‘Damn this Kansas heat!’
Walking up the stairs of the Circe Free Public Library, Dorothy looked back towards the round stone fountain at the center of Town Square. The exertion of her bicycle ride into town, deprived of the cooling breeze of her trip from the Gale Farm, was beginning to have an effect. Her body was quickly turning her delicate cotton blouse into an impromptu bathing suit.
‘To think that I spent sleepless nights in school, pining for this cardboard-flat griddle of a Town! For that matter, how is it that I’ve never seen that fountain with water in it?’
Like the first taste of a lemon-sour candy, Dorothy felt the pleasurable bite of resentment slowly bloom in the part of her mind, where feelings shape the world.
‘They’ve ignored that stupid fountain since after I got back… after that stupid tornado. Come to think of it, that’s when everyone started to change.’
Dorothy thought back to that time, only two years before. She’d survived a direct hit by ‘the Storm of ’37’ and for several month that followed, felt such love for everyone, not just her family, but also for the Town itself. Circe surely was the best place a girl could be, surrounded by family and friends. The stone fountain, once her favorite place, was emptied of water by being where a huge elm tree, tossed into the air by the debris-filled winds, decided to land. Once the tree had been cut up, (Aunt Em magnanimously volunteered her husband, Henry and Hunk Dietrich’s services to chop up and remove the 100-year-old tree. Dorothy recalled that they’d sold it for firewood to some of the harder hit farms in the area), the stonework was repaired. The plumbing, the secret pumps underneath, the heart of the fountain, never received the necessary attention. There was little in the way of spare money, in the devastated town, to restore something as frivolous as a decorative water fountain. With the passage of time, ‘the stone fountain with the wonderful jets of water, rising from its center’, as the newspaper described it on the day the fountain was officially dedicated to the local boys who fell during World War I, became ‘the stone fountain that never has any water in it’. Much as an aging person, steadily losing the capacity for physical exertion, genuinely has no interest in running up the stairs or taking a brisk walk, the people of Circe accepted ‘the fountain with no water in it’ as theirs, the fountain they really wanted. Unfortunately, this attitude was not limited to frivolous civic monuments, as the recovery efforts had their desired effects, the shared sense of the virtue of un-qualified charity, changed, like the swelling of arthritic joints, into prudent self-interest. The spirit of communal effort ended, recovery complete, and with it, the need for giving without restraint, to those less fortunate. As for ‘the-girl-who-rode-the-tornado’, she stopped being a welcomed diversion from the efforts to re-build and was, instead, an un-necessary reminder of a difficult time for the people of Circe. In a very real sense, Dorothy, and her tales of a wondrous land became irrelevant. Library staircases no longer called out to be run up, fountains were quite acceptable as dusty granite bowls, and stories of a better place were, ‘just a mite peculiar’.
Dorothy recalled a History Professor, in her first day of classes, in her first semester, who stood before the class and, without preamble, said,
“Zhuangzi was a Chinese philosopher who said,
‘I dreamed I was a butterfly, flitting around in the sky; then I awoke. Now I wonder: Am I a man who dreamt of being a butterfly, or am I a butterfly dreaming that I am a man?’
If you young ladies hope to get the most from your time in my class, please decide immediately which you are…”
Everyone laughed, a most basic celebration of youthful pride for being among the elect.
Now, on this Summer day, walking up the broad and identical steps of the Circe Public Library, Dorothy did not feel much like laughing.
“Miss Gale? Are you alright?”
Dorothy looked up the stairs and saw the young girl looking at her with concern.
Her back still towards the room, Almira felt herself being twirled around, like an un-willing participant in an impromptu country dance. The effect was all the more disorienting, by the fact that her field of view was but a narrow horizontal rectangle, her scarf still wrapped across her face. The combination created what would best be described as a 5 second zoetrope. In those few seconds Almira saw: a fire burning brightly in the hearth on the right side of the room, opposite an old blue sofa; the door to the adjacent meeting hall/storage room shut and, on the left side of this room, her friend, Annie LoPizzo. Her hair wild and disheveled, like a drunken window dresser’s attempt to combine the Perils of Pauline and the prosaic Labor Union storefront. Annie stood behind the main counter, which displayed Union pamphlets and flyers, along with a list of emergency services and resources. All made available to visitors and Union organizers. Between Almira and the counter stood two men she’d never seen in the Hall before. One was tall, had greasy red hair and wore a suit that looked like it had been borrowed for the occasion. The second man kept looking at the entrance, as if the most important thing to happen would involve the front door. And, of course, there was Almira’s personal Orc. Addressed only as Herschel, he was every bit a wool-covered cliff, the stopping point of her twirling view of the room.
