Chapter 30

Featured

When beginning a trip that’s only partially dependent upon reaching certain and specific geographic destinations, there is no better time of year than summer’s end. The advantage of Autumn, compared to the other three seasons, is that it’s muting of nature’s beauty, encourages travelers to focus more on the people, rather than the places that make up a journey.

Sterling and Almira Gulch left Providence, Rhode Island in August and had only a single specific destination. They knew that ‘the journey,’ as they called it, would end once they reached a small town in the mid-Plains region of Kansas, by the name of Circe. It was their itinerary that was the interesting thing about Almira and Sterling’s journey. That they imposed no particular timeframe, schedule or deadline for arriving in Circe, Kansas, allowed them complete freedom in the path they took. That they needed to leave Providence and wanted to end up in Circe was the full extent of their discussion prior to getting on board the first of many trains.

The young couple did not, however, get on a train bound for Kansas City, Kansas. This fact spoke volumes about their feelings towards the trip. Without becoming entangled by inference and innuendo, inference and innuendo that might help acquire an insight into their motivations, in the simplest of terms, Sterling and Almira Gulch needed to get out of town. They needed, (or felt the need) to become, ‘unfindable,’. This somewhat clunky term was preferred over the more common, and certainly more potent phrase, ‘to go into hiding.’ In purely objective terms, they were hiding from the authorities from Lawrence Massachusetts. Specifically the Chief of Police, who was representing the interests of the Essex Company, owner of the city of Lawrence.

Subjectively speaking, Sterling and Almira Gulch were hiding from the past. To be fair, only one of the two would have acceded to that attribution of motive. Neither felt a need to discuss with the other the appropriateness of this attempt to avoid contact with the authorities. That they agreed that it was the best course of action was not in question, sharing how they perceived the outcome of not running, was. However, neither felt the need or desire to bring it out in the open.

Much like a binary star system, two suns with their own planetary systems locked in a larger, slower but far more significant rotation around a single common center point, Almira and Sterling maintained very distinct public and professional lives. It was this center point that allowed both to flourish and develop as individuals. They both grew in their respective professions far more than they would have as solitary individuals. While one might observe that each of the two suns of our binary system, each with their planetary systems were, in fact, self-sufficient and therefore truly successful in their own right, no one could argue that the sky would have shone as brightly were they not bound together.

And so, with nothing driving them to walk down the streets of Circe sooner, rather than later, the couple allowed their interests to determine the path they took to Kansas. Being young and being a new couple (in all ways), they grossly underestimated the changes in their lives that was a direct result of Almira’s pregnancy. Because they were young, they were able to believe that Almira, being six months pregnant, would not have an effect on their very loosely drawn plans to get to Circe Kansas.

Almira and Sterling arrived in New York on August 12th. The train car, was full of light and fresh with drafts of sea-scented air as it traveled along the New England coastline. The future seemed near and almost touchable, as the couple spoke of their plans. As they crossed Connecticut, conversation consisted of small, happy sketches of their hopes, (secret and shared) and snapshots of memories, (shared and still re-tellable, one to the other). As the day passed and the sun raced ahead to await them in the west, the ocean gave way to cornfields and pasture land. Eventually the fields rose from the earth in shapes of homes and stores and other commercial developments. The structures grew taller and more complex and closer together along the path of the train. Finally, after passing through the exhaust fumed canyons of the city, the train descended into the earth and traveled green-tiled tunnels to Grand Central Station. The wisps of air through the windows became more metallic than salty, the exhausts of machines tinged with a smell of industry. The conversation in the compartment turned quiet and cautious, in the flickering darkness.

Almira responded to the changes first, unconsciously pulling her jacket around her midsection, an ancient instinctual effort to protect against an un-specified threat.

“Are you cold?”

Sterling turned in his seat to face Almira. His shoulders broad enough to almost entirely block the sight of the steel and concrete tunnel walls.

“No, babe, just had a chill.”

Almira Gulch had the rare ability to inspire self-confidence in people. While many are able to inform another of their own confidence of success, it’s another thing entirely to be able to project emotional certainty. The first offers opinion, the second allows the person to believe it to be a fact. Almira had that gift. Sitting in a private compartment on a train speeding underneath the largest city in the world, she thought she felt a chill. What she felt was not so much a drop of temperature as it was a sudden, unexpected dip in her sense of confidence. It was as if the child within her had upset a certain balance, the natural equilibrium that Almira maintained with the world and people and demands that surrounded her each day. She did not like the feeling, but chided herself for being selfish.

“Bill Lawrence said he’d have a car waiting for us. Be good to get to someplace that doesn’t move.”

Sterling buttoned Almira’s jacket as the two sat, the subtle, near constant jerking motion of the train changing from side-to-side to a front to back pulling and pushing. She smiled and held his left hand as it deftly looped the last button into place. Looking out the window, she was surprised to see the concrete and steel scenery replaced with people and colorful signs as the train came to a complete stop at the platform.

Sterling gathered the satchel that contained his notes and manuscript and the single bag that held Almira’s notebooks and her copy of Gulliver’s Travels and stood at the compartment door.

“Want to go explore the world with me?”

“Anytime, my husband, anytime at all.”

***

Almira Gulch received a very sincere welcome in New York City. Her efforts helping workers successfully organize in Providence and other cities had earned her the respect of labor professionals throughout the Northeast. She was recognized as an expert in education, which all agreed was the most critical first step in organizing a predominately first-generation immigrant workforce. Almira had a talent for encouraging people to see that the path to a better life started with an education, an education beyond the minimum requirement to work in the mills and sweatshops and factories. She was effective because she was able to instill in people a belief in their own inherent worth and competency. Her peers admired her; her students loved her. It wasn’t a question of whether Almira would find work during their stay in New York, it was a question of drawing limits on the demands on her time and her energy. Almira Gulch loved her work, and the city was a place where she came into her full potential both as a teacher and a union organizer.

Sterling Gulch’s daytime life was all about writing his novel. For him, the demands of the days in New York City were without a specific schedule or (an) organizing rationale. Unlike Almira, Sterling did not have specific obstacles to be met and overcome. Nevertheless, his days were full and, in ways, more demanding than his wife’s. His work was difficult for that very reason, the lack of a defining organization. Sterling talked to people, and whenever the opportunity presented itself, he listened to their stories. He spent hours and days in museums and coffee shops, sat in on park-bench debates and poetry readings, stood in front of soapbox orators, and he stopped to read the curled paper messages glued to abandoned buildings, searching the smeared print for secrets and insights, like the Dead Sea Scrolls of modern urban life. Sterling felt the power and the life of his story grow as he fed it the words and memories, hopes and fears from all the people he could engage. His was a need that demanded that he see in others what he could not see within himself.

Because they had the resources, both financial and personal, their time in the city was a full, invigorating time in their lives. New York City, their first stop, became a second home for Almira and Sterling Gulch on their journey to Circe.

***

The estate Seymour Gulch left to his son and daughter-in-law was greater than anyone would have guessed. Seymour Gulch was not from money. Nevertheless, he was able to provide his small family with a comfortable lifestyle from his income as a teacher in the Providence school system. When he had the good fortune to encounter an opportunity, he had the foresight to recognize its potential. Moreover, he possessed the courage, (at the time, some called it recklessness) to invest everything he had into a new company, ‘The Electrolytic Marine Salts Company.’ With the capital from the original five investors the company become quite successful. The value of stock in the company started to rise from the first day of business. Word spread that the firm’s proprietary gold-from-seawater process was successful. The company’s stock went through the roof. Everyone wanted to own a piece of the Electrolytic Marine Salts Company. By the end of the first year of business, the original five investors, which included Seymour Gulch, became quite wealthy. The investment in the initial offering was not, however, Seymour’s most canny investment decision. His shrewdest decision was to sell his stake in the company after the first year, even as the value of the stock continued to soar. He had no trouble finding a buyer for his holdings. His decision to cash out was met with not a little derision from the business community. As a matter of fact, he encountered the most scorn from one of his business partners.

“Great wealth requires great courage, Seymour. It’s probably for the best that you step back at this point from our Company. We’re about to enter a phase that’ll make us such riches that the Carnegies and the Morgans will look like paupers in comparison.”

Edgar Rosenfeldt, along with Seymour, was one of the original five partners. He stood next to Seymour’s car, outside the offices of the company’s law firm, Edwards and Angell. Seymour had just completed the sale of his ownership in the Electrolytic Marine Salts Company.

“I’d say that I’ll miss you, but I pride myself on always being honest. The truth is my share of the company will be that much greater for your selling out. I should be saying, ‘Thank you’!’. I’m sure you’ll do alright. Have a nice life.”

