Midwinter Sun

1

MAY ROSE

On the train and during layovers, May Rose sleeps sitting up, no more than minutes at a time. She takes account of other travelers without openly watching, and like them, guards her privacy. In public places, men may converse with strangers. Women should not.Midwinter-Sun.300x450

She has seen pairs and groups of female travelers, but no other woman traveling without a man, not even a woman alone with a child. May Rose has Evie, and being responsible for the girl gives her courage. But bringing Evie on this trip also causes worry, because Evie’s mother doesn’t know.

Chicago’s Grand Central Station is well-lit, and late at night it’s nearly empty. May Rose and a few others are politely-spaced on benches throughout the waiting room. Two men push wide brooms back and forth across the marble floor. A distant gong strikes eleven. It’s too late to sleep.

One arm hugs the straps of her valise; the other lies over Evie, who is stretched beside her on the bench. Evie is patient and well-behaved, convinced they’ll soon see her ma, who is supposed to be somewhere in West Virginia. They’ve heard nothing since she left.

Her sense of ordinary time has been distorted by lack of sleep and replaced by train schedules. In an hour, they’ll catch the B&O eastbound passenger for the last portion of their trip. Tomorrow night they should arrive at their journey’s end—Grafton, West Virginia.

Two telegrams lie folded in her pocket. One is from her old friend, Hester Townsend: “Come soon. We need you.” The other telegram, from Hester’s brother, tells why. “Hester is dying.”

Her memory fills with Hester’s disapproving stare, quick hands, and the click-click of her heels on polished wood floors. Hester Townsend, a short, stern protector, wound tight in her own rules. She gave and withheld, betrayed and saved.

We,” Hester’s telegram said. Not “I.” The we might refer only to Hester and her daughter. She hasn’t seen them for fifteen years, since the girl was a toddler.

She and Evie left Fargo, North Dakota, the same day the boy delivered the telegrams. She doesn’t remember what she put in the valise. Evie’s clothes. Hopefully something for herself. She opens the clasp, touches a day dress as well as the black, enough for a short stay.

Hester and Barlow Townsend: sister and brother. They still live together, but now in Grafton, not Winkler. Fifteen years ago, Barlow managed the Winkler Logging and Lumber Company, and Hester operated a boardinghouse. For part of a year—a time of many troubles—May Rose lived and worked with them. Before she left for Fargo in 1901, she and Hester reconciled. She and Barlow did not.

At no other time in their fifteen years of correspondence has Hester asked for anything, and on no other occasion has her brother Barlow sent a word. Hester wrote when he married and when his wife delivered a stillborn child. Hester’s regular letters were full of details about the guesthouse she managed after they moved to Grafton, “not quite a boardinghouse, not quite a hotel,” and news of her adopted daughter. In turn, May Rose sent letters about the orphanage and news of Evie’s family. Neither May Rose nor Hester has a husband to write about. Neither has a child of her own.

Hester is dying. The idea is not yet real, only the compulsion to come as she asked. Help and consolation come first. There will be time later for grieving.

A man enters the waiting room, stands along a wall and opens a newspaper. He seems watchful, perhaps not a traveler but a thief, alert for opportunity. Rumpled travelers enter from doors on the track side of the station. Some go toward the restrooms; others line up at ticket windows then drop onto benches throughout the room. A man chooses the bench opposite May Rose. She tightens her grip on the valise.

“Someone supposed to come for you?” Suspenders hold the speaker’s pants over his broad belly; he wears no jacket, and his shirt collar is unbuttoned.

She does not like his question. “Soon.”

“Me and my wife are going home to New Orleans,” he says. “We just buried her sister.” At that moment a stout young woman plops down beside the man on the bench, and May Rose’s suspicions ease.

“Her sister worked for Western Electric,” the man says. “Was on that ferry that tipped over. The Eastland, did you hear of it?”

May Rose smiles a sympathetic greeting to the wife. “I did. How terrible.”

The woman shakes her head in wonderment. “They was on their way to a company picnic. She worked for Western since she come north. She loved that job, but she was going to quit ’cause she was getting married. More’n eight hundred drowned. We was going to come for the wedding.”

