You may remember the news reports surrounding the death of best-selling novelist Irving Stone in 1989. He was found slumped over his desk, dead from an apparent heart attack, with his hand still holding a pen as though he were in the middle of a letter. On the paper he had scrawled, “My Dear Friend”.
Literary authorities debated for months who this dear friend was and why had Stone had only one other word written on the page before he died and what was the meaning behind it. Irving has been gone several years now and I myself am an old man, so I think it is safe to reveal that I was his dear friend.
It was late 1978, and I was flying to Virginia to join my wife and son at my in-laws’ house for Christmas. I looked forward neither to the flight nor the visit. I didn’t know to be afraid I might die in a plane crash, or to fear surviving the flight and have to endure my wife’s parents for two long, cold weeks. The last thing I needed was a grumpy old man plopping in the seat next to me and start mumbling to himself. His comments became louder and unfortunately more distinct. When he got to the part about how it was intolerable that first class was filled to capacity, I could no longer contain myself.
“Well, I’ll try not to breathe on you.”
One of my worst character flaws was opening my mouth and letting fly words that I wish I could immediately grab and cram back in. Not only was I subjected to a disgruntled aristocrat generally angry at the airline for not accommodating him but also was going to be the personal object of his disdain for the next three hours. Glancing over at him, I watched his face change from shock, anger and incredulity to surprise, humor and relaxation. He laughed out loud for about half a minute, which in a crowded tourist class airplane section was exceptionally long. Several fellow travelers turned to see what was going on.
“This is the first time I’ve laughed in at least three days,” he said. “Thank you.”
Smiling, he stared at me, which made me uncomfortable. I decided I would have preferred to have him angry and ignoring me in excess than have all this attention.
“You don’t know who I am, do you?”
My first impulse was to ask, “And why should I care?” Instead I restrained myself. “I take it you are a person who prefers to fly first class.”
He chuckled again. “And why should you care in the first place?” Settling into his cramped seat, the man looked straight ahead. “I apologize for being an insufferable bore. I assume everyone knows who I am and will try to convince me he has written the next best-selling novel in the world if only he could get a foot in the door.”
I had written a novel and sent the first three chapters to Doubleday. An editor replied he liked them and wanted to see the rest of it. By the time I mailed it, he retired and the next editor didn’t like it at all. Since I didn’t want to add another rejection to my list of achievements, I refrained from telling the author my story.
“You don’t have a novel, do you?”
“Oh, no,” I lied. “Used to work for newspapers though. But that’s not real writing, is it?”
“All writing is real writing. I admire how you people can write a full story, zip like that and have it published the next day. I could never do that.”
“It’s called a deadline. And the necessity of being paid.”
He laughed again. “None of the reporters I’ve talked to have ever made me laugh. Why is that?”
“The deadline.” I paused. “I interviewed a famous author once. One of the Haileys. Not the one who wrote Roots but the other one. You know. Hotel. Airport.”
“Yes, I do know him.”
“He acted like he was a character in one of his own novels.”
The man giggled.
“And he looks like he has a personal tanning bed in his house and uses it daily.”
“He does, he does.”
Three hours passed quickly as I tossed out random comments about writing and writers while the man laughed all through it. I never felt so clever in my life. By the time we were circling the airport, he pulled out a note pad and pen.
“Please put your initials and address on this,” he said. “I would like to hear from you. But I think it would be better if we kept our identities to initials. It would ruin it, don’t you think, if you knew exactly who I was.”
It was just as well. I didn’t think I wanted to be on first name basis when anyone that eccentric anyway. By the first week of the new year I received a handsome letter on personalized stationary. At the top of the paper were the initials “IRS”. He apologized again for his rudeness on the plane and reiterated how much he had enjoyed our conversation.
“By the way, I was at Hailey’s house for New Year’s Eve and giggled at him the entire evening. He was quite put out by it and asked what the matter was. I couldn’t tell him that he was acting like a character in one of his novels, so I just said I had had too much wine. Please keep me informed about what you are reading. I don’t get honest opinions often.”
This put me in a rather odd situation because I was going through a period when I wasn’t reading much of anything. The last novel I had picked up I hadn’t even finished.
“I tried to read Irving Stone’s book about Sigmund Freund, Passions of the Mind, but couldn’t finish it. I supposed it was over my head. I can’t read William Faulkner either.”
In the return mail I received this note from IRS:
“I agree about William Faulkner. He tried to be the American William Shakespeare. Stone was just lucky. He needs to remember to be appreciative of what he has been given.”
