“So, Hunk, How’ve you been?”
Dorothy sat back on her side of the spring-lumpy bench seat of the rusty rose-colored truck as Hunk pulled out onto the long straight roadway that connected the Gale Farm to County Road #2. The interior of the cab had become uncomfortably hot from sitting in the morning sun, as Dorothy completed her chores, and so she rested her right forearm, gingerly at first, on the open passenger window sill and leaned out, letting the heat of the cab rush out, brushing the sides of her face, as they drove from the dooryard.
“Well, you know. Things go along. Your parents have been very good to me. Oh! I forgot to tell you! I enrolled in a correspondence college course last year, after you went back East to school. International Correspondence Schools of Scranton, Pennsylvania. We students call it ‘ICS’,” a hint of pride showed in a barely noticeable up-titling of his head, “I work on the courses mostly in the winter, after harvest is done. I mail in my work and some of the professors are really good at writing back right away and the people in town, at the library are always willing to help.”
“Well, I always knew you had it in you,” Dorothy watched, alert to any sign of recognition to her reference to another time and a very different place. She thought she saw Hunk hesitate.
Hunk’s posture seemed to change, ever so slightly, as he spoke, it became, somehow, more upright, one might even say, assertive,
“Really, that sounds very ambitious of you,” she smiled to herself as he sat even straighter, hands on the steering wheel firm with an unconscious tightening.
“Aw, gee Dorothy, I still have 7 more courses to complete, but I really think I can earn a real diploma,”
The truck hit a dip in the road, Dorothy felt a peculiar lurch to her stomach, the ghost of breakfast tried to take up residence somewhere between her mind and her nose. She smiled at Hunk, with a little less self-assurance than when the trip began.
“Dorothy? Are you alright?” Her sense of confidence was not helped by the fact that a man she hadn’t seen in nearly a year noticed her reaction to his mention of diplomas, a reaction that she would have sworn was all, safely, inside her head.
“Oh, sure.” Dorothy forced herself to laugh,
“I’m just not used to such rich food. Back in New York, breakfast was usually a whole lot simpler, just coffee and a croissant.” As she started to add, “which is a…”
Hunk Dietrich put his right fore finger to his right temple and, cocking his head slightly, turned to Dorothy and recited,
“A croissant is a buttery, flaky, viennoiserie-pastry named for its well-known crescent shape. Croissants and other viennoiserie are made of a layered yeast-leavened dough.”
As Hunk stared at her, a cheerfully absent-minded expression on his face, Dorothy Gale felt the world slip, just a little. Like the momentary flicker from an old motion picture projector, not enough to interrupt the flow, just enough to remind the viewer that they’re watching a film, and actually not experiencing the story. She thought that she might faint, and thinking that, that would be too dramatic, felt a return of her ‘sense of normal’. However, at that moment, driving up County Road #2, the truck’s cab suddenly felt crowded. It wasn’t simply that near-forgotten memories returned unbidden, prompted by a single word in an otherwise un-remarkable conversation. That would have been merely distracting, like getting off a bus after riding for 6 hours and stepping into a crowded terminal at midday. What threatened to overwhelm Dorothy Gale, on an early afternoon, in the middle of June, was an uncontrolled reasserting of emotion.
For every adjustment and accommodation she was forced to make, after her experiences during ‘the Storm of ’37’, despite her efforts to put it all behind her, forgetting it ever happened and trying to turn a memory into a mere dream, there remained an emotional levy charged to her. The price of pretending that she was just like any other 16-year-old girl who came through the Storm of ’37 with a couple of bumps and bruises but nothing else unusual (especially ‘nothing unusual’), was like a Savings Bond of hopes and regrets. There was always a penalty for early withdrawal.
Dorothy tried to fight this un-anticipated avalanche of feelings, but the discordant mixing of negative and positive, hope and regret, made resistance futile. In the face of being thrown backwards out of the present moment, she reached out for something to hold on to, hoping that a physical contact would provide her some shelter from the storm. Eyes closed, she reached towards Hunk and clutched at the rough fabric of his denim chore jacket, gaining a sense of direction, if nothing else. She felt the truck swerve as Hunk hit the brakes, the cloud of dust catching up and flowing past the windows as they pulled to a stop.
“Hey, easy… hold on, its alright,”
Hunk seemed to be reduced to incomplete sentences. It was exactly what she needed. Simple reassurance that the world was stable and not changing, not out-of-control. Closing one’s eyes at times of distress can be a risky maneuver. Eliminating the myriad cues of the real world can leave a person at the mercy of that part of the anxious imagination that prefers the dark. Hearing Hunk’s voice, even with its faulty syntax, was like finding a stair railing when descending in the dark.
