Chapter 11

The Summer of 1939 in Circe Kansas expressed itself earlier than usual. Rather than wait until the crest of July, when the skies, scrubbed of clouds had nothing to hold back the hate of the sun, this particular year the heat made its initial appearance in the middle of June. Not to such an extent as to be spectacularly hot or otherwise noteworthy, not even to a level to dominate the casual, passing-in-public conversations of the citizens of Circe. These topics remained focused on crops, politics, dust storms (thankfully to the west) and infidelity, with only the occasional reference to how Summers seemed to start earlier and earlier each year. Though early, the June temperatures were not impressive enough to be claimed by the old timers. Deprived of relevancy, not only by age, but by virtue of woefully out-of-date practical skills, anemic civic presence or any other of the small, but expected contributions to everyday life, these old, pale, worn and leather-tough denizens of Circe, Kansas would be found gathering together at dusk, in the park, after the sun has stopped making demands that only the young could ignore or, perhaps in front of the Town Hall on the cooler (as in ‘early’) mornings. They gathered in diminished numbers, exhibiting the opposite of the force shared by a magnet and iron filings, the absence of a force drawing them to the younger, active, engaged population, bring them only other old people. Of course, weather, as one of the few constants in the world, and therefore immune to the segregation of usefulness, was bestowed upon the active-elderly, that they might assume stewardship, both the record of weather past and, by human-logical necessity, the prediction of the future (weather). An agrarian cultural’s version of the proverbial gold watch, the elderly were the established oracles of weather and climate. It remained one of the few critical functions the old were allowed to retain, not otherwise sanctioned by modern culture.

Dorothy Gale leaned her bicycle against one of the wrought iron benches that, like markers on a sundial, interrupted the smooth circumference of the stone fountain, (the one without any water), that designated the center of the Town Square. Dressed as lightly as possible, in anticipation of the heat, (which started the day with, ‘It’s Summer!’ and promised to end with ‘Hot enough for you?’), which given her ‘left-behind wardrobe’ and those items she brought back from New York, proved not to be a simple task. Dorothy was aware of the fact that in order to gain the approval of her Aunt Emily, she needed to distract and confuse the older woman’s natural tendency to judge. Painfully earned past experience  indicated that her best strategy was simply to give Emily Gale what she wanted, and so Dorothy found a blue and white checked blouse and a skirt of the lightest cotton. Less comfortable, after a year away at school, with the idea of bowing to the demands of her adoptive mother, Dorothy placated her resentful side with the reasoning that, sleeves can be rolled-up and buttons can be un-done. When she came down the stairs into the kitchen, Auntie Em smiled broadly,

“Why don’t you look like a little girl I once knew. Doesn’t she, Henry? Doesn’t Dorothy look every bit the good-hearted girl who wouldn’t disobey or utter an unkind word to anyone. It does my heart good to see how well you’ve turned out!”

Dorothy smiled and continued towards the door,

“I’m going to Town for awhile. No, I don’t need a ride, I’ll take the bicycle.”

As she rode out of the dirt-and-stray-chicken backyard, Dorothy glanced back and saw her Aunt standing just inside the screen door, head turned, talking to her husband, Henry. Had she glanced in the other direction, she might have seen, Hunk Dietrich step back from the door of his little house, remove his hat and looking thoughtful.

Walking across the Town Square towards the library, Dorothy Gale felt a sense of relief to be away from the farm. When she woke that morning, the first thing that came to mind was that she could not spend another day in the house, with her Aunt and the housekeeper. She was amazed at how everyone had changed in the relatively short time she was away for her first year of college. Dorothy dearly loved Aunt Em and Uncle Henry, and would be eternally grateful for the home they provided for her, from, well, from before she could remember. It just seemed that everyone had somewhat changed. And not just since she returned to Kansas, a few weeks prior. It was during her Senior year in High School when people seemed to begin to change. She could accept that the recovery from the ‘Storm of ’37’ took a toll on everyone. She could even accept that her own recovery had been, well, a bit prolonged. But she got over it. Other than the occasional dream that, upon awaking, colored her day with surprising emotion, she was still the same girl she’d always been.
Of all the changes, the most prominent was in her adoptive parent’s obvious obsession to make the Gale Farm into something more. Larger, more efficient, more profitable, more…  It was almost as if, after experiencing the destruction of a large portion of the Circe (and many of the surrounding farms), something inside them came to believe that in order to avoid a repeat of the ravages of the F5 tornado, they needed to do more, have more…  increase the acreage, increase the number of barns and corrals and pens.
And so, this first day of July, Dorothy Gale walked through the Town Square without conscious purpose or goal.

“Miss Gale!! Miss Gale!!”

