Chapter 9

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(Early) Sunday Morning

December 10, 1911

The Hammond Street Presbyterian Church
Lawrence, Massachusetts

Frederick Prendergast III and his wife Constance, walked across the Lawrence Town Commons, on a mild December morning. The bite of cold that prevailed through the night and into the early morning hours, broke, like rotted teeth on some Christmas confection, and was replaced by temperature so mild, if only by contrast, that Frederick decided that the family would forgo the carriage and, instead, walk across the Commons, to Sunday Services.

In 1848, the Essex Corporation gifted the town of Lawrence with 17 acres of vacant land for use as the town Common. Along the four streets that bordered this greenery, were, churches of a New England, variety of denominations, City Hall, the Library, (complete with Greco-Roman columns), and a row of imposing private residences. The Commons itself was of a decidedly odd shape. If one were to rise above the earth and view the arrangement of abutting neighborhoods and sections of town, one could be forgiven for insisting that the Town of Lawrence, (from this lofty height), possessed the shape of a great Chalice. The Cup formed by the green of the Commons, the surrounding mansions and houses of worship taking the place of decorative jewels and gold filigree. As a chalice, a broad and stable base was necessary and there, the stolid red brick of the Mills, arrayed along the Merrimack River, completed the image. The Chalice, as potent a symbol in human experience as might be found, also represents the most basic of elements: Water, Fire, Earth and Air. Missing is, of course, the human element. That there could not be a Lawrence, Massachusetts without people, goes without saying. It is the experiences of the different social classes in Lawrence, Massachusetts in 1911 that is most telling. Much like the different shapes of the neighborhoods and sections of town that creates this provocative image of a chalice, each social class, in part, defines the other groups and, ultimately the whole. Grand mansions were, in fact, dependent on the members of the lower class to enable them to exert their power, causing the city to grow and thrive. Even as Frederick Prendergast is determined to increase production (and profits) of the Mills of Lawrence, so Annie LoPizzo becomes a focal point of the growing dissatisfaction of the workers in those very same Mills. Surely the concept of ‘interdependency’ needs no further illustration.

As Frederick Prendergast and his wife Constance stepped through the tall oak doors of the Hammond Street Presbyterian Church, snow fell from above, released from the grip of overhanging branches by the warming temperatures. Frederick led his small family down the central aisle, to the first rows of pews. Marked by a discreet brass plaque on the end of the row, Nanny Grace Byrne sat with the twins in the second of the Prendergast pews. Without the thought (or need) to watch them get settled in, Frederick and Constance stepped to the first row.

After removing and placing his overcoat on the bench to his left, Frederick helped his wife with her coat. As he did so, he noticed, just above her ear, three snowflakes clinging delicately to her white-blonde hair. Smiling to himself, he thought, ‘Well, snowflakes, you have found the one safe place to come to rest. Given my dear wife’s disposition you may very well survive to make it out of the service in your current form!’

“What is it, Frederick?” Constance, glancing up from folding her gloves, looked hopefully at her husband.

“Nothing, my dear. I was just thinking how lovely you look this morning.”

Glancing behind them at her two sons, Constance Prendergast sent a hummingbird smile towards her husband, her eyes flickered with the hint of hope and uncertainty.

Frederick sat back in his pew, as upright as his starched-white collar. He showed no signs of the chafing discomfit he endured. He pulled and re-positioned his collar, in a manner that served to convey an overwhelming sense of self-satisfaction in his dress, and allowed the opportunity to assure himself that the somewhat dingy, yellow-grey ring inside his shirt collar was, in no way, visible to anyone sitting behind the Prendergast Family. Following on the motion of his hand to his neck, Frederick casually surveyed the congregation. He noted the absence of those who could little afford to be absent and nodded, in shared-virtue acknowledgment, to those for whom his own attendance was significant. Like taking in the vista of a magnificent mountain range, Frederick recognized other stockholders of the Essex Corporation. As the newest Member of the Board, he felt it his duty to account for the spiritual health of those who controlled the life and well-being of the City.
Frederick glanced to where his two sons sat and caught the eye of Grace Byrne. She looked back, almost startled and yet, with a hint of furtive enjoyment, held his gaze. Having established eye contact, Frederick made a point to smile, while implying that he was quite busy counting heads in the Church, and continued his survey. Looking away too soon, he missed an expression of surprised hurt that clouded the face of the 18-year-old Nanny.

Frederick Prendergast III was one of those rare people gifted, (or cursed), with an acute sensibility for his appearance. Most adults learn, acquire, are taught and imitate their peers until they become sensitive to the virtue of conformity to (whatever might constitute) the common standard of appropriate dress and appearance. If one were to liken this gift, (or curse), to the ability to sing, it would be necessary to describe Frederick Prendergast as a virtuoso. In his defense, this ‘sensitivity to appearance’ was nothing as simple as being vaingloriously burdened by up-bringing or inherited personal insecurities. Frederick Prendergast genuinely believed that, in order to help those around him aspire to more and more acceptable appearance, it was incumbent upon him to stand as an example.

Promptly at 11:00 am, dressed in traditional Geneva gown, white preaching-tabs interrupting the solemnity of the black cassock, Minister Allyn Montrose stepped up into the Pulpit and stared out into the congregation. After more than a minute of the young man staring at the congregation, Frederick began to glance around, seeing the uncertainty, like an un-expected breeze, ruffle the patient expressions on the faces of those sharing the front row of pews. The feeling of disquiet, paradoxically, all the more noticeable for the silence that held them all.

Noticing that one of the more senior members of the Essex Corp Board of Directors was staring in his direction, Frederick replaced his look of puzzlement with a frown, a non-verbal acquiescence to what clearly was a rapidly growing disapproval of the new Minister’s style. Adding to his discomfort, Fred recalled the final interview of Elder Montrose. Less than a month before, Frederick sat in the Bishop’s Office, (the Bishop held a fairly significant portfolio of Essex Corp Preferred Stock, and was only too happy to agree to Frederick’s request to participate), the conversation still fresh in his mind,

The Bishop had been quite explicit,

“Elder Montrose, for someone so young, you’re being charged with quite a difficult task. The Congregation at the Hammond Street church is rather, let us say, diverse. More than half of those sitting on the hard-wooden benches are people who work in decidedly menial capacities, in no small part to the benefit of the one-third, most of whom are sitting in the first 5 rows. They, the one-third, while in need of the true message of the Gospels, are the most immune to the message we, of the Clergy, are charged to convey. In effect, you must craft your message to teach some a lesson they feel they have no need to learn, while reaching the others with a message of inclusion.”

Frederick nodded both in approval, and support of the Bishop’s position. Remaining seated to the left of the marble and carved relief mantle of the fireplace, he asked,

“What do you think of that?”

Allyn Montrose seemed startled when Frederick spoke, as if he’d forgotten that there were three people in the office that day.
Frederick Prendergast had decided that it was both his religious and civic duty to help the new Minister to better understand the challenge that confronted him. He regarded Allyn Montrose with, what he had often been told was, a skilled eye for assessing the worth of a man, (or the value of a woman). Tall and a bit on the thin side, especially given his profession, Allyn Montrose avoided personal invisibility purely by virtue of his eyes. His tendency to move slowly and, for the most part, react slowly to those around him, were more than offset by the intensity in his eyes. Frederick thought that eyes like those in this, soon-to-be-the-new Minister, were portents of success when observed in quarterbacks of  football teams and Field Generals facing overwhelming odds on the field of battle. That he saw this quality in the eyes of the man given charge of the faithful of Lawrence, Massachusetts, made him nervous. As the new Director of Operations at the Everett Mill, Frederick was uniquely qualified to identify with the new pastor, however, as a person, Frederick was inclined to not allow himself to get too close to the hordes of workers that played such a critical role in achieving success. Fellow Harvard graduate or not, Frederick decided that he needed to test this young man’s mettle.

“So, Elder Montrose. Can you make the faithful of Lawrence truly understand and accept their responsibility to their benefactors?”

Frederick smiled as he spoke and was surprised to see the other man recoil from him. Unbidden, a voice from childhood, ‘You’re an agreeable young man, you like people, but when you smile, you use only half your lips. You must, my son, practice smiling until you can do so without appearing to be sneering.’

“Well, yes, Fred, provided if I understand what it is you’re asking.”

The new Minister recovered his composure very quickly and Frederick made a mental note to be careful in any future dealings with Allyn Montrose.

***

“This blessed December Sunday, our Sermon will begin with Matthew 25:14–30,”

Elder Allyn Montrose, began his first Sermon,

“The “Parable of the Talents” is probably one of the most direct expressions of God’s Love for his creations. It also offers one of the most direct, un-adorned by metaphor and story-telling techniques, lessons of the Bible. It is a lesson in responsibility and in opportunity and, finally, it makes clear that God helps those who help themselves.”

In the front row of the Hammond Street Presbyterian Church, one, soon-to-be-wealthy man, noted the nods of approval from several, already-very-wealthy men and congratulated himself on his good judgment in picking the new Minister. Coinciding with the nods, and quite un-noticed, were the cries of the very small children and the whispered assurance of a never-to-be-wealthy, young woman.

“With the ‘Parable of the Talents’, the Apostle Matthew tells us of a man who invests in those who are beholden to him. This man, who in today’s modern parlance, would be called a self-made man, is about to embark on an extended journey to foreign lands and, calling his servants, tells them, one by one, of his plans and assures them that he values their loyalty and devotion in the service of his house. As a gesture, he gives, to each a certain number of talents, which was the currency of the day. This was no small matter, at the time, the value of the talents he gave them was not insignificant.

After many months, the Master returns home and calls each of his servants, to whom he entrusted no small amount of wealth, to account for themselves in his absence. Now these three servants, to whom he gave the talents had worked for him varying lengths of time and, not so surprisingly, each enjoyed different levels of responsibilities.
First came the servant to whom he gave the most, being the one that had worked for him the longest. In fact, this first servant was in charge of the day-to-day finances of the estate. When asked, about the original sum he was given, the servant replied, with great humility and obvious pride that he had wisely invested his talents and increased the value of his holdings tenfold.
The second servant, being employed less time than the first, and therefore was given half as many talents presented himself to the Master of the house and reported that his holdings had also increased. He confided in his benefactor that he took the initiative to purchase as many slaves as the amount he was given permitted and and hired them out to the other farms of the valley. The Master of the house laughed and said, ‘Your industry and shrewdness makes me proud of my decision to give you those Talents’.
Finally the last servant comes before his Master and when asked to account for his use of the wealth he was given, lowered his head in shame and says, ‘I have only that which you gave me, Master. Being new in your employ I was unfamiliar with the customs of your House and assumed that the money was being entrusted to me for safe keeping while you travelled foreign lands.’ And taking from his tattered purse, the single Talent, he looked directly at his Master and said with humility, ‘I return that which you gave for me to hold in trust.’

The two other servants looked with disdain on this man and, trading silent winks, quietly left the room. The self-made man of wealth looked down on this simple man and said,

‘Evil and lazy servant! So you knew that I harvest where I didn’t sow and gather where I didn’t scatter? Then you should have deposited my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received my money back with interest!’

Turning to his guard he spoke in private, loudly enough for all in the room to hear,

‘Give it to the one who has ten. For the one who has will be given more, and he will have more than enough. But the one who does not have, even what he has will be taken from him. And throw that worthless slave into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.'”

Once again, the smile-that-sometimes-appeared-half-formed, grew on Frederick Prendergast’s face as he felt the righteous affirmation of the value invested in him that he would deliver to the Essex Corporation Board of Directors. He would return more talents than he possessed.

“In closing, the poet Milton wrote in, “When I Consider How My Light is Spent’ 

And that one Talent, which is death to hide,
Lodg’d with me useless, though my Soul more bent
To serve therewith my Maker, and present
My true account, lest he, returning, chide

This very community, Lawrence Massachusetts is as blessed as the First Servant, the one who took what was given to him and turned it into so much more. As we leave this Church this morning, let us look about us, at the Town and it’s people. Truly now, as the new Century dawns, each of us should pray to be shown the truth. Because, as today’s parable tells us so clearly, God’s gifts of opportunity abound. There is much put within reach of all, by virtue of those we’re blessed to have among us. Let us all resolve to work hard so that, by increasing the holdings of one, the potential for further opportunities will increase. Never forget, God helps those who help themselves”

Filing out of the Church, the last to leave and speak to the Minister, Frederick Prendergast III, his wife at his side, shook Allyn Montrose’s hand and said,

“Reverend, your Sermon today fills me with hope for this Town. We have both taken on roles to guide the less fortunate and help them contribute to the greater good.”

“I’m glad that you enjoyed my Sermon, Mr. Prendergast, it is men like you and companies like the Essex Corporation and the Everett Mills that help bring people to these doors. I trust that we will both be worthy of the trust that has been put on us.”

At the bottom of the Church stairs, Grace Byrne stared first at Constance Prendergast, then at Frederick Prendergast and thought of her family back in Bansha, unable to join her in this new country. The promise of a Roman Catholic priest on her behalf accounted for her being offered the position of Nanny to the Prendergast children. The increasingly un-ignorable demands being felt coming from Frederick Prendergast promised to put a reunion with her family in jeopardy. Walking ahead of Constance and Frederick Prendergast, a five-year-old on each hand, Grace felt the echo of the Sermon, “…the Lord helps those who help themselves”

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Chapter 10

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“Confound it, Ephraim Hardesty! How can you stand there acting like a man without a care? I’m trying my best to live as a good Christian and the Bible tells us that we are our brother’s keeper. But as God is my witness, I don’t know how long I can keep the Banker and the Sheriff off of your front porch! You need to listen to my Offer. You know good and well that the Lord helps those who help themselves. And I’m here to help you! But time is running out on you!”

Mrs. Emily Gale stood in the Hardesty Farm’s backyard, in front of the wide back porch. The sun burned through the low, early morning clouds and, like a spotlight, reflected off the silver rims of her glasses. Sharp, almost painful reflections of light shot from her face. Her husband, Henry Gale, stood a couple of steps behind and to her left side, and from his posture seemed to be alternating between anger and embarrassment. To occupy himself he stared out over the half-grown corn in the fields beyond the barn. It was a Friday morning on the 1st of July and the dry dirt yard released small clouds of dust at the slightest movement, incredibly short-lived mushrooms sprouted and released dry spores. Hunk Dietrich sat in the truck, on the driver’s side and seemed to be deep in thought, everything but his eyes as un-moving as the rose-rusty cab. The morning had started warm and it was clear that the afternoon held more of the same. It promised the kind of heat that would fill the horizon with mirage fields of wheat and corn, only the gap below the wavering images betraying the illusion.

“I don’t rightly care a lick about what you can and cannot do, Emily.”

