It was around 11:00 am by the time Eliza Thornberg pulled away from the TWA terminal and started her adventure. As arranged, her car was waiting, gassed up and ready to go. She tipped the skycap just enough to make him hesitate, smiled and drove away.
With the radio turned up and the Packard’s convertible top down, Eliza sang along to the radio, as she drove west on US 50, quickly breaking free of the slower traffic that spread out, like tangling weeds in a lake, from the little businesses, stores and shops of the small towns that clustered around Kansas City. Within an hour, she passed a gilt-lettered sign that informed all motorists that they were, in fact, leaving, ‘Gardner, Kansas’, ‘pop. 783’. The sign, did, however, make a point to assure all that their return would be welcomed. Eliza drove on, out into a very unfamiliar part of the country.
US 50 South was not the tabletop-flat road she’d imagined, listening to her college roommate, Dorothy Gale, describe as, ‘a land so big, the sky went from the top of your head, straight out to forever‘. Eliza had a new appreciation for how difficult an adjustment it must have been for her friend, coming from this strangely huge, but empty land, to New York, which was also huge, but in a very, very different way. As she drove, she realized that even the hilly terrain was different from any other place she’d been, and for a girl of 19, Eliza Thornberg was very well-travelled. There were hills, but they tended to raise the roads gradually, rather than stand in the way, forcing the pavement to climb up and over them. Eliza was very pleasantly surprised by the number of lakes that sparkled in the distance, blue against an increasingly uniform light brown. She was glad her father had a business partner who, owing him a favor, was only too happy to make a car available for Eliza’s use. In fact, he’d offered to provide the use of his chauffeur, but that would have taken the adventure out of her plan. Her father maintained his normal reserve during the telephone call she made to inform him of her change in travel arrangements. He clearly thought her plan to visit a friend in Kansas was a good idea, ‘a grand adventure’ as he put it. That she was returning home, alone, might have been a factor in his positive reaction. But then again, Ted Thornberg was far too good a businessman and poker player to show his hand so easily.
The drive down the far slope of a particularly prominent hill, about an hour outside of Kansas City, caused her musical accompanist, the radio, to fade into silence. Left off by the side of the road, Fred Astaire, a very urbane scarecrow in fedora and silk suit, sang desperately at the receding convertible,
“oh, I love to climb a mountain,
and reach the highest peak,
but it doesn’t thrill me half as much
As dancing cheek to cheek…”
Feeling more alone now, the silent radio becoming just another gauge on the dashboard, clearly on empty, Eliza thought about her decision to cut short her trip to Hollywood. On the telephone to her father, she explained that she didn’t see being in the movies as anything she wanted to do for too long a time. She added that her friend, Jack, was incredibly busy with his own work for the studios and, besides, it was just too sunny all the time. Her father seemed to accept her story at face value, no small relief to Eliza, as she recalled her first and last movie audition,
“Liza! babe! you’re home! Early! How’d the audition go?” Jack walked into the living room of the bungalow as Eliza slammed the door behind her and threw her purse in the general direction of the sofa.
Eliza stood, hands on her hips and stared back at her current boyfriend and Hollywood Insider, Jack Clayton. Fortunately for him, her anger had subsided enough during the cab ride from the studio to eliminate the danger of flying objects. It was difficult to maintain genuine fury when the weather was perfect, the streets were lined with Palm Trees and she saw Clark Gable, sitting at a table outside a small cafe on the corner of Sunset and Vine. Of course, it didn’t help that she was as angry at herself, as at her boyfriend. It was Eliza’s stated goal to become a movie star and she’d insisted that Jack help make that happen. While her first week in California was taken up with the normal sight-seeing, as appropriate to a well-heeled tourist’s introduction to the lifestyle in Tinsel Town, Eliza quickly became bored with the parties and the poolside afternoons. She reminded Jack of his promise, a promise that, in Eliza’s mind, was ‘part of the deal’.
