Previously in the novel: Leon, a novice mercenary, is foiled in kidnapping the Archbishop of Canterbury by a mysterious man in black. The man in black turns out to be David, better known as Edward the Prince of Wales. Soon to join the world of espionage is Wallis Spencer, an up-and-coming Baltimore socialite. David and Wallis are foiled in their attempt to protect a socialite’s jewels.
Leon sat on the white sands of the Eleuthera beach watching little Sidney tentatively take his first steps towards him. His wife Jessamine jumped and clapped her hands. When Sidney reached him, Leon extended his arms to hug the boy on his success. The toddler waved his arms, turned slightly and kept moving.
“No! Walk more!”
Laughing, Leon rolled around to watch his son waddle past him. His smile faded as he saw a dark outline against the Bahamian sun. Pooka stood there, her arms folded and her head wagging.
“You’re a lucky man, Leon Johnson.”
“Yes, I know I am.”
“If you had stayed away another week you would have missed seeing your son take his first steps.”
“And if frogs had wings they wouldn’t bump their butts on the ground when they hopped.”
Pooka walked up, towering over him. “What exactly is it that you do, Leon Johnson?”
He rose his feet with the grace of a ballet dancer. “I thought you would know, being a high priestess of Obeah.”
Jessamine brushed by them on her way to intersect Sidney before his feet reached the water. “No, no. Wait for me!”
“You are fortunate Jessamine is such a good mother.” Pooka stared into Leon’s eyes. “But one day when you are not here she might not see evil coming his way.”
“Now why would you want to threaten me, Pooka? If you are a high priestess you must sense a strong aura of power around me.”
Raising her hands, Pooka demurred. “No, no. I am not threatening. I am offering my help. Obeah can keep your son safe.”
“I’m sure. If the price is right.” Leon smiled. “That is what you are saying, isn’t it, Pooka?”
She spat on the sand and stormed away as Jessamine walked up with Sidney in her arms.
“What did Pooka want?”
“Money.” Leon took the boy into his arms and walked back to the ocean spray. Wading into the water up to his waist, he held Sidney high over his head and jiggled him as he laughed. “We have nothing to fear, do we, my son?
This was the happiest time of his life, he decided. No matter how much money he might make through working for the organization, Leon was sure nothing could surpass the peace and satisfaction of this moment. His beautiful hacienda-style home was completely his. No one could ever take it away. He had the satisfaction of providing a secure comfortable old age for his mother. His wife was utterly devoted to him and walked with pride along the paths of their Bahamian paradise. And he was going to teach his son the way his father had taught him. All this was possible because of one trip to New York City and the Plaza Hotel.
It was so simple. The night before the American Labor Day Leon went to the Cotton Club where he caught an early evening show. In a display of sophistication, he leaned back in the chair in his fine linen suit, a cigarette between his fingers. The troupe of ebony dancers finished their act and dispersed around the room. One of them, a tall, buxom woman covered in white feathers, sat at his table, oozing seduction. “You look like a man who enjoys a good time,” she murmured, taking the cigarette and puffing on it.
“Always. If the price is right.”
“Ask for Abe in the custodial closet. His price is fifty dollars. Then go to the sixteenth floor. Suite 1601. First room on the right. Jewels in a large ornamental wooden box.”
She blew him a kiss as she sashayed away.
Leon took a cab downtown to the Plaza Hotel where he found and bribed custodian Abe for his work clothes, pass key, work cart and identification papers.
Shortly after sunset Labor Day Leon clocked in. The crowds which had gathered for the parade had dispersed. Most residents settled into their apartments for the night. Others donned their best apparel for dinner and partying. Leon with his cart of cleaning equipment took the service elevator up to the sixteen floor and room 1601.
By this time he had perfected a limp in his left leg, dragging his foot behind. His mouth twisted in a bizarre way which required Leon to wipe his lips every few minutes with a dirty handkerchief. Each hotel guest that passed him kept their eyes straight ahead.
“Yassa, you have a good evening, you hear?” Leon was quite proud of his American Negro accent, which he knew white Americans expected to hear.
All of them deliberately ignored him. Leon had become the invisible man. He lingered in the hallway, vigorously polishing the wooden floors. An older woman dressed as a nanny left the suite. When he flashed his toothy smile, she sighed deeply and quickened her step.
Leon used his service key to enter, paused to look around the large apartment. Complete darkness. Total silence. He assumed that his organization knew the occupants would be out for the evening. The children were fast asleep. Why else would have the nanny left? Going directly to the master bedroom, Leon dumped the jewelry box contents into a trash bag he had taken from the cart. He jogged down the stairs to the custodial locker room and changed into his street clothes. Emptying the jewels into a small, non-descript suitcase, Leon was out the basement door hailing a taxi in a matter of minutes. He directed the cabbie to a prominent hotel in Harlem. Once inside he checked in at the desk.