Ephraim Hardesty stood on the porch, behind him, the still figure of 5-year-old Ethan showed, daguerreotype through the screen door. Ephraim was not surprised by the visit, he had, in fact, been expecting it. The visit from Henry Gale and Hunk Dietrich a few weeks before in mid-June, was clearly a preliminary skirmish, intended not only to test his resolve but to gather intelligence for the upcoming battle. He looked at the woman standing in his yard, like a Spanish Conquistador standing in the middle of the first good-sized village, she was impressive with her attitude of fierce self-confidence. Detracting from this impression was the fact that she’d brought along her husband and farmhand. In an un-intended effect, the two men came across less as additional forces to enforce her Will, more looking like attendant to her presence. More Henry than Hunk, Ephraim knew that both men were not in his back yard by choice.

Ephraim tried to remember the 14-year-old Emily (Sauvage) Gale. The girl took memory-dim shape sitting next to Ephraim in the small two room schoolhouse, a near-lifetime ago. Randall’s Drugstore now stood on the spot where, years before, children were sent by parents eager for them to learn whatever might allow them to avoid a life of back-breaking labor, a life all too common among those who’d settled in Kansas at the end of the last Century.  Emily had been as kind and caring as her father was difficult and given to drink.  In his defense, the now adult Ephraim Hardesty thought, Philippe Sauvage was from the Old Country and, although he would give the shirt off his back to a neighbor, he was fiercely protective of his family. The Sauvage Clan, (if it could be called that), consisted of only 4 people, Philippe and his wife Eloise, Emily, and her older brother, Cyril.
Life was not kind to the Sauvages. Philippe struggled to provide for his family as a blacksmith. He had a natural gift for what, one day, would have been referred to simply as, ‘engineering’. He knew metal and he had a talent for shaping and forming it in ways that were useful. Philippe Sauvage took great pride in his work and though his customers were very appreciative of the quality and craftsmanship, many were put off by his lack of tact and charm. Parson Levine, in a well-meant effort to be charitable, described Philippe’s flawed talent as ‘explosive perfectionism’. Like many fathers, Philippe dreamed of his son joining him in the blacksmith trade. In the kind of ironic twist that’s often suspected of being fabricated just to increase the dramatic effect for re-telling, Cyril was the first (and only) Sauvage to go to college. His intelligence and ability to understand new concepts was so great that the parish priest (of St Mary’s the church that burned down in 1919, not the Hospital), through his connections Back East, arranged for a full scholarship to Dartmouth College. Unfortunately Cyril was not only a young man, he was also a Sauvage. When the drum beats of militarism grew louder in the second half of the second decade of the new Century, Cyril was unable to resist and enlisted in the US Marines. The War in Europe was ravaging France and, in that way of youth, Cyril felt the call to defend his father’s home country and carry the Sauvage name into battle. He was killed in the first day of the Second Battle of the Marne, July 16,1918.
Emily took the news of her brother’s death very hard. Her father more so, though by virtue of both culture and gender, he did not show it. He was, for all intents and purposes as mortally wounded as his son, unfortunately, his wounds took longer to kill him than did his son’s. Emily tried, unsuccessfully, to hold her family together. Eventually she was sent to live with relatives Back East, soon after a quiet August day in 1920 when her mother was killed in a tornado. Her father put her on the train in Kansas City, went back to Circe, dove into the bottle, and never saw his daughter again.

When Emily Sauvage returned to Circe Kansas, 15 years later, she was very much a different woman. She was different in all the important ways that make women different from men. Where once she’d go without, just so someone with less could, have a little more, Emily Sauvage now sought more, even when it meant that another person might then have less. After being home a short time, she found Henry Gale working for near-slave wages on a pig farm, just outside Nickerson, Kansas. With the money from an inheritance, (from her mother’s side of the family back in Philadelphia), a new last name and a burning desire to create something, Emily Gale bought an abandoned farm and set out to give it life and make it prosper.

“Well now, Emmie,” Ephraim noticed the way Emily Gale tensed when he used the childhood name. He chided himself for being cruel and continued,

“I do appreciate your efforts to keep Old Man Banker off my doorsteps, really I do. But this farm is my life and I won’t be giving up on it.”

“But….”

“…and I won’t be hiding behind a fiery woman’s skirts, like a little boy, afraid a bully has found his secret and will take it all away,” stepping back into his house, Ephraim turned and looked out over the dry and dusty yard and said,

“Oh, and good morning to you, Henry!”

Ephraim locked eyes with Hunk Dietrich, still sitting in the driver’s seat and, nodded, ever so slightly. Emily Gale turned in the direction of the the parked truck, but not in time to see the answering nod from Hunk. Instead she swung on her husband,

“Clearly this man has lost what little sense that hussy of a wife of his neglected to take with her when she took off with that Bible Salesman.”

****

“And, as our last stop, oh my, I mean the last place we will visit on today’s rounds, Ward C,”

Dr Thaddeus Morgan said, with a look of self-satisfaction for his unintended witticism. He pushed through the double-swinging doors and was well into the Ward, before he realized he was alone. The Charity Ward appeared quite empty. ‘Of people‘, he corrected himself with quite a petulant tone, ‘these patients in the beds were…well, they were patients, not people.’ The Intern and the newly-hired nurse, who had been accompanying him on morning rounds, were nowhere to be seen.

“Well, I suppose they stopped to write notes of my diagnosis of terminal happiness for that boy in the Children’s Ward. Not that there’s to be anything useful to be learned here in Ward C. By the end of August there won’t be a patient left…”

“May I help you?”

Dr Thaddeus Morgan was a man given to spontaneous, (and grandly-emotional) outbursts whenever caught by surprise, his reaction at this moment, was anything but characteristic. He stood and stared at the tall and (a word that one would also deem uncharacteristic for Dr Morgan to assign to a person), willowy blond nurse who was standing in aisle that separated the two rows of beds. She was staring at him with what could be best described as an expression of peaceful strength.

Dr Morgan, surprised that this odd description of ‘peaceful strength’ would occur to him, remained mute,

“I said, ‘May I help you?'”

There was something about this woman that seemed familiar. This observation had the effect of restoring the rightness of the world for Dr. Thaddeus Morgan. The basis of this ‘rightness’ was the fact that this hospital, St Mary’s was his, as he was the Chief of Medical Services and this woman, by her uniform, was obviously a nurse. The natural and proper order of the universe was re-established to his satisfaction.

“What is your name, young lady? Who is your Supervi…”

Thaddeus Morgan left his authority-establishing question hanging in the air, as the intended object of his exertion of managerial Will was no longer standing in front of him. She was standing at the far end of the aisle, which could not be the case, as she had been standing in front of him and now, well, now she was not. The nurse remained where she (now) was, as still as the shadow of a mailbox.

Thaddeus’s first impulse was to demand she come back and resume her position in front of him. After all, he was in charge of the hospital, she surely would obey. Instead, while be certain to keep the tall figure, in the white on white uniform of a St. Mary’s nurse, in the center of his line of sight, he walked towards her. He thought he heard a noise from the hallway outside Ward C, but for reasons that he could not express, refused to take his eyes off the nurse as he walked the 25 feet or so to where she waited.

‘She’s waiting for me. Quite patiently, it would appear.’ the thought kept Dr Morgan company, as he walked. He thought that there was something important that he was forgetting, but it kept escaping his mind.

“I’m sorry, I must be getting forgetful in my old age. I neglected to introduce myself,”

Dr Morgan had a solid respect for his conversational skills. ‘He could talk a tree out of it’s leaves, at the height of Summer‘, professor at his Medical School once said of Thad Morgan.

“I’m Doctor Morgan. And you are?”

Thad Morgan decided that he liked this woman. She must be a new hire, although that didn’t make sense, since he personally interviewed everyone hired at St Mary’s. Everyone. From the janitor to the newest surgeon, they all met with Dr. Thaddeus at least once. And seeing this woman up close, he was certain that he’d not ever met her. And yet, there was something familiar about her.

“I’m Nurse Claire Griswold. Now that we’re properly introduced, may I ask, again, what is it you want here?”

Thad smiled. There was a directness and a total disregard for status or rank or any of the social niceties essential  to the smooth operation of a hospital. He felt more at home with the situation. Even if he didn’t know this nurse, he was her superior and she would answer his question,

“I was taking the new intern and the newest nurse on rounds, for an initial orientation. I thought they were following just behind me, well, they seem to have gotten lost, which can happen here in the old wing of the hospital,”

it occurred to him, with something of a shock, that he was babbling like a 6th grade student trying to delay having to answer a question to which he should have had the answer. This Nurse Griswold was regarding him with a look that, had it been any other circumstance, he’d of been delighted, (and, not a little flustered), he suddenly realized that he was staring at this woman. Her eyes were of a  pale blue that brought to mind the wrapping paper of a present he received for his 5th birthday. It was a toy medical bag, complete with a stethoscope and a Diploma with his name on it. He remembered how his mother laughed when Thad would put on the stethoscope and try to listen to heartbeats, of anyone or anything nearby. His dog, Scout, was his most frequent patient, tolerating him in that way of seeing only love in the often un-intelligible actions of the boy in his life.

“Do you enjoy being a physician?”

Nurse Griswold asked, still standing where she was, when he last looked. This last elicited more relief in Thad Morgan than he was capable of appreciating.

“Why I should certainly say so! I’m the Head of Medical Services! I’m in charge of all medicine here at St Mary’s.”

Dr Thaddeus Morgan spoke with a pride that made some men leaders, (in the eyes of those inclined to need leaders), and with a certainty that made other men charismatic preachers. It was not simply that he spoke the truth, it was the emotion that anchored his world around him and all that he felt he’d earned.

“That’s not quite what I asked you, Thad,”

She was standing closer to him than he’d realized. Her eyes seemed to require all of his attention and though he’d noted that she was tall, he couldn’t understand how it was that he felt like he was looking up into her eyes.

“Well, yes, I realize that. And no, you’re quite correct, I really do enjoy my work…”

At that moment there was a wobbling whirling sound of gum-rubber wheels and wooden clipboards pushing through the swinging doors of Ward C. Ahead of the cart that contained mid-morning medications, was a young man and a young woman. Both looked somewhat sheepish, that expression being replaced by one of surprise.

“Dr. Morgan! We looked all over for you!” Nurse Sally Rowe spoke with relief in her voice. The young man beside her chose to let her offer the explanations for their absence. Even as an intern, he recognized that sometimes it was best to allow the Nurse to take responsibility. In case things did not work out as planned.

Dr Thaddeus Morgan caught himself turning back to Nurse Griswold, but, smiling, he said,

“Well, lets not dilly dally. The work of medicine waits for no one!”

As he led the Intern and the new Nurse out into the hall, he allowed himself one quick glance around the Ward. It was as empty of people not lying in bed as he’d thought it would be, but thought to himself that perhaps he’d stop in for a quick visit, from time to time.

***

“Come on, doll. You know you want to, I can see it in your baby-blues”

Jack Clayton stood behind Eliza and pulled her close. Eliza found this a familiar situation, what was not familiar to the 18-year-old Sarah Lawrence co-ed and heiress to the Thornberg publishing empire, was a growing feeling of ‘wanting’. She pulled herself away from his embrace, and was surprised to hear herself think, ‘There, now I can think this through’.

A naturally sexy and attractive young woman, Eliza Thornberg understood the economy of desire, were it any of the other, more conventional form of human endeavor, her talent and ability in these matters would warrant her the title of savant.
Eliza Thornberg knew people. She especially knew, men. She knew what they wanted. And, most importantly, she knew how to use this knowledge to her advantage. What was puzzling her, at this particular moment, was what it was that she suddenly found herself ‘wanting’. This was new. Desire, she was familiar with, it was, in a non-sociologically approved term, her bread and butter. This new thing, springing from Jack Clayton telling her that he needed to return to California, to the movie studio, to the film that he was working on and his asking her to join him, that was the problem. She found herself wanting to do it. The fact that he would ask, was not a surprise. Invited to the Thornberg’s by an author whose bestseller was published by her father’s company, Jack Clayton was after the rights to make the book into a movie. He’d worked in a number of successful films as a production designer and assistant producer, but reading the book (published by Thornberg Press) knew that he could turn it into a successful film. He also needed financial backers and that was in part the reason for accepting the invitation to the June party.

That a trip to California would be fun and a desirable way to spend part of her Summer was not surprising. That she found herself really wanting to accompany Jack Clayton to Hollywood, that was surprising. The ‘wanting’ is what Eliza found disturbing in that it forced her to confront the possibility of ‘not getting what she wanted’! Until just a moment ago, she had not wanted for anything in her life. Having spent the previous few days in the company of Jack Clayton, hearing him speak causally of people who made movies that had an effect on millions of people, somehow the idea of being a part of that magical (and diabolical) process had taken root with her. This realization was morning sickness of an un-planned obsession. A dream to become… another version of the girl she had been.

“I’ll go with you, on one condition,” Eliza smiled, feeling on familiar ground.

“Anything!”

Certain that she was in control, the only place she could escape the nagging voice in her head, the voice that whispered, ‘you don’t matter… to anyone’, Eliza turned from the window,

“You must join us in Newport in August.”

“If you promise not to invite any more boyfriends from college, I will be there with bells on,” Jack smiled confidently.

“…and

Eliza was gratified to see the man’s smile falter, something like fear fraying it, yet Jack Clayton rallied his defenses and raised an eyebrow in worldly acceptance of the always-high-stakes negotiation between men and attractive young women.

“…I want to be in a movie.”

Without waiting for an answer, Eliza Thornberg stepped the few steps back, to where she’d been, her back to the man in her bedroom. Feeling his arms again capture her, she smiled and began to consider how best to break the news to her father.

Her father needed to be approached carefully. Jack Clayton wasn’t quite the typical houseguest. Stephen Lawrence, who’d ignominiously left on the night of ‘the Afternoon Social That Wouldn’t End’, too drunk to know what he’d done wrong, was already forgotten. His failure was to not recognize the expectations he was being held to, a non-forgivable sin in the world of the wealthy and privileged. Eliza was not overly concerned, attractive and successful boys from Yale were not a rare commodity at Sarah Lawrence.

Eliza had long since accepted the reality that, while she was her father’s daughter, his first love, (now that Eliza’s mother was dead), was money. And the movie industry seemed to combine his interests. And now, with her new insight into her life’s potential, very much in her interests.

