Chapter 11

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 Deprived of relevancy, not only by age, but by virtue of woefully out-of-date practical skills, anemic civic presence or any other of the small, but expected contributions to everyday life, these old, pale, worn and leather-tough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

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

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

Dorothy smiled and continued towards the door,

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

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

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

“Miss Gale!! Miss Gale!!”

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

“Could I talk to you, please?”

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Herschel, Make sure the door is locked.”

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Chapter 13

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“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 14

Featured

“I said, let her go… now.”

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

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

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

“Sterling….don’t! Not here!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She put her forearms under Almira’s ankles.

“On three. One…Two….lift.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Get me some ice,”

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

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

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

“What took you so…”

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

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

“Well, that might be enough,”

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

“Here, let’s try this,”

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

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

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

“Here, give me that,”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

“OK, here we go,”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Are you still willing?”

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

Chapter 15

Featured

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“May I help you?”

Chapter 16

Featured

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

“You!”

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

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

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

“Well, are you going to ask me?”

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

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

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

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

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

“I don’t understand what you mean,”

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

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

Nurse Griswold’s voice was very, very close,

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Get me out of here!”

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

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

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

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

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

“Hey, Dorothy, what about your bike?”

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

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

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

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

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

“This is nice,”

A murmur/vibration in her left ear,

“Mmmm”

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

Tom Hardesty looked sideways at her and smiled,

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

***

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

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

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

“May I help you?”

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

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

“You must be Eliza”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What? Well, up until now…”

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

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

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

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

“What?’

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

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

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

***

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

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

“Can I give you a hand?”

Tom laughed,

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

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

“Deal”

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“He’s…” Annie was standing now.

“He’s not a mute. Are you, boyo?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Thank you again, Sargent Herlihy.”

Leaning against the door, Annie sighed,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“O day, nust a while”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Besides, she has my gun,”

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

“Here we go,”

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

Chapter 18

Featured

“Dorothy! What in tarnation is going on here? Why is there a truck from the Hardesty Farm and a yellow convertible doing in our dooryard? It looks like gypsies struck rich and picked our farm to settle at for the Summer!”

Emily Gale sat in the car, passenger-side window cranked down, a reversal of the priest in a dark and quiet confessional, accusing rather than listening. Uncle Henry sat behind the wheel, resigned to awaiting further instructions. Tom’s truck, ‘Hardesty Farms’ painted on the sides, held his attention in a grip that even his wife would have trouble breaking.

Putting her hand briefly on Eliza Thornberg’s arm, a gesture of friendship, support and warning, Dorothy walked from her friend’s car towards the still idling black sedan. By chance she glanced to the right of the small cottage that Hunk called home and noticed the pair of wooden-slat doors, built into the side of a small rise in the land. She immediately looked towards the west, puzzled why she should care, as the sky was the same actinic blue all the way down to the heat-blurred horizon. As she approached the ground-shadow of the black sedan, she noted that her Aunt Emily’s voice had taken on a characteristic tone. It was her ‘summoning’ voice. As familiar with its grating as she was with the biting cold of December on the Plains, Dorothy hesitated and stopped. It felt every bit like being called before a tribunal of one, and it was all the spark her jumbled emotions needed.

Puzzled by the sight of her daughter stopping and standing in the middle of the parking area, Emily Gale turned, (her voice more than her body), towards her husband,

“Henry! I told you to have this car fixed! That muffler is so loud I can’t hear myself think!  No, don’t bother parking it, you can come out later, just turn it off,” Had she looked at her husband’s face, Emily Gale might have been concerned. Not that she ever was concerned with how her Henry took her suggestions, but this time he wore an expression that not only would she have been unable to remember ever seeing, but it did not belong on the face of her kind, gentle and complacent husband, Henry Gale. Anything but gentle and complacent. Instead of attending to her drivers concerns, she opened the passenger-side door and stepped towards her adopted daughter.

“Dorothy!! What is going on here?”

Watching her Aunt cross the yard, she felt a sudden double memory, not so much déjà vu as it was, ‘(a) memory of a dream that reflected the real life events of the day before.’ She felt a tensing of her shoulders and legs, every animal’s instinctual preparation for fight or flight, the decision still seconds away. Something about the unwavering look in her eyes that triggered a memory, heard in the voice of the nurse at the Hospital,

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.

The decision that ‘flight’ was her best option was neutralized when, from behind her,

“Mrs. Gale! It’s such a pleasure to finally meet you! Dorothy has told me so much about how you’ve transformed this Town.”

