Chapter 22

Featured

(Most towns and small cities are possessed of a sound, that conveys it’s character, in essence a summation of the life of it’s inhabitants. For a variety of reasons, this sound is especially clear and distinct during the workdays of the week. The coastal fishing/shipping port city will have the subtly insistent sound of harbor buoys, with the endless chorus of sea birds, adding a throaty counterpoint. Awake in a dusty farm/cattle town, your day will echo the earthy lowing of livestock, mixed with the woody staccato of corral gates and animals huddled together in tight desperate herds. Even the modern city, home to the more abstract interactions of men, the banking cities, they too sing through the working day, their song bright with the brass flourish of the honking of vehicles that fill the streets, a shrill melody of thousands of people occupied with getting from one point to another point, a chorus at once entirely human, yet completely inhumane.)

It was January 12, 1912 and Friday dawned as just another workday in Lawrence, Massachusetts. The dark quiet of night fades and the insistent sounds of the day grow with the light of the winter sun. This transition, of the growing sound of the dawning day, is surely the most subtle we experience in our lives. The simple reason is that we are all part of a chorus, yet always our waking life begins with a solo performance. The woman wakes to the world, sighs with contentment and, as the first murmur (or whine) from the children in the next room crawls into bed with her, changes her song. The man, pulled from a deep sleep by the motion of their bed, stretches and hearing only a sigh next to him, might begin to hum a quiet invitation, the day not yet making its demands. He hears the cries (or the laughter) from the next room, his wife’s own song leading it and he begins whatever song is necessary to get him through the day. And so it is with us all, as we join the world of the day, one (or more) person at a time, the countless solos meld and fuse into a complex, but all-encompassing chorus.

The sound of a workday in Lawrence Massachusetts was the sound of its textile mills in full production.

This workday sound is both distant and, at once, of the earth itself. It’s tone is low, like the basso thundering of the ocean on a rocky shore. And, like the roar of that ocean, the sound of the mills in full production not only was heard, it was felt, through the oft-patched soles of workers shoes, as they made their way to and from their daily stations. The sound (of the mills of Lawrence) was powerful and subtle, was felt as a persistent vibration transmitted through the granite sidewalks that surrounded them, as much as it was heard in the air.

Contralto voices whispered between the narrow aisles of the production floors of the Mills. It was the everyday (every workday) song workers sang to themselves, the liturgical hymn to their mechanical god in their brick cathedrals.

Mill workers spent their days in very small worlds, little more than the area required to support a single machine or, perhaps, a row of machines. Their job, in the most simple and direct terms, was to serve the machine. Once the shift began, the machine never stopped. Even when rest breaks and lunch were required, (by the weakest link in the production chain), the machine did not shut down, it idled. No matter how simple and routine their job, be it maintaining take-up bobbins or repairing broken threads on braider machines, as long as the machine was operating, the human must not stray, physically or (and especially) mentally. To forget what one was doing, while at work in a mill, is to risk disfiguring injury or death. As a result, it could be said that every worker worked alone. As if to assure this solitary service, the sound of the machinery was so loudly pervasive it destroyed any and all thought of communicating with others, to connect, to not be alone.

A song can include thoughts and ideas, usually as lyrics, meant to be sung. Often the words are incredibly subtle and suggestive. Then there are songs that are so rudimentary as to exist simply as a melody, without words or lyrics. This type of song appeals, not to mind as much as to the body, the appreciation of the song felt, not thought.

There was a song shared among mill workers. Perhaps it found a place in the minds of the men and women of the working class, first as a lullaby. A quiet song of hope sung to a baby, in a voice thickened by exhaustion, words nonsensical, as there was no need for words, only the tone of the singer’s voice. This song would stay with a person throughout their life, if for no other reason than it’s very lack of words and lyric message. This song served the mill workers, set to playing in their minds as the long days passed, having the effect of muting the constant raving of the machinery that surrounded them in the brick castles that lined the Merrimack River.

No song, no matter how simple and private, can remain buried if it is held and used by people, all engaged in a common task. The song that the mill workers heard as they toiled through their days grew in complexity. No longer was it the song of the weary, seeking only the promise of rest. As if in response to the never-ending demands of greater effort, more productivity, the song took on a questioning tone. And, as it must, questions that remain un-answered for too long, curdle and spoil, becoming resentful, more and more a statement of an emotion given to grow and blossom into anger. At some point further, this song of frustration turns into a song of rage, and rage, always waits for the appropriate symbol to happen along which becomes a clarion to action.

“Short Pay!! All Out!! All Out”

Clenched fists holding their first pay checks of the New Year, the workers took to the streets of Lawrence, Massachusetts.

The managers, (and their owners), believed they understood the people working in their mills. They were almost correct. Where they erred was ironic in the way that irony always expresses itself. The owners (and the managers they employed), believed that the workforce, by virtue of being predominately female (and of a variety of ethnic and cultural origins) lacked the aggressiveness and independence to organize and go on strike.

They were wrong.

The song in the minds of the mill workers, when seeing that their pay was cut, was the simplest of songs, a song for a child, only two lines, really quite catchy… ‘Short Pay! All Out!’

Sung by 13,000 women, it caught the attention of the Furies (as they might exist in the modern era). And myth or not, modern days or ancient times, the Furies have always been near… hidden in dark woods at the edge of farm fields of constant labor or perhaps trapped in the towers of the Mills of New England. They waited. Three sisters: Alecto (“the Unceasing”), Megaera (“the Grudging”) and Tisiphone (“the Avenging”) took to the January sky, ready to right the path that had been so deformed by the rich and the powerful.

On an unseasonably warm January day in 1912, the Furies heard the song that had always been there, hidden in the bright, modern song of capitalism; they now heard the contrapuntal melody of human suffering in service of the bosses. And they joined in the singing. The voices of 13,000 workers were raised enough to be heard over the machines that they served. They left the tall brick mills and took to the streets of Lawrence Massachusetts.

***

Annie LoPizzo left Building Number 5 of the American Woolen mill and stood in the middle of Canal Street. The repeated banging of metal door against brick wall behind her added a stridently martial sound to the late morning hour. She turned and faced the Mill, the Merrimack River to her back. As a living symbol of the call to action, it was clear that the only path was forward, there was no retreat or return to what once was. The streams of women who walked away from their machines increased in volume, becoming rivers flowing from the brick buildings, the few becoming many. The first groups of workers walked along the sidewalks, just as they had every workday since they could remember. But, just as a channel receiving more than its normal amount of water, overflows the river banks, women began to walk down Canal St in the middle, to the sides, around the occasional vehicle. There was a near palpable sense of freedom from the routine. Emboldened by the fresh morning air, made all the more special by the fact that they were outside… in the middle of a workday, the workers began to chant and sing.

Realizing that all the carefully plotted strategies and plans crafted by the Union committees were now totally moot, given that reality trumps anticipation every time, Annie did what came naturally, she helped those in need by taking charge.

***

Almira Ristani heard the strike begin before she saw it. Working that morning, her row of braiding machines required tending to. She knew enough not to look away as the sounds of shouting, rising from the streets poured in through the open windows. She maintained her focus if for no other reason than it was her first day back in the mill. Her caution in moving up and down the rows of whirling bobbins and take-up spools was as intense as it had been her first month at the American Woolen. She decided that she’d find out in due time what the  noise was all about.

After an hour, Almira noticed that there was no else working. The machines had not shut down, but as she stood in the middle of her row of machines (safely in the center of the aisle), she saw that the bobbins in the machines along the rows on either side of her’s were twirling empty. It was quite strange. She thought of Alice in Wonderland for no reason she was aware of, but having thought it, decided that she would say, ‘Well this is certainly curious… and curiouser’ and laughed to herself.

She stopped and walked to the end of her aisle. She saw only two people in the vast open space of the 3rd floor. The first was Mrs Monteforte. Mrs. Monteforte worked at the mill longer than anyone else, since 1897, it was said. She was very short, had white hair and only 3 fingers on her left hand. The shortage of fingers was the indirect result of a group of co-workers deciding she should celebrate her 10th year at the mill.  After returning from the lunch, on Monday in July, 1907, she nodded off while working. She returned to work after two weeks, bandaged but willing to find a way to do her job with three less fingers. She had a family that depended on the pay she brought home.

The other person left on the floor was the shift foreman, an overweight Belgian by the name of Matteo Kuiper. Friendly and not unkind to the women who worked his shifts, it was rumored that he’d fathered several children by women over the 7 years he worked as foreman of 1st shift on the 3rd floor.

One day, towards the end of November, as Annie waited by the door for Almira to join her for lunch, Matteo called out to Annie,

“Annie what will it take for you to quit that packaging department and come to work for me here? I’ll treat you better than the boss you have now, I guarantee it! Ask anyone who works for me!”

Annie laughed,

“When you get those things of yours caught in the braider so they can’t cause a girl any trouble, then I’ll consider it!”

He laughed as loudly as Annie.

“Where is everyone?”

Almira stood in the middle of the main central aisle that ran the length of the production floor.

Matteo pointed towards the windows that overlooked Canal Street. Almira walk over and saw throngs of women pouring from all of the entrances of each of the mills that lined the river.

“My God! They’re all outside!”

“I don’t know what the world’s coming to, but if I were you, little Almira, you might want to stay in here. I’m not the smartest man in the world, but I know my bosses and they are not going to let this happen without doing something to stop it.”

***

For the first time in the history of Lawrence, Massachusetts, alarm bells were heard. As a quick and effective way to warn citizens of danger or calamity, they had, until this Friday in January, remained silent. The workers, now filling Canal St didn’t hear them over the sound of their own singing and chanting. The Lawrence militia did. These citizen soldiers were called out to protect the City of Lawrence from itself. A ragtag army of weak men with weapons, predatory men with license to hurt and dull men allowed to feel as if they were finally more than; they were called to protect the city of Lawrence, which is to say, the property of the Essex Company.

“Hey Sterling! you wanna make a quick buck?”

I was sitting at a booth at the Cage & Whistle, writing and looked up at the sound of my name. Though I was through with college, (an opposing view might hold that Dartmouth College was through with me), habits are hard to break and so, my time spent writing, in the semi-public of small bars and pubs. These establishments were the barnacles growing on the undersides of the body politic in all towns and cities, large or small. They served the most destitute of people, those who had nothing, or no one, that could be mistaken for a home. I liked to sit with my pad and write, making a beer last longer than the average customer could remain sober. I was tolerated by the inn keepers because on more than one occasion I would help escort patrons who, perhaps catching too true a reflection of the emptiness of their life in the broad mirror behind the bar, out of the building before they could exact too great a price from those who offered the only home they might ever enjoy.

