AWAY IN A MANGER

Thomas Elson

 

           John inhaled his unfiltered Camel, then exhaled his next sentence, “The owner of the Webster Hotel cannot afford to operate it.” He nipped from a half-pint of Four Roses bourbon, swallowed, continued, “We are going to buy it. We can take it over by assuming his monthly payments.” The ash of his cigarette grew longer, but never wavered.

           He paused for his daughter to object. Josephine had worked with her father for years, and had learned well from her mother. She waited. “We’ll have a full-service private restaurant. Like a country club, but with much lower monthly dues.” He looked at Josephine as she nodded, then he added, “Plus we’ll have a drug store on the opposite side of the lobby.”

           The drought and depression combined to reduce crop yield, plunge prices, and accelerate property seizures; nevertheless, in 1920 the 18th amendment resuscitated businesses spawned well before statehood. Since 1881, there had been statewide prohibition. In 1933, the 21st Amendment made liquor legal, but in this state, prohibition was constitutionally fixed. No open saloons, no liquor stores, no county options; however, John found a loophole.

           Most evenings after supper, John and Josephine met inside a hidden circular room in the center of the Rock House accessible through a door in the back of his bedroom closet.  They hatched plans to offset the impact of the collapse of wheat and cattle prices.

           Josephine’s tight smile and suspicious eyes told the story of a daughter who saw herself valued only for her utility to the family. The sudden death of her mother eighteen years earlier from complications of the Spanish flu had placed Josephine in the position to join the family business to handle the numbers - yield per acre, cost of doing business, margins, and the family bank accounts lodged in three states.

           “Look at this,” said Josephine as she handed her father a hand-written projection of their bushel per acre yield, “Our harvest will be down by 60%”.  Waited while her father reviewed her hand-drawn bar graph, then said, “Last year, our wheat sold for $1.32 a bushel, and this year it’ll be a miracle if we get 40¢ for it.”

           Though born in this country, Josephine carried the resonance of her mother’s gentle Volga German accent. Her mother had taught both her and her father to read; then she added to Josephine’s education with the finer points of working with men. “Let them finish talking. Whatever they say, agree with them, then point them in the right direction.”

           “How?” The young Josephine asked.

           Long-practiced in this art, her mother smiled, “Just say, ‘I agree with you.’ And add what you think is the correct thing to do - whatever you think best. Try it.” Her mother continued, “Don’t forget to show them ideas in writing. Draw them a picture when you present numbers.”

 

           John was now a widower for the second time. His second wife had been scarcely more than a hired hand – raise the kids, run the house, make a hard life easier for her husband. He refused to hold his second wife’s funeral until their youngest daughter, Elaine, the beauty of the family, the one upon whom the family’s hopes rested, arrived. He wanted all his children there; however, Elaine, the only child born of his second marriage, the only child he read to at night, was over six hundred miles away with a husband who chased oilrigs in eastern Montana. Josephine, the oldest child, would be at the funeral; however, the other children had their own families and rarely visited.

           Outside the persistent wind swept unimpeded through Canada, the Dakotas, Nebraska, Kansas, and changed everything. The wind hit and delivered a sharp twist, then coarsely shifted while dust whirls, combined with baseball-sized dirt clods, attacked the barn. Its walls had become a graveyard for grasshoppers. 

           Droughts, floods, fires, wars, recessions, depressions and death passed through this state, but it was the wind that controlled. Flags whipped, trees cracked, shingles flapped with a drum roll then flew away leaving ripped tarpaper and slatted wood as poor protection for what was to follow. 

 

           There were four hotels in Berdan. The three-story Calabeck where a few traveling salesmen shuffled in and out; the four-story Briggs where pool sharks hustled hubristic locals; and the flat-as-the-plains Maxwell where very few travelers stayed. Then, there was the Webster Hotel. A new eight-story, blond brick building with marble wainscoting, polished brass doors, a palace-sized lobby with a pharmacy on one side and a full service restaurant on the other. The solid walnut reception area dominated the north side of the lobby.

           For John, this was an exploitable moment. “Our way will be to run whiskey from Canada into Ninnescah County. We’ll sell it through the pharmacy with doctors’ prescriptions, and through the bellhops to the guests in the hotel rooms.”

