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Stella

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Stella

By Ryan Scott

About the Book:

Stella is about a young woman’s struggle to survive during the Great Depression, confronted with abuse, poverty and the consequences of her own passionate choices.

 

About the author:

Ryan Scott is a published author with a Ph.D. in counseling psychology, living in Austin, Texas. His four marriages, his loss of sight and his experiences working as an apple picker, dish washer, grocery clerk, high school teacher, real estate investor, hippy night club owner, radio broadcaster, and psychologist colors his writing with a profound understanding of human flaws, strengths and dreams.

 

Dedication:

I dedicate this literary flourish to the memory of my Mother.

Forward:

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“Stella, we have your results back from pathology. I’m sorry to tell you cancer has spread throughout your body. There’s nothing more we can do, “the young surgeon said, nervously tapping his stethoscope.

“How long do I have?” She whispered, twisting the sheet.

The young doctor swallowed several times before speaking. “I’ll be honest with you Stella. It’s a matter of hours; maybe 2 days at the most, but we’re going to make you as comfortable as possible.”

Numb with shock, she asked, “What’s going to happen now?”

“You’ll be discharged and sent home, but a hospice nurse will go with you. I understand one of your sons lives with you. Is that correct?”

She slowly nodded her head, falling silent, thinking, all my life I’ve stood up to shit. I don’t believe I’m going to die. How could it be over at 69? How could I die with so many things I haven’t done? I don’t want to go.”

When she was back at her home, the nurse helped her get into bed, saying, “All right Sweetheart, I’m going now, but I’ll be back later. I’ve left you pain pills. Take one if you need it.”

After the nurse left, Stella tried to rest, but a stabbing pain made her cry out, “Joey! Please get my pain pills. I need them quick!”

He rushed into her bedroom and groped on the dresser, saying, “Here they are, Mom. Is your pain getting worse?”

She grimaced. “Yes, when are the other kids coming?”

“Frank and Susan should be here soon. Tom said his plane from Austin would arrive at five this afternoon. I’ll get you a glass of water.”

After she swallowed one of the pills, she slowly drifted into a fitful sleep, reliving her explosive, sometimes brutal carnival of her life.

 

Chapter 1

 

An old black Labrador began to bark at the sound of a strange vehicle. “Flanagan, be quiet!” Stella shouted, wondering who was coming. Six months pregnant, she pushed up from her chair, went to the front door and saw her best friend getting out of an old car.

Barely making herself heard over the noise coming from the quarry, she yelled, “Hi Violet. I’m so glad to see you!”

Her friend jogged to the porch with her long braids bouncing and clasped her shoulders. “Hi, Stella. I borrowed my Dad’s car so I could come to see you. It’s been such a long time!”

“It’s been too long! I can’t tell you how happy I am to see you. Let’s go for a picnic and catch up.”

After Stella made sandwiches, they hiked to the top of a knoll where they saw black and white cattle peacefully grazing in the meadow below. After Violet spread an old Indian blanket, they sat down and began to eat their lunch. Suddenly, an ancient steam shovel roared to life, staining the blue sky with black smoke. In a cloud of dust, it gouged a scarred hillside with its bucket, slammed its load of rocks into a waiting dump truck and roared back for another load.

Violet Pointed to a paint-starved house. “Stella, how can you stand to live in that old place with all that dust and racket?”

Stella laughed mirthlessly. “It’s inconvenient as hell, but free rent makes it tolerable.”

“You used to live in such a lovely home, what happened?” Violet asked.

She hesitated, remembering her mother’s ranting and the look of disgust on her father’s face. Finally she said, “One night Rico took me to see a Rudolf Valentino movie. All that kissing on the screen made me excited. On our way home, he wanted sex, but I told him I was afraid. He told me not to worry, but I got pregnant. When he bolted, Mr. Carlini found him in a lumber mill up North and forced him to marry me so the baby would have a proper name. After we took a scary trip to Reno, we got married; and my father gave Rico his old job back and let us live in that house.

“That explains a lot. I was surprised when you dropped out of high school; especially since you wanted to be a teacher.”

“That wasn’t my idea. After I told my gym teacher about my pregnancy, the dean kicked me out that afternoon. She said I was a bad example for decent girls.”

“How dare she say you aren’t decent? You’re the most decent person I know!”

“Thank you Violet. It still makes me boil whenever I think about it. Everyone acts like I’ve done something terrible.”

“They’re just hypocrites. Now that you’re married, what’s it like living with Rico?”

“Well, he’s away most of the time working, so I don’t see him that much. He used to be fun, laughing and dancing, but now he resents the marriage. Since he’s been working for my father, he’s settled down, but he’s no longer romantic like he used to be. Now, how about you? Do you have a boyfriend?”

Violet smiled. “In fact I do. His name is Pete, and he’s a real sweetheart!”

When the sun began to stretch long shadows, the workers at the quarry stopped working and a peaceful quiet settled over the valley. Meadowlarks began to sing their evening songs, swooping and dipping over the lush green fields.

Stella pushed up to her feet. “Rico will be home soon. We better put the supper on the stove.”

Violet hopped to her feet and snatched up the Indian blanket. “Ok, I’m ready. Let’s go!”

That evening, while they sat around the table eating jackrabbit stew, Rico pushed his curly hair away from his face, saying in a voice that was too loud, “Hey Violet, when I comes home tonight I seen that old Plymouth parked in the yard; and I SES to myself, who the hell’s that? I was glad it was you. How long can you stay?”

“I’ll be here for two days. Why do you ask?”

He wiped his mouth with the back of his sleeve. “Well, if you stay, you won’t miss the bull round up, and besides, Stella here is six month knocked up and she’s acting real pissy. If you stay, she might stop her bitching.”

Ignoring the insult to her friend, she asked, “What’s a bull roundup?”

He Pointed at Stella. “Let her tell the story. She knows all about it. Hey Stella, is there anymore coffee?”

At nineteen, he was two years older than Stella, but she was three inches taller. Not wanting to make a scene in front of Violet, she refilled their cups, saying, “Heck Violet, I thought you already knew about the roundup. Anyway, one year the bulls got into a terrible fight during judging at the Santa Rosa fairgrounds. Now, all the ranchers bring their bulls to my father’s ranch so the bulls can pick a leader by fighting at home. Caesar, Papa’s bull, always wins. After the fight, there’s a big barbecue. Every one brings food, and it’s a lot of fun.”

Violet frowned.” It sounds dangerous!”

“Aw, hell, it ain’t dangerous at all! It’s as safe as your mother’s tits,” Rico scoffed, fishing in his shirt pocket for a cigarette stub.

Early the next morning, he left to help prepare for the arrival of the bulls, but Stella and Violet remained behind, visiting over a leisurely breakfast.

Later that morning, they arrived at the ranched where vehicles of all kinds were haphazardly parked, Model T Fords, flatbed trucks and even horse drawn carriages.

Stella pointed towards the barn. “Oh look Violet! There’s a place right over there next to Mr. Carlini’s Packard.”

After they parked, Stella got out of the car carrying a bowl of potato salad.

When Violet got out of the car, she smelled the scent of barbecue wafting in the air and licked her lips, asking, “When do we eat?”

Stella laughed. “We eat right after the fight. My mouth is watering also.”

They stopped to watched the Italian cooks in tall white hats slowly rotating a half side of beef over a fire pit, shouting and laughing. One of them began to sing in a loud strident voice.

“Who’s that guy singing so awful?” Violet ask, giggling.

“Oh, that’s just old Tony. He’s notorious for his loud bad singing.”

Over by the corral, They heard Cesar snorting and kicking his rails. When he loudly bellowed, echoing eerly through the canyons and shattering the crisp morning air, Violet ducked behind her car. “Jesus, I hope that beast doesn’t break through those fences!”

“Don’t worry, we’re safe enough, but all the same let’s join the women.”

They walked to the porch and heard a babble of voices coming from the house. When they entered the parlor, heavy-set ladies were bustling from room to room, making a whooshing sound as their plump thighs rubbed together.

Stella tried to introduce Violet to one of the women, but she exclaimed, “Why Stella! You really are pregnant! I didn’t believe it at first. I have to go now.”

After she left, Stella whispered, “See what I mean? But I don’t care. Her perfume made me sick.”

When they entered the dining room, Violet drew in her breath. “Stella, just look at all the food on that table. There must be at least a dozen cakes! Here, let me put that salad with the rest of the food.”

Stella’s mother came into the dining room carrying a platter of candied apples. Like an older version of Stella, she was tall with regular pretty features. Breathlessly, she said, “Oh, hello, dear. I was wondering when you were coming, and hello Violet; it’s good to see you again.”

“Hi, Mrs. Schultz. I’m amazed at all the food.”

Frances placed the apples on the table and turned to Stella. “Honey, let’s go to the front porch where the two of you can get a whiff of fresh air. I swear, Stella, you’re getting so big I think you’re going to have twins.”

Back on the porch, the two younger women sat down on wicker chairs, but Frances remained standing, affectionately rubbing her daughter’s shoulders. “Oh look Honey, there’s your father coming with Mr. Carlini. I have to take the bread from the oven, but I’ll join you later.”

As the two older men approached the porch, Stella was able to overhear their conversation. Julius Carlini, tall, gray at his temples with Patrician features, jabbed his palm, emphatically saying, “Ansel, I’m telling you, you’re making a big mistake by selling all your breeding stock.”

Stella’s father who was blind, of medium height, and bald with a square jaw, spat on the ground. “Hell, vot am I to do? The lawyers said the banks vill take my ranches by next spring. I have to sell all my animals. I came to this country from Germany a poor man. I vorked hard all my life. Now, fifty years later, I’m losing everything.”

Julius laid a restraining hand on his arm. “Keep your voice down, or someone might hear you.” In an undertone, he added, “Hoover is screwing everyone. If I could help you, I would.”

Ansel nodded. “Thank you Julius. Now, let’s sit down and enjoy the show. The boys just let Caesar out of his pen.”

The overheard conversation made Stella worry, thinking, if Papa looses everything, what’s going to happen to us?

A group of men were gathered by the fence, watching two young bulls butting horns. Caesar lifted his massive head and bellowed as he strutted haughtily across the field. Stella glanced at her father and then at Cesar, suddenly understanding the connection between her father and his bull. Both of them are proud, dominant and powerful!

A murmur rose from a cluster of men when the young muscular bull dashed into the field. When it skidded to a stop and raked the ground with his hoof, scattering rocks and leaves, Caesar trumpeted a warning.

“Julius, vot’s happening?” Ansel demanded.

Mr. Carlini leaned closer. “Caesar has a challenger.”

Ansel chuckled. “Vot damn bull thinks he can take on Caesar?”

“It’s that new bull; you know the one from Texas. He looks like he could give Caesar a good scrap.”

Ansel crossed his legs. “Veil, we’ll just find out how Caesar handles this Texas bull.”

At one end of the pasture, Caesar urinated on the ground and rolled in the puddle while the younger bull observed the spectacle. After Caesar got to his feet, blowing foam from his nose, the bull from Texas butted an oak tree . After both bulls bellowed and furiously stomped the ground, they squared their shoulders and lowered their horns into killing position.

The men who were standing by the fence became quiet, expectant.

Violet grabbed Stella’s Arm. “Oh dear, will they kill each other?”

Stella hunched her shoulders with her eyes riveted on the pasture. “I sure hope not!”

With a scream Caesar shook his horns and charged. The younger animal instantly responded by hurling at the old monarch. With the earth trembling from pounding hooves, their horns collided with a resounding crack! Both animals reeled backwards, but Caesar fell to his knees. The younger bull switched its tail as Caesar clumsily regained his footing and shook his head from side to side as if stupefied. Slowly, he limped away with blood streaming down his shoulder. The young bull allowed the vanquished leader to retreat without inflicting further injury.

A few men who stood along the fence broke into loud cheers while others paid off their wagering debts. Ansel jumped to his feet, yelling, “Julius, vot the hell happened?”

Julius whispered in his ear. As Stella watched her father’s confident expression crumble into despair, she involuntarily shuddered.

“Stella are you all right?” Violet asked.

“I’m not sure. I just had a spooky feeling that bad things are going to happen.”

Violet playfully punched her shoulder. “Oh hell Stella, two dumb bulls had a fight. That’s all. Come on, the cooks just rang the dinner bell.”

Shouting and giggling, the women promenaded from the house carrying covered dishes . While they put the food on long plank tables, children snatched tidbits of food and three intoxicated men clumsily rolled a barrel of wine from Ansel’s cellar.

“Hey, Stella, this affair is turning into a real fiesta. Just look at all that food!” Violet shouted.

Rico yelled from the corral where he was attending to Caesar’s lacerated shoulder, “Hey, Stella, get a plate for me.”

She yelled back that she would.

When they got in line at the barbecue pit, Stella watched Tony slice the beef with one hand while holding a jug of wine in the other. After he slapped a thick slab of prime rib on her plate, he winked and said, “There you are, beautiful lady, a big juicy hunk of meat just for you.”

As she turned away, he broke into a thunderous rendition of an unrecognizable tune.

By late afternoon, all the food had been consumed with the women groaning and the men farting. Ansel had excused himself after the fight and remained secluded. Rico, Violet, Stella and her mother were seated on a blanket when Rico pointed at Tony who was holding a jug of wine and his white hat askew. “Look at that old fool. I wonder what he’s up to now.”

Tony walked unsteadily to the corral, stopped and yelled, “Caesar, your day was not so good. I’m a sing for you.”

He unsteadily climbed to the top rail and began to sing an off-tune operatic aria. Caesar, snorting menacingly, gingerly shifted his weight from one foot to the other. Tony swayed back and forth, singing at the top of his voice. Suddenly, he lost his balance and fell. Caesar charged. Tony was half way up when the powerful animal gored his stomach. When he tossed Tony back over the fence, Tony gave a heart-twisting scream. Someone shouted, “Help, help. Come quick. Caesar just got old Tony!”

Caesar continued to bellow. Rico grabbed a tablecloth and raced to the corral. Mr. Carlini directed his chauffeur, saying, “Quickly, drive the car over there by that fence.”

Stella helplessly watched, unable to do anything.

After Rico wrapped the tablecloth around Toni’s bloody middle, four men carried him to the nearby limousine. Mr. Carlini held the rear door opened. “Hurry! Put him in here. We’ve have to get him to the hospital before he bleeds to death.”

As the big car sped away, Stella’s mind began to spin and her vision blurred, but a supporting arm stopped her from falling. Her mother pressed a glass of water to her lips. “Here, honey, drink this water.”

“Oh, Mama, Is he going to die?”

“No, dear, it’s just a scratch. It’s your father I’m worried about.”

 

Chapter 2

 

Two weeks following the bull roundup, Stella was helping her mother prepare the traditional Sunday dinner. After she Finish polishing the silverware, she asked, “Momma, how many settings should I put on the table?”

Frances counted on her fingers. “Well, let me see. There’s you, Rico, Ansel, and our guests of honor Reverend White and his new wife. Danny and his mother are coming also, and of course, they’re bringing little Daryl. Counting myself, that makes eight adults. I’ve already sent sandwiches to your father’s workers.”

“Have you met the preacher’s new wife?”

“Yes, I met her at church. She’s pleasant enough, but she’s a little on the hoity-toity side.”

“Golly, I hope she’s not too snooty!”

Frances opened the oven and tested the roast with a long fork. “I think it’s ready. Lordy, it’s hot in here,” she said and placed the sizzling meat on the side table.

“That chimney is cherry red!” Stella observed as she wiped her face with her apron.

They went quickly into the dining room, where Frances removed her Sunday dishes from the china cabinet while Stella arranged the silverware around the table. Glancing at the mantle clock, Frances groaned, “My stars; It’s nearly three o’clock! I wonder what’s keeping your father and Rico. Reverend White is always punctual!”

When Stella heard a car parking outside, she peeked through the curtains and saw a red Chrysler with winged ornaments. “Mama, I think they’re here!”

They rush through the parlor while the mantle clock chimed three times. Stella stood on the porch and watched a fastidious looking middle-aged man with thinning hair get out of the Chrysler. He began to guide his wife up the path. Frances walked down the steps, saying, “Welcome Reverend and Mrs. White.”

“Why, Mrs. Schultz, how delightful! I believe you’ve already have met my wife, Mrs. White?”

An extremely thin woman tapped Francis on her arm, saying, “It’s charming to meet you again, Mrs. Schultz, but please call me Claire; and you must be Stella. Thank you both for the invitation.”

“It’s nice to meet you, Mrs. White,” Stella replied, uncertain if the minister’s wife meant to include her in the offer of informality.

Frances looked at the barn, but her husband and Rico were nowhere in sight. Heaving a sigh, she said, “Let’s go inside for a few minutes before we eat.”

Suddenly, Ansel and Rico emerged from the barn, walking rapidly. Before Stella could shout a warning, her father ran head-long into Reverend White’s Chrysler. He fell back on his rear and shouted, “Goddamn it! Who the hell left this Goddamn car in my Goddamn way?”

Mrs. White drew in her breath and covered her mouth with her gloved hand. Stella felt mortified, but she quickly explained, “He didn’t mean anything. You know, he’s blind.”

The Reverend ran to Ansel and tried to help him up, saying, “Oh, Mr. Schultz, I’m so sorry for leaving my car in your way.”

Suddenly red faced, Ansel blurted, “Oh Jesus, Reverend; I didn’t know it was you. I apologize for my language.”

The Reverend patted his shoulder, saying, “There, there, Mr. Schultz. It’s quite all right. We understand.”

Ansel stood up unsteadily and brushed the dust from his pants. “Veil, anyway, I apologize.”

Stella heard Danny’s Hupmobile laboring up the road. “Oh look! Here comes Danny with his mother and little Daryl!”

Frances clapped her hands. “Good, now everyone’s here, and the roast is ready. We can eat in five minutes,” she said pointedly, scowling at her husband and Rico. Both men, aware of her temper, hurriedly went to the washhouse to clean up.

After Danny parked his car next to Reverend White’s Chrysler, Frances held her grandson, saying, “My goodness Agnes; hasn’t he grown! I can tell he hasn’t missed too many meals.”

Agnes laughed. “There’s nothing wrong with his appetite.”

Upon seeing the baby, Stella felt a clutch in her heart, thinking about the night when her sister died giving birth. She remembered all the screaming and all the blood, so much blood. Little Daryl looks just like my sister with her dimples and her beautiful auburn hair, she thought. Not like my mouse brown mop.

Frances gave Daryl back to Agnes. “Now, let’s all go in the house and have Sunday dinner.”

When everyone was seated around the dining table, Reverend White offered a prayer. “Our Father, we give thanks to you for blessing us with this comradeship and for the food you so bountifully provide. Also bless the soul of that poor man who died in an unfortunate bull accident. Amen,”

Mrs. White unfolded her napkin and eyed the roast. “My world, Francis. That meat smells simply divine.”

“Why thank you Claire. Here, take this first slice.” She turned to Danny, asking, “How is your search for a job going? I know finding work is hard these days.”

He grinned. “It’s good! I got on at the post office at Sebastopol. My Mom here takes care of Daryl while I’m working. She’s such a big help.”

His mother blushed, stammering, “Ah, shoot, son, he’s no trouble. He’s a little angel.”

Stella blanched at the reference.

The minister heaped mashed potatoes on his plate, saying, “Babies are truly gifts from God. By the way, Ansel, I saw men loading your livestock. Are you selling out?”

Ansel folded his hands in his lap, replying, “Yes, I guess you could say that. The banks are forcing me to sell everything, including Caesar and the rest of the herd.”

After several awkward moments, Stella changed the subject. “Guess what? Violet, my best friend is getting married. She and Pete are going to Connecticut right after their wedding.”

Frances exclaimed, “Lands sakes, all you children are growing up so fast, I can’t keep track of your comings and goings.”

A loud knock rattled the front door. Rico got up to see who it was, but he rushed back, saying excitedly, “One of the cows just had a two-headed calf!”

Reverend White nodded solemnly, saying, “That could be an important sign from God. In the Bible, it says …”

“Oh, Reverend, let’s not just talk about it. Let’s go see it for ourselves,” his wife demanded irritably.

After they all got up from the table and went to the barn, they were startled to see a calf with a normal head and a second head attached to its neck, rolling its eyes and blinking its multiple eyelashes. One of the workers quip, “Ansel, you know what they always say. Two heads are better than one.”

The other worker said, “Hey, Ansel, maybe you can sell it to the circus for a lot of money and pay us some wages.”

Ansel ignored their comments and knelt down by the calf. After feeling its heaving chest, he shook his head. “I’m afraid this little thing won’t live long. Its heartbeat isn’t very strong.”

Stella felt nauseated and went outside for fresh air. Horrified, she saw smoke rising from the house. “Fire! Fire! The house is on fire!”

Her mother rushed from the barn as flames leaped through a second story window, spreading to the roof. She gasped, “Oh my stars! There is a fire!”

The men ran from the barn to fight the spreading flames. Ansel went to the washhouse to fill milk buckets with water.

Rico, Danny, and the two workers frantically beat at the fire with wet sacks, but the intensity of the heat drove them back. Reverend White moved his car away from danger. Agnes held the baby. Mrs. White clasped and unclasped her hands. Frances, wheezing loudly, gasped for air.

As the men futilely tried to contain the fire, Stella ran to the porch and entered the house. “Stella, come back!” Her mother screamed.

Feeling compelled to salvage something, she ignored her mother’s screams and went into the parlor where she grabbed the mantle clock, but she was overcome with smoke and fell to her knees as she groped for the front door. A burning timber crashed on the stairs in a shower of sparks. The flames were coming close to her when she felt strong arms pick her up and carry her to safety. When they were outside, Rico lowered her to the ground, saying, “For Christ’s sake Stella, you almost killed yourself. Never do a dumb thing like that again!”

She watched the flames consume her childhood home and wept. The neighbors were attracted by the smoke, but they came too late to save the house. By nightfall, the flickering flames of orange and red cast shadows across grim faces.

When Stella looked at her father, she noticed the tears he was trying to hide. She went to him. “Papa, you and Mama Can move into your old quarry house with Rico and me.”

Frances wrung her hands, lamenting, “Everything is gone. My entire lifetime of memories are all gone, gone up in smoke! Now, we can’t even finish our Sunday dinner!”

 

[][] Chapter 3

 

A powerful storm swept in from the Ocean, lashing the old quarry house with wind, rain and hail. Stella pulled her shawl tighter around her shoulders to ward off the drafts slithering through cracks. As the lavender windows rattled in their frames, she watched a drop of condensation form and slowly descends. Turning to her mother, she said, Mama, I’m glad you’re here, especially with the baby overdue, but it doesn’t feel like Christmas this year. Rico can’t find a job and Papa is so sad. I’m sick of being pregnant. When will it be over?”

Her mother looked up from the smoldering fire she was trying to ignite and replied, “I don’t know honey. I hope it’s over soon. I’m sorry Christmas feels bleak, but I can’t blame your father for being discouraged. You know, our home was destroyed and everything else. Things are hard for you too. Maybe a cup of coffee would make you feel better.”

“Thank you Mama, I would like that a lot,” she replied, forcing a smile.

Frances went into the kitchen and returned with the coffee, placing the cup near her daughter. “There you are honey. It’s nice and hot. I hope it’s not too sweet.”

Stella took a sip, but when she returned the cup, she winced.

Observing her grimace, her mother speculated, “Maybe this is the beginning of your labor. You stay right there and I’ll get the clock.”

During the remainder of the day, Stella’s contractions became more frequent and acute. Frances paced back and forth, muttering, “Where in blazes are those men? We need the doctor.”

Late that afternoon Rico and Ansel finally returned from an unsuccessful search for work. When Frances informed them about Stella’s, Rico Rushed upstairs and saw his wife writhing on the bed, drenched in sweat. He went to her and said, “Your mother just told me the good news. How are you feeling?”

She replied through clenched teeth, “Oh Rico, I’m in so much pain. I’m afraid something’s very wrong, like my poor dead sister.”

He laughed. “Aw, hell, Stella, you’re going to be all right. There’s nothing to giving birth. I seen lots of cows having their calfs.”

Puffing from climbing the stairs, Frances entered the bedroom and asserted, “Rico, it’s time to get the doctor!”

He scratched his ear. “Jesus, Frances, I don’t know if I can get through this storm. The creeks are coming out of their banks. Just look out there. That meadow is a lake.”

She exploded. “God damn it I don’t give a fig how much it’s raining. You have to get that doctor. Now, by Jesus, go!”

Ansel came up the stairs and said placatingly, “Calm down Mama; Rico and I vill get the doctor.”

As the old Ford sputter to life, Stella looked helplessly at her mother, asking, “Mama, how long will it take to get the doctor?”

Her mother wiped the perspiration from her face and replied, “Well, it’s raining mighty hard, but the men will do their best to bring him as soon as possible.”

Ten hours later, Stella was screaming and writhing in pain. Frances paced back and forth. There’s something’s definitely wrong. I think the baby’s stuck, but I don’t know what to do. Oh, where are those men, she thought, trying not to show her apprehension.

Throughout the night, Stella moaned and cried out, “Mama, for God’s sake help me!”

Frances felt impotent with fear, remembering the death of her first daughter, but she stayed with Stella, patting her hair, murmuring, “There, there Honey. You’re going to be all right.”

By daybreak, the rain had slackened, but the men still had not returned. The sound of approaching Vehicles caused Francis to rush to the window and peer into the morning mist. Slamming her fist down on the sill, she groaned, “Tarnation, it’s just those damn dump trucks!”

Suddenly, the old steam shovel roared to life, shaking the house and rattling the windows. It began to crawl towards the desecrated hillside, squealing and clanking with its iron jaw poised like a bird of prey. It dropped its bucket and gouged the earth with a vicious bite. After it slammed its load into a waiting truck with a resounding crash, it continued to violate the earth. The first truck roared away only to be replaced with another.

Stella cried out, “Mama, I’m being torn apart!”

Frances rushed to her side. “Honey, what’s wrong?”

“I think the baby’s coming, but I can’t stand the pain.”

Frances wiped the sweat from her forehead, saying, “Honey, the doctor should be here soon. The rain has stopped. Just hold on for a little longer.”

When Francis heard the Claxton of their old Model T, She looked through the curtains and announced, “Good news Stella! Dr. Silva is here. Now you’re going to be all right!”

Flanagan barked at a small wiry man who was getting out of a LaSalle and carrying a black bag. Francis shouted, “Hurry, Doctor, Stella needs you badly.”

He rushed into the house, went into Stella’s room and shut the door behind him. Rico and Ansel got out of their car and wearily stomped mud from their boots. After they entered the house, Frances helped her husband with his coat, saying, “Ansel, you must be frozen half to death. I have hot coffee for both of you.”

“Thank you Mama. Ve had a hard time getting through the water.”

When Stella screamed, they stared quickly at the bedroom door. “Is she going to be alright?” Rico anxiously asked.

Francis, thinking of her first daughter’s tragic end, replied, “Oh I think she’s fine. She’s young, and it’s taking her a while, but I’m sure Dr. Silva has everything under control.”

The doctor abruptly came from Stella’s room. When he noticed the unspoken question in everyone’s eyes, he quickly said, “Stella is going to be all right, but it’s going to be difficult. Mrs. Schultz, can you help me? I’ll need lots of hot water. I suggest you men fetch fire wood.”

That evening, Rico and Ansel were waiting impatiently for developments, flinching Whenever Stella screamed. Rico whined, “Why is everything taking so damn long?”

“I don’t know. Vat are you going to call your baby if she’s a girl?” Ansel asked.

Rico thumped his chest. “Why, he’s going to be a boy, of course, and his name will be Enrico Thomas Ferrari.”

Ansel chuckled. “That’s too bad. My middle name is Wolfgang. That would be better.”

Shortly after midnight, Rico was aroused from his slumber by an insistent wail. The doctor came out of the bedroom with a broad smile, saying, “There’s a ten and a half pound boy up here ready for inspection.”

Rico rushed upstairs and saw his son lying in Stella’s arms. With tears in his eyes, he asked, “Stella, how are you feeling? I was worried.”

She replied weakly, “I’m all right now, but I’m so tired.”

The doctor sat in the corner, entering the date on the birth certificate, and said, “I declare, it’s Christmas, December 25, 1931!”

Stella clasped Rico’s hand. “Rico, just look what we’ve done! We’ve given each other a wonderful Christmas present. Merry Christmas.”

“Merry Christmas Stella,” he replied and squeezed her hand.

