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…
“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.
“We’re off to see this Nurse….”
“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.”