Chapter 1

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“Miss Gulch, do you hear me?” Dorothy spoke quietly, as if afraid of being overheard, despite the fact that she stood at the foot of the hospital bed, in the middle of a Wednesday afternoon, at least an hour before the beginning of Hospital Visiting Hours. The risk of interruption was not particularly great, as the Charity Ward at Saint Mary’s Hospital was housed in a wing, at the back of the huge brick hospital, and overlooked the service entrance. Other than staff nurses and the occasional relative making a last visit, the Charity Ward (Ward C) was never a busy part of the hospital, at least in terms of the comings and goings of the fully-living.

“I must know! You will tell! I shall not leave until you explain why you did it!” Dorothy Gale’s voice honed a cutting edge to her simple words. Clearly meant to not permit indifference, like spiny brambles that attach themselves to pant cuffs, un-noticed in the act of walking through a field, the quietly spoken questions were deceptively forceful. There was a deliberate and determined quality to her actions that was at odds with her appearance. Dorothy looked, for all the world, to be a well-dressed, pleasantly attractive 18 year old girl. Her thick brunette hair was cut in a style clearly new to the girl, perhaps as part of her effort to fit in at Sarah Lawrence, where she had just completed her freshman year. The bangs she wore echoed the look of several movie actresses. That she had gone to the effort to tie her hair back, betrayed a childhood growing up on a working farm. That she was the only person standing, in a room of quiet, nearly unrumpled beds, made this contrast all the greater. The quality of stillness that permeated Ward C, imbuing it’s beds and chairs and medical equipment with a deceptive peacefulness, always impressed the first time visitor with the need for silence. Ordinarily, early afternoon was the most active time of day. Lunches were brought to each bedside and left for a very exact length of time, and then cleared away, un-eaten or not and the slow journey towards evening would begin in earnest. At this time of year, Ward C would remain a comfortable place for lunch, the afternoon not yet overtaken by the accumulated heat of the day.  In the morning light, the heat was comforting and encouraging, suggestive of cool lakes and shade trees. By mid-afternoon, the mood would change and the atmosphere became ponderous, and the heat, unable to move in the lack of breeze or wind, pressed downwards on all and waited for the night, to escape into the cool dark to await the appearance of the morning sun.

“Why?”  There was an overtone to her question that was rooted in fear, and, as a result, made the girl’s question, perhaps the most fundamental question in human language, ‘Why?”, all the more forceful. Dorothy would be surprised, and very cross, if anyone were to ask her what she feared. The whisper that sent her first question to the world, had long since been banished to the corner, marked as useless, un-effective and a waste of time.

The object of Dorothy Gale’s interrogation, the woman in the hospital bed, remained as still as a field of wheat in December. A life-sized paper doll, crafted by once-skilled hands using crudely pressed paper, a casual passerby, (not that there was ever a casual passerby in Ward C), would’ve guessed that it was a woman they were seeing in the narrow bed, provided they spotted the solitary red ribbon fastened to the edge of the worn-blue hospital gown. Dorothy leaned forward, and stared intently, vainly searching for any acknowledgement of her questions, or even her presence. Her frustration, nurtured in her natural impatience, festered and grew, threatening to become anger. Turning her head, Dorothy looked around the large, open room, clearly hopeful of finding someone to share the frustration she felt, believing that, one more person would be enough to make the still form in the bed more cooperative.

The ward was a single large room with 10 beds, 5 along opposite walls. Each single bed, their white-painted metal railings giving them a near-coffin like appearance, had a grey (metal) nightstand and a single chair. The night stand was to the right side of the pillow, providing the only scenery that the often motionless patient might look to, and the chair, located at the foot of the bed, (facing away from the bed, it stood as a barrier, to preserve the illusion of not being in a large room with 10 hospital beds in it). This solitary chair, facing the empty world around the bed, was, for the powerless occupant of the single bed, their strongest plea for the company of another human. As a symbol of the bleakness of certain lives, the chair was of quite simple a design, un-padded, sculpted seat and half-curved back, it’s designer clearly meant to create an alternative to standing and nothing more. The chair was moveable and it was stable. When you thought about it, those are the only really essential qualities a chair required.

“You must tell me what happened after I went away to school! Everyone acts like they don’t know me. Like they don’t like me anymore!” Dorothy had planned this conversation through the last half of her first year at college and had been practicing it for the last 2 weeks, since she arrived home at her Aunt and Uncle’s farm. Despite the lack of cooperation from the woman in the bed, she was determined to have her say.

“Miss? Is everything alright… oh, it’s you, Miss Gale.” Startled by the sound of another person speaking, here in the place where no one spoke…or moved or, apparently, listened, Dorothy looked about the room, face reddening, her eyes, so recently glaring at the paper mache woman, now looked towards the floor, as if planning a quick escape. She felt unattractively self-conscious, overcome by the preemptive embarrassment that seems to arise on it’s own, whenever a person discovers that they are not alone, despite being certain to the contrary. From among the white-on-off-white, touched by grey shapes that made up the landscape of the room, a figure separated itself from the still backdrop and become a person. It was a nurse, of course, who rose from the bedside chair that was next to the bed of a very, very old woman. She had been so focused on her patient and her uniform blended in with the near-antiseptic nondescriptness of the room that she was nearly invisible, up until the moment she spoke.

“Miss Gale, I asked you if everything was alright,” Nurse Claire Griswold was a tall and mild woman. She had blonde hair, that, captured by the white, rounded-square cap of her profession, somehow implied a natural energy. Slender, approaching willowy, she moved in a most peculiar manner. When she spoke, her words were cast into the air, in the direction of the person she was addressing, words and person becoming two. Dorothy heard the words and by the time she comprehended them, Nurse Griswold had somehow moved to quite near where Dorothy stood. There was no sense of an approaching person, there was no opportunity to assess the person as she physically approached. Standing now close, yet not close enough to touch, Dorothy could see blue eyes, eyes that seemed to not quite focus, at least, not on anything that was nearby. Dorothy was not certain that she should trust this woman, she did, however, resign herself to having to include her in her mission to talk to the woman in the bed.

Nurse Griswold was an asset to the hospital in virtually all aspects of the care and treatment of patients who came to Saint Mary’s from the surrounding Counties. She had a nature that allowed her to be calm, when people were distraught, serene when others were anxious and peaceful when patients fought to resist the dark embrace of depression. The Care and Well-being of the patients was all that mattered to Nurse Griswold. Everyone liked her and she returned this respect in kind, except, and quite uncharacteristically, this mid afternoon in August, the air heavy with heat, time passing achingly slow. This afternoon, Nurse Griswold found herself not liking this willful young girl. Of course, Nurse Griswold recognized Dorothy Gale, the once celebrated, recently returned from college, as the girl standing at the foot of Almira Gulch’s bed.

“Perhaps if you told me what you need from Mrs. Gulch, I might save you the frustration and definitely spare her the aggravation of your hectoring.” Nurse Griswold stared quietly at the young woman.

Dorothy spun on her heels to face the source of what, to her genuine surprise, felt like a challenge. Claire Griswold marveled at how different a person can be from their physical appearance. Putting aside the interesting idea of inner and outer personality, Nurse Griswold faced the young girl, her expression one of ‘disinterested concentration’. It was a look that the seemingly passive people of the world exhibit when motivated to become direct and aggressive.

Dorothy was about to say something sharp to this Nurse, but when it became very clear that somehow she, a mere nurse, was not going to defer to her dominant status, (in Dorothy’s measure, it was a status by social standing and, more recently, by virtue of her being a student at a very exclusive college). She looked about the room, the only audience were the mute occupants in the 9 other beds, a coliseum of the dying.

“What’s this?” Dorothy reached towards the bedside table and picked up a well-worn book,  reading the title aloud,’ The Jungle’ by Upton Sinclair’, she raised an eyebrow, opened the cover and saw there, on the flyleaf, written 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

“Put that back,” the quiet tone somehow brought out the force of Claire Griswold’s command. Before she could think, ‘what right does this nurse have to tell me what to do’, Dorothy placed the book back on the nightstand. Nurse Griswold was now, somehow, standing next to Dorothy, and looking at the woman beneath the neatly tucked in sheets, with an unmistakable expression of kindness and affection.

“I wasn’t going to steal it, if that’s what you’re thinking!” Dorothy Gale felt trapped, despite there being more than enough room between the beds of Ward C. Instead, she decided that her best approach with this nurse was to be humble and apologetic.

“I’m really sorry that I’ve upset you. I should be on my way. I only wanted to ask Miss Gulch…”

Mrs Gulch,” the nurse turned her full attention back to the young girl, now just inches way, the three women forming a small group, remarkable only in the nature of where they found themselves, a place of resignation, “It’s Mrs. Gulch”

“I didn’t know, really I didn’t. We all just called her old… we called her Miss Gulch, when I was growing up.” Dorothy, now finding the object of her visit assuming stage center, felt her confidence return.

“Are you sure? Auntie Em never said old… Mrs. Gulch was married, ever! And my Aunt Em knows everyone in McPherson County! I rather doubt that she would not know a thing like that!”

“Your aunt is sadly uninformed.” Watching the girl’s brow begin to gather into a frown, Claire Griswold smiled and, touching Dorothy’s shoulder gently, said,

“You might be surprised at how little people know about others, even in a community like ours. They live their lives believing that they know all they need to know and never realize how much more there is to the world. Surely, of all people, you can appreciate that.”

Dorothy felt her anger begin to rise, ‘lecture me on knowing things, will she!’ and was preparing to put this woman in her proper place, until, that is, she heard herself being directly addressed. Something stopped and she looked at this woman, so tall and yet without taking up a lot of space, blue eyes framed in white and blonde, she seemed to barely be there and, at the same, time un-ignorable. Dorothy began to speak,

“All I want to know…”

Nurse Griswold was now, somehow, at the foot of the bed, standing in the space that, were there more than 5 narrow hospital beds in a row, might be called a corridor, her hand outstretched.

“I believe that you mean well, Miss Gale, and I also believe that you are quite a determined young woman,” the Nurse’s eyes were now focused on her, and Dorothy found that she could not look away,

“Visiting Hours are 1:00 to 2:30 every afternoon. Come back tomorrow and I will help you find the answers to the questions that you are seeking.”

Walking down the steps of the entrance to the Hospital, Dorothy Gale felt that she had accomplished much more than she had hoped for when this day started. She knew that Miss… Mrs Gulch was here and, since she certainly wasn’t going to go anywhere, she would get her answers, helpful nurse or not.

Nurse Griswold watched as the young woman walked out through the double swinging doors that separated Ward C from the fully-living part of the hospital. As she watched, she noticed that, at the intersection of the corridors, (Ward C was in the oldest wing of the hospital, the newer additions branching to the right and the left), the girl stopped and looked in all directions. Not simply glancing, but turning to face her body down each corridor, (one to either side and one straight ahead), and seemed to take a moment to think, finally she came around to the main corridor that lead to the lobby of the hospital, and still with a brief pause, walked down it and out of the building.

Claire Griswold carried the single chair from the end of the single bed and placed it facing the head of the bed, and beyond that, the window that looked out over the paved parking lot that serviced the less public functions of the hospital. Through the course of the day, if one were inclined, could watch as, garbage trucks backed up to the back of the building to remove the rubbish from the previous day, the arrival of food supply trucks, ambulances, like hornets disturbed by a hiker, would appear and disappear on a schedule only they were able to justify and finally the hearse, taking former patients to their future homes.

Sitting in the chair, Nurse Claire Griswold picked up the book and prepared to read, finding the bookmark, a ribbon with ‘Key to the City’ in faded gold letters, where she had last left off. Before opening the book, she reached into the single drawer in the nightstand and took out a small photograph of a child, in a tarnished brass frame, and pulling out the black felt upright, (it’s softness long since worn down to a glossy, almost glass-like texture), set the photo on the top of the nightstand, facing the bed.

Nurse Griswold began to read in a voice that, though softly quiet, would be mistaken for one half of a conversation.

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Chapter 3

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“So, Hunk, How’ve you been?”