 

Chapter 11

Featured

The Summer of 1939 in Circe Kansas expressed itself earlier than usual. Rather than wait until the crest of July, when the skies, scrubbed of clouds had nothing to hold back the hate of the sun, this particular year the heat made its initial appearance in the middle of June. Not to such an extent as to be spectacularly hot or otherwise noteworthy, not even to a level to dominate the casual, passing-in-public conversations of the citizens of Circe. These topics remained focused on crops, politics, dust storms (thankfully to the west) and infidelity, with only the occasional reference to how Summers seemed to start earlier and earlier each year. Though early, the June temperatures were not impressive enough to be claimed by the old timers. Deprived of relevancy, not only by age, but by virtue of woefully out-of-date practical skills, anemic civic presence or any other of the small, but expected contributions to everyday life, these old, pale, worn and leather-tough denizens of Circe, Kansas would be found gathering together at dusk, in the park, after the sun has stopped making demands that only the young could ignore or, perhaps in front of the Town Hall on the cooler (as in ‘early’) mornings. They gathered in diminished numbers, exhibiting the opposite of the force shared by a magnet and iron filings, the absence of a force drawing them to the younger, active, engaged population, bring them only other old people. Of course, weather, as one of the few constants in the world, and therefore immune to the segregation of usefulness, was bestowed upon the active-elderly, that they might assume stewardship, both the record of weather past and, by human-logical necessity, the prediction of the future (weather). An agrarian cultural’s version of the proverbial gold watch, the elderly were the established oracles of weather and climate. It remained one of the few critical functions the old were allowed to retain, not otherwise sanctioned by modern culture.

Dorothy Gale leaned her bicycle against one of the wrought iron benches that, like markers on a sundial, interrupted the smooth circumference of the stone fountain, (the one without any water), that designated the center of the Town Square. Dressed as lightly as possible, in anticipation of the heat, (which started the day with, ‘It’s Summer!’ and promised to end with ‘Hot enough for you?’), which given her ‘left-behind wardrobe’ and those items she brought back from New York, proved not to be a simple task. Dorothy was aware of the fact that in order to gain the approval of her Aunt Emily, she needed to distract and confuse the older woman’s natural tendency to judge. Painfully earned past experience  indicated that her best strategy was simply to give Emily Gale what she wanted, and so Dorothy found a blue and white checked blouse and a skirt of the lightest cotton. Less comfortable, after a year away at school, with the idea of bowing to the demands of her adoptive mother, Dorothy placated her resentful side with the reasoning that, sleeves can be rolled-up and buttons can be un-done. When she came down the stairs into the kitchen, Auntie Em smiled broadly,

“Why don’t you look like a little girl I once knew. Doesn’t she, Henry? Doesn’t Dorothy look every bit the good-hearted girl who wouldn’t disobey or utter an unkind word to anyone. It does my heart good to see how well you’ve turned out!”

Dorothy smiled and continued towards the door,

“I’m going to Town for awhile. No, I don’t need a ride, I’ll take the bicycle.”

As she rode out of the dirt-and-stray-chicken backyard, Dorothy glanced back and saw her Aunt standing just inside the screen door, head turned, talking to her husband, Henry. Had she glanced in the other direction, she might have seen, Hunk Dietrich step back from the door of his little house, remove his hat and looking thoughtful.

Walking across the Town Square towards the library, Dorothy Gale felt a sense of relief to be away from the farm. When she woke that morning, the first thing that came to mind was that she could not spend another day in the house, with her Aunt and the housekeeper. She was amazed at how everyone had changed in the relatively short time she was away for her first year of college. Dorothy dearly loved Aunt Em and Uncle Henry, and would be eternally grateful for the home they provided for her, from, well, from before she could remember. It just seemed that everyone had somewhat changed. And not just since she returned to Kansas, a few weeks prior. It was during her Senior year in High School when people seemed to begin to change. She could accept that the recovery from the ‘Storm of ’37’ took a toll on everyone. She could even accept that her own recovery had been, well, a bit prolonged. But she got over it. Other than the occasional dream that, upon awaking, colored her day with surprising emotion, she was still the same girl she’d always been.
Of all the changes, the most prominent was in her adoptive parent’s obvious obsession to make the Gale Farm into something more. Larger, more efficient, more profitable, more…  It was almost as if, after experiencing the destruction of a large portion of the Circe (and many of the surrounding farms), something inside them came to believe that in order to avoid a repeat of the ravages of the F5 tornado, they needed to do more, have more…  increase the acreage, increase the number of barns and corrals and pens.
And so, this first day of July, Dorothy Gale walked through the Town Square without conscious purpose or goal.

“Miss Gale!! Miss Gale!!”

Dorothy looked up and saw a young girl walking down the steps of the library, waving at her. She recognized Becky Stillworth, the student-librarian assistant, mostly by her very impressive figure, wrapped in what seemed like her mother’s skirt and a blouse two sizes too big.

“Could I talk to you, please?”

***

The Winter of 1911 in Lawrence Massachusetts started with a promise of moderation, the first two weeks of December being especially mild. Like the lover who refuses to accept the end of a relationship and yet, never intends to accept the change, this New England December seemed to really be different, the lack of snow and the optimistically bright sun serving to tempt people with a very well-executed lie, ‘Look! I’ve changed my ways, would it be this warm in December if I didn’t really mean it this year?’
Despite, or in that odd way of people wanting to believe the charming charlatan, even the native New Englanders felt hope for a mild Winter. Passing on the streets, winter coats un-buttoned, they would smile and say, ‘So far, so good’, as if their mutual agreement would relieve them of the guilt of having been fooled, once Old Man winter made his inevitable appearance. And each person, risking hope in a mild winter, knew that winter was waiting, like a drunk outside the door, marshalling his resolve not to give in to guilt. Inevitably the effort to seem normal, (and not drunk), resulted in an over-compensation and the worst fears of the family waiting inside would be confirmed.

Almira Ristani walked along Canal St towards Bennett St, and the United Workers Alliance Meeting Hall. Darkness had fallen early and Winter returned with a vengeance, as if by waiting until dark, the contrast with sunny mild days would be less offensive. Her wool scarf, wrapped around the collar of her grey outer coat, left as little of the actual Almira exposed to the elements as possible. Only her eyes and a necessarily exposed portion of her face was in direct contact with the darkly howling wind. The blowing of very fine snow and ice had the effect of bending and twisting the conical pools of light that punctuated the sidewalk along her path. The effect suggested that even light (which at night is surely Man’s primeval protector), was also at the mercy of the cold winter night. Almira found herself hurrying between the pools of light, as if there was danger lurking in the frigid shadows. The Mill buildings, always a fantastical sight to anyone with an imagination and a willingness to stray beyond the literal, were every bit of the ice castles of Jötunheimr, the shadow of Frost Giants darkening the already dark sky. The hanging icicles, threatening silent impalement, the frost that seemed to grow, in defiance of gravity, up the walls and over the metal-framed windows of the brick buildings, all contributed to the creations of  dark canyons in that part of Lawrence that hugged the banks of the Merrimack River.

Almira chided herself for such unpleasant fantasy and resolved to find the beauty in the Winter season, the only season that was host to Christmas. The lights in the Mills did, at first glance, appear such as to offer some hope of warmth and life. But the effort to look up at them only served to part the wrapping of her scarf, and the wind, like a starving predator immediately lurched towards the opening to the warm of her body.

‘Stop now!,’ Almira thought, in what she hoped was a stern enough voice to overcome the fact she was trying to talk herself out of being scared. Since her mother died, she had become all too aware of the lack of power her own thoughts had on her own feelings and emotions.

“Almira, my little Adventurer”, she heard in her mother’s remembered voice, “you must not be so hard on yourself!”

As a very young girl of 5 years, Almira would sit in her corner of the main room in the Ristani’s apartment and read as her mother worked on her mending and sewing. The books that were her mother’s legacy, and, in turn, her daughters escape, sat in little used bookcases. Idresca Ristani’s profession, before leaving the old country, had been that of   Teacher. Unfortunately, it had less currency in Lawrence, where what little formal education available to children of the labor class was as tightly controlled by the local Church, as any guild, back in the old country. Idresca recognized her daughter’s gifts and was grateful to be able to provide a nurturing environment for a young mind that consumed ideas and knowledge like a baby at her mother’s breast.

Almira lived with the books that her mother brought across an ocean, from halfway around the world. Her precocious daughter found herself able to leave behind the confines of the two room apartment, through the pages of Cervantes and Bullfinch and Shakespeare and Swift. However, there would be times, roaming free in worlds far from the monotony of life in a Mill Town, that little Almira Ristani would come across a word that was foreign and unknown to her. Like the laborer straining at a part that’s solidly rusted into place, she would stare at the book, brow furrowed, as if to force, by effort of will, the word to reveal its nature. She would rarely ask her mother for explanations as Almira had the gift (and very much the curse) of believing that she could reason out the unknown.

“Sometimes, you can think too much,” her mother would come over to where she sat and putting the child on her lap, “the world is more than words. if you mean to explore the world, you need to start here”, and she placed Almira’s hand over her heart, “you must follow your heart as well as your mind. Never worry about being unable, only be concerned about being un-willing. Do you understand?”

The child would look at her mother and clutched her too-big-for-5-year-hands book, puzzled by her mother’s words. In the pages of the books, the world held promise, a promise of understandability.

Now, walking alone focusing on the steps in front of her, Almira thought about the time she’d spent at the Meeting Hall helping her friend, Annie in the near-endless labor of providing help and aid to those in need. That the UWA found fertile ground in Lawrence, Massachusetts and put down roots there, came as a surprise to no one other than the Mill Owners. The Essex Corporation, of course, being the source of the idea, will and resources necessary to design and build a modern city. The first manifestation of the modern industrial/civic complex, the Essex Corp the driving force behind the very idea of designing and building a City devoted to industry (textiles).

Carried over from Europe in the hearts and minds of workers, skilled and un-skilled, the Union sought to provide a counter-balance to the power of the those who owned the City of Lawrence. That a large portion, if not a majority of the mission of the UWA was to provide social services should not be surprising. Though barely providing for their own families, members were charitable to a surprising degree. Serving as a collection and redistribution point for donations of household goods and perishables (and non-perishable food items), the headquarters on Bennett Street served both as warehouse, distribution center.

Almira helped out at the Union hall whenever she could, her job at the Mill and caring for her family left little time to spare. She found an invaluable resource in a neighbor, Mrs. Swaider, who would take care of Almira’s 4-year-old sister, Illyana. The price for this help was greater, in some ways, than anticipated, as Illyana soon came to see the Swaider household as her real home, and the adults who claimed to be her family, well-meaning strangers.

When at the Hall, and when the work was done, Almira would sit in the part of the front room where there was a fireplace, (the once-constantly heated foundry, when the building housed a blacksmith), and read. Almira reading brought to mind the flourishing of a wild orchid in the deepest of jungles, a stranger (or explorer seeking treasures) would, coming upon Almira would forget the surround wood, stone and shingles, captivated by the concentration she exuded. Thirst of curiosity had an effect on her appearance, a very attractive affect. She was in love with new ideas and new ways of experiencing the world. In the trance of reading, a passerby (or our intrepid explorer), would be see a young girl very much in love and, even in the sooty-mean world of manual labor, in service of machinery, there are few things as likely to capture a person’s heart. Some speak of the glow of love, for Almira, there was a light that emanates from those blessed with an appetite for ideas.

Almira was quite aware of the direction (and ferocity) of the December wind as she walked to the entrance of the Union Hall. The howling of the wind was loud enough to make pointless any attempt to knock on the plain metal door. In any event, it was not locked. The building formerly housed a bicycle repair shop, (and before that), the aforementioned blacksmith shop, and, its original was as an ice house. Consisting of 3 rooms, 1 large (the former stable), a smaller room that fronted out on to Bennett Street the former bicycle repair/blacksmithery and a kitchen utility room.

Were the wind blowing consistently in one direction, it would simply be a matter of waiting for the wind to pause, (as wind always does), and then, exert force. Force to hold the door from ripping off it’s hinges, or force to pry the door against the wind that would strive to hold it shut. This particular early evening in December, the wind was not settled into a particular direction. Northerly for a spell, then a change to the southwest, perhaps out of the East.

Almira walked, rather, was pushed into the front room of the Meeting Hall by a surprise gust of frigid air, her hair pressed against her head strongly enough to mute her hearing.

Putting her shoulder to the metal door, the wind insisting on joining her inside, Almira pushed with both hands, one shoulder, finally, leaning at a 45 degree angle until the solid metal click of the door latch, signaled, ‘All clear, you’re inside’.

Almira heard voices before she could turn to see who was speaking. The tone of three people, (one female two male), was not of a tone she’d expected. One was threatening with a hint of fear, the other was threatening with a clear undercurrent of pleasure and the third, perhaps the most threatening, was without emotion or interest or fear. It was the voice of a person wanting to hurt someone or break something, just because they could.

“Go home, Almira! We’re not working tonight. Leave  …now!”

Annie LoPizzo’s voice was sharp and aimed directly at her. It was a mix of confidence, concern and, most of all, urgency.

“What do we have here? Why it’s a girl. No, come in! We’ll all have a little talk, we can be friends.”

..this male voice was as confident as Annie’s but there was an insidious charm bending the ends of each sentence.

“Herschel, Make sure the door is locked.”

Chapter 12

Featured

‘Damn this Kansas heat!’

Walking up the stairs of the Circe Free Public Library, Dorothy looked back towards the round stone fountain at the center of Town Square. The exertion of her bicycle ride into town, deprived of the cooling breeze of her trip from the Gale Farm, was beginning to have an effect. Her body was quickly turning her delicate cotton blouse into an impromptu bathing suit.

‘To think that I spent sleepless nights in school, pining for this cardboard-flat griddle of a Town! For that matter, how is it that I’ve never seen that fountain with water in it?’

Like the first taste of a lemon-sour candy, Dorothy felt the pleasurable bite of resentment slowly bloom in the part of her mind, where feelings shape the world.

‘They’ve ignored that stupid fountain since after I got back… after that stupid tornado. Come to think of it, that’s when everyone started to change.’

Dorothy thought back to that time, only two years before. She’d survived a direct hit by ‘the Storm of ’37’ and for several month that followed, felt such love for everyone, not just her family, but also for the Town itself. Circe surely was the best place a girl could be, surrounded by family and friends. The stone fountain, once her favorite place, was emptied of water by being where a huge elm tree, tossed into the air by the debris-filled winds, decided to land. Once the tree had been cut up, (Aunt Em magnanimously volunteered her husband, Henry and Hunk Dietrich’s services to chop up and remove the 100-year-old tree. Dorothy recalled that they’d sold it for firewood to some of the harder hit farms in the area), the stonework was repaired. The plumbing, the secret pumps underneath, the heart of the fountain, never received the necessary attention. There was little in the way of spare money, in the devastated town, to restore something as frivolous as a decorative water fountain. With the passage of time, ‘the stone fountain with the wonderful jets of water, rising from its center’, as the newspaper described it on the day the fountain was officially dedicated to the local boys who fell during World War I, became ‘the stone fountain that never has any water in it’. Much as an aging person, steadily losing the capacity for physical  exertion, genuinely has no interest in running up the stairs or taking a brisk walk, the people of Circe accepted ‘the fountain with no water in it’ as theirs, the fountain they really wanted. Unfortunately, this attitude was not limited to frivolous civic monuments, as the recovery efforts had their desired effects, the shared sense of the virtue of un-qualified charity, changed, like the swelling of arthritic joints, into prudent self-interest. The spirit of communal effort ended, recovery complete, and with it, the need for giving without restraint, to those less fortunate. As for ‘the-girl-who-rode-the-tornado’, she stopped being a welcomed diversion from the efforts to re-build and was, instead, an un-necessary reminder of a difficult time for the people of Circe. In a very real sense, Dorothy, and her tales of a wondrous land became irrelevant. Library staircases no longer called out to be run up, fountains were quite acceptable as dusty granite bowls, and stories of a better place were, ‘just a mite peculiar’.