Since the age of ten, especially during the holiday season, Eliza Thornberg endured hearing from countless doting aunts and overbearing uncles, how fortunate she was to have inherited her mother’s good looks. Less frequently remarked upon was her natural shrewdness, a talent for negotiation, which, as any successful negotiator will attest to, required a certain ruthlessness. This talent, ‘to close the deal’, was as much her father’s genetic contribution, as were her mother’s high cheekbones and hooded eyes.
Finally, Jack relented and announced one morning that a friend of his was directing a movie and did, in fact, need to cast a young woman as a newlywed living in suburbia. He seemed uncertain about the details, other than they were referring to it as, ‘an adult film’. Eliza prided herself on her sophistication, but was at a loss for the term, ‘adult film’, despite the hurried research on the film industry, prior to leaving Philadelphia. She assumed it meant the movie would be something along the lines of a ‘drawing-room drama’, like Oscar Wilde’s ‘The Importance of being Earnest’.
Basil, who introduced himself as the assistant director, told Eliza that the scene was of a romantic interlude, and that she should act… ‘un-inhibitedly in-love’. The set was a perfect replica of a modern suburban living room, complete with fireplace and a sofa. That her audition would entail doing a complete scene, was a definite boost to her optimism, her self-confidence quickly eroded when she was handed a skimpy negligee and told that all she had to do was wait for the doorbell to ring, get up from the couch, go to the door and open it.
Eliza Thornberg sat on the leather couch, the satiny material of the negligee offered no hope of holding her position, unless she put her arm on the back of the couch and leaned on her elbow. She was encouraged when Basil gave her a ‘thumbs up’ and shouted ‘Action!’
The doorbell rang, Eliza slid into a standing position and walked to the door, thinking, ‘this acting business doesn’t seem so tough’ and opened the door.
The Postman was naked. He was more than naked, he was enthusiastically naked.
Later, back at his house, Jack suggested that the scene was ‘set up’ to elicit as spontaneous a reaction as possible, appropriate to the fact Eliza had never acted in a movie before, at least that’s what he said, after Eliza stopped yelling.
Eliza was honest enough with herself to accept that much of her anger grew from the fact that it was her idea that Jack arrange for her to get a part in a movie. She even wanted to believe, if only just a little, that he had no idea that the movie was intended for a more specialized audience.
“Well, I certainly was surprised! In my defense, they did say to act naturally and my reaction was spontaneous, especially to the naked postman. I slammed the door in his ….face”
Jack apologized, well into the night, and the morning saw the two friends again. Eliza Thornberg’s dream of stardom was over and she was awake. Awake, she wanted to go home where men are not naked, at least until it was time for them to be naked, usually when told it was time.
The idea of surprising Dorothy at home in Kansas came out of nowhere. So, on July 15th, with Jack Clayton still trying to talk her out of it, Eliza Thornburg walked across the tarmac and boarded the DC3, bound for Kansas City.
As the sun moved towards evening, the miles passed. The car sped down US 50, a cocoon of leather, glass and steel, peaceful against the steady, softly-ragged sound of the Kansas air, fleeing the car at 60 miles an hour. The radio, silent since an hour south of Kansas City, would, at random intervals, spray the car’s interior with bursts of static, like dream-mutterings of a drunk at a bar, hinting at the promise of music, but serving only as a reminder of its uselessness. Alongside the highway, always, were the fields, some cultivated, most, not. The distant rolling hills only accentuated the monotony of vast land. The road ahead seemed endless, the horizon taunting, the promise of an ending, a destination where all the boredom could be cashed in for a reward. Yet, every time she reached it, it would, retreat, like a con man in a nursing home, endless lies forgotten as soon heard, hope remained just out of reach. The rearview mirror told a different tale, in it the road disappeared up an imaginary hill. It occurred to Eliza that, maybe, what she saw in the rearview mirror, was the road returning to the world she knew, the world of buildings full of busy people and shops that beckoned those with spare time, to add to the variety of their already dynamic lives. Her life back home in Philadelphia, or at school in New York, seemed impossibly far away, as if the featureless landscape that surrounded her, would, given the opportunity, swallow up the buildings and parks, museums and bus stops, digesting the energy and creativity of the masses of people, smoothing everything over with grass and small groves of trees.
