This is the use of memory:
For liberation-not less of love but expanding
Of love beyond desire, and so liberation
From the future as well as the past. Thus, love of a country
Begins as attachment to our own field of action
And comes to find that action of little importance
Though never indifferent. History may be servitude,
History may be freedom.
– T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets
Part One. The Winter Kitchen
Manhattan, Kansas-September 1989
During the spring and summer I sometimes visited the small Norwegian Cemetery on a high hill overlooking a long view of the lower Republican Valley. In late evening a cool breeze always stirs the two pine trees which shade a few plots, just south of the Cemetery in a little ravine is a small pond surrounded with a few acres of unbroken prairie sod. On the rise beyond the ravine a few large trees grow around a field. They are the only markers of the original site of my Grandfather's homestead. My Grandmother once told me that when she stood on the hill and looked southwest all she could see was prairie grass. An aunt told me of walking over the hills to a Post Office on the creek there. I can remember when a house stood just across the field to the west and now I can still see an old tree and a lonely lilac bush on the next hill where a few years ago a house and farm building stood. Of the ten houses I could see from this hill when I was a child, now only two exist-but instead of the waving prairie grass which Grandmother saw in the 1870s, there are rectangles and squares of growing crops and trees along the roads. A few miles distant the dark green of trees, with a water tower, tall elevator and an alfalfa mill rising above them define the area of a small town.
– Elinor Anderson Elliott, The Metamorphosis of the Family Farm in the Republican Valley of Kansas: 1860-1960, MA thesis, Kansas State University
The municipal airport of Manhattan, Kansas, was low and brown and rectangular, and had a doorway that led direct from the runway. The last passenger from St. Louis staggered through it, his cheek bristly, his feet crossing in front of each other as he walked. He blinked at the rows of chairs and Pepsi machines and then made his way to the Hertz desk. He gave his name.
"Jonathan," he said, in a faraway voice. Jonathan forgot to give his last name. He was enchanted by the man at the Hertz desk, who was long, lean, solemn, wearing wire glasses. He reminded Jonathan of the farmer in the painting American Gothic. Jonathan grinned.
He passed the man an airport napkin with a confirmation number written on it. American Gothic spoke of insurance and had forms ready to sign. Jonathan put check marks in the little boxes and passed over a credit card. He waited, trying not to think about how ill he was. He looked at a map on the wall.
The map showed Manhattan the town and, to the west of it, Fort Riley, the Army base. Fort Riley covered many miles. It had taken over whole towns.
Jonathan did not know there had once been a town in Kansas called Magic. There had even been a Church of Magic, until the congregation had to move when the Army base took over. The ghost towns were marked. Fort Riley DZ. DZ Milford. The letters D were ambiguously rounded.
Quite plainly on the map, there was something that Jonathan read as "OZ Magic."
It had its own little box, hard by something called the Artillery and Mortar Impact Area, quite close to a village called Keats.
"There you go," said American Gothic. He held out car keys.
"What's this mean?" Jonathan asked, pointing at the words.
"DZ?" the man said. "It means 'Drop Zone.' "
There were little things on the map called silos. Jonathan thought the silos might be for storing sorghum.
"At the end of the world," said the man at the Hertz desk, "it will rain fire from the sky." He still held out the car keys. "Manhattan won't know jack shit about it. We'll just go up in a flash of light."
Not a single thing he had said made any sense to Jonathan. Jonathan just stared at the map.
"Anyway," said American Gothic, "you got the gray Chevrolet Celebrity outside."
Jonathan thought of Bob Hope. He swayed where he stood. Sweat trickled into his mouth.
"You all right?" the man asked.
"I'm dying," said Jonathan, smiling. "But aside from that I'm pretty good, I guess." It was an innocent statement of fact.
Too innocent. Ooops, thought Jonathan. Now he won't rent me a car.
But this was Kansas, not Los Angeles. The man went very still for a moment, then said quietly, "You need a hand with your luggage?"
"Don't have any," said Jonathan, smiling almost helplessly at the man, as if he regretted turning him down.
"You from around here? Your face looks kinda familiar."
"I'm an actor," Jonathan replied. "You may have seen me. I played a priest in 'Dynasty.' "
"Well, I'll be," said American Gothic. "What you doing here then?"
It was a long story. "Well," said Jonathan, already imitating the other man's manner. "I suppose you could say I'm here to find somebody."
"Oh. Some kind of detective work." There was a glint of curiosity, and a glint of hostility.
"Something like detective work," agreed Jonathan, and smiled. "It's called history." He took the keys and walked.
Manhattan, Kansas-September 1875
After the Kansas were placed on the greatly reduced reservation near Council Grove, a substantial decline occurred. For example, in 1855-the year their agent described them as "a poor, degraded, superstitious, thievish, indigent" type of people-the Commissioner of Indian Affairs reported their number at 1,375. By 1859 it was down to 1,035 and in 1868 to 825. Finally, while this "improvident class of people" made plans for permanent removal to Indian Territory, an official Indian Bureau count placed their number at "about 600." Clearly the long-range trend appeared to be one of eventual obliteration. -William E. Unrau, The Kansa Indians: A History of the Wind People, 1673-1873
The brakeman danced along the roofs of the train cars, turning brake-wheels. The cars squealed and hissed and bumped their way to a slowly settling halt. The train chuffed once as if in relief.
There was a dog barking. The noise came from within the train, as regular as the beating of its steam-driven heart. The dog was hoarse.
The door of a car was flung open, pushed by a boot, and it crashed against the side of the train. A woman all in black with a hat at an awkward angle was dragging a large trunk case. A little girl all in white stood next to her. The white dress sparkled in sunlight, as if it had been sprinkled with mirrors. The dog still barked.
"Where's my doggy? We're going to leave my doggy!" said the child.
"Your doggy will be along presently. Now you just help yourself down those steps." The woman had a thin, intelligent face. Her patience was worn. She took the child's hand and leaned out of the car. The child dangled, twisting in her grasp. A huge sack was thrown out of the next car and onto the platform like a dead body.
"Aaah!" cried the child, grizzling.
"Little girl, please. Use your feet."
"I can't!" wailed the child.
The woman looked around the platform. "Johnson!" she called. "Johnson Langrishe, is that you? Could you come over here please and help this little girl down from the train?"
A plump and very pimply youth-his cheeks were almost solid purple-loped toward the train, hair hanging in his eyes under a Union Pacific cap. The woman passed the child down to him. Johnson took her with a grunt and dropped her just a little too soon onto the platform.
The train whistled. The dog kept barking.
"Dog's been making music since Topeka. It's a wonder he's got any voice left. Trunk next." The woman pushed the trunk out the door. Johnson was not strong enough to hold it, and it slipped from his grasp to the ground.
"My doggy," said the little girl.
"Dot rat your doggy," muttered the woman. "Johnson. Do you know Emma Gulch? Emma Branscomb as was?"
"Is there anybody waiting here to meet a little girl come all the way from St. Louis, Missouri?"
"Well that's just dandy," said the woman with an air of finality.
"There's no one here? There's no one here?" The little girl began to panic.
"No, little girl, I'm afraid not. I'm going to Junction, otherwise I'd stop off with you. Why? Why let a little girl come all this way and not meet her, I just do not know!" The woman turned and shouted at the next car.
"Hank," she cried. "Hank, for goodness' sake! Fetch the little girl her dog, can't you?"
"He bit me!" shouted the porter.
The woman finally chuckled. "Oh, Lord!" She turned and disappeared into the next car.
The train sneezed twice and a white cloud rolled up doughnut-shaped from the funnel. Great metal arms began to stroke the wheels almost lovingly. And the wheels began to turn. A creak and a slam and a rolling noise and the train began to sidle away. It whistled again, and the shriek of the whistle smothered the cry the little girl made for her dog.
Then out of the mailcar door, the woman appeared, holding out a furious gray bundle. It wrenched itself from her grasp and rolled out onto the platform. It somersaulted into the child and then spun and righted itself, yelping in outrage. It roared hatred at the train and the people on it. The dog consigned the train to Hell. Johnson, the boy, backed away from him.
Sunset orange blazed on the side of the car. The woman still hung out of the doorway.
"Emma Gulch is her aunt! Lives east out in Zeandale!" she shouted. "Try to get word to her. God bless, child!" the woman waved with one hand and held on to her hat with the other. The air above the train shivered with heat. There was a wuffling sound of fire, and a clapping and clanking, and the brakeman did his dance. All of it moved like a show, farther down the track, fading like the light. The light was low and golden.
This was the time of the afternoon the little girl most hated. This was the time she felt most alone.
"What's your name?" Johnson asked her.
"Dorothy," said the little girl. She held up her white dress to make it sparkle.
"What's that stuff on your dress?"
"It's a theater dress," said the little girl. Her eyes stared and her mouth was puffy. "The theater people in Kansas City give it to me." She had stayed with them last night, and she liked them. "Are you going to stay with me?" she asked Johnson.
"For a little while, maybe."
"I'm hungry," she said.
"Well I ate up all my pie, or I surely would have let you have some."
The place was silent. The station had a porch and a platform and a wooden waiting room. The tracks ran beside a river. Dorothy could see no town. She recognized nothing. She pushed the hair out of her eyes. Nothing was right.
"Where is everybody?" she asked. She was scared, as if there were ghosts in the low orange light.
"Oh, next train won't be here till past six. Come on, I'll show you where you can set."
He walked on ahead of her. He didn't hold her hand. Mama would have held her hand, or Papa. She followed him.
Her ticket was pinned to her dress, along with a set of instructions. "Will this ticket get me back to St. Lou?" she asked. If there was nobody coming to meet her?
"I don't know," said Johnson, and held open the door of the waiting room. It had bare floors of fine walnut, wainscoting, a stove, benches. There were golden squares of light on the floor.
"You must be tired. You just rest here a bit, and I'll see if I can't find somebody to go fetch your aunty."
Don't go! Dorothy thought. She was afraid and she couldn't speak. Stay!
"You'll be okay. We'll get you sorted out." He smiled and closed the door. Dorothy was alone.
This was the time when Mama would lay the table. Mama would sing to herself, lightly, quietly. Sometimes Dorothy would help her, putting out the knives and forks. Sometimes Dorothy would have a bath, with basins of warm water poured over both her and her little brother, Bobo. Papa would come home and shout, "How're my little angels?" Dorothy would come running and giggling toward him. Don't tickle me, she would demand, so he would. And they would all eat together, sunlight swirling in the dust as shadows lengthened.
No dinner now.
And later people would come around, and they'd all talk and sometimes ask Dorothy to stand up on a chair and sing. The chairs would scrape on the floor as they were pulled back in a hurry, for cards or for a dance. Papa would play the fiddle. They would let Dorothy sit up and drink a little wine. People would hold Bobo up by his arms so that he could dance too, grinning.
So what happened to little girls with nobody to take care of them? How did they eat? Would it all be like that trip on the train? The train trip had seemed to go on forever, but this was even worse.
She was afraid now, deep down scared, and she knew she would stay horribly, crawlingly scared until dark, into the dark when it would get even worse, until she tossed and turned herself asleep.
Toto sighed and shivered, waiting out the terror with her.
The dust moved in the sunlight, and the sunlight moved across the wall, and no one came, and no one came. Time and loneliness and fear crept forward at the same slow pace.
Then the front door swung open with a sound of sleighbells on a leather strap, like Christmas. Dorothy looked up. A woman in black stood in the doorway, carrying a basket.
"Are you the little girl who's waiting for her aunty?" the woman asked. Dorothy nodded. The woman smiled and came toward her. There was something terribly wrong.
The woman's arms were too long. The bottom of her rib cage seemed to stick out in the wrong place, and she walked by throwing her hips from side to side and letting her tiny legs follow. As she moved, everything was wrenched and jolted. Dorothy backed away from her, along the bench.
"I brought some chicken with me," said the woman, smiling, eyes bright. Her face was young and pretty. "My name's Etta, what's yours?" Toto sat up from the floor, ears forward, but he did not growl.
Dorothy told her in such a low voice that Etta had to ask her again. "And the dog's name?"
"Same," said Dorothy. Etta sat down on the bench some distance away and began to unfold a red-checked cloth from the basket. Some of the fear seemed to go. "He's got the same name as mine."
Etta plucked out apples and cold dumplings and some chicken and passed them on a plate.
"The same name. How's that?"
"My mama got the two of us on the same day. So I'm called Dorothy and he's called Toto. That's short for Dorothy." Dorothy had the drumstick.
"Would Toto like some chicken?" Etta asked.
Dorothy nodded yes, with her mouth full. She stared at the woman's pretty face as she held out a strand of chicken for Toto. Dorothy was confused by the woman's height and manner. Dorothy was not entirely sure if she was a child or an adult.
"Are you middle-aged?" Dorothy asked. She did not understand the term. She thought it meant people who were between childhood and adulthood.
"Me?" Etta chuckled. "Why no, I'm twenty years old!"
"Why aren't you bigger?"
"I'm deformed," Etta answered.
Dorothy mulled the word over. "So am I," she decided.
"Oh no, you're not, you're tall and straight and real pretty."
"So are you," Dorothy decided. The long arms and the twisted trunk had resolved themselves into something neutral.
Etta went pink. "Don't talk nonsense," she said.
"You're real pretty. Are you married?"
Etta smiled a secret kind of smile. "I might be someday."
"Everybody should be married," said Dorothy. It appealed to her sense of order.
"Why's that?" Etta asked.
Dorothy shrugged. She didn't know. She just had a picture of people in houses. "Where do you live if you're not married?"
"With my Uncle William."
"Could you marry him?"
Etta chuckled. "I wouldn't want to. There is someone I could marry, though, if you promise not to tell anyone."
Dorothy nodded yes.
"Mr. Reynolds," whispered Etta, and her face went pink again, and she grinned and grinned.
Dorothy grinned as well, and good spirits suddenly overcame her. "Mr. Reynolds," Dorothy said, and kicked both feet.
"People tell me I shouldn't marry him. But do you know, I think I might just do it anyway."
Dorothy was pleased and looked at her white shoes and white stockings. "Now," said Etta. "What we're going to do is wait here till your aunty comes. And if she can't come here today, then we'll go and spend the night at my house and then go to your aunty's in the morning. Would you like that?"
Dorothy nodded yes. "Is it nice here?" she asked.
"Nice enough," said Etta. She told Dorothy about the trees of Manhattan. When the town was planned, every street had a row of trees planted down each side. The avenues had two rows of trees planted on each side, in case the road was ever widened. So, Manhattan was called the City of Trees. Dorothy liked that. It was as if it were a place where everyone lived in trees instead of houses. Nimbly, Etta packed up the remains of their dinner.
Then they went to the window. Dorothy saw Manhattan.
There was a white two-story house on the corner of the road, with a porch and a door that had been left open. Dorothy could hear a child calling inside. There was a smell of baking. It looked like home.
And there were the trees, as tall as the upper floor. Beyond the trees, there was a honey-colored building. The Blood Hotel, Etta called it. There were hills: Blue Mont with smoke coming out of its top like a chimney; College Hill, where Etta lived.
"Are there any Indians?" Dorothy asked.
Not anymore, Etta told her. But near Manhattan, there had been an Indian city.
"It was called Blue Earth," said Etta. "They had over a hundred houses. Each house was sixty feet long. They grew pumpkins and squash and potatoes and fished in the river, and once a year they left to hunt buffalo. They were the Kansa Indians, which is why one river is called the Kansas, and the other is called Big Blue. Because they met right here where the Kansas lived."
Dorothy saw it, a river as blue as the sea in her picture books at home. The Kansas River was called yellow, and Dorothy saw the two currents, yellow and blue mixing like colors in her paint box.
"Is it green there?" she asked. She meant where the blue and yellow mixed.
"It's green everywhere here," Etta answered. They went back to sit on the bench. Etta told Dorothy about Indian names, Wichita and Topeka. Topeka meant "A Good Place to Find Potatoes." That made Dorothy laugh.
"But any place is what you make it," said Etta. "You've got to make it home. You've got to do that for yourself. Do you understand what I'm saying?"
Dorothy began to play with the bows on Etta's dress. Etta put her arms around her and rested her head against Dorothy's. They were nearly the same height.
"It's difficult, because everybody wants to be loved. And you think you can't have a home unless you are loved by somebody, anybody. But it's not true. Sometimes you can learn to live without being loved. It's terrible hard, but you can do it."
Then she kissed Dorothy on the forehead.
"The trick is," said Etta, pulling Dorothy's long black hair from her face, "to remember what it's like to be loved."
Dorothy fell asleep. She dreamed of knitting and the black piano and her paint box and picture books and all the things that had been left behind.
"Dorothy. Dorothy, darling, wake up." Someone was speaking. Dorothy opened her eyes to see a woman's face. Her skin was brown; the lips looked bruised; the flesh around the eyes was dark. "Hello, Dorothy. I'm your Aunty Em."
Toto gave one fierce bark of alarm and wriggled his way back onto Dorothy's lap. Dorothy was confused and rubbed her eyes.
"She's tired," said another woman. Dorothy remembered who Etta was.
"Of course, it must have been a terrible odyssey for her. I was so sure she would be on the number five! Dorothy, are you all right?"
Dorothy nodded yes and slipped down from the bench. Aunty Em moved away from her. "Etta give me some chicken," explained Dorothy.
"And a great kindness that was! Why, Etta, you must have been here for hours!" Aunty Em had a face like a horse, strong and full of bone. She had huge gray teeth. She stood still, her attention fastened on Etta. Bloated with sleep, Dorothy was confused. Were they supposed to be going?
"It was no trouble," said Etta. "Johnson Langrishe told me she was here, and I remembered how I felt once upon a time." Etta glanced at Dorothy.
"All the way from College Hill," said Aunty Em, grabbing Etta's hand, her face crossed with concern. "In your condition."
Etta's smile went a bit stale. "My condition isn't so very delicate. I'd gone to market, it was easy for me to bring some food."
"The whole county knows how hard you work. Oh, Etta, I'd just love to set and talk, but we've got to get going before dark. Dorothy? Are you ready to go home?"
Dorothy solemnly nodded yes, she was.
"Well, then, come along. Etta, I'll give you a hand."
"I don't really need one," chuckled Etta.
"Of course not," said Aunty Em, but didn't let go. They walked toward the door.
My trunk, thought Dorothy, looking behind her. What was going to happen to her trunk? She saw her dresses folded inside it.
"Dorothy dear, come along."
"My trunk," said Dorothy and found that she was near tears.
"Oh!" said Aunty Em and put a hand across her forehead. "Yes, of course." She pushed open the door and called, "Henry? Henry, please to come and give our little girl a hand with her trunk?"
Aunty Em kept talking, standing in the doorway. "I was just saying to Henry the other day that we don't see enough of you good people out on the west side of the city." Aunty Em's smile blazed, her eyes were hooded. "How is your Uncle Isaac? We never see him these days, running the entire state of Kansas by himself it seems!"
There was a clumping of boots. Aunty Em stood aside for a terrible, looming man who walked past her without speaking.
"Miss Etta Parkerson, Henry," said Aunty Em, in a gentle, chiding voice.
The man had a long beard of varying lengths and his hair was plastered to his scalp, curling at the tips. He wore a somewhat striped shirt and an open vest with patches of food on it.
"Morn'," the man said. There was a distinct whiff of manure. Toto hopped up onto Dorothy's trunk to defend it. He began barking, bouncing in place.
"Here, dog," said Dorothy, so softly only Toto could hear. He came to her whining, and she picked him up and hugged him and buried her face in his fur. Uncle Henry grunted as he lowered her trunk to the floor.
"Out of the way, dear." As Dorothy turned, Aunty Em ushered her through the door. The very tip of her finger touched Dorothy's shoulder and then jumped back as if from a hot skillet.
Dorothy knew that Aunty Em had just remembered the Dip. She thought Dorothy carried disease. She didn't want to touch her.
And Dorothy, who wanted everything to be pretty, soft, full of lace, stood outside on the veranda and looked at the street and a rough, gray, unpainted wagon. Toto wriggled free and dropped to the floor of the porch. Etta pulled Dorothy to her and hugged her.
"Isn't she a little heroine, though?" said Aunty Em. "All the way from St. Louis by herself."
"I'd say it was an epic journey," said Etta, giving Dorothy a little shake, and spoke to her alone. "And it's not over yet. You've still got to get to Zeandale."
"Oh, you know Henry and I regard ourselves as Manhattanites!" Aunty Em corrected her with a chuckle.
Uncle Henry came backward through the door, pulling the trunk. Toto began to bark again and harassed Henry's heels.
"Gone'n brought her dog," muttered Henry.
"I can see that, Henry," said Aunty Em, voice low, her eyes avoiding Etta. Her hair was raked back tightly into a bun, and her hands pulled at it. There was a row of curls across her forehead.
"Zeandale's nice too," murmured Etta. Toto whimpered, circling Dorothy's heels. Everything was confusion.
"Can… can we give you a lift up the hill, Etta?"
"Very kind of you, Mrs. Gulch, but I have my uncle's pony and trap."
"You mustn't overtax your strength, dear."
"I won't," promised Etta.
"Well, then," sighed Aunty Em, as if everything had been delightful. Her smile returned as gray as a cloudy day. "We must be on our way. Do remind me to your dear Aunt Ellen. And may I drop into Goodnow House next time I'm in town? I would so love to see you all."
"Of course," said Etta.
"And thank you so much. Say thank you, Dorothy."
"Thank you, Etta."
"Thank you, Miss Parkerson," Aunty Em corrected her.
"Thank you, Dorothy," said Etta quickly. Then she kissed Dorothy on the forehead again. Dorothy could feel it, as if it glowed. For a moment she felt as though nothing could hurt her.
Dorothy sat on the trunk in the back. She looked backward as the station, the town, disappeared in trees.
"Well I must say, Dorothy," said Aunty Em. "You do make your acquaintances from the top social drawer!"
The wagon wheels thrilled over the surface of a stone bridge across the river and into shade. Overhead there was a high bank of clouds.
"Believe it's going to rain at last," said Uncle Henry.
"Hallelujah," said Aunty Em, her eyes fixed on the clouds. Then she turned and tapped Dorothy on the knee. "Out of the wagon while we go up the hill, Dorothy. Spare poor old Calliope."
Dorothy didn't understand.
"Calliope is our mule, Dorothy, and it's not fair to make her haul us up hills. So we'll have a nice walk."
The road had been baked into ruts. Aunty Em took her hand, and they walked in twilight into trees. "You should have been here in spring," said Aunty Em, "and seen the sweet William." Her face went faraway.
"I can remember going up this road for the first time myself," she said. "I was sixteen and your mama was nine, and we walked through here. It was just a track then. We walked all the way to Papa's plot of land. Through these beautiful trees. And then we saw the valley, like you will soon, all grass and river, and we camped there. And we slept under the stars by a fire, looking up at the stars. Did your mama ever talk to you about that, Dorothy?"
"No," said Dorothy. "No, Ma'am." Her mother had never spoken about Manhattan.
"Did she talk about your Grandfather Matthew? How he came here and built a house?"
Dorothy thought she better answer yes.
"Your grandfather came out here just like Etta's uncles, for the same reason. To keep Kansas a free state. And he worked on Manhattan's first newspaper, and then for the Independent with Mr. Josiah Pillsbury. We are educated people, Dorothy. We are not just farmers."
None of it made sense. Everything was so strange. It was like a dream. Dorothy knew that she would never wake up from it.
"There," said Aunty Em, at the top of the hill.
More shadows, more trees, fields.
"Isn't it pretty? Prime river-bottom land. They talk about pioneer hardships. Well, we must have been lucky. What we had, Dorothy, was pioneer beauty."
What Dorothy saw on the other side of the hill was flat, open land. There would be no secret places in Zeandale like there had been in St. Louis, no nooks and crannies, no sheltering alleyways. Even the trees were small, in planted rows, except on some of the farther hills, and they looked dim and gray. White, spare houses stretched away at regular intervals between harvested fields. Dorothy could see a woman hanging up sheets. She could see children chasing each other around a barn. The soil that was gray on top was black where broken open.
"We'll get you back home and give you a nice, hot bath, first thing," said Aunty Em. She was still thinking about the Dip.
It took another hour to get to Zeandale. They turned right at a school-house and went down a hard, narrow lane. The wagon pitched from side to side. Its old gray timber threatened slivers. Dorothy pushed with her feet to stay seated on the trunk as it was bumped and jostled.
Ahead there was a hill, mostly bald, with a few patches of scrub. To the right of that, more wooded hills folded themselves down into the valley. The lane bore them around to the right toward the hills. The sky was slate gray now; everything was dim. As the wagon turned, Dorothy saw something move beside the lane. Had it stood up? Its sleeves flapped. As it walked toward them, Dorothy saw it was a boy. He was whipping his wrist with a long dry blade of grass. As he neared the wagon, he doffed a floppy, shapeless hat.
"Good evening, Mrs. Gulch, Mr. Gulch."
"Good evening, Wilbur," said Aunty Em.
"Mother saw you leaving this afternoon, so I thought I'd just set by the road till you came back along so I could hear the news."
"I brought the news with me," said Aunty Em. "Wilbur, this is my little niece, Dorothy, come all the way from St. Louis to live with us. Isn't she the prettiest little thing?"
"Sure is," said Wilbur. He had a long, slightly misshapen face, like someone had hit him, and he had a front tooth missing.
"This is Wilbur F. Jewell, Dorothy, one of our neighbor's boys."
"Hello," said Dorothy. Across the fields, there was a white house, with two windows, and an extension. "Is that your house?"
"It's lopsided," said Dorothy.
"Dorothy, this is Kansas, and in Kansas we take account of manners. The Jewells came here like your Grandfather Matthew and built that house themselves."
"We should have built a new one by now," said Wilbur quietly.
There was more chat. Some long-term trouble was spoken of: banks and payments. The smoke from Wilbur's house was blue and hung in the air like fog.
"Tell your mother I'll be along as soon as I can," said Aunty Em, sounding worried. The neighbors parted. Wilbur walked backward, waving his hat.
"Let's hope the rain don't wash the crops away," called Uncle Henry from the wagon.
"Goodbye, Will!" called Dorothy. She liked the way he was put together, like a bundle of sticks.
Aunty Em sat straight and still for a while, and then seemed to blow out as though she had been holding her breath. "Well!" she exclaimed. "Boy his age with nothing better to do than sit all day by the road like a scarecrow on a Sunday! What is his father thinking of?"
"I reckon old Bob Jewell's giving up," said Uncle Henry. His voice went lower and quieter. "The land can break a man, Em."
"Depends on the man," sniffed Aunty Em. She was pulling her hair again.
Home came slowly toward them. Home was small and gray, a tiny box of even, unpainted planks of wood, with a large stone chimney and no porch, just steps. It nestled between two hills that reached from opposite directions into the valley. Dark twisted woodland reared up behind it. The barn sagged. Dorothy took account of manners and was silent. Toto began to bark over and over.
Aunty Em covered her ears. "Dorothy, try to still your dog, could you?"
"Ssh, Toto," said Dorothy. Deep in his throat, teeth slightly bared, Toto kept growling.
There were fields, but tall marsh grass grew up among them, even in the drought.
"Dorothy," said Aunty Em. "See that grass there? That marks a wallow. Now you must be careful of the wallows, whenever you see them. They're quicksand. Children disappear into them. There was a little girl who got swallowed up in the buffalo wallows and was never found again. So when you play, you go up those hills there."
Dorothy believed in death. "Yes, Ma'am," she said very solemnly.
Toto still growled.
Hens ran away from the wagon as it pulled into the yard. Toto snarled as if worrying something in his mouth and then scrabbled over the running boards. "Wow wow wow wow!" he said, haring after the hens.
The hens seemed to explode, running off in all directions. Aunty Em jumped down from the wagon, gathering up her gray skirts. She ran after Toto into the barn, long flat feet and skinny black ankles pumping across the hard ground.
"That's going to get your aunt into a powerful rage," said Uncle Henry, taking the mule's lead.
Inside the barn there were cries like rusty hinges and the fluttering of wings. Hens scattered back out of it, dust rising behind them like smoke, pursued by Toto. Aunty Em followed with a broom made of twigs.
"Shoo! Shoo!" she said in a high voice.
"He won't hurt them, Aunty Em!" said Dorothy.
Aunty Em brought the broom down on Toto with a crackling of twigs. He yelped and rolled over. She whupped him again, and he kicked up dust and shot under the house.
"Henry, get a rope," said Aunty Em.
"Got to take care of the mule, Em."
The house rested about a foot off the ground on thick beams. Toto peered out from between them, quivering. Dorothy saw his eyes.
Aunty Em sighed and caught an escaping wisp of hair. "Dorothy," she said, sounding somewhat more kindly. "Your dog is going to have to learn to stay away from the hens. Now let's get you inside."
Aunty Em held up her arms and lifted Dorothy down. She walked back to the house, holding Dorothy's hand. "We're going to have to tie Toto up, Dorothy. Just for a while. He can't go inside, or we'll never keep things clean, and he'll just have to learn not to worry the livestock." Aunty Em lifted Dorothy up to the level of the front door, and then looked into her eyes. "Do you understand, Dorothy?"
"Yes, Ma'am," murmured Dorothy, scowling, confused.
"Well, in you go," said Aunty Em, giving Dorothy's hand a rousing shake. "Let's have some food and get you cleaned up. Henry, please to see to the dog."
Then Dorothy saw inside the house. "Oh no!" she grizzled. It wasn't nice. There was only one room, and it was dark, with only one window with no curtains.
"Guess it isn't St. Louis," said Aunty Em. She flung open the door of an iron stove, red with rust, and lit two tallow candles. Immediately there was a smell of burned fat.
In the flickering light, Dorothy saw that inside, the walls were made of thick raw logs. There was a worn throw rug over a wooden floor, and a bare table and bare chairs; there was a wardrobe and a table with a chipped china basin and long handles on which towels hung. The chimney and fireplace occupied one entire side of the room, but were empty and cold. There was a bed crammed into one corner, and a blanket hung across the room. On the other side of it was a pile of straw.
Dorothy thought of Toto, who was still under the house. She felt disloyal being here. She wanted to hide, too, under the house.
Aunty Em took a deep breath and then sighed, a long, high, showy kind of sigh that she meant Dorothy to hear. She had decided to be nice.
"Well," she said, animated. "What have we got here but some nice stew! I think there's probably a little child somewhere who has had a very long day. Maybe she'd like something to eat."
Dorothy was not hungry, but she said, "Yes please, Ma'am."
"What a nicely brought up little child she is," said Aunty Em, still piping.
"Can Toto have some too?"
Aunty Em managed to chuckle. "Heh," she said. "This is people stew, Dorothy. We got special food for dogs."
Aunty Em passed her the stew. It was brown, in a brown cracked bowl. Aunty Em leaned over to peer, grinning, into Dorothy's face as she took a spoonful.
"There!" Aunty Em said, soothing.
The meat was hard and dry in the middle and very, very salty, and there were bubbles of salty fat in the gravy, and there were no vegetables with the meat. Dorothy's mother had always eaten lots of crisp vegetables, lots of fresh fruit, like she could never get enough of it. Dorothy was going to ask for some, but looked around, and saw there was no fruit or vegetables. Dorothy chewed and swallowed. But she couldn't lie. She couldn't say it was nice.
"It's greasy," she whispered. If this was what they fed people in Kansas, what did they feed dogs?
Aunty Em tried to be nice. "Well," she said, with another drawn-out sigh. "How about some nice hot cornbread to soak it up? Fresh-made this morning." She didn't wait for an answer. She turned away smartly, and began to saw away at the bread. Dorothy could see she was still mad. Aunty Em dropped the bread on her plate from high up. The bread was bright yellow.
From under the house came a low, warning growl.
"Nice doggy. Nice doggy," Uncle Henry was saying outside the front door. Dorothy's back was toward it. She didn't dare look around.
"You just eat up, honey," said Aunty Em. "I'll go make sure Toto's happy."
Dorothy heard Em's boots on the floor. Dorothy sat still and tried to swallow the meat and she chewed the bread, and it went round and round in her mouth, rough and gritty. She began to weep silently and slowly, listening to what they were doing to Toto.
"He's gone right under!" grunted Henry.
"Well, hook him out with the broom," Aunty Em was whispering.
Dorothy did nothing. If she had been big and brave she would have done something. She would have hit Aunty Em with the broom and called Toto and walked away and never come back. But she knew what the world was like, now. It was like that train ride. Here, at least, she would be fed.
"Got him," said Henry.
Aunty Em came back in, smiling at Dorothy. "It's going to rain, soon," she said. "Oh, you can smell it in the wind. We need that rain. And you, young lady. You need a bath."
Dorothy nodded, solemnly. She did. She liked baths. The water was hot, and it smelled nice, and she always felt pretty afterward. Aunty Em kept smiling. She pulled a big metal tub out of the corner, and poured a kettle into it. The water was boiling. Dorothy heard the ringing sound of the water as it hit the metal. It was a sound she had always liked. It was a sound from home.
"You want to get ready, Dorothy?"
"Yes, Ma'am." Outside, Toto began to bark. He went on barking.
"Toto's always quiet when you let him inside," said Dorothy, unbuttoning her dress.
"He'll bring in the dust, Dorothy," explained Aunty Em. "Here now." She pulled off the dress. Dorothy heard boots.
"Henry, please! Can't you see the little lady is engaged in her toilet?" Aunty Em was still trying to sound nice. The joke was an adult joke, made for adults, the kind of joke a child wouldn't understand. Dorothy, her head covered by the white fairy dress, could only hear Henry grunt and stomp away.
Dorothy was going to test the water with her toe. Aunty Em snatched her up and lowered her into the bath.
It was hot, far too hot. "Ow!" yelped Dorothy. The heat seared into her. "Ow, ow, ow," she danced back and forth in the tub and tried to climb out. Aunty Em held her in.
"It's hot!" wailed Dorothy. Em stuck her hand in.
"It is not too hot, Dorothy."
It was. Very suddenly Dorothy and Em were wrestling. Dorothy jumping, leaping, trying to keep out of the water, held by Em's hands.
"All right!" said Aunty Em. She pulled Dorothy out. Dorothy stood naked, rubbing her shins.
"It was so too hot!" Didn't she know that adults and children felt heat differently? Her mama knew that.
Bath time here was not going to be nice. Aunty Em stopped smiling. She dumped a pail of cold water into the tub. "Now let's try again," said Aunty Em. She didn't let Dorothy climb in by herself, but yanked her up and dropped her, as she had dropped the cornbread. The water was now too cold, as Dorothy had known it would be. She said nothing and sat down. Aunty Em came at her with the soap.
Kansas soap smelled like the stew and burned. "Ow!" Dorothy yelped. Aunty Em kept scrubbing grimly. "Dorothy," she said. "You came from a house where there was sickness. That means we got to get you extra clean."
There was a pig-bristle brush, and Aunty Em began to scrub her with it. That was too much for Dorothy. Bath time or not, she was leaving. She began to crawl out of the tub. Aunty Em pushed her back down. She probably didn't mean to hurt her, Dorothy knew that, but she slipped anyway and landed, hard, on the bottom of the tub. Was everything in Kansas hateful? It was that thought, more than the pain, that set Dorothy wailing again.
"I have never known a creature to make such a fuss," said Aunty Em. She scrubbed anyway. She imagined she was stripping away a miasmatic coating of contamination. The bristles bit deep, scraping away skin.
Dorothy knew. She was being punished. Punished for being here, for being Dorothy, for coming from a household with the Dip. She bore as much as she could. "Ow oooh. Ow," she kept saying, knowing it would do no good, trying not to do it, but the brush hurt so badly. Aunty Em held her hand out flat and buffed away at it with the brush.
"And I do believe this hair of yours has never been cut."
Dorothy had black shiny hair, down the middle of her back. Her mother used to sing to her as she combed it. Dorothy knew she would lose that too.
"You can't have long hair like that trailing everywhere in the dirt," said Aunty Em.
"Are you going to cut it off?"
"Seems a good time," said Aunty Em. She imagined disease could linger in hair like perfume. "Now hold still."
"I don't want it cut off."
"Well, you're a big girl now. Big girls have their hair cut."
Dorothy was in simple terror now. It froze her. She saw the scissors, big and black. Aunty Em held Dorothy by the hair. The scissors came. Dorothy could feel them as they closed, cutting through part of her. She made a kind of screech and bounced forward. Her hair caught in the joint of the scissors and was torn out. That really hurt. She squealed.
"Hold still!" Aunty Em was beginning to lose patience. Dorothy began to fight again, not because she wanted to be bad, but simply because she couldn't help it. She began to beat her hands around her head and to jerk her head.
"Hold still!" The scissors bit again, Dorothy pulled again, more hair was torn, and Dorothy screamed as she had never screamed, a high-pitched squeak that was like nails on a blackboard.
"Stop that!" quailed Aunty Em. It was a sound she could not stand.
Uncle Henry stomped in. "Em. What are you doing to the child?"
That was all it took. Aunty Em threw a towel at him. "I am trying to get this child clean!" she shouted. "I guess we'll just have to leave it like that, half-cut, until tomorrow. But it is going to be clean, at least." She worked the soap up into a lather. "Keep your eyes closed," she told Dorothy.
The lather went into her hair and into her eyes and seemed to scald them, worse than the water.
"I told you to keep them closed," said Aunty Em, as the battle started. Dorothy was beyond thinking of anything at this point. She hit and kicked and tried to clamber out of the bath.
"Hold her, Henry," said Aunty Em. Uncle Henry's hands, as rough as the soap, grabbed Dorothy by the elbows. Aunty Em worked the hair. Dorothy's eyes seemed to sizzle like eggs. Then suddenly she was pushed underwater. She swallowed and coughed and came up coughing. They let her go.
"I never saw the like," said Aunty Em. "Never!"
"She's still got lye soap in her eyes," said Henry. He clunked away and came back.
"Put your face in this, Dorothy," he said.
"No," she whimpered.
"You got to wash the soap out."
"Everything hurts," said Aunty Em.
"You got to."
Dorothy did as she was told. She put her face in the water and opened her eyes. They stung like before. But maybe, maybe, they were a bit better as well. Had she been good enough now? Would they leave her alone, now?
She opened her eyes, and everything was bleary, and they still stung around the edges.
Aunty Em was opening her suitcase. "Now, Dorothy," she said. "You come from a household with diphtheria. It killed your mama and your little brother, and it will kill us too, you especially, if we don't get rid of it. So we got to burn your clothes."
"My clothes," Dorothy whispered. There seemed to be no point crying.
"I am going to have to scrub the skin off my own hands after dealing with you. It just ain't clean."
"It's cleaner than this place," said Dorothy, numb.
"I expect my sister didn't have to cope with a valley full of dust or mud," said Aunty Em. She swung open the red rusty door of the stove. Dorothy saw the fire. She saw her white theater dress, sequins flickering in firelight. Dorothy grabbed it and ran, wet and naked. She jumped sprawling down from the front door and fell onto the ground. The dust was splattered with drops of rain.
Toto was gasping. There was a rope around his neck, and he had pulled and pulled against it. He tried to bark and could only cough. Dorothy tried to untie the rope. It hurt her hands. She saw Uncle Henry on the doorstep. She screamed as if she had seen a monster. He came down the steps toward her.
Dorothy turned and ran. She knew she had lost. Her clothes would be burned-except for the white dress that had been worn only once by a fairy in a play.
It was night now, black. Dorothy ran clothed in darkness, as the rain came, hard. "Dorothy!" called Uncle Henry.
"Dorothy!" called Aunty Em.