Dorothy looked up and saw a young girl walking down the steps of the library, waving at her. She recognized Becky Stillworth, the student-librarian assistant, mostly by her very impressive figure, wrapped in what seemed like her mother’s skirt and a blouse two sizes too big.

“Could I talk to you, please?”

***

The Winter of 1911 in Lawrence Massachusetts started with a promise of moderation, the first two weeks of December being especially mild. Like the lover who refuses to accept the end of a relationship and yet, never intends to accept the change, this New England December seemed to really be different, the lack of snow and the optimistically bright sun serving to tempt people with a very well-executed lie, ‘Look! I’ve changed my ways, would it be this warm in December if I didn’t really mean it this year?’
Despite, or in that odd way of people wanting to believe the charming charlatan, even the native New Englanders felt hope for a mild Winter. Passing on the streets, winter coats un-buttoned, they would smile and say, ‘So far, so good’, as if their mutual agreement would relieve them of the guilt of having been fooled, once Old Man winter made his inevitable appearance. And each person, risking hope in a mild winter, knew that winter was waiting, like a drunk outside the door, marshalling his resolve not to give in to guilt. Inevitably the effort to seem normal, (and not drunk), resulted in an over-compensation and the worst fears of the family waiting inside would be confirmed.

Almira Ristani walked along Canal St towards Bennett St, and the United Workers Alliance Meeting Hall. Darkness had fallen early and Winter returned with a vengeance, as if by waiting until dark, the contrast with sunny mild days would be less offensive. Her wool scarf, wrapped around the collar of her grey outer coat, left as little of the actual Almira exposed to the elements as possible. Only her eyes and a necessarily exposed portion of her face was in direct contact with the darkly howling wind. The blowing of very fine snow and ice had the effect of bending and twisting the conical pools of light that punctuated the sidewalk along her path. The effect suggested that even light (which at night is surely Man’s primeval protector), was also at the mercy of the cold winter night. Almira found herself hurrying between the pools of light, as if there was danger lurking in the frigid shadows. The Mill buildings, always a fantastical sight to anyone with an imagination and a willingness to stray beyond the literal, were every bit of the ice castles of Jötunheimr, the shadow of Frost Giants darkening the already dark sky. The hanging icicles, threatening silent impalement, the frost that seemed to grow, in defiance of gravity, up the walls and over the metal-framed windows of the brick buildings, all contributed to the creations of  dark canyons in that part of Lawrence that hugged the banks of the Merrimack River.

Almira chided herself for such unpleasant fantasy and resolved to find the beauty in the Winter season, the only season that was host to Christmas. The lights in the Mills did, at first glance, appear such as to offer some hope of warmth and life. But the effort to look up at them only served to part the wrapping of her scarf, and the wind, like a starving predator immediately lurched towards the opening to the warm of her body.

‘Stop now!,’ Almira thought, in what she hoped was a stern enough voice to overcome the fact she was trying to talk herself out of being scared. Since her mother died, she had become all too aware of the lack of power her own thoughts had on her own feelings and emotions.

“Almira, my little Adventurer”, she heard in her mother’s remembered voice, “you must not be so hard on yourself!”

As a very young girl of 5 years, Almira would sit in her corner of the main room in the Ristani’s apartment and read as her mother worked on her mending and sewing. The books that were her mother’s legacy, and, in turn, her daughters escape, sat in little used bookcases. Idresca Ristani’s profession, before leaving the old country, had been that of   Teacher. Unfortunately, it had less currency in Lawrence, where what little formal education available to children of the labor class was as tightly controlled by the local Church, as any guild, back in the old country. Idresca recognized her daughter’s gifts and was grateful to be able to provide a nurturing environment for a young mind that consumed ideas and knowledge like a baby at her mother’s breast.

Almira lived with the books that her mother brought across an ocean, from halfway around the world. Her precocious daughter found herself able to leave behind the confines of the two room apartment, through the pages of Cervantes and Bullfinch and Shakespeare and Swift. However, there would be times, roaming free in worlds far from the monotony of life in a Mill Town, that little Almira Ristani would come across a word that was foreign and unknown to her. Like the laborer straining at a part that’s solidly rusted into place, she would stare at the book, brow furrowed, as if to force, by effort of will, the word to reveal its nature. She would rarely ask her mother for explanations as Almira had the gift (and very much the curse) of believing that she could reason out the unknown.

“Sometimes, you can think too much,” her mother would come over to where she sat and putting the child on her lap, “the world is more than words. if you mean to explore the world, you need to start here”, and she placed Almira’s hand over her heart, “you must follow your heart as well as your mind. Never worry about being unable, only be concerned about being un-willing. Do you understand?”

