Chapter 29

Featured

Circe, Kansas, straddled the border between fertile low-river farmlands of the eastern half of the state and the upwards rise to the Great Plains. Elevation increased from 680 feet above sea level on the state’s border with Missouri to a high of 4,000 feet. In McPherson County, the terrain was best described as ‘un-decided.’ A 100-mile wide band running north to south was neither thick forests and verdant farmland, as found in the east, nor was it the flat, high plains prairie land to the west.

The town of Circe was the center of a patchwork of corn and wheat fields, interrupted by small forests and medium-sized lakes. The land in this middle zone, steadily rising (while flattening out) towards the Plains did not make for effortless farming. Farms spread out between and among the low foothills, the price of every successful crop always very dear. The essential elements of labor and water were anything but in ample supply. Planting corn, and sometimes wheat, along with raising livestock, families bet their lives on their efforts to wrestle life from the land. In this semi-arid climate, water was a most precious commodity. It commanded a high price from those who needed it, imbued those who controlled it with the power of life and death and brought about an end to those unfortunate enough to be caught between the two.

To the northeast of Circe, on the western side of a small range of foothills, was a natural spring. Hidden in the cleft of a granite outcropping and shielded from view by a grove of cottonwood, an endless supply of cold water bubbled up from the earth. Although it never stopped bubbling, the level of the water in the small pool never changed. The new water replaced the old which, in turn, sank back into the bedrock. There was no other outlet for the water, it did not form a river to flow away across the land. It was simply a pool, shaded by trees, surrounded by granite.

The English translation of the Shawnee name for this simple wonder of nature is ‘the crying stone.’ The spring was considered a sacred place. Warriors believed that its waters would hasten the healing of wounds. Mothers believed that babies bathed in the crystal cold water would become great men or powerful women. Medicine men knew that this was a place where the gods touched the earth. Many a shaman spent a lifetime trying to learn what might be learned, to gather what power might be found in this connection between the world of man and the earth.

In 1898, Theodore Baumeister and his wife Simone, German Mennonites, took advantage of the Enlarged Homestead Act and bought two hundred fifty acres of farm and forest land about twenty miles to the north and east of Circe. Theodore and Simone left Germany with a dream of finding a place where they could build a home for themselves. Being members of a faith that was at the time very mobile, they planned not only to farm the land but to create a place where others might find safe harbor. They built the farmhouse and barn first. They raised cattle and hogs, and planted the fields with corn to provide a buffer against the sometimes violent swing in prices at the slaughterhouses in Kansas City.

The Baumeisters did well with their farm and managed to save the money needed to bring their dream fully to life. They built a large two-story structure they called the meeting-house, siting it between the farmhouse and the barn. Simone planted elm trees, as she could see in her mind a time when mature trees would offer shade in the extreme heat of summer in Kansas. The meeting-house provided sleeping quarters on the second floor and a dining and living area on the first. It was completed in 1910 and by 1912, as word spread, it provided a home to wanderers and pilgrims. Mennonites and Mormons and travelers from all parts of the country. There was always the sound of life in the meeting-house, no matter what time of year. Mennonite churches across the Prairie States spread the word of this refuge, and the meeting-house was always full.

But not long into the second decade of the new century, drums of war were being heard in Europe. Slowly at first, but as insidiously as the corn blight that starts at the very edges of a field, the politics of strife spread across the country, reaching into the wide, isolated communities of the Midwest. The simple and hard-working people of Circe began to wonder what it was those people did out there at ‘that German place.’ Eventually, the farm was sold to a young couple from ‘Back East’. The Baumeisters stayed on and lived out their days, working the farm, making strangers welcome.

The farm, known since 1927 as ‘Almira’s Keep’, was essentially the same as it was in 1912.

***

The sun, in the middle of an afternoon in the first week of August was every bit the monstrous orb found in a six-year-old child’s first attempt to draw a sunny day. The sun was looming, un-relenting and without the seasonal restraints offered by the other nine months of the year. The rising columns of red and silver in thermometers acquired a more ominous appearance; warnings of danger, rather than a reassurance of a comfortable afternoon outdoors. Very much the difference between a strong wind making a row of flags and pennants flap in colorful excitement and the triangular red flags stretched into solid, pointed wedges by the winds of an approaching hurricane. The sun ruled the sky without mercy and without promise of respite.

Hunk Dietrich thought it probably would get over 100 degrees before the sun set. He looked over at Eliza Thornberg and amended his weather observation to include, ‘women don’t sweat, they glisten.’ Hunk was in a good mood at the moment, sitting with Dorothy Gale’s college roommate at a picnic table in the shade. He felt the silence at the table grow from companionable silence to simple lack of conversation. The self-confidence he felt while talking and driving her car was nowhere in sight. Desperate to keep the silence from marking him as an inept companion, Hunk decided on a non-verbal strategy to re-establish his qualifications and ultimately, his right to sit with an attractive young woman. He stretched. Arms moved upwards and both legs outwards. Seeing the reaction of the girl, he realized he was out of danger, for the moment.

“So Hunk, who are these people? I see at least three groups of people who obviously are not related. Everyone in the dining room over there seems to be friendly with everyone else. What the hell is the story here, Henry?”

Sitting on the unpainted wooden bench, Eliza Thornberg appeared as comfortable as any wealthy young woman seated in the summer parlor of a Newport mansion or dining at a wrought iron table on the patio at the Tavern on the Green. In contrast to Hunk’s half-rolled up sleeves, sweat-darkened collar and trailing shirt tails, her clothing made her look at home. As was the case when wearing expensive clothing, Eliza looked naturally beautiful. Her light blue silk blouse appeared to float around her body, emphasizing her figure without being, in any way, obvious. A small area between her shoulder blades found the fabric held close to the skin, the only indication of the extreme temperature. A barely noticeable tiara of glistening sweat was beginning to creep along the edge of her hairline, her dark brown eyes alive. There was a humor to her expression that softened the sharp edges of her smile.

Hunk relaxed, hopeful at the pleasant tone to Eliza’s voice. Hunk always felt confident and self-assured when someone asked him for information. He leaned across the table, as if careful to avoid being overheard.

“They’re just people. You know, folks who’ve lost everything…trying to survive… Wait, sorry, I guess I forgot.”

“Forgot what”?

Eliza didn’t bother looking at her companion, interest in her surroundings was beginning to fade. The lack of intonation in her answer hinted at a growing boredom.

“You know, most of the people of the country losing everything and hitting the road, desperately trying to survive? The Great Depression, 20% unemployment…. bread lines. Go ahead you can stop me when any of this sounds familiar.”

Hunk stared at the girl, the gulf between their worlds a chasm. He felt a sudden desire to move away, go somewhere else, do something different. The where and the what were irrelevant.

As if overhearing the economic plight of their parents being discussed, a group of children ran close to the table. Their feet (and youthful energy) kicked up low clouds of dust. Like smoke cloaking the flames of low fire, the plumes of seared earth made the humid air feel much warmer. The sudden slam of a screen door made Hunk and Eliza turn towards the house and watch as Phyllis McCutcheon approached their table.

Hunk stood up and walked towards her, glancing briefly at Eliza he said,

“There’s someone who I want you to meet, wait here.”

Eliza took a pack of cigarettes and a Dunhill lighter from her purse, said with unmistakable indifference,

“Take your time, Hank.”

Hunk met the approaching woman at the edge of the shade cast by the small grove of trees next to the dormitory. Phyllis McCutcheon was a middle-aged woman, her worn, but expertly mended dress seemed to suggest an indifference to her appearance. After only a short time in conversation with her, this indifference showed itself to be more an absent-mindedness. Phyllis McCutcheon was one of those people for whom responsibility was the most important thing. She thrived on responsibility and helping others. People like her were always in demand. Unfortunately, (for people like Phyllis McCutcheon), this demand was in limitless supply. The people in her life would demand her help and she would attempt to comply. Her wardrobe was the first casualty in the daily battle to live up to the expectations of others.

Almost always of good cheer, Phyllis came across, to friends and strangers alike, as a woman who was always busy. At times this had the effect of making her appear pleasantly harassed, but never so much as to cause her distress. It was evident that she understood that the responsibilities she held were far too much for one person. However there was also a certain underlying optimism, she appeared certain that, given time and patience, everything would work out for the best.

“Phyllis, hi!”

Phyllis stopped in the middle of the yard between the dormitory building and the smaller farmhouse. She looked up just in time, barely avoiding bumping into Hunk, who was standing directly in her path.

“Hunk! What a pleasant surprise.”

Only slightly shorter than Hunk, she held out her notepad, as if it’s pages of indecipherable pencil marks constituted a passport. It was, to her, sufficiently informative to provide greetings, instructions, and acknowledgment for anyone she encountered in her very busy days. Hunk stood in front of her and waited. He’d known Phyllis since she decided to stay and help Almira Gulch run the farm/sanctuary/rooming house on the outskirts of Circe Kansas and knew that silence was not inappropriate.

Her arm moved very slightly upwards, as if to present her notes, he waited until the woman caught up with herself.

“It’s good to see you. Who’s your friend? She’s very… pretty. Will she be staying or…”

Hunk smiled, her fragmented speech a reminder of why he liked Phyllis McCutcheon. She had a sense of the incredible bounty in the world if one only took the time to look for it. The two of them very much a pair of castaways standing on the shore of the deserted tropical island, taken with the wonder of what they saw, seemingly unaware that they were shipwrecked and alone. There was, in their respective capacities to ignore immediate circumstances, security in their ability to make the right decisions and take the right actions when the time came, or circumstances demanded. Hunk recalled when Phyllis announced her intention to stay permanently at the Keep. During breakfast, Henry Gale went on at length describing the new and, apparently permanent, resident at the Gulch Farm, finally, his wife, Emily looked over at Hunk and said, “Sounds like another fool in paradise, Hunk. You two should get along.”

“I want you to meet someone.”

Hunk reached out his hand and stopped about an inch short of the woman’s arm. Keeping his hand at her arm, almost but not touching, he turned towards the picnic tables. Without seeming to notice the lack of contact, Phyllis turned with Hunk, and they both stood and looked at Eliza Thornberg, about twenty feet away.

“This is Eliza Thornberg. She’s a friend of Dorothy Gale, and I brought her to show her around Circe.”

Eliza looked at the two, waved her hand and seemed to laugh to herself.

Hunk waved back and looked at Phyllis, who then also waved.

Eliza put her hands to either side of her mouth and in a voice meant to sound like a shout, said,

“Pleased to meet you, Phyllis. My friend Henry has been doing a great job as tour guide, but I think he just hit his limit in the social graces. Would you bring him over so we can talk in the shade?”

Phyllis smiled, her eyes seemed to turn inward slightly, her posture, relaxed up to this point became a little more assertive. She turned and put her hand on Hunk’s arm, smiled and said,

“Hunk, your new little friend wants us to go visit her. Shall we?”

Hunk felt his stomach twist a little, a feeling that usually accompanied his efforts to interact socially with others. He looked at Phyllis,

“Visit we shall.”

Hunk put his right hand on his hip and Phyllis put her left arm through and held his forearm, and they walked towards the tables in the shade. Phyllis began to point to various parts of the farm as if she were showing a visitor the farm for the very first time. Hunk played along and nodded on occasion.

Finally, they stood in front of Eliza Thornberg who smiled at the mid-aged woman, held out her hand but remained sitting.

“Miss Thornberg, this is Phyllis McCutcheon. Miss McCutcheon, this is Eliza Thornberg.”

The three laughed.

“So, Henry here says,” Eliza saw the look of question on the other woman’s face and added, “when I first met Hunk, I mentioned to Dorothy that I thought he looked a lot like Henry Fonda. I still do. Don’t you? In any event, I was curious about the woman who owns this place, Mrs. Gulch, Almira Gulch? When I mentioned this Mrs. Gulch at the breakfast table this morning, Dorothy’s mother, Emily, got a very strange look on her face. It was a look of both hate and guilt, not a pretty sight. I wasn’t even slightly tempted to ask her why she looked like someone had just thrown a rock through a priceless stained glass window. I’m definitely not a shy girl, but I knew better than to pursue the topic of Mrs. Gulch.

In any event, I promised Dorothy that I’d hang around here until it was time to go back to school. I get the distinct impression that if that old woman wasn’t lying in a hospital bed, I wouldn’t be here because Dorothy wouldn’t be spending her summer vacation in this backwoods hole in the wall town.”

Eliza reached across the table and put her hand on Hunk’s arm, smiled and said,

“I’m not disparaging your little town; you know that, right?”

Hunk laughed and to Eliza’s surprise, reached over and tousled her hair, leaving it sticking out every which way. Stunned into silence she stared at Hunk who proceeded to pat the more disheveled hair back into place, smiled and said,

“Eliza girl, I have not the slightest doubt of your good intentions.”

Phyllis sat and observed the interaction. Finally, she seemed to remember the notepad in her hand.

“I’ve only been here at the Keep three years, but I can tell you that Almira Gulch is one of the most remarkable women I’ve ever met.”

Eliza lead forward,

“Hey, Hunk!! Could you lend us a hand in the barn?”

The three looked up to see Tom Hardesty walk around the corner of the meeting-house,

“Eliza. How’re you Miss McCutcheon. Hey Hunk, we’re trying to load a truck, the lift stopped working and all I have is a winch and some halfway old guys. Could you lend us a hand? Won’t take but a minute.”

“Go, Hunk. I’ll wait here. Miss McCutcheon here is about to tell me the real story of Dorothy’s old-woman-in-the-bed.”

“The heck with that! What are we, old ladies sitting and waiting for the menfolk to do everything for us?”

Phyllis McCutcheon smiled but she locked eyes with the startled young woman from Philadelphia.

“Come with me, ‘Liza, I’ll show you a most wonderful cave in those hills up yonder, and while we walk, I’ll tell you about my friend Almira Gulch.”

Advertisements

Chapter 28

Featured

“Good afternoon, Mr. Prendergast!”

Nodding to the cabbie leaning against his car in front of the train station, Frederick waved and continued across the street. The driver managed to get the back door open and was in the process of bowing, something that Edgar Revoir would never dream of doing with any other fare. He found, in increased tips, that sometimes the silly things paid well. By the time he looked up, the man in charge of all of the Essex Company’s mills was receding, (upside down, from Edgar’s perspective) into the distance.

Frederick Prendergast decided to walk to his office from the train station. He enjoyed walking, though of late, his schedule rarely allowed him the pleasure. This particular Friday afternoon, he decided otherwise, and set out towards his office overlooking the Lawrence Town Commons.  He chose to cross the Merrimack River by way of the Duck Bridge. To his right, between the silver-painted lattice of iron girders, he saw on the western horizon, the mushroom tops of a row of thunderstorms. Along their bottom edge, where clouds touch the earth, flashes of light made clear the weather that night in Lawrence. From where he stood, in the middle of the bridge, it was quite easy to imagine an approaching army, destroying each and every town in its path.

