“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.”
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.