Later that morning, she awoke to the fragrant scent of a Christmas tree festooned with colorful paper chains. She smiled when she heard the festive sounds drifting up from the kitchen. Her mother was preparing an austere Christmas dinner, jackrabbit stew, persimmon pie and vegetables left over from last year’s garden. Rico was playing “Jingle bells” on a borrowed accordion while Ansel boasted to a neighbor. “I have a son born Every 21 years on Christmas, first Kyle and now my grandson.”

As Stella cradled her baby in her arms, she pressed her nipple to his mouth, whispering, “Merry Christmas Little Rico. Enjoy your first birthday dinner.”

Chapter 4

 

A large black rat with three white whiskers led the migration towards the lights glimmering across the meadow at the old quarry house. The other rats followed their leader, squealing and jockeying for position.

Meanwhile, Stella finished nursing her two month old son and put him down for the night. When she returned to the parlor, unaware of the approaching hoard, she noticed the lantern was casting distorted shadows. After she adjusted the wick, the flame became stable. Turning to her mother, she said, “Mama, you need new glasses. You’re squinting again.”

Francis looked up from her sewing and shrugged. “Yes I know. I’ll get a new pair one of these days.”

“That’s what you always say.”

Flanagan began to whimper and scratch the front door. Stella got up and patted his head, saying, “What’s up boy? Is there a prowler?”

Frances pushed up her spectacles and rubbed her eyes, saying, “Don’t worry, dear; it’s always spooky when the men are gone for the night.”

“I guess you’re right. What do you think Papa’s going to find out about the foreclosures?”

Her mother slowly shook her head. “I think it’s just a matter of time before we’re evicted, but your father said he could salvage a small home by putting it in your brother’s name.”

“Mama, that bothers me. I don’t trust Kyle. He….”

The baby suddenly screamed. Stella got up quickly and began to walk back up the stairs, frowning. “I wonder what’s wrong with Little Rico.”

“Oh, maybe he just had a nightmare,” her mother replied.

When Stella entered her bedroom, she failed to see the large black rat jumping off Little Rico’s crib and scurrying under the dresser. She went to her baby and rocked him in her arms, murmuring, “There, there, Little Rico. Everything’s all right.”

After a few minutes, he stopped crying and fell back to sleep. Gently, she put him back in his crib and returned to the parlor.

Her mother cried out, “Stella! There’s blood all over you!”

She Looked down and saw the red smears on her blouse. “Oh my God! The baby!” she gasped, running back up the stairs.

Suddenly the house resounded with Hundreds of rats franticly squealing and scrabbling to get inside their home. Stella dashed into the bedroom with Flanagan at her heels. Frances grabbed the lantern and quickly followed, slamming the door shut behind her.

When she held the lantern aloft, Stella was able to see blood on her baby. “Oh my God! They’ve chewed his face!” she gasped.

“Jesus Stella! We have to put iodine on him right away. There’s a bottle in the dresser.”

As she spoke, a rat ran across the floor and leaped at her leg, hanging on by its teeth. “Ow! My leg!” she cried out.

Flannigan instantly seized the rodent and broke its neck with a vicious shake.

Francis grabbed the broom, futilely striking at fleeting shadows. Stella held her baby in one arm and attempted to smash the rats darting across the floor with a hammer, screaming, take that! And that, you bastards!”

Flannigan lunged and snapped, efficiently killing rats.

After a few terrifying minutes, the rats were no longer evident. Stella gasped, “I think they’re gone. Now we need to use that iodine.”

Her mother, wheezing for air, replied, “I’ll get it right now.”

After they smeared iodine on Little Rico’s wounds, disregarding his screams, they treated their own bites.

Flanagan began to whine and sniff under the door. Stella patted his head. “Good boy Flanagan, but we’re not leaving this room until we know it’s safe! We can just sit tight until we know it’s safe!”

As they listened for suspicious noises, Frances began to snore with her chin on her chest.

Stella remained awake, clutching the hammer, but she eventually fell asleep.

A large black rat with three white whiskers crept from the dresser, furtively looking around the room. With a vicious snarl, it leaped at Stella and slashed her elbow with its fangs. She woke up with a scream and hurled the hammer after the fleeing rodent. The missile struck the rat, crushing its skull causing it to pitch forward in a pool of blood. She looked away when the three white whiskers turned sticky red.

After that attack, the women remained awake, but there were no more incidents.

When daylight broke, they surveyed the devastation. Frances groaned, “Oh, my God, just look at this mess! They’ve eaten all our food, and rat droppings are everywhere!”

“Mama, if you get rid of those dead rats, I’ll get started cleaning up this mess.”

Both women vigorously sterilized the house with bleach. When they finished, Stella washed her hands in the sink, saying, “Mama, I’m exhausted. I’m going to take a nap with the baby right after I feed him.”

“That’s a good idea. I’m going to do the same.”

Later that day, Stella woke up when she heard their old Ford rattling up their road. When she came downstairs, her mother already had started a fire for coffee.

Rico burst into the house, saying, “The courts have taken all the ranches. We have to leave in five days or the sheriff will throw us out. Ansel won’t get out of the car. He just sits and stares straight ahead.”

““Oh my Lord; its one thing after the other!” Frances cried as she hurried out the door.

Stella bit her knuckle and asked, “Rico, what’s going to happen to us?”

He wearily slumped down on a chair, replying, “We’re going to be all right. I saw Mr. Carlini this morning. He said we could work as a husband and wife team on his dairy. It’s near Bodega Bay. Is there any coffee? I’m dead.”

“What kind of work would we do?” she asked, pouring the coffee,

“Well, I would milk cows of course, and you would cook for the crew.”

“Damn it Rico, I can’t do that! Mama never taught me how to cook for a bunch of men.”

“Don’t worry It’s easy. I’ll show you how. You just add more water to the soup.”

Ansel shuffled into the house supported by his wife and sat down without removing his hat. With his face skewed to one side and a muscle twitching in his left cheek, he said in a monotone, “I’m sorry, Mama. I’m sorry I failed you, but you vill have a home.”

“Ansel, what are you talking about? You haven’t failed me. Everything will be all right. We can grow vegetables and have some chickens and maybe a cow. We’ll be just fine.”

He ignored her remarks, staring vacantly ahead.

“Papa, last night rats attacked us. They came like a malignant apparition and bit all of us including the baby,” Stella reported, hoping to shock him out of his lethargy.

Francis crossed herself. “I just hope they weren’t a black omen.”

Ansel remained disinterested, but Rico dashed upstairs to inspect his son. When he saw the wounds highlighted by iodine, he gently kissed Little Rico’s forehead.

Stella whispered, “He’s all right now, but I don’t want to wake him up. Let’s go back downstairs.”

When she was back in the kitchen, she asked, “Papa, are you all right? Can I get you something, maybe a cup of coffee?”

He ignored her questions and remained silent for the rest of the afternoon. As Black clouds accumulated in the west, he suddenly stood up, saying, “I’m going to take a valk,”

Frances put her hand on his arm. “Ansel, are you all right? Can I come with you?”

“No, Mama. I vant to be alone.”

“Well then, go ahead, but don’t be too long. There’s a big storm coming.”

Three hours later, the rain had begun, but Ansel had not returned. Frances opened the door and stared into the dark, muttering, “Where could that old fool be? It’s a cloud-burst out there.”

Rico grabbed his raincoat, saying, “I’m going to take the car to see if I can find him. Maybe he went to Occidental.”

As he drove away, peals of thunder exploded over the house causing the baby to cry. Stella picked him up and nursed him to sleep, saying, “There There Honey. Go back to sleep now.” Francis continued to pace, anxious for news.

After an hour, the old car with its feeble headlights barely visible in the rain returned. Rico burst into the house with water cascading from his raincoat, saying, “I couldn’t find him anywhere. I drove to Occidental and checked all the saloons. I went to six neighbors, but no one has seen him. Some of the men said they would help search if he doesn’t show up.”

When Flannigan suddenly began to wail, Stella felt a shudder. Rico studied the agitated dog and snapped his fingers. “Come on boy. Let’s see if we can find Ansel,” he said and attached the leash.

Quivering with anticipation, Flanagan strained at his chain, pulling Rico outside and into the driving rain. After painful minutes dragged by, Rico returned to the house. Stella’s heart clutched when she saw the horrified look on his face .

Frances grabbed his arm, demanding, “Rico, what’s happened to my husband?”

He swallowed, barely whispering, “Flannigan found him. He was at the bottom of the quarry by the old steam shovel with his head split open.”

Frances screamed and collapsed on the floor. The baby began to cry. Stella remembered the image of three white whiskers turning red and sobbed. Outside, flashes of lightening illuminated the rain falling like the final curtain.

Chapter 5

 

They stood at the edge of the cliff, enjoying a rare sunny day. The wind was brisk, snapping Stella’s skirt around her knees and flecking the ocean with whitecaps. The breakers rolled in from the sea and slammed against the rocks, sending fans of spray high in the air.

Violet fastened her jacket and shouted over the roar coming from the surf, “Hey Stella, how do we get down there?”

Stella pointed to a narrow trail leading down to a deserted beach, yelling, “It’s kind of steep. Do you want to give it a try?”

“Sure, anything to get out of this damn wind.”

Stella handed a small bucket to her friend saying, “Here, if you take Little Rico’s red bucket, I’ll help him down, but be careful. I suggest you hunker down and slide on your butt a little at a time.”

Violet glanced at the steep trail, swallowed and then took the bucket, replying, “Ok, let’s go!”

Stella drew in her breath as she began the dangerous descent, gripping the wiry brush with one hand while holding Little Rico with the other. While Violet inched down the trail, following Stella’s advice, her foot slipped. She desperately grabbed an exposed root and stopped herself from falling, but Little Rico’s red bucket careened down the cliff.

He cried out, “I want my bucket. I want my bucket.”

“Stop your whining. You can get it when we get down there,” his mother yelled.

Safely on the beach, Little Rico, white hair flying, raced to his slightly dented bucket and began to fill it with small stones.

Stella spread their blanket on the beach near the cliff and kicked off her shoes, sensuously wiggling her toes in the sand. “Ah, this feels good,” She said and reclined on the blanket.

Violet, sheltered from the wind, took her jacket off and sat down, saying, “Stella, this is my first chance to see your son. I can’t believe he’s all most three years old. I love his brown eyes and his platinum hair.”

“Thank you Violet. Sometimes he stares at me like a little old wise man, but he’s a handful. He also is a lot of fun! When he was small, I used to push him around in my doll buggy. I’m glad to show him off to you at last, but I’m surprised you came back.”

Violet watched a seagull teeter in the wind and said, “Well, there were issues. I didn’t get along very well with Pete’s parents; they were so damn stuffy. When his work fizzled out, we decided to come back to California. He was lucky to get his old job back with the sheriff. Connecticut is beautiful, but nothing beats this coastline.”

Stella pointed to a bank of fog lurking on the ocean, saying, “I don’t know about Connecticut, but I sure get tired of that damn fog. It comes in every night.”

Suddenly, a fast moving wave slid towards Little Rico. Stella leaped to her feet and ran to her son, grabbing him up just ahead of the foaming water. He kicked and struggled, yelling, “Put me down. Put me down!”

She returned to the blanket, put him down and gave him a clam shell to stop his tirade. . “I swear, Violet, I have to watch him constantly. He’s always running away to investigate something. I tried to keep him close to the house by taking his shoes, but his little feet got so tough he can go anywhere. “

“Oh Stella! That sounds dangerous!”

“I know it is. I keep asking Rico to build a fence around the Yard to keep him safe, but he puts it off. I’m ready to build that damn fence myself.”

Violet became quiet as she watched a distant freighter slide over the horizon. Finally she said, “Stella, I’m sorry about your father. I didn’t know him very well. Could you tell me something about him?”

Stella drew a spiral in the sand and wiped it clean, replying, “Well, he was a complex person. Despite his blindness, he ran three ranches, played the violin and was the best judge of horses in the county. When the house burned down and the banks took all of his ranches, his spirit simply died. I don’t know if his death was an accident or suicide. He also had a dark side.”

“What kind of dark side are you talking about?”

Stella thoughtfully rubbed the side of her face. “Well, for one thing, he favored Kyle over the rest of us kids. Kyle was a rat, but Papa was so mean to my half brother James, he left home when he was only fifteen. My sister Maggie and I had to be careful not to stand too close to our father because he would try to put his hand up our skirts. Sometimes, he paraded me in front of a bunch of men, saying, ’this is my daughter. Isn’t she nice and fat?’ All the men would laugh, but despite all his faults, I still miss him.”

Violet cleared her throat. “Stella, I’m sorry about your father. How is your marriage working out?”

Stella picked up a handful of sand and let it sift through her fingers. “Not very good, I’m sorry to say. Since we moved to the coast, Rico hardly talks to me, and he never takes me anywhere. Sometimes he’s gone all night. I think he’s chasing women.”

“That’s terrible! Those shenanigans would drive me wild! What are you going to do about it? “

“I don’t know. I feel so helpless. He used to be decent, but he’s changed. Maybe the responsibility of a family is more than he can handle, or maybe I’m doing something wrong. I just don’t know.”

Violet clasped her shoulders, saying, “Stella, don’t blame yourself. You’re not at fault! He’s an asshole avoiding responsibilities.”

Stella laughed. “Thank you Violet. You always make me feel better.”

Later, when the tide began to reclaim the beach, Stella picked up Little Rico and announced, “We better go now, unless you want to get wet!”

Violet quickly gathered their belongings and they began the treacherous climbed back up the cliff. When they reached the top, the wind was bending stubbly grass over sideways. A rusty weathercock swinging back and forth protested loudly. Little Rico tried to say something when his mother put him down, but his words were lost in the wind.

With her hair whipping around her face, Violet pointed to the barn, shouting, “Hey Stella, what’s wrong with that bull making all that racket?”

Stella shook her head from side to side, saying, “That’s just old Caesar. Mr. Carlini bought him at auction, but He’s mad because the men are keeping him in the barn until they mend the fences.”

An old Model T raised a cloud of dust as it rattled down their road. Little Rico ran towards the car with his short legs pumping hard, yelling, “Daddy! Daddy!”

Stella watched Rico parked by the barn and begin talking to an elderly worker. Little Rico patted his leg, yelling, “Daddy, Daddy, pick me up!”

He ignored his son and went into the barn with Little Rico following.

Stella sighed. “That’s typical of him! He never pays any attention to Little Rico or to me. Violet, I’ve been thinking, if you could spend the night, we could catch up on all the gossip. I would love for you to stay; I’m so lonely.”

“Stella, I would love to stay, but Pete needs the car early in the morning and my lights don’t work. I have to say goodbye now, but I’ll return,” she promised, giving her friend a hug.

After Violet drove away, Stella looked at the dilapidated farmhouse where she lived and shook her head. One more lonely night to feel bad, she thought as heavy fog crept in from the ocean.

Shivering from the cold, she went inside the house and began to fix supper. As she gutted the fish with quick ripping motions, she gazed wistfully through the kitchen window turned lavender with age, thinking, I can’t take much more of this. I should leave, but how can I take care of Little Rico all by myself?

Rico came into the kitchen and sat down with a newspaper. “Bring me a cup of coffee,” he ordered.

She washed her hands in the sink, replying, “Rico, why don’t you ever say ‘please’ when you ask me for something?”

“Why should I? You know what I mean.”

“Because it hurts my feelings. That’s why! You never take anything I say seriously.”

He yawned. “Like what?”

“Well, for one thing, Little Rico still needs that fence to keep him safe. In fact, where is he now?” she asked, walking to the front door.

Rico turned to the want ad section muttering, “Don’t worry. He’s just playing somewhere.”

“Rico, why is the bull carrying on like that? Oh my God! The baby!”

She started running towards the barn, but Rico quickly overtook her and reached the barn first, yanking the sliding door open. Aghast, he saw Little Rico advancing on the bull, shaking a stick, shouting, “Shoo bull, shoo bull.”

Caesar bellowed and strained at his tether with blood oozing from his nose. With a toss of his head, he tore the ring loose and charged.

Rico raced to his son, grabbed him up and leaped into a narrow stall as thundering hoofs charged past and all the way to the opposite side of the barn.

Stella reached the sliding door as Caesar whirled and charged in her direction. She slammed the door shut and scrambled to the top of a hay wagon parked next to the barn. As she watched Caesar through a small dust-covered window, she held her breath as he circled back to the stall where Rico and her son were crouched. The furious animal with crazed red eyes, fetid breath and snorting filmy blood attempted to force his broad head through the narrow opening.

Little Rico screamed. “Rico, what’s wrong with the baby?”

“Don’t worry; he’s all right. I’m taking the back door out.”

As she jumped from the wagon, two old farm hands ran up yelling, “Lady, lady, what’s a matter?”

She pointed to the barn. “The baby!”

They dashed to the barn but stopped when she shouted, “No, wait, Luca; he’s all right. Follow me.”

Confused by her English, they gestured wildly with their hands.

When she came around to the back of the barn, Little Rico ran to her and clung to her legs crying, “Bull get me…Bull get me!!”

She picked him up. “There, there, Baby. Mama won’t let that old bull get you.”

That night, after serving soup and fried fish to her family and the four old workers, Stella washed the dishes and put Little Rico down for the night. When she returned to the kitchen, Rico was pacing back and forth.

“Rico, you were very brave this afternoon.”

He stopped pacing and hitched up his pants. “Oh, yeah, thanks.”

“You seem preoccupied. Is there something wrong?”

He studied his fingernails. “No, there’s nothing wrong, but I have to leave.”

With her enthusiasm fading she asked, “Where are you going? I was hoping we could spend some time together and be close like we used to be.”

He grabbed his coat. “I have to check on a sick cow.”

“Will you be back tonight?”

He looked at the ceiling. “Yeah, well, I might be back tonight. It all depends.”

“It depends on what, Rico? Just who is it that you’re going to see?”

He forced his fist into his jacket shouting, “Why are you asking me these dumb questions? I have a job to do. I’ll be back when I’m done. That’s all you need to know.”

She grabbed the loose sleeve, yelling, “Listen here, Rico; I’m your wife. I have a right to know where you’re going, what you’re doing, and when you’ll be back. I’m not going to be treated like a dog anymore!”

He yanked his jacket free, stomped out of the house and shouted back over his shoulder, “If you must know, I’m going to see Widow Ruth. Her cow has milk fever!”

She followed him outside, but stopped on the porch when he climbed in his car. She called, “Rico, come back! We have to talk!”

He ignored her and let the old Model T roll down the hill. When it sputtered to life, its feeble red light disappeared into the mist.

Defeated, she slumped against a rotting porch pillar and wept.

The next morning, when she realized Rico had been gone all night, she suddenly was consumed with rage, bitterly thinking, I put up with a lot of shit to make this marriage work, but the harder I try, the worse he gets.

She contained her anger while she prepared breakfast for the four old farmhands who were patiently waiting. When she put a platter of eggs on the table, Luca looked at her with gentle eyes. On impulse she asked, “Luca, what do you know about Ruth’s sick cow? You know, the one Rico went to fix last night.”

With his drooping mustache wet with coffee, the old man put his gnarled hand over hers and said, “Ruth’s a cow no sick.”

As the implications of his words slowly registered, she felt weak. The unexpected confirmation of her suspicions made her feel disconnected, as if she were floating upwards. After the old men finished their breakfast, she sat down heavily on the bench and held her face in her hands with Luca's words repeating in her mind like an unwanted melody. "Ruth's a cow no sick! Ruth’s a cow no sick!" She slammed her fist on the table, shouting, “That son-of-a- bitch!"

Resolutely, she cleaned the kitchen and gave Little Rico his breakfast. After she finished cleaning the house, she stuffed her threadbare clothes into a pillowcase, shaking her head at her scant belongings, thinking, these pitiful rags are all I have to show for three years of my life.

It was near lunch time when Rico’s car approached the house. Stella first made sure Little Rico was asleep, and then she found the ax stuck in the chopping block and yanked it free. As Rico jauntily jockeyed his car down the rutted road and parked by the barn, Stella advanced with the heavy blade on her shoulder, chanting, “Ruth’s a cow no sick. Ruth’s a cow no sick.”

She swung the ax, shattering a headlight. Rico suddenly looked terrified, no longer smug. He jumped from the car, yelling, “Stella, what the hell are you doing?”

She swung the ax again, smashing the windshield. “Take that! And that! And that!” she screamed, repeatedly swinging the ax, knocking the hood askew, destroying spark plugs, wires, carburetor, glass, tires, and everything in the way of her fury. Rico joined the four old milkers who were wearing one-legged stools strapped around their hips, gaping in disbelief.

When her anger was spent, she threw the ax at the demolished car, marched back to the house, breathing hard with her hair blowing wildly. She went into the bedroom and easily picked up Little Rico, her muscles hardened by work. After she slung the pillowcase over her shoulder, she walked out of the ancient farmhouse without looking back. With two pennies jingling in her pocket, she took long powerful strides toward Highway 1, thinking, now, by God, I think Widow Ruth’s sick cow is finally fixed!

Chapter 6

 

Stella had been walking on the deserted road to Jenner-by-the- Sea when she stopped to put Little Rico down. While she rested, she scan the bridge below, guessing it was about a half mile away., Further downstream, she observed the small village by the river, noticing a few shanties clinging to the hillside, a church and a school house with a bell tower. An old resort with faded red and yellow umbrellas fluttering on the veranda and a few rowboats bobbing in the river caught her attention. After she watched an orange truck squeaked to a stop by a metal building, she located her mother’s cottage. "Look, Little Rico. See that house way over there? That's where Grandma lives."

“Grandma lives,” he repeated, staring at the river.

She took his hand. “Oh, silly, you’re looking the wrong way. Come on; we still have to cross the Russian River down there.”

Sweating heavily, she arrived at her mother’s home carrying Little Rico and her pillowcase which she quickly put down. Holding her breath, she knocked on the door, thinking, Please let her be here.

When she heard her mother’s heavy footsteps, she sighed, Thank God she’s here.

Francis opened the door and chuckled when she saw her visitors. . “Why, Stella, what are you doing here? Come in. You look plumb worn out. Here, let me take that big boy.”

“Thank you Mama. I’ve just left Rico, and I’m never going back!”

“Oh, Honey, come in! I’ll fix you some lunch, and then you can tell me all about it.”

After Francis put on a pot of coffee, made tuna fish sandwiches and poured a glass of milk for Little Rico, she asked, “Well, Honey, can you tell me what happened?”

“Oh, Mama, I’ve made such a mess of my life. Rico’s been cheating and acting terrible, but I’ll tell you more later. Little pictures have big ears. The main thing is we have no place to stay. Can we stay here?”

Her mother shook her head slowly, saying, “Honey, you’re welcome to stay, but I just received a notice I have to leave. One of the old fellows I work for is in the hospital with cancer, and his brother went to a nursing home. They’ve sold this house, and I have to be out in seven days.”

Stella stared at the river for several moments before she asked, “Mama, what about that little house Papa left you?”

Her mother looked away, admitting, “Your brother sold it and used the money to buy a yellow roadster. I think it was a Buick. I haven’t seen him since the funeral.”

Stella blinked in disbelief, shouting, “How dare that bastard! What are we going to do now?”

Francis patted her hand. “Honey, being angry won’t help, but we can look for a home together.”

“Mama, I’m sorry Kyle treated you so badly. My problems can be discussed later, but for now, let’s concentrate on survival. Are there any jobs around here?”

“I doubt it. People have moved away because of the lack of work.”

Stella took a sip of coffee and suggested, “Maybe James could help us out. He’s been working for years. I bet he could lend us some money. Also, that rat Kyle might help us. He owes you so much!”

Her mother looked sad. “I have no idea where James is. He could be on the other side of the world. As for Kyle, it wouldn’t do any good to ask. You know how he is.”

“Mama, on my way here, I saw a couple of abandoned houses,” Stella said, suddenly animated. “Maybe we could move into one of those places and make it livable.”

Her mother tapped her cup, replying, “Maybe that’s not such a bad idea. It’s certainly better than living in the open. I’ll ask around and see if I can find out about other places.”

During the next five days, they went to several deserted houses. At the last house they inspected, Stella kicked a rotten board loose from the porch, shouting, “Just look at this goddamn place! The floors are rotten, and the well is dry, just like all those other dumps we’ve seen! Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea.”

“Don’t give up hope, Dear. Just this morning, Mr. Mueller, he’s the one who owns the resort, told me about the old Rule Ranch. Its five miles north of Jenner. Let’s go there tomorrow and have a look.”

Early the next morning they began their journey to the old Rule Ranch. As they walked along the coastal highway carved from cliffs above the surf, fog drifted in from the ocean while the wind whistled through the bent Cypress trees. Little Rico rode piggyback on his mother’s back, keeping warm. While Stella stopped to wait for her mother to catch up, she watched angry waves relentlessly pounding the barrier rocks, thinking, I feel like those rocks.

When Francis caught up, they continued to climb the grade until they reached the summit. Francis gasped, “Lordy, I’m winded!”

“Mama, are you all right?”

“Yes, of course! I’m all right; just a little pooped.”

“Ok, but let’s just rest for a while. By the way, how will we know when we arrive at the Old Rule Ranch?”

Frances looked down the highway, saying, “I think I see it now! According to Mr. Mueller, it’s that old wooden cattle crossing that looks like an arch going over the road.”

Stella shaded her eyes and peered ahead. “I believe you’re right, and it’s not too far.”

Soon they arrived at the old wooden arch where they turned off the highway and continued on a rutted dirt road. When a covey of quail suddenly scurried across their path, Little Rico tried to catch one, but it quickly disappeared into a stand of wild dill.

Francis smacked her lips, saying, “Roast quail are mighty tasty.”

“Yes, if you can catch them,” Stella replied, amused with Little Rico’s perplexed expression.

AS They walk through a grove of Eucalyptus trees, heavy mist filtered through the foliage and dripped down on their heads. “Mama, I cold,” Little Rico complained.

She pulled him closer to her side. “I know, Honey. So am I. Just pull your cap over your ears.”

When they finally entered a clearing, Stella pointed to a small cottage with paint peeling and windows broken, saying, “I think that’s the place.”

Francis shook her head. “That place doesn’t look too promising, and just look at that old barn. It’s leaning sideways.”

“Well, we’re here so we might as well have a look,” Stella replied and went to try her weight on the porch. After she tested the boards, she said, “Mama, this porch is solid. Now let’s see what the rest of this place looks like.”

She broke a spider web across the door and yelled, “Hello is anyone here?”

The only response was the distant roar of the ocean, the wind rustling the trees and tall dead weeds scratching against the few unbroken windows.

Francis stepped forward, pushed the door open and entered a musty-smelling living room. When she spotted a lopsided easy chair, she sat down heavily, but a cloud of dust flew up, making her cough. After she cleared her throat, she said, “Well, this chair is mighty dirty, but it can be cleaned and so can that sofa over there. Now let’s see what else is here.” They went from room to room, finding mattresses leaning against the walls in the two small bedrooms. When they went into the kitchen, they discovered a wood burning stove and a table with four chairs. “Stella, these are just what we need,” Francis exclaimed. “Now let’s see if this place has an outhouse and a working well.”

When they looked outside, Francis found a two-hole privy behind overgrown trees. Stella located a well nearly hidden by weeds. While she plunge the handle up and down, Francis cupped her hands to catch the gushing water. Tentatively, she tasted the cool liquid. “Stella, this water is good! I think we’ve found our home, “she announced.

They returned to the porch and sat on the steps with Little Rico at their feat. Well, this place is not the Taj Mahal, but it has plenty of water and wood for the stove,” Stella noted.

Francis brushed the dust from her dress, replying, “Yes, and we can use all of that furniture. They’re a little musty but they can be aired out. The broken windows can be fixed with cardboard.”

She tousled Little Rico’s hair, gave him a red feather and ask, “Little Rico, what do you think of our new home?”

He twirled the feather between his thumb and finger, replying indignantly, “I’m not little and it’s not new!”

Stella laughed. “Well then Rico, we just won’t call you little anymore.”

 

Chapter 7

 

With time running out at their last home, the women worked hard to make their “new home” livable, sweeping away cobwebs, patching the windows with cardboard, beating the dust from the furniture, and scouring the entire house with bleach:, but their provisions were running low.

Francis reported, “Almost all the food from my last place is gone; even those nuts we found saved in the attic by squirrels.”

Stella, still sweating from the cleaning, replied, “We could beg for food, but I would be mortified to do that.”