Eliza was dragged from her deepening introspection by two very real and persuasive elements of life, the need to pee and a road sign (announcing ‘Emporia 20 Miles’). The fields that spread to either side of the highway, like the wings of some huge, mythological bird condemned to be trapped in the earth, began to show more frequent signs of cultivation. Soon houses appeared, like random plantings in the rolling landscape, increasing in density, growing up on plots much smaller than the horizon-spanning fields that were her companion through most of the long afternoon. Eliza was certain she’d returned to civilization when she came to a railroad crossing. The warning signs and lights seemed frivolously indulgent, in light of the fact that, from the convertible, she could easily see 10 miles up the track and 10 miles down the track. She thought, ‘well, maybe when the crops are in and the ranch hands have had too much to drink, the crossing gates serve to slow them down, at least long enough to notice a mile long locomotive’.
Emporia (pop. 673) was small. Eliza drove down the Main St thinking, ‘my God, this a train stop, with an outgoing personality’. The town consisted of two blocks that began with a Lutheran Church and ended with a gas station, as if one was there to help you decide if you belonged, and the other was for when you decided that you did not. Eliza parked the convertible in front of a luncheonette, ‘Nan’s Home Cooking and Sundries’. The interior, insufficiently cooled by two ceiling fans, turning in circles slowly enough to elicit curiosity as to where the air went, was long, narrow and dark towards the back. There was a faded-pink formica counter along the left side and on the right were two small round tables, both occupied. She went to the cashier, asked for a lunch that she didn’t want, a coffee that she very much-needed, and the location of the lady’s room. When she returned she sat on a stool and looked with some fascination at the single donut, captive in a glass domed display. If the numerous fingerprints were to be relied upon, many had tried to free the pastry, all had failed. Eliza paid for her lunch and her coffee and was back on US 50 in less than 30 minutes.
Back on the road, Eliza felt more confident in her plan. She’d heard enough about Circe from Dorothy to create and maintain an image of bucolic harmony, a place where the clocks had extra numerals and the people lacked the need to push one and other. Remembering her recent experience with another dream, the dream of silver screen happiness, Eliza chided herself for being too much a romantic.
She recalled the beginning of the Fall Semester at school, meeting her roommate and deciding that she would help her to not look like she was planning on milking the cows as soon as she found some free time. Eliza Thornberg had spent every school year, since she was 12 years old, in one boarding school or another and was familiar with the stages of homesickness and new-surroundings overload. Dorothy Gale seemed to fit the mold of the newly-on-her-own college coed, a certain politeness, presented like formal attire picked for a special occasion or solemn ceremony. Dorothy deferred to Eliza in choice of beds in the double room, silent acknowledgement of Eliza’s greater experience in dormitory life. In return, Eliza went to a little extra effort to try to ease the other girl’s transition, clearly a difficult one for her. It took a while, longer than normal, for Dorothy to talk about her home. From her own experience, Eliza recognized the nearly inevitable throes of homesickness, the first instinct being to focus on there, rather than on the here. Dorothy Gale was, somehow, different from any other girl who Eliza had made a ‘home-instead-of-home‘ with, there was a subtle confidence underneath the surface shyness. It was when, deciding that the new girl needed a crash course in Life Back East, Eliza gathered a few of her friends and announced to Dorothy that ‘we’re all going downtown’ one Saturday in September that she saw the real Dorothy Gale. Eliza watched as Dorothy stood on the sidewalk of Times Square, as far from the wheat fields of Kansas as a girl could get and still be in North America. What Eliza saw was not a girl overwhelmed by the sound and the lights and frenetic activity that was Times Square on a Saturday night, reeling from sensory over-load. What she did witness was a girl methodically assessing her surroundings, noting everything, the bustling crowds of loud pedestrians and, oddly she was giving extra attention to the rooftops of the buildings along