Chapter 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To my dear friend Almira,

 

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

 

love, Annie

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“All I want to know…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Chapter 3

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“So, Hunk, How’ve you been?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hey, easy… hold on, its alright,”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hey, so, how was New York City?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

****

“It’s ten past 1.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Who is this little girl?”

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

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

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

Chapter 4

Featured

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

“What are you reading?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Hi! I’m Annie, What’s your name?”

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

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

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

*****

“Mr. Dietrich! What a surprise!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*****

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter 5

Featured

Dorothy pulled herself down, back under the blanket, in the small, narrow bed. Despite the increasing early-morning heat, she was willing to endure some physical discomfort in order to remain in the thought-quiet dark of her bed. She rarely remembered her dreams, hadn’t since, well, since after ‘the Storm’. Certain mornings, however, her return from wherever her sleep-released mind took her, came with a price. This particular Saturday morning she felt restless, somehow tired from her sleep. For a brief second, in the middle of a full-body stretch, she nearly remembered her dreams of the night. Like being on a walk and coming upon a rabbit feeding just off the path, it came down to who saw who first, all she could keep retain from her near-memory, was a desire to go fishing. She reflected, as the blankets, extended by her stretching in the confines of her bed, reclaimed their hold on her body, that this thought of going fishing wasn’t fully-formed enough to be called a desire. Certainly it wasn’t in the class of the things that she knew that she really wanted, such as: finding her rightful place in the world of ‘Back East’, tying up loose ends here in Kansas, (though exactly what that meant remained a mystery), and Getting An Answer from Miss… Mrs. Gulch. Still, as she lay, arms at her side, hands now clasped, tenting the fabric of the blanket, an unintentional penitent in the shadow of an agnostic church, fishing… in a row-boat, would surely make today a good day.
She thought, ‘I’ll ask Uncle Henry if the row-boat is still at the lake house and if he wouldn’t mind taking me fishing.’

Satisfied that she had all the plan she needed to get the most from her Saturday, Dorothy started to get up from her bed, the thought,

‘And if Uncle Henry won’t, I’ll surely be able to convince Hunk to do it.’

Dorothy Gale threw back the thin brown wool blanket. The slightly cooler air of the bedroom raised goosebumps on her skin. She looked to be certain that her bedroom door was closed and seeing that it was, got up and walked to the window. (The long flannel nightgown that Aunt Em helped her pack when she left for College, was almost immediately discarded in favor of lingerie in fashion Back East. The pink silk teddy she wore was a gift from her roommate, Eliza Thornberg, and was ever so much more comfortable). Her smile evaporated as the memory of the ride home from town with Hunk, two days before, began to replay in her mind. The afternoon began without a problem, Dorothy set a time that she would be spending in the library, (a pretense to cover up her visit to the Hospital) and Hunk promised to be back at the Library at a specific time. Neither kept their promise. They apologized to each other for not being where they said they would be, and spent the 15 mile trip back to the Gale Farm, looking out the windows, silence their mutual penance. The wheat fields, in pencil-straight furrows, passed alongside, as the truck transported them from where they would rather be to where they were required to be.

Shrugging into her robe, (‘The Plaza’ embroidered on the breast, also a gift from Eliza), Dorothy thought, ‘Well, if I can’t get either of them to take me fishing, I’ve no doubt that Tom Hardesty will be more than happy to row my boat out on the lake. No doubt at all!’
Smiling, Dorothy began to get ready for the day.

Wearing grey slacks, (thinking ahead to her plans to go on the lake), and a simple blue and white blouse, her hair in braids (an impulsive decision, her hair not quite as long as it once was), Dorothy stood and looked at herself in the hall mirror. ‘A little less of a serious expression will let everyone admire your figure instead of wondering why the dark-haired College Girl is so worried’ she laughed at herself and started down the staircase. At the middle landing, Dorothy stopped and listened to her Aunt Emily’s voice from below,

“Well, I really don’t see why she doesn’t want to pitch in around the farm a little more,”

Emily Gale’s voice was jagged with frustration at her husband’s lack of an appropriate response to her concerns. Her tone betraying the strained patience more commonly observed in dog trainers and over-worked kindergarten teachers after an especially long school day.

“Good morning, Uncle Henry, Auntie Em!” Dorothy decided that if she ignored what she heard, the breakfast conversation would be much more enjoyable, “Hunk”

Hunk Dietrich sat at his usual place, slightly more than halfway between Emily Gale and her husband. He had papers stacked neatly on either side of his breakfast plate, the unread pile on his left, face down. From the congealed quality of his fried eggs, Hunk was more interested in reading than eating. He looked up,

“Good morning, Dorothy. Gonna be a warm one today, by the looks of the sky.”

Dorothy smiled back at Hunk, grateful to hear the obvious attempt to put their previous difficult time together in the past, where it belonged. She bent slightly, kissed her Uncle’s cheek while smiling over at her Aunt and sat down to Henry Gales’ immediate left. Margherita brought over the coffee pot and filled the white mug and raised one eyebrow,

“No, thank you, Margherita. Just coffee is fine.”

Auntie Em stared at the newspaper on the table in front of her. It being a Saturday, she wore a floral patterned cotton dress, rather than the more formal black skirts and white blouse that she favored during the regular workweek. Her hair was slightly less tightly bound, up in a bun and she wore her horn-rimmed glasses on a beaded necklace, rather than her silver wire-rim glasses.

“I see here that the First Notice for the Hardesty farm’s been posted in the paper. Such a shame! Ephraim Hardesty was a good farmer. At least he was, until that no account wife of his took off with that Bible Salesman. A pity really, such a good spread, for a farm on the smaller side. Are you listening to me Henry?”

Henry Gale was working on his morning list, a breakfast function that had served him well over the years, allowing him to selectively ignore his wife, during at least one sit-down meal each day.

“What was that Em?”  he put down his pencil stub and looked across the table,

“I said, I think you should take Hunk and go pay Ephraim Hardesty a visit. Ever since he took to the drink, that farm of has been slowly dying, it might make a good addition to our holdings. Plus he’s got a couple of sons, two or three, forget how many, but they might prove useful in the future, if we can cut a deal to keep him out of the bankers hands.”

Henry looked over to Hunk who nodded his agreement, then, for some reason, looked over at Dorothy,

“Maybe the two younger boys, but that eldest son of his, Tom, he’s a bad seed. Nothing good’ll come of him, a real wild one, hear tell. Too growed up to change now, but Hunk and I’ll pay Ephraim a visit today, get the lay of the land,”

A noticeably sour expression passed across Henry Gale’s face as he bent back to his List, adding one more Item to his day.

“Well, just talk to him about his farming. Don’t get fancy and try’n talk about money or bankers or his farm going on the block. You know that you always mess things up when you try to bargain. I’ll handle the money, and employees, you stick to making sure they give the good day’s work that we pay ’em for, you understand?”

Dorothy took her coffee over to the stove and, before Margherita could come out from where she was busy with her mending, poured herself a fresh full cup and walked towards the back door.

“And I need you to apply yourself just a little more, Missy! You’re only here for a couple of more weeks before you head back East. You might want to reflect on where your roots are, young lady!”

Auntie Em’s voice followed her out the door, onto the porch and the chickens, spooked by the sound, ran for the barn.

****

Unfurling herself from the barely-there satin quilt, Eliza Thornberg found herself bumping up against a shape, human by the feel of warmth, male by the out-spoken scent.  She came completely awake, although chose to keep her eyes closed, in the hope that her memory of her night travels getting to this point, might retain all it’s pleasure, without being spoiled by day’s early light.