Francis looked grim, saying, “we might have to do that if we run out of food.”

Stella clicked her tongue. “In the meantime, I think I’ll try to trap our food like the way James taught me when I was a kid. If I’m lucky, we’ll have roast quail tonight; but I wish we had a shotgun.”

After searching in the barn, Stella found a heavy wooden box, a short stick, a ball of twine and a handful of stale oats. Good! Now I have what I need for a trap, she thought triumphantly.

She walked stealthily to the stand of wild dill where she found tracks in the dust. Quickly, she covered them with oats, propped the box over the bait with the stick and tied the twine to the stick. Then she crouched behind a bush, ready to spring the trap, anxiously holding the string in her hand.

After a few minutes, a top-knotted cock hopped up to the box, but it warily refused to go any closer. She tried to will the bird with her mind, thinking, “Come on you, get under there.

The sudden throb of a twelve cylinder engine frightened the bird away. She slapped her knee and cursed, “! Shit !I almost had that God Damn bird.”

A midnight blue Packard Parked in her Yard. When a well-dressed man got out of the car, she immediately recognized him and yelled, “Hi Mr. Carlini, What brings you here?”

He waved. “Hello Stella. What are you doing with that contraption?”

“I’m trying to trap quail, but I guess they’re too smart for me.”

“Well, there’s more than one way to get a bird. Where’s your big boy?”

She hesitated, like the wary quail, thinking, maybe he was sent by my damn husband. Finally, she replied, “Thank you for asking, Mr. Carlini. How did you know I was here?”

He raised his hand nonchalantly and replied, “Oh you know; word gets around. I brought something for you and your mother.”

His driver unlocked the trunk and withdrew a gun. She caught her breath, feeling scared, but Mr. Carlini took the weapon from the chauffeur and said, “This is an old .410 shotgun, but it still works. There’s also a box of shells. You might have more luck putting quail on your table with this gun instead of that old box.”

She released her breath. “Mr. Carlini I don’t know how to thank you, you must read minds. Only this morning we were talking about needing a gun. Will you teach me how to use it?”

“Yes, but first, I have something else,” he replied and reached into the trunk, withdrawing a fishing pole and tackle box. “This is for you,” he said.

Her mouth dropped. “Thank you so much, Mr. Carlini, I don’t know what to say.”

“Wait. There’s more,” he replied, motioning to his chauffeur who lifted a fifty-pound sack of potatoes from the trunk. Grunting from the effort, the driver asked, “Where would you like me to put these potatoes, Ma’am?”

She ran her fingers through her hair, saying, “Please put them in the kitchen. Oh, Mr. Carlini! We’ve been so worried about food.”

When Frances came out of the house, Stella shouted, “Look Mama! Mr. Carlini brought those potatoes and a gun and a fishing pole.”

As Francis held the door open for the chauffeur, she exclaimed “Lands sakes Julius; those things are life savers. God bless you!”

“Think nothing about it, Mrs. Schultz. I also have arranged with a neighbor to bring fresh milk every other day, “he said and then turned to Stella, saying, “Now, I’m going to show you how to use that shotgun.”

After he broke the gun open, he inserted a shell into the chamber, saying, “You load it like this. Now, I’m going to show you how to shoot.” Come and we’ll get some quail.”

She followed him quietly to the brushy area where the quail were happily chirping. Suddenly, he stopped, put the gun to his shoulder and fired.

“Oh Mr. Carlini you got three of them!” she shouted, running to grab the flopping birds.

He nodded with satisfaction as he ejected the empty shell and said, “When you’re hunting, I suggest you wait until you have at least two birds lined up in a row before you fire. The sportsmen object. They like to kill them in the air, one at a time, but it’s all right to change the rules in hard times. This shotgun can also kill a deer at close range. Sometimes they come around the house late at night. It’s against the law to hunt after sundown, especially out of season, but keeping alive is more important, if you get my drift. Now it’s your turn.”

She fired twice, missing on her first try but hit a bird with her second shot.

When they returned to the house, she held the quail up by their feet, triumphantly shouting, “Look, Mama. He got three of them with one shot.”

Frances broke into a smile. “Julius, now that we have something to offer, won’t you stay for dinner?”

He held up his hand. “Thank you, Mrs. Schultz, I can’t, but I’ll return soon to see how you’re doing.”

While he was climbing in his Packard, Little Rico came out of the house, sleepily rubbing his eyes. Mr. Carlini studied him for several moments and then said, “Stella, keep that shotgun away from that boy. Remember, it’s not his fault that Rico is his father.”

When their benefactor left, Stella and her mother sat on the porch watching the sunset spread hues of red and orange. Stella was smoking a cigarette from her dwindling supply of tobacco while Francis rolled a cylinder of prescription marijuana. Stella asked, “Mama what’s brewing with Mr. Carlini and all the help?”

After she inhaled a puff of marijuana, she replied, “Oh, I think he’s just being clannish. He knows Little Rico’s half Italian and he wants to take care of him.”

Stella blew a smoke ring and watched it dissolve, saying, “Mr. Carlini’s an attractive bachelor with lots of money. Maybe you should set your sights on him.”

Francis laughed uproariously. “Lands sakes! At my age, what would I do with a man? Maybe you’re the one he’s interested in.”

Stella stood up and stretched, replying, “Forget that!”

When they heard a strange-looking vehicle with a homemade flatbed extending far beyond the rear bumper laboring up their road, they looked up. The truck shuddered to a stop and a short round man bounced from the cab. “I’m a your neighbor, Luigi Campo,” he announced, executing a courtly bow. “Mr. Carlini, he sent me. I’ve got to milk and an eggs and a cheese. The missus she send a onions and tomatoes and the Swiss chard from her garden.”

Frances stood up, saying, “How do you do, Mr. Campo. My name is Mrs. Schultz. This is my daughter, Stella, and my grandson, Rico. Mr. Carlini said someone would bring us milk, but I didn’t expect all this food.”

“Just a call me Luigi. Mr. Carlini, you know a he helped out a little also,” he said, grinning a gap-tooth smile as he rubbed his thumb and finger together. “But, I’m a glad to do what I can do anyway.”

He walked to the rear of his truck and picked up a box of vegetables. Stella hurriedly said, “Oh Luigi, let me help you.”

He handed her a gallon of milk, replying, “You can take this. I’m a carry the rest.”

Frances held the screen door open for the farmer, saying, “Thank you so much Luigi. We’ll certainly have a feast tonight. Please thank your wife for the vegetables.”

“I’m a tell her. I’m a come a back in two days.”

That evening, Stella and her mother eagerly prepared dinner, cooking Swiss chard, roasted quail seasoned with wild dill and baked potatoes stuffed with cheese. After they ate their meal, Stella pushed back from the table and patted her stomach, saying, “Mama that dinner was better than any meal we could buy at a ritzy restaurant. All we need now is coffee.”

“Lands sakes, yes, a cup of coffee would certainly hit the spot! Now, I’m going to put this boy to bed. He looks half asleep.”

After her mother left, Stella looked around the old fashioned kitchen made soft by candlelight. As she leaned back in her chair, she thought, It was only a week ago that we were worrying about survival, but now we have a roof over our heads and I’m stuffed with yummy food. Tomorrow we’re going to see about catching fish. Maybe we’ll survive after all!

Chapter 8

 

The day was overcast as usual, but Stella ignored the morning fog as she prepared for their fishing trip. She had saved the giblets from last night’s quail for bait. After checking the fishing gear given by Mr. Carlini, including a sturdy rod, a heavy duty reel and a tackle box full of assorted hooks, sinkers, lures and spools of line, she was satisfied and ready to go. Francis was grumpy, but she agreed to walk the short distance to the ocean, saying, “I’ll go, but we better catch fish!”

Little Rico was more than anxious to get started.

As she Walked towards the ocean, Stella felt the salty breeze tingling her face, ruefully thinking, How ironic. I used to love wading in the surf, roasting hotdogs and playing on the beach, but those days are over. Now we’re no better off than those wild Indians who came to the ocean for food. Oh well, I guess that’s just the way it is.

When they reached the wooden arch, Francis picked up a stick to test the weathered timbers with a few taps. “These boards feel solid,” she reported. “Let’s cross over the road on this arch so we won’t be scratched by those barbed wire fences.”

A huge logging truck blowing black smoke suddenly rumbled down the road. As it approached the arch, Little Rico broke free from his grandmother’s grasp, ran up the ramp and peered over the edge. Frances yelled, “Rico, come back! Get away from that edge.”

Stella quickly caught up with her son and firmly shook his shoulders, yelling, “You bad boy! Don’t you ever do that again!”

When the truck roared under the arch, the ancient timbers began to vibrate. The driver blew his horn three times while Little Rico shouted with glee. Stella held him tighter, saying, “Rico it’s serious. That truck could squash you like a bug!”

Francis climbed up the arch, chuckling, “My goodness, that little rascal has enough energy for both of us!!”

“Mama, it’s not funny. He might have been killed,” Stella hotly replied, surprised with her mother’s leniency, recalling she had always been quick with the hairbrush.

When the truck disappeared around a curve, Frances pointed to the field ahead, saying, “Stella, just look at the size of those mushrooms! They look like dinner plates, but we better be careful; they could be toadstools.”

“You may be right, but I’m going to pick a couple of them anyway. I’ll ask Luigi what he thinks; Italians always know about mushrooms .”

As they crossed the field between the road and the ocean, Frances stopped by a soggy area and snapped off a green sprig, saying, “I declare, this is watercress! On the way back, I’ll gather these greens for salad while you pick those mushrooms.”

They continued to walk, stopping at the edge of the cliff to watch the waves swirling around huge boulders encrusted with mussels. Stella pointed to the rocks, asking, “Mama, are those blueish colored things good to eat?”

“French people eat them, but most of the time they’re poisonous. We better leave them alone.”

Stella looked up and down the cliff, looking for a safe trail. When she located a suitable path, they descended, slipping and sliding until they reached a narrow ledge where water gently slapped against the rocks just below their feet.

Frances unfolded their blanket, saying, “Honey, before you fish, I want to show you a couple of tricks.” She selected a hook and sinker and tied them to the line. After she baited the hook, she said, “Now I want to show you how to cast. You hold your thumb on the reel like this, but if you hold it too loosely, the line will tangle.”

“Mama, how do you know about fishing?”

Francis laughed. “You forget. I’m a pioneer woman.” She added, “I’ll keep an eye on Rico. If he fell into the ocean, we would never find him in all this seaweed.”

“How will I know if I catch something?”

“Don’t worry. You’ll know when you feel something jerking real hard.”

After Stella successfully cast her line, she stood poised, rod in hand, impatiently tapping her foot. she suddenly felt a hard tug and quickly reeled in her line, yelling, “Hey, I think I’ve got one!”

When she examined the hook, she discovered the bait was missing. After she put another gizzard on the hook, she cast again, but each time she felt a jerk, she retrieved an empty hook. “Mama, they just keep stealing my bait! It’s almost gone.”

“Don’t worry Honey. We can use those mussels if we have to,” Francis replied, and then shouted, “Oh my, Stella! Would you please come here? I think I see clams. They’re wedged on those rocks down there. I bet they got stranded when the tide went out. If you gather them up, we’ll have chowder tonight.”

Stella climbed down the slippery boulders and tossed a clam up to her mother. Francis exclaimed,” Stella, This is a live clam. Its call a co hog and they’re delicious to eat.” After Stella gathered the clams, she climbed back up to the ledge and took her turn watching Little Rico.

Frances cast the line with a mighty heave, immediately hooking a codfish. She reeled it in, saying, “This fish is a little small, but it will make a nice addition to the chowder.”

When she cast the line again, she caught a large squid. Deftly removing the hook, she said, “This catch will taste mighty good in our chowder ! We’ll eat good tonight.”

When Stella tried her luck again, the reel sang out and the rod whipped up and down. Frances yelled, “Stella, you’ve got a big one. Keep reeling it in, but if it fights too much, let it run until it gets tired.”

Stella’s back was aching when she finally yanked a four-foot shark out of the water. When it flopped on the ledge with it jaws snapping near her legs, Francis kicked the shark back into the water, yelling, “Stella, watch out!”

As the shark swam away, she said, “Shark is awfully good to eat, but that devil was going to seriously hurt you.”

“Thank you Mama, I didn’t know what to do.”

“That was a close call ,but we better pack up and get out of here. The tide is coming back.”

“Mama, I’m cold.” Little Rico complained.

She gave him a baby starfish, saying, “All right, Honey; we’ll leave just as soon as we can get our things together.”

On their way back home, Frances picked the watercress while Stella selected several large mushrooms. When they were crossing the arch, Stella saw a yellow roadster parked in their Yard and then noticed her mother’s hands were trembling. Francis remarked, “Why, I declare, we have company. I believe it’s Kyle!”

“Mama, are you all right?”

With a determined set of her jaw, she said, “Why, yes, of course. It’s about time that boy came to see us.”

As they approached the house, Francis spotted a young boy with blond hair playing in the dirt. She immediately went to him and knelt down. “Why, you must be Kyle’s little boy, Kenny. I’m your grandmother, and this is your cousin, Rico,” she said, indicating Little Rico.

After several moments, Little Rico dropped to his knees and began to play with Kenny’s truck. Kenny grabbed his truck and yelled, “That’s my truck! It’s not yours!”

Rico released the truck and held up the baby starfish, asserting, “This is mine, and I can fish.”

“Me too,” Kenny replied.

Kyle came out of the house with a bottle of beer in his hand, saying, “Hi, Ma. I thought I’d come here to give you a look at your grandson.”

Francis stood up with her hands on her hips and replied, “Well Kyle, it’s about time. This is my first chance to see this boy.”

Stella watched her brother suspiciously, trying to determine his motives. He looks just like a rat with those thin lips, that receding hair line and those thick glasses over his little pig eyes. He’s arrogant as ever; and I know He’s up to something. She asked angrily, “Kyle, just why in hell are you here?”

With his mouth twisted in a half smile, he snorted through his nostrils and sarcastically replied, “Why Baby Sister is that any way to greet your long-lost brother?”

Before she could respond, a sickly voice came from the house. “Kyle, are they here?”

Stella brushed past her brother and went into the house where she saw her sister-in-law sitting at the kitchen table drinking beer. “Oh, hello Stella. We’ve been waiting for you. There’s some more (hiccup) beer if you want some,” she said with an alcoholic slur.

Stella put the gritty sack of clams in the sink and replied, “Hello Gloria. Not right now, thanks. You certainly have a cute little boy. Kenny and Rico seem to like each other.”

“Well, I’m glad. Kenny is the reason (hic-up) that we’re here. Kyle will tell (hic-up) you about it.”

When the screen door slammed, Kyle with Francis, who was talking excitedly, entered the kitchen. She was saying, “You’re just in time for some good old homemade clam chowder. We were lucky at the beach today,

He leaned forward, gripping the door jam with his fingernails and replied, “Ma, we didn’t come here to eat all your food. We’ve got plenty groceries in the car.”

“Lands sakes! You didn’t happen to bring coffee, did you? I’ve been dying for a cup.”

He gave her a crooked smile. “We sure did. We brought a lot of things. I remember how you liked to bake bread.”

Francis immediately started a fire, but Stella left the kitchen, pointedly saying, “I’m going outside where the air is fresher.”

Outside, she stood on the porch and watched the boys crawling on their hands and knees.

“I like trucks. Do you like trucks?” Kenny was saying.

“Yes, I like big ones, and I catch butterflies,” Rico replied.

”I want to catch a butterfly,” said Kenny.

Stella was smiling at the boys who were chasing a black and orange Monarch When Kyle came out of the house. He went to his car and picked up two sacks of groceries, bringing them to Stella. “Here, Sis. These are for you.”

She crossed her arms. “Kyle, just what in hell are you up to?”

He put the groceries down and said, “Well, I’ll tell you. Gloria is real sick. She’s pregnant, but there’s something else wrong, so she can’t take very good care of Kenny. I’m going to ask Ma if he can stay here until she feels better, that is, if it’s all right with you. I can pay ten dollars for his keep.”

Stella shouted, “Kyle, you’ve always been a bastard; and now you want me to take care of your kid!”

He bristled. “What the hell are you talking about?”

“When we were little, you hung my dog in the boy’s bathroom! After Papa died, you stole Mama’s house and made her homeless. Then, you bought that goddamn car with her money. You should be ashamed!”

He yelled, “Hell that was a part of my legacy. I’d have a lot more money if it weren’t for our father’s stupidity!”

“Kyle, you’re just a goddamn thief, but that’s not Kenny’s fault. We can discuss him after dinner. Luigi’s truck is coming up our road, and I need to talk to him about something.”

When Stella showed the mushrooms to the farmer, he beamed a gap-toothed grin, saying, “Yes, those are a good a mushrooms. They grow in cow flop. You cook a them in the butter I justa bring.”

That night, after dinner of clam chowder and garlic bread, Rico tugged his grandmother’s skirt, saying, “Grandma, tell us a story.”

She lowered herself into the lopsided chair and said, “Well, all right. Come over here and sit on my lap. I’ll tell you a story, but then you boys have to go to bed.”

They eagerly crawled on her lap, each perched on an ample thigh ready to listen. Stella sat on the floor with her chin on her knees while Kyle and Gloria sat on the sofa, drinking beer. Francis took a sip of coffee and began, “When I was a little girl, I came to Oregon with my family in a covered wagon. It took a long time, and it was very dangerous. Once, we were attacked by Indians, but the men drove them away with their rifles. One day my sister and I were picking wild blackberries when this big bear on the other side of the creek saw us. We were real scared when he chased us all the way back to our wagon, but when he saw my father with a gun, he ran away real fast.”

Kenny pulled her sleeve. “Grandma, where’s Goldilocks?”

She lifted them from her lap, saying, “She wasn’t in this story, Honey. Now it’s time for you boys to go to bed.”

After she tucked them in bed with Stella’s help, she returned to her chair, but she started to wheeze. “I better take my medicine,” she said, getting up and removing a red box from the cabinet.

When she rolled a small marijuana cigarette and lit it up, Kyle laughed.” Hey, Ma, that stuff smells like burning rope.”

She replied, “You can Laugh if you want to, but it helps my asthma.”

Kyle cleared his throat. “Ma, I was talking to Stella earlier about Kenny. Gloria here is real sick. She’s pregnant, but the doctors think something else is wrong, so she can’t take care of Kenny very good. I was wondering if we could leave him here for a couple of months until Gloria gets feeling better. I’ll be able to pay you something for his keep.”

Francis gave Stella a helpless look, saying, “Honey It’s your home too. What do you think?”

Stella thoughtfully rubbed the side of her face and then replied, “Well, Kyle, you’ve done a lot of rotten things, especially against Mama, but that’s not Kenny’s fault. Rico needs another child to play with, so if you apologize to Mama, I’ll help her take care of your kid.”

He bristled, “Hell, I haven’t done anything wrong! But if you insist, I’ll apologize, damn it. Ma, I apologize!”

She returned her red box to the cupboard, replying, “All right then. It’s settled. What’s done is done. You can leave him here with us.”

“Bless you, both of you,” Gloria said, wiping her face with a soggy handkerchief.

The next day after breakfast, Kyle handed Stella a ten dollar bill, saying, “Here, Sis, this is for Kenny’s keep. I’ll try to get up next month.”

Stella put the money in her shirt pocket and replied, “Thank you Kyle. We’ll need it for food.”

He turned to Francis. “By the way, Ma, I got a letter from James. He’s been living in Venezuela with a new wife. Her name is Florence. He said they will try to come back to live in Petaluma in several months. Here’s his address,” he said and handed her a dog-eared postcard.

“What? You heard from James? I was afraid he had disappeared forever!”

He snorted through his nose and replied, “James always was a slippery bastard, running off to China and God knows what! Come on Gloria I need to get back to San Francisco.”

When they began to get in their car, Kenny struggled to get down from his grandmother’s arms, crying, “Mama! I want my Mama!”

Gloria kissed his cheek, saying, “Honey, Mama will be back. I promise.”

As Kyle fired up his battered roadster, Frances held her grandson tighter, saying, “Kenny, your Mama will be back soon, but you and Rico can play together.”

AS he struggled, screaming for his mother, Rico tapped his shoe and asked, “Do you want to see my feathers? They’re under my bed.”

Kenny sniffled as he watched his parents roar away in the yellow roadster; and then he said, “I want a feather.”

“Then come with me, I’ve got a big bunch of them!”

As they ran together to the house, Frances looked at the postcard with colorful stamps, gazing wistfully into the distance.

“Mama, what are you thinking about?”

“Oh nothing; just remembering when my boys were babies.”

Stella suddenly had a disturbing thought. Oh Jesus; what have I done? That rat has weaseled back into my life!

On the following morning, Stella and Frances were drinking coffee on the porch while the boys played in the dirt.

Frances shaded her eyes against the morning sun in order to see a black car turning on their road. After an Auburn coupe parked in their Yard, a bald, middle age man wearing a tight fitting suit stiffly got out of the car, announcing, “Harrumph, I’m Mr. Hammond. I’m from the bank, and I’m looking for Mrs. Schultz and Mrs. Ferrari. Are you the said parties?”

Frances studied the pink-faced stranger rigidly standing at attention for a moment and replied, “Yes, we are the said parties. How can we help you, Mr. Hammond?”

“I’m here to inform you that you are squatting on private property. The bank owns this land, and you have no right to be here. You must pay rent or vacate the premises. If you fail to comply, I will be obliged to have the sheriff remove you.”

“Oh dear, how much is the rent?”

“It’s $25 a month.”

Stella stepped forward with her eyes blazing and shouted, “Twenty-five dollars a month for this dump? You must be kidding. If it weren’t for us, this lousy shack would fall down in a heap!”

The banker brushed imaginary lint from his lapel and replied, “Now, ladies, this ranch has 300 acres. You could make this place a viable business by running sheep or cattle.”

“That’s a ridiculous idea. Where would we get the money to buy livestock? We don’t have that kind of money, and we don’t have $25 either. You’re lucky we’re here to take care of this crummy place.”

Mr. Hammond pursed his lips. “Well, how much could you afford?”

Stella showed him the $10 bill, saying, “This is all the money we have. My brother just gave it to us for food.”

The banker scribbled in his folder, saying, “I see. I understand your situation. The bank desires to maintain good relations with its neighbors, so as a special favor, I will lower the rent to $10 per month.”

Stella closed her fist over the money, replying, “Mr. Hammond, it’s not worth $10, and I need at least $5 to buy food for the children. I can pay $5 and that’s all.”

The bland smile disappeared from the banker’s face. “Now, Mrs. Ferrari, be reasonable. Ten dollars a month for this spread is a bargain. The bank couldn’t go any lower.”

She turned her back and walked away, saying, “Five dollars is all we can afford. Take it or leave it.”

He ran after her, saying, “Now, wait a minute. There’s no use in getting all huffy. I’ll accept the $5, but you must understand if someone else can pay more, I will have to evict you.”

Frances let out her breath. “We accept your terms, Mr. Hammond. Stella, give him the money, but we want a receipt.”

“Very good, very good,” he said, writing in a folder. “Now, here’s your receipt for $5 rent. And I’ll give you another receipt for the $5 cleaning deposit.”

Stella’s stared in disbelief. “Mr. Hammond, we spent days cleaning this house. There will be no cleaning deposit,” she shouted.

“All right, all right,” he irritably replied. “Here is your five dollars change. I suggest you get off your butts and get a job. Good day ladies.”

As he drove away, Stella burst out laughing. “Mama, what do you think of our new landlord?”

She chuckled. “Well, he’s a banker, isn’t he? They’re all like that. I think there’s something about being around money that makes them greedy. Or maybe they’re just born like that and naturally gravitate to banking.”

Becoming serious, Stella replied, “Mama, you’re right, but he taught me a valuable lesson. As long as we depend on men, our survival will be at their whim. Tomorrow I’m going to apply for a job at Mueller’s resort. I’ll even work for free for food. If I get a job, could you take care of the boys?”

Frances looked concerned. “Yes, of course, I’ll take care of them, but I hear the Mueller’s are slave drivers.”

Chapter 9

 

Stella began the walk to Jenner-by-the-Sea the next morning, keeping warm in her mother’s wool coat. As she approached River’s End, she stopped to catch her breath and noticed a seedy beer joint overlooking the ocean and a few weathered shanties clinging to the hillside. When she looked down, she saw the river colliding with incoming waves and piles of broken driftwood tangled with dead seaweed littering the beach. She bitterly thought that mess down there is like my marriage—a shipwreck. She thrust her fists into her pockets and continued to walk.

When she arrived at Mueller’s resort, she saw red and yellow umbrellas fluttering on the veranda and a faded blue sign on the roof. “Mueller’s Resort. Fishermen’s Headquarters, Cabins, Restaurant, Groceries.”

She smoothed her hair and stood erect, braced for a disappointment, and then she saw a hand-written Help wanted sign in the window. Maybe my luck is going to change for the better, she hopefully thought. She took a deep breath and pushed the door open, causing a little bell to jingle. A large bald man with big yellow teeth stood behind the counter, looking her up and down. In a honey-sweet voice he asked, “What can I do you for, young lady?”

She held her mother’s coat to her throat and replied, “I’m looking for Mr. Mueller.”

The man stepped down from a platform behind the counter, saying, “You’re looking at him, Sweetheart. Are you applying for work?”

His diminutive stature surprised her, but she step forward, saying, “Why, yes. Yes, I am.”

“Well, Sweetheart, if it were up to me, I’d hire you on the spot, but my wife takes care of those details. She’ll be back soon. Why don’t you come into the restaurant, and I’ll get you a cup of coffee? There’s no harm in being friendly, is there?” he asked with his belly nudging her.

She wanted to run, but forced herself to smile. “Well, I guess a hot cup of coffee would help to warm me up.”

She followed him into the adjoining restaurant and sat at the booth he indicated. “Just make yourself comfortable, Honey. I’ll be back in a second,” he said, leering at her legs.

When he returned with the coffee, he sat down next to her with his knee pressed against her thigh. “Say, aren’t you living in the old Rule Ranch? I’ve been hearing about you.”

She moved her leg away, replying, “Yes, I am. Thanks for telling my mother about that place. I noticed the sign outside. Can you tell me about the job?”

When the back door slammed, He suddenly jumped up and spilled coffee down his shirt. With a knowing wink, he whispered, “That’s my wife; I’ll go tell her you’re here, but we can get together later.”

A tall, horse-faced woman with her hair tied in a severe bun came to the booth and sternly said, “I’m Mrs. Mueller. I understand you’re looking for work.”

Stella slid to the end of the bench and stood up. “Yes, Ma’am. My name is Stella Ferrari. I noticed your Help Wanted sign in the window.”

“Well, I must say, your timing is good. I just placed that notice this morning. I had to fire a girl last night. She wanted to sit down every three or four hours and rest. I can’t afford to pay someone for just sitting around doing nothing. I expect a full day’s work for a full day’s pay. Do you think you could give me an honest day’s labor?”

Stella cleared her throat. “Yes, Ma’am, I believe I could. I’m young, healthy, and willing to work.”

A hint of a smile appeared on Mrs. Mueller’s face. “Well, I’m glad to hear that. What experience have you had?”

“I was a cook for the crew on one of Mr. Carlini’s dairies. I prepared the food and served the workers.”

“That’s good. Working in the kitchen and waiting on our customers are two of the duties. In addition, you would clean the cabins every day and look after the store for several hours during the afternoons. I’ll show you how to run the register. Of course, there’s always sweeping, cleaning, and scrubbing. The hours are seven in the morning to seven at night. There’s a 15-minute lunch break. The soup is free, but all tips must be turned over to me. The pay is $1 a day. If those terms are acceptable, I’m willing to give you a try.”

“What would my days off be?”

Hard lines erased the thin smile from Mrs. Mueller’s face. “You get Thursdays off. Look, if you don’t want the job, there are plenty others who do.”

“I want the job. When do I start?”

Mrs. Mueller held her elbow, tapping the corner of her mouth. “You begin right now. I’ll show you what needs to be done, but of course, I can’t pay you for today. This is just a training period, you understand. If your performance meets my standards, you may start tomorrow on a regular basis.”

With a knot in her stomach Stella replied, “Yes, Ma’am, I understand.”

“Good. Come with me and I’ll get you started.”

That evening Stella glanced wearily at the clock and rubbed the small of her back, feeling exhausted from scrubbing greasy pots and pans, Good, It’s closing time! She thought and went to lock the door, but a large man entered the restaurant and took a seat.

