Fiction: Stuck

Fahy caught Buck’s unfriendly look. “What’s the matter? Has something happened to Thankful?”

“She’s fine under the circumstances,” Buck said in his strongest voice.

“I know she’s upset over my being here—but it’s the army.”

Buck said nothing more. He’d been sworn to secrecy by Thankful.

“The cadet brought us a whole case of fine spirits for later,” Joyce said.

“Oh, bully for you, cadet. You’re just what we needed. The stuff out here is either too strong or too soft. How long will you stay? Were you injured on the way out as well or is that an Arabian inspired headdress from the academy? You look like a damned Apache scout,” Fahy joked. “Listen, let me finish up here with these old biddies and after we’ll have a nice celebration. Joyce, will you do us a favor and find him a tent and all? Have him bed down with us officers as a treat.” He slapped Buck’s back and walked back to the complaining women.

Buck stared after him with a sneer. Joyce read his mind.

“Buck, Fahy’s a great fellow once you get to know him, but he’s very unhappy at this post. He’ll show you a good time off duty.”

“Hmm,” Buck replied, rolling his eyes at the sight of William with his supplies, limping off toward the agency building. Joyce nudged Buck in the same direction. Buck considered apologizing to William for past wrongs, but they had been so long ago and far away. Maybe they could just be friendly acquaintances while Buck visited, but when he rounded the ugly adobe building he saw a familiar scene that hardened his heart.

An older gentleman praised William’s drawings. Wherever William went, people took him under their wings. Thankful had even asked Buck to see how William was and it annoyed him. William was fine. Lieutenant Joyce led Buck along the sandy pathway to meet the missionary and his artist.

“Greetings!” Kenyon called to them.

“Mr. Kenyon, this is Cadet Buck Crenshaw all the way from West Point for a visit.”

“That’s quite a journey,” Kenyon said with a grin and real interest. “Crenshaw, hmm, oh you’re Miss Crenshaw’s brother. She spoke of you over a supper at Fort Grant. How’s your head?”

Buck smiled for the first time in months. William didn’t watch his step and stumbled back when trying to make way for Buck to shake Kenyon’s hand. The missionary grabbed his shoulder to right him.

Buck’s smile disappeared when he formally, very formally extended his hand to William. “How are you, William?”

“I’m fine,” William replied, pulling a cigar from his pocket and lighting it.

“Well, I hope we can leave the past behind us,” Buck said stiffly and grudgingly.

“No, I don’t think so,” William replied, blowing smoke.

“Well, that’s no way to be, boys,” Kenyon commented. “I promised to watch Mr. Weldon’s back so I hope you’ll be kind, cadet.”

William went red.

Buck laughed. “Always someone watches Willy’s back. I guess it’s a way of getting attention.”

“Go to hell, Buck, and stop the blasted whispering!” William said.

Buck shielded his eyes from the late sun. “Listen, William, I don’t want to start things off badly.”

“Fine, neither do I.” William offered him a cigar, but Buck refused it. “So you’ve seen Thankful then? How is she?”

Buck’s countenance changed again. “Sorry, I don’t want to talk about that. I was angry with her.”

“Me too.”

Buck saw that William knew of Thankful’s condition. “My mother isn’t happy about any of it.”

“Your mother knows?”

“I mean about the wedding,” Buck said.

Joyce said not a word.

William glanced at Kenyon. “Well, Lieutenant Fahy isn’t so bad. And what’s happened to your face, Buck? Did you fall off the train or something?”

“No, they slit my neck when I couldn’t breathe and well, it’s a long story,” Buck said. “My father thinks maybe I have a condition—nothing heals right. I might not be officer material after all. Depends . . .”

“Shit, Buck.” William sympathized with him for a moment. “They won’t keep you out for a few cuts will they?”

“It’s my voice,” Buck said, pointing to his throat.

“Oh.” William scooped up his art supplies.

They stood at loose ends until Fahy strode up with his hat tipped to the back of his head, looking more relaxed and jovial with the women behind him. “For God’s sake, where’s the funeral?” he asked, bumming a cigarette from Joyce. “Save any souls today, Kenyon? The Apaches are a hard bunch, aren’t they?”

“I do what I can and leave the rest to God,” Kenyon said.

Fahy waved his finger. “Sorry Kenyon, but that’s a lazy attitude to take.”

“Mr. Fahy, I’ve been meaning to ask you if it might be possible to retest the scales—the older women begin to complain about their sugar. . .” Kenyon said. “I was told, also, that the condemned uniforms were to be given to the destitute—not sold.”

“So now you’re an expert on military orders, sir?” Fahy asked, folding his arms. “I’m trying to teach them economy. These people are the most improvident I’ve ever met. They feast on ten days rations in two or three and then beg off the others. If we give the blouses and things for free they don’t value them. They must learn a lesson—like the rest of us—save some for tomorrow.”

“You must have learned that lesson well, Lieutenant Fahy, to have the funds for Thankful’s ring,” Buck said.

William took a long satisfied drag of his cigar.

“I learn all of my lessons well, cadet,” Fahy said, messing Buck’s hair with an impatient laugh. “No one gets so roughed up at the academy unless they deserve it. Maybe you have more to learn yourself. So tonight we’ll have a social in honor of our visitor—soon to be my brother-in-law and I suppose you holy Joes can come along if it’s not past your bedtime. I am glad to meet one of the clan, Buck and I don’t mean to give you a hard time. I’m just aggravated at my luck—that Britton Davis is a favorite and gets all the notice. He’s off after Geronimo and I’m stuck here.”

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Fiction: Miss Peckham Departs

“I thought you wanted to research the Apaches?” Fahy asked.

“Yes, but I may never have that chance. Mr. Saint Kenyon won’t let me come along with you.”

“Why not? Did you ask Captain Markham? He might put in a word.” Fahy seemed disappointed in her and it irked Thankful.

“Maybe Miss Peckham has had enough of the military,” Thankful said.

“Oh no, but all the best officers are taken,” Miss Peckham replied with a grin. “So this is farewell.”

“Good riddance,” Thankful said with grim finality.

“Well, I guess, good luck, miss,” Fahy added, lingering a minute as if he had more to say. “I must be off. Kenyon is over there messing with my wagons.” He kissed Thankful. “I’ll see you before I go.”

Miss Peckham waved as Fahy trotted off and turned to Thankful. “Poor you, Miss Thankful. Looks like your lieutenant is far too ambitious for you. You must learn it sooner rather than later. Once they’re sexually satisfied they don’t have much time for women. Prepare yourself for slavery.”

“Do you ever have a hopeful, decent thing to say, Miss Peckham?”

Miss Peckham laughed. “About men? No.”

“They seem to like you a fair bit,” Thankful noted.

“I know how to stroke their egos—that’s an indispensable talent in a man’s world, isn’t it?” Miss Peckham said in her most self-satisfied way.

Thankful’s mother never once managed to pet her father’s ego. Thankful wasn’t sure how it was done.

“You know what is particularly sad about you, Thankful? You do have intelligence, but it’ll be wasted on the lieutenant. I don’t mean to say that Lieutenant Fahy isn’t clever and very handsome, but he has about as much respect for a woman’s mind as your Saint Paul does.”

“My Saint Paul?”

“I see what you read at your bedside—oh, holy one. What I don’t understand is how you could submit yourself to a man,” Miss Peckham said.