 

           John had inherited the homestead from his first wife’s father and bachelor uncles who had carried their legendary jars of Turkey Red wheat from the Volga German region of the Ukraine. As soon as her father proved-up the homestead, he replaced the sod hut with the limestone Rock House that John now owned in addition to more than 3,800 acres of land in three states. 

           There had been a hard freeze in March, then wind and erosion were followed by inflated prices and deflated income. When the wind blew in, and the land blew away, the water evaporated and the money dissolved.

           In a normal year, John’s crops were knee-high by the Fourth of July, but it was now late August, and the blistered crops had grown no higher than an inch above his ankle. Last year, his land was moist, his grain amber, but even with two growing seasons each year, the last two yielded negatives - no ale-colored husks of corn, no golden bales of hay, no amber waves of grain.

 

           “We’ve got damn dry land,” said John, “Less than half the normal rain.” He pulled his long-ashed Camel from his mouth.

           “Maybe it’ll rain,” said Josephine.

           “If it did rain, it’d fall on brick-hard soil and bleached-out wheat.” John waited, then quoted from the state constitution, "The manufacture and sale of intoxicating liquors shall be forever prohibited in this state,” he sat silent, and, in that moment, commanded her full attention, “except for medical, scientific, and mechanical purposes. And that, presents us with an exploitable and controllable moment.” To Josephine, her father’s mellow Volga German sounds created music in the hidden room.

           John had the land, the contacts, the transportation, and the raw nerve, but he hated bribes, pay-offs, subterranean double-dealing. Nevertheless, he sensed a weakness. Other hotel owners were unequipped to pivot – to mold themselves to exploit the state constitution. “Those old hotels can wrestle with speak-easies, cheap moonshine, and Sheriff’s departments. We’re getting out of the ‘shine business. Our approach will be to exploit the medical and scientific clause.”

           He looked at his daughter, glanced at his desk, “With the private restaurant we’ll cater to the oilmen, farmer-ranchers, road workers, and the military from the base north of Berdan.” John paused, “And, with the pharmacy, we can cater to all the Southern Baptists and Mennonites who don’t drink,” he paused for effect, and said, “in front of one another.”

           Inside the hidden room, Josephine calculated the size of the circular room with its fifteen-foot radius, limestone interior walls, and trap door used by her grandfather as a shelter from Indians. She had done the math; the hidden room provided seven hundred and six sq. ft. of storage space. Then she suggested the Rock House become a staging area for the nightly deliveries from Canada.

 

           Bootlegging out of Canada required not only a manufacturer, staging areas, and retail outlets, but also transportation. With his two Bay Oil stations, John could keep his rolling stock of flathead V-8 1.5-ton Ford trucks in gasoline, tires, and maintenance on the rough country roads twenty-four hours a day. “We’ll control the whiskey as it travels from Canada into Berdan.”

           In the years since John’s father settled in Ninnescah county, Berdan had built a bridge across the Ninnescah River that linked with another town, then proceeded to transform from a muddy village with a wooden cavalry fort and open sewage into the county seat with brick streets, a city sewage system, a new military base, a country club, a public health nurse, and three doctors; though the town was without a hospital.

           “I talked with the sisters at the school,” John said as he reached for another Camel, “and they want a hospital in Berdan, but they’ll never have the money to build. We can do a dollar-a-year lease to the sisters; and their hospital can be on the top two floors of the hotel. We’ll run guests on the lower six floors.” Waited for Josephine’s reaction.

           She understood immediately, “Right. And the hospital will tie the doctors even more tightly to the drug store in the hotel.”

#

           After his second wife died, John hung three photographs and a painting on his bedroom wall. A blurry sepia-tone of his first wife on their wedding day, a second photo of his youngest son in his Army uniform proudly displaying his tech sergeant stripes, the third picture was of Elaine. Then he hung a framed painting of a large yellow circle given to him by Elaine years earlier.

 

           John’s sister saw the white chat clouds on the county road trailing the Sheriff’s car as it turned onto the hard dirt drive to the Rock House. The sheriff, John’s brother-in-law, was still angry with John for derailing his dead sister’s vocation as a nun, although he had never set foot inside a convent, a seminary, and rarely a church.

           When the Sheriff turned into the drive, he passed four railroad tracks, then a cattle trough next to the windmill on the far side of the barbed wire fence, and a clothesline where two headless chickens hung by their feet while their necks oozed blood.

