Chapter 4

Featured

Almira Ristani looked up, as the noon whistle began to wail. Across and over the tops of the rows of braiding machines that filled the 5th Floor of the Mill, she could see the faces of the women who spent their days tending the fabric-braiding machinery. She smiled at the thought that her job title was, ‘Braider Tender’, as if the machines were living beings in need of help, to be tended to. Almira loved words, especially how easily their meaning could be changed, and in changing, alter the world around her. Ironically, the environment in which she spent the majority of her waking days, was primarily of the visual and tactile. Although human attendants were necessary to the efficient functioning of the machinery that filled the Everett Cotton Mill, the one ability that separated Man from all other life, spoken language, was least in evidence, as useless as the wings of an ostrich. She gathered her canvas satchel from under the table at the end of her row. As she walked towards the exit, she could see how some of the older women would, using scrap fabric, make a sort of nest for themselves, among the machinery. Like an old married couple, the lumpiness of a bed shared for years preferable to something new and possibly more restful. They would stay where they spent their working hours, using the noon break to simply sit and not move. Almira was slow to gather her satchel and, in a bundle folded as small as possible, her coat. She preferred to allow the other women to file out and start down the cold stairwell ahead of her. The sound of women speaking, in at least 3 languages, echoed off the brick walls. Their chatter conveying a sense of celebration. It was as if, after being deprived by the overwhelming sound of the machinery, of the opportunity to speak, the simple act of making their own deliberate and meaningful sounds was a joy in itself. Groups formed and re-formed, (speaking in at least 3 languages), as the noon break at the Mill began in earnest.

Almira slipped past the windowless lunch rooms where the women talked of babies and bad husbands. Keeping her coat folded and, hopefully, un-noticeable, she quietly skirted the Shipping and Receiving Department, where men took their lunch break and bragged about hopeless ambitions and bad women, and found her way to the metal Exit door. Once outside, she walked in a remarkable silence, a sense of quiet, felt rather than heard, by the ears. The machinery of the Mill never completely stopped. At certain and very predictable times, the rhythm slowed, but only to an idle. 

It was a short, cold distance to the alcove, (a fortunate architectural juxtaposition between the exterior of Stairwell Number 2 and an adjacent outside corner forming the southwest end of the Mill building). The alcove was a 6 foot indentation of the massive southwest wall of the Mill. Shallow as it was, those six feet provided a shelter from the winter wind. At the same time, the alcove ran straight up, past the roof, allowing the sun to shine down on the red brick structure, leaving a warmth that lasted through the day. With her back against the rough-grained brick, and the sun light filling the small, safe and quiet space, Almira Ristani would take her book from her satchel and read.

***

When her mother died, in 1910, 14-year-old Almira Ristani left St Mary’s School and began to work in the Everett Cotton Mill, a voluntary conscript in the army of workers who, more than the endless power of the Merrimack River, gave life the Textile Mills of Lawrence, Massachusetts.

As the first girl born to Stefan and Idresca Ristani, Almira enjoyed an all-too brief childhood. Evicted from the crib, to make room for her newest brother Dimitri, Almira would watch her mother work through each day, sewing and mending clothes, a source of extra income to make up for no longer being able to work in the Mill. Their 4th floor apartment consisted of 2 rooms, a small bedroom and a large everything-else room. Safely out from underfoot in a corner, formed by the wall of the apartment, a bookcase and 2 over-turned (and weighted-down wood chairs), Almira listened to her mother sing lullabies to Stefan and Dimitri, (her brothers), sing love songs to Stefan, (her father), and talk, cajole  and, very often, argue with those who came to the apartment door, torn and ripped clothing in hand. One afternoon, when Almira was just barely 3 years old, her mother, while trying to make more room to put her mending, knocked a book from a shelf, into Almira’s playpen. Distracted, Idresca didn’t notice that the book, Gulliver’s Travels, had become a permanent feature of the old-wool blanket landscape that was Almira’s world during the day. Not very long afterwards, a neighbor, Mrs. Swaider, came to pick up the mending she’d left the week before,

“Why look, Mrs. Ristani! Your little girl, she so smart! She reads from the book now. Surely she will be a teacher, that one, she!”

Idresca saw that her only daughter sat on the blanket covered floor, with the slightly worn (and barely noticeable teething scars in the leather cover), copy of Gulliver’s Travels open in her lap. Almira grasped the book by the front and back covers and looked up at her, not with the naturally innocent gaze of the very young, passing the time by growing older, rather, she had an expression that seemed to hold a question. Inquisitive. Hopeful.

Shutting the door on Mrs. Swaider’s still talking face, Idresca Ristani stepped over the barrier of on-their-sides-wooden chairs and gathering up her child, sat in the corner, opened the book and, smiling somewhat sadly, began to 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.]”

Children of the age of 3 need a lot of sleep. Most children, just turned 3 years old, caught in the middle of the afternoon, would have heard the words of Jonathan Swift, read as quietly as a lullaby, as the cue to quiet their mind and close their eyes. Almira, secure in the arms of her mother, heard the words and stared at the open book. The look of concentration on her very young face, spoke of a girl who, somehow, knew that if she listened intently enough, she could match the sounds of her mother to the marks on the page…
a mother reading words once loved, recalled a time when her life was being shaped to carry knowledge to those seeking it,
a daughter hearing words, sensing without knowledge, that the book contained a secret that would open the world to her.
The afternoon passed quietly.

Almira Ristani played, after school, among towering buildings that were the heart of Lawrence, Massachusetts. She and her friends would wander the courtyards and warehouses, their childhood games a pre-echo of adult labor. The buildings were every child’s fantasy castle and village square, made real. The walls did, indeed, soar up to the skies. There were battlements and drawbridges and, like the interconnected towers of Asgard, covered walkways, as high as the 3rd and 4th floors of adjacent buildings. Through the dust-grimmed windows, the silhouettes of workers could be seen, pushing wheeled trundle carts of waste fabric to other parts of the complex. Almira would look up and imagine that they were dwarfs, condemned by lesser gods to labor all day and all night within the cold, dark buildings. That there would come a day when she might find herself in the time-honored, and much fabled role of the Princess-trapped-in-the-Castle Tower, watching the distant landscape for sign of rescue, never entered her mind. Such exile would be both bearable and intolerable. While many people enjoyed reading and, some found joy in learning. Almira Ristani was one who had a need to learn. To call her hunger for Knowledge, (and his misunderstood fraternal twin sister, Understanding), an ambition, was like calling Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No.3, a catchy tune. Almira knew that the world she saw around her was a shadow. Every waking moment, (and not a few dreaming hours), of her life was focused on trying to see that which created the shadow.

***

On this particular noon, the sky had been clear since dawn. Even through the thick wool coat, her strained back muscles un-knotted in the warmth radiating from the brick. A shadow appeared, and Almira Ristani looked up at the eclipse of the warm sun,

“What are you reading?”

Startled by the voice, as the only sounds had consisted of the earth-softened rumbling of the machinery inside the building, Almira pulled her coat more tightly around her. This was somewhat awkward, given that she used her heavy woolen coat like a vertical tent. Leaving the top 2 buttons undone, collar pulled up to her ears, her arms out of sleeves, she could hold her book inside this small personal space, and looking down, read the worn pages of the book.

Almira saw the blood-red crimson ribbon first, the very self-assured posture of a woman second, and finally, as her eyes adjusted to the bright sunlight, the remarkably animated face of Annie LoPizzo.

Instinctively sliding to the side of the alcove, the offer of a square of warm brick wall made clear, Almira put her arms back into the coat sleeves and held her hands protectively over her midsection, the book hidden beneath the heavy wool of her coat.

“Nothing,” Almira’s voice was shyly quiet and yet, there was something to this woman, an offer of enthusiasm, that seemed to encourage her to stare.

