Eliza walked down the aisle that ran the length of Ward C, without conscious thought, she found (and held) to the very center of the space between the rows of beds. All but three of the ten beds were empty. They were, in fact, more than empty; five were metal frames, a rolled up mattress lying on the zigzag network of wire that provided support for the thin mattresses. Only the three occupied beds still had visitor chairs and, of the seven empty beds, half lacked a nightstand.
Eliza could see her friend Dorothy, standing silently at the far end of the room, a conscripted sentinel, guarding the near-dead in St Mary’s Charity Ward.
Mrs. Eloise Oppenheimer (according to the white card held by shiny metal brackets on the end of the bed), lay in the first bed on the left. Seemingly awake and conscious, she watched in perfect silence as Eliza walked past the end of her bed. Eliza paused, looked back at the woman and, raising her hand in a chest high wave, saw nothing in the old woman’s face that indicated that she was there at the end of the bed. Mrs. Oppenheimer reminded Eliza of a cat she had as a little girl. The cat, a grey Siamese named ‘Theodora’, would sit in one of the window seats that overlooked the patio and surrounding formal gardens of the Thornberg home. Playing by herself, Eliza sometimes found it amusing to try to frighten the cat, approaching the window from low along the row of bushes, suddenly jumping up in front of the window, waving her arms. Invariably, Theodora would remain as she was, sitting and watching out the window. Never once could she remember seeing Theodora show any sign of being caught by surprise or otherwise startled. The cat sat on the window seat cushion and, with the minimum amount of head turning, followed the antics of a young girl on a manicured lawn, playing out adventures to add excitement to her solitary childhood. Mrs. Oppenheimer reminded Eliza of Theodora, only her stare held less humanity.
Further down the aisle, about halfway to where Dorothy stood, Eliza saw what at first appeared to be a rolled-up mattress, laying in the middle of one of the beds. As she drew closer, the mattress became a man, a very obese man, covered in a light brown blanket, head propped up at an angle between two pillows. The reason for this awkward position became apparent as she walked past the end of the bed. Wheezing sleep sounds, like the cries of a drowning man heard from a distance, a distance too far to make rescue a reasonable thought, followed her as she walked down the aisle. The sleeping man fought to find a rhythm to his gasps, propped up by worn and flattened pillows. She hurried past, less afraid of waking the man and having to deal with questions than she was of being captured by the silence of a stranger’s last breath.
Eliza reached the end of the aisle. There was a row of windows along both walls that formed the corner of the room. Beyond the glass, lay the receiving area of the hospital, the scenery was black asphalt and white concrete, the growing darkness broken only by the firefly light of orderlies standing in the dark, smoking cigarettes and talking quietly. On the nightstand next to the bed, a small table lamp threw light in a conical plume up to the ceiling. The meager light it cast seemed brighter as the windows became more reflective with the deepening of the darkness outside.
Dorothy stood very still, her brown hair pulled back on either side, almost into twin braids, her white sweater open over a blue and white check blouse. She was staring down at what, on first glance, appeared to be one more empty bed. Her eyes were downcast, in a sort of stubborn stare, as if demanding that the object of her concentration become something different from what it was. Following her friends gaze, Eliza caught the silent flash of a scarlet ribbon sewn into the collar of a worn hospital gown. The collar of the gown was all that showed of the woman in the bed, otherwise completely covered with a blanket. Small in stature, her face was a study in contrasts. Though closed in a very deep sleep, her eyes were beautifully shaped, set above prominent cheekbones that, in turn, lead to thin, almost severe lips. Even in the half-dark and full-stillness of the moment, she was a very attractive woman, delicate features complimenting her small size. Except, that is, for the nose. While noses are the center of the face and as such always significant to how we judge a person’s appearance, the nose of the sleeping woman was of an exceptional size and shape. As facial features went, this nose not only demanded attention, it commanded it. Sharp along its upper edge, it rose downward from the brow to create an angular promontory. Projecting from the face, this nose seemed to say, ‘hey! you have to get past me if you want to get close to the woman’.
“I don’t know what’s going on anymore. Nothing makes sense.”
Dorothy spoke, almost in a whisper, with a tone somewhere between a question and a complaint.
Eliza Thornberg felt a chill skitter across the back of her shoulders, invisible spiders racing for cover from something that frightened them. Almost immediately, her true personality reasserted itself.