I saw Arron Langdon standing in the open door, the brightness of the sunlight reducing the man to a voice in a black silhouette.

“There’s something going on down at American Woolen and the coppers are looking for men to back them up.”

Hearing ‘American Woolen’ was enough to get me out of my chair. Arron’s smile as I approached the doorway, evaporated along with his anticipated bounty as I brushed him aside, nearly knocking him to the ground, as I exited the bar at a dead run. Almira was back to work at American Woolen today and any police action that involved the use of people like Arron was not a good thing.

I approached Canal St coming down Embankment St where it ends in Water Street. What I heard was refusing to make sense in my mind, it was the sound of women, many women. But not simply the sound of a group talking among themselves, it was more a collection of moods than it was the combined sound of a crowd. There was cheering and there was singing and there was cursing, carried a far greater distance by the buildings that lined the waterfront. This natural echo chamber magnified the sound. As I got to Water Street, which turns into Canal Street a block further towards the mill district, I stopped as a ragged line of cops ran towards Canal St. Though being led by the regular police, I saw Sergeant Herlihy at the head of what could only be described as a mob. I heard him shout as he walked, deliberately slowly, the better to force the group of men to listen.

‘Now, men! Listen to me! You were deputized so that you can aid the police. You are here to back up the police force of Lawrence, until the militia can take over and secure the mills. You are bodies, that is all. You are not to do anything other than what I tell you to do and that is to form a line in front of the Mills and protect them from the strikers. Do you understand me?’

He turned and lead the group of maybe 25 men towards Canal St. At the tail end of the group, cutting away to run up an alleyway, was a thin man with red hair. Robbie Maclachen moved with the quickness of a ferret and succeeded in escaping the ranks following Herlihy. My concern for the well-being of Almira grew in intensity, left worry behind and advanced directly into anger. I decided that I needed to get ahead, up nearer to the mills, where workers were now moving with a kind of vaguely random motion.

As I got closer, I heard Annie’s voice. Being Annie, her voice carried over the more random sounds of the crowd, which now filled Canal Street from Jackson Street down to the bridge at Water Street. I could hear her touch the hearts of the crowd, trying to shape the direction of the mass of workers, now cut off from one end of Canal Street by the line of police.

I heard Sergeant Herlihy, standing on the tailgate of a supply truck that was mired in the sea of people,

“By the authority of the City of Lawrence I am ordering you to disperse. Either return to your workstations or go home. Martial law will be in effect at dusk. Anyone remaining on the streets after that time, without official purpose will be considered a looter and be arrested. Go home, people. The strike is over. The Essex Company is meeting with your Union Officials even as I speak. There is nothing to be gained by this action.”

The sound of breaking glass is, in the right circumstances, one of the loudest of sounds. It was loud enough to drown out whatever else Sergeant Herlihy may have intended to say.

I heard both Annie and Herlihy desperately try to focus the attention of the mass of people, workers and militia alike.

While breaking glass can command attention, a gunshot will demand it. A single gunshot, seemingly from an alley between the mill buildings, where one wall accidentally intersected with another, forming a small alcove.

***

The sidewalk was grey. In a clearing in a moving forest of brown and beige dresses and coats, a girl sat on the winter-cold granite sidewalk. Like the river of women that flowed around them, the current of humanity pulling all past, a few with startled recognition, eddying around this one spot, the girl was dressed in grey. She cradled a woman in her arms, her legs bent to create a safe harbor from the moving figures that swirled around them. The woman laying in the girl’s arms was staring up, into the other’s eyes. It was a look seen when one searches the horizon, at the very end of a long journey; she seemed to be looking for the strange surroundings to transform into something familiar, something homelike. The woman reached up and touched the girl, very gently on the face. Her fingers were scarlet red. As she reached up, her coat fell open. The blouse was a still-life  scarlet in ruby-red, in a pattern that mimicked a woman’s form, sides of breasts like hills in spring, half covered in a blood-red snow.

The girl stared down into the woman’s eyes.

The dying woman looked up into the eyes of the young girl, seeing a storm growing in a face that, although dominated by a nose that was out of proportion to features that were, at least once, delicately formed, a face of natural sensitivity.

There came a look of sorrow and concern for the young girl, as if she were the one, too soon to leave the world.

Almira held Annie’s fingers to her face, as if that connection of touch, despite being dyed by the lifeblood of the woman, was as vital as any mother to her unborn child.

Almira looked into Annie’s eyes. There was no sound in the world. The light and sound of the near surroundings ceased to exist. There was only the face of her dying friend. In Annie’s eyes grew a look of searching, as if she was at once in a different place and yet looking to the near and to Almira from an invisible terrain. Annie’s concentration on seeing that which only she could see grew stronger and stronger.

Annie LoPizzo died, not simply by closing her eyes. She died, being held close by Almira, by continuing on, to another place. Annie’s gaze into that far distance seemed to draw her essence away, to a place that so captured her spirit, her mind, that she could see only this new place. And so, went on, leaving her body.

Almira cried, her tears burning, her hope shrinking like a glowing balloon losing it’s air until it vanished with a single spark of light.

Chapter 21

Featured

“I hope the fine, upstanding citizens of Circe, Kansas have the good sense to be behind closed doors before those two hit town…”

Tom Hardesty spoke with a smile as the two men walked across the hard-dirt yard that separated the Gale house from the working parts of the farm.

Hunk Dietrich looked out over the fields towards the black ribbon of County Road # 2, as the convertible sped away from the Gale Farm. As it shrank into the distance, the bright yellow Packard seemed to maintain a very slight lead on the dust plume that chased it up the July-dry road. An iron-leather-and-girl comet, trailed by a gold-tinged cloud, the car raced towards the East.

Hunk smiled and walked ahead to the low, small building next to the barn. It was his home, albeit on loan from the owners of the Gale Farm. It graced him with a glimmer of independence and allowed him to live, to a small extent, on his own terms. Not so much happily, as content, for the present time.

Tom Hardesty sat on the plain wood chair that, along with a spindle-back bench and hickory rocking chair, was arranged across the small porch. The tin-roofed, single story building originally served as the milk house, adjacent to the barn, built by the original owners of the farm. They were a small family of Mennonites who fled the East and ran out of momentum here, in eastern Kansas, as often happens when one runs from demons that are not physically (or morally) subject to the limitations of the flesh. The couple, Jakob and Anna Freisen put their all into what they hoped would become a working dairy farm and were moderately successful. Unfortunately, halfway through their seventh year in Circe Kansas, sickness took two of their children and a fall (from the roof of the barn), transformed Anna Freisen from loving wife into desperate widow and mother of 3 children. As she struggled to keep the farm itself from dying, Emily Gale appeared and, with a satchel of inherited money, made Anna an offer that she couldn’t refuse. Grateful to be out from under the crushing weight of the farm that killed half her family, the Widow Freisen took her two remaining children and moved to Minnesota, to live with distant relatives.

Hunk furnished the low, no-railing porch that ran across the front of the building with more seating than needed, at least since Zeke died and Hickory moved on. The two chairs, he found in an abandoned farmhouse bought at auction by his employers, Emily and Henry Gale. The spindle-back bench was a gift from a middle-aged German man he met on one of his rare visits to Almira Gulch’s place. The man was traveling west in a panel truck full of wood-carving tools and his wife. At various points in their journey they would stop and he would make furniture to trade with the local residents. The spindle back bench was the residue of a deal that went bad when the mechanic tried to steal the truck. Fortunately, the would be truck thief was too drunk to check the gas and ran out of fuel a block from his blacksmith shop-turned-gas station. The handcrafted bench was a beautiful piece of furniture and one of Hunk’s prized possessions. He told Henry that he found it by the side of the road. Hunk understood his employers better than he let on and knew that his story of finding the bench would be easier for everyone.

Tom had returned from his truck with his guitar case and, after putting the case on his half of the bench that separated the two chairs on the porch, sat back, the guitar lying across his legs. He held the Martin guitar, not playing, just holding it. He ran thumb and forefinger down each string, feeling for condition, and using his thumbnail, scraped the fingerboard at each fret, to clean off the playing grime. He seemed content to simply hold the instrument, much as Hunk, in the rocking chair on the far side of the bench, was engrossed with his pipe and tobacco. For both, there was clearly a sense of satisfaction derived from cleaning and adjusting their respective instruments.

The afternoon meal at the Gale home had concluded with the abrupt departure of Dorothy and Eliza. Conversation at the Gale dinner table, minus the two girls, became decidedly strained. Seizing the opportunity when Margherita began to clear the un-touched plates left behind by the girls, Hunk offered to help. Once standing, Hunk invited Tom to join him over at his cottage, ‘to set a spell before he left’, both made their escape. Emily Gale’s attention, which had started to crawl around the table to where Tom Hardesty had, until a second before sat, shifted towards her husband. Henry Gale glared resentfully out the dining room window, as the two younger men walked away from the house, leaving him alone with his wife, Emily.

With the distant clatter of dishes being washed and the staccato-mumble whisper of conversation between the owners now a safe distance across the yard, Hunk Dietrich and Tom Hardesty relaxed.

“Yeah, that Eliza! Can’t say I’ve ever met anyone like her. I mean, damn, Hunk! She looks like if she took it to mind, she’d kill a man and make him happy doin it.”

Hunk laughed quietly and picked up the leather tobacco pouch. Set between the two single chairs, the spindle-back bench provided sort of a workbench for the two men. Tom’s guitar case and pack of cigarettes rested on his half, and Hunk laid out his tobacco pouch, silver metal tamper, blue and white box of kitchen matches on the half on his end.

“You thinkin you have a chance there, boy?”

Hunk smiled through the bluish grey smoke from his pipe.

“Hell, old man, I can plain see she’s set her sights on you.”

Tom picked at the strings of the guitar, his left hand muting them, resulting in a series of soft round notes.

“I don’t know, Tom. You got a guitar and that ‘come here, I won’t hurt you’ way about you. Everyone knows that the young girls all go crazy for that cowboy charm.”

“You should talk! You’ve got half the ‘can’t-wait-to-get-out-of-high-school-and-show-the-world’ girls in town starin after you when you walk out of the supply store, all strong, silent Gary Cooper type. ‘Specially that Becky Stillworth down to the library. Man alive! Ain’t a boy in town don’t dream about Becky and how they’d…”

“Now hold on there, buck. Becky’s a friend of mine. No need to get all common on her…”

Hunk stared at Tom. Finally Tom strummed a single, minor chord and smiled.