At the time I thought he was bit rough on Stone, but since he knew all these people personally I didn’t want to dispute his opinion. Through the years we corresponded, and I resisted the temptation to talk about my own writing. I wrote a few more novels, some plays and screenplays, none of them getting past the standard rejection slip. Every now and then I did pump him for gossip. For example, I asked if he thought Ernest Hemingway actually committed suicide or was it murder.
“Hemingway was crazy,” IRS wrote. “He could have been a great writer if he wasn’t always trying to prove he was a real man, whatever a real man is.”
By the middle of 1989 I had a huge stack of handwritten letters from the anonymous novelist. In September not one single letter came in the mail. Perhaps he had grown tired of connecting with a common man. On October first, however, I received this:
“My dear friend, I am sorry I have not written lately. My health is beginning to fail. Not to bore you with details but I’ve been hospitalized for the last month. I fear I have written my last novel, which is a shame since it’s all I’ve done for the last fifty years. Once again I feel remorse over our relationship. I regret having taken advantage of your good nature and humor. In the ten years we have corresponded I should have dropped my self-defense mechanism to reach out to help you with whatever dreams you have. To make up for it, I want you to feel free to ask me for one favor. No matter what it is, I will do everything within my power to grant it.”
This put me in a particular bind. While my heart raced a bit with the prospect of finally being published by a real publisher, I didn’t want to ruin the good feelings of our ten-year relationship by having him try to sell my books and fail. However, I’ve always felt it was bad manners to reject someone’s offer to do me a favor, so I wrote back this:
“My dear friend, Corresponding with you for ten years has been an honor and a pleasure, I think, made even more special by the anonymity. Therefore, my only request is that you share with me what your middle name is. That way you can keep your privacy and I can have the joy of knowing a private fact about a public person.”
Another month passed without a letter. Again I assumed I had presumed too much and lost this special relationship. The next morning I read the local newspaper. Irving Stone, author of bestsellers Lust for Life, Agony and the Ecstasy and Passions of the Mind, died at his home, leaving an enigma—an unfinished letter to “my dear friend.” I smiled when I read the only word on the letter.
(Author’s note: I don’t know why I feel compelled to add this clarification since as a short story it’s obviously fiction and therefore not true. Anyway, for the record, Irving Stone’s middle initial was I and not Rebecca. I don’t know what it was but I’m sure it was something serious and dignified, like Irene.)
Previously in the novel: War Secretary Edwin Stanton holds President and Mrs. Lincoln captive under guard in basement of the White House. Janitor Gabby Zook by accident must stay in the basement too. Guard Adam Christy tells the Lincoln Tad has become ill. Lincoln demands the boy be brought to them.
Adam collapsed into the omnibus seat, exhausted physically and emotionally, and watched the street signs appear. Avenue H, Avenue I…his mind stopped noticing for a moment as it tried to comprehend the explosion he had just witnessed. Never had he thought the soft-spoken, gently witty Lincoln would, could muster such rage so quickly. And what if Stanton said no? he fretted as Avenue K arrived. He waved at the driver to stop and stepped off the omnibus, which clanged its way up Fifteenth Street. Adam ran down the avenue several blocks until he reached Stanton’s brick home. Coming down the steps as he leaped up, two at a time, was a strange, swarthy woman wearing dangling earrings and a peculiar scarf over her black curls. She nodded and smiled mysteriously at him and evaporated in to the night. He stood at the door, gathering courage to knock and fighting his doubts about Stanton’s intentions.
Some nights, after cleaning and returning chamber pots to the billiards room, Adam sneaked out and wandered over to one of the taverns, where he was developing a taste for ale. Soldiers returning from battle swapped tall tales, but Adam stayed to himself, preferring not to explain why he had no wounds. He had learned quite a bit about the political scene in the capital and much of the gossip, including where the best whorehouses were, and who was taking graft in the government. For instance, he learned Edwin Stanton had become secretary of war by exposing the corruption of former secretary Simon Cameron, who was said to be willing to steal anything but a red-hot stove. Then one night, as Adam was nursing his second glass of ale, he overheard something disconcerting. During the summer of 1862, when Stanton was formulating his plan to move Lincoln to the basement, he had been the target of nasty rumors of failure to supply medical aid and armaments for the soldiers. There was even talk of forcing the president to remove him.
So, as Adam stood on the front step of Stanton’s house, he could not help but wonder if Stanton’s self-preservation was the actual reason for the grand scheme to save the republic, of which the private was an integral part. He finally knocked.
A maid opened the door, and Adam told her he wanted to see Stanton. He sat on a long bench in the hall while she disappeared through a door to the parlor. In a moment she returned.
“Mr. Stanton will join you in a few minutes.”
She disappeared down the hall, and Adam, despite his better instincts, went to the door and listened.