Eliza Thornberg stepped past Dorothy, her right hand-held out, and intercepted Emily Gale. Dorothy noted the position of her friend’s hand, palm down, fingers bent and watched as her aunt just barely avoided curtseying as their hands touched.

“You must tell me everything about Dorothy’s childhood. She’s such a tight-lipped girl when it comes to herself. Yet, I feel like I grew up here. The sun is doing nothing for my complexion, come, let’s go inside. Do you think we might have some some fresh lemonade?”

Eliza put her arm lightly around Aunt Em’s waist and started walking to the house, turning to catch Dorothy’s eye and winking a smile at her friend.

“Hey, Hunk! you bring Tom out of the barn, It looks like we’re all going to be staying for dinner.” Dorothy walked towards the house, Uncle Henry remained behind, still sitting in the black sedan, both hands tightly gripping the steering wheel.

***

Almira Ristani was worlds away from the brown couch in a drafty apartment in the Mill section of Lawrence, Massachusetts on a winter’s blizzard evening. She was dreaming of flying, which was her favorite type of dream. Her dream-body, healthy and un-marked, swooped over fields of grass, close enough to touch the green blades. She had the sense of being in a dream, without the temptation to try to control her own actions and impulses. Content (and exhilarated) simply to be loose of the world, she moved through the air without thought. Suddenly there was a change, up ahead in the un-seen distance, something was beckoning, demanding yet not threatening. The girl’s path through the air shifted of its own accord, drawn to this wordless call. With this change, a new feeling grew within her. It shaped itself as an urgency, a thing that she wanted and at the same time knew that would change her, not all to the good. Almira thought, ‘…like a wolf in sheep’s clothing, hiding under a child’s soft blanket‘. In trying to understand the source of this feeling, her aimless swooping became more deliberate. She realized that she was entering a bank of clouds, towering on the horizon. As she drew closer, lightning bolts rooted themselves in the earth and tore at the guts of the clouds that gave birth to them and the rumble of thunder grew, like waves in an approaching storm crashing on a shoreline.

The thunder of her dream transformed into a most common, (and often annoying), sound of banging on the door of Annie’s apartment. Eyes still closed, the sleepers last-ditch attempt to stay where they preferred, Almira pulled the well-worn, pale blue robe closer around her body and let her legs slip off the far end of the sofa. Like a child tentatively sampling the temperature of small lapping waves at a beach, she let her feet test the commitment of the floor to being a solid and reliable surface. As if to insist that it was up to the task of supporting her, the cold of the floor pulled itself into her soles and up her legs. Resigned now to being awake, she counter-levered her legs to raise the rest of her body into an upright position in the middle of the couch. She felt the cold creep up her legs as her sleep-weighted arms desperately practiced feeling and flexing, touching and holding. Almira Ristani was now more earth-bound girl, than sky-flying angel, even the sadness of leaving the night world evaporated like morning frost in the sunlight. Resisting the impulse to rub her eyes, a bright aurora of yellow and green still encircling both, she settled for burying her fingers in her hair. Sleep-tangled, it fell down over her face, a virgin’s marriage veil, brushed away each morning, un-claimed by anyone other than her own duty to continue on through the world alone.

Looking up, Almira saw the door slowly open, a spasm of adrenaline coursed roughly from her center outwards, her muscles tensed in primal action. She relaxed as Sterling Gulch’s head projected through the opening, announcing his arrival. Almira was stunned into motionlessness as a sudden, nearly incomprehensible image appeared in her mind. It was, somehow meaningful enough to cause her dream-self, (delaying her return to the night), to laugh soundlessly and wave as she vanished before the light.

“Anyone home? Oh, hey! Almira! Sorry! I didn’t know you were asleep!”

Sterling Gulch, a shelf of fresh fallen snow avalanching off his broad shoulders down onto the threshold, walked into the apartment, talking,

“Annie told me that she had to work today, so she asked if I would stop by and check in on you. Between you and me and the gate post, I told her that you were one of the strongest girls I know and probably not in need of being checked-up on. Being Annie, she said. ‘For such a bright young man you’re sometimes very dense. Don’t ask, just do as I say.'”

Almira laughed,

“That sounds like my friend Annie. And, for what it’s worth, you’re both right.”