“I’m sorry for your loss.”

“Thank you. Folks has been kind. A newspaper man got our story.” The woman reaches into a carpetbag, pulls out a kerchief and swipes her eyes. “He said somebody should pay. At least my sister left no orphans.” She sniffs and nods toward Evie. “Is that your girl?”

“My granddaughter,” May Rose says.

“Couldn’t be! You don’t look no older’n me.”

“Her mother is my stepdaughter. Evie is nine.”

Evie sits up. “My ma is Wanda Wyatt. My pa is dead.”

May Rose gives her a squeeze. “She’s a good traveler.”

~

On the night express, May Rose dozes part of every hour. Given the rocking of the train, she doubts she’d rest better in a sleeping car.

Nothing bad ever happens at a good time, like when she is rested and unburdened by the needs of others. But there are few times like that, and she cannot ignore the urgency of the telegram’s request. Hester would not ask her to leave the orphanage and make this long trip just to say goodbye.

At Wheeling, she and Evie have a few hours’ layover. “You’re good company,” she tells Evie. The girl is more than good company. Having someone to guide and protect has helped May Rose endure the trip.

During the layover, they walk in the sunshine, buy apple muffins from a depot vendor, then sit inside for shade and air moved slowly by a ceiling fan. Mid-afternoon, they board again for the last and shortest portion of their trip.

Near dusk, the conductor passes through the car, calling Grafton, West Virginia. She gives Evie the last clean kerchief to wipe her face and hands. Soot lies over everything, because it’s been another stifling day and passengers have kept their windows open. May Rose’s skirt is damp, wrinkled, and stuck to the seat. She tries to pin up hair that’s come undone.

Evie gives back the kerchief. “When will we find Ma?”

It’s reasonable for the girl to hope. “I’m not sure,” May Rose says. “Your ma may be on her way home. Maybe our trains have passed.”

As the train slows, Evie stands at the window. “Maybe she’s here, waiting for us.”

Their train rattles past loaded coal cars and rail yard sheds. May Rose pulls on her cleaner pair of gloves, then sits on the edge of her seat and watches like Evie, though she doesn’t expect to see anyone she knows.

Then she has a glimpse of someone she does know, and her heart catches. She rises to see better and quickly sits back, so as not to be seen. It’s Hester’s brother, Barlow Townsend. The train’s brakes squeal.

They have to meet sometime. She’s not ready, no more than she’s ready to see Hester on her death bed. She hopes he’s there to meet someone on railroad business. Even so, she’s relieved to see him, like the worst encounter is now over. Fifteen years. If he’s cold or distant, she’ll bear it, for Hester’s sake.

Every passenger in their car seems to be preparing to get off here. She and Evie can blend into the platform crowd and avoid Barlow for now. But when she steps from the train and turns to give Evie her hand, there he is, striding to them with long-legged determination. She fixes a smile and braces herself for their meeting. Even in the heat of midsummer, he’s wearing the kind of trim suit and high white collar she remembers, though in place of the old bowler, a summer straw hat.

Barlow takes the hat off, revealing gray at his temples. He places the hat under his arm and covers her hand with both of his.

His eyes widen and his cheeks rise. “May Rose.” His tone says everything is forgotten, forgiven, or of no importance in this sad time. “I’m…” His voice breaks.

She fears the worst. “Barlow. Have I come too late?”

“No, no. She’s hanging on, waiting for you.”

“Excuse me,” someone says.

Evie tugs her sleeve, Barlow releases her hand and they move aside so a passenger on the steps can get down from the train.

Still alive. Hanging on. She and Hester will have time together, though the quality of that time is unclear. She cannot imagine Hester passing away without a struggle.

It’s a relief to be met and not have to find her way in another strange place. They stand on the platform with the crowd passing around them. Barlow seems transfixed.

“This is Evie,” she says, suddenly breathless. “Wanda’s daughter. I couldn’t leave her.”

She expects the kind of nodding acknowledgement adults give a child, but he shakes Evie’s limp hand. “Evie. I’m Barlow Townsend, and I’m pleased to meet you.”