“Oh damn!” Eliza sat straight up in her bed, as the previous evening replayed in her mind. The most unfortunate element to this particular type of recollection, is that the first things to be remembered are usually the last things that happened. In and of itself, that’s not a bad thing, what was always lacking was the reason… the justification, the context of the night before that lead her to follow the path to this early dawn bed. With the memory of what she did, came the knowledge of who it was she did it with,

“You need to get out of here and back to your bedroom in the Guest Wing! It’s Saturday and on weekends, Evelyn starts cleaning over here in the Family Wing first!!”

Eliza was answered by laughter that rose from under a pile of quilt and pillows on the far side of her bed and seemed to be headed towards her. Swinging her legs out of the bed covers, Eliza started to stand, realized she was naked, but before she could reach her dressing gown, was pulled back under the covers.

Ten minutes later, Eliza Thornberg’s blonde hair, like a volcano growing up from the ocean floor, appeared in the midst of the soft wreckage of the silk sheets and quilts. Not a second later, like a breaching whale in that same ocean, the brown curls of Stephen Edward David Lawrence’s head appeared, and beached itself on Eliza’s pillow. Laughing at the ceiling, she rolled over on her bedmate and, affecting the voice of an old Victorian woman,

“Master Lawrence! As a guest in my father’s house, you are expected to comport yourself in a manner befitting of your station in life. Only son and heir to the Founder (and current Chancellor) of Sarah Lawrence College, or not, you must stand tall and act the gentleman. Do this well and you shall be awarded a diploma”

Youthful laughter penetrated the bedroom door and spilled out into the hall where Evelyn O’Connaghy, cleaning supplies in her left hand, stopped before opening the door. Eliza had been Evelyn’s favorite ever since her early arrival into this world of wealth and power. At her employer’s side during Eliza’s birth, early one August morning at the family’s Summer home in Newport RI, Evelyn was heard to say, “Now that one, she surely will be some one’s prize and many a man’s heartache”.

This particular June morning, Evelyn decided to begin her morning cleaning in the private wing that housed the Master Suite. Despite being a weekend, when everyone slept late, Evelyn planned on being in a position to give her favorite Thornberg fair warning, should her parents take it to mind to rise early this Saturday Summer morning.

Lying in the crook of Stephen’s arm, Eliza Thornberg traced the striations of muscles with a barely-touching finger tip,

“Assuming you’ll make it back to your room without being discovered by my Father, which would not bode well for the rest of this weekend, for you, at any rate, how were you planning to entertain me, this Summer’s Saturday?”

Furrowing his brow at the thought of being discovered in bed with the daughter of his Father’s business partner, Stephen realized, once again, that sometimes the chances he took were a risk with a higher cost than he might otherwise choose. He decided that this was mostly his father’s fault. The bulk of the initial funding for William Lawrence’s College came from a group of investors headed up by Theodore Thornberg. It was a partnership of very mutual benefit. Bill Lawrence got to have his name carved in stone on the entrance to the College and Ted Thornberg got an exclusive on the publishing rights to 80% of the text books required by the new school’s curriculum.

“Well, Eliza I’m supposed to play golf with your father this morning. I have a feeling he’s going to offer me a position at his company. Maybe after lunch, you and I can do something… ”

“Get out of my goddamn bed!! Now!!”

Not bothering with her dressing gown, Eliza got out of bed and stalked into the bath, slamming the door on his unsuccessful attempt to get her to understand how business always came first.

****

The smell dragged Thomas Milton Hardesty from his nightly escape into sleep, just as it did nearly every morning. Although he couldn’t tell you exactly when this had become his un-appreciated alarm clock, pressed on the matter, he’d say that it probably was after his mother left, going on 2 years ago, right after the ‘Storm of ’37’. She packed up everything that belonged to her, including, unfortunately, the quality of mutual support essential for a family to not only survive but to thrive, when she left with her only daughter Elenn, bound West. What remained was a small farm, big and diverse enough that with a concerted and coordinated effort could provide for a small family, was in the hands of a desperately confused man and his 3 sons. The Hardesty Farm limped along after losing it’s soul. The livestock ate and grew and were slaughtered for market. Crops were planted and sprouted and waited for harvest and the Hardesty men survived. Barely. One natural calamity, (or one human inspired setback), away from complete and permanent dissolution.

Tom got up. Being a Saturday morning brought no consolation, nor provided the slightest of concessions that might off-set the previous week’s thankless labor. There were chores and there was life. One, at least, had the advantage of being predictable.

Tom recalled his meeting Dorothy Gale in the Town Square and smiled. He remembered her promise to meet him this Saturday afternoon, and the smile was replaced by a grin. Getting dressed, which could actually be accomplished without standing up from the single bed, his mind, always up for entertainment, replayed the Tom and Dorothy story. He almost decided to stay in bed with his memories. The increasingly loud morning sounds of doors opening and closing, metal kitchen utensils clattering and mutterings of morning regrets convinced him to start his day somewhere other than his bed. Tom grabbed the guitar leaning against the side of the bureau, walked out through the kitchen, where his youngest brother Ethan was trying to start a fire in the wood stove, and out on to the back porch. The morning was bright, a ground fog filled the dips between the distant fields and the air had that neutral feel that often meant a hot, dry day. Sitting on the bench that he’d built as a Christmas present for his mother when he was 15 years old, he idly strummed the old guitar. The design of this Christmas bench was surprisingly sophisticated, yet the execution spoke of an adolescent boy more focused on the reaction of the recipient than on taking the time on the final finish work. The dark stain showing more variations in color and depth than could be accounted for by its location overlooking the yard of the Hardesty Farm. Letting his fingers wander over the fingerboard of the guitar Tom felt his mood lighten. A mail-order Martin, the guitar was one of the few things that belonged to Celiia Hardesty that she didn’t take when she left. Random notes began to find other notes to join with, taking on the shape of songs, both old and new. Tom began to sing, as much to the livestock as to himself, “I’m goin’ where the water tastes like wine, wine wine and I ain’t gonna be treated this a way”. The folk song, often misunderstood by musicologists and people-from-the-city as being a lament, in fact, made the 18-year-old boy feel stronger and, somehow, more at peace.

The smell of the farm faded and a fleeting and somewhat distant smell of hay and passion replaced it.

Tom sang for a while longer, mostly songs that he’d learned from hanging around Mrs. Gulch’s place. As much by lucky accident as by design, Tom came to know a side of the widow, Mrs. Gulch, that few of the prosperous and successful farm owners of Circe were aware of, or willing to acknowledge. Her farm was something of a way station, a combination of temporary housing and permanent soup kitchen. Almira Gulch was quite well-known, almost revered, among the working poor of the region and the never-ending stream of migrant workers.  She had converted a part of her property, an old abandoned school building and one of the two barns that her husband, Sterling, had built when they bought the 500 acre farm and it was known to some, the nameless families passing through, as ‘Almira’s Keep’.
Tom’s father, despite being shaken loose from his normal routine running the farm had, somehow, struck a barter deal with Mrs. Gulch. Hardesty hogs in exchange for wheat and extra labor to help with the fall harvest. Tom went along to deliver the livestock and, afterwards, waiting for his father to conclude his dealings with the Widow Gulch, heard the sounds of a guitar coming from the converted barn. As he walked towards the source of the music, he came upon a group of people listening, rapt and near-happy expressions on their faces, as a man with an old guitar sang,

“As I went walking I saw a sign there
And on the sign it said “No Trespassing.”
But on the other side it didn’t say nothing,
That side was made for you and me.”

Both Hardesty men were still at the Gulch place when the sun began to set.