“Have there been any messages for John Doe in Room 312?” he asked the clerk.
Fifteen minutes later there was a knock at his door. When he opened it, Leon saw a black female hand thrust into the room. In it was a thick envelope. He took it and handed the suitcase off. She grabbed him by his neck, pulled him into her and kissed him.
“I’ve been wanting to do that since I saw you in the Cotton Club last night.” The dancer winked.
“I hope you liked it.”
“Oh, I did.” She kissed him again. “I liked that one too.”
Leon was on the midnight train to Miami. By mid-morning he climbed into a shuttle craft to Freeport. His usual boatman waved when he saw Leon and ran to take his suitcase. As the sun set he walked through the courtyard of his hacienda and exulted in the welcome from his wife, child and mother. He trotted upstairs to unpack as Jessamine and Dorothy finished preparing his supper. Only then did he open the envelope and count the money. Leon could not help but smile at the amount. He did not know who these people were, and he did not care. There was enough cash in the envelope to allow him to stay home to watch his son grow up without another assignment for at least a year.
Two weeks later, Leon carried little Sidney out the door for romp time on the seashore when he noticed his flower pot was askew again. Frowning, he cursed under his breath and looked inside. A small bag of tobacco blended in with the soil. He opened it and found a large blue sapphire wrapped by a note.
“Jessamine! Hurry along! We want to play!”
Leon smiled and stuck the tobacco bag deep in his pocket. That was why he was so joyous with his family on the shore. Now he could stay home for three years. He hugged Sidney close to him as he sloshed out of the surf.
“Sidney, my son, it is time I taught you about our warrior ancestors in Africa. We were defeated, but we always remained proud.”
“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.”
(Previously in the book: For his fifth birthday Herman received a home-made bear, which magically came to life when Herman’s tear fell on him. Herman asked his parents to make burlap bears for his brother and sister for Christmas. His sister was happy, but his brother got mad.)
After Tad and his father left, mother shook her head and sighed. “You other children go ahead to bed.”
Herman and Callie took their bears, climbed into the loft and got ready for bed.
“I really love my bear,” Callie whispered in the dark.
Herman had trouble holding back his tears. “Callie, honest, I didn’t suggest the bears to mama and papa just so they would say I’m wonderful. And I didn’t want a second bear for myself. Honest.”
“I know, Herman,” Callie said. “Good night.”
It sounded to Herman like Callie was about to cry. After a few minutes, when he was sure Callie wasn’t listening, he talked to Burly. “Why can’t Christmas be as nice as I wanted it to be?”
“The world isn’t perfect,” Herman replied. “Let’s just be happy for the things that do turn out right.”
“It was fun planning for the Christmas presents. And I liked getting a hug and kiss from Callie.”
“And I finally got my family,” Burly added.
“Yes, and I finally have my son,” a strange girl bear voice said.
“Who’s that?” Herman whispered.
“It’s me, Pearly Bear.” The voice came from across the room behind the curtain.
“Mama, is that you?” Burly asked excitedly.
“Yes, Callie just dropped a tear on my head and all of a sudden I was talking.”
“How did you know your name was Pearly?” Herman was curious.
“That’s what Callie called me just before she went off to sleep. Son, don’t you think someone should go downstairs for your father?”
Burly looked up at Herman. “Uh yes. I don’t want papa to spend Christmas Eve on the cold floor all alone.”
Herman sneaked to the edge of the loft so he could climb down the ladder to retrieve the other burlap bear when he heard papa and Tad come in the door. He pulled back so they wouldn’t see him.
“Why do you make me do things like this to you?” Papa pleaded with his older son who just hung his head sullenly. “Do you think I want to whip you?”
Tad didn’t look up. “Maybe,” he mumbled.
“Well, I don’t.” Papa paced some and breathed deeply. “Don’t you know I love you best of all?”
Tad looked up, his eyes wide in surprise. Herman felt a pang of something sad in his chest, and he was on the verge of crying.
Papa walked over to one of the straight back cane chairs and sat down. Herman could see he was bent over and on the verge of quivering all over, like he was very cold. Finally he looked up, and Herman saw papa had tears welling in his eyes.
“You’re my first born. You’re the first baby I ever held in my arms.“ He paused. “Look at yourself in the mirror. Don’t you see who you look like? You look like me.”
Again there was silence. Herman looked at Tad to see if he were about to speak, but he didn’t. He just shuffled his feet.