As Seymour got into the backseat of the car, Edgar, feeling especially gregarious, leaned over, intent on getting a laugh from the driver. Edgar Rosenfeldt took pride in being popular with those he called, ‘the hired help’ and never missed an opportunity to demonstrate his innate bonhomie. Slapping the roof of the limousine loudly, facing the open driver’s window, he started to speak. His overly broad smile and small piggy eyes was met with an expression on the driver’s face that was neither resentful nor obsequious, rather it was a look of frank appraisal. Edgar straightened up abruptly, started to speak, looked again at the driver and walked silently back into the towering office building.

“He certainly seemed quite sure of himself, didn’t he, sir?”

Edward’s eyes in the rearview mirror flashed a glint of humor in the slightest upwards movement of an eyebrow.

“I suppose, Edward, that to be great, one must be willing to take chances. Fortune favors the bold. Or so I’ve been told.”

“Quite. A fellow Butler,” Edward smiled very slightly, “who served in the Rosenfeldt household, once remarked that the family’s fortune came from an odd involvement in the tulip mania, many years ago. The staff would often joke about ‘old money.’ As they say, ‘what goes up….’ shall I continue, or would Mr. Gulch prefer some quiet to savor an equally quiet victory?”

The two men laughed as the car left the business district and drove up Thayer Street, past Brown University and the quiet residential streets that overlooked the Seekonk River.

***

On their seventh weekend in the city, Sterling sat and looked at the typewriter. Smiling, he pulled the sheet of paper from the Olivetti, its metallic clicking marking the passing rows of words and laid it face down on the neatly stacked pages to the left. He pushed back from the desk with the air of a man completing an arduous but very worthwhile task. He looked at the 12pt Times Roman, double-spaced stack of paper that was his completed novel. From the living room across the central hallway of the townhouse, opposite the study where he did all his typing, he heard a voice.

“Sterling, can we stay in tonight? Really not feeling well.”

The speed with which Sterling crossed from the study to the sofa where Almira sat curled up in a quilt, provided a simple affirmative. His response time, however, spoke volumes about her husband’s priorities.

“Anything wrong? Is it, …are you, …what can I do?”

She smiled as a memory of her mother played across her mind. She remembered blankets on a threadbare rug, a towering bookshelf, and an open wall formed by the legs of 3 dining room table chairs. It was where a very young girl sat safely, in a corner of the Ristani living room, watching her mother sew while sitting at the kitchen table. Precocious and bold, Almira could remember the feeling she had as child, that she was working with her mother, the books that lay around her slowly yielding their secrets in the single main room of the Ristani apartment in Lawrence.

“Here, come sit with me. Everything is fine with our future and still-un-named child. Her mother is just tired after a day spent helping a middle-aged Romanian man understand how a 19-year-old girl from County Cork could be instrumental to his job unloading raw silk. It didn’t help that the sponsor of the workshop asked everyone to bring a little something for lunch. Knish, pierogies and boiler room coffee is not recommended for women who started their day throwing up the previous night’s dinner.”

Later that Saturday night, after the distant sounds of trains and taxis and late-night revelers faded into the canyons of the city; Almira sat up in bed.

“Your book, it’s almost done, isn’t it?”

Although completely asleep when his wife began to speak, Sterling attempted to reply before awakening,

“What? Who’s cooked, there nothing there, dark… What, did you say something?” 

Almira laughed and continued,

“We should get back on the road. I’ve done as much as I can with the people here in the city. They’ve got the organization and just have to grow the membership. The hard part is done. Speaking of growing,”

Almira sat with her legs crossed Indian style with a wall of pillows between her and the edge of the bed. Sterling, covers now drawn over his head, lay to her left. She crossed one arm over herself and with the other moved the pillows into a protective wall. She smiled at the thought of how often the turning points in her life took place in small, secret places of her own construction. An alcove created by towering brick walls of a ravenous mill, a converted blacksmith shop with a forge-fire blunting the icy punch of winter, the circle of loving arms and legs in the middle of a blood-washed street, hundreds of strangers as guards and even the corner of a backyard boundary wall, away from the light of the plentiful resources in a huge home, all were small encampments where her life was renewed.

She held the quilts and blankets back as Sterling turned to face her and slid over underneath the covers. The darkness allowed the two to see a future in which the three of them would be together, each separately demanding of the world what was needed and giving back what they could,

“So, my love, let’s thank the Lawrences and get back on the road. We have places to see and places to be and, as long as we have a coat to share…”

Almira ran her fingers through his hair, raising a finger to trace the inner surface of the blanket affirming the momentary permanence of their quiet, dark shared space,

“… or a blanket that keeps the world at bay, we will have all we need.”

Sterling slid his right arm between Almira’s shoulders and the pillows and, as she kept the quilt suspended over their bodies, extended her legs out and the two slid together. The world they shared with the approaching third member of their small tribe evident, made their joining both gentle in the love they were bringing to the world and, at the same moment possessed of a fierceness that jumped from Sterling into Almira. It was from Almira that the passion escaped into the otherwise silent world outside the quilt.

***

“Sorry to see you kids leave so soon. In any event, Ted Thornberg’s expecting you. No, I told him that all you needed was enough time to go over your manuscript. Very bright young guy, he knows you’ll want to be on your way. Ted and I did a deal with your father back in ’12, made a ton of money. In fact, Ted financed his publishing business from the proceeds of that one deal. He’ll treat you right. And, Almira? You and his wife Diana should really hit it off,”

Bill Lawrence leaned over towards Almira as the limo sped down 2nd Avenue,

“She’s pregnant too, very pregnant. Hell, she might have the kid while you visit. Nice girl though.”

Getting out of the car, Almira and Sterling walked across the wide sidewalk towards the entrance of Grand Central Station; Bill Lawrence leaned out the car’s window.

“Stay in touch.”

Almira and Sterling Gulch felt the train start forward as it left the station. Almira Gulch felt the lurch simultaneously with a slight kick in her middle as she held her worn copy of ‘Gulliver’s Travels’ on her lap. Sterling Gulch heard the rumble as a train passed on the adjacent track, speeding towards New England and felt a burning sensation across his face as his memory surprised him in the compartment, miles and years from the war.

***

“He’s very taken with you.”

“What? Who? Who’s taken with me, well, who besides most guys that have a pulse and can see.”

Eliza didn’t bother to laugh, or for that matter even smile. She was focused on keeping up with the middle-aged woman who lead her away from the picnic tables, across a small pasture and up into an area of hills and rocky outcroppings. A glance back over her shoulder showed the Gulch Farm spread out in the wide, nearly flat valley. At the rear of the barn, the second largest structure in the small compound of buildings, she could see Hunk and Tom Hardesty working to unload a truck.

“Why, Hunk Dietrich, of course.”

Eliza frowned, as much at the fact that the older woman did not sound out of breath as her slightly disapproving tone of voice.

“Henry? You must be joking. Anyone can see Hunk only has eyes for a certain well-intentioned farm girl. A girl who also happens to be my best friend.”

“…Watch your face.”

Phyllis let go of the branches as she disappeared through what seemed to be an impenetrable grove of juniper bushes. Eliza ducked just in time to avoid being hit in the face. As she did, she caught a glimpse of the other woman’s shoes, stepping down a steep decline hidden just beyond this wall of green vegetation. Turning her back, she pushed through the cedar and smiled as expecting the drop-off, found footing and did not stumble as she walked down into the clearing where the woman stood, waiting.

“Nice spot. Bring the boys up here a lot, do you?”

Walking further into the clearing, Eliza realized that she could smell the spring before she saw it. As if cut into the side of a birthday cake, the opening was 15 feet across, 10 feet tall in a roughly conical shape. Just within this shallow cave, the pool of clear water threw light in rippling patterns across the stone of the ceiling.

Phyllis McCutcheon stood at the edge of the pool,

“So Miss Thornberg, what is it you wish to know about Almira Gulch?”

Looking around Eliza noticed an outcropping of stone just where the opening to the cave became a part of the surrounding hill. It provided a place to sit, not inside the cave and not completely exposed to the sun that, at this time of day was still very unrelenting.

“Frankly Phyllis, I don’t give a shit about the old woman. I do care about my friend. She can’t seem to let go of a need for information from the woman in the hospital bed. I’ve asked her, and all she says is, ‘she took my dog and made me leave Circe.'”

Phyllis McCutcheon stood quietly and watched as Eliza got up and began to pace along the edge of the pool.

“In the year I’ve known her, Dorothy’s never once mentioned a woman who stole her dog, and while she left Circe to go to school in New York, I can’t recall her ever telling me anything about traveling. Funny thing about all that talk of travel…”

Phyllis looked up at Eliza, her head tilted in silent encouragement,

“I remember when I took her to Times Square. It was the beginning of the Fall semester, and I didn’t know her that well, she was nice, but she kinda kept to herself. I decided, ‘lets show the country girl how different life in the big city can be.'”

Eliza saw the very slight elevation of her listener’s eyebrow, and stopped,

“I wasn’t being cruel, I wanted her to relax and enjoy being at Sarah. And besides, the other girls were starting to make fun of her, so I figured something like that would give her a chance to fit in.”