“It’s easy if you respect and admire him,” Thankful said weakly.

“Men aren’t gods,” Miss Peckham said as if letting Thankful in on a secret, “and Saint Paul would have us kept in bondage.”

“Have you really read what you speak of? Men must be prepared to sacrifice themselves for their faith and family—that’s worthy of respect,” Thankful said.

“For your information—I’ve read bits and pieces of the Bible—one must understand the enemy to defeat it.”

“That’s blasphemous!” Thankful said.

“So what?  Why should I believe a book that can’t be proved and was written by men with their own best interests at heart?”

“It’s God and his love at the heart of the Bible . . .”

“Oh, please! Stop it before I vomit! Men are selfish swine. Christ is a fiction. Christians are at best naive and at worst plunderers and murderers, hidden behind masks of righteousness. It’s truly disgusting. I can’t tell you how many times in my childhood people prayed for me and my siblings when what we needed was warm clothes,” Miss Peckham said.

“Not all Christians are hypocrites,” Thankful said.

“You don’t know anything, Miss Thankful! How could you know in your perfect world? And look, just like Mary, you’re with child out of wedlock—though I doubt it was by a miraculous act of God. I’m sure it was just the average everyday lusts of a spoiled girl who has always done as she pleases!”

Thankful cried out. “I was foolish! I only did it to please him!”

“There, there, Thankful. It will all work out. The lieutenant will still marry you, I suppose.”

Thankful looked after the lieutenant, her breath knocked from her. “Of course he will. He loves me.”

“But you love Bill Weldon. How will that work?” Miss Peckham asked.

“You’re an evil woman who wants trouble for me. I don’t know why,” Thankful cried.

“Thankful, I don’t hate you. I just feel so impatient with you and girls like you. How can you not see the hell you’re in? Look at your choices in life—either marry a drunk from home or a self-interested soldier, who will treat you like a princess until you’re ravaged by childbirth and then will easily find another young thing on his travels. I know the type. I know all the types. I’m a keen observer of human nature and it’s far from inspiring. You may bury your head in a magical book for all the good it will do you. But I choose to work for change in the here and now.”

“So you plan to change men?” Thankful asked shakily.

“Yes, in fact I demand it of them. But it’s mothers—like you—who will have the ultimate responsibility. I fully believe that boys need to be brought up differently,” Miss Peckham said.

“I don’t want men to change,” Thankful replied.

“That’s because you’re deluded. It’s women like me who possess clear vision that will light the path to pure freedom for us all. We’ll show you how to be without men—to be seen as equals.”

“Well, I don’t want to be independent of men—not completely,” Thankful said.

“Men are slave masters—all of them—their power has corrupted them. Maybe once they were more like us.”

“God forbid!” Thankful cried.

“You are so beaten down that you hate your own sex!” Miss Peckham checked the time.

“No, I like being a girl. . .”

“A WOMAN! You’re a woman, for heaven’s sake!” Miss Peckham lectured.

“I like being a lady, but I wouldn’t want my husband to be one,” Thankful explained.

“Why not?!”

Thankful laughed. “Why not? Isn’t it clear as day? Without men there would be no civilization. It’s men who conquered the land and protected their families.”

“I can shoot as well as any man!” Miss Peckham responded.

“Maybe so, but not with children hanging off of you.”

“I don’t want children.”

Thankful wrapped her arms around her middle. A wave of nausea came over her. “Luckily civilization doesn’t depend upon you. My mother is domineering and disrespectful to men and that’s worked wonders in her marriage. My father tried to do right by her and she stomped on him until he was made a fool to his children and was hated by them. Finally, he found someone else.”

Miss Peckham clapped her hands. “See, men are mudsill. A woman stands up and a man’s only response is infidelity.”

“There are women who stand up, but there are more women who tear down—tear down each other and men too and even children! They want things their way and they want a power they despise once they have. My mother didn’t grow any happier each time she won her way with my father. I’d submit any day to a man over a woman. A good man wouldn’t dare treat me like most women have,” Thankful said.

“Oh, I’m sure that you have been terribly mistreated at your finishing schools and. . .”

Thankful trembled. She hated upset of any sort. “Look how you treat me, Miss Peckham.  You must realize that I’m scared and all alone. My only friend from home is a changed man from drinking and my fiancé is leaving me. And what have you done, but insult my faith, flirt with Mr. Fahy and abuse William? You have proven my point. I’m very happy you’re leaving.”

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Classics Club Review: Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell

I had many suitors. In the 1980’s we called admirers something else, but I forget what. Many a suitor wrote me letters. An Irish poet from Limerick with liquid, sensitive blue eyes I met one night on my travels sent letters across the Atlantic for months. I liked his poetry, but he wanted love and his eager, sweet missives hinted at it until he realized the friendship was only friendship.

I almost married another man from Ireland who lived briefly in Hoboken, New Jersey. He thought I was a feminist at first (he assumed all American women were) and dismissed my overtures at first. Somehow we started a correspondence when he moved back to embark on the life of an intellectual farmer. His letters started optimistic enough, but grew sad and bitter as he fought what he imagined to be the many gossips and naysayers of the tiny town he lived in. His father was a dead but well-known drunk who beat him mercilessly as a child. Though 6’ 4” this sad farmer was haunted by the shadow of a dead man. By the time I came to visit him, his depression was so profound that it scared me and I left him never to know what happened in the end.

My sisters and friends wrote to me when I went away to be a camp counselor and my father wrote to me before he died. This letter I kept hidden so it avoided destruction. When I read it even now I linger on the handwriting that somehow brings back my father’s voice, his hands as he wrote checks and his love for me.

I married a jealous man. Our ill-fated romance seemed like destiny at the time. I felt certain that my destiny was unchangeable. One night before our wedding my future husband finally convinced me that my precious box of letters was standing in the way of our happiness. He badgered me night after night about the letters.

I’d never met a person so relentless. I hardly defended myself against it. I shredded the letters.

The letters from the boy in my high school who died of cancer on the same day as my college graduation. We used to ride our bikes to the reservoir and dream of our lives as writers. He was a poet who had already traveled to Alaska and Egypt by senior year. We had sat next to each other in kindergarten.

The letters from an extremely handsome boy related to the famous Tiffany family who dreamt of being a journalist one day. I’d met him at a frat party in Scranton, Pennsylvania. I was sure I’d marry him until he said something ridiculous at a gathering that summer and it embarrassed me.

Elizabeth Gaskell’s book Cranford got me thinking about these letters. A sweet, old spinster living on little means decides one night to burn her family letters.

“I never knew what sad work the reading of old letters was before that evening, though I could hardly tell why. The letters were as happy as the letters could be—at least those early letters were. There was in them a vivid and intense sense of the present time, which seemed so strong and full, as if it could never pass away, and as if the warm, living hearts that so expressed themselves could never die, and be as nothing to the sunny earth. I should have felt less melancholy had the letters been more so.”

Written as a series of vignettes about a group of older women living, for the most part, without men, I found the book lacking in that very thing. Despite my checkered history with men, I miss them when they’re not around. I wondered as I read about these decent old women if literature (and life) needed the conflict and thrust of men to keep my interest.