“I want the very best in the world for you. That means you have to be the very best you can be. And by God if I have to beat you ever day I’ll do it so you’ll be the best and have the best.”
They stared at each other a long time. Finally papa stood and walked straight to his room. Tad stood, staring at the bedroom door after papa shut it.
The silence was making Herman nervous. Tad turned, picked up papa bear and headed for the ladder. Herman scampered for his bed and pretended to be asleep. With his eyes squeezed shut, Herman waited for Tad to climb into the loft. He heard his brother’s steps as he moved across the rough floor. Suddenly Herman became aware that Tad was standing over him. Uh oh, Herman thought, maybe Tad heard him eavesdropping. Don’t let him get mad at me again tonight. Herman prayed desperately. But then he felt Tad’s hand gently touch his hair.
“Thank you for the bear, Herman.”
Herman didn’t move.
“I know you’re awake.”
Herman rolled over slowly and looked at his brother who cracked a small smile.
“He’s swell. I never had a bear before.”
Herman was afraid to say anything, but that was all right because Tad turned and went to his bed. In a few minutes he was between the covers, and Herman couldn’t believe what he heard. Tad was crying.
In a few minutes, when all was silent again, an odd mature bear voice whispered, “Pearly? Burly Junior?”
Herman jumped. Burly jiggled a bit himself.
“Papa, is that you?” Burly asked.
“I’m over here, dear,” Pearly whispered. “I’m so glad you’re with us. We’re a family at last.”
Burly put his burlap arms on Herman and squeezed. “Thank you Herman. Thank you for the most wonderful Christmas present of all.”
“Yes,” Pearly added, “thank you for my family.”
“I’m so happy to have my son,” Burly Senior said. “And he looks just like me!”
Herman looked sad. “Yes, I suppose even if you had other bear children, Burly would still be your favorite.”
“Of course,” Burly Senior replied. “Just as your first child will always be your favorite. But that doesn’t mean I won’t love the others. And you will love your other children.”
“Don’t be jealous, Herman,” Pearly said. “Your father loves you.”
“I already told him that,” Burly said.
“And you’re right. Always listen to Burly, Herman,” Pearly added.
Herman forgot the pang in his heart, smiled and hugged Burly tight.
“Merry Christmas, Burly.”
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.”
Previously in the novel: Leon, a novice mercenary, is foiled in kidnapping the Archbishop of Canterbury by a mysterious man in black. The man in black turns out to be David, better known as Edward the Prince of Wales. Soon to join the world of espionage is Wallis Spencer, an up-and-coming Baltimore socialite. David kills an ambassador in Shanghai.
After her bizarre experience in China, Wallis returned to the United States because Win’s deployment in the Far East was completed and she had promised the Foreign Office to stay with the boozehound until they told her she could divorce him. The situation with Win’s increased drinking bothered her because, if he became too much of a sot, the Army would sack him and she would lose that delightful $250 a month. The British spy service had promised her money, jewels and luxury. She had not seen any of that yet. The agency told her to have patience. Wallis had never learned patience and she certainly was not going to start now.
Things perked up a bit when a MI6 message reached her while she played golf at her country club in Washington, D.C. She was visiting her mother who had married for the third time, the latest husband being a Veteran’s Administration official who made a comfortable living. The British contact dropped a note in Wallis’s golf bag.
“Plaza, week before Labor Day.”
Wallis and her aunt Bessie gleefully packed their bags and were off again. Bessie, worn out by the train ride, napped while Wallis unpacked at the Plaza. There was a knock at the door. When she opened it, she saw a maid.
“May I help, ma’am?”
“No thank you. I don’t need any help.”
The woman smiled and replied, “Oh yes, you do.”
They sat on the rim of the tub in the bathroom as the maid quickly informed Wallis of the Donohue situation. Her assignment was to bump into the Donohues and remind them they knew her uncle Sol, the clever inventor from Baltimore, and suggest they celebrate Labor Day together, since the Donohues knew the best night clubs in New York.
“Suggest to Jessie she wear her best gems for the evening out. Tell her you’ve always had a passion for glittering objects.”
Wallis’ thin lips creased into a serpentine smiled. “Maybe she’ll give me one.”
“Well, let’s not be too optimistic.”
The ostensible chance encounter took place in the hotel lobby with the best results; after all, social manipulation was Wallis’s specialty. The Donohues were instantly taken by Wallis’s sparkling personality and Jessie immediately agreed to the Labor Day outing along with the full array of accoutrement of diamonds, rubies and pearls. Wallis found Jessie a bit frumpy but James was a divine dancer. Of course all of her efforts were for naught. The jewels were stolen anyway, and Jessie did not offer Wallis one multi-faceted souvenir of the night. Wallis didn’t understand why MI6 was interested in the bloody baubles in the first place.