Frederick smiled to himself, ‘Rather fanciful thinking, isn’t it, Frederick? Not exactly the kind of thinking that’s going to get you that seat on the Board of Directors. Focus! You have a problem that you need to solve. Save the poetry for Miss Addams; she’s easily impressed. The men on the Essex Company’s Board of Directors are not’.

The memory of the morning he’d spent before the men who owned the Essex Company returned with eye-squinting force. Taking in one last glance at the row of brick mills that lined the banks of the Merrimack, he resumed walking toward the center of Lawrence and his office.

The announcement of an emergency Meeting of the Board arrived at the very end of business on Wednesday, quite by surprise, as was intended, Frederick assumed. The message was simple: the Board of Directors expected him in Boston that Friday morning. No agenda or any information that might provide insight into the purpose of the meeting. The note, signed by Barry Willoughby did nothing to improve his mood and, in a fit of anger, shouted through the closed-door of his office,

“Miss Addams! You will be staying late today. I need you to help me prepare for a meeting this Friday.”

That there was silence from the outer office told him his secretary was prepared to aid him in whatever manner he required. In less than a minute, the door opened and Lizabeth Addams, tall, pale and clearly concerned with the sudden emergency, stood silently and waited to learn how she might be of use.

His plan was to travel to Boston Thursday afternoon so as to be more relaxed and prepared to deal with whatever surprises the meeting might hold. Looking at his secretary, Frederick picked up his telephone, called his wife and told her to have his suitcase packed and ready to take to the train station. He could hear his wife repeat his instructions, presumably to one of the domestics, told her not to wait on him as he would be working late and hung up the phone. He looked up at the young woman and, watching her face, said,

“Miss Addams, be so kind as to book two tickets to Boston. Seeing how last-minute this meeting is, I’m going to need you with me. Please make the hotel reservation for tomorrow night. No, I don’t believe dinner reservations will be necessary. I suspect we’ll be much too busy to have time to dine out.”

Now, crossing Canal Street, the threatening clouds blocked from view by the tall mill buildings, Frederick felt relaxed. He looked down the ruler-edge streets, saw people and vehicles moving purposefully in and out of the mills and smiled. The six mills were the heart of Lawrence, Massachusetts and he, Frederick Prendergast III, was in charge of it all. He liked the feeling.

He stopped at a small market on Methuen Street and stared at the brown-wicker baskets of fruit displayed to the right of the entrance. From the small, dark interior came the sound of voices. The words were of a language he didn’t understand, but the tone was one of surprise, that quickly sharpened to what could only be suspicion. Finally one voice, smoothing into quiet resignation took human form, standing in the doorway.

“Good afternoon! Mr. Pren-a-gustae! Tell me what I get for you this summer day! Some delicious apricots perhaps?”

Frederick smiled at the shopkeeper. He complimented himself on his ability to read people.

“Don’t they look delicious! Tell me, do you grow them yourself or are they from a farmer that you’re keeping secret? These are the best-looking apricots I’ve seen all summer. I’ll let you in on a little secret, Alonzo, I just spent the morning in Boston and I saw nothing like this anywhere in that great city.”

Beaming with pride, Alonzo Gianelli put six of the pinkish fruit into a brown paper bag and rolled the top closed. Looking at the shopkeeper, Frederick rubbed his thumb and first two fingers together and raised his eyebrows. Alonzo glanced back towards the interior of the market, and smiled,

“No. For you, no money! You let us come here to this wonderful country, we work hard, it is our gift to you!”

Frederick felt a surge of pride at the loyalty of the shopkeeper and, without another word, turned and walked towards the Commons. Behind him, from the interior of the little market, renewed sounds of a foreign language spilled out onto the street, the first words expressing surprise, the remainder degenerating into anger.

Frederick walked into his outer office and frowned at the sight of the vacant desk. He immediately recalled that he’d given Lizabeth the rest of the day off, on her promise to come in over the weekend.

“They’ll be laying traps for me the minute I leave the meeting,” Frederick spoke to the mirror reflection of Lizabeth Addams, very early that morning in Boston’s Hotel Touraine. “I need your feminine wiles to keep that son-of-a-bitch Willoughby from sand-bagging me with the nominating committee.”

Staring out the window, thinking about the morning’s meeting in Boston, Frederick Prendergast felt a familiar mix of exultation and fear. As he’d expected, Barry Willoughby took charge of the meeting. For more than an hour, in the richly appointed Board Room overlooking the Charles River, Frederick was threatened and cajoled; a seat at the Board Room table and the loss of everything he had attained, the first if he succeeded, the second should he fail.

“You need to do something about these fuckin unions, Prendergast! Every year since that goddamn strike, they’ve got stronger and more organized. Right under your Dartmouth-educated nose. You need to do something, and you need to do it now!”

Frederick was proud of his understanding of human nature, more precisely, the nature of humans when drawn together into a group. Years before, he was asked by his friend Stephen Shearing, the Dean of the new Business School at Dartmouth, to address an incoming class. He began his speech by saying, “Gentlemen, when you’re managing people remember that everyone plays a role. It is their role that will dictate how aggressive or how passive the person appears and know that people aren’t always aware of the role they play in a group. The loudest person is usually not the most powerful. Never forget that, you need to watch the person who seems least threatening.”

As much as Barry Willoughby appeared to be speaking for the Essex Company, Frederick knew better. He quietly endured the young man’s tirade; being lectured on basic management practices by this 30-year-old heir to a family of slave traders was not the most difficult part of the meeting. Getting the Board of Directors to stated explicitly what they wanted him to do was the real challenge. Finally, the young man sat down and was silent. Frederick reflected that perhaps there is a limit to the amount of manure one can pack into a bushel basket. He caught himself before a smirk could form, alert to the scrutiny of the eight other men in the room.

“Mr. Prendergast, we have the utmost of confidence in you in this matter.”

Philip Tudor, son of the man who single-handedly created the ice trade, making his fortune selling frozen water to the wealthy families of the Caribbean, began to speak. His tone was almost conversational, as if he and Frederick were sharing a lunch in a quiet restaurant. ‘This is the man you need to fear,’ Frederick thought, looking across the wide conference table.

“Our friends in New York and Philadelphia are also having difficulties with their workers. Regrettably, not all politicians understand the reality of business. There is increasing pressure from the government on us to ‘treat workers with dignity’ or some such anarchist nonsense. We applaud your creativity, Frederick, in your efforts to counter the influence of those who would destroy this great country of ours. Your ‘God and Country’ parades immediately following that strike were inspired. You managed to interrupt the momentum that was building over the death of that striker, at precisely the right moment.

However, we need you to do more. We need you to find the person responsible for the killings that day. A face. Get us that person; we’ll take care of the rest. Our friends in New York and Philadelphia and Providence will be very grateful. In fact, there might even be a seat here on the Board. Provided you are successful, of course. Are we understood?”

“Perfectly, Mr. Tudor. I’ve already set into motion certain efforts, both of a legal and, shall we say, extra-legal nature. We are not sitting and waiting for them to come to us, I assure you.”

“Always the conniver. That’s one of the things I like about you, Prendergast.”

“Why, thank you, Mr. Tudor. I won’t let you down.”

Frederick Prendergast, alone in his office, nodded to himself in agreement with the remembered conversation. Turning his desk chair to face the windows, he watched the thunderstorms approach. This storm was unusual. Summer thunderstorms normally approached from the southwest. But everything seemed to be changing in the world, fortunately he knew the path laid out before him would take him where he was meant to go.

Placing a writing pad on the desk, he started his list.

***

Almira felt the muscles of Sterling’s arm tense with the crack of thunder that crashed through the house. Lying on her side, with his arm draped diagonally across her chest, his left hand encircled the top of her right thigh, gently, protectively. She smiled to herself. His sleep was never peaceful, at least not since returning from the war. Sometimes the night’s quiet was broken by a simple mutter, thoughts and feelings not formed enough to shape actual words, like dough being kneaded, not yet bread. Other times he would cry out, sometimes in pain, other times in warning, always in fear.

This particular August night, Almira felt the weight of his arm, and thought, with a renewed sense of wonder, of the first time they came together. Since that time, she would still smile self-consciously to herself, ‘the young girl never actually grows up, does she, Almira?’

Despite the warning of the day-bright flashes of lightning, the thunder rolled and boomed through the night. With each crash, she felt his muscles steel-tense beneath his skin, his body a flesh and blood shield across her naked form. Even at those moments, Almira felt his fingers on her thigh with the softest of touches, as if only to reassure himself that she slept on, undisturbed, through the dark crashing of the storm.

Sleep was an abandoned hope as Almira lay and tried to imagine the life that she and her husband would claim. Almira found the registered letter hidden in a cupboard, higher than Gertrude, the housekeeper, could reach without a step-stool. The letter, addressed to Sterling Gulch had ‘Deposition Subpoena’ stamped in red on the front of the envelope. The return address was: The Office of the Clerk, District Court, Lawrence, Massachusetts. She knew that a discussion would be forthcoming the following day.

Almira walked out the back door of the house and crossed to the garage. She saw Sterling and Edward leaning over the open hood of the car, low muttering between them indicated that they were discussing a problem of a mechanical nature. Standing in the sunlit opening of the double garage doors, Almira’s shadow drew their attention. Edward looked up almost instantly with the sudden darkening cast over the engine compartment. Sterling continued staring intently at a part that seemed just out of reach. She heard Sterling mutter a single word, ‘shit’ and slowly pulled himself up and out of the confined engine compartment, a breech-birth leaving oil and grease and resignation covering his face and looked at her.

“That’ll be all for now, Edward.”

Edward nodded to her and, without a glance towards Sterling, walked out of the garage and into the house.

Sterling sighed, wiped his oily hands with a rag that was only slightly less oily and turned to face his wife.

“When were you going to tell me about this?”

Almira threw the envelope towards the car.  Catching the air just right, it took flight, making it through the air as far as the car’s windshield and came to rest, just above the windshield wipers.

“I needed some time to think. I saw no reason to burden you with it until I came up with a plan.”

Feeling her anger grow, Almira walked to the long black car and got in on the driver’s side.

“Time for me to learn to drive this, wouldn’t you say?”

Closing the hood of the car and getting in the passenger side, Sterling pointed at a black, mushroom-shaped knob to the left of the steering wheel,

“Pull that out halfway and push that black button to the right. As soon as the engine starts, grab the first knob and get ready to push it in…gently.”

Almira felt a grin begin to grow and, instead, frowned at the car’s dashboard, as Sterling continued his very precise and ordered instructions.

Glancing up, Almira saw the envelope resting on the glass and angrily punched the starter button. The car’s engine immediately turned over and began to roar with a steadily increasing sound.

“The choke!! Push in the choke.”

She looked to her right, Sterling’s face held a loving smile as he reached across the car and pushed on the choke. The engine quieted to a normal running speed.

Failing her effort to stay angry, Almira laughed and said,

“That was simple enough. Let’s take a drive!”

Later, after a very, very quiet dinner, as he cleared the dinner plates, Edward looked at Almira,

“I understand that you’ve learned to drive, Mrs. Gulch.”

Almira smiled, watching the butler’s face closely. She knew Edward had a very, very subtle sense of humor.

“Why yes, Edward. Mr. Gulch was kind enough to show me how to start and stop the car. As for the rest, practice makes perfect. Will you be wanting to borrow my bicycle?”

Edward raised one eyebrow slightly,

“Well, I was going to ask you if you wouldn’t mind running a few errands for me, strictly household related, of course.”

“Of course.”

Laughter came as a welcome relief after the strained formality of the dinner, at the overly large table in the very formal dining room of the Gulch home.

“Let’s go to the library, Sterling. You and I need to talk,”

Almira didn’t bother to wait to see if Sterling followed her out of the dining room. She went immediately to the desk that faced the french doors overlooking the patio. The library was one of her favorite parts of the large home and she was sitting when Sterling finally walked in and sat on the leather sofa. She held the letter from the Lawrence Courthouse, fingers pressing on diagonally opposite corners. With the pinky finger of her right hand, she flicked the envelope, causing it to twirl between her hands.

“Why you’re in luck, young man! Come closer! Madame Almira’s magical envelope knows all and tells all. Tell us, mighty envelope, ‘When was the foolish man going to tell the princess in the tower that he had a summons from the evil wizard in the north.'”

Almira felt a growing fear blossom within her as the white envelope spun between her fingertips. Not far behind the fear was a growl of anger, and this she feared more. ‘And that, Almira, is proof that you are crazy. Stop tormenting Sterling, he loves you and was trying to protect you.’

“I don’t want to interrupt the conversation that’s obviously going on behind the beautiful eyes of my beloved, but may I say one thing?”

At the sound of his voice, Almira pulled her mind from the white twirl of the letter and was surprised to find Sterling crouching next to her at the desk.

She turned and locked eyes with him. She saw something in his face, a momentary understanding, as if a memory had re-formed itself and held a new meaning, the opposite meaning that it had before.

Almira felt something pulling her away from him. Yet the pull of his love, after a brief look of uncertainty, blazed anew in his eyes, pulled her to him more than her fear could hold her away. She wanted to understand it, and yet, there was a part of her, the part that made its presence known with nothing less than a growl subsided within, to that part of her soul that she suspected but did not understand. She reached out to Sterling.

“What are we going to do?”

She watched his face and it was the face of a person who saw her, not simply as desirable but as necessary, necessary to his life.

“I hear Kansas is nice this time of year.”

Sterling swiveled the desk chair so that she faced him directly, his left arm rested along her right leg.

“Wait! Hear me out.”

Almira felt the tension in her body seep out at the touch of his arm. A smile grew on her face as he continued,

“I have an envelope, no! A different envelope. That my friend from college, Cyril Sauvage, gave me before he left for the war.”

Almira frowned at the mention of the name. Cyril was the upperclassman who successfully talked Sterling into enlisting in the American Expeditionary Forces.

“Anyway, it’s addressed to his sister Emily. And I found it in a bag the other day… well, you know, the point is, the envelope triggered a lot of memories. Cyril used to talk about life growing up in Kansas. His father was a blacksmith in the small town of Circe. Yeah, I know, like the Greek myth. So, my beautiful wife, how about we go and see what life in America’s heartland is like?”

Almira felt relief that the future was, once again, being described in terms of Almira and Sterling Gulch. Since his return from Europe and through his long recuperation, her dreams maintained a theme, of being alone and having lost something that she could not recall. The thought of Sterling leaving, even though it would be to protect her from the increasingly aggressive pursuit by the police and the Essex Company, was intolerable. She would wake up from a night of one of these dreams looking frantically around (in the way of such things), looking first in the opposite direction from the reassurance that the fear was unfounded.

