Chapter 34

Featured

“Are you sure you’re feeling up this?”

The Baumeisters waved from the porch as Almira and I drove out through the always open gate, turned right and headed south on County Rd #2.

We’d accepted their invitation to stay with them, at least until we made a decision where we would spend the winter. Given Almira’s condition, we didn’t need any convincing that settling here in Circe, at least until the baby was born, was the right decision. Even more importantly, there was something about Ted and Simone that made me feel welcome and, not being a person to quickly make friends, that’s saying a lot. Almira is, in her way, more comfortable around strangers, from the look on her face, as she walked through the front door just a few nights before, you’d have thought that she’d lived there all her life.

Simone and Ted Baumeister were in their late thirties and, at the moment, alone in the large farmhouse. Ted showed me what he referred to as, the ‘dormitory’ the day after our arrival, explaining that he’d just completed the interior and it was ready for whoever needed a place to stay. I started to say something about how it would only take a little time to move from the large second floor bedroom, when he interrupted me,

“Nein! Not you and Almira! Our children, they have all grown and moved on, this dormitory, I built because, well, because we are able to build it. You’d be surprised at how many people pass by our small farm here. Many are looking for work, some seeking direction, all need a comfortable place to rest for a short time from their journey. But you and little Almira, you are different. You, I think, you are family. You will stay with us in the house, for as long as you wish.”

I looked past the two-story building at the barn, about 100 yards further back from the road. It had corrals and pens on it’s far side, and beyond, lay fields, now in frozen slumber awaiting the warmth of Spring to awaken them. Ted and I walked back towards the house,

“I appreciate it, Ted. I don’t know how long we’ll be staying in Circe, but I know I like it here and Almira loves it. My wife is one of the most self-assured women I’ve ever met and she always finds the best in the people; her work with the unions makes that a very valuable quality. I saw something in her face the other night, when Simone opened the door and welcomed us. There was a relaxing, a letting down of her guard that made me believe in miracles. For the first time since we left Providence, I saw an expression on her face that told me she felt at home. Thank you. I won’t burden you with the details, but it is quite remarkable.”

Ted Baumeister, a very large man, easily six-foot three, put his arm across my shoulders as we walked up the porch stairs. At a volume that was something a little quieter than a roar, he announced our return,

“Simone! What is for dinner!”

Almira and Simone were sitting on a sofa that faced the over-sized fireplace, there were books everywhere. Some open on a low table, passages illuminated by the flames of the warming fire, several lying on the floor, a modern fairy ring surrounding the two women. Almira had one book in her lap, pointing to a passage that surely was in support of whatever point she was about to make to Simone, who had her own book, resting on the arm of the blue and gray fabric sofa. She looked up and laughing said,

“Exactly my question, Teddy. You and Sterling there, be sure to let Almira and me know in plenty of time to free ourselves of this avalanche of words and ideas. We are starving!”

We all laughed and Ted Baumeister and I headed for the kitchen.

***

Watching the road ahead, I noticed the scarecrow in the field that we saw the night we arrived at the Baumeisters. It was still in the same part of the field, except rather than left arm pointing, it’s right arm was pointing in what would have been the opposite direction. I felt a twinge pulling at the scar tissue on my face, ‘Well, Sterling’, I thought, ‘chalk one up to long-term effects of shell shock on memory.’ I followed the County Rd #2 to the right and after about twenty minutes I could see in the distance, still just a smudge below the razor clean horizon, a farmhouse and barn, both set at the end of a long fenced driveway.

Almira was quiet since we left the Baumeister’s. Ted and Simone referred to it as ‘the Keep’, an odd but somehow reassuring term for their homestead. She stared out the window, her eyes focused somewhere not on the maps and certainly not a place merely a physical distance away. I knew the look and I knew that all I could do was not worry and be available to her. Eventually she would return, as she always did, sometimes happy, other times exhausted, as if she’d crossed some immeasurable distance, exploring places not found on any motor club map.

I turned left off County Rd #2 at a gate marked: Gale

The barn, to the right as we approached the compound was freshly painted very red, the corral fencing was all new, un-broken and barely worn. There was a small structure next to the barn, a low one story building that seemed to serve as storage of some sort. My knowledge of working farms and farming now exhausted, I drove into the area, that friends back East would refer to as ‘the dooryard’, that lay between the barn and the house and parked the car.

The house had a wide porch lined with windows and a door at the far left end. Very similar to the Baumeisters. One look at Almira confirmed that it wasn’t that similar to the Baumeisters.

“You know that I will turn this car around, right this instant, all you have to do is say the word. You know that, right Almira?”

She smiled, a hint of reserve in her eyes, like a lone cloud in a clear sky,

“We are here, husband of mine, together we can stand up to anything the world might decide to throw at us.” A look of a 16-year-old grew in the depths of her eyes, “But, let’s make this quick, shall we? Simone said that she had some herbs that will tell us the sex of our child-to-be. I’d rather be there, having a beautifully odd woman pretending to know things about me than to be here at a stranger’s house, a stranger who will claim to know things about us.”

We got out of the Packard and went up to the door and knocked and waited.

***

“Sky don’t look so good.”

Eliza Thornberg, sitting next to Dorothy on the porch of the Gale house, titled forward in the rocking chair,

“The hell you say, Mr. Fonda! It’s warm, the sun’s out and there’s not a cloud to be seen anywhere. I think I had you up too late, last night! It looks to be a near perfect August day.”

She leaned back and let the half-round motion of the chair lift her legs up to the porch railing. Looking from under the brim of her straw hat, she looked towards Hunk Dietrich and, turning slightly, winked at Dorothy in the chair next to her.

Dorothy smiled tentatively, trying to recall if she’d ever seen her friend wearing a straw hat. She was fairly certain she had not and her smile faltered as it dawned on her that not only was it not Eliza’s hat, it was Hunk’s.

Hunk walked slowly across the dirt yard that between the farmhouse and the barn and the small cottage that served as his living quarters. He ate most of his meals with the Gale family, at least except during the winter months, when the demands of his correspondence classes kept him indoors, studying. There remained only a few more courses to complete in order to earn the college degree that formed the center of his private, personal life. Hunk stopped halfway across the yard and stared up at the sky. Having lived his entire life in the Midwest, he was very attuned to the slightest of changes in the weather. In a part of the country that otherwise appeared to be quite plain, in geographic character, the High Plains and the wide area that bordered them was prone to surprisingly dramatic (and lethal) outbursts of weather. Snow in the winter could show up at the end of an otherwise springlike day; rain, absent for months arrived with a pent-up ferocity to flatten crops and wash out roads. Almost in compliment to the plainness of the geography, the truly dangerous weather came with very little advanced warning. The tornadoes, often hidden in the night dark, sprang from the belly of thunderclouds, mindlessly destructive children, hungry for destruction.

Hunk stopped moving when Eliza rested her feet on the railing. She wore a skirt that, when simply standing, engaged in an innocent conversation, was of a somewhat provocative style, given the social context of a small rural community in the American Midwest. When the legs behind the skirt’s brightly patterned folds were tipped upwards, the resulting display of the female form moved into fashion territory much less commonly encountered on a working farm, in the middle of Kansas. Not that her dress slid up past her knees, at least not that much. The back half of Eliza’s legs was what caused the young farm hand to stop in his tracks. Like a slightly arabesque tent down a side aisle, part of a traveling carnival, the tented view of the Eliza’s legs held both promise and threat, neither explicitly stated.

Hunk stood, stuck in a patch of indecision as he wrestled with his conflicting response to the sight of the two girls, sitting on the porch waiting for Sunday dinner to begin.

Eliza smiled at Hunk, shaped by both affection and a touch of gleeful cruelty. She genuinely liked Hunk. She certainly found him physically attractive, although he carried a bit of the ordinary in his polite, deferential manner. While she found that quality sweet, in her experience it almost always was followed by boredom. At odds with this characteristic response, Eliza felt a visceral response, as physical as a sneeze, to her memory of the previous evening with him as they sat at a window booth in a forgettable diner in an equally forgettable town and Hunk Dietrich became someone else. It was not so much he became an exaggerated version of his normal self, as happened all too often when boys get drunk on liquor or love. The outcome of infatuation was usually that the big gets bigger and the unpleasant becomes awful. The transformation in the man in the diner was more akin to when a person is so distracted that they forget to be weak and simply act from the heart. The effect of this simple naturalness was overwhelmingly powerful. Even if she had not found Hunk Dietrich attractive, the previous evening would not have progressed differently.