The next day Wallis returned to her mother’s new house in Washington, D.C. She paced in her room. What bothered her was the fact that she had not had the opportunity to torture or murder anyone yet. She thought she would have been given some Chinese opium dealer to practice on. No. Instead she was given the thankless duty of providing cover for the agent assigned to assassinate the ambassador. At least the part of being a belly dancer in the marketplace was fun. She had hoped to behead someone chasing the agent but the best she got was skimming her sword along the ground. The agent himself was not impressive. He was too short and thin, though his appearance played well in the role of an ancient derelict.
The person she actually could not get out of her head was the young black man in casual Caribbean attire running alongside of the British agent. She could tell he was aware of what was going on. But how would he know the ambassador was going to die? Who did he work for?
Her ruminations were interrupted by a knock at her bedroom door. When Wallis opened it there stood Win, trembling with his hat in hand. She invited him in and he entered hesitantly.
“Please, please give me a divorce.” His voice quavered. “Even the thought of a reconciliation has sent me into the bottle. I don’t care about my career—“
“Neither do I,” she cut him off as she lit a cigarette. “And I’m not the innocent little girl you married. I know I can take care of myself.”
“Thank you. I’ll start the paperwork now.”
“No.” Her voice was sharp. “We need three years residency in Virginia to divorce but even then we need a cause. You have to have an affair. In the meantime you will finance my living some place pleasant, out of the way. I enjoyed holidays with mother and Aunt Bessie to Warrenton in the Blue Ridge Mountains. I liked hiking in the forest. So many fascinating plants grow there.” She turned to Win and blew smoke in his face. “You have no idea what I’m talking about, do you?’
“No,” he whispered.
“Good. You’re better off being stupid. Except for flying those airplanes. I don’t understand why you’re so clever with airplanes.”
“Neither do I,” he mumbled. “And thank you. I’ll even increase your allowance. But please stay away from me.”
Wallis smiled. She knew MI6 would contact her soon to inform her who her next husband would be. That did not mean a marriage would be imminent. Perhaps he would need a divorce from his current spouse.
“You can go now,” she told Win. “I have to shop for clothes. I have nothing suitable to wear in the mountains.”
“Of course. Anything you say. Thank you.”
After acquiring her new wardrobe, Wallis moved to a resort in Warrenton in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. She found agreeable people with whom to pass the day golfing and riding. In no time at all she became a regular at the most fascinating parties in town.
Wallis flirted outrageously with the best looking men, just to hone her social skills. One night at dinner the waiter placed a cup of coffee in front of her. When she lifted it she saw written on her saucer in dark chocolate, “Hike the waterfall trail.”
The next morning she followed the instructions and when she reached a point along the path where she could hear the water crashing against the boulders, a nondescript man joined her.
“Are you ready to meet your next husband?” He spoke in a soft English accent. A bit less sophisticated than a Londoner. Perhaps Northumberland.
“Of course I am.”
“He holds dual American and English citizenship. He doesn’t know about your MI6 connection. Generally he’s not a very observant person. He’s respectable looking and is wealthy from his family’s shipping business. The only drawback is that he’s married.”
“That doesn’t matter. I’m married.”
“Both divorces can occur simultaneously. I think it’s time for you visit New York again.”
(Author’s note: Just for fun I wrote this story using the titles of all the songs on Bob Dylan’s album Blood on the Tracks. See how many of them you can spot.)
I awoke screaming, tangled up in the blue sheets my wife bought the week before she died. Maybe it was a simple twist of fate the sheet wrapped itself around my neck, cutting off the blood flow through my carotid artery. As I unwrapped the cloth I became aware it was drenched in sweat but my body seemed curiously dry. My hand fumbled across the nightstand to turn on the lamp. Lying face down was her photograph. First thing in the morning I was going to toss it in the trash can. Maybe it was useless. I gave away the last of her clothes to Goodwill, burned all the letters she had written and even gave away her damn cat. All for naught. Memory of her still haunted my dreams.
A year ago I stood on the front porch and held her suitcase. Blubbering, she begged to stay, promising to change any way I wanted. I didn’t want her to change. I just wanted her to go away.
“You’re a big girl now. You don’t need me. You think you do, but you don’t. Why you can get a job and make more than I do. I hear Lily at the diner needs a cook. You’re a good cook. The nursing home lady Rosemary has a sign in the window asking for a chief housekeeper. You keep a damn clean house. Before you know it, some guy with more money than I got will come sniffing around you. That Irish guy Jack O’Hearts stares at your ass every time we go into his billiards hall. One day you’ll be driving down the street in a big Cadillac and you’ll see me walking home from the coal mine. You can laugh at me all you want.”