“Thank you, Sir. I’m pleased to meet you too.”

Evie’s response diverts May Rose’s thoughts and makes her smile. The girl is so different from her mother. She’s been with her these two months, playing with the orphanage children and imitating how they must speak to their elders. Yes, Ma’am. Yes, Sir. Please. Thank you.

Barlow picks up her valise and ushers them through the crowd.

She’s glad to be moving toward a common goal: whatever they can do for Hester. “Thank you for meeting us; it’s very helpful. But I know you’re busy. We’d have found you.”

“I’ve met every eastbound train since we got your telegram.”

Whether he came at Hester’s urging or of his own accord, she’s moved by this confession.

“Our automobile is on the street. We’ve only a short drive.”

“I don’t want to impose. I thought we’d stay in a hotel or boardinghouse.”

“Hester wants you with us.” He pauses. “It’s perfectly proper.”

The word proper hangs between them, an uncomfortable reminder.

“My wife is there, naturally, and Glory.”

Barlow’s discomfort is plain. He was May Rose’s employer, her friend, and her suitor. Before they parted in anger, he made a proposal that was not proper, but one she finally accepted.

Most memories fade, but never those she regrets. How he bowed his head, trying to make amends, the last time they met. What she said. How he pushed her away.

It was long ago. He seems to be saying they can go on as friends. Witnessing Hester’s decline will be difficult for both of them. And what will it do to Glory, a girl of eighteen? According to Hester’s letters, her daughter is artistic, beautiful, and strong-willed. May Rose hopes she’s also strong.

“If Hester wants us, of course we’ll oblige,” she says. “But I don’t want to intrude or cause more work. I hope to be of some use.”

“Hester attempts to manage, even now. She needs a friend.” He directs her into the pillared terminal, through its cool, high-ceilinged waiting room, past benches of rich, polished wood, shining marble and brass decor.

They come out onto a narrow street of shops. The automobile is a black roadster with four doors and a canvas top. “Here we are.” He opens their doors and sets the valise on the back seat.

He drives slowly along the street, as though inviting her to admire the brick paving and sidewalks, lighted shop windows, the banks, hotels, the trolley line. The street lights come on.

“Grafton appears to be prospering,” she says.

They turn beyond the business district and stop at railroad tracks where a watchman swings a red lantern. A long train passes in front of them. Though she keeps her eyes focused on the freight cars rolling past, she sees how Barlow glances her way and how his hands grip the steering wheel.

“Grafton is the most important station on the Baltimore and Ohio line,” he says. “All due to the B&O shipping business, mainly coal and lumber. How does the town compare with Fargo?”

She looks above the train to a skyline of plump green mountains and tree tops. “Fargo is flat and spread out, and its streets are wide. I’m glad to see hills and valleys again. Curving lines are always more pleasant to view than straight ones, don’t you think?”

A train whistle smothers his words. She waits, but he shakes his head and does not repeat them.

She tries another explanation. “On flat land everything feels exposed. But structures in valleys are set close and built uphill. I like the look of Grafton; it feels sheltered, like Winkler.”

“Ah,” he says, speaking over the rattle of the train. “Grafton is nothing like Winkler, though it may have been, in the beginning.”

A second challenge has been met, both naming the place that connects them. They may never need to speak of it again.

“And how are your cousins?”

There’s no trace of bitterness in his words, but she glances to see if his expression has changed. The question about her cousins may be only polite, with no reference to events that forced them apart. If anything, his face seems only sad.

“As far as I know, two of my cousins are fine. The oldest died in childbirth; I think I wrote to Hester about it. The other two married and moved away. I believe they’re busy with families.”

Evie leans over the front seat. “My ma is here.”

“In Grafton?”

“Here in West Virginia,” May Rose says, relieved for the change of topic. “Somewhere near Winkler, we believe.”

The caboose clears the tracks, and the watchman waves them on.

“We’re closer to Winkler than you might think,” he says. “You came through Wheeling? It’s about the same distance. South, of course.”

“Good,” Evie says.

May Rose says nothing, hesitant to encourage or discourage her.