****

Hunk Dietrich awoke and lay still. He could picture every item in the small bunk house that served as his home on the Gale Farm. In one of the few, (and one might say,’therefore all the more impressive’), exertions of Will, he had prevailed upon Emily Gale to house the newer farm hands in the converted potato barn and leave him the sole occupant of the small cottage that he once shared with Hickory Stoddard and Zeke Montgomery. Since Zeke’s death and Hickory setting out with his Cherokee wife for Arizona, Hunk lived alone in the bunk house. He liked it. He felt that he had control over something, even if it was only moving the other bed out of the room he’d shared with Zeke into the other bedroom.

Once reconstruction of Circe and it’s constellation of farms, both large and small began in earnest, Emily Gale recognized the opportunity of misfortune and began to acquire land and laborers from those farms that she felt were not worth re-building. Those from outside the community, were they to be asked their opinion of the post Storm of ’37 reconstruction, might have suggested that a little more sharing of community resources would greatly enhance the chances of successful recovery of the small farms. But then, an Outsider would not likely be asked for their opinion, Circe being a large Small Town in rural Kansas. As it was, Emily Gale knew in her heart it would be wasteful to let the small farms fall into ruin, the families that ran them forced to move. More than once, during the emergency Town Meetings held after the storm, Emily Gale would be quite vocal in describing her efforts to help the less fortunate members of the community remain, finding work for them on the increasingly efficient Gale Farm.

“The Good Lord surely frowns on waste of any sort. It’s the responsibility of those of us more blessed to take in those unfortunates who have fallen on hard times. I know this is the Right thing to do.”

Many, if not most, of the more upstanding members of the community nodded their approval.

Hunk had the smaller of the two bedrooms set up as a study. At least it was his idea of a ‘Study’. Given his limited resources, he did quite well. He positioned a small desk and a chair, to face out the window and, next to it, a makeshift bookcase, currently containing a Bible, 3 copies of the Old Farmer’s Almanac and every test result, correspondence and catalog he had accumulated since his starting IOC courses.

This particular Summer Saturday morning, Hunk Dietrich walked out on to his porch determined not to look over at the Main House. Lighting his pipe, a movement in a second floor window caught his eye. He smiled at his failure and walked across the dirt farmyard to the backdoor, a good breakfast and the start of another day.

***

Becky Stillworth was awake well before she got out of bed. It was one of her favorite times of the day. The ceiling over her single bed was feature-less, the only light coming from the rose-painted lamp on the nightstand to her left, where she kept her books.

Becky liked to help people and her dream was to become a doctor. She knew that she was smart enough. She knew that it would require hard work and discipline and sacrifice. She felt excited at the prospect. She knew that she could become that woman.

What she feared, was what she was, she was a sixteen year old girl. Worse, she was a precocious sixteen year old girl that all the boys liked, the teachers were fond of and her girlfriends were impatient with. Even when she brought home straight ‘A’s, her parents merely smiled and congratulated her on her good school grades, not on her progress towards her goal. She’d tried to tell them how much she wanted, needed to realize her dream, but they simply couldn’t imagine it. Their own modest, but happy life did not equip them with the vocabulary for encouraging, or even discussing, such an ambition. Becky was intelligent enough to realize that her goal was far enough outside of her parents expectations that a conversation was not ever going to be possible. Fortunately, she was canny enough to make her goal a little more manageable for her parents and spoke to them simply of her hopes to go to college. This being the modern ’30s, they could easily imagine that their daughter would dream of going to college…and finding a husband.

At the Library, Becky was respected enough, even by the full-time Librarian, that they would refrain from poking fun at Hunk Dietrich’s regular visits to the Library, especially during the Winter season, when he would be there every other day, rather than merely once a week during the rest of the year. She liked Hunk. He listened to her. He seemed to believe that she would someday be a doctor.

****

Claire Griswold stood at the window at the back of Ward C. The early morning air, just beginning to warm to the day’s light, shimmered like a pot of water beginning to steam. The buildings of the town, in the distance and the vehicles in the service entrance parking lot seemed to be only now taking solid form. This quality of indistinctness, observed in the pre-dawn light, was both empowering and awe-inspiring. It had no place in the daytime operations in the small hospital in McPherson County, Kansas. Moving about the Ward, she heard the sounds of the first shift nurses as they clacked wooden covers of the patient-charts, reading the story of the day for their patients. None of the nurses seemed to notice Nurse Claire Griswold, as she moved down the double row of beds in Ward C. Each seemed to checking on a note on a chart or, perhaps, turning to mention a change of medication to one another, as she passed by, un-noticed.

Nurse Claire Griswold looked down on Almira Gulch’s sleeping form. She put the photo of the small, dark-haired boy back into the drawer of the side table, aligned the book that rested on the top of the table, precisely with the front edge, gave a little tuck to the sheets down-folded across the woman’s quiet form and with a barely felt touch, smoothed the slightly tense muscles in the sleeping woman’s brow. Barely audible was the sound of a sigh, not strained or urgent, simply a sigh.

Chapter 6

Featured

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

****

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter 7

Featured

The noon whistle cut through the constant roar of the braiding machines that filled the 3rd floor of Building 6 of Everett Mill. For each row of braiders, there were 2 braider-tenders, replacing empty bobbins of thread with full ones, spotting broken or jammed bobbins and freeing whatever caused the flow of thread-to-central-carrier to be interrupted. Braider Tenders were, predominately, women, their aptitude a result of smaller hands and, by and large, greater manual dexterity. That the machinery was rarely turned-off meant the Braider Tender needed to reach in among the spinning and whirling machines, (the bobbins spun, the carriers whirled). Only the Floor Supervisor and his assistant, (the floor Mechanic), had the ability, (and much more importantly, the authority) to slow down or stop the machinery. Like the shuttles and bobbins of the braiders, Almira and the other women moved up and down their rows, as connected to the machinery as any other part. The length of time it took them to spot and replace a broken or empty bobbin, was closely monitored by the Floor Supervisor.

Routine has the remarkable quality of transforming the unique into the everyday. People, especially strongly-motivated people, are able to get used to anything. When Almira first started working full time at the Mill, (within a month of her 14th birthday and less than 2 months after the death of her mother), she’d return home after her shift, shaking with tension. Being trained to tend the braiding machines required, well, it required tending the braiding machines.
Her first steps down the narrow space that ran between rows of braiders were within a millimeter of dead-center, as she followed Mrs. Ypres, who was assigned to train new Braider Tenders. She showed Almira how to take a bobbin from the cart at the end of the row, release and remove the empty bobbin and tie in the new thread. Almira thought at the time to ask if it wouldn’t be easier and safer to turn the machine off first. The world of the 3rd Floor Braiding Department was a world of deaf-mute workers serving overwhelmingly loud machinery, and so, communication was very efficient, she could nod in agreement or frown in question, whereupon Mrs. Ypres would move to the next section to free a stuck bobbin. The tension Almira felt throughout her first week of training was the unavoidable result of her constant effort to maintain a safe(er) distance between herself and the ravenous machinery. Unfortunately, there was a row of machines behind her and every inch gained on one-side was lost on the other.