Mrs. Mueller smiled and nodded, indicating they would serve the late customer.

Stella quickly gave a menu to a weathered-looking man. “Good evening sir. What would you like tonight?”

He looked at her with sad blue eyes and replied, “I’ll take a cup of coffee and the usual. You’re new here, aren’t you? My name is John. I eat here all the time. What’s your name?”

“My name is Stella,” she answered. Under her breath, she whispered, “Mrs. Mueller doesn’t want me visiting with customers.”

When she finally finished her shift, she exchanged her apron for her coat. “Mrs. Mueller, should I come back tomorrow?” she anxiously asked.

The businesswoman gave her a small smile. “Yes, Stella, your work was satisfactory, but I expect you to improve. I’ll see you tomorrow, and don’t be late!”

When Stella began her long walk back to her house, she thought about her family, putting all thoughts of John and his sad blue eyes aside, wanting the warmth of her mother’s smile and the security of home. I wonder how Mama made out with the kids. She thought, walking past River’s End. The yellow lights spilling across the highway and the honky-tonk music coming from the cliff side saloon caught her attention. A cold beer sure would taste good, but no money, no beer, she thought, thrusting her hands deeper into her empty pockets. She continued her solitary journey, accompanied with a distant foghorn plaintively mourning.

Breathing heavily, she finally trudged up their rutted road, but when she saw a candle glowing in the mist, she ran the rest of the way home and threw the door opened. Rico ran to her, shouting, “Mama’s here! Mama’s here!”

She picked him up and gave him a squeeze, but Kenny shyly stood back. She knelt down, saying, “Hello Kenny, would you give me a hug too?”

When he threw his arms around her neck, she picked him up and staggered to the sofa where she sat down with both boys on her lap. Laughing, she said, “Mama, it’s so good to be home!”

Frances pushed up from her chair with a grunt and asked, “Hello Honey. Did you get the job?”

“Yes, I was hired at Mueller’s Resort.”

“How much are those cheapskates paying you?

Stella shook her head from side to side. “They pay me a dollar a day for 12 hours. My day off is Thursday.”

Frances clicked her tongue. “That’s mighty low wages. Maybe you shouldn’t work for them.”

“I’m willing to give it a try, but we can talk about it later.”

After Stella put the children to bed and kissed them good night, she asked, “Mama, what are you cooking? Something smells awfully good.”

“It’s cottontail stew; I got lucky with the shotgun so sit down and eat your fill.”

“Thanks, I’m starved, but I didn’t know you knew how to use that gun.”

Francis chuckled. “Well, there’s a lot about me you don’t know. Don’t forget, I’m a pioneer woman. Eat your dinner, and I’ll get your bath ready.”

While her mother filled a galvanized tub with hot water heated on the back of the stove, Stella quickly undressed. As she soaked in the sudsy water, she said, “Mama, this is pure heaven! Thank you so much.”

After her bath, she dressed in her mother’s old robe and sprawled on the sofa with a cup of coffee.

Francis settled in the over-stuffed chair, asking, “Well honey, how did the Mueller’s treat you?”

“He’s a dirty old man, and she’s a greedy old battle axe, but other than that, they’re quite lovely.

“What are your duties?”

“I mostly clean the cabins, the store and the kitchen, but I hate scrubbing the pots and pans. During meal times I wait on customers, and in the afternoon I run the store. That’s enough about that stuff for now. How did you manage with the boys?”

Frances sighed. “Those little dickens about wore me out with their games. ‘Spit on the truck’ was a duzy. I caught them on top of that old arch trying to spit on passing trucks.”

“Those little devils could be killed. What did you do?”

I gave them a good spanking with the hairbrush, and then I discovered them in a little nest they had burrowed in that stand of wild dill. They were giggling, so I peeked in and saw them poking little straws in their thingies. They were chanting, ‘putt-putt motors, putt-putt motors.’ I didn’t know what to do, so I decided to wait and tell you.”

Stella banged her cup on the floor. “Those nasty little boys. If I ever catch them doing that, I’ll give them a real good spanking.”

Chapter 10

 

The next morning rain was threatening with thunder booming in the distance. As Stella hiked to work with her head tucked against the moisture-laden wind, she heard an orange State truck approaching. As it passed, the driver waved and blew his horn twice. She returned the wave, thinking, that man looks like the man from the restaurant with sad blue eyes. I wonder if I’ll see him tonight.

She arrived at Mueller’s Resort just before a gentle rain began. She hung up her mother’s wool coat, found the mop and began to scrub the kitchen floor. The tiny cracks in her knuckles stung each time she wrung the mop, but she ignored the pain. Her mood turned dark thinking about her estranged husband. Rico has made no effort to find me, but I don’t care. That marriage all most crushed my spirit.

She put Rico out of her mind and thought about John. What a surprise to see him this morning. I wonder why he looks so sad. He’s interesting, but much too old, at least forty.

 

That evening, Stella Glanced at the clock and felt vaguely disappointed. She tucked a loose strand of hair behind her ear, thinking, I guess he won’t be coming in tonight. Mrs. Mueller came into the dining room and clucked her tongue, saying, “Stella, it’s almost closing time. You better gather up those menus.”

With a blast of cold air coming from an open door, John entered the dining room and took his usual seat.

Stella went to his table, smiled and said, “Hello John. You were almost too late for dinner.”

“Oh, hi Stella, we were held up by a mud slide.”

 

“Well, I’m glad you got here in time. Tonight we have eggs over hash. It’s Mr. Mueller’s specialty. Would you like to give it a try?”

“What? Okay, I’ll take it and a cup of coffee.”

She hurried back to the kitchen and gave the order to Mr. Mueller who was cooking behind the grill. He leered lecherously, saying, “Hey, Stella, it looks like John has you all excited.”

She ignored the insinuation, grabbed the order and returned to John’s table. “Enjoy your dinner. It’s nice and hot,” she said, noticing the absence of a wedding ring.

He rubbed his nose with his fist, saying, “I was surprised to see you this morning. Do you live down that way?”

“Yes, I live at the old Rule Ranch.”

He gave her a small smile, revealing brown teeth, saying, “You know, it’s raining pretty hard. I would be happy to give you a lift if you don’t have a ride.”

“Oh, no, John, you don’t have to do that. It’s not that far,” she protested.

“I wouldn’t mind. You would get soaked if you tried to walk.”

She noticed Mrs. Mueller was giving her a disapproving look and then decided to accept his offer. “All right John. I’ll meet you outside as soon as I’m off work.”

John was waiting for her by an old car when she came out of the restaurant. He held the car door open, yelling, “Hi Stella;” Let’s get out of this rain before we’re soaked. “

After she scrambled into his ancient Hudson, she patted her wet hair down and said, “Hello John; It’s raining harder than I thought, but you finished eating in a hurry. I hope you enjoyed Mr. Mueller’s specialty.”

He turned on the ignition and replied, “I wasn’t that hunger. Now, where do you live?”

“I live five miles down this road by the old wooden arch. Do you know where that is?”

“Yes, I know exactly where that is,” he replied and turned his car around. While they rode with rain beating on the roof, he began to whistle a tuneless melody, occasionally squeezing his lower lip, but not saying anything.

Stella became apprehensive and found the door handle, thinking, what have I gotten into? He could be dangerous, but if he tries anything funny, I’ll jump right out of this car.

Soon he turned off the highway and began to negotiate the muddy road up to her house. She sat back in the seat, laughing at herself. Hell, I was being ridiculous! He isn’t dangerous after all.

When he parked the car, she quickly opened the door, saying, “John thanks very much for the ride.”

He spoke in a rush.” Stella, there’s a dance Saturday night at the Pink Elephant in Monte Rio. Would you like to go?”

She sat back in the seat and pulled the door shut, thinking, what the heck! I haven’t done something just for the fun of it in such a long time.” “Okay John, I’ll go, but I don’t get off work until seven.”

He patted her hand. “Don’t worry; I’ll pick you up at work and bring you home so you can get ready.”

She swallowed.” Alright. I’ll see you, and thanks again for the ride.”

As she sprinted across the rain-splattered Yard, she thought, oh God, I haven’t anything decent to wear. I hope Mama can make me something worth wearing.

On the following Saturday night, John picked her up after her work and brought her home as he had promised.

While she was rushing to get dressed, she shouted, “Goddamn it! God damn it!”

Frances looked up from her ironing and asked, “What’s wrong dear?”

“Oh, nothing. So far I’ve managed to scorch my hair; nicked my knee and now I just smeared my fingernail polish.”

Her mother chuckled. “Honey, don’t rush, you have plenty of time. I’ve just finished ironing your dress.”

After Stella pulled on the silky green and gold dress made by her mother, she spun around in a circle, asking, “Well, how do I look?”

Frances examined the dress critically, nodded and said, “It fits just fine. You look good in those colors.”

“Mama, you amaze me how you can just look at a picture and make it on your old Singer. Thank you so much, you made a beautiful dress out of that old rayon gown.”

Little Rico and Kenny came into the bedroom, watching her put on lipstick. “Where are you going, Mama?” Rico asked.

She blotted her mouth and replied, “I’m going to a dance.”

“I want to go!”

She sprayed her mother’s lavender cologne behind her ears and dabbed each boy on his nose, saying, “I’m sorry, Rico, you can’t go and neither can Kenny. It’s not for three-year old boys. It’s just for grownups.”

He danced on his toes, screaming, “I want to go! I want to go!”

Frances picked him up, saying sternly, “Rico, stop screaming this minute. Both you boys come with me, and I’ll tell you a story. Honey, I’ve laid out my white shawl for you.”

, “Thank you Mama, I’m almost ready,” she said as she brushed the loose powder from her bodice and attached her mother’s golden earrings.

When she heard the clatter of John’s old car, she looked at the mirror and gave herself a conspiratorial winked.

John was wearing a dark blue suit with his hat in his hand when she opened the door. “Why John, you look handsome!” she said enthusiastically. “Come in and meet my family.”

When he stepped into the living room, Rico and Kenny slid off their grandmother’s lap, suspiciously observing the stranger. “His eyes look funny, his big ears and black hair slicked back scare me, Rico nervously thought.

“John, I would like you to meet my mother, Mrs. Francis Schultz. Mama, this is John.”

Francis smiled, saying, “It’s nice to meet you, but I don’t believe I caught your last name?”

Stella covered her mouth.” Oh, I’m sorry John. I guess I don’t know your last name.”

He awkwardly shuffled his feet and replied, “My name is John Nelson. It’s nice to meet you, Ma’am.”

Without warning, Rico and Kenny took out their penises and peed on his shoe. John suddenly felt a warm stream on his foot and began to jump up and down on one foot while shaking the other, yelling, “Goddamn it! Goddamn it! What the shit?”

“Both boys shot through the door and jumped off the porch, shouting, “Putt-putt motors, putt-putt motors.”.

Francis grabbed the hairbrush and ran after them, yelling, “You little devils! Now you’re going to get it!”

Stella tried not to giggle, but the harder she tried, the more she laughed. Finally she was able to say, “I’m sorry John. I don’t know what got into those boys. They’ve never done anything like that before.”

He vigorously wiped his shoe with his handkerchief, struggling to regain his composure and finally said, “Those boys definitely need a firm hand. Look Stella, I apologize for my language. I hope I didn’t offend your mother.”

“Don’t worry John. She’s heard much worse. I’ll get you a rag for your shoe and then we can go.”

When they were underway, John remained silent, whistling an unrecognizable tune, butt Stella still felt humiliated over the boy’s behavior, thinking, those little brats had to pull a stunt like that on my first date. Oh hell, I can’t do anything now so I might as well forget it.

After an uncomfortable trip to Monte Rio, John parked by a saloon where Stella saw a sign shaped like a large pink elephant holding a cocktail in its trunk. When she heard lively music coming from the interior, she exclaimed, “Oh John, they’ve started already! Let’s go. I can hardly keep my feet still!”

The saloon was clouded with noisy laughter, music and people yelling at each other. When they began to dance a fox trot, John took the lead, weaving her through other dancers. “John it’s been so long since I’ve danced, but you’re easy to follow,” she said, Feeling desirable in her silky dress.

He held her closer, replying, “That’s the same with me. I haven’t danced in years.”

When the dance was over, he found a corner table, but conversation was difficult with all the shouting, laughter and scraping of chairs so He leaned closer, and yelled, “I’m going to order a whiskey sour. What would you like?”

The noise level abruptly dropped when the band began to play a slow waltz. “I’ve never ordered a cocktail before. What do you suggest?” she asked.

“Well, my wife, uh, I mean the person who used to be my wife liked Pink Ladies.”

“Are you divorced?”

He looked away, fumbling for a cigarette, and the he quietly replied, “No, I’m not. She died six months ago.”

Stella covered his hand with hers. “John I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to pry, “she said, suddenly realizing why his eyes look so sad.

“You’re not prying Stella. I’m just getting used to the idea she’s gone,” he said; and then he signaled to a white-coated waiter who flashed a cardboard smile.

“Yes, folks, what would you like tonight?”

“I’ll have a whiskey sour, and she’ll have a Pink Lady.”

When the waiter left, Stella asked, “John, what was your wife’s name?”

“Her name was Sylvia.”

“Do you have children?”

“No. Sylvia was a professional artist. She thought kids would interfere with her career, but that’s enough about me. How about you? Are you divorced?”

“Well, yes and no. Technically I’m still married, but in my mind I feel divorced.”

When the waiter arrived with their drinks, Stella tasted her cocktail, exclaiming, “John, I love this drink. It tastes like lemonade!”

He offered her a cigarette that she accepted. As she sipped her cocktail and smoked her cigarette, she felt rather sophisticated. John leaned forward and asked, “Stella would you like to dance again?”

“I’d love to!”

He led her to the dance floor and took her in his arms, saying huskily, “Stella, I like how you feel.”

She placed her face on his shoulder, replying, “Thank you John. I’m enjoying being with you.”

When they were back at their table, John ordered another round of drinks. Sipping her second cocktail, Stella asked, “John, what kind of work do you do?”

He leaned back in his chair and replied, “Well, I’ve done a lot of things. Now I work for the State highway, but before, I was a lumberjack and then a cowboy. I went into the Navy when I was only seventeen. If I had stayed in the service, I would be collecting a twenty year pension this year, but I got out after the war.”

She made a quick calculation, thinking, oh, he must be 37, younger than I thought.

Later that night, the waiter announced the bar would be closing in ten minutes. Stella exclaimed, “Oh my God John, how did it get so late so fast? I have to be at work tomorrow at seven. I’m going to be dead!”

He got up, saying, “I’ll pay the bill now and then I’ll get you home as soon as possible. I’ll even pick you up in the morning so you won’t have to walk.”

After he quickly helped her with her shawl, they left the saloon and he drove her home. When he parked, Stella pointed to her house, dying, “Oh look, Mama left a candle burning in the window. She must be worried. John, I’ve had a wonderful time tonight, but I really need to go in and get some sleep.”

“Stella, wait for a second. I’ve got something to say.”

She anxiously gripped her purse, replying, “John, what is it?”

“I’m going to marry you!”

She laughed nervously. “Oh, John, you’re drunk. You don’t even know me. It’s just the liquor talking.”

He slammed the steering wheel with his fist, yelling, “No, I mean it! By God, a man tells the truth when he’s drunk.”

He leaned over to give her a kiss, but she turned her face away, saying, “John, it’s been fun tonight, and I think you’re a real nice man, but I’m not ready for anything serious.”

He sat upright. “I meant what I said, Stella. I’m going to marry you.”

“Oh, John, you’re just drunk. Goodbye now,” she said and quickly got out of the car.

He started the engine, yelling as he drove away, “Good night, Stella. I’ll see you in the morning. Remember, I’m going to marry you!”

When she entered the house, she saw her mother sprawled over the overstuffed chair, half asleep. “Oh, Mama, you waited up for me. You didn’t have to do that.”

Frances yawned and rubbed her eyes, saying, “Oh, hello Dear. Well, you know how mothers are. I wanted to make sure you’re all right. Did you have a good time?”

Stella removed her mother’s shawl, replying, “I had a swell time. I danced and danced, and I drank Pink Ladies. I think they made me a little tipsy, but John acted like a gentleman. He told me he was going to marry me.”

Frances sat bolt upright. “My stars, what did you say? Marry you? What did you tell him?”

Stella laughed. “Calm down Mama. I told him he was drunk. And besides, he’s on the wrong side of 35.”

Chapter 11

 

Stella’s old shoes wore out after walking back and forth to work and being on her feet for 12 hours a day. While she was getting ready for work at the end of her third week at Mueller’s, she hooked her finger through a hole in her shoe and held it up, saying, “Mama, just look at this shoe. I’ve tried to path it with cardboard, but cardboard doesn’t last very long in the rain.”

Her mother frowned.“Oh goodness, both you and the boys need new shoes. The ones they have are too small.”

“You’re right, but we don’t have any money and old lady Mueller won’t pay me until the end of the month. She said they pay once a month to reduce costs, but I think she just wants to squeeze every nickel as long as possible.”

“Maybe you could ask for an advance.”

Stella fitted a patch into her shoe and pulled it on with a yank, replying, “That’s exactly what I intend to do! While the old skinflint is away this morning, I’m going to ask Mr. Mueller for an advance. John said we could borrow his car if we need it for shopping.”

Frances refilled their cups and asked, “What about John? You haven’t mentioned him lately.”

Stella took a sip of coffee and flicked her fingers, replying, “He comes into the restaurant all most every night. He’s friendly enough, and he wants to take me out again, but that stuff about marriage scares me.”

Frances pushed a stick of wood into the stove, replying, “I can’t blame you for being cautious.”

Stella reached behind the door for her coat. “I better get going. I’ll see you tonight.”

When she arrived At Mueller’s resort, she found her employer on his knees, restocking shelves. She held up her foot, saying, “Mr. Mueller, just take a look at this shoe! I need an advance so I can buy a new pair.”

He got up and brushed the dust from his pants. “How much do you need Sweetheart?”

Oh good, the old fool is going to pay me, she thought. “I need $15 from my wages. Tomorrow is my day off. If I had the money, I could go to Sebastopol to get a decent pair.”

He furtively looked over his shoulder and removed three five dollar bills from his wallet. “Here, consider this loan to be a personal favor, Sweetheart. Just don’t tell my wife. By the way, how will you get to Sebastopol?”

“John Nelson said I could borrow his car.”

When she reached for the money, he grabbed her hand, saying, “You know, John isn’t the only man around here. It wouldn’t hurt to show me a little appreciation.”

She yanked her hand free, indignantly saying, “Mr. Mueller, I don’t know what you’re talking about. John and I are just friends.”

He caressed her arm. “Come on, Honey. You know what I’m talking about.”

The back door slammed. He immediately dropped to his knees and began to stock the shelves, whispering, “Oh damn, she’s back already. We can talk later, but don’t tell her about the money.”

That night, John took his usual table. Stella handed him a menu, saying, “Hello John, what’s wrong with your face?”

He touched his swollen jaw and replied, “Hi, Stella, I’ve got a toothache. I guess I’ll just take a bowl of soup.”

“Ouch! I know how that hurts,” she said, touching her own cavities with the tip of her tongue. “Sometimes sucking on a clove helps.”

When she returned from the kitchen with his soup, she handed him a clove, saying, “Here John, this might help you.” Under her breath, she whispered, “Mr. Mueller advanced me the money to buy new shoes, but he doesn’t want his wife to know. If your offer is still good, I would like to borrow your car tomorrow.”

He dropped a key in her apron pocket, saying, “Here you go, Stella, you can take the car tonight.”

“Thank you John, I appreciate your generosity.”

He rubbed his swollen face, replying, “Look Stella, it makes me feel good to help you. You can ask me for anything.”

On the following morning, Stella was preparing for the trip, but Rico dawdled over breakfast. When he Climbed down from his chair and asked, “Mama is Kenny getting new shoes like me?” she put him back in his chair, replying, “Yes, both you kids will get new shoes, but only if you eat your oatmeal!”

After they finished their breakfast, she put the boys in the back seat and joined her mother in the front. she began the trip slowly at first, driving through dense fog, but a few miles inland, she came into sunshine, blue skies and green meadows. She sped up, exclaiming, “Mama, just look at this beautiful day! What a difference a few miles make. All that fog back there gets me down.”

Francis unbuttoned her coat and fanned her face, replying, “Lord, yes, Honey. It feels good to be warm again.”

“By the way Mama, did you bring the shopping list?”

Francis opened her purse and removed a list, but she let it flutter to her lap, biting her lip and pressing her hand to her heart.

“Mama, what’s wrong?”

Frances took several deep breaths and replied, “Oh, nothing. It’s just a little pain now and then. It’s nothing to worry about. All this sunshine will fix me up just fine.”

When they arrived at Sebastopol, Stella had to wait for a freight train moving slowly down the center of Main Street.

Rico held his nose. “Mama, this train stinks!”

She laughed, saying, Rico, this train is loaded with rotten apples. They’re going to be use for vinegar.”

When the train finally cleared the intersection, two hobos riding on the top of the caboose gaily waved at them. Kenny waved back excitedly, but Rico didn’t see them.

Stella put the car in gear and continued to drive until she arrived at Gallon Camps Shoes. After she parked, she carefully studied the rows of shoes displayed in the window, saying, “Mama, I like those brown and white oxfords for the boys and those black pumps with sturdy soles for myself.”

Well, those pumps are practical, but are you sure you want to buy something white for the boys? They would have them dirty all the time.”

“Oh Mama, you worry too much. Let’s get you a new pair of slippers. Your old ones are worn out.”

Francis held up her hand. “No, dear, my old ones are good enough. Let’s not waste the money.”

“Darn it Mama, you never want anything for yourself.”

When they entered the store, Stella tried on the black pumps and wiggled her toes, saying, “Mama, these feel comfortable. I think I’m going to take them.”

After the clerk fitted the boys with new shoes, Stella noticed her mother’s scowl of disapproval, but she bought the shoes anyway. When both boys were wearing their brown and white saddle oxfords with button latches, they marched up and down the aisles, proudly chanting, “We’ve got new shoes! We’ve got new shoes!”

Stella paid for the shoes and said to her mother, “Now we’re ready to buy groceries. I prefer Purity Stores over Safeway.”

After Stella finished her shopping, she counted her money, saying, “Mama, we still have a dollar and a half left. Let’s go to the Creamery and treat ourselves to chocolate milkshakes.”

Frances wiped the perspiration from her face and replied, “Well, all right. I guess we could afford a little treat.”

When they were at the creamery, Stella noticed the ice-cream chairs with hearts designed in the wrought iron backs, recalling when she and Rico used to share chocolate malts. As she savored her milkshake, she inexplicitly yearned for the gentle touch of a man, but she immediately dismissed any romantic thoughts about Rico. Remembering John, she thought, I know he’s different, but he’s been so sweet. I guess it wouldn’t hurt to treat him a little nicer.

On their way back home, the children fell asleep. Francis was softly snoring, but Stella was wide awake, ready for fun. Francis suddenly jerked awake, saying, “Oh, I guess I drifted off to sleep.”

Stella laughed. “Yes, you’ve slept most of the way home. After I unpack the groceries, I have to return the car to John. If you wouldn’t mind looking after the boys, I would like to have a beer with him.”

Francis sat up and rubbed her left arm, saying, “Sure, Honey, It’s your day off, but I thought you weren’t going out with him anymore.”

“I know I said that, but He’s just done us a big favor by letting us use his car. Besides, I would like to go somewhere for a drink and relax.”

“Well, I guess you know what you’re doing. I’ll feed the boys and put them to bed. I’m going to turn in early myself. I’m feeling a little pooped.”

Stella quickly unpacked the car and drove to Jenner-By-The-Sea where John was waiting impatiently. She honked, waved and called, “Hey stranger, do you want a ride?”

He picked up his lunch pail and quickly walked over to the car, saying, “Hi, Stella. Did you get your new shoes?”

As he climbed into the car, she smelled the tar splattered on his trousers. Playfully tapping his knee, she held up her shoe and replied, “Look, I’m wearing them. Would you like to go for a drink somewhere?”

He smiled. “You bet; if you don’t mind waiting while I change my clothes. My cabin is real close; just up that road.”

After Stella drove up a narrow lane, she parked by a one room cabin. When John unlocked the door and let her in, she exclaimed, “Why John! Your place is spotless. The bed is made, the dishes are washed and your clothes are neatly hung. Most men make messes and expect a woman to clean up after them. I’m glad you’re not a slob!”

He chuckled. “If nothing else, the Navy taught me how to take care of my things. I’m going to take a quick shower. Would you like a beer while you wait?”

“Sure. Why not? It’s my day off.”

As she drank her beer, she could hear the hot water drumming on John’s naked body. Putting the empty bottle aside, she thought, I better think of something else before I get in trouble.

John presently returned in a cloud of steam, wearing blue slacks and a checkered shirt but barefooted. “Oh John, what happened to your poor foot,” she cried, staring at his mangled foot.

He quickly pulled a soc over the damaged foot and replied, ”When I was a kid, a horse stepped on my foot, but the old quack doctor didn’t set the bones right. He just put a wire cage around my foot, and the bones grew together all messed up.”

“Doesn’t it hurt?” she asked, thinking of her own aching feet?”

“No, I’m used to it. How would you like to go to Dunkin’s Mills for dinner? They’ve got great salmon.”

Suddenly feeling adventuresome, she replied, “That sounds fun. I’d love to go!”

They drank a second beer and began their trip. When they were approaching Dunkin’s Mill, Stella noticed several burned-out houses overgrown with weeds. “John, this place looks like it nearly burned down,” she said motioning to blacken ruins.

“You’re right, but the restaurant was spared,” he said and pointed at a run-down Victorian hotel.

Stella read the sign on the old building. “Dunkin Mills Grand Hotel, since 1856.”

“Yep, that’s the place all right,” he said, slowing down the car.

After they entered the quaint hotel, they sat at an old fashion bar with faded photographs of ladies dressed in long gowns and men wearing high-collared shirts reflected in the back mirror.

An elderly bartender wearing a mutton-chop hairstyle greeted them, saying, “Howdy, folks. What would you like tonight?”

“She’ll have a pink lady and I’ll have a whisky sour,” John replied and offered Stella a cigarette.

When the bartender returned with their drinks, he launch into a patent spiel. “Yes sir, this used to be some place all right. A long time ago, this town have hundreds of vacationers who rode the narrow-gauge trains all the way from San Francisco, but after the ’24 fire, the rail service was discontinued and the town went to hell.”

After they finished their drinks, they went in to an empty dining room, formerly the grand ballroom. They sat down at a corner table, and a sallow-skinned waitress wearing open-toe sandals, stifled a yawn, asking, “Okay, what do you want?”

John replied, “For starters, I’ll take another whiskey sour, and she’ll have a Pink Lady. Then we’ll have your salmon special.”

Eventually, the waitress returned and put hot platters of sizzling salmon on the table. Stella, who was famished, immediately tasted the fish, exclaiming, “John, This salmon is delicious, just like you said it would be, but could I have another pink lady?”

He smiled and touched her leg. “Sure, drink up; I got paid today.”

After her fourth cocktail, Stella envisioned the former grand ballroom through an intoxicated haze, imagining the sagging velvet drapes, the smoked-stained fireplace and the dusty chandeliers with missing crystals, Transformed back to their original splendor. As a Viennese Orchestra played, she pictured herself dancing, whirling, spinning, moving in flaring skirts while the ostrich plume on her hat gracefully swayed.

John said something, but she shook her head and blinked. “John, I’m sorry. What did you say?”

He gently squeezed the top of her thigh, saying, “Don’t worry. I said we’re going to my place for a nightcap.”

With a slur in her speech, she replied, “All right, John. Whatever you say.”

After leaving a niggardly tip, John pained the bill and quickly escorted her to the car. Back at his cabin, he opened two more beers, saying, “Here you go; they’re not too cold, but they still taste good.”

She sat down on his bed and began drinking her beer, but he put her bottle aside and roughly pulled her down. When he tried to give her a kiss, she resisted at first, but her longing for affection overruled her caution. She kicked off her new shoes and submitted to his hungry lips and her own desperate yearnings. At the moment of penetration, she cried out with pleasure and with anguish.

Later that night, as John drove her home, she saw ragged patches of fog drifting across the highway in the twin shafts of headlights. She attempted to smooth the wrinkles in her dress, thinking, my God, it must be late! What will Mama think? Will she guess what I’ve done? I didn’t intend for that to happen. How can I explain my behavior to Mama? How can I explain it to myself?