“Ellen, who was that woman?”
“Mrs. Laury, from Georgetown.”
“The name sounds familiar.”
“She’s a spiritualist.”
“Ah, the one who told Mrs. Lincoln that all her husband’s Cabinet members were his enemies.” Sarcasm tinged his voice.
“It was Mrs. Lincoln who recommended her to me, since we share the sorrow of losing sons.”
“Mrs. Lincoln? When?”
Adam noticed an urgency to the question.
“Last summer. Mrs. Laury’s been ill with influenza until recently. Why do you ask?”
“No reason.” Stanton paused. “Why do you need a spiritualist?”
Adam heard Mrs. Stanton sigh, but not reply.
“Well, I’ve someone waiting for me outside,” Stanton said. “We can talk about this later.” When he came out of the door, his eyes widened. “Oh. I didn’t know it was you.” He looked around nervously. “I told you not to come here.”
“It’s an emergency.”
“Not here. Outside.” Stanton pushed Adam out the front door. “What is it?” They stood on the porch and began to shiver in the November night.
“The boy—Tad—he’s sick.”
“So?” Stanton raised a cynical eyebrow.
“It’s nothing serious, but he wants to see his mother.”
“Isn’t that woman there? She should be there.”
“What do you mean he knows?”
“He thinks his father placed substitutes in the White House as part of a plan to end the war. That’s why he hasn’t told anyone—yet.”
“He says if he doesn’t see his mother tonight, he might forget not to tell.”
“Little brat tries to blackmail me, and he won’t live until morning.”
“Hell.” Stanton spat on the steps and scrunched his shoulders. “Fine. Take him to the basement. Just make sure no one sees you.”
Within thirty minutes, Adam was back at the Executive Mansion and bounding up the service stairs. Entering Tad’s bedroom, he found Alethia and Duff hovering over him.
Beaming brightly, Adam announced, “It’s all right. It’s been approved. Mr. Stanton said yes.”
“Hear that?” Alethia brushed Tad’s hair. “In a few minutes you’ll see them.”
“But only for a few minutes,” Duff said. He looked up at Adam and back at the boy. “You don’t want to endanger your father’s plan.”
“Oh no,” Tad said. “I don’t want to do anything to hurt Papa, but I do want to see Mama. I think it’ll make me well faster.”
“Of course it will.” Alethia smiled.
“You’re a nice lady.” Tad looked up at her and then at Duff. “And you’re a nice man. Papa picked good when he picked you.”
“No one must see us,” Adam said. “What about Nicolay and Hay?”
“They came in from a round of tavern visits while you were gone.” Duff stood. “I think they’re still awake.”
“Oh.” Adam’s face clouded.
“I could go down to their rooms and discuss tomorrow’s agenda,” Duff offered.
“That’s good,” Adam said.
“They’re good boys. Our late-night talks can last an hour, easy.”
“That’ll give us plenty of time,” Adam said.
Duff left to walk down through the glass partition to the office reception area. The bedroom which Hay and Nicolay shared was in the corner across from their office.
Tillie Purcival clutched, ever so gently, her sixteen-year-old Chihuahua Toots as she sat in the rocking chair on her front porch, waiting for her son and his wife to arrive. When she saw their sedan pull up, she set her jaw and tried to control the tears forming in her steel gray eyes. The son and his wife walked up the sidewalk, smiling and holding hands.
“So which one of you told this little dog she was old?”
Good grief. Here she goes again. I’m not a puppy anymore. Get over it.
Tillie’s husband Butch never allowed her to have a lap dog. He considered them a waste of time and money. Now, a hunting dog, he told her, there was a good investment. At least they could bring home something she could cook for supper. And Butch gave Tillie strict instructions never to pet the hunting dogs. That would just turn them into sissies and then what good would they be?
Three days after his sixty-first birthday, Butch took his dogs hunting. They were chasing a covey of quail when Butch tripped over the dogs, fell and blew a hole in his belly with his shotgun. After the funeral, Tillie gave the shotgun and the dogs to her son as a Christmas present. She promptly went to a dog show in nearby Dallas, strolled the aisles until she found a table of baby Chihuahuas, paid an obscene amount for the tiniest female, named her Sweet Little Tootsie Roll (Toots for short) and took her home.
Tillie and Toots became inseparable companions. An expert seamstress, Tillie created a lovely bag which fitted Toots perfectly. When she took her dog to the vet, he told her the Chihuahua was in good health but did have a slight curvature of the spine which would develop into arthritis as Toots grew old. Tillie decided never to allow that to happen so she always called her pet a sweet little baby puppy. Everyone who visited the house was instructed to do the same.