Now, with a radio whispering a tune somewhere inside the house, Eliza Thornberg wrestled with her sense of control and was grateful that it was the daytime-normal version of Hunk standing in the middle of the yard in front of the Gale home.

“No, Eliza, sorry to say but you’re not from around here. There’s something in the air.”

Hunk’s tone was just a little more assertive. It was an echo of the previous evening, strong enough for Eliza to feel suddenly less confident with her feet on the porch railing. She sat forward, her satin D’orsays flat against the smooth boards of the porch.

Dorothy, still frowning, rocked back in her chair,

“Hunk’s always been good predicting changes in the weather. Out here, they call it, ‘having a weather eye’. It means he can sense a change before it happens. It’s a gift and he’s almost always right about whether it’s going to rain or be hot or have tornadoes destroy your town.”

The edge in Hunk’s voice seemed to fade as he turned his head and spoke to Dorothy. He was now standing at the railing opposite Eliza, leaning with both elbows on the rail, hands together, pointed at Eliza opposite him.

He looked at her and smiled,

“I like the idea that back East at your school, the worst thing they have for weather is snow. No surprise…. storms. I like that.”

Eliza, uncertain why, felt uncomfortable. Hunk turned towards her, locked eyes and she remembered.

“Well, we do have blizzards back East! We even had a hurricane pass by three years ago. They’re not exactly tame and safe.”

Hunk smiled in a way that made her feel like she had no idea who any of the people around her were and why she was among them,

“Sure, I’ve read about the wind and the tree damage. Huge storms that move slowly up the coastline. But around here, the storms are more…personal. And sometimes, there’s a storm that comes looking for you. And no matter where you hide, if it catches you, it will take you away.”

“I think I’ll go help Margherita set the table for dinner. I believe Auntie Em invited Doctor Morgan and his wife for dinner.”

“You want some help?” Eliza suddenly found herself wanting to be doing something boring.

“Nah, I can handle it”

Hunk vaulted the railing and crouched in front of Eliza, the suddenness and implied strength startling her into rocking back in the chair.

Smiling, Hunk put both hands on the ends of the armrests and tipped the chair forward. Eliza frowned and her temper, flared like a spark in dry pine needles, her eyes grew dark and was about to speak when,

“Dinner time, everyone!”

Hunk held out his hand.

Eliza felt the flare of temper, like a backfire out of control, spread within her. Her need to control and perhaps to hurt someone was replaced by a simple and plain feeling of need.

***

“So, Doctor Morgan, I understand that in a week or so, the construction will be starting!”

Emily Gale’s voice had a jagged trill to it that, had it been heard from a 6-year-old girl in the middle of a surprise birthday party, would not have been overly noticeable. The strained light-heartedness made each phrase of her attempt at dinner conversation, all the more brittle. The light in the room ebbed and flowed as clouds grew in the sky outside, the tone of her voice as jarring as biting down on a scrap of aluminum foil hidden in a fork full of picnic potato salad.

Henry Gale sat in his ‘good clothes’ at the head of the table. Being a round table, it was so purely on the basis of Emily’s announcement, ‘…and Henry sits there, at the head of the table’. Henry focused his attention on his plate, as if somewhere in the patterns of gravy and mashed potatoes there might be discovered a map to a secret treasure.
Hunk sat closest to the kitchen door and the two windows that opened out to the porch. Behind him, the mid-afternoon sunlight began to draw curved-geometric patterns on the white linen curtains as they swayed in the growing breeze. To his right, Eliza Thornberg sat and tried to appear interested in conversation that kept dying and being pulled from the ashes by the host. She was looking at Doctor Morgan and Emily Gale, but was exquisitely aware of Hunk Dietrich next to her, every few minutes twist in his seat and lean back to glance out the open windows behind him. Each time he did so, his leg would press against Eliza’s and a feeling of dismay would grow stronger inside her. Feeling a blush creep up from the top of her blouse, laying claim to the sides of her face, Eliza began to think that it might be time to think about returning to Philadelphia.

She was distracted from her distraction by the sound of Emily Gale prodding her dinner guest with pointed questions intermixed with obvious flattery, all mixed together like a child’s mud pie, clearly determined to demonstrate a skill that she did not possess.

Dorothy was seated to Thaddeus Morgan’s right. The Doctor was bracketed by Gale women and had a look that any nurse at St Mary’s would recognize. It was the expression he wore whenever walking into the operating room knowing that there was little chance of the patient’s survival. It was professional stoicism at it’s best. Dorothy picked at her food like a farm hand sitting on a porch whittling, waiting out a passing rainstorm.

Thaddeus Morgan looked to his left, Emily Gale sitting painfully upright, the look on her face the determined optimism of a spoiled child about to sit in the lap of a department store Santa Claus and said,

“Well, there is much left to do before the bulldozers come to the doors. We have almost all the primary functions of the old wing moved to temporary quarters. My wife, Eleanor is over-seeing that part of the transition. A very talented administrator, my wife.”

Dr. Thaddeus Morgan, directed the last part of his answer to Eliza, who, in turn, leaned forward in her seat and nodded as if she was interested in hearing the qualification of the Medical Director’s wife.

“She regretted not being able to join us today,” he spoke now more to the table at large, as he recalled the morning, “she takes her duties at the hospital very seriously. Too seriously at times.”

Emily Gale was clearly less interested in the fact that the Medical Director had confidence in his wife’s abilities than she was in how soon the old wing of the hospital could be torn down.

“So, Thad, you expect to start demolition in a week to 10 days, do I hear you correctly?”

“Well, Emily, as I said, most of the equipment and fixtures have been re-located to other parts of the hospital. Of course, we still have one remaining patient in Ward C.”

Thaddeus Morgan watched Emily slice the roast on her plate with an expert efficiency that reminded him of the head surgeon in medical school. At the beginning of the semester of Thad Morgan’s second year, Doctor Alphonse Wolff would look over the body of the cadaver in front of him and say with a cheerful smile to the interns, “Gentleman, dinner is served.” Bringing himself back to the present he stared at Emily Gale, as she continued,

“Just move her out! From what I hear she doesn’t do anything but lie there, taking up space. Put her in the children’s ward. Put her in the morgue for all I care.”

Thad Morgan looked uncomfortably around the dining room table, as if searching for understanding or, failing that, a sympathetic ear.

“One simply doesn’t move a patient willy nilly, not someone in her condition.”

“Well, I never…”

Emily sat back, linen napkin twisted between her hands, eyes circled the room, looking angrily at someone to swoop down upon.

Eliza Thornberg was leaning forward in her chair, staring at her plate, brows pursed, an  expression of frustration mixed with a touch of fear. Hunk Dietrich was leaning away from the table towards the open windows, his expression one of alertness. Henry Gale continued to eat, shoulders relaxed, long-accustomed to the piercing talons of his wife’s temper and her inability to tolerate frustration. He continued to quietly enjoy his food.

“Listen, Thaddeus if you think all my plans and money are just going to stand by and….

“Will Mrs. Gulch wake up?”

Aunt Em’s head swiveled on her shoulders. No other part of her body moved, she simply turned her head and glared at Dorothy. Dorothy, for her part, looked intently at the doctor. Something flickered in Emily Gale’s eyes, something like doubt and fear.

“Will she ever wake up again?” Dorothy repeated quietly, as if she were asking about the weather.

“Young lady! Dr Morgan is the head of the entire hospital. He does not take care of everyone there and certainly does not look after an old lady like that Miss Gulch, lying in the way in the indigent ward.”

“It’s Mrs. Gulch,”

“What did you say?”

“Nurse Griswold told me that her proper name is Mrs. Gulch.”

“Who did you say told you that, Miss Gale?”

Thaddeus Morgan turned to face Dorothy, his considerable bulk almost obscuring Emily Gale who was also starting to stand up from the table, as if to move around the doctor.

“Nurse Griswold. A tall, thin woman with long blonde hair and the most curious way of moving. She told me that Mrs. Gulch is suffering from dehydration.”

Like a choir of badly trained monks, singing out of sync, the intake of breath came from all the people around the table at the same moment, a collective gasp.

“Nurse Griswold said Mrs. Gulch was ‘a girl trapped in an old woman’s body and just needed someone to help her get free.'”

Emily Gale stood up and spoke at the same moment as Dr Thaddeus Morgan tried to re-assure the girl and settle himself,

“Well, Miss Gale, medicine is not such a simple matter of how things look and do not look, there are tests and ….”