Feminists would probably not like me to admit that the letters I miss most are the ones with the scribbled marks of masculine hands and hearts. Cranford women often concerned themselves with the romances of their servant girls. They feared the farm boys who lived on the outskirts of town marrying away their help. Like some feminists who despise women who want children and husbands, the Cranford ladies prefer women to be kept as they see fit.

Miss Matty is briefly reunited (if only by lingering glances) with a male suitor from her youth. He dies soon after. The deaths and absence of men define these women. When one finally escapes through a late and poor marriage to the town doctor who makes her very happy the comfortable circle of lonely women is upset. Slightly.

Regrets, lust and even the shredding of letters from better men will never convince me that men are expendable. Uncomfortable to be around sometimes, yes. But Cranford offers up a world without them and I think I’ll pass.

What about you? have you read Cranford? Do you have a favorite classic book? Please share. I’d love to hear from you!

MY CLASSICS CLUB BOOK LIST

Fiction: A Lonely Journey

William stood near the Markham quarters, hoping again to catch a glimpse of Thankful.

He lit a cigar and took a small sip from his flask. William bathed in nostalgia as the sun came up and the air filled with the sweet sounds of reveille, morning call and stable duty. Screaming children raced out with barking dogs into their yards to watch their fathers on the parade grounds as the flag flapped in the wind in front of headquarters. . There Thankful was with the little girl marching beside her, off to the commissary store.

“Thankful!” William called half limping, half running. The little girl waved. “Hello, Lydia,” he said with a warm grin. The girl grabbed his hand and hung off of it. It challenged William’s balance, and he laughed.

“Lydia, stop it now. Mr. Weldon will fall,” Thankful said, but when she saw that William enjoyed himself, she said no more.

Mrs. Markham called Lydia back to her at the front door and waved to William. He waved back before turning to Thankful. “I’m sorry that Fahy won’t be staying with you. I don’t think he should come along.”

“Of course you’re sorry, Willy. You hate the lieutenant and care only about yourself,” Thankful said.

“You’re right. I don’t like him, but you do, for some reason and . . . and I want you to be happy and well taken care of.”

Thankful played with her apron strings. “I never should have followed you out here—I had big ideas.”

“Go home then, Thankful. There, in your condition and all, you’ll be taken care of properly.”

“My condition?” Thankful’s eyes were big and full of unspoken shame and fear. “What do you accuse me of?”

“Thankful, why didn’t you wait, for pity’s sake?” William said, taking her hand.

“You’re a fine one to talk!” Thankful whispered pulling her hand away. “Why didn’t you wait?”

“What would I have to wait for?” William asked.

“For the right girl.”

“There’s no such thing.” William took a miserable puff of his cigar.

“William, you’re infuriating! Mr. Fahy will soon be my husband and . . .”

“And you should have waited till your wedding night! That’s how I imagined it . . . I mean. . .” William stammered as Fahy walked up.

Thankful crossed her arms and turned away from the lieutenant, her chin set in anger. William counseled her, remembering how hard it was for his mother to watch his father go into the field. “Thankful, don’t let him go without making up.”

“Don’t lecture me, William,” Thankful replied.

“Bill, I don’t need your assistance with my fiancée,” Fahy stated. “That Kenyon is looking for you—self-righteous bastard—hope he’s paying you well. We can fleece those Indians at cards, I hear.”

“Mr. Fahy, you won’t gamble and take advantage of those poor souls!” Thankful said.

“No, of course not, sweetie,” Fahy said with a wink. “I was only joking.” He turned to William. “I guess you’ll fill up on tizwin if you can—though Crook has ordered the tribe to stop making it.”

“Mr. Kenyon is against alcohol—I promised . . .” William started, but Fahy interrupted with a chuckle.

“This I have to see!” Fahy said. “Kenyon won’t have much power over you or the Indians. He’s a kill-joy anyway. I intend to skip off and visit pals of mine who say there’s a vein of coal for the taking at the edge of the reservation.”

“Pierce!”

“Oh, Thankful, it’s just a lark. The Indians don’t need the coal anyhow. I’ll be back in a week’s time probably. Not enough hours to get into any real trouble.” He twisted his mustache and kissed Thankful before pulling a letter from his jacket. “I’ll miss you, my dearest.”

“Good-bye Thankful,” William said his boots kicking up sand as he left them. “Take care.”

Fahy groaned as he watched William go. “Land sakes, what luck to be sent to distinguish myself with such a bunch of misfits!” he complained.

“Lieutenant, you worry me,” Thankful pouted. “I don’t know what I’d do if something happened to you.”

“This is a peach of an assignment. Don’t worry,” Fahy said, running his big hand over her cheek. “You seem under the weather. Mrs. Markham is working you too hard. I’ll speak with her when I come back.”

“Yes, maybe.” Thankful turned the love letter in her hands. “Won’t you watch over William?”

“Damn it, Thankful. Are you mine or Bill’s? Because I’m not too sure.”

“Pierce Fahy, what could Willy want with me—or me with him?”

“Thankful, that’s not a proper answer.”

“Do you like Miss Peckham?” Thankful asked.

“No—not like you think . . . I . . .” he said, tightening his belt.

“How do you think I think?” Thankful asked.

Fahy laughed. “My sweet lady, you’re trying to catch me out and it won’t happen. I’m devoted to you. Are you to me?” he asked, pulling on one of Thankful’s stray curls.

“I do love you, Mr. Fahy,” she said.

“Won’t you give us a kiss before I go? Don’t be huffed at me—I’m a soldier; this is what I do.”

“My father was always away from us and he regrets it now,” Thankful said.

“I’m not your father and we have no children yet.” Fahy pulled her close. “Oh, Thankful, one day we’ll settle down, but not yet. Won’t you wait?”

“I suppose I must, now.”

“Now?” Fahy’s smile disappeared. “You act as though you’re suddenly not happy here.”

Thankful began to cry.

“Oh, my little pet, don’t cry,” Fahy said and wiped her face. “When I come back we’ll go to a nice dance—like always. Be a good lass. I hate to see you cry! I promise to buy you something fine in Tucson. We’ll make a pleasure trip when I get some leave.”

“How is it you can always be so generous on a lieutenant’s pay? Surely you must deprive yourself. Please don’t.” Thankful sniffled.

“A girl as pretty and nice as you should have fine things. Poverty doesn’t suit you—and reflects poorly on me, I might add. A man shouldn’t marry unless he can afford it,” Fahy explained.

“Can you afford it? I mean—the jewelry and this stunning ring and the other things—well, I feel like a princess, but . . .”

“I want to give you as much as you’re used to,” Fahy said, in a disgruntled tone.

Thankful blushed. The little jewels he gave her were trifling compared to what she had at home. “Mr. Fahy, when you give me your time and attention that’s more than I’m used to and I love it, but I want to feel I am not just an—ornament.” She blushed all the more, realizing how vain it sounded.

Fahy laughed, patting her face. “You’re not just an ornament! You are–you will be my wife and the gorgeous mother of my children someday.”

“And that’s it?”

“What’s wrong with that?” Fahy asked. “You’re never satisfied no matter what I do and now we’re bickering on our last morning together and right before the biggest opportunity of my career so far.”

“You treat Miss Peckham as a friend. . .” Thankful said.

“Yes. She’s like a man in a way. Peckham has lots of stimulating ideas—but she’s not you.”

“So you don’t think I’m stimulating?”