All went well for the next sixteen years until Toots indeed develop arthritis. Her little head perpetually cocked to the left and her tiny feet veered to the right. The odd walk never accounted for much because Tillie kept the dog in the bag or in her arms. The problem was with visitors who insisted on commenting what a sweet old dog Toots was.
“She is not old! She is my sweet little baby puppy!”
“Of course, she is, mother,” her son said.
“And if I accidentally used the word old, I am very sorry,” his wife added.
“She is not old!”
Stop screaming in my ear! I’m not deaf!
“Is she eating better than she was?” he asked.
“Yes, but I don’t want her to gain too much weight. Her little legs won’t hold it.”
The new stuff in the tiny packages is yummy. I’m glad she started buying it.
“I just don’t want her to be unhappy, that’s all,” Tillie sighed, relenting in her lecture.
I’m happy. I’m happy. Just stop screaming in my ears.
“She’s very dear to you,” the wife said. “I know.”
Oh great. The old broad’s beginning to quiver again. I better give her a kiss to calm her down.
Toots licked Tillie’s knuckles, which were becoming a bit arthritic too.
“You see,” she said, lifting the little dog to her cheek, “she needs me.”
You see, she needs me.
Siegfried and Otto were extremely put out that the Fuehrer had gone down into his bunker and put a bullet through his brain.
There they had just created the perfect prototype of a robot soldier, ready to goosestep across Europe, and the war was over. What on earth were they ever to do?
Within a year they had migrated to the United States with a brilliant new idea for their robot. Siegfried and Otto reworked the circuit to transform the goose-stepping marvel into a tap-dancing fool. They envisioned creating entire theater companies to tour with No No Nanette in every major city in America, three shows daily. Ordinary human dancers had to eat, sleep and insist on being paid, while inconveniently coming up lame with pulled muscles and sprained ankles.
“He is a masterpiece!” Siegfried exclaimed.
“Perhaps we should lose the mustache and the hair down the forehead,” Otto offered.
“But why? He is the exact image of the Fuehrer!”
“He looks like one of the Americans’ Three Stooges, Moe,” Otto replied. “He would not be taken seriously.”
“Very well. Perhaps different color of hair?” Siegfried asked
“Ah! Make him a blond!” Otto jumped with glee.
“He will be the perfect auto robot!”
“Und why should he be named for you?” Siegfried demanded. “I am just as responsible for his creation as you are!”
“What do you mean, named for me?”
“You said to name him Otto robot,” Siegfried responded.
“I said auto robot as in automated robot,” the short bald-headed scientist said, stomping his foot. “Not Otto robot!”
“You should not speak with such a thick German accent when we are discussing business.”
“Let’s get back to the topic at hand,” Siegfried said, opening the back of the dancing robot with a screwdriver to make final adjustments. “Ah, that is it.” He closed the panel and pushed the bright red button between the robot’s shoulder blades.
The robot began a perfect tap routine with shuffle ball change and butterfly jumps. Otto’s eyes widened.
“Und what, may I ask, is that?”
“Tap dancing! American tap dancing!”
Otto stomped again. “Nein! That is sissy tap dancing!” He grabbed the screwdriver from Siegfried’s hand and went to the robot to punch the red button. “I thought we had settled this question weeks ago.”
“Nein. We just stopped talking about it,” Siegfried replied. “I made the final decision to make the robot dance like Fred Astaire. Und Fred Astaire is not a sissy! He is a happily married man. Millions of Americans love his suave dancing style.”
“Scheitze! Millions more Americans love the style of Gene Kelly!” Otto threw open the panel, stuck in the screwdriver and adjusted the panel. “Bended knees! Wider steps! Dance like a man, for God’s sake!”
When Otto punched the button the robot bent its knees and flew across the floor, tapping its little feet off. Siegfried ran to his partner and wrested the screwdriver from his hand and turned to the dancing robot as it began bouncing off the walls.
“Nein! Nein! No No Nanette cannot be danced like that!” Seigfried screamed.
Before Siegfried could reach the robot to punch its red button Otto jumped on his back. “No sissies in No No Nanette!”
The two scientists rolled around on the floor as the dancing robot entered its final sixteen bars which included a pirouette and clicking of heels. Unfortunately on the second heel click the robot tripped over Siegfried and Otto, collapsed and its legs fell off. The scientists stopped fighting, stood and surveyed the damage.
“I never liked No No Nanette in the first place,” Otto said.
“Ja. Too American,” Siegfried agreed. “Besides, we would have had to pay royalties.”
Otto, who now possessed the screwdriver, tapped Siegfried’s arm with it. “Ballet. We pick a composer from the eighteenth century, and the music is ours for the taking.”