Almira smiled, felt a newly familiar tug on the skin at the bridge of nose, and became aware that her robe’s light cotton fabric that made it so comfortable to sleep in, did nothing to make her feel anything other than slightly un-dressed. From the corner of her eye, she watched her left shoulder creep out from under the robe, a rebel leaving its hidden refuge in hopes of learning the enemies position. Her brow furrowed, chasing her smile back inside her. And with what she hoped was a confident, un-self-conscious gesture, Almira pulled the blanket around her shoulders. Her efforts were undone by the absurd mental  image of a queen being ceremoniously draped with the royal robes.

“Well, it’s good to see that you’re feeling better. And, looking better.” Sterling seemed to be making himself at home, putting his coat over a kitchen chair and then moving the chair  to bring the back of the chair and coat closer to the stove.

“Not that you were looking bad….anything but! You’re really a pretty girl… it’s just compared to the…”

“My face is still pretty bruised and my nose, well, I don’t think I’ll ever have the same face that I had…”

“Stronger…”

“What?”

“Stronger is what you look like now. Your nose is, somehow, better. Thats only because your eyes were too deep, they look out from a place that, if I say so myself, is pretty scary.  Like the coals of fire, burning and hungry, both at the same time.”

Almira pulled her blanket and robe tighter and was confused to find that her body was tingling with un-sourced energy, more sensitive, as if suddenly resenting the protective covering. She started to pull at her hair, which apparently decided to move about on its own, throwing itself down across her brow.

“Uh… well,”

Almira heard sounds coming from her mouth and heard a quote from Oscar Wilde run through her mind, like an unruly child,

‘I am so clever that sometimes I don’t understand a single word of what I am saying.’

She brushed her hair impatiently from her eyes, just as the young man said, with sincerity that was just barely more frightening than it was exciting.

“After the bruising fades, and you put on some weight, you’ll go from being ‘pretty’ to flat-out, howl at the moon, beautiful.”

***

“Alright you can go over and play with the other children on the swing, just don’t wander off.”

Ephraim Hardesty watched as his son ran towards a car-tire suspended from a branch of tree that grew alone, by itself in a small meadow. It grew nevertheless, abandoned by the others of its kind, reaching into the earth, putting down its own roots. There was a small group of boys and girls of Ethan’s age gathered around the swing, members of the families currently living at Almira’s Keep. The farm was refuge for the dispossessed transients, wanderers and other victims of a society in transition. Like the snake that sheds its skin, nature’s harsh requirement for growth and maturity, people and families and in some parts whole communities, found themselves no longer a part of a life they knew and depended. And so, they wandered and looked for a place where they might be useful, welcome, even valued. Until then, like the dried and lifeless scales of a shed snake-shaped husk, they wandered, blown across the countryside by chance and the rumour of opportunity. Almira’s Keep was not on any Rand McNally or Shell Auto Atlas, but was as well-known as it needed to be to serve this community, which spread along the dusty roads and secondary highways of the country’s mid-section.

Seeing his son Ethan welcomed by the other children, Ephraim relaxed. Watching as the largest child, a girl with blonde hair who appeared to be about 10 years old, pointed to each child when it was time for them to climb on the swing, he thought that the fundamental principle that provided order among people is also the simplest. The largest child saw to it that the smaller children were not brushed aside. Thinking wistfully that perhaps the country would benefit if there was more of this kind of childish concern and wisdom, Ephraim walked towards the small farmhouse. Although not nearly as large as the barns or building that served as extra living quarters (for the visitors), it was clearly the nerve center of the farm.

“Miz McCutcheon? Are you here?” Ephraim stepped into the kitchen, holding the screen door to prevent the spring that held it closed from slamming shut. In the kitchen, girls and boys, ferried platters of food out through double swinging doors, into the large dining room. The sounds of conversations from the 20 or so people, echoed back into kitchen in waves, each time the doors opened and closed.

“Yes? Who it it?”

Ephraim walked towards the small room off the kitchen and stood in the doorway. The sole occupant, a woman in her early 30’s, was seated at a battered, green metal office desk. She turned to face him, but did not get up. The office was converted from a pantry, and therefore had no window. The only light came from a gooseneck desk lamp that stared down at the wide and cluttered workspace. It’s single bulb, focused by the chopped-off cone of its shade, created a pool of light, defined by loose leaf paper shores. Two yellow pencils and one well-worn eraser seemed to float on the pond of artificial light.

“Mr Hardesty! Hello! I didn’t recognize your voice!”

Phyllis McCutcheon looked up in an absent-minded surprise. She then seemed to retreat into thought, and as quickly, she returned with a laugh,

“But then, I don’t believe I actually heard you out there calling me.”