Dorothy recalled a History Professor, in her first day of classes, in her first semester, who stood before the class and, without preamble, said,

“Zhuangzi was a Chinese philosopher who said,

‘I dreamed I was a butterfly, flitting around in the sky; then I awoke. Now I wonder: Am I a man who dreamt of being a butterfly, or am I a butterfly dreaming that I am a man?’

If you young ladies hope to get the most from your time in my class, please decide immediately which you are…”

Everyone laughed, a most basic celebration of youthful pride for being among the elect.

Now, on this Summer day, walking up the broad and identical steps of the Circe Public Library, Dorothy did not feel much like laughing.

“Miss Gale? Are you alright?”

Dorothy looked up the stairs and saw the young girl looking at her with concern.

***

Her back still towards the room, Almira felt herself being twirled around, like an un-willing participant in an impromptu country dance. The effect was all the more disorienting, by the fact that her field of view was but a narrow horizontal rectangle, her scarf still wrapped across her face. The combination created what would best be described as a 5 second zoetrope. In those few seconds Almira saw: a fire burning brightly in the hearth on the right side of the room, opposite an old blue sofa; the door to the  adjacent meeting hall/storage room shut and, on the left side of this room, her friend, Annie LoPizzo. Her hair wild and disheveled, like a drunken window dresser’s attempt to combine the Perils of Pauline and the prosaic Labor Union storefront. Annie stood behind the main counter, which displayed Union pamphlets and flyers, along with a list of emergency services and resources.  All made available to visitors and Union organizers. Between Almira and the counter stood two men she’d never seen in the Hall before. One was tall, had greasy red hair and wore a suit that looked like it had been borrowed for the occasion. The second man kept looking at the entrance, as if the most important thing to happen would involve the front door. And, of course, there was Almira’s personal Orc. Addressed only as Herschel, he was every bit a wool-covered cliff, the stopping point of her twirling view of the room.

Like the rough-wooden planks of a primitive rope bridge, held in place by twisted vines, Almira’s upper arm was locked in the grasp of the big man. And, like that bridge over a tropical chasm, Almira could move to the left and to the right, but only as far as the natural extension of her shoulder and arm would allow. At full extension, she could move no further. She might as well have been leaning against one of the large Elm trees in the Lawrence Commons.

As the shock of her abrupt entrance began to fade, Almira focused on two facts:  her upper left arm was becoming more and more a part of this man who reeked of liquor, tobacco and sweat, and her friend Annie was in danger.

Marveling at the fullness in detail, emotional immediacy, and utter non-appropriateness, Almira found herself re-living an afternoon, when she was 10 years old, walking home from school. She was walking alone, her classmates who lived on the same block, had left her behind, lost in thought. Hearing an odd sound, she looked up to see a large dog, a boxer perhaps, charge towards her.

She recalled her father, one afternoon, after Almira came home from school with a tear in the hem of her skirt and a school book that had been half-chewed by a neighborhood stray, tell her that there are rules for dealing with dogs, and sometimes, people,

“There’s a good lesson here, Ali. Dogs are simple and they are direct, unlike people. If you let them scare you, they will sense your fear. If they believe you are weaker than they, it is much more likely they will attack. People are sometimes like dogs. There are certain people in the world who will attack just because they believe you are afraid.”

Almira stood very still as the dog, barking ferociously, charged at her. She let go of her fear and watched the dog calmly. It didn’t bite her, but neither did it run back into its yard, instead, it stood to her right and barked and growled at her feet. She remained still and calm. The dog did not seem inclined to leave. So Almira, talking pleasantly to the dog, started to walk towards the corner, around which her friends had just disappeared. She felt something push against her calf, just above the heel. The dog growled and bumped Almira’s calf several times. She stopped walking and the dog resumed its growling at her feet. Fear began to well up, from a place behind her chest. She tried walking, and the dog again bumped her calf, this time with an open mouth, she could feel it’s teeth. Her fear grew and took on an odd feeling of despair that made her look around, feeling, somehow self-consciousness. Almira knew that the dog would not bite her, but there was something in what he was doing that conveyed both the sense of a harmless game a dog might play and, at the same time, the very real potential of a vicious attack. Almira felt trapped by the dog. She stood still for another 5 minutes, hoping something would happen. Finally, after what felt like an hour, the owner of the dog appeared on the porch and called the dog. The dog started to run back but stopped, turned and bumped Almira’s ankle one more time and ran off without a second look back. Almira walked home, legs shaking from tension, eyes welling with tears of shame and her mind racing in anger at herself for being so inadequate.

This man, Herschel, reminded Almira of that dog, all those years ago. She knew that this time, this night, there was no one who would appear and simply call him off. The only person in the room that might have that kind of power, was the red-haired man. The problem was, at the moment, he was moving around from the front of the counter, knocking pamphlets to the floor, never taking his eyes of the face of her friend, Annie LoPizzo.

Almira managed with her one free hand to pull the scarf off her head (and away from her face), so she could take in the entire room without having to move her head.

The leader of the group was the man moving in on her friend. He had the eyes of a predator. He moved with such overwhelming self-confidence that, somehow there was the impression of good humor. This thin man with the dark, hungry eyes was clearly enjoying himself.

Almira found herself drawn to how the men were dressed. Alike, but with nothing in common. Their overcoats were commonplace enough, but all three projected a similar newness, lack of wear, clearly they were bought at the same time. It was obvious that all the overcoats were bought by the same person. Nothing of a sufficiently binding similarity as to  create a uniform, but undeniably, there was a single authority that bound the three men, now standing inside the United Workers Association Hall.

“Hey, Robbie, come on, we’re supposed to scare them a little and leave, that’s what the boss said, go there and…”

“Shut yer mouth, Liam. You talk too much.” the red-haired man, Robbie, glared. He was already behind the counter, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Annie. Showing no outward signs of fear, she nevertheless stood absolutely still, as tense as the night sky after a blinding flash of lightning, crash of thunder on its heels.

“Liam!! Make yourself useful and go stand outside. And don’t be lettin’ anybody in! Understand?”

Even as the howling wind rattled the windows, and shadows of tree limbs waved in the dark, Liam showed ever sign of relief. Almira thought she might’ve known him from somewhere. Oddly, she found herself not wanting him to leave. Somehow, he represented the only hope of avoiding total savagery. Liam didn’t say a word, although, as he shut the door, Almira saw him glance around the room, with a look of guilt and shame. Nevertheless, he shut himself outside, in the relative safety of the cold and windy night.

“Herschel! Sit the lassie down somewhere and keep her out of trouble. I need to ask our little Union whore here some questions.”

Like a rag doll held by a child, Almira felt herself dragged towards the hearth, and without a second thought, whipped around, her feet barely touching the floor, tossed towards the blue sofa across from the hearth. Unconcerned with whether she fell to the floor or landed on the sofa, Herschel turned and faced the other end of the room where Robbie was about to join Annie LoPizzo behind the counter of the room.

Almira pulled herself upright from a half-kneeling position, turning her head to keep the others in view, and pushed herself into an upright position at the end of the sofa. Looking at the hearth, a line from a children’s book came into her head,

Only please, Brer Fox, please don’t throw me into the briar patch,’

The hearth, with its granite surround, had a pile of wood stacked to the left of the firebox, and, on the opposite side were a number of pokers and tongs. Relics of the days when there would have been a coal fire in the hearth and a blacksmith, using the tools of his trade. When she first starting coming to the Union Hall, Almira noticed the tongs and pincers and asked Annie about them, “those were probably made right here in the building, 50 years ago.” Almira quickly became skilled at starting and maintaining the fire, using only the tongs.

For 16-year-old Almira Ristani, the United Workers Union Hall came to be what her corner in the living room had been, when she was a very little girl. Protected by her mother’s determination to shield her from the harsh and un-imaginative life of the immigrant family. Remarkably determined and strong-willed people, countless families, willing to cross an ocean in order to find place to establish a livelihood, would all too often find that the things that made life worth living, more than subsistence and survival, had been washed overboard in their journey to a new world. Almira discovered that the people who frequented the Hall were either those who, recently fallen on hard times, sought help to survive or were those who wanted to help others sustain hope for a better life. They were the very people she passed in the streets every day, toiled along side inside the brick prison of the Mill, were so much more than she could appreciate in the Mill.

Almira came to be a regular at the Bennett Street Union Hall. Carving hours from her week, her time would be spent organizing the inventory of supplies kept in the larger room adjacent to the front room. On those days when the work was done, Almira would sit on the worn blue sofa, tending the fire in the hearth and, in the warmth of the company of people with the desire to help others, she would explore the world through the writings of her beloved Emerson.

Almira was jolted from her thoughts by the up-tilting movement of the couch as Herschel sat his considerable bulk down next to her. He was close enough that his open overcoat covered her legs. The scent of dogs and fear flowed over the blue sofa, banishing the comforting smell of the wood burning in the hearth.

Robbie, meanwhile, with a obviously contrived look of interest, picked up a ledger from the counter, made as if it’s contents were fascinating reading, and, without a word, let it drop to the floor.

“Now, lass. I need to know something about your little operation here. I need to see your membership rolls. That’s not a bother is it?”

Annie stood her ground, managing a smile that, to anyone other than a friend, would have been quite convincing. Almira felt her stomach drop at the fear she could see growing in her friend’s eyes.

“What is it you want? This is private property, you have no right to come barging in and making demands and, frankly acting the complete ass!”

“What do I want? I want to know who it is that comes here. I want to know who it is disturbing the neighbors, we’ve had complaints, yer know. So why don’t you just hand over the list and we’ll leave you two ladies to your evening.”

Robbie’s voice began at a normal volume, rose to a shout and ended in a growl. He stood behind Annie and, on the pretense of reaching for a book on the counter, leaned into the woman. Annie spun slightly to her left, letting the forward motion of the man continue unresisted which he did with a pronounced lurch, having been off-balance when he started his pressing against her.

“There ain’t no list. If I had one I wouldn’t give it to the likes of you. Why don’t you get off and go back to your Mill bosses and tell ’em that there ain’t no one that matters down at the Union Hall.”

Annie looked around the room, trying to find something to use as a weapon. She saw a pair of tailor’s shears and was reaching for them, when the Robbie grabbed her hand.

“Looking to find something to stab with, are you? We’ll have none of that now.”

Robbie grabbed the scissors with one hand and, with his other, grabbed a Annie’s hair at the scalp.

Almira felt her entire body tense, rising from her slouched position on the sofa.

Like the dog from Almira’s nightmares, Herschel turned towards her.

“You’re good to sit so quiet like,” Herschel put his calloused hand on Almira’s thigh, her coat, having fallen open when she landed on the couch.

Almira felt the beginning of something change in her, even as she felt the increasing closeness of the man. Herschel’s scent clung like cobwebs in the dark, the nerves under her skin sparkling painfully. His hand, now on her thigh, brought on a feeling of self-consciousness, as if by being touched, she was a party to what was starting to happen. Her stomach conspired with her mind, each looking to the other, tempting the sense of panic. Her own woolen overcoat taunted her with its ineffectiveness to shield her from his assault. Something shifted in her mind, her body echoed it, in silence.

Sensing a change in the girl, Herschel grabbed Almira’s left wrist, leaving his left hand to continue its advance, pushing up along her leg, seeking weakness.

“Come on now, I’m not such a bad fella. Your friend will be alright. Come on now, gimme a kiss,”

Pulling on her left arm, Herschel leaned in, intent on kissing the very still girl.

Almira saw Herschel get closer, and felt the man get closer, tilted her head back and spit in his face.

“What the…!!! ” Herschel’s roar was met by the sounds of hyena- laughter from Robbie, still holding Annie LoPizzo by the hair,

“Fock, Herschel! If the lassie is too much for you to handle, I’ll get Liam back in to help you out.”

Keeping her wrist in his right hand, Herschel  laughed un-certainly, leaned back and wiped his face with his left hand. He turned to look over at Robbie,

“Shut it then, I’ll show you…”

Almira leaned to her right, grabbed a pair of tongs on the hearth and clasped them on a small log, burning in the front part of the fire. Using Herschel’s grip on her left wrist, she pulled herself, (and the tongs with the white ashed, red-coaled log), back towards the man on the couch. She jammed the tongs and log into his lap and continued her forward motion, leaning on the tongs, pressing them to his body.

Herschel’s immediate response was purely instinctual, he tried to back away from the assault on his body, except, he was seated on the sofa. In his effort to push back farther, to avoid the incredible heat that began to race up through his body, he lost all traction and both feet slipped on the floor, leaving the shouting man with no leverage at all. His entire world consisted of the sharp pressure of the metal tongs and the almost frigid heat of the log, which, by now, found new fuel in the cloth of his overcoat and trousers. He finally looked up and saw the face of the girl, the small helpless girl who, just a timeless moment ago had been his possession. She was now standing over him, their eyes locked and Herschel felt a new fear,

“How about a little fire, Herschel?”

Herschel began to bellow, barely human noises, that echoed of pain and fear. His feet found purchase enough that he could stand and, swinging his right arm, he hit Almira full in the face. The girl flew backwards over the end of the sofa.

Robbie, seeing the large man move spasmodically, while frantically hitting himself, arms flailing, tightened his grip on Annie’s hair. To keep from falling she grabbed his wrist.

The door to the adjacent meeting room suddenly swung open and a young man stepped into the room, speaking as he entered the front room,

“Hey, Annie the side door was open, so I…”

His eyes widen very briefly, reached into his overcoat, took out a small pistol and pointed it straight-armed at Robbie’s face,

“Let her go.”

Chapter 14

Featured

“I said, let her go… now.”

With my right arm fully extended, I pointed my revolver at the middle of the red-headed guy’s face. I wanted him to see the dark at the end of the gun’s barrel without having to squint. As I walked towards the counter in the center of the room. I glanced to my left and, what I saw made me hesitate, just a split second.

