“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,
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
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.”
“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?”
“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.”