Almira Ristani got used to the danger and no longer came home shaking from the stress, except on those days that there was an accident. The first to happen on her shift, came after she’d been working for 6 months, she didn’t see anything. Somehow, it was made worse that she heard it. She heard the scream. What haunted her dreams for weeks, even months after that first accident, was how the scream of the woman changed, as it raced down the parallel rows of machines. It was a scream at once terrified and, surprisingly with little of a message of pain. It quickly transformed itself into a cry of hopeless despair.  For one woman on one day, a brief moment of inattention, while performing a task practiced a thousand times, things went terribly wrong. This one time, God, (or the Devil), decided that the fabric of her heavy woolen sweater should catch a passing bobbin and fix itself to the machine. The first tug would be alarming to her by virtue of it’s direction… towards the moving parts of the machine. Years of safe practice made that direction, in towards the machine, so very wrong. The sweater she wore that particular day was knitted, (by her sister and given as a Christmas gift two years prior), and therefore had some give. Over the years this woman (and other women at other times) had felt such tug, quickly met with a counter pull  and the world returned to it’s proper course. This time it’s different. Maybe she was especially tired, (working double or even triple shifts or perhaps a sick child awake through the night), maybe God, (or the Devil), were not paying attention (or too much attention) and the ‘tug away from’ was met with a stronger pull towards. Even as she leaned back and away, her sleeve continues moving down her arm into the machinery. The surprise in her scream takes on a tone of horror. Her heavy jacket binds at the shoulders, and she is pulled in towards the madly-whirling carriers. The fabric of her sweater’s sleeve is now a part of the machinery and her scream of alarm becomes terrified despair. Not of pain. There is little in this woman’s arm or any other part of her body that is concerned with anything as trivial as pain. As much the antelope tripping and falling to the ground, the hot breath of a lion at it’s neck, pain is not the issue. The machinery does not notice her struggles, the 3rd floor is a place of deaf mutes working in a land of constant mechanical noise. It is only when the screams of the Braider Tender cuts through the roar of the machinery does anyone notice. Only then is the attempt to bring the machine to a halt begun. And that turning off is nothing more than a slowing down, the roar of the machines decreases and a new, all too human sound fills the 3rd Floor.

On Saturdays, the Everett Mill shut down for maintenance. The three shifts ran  but all production ended at midnight on Saturday. The maintenance mechanics would roam throughout the Mill looking for signs of weakness in the equipment and replaced worn parts so that, at the end of Sunday night, the production could begin again.

December of 1911 provided little evidence of the winter yet to come for Lawrence, Massachusetts. November had been mild and the sunshine plentiful. The Merrimack River flowed, free of ice, except along the shores, where sheets of ice, thin, white and tilted up along the embankment.

On this particular Saturday afternoon, the sky was painfully blue and the wind was harshly cold as Almira Ristani stepped out of Building 6, walking alone, at the back of the crowd of grey and brown wool women, as they poured out of the building and headed towards home.

The sudden muffling of the constant noise of machinery, as the metal door banged shut, was like the feeling of being underwater, only in reverse. The pressure of the constant rhythmically-pounding noise of the textile mill wasn’t felt until it was removed. Pulling her grey wool coat closer, one of the hundred workers leaving the Mill, Almira descended the granite stairs, turned left and walked up Lawrence Street.

Amid the sounds of tired women complaining, (about men and families), and comparing (demands of men and families) and, on occasion, laughing, (about families and children), in at least three different and distinct languages, Almira saw a flash of crimson as the figure of a tall woman separated itself from the herd of stooped backs filling the sidewalk.

“Ally! Ally!  Up here!!”

Almira, looked up from the sidewalk immediately in front of her, saw her friend, Annie LoPizzo about a half a block ahead. Standing and facing back towards her, seemingly happy to let the river of tired women veer around her, Annie waved her hand. Despite the occasional muttering of ‘O co chodzi z gym komiet!‘ and ‘Elle est celle de feu‘, she remained there, in the middle of the sidewalk and actually began to speak, as if Almira was close enough to understand what she was saying,

“Where are you going? You need to come with me!!”

“I’m sorry, I have to go home and get my little brother from Mrs Swaider’s and then I need to get dinner ready and then…” Almira, the direct sunlight and cold wind on her face, felt relaxed yet tired.

“Today is Saturday and I know for a fact that Mrs. Swaider won’t mind watching little Stefan for a couple of extra hours. That woman never met a dollar that she didn’t think she deserved. And your father’s on the Maintenance crew this weekend and… what? Listen my well-read friend, I know everything about my friends and even more about everyone else!”

Almira watched as her friend twirled and cavorted on the sidewalk… heavy winter coat flapping open, as if they were both on their way to the Town Common on a warm June Saturday.
Since her mother’s death, Almira accepted the mantle of caregiver to her damaged family. She didn’t resent her responsibilities at home and resolved to not encourage her friend, ‘Stay serious, don’t encourage her’, she thought as they walked through the cold December afternoon. Her resolve eroded quickly, despite the stern and un-responsive expression on her face. In the short time she’d known this woman, Almira recognized, as Annie LoPizzo twirled about and ran, seriousness and a stern attitude was every bit a cape of red before the bull. Smiling openly, Almira Ristani thought about her mother and how she would read to her, their small 2 room apartment transformed into distant lands and towering castles. It was in the books that her mother read from, (and soon, she would read from) that kindled a small fire that, although at times banked against the mind-numbing work and bleak lives of her co-workers, never completely went out. Annie LoPizzo seemed to sense the fire within her and was always doing something that seemed to fan the small flame.

It was only during the 30 minute daily walk home that Almira could imagine that she was a girl who could go anywhere in the world (at least as long as she kept walking). Her dreams of going to college and meeting the living people who wrote the timeless books that she read, had life and energy only in her mind, only as she walked from Mill to family- responsibility. Her new friend Annie somehow gave her hope that her dreams could survive her current life.

“You need to come with me! I have some things to show you!”

Annie LoPizzo had a natural talent for languages and mimicry. Almira decided that her friend was able to ‘speak in laughter’, a dialect of the heart that demanded neither comprehension nor understanding, only the attention of the other person. It was a simple and utterly basic celebration of sharing life. She had an energy that grew from whatever situation or moment she happened to be in. Almira looked forward to their time together, all too rare an event, as the demands of the Mill, bookended by the needs of her family left little time for herself.

For Almira, the time she spent with Annie was like walking out of a monochrome landscape and finding herself in a world of color and energy, curious movements and mysterious people. Annie LoPizzo was one of those, all too rare people, who simply embraced life. She saw each day as an adventure, filled with opportunity and danger, to be equally relished. In the company of a friend, she might run for the simple joy of movement, with a lover she would seize the passion that refused apartness, and, faced with a threat, she would attack without holding anything back, without regard to cost or even outcome.

Almira felt the enthusiasm even before she considered the request. Annie’s ideas and invitations, were they delivered written on paper, might appear a demand. They were in the context of so much energy that she could only smile to herself and let her arm be pulled in the direction which her new friend wanted her go.

The two young women ran down the sidewalk, towering soot-grimed brick wall to their left and coldly-blue water of the Merrimack River on their right.

“Come on! I want you to meet some people down at the Meeting Hall. I know you’re going to like them.”

“Well, alright. But I can’t take too much time. I must get home before long.”

***

“I really must be getting back to Town,”

Dorothy announced, after less than a half an hour in the boat and, after zero minutes actually fishing. She’d spent most of the last five minutes staring at a clump of grayish-white clouds that seemed, as they moved across the sky, to form a shape of something from a dream, not a good dream. An animal, (because, clouds always try to look like their opposites, the land-bound life on earth), squat in shape with sharp-pointed wings.

“But we only just got here!”

Tom Hardesty sat in the bow of the boat, his back against a loose seat cushion. Looking towards the shore, he saw only the old blue truck they had arrived in, a wooden dock with a single worn bench built along one side, and beyond the copse of hickory and oak that encircled Echo Lake, he saw the beginnings of the endless wheat fields. Distance when observed over farm fields, devoid of buildings or any other feature, was nearly impossible to accurately judge.  The expanse seemed to offer promise of opportunity and, at the same time, gave no clue to any path, at least a path that would lead him to the world beyond life in a large Small Town.

Tom started to sing,

“Ain’t one hammer
(Ain’t one hammer)
In this tunnel
(In this tunnel)
That rings like mine.
(Oh it rings like mine.)
That rings like mine.