The girl flying backwards over the far end of the blue sofa as I made my entrance, was Almira Ristani. I knew this, only because she stretched her arms out to either side as she flew backward through the air, and, for a split second, her face was in plain view. There was a look in her eyes I’ll never forget. Framed by a jagged halo of light-brown hair, was the face of pure, animal ferocity. As for the guy who hit her, all I saw was the back of a badly wounded animal, singed by a falling tree in a forest fire. From where I stood, I couldn’t see his face, but I knew beyond certainty, that she was staring directly into his eyes. Strangely enough, I felt pity for him

The red-haired guy, with his hand buried in Annie’s thick brown hair stood, frozen like a hunting dog on point. His face showed the sly intelligence of a weasel. His eyes, unlike the rest of his body, were in constant motion. They showed no fear, just a very rapid re-appraisal of the situation. My appearance obviously changed the balance of power. The math was simple, if nothing else: 2 strong men + 2 battered women versus one loaded gun. Of course, that ‘one loaded gun’ was not more than five feet away and pointed at his face. Despite that, he clearly was not convinced that his options were drastically curtailed from what they were, a mere 10 seconds earlier,

“Sterling….don’t! Not here!

The tone in Annie’s voice added a new element to the red-haired guy’s strategic calculations. That, plus the qualified admonition, not if, but where. Uncertainty that looked like it could grow into fear, passed over his face. A quick decision and he started his retreat, only to find that his fingers were still very entangled in Annie’s hair. He looked at his hand and the hair twisted between his fingers, with an expression bordering on comical surprise. The hair he used to bind the woman to his will, now held him and prevented his retreat. He managed to relax his grip enough to let the hair fall loose and stepped away from behind the counter,

“Look, buddy, we’re only doing a job. You let me and Herschel here leave, and there won’t be no more trouble. Ain’t that right, Herschel?”

The response from the other man was an oddly prissy-sounding,

“oh I’m hurt so bad, Robbie…. I’m hurt so bad…”

Annie stepped around the counter and moved towards the fireplace. Robbie, for his part, continued towards the door, at a speed that might be called a run, except that he didn’t once turn his back on me. Without taking his eyes off my revolver, he veered towards the couch, grabbed Herschel’s arm and pulled him towards the exit. As the large man turned, his overcoat swung free, melted buttons broke apart and damage from the burning was apparent. Fabric and flesh glued together, a smudged landscape of pain. Like a Fourth of July fireworks display, a sudden odor bloomed. The harsh smell of burnt wool, firewood and something else, unidentifiable, yet terrible. Staring down at the front of his ruined coat, Herschel began to brush at the wet-dusty fabric, but his hand froze in mid-motion. He let himself be pulled by the arm, out into the night, for all a child trapped in a burning nightmare. The open door offered the winter wind the opportunity it had waited for, and under its triumphant howl, I heard,

“I’m hurt Robbie… I’m oh god hurt real bad, do something.”

“Shut up, ya galoot… she was just a little girl for christ sakes!  We need to get away from here, right now. your screaming surely will bring the coppers. Don’t know how I’m gonna explain this to that Prendergast fop… this was supposed to be a simple tear and scare”

I felt my anger re-ignite suddenly. Too much happened, too quickly, to let quiet prevail. I needed to do something, anything. Stay and help or run and catch. And when I caught, then I’d be able to forget the look on the girl’s face.

“Those guys! They’re getting away!! I’m gonna make sure they…”

“Never mind them! Almira needs us more than you need to give them a beating, Sterling! Now get over here and help me get her on the couch …Now!”

Putting my revolver back in my inner pocket, I stepped over to where Annie was crouched in front of the fireplace. Almira had landed in the space between the far end of the sofa and the wall. At first, all I could see were brown, laced shoes projecting up and over the arm of the sofa. I stood behind Annie and could see the rest of the girl, leaning halfway up against the wall, her chin against her chest, blood everywhere. I thought, ‘The last time I saw this much human blood was the first time I saw a man die‘, and almost said it out loud. Instead I said,

“OK Annie, I’ll let ’em go…for now. What do you need me to do?”

“Move the couch away…. no! wait! let me support her legs first.”

Luckily I’d resisted my first impulse to just flip the couch end over end, into the open part of the room. Annie looked up at me as, using my right knee and thigh, I slid the couch about 3 feet to the right, smiled,

“Very good! Now that you’ve taken back control of that body of yours, I’m going to need you to lift her from behind her shoulders…”  I was leaning forward from the word, ‘lift’, when she finished her instruction,  “wait! let me finish!”

I smiled at her enough to soften the hardening edges in her face, which was threatening to turn into something stern and demanding. A look like that would not have helped, a lot of my less-inspired decisions were started by someone’s look of stern disapproval. So, I waited and watched, as Annie let go of some of her own adrenaline-sparked stress. She relaxed her furrowing brow and, with obvious effort, offered me a smile, with only a hint of exasperation. I nodded that I was waiting for her to continue,

“Lift her under her arms, but find a way to have your forearms cradle her head. I don’t want her head moving too much when we move her, no telling what condition her neck is in, can you do that?”

She put her forearms under Almira’s ankles.

“On three. One…Two….lift.”

We had her up and, after a second of looking at the sofa, decided that Annie would move first, putting Almira’s feet on the charred end of the sofa. The girl couldn’t have weighed more than 100 pounds, I thought, as I stood holding her upper torso in my hands, fingers interlaced, forearms together formed something of a cradle. Taking her sweater off, Annie folded it into a wedge and tucked it where the seat cushions met the arm rest. I lowered Almira so that she’d be lying at a slant, head elevated but still straight. Annie’s blouse buttons had, apparently pulled free during her struggle earlier, now fell open as she bent to adjust the sweater under Almira’s head. I still had one arm under the girl and was inches from Annie. She noticed my distracted attention, stared at her blouse, looked back at me and laughed,

“Well, at least we know one of us made it through this evening un-scathed! But…” standing straighter, still laughing, her eyes on mine, “But then again, you could’ve accidentally shot yourself in the leg and you’d still be staring at my breasts. Men!”

I laughed, reached over with my free hand and buttoned the middle two buttons, smiling back at her,

“If my lady wishes her knight to rescue her, My Lady shouldn’t make it so hard for her knight to concentrate on her instructions.”

Our laughter, a relief from the accumulated stress, felt good. It stopped when we heard a moan from the couch.

Annie pulled some handkerchiefs from wherever it is women hide them, and, without a word, walked to the bathroom on the far side of the room. I heard water running and she came back to where I was crouching next to the couch, where Almira was bleeding quietly onto her sweater and the cushions of the sofa.

“Get me some ice,”

I vaulted over the sofa and ran out the door. The sidewalk was, as I expected, deserted. What I didn’t expect was how little snow there was on the ground. Of what there was, most was white-glazed between the cobblestones or encrusted in the gutters.

“Hurry the goddamn hell up! I need ice to slow this bleeding down!”

I decided the quickest solution was to run the two blocks down to the River, rather than screw around trying to scrape the frost off the side of the building. My hope for icicles hanging off the roof gutter crapped out, as the cold of the past week was relentless, there hadn’t been any melting in nearly a week. I ran down Bennett St. across Canal St to where the trestle crossed the river. I nearly broke my leg at least twice, scrambling down the embankment, the rough granite was mixed with loose bricks, discarded from the endless construction of the Mills. I managed to kick off a rounded triangle of ice from a frozen wave of river water, trapped on dry land by the extreme cold.

“What took you so…”

Annie looked up as I ran through the door with a 20 lb chunk of ice in my hands. I assumed it was in my hands as, now that I had accomplished my goal, I couldn’t tell what I held in my thoroughly numb hands. Had it not been for the strain on my shoulders, I wouldn’t know I was carrying anything. I walked towards the fireplace.

I saw Annie’s eyes widen before I even bothered to look down,

“Well, that might be enough,”

Annie laughed as she looked around for something to make my chunk of river ice a little more manageable,

“Here, let’s try this,”

I threw the ice against the hearth as hard as I could. Before the smaller pieces stopped skittering across the floor, I picked up a piece, about the size of a decent restaurant’s corn muffin, and, thinking for a second, started to pull off my scarf.

“You do like the straight lines, don’t you, Sterling?”

Annie took the ice from my hands and wrapped it in a clean-looking white cloth. She frowned as she felt it’s hard edges, even through several wraps of the fairly delicate material.

“Here, give me that,”

without waiting for me to respond, she twirled my wool scarf around my head, like un-winding a bobbin on one of the machines in the Mill, and took it from around my neck.

“…er, Annie?…. Brooks Brothers…. less than a year old,”

seeing her look, I decided that it’d be worth the investment of my scarf, if I could stay in her good graces. Since I arrived in Lawrence all of a few weeks ago, Annie LoPizzo remained very much at the top of my ‘to do’ list.

She wrapped the cloth-covered ice in my scarf and smashed it against the stone hearth. Rotating it with each strike, quickly produced an ice pack of manageable size. Annie un-wrapped the ice, draped my scarf over my shoulder and turned back to the girl on the sofa.

“Here, get next to her head, I need to clean up some of this blood and I don’t want her to move too suddenly.”

I looked closely, for the first time since this all started, and had a good look at the girl laying on the couch. It was, I knew, of course, Almira Ristani. But if all I had to go on was a photo of her face at this moment, I’d never have recognized her. Had I held the picture of a stranger being circulated by the police, hoping to identify an accident victim, I might have said,

“Who beat up the old crone? She looks like a house fell on her!”

But it wasn’t an old woman on this second-hand blue sofa decorated with blood and soot, it was a young girl. I realized that, somehow, despite the relatively short amount of time I’d spent with her since arriving in Lawrence, Massachusetts, she’d become important to me.

Lawrence, Massachusetts was just another place to kill some time, after I abruptly left school in New Hampshire. I wasn’t expected back home in Providence for at least a month, which was just as well, as I didn’t think the Dean of Students would be in a hurry to send my parents a letter explaining why he felt it was in the best interest of Dartmouth College that I be expelled. Of course, Dean Hopkins’s wife Christina, really wouldn’t appreciate her dalliance with the student body getting more publicity. So, leaving the dormitory, I decided to do some exploring. I suspected that, as long as Dartmouth kept receiving tuition checks from my folks and I didn’t come back, everyone would be happy. Except, maybe Mrs. Hopkins. At any rate, one cold December morning I stood on the bridge over the Merrimack River that looked, for all the world, like a moat protecting a red-brick castle. From my vantage point overlooking Lawrence, the factory smokestacks were every tower in any illustrated book of fairy tales, the Mills that lined the riverbank, like impregnable brick embattlements, beckoning the knight-errant. I recalled my Medieval History Professor saying, ‘It’s tempting to see the city, hidden behind the castle walls, as a child behind his mother’s skirts, as dependent upon the mighty castle fortress for it’s very existence. Closer, more thoughtful examination shows otherwise, that the outward signs of power were dependent on the existence of the lowly inhabitants. Men, women and children, bound by the clerical and commercial yokes of the powerful, extorted by taxation of what little wealth earned, provided the funds to create the dark edifice. Yet, even more essential, was the near endless labor necessary to create the castle, in the first place.’

The United Worker’s Labor Hall doors were open, in the un-seasonably mild temperatures, as I walked up from Canal Street. I was trying to stretch the 10 dollars I had when I left Hanover, but my hunger grew, I abdicated control and let the aroma of soup draw me through the doors. Annie stood, Persephone in homespun, behind the counter, (her command center, I would later tease her). She looked up at me, smiled and said, “Welcome.!”

 

“OK, here we go,”

Annie wiped Almira’s cheeks of the last lattice stains of blood, now beginning to dry. Dramatic shiny-flowing red turned into rusty-brown trails running from the corner of her eyes, down to her ears.

I sat, half on, half-off the couch, holding Almira’s hands together, at her midriff, when she woke. “She came alive’ ran through my mind, until, that is, I found myself having to restrain 100 pounds of frightened, determined girl. To Annie’s credit, she didn’t recoil, instead moved her arms around to the sides of Almira’s head, stroking her hair gently. For the second time, in what had to be the strangest night of my life, I saw the face of a human, stripped of whatever it is that separates us from the lower orders of animal. Her eyes searched, first for a path of escape and then, accepting her immobility, for a weak point to attack. For all of my 200 pounds, combined with the leverage of a 6′ 2” frame, I had to fight to remain in control of the girl.

Accepting that she could not get up and run, Almira lay back on the couch and looked up at me.

“Oh, good! You’re awake!” with the delighted surprise of a host seeing a houseguest coming early to breakfast, Annie’s voice was immediately drowned out by laughter. Even Almira, now recognizing us, tried, unsuccessfully, to join in.

Annie got up and quickly returned with a small pan of warm water and two clean cloths. Kneeling at the end of the sofa, she completed her cleanup of the blood on Almira’s face.

“Dank yu” Almira frowned at the sound of her blunted fricative.

“How bah…how bahhd! is it? I canth breath tru my node”

I looked at Annie for a sign of how to react, but she was looking at Almira’s face with an expression that hinted at fear, as if she was trying to convince herself that the damage was not as bad as it looked, and failing. Almira’s face looked pretty damn bad, her formally aquiline nose now had more in common with a roseate Spoonbill than the sharp-eyed eagle. Her nose, spectacularly broken, lay to the right side of her face, fortunately there was little in the way of cut or torn flesh. Her eyes were nearly swollen shut, and yet there was a sharpness and a focus to them that was not a little un-settling.

“Well, it looks…” Annie started to say, in what she clearly hoped was a confident and re-assuring tone, faltered when she looked at the wreckage of the girl’s face.

“You’ve suffered a severely deviated septum but apparently avoided any other significant maxillofacial trauma. I suspect that all…”

I stopped, Annie and Almira stared at me with a look of amazement and a touch of cautious hope.

“What?  I’m the only one here who took a couple of  pre-med courses? …well, ok, maybe I am, but surely one of the two of you have lost a bar fight and had… well, alright, alright. So you haven’t and I have and had my nose broken… maybe a couple of times,”

I stopped when I saw the look in Annie’s eyes begin to incite a grin from the girl lying on the couch between us. For an evening that had such a violent start, the three of us spent more time laughing than I would’ve believed if I wasn’t a party to it all.

“So, what do we do?” Annie looked at me, and Almira, with a very slight and careful inclining of her head, nodded in agreement.

“Gotta set your nose. Put it back in the position God meant it to be and let nature take it’s course. Had it done 4, 5 times. You’ll get your breathing back, the swelling and the black-eyes, those’ll heal on their own.”

The way I explained it sounded reasonable, and they both appeared to accept what I was telling them with complete trust and confidence. As a matter of fact, I did know what to do for a broken nose, but that wasn’t the same as doing it to a 16-year-old girl. I didn’t think it would help to tell them that it was no big deal, provided the patient was drunk as a lord and had two cops kneeling on his chest.