Their laughter was hijacked by voices from the farmhouse.

“I don’t care what you think you know, Henry Gale. That new wing is going to happen and it’s going to happen this very summer. I will not tolerate having Circe’s High School being named after that woman. I know that I can’t change that. Why you stopped me from giving those gutless, bleeding heart biddies on the school committee a piece of my mind, I’ll never understand. Be that as it may. We’ll see how many people remember anything about the Gulch woman or that place she runs with all the transients and riff-raff, after they see the brand new Gale Wing at the hospital.”

Both men fell silent as the woman’s quiet, hard-edged words escaped through the open windows of the farmhouse and crossed the yard, like a pack of starving wolves. Hunk busied himself with re-igniting his already lit pipe and Tom, pulling out his shirt-tail, polished the headstock of the guitar, the stylized ‘M’ already glowing with the natural light of the inlaid mother-of-pearl.

Playing a series of chords, at a subdued, near-muted volume, Tom Hardesty slid out of his chair and leaned, one knee on the porch, facing Hunk and sang,

“Don’t know why, there’s no sun up in the sky
Stormy weather, since my girl and I ain’t together,
Stormy weather…

When she went away, the blues walked in and met me
If she stays away, old rocking chair will get me
All I do is pray the Lord, above will let me
Walk in the sun once more

Stormy weather…”

Both men laughed. Quietly

Meaning no disrespect, but that boss of yours, Henry Gale? Over in that big house over there?”

Hunk smiled and looked back out towards County Road #2, streaming flatly towards the darkening horizon.

“Henry? He’s one of the hardest working men in the County.”

“No, Hunk Dietrich, my father’s one of the hardest working men in McPherson County. Hell, you’re one of the hardest working men in the County. Ever’ body in these parts are hard-working. Henry Gale? He sets out to make sure to look like the hardest workin man in the County. Ain’t quite the same.”

“So what’s your point? I got no complaints. They’ve been good to me. I couldn’t of been more than nine years old when my uncle dropped me off at the church on Main St, on his way to California. Emily and Henry, they took me in, gave me a place to sleep and food to eat. I owe them for that.”

“Well, and tell me it’s none of my business and I’ll shut up, but you always seemed like you had better things in mind for yourself. What with all the book learning and such.”

“You’re right about the learning. I know there’s more to life than being a farm hand. Correspondence school is one of the things I believe will help me find out just what it is I was meant to do. Nothing wrong with hard work, of course. My father taught me that, ‘Work hard, boy, and good things will always come of it’ he always said. He worked hard everyday and provided us with a roof over our heads and put food on the table. But, I gotta say, it was my mother who taught me about learning. She’d clean house for people in town and used to bring home books, reading books, not textbooks like we had in school. She’d say to me, ‘William, there’s nothing wrong with dreaming. Dreams are like a step-ladder, if we’re smart about it, we can use ’em to get a look up towards the future. And if you don’t have a ladder, you can pile up books and they’ll serve just fine. Don’t ever forget that.’
I used to read and watch her fix dinner. She’d take whatever book she’d given me to read and put it away, just before my father got home. Not like she was hiding anything from him, she just knew him well enough not to cause him any un-necessary concern. And, if truth be known, I think she borrowed those books from the rich people’s houses that she cleaned. Didn’t quite tell them that she was doing it.”

Hunk tapped the bowl of his pipe against the edge of the porch, watched the pinpricks of light fade as the coals suffocated in the dirt. Re-packing the pipe, he struck a match and his face, lit by the flame, glowed and faded as he puffed gently to start the fresh tobacco burning.

“My father worked at the rail yards. Long hours of hard, back-breaking work. And my mom  did her cleaning. We had a happy life, me an my sisters. My world made sense, the simple kind of sense, the kind a nine-year-old boy could take a hold of and believe that things would go on the way they always had. And it did, right up until that Wednesday afternoon. The storm came roaring out of the mist and fog like a hellbound train, the sound it made was like nothing I’d ever heard. It was the sound of an angry god, bent on destruction. It turned sunny day into a hateful night lurched up through the valley and took the town with it when it left. I was walking home from school when it started. I ran for home, it was the only thing I could think, ‘get home’. As I ran, I actually started to fly, the wind was so strong as to pull me, and pieces of the neighbor’s house, up off the ground. For a second, just as I was almost to my front door, the wind stopped, skipped a beat, you might say. It dropped me, I must’ve been three feet in the air, next to the end of the porch. The animal part of me took over and I just crawled under the porch and hung on for dear life. I don’t remember much after that. Something hit the side of my head, I blacked out.”

Hunk leaned towards Tom, pulled back the hair on the right side of his head, exposing the long scar that started just above his ear and ran down his scalp to a little below his ear lobe.

“But I didn’t feel a thing at the time. I didn’t hear the storm move on, I just woke up laying in a pile of dead leaves and staring up at a blue sky where my house should’ve been. I looked around and couldn’t make sense of what I saw. Things were… out-of-place. There was a house in the middle of the street, (not my house, that was a block away, bleeding the life of my mother out onto what was left of Halloran’s Hardware store). I stood and I stared. I saw people running towards me and they were waving their arms. I couldn’t hear a thing. I just stood there and waited; eventually people came and took me to an unbroken house and they took care of me. All on a Wednesday afternoon in March.”

Tom Hardesty looked over at Hunk and taking a cigarette from the pack that was sitting on his guitar case, looked at Hunk again, after seeing a nod, took a match from the blue and white box and lit his cigarette.

“Ok. So I think I won’t ask how you feel about working for the Gales.”

Hunk laughed.

“Sounds like a wise decision, Tom. Don’t know what got me off on that subject, can’t remember the last time I told anyone about that day. So, what about you? I know what my boss plans for you and your dad’s place. Not taking a position on that affair, but since we’re sharing a smoke, let me ask, what are you planning to do with your life?”

“Don’t rightly know. What I do know is I ain’t gonna stay in this place much longer.”

“What about your Dad and your brother, Ethan? You’d be leaving them with a helluva load to shoulder. I mean, you can’t want to make it too easy for the Gales to get your family’s land. You know about running farms and I don’t mean just the back-straining physical labor. You’re good at the business end of things. You could make a go of it at that place of yours.”

“Who says that? How would you know what I know and don’t know? It them bankers, I suppose, the Gales pretty much have them in their pocket, along with the rest of this two-bit town. They can go shove….”

“Hold on, hoss! I’m just speaking my mind. Seeing how we’re passing the time and I told you something about myself, I just thought I’d give you the chance to return the favor…”

“No, sorry, Hunk. I sometimes talk without thinking, especially when it’s about the family and all. Seeing how the Town mostly thinks we’re all a no account bunch, at least since my ma up and left.”

“Ain’t really the Town, you know. It’s just some folks, folks who seem to like to follow along behind the loud angry ones. Them folks out at the Keep, that Phyllis McCutcheon for one, all have some good words for you.”

Tom leaned forward in his chair,

“How would you know about Miz McCutcheon? And the Keep? It ain’t no secret how much your boss, Emily Gale, hates Miz Gulch and everything she’s done out there for the strangers and workers passing through.”

“I know the things I need to know, Tom. Just never had a need to go around tellin everyone my business, you know? I know all about her place out there, in the foothills. The people she helps, the quiet trade she does with a lot of the small farms, like yours. Hell, I even know why one of the richest women this side of Kansas City could be laying in the charity ward at St Mary’s hospital, like anyone of the penny-less drifters that we see come through these parts so much of late.”

Hunk sat back in the rocking chair and watched as Tom become more animated, the conversation taking a turn he wasn’t expecting.

“Rich? The hell you say! Sure that’s one big spread out there and me and my pa, we do a goodly amount of barter with Miz McCutcheon, but rich? That don’t sound like the Almira Gulch I know.”

“Funny how that works, Tom. We think we know all about people when we listen to the loud ones. The angry people boasting about what they have and others don’t have, telling the world how good they are and how bad someone else is. Like that proves anything.”

“Well, I know the people out there at the Keep and they’re good people. And the people who pass through? I hear ’em talking and more times than not they’ll tell you how they heard about the Keep from other people they met on the road. Most of them are down on their luck and some of them can look pretty shady, but they have nothing but good to say about Almira Gulch. That means a lot.”

“Sure it does, Tom. It does to people who think and people who don’t like being told how to act and what to believe in. But I’m saying, the leaders of a small town like Circe? They aren’t always the people to believe, when it comes to who’s a good person and who’s not a good person.”

The two sat in silence, attending to their thoughts with the kind of relaxed reflection that usually occurs between friends following some sort of common (and) strenuous effort. It occurred to neither man to wonder how that might be, given how little in common they believed they had.

******

“Did you get a chance to go over the statement I prepared for you? You know, for when you testify before the Zoning Commission?”

Ignatius V. Torte, Esq. threw his brief case on the worn and scratched conference table. The meeting room in Circe’s Town Hall had a conference table facing a long table, behind which sat whichever Committee was in session. Opposite them, and behind the witness table. were rows of folding chairs. This for whatever public that cared to show up and listen as assorted Expert Witnesses, disgruntled neighbors and concerned citizens shared their opinions, feelings and expertise on whatever issue was on the docket.

“Of course I read it! Although I fail to see why you felt it necessary to write it out. I assure you, I’m quite capable of explaining to the committee why modernizing the hospital’s infrastructure would be desirable.”

“Well, doc, the reason’s right there. What you just said, ‘modernizing the hospital’s infrastructure.‘ My god, man, don’t you want them to approve this plan?”

“Why, of course I do!”

“Then keep to the script. All we need you to do is tell the Zoning Committee that the renovation of the old wing on the hospital will be nothing but good for the citizens of Circe. Think you can do that, Thad?”

Thaddeus Morgan felt at once ill-at-ease and angry. He wasn’t nervous. He was accustomed to giving expert testimony and was very confident. There was something about this particular hearing that felt different. And, among the differences, was the fact of the presence of an attorney, sitting alongside him at the witness table. ‘As if,’ he thought, ‘I require the aid of an attorney to talk about my hospital and what a benefit modernization would provide.’

As a lawyer, Ignatius V Torte was very well  known in Circe. This high-profile status was attributable to his excesses as well as his successes. Iggy Torte, for all his many faults, was the type of lawyer you would want if the police were knocking at the door of your home at 5:00 am. He practiced his profession as whole-heartedly as he indulged his many vices, without restraint or the slightest thought of consequences. Emily Gale found him to be the perfect person to get her plans for the Gale Wing renovation project through the hearings, reviews and final approval. Thaddeus Morgan MD, found him crude, pushy and, somehow, familiar.

