‘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,
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.”
“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,