“So do it,” Annie looked to Almira, who squeezed her fingers and gave us the ‘don’t-blink-or-you’ll-miss-it’ nod.

“Wait!  Wait, lets not be too hasty. I know! why don’t we take Almira to the hospital instead.”

“nuh… nah kno!”  Almira forced through her swelling lips.  Although Annie seemed uncertain, she looked over at me and said, “tell us first, just what you’re going to do.”

Seeing that both women were determined to go through with my offer of first aid, I slid over on the couch, forcing Almira to bend her knees a bit, without any pain or distress that I could see, which put me at about her waist level. I had my left forearm resting on the back of the couch and my right hand on the girl’s forearm.

“Alright, you want to know what I’m going to do? You’re already lying down, that’s good, cause it’s easier that way. I’ll tell you to relax, and you’ll try, but won’t be able to. Then, as gently as possibly, I’m going to grab your nose with two fingers and jerk it to the side and slightly downward. It will hurt. But, almost right away, you’ll feel things open and you’ll forget the pain and you’ll start to think that everything’s going to be alright. And it will.”

Annie’s face took on an expression so intriguing that I almost stopped my description of how I planned to set Almira’s nose. It was a look of poignant excitement, it was also a look that said, ‘If you dare, ask me, but be prepared to be taken to some very surprising places.’

“Are you still willing?”

Again the silent assent, with no fear but something else seemed to grow in her eyes, a look of anticipation and even, excitement. I saw that Almira’s eyes were emerald-green, somehow, both dark and full of light. I shook my head, that I could have missed such incredibly attractive eyes as those of Almira’s, made me wonder how I managed to get through life this long without walking off a cliff or going blind from staring at the morning sun.

I leaned forward, looked over at Annie and reached with my left arm across and over Almira’s face, as if inviting Annie to hand me one of the cloths she had in her lap. Almira’s eyes followed the motion of my hand and watched as Annie put a folded white cloth in my left hand. With my right hand, I reached under my left arm and pulled Almira’s nose straight and slightly downward.

Almira’s eyes widened in shock and she started to gasp but, almost immediately, felt the normal flow of air in her nose. The relief of being able to breathe almost normally, stifled any cry of pain, prompted by my surprise rhinoplasty.

Annie looked at me with almost as much surprise as Almira. But with that odd expression of reminiscence, which seemed to flare up in her eyes. A brief flash of anger, like distant cloud blocked lightening, took hold of her but as quickly disappeared, a wistful sadness left in it’s place.

“Son of a Bitch!” Annie half-cursed and half-laughed in surprise.

 

“Saints preserve us! What kind of deviltry’s has been going on in here!”

From the door came a loud exclamation that, like a vicious dog on a leash, wanted to turn into accusation. The beat cop, Sargent Herlihy, stood just inside the hall and stared at the three of us, on the slightly charred, very blood stained second-hand sofa, …laughing.

“Enough with you laughing! I’m out on as Christ-cold a night as I can remember, because my captain insisted, which can only mean that someone told him to get down to the Union Hall. Someone better start explaining things. And a bonny-good tale it needs to be, judging from the looks of this place!”

Chapter 15

Featured

It was around 11:00 am by the time Eliza Thornberg pulled away from the TWA terminal and started her adventure. As arranged, her car was waiting, gassed up and ready to go. She tipped the skycap just enough to make him hesitate, smiled and drove away.

With the radio turned up and the Packard’s convertible top down, Eliza sang along to the radio, as she drove west on US 50, quickly breaking free of the slower traffic that spread out, like tangling weeds in a lake, from the little businesses, stores and shops of the small towns that clustered around Kansas City. Within an hour, she passed a gilt-lettered sign that informed all motorists that they were, in fact, leaving, ‘Gardner, Kansas’, ‘pop. 783’. The sign, did, however, make a point to assure all that their return would be welcomed. Eliza drove on, out into a very unfamiliar part of the country.

US 50 South was not the tabletop-flat road she’d imagined, listening to her college roommate, Dorothy Gale, describe as, ‘a land so big, the sky went from the top of your head, straight out to forever‘. Eliza had a new appreciation for how difficult an adjustment it must have been for her friend, coming from this strangely huge, but empty land, to New York, which was also huge, but in a very, very different way. As she drove, she realized that even the hilly terrain was different from any other place she’d been, and for a girl of 19, Eliza Thornberg was very well-travelled. There were hills, but they tended to raise the roads gradually, rather than stand in the way, forcing the pavement to climb up and over them. Eliza was very pleasantly surprised by the number of lakes that sparkled in the distance, blue against an increasingly uniform light brown. She was glad her father had a business partner who, owing him a favor, was only too happy to make a car available for Eliza’s use. In fact, he’d offered to provide the use of his chauffeur, but that would have taken the adventure out of her plan. Her father maintained his normal reserve during the telephone call she made to inform him of her change in travel arrangements. He clearly thought her plan to visit a friend in Kansas was a good idea, ‘a grand adventure’ as he put it. That she was returning home, alone, might have been a factor in his positive reaction. But then again, Ted Thornberg was far too good a businessman and poker player to show his hand so easily.

The drive down the far slope of a particularly prominent hill, about an hour outside of Kansas City, caused her musical accompanist, the radio, to fade into silence. Left off by the side of the road, Fred Astaire, a very urbane scarecrow in fedora and silk suit, sang desperately at the receding convertible,

“oh, I love to climb a mountain,
and reach the highest peak,
but it doesn’t thrill me half as much
As dancing cheek to cheek…”

Feeling more alone now, the silent radio becoming just another gauge on the dashboard, clearly on empty, Eliza thought about her decision to cut short her trip to Hollywood. On the telephone to her father, she explained that she didn’t see being in the movies  as anything she wanted to do for too long a time. She added that her friend, Jack, was incredibly busy with his own work for the studios and, besides, it was just too sunny all the time. Her father seemed to accept her story at face value, no small relief to Eliza, as she recalled her first and last movie audition,

“Liza! babe! you’re home! Early! How’d the audition go?” Jack walked into the living room of the bungalow as Eliza slammed the door behind her and threw her purse in the general direction of the sofa.

Eliza stood, hands on her hips and stared back at her current boyfriend and Hollywood Insider, Jack Clayton. Fortunately for him, her anger had subsided enough during the cab ride from the studio to eliminate the danger of flying objects. It was difficult to maintain genuine fury when the weather was perfect, the streets were lined with Palm Trees and she saw Clark Gable, sitting at a table outside a small cafe on the corner of Sunset and Vine. Of course, it didn’t help that she was as angry at herself, as at her boyfriend. It was Eliza’s stated goal to become a movie star and she’d insisted that Jack help make that happen. While her first week in California was taken up with the normal sight-seeing, as appropriate to a well-heeled tourist’s introduction to the lifestyle in Tinsel Town, Eliza quickly became bored with the parties and the poolside afternoons. She reminded Jack of his promise, a promise that, in Eliza’s mind, was ‘part of the deal’.
Since the age of ten, especially during the holiday season, Eliza Thornberg endured hearing from countless doting aunts and overbearing uncles, how fortunate she was to have inherited her mother’s good looks. Less frequently remarked upon was her natural shrewdness, a talent for negotiation, which, as any successful negotiator will attest to, required a certain ruthlessness. This talent, ‘to close the deal’, was as much her father’s genetic contribution, as were her mother’s high cheekbones and hooded eyes.

Finally, Jack relented and announced one morning that a friend of his was directing a movie and did, in fact, need to cast a young woman as a newlywed living in suburbia. He seemed uncertain about the details, other than they were referring to it as, ‘an adult film’. Eliza prided herself on her sophistication, but was at a loss for the term, ‘adult film’, despite the hurried research on the film industry, prior to leaving Philadelphia. She assumed it meant the movie would be something along the lines of a ‘drawing-room drama’, like Oscar Wilde’s ‘The Importance of being Earnest’.
Basil, who introduced himself as the assistant director, told Eliza that the scene was of a romantic interlude, and that she should act… ‘un-inhibitedly in-love’. The set was a perfect replica of a modern suburban living room, complete with fireplace and a sofa. That her audition would entail doing a complete scene, was a definite boost to her optimism, her self-confidence quickly eroded when she was handed a skimpy negligee and told that all she had to do was wait for the doorbell to ring, get up from the couch, go to the door and open it.

Eliza Thornberg sat on the leather couch, the satiny material of the negligee offered no hope of holding her position, unless she put her arm on the back of the couch and leaned on her elbow. She was encouraged when Basil gave her a ‘thumbs up’ and shouted ‘Action!’

The doorbell rang, Eliza slid into a standing position and walked to the door, thinking, ‘this acting business doesn’t seem so tough’ and opened the door.

The Postman was naked. He was more than naked, he was enthusiastically naked.

Later, back at his house, Jack suggested that the scene was ‘set up’ to elicit as spontaneous a reaction as possible, appropriate to the fact Eliza had never acted in a movie before, at least that’s what he said, after Eliza stopped yelling.

Eliza was honest enough with herself to accept that much of her anger grew from the fact that it was her idea that Jack arrange for her to get a part in a movie. She even wanted to believe, if only just a little, that he had no idea that the movie was intended for a more specialized audience.

“Well, I certainly was surprised! In my defense, they did say to act naturally and my reaction was spontaneous, especially to the naked postman. I slammed the door in his ….face”

Jack apologized, well into the night, and the morning saw the two friends again. Eliza Thornberg’s dream of stardom was over and she was awake. Awake, she wanted to go home where men are not naked, at least until it was time for them to be naked, usually when told it was time.

The idea of surprising Dorothy at home in Kansas came out of nowhere. So, on July 15th, with Jack Clayton still trying to talk her out of it, Eliza Thornburg walked across the tarmac and boarded the DC3, bound for Kansas City.

As the sun moved towards evening, the miles passed. The car sped down US 50, a cocoon of leather, glass and steel, peaceful against the steady, softly-ragged sound of the Kansas air, fleeing the car at 60 miles an hour. The radio, silent since an hour south of Kansas City, would, at random intervals, spray the car’s interior with bursts of static, like dream-mutterings of a drunk at a bar, hinting at the promise of music, but serving only as a reminder of its uselessness. Alongside the highway, always, were the fields, some cultivated, most, not. The distant rolling hills only accentuated the monotony of vast land. The road ahead seemed endless, the horizon taunting, the promise of an ending, a destination where all the boredom could be cashed in for a reward. Yet, every time she reached it, it would, retreat, like a con man in a nursing home, endless lies forgotten as soon heard, hope remained just out of reach. The rearview mirror told a different tale, in it the road disappeared up an imaginary hill. It occurred to Eliza that, maybe, what she saw in the rearview mirror, was the road returning to the world she knew, the world of buildings full of busy people and shops that beckoned those with spare time, to add to the variety of their already dynamic lives. Her life back home in Philadelphia, or at school in New York, seemed impossibly far away, as if the featureless landscape that surrounded her, would, given the opportunity, swallow up the buildings and parks, museums and bus stops, digesting the energy and creativity of the masses of people, smoothing everything over with grass and small groves of trees.

Eliza was dragged from her deepening introspection by two very real and persuasive elements of life, the need to pee and a road sign (announcing ‘Emporia 20 Miles’). The fields that spread to either side of the highway, like the wings of some huge, mythological bird condemned to be trapped in the earth, began to show more frequent signs of cultivation. Soon houses appeared, like random plantings in the rolling landscape, increasing in density, growing up on plots much smaller than the horizon-spanning fields that were her companion through most of the long afternoon. Eliza was certain she’d returned to civilization when she came to a railroad crossing. The warning signs and lights seemed frivolously indulgent, in light of the fact that, from the convertible, she could easily see 10 miles up the track and 10 miles down the track. She thought, ‘well, maybe when the crops are in and the ranch hands have had too much to drink, the crossing gates serve to slow them down, at least long enough to notice a mile long locomotive’.

Emporia (pop. 673) was small. Eliza drove down the Main St thinking, ‘my God, this a train stop, with an outgoing personality’. The town consisted of two blocks that began with a Lutheran Church and ended with a gas station, as if one was there to help you decide if you belonged, and the other was for when you decided that you did not. Eliza parked the convertible in front of a luncheonette, ‘Nan’s Home Cooking and Sundries’. The interior, insufficiently cooled by two ceiling fans, turning in circles slowly enough to elicit curiosity as to where the air went, was long, narrow and dark towards the back. There was a faded-pink formica counter along the left side and on the right were two small round tables, both occupied. She went to the cashier, asked for a lunch that she didn’t want, a coffee that she very much-needed, and the location of the lady’s room. When she returned she sat on a stool and looked with some fascination at the single donut, captive in a glass domed display. If the numerous fingerprints were to be relied upon, many had tried to free the pastry, all had failed. Eliza paid for her lunch and her coffee and was back on US 50 in less than 30 minutes.

Back on the road, Eliza felt more confident in her plan. She’d heard enough about Circe from Dorothy to create and maintain an image of bucolic harmony, a place where the clocks had extra numerals and the people lacked the need to push one and other. Remembering her recent experience with another dream, the dream of silver screen happiness, Eliza chided herself for being too much a romantic.

She recalled the beginning of the Fall Semester at school, meeting her roommate and deciding that she would help her to not look like she was planning on milking the cows as soon as she found some free time. Eliza Thornberg had spent every school year, since she was 12 years old, in one boarding school or another and was familiar with the stages of homesickness and new-surroundings overload. Dorothy Gale seemed to fit the mold of the newly-on-her-own college coed, a certain politeness, presented like formal attire picked for a special occasion or solemn ceremony. Dorothy deferred to Eliza in choice of beds in the double room, silent acknowledgement of Eliza’s greater experience in dormitory life. In return, Eliza went to a little extra effort to try to ease the other girl’s transition, clearly a difficult one for her. It took a while, longer than normal, for Dorothy to talk about her home. From her own experience, Eliza recognized the nearly inevitable throes of homesickness, the first instinct being to focus on there, rather than on the here. Dorothy Gale was, somehow, different from any other girl who Eliza had made a ‘home-instead-of-home‘ with, there was a subtle confidence underneath the surface shyness. It was when, deciding that the new girl needed a crash course in Life Back East, Eliza gathered a few of her friends and announced to Dorothy that ‘we’re all going downtown’ one Saturday in September that she saw the real Dorothy Gale. Eliza watched as Dorothy stood on the sidewalk of Times Square, as far from the wheat fields of Kansas as a girl could get and still be in North America.  What Eliza saw was not a girl overwhelmed by the sound and the lights and frenetic activity that was Times Square on a Saturday night, reeling from sensory over-load. What she did witness was a girl methodically assessing her surroundings, noting everything, the bustling crowds of loud pedestrians and, oddly she was giving extra attention to the rooftops of the buildings along Broadway and 7th Avenue, as if expecting a threat from above. Eliza thought about the discovery of especially spectacular natural phenomena, such as Victoria Falls, the Grand Canyon, she could imagine a tourist standing speechless, mouth open in wonderment and, at the same time, an experienced guide who would be standing and apprising the area for access points, probable trails into and out of, all in anticipation of danger. Her young roommate from the rural Midwest was very much the experienced explorer of exotic locales. She projected a sense of, not necessarily having been to a place like New York City, but definitely places as strange, if not stranger. It was the confidence of the experienced explorer. Her expression was not of a girl trying to comprehend a very, very different place from what she was familiar with, it was the canny eye of the forward scout on an expedition, noting the landscape, filing away any and all details. She had a self-confidence that Eliza could not recall ever seeing in a girl, at least not one as young as Dorothy Gale. It was clear that, although she felt out-of-place, she’d been in even stranger situations. Eliza liked this girl, with the odd clothes and exotic accent.  While they hit it off immediately, having a roommate and having a friend are two distinct states, one takes politeness and consideration, the other trust and affection. They became friends quicker than Eliza would have thought, and, looking back, it was Dorothy who made the first move from roommates to friends.