“I didn’t say anything,” Phyllis spoke quietly,

Eliza found a loose stone beneath some bushes and threw it into the pool and watched the other woman. Seeing no reaction, she continued,

“Anyway, we all went downtown and Dorothy did seem impressed. Hard not to, with all the lights and noise and the people. You know, Times Square on a Saturday night, right?”

Seeing no reaction, Eliza continued, now joining her companion in staring into the bottomless water of the spring,

“The odd thing wasn’t her reaction, the thing I remember was in mine. I watched Dorothy Gale, fresh off the farm, blue-checkered dress and all, take it all in, very methodically. There was none of the gaping jaw, wide eyes that show on the faces of most people. No, Dorothy was analyzing, assessing the situation. I distinctly remember thinking, ‘This girl is not impressed. She’s clearly been in stranger places than Times Square on a Saturday night. And, from the way she’s looking everywhere, she’s also been in some pretty dicey situations.’

So what gives with my friend seeming desperate to getting some old, sleeping woman to answer her questions?”

“It’s really quite simple. Your friend, Dorothy Gale was raised to see Mrs. Gulch as being exactly the opposite of what she is as a woman. Her adopted mother, Emily Gale, filled your friend’s childhood with stories that depicted Almira Gulch as nothing more than an evil, selfish and greedy witch.

The truth of the matter? In terms that a silver spoon-fed girl like you can relate to? The fact is Almira Gulch, that ‘old woman in the hospital bed’, gave her life up for Dorothy’s.”

Eliza stared as Phyllis McCutcheon walked back through the green wall of cedars that protected the spring, opening a way through the thick spiny branches with her forearm.

“Wait! What the hell do you mean ‘gave up her life’? I saw her last night, and she was breathing, didn’t exactly talk much, but definitely alive. Hey! Come back here…”

As Eliza stepped into the opening in the bushes she heard,

“…And watch the branches.”

She managed to close her eyes as the thick, bristly swath of cedar limbs hit her face and chest, stinging tears under closed eyelids.

She broke free of the bushes in time to see the figure of Phyllis McCutcheon cross the pasture that lay between the wooded hills of the spring and the clear fields surrounding the farm buildings.

“Hey! Answer me!! What do you mean, ‘she gave her life!”

The woman, halfway across the grassy field turned and spoke in a voice that although not a shout, carried to Eliza’s ear as perfectly had she been standing with her hand on her shoulder,

“For a student at Sarah Lawrence, you seem kind of dense. Good thing you’re such a sexy girl, maybe you could make a name for yourself in the movies.”

Eliza Thornberg laughed as the other woman continued to walk towards the farm. She decided that she liked the quiet middle-aged woman and thought that they would become friends.

Chapter 29

Featured

Circe, Kansas, straddled the border between fertile low-river farmlands of the eastern half of the state and the upwards rise to the Great Plains. Elevation increased from 680 feet above sea level on the state’s border with Missouri to a high of 4,000 feet. In McPherson County, the terrain was best described as ‘un-decided.’ A 100-mile wide band running north to south was neither thick forests and verdant farmland, as found in the east, nor was it the flat, high plains prairie land to the west.

The town of Circe was the center of a patchwork of corn and wheat fields, interrupted by small forests and medium-sized lakes. The land in this middle zone, steadily rising (while flattening out) towards the Plains did not make for effortless farming. Farms spread out between and among the low foothills, the price of every successful crop always very dear. The essential elements of labor and water were anything but in ample supply. Planting corn, and sometimes wheat, along with raising livestock, families bet their lives on their efforts to wrestle life from the land. In this semi-arid climate, water was a most precious commodity. It commanded a high price from those who needed it, imbued those who controlled it with the power of life and death and brought about an end to those unfortunate enough to be caught between the two.

To the northeast of Circe, on the western side of a small range of foothills, was a natural spring. Hidden in the cleft of a granite outcropping and shielded from view by a grove of cottonwood, an endless supply of cold water bubbled up from the earth. Although it never stopped bubbling, the level of the water in the small pool never changed. The new water replaced the old which, in turn, sank back into the bedrock. There was no other outlet for the water, it did not form a river to flow away across the land. It was simply a pool, shaded by trees, surrounded by granite.

The English translation of the Shawnee name for this simple wonder of nature is ‘the crying stone.’ The spring was considered a sacred place. Warriors believed that its waters would hasten the healing of wounds. Mothers believed that babies bathed in the crystal cold water would become great men or powerful women. Medicine men knew that this was a place where the gods touched the earth. Many a shaman spent a lifetime trying to learn what might be learned, to gather what power might be found in this connection between the world of man and the earth.

In 1898, Theodore Baumeister and his wife Simone, German Mennonites, took advantage of the Enlarged Homestead Act and bought two hundred fifty acres of farm and forest land about twenty miles to the north and east of Circe. Theodore and Simone left Germany with a dream of finding a place where they could build a home for themselves. Being members of a faith that was at the time very mobile, they planned not only to farm the land but to create a place where others might find safe harbor. They built the farmhouse and barn first. They raised cattle and hogs, and planted the fields with corn to provide a buffer against the sometimes violent swing in prices at the slaughterhouses in Kansas City.

The Baumeisters did well with their farm and managed to save the money needed to bring their dream fully to life. They built a large two-story structure they called the meeting-house, siting it between the farmhouse and the barn. Simone planted elm trees, as she could see in her mind a time when mature trees would offer shade in the extreme heat of summer in Kansas. The meeting-house provided sleeping quarters on the second floor and a dining and living area on the first. It was completed in 1910 and by 1912, as word spread, it provided a home to wanderers and pilgrims. Mennonites and Mormons and travelers from all parts of the country. There was always the sound of life in the meeting-house, no matter what time of year. Mennonite churches across the Prairie States spread the word of this refuge, and the meeting-house was always full.

But not long into the second decade of the new century, drums of war were being heard in Europe. Slowly at first, but as insidiously as the corn blight that starts at the very edges of a field, the politics of strife spread across the country, reaching into the wide, isolated communities of the Midwest. The simple and hard-working people of Circe began to wonder what it was those people did out there at ‘that German place.’ Eventually, the farm was sold to a young couple from ‘Back East’. The Baumeisters stayed on and lived out their days, working the farm, making strangers welcome.

The farm, known since 1927 as ‘Almira’s Keep’, was essentially the same as it was in 1912.

***

The sun, in the middle of an afternoon in the first week of August was every bit the monstrous orb found in a six-year-old child’s first attempt to draw a sunny day. The sun was looming, un-relenting and without the seasonal restraints offered by the other nine months of the year. The rising columns of red and silver in thermometers acquired a more ominous appearance; warnings of danger, rather than a reassurance of a comfortable afternoon outdoors. Very much the difference between a strong wind making a row of flags and pennants flap in colorful excitement and the triangular red flags stretched into solid, pointed wedges by the winds of an approaching hurricane. The sun ruled the sky without mercy and without promise of respite.

Hunk Dietrich thought it probably would get over 100 degrees before the sun set. He looked over at Eliza Thornberg and amended his weather observation to include, ‘women don’t sweat, they glisten.’ Hunk was in a good mood at the moment, sitting with Dorothy Gale’s college roommate at a picnic table in the shade. He felt the silence at the table grow from companionable silence to simple lack of conversation. The self-confidence he felt while talking and driving her car was nowhere in sight. Desperate to keep the silence from marking him as an inept companion, Hunk decided on a non-verbal strategy to re-establish his qualifications and ultimately, his right to sit with an attractive young woman. He stretched. Arms moved upwards and both legs outwards. Seeing the reaction of the girl, he realized he was out of danger, for the moment.

“So Hunk, who are these people? I see at least three groups of people who obviously are not related. Everyone in the dining room over there seems to be friendly with everyone else. What the hell is the story here, Henry?”

Sitting on the unpainted wooden bench, Eliza Thornberg appeared as comfortable as any wealthy young woman seated in the summer parlor of a Newport mansion or dining at a wrought iron table on the patio at the Tavern on the Green. In contrast to Hunk’s half-rolled up sleeves, sweat-darkened collar and trailing shirt tails, her clothing made her look at home. As was the case when wearing expensive clothing, Eliza looked naturally beautiful. Her light blue silk blouse appeared to float around her body, emphasizing her figure without being, in any way, obvious. A small area between her shoulder blades found the fabric held close to the skin, the only indication of the extreme temperature. A barely noticeable tiara of glistening sweat was beginning to creep along the edge of her hairline, her dark brown eyes alive. There was a humor to her expression that softened the sharp edges of her smile.

Hunk relaxed, hopeful at the pleasant tone to Eliza’s voice. Hunk always felt confident and self-assured when someone asked him for information. He leaned across the table, as if careful to avoid being overheard.

“They’re just people. You know, folks who’ve lost everything…trying to survive… Wait, sorry, I guess I forgot.”