“That will be enough nonsense at my table, young lady…”

Somewhere in the distance there was a tapping sound. It began slowly and the sound of each individual tap grew in force and volume.

Hunk was already walking past the open windows, the curtains, now blowing inwards, wrapped themselves around his legs as he passed, headed towards the kitchen.

“Hail. And, unless I’m mistaken, lightning is moving this way. I think this might be a good time to tell our guests the location of your storm shelter, Henry.”

Hunk stopped at the door and looked at Eliza,

“Maybe I can rescue your pretty yellow convertible, ‘Liza. Stay close to Dorothy.”

Chapter 33

Featured

‘Route 56 West’

Below the black, Highway Gothic letters, too small to be read from the inside of a car in the westbound lane, were the words: ‘National Old Trails Road Association’.

The black enamel paint was still shiny, surely not more than six months old. I let the Packard coast past the sign, leaning over my sleeping wife to read the legend under the ‘Route 56’. The vegetation at the base of the signpost was barely rooted in the grayish red soil. The Highway marker was planted in the no-man’s land between the packed gravel roadway and the farm fields that paced the road as it fled to the West.

Back behind the wheel, I got the car back up to cruising speed. The writer in me took over, as it occurred to me that the sign we’d just passed was best appreciated by drivers racing down the road. As both a highway route marker and a symbol, it truly represented the whole, rather than the parts. Route 56 was as big, (or long) as the State of Kansas was wide. I smiled to myself, grateful that Almira was asleep, as she surely would’ve instantly intuited the reason for my slowing down and staring at the sign. She would have said something to the effect that life offered some of us more splotches of color on our palates than it did for others. Although she would sound like she was teasing, I would see a reflection in her eyes that reminded me that we were one whole person in two, very different bodies.

Driving through the middle of Kansas, between Council Grove and Circe, I couldn’t decide if the three-strand barbed wire fence, never far from the road, was there to protect the endless fields from the highway or to protect those of us who flew over the prairie in our cars and trucks from something more primeval lying just beneath the grassy floor of the rolling hills.

Next to me, Almira moved in her sleep, a small sound escaping her lips, barely discernible against the rumble of the car engine. Only her face showed in the mound of blankets that she had gathered around her when we left Council Grove.

‘Circe 17 miles’

Almost as a postscript, less than a quarter mile beyond the shiny modern highway sign, there appeared a second signpost. Nearer to the fence than the roadway, this signpost seemed to be a refugee from the surrounding fields. More than a simple wooden post, the upright was the former trunk of a mid-sized cedar tree. It’s branch knobs weathered smooth, feathery bark long since peeled down to the inner heartwood, sun and rain bringing out a grey-red color. Nailed to this post were hand-painted signs: Sante Fe NM – 570 miles * Winslow AZ – 862 miles * Barstow CA -1,275 miles and San Diego CA – 1385. The lettering of each was clearly done by different people, at different times. You couldn’t help but sense a different intent in each. Like tea leaves from a fortune teller’s cup, each small painted rectangle offered a clear invitation to the promise of a new and better life. Leaving behind the familiar, the un-stated cost.

Although the distance from Kansas City to Circe was only 200 miles, we decided to break it into two days of driving. This wasn’t only for the obvious reason that one of us was an eight months pregnant woman. We’d both been experiencing a curious reversal of the normal urgency that people experience when the end of a long trip draws near. This feeling established itself as soon as we stepped off the train from St Louis.

That we’d picked Circe as our destination was not an entirely random choice. Circe was the hometown of my friend, college roommate and Army buddy, Cyril Sauvage. As men often do, when mortality becomes a significant part of daily life, we made a battlefield promise to each other, that the survivor would deliver a final letter home. This responsibility was made less onerous by the un-stated fact that to be burdened by the promise meant that life continued on; it was a secret gamble on life.

Being that I survived the war, I was honor-bound to keep my promise to Cyril, who did not. When the time came to leave our home in Providence, the cost of my survival asserted itself and Circe became our destination.

We were driving to the home of Cyril Sauvage’s sister, Emily. I met Emily Sauvage once before, while a freshman at Dartmouth College. Cyril and I were roommates in the Pike House dormitory. Though a year ahead of me and an engineering student (to my liberal arts), we got along well enough. Late in the fall semester, Cyril’s mother and sister travelled to New England to visit. I recall that Emily Sauvage, for whatever reason, went to great lengths to appear older and more mature than her actual 14 years. On the next to the last day of their visit, while Cyril and his mother attended a formal tea at the Dean’s home, I took Emily on a tour of the campus and the town of Hanover. Emily seemed quite impressed by the sometimes over-done attempts at sophistication so often found in an Ivy League school. For my part, I admit to having been a little immature, even for a college freshman and sort of showed off a little. I was quite convinced of my charm and was somewhat irresponsible on a couple of occasions as we visited a bar or two in town.

It was the envelope in my satchel, my promise to Cyril to deliver it home that jogged my memory to remember receiving at least two letters from his sister after her visit. I think I might have written one letter in return back. But life took over and I was soon caught up in my life as a future writer and part-time small-town Casanova. As it turned out, I left school after my first year and my wanderings lead me to a mill town a hundred miles away. Through no effort on my part, only the good fortune that comes to some, I managed to find a life that waited in the form of a girl in a mill town. A girl with eyes that saw my soul and reflected the potential good that I had long given up on ever achieving. It was only when I returned to school, after marrying Almira Ristani, did I re-connect with Cyril, who was, by then, in graduate school. One night after exams, sitting in a bar, he convinced me that joining the American Expeditionary Force would be the best way that I could prove to my young wife that I was responsible enough to be the head of our yet-to-be family.

Now, in the dying light of an early December afternoon, I looked at the small signs growing off the long dead cedar tree and thought that maybe California would be a better last stop.

“You know what I miss the very most about our home back in New England?”

Remaining mostly hidden in her private cavern, Almira remained quite still. I turned my head,

“Indoors.”

I laughed and the pile of blankets next to me shook as Almira giggled from under the covers. She had a gift for laughter that you might liken to musical genius or perfect pitch. She was capable of expressing amusement in seemingly endless variety. Everything from a belly laugh to rib-cramping guffaws that make you feel at risk of dying for lack of breath to a polite but sincere laugh that not only did not interrupt the eye contact of a close social interaction but enhanced it. Everything from the childishly enthusiastic energy of a giggle to a barely noticeable snicker.

“Where are we now, babe?”

“About an hour from Circe.”

She said nothing, content to look out through the windshield,

“Hey, Almira I’m sorry to drag you all the way out here into the middle of nowhere….”

“No! I’m the one who dragged us out here.”

“OK we’re both responsible, but for different reasons.”

The skeletal winter trees stood lining the ridges that ran along the highway. Harsh brown jagged silhouettes clawed at the cold blue sky, threatening the sun with the ancient anger of the winter season.

“You know, we don’t have to stay. I’ll give them Cyril’s letters and his medals, pay my respects and we can be on our way.”

“I appreciate that. And if it were just you and I, my answer would be, ‘Yes, lets you and I stay on the road’. If my destiny is to become a vagabond union organizer traveling with a published author searching the countryside for truth in this new century, I wouldn’t hesitate. But it’s not the two of us, it’s the three of us. Our family. Our love has made us more than just a woman and a man trying to make sense of a cold and all-to-often cruel world. You and I have created one more chance for the world to get it right. We are a family now.”

Almira spoke with an intensity that I’ve heard directed at me only in our times of sharing love or when standing before an audience of people showing them how to better live their lives. Riding along Route 56, headed west, her passion banished the limitless horizon and towering sky that surrounded us. There was only the two of us and our soon to be born child.

“You know, once we get settled here, or where ever we decide is home for the three of us, I was thinking that I’d take a quick trip back East.”

She watched me in a silence that was louder and more jarring than anything I heard in my entire war year.

“Wait! Hear me out. I have friends from college who are now well connected businessmen. A couple of classmates are very successful attorneys. I thought I’d go and sit down with this Herlihy guy and put an end to the questions and suspicions once and for all.”

No.”

“I’m sure that once I talk to the authorities, they’ll strike us from their list and we’ll never hear from the Lawrence Police again. It’s the only way.”