“Just like Poland!”
Each picked up a leg and went to the work table. They went back for the torso.
“Of course, it will have to be programmed to dance in the style of the Bolshoi Ballet,” Otto said matter of factly.
“Bolshoi?” Siegfried replied. “But I prefer Kirov!”
The photographer was late coming to mother’s birthday party, and she was not pleased.
The smallest of things always displeased mother so the use of the word party in connection with any event which involved her became a misnomer. The last people to walk this earth who could please her were her mother and father, and they had passed on years ago to their reward for carefully molding and leaving on humanity’s doorstep such a spoiled brat.
Grandfather had made his money selling shoes that fell apart after a five-mile march during the Civil War. When asked why he would sell such a shoddy product to the United States government he said they were meant for the Cavalry. Grandmother’s family came over on one of the early boats, not the Mayflower but one that came when Massachusetts became more suitable for habitation.
Mother made it a custom to have a photographer to come to her home in the Concord countryside to record for posterity all family gatherings, birthdays, weddings, wakes, Christmas, Thanksgiving, Easter and Fourth of July. Of course, she complained that no one remained straight and still enough for the portrait. She was as stiff as her freshly starched blouses. The only person not criticized for being stiff enough was the guest of honor in the casket at a wake.
“This is inexcusable,” she muttered as she sipped on her lemonade. “I have never had a photographer be this late at one of our events. We can’t cut the cake until the photographer arrives.”
“We just had a horrific summer thunderstorm, Mother dear,” I told her.
“No excuse,” she cut me off briskly. “Anyone of true breeding would have allowed time for such atmospheric disruptions.”
“No one else seems to mind. They’re having a good time talking among themselves.”
“That’s another thing,” she snapped. “They should at least be talking to me about how the photographer has ruined my birthday.”
“The only person who can ruin your birthday is you,” I said, immediately ruing the words that just came out of my mouth.
“I beg your pardon!” She bolted out of her chair and glared at me, all without spilling a single drop of her lemonade.
Fortunately, the telephone rang at that moment and I excused myself to answer it. Everyone in the parlor became silent and stared at me as I spoke into the receiver.
“Yes, yes. This is the Van Horne residence. I am Mrs. Van Horne’s son. Yes, we were expecting his arrival at any moment. Oh. I see. Thank you very much.”
I hung up and turned toward mother, who had already sat down. All the aunts, uncles, brothers, sisters, cousins and grandchildren parted like the Red Sea as I walked back to her.
“I don’t care what his excuse is,” she said, pursing her lips. “I shall never hire him again.”
“Mother, the photographer had a car accident on the way over to the house during the thunderstorm. He’s dead.”
“Well, that’s just another good reason never to hire him again.”
In the summer of 1960 my father, mother, brothers, a friend and I went to Devil’s Den, a rock formation park outside of Tishomingo, Oklahoma. It was privately owned and consisted of huge boulders in weird positions. They either looked like something or had a historical significance. Belle Star, among other notorious characters, used to hide out from the law there.
We had the brochure with the numbered formations and a brief explanation of their significance. My dad, who for some reason had my mother’s purse hanging in the crook of his elbow, stood in front of us staring at two huge rocks pressed together. Mom had the brochure and was trying to figure out what its title meant.
“You Name It” was what the brochure called it with no further details.
Suddenly she burst out laughing.
“I get it!” she shouted, looking first at my father’s backside and then at the two rocks squashed together. “It’s an old man’s fat behind!”
Even my father had to laugh at that one.
I was twelve years old and all of a sudden I grasped this was a moment to remember. It was the last time the entire family went some place for fun together. In a couple of years Mom would be dead of cancer, I drifted away from my friend because we had different interests, and my brothers and Dad just drifted away.
In 1985, my wife, son, daughter, mother-in-law and I went to Dollywood in Pigeon Forge, Tenn. The day was nice, but what struck me as a memory I should keep was when we were walking out. I held my year-old daughter with one arm on my hip and held my 11-year-old son’s hand with the other. Instinctively I knew this would never happen again exactly this way. As my daughter grew up we held hands a lot when we left amusement parks, walking ahead of the slow pokes, my wife and son. Now she’s all grown up and living in New York. My son is an old hairy-legged prison guard. It would not be the same holding hands with him today as it was back when he was eleven.
A few years ago, my wife, son, daughter, her husband and my grand-nephew went to Disney Hollywood at Christmas. Again at the end of a long day of having fun I stopped a moment to look back up the street at the fire works going off over the park with all its decorations. First I knelt down with my grand-nephew who was six and told him to listen close to all the sounds and take a hard look at all the colors so he could remember this as one of the good times.