Broadway and 7th Avenue, as if expecting a threat from above. Eliza thought about the discovery of especially spectacular natural phenomena, such as Victoria Falls, the Grand Canyon, she could imagine a tourist standing speechless, mouth open in wonderment and, at the same time, an experienced guide who would be standing and apprising the area for access points, probable trails into and out of, all in anticipation of danger. Her young roommate from the rural Midwest was very much the experienced explorer of exotic locales. She projected a sense of, not necessarily having been to a place like New York City, but definitely places as strange, if not stranger. It was the confidence of the experienced explorer. Her expression was not of a girl trying to comprehend a very, very different place from what she was familiar with, it was the canny eye of the forward scout on an expedition, noting the landscape, filing away any and all details. She had a self-confidence that Eliza could not recall ever seeing in a girl, at least not one as young as Dorothy Gale. It was clear that, although she felt out-of-place, she’d been in even stranger situations. Eliza liked this girl, with the odd clothes and exotic accent. While they hit it off immediately, having a roommate and having a friend are two distinct states, one takes politeness and consideration, the other trust and affection. They became friends quicker than Eliza would have thought, and, looking back, it was Dorothy who made the first move from roommates to friends.
After 200 miles of fields of wheat that looked like water and corn that looked like trees, Eliza saw the sign announcing, ‘Circe 50 Miles Ahead’. She began to feel less lethargic, her original excitement began to return. As if on cue, the radio burst out with a fanfare of static, but this time it resolved into music. All rough and irritating at first, the promise of pleasure made her willing to endure the grating on her ears. With a barely noticeable rhythm, the music grew, pleasure overcoming displeasure, still without a distinct presence, but her mind began to participate. The process of adding enjoyment onto the edges of discomfort extended the pleasure, until it sprang suddenly into being, a song. And as quickly as it became a song, it become a recognizable song. Eliza didn’t bother to reflect on her good fortune of living a life that included more variety of everything than most people, especially people in the quiet, brown-on-grey farm towns, like those that passed on the left and the right of the highway,
I went back home, the home was lonesome
Since my mother, she was gone
What a home so sad and alone
Will the circle be unbroken
Bye and bye Lord, bye and bye
There’s a better home awaiting
In the sky Lord, in the sky
The music was compelling and the lyrics sad, yet somehow made Eliza try to sing along. She drove through the center of Circe, her heart gripped tightly by the voice singing of a place so familiar and, at the same time so foreign. Down the quietly-busy Main St and out the far side, along County Road #2, her hands gripping the steering wheel like the back of a pew in church. If you’d pulled her over, as she passed the city limits and asked her to tell you the name of one store, office or municipal building, she would have looked at you with a blank expression and apologized for not noticing. If you were given to paying attention to the human inside of people, you would have noted that the attractive young woman did not seem sorry and yet was very sad, neither of which she would have considered to be any of your business, thank you.
Of course, with the land being of a certain two-dimensional character, Eliza saw the buildings of the Gale Farm well before she saw the sign on the road and quite ahead of the moment that she pulled into the dirt area that separated the two-story house from the red barn, adjacent pens and a small cottage set next to a large apple tree.
Eliza Thornberg sat in the car, as the dust cloud that engulfed since leaving the small town behind, as if to hide the sight of the luxurious automobile, so out of place among the rusted metal sides of farm trucks and the tractors that moved with improbable slowness, despite the huge wheels that supported them over the roadways.
The house appeared empty, the normal subliminal life of a house in use, curtains flapping, distant doors shutting and visceral murmurs of plumbing, were all missing. The house was as silent as a bank vault. Eliza thought about leaving a note, but realized that she had nothing to write with, or for that matter, on,
“May I help you?”