Tuesday, May 5, 2015

A NEW short story: "As far as the eye could see"

Alice rubbed her left eye and pulled the end of her braid out of her mouth.  “Disgusting habit”, she thought to herself as she stretched and squinted, trying to read the time on the Westclox on her dressing table. Seven o’clock. Jasper had already been up for two hours, watering the first-calf heifers, putting out their grain buckets, and he hadn’t even shaken her awake so she could get a start on her day’s chores. “What day is it anyway”? She struggled to wake up her brain as she set her feet on the cool floor. She smiled, remembering. Ten years ago today, she and Jasper recited their vows in front of a JP in the office of the city clerk at Chicago City Hall. Two agreeable strangers accepted their hasty invitation to act as witnesses, and after the short and business-like ceremony, Alice and Jasper were on their way to York, Nebraska, a mere fifteen hour ride in his pick-up with bad shocks and the habit of spewing out alarming staccato explosions when he accelerated the engine.
Alice Fabulic wasn’t a woman to act impulsively. That is, until that day when she saw and answered Jasper’s advertisement in the Bronx Home News, under the column entitled “Heart& Hand”:
A bachelor of forty years of age, strong, in good health and of reasonable appearance and means, seeking amiable, educated woman, thoroughly versed in the mysteries of cooking and housekeeping, for the purpose of matrimony. Must be strong, under the age of 40, pleasant to the eye, and possessing of good moral character. To join me in cattle endeavor in York, Nebraska, charged with the management of household, hen-house, hogs, and milk cows.
There was a small black and white photo that accompanied the plea, for the message did have an edge of desperation it seemed to Alice, and a Western Union address. He was of more than “reasonable appearance” if his photo were to be believed; he was quite handsome, and apparently modest, too. “Is he a widower? How would he have managed on his own up until the age of 40”?  She had no idea where York, Nebraska was, but she assumed it to be somewhere in the Great Plains where the Dust Bowl was breaking families and, unbeknownst to her, changing the course of history for the whole country. But on that late Spring day in the Bronx, New York, she had no concept of the true plight of those ranchers. “How many cattle”? she mused.  She had long fantasized about life with such a man’s man, in such a rugged land, but she often thought that the realities of courtship and marriage were far beyond the realm of her imagination.  Could she be the perfect farmer’s wife, with swept floors, and clean sheets flapping in the wind, and hot and hearty meals served up to her proud husband and their ranch hands? “Think of it”, she said to herself. “When I look out my kitchen window, I won’t even be able see the boundaries of our ranch”.
Still unmarried at 36, she was considered a handsome woman by her group of women-friends, handsome being a word they used to describe one who was not quite pretty, but somewhat well-proportioned and groomed, and pleasant enough to look at. Alice did take care of her appearance. Every morning she brushed her long corn-yellow hair, recently shot with silver, one hundred times. Then she pinched her cheeks and carefully plaited her hair and secured it with several hairpins at the nape of her neck. The style wasn’t exactly fashionable in those mid-years of the ‘30s, but who had the luxury of fashion – or need?  Troops were marching again in Europe, and people already dying by the thousands. Who knew when the US would join their allies? And besides, many of the men of her generation had already made their sacrifice in the fields of Belgium and France during the Great War. There were not many marriage prospects in Alice’ purview.
Oh, how her friends had chided her when she told them of her intention to wed. “Why Alice Fabulic! You haven’t even set foot out of this city since we all took the train to Long Beach for our holiday two years ago”. What they never quite understood was the way that she travelled every day, her mind drifting at first, and then racing down the halls of the New York Public Library to exotic destinations, meeting strangers she read about in the seemingly endless aisles of books housed there. She was indeed an armchair traveler of the first order.