Down in the fields, there was death. Dorothy ran uphill, feet pattering in mud. She slipped and the mud peeled away in a damp layer, like flour. She stood, coated in mud, still clutching the fairy dress, now besmirched.
Sssssh, said the rain, as if comforting her.
Suddenly branches clawed at her face, catching her half-chopped hair. She plunged through a thicket, her face scratched, and her hands were suddenly scrabbling at the rough bark of a tree trunk. She went deeper into the woods. She would stay in the woods; she would live there like an Indian; she would never go back.
"Do-ro-thee!" called a voice down the valley.
"Holy Jesus," said a voice closer at hand.
Dorothy stopped running and looked around her. Rain ran over her face. She imagined wolves or giants.
"Is that Dorothy?" It was Wilbur's voice. "Is that you crying?"
"She's burning my clothes," said Dorothy.
Rain like tiny people running on the leaves.
"It's raining. You better go back."
"I don't want her to burn my clothes."
"I guess it's because your papa and mama died."
"My papa didn't die. He left."
Wilbur said nothing for a moment, in the dark.
"Oh. I thought that's what your aunty said."
"I've got my fairy dress. I want to hide it."
"I know a place," whispered Wilbur. "There's a hollow tree just around here. Hold on to my hand." Dorothy reached out and their hands met. He seemed to be carrying a big stick. She could hear something thrashing the leaves.
"Ow!" cried Dorothy as she skidded barefoot over a gnarled branch. There was a hollow thump as Wilbur's stick hit something.
"Give me the dress," said Wilbur. He took it from her. Dorothy had an impression that it was lifted over her head.
"You can come back and get it later," he said.
"She'll never find it, ever," said Dorothy. She squished mud between her toes. Wilbur's hand reached back for her.
"What have you got on?" Wilbur asked, feeling her shoulders. He gave her his shirt. It was huge and wet, clammy and musty at once, but at least it covered her. They walked blindly, feeling their way down the hill.
They came to the lane and saw a lamp.
"We're over here, Mr. Gulch," called Wilbur.
Uncle Henry had a coat draped over his face, over the lamp. Dorothy saw his face solemn in its red light.
"Thankee, Wilbur," said Uncle Henry. He took Dorothy's hand.
"You be all right, Dorothy," said Wilbur. He and Dorothy had a secret.
Aunty Em was sitting at the table, reading by candlelight. She wore steel spectacles.
"Time for bed, Dorothy," she said.
Aunty Em stood up, pulling back her chair. She pulled back the old blanket that hung across the room. She pointed to the straw.
"This is where you sleep. We will be getting you a bed as soon as we can afford it, but for now you'll have to sleep on straw. Not what you're used to, but it is good clean Kansas straw." She took a rag, soaked in the bathwater, and used it to wipe the mud from Dorothy's feet. "At least the rain got you clean," she said. She gave Dorothy one of her own old, darned nightdresses. "This has already been cut down for you."
Aunty Em unfolded blankets over the straw. She stood up, wincing, hands pressed against the small of her back. "Good night, Dorothy," she said.
"Good night, Ma'am."
"That was quite an introduction we had."
Dorothy crawled onto the blanket, and felt the straw underneath it. She pretended to go to sleep. She listened. She wanted to hear what Aunty Em said. She heard pots banging on the stove. She smelled food burning. She heard the rain on the roof.
"I'd say that was as thorough a job as she could manage of showing me up, with the Jewells," Aunty Em said, a long time later.
Uncle Henry sighed. "I don't reckon Wilbur will say anything about it."
"She had a scarlet dress. Scarlet. For a child. God knows what sort of life she had in St. Louis with that man."
Dorothy heard creaking. Uncle Henry was crawling onto the bed.
"Work," he mumbled.
And Dorothy heard Aunty Em pace. She heard her boots clunking back and forth, back and forth on the hollow floor. She heard Aunty Em weep, brief, breathless sobs. She heard the garments slip off. She heard the lamp being blown out. Everything went dark. She waited until she heard Aunty Em snore. Aunty Em's snores were loud, enraged. Then Dorothy took off the sour old nightdress and she padded on light child's feet across the floor, and she stepped out into the rain again, and she slipped under the house. It was fairly dry under the house, except for where the water trickled in little streams like blood.
"Toto," she whispered. "Toto."
He crawled toward her whimpering. She hugged him and he licked her face. He shivered. They both shivered. Dorothy had to be loyal.
I will wait, Dorothy promised Aunty Em. I will wait until you are sick and old, and I'll put lye soap in your eyes, and I'll take some shears, and I'll cut all your hair off, and you won't be able to do a thing, and I'll say, It's for your own good, Aunty Em, because you're dirty. And I'll just let you cry.
Dorothy had learned how to hate.
Lancaster, California-Christmas 1987
1876-When the Southern Pacific Railroad Company laid its tracks through what was to be Lancaster in the summer of 1876, many of the early settlers stated the railroad named the train stop at that time… The Southern Pacific also built the first house in Lancaster, for their employees.
1881-Nicholas Cochran passed through the Valley on the train and recognised its agriculture! possibilities.
1883-The first artesian well in the Valley was sunk near the Southern Pacific track for locomotive use. Soon after this, several men from Sacramento, connected with a bank there and other businessmen of that city, purchased land from the railroad company and prepared to colonize the Valley.
1884-M. L. Wicks purchased 60 sections from the railroad company at two and one-half dollars an acre, laying out a townsite in streets and lots.
An English corporation called the Atlantic and Pacific Fibre Company, with Col. Gay and Mrs. Payne as managers and J. A. Graves of Los Angeles as attorney, contracted to furnish paper for the London Daily Telegraph. They bought up a good deal of yucca land around the Valley and sent a large number of Chinese laborers in to cut doum the trees…
The early streets of Lancaster were easy to find. Starting at 8th St., now Avenue I, continuing South, the streets were 9th and 10th (now Lancaster Blvd.), 11th and 12th streets. Starting at Antelope Avenue, now Sierra Highway, and going west were: Beech, Cedar, Date, Elm and Fern…
– Lancaster Celebrates a Century
There was snow on the Joshua trees. It rested on and between the spines. It was as if giant cotton bolls had grown thorns. Jonathan made Ira stop the car for yet another photograph. Jonathan photographed the clouds in the sky, the points of the spines, the snow on the ground. Jonathan shivered in shorts and a baseball hat with a short ponytail sticking out the back. He hopped back into the car with an actor's brown-legged spring, and a flash of a perfect smile.
"I'm a photo-realist actor," he said.
"You're playing a Joshua tree," said Ira. "Good. I'm glad. It's got to be better than most of those parts you play." Ira was a lawyer. He worked in offices and was plump and pale.
"Private or otherwise. Listen, just content yourself. I could have another hobby, like practicing the drums. Drive on, MacDuff."
"Jonathan?" Ira asked. "Mind telling me what we're doing here?"
Jonathan just smiled, gave his eyebrows a Groucho Marx wiggle. They both adored Groucho Marx. Ira adored living with Jonathan. It made life more interesting. Ira was very proud of living with Jonathan. The guy was maybe seven years older than he was, but already some people thought Jonathan was younger. He did strange, slightly mysterious things like this, drag Ira out to Lancaster, with a secret smile. Ira was so proud that he wished he could tell the people at work about Jonathan. But it was easier if they thought he lived alone and pitied him. Ira carefully looked over his shoulder before signaling and pulling out.
Ahead the road stretched straight for miles. The distant hills were either blue and smooth or rocky and craggy. There was nothing on them, not even a pimple of shrub. A perfect desert complexion.
"Why would anyone come to live here?" Ira asked.
"House prices," said Jonathan. "And anyway, it didn't used to be like this. There used to be grasslands and so many rabbits there was a plague of them. People came and it just stopped raining. The climate changed. They don't know why."
They came to a town called Pearblossom and another called Littlerod. There were tiny, wooden-frame houses that were like a child's stereotyped drawing of a house.
"Woe-hoe!" said Jonathan, which meant photo stop. Just outside of Littlerod, there was a stone ranch-style house with a low wooden front porch. The car's turn signal went click click click and Ira pulled the car over to the side. They kept pulling over. Jonathan scanned the landscape, scanned maps, his eyes fierce, his hair in spikes.
In Palmdale, Jonathan nearly killed them both. Hunched over a map, he suddenly shouted, "Turn! Turn here, now!"
With an illegal but magisterial sweep, the car did a U-turn. There was a screech of brakes and Ira found himself hemmed in by other vehicles in the middle of the intersection. Ira's breath was taken away. "This better be worth it," he said. As if embarrassed, the car crept forward into a broken, ordinary street.
"What's wrong with Highway 14?" Ira asked.
"It's not from Back Then," said Jonathan. "This is the old Sierra Highway. See? The old railway tracks run beside it." His voice was hushed with something like lust. The car tires hummed a broken melody on the road surface.
Jonathan stopped to photograph an old water tower, perched on wooden beams, with a faded, flaking advertisement painted in a circle on it. They passed a low, stricken arcade of brick shops-"Happy Hocker Pawn Shop." Jonathan photographed that, too.
"Why?" Ira asked.
"It shows no one uses this road anymore."
Jonathan stopped to photograph a railroad sign.
"Doesn't it take you back?" he asked. "I haven't seen a warning sign like that in maybe ten years." The warning sign had a round black plate with a long, sheltering hood over the light. In front of the crossing, there was a wooden X painted black and white. Jonathan photographed that too. When Jonathan started to photograph the telephone poles, Ira felt compelled to ask him why again.
" 'Cause of this little plate on it, see, embossed? Pure thirties." The picture was taken.
"What I mean is why do you do this at all? This whole thing?"
Jonathan smacked his lips as if tasting something. "I'm trying to piece it together."
"But why?" Their feet crunched in companionable unison back along the soft shoulder toward the car.
"Oh," said Jonathan, bundling himself into the car. He looked preoccupied. He put on a pair of mirror shades. Somehow, Ira knew, he gave Jonathan the confidence to dress as he did, despite his age, despite himself. Ira knew Jonathan was shy; Jonathan was quiet.
Ira eased the car back onto the road. Jonathan answered the question.
"I do it so that I can see it. Back Then, I mean. I want to see it, so I can catch some of the flavor. Of the people."
"So you can act them?"
"Maybe sometime. I just get this strange feeling of something gone. It makes me love it. I even fancy the guys in the old sports photographs. It's because they're gone, now, or old."
"I get it," said Ira. "It's necrophilia."
"It's just that, in some of those old photographs, only a few of them, they're so clear, like they were taken yesterday, you could almost just walk into the street, with the wooden houses and the funny windows and the cars with canopies, and the guys with straw boaters. And some of the faces, only some of the faces, you can see who they were, what kind of people. And some of them-some of the old flinty-eyed kind-they might as well be Martians."
"They didn't like being photographed either." Ira hated photographs of himself.
They went first to the public library. They nearly always did on Jonathan's expeditions. The library was on Avenue J.
"Imaginative street names."
"Oh hey, that's nothing, you want confusion, it used to be that all the streets running east to west were numbered. Then they turned them around sometime so the numbered streets run north to south. So you can never tell from a photograph if Tenth Street means Lancaster Boulevard or not."
"So who wants to know?" Ira asked. "Except you?"
AIDS? asked a cheery poster inside the library. YOU'RE NOT ALONE.
"Well, that must be encouraging for them," said Ira.
Jonathan asked at the reference desk for a copy of the 1927 local paper. It had been stolen. Jonathan took 1928 instead. Ira sat and read Jonathan's book.
It was full of photographs. There were Mexican railroad workers in the snow. A great cloud of rabbits, thousands of them, ran between picket fences, watched by women in high, folded formal hats. Someone called Mr. Hannah and his friends posed on the front porch of the Lancaster Hotel in 1901. The hotel had two floors and was three windows wide, and the upper floor of the porch leaned outward. Cowboys lined up on horseback in 1906. There were truckloads of alfalfa, and photographs of floods, horse carriages fording the main street. The Woman's Relief Corps smiled out at Ira from the turn of the century. Some of the women were named, but there was one woman with a particularly smiling, attractive face who was not named. No one, apparently, knew who she had been.
Ira began to be able to trace particular people. One face started as a watchful, rather handsome lad graduating from grammar school in the twenties. Then he was seen even more stern behind the counter of a grocery store. The sports teams began and there he was again, still stern until the 1930s when, disastrously, he smiled. His face looked plump, uncertain, unrecognizable. And there he was as a coach in 1948, looking suddenly lively, bright-eyed, gleaming. In one photograph, in the 1950s, he was portly, polished and beaming. It was the story of a man who had learned how to smile.
Ira looked up at the quiet, modern library, with its rows of books, its tan and varnished index-card files, and its very slightly battered computers. Redolent of its age. There will come a time, Ira thought, when Jo and I are gone. Or one of us is gone. It wouldn't be the same, with one of us gone.
An athletic-looking man in running shoes strode past and left behind him a disturbance in the air, a bit like body odor. Ira looked at Jonathan, his long, fan-shaped back, his nonexistent butt, his wiggly, knobbly legs, and the effect on Ira was bland, neutral as if the body were invisible. A perfect relationship, except for one thing.
Ira went over to see how Jonathan was doing.
As he approached, Jonathan seemed to flicker sideways somehow, and he flipped the microfilm forward.
"You really don't want me to see what this is all about, do you?" Ira chuckled.
"I wanted you to look at this," said Jonathan, oblivious with enthusiasm. A headline in quaint serif type said: STERLING RINEAR TALKS TO KIWANIS ABOUT EISTEDDFOD.
The Eisteddfod was the Welsh bardic festival-another one of Jonathan's enthusiasms.
"It just all connects," said Jonathan.
Like electricity. Even Ira felt the jolt, but only through Jonathan.
"Look at this. And look at this," said Jonathan, showing him ads for Safeways and banks.
"I mean the Bank of Italy. What was it doing here? Except that it became the Bank of America." He paused. "You bored?"
"A bit," admitted Ira.
Jonathan rubbed his forehead and looked helplessly at the unending trail of stories, advertisements. "Yeah. Okay. I just wish I could photograph the whole thing."
It was impossible to catch the past. "You know, someday they'll do a computer model of every town every ten years. The shops, the cars, the parks, the houses. The people in them, the clothes, everything. And you'll put on your electronic glasses, and your earplugs, and you'll walk through it. You'll say hello to women in cloche hats and brown silk stockings and they'll say hello back." He paused, and Ira saw that he was almost near tears. "In very slightly tinny voices."
It was Ira's private conviction that he had married a genius. Ira never said anything about this to anyone, especially to Jonathan. But Ira had seen Jonathan act Shakespeare and had heard him talk. No one else knew what Jonathan was. The TV shows, the horror movies in which Jonathan appeared, were rubbish. This only made it more poignant for Ira, so Ira joked.
"Wouldn't you bump into them if you had electronic specs?"
"This isn't some dumb joke, Ira." Jonathan's face had suddenly gone solemn, and slightly ill-looking.
"No," said Ira gently. "No, it isn't." Ira kept watch over Jonathan. There was a downside to the hyperactivity that glittered in Jonathan's eyes.
Suddenly the downside was dispelled or, rather, cast out. "Get out of here!" said Jonathan, bullish again, and he stood up with a kind of whiplash smartness to his spine. He tossed the microfilm up into the air and caught it effortlessly. He was strangely put together, too long in the back, but top-heavy, with small thin legs. He had wonderful coordination and he always beat Ira at everything. Ira had to try hard at everything. Jonathan tried hard at nothing. Ira was the success.
"On," said Jonathan, "to Cedar Street."
"What's there?" Ira asked.
"A house," said Jonathan, with another secret smile.
"If this is some dumb movie-star pilgrimage…" Ira threatened. He had been the kind of kid who preferred Mozart to Kiss. And Bach to Mozart.
"You'll do what?" Jonathan asked.
"I'll tell everyone you're a John Wayne fan."
"Well, he's from Lancaster."
"I know! Listen, it's not John Wayne, is it? Please. Tell me it's not John Wayne."
"It's not John Wayne," said Jonathan, still smiling with his secret.
The house was on Cedar Street, on a corner, by what had once been the grammar school. "That's it, it must be it, two-story!"
"You want to stop?" Ira asked.
"No, no, keep going," said Jonathan, ducking down.
"Are you or are you not the world's only photo-realist actor?"
"I'm embarrassed," said Jonathan, and the words were like lead. "That's someone's house. I can't just go up and start snapping pictures. Go on, go on!"
There was a hum as the car accelerated. "I'll tell you one thing," said Ira, "you'll never be a photo-realist journalist."
"Drive round the block," said Jonathan. He switched baseball hats.
"Hey, master of disguise. Do you really think they won't recognize you in a different baseball hat?"
"You're a lawyer," accused Jonathan.
"Whenever I think straight, you tell me that."
Jonathan looked afraid. Ira chuckled and slapped his leg. "You're nuts," he said.
"I know," said Jonathan very seriously.
The fake-Spanish bungalows, the tiny 1920s frame houses with porches and tile roofs, slipped past. Consistency was not Jonathan's strong point. It ruined his career. He would sometimes freeze like this on a part. Something about it wouldn't be right, and Jonathan would have to stop. No amount of ambition, or gratitude to the people who had worked so hard to get him the part, could force a performance out of him. "I'm sorry," Jonathan would say, helpless. "I'm not being funny. I want to do it, I wish I could, but if I tried now there would be nothing. I'm sorry. I'm sorry." And implacable, he would walk away from money, from opportunity, from reputation.
And it isn't even artistic integrity, thought Ira. I mean, he does those terrible monster movies. There's just something in those that he can grab hold of.
"Go by there again, and just park," said Jonathan quietly.
And then sometimes, when it all came right, Jonathan would step into the lights of the stage of a little theater, and his friends would not know him, and there would be a hush or even a gasp from the small and scattered audience. It would be like a dagger coming out of a sheath. Jonathan could take people's breath away.
"Too close, back up," whispered Jonathan.
So they parked a few doors down, across the street, and Jonathan peered in silence across Ira's lap, through the window.
It was a two-story house, painted the dull green that desert dwellers felt made their homes more Arcadian. It was a strange shape. A long, low bungalow running north to south and, perched on top of it, very narrow like the deckhouse of a ship, a second floor that ran east to west. There was a low front porch, with funny pillars that each split into two thin green columns. There were extensions added onto the sides and frames for climbing plants. There were trees and lawns and shade.
Jonathan was all angles, knees, elbows and wide hunched shoulders. He went more and more still. Ira looked at him.
"You're beginning to look like the house," Ira said. Talent was spooky.
"We better go," whispered Jonathan.
"Get out. Take a walk around it. Take pictures, ask if you have to. You'll regret it if you don't."
"Take it for me?" Jonathan asked, holding out the camera. Ira sighed, suddenly unwilling. Ira did everything else.
"You're right," said Jonathan, and took back the camera. He shrugged and stretched his way out of the house shape and twisted around to get out of the car. He stepped into sunlight.
The curtain seemed to go up. As he got out, Jonathan began to blaze with excitement. "It's all just like it was Back Then. Look, there's a child's tricycle on the porch!" This seemed to be very meaningful to him.
Surreptitiously, grinning like an elf, he started to snap and snap and snap.
"Is it in focus?" Ira asked.
"Yeah. I reckon that extension there is the kitchen, but it looks more recent, maybe thirties, so my guess is the kitchen was out back, probably on the right not the left, and the central staircase would go up just a bit behind the front door there, and maybe two bedrooms upstairs, or possibly the bathroom, 'cause they might have pumped the water up to roof tanks, to heat it, to store it. Come on."
He skittered nervously around the back, into the alley. "See, they still reckoned on some people having a horse and buggy even in the twenties. That's what this is for, bring the horses around to the back. Like mews in London."
There were bicycles and baskets and large colored plastic objects. "Toys," whispered Jonathan. There were large old leafless trees and a crisscrossing of heavy wiring in midair. The rear extension had windows that seemed too large. "That was a door," said Jonathan. The camera kept making a noise like it was chewing gum. Jonathan was not even looking through the viewfinder.
"Okay, okay," said Jonathan, breathless. "Come on."
They went down Oldfield and turned left onto the Sierra Highway again. "Go slow," begged Jonathan, but he was disappointed. There was hardly anything left from Back Then. Everything was huge and flat and spread out, a car lot, a Swedish smorgasbord, an empty stretch of bare brown earth alongside the train tracks. MICHAELS COACHWORKS, boasted a sign, since 1974. "Slow," said Jonathan. They passed a brick building with mildly Art Deco decoration along the roof.
"What are we looking for?" Ira asked.
"An old movie theater. It was made out of brick. It burned down." They both looked, but saw nothing like it. They came to Lancaster Boulevard-Tenth Street as it had once been. "Might as well turn," sighed Jonathan. As they did, a movie house with huge, decrepit, late fifties, early sixties lettering slipped past. "No, that's not it, and it wouldn't be here anyway," said Jonathan. He looked disgruntled.
Lancaster Boulevard looked left behind by the postmodern world. The flat-roofed, flat-fronted storefronts tasted of the early sixties. There were cars parked, but no people walking, and a hush. The shadows were long. Ira was about to say, as if it were his fault, that he was sorry.
And then Jonathan sat up. "Oh wow!" he said, like the old hippie he secretly was. "Pull over."
They did. There was plenty of parking space. "Will you look at that!" said Jonathan.
An old wooden building, scarred in a line where a porch had been torn away from its frontage, stood perched absurdly on stilts. It looked like a woman afraid of a mouse, holding up her skirts.
"I reckon I know what that is," said Jonathan, his grin fierce. He grabbed the Lancaster book and flipped through the pages and turned a page of photographs around. "Yup," he said. "Look, see these photographs? They were taken in '36 from the water tower, so you see about half the town. Now the water tower was on Cedar. And look!"
Jonathan pointed. Ira waited for an explanation.
Jonathan read from the caption, " 'Far left is the Western Hotel.' See the two palm trees?"
By the sidewalk, on the other side of the chain-link fence from the old building, there were two tall palm trees. In the photograph, taken from high up, the palm trees were smaller, below roof height. They shaded the doorway.
"What they've done is hoist the whole building up and move it back," said Jonathan, and grinned. "They're saving it!" He was pleased.
He sat still for a moment. Then suddenly he said, in a gathering voice, "Oh boy!" He jumped out of the car. Ira turned to look.
On the corner of Cedar Street, there was a theater. Behind the large white plastic sign, there was another, smaller one. The letters were slotted into bars of metal, Art Deco, three-dimensional:
LOS ANGELES COUNTY OFFICES AND ASSEMBLY HALL
On either side of the entrance were two Art Deco lamps and beside them a long, narrow, frosted window with a kind of trelliswork of metal holding in the glass. On the wall, clumsily hand-painted in black, was another sign, with an arrow:
MENTAL HEALTH UPSTAIRS
Ira sat in the car and looked at Lancaster Boulevard. There was a shop called Windsor, and a J. C. Penney Co. It couldn't have been more ordinary. But it interested him now.
Ira began to look at the book again, the photographs from the water tower first. It was a shock to see just how much of the old town had gone, with its dust, its trees and its wide, wide spaces. He flipped back a few pages and saw a photograph of three sisters on the steps of an airplane. Ira read the caption. Ira covered his face.
Of course! That's why they were here. It was because of Jonathan's play! He was playing the Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz.
"Jonathan," Ira said aloud in a joke schoolmistress voice. "This is unbelievably tacky."
Ira had only seen the film once, when he was seventeen, and had not thought much of it. The songs were mediocre, the dialogue silly, and the sentiment-There's no place like home-was nauseating. It was all right for kids, but why adults?
Jonathan was loping back to the car. He was carrying a handbill, smiling with anticipation. Jonathan looked sweet and goofy and he could dance. Perfect casting for a scarecrow, Ira thought. Ira looked at the man he loved but did not desire.
"A theater on Cedar Street!" called Jonathan, as if something had been vindicated. "They're still doing it. They're still putting shows on for each other just as if L.A. were a thousand miles away."
"Jonathan," Ira said. "Judy Garland?"
Where is Vaudeville? -Confused child to Jack Haley
In 1894, Horace Henderson Wilcox, a Kansas prohibitionist, bought 120 acres near Los Angeles for his country home. His wife called the place Hollywood…
The fine weather was certainly a major incentive for many companies to move their entire organisations to the West Coast, but Hollywood offered another advantage. An industrial dispute, known as the Patents War and fought with weapons and violence enough to justify the term, had forced several producers to flee… These producers had infringed the Edison patents by making equipment built from pirated designs… Hollywood offered an ideal sanctuary for refugees of the Patents War, for should trouble appear, the Mexican border was a mere hundred-mile drive away.
– Kevin Brownlow, The Parade's Gone By…
It was cool inside the movie house. Daddy kept it cool. There was a beautiful woman in the movie and Frances knew why it was so dark around her eyes. It was the black that you put on your eyelashes when you sing. Only people couldn't sing in movies because there was no sound. That was why people needed Frances and Jinny and Mary Jane. You could only sing on stage.
It was Daddy's movie house and everybody in town knew him and everybody in town knew Frances. They had come here from Grand Rapids, where Granny lived, but that was a long time ago, almost before Frances could remember, though it must have been nice, because everybody, Mom and Jinny and Daddy, they all said so, because Grand Rapids was cool and green. Lancaster was flat and hot. Hot enough to fry an egg.
In the movie a man had been running along the tops of the skyscrapers and had fallen off and now he was hanging on to the hands of a big clock. Frances laughed, ha ha, very forcefully and kicked her legs and looked to make sure her sisters were laughing. If her sisters were laughing, it would mean the movie was meant to be funny, and Frances wouldn't have to be afraid for the man. Virginia and Mary Jane were laughing and looking at her, to make sure she was okay, so she grinned, very hard, to make sure they could see she was happy.
Daddy's movie house. Frances said it to herself. They were all together in Daddy's movie house. They were all part of the show together. Mom played the piano and Daddy sang, and Jinny and Mary Jane sang. Baby Frances sang. And everybody came to see them.
The man in the movie was swinging from a rope now. It was caught around his ankle. He swung between skyscrapers, up and onto a roof and suddenly he was safe, and his girlfriend was there and hugged him and everybody clapped. Frances clapped too, though she always found the endings of movies a mystery. Why end there, when it could have ended anywhere? Why end there when he could have gone on running for as long as he liked? But Frances cheered. "Yayyyyyy!" She cheered because it was Daddy's movie, because they always cheered each other.
"You like that, Baby?" Mary Jane asked, as the lights went up.
"I surely did," said Frances, with a sideways wobble of her head that she had learned from her father. Frances liked Mary Jane just a bit better than Jinny, her middle sister. Mary Jane was older and kinder. And she had a huge, wide smile. Frances wanted to have a smile like hers when she grew up. Everybody always said that Jinny was pretty and they never said that about Mary Jane, but Frances thought different.
"We're going home now," Frances announced, and slid down from her seat, her pretty white dress riding up. "It's time," she explained. Her sisters smiled and shook their heads and followed as Frances stomped up the aisle in round-toed buckle shoes. One strap flapped.
Frances generally did whatever she liked, expecting people to like what she did. She went up to Harriet, who wore a red kind of suit and a red hat. "Have you seen my daddy?" she demanded.
"He'll be out front, Baby," the usherette said. "Good movie, wasn't it?"
"Oh yes, it surely was," said Baby. "But movies can't sing." She didn't really like movies. "Can you buckle my shoe for me?" She stuck out her foot, toes curled down like at ballet class. "It came unbuckled."
"That's okay, Harriet, one of us will do it," said Jinny, echoed by her older, shyer sister. It was her older, shyer sister who crouched down to do up the buckle, quickly, almost furtively.
"You don't have to buckle my shoe now," Frances reassured Harriet. She didn't want Harriet to feel she had missed out. "You coming along to the show tonight?"
"Um," said Harriet.
Jinny laughed. "She's probably already seen it a hundred times, Baby." Jinny did not always make Frances look good.
Frances knew how to deal with that. "That's why we do it different each time. We do different songs, don't we, Harriet?"
To Frances's great pleasure, Harriet agreed. The shoe was buckled. "Goodbye, Harriet!" called Frances as they were leaving. Then Frances ran up the aisle to find her daddy.
She found him in what her mother and no one else called the foyer. Daddy was there talking to some men, and Frances ran up to him, shouting, "Daddy, Daddy, it was good!"
Her father laughed and scooped her up and swung her around. "You bet it was!" he said and gave her a shake. "I was thinking of you when I booked it!" He turned toward the two men. "Hey, boys, this is my little girl. This is Frances."
Frances saw then that the two weren't men at all, but teenagers. Frances didn't like them. They didn't know how to smile. Their smiles were all twisted, and their feet shuffled, and their hands were in their pockets. They looked like they could be rough. "Hiya, Kid," one of them managed to say, with a voice with a catch in it, as if a string had been plucked.
"These are my other daughters, Mary Jane and Virginia." They had just come up. Mary Jane hid slightly behind Jinny, but both of them looked scared, or something like it. Frances was going to say something to make them all happy. She was going to, and then decided not to. There was something nasty about those two men. Why did Daddy know people like them? Frances could see her daddy wanted to get away too. His voice went breathless, and he began to talk too fast and move his head a lot. "Got to be getting on."
"Sure," said one of the boys, his smile even more twisted, and Frances felt something she had no words for. She felt the contempt the boys had for her father. Her father turned and quickly walked away.
"Who wants a swing?" he asked as he turned. Why did he let them talk to him like that? Frances hugged his thick neck that smelled of aftershave and was prickly with stubble.
"Me," said Frances, coyly, forgetting the boys in her affection for her father.
"Jinny?" her father asked, eyebrow arched.
Jinny said nothing but got into place beside him. Her father lowered Frances, and they each took a hand, and Frances felt a delicious tingle in her stomach.
"One… two… three!" they all said in a chorus and swung her over the movie-house carpet.
"Again," she said and giggled.
"One… two… threeeee!" Frances was swung up high over their heads, and Mary Jane had run ahead to push open the big glass door, and as if flying, Frances soared up out of shadow, and down into a blanket of hot Lancaster air.
"Now it's Jinny's turn," Frances said.
"You can't swing me, I'm too big," said Jinny. "And besides, it's too hot out here."
"I can swing you," said Frances and chuckled at the idea.
"No you can't," said Jinny, beginning to giggle too.
They all played a game. Daddy and Frances pretended to swing Jinny. One, two, threeeee! and Jinny would whoop. "Golly, that sure was some good swing," Jinny said, joking. Mary Jane followed quietly. Frances didn't want Mary Jane to feel left out so she turned and winked at her. Mary Jane smiled back, gently, her arms folded in front of her.
"Who were those boys?" Mary Jane asked quietly. Daddy walked on a couple of steps. "Those boys in the movie house?"
"Just some kids, honey," said Daddy, walking on ahead. "They come in for the show on Saturdays. Nice boys."
"They didn't look nice," said Janie.
"No, they did not," said Frances, holding on to her father's soft, fat finger.
"You don't like anybody, Janie," said Jinny, and there was enough truth in it for none of them to say anything else.
"Race you to the car," said Daddy.
Only he and Frances ran.
"It's too hot," said Jinny, behind them.
The car was a special treat. Mom had driven to and from Los Angeles again, and she had left the car outside the theater, so the girls, particularly the Baby, wouldn't have to walk home in the heat.
It was a Buick. Frances liked the word and said it over to herself. Big, beautiful Buick. Her daddy concentrated on opening the door, and she clambered in, hoisting herself up onto the large front seat. Janie came up, scowling in the sunshine, hand sheltering her eyes. Janie didn't like Lancaster. She was always uncomfortable in it. Frances bounced up and down on the big seat.
"It'll be cooler when we get going," said her father. He pushed open the windshield in front, so that the air could blow in. The Buick had a little metal awning that hung out over the windshield like the brim of a hat. The hood was dusty again.
"We'll wash the car tomorrow," announced Frances.
"And I'll turn the hose on you."
"No," said Frances. She loved washing the car and being hosed down in the heat. Janie reached forward and scratched the top of Frances's head. It was a familiar game.
"Don't," said Frances and pretended to slap her hand away. Janie did it again. Frances squealed. "Don't!"
Her father turned the key in the car and it started the first time, with a low rumble and a delicious smell of gas fumes. The Buick pulled away, with Frances giggling as both sisters tickled her from behind.
Daddy always drove quickly, to get the air moving. Suddenly the car roared and shot forward. It sped along Antelope Avenue, a current of air pouring in through the open window. Frances stood up on the seat to feel the wind on her face. The wind seemed to make her eyes shake. She saw the low flat buildings shivering past them, out to where Lancaster straggled to an end. It was late afternoon, and the shadows were long. The hills seemed to have more shape in the low slanting light, their clefts and gullies full of blue shadow, their crags kissed pink. The high desert looked more gentle, less bleak and blasted.
"Daddy, be careful!" said Mary Jane.
Frances realized something was wrong.
The car was going faster and faster, and Frances's father had a strange, set expression on his face, and his eyes looked gray and blank. He looked angry, Frances giggled to make him turn to her with his eyes that could be so gentle. He didn't. Frances began to sing-that almost always worked. But her father kept staring ahead and his face stayed grim, and the car kept roaring forward.
A jackrabbit suddenly darted across the road. Her father blinked and tried to swerve, and the car skidded around on the sand and gravel that had blown onto the road. Mary Jane screamed. The car turned right around in the middle of the road. Thrown sideways, Frances was lifted up and hurled onto her father's lap. The car stopped.
Silence and sudden settling heat. Frances could feel her father. He was shaking. He put his hands on her head, as if trying to cushion it. "Sorry, girls," he murmured. He helped Frances sit up and started up the car again. It coughed and shuddered. Very slowly, carefully, he turned the car around in a wide arc, back into its lane, back toward the town.
Frances stood up on the seat again. "Faster, Daddy, faster!" she said. Wordlessly, looking ahead, her father reached out and gently made her sit. The car moved slowly home.
One side of Antelope Avenue was lined with telephone poles, the other with tamarisk trees that made long, cool shadows. A woman walked under them. The car slowed and stopped, and Frank Gumm wound the window down, prepared, as he must be, to talk a spell. He always said if you were in business, you had to set and talk a spell with folks. Frances thought it meant he talked magic.
They didn't know the woman. She looked quizzical as the car crept up to her. Frances's father stuck his head out of the window and said loudly, too soon, to reassure her, "Hello, Mrs. Story, I don't believe we've met." He leaned out of the window, resting his arms on the sill of the car door. "I'm Frank Gumm."
"Oh," she said, surprised. "Hello, Mr. Gumm. Pleased to meet you." Her eyes flickered over him. Mr. Gumm was wearing a sporty checked cap and sporty checked jacket that didn't quite match, and without doubt was also wearing golf trousers with long checked socks up to the knees. "How did you know it was me?" she asked.
Frank Gumm grinned widely. "Just a process of elimination, Mrs. Story. Mrs. Abbot tells me you haven't been to see the show and you're one of the few folks around here I haven't spoken to yet. Can I offer you some free tickets?"
Definitely sporty, Mrs. Story seemed to think. A plump little man done up to look like he plays golf. "Well, I hardly…"
"These are my little girls, Mary Jane, my oldest, and Virginia-we all call her Jinny-and Baby Frances. They're the ones who do all the work."
Mrs. Story still looked uncertain. Frances thought she would pep her up.
"Howdy, Mrs. Story. I like your hat!" In fact she did. It was a nice felt cloche like Mom wore.
"Frances," murmured Janie, embarrassed.
"Well, thank you, honey," said Mrs. Story.
"It's a good, clean family show, Mrs. Story," smiled Frank. "And it's the coolest spot in the valley. When it's one hundred degrees out here, it's seventy inside my movie house."
"Well, it is hot, Mr. Gumm, I won't deny."
"Now you just do me a favor and take two of these, Mrs. Story. Good for any night of the week, just come and visit and take in the show when there's something on you want to see."
The tickets were held out.
"Well…" Mrs. Story took them. "Thank you very much, Mr. Gumm."
"Terrible name, isn't it? Frank Gumm. Just remember. Honest and sticky."
"Daddy, don't say that," said Janie, wincing.
"I'm sure I will remember, Mr. Gumm," said Mrs. Story, looking at the tickets.
"And say hello to Mrs. Abbot for me."
"Will do. Thank you for the tickets."
"Goodbye Mrs. Story!" Frances shouted as the car pulled away, was flung back onto the seat. Frank Gumm kept smiling, looking in his rearview mirror, until Story was well behind them. The smile fell then. "She'll be pleased enough when she sees you girls sing," he murmured. He chewed the tip of his thumbnail.
He stuck out his arm to signal and turned onto Cedar Avenue. They passed the grammar school. Whenever he stopped grinning, Frank Gumm looked worried. "The summer's almost over," he told his girls. "Janie, Jinny, you'll be starting school again here soon."
"I won't," said Baby Gumm.
"Ho-ho, no," said Frank Gumm, darkly. "No, your mother has other plans for you, Baby."
"Where did Mama go today?" asked Janie.
Frank Gumm didn't answer. He didn't say anything else until the car slid to a stop outside their new house.
It was painted white, two-story, on the corner across from the school. Grandmother Milne was on the steps waiting for them.
"Now come along, Frances, your mother wants you straight upstairs to wash. Mary Jane and Virginia, help me please to set the table." She said nothing to Frank. He helped Frances down from the car, and walked with her. She held on to his finger.
"I'll be downstairs, Baby," he murmured to Frances. "You run upstairs and have your bath and get all pretty for the show. Saturday night tonight."
Grandmother Milne held the door open with one hand, and took charge of Frances with another. But Frances stood her ground, in the hallway, turning to her father.
"Afterward can I show you my ballet steps?" she asked.
Her father smiled his huge, too-wide grin. "Sure, Baby. I'll be here," he whispered.
"Come on then, Granny, let's get this over with," said Frances with a theatrical sigh.
"Cute as a button," grunted Grandmother Milne. "Knows it too."
Her daddy was left behind in the hall.
Upstairs, her mother was waiting. She knelt down in front of Frances to kiss her, as if coming back from Los Angeles were like returning from an even longer journey. "Hiya, Baby," she said, smelling of makeup and lipstick and perfume. She was slightly damp with the heat. Honest and sticky. "Good picture?" Mama asked.
"Oh yes, it was about a man running around the skyscrapers."
"Many people there?" Her mother's face was crossed with concern.
"No," said Frances in a small voice.
"Well, early days yet," said her mother, her voice wavering.
"There were two boys talking to Daddy, but they didn't look very nice."
Mrs. Gumm went very still. "Were there? What wasn't nice about them?"
"They looked funny," said Frances, watching her mother. She had meant to cheer her up by telling her about people who had come to the show. "He says they come every Saturday."
"I bet they do," said her mother. She started playing with her daughter's hair, rubbing it between her fingers. "You're as dusty as a welcome mat," she said, with a sudden wrench of emotion. "Honestly, this place! You need a brush just to walk down the street."
Then she kissed her daughter, hard, on the cheek, and stayed there, on her knees for a full moment. Then she pulled back. She was trying to be cheerful, but Frances could see that she wasn't. "How about a bath?"
"Will it be cold?" Frances asked.
"Yes, Baby, nice and cold," said her mother, and stood up.
Frances skipped toward the bathroom. The bathtub was already full, and Frances held her arms over her head, dancing to have the dusty little dress pulled off. There were two kinds of clothes: ordinary clothes, which usually had once been her sisters', and show clothes. Show clothes were nicer, but scratched more and were specially made.
The gray little dress was hoisted off. "Janie and Jinny start school soon," said Frances, under its momentary shelter.