Dorothy sat back on her side of the spring-lumpy bench seat of the rusty rose-colored truck as Hunk pulled out onto the long straight roadway that connected the Gale Farm to County Road #2. The interior of the cab had become uncomfortably hot from sitting in the morning sun, as Dorothy completed her chores, and so she rested her right forearm, gingerly at first, on the open passenger window sill and leaned out, letting the heat of the cab rush out, brushing the sides of her face, as they drove from the dooryard.

“Well, you know. Things go along. Your parents have been very good to me. Oh! I forgot to tell you! I enrolled in a correspondence college course last year, after you went back East to school. International Correspondence Schools of Scranton, Pennsylvania. We students call it ‘ICS’,” a hint of pride showed in a barely noticeable up-titling of his head,  “I work on the courses mostly in the winter, after harvest is done. I mail in my work and some of the professors are really good at writing back right away and the people in town, at the library are always willing to help.”

“Well, I always knew you had it in you,” Dorothy watched, alert to any sign of recognition to her reference to another time and a very different place. She thought she saw Hunk hesitate.

Hunk’s posture seemed to change, ever so slightly, as he spoke, it became, somehow, more upright, one might even say, assertive,

“Really, that sounds very ambitious of you,” she smiled to herself as he sat even straighter, hands on the steering wheel firm with an unconscious tightening.

“Aw, gee Dorothy, I still have 7 more courses to complete, but I really think I can earn a real diploma,”

The truck hit a dip in the road, Dorothy felt a peculiar lurch to her stomach, the ghost of breakfast tried to take up residence somewhere between her mind and her nose. She smiled at Hunk, with a little less self-assurance than when the trip began.

“Dorothy? Are you alright?” Her sense of confidence was not helped by the fact that a man she hadn’t seen in nearly a year noticed her reaction to his mention of diplomas, a reaction that she would have sworn was all, safely, inside her head.

“Oh, sure.” Dorothy forced herself to laugh,

“I’m just not used to such rich food. Back in New York, breakfast was usually a whole lot simpler, just coffee and a croissant.” As she started to add, “which is a…”

Hunk Dietrich put his right fore finger to his right temple and, cocking his head slightly, turned to Dorothy and recited,

“A croissant is a buttery, flaky, viennoiserie-pastry named for its well-known crescent shape. Croissants and other viennoiserie are made of a layered yeast-leavened dough.”

As Hunk stared at her, a cheerfully absent-minded expression on his face, Dorothy Gale felt the world slip, just a little. Like the momentary flicker from an old motion picture projector, not enough to interrupt the flow, just enough to remind the viewer that they’re watching a film, and actually not experiencing the story. She thought that she might faint, and thinking that, that would be too dramatic, felt a return of her ‘sense of normal’. However, at that moment, driving up County Road #2, the truck’s cab suddenly felt crowded. It wasn’t simply that near-forgotten memories returned unbidden, prompted by a single word in an otherwise un-remarkable conversation. That would have been merely distracting, like getting off a bus after riding for 6 hours and stepping into a crowded terminal at midday. What threatened to overwhelm Dorothy Gale, on an early afternoon, in the middle of June, was an uncontrolled reasserting of emotion.
For every adjustment and accommodation she was forced to make, after her experiences during ‘the Storm of ’37’, despite her efforts to put it all behind her, forgetting it ever happened and trying to turn a memory into a mere dream, there remained an emotional levy charged to her. The price of pretending that she was just like any other 16-year-old girl who came through the Storm of ’37 with a couple of bumps and bruises but nothing else unusual (especially ‘nothing unusual’), was like a Savings Bond of hopes and regrets.  There was always a penalty for early withdrawal.

Dorothy tried to fight this un-anticipated avalanche of feelings, but the discordant mixing of negative and positive, hope and regret, made resistance futile. In the face of being thrown backwards out of the present moment, she reached out for something to hold on to, hoping that a physical contact would provide her some shelter from the storm. Eyes closed, she reached towards Hunk and clutched at the rough fabric of his denim chore jacket, gaining a sense of direction, if nothing else. She felt the truck swerve as Hunk hit the brakes, the cloud of dust catching up and flowing past the windows as they pulled to a stop.

“Hey, easy… hold on, its alright,”

Hunk seemed to be reduced to incomplete sentences. It was exactly what she needed. Simple reassurance that the world was stable and not changing, not out-of-control. Closing one’s eyes at times of distress can be a risky maneuver. Eliminating the myriad cues of the real world can leave a person at the mercy of that part of the anxious imagination that prefers the dark. Hearing Hunk’s voice, even with its faulty syntax, was like finding a stair railing when descending in the dark.

The feel of his rough-patched coat triggered the memory of an afternoon on a walk though cornfields, she quickly opened her eyes to see Hunk staring at her. He was still in the driver’s seat, his right arm in her grasp and yet, somehow, had positioned himself in such as way as to appear to be shielding her with his body.
Dorothy let go of Hunk’s arm and sat back in the cracked-leather seat. She looked at Hunk and looked back at her hands, now folded on her lap. The temperature in the cab rose, deprived of the cooling effects of wind through open windows when the truck was in motion. The musty-dry smell of livestock and stale sweat grew noticeable.

“I’m so sorry. I don’t know what came over me, Hunk.” Dorothy, the flood of emotions receding, managed to keep her voice steady as she brushed out nonexistent wrinkles in her skirt.

“Are you sure?” his concern was clearly genuine and, yet, carried an overtone of hope that seemed out-of-place, until she looked over at his face and caught the fleeting glance of a man, used to running away, caught, momentarily out in the open.

The moment passed, as all such moments do, leaving a not-unpleasant feeling of un-certainty.

“Here, look at me! I’m acting like such a…such a little girl!” sitting up straighter, Dorothy caught herself regretting her choice of sweaters to wear on her trip into town. Hunk put the truck into gear and pulled back up onto the roadway. Dorothy felt an impulse to say, “well, this certainly seems to be a good direction to go in” and, although she felt a sadness, as the noise and the farm dust restored the moment back into part of just another uneventful ride into Town in a rattling truck, driven by a loyal, but common farm hand, she said nothing and stared out the window at the distant horizon.

Circe, Kansas was a large, Small Town. It had a Courthouse and a Library, several churches, (sharing that peculiar competition often seen among the still earth-bound devout, expressed in the size and grandeur of their houses of worship), a Hospital, (serving not only McPherson County, but all of the surrounding Counties as well), an Elementary and a High School, and a Main Street lined with small shops and the occasional diner. Most importantly Circe had a Town Square. Serving as the hub, in location if not in function, it possessed all the features essential to a small Town’s Town Square. An acre of green lawns and stone walkways, it had: two vintage, (i.e. non-functioning),coal-black cannon, complete with a pyramid of cannon balls, welded together, not only to hold the unlikely stacking arrangement, but to prevent the young, and the occasional holiday-drunk adult from attempting to demonstrate the proper use of such weaponry. In the center of Circe’s Town Square was a circular fountain. It no longer held water, At least not spraying in the air water, as it’s designers had intended, back in a more confident and prosperous time, however, its wide stone ledge served as an alternative to sitting on iron benches that were bolted to the walkway, at the cardinal points of the fountain.

“Do you want me to wait, Dorothy?” Hunk said as he pulled up in front of the Library. In answer, Dorothy, got out of the truck and began walking up the broad marble stairs to the entrance to the Circe Free Public Library.

“No, Hunk, I don’t know how long I’ll be, I’ve school work and other things. Do you think you could come back at 3?” Dorothy noticed a boy and 2 girls sitting on the benches that surrounded the broken fountain in the Town Square. They appeared to be entangled in a conversation that clearly had more value to the two girls than the one young man, if how much time he spent staring off into the distance was an indication. Dorothy recognized them as former high school classmates. He was a boy that she almost went steady with and the two girls used to be her best friend.

Dorothy planned on taking out a couple of books from the library, (to provide credibility to the reason she gave her parents for needing to go into town), and be at the hospital just before the start of Visiting Hours. The Nurse in charge of the Charity Ward struck her as the kind of woman who would make a big deal out of being late. She remembered her encounter with Nurse Griswold the previous day and decided it would be best to get there at exactly 1:00.

Unfortunately for her timetable, the young people were still in the park 15 minutes later, when Dorothy left the library. They spotted her as she walked down the steps, intending to cut through the Square to Shay Lane, which. in a short two blocks, lead to St Mary’s Hospital. Like neighborhood dogs, in the middle of a boring, quiet Summer afternoon, the two girls and the young man stopped looking at each other, and started looking at Dorothy Gale. Again, like our neighborhood dogs, feral pack instincts not all that far in the past, they got up from their bench. Making it look like a random movement, the three appeared to develop a sudden interest in the side of the fountain that was closest to where Dorothy’s path would take her, as she cut through the park.

Dorothy spent her Senior Year as an involuntary celebrity. Her tales of adventures were as much a part of the local lore that grew, following the Storm of ’37, as was the wholesale destruction left in the path of the F5 tornado. Except she was a girl, who although undeniably changed by the storm, did not have the guarantee of reconstruction or repair, as did the High School and other structures destroyed and left in pieces, to be re-built by the community.
Tom Hardesty and Patricia Levesque and Nancy Jackson, all graduated from High School with Dorothy the year before, the first class to graduate from the new High School. Not surprisingly, Dorothy knew all three since 1st grade, such is the nature of a small town, in a farming community. Patricia was very popular and Nancy was very bright, they made for perfect best friends. Tom was every father’s worry and every mother’s shameful hope. He was the demographic wild card found in every class, in every high school. In fact, his name found a place on the pages of Dorothy’s diary in her sophomore year. His confident recklessness was everything that her family, (including the 3 farm hands who were not that far removed from high school in age), was not. So powerful was the idea of a boy like Tom Hardesty, in the mind and heart, (which, in a girl of 15, is mostly heart), that she gladly allowed his thoughtless charm to entangle her heart. He showed her a side of life that she felt called out to her. The Friday afternoon, of the first week of school, of her Sophomore Year, Tom convinced Dorothy to let him show her something special in the hay loft. Like so many at the age of wanting without knowing, she felt that life was passing her by. Convinced that if she only could have someone she could trust, she knew that she could find that which she felt she was missing from her life. He took her away from Kansas that Friday afternoon, not really far, and yet for a very short time she was nowhere near the farm, riding a passion that she suspected was in her and yet had not the language (or the experience) to claim as her own. They returned to the hayloft when the opportunity sparked the daring that was buried in her and flowed from him in reckless torrents. The nature of love, especially when first experienced, is different for girls like Dorothy and boys like Tom. For a girl like Dorothy, it can take the form of a status that confers the right to celebrate being with and a part of another, the creation of ‘a couple’. Sometimes, (but not always), for a boy like Tom, love transforms into a totem, the acknowledgement of power. Experienced as a responsibility to demonstrate this new power, the greater the variety of partners, the better the singular intensity of his passion might be expressed.

The cooling temperatures of Autumn slowed the spontaneity of their joinings in the loft. Still  only near-adults, the limited availability of places to be alone together brought about a slowing of their physical sharing, which given their age and his nature, caused the end of their time as a couple to come about sooner rather than later. For her part, Dorothy kept everything to herself, her feelings and her hurt. There simply was no one to share it with and so, it was inscribed in her Diary, many a young girl’s best hope for the kind of listener that most agree should be there and most come to accept rarely is.

As the three approached, Dorothy looked at her watch, saw that it was 12:45 and resolved to not allow her former classmates to delay her mission to town on this particular afternoon.

“Hey! Dorothy!! You’re back!” Tom lead the trio, the two girls forming a pair, a step behind him, almost as if they were flying a kite that was too large to control, on too windy a day, they linked arms as they made their way across the lawn.

Dorothy thought about her friend and roommate at school, Eliza, and took heart. As Dorothy packed for her trip back to Kansas, Eliza invited her to join her at her parent’s Summer home in Newport for the month of August. With that thought, Dorothy’s reflex shyness, that totally flawed defense mechanism of many an adolescent girl, (and some adolescent boys), evaporated. She remembered that she was not the small town girl that everyone knew and liked and admired and, at one time, whispered about. She was Dorothy Gale, home-for-a-part-of-the-Summer College girl.