The feel of his rough-patched coat triggered the memory of an afternoon on a walk though cornfields, she quickly opened her eyes to see Hunk staring at her. He was still in the driver’s seat, his right arm in her grasp and yet, somehow, had positioned himself in such as way as to appear to be shielding her with his body.
Dorothy let go of Hunk’s arm and sat back in the cracked-leather seat. She looked at Hunk and looked back at her hands, now folded on her lap. The temperature in the cab rose, deprived of the cooling effects of wind through open windows when the truck was in motion. The musty-dry smell of livestock and stale sweat grew noticeable.
“I’m so sorry. I don’t know what came over me, Hunk.” Dorothy, the flood of emotions receding, managed to keep her voice steady as she brushed out nonexistent wrinkles in her skirt.
“Are you sure?” his concern was clearly genuine and, yet, carried an overtone of hope that seemed out-of-place, until she looked over at his face and caught the fleeting glance of a man, used to running away, caught, momentarily out in the open.
The moment passed, as all such moments do, leaving a not-unpleasant feeling of un-certainty.
“Here, look at me! I’m acting like such a…such a little girl!” sitting up straighter, Dorothy caught herself regretting her choice of sweaters to wear on her trip into town. Hunk put the truck into gear and pulled back up onto the roadway. Dorothy felt an impulse to say, “well, this certainly seems to be a good direction to go in” and, although she felt a sadness, as the noise and the farm dust restored the moment back into part of just another uneventful ride into Town in a rattling truck, driven by a loyal, but common farm hand, she said nothing and stared out the window at the distant horizon.
Circe, Kansas was a large, Small Town. It had a Courthouse and a Library, several churches, (sharing that peculiar competition often seen among the still earth-bound devout, expressed in the size and grandeur of their houses of worship), a Hospital, (serving not only McPherson County, but all of the surrounding Counties as well), an Elementary and a High School, and a Main Street lined with small shops and the occasional diner. Most importantly Circe had a Town Square. Serving as the hub, in location if not in function, it possessed all the features essential to a small Town’s Town Square. An acre of green lawns and stone walkways, it had: two vintage, (i.e. non-functioning),coal-black cannon, complete with a pyramid of cannon balls, welded together, not only to hold the unlikely stacking arrangement, but to prevent the young, and the occasional holiday-drunk adult from attempting to demonstrate the proper use of such weaponry. In the center of Circe’s Town Square was a circular fountain. It no longer held water, At least not spraying in the air water, as it’s designers had intended, back in a more confident and prosperous time, however, its wide stone ledge served as an alternative to sitting on iron benches that were bolted to the walkway, at the cardinal points of the fountain.
“Do you want me to wait, Dorothy?” Hunk said as he pulled up in front of the Library. In answer, Dorothy, got out of the truck and began walking up the broad marble stairs to the entrance to the Circe Free Public Library.
“No, Hunk, I don’t know how long I’ll be, I’ve school work and other things. Do you think you could come back at 3?” Dorothy noticed a boy and 2 girls sitting on the benches that surrounded the broken fountain in the Town Square. They appeared to be entangled in a conversation that clearly had more value to the two girls than the one young man, if how much time he spent staring off into the distance was an indication. Dorothy recognized them as former high school classmates. He was a boy that she almost went steady with and the two girls used to be her best friend.
Dorothy planned on taking out a couple of books from the library, (to provide credibility to the reason she gave her parents for needing to go into town), and be at the hospital just before the start of Visiting Hours. The Nurse in charge of the Charity Ward struck her as the kind of woman who would make a big deal out of being late. She remembered her encounter with Nurse Griswold the previous day and decided it would be best to get there at exactly 1:00.
Unfortunately for her timetable, the young people were still in the park 15 minutes later, when Dorothy left the library. They spotted her as she walked down the steps, intending to cut through the Square to Shay Lane, which. in a short two blocks, lead to St Mary’s Hospital. Like neighborhood dogs, in the middle of a boring, quiet Summer afternoon, the two girls and the young man stopped looking at each other, and started looking at Dorothy Gale. Again, like our neighborhood dogs, feral pack instincts not all that far in the past, they got up from their bench. Making it look like a random movement, the three appeared to develop a sudden interest in the side of the fountain that was closest to where Dorothy’s path would take her, as she cut through the park.
Dorothy spent her Senior Year as an involuntary celebrity. Her tales of adventures were as much a part of the local lore that grew, following the Storm of ’37, as was the wholesale destruction left in the path of the F5 tornado. Except she was a girl, who although undeniably changed by the storm, did not have the guarantee of reconstruction or repair, as did the High School and other structures destroyed and left in pieces, to be re-built by the community.