Appearing ahead in the growing dark, like a ghost forced to wander the same corridors in a haunted mansion night after endless night, was a white square to the side of the road, ‘County Road #2’ in black letters against a once-white background. It stood at an intersection, a loyal solider unaware that the battle-lines had been re-drawn, determined to fulfill his duty despite the lack of reinforcement. The intersection, like so many we’d driven through in the last two days, was simply the point where two roads crossed at right angles. For a part of the country that seemed to be nothing but wide-open spaces, there was an oddly contentious feeling to these four corners in the middle of nowhere. Two ruler-straight bands of tar and gravel meeting at a single point on the map, a physical manifestation of a point between ‘here’ and ‘there’. Of course, each road existed only because they maintained their own definition of ‘here’ and ‘there’. It seemed to be as basic, and sadly hopeless, an example of the plight of all of us wandering the earth.

I turned right onto County Road #2 and accelerated, the hope of catching up to the setting sun still strong, despite the dark in my rearview mirror.

Almira slept fitfully in her nest of blankets and pillows next to me. Being eight and a half months pregnant made the drive from Kansas City difficult for her. Being 5′ 2″ made creating a relatively comfortable space in the front seat of the Packard possible, given enough pillows and blankets. Fortunately for us, Kansas City was large enough to have several car dealers and among them a Packard dealership, the only car brand to offer a sedan. The thought of driving 200 miles in an open car, even with a canvas roof, was not a welcomed prospect. A direct result of my father’s shrewd business sense while he was alive, and very ample Estate, we didn’t hesitate to buy the sedan that sat on the showroom floor of Hudson-Jones’ Packard dealership on Fulton Street in Kansas City. The car was large, comfortable and, being this year’s model, even had a heater. Almira sat behind the wheel, her arms extended straight out in order to have her hands on the wheel and still reach the pedals and looked at the salesman and said,

“Throw in three of those driving blankets and we’ll take it.”

The car was as comfortable as we might have hoped and, after a day of writing letters to send to Edward, (who would re-post them from the Providence post office), we set out for Circe, Kansas and the home of the sister of my friend Cyril Sauvage. Emily Sauvage, now Emily Gale, lived outside of Circe on a farm she and her husband Henry bought with money inherited from an uncle back East. I got in touch with her once we’d left Providence and she was expecting us, ‘sometime in December’.

The day grew dim as we drove north on County Rd #2.

Awakened by the slowing of the car, Almira sat up on her side of the front seat.

“Where are we, Sterling”?

Her voice was quiet and, somehow, confident. It was the tone of a woman accustomed to being called upon to make a decision, yet always open to the opinion of others.

“We seem to have come to a fork in the road.”

As forks in the road go, this was a wide fork, more like it was the joining of two separate paths than the splitting of one. Opposite us was a rail fence that ran both to the right and the left, off into the distance at a shallow angle. There was still enough light to see that behind the fence was the winter remains of a cornfield.

“What the hell is that!”

Almira sat forward in her seat and pointed off to the right. A hundred feet or so, back from the road as it disappeared to the right, was what looked like a man wearing a straw hat, standing among the stubble of the previous season’s harvest.

After a second Almira laughed.

“A scarecrow! Finally something that reminds me of home, out here in this endless outdoors!”

There was a softening of the edge to her voice, her initial caution now relieved of the potential threat.

“Outside of town, back home, there was a small farm that ran along the edge of the Merrimack that we used to walk out to see, on summer days. It had a small herd of cows, three horses and cornfields. But they were normal sized fields, the kind you could run through with your friends on a summer day, not like these monstrosities out here. You could get lost and die before finding your way out of one of these fields.”

I looked at her as she stared, her eyes peaceful,

“Then it’s to the right we go?”

Her smile broadened,

“Well, it seems like the best choice, does it not, husband of mine?”

“Indeed it does, wife of mine.”

We drove up the road, which fortunately was maintained as all the roads to this point. The light of the sun was beginning to bleed redly into the horizon, the clouds, emboldened by the sun’s decline, gathered like wolves surrounding the dying glow.

I saw lights in the distance, on the left side of the road and pressed on the accelerator.

“So, we might have gotten a bit off the track. If I learned anything fighting in the war, it was: when it starts to get dark, find a place where you can watch all approaches and have something solid at your back.”

I turned in through a pair of rough-hewn wooden gates, both pulled back to the sides in the open position. On the road, just before the gate, was a sign, very artistically painted that simply read: ‘Baumeister Welcome to All’

I parked in front of the two story farmhouse, got out and walked around to the passenger side door. The house had a covered porch running across the entire front and lights glowed behind the curtains at each of the four windows. As I closed Almira’s door, I saw a  large building a hundred yards of so away and to the right of the farmhouse and next to that, a small grove of trees.

I knocked on the broad wooden door, Almira stood to my right. While I knew better than to ask that she stay in the car, I did insist that she stand slightly behind me, at least until we knew who we were dealing with in this large and well-kept farmhouse.

I could hear a woman’s voice, increasing in volume as she moved about the interior. At once distant as if she were in a room to the back of the house, then nearer, but almost immediately sounding distant again.

“Teddy!! Are you down there?”

“Mein lieber abwesend gemachter Ehemann!”

“Oh alright. No! Stay in your workshop, I’ll see who it is.” ( her voice grew louder)  “Coming! I will be there in a…”

Frowning, I looked at Almira standing next to me, her car blanket wrapped around her shoulders. She was smiling.

“Such a night this is….”

I heard a latch being thrown and a chain rattling, heavy links giving off a dull clinking sound as she withdrew whatever lock there was on the inside.

The door did not so much open as the light grew from a narrow pointed vertical bar, broadening into a doorway sized area of illumination. As dark as it now was behind us, we could almost feel the warmth of the light bathe us as we stood on the porch.

“Come in, please! Come in”

The first thing I saw was a woman’s face, surrounded by light. As she stepped back and my eyes adjusted, the light resolved itself into the interior of the farmhouse. But not all the light. A surprising amount of it stayed in place, surrounding the woman in the open doorway. The first thing I saw was her hair, it was the lightest shades of blond possible, without being white. The woman was tall, nearly as tall as I was and her eyes were very blue. The description ‘willowy’ shouldered all other adjectives from my mind. She looked at me and smiled.

She looked to my right where Almira stood, the blanket like a cowl over her head, held in a folded bunch at her throat, spilling open down her front, bulging belly and down to just brushing the tops of her shoes.

I glanced down at Almira affectionately. I looked back at our host, thinking to introduce ourselves and was startled that, somehow, she was now standing in the middle of the room, still looking at Almira. Granted it had been a long day on the road, but I would swear that this woman essayed the slightest of curtseys, a barely-noticeable downward nod of her head. It was enough that her long blonde hair flowed forward around her face, in the briefest of waves.

Almira pulled the blanket from her head and stepped forward.

The blonde woman smiled and said,

“Welcome.”

Chapter 32

Featured

A matinée at the smallest of drive-in movie theaters, Eliza Thornberg sat and watched in her car’s rearview mirror as Hunk Dietrich walked out from behind the barn, past the two-story dormitory, across the open parking area and towards her convertible. Tom Hardesty walked next to him. Hunk, upon spotting her car hesitated slightly, turned and began to walk backwards. Still talking to Tom, his back now to the car, Hunk accepted the offered flask, took a quick drink and handed it back.

As if seeing him take a last swig wasn’t enough, Hunk’s gait had acquired an odd skip, almost as if he was considering clicking his heels. His head was bent, self-consciousness asserting itself. Eliza started the car and watched as the tall, thin man approached. He seemed to take a new notice of his surroundings, almost as if he was surprised by where he found himself. He ran his hand through his hair and tried, unsuccessfully, to maintain a more upright posture.

Hunk was reaching for the driver’s side door before he noticed Eliza behind the wheel, shook his head in bemusement, walked around the back of the car and got in the passenger side. The car started moving even as Hunk pulled his door closed.

Eliza drove the convertible along County Road #2 at a leisurely 35 mph. The smell of prairie grass, wheat and dust infiltrated the interior of the car. Even with the top down, the dry but earthy scents mixed with the scent of her perfume and the slightly masculine smell of the leather upholstery.

The afternoon sun was just beginning to sear the tops of the low hills on the distant western horizon. Hunk slouched in his seat; his arms crossed along the top of the door, rested his chin on his overlapping hands and stared at the horizon.