           John stood outside the Rock House, his visitor framed by the endless rolling prairie that bisected the sky a million miles away. The Sheriff handed him a telegram. “Elaine’s coming home, John, but she’ll be late.” He saw John’s eyes move from the telegram to the church across the road, then said, “I’m sorry.”

           John swallowed, made the Sign of the Cross, walked inside the Rock House, and, while the Sheriff stood next to him, called the mortuary to tell them of the delay.  

           John’s sister sat at the dining room table. In his soft German accent, the emotion in his voice heavy, he said, “The funeral will be four days from now.”

           His dinner remained untouched and turned cold. His sister looked at him, patted his side of the table, then said, “Remember when Elaine outgrew her cradle? And you kept it. In fact, you still have it. Called it her manger.” Elaine’s manger. John engineered a smile and made a decision.

           Josephine leaned forward as if what happened had been delayed, and in her matter-of-fact manner reminisced about the time at the Lemon Park swinging bridge when Elaine tried to walk on the thick rope handrails.

           John reached for his Camels. With a flick of the wooden match against his thumbnail, he brought the flame to his cigarette. He decided to forgo his usual shot of Four Roses from the half-pint bottle behind the picture of the Last Supper next to the Napoleon clock on the kitchen counter.

           He placed his hands on the table, sat, leaned back, then hunched forward, looked at no one, and said, “Her first day at school just next door here.” Stopped, pointed to his left as though no one at the table knew where the school was - even though all his children had attended. “I walked with her. Her in her purple dress.” He adjusted his cigarette and continued, “And when I met her after school, she had this bright yellow picture. Just a big yellow circle she painted.”

           The others at the table heard a viscous sniff, waited for the appearance of his handkerchief. They remained silent as he lowered his head, and, once again, made the Sign of the Cross.

           John listened to a few more stories about Elaine, then stood, stuffed the half-pint into his back pocket, and, followed by Josephine, walked from the table to his bedroom, then entered the circular room through a hidden door at the back of his closet.

           He now had another death in the family, another wife to bury, but tonight he and Josephine had work to do. He knew he would not sleep easily even with the comforting sound of the windmill’s turns and creaks.

#

           John’s heavy capped-toed, brass-nailed boots clicked as he walked on the wooden railroad platform toward the wall-mounted telephone. He lifted the receiver, waited for the operator, told her the number, then fed nickels into the machine.

           As soon as the voice from the next station answered, John asked, “Has the Montana train arrived?” 

           While he waited for Elaine’s train, he thought of her wedding. Despite being hurriedly planned, it was held in the church. She wore a white dress, and with her arm in his, they followed the ring bearer and flower girl down the aisle. At the reception, the young beauty of the family danced with her father while guests pinned money on her wedding train. At the dais, tradition dictated that she remove her shoes, and push them behind her chair to serve as receptacles for more cash.

           Two days after Elaine’s hurriedly planned wedding, the reason for the ceremony arrived premature and stillborn.

           When Elaine arrived at the train station, she was driven straight to the mortuary to be next to her mother. John followed in his own car. It was then he decided there would be no open casket. He stopped and called the mortuary before Elaine arrived.

           John knew the family traditions dictated that relatives recite the rosary at the mortuary for twenty-four hours. When the optimal number of people were present, somewhere around the sixteenth rosary, an aunt would faint. Hours later, the family formed a line, bent over the casket, and kissed the dead. Then the uncles and cousins lifted the dead from mortuary to hearse, from hearse to church, from church to grave.

           For the second time in seventeen years, John watched as his wife was lowered into the grave. He waited until the priest finished reading, then hesitated. Part of his soul had ripped. Within an instant, he felt weak, heavy, and old. He turned around, and knelt while Elaine’s coffin was lowered, then he stood, leaned forward, and placed the telegram and her baby manger into the grave.

           He would be there when the generations shifted. He would be there when they shifted a second time, and a third time. He was in all of them; but now, after the burials, after the dinner, and after the farmers left to do their chores, John sat at his desk inside the hidden room behind his bedroom at the Rock House.

           He heard the windmill turn and creak. Tonight, sleep would wait. Tonight, he and Josephine had work to do.

 


Thomas Elson lives in Northern California. He writes of lives that fall with neither safe person nor safe net to catch them. His short stories have appeared, or are scheduled to appear in the Pennsylvania Literary Journal, Red City Literary Review, Avalon Literary Review, Clackamas Literary Review, Perceptions Magazine, and Literary Commune.