“Forgot what”?

Eliza didn’t bother looking at her companion, interest in her surroundings was beginning to fade. The lack of intonation in her answer hinted at a growing boredom.

“You know, most of the people of the country losing everything and hitting the road, desperately trying to survive? The Great Depression, 20% unemployment…. bread lines. Go ahead you can stop me when any of this sounds familiar.”

Hunk stared at the girl, the gulf between their worlds a chasm. He felt a sudden desire to move away, go somewhere else, do something different. The where and the what were irrelevant.

As if overhearing the economic plight of their parents being discussed, a group of children ran close to the table. Their feet (and youthful energy) kicked up low clouds of dust. Like smoke cloaking the flames of low fire, the plumes of seared earth made the humid air feel much warmer. The sudden slam of a screen door made Hunk and Eliza turn towards the house and watch as Phyllis McCutcheon approached their table.

Hunk stood up and walked towards her, glancing briefly at Eliza he said,

“There’s someone who I want you to meet, wait here.”

Eliza took a pack of cigarettes and a Dunhill lighter from her purse, said with unmistakable indifference,

“Take your time, Hank.”

Hunk met the approaching woman at the edge of the shade cast by the small grove of trees next to the dormitory. Phyllis McCutcheon was a middle-aged woman, her worn, but expertly mended dress seemed to suggest an indifference to her appearance. After only a short time in conversation with her, this indifference showed itself to be more an absent-mindedness. Phyllis McCutcheon was one of those people for whom responsibility was the most important thing. She thrived on responsibility and helping others. People like her were always in demand. Unfortunately, (for people like Phyllis McCutcheon), this demand was in limitless supply. The people in her life would demand her help and she would attempt to comply. Her wardrobe was the first casualty in the daily battle to live up to the expectations of others.

Almost always of good cheer, Phyllis came across, to friends and strangers alike, as a woman who was always busy. At times this had the effect of making her appear pleasantly harassed, but never so much as to cause her distress. It was evident that she understood that the responsibilities she held were far too much for one person. However there was also a certain underlying optimism, she appeared certain that, given time and patience, everything would work out for the best.

“Phyllis, hi!”

Phyllis stopped in the middle of the yard between the dormitory building and the smaller farmhouse. She looked up just in time, barely avoiding bumping into Hunk, who was standing directly in her path.

“Hunk! What a pleasant surprise.”

Only slightly shorter than Hunk, she held out her notepad, as if it’s pages of indecipherable pencil marks constituted a passport. It was, to her, sufficiently informative to provide greetings, instructions, and acknowledgment for anyone she encountered in her very busy days. Hunk stood in front of her and waited. He’d known Phyllis since she decided to stay and help Almira Gulch run the farm/sanctuary/rooming house on the outskirts of Circe Kansas and knew that silence was not inappropriate.

Her arm moved very slightly upwards, as if to present her notes, he waited until the woman caught up with herself.

“It’s good to see you. Who’s your friend? She’s very… pretty. Will she be staying or…”

Hunk smiled, her fragmented speech a reminder of why he liked Phyllis McCutcheon. She had a sense of the incredible bounty in the world if one only took the time to look for it. The two of them very much a pair of castaways standing on the shore of the deserted tropical island, taken with the wonder of what they saw, seemingly unaware that they were shipwrecked and alone. There was, in their respective capacities to ignore immediate circumstances, security in their ability to make the right decisions and take the right actions when the time came, or circumstances demanded. Hunk recalled when Phyllis announced her intention to stay permanently at the Keep. During breakfast, Henry Gale went on at length describing the new and, apparently permanent, resident at the Gulch Farm, finally, his wife, Emily looked over at Hunk and said, “Sounds like another fool in paradise, Hunk. You two should get along.”

“I want you to meet someone.”

Hunk reached out his hand and stopped about an inch short of the woman’s arm. Keeping his hand at her arm, almost but not touching, he turned towards the picnic tables. Without seeming to notice the lack of contact, Phyllis turned with Hunk, and they both stood and looked at Eliza Thornberg, about twenty feet away.

“This is Eliza Thornberg. She’s a friend of Dorothy Gale, and I brought her to show her around Circe.”

Eliza looked at the two, waved her hand and seemed to laugh to herself.

Hunk waved back and looked at Phyllis, who then also waved.

Eliza put her hands to either side of her mouth and in a voice meant to sound like a shout, said,

“Pleased to meet you, Phyllis. My friend Henry has been doing a great job as tour guide, but I think he just hit his limit in the social graces. Would you bring him over so we can talk in the shade?”

Phyllis smiled, her eyes seemed to turn inward slightly, her posture, relaxed up to this point became a little more assertive. She turned and put her hand on Hunk’s arm, smiled and said,

“Hunk, your new little friend wants us to go visit her. Shall we?”

Hunk felt his stomach twist a little, a feeling that usually accompanied his efforts to interact socially with others. He looked at Phyllis,

“Visit we shall.”

Hunk put his right hand on his hip and Phyllis put her left arm through and held his forearm, and they walked towards the tables in the shade. Phyllis began to point to various parts of the farm as if she were showing a visitor the farm for the very first time. Hunk played along and nodded on occasion.

Finally, they stood in front of Eliza Thornberg who smiled at the mid-aged woman, held out her hand but remained sitting.

“Miss Thornberg, this is Phyllis McCutcheon. Miss McCutcheon, this is Eliza Thornberg.”

The three laughed.

“So, Henry here says,” Eliza saw the look of question on the other woman’s face and added, “when I first met Hunk, I mentioned to Dorothy that I thought he looked a lot like Henry Fonda. I still do. Don’t you? In any event, I was curious about the woman who owns this place, Mrs. Gulch, Almira Gulch? When I mentioned this Mrs. Gulch at the breakfast table this morning, Dorothy’s mother, Emily, got a very strange look on her face. It was a look of both hate and guilt, not a pretty sight. I wasn’t even slightly tempted to ask her why she looked like someone had just thrown a rock through a priceless stained glass window. I’m definitely not a shy girl, but I knew better than to pursue the topic of Mrs. Gulch.

In any event, I promised Dorothy that I’d hang around here until it was time to go back to school. I get the distinct impression that if that old woman wasn’t lying in a hospital bed, I wouldn’t be here because Dorothy wouldn’t be spending her summer vacation in this backwoods hole in the wall town.”

Eliza reached across the table and put her hand on Hunk’s arm, smiled and said,

“I’m not disparaging your little town; you know that, right?”

Hunk laughed and to Eliza’s surprise, reached over and tousled her hair, leaving it sticking out every which way. Stunned into silence she stared at Hunk who proceeded to pat the more disheveled hair back into place, smiled and said,

“Eliza girl, I have not the slightest doubt of your good intentions.”

Phyllis sat and observed the interaction. Finally, she seemed to remember the notepad in her hand.

“I’ve only been here at the Keep three years, but I can tell you that Almira Gulch is one of the most remarkable women I’ve ever met.”

Eliza lead forward,

“Hey, Hunk!! Could you lend us a hand in the barn?”

The three looked up to see Tom Hardesty walk around the corner of the meeting-house,

“Eliza. How’re you Miss McCutcheon. Hey Hunk, we’re trying to load a truck, the lift stopped working and all I have is a winch and some halfway old guys. Could you lend us a hand? Won’t take but a minute.”

“Go, Hunk. I’ll wait here. Miss McCutcheon here is about to tell me the real story of Dorothy’s old-woman-in-the-bed.”

“The heck with that! What are we, old ladies sitting and waiting for the menfolk to do everything for us?”

Phyllis McCutcheon smiled but she locked eyes with the startled young woman from Philadelphia.

“Come with me, ‘Liza, I’ll show you a most wonderful cave in those hills up yonder, and while we walk, I’ll tell you about my friend Almira Gulch.”

Chapter 28

Featured

“Good afternoon, Mr. Prendergast!”

Nodding to the cabbie leaning against his car in front of the train station, Frederick waved and continued across the street. The driver managed to get the back door open and was in the process of bowing, something that Edgar Revoir would never dream of doing with any other fare. He found, in increased tips, that sometimes the silly things paid well. By the time he looked up, the man in charge of all of the Essex Company’s mills was receding, (upside down, from Edgar’s perspective) into the distance.

Frederick Prendergast decided to walk to his office from the train station. He enjoyed walking, though of late, his schedule rarely allowed him the pleasure. This particular Friday afternoon, he decided otherwise, and set out towards his office overlooking the Lawrence Town Commons.  He chose to cross the Merrimack River by way of the Duck Bridge. To his right, between the silver-painted lattice of iron girders, he saw on the western horizon, the mushroom tops of a row of thunderstorms. Along their bottom edge, where clouds touch the earth, flashes of light made clear the weather that night in Lawrence. From where he stood, in the middle of the bridge, it was quite easy to imagine an approaching army, destroying each and every town in its path.