“The thing about this part of the country? It’s too goddamn big, it’s too open and nothing is surprising. The problem with a land so plain and simple is that the real danger isn’t from up ahead, it’s from below. You don’t die in Kansas from riding off a cliff, you die when your horse steps in a chuckhole and throws you ass over teakettle to break your neck on the plain flat ground. The one moment of distraction when you believe you know what to watch out for and then, from below, the thing you weren’t expecting. The problem with this part of the country is that it’s all ‘outdoors’. People got to eat and so you work for that first. The earth is so stingy that it takes a man every hour of nearly every day to force the land to yield anything to sustain life. And that’s only if you’re lucky and the hail or the heat doesn’t swoop down on you out of nowhere and destroy it all before you can pick one ear of corn or a bushel of wheat.”

Hunk twisted his head around, laying his right cheek on his hands,

“But you wouldn’t know anything about that, would you Miss Thornbird?”

“Hunk! Are you drunk?”

“What? How can you say that! I’m not Hunk! Sure, Tom Hardesty is a good ole boy who doesn’t belong in this ring of hell anymore than I do. He was. But not me, I’m not stupid like these people around this farm…town…place.”

Hunk smiled and without lifting his head, tapped the side of his head with one finger.

Eliza stared and, after a moment, began to laugh.

“You people out here! Either this is the largest open-air insane asylum in the world or I’m the crazy one and you’re all just humoring me.”

Eliza leaned to her left and put her head out into the cooling late-afternoon air, her thick brown hair trailing behind her as she raced over the Kansas road at 50 mph. Hunk leaned over towards her, hand to the side of his mouth, as if not wanting to be overheard.

“Or maybe it’s both. As Socrates said, “A night cap? How nice of you to offer!

‘Είναι το σημάδι ενός εκπαιδευμένου μυαλού για να είναι σε θέση να διασκεδάσει μια σκέψη χωρίς αποδοχή του.’ Or as the bumpkins in Circe, Kansas would be unlikely to say, ‘It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.‘”

The open car spilled laughter along the roadside, like a yellow school bus full of over-stimulated children returning from a field trip to a museum.

“Alright Mr. Fonda, I may be a very pretty socialite, but I’ll have you know that I do have a brain.”

“What?!”

Hunk seemed startled and surprisingly sober and slid down in his seat, as abruptly as if someone had pulled down on his legs.

“I may have met Mr. and Mrs. Gale only yesterday, but I know a predatory matriarch when I see one. I am not taking you home in your current condition. Not that your being drunk matters to Emily Gale,”

“I’m not… yeah, you might have something there.”

“…are you finished illustrating my point? Emily Gale doesn’t care about you; she cares about what effect you might have on her.  I’m not doing you a favor; I’m saving myself the bother of listening to a tedious apology for your condition. And I’m sparing my friend Dorothy the residual bad temper overflow from her loving mother.

So you and I are going to go get a little cup of coffee. Or a lot of little cups of coffee, as many as it takes for you to pass muster.”

Eliza looked over and saw Hunk, eyes closed, hat tipped forward over his eyes as he dozed in the seat next to her as she drove towards Circe.

“So, Hunk, did you grow up around here?”

Sitting in a booth in McAllister’s Diner on West Main St, Eliza found that, with the sun now beginning to graze on the horizon, the plate glass reflection of the man across from her threatened to compete with the flesh and blood version.

“Are you ready to order, hon?”

The waitress looked at Hunk and spoke to Eliza; the order pad in her hand had more used pages rolled back on itself than blank pages. The disinterest in her eyes confirmed what the pad proclaimed; it had been a busy day at McAllister’s. Hazel Delmonte glanced at the clock on the wall and counted the minutes remaining to her shift.

“Coffee’s good for me and necessary for my friend here.”

Eliza smiled at the waitress and watching as she wrote the order without looking down at the pad, was gripped by a sudden desire to be back home in Philadelphia. There was something about this woman who moved like an old person pretending to be young, the tiredness that showed more in her shoulders and hips than in her face, that made her want to be anywhere except Circe, Kansas. Hazel Delmonte (as it was sewn above her left breast) had very dark eyes. Even the obvious fatigue at the end of a 12 hour shift could not completely dull the sharpness and focus in them. Eliza looked at the woman’s face and thought that she’d seen her somewhere before. She immediately chided herself for indulging in schoolgirl romanticism and continued,

“Hey, Henry! When was the last time you had something to eat?”

Eliza read the menu displayed in black letters on the wall over the glass cases of pies and other deserts. Looking back at the waitress she said,

“Better add a ham sandwich to that order, Hazel. We wouldn’t want to excite my friends digestion too much, you know?”

Hazel had started towards the counter as soon as she heard ‘ham sandwich’, clearly hoping to discourage a more elaborate order, but stopped and looked at Hunk and then at Eliza and smiled,

“You’re kidding, right?”

Eliza looked up and thought, ‘this is a girl who got kidnapped and there was no one to pay her ransom.’ She focused on the woman’s face, ignoring the beige-on-blue coffee stains like a garter on her left leg, the fraying of the white piping along the breast pocket, a desperate lacy frill to her pale blue uniform. Without the distraction of the ceremonial dress of a member of the waitress class, Eliza saw a woman who clearly was a captive in a land that was not her natural habitat. Standing next to their booth, in a diner in Circe was a woman possessed of a natural ferocity and passion that, in another time and another place, the lives of everyone around her would have been forever changed. The flash of savage anger in the woman’s eyes made Eliza feel at once proud and yet, very sad.

“Yeah, in a way. It’s just that I’m visiting from out-of-town and my friend here has been kind enough to show me the local sights. He also spent a little too much time working at this farm called ‘Almira’s Keep’. Hunk, my trusty native guide here is clearly not accustomed to drinking in the afternoon.”

Eliza saw Hazel’s expression soften when she heard ‘Almira’s Keep’. Her expression showed an unsuspected fondness once she determined that Eliza was not teasing or criticizing Hunk. Hazel looked at Hunk and spoke to Eliza,

“Yeah, well we small-town folk know life doesn’t always announce its plans for us ahead of time. And we don’t expect outsiders to know as much about us as they think they do. But seeing how you’re with Hunk and you’ve been invited out to Miz Gulch’s place, I’ll make an exception.”

Hazel’s smile showed less teeth and Eliza returned the smile,

“So are we going to eat or what?”

Eliza heard a chuckle from across the booth. It was not the sound of a country farm hand trying to hide his inadequacies; it was a man comfortable with his assessment of a situation and overwhelmingly confident in himself. She glanced first at the reflection in the plate-glass and was startled by what it portrayed. He smiled at her with such self-assuredness that were it not a reflection, she would have felt intimidated by the tall, thin man sitting across from her. He looked at her and said,

“Let me tell you about a girl who wanted a family so badly that she found a way to go to another world. And despite her courage and love for the people she found there, she also had the kind of determination that few people ever witness, let alone possess. The girl, possibly at home for the first time in her life, accepted the fact that she had to leave. She realized that to find her home and her family she had to return to the place she ran away from and discover the truth about herself and her place in the world.”

***

Dorothy Gale sat on the front porch and stared across the dirt yard between the house and the barn, out towards the horizon. Being in central Kansas made ‘staring off into space’ almost literal. The August sun had crept to within minutes of setting fire to the distant hills. She usually enjoyed this part of the day, the far distant horizon glowing brighter and brighter, an ever-elusive pot of gold offering a direction to those seeking it. Dorothy had both the advantage and the misfortune of being one of those people who, failing to find what they think they’re looking for, maintained an unshakable confidence that she would know it when she saw it.

She sat alone in a rocking chair on the broad, sheltering porch of a very well-kept house that was at the center of a well-managed farm, and wished she were somewhere else. At the moment, ‘somewhere else’ was defined as going into town with her friend Eliza Thornberg and Tom Hardesty and Hunk Dietrich. That was, in fact, her plan and intention for the evening. Her growing impatience for the return of her friend caused her to turn inward, as if by having to wait for her friend required justification of her desire to get away from the farm.

“Dorothy!  Dorothy Gale! I need you to come in here and talk to me.”

The voice of her mother came from within the house. However, because she sat on the porch, which was mostly outside, the sound came out of both the windows that ran along the porch and the door that opened into the kitchen. Out of nowhere, the memory of a class on Greek mythology intruded, like a fish desperately trying to swim away after being thrown into the bottom of a boat. The teacher had written the names of various Greek myths on slips of paper, put them in a bowl and made everyone pick one. Whichever myth they drew would be the topic of their presentation at the end of the semester. Dorothy’s slip of paper read: ‘Polyphemus’.