Fahy put his arm around Thankful’s waist. “You are quite stimulating. Why are you making trouble now?”

Thankful gazed up into Fahy’s dark eyes. A wave of loneliness came over her. “Lieutenant, it’s like you don’t know me at all. I want to be friends and go on adventures together.”

“Oh, you and your bloody adventures! I’m under constant pressure to entertain you. Grow up, Thankful. Maybe you can learn something from Miss Peckham. She’s a toad compared to you, but she isn’t constantly demanding something from me!”

“I demand nothing! I had hoped you enjoyed my company. I only wanted to be true friends!” Thankful sobbed and tried to run off, but Fahy grabbed her arm.

“Thankful, please, let’s not do this, sweetheart. I adore you. I didn’t mean to hurt you—it’s just—you are so sensitive lately—so different.”

“Mr. Fahy, I wanted to tell you . . .”

Miss Peckham burst in between them and locked her arms in theirs. “Greetings, lovebirds!”

***FEATURED IMAGE:  Julia Margaret Cameron photo of Mrs. Herbert George Fisher  (Paul Cava Gallery)

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Do Your Characters Need Therapy?

001I’ve been to therapy.

I wanted to be told I was basically a good person.

A friend just told me he would only go to a therapist who was a lot like him.

Another said she sometimes went for access to drugs.

Are writers therapists? Is writing their therapy? We all know about writers who behave badly. Would they have been better people if they had gotten “treatment”?

The Ten Commandments were written as a reminder that none of us are without sin.

But if we believe that we (and maybe our characters) are basically good or that there is no such thing as goodness since goodness must be in the eyes of the beholder, what is the point of telling a story? If sin does not exist, if the world is empty of meaning then what is to be done with the many definitions we’ve made for ourselves? A literary spectacular absent of heart falls flat except with a few critics in the know.

What is the meaning of creating flawed characters with no access to therapy? Why create flawed characters at all?

038The light came into the world but people prefer to live in darkness.

How do we make peace with being basically good and terribly flawed?

How can it even be discussed with people who think this whole thing called life is just random?

On some basic level most people recognize something called EVIL.

To be told we are basically good might be the most dangerous lie in the world.

irisSo what do you think? Are humans basically good? If you were a therapist, what would you tell your favorite character?

 

My book series is on sale this week. WARNING: Flawed characters abound. Some of them find answers to their questions. CHECK OUT THE TENAFLY ROAD SERIES

 

 

 

 

 

Family Histories: It isn’t even past

Welcome to another installment of Family Histories. Today my featured guest is KEVIN BRENNAN, an accomplished novelist and editor. Kevin discusses how other people’s family stories have influenced his writing–particularly a family he knew growing up in the 1970’s during the Watergate hearings.  (The featured image is of my father and me during that same period–possibly watching the hearings)

I appreciate Adrienne’s invitation to write something for her Family History series, following a little discussion we had about phoniness and internet authenticity a while back. She mentioned her faith and I mentioned my atheism, and we both liked each other’s frankness on what can be a touchy subject online.

I’ve been thinking a lot about family history lately because I’m seeking an agent for my new novel about a unique family, the Heartneys. Their moment of crisis takes place in 1973, during the period of the Senate Watergate hearings, but the source of their pain occurred ten years before, when they lost a newborn child, then promptly buried their grief in order to function and survive. We learn through the course of the book that family history plays an even greater role than that in the story – always the gift that keeps on giving.

We all know that burying our feelings is no way to carry on, yet so much that surrounds family history concerns the well-meaning errors that we make in reacting to extraordinary circumstances. And the errors made long ago by an earlier generation can reverberate for decades. In my book, the parents of Mrs. Heartney – Arlene – protected her from her mother’s terminal illness, so that the sudden loss of her was a shock that Arlene couldn’t get over. It hardened her stance on life in a way that would come to affect her own family as the years went by, including the way she thought about her husband, a much more open man who could have helped her cope had she accepted his support.

The funny thing is, I knew a family like the Heartneys when I was a teenager, and though this isn’t their real story I took their dynamics and made up a story that seemed to fit them. And in that way they have become part of my own family history – someone who really existed and had a far-reaching effect on my life. I’ve never really stopped thinking about them.

I suppose that my family – hit with a difficult divorce when I was twelve and a pretty significant level of poverty that went with it – left an impression on others who were around at the time, wondering what our backstory was and how things got that way.

There’s always a timeline, a sequence of events. Family history is always a daisy chain of choices made along the way, and the consequences – good and bad – are what gets written down or photographed or just remembered in oral-history fashion. It can be inspiring, it can be cautionary, and it can be a source of pride, but it’s never just something that happened. It was created.

(And in the spirit of oral history, I use a hybrid point of view in this novel, with one of Arlene’s daughter’s telling the overarching story in first person but giving herself permission to tell us in third person about moments she wasn’t present for. It’s like leafing through a photo album but the pictures turn into YouTube clips before your eyes. We’ll see if it works for readers.)

The models for the Heartneys were the kind of people who, I could just tell, were going to have a hard time in life. I’ve tried to locate them over the years unsuccessfully, Googling the names I remember, but I was surprised one year when I went back to St. Louis, where they and I are from, to find that their house had been razed at some point and there was nothing there. No artifacts, no foundation. It was an empty lot. To look at it, you’d never know that a family had once lived there. Nothing about their history and their choices that had put them in that spot remained. Their choices might also have caused the loss of the house.

Who’s to say? That story will have to be a different novel.

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Fiction: A Secret Meeting

 

“Thankful’s been very melancholy lately—homesick, I bet,” Mrs. Markham thought out loud after Thankful excused herself.

William glared at Lieutenant Fahy, who sipped his drink and ran his fingers over a fine crystal vase on the whatnot in the corner.

“I don’t think it helps much that dear Lieutenant Fahy is so eager to leave Thankful behind,” Miss Peckham commented in mock concern. “Women need to learn how to be more independent.”

“Thankful has always known that in my line of work . . .” Fahy began.

“Oh, young man, you don’t understand the fairer sex at all,” Mrs. Markham noted.

“Well, of course I want experience in the field. With all the troubles on now, I fear they’ll be over and still I’ll be on quartermaster duty,” Fahy explained, and the men understood him.

The night ended quietly. William was puffed up over his successful drawing, and the missionaries were excited for the new chapter of their journey. Fahy took leave early to pack his things and to write one of the flowery letters his fiancée loved to receive.

William couldn’t sleep. He wanted to join in with the enlisted men who drank behind the corral and so took a stroll in the shadows near the Markham house, hoping the memory of the day or a glimpse of Thankful might distract him. Instead Miss Peckham. grabbed William’s arm and made him follow her behind the lean-to off the adjacent officer’s quarters.

“Bill, won’t you help me?”

“How?”

“I think my bones are as dry as sand living here. It’s sickly sweet on the surface, but I see through it all! The women are idiotic and the men are perfect martinets. If I don’t get out in the field soon, I’ll die!”

“Then go . . .” William said.

“No, I want to come with you to San Carlos,” Miss Peckham said, tugging William’s shirt. “I bet I can do a wonderful story for the journals back east.”

“Well, I’m not in charge so . . .”

“I think you could convince that Kenyon.”

“No, Miss Peckham. I need to look out for myself.”

“You must realize I’ll be sorry to see you go,” Miss Peckham whispered.

