Chapter 37

Featured

Winter 1921 Circe, Kansas

The Christmas season was snowless and un-seasonably warm. Old-timers, always willing and ready to offer their opinions on historical precedents, were in their marginalized glory. Holding forth at the luncheon counter of Randall’s Pharmacy on Main Street or around the wood stove in the open stock room of Crane’s Farm Supply Store, over on West Main, most prefaced their assessment with, “Oh, this is surely the warmest winter since….”

On at least three days in December, the senior members of Circe society could be found gathered in small groups around the granite fountain (that had no water) in the center of the town square. Being across the street from the Library provided a safety net against the dimming of the midday sun or a surprise arrival of the north wind which constantly prowled the open lands surrounding the small town. The warmth of the reading room provided a small, barely noticed irony, as the old timers continued their debates in volumes that were hushed and subdued only to the speaker and very definitely not to the other patrons of the library.

In 1920, in Circe, the Christmas decorations on storefronts and public buildings looked smaller, somehow less enthusiastic. The lack of snow deprived them of a uniform white backdrop, always most flattering, for the colorful ribbons, bows and wreaths. In a small town like Circe, where people labored to a day’s exhaustion eleven months of the year, the decorations tended towards what one might charitably describe as ‘frantically festive’. Traditional holiday reds and greens, when set against the earth-tone shades of a dry winter, took on the look of overly ripe vegetables.

Residents of Circe awoke to find snow on the ground only twice in the entire month of December. On those two occasions, the night’s accumulation was too puny to resist the winter sun and by afternoon melted, withdrawn into the still soft earth.

Simone and Theodore Baumeister loved all the holidays, but Christmas most of all. For one of them, this affinity was a direct result of a natural disposition to caring for others; for the other, a physical resemblance to the central figure in most Christmas tales, surely did not hurt.

Teddy Baumeister enjoyed Christmas so much so that every year, as Halloween approached, he would announce to his wife, (and anyone else within earshot), that the time had come for him to grow the beard he was always meant to have.

“It’s also a very good excuse to put on weight. My Simone is always after me about eating too much, but for the Christmas season, she makes an exception.”

Teddy Baumeister broke the silence after two hours of working on what he and Simone called, ‘the dormitory’. Even though we’d just arrived, little more than a month ago, it was obvious that the holidays were only a ‘single day excuse’ to interrupt the endless labor of farming. Through the months of January and February, the ground frozen solid, whatever work could be done was moved indoors. There was always equipment to be repaired and maintained and, as a break, the occasional day spent on the moon-scape of the winter prairie, mending fences and rescuing strayed livestock. For the Baumeisters, there was also the building of ‘the dormitory’, now just about complete and ready for occupancy.

Most of the farms in this part of the country needed to employ transient labor; planting and harvesting demanded man-hours well in excess of that necessary to maintain a small farm during the other three-quarters of the year. Usually living quarters were thrown up, ideally as multi-use structures. By chance of geography, the Baumeisters chose to buy a farm located on one of the primary routes west. Travelers, both those in search of work and those in search of other essential qualities of life, passed by the Baumeister farm in greater numbers than they did the other farms. Visitors who might stop on their journey, drawn to the light in an otherwise dark landscape, would find welcome. In addition, being a working farm, those who sought an opportunity to earn a little money, would be offered whatever might be available.

However, it was during the times of year when the demand and need for transient workers was low that the Baumeisters demonstrated their essential nature and character. Travelers and workers were met with charity and welcome. As a result, the Baumeister farm did very well year round, as people usually returned kindness with kindness. Their small farm was consistently more profitable at the end of each year than most of their neighbors.

Simone and Theodore’s plan to build ‘the dormitory’ grew from need. It was not a need to acquire. It was not a need to increase the profitability of the farm. It was, in a sense, as self-serving a need as either of these. The Baumeisters enjoyed helping people. They discovered the need to build an extra building, one that would allow them to never be in a position of having to turn a person (or a family) away. The building was nearly finished when Almira and I arrived. As so many before us, drawn to the lights of their home, driven by a need to be welcomed. I was more than happy to help, even if the damage to my right arm cut back on my carpentry skills.

“She indulges me, I know, but to the ends of the earth I would go for her.”

Ted Baumeister put down the backsaw he was using to trim the bottom of the last interior door that needed to be finished,

” ‘Theodore,’ she might say one morning at breakfast, ‘I read in a magazine, down at Randall’s Drugstore about a special mineral water found only in one remote corner of the Dakotas. They said it has near magical properties…’

…well, Sterling, I must admit that, before she could finish telling me what drinking this water might do, I would have the car started and kissing her goodbye.”

I looked up from trying to plane the bottom edge of the last interior door left to be hung. Although I had it laid out on two saw horses, putting the bottom edge at just the right height, I struggled to complete this relatively simple task. My right arm has good days and not-so-good days in terms of stiffness and mobility and unfortunately, today was not a good day. I thought about nailing the door to the saw horses, so it didn’t slide every time I took a pass at it with the plane. I must’ve had the look on my face that Almira refers to as ‘patient frustration’ because Ted stopped with his monologue and, after staring at me for a minute, started laughing. Theodore Baumeister had the kind of laugh that novice writers often refer to as ‘contagious laughter’. The fact of the matter is that it would be more accurate to refer to it as ‘infectious laughter’. All that was necessary was to be in the same room, or not the same room, he was not an overly quiet man, and his laughter became your laughter.