Tom reacted first, sensing a change in the girl and regarded her with a clearly increasing interest. Dorothy, in turn, did not miss the change in attitudes on the part of Patricia and Nancy, though they were obviously less intrigued with the change. Dorothy reminded herself that she had very little time and so, waited for Tom to take the lead, which, naturally he did,

“Hey, so, how was New York City?”

Dorothy looked at her watch. Tom reached out and grabbed her wrist. The two girls at his shoulder leaned forward, twin pilot fish sensing a meal,

“Come on, tell us about New York City and how the streets are paved with movie stars.” the girls behind him, hands to mouths, giggled like chipmunks. Hearing their laughter, Tom stepped closer to Dorothy.

Dorothy’s hope of avoiding an encounter faded, as she felt the rough stone of the fountain against the back of her legs, causing her to arch her back in an unconscious effort to maintain her balance. She was at an insurmountable disadvantage in the encounter. She was back in town, after being away. In any small town or island community, there are the people born there and there is everyone else. However, within the community of native-born people, there is yet another division of status, those who leave and come back and those who stay. The status of the latter is a punitive distinction, those who leave are at a disadvantage no matter what their birth certificate might say.

‘Apples’ at first a truly random thought, popped into her mind. Dorothy noticed the pack of Luckies protruding from Tom’s shirt pocket, every small-town bad boy’s badge of honor. She reached out and took a cigarette from the pack, put it in her mouth and said, “Thanks.”

Tom leaned back slightly. The two girls almost gasped.  Patricia Levesque looked shocked (and disapproving), Nancy Jackson’s face registered curiosity that bordered on genuine interest, (and stepped slightly away from her friend Patricia) and stared at Dorothy.

Tom held out the match (from Stewart’s Feed and Supply) and Dorothy, holding his hand steady, looked up from the flame and said, “Thanks”

Among the three, breathing resumed sooner for two of them, although, of course, eventually the third joined in, marking her decision with a scowl of disapproval.

Realizing that deferring a meeting was the only way she was going to avoid being delayed, Dorothy stepped back from Tom and said,

“I’m so sorry, but you caught me on my way to a very important appointment. I mustn’t be late! Maybe we could all get together another time?”

Tom Hardesty and Nancy Jackson both were quick to agree. Patricia, not wanting to be left out, clearly puzzled by the reaction of her two friends, joined in with an unenthusiastic, ‘that’d be swell’.

“So, this coming Saturday afternoon? Here?” Dorothy watched as 2 heads nodded enthusiastically and walked away.

****

“It’s ten past 1.”

Nurse Claire Griswold was standing at the first bed, to the left of the double swinging doors that opened to Ward C. She looked exactly as she had on the previous afternoon. Tall, without being imposing, blonde hair, framed by her white nurse’s cap, almost created a  halo effect, and blue eyes that seemed to see the world from an indefinable distance. And, she had the most remarkable way of moving. Simply without effort, she would be in one spot and then another, as if it were her decision whether anyone could witness her walking, or taking a seat in a chair, or approaching from a distance.

“I’m so sorry, there were some school chums in the park…” Seeing the look from the nurse, she tried, “Look! I brought flowers!” Dorothy had little hope that an excuse would have any effect on this woman’s opinion of her, but felt she had to try. Holding up the bouquet of flowers that she bought from the Gift Shop in the lobby, Dorothy raised her eyebrows, as a combination surrender flag and petition for a truce.

Although Dorothy was certain that she was smiling, Claire Griswold’s blue eyes were all that she could see, held by a look that felt like being judged and at the same time, she felt no threat,

“Am I forgiven?” Dorothy started to walk down the aisle towards Almira Gulch’s bed.

“I believe that you meant well, however intention and action are not always one and the same. You must do one thing. Take your pretty bouquet apart and distribute the flowers among all the patients.”

Dorothy felt a flash of annoyance at her gift being regarded as an incidental commodity. Seeing a wastepaper basket by the side of the small nurses station, to the left of the entrance, she put her books down and began un-wrapping the flowers.

“Very well, but you promised yesterday… ” Dorothy looked up from what was now merely a bunch of flowers and saw that Nurse Griswold was no longer standing next to her. Instead she was standing at a bed in the middle of the ward. There was something very strange about how she moved, as if floating, yet even that would not explain how she could cover the distance, which was at least 15 feet down down the central aisle, without Dorothy noticing. Shrugging off the unexplained abilities of Nurse Griswold, Dorothy walked to the first bed, (there were 2 rows of 5 beds on opposite sides of the large room). She saw that each bedside table had a small, milky green, glass vase and every one of them was empty and dry.

Dorothy smiled when she realized that, though she’d bought the cheapest bouquet in the gift shop, it consisted of exactly 10 flowers. ‘Perfect,’ she thought, ‘the warden here won’t being able to criticize me for giving the wrong number of flowers to each patient.’ She walked to each bed, trying to avoid eye contact with the few, (less than 3 of the 10), patients that appeared to be awake, or at least aware of what was going on around them. Finally she came to the last bed, saving the last flower, a rose for Almira Gulch.

Holding the single rose, Dorothy was not surprised to see that Nurse Griswold was at her side, (although, she knew for a fact, that, when she walked up to this, the last bed in the row, the beautiful blonde nurse was attending to a patient in the middle of the opposite row), and put the flower in the vase. As she did so, she saw a small photo of a very young child, a girl with dark hair and darker eyes. Turning, Dorothy said,

“Who is this little girl?”

Nurse Claire Griswold smiled and said, “You came back today thinking that you had only one question for our friend here to answer. You are asking a different question?”

“Well, I suppose. But I still need to ask Mrs. Gulch a very important question. Is she always asleep or is that only when I’m here, with my question?” Dorothy began to grow impatient, the days events beginning to take their toll. She considered walking away, forgetting she ever knew Mrs. Gulch, (Miss Gulch!! Miss!  a part of her mind insisted, in an undeniably petulant tone). Dorothy started to turn away, from the bed and it’s book and it’s sad little milky green, glass vase and especially, from the photo of the little girl looking out from somewhere too far away, but Nurse Griswold was standing between her and the corridor formed by the two rows of beds of Ward C, blocking the road she might follow to return to her home.

“Let me tell you something about a young girl, a girl, in many ways, very much like you,”

Chapter 4

Featured

Almira Ristani looked up, as the noon whistle began to wail. Across and over the tops of the rows of braiding machines that filled the 5th Floor of the Mill, she could see the faces of the women who spent their days tending the fabric-braiding machinery. She smiled at the thought that her job title was, ‘Braider Tender’, as if the machines were living beings in need of help, to be tended to. Almira loved words, especially how easily their meaning could be changed, and in changing, alter the world around her. Ironically, the environment in which she spent the majority of her waking days, was primarily of the visual and tactile. Although human attendants were necessary to the efficient functioning of the machinery that filled the Everett Cotton Mill, the one ability that separated Man from all other life, spoken language, was least in evidence, as useless as the wings of an ostrich. She gathered her canvas satchel from under the table at the end of her row. As she walked towards the exit, she could see how some of the older women would, using scrap fabric, make a sort of nest for themselves, among the machinery. Like an old married couple, the lumpiness of a bed shared for years preferable to something new and possibly more restful. They would stay where they spent their working hours, using the noon break to simply sit and not move. Almira was slow to gather her satchel and, in a bundle folded as small as possible, her coat. She preferred to allow the other women to file out and start down the cold stairwell ahead of her. The sound of women speaking, in at least 3 languages, echoed off the brick walls. Their chatter conveying a sense of celebration. It was as if, after being deprived by the overwhelming sound of the machinery, of the opportunity to speak, the simple act of making their own deliberate and meaningful sounds was a joy in itself. Groups formed and re-formed, (speaking in at least 3 languages), as the noon break at the Mill began in earnest.

Almira slipped past the windowless lunch rooms where the women talked of babies and bad husbands. Keeping her coat folded and, hopefully, un-noticeable, she quietly skirted the Shipping and Receiving Department, where men took their lunch break and bragged about hopeless ambitions and bad women, and found her way to the metal Exit door. Once outside, she walked in a remarkable silence, a sense of quiet, felt rather than heard, by the ears. The machinery of the Mill never completely stopped. At certain and very predictable times, the rhythm slowed, but only to an idle. 

It was a short, cold distance to the alcove, (a fortunate architectural juxtaposition between the exterior of Stairwell Number 2 and an adjacent outside corner forming the southwest end of the Mill building). The alcove was a 6 foot indentation of the massive southwest wall of the Mill. Shallow as it was, those six feet provided a shelter from the winter wind. At the same time, the alcove ran straight up, past the roof, allowing the sun to shine down on the red brick structure, leaving a warmth that lasted through the day. With her back against the rough-grained brick, and the sun light filling the small, safe and quiet space, Almira Ristani would take her book from her satchel and read.

***

When her mother died, in 1910, 14-year-old Almira Ristani left St Mary’s School and began to work in the Everett Cotton Mill, a voluntary conscript in the army of workers who, more than the endless power of the Merrimack River, gave life the Textile Mills of Lawrence, Massachusetts.

As the first girl born to Stefan and Idresca Ristani, Almira enjoyed an all-too brief childhood. Evicted from the crib, to make room for her newest brother Dimitri, Almira would watch her mother work through each day, sewing and mending clothes, a source of extra income to make up for no longer being able to work in the Mill. Their 4th floor apartment consisted of 2 rooms, a small bedroom and a large everything-else room. Safely out from underfoot in a corner, formed by the wall of the apartment, a bookcase and 2 over-turned (and weighted-down wood chairs), Almira listened to her mother sing lullabies to Stefan and Dimitri, (her brothers), sing love songs to Stefan, (her father), and talk, cajole  and, very often, argue with those who came to the apartment door, torn and ripped clothing in hand. One afternoon, when Almira was just barely 3 years old, her mother, while trying to make more room to put her mending, knocked a book from a shelf, into Almira’s playpen. Distracted, Idresca didn’t notice that the book, Gulliver’s Travels, had become a permanent feature of the old-wool blanket landscape that was Almira’s world during the day. Not very long afterwards, a neighbor, Mrs. Swaider, came to pick up the mending she’d left the week before,

“Why look, Mrs. Ristani! Your little girl, she so smart! She reads from the book now. Surely she will be a teacher, that one, she!”

Idresca saw that her only daughter sat on the blanket covered floor, with the slightly worn (and barely noticeable teething scars in the leather cover), copy of Gulliver’s Travels open in her lap. Almira grasped the book by the front and back covers and looked up at her, not with the naturally innocent gaze of the very young, passing the time by growing older, rather, she had an expression that seemed to hold a question. Inquisitive. Hopeful.

Shutting the door on Mrs. Swaider’s still talking face, Idresca Ristani stepped over the barrier of on-their-sides-wooden chairs and gathering up her child, sat in the corner, opened the book and, smiling somewhat sadly, began to read,

“[The author gives some account of himself and family. His first inducements to travel. He is shipwrecked, and swims for his life. Gets safe on shore in the country of Lilliput; is made a prisoner, and carried up the country.]”

Children of the age of 3 need a lot of sleep. Most children, just turned 3 years old, caught in the middle of the afternoon, would have heard the words of Jonathan Swift, read as quietly as a lullaby, as the cue to quiet their mind and close their eyes. Almira, secure in the arms of her mother, heard the words and stared at the open book. The look of concentration on her very young face, spoke of a girl who, somehow, knew that if she listened intently enough, she could match the sounds of her mother to the marks on the page…
a mother reading words once loved, recalled a time when her life was being shaped to carry knowledge to those seeking it,
a daughter hearing words, sensing without knowledge, that the book contained a secret that would open the world to her.
The afternoon passed quietly.