John, unaware of her concerns, squeezed his lower lip and whistled his customary tune,” The Missouri Waltz,” a tune played every night on the deck of the U.S.S. MISSOURI when he had been a young conquering sailor.

Chapter 12

 

 

After a night of drinking pink ladies with John, Stella was driving home early one morning, half asleep. As she drove, she saw headlights shining across a long horseshoe curve, the last thing she remembered seeing before her eyes drooped shut. When the brushed scratched the car, she was jolted awake. Desperately, she wrenched the steering wheel to avoid the cliff, but despite her efforts, the car plunged over the edge.

“Oh my God, I’m going to die!” she screamed as the old Hudson somersaulted end over end, scraping and banging against the side of the cliff. The car continued to fall with her legs flying over her head, dropping, plummeting, careening until it finally stopped at the bottom of the ravine with a shattering crash.

The booming of the surf aroused her back to consciousness but she was confused. When her mind cleared, she remembered the accident, thinking, my God, it’s a miracle I’m still alive. Gingerly, she checked herself for broken bones, finding no major injury, only scrapes and bruises. She carefully crawled from the demolished car and sat on the sand, thinking, Jesus, how am I going to get back up that cliff, but if I stay here, no one could find me.

She staggered to her feet and began the treacherous climb, but half way up she fell and stabbed her thigh on a broken shaft of brush. She pulled off her blouse and tied it around her leg to staunch the bleeding, thinking, if I don’t get help, I’m going to bleed to death. Resolutely, she inched up the cliff, pulling herself by gripping the brush. When she finally reached the top, she fainted and fell at the side of the road.

A short time later, a livestock truck bore down on her, but the driver saw her in the headlights and slammed on the brakes, causing the sheep in the back too loudly bleat. He jumped from the cab and ran to her still form. When he saw blood oozing from her leg, he quickly removed the blood-soaked blouse and used his belt as a tourniquet; and then shook her gently, saying, “Ma’am, wake up! Wake up!”

When her eyelids fluttered open, she heard him say, “Ma’am, you’re hurt. I need to take you someplace. Where do you live?”

When she mumbled, he leaned closer to hear better, but the stench of her alcoholic breath made him turn his head away. She whispered, “The arch. I live by the old arch.”

Frances woke up to the rumble of a big diesel engine. After she pulled on a robe, she opened the door and saw Stella stumbling up the stairs with the help of a stranger, covered in blood. She gasped, “Oh my God Stella! What happened?”

The truck driver stepped forward and said, “She’s been in an accident, Ma’am. Her car went over the cliff, and she’s bled a lot,”

Frances took her daughter’s arm, saying, “Oh Honey! Come with me; you need to lie down. Mister, would you please fill that kettle with water from the pump outside and put it on the stove?”

Rico came into the living room, rubbing his eyes, but when he saw his mother covered in blood, he cried out, “What’s wrong with Mama?”

Francis pushed him away, saying, “Rico, your mother’s all right. You’re just in the way. Go back to bed, but don’t wake up Kenny.”

He ran to his mother’s side, crying, “Mama, Mama! Why are you all bloody?”

She patted his head and weakly said, “I’m all right, baby. I just fell down and cut my leg. Grandma will fix it and make it all better. Go on back to bed now. Be a good boy.”

He reluctantly returned to his room.

In the privacy of the bedroom, Frances helped her daughter undress while she lamented, “Oh Mama, I wrecked John’s car!”

“Honey, you don’t have to think about that right now; just lay still, and I’ll take care of everything.”

After she cleaned Stella’s injuries, applied iodine and bound the wound tightly with strips torn from a clean sheet, she returned the bloodstained belt to the truck driver, asking, “Mister, can you tell me what happened?”

He shrugged. “I don’t know that much, Ma’am. I just found her lying on the road, but there’s a car all busted up at the bottom of the ravine. Is there anything more I can do to help?”

Frances pressed her hand to her heart, saying, “Oh dear! John needs to know what’s happened, and so do the Mueller’s. Mister, if I tell you where John lives, could you go to Jenner and explain what happened?”

The truck driver pulled on his cap and replied, “Yes, Ma’am. I’ll sure do that. I hope that young lady in there is going to be all right. It’s a good thing I found her when I did. When she’s feeling better, tell her it’s not a good idea to drive on these dangerous roads when she’s been drinking.”

Late the next afternoon, John, wearing work clothes, banged on the front door.

Frances pulled the door open, saying, “Hello John; I’m glad you’re here. Stella’s been asking for you”

“Hello Mrs. Schultz; how is Stella? I came as soon as I could.”

After she took him to see Stella, he swallowed and asked, “Are you all right Stella?”

Looking battered and bruised, she weakly replied, “I’m good enough, but I can hardly walk. John, I feel so bad about wrecking your car.”

He pushed his work-stained hat back. “Hell, don’t worry about that car. I saw it all smashed up at the bottom of the gully. You’re just damn lucky to be alive. I’m sorry about my dirty clothes. I just got off the truck.”

She lowered her eyes. “Thank you John for not being angry. Did you get a chance to talk to the Mueller’s?”

“Yes, I saw them this morning before I went to work, those bastards!”

“John, what did they say?”

“That old bitch screamed at me, blaming me for keeping you out so late. Maybe she’s right, but anyway, she said she’s going to replace you with a more responsible person.”

Tears came to her eyes. “That’s not fair. I need that job!”

She noticed her mother and the children standing in the doorway, looking worried. They all depend on me now. Mama, Rico and Kenny. Mama’s old and frail and can’t work. How in hell are we going to survive?” she thought, twisting the sheet. Maybe I could go back to that cheating bastard, but I would rather eat dog shit!

John gave Frances a pleading look. “Mrs. Schultz, would you mind if I talked to Stella alone for a few minutes?”

“Oh, yes, of course,” she replied and quickly ushered the children out of the room.

When the door was closed, he struggled for words, blurting, “Stella, I want you to live with me.”

She opened her eyes wide, but he quickly said, “Wait. Before you say anything, I want you to hear it all. There’s a little cabin for rent just up the street from where I live. Your mother and Kenny could live there; I’ll pay the rent. You and Rico could move in with me. I make enough money to support all of us, so you wouldn’t have to work. Another thing, the rainy season is here. Without the car, you would get soaked walking to work. Instead, you could live with me. What do you think Stella?”

She pressed her knuckles to her face, saying, “Oh John, I don’t know what I think. I’m still married in the eyes of the law. How would it look if I lived with you? What would people say?”

His face darkened. “I don’t give a damn what people say. Most of those hypocrites wouldn’t walk across the street to help you. If you want, I’ll pay for your divorce so we could get married and make a home together.”

She stared through the window at the black clouds gathering on the horizon. After several moments, she replied, “John, I have to think about it. It’s my mother’s life as well, and we have to talk it over. I can’t say right now, but thank you for being concerned.”

“Okay Stella, I’ll let you think about it. I’m going to leave now, so you can rest, but I’ll be back tomorrow.”

The storm arrived with shingle-rattling winds and slashing rain. Stella anguished through the night, trying to sort her life, but was unable to reach a decision.

The next morning, the storm broke and the clouds parted. Stella limped into the kitchen and joined her mother who was sitting at the table. “Mama, John wants me and Rico to live with him in Jenner. He said he would pay for a little cottage for you and Kenny, but I don’t know if that’s the right thing to do. I’m so confused.”

“Honey, that’s something you’ll have to decide for yourself, but in hard times, people do things they wouldn’t ordinarily do. I won’t criticize any decision you make.”

She clasped her mother’s hand. “Thank you Mama. I have to think of what’s best for the children as well. It would be wonderful if I could be with them all the time. Are you willing to move to Jenner?”

“Honey, I’ll go along with anything you decide. To tell you the truth, those little guys are becoming a handful for me. I just don’t have the energy I used to have.”

“Ok Mama, I’ll try to make a decision. Now, I’m going to check on the boys.” When she went outside and called the children, they came running from the barn with something in Rico’s hand. He yelled, “Mama, look what we found!”

“He didn’t find it. I did!” Kenny shouted.

Stella examined the object and said, “Tommy, this is an old harness. It goes on horses.”

With wonderment showing in his eyes, He asked, “Mama, can we have a horsey?”

“No, honey. We can’t get a horse. We’re moving to Jenner.”

Francis nodded. “All right, Stella, I guess you’ve decided on the direction of our lives.”

Rico kicked the ground, yelling, “I don’t want to go. I want to stay here. I want a horsy!”

She handed the harness to Kenny and knelt down by her son, saying, “Honey, we’re going to live with John. He’s going to be your new father.”

“I don’t want John for my father. I don’t want John for my father!” he screamed.

Kenny yanked Stella’s skirt, asking, “Will John be my father too?”

She picked him up, saying, “No, Kenny, John won’t be your father. You and Grandma will live in your own little house, but you’ll be real close to Rico, and you can play with him every day.”

Tears came to his eyes. “I want to live with you.”

Rico began to dance on his toes, screaming, “I don’t want to go! I don’t want to go!”

Francis shook his shoulders, saying, “Rico, stop that this minute!”

He wrenched free and joined his cousin who also was piteously crying.

Frances said, “Don’t worry Stella; they just have to get used to the idea.”

That evening, Stella, wearing her best dress with makeup covering her bruises, waited for John. Presently, she heard his footsteps crunching on the gravel and stepped off the porch, saying, “Hello John, Would you like to walk down to the beach where we can talk in private?”

“Hi Stella, is your leg good enough to walk that far?” he said, giving her a hug.

Taking his hand, she replied, “It still bothers me, but I think I can go that far.”

At the beach, they stood in the moonlight and watch the waves lapping at the sand, glowing eerily with phosphorous. She gave him a playful kiss on his cheek, but he grabbed her roughly and began to fondle her breast.

She pushed him back, saying, “John, not now! I have a question. Do you still want to marry me?”

He stopped groping and lit a cigarette. “Stella, I’ve always wanted to marry you. I told you that on our first date.”

“Then I accept your offer; I’ve talked it over with my mother, and we’re ready to move this weekend.”

He cracked his knuckles. “That’s great! I have to work this Saturday to fill the kerosene flares, but I could use the truck early that morning to move your things.”

“All right John, we’ll be ready,” she replied, expecting a kiss, but he pulled a red handkerchief from his pocket and blew his nose, saying, “The fog is beginning to come in thick, and it’s getting pretty cold. I better get you back to your house.”

As they were crossing the old wooden arch, Stella thought, I’m disappointed with John. If only he were more romantic. Every time I touch him, he wants sex. He’s never told me he loves me. I wonder if he’s still in love with his first wife. I guess that’s not important. What matters is that he’s willing to take care of me and my family. I should be grateful.

Chapter 13

 

Stella had sufficiently recovered from her accident to help her mother sort, pack and mark their few possessions. By the end of the week, they were ready for John’s help., when he arrived early Saturday morning in a State truck, Stella shouted, “Hi John, we’re packed and anxious to go.”

“Good morning Stella. I can use this truck for just an hour and then I have to get back to work so let’s get started.”

After they finished loading the truck with their things, Stella, her mother and the children squeezed into the cab with John. “Bye, bye, house,” Little Rico said wistfully as he looked back while John slowly drove away from the Old Rule Ranch.

When they arrived at Jenner-By-The-Sea, John drove to his home and stacked Stella’s boxes in his cabin. After he went to the shack that would be Frances’s new home, he quickly unloaded her possessions, saying, “Stella, I’ll see you later. I have to get back to work before I’m missed. Good bye Mrs. Schultz.”

Stella remained with her mother to help her clean her new quarters.

By late afternoon, the tiny shack smelled of bleach and was ready to be occupied.

Sweat stained from mopping the plank floors, Francis dropped into a chair and wiped her face, saying, “Thanks for your help, Honey. Now that I can see what this place looks like, I can tell it’s going to be just fine.”

Stella rinsed her hands, saying, “Well, I hope you’ll be comfortable. Now, I need to go back to my new home and unpack my things.”

Frances heaved to her feet. “Stella, why don’t you leave Rico here with me for the night? I’m sure you and John would like a little privacy.”

“Thank you Mama, I’ll just take you up on that offer.”

She returned to John’s cabin and looked askance at all the boxes haphazardly stacked in the middle of the room. She shook her head, thinking, how in the world did I accumulate so much stuff? I guess I’ll just have to ask John where to put my things.

As she was preparing dinner on their hot plate, John came into the cabin, looking sour.

“John, what’s wrong?” she nervously asked.

He Scowled at the boxes, replying, “I thought you would have this place straightened up by now.”

“I’m sorry John. I just got back from helping my mother, and I don’t know where to put my things. Where do you suggest I hang my clothes?”

“I don’t care what you do with your junk! Just put them anywhere. “

”All right John, I don’t know why you’re so angry, but I’ll finish cooking our dinner. By the way, Mama’s going to keep Rico overnight.”

John sat down without responding, staring glumly at his boots, His day-old beard evident under a naked light bulb.

What the hell’s going on? He acts like he has a bug up his ass, she thought and continued to fry the hamburgers.

After she set the table, she informed John the dinner was ready.

He sullenly sat at the folding table, noisily chewing his food with his jaw muscles working rhythmically. She shook her head from side to side in confusion, thinking, what the hell is wrong with him. He’s never acted like this before.

After a dinner devoid of conversation, she picked up their dishes, asking, “John did you like the hamburgers?”

He leaned back in his chair and replied, “Don’t worry. I got used to all kinds of cooking in the Navy. If I don’t like something you make, I’ll let you know about it.”

While she scraped the plates in the sink, she thought, why is he acting so strange? This is the first time I’ve seen this side of him.

John suddenly blurted, “Look Stella, can we call Rico by another name?”

“Well, yes, I guess we could do that, but why?”

“I don’t want to hear your husband’s name mentioned all the time.”

So that’s it. He’s jealous! “Well, his middle name is Thomas. We could call him Tommy if you like.”

The hard plains in his face relaxed. “Okay. That sounds good.”

“Look, John, if you’re so concerned about my lousy husband, maybe I should file for divorce right away.”

He drummed his fingers on the table. “All right; we need to do that, but first I need to get a car so we can do all the running around it’s going to take.”

“John, now that we’ve taken care of your concerns, are you in a better mood?

He patted her buttocks, replying, “I’m Ok now.”

Stella anticipated making love with pleasure when they went to bed, but John groped her clumsily and quickly satisfied his need, rolling over on his side when he finished. When he began to snore, she got out of bed and sat by the window, watching the black river below, flowing, ever flowing. I hope this move wasn’t a mistake. But what else could I do? I don’t have money. I don’t have a job. I don’t have transportation, but I do have the responsibility of taking care of Mama and the kids. By God, I’ll just make this arrangement work, no matter the cost!

The next morning, she woke up when Rico rattled the door, yelling, “Mama, let me in! Mama, let me in!”

She threw back the covers and got up, but John grabbed her arm, saying, “You’re not going anywhere. Get back in bed!”

“ But John, its Rico. I mean Tommy!”

“I don’t give a damn. This is our first morning together, and I don’t want that brat bothering us.”

Rico yelled louder. “Mama, let me in! Mama, let me in!”

She lay back down, biting her lip, thinking, maybe John’s right. This is our first morning together, and Mama did say she would take care of him.

Rico continued to bang on the door. When he gave up, she ran to the kitchen window to watch him return to his grandmother’s cottage. “John, it was mean not to let him in. His feelings are hurt!”

He got out of bed and grabbed her wrist, saying, “That kid is spoiled rotten. What he needs is a good beating. Now get back in bed.”

She wrenched her arm free. “John, let me go! I have to go to the bathroom.”

When she returned from the bathroom, John was waiting for her, Naked and erect. He grabbed her and began to drag her to the bed. She struggled to break free, yelling, “John, what are you doing? Let me go this minute! I don’t need this kind of treatment!”

He laughed and slapped her exposed buttocks, replying, “What you need is what I got. Now you’re going to get it.”

A few days later, while Stella and her mother were trimming a large gunnysack of artichokes for canning, Frances pointed outside. “Look, there’s John driving a car!”

Stella went to the door and watched John getting out of a shiny green automobile.

He patted the hood and shouted, “Hey Stella, what do you think of it?”

Still feeling guilty about wrecking his Hudson, she skipped to the car. “Oh, John, it’s beautiful. Is it ours?”

Grinning, he wiped a speck of dust from the fender and replied, “It sure is. It’s a 1930 Nash, but it’s hardly used. One of the guys at work had to sell it fast, so I got a good deal. What do you say? Let’s go to Bodega Bay and get some oysters.”

“Can Mama and the kids come too?”

“Sure. There’s plenty of room for everyone.”

Stella dashed into the house and grabbed her sweater, saying, , “Mama, John has invited all of us to go for a ride to Bodega Bay in our new car! Do you want to come?”

Frances continued to cut the artichokes, replying, “I think I’ll stay here, Honey. I’m feeling a little tired. You and the boys go ahead.”

“You’re not feeling sick, are you?” Stella asked, feeling her mother’s forehead.

Francis brushed her hand away, saying, “I’m all right. Now, don’t worry about me. I’ll stay here and finish the trimming. You go ahead and have fun.”

On route to Bodega Bay, John passed the old ranch house where Stella had spent two unhappy years, but she thought it now looked deserted.

When they finally arrived at the little fishing village known for its oysters, the sun was slipping below the horizon casting hues of red and orange across the bay . “Look boys, the fishing boats are in! They look like they have a lot of fish,” Stella observed, pointing to the squat broad-beamed boats that were nudging each other and bumping against the dock.

As soon as John parked, everyone got out and walked hurriedly towards the wharf, but Rico and Kenny ran ahead. Stella ran after them, yelling, “Hey you kids! Stay away from the water! Big old sea lions live under that pier, and I don’t want to jump in that cold ocean just to save your necks.”

After she caught up with them and pulled them back from the edge of the Warf, they watched fishermen in heavy woolen clothes toss silvery salmon from their boats into large wooden boxes. The men who were speaking Italian, laughed and loudly shouted at each other AS seagulls called and flapped their wings, darting for tidbits of fish.

She took the boys to the open-air market where women were gutting and chopping fresh fish while a vender shouted, “Hey, folks, we got your real fresh salmon here. They were caught just one hour ago!”

Stella pointed at the display case, saying, “Look, boys, I want you to see these fish. That’s a salmon. That’s a codfish, and those are surf fish. Oh, look! Those are crabs, and those are shrimp, but I don’t know the name of that big black fish.”

Tommy held his nose. “Mama, it stinks here.”

She laughed. “Tommy, it’s supposed to smell like that. That’s how dead fish smell.”

Kenny pointed to an octopus writhing in a cardboard box and squealed. “Oo, look, it’s moving!”

While they were occupied at the market, John paid fifty cents for a large gunny sack of oysters. He hoisted them to his shoulder and shouted, “Hey, Stella, I’m going to put these in the trunk. I’ll meet you at the beer joint.”

“Oh swell, a beer would taste great!” she yelled and took the boys to a small inn at the end of the pier. When they were inside the steamy café, she pointed at the antique maritime equipment on display. “Look boys, there’s an old time diving helmet. It was used to go under the water.”

Kenny looked at the helmet and asked, “Why do they go under water?”

“I’m not sure. Maybe they were looking for pearls.”

John, smelling of oysters, joined them and chose a booth with a view of the bay. “We want two Budweisers and Cokes for the kids,” he said to the waitress.

She returned with their drinks, but when she put a bowl of oyster crackers on the table, Rico and Kenny grabbed handfuls of crackers and sprinkled them in their cokes, blowing bubbles through their straws. “You kids stop that! You’re making a big mess!” Stella scolded , slapping their hands and wiping the table with a napkin.

John lit a cigarette and offered one to Stella, but she said, “Not now, thanks, what are we going to do with all those oysters?”

He scratched his chin. “Well, we can have fried oysters, raw oysters, stewed oysters, oyster hash, oyster sandwiches, and Oysters Rockefeller. I never get tired of oysters, and we can give some to your mother.”

Stella drank the last of her beer, saying, “John, I think it’s time to go. Just look out there! The fog is obscuring the boats anchored in the bay.”

While riding back home, she thought, I’m worried about Mama. She gets so tired these days. I hope she’s all right.

John’s cabin was dark when they returned home, but the door was wide open.

“John, I don’t like how it looks!

“Don’t worry. She probably went back to her own place,” he replied and parked the Nash.

Stella got out of the car, dashed to the cabin and snapped on the lights. Frances was sprawled on the floor with artichokes spilled everywhere. Stella immediately went to her mother and frantically shook her, yelling, “Mama! Mama! Wake up!”

John ran into the cabin, shouting, “Stella, what the hell’s wrong?”

“There’s something awfully wrong with Mama. She isn’t moving. We have to do something quick!”

He dropped to his knees and felt for her pulse, and then held a mirror to her mouth. After several minutes, He sadly shook his head and took a sheet from the cabinet. Stella began to cry. “John, what’s wrong with her?”

“I’m sorry, Stella. She’s dead.”

Tommy and Kenny watched in alarm as Stella stood rigid, not breathing. John tried to put his arms around her, but she pounded his chest and screamed, “No! No! No!”

He took her arm and gently said, “Come with me, Stella. I’ll take you and the boys up to her cabin, and then I’ll call the coroner.”

As she left the cabin, she looked back at her mother, lying under a white sheet, silent and still. She buried her face in her hands and wept, “Oh Mama! Oh Mama! Please don’t leave me.”

Chapter 14

 

Stella sat in the family section of O’Riley’s Funeral Parlor near her mother’s casket, silently weeping while John blew his nose and wiped his eyes. The dry musty air was tinged by the fragrance of a single spray of carnations. The four weathered men who had been recruited from John’s work as pallbearers, squirmed uncomfortably in their tight-fitting suits, but Mr. O’Riley, wearing a black suit with shiny lapels, calmly stood by the door with his hands clasped professionally behind his back.

When Stella looked around the sparsely attended room, she bitterly thought, where are all of Mama’s friends? Where is that rat Kyle? Where is James? She helped so many people, not to mention all those lazy louts she used to feed on the ranch. Where are they now?

The organ began to play a doleful dirge, and she lowered her eyes, thinking, Mama never complained about anything, even about her bad heart. If only I had known…

Someone touched her shoulder. She looked up with a start and saw her favorite brother smiling with his gold tooth glimmering.

She stood up and clasped his hands, excitedly saying, “Why James! Hello. I’m so glad you’re here. When did you get back?”

“Hello Stella. It’s good to see you again., I just returned yesterday from Venezuela. Kyle wrote me about Mama so I got back as soon as I could. He’s supposed to be here, but I don’t see him anywhere.”

Stella stepped back, still holding his hands, and said, “Oh, James, it’s so good to see you again. Let me have a good look at you. Oh my goodness! You’ve become quite substantial and older. What happened to that thin young man I used to know?”

He laughed. “I am older, Sis. Don’t you remember? I’m ten years your senior.”

She motioned to John to join them and said in a hushed voice, “John, I want you to meet my brother, James. James, this is John. We’re going to be married.”

James extended his hand. “Congratulations John. It’s nice to meet you.”

John shook hands and awkwardly mumbled a greeting.

After James looked around the room, he said, “I see old Reverend White is about to begin. I’ll introduce you to my new wife later. Her name is Florence.”

The murmur of conversation ceased when Reverend White cleared his throat and began to speak. After several passages from the Bible, he gave her mother’s eulogy, describing her as a pioneer woman who was known for her charitable works. While a few individuals said their tribute to her mother, Stella felt numb, unable to hear their words.

At the conclusion of the service, Reverend White bowed his head and invited everyone to join in a silent prayer.

With tears spilling down her face, Stella prayed, God bless you Mama. I know you’re in heaven where you can rest in peace, but I miss you terribly.

When a bell began to ring, the pallbearers carried the casket outside to a waiting hearse.

Stella and John joined a small procession, driving slowly through Sebastopol and on to the cemetery. When the procession arrived at the family plot, the hearse backed up to freshly turned earth. After the pallbearers gently placed the casket over an open hole, Reverend White read from the Twenty-Third Psalm, saying, “As I walk through the valley of death…”

Stella was unable to think, as if in a bad dream.

After the Reverend finished the prayer, the pallbearers lowered the casket into a gaping pit and began to shovel dirt on the coffin. The clods striking her mother’s casket sounded like muffled explosions. My sister, my father and my mother are now gone forever, she sadly thought.

James touched her arm, quietly saying, “Sis, this is my wife, Florence. Florence, this is Stella, my baby sister.”

Stella wiped the tears from her eyes and looked up, seeing a tall blond woman beaming a wide smile. “I’m happy to know you Stella,” she said as her multiple hoop earrings dangled and clanked.

Hello Florence. I’m glad to meet you too,” she replied.

“Stella, I’ve heard so much about you. You and John simply must come to Petaluma. It would be simply marvelous if we could all get together for a lovely dinner.”

Stella immediately liked her new sister-in-law and replied, “Thank you Florence, I’d love to get together with you guys, but let’s make plans later.”

A yellow roadster slid to a stop at the far end of the cemetery. Kyle jumped from the car and began to run, zigzagging around headstones while Gloria followed with a bundle in her arms.

Kyle, wheezing loudly, reached them and gasped, “Sorry I’m late, but it’s not my fault. That damn ferry wouldn’t go any faster!”

James who dwarfed his diminutive brother, gripped his hand, saying, “Hello, Kyle. I’m glad you finally made it, but you’re just a bit late. The service is all over.”

Kyle replied with little snorts coming from his nostrils,, “It’s not my fault. You should have waited for me!”

Stella ignored his excuse and turned to her sister-in-law, saying, “Hello Gloria, let me have a look at that baby.”

Gloria smiled weakly and pulled the blanket back from her baby’s face, saying, “His name is Ralph. He weighed over ten pounds at birth. I thought I was going to die!”

“Oh Gloria, he’s beautiful!”

“Thank you Stella, but how is Kenny? I’m dying to see him.”

“He’s just fine. Violet is taking care of both boys, and we’re going to her house. You can follow us.”

When Kyle pulled up in front of Violet’s home, Gloria got out of the car and called, “Hello Kenny. We’re here.”

At first, he seemed confused, but then he ran to her and hugged her knees, crying, “Mama! Mama!”

Kyle picked him up, snorting through his nose. “Hey there Clipper! Are you ready to come home?”

Kenny struggled to get down, yelling, “I want my Mama! I want my Mama!”

She smoothed his hair and said affectionately, “Calm down son. You’re all right and you’re coming home with us.”

She turned to Stella. “Thank you so much. I don’t know what I would have done without your help.”

“You’re welcome, but I’m going to miss that little boy.”

When Kenny climbed into his father’s yellow roadster, Tommy cried out, “I want Kenny. I want my Grandma.”

Stella picked her son up. With an aching heart, she said, “Tommy you will be able to see Kenny again, but your grandmother has gone to heaven, and she won’t be here anymore.”

Chapter 15

 

Stella was standing at the top of a trail that led down to a narrow peninsula between the ocean and the Russian River when she noticed the red and yellow umbrellas fluttering across the river at Mueller’s Resort. Thank God I don’t work there anymore! That damn job almost wore me out! She thought, pleased not to be working.

As the waves crashed on the beach, violet yelled, “Hey Stella, I love this place. I’m glad you brought me here.”

Stella yelled back, “I like it too. While I’m getting Tommy settled, why don’t you look for buried treasure?”

Violet giggled, replying, “Good idea Stella! I bet pirates stashed all kinds of gold and jewels everywhere.”

While she crawled on her hands and knees looking for seashells, Stella gave Tommy his red bucket, saying, “Here’s your bucket. You go play now, but stay away from the ocean.”

After she found a suitable place for their blanket next to a stand of dark green ice plants blooming purple flowers, she lay down, enjoying the pale sunshine filtering through the mist. She smiled with pleasure when she buried her toes in the sand.

. Violet called, “Hey Stella, I found these old railroad tracks half buried in the sand. They’re all twisted and rusted. Do you know how they got here?”

Stella sat up and replied, “, Yes; steam trains used to come here to unload clipper ships from China, but everything was destroyed by a powerful storm.”

After several minutes, Violet yelled, “Hey Stella, come here. Now I found strawberries.”

Stella joined her friend and saw tiny wild strawberries growing in the sand next to a pile of sun-bleached driftwood. After she tasted one, she said, “Violet, this is real sweet. Let’s pick them and make a strawberry shortcake.”