Mistaking her silence for reluctance, Sterling continued,

“Wait! Hear me out! I have everything planned out and,”

He saw the look return to her eyes and hastened,

“and it will work even better with it being both you and me! Money’s not an issue; my father left me more than we need. The house here, I hope you’ll agree, but I thought that we just put it in Edward and Gert’s name, very quietly, of course,”

Encouraged by Almira’s smile, he continued,

“and, leaving the house as if nothing has changed will slow them down. Since we’re in no hurry, I thought we’d spend some time traveling. There are people in New York and Philadelphia that you’ve been working with who would appreciate a visit from you. Gradually, over a few months, we move south and then out towards the West. We’ll stop in this Circe place and see if there isn’t a union or an oppressed workforce or even a parochial school that would welcome the talents of my wife. What do you think?”

Almira ran her fingers through her husband’s hair as he sat on the floor in front of her,

“I’ve never doubted that you will always take care of me. Even as you know that I’m quite willing and capable of taking care of myself…”

She smiled more to herself and the thing within, the now-quiet source of an occasional growl, the tiger within,

“But it will not just be you and me searching for a new home,”

She took his right hand, curled fingers not yet recovered and placed it below her breast, her hands covering his damaged hand, both to shelter it from the world and to introduce it to the life, not yet demanding attention, that grew within her.

***

We decided that it was best to leave on the earliest train.

Once the primary decision was made, the rest was pretty much scheduling, at least until we got to Kansas. Our first stop was to be New York City. Almira had some work to finish up with Rose and the Garment Workers. I called a friend of my father’s, a business associate by the name of William Lawrence. A real estate guy who had invited my father in on a couple of deals in the city. They both did pretty well. He was very direct and a very, very busy man,

“Sterling! Great to hear from you! So sorry about your dad, he was a helluva a businessman and one of the smartest people I’ve ever met. A place to stay in the city? Say no more. I’ve got a building in Harlem that I just took as collateral on a loan. Very nice. All ready to move in. It’s yours for as long as you need it. Now, I gotta a college to run, can ya believe that? The things we do for women! See ya kid. Say hello to that little woman of yours and stop by and see us when you get in to town.”

Edward and Gertrude took the news that we were leaving as well as I would have expected.

We left on a Tuesday morning. It was summer bright and warm for seven in the morning. Edward drove us to the Station and handed our bags over to the porter. The three of us stood outside and looked at each other. Rather, Almira and I looked at each other and Edward watched everything around us.

“Very well. I recommend limiting contact with us here,”

Edward said as a start of his farewell, and revealing how well-informed he was of our situation and plans to disappear for a while.

“Of course, it goes without saying, if you need something, let me know.”

Almira stepped forward and hugged Edward with a kind of possessiveness that, were he any other man, I would have felt a twinge of jealousy.

“I want you both to know how much I have enjoyed serving your family. You are now on your own, and you must be on your guard. I know you have the strength and the courage to protect the both of you.”

I stepped forward, extending my hand,

“Thank you, Edward. A vote of confidence coming from you means a great deal to me.”

“Begging Mr. Gulch’s pardon, I believe I was addressing Mrs. Gulch.”

He actually winked at Almira, and we all laughed.

Chapter 27

Featured

Sterling and Almira Gulch rode north, there remained only stops in Westerly and Kingston before their train arrived home in Providence, Rhode Island. Perhaps a chance insight into their relationship, Almira sat on the bench that faced south and her husband sat opposite, looking forward to the north, towards their destination.

The train passed not a few seaside villages, but only three small towns. Towns with enough of a mobile population to justify actual train stations. The three towns were much alike, at least to the casual visitor, (and surely there is no more casual a visitor than a passenger on a train, on their way to somewhere else) in that all three offered a Main Street which gathered quaint shops and practical hardware stores together in a row, this central street was lined with very old and stately Elm trees. The size of the trees left no doubt as to the permanence of the town, as if, intimidated by the overwhelming size and sophistication of New York and Boston, they sought to assert the considerable cachet of a genuine Old New England Town.

“Your speech went well.”

Sterling Gulch looked at his wife, sitting on the worn leather bench opposite him in the small private cabin. She covered her legs with her overcoat, as much for a sense of stability against the rocking of the car as for warmth. She was writing in her notebook. When she smiled, he felt waves of infatuation more commonly experienced by those much younger. Smiling at this thought, he was struck by how it seemed that whenever he was with Almira the world somehow became new. He embraced the feeling.

“Thanks, and thank you for coming with me on this trip. It’s meant more than you can know to have you there.”

Almira had been invited to a union event commemorating the 11th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire. Members of unions from all over the country gathered in Washington Square Park. That she was invited to speak was not a surprise. Almira maintained a close relationship with union leaders throughout the Northeast, and the event’s sponsor, the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union was the most organized and active of them. The ILGWU was very supportive of her work to organize the mills and factories of Providence, Rhode Island. That the signature on the letter was that of Rose Schneiderman, was a surprise when she opened the letter only a month before.

“Sure, I’ve worked with a lot of the people from New York and Boston and, of course Lawrence. They’ve all been more than willing to help, but Rose Schneiderman!”

Almira sat at the too-large table in the formal dining room, the opened letter beside her plate.

“You will, of course, be accepting the invitation, Mrs. Gulch”?

Edward spoke as he backed through the swinging door from the kitchen, two dinner plates in hand.

Sterling smiled and Almira laughed. Since the death of Sterling’s father, Seymour Gulch, both Edward and Gert Rogers insisted on continuing the ritual of dinner being served in the formal dining room. Out of respect for their 20 years of service to the Gulch family, Sterling and Almira did not override the butler and the housekeeper. The young couple accepted the fact that, no matter how much they would have preferred to have Edward and Gert join them for dinner, neither would be comfortable with such a change.

“Well, only if you insist, Edward,” Almira smiled.

March 25th, the day of her speech, fell on a Wednesday and despite it being the middle of the workweek, Washington Square Park was crowded with workers, men and women, young and old.

As she walked to the front of the small stage, Almira realized that she would barely be seen behind the podium. Clearly the majority of speakers that day (or the organizer’s image of the speakers) were much taller than her own 5′ 2″. Without hesitating, she walked around the podium and stood at the edge of the stage. Looking out over the faces of women and men gathered in somber celebration, Almira thought of her friend Annie LoPizzo, the vivid memory of her pulling Almira by the hand and running down Canal St, coats flapping in the spring air, simply for the joy of running. Feeling the spirit of her friend touch her, Almira threw the 4 typed pages of her speech up into the air. The wind, always somewhere nearby during the month of March in New York City, lifted and carried them over the crowd, black and white surrender flags offered to the army of people standing and waiting for her to address them.

“I was going to talk about the struggle and the fight. I was going to describe the sacrifices all of you have made. When I wrote the speech that you now see flying down towards 6th Avenue, I planned to list our reasons for demanding the right to earn a living for our families. I was going to talk about the struggle. I wrote, in that speech, about the forces rallied against our cause. I would have, if I gave that speech, reminded the bosses, even though they’re not here to listen, that all their efforts to hold us back only add to our resolve to win this struggle. Because, as I would have said, we know that they are not going to stop with just breaking up our unions. They want us to fear them and retreat. To retreat to a place where, with time, we might begin to wonder if maybe we are less than equal, not deserving of the simple dignity that is our birthright. I was going to talk about the loss and the death and the suffering of those who died here, 11 years ago.

But those words and those thoughts are the words and thoughts of war. I see here today, on this warm March day, not battle-weary soldiers. What I see here are the faces of everyday working men and women, embracing life and working to give their families a better future. I thought, as I threw my speech into the air, that those white pages were surrender flags and felt ashamed. But only for a moment. I realized that if I’m surrendering it’s only because I refuse to fall into the trap set by those who hold power. I refuse to believe that what we are doing, the effort we all are making, the price we are paying, is a war. Not because war always demonizes the other side and makes them the enemy. But because as humans we are prone to believing that if the other person is not human like us then it’s acceptable to treat them as non-human. And to treat another as a non-human is to become less human. The casualties of war are felt by all, even …especially when the war is over. I refuse to become a soldier to fight in a war that those with power would have us fight. 

We have the power. When we let others define us they win. And we become slaves. We are not slaves. We are workers!

My friend Annie LoPizzo once said to me, ‘Come, Almira! Embrace life! To hell with those who want to make you feel like you’re something that you know you’re not.’
This union, all the unions, are ours, not the bosses. Together we have power and the only thing the owners and the bosses respect is power. Accept the power you have, each of you and together we will change the world!”

After the cheering died down, Almira suddenly felt very, very tired and sat and listened as the remaining  speakers went before the crowd. Within an hour, the speeches ended and the crowd began to dissolve. Preferring to wait until the crowd had dispersed, Almira watched, fascinated, as the single mass of people started to fracture into many smaller groups, these smaller groups gradually shed individual members (from the outer edges first), until there was no sign of the crowd beyond the trampled grass and pamphlets and flyers, like autumn leaves lying on the ground. Almira begged off on the numerous invitations to dinner with various dignitaries, preferring the company of her husband to the avid and sometimes hungry attention of those who professed to admire her work.

Now, as the train carried the two home, Almira felt an undefinable calling, from within her body. It was not yet a voice, just the awareness of the presence of another, a whisper of a voice not yet able to speak.

“No, seriously, you were really good. You need to write more. People respond to you. I saw it today, in the faces of all those people, they will follow you down any road that you choose. They sense that you’re willing to give all of yourself to them and that’s such a rare thing in these modern times,”

Sterling sat straighter on the bench, on his side of the cabin and held out his left hand. Almira stood and let him draw her to him. Next to her husband, his arm draped across her, both bandolier and shield, they both watched out the windows towards their future.

“Annie would be proud.” Sterling whispered into Almira’s ear.

***

Hunk felt good. And that made him somewhat uncomfortable. He glanced towards the passenger seat and what he saw made it worse. The girl, right arm cushioning the top of the door, rested her head on her forearm. The wind blew her long, dark hair into a cloud of browns and dark brunette. He was taken aback by her beauty and …something else. He thought, ‘Hunk, this has been a good day so far. Don’t go and ruin it by forgetting who you are and who that girl is.’ Without thinking, Hunk tapped his left brow. It was a habit he’d developed to remind himself to not forget.

Hunk Dietrich was not un-happy with his life. He enjoyed being happy the way most people enjoyed holidays and surprise birthday parties. Despite there being nothing surprising about the arrival of Christmas or a birthday, people usually acted surprised, as a way of expressing their happiness. It was a way to accentuate their enjoyment rather than imply that the celebration was totally un-expected. Hunk Dietrich viewed his experience of happiness in much the same way. It wasn’t that he didn’t accept the emotion, it was just that, for the most part, it was a surprise when it happened. For Hunk Dietrich, happiness was like the weather, it simply happened. He neither expected it, (as a part of his life) nor refused it, (when it happened).

Hunk struggled to keep his eyes on the road ahead. ‘Which at the moment is increasingly difficult to do!’ he thought with a silent laugh. The pleasurable tone of his day overcame his characteristic reserve and pushed his mental laugh out into a spontaneous grin.

“What?”

Eliza Thornberg turned in her seat and, with an expression both quizzical and challenging, stared at him. Hunk felt a boyhood flush rise from his body and lay claim to his face. His ears grew warm, his body seemingly intent on raising the red flag of the socially vulnerable. As with most animals upon realizing they’ve become the object of attention of a predator, Hunk froze into immobility and he stared at the girl.

“You know, Hunk, if you think about it, driving a car has a lot to do with the road ahead and the road ahead is …over there.”

Without taking her eyes off Hunk, Eliza leaned across the seat and turned his head to face forward. She brushed the shoulder of his jacket off with a light motion, her smile removing any doubt who was in control.

“Well, of course, I knew that!” Hunk laughed.

“Although, Miss Thornberg, here in Kansas our roads are very easy. The only question drivers around here ask is, ‘Do I want to go this way?'”

He reached over the steering wheel with his left hand and pointed towards the back of the open car, “‘or would I rather go that way?'”

Hunk took his right hand off the wheel and, crossing it over his other hand, pointed forward.

“Of course, people do sometimes go both ways.”

“I surrender! I’ll go which ever way you want!” Eliza laughed and Hunk put both hands on the wheel as the car sped north on County Road #2

***

“What can I do for you, Mrs. Gale?” Thaddeus Morgan smiled at the woman seated on the other side of his desk. He immediately berated himself for his lack of social skills, in particular in matters concerning members of the Board of Directors of his hospital. This deficiency was all the more costly when the Board Member was also the person donating all the money to build a new wing.

“Why Thad, I’m not here to ask you for anything! Heavens, if anything, I’m here to see if there’s anything I can do to help you with the hospital expansion project,”

Emily Gale sat in one of the two visitor chairs before the Director of Medical Services’s desk. She had her hands folded in her lap and was seated in the exact center of the leather chair. Her back was ramrod straight. She barely seemed to make an impression on the seat cushion. The impression that she conveyed was one of ‘perching on the seat’.

“…anything more to help, that is.”

Thaddeus Morgan watched as Emily Gale smiled her somewhat bony, birdlike smile and thought about his grammar school years. Unbidden, the memory of Billy Turmaline, his 6th grade nemesis, returned with such force that he felt, just for the moment, ten-years-old,

“Gimme your lunch and my book report, Fattius, and I might let you go.”

Thaddeus Morgan stared at the ground. He wanted to say no. He wanted to refuse to hand over the lunch his mother gave him less than 15 minutes before. He desperately wanted everything to be different. It wasn’t. With practiced smoothness, his shoulders slumped and he stared at the ground. He felt the bag and the book report pulled from his hands. His other school books were torn from his grasp.

“Lucky for you I’m in a good mood today Fattius…. and I better get an ‘A’ on this or tomorrow won’t be a good day…. for you!

The laughter of the small group of boys that followed Billy skulked up the sidewalk as he walked happily towards the schoolhouse. Thaddeus Morgan remained standing on the sidewalk, feeling the sting of a single, hated tear. To prevent the release of any more weakness, he kicked at his geography book which lay splayed open on the ground, sending a fan of crudely colored pages into the quiet street.

“What I really am concerned with, Dr. Morgan, is your timetable. How are you progressing with the transfers of those patients in the Charity Ward?”

Emily Gale’s inflection on the words ‘patients’ and ‘Charity’ were smelling salts to the distracted hospital director. Much as he preferred to get along with wealthy patrons, he took his responsibility to all the patients of St Mary’s more seriously than most would ever understand.

