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.
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.”
“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.”
“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?”
“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.”