Violet clapped her hands. “Stella, that’s a great idea!”

After they filled Tommy’s bucket, they sat on the beach and watched a sand piper keening loudly as it skipped along the shoreline. Vilet gently said, “Stella, I’m sorry about your mother.”

Stella watched a distant freighter slip over the horizon and then replied, “Gosh Violet, I think about her all the time. Sometimes it feels like she’s still here, but I miss her so much!”

Violet gave her a hug, saying, “Stella, I’m so sorry.”

“Thank you Violet, you’re such a good friend.”

After Stella stopped crying and dried her eyes, Violet asked, “When are you and John getting married?”

“We plan to marry as soon as my divorce is final. Rico said he would give me a divorce if John paid all the costs because he thinks John is the one with big bucks. Heck, you know we don’t have much money. Anyway, he was willing to give up Tommy, but he said he would never agree to an adoption.”

Violet frowned. ” Did he say why?”

“I think he just wants his name to be continued, but He’s unwilling to pay for Tommy’s keep. I don’t care what he wants. When Tommy starts school, I’m going to enroll him as Thomas Nelson. John said he considers Tommy to be his own son.”

“It sounds like John is being a good father.”

Stella hesitated before speaking, “In some ways he is, but sometimes he beats Tommy with his razor strap. When I try to make him stop, he only gets madder. In public he’s a nice guy, but at home he goes into these awful rages. Sometimes I’m afraid.”

“Why in hell do you stay with him?”Violet asked, stubbing her cigarette in the sand.

Stella Laughed self-consciously and replied, “Well, he’s not as bad as I make him sound. Most of the time he’s okay, but it’s going to take effort to tame him down. Actually, my life is pretty comfortable now. Staying home sure beats the hell out of working for the Mueller’s. I don’t have to pinch pennies anymore, next month we’re going to move into a bigger house, I can use the car whenever I want and each month we go to Santa Rosa and buy everything we need sometimes spending as much as $15. There’s always food on the table and I’m pregnant.”

Violet skeptically replied, “All right Stella. I hope you know what you’re doing,”

When the sun dropped low in the West, Stella gathered their things, saying, “It’s time to go, but I think we should stop at Luigi’s to buy whipping cream for our strawberry shortcake.”

“I’m good with that,” Violet enthusiastically replied.

After Stella drove a short distance, she turned on to a rutted road leading up to Luigi’s farm, but her progress was blocked by a flock of chickens busily scratching in the dust. When she blew her horn, the chickens scattered in a flurry of flapping wings and outraged squawks.

Suddenly a large black dog began to chase the car, barking and lunging at the tires.

Luigi came running from the barn, shaking his fist and yelling, “Puccini, stop that a noise! Lay down!”

The dog reluctantly returned to the barn and flopped down with his ears alert.

Luigi’s wife, tall and willowy with a long pigtail dangling below her waist, came from the house, saying, “Hello Stella. It’s good to see you again. You’re just in time for coffee!”

Stella waved back. “Hi Juanita, I brought my best friend to meet you.” In an undertone, she added, ”If they offer us wine, drink it or they’ll be insulted; Italians are like that.”

Juanita pointed at Puccini. “Don’t worry about that dog. He’s all bark.”

After Juanita was introduced to Violet, she led them to her house with Tommy hanging on Stella’s skirt, observed by Juanita’s five boys.

When Stella entered the low-ceiling kitchen, her nostrils flared from the strings of salami, onions, and garlic suspended from the ceiling. “Juanita, something smells awfully good here, but we need to get whipping cream for a strawberry short cake.”

Juanita replied, “Luigi can help you with that. In the meantime, just make yourself at home.”

While she was stirring the fire under the coffee pot, Luigi came into the kitchen and pulled back a long wooden bench from the table, saying with old world courtliness, “Here, ladies, make a yourself a comfortable.”

After Juanita sliced homemade cheese, salami, and French bread, she poured strong coffee into slightly chipped mugs, saying, “There’s plenty of cream. Just help yourselves.”

Violet Looked at Luigi and said, “You certainly have a beautiful wife.”

He rolled his eyes. “She’s a not a too bad for an Indian.”

“Juanita, are you really an Indian?”

Taking a sip of coffee, Juanita replied, “Yes, I’m the last one of my tribe. My people lived here for thousands of years, but they all died from white man’s diseases. Now, even my children don’t act like Indians. They run around like wild Wops like this crazy man here!”

When she playfully elbowed his ribs, he howled in mock pain. “Pay a no attention to that woman. She’s a supposed to be a psychic or a something a cuckoo like that. I’m a go to the cellar and a get some a wine.”

After he left, Stella asked, “Juanita, was he serious about your being a psychic?”

She laughed.” I don’t know what I’m called. Sometimes I have visions of ancestors.”

“Oh, really! What kind of visions?”

Juanita shrugged and handed a slice of cheese to Tommy, replying, “I don’t know, just images of their lives. Tommy, do you want to see the little pigs?”

When he shyly nodded, Juanita motioned to a young boy who was standing in the doorway, balancing on one foot. “Sammy, why don’t you come here and take your guest to the pigpen?”

He advanced a few steps into the kitchen and said, “If you want to see the little pigs, then come with me. We’ve got lots of baby pigs.”

They ran through the doorway, nearly colliding with Luigi who was returning with a gallon jug of wine, but they continued their dash to the pigpen.

After Luigi poured four glasses of wine, he gave one to Stella, but the sour taste made her mouth pucker.

Gulping the wine and smacking his lips, he laughed and said, “The first drink is to make your a mouth ready. After that, she’s a not so bad. Drink up ladies, and I’ll pour you some more.”

When Violet finished her third glass, her eyes were shining and her speech was slurred. “Luigi, this wine tastes wonderful. What do you call it?”

“You call it a Dago Red. I make it myself.”

After Stella finished her fourth glass of wine, she got up to leave, saying, “Oh by the way, Luigi, I almost forgot. We want to buy whipping cream for strawberry shortcake.”

He looked pained. “What do you mean a pay me? You’re not going to pay a me nothing.”

“Stella protested, oh Luigi, you’re too generous. I at least can give you half of our strawberries. We have plenty.”

He called to his oldest son, “Gino, You run and get a quart of cream for this nice a lady.”

“Thank you Luigi,” Stella said and went outside to look for Tommy. She found him in the barn, jumping from the loft into a haystack. She laughed. “Tommy what in the world are you doing?”

“I’m having fun! Sammy showed me how!” he said with hay on his clothes.

“I’m glad you’re having fun, but we have to leave now, she said and walked to the car. When she saw the whipping cream along with a jug of wine, a round of cheese and homemade salami in the car, she objected , “Luigi, just look what you’ve done!” Thank you, but I feel guilty for taking all this food.”

He put his arm around Juanita’s waste, grinning a gap-tooth smile and said, “If you need a the shirt from my back, you can a have it. That’s what a friends are for.”

Later that afternoon, after baking a shortcake, Stella heaped whipping cream on the lopsided loafs while Violet sliced strawberries.

Stella licked her fingers and said, “Violet, let’s go abalone fishing Saturday morning. John said there should be a minus two tide.”

Violet replied, “That would be fun, but I need to check with Pete to make sure he’s going to be free.”

Stella looked outside, and seeing John carrying a heavy box, held the screen door open, asking, “John, what on earth do you have there?”

“Its coffee and lard and peaches and all kinds of good things,” he replied, putting an oil-stained box down on the floor.

She looked in the box and wrinkled her nose, saying, Ugh John, they look awful. Where did you get them?”

He washed his hands in the sink and replied, “Last night a freighter cracked up on the rocks in the fog and spilled its cargo into the ocean. We’ve been finding cans washed up on the beaches all day. Do you want to come with me to find some more?”

Everyone climbed into the Nash, eager to find more food. After John drove north on Highway 1 past the Old Rule ranch, he turned on a steep road leading down to the beach. When he parked, Stella shouted, “Oh look, John, there’s a lot of cans down by the water. Tommy, you can’t go down by those nasty oily cans, but it’s all right to play up here by the car.”

The trio Worked quickly gathering the oil-smudged cans, leaving them in a huge pile next to the Nash. An old truck rattled down the steep road and shuddered to a stop with frightened-looking children pressing their faces to the side rails in the back. A man with hunched shoulders climbed from the truck and stared at the collection of cans. After a fit of coughing, he yelled in a thin, reedy voice, “I heared that a ship got wrecked, and there’s supposed to be food here.”

John swept his arm over the shoreline and yelled, “We already picked this beach clean, but the next one up could be pretty good.”

Stella whispered, “John, those kids look hungry. Maybe we should give them some of our cans just in case they don’t find any more.”

He cleared his throat. “Well, all right, but don’t be too generous.”

She called to the ragged family, “We have some extra cans. You’re welcome to them if you want them.”

The children jumped from the back of the truck and raced toward the food, followed by a stringy woman carrying a baby. “Bless you, Honey. We haven’t had a decent meal in days!” she called and stumbled.

John watched the skeletal faces of the children, swallowed several times, making his big Adam’s apple move up and down. “Hell, you can have all of the cans. We don’t need them,” he yelled and got into his car, gesturing to the others to follow.

As he drove slowly back up the hill, Stella looked back at the hungry family frantically pawing through oily cans. “John, you did the right thing, but some of those cans belonged to Violet.”

Violet quickly replied, “Hell Stella, that family won’t go hungry tonight. I’m proud of John and we still have that yummy shortcake still waiting for us to eat.”

Chapter 16

 

A foghorn was issuing a persistent warning of heavy coastal fog when John shook Stella awake, saying, “Stella get up! Your friends will be here soon.”

“She yawned and stretched. Jesus, John, it’s still dark. What time is it?”

“Its 4:30, but if we want to catch abalones, we have to get there early.”

Stella who was still feeling sleepy, got up and dressed in her old clothes, thinking, these rags are as ugly as sin, but I guess they’re good enough for the beach. While John looked for his worn-out shoes, she put on a pot of coffee and washed her face.

She barely had finished dressing when Violet and her husband arrived with a honk of his horn. Violet came through the door without knocking, saying, “Hi everyone, I hope we’re not too late. I want you to meet my latest conquest, but he goes by the name of Pete.”

Pete laughed. “I’m not sure who conquered who, but it’s terrific to meet both you guys. Violet told me all about you.”

Stella was impressed with his boyish charm, unlike her own husband’s grouchy, old man’s demeanor. She replied, “It’s swell meeting you too. I’ll pour us some coffee and then we can get started.”

After they packed their supplies in the trunk, they crowded in the Nash. Violet and Stella were in the back with Tommy sleeping at their feet. John and Pete were in the front with their faces faintly visible from the dashboard light. As John slowly drove through the swirling fog, Pete clicked his tongue, saying, “Jesus John, this fog is pretty damn dense. How much further is that secret place of yours?”

“What? Oh, it’s not far. It’s just on the other side of Fort Ross by the Old Russian cemetery.”

“Russians! I wonder what the Russians were doing here,” Pete asked rhetorically.

“Oh, I read about that in school,” Stella blurted, but she stopped talking, regretting her comment, having learned that John became upset with any mention of book learning.

Violet gave her a sidelong look, asking, “Well, aren’t you going to tell us?”

She modestly replied, “Oh, I really don’t know that much. All I remember is that they settled here about a hundred years ago. Their presence had something to do with the Monroe Doctrine.” She quickly added, hoping to change the subject, “Once I saw a ball and chain that had been around the neck of a skeleton inside a redwood tree.”

Violet snickered. “Oh, come on, Stella. You’re teasing. How could that be possible?”

“No, I’m serious. Once a park ranger came to my class and showed us that ball and chain. He said it came from a skeleton found inside a redwood tree. Apparently, a prisoner had tried to escape from Fort Ross, but was shot through his pelvis. After he crawled into a hollowed out redwood tree, he died. The fire damaged tree eventually grew back together, creating a living tomb. The skeleton wasn’t discovered for a hundred years until lumberjacks cut the tree down.”

John pointed to the ruined of an old fort looming in the fog, saying, “Look, there’s the old fort right there.”

Stella relaxed; relieved that John had made a contribution to the conversation, lessening the probability of his berating her for “showing off.”

As they drove past the historic fort, Stella noticed a section of jagged wall still standing. In her mind, she pictured the fugitive as he carried that heavy ball and chain, stumbling, bleeding, desperately looking for a safe place to hide, only to die inside the hollow of a tree. Ruefully, she thought, I once had planned to become a teacher, but that dream had perished, like that fugitive who died so long ago.

The constant swerving of the car, her pregnancy, and the smell of John’s cigarette caused Stella to feel nauseated, but she didn’t complain.

John abruptly slowed down and parked by an over-grown cemetery shrouded with fog. “Well, here we are. This is the place to get abalones.”

Stella eagerly got out of the car and felt better inhaling fresh air. After the men shouldered the bulky supplies, they led the way to the cliff’s edge, walking past a neglected cemitary. Stella tried to read an inscription as she passed a crumbling headstone, but only the year, 1825 was discernible.

While they stood overlooking the ocean, a pink strip appeared in the eastern sky. Pete drew in his breath, exclaiming, “My God! What a sight! The ocean has receded with all those huge boulders exposed and covered with seaweed.”

John nodded. “That’s what a minus two tide looks like.”

“That’s impressive, but how in hell are we going to get down?”

John pointed to a steep trail, saying, “That’s the way down, but it’s kind of dangerous.”

Pete vigorously rubbed his chin, saying, “John, I think getting Stella down there could be tricky. I suggest everyone goes down with our supplies , except Stella and Tommy. Then you come back and get Tommy. After you bring him down, Violet could watch him while you and I climb back up and help Stella down.”

Violet kissed his cheek. “Oh Pete. You’re such a genius.”

Stella bitterly thought, it’s just like John not to think of our safety!

When everyone was safely on the beach, with Tommy still sleeping in his blanket, Stella, limited by her pregnancy, volunteered to build a fire while the others fished for abalones. While looking for firewood, she found a twisted piece of driftwood resembling a whale in motion and decided to keep it.

Equipped with tire irons, John, Pete and Violet dressed in old clothes and shoes carefully climbed over large slippery boulders towards the ocean. When Violet stepped into the water, She cried out, “Oh Jesus, it’s so damn cold!”

Suddenly, a wave broke over her head and knocked her off her feet. When she got up, shaking the wet hair from her face, she howled, “John, I’m frozen half to death!”

He laughed. “Don’t worry. You’ll get used to the cold, but watch out for the ninth wave. It’s usually a killer.”

“John, what should we do if a big one comes?” Pete nervously asked.

John gripped a handful of seaweed and yelled, “Here comes one now! Grab the seaweed, hang on like hell and let your body float.”

A large wave swept over the trio, but they kept their heads above water by following John’s example. After the wave passed, he continued his instructions. “Good, you didn’t fight the wave that time. Now, feel along the bottom of these rocks. That’s where you’ll find the big ones. Here, I’ll show you how. Oh, I’ve got one. You put your iron under the shell like this and pry like hell. There, I’ve got it!”

He held it up for inspection. After examining the abalone, Violet said, “It looks like a shallow bowl with a rough outside, but the fleshy underside feels nasty.”

“That’s the mussel. It’s the good part to eat,” John said and dropped the aboloni into a gunnysack, resuming the hunt.

Soon, Violet yelled, “Oh, I’ve got one!”

“So have I!” Pete shouted.

While the fishermen groped in the ocean, Stella sat by a crackling fire, thinking, They looked like strange waterbirds, stooping up and down for food. Reaching for more firewood, she saw three milky colored stones and picked them up. She like their satin feel and dropped them in her pocket.

John yelled, “Hey Stella, look at that whale.”

Stella looked in amazement at a baby whale. It abruptly turned around and swam back briskly to the open sea.

Pete screamed. “Help, an octopus has my leg!”

John quickly felt around the younger man’s ankles and guffawed. “Hell, Pete, it’s just seaweed.”

As the three fisherman collected abalones, Stella watched John moving expertly through the water, giving directions to the others. She thought, in polite society he’s inept, but here, he’s the one in charge, telling the others what to do, I haven’t seen this side of him before.

The sun broke through the fog, sending shafts of sunlight streaking across the beach. The tide began to reverse. The fishermen returned from the ocean With their shoes squishing and clothes dripping, shivering from the cold. Pete held his blue hands over the fire, saying, “God damn it, it’s so damn cold, but I smell fresh coffee! Hey Stella, a cup of that Java would sure hit the spot.”

Stella removed the perculator from the coals, replying, “You poor creatures. I made coffee for all of you.”

John removed a whiskey bottle from a brown paper bag and poured a shot in each cup. “All right, Pete! I’ll put some of this in your coffee. It’ll warm you up in a hurry.”

While the fishermen huddled around the fire, drinking their laced coffee, Stella examined the lumpy sacks they had dragged from the ocean. “Hey, you guys. You got a lot of abalones!” she yelled, dumping the gunny sacks on the sand.

John finished his coffee and said, “We’re allowed 25 apiece including Tommy. I doubt if we got our limit, but we don’t want anything under seven inches or we could be fined.”

After he used a ruler to measure the abalones , he returned the undersized ones to the ocean. Coming back to the fire, he said, “We have 95 good ones left, but I could go out and get some more.”

Pete laughed. “Hell no John. Wee have plenty. Let’s not waste any more time. We need to get into dry clothes.”

While they quickly changed out of their wet clothes behind big boulders, Stella got out their supplies, yelling, “Is there anyone here hungry?”

“I’m starving!” Violet yelled. “I’ll help you get breakfast,”

John began to sliced the abalones while Pete pounded the filets on rocks. After Stella dipped the thin slices in melted butter, Violet rolled them in flour and fried them until they turned golden brown.

After their breakfast of abalone steaks and scrambled eggs, they sat by the fire, smoked and drank Irish coffee. While covertly comparing John to Pete, Stella thought, John is the real man. Pete looks like a mere boy. When she noticed Tommy poking baby crabs in a tidal pool, she yelled, “Tommy, leave those crabs alone or they’ll pinch you.”

She picked up one of the discarded shells and said, “I like how the inside has so many colors.”

Pete replied, “The Italians carved these shells into cameos and set them in gold. They’re really quite pretty.”

John added, “I don’t know about jewelry and shit, but they’re good to be used as ashtrays. The digger Indians used them as bowls by plugging up the holes with pitch and ashes. When they needed arrow heads, they traded them for flint with the Lake County Indians.”

While they drank, smoked and chatted amiably, the ocean inexorably returned closer to the beach. Finally, John stood up and said, “We will get wet if we stay any longer. It’s time to go.”

Safely on top of the cliff, Stella glanced back at the ocean that was rapidly reclaiming the beach. She watched John carrying heavy sacks to the car and suddenly felt a rush of warmth for the man she intended to marry.

Chapter 17

 

Four months after the abalone trip, Stella was returning from Mueller’s groceries with Tommy when she fell on loose gravel. Unable to get up, she told Tommy to run and tell John.

The accident led to a miscarriage. Confined to her bed, she worried she would be unable to care for Tommy, but Mrs. Mueller barged into her home, saying breathlessly, “Stella, you are in no shape to look after Tommy. If you like, I’ll take him to the store and watch him until John picks him up in the evenings.”

Still feeling resentment over Mrs. Mueller’s summary dismissal, she put her negative feelings aside and replied, “Well, thank you. I’ve been worrying about him. If you could take him for a little while, I would be grateful.”

She turned to her son and asked, “Tommy, would you like to spend the day with Mrs. Mueller?”

He hesitated, thinking about the lollypops and tootsie rolls at the store, and replied, “Ok, I’ll go.”

A week later, Stella felt strong enough to take Tommy back. When she informed Mrs. Mueller, sadness softened the hard lines around the business woman’s face. “You know, I never had children. I’m going to miss him. Anytime you need my help, I’ll be happy to take him again,” She said quietly.

Tommy pulled at her skirt, saying, “Mrs. Mueller, don’t be sad. I’ll come to see you all the time.”

Stella laughed. “Tommy, you can certainly do that. Thank you so much, Mrs. Mueller. John and I are grateful for your help.”

Two weeks later, Stella was washing the breakfast dishes when she heard a knock at the back door. She peeked through the curtains and saw a bearded man standing on the stoop, wearing ragged jeans and a tattered suit coat. She cracked the door opened and asked, “Yes, what do you want?”

The stranger smoothed his hair, replying, “Excuse me, Ma’am. Is there some work I can do for food? I haven’t eaten in two days.”

She opened the door wider and stood with her hands on her hips. “What’s going on here? You’re the third person this morning who’s asked me for a handout.”

The stranger scratched his head, saying politely, “It must be the convention, Ma’am. If you could spare some food, I would be mighty grateful.”

“Oh, all right. Wait here. I’ll get you something,” she replied and closed the door.

When she returned, she gave him a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. “Now, tell me, what’s this business about a convention?”

He took a bite of sandwich and chewed as he talked. “It’s the 1936 Hobo Convention, Ma’am. It’s time to elect a new king.”

She stepped back into the house, thinking, he’s either crazy or he’s pulling my leg. I just hope he isn’t dangerous.

The stranger swallowed the last bite and asked, “Is there some work for me, Ma’am?”

“No, that’s all right. You’re welcome to the food.”

He wiped his mouth with the back of his sleeve, saying, “Thank you, Ma’am. In that case, I’ll go now.”

She scowled as she watched him walking down the path, thinking, a hobo king, indeed! I’ve never heard of such a thing!

She closed the door and went to find John who was reading the Sunday paper. “John, do you know anything about a Hobo Convention?” she asked. “I don’t know if that guy was off his trolley, but he said there would be an election to pick a king. You don’t suppose the town is going to be overrun with bums, do you?”

He looked up from the paper and replied, “What? I don’t know, but hobos are different than bums. Hobos are willing to work for food, but bums are just lazy. I’m going to have a look for myself.”

He went to the window and observed a group of men who were sprawled around a bonfire in the meadow behind Mueller’s Resort. He frowned and said, “I don’t like how it looks. They’ve taken over the meadow and there are more of them coming down the highway.”

“John, where’s Tommy?”

“I think he went to the store to see Mrs. Mueller.”

She pulled on her black sweater and walked to the door, saying, “Oh dear, He shouldn’t be out there with all those strangers. I’m going down to the store and get him. I’ll be right back.”

When she entered Mueller’s Resort, she saw the business woman glaring through the front window with her arms crossed with a look of disgust on her face. She called, “Hi, Mrs. Mueller. Have you seen Tommy?”

“Oh Mercy, Stella! You startled me. Tommy was here just a minute ago. What do you think of all that riff-raff out there?”

“Those men are the reason I’m looking for Tommy. Do you know where he went?”

Mrs. Mueller removed her spectacles and polished the lenses, saying, “Well, now, let me think. He came in earlier with a bunch of wild flowers he sold to a tourist for a penny. Oh, yes, now I remember. He used the penny to buy a hook to go fishing. I believe he’s digging worms behind the last cabin.”

Stella laughed. “That sounds like him. I’m always finding dead worms in his pockets. Ugh! Ever since John showed him how to fish, he’s crazy about fishing.”

She reached for the door. “I better go now and find him. Goodbye, Mrs. Mueller.”

As she walked to the last cabin, she heard shouts and raucous laughter coming from the meadow. When she saw Tommy, he was sitting on the cabin steps, looking unhappy with his chin in his hands. “Hello, Tommy. Is there anything wrong?” She asked.

He slapped his knee and pointed at the hobos. “Those guys over there by the creek are scaring all the fish.”

She took his hand. “We need to go home now. I don’t think it’s safe to be around those loud mouth men.”

As she walked briskly up the path, holding Tommy’s hand, she heard a chorus of whistles and catcalls.

“Hey, baby, where are you going?”

“Hey sweetie, Come over here and join the party.”

“Hey, girly, shake that thing.”

She ignored the comments and walked faster.

During the afternoon, men continued to arrive with bedrolls tied across their backs. Concerned citizens of Jenner-By-The-Sea remained behind locked doors. The level of noise increased as the strangers passed brown jugs from hand to mouth, laughing and shouting. Fistfights erupted, shoving and jeering. When the fog moved in from the ocean, the red glow of the campfires revealed vague shadows of gyrating men.

“I’ve seen enough! I’m going to have my guns ready just in case there’s trouble,” John said and went to his dresser and removed a snub-nosed pistol and a Colt revolver.

A loud knock rattled the back door. John grabbed his Colt revolver and shouted, “Who’s there?”

“It’s me. Lester Mueller. Let me in, quick!”

After John unfastened the latch, the bald-headed grocer burst into the room with his eyes wild, saying, “My wife…those men… She’s …trouble.”

John shook him, saying, “Lester, I can’t understand a damn thing you’re saying. Get a hold of yourself and tell me what happened.”

The grocer swallowed, saying, “Those men broke the front window and overran us. I heard my wife scream. I think she fell, but I couldn’t get to her, so I ran here. John please help me.”

John handed the stub-nose pistol to Mr. Mueller and asked, “Lester, do you know how to shoot?”

He stared helplessly at the weapon, replying, “I’ve never fired a gun in my life.”

John took the pistol back. “Here, let me show you. This is the safety catch. You push it off like this. You pull the hammer back, and then you point it at someone and pull the trigger. Each time you want to shoot, you pull the hammer back. Have you got that?”

Mr. Mueller wiped his hand over his face, saying, “Yes, I think I understand. Let’s go, for God’s sake!”

John returned the gun to Mr. Mueller and stuffed the Colt in his belt. “Good. Don’t use it unless you have to. Stella, keep the door locked until we get back.”

She followed them to the porch, watching them disappear into the night. She called, “John. Be careful.”

His voice trailed back. “Don’t worry; we won’t take any chances.”

She fastened the latch and walked back to the window to watch the men who were barely visible in the fog. She pressed Tommy to her side, saying, “Tommy, stay close to me. Don’t wander away!”

As the night became ominously quiet, Stella became anxious. something’s wrong. I wonder what’s taking them so long. I hope Mrs. Mueller is all right.

While she was waiting impatiently for the men to return, a small knock on the door startled her. “Stella, let us in,” John called softly.

When she unlocked the door, she saw Mr. Mueller with a stricken look. She cried out, “Oh, my God, John. What happened?”

He shook his head slowly, saying, “We found her, but she was murdered!”

Stella quickly went to the grocer. “Oh, Mr. Mueller, I’m so sorry. Is there anything I can do?”

He sunk down into a chair, saying tearfully, “No, there’s nothing I need now. I just need my wife.”

Stella whispered, “John, what happened?”

“We found her in the store. She was lying in a pool of blood with her head bashed in.”

Tommy began to cry. Stella anxiously asked, “John, are we safe?”

He pulled the pistol from his belt and put it on the table, replying, “Yes. I think so. Those bastards high-tailed it out of here in a hurry. I’ve already called the sheriff.”

A knock on the door startled everyone. When John pulled the door open, Stella recognized the hobo who had told her about the convention. He said, “I know who killed that woman. May I come in?”

John stepped aside, saying, “If you have information, come in and tell us.”

The stranger entered the kitchen and went to Mr. Mueller, saying, “I’m sorry about your wife. I want you to know the hobos are not responsible for this outrage. Some hothead drifters were the ones who raised all the hell. We tried to control them, but when they got drunk, we couldn’t stop them.”

Mr. Mueller grabbed the man’s coat and yelled, “Goddamn it, who killed my wife?”

The hobo replied calmly, “His name is Crazy Eddy. I don’t know his last name, but I can describe him.”

Stella stepped forward and said, “John just called the sheriff. When he gets here, you can tell him everything. In the meantime, why don’t all of you sit down, and I’ll make coffee while we wait.”

The hobo pulled out a chair from the table, saying, “Thank you Ma’am. I haven’t had a good cup of coffee in days.”

When he removed his coat and hung it on the back of the chair, she noticed a golden paper crown protruding from his vest pocket. Her mouth dropped as events swirled in her mind like a kaleidoscope. Staring at the hobo as if he were an optical allusion, she thought, first, a mean old woman turned into a kindly grandmother, only to be murdered. Now, this ragged hobo has turned into a king who would avenge her death!

Chapter 18

 

A year had passed since Stella had filed for divorce. When it finally was granted, she was preparing to get married to John. At Santa Rosa, she went to Sears and Roebuck where she carefully selected her wedding clothes. On her way back to Jenner-By-The-Sea, she stopped in Sebastopol to ask Violet for her opinion.

When she knocked on her friend’s door, Violet exclaimed, “Hi Stella, What a surprise to see you. Come in! What’s the occasion ?”