The child would look at her mother and clutched her too-big-for-5-year-hands book, puzzled by her mother’s words. In the pages of the books, the world held promise, a promise of understandability.

Now, walking alone focusing on the steps in front of her, Almira thought about the time she’d spent at the Meeting Hall helping her friend, Annie in the near-endless labor of providing help and aid to those in need. That the UWA found fertile ground in Lawrence, Massachusetts and put down roots there, came as a surprise to no one other than the Mill Owners. The Essex Corporation, of course, being the source of the idea, will and resources necessary to design and build a modern city. The first manifestation of the modern industrial/civic complex, the Essex Corp the driving force behind the very idea of designing and building a City devoted to industry (textiles).

Carried over from Europe in the hearts and minds of workers, skilled and un-skilled, the Union sought to provide a counter-balance to the power of the those who owned the City of Lawrence. That a large portion, if not a majority of the mission of the UWA was to provide social services should not be surprising. Though barely providing for their own families, members were charitable to a surprising degree. Serving as a collection and redistribution point for donations of household goods and perishables (and non-perishable food items), the headquarters on Bennett Street served both as warehouse, distribution center.

Almira helped out at the Union hall whenever she could, her job at the Mill and caring for her family left little time to spare. She found an invaluable resource in a neighbor, Mrs. Swaider, who would take care of Almira’s 4-year-old sister, Illyana. The price for this help was greater, in some ways, than anticipated, as Illyana soon came to see the Swaider household as her real home, and the adults who claimed to be her family, well-meaning strangers.

When at the Hall, and when the work was done, Almira would sit in the part of the front room where there was a fireplace, (the once-constantly heated foundry, when the building housed a blacksmith), and read. Almira reading brought to mind the flourishing of a wild orchid in the deepest of jungles, a stranger (or explorer seeking treasures) would, coming upon Almira would forget the surround wood, stone and shingles, captivated by the concentration she exuded. Thirst of curiosity had an effect on her appearance, a very attractive affect. She was in love with new ideas and new ways of experiencing the world. In the trance of reading, a passerby (or our intrepid explorer), would be see a young girl very much in love and, even in the sooty-mean world of manual labor, in service of machinery, there are few things as likely to capture a person’s heart. Some speak of the glow of love, for Almira, there was a light that emanates from those blessed with an appetite for ideas.

Almira was quite aware of the direction (and ferocity) of the December wind as she walked to the entrance of the Union Hall. The howling of the wind was loud enough to make pointless any attempt to knock on the plain metal door. In any event, it was not locked. The building formerly housed a bicycle repair shop, (and before that), the aforementioned blacksmith shop, and, its original was as an ice house. Consisting of 3 rooms, 1 large (the former stable), a smaller room that fronted out on to Bennett Street the former bicycle repair/blacksmithery and a kitchen utility room.

Were the wind blowing consistently in one direction, it would simply be a matter of waiting for the wind to pause, (as wind always does), and then, exert force. Force to hold the door from ripping off it’s hinges, or force to pry the door against the wind that would strive to hold it shut. This particular early evening in December, the wind was not settled into a particular direction. Northerly for a spell, then a change to the southwest, perhaps out of the East.

Almira walked, rather, was pushed into the front room of the Meeting Hall by a surprise gust of frigid air, her hair pressed against her head strongly enough to mute her hearing.

Putting her shoulder to the metal door, the wind insisting on joining her inside, Almira pushed with both hands, one shoulder, finally, leaning at a 45 degree angle until the solid metal click of the door latch, signaled, ‘All clear, you’re inside’.

Almira heard voices before she could turn to see who was speaking. The tone of three people, (one female two male), was not of a tone she’d expected. One was threatening with a hint of fear, the other was threatening with a clear undercurrent of pleasure and the third, perhaps the most threatening, was without emotion or interest or fear. It was the voice of a person wanting to hurt someone or break something, just because they could.

“Go home, Almira! We’re not working tonight. Leave  …now!”

Annie LoPizzo’s voice was sharp and aimed directly at her. It was a mix of confidence, concern and, most of all, urgency.

“What do we have here? Why it’s a girl. No, come in! We’ll all have a little talk, we can be friends.”

..this male voice was as confident as Annie’s but there was an insidious charm bending the ends of each sentence.

“Herschel, Make sure the door is locked.”

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2 thoughts on “Chapter 11

  1. Okay, so I’m a week behind. Lots going on, but man oh man!
    Love “the promise of understandability”. And love love how weather plays such a part in this chapter, in particular, like it’s a character too, forcing a claim alongside Almira or Dorothy or her aunt. So evocative. In a way, I like missing a week and so now I have another chapter to move right onto. The cliff hanger ending here would make having to wait a whole seven days a major inconvenience. So, on I shall go.

    Like

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