Barlow turns onto a well‑lit street of houses with wide lawns. “Here we are, McGraw Avenue.”

“It looks lovely,” she says.

“We have a bit of river view, but are not close enough to be bothered by flooding.”

A driveway circles the house. He stops under a roofed entrance, opens the passenger door, extends his hand to May Rose and helps her out. She waits while he opens Evie’s door and takes the valise.

Hester’s house has lights in every screened window, and through one of these drifts a faint sound of piano music. It’s sprightly ragtime, perhaps from a Victrola recording. As they climb the steps to a broad porch, a woman rises from a chair. Not Hester.

“My dear,” he says. “Here they are. Come inside, so you may see and meet properly.” He opens the door.

The woman who must be his wife goes ahead without comment. Inside, she turns and greets May Rose with eyes of startling blue. Alice Townsend has a delicate face, a slender neck and a tiny waist. She stands beside her husband with perfect posture, head erect, as though to see past the visitors. Her stance makes her look elegant.

The house is elegant too, much grander than the old boardinghouse, yet she can imagine Hester here. The entry room has a marble floor, a broad center staircase, and stained glass windows on the landing.

The piano recording ends.

“Alice,” Barlow says, “this is Hester’s good friend, May Rose Long.”

“How do you do?” May Rose removes a soiled glove to shake her hand. Alice’s clasp is quick and light.

Barlow draws Evie forward. “And this is her young charge, Evie…?”

“Wyatt,” May Rose says. “Wanda’s daughter.”

“Ah, yes, Wanda,” Alice says. “We’ve heard no end of stories about Wanda.” She says this to Barlow and does not look at Evie.

Like a good orphanage child who does not speak unless spoken to, Evie says nothing. May Rose squeezes her hand.

The clatter of quick steps turns them to the stairway and the young woman skipping down. Like Alice Townsend, she wears a pale, gauzy dress, but unlike Alice, her face is pink with pleasure. She calls out before reaching them. “Is this Aunt May Rose?”

Alice steps back. “Apparently so.”

May Rose blinks back tears. The young woman’s face, dark hair and eyes are identical to her brother’s when he was a boy. This is Glory, Hester’s adopted daughter. Charlie’s baby sister.

Glory falls on May Rose in a hug. “You’re so good to come.”

“Seeing you, I wish I’d come years ago.” She’s loved and missed the Herff children, a family neglected and divided when their mother died. Hester claimed Glory. As a little boy, Charlie went to Fargo with May Rose and lived with her until he was fifteen. The fact that she hasn’t heard from him since then is a constant sorrow.

“This is Evie,” she says.

“How wonderful!” Glory stoops and kisses Evie’s cheek, then stands and takes a deep breath. “Let’s go see Mother.”

Alice Townsend frowns at her traveling clothes as though she’s trailing dust. “Perhaps May Rose should have an opportunity to freshen.”

“Mother said bring her directly.”

Barlow clears his throat. Alice’s lips are set. The moment may represent a shift of power in the house. If Hester dies, Alice Townsend will rule here. Perhaps this is why Hester wanted her to come. For Glory.

She and Evie must not be another source of discord. “A change and a few minutes’ wash will make us more presentable.”

“Then please excuse me,” Alice says. “I’m not at all well today.”

Barlow sends his wife an anxious look and offers his arm, but she lowers her gaze to the luggage at his feet. “I’m capable of reaching my room. Please have Banovic clear this away.” With a brief nod for May Rose, Alice Townsend glides to a door off the foyer and shuts herself from view.

At the orphanage, May Rose sometimes must serve the children’s needs by letting administrators and patrons think they know best. Her path here seems clear. To help Hester and Glory and save Barlow from further embarrassment, she’ll have to pretend his wife is perfectly polite.

2

BARLOW

Barlow is tired of keeping the peace between his sister and his wife. Since the onset of Hester’s illness, he’s refused to be manipulated by Alice’s tantrums. She often breaks away from the family like this, her show of displeasure. Unfortunately for Alice, no one seems to miss her company.