Frederick smiled to himself, ‘Rather fanciful thinking, isn’t it, Frederick? Not exactly the kind of thinking that’s going to get you that seat on the Board of Directors. Focus! You have a problem that you need to solve. Save the poetry for Miss Addams; she’s easily impressed. The men on the Essex Company’s Board of Directors are not’.

The memory of the morning he’d spent before the men who owned the Essex Company returned with eye-squinting force. Taking in one last glance at the row of brick mills that lined the banks of the Merrimack, he resumed walking toward the center of Lawrence and his office.

The announcement of an emergency Meeting of the Board arrived at the very end of business on Wednesday, quite by surprise, as was intended, Frederick assumed. The message was simple: the Board of Directors expected him in Boston that Friday morning. No agenda or any information that might provide insight into the purpose of the meeting. The note, signed by Barry Willoughby did nothing to improve his mood and, in a fit of anger, shouted through the closed-door of his office,

“Miss Addams! You will be staying late today. I need you to help me prepare for a meeting this Friday.”

That there was silence from the outer office told him his secretary was prepared to aid him in whatever manner he required. In less than a minute, the door opened and Lizabeth Addams, tall, pale and clearly concerned with the sudden emergency, stood silently and waited to learn how she might be of use.

His plan was to travel to Boston Thursday afternoon so as to be more relaxed and prepared to deal with whatever surprises the meeting might hold. Looking at his secretary, Frederick picked up his telephone, called his wife and told her to have his suitcase packed and ready to take to the train station. He could hear his wife repeat his instructions, presumably to one of the domestics, told her not to wait on him as he would be working late and hung up the phone. He looked up at the young woman and, watching her face, said,

“Miss Addams, be so kind as to book two tickets to Boston. Seeing how last-minute this meeting is, I’m going to need you with me. Please make the hotel reservation for tomorrow night. No, I don’t believe dinner reservations will be necessary. I suspect we’ll be much too busy to have time to dine out.”

Now, crossing Canal Street, the threatening clouds blocked from view by the tall mill buildings, Frederick felt relaxed. He looked down the ruler-edge streets, saw people and vehicles moving purposefully in and out of the mills and smiled. The six mills were the heart of Lawrence, Massachusetts and he, Frederick Prendergast III, was in charge of it all. He liked the feeling.

He stopped at a small market on Methuen Street and stared at the brown-wicker baskets of fruit displayed to the right of the entrance. From the small, dark interior came the sound of voices. The words were of a language he didn’t understand, but the tone was one of surprise, that quickly sharpened to what could only be suspicion. Finally one voice, smoothing into quiet resignation took human form, standing in the doorway.

“Good afternoon! Mr. Pren-a-gustae! Tell me what I get for you this summer day! Some delicious apricots perhaps?”

Frederick smiled at the shopkeeper. He complimented himself on his ability to read people.

“Don’t they look delicious! Tell me, do you grow them yourself or are they from a farmer that you’re keeping secret? These are the best-looking apricots I’ve seen all summer. I’ll let you in on a little secret, Alonzo, I just spent the morning in Boston and I saw nothing like this anywhere in that great city.”

Beaming with pride, Alonzo Gianelli put six of the pinkish fruit into a brown paper bag and rolled the top closed. Looking at the shopkeeper, Frederick rubbed his thumb and first two fingers together and raised his eyebrows. Alonzo glanced back towards the interior of the market, and smiled,

“No. For you, no money! You let us come here to this wonderful country, we work hard, it is our gift to you!”

Frederick felt a surge of pride at the loyalty of the shopkeeper and, without another word, turned and walked towards the Commons. Behind him, from the interior of the little market, renewed sounds of a foreign language spilled out onto the street, the first words expressing surprise, the remainder degenerating into anger.

Frederick walked into his outer office and frowned at the sight of the vacant desk. He immediately recalled that he’d given Lizabeth the rest of the day off, on her promise to come in over the weekend.

“They’ll be laying traps for me the minute I leave the meeting,” Frederick spoke to the mirror reflection of Lizabeth Addams, very early that morning in Boston’s Hotel Touraine. “I need your feminine wiles to keep that son-of-a-bitch Willoughby from sand-bagging me with the nominating committee.”

Staring out the window, thinking about the morning’s meeting in Boston, Frederick Prendergast felt a familiar mix of exultation and fear. As he’d expected, Barry Willoughby took charge of the meeting. For more than an hour, in the richly appointed Board Room overlooking the Charles River, Frederick was threatened and cajoled; a seat at the Board Room table and the loss of everything he had attained, the first if he succeeded, the second should he fail.

“You need to do something about these fuckin unions, Prendergast! Every year since that goddamn strike, they’ve got stronger and more organized. Right under your Dartmouth-educated nose. You need to do something, and you need to do it now!”

Frederick was proud of his understanding of human nature, more precisely, the nature of humans when drawn together into a group. Years before, he was asked by his friend Stephen Shearing, the Dean of the new Business School at Dartmouth, to address an incoming class. He began his speech by saying, “Gentlemen, when you’re managing people remember that everyone plays a role. It is their role that will dictate how aggressive or how passive the person appears and know that people aren’t always aware of the role they play in a group. The loudest person is usually not the most powerful. Never forget that, you need to watch the person who seems least threatening.”

As much as Barry Willoughby appeared to be speaking for the Essex Company, Frederick knew better. He quietly endured the young man’s tirade; being lectured on basic management practices by this 30-year-old heir to a family of slave traders was not the most difficult part of the meeting. Getting the Board of Directors to stated explicitly what they wanted him to do was the real challenge. Finally, the young man sat down and was silent. Frederick reflected that perhaps there is a limit to the amount of manure one can pack into a bushel basket. He caught himself before a smirk could form, alert to the scrutiny of the eight other men in the room.

“Mr. Prendergast, we have the utmost of confidence in you in this matter.”

Philip Tudor, son of the man who single-handedly created the ice trade, making his fortune selling frozen water to the wealthy families of the Caribbean, began to speak. His tone was almost conversational, as if he and Frederick were sharing a lunch in a quiet restaurant. ‘This is the man you need to fear,’ Frederick thought, looking across the wide conference table.

“Our friends in New York and Philadelphia are also having difficulties with their workers. Regrettably, not all politicians understand the reality of business. There is increasing pressure from the government on us to ‘treat workers with dignity’ or some such anarchist nonsense. We applaud your creativity, Frederick, in your efforts to counter the influence of those who would destroy this great country of ours. Your ‘God and Country’ parades immediately following that strike were inspired. You managed to interrupt the momentum that was building over the death of that striker, at precisely the right moment.

However, we need you to do more. We need you to find the person responsible for the killings that day. A face. Get us that person; we’ll take care of the rest. Our friends in New York and Philadelphia and Providence will be very grateful. In fact, there might even be a seat here on the Board. Provided you are successful, of course. Are we understood?”

“Perfectly, Mr. Tudor. I’ve already set into motion certain efforts, both of a legal and, shall we say, extra-legal nature. We are not sitting and waiting for them to come to us, I assure you.”

“Always the conniver. That’s one of the things I like about you, Prendergast.”

“Why, thank you, Mr. Tudor. I won’t let you down.”

Frederick Prendergast, alone in his office, nodded to himself in agreement with the remembered conversation. Turning his desk chair to face the windows, he watched the thunderstorms approach. This storm was unusual. Summer thunderstorms normally approached from the southwest. But everything seemed to be changing in the world, fortunately he knew the path laid out before him would take him where he was meant to go.

Placing a writing pad on the desk, he started his list.

***

Almira felt the muscles of Sterling’s arm tense with the crack of thunder that crashed through the house. Lying on her side, with his arm draped diagonally across her chest, his left hand encircled the top of her right thigh, gently, protectively. She smiled to herself. His sleep was never peaceful, at least not since returning from the war. Sometimes the night’s quiet was broken by a simple mutter, thoughts and feelings not formed enough to shape actual words, like dough being kneaded, not yet bread. Other times he would cry out, sometimes in pain, other times in warning, always in fear.

This particular August night, Almira felt the weight of his arm, and thought, with a renewed sense of wonder, of the first time they came together. Since that time, she would still smile self-consciously to herself, ‘the young girl never actually grows up, does she, Almira?’

Despite the warning of the day-bright flashes of lightning, the thunder rolled and boomed through the night. With each crash, she felt his muscles steel-tense beneath his skin, his body a flesh and blood shield across her naked form. Even at those moments, Almira felt his fingers on her thigh with the softest of touches, as if only to reassure himself that she slept on, undisturbed, through the dark crashing of the storm.

Sleep was an abandoned hope as Almira lay and tried to imagine the life that she and her husband would claim. Almira found the registered letter hidden in a cupboard, higher than Gertrude, the housekeeper, could reach without a step-stool. The letter, addressed to Sterling Gulch had ‘Deposition Subpoena’ stamped in red on the front of the envelope. The return address was: The Office of the Clerk, District Court, Lawrence, Massachusetts. She knew that a discussion would be forthcoming the following day.