Settling down to Almira’s left, the friendly, bustling arrangement of cloaks and coats was interrupted with,

“Hi! I’m Annie, What’s your name?”

The woman, now comfortably pressed against the red brick wall, pulled out a somewhat over-sized, not-too-thick, but definitely worn, book from her left pocket and looked at Almira, with a questioning tilt of her eyes. Seeing the implied request for permission threw Almira a little off-balance, however she nodded her assent. The woman placed her book on the rectangle of ground, between the brown and the grey cloth of their overcoats. Almira watched as she then reached into her other pocket, took out an oblong shape, wrapped in paper, and placed it next to the book.

Looking down at the book, Almira read the title, ‘Woman in the Nineteenth Century’. A smile beginning to pull at the corners of her eyes, she reached into the front of her coat and brought out her own book, ‘Self-Reliance’ and set it down on her lap.

“What a lucky woman I am today!” Annie said with a serious expression, followed by heartfelt laughter.

*****

“Mr. Dietrich! What a surprise!”

Hunk always felt a secret pang of guilt at how he felt, whenever any of the young people who worked part-time at the Circe Free Library, called him by his last name. He looked up as he walked into the shadowed light of the library.

“Uh… hi, Becky” he managed, after quickly scanning the room for the presence of any adults.

“Aren’t you early?” Becky Stillworth was very short, had piercing blue eyes and despite the two-sizes-too-large sweater, a figure that seemed, somehow, out-of-place in a small town library. A straight ‘A’ student since grade school, Becky harbored the dream of becoming a physician. Her parents, who owned a small hardware and plumbing supply store on the farm-edge of town, were more down to earth. Being careful not to be negative or discouraging, they both were certain that she would grow out of it. For a small town girl from a family of modest means, the path into the future was well-worn, if not entirely smooth. It remained rough enough to allow for some excitement, when bouncing along it, at the speed of youth, sometimes catching glimpses of life outside of ‘the town, the farm, the family’. However, it was rutted deeply enough to steer, all but the most determined, to the life that their parents and grandparents before them lived. Becky did not recognize the deepening of the ruts, as most her age did not, her determination was providing a drive and momentum, that just might make her one of the exceptions.

Being asked a direct question made all the difference in how confident, and detached Hunk could remain. He was one of those people who felt most comfortable as an un-challenged observer, and so, his face began to flush, (as if he needed to signal those around him that he was now under pressure), his answer to the simple friendly question metastasized, from the simple explanation that he’d decided to not go back to his farm chores, to include the fact, that, while he did have certain responsibilities, he chose to make a decision to divert from the day’s plans, all of which, surely necessary to a proper response to the question. That the person asking the question was an attractive 16-year-old girl, now standing and looking at him with a patient expression that bordered on the affectionate, did little to help. Hunk then realized that he was still wearing his hat and, again looking around to see how many people might require an apology, he took it off and said,

“Well, yes, for part of what I need to do but, no, if you’re asking about my college courses. But then, it’s not winter, so you can’t be asking about that. Which means, am I early today….” his voice became quieter and less distinct, as if attempting to run and hide, all while being in plain sight.

Seeing the confusion on Hunk Dietrich’s face triggered an instinct that Becky was coming to realize was both incredibly powerful and, very possibly, irresistible. It was, without knowing how she knew, a part of her that she would need to learn to bring under control, if she was ever going to achieve what she hoped to achieve in life. She liked the tall, awkward man who stood uncomfortably in front of her, in the middle of a typically quiet June Summer afternoon. The high-ceiling room was conspicuously missing the small contingency of ambitious high school students, freed of the demands of the school year and, being only a little after one o’clock, it was too early for the older patrons. The cool of the early evening was the time that the Town Square would begin to show slow movements, as the old citizens of Circe, could be observed, encountering others of their kind, to talk about a world that they, inexplicably had become less and less important to, and with the coming night, they would fade into the growing shadows.

Hunk, oblivious to the concern on the face of the girl, completed his response,

“I’m supposed to meet someone, Dorothy… Dorothy Gale, to give her a ride home. She was supposed to be here, but I don’t see her.”

A look came over Becky Stillworth’s face, a look of disapproval, but it never quite took hold. Despite her age, Becky recognized infatuation when she saw it. Her own affection for the man trying to be worthy of those he thought his betters, over-rode her feeling for a certain one-time local celebrity. She did not like Dorothy Gale, during the one year they were both in the same school, and liked her even less, now that she had returned from College-Back-East. Walking around the Circulation Desk, and looking towards the front entrance she said,

“She was here a short time ago and stayed for about 15 minutes, but rushed out, saying something about being afraid that she might be late.” Becky felt the visceral thrill of deliberate cruelty and, though it carried a tinge of shame, she did nothing to stop herself,

“….and the last I saw of her, she was in the Town Square talking to Tom Hardesty.”

She felt Hunk Dietrich brush past her, as he walked quickly out of the Library, towards the park across the street.

*****

“Oh my!, look at the time! I’ve surely kept Hunk waiting for far too long! That will never do! Aunt Emily will be so cross!”

Dorothy stood up and, immediately sat back down as a cold wave of disorientation washed over her. Nothing changed, at least in terms of where she was, still seated in the plain wooden chair next to the bed of Almira Gulch, in the Charity Ward of St Mary’s Hospital.

But, unless the clock on the wall had picked the last few minutes to stop working, that was nearly two hours ago! Nurse Claire Griswold, who seemed to always be in the Ward, was nowhere to be seen!

Dorothy picked up her chair, and, somehow only then, noticed that it was now the only chair next to the bed. The waves of uncertainty again began to build in her mind. Without thinking, she turned back and carefully arranged the book and the sad little milky green, glass vase. She gently picked up the small photo of a very young boy, carefully oriented it towards the still silent and un-moving woman.

Smoothing out the worn, off-white sheet, just a little, Dorothy turned and walked down the aisle, out the double swinging doors and, this time without uncertainty, down the corridor and out the front entrance of the Hospital.

Chapter 3

Featured

“So, Hunk, How’ve you been?”

Dorothy sat back on her side of the spring-lumpy bench seat of the rusty rose-colored truck as Hunk pulled out onto the long straight roadway that connected the Gale Farm to County Road #2. The interior of the cab had become uncomfortably hot from sitting in the morning sun, as Dorothy completed her chores, and so she rested her right forearm, gingerly at first, on the open passenger window sill and leaned out, letting the heat of the cab rush out, brushing the sides of her face, as they drove from the dooryard.

“Well, you know. Things go along. Your parents have been very good to me. Oh! I forgot to tell you! I enrolled in a correspondence college course last year, after you went back East to school. International Correspondence Schools of Scranton, Pennsylvania. We students call it ‘ICS’,” a hint of pride showed in a barely noticeable up-titling of his head,  “I work on the courses mostly in the winter, after harvest is done. I mail in my work and some of the professors are really good at writing back right away and the people in town, at the library are always willing to help.”

“Well, I always knew you had it in you,” Dorothy watched, alert to any sign of recognition to her reference to another time and a very different place. She thought she saw Hunk hesitate.

Hunk’s posture seemed to change, ever so slightly, as he spoke, it became, somehow, more upright, one might even say, assertive,

“Really, that sounds very ambitious of you,” she smiled to herself as he sat even straighter, hands on the steering wheel firm with an unconscious tightening.

“Aw, gee Dorothy, I still have 7 more courses to complete, but I really think I can earn a real diploma,”

The truck hit a dip in the road, Dorothy felt a peculiar lurch to her stomach, the ghost of breakfast tried to take up residence somewhere between her mind and her nose. She smiled at Hunk, with a little less self-assurance than when the trip began.