"Yes, Baby. Seventh and fifth grade, if you can credit it." Mrs. Gumm shook her head as she folded the dress. Frances shook her head too, at the unattainable heights of the seventh grade.
"How long before I'm in the seventh grade?" she asked. It was the summit of her ambition.
"Oh, years and years yet," said Mrs. Gumm, leaning over and testing the bathwater with her plump hands.
"How old will I be then?"
"Oh, about thirteen."
"And will I go to school just like Janie?"
"Maybe," said Mrs. Gumm.
"Daddy says you've got some other plans for me."
"Did he?" said Mrs. Gumm briskly and looked at her daughter.
"Yes," said Frances, pleased,, because the plans meant that she was someone special. She tried to hug her mother again, but her mother swept her up and put her in the cool water.
"Oooooooo!" said Frances, squirming with the shock and with delight.
"Don't splash, Baby."
"It's nice and cool." Frances slid down under the water. She liked to hold her breath underwater. She felt the edge of the water close in over her bobbed and dusty hair. Her mother lifted her back up.
"Are you going to wash my hair?"
"With 'poo?" asked Frances and giggled because it sounded rude.
"Yes," said her mother. "See?" Her mother held up a bottle of baby shampoo. She poured shampoo onto her hands. "Now turn around. Close your eyes."
Frances loved having her head rubbed and she loved the smell of the shampoo and the feel of her mother's hands working it up into a lather.
"Did your father say what the plans were?" her mother asked.
"No. Are you gonna tell me?" Frances asked.
"Well. You won't be starting school for a while yet. So I thought we could drive you into Los Angeles from time to time for special lessons."
"Singing and dancing?" asked Frances, her eyes screwed shut. She kicked her legs to show that she was pleased.
She had done the right thing. Her mother laughed. "Singing, dancing, anything you like, Baby." Rubbing the lather and the hair together.
"Is that why you were in Los Angeles today?" Frances asked.
The hands stopped.
"Yes," said her mother, not sounding pleased any longer.
"Oh, boy. That's going to be fun," said Frances, to make her happy again. But her mother said nothing else. They had lived in Los Angeles for a while. Frances remembered it, as if in a dream, a little low brown house with red tiles on top. "It's Spanish," her father had said, trying to make them happy. But Mama hadn't liked it. Maybe her mama didn't like Los Angeles.
The hands began to work again. Afterward there would be the big woolly towel and running cool and naked into the bedroom to dress.
Downstairs the piano began to play, and her sisters to sing. Eyes shut, lather slipping down her face, Frances began to breathe out the words with them.
You didn't eat in show clothes, of course. You got to wear a soft white shirt and shorts. Frances hopped down the stairs. She went gerump, like a frog.
"Daddy," she said at the bottom of the stairs. "I'm a frog, Daddy."
"Good Lord, Ethel. Do you see? There's a frog in the living room."
Ethel Gumm was following her daughter down the steps.
"Well, it must be feeling good because it's just had a nice cool swim," said Frances's mother. She smiled at her child and then walked on, toward the kitchen,
"A wet little frog," said Jinny, and began to thump a bit harder on the piano.
Nobody can be louder than me, thought Frances.
"Gerump!" she shouted, hopping. "Gerump! Gerump!"
"Frances," said Jinny, a warning rising in her voice, "I'm trying to practice."
"Let's see how high the frog can jump," her daddy said. He bent over and picked her up.
"Bounce," he said and let her feet touch the ground and swooped her up again. "Bouncy… bouncy… bouncy!"
Each bounce was higher. Frances was bounced across the hallway, out of the living room and into the dining room. Her father picked her up, as high as he could, all the way up to the ceiling.
"It's a flying frog!" he exclaimed.
"Don't!" giggled Frances. "No."
Janie came in, carrying plates. She looked tired, circles under her eyes, tired and unhappy, and she took no notice of either of them.
"I'm flying, Janie!" called Frances. Janie turned and gave her a flicker of a worn, dim smile and then went back into the kitchen.
Grandmother Milne came out, carrying a vegetable dish. "Don't make the child giddy before dinner," Grandma said.
Frances was lowered to the floor. Sssssh, Daddy went with his finger on his lips to show they should both be quiet.
Ssssssh, went Frances back.
"Are you going to show me your ballet steps?" he whispered.
Frances nodded yes. She pushed her daddy back toward the wall, to get him out of the way. Then she held her arms out straight and ran, not quite on tiptoe but very quickly, scuttling across the dining room floor.
"Very good," said her father.
Sssssssh, said Frances, finger on lips.
He pretended to go "Ooops!" and covered his mouth with his hand.
Sssssh, Frances reminded him again.
Sssssh, he said back. She did her ballet steps, running back across the room again.
The kitchen door swung open. "Supper's on the table," said Grandmother Milne. Frances could only see her long brown skirt, under the table.
"Daddy, be quiet," said Frances, now that it was all right to talk again. She marched to her chair and climbed up onto it, hoisting a leg across it, and then rolling over. She did not sit on the chair but, rather, knelt. The table was at her chest height, and the knife and fork were huge, but Frances was proud of her ability to eat with them by herself. She made a point of being very adult at the table. Jinny came in carrying a pitcher of water, then Janie, Grandma, and Mama next to her. Daddy sat at the end of the table away from Mama, away from everybody, it seemed.
"All right, Frances," said her mother.
"For what we are about to receive," said Frances, eyes closed with devotion, "may the good Lord make us truly thankful. Amen."
The food was served mostly in silence. Grandma Milne spoke twice. "Frank. This is yours," she said, holding out a plate of chicken and mashed potatoes, stretching toward him. She looked only at his hand as he took it, to make sure none of the food was spilled. "Virginia," she asked, "are you hungry?"
"No, Grandma," said Virginia.
"It's the heat," said her mother. "Jinny, you must try to eat something." She nodded to Grandmother, and a heaping plateful was served. Frances was next. She ate well. She always ate well. Chicken and gravy and mashed potatoes.
"Don't stir it so, Frances," said her mother.
Frances had forgotten how to eat mashed potatoes. She knew you were supposed to pile them on your fork, somehow, but they kept slipping off.
"Frances, you're making a mess," said her mother, and reached forward to help her eat.
"Uuuuhhhh!" said Frances in protest. She tried again. The fork was too big to get into her mouth.
"Take less, Baby, just with the tip of the fork."
Frances scowled and thought about what that could mean. It's like dancing, she told herself. You step with your hands. Tap is done with the toes. So I eat tippy-toe.
Delicately she picked up a fluffy piece of potato on the end of the prongs and twisted the fork around, so that just the tip could go into her mouth.
"That's better. Good girl. See?" Her mother was pleased.
Frances knew they all depended on her. She knew that without her, none of them would talk to each other. They only talked when there was company, or a show, or when Baby Frances did something to make them all laugh. It all came down to her.
Supper was cleared up in a hurry. Mother went up first to bathe and change. Jinny went to help Grandma wash up. Janie and Daddy played with Frances.
They played a game of catch with Loopy. Loopy was a hand puppet, and there was a certain thrill of cruelty in throwing him about the room. Whenever Janie caught him, she put him on and pretended to make him hide behind Daddy's back.
"I've got something to hide," she would say in a funny voice and make Loopy peek out from behind Daddy's back. Frances would laugh, and try to catch Loopy in a lunge and always miss. Loopy would duck away.
"I'm doing something you can't see!" said Loopy.
Her father stepped away, his grin too wide. Frances ran forward, hands outstretched to try to get Loopy, and Janie threw him, high over her head, to Daddy.
"Daddy's got the secret now," Janie said.
"No, I don't," he said, his queasy smile suddenly unsteady. He flung Loopy away too quickly, as if the puppet could burn him, too quickly and too high. Loopy careered into the mantelpiece. A tiny dish was knocked off it.
"Uh-oh," said Janie, in alarm, and looked at Daddy.
"Oops," said Daddy, and they both laughed. Frances decided to laugh too, even louder than they did.
"Quiet," said Janie, her mouth stretched downward from tension. Both she and Daddy knelt down and began to pick things off the carpet.
Loopy was forgotten. "What are you doing?" Frances asked, walking toward them.
"We've knocked over your mother's seeds," said Daddy. "She's going to plant them in the spring."
"They're from home," said Janie. Home was still Grand Rapids.
Frances knelt down too, and all of them pecked at the seeds with their fingers, like birds' beaks.
"Looks like these are going to grow a healthy crop of throw rugs," said Daddy, holding one up, covered in fluff.
"Fran-ces!" called her mother from upstairs. "Come on up, honey, and I'll do your makeup."
"Show time," murmured Frances, and rolled her eyes. Sometimes she found the whole thing bored her.
There were always two movies shown at the Valley Theater. The songs came between the movies. Tonight the first feature was a Western. As she watched, Frances played the parts along with the actors. Her face mirrored the shapes the actresses made with their mouths, the wide O's, and their wide eyes and their fanned-out fingers held up in surprise. Frances thought they weren't putting enough into it. She would make a great deal more fuss. She would run around and help the hero more.
She wondered if silent actors bothered to talk when they were being filmed. She wondered if they stayed as silent as the movies.
Suppose everything was silent. Suppose you wanted to scream, but couldn't make any sound. You couldn't make anybody notice you. You could wave your hands, but people might not see. It would be like you were drowning.
Suppose no one knew they were in a silent movie? They would all think they were talking. They would move their mouths and nod their heads, but no one would say anything.
Frances watched her mother play piano to make some sound for the movie. Her mother was reading a book at the same time. Her mother was always doing two things at once. Like living in Lancaster and driving to Los Angeles all the time.
Frances was scowling in the dark. Whenever there were guests, Frances could feel the whole family launch itself forward together, forward like it was a show. Mama took Papa's arm, which she never did otherwise. Papa smoked cigars and swaggered, talking to the men, and Mama would laugh with the ladies. Then they played cards. Their voices would be smooth, modulated, flowing.
"Oh, Frank always thinks that shows should be for free, and I agree. If folks can't pay for it now, they will someday. And a full house is always better, for everyone. So you'll always see Frank, giving tickets to people who might not otherwise go. Young boys, you know?"
A full house always seems better, thought Frances, because movies are silent. Only people can talk.
The movie ended. Applause. Not much. The first feature wasn't that good. Mama stood up from her piano, looking pretty, proud and plump in her delicate blue dress. Frank Gumm sprang up onto the stage and took her hand. They gazed lovingly into each other's eyes, for a perfectly timed beat, and broke apart.
Jinny tapped Frances on the arm, and the girls crowded around to the side of the stage.
"Hello, friends," said Frank Gumm. "Welcome to the Valley Theater, the only stage in the Antelope Valley providing the finest in kinematograph and vaudeville entertainment. Though I reckon some of you are here because it's cool."
A light scattering of chuckles. Janie adjusted Frances's collar.
"And so, on with the next part of the show. Ethel?"
Her mother smiled with love at Daddy.
Frances crowded up behind Jinny, as they lined up in order of height on the narrow steps.
"Ladies and gentlemen, together, the Trio Unusual… the Gumm Sisters!"
They came dancing onto the stage as their mother played, into the lights as the theater darkened, and there were the faces in rows, there never seemed to be enough faces in enough rows, but the faces transformed into those of friends, watching with anticipation. And Janie was with her, and Jinny was with her, and Mama, and Daddy, standing by.
"When the red, red robin comes bob-bob-bobbing along, along…" in something like harmony, and Frances knew she was the loudest, waving her arms, and she could hear people chuckle, and she knew that they liked her, that everybody liked her, there in the lights, where everything worked, and where there was love.
Frances woke up in the night. She didn't remember being loaded into the car, or being carried up to the house in her father's arms. She thought she was back in the theater, and that she would have to talk to people.
It was dark and it was silent. Then there was a shout, and a forced whisper, a whisper of hatred that made something in Frances's chest prickle with horror. She heard the voices of her parents.
"It's starting again, isn't it? It's starting all over again!" her mother's voice was a whisper, but the whisper rose up with a keening wrench, like a bird taking wing from its nest.
Baby listened. The whispering was like a scratching on her eardrum or a record at the end when it goes round and round in the same groove.
"I'm the girls' father, Ethel, you can't do that."
In this dark world, without the lights, without music, Baby Frances began to sing, softly, to herself. It was like having to sit through a movie. All you could do was sit and watch and hope for a happy ending. Frances hated movies.
Somewhere there was a movie that sang. Daddy had told her about it. It already existed. Al Jolson began to sing, right at the end.
If movies sang, would people want to hear them, the Gumms? What would hold the Gumms together? Maybe the movies were talking now, and not her mother and father. Maybe movies flickered on walls at night, whispering, a new kind of ghost. Maybe it was not her mother and father who were talking at all. If sound could come from nowhere, spoken by no one.
"Don't touch me! Don't touch me!" Her mother's voice was high and breathy, panicked. "Keep away from me!"
Nothing is hidden. Frances knew she existed to hold her parents together. She was the still point around which all the others turned. She and the music. She and the music were the same thing. Both of them had to stay in the center of attention. The center bore the weight, and if it slipped there would be disaster.
Her sisters were going to go to school, Daddy was hiring other acts, and she was going to go to Los Angeles. Frances began to hear the unaccustomed sound of her father weeping. She sang louder, to cover the dissonance. The words of the songs were not important. The meaning behind them was, a meaning that could not be put into words. The meaning needed music. The meaning needed her, to sing it.
Manhattan, Kansas-Christmas 1875
Chapman's favourite film was The Wizard of Oz, in which Judy Garland travels continuously looking for the lost farm, the loved faces…
And here is Judy, Chapman's first love, who had the same name as Garland…
Vince Smith, the director of the YMCA camp where Chapman worked for seven years: "He was particularly good with children, like a pied piper. I didn't see a fault in Mark. His camp name was Nemo." He gave that name up when someone told him it meant Nothing. And Cindy, who was a sobbing child in pigtails when Chapman comforted her in his camp: "He truly cared for me and that is very odd for an adult." The last time she saw him she backed off. "His face looked different. He had shark eyes and no feeling in his face."
In Hawaii he tried to kill himself… "You could always read Mark's mind like a book," said a fellow worker. We know the book. Holden Caulfield found adults phoney and Chapman fixed on Lennon, now living as a rich recluse, as the ultimate phoney…
Nemo does not, of course, mean Nothing. It means a Nobody.
– Nancy Banks-Smith, reviewing a television documentary about Mark Chapman, The Guardian, February 3, 1988
Wilbur F. Jewell killed himself just before Christmas. No one seemed to know why. Some people blamed the weather.
It had been a strange December that year. Thermometers showed eighty-eight degrees if they were on a south wall out of the wind. It made the children restless, people said, to have summer in the middle of winter.
Then, as hard and sudden as a fist, winter slammed into them. The snow piled up in drifts, and schools were closed. Everything closed, even the sky which hung dark and low and heavy overhead. A few days before Christmas, Wilbur Jewell went missing. Uncle Henry and Will's father spent a day out in the snow looking for him. Dorothy was rather excited. Will had always talked of getting out of here. She thought he had done it. She thought he had run away and got on a train and become a steamboat pilot on the river or even gone out to the Territory, to join the Indians. She wished he had taken her with him.
Wilbur had walked clear to the other side of Manhattan to the telegraph poles.
Dorothy was in bed, listening, when she heard Uncle Henry's boots clunking up the stairs.
"The boy went and hanged himself," was all he said.
"What! God have mercy. Has his mother been told?"
There was silence for an answer.
"Well we just got to go there," said Aunty Em.
"She don't want nobody now, Em. She just sits in the corner rocking, and there's no comforting her. She don't want comfort. She just knocks it away."
"Oh! It just tears the heart! What does she say?"
Dorothy heard Uncle Henry slump down onto the chair. "She says he was a happy boy. She just says that over and over. He was a happy boy. And she says how she doesn't have anything to remember him by. Bob told me outside, he was going to get a photographer in. Photograph the remains."
"Horrible habit. I suppose they'll have a wreath with it that says, 'Sleeping in the arms of the Lord.' "
"It'll be all the woman has."
Dorothy could stand it no longer. She could very finely gauge what would annoy Aunty Em, what was safe and what was not. She could sense from the fine fierceness in Aunty Em's voice that almost anything would be all right.
"What's happened to Wilbur!" she said, walking out from behind the blanket.
"Oh, darling, did you hear?" Aunty Em sounded worried for her, instead of angry. Dorothy had been right.
"Wilbur's dead, Dorothy," said Uncle Henry.
Aunty Em tried to hug Dorothy. She somehow always missed, all angles and elbows. "We just have to hope that he's happy in the arms of the Lord," she told Dorothy.
Dorothy did not need to be told what dead meant.
"Was it the Dip?" she asked very quietly.
"Oh honey, now, it wasn't. Wasn't your fault at all." Aunty Em tried to kiss her. "No."
They weren't going to tell her why her friend had died.
"What does hanged mean?"
"Dorothy. That's something you must never mention. If you talk about it, it will only make it worse for everybody. I'll tell you, but you must promise not to talk about it. Say yes."
"It means he killed himself, Dorothy. I'm not going to tell you how because it'll just give you nightmares. But he killed himself."
Dorothy didn't ask why. She knew. It was a way of leaving. She nodded and went back to bed.
"Dorothy?" asked Aunty Em, her voice trailing after the child. It was Aunty Em who needed to talk. Dorothy didn't. Dorothy threw herself on the tick mattress and pretended to be asleep. She heard Aunty Em pull back the blanket to look in.
"That's a blessing. Leave her be."
Dorothy listened again.
"I knew there was something wrong with that boy."
"He was all right, Em."
"There's something wrong, Henry, with a boy that age who prefers to play with little children."
A few days before, Dorothy and Wilbur had made angels in the snow on the top of the hill. They had lain down on their backs and waved their arms up and down. That made a shape like wings. The trick was to stand up from the snow and then jump away, so that there were no footprints leading from the image. Then you could say that it was a place where an angel had gone to sleep. Will would lean out and lift Dorothy out of hers. So hers were the best.
Then Dorothy and Wilbur and his little brother, Max, had made three snowmen. Dorothy loved the way the snowballs got bigger and bigger, in layers like a cake, and the crunching noises they made on the snow underneath. Will helped them roll the biggest snowball and lift the smaller snowballs up on top. He would make snow castles.
Wilbur made an ice road. He carried buckets of water up to the top of the hill and poured them out on the ground to freeze. You didn't have to walk on an ice road. You would run at it and stop walking. And then you'd slide. It was like flying. They made an ice road all the way down the hill. They could ride down that inside hessian sacks, spinning and giggling and landing in a heap at the bottom. It almost never hurt. When it did, Wilbur would get worried and rub Dorothy's ankles until they were better. He never hit her, like Max did. He would stop Max from hitting her. "You don't hit girls," Wilbur said.
"Why not?" said Max.
"Because they're smaller than you. If you hit her, then I'll hit you, just so you know what it's like."
"And I'll tell Mama."
"And I'll tell Mama that you were hitting on Dorothy, which is why I hit you."
Max thrust out his jaw with hatred of his bigger, stronger, wiser brother and walked away, back down the hill, leaving his snowman behind.
Max was all right most of the time. You needed Max for most of the games. But it was nicer when it was just Dorothy and Will. After Max had gone, Will and Dorothy talked together about how much they hated Kansas.
"Just a big pile of dirt," said Wilbur.
"Just a big pile of dirt and nothing to do," said Dorothy.
"Nothing to do but work."
"You just got to wait and wait."
"And do your chores or go to school." The way Will said it made it sound like something disgusting.
"Sk-ew-ew-l," said Dorothy, imitating him. She admired Will because he had been to school and then quit and never went back.
"Stuff your head until it hurts and then tell you you're stupid." Will glowered and kicked at the snow. Dorothy kicked at the snow too.
"One day, I'll get out of here," he said. "One day, I'll just get on the train, and go West." West was the approved direction. Nobody ever went Back East, that was giving up. Everybody talked about going West.
"I want to see an Indian," Dorothy said.
"I seen loads of 'em," said Wilbur. "Till about three years ago, there used to be a whole reservation of the Kansa, out at Council Grove. Most of 'em dressed like poor white people and were drunk a lot. I saw one once kept waving a letter and my papa read it and it was from a judge and the judge said that this was a good Indian."
"He didn't wear feathers?" Dorothy was disappointed.
"Well, that was before all the Kansa left and went down the Nation. I expect they dress like Indians now."
"Aunty Em talks about the Indians a lot."
"She don't know nothing about it," said Wilbur.
Dorothy wanted to believe that, except that Aunty Em really did have a lot to say about the Indians: how they spoke, what they wore.
"Down the Nation, the Indians wear feathers," Dorothy said, reassuring herself, "and they're bright red, and they ride horses without a saddle and don't have to do anything they don't want to do."
"They live in tents, not houses," said Will. "And when they want to move, they just get up and go."
"And they hide in the grass, and nobody can see them," whispered Dorothy. "They're invisible."
Will was smiling, crookedly. "Well, we can't see 'em. Maybe they're all around us all the time, only we don't see them."
"Maybe they live underground," said Dorothy. It was a game of pretend. Will still smiled. "Maybe you can hear 'em sing at night, under the ground."
"I wish I was an Indian," said Dorothy.
"There's some kinds of Indian I'd want to be," said Will, leaning back and looking terribly adult. "And some I wouldn't. I wouldn't want to be one of them tame Indians that try to be farmers. I'd want to be out in the Territory."
"Let's pretend we're going to run away and join the Indians," said Dorothy.
Will smiled again and shook his head. "Nope. I don't want to pretend that. No point doing that unless you're going to do it for real."
He was right, of course. It would have been fun to pretend, but pretend was for things that could never happen. But there were Indians, and they did have a land of their own, the Territory, and you really could go there. You don't pretend something like that. You plan it. Dorothy was suddenly sure that she knew Wilbur's secret. Will was planning to go there. It was a secret she would lock in her heart and keep safe away.
Will was almost a man. He was calm and kindly like an adult, but he talked to kids. Dorothy knew that that was somehow wrong, talking to her as if she were anyone else, but she liked it.
She could tell him about how mean Aunty Em was, how she made her do things, and Will understood and didn't say anything to his parents, who would only go to Aunty Em and tell her what Dorothy had said. And he would tell Dorothy in turn about his parents. He made her understand that they weren't mean. In fact they could be nice. But his daddy was drunk all the time and didn't do anything, and the farm was falling apart and his mama was unhappy and kept complaining.
"Craziest place for gloom," he told her. "They just can't wait to hunker down and be unhappy. And I can't run that place by myself and I'm not going to. I don't want to be a smelly old farmer."
"Uncle Henry smells," said Dorothy. "I can't stand it."
"That's 'cause he's got bad teeth," said Will.
"He tries to kiss me with his beard. And his beard smells too," said Dorothy.
They sat on the hessian bags listening to the gentle hiss of snow landing on fresh snow. It was nice, doing what they weren't supposed to do, letting snow fall on them. The snow fell in big, light clumps that sat on their stockings.
"Eskimos are Indians that live right far north, all the way up in British America," said Will. "They make their houses out of snow."
Dorothy could see the Eskimo houses, sparkling in one of those bright, blue-sky days in winter. She saw an Eskimo town, their snow castles all lined up.
"Doesn't it get cold?"
"Nope. You see, you get enough snow, it shuts the cold out, just like anything else."
Another wonderful thing. Snow was warm if you got enough of it. There was a logic that made the world beneficent. It was a nice world, if you were an Indian.
"Indians are a lot nicer," said Dorothy.
"Except when they get mean and kill people," Will reminded her.
Dorothy scowled. That was the trouble with Indians. That was the thing that never made sense. Everybody liked Indians, even the adults. They bought Indian blankets. The Jewells had one up on the wall, and it was bright red and yellow in bumpy shapes. And they had an Indian buffalo hide on the floor, with the horns still on. Everybody liked Indians, but everybody was afraid of them too, and Indians tried to kill them.
"Why do they do that?" Dorothy asked in a small voice.
"Cause this used to be their country and we took it."
"But they got the Territory."
Will was silent. It didn't make sense to him either, even to him. They listened to the snow falling.
"I used to think the snow came straight from God," said Will, looking up. "Used to think it fell straight off Him in pieces. Asked my papa if His dandruff was snow."
"I used to think rain was God crying," said Dorothy.
"Then it freezes over Kansas, 'cause Kansas is so cold."
"Let's just sit here," said Dorothy. "Let's just sit here so the snow covers us up and see if it keeps us warm."
They let the snow settle over them. They sat shoulder to shoulder and watched themselves turn white. Then they heard Mr. Jewell shouting. He was far away in the fields, standing in the snow, a small dark smear, like charcoal. He was angry. Shouting for them to come back inside. What the blazes did they think they were doing?
"Your daddy swears," whispered Dorothy.
"Does a lot of other things as well," said Will, with a grunt, and stood up.
It was like the two of them were putting on masks. "We're terrible sorry, Mr. Jewell," said Dorothy. "We weren't cold. The snow would keep us warm."
"You get on into the house,", said Mr. Jewell to his son. You couldn't move around adults without doing something wrong. It was the last time Dorothy saw Will.
The funeral was held in Zeandale village. Uncle Henry, Aunty Em and Dorothy all squeezed up together on the front bench of the wagon. Now that Dorothy had been scrubbed and boiled and shorn for months, she was clean enough to sit next to Aunty Em. They huddled under lap robes and put their feet on stones that had come red-hot out of the stove. Their toes were warm, but everything else stayed cold.
Across the iron-gray fields, there were scarecrows. Aunty Em had planted them over the buffalo wallows to warn Dorothy. They were as well dressed as the rest of the family. In the icy wind, their sleeves moved, as if beckoning.
The first stop was the Jewells' farm. Bob Jewell was holding the family's mule while they got into their cart. Bob Jewell looked raw, like stripped meat, all gray and red and splotchy, with the undefended look of someone who was not used to washing. Mrs. Jewell was fat and helpless, wallowing in flesh and grief. Aunty Em took her arm as she walked toward the Jewells' wagon, and silently kissed her.
"Now you just let us all do everything, Mary," said Aunty Em. "Don't take it on yourself again. This day is for you, above anyone else." Aunty Em did not look at or talk to Bob Jewell. Aunty Em and Will's older brother, Harry, helped Mary Jewell up into the wagon. Max glared at Dorothy.
It was the cold of the Devil, hard as a sword. Their fingers, their toes, their eyes, were gnawed by the cold. Dorothy's eyes ran with water, stinging with cold. Aunty Em got back into the wagon and thought Dorothy was weeping for her friend. She patted her hand.
"We must learn to love what God takes away," murmured Aunty Em. She was recognized by everyone to be a good woman. No one would ever believe that she wasn't. Dorothy let her think what she liked, and scowled.
Dorothy was trying to feel what she was supposed to feel. She knew she was supposed to cry and carry on and need comforting. The thought of Will made her go hard and cold like stone, and that worried her. She knew she was supposed to feel more than that. The thought of mourning made her feel weary and stale. The ride there and back would be boring, and she would have to be good. She began to rock back and forth to occupy herself.
Aunty Em held her still. "Try to bear up, Dodo," she said. "We're nearly there." They were not nearly there at all.
Dorothy hated the whole business. Ahead of them for miles she could see other wagons, lined up along the road, going to the funeral, as black as beetles.
There was a picture frame behind Dorothy's knees. Each time the wagon slipped on the icy road, it knocked against her legs. It was a flower under glass, a flower made out of Dorothy's own hair. It made her feel sick.
"That will be your present to Mrs. Jewell," Aunty Em had told her. She had written a note on it. "From a young friend," it said.
Dorothy had made another present of her own. She kept it folded up inside her mitten. She would give the present to Mrs. Jewell herself, try to tell her, if she could, why Will had died. Nobody had given Dorothy a chance to tell her, even though Mrs. Jewell had said she didn't understand why. Dorothy thought she wanted to understand.
Dorothy had seen Zeandale ahead of them as soon as they had left the Jewells' farm and got onto the road. Zeandale seemed to creep toward them forever and never get any closer. The gray road, the gray sky, the gray earth, did not seem to change. It took on close to an hour.
All there was to Zeandale, the village, were a few houses and a post office store. EVERYTHING FOR SALE, said a fancy sign outside the shop. Tin tubs and pans and horse clothes were hung around the porch. The schoolhouse looked like any other building and had no steeple. Wagons were gathered all around it.
Dorothy knew Aunty Em didn't like having to come to Zeandale. She knew Aunty Em would be looked down on by the people here. She knew it from the stiff-backed way Aunty Em climbed down from the rickety wagon and from the way she folded up the hides, with a series of smart snaps, as if they were something rare and precious, to be protected. She stowed them under the seat quickly, so no one could see them.
"Now, Dorothy, the people here don't know us, so we got to show them that we're worthy of respect." The truth was that people in Zeandale did know them and only too well. The people here knew how small the house was and how poor the farm. In Manhattan, Aunty Em was still a Branscomb, the educated daughter of a local dignitary. At least, that was what Aunty Em thought. No one from Manhattan was ever invited back to see the unimproved homestead or the unimproved Henry Gulch.
Aunty Em swiped at the shoulders of Dorothy's black dress and pulled down hard on the bottom of the jacket. The dress was slightly lopsided. It had been one of Aunty Em's own.
"It was a sacrifice, cutting down this dress, but it was for your friend, Dorothy, and I was pleased to do it." Aunty Em's eyes flickered toward the Jewells, who were helping their mama toward the church. Aunty Em knelt down and smoothed the collar and shoulders and looked into Dorothy's face and breathed out wreaths of icy vapor.
"And you mustn't talk, child, not a word. We look at the good, Dorothy, and we turn our eyes from the bad. What Wilbur did was the greatest sin anybody can do. We are burying that sin today. The good men do lives on after them."
"Yes, Aunty," said Dorothy. The rule was: When you don't understand, agree.
Aunty Em pursed her lips and narrowed her eyes into an expression of cramped sweetness. She stroked Dorothy's face. "You are my own sweet sister's child," she said, with misgiving.
"Yes, Aunty." Dorothy's toes and fingers ached with the cold and she wanted to get inside.
Aunty Em was still scanning her face for imperfections. "Can't see a shadow of that man at all," she said. That man meant Dorothy's father.
"Yes, Aunty," said Dorothy.
The funeral was being held in the schoolhouse. Zeandale had gone to the effort of building a church, but the roof had blown off in a cyclone almost as soon as it was finished. Aunty Em kept an eye on the front door. When the Jewells finished maneuvering themselves through it, she stood up, and finally, finally, she and Dorothy could go inside. They walked together hand in hand; Uncle Henry followed with the framed hair flower. The Kansas earth underfoot was frozen as hard as rock. Dorothy tripped and stumbled; Aunty Em hauled her up by the hand. No one was to fall.
Dorothy knew that there had been some kind of trouble. There was a graveyard in the hills outside of the town. Some people had not wanted Wilbur buried there because he had killed himself. Dorothy wondered if they had done something to the ground to close it against him. Would God freeze the ground to stop someone from being buried?
They went into the schoolhouse, and it was colder inside than outside. The little stove had been stoked that morning, but all the heat rose up into the ceiling. As thick as a muddy river, currents of cold air flowed about their feet. The walls were white; the windows were white. The mourners had to sit on school benches. The place was full of adults all in black like some giant species of insect. There were children, too, some of them from Sunflower School, where Wilbur had gone. They were all real quiet and hung their heads and scowled. Dorothy knew that scowl. It was the Indian scowl. You made it when something didn't make sense.
There was a wall of memorials. In midwinter, there were no flowers. There were woven pine branches and pillows stuffed with potpourri and scrolls with writing on them. Aunty and Uncle filed past them. They looked a long time at each one. Dorothy wondered why. Uncle Henry pushed the frame at her.
"Put yours here, Dorothy," whispered Aunty Em. Dorothy leaned it against the wall without ceremony. She was glad to be rid of it. Aunty Em pushed her shoulders. Down. Like at prayers, Dorothy had to kneel. So she did. Then Aunty Em tapped her on the shoulders and she stood up. You just did what you were told. Then they went and sat on the cold, cold bench, next to people they didn't know, and Dorothy knew she would hate it. It would be long and full of words and nobody would be allowed to move. Dorothy started to rock. Aunty Em stopped her. The Jewells went to the front bench and sat down together.
Dorothy watched Mrs. Jewell. She rocked too. She rocked from side to side, and she was shaking, like some old cart on a bumpy road.
"Is she rocking 'cause of the cold?" Dorothy asked.
"Sssh," said Aunty Em. Of course you weren't supposed to talk, but Dorothy had thought one question would be allowed, about a nice woman who was cold.
The Preacher came in. He was a young man, slightly plump. He had come in from Deep Creek to preach. People coughed. He looked up at them.
"Thank you all for coming in this terrible weather. I think it is a measure of Kansas sympathy that everyone here managed to show."
They were told to sing. Dorothy tried to look behind her at the people singing and was turned around. Then they said a prayer. Dorothy had to make sure that Aunty Em heard her say the words. It was one of the worst things Aunty Em had found out when she came, that Dorothy did not know her prayers.
The power and the glory
Forever an never
Dorothy didn't know what they meant.
Then the Preacher spoke.
"This is the saddest of occasions," he said. "The death of a young man in a way that in a less generous community would have precluded Christian interment. It is something that is hard for all of us to face, most especially his parents, who must be wondering how and why they failed him. All of us share that sense of having failed. I knew Wilbur Frederick Jewell as a boy and as a young fellow approaching manhood and knew him to be a well-mannered youth, who gave no outward sign of the worm within. We must all of us, in the privacy of our thoughts, come to our own conclusions about Wilbur. But in this memorial service, we must remember his virtues and pray that they weigh heaviest in the scales of justice when his soul is judged in Heaven. Perhaps the prayers of those who love him and the true love of the Lord Jesus can atone and win forgiveness."
It went on like that. Mrs. Jewell shook so much the pew rattled. Aunty Em clicked with her tongue. Dorothy could feel her aunt go harder and fiercer. There were more songs and another prayer. They all bowed their heads and prayed for the young man's soul. Dorothy didn't know that one, so mumbled, looking sideways to see if Aunty Em was angry. She looked angry, but Dorothy thought perhaps not at her.
Finally it was over. Why did everything have to last so long? Mrs. Jewell was making her way toward the church door, with the speed of clouds on a rainy day. They all had to sit for her. Dorothy's legs wanted to move, and started to twitch, and once again, of course, Aunty Em stilled her.
They waited while other people went out one by one. People shook hands with the Preacher and then spoke to the Jewells, offering a few words as if from a high platform looking down. Or they looked embarrassed, nodding, shaking hands, and then left, ducking for some reason, though the doorway was not low.
Dorothy felt her own secret gift, folded and crisp, inside her mitten.
Aunty Em patted her and then pushed her: now it was time to move. Dorothy swung her legs around and jumped down to the floor. The school students were ahead of them. They were the very last. Dorothy couldn't wait to be gone. The students had little to say. They ducked the most and gathered outside. From somewhere far enough away came the sound of laughter. The Preacher stood next to Bob Jewell, hands clasped.
"A cold day, young man," said Aunty Em to the Preacher. "And an even colder sermon. Perhaps when you are a bit older, you will also learn to be wiser."
The Preacher was not used to being criticized. He looked dumbfounded.
"I simply mean," said Aunty Em, "that it is not your job to increase the grief of the bereaved."
"I'm sorry if I left that impression," he said.
"It is not to me, but to the young man's mother that you should perhaps address a few more kindly words," said Aunty Em. "I may say that it would not have happened in our congregation or with another preacher."
The Preacher chuckled. It was a very nasty chuckle. Dorothy thought: Why is he laughing? He chuckled and shrugged.
Aunty Em took Mary Jewell's hand. She took it and then suddenly seized it hard, a different gesture altogether. Then she moved on.
It was Dorothy's turn. "I've got a present for you, Mrs. Jewell," said Dorothy.
Aunty Em turned. What present?
Mrs. Jewell leaned over, with her great breathy wrinkled weight. Dorothy unfolded the piece of paper from inside her mitten. The present was a drawing. Dorothy passed it up to Mrs. Jewell.
"Thank you, Dorothy," said Mrs. Jewell. "What is it?"
"It's an Indian," said Dorothy. "I only had a pencil so it had to be a Kansas Indian. That's gray. A real Indian would be red."
"That's very nice, Dorothy, now come along," said Aunty Em, advancing.
"That's why he hanged himself," said Dorothy. "He wanted to be an Indian, a real Indian. But he wasn't brave enough."
"Oh-ho!" cried Mrs. Jewell, unsteadily.
"He didn't like it here. He didn't like school or anything. He wanted to get away."
But he was too frightened to leave, and so he felt ashamed. It was shame that made him kill himself. Dorothy could taste the shame and feel the shape it had, but she didn't have the words for it.
"Dorothy!" raged Aunty Em, stepping forward. Dorothy was seized, pulled, hauled away. Mrs. Jewell seemed to sag, waving Dorothy away. The drawing fell to the floor.
"But Uncle Henry said you didn't understand!" said Dorothy. Aunty Em gave her arm a savage tug. Dorothy knew she had done wrong, but she didn't care. It was the truth.
Aunty Em got her to the wagon and bundled her up onto the front seat. "Hurry up, Henry, let's get away." Uncle Henry speeded up somewhat. The mule was untied.
"Dorothy. What am I going to do with you?" Aunty Em's hand covered her face. Her face moved from side to side. "That poor woman."
Dorothy didn't want to hear what she had done wrong. Everything she did was wrong. "It was a present," she murmured.
"It was a present that opened a wound. I told you, Dorothy, not to mention what he did!"
"But I'm the only one who knows."
Knows that there is a nothingness in the wilderness, a great emptiness in the plains and sky, a nothingness that needs to be filled, not only with houses and horses and plows, but with imagination, an inhuman nothingness that could suck you in and kill you.
There was no point talking. How could Dorothy make anyone understand that? She could not explain it; she had no words. She could only endure the incomprehension and the harsh words and the silence.
It was dark by the time they got home. Scarecrows waved in moonlight. Instead of going inside, Dorothy hopped down from the wagon and ran.
She ran up the slopes of the bald hill to where the snowmen were. There were still three of them, in a row, as glossy and hard as marble. They were white-blue in moonlight. They were here and Wilbur was not. When the sun came, they would melt, and nothing Dorothy could do would stop it. They would melt away like memories trickling out of her head. There was very little Dorothy could do about anything at all.
And there were the angels in the snow, a tall one next to a little one. The trick was to leave no footprints, as if you had lain there for a time and flown away to Heaven.
And suddenly, Dorothy was crying. She found she could cry. "Will-hill-bur!" Maybe there were Indians in Heaven. Maybe Wilbur had found them there. Maybe he had finally joined them.
Maybe not. The tears were soon over. Dorothy had faced death before. She was weary of it, bone-weary. People were here and then they were gone and you had to live as if they had never been here. What once had been, what might have been, could give her nothing. Powdery snow whispered in the wind as it blew. The scarecrows lined up over the wallows, though there was no need for them in winter. Even the wallows were as hard as stone.
The clouds in the sky were as white as ice, and they raced in thin crystals over the surface of the moon. The stars were cold. The valley lay under a sheet of white, and smoke from chimneys hung like freezing fog.
Only where there were houses was there light, was there warmth. It shone out of the windows, orange, fire red, faintly glowing. Those houses were the only place to go, the only life available.
Dorothy finally saw what adults wanted her to see. She saw pioneer beauty, from the top of a hill. It was a trade. In exchange, she had to become resigned. Dorothy knuckled under. She heard Aunty Em call, and she walked back down to punishment and food and a new clean bed.