Like the rough-wooden planks of a primitive rope bridge, held in place by twisted vines, Almira’s upper arm was locked in the grasp of the big man. And, like that bridge over a tropical chasm, Almira could move to the left and to the right, but only as far as the natural extension of her shoulder and arm would allow. At full extension, she could move no further. She might as well have been leaning against one of the large Elm trees in the Lawrence Commons.
As the shock of her abrupt entrance began to fade, Almira focused on two facts: her upper left arm was becoming more and more a part of this man who reeked of liquor, tobacco and sweat, and her friend Annie was in danger.
Marveling at the fullness in detail, emotional immediacy, and utter non-appropriateness, Almira found herself re-living an afternoon, when she was 10 years old, walking home from school. She was walking alone, her classmates who lived on the same block, had left her behind, lost in thought. Hearing an odd sound, she looked up to see a large dog, a boxer perhaps, charge towards her.
She recalled her father, one afternoon, after Almira came home from school with a tear in the hem of her skirt and a school book that had been half-chewed by a neighborhood stray, tell her that there are rules for dealing with dogs, and sometimes, people,
“There’s a good lesson here, Ali. Dogs are simple and they are direct, unlike people. If you let them scare you, they will sense your fear. If they believe you are weaker than they, it is much more likely they will attack. People are sometimes like dogs. There are certain people in the world who will attack just because they believe you are afraid.”
Almira stood very still as the dog, barking ferociously, charged at her. She let go of her fear and watched the dog calmly. It didn’t bite her, but neither did it run back into its yard, instead, it stood to her right and barked and growled at her feet. She remained still and calm. The dog did not seem inclined to leave. So Almira, talking pleasantly to the dog, started to walk towards the corner, around which her friends had just disappeared. She felt something push against her calf, just above the heel. The dog growled and bumped Almira’s calf several times. She stopped walking and the dog resumed its growling at her feet. Fear began to well up, from a place behind her chest. She tried walking, and the dog again bumped her calf, this time with an open mouth, she could feel it’s teeth. Her fear grew and took on an odd feeling of despair that made her look around, feeling, somehow self-consciousness. Almira knew that the dog would not bite her, but there was something in what he was doing that conveyed both the sense of a harmless game a dog might play and, at the same time, the very real potential of a vicious attack. Almira felt trapped by the dog. She stood still for another 5 minutes, hoping something would happen. Finally, after what felt like an hour, the owner of the dog appeared on the porch and called the dog. The dog started to run back but stopped, turned and bumped Almira’s ankle one more time and ran off without a second look back. Almira walked home, legs shaking from tension, eyes welling with tears of shame and her mind racing in anger at herself for being so inadequate.
This man, Herschel, reminded Almira of that dog, all those years ago. She knew that this time, this night, there was no one who would appear and simply call him off. The only person in the room that might have that kind of power, was the red-haired man. The problem was, at the moment, he was moving around from the front of the counter, knocking pamphlets to the floor, never taking his eyes of the face of her friend, Annie LoPizzo.
Almira managed with her one free hand to pull the scarf off her head (and away from her face), so she could take in the entire room without having to move her head.
The leader of the group was the man moving in on her friend. He had the eyes of a predator. He moved with such overwhelming self-confidence that, somehow there was the impression of good humor. This thin man with the dark, hungry eyes was clearly enjoying himself.
Almira found herself drawn to how the men were dressed. Alike, but with nothing in common. Their overcoats were commonplace enough, but all three projected a similar newness, lack of wear, clearly they were bought at the same time. It was obvious that all the overcoats were bought by the same person. Nothing of a sufficiently binding similarity as to create a uniform, but undeniably, there was a single authority that bound the three men, now standing inside the United Workers Association Hall.