“Dorothy? Are you alright?” Her sense of confidence was not helped by the fact that a man she hadn’t seen in nearly a year noticed her reaction to his mention of diplomas, a reaction that she would have sworn was all, safely, inside her head.

“Oh, sure.” Dorothy forced herself to laugh,

“I’m just not used to such rich food. Back in New York, breakfast was usually a whole lot simpler, just coffee and a croissant.” As she started to add, “which is a…”

Hunk Dietrich put his right fore finger to his right temple and, cocking his head slightly, turned to Dorothy and recited,

“A croissant is a buttery, flaky, viennoiserie-pastry named for its well-known crescent shape. Croissants and other viennoiserie are made of a layered yeast-leavened dough.”

As Hunk stared at her, a cheerfully absent-minded expression on his face, Dorothy Gale felt the world slip, just a little. Like the momentary flicker from an old motion picture projector, not enough to interrupt the flow, just enough to remind the viewer that they’re watching a film, and actually not experiencing the story. She thought that she might faint, and thinking that, that would be too dramatic, felt a return of her ‘sense of normal’. However, at that moment, driving up County Road #2, the truck’s cab suddenly felt crowded. It wasn’t simply that near-forgotten memories returned unbidden, prompted by a single word in an otherwise un-remarkable conversation. That would have been merely distracting, like getting off a bus after riding for 6 hours and stepping into a crowded terminal at midday. What threatened to overwhelm Dorothy Gale, on an early afternoon, in the middle of June, was an uncontrolled reasserting of emotion.
For every adjustment and accommodation she was forced to make, after her experiences during ‘the Storm of ’37’, despite her efforts to put it all behind her, forgetting it ever happened and trying to turn a memory into a mere dream, there remained an emotional levy charged to her. The price of pretending that she was just like any other 16-year-old girl who came through the Storm of ’37 with a couple of bumps and bruises but nothing else unusual (especially ‘nothing unusual’), was like a Savings Bond of hopes and regrets.  There was always a penalty for early withdrawal.

Dorothy tried to fight this un-anticipated avalanche of feelings, but the discordant mixing of negative and positive, hope and regret, made resistance futile. In the face of being thrown backwards out of the present moment, she reached out for something to hold on to, hoping that a physical contact would provide her some shelter from the storm. Eyes closed, she reached towards Hunk and clutched at the rough fabric of his denim chore jacket, gaining a sense of direction, if nothing else. She felt the truck swerve as Hunk hit the brakes, the cloud of dust catching up and flowing past the windows as they pulled to a stop.

“Hey, easy… hold on, its alright,”

Hunk seemed to be reduced to incomplete sentences. It was exactly what she needed. Simple reassurance that the world was stable and not changing, not out-of-control. Closing one’s eyes at times of distress can be a risky maneuver. Eliminating the myriad cues of the real world can leave a person at the mercy of that part of the anxious imagination that prefers the dark. Hearing Hunk’s voice, even with its faulty syntax, was like finding a stair railing when descending in the dark.

The feel of his rough-patched coat triggered the memory of an afternoon on a walk though cornfields, she quickly opened her eyes to see Hunk staring at her. He was still in the driver’s seat, his right arm in her grasp and yet, somehow, had positioned himself in such as way as to appear to be shielding her with his body.
Dorothy let go of Hunk’s arm and sat back in the cracked-leather seat. She looked at Hunk and looked back at her hands, now folded on her lap. The temperature in the cab rose, deprived of the cooling effects of wind through open windows when the truck was in motion. The musty-dry smell of livestock and stale sweat grew noticeable.

“I’m so sorry. I don’t know what came over me, Hunk.” Dorothy, the flood of emotions receding, managed to keep her voice steady as she brushed out nonexistent wrinkles in her skirt.

“Are you sure?” his concern was clearly genuine and, yet, carried an overtone of hope that seemed out-of-place, until she looked over at his face and caught the fleeting glance of a man, used to running away, caught, momentarily out in the open.

The moment passed, as all such moments do, leaving a not-unpleasant feeling of un-certainty.

“Here, look at me! I’m acting like such a…such a little girl!” sitting up straighter, Dorothy caught herself regretting her choice of sweaters to wear on her trip into town. Hunk put the truck into gear and pulled back up onto the roadway. Dorothy felt an impulse to say, “well, this certainly seems to be a good direction to go in” and, although she felt a sadness, as the noise and the farm dust restored the moment back into part of just another uneventful ride into Town in a rattling truck, driven by a loyal, but common farm hand, she said nothing and stared out the window at the distant horizon.

Circe, Kansas was a large, Small Town. It had a Courthouse and a Library, several churches, (sharing that peculiar competition often seen among the still earth-bound devout, expressed in the size and grandeur of their houses of worship), a Hospital, (serving not only McPherson County, but all of the surrounding Counties as well), an Elementary and a High School, and a Main Street lined with small shops and the occasional diner. Most importantly Circe had a Town Square. Serving as the hub, in location if not in function, it possessed all the features essential to a small Town’s Town Square. An acre of green lawns and stone walkways, it had: two vintage, (i.e. non-functioning),coal-black cannon, complete with a pyramid of cannon balls, welded together, not only to hold the unlikely stacking arrangement, but to prevent the young, and the occasional holiday-drunk adult from attempting to demonstrate the proper use of such weaponry. In the center of Circe’s Town Square was a circular fountain. It no longer held water, At least not spraying in the air water, as it’s designers had intended, back in a more confident and prosperous time, however, its wide stone ledge served as an alternative to sitting on iron benches that were bolted to the walkway, at the cardinal points of the fountain.

“Do you want me to wait, Dorothy?” Hunk said as he pulled up in front of the Library. In answer, Dorothy, got out of the truck and began walking up the broad marble stairs to the entrance to the Circe Free Public Library.

“No, Hunk, I don’t know how long I’ll be, I’ve school work and other things. Do you think you could come back at 3?” Dorothy noticed a boy and 2 girls sitting on the benches that surrounded the broken fountain in the Town Square. They appeared to be entangled in a conversation that clearly had more value to the two girls than the one young man, if how much time he spent staring off into the distance was an indication. Dorothy recognized them as former high school classmates. He was a boy that she almost went steady with and the two girls used to be her best friend.

Dorothy planned on taking out a couple of books from the library, (to provide credibility to the reason she gave her parents for needing to go into town), and be at the hospital just before the start of Visiting Hours. The Nurse in charge of the Charity Ward struck her as the kind of woman who would make a big deal out of being late. She remembered her encounter with Nurse Griswold the previous day and decided it would be best to get there at exactly 1:00.

Unfortunately for her timetable, the young people were still in the park 15 minutes later, when Dorothy left the library. They spotted her as she walked down the steps, intending to cut through the Square to Shay Lane, which. in a short two blocks, lead to St Mary’s Hospital. Like neighborhood dogs, in the middle of a boring, quiet Summer afternoon, the two girls and the young man stopped looking at each other, and started looking at Dorothy Gale. Again, like our neighborhood dogs, feral pack instincts not all that far in the past, they got up from their bench. Making it look like a random movement, the three appeared to develop a sudden interest in the side of the fountain that was closest to where Dorothy’s path would take her, as she cut through the park.