“We have three patients remaining. Mrs. Oppenheimer is leaving tomorrow. Her family is taking her home to stay with them. We can do nothing more for her here. That leaves only Mr. Gunn and Mrs. Gulch. Mr. Gunn, I fear, is not long for this world. We’re doing all that we can to make him comfortable, but the injuries he suffered in the War are finally catching up to him. It’s a shame. To see a man survive all that he did 20 years ago and live a useful and productive life, only to have age exact its final price. Despite the fact that mustard gas destroyed a significant percentage of his lungs, Mr. Gunn had the will to live. However, it happened when he was young and otherwise healthy. Sadly, old age is doing what the war could not and he lies there in his bed, slowly drowning. No longer able to force his body to work twice as hard to offset the damage done to it. It took 20 years, but the Great War is about to claim another life.
And last, but surely not least, we have Mrs Gulch. Rather a mystery with her. When she was brought here, she seemed perfectly healthy for a woman her age, except she could not be aroused from sleep.”

“I’m not interested in the medical history of these… patients. What I am interested in is how soon will demolition of that wing begin. There’s a great deal of work to be done building the new Gale Wing, but none of it can begin until we tear down the old, outdated part of the hospital.”

***

Edward stood next to the car as Almira and I walked down the granite steps from Union Station. It was still light and people walked away from the train station and along the sidewalks of downtown Providence. With the car idling, Edward stood on the driver’s side and watched as we approached. As we drew closer, I realized that Edward was not only looking at us, he was watching everyone approaching our path to the car. To the casual passerby, he was a tall, thin, silver-haired gentleman dressed in the clothing of his profession. If, however, they got close enough to see his eyes, they probably re-assessed their impression of him as an elderly ‘gentleman’s gentleman’ who spends his days overseeing a domestic staff. There was something about him that projected an air of competency. And, for whatever reason, from our vantage point descending the stairs, it seemed that anyone whose path took them past the car waiting at the curb were inclined to give Edward a wider berth than they did for the cab drivers that were also parked nearby.

Edward nodded to me. When he looked at Almira, his face changed in a remarkably subtle way. He went from looking like a hawk to looking like the alpha male wolf awaiting the return of his pack, all in a blink-and-you’d-miss-it second.

Edward took the two suitcases I carried, set them on the sidewalk and opened the car door for Almira. I walked around the car with him, opened the trunk and he put away our suitcases. In a moment, we pulled away from the Station.

“How was your trip, Mrs. Gulch?”

“It was quite a long train ride, Edward. But, as always, it’s good to be home. I assume you and Gert have kept the house from burning down or being converted into a speakeasy?”

My wife has a power to charm those who seemed most indifferent or intimidating. I would swear that I saw a grin appear in his reflection in the rearview mirror.

“Well, might I ask Madam if she minds that we take the long way home?”

We all laughed as Edward drove up the steep incline of Waterman Street and headed home in the gathering dusk.

“Would you mind giving me a hand with the bags, sir?”

Almira was already in the house. I walked to the back of the car where Edward stood, holding both suitcases, I shut the trunk lid.

“Thank you, sir.”

“Is there something you need to tell me, Edward?”

“Nothing of major import, sir. I didn’t want to bother Mrs. Gulch with it, really a minor annoyance.”

I waited.

“We received another visit from that policeman, Captain Herlihy, while you and Mrs. Gulch were in New York. I informed him that you were away and I was not certain when you would return.”

“Did he have anything to say to that?”

“No, no message. He simply said that he had a matter that would be of interest to you and that he would be calling again sometime.”

“Odd. I suppose we’ll just have to wait until then.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Is there anything else, Edward?”

“I must confess that, at the time of this Herlihy fellow’s visit, I considered impressing upon him that his visits were not welcomed. Was I wrong to allow him to leave with the belief that he could return?”

“No, you did exactly as I would. For now. And, lets keep this between ourselves, shall we?”

“Very good, sir. My feelings precisely.”

As we walked into the house,

“Edward!  I’m not seeing any hoochie coochie girls or jazz bands! What kind of butler are you! ”

***

Hunk stopped the car at the sign, ‘Almira’s Keep’.

“So, this is the place that woman in the hospital that Dorothy’s so obsessed with lives?”

“Yep.”

“Are those children I see, back there by that barn? I’m surprised. She seemed kind of old to have kids. And a little too comatose.”

“Don’t know who those kids belong to, probably part of one of the families, stopping for a spell on their way somewhere else.”

“Really, what is this place?”

Instead of answering, Hunk turned into the driveway, drove past the two-story farmhouse that faced the road and parked to the side of a large two-story building. It looked like it might have started life as a barn but remodeled into something more appropriate for use by people. Through a row of windows that ran down its side, Eliza could see people sitting at several long tables, from the rise and fall of conversations that managed to escape to the outside, it would seem that lunchtime was in full swing. Looking up to the window along the second floor, white curtains waving in the occasional breeze, Eliza felt safe assuming that it housed some sort of sleeping quarters.

Hunk got out of the car, walked around the front of the yellow convertible and opened the door for Eliza.

“It’s a farm. We do a small trade with them, sometimes exchanging livestock for labor during planting and harvesting season. It’s also a place for people who need a meal or a place to sleep or a place to stay or just a safe haven. Guess this place, I guess it’s a lot of things.”

Hunk walked towards a grove of trees where several picnic tables were set up, all but one currently occupied.

“Dorothy’s never mentioned this place. But from everything I’ve heard from her and her folks, I get the idea that this woman, this Mrs Gulch, is not very popular with the locals. Yet there is something about this place, what did it say on that sign, ‘Almira’s Keep’? Something about this place that’s really special. So what gives, Henry?”

“All that’s true, if you only asked Emily Gale. Even Dorothy would be inclined to give that impression, but Dorothy is a complex girl, so I wouldn’t bet my life that she would insist that people who knew Almira Gulch would think poorly of her. But look around. Most of the working people in town, especially the working poor would tell you something very different. And, if you somehow talked to all of the families that travel through these parts, all their earthly possessions tied to the trunk of the barely working cars, searching for their homes, they would tell you that Mrs. Gulch is very special.”

Chapter 26

Featured

Eliza walked down the aisle that ran the length of Ward C, without conscious thought, she found (and held) to the very center of the space between the rows of beds. All but three of the ten beds were empty. They were, in fact, more than empty; five were metal frames, a rolled up mattress lying on the zigzag network of wire that provided support for the thin mattresses. Only the three occupied beds still had visitor chairs and, of the seven empty beds, half lacked a nightstand.

Eliza could see her friend Dorothy, standing silently at the far end of the room, a conscripted sentinel, guarding the near-dead in St Mary’s Charity Ward.

Mrs. Eloise Oppenheimer (according to the white card held by shiny metal brackets on the end of the bed), lay in the first bed on the left. Seemingly awake and conscious, she watched in perfect silence as Eliza walked past the end of her bed. Eliza paused, looked back at the woman and, raising her hand in a chest high wave, saw nothing in the old woman’s face that indicated that she was there at the end of the bed. Mrs. Oppenheimer reminded Eliza of a cat she had as a little girl. The cat, a grey Siamese named ‘Theodora’, would sit in one of the window seats that overlooked the patio and surrounding formal gardens of the Thornberg home. Playing by herself, Eliza sometimes found it amusing to try to frighten the cat, approaching the window from low along the row of bushes, suddenly jumping up in front of the window, waving her arms. Invariably, Theodora would remain as she was, sitting and watching out the window. Never once could she remember seeing Theodora show any sign of being caught by surprise or otherwise startled. The cat sat on the window seat cushion and, with the minimum amount of head turning, followed the antics of a young girl on a manicured lawn, playing out adventures to add excitement to her solitary childhood. Mrs. Oppenheimer reminded Eliza of Theodora, only her stare held less humanity.

Further down the aisle, about halfway to where Dorothy stood, Eliza saw what at first appeared to be a rolled-up mattress, laying in the middle of one of the beds. As she drew closer, the mattress became a man, a very obese man, covered in a light brown blanket, head propped up at an angle between two pillows. The reason for this awkward position became apparent as she walked past the end of the bed. Wheezing sleep sounds, like the cries of a drowning man heard from a distance, a distance too far to make rescue a reasonable thought, followed her as she walked down the aisle. The sleeping man fought to find a rhythm to his gasps, propped up by worn and flattened pillows. She hurried past, less afraid of waking the man and having to deal with questions than she was of being captured by the silence of a stranger’s last breath.

Eliza reached the end of the aisle. There was a row of windows along both walls that formed the corner of the room. Beyond the glass, lay the receiving area of the hospital, the scenery was black asphalt and white concrete, the growing darkness broken only by the firefly light of orderlies standing in the dark, smoking cigarettes and talking quietly. On the nightstand next to the bed, a small table lamp threw light in a conical plume up to the ceiling. The meager light it cast seemed brighter as the windows became more reflective with the deepening of the darkness outside.

Dorothy stood very still, her brown hair pulled back on either side, almost into twin braids, her white sweater open over a blue and white check blouse. She was staring down at what, on first glance, appeared to be one more empty bed. Her eyes were downcast, in a sort of stubborn stare, as if demanding that the object of her concentration become something different from what it was. Following her friends gaze, Eliza caught the silent flash of a scarlet ribbon sewn into the collar of a worn hospital gown. The collar of the gown was all that showed of the woman in the bed, otherwise completely covered with a blanket. Small in stature, her face was a study in contrasts. Though closed in a very deep sleep, her eyes were beautifully shaped, set above prominent cheekbones that, in turn, lead to thin, almost severe lips. Even in the half-dark and full-stillness of the moment, she was a very attractive woman, delicate features complimenting her small size. Except, that is, for the nose. While noses are the center of the face and as such always significant to how we judge a person’s appearance, the nose of the sleeping woman was of an exceptional size and shape. As facial features went, this nose not only demanded attention, it commanded it. Sharp along its upper edge, it rose downward from the brow to create an angular promontory. Projecting from the face, this nose seemed to say, ‘hey! you have to get past me if you want to get close to the woman’.

“I don’t know what’s going on anymore. Nothing makes sense.”

Dorothy spoke, almost in a whisper, with a tone somewhere between a question and a complaint.

Eliza Thornberg felt a chill skitter across the back of her shoulders, invisible spiders racing for cover from something that frightened them. Almost immediately, her true personality reasserted itself.

Stepping across the aisle she grabbed the back of a chair and, without bothering to lift it off the floor, dragged it noisily to where her friend stood.

“Sit” she commanded. She then found another chair and, dragging it with a fair amount of racket, placed it next to the bed opposite Dorothy. Eliza preferred to make noise, given the opportunity she felt more…. alive, when there was sound filling the space around her.

Taking off her sweater, Eliza shook it out and hung it over the back of her chair. She looked around the ward once and sat down.

“OK Dorothy, now tell me the story of how you know this woman. And don’t leave anything out.”

And Dorothy began to speak,  “… and I took Toto and we ran away.”

***

Almira came into our bedroom and asked me if I wouldn’t like to come downstairs to sit in the garden with her. Cursing myself, I replied,

“Maybe in a little bit.”

I remained silent as she stood at the bedroom door, the pain, insufficiently hidden in her face, echoed the self-loathing that bloomed in my mind. Each second she stood there, poisonous air fanned the fire, which, try as I might, I could not extinguish. The silence grew and became, as silence between two people often does, something monstrous and destructive, feeding on unspoken fears.

“Alright, Sterling. I’ll be down in the library if you want to join me.”

She walked out, closing the bedroom door, which made the hateful voice inside me almost rabid with angry glee…’She closed the door? Now, even if you considered leaving here, you have to get up and open the door yourself. And when you do that, you admit that you’re the jerk. What the hell does she think she’s doing!’

The ravening voice in my mind had grown steadily stronger in the year since I returned home to an emotional landscape that seemed to constantly change. At first, the dominant emotion among my friends and family was relief that I was not killed in the war, that I did not die. This positive emotion eventually changed into sympathy. People talked about everyday matters and tried their best to act as if nothing had changed. However they could not ignore the fact of my injuries, of my crippled right arm, (that with therapy would get better) and the burn scars on my face and chest, (that wouldn’t). Sympathy, in terms of shared emotion, is like running a marathon. The beginning is chaotic and the position of the competing runners at the starting line is of little importance. Over the course of the race, however, the true pain of losing is not so much a result of being beaten by better runners as it is being left behind. The race ends at the front of the pack, not the back. Sympathy has a way of silently turning into bitterness. However, in the Gulch household in 1920, even sympathy could not last without changing, altering itself. Sympathy, without a sense of confidence or optimism is nothing more than fear with a social face. This fear was very basic, it was that, ‘the way things have always been, will never, ever happen again’.

There was a knock on the door. Before I could get up, I heard Edward speaking through the door,

“Begging Mr. Gulch’s pardon, may I speak freely?”

I decided to play along. To be honest, I didn’t want to think. To think was to give that part of my mind a chance to pull me farther into the depths that I was becoming much too accustomed to, so I said,

“Of course, Edward.”

“You need to get out of the goddamn bed. Sir. Go and suffer in the bathroom and then get yourself downstairs to your wife. You may have scars and memories that remind you how screwed-up your life is; she does not. And yet, she does not give in to her own demons. Demons, I might add, that we all must contend with, at least those of us who know that life is not neat nor does it always make sense.”

He opened the door and stood staring at me. I looked back at him.

Edward appeared to be as old as my father, however, there was something to the way he moved that made me think of ancient Sparta. Not that his appearance was anything more than that of a tall, thin, older gentleman’s gentleman. There was, however, a certain calculating shrewdness in the way he carried himself. It showed more in the slow deliberateness of his movements than in any overt demonstration of strength. He was one of those men that uncharitable strangers might describe as cold and aloof. He was anything but, however, I’ve known him since I was a young boy. Whenever my father had a problem that no one could help him solve, in the end, Edward would be there.

“I trust you won’t think I’m being impertinent, sir. You should to go to your wife, she needs you more than she will ever say. The work that she’s done in the two years that you’ve been away has taken more of a toll than she would ever admit. Quite a remarkable woman. You, if I may say so, have the potential of becoming a remarkable man. She deserves nothing less.”

I got up, the sense of un-defined hopelessness faded out, perhaps just for the moment, but it was enough time for me to move out of the room that I had imprisoned myself in for the last six months,

“Anything in particular I should know about the time I’ve been away, Edward?”

“Nothing you don’t already know, sir.”

I saw what I believed was a look of approval and felt like I did when I won my first medal in high school track. As I walked past. he said,

“There was a policeman here last year, from Lawrence MA. He struck me as the kind of man who, while not overly dangerous on his own, when directed to action by people he feels indebted to, can be quite dangerous. Captain Herlihy was his name. I do not trust him.”

I stopped and looked at him. His facial expression subtly changed, I realized that Edward, for all of his proper manners that came from a lifetime of being a butler, had a lethal side that would not stop at anything in order to protect those given to his care.

“Thank you Edward.”

“Certainly, sir.”