“Hey, Robbie, come on, we’re supposed to scare them a little and leave, that’s what the boss said, go there and…”
“Shut yer mouth, Liam. You talk too much.” the red-haired man, Robbie, glared. He was already behind the counter, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Annie. Showing no outward signs of fear, she nevertheless stood absolutely still, as tense as the night sky after a blinding flash of lightning, crash of thunder on its heels.
“Liam!! Make yourself useful and go stand outside. And don’t be lettin’ anybody in! Understand?”
Even as the howling wind rattled the windows, and shadows of tree limbs waved in the dark, Liam showed ever sign of relief. Almira thought she might’ve known him from somewhere. Oddly, she found herself not wanting him to leave. Somehow, he represented the only hope of avoiding total savagery. Liam didn’t say a word, although, as he shut the door, Almira saw him glance around the room, with a look of guilt and shame. Nevertheless, he shut himself outside, in the relative safety of the cold and windy night.
“Herschel! Sit the lassie down somewhere and keep her out of trouble. I need to ask our little Union whore here some questions.”
Like a rag doll held by a child, Almira felt herself dragged towards the hearth, and without a second thought, whipped around, her feet barely touching the floor, tossed towards the blue sofa across from the hearth. Unconcerned with whether she fell to the floor or landed on the sofa, Herschel turned and faced the other end of the room where Robbie was about to join Annie LoPizzo behind the counter of the room.
Almira pulled herself upright from a half-kneeling position, turning her head to keep the others in view, and pushed herself into an upright position at the end of the sofa. Looking at the hearth, a line from a children’s book came into her head,
‘Only please, Brer Fox, please don’t throw me into the briar patch,’
The hearth, with its granite surround, had a pile of wood stacked to the left of the firebox, and, on the opposite side were a number of pokers and tongs. Relics of the days when there would have been a coal fire in the hearth and a blacksmith, using the tools of his trade. When she first starting coming to the Union Hall, Almira noticed the tongs and pincers and asked Annie about them, “those were probably made right here in the building, 50 years ago.” Almira quickly became skilled at starting and maintaining the fire, using only the tongs.
For 16-year-old Almira Ristani, the United Workers Union Hall came to be what her corner in the living room had been, when she was a very little girl. Protected by her mother’s determination to shield her from the harsh and un-imaginative life of the immigrant family. Remarkably determined and strong-willed people, countless families, willing to cross an ocean in order to find place to establish a livelihood, would all too often find that the things that made life worth living, more than subsistence and survival, had been washed overboard in their journey to a new world. Almira discovered that the people who frequented the Hall were either those who, recently fallen on hard times, sought help to survive or were those who wanted to help others sustain hope for a better life. They were the very people she passed in the streets every day, toiled along side inside the brick prison of the Mill, were so much more than she could appreciate in the Mill.
Almira came to be a regular at the Bennett Street Union Hall. Carving hours from her week, her time would be spent organizing the inventory of supplies kept in the larger room adjacent to the front room. On those days when the work was done, Almira would sit on the worn blue sofa, tending the fire in the hearth and, in the warmth of the company of people with the desire to help others, she would explore the world through the writings of her beloved Emerson.
Almira was jolted from her thoughts by the up-tilting movement of the couch as Herschel sat his considerable bulk down next to her. He was close enough that his open overcoat covered her legs. The scent of dogs and fear flowed over the blue sofa, banishing the comforting smell of the wood burning in the hearth.
Robbie, meanwhile, with a obviously contrived look of interest, picked up a ledger from the counter, made as if it’s contents were fascinating reading, and, without a word, let it drop to the floor.
“Now, lass. I need to know something about your little operation here. I need to see your membership rolls. That’s not a bother is it?”
Annie stood her ground, managing a smile that, to anyone other than a friend, would have been quite convincing. Almira felt her stomach drop at the fear she could see growing in her friend’s eyes.
“What is it you want? This is private property, you have no right to come barging in and making demands and, frankly acting the complete ass!”
“What do I want? I want to know who it is that comes here. I want to know who it is disturbing the neighbors, we’ve had complaints, yer know. So why don’t you just hand over the list and we’ll leave you two ladies to your evening.”