Dorothy spent her Senior Year as an involuntary celebrity. Her tales of adventures were as much a part of the local lore that grew, following the Storm of ’37, as was the wholesale destruction left in the path of the F5 tornado. Except she was a girl, who although undeniably changed by the storm, did not have the guarantee of reconstruction or repair, as did the High School and other structures destroyed and left in pieces, to be re-built by the community.
Tom Hardesty and Patricia Levesque and Nancy Jackson, all graduated from High School with Dorothy the year before, the first class to graduate from the new High School. Not surprisingly, Dorothy knew all three since 1st grade, such is the nature of a small town, in a farming community. Patricia was very popular and Nancy was very bright, they made for perfect best friends. Tom was every father’s worry and every mother’s shameful hope. He was the demographic wild card found in every class, in every high school. In fact, his name found a place on the pages of Dorothy’s diary in her sophomore year. His confident recklessness was everything that her family, (including the 3 farm hands who were not that far removed from high school in age), was not. So powerful was the idea of a boy like Tom Hardesty, in the mind and heart, (which, in a girl of 15, is mostly heart), that she gladly allowed his thoughtless charm to entangle her heart. He showed her a side of life that she felt called out to her. The Friday afternoon, of the first week of school, of her Sophomore Year, Tom convinced Dorothy to let him show her something special in the hay loft. Like so many at the age of wanting without knowing, she felt that life was passing her by. Convinced that if she only could have someone she could trust, she knew that she could find that which she felt she was missing from her life. He took her away from Kansas that Friday afternoon, not really far, and yet for a very short time she was nowhere near the farm, riding a passion that she suspected was in her and yet had not the language (or the experience) to claim as her own. They returned to the hayloft when the opportunity sparked the daring that was buried in her and flowed from him in reckless torrents. The nature of love, especially when first experienced, is different for girls like Dorothy and boys like Tom. For a girl like Dorothy, it can take the form of a status that confers the right to celebrate being with and a part of another, the creation of ‘a couple’. Sometimes, (but not always), for a boy like Tom, love transforms into a totem, the acknowledgement of power. Experienced as a responsibility to demonstrate this new power, the greater the variety of partners, the better the singular intensity of his passion might be expressed.

The cooling temperatures of Autumn slowed the spontaneity of their joinings in the loft. Still  only near-adults, the limited availability of places to be alone together brought about a slowing of their physical sharing, which given their age and his nature, caused the end of their time as a couple to come about sooner rather than later. For her part, Dorothy kept everything to herself, her feelings and her hurt. There simply was no one to share it with and so, it was inscribed in her Diary, many a young girl’s best hope for the kind of listener that most agree should be there and most come to accept rarely is.

As the three approached, Dorothy looked at her watch, saw that it was 12:45 and resolved to not allow her former classmates to delay her mission to town on this particular afternoon.

“Hey! Dorothy!! You’re back!” Tom lead the trio, the two girls forming a pair, a step behind him, almost as if they were flying a kite that was too large to control, on too windy a day, they linked arms as they made their way across the lawn.

Dorothy thought about her friend and roommate at school, Eliza, and took heart. As Dorothy packed for her trip back to Kansas, Eliza invited her to join her at her parent’s Summer home in Newport for the month of August. With that thought, Dorothy’s reflex shyness, that totally flawed defense mechanism of many an adolescent girl, (and some adolescent boys), evaporated. She remembered that she was not the small town girl that everyone knew and liked and admired and, at one time, whispered about. She was Dorothy Gale, home-for-a-part-of-the-Summer College girl.

Tom reacted first, sensing a change in the girl and regarded her with a clearly increasing interest. Dorothy, in turn, did not miss the change in attitudes on the part of Patricia and Nancy, though they were obviously less intrigued with the change. Dorothy reminded herself that she had very little time and so, waited for Tom to take the lead, which, naturally he did,

“Hey, so, how was New York City?”

Dorothy looked at her watch. Tom reached out and grabbed her wrist. The two girls at his shoulder leaned forward, twin pilot fish sensing a meal,

“Come on, tell us about New York City and how the streets are paved with movie stars.” the girls behind him, hands to mouths, giggled like chipmunks. Hearing their laughter, Tom stepped closer to Dorothy.

Dorothy’s hope of avoiding an encounter faded, as she felt the rough stone of the fountain against the back of her legs, causing her to arch her back in an unconscious effort to maintain her balance. She was at an insurmountable disadvantage in the encounter. She was back in town, after being away. In any small town or island community, there are the people born there and there is everyone else. However, within the community of native-born people, there is yet another division of status, those who leave and come back and those who stay. The status of the latter is a punitive distinction, those who leave are at a disadvantage no matter what their birth certificate might say.

‘Apples’ at first a truly random thought, popped into her mind. Dorothy noticed the pack of Luckies protruding from Tom’s shirt pocket, every small-town bad boy’s badge of honor. She reached out and took a cigarette from the pack, put it in her mouth and said, “Thanks.”

Tom leaned back slightly. The two girls almost gasped.  Patricia Levesque looked shocked (and disapproving), Nancy Jackson’s face registered curiosity that bordered on genuine interest, (and stepped slightly away from her friend Patricia) and stared at Dorothy.

Tom held out the match (from Stewart’s Feed and Supply) and Dorothy, holding his hand steady, looked up from the flame and said, “Thanks”

Among the three, breathing resumed sooner for two of them, although, of course, eventually the third joined in, marking her decision with a scowl of disapproval.

Realizing that deferring a meeting was the only way she was going to avoid being delayed, Dorothy stepped back from Tom and said,

“I’m so sorry, but you caught me on my way to a very important appointment. I mustn’t be late! Maybe we could all get together another time?”

Tom Hardesty and Nancy Jackson both were quick to agree. Patricia, not wanting to be left out, clearly puzzled by the reaction of her two friends, joined in with an unenthusiastic, ‘that’d be swell’.

“So, this coming Saturday afternoon? Here?” Dorothy watched as 2 heads nodded enthusiastically and walked away.

****

“It’s ten past 1.”

Nurse Claire Griswold was standing at the first bed, to the left of the double swinging doors that opened to Ward C. She looked exactly as she had on the previous afternoon. Tall, without being imposing, blonde hair, framed by her white nurse’s cap, almost created a  halo effect, and blue eyes that seemed to see the world from an indefinable distance. And, she had the most remarkable way of moving. Simply without effort, she would be in one spot and then another, as if it were her decision whether anyone could witness her walking, or taking a seat in a chair, or approaching from a distance.

“I’m so sorry, there were some school chums in the park…” Seeing the look from the nurse, she tried, “Look! I brought flowers!” Dorothy had little hope that an excuse would have any effect on this woman’s opinion of her, but felt she had to try. Holding up the bouquet of flowers that she bought from the Gift Shop in the lobby, Dorothy raised her eyebrows, as a combination surrender flag and petition for a truce.

Although Dorothy was certain that she was smiling, Claire Griswold’s blue eyes were all that she could see, held by a look that felt like being judged and at the same time, she felt no threat,

“Am I forgiven?” Dorothy started to walk down the aisle towards Almira Gulch’s bed.

“I believe that you meant well, however intention and action are not always one and the same. You must do one thing. Take your pretty bouquet apart and distribute the flowers among all the patients.”

Dorothy felt a flash of annoyance at her gift being regarded as an incidental commodity. Seeing a wastepaper basket by the side of the small nurses station, to the left of the entrance, she put her books down and began un-wrapping the flowers.

“Very well, but you promised yesterday… ” Dorothy looked up from what was now merely a bunch of flowers and saw that Nurse Griswold was no longer standing next to her. Instead she was standing at a bed in the middle of the ward. There was something very strange about how she moved, as if floating, yet even that would not explain how she could cover the distance, which was at least 15 feet down down the central aisle, without Dorothy noticing. Shrugging off the unexplained abilities of Nurse Griswold, Dorothy walked to the first bed, (there were 2 rows of 5 beds on opposite sides of the large room). She saw that each bedside table had a small, milky green, glass vase and every one of them was empty and dry.