“Ted, I believe you. Lets hope that the two women in the house don’t take a hankering for some Champagne from France or sausage from Germany, or there’ll be no one to feed the cows!”

I smiled, happy to have a non-war-damaged-arm reason to put down the wood plane for a minute. Ted stood up straight, which in his case involved a risk of hitting his head on the top of the door frame, and set his backsaw next to my wood plane on the currently table-like interior door.

“I agree with you, Sterling, my friend. We are lucky men that they, your Almira and my Simone are modest, down to earth women both. They would not send us on frivolous journeys. There is, of course, a third in the house, a woman to be…”

I walked to the window and looked towards the farmhouse,

“Aurora, my sunrise. No, I have not forgotten. I would more likely forget that the earth was under my feet or the sky above my head. I feel odd, and in a way embarrassed, to say it aloud, but it sometimes scares me how much I love that child.”

“Come lets you and I take a walk. The sun is high, your child is safe, I want to show you something.”

We crossed the fields, the winter stubble of corn stalks failed to obscure the neat parallel rows of the previous planting, a natural corduroy terrain, evidence of the endless encroachment of man. Off to the right, destroying the ruler straight horizon, grew a rounded terracing of rising land, small groves of trees and low bushes, making the increasing elevation difficult to detect. As we veered towards the hills, the corn fields turned into meadows and grasslands, the soft vegetation now stiff and textured by the winter’s cold.

We approached a row of cedar trees, feathery trunks showing pale red, branches reaching skywards with a peculiar and somewhat disturbing grasping appearance. Teddy turned to me and said ‘ten paces in, turn around and walk backward for the last 6 feet. Watch out for the hole,’ and disappeared into the prickly green branches.

I did as he suggested and when I turned, (after stepping backwards the last six steps), I found myself in a small clearing. The space was about 20 feet from wall of evergreen bushes to wall of evergreens. The space was dominated by a small cavern that half-covered a pool of water, clearly some sort of natural spring. Ted was sitting on a ledge created by an out-cropping of the bedrock; beginning deep within the cavern it ran along the right side of the darkened space, out into the open and ran to the right along the hillside that sheltered the cavern opening.

The pool of water was mirror-still. The air in this space felt more comfortable than it should and there was a quality of motion to the water. It wasn’t so much beneath the surface, rather it was a quality of the still, clear water itself.

“The Shawnee tribe made this part of the Plains their home, ranging across the land up to the Rockies. At least they did until the white man came bearing gifts. The Indians thought of this spring as a sacred place. I don’t remember the word in their language, but ‘the crying stones’ would be the best translation of the name they gave it. It never changes, never runs dry. Water comes up from somewhere within the earth and fills the pool to the same level. No matter if there is a drought dry enough to wear away the soil or flooding downpours that scrub the land of all features; the pool is always at the same level.”

Ted’s words parted the curtain of blue-grey smoke in front of his face as he concentrated on getting his pipe lit. He’d draw on the pipe, with a slightly slurpy inhale, watch the release of smoke from the carved bowl when he stopped. Several times he would take the pipe from his mouth and, after looking down into the bed of glowing tobacco, tamp it very slightly, puff, examine and puff again. After about 5 minutes, he looked up at me as if I’d just walked into the clearing, smiled and with a broad gesture said,

“Come, Sterling! Come and sit. I have a proposition for you.”

***

Summers End 1939

Dorothy Gale stood at the corral fence. Its first section began at the corner of the barn that faced the farmhouse. It then ran a short length, interrupted itself with a wide swinging gate and, anchored in the ground once more, headed out to the pasture land. A now controlled expanse of otherwise open land.

The cool dampness of the wood fitted itself against her forearms as she leaned on the top rail. The air was still, the sky improbably full of towering clouds, rejected troops of an army arriving at the battlefield a day after armistice. Blue, grey and an occasional patch of black, the clouds had such texture and dimension, Dorothy unconsciously tightened her grip on the fence, the animal mind now alert, signaling the threat of being crushed by an avalanche from the sky.

‘Little wonder that, in all the myths down through the ages, the world begins with giants roaming the earth,’

Dorothy thought, as she scanned the horizon. Although surrounded for a thousand miles by hills, grass and mountains, the expression on the young woman’s face would be instantly recognizable to any open-ocean sailor.

“Mind some company, roomie?”

Eliza Thornberg stepped next to her friend. Dorothy half-turned her head and smiled. Eliza nudged her friend with her shoulder and took up a similar position, standing at the fence.

“My god, the sky is beautiful.”

Eliza stared at the sky above the western horizon, the blue that was hatching from the now blurry clouds, was the color of easter eggs. As she watched, hazy clouds evaporated, creating a hole in the far distant clouds, it felt like she was looking into the sky of another world.