“What?” William laughed.

“I was really angry the other day, but you’re so talented and, well, maybe we could work together on a project.” Miss Peckham leaned in to kiss him.

William pulled back. “Miss Peckham, you must believe I’m as thick as Fahy tells you! You don’t give a damn about me—you said so yourself when I had nothing you needed. I’d never want you either,” William said taking a step away from her.

“Bill Weldon, you may as well know that the apple of your eye—dear sweet little Thankful Crenshaw–is in the family way.”

William turned back so fast he nearly fell. “That’s none of your concern! And why say it with such glee?”

“She always plays so innocent—it sickens me!” Miss Peckham said. “Some Christian she is!”

“You hate Thankful because she has something you lack—a heart,” William replied.

“Oh, that’s such a sentimental notion—stop before I swoon,” Miss Peckham said. “Thankful is foolish and has no control. I’ve been so tempted to let Mrs. Markham in on the little secret—that woman hasn’t a brain in her head—and she’s responsible for a whole pile of children!”

“You had better not tell anyone!” William warned her, shaking her by the arm.

“Please, Bill, don’t play the chivalrous hero. It’s almost too comical. Let go of me now. Sleep on my idea. I want to come along.”

“Mr. Kenyon doesn’t like you. I don’t see how I can sway him,” William said.

The screen door on the Markhams’ porch slammed. “Miss Peckham, are you out there in the yard? I hope you’re not smoking again,” Mrs. Markham called in her motherly voice.

“Oh damn, will she ever leave me be?” Miss Peckham asked and walked off, leaving William to himself.

***Featured Image: Portrait of Alice Regnault by Giovanni Boldini

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Family Histories: An Unseemly Belch

Welcome to Family Histories, a series of guest posts by some of my favorite bloggers in which they explore family . . . and history. The families and the histories are sometimes the writers’ own and sometimes not.

Today I offer a story of my own from the next novel in my series about the dysfunctional Crenshaw family. Those of you who have read my novels already know that Buck and Fred Crenshaw have many flaws. This passage highlights the abuse they suffered as children at the hands of their parents and gives insight into why Buck and Fred behave the way they do as adults:

Buck’s brothers and sisters sat at the supper table. Tonight, with Father away at a medical conference and the gas-lit chandelier casting a soft glow over the fine crystal in the cozy winter dining room, everyone was jolly—including Buck’s mother. The fire in the hearth warmed the faces of the children giving them rosy cheeks as they laughed at a story Fred told about school—a silly story and probably untrue.

Buck sat beside his brother watching his mother laugh while balancing a fork full of lima beans in her plump hand, her jowls shaking in good humor. The younger children’s eyes shined on Fred who, at least for this meal, kept his mother light-hearted after so many tense and silent suppers.

Buck had a nervous stomach. There was a fleeting satisfaction when he interrupted the merry mood with an unseemly belch. Yes, it had been on purpose. Buck had given it all he had though he found crude humor and bodily functions distasteful and shame-filled like the rest of his family. Yet, he’d done it. Wasn’t he always the source of tension? Wasn’t that his role after all? But why? Buck had no clear answers—but an angry compulsion nudged him to end the peace.

Margaret lunged across the table then, upsetting Fred’s plate.

Buck leaned just out of reach. “Sorry, Mama,” he said with a triumphant smile he’d suffer for—but didn’t he suffer anyway?

“Go to your room at once,” Margaret ordered.

“But Mama my stomach ached.”

Margaret raced around the table. The other children quaked as she took Buck by the ear with a painful jerk, leading him toward the cellar door off the kitchen. Buck, like a cat, held to the door frame, intensely afraid of the cellar where once Fred had seen red rat eyes peering at him as he stole a bottle of wine.

Margaret, with one good tug, got the better of him. “You ruined our nice time with your disgusting behavior, and I won’t have it!”

Buck’s hands slid along the smooth wall as he tumbled past Margaret, landing on the damp cellar floor.

Margaret raced down shouting, “You turn everything into a colossal failure—even steps!” She pulled him up to his feet. “Clumsy! How did I ever produce such a clumsy and disgusting boy?”

Buck scratched to get by her, but Margaret blocked him. She thrust him deeper into darkness, and, with arms flailing, Buck fell against a row of expensive bottles. The shelf, not meant for rough use, slipped from its brackets and sent the vintage bottles rolling and crashing to the floor.

Margaret gasped at the destruction of Graham’s collection, not seeing in the dark as the wine poured forth, the gash on Buck’s chin until a glimmer of light on the staircase lit Buck’s bloodied and expensive shirt.

“Oh!” Margaret cried. “What shall we do, Buckie?”

Buck stared at the bottles emptying the last of their precious liquid. Glass glistened on the floor as Lucretia, the house maid, descended the stairs with her lantern.

“Lord save us,” Lucretia said, her voice hollow though used to such scenes. “Ma’am, take the boy into the light before he bleeds to death.”

“He tripped, Lucretia—you believe me don’t you?” Margaret cried.

“You don’t answer to me, Maggie—only to God,” Lucretia replied, the closest time she ever came to acknowledging the abuse she’d witnessed over her many years of service. “Now go upstairs.”

Lucretia herded the other children up to their bedrooms, called the stable boy in to clean the cellar and nursed Buck as he lay upon the kitchen table, applying pressure to stop the blood at his chin.

Margaret hovered and simpered. “What will Graham say? What will he say, Lucretia?”

“Ma’am, Buck needs a doctor for stitches.”

“Yes, tomorrow,” Margaret said. “Graham will fix everything. Buck tripped. Isn’t that so, Buck?”

Lucretia with a look of uneasiness hurried from the room to fetch Buck a shirt.

Margaret came close to Buck’s throbbing face. Tears dripped from her red eyes. “You tripped, Buck, didn’t you?”

Buck said nothing until she gave him a quick, violent shake.

“Yes, Mama. I tripped!”

Lucretia ran in. “Ma’am, we need to tell Doctor Crenshaw the truth! It will set you free.”

Margaret cried into her sleeve. “Buck, I didn’t mean to hurt you. Please forgive me. I beg of you. Please . . .”

Buck waited. He enjoyed her suffering.

“Please, Buckie.”

“Mama, I’m hungry,” Buck said, though the bottom half of his face swelled.

Margaret’s face lit up. “Ice cream! Chocolate. Your favorite. Lucretia will make it right now.”

Lucretia blanched. “But it’s 9:00!”

“You’ll do it, Lucretia, won’t you? For our little man, Buck. Won’t you?”

Buck watched Lucretia’s conflicted face—the one that assured Buck of late night ice cream with his mother. And so he imagined with a belly full of sugar and cream at 3 am that he’d won. Buck had a secret against his mother—one of many. His childish mind had forgotten all about the wine—he was too young to understand its value.

The next day, Buck’s stomach was sour and his face sore. While the family entertained themselves at checkers, reading and knitting before the fire, Buck lay in bed listening for the sound of his father’s footsteps in the vestibule. Outside the sky remained overcast and threatened snow.

Just before supper the sound of sleigh bells came up the drive. Buck, bandaged around the face, raced to meet his father at the sound of the front door opening.

Graham’s shoulders slumped at the sight of his son as he set his bag on the floor. “Land sakes, Buck. What’s happened now?”

“The wine bottles cut me.”