“OK, they’re ready to start. Don’t screw this up, Thad.” the attorney turned in his seat and smiled at Enid Thibault, the only female member of the Zoning Committee.

***

“…and so, Dr, Morgan, it’s your opinion that the proposed renovation to St. Mary’s Hospital will, in no way, have a negative impact on the community?”

“That’s correct.”

“On behalf of the Committee, I want to thank you for taking the time from your busy schedule to come down here and talk to us about this very exciting project. The work and effort that has gone into the design and planning of the Gale Wing is quite impressive. We also want to thank Mr. Torte for his expert assistance in guiding this project through all the steps of approval. That being said, hearing from the man most responsible for the health and well-being of our community is the stamp of approval that we needed to proceed.”

Iggy Torte turned his head and grinned at Thaddeus Morgan, who remained staring straight ahead at the 5 members of the Zoning Committee. After several seconds of enthusiastic smiling, the short, sloppily dressed attorney reached over and slapped him on the back. The sound was loud enough to be heard throughout the meeting room. Thaddeus heard it echo in a decidedly odd way, as if the sound came from far away, somehow from another time.

“Way to go Fattius Morgan! Good boy! Now get outa here, regular people have a hospital to build.”

“Take your hands off me, you shyster.” Dr. Thaddeus Morgan, Director of Medical Services at St. Mary’s hospital, brilliant physician and tireless advocate for improving the standard of care available at the only hospital in McPherson County, stood up abruptly. So abruptly that his chair tipped over with a wooden clattering sound, loud enough to end all other conversation in the meeting hall. Silence dropped from the ceiling, like balloons at a political convention, and everyone seemed to be frozen in place. Finally, one voice, that of Mrs. Tremont (who attended every meeting in the Circe Town Hall that she wasn’t barred from), carried through the room,

“Oh, my goodness!”

Feeling an almost physical charge of anger, Thaddeus Morgan, ignoring Attorney Ignatius Torte’s hurried efforts to pick up the chair, bent to his right and pulled the chair back to the table. As he turned back to face the Committee, he saw a tall, blonde woman standing near the door. She was almost entirely hidden behind the bulk of Al Renaldo, the reporter for the Circe Clarion. She was also dressed in white and she was staring at him.

“Are you alright, Dr Morgan?”

“Quite fine, Mr. Hubbard, my chair must have caught on something, quite alright.”

When he turned, all he saw was Al Renaldo, busily writing in a spiral-bound notepad, the meeting room door slowly swinging shut.

“Then I’d say that this concludes the meeting. Thank you all for attending.”

 

Chapter 20

Featured

January 1912 in Lawrence Massachusetts was as un-seasonably mild as the preceding December. Hovering in the 40’s during the first days of January, the temperature was mild enough to melt most of the snow from what was coming to be referred to as ‘the Great Blizzard of 1911’. As with most damaged relationships, no matter how warm it felt walking along the city streets, during the scant hours of daylight, there was no forgetting the cold. Very much like the bitterness that springs to life within the person betrayed by a loved one, there lurked a pained enthusiasm, poised to leap upon the most inane of comments on the weather. The inevitable response, spoken aloud or in jagged-edged thought, ‘Yeah, but it’s only January. Winter’s not done with us. Just you wait and see.’ The battered wife, knocked to the kitchen floor after months of good behavior, experienced more damage to her capacity to imagine a future worth living, than to her face; the cold temperatures made the mild weather something of a promise of disappointment, rather than a sincere respite from the Winter.

The Winter of 1912 dug its icy talons into the earth. Even the bright sunlight held an edge, like the pain when touching hard ice, the skin of the fingertip sticking, as if to say, ‘No! Wait! I need to show you how cold it really is!’ The broad lawns of the Commons, deprived of the protective covering of snow, looked like a child’s first attempt at finger painting. Browns and greens mixed in urgent and broad strokes, the texture un-even, the result of the effort to apply color on top of color. The bare earth remained as hard as an Immigration official’s heart, except, ironically, in small areas bordering the south-facing walls of the Mills. The towering brick facades sank warmth into the soil at their base, as if donating a portion of the bright sunlight it stole from those most in need of its life-affirming power, the people who labored behind the walls.

On one of the milder January days, in an alcove that came into being as the result of fortunate architectural juxtaposition between the exterior of Stairwell Number 2 and an adjacent outside corner forming the southwest end of the Mill, two young people sat, sharing a lunch. Their backs pressed against the sun-warmed brick, shoulders and legs touching as much as their posture would permit. Temporarily Siamese-twins, their joining was less inhibiting of movement, while somehow offering a more intimate form of sharing. One read from a book, the other content to watch and listen as a world that neither could achieve alone was made substantial by their whispered thoughts.

“Have you given any thought to what we talked about?”

“About moving, going down to your parent’s house in Rhode Island?”

“Well, yeah that too.”

…the young man and the young woman sat together, sharing the cold January sunlight. The warmth of their touching shoulders and the strength of their legs bracing each other, caused the towering brick walls to become nearly transparent and they stared into their future.

***

Frederick Prendergast did not like his bosses.

Frederick Prendergast III was appointed to his position of Chief Operating Officer by the Board of Directors of the Essex Company. This made 15 very wealthy middle-aged men all his bosses. Having to answer to 15 different bosses would have been too much for most of the candidates that competed for the position. Frederick succeeded simply because he considered it essential to good management to know more about the people he worked for than they knew about him. During his final interview, Robert Pease, chairman of the Selection Committee, complimented Frederick, “This resume of yours, outstanding! You provide the evidence of your qualifications for the position with such meticulous detail, as to make the interview almost un-necessary!”
Frederick merely smiled. The dossier he’d gathered on Robert Pease was in no way any less complete. Knowledge was truly power.

And now they sat in carved-wood and leather chairs staring at him from the length of the board room table. Large windows offered an expansive view of Lawrence, smoke from the mills smeared across the cold blue sky, giving the impression of an improbably detailed clockwork model of the Mill Town.

Frederick Prendergast was attempting to explain to the men who owned Lawrence that their suggestion he reduce wages to match the newly mandated reduction in allowable hours was a foolish mistake. The Massachusetts law did cut back the number of hours in a legal workweek. What it did not change was the fact that the number of hours of work necessary to provide for a family, when wages were 15 cents an hour, was more rather than less. As with most politically motivated efforts to address social ills, recognition of the complete context of the problem was markedly selective. That, at the root of the problem, was not the number of hours in the work week, but the amount the Mills paid for those hours. The Mill Owners naturally chose to ignore this, as it was very much in their interests to keep wages low. The politicians chose not to recognize this fact because any attempt to include wages as part of a remedy would’ve brought a swift and incumbency-threatening response from the people in power. As with most laws meant to demonstrate the political class’s dedication to the rights and well-being of their constituents, the new law attacked the symptoms not the cause.

Lawmakers are very often the leading advocates of palliative care for the body politic. As a result, their legislative efforts to help their marginal constituency survive the cycle of low pay and high production demands was akin to the doctor who prescribes laudanum for a persistent cough. The patient appears much improved, until they die of pneumonia.

“The new law limits the number of hours that an employee can be required to work. I propose that we leave the weekly pay as it is and, very publicly, announce that all our workers are receiving a Production-Rated Raise.”

Frederick saw most of the 15 wealthy, middle-aged men look like something small had bitten them somewhere sensitive. He continued smoothly,

“We have the production figures from last year. I’ve added 30% to those numbers. We’ll call them… the ‘Safe-Production Numbers’ and tell the workers that we’re implementing this because we listened to their complaints. Because we value their contribution so much, we decided to give them all a Raise, rather than cut their pay the way the new law would have us do instead.”

Frederick Prendergast watched as the Board of Directors digested his suggestion. The reaction was as he expected, those with sufficient intelligence and avarice smiled to themselves quietly, the others, the more junior members chose to speak, intent on demonstrating their value to the Company.

‘Don’t louse this up, Prendergast or you’ll be back at Dartmouth in the blink of an eye. Try supporting your current lifestyle on the salary of an assistant professor.”

Frederick Prendergast smiled towards his 15 bosses. He appeared to be in complete agreement with every one of them.

“Gentlemen I assure you that I have control of the situation. The Mills will not slow down. We have a workforce that is divided among as many European cultures as there are countries. They may grumble and complain, but they keep to themselves in small groups. Not only that, over half of my workers are women. It’s in their nature to complain. But stand up together to resist us? Not in my lifetime.”

“Be clear on this, Prendergast, we didn’t hire you for your understanding of whatever god-forsaken rundown country these people left. We hired you to increase production. Plain and simple. Buy more machinery. Promise the workers more hours until we can get the new equipment installed and running.  We’re not running a welfare agency. We’re here to make a profit. That’s the only reason we built this city.”

***

There was a growing unrest among the workers in the mills of Lawrence as the ramifications of the new labor law became clear. Despite the diversity of language and culture of the workforce, rumor, as always, became the currency of the emotionally speculative market of ideas. Shared, exchanged and bartered in lunch rooms during the day and barrooms at night, speculation took root in the hearts and minds of the workers of Lawrence. Passion, especially in a culturally diverse community like Lawrence, is like a stew, it required a slow increase in temperature in order to bring out its varied ingredients. Fortunately there are people who, while being aware of the issues, are able to rise above the grind of daily labor. They are the ones who, for better or for worse, can bring about a focus, a coherency of thought that reflects the needs of the many.

Annie LoPizzo stood before the Organizing Committee,

“There are more and more people asking for help down at the Hall. There will be less pay and more work, if my sources are correct. For now, we can handle the demands for extra food and clothing, our members are as giving as the bosses are not. The problem that this Committee needs to address is focusing the unrest among the workers. It’s growing rapidly and will soon be uncontrollable. We must provide the workers with a sense of direction.”

The expression on the faces of the Committee spoke volumes. The four men looked smugly attentive and the lone woman nodded silently.

“We appreciate your concerns, Annie,” the chairman, Pierre Marchand, spoke with a confidence that was easily mistaken for condescension,

“However we’re finally making progress with Management. Our talks, our private talks, are about to yield fruit. We need you down at the Union Hall making certain that all who come to seek aid are provided whatever help we can afford. This is a very delicate stage of the negotiation. Further unrest among the workers will cause us problems. You understand, don’t you?”