Stepping across the aisle she grabbed the back of a chair and, without bothering to lift it off the floor, dragged it noisily to where her friend stood.
“Sit” she commanded. She then found another chair and, dragging it with a fair amount of racket, placed it next to the bed opposite Dorothy. Eliza preferred to make noise, given the opportunity she felt more…. alive, when there was sound filling the space around her.
Taking off her sweater, Eliza shook it out and hung it over the back of her chair. She looked around the ward once and sat down.
“OK Dorothy, now tell me the story of how you know this woman. And don’t leave anything out.”
And Dorothy began to speak, “… and I took Toto and we ran away.”
Almira came into our bedroom and asked me if I wouldn’t like to come downstairs to sit in the garden with her. Cursing myself, I replied,
“Maybe in a little bit.”
I remained silent as she stood at the bedroom door, the pain, insufficiently hidden in her face, echoed the self-loathing that bloomed in my mind. Each second she stood there, poisonous air fanned the fire, which, try as I might, I could not extinguish. The silence grew and became, as silence between two people often does, something monstrous and destructive, feeding on unspoken fears.
“Alright, Sterling. I’ll be down in the library if you want to join me.”
She walked out, closing the bedroom door, which made the hateful voice inside me almost rabid with angry glee…’She closed the door? Now, even if you considered leaving here, you have to get up and open the door yourself. And when you do that, you admit that you’re the jerk. What the hell does she think she’s doing!’
The ravening voice in my mind had grown steadily stronger in the year since I returned home to an emotional landscape that seemed to constantly change. At first, the dominant emotion among my friends and family was relief that I was not killed in the war, that I did not die. This positive emotion eventually changed into sympathy. People talked about everyday matters and tried their best to act as if nothing had changed. However they could not ignore the fact of my injuries, of my crippled right arm, (that with therapy would get better) and the burn scars on my face and chest, (that wouldn’t). Sympathy, in terms of shared emotion, is like running a marathon. The beginning is chaotic and the position of the competing runners at the starting line is of little importance. Over the course of the race, however, the true pain of losing is not so much a result of being beaten by better runners as it is being left behind. The race ends at the front of the pack, not the back. Sympathy has a way of silently turning into bitterness. However, in the Gulch household in 1920, even sympathy could not last without changing, altering itself. Sympathy, without a sense of confidence or optimism is nothing more than fear with a social face. This fear was very basic, it was that, ‘the way things have always been, will never, ever happen again’.
There was a knock on the door. Before I could get up, I heard Edward speaking through the door,
“Begging Mr. Gulch’s pardon, may I speak freely?”
I decided to play along. To be honest, I didn’t want to think. To think was to give that part of my mind a chance to pull me farther into the depths that I was becoming much too accustomed to, so I said,
“Of course, Edward.”
“You need to get out of the goddamn bed. Sir. Go and suffer in the bathroom and then get yourself downstairs to your wife. You may have scars and memories that remind you how screwed-up your life is; she does not. And yet, she does not give in to her own demons. Demons, I might add, that we all must contend with, at least those of us who know that life is not neat nor does it always make sense.”
He opened the door and stood staring at me. I looked back at him.
Edward appeared to be as old as my father, however, there was something to the way he moved that made me think of ancient Sparta. Not that his appearance was anything more than that of a tall, thin, older gentleman’s gentleman. There was, however, a certain calculating shrewdness in the way he carried himself. It showed more in the slow deliberateness of his movements than in any overt demonstration of strength. He was one of those men that uncharitable strangers might describe as cold and aloof. He was anything but, however, I’ve known him since I was a young boy. Whenever my father had a problem that no one could help him solve, in the end, Edward would be there.
“I trust you won’t think I’m being impertinent, sir. You should to go to your wife, she needs you more than she will ever say. The work that she’s done in the two years that you’ve been away has taken more of a toll than she would ever admit. Quite a remarkable woman. You, if I may say so, have the potential of becoming a remarkable man. She deserves nothing less.”
I got up, the sense of un-defined hopelessness faded out, perhaps just for the moment, but it was enough time for me to move out of the room that I had imprisoned myself in for the last six months,
“Anything in particular I should know about the time I’ve been away, Edward?”
“Nothing you don’t already know, sir.”