Tom Hardesty and Patricia Levesque and Nancy Jackson, all graduated from High School with Dorothy the year before, the first class to graduate from the new High School. Not surprisingly, Dorothy knew all three since 1st grade, such is the nature of a small town, in a farming community. Patricia was very popular and Nancy was very bright, they made for perfect best friends. Tom was every father’s worry and every mother’s shameful hope. He was the demographic wild card found in every class, in every high school. In fact, his name found a place on the pages of Dorothy’s diary in her sophomore year. His confident recklessness was everything that her family, (including the 3 farm hands who were not that far removed from high school in age), was not. So powerful was the idea of a boy like Tom Hardesty, in the mind and heart, (which, in a girl of 15, is mostly heart), that she gladly allowed his thoughtless charm to entangle her heart. He showed her a side of life that she felt called out to her. The Friday afternoon, of the first week of school, of her Sophomore Year, Tom convinced Dorothy to let him show her something special in the hay loft. Like so many at the age of wanting without knowing, she felt that life was passing her by. Convinced that if she only could have someone she could trust, she knew that she could find that which she felt she was missing from her life. He took her away from Kansas that Friday afternoon, not really far, and yet for a very short time she was nowhere near the farm, riding a passion that she suspected was in her and yet had not the language (or the experience) to claim as her own. They returned to the hayloft when the opportunity sparked the daring that was buried in her and flowed from him in reckless torrents. The nature of love, especially when first experienced, is different for girls like Dorothy and boys like Tom. For a girl like Dorothy, it can take the form of a status that confers the right to celebrate being with and a part of another, the creation of ‘a couple’. Sometimes, (but not always), for a boy like Tom, love transforms into a totem, the acknowledgement of power. Experienced as a responsibility to demonstrate this new power, the greater the variety of partners, the better the singular intensity of his passion might be expressed.
The cooling temperatures of Autumn slowed the spontaneity of their joinings in the loft. Still only near-adults, the limited availability of places to be alone together brought about a slowing of their physical sharing, which given their age and his nature, caused the end of their time as a couple to come about sooner rather than later. For her part, Dorothy kept everything to herself, her feelings and her hurt. There simply was no one to share it with and so, it was inscribed in her Diary, many a young girl’s best hope for the kind of listener that most agree should be there and most come to accept rarely is.
As the three approached, Dorothy looked at her watch, saw that it was 12:45 and resolved to not allow her former classmates to delay her mission to town on this particular afternoon.
“Hey! Dorothy!! You’re back!” Tom lead the trio, the two girls forming a pair, a step behind him, almost as if they were flying a kite that was too large to control, on too windy a day, they linked arms as they made their way across the lawn.
Dorothy thought about her friend and roommate at school, Eliza, and took heart. As Dorothy packed for her trip back to Kansas, Eliza invited her to join her at her parent’s Summer home in Newport for the month of August. With that thought, Dorothy’s reflex shyness, that totally flawed defense mechanism of many an adolescent girl, (and some adolescent boys), evaporated. She remembered that she was not the small town girl that everyone knew and liked and admired and, at one time, whispered about. She was Dorothy Gale, home-for-a-part-of-the-Summer College girl.
Tom reacted first, sensing a change in the girl and regarded her with a clearly increasing interest. Dorothy, in turn, did not miss the change in attitudes on the part of Patricia and Nancy, though they were obviously less intrigued with the change. Dorothy reminded herself that she had very little time and so, waited for Tom to take the lead, which, naturally he did,
“Hey, so, how was New York City?”
Dorothy looked at her watch. Tom reached out and grabbed her wrist. The two girls at his shoulder leaned forward, twin pilot fish sensing a meal,
“Come on, tell us about New York City and how the streets are paved with movie stars.” the girls behind him, hands to mouths, giggled like chipmunks. Hearing their laughter, Tom stepped closer to Dorothy.
Dorothy’s hope of avoiding an encounter faded, as she felt the rough stone of the fountain against the back of her legs, causing her to arch her back in an unconscious effort to maintain her balance. She was at an insurmountable disadvantage in the encounter. She was back in town, after being away. In any small town or island community, there are the people born there and there is everyone else. However, within the community of native-born people, there is yet another division of status, those who leave and come back and those who stay. The status of the latter is a punitive distinction, those who leave are at a disadvantage no matter what their birth certificate might say.
‘Apples’ at first a truly random thought, popped into her mind. Dorothy noticed the pack of Luckies protruding from Tom’s shirt pocket, every small-town bad boy’s badge of honor. She reached out and took a cigarette from the pack, put it in her mouth and said, “Thanks.”
Tom leaned back slightly. The two girls almost gasped. Patricia Levesque looked shocked (and disapproving), Nancy Jackson’s face registered curiosity that bordered on genuine interest, (and stepped slightly away from her friend Patricia) and stared at Dorothy.
