July 5 1922 Lawrence, Massachusetts
Lizabeth Addams happened to be kneeling in front of the open bottom drawer of a filing cabinet, when she heard a small metallic click behind her. It wasn’t a particularly loud or forceful sound, nowhere near the startling assault on the ears of a dropped water-glass, shattering on the floor, or the frantic yelp of the dog, who sleeping too near a doorway, has his tail stepped on by a half-asleep owner, trying to get to the bathroom late at night. This quiet but somehow, hard click was the kind of sound that triggered the small muscles buried under the scalp to tug on the outer ears, pulling them forward in a vestigial reflex meant to help locate a threat. It was a sound that caused goose bumps to grow from the flesh and pull on the formerly smooth and comfortable fabric of the young woman’s expensive blouse. An ancient, yet still vital corner of her brain was doing nothing less than attempting to expand a nonexistent mane. An atavistic strategy to appear larger and more fearsome. The rationale was simple, whatever the unseen threat, it might choose to move on, seeking weaker, easier prey. The modern woman, who was Lizabeth Addams, however, simply felt a sudden chill and pulled her sweater closer around her.
Rising, Lizabeth felt the fingers of her right hand curling in, as if grasping an un-seen object, as she rose from her crouch and faced the office. She maintained a physical contact with the polished wood surface, as if to anchor herself or perhaps, to provide a leverage point, should sudden movement became necessary.
She recognized Herschel Goloby immediately. He was not a small man, however there was something to the way he carried himself that made him seem larger and threatening. Herschel Goloby exuded a sense of violence barely restrained. It was as if he was always about to spring forward. His shoulders, a rounded block of granite, balanced over a body that managed, by virtue of a certain economy in motion, to give the impression of grace and deliberateness of movement.
Herschel Goloby, like a basilisk from childhood fairy tales made real, stood in front of Lizabeth Addams’ desk. His eyes held an intelligence that seemed to flutter, like a guttering flame of a candle, melted down to the last shining pool of wax. Intelligence and cunning were the brightest lights, self-awareness the least; both flashing from deep in his eyes, a slow-motion explosion.
Lizabeth caught herself about to make the sign of the cross, certain that any indication she felt threatened would result in more attention from the man than she wanted; the actual amount being, none whatsoever. She walked three steps back to her desk. Like an apprentice ironworker, gripped by the yawing depths to either side of a narrow beam, yet all too aware of the need to appear confident and un-affected by fear; she donned the superficial friendliness of the professional receptionist and tried to smile. The thought of smiling at this man died quickly and senselessly, like a baby sea turtle running the sandy gauntlet to the safety of the ocean. She stared at the ledger on her desk with the desperate interest of a starving but illiterate woman, trying to make sense of a restaurant menu.
Lizabeth caught herself glancing towards the closed-door of her boss’s office and thought, ‘You bastard.’ Her fear was mixed with a resentment for feeling an almost infantile desire that Frederick Prendergast come out of his office and protect her. The strength of her desire to be rescued by the appearance of her employer made her angrier than she was frightened and looked up and said,
“Yes, may I help you?”
Lizabeth forced a smile onto her face, brushed a wave of brunette hair from in front of her eyes. The causal gesture prompted a sense memory of the pleasure she felt while dressing, the thought of how her choices would please her employer, was almost instantly spoiled with a soured taste of regret. With almost childlike impatience, she tucked the errant wave behind her ear and looked into the dark void of Herschel Goloby’s face, the rumble of his breath crawling from his chest, transforming into words like baby crocodiles born in a tangle of damp life.
“I am here to see your boss. Mr. Frederick Prendergast.”
There was a slight delay between the sentences, making it sound as if he had memorized the ten words.
Before he could complete his statement, Lizabeth was across the room, hating the thought of turning her back to the man, who remained, again silent, standing in front of her desk. She opened the inner office door.
“Mr. Prendergast? Mr. Goloby is here to see you.”
August 7 1939 Circe, Kansas
As Dorothy rode up to one of the wrought iron benches that circled the granite fountain in the Town Square, she thought she saw Hunk, standing and talking to someone off to the side, at the top of the staircase of the Circe Free Library. That she chose to leave her bicycle leaning against a bench, rather than in front of her destination, St Mary’s Hospital, betrayed a caution that she might, herself, be unaware of.
She turned towards the library, looked once more and was certain it was Hunk. Whoever he was talking to was not visible, as they stood in the alcove formed by one of the faux Corinthian columns and the massive front wall of the library. The sun was behind Dorothy, at an angle to the front of the building, the result was that whoever Hunk was speaking to was cloaked in the dark of the shaded corner. From the downward tilt of Hunk’s head, the person was significantly shorter and, from the slow but assertive gestures, mostly likely a girl or woman. Turning and walking across the Town Square towards the hospital, Dorothy was struck by her own lack of curiosity, even that bemused thought fell from her mind as she got closer to the reason she rode, alone on her bicycle, into Town. Soon, she started up the broad staircase at the entrance to St Mary’s hospital.
“So, Becky, one more year of small town high school and you’re off to Chicago?”