“I don’t believe you understand the people you claim to represent,” Annie noted immediate disapproval take hold of the men, while the woman, Monique Lafrenier, let a smile slide silently from her face, clearly awaiting the outburst from her fellow committee members.

“That is precisely the reason you are in the Union Hall and not at the negotiating table. Let those of us with skills in diplomacy and negotiations deal with this situation. We’re not here to start a war with the Owners of the Mill. We’re here to get our workers the best possible deal consistent with the needs of Management.”

*****

The yellow convertible sped down County Road #2, leaving the Gale Farm in a cloud of dust that seemed to glow with the approach of the sunset.

Even before the screen door slammed, as the two girls stepped off the porch, Eliza heard Dorothy say,

“I need to drive.”

Eliza Thornberg watched as her friend moved towards the convertible at what one might consider a mad dash. Without a word, she veered to the passenger side door, got in, and leaned back in the seat.

The car was powerful, the roads were flat and their speed was hazardous.

“So, where’s this Lake your boyfriend was so desperate to get you out to?”

Eliza leaned back against the door. The wind rushing over the windshield tangled insubstantial fingers in her hair, pulling, twisting and yet, always letting go. She had to yell to be heard over the sound of the engine and rush of the wind in the open car.

The Packard roared past a small, hand printed sign that read, ‘Almira’s Keep’, headed in the general direction of the Lake, just to the north of Circe.

Instead of turning off onto to Kiowa Lane, Dorothy gunned the engine and the convertible, rocking perilously on it’s springs from the sudden change in direction, raced towards the center of Circe.

Eliza felt the heat of the setting sun fight the cooling wind that flowed in behind the triangular vent windows. Her blouse, now every bit the old campaigners vest, displayed sweat stained campaign ribbons. She looked over at her friend, who was staring intently at the road ahead.

“You don’t have to let them get to you, you know. Screw ’em all!  Thats what I always say.”

Eliza’s shouted words echoed down the street as Dorothy took her foot off the gas and let the car coast past the sign that read, ‘City Limits’. She laughed at how loud her voice sounded, absent the roar of the car’s engine.

The rough-hewn posts that anchored three strands of barbed wire that kept the endless fields from consuming the roadway disappeared and were replaced by domesticated shrubbery and green lawns. The two girls in the yellow convertible drove slowly through the outlying neighborhoods that surrounded the small town.

“I saw all this when I first drove into Town,”

Eliza slouched in her seat, resting her head on her arm along the top of the passenger-side door.

“Say what you will about small towns, Dorothy, but I’d go crazy if I had to live here. Either that or I’d marry some guy and make him get rich. …and then get the hell out.”

Her laughter bounced off the white picket fences that began to grow along the edges of the lawns of houses set, like chess pieces, in the center of small lots.

Hearing the silence from the other side of the car, Eliza turned towards her friend. Dorothy stared straight ahead, tears shining on her face. She was aware enough of what she was doing to keep the car in its lane, as it moved along at no more than five miles per hour. She wore an expression that was, at once one of disbelief and yet, held a hint of an underlying hope.

The center of town appeared suddenly. The stop sign at the corner of West Main St. and Main Street marked the abrupt beginning of sidewalks and parking meters. Stores and small shops replaced tall trees and green lawns.  Shaded front porches transformed into glass storefronts and the harsh blue sky regained dominion over the land.

“Dorothy?” Eliza sat up straighter, leaned over and put her hand on her friend’s shoulder. Dorothy continued to drive slowly down Main Street.

Eliza saw the Town Square approaching on the left and pushed on the steering wheel. The car turned in a meandering sort of arc and managed to head up the street that ran between the Square and what could only be a library. There was loud honking and shouts in the air, as the yellow convertible cut, (slowly), in front of on-coming traffic. A modern-day Moses parting a sea of rust-sided farm trucks and overly shiny black sedans.

The car at the front of the now-stopped traffic, in the opposite lane, contained a well-dressed man who leaned out the driver’s side window and shouted,

“You have no right to drive like that!! You are a menace! I plan to report you to the authorities immediately!!”

Eliza, leaning with both hands on her door, managed to stand nearly upright in the open car and locked eyes with the shouting man. Seeing the look on the face of a very angry and clearly well-to-do young woman, he fell silent,

“Go ahead and try, you fat bastard. I’d love to see you try.”

Eliza felt pleased as she watched the well-dressed man slide back into his seat, hitting his head on the edge of the window as he did so. She pushed gently on the steering wheel, and the car, coasted towards the curb. When the left front tire bounced up on the sidewalk, she turned the key in the ignition and the yellow convertible fell silent and came to rest.

Eliza got out of her side of the car, walked around to the driver’s side and opened the door. Dorothy looked up at her and got out. Spotting a wrought iron bench around a dry water fountain, Eliza took her friend’s hand and walked over to it and the two girls sat down.

“Well, Dorothy, from the looks of that fountain there, I’m sure we’re not in Central Park. I need you to tell me all about Kansas.”

Dorothy smiled, looked past the fountain, towards the horizon and the now setting sun. Eliza had a strange feeling that her friend was about to start singing, but instead spoke quietly.

“When I was thirteen and wanted to ask my mom about, you know, the things that were happening to my body…”

“Boobs, I believe is the medical term…”

Dorothy giggled and continued,

“She looked at me and said, ‘I believe it’s time that you were told the truth. You were adopted. Now don’t let anyone tell you that you’re not part of this family, you are. We really think of you as part of this family, but I’m not your mother. And don’t worry, you’re just becoming a woman. Nature has a way of taking care of things, you’ll be alright.’

“…then I met Tom Hardesty and I thought he was the one person in the whole world who really understood me.”

“Yeah, how is it they always say that? And the better ones manage to sound so sincere!”

“..but he broke my heart and though we stayed friends…”

“…and, then there was the Storm. I really believed, for weeks afterwards, that I had visited a place, a place where I belonged. Everyone pretended to believe me, for a while anyway. But then they stopped listening. I kept trying to tell them, not just what happened to me, in that place, but that because of it, real or not, I knew there was answer. That there was someplace where I belonged. But everyone just went back to life the way it’s always been and eventually, I stopped talking.”

“When I came back here, this summer, from school? It was even worse. In part because of you. Having a friend who wasn’t from Circe, didn’t already have friends from around here, someone who seemed to like me for myself. That made coming back ‘home’ feel even worse.”

Eliza reached over and took her friend’s hand and held it in hers.

“…so, I spent the first weeks back in Kansas trying to figure the answer to a question that I wasn’t really sure I knew. Sorry about this not making any sense, but I thought that this woman, Almira Gulch, somehow I got it into my head that maybe she could tell me something.

“Was that the ‘Almira’ on the sign that we passed on the way here? The one that said, ‘Almira’s Keep’ or something?”

“Yeah, but that’s where everything gets mixed up in my head! All my life I’ve heard that she, this Almira Gulch, was a wicked, stingy old maid. To make matters worse, just before the Storm, she came to our house and tried to take my dog away. She seemed so very mean. But then, when I got back this summer, I found out that she had the new high school named after her because she gave most of the money to re-build it. Nothing made sense. So I tried to find her and talk to her and it turns out she’s in the hospital. In a damn coma of some sort!”

“Will she get better? Enough to talk to you?”

“… I don’t know! Every time I go there, she’s asleep. But…

“What?”

“Well, this is going to sound strange…”

Eliza laughed loudly enough to make the pigeons that were stalking an old man who had just sat on a bench on the far side of the fountain, bag bird seed in his hand. Dorothy stared at her friend, but could not help herself, the tension transformed into laughter and joined in.

“If you’re going to tell me something strange, I better prepare myself.” Eliza pulled Dorothy to her side and they laughed together.

“Well, odd. Lets call it, odd. This nurse is there every time I go to try and talk to Mrs. Gulch. No matter what day or even what time of day. She is tall, has beautiful blonde hair and a way of moving that I’ve never ever seen in a person, at least a person around here. And, when each time I was there, she’d talk to me like she was Mrs. Gulch’s best friend.”

Both girls sat in silence, the hungry pigeons landed and converged on the old man.

“Well, then! Lets go!”

Dorothy looked up, she appeared tired but, somehow more at peace with herself.

“Go where?”

“We’re off to see this Nurse….”

“Nurse Claire?”

“Nurse Claire! From everything you’ve told me about everyone here in this half-horse town, she’s the only who doesn’t seem interested in using you. So, lets go!”

***

There was only two other patients in the Charity Ward of St Mary’s Hospital.

Standing to the side of the narrow bed, Nurse Griswold smoothed the blankets that covered the still form. She took the small photo of a small young boy from the top of the side table and placed it in the drawer.

Leaning over, she smoothed back a loose wave of grey hair from the worn, but peaceful face of the woman in the bed.

“We’ll soon have company. I believe that our little friend may be near to finding her way.”

Chapter 19

Featured

(The Gale Farm County Rd #2 Circe, Kansas. July 15, 1939)

(6:00 pm and the light through the windows filled the dining room with a more than passable imitation of mid-afternoon, as sunset was still hours away, at 8:55 pm to be precise. The sky was clear, blue and in no way threatening. The FarmAll thermometer on the barn showed the low 90s. A light breeze tried to sneak up and over the open windowsills and down into the house through the thin white curtains, as if to hide from the sun for the 3 hours remaining.)
(Dinner was at a round, light oak table, in the center of the room between the kitchen and the parlor. The linen tablecloth had a decorative blue border and was very obviously quite expensive. The kitchen is on the other side of a single swinging door that has a brass push plate.)

(Emily Gale, Henry Gale, Hunk Dietrich, Dorothy Gale, Eliza Thornberg and Tom Hardesty)

“Time for dinner, everyone!”

“Eliza? you sit over between Dorothy and me. Tom? right there, on Hunk’s left. (laughing) No, his other left. There, by the door to the kitchen.”

[chairs scraped over the floor, in unison, but un-coordinated, low-throated wooden screech of final adjustment]

“There! everyone comfortable? Well, I can’t tell you how delighted I am to have such a full table of guests. It’s been such a long time. Now, Henry? Why don’t you say the Grace.”

“Dear God, we thank you for this our bounty that you bestow on our family. We give praise and promise to live in your sight. We ask that you continue blessing our family that we might serve as an example of your rewards and everlasting goodness. Amen.”

“Amen”… “Amen”… “A..”

“Margherita! Please! We have a table full of very hungry young people!”

“Right away, Miz Gale, the biscuits are just coming out of the oven.”