She seemed to enjoy her joke, and continued to laugh until a frown crossed her face,

“Is it that time of month already?”

She smiled with an openness that was at once endearing and worrying. Ephraim found himself returning her smile. He realized that it was his brief interactions with her that he enjoyed most about doing business with this farm.

“I beg your pardon?” his smile reflected an anticipation that her explanation of her statement would be sensible, but in a way that would never have occurred to him.

“The hogs. I have you here on my ledger as, once a month, deliver 2 hogs for slaughter,” without looking, she reached to her right and pulled a clipboard off a hook on the wall and glanced at it briefly. So briefly that Ephraim was certain that she already knew, to the last decimal, what was written on the sheet. Her practiced glance clearly was meant to reassure whoever she was talking to that they could trust information. Even if they didn’t want to trust this woman’s mind.

Ephraim stepped further into the room and, putting his right hand on the back of her chair, placed the unfolded piece of paper on the desk.

“Here’s the invoice, for the hogs. They’re already in the pens out behind the main barn. Though, for the life of me, I don’t understand why you want me to write out an Invoice, seeing how this really is good, old-fashion bartering. But, they’re here and I’ll let you know a couple of days ahead of when I’ll need the extra men for the fence repairing at my farm.”

A barter economy has always enjoyed a healthy popularity in the agricultural strata of most societies, even in America in the 20th Century. Although not exclusively the domain of the farmers, it’s use is a more integral part of the agrarian economy than the manufacturing or service industry sectors. During the first half of the century, the use of the barter system became essential to allowing farms to continue to function. Although, to no credit to the traditional financial institutions, bartering increasingly resembled the clandestine culture of an occupied people. Membership in the barter network served it’s constituents as much by those it kept out as anything else.

Phyllis sat and watched Ephraim, as if seeing him was critical to understanding what it was he was there to say. She nodded when he mentioned Invoice, her right hand unconsciously moving several papers into a more orderly stack.

“And a good evening to you.”

Ephraim Hardesty turned and walked towards the back door of the kitchen. His left hand hit the wooden frame of the screen door when he stopped. He could see his son standing with the other children, dressed in clothes that were neither better nor worse than those of the other children. Ephraim could see the laughter in his son’s eyes. clear across the gravel parking area. Always reading, happy to watch his father work, he suddenly realized that Ethan was his son, just as his brother Tom was surely his mother’s son. One was restless always looking for whatever he thought he lacked, the other content to be with the people he was at the moment, ever curious, yet without the need to find more.

‘You could have done worse, Ephraim,’ he thought, still standing half-in and half-out the door. Two sons, a farm that, despite the sly offers to help, managed to stay a going concern. ‘You could have done worse.’ looking at the children that Ethan clearly enjoyed playing with, ‘you could have your son and your worldly possessions all here, a stopover on a road with no end, only places to rest.’

He turned and walked back into the kitchen, to the door to the small office,

“If you don’t mind my saying, for all the time you spend in this kitchen, I can’t say I’ve seen you sit down for a dinner with any of the people I see on my visits. The Keep won’t shut down if you take time to lift your feet, have a meal with company and set down the burden you’ve carried since Mrs. Gulch took ill.”

“Mr Hardesty! I didn’t hear you come back. Yes, I do seem to work a lot, but it is as I would want it. In fact, I’ll say to you that I’m grateful for the chance to work as much as I do. I can’t think of anything I’d rather be doing.” Phyllis McCutcheon remained seated, but turned in her chair to face Ephraim.

“You need to set the ledgers and the accounts and inventories aside, for just a little while, as the good lord says, ‘man does not live by work alone’.”

She looked puzzled.

“No, I can’t recall which Chapter or Verse I got that from,” Ephraim laughed and continued,

“My son Tom is off somewhere, left me note this morning saying that he was ‘going to be spending the day exploring’, whatever that means! Though he’s still very young, I thought it high time that my son Ethan come with me and learn part of what it is to run a farm. I don’t think Tom will be taking over, there is too much of his mother in him, hearing the calling of the world out there, to settle down for the life of a farmer.”

“… uh, I’d enjoy your company for dinner.”

***

“Lillian, Mrs Prendergast and the boys will be remaining in Boston, the snow is quite bad.