Hunk Dietrich, pulled out of the library more by the attractive power of the young girl’s enthusiasm than the tug on his arm, stood smiling down at Becky Stillworth, his back to the street. It was not until much later in the day did he reflect, not only on his conversation outside the front entrance, but in his choice of position. He was not simply blocking the sun, shining over his shoulder into the girl’s eyes, he stood in such a way to shield her from the un-wanted attention of those who might happen along. This created a question that before his trip into town, this particular August morning, would never have occurred to him. Especially since he’d only recently made the decision to leave his current employer, Emily and Henry Gale. Why he felt the need for privacy, or, more to the point, the need to protect Becky Stillworth’s privacy, was a question that grew in his mind more rapidly because, he suspected, of the very significant change in his own life.
Becky Stillworth stood in the shaded alcove and looked up at Hunk Dietrich and felt an excitement that seemed more personal than simply relaying the good news of her acceptance by the college of her choice. She felt a growing optimism about her life that was, at once, exciting and somewhat frightening. Her habit of protecting her truest dreams by keeping them private was born of necessity, as those around her were ill-equipped to support and encourage her dream of going away to school to study medicine. There was, in fact, only one person who did not chide her for being un-realistic or withhold their attention because they felt she was getting too snooty, that person was Hunk Dietrich. Since the day she started her part-time job at the library, she found in the farm hand a willingness, not only to listen to her give voice to her dream, but to return the trust by describing his own ambition to acquire an education beyond that which was available to the average farm hand. His value to his employer, as a very hard worker was sufficient to mitigate their natural tendency to make fun of him. As long as it did not interfere with his work on the Gale farm, his dream was tolerated.
The cool touch of the stone wall on Becky Stillworth’s back pulled her skin tight, small buds of goosebumps caught pleasurably at the fabric of her blue pattered blouse. She found that the space she stood in with Hunk was, somehow, growing increasingly small. The air they shared became increasingly comfortable, as if she provided a place to store the heat of the sun that he absorbed as he blocked the light from striking her directly. She felt good.
Her enthusiasm changed when Hunk said ‘off to Chicago’. It was a strange feeling, to anticipate missing a place, like her hometown, as she did not think she had any strong attachment to the town or her classmates or even her parents. She loved them and all, but they did not share any part of her ambition to become a doctor. A sense of loss washed over her, amplifying the cool of the library wall. At the same time she felt drawn to the warmth of sun.
“But it’s still a year off and there’ll be lots of time to talk and do research. I can help you with your college studies between now and then, Hunk”
“I’m leaving Circe, Becky”
The space the young man and younger girl shared, hidden from the surrounding every day world by the shade from the towering stone column, was an illusion. However, as with some illusions and the underlying feelings for most relationships, it’s effect was real as far as they were concerned, standing on the stairs of a public building in the middle of the day, wanting privacy without being conscious of a growing need to be together.
August 7, 1922 Circe, Kansas
“Hey, babe, lets call it quits for the day,”
Sterling looked up from the dark of the tractor’s engine compartment, which in turn, stood in the half shade, half bright sunlight of the open barn door.
Almira spoke from the triangle of cool shade, cast by the gable end of the barn. Aurora rode at her hip, every bit the loyal crew sitting in the crow’s nest of the tall ship, feeling its way into an unfamiliar harbor. Aurora reached towards her father with one, still somewhat pudgy, hand while clutching the cloth of her mother’s dress.
Feeling her long, light brown hair dislodged by her daughter’s now frantic waving, Almira tossed her head back, trying to clear her vision. The prominent ridge of her nose interfered with what should have been an efficient, even graceful motion, of her head, as any mare tossing her mane would amply illustrate. Her too-often broken and not properly healed nose was not, however, the distracting and un-attractive disfigurement it would have been on another woman. Almira had eyes that were possessed of a depth and glowed with an intelligent kindness that was more than equal to the centermost feature of her face. She stopped trying, now having more, rather than less, hair in her face. Catching sight of the smile growing on her husbands face, she laughed,
“What? Am I looking like the original pioneer woman? Because if that’s whats prompting the grin, I can assure you, Mister, that you are very mistaken!”
Lacking the maturity that would convey the more subtle inferences of adult conversation and still not possessing the capacity to link emotions to her still immature speech center, Aurora waved both her arms, trusting that her mother would not let her fall. The Gulch family shared their laughter.
“Lets take Emily up on her offer.”
“To babysit Aurora, one day next week.”
“I don’t know, Sterling.”
Sterling and Almira sat at one of the three wooden tables set up in the shade of the elm trees just outside the Dormitory. Aurora lay on her quilt, content to reign over the quiet afternoon at the now empty Gulch farm. The last guest had left the morning before, gratitude and promises of repayment trailing from the car like earth-bound confetti.
“She told me that she’d love to come here and give Aurora her lunch and watch her nap. She thought we might enjoy having an opportunity to go into town by ourselves or maybe just go for a ride or a walk or…”
“What does she want?”