A few days later, across the naked fields, Dorothy saw Bob Jewell armed with a shovel. For no reason, he was beating one of the scarecrows flat, in a rage.
Zeandale and Manhattan, Kansas-Winter 1875-1876
"That would make me very unhappy," answered the china princess. "You see, here in our own country, we live contentedly, and can talk and move around as we please. But whenever any of us are taken away, our joints at once stiffen and we can only stand straight and look pretty…" -L. Frank Baum, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz
Dorothy knuckled down to learning to read. She would sit by the window, and Aunty Em would open up some huge volume smelling of mushrooms and dust. Toto would tug at her dress to go outside. Toto was kept inside now to keep him from freezing, but he was tied up most of the time.
"What's the first letter, Dorothy? Look at the book, child. Toto, set. Toto, get to your corner. Dorothy, what is the first letter?"
Dorothy was ashamed. "E?"
Another bad thing that Aunty Em had found out when Dorothy came was that she did not know her letters.
"No, Dorothy, that's a W. Now what does W sound like? A W with an H after it. Whuh. Whuh sound, Dorothy. Now I'll just read this first sentence for you. 'Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.' "
Beyond the walls, the woods on the ridge sighed in the wind. Both the sky and the ground were the same white color. Aunty Em asked her to recite the alphabet. Dorothy forgot F.
"Don't start all over again," said Aunty Em. "That's just learning by rote, parrot fashion, and I want you to really know this. I don't want people to think we're ignorant, Dorothy Gael, and they will if you go to school without your alphabet and the rudiments of ciphering!"
And then she said, "What was your mama thinking of?"
Dorothy began to hate her mother, for all the things she had left out: prayers and table manners and numbers. Dorothy helped at candle making. She swept up the floor. She watched Aunty Em repairing shoes, repairing trousers, jabbing the needle so hard that she sometimes stabbed herself with it. She watched Aunty Em cook in a rage.
In the evenings, Henry would come in moving slowly with his long, stick-thin limbs. He would slump in his chair as Aunty Em threw pots about the stove, spilling, burning, humming hymns to herself. She made terrible mistakes. She baked cakes with salt instead of sugar. Meat came out of the oven burned black outside but red raw inside.
"You could plant an extra crop," said Aunty Em, one night.
Uncle Henry was baffled by exhaustion. "What crop?"
"Spring wheat, corn, I don't know."
"Most of this land is hillside turf, Em, or it's covered in woods. What you reckon on clearing it?"
"We could keep hogs in the woods."
"We got any spare cash to buy hogs with?"
"We would have with what fifty acres of river-bottom prime would earn anyone else."
"It's not prime land, Em. Your father didn't do too much with it either."
The pot slammed down as if on a head. "My father was writing the newspaper at the same time, instead of sitting around here with his boots off."
"So we're back to wheat. Every year since I come, people say it's going to be eight-row wheat, and then 'long comes the drouth or the hail or the wind or the bust. This year, last year it was locusts."
"Such a good excuse for you, weren't they?" said Aunty Em, talking over him.
"Or the herd laws means somebody's cows trample it. Worst thing of all is when you have a good year and the price just dries up till you get nothing for nothing."
"Well, I don't see the Aikens or the McCormacks or the Allens in poverty."
"They got sons, they got brothers."
"Well, hire yourself a hand."
"We don't have any money," said Henry, his voice muffled by the hand that rubbed his eyes.
"Well, we got to do something!" shouted Aunty Em, and the stove hissed and steamed with spilled water. "We got that child to feed now and send to school soon as she's old enough. Poor little creature."
Uncle Henry hung his head. Aunty Em's back was toward him. He said, very slowly, "We could sell some of the land."
"That's the only thing you can think of to do with it! My father settled this land."
"Don't I know it."
"And you aren't going to be the one to sell any of it!"
"Won't have to," said Henry Gulch. "Mr. Purcell at the bank is going to get it all anyway."
Mr. Purcell was the enemy. He ran the bank and he wanted to take away their land and give it to people Back East. How would that be possible, if Aunty Em didn't want him to have it?
"Him too," said Aunty Em, throwing food onto a plate.
Reading, ciphering, and hogs and banks. Dorothy admired Uncle Henry and Aunty Em. They knew so much, all kinds of things, but everything rode on them; if anything went wrong they would be alone. And they never rested, never let up on themselves. Dorothy was grateful, but she didn't ever want to be an adult.
Aunty Em sat down to eat and began to rail against the people of Manhattan. Aunty Em never went to Zeandale village. It was always to Manhattan that they went for church, for stores, for company. It was Manhattan Aunty Em talked about, but not with love.
She talked about Mr. Purcell, and also Mrs. Purcell, who was always organizing things and neglecting to invite Emma Gulch. There was L. R. Elliott. He had bought the Manhattan Independent from Reverend Pillsbury and then fired Grandfather Matthew.
"Killed him, killed him just as surely as if he shot him!" Aunty Em said. "Him and his talk of real news. He bought the paper and then killed both it and my father and waltzed off to be a land agent, if you please. And railroad agent. And anything else he could lay his hands on." Stew roiled forgotten in her mouth.
"The Higinbothams, and Stingley and Huntress. They're all in it together, all those people. They come here and take the town over from the people who built it up. And the good Dr. Lyman with his friendly little reminders-'You owe the good Doctor money.' " Aunty Em let her fork drop, and covered her eyes.
Later, she piled the tin plates one on top of the other. Aunty Em could produce a fine clatter of rage, and she plunged her raw hands into the water, which was near to boiling. She passed down the steaming plates for Dorothy to dry.
Then she said, "Dorothy, it's your bedtime. Say your prayers." Aunty Em would stand by the blanket that hung across the room. She would listen to what Dorothy had to say to God. Dorothy prayed for God to bless everyone and then crawled into bed to be kissed on the forehead. Then Dorothy would listen. She listened to the whispering.
"You ask me it wasn't the Dip my sister died of, but shame. That man used her and then left. An actor, if you please, with I am told another wife and children Back East. And he was about as Irish as I am. Anthony Gael indeed. More like Angelo or Chico if you want to know the truth!"
"You're fretting, Em."
"Well, don't I have enough to fret about?" A pan rang like a gong as it was hung on a hook. "Every time I look at Dorothy I can see that man's face. It's bad blood, Henry, and it will come out."
Uncle Henry would begin to snore, too exhausted to find the bed. Aunty Em would begin to recite. Aunty Em wrote verse. She would declaim it as she paced, the thumping of her boots punctuating the rhythm of the words. Throughout that winter, it had been the same poem, over and over:
By day across those billows brown
Across the summits sere
The fierce wind blows; the sunlight streams
From blue skies cold and clear.
It was a poem about the beauties of Manhattan when it was first settled. The Congregationalist Church was about to have its twentieth anniversary after the New Year. With her whole being, Aunty Em wanted to recite her poem at the banquet. The pastor's wife had also written a poem. It too was about the beauties of early Manhattan, and it was certain to be read at the banquet.
By night along those meadows broad,
In gleaming tower and spire
O'er rolling hill, o'er rocky crest
Creep crooked lines of fire!
Her voice would be fierce and whispering. Sometimes Aunty Em would change the words; sometimes she changed the way she said them. Sometimes the words came shuddering out of her, full of meanings for her that they would have for no one else. Sometimes she wept, reciting to the stove, the empty room, her husband's crushed and empty boots. Dorothy would pull the pillow down over her head and hide.
Aunty Em was always in Manhattan, working for the Church. She set up socials or church suppers; she chaperoned dances or sat on ladies' committees or organized drives. She decorated the church for Easter (Christmas was not much celebrated). She took baskets to the poor, though Dorothy heard people say that Emma Gulch was poor enough herself.
"We are people of note in this community," she told Dorothy once. "And we continue to be, despite straitened circumstances, which should be no bar in any civilized society."
And she and Dorothy would take the long road to Manhattan. Aunty Em inserted them both into the homes of women she considered to be her social if not economic equals. All through the autumn, into the first hot weeks of that strange December, Dorothy would find herself in the corner of Manhattan parlors, mollified by muffins or drinking chocolate.
Aunty Em visited Mrs. Parker, the Reverend's wife. She visited Harriet Smythe, who also threatened to give readings. She visited Miss Eusebia Mudge, daughter of the famous Professor Mudge. Miss Mudge was to provide the musical program by playing the organ.
"And how is your dear father?" Aunty Em asked. "Is he still occupied with his pterodactyls?"
"Oh, yes indeed," said Miss Mudge. "He will be returning to Wallace this spring. He hopes to send a complete pterodactyl to the university in Topeka."
Aunty Em turned to Dorothy. "Dorothy. A pterodactyl is a giant flying lizard. The Professor discovered them in Wallace."
"They are extinct now, Dorothy," explained Miss Mudge.
"They have been, for millions of years. Just think of it!"
After so many conversations about buffalo, Dorothy certainly knew the meaning of the word "extinct." But she didn't know how you could discover something that had been dead for millions of years, or how you could send one to Topeka. She thought it best not to ask. Aunty Em might think it was insolent.
"The Professor also discovered a missing link in the evolutionary chain, am I right, Miss Mudge?" said Aunty Em. "A bird with teeth."
Dorothy wasn't too sure that all birds didn't have teeth. She tried to remember if their hens had teeth and decided that they did. By the time Dorothy resurfaced, the conversation had moved on.
"Well, we simply have to get Brother Pillsbury and Reverend Jones to speak, though at opposite ends of the program for reasons we can both imagine," said Aunty Em. Brother Pillsbury was a spiritualist, as well as a Christian.
"Certainly both should be acknowledged," said Miss Mudge with caution.
"Not to mention Mrs. Blood," said Aunty Em, smiling, in one of her flights of efficiency. "She's still alive, I hear, and there is time still to get a message to her in Illinois, so she can send something to us. I'm sure she would be most pleased."
Eusebia agreed. Aunty Em kept flying. She reminisced about the first Congregationalist services held in a tent or in Dr. Hunting's house. She rehearsed the story of how a tornado tore the roof off the church just after it was built-it seemed to be the fate of most churches in the county. She talked about Dr. Cordley, who had ridden all the way from Lawrence to give the dedicatory sermon. Did Miss Mudge know that his famous horse Jesse was lost during Quantrill's raid? Dorothy began to swing her legs. Eusebia Mudge bided her time.
"Evergreen branches, I think," said Aunty Em, talking of the decorations. "So in keeping with the season." She talked about food. "I can certainly make a lemon jelly, if you, Miss Mudge, would oblige with your famous angel cake."
"Speaking of cake," said Miss. Mudge, whose time had come. "What are we to do with Mr. Sue?"
There was a Chinaman in Manhattan. He had come with the building of the railroad. To everyone's consternation, he was a member of the Congregationalist Church. He donated unsuitable cakes. They had unsuitable writing in icing.
"God made the world," the icing said. "Tzu made this cake."
Everyone called him Mr. Sue. Using a woman's name made people smile, while preserving their old abolitionist consciences. When they smiled, Mr. Tzu thought they were smiling with pleasure at seeing him. Or at least, he smiled back. He had suddenly imported a wife, whom no one had seen. She was said to live in the rooms behind his store.
"And you've heard of his invitation, perhaps?" inquired Miss Mudge.
"Why, no," said Emma Gulch.
"He has sent a card to every church saying that his wife will be at home to receive visitors on New Year's Day."
If anyone was so lost in good works as to go, it would be Emma Gulch.
"How splendid of him," said Aunty Em. "I'm sure we will all be happy to visit."
"I'm glad to hear you say that," Miss Mudge replied and permitted herself a smile.
On New Year's Day, Calliope the mule was hauled out, snorting with cold, and was hitched to the wagon. Inside the house, Toto was barking over and over to be let out, to go with them.
"Couldn't we bring Toto with us?" Dorothy asked.
"What, bring a dog into Mrs. Purcell's parlor?" said Aunty Em. "She can just about bring herself to let us in, let alone Toto."
All the way down the lane, the sound of Toto's barking followed them.
"That's how much he misses us. But just think how snug he is next to the stove."
Even from the lane, Dorothy could see Blue Mont, on the other side of the river, four and a half miles away. It took two hours, and the mountain never seemed to get any closer. The sound of Toto followed them across the valley. They rode beside the woods, the trees as bare as burned black skeletons. Branches passed by overhead. Dorothy broke off a piece of ice and looked at the perfect imprint of the twig. "Don't suck it, Dorothy," said Aunty Em, "or you'll perforate your stomach." Dorothy began to hum to herself. Aunty Em sang hymns. With each turn of the road, Dorothy hoped for the rise and fall of the road that would signal their sudden decline toward the river.
Finally, finally they got to Manhattan, frozen stiff as always. The church ladies were gathering at Mrs. Purcell's house on South Juliette. There was an alleyway with stables behind. A boy took hold of Calliope, and Aunty Em rather grandly pressed a penny into his hand. She inspected Dorothy's dress, tugged and thumped it, and then took her hand to walk around to the front of the house, to be admitted as guests.
The door was opened by a maid. There were gas lamps everywhere, frosted glass globes, and the tops of the chairs were dark and polished and carved into the shapes of leaves. From somewhere behind all the front rooms, there came a chorus of baby cries. The ladies, buttoned in black, sat in a circle amid a forest of tea tables.
Mrs. Elliott was there for the Methodists, the wife of the man who had brought Grandfather Matthew's career to an end. Mrs. Parker was there from Aunty Em's own church, as if Aunty Em were not sufficient in herself to represent the Congregationalists.
The Purcells were Presbyterian and owned the bank that had sold the mortgage to Emma Gulch's farm.
Dorothy knew of these people. She was interested to see them. She wondered how it was that Aunty Em could bear to smile at them. Dorothy looked at the frosted lamps, at the line of fuel within them like water under ice. She pretended to herself that the lamps had grown naturally frozen out of the Zeandale marshes.
Mrs. Purcell, no longer young, but very brisk and pleasant, came in with baby John. He had just been born a few months before. He was passed around the ladies, who complimented him and talked to him. Baby John beamed like an ancient old man. "Happy New Year! Happy New Year!" the ladies piped.
"His little hand!" cooed Aunty Em.
Dorothy peered into his soft, unformed face. Intelligence in his eyes met hers.
"Bah bah," he said. "Mo ta woe?"
It was how babies talked.
"Oh yes? Oh yes?" said Mrs. Parker too brightly, as if she understood. Maybe she did. The baby was passed to a maid to be taken upstairs. Tea and cakes were served, and the adults talked about Chinese people.
"Apparently they fry all their food in very hot oils," said Mrs. Elliott. "My cousin visited such a home once, and her fur collar smelled peculiar for weeks. They couldn't think what the odor was; it was so unpleasant, but not at all identifiable. Finally someone said it was burned sesame seed oil."
Mrs. Parker produced a nosegay from her purse and silently held it out. "I shall endeavor not to resort to this, since I'm sure Mrs. Sue will do her utmost to be polite."
"It's not the oil, it's the incense that will choke me," said Mrs. Lyman. She was the doctor's wife and she was beautiful and young, with red hair. Aunty Em made a point of chuckling. Mrs. Lyman was from St. George, just across the river from the Gulch farm. Aunty Em always made a point of saying how enchanting she found her. "Just a good, plain-speaking Kansas beauty," Aunty Em would say, again and again.
"Well," said a woman whose name Dorothy did not know. "My tablecloth came back cleaner than the gravel by the river."
Dorothy did not know much about the Chinaman herself, but she could see that the adults were frightened of him.
The seven ladies, Baptist, Methodist, Congregationalist, Lutheran, wrapped themselves in scarves and pinned on hats and were helped into coats that nearly reached the ground. They walked unsteadily on the boardwalk of South Juliette, north toward Poyntz, the main avenue. They walked past one Methodist church and Mrs. Elliott's house. They walked across Houston, past the Bowers' and the Buells'. On the corner of Poyntz and Juliette was Aunty Em's own church, white limestone, small. They turned right and swept down the broad main avenue.
Poyntz was lined with wooden-frame buildings, with wooden awnings that stretched out over the wooden sidewalks. The ladies passed another Methodist church, with a tall, graceful spire, and an Episcopalian and a Presbyterian. They passed the Manhattan Institute, which was a hospital built of brick. There was Huntress's Dry Goods, a two-story building of stone. On Poyntz Avenue alone, there were four banks, three land offices, three drugstores, a lumberyard, several general stores, clothing stores, hotels and two county offices. There were many businesses, with many owners, but amid those many names, a favored few kept reappearing: Higinbotham, Stingley, Elliott, Purcell.
The street was shuttered and closed, peaceful and safe. An old black man everyone called Uncle was sweeping the ice that covered the boardwalk. Someone Mrs. Elliott knew passed them, tipping his hat, breathing out vapor into the sunlight, nodding "Good morning, ladies," as he passed.
Mr. Sue's shop stood near the corner of Humboldt and Second, opposite the Wagon Shop.
There was a wide space around it, a market garden that was the town's only source of sorrel and green peppers. The laundry hissed out back, white steam rising up even on New Year's Day. Dorothy took hold of Aunty Em's hand, afraid.
The store was dark. Mrs. Purcell took it on herself to try the door. It opened with a clinking of bits of metal hung across the doorway. They peered inside, into scented shadow.
"Mr. Sue?" called Mrs. Purcell. Dorothy began to wish she hadn't come.
Mr. Sue emerged from some inner recess, smiling, smiling.
"Good morning, ladies. So kind to come. I hope you are not cold. Thank you, thank you."
He looked funny. Dorothy wasn't sure how. He was small and quick, wearing perfectly normal clothes and a bowler hat. Dorothy was miffed. Didn't he know it was impolite to wear a hat indoors? Then she saw him take it off, over and over, once for each of the ladies.
Inside the store, the air smelled a bit like soap, nice soap, and there were things in pretty boxes, nice colors, very pale and gentle. There were bolts of shiny cloth and little cups and teapots. There were china people, white with pink cheeks, frozen forever, looking shy and a bit afraid.
Dorothy began to be afraid for Mr. Sue. China was made of clay and so, said the Preacher, were people. China could fall and break. Maybe that's why the adults were frightened. They were frightened that they could shatter him. They walked so carefully around him as he smiled and smiled. He pulled back a curtain and held out his hat to show them the way they should go.
They went into a room, and Dorothy wondered if China people lived in tents like Indians. The wall seemed to be made of blue cloth. Dorothy pushed the cloth. There was a solid wall behind it. Perhaps wood or stone was too rough for China people.
There were cushions everywhere, with cloth flowers sewn on them, and the little room was hot as a stove, and full of the soap smell.
"Oh!" said Mrs. Purcell, looking around the tiny place in surprise. She looked large and clumsy, as if she would knock something over. But Dorothy felt at home. Everything was the right size for her.
Then Mrs. Sue came in and Dorothy knew she was right. China people could be broken.
Mrs. Sue walked in with breathless child steps, small and very quick, and her eyes and her face were lowered from shyness and she smiled shyly. She wore blue trousers and a blue top, very shiny, and she was painted like the frozen people outside. Pink on her cheeks, black around the eyes, red on her lips.
"Da doh, da doh," she seemed to be saying, unable to look at the ladies, bowing to them. She held out her hands.
The ladies looked at each other.
"She doesn't speak English, and she wants to take our coats," said Aunty Em, crisply. "Dorothy, please to help Mrs. Sue with all these coats. Mind you take them where she shows you."
Aunty Em passed her own thick, black, worn coat to her. "Thank you, thank you, Mrs. Sue," she said loudly, very plainly, smiling with her leaky gray teeth.
Mrs. Sue averted her face and bowed, again, and said something with the gentleness of the wind.
"May I help you?" Dorothy asked, looking up at her.
Mrs. Sue could bear to look at Dorothy but not at the adults. She looked at Dorothy and smiled. Dorothy strode boldly among the ladies, taking coats. She knew she would not knock anything over.
"We are to sit on the cushions," announced Aunty Em.
The ladies raised their eyebrows. This would be indelicate. Dorothy wanted to see how plump Mrs. Purcell and bony old Mrs. Elliott would manage it. Mrs, Sue, in a soft and singsong voice, was trying to tell her something, so Dorothy turned and saw she was to follow through another curtain, into an alcove. There was a white statue in the alcove, of a fat and naked smiling man. There were pipe cleaners all around it, burning. Did Mrs. Sue think you were supposed to smoke the cleaners and not the pipe? Mrs. Sue reached and hung up the coats. She folded and smoothed down the ladies' scarves. They looked beautiful, the scarves, folded so tidily. Mrs. Sue smiled her gentle, withdrawn smile, and Dorothy knew she was to go back to the adults.
Back in the hot room, the ladies were sitting, backs straight. Mrs. Purcell and Aunty Em had adopted the side saddle position they had learned as young ladies. Mrs. Elliott was thrashing, trying to fight her way upright. She kept slipping off the cushion.
"Knees under you, Emeline," said Mrs. Purcell.
Mrs. Sue came toddling in, carrying something that was neither a tray nor a table. It was made of beautiful brown wood and carved in funny shapes, and there was a teapot with red and blue crisscrosses on it. The tray was placed on the floor. There was tea and little pink cakes. Mrs. Sue lowered her head and held out her arms with a sweep over the tea and cakes.
"Isn't it exquisite," announced Aunty Em, determined they would all feel the right thing. "And so charmingly presented." She inclined forward, with her broken and horsey smile. Mrs. Sue tried to look pleased, but she could not bear the huge, coarse visage and had to look away, lest the distaste show.
Dorothy felt she was having some kind of revenge. The adults all looked wrong, like pigs or straggly plants. The only beautiful person in the room was Mrs. Sue.
She began to pour the tea, and to pass the cakes, looking up hopefully to make sure that everything was all right, that she had done nothing wrong. And Dorothy knew, just from looking, that Mrs. Sue was alone in Kansas, and that she was trying as hard as she could, but that she and these women would never be friends, no matter how correct they all were, no matter how polite. It was all done in hopefulness and was doomed to failure.
"The cakes," said Mrs. Purcell, in horror. "I think they're made out of fish."
Dorothy tasted one of them. It was bland and chewy.
The pink bland cakes were followed by sweet spicy ones that were also to no one's taste. And Mrs. Sue, trying hard, adopting all the right postures, sent signals of sociability that were only partially received. They were swamped by the heavy-handed and insincere gestures that came in reply.
"These are very unusual. Very unusual. Nice," said Aunty Em, loudly, holding up the spice cake.
Mrs. Sue kept smiling, looking nowhere. She leaned forward like a river reed to fill more cups with tea.
"Shouldn't she let it steep more?" wondered one of the ladies without looking at the others.
"Chinese tea is famous for its delicacy," Aunty Em informed them.
"I wish the incense was," said Mrs. Parker.
It couldn't go on much longer. Tea and cakes can only do so much without conversation. More smiles and nodding, and Mrs. Sue knew she had failed. Her eyes were veiled as she tried to look pleased and honored when the ladies left. Dorothy went to help her with the coats.
Dorothy wanted to say something. But how could you say something to someone who had not learned to talk?
She had an idea. She talked like a baby would talk. She made sounds without the words that she found she lacked. Dorothy whispered, sadly, "Da tori nah sang ga la ta no rah tea so la tee ree." Without having to find words, Dorothy said that she was sorry, sorry that Mrs. Sue was alone in a foreign country, and that her cakes had not been liked, and that no one else was coming, and that her husband would probably be cross.
Mrs. Sue knew that the little girl was really trying to say something, something kind. And she could see what she was not supposed to notice, that the child was poorly dressed. Mrs. Sue had a happy idea. It was a season of gift giving. She turned and gave the child a folded-paper doll, dressed in crepe paper, with a folded face and a painted smile.
"Thank you," said Dorothy.
They filed back out through the hot, cushioned room, through the curtain, down the cooler, wooden corridor, back into the store. Mr. Sue was smiling, thanking them for the call. Do tell your wife how charmed we were, said the ladies, what a lovely room, what a lovely blue… um… ensemble she wore, a delightful tea, such a departure from the usual. Why, Dorothy wondered, do adults always lie?
Back out into the cold.
"Oh," said one of the ladies, a safe distance away. "Back out into God's own air!"
"Poor little thing. Fancy not speaking a word of English!"
"She was the soul of courtesy," insisted Aunty Em. "I cannot imagine how her behavior could be in any way improved."
"Perhaps by using less incense so a human body could breathe!" exclaimed the Reverend Parker's wife.
"That was like your nosegay," said Dorothy. "She was frightened that you'd smell."
"Dorothy!" exclaimed Aunty Em. "Apologize to Mrs. Parker." But she sounded less angry than usual.
When they were back in the wagon, Aunty Em laughed. "Dorothy, your mouth!" she said, shaking her head. "The things you come out with! Mind, your mother was the same."
Dorothy could see that she had done something right, but did not understand what it was. Aunty Em was a mystery, to be watched, to be solved.
A few days later, Aunty Em learned that her poem was not to be read at the Church anniversary. Her own suggestion had been taken up. Mrs. Blood in Illinois had been written to, and the old woman had responded with a detailed reminiscence of life in Manhattan's early days. It would be read in full to the congregation, as would Mrs. Parker's poem. Aunty Em had a letter from Miss Mudge, thanking her for all her efforts.
That night Dorothy heard her pacing around and around the little room in silence.
The next morning, Toto slipped his rope and disappeared, into the snow.
Manhattan, Kansas-Spring 1876
Go east, and you hear them laugh at Kansas; go west and they sneer at her; go south and they "cuss" her; go north and they have forgotten her… -William Allen White, in an editorial called "What's the Matter with Kansas?"
Suddenly it was spring in Kansas. There were wildflowers all along the roads and in the thorny hedges. Dorothy was relieved. It was as if some part of life had smiled on her at last.
Today was Sunday, no school, and it was sunny, a strange sort of sunlight that glowed in haze near to the ground. It was comfortable riding in the wagon. Dorothy still had to wear her coat, but the lap robes weren't necessary, and her feet and toes were no longer an agony. It was as if the whole of Kansas had sighed in relief.
Aunty Em was in a strange mood too. In the morning, as she had hitched the mule to the cart, there was a kind of secret smile on her face, and she moved with more of a bounce in her step.
"C'mon, Dorothy, it's just you and me today. Your Uncle Henry don't come, because he don't have the Spirit," said Aunty Em, feeling chummy. "So it's just us two, Dorothy. We're going to go and have our souls raised up like summer flowers. I tell you, when the Spirit moves, you don't mind anything, because God is with you, and nobody can take that away."
They weren't going to church. That was very strange. Meeting was obviously going to be slightly like church, there could be no escape from something holy on a Sunday, but it was obviously something more delicious and exciting, a kind of spring church. Aunty Em clucked her tongue, and the cart jerked forward, and they moved out into the fields.
Dorothy caught her aunty's mood. "We're going to Meeting! We're going to Meeting!" she exclaimed excitedly.
Aunty Em chuckled. "Yes, we are, honey, and we're going to meet all kinds of nice people." There was a kind of snarl in Aunty Em's voice, on the word "nice," that made Dorothy breathless with anticipation. Nice people. It had been so long since she'd met any.
"Nice people," Dorothy repeated. Saying it made her feel small and warm and comforted.
"It'll be like going to church in Lawrence," said Aunty Em. "We just had the one old cottonwood meeting hall, and the sun made the boards curl up, so the wind blew between them, and we'd all sing just to keep warm. Sometimes your grandfather would read the lesson. He had a fine voice for reading, he'd make the words come alive. He would read the Sermon on the Mount and make people weep from the truth of it. That was his most favorite passage in the Bible. And we'd stand up from those wooden benches and sing those grand old hymns just like in New England. And your mama, she was the littlest and she would sing such a sweet little song."
Suddenly Aunty Em was no longer smiling. "I don't suppose your mama ever told you about Lawrence."
Dorothy could feel the sun going behind a cloud. "No, Ma'am."
"She never told you?"
"Well. That was where we lived first. Kansas was just being settled, and we wanted it settled by Northerners. So the Company was formed to help us move across. We came from New England, Dorothy, from Massachusetts. Your grandfather was one of the first to say he'd go. He was a very brave man. He came all the way across the United States to Kansas, and he was one of the first. He left July 17th, 1854, one of the first thirty men. And it was a triumphant progress. They were cheered at the train stations."
Dorothy half imagined it, the flags and excitement, and people cheering a good man. It was all part of the Meeting feeling.
"Your grandfather wrote letters about it back home to the newspapers, Back East. He was such a lettered man, your grandfather. We followed the next year. I came across when I was thirteen years old. Oh! This was a beautiful country then! Nothing between horizon and horizon. I can still remember my first sight of Lawrence, across the river, in the trees. We came across in the ferry and stayed with such nice people, a minister. He had an Indian servant girl, and she gave me a buffalo rug to sleep on. Then we went out to look at our new house that your grandfather had built."
Aunty Em paused, looked at the fields, the flowers. "I can remember the first time I heard a Western voice. A woman from Iowa. She told us a store had 'a right smart chance of calicoes.' Your mother and I laughed and laughed, and no one could understand why two little Yankee girls would find it funny."
Aunty Em went silent again, listening to the mule. "Anyway," she whispered, "it's the children of the Company we'll be meeting today."
Aunty Em drew a deep and shaky breath.
Lawrence sounded beautiful and happy and full of laughter.
"Lawrence had trees?"
"Lots of them, honey, all over the place."
"And Indians and buffalo?"
"Not so much even then. People were planning to make their living farming. The hunters had already moved on, to places like Wichita."
"Why are we living out here?" Dorothy asked.
Aunty Em's face went darker. "We had to move out here, Dorothy. Didn't your mama ever tell you why?"
Dorothy shook her head.
"Border ruffians attacked the town. Called themselves Federal Marshals and carried the flag of South Carolina."
Aunty Em flicked the reins. "I remember getting up in the morning and seeing them on top of Mount Oread. The birds kept singing, the sun shone, and there were five hundred armed men on the hill. They fired cannon at the Free State Hotel until it fell. They destroyed the office of the Herald of Freedom where your grandfather wrote his paper. They came to arrest him, but he had already given them the slip. They came into our house, all leering, and asking for the man of the house. And I told them they knew where he was, driven from his own home. So they ransacked it. They were as drunk as skunks and singing 'Katy Darling' and 'Lily Dale.' And they read our letters and stole our clothes. They even destroyed the only daguerreotype I had of my mother! Then they set the house on fire. My little sister and I had to push a burning bed through the window. After that, my father thought we would be safer out here."
Aunty Em's rage seemed to subside, then flared up again. "And they did it twice! Once in '56 and again in '63. Only the second time they killed every man they could find. And not only men! They killed boys, children. They even killed babies if they were little boys."
"Why?" whispered Dorothy in horror.
"Oh! Because the South wanted to own slaves. They wanted to own people like dogs. And because of them the whole country had to go to war!"
"Why did they kill children?" Dorothy asked.
"Because their minds were twisted. They were so deep in evil, they couldn't find a pathway out. The glorious South. And your mother went to live there! In Missouri, St. Louis, the city that tried to stop us from even getting to Kansas. She has to go and move there, not four years after the ashes of Lawrence were finally cold."
Dorothy could not remember a war. She could not remember anyone in Missouri killing people. But it would seem that her mother had lied to her, not to tell her this.
"How could she do it to us?" said Aunty Em, helpless with anger and unhappiness. "Go off to St. Louis with that man."
Dorothy's mother was a bad woman. Dorothy had no idea her mother had been that bad. She began to be afraid that she was bad, too.
"Those Southerners owe every Union family five hundred dollars at least. Clemency indeed! You let them go and look what you have. Outlaws, that's all they are. You hear of the James gang, Dorothy?"
Dorothy shook her head.
"Murderous, thieving scoundrels. They were Southerners. They were there in Lawrence that very night. They were there, killing children. They ought to have been hunted down like dogs."
Aunty Em drew in a long, shuddering breath, and Dorothy hung her head and picked at her nails. "God forgive me. But that's what I feel."
It had been a beautiful day, and Dorothy had been happy. She had thought she was going to be happy. She began to cry now, for the horrible thing she didn't understand, and for the promise of happiness that seemed to have been broken.
"Oh, honey, I'm sorry," said Aunty Em. The sight of the child crying, crying for the right reason, crying for the reason Aunty Em wanted her to weep, moved her beyond measure. "We won't talk about that. We won't talk about that anymore. It's just too nice a day to spoil."
Aunty Em stopped the wagon and enfolded Dorothy in her sweaty hug. It seemed to the child that the very earth was bleeding. What other terrible secrets were there? She could imagine the terror, being in your own house, and having to run from bad men who wanted to kill you.
"I'm not a Southerner," said Dorothy.
"No, honey, of course you're not."
"But I lived in Missouri!"
"Well, that wasn't your fault. Your mother went to live there, and you were born there."
"But they still kill people!"
"Yes, but that's only a few of them. Now hush, there's no need to be scared now, the war's over."
Dorothy wasn't weeping because she was frightened; she was weeping because it had happened at all. Didn't Aunty Em understand that?
Aunty Em kept her bony arms around her. "We're going to Meeting," she said. "Meeting's in a big white tent."
How could a big white tent make up for murder?
"And there's going to be lots of singing, and we'll meet some nice new friends who'll be so happy to see you."
"Did my papa kill anybody?" Dorothy asked.
"No, honey. He was an Easterner."
"Is that the same as North?"
Aunty Em's face was crossed. "Yes," she decided.
"But St. Louis is East and people call that the South."
Aunty Em sighed. "Honey. Kansas is right in the middle, where North and South and East all meet." She went into a long explanation, of halves of the country, but it still wasn't clear. Then Dorothy understood. In Kansas, North and South and East and West were ways of calling the same thing good or bad, depending on how you felt about it. Dorothy's father had been from the North, but he was bad, so he was East, that's all.
"Am I from the North or the East or the South?" she asked.
"Well now, I'd say you were from the West," said Aunty Em.
They rode on, to the base of the hills. Roadrunners darted across their path. Birds with bright yellow breasts and black bibs sat on fence posts and sang. Their song was loud and very slightly harsh. Aunty Em sighed and said something very strange. "Guess neither of the Branscomb girls married very well," she said and shook herself, as if out of a dream.
They moved out of the fields and into the woods of Prospect. The eastern slope was covered with trees, but on top, the hill was smooth and windswept and crowned with a few low evergreens.
Down below, to the right, there were the orderly, patterned fields of corn and the straight surgical scar made by the MA &BRR. Beyond the train tracks was a line of tall willows, oaks and sycamores, marking the Kansas River. Only half hinted at amid the clouds of green was another rise, another hill on the St. George side.
To the people of Manhattan, this was still Zeandale, but to Dorothy, it was another country. Oak Grove, she called it, after its school-house. There was always a breeze through that valley as if the river itself were breathing. On the wind, buzzards or hawks with huge wings were carried, their feathers spread like grasping hands. "Look!" Aunty Em exclaimed and pointed. A heron flew overhead.
Dorothy turned in the cart and looked behind her. Where the river curved inward, a line of trees seemed to reach out and meet the wooded slopes of Mount Prospect to form a nearly solid wall of green, except for one narrow passage. You would never guess there was an even broader, flatter valley beyond it, with Sunflower School and her aunty's house. Aunty Em called the passage the Gate, even though you never noticed when you were riding through it. Beyond the Gate, there were blue-gray hills, rolling off into the eastern distance, bald on the western side that looked toward the prairies.
They began to see other wagons. Aunty Em forgot herself and called out, "Harriet! Harriet Wells! This is Emma!"
And the woman turned around in her seat and nudged her man. "Why! Emma Branscomb. How be you? How was your winter?"
"Well as could be expected! Going to be a good year!"
"Most certainly. Lovely spring!"
Aunty Em smiled and murmured confidingly to Dorothy. "Old settlers," said Aunty Em. It was the highest mark of approval.
The road suddenly plunged steeply down the hill. Looking straight ahead, Dorothy could see the uppermost branches of the trees, as if she were flying, as if the cart were going to come to roost there. The curtain of leaves seemed to part and down below was the City of Trees and one of its two great rivers.
Trees lined the Kaw on either side, and Dorothy saw the river from above, big and slow and shallow and brown, winding off in either direction, nosing its way into deeper and deeper countryside, lands Dorothy had never seen.
The wagon moved on, down another dip through more trees. Then the road spread out, as if relaxing in sunshine, on the river's bank. There were tall, wispy grasses and pink flowers with leaves like rounded ferns. The soil was gray and baked like the crust of a pie, but the ruts the wheels made were full of glistening mud, crisscrossed with long grains of grass and the bodies of flies.
In the middle of the river, sandbanks rose, like the backs of giant turtles. On the other bank, there were huge, shadowed trees. The wagon bounced up onto stones; the shoreline was macadamized by them. The road began to climb again up the bank toward the bridge. The bridge was made of stone, and its stone supports rose up like towers from the midst of the river. Trees that had been carried by the spring currents were piled up around the towers. The trunks and branches were black, as if they had been charred.
Dorothy and Aunty Em got out and walked the wagon up and over the bridge. Farther downstream, there was the crisscross ironwork of the railroad bridge. The local line was joined there by the Kansas Pacific. Ahead of them was Blue Mont, and the lumberyards and train depots that formed the outer edge of Manhattan.
Instead of going into the town, the wagons turned left. Still walking, Aunty Em guided the mule over the train tracks. With a heave and a hollow thumping, the wagon went up and over the rails.
Beyond the tracks, between them and the Kansas River, there was a meadow of grass, ringed around with oaks and huge cottonwoods. In the middle of the field was a white tent with wagons drawn up all around it. People stood in groups, men permanently holding their hats off their heads. Dorothy wondered if Meeting might be like a circus. Boys in loose shirts ran up and offered to corral the livestock.
"The mule's name is Calliope, son, and she kicks so be careful," called Aunty Em, striding forward. Her eyes were beginning to gleam.
People knew who she was. They turned, stopped talking, and walked up to greet her. They hugged her, called her Little Em, kissed her breathlessly, called to other friends to hurry, Emma Branscomb was here.
"And I'd like you all to meet my niece, little Dorothy Gael."
"Why, you must be Millie's little girl," said a fresh-faced, fat woman bending over, smiling. "Dorothy, we're so pleased to see you here in Kansas."
It was the truth. The woman really was pleased. It was the first time anybody had said that they were happy to have Dorothy in Kansas.
Gratitude poured over Dorothy. "And I'm so pleased to be here!" she piped, hopping up. There was laughter.
"Pretty country, isn't it, Dorothy?"
"Oh yes, Ma'am. We saw lots of flowers."
More laughter. Dorothy had said something else that was right.
"I tell you, ladies, there are times I have to ask myself if this is a human child or a little angel who's dropped to earth. I can't stop her from doing her chores. She just works and works, sweeping, washing the dishes, taking care of the hens. I've never seen a child like her for helping out." Aunty Em's hand was firmly on Dorothy's shoulder.
"She must be just such a comfort." The fat woman looked back up. "After all that terrible business."
"Well, we are sent trials in order to test us, Harriet, and there's no bed of thorns that doesn't also bear a rose." Aunty Em patted Dorothy again.
They began to talk of adult things. Aunty Em pretended that the farm was going well. "We're thinking of bringing in some hogs."
"Oh yes, that's good if you can stop them from rooting out the crops."
"Well, Henry's planted a hedge, keep them in."
Before the winter there had been a murder. A colored man called George Hunter had killed someone in anger. Everyone said the dead white man had been trouble. But still, it was the first violence around those parts since Monroe Scranton had been lynched for stealing Ed Pillsbury's horses, and that had been back in the sixties. They talked of Negroes crossing the border and wanted to know Aunty Em's opinion.