Almira walked out the back door of the house and crossed to the garage. She saw Sterling and Edward leaning over the open hood of the car, low muttering between them indicated that they were discussing a problem of a mechanical nature. Standing in the sunlit opening of the double garage doors, Almira’s shadow drew their attention. Edward looked up almost instantly with the sudden darkening cast over the engine compartment. Sterling continued staring intently at a part that seemed just out of reach. She heard Sterling mutter a single word, ‘shit’ and slowly pulled himself up and out of the confined engine compartment, a breech-birth leaving oil and grease and resignation covering his face and looked at her.

“That’ll be all for now, Edward.”

Edward nodded to her and, without a glance towards Sterling, walked out of the garage and into the house.

Sterling sighed, wiped his oily hands with a rag that was only slightly less oily and turned to face his wife.

“When were you going to tell me about this?”

Almira threw the envelope towards the car.  Catching the air just right, it took flight, making it through the air as far as the car’s windshield and came to rest, just above the windshield wipers.

“I needed some time to think. I saw no reason to burden you with it until I came up with a plan.”

Feeling her anger grow, Almira walked to the long black car and got in on the driver’s side.

“Time for me to learn to drive this, wouldn’t you say?”

Closing the hood of the car and getting in the passenger side, Sterling pointed at a black, mushroom-shaped knob to the left of the steering wheel,

“Pull that out halfway and push that black button to the right. As soon as the engine starts, grab the first knob and get ready to push it in…gently.”

Almira felt a grin begin to grow and, instead, frowned at the car’s dashboard, as Sterling continued his very precise and ordered instructions.

Glancing up, Almira saw the envelope resting on the glass and angrily punched the starter button. The car’s engine immediately turned over and began to roar with a steadily increasing sound.

“The choke!! Push in the choke.”

She looked to her right, Sterling’s face held a loving smile as he reached across the car and pushed on the choke. The engine quieted to a normal running speed.

Failing her effort to stay angry, Almira laughed and said,

“That was simple enough. Let’s take a drive!”

Later, after a very, very quiet dinner, as he cleared the dinner plates, Edward looked at Almira,

“I understand that you’ve learned to drive, Mrs. Gulch.”

Almira smiled, watching the butler’s face closely. She knew Edward had a very, very subtle sense of humor.

“Why yes, Edward. Mr. Gulch was kind enough to show me how to start and stop the car. As for the rest, practice makes perfect. Will you be wanting to borrow my bicycle?”

Edward raised one eyebrow slightly,

“Well, I was going to ask you if you wouldn’t mind running a few errands for me, strictly household related, of course.”

“Of course.”

Laughter came as a welcome relief after the strained formality of the dinner, at the overly large table in the very formal dining room of the Gulch home.

“Let’s go to the library, Sterling. You and I need to talk,”

Almira didn’t bother to wait to see if Sterling followed her out of the dining room. She went immediately to the desk that faced the french doors overlooking the patio. The library was one of her favorite parts of the large home and she was sitting when Sterling finally walked in and sat on the leather sofa. She held the letter from the Lawrence Courthouse, fingers pressing on diagonally opposite corners. With the pinky finger of her right hand, she flicked the envelope, causing it to twirl between her hands.

“Why you’re in luck, young man! Come closer! Madame Almira’s magical envelope knows all and tells all. Tell us, mighty envelope, ‘When was the foolish man going to tell the princess in the tower that he had a summons from the evil wizard in the north.'”

Almira felt a growing fear blossom within her as the white envelope spun between her fingertips. Not far behind the fear was a growl of anger, and this she feared more. ‘And that, Almira, is proof that you are crazy. Stop tormenting Sterling, he loves you and was trying to protect you.’

“I don’t want to interrupt the conversation that’s obviously going on behind the beautiful eyes of my beloved, but may I say one thing?”

At the sound of his voice, Almira pulled her mind from the white twirl of the letter and was surprised to find Sterling crouching next to her at the desk.

She turned and locked eyes with him. She saw something in his face, a momentary understanding, as if a memory had re-formed itself and held a new meaning, the opposite meaning that it had before.

Almira felt something pulling her away from him. Yet the pull of his love, after a brief look of uncertainty, blazed anew in his eyes, pulled her to him more than her fear could hold her away. She wanted to understand it, and yet, there was a part of her, the part that made its presence known with nothing less than a growl subsided within, to that part of her soul that she suspected but did not understand. She reached out to Sterling.

“What are we going to do?”

She watched his face and it was the face of a person who saw her, not simply as desirable but as necessary, necessary to his life.

“I hear Kansas is nice this time of year.”

Sterling swiveled the desk chair so that she faced him directly, his left arm rested along her right leg.

“Wait! Hear me out.”

Almira felt the tension in her body seep out at the touch of his arm. A smile grew on her face as he continued,

“I have an envelope, no! A different envelope. That my friend from college, Cyril Sauvage, gave me before he left for the war.”

Almira frowned at the mention of the name. Cyril was the upperclassman who successfully talked Sterling into enlisting in the American Expeditionary Forces.

“Anyway, it’s addressed to his sister Emily. And I found it in a bag the other day… well, you know, the point is, the envelope triggered a lot of memories. Cyril used to talk about life growing up in Kansas. His father was a blacksmith in the small town of Circe. Yeah, I know, like the Greek myth. So, my beautiful wife, how about we go and see what life in America’s heartland is like?”

Almira felt relief that the future was, once again, being described in terms of Almira and Sterling Gulch. Since his return from Europe and through his long recuperation, her dreams maintained a theme, of being alone and having lost something that she could not recall. The thought of Sterling leaving, even though it would be to protect her from the increasingly aggressive pursuit by the police and the Essex Company, was intolerable. She would wake up from a night of one of these dreams looking frantically around (in the way of such things), looking first in the opposite direction from the reassurance that the fear was unfounded.

Mistaking her silence for reluctance, Sterling continued,

“Wait! Hear me out! I have everything planned out and,”

He saw the look return to her eyes and hastened,

“and it will work even better with it being both you and me! Money’s not an issue; my father left me more than we need. The house here, I hope you’ll agree, but I thought that we just put it in Edward and Gert’s name, very quietly, of course,”

Encouraged by Almira’s smile, he continued,

“and, leaving the house as if nothing has changed will slow them down. Since we’re in no hurry, I thought we’d spend some time traveling. There are people in New York and Philadelphia that you’ve been working with who would appreciate a visit from you. Gradually, over a few months, we move south and then out towards the West. We’ll stop in this Circe place and see if there isn’t a union or an oppressed workforce or even a parochial school that would welcome the talents of my wife. What do you think?”

Almira ran her fingers through her husband’s hair as he sat on the floor in front of her,

“I’ve never doubted that you will always take care of me. Even as you know that I’m quite willing and capable of taking care of myself…”

She smiled more to herself and the thing within, the now-quiet source of an occasional growl, the tiger within,

“But it will not just be you and me searching for a new home,”

She took his right hand, curled fingers not yet recovered and placed it below her breast, her hands covering his damaged hand, both to shelter it from the world and to introduce it to the life, not yet demanding attention, that grew within her.

***

We decided that it was best to leave on the earliest train.

Once the primary decision was made, the rest was pretty much scheduling, at least until we got to Kansas. Our first stop was to be New York City. Almira had some work to finish up with Rose and the Garment Workers. I called a friend of my father’s, a business associate by the name of William Lawrence. A real estate guy who had invited my father in on a couple of deals in the city. They both did pretty well. He was very direct and a very, very busy man,

“Sterling! Great to hear from you! So sorry about your dad, he was a helluva a businessman and one of the smartest people I’ve ever met. A place to stay in the city? Say no more. I’ve got a building in Harlem that I just took as collateral on a loan. Very nice. All ready to move in. It’s yours for as long as you need it. Now, I gotta a college to run, can ya believe that? The things we do for women! See ya kid. Say hello to that little woman of yours and stop by and see us when you get in to town.”

Edward and Gertrude took the news that we were leaving as well as I would have expected.

We left on a Tuesday morning. It was summer bright and warm for seven in the morning. Edward drove us to the Station and handed our bags over to the porter. The three of us stood outside and looked at each other. Rather, Almira and I looked at each other and Edward watched everything around us.

“Very well. I recommend limiting contact with us here,”

Edward said as a start of his farewell, and revealing how well-informed he was of our situation and plans to disappear for a while.

“Of course, it goes without saying, if you need something, let me know.”

Almira stepped forward and hugged Edward with a kind of possessiveness that, were he any other man, I would have felt a twinge of jealousy.

“I want you both to know how much I have enjoyed serving your family. You are now on your own, and you must be on your guard. I know you have the strength and the courage to protect the both of you.”

I stepped forward, extending my hand,

“Thank you, Edward. A vote of confidence coming from you means a great deal to me.”