Dorothy smiled when she realized that, though she’d bought the cheapest bouquet in the gift shop, it consisted of exactly 10 flowers. ‘Perfect,’ she thought, ‘the warden here won’t being able to criticize me for giving the wrong number of flowers to each patient.’ She walked to each bed, trying to avoid eye contact with the few, (less than 3 of the 10), patients that appeared to be awake, or at least aware of what was going on around them. Finally she came to the last bed, saving the last flower, a rose for Almira Gulch.

Holding the single rose, Dorothy was not surprised to see that Nurse Griswold was at her side, (although, she knew for a fact, that, when she walked up to this, the last bed in the row, the beautiful blonde nurse was attending to a patient in the middle of the opposite row), and put the flower in the vase. As she did so, she saw a small photo of a very young child, a boy with dark hair and darker eyes. Turning, Dorothy said,

“Who is this little boy?”

Nurse Claire Griswold smiled and said, “You came back today thinking that you had only one question for our friend here to answer. You are asking a different question?”

“Well, I suppose. But I still need to ask Mrs. Gulch a very important question. Is she always asleep or is that only when I’m here, with my question?” Dorothy began to grow impatient, the days events beginning to take their toll. She considered walking away, forgetting she ever knew Mrs. Gulch, (Miss Gulch!! Miss!  a part of her mind insisted, in an undeniably petulant tone). Dorothy started to turn away, from the bed and it’s book and it’s sad little milky green, glass vase and especially, from the photo of the little boy looking out from somewhere too far away, but Nurse Griswold was standing between her and the corridor formed by the two rows of beds of Ward C, blocking the road she might follow to return to her home.

“Let me tell you something about a young girl, a girl, in many ways, very much like you,”

Chapter 2

Featured

Returning home at the end of her Freshman Year at Sarah Lawrence was simple enough,  getting used to waking up in the overly wide, double bed of her childhood was not. From the moment she stepped from the train in Kansas City, Dorothy Gale felt …different. Despite the comforting familiarity of places and people from her childhood, there was a certain darkness to the place she once called home. Like the echo of a door being slammed in an empty house, Dorothy found herself feeling tense when everyone else was laughing and anxious when they were silent. Fortunately, life’s everyday routines have the power to wear away the jagged edges that are created by worry and stress. Once the novelty of being home after a significant absence wore off, Dorothy began to find the rhythm of her old life in Kansas, and so finally, a little more than a week since returning, she began to feel at home.

Lying on her right side, Dorothy Gale stared out the open window, the glow of sunrise washing out the bedroom shadows, morning farm-sounds drowning out the secret creaks and furtive random sounds of night. Once the door into daytime opened enough to banish the night stars, Dorothy relaxed. Nighttime was not her friend. Since more than two years before, when ‘the Storm of ’37’, (an F5 tornado), changed both the landscape and the lives of the small farm community of Circe, Kansas, Dorothy feared night’s embrace. Although not the only one to be traumatized, after that dark Wednesday afternoon, Dorothy Gale became something of a celebrity, as ‘the Girl Who Rode the Cyclone’. Suffering little in the way of physical injury, Dorothy carried, nearly to term, the dream of a place where she found everything she believed was missing from her life. Her family, seduced by her guileless and naive desire to share her dream, ignored the consequences of supporting her delusion, preferring to offer the appearance of accepting her story at face value. Small towns and rural communities tend to rally in the wake of a disaster, overlooking things that, under more ordinary circumstances, would have inspired criticism, even censure, all in service to the communal effort to recover from whatever damage it suffered. And so, in the immediate days following the Storm of ’37, men and women would pause in their back-breaking, (and, all too often, heart-breaking), labors to listen to the brown-haired girl in the blue check dress, tell of a place of wonder and intrigue. The momentary escape serving everyone well. But, with time, (and hard work), normal life returned to Circe and the townspeople had less time, and frankly, less need, for the diversion of a charming, if not eccentric young girl and her tales of a place of wonder and intrigue. Unfortunately, the storyteller is usually the last to notice that their story no longer enthralls the listener. This seems inevitable, as the best of storytellers do not recite a tale as much as they re-live (imaginary) events, and so Dorothy continued telling of her adventures in an exotic and faraway place, well past the time that people tired of hearing of them. It fell to her Aunt and Uncle to help Dorothy Gale accept that her life was in Circe, Kansas and that to continue sharing her dream was every bit as tiring-approaching-annoying as the company of the expatriate, who in self-imposed exile, can’t seem to stop talking about the country they rejected.

As the old adage holds, time heals all wounds. What the adage overlooks, in it’s effort for therapeutic simplicity, is that some wounds leave scars. And some scars, not only never go away, but twist the course of life for the person wearing them. Like a slightly warped cue stick in the hands of a new player, it’s distortion is not necessarily noticed, at least not directly. If the person insists on continuing to practice the sport, using only this cue stick, they will develop a style that allows for the distortion that, un-noticed, still affects how they play.  And so it was with Dorothy Gale, an intelligent, resourceful and determined girl, she learned to stop telling people about what happened to her after the Storm of ’37 and the people of Circe no longer stopped talking when she’d walk into the drugstore. The hard-working citizens of Circe eventually let go of their need to stare in her direction, as she walked across the Town Square, no longer staring at the young, well-dressed girl with a ready smile and an optimistic disposition, as if waiting for her to do something…odd.

Dorothy finished her last year in the newly re-built high school, (with the surprising dedication to a seemingly unlikely benefactor), and tried to make the best decision as to  which road she should go down. Graduation Day had a way of taking away the treasure maps of childhood and replacing them with barely decipherable charts that implied help in plotting a course into adulthood. The life choices and options Dorothy Gale enjoyed were not typical for the average young person in Circe, Kansas, where most teenage boys and girls were simply promoted to ‘adult’. In the Midwest, in the near middle of the 20th Century, childhood served as apprenticeship to the (un-official) Guild of Farmers and Laborers. At the age of majority, (and all too often, sooner), young people assumed their place in the community, either staying on the family farm, or finding work on a nearby farm. Even this simple path was becoming increasingly challenging, as the climate and the economy took it’s toll. With nothing to give in exchange for a modest livelihood, other than a strong body and clever, if not limited skills, manual labor was, for the majority of the young coming of age in Circe, their sole stock and trade. Of course, there were those, (young adults), who fared better, by virtue of being born to a family from the mercantile and professional classes. For these pre-adults, their dowry was often exchanged for a place, rather than an occupation, a place far from the limitations of a rural farming community.

Emily and Henry Gale, (Dorothy’s adopted parents), had a successful farm. By local standards, the most reliable measure of the success of a farm in western Kansas, was in the number of farm hands they had in their employ. The Gales had three farm hands, which was three more than the majority of farms that encircled the Town of Circe, Kansas.

Success is usually grounded in hard work, however, if truth be known, having a shrewd mind and slightly predatory business sense was even better. Emily Gale had that shrewd mind. She took the farm, (conferred via an inheritance), and got a husband and made a life for herself. She had a near virulent dream of owning a successful farm and having a large family. She did not succeed at one of her two goals, at least, not directly. Naturally gifted at growing things, the farm did well from the very first day. Plants propagated and livestock co-operated. Unfortunately, Emily Gale was not as fertile as the soil and the one thing she could not convince or extort from or otherwise force Nature to provide, was a child. As with many women of this time and place, she set her hurt disappointment aside, like slip-covered furniture in a living room reserved for Baptisms, Weddings and Funerals, and applied her will to compensating for what was missing in her life. Brooking no opposition, she made the farm efficient to the point beyond which, only expansion could improve upon. And the farm grew more prosperous. In an irony often overlooked, one surplus found in a struggling farm community like Circe Kansas in the 1930s, was also the one commodity necessary for success, semi-skilled labor. Emily Gale recognized this and was shrewd (and predatory) enough to secure the resource of manpower from the failed farms. Emily Gale forced her farm to grow. And it did.
She still could not force her body to grow the one crop that she most desired and so, she identified another unfortunate surplus commodity, children. Emily Gale and her husband Henry, adopted Dorothy and, in the practice of farming and animal husbandry, albeit slightly less traumatic, if not just as permanent, branded the young child as a ‘Gale’.