“How do you people not go crazy? There is nothing human about this place, there is nothing that I can walk to and touch. I think I understand some of what you’ve told me about growing up in this place.”

Dorothy made a sound like ‘surprise interrupted by another, more surprising event’, looked out from the corner of her eye and said,

“You wouldn’t believe me if I told you.”

Eliza turned towards her,

“No, I probably wouldn’t if you weren’t my friend. However, Miss Dorothy Gale, you are, so it doesn’t matter what it may sound like to a stranger.”

Eliza turned and leaned back against the fence, looking towards the farmhouse. She felt her natural self-confidence return, the vast and un-controllable fields and too far horizon no longer distracting her,

“Hey, Dorothy, sorry about my bitchiness back at the house. No excuse for it. Except maybe ‘wide-open spaces hysteria'”,

Dorothy laughed,

“There is such a thing, right? Glamorous sophisticated girl from wealthy family succumbs to the near silent charm of the natives, only to witness the callous mistreatment of her best friend at the hands of her immediate family. At Sunday dinner. I read about it last semester in psych class. It’s a real thing. So it’s not my fault.”

Again laughter grew between the two and the rough-hewn boards of the corral fence pulled deeper on the young arms, as if resenting an implied lack of respect.

“No Eliza, I’m the one who should be apologizing, I’ve been a terrible host and a rotten friend. Your surprise visit is the best thing that anyone has ever done for me…”

Dorothy paused and looked out towards County Road #2 as it formed a limit to the growth of the Gale farm, at least in a northerly direction, she seemed to catch herself and resumed,

“…and all I’ve done is drag you to a hospital, send you off with a farm hand to another farm and put on a demonstration of the perfect un-grateful daughter. Wait a minute, except for the un-grateful daughter thing, that pretty much is all there is to do in this place.”

“Hey girl, don’t give it a second thought. If our positions were reversed and you paid me a surprise visit at home, I’d probably take you to a museum, maybe go hear the Philadelphia Symphony and perhaps some sail….”

Eliza noticed the expression on Dorothy’s face,

“Yeah, no difference!”

“But seriously Dorothy, you’re my friend and that’s all that matters, right?”

“I guess.”

“And you and I, we’ll head off to Newport even if only for a week or two before school. It’ll be fun! We’ll make the boys believe they’ve died and gone to heaven and spoil everything for when they get back to Havard and Yale, and their Ivy League girl friends ask them about their summer vacation!”

“Sounds like a good idea.”

“So what is it that’s eating at you? I’ve only known you for a year, but that’s a year living together, which everyone knows is the equivalent of 5 years if we just lived in the same town, going to the same school. Is it the old lady in the hospital or is it something with your Aunt Em?”

“Yes.”

The wind rose and when Eliza turned towards her friend, Dorothy’s face was obscured by her dark hair, blown in random waves that seemed to make her face at once un-recognizable while never really changing.

“I can’t say why, but I suddenly need to know who my real mother was.”

“Does your Aunt know?”

“I think she does.”

“So ask her,”

“I can’t, Eliza. Aunt Em and Uncle Henry are the only parents I’ve ever known. This farm is the only home I’ve ever know. As far back as I remember, I’ve always been here.”

“Sure, but it’s normal for a little girl, hell, any kid, to want to know who their mother and father are, or were.”

Eliza stopped as she heard Dorothy’s voice, quieter and calmer, as if they were sitting in a library and she was showing Eliza something in a dusty reference book.

“When I was about seven, I started asking about where I came from and where my father and mother were. At first Aunt Emily and Uncle Henry pretended they didn’t hear me, ignoring my questions and counting on a child’s lack of tenacity. It wasn’t very long after I started to ask them about my parents, when one of the girls in my class, for no reason I can remember, decided to call me ‘Little Orphan Dorothy’. Her name was Linda Renaude, huh, funny the things we remember. Anyway, when the name-calling started I made the mistake of asking her to not call me that.”

Seeing Eliza’s understanding smile, Dorothy added,

“I know! But I was only seven years old, I didn’t know about mean people. Up until then the only people I had regular contact with were Aunt Em and Uncle Henry and whoever we had working for us. In any event, I asked her to not call me that, that it was mean and my Aunt and Uncle were my parents. That, as any mature person knows, made her certain that she was on to something.

Finally, one Friday towards the end of the school year, Linda got some older friends, they were in the third grade I think, to join her and they started following me around at morning recess calling out, ‘Little Orphan Dorothy, Little Orphan Dorothy….’.

For whatever reason, maybe because Mother’s Day was that weekend, I stopped trying to ignore her and instead, pushed her down in the dirt. Everyone stood and stared and no one said anything and I remember feeling surprised at what I did and started to cry. Yet even though she was laying on the ground, Linda said in a real mean way, “Thats why you’re an orphan, Little Orphan Dorothy”.