She pulled at my shirt sleeve. “I don’t understand. Everything was so good when we first got married. All was blue skies and fluffy white clouds.”
“You’re an idiot, wind is blowing in a different direction now.”
“You’ll see me every time you go downtown. You won’t be able to go to the movies, church, nowhere without running into me. I’ll start bawling, and you’ll feel real bad for breaking my heart. What will you do then?”
“Maybe I’ll move out of town. These old mountains depress the hell out of me. Anywhere would be better than this hell hole.”
“You’re gonna make me lonesome when you go.”
She tried to put her arms around my waist but I pushed her away. “You won’t be lonesome. You go see Lily, Rosemary, and Jack O’Hearts. They’ll take care of you.”
Once again she threw her arms around me and clung tight. She was stronger than I thought.
“Meet me in the morning,” she whispered. “You’ll change your mind by then.”
Slinging her suitcase around, I knocked her to the ground and then threw the suitcase out in the dusty street. “What kind of friggin’ idiot are you? Get the hell off my porch!”
Still whimpering she walked down the steps into the street and picked up the suitcase. Her shaking left hand wiped the tears from her cheeks. Her brown eyes darkened.
“I’m gonna tell Lily what you done,” she announced in a hard voice. “She got a lot of men friends who won’t take kindly to what you done.”
“If you see her, say hello.” I smirked at her before turning to go back into the house.
The sky quickly clouded up and a clap of thunder shook the screen down. She came running back on the porch and banged on the door.
“Please give me shelter from the storm!”
Just before I slammed the door in her face, I said, “Go see Jack O’Hearts! He’ll be glad to give you some shelter!”
That night I could not sleep well. Buckets of rain hit the roof, and thunder and lightning filled the sky. But the damn bitch was gone, and I didn’t have to put up with her whining any more. The next morning was clear and bright. Everything washed clean. I fixed my own breakfast like I always did then walked down to the coal mine. All the rain made the shaft muggy though. But enough guys were cracking wise so the time went by fast. At noon we sat under the big oak tree at the bottom of the hill when Lily came running over from her café.
“Is Susiebelle all right?” she asked me.
Taking time to finish chewing my sandwich, I looked at Lily and shrugged. “How would I know? She done walked out on me last night.”
“That ain’t so,” Lily replied, taking a step toward me. “I heard from your neighbors this morning that you kicked her out in the storm.”
“Well,” I said with a smile curling around the corner of my mouth. “It don’t make no difference if she walked out or was kicked out. She ain’t there now.”
“Rosemary said she found a suitcase in front of the nursing home this morning.” Lily put her hands on her hips. “When she opened it she saw all of Susiebelle’s favorite clothes, wadded up and smashed in, like it was done in a hurry.”
“She was always careless like that.” I laughed but noticed all the other guys were putting away their lunch buckets away and walking back into the mine.
Before Lily could say anything else, a holler lit up from downtown by the railroad depot. Her head snapped back to look at the street and then returned her glare to me.
“I tell you, Walter Burchfield. If anything’s happened to that sweet little girl, there’s gonna be hell to pay.”
Nobody talked much through the afternoon down in the mine, which was just as well to me. At the closing bell, I ambled out, only to be greeted by Lily, Rosemary and the sheriff.
“The womenfolk here says you kicked your wife out of the house last night,” the sheriff said.
“What of it? My family life ain’t nobody’s business but my own.” I pushed past them and started home when Rosemary yelled at me.
“I found her suitcase in front of my place.”
“Ain’t my fault if she can’t keep up with her things.” I kept walking.
“Walter Birchfield!” the sheriff shouted. “Stop right there!”
Now I ain’t one to give a damn about what other folks say, but I figured in this case I better behave. Turning around, I took off my cap and said as somber as I could, “Yes, sheriff. Is there anything I can do to help you?”
“After the gully washer last night, the depot clerk found something.”
“And what was that?”
“Blood on the tracks.”
Bowing my head, I said softly. “If Susiebelle got hurt last night, I’m real sorry, but I didn’t mean no harm. I told her Lily or Rosemary could give her a job. I even told her Jack O’Hearts might be interested in marryin’ her. Go talk to Jack. See what he says.”
“Jack O’Hearts ain’t nowhere to be seen,” the sheriff replied. “His room is cleaned out. His billiards hall is locked up tighter than a jug.”
