“Are you sure you’re feeling up this?”
The Baumeisters waved from the porch as Almira and I drove out through the always open gate, turned right and headed south on County Rd #2.
We’d accepted their invitation to stay with them, at least until we made a decision where we would spend the winter. Given Almira’s condition, we didn’t need any convincing that settling here in Circe, at least until the baby was born, was the right decision. Even more importantly, there was something about Ted and Simone that made me feel welcome and, not being a person to quickly make friends, that’s saying a lot. Almira is, in her way, more comfortable around strangers, from the look on her face, as she walked through the front door just a few nights before, you’d have thought that she’d lived there all her life.
Simone and Ted Baumeister were in their late thirties and, at the moment, alone in the large farmhouse. Ted showed me what he referred to as, the ‘dormitory’ the day after our arrival, explaining that he’d just completed the interior and it was ready for whoever needed a place to stay. I started to say something about how it would only take a little time to move from the large second floor bedroom, when he interrupted me,
“Nein! Not you and Almira! Our children, they have all grown and moved on, this dormitory, I built because, well, because we are able to build it. You’d be surprised at how many people pass by our small farm here. Many are looking for work, some seeking direction, all need a comfortable place to rest for a short time from their journey. But you and little Almira, you are different. You, I think, you are family. You will stay with us in the house, for as long as you wish.”
I looked past the two-story building at the barn, about 100 yards further back from the road. It had corrals and pens on it’s far side, and beyond, lay fields, now in frozen slumber awaiting the warmth of Spring to awaken them. Ted and I walked back towards the house,
“I appreciate it, Ted. I don’t know how long we’ll be staying in Circe, but I know I like it here and Almira loves it. My wife is one of the most self-assured women I’ve ever met and she always finds the best in the people; her work with the unions makes that a very valuable quality. I saw something in her face the other night, when Simone opened the door and welcomed us. There was a relaxing, a letting down of her guard that made me believe in miracles. For the first time since we left Providence, I saw an expression on her face that told me she felt at home. Thank you. I won’t burden you with the details, but it is quite remarkable.”
Ted Baumeister, a very large man, easily six-foot three, put his arm across my shoulders as we walked up the porch stairs. At a volume that was something a little quieter than a roar, he announced our return,
“Simone! What is for dinner!”
Almira and Simone were sitting on a sofa that faced the over-sized fireplace, there were books everywhere. Some open on a low table, passages illuminated by the flames of the warming fire, several lying on the floor, a modern fairy ring surrounding the two women. Almira had one book in her lap, pointing to a passage that surely was in support of whatever point she was about to make to Simone, who had her own book, resting on the arm of the blue and gray fabric sofa. She looked up and laughing said,
“Exactly my question, Teddy. You and Sterling there, be sure to let Almira and me know in plenty of time to free ourselves of this avalanche of words and ideas. We are starving!”
We all laughed and Ted Baumeister and I headed for the kitchen.
Watching the road ahead, I noticed the scarecrow in the field that we saw the night we arrived at the Baumeisters. It was still in the same part of the field, except rather than left arm pointing, it’s right arm was pointing in what would have been the opposite direction. I felt a twinge pulling at the scar tissue on my face, ‘Well, Sterling’, I thought, ‘chalk one up to long-term effects of shell shock on memory.’ I followed the County Rd #2 to the right and after about twenty minutes I could see in the distance, still just a smudge below the razor clean horizon, a farmhouse and barn, both set at the end of a long fenced driveway.
Almira was quiet since we left the Baumeister’s. Ted and Simone referred to it as ‘the Keep’, an odd but somehow reassuring term for their homestead. She stared out the window, her eyes focused somewhere not on the maps and certainly not a place merely a physical distance away. I knew the look and I knew that all I could do was not worry and be available to her. Eventually she would return, as she always did, sometimes happy, other times exhausted, as if she’d crossed some immeasurable distance, exploring places not found on any motor club map.
I turned left off County Rd #2 at a gate marked: Gale
The barn, to the right as we approached the compound was freshly painted very red, the corral fencing was all new, un-broken and barely worn. There was a small structure next to the barn, a low one story building that seemed to serve as storage of some sort. My knowledge of working farms and farming now exhausted, I drove into the area, that friends back East would refer to as ‘the dooryard’, that lay between the barn and the house and parked the car.
The house had a wide porch lined with windows and a door at the far left end. Very similar to the Baumeisters. One look at Almira confirmed that it wasn’t that similar to the Baumeisters.