I stood over her and said, in a quiet and calm tone of voice, ‘Don’t say that. It’s mean and it’s not true.’ But she wouldn’t stop and suddenly I kicked her in the stomach and when she turned over with her hands around her middle, I kneeled on her back and started pushing dirt in her mouth and saying, ‘It’s not nice to be mean’ and kept making her eat dirt. One of the other girls ran to get a teacher and I stayed on Linda Renaude’s back until I felt myself lifted into the air by Mr. Collins, the janitor. He carried me back to the school-house and I had to sit outside the principle’s office until my Aunt Em arrived. The principal  asked her if I ever acted violent before and if there was any history of violence in my family. Aunt Emily denied that I’d ever done anything like this before, but when the principle asked about any family history, Auntie Em got very quiet and I saw a look in her face, an odd look, like she was afraid of something.”

Eliza felt something like fear cover and un-cover her, like the curtain during the recent dinner, it was there and then not there. A lightest of touches and a repeating of this light feeling of fear, as if to remind her that it wasn’t her imagination. She chided herself for such feelings and listened as her friend continued,

“Somehow she convinced the principle that I was under a lot of pressure because of my school work. She said something that at the time I thought was odd, something about being on the library committee and how she was also a donor to the library book fund. The principle, Mr. Ryan, sat very straight in his chair and stopped smiling. He then suggested that it might be best for me to go home early, just this one time. I can remember the ride back to the farm, like it was yesterday. I was sitting between Aunt Emily and Uncle Henry, who was driving. He still had on his overalls and Auntie Em was dressed like it was a Sunday, she even had on her gold rim glasses. Finally, I asked them to tell me who my parents were,

“Auntie Em, I love you and Uncle Henry and would never do anything to be unkind, but where are my mother and father?”

Emily looked over at me, glanced at Henry, who hadn’t taken his eyes off the road since we pulled away from the school, looked out her window and said,

“Dorothy, both of them are gone. Your father died in a terrible and unnecessary fight with another man. Your mother, well, she never recovered from it. She came to me and asked me to, ‘Give the child the home I cannot.’ She made me promise to never speak of her or the fight, to anyone, ever. Even you. She said, ‘I want what is best for my baby. Don’t ever discuss us with anyone again.’ And she went away.”

My aunt Emily turned to me as we rode in the truck and said,

“You don’t want me to break my promise to her, do you? It would hurt everyone if I did. Since you’ve decided to ask, you are the one who has to decide to keep the promise.”

I sat back on the leather seat, rocking just a little from one side to another as we passed along a rough part of County Road #2. Even now, telling you about that day, I have a feeling of falling, falling into a well, and I said, ‘No. Auntie Em, I wouldn’t want to hurt anyone, especially her.’

We got home and Aunt Emily made my favorite dinner and we never spoke of my real parents again.

Eliza put her arm around her friend, leaning her forehead against Dorothy’s shoulder,

“Shit. Hey, I’m sorry. Here I was thinking that, ‘At least her mother didn’t go and die on her like mine did’. It must have been so hard for you to not know what happened to her, to them.”

Dorothy looked briefly towards the farmhouse, in time to see Hunk step up on the porch of his cottage. He waved, but Eliza was looking at her and she was too far away in her memory to wave an acknowledgment. Hunk stared for a second more than necessary and went into the small house.

…Eliza reached over, ran her left hand through Dorothy’s thick brown hair, sweeping it back against the side and give the length a twist. Leaning further back she said,

“Wait, now that I have the barn and the bales of hay in the background, I think I can picture you. What a pretty farm girl you must have been”

After a moment of silence, both girls began to laugh.

Advertisements

Chapter 36

Featured

The newborn child, wrapped in woolen blankets (embroidered with the name ‘Packard’ along one edge) stared up at her mother as Sterling drove the car towards the Baumeister’s farm. He never completely took his eyes off the baby or his wife for the 20 minutes that remained. Sterling Gulch managed to drive the seven miles to the farm almost entirely using only his peripheral vision. Two young people and one very, very young person travelled alone together, over the gravel road under canopy of the prairie night sky.

Almira, fine brown hair stuck in flattened clumps to the smooth skin of her forehead, looked at her baby and said,

“My God! We created this? How is that even possible.”

Sterling, leaning across the seat, left hand on the steering wheel, his right arm around Almira and the child, laughed,

“Well, dear, when a man and a woman loves each other very much… Ow!”

Almira, her eyes shining in the darkened interior of the car, joined her husband’s laughter,

“You did well, my husband. She has your nose and jaw line, for which I’m very grateful.”

Sterling Gulch turned and put his hand gently under Almira’s chin, the slightest of pressure, without changing the downward tilt of her face,

“She has eyes like a nighttime sun. She has your eyes, Almira. And I am very grateful for that. But what this child does not have is a name. She should have a name. Although ‘our beautiful daughter’ is enough for me, we really should give her a name by which others may know her.”

“Agreed, Sterling. You are the writer and creative one in the family.”

Almira stopped and somehow smiled directly at Sterling without takes her eyes off the baby,

“What a change in that word there is now, we are a family. So, husband, what is our daughter’s name?”

“Aurora”

Almira smiled at the baby, as tears turned her eyes into pools of dark light,

“Aurora, welcome to the family.”

The car moved along the road as new lights in the distance grew into windows and figures stepped from the porch, as the car came to a halt.