Nine pound hammer
(Nine pound hammer)
That killed John Henry
(Killed John Henry)
Ain’t a-gonna kill me.
(Ain’t gonna kill me.)
Ain’t gonna kill me.”
(‘Nine Pound Hammer’ traditional, lyrics from The Monroe Brothers version )

As he sang, Tom watched Dorothy, as she alternately stared at the passing clouds and over towards the trees that bordered the small lake on three sides. She seemed at once the shy high school girl who always managed to stand out in a crowd, and a total stranger. He smiled at the memory of how determined she was to fit in, during the first two years of high school and yet, after ‘the Storm of ’37’ her notoriety as ‘the girl who rode the cyclone’ seemed to become an un-wanted burden, despite how eager she was to tell and re-tell her tale of faraway land and adventures with markedly odd characters. That their own relationship, one that he valued more than he was able to express, would be destroyed by the intensity of her need to be the center of community attention, hurt him more than he knew. She was his first experience, both of physical love making and, recognized far too late as the more dangerous, emotional love making. This was a fact that his social persona would never permit him to disclose.

Now, in the early half of a June afternoon, in a small boat, with an attractive young woman Tom Hardesty realized that he needed to learn how to avoid the life that he saw played out, in depressingly mundane detail, by his father each day. It was life of effort and passion reduced to a day-to-day routine of subsistence survival. Tom was looking for a direction, rather than waiting for permission to act. Being in a boat, (with a girl), in the middle of a Lake), did not present an overabundance of action-strategies, so he played his guitar.

Ever since visiting the Gulch farm with his father and meeting a very interesting, (and constantly changing), group of people, Tom found the time to return at least once a week. He would pitch-in and help with the seemingly endless chores that were generated by the effort of Almira Gulch to provide help to those in need. Tom took as payment for his work, permission to join in the frequent discussions and, more to his interest, the opportunity to learn songs from the itinerant musicians who, lacking shelter or a meal to sustain them on their own journeys, would stop at the Gulch farm for a brief time of rest and sharing tales of the road. Tom’s repertoire grew, both in variety and sophistication. He smiled remembering his first meeting Woody Guthrie at the farm one Thursday evening, and started to sing,

My brothers and my sisters are stranded on this road,
A hot and dusty road that a million feet have trod;
Rich man took my home and drove me from my door
And I ain’t got no home in this world anymore.”
(I Ain’t Got No Home’ Woody Guthrie)

Dorothy closed her eyes and listened to the music. The guitar providing the perfect, simple accompaniment to Tom’s singing. To her surprise she found that the  lyrics somehow resonated with a part of herself that she had thought she’d out-grown.

“My God, Tom! When did you learn to sing like that?” Dorothy said, the last notes of the song slipping through the trees on the shore and were immediately absorbed by the endless wheat fields beyond.

“Why over at Miz Gulch’s farm. I go over there every now and then and, more likely than not, after dinner someone would bring out a guitar or fiddle and play songs well into the night. There’s one fellow, Woody, he writes songs that you’d swear you heard before, the way it would make you feel. I never thought a person could play so well.”

The water didn’t quite turn to fire, but the sensation on her fingers became un-ignorable. Dorothy felt as if the water burned her fingers. She quickly pulled her hand from the water, into her lap, used her shirt tail to dry it and looked at Tom.

Dorothy Gale felt an anger grow within her at a speed that was surprising and somehow enticing. It seemed to be accompanied by a warning, that to give in to it would cause, would create… bad things to happen. Nothing that she could conceptualize, but somehow the farm where she was raised took on a sinister tone and, very oddly, her life at college seemed to fade, as if it had been years ago that she was away from Circe, rather than just a few weeks.

She struggled to sit up in the back of the boat.

“Take me back to shore. Now”

Tom Hardesty, sought, in the mundane a way to bridge the gap between himself and the girl in the back of the small boat. He hoped to make her laugh, but would settle for a smile and said,

“Hey, Dorothy come on! this is a small lake and though you can’t be sea sick, you’re looking a little green.”

***

“You know you promised that we’d go sailing today. Why are you now telling me that you want to waste time with my father’s wife’s Formal Saturday Afternoon Tea. What the hell is the matter with you?”

Eliza was very not-happy. She regretted turning down her cousin Lila’s invitation to spend June and July in Europe. 6 weeks among foreign and, presumably, attractive young men and women, (the only kind of people Eliza’s imagination was equipped to provide),  traveling to places more exotic than Philadelphia,

‘Which wouldn’t take much,’ she muttered as she stared into her closet. She felt youthful and very muscled arms encircle her waist,

“Sorry Romeo, if you’re making me go and stand around with your father, my parents and a bunch of other old people, you better save your strength. So hands off…”

Eliza un-buttoned her blouse, let it fall to the floor, reached around and un-clasped her bra and, letting it fall to join her blouse on the floor, turned to face Stephen Lawrence, current houseguest and soon-to-be-replaced-boyfriend,

“Wait…. before you go, I want you to know what you missed out on today. In a couple of hours, while we’re both telling old wealthy people how difficult the past year in school was so they can tell us how easy we have it, you can look over at me and I can smile and tell them how hard things are nowadays…”

Pushing the tall, dark haired son of the Chancellor of Sarah Lawrence College out into the hallway, Eliza stood with her back to the door and looking around her room for something to throw or break, tried to get her growing temper under some kind of control.

“Aww come on Eliza! It’s not my fault, it’s business, it’s expected of us.”

The lawn, rolling away from the patio area, was decorated in a Japanese motif. Small paper lanterns hung from trees. The serving staff all wore what Eliza thought were supposed to look like kimonos, her father’s wife was quite taken with all things Oriental.

“Excuse me!” a thin man with a receding hairline and faraway look in his eyes, walked into Eliza, spilling most of the Tom Collins he was holding, only part of it getting on her, most ended up on his shirtfront.The man looked both embarrassed and panic-stricken, as if he had broken something loud and valuable.

“My God, sorry, didn’t see you. All my fault!”

****

“Mr. Dietrich! What are you doing here? It’s Saturday. Don’t you ever take a day off?”

Becky Stillworth rose from the small desk behind the main Circulation Desk of the Circe Free Library. Being Saturday and Summer, she wore a very light blouse and shorts. That it was Summer, and therefore the number of classmates who might come into the library was quite small, she felt free to wear clothes that might otherwise invite attention. At least un-wanted attention. Looking up at the tall man with the distant look in his eyes, she smiled at the wisdom of her fashion choice.

Chapter 8

Featured

(Early) Saturday Night

“But Mom!! I don’t want to go out with ‘that very nice Hughes boy!’

Becky Stillworth stood facing her closet and sighed. Just to the left, from the mirror on the back of the closet door, her reflection smiled self-consciously.

Confronted with a mute row of clothes hangers and rounded stacks of too-big sweaters on the shelf above, she smiled back with what she hoped was a look of self-confidence, but suspected was more one of resignation. Becky wanted to believe that finding the perfect outfit would increase her chances of being mistaken for a girl just like the other girls in the 11th Grade, complete with the aggressively optimistic attitude that her appearance would undo how uncertain she felt.

16-year-old Becky, at 5 feet 2 inches tall, 95 pounds was the physical embodiment of every adolescent boy’s day-dreamed fantasy. She was also, for better or for worse, gifted with an intellect and intelligence that seemed to elicit surprise in everyone, especially her parents. Paradoxically, flaunting her newly developing body was easier on those around her than would challenging them with her intellectual prowess.

Resigned to her mother’s well-meant, but clearly strained effort to help her, ‘come out of her shell‘, Becky Stillworth confronted the most difficult decision of her day: what to wear.