***

Almira sat at the desk over-looking the garden. Through the French doors, (one open and one closed), the breeze moved just enough to destroy the illusion that the lace curtains were, in fact, not finely etched glass. The brick patio outside formed a square platform, surrounded by an intricate array of perennial flowers and evergreen shrubbery. The back of the Sterling property was large in comparison to the other homes located on the fringes of the  East Side of Providence. The boundaries to the rear were defined by a brick wall that ran through a wooded section of the yard, down the sides and returned to the house itself.

On the desk, her copy of Sinclair’s ‘The Jungle’, open to the title page, on the opposite page in red ink,

To my dear friend Almira,

I wanted to give you something that had meaning for both of us and, yet at the same time be special to us individually. The world is a better place for having you in it and I am a happier woman for having known you

love, Annie

Almira let her finger trace the letters slowly. As if a phonograph needle, the sound of the words were sent directly to her heart.

“I have an idea,”

She looked up to see Sterling, standing in the open doorway. He immediately turned and walked back into the hallway, his words trailing behind,

“…stay right there, I’ll be only a moment.”

The lace curtains swayed quietly, an early April breeze drew her eyes outside the library.  She reviewed her plans for her 5th grade class, once they returned following the April break. Her thoughts strayed to the parents of her students, many of whom she knew from her work at the Union Hall on Valley Street, a small building among the vast textile mills. She smiled as she recalled when, at the end of the fall semester, Sister Aloysius called her to her office,

“Mrs. Gulch, please have a seat. You know that as a parochial school we serve at favor of the Bishop? Our parish is new and a little different from the other parishes, in terms of the neighborhoods that we include. That our parish includes the wealthy East Side as well as the working poor of Olneyville is a reflection of beliefs of the former Bishop. He felt that including the wealthier neighborhoods with some of the more …less fortunate, would result in a more ecumenical gathering. I do not disagree. However, our current Bishop is from a more, shall we say, refined background. He recently spoke to our parish priest, Father Coleman about your work with the parents of some of our students. The new union hall that you seem to be involved in, to be specific. He went to great lengths to remind Father Coleman that our parish includes business people, prominent business people.”

Almira sat and tried to ignore her growing anger.

“I just want to say that I admire you. And, as strange as it may sound, I’m grateful that you are not a member of my Order. I’m in charge of running this school, that means all of the teachers answer to me. Not being a nun, I do not have the authority to tell you what to do with your free time, away from school. However, that is not at issue, at least with me. If I judge your character correctly, you will do as your conscience tells you. If that turns out to be in conflict with the Church, in this case, the Bishop, I have no doubt that you will continue to do what you know you must do.”

Sister Aloysius got up and stood looking out the window, the ghost of a smile just visible as she turned away,

“And so, I will say, as your Principal, the Bishop would be happier if you ceased some of your …extracurricular efforts.”

Almira felt something within stir and stood, feeling a growing anger,

“Sister Aloysius, I must…”

Turning from the window, the Principal of Our Lady of Intercession school interrupted,

“That’s excellent! As long as we understand each other!”

Smiling, she continued through Almira’s hesitation,

“I believe that you are one of those rare young women who not only hear what the heart tells her, but has the courage that puts those who would try to make you conform, more at risk than they realize.”

Standing in front of Almira, Sister Aloysius, a tall woman, smiled down at her 5th Grade teacher.

“I trust that you will do what you know is right and that you will recognize your friends, even if they don’t always make it clear that they are your friends, am I correct, Mrs. Gulch?”

Almira smiled back at the nun, reached  out and touched the other woman’s hand briefly,

“You are correct. Thank you.”

Returning to the present, Almira looked up at Sterling who, once again, was standing in the doorway. He wore a heavy winter coat. In his left hand, a small paper bag, in the crook of his right arm was an old coat that she thought she’d lost. Her right eyebrow took control of the conversation,

“Wait! Don’t say it!”

After looking around the library in a theatrically cautious manner, Sterling leaned backwards and looked up and down the hallway. Satisfied, he walked to where she sat at the desk and extending his right arm, said,

“Here put this on! We don’t have much time!”

Almira felt the memory-echo of a forgotten time grow in her mind. Putting on the coat, she felt openings cut into the inner lining to allow access to the two large pockets of the old wool coat.

“Come on.”

Taking Sterling’s right forearm, she let him lead her out through the patio doors, down a flagstone path to the back section of the property. There the brick wall that surrounded the property took a 90 degree turn. When they got to the corner, Sterling took off his coat and laid it on the ground, sat with his back against the brick and looked up to her.

The feeling that flickered in her mind and echoed in her heart overwhelmed her and, without a word, she sat on the ground to Sterling’s right. He shifted slightly and, with his left hand, held out her old copy of ‘Gulliver’s Travels’.

Still holding the book out to her, Sterling spoke softly, reciting the opening words from the book she’d memorized a lifetime before,

“The author gives some account of himself and family. His first inducements to travel. He is shipwrecked, and swims for his life…”

Almira took her left arm from the coat and Sterling wrapped it around himself and the two read into the night.

***

The yellow Packard, it’s top still down, sat in the dirt yard between the farmhouse’s back porch and the barn.

“When you country people do nighttime, you don’t hold anything back, do you?”

Eliza rested her head against the back of the driver’s seat and stared up into a sky full of stars and emptiness. She felt both at peace and on edge. One was the result of being in an open car on a comfortably warm night at the end of July, the other from listening to the incredible story told to her in a nearly empty hospital ward.

Dorothy Gale told of growing up adopted, cared for but not loved. Learning about life in the raw earthiness of a barn, from a boy with the sensitivity of a man. As she listened, Eliza travelled to a place that was not of the world and yet, at the same time, was the only world  that answers to questions made a difference to the people that mattered. She heard about risking all for friendship and having the courage to protect herself and return to a home she could only appreciate for its absence. And, finally, she listened quietly as the girl told her about how she became the person she thought she needed to be. Yet, with time, all novelty becomes mundane, and she learned the harsh lesson that the only special qualities are those within.

“Hey, that story back there, at the hospital. It all happened?”

Eliza leaned to her right to look at Dorothy,

“God’s honest truth.”

“Well, I had planned on spending August at our Newport house. It has horses and boys and a secret beach on an Island just a short boat ride away. I was going to invite you to come and stay before we have to return to school.”

Dorothy sat up and turning towards Eliza, rested her left arm across the back of the seat. She idly played with the waves of brown hair that surrounded her friends’ head. Laying her own head on her forearm, she said,

“Thanks. But this thing here, Mrs. Gulch and my mother and everything. I can’t. I have a feeling, and I don’t know why, that this summer is important. Sorry.”

Eliza reached over and pulled Dorothy to her shoulder and stared back up to the distant stars.

“Then it’s decided! This year, I’ll be summering in…. what’s this hick town called?”

Dorothy Gale looked over in feigned outrage, pushed her friend’s shoulder, sat upright and pulled the door handle.

“Circe!  It’s called Circe and we’re in McPherson County, Kansas. Soon to become the most sought after of vacation destinations!”

Both girls laughed and walked to the front of the car.

“If we’re quiet, I can show you your room without waking up Auntie Em,” Dorothy took her friend’s hand and started towards the house.

She took two steps before she realized that although she still held Eliza’s hand, her friend had not moved. simply extended her arm. Instead, Eliz was looking towards the small cottage that stood next to the barn.

“You go on ahead, Dorothy. I’ll find my way. I think I’ll just say goodnight to Henry Fonda, real quick.”

She watched as Dorothy’s eyes widened enough to be noticed, even in the starlit yard,

“Well, your Hunk was the first to welcome me here, before you and your boyfriend showed up. It’s only good manners to return the gesture.”

Dorothy looked at her friend with an expression of affection and outrage, feelings that she’d become all too familiar with since meeting Eliza Thornberg.

“He’s a friend. Keep that in mind.”

Dorothy squeezed Eliza’s hand.

“And, from what I’ve gathered, he’s quite smart enough to realize that. I’ll be good.”

Eliza walked towards the single light that painted a yellow rectangle on the low slung porch.

Chapter 25

Featured

“Where the hell is everyone?”

Eliza stood in the doorway of the Charity Ward, a single book between two bookends, reluctant to let the double doors swing shut behind her. Ordinarily, Eliza Thornberg was the first one to raise both hands on the roller coaster, smile back at the man sitting by himself in the smoky after-hours bar or even, borrow a car in an unfamiliar city to surprise a friend at home in a part of the country as far from where she was raised as cornbread is to shortbread. Hearing only a single muted dinging sound of an elevator down one of the empty corridors she walked, following her friend Dorothy, Eliza was feeling more eight than eighteen years old. Standing alone, embraced by the soft rubber edges of the doors, her eyes struggled to adjust to the anemic light that coated the walls and floors of the ward.

There were lights, hidden behind dusty sconces running along the top edge of the walls, their glow spreading tentacles of light up and across the ceilings. The slowly turning fans threw shards of dull illumination back towards her, imbuing the room with a sense of motion and activity. Trouble was, there was no motion or activity in the room.

In her application to Sarah Lawrence College, Eliza Thornberg described herself as, ‘a girl who, despite having the good fortune to be born in a wealthy and powerful family, was always ready for the new and un-expected experiences in life.’ During her personal interview with the Dean of Admissions, when asked what she thought would make her an asset to the school, she said, ‘I enjoy un-covering the unusual, the darker side of life, the parts of the world that most people of my age would avoid, taking risks to see and explore everything the world has to offer. Even the dangerous things.’ The look on the Dean’s face was recounted with glee for months afterwards. Well aware of her strong academic record, her parents accused her of faking her surprise when the acceptance letter arrived. Eliza was not faking.

Eliza felt a pulling on her very expensive v neck cardigan, as a bloom of goosebumps grew high enough to catch on the soft fabric. Looking around she saw a large open room, wider than it was deep. To her right was a grey metal desk and a file cabinet. On the wall, next to the file cabinet, was a row of ten open file holders. All but three were empty. In the three were clipboards holding patient charts. There was a gooseneck lamp on the desk, throwing a stretched oval of yellow light across the desk blotter. The blotter itself had a large calendar taking up its entire surface. The days of the month were numbered in large blue-lined squares, one month per page, which could be torn out and thrown away whenever the days ended. She saw ‘August’ in block lettering along the top edge of the blotter. This struck Eliza as odd, there still being eight days remaining in July. Odder yet was the red circle around the blue square that marked August 11th

“No!”

The sound of Dorothy’s voice made Eliza jump. For a moment, her eyes remained submerged in the deep pool of yellowish light on the nurses’ desk. Suddenly disoriented, she took a step backwards, caught one heel and began to fall. She felt herself held, steadied by a strong, yet gentle grip on her arm. Feeling herself fall, she remained focused on the desk and it’s lamp and it’s calendar, seemingly the only steady point in her suddenly uncertain location. She heard a voice. It was not coming from the far end of the room where she could see her friend standing next to a low bed. The voice, a woman’s voice, came from just behind her.

“Easy now, Eliza. She needs you. Your friendship will make the difference between young Dorothy Gale merely surviving this summer away from school and coming to understand that, if she chooses correctly, a full and satisfying life awaits her. But only if you are there for her.”

Eliza Thornberg recovered her balance and whirled around, only to see the darkness in the corners, where the light was too timid to reach.

***

“You probably do not remember me, Miss…”

“Mrs.   Mrs Almira Gulch.”

“‘Mrs.’ …beg your pardon.”

Gareth Herlihy projected his best ‘confident smile’. It was his only defense against feeling out of his social class. He leaned forward from the leather sofa that Edward had guided him to, immediately upon his entry into the library. Almira stood by the French doors.

“…but we met several years ago in Lawrence. It was in the winter of 1911 and,”

“I recall, Captain. What can I do for you?”

Almira looked directly at the policeman.

“Well, I’m following up on an investigation into the death of a Union organizer and a young man who also worked for the union. Her name was Annie LoPizzo and his was Robert Maclachlan.”

Captain Gareth Herlihy’s voice grew louder, in no small part to counter his eroding self-confidence. A richly appointed library in what could only be called a small mansion in the better part of the capital city of Rhode Island was not his preferred environment. He thought with a grimace how his job would be so much simpler and more enjoyable if they would just let him deal with the lowlifes, minor criminals and run-of-the-mill drunks. Instead, less than a week earlier, he found himself summoned to the office of Frederick Prendergast, the CEO of the Essex Company. Without bothering with the social niceties, clearly they were seen by his host as necessary only with social or professional equals, Frederick launched into a somewhat frenetic rant.

“Listen to me Herlihy and listen closely. The goddamn union is getting out of hand…again! After five years of getting along with the union leaders, they went and let in some new blood and they’re desperate to keep ’em happy with their ‘power of collective bargaining’ bullshit. What a joke. They give us what we want and we let them put on a show of organizing and demonstrating and then make like they’ve wrestled some benefit from the management. But there’s a couple of new people on the board and they don’t know how the game is played. The press is out of control, so we can’t count on them. There’s a movement to demonstrate for the American Way and make sure everyone knows that all these strikes are coming from foreigners out to steal our liberties and create anarchy. The people I answer to believe that that will be enough to get our heel back on the neck of these troublemakers.

Personally, I’m not convinced that it will be anything more than a temporary fix. I need something stronger. I need you to find the vicious killer of the beloved Annie LoPizzo and the hard-working Robert Maclachlan, both viciously killed in the course of a peaceful demonstration. And the only person of interest that isn’t dead or been beaten into innocence is that little girl who was sitting in the street with the dead striker and that kid, who showed up not that much before all the labor trouble. They’re the only viable leads left. I have contacts in the other mill towns and we know they headed south to Rhode Island the day after the funeral for the LoPizzo woman. Go find them and get us some useful information. We need to nip this union growth in the bud and there’s nothing like a murder trial to get the average worker’s mind off the day-to-day routine. Don’t let me down!”

“I remember you quite well. You were a Sargent then.”

He realized, with the feeling of a person sitting in a boat without oars watching the dock move away, that somehow he was at a severe disadvantage with this young woman. He had advanced in his career because he had a talent for projecting his emotion purely by the tone and volume of his voice. He’d discovered early in his career that in a situation where he needed to exert his will on another, the words he employed were almost totally superfluous. In the world of the petty criminal, hopeless drunk and momentarily lawless citizen, Gareth Herlihy was a very effective law enforcement officer. He became Captain on the strength of his personality in the context of the weakness of the people he was charged with keeping in line.

Herlihy felt uncomfortable with the decidedly serene confidence of the young woman. Most people, of any age, when informed that the police were interested in what they might know about a crime, usually became uncomfortable, un-easy. There seemed to be something in law-abiding people who made them feel uncomfortable when they became the subject of interest to the police. That was very much not the case this Friday afternoon with the rather young woman, a girl, really. She did not seem defensive at all. Worse, her attitude showed a tendency to challenge his very right to be asking questions. Not only was the little girl, (at least someone reading his file notes that described her as being 22 years old, 5′ 3″ and approximately 100 lbs would picture a girl) but those notes did not address the face of this young woman and they did nothing to prepare a person for the way she had of looking at a person.