"The South created the problem and wants us to solve it. And it's our Christian duty to welcome them."
"Hard enough for anybody making any kind of business work," said one of the women.
"There's some of them that are as honest and hardworking as you could wish. Edom Thomas for one."
"Oh, certainly. Some of them Exodusters have settled in right smartly."
They went from group to group, and people exclaimed, "Emma! Emma Branscomb!" More greetings, more hugs and kissings and kindly questions. Aunty Em's face became fixed; her smile and bright eyes glazed with happiness. The eyes were famished. Feed me, they seemed to say, I have hungered for this. Dorothy clung on to her hand, feeling forgotten.
"I tell you, I await the Spirit," said Aunty Em. "I tell you, after last winter, I need the Spirit."
"Amen, amen" came the replies, in clusters like flowers.
"There's this world, and there's the next, and sometimes the next just reaches out for you, and you yearn for it, yearn for its refreshment."
Hally hoo hah, Dorothy thought they said.
Em looked hungrier. "Is it this new boy?" she asked.
"Reverend Salkirk? Oh, yes."
"How is he?"
"They say he called powerful good up in Junction City last week. First of the season."
"He was good by the end, but a bit roundabout," said another woman, rail thin like Aunty Em. They might have been sisters. "He doesn't know how to go for it direct."
"Nobody called like your father, Emma," said the man who was with her. He was much older, with a long white beard. "God rest his soul."
"For me nobody could and nobody ever will," said Aunty Em. "But let's see what Reverend Salkirk can do."
"I'm ready for the call," said the fat pink lady. "I feel just like a calf let out in the spring field for the first time."
The people were farmers like them, and they dressed like them, not like the folk of Manhattan. Their children ran about in groups, slightly older than Dorothy. Dorothy watched them, shyly, slightly hiding behind Aunty Em. She knew the children wouldn't say they were happy to have her in Kansas. She felt safer with the adults.
Then, as if rising out of the mist and the flowers, a figure in black came limping and twisting its way toward them. For just a moment, Dorothy thought it was a ghost, as if her bad mama were coming out of the South.
The face was familiar, as if in a dream, and that held a certain terror for Dorothy too. And then dimly, as if someone had called the woman's name from across a far field, Dorothy remembered who it was.
It was Etta Parkerson. She was wearing another black and beautifully made dress, all scallops and ruches, and she walked with a tall, sad-eyed man, old enough to be her father.
"Etta! Etta Parkerson!" said Aunty Em, her smile somewhat sour, caught as she was between two social worlds.
"Etta Reynolds, now, Emma."
"Oh! Of course!" said Aunty Em, hand on forehead as it shook from side to side. "Everyone. This is Etta Reynolds. She is niece to the Goodnow family, and only this February was married to Mr. Reynolds."
Hands were shaken politely. Mr. Reynolds's hands seemed to be made of stone and looked large enough to have torn his wife in half.
"I'm glad you could join us, Mrs. Reynolds," the old settlers said, meaning, cordially, what are you doing here?
"My husband is a follower," replied Etta. "How are you, Dorothy?"
Dorothy murmured that she was fine. She had first met Etta in another lifetime. She dimly remembered that Etta had been kind to her; she also seemed to remember that Etta had said something that even now disturbed her, though she could not remember what it was. This time, Dorothy did not warm to Etta.
Aunty Em launched into another performance of Dorothy as domestic angel, how she cleaned and tidied and helped around the house. Etta listened for a while.
"Emma," she said. "Do you think you could look after my husband for a while? I'd like to show Dorothy some of the field flowers."
"Why, that would be a great kindness, Etta. Alvin, do you feel safe with us?" Alvin Reynolds grinned and rocked in place and plainly did not feel safe at all. Etta held out her hand toward Dorothy. There was nothing for Dorothy to do but take it. They walked together down the slope of the field, toward the river. Etta's boots swept the top of the grass, sideways, as if kicking it. What does she want? Dorothy wondered.
There were flowers, like ground-hugging buttercups, the size of Dorothy's hand. There were vivid little stars of blue on the tops of long stems, and plain white flowers clustered together. There were echoing cries of children, running to the river, and the shade of the giant trees, showing the silver underside of their leaves in the wind.
"Drudge, drudge, drudge, eh, Dorothy?" asked Etta.
Dorothy said nothing. She had a wildflower in her hand and was picking it apart.
"You can work until you disappear, Dorothy. It won't be enough. People don't love a drudge. But sometimes they love selfish people, for doing what they always wanted to do themselves." There were the sounds of wind in long grass and other children playing together.
"You look tired," Etta said. "Tired and scared. I find Emma Gulch scary, sometimes." Etta crouched down and tried to peer up into Dorothy's face. "They're never grateful, Dorothy. You can never do enough in someone else's house. They always think it's their due. You're always the poor relation."
What is the point, Dorothy thought, of talking to me like this? This is talk for adults. What am I to do? Leave? Where could I go? Fight? How can I fight Aunty Em?
"I want to go back," said Dorothy.
Etta sighed and said, "All right. But promise me, Dorothy. Promise me if things get too bad, you won't pray to God to change you. You'll pray to God to change them?"
What did that mean? Dorothy began to walk on ahead, back up the gentle slope. It was some kind of truth and Dorothy didn't understand it or need it. There was nothing the truth could do for her except give her pain. The truth was harsh and for adults. It frightened her. Dorothy needed lies.
"Did you have a nice talk?" Aunty Em asked as they approached.
"Yes, Ma'am," said Dorothy, head down.
Etta said goodbye. Dorothy did not look up. She heard her boots through the grass. Swish, swish, swish, with a cripple's gait.
"What can she be thinking of?" asked the pink lady in a low voice. "Don't she know about women's troubles? Poor little thing is only the size of a child herself."
"I reckon the Goodnows were surprised," chuckled one of the men. "I reckon they thought the Parkerson girls would be marrying some nice young men from the college."
"They're moving to Wild Cat. Out of harm's way, I guess."
Dorothy realized that she might not see Etta ever again. Her eyes seemed to swell from something like sorrow, something like anger.
"She thinks," said Dorothy, pink-cheeked, looking down, with a child's voice, "that she's going to be happy." That ended the conversation.
"Which seems a good enough reason to marry," said Aunty Em. "Shall we go to Meeting, brethren?" She took Dorothy's hand, and gathered up her skirts to march. The others followed.
It was hot inside the tent. Sunlight glowed on the white canvas. There were benches set on grass. It was as if there could be buildings with grass floors, grass floors with flowers growing in them, as if people could sit down to breakfast amid flowers.
They were sitting down to prayer. They passed the prayer books among them. Their voices seemed louder in the tent, men reaching across to shake hands, women calling out across the tent and waving. Aunty Em walked down the center aisle holding up her best black skirt, and she looked leaner, taller, back straighter than ever. When she turned to sit down, her dress whisked smartly around, and she nodded to the people near her and gathered up the dress and sat down slowly. It was as if she were someone else.
There was a banner across one side of the tent. Dorothy couldn't read it. "What's that say? Aunty Em? What's that say?"
" 'Gather ye unto the Lord,' " said Aunty Em. "And that little part underneath says 'Revival and reform.' That means to drive out sin and evil." Aunty Em's eyes still gleamed. She was still hungry.
A young man in black walked quickly across the front of the tent and hopped up onto a wagon. The Meeting quietened at once. Children's attention was drawn with a pat or a slap; a baby was howling, there was a hissing into silence.
The young man had wavy blond hair and a blond beard. "Good morning," he said simply.
"Mornin'," came back a mumbling reply.
Aunty Em drew back and cast a critical eye. Dorothy turned and watched her. So far it was like an ordinary Sunday. There would be prayers and song, and Dorothy would get bored and have to sit still. Maybe the best part had been outside when they were all talking and being nice.
"Seems to me we got a lot of fine folk moving into Kansas."
No response. People weren't sure they agreed with him.
"They come from all over, North, South. Fine people with some money to spend, or no money to spend, and not all of them see much of a future in working the land. Some of them move out to Abilene, or out to Wichita. I hear Dodge is going to be next, following the quarantine line wherever the money is cheapest and nastiest."
The silence was the silence of approval. The people understood now.
"And in these fine new cities of the new Kansas, where the business is brightest and fastest, these thriving cowtowns that seem so proud, with their money and their banks, there are sights the like of which could strike a righteous man blind, and from which all righteous women would shrink like flowers from a flame."
Murmur of agreement. They would shrink away, the poor women of the land.
"And I have to ask myself: Do these fine people know what Kansas means, and what Kansas stands for? Do they know that this is the tree state, the place to which the righteous flocked, to say 'No more!'?"
Hally hoo hah, said the Meeting.
"No more to sin and greed. No more to exploitation. No more to the cross of slavery. Or the cross of the Eastern banks and Eastern factories!"
Hally hoo hah.
"But lo, brethren, sisters, behold what comes slinking silently in. After the war, after the locusts, after the storms, and the broken hearts, what comes following in, after the people of Kansas have broken open the land, but people whose only god is the almighty dollar, whose only joy is in alcohol or bad women. Pray for them, brethren. But pray for yourselves too."
No cries as yet. Too indirect. He wasn't working them.
He changed tack. These people were not the farmers near Wichita. Politics did not move them.
"It could be that I don't know much. I have seen no blinding light from Heaven, I have seen no angels in the sky. I call the gospel because I love it. I can bear witness, and I will bear witness long as I can, loud as I can, that there is more to God's children than flesh alone or blood alone… or land alone or money alone, either."
That was more like it. Meeting made more noise. It wanted to touch the Lord, to feel Him brush past them, as if His robe swept their souls.
"I don't see no light of Heaven, it's not given to me to see it. That is given to prophets to see, and I ain't no prophet. But I'll tell you. I see the light of Heaven, just a glint of it, in the eyes of each and every one of you here today. That glimmer there? That's God shining out through you. And you can damn the bankers! You can damn all the fine folk."
There was some sound here of disapproval. He overrode it.
"They damn themselves!" A roar of agreement. "This is where the word of God shines!"
There were cries now, shouts. A man stood up, lean, lean under thick clothing, and shouted. Dorothy thought he was angry. She flinched and drew closer to Aunty Em. Were people mad? Why were they shouting? Dorothy thought perhaps she liked church better.
Aunty Em kept staring ahead, a thin smile on her face. But her eyes were full of yearning. A hand crept up to her breast.
"So let it shine, brothers, sisters. Let the Word shine in you! Let the Lord Jesus come to you in the Spirit. Open up the gates! Don't shut Him out. He sings in the wind. He whispers in the breath of every innocent young babe. He is all around us, to heal, to salve, to bring comfort, to warm the heart and bring peace to the mind."
Hally hoo hah. Hay men. Oh, he was good, this Preacher, who started out so slow.
Aunty Em seemed to melt. She listed sideways like a candle, hand still over her heart. The young Preacher prowled about his wagon. He'd started out so slow, and now he was waving his hands, commanding.
"Why are you so silent? Are you afraid of the Lord? Are you afraid of your speaking sins? Don't you know the Lord Jesus knows your sins, knows your pain, don't you know He loves you, and forgives you, leaves you as innocent as the child, the little children, whom He suffered to come unto Him? Go to Him as a child, be a child again in His presence!"
Aunty Em rose up, arms outstretched, her head shaking from side to side.
"The Spirit, the Spirit's on her!" called Harriet.
The old man with the beard grabbed her arms. Harriet stroked her brow.
"Brrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr!" said Aunty-Em, her tongue rattling loose in her mouth. Her hands shook; her lined cheeks flapped loosely.
Dorothy wailed in terror. "Oh!" she cried, the shadow of the terror of Lawrence still on her.
"Bulor ep ep ahhh no up shelopa no no no shelopa apa apa no ma!" cried Aunty Em.
"Oh, the Spirit's strong, the Spirit's good!" said Harriet, wrestling.
"I've never seen it like this," said the old man, looking worried.
Then the train came, with a whiplash whine along the metal rails nearby and a piercing shriek of steam through a whistle. A bell began to clang over and over. The horses in the corral whinnied and snorted.
And Dorothy remembered. The train had come once before and taken her away and shown her a world full of reasonable people who did not love her. The train came closer with a sound of steam and smoke, and Dorothy saw her aunty tossing her head back and forth, held down by other people, back and forth as if saying no, no, no. Aunty Em wanted to be hauled away from this world, from the farm, from the past. Dorothy was suddenly afraid.
"Don't die, Aunty Em! Don't die!" Dorothy shouted. The shadow of the train was cast on the white canvas.
The skinny woman leaned down, all pine-tree smells, breathing into Dorothy's face. "Your aunty's not going to die, darling," she said. Dorothy clung to her aunty's dress.
The Preacher had stopped preaching. He fought his way through the other people. Dismayed, he knelt down to look at Aunty Em.
"If you gentlemen could help me carry her outside," he said.
"You shouldn't have stopped, Preacher," chuckled Harriet. "It's what she came for."
The men carried Aunty Em out to her wagon. The train was far down the track, leaving a slight haze over the field.
Broke it up as soon as it got going, said voices, complaining. Dorothy followed, a fist rubbing her eyes to make the point that she was unhappy too.
"It's all right, darling, this means your aunty is with Jesus."
"Will she want to come back?" Dorothy asked.
The old man lifted Dorothy up into the wagon. Aunty Em was looking at her dimly. "Hello, Dorothy," she said gently, warm and soft and kind and far away.
"Oh, Aunty Em," said Dorothy, and lay down on the rough boards. "Oh, Aunty Em. I love you, love you, love you, love you."
"Why, child!" chuckled Aunty Em, pleased. She hugged Dorothy and kissed the top of her head.
"I thought you were going to die!" the child said.
"Oh, no," said Aunty Em, recalling the impact of Christ's love. "Not die."
A dog tied to a wagon began to bark. Dorothy looked up. "Toto?" she asked.
Aunty Em's hand, stroking her hair, froze.
Toto had lived throughout the winter in the buffalo wallows. The wallows had frozen hard, and the marsh reeds heavy with ice had fallen against each other to make ice shelters.
All through that winter, Toto would appear as if from nowhere, barking as he ran out of freezing mist that blazed with sunlight. He would bring Dorothy sticks to throw for him. They sparkled with frost. He bounded across crisp frosty ground to bring them back and drop them again at Dorothy's feet.
When blizzards fell, making a low grinding sound as if the sky were being milled, Toto would bark as Dorothy passed the barn. She would find him in the hay, and he would whimper and lick her hands. Dorothy left him food in a broken bowl and would return each morning to find it clean.
Aunty Em's hens began to disappear. "It's that dog. He's gone wild!" Aunty Em exclaimed. Toto unnerved her.
She would find him in her own yard, crouched and snarling at her, baring his fangs. When Aunty Em tried to grab him, he would scamper just out of reach and growl at her again.
"Dorothy! Dorothy! Come and call your dog!" Aunty Em would demand.
In the spring, the thaws began. Dorothy started school. She would walk every morning along the lane, between the ruts filled with muddy water and crusted with patches of ice. Toto would come out of the wallows from under the open arms of the scarecrows to meet Dorothy. He would be filthy, blinking and covered in mud. Dorothy would chuckle, and kneel down. "You got that old lady real mad at you."
He started to bring her presents. He brought her the Jewells' chickens, murdered and whole.
"Dorothy, you must control that dog. The Jewells are good neighbors to us and they can't afford to lose their livestock any more than we can. Now the next time you see him, you have a rope with you and you catch him and bring him back."
"Yes, Ma'am," said Dorothy. She somehow always forgot the rope.
Dorothy wanted to be good. That was why she worked so hard at her chores and her school exercises. She could sense goodness within her, like a pouch in her breast, to be opened. She wanted to love her aunty; it would be good to love her aunty. She loved Toto.
Toto was not good. He dug up the green shoots in Uncle Henry's fields. He tore down the washing from the clothesline into the mud. Once in the lane, he bit through the sleeve of Dorothy's only coat and tried to drag her with him, away.
"We can't go back, Toto," she said, stroking the rough gray hair of his terrier head.
She began to see him less and less. Sometimes he disappeared for days at a time.
Then one day, in late afternoon, Dorothy walked back from school hugging her books, head down. Aunty Em was at the stove, slamming pots, loud as she could.
"Good day, Dorothy?"
"What did you study, child?"
They heard a bark.
"That dog. Back again."
Aunty Em wiped her hands on her apron and opened the door.
The earth was soft, muddy, thawed. It was about four-thirty in the afternoon in late March, what had been a nice day, a sunset blur of orange and blue across a flat and featureless sky. Toto the dog sat waiting.
"We'll have to try to catch him," said Aunty Em. She swept her coat on in one motion and put on gloves and took a rope. Dorothy followed, not wanting Toto hurt.
They opened the door again, and Toto had not run away. He was still there, at the end of the yard, waiting beside one of Aunty Em's dead flowerbeds. He barked as if to say: Here.
"What's he brought with him this time?" said Aunty Em, striding.
He had dug something up. He waited over it, eyes fixed on Aunty Em.
Aunty Em suddenly gave a kind of coughing, stricken cry. Her hand went to her throat, and she dropped the rope. Dorothy knew then that Toto had done something terrible.
Aunty Em broke into a run. "Horrible, horrible animal! Horrible, horrible dog!" she said, sounding as if she were coughing. She ran toward him, trying to pick up a handful of mud, to throw at him. She slipped onto her knees and kept sliding toward the thing from out of the ground.
"Rob Roy," cried Aunty Em, sobbing. "Oh, Robbie! Rob Roy!"
Toto barked at her, just out of reach. He ran around her, bouncing furiously.
Toto had dug up the corpse of another dog. Dorothy walked up next to her aunt and stood watching.
"Toto, stop," she said weakly.
There was bone with some wet and bedraggled fur still clinging to it, and hollow eyes, and a doggy smile full of teeth, a large skeleton with some skin still attached, a long, big corpse of a huge long-haired animal.
Aunty Em knelt in the mud, sobbing, covering her face.
Raf raf, raf raf, said Toto. He came hopping toward Emma. He was small and fierce and full of hate. You see, you see? Toto seemed to say. You had one too.
"Toto. Leave her alone," whispered Dorothy.
Aunty Em spun around and grabbed Dorothy and shook her, thick spittle clogging her lips, gray eyes wild. "Look at it! Look at it!" she demanded. "See it? See it? That's death. That's what your mother looks like now, in the ground."
Dorothy looked and saw the hollow eyes, the somewhat surprised and empty face that seemed to ask what had happened to itself. Where had it gone? Dorothy knew it was the truth. Her mother had no flesh now, or eyes, in the ground. Aunty Em wept, and Toto trotted back away, revenge taken. Dorothy saw him go, his tiny legs strutting across the gray mud, between the rounded gray humps.
Uncle Henry kept a shotgun leaning in the corner.
Toto did not show up for a day or two. Dorothy knew enough not to mention him. She thought he was hiding, keeping low for a while. He was such a clever dog.
But how low can you keep without disappearing, until you fade into less than a memory? When almost a week had passed, Dorothy asked if Aunty Em had seen Toto while she was away at school.
Aunty Em was scrubbing. "No, I haven't," she said, lightly.
"He's been gone a long time."
"I expect he's gone away," said Aunty Em, not looking at her.
"He wouldn't do that," said Dorothy.
"Well, he kept staying away for longer and longer," said Aunty Em.
But he wouldn't leave her, he wouldn't leave Dorothy, she knew that.
"Why would he run away?"
"Guess he didn't like it here."
Dorothy slumped down onto her mattress. Aunty Em couldn't stand it when anyone else cried. If anyone had a right to cry, it was Aunty Em. She looked around the edge of the blanket.
"There's no point going against the will of God, if that's what He's decided," said Aunty Em. Aunty Em looked at the good little girl who was so unhappy and relented a bit.
"Toto wasn't happy here, Dorothy. That's why he kept barking all the time and running off and did all those terrible things. So, I reckon he's gone off to find somewhere happier. Maybe he's gone off to find your old house in St. Louis. Maybe he thinks your mama's there. He's a dog and doesn't know any better."
"He wouldn't leave me!" said Dorothy.
"Well he has, and there's no way around it but to get used to it," said Aunty Em. Dorothy heard her boots on the floor as she walked away.
Dorothy waited for Toto to come back. Maybe he had gone away because he knew he was bad and would come back when he thought he had been forgiven. Maybe you could find out you were bad, and go away from shame and come back when you were good again.
Every day after school, when she came to the track that led to the farm, she would expect to see him again. Maybe this time, maybe this time, she thought every day all through the rest of that March, into April, into the fullness of the Kansas spring. From time to time, she would call his name, expecting to find him lying close to the ground, ready to spring up and run yipping to her.
She knew just how she would feel when that happened. She knew there would be a leaping up of joy inside her, and she would say "Good Toto, good boy, good Toto," and he would roll over and over and over, like he always did when he was especially glad to see her. That would happen, and everything would be all right.
Whenever she heard a dog barking at night, the sound coming across the Kansas hills, she thought it was Toto. She would get up.
"Dorothy. Where are you going?" demanded the voice in the darkness.
"I think it's Toto," she would reply. "I think he's come back."
"It's not Toto. Get back to bed," the voice would order.
And Dorothy would slink guiltily back onto her bed, in an agony in case Toto came back and found no one there to greet him. She learned how to slip out of the window, into the cool spring night in just her nightgown.
"Toto?" she would whisper, teeth chattering, icy mud between her toes. "Toto?"
She started hiding her boots under the mattress. She would go out and hunt for Toto at night, stumbling across the Kansas plain, following the sound of the dogs. She would be sure that he was just a field or two away, lost, not quite able to find the tiny single-room house in the wide flat valley.
One day after school, Uncle Henry met her at the crossroads and they walked together.
"You're still worried about Toto, ain't you?" he said. His kindness was inseparable from his smell. He still reeked, and there was food in his beard.
"When he can't find my mama, will he come back here?" she asked.
"Well," he said. "It's possible that Toto is dead, Dorothy."
Dorothy saw the bedraggled fur, the empty eyes.
"If he is, then he's with all the other good little dogs in Heaven, and we should be happy for him."
Dorothy said nothing.
"So maybe he has found your mama," said Uncle Henry. "And your little brother. Maybe they're all together, just like they used to be."
"Maybe Wilbur's there too," she said. She still thought of Wilbur sometimes.
"I should think that's right," said Uncle Henry. "So you say your prayers, and be a good little girl, you'll join them one day. They'll be waiting for you at the gate."
"By that time I'll be too old, and I won't care," said Dorothy.
But she didn't stop hoping. She just knew she had to hide it. Whenever she heard a dog bark, she would look up in hope.
But in another sense, Toto was always with her, silent and invisible, bouncing and spinning around her as she walked to and from school, or sleeping by the rusty stove while Dorothy did her homework. She could almost feel him, tiny and coarse-haired, growing warmer next to her at night.
She told stories to herself to account for why he was still there. She could see the stories happening very clearly. There were thieves and they came and tied Aunty Em up and were going to steal money from the tin box behind the flue, but Toto came back and saw them and fetched Uncle Henry, and the thieves were foiled, so Toto was a hero. Aunty Em let him lick her face.
Dorothy daydreamed many things, walking back and forth from the crossroads. She daydreamed that an angel came down, right in the middle of school, where all the other children could see her. And the angel said that because Dorothy was so good, she could have three wishes. And Dorothy would wish that her mother was back, and that her father came back, and that they all lived together in St. Louis. And the angel would smile and say, "Your wishes are granted," and there would be a great wind that would pick Dorothy up and blow her through the sky, back home.
She daydreamed the size of gravestone she would have. She thought that gravestones were earned by goodness, rather than paid for by money, and she imagined her gravestone, as big as a house, with angels carved all over it. Then she felt guilty because she knew her mother didn't have one like that.
She felt guilty remembering her mother. To dream that her mother was back, rocking Dorothy in her lap, singing to her, divided Dorothy in two. Because the mother who Dorothy remembered, soft-faced with pursed lips, was nothing like the mother Aunty Em talked about. She wasn't wild, she was hardworking. She had to practice the piano and she had to rehearse. She wasn't a poor, silly little thing. She was sensible and kept a cleaner house than Aunty Em did. She was often away and tried to make it up to Dorothy. Dorothy remembered her mother kneeling down on the floor with her to make cakes in the shape of men with sugar faces. She was sure she could remember her mother and her father having a snowball fight in the park. She could also remember her mother on the settee, sobbing, clasping her hands and saying, "Dear God, please don't let me ask him back. Don't let me call him back." Outside on the street her father was walking away.
To imagine she was back with her mother would remind Dorothy that something was wrong. Aunty Em was wrong. And Dorothy loved her Aunty Em. She had to love her. Everything depended on Aunty Em now. Her mother may have been beautiful and kind and sometimes terrible, but she couldn't help Dorothy. She wasn't there.
Dorothy would have to divide and find different places to keep things within herself. Memories here, love here, hate there, dreams here, school there. And hope?
She talked to Toto as she swept the floor, as she told Aunty Em she loved her, as she greased Uncle Henry's boots.
"Toto, you bad, bad dog," she would tell him, in imitation of Aunty Em. She would whup him, and he would cower in the corner, shaking. She would beat him mercilessly with the broom, kick him in the ribs and out of the door.
"Sit up and beg," she would tell him, and he did, feet pumping helplessly in midair, waiting for an answer that never came.
On the wall, there was an old sampler, slightly charred in one corner. It was signed in needlework: Millie Branscomb, aged 8, 1856.
"There is no place like home," it said.
And there wasn't, not anywhere.
Culver City, California-February 1939
We have also seen, that, among democratic nations, the sources of poetry are grand, but not abundant. They are soon exhausted: and poets, not finding the elements of the ideal in what is real and true, abandon them entirely and create monsters. I do not fear that the poetry of democratic nations will prove insipid, or that it will fly too near the ground; I rather apprehend that it will be forever losing itself in the clouds, and that it will range at last to purely imaginary regions. I fear that the productions of democratic poets may often be surcharged with immense and incoherent imagery, with exaggerated descriptions and strange creations; and that the fantastic beings of their brain may sometimes make us regret reality. -Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America
If I only had a heart, lamented the Tin Man, close on half a century ago. In our contemporary fantasies, the androids are made of sterner stuff… -Sheila Johnston, in a review of the movie Robocop, from The Independent, February 4, 1988
It was five-thirty when Millie got to work. Five-thirty in the morning, that is. Took the bus. Knew most everybody on it. They all worked for the studio too. She said Hello to them; they murmured back. She got a couple of minutes' shut-eye, forehead on hand. She could feel the cough and throb of the bus through her elbow as it rested on the edge of the window.
A few minutes before they arrived, Millie put a fresh piece of Wrigley's Spearmint in her mouth, gathered up her bag and thermos flasks, and got up. She stood by the middle door, early, to avoid the exodus. Practically the whole dang bus got off at MGM.
The morning smelled of unburned gas and it was dark. There were pools of light around the studio, Millie said hi to Joe at the gate. She always brought him a thermos of coffee.
"Hi, Joe. Boys here yet?" she asked him.
"Yup. They'll be in the chair. Most of the kids are here too." He thanked Millie for his coffee and passed her yesterday's empty thermos.
"Welp. Off to work," said Millie. "Say hello to Joyce for me."
Millie had been over to their place. Lived in Santa Monica, right near her. Nice, ordinary people. Most of the people working at Culver were nice, except for the bigwigs and some of the actors. Even most of them were okay. So how many folks are wonderful at five-thirty in the morning?
Sometimes actors were. There were some of them who were just never offstage. They'd talk to you and keep you entertained while you worked. It was one of the many good things about this job.
Millie's shoes clicked on the concrete as she walked to the trailers. Cold this hour of the morning. Her gum clicked too. Millie liked the sound of punctuation and of process. She liked things to move, for herself and other people. Why she was so good at her job. Lots of people around who could do makeup. But there was more to the job than that.
Millie managed the team when Jack Dawn wasn't around. She would check out her boys and girls, get them all lined up, schedules ready. They were good kids, hardworking. This danged picture is made of makeup, Millie thought, hours of it every morning. Latex and fur and all of that stuff.
But nothing ever again, Millie thought, could be as bad as those darned Munchkins. One hundred and twenty-four of them all lined up in Rehearsal Hall 8, moving from chair to chair like it was an assembly line. Hard work, but the Little People were fine to work with. Millie had no time for the stories. Millie told her crew to treat them as adults, call them Mr., Miss, or Mrs. and to watch out for knives. Only one or two of them had knives, the real deadbeats, the drunks. Most of them were sweet and looked kinda lost. Like they woke up in the wrong world. But all this sexual business that people were saying. That was just their own dirty minds. The Little People were sweet as could be and as innocent as lambs. Heck, a lot of them had to be. There was something wrong with their glands. A lot of them had foreign accents and got totally lost in the studio. Had to be led around like a class of schoolchildren.
Humiliating for them really. Dressed up in those horrible clothes that pansy had designed for them. Get you, sweetie. Put them in big collars, loose sleeves, to make them look even smaller. Costumes were so bad, they had to have people help them out of them when they had to pee. People were just so mean. One minder used to carry them to the John, one under each arm. "What am I, a nursemaid?" Insulting. They didn't like it either, Big Man. That poor little fellow who fell into the John and couldn't get out? We put big ugly red spots on their cheeks. Supposed to look like they were made of porcelain. Big deal. I just told the kids to treat them with respect.
Lights on inside and warmer.
"Storm last night."
"Yeah, big wind. Any damage to your place?" Millie asked.
"No. But we got a lot of sweeping up to do. Lots of eucalyptus, and you know how they shed bark."
"Not a problem we ever had in Missouri. Got all your gear?" Tony had been new, brought in to help handle the Munchkins. Jack had him stay on to train. "Got your pencils, spirit gum?" Millie asked. Her fingers rattled through the box.
"Mmmm hmmm," said Tony, sharpening an eyebrow pencil.
"You mix this today?" The spirit gum.
"Uh, no, that's yesterday's."
"Well it looks like it. That stuff's murder at the best of times. You better mix it new."
Nice ordinary people.
Millie looked at the schedule. "How come you're doing Frank?"
"Jack had Harry and me switch."
"Oh, sorry, he did tell me. Slipped my mind this hour of the morning." Millie thought of Frank Morgan. "Don't light a match," she warned the kid.
Tony smiled. "I know."
Frank Morgan liked his tipple.
"See you later."
Just a quick hiya to the old hands. They knew enough to mix their gum fresh. Hi Tommy, Hi Mort, Hi Bill. Bad storm last night. Drains on our street's all blocked. This city is not designed for rain.
Millie got to her own locker and hauled out her kit. Looked like a toolbox. My little pirate's chest of goodies, thought Millie. All kinds of colors, hard to get. If I lose this, I might as well close up shop for good. Now let's see. Bit of mascara, eyebrows. Today is black-and-white, isn't it, so the lips are going to have to be even lighter than usual or she'll end up looking like Theda Bara. There now. Take all this over, have it ready, and pull back the Technicolor stuff so I don't make a mistake.
Millie loaded it all into a bag and walked down the hall away from the dressing rooms. She walked down the corridor, stepped outside. Everything was a beautiful blue color now, cool, with quite a wind blowing. It whipped the back of her coat up. She walked onto Stage 27. Monkeys were all over the rafters, fixing lights. Paint was still drying on the Kansas backdrop outside the window. Twelve-foot-wide moat between the wall and the set, filled with a bank of lights. Thank God those lights were off for once. Millie was cold, but not that cold. She went to the stars' dressing room, a trailer they had wheeled on to the stage, and opened it up. Millie had a key. She opened it up and laid the makeup out on the table.
Millie never talked about the people she worked with. If people asked her, she'd just say, oh, so-and-so's really nice. Millie would have a thing or two to say about the Kid, if she had a mind to. Oh, she was charming and all that. Went out of her way to be charming. But the stories she told. Like the story she told everyone about the dressing room. Stood outside it crying, saying that they hadn't given her the key. Just had to be the center of attention. Make a little drama out of anything. And as for that graduation business. Told Margaret Hamilton that she would have to miss her high-school graduation because the studio was making her tour. Said it was Hollywood High. Well, she goes to University High, which is clean across town from Hollywood, and she doesn't graduate until next year. So I know better than to believe anything Miss Judy Garland says. There now.
Millie, chewing her gum, locked the door behind her. Better go see about the boys.
Millie went down along the stage, into the next room. Six o'clock, there was Ray Bolger, getting a shave.
"Oh, hello, Millie," he smiled, his mouth ringed with shaving soap. She liked Ray Bolger. Quiet and nice.
"Everything okay?" she asked Bud, who did Ray.
"Yup," Bud answered, looking up, smiling. "For once Ray's out of that mask. Just a standard paint job now."
"I feel like a used car," said Bolger, hugging himself. "The only thing I'm going to remember about this picture, Millie, is sitting in this chair. Even a dentist's appointment doesn't take as long."
"Well, at least today you're out of that mask."
"And it's black-and-white." He pretended to sob with relief. Black-and-white meant cooler lights.
"Jack'll be able to sit down," said Bud.
Jack Haley's Tin Man suit dented. He couldn't sit, for eight, ten hours, so he had to lean on a board.
"Bert'll have to find something else to worry about."
"Yeah." Ray chuckled. The boys were a pretty swell team, actually.
"When's the Kid due?" asked Bud, wiping the last of the suds off Ray's face.
"Not till six-thirty," said Millie. "I'm going to the canteen, get some breakfast. You boys want anything?"
"Had mine, Millie, thanks. I'll just-"
"Sit around and wait, and sit around and wait some more." She, Bolger and Bud said it in unison.
"See you," she said.
Millie loved working in movies. Never wanted any other job. Because of the people. It wasn't glamorous. There was nothing glamorous in it at all, really. She hated the whole concept of glamour. It was more than glamour. It was people working together to make something good, and when you worked for a class act like MGM, you knew you were doing something worthwhile. There were times when Millie could feel the whole giant enterprise ticking away. The sets, the lights, the makeup, the costumes. Like this morning. One set finished with yesterday, it gets struck overnight, painted again, and a new one put up. People working around the clock on something that reached out and got to people. That was what Millie liked. The sheer sociability of a lot of it. She looked at the rafters and the Monkeys, whipping wire. Been there all night probably. Wouldn't even know the story of the picture. But they could go and see it and say, I put that set up. You wouldn't have believed how phony it looked, either, but it looks good on film.
With a small, contented smile, Millie went to have her breakfast.
Mind you, she thought, listening to her shoes, feeling the delicious California chill again, this one's shaping up pretty poorly. I mean, doing a fairy tale as vaudeville is pretty risky. You got two different elements. Lahr and the other boys are great, but there is no getting away from it, what they do is pure vaudeville. The Kid, too, she's pure vaudeville. But the sets, the whole works is Viennese operetta stuff with a little bit of Hollywood Hotel thrown in. And there is just no script. Everybody keeps adding lines. The songwriters add lines. Lahr and Haley throw in old stage routines. They had God knows how many writers on it. And God knows how many directors. Thorpe. He went. Tried to make the Kid into Shirley Temple, and with the best will in the world, she's not curly-haired and cute. Brought in Cukor, who got her out of the wig, and then Fleming, who at least gets things done, then King Vidor. Picture will be a mess if they aren't careful. Black-and-white here, color there. And some of the filming really is sloppy. Like that Monkey, flipping a wire out of the way, right in shot, and they went and used it anyway. I just can't believe that.
Millie sighed, shook her head. Well. Ours not to reason why.
More coffee. Doughnut. Bacon and eggs. Long day today and it's cold. Millie remembered farm breakfasts in Missouri.
"Hi, Hank," she said to the man in the white cap.
Our own little world.
Millie sat by herself. Not many people in for breakfast just on six. She carefully unloaded things from her tray, like she was setting the table at home. She sat down and sighed. Bushed already.
Still, things sometimes come together for a picture. Like that coat.
Frank Morgan says he found it, him and Hank Rosson. They went looking for a coat for the black-and-white stuff. Found it in a secondhand store and showed it to Vic. They wanted something that would look shabby but genteel. The Wizard wears it when he's Professor Marvel. Vic turns out the pockets, and the label says "L. Frank Baum." Man who wrote the book. He used to read it out loud to kids on his porch, lived in L.A. and that was his coat. Got an affidavit from his tailor, they say. Mind you, they'll say anything. Too good to be true, like most things around here.
Millie thought about the Kid. She was nice really. But funny-looking. She wasn't pretty at all. Our little hunchback, Mayer called her. And her expressions were peculiar. Her smile would sort of twist around and look a bit sour sometimes. Then she'd pull herself together for the camera, stand up straight, look like a different person.
A lot of them could do that. That weaselly little private-school boy who played all the tough guys. Tiny, ropy-looking little thing until he had to act. One star Millie could name looked like an effeminate toad, until the lights came on. Then suddenly his toad neck looked burly, his hands developed wrists, and his voice went deep. Women all over the country swooned. Thought he was the epitome of beefcake.
Funny about the Kid. She liked guys like that. There she was, the world at her feet, going to premieres, the whole bit. And you'd see her hanging around with all the little fairies from the offices or from Wardrobe. Being real nice to them, nice to everybody, why not? Still it's funny. It's like she wants something from them. That little light in her eyes. Odd.
Millie lit a cigarette.
God, this hour of the morning, who wants to think about anything?
Oh. Is that the time? Better move on.
Millie put everything back on the tray, carried it over to the rack, took out a fresh piece of gum.
Mind you, Millie Haugaard, who are you calling ugly? Tall, big hips, thin shoulders. Nice tan and nice hair, but thirty-seven is no spring chicken. They say they keep the Kid on some kind of diet. Seems to work. Wish they'd tell me. Millie could feel weight around her midriff move as she walked. Well, there's no way I could get any more exercise. There just isn't any time. She decided to check out her own makeup before doing the Kid's and swept into the powder room. Better get it all over with. It's a long day till lunchtime.
Millie got back to the trailer and waited outside it. Kid was late again. She'd be in, all breathless and apologetic. Millie watched as the lights were adjusted. One patch lighting up, then going dark, gels and overlays being tried. It's like being in a stage show, she thought. Only you constantly set up, hang around, and no one ever gets to act.
Only sometimes they do act up.
Millie looked at her watch. Six forty-five. It's cutting it fine, Kid, starting this late anyway. Too late, you hold people up.
Then she saw her, the Kid, in a plain cloth coat, hugging herself, looking at the floor as she walked. She walked head bowed as if her shoes were the most interesting things in the place. That, thought Millie, is one unhappy girl. Millie stood up, put out her cigarette and said, "Hiya, Kid."
Kid called her Ma.
"Anything wrong, honey?"
The Kid was wrestling with the key to her trailer. "Naw," said the Kid in a downward-turning drawl. She sighed and stepped inside and turned on the lights and slumped into her makeup chair.
"You sound like it," said Millie, fetching the foundation among the lined-up tubes and tins. Panchro No. 23.
"I don't sleep, Ma," said the Kid, her voice and her face somehow puffy.
"Should go to bed earlier then." Briskly, Millie applied the greasepaint in short dabs over the face and neck.
"I do," the Kid whispered.
Kid looked forty. The Hollywood life. At least you're not drinking. Yet. I'd smell it on your breath. Actors smell like skunks in the morning. Millie looked at the Kid's face in the mirror. Always was a funny face. Looked pinched and plump at the same time. Gonna have to put some white stick over those bags. Good thing I brought some along case I had to tone the colors down. Usually only have to use it on someone older.