Almira Ristani played, after school, among towering buildings that were the heart of Lawrence, Massachusetts. She and her friends would wander the courtyards and warehouses, their childhood games a pre-echo of adult labor. The buildings were every child’s fantasy castle and village square, made real. The walls did, indeed, soar up to the skies. There were battlements and drawbridges and, like the interconnected towers of Asgard, covered walkways, as high as the 3rd and 4th floors of adjacent buildings. Through the dust-grimmed windows, the silhouettes of workers could be seen, pushing wheeled trundle carts of waste fabric to other parts of the complex. Almira would look up and imagine that they were dwarfs, condemned by lesser gods to labor all day and all night within the cold, dark buildings. That there would come a day when she might find herself in the time-honored, and much fabled role of the Princess-trapped-in-the-Castle Tower, watching the distant landscape for sign of rescue, never entered her mind. Such exile would be both bearable and intolerable. While many people enjoyed reading and, some found joy in learning. Almira Ristani was one who had a need to learn. To call her hunger for Knowledge, (and his misunderstood fraternal twin sister, Understanding), an ambition, was like calling Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No.3, a catchy tune. Almira knew that the world she saw around her was a shadow. Every waking moment, (and not a few dreaming hours), of her life was focused on trying to see that which created the shadow.

***

On this particular noon, the sky had been clear since dawn. Even through the thick wool coat, her strained back muscles un-knotted in the warmth radiating from the brick. A shadow appeared, and Almira Ristani looked up at the eclipse of the warm sun,

“What are you reading?”

Startled by the voice, as the only sounds had consisted of the earth-softened rumbling of the machinery inside the building, Almira pulled her coat more tightly around her. This was somewhat awkward, given that she used her heavy woolen coat like a vertical tent. Leaving the top 2 buttons undone, collar pulled up to her ears, her arms out of sleeves, she could hold her book inside this small personal space, and looking down, read the worn pages of the book.

Almira saw the blood-red crimson ribbon first, the very self-assured posture of a woman second, and finally, as her eyes adjusted to the bright sunlight, the remarkably animated face of Annie LoPizzo.

Instinctively sliding to the side of the alcove, the offer of a square of warm brick wall made clear, Almira put her arms back into the coat sleeves and held her hands protectively over her midsection, the book hidden beneath the heavy wool of her coat.

“Nothing,” Almira’s voice was shyly quiet and yet, there was something to this woman, an offer of enthusiasm, that seemed to encourage her to stare.

Settling down to Almira’s left, the friendly, bustling arrangement of cloaks and coats was interrupted with,

“Hi! I’m Annie, What’s your name?”

The woman, now comfortably pressed against the red brick wall, pulled out a somewhat over-sized, not-too-thick, but definitely worn, book from her left pocket and looked at Almira, with a questioning tilt of her eyes. Seeing the implied request for permission threw Almira a little off-balance, however she nodded her assent. The woman placed her book on the rectangle of ground, between the brown and the grey cloth of their overcoats. Almira watched as she then reached into her other pocket, took out an oblong shape, wrapped in paper, and placed it next to the book.

Looking down at the book, Almira read the title, ‘Woman in the Nineteenth Century’. A smile beginning to pull at the corners of her eyes, she reached into the front of her coat and brought out her own book, ‘Self-Reliance’ and set it down on her lap.

“What a lucky woman I am today!” Annie said with a serious expression, followed by heartfelt laughter.

*****

“Mr. Dietrich! What a surprise!”

Hunk always felt a secret pang of guilt at how he felt, whenever any of the young people who worked part-time at the Circe Free Library, called him by his last name. He looked up as he walked into the shadowed light of the library.

“Uh… hi, Becky” he managed, after quickly scanning the room for the presence of any adults.

“Aren’t you early?” Becky Stillworth was very short, had piercing blue eyes and despite the two-sizes-too-large sweater, a figure that seemed, somehow, out-of-place in a small town library. A straight ‘A’ student since grade school, Becky harbored the dream of becoming a physician. Her parents, who owned a small hardware and plumbing supply store on the farm-edge of town, were more down to earth. Being careful not to be negative or discouraging, they both were certain that she would grow out of it. For a small town girl from a family of modest means, the path into the future was well-worn, if not entirely smooth. It remained rough enough to allow for some excitement, when bouncing along it, at the speed of youth, sometimes catching glimpses of life outside of ‘the town, the farm, the family’. However, it was rutted deeply enough to steer, all but the most determined, to the life that their parents and grandparents before them lived. Becky did not recognize the deepening of the ruts, as most her age did not, her determination was providing a drive and momentum, that just might make her one of the exceptions.

Being asked a direct question made all the difference in how confident, and detached Hunk could remain. He was one of those people who felt most comfortable as an un-challenged observer, and so, his face began to flush, (as if he needed to signal those around him that he was now under pressure), his answer to the simple friendly question metastasized, from the simple explanation that he’d decided to not go back to his farm chores, to include the fact, that, while he did have certain responsibilities, he chose to make a decision to divert from the day’s plans, all of which, surely necessary to a proper response to the question. That the person asking the question was an attractive 16-year-old girl, now standing and looking at him with a patient expression that bordered on the affectionate, did little to help. Hunk then realized that he was still wearing his hat and, again looking around to see how many people might require an apology, he took it off and said,

“Well, yes, for part of what I need to do but, no, if you’re asking about my college courses. But then, it’s not winter, so you can’t be asking about that. Which means, am I early today….” his voice became quieter and less distinct, as if attempting to run and hide, all while being in plain sight.

Seeing the confusion on Hunk Dietrich’s face triggered an instinct that Becky was coming to realize was both incredibly powerful and, very possibly, irresistible. It was, without knowing how she knew, a part of her that she would need to learn to bring under control, if she was ever going to achieve what she hoped to achieve in life. She liked the tall, awkward man who stood uncomfortably in front of her, in the middle of a typically quiet June Summer afternoon. The high-ceiling room was conspicuously missing the small contingency of ambitious high school students, freed of the demands of the school year and, being only a little after one o’clock, it was too early for the older patrons. The cool of the early evening was the time that the Town Square would begin to show slow movements, as the old citizens of Circe, could be observed, encountering others of their kind, to talk about a world that they, inexplicably had become less and less important to, and with the coming night, they would fade into the growing shadows.

Hunk, oblivious to the concern on the face of the girl, completed his response,

“I’m supposed to meet someone, Dorothy… Dorothy Gale, to give her a ride home. She was supposed to be here, but I don’t see her.”

A look came over Becky Stillworth’s face, a look of disapproval, but it never quite took hold. Despite her age, Becky recognized infatuation when she saw it. Her own affection for the man trying to be worthy of those he thought his betters, over-rode her feeling for a certain one-time local celebrity. She did not like Dorothy Gale, during the one year they were both in the same school, and liked her even less, now that she had returned from College-Back-East. Walking around the Circulation Desk, and looking towards the front entrance she said,

“She was here a short time ago and stayed for about 15 minutes, but rushed out, saying something about being afraid that she might be late.” Becky felt the visceral thrill of deliberate cruelty and, though it carried a tinge of shame, she did nothing to stop herself,

“….and the last I saw of her, she was in the Town Square talking to Tom Hardesty.”

She felt Hunk Dietrich brush past her, as he walked quickly out of the Library, towards the park across the street.

*****

“Oh my!, look at the time! I’ve surely kept Hunk waiting for far too long! That will never do! Aunt Emily will be so cross!”

Dorothy stood up and, immediately sat back down as a cold wave of disorientation washed over her. Nothing changed, at least in terms of where she was, still seated in the plain wooden chair next to the bed of Almira Gulch, in the Charity Ward of St Mary’s Hospital.

But, unless the clock on the wall had picked the last few minutes to stop working, that was nearly two hours ago! Nurse Claire Griswold, who seemed to always be in the Ward, was nowhere to be seen!

Dorothy picked up her chair, and, somehow only then, noticed that it was now the only chair next to the bed. The waves of uncertainty again began to build in her mind. Without thinking, she turned back and carefully arranged the book and the sad little milky green, glass vase. She gently picked up the small photo of a very young boy, carefully oriented it towards the still silent and un-moving woman.

Smoothing out the worn, off-white sheet, just a little, Dorothy turned and walked down the aisle, out the double swinging doors and, this time without uncertainty, down the corridor and out the front entrance of the Hospital.

Chapter 6

Featured

“I don’t care what your Nurse Griswold says, I want this patient re-evaluated. If it’s determined that she’s a poor risk, she’ll need to be transferred to a different facility, one that does not play as vital a role in the community as St Mary’s Hospital. Do I make myself clear?”

Like a sculpted marble altar, the ceremonial focal point of many a glorious cathedral, the still woman lay on the narrow hospital bed, shrouded in once-white linen, as Doctor Thaddeus Morgan spoke in the direction of Nurse Sally Rowe. Like an altar boy asked, at the 11th hour, to serve Mass with a new priest, Nurse Rowe looked attentive and tried her best to project an attitude of respectful obedience. She was both a new Nurse, (fresh out of school), and a new nurse at St Mary’s, (hired only the week before), and, although young, she’d assimilated the facts of life, as manifested in the healthcare profession’s caste system. Her Supervising Nurse had warned her that the Chief of Medicine was given to flights of ‘hands-on-Management’ fantasy, and might, without warning, show up on the Ward looking for errors to correct. This was her first encounter with Dr. Morgan and she was impressed by the accuracy of her Head Nurse’s description,  ‘he is an exquisitely dressed bully’

Dr. Thaddeus Morgan was 45 years of age, short (5’10”), at least 90 pounds overweight, and wore wire-rimmed glasses that no longer fit properly, which caused painful looking creases at the corners of his eyes and just in front of his ears. He had very thick brown hair worn in a style that his barber assured him was exactly like Errol Flynn’s. Thaddeus Morgan’s extremely obvious self-indulgence was clothing. Since leaving medical school, Dr. Morgan could be recognized by the exquisitely, (and expensively), tailored clothing that he wore both to his private practice, and to the Hospital. He had a tailor in Kansas City that he would visit at least twice a year for the express purpose of refining and adding to his extensive wardrobe.

Were one to note only his haircut and his wardrobe, Thaddeus would have been a singularly attractive physician. However, he possessed a complexion that benefited from an overly copious network of blood vessels. On a good day, his face had a rosy, healthy glow. During the stressful portions of these good days, rosy became florid, invisible veins appeared, like war paint across his cheeks and down the sides of his neck. As if unaware of how precariously attractive balanced against un-attractive, Thaddeus Morgan wore a remarkably exuberant mustache. To be more descriptive, a ‘handlebar mustache’ and, at the risk of too fine a point, ‘a waxed handlebar mustache’.

The result was a man who, despite holding a position of great authority, went to great lengths to inform onlookers that here was a man at war with himself.

Dr. Thaddeus Morgan was very self-conscious about his weight. It had been so, since childhood, a childhood during which the contralto singsong taunts of  ‘Fattius Morgan…  Here Comes Fattius Morgan!!’ were recorded in that horribly permanent part of the memory where reminders of how we might appear before the world are stored. The poison of such injury to the soul is, sadly, immune to logic and reason, whether dispensed by a well-meaning parent intent on consoling their child, a well-meant and usually futile strategy, or as self-administered advice and consul.  Thaddeus would often reflect on the intractability of the human psyche, recognizing how inconsequential these slights were, in light of his station in life, yet he would still feel his shoulders hunch and his eyes seek a hiding place, whenever such memories intruded on his adult reality. The tragedy of it all, Thaddeus would say to himself, (he would never speak of this aspect of his childhood, Shame being the twin gargoyle of Humiliation), is that it all still had an effect on his life as an adult. While a lifetime of education and scientific training afforded him the luxury of the insight into the nature the injury his child-self suffered, it did nothing to change anything. The permanent after-effects, the emotional reverberations, in subtle and all-to-often undetectable ways, shaped his adult behavior and therefore the quality of his life.

Not content, (better to say, unable to give the child-shaped demons the slip), to simply out-grow and therefore leave the hazardous environment of his childhood, ten year old Thaddeus Morgan endured the slings and arrows of the socially dominant, yet intellectually inferior classmates in school. Girding himself with a wall of fat, overeating became both response and defensive strategy. His studies and (their) promise of a better world, surrounded by accomplished adults who would support his efforts to excel were the light at the end of the tunnel. Finding an appropriate role model was the real challenge. In the year 1916, while still in grade school, the profession of physician seemed, to young Thad Morgan, to be the most accessible and promised the highest return for his effort. Soldier, Politician and Movie Star, as alternative goals, were all judged to be un-realistic ambitions. The first on the basis of the physical requirements, the second because of his unconscious appreciation of the fact that to be a politician was to be a person that would line up with the bullies, making snowballs (but not actually throwing them) for people like his tormentors, and Movie Star, while never considered a worthwhile or realistic goal by the young, (but in many ways, quite mature), Thaddeus, did have an effect on how he expressed himself once he began to succeed in his efforts.