After the Storm of ’37, resources in the form of failed farms increased and the Gale Farm grew. The death of a distance and wealthy relative from ‘Back East’ added both to the coffers and fueled the ambitions of Emily Gale. This death provided an unexpected opportunity, in the form of renewing family ties, which brought the world beyond Kansas into a prominence greater than any time since Emily Gale stepped off the Train in Kansas City in 1917. The death, funeral and settling of Emily’s Uncle Charles’s estate, necessitated a trip back East. Emily took Dorothy, at the time a freshman in high school, with her. For a young girl from rural western Kansas, the experience was as full of amazing and surprising things as a trip to another world. It opened a door that Dorothy wanted to step through and not look back.

This morning, lying in her single, maiden’s bed, Dorothy Gale waited for the world to solidify around her. Some mornings were more difficult than others, the preceding night’s dreams were usually the deciding factor. This morning, as most mornings, her first task was to un-wrap herself from the sheets and thin wool blanket which held her in place throughout the night, as if to hold her bound to earth, even as her mind flew through exotic dream worlds. The inevitable night sweat was as effective as any resin-soak linen, preserving an Egyptian Pharaoh down through the centuries. Dorothy discovered very quickly, after the dreams started in earnest, that fighting the morning embrace of sheets and blanket did nothing more than give her muscles a workout, which she could always use, but also it would pull her background anxiety to the forefront of her mind, which she could always do without.

Returning from the bathroom, Dorothy felt the night tension linger and realized that her reduced intake levels of caffeine and tobacco, was doing nothing to help her cope with being home. The distance between her life growing up on the farm and her new, very different life as a Freshman at Sarah Lawrence was far greater than she would have imagined. Changes in lifestyles can be subtle and they can be great. For Dorothy Gale, how much she had changed in the last year was very much brought home by her craving a cigarette and a coffee. The bright morning, shining in through the window of her bedroom, was all the temptation she needed and, rummaging through her suitcase (which was still on the chair by the bureau, open as if to say, ‘hey! we can be headed back to civilization as fast as you want’), she found the half-empty pack of Chesterfields and sat on the window sill, breathing in a first of the day lungful of cigarette smoke and the fresh Kansas morning air.

Since returning to Kansas, Dorothy dressed each day with careful deliberation. That women’s fashions and styles were different in New York, is well-understated. As an indication of how mature she was, for being all of 18 years old, Dorothy made the conscious decision to not flaunt the additions she made to her wardrobe, preferring to avoid conflict with her parents, in particular, her Aunt Emily. That she would make this estimation suggests that, despite not being the biological issue of Emily Gale, she shared a capacity, one might even say, talent, for assessing of people and situations. As she told her roommate, at semester’s end, “Being an only child has it’s drawbacks but the advantages, especially when working the parents, more than offset not having brothers and sisters.” Her roommate, Eliza Thornberg, laughed, “And the Trust Fund is so much easier to calculate!” The two girls laughed. Well, one girl laughed, and the other girl tried to join in. Being roommates with the only daughter of a Publishing Magnate was, for Dorothy, the difference between reading ‘Pride and Prejudice’ and actually living with the gentry class as a distant relative.

Looking through her closet, at the clothes she didn’t pack last September, Dorothy discovered, to her dismay, that finding something to wear that did not shriek, ‘farm girl’, was going to be more difficult than she would ever have thought. Standing in front of the closet, she was surprised, and not a little amused at what surely was a chance arrangement of the clothes hanging on the wooden cross-bar. To the right were the clothes she brought back from College, sweaters on padded hangers, several skirts hanging neatly straight from hangers, (sometimes two hangers if there was a matching blouse), each with a reasonable separation from the adjacent hanger. There were also two dresses that she packed, in the hopes that there’d be a reason that she’d be glad that she packed them. To the left, in the closet, were the clothes she wore before she left for college. At first, she had trouble recognizing individual outfits, as the clothes seemed to be crammed together, some skirts were two-to-a-hanger, sweaters on single, un-padded hangers. Collectively, the clothing seemed to huddle in the corner, the physical divide serving to accent the favored clothes from those she would wear if she had no other choices. Dorothy was about to take out a skirt that she thought would not cause Aunt Em to comment, and a sweater that, very like would, when something rather odd happened. Reaching up for the sweater on the shelf, her elbow jostled the coat hangers of the left-behind clothes and, like a stray wind blowing open an unlatched door, the clothes swayed on the hangers, revealing a blue and white dress. The morning became quiet for Dorothy Gale, the sight of this blue and white check dress (and blue-trimmed white blouse), more than any flying carpet in the Tales of Arabian Nights beckoned her, an un-voiced offer to take her to an exotic and faraway place.

“Dorothy! Dorothy Gale! They may sleep all day back East, but you’re not in New York anymore. Up and out of bed, young lady, the day is already started and you’re falling behind!” the voice of Dorothy’s Aunt Em carried up the stairs and still had enough power to force it’s way into her room. She turned, took down the sweater and pulled out the light green skirt and got dressed.

“Good Morning Uncle Henry! Can I get a ride into town this afternoon?” Dorothy walked through the kitchen, glancing at her Aunt, sitting at the table reading a ledger of some sort, with a half-empty cup of coffee in front of her.

“Well, I’d really like to help you, but two new farm hands are coming over this morning that I need to show around,” taking a smudged and wrinkled paper from his shirt pocket, Henry Gale pushed aside his breakfast plate and smoothed out the paper on the pale blue tablecloth. He took a half length of pencil, (chew marks showed on three quarters of it’s length), and read the list he had carefully printed the evening before, using the pencil to focus his attention. Satisfied that he’d outlined his workday in enough detail to avoid forgetting anything, the prospect of his wife’s criticism sufficient to cause him to triple check his list, he turned to the third person at the breakfast table, a tall, languorous man in his late-twenties, who was staring down at his plate of bacon and eggs,

“Hunk”, Uncle Henry said, “I know you have that section of fence to fix on the Simons property today, don’t reckon that’ll take all the day, do you think you could make some time and take our Dorothy into town?”

Hunk moved his fork and knife from one side of his plate to the other and, using the cloth napkin to wipe his lips, glanced up at Henry on his right and then across the table to where Dorothy was standing by her Uncle’s side, folded his napkin carefully, and said,

“Well, sure. I should be able to. I think I’ll get a lot of the fence mended by then, and, depends on when, of course. When did you want to go? Of course, if you let me know, you know, when you’d like to leave,” He looked, this time almost directly at Dorothy, “Sure, be glad to Dorothy!”

Dorothy, one hand on her uncle’s shoulder, kissed his whisker-rough cheek, enjoying the un-pretentious scent of soap and sweat and pipe tobacco that was as much a part of her image of him, as the blue denim shirt and tool-hung overalls. Dorothy missed this part of her childhood when away at school, where, although one or two professors also smoked pipes, they all seemed to smell of dusty paper, mimeograph ink and stale tea.

“Thats swell, Hunk!” Dorothy smiled and Hunk, again staring at his plate, picking up the already folded cloth napkin, blushed and looked towards the door.