“I will be dinning alone. No, nothing special. If you’d be so kind as to prepare something warming for my dinner, you may take the rest of the evening off. This snow is not letting up. You should spend the evening with your own family. I can fend for myself, but if you insist, ask Grace if she wouldn’t mind having everything ready for me when I return home. Now, since the twins won’t be back tonight, she’ll have little to do. I need to attend to a few things here at the office and will be arriving home at 6:00. Be certain that she gets my message.”

Chapter 19

Featured

(The Gale Farm County Rd #2 Circe, Kansas. July 15, 1939)

(6:00 pm and the light through the windows filled the dining room with a more than passable imitation of mid-afternoon, as sunset was still hours away, at 8:55 pm to be precise. The sky was clear, blue and in no way threatening. The FarmAll thermometer on the barn showed the low 90s. A light breeze tried to sneak up and over the open windowsills and down into the house through the thin white curtains, as if to hide from the sun for the 3 hours remaining.)
(Dinner was at a round, light oak table, in the center of the room between the kitchen and the parlor. The linen tablecloth had a decorative blue border and was very obviously quite expensive. The kitchen is on the other side of a single swinging door that has a brass push plate.)

(Emily Gale, Henry Gale, Hunk Dietrich, Dorothy Gale, Eliza Thornberg and Tom Hardesty)

“Time for dinner, everyone!”

“Eliza? you sit over between Dorothy and me. Tom? right there, on Hunk’s left. (laughing) No, his other left. There, by the door to the kitchen.”

[chairs scraped over the floor, in unison, but un-coordinated, low-throated wooden screech of final adjustment]

“There! everyone comfortable? Well, I can’t tell you how delighted I am to have such a full table of guests. It’s been such a long time. Now, Henry? Why don’t you say the Grace.”

“Dear God, we thank you for this our bounty that you bestow on our family. We give praise and promise to live in your sight. We ask that you continue blessing our family that we might serve as an example of your rewards and everlasting goodness. Amen.”

“Amen”… “Amen”… “A..”

“Margherita! Please! We have a table full of very hungry young people!”

“Right away, Miz Gale, the biscuits are just coming out of the oven.”

“Well, everyone dig right in, we don’t stand any formalities here. Tom? Just pass everything to your left.”

[a sound like the branches of a crystalline forest brushed by a summer wind filled the dining room]

“Don’t forget to help yourself to the green beans. Picked them myself this morning. Margherita! Is that lemonade ready yet?”

“So, Hunk, did’ja get a chance to get out to the Lennon spread this morning?”

“Yeah, but just a quick look. There’s a passel of old equipment out there, didn’t look like much of it’s in any kind of working order.”

“Hunk! Henry! Not another word! This may not be a proper holiday, but I’m declaring the ‘No Work Talk Rule’. Dorothy’s friend Eliza here has no interest in hearing what Hunk did with his day.”

“Not at all, Mrs. Gale! I’m sure what Hunk does is very interesting.”

“You don’t know what you’re letting yourself in for, and call me Auntie Em… or Emily.”

“Ouch!”

“Are you alright?”

“Oh, nothing, just a sudden cramp in my calf, a little souvenir of a polo accident. I’d think that life on a real working farm would be quite interesting.”

“Not to hear them two talk about it! Most mornings start right here at this table and are nothing more exciting than listening to these two going over Henry’s lists of chores. You might not know it, coming from Back East, but this is one of the biggest farms in McPherson County. But interesting? Back-breaking work from sun-up to sun-down. At night, Henry’ll sit out on the porch smoking and making up a new list. Hunk over there, well, after dinner he’s always bent over one of his books, like a cur dog gnawin at a bone thrown out with the dinner scraps.”

“Well, Em, some’ll still have meat left on ’em! There’s a lot inside those old books. I take my bones where I find ’em and when I get too tired I bury what’s left for later.”

[laughter pooled around the guests, like rain-storm runoff, flowing ’round clumps of grass]

“Speaking of dog bones, the chicken is great, Mrs G!”

“Thank you Tom. Elbows off the table, please.”

“Dorothy tells us your father owns a publishing house back in Philadelphia. My family is from there, maybe we know some of the same people.”

“Don’t be tutting me, young lady! I didn’t say that I knew that many people Back East. Like I always say, family is family and at the end of the day that’s what counts…”

“Well, Mrs Gale, Daddy doesn’t spend as much time at his office as he used to, he travels a lot now, mostly New York and out to California.”

“I declare! How interesting that must be, so close to the arts and literature .. have you met any famous authors?”

“Well, my father had a party last summer, I think Scott Fitzgerald and that Steinbeck fellow were there but I’m not sure… but I didn’t actually meet them.”