Simone and Teddy were both, somehow without reflecting headlights or glowing with the red glow of the brake lights, at the passenger side of the car as Sterling turned off the engine.

“Welcome home.”

Chapter 35

Featured

Dorothy Gale frowned as she watched Hunk Dietrich sprint towards the house, trying to run out from under the growing hail. Through the dining room window she could see the hail as it bounced off the ground, in that oddly delicate way that hail has, at least at the very beginning of a storm. The hail that bounced off Hunk as he ran, grew from little more than white raindrops to pea-sized ovals of ice in the short time it took him to cover the distance from the barn to the house. She heard the double thump as Hunk, deciding to forgo walking up the porch stairs, jumped the last six horizontal, and three vertical, feet to the protection of the covered porch.

The tops of the trees bent to the wind in an odd, undulating motion that made her think of fronds of kelp responding to an approaching storm. It was as if the branches were trying to root themselves in the black-heavy clouds beginning to surround the farm. That the wind was constantly changing speed and direction was more un-settling than a stronger steady wind. The conversation in the dining room of the Gale home shifted from being the center of everyone’s attention, to being an unintended contrast to the sounds of wind and hail everywhere other than the inside of the house. Adding to the growing tension was the sight, through the flapping curtains, of inverted leaves on the trees, their pale undersides giving the elm trees an ominous and slightly ghostly appearance.

Hunk backed through the swinging door from the kitchen, brushing ice from his shoulders as he turned, seeking Eliza Thornberg’s attention.

“Your car’s in the barn, my lady. It’s as safe there as anywhere in these parts, at least at this moment. And best of all, it won’t be full of dents and broken glass after the storm passes.”

Emily Gale and Thaddeus Morgan stood behind their chairs, Hunk’s precipitous departure had ended all chance of a civilized conversation over Sunday afternoon dinner. Emily shot Hunk a look of disapproval only to see that he was giving everything he had to being noticed by the young woman from Philadelphia. She immediately looked at her husband Henry, always her most reliable go-to person, whenever she had the need to lash. He was sitting and eating his meal, oblivious to his wife’s quandary, a host without the power to maintain a balanced interaction among her guests.

Neither Dorothy nor Henry Gale moved from their places at the round dining room table. Eliza Thornberg moved from her place closest to the windows and stood in front of Hunk, her expression deceptively intense.

“Are you out of your god-damned mind? What were you thinking? Did you forget to put in your brain this morning? That hail drumming the roof is the size of golf balls!”

Hunk smiled into the angry girl’s face. His confidence grew, in no small part fueled by the adrenaline that remained in now unnecessary abundance after his run through the pelting hail. Hunk’s normally guileless smile shifted, exertion twisting a normally pleasant and open smile into a grin.

“Who says chivalry is dead? Weren’t nothing, ma’am. I was glad to do it.”

Adrenaline, after the precipitating event, is often slow to flush from one’s system. Much like a person stepping from a dark room into one that is brightly lit, Hunk struggled to re-assess the signals he was receiving from the people in the dining room. He was clearly the center of attention which, for 99% of the time, was not where Hunk Dietrich enjoyed being. His confidence began to shrink as Eliza’s expression remained unchanged. A smiling appreciation of his spontaneous action was nowhere to be found in the girl’s face. She did not appear to be amused; to the contrary everything in her manner conveyed disapproval. Worse than her not smiling back, worse even than her getting angry, was the scorn that seemed to be just under the surface of Eliza Thornberg’s face. There was a near palpable sense of a gulf between her and the other people in the room. Her expression was the same that an explorer, greeted by the eagerly friendly natives of a primitive and unsophisticated land, might wear. Hunk felt an all too familiar feeling of dismay grow like predatory vines through his mind, self-consciousness providing all the thorny bite needed for it to capture his mind.

“No, Hunk, I’m not thanking you for going out into the storm. I’m asking you what you were thinking about, going out into that hail to rescue a ….car. A car, Hunk, not a person trapped in a dangerous situation, not even an animal. That I might understand, but a car.”

Hunk’s confident smile shimmered with uncertainty, doubt growing like rot in an apple, the visible signs only a hint of the depth of the decay.

“You’re still looking at me like I’m speaking Swahili. Don’t you get it? I don’t care about the car! Hell, it’s not even my car. It’s a loan from some man I met once, a man who wanted to suck up to my father. The stupid thing could get struck by lightning and burst into flames and I wouldn’t have left the table until dinner was over.”

Hunk stared, fear and uncertainty re-asserting an all too familiar hold on his face. The conversation that floated above the dining room table fluttered like an over-sized moth, suddenly successful in its effort to find the brightest (and most dangerous) light. Dorothy looked up from her plate and looked at Eliza and Hunk the way a person stares at a friend at a masquerade ball, knowing that under the mask was a person very well-known to her.