Alice had been born in a hospital in the Bronx, nicknamed “The Home for the Incurables” when it opened its doors right after the Civil War, to Louisa Alma Dekkers and Samuel Fabulic. Such a luxury in those days, to give birth in a hospital!  The truth was that the old family doctor sent Louisa to Saint Barnabas because he didn’t believe she would survive childbirth. And sadly, he was right.
That she was born in a place called a home for the “incurables” was not lost on the two adults who participated in her early upbringing, her great aunt Esther and her father, as she seemed to be an incurable romantic, inventing elaborate games of make-believe, even from the time she took her first steps and spoke her first words. There seemed to be such a longing in the child. A longing for the mother she never knew; a desire to go to the exotic places she read about and would, most likely, never see; a craving deep within her for someone to love and cherish her being, just for the sake of her being. Well-intentioned though he was, her father was far from warm, and incapable of women’s wisdom.  Samuel did, however, give Alice a gift she would treasure for all of her days – the love of literature. As a result, Alice’ young life was spent largely in her tidy room, having weekly adventures without leaving her window-seat, reading from his eclectic collection of books.
When she was old enough to attend the big public school six blocks away from their small apartment, she rose early, splashed cold water on her face, dressed in her Sunday meeting dress and carefully folded two pieces of bread and butter into a clean kitchen towel. The six block walk seemed to take forever, but the walk itself was not nearly so tedious as the drone of the teacher, a big-boned woman with a stern face and no patience for daydreamers. After such great anticipation, school seemed rather inconsequential to Alice.  After all, she was already reading Moby Dick and had recently started on the Complete Works of Shakespeare with the help of her father.  Many times her two sturdy feet, clad in the sensible shoes her Auntie purchased for her, did not take her to the school room she had come to dread. By the time she was twelve, Alice was spending most of her days in the Bronx branch of the New York Public library, and living out the lives of the saints, heroines and cowboys who captured her imagination and occupied and widened her world through the books she voraciously devoured.
At 36, Alice’ back was stick-straight, and she was head librarian at the Bronx branch of the library – both of which things delighted her great aunt Esther. Auntie had always been a rather fussy woman, and took pains to ensure that Alice comported herself like a proper lady, with straight back and dainty steps, and keeping her smallish hands as white as kid gloves. As Alice got closer to the age of thirteen, Auntie often admonished her to “Sit gracefully and be at ease. Stand straight and tall to impress your peers. You would be amazed at all that good posture can do, Alice”. The words were indelibly imprinted in Alice’ mind. She knew that Auntie loved her unconditionally, even if her demonstrations of such were somewhat like those of a quartermaster. “Walk and command respect from both men and women who are in your company”.  As she grew, her dear Auntie provided her with all of the womanly guidance, and then some, that her father was incapable of.
It was Auntie who encouraged her to follow her heart, and who also accompanied Alice to Grand Central Station those ten years ago so she wouldn’t lose her nerve. The route to her new life was direct. Six hours on the Hudson Line to Union Station in Albany where she would transfer to the famous 20th Century Limited for the second leg of her journey. She wondered if she would, indeed, get the “red carpet treatment” that the color travel posters promised.  What she did know for sure was that for $46.70 she could acquire an upper berth, closed from the aisle by a curtain, for the overnight journey. This she told Jasper and he promptly wired the fare. Auntie insisted on giving her $5.40 more for a private compartment so she could freshen-up after the night ride; comb and tidy up her hair, and powder her nose before she met Jasper at the appointed time at Chicago’s LaSalle Street Station.
“Still stick-straight, Auntie”, she said aloud. “And stiff as a board,” Alice added to herself. “I must talk to Jasper about turning this mattress”.  She dressed quickly, pulling on a clean shirt-waist and apron, choosing to wear her only pair of silk stockings for this day, rather than her familiar cotton work-hose.  Ten years.  No more tittering in their tea-cups for that bunch from Woodland Heights. She showed them. She had followed a dream to make it her reality, her fantasy, they said, of being a rancher’s wife. “Oooooh!  Miss Alice is all for the glamour life. – The glamour of a cow-pie”, they taunted her. But that was then, and here she was now. Married ten years and happy. Beyond her wildest imaginings.