“Well, everyone dig right in, we don’t stand any formalities here. Tom? Just pass everything to your left.”

[a sound like the branches of a crystalline forest brushed by a summer wind filled the dining room]

“Don’t forget to help yourself to the green beans. Picked them myself this morning. Margherita! Is that lemonade ready yet?”

“So, Hunk, did’ja get a chance to get out to the Lennon spread this morning?”

“Yeah, but just a quick look. There’s a passel of old equipment out there, didn’t look like much of it’s in any kind of working order.”

“Hunk! Henry! Not another word! This may not be a proper holiday, but I’m declaring the ‘No Work Talk Rule’. Dorothy’s friend Eliza here has no interest in hearing what Hunk did with his day.”

“Not at all, Mrs. Gale! I’m sure what Hunk does is very interesting.”

“You don’t know what you’re letting yourself in for, and call me Auntie Em… or Emily.”

“Ouch!”

“Are you alright?”

“Oh, nothing, just a sudden cramp in my calf, a little souvenir of a polo accident. I’d think that life on a real working farm would be quite interesting.”

“Not to hear them two talk about it! Most mornings start right here at this table and are nothing more exciting than listening to these two going over Henry’s lists of chores. You might not know it, coming from Back East, but this is one of the biggest farms in McPherson County. But interesting? Back-breaking work from sun-up to sun-down. At night, Henry’ll sit out on the porch smoking and making up a new list. Hunk over there, well, after dinner he’s always bent over one of his books, like a cur dog gnawin at a bone thrown out with the dinner scraps.”

“Well, Em, some’ll still have meat left on ’em! There’s a lot inside those old books. I take my bones where I find ’em and when I get too tired I bury what’s left for later.”

[laughter pooled around the guests, like rain-storm runoff, flowing ’round clumps of grass]

“Speaking of dog bones, the chicken is great, Mrs G!”

“Thank you Tom. Elbows off the table, please.”

“Dorothy tells us your father owns a publishing house back in Philadelphia. My family is from there, maybe we know some of the same people.”

“Don’t be tutting me, young lady! I didn’t say that I knew that many people Back East. Like I always say, family is family and at the end of the day that’s what counts…”

“Well, Mrs Gale, Daddy doesn’t spend as much time at his office as he used to, he travels a lot now, mostly New York and out to California.”

“I declare! How interesting that must be, so close to the arts and literature .. have you met any famous authors?”

“Well, my father had a party last summer, I think Scott Fitzgerald and that Steinbeck fellow were there but I’m not sure… but I didn’t actually meet them.”

“Your car, Eliza, it’s got California plates…”

“…yeah, that’s a real swell car ‘Liza  You think you’d mind if me an Dorothy borrow it later? The Lake’d be a welcoming cool place, on an evening like this.”

“So, are you living in California now?”

“No, Hunk, I was just out there with a friend, I tried out for a movie…”

“You don’t say! Can’t really say I’ve ever shook hands with a movie actress!”

“It’s nothing like you’d think…It’s really boring most of the time. Stand around a set, freezing cold, waiting for someone to tell you what to do. Of course, when the Director yells ‘Action’ ..then it gets interesting”

“Maybe you should go out there. My friend Jack is a director and knows everyone. I have a feeling that you just might be the kind of man they want for the movies I auditioned for,”

“Well, kinda busy mending fence this week, but maybe next week.”

[Laughter]

“Well, Eliza I’m glad that you decided to stop on your way and surprise me, ’cause you really did”

“That’s what friends are for, right? To surprise each other and be there when we’re needed”

“So, Miss Thornberg, what are you studying at school?”

“Don’t answer him! Hunk here will have you in a corner with his questions and you’ll never get free.”

“…really, that sounds like fun. Well, Henry… oh! sorry Mr Gale, I didn’t mean you!

“Hunk, I haven’t declared a major yet but I’m leaning towards”

“Sorry, Mrs Gale  ‘Henry”s my nickname for your foreman over there. Don’t you think he looks just like Henry Fonda in ‘The Farmer Takes a Wife’?”

“Why if that isn’t the silliest thing I ever heard, Hunk, don’t you listen! We’ll never get the Lennon Farm worked in”

“Don’t worry, I don’t see myself moving West any time soon,”

“I do”

“What was that, Tom?”

“I said, I was thinking that moving out West, might be the right thing to do…”

“Oh that’s just great! One friend drops in un-expectedly and one suddenly decides to move on! Doesn’t anything around here stay the same long enough to understand?”

“I ain’t moving…”

“I know Hunk and I love you for that…”

“Well, Missy you haven’t exactly been a hometown girl yourself. If memories serve me,  you weren’t but a month out of High School before you decided…”

“I recall that it was your brother’s Will that made College-Back-East possible!”

“I reckon seeing how your mother and I were everyday, ’til night’s dark after the Storm… ”

“You just thank your lucky stars, Dorothy, if it wasn’t for Uncle Bernard, you’d be stuck here, on this farm that you seem to think so little off…”

“I didn’t say that! I just…”

“You see, Eliza, Dorothy was hurt in the storm. After the wind stopped and people crawled out from their shelters, well lets just say you know a community by how everyone pitches in and helps one and other put the Town back together.”

“Auntie Em! I’m certain Eliza doesn’t need to hear about the storm and it’s boring aftermath.”

“What ever would make you think that! The Storm of ’37 is a part of local history which makes it a part of who we are! Of all people, I’d think you’d be the last one to not want to talk about it…. You certainly didn’t mind talking about it in those weeks right after…”

“No, Mrs. Gale. I knew Circe had a bad tornado, it was in all the newspapers. It’s just that  Dorothy’s never talked about it. Except when she first moved into the dorm and our room…”

“I don’t remember telling you about the storm…”

“Well, you didn’t exactly tell me. At least not consciously, but the first few nights, well, I thought I might need to request a different roommate! The yelling in your sleep! I still get goose bumps remembering it…. there was a tone to your voice, it was as if you were being drowned out but had to be heard,  “Let us in, please!!! It’s getting closer!!! Open up we’re out here!!’ You really don’t remember?”

[quiet rushes through the room like a winter night’s wind]

“…me, my father and my brother Ethan, we came out of our shelter that day and there was a rowboat setting right up on top of the chicken coop, didn’t crush it or nothin.  Lost two hens and had to fix the roof of the coop, though…”

“Who wants some fresh-baked apple pie?”

“You know what I’d like to do after such a good meal? Take a drive. Please save us some of that pie, Emily. Dorothy and I will have some after we get back. Dorothy? Show me this lake you’ve told me so much about!”

“Sorry, Tom…. girls only.”

*****

(The  one bedroom apartment of Annie LoPizzo  3 Union St, Lawrence, Massachusetts. December 15, 1911)

(It was 6:00 and effectively full-dark nighttime, as Sunset was nearly 2 hours earlier, at 4:11 pm.  Through the two windows, the white blur of wind-driven snow, the occasional needle-tapping of sleet on the glass lent credence to the estimate of a temperature in the low 20s and dropping.)
(Dinner was at a small, square wooden table that had three chairs that match and one that didn’t. The table was between the door and the other half of the large room, divided by a large brown sofa. The kitchen ran along the wall to the right of the table. Gas stove, white porcelain sink and a small icebox, everything was almost within arms reach of the table.)

(Almira Ristani and Sterling Gulch)

“I’m back from the Arctic… I can’t believe you sent me out in a raging blizzard for bread….”

“I’m sorry, I didn’t…”

“Hey! ‘Mira! I was kidding! … I wanted to go! ‘Though it was lucky I caught them at the Bakery just as they were closing….”

“But…”

“…and I’ve had more than a few dinners here, and I know for a fact that Annie would right kill me if I let you serve me her sausages and gravy without fresh bread.”

[laughter joined the two, comforting one and encouraging the other, a not-obtrusive maitre’d for an informal dinner]

“You changed your clothes! you look very, uh very….”

“Disheveled?”

“Well, I was thinking ‘pretty’ But I can go with ‘disheveled’ That shirt is very nice!  uh…here’s the bread! do you want to heat it in the oven first?”

“Good idea! I just need to get down the plates. No, I can get them… well, thank you, it does still hurt a little to stretch too much. Put them on the table and, please sit down.”

“Are those yours?”

“Are what mine?”

“All those books on the couch, ‘Civil Disobedience’ ‘Woman in the Nineteenth Century’…”

“Don’t make fun, those are my mother’s books, well, some of them, anyway,”

“My god! You have Whitman’s ‘Leaves of Grass'”

“Ok now, stop fooling around. Put it back on the couch, come over here and sit down. Annie made what she said was your favorite dinner…”

“I believe a leaf of grass is no less than the journey-work of the stars,
And the pismire is equally perfect, and a grain of sand, and the
egg of the wren,”

“What? Well, don’t look so dumbfounded, Almira. You know, I went to college too! For nearly a full year, anyway…”

“It’s just that I….”

“I know, you’re surprised. Sometimes I get tired how people judge me by my good looks and rugged build and then act so surprised when I say something that isn’t about working at the Mill or fishing or drinking or carousing…”

“I didn’t I mean …I don’t think, well, you do have a rugged build…”

“So you think I’m good looking…”

“Yes, no, well…. that not what I meant! I wasn’t making fun of you!”

“No, I believe you weren’t. But now since you’re bringing up looks again, I think you’re a pretty nice girl yourself.”

“Sorry, all I meant to say was, that I didn’t go to college. Hell, I haven’t gone anywhere.”

“But all those books and the talks at the Union Hall about Thoreau and Brook Farm, I naturally thought”

“Well, you thought wrong.”

“Here, come and sit and have some food. Annie spent the morning putting together this for you and I’m not sending you out into the snow and wind,”

“Well, I thought, maybe if it keeps getting worse, I could…”

“…at least not without getting some warm food into you.”

[a silence grew between the two young people. Binding rather than separating, a sense of un-self-consciousness for one, a feeling of recognition for the other It was the discovering of another person so in tune as to become irreplaceable, if a happy life was to be lived from that point forward]

“…and so I figured, why not hitch hike around, for a while. There’ll always be a school to go to later. I just wanted to learn more about life than what a Professor would tell me.”

“I’ve often thought that, if I could only leave Lawrence, and find a place where people aren’t satisfied with doing the same thing day after day, year after year. My mother was a teacher, back in the old country, and she’d tell me, ‘Almira, use that mind of yours. There’s so much to the world that you don’t yet know. Find a way to go and explore it. Remember, that no matter how far you roam, your heart will always be your true compass. Trust it and it will take you to the one you’re meant to be with and, most importantly, it will also take you home.”