“Well, Becky,” addressing her reflection-self, which was still off to the side of the closet, as if hoping to not be drawn into any actual decision-making, “lets take this bull by the horns and find something for you to wear that will make everyone wonder, ‘who’s the new girl in town?'”

Laughing quietly, she clumped-together, coat-hangers into coat-hangers, from right to left, trying to find something that was not brown, beige or dark green. Failing that, she went back through the clothes, in the opposite direction, hoping to find something that, lacking an actual bright color, might offer something in the way of a clever, (and hopefully), flattering design.

According to her mother, Becky was a very attractive girl who, at times, was ‘a little too smart for her own good‘.
Favoring over-sized sweaters and billowy skirts, Becky sought places where she would not standout for having her nose buried in a book. She worked part-time at the Circe Library. She joined as many clubs and student activities as she could manage. All this effort because careful research convinced her that most college admissions boards looked favorably on applicants who demonstrated a high degree of social engagement. With that thought, Becky glanced over at her bed and laughed, thinking that she had more in common with her male classmates than she’d care to admit. She’d chosen her mattress as the best hiding place for her collection of college brochures and course catalogs which, while not overtly forbidden, were not anything that she wanted her parents to discover. Late at night, after her parents were asleep, Becky would crouch next to her bed and reach under the mattress. Her choice of reading material was usually determined by the kind of day she’d had, and spent many a late-night hour leafing through college brochures. If, however, her day had been especially difficult, she might indulge herself with the full  Admissions Catalog for the University of Chicago or, perhaps Stanford School of Medicine. Alone with her dream, letting the glossy photos transport her far from the plains of Kansas and, in doing so, inspire her night’s dream.

If the saying, ‘the eyes are the window to the soul’, is anywhere near a valid observation, Becky Stillworth was either a saint or the devil. Eyes of green-flecked brown, offsetting a very aquiline nose, they could appear lost in the view of a distant land, yet without a word of warning, present a degree of focus that was quite intimidating, especially as it appeared on the face of a seemingly innocent 16-year-old High School girl.

Clarence and Frances Stillworth loved their only daughter very much and wanted only what was best for her. For all of Becky’s straight ‘A’ grades, asked to describe their daughter, they probably would begin with, ‘she has a lovely complexion, very cute figure and is interested in so many different things‘.
If  ever asked what she should do to improve her life, their first answer would be, ‘that she should find a nice boy and go steady and just enjoy life’. For Clarence and Frances Stillworth, High School was the last time a young person could live free of the worries and responsibilities that came with being an adult and raising a family.

That their only daughter was determined to go to medical school and become a doctor was simply outside of their capacity to relate. Whether she had what it took to succeed was never a topic of discussion in the Stillworth household. That Becky Stillworth made the social-familial cost/benefit calculation and acceded to her parents wishes that she, ‘go out with that nice Randall Hughes’, would surely put to rest any question as to the young girl’s maturity or, for that matter, her determination to realize her dream.

Becky Stillworth was usually right in her calculations.

***

Eliza Thornberg stood outside the ballroom. Her father’s wife’s Afternoon Social was so well received, that the decision was made, at approximately 3:45 pm, to not let it end. To the delight of the 50 or so guests, (and to the dismay of the household staff), hurried preparations for an evening buffet on the patio began, as the day turned into night.

Eliza approved of that decision and looked forward to spending more time with one of the guests, a tall man with a quietly confident manner, by the name of Jack Clayton. A friend of one of her father’s business associates, Jack worked in Hollywood and was frequently mentioned as, ‘the next Howard Hawks’. Attending the function on impulse, he found the afternoon social interesting, in an abstract, ‘high society’ sort of way, right up until the moment he spilled a glass full of Tom Collins down the front of his shirt, in a less-than-successful effort to avoid bumping into his host’s wife’s stepdaughter.

Glancing at the mirrored wall opposite the entrance to the ballroom, Eliza smiled. She liked mirrors and, to a passerby, it would be quite clear that her reflection agreed with her. Looking closer, Eliza made a mental note to increase the number of times she played tennis this summer. Not unhappy with her figure, she decided that some toning to her shoulders wouldn’t hurt. She saw Stephen before he saw her. He was drunk and hanging all over Olivia Sheraton, the daughter of a member of the hotel family. Stephen Lawrence looked up through the mass of blonde hair that he had managed, much to the dismay of the Philadelphia Debutante (1938), to get entangled in. As Eliza watched, he started to make his way towards her, like a squirrel running ahead of an approaching car, (except in slow motion). The tall, young man veered to one wall, started at it, as if expecting an explanation for his path being blocked, then, attention being drawn by a movement further on, re-oriented himself and moved forward. He walked with more urgency than advisable, given his condition.

“Eliza!! It’s you!” In a well-intentioned, if not overly ambitious attempt to present a casually confident appearance, Stephen Lawrence leaned with his left hand on the wall just over Eliza’s head.

“I been looking all over the place for you!”

“How nice.” Eliza decided that standing in one spot was only a tiny, improvement over walking away, given how that would entail being followed down the hallway by her drunk boyfriend.

“Yes. Yeah! Hey you’re looking,  …good! Where you been. I was looking…” turning to face a couple just walking into the ballroom, he announced with a drunk’s over-enunciation, in their general direction, “…this my girlfriend! Aliza!”
Unfortunately for Stephen, in his effort to turn his head, he moved his shoulders a bit more than the geometry of his position would tolerate. The motion of his upper body was transmitted down his arm, out to his left hand. This hand being, of course, the anchor upon which his entire stance was dependent. The hand slid along the wall and Stephen Lawrence (Yale ’41) followed. Along, (and down), the wall to the floor, behind where Eliza had been standing.

Seeing Stephen begin his slide along the wall, Eliza stepped away.

At that very same moment, Eliza spotted Jack Clayton coming down the staircase and, without a second look at the young man trying to extract himself from behind a small potted plant, made her way over to where he stood, waiting.

“Hey, you changed your shirt. Much better!”

***

“Here, let me get that, you always leave one end sticking out too far,” Emily Gale attached her mildly talon-like hands to her husband’s upper arms and turned him around as he stood, staring at the full length mirror in their bedroom.

“Can’t say I understand why we have to get all dressed up, when we’re just going to Doc Morgan’s house for dinner.” Henry surrendered control of the silk length of the bow tie to his wife. With a look of indulgent concentration, Emily Gale looped and tucked the red silk into a very properly balanced knot, her fingers moving gracefully and, with the last loop in place, gave the two ends a firm tug, securing it for the evening. For no reason he could account for, Henry thought of the young couple, from Back East, who took a run-down pig farm and forced it to grow into a large and very successful business. In no way prone to squeamishness, Henry did not argue when Emily took charge of neutering of the hog stock. While necessary to keeping the balance between boars and barrows at a profitable level, she seemed to possess a certain, natural talent for the decidedly drastic act of animal husbandry.

Henry Gale’s wardrobe was divided unequally in his closet between, ‘comfortable clothes‘ and ‘go to church and be seen with Emily‘ clothing. The former, mostly in the denim and chambray family of men’s fashion, the latter was purchased for him by his wife.

“Never you mind, Henry Gale. We’ve been through this too many times. Life is more than slopping hogs, managing the farm hands and adding to the homestead. Don’t you ever think about what you’ll leave behind, when the Good Lord calls you home again?”

Emily stepped back and assessed her handiwork, not only with the tie, but the man. Like most of the things in her life, his imperfections were a burden she willingly accepted.

“Of course I do! We have a fine daughter in Dorothy.” Henry saw a very subtle change in his wife’s posture and instantly regretted his choice of counter argument,

“The Gale Farm is now the largest spread in East Central Kansas,” her eyes became a little less focused, “what you’ve built here in Circe, well there are few men more proud than me.”