Now, sitting in a room that probably cost more to furnish than he spent to buy his small house on the outskirts of Lawrence, Captain Gareth Herlihy felt insecure. With a silent laugh of horror, he thought, ‘this is how my suspects must feel, after they realize that I got ’em in my jailhouse and they don’t leave unless I let ’em leave’.

Captain Herlihy did what he did best when feeling the need to re-establish control of a situation, he raised his voice, ‘blustered’ might be a reasonable, although un-charitable characterization.

For a moment, the deepening gloom of the approaching evening seeping into the dark wood panelling of the library triggered his memory of the last time he spoke to this very strange girl. It was after the funeral for Annie LoPizzo, 5 years before. The memory was cast in a feeling of discomfit, a feeling made all the more foreboding by its seeming in-appropriateness. Then, as now, the circumstances of their meeting was not a happy social occasion, but it was not, by any stretch of the imagination an overtly adversarial or negative  meeting. He was uncomfortable then too. There was something to this girl who for no reason he could imagine, made him think of a wolf. Wolves, at least when viewed from a distance, have the appearance of large domestic dogs. It was only when they got up close that the differences became un-ignorable, and first and foremost (of this difference) was in how the animal regarded man. Most dogs have a way of looking up at a man who went a long way to supporting the saying that they were ‘Man’s best friend’. Not so with the wolf. Dogs seemed to like, even look up to men. The way that a wolf regarded a man, even in a non-confrontational situation, showed that they recognized a fellow killer. This girl had that look. Not anything outwardly aggressive or threatening, there was simply a recognition of the capacity for evil in people. More than that, there was nothing in her that implied that this capacity for evil was shocking or to be feared. Wolves did not reel in horror at what a hunter might do, they recognized violence as a natural part of their world. Neither good nor bad. It made Herlihy, who was very familiar with the fallen side of human nature, hesitate. Although he was not a denizen of this dark part of the world, she clearly could see and walk among the wolves.

“And your husband, Mr Gulch?

“He is away in Europe. Fighting.”

“Oh, I see. I shall be brief then. I’m doing a follow-up investigation into the two deaths that day. Do you recall anything of that day, the day of the demonstration?”

“You mean the Bread and Roses Strike?”

The young woman smiled to herself and Herlihy was taken with a sense that he was watching a person looking through a scrapbook. It was such a strong impression that, for a second, he could almost make out images reflected in her eyes.

“Other than my friend being murdered? No. I don’t recall anything more than that.”

“And Robert Maclachlan did you know him very well?”

“I did not know him at all.”

“I don’t believe you are being truthful with me, Mrs. Gulch.”

“And I don’t believe that I care what you think, Captain Herlihy.”

“The citizens of Lawrence want to know what really happened that day and it is my sworn duty to pursue the matter. There are people and, …organizations in Lawrence who have an investment not only in the city but it’s people and they will not cease in their efforts until those responsible are brought to account.”

The police captain stood. The library door opened and Edward stood, silhouetted in the skewed rectangle of light. He had Herlihy’s overcoat and hat in hand.

“Be that as it may, I have nothing to add to your investigation, Captain.”

Almira turned to look out onto the gardens, now a darkscape with glimmers of morning in the blooms closest to the door.

“I spoke to your Sister Aloysius at the school where you have begun teaching, I try to be as thorough in my work as possible. She speaks quite highly of you. Not only of your teaching skills, but also of your volunteer work with some of the …less fortunate workers in the mills. It would be a shame if your efforts contributed to a repeat of history. I will wish you a good evening and my best wishes for your husband’s safe return from the war. For now, good evening, Mrs. Gulch.”

***

1918 Arras, France

The dream is the same dream I’ve had since landing at Saint Nazaire, a near lifetime ago. It’s always the same and always different, in the way of recurring dreams where the differences are as interesting as the dream itself. The recurring part, the part that makes it ‘that dream’ is how it begins. I hear Almira calling to me from across a field. I don’ see her because I’m not in that field, I’m working on something. In a blacksmith shop, complete with an anvil and bellows and a forge. From where I stand, I feel the heat from the forge but alternately there is a blast of frigid air that stabs my face. There are shoes hanging from the ceiling, all sorts of shoes.

Hearing the tone of Almira’s voice change from greeting to alarm, I put down the hammer and walk out the door. The blacksmith shop is clearly in a town, there is a sense of vehicles and people passing in the street outside the windows, but when I step out from the shop, I’m standing on a hill. I hear Almira’s voice again, sounding increasingly urgent. Her voice comes from a wooded hilly area in what otherwise appears to be wide open prairie lands. At this point, the differences in each dream usually appears. Sometimes she’s facing me, more and more, she’s turned away. She always appears to be holding something in her arms. But, no matter what, she is backing away from something in the woods and mostly she sounds like she’s trying to warn me of danger. But increasingly, I come out of the dream with a sense that she’s crying out for me to help her. Sometimes there are other people in the dream, but they’re all people who are looking to Almira for help. Very often the dream ends with the sound of thunder, but of late, the sound is stretching out into a longer, more personal sound, a howling, like wolves howling in a winter’s forest,

Usually, on nights of the dream, I wake to the nurse who stands next to my bed and touches my forehead with a white cloth. There is no rise of daylight and there’s no sense of the approaching of night. I lie in a single bed with an army green (which is really a brown-without-ambition) blanket and stare at the lights in the ceiling. The only thing that provides me with a sense of reliability is when the nurse appears. It’s the reverse of fading into sleep and dreams. Like a summer sunrise, I sense a lightness, becoming more and more a shape, a whiteness that descends down from the gray over-hanging sky and, drawing closer, resolves into a face, her blue eyes first and then the hair…. like quiet thunder on a cloudless day, her voice turns into words, her words reach into my mind. I assume that I am on some drug, because I always remember that I forget to ask what her name is and where we are, content to stare into her face, framed in a blonde halo.

“Lieutenant Gulch, can you hear me?”

Now, I’m confused. I hear my name, but the person speaking is short, balding, wearing wire-rimmed glasses and is not a beautiful woman. I suppose the drugs don’t always work as well as they’re suppose to, so I tried to close my eyes.

“Lt Gulch, wake up! We need to move you. And your cooperation is really gonna make this go smoother.”

I decided that if I don’t open my eyes, then things will eventually go back to the way they’ve been since…. well, since I started having the same dream over and over and sometimes waking up to a beautiful nurse.

“Nope. Can’t do this to me, I need to get this ward up and transported outta here.  As the cops in my neighborhood used to tell us, ‘you’re coming along with us, whether you want to or not’.”

Maybe it was the tone of his voice, which had none of the poetic cadence of speeches in dreams, so I opened my eyes again and stared at Capt Tribianni (according to the white on black name tag on his shirt pocket).

“Better! Lets start with the stupid questions and then I’ll tell you the plan and I can get on to the next soon-to-be-discharged patient.”

He pulled a metal chair from somewhere to his right and sat down, crossed his legs and stared at me,

“Come on! Gave you a clue there… say something and I won’t have to put a notation on your chart that will require less from you now but will cost you too much when you get home.”

The doctor raised his eyebrow, which provided the only hair that his forehead had until you got way back on his head or over his ears.

“OK, doc. Lets do the easy parts first. I’m leaving this place. That’s neither good nor bad until you tell me where I’m leaving to…”

“Fair enough. You’re leaving and heading home. The U S of A. Long boat ride, but from what I see on the chart here, you’ll survive the trip. You’ll have company, the War is over. You slept right through Armistice Day! Now that you passed the first test by not asking me any disturbing questions like ‘how soon can I re-join my outfit’, lets deal with the really tough subject…”

“How bad am I hurt?”

“Give the man a kewpie doll!”

“I’ll give it to you straight. You have all the parts that you came over here with, it’s just that some don’t work as well and others are a little damaged. You get to walk out of here and you can sign for your stuff, provided you’re left-handed. Your right hand is going to take some time to get back to being as useful as it was when you got off the boat. So, wait, don’t ask! I’ve given this talk 13 times today already.

“You’ve been down here in the Caverns in Arras for a month and a half. Mostly because of the damage the mustard gas did to your lungs, although the shattered right arm was also part of the reason. What makes you a lucky man is that down here we’re able to prevent the influenza from completing the job that the Germans started on you. You missed the worst of it. So we’ll get you thinking about moving around a little. Then, we’ll tell you to start moving around more. You’ll start to hate the head nurse, but he’s used to that, it tells him you’re getting better. Then, in about 3 weeks, we put you on a truck that will take you to a boat that will return you to your country. Then the real hard part begins.”

“No, that won’t be a problem for me. I have a wife who’s waiting for me.”

The doctor got up and, after tapping me lightly on the knee with the chart, walked to the end of the bed and hung it on a hook at the foot of the bed.

“One thing, doc. The blonde nurse, when does she come on duty? I want to say thanks for her help.”

“Don’t make me put a note in your chart, son. All the female nurses shipped out 2 months ago, their skills were more needed on the frontline hospitals, Frankly this place is a storage facility. Haven’t seen a woman in 6 weeks.”

He seemed to be watching my face more carefully than he should, given that I asked such a simple question.

“Oh. never mind. Must be mistaken.”

He nodded, more to himself, and walked away.

Chapter 24

Featured

 

“I don’t understand why you have to do this, Sterling; maybe your college buddy Cyril Sauvage has something to prove, with his parents coming over from France and all, but you have a family… well, you have me,” Almira’s hand drifted over her mid-section as she stood washing the same dinner plate over and over, through the window at the sink, she watched the darkening of night steal the life from the day.

“It’s not just him, Almira, the whole world is at risk and if Germany defeats France then England is next and then where would our family be,” Sterling Gulch sat at the kitchen table, back towards his wife, staring into the adjacent living room, its wide picture window that looked out over Narragansett Bay was slowly turning into a mirror, as night surrounded the house and the only illumination came from the kitchen as he and his wife fought the not-yet-felt ravages of war.

“You’re so close to having your degree, I’ll be teaching in a year, isn’t that enough?”

“It’s more than enough, it’s everything I could hope for but, I need to do this…” he fell silent as the words that connected him to his wife were stalked and eaten by the wolf of aggression and politics, friendship and fear of not-measuring-up, claiming it’s ransom.

Almira Gulch looked at the window before her, the light of the kitchen created fairytale-like reflections of herself and her husband sitting at the table in the center of the room when a subtle motion drew her eye to the living room picture window in which two people showed, seemingly withdrawing from one and other, farther and farther apart, beyond any true dimensions of the physical space.

A shudder ran through the young woman, a distant calling from somewhere within her fought to be turned into sound, “…Private Gulch, the very first thing you do is determine the range of the enemies weapons and try and stay outside of it, until, that is, your commanding officer tells you to crawl over the barbwire into the next trench, do I make myself clear?”

The summer weather lingered well into September in 1918. Yellow and gold fought with green for possession of the foliage. This seemingly minor shift in hue was a subtle, yet treacherous advance into Winter. The June-warm schoolyard tempted one to believe that this year, Summer would never end. Despite this gentleness of climate, there was something wrong with the sky. The blue that spread from late morning into cloud-ragged afternoon, was, somehow, too blue. It was as if Mother Nature had something to hide, something perhaps more extreme in the way of weather. Jackets and sweaters lay piled by the schoolhouse steps, as forgotten as the lessons of the morning and the Summer only recently left behind.

Ethan McDonough stood alone at the chain link fence that defined the schoolyard of Our Lady of Intercession. A prisoner of that permanent war of childhood, he faced away from the school and the returning clumps of noisy boys and scandalized girls, looking beyond the fence. The recent squall of a recess fight had blown over, the combatants drifted apart, the winner being the one at the center of the larger crowd of classmates. Such fights were common enough, especially among boys at this age, which is not to say that the outcome wasn’t something terribly important to one and barely remembered by the other.

The newest teacher was always assigned recess duty. It served as an opportunity to earn her way into the sometimes vicious, always polite society of the teacher’s lounge. Recess duty in the elementary grades was much like life guard duties in May and September, while the elements and risk of injury (or death) are there, the spirit is, for the most part lacking.

The young woman, not all that much taller than some of the 6th grade boys, walked out into the school yard, against the tide of children withdrawing to the classrooms. The ringing of the school bell every bit an alarm that childhood was over, (at least for the next two hours). The children parted to either side of her as she walked out towards the fence and the solitary child.

“Tell me Ethan. Why were you fighting?”

“They said bad things about you!”

Almira Gulch felt the tendons on her hand tighten and, smiling to herself, reached into her coat pocket instead of to her face. She felt the softly edged paper of the envelope and the impulse to cover her face evaporated as she crouched down in front of the boy.

“And what kind of bad things…”

Ethan McDonough’s face turned stubborn, which in a child of his age is where infatuation is often hidden. The conflict played out in averted eyes and firmed jaw, the more he thought about how he should answer, the more his innate, still un-developed protectiveness showed through in his expression.

Almira thought of her practicum teacher, at the start of her final year in school, ‘You are the adult, they are children. Do not forget that but do not lord it over them. A slave will always resent their master, no matter how kindly they are treated. Children deserve more and will always seek to be treated as equals, even when they know that they are not.’

Almira smiled at the boy and, after a fleeting hesitation, his internal conflict evaporated and his face lit up with a sad joy,

“They said you was a witch and you ride a broom and you can put a curse on people!”

Almira resisted the impulse to laugh. Her own nature would respond to such an unkindness with forgiving humor. She’d learned fairly quickly that such a reaction is misinterpreted, especially by the very young. Children, along with dogs, are surely the most literal-minded of all living things. Instead, she brushed off the gravel stuck to the knees of the boy’s corduroys, battlefield decorations in silver and brown, and handed him his jacket. Her look of appreciation caused the boy to stand straighter and, a sense of pride elbowing away his shame.

***

Almira began her teaching career as 5th Grade Teacher at Our Lady of Intercession, a parochial school on the East Side of Providence, Rhode Island.  The only lay teacher on the faculty of the Catholic school, Almira felt more at home among the nuns than she did the three public schools she visited during her last year as a student. Her placement at the small elementary school was facilitated by the Placement Office of the Rhode Island Normal School. Ranked in the top three of teaching colleges in the United States, graduates of Rhode Island Normal School were always successful in securing a teaching position upon graduation.