“Hello Violet. I thought you might like to see the clothes I just bought for my wedding.”

“Absolutely! I’m eager to see them!” she replied, taking Stella and Tommy into the kitchen where she gave Tommy a coloring book.

After Stella modeled her new clothes, displaying her dove-gray suit, matching gloves, white shoes and a white hat with a red feather, she asked, “Well, Violet, what do you think?”

“I love what you bought. they are practical, and you can wear them after the wedding on special occasions. By the way, where are you getting married?”

“ We’re getting married at The Church of One Tree in Santa Rosa. Incidentally, I appreciate your offer to keep Tommy while we’re on our honeymoon. You’re such a good friend. “

“That’s no problem, I enjoy taking care of him. Where are you going on your honeymoon?”

“We’re going straight to San Francisco right after the ceremony and stay with John’s sister for two days, but I’m a little nervous. Sophie is so rich, and I’m afraid I won’t fit in.”

“May I talk to you heart to heart?” Violet asked.

“Sure, what is it?”

“Are you certain you want to marry John? You’re not very well suited, and I worry about his violence. You could do much better.”

Stella rubbed the back of her neck and replied, “You’re right about our differences. He’s mainly interested in hunting and fishing, not books, art, music, or ideas. He thinks they’re just a waste of time. When we make love, he’s so rough I don’t enjoy it.”

“Then why in hell are you marrying him?” she asked, snubbing out her cigarette.

“Well, maybe I could do better, but I like him in spite of his faults. He’s hardworking, honest, and loyal. I don’t have to worry about him cheating, like I did with Rico. Thanks to him, I’ve had the luxury of surviving.”

Violet exhaled. “Okay, it’s your life, but lately, you don’t have your old spirit.”

Stella laughed. “Don’t worry, it’s still there. I’m just holding it in check for the time being.”

After the marriage ceremony, Stella and John began their trip to the “big city.” I wonder if John’s sister will like me. I just hope I don’t make a fool of myself, Stella thought as she rode in the Nash, traveling at John’s usual speed of 35 miles per hour.

When they finally arrived at San Rafael, they had to wait for the ferry to take them across the bay. When the ferry arrived, John drove up the ramp and parked on the upper deck. With a blast from its horn, the ferry got underway, rolling and pitching in the choppy water.

John got out of the car, saying, “Stella, let’s go over by that rail where we can have a good view.”

While they were standing at the rail, a huge liner with red smokestacks churned towards the open sea, rocking the ferry in its wake. Stella gripped the rail, shouting, “John, are we going to tip over?”

“Don’t worry. We’ll settle down when that ship passes,” he said and patted her hand reassuringly.

Half way across the bay, Stella pointed to a massive structure looming in the fog, asking, “John, what’s that big tower over there?”

“What? Oh, that’s going to be the Golden Gate Bridge. It’s supposed to open in ’37.”

When San Francisco with its ragged skyline came into view, Stella felt suddenly intimidated, thinking, my God, that city is so big. Jenner is only a wide spot on the road. I hope John’s sister won’t think I’m a hick just because I come from the sticks.

“John, do you think your sister will like me?” she asked, clasping John’s hand.

“What? Sophie? Oh, sure she’ll like you,” he replied, giving her a quizzical look. She’s a widow with plenty of room for us. Her husband left her well off.”

“Who are the other people I’m going to meet?”

“Well, there’s my niece, Patricia. She’s about your age. She’s married to a baseball player named Walter, but you’ll get a chance to meet them all.”

A whistle announced they were nearing the end of the trip. John took her arm and escorted her back to the car, but she was beginning to feel queasy. After he drove out of the Ferry Building and on down to Market Street, he merged with the traffic and clanging Streetcars on the wide boulevard. As they drove past big department stores, she studied the women strolling on the sidewalks and noticed they were wearing white hats and gloves similar to hers. Thank God, at least I’m in fashion, she thought, feeling somewhat relieved from her anxiety.

John continued to drive through the city, frequently using low gear to climb the numerous hills. When he finally arrived at the Sunset District, with the radiator steaming, he announced, “We made it! This is where my sister lives.”

Stella studied Sophie’s house, saying, John, your sister’s place looks like all the other houses on the block, and where are the front Yards?”

He laughed. “San Francisco is cut up into small pieces. There’s no room for Yards. Now, let’s go inside and meet my sister.”

When Stella met Sophie, she saw John and his sister resembled each other, both with large blue eyes and receding chins, but Sophie, unlike John, moved with easy grace in expensive clothes with her silver hair swept back in a stylish bun.

Sophie clasped Stella’s hands, saying warmly, “Stella, I’m delighted to meet you. If you want, you have time to freshen up before dinner. Your room is at the head of the stairs. John, our father will be here and so will the kids.”

That evening, Stella sat uneasily at the formally arranged dining table, thinking about her own chipped china and tablecloth with peeling corners. Everything here is so elegant, this sterling silver, these bone China dishes, the crystal glassware, and this lace tablecloth. I would be embarrassed to have these people in my home.

John’s father sat across the table with a sickly grey look of cancer, studying his plate, not saying anything.

When Stella heard John slurping his soup, she tried to kick him under the table, but he ignored her.

Sophie came out of the kitchen with a molded orange salad, put it on the table, and stood behind John, playfully tugging a big ear. “Little Brother, I think you should move to San Francisco. I still have connections and could get you a good job,” she said.

He looked up from his soup. “No thanks, Sis. You’re not going to get me into one of those monkey suits. You know me. I couldn’t stand to be caught behind four walls all day. I got to be outside.”

Sophie returned to her seat at the end of the table. Rolling her eyes, she said, “Oh John, you always were contrary. Stella, did you know when he was a little boy he used to tell me he was going to drown himself in the river? I’d run after him and beg him to come back. When he got older I realized he was doing that just for attention, but he scared me half to death.”

John’s father tried to say something but went into a fit of coughing. When the spasm passed, he wiped his mouth with his handkerchief and glowered at John, saying, “That’s right! He was always making trouble for his sister.”

John stared at his father without responding. Stella wondered if he were showing respect or just afraid.

Sophie intervened. “Now Daddy, let’s not pick on poor John. He has enough on his hands with a new bride.”

Walter, the baseball player, cleared his throat and jeered, “Hey Stella, there must be a shortage of men where you live. Uncle John here is old enough to be your father.”

John turned scarlet, stupidly staring at his nephew. Stella wanted to make a clever rejoinder, but her mind went blank. She ignored the baseball player and tasted her soup, now turned cold while Patricia studied her with a vaguely amused expression.

Finally, John spoke, “Well, uh, Walter, she is my daughter.”

The conversation came to a halt. Stella felt mortified. After several painful moments, Sophie changed the subject. “Stella, have you ever seen the Ice Follies? I have tickets for tomorrow night’s performance for the two of you.”

Stella flashed a grateful look at Sophie, saying, “Oh, thank you. I’ve always wanted to see the follies.”

“Good. John, tomorrow you simply must show your young bride the sights of the city.”

On the following day, John took Stella on a cable car ride, clanging and bumping over the perilously steep hills. She was thrilled, but frequently gripped the handrail to avoid sliding off the seat.

At Fisherman’s Wharf, they held hands while strolling on the crowded covered sidewalks. The displays of painted turtles, redwood burros, picture post cards, and assorted cheap Japanese merchandise fascinated Stella. John bought her a postcard of an ancient sailing ship that was anchored at the end of the pier. As the savory aroma of crab-pots bubbling along the sidewalks wafted, Stella inhaled deeply and said, “John,” that smell makes my mouth water. Could we have an early lunch?”

“We sure can,” he replied and chose a restaurant with a view of the water. Seated by a flyspecked window, Stella looked at an island in the middle of the bay. “John, what’s that ugly-looking island out there?” she asked.

He laughed, “That’s Crazy Eddy’s new home. They call it Alcatraz. I suggest the Lobster Thermadoor. I think you’ll like it.”

When their order was served, Stella tasted the rich mixture of lobster and cheese simmering in a half shell. She shut her eyes and purred, “Oh, John, I’ve never tasted anything so delicious.”

After lunch, they walked to Chinatown where they heard a cacophony of loud, dissonant sounds. Stella was amazed as she listened to singsong conversations, deep-throated gongs, cymbals, horns and strange music. She noticed the storefronts had advertisements written with Chinese characters, but she wrinkled her nose at the smell of dead ducks hanging by their necks. John took her into a souvenir shop and bought her a music box. When she raised the lid, decorated with a painted dragon, she heard a squeaky rendition of “Chopsticks.” “Oh, John! I love it!” she said, clapping her hands.

That night, the city was transformed with a display of colored lights. The marquis of the Fox Theater, with thousands of blinking lights turned the night into day. From the top of Twin Peaks, the lights of the city glimmered over the rolling hills. In the moonlight, she saw the Pacific Ocean on one side and the twinkling lights of the East Bay sparkling on the other side.

Later, when she thought of her wedding trip, she realized that living in the backwaters of Sonoma County, struggling for survival, had not prepared her for the brilliant spectacle of the Ice Follies. Transfixed, she watched the skaters perform unbelievable feats with the music of a live orchestra. The icy surface glistened with hues of blue, green, red, and yellow as the skaters raced and flashed their blades in curving leaps, showering bits of ice over the spectators. With her eyes sparkling, she clasped John’s hand and whispered, “My husband, your sister has been wonderful, but I don’t care what the others might think. The magic of this day makes up for everything.”

Chapter 19

 

A month after her honeymoon, Stella wrote a letter to Violet. “Dear Violet, I wish I had taken your advice not to marry John. Since we’ve been back, he’s acting terrible, criticizing me for every little thing, accusing me of spending too much money. Now, he doesn’t want me to use the car! He said it costs too much for gas, but I think he just wants to keep me chained to the house. To hell with him! I’m going to Juanita to see if I can find out if her psychic visions can help me understand him better. I’ll close now, but thanks again for taking care of Tommy. Love, Stella”

That afternoon, she drove to Luigi’s farm where Juanita was tending her garden. “Hi Juanita. I’m glad I found you,” she called.

Juanita waved. “Hello Stella. Come in for a cup of coffee.”

As Stella was drinking coffee at the kitchen table, she asked, “Juanita, could your psychic visions tell me something about John?”

“The visions only come if there’s a good reason,” she replied with her dark eyes penetrating Stella.

“Juanita, I do have a good reason. There’s something about John that frightens me. Maybe the visions could help me to do something about his anger.”

Juanita nodded slowly, asking, “Do you know where his people come from?”

“His father came from the Schlashick Holstein Peninsula. It’s a part of Germany, but I think it used to belong to Denmark.”

Juanita’s eyes gradually became glazed, looking at a distant point. She said, “Yes, I see it now. I see a woman, a young woman, short and muscular, with a bulge at the back of her head. She’s wearing animal skins. She comes from the other people who live in caves. Something frightens her. She begins to run. Three tall yellow-hair men with blue eyes chase her. They catch her and throw her to the ground. One of the men mounts her. Now there are only two left, the tall man laughing and the short girl weeping.”

Stella leaned forward. “Juanita, what do those visions mean?”

“It means John has mixed blood from humans and from the other people.”

“You’re not suggesting John is part Neanderthal, are you? I once read Neanderthal caves were discovered on the Schlashick Holstein Peninsula.”

Juanita went to the stove and refilled their cups, saying, “I don’t know about names. I only can tell what I see.”

On her way back home, Stella imagined John wearing animal furs, squatting by an open fire and chewing on a bone. Is it possible he could be a throwback? She wondered. He looks like he could be a caveman with those big muscles and hairy body. Well, even if he isn’t a Neanderthal, he’s been acting like one. I hope he’s in a better mood tonight.

That evening, John came into the house with his face livid, yelling, “Goddamn it Stella. You used the car again. Don’t try to lie. I checked the speedometer.”

“John, why are you acting like a cop? I haven’t done anything wrong!”

“You’re wasting too much money, just driving around the country.”

“Oh Jesus, John. I couldn’t have used more than a nickel’s worth of gas. That gallon of milk Juanita gave me is worth more than that!”

“Now you listen to me! I work myself half to death for my God damn boss. I earn the money, and it’s your job to do what I say. Do you understand?”

“John Nelson! I do my part. I don’t need you to order me around like a slave!”

Tommy began to cry. “Mama, I spilled my milk.”

John grabbed him roughly and shouted, “Damn it Tommy! How many times have I told you not to spill your milk?”

“John, Leave him alone. He didn’t do it on purpose!”

When Tommy cried louder, John pulled his belt loose, yelling, “Quit that God damn bawling, or I’ll give you something to cry about!”

Tommy cried louder. John swung the belt down hard across his back. Tommy screamed. Stella jumped between them and grabbed his upraised arm, yelling, “John, stop it. You’re acting crazy.”

“Stella, I’m warning you, let go.”

She continued clinging to his arm, crying, “No, I won’t let you beat that boy just because you’re afraid of your boss.”

“Goddamn you Stella. I warned you!” He struck her with his fist. She slammed against the wall and slumped to the floor with her face in her hands.

Tommy squirmed out of his chair and ran to her side, crying, “Mama, Mama!”

John grabbed his hat and stomped out of the house, muttering, “There’s no damn peace around here!”

When he slammed the door shut and stomped down the steps, Stella got up and put ice on her throbbing face. After she Calmed Tommy, she put him to bed on his narrow cot and lay down next to him.

At midnight, John fumbles with his key at the front door and shuffle to the bedroom. Stella held her breath until she heard him fall across the bed. He’s drunk. Good! I won’t have to deal with him tonight, she thought and let out her breath.

The next morning, John left for work without breakfast. When he was gone, Stella got up and looked in the mirror at her bruises. I need to hide the damage so no one will be asking me a lot of nosey questions,” she thought, gingerly applying makeup.

While Tommy was still asleep, she went quickly to Mueller’s Resort and called Violet and James. Back at her home, she packed their clothes and wrote a short note. “John, I’ve left you because I won’t live with someone who hits me.”

Shortly Violet arrived and took one look at Stella’s face, saying, “How dare That God damn brute hit you! You and Tommy are welcome to stay with us.”

“Thank you, Violet. James has invited me to stay with them, but if I need a place later, I’ll take you up on that offer,” she replied and blew her nose.

Violet gave her a hug and said, “Stella, you’re always welcome. Now, let’s put your things in the car and get to hell out of here!”

As Stella rode on her way to Petaluma, she felt anger welling up. How dare he hit me! I’m so mad I could chew nails!

“Stella, will you get a job in Petaluma?” Violet inquired.

“Yes, I’ll have to get a job to support Tommy and myself; I just hope I can find one.”

At the outskirts of Petaluma, Violet turned on a dirt road with numerous chicken houses and large flocks of chicken on both sides of the road. When they finally arrived at James’s place, Stella saw two broken-down trucks parked in the Yard next to a ramshackle building. Florence appeared at the door and called, “Hello you guys. It’s marvelous to see you again.”

“Thank you, Florence, I appreciate your invitation to stay here.”

Florence laughed. “For goodness sakes, Stella; you’re family!”

After Violet helped carry in Stella’s things, she kissed her cheek, saying, “Good luck Stella. Call me if you need anything.”

As she drove away, Florence Invited Stella and Tommy to come into her kitchen, saying, “Make yourself at home. I’ll put on a pot of coffee. Tommy, would you like a cookie and a glass of Kool-Aid?”

When he nodded, she handed him a home-made cookie and cool-aid in a Shirley Temple glass .

She turned to Stella, saying, “You were lucky to reach James this morning. He was just getting ready to leave for the Valley, but he will be back tonight.”

“I’m anxious to see him. I haven’t had a chance to visit with you guys since you returned from Venezuela.”

Florence poured the coffee and asked, “Stella, what happened to you? Your eye looks bad.”

Stella took a sip of coffee and replied, “If you don’t mind, I’d rather not talk about it right now.”

“Oh sure, “Stella. I understand,” Florence replied. She asked Tommy, “How old are you now?”

“I’m almost four,” he replied with his mouth full of cookie.

“I have a little boy and his name is Robert. He’s six years old, a little older than you, but I bet you boys will have fun together. He’ll be coming home from school soon.”

That night, the rumble of a big diesel engine and squeaking airbrakes announced James had returned from the valley.

“Daddy’s home! Daddy’s home!” Robert yelled and ran outside with Tommy following.

James came into the kitchen with a boy on each side, saying, “Hi Sis! I got here as soon as I could. There’s a truckload of cantaloupes out there, so I have to leave early in the morning, but I’m glad you’re here!”

Stella hugged him and replied, “Hello, James. Thanks for taking me in.”

“You’re welcome, Little Sister. You’ve always got a home here. By the way, I saw Kyle yesterday. He’s getting divorced.”

Stella frowned. “That doesn’t surprise me; no one could live with him very long. What’s Gloria going to do now?”

“Kyle said she’s working for a small-time grocer in Monte Rio. She’s keeping the kids, of course. Excuse me now. I’ve got to get out of these dirty clothes and take a shower. Hello, Florence. What’s for dinner?”

Florence gave his nose a pecked, taking care not to let her freshly ironed pinafore brush against his greasy clothes. “Hello dear. We’re having a simply divine stew.”

After dinner, they sat around the dining table, and James reminisced about the “good old days” in Occidental. He laughed. “I left when I was 15, but there’s never a new idea there. When I returned 16 years later, they were still talking about the same old stuff.”

While James repeated old stories, Stella’s attention drifted, thinking, I’m grateful he hasn’t mentioned my black eye. I wondered if John has found my note.

During the next week, Stella searched for a job, but she was unsuccessful finding one. There were long lines at every job opening where homeless men avoided her eyes as if they were ashamed of being hungry. She saw gaunt women with ragged children standing at the side of the road, holding signs advertising their willingness to work for food. Newspaper headlines screamed unemployment had reached 25%. She despaired, how much longer can I expect to lean on James? He works 16 hours a day, and they barely get by.

At the end of the second week, she still had not found a job. Feeling queasy, she returned early one afternoon from her desperate search for work.

Florence met her at the door, saying, “Stella, John just called. He’s on the phone right now.”

Stella took the phone. “Hello John. I’m fine. Yes, Tommy’s fine too. You sound different. Oh, when will you get them? John, I don’t believe that. Well, all right. Next Saturday, but just for a little while.”

She hung up the phone, saying, “Well, John’s coming up next Saturday to talk. He said the reason he was cranky was because of a toothache, if you could believe that. Anyway, he’s had all of his teeth pulled and getting new dentures.”

Florence arched an eyebrow, asking, “Does that mean you won’t need the car tomorrow?”

“Oh, yes, I’ll need it, if you don’t mind. I have to find a job, or I won’t be able to take care of Tommy. I don’t expect you and James to support me forever.”

On Saturday morning, Stella, still unemployed, anxiously waited for John, thinking, I wonder if his toothache was the real reason for his awful outbursts. Well, I do miss him, but not the way he became.

At two that afternoon, John arrived dressed in his suit. He awkwardly handed her a bouquet of roses, saying, “Hello Stella. These are for you. Could we go to that little diner down the road and talk?”

She took the roses, replying, “All right. I’ll ask Florence if she could watch Tommy.”

He grinned, revealing a flash of white dentures.

At the cafe, Stella kept her eyes cast down as she listened to her husband. He began, “I know I’m not very good with words. It’s always been hard for me to do things like other men. I’ve always been the one at the end of the line with a shovel. In the Navy, I shoveled coal in the fire room of the destroyer. As a cowboy, I shoveled manure from the stables. In the lumber mills, I shoveled sawdust, and now I work for the State and shovel mud from the ditches. I do what I’m supposed to do, but I just don’t seem to get ahead. The one thing in my life that means anything is having you. If I lose you, I don’t know what I would do.”

He stopped talking and cracked his hairy knuckles.

Stella had not expected John’s explanation, knowing how difficult it was for him to admit his limitations. She suddenly felt compassion for the man whose ancestors reached back to Neanderthal caves. She took one of his work-worn hands, saying, “John, I don’t want to lose you either, but I can’t have someone who beats both me and my son!”

His eyes became teary. “Stella, I swear that will never happen again. I’ve been half-crazy without you. I’ll do anything you say if only you’ll come back.”

She clasped both his hands, saying, “Oh John, I’ve missed you too. I’ll give you another chance.” She wiped her eyes with a napkin and leaned across the table, whispering, “John, I have a surprise. We’re going to have a baby.”

Chapter 20

 

As a powerful winter storm drummed the roof of the little cabin, Stella woke up from a sharp contraction. Glancing at the clock, she saw it was only 2:30. With the onset of another contraption, she shook John’s shoulder saying, “John, I think I’m in labor!”

He grunted several times but remained asleep. She shook him again, harder, shouting, “John, Wake up! I’m having a baby!”

He woke up and jumped from the bed with his eyes gone wild, saying, “Hurry up Stella. We’ve got to get you to the hospital in a hurry!”

“Calm down John. It’s only a baby. My suitcase is already packed. I just hope we can Get through this storm,” she replied as he feverishly pulled on his pants.

Five minutes later, the Nash was splashing sheets of water from the rain drenched roads with its headlights barely penetrating the night. Stella had a brief blimps of the churning river in a flash of lightening. She groaned, “Oh my God, John, that river looks like it’s going to flood!”

As the old car sped through the night, swaying in the wind, John suddenly slammed on the brakes, shouting, “Jesus, now water is covering the road!”

“John, what are we going to do?”

“I’m going to make sure it’s safe to drive through it.”

He ran to the flooded area and picked up a stick to test the depth of the water. He was satisfied it was safe enough and ran back to the car, gasping, “It’s not too deep and there’s no current so we can make it!”

Carefully, he drove ahead with water slapping the undercarriage, but the engine began to sputter. When Stella felt cold water on her feet, she cried out, “Goddamn it, John. The river is coming in the car, and we’re getting stuck!”

“No, we can make it,” he insisted as the engine balked. Slowly, the car moved through the swirling water until it finally reached high ground. John pointed back at the river. “Look, Stella, there’s a house being swept along in the current. It’s a good thing we got through when we did.”

“John, please hurry. I think the baby’s coming.”

John continued the race with the stork, but he stopped abruptly as he rounded a curve with the headlights shining on a mud-slide with an up-rooted tree blocking their way. Stella cried out, “John, we’re trapped and the baby’s coming. What are we going to do?”

He grabbed an ax from the back, saying, “I’m going to chop that tree in half.”

She watched as he chopped with powerful strokes, sending chips flying in all directions. After he severed the tree, he shoved the remaining half over the edge. He ran back to the car, shouting over the roar of the river, “Stella, come with me. I want you to wait at the other side of that slide. The shoulder’s soft, and it might not hold the car.”

“John, you can’t do that. If the car falls, you could drown.”

“Don’t worry. I’ll hold the door open and jump if I have to. Now hurry, we don’t have much time.”

He took her arm and walked her past the mud and left her on the opposite side of the slide. He returned to the car and began to drive through the narrow gap between the mud and the river. As the right front tire came dangerously close to the edge, the rear tire began to spin in the mud.

Stella was standing in the rain, holding her abdomen with both hands, when a warm gush of water suddenly ran down her legs. She moaned, “Oh God! The baby’s coming! I’m glad Tommy is safe with Violet and not in this nightmare.”

John jumped from the car and put a blanket under the tire. After he gunned the engine, the car leaped forward. He stopped by Stella, yelling, “Quick, get in!”

As she was climbing into the car, she glanced back and saw a massive mud slide spilling across the road and into the river. “Thank God we made it,” she breathlessly said. “I’m glad you used to be a lumberjack. You were wonderful.”

“Hell, never mind that. How are you feeling?”

“I think I’m OK, but it’s going to be close.”

John raced through the night, but encountered no further delays. Finally, they arrived at Santa Rosa County Hospital where he slid to a stop. He disappeared through the emergency door, but returned with two white-clad attendants. They gently placed Stella on a gurney. As they wheeled her away, Joey Leroy Nelson drew his first breath, howling at the outrage of his birth.

When Stella returned home with the baby, she worried Tommy would feel replaced, but he enjoyed watching Joey, especially after his bath. Whenever she gave Joey to John, Tommy watched expectantly. She would ask, “Here John, wouldn’t you like to hold your son before I put him to bed?”

He reluctantly held Joey, but after several minutes, He would jump up and give Joey back to Stella, yelling, “Goddamn it! He did it again!”

As he dashed to the bathroom holding his wet pants away from his lap, Tommy giggle, remembering when he and Kenny had pissed on John’s shoe.

Tommy also was fascinated watching Joey nurse, sucking on his mother’s full breast.

When the village women came to look at the new baby, Tommy listened to their remarks and felt proud.

“Just look at him; he’s such a little doll.”

“He’s certainly a healthy baby.”

“Why, he’s the spitting image of his father with those big blue eyes and those big ears!”

However, one old woman annoyed Stella by asking personal questions. “How much money does your husband make?” “How many times have you been married?” “When will you have sex again?”

Stella gave vague answers, suspecting the woman was gathering information for gossip.

The old woman also enjoyed teasing Tommy, amused at his distress. She taunted, “I’m going to take your little brother home with me. What do you think of that?”

“No, you can’t have him!”

The old crone gave a toothless cackle. “Oh, is that so? Why can’t I have him?”

“Because you don’t have tits to feed him.”

The old woman sputtered, shaking her finger. “What impudence!” She turned to Stella. “This child has not been taught very good manners. You’re a very poor mother.”

Stella laughed, realizing Tommy was concerned about Joey’s nutrition, but before she could explain his remark, the old woman shouted, “It’s not funny. You should be ashamed of yourself for letting him talk to me like that. Don’t expect to see me again, ever!”

She whirled around and grabbed her umbrella, flouncing out of the house. Tommy ran to the door and shouted, “Hey, Lady, if you want to see Joey, you can, but we’re going to keep him.”

 

Chapter 21

 

The coastal fog had hung over Jenner during summer without relief. When her children developed sore throats and fevers with a hacking cough, Stella despaired, thinking, “They need medical attention, but John says we just can’t afford the luxury of a doctor.”

When John returned from work, she pressed him, saying, “John, the kids are real sic. What should we do?”

After he listened to them coughing for several minutes, he began to rummage in the pantry.

“John, what are you looking for?”

“I’m looking for an onion. I’m going to mix its juice with honey. It’s an old Indian cure for coughing.”

The next day, John’s cure failed to stop the children from coughing. In desperation, Stella sought the advice from an eccentric woman known for healing. After examining the children, the woman tapped her foot, saying, “Well, they’ve got the whooping cough. It’s caused by bad vapors in your house. You have to open these windows and give them plenty of fresh air. Also, be sure to make them drink their first mornings pee.”

Stella looked apprehensively outside at the swirling fog, protesting, “It’s foggy out there. If I open the windows, the children would get cold.”

The woman crossed her arms, tapping her foot impatiently. “If you don’t clear this house of bad vapors, your kids will die.”

For two days, Stella administered urine, homemade cough syrup and foggy air, but the children’s condition became worse. As a last resort, she went to Juanita for her advice.

That evening, she confronted her husband, saying, “John, we have to get the boys to a climate with dry heat. Juanita told me the fog is keeping them sick. She suggested we go to Lake County.”

His mouth dropped. “Lake County? How does she know about Lake County? That’s where I was born.”

“John, that doesn’t matter. What’s important is we get them away from all of this damn fog!”

He scratched the stubble on his chin and replied, “Jesus, Stella, I just don’t see how we can afford to do that.”

Stella hit her palm with her fist and shouted, “Goddamn it John. They’re going to die if we don’t do something!”

When the children began coughing with a deep rasping whoop, John listened at tentatively as they struggled to breathe. Finally, he said, “All right, they are real sick. We can go to Lake County. Tomorrow is Saturday. I’ll drive you up there and find a place for you and the kids to stay. When deer season opens, I’ll take my vacation and join you.”

On Saturday morning, Stella helped John pack the old Nash, anxious to get away from the fog. With the children wrapped in blankets, John began the journey, driving at his usual speed of 35 miles per hour. “John, can’t we go any faster?” Stella asked, frustrated with their slow progress.

“What? Oh, we’re going fast enough. Slow and steady wins the race.”

Three hours later, they arrived at Calistoga where John bought triple-header ice cream cones to go with their baloney sandwiches. After lunch, they resumed the trip. As they left the city limits, Stella read a large sign at the side of the road, “Hot Mud Baths. Nature’s Best Cure for Rheumatism. Next stop.”

Stella ask whimsically, “John, should we stop for a hot mud bath?”