Eliza turned from Hunk quickly enough that his face was obscured by the wave of brunette hair. As light as the touch was, he recoiled as if stung by a swarm of hornets. Seeing the stunned looks in the eyes of her host, she tried to restrain the vehemence in her voice,

“What is it with you people? Tell me how I’ve only been here a week and can’t appreciate the subtleties of life in the country. I get how direct and forthright and ‘tell it like it is’ you people are supposed to be, but I sure as hell know greed and insecurity when I see it. As nice and friendly every one has been to me, there’s this thing about possessions that you have that’s really un-attractive. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that the people where I come from aren’t as prone to greed and wanting more than the other guy, but they don’t cover it up with all the wholesome, pious ‘aw shucks’ crap that I see around me.”

From the suddenly nighttime sky, came the rumble of thunder. Hunk pulled aside the white curtains and stared towards the southern sky. His eyes and ears strained to see and hear something in the distance. Blown by the wind, the curtain wrapped itself around his waist, an oddly intimate embrace.

“Sorry to interrupt everyone’s lunch, but this might be a good time for you all to move it down to the shelter.”

“No, Hunk. I’m not going down there. I’ll wait here. If you’re right about whats coming next in this storm, what’s the worst that can happen? I’ll get sucked up into a tornado? The last time that happened, my life actually improved, at least for a while. Don’t you agree, Auntie Em?”

“Now you’re just talking crazy, young lady.”

Emily Gale staring at the girl, addressed her dinner guest,

“See, Doctor Morgan? This is exactly what I was telling you. She insists on being defiant.  What have I done to deserve this kind of disrespect? I should think that given how we’ve provided for her all these years, allowing her a better life than she would have had… otherwise. For all my sacrifice, this is what we get, demands and disobedience.”

“‘Dr Morgan‘? What exactly are you talking about, Aunt Emily? What has Dr. Morgan have to do with this family. Not counting, that is, that damn hospital wing that means so much to you. Sounds like you’ve been sharing a lot about our family with Dr. Morgan. Did you tell him about my visions after the Storm of ’37? Did you go to him, demanding that he do something, give you a potion, a medicine that will make your ‘niece’ behave? Did you hope he would suggest something to restore me to being a useful part of the Gale Farm?”

Dr. Thaddeus Morgan, his expression betrayed his regret at not taking the less responsible path and staying with his wife this Sunday afternoon. Hearing the distant growling of thunder, he looked around the dining room; he felt an actor on stage, in a play he was shanghaied into the role of good-natured foil. He decided to remain silent, confident his cue would be obvious or, better yet, the action would focus on one of the other players.

Henry Gale continued to enjoy his meal. He sat, a look of contentment on his face, comfortable not participating in the conversations flaring up in the room. His expression, one of acceptance for what he knew was good and resignation to the things that were bad. The secret to his composure being that he knew he had done well to procure one and could only endure the other. When he did look up, a pause between bites of roast chicken and the occasional sips of cold water, his face projected a peacefulness more commonly observed in the face of soldiers after learning that the order to charge into the enemy’s guns, but not yet hearing the actual order. He looked around the dining room and saw nothing but responsibility, debt and a fleeting promise of happiness. He looked back at his plate and continued to eat.

Eliza Thornberg sat down in her chair. The white linen curtains behind her, given life by the increasing wind, draped themselves over her shoulders, a momentary bride.

Hunk’s posture was a perfect illustration of the fight/flight instinct. Like all animals, when first aware of an approaching but undefined threat, his body portrayed the simplest of all life’s decisions. Survival required action, debate of options, a luxury.

Dorothy turned in her seat towards Emily Gale and the hapless Thaddeus Morgan. Emily looked around the dining room and felt sad and angry. As she watched her adopted daughter turn her attention on her, Emily Gale spoke first.

“Dorothy Gale! You don’t know how lucky you are. You have a hardworking father and mother who wanted only whats best for you and the family. No matter who tells you otherwise.”

Dorothy began to feel the need to get up and run, out of the room, out into the yard, out into the path of whatever storm happened to be heading towards her. What kept her seated was a belief, more of a fragment, of a forgotten memory. There was something that, once she discovered it’s nature, would make sense of her feelings. It had something to do with travels, but ever elusive it slipped from her mind.

She looked around the dining room and had the sudden conviction that everyone wore a disguise. She frowned at her own thought, she knew quite well who was who and  was certain no one was wearing a disguise or mask or hiding any secrets.

But’ a small voice in her head spoke up, meek yet bold, as if a mouse before a man, ‘you also once knew that there was nothing beyond the rainbow and you were totally certain that scarecrows couldn’t speak, witches were not real and every day life was to be lived and not questioned. Didn’t you?‘ There was the lilt of hope in the last words. It was more a reminder of something that she misplaced, but not thrown away.

Dorothy Gale felt dismay spreading like a yawn from her thoughts to her feelings, the tired that was just behind the yawn was how she felt when she returned to Circe after the Storm of ’37. Then, as this Sunday afternoon, she looked around at the townspeople and her family and friends and had to resist the desire to ask everyone, “I know who you are here, but who are you really?” The changes from her time in… the other place, were such that she did not feel that she had changed, that instead, the world around her had changed. As it did, or did not.

Increasingly feeling like a stranger in her home and hometown, Dorothy Gale realized that the cure was simple but the price was high. She could go back to her life being Dorothy Gale, the painfully normal farm girl who had been adopted by the prominent Gale family and raised almost like one of their own children, or she could find her real mother.