“Begging Mr. Gulch’s pardon, I believe I was addressing Mrs. Gulch.”

He actually winked at Almira, and we all laughed.

Chapter 27

Featured

Sterling and Almira Gulch rode north, there remained only stops in Westerly and Kingston before their train arrived home in Providence, Rhode Island. Perhaps a chance insight into their relationship, Almira sat on the bench that faced south and her husband sat opposite, looking forward to the north, towards their destination.

The train passed not a few seaside villages, but only three small towns. Towns with enough of a mobile population to justify actual train stations. The three towns were much alike, at least to the casual visitor, (and surely there is no more casual a visitor than a passenger on a train, on their way to somewhere else) in that all three offered a Main Street which gathered quaint shops and practical hardware stores together in a row, this central street was lined with very old and stately Elm trees. The size of the trees left no doubt as to the permanence of the town, as if, intimidated by the overwhelming size and sophistication of New York and Boston, they sought to assert the considerable cachet of a genuine Old New England Town.

“Your speech went well.”

Sterling Gulch looked at his wife, sitting on the worn leather bench opposite him in the small private cabin. She covered her legs with her overcoat, as much for a sense of stability against the rocking of the car as for warmth. She was writing in her notebook. When she smiled, he felt waves of infatuation more commonly experienced by those much younger. Smiling at this thought, he was struck by how it seemed that whenever he was with Almira the world somehow became new. He embraced the feeling.

“Thanks, and thank you for coming with me on this trip. It’s meant more than you can know to have you there.”

Almira had been invited to a union event commemorating the 11th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire. Members of unions from all over the country gathered in Washington Square Park. That she was invited to speak was not a surprise. Almira maintained a close relationship with union leaders throughout the Northeast, and the event’s sponsor, the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union was the most organized and active of them. The ILGWU was very supportive of her work to organize the mills and factories of Providence, Rhode Island. That the signature on the letter was that of Rose Schneiderman, was a surprise when she opened the letter only a month before.

“Sure, I’ve worked with a lot of the people from New York and Boston and, of course Lawrence. They’ve all been more than willing to help, but Rose Schneiderman!”

Almira sat at the too-large table in the formal dining room, the opened letter beside her plate.

“You will, of course, be accepting the invitation, Mrs. Gulch”?

Edward spoke as he backed through the swinging door from the kitchen, two dinner plates in hand.

Sterling smiled and Almira laughed. Since the death of Sterling’s father, Seymour Gulch, both Edward and Gert Rogers insisted on continuing the ritual of dinner being served in the formal dining room. Out of respect for their 20 years of service to the Gulch family, Sterling and Almira did not override the butler and the housekeeper. The young couple accepted the fact that, no matter how much they would have preferred to have Edward and Gert join them for dinner, neither would be comfortable with such a change.

“Well, only if you insist, Edward,” Almira smiled.

March 25th, the day of her speech, fell on a Wednesday and despite it being the middle of the workweek, Washington Square Park was crowded with workers, men and women, young and old.

As she walked to the front of the small stage, Almira realized that she would barely be seen behind the podium. Clearly the majority of speakers that day (or the organizer’s image of the speakers) were much taller than her own 5′ 2″. Without hesitating, she walked around the podium and stood at the edge of the stage. Looking out over the faces of women and men gathered in somber celebration, Almira thought of her friend Annie LoPizzo, the vivid memory of her pulling Almira by the hand and running down Canal St, coats flapping in the spring air, simply for the joy of running. Feeling the spirit of her friend touch her, Almira threw the 4 typed pages of her speech up into the air. The wind, always somewhere nearby during the month of March in New York City, lifted and carried them over the crowd, black and white surrender flags offered to the army of people standing and waiting for her to address them.

“I was going to talk about the struggle and the fight. I was going to describe the sacrifices all of you have made. When I wrote the speech that you now see flying down towards 6th Avenue, I planned to list our reasons for demanding the right to earn a living for our families. I was going to talk about the struggle. I wrote, in that speech, about the forces rallied against our cause. I would have, if I gave that speech, reminded the bosses, even though they’re not here to listen, that all their efforts to hold us back only add to our resolve to win this struggle. Because, as I would have said, we know that they are not going to stop with just breaking up our unions. They want us to fear them and retreat. To retreat to a place where, with time, we might begin to wonder if maybe we are less than equal, not deserving of the simple dignity that is our birthright. I was going to talk about the loss and the death and the suffering of those who died here, 11 years ago.

But those words and those thoughts are the words and thoughts of war. I see here today, on this warm March day, not battle-weary soldiers. What I see here are the faces of everyday working men and women, embracing life and working to give their families a better future. I thought, as I threw my speech into the air, that those white pages were surrender flags and felt ashamed. But only for a moment. I realized that if I’m surrendering it’s only because I refuse to fall into the trap set by those who hold power. I refuse to believe that what we are doing, the effort we all are making, the price we are paying, is a war. Not because war always demonizes the other side and makes them the enemy. But because as humans we are prone to believing that if the other person is not human like us then it’s acceptable to treat them as non-human. And to treat another as a non-human is to become less human. The casualties of war are felt by all, even …especially when the war is over. I refuse to become a soldier to fight in a war that those with power would have us fight. 

We have the power. When we let others define us they win. And we become slaves. We are not slaves. We are workers!

My friend Annie LoPizzo once said to me, ‘Come, Almira! Embrace life! To hell with those who want to make you feel like you’re something that you know you’re not.’
This union, all the unions, are ours, not the bosses. Together we have power and the only thing the owners and the bosses respect is power. Accept the power you have, each of you and together we will change the world!”

After the cheering died down, Almira suddenly felt very, very tired and sat and listened as the remaining  speakers went before the crowd. Within an hour, the speeches ended and the crowd began to dissolve. Preferring to wait until the crowd had dispersed, Almira watched, fascinated, as the single mass of people started to fracture into many smaller groups, these smaller groups gradually shed individual members (from the outer edges first), until there was no sign of the crowd beyond the trampled grass and pamphlets and flyers, like autumn leaves lying on the ground. Almira begged off on the numerous invitations to dinner with various dignitaries, preferring the company of her husband to the avid and sometimes hungry attention of those who professed to admire her work.

Now, as the train carried the two home, Almira felt an undefinable calling, from within her body. It was not yet a voice, just the awareness of the presence of another, a whisper of a voice not yet able to speak.

“No, seriously, you were really good. You need to write more. People respond to you. I saw it today, in the faces of all those people, they will follow you down any road that you choose. They sense that you’re willing to give all of yourself to them and that’s such a rare thing in these modern times,”

Sterling sat straighter on the bench, on his side of the cabin and held out his left hand. Almira stood and let him draw her to him. Next to her husband, his arm draped across her, both bandolier and shield, they both watched out the windows towards their future.

“Annie would be proud.” Sterling whispered into Almira’s ear.

***

Hunk felt good. And that made him somewhat uncomfortable. He glanced towards the passenger seat and what he saw made it worse. The girl, right arm cushioning the top of the door, rested her head on her forearm. The wind blew her long, dark hair into a cloud of browns and dark brunette. He was taken aback by her beauty and …something else. He thought, ‘Hunk, this has been a good day so far. Don’t go and ruin it by forgetting who you are and who that girl is.’ Without thinking, Hunk tapped his left brow. It was a habit he’d developed to remind himself to not forget.

Hunk Dietrich was not un-happy with his life. He enjoyed being happy the way most people enjoyed holidays and surprise birthday parties. Despite there being nothing surprising about the arrival of Christmas or a birthday, people usually acted surprised, as a way of expressing their happiness. It was a way to accentuate their enjoyment rather than imply that the celebration was totally un-expected. Hunk Dietrich viewed his experience of happiness in much the same way. It wasn’t that he didn’t accept the emotion, it was just that, for the most part, it was a surprise when it happened. For Hunk Dietrich, happiness was like the weather, it simply happened. He neither expected it, (as a part of his life) nor refused it, (when it happened).

Hunk struggled to keep his eyes on the road ahead. ‘Which at the moment is increasingly difficult to do!’ he thought with a silent laugh. The pleasurable tone of his day overcame his characteristic reserve and pushed his mental laugh out into a spontaneous grin.

“What?”

Eliza Thornberg turned in her seat and, with an expression both quizzical and challenging, stared at him. Hunk felt a boyhood flush rise from his body and lay claim to his face. His ears grew warm, his body seemingly intent on raising the red flag of the socially vulnerable. As with most animals upon realizing they’ve become the object of attention of a predator, Hunk froze into immobility and he stared at the girl.

“You know, Hunk, if you think about it, driving a car has a lot to do with the road ahead and the road ahead is …over there.”

Without taking her eyes off Hunk, Eliza leaned across the seat and turned his head to face forward. She brushed the shoulder of his jacket off with a light motion, her smile removing any doubt who was in control.