“You know that I will turn this car around, right this instant, all you have to do is say the word. You know that, right Almira?”
She smiled, a hint of reserve in her eyes, like a lone cloud in a clear sky,
“We are here, husband of mine, together we can stand up to anything the world might decide to throw at us.” A look of a 16-year-old grew in the depths of her eyes, “But, let’s make this quick, shall we? Simone said that she had some herbs that will tell us the sex of our child-to-be. I’d rather be there, having a beautifully odd woman pretending to know things about me than to be here at a stranger’s house, a stranger who will claim to know things about us.”
We got out of the Packard and went up to the door and knocked and waited.
“Sky don’t look so good.”
Eliza Thornberg, sitting next to Dorothy on the porch of the Gale house, titled forward in the rocking chair,
“The hell you say, Mr. Fonda! It’s warm, the sun’s out and there’s not a cloud to be seen anywhere. I think I had you up too late, last night! It looks to be a near perfect August day.”
She leaned back and let the half-round motion of the chair lift her legs up to the porch railing. Looking from under the brim of her straw hat, she looked towards Hunk Dietrich and, turning slightly, winked at Dorothy in the chair next to her.
Dorothy smiled tentatively, trying to recall if she’d ever seen her friend wearing a straw hat. She was fairly certain she had not and her smile faltered as it dawned on her that not only was it not Eliza’s hat, it was Hunk’s.
Hunk walked slowly across the dirt yard that between the farmhouse and the barn and the small cottage that served as his living quarters. He ate most of his meals with the Gale family, at least except during the winter months, when the demands of his correspondence classes kept him indoors, studying. There remained only a few more courses to complete in order to earn the college degree that formed the center of his private, personal life. Hunk stopped halfway across the yard and stared up at the sky. Having lived his entire life in the Midwest, he was very attuned to the slightest of changes in the weather. In a part of the country that otherwise appeared to be quite plain, in geographic character, the High Plains and the wide area that bordered them was prone to surprisingly dramatic (and lethal) outbursts of weather. Snow in the winter could show up at the end of an otherwise springlike day; rain, absent for months arrived with a pent-up ferocity to flatten crops and wash out roads. Almost in compliment to the plainness of the geography, the truly dangerous weather came with very little advanced warning. The tornadoes, often hidden in the night dark, sprang from the belly of thunderclouds, mindlessly destructive children, hungry for destruction.
Hunk stopped moving when Eliza rested her feet on the railing. She wore a skirt that, when simply standing, engaged in an innocent conversation, was of a somewhat provocative style, given the social context of a small rural community in the American Midwest. When the legs behind the skirt’s brightly patterned folds were tipped upwards, the resulting display of the female form moved into fashion territory much less commonly encountered on a working farm, in the middle of Kansas. Not that her dress slid up past her knees, at least not that much. The back half of Eliza’s legs was what caused the young farm hand to stop in his tracks. Like a slightly arabesque tent down a side aisle, part of a traveling carnival, the tented view of the Eliza’s legs held both promise and threat, neither explicitly stated.
Hunk stood, stuck in a patch of indecision as he wrestled with his conflicting response to the sight of the two girls, sitting on the porch waiting for Sunday dinner to begin.
Eliza smiled at Hunk, shaped by both affection and a touch of gleeful cruelty. She genuinely liked Hunk. She certainly found him physically attractive, although he carried a bit of the ordinary in his polite, deferential manner. While she found that quality sweet, in her experience it almost always was followed by boredom. At odds with this characteristic response, Eliza felt a visceral response, as physical as a sneeze, to her memory of the previous evening with him as they sat at a window booth in a forgettable diner in an equally forgettable town and Hunk Dietrich became someone else. It was not so much he became an exaggerated version of his normal self, as happened all too often when boys get drunk on liquor or love. The outcome of infatuation was usually that the big gets bigger and the unpleasant becomes awful. The transformation in the man in the diner was more akin to when a person is so distracted that they forget to be weak and simply act from the heart. The effect of this simple naturalness was overwhelmingly powerful. Even if she had not found Hunk Dietrich attractive, the previous evening would not have progressed differently.
Now, with a radio whispering a tune somewhere inside the house, Eliza Thornberg wrestled with her sense of control and was grateful that it was the daytime-normal version of Hunk standing in the middle of the yard in front of the Gale home.
“No, Eliza, sorry to say but you’re not from around here. There’s something in the air.”
