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.”
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.”