“Well, of course, I knew that!” Hunk laughed.

“Although, Miss Thornberg, here in Kansas our roads are very easy. The only question drivers around here ask is, ‘Do I want to go this way?'”

He reached over the steering wheel with his left hand and pointed towards the back of the open car, “‘or would I rather go that way?'”

Hunk took his right hand off the wheel and, crossing it over his other hand, pointed forward.

“Of course, people do sometimes go both ways.”

“I surrender! I’ll go which ever way you want!” Eliza laughed and Hunk put both hands on the wheel as the car sped north on County Road #2

***

“What can I do for you, Mrs. Gale?” Thaddeus Morgan smiled at the woman seated on the other side of his desk. He immediately berated himself for his lack of social skills, in particular in matters concerning members of the Board of Directors of his hospital. This deficiency was all the more costly when the Board Member was also the person donating all the money to build a new wing.

“Why Thad, I’m not here to ask you for anything! Heavens, if anything, I’m here to see if there’s anything I can do to help you with the hospital expansion project,”

Emily Gale sat in one of the two visitor chairs before the Director of Medical Services’s desk. She had her hands folded in her lap and was seated in the exact center of the leather chair. Her back was ramrod straight. She barely seemed to make an impression on the seat cushion. The impression that she conveyed was one of ‘perching on the seat’.

“…anything more to help, that is.”

Thaddeus Morgan watched as Emily Gale smiled her somewhat bony, birdlike smile and thought about his grammar school years. Unbidden, the memory of Billy Turmaline, his 6th grade nemesis, returned with such force that he felt, just for the moment, ten-years-old,

“Gimme your lunch and my book report, Fattius, and I might let you go.”

Thaddeus Morgan stared at the ground. He wanted to say no. He wanted to refuse to hand over the lunch his mother gave him less than 15 minutes before. He desperately wanted everything to be different. It wasn’t. With practiced smoothness, his shoulders slumped and he stared at the ground. He felt the bag and the book report pulled from his hands. His other school books were torn from his grasp.

“Lucky for you I’m in a good mood today Fattius…. and I better get an ‘A’ on this or tomorrow won’t be a good day…. for you!

The laughter of the small group of boys that followed Billy skulked up the sidewalk as he walked happily towards the schoolhouse. Thaddeus Morgan remained standing on the sidewalk, feeling the sting of a single, hated tear. To prevent the release of any more weakness, he kicked at his geography book which lay splayed open on the ground, sending a fan of crudely colored pages into the quiet street.

“What I really am concerned with, Dr. Morgan, is your timetable. How are you progressing with the transfers of those patients in the Charity Ward?”

Emily Gale’s inflection on the words ‘patients’ and ‘Charity’ were smelling salts to the distracted hospital director. Much as he preferred to get along with wealthy patrons, he took his responsibility to all the patients of St Mary’s more seriously than most would ever understand.

“We have three patients remaining. Mrs. Oppenheimer is leaving tomorrow. Her family is taking her home to stay with them. We can do nothing more for her here. That leaves only Mr. Gunn and Mrs. Gulch. Mr. Gunn, I fear, is not long for this world. We’re doing all that we can to make him comfortable, but the injuries he suffered in the War are finally catching up to him. It’s a shame. To see a man survive all that he did 20 years ago and live a useful and productive life, only to have age exact its final price. Despite the fact that mustard gas destroyed a significant percentage of his lungs, Mr. Gunn had the will to live. However, it happened when he was young and otherwise healthy. Sadly, old age is doing what the war could not and he lies there in his bed, slowly drowning. No longer able to force his body to work twice as hard to offset the damage done to it. It took 20 years, but the Great War is about to claim another life.
And last, but surely not least, we have Mrs Gulch. Rather a mystery with her. When she was brought here, she seemed perfectly healthy for a woman her age, except she could not be aroused from sleep.”

“I’m not interested in the medical history of these… patients. What I am interested in is how soon will demolition of that wing begin. There’s a great deal of work to be done building the new Gale Wing, but none of it can begin until we tear down the old, outdated part of the hospital.”

***

Edward stood next to the car as Almira and I walked down the granite steps from Union Station. It was still light and people walked away from the train station and along the sidewalks of downtown Providence. With the car idling, Edward stood on the driver’s side and watched as we approached. As we drew closer, I realized that Edward was not only looking at us, he was watching everyone approaching our path to the car. To the casual passerby, he was a tall, thin, silver-haired gentleman dressed in the clothing of his profession. If, however, they got close enough to see his eyes, they probably re-assessed their impression of him as an elderly ‘gentleman’s gentleman’ who spends his days overseeing a domestic staff. There was something about him that projected an air of competency. And, for whatever reason, from our vantage point descending the stairs, it seemed that anyone whose path took them past the car waiting at the curb were inclined to give Edward a wider berth than they did for the cab drivers that were also parked nearby.

Edward nodded to me. When he looked at Almira, his face changed in a remarkably subtle way. He went from looking like a hawk to looking like the alpha male wolf awaiting the return of his pack, all in a blink-and-you’d-miss-it second.

Edward took the two suitcases I carried, set them on the sidewalk and opened the car door for Almira. I walked around the car with him, opened the trunk and he put away our suitcases. In a moment, we pulled away from the Station.

“How was your trip, Mrs. Gulch?”

“It was quite a long train ride, Edward. But, as always, it’s good to be home. I assume you and Gert have kept the house from burning down or being converted into a speakeasy?”

My wife has a power to charm those who seemed most indifferent or intimidating. I would swear that I saw a grin appear in his reflection in the rearview mirror.

“Well, might I ask Madam if she minds that we take the long way home?”

We all laughed as Edward drove up the steep incline of Waterman Street and headed home in the gathering dusk.

“Would you mind giving me a hand with the bags, sir?”

Almira was already in the house. I walked to the back of the car where Edward stood, holding both suitcases, I shut the trunk lid.

“Thank you, sir.”

“Is there something you need to tell me, Edward?”

“Nothing of major import, sir. I didn’t want to bother Mrs. Gulch with it, really a minor annoyance.”

I waited.

“We received another visit from that policeman, Captain Herlihy, while you and Mrs. Gulch were in New York. I informed him that you were away and I was not certain when you would return.”

“Did he have anything to say to that?”

“No, no message. He simply said that he had a matter that would be of interest to you and that he would be calling again sometime.”

“Odd. I suppose we’ll just have to wait until then.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Is there anything else, Edward?”

“I must confess that, at the time of this Herlihy fellow’s visit, I considered impressing upon him that his visits were not welcomed. Was I wrong to allow him to leave with the belief that he could return?”

“No, you did exactly as I would. For now. And, lets keep this between ourselves, shall we?”

“Very good, sir. My feelings precisely.”

As we walked into the house,

“Edward!  I’m not seeing any hoochie coochie girls or jazz bands! What kind of butler are you! ”

***

Hunk stopped the car at the sign, ‘Almira’s Keep’.

“So, this is the place that woman in the hospital that Dorothy’s so obsessed with lives?”

“Yep.”

“Are those children I see, back there by that barn? I’m surprised. She seemed kind of old to have kids. And a little too comatose.”

“Don’t know who those kids belong to, probably part of one of the families, stopping for a spell on their way somewhere else.”

“Really, what is this place?”

Instead of answering, Hunk turned into the driveway, drove past the two-story farmhouse that faced the road and parked to the side of a large two-story building. It looked like it might have started life as a barn but remodeled into something more appropriate for use by people. Through a row of windows that ran down its side, Eliza could see people sitting at several long tables, from the rise and fall of conversations that managed to escape to the outside, it would seem that lunchtime was in full swing. Looking up to the window along the second floor, white curtains waving in the occasional breeze, Eliza felt safe assuming that it housed some sort of sleeping quarters.

Hunk got out of the car, walked around the front of the yellow convertible and opened the door for Eliza.

“It’s a farm. We do a small trade with them, sometimes exchanging livestock for labor during planting and harvesting season. It’s also a place for people who need a meal or a place to sleep or a place to stay or just a safe haven. Guess this place, I guess it’s a lot of things.”

Hunk walked towards a grove of trees where several picnic tables were set up, all but one currently occupied.

“Dorothy’s never mentioned this place. But from everything I’ve heard from her and her folks, I get the idea that this woman, this Mrs Gulch, is not very popular with the locals. Yet there is something about this place, what did it say on that sign, ‘Almira’s Keep’? Something about this place that’s really special. So what gives, Henry?”

“All that’s true, if you only asked Emily Gale. Even Dorothy would be inclined to give that impression, but Dorothy is a complex girl, so I wouldn’t bet my life that she would insist that people who knew Almira Gulch would think poorly of her. But look around. Most of the working people in town, especially the working poor would tell you something very different. And, if you somehow talked to all of the families that travel through these parts, all their earthly possessions tied to the trunk of the barely working cars, searching for their homes, they would tell you that Mrs. Gulch is very special.”