Unconsciously she pulled the handkerchief from her apron pocket and dusted the worn bannister as she padded down the stairs to the big ranch kitchen that was the center of her universe. She caught a brief reflection of herself as she passed the cracked mirror in the hallway, and noticing the escaped strands of her braid, smoothed them back into place with a bit of spittle, and deftly re-pinned them in place as she walked to the sink to pump water for tea-kettle and coffee pot.
“Time-thieves are at it again”. It was already seven forty five. Any time now, the men would be riding in to water their horses and get their mid-morning fill of coffee and bacon and biscuits. She checked the egg basket.  Seven. When she brought the cream to the farmer’s market on Saturday she must see if any of the neighbors had pullets for sale. As much as she hated the process of killing, plucking and cooking her own, the hens were no longer laying enough to provide for the appetites of six grown men and her more modest tastes.
By eight fifteen, the temperature was already over 100 degrees in the kitchen. Her prize-winning biscuits would be ready for butter and her homemade preserves any time now, and still no sign of Jasper and the crew. She poured herself a cup of coffee, a luxury for this special day, with cream and even a spoonful of sugar. She hoped the warm, rich beverage would quell the growing uneasiness in the pit of her stomach. Eight thirty. She walked out onto the broad porch and scanned the horizon. Ten thousand acres of land. Land and livestock, as far as the eye could see. Just as she imagined. They had toiled together, Jasper and she, shoulder to shoulder, to re-build this ranch after the drought subsided and the Department of Agriculture came into town to help the locals. Her hair had changed from gold to silver during those years, but Jasper still touched it with reverence each night when she shook loose her braid as she prepared for bed. She closed her eyes and smiled at the thought of his touch.
It was Ernest who broke the news, although he didn’t really need to utter a single word. She had watched, barely breathing, as the six horses moved closer and closer to the house, one mount riderless. She broke into a run as soon as she could read their faces. Jasper. Jasper. Where was her husband? “Miss Alice”, he started, but she was already at his side - the lifeless form of her husband, draped across his favorite Aussie stock horse. “Miss Alice? We was just above the ridge, tying off some fence-posts, when I looked over and saw him on his knees. By the time I got to him, he was down. Gone”.
The rest of the day was a blur for Alice. Even though there were great distances between farmsteads, neighbors were tight and close at hand when help was needed.  She made more coffee, several pots of chamomile tea, warmed the biscuits. She accepted pies and eggs and a half a ham brought in by folks who didn’t know what else to do.  Finally, exhausted, she sat in his rocker on the porch. She’d rest. After all her book-inspired fantasies, surely - she knew that this day was just another daydream. Any time now Jasper would ride up to the porch with a posy of her favorite wildflowers. Then they would have a quiet meal to celebrate their wedding anniversary.
She opened her eyes when a chair scraped across the floor-boards. “Miss Alice?  Miss Alice, we’ll be going now, if’n you think you’ll be all right”. All right? What did those two words even mean anymore? “Yes, yes of course, Ernest. You need to rest after this day. Is there anything I can do for you”?  The poor man looked exhausted, probably from holding back tears all day. They had been boyhood friends, Jasper and he. It was Ernest who had convinced Jasper that they needed a woman on the ranch in order to make a real go of it. A woman who had travelled and done things with her life so she wouldn’t be longing to see the world that existed beyond their front porch and barns and fields. Once she set eyes on her new home, Alice never yearned for anything more.
“Jasper”.  She watched Ernest turn and walk away toward the bunkhouse, shoulders hunched. “Jasper” she sighed softly. She scanned the horizon. Ten thousand acres of land.  Land and livestock, as far as the eye could see.
She waited until Ernest was out of sight and earshot and then gave way to pitiful, wracking sobs.