“Wine bottles can’t do anything without help.”

Margaret flew up behind Buck, her fingers settling deep into his shoulders. “Graham, dear, I’m so sorry to have your evening spoiled so quickly but there’s been an accident, and poor Buck is very sorry.”

Graham sighed in exasperation. “Come to me, Buck.”

Buck stood still.

“Graham, our dear child got into your wine last night and tripped. He smashed up all your Madeira. I didn’t punish him—his pain is enough maybe. He may need stitches . . .”

Graham’s face went crimson. His eyes bulged. The other children, gathered at the parlor door, fled up the stairs to their bedrooms having never seen their father so angry.

“I suppose we can get new wine, dear,” Margaret said, her finger nails digging deeper into Buck’s thin shoulders. “Don’t blame our boy. He’s just so very clumsy.”

When Buck wiggled free from his mother’s grasp, wincing, Graham sensed something. This something always hung heavily though he did his best to busy his mind with medical papers and research. Tonight Graham was tired and impatient after a cold and bumpy ride in the wet fall weather. He turned to Lucretia.

The housemaid hesitated. Her eyes lingered on Buck for a long while. She crossed her strong but gentle arms tightly in front of her, wrestling with her feelings. “Sir. The boy ran down the stairs, and before I knew it the bottles were upset.”

Graham moaned as if some deep volcanic rage had let go within. He tugged the belt from around his ample waist. “Come here at once and pull your trousers down, Buck.”

“No,” Buck said. “Mama pushed me.” His father’s rage was a new and terrifying thing.

“How dare you, Buck!” Graham began. “Your mother takes care of you . . .” he continued but something in his voice gave way to doubt. He looked at Lucretia again almost pleading for an excuse to turn back as Graham was not a violent man.

Lucretia’s dark eyes relayed to Buck a deep sympathy, yet she had to consider her own son she hardly saw while tending the Crenshaw brood. “Buck tripped. He’s a clumsy boy, most times.”

Graham, refocused on his son and grabbed him. “That Madeira is worth more than . . .” He didn’t finish his sentence, but Buck understood what it was worth more than. Graham half-heartedly made to strike his son, but Lucretia cried out.

“Oh, don’t, sir!”

Margaret seeing the tide turn against her followed suit. “Buck drives me mad! He does! Always upsetting something! I’m sorry I’m not the mother I should be!”

Buck slipped from his father’s grasp, but Graham caught him by the loose-fitting shirt he wore. It slipped from Buck’s shoulder exposing ugly bruises on his bony back.

“What’s this?” Graham asked, his voice trembling. A flood of half-formed suspicions and unusual breaks of bone came to mind.

Buck sensed danger—a new danger—seeing how his father looked at his mother—his dear mother. Yes, he loved her. It was he who had upset the supper. It was he who fell against the wine. He quickly pulled his shirt close.

“What’s happening here, Margaret . . . when I’m away?” Graham asked, his voice deadened.

“Lucretia! Why didn’t you tell me about Buck’s back?” Margaret cried, pulling Buck close against her bosom. “Oh, my poor sweet Buckie.”

Graham pressed his wife in the way he did surgery—with no sign of emotion. “Tell me about these bruises, Margaret. What is this about?”

Margaret’s body shook against her son, and Buck became one with her terror. What would come next became too much for Buck to wait for and so he jumped in to stop that terrible waiting when the world turned black with anticipated pain.

“I’m clumsy, Father. Terribly clumsy and awkward—the bottles in the cellar—all my fault. Forgive Mama at once, and you can thrash me—but please not so awfully hard.”

“The bruises, Buck . . .” Graham began, anger turning to something far worse—a softening—that softening that let this all happen again and again.

“The bed fell on me. Fred and I were playing, and I hid beneath the bed, and it fell on my back when Fred jumped on the mattress. We should have told you, but it doesn’t hurt. Not at all.”

Margaret pulled the hankie from her sleeve to wipe her eyes—so like Buck’s violet eyes. “Oh Graham, I never imagined we’d have a child so addicted to trouble—just like my brother Oliver. I thought I’d escaped all that went on between Oliver and my father.”

“Your father is a beast . . .” Graham choked up. “Maggie, it’s not your fault. Buck is clumsy—like I was and with a weak constitution.”

Buck wasn’t sure what constitution was until he looked it up later but the words followed him—weak and clumsy. These words set his whole family off kilter. “Father, may I go to my room?”

Graham turned to his wife. Lucretia slipped from the room to the kitchen to finish preparing Buck’s favorite meal Beef Wellington.

“Margaret, I know this traveling I’ve been doing is difficult for you . . . what do you want me to do about Buck?”

Margaret sniffled and blew her nose. “Two lashes, nothing more. I couldn’t bear it. Buck needs to learn that disrupting supper is not allowed.”

“Supper?” Graham asked. The belt limp in his hands.

Margaret stumbled over her words but regained her composure. “The gash on Buck’s chin has already taught him a lesson, but he needs to know who’s in charge.”

Graham preferred not to take charge. He hesitated, thinking of Buck’s back and grateful that Lucretia hadn’t called in another doctor to examine his son. Graham caught sight of Fred hiding in the shadows of the hallway closet. “Frederick Crenshaw come here at once.”

Fred looked as though he might bolt up to his room but sighed and dragged himself in at an excruciatingly slow pace. With hands in pockets he came before his father, the handsomest member of the Crenshaw clan. At this young age Fred still yearned for his father’s elusive approval.

“Fred, has something happened over supper?” Graham asked.

Fred glanced first at his mother and then let his eyes fall upon his brother.

“Fred . . .” Graham asked with a touch of impatience.

Fred’s eyes were big as he met his father’s gaze. This was before the passenger pigeons flew with Fred’s optimism to their deaths. The boy never wandered far from his twin. Last evening Fred saw from the top of the cellar steps his mother and Buck like ghosts playing out a ghastly theatrical in the cellar. Until Lucretia shooed him to his room Fred had stood transfixed at the begging of his brother and the power of his mother—the two he loved most in life always so at odds.

“You’ll make it worse for Buck. Now get to your room, Fred!” Lucretia had whispered, pushing him along when he resisted.

Just before Fred climbed the back stairs the night before from the kitchen to the bedrooms above, he heard the sickening crash of his brother’s body against the fragile collection of spirits and caught sight, before Lucretia pushed him away again, of the glistening shards of glass on the floor and the dark liquid on the front of his brother’s shirt.

Fred and Thankful spent the night perched on the top step listening. Was Buck alive? Was he at home? They heard pots being moved to the stove and muffled voices and wondered if Buck himself was being cooked. Their minds raced. The two most imaginative children of the clan who with different parents may have been artists or storytellers lived perched in the shadows of their substantial home where real stories were forbidden. Light talk meant survival. The big ideas of Thankful and Fred were snuffed out in a mix of worry and anger, false light and deep darkness.

The forlorn look of Buck—his fingers twitching, his sad violet eyes always unsettled—pained Fred more than any other thing. It colored his days and disrupted his nights. How many times did Fred seek to step between his brother and mother? How many times had Buck at the last moment turned and took the blame? And so Fred had always gone along. Margaret would beg Fred, and Fred learned his allegiance would be rewarded with an extravagant favoritism and a lesser punishment for Buck. Keeping Buck safe and keeping Buck weak and keeping Buck quiet made good sense.