Millie poured some water over her fingers and began to spread the paint thinly, perfectly. It had to be perfect.
"I went back to Lancaster yesterday," said the Kid, like it was some kind of confession.
"Oh yeah?" Millie filled in the pores. The slightest little thing, and it would show up.
"That's way out in the desert somewhere," said Millie.
"Why'd you go there?" Millie leaned over to get the bit over the ear right.
"It's where I'm from. Went to see an old friend of mine. I always called her Muggsie." The Kid smiled finally, just a wisp of a smile, kind of twisted. "Got there, suddenly found I couldn't remember her real name. Just Muggsie."
"So how was she?" Millie asked.
"Oh. Just normal. She's a couple of years older than me. So she's about eighteen now. Going to get married. It was strange."
"Thought you were supposed to be from Grand Rapids."
Another studio lie?
"Well, I am in a way. We lived there until I was two. Then we upped stakes and moved to a dump like Lancaster because my mother wanted to be near Los Angeles so's we could all become stars." The Kid sounded sarcastic. "Daddy just wanted to run a movie house and keep us all together. Lancaster was the only place he could find."
That face is going to have to have some tone put into it. Millie placed a little jab of darker paint on each cheek. Fresh-faced country kid, so get a nice glow in the cheeks, without it looking like rouge.
"Thought you spent your whole life touring with your sisters," said Millie, selecting the right jar from the counter.
The Kid laughed. "No. You can't do that, Millie. You've got to go to school."
"Guess so," said Millie, chuckling too. Wide streak of something down-to-earth in the Kid.
"I mean everybody thinks we were some big vaudeville family or something. I'll tell you what we did. We sang in my daddy's movie house between shows. All of us. Mom played piano; Janie, Jinny, me, we just sang. The only place we were stars was in Lancaster. My daddy was the biggest star of all. He used to sing all the time." The Kid was staring through to the other side of the mirror, remembering.
"What's your daddy do now?" asked Millie. Eyes next. The eyes were the most important thing in the makeup.
"He died," the Kid said.
"Oh, honey, I'm sorry, I didn't know," said Millie.
"Nobody knows," said the Kid. "He died three years ago."
The Kid looked like she was going to cry. So, thought Millie, she went back home on the weekend and it stirred things up. Poor kid.
Millie took time out from the makeup. "Sounds like your daddy was a nice man."
"The nicest. He had a temper on him though. He was Irish, through and through. He'd just turn on people, say they weren't treating his girls right. Then he'd go and let half the town into the show for free. If they were poor or anything. So we always had a full house. People would come over and we'd sing. All of us."
"Sounds like fun."
"Thing is that I remember hating Lancaster. I remember thinking it was a really nasty, small-minded place. But when I was there, I started remembering all kinds of good things about it."
"Like what?" Millie asked, over her shoulder. Getting out the old Panchro-and her little white stick.
"Oh, like going swimming with Muggsie. We used to run around the old sheds a lot, just playing like kids do. Me and Muggsie and the Gilmores. We had a lot of friends there. People were really very nice to us. We'd go to parties and I'd just hop up onto pianos and sing. There was this place opened up called the Jazz Cafe, and they asked us in to sing there. And people kept coming to the shows at the theater. They never got tired of the shows, and they must have seen us every week." The Kid managed to laugh again. "To tell you the truth we probably weren't all that good. For years and years, the only thing I knew about singing was that you had to be loud."
"Oh, every place is a mixture of good and bad," said Millie. "I got pretty mixed memories of Missouri. Everybody gets into everybody else's business all the time."
"They sure do," agreed the Kid. She went silent, perplexed, hugging herself. Millie took advantage of the stillness to get the white stick and draw two quick lines over the bags under the eyes. You had to be quick. All these stars got such frail vanity.
"Okay, now. Hold still, Judy. I'm going to do your eyes." Millie smoothed even darker brown, No. 30, across the whole of the eyelid and then up to the natural eyebrow. It was a good design, this makeup. It made her eyes look bigger in her face, like a real little girl's, by darkening everything to the eyebrow and putting on these absolutely enormous eyelashes. Millie had thought it would look phony. Instead, the eyelashes seemed to match the Kid's own huge dark eyes. And then you didn't put a thing on the lower lid at all, except for the slightest bit of mascara.
The huge dark eyes were looking at her, and the Kid was saying something.
"That's what I can't figure," said the Kid. "I just don't understand. They were so nice, and then they drove my daddy out."
"Drove him out. What you mean?"
Millie leaned over and painted in eyebrows lightly with a brush. You had to be careful with eyebrows. Too much, too little, both showed up bad.
"After we started to get big. They drove my daddy out of town, took away the lease from his movie theater, shoved him out, and a year later he was dead."
Millie was silent. She was not sure this was the truth.
"Why would people do that to him?" the Kid asked, her voice rising.
"I don't know. If you were starting to get successful, maybe they were jealous."
"He was such a nice man. They killed him, Ma. One year later he was dead!"
Okay. Millie stopped, put down the brush. She knelt down so that she and the Kid were face-to-face. "What did he die of, Judy?"
"Spinal meningitis," the Kid admitted.
"That's not Lancaster's fault."
"They still drove him out," she said, picking at the arm of the chair. "The town drove him out, and my mother had left him for all those men."
Millie stood up. Don't want to hear about that.
"I've talked to your mother," Millie said carefully. "She seems to be a nice lady." Millie used the tip of the brush to sketch individual eyebrow hairs.
"Seems," said the Kid.
"I met a lot of kids' mothers," said Millie. She meant the mothers of child actors. "Most of them were real pushy. Yours wasn't."
"She's just better at it." The Kid's mouth went firm, drawn tightly inward. "You better hurry up with the makeup."
Okay, Kid, end of conversation.
"She just sat in the limousine," said the Kid.
Okay, not the end of conversation. "Who?"
"My mother. We got driven out to Lancaster in a studio limousine." The Kid said it in an imitation English accent, to make it sound snotty. "We drove up in a limousine to Muggsie's house, and my mother sat in it outside so I wouldn't stay too long. I mean, she could have gone to see the Gilmores or somebody, but she didn't. She said she didn't want to get dusty."
Does sound pretty snotty to me, thought Millie.
"She thinks limousines are the best thing in the world. She thinks it's real great driving all day. Every weekend, I'd have to leave Daddy and go with her all the way to Los Angeles. To take lessons or go to auditions. If it was schooltime, Janie and Jinny would stay behind. And I'd have to sit in the car alone with her. For hours and hours and hours. All along the Mint Canyon Highway. She used to make me wear the same dresses as my sisters. Only mine were real short so I would still look like a baby. And she put my hair in ringlets. Twelve years old and I looked like somebody's doll."
The Kid shifted in the chair, fuming.
"The day we finally left Lancaster, I leaned out of the car, and I gave Muggsie a photograph. Just some photograph of me, and I wrote something on it for Muggsie. And you know what? My mother got mad at me. She said I shouldn't give away a professional photograph like it was a snapshot. To my best friend. And there was Daddy, waiting left behind, trying to smile, trying to look like we were still a family. And we drove away and left him behind."
Okay, okay, so your mother was human. Millie thought of her own teenage boys. They all go through this phase. It isn't pretty. They all go through this phase of hating their poor old parents. Who are only doing the best they can.
"She was the real Wicked Witch of the West," said the Kid.
"She probably just wanted the best for you," suggested Millie.
"She thought that whatever she wanted was the best for us."
Well, that was probably true. Millie was keeping an open mind. Some of what the Kid was telling her was probably true, some of it probably not. Millie couldn't judge which was which and wasn't going to try. Not judging between truth and falsehood is called keeping an open mind.
"After that, Daddy followed us around like a puppy dog. We'd go to Chicago, or up North, and he'd drive all that way, just to see us. And my mother would take us farther away. She left him and took us, and he was all alone." The voice went thin with pity. "He was left all alone when everything went wrong, and he lost his movie house, and the town turned on him. He must have thought even we didn't love him."
"It would have come right again," said Millie. She knew. Boy, did she know.
"Listen, honey," said Millie. "I moved out here with my husband, oh, about 1927. We moved out here, and I didn't know a soul, and then our marriage broke up, and I was left with two boys. I thought it was the end of the world, but I got a job here at Metro, just as it was starting up. So everything came out right. It would have gone right for your daddy, too."
The Kid shook her head. "The only way it could have come out right was if he got us back. And he never would have. My mother would have stopped him. He got another movie house in Lomita. We were already calling ourselves the Garland Sisters. And so he called his movie house Garland's Theater, after us. He started calling himself Garland. Just so people would think of us as a family still."
Either that, thought Millie, or he was cashing in. She kept it to herself.
"The night he died," said the Kid, and her voice started to shake, "I had to go on the radio. I had to hug old Wallace Beery and giggle and say how pleased I was to be back on his show." The Kid spoke in a nasty, piping voice.
"I had to pretend I was oh so happy. Because they were going to announce that I had a contract with MGM, and I was supposed to pretend that it was because I had gone on his radio show, and of course it was the other way around, the whole thing was a lie. So I did my little routine and then I had to sing, and I knew Daddy was dying in the hospital, but they had a radio by his bed."
The Kid had started to cry, and Millie didn't believe a word.
"And I had to sing this stupid stupid song. 'Zing Went the Strings of My Heart.' " The Kid rolled her eyes at its stupidity. "The words didn't mean anything, but I sang it for him just the same."
The Kid's voice clogged. Millie passed her a Kleenex. Well, there go the eyes. At least I haven't done the mascara yet. If she's lying, at least she believes it herself, thought Millie.
"I don't know if he ever heard it," the Kid said, in a voice like a rusty hinge. "He never knew. Any of this." The Kid made the Kleenex take in the whole of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.
"When people die," said Millie and coughed, "the people who get left behind have lots of feelings. When my father died, I tried to put the blame for it on all sorts of things. I thought there had to be a reason for it. Sometimes there isn't. And that seems the worst thing of all, that you can lose something for no reason. And so you start to blame other people."
"We all left him alone."
Ah, thought Millie. Now I got it.
"Or even worse," whispered Millie, "we start blaming ourselves."
The face in front of her was puffy, closed against her.
"Well, you don't need a lecture from me, I guess," said Millie and stood up.
"I hate it here," said the Kid. "I don't want to be here."
"You don't like being a movie star?" Millie didn't sound surprised. Most of them didn't, one way or another. But they hated it when it was taken away as well.
"It's okay, I guess," said the Kid. "I don't know." She'd stopped crying, and merely sounded dispirited.
The way they worked this kid over. Pulled all her teeth together, put her on diets to beef her up, put her on diets to slim her down, sent her to physios for her shoulders. No wonder she feels all spun around by everybody. Even me, painting on a different face.
"A lot of people would like to be Judy Garland," Millie reminded her.
"So would I," said the Kid.
Millie caught a whiff of self-dramatization. Poor little movie-star stuff. Well, you are a movie star and, until you decide to quit, we both have a job to do. In about fifteen minutes. Millie examined the makeup. Still got the lips to do, and the fall. And her eyes will be all bloodshot. I don't have any eyedrops.
"Listen, honey, I've got to go and get something. You going to be all right on your own till I come back?"
"Sure," said the Kid. She leaned forward, arm across the counter, and rested her head on it.
"I'll be back in a minute," said Millie, but the Kid didn't answer.
Outside the trailer, the studio was in full boom. Millie always thought of the phrase as "full boom." That was how she had heard it when she was a kid. It made her think of noise, people shouting, getting things done. The sound stage was crawling with people. "You got half an hour, Millie," Continuity shouted to her across the bare concrete.
"Don't worry, I know," she shouted back.
Outside there were actors everywhere in all kinds of costumes, coming out of the canteen, finding their sound stage. Props were being rolled in or out. Somebody was carrying a stuffed elephant's foot. And the secretaries and the clerical help walking to their office the long way round, just to feel part of the excitement.
What did Millie think? That is one unhappy kid, is what she thought. It's true what they say, success don't mean happiness. Funny thing about working with actors was that all the cliches turned out to be true. The blond bombshell really does get ahead by using men, and she really is pretty smart and pretty dumb at the same time. The great actress really is as temperamental as hell and impossible to be around. The cliches were true and that was surprising, more surprising in a way than to find out they weren't.
So the Kid doesn't like the whole schmear, and who can blame her. It is pretty phony. But she asked for it. She doesn't quit it. She's the one the whole thing benefits most. She is the center of attention, it all focuses on her. Maybe it's the responsibility. Like my husband Bill, when he got promoted, he didn't really like it because it meant more work. But he had to pretend to like it, because you have to pretend you like success.
Like he pretended he loved me.
Now, now, Millie. He liked you well enough till he met that little girl from Encino.
Back in her bungalow, Millie found the eyedrops. Collected up other bits and pieces too. Time I got a bigger case, with all these stars. Maybe a degree in psychology too. So's I can handle them when they start to act up. I wonder. You know, it wouldn't surprise me one little bit to find out that Frank Garland is still alive and running a movie house in Lomita.
She put a fresh stick of gum in her mouth. Kinda kept the breath minty when you had to talk into people's faces doing makeup. She said hi to the Monkeys as they filed out of the stage. Bill, Mark, Tomlin, she passed them all, said something to each of them. One big family. Those guys must have been working from well past midnight on top of everything else. Well, the other studios are good; we're just better, the best. Makes people feel worth something, like they're doing something in life.
Back into the dark and the blaze of lights ahead. A wave to Continuity, who's getting all antsy. Millie saw she hadn't closed the door to the trailer properly. It hung open, resting against the latch. She walked in without making much sound. She heard the Kid say: "You going to be all right on your own until I get back?"
Millie heard her own Missouri twang. The little minx, she thought. She's imitating me.
"Ah-yale be bay-yak in a min-uht," said the Kid. Her voice rose and fell in swoops. She was sitting up in the chair. Lily had been in and pinned the fall onto her hair already. And I see she's polished up the eyes for me and put on the lashes. The Kid was in costume, too, dressed like a little girl. The Kid was staring ahead, and it was spooky. She was staring ahead and smiling.
"Bay-ack in a minute," she repeated, turning the words into music. That's how she does it, thought Millie. She turns the sounds into notes, even when she talks. That's why it sounds so good. She modulates it. That was the word. She modulates her whole self.
Kid didn't seem to realize she was there.
"Frank," the Kid whispered. "Frank Gumm."
That child has indeed suffered a loss, thought Millie.
"Honest and sticky," the Kid said. She was smiling and looking kind of weepy at the same time. "And my name's Frances."
"You ready?" Millie said, trying to sound like she had just climbed in and hadn't heard.
"Yes, I'm ready now," said the Kid. That's a line from the picture, thought Millie. That's just how she says it to Billie Burke before she goes home.
Millie didn't say anything but worked quickly. She put a towel around the shoulders, over the mutton sleeves of the child's dress. No time for eyewash now-it would make the eyes run.
"Judy, I just got to finish your lips," explained Millie.
She used a pencil to outline them, no time for a brush, and then used brown for lipstick, just a few shades darker than the skin tone. Finally a bit of powder over the whole thing to kill the shine. The Kid sat still.
My, but I've had to do this in a hurry. Too much talking.
"Okay, sit up. Now remember, don't scratch your hair, even when it's hot. Suppose Lily told you that, too. Should be cooler today anyway with black-and-white." Kid said nothing.
They walked out of the trailer, and Judy Garland was on.
The Kid modulated. Her shoulders went back; the curl to her lip relaxed. She went up to people.
Kid saw Continuity heading their way and went straight up to her. "Hiya, Jenny, howya doin'?"
Continuity looked a bit surprised that someone was friendly, then remembered to smile. "Uh. Fine, thank you. How are you today?"
"Oh, you know. Was your place okay after the storm?" The Kid sounded real concerned.
"Why yes, thank you." Continuity's clipboard strained forward, like it was on a leash.
"Now, the braids are the right length for Kansas, Jen," said the Kid. "I know, because in Kansas, they're not long enough to help hide my tits."
Continuity's face froze. The Kid winked at her. Continuity actually laughed.
"And my makeup is keyed for black-and-white, 'cause I checked the color numbers as Millie put it on. So everything's okay."
"I guess so," said Continuity, shaking her head.
Kid did that to everyone. Went up to them and said hi. It was like she was vacuuming them up or something.
She went up to Bolger. "Say," she said, looking serious, "don't I Know you?"
He wasn't entirely sure she was joking. Poor old Ray.
"Oh, I know, you're playing the Tin Man!"
Then she giggled and kissed him on the cheek.
She waved to the Monkeys overhead amid their lights and wires. She swaggered up to the technicians on the ground and she was as confident as they were. She played poker with them sometimes-and won. She crept up behind King Vidor and hugged his back. He yelped and spun around.
"What the-oh, Judy!" the little guy said with relief. He would have taken it only from her. Kid jumped back giggling and covered her mouth. You just had to laugh with her.
Well, thought Millie. Got to hand it to the Kid. You'd never know there was anything wrong in her life at all. You'd really think she was just some sweet, ordinary kid. Except that she's a demon poker player and knows all my Panchro numbers. And her lines, from seeing the rewrite just once. And the names of all the technicians. She's smart. She's real smart, like some kind of genius or something. Millie found it just the slightest bit creepy.
They ran through the last scene of the picture. Doesn't usually work out like that, filming the last scene just about last. The set was tiny, so small they had the Kid's bed jammed right up against the corner of the window frame. There was only just room for a little table squeezed in between the bed and the other wall. It was the little girl's bedroom. The wallpaper was covered in poppies.
It was a simple setup. The camera pulls away from the Kid in bed, and she wakes up and sees the family; Frank sticks his head in through the window and the boys crowd in.
Only there wasn't room for them all.
Vidor intervened. "Uh, Clara. Look, when you take the cloth off Dorothy's head, put it on the table. Listen to her for a while until the boys need to get on-leave on the dream line. Pick the cloth up and take it to the kitchen."
"Why would I do that if my little girl's just woken up from a coma?"
Vidor had an answer. "It's wet and you're worried about the varnish on the table."
Blandwick didn't look convinced. "Look," said Vidor. "You're a farmer's wife. You're practical. So you make sure the Kid's all right, then it's up, brisk, quick out and then back in."
Blandwick held up a hand to stop. "Okay, I've got it."
Went for a take. No problem. Kid was bright, smooth. There was a bit when Blandwick lifted up the cloth and it pulled up some of the Kid's hair, right where it was wound into the fall. Kid looked up at Frank Morgan, and brushed the hair back at the same time. It looked real like the little girl had done it without thinking, but the Kid was managing her wig. She knew she had to keep the hair the same from shot to shot.
Millie watched Vidor. He was smiling, telling them it was fine. He's not happy with it, thought Millie.
"Let's just have a few reaction shots," he said, the lights reflecting on his funny round glasses.
"Judy," he said to the Kid, waving at her to stay on the bed. He sat down and began to talk to her in a low voice.
Millie wanted to hear. She crept up a bit closer.
"Like this," he was saying. "Just breathe out at the top of your register, a whisper right in the front of your mouth." He said the line for her. Reason he was so good. A bit eccentric. Studios were full of stories about how he would tell producers off. Maybe why he sometimes ended up finishing other people's pictures.
The Kid lay back as Continuity fussed with the quilt.
And something happened again. The Kid's eyes went faraway.
King was bustling around with the camera, looking through it on tiptoe. A small man physically, lots of energy. Kid closed her eyes and went still as a corpse.
"Okay, going for a take."
It was just the Kid on the pillow, her eyes closed, and she began to murmur over and over the last line: "There's no place like home. There's no place like home."
Millie felt a prickle down her neck. Kid really sounded like a little girl, for all that the brace had to hold down her chest.
"Right," said King, sounding surprised. "That was just what I wanted."
They set up another shot. More huddling between Vidor and the Kid. Millie went to freshen her makeup, but didn't hear what Vidor said. As Millie touched up the eyebrows, the Kid started to sing to herself. "Zing Went the Strings of My Heart."
She kept on singing it, softly, as the lights and the cameras were moved.
There was a rustle of paper on a clipboard.
"Dog," said Continuity. "The dog jumps up on the bed halfway through the scene. And Dorothy is already sitting up and holding it."
"Terry? Terry?" called the dog's trainer. "Dog's shy," he explained to Vidor.
"Where's the dog?" called Vidor, annoyed.
"Here, dog," whispered the Kid. Only Millie seemed to hear her. "Up'n the bed."
It sounded like Missouri. Or Kansas. Darned if the dog didn't come too, right up on the bed out of nowhere. You are a country girl, aren't you, honey, thought Millie. They couldn't have found somebody better for this part in a million years. A country girl who got picked up, spun around and dropped into Hollywood and Technicolor.
Vidor sat Blandwick down and pulled her shoulders into the frame. Cameraman kept shaking his head.
Ten minutes, maybe twenty. Hours of waiting. It was amazing how these actors could sit and wait and wait and then just launch themselves into it. Mind you, that's why they were paid. To be able to say lines like they believed them. The Kid started singing again.
Finally Vidor said, "Okay, let's go. Dorothy, your last lines from 'Anyway, Toto, we're home.' "
The camera whirred, Vidor pointed, the Kid said her line, and it was wrong.
On the word "home," her face crumpled up and she started to cry. Not modulated. Ugly, wet, snotty.
"No, no, no, no, no," said Vidor, waving at the cameraman to stop.
Vidor stepped forward and spoke loud enough for most of them to hear. "Uh, Dorothy. That's probably a bit too sad. Remember, she's home, she's happy, everybody she loves is back with her in one place. She's probably never been as happy, and probably never will be as happy again. So what we want to see is joy. Joy like we've never seen it. This has got to be the happiest part of the whole picture."
The Kid smiled and smiled and nodded yes and darned if she wasn't still crying. Anything to please, thought Millie, rolling the gum in her mouth.
They tried again, and this time, the Kid sputtered and burst into tears with a kind of spurting sound. Vidor cut the air with his hand.
She went too far, sometimes, the Kid. When she first saw Lahr in his makeup, she went hysterical. They couldn't stop her laughing. She had to hide behind the set and say over and over "I must not laugh, I must not laugh," and then she came out and started laughing all over again. Finally Fleming slapped her right across the chops. That stopped her laughing all right.
Vidor scratched his brow with his thumb, thinking. Then he walked up to the bed and leaned over it and spoke low and soft, like a daddy to his little girl. "Frances," he said.
The Kid turned to him, startled. "Frances, just pretend you've gone to sleep, and you wake up back in your own house, just like it used to be when you were little with your mommy and your daddy and your sisters. All there, all home. Just close your eyes."
He stepped back quietly. The Kid stroked the dog. It licked her arm.
"Now open them," said Vidor.
"And you're home," said Vidor.
The lights came up fierce, and so did the Kid. Suddenly she smiled, and the smile cut through the one wall of the set that faced her and the camera and the lights.
There was silence. They all waited in silence, and King motioned tor the whirring of the camera to keep going. The Kid kept staring. Was she going to say anything?
She told Toto they were home. Home, like she couldn't believe it, it was so wonderful to be back.
And this was her own room, and they were all there together, everyone she loved, and she wasn't going to go away, ever again. Oh yes you are, thought Millie. Life takes you away. Don't believe that down-on-the-farm shit, kid. "And, oh Aunty Em? There's no place like home!"
It was strange. Everyone stayed silent for a while. Somebody coughed, like they were saying: Can we move now? People went back to work.
There was one thing that Millie could tell people about her job that was true, and that was that the good actors, the ones who could actually act, were really nice, nice inside. Oh, sure they acted up; they were childish; they were like little kids. There was something childish about each one of them.
"Ray, Bert, Jack," said King Vidor, and they came in a parade, dressed as farmhands. Lahr who couldn't sleep from fear. Bolger who wanted to go to college. Jack who showed them how to say their lines like children-rumor was he wanted to start a charitable foundation. He was the one who wanted a heart. Yup, thought Millie.
All these people working together on something, sometimes it all comes together. Looks like maybe this picture is. That business with the coat. The Professor is wearing L. Frank Baum's coat. If Judy Garland really is a nice country kid, then maybe the coat is real too.
And the Kid was beaming, still smiling, in the lights, where home would continue to be. The only place it would be, in the center of attention.
Santa Monica, California-January 1953
The only thing she was good for was spreading chaos and fear. -Judy Garland, of her mother
The parking lot looked empty. Ethel swung her car around, looking at the space she was aiming at, and nearly hit an old Ford. She slammed on the brakes, reversed, wrenching the steering wheel around, slammed into forward, straightening the car, and roared back neatly into the space. Her heart was thumping. Late. Late again, darn it, she was never late, and suddenly twice in one week. Why am I always late for everything, she admonished herself. Then she looked at her watch.
It said six forty-five.
It was like a blow to the chest. What? She was an hour early. Of all the stupid… She'd misread the time. All that panic, missing her breakfast, dashing out to the car, makeup to be done later. Screaming up Sepulveda, only half noticing how empty the streets were, praising the Lord that the traffic was light for once, tearing into the lot and then thump, here she was, thump, parked in the McDonnell Douglas parking lot an hour early with nothing to do on the coldest day of the year. She looked over her shoulder. Even the chow shop on the corner hadn't opened yet.
She sat and went very still. She closed her eyes. Something heavy and sluggish settled over her like mud. What a panic! And for nothing.
The little Dodge smelled of gas and Ethel felt sick, a queasy, floating nausea that was not altogether unpleasant. After the iron pressure of the race across town, it was nice to find she could sit for a spell and relax.
When was the last time I was able to do that? Ethel thought. She sat for a few moments with her eyes closed, just listening to herself breathe. Actually, she thought, this is rather nice. A whole hour just to myself. She took a deep, soothing breath and opened her eyes. I might even get used to this when I retire. I deserve it. But knowing me, I probably won't stop till I drop, just like Mother.
I can do my makeup, she remembered. Do it properly for a change, like in the old days. The visor was already down as a defense against the low California dawn. Her soft, sagging face stared back at her from the mirror. Her face was flushed. She looked, she thought, surprisingly healthy. Nothing like an early morning crisis to get the blood moving. The light showed the damage the years had done around the eyes, and neck and mouth. I have to smile all the time, she thought, smile just to stop looking like I'm frowning.
Still, can't show up for work looking like this.
I still have my old kit in the glove compartment, she remembered. It's like in the old days, before going on stage. You start with the base.
With a professional's jaundiced eye, Ethel began to pat on the foundation. All those years I did this for the stage, she thought. Who would guess I was ever on the stage now? All that time I spent, year in year out, up and down in that car, going into offices, negotiating contracts, doing all those things a man should have done. All of that.
Don't get bitter, she told herself. She managed the different parts of her personality as if they were a family or a team of performers. You can't repent what was done for love. And if your daughter doesn't feel she owes you anything for all your love and care, so be it. Your conscience is clear.
Your pocketbook, too, came another voice. You'll be in harness all your life.
The reply came: So who said life was going to be any different? Life was a harness. We knew you had to get on with it, do things; that was the way we were brought up. In those days. We'd rather die than take charity.
And I can see her point of view, Ethel told herself. She was the one who did all the work, after all. It was her singing, her voice that earned the money. Why should she support her old ma? Parents are there to support the kids, not the other way around. If she is prepared to see her old ma living in a Santa Monica bungalow on sixty dollars a week, what can I say? I can't prove to her that love and respect might indicate what the law cannot enforce. Maybe she has no love and respect.
Her hands stopped applying makeup. They sank to her lap. Face it, Ethel. Your daughter hates you. Everything's gone wrong for her, and she needs someone to blame. So old Ethel has to carry the can again. I have been carrying that can all my life. It might be nice if somebody else did, for a change.
And it was a mistake to go and sue my own daughter. It was undignified. It was a public squabble. I was the loser, in every way. People know about stage mothers, or think they do. What they don't know, they can make up for themselves. Suing my own daughter for support.
Ethel shook her head at herself. What would my mother have said? she thought. Well, Mother, Ethel thought, remembering her mother's face, I'm afraid we live in a colder world. Life was hard in your day, but other people made up for it. These days, it's just the reverse; we have our cars and our Frigidaires, but we don't have each other.
Ethel sighed and looked back into the mirror. Now. A bit of color on the cheeks. Her hands rattled through the assortment of compacts and lipsticks and old dried tubes of greasepaint. Her mind was not attending. The containers turned over and over in a jumble.
Suing was so messy. And vengeful too. All right, I was angry. I was appalled and angry and I really did need some help and I couldn't believe after all I'd done for her that she would treat me this way. Just cast me off, like I was a piece of stale meat. A dog or a cat would have had better treatment from her.
Another part of Ethel intervened, broke off the thought.
She isn't the same girl, Ethel told herself, she isn't my little girl anymore. My little girl is dead. Instead, there is some fat, shambling woman who can't control her hands. Someone who is, for want of a better word, a junkie.
People warned me. They told me Hollywood kills. They didn't say how, and I didn't see how it could reach right into someone and destroy her, how it could take everything and leave a desert.
She became a horrible person. My little baby, my sweet little Frances. She grew up so selfish, so mean. On another planet. My lawyer shows up to serve a writ and she bounces up to him and says, "Come and hear me sing." Takes him by the hand! Like he was a family friend. Like we were all still a family. She just did not understand what she had done. Those lies she told about me, those viperish lies. I read about myself in the paper, she tells reporters how awful I was. When all I ever did was try to help her, try to protect her, to get her away from what I knew was coming. It would be Grand Rapids all over again, only with my little girls old enough to understand.
Ethel Gilmore thought of Frank Gumm. She thought of the sweep of her life.
She no longer hated him. She thought of him infrequently now that she had remarried and divorced again. When she thought of him at all, it was with a kind of understanding. It must have been awful for him, too. I suppose he wanted to become normal, poor man, and couldn't. And I have to suppose that he loved me a little bit. I guess he loved playing piano with me. Like he loved playing a husband and father.
She dimly saw the little theater in which they had met. A memory of hands on keys. A memory of him leading the audience in song. "Follow the Bouncing Ball." Gosh, that was a long time ago. With me young and pretty with long hair wrapped around my head and thinking the world was foursquare and simple. I thought you fell in love like walking into some kind of mist, and something happened in the mist that you couldn't quite see or feel. I'd hardly even heard of what Frank Gumm was.
Pretty little lady with the pretty little hands, that's what Frank Gumm would call me when we were on stage together. I'd stand up and give a little smile; he'd take my hand; we'd bow. What a con artist. Both of us.
And everyone knew. Everyone in Grand Rapids, then everyone in Lancaster. I had to walk down the street and feel people's eyes on my face. What a world he pushed me into.
The pretty little lady cut her hair and became modern. The things I found myself doing because of Frank Gumm. I nearly didn't have Frances. I can remember driving to see Marcus, Marcus our friend, our doctor. It was like being in a dream, my husband driving the car beside me, looking like such a man, being so gallant and soft-spoken. I couldn't put it together. It didn't make sense. A husband and wife driving off like dirty strangers to kill their child, as if they were two kids who had been caught
Sitting in Marcus's office. Trying to find a way to tell him, a way to begin to ask him. We both sat grinning and coughing. We didn't even know what to call it. An abortion.
Frank kept smiling. His whole life was a smiling lie. I was the one who had to say it in the end, I was the one who always had to do everything.
"What my husband means, Marcus, is that I am with child and we don't want it and we were wondering if there was some way in which we don't have to have it."
Marcus paused and looked back and forth between our faces. Frank's fat, sweaty face all queasy and cheesy and I hated him then. It was all starting to come out in his face. He was becoming a weaselly little man.
Poor Marcus, what was he to say? "Um. There are some ways, yes, but none of them anything I'd like to associate with you two. Do you mind telling me the reason?"
I still can't remember what we said. Two children is enough. Can't afford three. Can't afford the time. It must have sounded pretty feeble. How could I say, My husband is a sodomite and I can't bear him, the idea of where his hands have been or the thing that is growing inside me, that he put inside me. I wanted it gone.
Baby sensed that, somehow. She must have. She must have felt it inside me, no child couldn't. Maybe she half remembers that Mommy wanted to kill her.
But only because I thought she would kill me, inside. Me, Ethel Milne, wanting to do that to my own child. I'd been pushed into a nightmare. What my husband was. The lies we told. And that was only halfway through, halfway through our strange dance. Me and Frank.
We named her after both of us, Frances Ethel. She was supposed to hold us together, and she did. There was something special about Frances. But it all got too much for Grand Rapids. The women came to tea and asked me about Frank's friends. One of them even called them boyfriends, and my little girls could hear, and I wanted to die.
Running away somehow kept us together too. All the way across America, going West and working on the stage.
That drive across the whole darn country. That little town with the cockroaches. They had a one-hundred-seater in a town of five hundred. We knew then that vaudeville was dead.
And Frances's Spanish trousers all in a tangle, not able to get them on. Poor little thing all naked in the wings and Janie, Jinny, singing the chorus over and over, waiting for her to make her entrance. Frank fighting to get her dressed so she could go on. And Baby Frances just smiled, grinning. She knew it was happening and thought it was funny. Everything was held up for Frances. That was all she cared about even then, being in the center. That little impish grin.
Well, imps grow up to be demons. Ethel saw the impish face, transmogrified into something medieval, a monkeylike, vengeful face. Gargoyle. Judy Gargoyle.
So where is the goodness in my life? Where is the joy? Where has it all gone?
Don't think about it, Ethel. There's more to you than that. Things go wrong, but they can't touch what you are inside. They can't touch what you once were. Or where you were from. They can't touch home.
Ethel Milne Gumm Gilmore remembered her first life.
I used to play tennis in a long skirt that went all the way down to the ground. Mutton sleeves, tiny waist. You had to play so that you didn't sweat too much. You couldn't play to win; you didn't give it everything you had. You were supposed to break everything off. We'd play tennis, the girls of Superior, Minnesota, and we'd laugh. We'd all get together Sunday afternoons after church, around the piano, the whole crowd, boys and girls in a group chaperoning each other. A date like they have nowadays would have caused a scandal.
Chasteness seemed so sensible in those days. Foursquare. No nonsense. Everything dirty seemed a continent away. Real people got married and were happy and if there were problems they'd solve them. We had a girl who did the scrubbing, and an old fat woman who did the laundry, and some tough skinny old bird who polished the house. All we had to learn was how to be beautiful. Taste and refinement. You learned how to speak properly and sit up straight. There were knives and forks and flowers on the table and laughter in the front hall. You cooked special dishes for church socials.
And the clubs. I would be the president of one and the secretary of another. Superior Chapter of the Order of the Rainbow. Young Ladies' Music Society. What were we going to do? We were going to make a good world by setting an example. By living well, we lived for everyone.
There was such a thing as progress. You learned about it. People talked about it; they believed in it. We talked about science and morality as if the two were the same thing. Light bulbs, motion pictures, flying machines, all the products of rationality. And rationality was always clean, calm, sensible. Enlightened. We thought mutton sleeves and laughter were a sign of rationality. Progress meant men who shaved and didn't drink in secret. We thought there was no need for secrets and that most people didn't have them. We thought passion was something sweet and orderly, smiling fresh-scrubbed behind glasses. Poetry was progress. Learning Tennyson by heart and singing simple songs. I was ever so daring, working in a theater. Lizzie, I can still see Lizzie, going all red. "Ethel!" she said. Brave, she thought, singing in public and risking approbation.
"I see nothing wrong in singing harmless songs and bringing harmless pleasure," I said. I felt ever so modern with white cotton up to my chin and my wrists and ankles hidden well away and a little watch hanging from my waist.
"You'll be smoking a pipe next," Lizzie said. Flushed face, bright spectacles.
How, Ethel wondered, how did I end up here? Half a century later? Airplanes in the sky and me driving a motorcar as if it were a bicycle. Me. I'm now some old divorced lady who works as a clerk. I'm some fat old lady called Ethel who nobody has to listen to or take care of. They all think that I've done nothing with my life. They take it for granted that there is nothing more to me than fat arms and cheap dresses and well-applied, scented powder. They think that I've done nothing but wash diapers and follow my husband around and grow fat. Fat and deserted when my children left me, with nothing to do but make ends meet. If only they knew.
Knew that I could once walk into a theater, any theater, and put people at their ease and get real work out of them. I knew how to do it. I treated it as a business proposition. And I knew my babies were good. And I knew darn well that when the second storm broke, when people found out what Frank Gumm was a second time, when we had to flee in shame again, I was darn well certain that I and my babies were going to be able to cope on our own, without him, without Frank Gumm to pull us down into the mud again.
I was ready for the next time they rode him out of town on a rail. I saw it coming. I saw those boys, hanging around the movie house. They blackmailed him into giving them free tickets. They sat in the front row, next to my babies, their faces, their smirks, joking about fat old Frank so that everyone could hear, everyone could know. His poor wife, everyone would say. His poor wife. Mind you, she puts up with it. What goes on behind that smiling mask of her face?
The men of the town would come sidling up to me, sideways.
Oh, they'd heard about Frank Gumm, and I suppose they'd heard about me too. They'd come up to me, talking without moving their lips, hardly bothering with pleasantries. "Come on, honey, you're a married woman. You know what it's about."
They knew I needed love. They needed something other than their wives. Adultery, to call it by its proper name. I took lovers. Me, Ethel Milne, took men who didn't always shave, who had secrets, who cheated each other in business deals. Who cheated me. Who treated me like a business deal.
There was Billy. Young, burly, blond. Oh, what a difference, to be really wanted. That look in his eyes. And the way I opened up to him. Opened up in that deserted shed, back of town. He was a barber. No. A barber's boy. Hah. Frank and I had the same taste in men.
What a world, after Superior, Minnesota. Where was the bright and coming world of flight and public railways then? When you were fending off a strong young man who you wanted just as badly as he wanted you. Fending him off in a shed in Lancaster, California. The two of us had dust in our hair, and the place smelled of chicken manure. Why was I fending him off? He was angry; I was angry.
Suddenly, that shriek of laughter, outside, the laughter of children exploring, and me leaping away, pulling my head back from Billy's chest.
And there was Frances, my Baby, looking at Mommy playing with strange men in a shed. Thank goodness our clothes were in place and we hadn't been doing anything. Her dark eyes scowling with a question. Where is Daddy? Why aren't you with him? Who is that man?
Brats, Billy muttered. He called my Baby a brat and I knew. It wasn't love he felt or he couldn't have called Frances that. He should have knelt down and reassured her and showed me that he could love her too. But she had interrupted, interrupted his sport, another man's brat who got in the way. His face was young and sullen, handsome, but soft too, and I suddenly saw how his face would go as he aged. He wouldn't look that different from Frank. He would be gone, chasing younger women. Women younger than me, younger than himself. I saw that we had no possible real life together, even as secret husband and wife. So I left him, left beautiful, blond, young Billy. After that I would drive into Los Angeles alone and find my men in Los Angeles.
Frances must have known. She knew what Billy was. She never asked. She never had to. She never said in front of Frank: Mommy, who was that man? She never said it because she knew, and she thought she had to protect Frank, and I suppose she still remembers Billy, and she remembers the things she saw in Los Angeles.
So she doesn't respect me. She saw her fat, ordinary mother chasing man after man in L.A. and always being dumped and disappointed. Treated like a towel on which men wiped themselves. Some fat old widow from Lancaster with a Buick, that's what people thought until it turned out her husband was still alive. She bounced her fat old hips like a mattress. And Frances, coming back early from Meglin's and her new dance steps, would sometimes see the men leave. She must have thought the lessons were just an excuse to get me to L.A. and to the men.
Can't you forgive that now, Frances? After all the men you've had? After the divorces? Can't you understand?