So Thaddeus studied and ate and got ‘A’s. Accompanying each ‘A’ was a bruise from being pushed down, a puncture wound from a tack accidentally left on his seat in English class. Each injury, (an adult might call them minor, that adult would then betray which side of the battle they had spent their childhood), a Purple Heart in the battle ground of childhood. It was a war of attrition, and Thaddeus’s sense of self-worth was damaged from the very first sortie. The ability to feel ‘a part of’ the circle of people who made up his young world being the first casualties. As for his opponents, the dogs of this quiet war were, at least on the surface, much more merciful. For them, the cost was to be discovered later in life in the chains of social inferiority, forged by the young, worn as adults. Except, of course, for those among Thaddeus’s tormentors who might grow up to be politicians or, perhaps, very successful farm owners.

But in that quintessentially childlike way, the courage of the tormented is entirely lost on both the tormentor and the tormented. Thaddeus endured each assault stoically and twisted his own natural desire to strike out/ to strike back, inwards. His books were the punching bag that his father would never have permitted, his studies as much a martial art, preparing to win a life in which the bullies would be cast out and down, below where he would stand. Freedom from their torment by virtue of social/professional standing, was the best a very intelligent, but still only 10-year-old child, could imagine.

Returning to the town of his birth, (and subsequent torment), Thaddeus Morgan opened a practice and joined the staff of St Mary’s Hospital. He was a brilliant young doctor and a remarkably over-dressed man.

Now, on a Saturday morning, a time that he expected to find the staff at their most relaxed, he looked around the ward, seeking an outlet for his frustration. The thin layer of sweat that uniformly covered his skin, despite the relatively mild temperature, was beginning to form beads along the edge of his scalp, glistening trails down the side of his face, a condensate of fear. His white lab coat, hanging open, brought un-sought attention to his protruding stomach, all the more noticeable by contrast to the thin human shapes that gave 3 dimensionality to the narrow beds of Ward C.

“For that matter, where is Nurse Griswold!?” he looked around the room, over the tops of the 10 beds, anything below eye level, having no influence or bearing or consequence in his world, whatsoever.

“Where is who?’ Sally Rowe, very new to St Mary’s, already knew that in her profession, some things never changed. Leading among unchanged, the potentially lethal unintended consequences of Doctors acting outside of their specialty and the practical (and therefore often ignored), wisdom of the Charge Nurses. Sally started working at St Mary’s the week before and had been on rotating shifts, providing coverage and relief as needed. She had not yet met half of the nurses working in the hospital.

“Nurse Griswold! Tall, blonde, quiet to a fault. I met her on the occasion of this patient being admitted,” Dr. Morgan’s glance down at Almira Gulch was brief and, if one were not very observant, might be mistaken for a random glance. Nurse Rowe had the distinct impression that the Chief of Medicine was uncomfortable looking at the occupants in the narrow beds, particularly this one in Bed #10. Unremarkable and nearly indistinguishable from the other nine patients, but for the dark red ribbon sewn into the faded blue collars of her gown and the photo of the small girl on the nightstand, turned to face towards the center of the room, as if standing guard.

****

“I’m heading into Town.” Dorothy stood next to the battered grey bicycle after wheeling it out of the barn. The small basket on the front still had a lid, as did the larger basket behind the rider’s seat.

Uncle Henry and Hunk Dietrich stood on the back porch and watched as Dorothy, with an odd look on her face, lifted the lid of the basket on the bike’s back fender. She stood very still, shook her head very slightly and got on the bike.

Hunk walked up as Dorothy started to move, the bicycle going fast enough to maintain balance, and, standing in front of her, legs on either side of the front wheel, held the bike in place, stable enough that Dorothy was able to keep both feet on the pedals.

“I’ll be in Town later this afternoon, probably around 3 or so. I’ll be inside or out front of the Library, there’s no need to have to pedal home after a long day,” with a glance towards the porch, Dorothy nodded slightly and, released by the tall man, headed towards the gate.

Riding along the flat, dusty road, Dorothy Gale felt good. The bicycle, though showing the wear of excessive use, (and no small amount of sudden and un-expected abuse), rode well. She smiled. It had been a long time since she’d taken out off on her own, and she looked out over the wide rolling fields to either side of the road, the barbed wire of the fences implying a dotted-line-division between ‘it’s ok to keep going’ and ‘maybe you want to think about what you’re doing’.

Dorothy thought about how little physical exercise she had since returning from school. Not that there was a lot of bike riding in Bronxville, NY. The Phys. Ed. curriculum at Sarah Lawrence was quite rigorous. For freshman, it was a prerequisite and despite the obligatory complaints about early morning cold on the athletic field in September, Dorothy enjoyed the exercise, an alternative to the cars and taxis that were the normal mode of transportation.

Dorothy was planning on stopping at the Hospital and hoped to meet Tom Hardesty in the Town Square. She was certain that he would be agreeable to a fishing trip, provided he didn’t have his two girlfriends with him.

***

Tom Hardesty opened the door to his father’s darkened bedroom and spoke quietly, but very distinctly,

“Ethan’s in the kitchen, I think he’s making you some breakfast. He’ll be fine. When you get up, don’t get nervous. I took the truck, I have to run into Town for a while. Everything’s alright. I’ll be back sometime later in the day.”

Tom heard a sound of sleep-groggy assent, closed the door and walked out the back door of the house.

“Hey Ethan!  Tend to the chores. Don’t go off until I get back, ok?”

A distracted ‘yeah, ok’ floated above the head of the 10-year-old boy.

Tom got in the truck and headed down towards County Rd 28 and Town and, he hoped, a  chance to see what might have been.

***

Emily Gale stepped out on the back porch where her husband Henry and Hunk Dietrich sat, relaxing after lunch.

“This may be Saturday, but you two aren’t in Kansas City where you’d have nothing to do for the afternoon. The only Day of Rest in my book is tomorrow, the Sabbath, so if you two aren’t able to find a way to be useful, I’ll be all too happy to oblige!”

Henry Gale took a scuffed leather tobacco pouch from his left jacket pocket and, from his right pocket, a well-worn Meerschaum.

Emily stared at her husband, the challenge unmistakable. She looked at Hunk Dietrich and was unable to will him to make eye contact, as he was intently focused on carving a small block of wood.

Recognizing the battle was lost before it started, Emily Gale relented. A consummate manager of people, she decided to use the sense of relief the two men were surely feeling at their apparent success in out-witting her, to her advantage.
‘If the cattle and the hogs had as much brains as the men in my life think they have, we’d all be riding in the back of the truck headed to Kansas City’, she thought as she pulled her favorite porch chair around to face the two men.

“Well, I guess there’s no harm in slowing down a little on a nice June Saturday like today, now is there?” both men nodded slowly with the timid alertness seen in rabbits suddenly in the shadow of a hawk passing overhead,

“Henry, tell me what you learned over at the Hardesty place this morning.” Emily Gale took a small notebook and pencil from the pocket of her blue and white print dress,

“Are they ready for an Offer to save their farm?”

“Well, Em, it was kinda funny. Hunk and I got there around about 10:30. Ephraim came to the door, after we banged on it long enough to raise the devil, looking like a man who needed a drink. His boy, Ethan, just a little spud, was in the kitchen. Ephraim stepped back from the door, by way of an invite an we both walked in. Ain’t never seen a young ‘un work so natural in the kitchen as that boy. Had coffee brewin on the stove, smelled right good, wasn’t it so, Hunk? and, the boy looked like he was fixin some food up too,” Henry Gale turned his head towards Hunk,

“What’d that smell like to you, Hunk, smelled like bacon and eggs, didn’t it? Smelled real good, near as good as Margherita’s breakfast,” hearing a sudden clattering of dishes through the open kitchen window, Henry leaned to his right and spoke in the direction of the screen door, “Meaning no disrespect, Margherita! You put out the best spread in the whole of McPherson County!”

Turning back to face his wife, who was staring at her husband with a patient, and well-practiced expression, Henry continued,

“So, Ephraim sat himself at the kitchen table and stared into his coffee cup, like he was hoping it’d be something other than what it smelled like”,

“What can I do for you, Henry?” he said to me, after taking a careful sip of his coffee,

“So I told him we were just paying a neighborly visit and, seeing how it’s been going around town that he was having some troubles, if he needed some help we could maybe lend him some farm hands,”

Henry ignored the sound his wife made and looked over at Hunk, to avoid seeing the increasingly rapid tapping of her pencil on the small pad in her lap. Hunk was so engrossed in his wood carving that he didn’t notice Henry looking at him for support or, for that matter, Emily’s increasing impatience. Hunk did, finally, look up in the general direction of his employer and said,

“yeah, right good coffee it was!” averting the look in her eyes,

“…but the farm looked like it was being worked. Nothing new to the place, no repairs or anything, but clearly Ephraim is keeping up with the demands of his farm. Hard to imagine that just him and his two boys were keeping the place in such a good state all by themselves.”

Emily Gales’ impatience suddenly faded, and like a photo in a pan of clear developer solution, a look of wary suspicion began to form on her face.

***

“I have to get back to Town by 2:00 pm, don’t forget.”

Dorothy sat at the back of the rowboat, her bare feet on the cool damp wood of the floorboards. Listening to the rusty-wooden sound of the oars being pulled, she felt the rocking surge as Tom started rowing them out towards the middle of Echo Lake. Closing her eyes, she let her right hand drop into the water, tiny waves rising up the sides of her fingers as the water began to move past. The water wasn’t particularly cold, but nevertheless, she felt the skin on her forearm tighten and raise into goosebumps. Her eyes closed enough to appear to be dozing, she looked at Tom Hardesty in the center of the little boat. The act of rowing created a curious rippling effect on his body, more a sequential tensing of muscles, rather than a flowing effect. It seemed to start with an obvious tension in his upper shoulders, which lagged behind the motion of his body as he leaned backwards, pulling on the oars. It was as if the weight of the water on the flat wooden oars was transmitted up his arms, preventing his bending backwards from the waist. Dorothy smiled at the thought that what she really was seeing was Tom Hardesty trying to drag the lake up to where he sat, each time the lake moved to where he was, he’d lean back, always staying ahead of it. The muscles in his shoulders and chest became more and more defined as he rowed, his white tee-shirt beginning to stick at certain points in the movement of his torso. She also noticed that the water flowing around her hand was not as cold as she thought.

***

Tom Hardesty had parked the truck along the side of the Town Square that faced the Library. He decided, during the short ride into town, that he wasn’t going to take any chances. By sitting in his truck he limited the chance that either Nancy or Patricia would spot him. They’d both been there when Dorothy suggested they meet on Saturday, but Tom did nothing to remind them of the ‘date’ and was hoping they’d forgotten.

He spotted Dorothy as she rode an old grey bicycle up to the where the sidewalk cut through the Park, kept going to the waterless Fountain, got off her bike, and leaned it against a nearby bench and sat on the stone rim.
It was what she wore, not what she rode, that became the focus of Tom’s attention. Slacks on women was an uncommon sight, in the large Small Town of Circe KA. Her blouse looked familiar, but she’d done something to it, tying the shirt tails together, revealing her midriff that caused him to both sit up and notice. Lacking the vocabulary of fashion to analyze how the 18-year-old girl achieved this effect, his response was to mutter, “Damn!” (to anyone who might also be watching).
Tom got out of the truck, stopped after about 5 steps and returned for his guitar. Pulling it out through the open window, the guitar banged on the sill, a musical alarm ringing in the quiet morning air. He laughed, in part at his how nervous he felt,

‘Come on, Tom’ he thought, ‘this is Dorothy you’re talking about, nothing to get all worked up about.’

At the sound of the guitar, Dorothy looked in the direction of the truck and, without saying a word, got up and, pushing the bicycle along at her side, met Tom before he had gotten more than 10 feet from his truck.