Dorothy muttered, ‘No One’ and walked into her parent’s house.

“What do you mean, you’re not leaving?”

Emily Gale, dressed in what Henry Gale would refer to as his wife’s ‘go to meeting, go to town, get outa her way clothes’, sat at the roll-top desk in the small room. One of two bedrooms in the original floor plan of the house, it had been converted to use as an office. A double set of windows looked out over fields of clover that ran from a distant grove of sycamore trees right up to the edge of the house.

Emily Gale’s desk was the centerpiece of the room. It was also the most expensive piece of furniture in the entire house. An exquisite example of furniture making, the roll-top desk was a wedding gift from her uncle Charles Sauvage. An exceptional combination of form and function, the rolling top was a work of art. Crafted from such thin slats of maple that, when in closed position, the double S curve felt like a solid piece of carved and polished wood. The top had a lock, of course, and Emily Gale kept the only key on a worn and frayed blue satin ribbon that she tied around her neck each morning.

It was in this small, sparely furnished room that Emily spent the majority of her daytime hours. At this desk she kept the books and ledgers for the operation of the Gale Farm. She also maintained the records on the tenant farmers working the adjoining parcels that, combined made the Gale Farm one of the largest farms in McPherson County.

In addition to the roll-top desk, there was a tall, heavily embossed bronze floor lamp standing at attention to the right of a pink and black brocade armchair. To the left, a small bookcase. The room and its furnishings projected an atmosphere of calculated seriousness. Those called to this room while Emily Gale was working found themselves thinking about being outside. Most visitors to this office stood before the desk. On the rare visit from a person of sufficient status to warrant being invited to sit, a minister or perhaps, the director of medical services at the hospital, the brocaded chair offered only a temporary illusion of comfort. No one other than Emily Gale sat at the roll-top desk.

In contrast to the somber and business-like furnishings of the room, the walls were painted a very light blue. Clearly the original paint, the blue had, in most exposed sections of the wall, faded to a grayish pink color.

Dorothy Gale, as a young and headstrong 10-year-old girl, did, one rainy October afternoon, explore the office while her adopted mother was away. Thwarted by the locked desktop, Dorothy found her curiosity focusing on the single narrow closet. Full of old overcoats and summer dresses that looked to Dorothy to be much too festive to be worn by Emily Gale, there was a single shelf above the hanging clothes holding boxes of letters and old ledgers. It wasn’t the contents of the closet that captured her attention (and imagination), it was the wall. Moving the boxes down to the floor, Dorothy stepped back, halfway out of the closet and stared in wonder at the band of colorful farm animals painted in a row, just below where the wall turned into ceiling. It was a repeated pattern, probably a stencil of some sort, of bears, lions, tigers and, incongruously, several sheep. The band was only about 4 feet in length. It stopped abruptly, before reaching the abutting wall.

Now, standing in the doorway of her adopted mother’s office, Dorothy Gale began to regret telling Emily that she would not be spending August with the Thornbergs. At the end of the previous school year, Eliza had invited Dorothy to her family’s summer home in Newport. Emily Gale enthusiastically approved, as she felt her daughter would benefit by time spent with civilized people. The distinction between ‘civilized people’ and everyone else varied according to circumstance and mood.

“I distinctly recall your telling your father and me that you would be going to your friend’s summer home in August. Are you saying that I heard wrong?”

“No, you didn’t mis-hear me. It’s just that I’ve changed my mind. And, besides, I didn’t know that Eliza would be stopping here and surprising me.”

Dorothy noticed her mention of Eliza Thornberg caused a weakening in the set of Emily Gale’s brow. By involving her friend by name, she’d complicated Emily’s strategy for bringing her daughter back in line with her plans.

“So tell me, what is so important that you would give up a splendid vacation?”

“Well, I just think I need to spend more time here at home. You don’t know how different things are in the city.”

Dorothy regretted the statement even before she saw the focus return to the other woman’s eyes. Emily Gale sat straighter in her chair, a gleam growing in her eyes.

“You’re not the only one who knows the world beyond these farm fields. I’ve been to the city too, missy. I know all about the fast-pace of life. I know more than you give me credit for, young lady. I know, for instance, that you’ve been spending an unusual amount of time at the Charity Ward of the hospital. Don’t look shocked, there isn’t much that goes on in Circe that I don’t know about. That’s the trouble with being young; you forget that the adults were once just as young and just as smart as you think you are now. So, what is it you’re after?”

Dorothy looked over her shoulder across the living room and through the windows that opened out on to the yard. She could see the small cottage that Hunk called home. It was obvious that he wasn’t back from spending the day with her friend Eliza.

Emily Gale continued,

“What is it you think you need to learn from that woman? I assure you, I can tell you everything there is to know about Almira Gulch and her ‘farm’. She’s been nothing but trouble and a bad influence on this town since she first showed up, back in 1920. Too much smart talk and always meddling in affairs that don’t affect her. Nothing but trouble with that no-account husband of hers.

To think that Sterling Gulch was capable of writing beautiful poetry. At least he claimed that he wrote it. But then, I was a very young girl, very far away from home for the first time. We all travelled to see my brother start his second year at Dartmouth, the first Sauvage to attend college. Don’t look surprised. All the way to New England by train, and when we arrived, I felt like I had stepped into another world. It was like I stepped into the books I read as a girl, the people spoke with odd accents and the buildings were so close together! And even something common as roads, they seemed so exotic, twisting and turning over the hills and forests, so unlike Kansas.

Sterling Gulch was my brother’s roommate at college and you’d think that would have made him best of friends. But your old woman’s husband talked my brother into enlisting and going to war. He might as well just shot Cyril right there at Dartmouth. It would have saved him the trouble of going to the other side of the world to be killed.

Did you know that your mysterious sleeping woman was wanted for questioning by the police? No, I’ll bet no one out at the ‘farm’ ever say anything about the murder. That’s right! The police came all the way from New England to try and question her and that husband of hers. No, I know that look! They didn’t arrest her. Obviously! For all her conniving she was a persuasive woman. From the minute she arrived here in Circe, nothing but politics and rights and strikes and unions. She was always stirring people up, making them discontent with their lot in life. There’s nothing good about Almira Gulch. You’d be wise, missy, to put her out of your mind. You have the chance at a life that most girls here in Circe only dream about. Go with your friend Eliza and learn what life offers for those who are blessed with status and wealth. Even though your father and I enjoy having your here, you should get on with your life. That’s how much you mean to us and the kind of people we are. Not many women would put their daughters future ahead of their own, I can assure you. But I imagine that that’s just because we’re blessed by the lord to have a higher nature than most of the people in this town.

My wish is simply that you go have as good a life as your father and I could arrange for you.”

***

“Stay, there’s so much good you could do here in St. Louis. Frankly between here and the West Coast, there isn’t much for you to organize. A lot of small farms and smaller minds. Subsistence living is the binding principle of the social order, with no modern industry, there isn’t sufficient need to give life to a worker’s movement.”

Roxanne Matthews, who had become very much a friend to Almira and Sterling in the short time they’d spent in St. Louis, stood in the doorway of the private compartment as Sterling and Almira Gulch got settled in for the 8-hour train ride to Kansas City.

“Thank you, Roxanne, we’re both glad to know that there’s a place in the middle of this very large country that would welcome us.”

Almira hugged the older woman as Sterling put their satchels on the floor,

“That’s right, we’re only going to visit Kansas. The decision of where the Gulch family will put down roots is anything but final.”

Sterling smiled at his wife. Almira crossed her hands across her middle, the ghost of a shadow flickered in her eyes.

The train pulled out of the Union Station in St Louis bound for Kansas City and points west.

“Do you think we’ll have any trouble finding a place to stay?”

Almira broke the silence after an hour of staring as the trees grew shorter, the greenery more sere and the horizon raced into the distance. The land was very different and became more so as time passed.

“I think that as long as you and I are together, nothing can hurt either one of us.”

Almira took off her shoes and turning away from the window, the last buildings on the edge of St Louis turning into trees, as if construction in reverse. The sky reached down farther and farther as they crossed into the open land to the west.  Almira, her back against Sterling, her feet up on the bench.

“Are we really going to start a new life for our child?”

Almira nestled in the shelter formed by the back of the bench and the chest of her husband, her book open in her lap. She looked down, as if hoping to discover a new page in the book. Before her were the words, originally spoken in a delighted wonder by a woman who saw the 4-year-girl in her lap every bit a miracle of the potential of life.

