“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…”