The two lapsed into a comfortable silence, the stray sounds of their daughter serving as an anchor to their individual and private speculation on Emily Gale’s offer. The Gales, along with the other farmers in Circe, welcomed Sterling and Almira into their community, if for no other reason than they all were engaged in the same struggle with the same opponent, weather and nature. Sterling discovered that he had a certain aptitude for agriculture and farming. His enthusiasm and willingness to help anyone needing an extra hand, went a long way to being accepted by the people of the small farming town. Almira found her own reward in making welcome the people of the road who, by luck or, increasingly, by word-of-mouth, knocked on their door, hoping for a chance to rest and recover what for many was a search for a new life. The people who stayed with them, for a day or a week, would repay the hospitality by offering to help with the work and labor of the farm. Almira’s talent for organization served her very well, she would always find appropriate (and productive) tasks for everyone who asked how they might help.
Neither Sterling nor Almira could remember when their farm acquired the name ‘Almira’s Keep’. Through whatever the grapevine that existed connecting the homeless with the wanderers, visitors began to refer to the farm by that name. It came as little surprise that one morning in May, a couple shyly complimented them on the beautifully painted sign at the gate. An unknown guest had taken it upon themselves to put up a carved relief and painted sign that read, ‘Almira’s Keep’.
“Well, I think she’s just trying to be neighborly. We’ve done really well with our place here. Your opinion on the natural goodness of man is turning out to be more than optimism. The best example would be the Clendersons. Their stay made the difference between getting through harvesting next month on our own and having to ask Ephraim Hardesty or one of the others for help.”
“But, I like Ephraim.”
“So do I and his wife too, she’s one smart woman. Anyway, Zeb Clenderson’s innate talent with machines and his willingness to help, our tractor and other equipment is as good as new. You wonder why, seeing how they’re such good people, hardworking people, they end up here, on the way to elsewhere.”
“It hurts to see people so alone out on the road, their lives resting on four wheels and some sheet metal. I wish we could do more.”
“Well those literacy classes of yours are really something. I’m sure I saw one or two local farm hands at the last classes you held in the dormitory, last month.”
“I enjoy doing it. Though I swear I overheard Emily Gale, one Saturday when I was at the drugstore say something to one of her friends about ‘uppity laborers’. I kind of doubt I’ll be seeing any of the laborers from the Gale farm any time soon. I get the distinct impression that she doesn’t approve of the adult classes I’ve been teaching.”
Almira smiled, and looked down at Aurora who was now sound asleep on her side, quilt pulled up to her mouth.
Sterling reached over and took her left hand in his and smiled,
“But what we’re doing here is good. It’s good for the travelers who get to stop and rest and talk to others with the same problem, and its good for the local workers and laborers. Maybe it’s not organizing a union for thousands of workers or writing articles for a big city newspaper, but there’s nothing in the world I’d rather do than be here on our farm with you and our daughter.”
“Well, I guess charity should begin at home. Tell your girlfriend Emily that she’s welcome to come and watch Aurora one day next week.”
August 7 1939 Circe, Kansas
Dorothy was about to push her way through the double swinging doors of Ward C. As she walked up the corridor, she thought she saw a figure in white through the two rounded-square windows in the grey metal doors. It was the figure of a tall, blonde-haired woman and it moved from the right to the left.
Dorothy recalled her last meeting with the Nurse Griswold. She’d promised to return and now, finally felt there might be some answers to the questions that, like layers of nacre, smoothing over an irritant and forming a pearl, had built up around her original question she’d demanded of a very old and very asleep, Almira Gulch.
Doctor Thaddeus Morgan’s voice had the quality that opera singers envied, he could project great emotion, at very low volume. Like a miniature opera hall, his voice somehow seemed to be coming from in front of her, between where she stood and where she wanted to be. Feeling an undefined opportunity slipping away, she stopped and waited in the corridor. The sound of distant voices announcing matters of life and death in the perfectly enunciated, thoroughly devoid of human emotion tone of the hospital intercom.
Dorothy took one look back towards Ward C, thought she saw someone move from left to right and turned to face the approaching hospital director.
‘Yes, Dr. Morgan?”
“I’m glad I caught you!”
Dr. Thaddeus Morgan prided himself on being able to speak without sounding out of breath, despite the fact that he was,
“Your suggestion at dinner last week was quite apt. Your friend, Mrs. Gulch, is responding to the IV drip. She is not yet conscious, but is showing definite improvement.”
Dorothy was surprised at the sudden feeling of conflict. She wanted more than ever to go to the bedside of the old woman who had become the focus of her summer at home and, at the same time felt a fear, a fear of what she might hear.
Up until this moment, Dorothy Gales’ only goal in life was to get Mrs. Almira Gulch to answer her question. More specifically to have her explain what had happened since she left for college to change how the town of Circe regarded the old woman. Dorothy found a growing reluctance, a self-consciousness, at the prospect of actually speaking to Mrs. Gulch.
Up until that moment, in her mind, it had been all about Dorothy Gale’s questions. The thought of having a conversation, and in the process, perhaps being asked questions, made her feel very uncertain. It was a very un-settling feeling.