Then I took each of the others to the middle of the street and said the same thing to them. The two guys smiled and went along with the old man’s odd moment. My wife gave me a nice kiss, but my daughter looked at me and blurted out, “Oh my God! You’re going to die.”
“Well, I wasn’t planning on it, at least not anytime soon.”
“But that’s the type of thing someone says just before they die,” she insisted.
It was still a nice moment to remember. My wife died of cancer. My daughter divorced that husband and now has a new one and a daughter. My grand-nephew is a teenager and doesn’t write. My son is still an old hairy-legged prison guard.
The point of all this is to remind you that no matter how busy you are and how tight the family budget is this year, make sure you do something fun with your family. You’ll be glad to have the memories later.
Previously in the novel: War Secretary Edwin Stanton holds President and Mrs. Lincoln captive under guard in basement of the White House. Janitor Gabby Zook by accident must stay in the basement too. Guard Adam Christy reports on his condition each evening to his sister Cordie and fellow hospital volunteer Jessie Home.
Adam thought he was falling in love as he walked briskly from Jessie’s boardinghouse. A few minutes with her each evening made cleaning chamber pots bearable. His eyes widened when he thought of chamber pots which should have been emptied already. Fear of another scolding from Mrs. Lincoln hastened him down H Street. He counted down the intersections—Tenth Street, Eleventh, Twelfth, Thirteenth, and then New York Avenue. By the time he headed toward the Executive Mansion, Adam was in full gait, and breathing heavily. He stopped at the bottom of the mansion steps to catch his breath. Nodding curtly to John Parker at the door, Adam went straight to the service stairs, trounced the straw mats as he raced down, passed the kitchen, and reached the billiards room door. Again he paused to catch his breath and fish the keys from his pocket. Steeling himself against Mrs. Lincoln’s fury, he unlocked the door.
Inside, Mrs. Lincoln sat under the lamp which hung over the billiards table with the sewing kit and the ripped quilt. She looked up and smiled at Adam.
“Thank you so much for bringing the needle and thread. I’d forgotten how soothing mending can be.”
“I’m sorry for being late to empty the chamber pots,” he said.
“Oh, are you late? I hadn’t noticed.”
“I heard you come in,” Lincoln said as he walked through the curtain carrying one of the pots, “so I thought I’d help out.”
“Thank you, sir.” Adam retrieved the second one and headed for the door as Gabby appeared from behind his curtain, carrying his chamber pot. Adam’s hands were trembling as he unlocked the door.
“I finally had a bowel movement. It’s been two weeks. I think I’m finally getting used to living down here, and my bowels are loosening.” Gabby looked at Adam’s hands. “Are you nervous about something? My hands shake sometimes when I’m nervous. I hope you don’t get nervous like me, or the generals won’t let you stay in the army anymore.”
“It’s nothing. I thought Mrs. Lincoln might be upset with me for being late.”
“That’s all right, young man,” Lincoln said, patting him on the back. “She makes me nervous sometimes too.”
Adam left one pot outside the billiards room door and carried the other two through the kitchen to the service entrance door. He wondered if the architect had ever thought full chamber pots would come so close to the food prepared for the president.
“Do you want me to get the third pot?” Phebe asked, looking up from the stove.
“No, thanks,” he replied, quickening his step to the door to the driveway beneath the north portico. “I can get it.”
“It won’t kill you to accept help,” she said with humor as she went into the hall to pick up the third pot. As she walked, Phebe looked down at its contents. “This man must have been constipated for weeks.”
“You shouldn’t talk about that,” Adam muttered as he walked out the door and down the driveway to the deep gutter, where he emptied the two pots. Phebe joined him and dumped the third.
“I know they’re top-secret helpers with the war, and I haven’t said anything to anyone else, only to you.”
“I’d feel better if we didn’t talk about them at all.”
“Why? Aren’t they doing a good job? They never come out. Never get any fresh air.”
“I said, I don’t talk about it,” he said sharply as he picked up the pots to carry them to the water trough.
“Suit yourself,” Phebe said. She marched past Adam and plopped the third pot into the trough, splashing water on him.
Shaking his head, Adam washed out the pots and berated himself for not answering Phebe’s questions any better, but every time he was around her he was in awe of her dark, smooth skin, her full lips and slender torso flaring into ample hips. Stacking the three pots, he carried them back through the kitchen to the hall.
“The boy is still bilious,” Neal told Phebe outside her bedroom.
“Poor child,” Phebe replied. “I suppose Mrs. Lincoln is fretting over him.”
“Yes, but she’s not as nervous about it as she used to be.”