Although Almira Gulch scored higher on her Entrance Examination than any applicant in recent memory and maintained  a 4.0 throughout her studies, the Placement Office felt that finding a position in one of Rhode Island’s public schools might be somewhat difficult. Her faculty advisor, Mr. Alger, wrote in her student record, as she began her final year, ‘This student is possessed of a certain off-putting manner and exhibits a resistance to proper management. Clearly this attitude is an understandable and inevitable consequence of her facial deformity,’ he went on to write, ‘it is the regarded Opinion of this Office that every effort be made that she might be placed in a private school, rather than a part of the State system. In no way is this intended as a reflection of the effects of her disfigurement on her ability to be an effective Teacher. It would, however be in keeping with best Teaching Practices and Principles to not expose young children to a person of her appearance.’

Sister Aloysius was principal of Our Lady of Intercession and she liked Almira from the very first interview. While Almira’s academic record was very impressive, she was much more impressed by the quiet confidence of the young woman. While her clothing was not only quite appropriate for a lay teacher in a parochial school, it’s quality spoke of a person who wanted to be a teacher more than someone who needed a job. That, the principal smiled, was almost always a good predictor of success in a school setting that was inevitably much more personal and far less burdened with the trappings of a public school system. This impression of personal preference for the values of individuality was reinforced when, looking out her office window before the interview, Sister Aloysius watched as the young woman rode into the school yard on what, she believed, was the biggest bicycle she’d ever seen. As she watched, the young jumped from the bike and spent 5 minutes re-arranging her clothing. This included putting on a hat that was in a wicker basket that was attached to the back of the bicycle’s seat. Completing her preparation, Sister Aloysius watched as this young woman deftly kicked a stray ball quite accurately back to the knot of boys who were kicking up dust with their game of kickball. The enjoyment on her face as she did so ignited a burst of laughter from the children in the school yard. The principle of Our Lady of Intercession smiled and waited for her job applicant to arrive at her office.

The interview went the normal course for a teaching position interview, reading of records, explanation of grades and awards, likes and dislikes. Finally, there came the point in the conversation where there was no longer any information or insight into the candidates schooling or qualifications left un-noted. There was, in fact, nothing left to talk about other than the applicant’s face. Sister Aloysius asked her point-blank,

‘How will you handle the looks and the stares of the more rude people? Parents of children, particularly those children who require extra attention, are not always the kindest of people. Our parish is, in large part, consisted of working poor Catholic families. Does that pose any problems that we should discuss?’

Almira smiled and replied,

“I grew up among the working poor. My husband Sterling is from the other end of the social order, where wants are few and choices plentiful. I believe I will be alright with parents from any background. After all, it is the children who are in my care, not the adults.”

“I believe that you’ll do just fine, Mrs. Gulch, just fine.”

***

“…they are wrong, Ethan. I am not a witch, although I might find myself cursing them.”

The young woman’s laughter was heard by the very young boy and his expression became that of one who has been offered a part-ownership in a treasure map.

“I understand why you were fighting. You should not get into a fight. Unless you are threatened or your friends are threatened. But why are you crying?”

“Because they all laugh at you when you’re not there and I can’t make them stop.”

Almira stood up and, putting her hand on the boy’s shoulder, turned and began the return to afternoon classes.

“Ethan? I’ll tell you a secret. Having people laugh at you is not the worst thing in the world, even though at first it feels that way. There are other ways that people are mean and cruel and as long as you believe in what you’re doing, there is nothing they can do that will hurt you. So when you see little people hiding around you, coming out in the open only when they think you are out-numbered and afraid of them, know that you have the real power. Just believe in yourself.”

***

At the end of the school day, Ethan would linger by the door of the 5th grade, a place he’d just spent 6 hours. The boy seemed to look forward to clapping erasers outside on the steps than he did any other part of the day, looking for all the world, the opposite of a coal miner at the end of a day’s shift underground. With the last of the books back in their cupboards and the classroom ready for the new week, Almira walked down the green and white tiled corridor, confident that the boy would follow. This was not such an impressive prediction as, with the focus of his dreams leaving, the hollow rooms and echoing corridors of Our Lady of Intercession held as much attraction for the boy as a crossword puzzle that had been filled in (and crossed out) in the daily newspaper.

“Well, time for me to pedal off for home, Ethan.”

Almira reached into her coat pocket and touched the envelope she took from the mailbox on her way out the door that morning. She’d resolved to wait until after school to read it. Being a Friday, a letter from Sterling (after an interval of 6 weeks since the last), would provide a small celebration. It was, after all, the end of the last week of her first month as an elementary school teacher. The intervals between his return letters grew in a curiously negative inverse proportion to how much she missed him. It was as if receiving a letter was a reminder of the increased absence, more than it was welcome communication from her husband. Accepting the books and lesson planner from the boy who stood next to her bicycle with every bit of the dedicated formality of any royal retainer, Almira put everything in the bicycle’s wicker basket, smiled at Ethan and rode out of the schoolyard and down Lloyd Street towards home.

Arriving home, Almira went directly to the kitchen. Gertrude Rogers could always be found in the kitchen, coordinating the activities of the small domestic staff. A certain self-consciousness still lingered, whenever she spoke to the cook or the maid, as if she was a little girl playing dress up. She accepted her role as the lady of the house, if only by marriage, and approached it the way that she approached most problems. The first step was to understand the problem and second, understand the other person or people involved. Despite her self-consciousness, Almira resolved to act the part of the head of the household to the best of her abilities. The staff took to her in this new role as easily as they had when she and Sterling first returned from Lawrence, Massachusetts six years before. However, Sterling and Almira lived with his parents only long enough to find a place of their own, a small house near the waterfront in the Fox Point section of the city.

Seymour Gulch never quite recovered from the death of his wife Edith who died, the year before, early in 1917. A healthy woman throughout her life, Edith Gulch nevertheless had a flare for the dramatic. Whenever the occasional cold or illness had the gall to appear in the household, she would proclaim, with a bit more enthusiasm than one might otherwise experience, that Death, himself, would soon be calling at 23 Loring Ave. Edith Gulch was, in fact, in perfectly good health up until the moment she died.

Although Sterling and Almira loved their house in Fox Point, his father’s increasing infirmity made moving back into his parent’s home inevitable. This change of residence was hastened by Sterling’s decision to enlist in the American Expeditionary Forces. Almira soon found herself the only woman in the Gulch household that did not wear a uniform. She was, nevertheless, happy to help in the care of her father-in-law. Being wealthy, while not preventing ill-health, did permit it to be suffered in more comfortable surroundings. More importantly, though less directly acknowledged, wealth, at least wealth sufficient to allow for a domestic staff, relieved the members of the immediate family of a great deal of stress that affected all when dealing with terminal illness.

“How was Mr Gulch’s day?”

Almira sat at the small kitchen table, across from Gert Rogers. It had taken several efforts by Almira to establish a less formal relationship with the person in charge of running the Gulch house. Almira’s insistence on sitting and talking with her in the kitchen served to establish that, as uncomfortable as it might be for the staff, if Almira wished to have coffee in the kitchen, it was her prerogative as lady of the house. And so it was.

“He’s still eating. In the afternoon he seems to perk up, especially when Lila is working. He’s quite taken with her.”

Seeing the expression on Almira’s face, she continued,

“But all in all, not well. Each day the night comes sooner and the morning takes longer and longer to start the day. I fear our Mr. Gulch will not see Thanksgiving. If only Sterling were home. Sorry, of all people for me to say that to, you are the one in least need of being reminded.”

“I know. But don’t feel sorry. He’s been my husband for all of six years, you’ve known him for what, 18 years?”

“Yes, ma’am. Mr. Gulch made his fortune late in life, when Sterling was only six years old. But he never let it change him or his family. Fine house, people to take care of it (and them!) sending Sterling off to school, he has always been a kind and considerate man.”

“Well, we won’t be losing him this weekend. What do you think of a picnic out on the patio tomorrow? The weather is still warm, I think he’d enjoy that!”

“Splendid idea, Mrs. Gulch. Something like that is just what the doctor ordered, whether he knows it or not!”

Pulling the envelope from her pocket, Almira placed it in the middle of the table.

“From Sterling, is it?” Gert had a way of sounding 20 years old whenever the topic of discussion focused on Sterling.

Almira smiled,

“It is. If you have another pot of that wonderful camomile tea, I would love to take some to the library.”

“Don’t give it another thought, Missus. You go ahead while I brew a fresh pot and I’ll bring it right in.”

Almira sat in the library, facing the French doors that opened out into the small garden area. She had one of the doors open, a cooling early evening breeze joined her on the couch. Gertrude arrived with tea and crumpets, set everything on the sideboard and left without a word.

Putting the cup down, Almira read,

Almira,

They tell us that we’re winning the war. I find that doesn’t make me as happy as I would have thought. Forgive the delay in returning your letters, now that we’re in Europe we spend more time doing less, at least compared to the endless shipboard time getting here. The interval (between these letters) holds greater sway over me than ever would I have imagined. With each day that passes, the world in which you and I are together moves farther and farther away and this world of guns and wounds, explosions and grief grows larger. It fills my world, both awake and asleep, the sounds of death inform most night’s dreams. But I still see you here, among the letters I write and the letters I read and it makes all of the difference in the world. That the girl who could work 10 hours a day in the roaring caves of a textile mill yet, on our brief time together in the middle of the day, eating a rude lunch of bread and cheese, bring to life the subtle thought of philosophers and thinkers, that is the part of my world that I protect from this place around me. And, my protecting this memory of the love we share, in turn protects me. The death I see around me is not all the result of bullets and bombs and yellow gases. What terrifies me more is the death of the soul that I see over-taking more and more of the men around me. It is a despair that no longer even tries to cry out in anguish, silent as the feet that keep moving and the hands and arms that keep firing the weapons that we are given to aim at those they tell us are the enemy. The real enemy is not those men, looking for all the world like the men who are dying around me, only they are on the other side of the battle-torn earth.
There was a time, a moment when you looked at me and I saw a life that would make something as terrible as this war worthwhile. I hold onto that memory. It is my lifeline to a world in which we both might soon return to.
Always yours,

Sterling

“Mrs. Gulch? There is someone at the door asking to speak to you.”

Almira brushed the single tear from her eye and turned towards Edward, standing in the library door.

“Who is it?”

Edward Fenton managed to have an expression that was at once non-judgmental and yet clearly expressed concern.

“A policeman. He said he was Captain Herlihy from Lawrence, Massachusetts and would like to ask you some questions. Shall I send him away?”

Edward’s expression of concern acquired a certain ferocity that was all the more noticeable for his butler’s uniform.

“No, thank you Edward. Put him in the parlor, offer refreshment and tell him I will join him shortly.”

***

“What, did everyone take the night off?”

Eliza walked, slightly behind Dorothy, as the two girls crossed the central lobby of St. Mary’s Hospital. Even though it was still early evening, there was no one in sight, not behind the reception desk, at the small gift shop, not even an orderly washing the silent corridor floors. Dorothy continued to walk down the hallway, to the right of the reception area. There was a sign on the wall, it included an arrow, and in black letters it said, ‘Charity Ward’.

As the two reached the end of the corridor, signs of construction become evident. Wiring outlets were exposed and sections of the ceiling had been removed. Eliza stared up at exposed pipes and conduits, those presumably serving the floor above and wondered to herself, ‘They sure are in a hurry!’

Looking  back, Eliza saw her friend being swallowed by the double swinging doors under a sign that said, ‘Charity Ward’.

Chapter 21

Featured

“I hope the fine, upstanding citizens of Circe, Kansas have the good sense to be behind closed doors before those two hit town…”

Tom Hardesty spoke with a smile as the two men walked across the hard-dirt yard that separated the Gale house from the working parts of the farm.

Hunk Dietrich looked out over the fields towards the black ribbon of County Road # 2, as the convertible sped away from the Gale Farm. As it shrank into the distance, the bright yellow Packard seemed to maintain a very slight lead on the dust plume that chased it up the July-dry road. An iron-leather-and-girl comet, trailed by a gold-tinged cloud, the car raced towards the East.

Hunk smiled and walked ahead to the low, small building next to the barn. It was his home, albeit on loan from the owners of the Gale Farm. It graced him with a glimmer of independence and allowed him to live, to a small extent, on his own terms. Not so much happily, as content, for the present time.

Tom Hardesty sat on the plain wood chair that, along with a spindle-back bench and hickory rocking chair, was arranged across the small porch. The tin-roofed, single story building originally served as the milk house, adjacent to the barn, built by the original owners of the farm. They were a small family of Mennonites who fled the East and ran out of momentum here, in eastern Kansas, as often happens when one runs from demons that are not physically (or morally) subject to the limitations of the flesh. The couple, Jakob and Anna Freisen put their all into what they hoped would become a working dairy farm and were moderately successful. Unfortunately, halfway through their seventh year in Circe Kansas, sickness took two of their children and a fall (from the roof of the barn), transformed Anna Freisen from loving wife into desperate widow and mother of 3 children. As she struggled to keep the farm itself from dying, Emily Gale appeared and, with a satchel of inherited money, made Anna an offer that she couldn’t refuse. Grateful to be out from under the crushing weight of the farm that killed half her family, the Widow Freisen took her two remaining children and moved to Minnesota, to live with distant relatives.

Hunk furnished the low, no-railing porch that ran across the front of the building with more seating than needed, at least since Zeke died and Hickory moved on. The two chairs, he found in an abandoned farmhouse bought at auction by his employers, Emily and Henry Gale. The spindle-back bench was a gift from a middle-aged German man he met on one of his rare visits to Almira Gulch’s place. The man was traveling west in a panel truck full of wood-carving tools and his wife. At various points in their journey they would stop and he would make furniture to trade with the local residents. The spindle back bench was the residue of a deal that went bad when the mechanic tried to steal the truck. Fortunately, the would be truck thief was too drunk to check the gas and ran out of fuel a block from his blacksmith shop-turned-gas station. The handcrafted bench was a beautiful piece of furniture and one of Hunk’s prized possessions. He told Henry that he found it by the side of the road. Hunk understood his employers better than he let on and knew that his story of finding the bench would be easier for everyone.

Tom had returned from his truck with his guitar case and, after putting the case on his half of the bench that separated the two chairs on the porch, sat back, the guitar lying across his legs. He held the Martin guitar, not playing, just holding it. He ran thumb and forefinger down each string, feeling for condition, and using his thumbnail, scraped the fingerboard at each fret, to clean off the playing grime. He seemed content to simply hold the instrument, much as Hunk, in the rocking chair on the far side of the bench, was engrossed with his pipe and tobacco. For both, there was clearly a sense of satisfaction derived from cleaning and adjusting their respective instruments.

The afternoon meal at the Gale home had concluded with the abrupt departure of Dorothy and Eliza. Conversation at the Gale dinner table, minus the two girls, became decidedly strained. Seizing the opportunity when Margherita began to clear the un-touched plates left behind by the girls, Hunk offered to help. Once standing, Hunk invited Tom to join him over at his cottage, ‘to set a spell before he left’, both made their escape. Emily Gale’s attention, which had started to crawl around the table to where Tom Hardesty had, until a second before sat, shifted towards her husband. Henry Gale glared resentfully out the dining room window, as the two younger men walked away from the house, leaving him alone with his wife, Emily.