“You are, you’re…. so different from any girl I’ve ever known…”

“Sure, how many girls do you know have two black eyes and a nose like a witch?”

“No! I don’t mean how you look. It’s the way you look at things and you think about things… you really are special.”

“…for a girl with such

“Now I know you’re just playing.  But the fact is. I haven’t been able to get you out of my mind, since, since that night.”

“That night, the night when I hurt that man, I hurt him real bad. I can still hear him screaming…”

“Hey don’t! he had it coming, he was an animal.”

“No, don’t get me wrong. I hurt him as bad as I could and I don’t regret it. It was the only way I knew to get him to stop, stop hurting Annie and stop before he could hurt me… I would do the same again, it’s just that… it all makes me feel sad somehow.”

“…what?”

“You!  I just called you a pretty girl. And I meant it. But just now, when you were talking about that night, I realized that calling you pretty is like calling the Mona Lisa a ‘good portrait of a woman’….
If you want to say you’re a witch…”

“I said my nose makes me look like one.”

” Well, if you’re not, then whatever spell you did cast on me worked. You’re more than pretty… you’re everything that I didn’t know a woman could be. And now that I know, I don’t really think I can go back…”

“Who’s going back? Where?  Sterling, would you be a gentleman and take this coat! I’m freezing!! Almira! you’re looking very animated tonight, I trust our gentleman hasn’t been too boring and would you please fix me a plate, I’m starving….”

“….now what is this about Sterling here going away? You can’t by the way, there are things happening down at the Mill that will soon cause everything to change.”

*****

(Almira’s Keep Pole# 444 US Highway 61, Circe, Kansas. July 15 1939)

(It’s 6:35 pm and the early evening light is still bright enough to cast shadows running towards the East of the grove of walnut trees that shaded the converted barn. The temperature inside the dining hall is 95, the temperature outside, in the shade is 87. Outside the dining hall, to the right of the entrance and in clear view of the house is a grassy area with several wood trestle tables, it’s the favored gathering area when the weather is not forcing the transient guests to remain in doors.)

(Ephraim Hardesty, Ethan Hardesty and Phyllis McCutcheon)

“Lets go sit outside.”

“Ethan, grab your plate and lets go sit out at the table by the tree yonder.”

“Really, I can’t put you to so much trouble. I usually take my meals in the kitchen, there’s so much to do.”

“It’s a fine warm evening. It’ll be my pleasure to have some company for dinner. Ethan here eats in a hurry and my son Tom, well, when he’s around.”

“Your son, Tom is an exceptional young man.”

“You know him?”

“Well, he’s here at least a couple of days of the week, helping out and taking his payment in supper in the hall. Although, I suspect he’s mostly here to learn songs and play with some of the people, the musicians who seem to like this place as they wander around the country. Like that nice Mr Guthrie. You must be very proud, your son is quite talented.”

*****

(Prendergast home 23 Haverhill St. Lawrence, Massachusetts December 15, 1911)

(It’s 6:00 pm and the wind that hasn’t let up since 3 in the afternoon can be heard howling through the eaves of the 3rd floor attic. Snow freezes on the windows, framing the Town Commons across the street with a filigree of ice. Hope for an early letup vanished with the barely-seen sun, there remains only an increasing fear of how bad the storm will be.)
(Dinner is served in the Formal Dining Room. The long dining table is set for two at the end of the table closest to the fireplace, as if seeking the most elemental of protections, as Nature demonstrates it’s un-ending power. There are candles on the table, the dominant illumination is from the fireplace, which casts an ever-changing light over the room and the diners. Nothing appears the same, from one minute to the next.)

(Frederick Prendergast, Grace Byrne)

“Are you happy here, Grace?”

“Yes, Mister Prendergast”

“Frederick, please, I get Mr Prendergast all day long from everyone. It gets so tiresome, you would think it wouldn’t, being in charge of as much as I am, but it gets so wearying. The problems that they come to my office with and layout on my desk and they get to go away, happy. Or at least relieved that there is someone to fix things, things that they shouldn’t have messed up in the first place.”

“I can just imagine…”

“But the worst are the people who I give a job to and they get so full of themselves and strut around the Mills, like they’re important and they don’t bother to actually do what I assigned for them to do. Of course, eventually it gets worse and guess who they come running to…”

“You?”

“That’s right! And they are suddenly in need of assistance”

“Well it’s understandable how they would see that you’re the person who can fix it”

“You don’t know how refreshing it is to hear someone say that, Grace! Sad to say, I don’t get even the smallest appreciation from Mrs Prendergast. With her, it’s all about the twins are sick or the twins need this, the twins have to go to school. Do you think she even knows how hard I work?”

“I’m sure she loves you and the boys very, very much. You’re all she ever talks about during the day.”

“Well I hope that’s true because I’ll be spending more time down at the Mill in the next few weeks. There are some new laws about who can work and how many hours each week. Can you believe that? Meddling with business is going to take this country to perdition as God is my judge. There are changes coming to Lawrence and I only pray that I can control the effects they’ll have on the workers.”

Chapter 18

Featured

“Dorothy! What in tarnation is going on here? Why is there a truck from the Hardesty Farm and a yellow convertible doing in our dooryard? It looks like gypsies struck rich and picked our farm to settle at for the Summer!”

Emily Gale sat in the car, passenger-side window cranked down, a reversal of the priest in a dark and quiet confessional, accusing rather than listening. Uncle Henry sat behind the wheel, resigned to awaiting further instructions. Tom’s truck, ‘Hardesty Farms’ painted on the sides, held his attention in a grip that even his wife would have trouble breaking.

Putting her hand briefly on Eliza Thornberg’s arm, a gesture of friendship, support and warning, Dorothy walked from her friend’s car towards the still idling black sedan. By chance she glanced to the right of the small cottage that Hunk called home and noticed the pair of wooden-slat doors, built into the side of a small rise in the land. She immediately looked towards the west, puzzled why she should care, as the sky was the same actinic blue all the way down to the heat-blurred horizon. As she approached the ground-shadow of the black sedan, she noted that her Aunt Emily’s voice had taken on a characteristic tone. It was her ‘summoning’ voice. As familiar with its grating as she was with the biting cold of December on the Plains, Dorothy hesitated and stopped. It felt every bit like being called before a tribunal of one, and it was all the spark her jumbled emotions needed.

Puzzled by the sight of her daughter stopping and standing in the middle of the parking area, Emily Gale turned, (her voice more than her body), towards her husband,

“Henry! I told you to have this car fixed! That muffler is so loud I can’t hear myself think!  No, don’t bother parking it, you can come out later, just turn it off,” Had she looked at her husband’s face, Emily Gale might have been concerned. Not that she ever was concerned with how her Henry took her suggestions, but this time he wore an expression that not only would she have been unable to remember ever seeing, but it did not belong on the face of her kind, gentle and complacent husband, Henry Gale. Anything but gentle and complacent. Instead of attending to her drivers concerns, she opened the passenger-side door and stepped towards her adopted daughter.

“Dorothy!! What is going on here?”

Watching her Aunt cross the yard, she felt a sudden double memory, not so much déjà vu as it was, ‘(a) memory of a dream that reflected the real life events of the day before.’ She felt a tensing of her shoulders and legs, every animal’s instinctual preparation for fight or flight, the decision still seconds away. Something about the unwavering look in her eyes that triggered a memory, heard in the voice of the nurse at the Hospital,

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.

The decision that ‘flight’ was her best option was neutralized when, from behind her,

“Mrs. Gale! It’s such a pleasure to finally meet you! Dorothy has told me so much about how you’ve transformed this Town.”

Eliza Thornberg stepped past Dorothy, her right hand-held out, and intercepted Emily Gale. Dorothy noted the position of her friend’s hand, palm down, fingers bent and watched as her aunt just barely avoided curtseying as their hands touched.

“You must tell me everything about Dorothy’s childhood. She’s such a tight-lipped girl when it comes to herself. Yet, I feel like I grew up here. The sun is doing nothing for my complexion, come, let’s go inside. Do you think we might have some some fresh lemonade?”

Eliza put her arm lightly around Aunt Em’s waist and started walking to the house, turning to catch Dorothy’s eye and winking a smile at her friend.

“Hey, Hunk! you bring Tom out of the barn, It looks like we’re all going to be staying for dinner.” Dorothy walked towards the house, Uncle Henry remained behind, still sitting in the black sedan, both hands tightly gripping the steering wheel.

***

Almira Ristani was worlds away from the brown couch in a drafty apartment in the Mill section of Lawrence, Massachusetts on a winter’s blizzard evening. She was dreaming of flying, which was her favorite type of dream. Her dream-body, healthy and un-marked, swooped over fields of grass, close enough to touch the green blades. She had the sense of being in a dream, without the temptation to try to control her own actions and impulses. Content (and exhilarated) simply to be loose of the world, she moved through the air without thought. Suddenly there was a change, up ahead in the un-seen distance, something was beckoning, demanding yet not threatening. The girl’s path through the air shifted of its own accord, drawn to this wordless call. With this change, a new feeling grew within her. It shaped itself as an urgency, a thing that she wanted and at the same time knew that would change her, not all to the good. Almira thought, ‘…like a wolf in sheep’s clothing, hiding under a child’s soft blanket‘. In trying to understand the source of this feeling, her aimless swooping became more deliberate. She realized that she was entering a bank of clouds, towering on the horizon. As she drew closer, lightning bolts rooted themselves in the earth and tore at the guts of the clouds that gave birth to them and the rumble of thunder grew, like waves in an approaching storm crashing on a shoreline.

The thunder of her dream transformed into a most common, (and often annoying), sound of banging on the door of Annie’s apartment. Eyes still closed, the sleepers last-ditch attempt to stay where they preferred, Almira pulled the well-worn, pale blue robe closer around her body and let her legs slip off the far end of the sofa. Like a child tentatively sampling the temperature of small lapping waves at a beach, she let her feet test the commitment of the floor to being a solid and reliable surface. As if to insist that it was up to the task of supporting her, the cold of the floor pulled itself into her soles and up her legs. Resigned now to being awake, she counter-levered her legs to raise the rest of her body into an upright position in the middle of the couch. She felt the cold creep up her legs as her sleep-weighted arms desperately practiced feeling and flexing, touching and holding. Almira Ristani was now more earth-bound girl, than sky-flying angel, even the sadness of leaving the night world evaporated like morning frost in the sunlight. Resisting the impulse to rub her eyes, a bright aurora of yellow and green still encircling both, she settled for burying her fingers in her hair. Sleep-tangled, it fell down over her face, a virgin’s marriage veil, brushed away each morning, un-claimed by anyone other than her own duty to continue on through the world alone.