Robbie’s voice began at a normal volume, rose to a shout and ended in a growl. He stood behind Annie and, on the pretense of reaching for a book on the counter, leaned into the woman. Annie spun slightly to her left, letting the forward motion of the man continue unresisted which he did with a pronounced lurch, having been off-balance when he started his pressing against her.
“There ain’t no list. If I had one I wouldn’t give it to the likes of you. Why don’t you get off and go back to your Mill bosses and tell ’em that there ain’t no one that matters down at the Union Hall.”
Annie looked around the room, trying to find something to use as a weapon. She saw a pair of tailor’s shears and was reaching for them, when the Robbie grabbed her hand.
“Looking to find something to stab with, are you? We’ll have none of that now.”
Robbie grabbed the scissors with one hand and, with his other, grabbed a Annie’s hair at the scalp.
Almira felt her entire body tense, rising from her slouched position on the sofa.
Like the dog from Almira’s nightmares, Herschel turned towards her.
“You’re good to sit so quiet like,” Herschel put his calloused hand on Almira’s thigh, her coat, having fallen open when she landed on the couch.
Almira felt the beginning of something change in her, even as she felt the increasing closeness of the man. Herschel’s scent clung like cobwebs in the dark, the nerves under her skin sparkling painfully. His hand, now on her thigh, brought on a feeling of self-consciousness, as if by being touched, she was a party to what was starting to happen. Her stomach conspired with her mind, each looking to the other, tempting the sense of panic. Her own woolen overcoat taunted her with its ineffectiveness to shield her from his assault. Something shifted in her mind, her body echoed it, in silence.
Sensing a change in the girl, Herschel grabbed Almira’s left wrist, leaving his left hand to continue its advance, pushing up along her leg, seeking weakness.
“Come on now, I’m not such a bad fella. Your friend will be alright. Come on now, gimme a kiss,”
Pulling on her left arm, Herschel leaned in, intent on kissing the very still girl.
Almira saw Herschel get closer, and felt the man get closer, tilted her head back and spit in his face.
“What the…!!! ” Herschel’s roar was met by the sounds of hyena- laughter from Robbie, still holding Annie LoPizzo by the hair,
“Fock, Herschel! If the lassie is too much for you to handle, I’ll get Liam back in to help you out.”
Keeping her wrist in his right hand, Herschel laughed un-certainly, leaned back and wiped his face with his left hand. He turned to look over at Robbie,
“Shut it then, I’ll show you…”
Almira leaned to her right, grabbed a pair of tongs on the hearth and clasped them on a small log, burning in the front part of the fire. Using Herschel’s grip on her left wrist, she pulled herself, (and the tongs with the white ashed, red-coaled log), back towards the man on the couch. She jammed the tongs and log into his lap and continued her forward motion, leaning on the tongs, pressing them to his body.
Herschel’s immediate response was purely instinctual, he tried to back away from the assault on his body, except, he was seated on the sofa. In his effort to push back farther, to avoid the incredible heat that began to race up through his body, he lost all traction and both feet slipped on the floor, leaving the shouting man with no leverage at all. His entire world consisted of the sharp pressure of the metal tongs and the almost frigid heat of the log, which, by now, found new fuel in the cloth of his overcoat and trousers. He finally looked up and saw the face of the girl, the small helpless girl who, just a timeless moment ago had been his possession. She was now standing over him, their eyes locked and Herschel felt a new fear,
“How about a little fire, Herschel?”
Herschel began to bellow, barely human noises, that echoed of pain and fear. His feet found purchase enough that he could stand and, swinging his right arm, he hit Almira full in the face. The girl flew backwards over the end of the sofa.
Robbie, seeing the large man move spasmodically, while frantically hitting himself, arms flailing, tightened his grip on Annie’s hair. To keep from falling she grabbed his wrist.
The door to the adjacent meeting room suddenly swung open and a young man stepped into the room, speaking as he entered the front room,
“Hey, Annie the side door was open, so I…”
His eyes widen very briefly, reached into his overcoat, took out a small pistol and pointed it straight-armed at Robbie’s face,
“Let her go.”