“Well, that settles it then, don’t it?” I said. “She done run off with Jack.”
“She wouldn’t leave her suitcase in the middle of the street,” Rosemarie said.
“And Jack wouldn’t have run off without saying good bye to me,” Lily added.
“’Cause he was my boyfriend.” Lily put her hand to her mouth.
“Were you jealous of Jack, Walter?” the sheriff asked.
“Hell no! I was hopin’ he would run off with my wife. I didn’t want her!”
“And why’s that, Walter?”
“Susiebelle was the sweetest girl in town,” Lily said. “Any man with half a brain would have been proud to have her on his arm.”
“You don’t know that blood on the track is Susiebelle’s.” I was beginning to get a little nervous. “It could be anybody’s blood.”
“Like Jack O’Heart’s?” the sheriff said.
I pursed my lips and stared hard at them. “You ain’t got no bodies. You ain’t got no motive. I kicked her out because I didn’t want her. All you got is blood on the tracks.”
Ever since then everybody’s in town and left me alone, which is just fine with me. Never really liked talking much to the other miners. The sheriff even stopped dropping by the house with questions. I don’t go to Lily’s café anymore. Afraid of what she might have done to my food. Other than that, my life hadn’t changed at all. Most folks nodded and mumbled hello, which was what they had always been their habit. Until tonight. I stared at the blue sheet and wondered how it had gotten around my neck. I got out of bed and checked the front door to make sure it was locked. Looking out the window I noticed a storm coming out the west. By the time I shuffled back to my bed and slid under the covers, I heard rain on the roof. Buckets of rain, followed by thunder and lightning. Before I could settle in and close my eyes I saw the blue sheet twisting up all by itself and snaked its way up to my neck. I tried to shout but nothing came out of my mouth. The blue sheet made two trips around my neck before it started tightening. I gagged, and my vision blurred. Before everything went black I swore I heard Susiebelle’s voice:
“You’re gonna make me lonesome when you go.”
Omnibus from the 1860s
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.
“Miss Zook, Miss Home,” Adam said, straightening his shoulders as a grin covered his face. “I thought you had fallen into a bit of trouble, you were so late.”
“Don’t worry, me laddie,” Jessie said. “I daresay I can defend meself and me friend better than ye could.”
“Maybe so.” He ducked his head and ran his fingers through his red hair. Looking up, Adam smiled again. “Did you have a good day at the hospital?”
“How is Gabby? Is he eating well?” Cordie chose to ignore his pleasantries.
“He’s fine, Miss Zook,” Adam replied. A cloud crossed his face. “Oh. There’s one thing.”
“Oh my Lord,” Cordie whispered, putting her hand to her ample bosom.
“He’s all right,” he said, trying to reassure her. “His quilt got—cut up. He needs a new one.”
“Cut up?” Jessie interjected. “Merciful heavens, what happened?”
“Someone cut it.” Adam breathed in deeply, and then knitted his brow. “He—they thought something might be in it.”
“There are only socks in it,” Jessie said.
“Who could be so mean?” Cordie shook her head, unable to understand what was going on, why her brother was in the Executive Mansion in the first place, and now a perfectly good Gabby quilt ripped to shreds.
“Mr. Gabby would like another,” Adam said.
“Of course,” Cordie replied. “I don’t want him to catch a chill, not with winter coming.”
“Private Christy,” Jessie said, “ye never answered the question. Who ripped the quilt?”
“I can’t tell.” His eyes pleaded with her. “Please don’t ask anymore. We all could get into big trouble.”
“The saints forbid ordinary people be privy to the goin’s on in the White House,” she said.
“Please don’t be mad at me,” Adam said, impulsively taking a step toward Jessie, who stood her ground. “It’s not my fault. I didn’t rip the quilt. I—I just can’t tell who did. I agree with you. It was a mean thing for him—them—to do. But I can’t do anything about it.”
“Don’t worry about it.” Cordie patted his hand. “It’s done and can’t be undone. A Gabby quilt is easy enough to make. I’ll start a new one tonight.”
“Thank you, Miss Zook.” He smiled at her and then glanced shyly at Jessie. “Do you forgive me, Miss Home?”
“Let me see, ye upset us dreadfully,” she said slowly, a twinkle in her eyes.
“Don’t tease the boy, Jessie,” Cordie said, watching the agony in Adam’s face. “I can’t stand to see a young man as unhappy as he is.” She smiled to herself over the skills Jessie used around men, skills she herself did not know how to use, nor did she possess the looks to make them effective. Cordie was too old to be jealous, so she just enjoyed watching men swoon at Jessie’s feet.