Emily Gale turned and sat at her dressing table, making final adjustments to her make up, the dark blue chiffon gown offset by the crystal beads of her necklace. Henry thought that she surely hadn’t aged in the 18 years since they first took up living and farming in Circe. Looking at her husband’s reflection in the mirror, Emily said with a fierce pride,

“Well, I do think about the future. Everything that we do to help the Community step out of the dark ages is a good thing. And the new Wing at the Hospital will let the generations to come know that Emily and Henry Gale were here and did something good.”

***

Leaning over the bathroom sink, Tom Hardesty finger-brushed his hair, took a half step out of the bathroom, turned back to the mirror, ran both hands through his hair front to back, and walked out into the kitchen.

“Where’s Pa?” Tom’s young brother, Ethan, was sitting on the blue and white couch in the living room, one of the two lamps in the room, illuminated the large, hardcover book balanced on his knees.

“Out in the barn”, Ethan spoke, without raising his eyes from the book.

“What’cha reading?” Tom stood behind the couch and, reaching over the 10 year old’s shoulder, turned over the cover, folding it over on the boy’s thin forearms, and read,

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

“Hey! Gulliver’s Travels!  Mom’s?”

“Yeah,”

“I thought she took it with her.” Silence grew shadows up the walls and towards the pool of light where the 10 year boy sat, like the character in another of the books left behind in a box, alone on the shore of a strange land, trying to find companionship and understanding.

“She used to read it to me, when I was little,” Tom let go of the cover and the book fell back open, like a map to a buried treasure, the light from the one of two living room lamps illuminating the words.

“Yeah?”

“Yeah,” the silence returned, but now it was a shared silence that bound, rather than separated.

“Well, don’t stay up too late and make sure Pa doesn’t either,” Tom returned to his bedroom, grabbed the guitar case leaning against the wall and walked across the living room, through the kitchen and out the back door.

Standing in the open half of the double barn door, Tom watched as his father, pulling with both hands on a wrench, succeeded at loosening an old, rusty bolt on part of the feed-spreader that he had all apart on the workbench. Across from this lighted area, were two stalls and, down at the back of the barn, a door that lead outside to the hog pens. Past the stalls, but still on the opposite of the barn from the work area, were another set of double doors that opened out to the corral and, from there, to the pasture and fields.

“Headin’ over to the Gulch place for a while,” Tom remained standing in the doorway

“Don’t be staying too late, I need your help tomorrow. Got to make some repairs to the hog house and there’s a section of fence needs some tendin.” Ephraim Hardesty looked up from the lighted surface of the workbench. Parts of a feed spreader lay across the oil stained wood. Fastened on the wall above the bench, a grimy, somewhat torn, illustration of the spreader. Written on the bottom of the once-neatly-folded, over-sized paper was the legend, “Your Modern Spreader! Now Designed for Easy Repair”. The irony was under-appreciated by the man who toiled to keep the equipment working.

Seeing the guitar case, Ephraim put the wrench he was using down on the bench and said,

“Out to learn some more songs, are ya?”

“Yeah, thought maybe…you know”

“Lemme see…”

A bit surprised, Tom set the case down, flipped the latches and held the guitar out towards his father. Wiping his hands on a clean rag, Ephraim Hardesty took the guitar, sat back on the tall wooden stool, crossing one leg over the other, strummed a few random chords. A passing stranger would have less trouble recognizing the older man as father to the younger, than did Tom Hardesty, at that particular moment. Tom saw a man that childhood memories would suggest was someone he knew, but right then, he was seeing a near-stranger …who began to sing,

“I woke up this morning… I woke up this morning…
Woke up this morning, with the monday...” winking at his son, he sang,
Sunday morning blues.
I couldn’t hardly find… I couldn’t hardly find… I couldn’t hardly find,
my Sunday morning shoes.

Sunday morning blues… Monday morning blues…
Sunday morning blues, searched all through my bones. Monday morning blues… Monday Monday morning blues, made me leave my home. I’ve been laying in jail…
… I’ve been laying in jail, six long weeks today.”
(Mississippi John Hurt rights reserved)

Seeing the look on his son’s face, Ephraim said,

What? Do you think that your mother and I got married by accident? Who do you think encouraged her to buy this guitar?”

Laughing, Ephraim Hardesty handed the guitar to his son and turned back to his broken spreader part.

“Try to remember to ask Phyllis McCutcheon when she wants us to make the next delivery of hogs. Oh, and be sure to remind her that we’ll need the extra help to harvest the alfalfa, in a couple of weeks.”

Ephraim turned his attention back to the broken equipment, determined to restore it to working order.

***

Hunk Dietrich studied his correspondence courses and dreamed of a real life.

***

Dorothy Gale, walked barefoot-quiet down the hallway to her bedroom, after 45 relaxing minutes in a warm tub in a quiet bathroom. She put on her softest jeans and a grey cashmere pullover, (borrowed from her college roommate Eliza’s extensive wardrobe), and stood in front of the mirror on the large dresser. Tilting the lampshade to let as much light as possible shine on her reflected face, Dorothy Gale turned her head to the left and then to the right, tilted her head forward and back and finally stepped back and said quietly, to her herself,

“I do not look green! And anyone who says I’m mean…. green!!  Well, they’re just damn liars!!”

For no reason, the name, “Mrs. Gulch” came to mind and she realized that she’d forgotten all about her plan to visit Mrs. Gulch at St Mary’s Hospital.

‘Well, I’ll simply go there after Church tomorrow.”  she said, as she pulled the easy chair around, to face out the window. Dorothy sat, took out a pad and began to write a letter to her friend Eliza Thornberg,

“Dear Eliza,

‘Trust you are well. I am,  …bored would begin to tell it, and yet it’s only been 2 weeks…’

***

Standing in front of the plate-glass window of McAlleister’s Bakery, 16-year-old Almira Ristani saw her reflection. The street light, just beginning to glow in the early evening dark, created a mirror of the window, offering a glimpse of a young girl in a heavy grey coat. Her long, light brown hair formed a shawl, spreading to either side of her face. A delicately fair complexion and pale blue eyes, made her think of Titania, such was the faerie-like appearance in the plate-glass. Almira looked shyly at her reflection and, glancing up and down the empty streets, whispered,

“What has happened, have you lost your way? Surely you can find your way home, don’t be scared. I’ll help you.”

The reflection smiled, both in agreement and in sympathy.

“Come in! Just in time to help get the refreshments out! The Union committee, yes, that’s the shouting you’re hearing… is almost done with the meeting. Parliamentary intercourse you know!”  laughing, Annie LoPizzo, her white blouse open to a greater degree than one might think appropriate, at least until the day, (Saturday), and time, (6:30 pm), was noted. Her ample breasts were much like her personality: seductively intriguing, hinting at undefined pleasure to those willing to take a chance.

“Here, let’s get you some muscle to help with the coffee urns. Sterling!! Come out here! I need to introduce you to my friend and the newest member of the all volunteer union hall staff, Almira Ristani.
Almira? this is Sterling Gulch… Sterling? No, you aren’t shy, are you? Help Almira set out the refreshments. From the volume of the shouting, I’d say the Strike Committee has concluded it’s meeting for this week.” Annie moved quickly around the large open room, arranging the cakes and other donated baked goods.

“Sterling! Remember our talk earlier today. The Union is the reason for all this, if you want to help, we’re glad to have you. There’ll be time to socialize later. Work first, flirt second, is that understood?  And besides, my young friend Almira may be a bit more than you’re accustomed to, as far as the young ladies go. She’s managed to teach me some things about the plight of modern woman in today’s society. Yes, I know that you went to college too, but learning and wisdom are often two different matters.”

***

Nurse Claire Griswold stood guard in the darkened Ward C, the light at the exit, like a votive candle, cast a quiet glow over the ten beds.