After 200 miles of fields of wheat that looked like water and corn that looked like trees, Eliza saw the sign announcing, ‘Circe 50 Miles Ahead’. She began to feel less lethargic, her original excitement began to return. As if on cue, the radio burst out with a fanfare of static, but this time it resolved into music. All rough and irritating at first, the promise of pleasure made her willing to endure the grating on her ears. With a barely noticeable rhythm, the music grew, pleasure overcoming displeasure, still without a distinct presence, but her mind began to participate. The process of adding enjoyment onto the edges of discomfort extended the pleasure, until it sprang suddenly into being, a song. And as quickly as it became a song, it become a recognizable song. Eliza didn’t bother to reflect on her good fortune of living a life that included more variety of everything than most people, especially people in the quiet, brown-on-grey farm towns, like those that passed on the left and the right of the highway,

I went back home, the home was lonesome
Since my mother, she was gone
What a home so sad and alone

Will the circle be unbroken
Bye and bye Lord, bye and bye
There’s a better home awaiting
In the sky Lord, in the sky

The music was compelling and the lyrics sad, yet somehow made Eliza try to sing along. She drove through the center of Circe, her heart gripped tightly by the voice singing of a place so familiar and, at the same time so foreign. Down the quietly-busy Main St and out the far side, along County Road #2, her hands gripping the steering wheel like the back of a pew in church. If you’d pulled her over, as she passed the city limits and asked her to tell you the name of one store, office or municipal building, she would have looked at you with a blank expression and apologized for not noticing. If you were given to paying attention to the human inside of people, you would have noted that the attractive young woman did not seem sorry and yet was very sad, neither of which she would have considered to be any of your business, thank you.

Of course, with the land being of a certain two-dimensional character, Eliza saw the buildings of the Gale Farm well before she saw the sign on the road and quite ahead of the moment that she pulled into the dirt area that separated the two-story house from the red barn, adjacent pens and a small cottage set next to a large apple tree.

Eliza Thornberg sat in the car, as the dust cloud that engulfed since leaving the small town behind, as if to hide the sight of the luxurious automobile, so out of place among the rusted metal sides of farm trucks and the tractors that moved with improbable slowness, despite the huge wheels that supported them over the roadways.

The house appeared empty, the normal subliminal life of a house in use, curtains flapping, distant doors shutting and visceral murmurs of plumbing, were all missing. The house was as silent as a bank vault. Eliza thought about leaving a note, but realized that she had nothing to write with, or for that matter, on,

“May I help you?”

Chapter 16

Featured

Dorothy stopped at the end of the driveway at 10:15. With her left foot down for balance, she looked up County Rd #2 to the west and saw what she expected, a ribbon of tar, flat yet undulating, bound for the horizon. To her right, nearly the exact same view. There was a difference, (minor to one, very, terribly significant to another), the green and white sign announcing, ‘Circe 23 Miles’. She’d have left earlier, but preferred to avoid unnecessary attention, and waited until Aunt Emily and Uncle Henry drove-off in the truck. Now, sitting on her bike, she looked at the small book bag in the wicker basket attached behind the seat, there, to provide her with a ‘reason’ for going into town, should the need for an explanation of her whereabouts become necessary. Dorothy didn’t expect to need the books. During breakfast, Auntie Em talked vaguely about, ‘seeing to some matters in Town, stopping at the Town Hall, after Henry loaded up on the supplies from the Feed and Grain’. Hunk was at the breakfast table, as always, but seemed more introspective than usual, enough so to cause Dorothy to think, ‘something’s bothering Hunk’. She said nothing, however, her own day’s plans demanded her full attention. She woke earlier than normal, that morning, with a single thought, ‘Get an answer from Mrs. Gulch.’

Nights had not, of late, been especially kind to Dorothy.  The smothering embrace of July, with it’s hot-during-the-day, very-warm-through-the-night temperatures did nothing to help. She’d discovered that, if she found a way to exert herself in the course of the day, her nights would be more restful, or failing that, at least be mercifully dreamless. 

It was the dreams, in-between the tossing and turning, that wore most heavily. And it wasn’t the content of the dreams that clung to her mind, like prickly vines in tall grass, pulling and pricking the skin with very small, seemingly insignificant thorns. Until, that is, they embedded themselves under the skin, then their seeming insignificance was transformed into something much more difficult to ignore. Stand perfectly still, in the middle of the thorn patch and you will be spared. Try to escape, that became a different affair entirely.
It wasn’t even her dreams of Oz, with friends left behind, and it wasn’t the dreams of New York with her friends who waited there, that kept Dorothy awake at night, and spending her day wanting to find a place to sleep.

What weighed on her was the mixing, and subtle distortion, of what she loved. Her memories of Oz were of triumph over adversity, through drawing together some odd, (actually very odd) characters, and sharing the feeling of being in a place where she belonged. Her thoughts about school, back in New York, would come out of the pre-dream quiet and she’d relive the challenge of finding her way in a very different environment, with some very different people. But, as she did in Oz, Dorothy prevailed. Her feelings grew stronger and stronger for her new life in a place where variety was desirable, and routine was a necessary evil. There, with her new friends, she knew that life was meant to be an adventure.

Dorothy would wake from these dreams, half-dreams and forgotten memories of dreams, feeling terribly lost. Worse, feeling alone. Even worse than that, feeling like she did not know which of the worlds that she traveled through each night, was meant to be her world. When, on those mornings she couldn’t wait for dawns’ light to offer a direction to run and escape the dreams, the question was always the same, ‘how could she know where she belonged, if she didn’t know who she was in the first place‘.

Dorothy Gale pushed off with her left foot, letting the bicycle’s front wheel wobble, daring it to cause her to fall to the road. ‘That,’ she thought as her speed rose, ‘would serve me right and at least it would be something I could do something about.’

She rode east on County Rd #2, determined to see a sleeping woman about her life.

***

“You!”

Dorothy was not really surprised, at the sight of Nurse Griswold standing alone, (‘come to think of it’, Dorothy thought, ‘she’s always the only one in the Ward.’), at the windows at the far end of the row of beds in the Charity Ward of St Mary’s Hospital. She suspected that her own lack of surprise that Nurse Griswold would be in the Ward today, was because her visit was unplanned. ‘And, that’, thought Dorothy, ‘should make it very surprising’.

Dorothy felt her anger return. Like an old friend, it beckoned her, an offer of the worn and tired toys of youthful indulgence, ragged dolls with eyes sewn back, almost in place. This anger was from a place inside her, where feelings and emotions that were meant to hurt another person, are stored against future need. Much like the care that must be taken with curare tipped darts, it’s a dangerous balance of readiness against the very real risk of self-inflicted damage. Righteous accusation is one of the poison-tipped weapons, that, unlike simple hate and anger, absolutely must be personal. Otherwise, like a cannonball with an insufficient charge of gunpowder, there’s noise and light, but little in the way of damaging punch. Dorothy felt a need to let this mysterious woman know that she was no longer surprised, (or impressed), by the way the tall, thin nurse would appear at just the right time. She’d decided that Nurse Griswold was not a threat, but hoped to dispel the sense of ‘otherness, mysterious power’. In this, Dorothy’s age betrayed her, the conviction that the power to make her feel off-balance lay in the inscrutable aura Nurse Griswold wore, as much as her starched white uniform. What nurtured her impatience, was the attitude that this woman presented every time they met, the air of nonchalance and total confidence. It made Dorothy Gale want to shout, ‘Just wake her up and let me get my answers!’

Since returning home for the Summer, Dorothy found impatience to be her dominant mental state. Impatience with the sluggish pace of life on the farm, impatient at the lack of interesting people in Town, impatient with her life…..

“Well, are you going to ask me?”

It sounded like Nurse Griswold was standing right behind her, however, Dorothy was determined not to be tricked and refused to turn around to answer. She was utterly certain that, were she to turn, Nurse Griswold would not be standing behind her. Instead, after the inevitable split-second of disorientation, she would be standing at the far end of the Ward, just as natural as could be. Dorothy decided to take matters into her own hands, and, smiling confidently, closed her eyes.

‘Lets see her trick me now!’ she thought, feeling a surge of welcomed aggressiveness.

“That doesn’t work more than once, you know,”

the voice seemed to approach her from far away, (farther away than should have been possible, the Charity Ward only had 2 rows of 5 beds on opposite sides of the room). Dorothy resolved to keep her eyes closed, but her face started to shift into a frown, as the thought that she was being trapped by the will of someone, someone who should be in no position to do so…

“You are a willful young lady. Which can be so very good a quality. I knew a girl, not that different from you, who had such Will. But her life was different from yours, she had to find her way to where she knew she belonged. You, my willful young Dorothy, have the opposite problem.
The Will  is very often the most difficult of strengths. Until you learn to master that power, it almost always brings more trouble than good. It will make a normal life boring, and a peaceful, satisfying life seem like an un-attainable dream.”

“I don’t understand what you mean,”

Dorothy said, closed eyes looking towards the bed of the still-silent woman,

“All I want is to ask Miss…Mrs Gulch a harmless question or two. Yet every time I come here, she is asleep and you are keeping me from waking her up. If you’d get out of my way, I’ll get my answers and leave and you won’t have me bothering any more.”

Nurse Griswold’s voice was very, very close,

“You are still trapped by your Will. You know that it shouldn’t be so, that surely everyone is playing tricks on you. You know what you know and you know where you’ve been and as much as you tell everyone here about it, they do not listen. And even that wouldn’t bother you, that you don’t know. What hides in the night and tugs at your mind is that all you need to know is, where is your real home, who is your real family.”

***

Dorothy pushed through the swinging doors, one-step-short of running, and went down the corridor away from Ward C. She needed to find someone, a person, a child, any listener who, by listening, would allow her to believe that she knew where she was, and what she had to do with her life.

She stopped at every open door, sometimes just looking in, other times, if there was a person in a bed, and they noticed her, she offered a cheery hello. She tried, unsuccessfully to avoid thinking, ‘I wish you could escape this room and I could switch places, at least then I’d know where I belonged.’ Finally, she came to the Main Lobby. The high-ceilinged space also housed the Main Admitting Desk, which faced the Main Entrance and, off to the side, a suite of offices. Set off in a short corridor, really just an alcove, were three doors, frosted glass etched to identify the occupants. To the left, Finance and Accounting, to the right Medical Services and in the center,the Office of the Medical Director, which, of course, was the office of Dr. Thaddeus Morgan.

Dorothy walked towards the offices, but before she could knock on the closed door, she heard Dr. Morgan’s distinctive, over-enunciated voice. The transom window, tilted outwards on it’s chain, served as quite an effective amplifier of the conversation in the office,

“Mrs Gale, I assure you, the plans for the renovation are on track. But a project like this takes time.”

Dorothy jumped back, that her Aunt might be in the hospital was surprising, and not a little disturbing. She strained to hear her Aunt’s voice. All she could hear were short, consonant-laden phrases, in a hard-edged contralto, the thin, tight lips of Emily Gale gave her words as much warmth as the chrome on a new car’s bumpers. She knew her Aunt was sitting opposite the Medical Director, by the time of his responses. That she didn’t hear anything of her Uncle Henry served only to confirm his presence, the silent male at his wife’s side, in case there was ever a question of her authority to speak. There rarely ever was a challenge, at least not more than once.

“Yes, the architectural plans are finalized and submitted to the Planning Commission in Town Hall. Why? Because there’s a Process of Review. No, I don’t think they’re dragging their feet.”

“Yes, they do appreciate how much the Gale Wing will benefit all of Circe.”

“No, I don’t think you should go and get them straightened out. Well, no, that’s not how these kinds of projects are done. Well, I suppose, if you spoke to the Building and Planning Officials. Well, I’m not certain how appropriate this conversation is. No, I meant nothing by that, it’s simply that I am responsible to the Board of Directors… yes, I know you’re on the Board. And Chairwoman of the Endowment Committee. No, I did not forget that.”

“There are, in fact, still 5 patients in the Charity Ward. I hardly think that’s an appropriate thing to say. We have a Charter and a Mission to serve the community. Yes, the State government does have a say and most certainly an influence. I’m sure you do.”

“No, I assure you, I’m not being sarcastic. The people of Circe, all the people, rely on St Mary’s Hospital for care.”

“Certainly. I will continue to do my job, The full scope of my job. Yes, I do know that I serve at the pleasure of the Board.”

“Why sure, I’ll go with you to the Town Hall, if you want to review the applications. There have been no challenges to the Hospital Expansion Project.
Let me tell my secretary and we can walk right across the Square, get this matter straightened out, this very afternoon.”

Dorothy hit the brass panic bar of the Exit door with both hands, the double sound of the bar hitting the door, and the latch releasing, echoed behind her as she ran down the stairs. She extended her arms out to her sides as she descended the stairs. A passerby might think, ‘why, that girl is not running that fast, or maybe she’s older than she looks’. A more observant passerby might take notice that the running girl’s hands were turned, her palms, faced back, as if expecting to be grasped. And a very observant passerby, would watch as a flurry of emotion crossed her face, like shadows on a windy day. Determination stumbled into surprise, which was slowed and pulled down into disappointment, which, as the girl reached the sidewalk, still running, took hold as a frown of anger. Letting her arms fall to her sides, she ran towards the Town Square. She felt like crying, which only made her angry, the anger stirred feelings of loss and regret. She tried to outrun her feelings, leaving one behind, only to overtake another,

“Get me out of here!”