Until last night the children heard more than they ever saw of the abuse. Yes, they’d witnessed many small beatings, endless berating and humiliations but never had they seen blood. Buck’s ability to take a throttling and still appear at supper to be physically well, awed the other children, and bruises and welts were easily hidden. Blood frightened the siblings with its messiness—and didn’t Margaret demand cleanliness of them all?

In fact, the children had convinced themselves that Buck did half-deserve what he got. Yet two days previous to the supper beating Fred had seen something new.

Fred looked one last time at his frightened brother and this time went against script. No longer could Fred stomach the fear and maddening behaviors all around him. “Father, Buck and I wanted to go hunting the other day.”

Graham shook his head. What did this have to do with anything? “Fred, I told you both I didn’t want you taking the guns on your own. You’re too young.”

“Yes, Father, but we wanted to anyway. We were going to run away, and we climbed out the window,” Fred said. He glanced at Margaret. His mouth was dry. He licked his lips. “Mama caught us in the barn.”

“Freddie, please!” Margaret begged.

“Mama took Buck’s gun and beat him with it in the stables,” Fred said, his voice quaking. “It gave the horses a fright, and I saw it all from the loft where I’d run to hide.”

“That’s a lie!” Margaret screamed. “I took the gun away from Buck, Graham. I did. I didn’t want them hurting themselves! Yes, I took it, but I never beat Buck. He ran against the gun and cried out—that’s certain but I never . . .”

Graham took hold of Buck again solemnly unbuttoning the boy’s shirt—it hung now from his trousers. Old and new marks mingled.

Margaret cried. Fred cried—no wonder Buck hadn’t wanted to wrestle anymore. Graham wiped his eyes. He recognized the signs. They ran in Margaret’s family. Yet despite the doctor’s many aggravations with Margaret he loved her.

There must be another explanation.

Buck read the room—his one talent. The truth hurt him, but so did this exposure. He slipped back into his shirt. In his young mind, in his young heart the only way to get away from all the feelings was to lie.

“Fred is lying, Father,” Buck said. “Mama loves me and does her best. I ran into the gun.”

Graham shook his head. “But, Buck, the other marks.”

“Fred and I wrestle—isn’t that right, Fred?”

Fred’s open, friendly face closed never to open again. “No! Mama hits you too hard! And we’re all afraid she’ll kill Buck one day!” Fred cried, years of pent-up emotion exploding in great sobs.

“LUCRETIA! Call down the children!” Graham ordered.

They came down in single file, reluctantly lining up before their father. Each one lied.

Fred stood alone.

“Now apologize to your mother, Fred,” Graham said.

“No. I won’t.”

Graham waited. He wanted Fred to be wrong and hadn’t Fred made up stories before? “Fred, this is your last chance to tell the truth. Do you understand?”

“Yes, Father.”

Everyone waited breathlessly.

Fred ran at his mother. “You hurt Buck! You don’t love him somehow!”

Graham pulled Fred off Margaret.

“That’s not true!” Buck cried, embracing his mother. “Mama loves me! I’m to blame!”

Margaret sobbed into Buck’s tousled and sandy hair. “Oh, dear boy!”

Graham held Fred by the arm. “Never tell these horrible lies again! How dare you make your mother a monster!” He struck Fred three times with his belt but broke down and sent all the children to their rooms. Buck listened just out of sight.

Margaret threw herself upon her husband. “Graham, you believe me, don’t you? All I’ve ever wanted was a house full of safe and happy children!”

Graham shrugged her off and collapsed into a chair. “Margaret . . . those marks . . . I don’t know what to believe. Fred seemed to be telling the truth this time. I just don’t know.”

Margaret fell at his feet. “No! Fred’s become a better liar. How many times have I begged you not to leave me alone with the children for so long? They’re vicious and brutal and lie like the devil. They need a father’s discipline. Fred—you know I love him best but today you see how Buck has poisoned him. His eyes were so like my brother Oliver’s—it sent shivers!”

Graham having made himself an outsider had no idea how the family ran.

“Graham, please. I need your help,” Margaret cried. “I beg you to believe me. I’d never hurt a fly!”

Later when the house was blanketed in hush and warmth Graham stared into the dying embers of the fire in the parlor. A sound in the hall startled him.

“Lucretia?” Graham stood. “Where are you off to this hour?”

Gripping her bag with white knuckles, Lucretia glanced up the stairs and then toward the door. “Sir, I didn’t want to do this, but I’ve left you a note—in the kitchen.”

“Lucretia, please tell me what’s the matter—sit with me a moment by the fire.”

“No, sir.”

“I insist—please.” Graham led her to Margaret’s chair and waited.

“Sir, Mrs. Crenshaw is like a sister to me—I hope you don’t mind me saying—but, well, she struggles—it’s a mighty struggle with the children being so—full of energy.”

“She hurts them?” Graham asked, leaning in.

“Sir, I just wanted to say . . . I’ve grown very fond of your little ones—Buck especially—and feel . . . I feel tortured inside by . . .”

“Yes, Lucretia, go on.”

“Mrs. Crenshaw—she doesn’t mean to do it, but it’s as if she becomes someone else altogether and Buck with his clumsy ways and—I’ll say it—his ambition to withstand all Mrs. Crenshaw heaps upon him . . .” She cried then. “It’s none of my business, sir, but as a Christian I can no longer be party to what goes on. I fear for Buck’s life, too! I’m terribly sorry!” Lucretia made to get up, but Graham prevented her.

“Lucretia, Mrs. Crenshaw is with child.”

Lucretia shook her head.

“This is a family matter, you understand,” Graham continued, “and I consider you a family member. Maggie struggles, but what are my children to do without a mother?—and an auntie? What am I to do? If any of this ever got out the scandal would ruin us all. We need to help the children and Maggie, don’t we?”

“But, sir, I’ve done my best. I’ve given my best years, and the fear of finding Buck one day—who I love as my own—to find him dead one day . . .”

“Now, now,” Graham interrupted. “Bruises—they are troubling to see, but dear Lucretia, Maggie’s not a killer. She’s tender-hearted beneath it all—but her temper sometimes—I understand at times it gets the best of her, but if you desert us now—consider Buck.”

Lucretia stood to go.

“Wait! Lucretia, what if . . . what if we arranged—with Maggie’s consent of course—what if we kept you on more as an advisor.”

“Sir?”

“I could tell Mrs. Crenshaw that you would take charge of the older children—see to their needs. To give Mrs. Crenshaw a much-needed chance to recover her equanimity.”

“Sir, I don’t see how I could protect Buck and the others,” Lucretia said, edging toward the door.

“I would double your pay—no—triple it and give you all day Sunday off. You would have final authority over the children.”

“Sir! Mrs. Crenshaw wouldn’t like that!”

“Lucretia, I’ve known in my heart for a while now that something wasn’t quite right. I didn’t want to admit it. Maggie’s a good girl in a lot of ways,” Graham said with trembling voice. “But unless she agrees to this arrangement I’ll have to take the children away from her completely and divorce her.” Graham waited a moment for the information to settle in. “You may not consider me a good father, but I love my children very much, and I’m prepared to take drastic measures if need be.”

What did drastic measures mean to a boy of nine? Buck understood only the part about being taken away from his mother. He silently vowed to be a better child—to be the best child and the least offensive.