Hunk’s tone was just a little more assertive. It was an echo of the previous evening, strong enough for Eliza to feel suddenly less confident with her feet on the porch railing. She sat forward, her satin D’orsays flat against the smooth boards of the porch.
Dorothy, still frowning, rocked back in her chair,
“Hunk’s always been good predicting changes in the weather. Out here, they call it, ‘having a weather eye’. It means he can sense a change before it happens. It’s a gift and he’s almost always right about whether it’s going to rain or be hot or have tornadoes destroy your town.”
The edge in Hunk’s voice seemed to fade as he turned his head and spoke to Dorothy. He was now standing at the railing opposite Eliza, leaning with both elbows on the rail, hands together, pointed at Eliza opposite him.
He looked at her and smiled,
“I like the idea that back East at your school, the worst thing they have for weather is snow. No surprise…. storms. I like that.”
Eliza, uncertain why, felt uncomfortable. Hunk turned towards her, locked eyes and she remembered.
“Well, we do have blizzards back East! We even had a hurricane pass by three years ago. They’re not exactly tame and safe.”
Hunk smiled in a way that made her feel like she had no idea who any of the people around her were and why she was among them,
“Sure, I’ve read about the wind and the tree damage. Huge storms that move slowly up the coastline. But around here, the storms are more…personal. And sometimes, there’s a storm that comes looking for you. And no matter where you hide, if it catches you, it will take you away.”
“I think I’ll go help Margherita set the table for dinner. I believe Auntie Em invited Doctor Morgan and his wife for dinner.”
“You want some help?” Eliza suddenly found herself wanting to be doing something boring.
“Nah, I can handle it”
Hunk vaulted the railing and crouched in front of Eliza, the suddenness and implied strength startling her into rocking back in the chair.
Smiling, Hunk put both hands on the ends of the armrests and tipped the chair forward. Eliza frowned and her temper, flared like a spark in dry pine needles, her eyes grew dark and was about to speak when,
“Dinner time, everyone!”
Hunk held out his hand.
Eliza felt the flare of temper, like a backfire out of control, spread within her. Her need to control and perhaps to hurt someone was replaced by a simple and plain feeling of need.
“So, Doctor Morgan, I understand that in a week or so, the construction will be starting!”
Emily Gale’s voice had a jagged trill to it that, had it been heard from a 6-year-old girl in the middle of a surprise birthday party, would not have been overly noticeable. The strained light-heartedness made each phrase of her attempt at dinner conversation, all the more brittle. The light in the room ebbed and flowed as clouds grew in the sky outside, the tone of her voice as jarring as biting down on a scrap of aluminum foil hidden in a fork full of picnic potato salad.
Henry Gale sat in his ‘good clothes’ at the head of the table. Being a round table, it was so purely on the basis of Emily’s announcement, ‘…and Henry sits there, at the head of the table’. Henry focused his attention on his plate, as if somewhere in the patterns of gravy and mashed potatoes there might be discovered a map to a secret treasure.
Hunk sat closest to the kitchen door and the two windows that opened out to the porch. Behind him, the mid-afternoon sunlight began to draw curved-geometric patterns on the white linen curtains as they swayed in the growing breeze. To his right, Eliza Thornberg sat and tried to appear interested in conversation that kept dying and being pulled from the ashes by the host. She was looking at Doctor Morgan and Emily Gale, but was exquisitely aware of Hunk Dietrich next to her, every few minutes twist in his seat and lean back to glance out the open windows behind him. Each time he did so, his leg would press against Eliza’s and a feeling of dismay would grow stronger inside her. Feeling a blush creep up from the top of her blouse, laying claim to the sides of her face, Eliza began to think that it might be time to think about returning to Philadelphia.
She was distracted from her distraction by the sound of Emily Gale prodding her dinner guest with pointed questions intermixed with obvious flattery, all mixed together like a child’s mud pie, clearly determined to demonstrate a skill that she did not possess.
Dorothy was seated to Thaddeus Morgan’s right. The Doctor was bracketed by Gale women and had a look that any nurse at St Mary’s would recognize. It was the expression he wore whenever walking into the operating room knowing that there was little chance of the patient’s survival. It was professional stoicism at it’s best. Dorothy picked at her food like a farm hand sitting on a porch whittling, waiting out a passing rainstorm.