Nothing works out for either of us, Kid. Like me, marrying William Gilmore. The nice neighbor man with the dying wife. My life, Baby, is a parade of mistakes, and I still don't know what I did wrong.
I remember meeting the Gilmores for the first time. We were the nice new couple who bought the movie house. They were neighbors two streets down. We had them in for bridge. I'd serve iced tea and try to pretend that there was anything gracious about the gray bleached streets of Lancaster. Mary Gilmore would come into the kitchen after dinner to help me wash up, talking about the town. Mary didn't like Lancaster either. You couldn't like that heat. We'd talk about ways to keep cool, damp cloths and scent. We'd talk about the local school and how to keep the kids healthy.
If only we had seen the future, Mary and me. Me marrying her husband. Baby Frances becoming this thing on posters, this giant creature. Mary dying. I saw her die, of a stroke, like a rose in the Lancaster heat. I saw William Gilmore cry, and I thought, Who will cry for me? I saw a nice, decent man.
Two years later Frank was dead, Baby, and I was more sorry than you'll know. The strangeness of life. I had loved him once, Baby, when he was twenty-eight and still beautiful, and I had lain with him and we produced three children before the horror finally closed in on us.
Frank was dead, Baby, and the marriage had died years before, and I was alone, and Mary was dead too, and I confused sympathy in mourning for sympathy in life. So I married Bill Gilmore, and the nice decent man turned out to be dull, Baby. Dull, yes, after your father. I found I had married an old man who just wanted his slippers and his supper cooked. I had been permanently swindled, Baby, swindled out of a whole part of life, when you're married but still young enough to attract each other. I never really had love like that. Like peaches that fall before they're picked. You can't put them back on the tree. Nice dull Gilmore wanted two minutes out of me once a week, with his eyes closed, pretending I was something young and lovely. Or even pretending I was Mary. Too many ghosts.
I had nothing, Baby. My life had gone wrong again. And you danced when the marriage failed, Baby. I saw your smile. I saw you be so glad the marriage had died. Just because it wasn't your precious father, because I dared to have a life of my own, after you and he had gone. Why do you think you own me? And if you do own me, why don't you take care of me?
Well, listen, Baby, listen, Frances, I hate you too. I hate you for that smile when Ethel Milne passed through the name of Gilmore and out the other side. You wanted me to fail. As hard as I had wanted you to succeed, you wanted me unhappy. What was I supposed to do? Stay and hold your hand when you ditched friends and husbands? Be your mommy when all you ever did was tell me I was in the way? Where was I supposed to go, when I saw that evil light come into your eyes and I knew you were going to snap again or make me feel small? When I knew you were going to extract revenge like pulling teeth out of my head.
Your friends. They would look at me with that silent, smug little smirk, that Lancaster smirk that said we know the whole story, you don't fool us, we know what you are, Judy has told us about you. Those smart Hollywood young people, smirking as I tried to make myself useful, passing around the canapes as Baby barely bothered to be polite.
Oh, smart young people, blaming me for your precious Judy's red red eyes and the fact that she lied, over and over, playing nervously with her hair. Going mad in front of your eyes, blaming me, and doing nothing.
Did they ever help you, Baby, all your smart young friends? What did they do for you except pour you another drink, or keep you supplied with the pills? What was I to do, Baby, but get out of your way for good? That was what you wanted, wasn't it?
So Ethel Milne moved again. Listen, Baby, I am of frontier stock. My people built houses out of sod, brought them out of the ground from nowhere. We don't need anything from anybody. My people made their own soap and made their own shoes if they had to. Here come the Redskins, move the wagons into a circle, duck the arrows, and take up a rifle and shoot. Then move on.
So I moved again, my little Gargoyle, when I knew you didn't want me. I moved to Texas. I went to live with Jinny, the plainest and plainest talking of all the Gumms. Who else did I have? Jinny didn't know me, but at least she didn't hate me. Didn't look gleeful when I did something wrong. Didn't relish every opportunity to curse me in my own house.
Texas was Lancaster all over again: another hot dusty town. It was a pattern by now. I still couldn't get away from the pattern. I opened a movie house, Baby. Only I didn't play piano anymore, and I had no one to sing with, and I had to be careful not to visit Jinny too much in case I overstayed my welcome. It wasn't home, Baby. If I had a home left anywhere, I would have gone to it. Back to Superior? Back to those bright gals, with their sensible husbands? Those bright sagging gals in their fifties whose faces had so changed I wouldn't recognize them, whose world was so far away from the one we were part of together? Mother dead, father dead. We all go down into darkness, Baby. It opens up under our feet. If we're here together for such a short time, why do we make life so hard on each other?
We were right, us girls in Superior. Right to be cool and sensible, tough but clean, right to believe in the rational. It was the rational that left us. What a world, what a world. Opening up inside us, opening up in the dark and fertile places. Good and evil mingle there, blood and darkness, where children are born and blood comes pouring out. A wound. All women are wounded, Judy Gargoyle. You more than any of them. What did I do to you?
You tried to cut your throat. I read about it in the papers. So I came back from Texas and you wouldn't see me, and your smart young friends told me I was the reason. And I had to see it then, see that you had an arrow in your heart, and you thought it was me.
It was your father, Frances. And the one good thing I've done in my life is never tell you. I know he is the only thing you still hold dear. So I don't tell you, and I will never tell you. You will go to your grave not knowing. So if there is a God, maybe He'll forgive me for that. Maybe there are Gates, and maybe they will open for me.
I left Frank Gumm because he would destroy us, Baby. I worked us so hard because we needed to be able to make a living without him. He was driven from Lancaster because of the things he did there, with everyone knowing. They tried to forgive him, poor Frank, poor poor beautiful Frank. They tried to forgive him, and tried to ignore it, but I guess without me there, he just went to pot. Went too far. Danny Boy.
Oh God, I'm crying. Why am I crying for him? Poor Frank. Poor fat balding little boy, always hoping every time he shook a man's hand that he had found it, love, a friend, something true out of a life of lies and horror. Poor Frank, trying hard to love me. And he succeeded. He succeeded in loving me, not for my breasts or my body, but loving me for the pattern we made, the pattern I can't escape, the pattern in the lights, the pattern in the song, the pattern in our three little girls, all of us singing in the magic circle of the lights. That was Heaven. If those Gates open, if I am forgiven, that is what I expect Heaven to be. The stage of the Valley Theater, with all of us together again, but in spirit, in the pattern. How could we lose so much? How could we fumble so badly? Maybe beyond the Gates, Baby, we'll all be healed.
Ghosts, Baby. We're ghosts, haunting each other now. We went back to Lancaster once, remember, back when you and I were still friends. I sat in the limousine, terrified, while you went to see that awful girl. I was terrified that if I got out, I'd stay. I'd find Frank still there, and the life of lies. I was frightened I'd see him walking down Cedar Street, and that he'd wave, poor ghost, not knowing he was dead, and that I was ten years older. That he'd go back to our house, and find someone else living there. Where are our babies? he'd ask. Did we fail, then? Did it happen in the end? And I would have to say, in a sour and weary voice, Yes, Frank, it happened again. What did you expect? It happened again, and it killed you.
So I sat huddled in that car, telling myself it was the heat that I was hiding from. But it was hotter inside the car than out. So I braved it. I got out and waited and wondered how long you would be. And then I went for a little walk.
And I felt it, a brush against my hand. And it was as if I had my Baby back, the little baby hidden away in that huge, bitter shell. And my Baby and I walked through those barren, flat, blistered streets as if the future had not come to destroy us. And I felt another hand, plump and soft and large and damp, and it was Frank. And Jinnie ran on ahead, Janie looked uncomfortable, and I knew we were still in Lancaster somewhere. Somewhere, maybe, in the wind. The wind makes a noise in the tamarisk. In the dust.
You haven't seen Muggsie since, and I'm not sure who you are married to now, except that I haven't met him and never will. But somewhere I still love my Baby, and I have to hope that somewhere in the wilderness she still loves me. But I can't touch the love, and I can't find the truth. So I still have to go on.
Go on calling the truth the Devil that only comes in idleness.
Ethel Milne Gumm Gilmore looked at her watch.
Eight-fifteen. Now I'm late. Late for real. Oh, Ethel, sitting here like a lump when you should be moving.
Her body didn't respond. It didn't want to move. Come on, Ethel. There's a time clock. You have to punch it to eat. You have to punch it and write on cards and file them and put papers away.
I don't want to, her body replied. I want to go play piano. I want to sit here and look at the sky.
Like moving through mud, Ethel turned. She turned and fumbled with the door. Makeup, she remembered. I haven't done my makeup. With terrible weariness, she looked at her face in the mirror. It was gray and covered with sweat and streaked with foundation that hadn't been worked and smoothed. The foundation slipped, skidding across her face as she rubbed it. She smeared on some lipstick. Her lips were sweaty, as if she were melting. Getting up early doesn't suit the old, she told herself.
Shortcut. Cut between the cars. The car door felt like slippery rubber in her hands. Her feet felt like the shoes were too big, with heels that were loose. I should have eaten something. I feel so hollow inside. Empty. Empty. A nothingness, waiting to suck me in.
She began to hurry. She needed to get inside the plant. There would be shade there, and chairs, and she could sit, and fan herself, get herself together, tell her boss she was sick. There was a first-aid room, a couch to rest on. She was hot though the air was cold. She stepped outside and vapor rose out of her, from her nostrils, from the back of her hands.
She steamed out into the California morning that was so bright, ablaze with light so that it burned her eyes; she felt dizzy; she couldn't see. A shortcut, she told herself. A shortcut between the cars, the strangers' cars, gray and blue and red, other people's cars, not hers. All her life, living among people's cars, driving along the Mint Canyon Highway.
Thump. As in a cyclone, breath was taken from her. She tried to breathe, pull in air, but it wouldn't come. A fist seemed to have clenched her chest. It held her vengefully. Kneel, it said. Kneel before your God.
I don't have one, she thought, her thoughts in a thin and pitiful voice. A blaze of light that meant nothing, I have no God, and I am forced to kneel to nothing. She was down on her knees between the strangers' cars. Her arms were stretched apart, each hand clasping a door handle to keep from falling. All the big, washed cars were lined up in judgment, at the gates of McDonnell Douglas, the strange and unimagined ending place of her life. She knelt in the light and asked forgiveness, as we all must, for failing without knowing why, and for living so long without seeing so much. But kneeling in the light, settling through it, crucified between two door handles, it seemed to her that she was. Forgiven. Or rather, that there was nothing to forgive. Ethel Milne was borne away.
She did not know that her daughter had had a change of heart and was making plans with her lawyer to arrange financial support for her mother. The Gumm sisters came to the funeral and did not speak to each other. There was too much to say. For Frances it was one more tightening of the knot, one more loop in the tangle. One month later, in February 1953, the Valley Theater, Lancaster, was hollowed out by a fire, as if a revenging spirit had raged through its aisles. It was not rebuilt. It is now difficult, even with old maps, to reconstruct where it once stood.
Part Two. The Summer Kitchen
…the men burning houses and barns and horses so that for ten years and more the countryside was an inferno of revenge, broken by a fifth season of arson. The tramps who packed guns and overran whole towns. The old men who went mad with jealousy. The old women who jumped down wells. All those mothers: the ones who carried their children into the rivers, the ones who fed them arsenic and strychnine so that, if they had to die, at least it wouldn't be of epidemic disease… All the men who cleansed the putrescence of their lives with carbolic acid. All the others who killed themselves with the same insecticide they used on the potato bugs…
By the end of the nineteenth century, country towns had become charnel-houses and the counties that surrounded them had become places of dry bones. The land and its farms were filled with the guilty voices of women mourning for their children and the aimless mutterings of men asking about jobs. State, county, and local news consisted of stories of resignation, failure, suicide, madness and grotesque eccentricity. Between 1900 and 1920, 30 per cent of the people who lived on farms left the land…
The people who left the land came to the cities not to get jobs, but to be free from them, not to get work but to be entertained, not to be masters but to be charges. They followed yellow brick roads to emerald cities presided over by imaginary wizards who would permit them to live in happy adolescence for the rest of their lives… It is this adolescent city culture, created out of the desperate needs and fantasies of people fleeing from the traps and tragedies of late nineteenth century country life, that still inspires us seventy years later. -Michael Lesy, Wisconsin Death Trip
Kansas was a go-ahead place. It had been the first territory in the United States to propose votes for women-in 1859. It was to be the second state to grant them, nearly thirty years later.
Prohibition was a women's crusade. Women couldn't vote, but they organized and lobbied; and an amendment to the state constitution forbidding the sale and manufacture of intoxicants was passed by a narrow margin in 1880. The state became dry, as far as could be managed with towns full of hot and sweaty men. The local newspapers ruefully reported that the most popular local song was "Little Brown Jug" and that kegs were seen going to private parties. Women raided pharmacies that were too free with their medicinal alcohol.
Manhattan was a center of progress in the go-ahead state. The town had its first telephone in 1877, wired up by Professor Kedrie of the State Agricultural College. Professor Mudge had died, and there was talk of erecting a statue to his memory. Barbed wire arrived, Devil's grass. It finally put an end to the question of the herd laws by ripping the flesh of cattle that tried to wander into farmers' fields. No less a personage than G. W. Higinbotham was severely wounded by barbed wire, which tore out a chunk of his chest.
In 1878, Manhattan built a fine new schoolhouse of stone. It towered above Poyntz Avenue, two stone floors with a stone tower. It had four main classrooms on each floor to accommodate the growing numbers of little scholars.
Aunty Em's instinct was to send Dorothy to the new Manhattan school. But Aunty Em did not approve of the school's Principal, Mr. J. McBride. It was a matter of public record, jovially reported in the local press, that he was fond of drink. He was succeeded by Professor Hungerford, but this was no improvement. Professor Hungerford was considered to be the local actor and singer. Aunty Em did not approve of actors. He had quite taken over her own Congregationalist church. In May of 1880, the church had staged an opera, The Cantata of Joseph, with full orchestra and sixty costumes. Professor Hungerford took the leading role. The Independent reviewed the production and called him, particularly, "brilliant."
"Brilliant indeed, like his hair," said Aunty Em quite mysteriously. "In time the people of Riley County will tire of all this old crony-ism."
So Dorothy stayed for a while in Schoolhouse Number 43, called Sunflower School. She was quietly content there. This was not enough for either Aunty Em or the teacher of the school, Miss Ida Francis.
Ida Francis and Emma had become firm friends. Miss Francis was a regular caller to tea, which she drank sitting at the Gulches' one rickety table, little finger outstretched as if the place were grand. She could pour her heart out to Emma Gulch.
"They have finally, finally repaired the stove," Miss Francis said once, eating Aunty Em's biliously colored cornbread. "The poor little scholars are not being introduced to smoking via the school chimney any longer."
"We must be grateful for that," said Aunty Em with a chuckle. "The next thing is to do something about the books."
"I must say again, Mrs. Gulch, how grateful we are for your donation."
"I do what I can," said Aunty Em, smiling, with her eyes closed.
"Would that Squire Aiken took such an interest."
Squire Aiken lived on the slopes of the hill south of the river, on the wooded side. He had peach orchards. His family had settled there from Kentucky. His family had been slave-staters.
"Are you surprised, with that background?" murmured Aunty Em, eyebrow raised.
"Hmmm," said Miss Francis, without commitment. Aunty Em did not know that Miss Francis's parents had favored the South.
"And how is my dear little charge progressing?" said Aunty Em, gazing on Dorothy with fondness.
It was the moment Dorothy dreaded. The bilious cornbread went round and round in her mouth. It was supposed to be a treat, to have tea with Miss Francis.
"Well," said Miss Francis looking around, pressing down a smile. ''Everything Dorothy does is as neat as wax."
"You should see her at her chores," said Aunty Em, nodding.
"All her work is quite brilliantly presented," said Miss Francis, "but it must be said that the content of her figure work and ciphering is not what it should be."
"Dorothy, are you paying mind to your teacher?"
"Yes, Mmm," whispered Dorothy.
"Speak up, Dorothy," said Aunty Em. "Sit up straight, and pay Miss Francis the compliment of your regard." She turned back to her ally.
"Dorothy is always beautifully behaved, a very model in all respects," said Miss Francis, still smiling at Dorothy. "Except one. She is still stone silent. She does not put herself forward. Nor does she appear to fraternize with the other children."
"Even now," sighed Aunty Em, looking at the table in sadness and concern. "It is the tragedy, hanging over her."
Dorothy was so weary of being reminded of her tragedy. She did not remember it. It was a universe ago. She did not remember the old house, she sometimes forgot she had once had a little brother, and her mother was the flattest and dimmest of memories. She had long ago given up dreaming that her father might come for her one day and take her away. Her father didn't know or care. It came as something of a surprise to remember that he was still alive, Dorothy had grown so used to telling everyone that he was dead. The tragedy, as Aunty Em called it, seemed to have nothing to do with her.
"Perhaps also," said Aunty Em, "it is that the other children do not wish to mix with her."
Aunty Em was coming to blame the rough local children of Zeandale. They ran barefoot in the dust and stole fruit from orchards and raided wildlife by the river. All sorts of mischief, while her Dorothy sat at home and polished and sewed and scrubbed and grew beautifully less.
Then Professor Hungerford left teaching to take advantage of all his many connections. He opened a business, offering abstraction and insurance. Aunty Em's loyalty to Miss Francis persisted for two years. Dorothy sat in the kitchen silent and still, sinking even deeper into a scholastic quagmire. Aunty Em felt compelled to ask Miss Francis to dinner.
Aunty Em told Miss Francis that something had to be done about Dorothy before it was too late. It was no reflection whatsoever on Miss Francis's program, but it was time that the child was given a different and more varied setting. With Professor Lantz now in charge, and Mrs. DeEtta Warren as his assistant, Aunty Em now had renewed confidence in Manhattan education. Miss Francis could do nothing but concur and skillfully manage to disguise a measure of relief.
So, though Zeandale now had a stone schoolhouse as well, Emma Gulch sent her quiet little mouse of a ward all the way to Manhattan rather than have her educated in the country. This was considered by the other farmers to be of a piece with the rest of her behavior.
It fell to Henry Gulch to take her in. All through the autumn of 1881, he and Dorothy would be up with the dawn. Through the long gentle ride to Manhattan, they would see the sun rise on fields and in forest. They would see the birds, though Uncle Henry would not insist on Dorothy naming them. He would let the birds be themselves. He let Dorothy be as quiet as she wanted to be, finally resting from work, her books in a bundle in the back, out of her arms. Often she fell asleep, leaning against him, listening to the plod of the horse's hooves in the dust.
Aunty Em was running the farm now, and running it well. It was prospering, and they did have hogs and they did have horses. There were plans finally to build an extension. Nothing grand, just a summer kitchen for Aunty Em to cook in during hot weather so that the single room in which they slept and ate would stay cool.
Winter came and was a bad one. Dorothy and Uncle Henry shared the same lap robes and jostled their feet on the hot stones taken out of the oven. They huddled together, and he tickled her. Uncle Henry tickled Dorothy and started to laugh, with broken teeth.
One night, in the middle of that winter, Dorothy started to bleed. She woke all wet and sticky down there. Something dreadful had happened. There would be blood on her nightdress, blood on her sheets. Bad blood, it was as if her bad blood were leaking out of her. Had she done anything unwittingly down there to cut herself? How could she explain to Aunty Em that she was bleeding down there for no reason?
It would require desperate action. She would have to say she had cut her hand. That would explain the blood on the sheets, perhaps, but not the blood on her nightdress. It was wet around her middle, there was no saying that was from her hand. Dorothy, who was always neat and tidy, who hated to see anything flow, was appalled at the mess she felt all around her.
She would have to burn the nightdress.
Very slowly she slipped out from under the blankets. The mattress rustled. She stood up, already in an agony of chill, but she could not put on her shoes for they would clump on the floor. She had to slip the nightdress off, over her head like a whisper. She nipped around the blanket that hung from the walls to divide the room and padded across the kitchen floor.
Dorothy knelt and lifted up and opened the door of the stove and threw the nightdress in, over the black and orange embers. She could see the steam of her breath in the faint light. Her bare legs rose up in goosebumps and her teeth began to rattle against each other.
"What are you doing?" demanded Aunty Em. Dorothy spun away and pushed the hot iron door shut with her hand. Had Aunty Em seen her, crouching naked in the light? Had she seen what she had done? Dorothy's throat went tight with terror and cold. She could hardly breathe. She couldn't talk.
"She's just feeding the stove, Em," said Uncle Henry. "She just wants to keep us warm."
"Well, be careful with the fuel," said Em. There was the sound of settling down under the bedclothes. Dorothy leapt into her bed, shaking for warmth and other kinds of shelter. How would she get up in the morning without being seen? What if the nightdress did not burn? What if it was found in the morning, laying cold on top of the coals? And what, what if she hadn't stopped bleeding? What if she bled to death? Dorothy began to weep, curling her lips inward and pressing them shut so no sound would escape. Her hand. She would have to cut her hand. Dorothy cursed herself for forgetting to bring back a kitchen knife. But how would she explain the cut of a knife in the middle of the night? What was she to do?
Then Dorothy knew what she had to do. She placed the thick flesh below her thumb into her mouth. That would satisfy Aunty Em. That would propitiate her. As her teeth overcame the resistance of her flesh, Dorothy had a single thought that mingled comfort and distress.
The thought was this: at least Aunty Em had not seen her naked. But Uncle Henry had seen her. He had been lying awake in the night.
Dorothy never remembered when it began. One day, she got snow deep into her boots. Her toes were an agony. Beyond a certain point, cold burns as harshly as fire. Dorothy wept with cold all the way home scurrying into the winter kitchen in a kind of flatfooted shuffle. She dropped down on the floor and tried to tear off the boots, but her hands were white and blue and as lifeless as sausages. She could not undo the laces. Uncle Henry knelt in front of her and pulled the boots off and rubbed her bare feet.
"Poor little toes," he said, smiling tenderly at them.
After school, when he met her at the bridge over the river, he would walk out to her, and back to the cart, holding her hand. Sometimes if the cold was too bad, if she couldn't talk, he swept her up in his arms and carried her, and how grateful Dorothy was. She didn't even mind when he suddenly kissed her, his mouth full of dead and rotting, reeking teeth.
The snows melted, and the road to the farm became a muddy track, mashed up by wheel tracks and the back-and-forth marching of their own boots. They would go into the barn sometimes before going into the house. Henry would grin naughtily and pull Dorothy in with him. They both understood. They were escaping from Em. They would play together in the straw. He would begin to tickle her, again. It was not so much fun, being tickled all the time.
When did it begin? Dorothy never remembered, it crept up on them so stealthily. One day he did not meet her at the bridge in the evening. The Allens were passing by, laden with stores. What was Henry Gulch thinking of, leaving the child to wait in a winter afternoon with cold descending? Up here with us, Dorothy, they said, though they had never been particularly kind to Dorothy before. Kindness foxed Dorothy. It made her go wary and suspicious. She did not even know that she was enraged at Uncle Henry.
When the Allens let her off, Dorothy went into the barn to find him. Uncle Henry's back was to the door. He wasn't doing any chores, he had no tools in his hand; he had simply been standing with his back to the door. And then he turned and looked at Dorothy as if he hated her.
What have I done now? thought Dorothy in dismay. She had come to think of Uncle Henry as her only friend, even if he did smell. Henry glowered at her, darkly, and he seemed to loom larger in the half-light. He seemed to fill the lopsided crib they graced with the name of barn. His eyes burned. Dorothy said nothing. She shook her head, trying to say: I've done nothing. I didn't know I'd done anything. I didn't mean to do anything, Henry stood stock-still, full of what looked like rage.
Dorothy crept back toward the house. Every limb felt weighted down by cold. She wanted to lie down and die. Whatever was wrong with her, the bad blood, had done it again. Even Uncle Henry hated her. She thumped slowly up into the wooden house.
"Evening, Dorothy," said Aunty Em briskly, looking up from her account book. She wore little round spectacles, and her eyes blinking behind them looked huge, like a frog's. "Nice day at school?"
"Nice drive back with your uncle?"
Aunty Em didn't know. Aunty Em didn't know Henry had not come for her. That must mean he really hated her, to do that and not tell Em. He must not have ever wanted her to come back.
"Yes, Mmm," replied Dorothy, devastated. The house seemed to be made of bone.
"Once you've got yourself warmed up, there's some cuts I fetched up from the cellar for frying. They've still got enough lard on them, so you won't need to use any more. Waste not, want not."
Aunty Em went back to her business. Dorothy cooked the evening meal, watching her hands move, as if they were someone else's. The months-old pork, sealed in its own lard, was gray and flabby and slightly damp from delayed putrescence. Dorothy watched it smoke and steam. There was a scar on the bottom of her thumb. She took rags to bed with her at night. She watched the smoke rise and wished her bad blood could be similarly consumed, burned clean. She wished she could be burned clean. Perhaps if she drank carbolic, that would burn her clean from the inside, and then she would die clean.
Uncle Henry clumped into the house, with eyes as desperate as butterflies flitting. He was smiling. It was a thin smile, keen and sharp, and his movements were changed. Gone was the dear, slow, sad Henry. This man flickered, hands and eyes darting. Dorothy passed him a plate of food and he did not look at her. When she sat down, he turned away, crossing his legs in the other direction. Dorothy ate the tired old pork as if it were her due. It tasted of old wooden floors and rancid fat. They would all smell each other, all through the night.
"That was a right smart supper, Dodo, thank you," said Aunty Em, with a smile. The only thing Dorothy knew about dodos was that they were extinct.
"Don't you worry about the washing-up," said Aunty Em. "You just get on with your home studies. Henry, please could we clear a space for Dodo's books?"
Henry said nothing, but stood up and went out into the night.
Aunty Em looked at Dorothy, smiling crookedly. "I surely hope he manages to produce something tonight."
They were all bound up tighter than drums with pork and no vegetables. Aunty Em's face was kind. It was taking Dorothy into her confidence, as if she were almost an adult. This confused Dorothy mightily. No! she thought. It's too soon for that. She didn't want to be treated like an adult. She wanted to be treated like a child. She wanted to be sat on someone's knee and be told a story; she wanted to sit on someone's knee and do nothing, leave the work behind.
"Dorothy," chuckled Aunty Em. "No need to be shocked, child, there are some things that are perfectly natural to talk about sometimes." She stroked Dorothy's hair with fondness.
"Now you get settled in," said Em with a sigh, and stood up and collected the dishes with a fine clattering of clay.
The next morning Henry got up and gave her a ride in to school, and neither of them mentioned that he had left her alone, waiting at the bridge. They sat coldly side by side but at a distance. He did not even ask her how she had found her way home.
Dorothy passed the day at school in even deeper silence than usual, hugging the books that she yearned to lose forever.
In the afternoon, she walked back down Poyntz and along the road toward the bridge. She had made plans. If Henry was not there, she would slip back into the school and sleep by one of the stoves. But Uncle Henry was there, blue in the dusk, waiting for her, holding the horse's lead.
And that night, as he led the horse and the cart toward the barn, he grabbed her wrist, and pulled her with him. Inside the barn, he held her to him and blurted out a kind of a sob. He rested his shaggy, smelly head on her shoulder and neck, and his cheeks were damp and he pressed her to him.
He did love her after all. Dorothy went weak from gratitude. She hugged him back, and his huge, rough hands pushed her even closer to him. The whole length of his body was against her, and he kissed her cheek. Was he saying he was sorry? He must be. Dorothy kissed him back. She meant to kiss him on the cheek, but he turned his head and their mouths met. That startled Dorothy and she jumped back. He worked her shoulder, and his smile crumpled and went grim. He turned away, and Dorothy wondered again if she had done wrong.
The next day, the ride was joyful. Uncle Henry sang old campfire songs. Dorothy had never seen him like that. She giggled and he turned his eyes toward her and they had a sparkle she had never seen before. It suddenly occurred to her that Uncle Henry had once been young. He would have been a young, broad-shouldered man with sparkling eyes. And bad teeth.
So when did it begin? Every evening in the barn, or sometimes in the woods, when it was dark, he would pull the wagon to a stop, and hidden under lap robes, he would tickle her. Dorothy was getting bored with being prodded and tickled. Henry kept looking back and forth up the road as if it were something naughty, something bad. She pitied him. Poor Henry, old Henry, she thought, and she hugged him. Was that bad? He was just hugging her, and he loved her, so was it bad?
His hands were blunt and large and rough. They kept rubbing her shoulders. When did they begin to rub her legs?
She remembered him cupping both her tiny breasts in his hands. "Pretty little things," he had said, forlornly. Even then, Dorothy was not sure that it was bad. He looked into her eyes. His eyes were blue and large, cold and soft at the same time, and his cheeks were always bright red on deep brown and covered with tiny purple veins all over the surface. He looked lost.
"Do you like it when I touch you there?" he asked.
She didn't like it, not really at all. It was private and it wasn't nice, but he was Henry and he loved her.
"You're so kind, Dorothy. You're so good to old Henry."
One evening in the barn, his trousers came down, and she saw his thing, and she knew then that this was bad.
"No, honey, no, Dorothy, don't look away, don't look away from old Henry. Here, look, I put it away, see?"
The only thing that Dorothy had thought was good about her life was bad. All her life was bad; it was something to do with her. She must be bad, if this was what happened. The thought of her badness made her go still. It must have made him go still too.
He didn't do it right away. He tried to hold off. But it was too much for him, alone with the flat wilderness, his drying fields, and Em.
Finally he did it, quickly, in the barn, while Em sat with her books The thought of her own badness made Dorothy go small and still, Dorothy looked at the straw and the wooden beams and knew that everything would change. When he was done, he was scared. He pulled up his trousers and began to weep. "Oh God, oh salvation. There's no praying that can heal this."
She knew it was truly terrible then. Dorothy watched, as if pork were frying. He did not look at her. He will hate me now, she knew. She was ready. It was all she deserved. There was more blood. More bad blood. She was so full of that bad blood, it just oozed out of her.
"You better get into the house," he murmured, looking away from her.
That night at dinner there was a terrible silence. Even Em could sense it. She was full of rage. It was Aunty Em's turn to cook and she banged down the plates and the coffeepot. She had boiled up some jerky and some dried corn and that was all they had to eat. Dorothy thought she must have seen them, that she must know. The silence was terrible, but Em did not notice anything unusual. For Em, the silence was always there, and always terrible. Em was oblivious to her own rage, but Dorothy ate in suspense. Later, Dorothy went out into the darkness and threw up, quietly, so Em couldn't hear. There is no pit, Dorothy thought, no hole in the ground deep enough and black enough to cover me. There was a hook on which they hung the bodies of the hogs. It went right up through their guts. Dorothy thought of putting the hook through herself.
Once again, Henry did not come for her after school. Dorothy had known that he would not. He'll be scared, she thought, beginning to feel contempt for him. He'll keep well away. He might be so scared, he won't do it again. Either way, she knew she could no longer count on Henry for anything. He might send her away. He might want to keep her near and do it again. He might ignore her and pretend that nothing had happened. There was nothing good that either one of them could do. She hitched a ride home with Max Jewell. He had grown up nice and polite and was very interested in Dorothy. He asked her all sorts of questions about Manhattan and tried to catch her eye. Dorothy saw Uncle Henry in him and answered coldly, yes or no.
It took a week. Uncle Henry let other people take her back home for a whole week. Neither one of them said anything to Aunty Em.
Max had found repeated excuses to come out to town, in order to give her a lift back. That in itself was ominous. It might be good to discourage Max.
Finally Uncle Henry showed up, waiting at the bridge. Max was there too. Max called hello to Henry, somewhat unwillingly, and his quick crumpled smile in Dorothy's direction was one of apology. Max assumed quite rightly that she might not want to ride with some smelly old man.
Dorothy felt herself go into abeyance. She watched herself. What, she wondered, am I going to do? She saw herself climb down from Max's wagon.
"Thank you, Max," she murmured. It sounded like a farewell.
She got into the wagon. Henry waved Max away. Henry pulled hard on the reins to keep the wagon still. Henry waited until Max was out of sight, disappearing over the top of Prospect.
"We don't share no blood," Henry said solemnly. "We're not blood kin."
That meant nothing to Dorothy. Did he mean that he had no bad blood? Did he mean that only she did? She waited, as an animal waits when it is cornered by a predator.
"I'm just older than you, that's all." He tried to smile, but there was a shaking in him. "You aren't going to do nothing, are you, Dorothy? You aren't going to go away, are you? 'Cause old Henry, he needs you. You are the light of his life. You are the only beautiful thing. And a man needs that, Dorothy."
He paused and looked at the wall of trees, full of spring buds, climbing the side of the hill. The buds gathered together on the trees looked from a distance like a slightly purple mist. "We'll have to be careful of her. We'll just have to watch our step. In summer, the corn will be as high as you like."
He means we'll do it in the corn, thought Dorothy. He'll wait for me here, and we'll go into the corn. He wants to go on doing it.
"She can't live forever."
He wants Aunty Em to die.
Then he gave her a ride home, a chaste distance from her. It was already late, so they walked into the house, Dorothy first, Henry a few minutes later. Chores, he told Dorothy. Got a few things to do. You just go right on in. He was lying.
The next day, they went into the barn. "I got to do it," said Henry, grinning. "I just can't keep away. You are a wicked, wicked little thing." He smiled and rubbed his nose against her, and she went still and cold and quiet as ice.
"You like that, you like that, don't you?" he said, and it made no difference that she didn't answer.
It went on and on and Henry got rougher and rougher with his raw hands. Yes, I'm bad, thought Dorothy. I'm bad, I'm bad, I'm bad. She could feel herself twist inside. She hated Henry's smell, she hated his body, she hated the barn. And she wanted Aunty Em to see them.
She wanted Aunty Em to see them, so bad she could taste it. Her so God-fearing, her so church-loving, to walk in and see her husband pig-backing a kid, pig-backing me, doing what you should be doing Em, you old dried piece of beef jerky. You should see this. I can just hear you yelping.
So she pulled up Henry's shirt, and she pushed his trousers down, so that there would be no mistaking. No one hugs a child with their milkwhite bottom bare in early spring unless they're doing that.
And one day, muddy, bleak, not so cold, his trousers were down around his knees, and he kept pulling them up, chuckling, "Don't do that, honey," and Aunty Em yelled out, real close to the barn.
"Henry, where are you?"
Henry gasped and ducked away, scuttled around behind the bales of hay. Dorothy stayed where she was. Her dress fell back down by itself, but she would not have pulled it down. Her flannels were still down around her thighs. She leaned against the post and waited.
Aunty Em came in, carrying a pan. Mocking her, Dorothy made a coy little-girl motion with her hips and head. Little old me do anything wrong?
"You seen your uncle?" Em asked.
"Sure, he's just around there," said Dorothy and pointed.
Em looked between Dorothy and the hay. "What you doing there?" said Em to Henry. "Why didn't you answer?"
Henry stood up. Down on his knees, he had managed to hoist and fasten his trousers. "Thought I saw a rat," said Henry, looking straight at Dorothy. Dorothy's eyes went wide. Did I do something wrong, Uncle?
"Well, get up off the floor and tell me when we can get into Manhattan. I can't use this pan. It's finally gone through."
"Friday. We'll go Friday."
"High time too. Dorothy, if you're through in here, come in and sweep up."
"She'll be 'long momently, Em," said Uncle Henry. "She's doing some chores in here for me."
"All right, but send her along." Aunty Em left, sensing something too big to even acknowledge. She left scowling.
Pause. Dorothy looked at Henry, with that cold curiosity.
He took two steps toward her and whupped her right across the mouth and onto the floor. Dorothy tasted blood, in triumph. Yup, yup, that was right. That was what it was. Now she could hate him.
"What the hell are you trying to do?" he said, whispering, shaking in fear. "You want her to know or something?"
"Did I do something wrong, Uncle Henry?" she asked in a little-girl voice. "She asked where you were and I told her."
"You just keep quiet. You just keep quiet about everything. Oh Jesus!" He hid his face.
"What am I going to tell her about my mouth?" she said. Dorothy puffed out her lips as she spoke to make it sound as though she were hurt worse than she was, all swollen.
"Tell her you fell. You're pretty good at making up stories."
"Like you are, Uncle," said Dorothy very quietly.
She was silent and smiling, and she knew that the smile said: Why should I lie for you? Give me a reason. Then she spoke. "You gonna bring me back something nice from Manhattan?" she said.
Uncle Henry looked scared again. He leaned over and helped her up. He started to brush her dress. "Yeah, yeah, I'll do that."
Dorothy smiled sweetly at him, so that he could see all her teeth were red.
"Dorothy, I'm sorry I hit you, but you almost got us…" He could not imagine what would have happened. "Honey, we got to keep quiet about this. We got to keep as still as mice. It's like it's our own little world. It can't touch the other world at all."
"Okay, Uncle Henry."
He looked at her with love and great misgiving. His eyes were saying: What have I got myself into?
"I better go in," said Dorothy.
I got them dancing, thought Dorothy. I got Aunty Em with a pin through her, squirming like a butterfly, and she don't even know it. And Uncle Henry, he's just got to be so careful. All I got to do is make sure nobody knows, and I can just keep pushing pins.
She stopped at the barn door and turned. "Tell Aunty Em that I need some new boots," she said.
I'm bad, she thought, rejoicing. I'm wicked, I'm evil. I'm the Devil's own.
"You can get them for me, when you go to Manhattan," she said, and went into the house. She burned the pork, deliberately, burned it black, and she was smiling all the time.
The next day, or the day after that, in Manhattan, at school, a pretty little girl fell in the schoolyard and started to cry.
Aw, thought Dorothy. You poor little thing you. Is that all you got to cry about? Is that the only reason you have to cry?
Dorothy grinned and pretended to help the little girl up. She was so little and so thin and Dorothy was so big. She could feel her size.
"Does it hurt?" she cooed, and sliced the edge of her nails down the girl's wrist. The little girl looked up in bewildered horror.
"Hurt?" asked Dorothy, and wrenched the flesh of the wrist in two directions at once, wrung it like a cloth.
The little girl wailed.
"Shut up," whispered Dorothy, and punched her as hard as she could in the stomach. The little girl doubled up and went quiet.
Dorothy looked at the pretty white dress and had an inspiration. "You got any money? Give me some money. I'll stop if you give me some money."
The little girl wept in silence.
Dorothy put her nails against her cheek. "You better give me some," she warned her, and chuckled suddenly. "It's going to be real bad if you don't."
The feeble little girl reached for a pretty little purse kept inside her glove. Dorothy took it from her. "Tell your mother you dropped it," she said. "And you better not snitch, or I'll follow you home and whup you so bad you can't walk."
The other kids said that Dorothy Gael was farm dirt. They said she was poor and had fleas. They said she smelled, which she did, and they refused to sit next to her in class. I can shut you all up, Dorothy realized. There's nothing I won't do to shut you all up.
She was swollen with discovery. She hung up her coat and scarf right next to the other kids'.
"Ew!" they cried with gestures of disgust.
She very quietly grabbed one of them by the throat. She had chosen a boy, one of the bigger ones. She throttled him. She cut off his supply of air, and then relinquished just enough to hear him gasp.
"You want to fight?" she whispered. She shoved him away from her, into the wall. She turned and spat on his coat. "You ought to be more careful with your clothes, Sam," she told him. She looked around at the others. "Any of you little chickens tells, I'll come for you."
Dorothy turned away with complete confidence. If anything happened to her slimy old coat, she wouldn't mind. She wouldn't mind, and she'd beat them all hollow on the way home.