“Your car, Eliza, it’s got California plates…”

“…yeah, that’s a real swell car ‘Liza  You think you’d mind if me an Dorothy borrow it later? The Lake’d be a welcoming cool place, on an evening like this.”

“So, are you living in California now?”

“No, Hunk, I was just out there with a friend, I tried out for a movie…”

“You don’t say! Can’t really say I’ve ever shook hands with a movie actress!”

“It’s nothing like you’d think…It’s really boring most of the time. Stand around a set, freezing cold, waiting for someone to tell you what to do. Of course, when the Director yells ‘Action’ ..then it gets interesting”

“Maybe you should go out there. My friend Jack is a director and knows everyone. I have a feeling that you just might be the kind of man they want for the movies I auditioned for,”

“Well, kinda busy mending fence this week, but maybe next week.”

[Laughter]

“Well, Eliza I’m glad that you decided to stop on your way and surprise me, ’cause you really did”

“That’s what friends are for, right? To surprise each other and be there when we’re needed”

“So, Miss Thornberg, what are you studying at school?”

“Don’t answer him! Hunk here will have you in a corner with his questions and you’ll never get free.”

“…really, that sounds like fun. Well, Henry… oh! sorry Mr Gale, I didn’t mean you!

“Hunk, I haven’t declared a major yet but I’m leaning towards”

“Sorry, Mrs Gale  ‘Henry”s my nickname for your foreman over there. Don’t you think he looks just like Henry Fonda in ‘The Farmer Takes a Wife’?”

“Why if that isn’t the silliest thing I ever heard, Hunk, don’t you listen! We’ll never get the Lennon Farm worked in”

“Don’t worry, I don’t see myself moving West any time soon,”

“I do”

“What was that, Tom?”

“I said, I was thinking that moving out West, might be the right thing to do…”

“Oh that’s just great! One friend drops in un-expectedly and one suddenly decides to move on! Doesn’t anything around here stay the same long enough to understand?”

“I ain’t moving…”

“I know Hunk and I love you for that…”

“Well, Missy you haven’t exactly been a hometown girl yourself. If memories serve me,  you weren’t but a month out of High School before you decided…”

“I recall that it was your brother’s Will that made College-Back-East possible!”

“I reckon seeing how your mother and I were everyday, ’til night’s dark after the Storm… ”

“You just thank your lucky stars, Dorothy, if it wasn’t for Uncle Bernard, you’d be stuck here, on this farm that you seem to think so little off…”

“I didn’t say that! I just…”

“You see, Eliza, Dorothy was hurt in the storm. After the wind stopped and people crawled out from their shelters, well lets just say you know a community by how everyone pitches in and helps one and other put the Town back together.”

“Auntie Em! I’m certain Eliza doesn’t need to hear about the storm and it’s boring aftermath.”

“What ever would make you think that! The Storm of ’37 is a part of local history which makes it a part of who we are! Of all people, I’d think you’d be the last one to not want to talk about it…. You certainly didn’t mind talking about it in those weeks right after…”

“No, Mrs. Gale. I knew Circe had a bad tornado, it was in all the newspapers. It’s just that  Dorothy’s never talked about it. Except when she first moved into the dorm and our room…”

“I don’t remember telling you about the storm…”

“Well, you didn’t exactly tell me. At least not consciously, but the first few nights, well, I thought I might need to request a different roommate! The yelling in your sleep! I still get goose bumps remembering it…. there was a tone to your voice, it was as if you were being drowned out but had to be heard,  “Let us in, please!!! It’s getting closer!!! Open up we’re out here!!’ You really don’t remember?”

[quiet rushes through the room like a winter night’s wind]

“…me, my father and my brother Ethan, we came out of our shelter that day and there was a rowboat setting right up on top of the chicken coop, didn’t crush it or nothin.  Lost two hens and had to fix the roof of the coop, though…”

“Who wants some fresh-baked apple pie?”

“You know what I’d like to do after such a good meal? Take a drive. Please save us some of that pie, Emily. Dorothy and I will have some after we get back. Dorothy? Show me this lake you’ve told me so much about!”

“Sorry, Tom…. girls only.”