****************

Saturday Night (Late)

The guttural shouting of the car muffler as Randall Hughes accelerated away from the Stillworth home made Becky think of the sound the boy made, just before their date came to a sudden and surprising end. Opening the front door as quietly as possible, Becky was only to the bottom of the stairs when she heard her father’s voice coming from the living room,

“Is that you, dear?”

“Yes, Dad, it’s me” after a momentary pause, they both laughed at the silly obviousness in both his question and her answer.

“How was your date?”

Becky was surprised to feel a flash of anger at his question, but was more surprised that she was mad at herself. She decided that it would be best to keep this conversation as short as possible.

“It was swell. We went to the movies,”

“What’d you see?”

“‘Topper’ About some people, a couple who are ghosts and this guy, Topper. Cary Grant was in it. It was good, but in a way sad. The way the couple, who were really in love, but died in a car crash.”

“And then….”

“Well, you know. We went to Randall’s Pharmacy for something to eat and just hung around. You know.”

“Well, I’m glad you had a good time. You work so very hard at your studies, it’s good to see you have some fun.”

“Sure. It’s not that I need to get away from my studies. I really want you and Mom to be proud of me.”

“We are, Becky. Your mother only wants the best for you. You know that, right?”

“Sure, Dad,”

Becky started up the stairs to her bedroom,

“Oh, and Becky?”

She stopped mid-step, fearing the worst. She couldn’t smell anything, but she feared the worst. Thinking he was smarter than her, which considering most of the girls he’d been out with, wasn’t unreasonable, Randall Hughes had spiked her cup of Coca Cola. She didn’t say anything until the car headlights were off and he pulled her towards his side of the front seat. She still didn’t say anything, just leaned towards him, which brought his attention away from the cup of soda in her right hand. She leaned away enough to see the annoyed expression on his face, just before she poured the contents of her cup into his lap. Annoyance turned to shock and surprise and then, Becky found a part of herself feeling sorry for him, he looked confused and embarrassed. Neither spoke on the ride back to Becky’s house. She got out of the car without saying or hearing another word.

“Yes?”

“You might want to find a better hiding place for your College Brochures. Your mother mentioned today that it was time to turn the mattresses. I convinced her it could wait a week and I’d take the time off from the store to help her. I put a clean wooden box on my workshop bench in the basement. You might want to put them there tomorrow after Church. They’ll be safe until after the mattress flipping is over.”

Feeling the whiplash relief of un-realized fear combined with the pleasant surprise of her fathers attitude towards her ambition, Becky ran back down the stairs and hugged her father.

“Thank you, Daddy. Thank you.”

“Now, enough of that! It’s late and you’ve had a long day. Off to bed with you.”

Pausing in front of the mirror at her closet, Becky Stillworth smiled at herself.

***

The full length dressing mirror stood alone, facing Eliza Thornberg’s bed. The covers moved, a flash of blonde hair appeared and disappeared, followed by a tanned shoulder-blade. Had the full length dressing mirror been a proper recording device, rather than a simple reflecting device, the sounds of surprise and delight, discovery and passion would have been a part of the record of late evening in Eliza Thornberg’s bedroom. This particular night, (which started out as Saturday afternoon), would be noted in family lore as ‘the day of the Afternoon Social That Continued Well into the Evening’.

For the unabridged version of that afternoon/evening, it would be necessary to consult those who attended, but were not on the actual Guest list, i.e. the domestic staff. Consulted, they would surely mention that it was the weekend that the son of a Houseguest was taken to the hospital and, they might continue, it was also the same social event that included a soon-to-be-famous Film Director, a last-minute addition to the Guest list, (this last was a detail that assured one that the source of the information was well beyond scullery girl gossip), who was also a guest for breakfast the Sunday that followed that Saturday.

“Church?” Jack Clayton looked at the girl standing, nearly nude, in front of a dressing mirror.

“Why yes, surely they have Churches in Hollywood? Big buildings? Sunday mornings, nicely dressed?” Eliza smiled as she watched her overnight guest in the mirror’s reflection.

“Dressed? As in, not naked and…. nude? That’s no fun!” Jack retreated under the covers.

“Oh, yeah.” Eliza stood at the foot of the bed,

“Thanks for reminding me! You need to join us in Newport this August!”

***

Henry was as close to fed up with Emily as he could ever remember being. The evening at the Morgans, while boring at times, was not unpleasant. His wife’s effort to manipulate Thad Morgan into supporting her plan to use the Charity Ward of St Mary’s to create the ‘Gale Wing’, was.
Long reconciled to his wife’s insecurities, he could see that his accommodations to her frequently over-bearing ambitions made him blind to the extent to which she would go to get what she wanted.

“I’m sorry, I don’t see how this plan of yours is necessary if it means poor people have to go to Topeka for proper care, away from their homes.”

***

Tom Hardesty found Phyllis McCutcheon working on inventory lists in the small room off the kitchen of the Gulch Farm. She was so focused on multiple inventory lists in front of her, that he stood in the doorway, unnoticed for several minutes. A woman of medium height, she wore her hair quite long, its remarkable fineness somehow made its length less obvious. As Tom watched, her smooth brow furrowed in concentration, as if, by forcing her eyes to increase the detail available, the problem’s solution might be all the more satisfying. She turned her ahead in the direction of the shadow that Tom cast over the table, temporarily eclipsing the bright kitchen light. Phyllis continued to stare at the young man, as if including his presence in the addition and subtraction of numbers carefully written on her ledger sheets. At a certain point she clearly needed clarification of this new factor in her work and, smiling abstractly, said,

“Tom! So good to see you! How long have you been standing there? Please come in and sit,”

following his gaze, she realized that there was only the one chair in the small room.

“Of course, how rude of me! Here, take my chair!”

Tom stepped back out into the kitchen, smiling and looking towards the larger table set up on the far side of the room,

“No, thanks, I’m good.”

Phyllis McCutcheon was one of those people who saw the good before the bad in most people. And, while many who stopped at Almira’s Farm might offer to pay what they could afford for a hot meal or a clean bed, they would move on as soon as the opportunity presented itself. When the McCutcheon party turned up at the Gulch Farm, 3 years previously, their hoped for short stay turned from days into weeks. Never being one to stand idly by as others work, Phyllis offered to help Almira in the kitchen.

Phyllis was the daughter of one of the organizers of the three vehicle caravan, an old and opinionated preacher by the name of Noah McCutcheon. Phyllis’s husband and daughter had died, within a month of each other, of influenza in 1936, in their small home outside of Tulsa. Following her father seemed to be as good a plan for life as staying where she was and so, they traveled West, drawn by the promise of opportunity and hope for a new life in a place as far from Oklahoma as was possible and still remain in the United States.

After a week of staying in the barn-turned-dormitory, their vehicles repaired and ready for the road West, Noah McCutcheon told Phyllis to get her things and join the rest, ‘of the pilgrims’ in the over-loaded vehicles. Always one to avoid an argument, Phyllis happened to be in the middle of assisting Almira with a complete inventory of the Farm at the time of her father’s command.

Surprise is often expressed with anger and, sometimes with joy and happiness. On one October morning in 1937, Phyllis McCutcheon caused both states to exist with her surprising announcement,

“Father I am staying here at the Farm. That is, if Miz Gulch will permit me to stay and help complete this inventory.”

The two very different responses indicated the respective emotional states in the kitchen that morning,

“I forbid it!”

“I’d be delighted if you would stay and help me here on the Farm.”

The two women continued with their efforts even as the sound of three badly running vehicles followed the dusty-yellow road that promised to lead to a happy life in the West.

***

Nurse Claire Griswold watched over her charges as the night wore on.