Adam’s breath quickened as he realized what they were talking about, and he walked to them.
“Tad’s not feeling well?” he asked.
“His mama’s trying to make him puke,” Neal replied.
“He was off his feed earlier today, and about an hour ago he started moaning with the bellyache,” Phebe explained.
“He’ll be all right, won’t he?” Adam shifted his weight from one foot to the other, as it gradually dawned on him: a moral dilemma was about to loom over him.
“I don’t know,” Neal said. “I never heard such moaning in my life.”
“I’m sure Mrs. Lincoln knows what to do,” Phebe said.
“Now I want all of you to eat every bite of this,” Mother said as she sat down at the table. “I had another one of my headaches today while I was cooking.”
“Well, I helped cook,” Betty replied, sticking out her lower lip in a pout, as she spooned the turnip greens on her plate. “But I do love turnip greens, with lots and lots of bacon grease.”
“I don’t want any greens” Royce said. “Bacon grease upsets my stomach.”
“Bacon grease is yummy.”
“That’s why you’re a fat pig. You eat too much bacon grease.”
“Royce, if Betty wants to enjoy her food, that’s her right,” Mother said, putting a small dollop of potatoes on her plate. “These potatoes are delicious, but I don’t want to gain any more weight.”
Dad grunted as he piled the food on his plate and kept his head down.
Donny, the youngest, took the last cutlet, emptied the bowl of potatoes and covered them both with gravy.
“You little pig,” Royce said. “You took all the food. What if Dad wanted more? At least he works. I might have wanted more. I have a paper route. You don’t work. You don’t deserve to eat.”
“I help mother around the house,” Betty said, stuffing potatoes into her mouth. “If that’s not work, then I don’t know what is.”
Donny pushed the plate away and looked down.
“Why aren’t you eating?” Mother asked. “After all I went through to put it on the table.”
“Royce said I didn’t deserve to eat.”
“You’ve got to learn to not pay attention to what Royce says. Eat up or you’ll give me another headache.”
“I don’t wanna.”
“One of these days I’m gonna bop you over the head,” Betty mumbled, glaring at Royce. “Always picking on the baby.”
“I’m not a baby.”
“Then stop acting like one,” Royce spat.
“Father, what are we going to do? Donny won’t eat because Royce said something.”
“Eat your damn supper.” Father let out a belch before cutting another slice of cutlet.
“Why do you always have to upset the baby at supper?” Betty was on the verge of hysteria. “I think you’re just not happy unless you stir up a little hell.”
“Betty, mind your own business.” Mother ate the last forkful of potatoes on her plate. “Those potatoes were so delicious. I’m glad they’re all gone so I wouldn’t be tempted to eat anymore.”
“You’d have enough potatoes, Mother,” Royce said, “if the pig hadn’t put them all on his plate.”
“Oh no, if Donny thinks he can eat all those potatoes I want him to have them.” Mother sighed. “Go ahead and eat your potatoes, Donny.”
“Yeah, you little pig,” Royce added with a growl.
“Don’t call the baby a pig!” Betty’s face turned red.
“It’s just not fair!” Royce had tears in his eyes. “He gets away with everything ‘cause he’s the baby!”
“Father, what are we going to do with these children?” Mother shook her head. “It seems we can’t have a moment’s peace without somebody getting upset.”
“Everybody shut the hell up. And you eat your damn potatoes.”
“Yes, Father.” Donny slowly raised a forkful of food to his mouth.
“I’m just going to stop trying to fix a good meal anymore. Nobody ever wants to eat.”
Previously in the novel: War Secretary Edwin Stanton holds President and Mrs. Lincoln captive under guard in basement of the White House. Janitor Gabby Zook by accident must stay in the basement too. Guard Adam Christy reports on his condition each evening to his sister Cordie and fellow hospital volunteer Jessie Home.
Cordie turned her head to watch Adam’s animated description of the land and rivers and trees and skies of Ohio, which did not interest her in the least. At her age, one place was as good as the next to her, but what did interest her was the sparkle in his eyes. She worried Jessie underestimated her charms. It would be a shame to see a nice young man disappointed. Wondering why she cared about Adam, she looked again into his wide, intelligent, excited eyes. Cordie smiled to herself, and tears came to her eyes. Pulling out a handkerchief and wiping her moist cheeks, she knew what she saw—the spirit of young Gabby living on in the image of Adam. The omnibus’s grinding halt shook Cordie from her thoughts. Peering through the window, she nodded.
“It’s my stop.”
Her two companions did not hear her as they continued their enthusiastic conversation. Cordie looked fondly at them and regretted having to step past them to get out.
