions of Will, he had prevailed upon Emily Gale to house the newer farm hands in the converted potato barn and leave him the sole occupant of the small cottage that he once shared with Hickory Stoddard and Zeke Montgomery. Since Zeke’s death and Hickory setting out with his Cherokee wife for Arizona, Hunk lived alone in the bunk house. He liked it. He felt that he had control over something, even if it was only moving the other bed out of the room he’d shared with Zeke into the other bedroom.

Once reconstruction of Circe and it’s constellation of farms, both large and small began in earnest, Emily Gale recognized the opportunity of misfortune and began to acquire land and laborers from those farms that she felt were not worth re-building. Those from outside the community, were they to be asked their opinion of the post Storm of ’37 reconstruction, might have suggested that a little more sharing of community resources would greatly enhance the chances of successful recovery of the small farms. But then, an Outsider would not likely be asked for their opinion, Circe being a large Small Town in rural Kansas. As it was, Emily Gale knew in her heart it would be wasteful to let the small farms fall into ruin, the families that ran them forced to move. More than once, during the emergency Town Meetings held after the storm, Emily Gale would be quite vocal in describing her efforts to help the less fortunate members of the community remain, finding work for them on the increasingly efficient Gale Farm.

“The Good Lord surely frowns on waste of any sort. It’s the responsibility of those of us more blessed to take in those unfortunates who have fallen on hard times. I know this is the Right thing to do.”

Many, if not most, of the more upstanding members of the community nodded their approval.

Hunk had the smaller of the two bedrooms set up as a study. At least it was his idea of a ‘Study’. Given his limited resources, he did quite well. He positioned a small desk and a chair, to face out the window and, next to it, a makeshift bookcase, currently containing a Bible, 3 copies of the Old Farmer’s Almanac and every test result, correspondence and catalog he had accumulated since his starting IOC courses.

This particular Summer Saturday morning, Hunk Dietrich walked out on to his porch determined not to look over at the Main House. Lighting his pipe, a movement in a second floor window caught his eye. He smiled at his failure and walked across the dirt farmyard to the backdoor, a good breakfast and the start of another day.

***

Becky Stillworth was awake well before she got out of bed. It was one of her favorite times of the day. The ceiling over her single bed was feature-less, the only light coming from the rose-painted lamp on the nightstand to her left, where she kept her books.

Becky liked to help people and her dream was to become a