“Let’s go!” seeing Tom’s questioning expression, she continued,

“To the Lake! You’re taking me fishing today!” as his expression changed from temporary confusion to more of an assessment of the situation, she put her left hand on his shoulder and said, closer to his ear than necessary,

“Unless, of course, you’d rather wait for my two best friends from High School to join us. Now if the chance to row me out on the Lake is what you’d prefer, help me get this bike in the back of the truck and we can get going.”

Tom laughed out loud, grinned to himself and thought about haylofts, and, inexplicably, tornados.

Chapter 9

Featured

(Early) Sunday Morning

December 10, 1911

The Hammond Street Presbyterian Church
Lawrence, Massachusetts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Bishop had been quite explicit,

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

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

“What do you think of that?”

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

Elder Allyn Montrose, began his first Sermon,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter 13

Featured

“I remember you! The only high school freshman ever to win the State Spelling Bee, what was the word…”

Becky Stillworth walked down the Library steps to where Dorothy Gale stood waiting,

“‘Promiscuous'”  the girl said, her face the expression of every child biting into a lemon on a dare,

Yeah, I’m pretty sure it was my own mother who got the Word Committee to put it on the list of final round words. Luckily for me, I was an early-blooming High School Freshman girl, so nothing came of it.”

Becky Stillworth walked with a deliberateness that was clearly an effort to compensate for the conspicuous awkwardness of a developing body. In the race between gangly and voluptuous, the tomboy in her was fading fast.

Dorothy looked to confirm that the very subtle twist of sarcasm on the syllable ‘mis‘, was deliberate and caught the girl watching for her reaction. Dorothy smiled, somewhat self-consciously, and decided that she liked this overly-dressed girl. Looking down at her wrist watch, she decided that she had time to spare, before embarking on her mission of the day, a visit to the Charity Ward at St. Mary’s Hospital. What Dorothy refused to tell herself, ( so effectively, as to prevent awareness of her own obfuscation from ), her timetable was built on when she believed the nursing shifts changed. She also didn’t tell herself that she was hoping to avoid one nurse in particular.

Dorothy was struck by the layers of clothing Becky Stillworth wore, even as her own blouse showed an growing affinity for her sweat-dampened skin, as the sun scared away the few cooling breezes that remained free and about, on this early midday morning in Kansas. The younger girl looked towards the Elm trees in the Town Square. Arranged in a circle, echoing the placement of the benches, which, in turn, marked the ordinal point of the round stone fountain, the full-leafed trees shaded the center of the park from the lethal brightness of the Summer sun. The two girls let their steps take them in the direction of the benches.
As they walked towards the center of the Square, Dorothy tried to steer their path towards a bench on the side of the fountain, opposite from where she’d left her bicycle, ‘Mrs Gulch’s bicycle‘.

Her desire to avoid the bicycle surprised her. The feeling was accentuated by the feeling of relief, when Becky Stillworth sat facing away from the bench with the old, battered bicycle leaning on it, like abandoned crutches, sadly conspicuous in the middle of the Town Square.

“So Becky, what’s on your mind?”

Dorothy looked closely at the girl who sat facing her, one arm along the back of the bench, left leg folded under her. She stared at the bulky skirt and the cardigan sweater, thankfully worn un-buttoned. Becky Stillworth’s figure, remarkably developed for a girl of her age, made the inappropriate clothing somewhat understandable. She wondered if the girl wearing them understood.

“Yeah, big sweater. Long skirt. It’s easier this way.”

‘So much for her being unaware of herself,’ Dorothy thought, looking at the girl with increased respect. Becky stared back, dark eyes betraying an intelligence easily overlooked by the more hormonally-inclined.

“Well, I wanted to talk, because, it’s just that you’re the only ‘College girl’ I know of, in this Town.”

Becky put an inflection on the word ‘Town’ that made Dorothy recall her own mood earlier in the morning. She laughed and said,

“I think I know what you mean, Becky. The few kids from Circe who find a way to go to college tend to never come back. And the people here that have been to college, grew up somewhere else. It’s like an unspoken law, if you have what it takes to get out of town, you don’t have to come back. Yeah, Circe is a small town in every sense of the word.”

“Can I ask you kind of a silly question, Dorothy?”

Dorothy, intrigued, looked back at the girl and nodded,

“You enrolled at Sarah Lawrence College.”

“Yes, that’s true.”

“Sarah Lawrence, as in, almost one of the Seven Sisters… in New York City.”

“Well, to be precise, the schools in Bronxville, which is a short distance from Manhattan. But yes, Sarah Lawrence College. What are you asking me?”

“Well, I guess what I’m asking you is, did you or did you not, see the three cows standing in the road, right where County Rd #2 turns into Main St. I know they were there this morning, when I came into town.”

Dorothy began to reply that she didn’t, but noticed a grin fighting for control of the 16 year old girl’s face. Their peals of laughter raced around the echoing, (and otherwise empty), fountain and spread out into the morning air. Mrs. Tremont, walking along Main St towards Randall’s Pharmacy to get her morning paper, (as she did every morning at this time, except Sunday morning, when she would pick it up after 11 o’clock Mass), stopped and glanced in their direction. Like a rabbit hearing an unexpected snap of a twig, the 85 year old widow froze, mid-stride, only her head moved. Identifying what was all too uncommon a sound in her life, she smiled at her reflection in the plate glass window of Lonnie’s Barber Shop and continued on her mission.

“Oh, that Sarah Lawrence!” Dorothy said with a grin, which tripped the switch for more laughter. Finally settling back, the wrought iron of the bench offering a very solid, although pretty uncomfortable support,

“I’ll give you the short, suitable-for-company-on-the-holidays version of how I came to be a Sarah Lawrence Coed. Someday, when we’re both old and have too much time on our hands, I’ll give you the whole story.”

Becky Stillworth smiled, and, as if only just noticing how warm the morning was, took off her cardigan, folded it lengthwise and put it behind her, to serve as a cushion against the dulled teeth of the iron bench. As if on cue, there was a honk of a truck horn, immediately followed by a distant, “Hey! Becky!!“, fortunately dopplering into the distance. Becky waved without looking away from Dorothy.

“My grandfa… my adopted Grandfather was one of three brothers who left France to seek their fortune in the New World. Just before getting on the boat to come here, Philippe, (my mother’s father), was forced to stay behind to care for his dying mother. His brothers, Charles and Bernard, went on ahead and settled in Philadelphia. The Sauvage family had been blacksmiths as long as the oldest person could remember, and once in Philadelphia the brothers set up shop and become very successful. It was, after all, only 1912, the demand for metal workers was quite strong.  Well, eventually the mother, (back in France), died and Philippe was free to leave and he headed to America.”

Looking at Becky, Dorothy was taken with the concentration reflected in the girls eyes. Seeing Dorothy’s look, she said,

“OK, I’m with you so far. Three French Brothers, One New World. Go on….”

“Well, this is where the family legends get a little murky. According to the version I got, (keep in mind, I was only 5 when they took me in), Philippe resented his two brothers getting a head start on him…a lot. Apparently he was as stubborn as he was ornery and didn’t get over his resentment until Kansas. And, there Philippe settled, opened a blacksmith shop, had 2 children, and watched one them die pointlessly young.

“Anyway, there wasn’t too much talk around the dinner table about the ‘Family Back East’, my adoptive mothers’ uncles, until Bernard Sauvage died.”

“Did I mention that both brothers were confirmed bachelors?” Becky shook her head and waited for Dorothy to resume.

“Well, they were. Bernard died last. And soon after, a letter arrived at the farm, notifying my parents that an endowment had been created, ‘For the Express Purpose of providing Tuition and Lodging to Sarah Lawrence College, for any (female) child of the Gale Family, for a Full Four Years of Education’. Well, that was somewhat interesting to my mother, but there was also mention of money being left to their niece. I got on a train in Kansas City with my Aunt Em and off we went, to attend the funeral and collect on the scholarship.

There was no one other than me at the Funeral of Bernard Sauvage or, the Reading of his Last Will and Testament under the age of 30. Among the three old-and-distant relatives sitting in the Lawyers office, smelling like mothballs, not a one had a daughter. So there we were, standing in the 30th Street Station, on a cold December morning in Philadelphia waiting to board a westbound train. Tickets to Kansas City in one hand and a full Scholarship to Sarah Lawrence College in the other.”

On this July morning, as the two girls sat talking, the sun took it’s attention away from the buildings on Main Street. Like a predator, sensing prey in a burrow, the morning sun moved it’s bright direct light closer and closer to the center of the Town Square. The change was felt in the dying of what few stray breezes survived in the shade of the Elm trees. As the encroaching light feasted on the shade, the town to the east of the park seemed to move farther away. In a curious reversal of mirages, (that) offer a clear view of distant objects, the contrast between the shade that covered the park and the sunlight that bathed parts of Main St had a sort of, magnifying effect. Far greater detail of the brick facade of First Lenders Bank and reflected light on the sign over Randall’s Pharmacy, brought everything closer.

Dorothy noted the approach of the sunlight and remembered that she wanted to be in the hospital before the Lunch hour began.

“No, what I wanted to ask you wasn’t just about going to college.”

Dorothy looked up at two boys on bicycles lingering on the opposite side of the Square, talking and looking furtively in their direction. Looking about 13 or 14, both clearly were in the throes of adolescence. Their gestures were as easily decipherable as semaphore flags between battleships as they maneuvered off enemy shores.  One of the two was apparently all for a direct assault, the other resisting for as long as he could, until finally whatever hormonally-wagered pact was struck, they jumped back on their bikes, pedaling towards where the young women were sitting.

“Hi! Becky! Hi Becky!”

The greetings were projected ahead enthusiastically, even as they were still on the other side of the fountain. This was, of course, an effort to hedge the social bet, in case they were immediately rebuffed. One of the two approached as rapidly as mechanically and physically possible, intent on a dramatic stop, locking-up the brakes on his Schwann deliberately, skidding for maximum drama. His friend approached at a more controlled pace with the resigned patience of the non-dominant half of a boyhood friendship.

The two now stood astride their bicycles staring at Dorothy and Becky, clearly receiving commands from newly established centers in their brain. Less fluent in the language of the soon to be overwhelmingly dominant sex drive, they stood still, soldiers in full uniform, rifles as clean and shiny as only non-use could account for, both were clearly hoping to figure out what to say.

“Uh, hi! Hows’ your vacation, Becky?”

Dorothy watched as Becky regarded the boys, obviously in the Summer between Grade School and High School, and smiled,

“Pretty good so far, Billy. Tommy. How about yours?”

“Good! We saw you here and wanted to say hi”

Tommy was looking frantically towards the sky, as if hoping for divine intervention to provide some way to extricate himself from the increasingly awkward feeling of standing with purpose, yet having no clue how to proceed. He looked over at his friend who was simply staring at Becky Stillworth, mouth open in the peculiar way that happens when the words in the mind get lost and can’t find their way to the tongue, which. in turn, is satisfied to simply sit in the mouth, relaxed, waiting for instructions. Both boys heard the stories about Becky and what she did to Randy Hughes out at the Lake and, seeing the opportunity and future bragging rights dared each other into talking to her. Becky Stillworth was the reigning, hopelessly-optimistic dream of the majority of the boys in the 9th and 10th grades at Circe’s only High School.

“OK that’s good! Maybe I’ll see you in the Library this Summer?”

Becky laughed in a way that surprised Dorothy. It was not mocking the boys or herself, it was as if Becky was somehow having a nostalgic look back on her High School years. Dorothy realized that there was more to this girl than the poorly hidden figure and obvious ambition.

The boys jumped back on their bikes and rode across the street towards the library, (as if to assure Becky that they had a natural affinity for learning and libraries). They stopped briefly at the stairs leading up to the Library, leaned towards each other, looked back towards the fountain for barely a second and sped off down towards Main Street. Eventually they would find a place where they had the privacy and time to relate to each other, their individual versions of what they had accomplished, before time and hyperactive sex drive could change too much of what they could remember.

“I see what you mean,”

Dorothy started to say, now certain that Becky was looking for an older girls advice on dealing with the rampant and near inchoate sex drives of the small town adolescent, (boy and girl)

“No, it’s not what you think!”