There were no more beatings to speak of. Buck studied Fred’s every move in an effort to emulate his well-loved brother, but in the end settled for being mostly unseen. And the small humiliations he was prepared to take as the price for a home.

If Buck never felt quite himself, and slowly it became harder to find that self, at least he could survive. Having heard his father—that absent, passive voice of his faraway father—threaten drastic measures cut the last cord of stability in Buck’s unstable world. All sense of love, intimacy and value however strangely woven together could now be unraveled by his father. Buck only now realized his father’s soft outer covering masked an authority to do drastic things.

Fred had taken the lash which was far more unsettling than the daily threats and acts of his mother. Unlike his mother who after a good sound thrashing begged for forgiveness and bribed with treats and affection, his father did not apologize, did not show the usual regret that signaled an end to torment. Graham’s actions and words left an uncertainty in the suffocating air of the Crenshaw house which Buck grew to despise and test.

What were the drastic measures? When would they come?

Lucretia, whom Buck had great affection for, stayed and took her pay, and when she tried to act as mother from then forward Buck repelled her. He told Lucretia she had yellow teeth every time she smiled and pulled from the only physical affection he got until she no longer offered it. No more talks in the kitchen about school or stories before bed. He was too old for it all anyhow.

Lucretia watched Buck from afar like everyone else, and it was good for a time.

BUY THE SERIES TODAY!

“Rich and colorful page turners. Morris has a fine sense of time and place and brings her memorable characters to life. She also tells a captivating story. You won’t find it easy to put her book down, and her characters will stay with you when you do. We can only hope she keeps writing and gives us more episodes in this fascinating chronicle.”

Fiction: Drawing From Memory

William sat beneath a cottonwood in the searing heat trying to ignore the hordes of flies and eye gnats commuting from breeze to hot breeze. Kenyon gave him the well-kept sable brushes and the vivid oil tubes left by their fallen leader. William flipped through Ignatius’ leather bound sketchbook with sinking heart. Crow warriors, Sioux women and children stood stiffly on the pages with orderly lists of Indian sayings and Bible references written out in a regular, precise script. William considered keeping the book to emulate it, but it was impossible to be so perfect. He tossed the book aside.

The hum of light female conversation from the little yards on officers’ row and the gruffer voices of men on police and stable duty floated over the parade ground. The buzz of the telegraph wires sang William a lullaby. There was nothing as regular and homey as a western army post.

A small dog, well-fed and friendly, trotted up to share the shade. William scratched it behind the ears before sketching the quaint maternal scenes in the yards. He hadn’t put pencil to paper in a long while and was rusty, but this world on paper was his. The characters kept a safe and idealized distance.

Two dirty children raced up, wanting pictures. William complied and sent them off as Mrs. Markham strode toward him in her heavy-footed way.

“Bill, sorry to trouble you. I’ve got some oranges—all the way from California.” She handed him the fruit.

“Thank you, Mrs. Markham.” William waited for the real reason she stood over him.

“Bill, I know you’re busy.”

William laughed, peeling his orange. “I look busy?”

Mrs. Markham glanced back toward her quarters. “Would you mind doing a nice sketch of the children? Lydia–is awful weak—she’s day to day and the captain’s pet. We’d like a nice picture—just in case.” Her eyes held the worry so like his mother’s years ago when his sister Eliza was sick. “We’ve tried having them sit for a camera, but you know how antsy young ones get and your drawings—the ones Thankful showed the captain really pleased him.”

William got to his feet—realizing that he should have done that already “Mrs. Markham, I’m out of practice—but I’ll do my best. Anything to help you.” He gathered the supplies and followed Mrs. Markham into the house. Thankful pretended not to see him and soon disappeared. The children were gathered, cleaned up and sent out back where Mrs. Markham had cultivated a sparse desert garden along the side fence.

None of the children cooperated but for the weak one so William set to work on her. Lydia folded her petite hands and smiled. Her eyes were framed in circles of dark sickness, but her voice was like music. William had no trouble exchanging the reality of a sick little girl before a wilted garden into a composition of vitality and splendor. The girl recited nursery rhymes while William sang to her in his father’s awful voice the salty songs passed among military families:

It’s all for me grog, me jolly jolly grog

It’s all gone for beer and tobacco

Well I spent all me tin on the lassies drinking gin

And across the western ocean I must wander.

The music for supper came from outside the adjutant’s office.

Mrs. Markham, in a thick sweat from the stove in desert heat, rushed out back then. “Oh dear, Bill, I forgot all about you! Supper for those missionaries and the rest of you kept me in a great flurry.”

William looked as though he had just wakened from a trance. “I didn’t notice the time, ma’am.” He handed her his work with a wary smile. “I’m afraid that I’m not much interest to children. I couldn’t make any of them stay, except for Lydia here.”

Mrs. Markham looked over William’s work for a minute and cried. “Bill, the captain—he’ll be astonished. It’s lovely.”

“I’m sorry I have no time to do the others.”

“Never mind. This is more than enough. Thank you.”

“It was nothing, ma’am.”

“Oh, you don’t know!” Mrs. Markham gave him a warm embrace. “I will pray for you, Billy. You’re good deep down.”

“I guess,” William replied. His new shirt itched at the collar.

Mrs. Markham placed the drawing on a high shelf in the kitchen and pushed William into the parlor where Miss Peckham read and Thankful mended socks.

“Girls, our first guest is here. See to it that Bill is given something to drink.”

Neither of the girls were in a hurry to offer William anything. William pulled the flask from his bag and took a long gulp—a deserved one.

As William lowered the flask from his lips the missionaries entered the front vestibule with Captain Markham and Lieutenant Fahy in happy conversation.

“Ah, there you are, Mr. Weldon,” said Kenyon.

William put away the liquor.

Mrs. Markham passed around drinks. William asked for water, but felt put upon and angry. They talked about the San Carlos Agency and the Indians and Geronimo, but William didn’t care a fig. He considered different ways of slipping out to get drink.

It was then the thought came to William–the alcohol was in charge. It was a fleeting, yet terrifying realization he wanted to escape—by getting drunk. Absorbed in his thoughts, the sound of his name brought William back.

“Captain, dear, I must show you what our Mr. Weldon has done.”

The captain looked as though he expected something less than admirable but waited patiently for his wife to return with the sketch. He glanced at William and then at the drawing. “But . . . you never saw her when she was well, son. How did you capture Lydia as she used to be?”

“I imagined her, sir, and it was easy since Lydia’s such a good little pixie,” William explained. All eyes moved from the drawing to him. “May I have a drink?” he asked Mrs. Markham, but saw Kenyon and Thankful. “Of more water, I mean, ma’am.”

Captain Markham put his arm over William’s shoulder, with an emotional sigh. “You Weldons sure have a way of surprising folks.”

“What do you mean, sir?” William asked.

“I never knew Lieutenant Weldon, William’s father, well,” the captain said to the others. “Met him only once, in fact. A good soldier from what I was told, but a secret saint according to a friend of mine who is no longer with us. Seems Lieutenant Weldon gave my friend all his savings so my friend could live out his final days in California in comfort with his family—all had consumption. The poor sergeant and his family were sent small sums of money till they died.”

This was the family that gave Eliza the disease. William remembered and his heart grew hard. His father was a fool. “I guess that was a waste of money in the end,” he said.

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