“Well, now, Missy, seeing that you’ve arranged for your taxi, I need you to help me with the laundry this morning,”

Emily Gale looked over the tops of her silver wire-rimmed glasses at Dorothy, until the young girl stared back at her, then and only then she looked around the table at her husband and farm foreman. She smiled to herself at the thought that, although Hunk wasn’t the most focused worker, he had more experience at working the farm than any of the other farm hands she’d since acquired. As part of the first expansion of the Gale Farm, Emily hired Hunk Dietrich, Zeke Montgomery and Hickory Stoddard. They’d been hard workers, each with a strength that seemed to offset the weakness of the other two and contributed immeasurably to the growth of the farm, as she grew it from an original 250 acre spread of wheat and sheep to its current 750 acres.
Zeke died within a month of ‘the Storm of ’37, when the tractor he was operating, in an effort to pull a small house back onto it’s foundation, tipped over and crushed him. Emily witnessed the accident and shouted that he needed to wait for the others to help stabilize the structure. He seemed almost manic in his bravado, insisting that he could do it himself.
After Zeke’s death, Hickory married a Cherokee woman named Wahya, and moved to Arizona.

“What’s so important that you can’t wait until tomorrow? Your father will be going into Town the first thing in the morning.”

Emily Gale would have laughed at the suggestion that she relied almost entirely on her instincts, as she followed the course of her life and goals, “It’s just my willingness to work hard and Faith in the Lord”, was her answer when, in Town for errands or perhaps Church on Sunday, someone she didn’t know very well approached her and complimented the success of the Gale Farm. Anyone who did know her well, would smile and wave, from afar, preferring to keep the interaction at a slight distance.

“Oh, nothing special. I have to visit the library, I have a Summer Reading List you know. And there are some things I want to pick up at the drugstore.” Dorothy was looking directly at her aunt and did not notice the smile pass over Hunk’s face, a cloud-shadow on an otherwise sunny day.

‘Well, Summer is not a time for loafing around and if you hope to go visit your friend in August, you’ll need to pitch in and help with the Farm while you’re here.” Emily Gale affected a stern attitude towards her participation in the work on the farm, despite her acceptance that her adopted daughter’s future was clearly going to unfold somewhere other than in Kansas.

Later, after Hunk had driven off in the grey-and-rust colored farm truck and Auntie Em had gotten the cleaning woman started on the day’s work, (she always went over the list of what she wanted left alone and un-touched, despite the fact that Theodora had been cleaning the house 6 days a week for the past 14 months), Dorothy stood on the back porch, thinking about what books she should take from the library to maintain the fiction that the library was the reason she had to get into Town this very afternoon, when she heard Uncle Henry call to her from the barn,

“Dorothy! Come here, I have a solution to your transportation problems!”

Hearing her husbands voice, Emily Gale stepped out onto the porch and joined her daughter, the two Gale women watched as Henry Gale walked across the dirt yard, wheeling an old and somewhat dented bicycle towards the house. Obviously not ridden recently, the tires seemed to have pressure, none of the spokes were missing, the seat, though worn, seemed serviceable and, there was a small wicker basket mounted over the rear fender, attached to the back of the seat.

Dorothy felt the earth move, ever so slightly, but, as whenever the earth moves for a person, the promise of greater and increasing movement was the source of any growing anxiety. Teetering in the moment, like a novice aerialist on the high wire for their first audition, Dorothy fought for calm, knowing that only by staying in touch with the moment, could she avoid falling into whatever abyss loomed beneath the seemingly solid dirt yard.

“Oh! My Stars and Garters!” the peals of laughter coming from her Aunt exploded across the farmyard and, like the first wave of a tsunami, swept up her husband and lifted her adopted daughter and all three laughed and laughed.

***

17 miles away, in a dry, clean and soon-to-be-too-warm bed, a woman with a small red ribbon sewed to the collar of her worn-blue hospital gown, moaned a single moan and returned to her quiet sleep.

Chapter 1

“Miss Gulch, do you hear me?” Dorothy spoke quietly, as if afraid of being overheard, despite the fact that she stood at the foot of the hospital bed, in the middle of a Wednesday afternoon, at least an hour before the beginning of Hospital Visiting Hours. The risk of interruption was not particularly great, as the Charity Ward at Saint Mary’s Hospital was housed in a wing, at the back of the huge brick hospital, and overlooked the service entrance. Other than staff nurses and the occasional relative making a last visit, the Charity Ward (Ward C) was never a busy part of the hospital, at least in terms of the comings and goings of the fully-living.

“I must know! You will tell! I shall not leave until you explain why you did it!” Dorothy Gale’s voice honed a cutting edge to her simple words. Clearly meant to not permit indifference, like spiny brambles that attach themselves to pant cuffs, un-noticed in the act of walking through a field, the quietly spoken questions were deceptively forceful. There was a deliberate and determined quality to her actions that was at odds with her appearance. Dorothy looked, for all the world, to be a well-dressed, pleasantly attractive 18 year old girl. Her thick brunette hair was cut in a style clearly new to the girl, perhaps as part of her effort to fit in at Sarah Lawrence, where she had just completed her freshman year. The bangs she wore echoed the look of several movie actresses. That she had gone to the effort to tie her hair back, betrayed a childhood growing up on a working farm. That she was the only person standing, in a room of quiet, nearly unrumpled beds, made this contrast all the greater. The quality of stillness that permeated Ward C, imbuing it’s beds and chairs and medical equipment with a deceptive peacefulness, always impressed the first time visitor with the need for silence. Ordinarily, early afternoon was the most active time of day. Lunches were brought to each bedside and left for a very exact length of time, and then cleared away, un-eaten or not and the slow journey towards evening would begin in earnest. At this time of year, Ward C would remain a comfortable place for lunch, the afternoon not yet overtaken by the accumulated heat of the day.  In the morning light, the heat was comforting and encouraging, suggestive of cool lakes and shade trees. By mid-afternoon, the mood would change and the atmosphere became ponderous, and the heat, unable to move in the lack of breeze or wind, pressed downwards on all and waited for the night, to escape into the cool dark to await the appearance of the morning sun.

“Why?”  There was an overtone to her question that was rooted in fear, and, as a result, made the girl’s question, perhaps the most fundamental question in human language, ‘Why?”, all the more forceful. Dorothy would be surprised, and very cross, if anyone were to ask her what she feared. The whisper that sent her first question to the world, had long since been banished to the corner, marked as useless, un-effective and a waste of time.

The object of Dorothy Gale’s interrogation, the woman in the hospital bed, remained as still as a field of wheat in December. A life-sized paper doll, crafted by once-skilled hands using crudely pressed paper, a casual passerby, (not that there was ever a casual passerby in Ward C), would’ve guessed that it was a woman they were seeing in the narrow bed, provided they spotted the solitary red ribbon fastened to the edge of the worn-blue hospital gown. Dorothy leaned forward, and stared intently, vainly searching for any acknowledgement of her questions, or even her presence. Her frustration, nurtured in her natural impatience, festered and grew, threatening to become anger. Turning her head, Dorothy looked around the large, open room, clearly hopeful of finding someone to share the frustration she felt, believing that, one more person would be enough to make the still form in the bed more cooperative.

The ward was a single large room with 10 beds, 5 along opposite walls. Each single bed, their white-painted metal railings giving them a near-coffin like appearance, had a grey (metal) nightstand and a single chair. The night stand was to the right side of the pillow, providing the only scenery that the often motionless patient might look to, and the chair, located at the foot of the bed, (facing away from the bed, it stood as a barrier, to preserve the illusion of not being in a large room with 10 hospital beds in it). This solitary chair, facing the empty world around the bed, was, for the powerless occupant of the single bed, their strongest plea for the company of another human. As a symbol of the bleakness of certain lives, the chair was of quite simple a design, un-padded, sculpted seat and half-curved back, it’s designer clearly meant to create an alternative to standing and nothing more. The chair was moveable and it was stable. When you thought about it, those are the only really essential qualities a chair required.