***

“Remember that night last spring, out in the corner of the yard at your father’s house?”

“You read to me, from my Gulliver’s Travels.”

Almira’s voice rose from the dark side of the front seat of our car, the small orange glow on the end of my cigarette a tiny fire, lighting the woolen hills of blankets she had gathered around her for our drive home through the cold Kansas night. The other side of the front seat was extra dark because Almira had taken the three blankets, (that she made the sales manager give us when we bought the car right off the showroom floor), and built herself a …. not a nest.

While great intelligence is an asset in any man or woman, what set Almira apart was her passion. Her will to love, to bring together, to fight when necessary and to protect those in need of a champion; despite the fact she was as near to bringing a child into the world as possible and still be able to run to the car after an excruciatingly tedious social occasion, what she had created on her side of the Packard’s front seat was not a nest.

As a mother-to-be, my wife was not a member of one of the gentle and kind and complacent families of God’s creatures, fashioning warm and dry nests, from pieces of branches and threads of straw meant for comfort as they brought new life into the world, trusting in nature and good fortune that she might be over-looked by the larger (and hungrier) varieties of God’s creatures at her moment of weakness.

Almira had taken the new, very expensive brown woolen car blankets and built a den.

“Yeah, I remember.”

“You gave me a life to bring out to the world that night. A life that’s some of me and some of you.”

I slid my right hand over across the seat and felt her reach out and grasp it.

“You gave me my own life back, that night, Almira.”

“It’s always going to be you and me, and our child, isn’t it?”

Almira shifted in her blankets, leaned forward with both elbows on the dashboard, her chin in her hands and watched as we drove across a flat and simple landscape.

“Remember the times we sat huddled together outside the mill? You and me surrounded by the brick walls? we could escape the cold and the hard times in that small space, because I had you and you had me. The world, that world out there, is only where we pass through, it does not define us. Our love, and only our love, defines and gives us meaning.”

I heard the smile and confidence in her voice as we drove through the dark.

The Gale farm was not all that far from where we were living with the Baumeisters, at least not far by local standards. If it were a summer day and I was alone in the car I could have made the trip in 45 minutes. It was neither. This Sunday’s evening drive looked to be about 90 minutes. Which was not a bad thing. Since arriving in Circe, Almira and I have not had a lot of time alone. Simone and Ted were wonderful hosts, but that they were the only other people in the large farmhouse did nothing to decrease the feeling of being in a fish bowl at times.

“I love Simone and Teddy, but It’s good to be alone. As guests in someone’s house, even up in our room, I never feel, you know, like we’re alone. It’s nice to be with you, seems like its been forever.”

Almira seemed to read my mind. It was a talent that I had come to grips with and it’s mostly a good thing.

“Once the baby arrives, I suspect that moments like this will become a bit of a luxury.”

Almira pulled on the back half of her blanket den and I saw her eyes, the familiar intensity in them triggered not-unpleasant ripples to run through me.

“How do you do that?”

I laughed, but softened it by pretending to concentrate on the road ahead, which now was a ribbon of lighter dark against a nearly black background. The flattened cones of light ran ahead of the car, the stars, somehow, provided enough light to make out the prairie landscape on either side of the road.

“Do what?”

“Change your size at will. At one minute I see a shy 16-year-old girl, reading a book on a hand-me-down couch in a musty union hall, the very next minute I watch you make politicians, business men and stevedores hang on your every word. A very cute mammal running circles around the huge dinosaurs who roar and make like they will rule forever. And you, my powerful inheritor of the earth, just wait and bide your time.”

“Well for one thing I don’t know if I like your choice of similes. And besides, I do not change size and make myself the center of everything!'”

Our laughter gave the noise of the car on the gravel road a run for its money.

“Well, thanks for coming along, babe. If I had to go through that alone, I don’t know if I could have made it to desert.”

“Henry Gale seemed like a nice enough fellow. His wife Emily, well, Emily is a very impressive young woman. She’s accomplished a great deal with what she had, with where she came from.”

Almira spoke more to the passing scenery, as if by understanding the geography, she would better understand the people living in it.

“You, my dear wife, possess the mind of a politician and the heart of an angel. Emily Sauvage inherited money from her uncle Charles. It was only after an unsuccessful attempt to make it in Philadelphia society, that she returned home and bought a run-down farm with part of her rather sizable inheritance. Everything else she has done since then was evident in the eyes of the 16-year-old girl, fresh from Kansas, when she visited her brother at Dartmouth.”

“And you, my dear husband are gifted with an imagination that lets you see the world in a grain of sand and the ambitions in the eyes of a lonely girl. It is you who has the heart of an angel. All that most of us would have seen in her eyes, then or now, is a desperate need for material things in the vain hope of securing social status. All in the service of making her feel a part of a world that she doesn’t believe she belongs.”

I was, as always, impressed by Almira’s talent for people. The Sunday dinner at the Gale farm went exactly as Emily Gale had planned it and it was successful in re-assuring her that she was on the path to a happy life. Henry showed us the barn and the livestock and the equipment, still shiny and new. His enthusiasm for farming was simple, sincere and the one relaxing aspect to the entire afternoon. The dinner, of course, was in Emily’s domain and was not as enjoyable.