*****

(The  one bedroom apartment of Annie LoPizzo  3 Union St, Lawrence, Massachusetts. December 15, 1911)

(It was 6:00 and effectively full-dark nighttime, as Sunset was nearly 2 hours earlier, at 4:11 pm.  Through the two windows, the white blur of wind-driven snow, the occasional needle-tapping of sleet on the glass lent credence to the estimate of a temperature in the low 20s and dropping.)
(Dinner was at a small, square wooden table that had three chairs that match and one that didn’t. The table was between the door and the other half of the large room, divided by a large brown sofa. The kitchen ran along the wall to the right of the table. Gas stove, white porcelain sink and a small icebox, everything was almost within arms reach of the table.)

(Almira Ristani and Sterling Gulch)

“I’m back from the Arctic… I can’t believe you sent me out in a raging blizzard for bread….”

“I’m sorry, I didn’t…”

“Hey! ‘Mira! I was kidding! … I wanted to go! ‘Though it was lucky I caught them at the Bakery just as they were closing….”

“But…”

“…and I’ve had more than a few dinners here, and I know for a fact that Annie would right kill me if I let you serve me her sausages and gravy without fresh bread.”

[laughter joined the two, comforting one and encouraging the other, a not-obtrusive maitre’d for an informal dinner]

“You changed your clothes! you look very, uh very….”

“Disheveled?”

“Well, I was thinking ‘pretty’ But I can go with ‘disheveled’ That shirt is very nice!  uh…here’s the bread! do you want to heat it in the oven first?”

“Good idea! I just need to get down the plates. No, I can get them… well, thank you, it does still hurt a little to stretch too much. Put them on the table and, please sit down.”

“Are those yours?”

“Are what mine?”

“All those books on the couch, ‘Civil Disobedience’ ‘Woman in the Nineteenth Century’…”

“Don’t make fun, those are my mother’s books, well, some of them, anyway,”

“My god! You have Whitman’s ‘Leaves of Grass'”

“Ok now, stop fooling around. Put it back on the couch, come over here and sit down. Annie made what she said was your favorite dinner…”

“I believe a leaf of grass is no less than the journey-work of the stars,
And the pismire is equally perfect, and a grain of sand, and the
egg of the wren,”

“What? Well, don’t look so dumbfounded, Almira. You know, I went to college too! For nearly a full year, anyway…”

“It’s just that I….”

“I know, you’re surprised. Sometimes I get tired how people judge me by my good looks and rugged build and then act so surprised when I say something that isn’t about working at the Mill or fishing or drinking or carousing…”

“I didn’t I mean …I don’t think, well, you do have a rugged build…”

“So you think I’m good looking…”

“Yes, no, well…. that not what I meant! I wasn’t making fun of you!”

“No, I believe you weren’t. But now since you’re bringing up looks again, I think you’re a pretty nice girl yourself.”

“Sorry, all I meant to say was, that I didn’t go to college. Hell, I haven’t gone anywhere.”

“But all those books and the talks at the Union Hall about Thoreau and Brook Farm, I naturally thought”

“Well, you thought wrong.”

“Here, come and sit and have some food. Annie spent the morning putting together this for you and I’m not sending you out into the snow and wind,”

“Well, I thought, maybe if it keeps getting worse, I could…”

“…at least not without getting some warm food into you.”

[a silence grew between the two young people. Binding rather than separating, a sense of un-self-consciousness for one, a feeling of recognition for the other It was the discovering of another person so in tune as to become irreplaceable, if a happy life was to be lived from that point forward]

“…and so I figured, why not hitch hike around, for a while. There’ll always be a school to go to later. I just wanted to learn more about life than what a Professor would tell me.”

“I’ve often thought that, if I could only leave Lawrence, and find a place where people aren’t satisfied with doing the same thing day after day, year after year. My mother was a teacher, back in the old country, and she’d tell me, ‘Almira, use that mind of yours. There’s so much to the world that you don’t yet know. Find a way to go and explore it. Remember, that no matter how far you roam, your heart will always be your true compass. Trust it and it will take you to the one you’re meant to be with and, most importantly, it will also take you home.”

“You are, you’re…. so different from any girl I’ve ever known…”

“Sure, how many girls do you know have two black eyes and a nose like a witch?”

“No! I don’t mean how you look. It’s the way you look at things and you think about things… you really are special.”

“…for a girl with such

“Now I know you’re just playing.  But the fact is. I haven’t been able to get you out of my mind, since, since that night.”

“That night, the night when I hurt that man, I hurt him real bad. I can still hear him screaming…”

“Hey don’t! he had it coming, he was an animal.”