Becky laughed in a way that made Dorothy feel like the younger girl, an assuredness in her laugh that came across with much more sophistication than her age would suggest. She found herself thinking of her friend Eliza,

“No, the boys, well they’re well…predictable. I figured that out the day I started to borrow clothes from my mother. The extra sweaters and skirts? I decided, I’d just keep acting like I’m hiding the boy-bait, it just was easier, you know? If anything about high school is tough to take, it’s the other girls. Hard to make friends with girls who think that, either I’m sleeping with everyone who stares at my chest, which, for the last couple of years been just about everyone, or I’m too stuck-up to want to be friends.

“No, what I I really wanted to ask your advice about was, how you do so well, handling adults.”

Dorothy looked at Becky in surprise,

“What makes you think that I know anything about adults? I’m only a soon-to-be-college sophomore.”

“Well, you… well, everyone knows you… from after the tornado. I was just a kid, but for a little while, you were all my parents talked about, so I figured you’re used to being in the spotlight. It couldn’t have been easy, but you’re not like the other kids in this town. I mean, sure they’re all ok, but they’re from here, they fit in and this is where they’ll all stay. You left.”

“Are you thinking of running away?” Dorothy had a brief image of a traveling fortune teller, with practiced swiftness, dispelled the thought.

“No! Nothing like that…. or maybe, worse!” Becky laughed, “What I really want, is to be a doctor.”

“What is it about the people in this Town!”

Dorothy stood up abruptly, laughing and looking around the Town Square. On the other side of the fountain, which had a mat of elm leaves plastered to the dry bottom in a careful, layered pattern that made Dorothy think of dinosaur bones, an old man, alone on a bench, looked up with a desperate hope for something to happen, that had not already happened. Seeing Dorothy, he focused his eyes on the figure of the young girl and then quietly went back to staring at nothing.

Becky got up, gauging the older girl’s mood quickly,

“Well, it’s just that sometimes, I think, ‘who am I kidding?’ Sure, times have changed and we can be what ever we want to be in life.  But it’s hard, when even your own parents look at you like they don’t know who you are. The truth is, sometimes I’m not sure I know who I am.”

Dorothy watched Becky as she walked over to the fountain and stared into it’s center,

“Its just that I don’t want to be someones….  ” emotion sharped her tone, a mixture of frustration, resentment and even longing, as she turned to face Dorothy

“I think I know who I am… who I want to be, but it seems like there’s two Beckys and I don’t know which one is the real me!  When I try to talk to my parents or teachers or even classmates, I see that look in their eyes, like they’re trying to figure out who the strange girl is and how she got into their house.”

“It’s not just you, Becky,” Dorothy looked past the bench with the rusted bicycle leaning on it, towards St Mary’s Hospital.

“At least you know that you want to go to college, you know what you want to be… at least what one part of you, wants to be,”  Dorothy watched as Becky put her sweater back on, preparing to return to her duties in the Circe Public Library,

“I’m in College because my grandfather was a bad-tempered, selfish man. I have no idea of what I’m supposed to do with my life. I just know that theres got to be more to life than Circe, Kansas. I just need to work up the courage to do what my heart tells me.”

“Well, I really appreciate your talking with me,” Becky stood close and hugged Dorothy, very briefly.

“I’m glad I got up the nerve to ask you about your life. And, maybe we can talk again. For now, I have to return to my odd life with my part-time job wearing too much clothing and help the people of Circe find just the right book.”

With that, Becky Stillworth walked across the quiet street, up the stairs and into the Library.

***

Ward C was as silent as a tomb. Rather than merely being hot, the air in the room felt charged with heat, just waiting for someone to exert themselves, to strike like bats swaying from the ceiling of a cave.

As she walked down the center aisle, Dorothy felt her anger grow from the carefully tended furrows of resentment, her thoughts held tightly,

‘I don’t know why I have to keep coming back to this place. All I want is to ask a question and everyone keeps getting in my way! Well, this time it’s just me and the old lady, and I’ll get some answers if I have to shake them out her.’

The beds were arranged in opposing rows of 5, the woman she came to see was in the last bed, at the far end of the aisle, on the left side. Dorothy noticed there were four empty beds, like the keys on an old, abandoned piano sitting in someone’s barn, merely iron frames and mattresses. Stripped of sheets and pillows, the mattresses were devoid of all purpose, black and white ticking conjured images of prisoners of war, purposeless, yet still threatening.

Dorothy felt her anger slide away, now replaced by a sense of undefined danger. She looked up at the ceiling, the fans were all she saw, turning slowly, holding back the life-robbing heat of a July afternoon in rural Kansas.

As she approached the last bed, Dorothy’s anger was revived by her un-expected relief at seeing the woman still in the bed. On the collar of her hospital gown was the same blood-red ribbon. The worn-brown blanket was neatly folded across the woman’s chest, a barely disturbed straight line, like a freshly, but hastily filled grave. A barely perceivable rise and fall in the fabric to let a visitor know she was still among the barely living.

To the right of the bed was a single, worn-green metal night stand. On top was a dry, glass vase, and a copy of ‘The Jungle’, with a well-worn bookmark. Dorothy recalled the book being there from her first visit, but with a different bookmark. This one was made from plain parchment paper with a leather border, like little teeth, running along both sides. In the center, written in faded ink, was the phrase “Short pay! All out! All out!”

A small, brass-framed, photograph of a young, dark-haired boy, faced Dorothy from the top of the nightstand. She picked it up, hoping to find a notation or, at least, a date, so she might have a clue to the identity of the boy who appeared to be about 5 years old.

Dorothy looked around the ward and saw only 5 occupied beds and no one else, her sense of outrage dying, replaced by  a sense of disappointment,

To herself, aloud,

“Well, this simply is not fair! I have every right to have my questions answered! And someone needs to help me find out why I’m not being…”

Like very dry tinder on the ashen coals of a morning fire, the sound of her words allowed her outrage to flare anew. Looking down at the nightstand, she saw a single, closed drawer. As she reached to open it, she heard sounds from the woman in the bed. She was moving her arms, freeing them from the bedclothes and, at first, they seemed to be random spasmodic motions. Even as Dorothy turned to face the bed, the old woman’s hands were suddenly clutching at her face, and the sounds she made went, from anger to fear, never shaped into words, but clearly meaningful. As her hands, too long in quiet rest under the covers, began to make ineffective movements, it looked like she was hitting her own face.

Dorothy, looked on in shock, as if the statue of the Civil War general in the Park had dismounted his horse and started to give orders to passerbys. At the same moment she found her anger changing into care and concern, as she watched small wrinkled hands impacting the dry, old skin of her face with increasing force. Dorothy without thinking, leaned over and held the hands, gently but away from the women’s face. The sounds coming from Mrs Gulch subsided as suddenly as they started, the strain of her bone-thin arm muscles relaxed. Dorothy sat on the side of the bed and placed the old hands together on top of the blanket. Smoothing the grey hair that, freed from the passive restraint of the pillow, lay across the face of the still sleeping woman, Dorothy heard,

“Very good, Miss Gale. You are the woman that I felt you were when we first met.”

Dorothy did not feel the need to act surprised or shocked at the voice, one that she instantly recognized.

***

“Jesus, Joseph, Sweet Mary Malone! the blood!”

“Help me get her on the couch!”

“Sure, but I need to see some men about a beatin….

“They’ll wait! Hell, they’ll be back with their friends all too soon. We must get her head elevated and stop the bleeding…”

“Dear God, I’ve seen broken noses, hell, I’ve had broken noses, but this poor girl’s face…”

Chapter 17

Featured

It snowed in Lawrence, Massachusetts the week before the Christmas of 1911. While snow in December was not unusual, the skies seeming more menacing and the first flakes far larger, was, in part, due to the contrast with the mild weather of the first half of the month. Lulled into willful denial of the nature of the winters in New England, phrases like, ‘this might be the Winter without snow’, or ‘I can remember one year, must of been ’97 or ’98, when we went this far into the Winter without snow, it was a record warm year, that year’, floated in the air along the sidewalks, as tired workers and their nervous managers passed and mixed in a collegial stream, lulled by the un-seasonably warm temperatures of the first two weeks of the last month of the year.

The snow started early on Sunday, the 17th. As people walked to church, the pedestrian niceties possessed a subtle, barely-there, tinge of relief, ‘well, this is not unusual’ or ‘about time’, as if to express their disappointment at snow falling in December might somehow make matters worse. By unspoken agreement, no-one thought to complain about the snow fall, as if to speak of it, might, somehow, cause Winter to remember it’s true nature and make up for lost time. Like an elderly teacher nearing retirement, forgetting a scheduled exam, his students knew that to remind him of the over-sight would surely cause him to come up with a test far more difficult. All, as if to prove, somehow, that he wasn’t suffering from a mental decline.

It was still snowing when the faithful left their respective churches, stepping now more carefully, as the hour of snowing changed the sidewalks and paths through the Town Common from a condition of being ‘pretty’ to one warranting, ‘be careful’. Some were clearly disappointed that their prayers had been ignored. They did not express this disappointment for the same reasons the students of the increasingly senile teacher did not mention tests. Afternoon saw no end to the snow and the weather had taken the irrevocable step from, ‘snow’ to ‘a snow storm’. The un-seasonably green grass acquired 4 inches of snow cover by 3:00 pm and the sky grew darker than the clocks would require. Often, the early evening is when a mild snow storm begins to slow and stop, this was not to be, on this particular Sunday. By 6:00 pm the grey sky had turned a mottled black and it was as dark as midnight, the wind blew with increasing ferocity, out of the northeast. Old timers recognized the early signs of a blizzard and went about in their homes, making certain they knew where the candles and the empty buckets were, already wearing an extra sweater, as if to store up warmth against a very cold night.

***

“What the bloody hell are you talking about, Herlihy. Yes, I did, in fact, attend Dartmouth College. Speak up!!  No, I have not recommended that a study be done!”

Frederick Prendergast debated whether he should stand to make his point or remain seated. Both offered a certain advantage. Looking across his wide desk at the policeman, with the too shiny badge and shoes glistening with permanently fresh machine oil stains, he decided standing wasn’t worth the bother.

Sargent Herlihy was, at first, excited to hear from his Captain that he was asked to go the office of the CEO of the Essex Company. He genuinely, if not naively believed that anything he did that came to the attention to those who ran the City of Lawrence, would surely bode well for his career. Now, standing in front of an elaborately ornate desk, a single piece of furniture worth more than he was, Sargent Gareth Herlihy was having second thoughts about his ambition. The man behind the desk was the most powerful man in Lawrence, but there was something about the man that he just didn’t like.

“At least you didn’t add to our problems. Thank you for that, Sargent,”

Seeing the cop perk up and his chest swell at the attention, depressed Frederick Prendergast more than he was when he left Church for this ridiculously un-necessary meeting. That he was meant for better things than to ride herd on cops and Mill town toughs, was apparently still being overlooked by the owners of Lawrence, Massachusetts, the real owners, the Essex Company,

“Keep an eye on that Union Hall. There are changes coming. Changes that will not sit well with a certain, unruly element in town. Can I count on you, Sergeant Herlihy?”

“Yes sir, yes you can. I’m your man.”

Sargent Gareth Herlihy left the office of the CEO of the Essex Company feeling angry. He hoped that there would be trouble somewhere in town tonight, snow or no snow. Arresting unruly suspects usually cheered him up.

***

Almira knew she was dreaming. Sometimes this was very amusing, as she would wander the world of night and explore, secure in the knowledge that everything around her, large and small, threatening and inviting, was insubstantial and therefore not a particularly real danger to her.

This dream was different. Some of the more curious elements were oddly familiar and yet, somehow, seemed to deliberately hold back some critical bit of information or insight. The threatening and frightening elements of this particular dream were more vague than usual, darkly-foreboding feelings, like a low ground fog, moved silently, as if stirred by a night-breeze.

…she was walking away from a small cottage that stood at the base of immensely tall, red cliffs. Clearly someone’s home, it’s location did not seem to enjoy the benefit of being sheltered by the towering cliffs, but actually, was at risk. And it was not that rock shards, boulders might fall and crush it, rather the danger seemed to lie in how the cliffs seemed to grow, and in the process of growing, threaten to absorb the little house, turning it’s soft, warm light into hard, cold brick. There was a sound, the dreaming girl suddenly realized, a moaning that was coming from within the bricks.