Tom held out the match (from Stewart’s Feed and Supply) and Dorothy, holding his hand steady, looked up from the flame and said, “Thanks”
Among the three, breathing resumed sooner for two of them, although, of course, eventually the third joined in, marking her decision with a scowl of disapproval.
Realizing that deferring a meeting was the only way she was going to avoid being delayed, Dorothy stepped back from Tom and said,
“I’m so sorry, but you caught me on my way to a very important appointment. I mustn’t be late! Maybe we could all get together another time?”
Tom Hardesty and Nancy Jackson both were quick to agree. Patricia, not wanting to be left out, clearly puzzled by the reaction of her two friends, joined in with an unenthusiastic, ‘that’d be swell’.
“So, this coming Saturday afternoon? Here?” Dorothy watched as 2 heads nodded enthusiastically and walked away.
“It’s ten past 1.”
Nurse Claire Griswold was standing at the first bed, to the left of the double swinging doors that opened to Ward C. She looked exactly as she had on the previous afternoon. Tall, without being imposing, blonde hair, framed by her white nurse’s cap, almost created a halo effect, and blue eyes that seemed to see the world from an indefinable distance. And, she had the most remarkable way of moving. Simply without effort, she would be in one spot and then another, as if it were her decision whether anyone could witness her walking, or taking a seat in a chair, or approaching from a distance.
“I’m so sorry, there were some school chums in the park…” Seeing the look from the nurse, she tried, “Look! I brought flowers!” Dorothy had little hope that an excuse would have any effect on this woman’s opinion of her, but felt she had to try. Holding up the bouquet of flowers that she bought from the Gift Shop in the lobby, Dorothy raised her eyebrows, as a combination surrender flag and petition for a truce.
Although Dorothy was certain that she was smiling, Claire Griswold’s blue eyes were all that she could see, held by a look that felt like being judged and at the same time, she felt no threat,
“Am I forgiven?” Dorothy started to walk down the aisle towards Almira Gulch’s bed.
“I believe that you meant well, however intention and action are not always one and the same. You must do one thing. Take your pretty bouquet apart and distribute the flowers among all the patients.”
Dorothy felt a flash of annoyance at her gift being regarded as an incidental commodity. Seeing a wastepaper basket by the side of the small nurses station, to the left of the entrance, she put her books down and began un-wrapping the flowers.
“Very well, but you promised yesterday… ” Dorothy looked up from what was now merely a bunch of flowers and saw that Nurse Griswold was no longer standing next to her. Instead she was standing at a bed in the middle of the ward. There was something very strange about how she moved, as if floating, yet even that would not explain how she could cover the distance, which was at least 15 feet down down the central aisle, without Dorothy noticing. Shrugging off the unexplained abilities of Nurse Griswold, Dorothy walked to the first bed, (there were 2 rows of 5 beds on opposite sides of the large room). She saw that each bedside table had a small, milky green, glass vase and every one of them was empty and dry.
Dorothy smiled when she realized that, though she’d bought the cheapest bouquet in the gift shop, it consisted of exactly 10 flowers. ‘Perfect,’ she thought, ‘the warden here won’t being able to criticize me for giving the wrong number of flowers to each patient.’ She walked to each bed, trying to avoid eye contact with the few, (less than 3 of the 10), patients that appeared to be awake, or at least aware of what was going on around them. Finally she came to the last bed, saving the last flower, a rose for Almira Gulch.
Holding the single rose, Dorothy was not surprised to see that Nurse Griswold was at her side, (although, she knew for a fact, that, when she walked up to this, the last bed in the row, the beautiful blonde nurse was attending to a patient in the middle of the opposite row), and put the flower in the vase. As she did so, she saw a small photo of a very young child, a girl with dark hair and darker eyes. Turning, Dorothy said,
“Who is this little girl?”
Nurse Claire Griswold smiled and said, “You came back today thinking that you had only one question for our friend here to answer. You are asking a different question?”
“Well, I suppose. But I still need to ask Mrs. Gulch a very important question. Is she always asleep or is that only when I’m here, with my question?” Dorothy began to grow impatient, the days events beginning to take their toll. She considered walking away, forgetting she ever knew Mrs. Gulch, (Miss Gulch!! Miss! a part of her mind insisted, in an undeniably petulant tone). Dorothy started to turn away, from the bed and it’s book and it’s sad little milky green, glass vase and especially, from the photo of the little girl looking out from somewhere too far away, but Nurse Griswold was standing between her and the corridor formed by the two rows of beds of Ward C, blocking the road she might follow to return to her home.
“Let me tell you something about a young girl, a girl, in many ways, very much like you,”