Feeling the edge of his jaw pressed against her head, morning stubble barely cushioned by her hair, Almira both heard and felt his voice, as Sterling began to read aloud,

“I attempted to rise, but was not able to stir: for as I happened to lie on my back, I found my arms and legs were strongly fastened on each side to the ground; and my hair, which was long and thick, tied down I the same manner. I likewise felt several slender ligatures across my body, from my armpits to my thighs. I could only look upwards, the sun began to grow hot, and the light offended mine eyes. I heard a confused noise about me, but in the posture I lay, could see nothing except the sky.”

Chapter 31

Featured

“I think we lost ’em. What do you say we slow down a bit?”

I leaned forward, elbow on the dashboard and looked directly into Almira’s eyes. As focused as she was on driving, I didn’t want to risk distracting her, as we barreled down Clark Ave in the dead of night.

“No, dear. We haven’t and we can’t. Look out the back, and over to the right. Wait for the cross street coming up….. now!”

“Oh yeah. Damn!”

My mood was not improved by the sight of a pair of headlights racing across the opening in the city block created by the intersection.  We must have been doing fifty miles an hour, fortunately the streets were pretty much straight lines and right angles. The blocks of tenements, factories and, increasingly, storefronts and office buildings, were divided by compass-square intersections. The approaching traffic signal, swaying on cables over the next four-way intersection, demanded my attention.

“Traffic light up ahead, babe.”

Almira, being the woman she was, pressed the gas pedal closer to the floor, in response to my warning. She wanted to be sure I saw the other car that was racing along a parallel street. Our respective paths terminated in the center of St. Louis, which, in a peculiarly Midwestern literalness, was actually at the riverfront.

“Watch now…there, see it? Maybe three blocks back. They’re gaining on us. Our new friends are very much still on our tail. Of course, not counting the winos and extra hardworking girls, we’re the only two cars out on the streets of St Louis at 1:33 in the morning. They’re not going to have a problem keeping us in sight.”

Given the fact I was the only passenger in a car driven by my eight months pregnant wife, and therefore able to twist around and look in any direction I wanted, the headlights on the car behind us were not hard to see. Like the eyes of a predator in chase, occasionally blinking its eyes, the headlights of the car behind us would flare, then fade as they raced past cross-streets and the occasional vacant lot.

“Yeah, I see them now.”

Looking over at Almira, I was struck by two distinct yet overlapping impressions.

Despite being very pregnant, she was able to sit behind the wheel because she was all of 5′ 2″ tall. Her overall size being on the petite side, allowed her to sit forward enough on the seat to reach the pedals, without her mid-section interfering with steering the car. Part of the trick to this was in her posture. Almira sat very erect, her shoulders back, spine ramrod straight. She conveyed a certain prim and proper attitude by how she sat at the wheel. If you ignored the buildings passing at blurring speed from front to back through the car windows, my wife was the picture of a proper young woman, out for a bicycle ride down a quiet country road.

Contrasting this impression of a leisurely ride in a car was her face in the passing streetlights. The forward motion of the car produced an odd effect; the light coming in through the windshield illuminated her from the bottom upward, her face and eyes being last. And in the light they belonged to a woman possessed of such feral intensity that, were she not my wife and the woman I loved, I would’ve had to fight the impulse to run, or unable to do that, look away.

There was an energy about her that I’ve witnessed only twice before in all the time we’ve been together. It was not that she appeared under strain, the tendons of her neck remained smooth beneath her very pale skin, if anything she seemed almost relaxed behind the wheel. She gave the impression of a person focused on everything and yet nothing in particular. Almira projected a serene competency that was almost palpable, as we raced at suicidal speeds through intersections heading towards downtown St. Louis. And our pursuers were catching up. Even at the distance between us it was clear this was the same shiny black Lincoln that’s been parked or idling nearby, from the moment Almira and I stepped off the train in Union Station.

Almira focused intently on the road ahead, checking the rear-view mirror with only the briefest of glances. Being so late, (or early, seeing as it was well past midnight), most of the traffic lights at the intersections were in blinking mode. Extending straight ahead of our car they formed a solid row of round yellow lights, pointing to the riverfront and our hotel.

By chance or by design, the stoplights were synchronized in their blinking. Viewed through the windshield of our car, they appeared to be one long string of lights, except for the very last. Oddly enough this last shone with a steady green light, a silent promise of passage, provided we got that far. I sat back and said,

“Well, dear wife, on the basis of the evidence and information before us, the only reasonable course of action is to…. follow the yellow lights.”

Without looking away from the road stretching out before us, Almira smiled and said,

“When in doubt, go faster, my love, go faster.”

Almira’s eyes weren’t exactly shiny, however, a chance reflection of a street light off the plate-glass of a storefront, produced a glint, a spark of unnatural light.

“When the devil is chasing you, dearest husband, you have the advantage. It can see only where it is you’re going. You are the one who knows where the chase will end.”

I laughed to myself as a portion of my worried mind briefly expressed sympathy for our pursuers.

In the car, grayish-blue light brightening then smoothly fading as we drove through intermittent daytime, the intensity in Almira’s eyes grew, the expression on her face, fiercely exultant.

Rough shards of memories of the war, my true military medals and decorations, seemed to rattle in the back of my mind. demanding an audience. I’d seen men wearing the very expression I saw on my wife’s face, men who no longer thought about surviving, only of the approaching battle. My favorite professor in Officer Candidate School used to end nearly every class in the 3 months of ‘advanced training’ with the pronouncement, “Gentlemen, not only is ‘the best defense a good offense’, it will more often than not be your only course of action. The alternative being to sit and wait for the enemy to make his choice of action.”

With a certain sadness I looked over at Almira. I could see that she was, once again, running into battle in a land that I would never know. It gave me confidence in our immediate survival and made me hurt for my inability to help her. I knew that I would do anything to protect her, but feared that I would not be in time to keep her from going farther, perhaps, too far into that place where she was so powerful.

I took out a Lucky. my lighter and raised my eyebrows in invitation to Almira, who laughed,

“Well, only if you have some moonshine to go with it. Otherwise, I’d better focus on the road ahead, as I’m about to surprise our friends.”

I felt a stray memory of the war, torn free from the wall of feelings that had finally become impervious and all but opaque. The memory, mostly flashes of physical and emotional sensations, was of the moment before being ordered out of the trench. It was late morning and the plan was for us to charge an enemy emplacement. Leaning against the claybrown dirt edge of the trench, like the railing of a pew in church, I let the fear soak into the dirt as I crawled up and out and stood in the first steps of a run. At that moment I felt nothing but a sense of quiet peace. Now, riding in an expensive car, in the middle of a December night, I let the bluish cigarette smoke pull itself up over my eyes, the hard edges of concrete, metal and glass became much less threatening.

The long black car full of company goons currently gaining on us as we raced towards the Mississippi River was courtesy of the management of the Curlee Clothing Company. Founded by a man from Alabama who decided to take a certain innate ability to dominate the weak and dependent away farming and apply it to clothing manufacture, the first Curlee store was opened in Dothan, Alabama in 1912. A man of great intelligence and little virtue beyond a drive to bend the world to his will, Shelby Curlee was not what you would call a natural champion of workers rights. From my reading on the train from Philadelphia, Curlee was rabidly anti-union. His tactics included forcing all new workers, even the most unskilled, to sign yellow dog contracts upon employment. The threat, of course, was not just that they could be fired, rather the more coercive element was that they would not find any work, anywhere in St Louis. Management tactics like that made the Essex Company, back in Lawrence, seem positively liberal.

During our first few days in town, two very large men spent most of their day sitting in a car outside the Claremont Hotel where we stayed. They’d always look like they’d just arrived, were just leaving or were waiting for someone from the hotel. As we began to spend more time away from the hotel, they’d follow us, always at a discreet distance. At first, the surveillance was very low-key, just obvious enough to be sure that we understood that we were being watched. A trip to the museum or a stroll along the river meant that somewhere, within a block of the museum, or at the point where the river walk rejoined the city sidewalks, there would be two very large men leaning up against the fender of a car, reading a newspaper, or sitting on a park bench. They were our constant companions, although it would be more accurate to say, ‘Almira’s constant companions’, since it was her visit to St. Louis that prompted this unwelcome attention.