“You must tell me what happened after I went away to school! Everyone acts like they don’t know me. Like they don’t like me anymore!” Dorothy had planned this conversation through the last half of her first year at college and had been practicing it for the last 2 weeks, since she arrived home at her Aunt and Uncle’s farm. Despite the lack of cooperation from the woman in the bed, she was determined to have her say.

“Miss? Is everything alright… oh, it’s you, Miss Gale.” Startled by the sound of another person speaking, here in the place where no one spoke…or moved or, apparently, listened, Dorothy looked about the room, face reddening, her eyes, so recently glaring at the paper mache woman, now looked towards the floor, as if planning a quick escape. She felt unattractively self-conscious, overcome by the preemptive embarrassment that seems to arise on it’s own, whenever a person discovers that they are not alone, despite being certain to the contrary. From among the white-on-off-white, touched by grey shapes that made up the landscape of the room, a figure separated itself from the still backdrop and become a person. It was a nurse, of course, who rose from the bedside chair that was next to the bed of a very, very old woman. She had been so focused on her patient and her uniform blended in with the near-antiseptic nondescriptness of the room that she was nearly invisible, up until the moment she spoke.

“Miss Gale, I asked you if everything was alright,” Nurse Claire Griswold was a tall and mild woman. She had blonde hair, that, captured by the white, rounded-square cap of her profession, somehow implied a natural energy. Slender, approaching willowy, she moved in a most peculiar manner. When she spoke, her words were cast into the air, in the direction of the person she was addressing, words and person becoming two. Dorothy heard the words and by the time she comprehended them, Nurse Griswold had somehow moved to quite near where Dorothy stood. There was no sense of an approaching person, there was no opportunity to assess the person as she physically approached. Standing now close, yet not close enough to touch, Dorothy could see blue eyes, eyes that seemed to not quite focus, at least, not on anything that was nearby. Dorothy was not certain that she should trust this woman, she did, however, resign herself to having to include her in her mission to talk to the woman in the bed.

Nurse Griswold was an asset to the hospital in virtually all aspects of the care and treatment of patients who came to Saint Mary’s from the surrounding Counties. She had a nature that allowed her to be calm, when people were distraught, serene when others were anxious and peaceful when patients fought to resist the dark embrace of depression. The Care and Well-being of the patients was all that mattered to Nurse Griswold. Everyone liked her and she returned this respect in kind, except, and quite uncharacteristically, this mid afternoon in August, the air heavy with heat, time passing achingly slow. This afternoon, Nurse Griswold found herself not liking this willful young girl. Of course, Nurse Griswold recognized Dorothy Gale, the once celebrated, recently returned from college, as the girl standing at the foot of Almira Gulch’s bed.

“Perhaps if you told me what you need from Miss Gulch, I might save you the frustration and definitely spare her the aggravation of your hectoring.” Nurse Griswold stared quietly at the young woman.

Dorothy spun on her heels to face the source of what, to her genuine surprise, felt like a challenge. Claire Griswold marveled at how different a person can be from their physical appearance. Putting aside the interesting idea of inner and outer personality, Nurse Griswold faced the young girl, her expression one of ‘disinterested concentration’. It was a look that the seemingly passive people of the world exhibit when motivated to become direct and aggressive.

Dorothy was about to say something sharp to this Nurse, but when it became very clear that somehow she, a mere nurse, was not going to defer to her dominant status, (in Dorothy’s measure, it was a status by social standing and, more recently, by virtue of her being a student at a very exclusive college). She looked about the room, the only audience were the mute occupants in the 9 other beds, a coliseum of the dying.

“What’s this?” Dorothy reached towards the bedside table and picked up a well-worn book,  reading the title aloud,’ The Jungle’ by Upton Sinclair’, she raised an eyebrow, opened the cover and saw there, on the flyleaf, written 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

“Put that back,” the quiet tone somehow brought out the force of Claire Griswold’s command. Before she could think, ‘what right does this nurse have to tell me what to do’, Dorothy placed the book back on the nightstand. Nurse Griswold was now, somehow, standing next to Dorothy, and looking at the woman beneath the neatly tucked in sheets, with an unmistakable expression of kindness and affection.

“I wasn’t going to steal it, if that’s what you’re thinking!” Dorothy Gale felt trapped, despite there being more than enough room between the beds of Ward C. Instead, she decided that her best approach with this nurse was to be humble and apologetic.

“I’m really sorry that I’ve upset you. I should be on my way. I only wanted to ask Miss Gulch…”

Mrs Gulch,” the nurse turned her full attention back to the young girl, now just inches way, the three women forming a small group, remarkable only in the nature of where they found themselves, a place of resignation, “It’s Mrs. Gulch”

“I didn’t know, really I didn’t. We all just called her old… we called her Miss Gulch, when I was growing up.” Dorothy, now finding the object of her visit assuming stage center, felt her confidence return.

“Are you sure? Auntie Em never said old… Mrs. Gulch was married, ever! And my Aunt Em knows everyone in McPherson County! I rather doubt that she would not know a thing like that!”

“Your aunt is sadly uninformed.” Watching the girl’s brow begin to gather into a frown, Claire Griswold smiled and, touching Dorothy’s shoulder gently, said,

“You might be surprised at how little people know about others, even in a community like ours. 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.”

Dorothy felt her anger begin to rise, ‘lecture me on knowing things, will she!’ and was preparing to put this woman in her proper place, until, that is, she heard herself being directly addressed. Something stopped and she looked at this woman, so tall and yet without taking up a lot of space, blue eyes framed in white and blonde, she seemed to barely be there and, at the same, time un-ignorable. Dorothy began to speak,

“All I want to know…”

Nurse Griswold was now, somehow, at the foot of the bed, standing in the space that, were there more than 5 narrow hospital beds in a row, might be called a corridor, her hand outstretched.

“I believe that you mean well, Miss Gale, and I also believe that you are quite a determined young woman,” the Nurse’s eyes were now focused on her, and Dorothy found that she could not look away,

“Visiting Hours are 1:00 to 2:30 every afternoon. Come back tomorrow and I will help you find the answers to the questions that you are seeking.”

Walking down the steps of the entrance to the Hospital, Dorothy Gale felt that she had accomplished much more than she had hoped for when this day started. She knew that Miss… Mrs Gulch was here and, since she certainly wasn’t going to go anywhere, she would get her answers, helpful nurse or not.

Nurse Griswold watched as the young woman walked out through the double swinging doors that separated Ward C from the fully-living part of the hospital. As she watched, she noticed that, at the intersection of the corridors, (Ward C was in the oldest wing of the hospital, the newer additions branching to the right and the left), the girl stopped and looked in all directions. Not simply glancing, but turning to face her body down each corridor, (one to either side and one straight ahead), and seemed to take a moment to think, finally she came around to the main corridor that lead to the lobby of the hospital, and still with a brief pause, walked down it and out of the building.

Claire Griswold carried the single chair from the end of the single bed and placed it facing the head of the bed, and beyond that, the window that looked out over the paved parking lot that serviced the less public functions of the hospital. Through the course of the day, if one were inclined, could watch as, garbage trucks backed up to the back of the building to remove the rubbish from the previous day, the arrival of food supply trucks, ambulances, like hornets disturbed by a hiker, would appear and disappear on a schedule only they were able to justify and finally the hearse, taking former patients to their future homes.

Sitting in the chair, Nurse Claire Griswold picked up the book and prepared to read, finding the bookmark, a ribbon with ‘Key to the City’ in faded gold letters, where she had last left off. Before opening the book, she reached into the single drawer in the nightstand and took out a small photograph of a child, in a tarnished brass frame, and pulling out the black felt upright, (it’s softness long since worn down to a glossy, almost glass-like texture), set the photo on the top of the nightstand, facing the bed.

Nurse Griswold began to read in a voice that, though softly quiet, would be mistaken for one half of a conversation.