Looking up, Almira saw the door slowly open, a spasm of adrenaline coursed roughly from her center outwards, her muscles tensed in primal action. She relaxed as Sterling Gulch’s head projected through the opening, announcing his arrival. Almira was stunned into motionlessness as a sudden, nearly incomprehensible image appeared in her mind. It was, somehow meaningful enough to cause her dream-self, (delaying her return to the night), to laugh soundlessly and wave as she vanished before the light.

“Anyone home? Oh, hey! Almira! Sorry! I didn’t know you were asleep!”

Sterling Gulch, a shelf of fresh fallen snow avalanching off his broad shoulders down onto the threshold, walked into the apartment, talking,

“Annie told me that she had to work today, so she asked if I would stop by and check in on you. Between you and me and the gate post, I told her that you were one of the strongest girls I know and probably not in need of being checked-up on. Being Annie, she said. ‘For such a bright young man you’re sometimes very dense. Don’t ask, just do as I say.'”

Almira laughed,

“That sounds like my friend Annie. And, for what it’s worth, you’re both right.”

Almira smiled, felt a newly familiar tug on the skin at the bridge of nose, and became aware that her robe’s light cotton fabric that made it so comfortable to sleep in, did nothing to make her feel anything other than slightly un-dressed. From the corner of her eye, she watched her left shoulder creep out from under the robe, a rebel leaving its hidden refuge in hopes of learning the enemies position. Her brow furrowed, chasing her smile back inside her. And with what she hoped was a confident, un-self-conscious gesture, Almira pulled the blanket around her shoulders. Her efforts were undone by the absurd mental  image of a queen being ceremoniously draped with the royal robes.

“Well, it’s good to see that you’re feeling better. And, looking better.” Sterling seemed to be making himself at home, putting his coat over a kitchen chair and then moving the chair  to bring the back of the chair and coat closer to the stove.

“Not that you were looking bad….anything but! You’re really a pretty girl… it’s just compared to the…”

“My face is still pretty bruised and my nose, well, I don’t think I’ll ever have the same face that I had…”

“Stronger…”

“What?”

“Stronger is what you look like now. Your nose is, somehow, better. Thats only because your eyes were too deep, they look out from a place that, if I say so myself, is pretty scary.  Like the coals of fire, burning and hungry, both at the same time.”

Almira pulled her blanket and robe tighter and was confused to find that her body was tingling with un-sourced energy, more sensitive, as if suddenly resenting the protective covering. She started to pull at her hair, which apparently decided to move about on its own, throwing itself down across her brow.

“Uh… well,”

Almira heard sounds coming from her mouth and heard a quote from Oscar Wilde run through her mind, like an unruly child,

‘I am so clever that sometimes I don’t understand a single word of what I am saying.’

She brushed her hair impatiently from her eyes, just as the young man said, with sincerity that was just barely more frightening than it was exciting.

“After the bruising fades, and you put on some weight, you’ll go from being ‘pretty’ to flat-out, howl at the moon, beautiful.”

***

“Alright you can go over and play with the other children on the swing, just don’t wander off.”

Ephraim Hardesty watched as his son ran towards a car-tire suspended from a branch of tree that grew alone, by itself in a small meadow. It grew nevertheless, abandoned by the others of its kind, reaching into the earth, putting down its own roots. There was a small group of boys and girls of Ethan’s age gathered around the swing, members of the families currently living at Almira’s Keep. The farm was refuge for the dispossessed transients, wanderers and other victims of a society in transition. Like the snake that sheds its skin, nature’s harsh requirement for growth and maturity, people and families and in some parts whole communities, found themselves no longer a part of a life they knew and depended. And so, they wandered and looked for a place where they might be useful, welcome, even valued. Until then, like the dried and lifeless scales of a shed snake-shaped husk, they wandered, blown across the countryside by chance and the rumour of opportunity. Almira’s Keep was not on any Rand McNally or Shell Auto Atlas, but was as well-known as it needed to be to serve this community, which spread along the dusty roads and secondary highways of the country’s mid-section.

Seeing his son Ethan welcomed by the other children, Ephraim relaxed. Watching as the largest child, a girl with blonde hair who appeared to be about 10 years old, pointed to each child when it was time for them to climb on the swing, he thought that the fundamental principle that provided order among people is also the simplest. The largest child saw to it that the smaller children were not brushed aside. Thinking wistfully that perhaps the country would benefit if there was more of this kind of childish concern and wisdom, Ephraim walked towards the small farmhouse. Although not nearly as large as the barns or building that served as extra living quarters (for the visitors), it was clearly the nerve center of the farm.

“Miz McCutcheon? Are you here?” Ephraim stepped into the kitchen, holding the screen door to prevent the spring that held it closed from slamming shut. In the kitchen, girls and boys, ferried platters of food out through double swinging doors, into the large dining room. The sounds of conversations from the 20 or so people, echoed back into kitchen in waves, each time the doors opened and closed.

“Yes? Who it it?”

Ephraim walked towards the small room off the kitchen and stood in the doorway. The sole occupant, a woman in her early 30’s, was seated at a battered, green metal office desk. She turned to face him, but did not get up. The office was converted from a pantry, and therefore had no window. The only light came from a gooseneck desk lamp that stared down at the wide and cluttered workspace. It’s single bulb, focused by the chopped-off cone of its shade, created a pool of light, defined by loose leaf paper shores. Two yellow pencils and one well-worn eraser seemed to float on the pond of artificial light.

“Mr Hardesty! Hello! I didn’t recognize your voice!”

Phyllis McCutcheon looked up in an absent-minded surprise. She then seemed to retreat into thought, and as quickly, she returned with a laugh,

“But then, I don’t believe I actually heard you out there calling me.”

She seemed to enjoy her joke, and continued to laugh until a frown crossed her face,

“Is it that time of month already?”

She smiled with an openness that was at once endearing and worrying. Ephraim found himself returning her smile. He realized that it was his brief interactions with her that he enjoyed most about doing business with this farm.

“I beg your pardon?” his smile reflected an anticipation that her explanation of her statement would be sensible, but in a way that would never have occurred to him.

“The hogs. I have you here on my ledger as, once a month, deliver 2 hogs for slaughter,” without looking, she reached to her right and pulled a clipboard off a hook on the wall and glanced at it briefly. So briefly that Ephraim was certain that she already knew, to the last decimal, what was written on the sheet. Her practiced glance clearly was meant to reassure whoever she was talking to that they could trust information. Even if they didn’t want to trust this woman’s mind.

Ephraim stepped further into the room and, putting his right hand on the back of her chair, placed the unfolded piece of paper on the desk.

“Here’s the invoice, for the hogs. They’re already in the pens out behind the main barn. Though, for the life of me, I don’t understand why you want me to write out an Invoice, seeing how this really is good, old-fashion bartering. But, they’re here and I’ll let you know a couple of days ahead of when I’ll need the extra men for the fence repairing at my farm.”

A barter economy has always enjoyed a healthy popularity in the agricultural strata of most societies, even in America in the 20th Century. Although not exclusively the domain of the farmers, it’s use is a more integral part of the agrarian economy than the manufacturing or service industry sectors. During the first half of the century, the use of the barter system became essential to allowing farms to continue to function. Although, to no credit to the traditional financial institutions, bartering increasingly resembled the clandestine culture of an occupied people. Membership in the barter network served it’s constituents as much by those it kept out as anything else.

Phyllis sat and watched Ephraim, as if seeing him was critical to understanding what it was he was there to say. She nodded when he mentioned Invoice, her right hand unconsciously moving several papers into a more orderly stack.

“And a good evening to you.”

Ephraim Hardesty turned and walked towards the back door of the kitchen. His left hand hit the wooden frame of the screen door when he stopped. He could see his son standing with the other children, dressed in clothes that were neither better nor worse than those of the other children. Ephraim could see the laughter in his son’s eyes. clear across the gravel parking area. Always reading, happy to watch his father work, he suddenly realized that Ethan was his son, just as his brother Tom was surely his mother’s son. One was restless always looking for whatever he thought he lacked, the other content to be with the people he was at the moment, ever curious, yet without the need to find more.

‘You could have done worse, Ephraim,’ he thought, still standing half-in and half-out the door. Two sons, a farm that, despite the sly offers to help, managed to stay a going concern. ‘You could have done worse.’ looking at the children that Ethan clearly enjoyed playing with, ‘you could have your son and your worldly possessions all here, a stopover on a road with no end, only places to rest.’

He turned and walked back into the kitchen, to the door to the small office,

“If you don’t mind my saying, for all the time you spend in this kitchen, I can’t say I’ve seen you sit down for a dinner with any of the people I see on my visits. The Keep won’t shut down if you take time to lift your feet, have a meal with company and set down the burden you’ve carried since Mrs. Gulch took ill.”

“Mr Hardesty! I didn’t hear you come back. Yes, I do seem to work a lot, but it is as I would want it. In fact, I’ll say to you that I’m grateful for the chance to work as much as I do. I can’t think of anything I’d rather be doing.” Phyllis McCutcheon remained seated, but turned in her chair to face Ephraim.

“You need to set the ledgers and the accounts and inventories aside, for just a little while, as the good lord says, ‘man does not live by work alone’.”

She looked puzzled.

“No, I can’t recall which Chapter or Verse I got that from,” Ephraim laughed and continued,

“My son Tom is off somewhere, left me note this morning saying that he was ‘going to be spending the day exploring’, whatever that means! Though he’s still very young, I thought it high time that my son Ethan come with me and learn part of what it is to run a farm. I don’t think Tom will be taking over, there is too much of his mother in him, hearing the calling of the world out there, to settle down for the life of a farmer.”

“… uh, I’d enjoy your company for dinner.”

***

“Lillian, Mrs Prendergast and the boys will be remaining in Boston, the snow is quite bad.

“I will be dinning alone. No, nothing special. If you’d be so kind as to prepare something warming for my dinner, you may take the rest of the evening off. This snow is not letting up. You should spend the evening with your own family. I can fend for myself, but if you insist, ask Grace if she wouldn’t mind having everything ready for me when I return home. Now, since the twins won’t be back tonight, she’ll have little to do. I need to attend to a few things here at the office and will be arriving home at 6:00. Be certain that she gets my message.”