“Well, thank you anyway, babe. Once I handed over Cyril’s envelop, I was pretty much ready to leave and get back to the Baumeister’s. Have I told you what a genius you are at bringing out the best in people.”

“One odd thing.”

I looked over at her, light brown hair providing a decorative fringe to the brown woolen blanket she wore as a hood,

“Odder than the small bedroom on the far side of the living room? The one where someone had painted a row of animals along the top of the wall, just below the ceiling?”

“Very observant!”

I laughed at the burst of pride in my chest at her two-word acknowledgment.  I suspect that when I’m old and in my 50s, I’ll still feel as good when Almira compliments me.

“And very diplomatic of you not to ask about it. But, there was a moment in the kitchen. I had a casserole dish in each hand, was turned to leave to put them on the table and she was standing there, next to the door to the dining room and staring at me. I didn’t say anything, just stood there. Finally, almost to herself, Emily said, ‘Dorothy is what I will name my child. No matter how long it takes, that’s the name I will give her and that will make her mine.’
She looked up, as if seeing me for the first time, laughed and said, ‘So much to do, a good hostess never rests.'”

The dark sky arced and connected ‘back there’ to ‘up ahead’, as we drove to our temporary home with the Baumeisters.

What?”

I saw a frown of pained surprise grip Almira’s face. It was gone as soon as I turned to look closer at her. My foot came off the gas pedal but my left hand tensed on the steering wheel.

“Nothing. Your little friend Emily may know how to read, but is far from a good cook. Something I ate, maybe some of whatever was in that orangey yellow casserole dish. Gas. It’s not enough that I feel like I have to pee whenever I… stand up or sit down? I get to have gas too!”

She laughed, curled her legs up on the seat between us and looked up through the passenger side window,

“So much space. If I look at the right angle, it’s like I’m flying over the land and I ….oh!”

Now both my hands tried to change the placement of the indentations carved into the steering well.

ohh!!

The note of surprise in Almira’s voice was replaced by an upturn into fear, followed immediately by a sound that I’ve never heard from her. Out of nowhere came a memory of one time my father took me to Roger Williams Zoo. There was a new exhibit, an African lion and the newspaper said that the curators believed she was pregnant. My father and I stood at the edge of the moat that encircled the lion exhibit for at least an hour. We never once saw the lioness. I remember being disappointed and my father saying, ‘Sometimes, son, things go according to our plans. But pretty much nature does what she does on her own timetable.’ As we turned to walk away, I heard a roar from the depths of the cavern-like enclosure. It was a sound of fear mixed with triumph that I never heard again, until just now.

“My god!”

I looked frantically through the windshield and, twisting, out through every window, searching for something in the vast darkness that I could recognize. I looked back at Almira, she was pulling the blankets against her shoulder and pushing her feet against my leg. Hard.

“Sterling…. I think it’s happening…”

“But the doctor said… you are supposed to have the baby in January…”

The look on her face made me stop talking about doctors.

I brought the car to a complete stop, but kept the engine running. A part of me was thinking that we would at least be warm, a much bigger part of me was looking for a direction to run in, to take Almira someplace where people knew what to do. I even got out, stood on the running board and looked up the road in the direction of the Baumeisters. I did resist the urge to climb on the roof and wave my arms, as the sounds of my wife in distress grew and made the featureless landscape darker than I would have thought possible.

“OK, if you can hold out just a little longer, I’ll get us back to the Baumeisters. Simone will know what to do.”

Sitting up a little, Almira caught my eyes and held them by force of will,

“This, dear husband, is not a matter of learning. This is a matter of our baby deciding to join us ahead of schedule.”

“But if I drive real fast… ” I saw a look of exasperation grow in her eyes, “Ok, then I’ll drive real slow and we’ll be closer every minute and then…”

Almira reached from where she leaned up against the car door and grabbed my hand and held it tight. Encouraged, I continued,

“And if we can get close enough, I’ll use the horn and they’ll hear us and they’ll come to help you.”

Her grip tightened to the point where it felt like the bones in my knuckles were rubbing directly against each other,

“We’re alone out here, Sterling. The time is now. The baby is not going to wait. I need you to help me. It’s just you and me”

Her eyes began to focus somewhere I would never see and she made a sound, nearly the same as the one that I heard as a 10-year-old boy. This time my father was not standing next to me to explain what I must do. I suddenly knew that, as it had been the first night we met, on a winter’s night years before, I needed to hold her and know that she had the strength to do what had to be done. And she would know that I would be there and never let her go.

In a brief lull, in the quiet of the car, land and fields and night animals still, as they witnessed Almira’s cries, I brushed back a stray veil of dampened hair from her eyes. She looked up at me and smiled,

“Almost there, husband of mine, we’re almost there.”

“I am here as I have always been and will always be, wife of mine. You are the center of my world.”

I felt her grip increase and after the passage of time I could not count, her cries were replaced by a smaller cry. I pulled her close and she and I formed a shelter between us, three of us now.

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.