Having been invited by delegates of several of the newly formed unions, Almira’s days quickly filled up with meetings and appearances. Neither of us was surprised when our host, the head of the local garment workers union, pointed our un-official companions out, sitting on the fenders of their car, across the street from our hotel. We both laughed when Roxanne Matthews, secretary of the International Ladies Garment Union (ILGU), said casually,

“They’ve got you on their list. Avoid going anywhere alone, and by alone I mean the two of you. We have people who’ll accompany you when you leave your hotel. Your best protection is to always be in public view, be sure there’s a crowd, not matter what you do. I mean, if you go out to a restaurant or the museum or even walk along the river make sure there’s plenty of people around. These people won’t do anything if there are a lot of witnesses.”

We weren’t planning on staying in St Louis very long, however since we were, my wife was immediately in demand. In our time in New York and Philadelphia, Almira’s days were divided between training and education and politics and socializing. There, the bulk of her time was spent in what she loved the most, teaching. It was different in St Louis. Most of the requests for her time was to attend social functions, meeting with union-friendly politicians, civil servants and other community leaders hoping to enhance their standing with their own constituency by having lunch or dinner in the company of my highly esteemed wife. Not that Almira wasn’t very good at this aspect of her profession, she had a natural gift for commanding attention and a skill at presenting ideas that captivated people wherever she went.

***

The car chasing us passed through a parallel intersection (in a sense, another form of the same intersection that we were driving through), at nearly the same second. I could see, looking past Almira and out her window, the man in the passenger seat of the other car. I had the odd thought, ‘Maybe he and I are the champions and are meant to fight. The outcome of our contest to determine the future.’ Then I saw the slightest hint of a smile hiding at the corners of my wife’s mouth, and it was clear that it was she and the driver in the other car who were the knights in this contest. My role was every bit the passive squire. I was attending to Almira, she was the champion in this contest. The battle was, in fact, already engaged.

“Now would be a good time to close your eyes, darling. I need to make our friends understand exactly who they’re dealing with,”

Almira did not take her eyes off the road, though she did shift in her seat, just slightly.

She reached forward, turned off the headlights and stepped on the accelerator. We were approaching a section of the city, just a block from the police station, where there were two missing streetlights. Maybe the sense of security from being in running distance to St. Louis’s finest, lessened the urgency to replace the broken bulbs. The result was that in the center of the block, the street was nearly as dark as the night that surrounded us. Almira slammed on the brakes and, once stopped, backed our car between two buildings. We sat in an alley between Salzmann’s Fine Fur and Jewelry (since 1879) and Solomon’s Shoes. Almira turned off the car’s engine.

The city was as quiet as any night in the wilderness. Instead of the distant howling of a predator or the nearby rustling of underbrush by nocturnal prey, there were random whistles from late working factories on the far edges of the city and the mechanical groans of trains, linking together, a post-industrial midnight orgy, heard from the train yards that huddled by the river’s edge.

I looked over at Almira and she held a finger up as a signal to listen and I heard the angry squeal of brakes. It sounded to be from about 2 blocks back the way we’d come. Our pursuers were clearly confused, our easy-to-follow car lights having suddenly disappeared. After a minute’s pause, surely to allow for some quick arguments in the car, we heard gears grinding as the driver, no doubt on the losing side of whatever discussion of strategy that had just concluded, let his frustration interfere with his driving. A slight squeak of tires told us they were turning, and two blocks down our street, the headlights of their car lit the intersection.

The long black car turned in our direction and seeing nothing, no tail light receding in the distance or any other sign of another car, accelerated in our direction. As I watched, they raced through the first block. I heard the engine in our car start-up.

Looking over at me, Almira held her index finger to her smiling lips, for all the world a girl anticipating the arrival of the guest of honor at the surprise birthday party she’d arranged. We drove out of the alley and turned left into the street heading towards our determined pursuers. Our car moved very slowly, clearly Almira wanted to stay in the dark, in the middle of the block, for as long as possible. I saw the headlights of the other car closing the distance between us. As soon as they crossed the intersection and entered the much darker section of the block where we sat, Almira hit the accelerator and, a few seconds later turned on our headlights. For reasons I never found necessary to ask, though I could easily guess, she held the button of the car horn down as we raced towards the rapidly approaching car.

The other car swerved to our right, little more than fifty feet away. Whether it was defective or there was something in the road, their right front tire chose that moment to blow out. Their swerve turned into a skid and the driver, no doubt more skilled in physical intimidation than was he in driving, slammed on his brakes, which had the expected result, and the car began to skid. Their speed was such that they no sooner started to skid than the front and back wheels hit the curbstone. The Lincoln stopped skidding and began to roll. Had they started their turn even a second earlier, their path would have been blocked by the bus stop kiosk. The passenger was ejected through his own window, to his misfortune, his path was blocked by the top of the bus stop shelter. He appeared to fold over and under the leading edge of the shallow metal roof. Neatly divided at the waist, his legs on the top of the roof, his head and torso, continued under the enclosure. The car managed one-half additional roll before it hit the plate-glass window of Muriel & Stanford’s Fine Furnishings. There was a tremendous crashing sound, snapping and breaking of wood and fabric adding an oddly less jarring note to the scream of rubber and metal.

Almira continued on her path up the street to the intersection, turned right and then right again. Now on Market Street, we rode along in the now quiet St. Louis night, down to 4th Street and the Claremont Hotel.

***

“I’m sorry, Captain Herlihy, Mr. and Mrs. Gulch are away.”

Captain Gareth Herlihy stood on the steps of the very imposing house on Loring Ave, on the East Side of Providence, Rhode Island and silently cursed Frederick Prendergast and the Essex Company. Gareth Herlihy was respected by the men of the Lawrence, Massachusetts Police Department and widely regarded for running one of the most effective and progressive police departments in New England.

‘So why are you still an errand boy for that fop Prendergast, and the damned Essex Company, Gareth?’ he would ask himself every time he found himself on a train bound for Providence RI. Not blind to the facts of life in a New England mill town, he found resentment growing whenever he had to endure a meeting with the CEO of the Essex Company. Owning the textile mills meant that the Essex Company owned the city and it’s citizens and, more to the point, it owned the police chief. The meetings, mercifully infrequent in the last few years, always ended the same,

“Herlihy! Do I have to spell it out? You persist in making me think that I do! I don’t enjoy this, but until the murder of Robbie Maclachlan is solved I will keep sending you where I must, to get me the people who are key to this case. We’re approaching the tenth anniversary of the strike and the murder. Go to Providence and get me new information that will help close this case or, bring back some suspects. I don’t care which!”

Standing on the doorstep on a grey-cold December afternoon, Captain Gareth Herlihy was feeling displaced frustration, an occupational hazard, but real nonetheless.

“I understand what you said, I’m more interested in where they went than in hearing that Sterling Gulch and the former Almira Ristani are not at home.”

Gareth Herlihy felt the muscles in his right arm tense and reminded himself that force was not always the most effective way to get people to provide the information he needed. Besides, there was something about this tall grey-haired man standing in the doorway that put him on edge. His success in becoming the chief of police in a very tough town was in no small part due to the quickness with which he sized up the other guy. Not only was this talent important to his success, it had, at times made the difference between life and death. This man who dressed like a butler had the eyes of a killer. It was obvious that there was no point in trying to intimidate him. If anything, he seemed mildly amused at the conversation.

‘Well, Gareth,’ the Captain of the Lawrence Police Department thought, ‘you’ve travelled four hours on a cold and drafty train to get down to this god-forsaken state, lets not leave empty handed.’

“If your employers happen to send you a post card from their travels, I don’t suppose you’d mind forwarding  it to my office?”

Gareth Herlihy, one of the toughest police chiefs among those charged with maintaining law and order in the industrial cities of New England, stepped forward with his card in his right hand. He managed a smile that seemed to falter and fall into the expressionless gaze of the tall man in the butler’s uniform. Finally, Edward, with an upward twist to the corner of his mouth said,

“Rest assured, Captain Herlihy, that should new information be vital to your investigation, I will personally deliver it to you.”

***

On the four-hour train ride back to Lawrence, Gareth Herlihy sipped from his flask and thought about retirement.

***

Asleep in the Presidential Suite of the Claremont Hotel, Almira Gulch had dreams of flying and her tears flowed down to the pillows.

Awake in the Presidential Suite of the Claremont Hotel, Sterling Gulch had serious doubts about his responsibility to the man who talked him into enlisting and going to war. He wondered whether California might not be a better place to end the journey with his wife and family-to-be.