Chapter 8

(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.

 

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2 thoughts on “Chapter 8

  1. What I find fascinating is that there are many “main” characters. At least it seems that way to me. I enjoy walking in their shoes, looking out of their eyes, discovering their respective “stories” because, well, everyone has one and, as the title to your book states, “there’s always more to the story”. For some of these characters, there’s much more! I’m enjoying the sojourn.

    Like

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