I saw what I believed was a look of approval and felt like I did when I won my first medal in high school track. As I walked past. he said,
“There was a policeman here last year, from Lawrence MA. He struck me as the kind of man who, while not overly dangerous on his own, when directed to action by people he feels indebted to, can be quite dangerous. Captain Herlihy was his name. I do not trust him.”
I stopped and looked at him. His facial expression subtly changed, I realized that Edward, for all of his proper manners that came from a lifetime of being a butler, had a lethal side that would not stop at anything in order to protect those given to his care.
“Thank you Edward.”
Almira sat at the desk over-looking the garden. Through the French doors, (one open and one closed), the breeze moved just enough to destroy the illusion that the lace curtains were, in fact, not finely etched glass. The brick patio outside formed a square platform, surrounded by an intricate array of perennial flowers and evergreen shrubbery. The back of the Sterling property was large in comparison to the other homes located on the fringes of the East Side of Providence. The boundaries to the rear were defined by a brick wall that ran through a wooded section of the yard, down the sides and returned to the house itself.
On the desk, her copy of Sinclair’s ‘The Jungle’, open to the title page, on the opposite page in red ink,
To my dear friend Almira,
I wanted to give you something that had meaning for both of us and, yet at the same time be special to us individually. The world is a better place for having you in it and I am a happier woman for having known you
Almira let her finger trace the letters slowly. As if a phonograph needle, the sound of the words were sent directly to her heart.
“I have an idea,”
She looked up to see Sterling, standing in the open doorway. He immediately turned and walked back into the hallway, his words trailing behind,
“…stay right there, I’ll be only a moment.”
The lace curtains swayed quietly, an early April breeze drew her eyes outside the library. She reviewed her plans for her 5th grade class, once they returned following the April break. Her thoughts strayed to the parents of her students, many of whom she knew from her work at the Union Hall on Valley Street, a small building among the vast textile mills. She smiled as she recalled when, at the end of the fall semester, Sister Aloysius called her to her office,
“Mrs. Gulch, please have a seat. You know that as a parochial school we serve at favor of the Bishop? Our parish is new and a little different from the other parishes, in terms of the neighborhoods that we include. That our parish includes the wealthy East Side as well as the working poor of Olneyville is a reflection of beliefs of the former Bishop. He felt that including the wealthier neighborhoods with some of the more …less fortunate, would result in a more ecumenical gathering. I do not disagree. However, our current Bishop is from a more, shall we say, refined background. He recently spoke to our parish priest, Father Coleman about your work with the parents of some of our students. The new union hall that you seem to be involved in, to be specific. He went to great lengths to remind Father Coleman that our parish includes business people, prominent business people.”
Almira sat and tried to ignore her growing anger.
“I just want to say that I admire you. And, as strange as it may sound, I’m grateful that you are not a member of my Order. I’m in charge of running this school, that means all of the teachers answer to me. Not being a nun, I do not have the authority to tell you what to do with your free time, away from school. However, that is not at issue, at least with me. If I judge your character correctly, you will do as your conscience tells you. If that turns out to be in conflict with the Church, in this case, the Bishop, I have no doubt that you will continue to do what you know you must do.”
Sister Aloysius got up and stood looking out the window, the ghost of a smile just visible as she turned away,
“And so, I will say, as your Principal, the Bishop would be happier if you ceased some of your …extracurricular efforts.”
Almira felt something within stir and stood, feeling a growing anger,
“Sister Aloysius, I must…”
Turning from the window, the Principal of Our Lady of Intercession school interrupted,
“That’s excellent! As long as we understand each other!”
Smiling, she continued through Almira’s hesitation,
“I believe that you are one of those rare young women who not only hear what the heart tells her, but has the courage that puts those who would try to make you conform, more at risk than they realize.”
Standing in front of Almira, Sister Aloysius, a tall woman, smiled down at her 5th Grade teacher.
“I trust that you will do what you know is right and that you will recognize your friends, even if they don’t always make it clear that they are your friends, am I correct, Mrs. Gulch?”
Almira smiled back at the nun, reached out and touched the other woman’s hand briefly,
“You are correct. Thank you.”
Returning to the present, Almira looked up at Sterling who, once again, was standing in the doorway. He wore a heavy winter coat. In his left hand, a small paper bag, in the crook of his right arm was an old coat that she thought she’d lost. Her right eyebrow took control of the conversation,
“Wait! Don’t say it!”