“No, don’t get me wrong. I hurt him as bad as I could and I don’t regret it. It was the only way I knew to get him to stop, stop hurting Annie and stop before he could hurt me… I would do the same again, it’s just that… it all makes me feel sad somehow.”

“…what?”

“You!  I just called you a pretty girl. And I meant it. But just now, when you were talking about that night, I realized that calling you pretty is like calling the Mona Lisa a ‘good portrait of a woman’….
If you want to say you’re a witch…”

“I said my nose makes me look like one.”

” Well, if you’re not, then whatever spell you did cast on me worked. You’re more than pretty… you’re everything that I didn’t know a woman could be. And now that I know, I don’t really think I can go back…”

“Who’s going back? Where?  Sterling, would you be a gentleman and take this coat! I’m freezing!! Almira! you’re looking very animated tonight, I trust our gentleman hasn’t been too boring and would you please fix me a plate, I’m starving….”

“….now what is this about Sterling here going away? You can’t by the way, there are things happening down at the Mill that will soon cause everything to change.”

*****

(Almira’s Keep Pole# 444 US Highway 61, Circe, Kansas. July 15 1939)

(It’s 6:35 pm and the early evening light is still bright enough to cast shadows running towards the East of the grove of walnut trees that shaded the converted barn. The temperature inside the dining hall is 95, the temperature outside, in the shade is 87. Outside the dining hall, to the right of the entrance and in clear view of the house is a grassy area with several wood trestle tables, it’s the favored gathering area when the weather is not forcing the transient guests to remain in doors.)

(Ephraim Hardesty, Ethan Hardesty and Phyllis McCutcheon)

“Lets go sit outside.”

“Ethan, grab your plate and lets go sit out at the table by the tree yonder.”

“Really, I can’t put you to so much trouble. I usually take my meals in the kitchen, there’s so much to do.”

“It’s a fine warm evening. It’ll be my pleasure to have some company for dinner. Ethan here eats in a hurry and my son Tom, well, when he’s around.”

“Your son, Tom is an exceptional young man.”

“You know him?”

“Well, he’s here at least a couple of days of the week, helping out and taking his payment in supper in the hall. Although, I suspect he’s mostly here to learn songs and play with some of the people, the musicians who seem to like this place as they wander around the country. Like that nice Mr Guthrie. You must be very proud, your son is quite talented.”

*****

(Prendergast home 23 Haverhill St. Lawrence, Massachusetts December 15, 1911)

(It’s 6:00 pm and the wind that hasn’t let up since 3 in the afternoon can be heard howling through the eaves of the 3rd floor attic. Snow freezes on the windows, framing the Town Commons across the street with a filigree of ice. Hope for an early letup vanished with the barely-seen sun, there remains only an increasing fear of how bad the storm will be.)
(Dinner is served in the Formal Dining Room. The long dining table is set for two at the end of the table closest to the fireplace, as if seeking the most elemental of protections, as Nature demonstrates it’s un-ending power. There are candles on the table, the dominant illumination is from the fireplace, which casts an ever-changing light over the room and the diners. Nothing appears the same, from one minute to the next.)

(Frederick Prendergast, Grace Byrne)

“Are you happy here, Grace?”

“Yes, Mister Prendergast”

“Frederick, please, I get Mr Prendergast all day long from everyone. It gets so tiresome, you would think it wouldn’t, being in charge of as much as I am, but it gets so wearying. The problems that they come to my office with and layout on my desk and they get to go away, happy. Or at least relieved that there is someone to fix things, things that they shouldn’t have messed up in the first place.”

“I can just imagine…”

“But the worst are the people who I give a job to and they get so full of themselves and strut around the Mills, like they’re important and they don’t bother to actually do what I assigned for them to do. Of course, eventually it gets worse and guess who they come running to…”

“You?”

“That’s right! And they are suddenly in need of assistance”

“Well it’s understandable how they would see that you’re the person who can fix it”

“You don’t know how refreshing it is to hear someone say that, Grace! Sad to say, I don’t get even the smallest appreciation from Mrs Prendergast. With her, it’s all about the twins are sick or the twins need this, the twins have to go to school. Do you think she even knows how hard I work?”

“I’m sure she loves you and the boys very, very much. You’re all she ever talks about during the day.”

“Well I hope that’s true because I’ll be spending more time down at the Mill in the next few weeks. There are some new laws about who can work and how many hours each week. Can you believe that? Meddling with business is going to take this country to perdition as God is my judge. There are changes coming to Lawrence and I only pray that I can control the effects they’ll have on the workers.”