In the wake of his wife’s departure, May Rose smiles and gives Evie a squeeze. Evie stands very still, but her eyes move like she’s uncertain she’s in a safe place. The child’s discomfort embarrasses him and makes him angry with Alice. Even a child knows when she’s unwelcome.

He meets Evie’s eyes. “We’re very glad to have you here.” He’d like to tell May Rose that his wife’s behavior has nothing to do with her visit to their house, but he can’t. He knows it does.

Alice may not love him, but she reads him well. During this visit, he must hide how May Rose captures his attention. He lifts her valise and gestures to the stairs. “Shall we go up?”

Her face is fuller, less girlish, and her golden hair is done up in the same kind of pompadour that Alice wears. Otherwise, she’s exactly as she was. Mid-thirties, now, he believes, and never re-married. He finds that a marvel and a consolation. He hopes she’s changed in one respect. He’s tried, all these years, to be the kind of man she might love. Just in time, he retracts the arm that almost touched her back.

He follows them up the stairs. They can be friends; old feelings don’t have to get in the way. But he wishes he’d kept her to himself for an hour before introducing her to everyone else. He might have driven farther, shown her more of the town. No one at home would know the difference.

He’s not surprised that Glory leads them to the best rooms, the suite across from her mother’s. He sets the valise inside the door. “We hope you’ll be comfortable here.”

“We would be comfortable with much less,” May Rose says.

“Mrs. Banovic will have dinner ready when you are.” His voice sounds too stiff, but he can’t let it be anything else.

After he closes her door, he steps across the hall and looks into his sister’s dark room. “She’s here.”

“Come closer,” Hester says.

The nurse stands and offers her chair by the bed. He’s no longer shocked by the bones that outline Hester’s face.

Hester has little breath to talk, but her gaze is strong, and her smile is as always, tight‑lipped. “May Rose. How does she seem?”

“Good. Worn down by travel, I think. Wanda’s daughter is with her. She said something about Wanda being in Winkler.”

“I believe… Wanda went to find her family. I told you.”

He’d remember if she had.

She closes her eyes, as though the effort to keep them open is too great. “I’m sorry to leave you. With the house. And everything.”

He doesn’t say she’s going to recover, for she insists on the truth. She’s been his champion since he was a boy, and he’s always valued her advice. Already he feels its loss. She may not know that Alice has closed the house to paying guests, but surely she understands they won’t manage it without her.

“Glory will bring May Rose to see you in a few minutes,” he says.

Hester gropes for his hand. When she has it, she turns up her most serious face. “I want you to have a good life.”

“You’ve been the best part,” he says.

She closes her eyes again. “I know the best part.”

Going down the stairs, he thinks of that time. One year in Winkler. His heart rushes.

Banovic waits at the bottom. Hester hired him as their handyman, but Alice likes him to dress up and play butler. Because Banovic has a bit of flair and seems to enjoy this role, Hester for once conceded to Alice’s wishes. Banovic and his wife have been part of the household nearly as long as Alice.

“Mrs. Townsend ask for tea and toast in her room,” Banovic says. “You will eat there or with guests?”

“I’ll have tea and toast with Mrs. Townsend, but I’ll also eat with the guests.”

Alice is in her reading chair, a newspaper spread before her face. She speaks without lowering it. “Will you go to the office tomorrow?”

“Is there a reason why I should not?”

“I thought you might want to entertain your guest.”

He sits in the companion chair. “May Rose is Hester’s guest, not mine, and she is not here to be entertained.” His words will do nothing to change his wife’s mood.

His current surge of vigor is inappropriate. Until this evening, he attributed it to a rallying of his body, a preparation for the loss of his sister. But his energy is not solely for performing the duties necessary in times like this. It’s a heightening of feeling, an expansion that began the moment he heard May Rose was coming. And now she’s under his roof, and though everything is more hopeless than before, he’s happy, and that’s not good. Alice misses nothing. She’ll do her best to make everyone share her misery, especially May Rose.

If Hester is not worse, of course he’ll go to work in the morning. He needs a distraction.

Today May Rose called him Barlow. The way his spirits leaped showed how confused his life has become.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s