“I’ll tell ye true, laddie, if ye want to atone, ye may accompany us to our boardinghouses,” Jessie said. “’Tis much too late for respectable ladies to walk the streets alone.”
“Yes.” Adam vigorously nodded. “I’ll pay for omnibus fare, for all three of us.”
“Faith, I didn’t know the army paid so well,” she said.
“Oh, it doesn’t.” He smiled. “But it would be well worth it.” Adam hailed one of the lumbering omnibuses pulled by two large, bored horses and proudly paid the fares, stepping aside to allow the women to pass him and select seats.
“You can have the window seat, me dear,” Jessie said to Cordie, who knew very well her young companion was more interested in sitting next to the private than allowing her to have the view of the dark streets of Washington. After Adam settled into the seat next to her, Jessie leaned into him. “So, from Ohio, ye are.”
“Yes, Miss Home.”
“Bein’ from Scotland, I know nothin’ about Ohio. I crave to learn, though.”
(Previously in the book: Herman anticipated fifth birthday on the plains of Texas during the Depression. He was overjoyed to receive a home-made bear, which magically came to life when Herman’s tear fell on him. Before Christmas, Burly told Herman he wanted a family too.)
Herman and Burly went out to the barn after putting on their coats, for the East Texas wind made the winter cold even colder than it was. Herman’s coat was made of denim, and Burly’s was actually a piece of old flannel with a hole in the middle. Papa called it a poncho. Moving bales of hay, papa had his denim coat off and his sleeves rolled halfway up his arms. Ever since he hugged his father for giving him Burly, Herman wasn’t afraid of those worms.
“Papa? May I talk to you a minute?” Herman spoke right up.
His father looked around, his face all twisted up from working so hard, but when he saw Herman he smiled very big. “Yes, son. What do you want?”
“I was thinking, it would be nice if Callie and Tad could have burlap bears like Burly for Christmas. Mother said she would make them if you had the burlap bags to spare.”
“That’s a good idea, son. I have a whole stack of empty ones over in the corner. You pick out two for your mother to make the bears.” He patted his son. “I was worried I wouldn’t have anything to give them this Christmas. Yep, you had a really good idea.”
Herman smiled broadly because both his mother and father had told him he was good for thinking of the bears for his sister and brother. He was beginning to understand what they meant when they said in church that it was more blessed to give than receive. All of a sudden, though, his happy thoughts turned to worry. In order for the new bears to be real parents to Burly Bear, they would have to be able to talk, just like Burly. And that would mean they would have to come from the same magical kind of burlap that Burly came from. What did Burly say about how he made his burlap bag move under father’s hand to make him think of making the stuffed bear? Oh, Herman wished father wasn’t standing so close so he could talk to Burly and get his advice.
Herman slowly touched all the empty burlap bags, but they all felt the same to him. He went through the stack again.
“Haven’t you picked out two bags yet?” his father yelled at him.
“No,” Herman replied. Maybe it was his father who had the magic touch to pick out the exactly right burlap to make the magical bears. “Would you pick the bags for me?”
His father walked over laughing. “You’re a good boy, Herman, but sometimes you do act silly.”
Herman was afraid his father wouldn’t take time to pick the right ones because at first he just grabbed the two on top.
“These will do,” he said, but then he stopped and looked at the bags. “Oh no. That won’t do at all. They got big holes in them. Let me look again.”
Herman smiled to himself. Father would make the right selection this time.
“Here, take these.” He tossed two bags at Herman.
It wasn’t long until Christmas came to the little farm house near Cumby. Father found a cedar tree, cut it down and dragged it into the house, filling the air with sweet evergreen aromas. Mother popped corn, and Callie and Tad strung the kernels together and hung them on the tree. Father bought a sack of cranberries which were strung on the tree too. All three children cut and colored paper ornament until the tree became pretty enough for the holidays.
Christmas Eve the family gathered around the tree after a meal of chili and cornbread. Father cleared his throat which was a sign for everyone to become still and silent.
“Times have been hard this year, and your mother and I can’t afford to give you anything except what we’ve always given you—our love. So I want each of you to come to your mother and me, and we’ll give you our present, a hug and kiss.”
Callie led the way and gave father and mother the biggest hug she had. Tad looked down and shuffled his feet like he was sad he wasn’t getting anything else, but he was able to give his parents a warm hug. Herman skipped over and got his hug and kiss, barely holding back a giggle, since he knew that wasn’t all some of them were getting.
After the children sat down again, father said, “Now two of you are getting something extra.”
“Yeah, and I can guess which two it’s going to be,” Tad grumbled.
“No, I bet you can’t guess,” his father said.