Thaddeus Morgan looked to his left, Emily Gale sitting painfully upright, the look on her face the determined optimism of a spoiled child about to sit in the lap of a department store Santa Claus and said,
“Well, there is much left to do before the bulldozers come to the doors. We have almost all the primary functions of the old wing moved to temporary quarters. My wife, Eleanor is over-seeing that part of the transition. A very talented administrator, my wife.”
Dr. Thaddeus Morgan, directed the last part of his answer to Eliza, who, in turn, leaned forward in her seat and nodded as if she was interested in hearing the qualification of the Medical Director’s wife.
“She regretted not being able to join us today,” he spoke now more to the table at large, as he recalled the morning, “she takes her duties at the hospital very seriously. Too seriously at times.”
Emily Gale was clearly less interested in the fact that the Medical Director had confidence in his wife’s abilities than she was in how soon the old wing of the hospital could be torn down.
“So, Thad, you expect to start demolition in a week to 10 days, do I hear you correctly?”
“Well, Emily, as I said, most of the equipment and fixtures have been re-located to other parts of the hospital. Of course, we still have one remaining patient in Ward C.”
Thaddeus Morgan watched Emily slice the roast on her plate with an expert efficiency that reminded him of the head surgeon in medical school. At the beginning of the semester of Thad Morgan’s second year, Doctor Alphonse Wolff would look over the body of the cadaver in front of him and say with a cheerful smile to the interns, “Gentleman, dinner is served.” Bringing himself back to the present he stared at Emily Gale, as she continued,
“Just move her out! From what I hear she doesn’t do anything but lie there, taking up space. Put her in the children’s ward. Put her in the morgue for all I care.”
Thad Morgan looked uncomfortably around the dining room table, as if searching for understanding or, failing that, a sympathetic ear.
“One simply doesn’t move a patient willy nilly, not someone in her condition.”
“Well, I never…”
Emily sat back, linen napkin twisted between her hands, eyes circled the room, looking angrily at someone to swoop down upon.
Eliza Thornberg was leaning forward in her chair, staring at her plate, brows pursed, an expression of frustration mixed with a touch of fear. Hunk Dietrich was leaning away from the table towards the open windows, his expression one of alertness. Henry Gale continued to eat, shoulders relaxed, long-accustomed to the piercing talons of his wife’s temper and her inability to tolerate frustration. He continued to quietly enjoy his food.
“Listen, Thaddeus if you think all my plans and money are just going to stand by and….
“Will Mrs. Gulch wake up?”
Aunt Em’s head swiveled on her shoulders. No other part of her body moved, she simply turned her head and glared at Dorothy. Dorothy, for her part, looked intently at the doctor. Something flickered in Emily Gale’s eyes, something like doubt and fear.
“Will she ever wake up again?” Dorothy repeated quietly, as if she were asking about the weather.
“Young lady! Dr Morgan is the head of the entire hospital. He does not take care of everyone there and certainly does not look after an old lady like that Miss Gulch, lying in the way in the indigent ward.”
“It’s Mrs. Gulch,”
“What did you say?”
“Nurse Griswold told me that her proper name is Mrs. Gulch.”
“Who did you say told you that, Miss Gale?”
Thaddeus Morgan turned to face Dorothy, his considerable bulk almost obscuring Emily Gale who was also starting to stand up from the table, as if to move around the doctor.
“Nurse Griswold. A tall, thin woman with long blonde hair and the most curious way of moving. She told me that Mrs. Gulch is suffering from dehydration.”
Like a choir of badly trained monks, singing out of sync, the intake of breath came from all the people around the table at the same moment, a collective gasp.
“Nurse Griswold said Mrs. Gulch was ‘a girl trapped in an old woman’s body and just needed someone to help her get free.'”
Emily Gale stood up and spoke at the same moment as Dr Thaddeus Morgan tried to re-assure the girl and settle himself,
“Well, Miss Gale, medicine is not such a simple matter of how things look and do not look, there are tests and ….”
“That will be enough nonsense at my table, young lady…”
Somewhere in the distance there was a tapping sound. It began slowly and the sound of each individual tap grew in force and volume.
Hunk was already walking past the open windows, the curtains, now blowing inwards, wrapped themselves around his legs as he passed, headed towards the kitchen.
“Hail. And, unless I’m mistaken, lightning is moving this way. I think this might be a good time to tell our guests the location of your storm shelter, Henry.”
Hunk stopped at the door and looked at Eliza,
“Maybe I can rescue your pretty yellow convertible, ‘Liza. Stay close to Dorothy.”