Dorothy walked down between the rows of desks, feeling like a queen. And there was Larry Johnson, pug-faced Larry who always made the jokes. Well, well, well. His desktop was lifted open. She slammed it down as hard as she could on his fingers.
No matter how tough he was, he had to yelp. "Ow!" Everyone turned. They saw Larry Johnson, sitting, looking up at Dorothy Gael, who loomed over him. They saw Larry Johnson having to fight to stop the tears, and he was big, in the eighth grade. A ripple of fear passed through them, as if across the surface of a pond. The people from the cloakroom came in, whispering. Dorothy Gael sat down and raked them all with her eyes. There's going to be some changes hereabouts, her eyes told them.
There was another poor, fat, ugly girl. She had a smile like a rat's. The other little girl saw her chance. She saw how it was done. Curiously enough, her name was Em too, just like Dorothy's aunt. When the teacher, Mr. Clark, came in, she raised her hand and asked, "Sir, can I move my desk next to Dorothy's?"
A sigh came from the class, a sigh of loathing. The two misbegotten were teaming up together. It was an alliance against them all, and they knew it. The teacher considered. Dorothy was dangerously isolated, he thought. He wanted Em to stay in the front of the class where he could keep an eye on her, but anyone being friendly to Dorothy Gael was a change for the better.
So this second Emma moved, cradling up her textbooks and slate. "All these slimy little Two-shoes," she whispered to Dorothy.
"Yeah," said Dorothy, with authority.
So it went, into summer. The corn came through. Couple of times a week, Dorothy and Henry in the shed. Sometimes he would drive the cart into the woods on Prospect. Dorothy would lie under the trees and remember the days when she went to Sunflower School. School had only been a half-mile walk across the fields then. As she walked, the birds, the red-winged blackbirds, would leap up into the air ahead of her, and the Jewells' cat Rusty Hinge would slink out from the corn and mew and come up to have his head scratched. In summer, the corn would move its leaves, and quail would run across the path. Sometimes the pinch bugs bit, but you soon got over that.
The children each planted a tree around the schoolhouse and that tree was named after them. It was as if a piece of each child had been left behind to grow.
Dorothy would lie down on the ground with Uncle Henry covering her, and she would look past his face. The trees would lean over as if in sympathy, and Dorothy would let her spirit fly up to them, to hide amid their leaves, to reside in them. She would make herself part of them. She felt herself bend and sigh with them; she felt buds and soft green leaves at the tips of her extremities. She was out of reach of Uncle Henry then. He could not touch her then. She was a tree. There were trees called Dorothy all over the hillsides.
In summer the corn came up and they would lie down between the rows. Henry brought a sack along for her to lie on. So the dirt wouldn't show, and she would look away from his face and up at the underside of the corn and see the fluted ridges of its leaves, the dance of the low afternoon sun through them. The hiss and rattle of the wind in the corn seemed to call her name.
Sometimes he would call her back. He would try to make her speak. She couldn't even hear what he said. You stink, Henry, she thought. You got wrinkles all over. You farmer. You stink like a hog.
"Do you love me, Dorothy?" he asked her.
"Course I do," she told him.
In a show of rebellion, Adolf decided to run away from home. Somehow Alois learned of these plans and locked the boy upstairs. During the night, Adolf tried to squeeze through the barred window. He couldn't quite make it, so took off his clothes. As he was wriggling his way to freedom, he heard his father's footsteps on the stairs and hastily withdrew, draping his nakedness with a tablecloth. This time Alois did not punish him with a whipping. Instead, he burst into laughter and shouted to Klara to come up and look at the "toga boy." The ridicule hurt Adolf more than any switch, and it took him, he confided to Frau Hanfstaengl, "a long time to get over the episode."
Years later he told one of his secretaries that he had read in an adventure novel that it was proof of courage to show no pain. And so "I resolved not to make a sound the next time my father whipped me. And when the time came-I can still remember my frightened mother standing outside the door-I silently counted the blows. My mother thought I had gone crazy when I beamed proudly and said, 'Father hit me thirty-two times!' " -John Toland, Adolf Hitler, as quoted in For Your Own Good: The Roots of Violence in Child-rearing by Alice Miller
Dorothy and Emma, her little ally, came to be called the Furies, or the Kindly Ones. The schoolteachers called them that. The schoolteachers knew Greek.
The teachers made sure no other children sat near the Furies. If a child did, and she had nice long hair, it would be tied to the back of her chair in so many knots that the hair would have to be cut off. Pockets were found full of ink. Cowpats were placed on the seats of chairs. The Furies talked to each other, loudly, while the teacher, Mr. Clark, spoke. At least Mr. Clark was better-looking than Henry. Dorothy hated him, too. The Furies developed a horrible screeching laugh that they used together. The other children went still with fear.
The schoolteachers knew Greek and that gave them the right to beat children. The boys, that is, were regularly beaten. It was thought to be good for them. Toughen them up. Some boys, the timid ones, were very difficult to beat, because they didn't do anything wrong. Even the teachers thought they were sissies.
"Can't stand a kid without any gumption," they might say. "That Jenks needs a hiding, just to wake him up."
And the chance would finally come. Somebody would throw a spitball, and blame Jenks. Mr. Clark would pretend to believe him. Mr. Clark was kind. He believed that beating Jenks would be for his own good, to make him less different from the other boys.
"Why did you do it, Jenks?" Mr. Clark asked, silkily. The other children squawked with laughter. The Furies screeched. They all knew the game that was being played.
"I did not do it, Sir," said Jenks, appalled.
"Did he do it, class?" asked Mr. Clark.
"Yes!" the class shouted.
It was very gratifying. Jenks began to cry. "But I didn't, Sir. I didn't do it!"
"Why should you be treated any different than anyone else, Jenks?" Mr. Clark asked. "Jenks, I think we better go to the Principal's office."
There was a theatrical gasp from the children. Jenks was going to get the Strap. The children terrified themselves deliciously with tales of the Strap. They said it had spikes on the end. It was a dark and terrible thing. Jenks began to blubber with fear. "Mr. Clark," he begged, his voice a whine.
"Angela. Take charge of the class, please." Angela was Class Monitor, a two-edged sword, who led the mayhem when he was out of the room, and then organized the tidying up before he came in, so that he did not have to deal with it. He knew that. The class knew he knew that. The class knew he secretly approved of a bit of mayhem as long as it was kept absolutely hidden.
Angela sat on the teacher's desk. "Jenks, getting the Strap. I never. I never would."
"They won't give him the Strap," someone said, knowingly. Jenks's grades were too good.
"They have to now, Mr. Clark said he would, and it would look too bad if he didn't. Who else do we want to have the Strap?"
Dorothy barked out a laugh and stood up. She looked at them all with undisguised scorn. "All of you. All of you little smarty-pants. You all think it's so great. I'd like to take you all and whip your asses."
Jenks came back into the room with a face the color of sandstone from weeping. He couldn't sit down. But the class didn't laugh at him or tease him. They didn't lean forward whispering out of the corner of their mouths, asking him about the exploit. Something was wrong. The class looked cowed and silent. "Thank you, Angela," Mr. Clark said. He thought perhaps that Angela had simply kept them firmly in line.
Or maybe, maybe they hadn't thought it was right. Well then, if Jenks didn't do it, they should have told me the truth.
That Dorothy Gael, the children thought. We got to do something about that Dorothy Gael.
But the terror of the Strap meant there was one unbreakable rule: You never told, you never snitched. They couldn't snitch, and if they did, what would Dorothy do, what revenge would she extract? What, what could they do about Dorothy?
One day in spring term, her ally, Emma, said something. That was what broke it. Nobody knew for certain what it was that Emma said. She whispered it, but it sure was something Dorothy Gael didn't like. Em had trusted Dorothy a bit too much and grown too familiar. She teased her about something, her size, maybe, or her shoes, her dress. Maybe it was something about her family. Evangeline Thomas claimed she heard Emma whisper the word "Henry."
There was the word "Henry" and Dorothy Gael's face twisted up like a painting of the Devil, and her lips pulled back in concentrated hatred, and she slapped Emma across the face. The noise was so loud that Mr. Clark dropped his chalk. Emma wailed in shock.
"Dorothy Gael. Did you hit her?" Mr. Clark knew that this was his chance.
Dorothy said nothing. Her face was puffed out like an adder, arrested in an expression of utter rage and turmoil that unmanned Mr. Clark for a moment. He had never seen an expression like it on a child's face.
"Did anyone see what happened?" Mr. Clark asked.
That's when it broke. "No," said Angela, the two-edged sword. Her arms were folded. She had decided. The time had come. "But Dorothy is always doing things like that."
"She picks on people."
"She makes Amy Hugson give her money, and if she doesn't she hurts her real bad."
"She put cowpat all over Tommy's face."
"She hits people all the time."
In chorus, like a Greek tragedy.
"Dorothy Gael, is all of this true?"
The terrible head turned toward him. Not a Fury, he thought. A Gorgon. A glance turns to stone.
"Why are you asking me, Clark?" the child said. No "Mister," just a hard, blunt last name like in a bar room.
The child was smiling at him. "Everything I say is a lie. I got to lie all the time."
Mr. Clark was thinking he had never seen the like of it for pure evil.
Dorothy was thinking: My uncle does that to me every day in the dirt. Is that the truth you want to hear?
"Dorothy. You're going to come with me to the Principal's office."
There was no gasp, just silence. The children were almost sorry then. Girls did not get the Strap. This was a real change. Girls keenly felt the distinction of Straplessness both as a privilege and a penance. In part, they wanted to be beaten because it was an approved achievement that was denied them. But now that it was happening, the change, the revolution, was shocking. They were too young to have seen many changes.
"Let's go then," said Dorothy Gael. She almost sounded bored. As she walked up the aisle, she bumped her hips from side to side to say, That's what I think of you all.
The children had another shock. Mr. Clark boxed her ear. "You stop acting up," he said. The child stared back at him stony-faced. What else you going to do? the expression seemed to ask, as if she were invulnerable.
Mr. Clark marched her to Professor Lantz's office. There had to be a Principal and he had to be a man, so that there could be a Strap.
"I think the time has come to give Dorothy Gael what she's been asking for," said Mr. Clark.
The Principal was older, fatter, with ridiculous gray whiskers that went from one end of his face to another. He wore checked trousers. He leaned forward in his chair and adopted a smooth and soothing voice that was supposed to sound wise.
"Dorothy. I think you know why this is being done. You know the sorts of things you've been doing. This is happening because the other children have finally decided that they have to turn to us to discipline you. Are you sorry for what you have done?"
"No," said Dorothy.
The Principal sighed and looked at Mr. Clark and his female assistant, Mrs. Warren.
"You've brought this on yourself, Dorothy."
"Can we just get it over with?"
There had to be a woman present. The Principal had already taken legal advice. And he could not beat a little girl across her bottom. The proprieties had to be observed. It had to be across the hand-or the wrist if the child tried to pull away. The wrist was far more painful. All the children knew it was up to them not to pull their hands away.
"Hold out your hand."
Dorothy presented it. Mrs. Warren grabbed the fingers and held them flat. The eyes behind Mrs. Warren's spectacles were like tiny pebbles. The Principal struck, using a one-inch-wide leather Strap. It sounded worse than it was. He didn't strike too hard at first. He looked into the child's eyes for some sign of contrition. All he saw was rebellion. He struck again, looking this time for pain. The face went red, but there was no surrender. He hit her ten times. The hand was released.
Her eyes were full of heart-stilling hatred.
"One day," the child whispered, "I'm going to be bigger than you are and I'm going to break your nose."
"The other hand," said the Principal. He got more satisfaction this time. The face went red on the first stroke, and involuntarily, Dorothy tried to pull away. She decided she could not absorb the pain after all. She began to struggle; her hand and wrist darted about. All right then, be it on you, thought the Principal. The Strap lashed her about the wrist. Welts and little purple dots showed on the skin. He had to stop after another ten. They had never given more than ten to any child.
Dorothy Gael's face was puffed out like a serpent's, but she held her tears. Her hands were claws. Professor Lantz looked at her, panting. They all looked at her. With immense effort, Dorothy Gael managed to smile.
"What do we do now?" asked Mr. Clark, who realized that the punishment had done no good.
The Principal shook his head. "Take her back."
The child walked ahead of Mr. Clark down the hall. He could see her hunched and tense, determined not to cry. He had to hand it to her. She was tough. They made them tough in Kansas. She stopped just outside the classroom door.
"Open the door, Dorothy," he said.
"I can't," she answered him, with mere impatience. How stupid are you? she seemed to say. My hands have been beaten raw.
Mr. Clark understood then that they had made a terrible mistake, a tactical error. They had not punished Dorothy Gael. He saw her gather herself in. He opened the door and watched her enter in triumph.
She was smiling, beaming, and she held up both hands in triumph, both arms raised so that all the class could see the welts and the blood.
"What are you going to do now?" she asked them in a silky voice she had learned from the teachers. "There's nothing they can do to me. There's nothing any of you can do to me."
The class and Mr. Clark understood then that they had created a monster. And monsters have to be appeased.
Little Emma, the ally, had been whipped into line. She had learned never to tease Dorothy again and she knew that she was nothing without Dorothy. The second Fury was more than content to be Dorothy's lieutenant. And the teacher and the class let the Furies talk, and they let the Furies laugh. Angela began to lose power. Mr. Clark was helpless. Teaching became impossible. He dreaded going into the classroom. He knew he had failed the children, failed to protect them, and they saw no reason now to take him seriously. They all began to call him Clark, last name only. He became ill.
That's how they got the Substitute Teacher. The children knew the Substitute was not a real teacher because he was so soft. He had a round and smiling, handsome face, and he was young, only about ten years older than them. He had a lovely voice, very warm and soft and beguiling, and his movements were small and neat and quick. He wore a straw boater. He was like nothing the children of Kansas had seen.
He was, it turned out, an actor from New York. He told them about a play he had written called The Maid of Arran and he was touring with it and playing the lead role.
"Of course," he chuckled, "the handbills can't say written and directed and starring all the same person, so the posters say that the actor is called George Brooks."
What is your name? What is your name? all the children asked in chorus.
He chuckled, pleased. "Frank," he said.
You couldn't call a teacher by his first name!
"No!" the class chorused, laughing. "What's your last name?"
He told them, and Dorothy misheard. She thought his last name was Balm. Frank Balm. It was a meaning name.
"Honest Ointment!" shouted Larry Johnson, as if it were a quack medicine, and the actor bent forward with laughter.
"The original and genuine article. Every bottle is signed," grinned the Substitute. He sounded just like a hawker.
He lit a cheroot. In class, he lit a cigar. He sat on the desk and crossed his legs at the ankles, and he leaned back to let a serpent of cigar smoke rise up from his lips. There was a frisson of real excitement from the class, and the children looked at each other, eyes goggling.
"My other occupation," he continued, satisfied with the progress of the smoke, "was inventing chickens. I would breed new kinds of hen. My hens won awards. I even wrote about them. My new kind of Hamburg hen." He made a certain motion that may have been like a hen, or like something else. The children weren't sure what, except that it looked a little racy and made them laugh.
The Substitute had dash. He smelled of New York, he smelled of money, and he didn't care that teachers weren't supposed to smoke. He was small, what the children called a squirrel, but he was a nice squirrel. An unspoken agreement passed in silence around the class. As long as he doesn't try to make us do anything stupid, we'll be nice to this one.
Dorothy fell in love with him. My parents were actors, she wanted to tell him. They were like you.
She whispered the name to herself, all the way home. Frank, she thought, Frank, Frank, as her uncle put his hands on her and then moved them away again in fear. In summer evenings, there was too much light; they could be seen from too far away. Sometimes Uncle Henry didn't do anything, except smile and pat her knee. Tonight was one of those nights. All the trees seemed to whisper in gratitude. Could she plant a tree and call it Frank?
Frank, she whispered as she fried sausages. She thought of his smooth hands, his one clean suit, his funny hat, his groomed moustache, his light and pleasing tenor voice. She thought of his kind and handsome face. His name seemed to sum up everything that was missing from her life.
Frank, she thought, as she lay down that night. She thought of him, and she thought of her own unworthiness, and tears stung the lower edge of her eyes. It was as if she were in a boat cast adrift, never to come ashore to some green and happy land, where people laughed and everything was beautiful. She herself had cast the boat adrift, and there was no going back. Now she would never get home. Now she would never be where Frank was. He was too good for her. She began to hate him just a little. And said his name again.
The next day, the Substitute brought in a thick red book.
"How many of you," he asked them, "can speak Ottoman Turk?"
The class looked back at him in silence.
"Well, this is a book called the Redhouse Osmanli-English Dictionary, and it tells me what words are in Turkish. How many of you know anything about Turkey?"
"Uh-you eat them at Thanksgiving," said Larry Johnson. The class laughed, somewhat shyly, because they knew they were ignorant. The Substitute smiled, too, lightly, happily.
"Turkey is a wonderful country," said the Substitute, his blue eyes going pale with wonder. "The Turks worship in huge domed buildings called jamis, bigger than any cathedral. Vast domes, with pigeons flying around inside and carpets on the floor and fountains where the faithful wash before worshiping. They have wonderful tiles on the walls, all blue and green. And the sultans have many wives and many concubines, so many that they all live together in beautiful prisons which no man may enter-or he'll be killed. In the palaces there are special fountains where executioners wash their swords."
This was very racy stuff indeed. The class was fascinated.
"Ask me a word in Osmanli," he whispered.
There was a shuffling and a shrugging of shoulders and birdlike exchange of nervous giggles.
"What's the word for sunflower?" asked Angela, who was brave.
"Moonflower," said the Substitute promptly, smiling with anticipation. He didn't have to look it up.
The class laughed, partly in relief that this was going to be fun, and partly from the pleasant strangeness of another language. It was like a mirror that reflected things backward.
"They pronounce it 'aychijayee,' " he said and turned and wrote it on the blackboard. "It's the Arabic alphabet," he explained.
They asked him the word for hen and the word for school. Dorothy Gael put up her hand.
"What's the word," she asked, shyly, "for home?"
The Substitute blinked and then his face went soft. Just answer the question, thought Dorothy.
"Ev," said the Substitute. "Ev means 'home.' "
"What's your name in Turkish?" asked Larry Johnson, grinning.
The Substitute smiled, spun smartly on his heel and wrote, without hesitation. Then he pronounced the word.
The class laughed in unison. "Ooze?" they asked.
He made a kind of embarrassed swallowing gesture. He pronounced it again. This time it sounded more like "Uz." "It means 'frank' in Turkish. And Frank's my name. It means a lot of other things as well. It means 'real and genuine.' It means 'pure and unadulterated.' It means 'kernel and cream,' and it means 'self.' It's the root word for 'yearning' and for 'homesickness' and for all the things that people want. It also happens to be the original name of the Turks. They were a tribe called the Uz, or the Uzbecks. Or the Oz, and they came out of the wilderness."
Dorothy was suddenly hauled out of herself by a gust of childish interest. "You mean like the Indians?" she blurted out, her voice loud and lacking in grace.
The class laughed until the Substitute, the full power of his smile trained on Dorothy, said, "Very like the Indians. They were desert nomads who lived in tents. They came out of the East and the North, they came out of the desert, and they conquered the Greeks and they conquered the Arabs. Turkey is a country where the Indians were the settlers. The Indians won."
He held up the book called Redhouse, like Red Indians, and he said, "And this is the Oz-English Dictionary."
The Substitute got bored just as quickly as the children did. The fire for Oz went out of his eyes, and he began to talk about other things. He told them the story of his play. He told them how it had run out of money, and how he was now "resting." They chuckled at his joke. "Mind you, actors are always resting. That is the attraction of the profession."
The class tested him. They mocked his New York accent. "I say, I am an actor from Noo Yawk."
He laughed. They waited. It wasn't a false laugh-that would have showed he was pretending to think it was funny so he wouldn't have to do anything about it. He didn't imitate them back, so he wasn't sarcastic or mean. And he didn't tell them it was wrong to make fun of people just because they were different, so he wasn't a pompous fool. Instead, he genuinely seemed to think it was funny.
He laughed and looked a bit mystified.
"Why," he asked, "is it that people laugh?" He asked it in wonder.
Was it a trick question? It seemed to be a pretty dumb one.
"Cause something's funny?" ventured one of the girls.
"Yes, but what do we mean by funny? I mean, what is funny?"
It was the sort of question a little kid about five would ask. Unanswerable. It was a real question, one the Substitute himself had no answer for.
Suddenly the Substitute was looking at Dorothy. He remembered her question about Indians, about home. It was as if he had recognized a kindred spirit. The look he gave her was questioning. He wanted a mystery solved, and he wanted to know more about her. The look, confiding and sincere, alarmed Dorothy. It was not unlike the look that Uncle Henry gave her.
"Dorothy," the Substitute asked. "Why do people laugh?"
"To show who's boss," said Dorothy Gael.
The smile of the Substitute slipped. "Yes, but for what other reason?"
Dorothy considered. "Sometimes it scares people."
"But your parents, why do they laugh?"
"My parents are dead," said Dorothy.
The nice squirrel looked stricken. "I'm so sorry."
"Why?" asked Dorothy. She was suddenly impatient with the Substitute. "I'm not sorry. Can't hardly even remember them. Nobody laughs around our place anyway."
"Life's too hard," shrugged Dorothy. She wanted to shrug away her love of him. She hated his dazzle. The love hurt. "The hogs don't laugh, why should we?"
You stupid squirrel, Dorothy thought. You got a face like a pillow.
"That's a terrible thing," said the Substitute.
"Shut up," said Dorothy.
"Dorothy," said the Substitute, "that's very rude."
"Shut your squirrel's face up," said Dorothy. Is that rude enough for you to get my meaning?
The Substitute looked straight at her and looked sad and wise, and he smiled. "You're too old for this class, aren't you, Miss Gael?"
That made Dorothy afraid. The fear gathered strength and speed like a rockface slipping from a mountain. Dorothy was stricken with terror. No, she thought, I'm not old, I'm not too old.
The Substitute thought she was surprised at being treated with courtesy. He thought, quite rightly, that no one had ever been courteous to Dorothy before, but it was fear that made her go still. Dorothy was realizing that at nearly thirteen, she was almost an adult. At fifteen, two years from then, she would leave and go to work. As a child, she had power. She knew that as an adult, fat and ugly and slumped in dirty clothes, she would have none. Her childhood was almost over and she could not remember ever being happy.
"Could you do something for me, Miss Gael? Would you mind leaving the class?"
Dorothy began to grin a crooked grin. Oh, yes, you want to get rid of me that easily?
But he held up a hand. "I've got an idea for an assignment that I want you to work on. I want you to go into the bookroom and just sit quietly and write something. It doesn't have to be long. But it can be about anything you like. Anything at all."
Dorothy stood up, still grinning crookedly. She had been cast out before. She took pencil and paper. "I'd do anything to get out of here," she said.
"Thank you, Miss Gael. Take as long as you like."
Outside, Dorothy thought: So why on earth should I go to the bookroom? Stupid squirrel. Stupid groundhog.
Then she thought: Where else do I have to go? Only home. And I don't want to go home. I hate home. I'd rather stay here, but I hate it here, and everyone here hates me. I hate everybody and everything.
She went to the bookroom. Mrs. Warren glared at her. "Teacher sent me here," said Dorothy. There was one table and shelves of spare textbooks. Proud as they were of their schools, even the people of Kansas could not call this a library.
But it still smelled of books and varnish and sunlight. Sunlight came through the window, fierce and hot, Kansas sunlight, parching. It was warm and airless, and Dorothy felt sleepy. She wished she had come here before, to lay down all her cares. She bowed her head, to the table. She wanted to stay just here, in this one place, and never leave it.
Write something, he had said. Write about what? Write about all the kids who hate me? Write about how stupid little Emma is and how she follows me around because I scare people? Shall I write about how I am God's worst sinner, and how I know I am going to go to Hell and that that is the only reason I don't kill myself, because I see the Devil when I sleep at night, and that I smell Uncle Henry around my mouth all day long, and that nobody loves me. Not even God. Should I write that God doesn't love me? Or do I write about how beautiful you are and how I know how ugly I am and how you could never have anything to do with me?
But she found what she wanted to write about very close to the surface. She wrote about it, weeping. And then she dried her eyes and found she wanted someone to see it, just so that someone would know there was a bit more to Dorothy Gael than blows and bad blood.
She walked back into the classroom, hugging the paper to herself. She walked up to the Substitute's desk.
"That was quick, Miss Gael. Have you written something?"
Wordlessly, she passed it to him, a whole page both sides, and she stood over him and watched him as he read.
What he read was this:
I have a little dog called Toto. He is a terrier which means that he has short wiry hair and is gray. He waits for me every day when I come home. When he sees me he comes running. He jumps up and down. He wiggles and nitters and wants me to pet him. I say to him "Good Toto, good boy." And he nitters again because he knows his name. We walk home together. He loves chasing sticks. I throw sticks for him, and he brings them back to me and drops them at my feet. When I throw them, he runs and runs, flat out. He even runs when I don't throw sticks. He runs all over the fields, yipping. It is like he is saying hello to everything. He chases the quail, but he never hurts them. He runs all over the hills. He runs and comes back to me and runs again. I can hear him barking.
I get home and Aunty calls hello and tells me what's for supper and I tell her all the things I did that day. So I fetch the water for Uncle Henry's bath, and Aunty Em says I can go and play with Toto. So we go out into the fields, for hours and hours and I sit down and eat an apple that Aunty Em give me, and Toto and I sit down, on top of a hill where I can see all the farm. Toto sits on my lap, and I scratch his ears and his neck under the collar. He licks my hand, and he goes to sleep on my lap. He has a cold wet nose. He goes to sleep with his nose against my arm. At night, I give him his supper in a red bowl. I fix him oatmeal and egg and a bit of jerky that Aunty lets me have for him.
I did not call him Toto. That is the name my mother gave him when she was alive. It is the same as mine.
That was where Dorothy had to stop writing.
The Substitute went very still and quiet. Dorothy knew he had finished reading, but he didn't say anything. Dorothy guessed that it wasn't very good. Nothing was very good, but that was as good as she could make it. So he had to say something.
He coughed and still didn't look up at her, and he said in a very rough voice, "Thank you, Dorothy."
Then he managed to look up and Dorothy saw that his face looked horrible and that he was trying not to cry. "I'm very glad," he murmured, "that you have something to love as much as that little animal."
You stupid, stuck-up, New York freeloader. You skinny little balloon-faced squirrel.
"I don't have a dog!" Dorothy shouted. Her voice went thin and screeching, and she kept on shouting, as loud as she had ever shouted, shouted to bring the walls down. "I don't have a dog because Aunty Em killed him! He was the only thing I got to take with me from home and just 'cause he barked and chased the hens, she killed him, and she didn't even tell me, so for years and years every time I heard a dog bark I thought it was Toto, and I run and I run after him, calling out his name, and she heard me do that and she never said nothing, she just let me call, because she hates me, she makes me work, and she never feeds me 'cause there's never any food and I'm always hungry and I don't have nothing and she never gives me nothing, and I can't say anything."
The Substitute was on his feet and the class gaped in amazement. The child had gone hysterical, just as suddenly as a roll blind when it snaps up. He tried to take her in his arms.
He tried to take her in his arms and she screamed. It was a horrible sound, a sound like a spaniel caught in a bear trap, a horrible wrenching yelp that turned into a thin, piercing, seagull wail, and she pushed the Substitute away.
"And every day Uncle Henry does it to me, he pushes me up against a wall or down into the dirt, and takes up my dress and he does it to me, with his thing, he does it to me!"
The other children heard. The Substitute gathered her up and tried to bundle her out of the room, but she fought. She pummeled him about the face. His glasses broke. "You stupid, stupid squirrel. Why did you have to come here? You stupid, stupid man!"
And then the great galumphing gal curled up onto the floor and wept like a baby.
She tried to dig a hole in the floor. Her hands were gouging at the varnished wood. She curled up smaller and tighter and tried to dig, her eyes closed, her mouth closed, like a mole, and when he tried to stop her, when he grabbed her wrists she fought and was as strong as he was. Finally he let go, and she went still. She went still, making a small, squeezed, wheedling little sound.
"If she gets up, keep her here!" he told the class. He turned and ran. He heard his flat feet clatter in the corridor, and he felt his bad heart beat. At first the Principal didn't believe him.
"Collapse? Dorothy Gael? That girl has the constitution of an ox."
"Even an ox can die of heartbreak," said the Substitute. "There's been something terrible going on. She shouted it out, and all the children heard."
"Did they indeed? What's she been doing, stealing peaches? All right, Mr. Baum, I'll come and see."
She was still there on the floor, no longer wailing, but shivering, and she had stuck her thumb in her mouth. Professor Lantz walked in and one of the children giggled. They were all biting their nails.
"DeEtta," the Principal said to his assistant, "take the children out into the yard, please."
"Come on, children, there's nothing more to see here," said Mrs. Warren as the children gaped in wonder.
"What she said!" breathed out one of the girls.
The Principal looked up and waited until the children had left. He was taking Dorothy's pulse rate. It was a scientific thing to do.
"All right, Mr. Baum. What did she say?"
The Substitute found he couldn't say it. He had had a delicate upbringing. The Substitute could feel his cheeks roasting with embarrassment. He sighed and hissed with the difficulty of even finding words for it.
"Out with it, Mr. Baum, there are only us men here."
"She says that her uncle has relations with her."
For just a flicker, as if time had blinked, Professor Lantz went still.
"I mean, what she actually said was that he pushed his thing up her." Frank Baum felt his voice suddenly shudder and go weak. He was nearly in tears.
"Buck up, man," said Professor Lantz. "It doesn't surprise me. Dorothy Gael is quite capable of imagining anything. She said this in front of the other children?"
"Yes," said the Substitute, overwhelmed by the horror of it.
"Dorothy Gael," said the Principal, as if the child were not curled up under his hands, "is a very wicked creature. At times she almost convinces me of the truth of demonic possession. She has said before, herself, that she lies about everything. She is capable of uttering any untruth and, I'm afraid to say, of thinking up all manner of foulness by herself. You do not know the girl, Mr. Baum." The Principal was fat and had to grunt as he stood up. Without realizing it, he made a gesture of wiping his hands.
"We'll get your relative, Dr. Lyman, in to have a look at her. And then we will bundle her up and send her home and ask her never to come back to this school."
The Substitute followed him out of the room glancing back and forth between him and the girl. "Are you sure? Are you sure you should send her home?"
"Where else does she belong, Mr. Baum?"
"Whatever else may be true, she is desperately unhappy there, Professor Lantz. Please! Look at her! What would make a child try to dig her way into the floor?"
"I don't know," said Professor Lantz, looking back with a half smile. "Perhaps a handsome young actor from New York."
The Substitute found that dismay was turning to anger. You are going to blame me for that in there? "What," the Substitute asked, drawing himself up, "what if what she said is the truth?"
Professor Lantz stopped smiling and his gaze went steely.
"There must be a reason for it!" exclaimed the Substitute.
"The only reason," said the Principal, "is fantasy. Fantasy is pretty unhealthy as a general rule. I will remind you, Sir, that you are an itinerant actor invited here to teach class for a few days at the suggestion of Dr. Lyman. You do not know Dorothy Gael, nor her guardians, the Gulches. You could not hope to meet more God-fearing or civic-minded people. Her uncle takes her to and from Manhattan every day, the distance of four miles each way, simply to bring her here since her last school failed to effect any improvement. She gets the best care her people can afford. Particularly since she must be a very great trial to them. And I am afraid, Sir, that we will not be requiring your services tomorrow. After creating that incident in there I think you can see why. Cigar smoke and all."
The Professor waved his hand in the air as if to wipe away the stench of smoke, of actor, of fantasy.
Dr. Lyman arrived, with a weary glance at his worthless young cousin. "Sexual hysteria," he pronounced, having heard the story from Professor Lantz. "There's not much I can do for her, except take her home. Which under the circumstances I will do gratis. Not my normal policy." He glanced up again at the actor. "Frank, perhaps you would care to assist."
"I will ride back with her," said the Substitute.
"No," said the Doctor. "You will not."
They got the great lump of a girl to stand. She really was huge, the size of a grown woman and stronger than most boys her age. The Substitute took her hand, and she grasped his firmly, but he had the feeling she did not know who he was. The flesh on her face hung dead and limp and yellow. She was quite tame. She stepped up onto the Doctor's coach as if somnambulating. The effect was curiously ladylike. She sat tall and straight. The face had a faraway expression, almost refined, and the Substitute had time to see that the face was beautiful. With the anger and the pain fallen from her, Dorothy Gael would have been a beautiful woman.
And then the child murmured, "Frank. Frank."
And the Substitute thought: Oh no. They were right.
"Frank," she said again, in a faraway, failing voice, and it was the voice of a little, little girl, calling for a story.
Dr. Lyman, his fearsome host, glared at the Substitute and raised an eyebrow and clucked with his tongue and shook the reins, and the coach swept around in a gracious circle. With the wheels spinning faster, making patterns across each other's faces, the coach sped away down Poyntz.
The Substitute turned and walked back toward the classroom. It was nearly dark now.
Was it his fault? It must have been his fault. He thought of his cigar and his stories and leaning on the desk, and he felt like a fool, a fool of a show-off actor. Damn, he murmured. Damn. And he needed the money, too.
He walked back into the classroom. It was silent and smelled of children and warm, dead wood. He gathered up his hat and his umbrella and sighed and opened the door to go. He looked back to check if he had left anything behind. On the desk there was a piece of paper.
He picked it up and read it again, and he was sure; he knew that he had been right, that the child had told the truth. He read it and telt the pit open up under his feet.
"Oh, mercy," he said aloud.
A place where no one ever laughed except to frighten or to crow victory, a place without love, a child who had no love, except when she dreamed that she still had a dog.
"How could they?" he said aloud, looking about him in anger. She was telling the truth and they were all determined not to believe her. The horror of it rose up and choked his gentle soul. "I wish I could do something, Dorothy," he whispered. "I wish there was something I could do."
He stared at the piece of paper and nearly let it drop. Then he folded it up and put it in his pocket with its names-Dorothy, Em, Henry, Toto. He picked up the red book of Osmanli, the language of Oz. Then he moved on. The door closed behind him and his footsteps echoed down the Kansas corridor.
Comdale, Ontario, Canada-November 1956-Spring 1957
The picture also opened well in the thirty-two key cities surveyed by Variety, bringing in more money in the first week than such recently successful MGM films as Goodbye Mr. Chips and Idiot's Delight. But the picture didn't have enough legs to justify its cost… The Wizard of Oz cost $2,777,000 and grossed $3,017,000 for the studio. When the cost of distribution, prints and advertising were added to the cost of making The Wizard of Oz, it meant a loss to the studio of nearly a million dollars. The movie edged into the black during its first re-release in 1948-49, when it brought in another $1,500,000; but it did not really make money until it was leased to television…
The film was shown for the first time on 3 November 1956 from 9 to 11 p.m. Eastern Standard Time. With a 33.9 rating and 52.7 per cent share of the audience, The Wizard of Oz did extremely well-but not as well as it did in 1959, 1964, and 1965. As of July 1975, The Wizard of Oz was in 11th place on the list of the highest-rated movies ever shown on network television. (It was also in 12th place, 14th place, 16th place, 21st place, 23rd place and 25th place.) -Aljean Harmetz, The Making of the Wizard of Oz
In his later years, Jonathan would look at old photographs of the house in Corndale. There would be a kind of electric jolt from the photographs, a cattle-prodding of memory. The photographs were surprisingly small, cracked, rather greasy-looking, with crinkle-cut edges like tiny pies.
In the photographs Jonathan would see his father's old drinking mug and Jonathan would remember its rich brown color and the black etchings of highwaymen printed onto its surface. It was silver around the rim and made everything taste slightly of beer. He would see the wicker basket in which logs were kept next to the fireplace. He would suddenly be able to feel in his fingertips the smoothness of the wicker-work, with its suddenly harsh edges. He would remember how dismayed he was as a child when the basket was displaced from its corner by a new desk.
He would see a brass elephant bell, and he would remember its sound and he would remember the shelving it had been kept on. It stood in a glass display case built into the wall next to the front door. The case went through the wall; its outside was frosted glass. Standing on the front steps, you could see all the treasures kept inside it: a brass ice bucket; a porcelain squirrel that was a souvenir of Algonquin Park. They would be seen as if through a mist.
In the photographs Jonathan would see his parents when they were young. He would see his mother, standing on a pile of dirt in high-heel shoes in the early 1950s. His mother was the picture of Canadian elegance, her yearning for style and urbanity revealed in immaculate hair and dress and the angle at which her cigarette was held. His father was standing beside her, with his shock of Einstein hair. He was young and slim and bare chested. A baby hung suspended from his arms. This was the ground-breaking for the new house in Corndale. Beside them, in swim trunks, with a shovel, there was a rather handsome Scottish-looking man whom Jonathan did not know. Neither, now, did his parents.
His first world. Through all the later changes in his life, Jonathan would remember his childhood as happening in that house. They had moved away from it when he was nine years old, but the interior of the Corndale house was the continent of his infancy.
The photographs would bring it back. He would remember the uncomfortable texture of the gray sofa. It had raised, rough surfaces in the shapes of flowers and vines. They made his skin itch.
He preferred instead to lie on the floor under the ultramodern chairs. He would trace with his finger the snakelike wiggle of the metal strands that supported the cushions. He liked the feeling of being enclosed, hidden, safe.
One of the ultramodern chairs was crimson, the other was bright green, and they stood by a lime-green throw rug that slipped underfoot on the polished pinewood floors which always smelled of wax. There were bookcases made of boards sandwiched between bricks, and on them stood small Indian vases, with bright blue and yellow flowers embedded in the red ceramic.
Jonathan could remember the colors, even though the photographs were black-and-white. This was very strange. Jonathan was colorblind. Except in the strongest light, green and red looked the same to him. Blue and purple were indistinguishable.
So how had the infant been able to see them? Jonathan could remember loving red, a color he could not now perceive.
Love is almost too feeble a word for the rich passion that red had inspired. Red moved the infant Jonathan like music. In his coloring books, everything was red. He wanted the whole world to be red. He tried to make it red.
He would steal his mother's ruby lipsticks and, to her misery, scrawl all over the walls, over the pale pinewood of his bookcase, over the prints of Canadian forest scenes. He alarmed her by painting his fingernails red with her polish. He would rub lipstick all over his face, surprising visitors.
Jonathan loved Indians. They were called Red Men. He had an Indian blanket that was red and a pink piggy bank that looked like Pow Wow the Indian boy. He loved his picture books that were full of figures of Indians, hunting buffalo in the grass or dancing. He would coat them with layers of red-lipstick, jam and Crayola crayon.
It was difficult for Jonathan to imagine now, but he had been a very bad little boy. He was still surprised to hear his aged mother refer to him as a problem child. The person Jonathan remembered being was a horribly polite, cringingly well-behaved child who loved his parents and thought of them as his best friends.
But the photographs showed a burly, tough-looking boy. The Corndale house was growing around him in stages. He would stand chuckling amid its wooden skeleton holding a hammer, a wild destructive light in his eyes. He was a hefty little brute who looked as if he would grow up round and small and hearty. Jonathan had grown up to be tall and thin, distant and mild.
The little thug looked wonderfully happy. Jonathan the adult was tempted to say insanely happy. The eyes sometimes seemed to be stricken with a faraway vision, fogged with wonder. The smile sometimes blazed beyond delight. Something broken would be clutched in his stained and brutish, pudgy fist. The smiles of his parents would be sideways and nervous.