Mother pulled out the two bears wrapped in old newspaper. “These are for you and Callie.”
“Oh my goodness! Thank you! “ Callie yelled as she grabbed her package and tore it open.
“For me!” Tad squealed, his eyes dancing. He tore into his gift.
Each held up their burlap bears and hugged them, and then ran to their parents.
“They’re wonderful!” Callie exclaimed.
“Yes! Oh thank you!” Tad appeared younger and happier to Herman.
“You should tank your brother Herman,” their mother said. “He’s the one who suggested I make them for you.”
Callie hugged Herman and kissed him on the cheek. “Oh Herman, you’re so sweet!”
And so, Herman got his second Christmas present, the wonderful feeling of giving to someone else. Unfortunately, Tad broke the Christmas spell by throwing his bear to the floor.
“I don’t want the old thing!” he growled. “Herman just did it so he could get people to say he was wonderful. And—and he knew I wouldn’t want a silly old bear so he’d end up having two bears, the little pig!”
Callie turned red and stepped toward Tad. “Oh Tad!” She stopped abruptly, looked at her parents and sat down. For a nine-year-old girl, she was learning to mind her own business, Herman decided.
“Tad, that’s not a nice thing to say to your brother,” his mother said softly.
“Well, that’s what he is, a little pig!” Tad kicked the bear across the room.
“That’s enough of that, young man.” His father stood. “We’re going out behind the barn.”
When we moved to Florida about 20 years ago, my family and I exposed ourselves to family dinner conversation dominated by my wife’s Uncle Sydney.
My mother-in-law retired to Florida a couple of years earlier to be near her relatives and suffered a heart attack, which is why we transplanted our children and ourselves here to be closer for the next medical emergency. This meant when we all gathered to sup together, for whatever reason, we had to brace for Uncle Sydney’s “Actually…”
This happened when one of us made a statement, any innocuous statement, and Uncle Sydney would correct us with “Actually, that isn’t so.” And off he went uninterrupted because my mother-in-law thought it was impolite to interrupt her brother’s exercises of enlightenment. At one meal, someone mentioned how much they enjoyed a certain current song.
“Actually,” Uncle Sydney began, “no good music has been written since the 1940s.”
I believed Uncle Sydney was full of gas, but had the good sense not to say so in front of the family. Both my mother-in-law and Uncle Sydney have long since passed on, but recently I learned something from the internet that might actually explain why there hasn’t been any good music since he was a young man.
Several websites have been discussing recently the theory that all musical instruments, as dictated by the British Standards Institute, changed the official tuning pitch of music from 432Hz to 440Hz at the request of the corporate entity of the American Rockefeller family and—grab your hats, folks—Adolph Hitler.
The great classical composers wrote in 432, and Stradivarius developed his violin to resonate at 432. Tones of 432 are beautiful, warm and relaxing. Tones of 440 create anxiety, anger and aggression. One supposes a capitalist institution could more easily convince a disgruntled buying public into adopting new spending patterns. One could also see how Hitler’s inflammatory oratory could incite an already dissatisfied public to support a war against its own citizenry as well as the world in general.
After the war, the British Standards Institute continued its support for 440Hz by voting to keep it, the last vote coming as late as the 1970s. This could explain why the generation which grew up listening to music to the 432Hz frequency found the new rock ‘n’ roll sound attuned to 440Hz to be awful noise. Come to think of it, hasn’t the general public been generally ticked off the last 60 years? Don’t political movements begin because, as the man said in the 1976 movie “Network”, “We’re mad as hell and we’re not going to take it anymore?”
Granted, all this can sound a bit paranoid, and there are no conclusive scientific studies to confirm the connection between the dissonance of music’s 440Hz and the general malaise that hangs over the world. Dr. Leonard Horowitz wrote in his investigation of this phenomenon that the effect of 440Hz goes beyond mere mood but to harming physical and mental health to the point of subduing spirituality and creativity.
To be fair, the British Standards Institute cannot legally dictate what frequency is used to tune musical instruments. If you own a violin or piano, you can tune it to anything you want. You can calibrate your tuning fork anyway you want. But in general the music establishment around the world uses 440Hz.
A good measure of how the general public has reacted to this bit of information can be found in the comments section following the internet article. One person wrote, “These articles are too superficial to be taken seriously.” Another writer wrote than from his own experimentation with 432Hz, he found it to be more soothing and harmonious, urging people to contact radio stations to go back to the original frequency.
Am I personally ready to jump on a 432Hz bandwagon? Do I want to believe there’s an international conspiracy to manipulate our emotions? Am I willing to accept the fact that Uncle Sydney wasn’t just full of gas?