With the distant clatter of dishes being washed and the staccato-mumble whisper of conversation between the owners now a safe distance across the yard, Hunk Dietrich and Tom Hardesty relaxed.

“Yeah, that Eliza! Can’t say I’ve ever met anyone like her. I mean, damn, Hunk! She looks like if she took it to mind, she’d kill a man and make him happy doin it.”

Hunk laughed quietly and picked up the leather tobacco pouch. Set between the two single chairs, the spindle-back bench provided sort of a workbench for the two men. Tom’s guitar case and pack of cigarettes rested on his half, and Hunk laid out his tobacco pouch, silver metal tamper, blue and white box of kitchen matches on the half on his end.

“You thinkin you have a chance there, boy?”

Hunk smiled through the bluish grey smoke from his pipe.

“Hell, old man, I can plain see she’s set her sights on you.”

Tom picked at the strings of the guitar, his left hand muting them, resulting in a series of soft round notes.

“I don’t know, Tom. You got a guitar and that ‘come here, I won’t hurt you’ way about you. Everyone knows that the young girls all go crazy for that cowboy charm.”

“You should talk! You’ve got half the ‘can’t-wait-to-get-out-of-high-school-and-show-the-world’ girls in town starin after you when you walk out of the supply store, all strong, silent Gary Cooper type. ‘Specially that Becky Stillworth down to the library. Man alive! Ain’t a boy in town don’t dream about Becky and how they’d…”

“Now hold on there, buck. Becky’s a friend of mine. No need to get all common on her…”

Hunk stared at Tom. Finally Tom strummed a single, minor chord and smiled.

Their laughter was hijacked by voices from the farmhouse.

“I don’t care what you think you know, Henry Gale. That new wing is going to happen and it’s going to happen this very summer. I will not tolerate having Circe’s High School being named after that woman. I know that I can’t change that. Why you stopped me from giving those gutless, bleeding heart biddies on the school committee a piece of my mind, I’ll never understand. Be that as it may. We’ll see how many people remember anything about the Gulch woman or that place she runs with all the transients and riff-raff, after they see the brand new Gale Wing at the hospital.”

Both men fell silent as the woman’s quiet, hard-edged words escaped through the open windows of the farmhouse and crossed the yard, like a pack of starving wolves. Hunk busied himself with re-igniting his already lit pipe and Tom, pulling out his shirt-tail, polished the headstock of the guitar, the stylized ‘M’ already glowing with the natural light of the inlaid mother-of-pearl.

Playing a series of chords, at a subdued, near-muted volume, Tom Hardesty slid out of his chair and leaned, one knee on the porch, facing Hunk and sang,

“Don’t know why, there’s no sun up in the sky
Stormy weather, since my girl and I ain’t together,
Stormy weather…

When she went away, the blues walked in and met me
If she stays away, old rocking chair will get me
All I do is pray the Lord, above will let me
Walk in the sun once more

Stormy weather…”

Both men laughed. Quietly

Meaning no disrespect, but that boss of yours, Henry Gale? Over in that big house over there?”

Hunk smiled and looked back out towards County Road #2, streaming flatly towards the darkening horizon.

“Henry? He’s one of the hardest working men in the County.”

“No, Hunk Dietrich, my father’s one of the hardest working men in McPherson County. Hell, you’re one of the hardest working men in the County. Ever’ body in these parts are hard-working. Henry Gale? He sets out to make sure to look like the hardest workin man in the County. Ain’t quite the same.”

“So what’s your point? I got no complaints. They’ve been good to me. I couldn’t of been more than nine years old when my uncle dropped me off at the church on Main St, on his way to California. Emily and Henry, they took me in, gave me a place to sleep and food to eat. I owe them for that.”

“Well, and tell me it’s none of my business and I’ll shut up, but you always seemed like you had better things in mind for yourself. What with all the book learning and such.”

“You’re right about the learning. I know there’s more to life than being a farm hand. Correspondence school is one of the things I believe will help me find out just what it is I was meant to do. Nothing wrong with hard work, of course. My father taught me that, ‘Work hard, boy, and good things will always come of it’ he always said. He worked hard everyday and provided us with a roof over our heads and put food on the table. But, I gotta say, it was my mother who taught me about learning. She’d clean house for people in town and used to bring home books, reading books, not textbooks like we had in school. She’d say to me, ‘William, there’s nothing wrong with dreaming. Dreams are like a step-ladder, if we’re smart about it, we can use ’em to get a look up towards the future. And if you don’t have a ladder, you can pile up books and they’ll serve just fine. Don’t ever forget that.’
I used to read and watch her fix dinner. She’d take whatever book she’d given me to read and put it away, just before my father got home. Not like she was hiding anything from him, she just knew him well enough not to cause him any un-necessary concern. And, if truth be known, I think she borrowed those books from the rich people’s houses that she cleaned. Didn’t quite tell them that she was doing it.”

Hunk tapped the bowl of his pipe against the edge of the porch, watched the pinpricks of light fade as the coals suffocated in the dirt. Re-packing the pipe, he struck a match and his face, lit by the flame, glowed and faded as he puffed gently to start the fresh tobacco burning.

“My father worked at the rail yards. Long hours of hard, back-breaking work. And my mom  did her cleaning. We had a happy life, me an my sisters. My world made sense, the simple kind of sense, the kind a nine-year-old boy could take a hold of and believe that things would go on the way they always had. And it did, right up until that Wednesday afternoon. The storm came roaring out of the mist and fog like a hellbound train, the sound it made was like nothing I’d ever heard. It was the sound of an angry god, bent on destruction. It turned sunny day into a hateful night lurched up through the valley and took the town with it when it left. I was walking home from school when it started. I ran for home, it was the only thing I could think, ‘get home’. As I ran, I actually started to fly, the wind was so strong as to pull me, and pieces of the neighbor’s house, up off the ground. For a second, just as I was almost to my front door, the wind stopped, skipped a beat, you might say. It dropped me, I must’ve been three feet in the air, next to the end of the porch. The animal part of me took over and I just crawled under the porch and hung on for dear life. I don’t remember much after that. Something hit the side of my head, I blacked out.”

Hunk leaned towards Tom, pulled back the hair on the right side of his head, exposing the long scar that started just above his ear and ran down his scalp to a little below his ear lobe.

“But I didn’t feel a thing at the time. I didn’t hear the storm move on, I just woke up laying in a pile of dead leaves and staring up at a blue sky where my house should’ve been. I looked around and couldn’t make sense of what I saw. Things were… out-of-place. There was a house in the middle of the street, (not my house, that was a block away, bleeding the life of my mother out onto what was left of Halloran’s Hardware store). I stood and I stared. I saw people running towards me and they were waving their arms. I couldn’t hear a thing. I just stood there and waited; eventually people came and took me to an unbroken house and they took care of me. All on a Wednesday afternoon in March.”

Tom Hardesty looked over at Hunk and taking a cigarette from the pack that was sitting on his guitar case, looked at Hunk again, after seeing a nod, took a match from the blue and white box and lit his cigarette.

“Ok. So I think I won’t ask how you feel about working for the Gales.”

Hunk laughed.

“Sounds like a wise decision, Tom. Don’t know what got me off on that subject, can’t remember the last time I told anyone about that day. So, what about you? I know what my boss plans for you and your dad’s place. Not taking a position on that affair, but since we’re sharing a smoke, let me ask, what are you planning to do with your life?”

“Don’t rightly know. What I do know is I ain’t gonna stay in this place much longer.”

“What about your Dad and your brother, Ethan? You’d be leaving them with a helluva load to shoulder. I mean, you can’t want to make it too easy for the Gales to get your family’s land. You know about running farms and I don’t mean just the back-straining physical labor. You’re good at the business end of things. You could make a go of it at that place of yours.”

“Who says that? How would you know what I know and don’t know? It them bankers, I suppose, the Gales pretty much have them in their pocket, along with the rest of this two-bit town. They can go shove….”

“Hold on, hoss! I’m just speaking my mind. Seeing how we’re passing the time and I told you something about myself, I just thought I’d give you the chance to return the favor…”

“No, sorry, Hunk. I sometimes talk without thinking, especially when it’s about the family and all. Seeing how the Town mostly thinks we’re all a no account bunch, at least since my ma up and left.”

“Ain’t really the Town, you know. It’s just some folks, folks who seem to like to follow along behind the loud angry ones. Them folks out at the Keep, that Phyllis McCutcheon for one, all have some good words for you.”

Tom leaned forward in his chair,

“How would you know about Miz McCutcheon? And the Keep? It ain’t no secret how much your boss, Emily Gale, hates Miz Gulch and everything she’s done out there for the strangers and workers passing through.”

“I know the things I need to know, Tom. Just never had a need to go around tellin everyone my business, you know? I know all about her place out there, in the foothills. The people she helps, the quiet trade she does with a lot of the small farms, like yours. Hell, I even know why one of the richest women this side of Kansas City could be laying in the charity ward at St Mary’s hospital, like anyone of the penny-less drifters that we see come through these parts so much of late.”

Hunk sat back in the rocking chair and watched as Tom become more animated, the conversation taking a turn he wasn’t expecting.

“Rich? The hell you say! Sure that’s one big spread out there and me and my pa, we do a goodly amount of barter with Miz McCutcheon, but rich? That don’t sound like the Almira Gulch I know.”

“Funny how that works, Tom. We think we know all about people when we listen to the loud ones. The angry people boasting about what they have and others don’t have, telling the world how good they are and how bad someone else is. Like that proves anything.”

“Well, I know the people out there at the Keep and they’re good people. And the people who pass through? I hear ’em talking and more times than not they’ll tell you how they heard about the Keep from other people they met on the road. Most of them are down on their luck and some of them can look pretty shady, but they have nothing but good to say about Almira Gulch. That means a lot.”

“Sure it does, Tom. It does to people who think and people who don’t like being told how to act and what to believe in. But I’m saying, the leaders of a small town like Circe? They aren’t always the people to believe, when it comes to who’s a good person and who’s not a good person.”

The two sat in silence, attending to their thoughts with the kind of relaxed reflection that usually occurs between friends following some sort of common (and) strenuous effort. It occurred to neither man to wonder how that might be, given how little in common they believed they had.

******

“Did you get a chance to go over the statement I prepared for you? You know, for when you testify before the Zoning Commission?”

Ignatius V. Torte, Esq. threw his brief case on the worn and scratched conference table. The meeting room in Circe’s Town Hall had a conference table facing a long table, behind which sat whichever Committee was in session. Opposite them, and behind the witness table. were rows of folding chairs. This for whatever public that cared to show up and listen as assorted Expert Witnesses, disgruntled neighbors and concerned citizens shared their opinions, feelings and expertise on whatever issue was on the docket.

“Of course I read it! Although I fail to see why you felt it necessary to write it out. I assure you, I’m quite capable of explaining to the committee why modernizing the hospital’s infrastructure would be desirable.”

“Well, doc, the reason’s right there. What you just said, ‘modernizing the hospital’s infrastructure.‘ My god, man, don’t you want them to approve this plan?”

“Why, of course I do!”

“Then keep to the script. All we need you to do is tell the Zoning Committee that the renovation of the old wing on the hospital will be nothing but good for the citizens of Circe. Think you can do that, Thad?”

Thaddeus Morgan felt at once ill-at-ease and angry. He wasn’t nervous. He was accustomed to giving expert testimony and was very confident. There was something about this particular hearing that felt different. And, among the differences, was the fact of the presence of an attorney, sitting alongside him at the witness table. ‘As if,’ he thought, ‘I require the aid of an attorney to talk about my hospital and what a benefit modernization would provide.’

As a lawyer, Ignatius V Torte was very well  known in Circe. This high-profile status was attributable to his excesses as well as his successes. Iggy Torte, for all his many faults, was the type of lawyer you would want if the police were knocking at the door of your home at 5:00 am. He practiced his profession as whole-heartedly as he indulged his many vices, without restraint or the slightest thought of consequences. Emily Gale found him to be the perfect person to get her plans for the Gale Wing renovation project through the hearings, reviews and final approval. Thaddeus Morgan MD, found him crude, pushy and, somehow, familiar.

“OK, they’re ready to start. Don’t screw this up, Thad.” the attorney turned in his seat and smiled at Enid Thibault, the only female member of the Zoning Committee.

***

“…and so, Dr, Morgan, it’s your opinion that the proposed renovation to St. Mary’s Hospital will, in no way, have a negative impact on the community?”

“That’s correct.”

“On behalf of the Committee, I want to thank you for taking the time from your busy schedule to come down here and talk to us about this very exciting project. The work and effort that has gone into the design and planning of the Gale Wing is quite impressive. We also want to thank Mr. Torte for his expert assistance in guiding this project through all the steps of approval. That being said, hearing from the man most responsible for the health and well-being of our community is the stamp of approval that we needed to proceed.”

Iggy Torte turned his head and grinned at Thaddeus Morgan, who remained staring straight ahead at the 5 members of the Zoning Committee. After several seconds of enthusiastic smiling, the short, sloppily dressed attorney reached over and slapped him on the back. The sound was loud enough to be heard throughout the meeting room. Thaddeus heard it echo in a decidedly odd way, as if the sound came from far away, somehow from another time.

“Way to go Fattius Morgan! Good boy! Now get outa here, regular people have a hospital to build.”

“Take your hands off me, you shyster.” Dr. Thaddeus Morgan, Director of Medical Services at St. Mary’s hospital, brilliant physician and tireless advocate for improving the standard of care available at the only hospital in McPherson County, stood up abruptly. So abruptly that his chair tipped over with a wooden clattering sound, loud enough to end all other conversation in the meeting hall. Silence dropped from the ceiling, like balloons at a political convention, and everyone seemed to be frozen in place. Finally, one voice, that of Mrs. Tremont (who attended every meeting in the Circe Town Hall that she wasn’t barred from), carried through the room,

“Oh, my goodness!”

Feeling an almost physical charge of anger, Thaddeus Morgan, ignoring Attorney Ignatius Torte’s hurried efforts to pick up the chair, bent to his right and pulled the chair back to the table. As he turned back to face the Committee, he saw a tall, blonde woman standing near the door. She was almost entirely hidden behind the bulk of Al Renaldo, the reporter for the Circe Clarion. She was also dressed in white and she was staring at him.

“Are you alright, Dr Morgan?”

“Quite fine, Mr. Hubbard, my chair must have caught on something, quite alright.”

When he turned, all he saw was Al Renaldo, busily writing in a spiral-bound notepad, the meeting room door slowly swinging shut.

“Then I’d say that this concludes the meeting. Thank you all for attending.”