After looking around the library in a theatrically cautious manner, Sterling leaned backwards and looked up and down the hallway. Satisfied, he walked to where she sat at the desk and extending his right arm, said,
“Here put this on! We don’t have much time!”
Almira felt the memory-echo of a forgotten time grow in her mind. Putting on the coat, she felt openings cut into the inner lining to allow access to the two large pockets of the old wool coat.
Taking Sterling’s right forearm, she let him lead her out through the patio doors, down a flagstone path to the back section of the property. There the brick wall that surrounded the property took a 90 degree turn. When they got to the corner, Sterling took off his coat and laid it on the ground, sat with his back against the brick and looked up to her.
The feeling that flickered in her mind and echoed in her heart overwhelmed her and, without a word, she sat on the ground to Sterling’s right. He shifted slightly and, with his left hand, held out her old copy of ‘Gulliver’s Travels’.
Still holding the book out to her, Sterling spoke softly, reciting the opening words from the book she’d memorized a lifetime before,
“The author gives some account of himself and family. His first inducements to travel. He is shipwrecked, and swims for his life…”
Almira took her left arm from the coat and Sterling wrapped it around himself and the two read into the night.
The yellow Packard, it’s top still down, sat in the dirt yard between the farmhouse’s back porch and the barn.
“When you country people do nighttime, you don’t hold anything back, do you?”
Eliza rested her head against the back of the driver’s seat and stared up into a sky full of stars and emptiness. She felt both at peace and on edge. One was the result of being in an open car on a comfortably warm night at the end of July, the other from listening to the incredible story told to her in a nearly empty hospital ward.
Dorothy Gale told of growing up adopted, cared for but not loved. Learning about life in the raw earthiness of a barn, from a boy with the sensitivity of a man. As she listened, Eliza travelled to a place that was not of the world and yet, at the same time, was the only world that answers to questions made a difference to the people that mattered. She heard about risking all for friendship and having the courage to protect herself and return to a home she could only appreciate for its absence. And, finally, she listened quietly as the girl told her about how she became the person she thought she needed to be. Yet, with time, all novelty becomes mundane, and she learned the harsh lesson that the only special qualities are those within.
“Hey, that story back there, at the hospital. It all happened?”
Eliza leaned to her right to look at Dorothy,
“God’s honest truth.”
“Well, I had planned on spending August at our Newport house. It has horses and boys and a secret beach on an Island just a short boat ride away. I was going to invite you to come and stay before we have to return to school.”
Dorothy sat up and turning towards Eliza, rested her left arm across the back of the seat. She idly played with the waves of brown hair that surrounded her friends’ head. Laying her own head on her forearm, she said,
“Thanks. But this thing here, Mrs. Gulch and my mother and everything. I can’t. I have a feeling, and I don’t know why, that this summer is important. Sorry.”
Eliza reached over and pulled Dorothy to her shoulder and stared back up to the distant stars.
“Then it’s decided! This year, I’ll be summering in…. what’s this hick town called?”
Dorothy Gale looked over in feigned outrage, pushed her friend’s shoulder, sat upright and pulled the door handle.
“Circe! It’s called Circe and we’re in McPherson County, Kansas. Soon to become the most sought after of vacation destinations!”
Both girls laughed and walked to the front of the car.
“If we’re quiet, I can show you your room without waking up Auntie Em,” Dorothy took her friend’s hand and started towards the house.
She took two steps before she realized that although she still held Eliza’s hand, her friend had not moved. simply extended her arm. Instead, Eliz was looking towards the small cottage that stood next to the barn.
“You go on ahead, Dorothy. I’ll find my way. I think I’ll just say goodnight to Henry Fonda, real quick.”
She watched as Dorothy’s eyes widened enough to be noticed, even in the starlit yard,
“Well, your Hunk was the first to welcome me here, before you and your boyfriend showed up. It’s only good manners to return the gesture.”
Dorothy looked at her friend with an expression of affection and outrage, feelings that she’d become all too familiar with since meeting Eliza Thornberg.
“He’s a friend. Keep that in mind.”
Dorothy squeezed Eliza’s hand.
“And, from what I’ve gathered, he’s quite smart enough to realize that. I’ll be good.”
Eliza walked towards the single light that painted a yellow rectangle on the low slung porch.