Almira started to run from the cliffs and their song of despair. Coming to the top of a flower-covered hill, she stopped running and stood, paralyzed by the sight of endless plains, spreading out before her, farther than the eye could see. Small clumps of trees, many with a companion blue lake, dotted the nearly flat landscape, she looked for and failed to find any pattern to the arrangement. Both of these other-wise quite normal and even charming features, served only to make the endless fields seem even more soul-sapping. She turned to her left and saw a man, standing at a small crossroads, just a short distance from where she stood, (this being a dream, after all, Almira smiled to herself). The intersection, in the middle of the vast prairie, really was just a smallish square of prairie grass that was more trampled into dirt than the areas around it.

“Pardon me, can you tell me where I am?” She asked the man, who appeared not to notice her sudden arrival.

“No, but I would be happy to tell you where you should try to go.”

The man, who Almira thought looked a little like Emerson, was smoking a pipe that made her add, ‘and a bit of Abraham Lincoln’. Looking directly at her, the tall man began to re-fill his pipe. Somehow it had become enormous, despite the fact that he’d been smoking when she first noticed him. He continued to focus on his pipe, until he had it filled to his satisfaction, at which point he assumed the manner of an orator,

The voyage of the best ship is a zigzag line of a hundred tacks. See the line from a sufficient distance, and it straightens itself to the average tendency.”

He looked off into the distance, as if for a dramatic effect and, then smiled to himself, while bending over to whisper in her ear,

“Even though I wrote that, I now think it’s rather obvious, don’t you? It was my good fortune to have first read it in public as a part of a sermon. Do you know how little people actually pay attention when listening to a sermon?”

Almira giggled and thought she felt something near her leg, looked down, but saw nothing.

Emerson/Lincoln stood looking at her and, with the air of an actor relaxing after a demanding performance, put his pipe away and said,

“My friend, Margaret Fuller, once said,

Two persons love in one another the future good which they aid one another to unfold.’

I rather like that one, don’t you?”

Almira found herself blushing, but nodded, her hand coming up to her face,

“and, personally, I think that this is the best we can hope for, but since I’m only a dream man…”

Again, Almira felt a warmth rise in her face and spread through her middle,

“…this is your dream about finding your way, I should try to be more sure of myself and therefore, helpful to you. So I will say,

‘If you go one way, it will be as it was. Of course, if you choose to go the other way, it will be as you hope. Neither is your choice alone’.”

Almira looked towards what felt like the western horizon, although she knew that in dreams, nothing was as it appeared to be, turned back to face the man and found only a plain field, a scattering of flowers growing in a pattern that hinted of a path.

‘Well,’ Almira thought, ‘I had better get moving’, as the far-off sound of a distant scream began to grow, coming from the direction of the tall, red cliffs…

 

The aroma of minestrone soup lifted Almira from her dream, the sound of a tea kettle gave her sleep-closed eyes a direction to look.

“Well, look who’s finally awake! Hey, good morning, sleepy head.”

Her friend, Annie LoPizzo, stood in front of the stove, in the kitchen end of the large room. Almira wrapped in a brown quilt, was lying on an even darker brown sofa, at the far end of this same room. Annie wore an apron around her waist and her long dark hair up in a bun. She lifted the kettle from the stove, poured boiling water into a small teapot and brought two cups, (decorated with a woodlands scene, done in pale blue and saucers with a gold band circling the rim), over to the low table in front of the couch. Returning to the stove, Annie brought back the teapot, a small sugar bowl and sat on the couch next to Almira, who had raised herself into a more upright position, while keeping the quilt nearly to her shoulders.

“I have to work the new Sunday second shift today. The Owners must have extra long Christmas gift lists this year.” Annie looked back towards the stove, got up and walked over to it, stirred the contents of a large sauce pan, and then arranged some plates on the kitchen table.

“It’s snowing, so I’m leaving a little early. I want to stop at the Union Hall to check on the Dombrovsky twins, before I go on to the Mill. Those girls are well-meaning and hard-working, but you’d think, with them being twins, it would be impossible to be so dumb! I’ll have to make sure that all the supplies are out on the counter. With this snow, I’m sure we’ll have people stopping by for supplies.”

Annie walked into the bedroom, unbuttoning her blouse, her apron left behind, draped on the back of one of the kitchen chairs. Pulling at the back of her skirt, she stepped out of it, never stopping, as she walked about the bedroom, gathering together the clothes she always wore to work at the Mill, clothes that were simple and fit closely to the body. She did not make this choice out of vanity, although a person would be forgiven for thinking so, as Annie had the kind of figure that men lusted for and women coveted.

As Annie stood in the bedroom doorway, wearing only her bloomers and a tooth brush, Almira found herself at once self-conscious and, at the same time, jealous of her friend’s natural comfort with herself. Her own figure was developed to quite an impressive degree, unfortunately, her self-confidence was not keeping pace with the increasingly prominent display of her feminine attributes.

“Sterling will be stopping by later, probably towards dinner, I have some gravy simmering on the stove for him. You should stay with the soup, maybe a little bread, ok?”

Almira pulled herself up on the couch,

“I’m not a little girl that you need to have someone babysit when you’re at work!”

Almira watched as Annie stopped working at her hair with her hairbrush. She saw a passing look pull at her friends face, the effort she made to resist whatever feeling possessed in that split-second showed in a slumping of her shoulders, her breasts, for just a fleeting time, made her look a woman of many more years and much more harder a life. Annie shook her head in a way that made Almira think of a horse, bridle removed after a long hard day pulling, shook her own mane and took the pleasure of feeling her hair brushing her shoulders to rejuvenate her,

“It wasn’t my idea! Your handsome and determined protector has been coming here everyday since …that night. Of course, you haven’t seen him because you’ve been asleep, healing. But he comes here every day. He sits and pretends to be interested in what my day has been like and how much work it is to run the Union Hall. And, you are never out of his sight.”

Almira looked surprised, a bit scared and yet quietly happy,

“What? You must be mistaken! You are why he is here, you’re so… so what men want. I am an ugly duckling in comparison. No, make that a ragged, under-sized raccoon. …with a very large nose.”

Annie stood and looked at Almira, and tilted her head, as if to get a different perspective, then walked over and, after brushing the girl’s hair down and to the side, stepped back and said,

“Well, now that I look, you’re right. But a very pretty, young raccoon.”

The room was silent, then both broke into laughter.

Almira Ristani hid from her thoughts nearly as much as from her emotions. To a passerby, she would seem cold, aloof and un-caring of the difficulties of those around her. However, to a friend and especially to a man who sees his life made worthwhile in her eyes, she was much, more more.  To them, she appears a small, delicately featured girl who might someday turn into a woman. Her pale blue eyes were the color of a distant horizon on a summer afternoon. However, at those rare moments when caught off-guard, the observant person might be startled by the depth in her eyes. And, if one were especially daring, ambition incited by love, they might even see in her eyes, back where the soul touches the world, a sparkle of night flashing like distant lightening.

“You know men, but you must be mistaken.”

“I do know men. And you are still very young and, probably the smartest person I know… old or young, man or woman. You have such a gift for understanding,”

Annie sat on the edge of the couch and, after brushing Almira’s hair from her eyes, put her hand over the girls heart,

“You still have so much to learn about this. And, unlike that sharp and controllable mind of yours, the heart is like the ocean, powerful and un-controllable. And you, my little raccoon, have everything to learn about that particular subject!”

Almira took Annie’s hand in hers and looked at her friend,

“Yes, I know the bruises will go away. But my nose is now different, it feels different on my face. I find myself trying to look around it. It makes me feel that I need to squint. This morning, when I looked in the mirror, I thought, ‘So this is what a young, growing witch sees when she looks in the mirror’.”

“Stop that! This instant!

Annie’s voice was angry and Almira was taken aback by it’s vehemence,

“I never want to hear you speak like that about yourself again! Ever! I am a very attractive and intelligent woman, and I have only attractive and intelligent people for friends. Are you calling me a liar? If you are, we cannot be friends. I don’t have friends who think that I don’t know what I’m talking about or am stupid or something!”

Almira felt a sudden dipping in her stomach at the emotion in her friends voice. The passion and sincerity made the prospect of their friendship being at risk, terribly real. Annie remained seated and, for the young girl, the feeling of safety in the small space between the back of the couch and her friends leg melted the cold fear and a happy sadness overwhelmed her. Almira grabbed Annie’s arm in a hug, like a child clutching at her mother’s dress, a universal signal for being in need of protection.

Annie sat and held her friends hands as the girl began to cry,

“I won’t. I promise! As long as you are my friend, then it doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks of how I look, even the girl in my mirror.”

Almira curled on to her side, being very careful in resting her face against Annie’s leg. Annie stroked the girls hair, smoothing the tangles of fine hair, as if it was the tangle and confusion and knots that created the storm within her young friend, and to comb out and untangle the very, very light brown strands, would bring peace.

Without lifting her head, Almira spoke, almost into Annie’s thigh

“Exactly how well do you know men?”

Her body shook, as she tried to restrain her giggling.

Annie raised her eyebrow and looked sternly at the girl, both began to laugh,

“Your precious Mr Emerson and Mr Thoreau, with their lofty insights into the transcendental? They are children playing with wooden blocks compared to my understanding of the ways and nature of men! Your church-leading, college-men-of higher-education have not learned the secret language of boys who would be men. Young men speak words and think that we listen, seeing only the pretty pictures they paint with their voices. We listen and we watch, and …and, if we are smart, we learn to know them from what they do not say. Most of all, for those of us who are very, very smart, we learn from what they do not tell themselves.”

Leaning over the girl on the couch, Annie tucked in the quilt extra tight on the sides.

As Annie LoPizzo closed the apartment door, she looked and saw her houseguest on the couch with her books. Some lay open, across her lap and more on the floor, in front of the couch. Leather-bound pickets, running in staggered rows in the quiet before the battle.

***

Dorothy was out of the truck and running up to Eliza before Tom turned off the engine. She grabbed her friend in a hug that spoke of the quality of the time she spent apart much more eloquently than the amount of time passed.

“How long have you been waiting? I wish I’d known you were coming….” as she broke the hug first

“I only just got here. Don’t worry about me, I’ve had Henry Fonda here seeing that I didn’t get too bored.”

Dorothy watched as Eliza smiled at Hunk, barely keeping from licking her lips. For his part, Hunk only smiled into her friends dark eyes. Like a square of paper in a pan of developers solution, the parts appeared first, the meaning, second. With a feeling of surprise, tinged with something unidentifiable, she thought,

‘What happened to my scuff and stumble farmhand, Hunk? Eliza’s good with men, but I had no idea she could raise the not-yet-living to life.’

“Well, Dee, from the looks of your cute friend in the truck, you had some plans of your own, should I come back a little later?”

Eliza started to walk towards the cottage under the apple tree, next to the barn, “Come on, Hank, these two clearly have something on their minds. Show me all those books Dorothy told me so much about.”

Dorothy felt a hand entwine her fingers, large and strong, forcing them apart, forming a grasp that was at once rough and at the same time intimately exciting.

“Wait. No need. We were just stopping by the house for…”

Before she could complete the sentence, a distant sound, growing from the East, caused everyone, except Eliza and Hunk and Tom Hardesty to turn and look out over the fields towards County Rd #2 and the approaching vehicle.

“Shit! Why couldn’t it be a tornado tearing up the road instead of them!”

Dorothy looked around the open yard area, first at the house, then the barn and then the small cottage, where Eliza and Hunk had managed to get halfway to, and then at the two vehicles, Tom’s stake body truck, with Hardesty Farms painted on its rusty blue side panels and Eliza’s bright yellow Packard, it’s black canvas top making it look like a very large bee, sitting still between the flowers in a country yard.

“Hunk! Take Tom to the barn and Eliza, you stay with me. Let me do the talking, ok?”

Dorothy looked at the other three young people, Hunk looked thoughtful, Tom looked determined and Eliza was clearly amused.