“Excuse me, my dears,” she said softly, still not catching their attention. She walked down the aisle feeling strangely content, even though her world had been turned upside down.
“Good night, me darlin’,” Jessie called out.
“Um, yes, good-bye, Miss Zook,” Adam said.
“Good night, children.” She turned and nodded.
Standing a moment at the curb on H Street to watch the omnibus clatter down the rough dirt road and disappear in the darkness, Cordie turned and walked up the steps to the front door of the three-story wooden clapboard boardinghouse occupied by a congenial older couple, Mr. and Mrs. John Edmonds. They leased it from a Maryland innkeeper who, the Edmondses said, rode in monthly to collect rent from boarders, mostly young men who needed mending done. That was where Cordie made her money.
As Cordie put her key in the lock, she heard Mrs. Edmonds’s sweet, low voice being drowned out by a stern, demanding female voice. She slipped through the door and tried to make her way silently to the stairs.
“Just a minute!” The other woman, middle-aged, with dark hair parted down the middle and tied tight in the back, approached Cordie. “Is this the woman you’re renting to?”
“Yes; Miss Zook,” Mrs. Edmonds said, “a dear soul who tends to our wounded Union soldiers at the Armory Square Hospital.”
The woman looked sharply at her, then at Cordie. “How long have you been living here and making a living off my boarders?”
“Not quite a year,” she replied.
“From now on, I’m charging two dollars more for using my house as a place of business.” Nodding curtly, she said, “Good night, Mrs. Edmonds.” Without another word, she put on her coat and bonnet and left.
“Gracious me,” Cordie said. “I hope I didn’t get you into trouble.”
“Don’t worry about it, my dear.” Mrs. Edmonds patted her hand. “I’m glad John had gone to bed. Mrs. Surratt’s tirade would have weakened his heart.”
“Is she always like this?”
“No, for the longest she was a sweet soul, not very talkative, but nice.” Mrs. Edmonds sighed. “Her husband drank too much. He died in August, and she hasn’t been the same since.”
Hello, Jerry. My name is Nora.
The voice came through distinctly even as the anesthesia coursed through my veins. I was enduring another colonoscopy.
“Do I know you?”
I don’t think so. I died before you were born.
“Oh yes, you’re Aunt Crazy’s daughter.”
Please don’t call her that. She’s much more pleasant now that she doesn’t have to lug her body around.
“You’re not here to escort me to the other side, are you?”
There is no other side. We’re all here, except some of us have bodies. The rest of us are spirits, free to go or do anything we like. It’s divine.
“So nobody’s unpleasant on the other—I mean, what do you call it?
Life. You must pay closer attention. There’s life with bodies and life without bodies.
“So no body’s unpleasant without a body?
No one. Being mean and nasty can take up so much room in a body there’s no space left for anything else.
“So when mean and nasty people die—“
Poof, all gone.
“So are you here to help me dump this body?”
No. I’m just here to chat. I love to chat.
“Why haven’t you chatted with me before?”
How do you know I haven’t?
A lot of us are around you all the time but you don’t know it.
“Then why aren’t they saying anything?”
They don’t want to be rude. It’s my turn to talk.
“Why do they like to be around me?”
You’re funny. I thought you knew that.
“Some people think I am. Others say I’m just silly.”
Oh, they’re just the mean and nasty ones. They don’t count.
“So how can you be a female if you don’t have a body?”
Who says I’m female?
“Well, your name is Nora.”
Nora is a nice name. Why does it have to be male or female?
“Come to think of it, it doesn’t.”
That’s what I said.
“Who named you Nora?”
“When did you do that?”
Long ago. Time doesn’t mean anything without a body.
“So have I always been Jerry?”
Do you want to be?
“I don’t know.”
Take your time.
“I thought time didn’t mean anything.”
It doesn’t. That’s why you can take all the time you want.
“So how did Aunt Crazy—I mean your mother–know to name you Nora?”
I suggested it to her while she was dreaming.
“Does she know that you influenced her to name you Nora?”
Why would she want to know that?
“I guess out of curiosity.”
Why indeed. Sometimes I’m the mother. Sometimes she’s the father. What difference does it make?
“Didn’t you like having a body?”
After a while it doesn’t matter. I think bodies are a nuisance. But I know people who loved having bodies. To each his own.
“I don’t understand.”
I know. Don’t worry about it. Just be funny. You’re good at that.
Before I could ask another question, a nurse whispered, “It’s time to wake up. The procedure went fine. Clean as a whistle. You can go home soon.”
“Is your name Nora?” I asked her.
“No,” she replied.
“Do you like the name Nora?”
“I’m sorry. I don’t have time to talk.”
“Of course you don’t. You’re not Nora.”