Tom Hardesty was sitting on the back of his stake-body truck, playing his guitar. Were someone to ask why he picked the back of his truck, in the Town Square, to play, he’d of said something like, “Why not?”

That answer would have told them everything important about Tom Hardesty.

Sliding off the end of the truck, just as an elderly couple made their way past, busy looking at the sidewalk two steps ahead to avoid any chance of tripping, Tom played a vamped G chord and sang,

“I‘m back in the saddle again
Out where a friend is a friend
Where the longhorn… Where the girls can be so good
… If the boys do what they should
Back in the saddle again”

Tom laughed at his lyrics, put his guitar behind the front seat and started the truck,

“Hey, Dorothy, what about your bike?”

Dorothy was turned in her seat, trying to get the truck door to stay shut. She pulled it closed, but when she let go of the torn-padded arm rest on the inside, the door swung outward. She pulled it shut again and holding it closed for an extra second, took her hand off the arm rest and watched, as it slowly swung out and open. She pulled it quite firmly, firmly enough to cause the half-open window to rattle from the impact of the door with the frame of the truck. Again, once she gave up her hold, it would swing ajar. Dorothy grabbed the arm rest with both hands and slammed it inwards, the tired-rubber gasket that lined the edge of the door barely blunting the metal smacking on metal sound. She started to slam the door closed, always allowing enough time, after the door was in shut position, to see if it stayed. It did not. As she began to slam the door faster and faster, a rhythmic punctuation formed. She turned her head towards Tom who, back against his own door, leaned towards her, his left forearm on the steering wheel,

In cadence, and with a tone, part savage and part despairing as counterpoint to the harsh sound that filled the cab with the sound of metal on metal,

“First of all, …it’s ….not ….my …bike,
second …of …all,
I …don’t …give …a ….good ….god!!damn!!”

Dorothy stopped on the last slam, holding the door shut, un-willing to let go, as if to let it, would prove that she was powerless. Her shoulders slumped, worn down by the pounding noise and stared out the half-open window. The scent of Tom’s cigarette breath and sweat moved slowly around her neck as he reached towards her. She felt the slight wood-rough callous as his other hand reached around her left side and covered her hands holding onto the armrest. His scent was a spark to her memories of their time together, as mundane as the feel of sweaty sheets on a shared bed. Tom pulled the door frame with a sudden jerk, down near the door lock and she heard a metal-on-metal click, as somewhere inside the door the latch snapped free and seated itself into the locking mechanism. She felt the tension in her shoulders vibrate and dissolve and leaned back into his white tee-shirted shoulder, morning stubble grazing, barely pulling, on her ear lobe.

Dorothy took the hand that covered hers on the armrest, turned it over so his palm faced up, her much smaller fingers fitting between his, traced a scar along the bottom of his thumb, ran a finger over the smoothed over finger tips, raised her eyebrow, ‘guitar calluses’, he whispered, his breath moving her hair slightly. Taking both his hands, Dorothy held them to her and leaned back, tension flowing from her,

“This is nice,”

A murmur/vibration in her left ear,

“Mmmm”

“And, it’s 11:00 am in front of the Public Library. We need to go.”

Tom Hardesty looked sideways at her and smiled,

“You pick the place, I’ll take you there.”

***

Hunk stepped out on the porch hearing the first fly buzzing of sound out on County Rd #2. From the small, plain porch of the small cottage, he stood and watched as a dry gray cloud of dust raced along the road, coming from the direction of Town, headed in the direction of everywhere else.

“Hunh” was his comment at the sight of the cloud, barely losing any speed as it turned and raced up to the house. The wind was just right, a light breeze that blew in the direction of the car. The result was the car stayed in the middle of the cloud, barely visible, occasionally the noon day sun struck chrome and the effect was flashes of lightning in a distant thundercloud.

The car came to a stop in the middle of the dirt area that separated the house from the barn, (and Hunk’s cottage). The dust cloud kept moving and soon revealed a yellow Packard convertible, idling and finally, with a stuttering mechanical cough, the engine went quiet, as Hunk approached the driver’s side door.

“May I help you?”

The window, dust-caked into near opacity, rolled down and he saw a remarkable woman turn to look at him.

“Yeah, I’m looking for the Gale house, Dorothy Gale. Do I have the right place?”

“You must be Eliza”

Hunk amended ‘woman’ into ‘girl’ as she smiled at him,

“Damn it! Did someone call ahead? I wanted to surprise D. All that trouble to waste!”

Hunk, smiled to himself and thought, ‘lets make that ‘young woman’ for now’, and leaned towards the open window.

“No, sorry! no one called ahead. At least not that I know of,”

“Then how could you know who I am… I don’t know who you are, so how…”

“Well, it was just a lucky guess, I guess,” Hunk started to step back a step,

“I saw the California plates and your accent is not from around here and you’re attract…young and… ”

“So, none of the girls in Kansas are to your liking?” Eliza smiled innocently and watched for the defensive stumbling to begin.

“What? Well, up until now…”

Seeing the young woman was obviously about to get out of the car, Hunk leaned forward and grabbed the door handle. But didn’t open it, rather, he waited until she looked up and nodded permission for him to open the door.

Surprising himself, Hunk held the door open with his left hand and offered his right to the girl as she got out of the driver’s seat. She reached out without looking and moved without any effort to look and see if he was going to be there for her. It was a practiced, though natural grace and very much self-assured. The impression she gave as she stood was that the sun would have sooner risen in the West, than Hunk not be there to offer her a support. She was as much what he imagined a starlet would be like in real life, as the license plates claimed California as origin. Hunk was more surprised by his eagerness to remain standing, in a place that would make it likely that he would be very close to this girl. To his credit, he recognized the sudden leaning on him, as she closed the door, as a sensual gift to worthy staff, rather than a clumsiness or imbalance. He was certain without reason that this girl was rarely, if ever, off-balance.

‘To the manor born,’ popped into his head and he unsuccessfully stifled a burst of laughter.

For the first time, the young woman looked her probable age, as she turned and said, with a slight edge to her voice, the hint of a raised eyebrow,

“What?’

“Sorry, Miss… a phrase came into my mind, quite un-invited, I might add. In my defense, I was laughing at how in-appropriate the sub-conscious can be…”

“It’s Miss Thornberg. But, hey, seeing how you’re packing a pretty sophisticated, and obviously affectionate sub-conscious, under the farmer jeans, you may address me as Eliza.”

Hunk stared in silence and, to her credit, the young woman started giggling, a split second before Hunk

***

“Aunt Em and Uncle Henry are meeting with that Dr Morgan. He’s always strutting around like he needs to make noise or people will ignore him. There’ll be no one home.”

Tom slid back into driver position, and headed the truck towards Main St. He had to reach over the steering wheel to shift gears with his left hand, as Dorothy still had possession of his right. Just as they pulled up to the Stop sign, at the corner where the blacksmith shop used to be, Dorothy seemed to notice the hand she held in her lap, looked over at him and said,

“Can I give you a hand?”

Tom laughed,

“It’s your’s for now, I will be needing it back at some point, say when a guitar needs playing or a cigarette needs smoking. Deal?”

Dorothy Gale made no move to let go of his hand and looked out the window as the houses began to turn, as they always did in Circe, Kansas, back into limitless fields and distant horizons.

“Deal”

***

I stayed where I was, next to the tiny, very battered, but suddenly quite attentive girl on the couch, as Officer Herlihy spread his presence through the room. Naturally, he was focused on Annie, but his hands were at his side and his attention was growing in intensity, like the blackening curl of newspaper, about to burst into obvious flame. Not that I didn’t like cops. Actually, I didn’t like cops. But I kept in mind, that my experience had always been about me, now, here in the Union Hall, it wasn’t as simple as a problem between me and authority.

“I’ll be needing a statement, Miss LoPizzo, from you and, er… your friends. If it had been a mere nuisance call, I could wish you a good evening and Merry Christmas. But, Saints preserve me, the lass here is awfully hurt looking and, the lad next to her, well, I don’t believe we’ve made acquaintance. You understand, don’cha?”

Herlihy continued into the room as he spoke, a trick I’d learned long ago. I sat and watched as Annie smiled,

“Why, of course, Officer Herlihy, or is it Sergeant, surely it’s now Sergeant?”

He actually started to blush and bent slightly at the waist and, for the millionth time, I felt awe and despair. Awe for the power of a strong, sexy woman, and despair for the avid vanity of my gender, when confronted with the evolutionary imperative.

“Thank you Miss LoPizzo, it was just recently I was promoted.”

“Surely it was in recognition of a criminal capture or a mystery un-ravelled,” Annie moved to between the cop and the couch,

“Let me take your coat and I’ll see if we don’t have something hot to warm you against the bitter cold outside. I just can’t imagine how you do what you do, in such dangerous and difficult conditions, and still have time to be kind to a woman working late at night.”

As Annie stepped between where Almira lay and I sat, on the edge of the couch, I felt something move under my overcoat. I started to get up but, instead, looked down at the girl, who was staring at me with an odd expression. Relaxing, I realized that what I felt was Almira’s left hand, under the folds of my overcoat. Without showing any sign of anything but being a badly injured girl, she took my revolver, and keeping it out of sight, moved it from my back pocket to under the blanket, and nestled the gun next to her thigh. Out of easy sight of anyone but an amazing girl and an increasingly pissed-off young man.

Putting the cop’s coat on the desk in the middle of the room, Annie said,

“Oh! where are my manners!! You must forgive me! All the excitement of a guest this late, and a Police Sergeant at that!”

I watched in amazement, as she actually took the cop by the arm and walked him over to where we sat. I could see the war in Herlihy’s face. Suspicion of me, concern for a hurt little girl and obvious infatuation with the woman who lead him around like a prized bull.

“Sargent Herlihy, this is Sterling Gulch, Sterling, this is Sergeant Herlihy.”

I stared at him and he stared back, the natural tension re-establishing itself, like a dog pack on the scent of an injured rabbit. Annie stepped over to the couch, and sat on the edge, butting me down further down to the farther end, and took a handkerchief from her blouse, dabbed gently at Almira’s forehead. To his credit, it took Herlihy only 45 seconds to stop staring at Annie’s cleavage and to look at the girl.

“Aye and you say, she slipped and fell?”

“Outside, on the sidewalk, terrible luck, she had her arms full of dry goods that we were bringing here. For the out-of-work children, you know.”

Herlihy leaned in, to get a closer look at the ice pack, precariously perched on Almira’s forehead above the bridge of her nose. He didn’t grab another peak at Annie until he straightened up and pronounced,

“Well, a terrible accident it is, but there’s nothing criminal about the misfortunes of young, well-meaning girls.”  He stood and looked around the room again, ending with me, now sitting at the far end of the couch.

“And, you Mr. Sterling, you I don’t recognize and I take great pride in knowing the people in my neighborhoods.”

“He’s…” Annie was standing now.

“He’s not a mute. Are you, boyo?”

Herlihy was clearly bored with the situation and hoping to stir something up, make it worth his while coming down here in the cold night. Or, at very least, give him a story to tell the other cops, as they changed their uniforms in the morning for overalls or other clothes for the part-time jobs at the Mills.

“No, sir. I’m, not. I’m down here from Dartmouth. The college, you know. Here as part of a project to study the amazing transformation achieved by the Essex Company here in Lawrence. I’m supposed to apprentice to the Management, in one of  the Mills, all under the direction of Mr. Prendergast. My Sociology Professor and he went to college together and they thought it would be an interesting experiment. You know, seeing the great City with all it’s parts, working together like an efficient machine.”

I could see Herlihy’s eyes sharpen at my mention of Prendergast, which didn’t surprise me, and then glaze over as I started heaping the bullshit on about scholarship and study, which also did not surprise me.

“Well, it’s getting late. See that you get this lassie some proper care and,” staring at me again, “try and not cause any trouble.”

Annie somehow had gone and gotten the cop’s coat and helped him into it, all while walking him to the door.

“Thank you again, Sargent Herlihy.”

Leaning against the door, Annie sighed,

“Too much excitement for one night. Time to pack it in.”

I stood next to the couch and looked at Annie and then down at Almira. Annie LoPizzo gave off a sense of energy and life that, even now, 12:45 am on a December Sunday morning, filled the room. I smiled to myself and thought, ‘the cop didn’t stand a chance’. The girl on the couch, now she was another matter entirely. Where Annie radiated energy, Almira was simply intense. Nothing you would necessarily notice, especially from a girl covered in bandages and blood traces, but there was a strength and power within her that made Annie’s natural brightness seem to dim to nearly nothing. Even with her eyes swollen, beginning to show the inevitable bruising, there was an intensity that made me want to let myself fall into them,

She tried to sit up. Annie was next to me in a flash.

“ah deed ta go nome,” as she got an elbow on the arm rest.

“You, my young friend, are coming to my house and I won’t hear any talk otherwise. Even if you do recover the ability to speak in English!” Annie looked at me,

“My apartment is on the first floor, not two blocks from here. She lives in a third floor walk-up. I won’t have her trying to go up and down that many stairs, at least until she heals some.”

“Don’t look at me, I agree! She’s the one you have to convince.”

I was speaking to Annie while looking Almira in the eyes. She had a look of uncertainty, but the exhaustion was winning out. Finally, she slumped back on the couch.

“O day, nust a while”

“There! It’s settled!” Annie smiled at a problem solved. She looked at me and said,

“Pick her up and bring her to my apartment,” and walked towards the back room to get their coats.

I looked at the girl on the couch. She looked back up to me. I’m 6 feet 2 inches tall and in pretty good condition. The girl on the couch looked to be 5 feet 6 inches, had light brown hair and a young girl’s version of the body of a woman. I looked this girl in the eyes and did not, could not, move.

“Well, come on, Sterling! It’s late! Hop to it, pick Almira up and lets go!” Annie had her coat on and held Almira’s coat, intending to wrap her in it, once I had her off the couch.

“Nope,” I said to Annie, never taking my eyes off Almira, whose eyes had become pools of fear and pain and, …something that I could not name. I stood and watched, as a part of me edged closer and closer to the depths in her eyes.

“Not until she asks me to,” still not turning away, with an effort, I added what I hoped was a lightness to my voice, “I’ve seen what this little girl is capable of and I will not do anything without her permission.”

“Oh, come on!” Annie sounded impatient, but there was a new look in her eyes, as if seeing Almira differently, because of me standing over her.

“Besides, she has my gun,”

I laughed and the tension spread more evenly among the three of us. When I looked back at Almira, there was a look that I hadn’t seen before… in anyone. It was a look that I hoped never to be without,

“Here we go,”

I picked Almira Ristani up in my arms, turned to let Annie wrap her warmly and walked towards the door. I could see Almira’s eyes close into a peaceful sleep by the time I stepped out into the cold December morning.