Failing to get her sarcasm, he replied, “No, it’s just something for rich people.”

At the foothills of Mount Saint Helena, John shifted to low gear in order to climb up the numerous switchbacks. At the summit, he stopped to refill the steaming radiator.

Stella checked on the children who were sleeping peacefully in the back. She got out of the car and walked to the lookout area. Leaning against an ancient pine tree, she looked at the panoramic view, locating the distant site of her childhood home. As a child, she often had looked at the mountain peak where she now stood, just a blue speck in the future.

She listened to the wind blowing in the trees and thought she could hear her parents and sister, talking, laughing, traveling through time, through space, through eternity.

She focused on the road they had just traversed, folding back on itself like a serpent. She imagined herself back down on that road, looking up at herself, wondering what she would be thinking as she looked down on herself. She leaned back against the rough bark of reality, thinking, I’ve been binding my wings and blaming others for my failures. I’m stuck in the middle of my existence, but I’m going to take charge of my life, unfold my wings and soar high in the future.

Her musings were interrupted when John joined her. Pointing to the scrubby hills shimmering in the heat, he said, “Look Stella; you can see Lake County. It’s hot, but it’s a dry heat. If you get sweaty, you can always dry off in the shade. When I was in the tropics, I couldn’t stop sweating, but Lake County isn’t like that. We better go now.”

When they finally reached Middletown, Stella surveyed the town that would be her home for the next month. She observed its dusty deserted streets and the homes with shades drawn. “John, Where are all the people?” she asked.

“What? Oh, everybody stays inside during the heat of the day,” he replied as he turned on a shady lane.

After driving two more blocks, he stopped in front of an old house that was over-grown with vines. “Well, here we are,” he said proudly. “This is where I was born. My old pal, Ernie, owns it now, but he said I can use it whenever I want it.

Stella looked at the dilapidated building with boarded-up windows, skeptically asking, “John, do you think this place is fit for us to stay?”

“Oh sure it is,” he replied enthusiastically. “When we cut back the vines and get it cleaned up, you’ll love it!”

For the next two hours, they pried boards from the windows, cut back vines, and scrubbed the floors. When they were finished, Stella, sweating profusely, said, “All right John, this house isn’t so bad after all. I like how the breeze blows through the windows. It’s good enough for camping. Now, let’s make up our beds.”

While she helped spread their bedrolls on the floor, she noticed Tommy was working the outside pump handle up and down. “Look John, Tommy’s not coughing! I think this heat is just what the children need!”

He rubbed her shoulders, whispering in her ear, “This heat is good for me too. It makes me frisky. I can hardly wait for tonight.”

The next morning, a shaft of sunlight fell across the faded wallpaper as Stella woke up to blue jays raucously calling and the steady hum of insects. She smiled as she inhaled the scent of honeysuckle, wood smoke and freshly brewed coffee. Poking his head into the bedroom, John said, “Good morning, Stella. I just put on a pot of coffee. I’m going to the bakery to get some doughnuts. I’ll be right back.”

She got up and looked in on the children, happy they weren’t struggling to breathe. John soon returned with sugar-glazed donuts. As they sat on the porch, eating hungrily and drinking coffee, John waved his arm expansively, saying, “This is my kind of country. I hate to leave, but I’ll be back in two weeks for deer hunting, just as soon as my vacation begins.”

Stella tapped her cigarette in an old hubcap, replying, “John, I’ll miss you. Thanks for taking us here. I already can tell the children are feeling much better.”

He patted her knee. “I’ll miss you too. Now let’s get the kids ready to go to Ernie’s farm before I leave for Jenner. Me and him have been pals since we were kids.”

After Stella dressed and fed the children, John drove them to Ernie’s farm, maneuvering the car over a dirt road through a pear orchard to an old farm house. When John introduced Stella to Ernie and his wife, Martha, Stella immediately liked her merry laugh and plump good-natured face.

John and Ernie disappeared to find deer tracks, anticipating the opening of deer season. Stella and Martha chatted under a giant cottonwood tree, sipping ice tea as Joey slept in a hammock. Tommy pushed Clifford, Martha’s five-year old son, in a tire swing.

Martha said, “Ernie is my second husband. I had to drop out of high school to married Clifford’s father, but he turned out to be a bum. Ernie is a good man, but he’s a fanatic about hunting. During deer season, I become a hunting widow.”

Stella laughed. “We have a lot in common. John’s a hard worker, but he’s also a fanatic about deer hunting. I wonder how long they’ll be harassing those poor deer.”

Martha laughed. “Well, they could be gone all night. I swear, that husband of mine would rather hunt than have sex. Stella, I know a great place for swimming. We can go there later in my old Roadster.”

Stella dragged her toe in the dust self-consciously, saying, “I love to swim, but I’m embarrassed to show myself in public.”

Martha slapped her chubby thighs, saying, “I’m no scarecrow myself. That’s why I like this place. It’s always deserted. If you want, I’ll pick you up tomorrow. Oh, I see the men coming. Hey, you guys, it’s about time you got back.”

After Ernie barbecued venison for lunch, John brought his family back to their temporary home and began the solitary return trip to Jenner-By-The-Sea with its eternal fog.

Chapter 22

 

On the following morning, Stella woke up; aware John would be gone for two weeks. I wonder what this day will bring, she thought, feeling excited to be on her own.

When she looked in on her sleeping children, she was satisfied they were breathing normally and woke them up. After giving them breakfast, she washed the dishes and made a short grocery list. Outside, a friendly neighbor gave her directions to the store. “You can’t miss it. It’s only three blocks down this street.”

With Joey on her hip and Tommy running ahead, she leisurely strolled towards town while the cicadas buzzed in the trees and the birds twittered. An old hound sleeping in the dappled shade lifted its head and gave a lip-fluttering “woof.

At the store, she selected the items on her list and put them on the counter. A tall, handsome young clerk with unusual green eyes looked at her intensely, saying, “Hello. My name is Baxter. I’ve been waiting for you all my life.”

She held his gaze, captivated by his haunting eyes. She replied, “Hello. My name is Stella.”

He flashed a smile. “You’re new here, aren’t you?”

“Yes, I’m here on vacation, but my husband will join me in two weeks,” she replied, wondering why she had mentioned John.

“Well, that’s enough time to know each other,” he replied and rang up her purchases.

When she went to the door with her groceries, he followed and brushed lightly against her arm as he held the door open, saying, “Good bye Stella. You can always find me here in the morning.”

As she walked back to the old house where John was born, she felt confused from her encounter with Baxter. His words repeated in her thoughts. “I’ve been waiting for you all my life. “What did he mean by that remark? Did he really mean it, or was he just flirting? He had such incredible eyes. Hell! I’m just being silly. Nothing he said means anything.

After she made lunch for the children, she put them down for their naps. She tried to rest, but Baxter’s chiseled features fueled her imagination. Despite her self-recriminations, she indulged in a romantic fantasy with the handsome young man with green eyes, until she felt disgusted with herself and thought, what’s wrong with me? I’m a married woman with children. None of this means anything.

Martha arrived that afternoon for their swimming excursion. Tommy scrambled into the rumble seat with Clifford, and Stella got in the front with Joey on her lap. “Tommy, now stay in your seat. I don’t want you falling out of this car!” she admonished.

As Martha was speeding over the back roads with her hair whipping around her face, she slowed down and pointed to a colony of ground squirrels, saying, “Look, boys, see those little animals scurrying in and out of their homes.”

“Oh, I see them.” Tommy replied, staring in the opposite direction.

Stella snapped, “Tommy, you’re looking the wrong way. Martha, he’s always telling me he sees things when he doesn’t. Sometimes I think he does it just to annoy me.”

Martha laughed. “Well, you know kids. They are always up to something.”

When they reached the crest of the road, Clear Lake came into view with a speedboat zigzagging across the water. “Oh, Martha! What a beautiful sight! Is that where we’re going?”

Martha replied, “No, that’s Clear Lake, but we’re going to a cove with hot springs that bubble up from the bottom, and it’s connected to that lake.

Abruptly, Martha turned on a dirt road leading down to a sandy beach next to a grove of pine trees. “Well, this is it! What do you think?”

“Oh, Martha, it’s paradise, and it’s private, just like you said.”

Tommy and Clifford scramble out of the car. “We’re going swimming! We’re going swimming!” they yelled and ran to the shallow water, jumping in and splashing each other.

As Stella watched the boys play, she kept Joey on the blanket, keeping him safe. Martha was floating on her back. She yelled, “Hey Stella, come over here and see what you think.”

Stella picked up Joey and walked slowly through the water, but she jumped back suddenly, shouting, “Oh Jesus, what is it?”

Martha laughed. “It’s the hot springs I told you about. Don’t they feel neat?”

Cautiously, Stella stepped forward and felt the bubbles tingling her skin. She laughed, “Martha, it feels like a watery marble cake with the hot and the cold.”

Martha took Joey and said, “Let me take him so you can go for a swim.”

“Thanks Martha. I’ll take you up on that offer,” she replied and began to swim towards the lake.

As she reached the opening to the lake, a speedboat slowed down and she heard a familiar voice. “Hey, Stella, hello!”

“Baxter! What in the world are you doing here?” she asked, surprised with his unexpected appearance.

“This is my playground, but what a coincidence to meet again. It must be magic!”

Suddenly, Stella’s face felt hot despite the cool water. As she watched his perfect golden body, standing poised silhouetted against the blue sky, ready to dive, she thought, Oh God, just look at that tan, and here I am, fish-belly white.

Gracefully, He dove into the water and popped up next to her, flipping his blond hair back from his face. “Stella, it’s good to see you. Would you like to take a ride in my boat? We could go across the lake for a beer.”

Her mind raced, thinking, He’s enchanting, and I’d love to go, but it wouldn’t be proper. “Thank you Baxter, but I better not. It was sweet of you to ask, but I need to get back to the children.”

“All right, Stella. I’ll see you later,” he replied and swam back to his boat. As he roared away, she felt a sinking sensation.

She swam quickly back to the beach where she joined Martha who was sunbathing with Joey. Tommy and Clifford continued to play at the edge of the water.

“Stella, who’s your handsome friend?” Martha asked, arching an eyebrow.

“O, he’s just some guy I met at the grocery store. His name is Baxter. He invited me to take a boat ride, but I refused,” she replied, feigning indifference.

Martha looked amused. “Why didn’t you go?”

“Oh Martha, I hardly know him, and besides, I’m an old married woman.”

Late that night after the children were asleep, Stella sat on the front porch smoking a cigarette, but she became alarmed when someone stopped in front of the house. A familiar voice asked, “Stella, is that you?”

“Baxter, what are you doing here?” she asked with her heart racing.

He took a few steps forward and said, “I was just taking a walk. Would you mind if I join you?”

She hesitated for a moment and replied, “All right, but not too long. I have to turn in soon.”

He sat on the steps, taking care not to sit too closely to her. When he struck a match to light his cigarette, she briefly saw his handsome features in the light cast by the flame. “Look, I brought beer. Would you like one?” he asked, removing two bottles from a brown paper bag.

“Well, a cold beer would taste awfully good on this hot night. I guess it wouldn’t hurt if I had just one.”

As they drank beer in silence with the tips of their cigarettes glowing, Stella asked, “Baxter, tell me something about yourself.”

“Well, there’s not that much to tell. I grew up in an orphanage, but I’ve been on my own for a couple of years. I’ve been traveling around the country just looking for my special niche. I love to water ski, so when I heard about these fabulous lakes, I came here this spring.”

Stella touched his wrist. “Baxter, why did you say you’ve been waiting for me all your life?”

“Oh, that. Well, when I first saw you, I recognize my spiritual mate,” he replied and suddenly slapped his neck. “There, I got it. The insects around here are vicious. A wasp stung me today. Its stinger is still in my back.”

“That must hurt. Would you like me to get it out?” she asked, putting her empty bottle down.

“Sure, if you could.”

She stood up and held the screen door open, saying, “Baxter why don’t you come in here where I can get a better look at you under the light.”

When he entered the house, she lit a candle, saying, “I’m sorry, we don’t have any furniture. We’re just camping, but you can sit on that bedroll over there. You need to take off your shirt.”

After she selected a needle from her sewing kit, she knelt down behind him and gently squeezed the swollen tissue. She liked the feel of his skin. After probing carefully with the needle, she exclaimed, “There, I got it!”

“Thank you so much Stella,” he said, taking her in his arms and stroking her hair. Her breathing quickened, waiting, expectant, longing for more. When his lips brushed lightly against her lips, she clung to him, and then he kissed her passionately with their tongues intermingling. She moaned softly as he unbuttoned her blouse and fondles her breast. When he gently squeezed her nipple, her desire flamed out of control, feeling a hot melting sensation. She pressed her hands to the back of his neck and pulled him down to the bed.

Suddenly, Joey had a fit of coughing. She scrambled to her feet and pulled her blouse together, thinking, what am I doing? I’m married. These are my children. My husband was born in this very same house. “Baxter, you must leave now.”

“But Stella, I really care about you.”

“I feel the same, but if you really care, you’ll go right now and not try to see me again.”

Slowly, he pulled his shirt over his head, stood up and clasped her shoulders. “All right, Stella, I’ll do as you wish. This is goodbye.” He said and tenderly kissed her forehead.

When he walked quickly through the door and disappeared into the night, she wanted to call after him, to make him stop, to make him come back. She whispered softly, “Goodbye Baxter. Goodbye, you beautiful dream.”

During the following days, her obsession to see Baxter plagued her scruples. She filled the days by reading cheap pocket books, looking after the children, walking extra blocks to go shopping and daydreaming. At night, her imagination caught fire, threatening her loyalty to John.

She was considering finding Baxter when John returned one day early. He blew the horn and yelled, “I’m back. Hey, Stella; hey boys; I’m back!”

His enthusiasm helped her to overcome her feeling of estrangement, but she still thought his middle-age body compared poorly to Baxter’s youthful physique. When they made love that night, he was pleased with her passion, unaware her thoughts were elsewhere. After he began to snore, she thought, He’s not handsome, and he isn’t exciting like Baxter, but he’s my husband and we’re a family.

At four the next morning, John, with his usual scowl absent, prepared for the first day of deer season. He stopped pacing back and forth, drained the last of his coffee and picked up his ancient Winchester rifle, saying, “I better get going. I plan to hook-up with Ernie. We want to start before the hills are crawling with those city guys with their big fancy rifles.”

Stella wondered if his cheerfulness was due to the prospect of going hunting or to the fireworks of the previous night.

She stood on the porch and called as he drove away, “Good luck John.” When he disappeared around the corner, she thought, He should have been born in the last century in the old West. He would have been a great fur trapper, buffalo hunter, or Indian scout. It’s too bad those jobs no longer exist.

She noticed the eastern sky was still dark, thinking, Jesus, it’s early. I’m going back to bed.

Shortly after lunch, she heard John blowing the horn. When she looked outside, she saw the carcass of a deer tied to the fender with a dark red streak at its throat and its antlers drooping unnaturally. John burst into the house with his hat pushed back. “Well, I got one,” he announced proudly.

Stella was repelled with the telltale signs of the hunt. The cuffs of his blood-spotted trousers bristled with Stickers. The fragrant scent of sage brush and the smell of pine trees were mixed with the sick-sweet stench of blood. Instinctively, she realized the deer represented more than meat on the table. It affirmed the high status of the hunter, a tradition that reached back to his Schlashick Holstein ancestors.

She exclaimed, “John, that’s wonderful. Can we have venison steaks tonight?”

He grinned as he casually lit a cigarette, satisfied with her implied admiration of his accomplishment. “We sure can, right after I dress that carcass out there,” he replied, and opened a can of warm beer.

“Did Ernie get a deer too?”

“You bet. We each got one, but we’re allowed two apiece.”

During the remaining days of their vacation, Stella became accustomed to the routine of John getting up early each morning and returning home at mid-day. In the afternoons, he usually took his family to various points of interest. Stella thought Clear Lake was picturesque, but her favorite destination was a secluded swimming hole fed by icy springs.

One afternoon while Stella was swimming in the frigid water, she inquired, “John, you go out every day, but you haven’t gotten your second deer. What’s the problem?”

“All I see is does. I guess the bucks are staying out of sight.”

“Did Ernie get his second buck?”

He frowned. “Yeah, he got lucky. I’m a better hunter than he is.”

“Well, I hope you get lucky too. We only have two more days of vacation left.”

The next afternoon, after an unsuccessful hunt, John suggested they gather pine nuts from a place he had discovered earlier that morning. When they arrived at the remote location, Stella saw dozens of large pinecones scattered under the trees.

John picked up one of the cones, saying, “I’ll show you how to get the seeds out. First, you spread a cloth; this towel will do. Then you hit the cone against a rock, like this.”

When he struck the cone, pine nuts showered on the towel.

While they were gathering pine nuts, Tommy came running excitedly with something in his hand, yelling, “Look, I found an Indian arrowhead.”

John scoffed. “That’s nothing. They’re all over the place. People find them all the time.”

Stella tested the point with the tip of her finger and said, “Don’t pay any attention to your father, Tommy. He’s just jealous he didn’t find one himself. When we get back home, you can show it to Juanita. Maybe it belonged to one of her ancestors.”

After they had filled a two-pound coffee can with seeds, John began the trip back to Middletown. Stella was admiring the lacy shadows of sagebrush cast by the setting sun when John slammed on the brakes and pointed to the hillside. “Look Stella. See those deer. One just flicked its ear. There are two does and a buck. If you keep the kids quiet, I’ll try to get it.”

He withdrew his rifle from the scabbard and propped his elbows on the hood. When he fired, one of the deer leap straight up and collapsed. Stella shouted, “John, you got it! You got it!”

“Stella, be quiet. I’m not sure if I hit the buck. It was standing behind the does. If I hit one of them, I could be in trouble.”

Tommy tapped his mother’s shoulder, asking, “Did Daddy shoot a deer?”

“We don’t know. He’s going to go up there and find out. You just be quiet now.”

John disappeared into the underbrush but soon reappeared on the hillside. “It’s the buck!” He shouted as he withdrew his knife to cut the animal’s throat.

Tommy jumped up and down, yelling, “Daddy got a deer. Daddy got a deer.”

The next day, John began their return trip to Jenner-By-The-Sea. As she rode, Stella assessed their vacation, thinking, Thanks to this dry heat, the boys seem healthy. With all that meat in the trunk, we’ll eat venison for weeks. Martha became my good friend. For a few days, I had a taste of independence, but Baxter is hard to forget.

Near the summit of Mount St. Helena, John shifted gears, saying, “Stella, we’ll come back here next spring when the red buds are in bloom. There’s something about this place I love.”

She gazed back wistfully at the arid landscape, remembering its geysers, hot springs, sugar pine forest, eruptions of obsidian, shimmering lakes and green eyes. With moisture at the corner of her eyes, she replied, “You’re right, John. There is something back there someone could love.”

Chapter 23

 

Late that afternoon John and his family approached Jenner-By-The-Sea, but he had to use the windshield wipers when they encountered a bank of fog. The children began to cough, a deep hacking whoop. Tommy complained, “Mama, my throat hurts.”

“This is the first time they’ve coughed in weeks. This damn place is making them sick again. John please roll up your window,” Stella said with disgust.

When they entered their cabin, she started a fire immediately to warm the cold damp air. After she fed the children hot soup and put them to bed with extra blankets, she found John in the pantry, storing the venison. “John, we have to move to a warmer place. You have to ask for a transfer!” she demanded.

With his eyes bulging, he replied, “What are you talking about? If I do that I could lose my job. If my boss thinks I’m unhappy, he might fire me. I just can’t take that chance.”

She shouted, “John, if you can’t take that simple step, then, by God, I will!”

“Stella, what are you going to do?”

“I don’t know, but we’re not going to stay here and let the children be sick.”

The next morning after John left for work, she bundled Tommy and Joey in the back seat and drove to Petaluma. While she sat in John’s regional Superintendent’s office, a middle-aged woman wearing horn-rimmed glasses appeared at the door, announcing, “Mr. Cunningham will see you now, Mrs. Nelson.”

Stella’s hands began to sweat, thinking, oh God, maybe I’m making a mistake. Maybe John was right. Well, it’s too late now. Here I go.

She entered the inner office where a white-haired man pleasantly smiled and pulled out a chair. “Hello, Mrs. Nelson. Won’t you have a seat?”

Before she could sit down, Joey pulled the top from his bottle and spilled milk down the front of her dress.

Mr. Cunningham chuckled and passed a box of tissues, saying, “I know all about children’s accidents. I have eight grandchildren of my own. Now, how can I help you, Mrs. Nelson?”

She wiped her dress and sat down, repeating the speech she had rehearsed. “I’m John Nelson’s wife, and he’s worked for the state for ten years. We’re stationed at Jenner, but the fog keeps my children sick. If it’s possible, I would like John to be transferred to Sebastopol.”

He tapped his fingers together. “I see, but why didn’t John ask for this transfer himself?”

She looked into his kindly face and decided to hide nothing. “Well, John is afraid to ask for a transfer. He thinks he might be fired if he complains. I’m acting on my own, and he doesn’t know I’m here. I wouldn’t bother you, but I’m so worried about my boys.”

When he reached for the telephone, she held her breath, afraid she had made a mistake. He said, “Well, Mrs. Nelson, I think I can help you. It just so happens there’s an opening at the Sebastopol Depot. Let me make a call to see what I can do.”

Sweat ran down her sides while he talked. Finally, he hung up. “Well, it’s done. John can report to Sebastopol on Monday morning.”

She leaned forward, staring in disbelief. “You mean, that’s all there is to it?”

Laughing, he replied, “Yes, that’s all. You tell your husband if he wants something, just come here and ask. He’s been a loyal employee for a long time, and I like to reward that kind of service.”

She stood up with Joey in her arms. “I can’t tell you how much I appreciate what you’ve done, Mr. Cunningham. Come on Tommy; let’s not take any more of this nice man’s time.”

That evening, she cooked venison steaks smothered with onions, the way John liked them. After the children were asleep, she took a seat and casually remarked, “John, I talked to Mr. Cunningham today about your transfer.”

He leaped from his chair, yelling, “Oh Jesus, Stella, what have you done? What did he say?”

She laughed. “He said you’re to start working in Sebastopol on Monday morning. He told me to tell you that any time you need a favor you can just ask. He said you’re a very loyal employee.”

He expelled a long breath. “Uh … do you mean everything is all right?”

She patted his arm. “Yes John, it’s all taken care of. Tomorrow I’m going to find us a home to rent in Sebastopol.”

He collapsed in the chair, saying, “Jesus, Stella, I don’t think we can afford to do that.”

“Don’t worry, John. I’ll find something we can afford.”

He vigorously scratched his head. “Well, OK. Go ahead then, but don’t spend too much money.”

She lit a cigarette and watched the smoke rise slowly to the ceiling, enjoying her new status, thinking, John is a paper tiger. He roars at home but he’s afraid in public. Now, by default, he’s transferred his power over to me. From now on, by God, I’ll take charge!

Chapter 24

 

With Violet’s help, Stella found a house in Sebastopol John could afford next to the Methodist Church. It was in walking distance to John’s work and Tommy’s school so she decided to rent it without consulting John.

The next weekend, they moved into the new home with a few pieces of tattered furniture supplemented with boxes and orange crates, but the house still echoed.

John sarcastically asked, “OK, Stella, are you finally satisfied? It’s costing me three dollars a month more.”

“Yes, John, I love this place. We’re finally away from all that damn fog, and the kids already seem better. I don’t mind the lack of furniture, but that ice box leaks, and the damn scrub-board kills my back.”

Six weeks later, a letter arrived from John’s sister. He read, “Dear John, I regret to tell you that our father has died from pneumonia. As you know, he owned an old Victorian apartment building in San Francisco for which a sale is pending. In the meantime, you can take whatever furniture from it you choose.”

On the following Saturday, John, Stella and the boys crowded into the cab of the truck John had rented and began the trip to San Francisco. After crossing the newly opened Golden Gate Bridge, they entered the “big city” and went to a run-down section of town. John parked by an old apartment building and said, “Well, this is the place, but it looks a little shabby.”

Stella replied, “What a dump. I wonder if the stuff in there is even worth taking.”

After she had looked at all the furniture, she selected a round oak table with six chairs, a curved-glass china cabinet, an old Victrola, a grandfather clock, a roll top desk, a mohair sofa, three Victorian chairs, bedroom sets, Persian carpets, velvet drapes, beaded lamps, and assorted side tables.

Several days later, John received a check for the sale of his father’s apartment. He surprised Stella with a Montgomery Ward refrigerator and wringer washing machine.

“Oh, John, these things are wonderful. Now washing the clothes will be a breeze, and I can make homemade popsicles for the boys,” she said, giving him a hug.

When Violet dropped in for a visit, she clapped her hands, saying, “Oh Stella, your house looks terrific! I’ve always loved Victorian furniture, especially that old Victrola. Would you mind if I play it?”

After Stella said she wouldn’t mind, Violet looked at the collection of dusty records and played the, “Fire Ant Blues.”

With ragtime music resounding in the background, they sat on the wingback chairs and drank coffee. “Stella, your place is so cozy.”

“Thank you Violet, I know this stuff is old and faded, but they turned this house into a real home; and best of all, the echoes are gone.”

Violet laughed. “It’s certainly important to remove echoes. Stella, I’ve got a proposition. Both of us are eligible for the “Native Daughters of the Golden West.” Let’s join. They meet once a month and I heard it’s a lot of fun.”

Stella hesitated. “Well, I’m not sure about that; maybe I wouldn’t fit in with all those educated ladies.”

“Of course you would fit in!” You’re as good as anyone else!” Violet shouted.

Stella remembered her resolve on top of the mountain to stretch her wings. “You’re right Violet! By God, I am just as good as anyone else. Let’s join that lodge!

“Great! I’ll help you buy ten yards of golden colored material for the required formal gown.

When Stella received a letter from Martha, she opened it with her heart pounding. She read, “Hi Stella, Just a quick note. I recently saw Baxter. He said to tell you he can’t get you out of his thoughts…”

Stella read the letter several times and put it in the back of the roll top desk, feeling guilty for thinking about the man with haunting green eyes. She also felt guilty about the three letters she had written but discarded. She especially felt guilty when she thought about Baxter’s golden body whenever John, panting and sweating, pounded her into the mattress.

Chapter 25

 

Stella was worried about money and confronted John, saying, “This month, I didn’t have enough money to pay all our bills. You simply don’t make enough and you need to get a better paying job.”

“Hell, Stella, I can count on the State. If I got another job, I could be fired at any time and then where would we be?”

“John, we have to do something!”

“I won’t talk about it anymore! I’m going to Jack’s Bar for cigarettes. I’ll be back soon,” “he said and went to the closet to get his jacket, but an envelope fluttered to the floor.”Oh, by the way, Stella, here’s a letter to you from the school. It came to the depot by mistake.”

She tore the letter open and read, “Dear Mrs. Nelson: The school has instituted vision screening. Thomas has a severe sight problem. Please come in and discuss this matter at your earliest convenience.”

When Stella went to Tommy’s school, she was taken into a private office where Tommy’s teacher opened a folder, saying, “Thank you for coming, Mrs. Nelson. I’ll get right to the point. I have the results of Tommy’s tests right here. His vision is 20/500 in both eye. He’s almost blind, but proper glasses will correct his vision. You need to take him immediately to be seen by an eye doctor.”

Stella bit her lip, saying, “I didn’t realize he was almost blind, but now I understand why he was held back in the first grade for three years and why he couldn’t see things I pointed out to him. I’m so stupid.”

The teacher closed the folder, saying, “Don’t be too hard on yourself, Mrs. Nelson. I’ve been remiss myself. I think he’s been missing everything I put on the blackboard.”

Stella took Tommy to Santa Rosa to an ophthalmologist. After he had examined Tommy, he made arrangements with Stella to pay the bill on credit. When she returned the next week, the doctor fitted thick glasses to Tommy’s face, asking, “There, my boy, how does the world look to you now?”

Tommy looked around the room in amazement. “Mom, I can see everything. I can even see the tiny specks on the floor!”

“Mrs. Nelson, I would like to talk to you in private. Tommy can wait in the waiting room and watch the fish in the aquarium.”

Back in his office, he said, “When I was examining your son, I saw something I thought I should mention. There’s an abnormal clumping of pigments in his retinas. Is there a history of blindness in your family?”

Stella suddenly felt weak and had to sit down, saying, “My father was blind. Tommy isn’t going to lose his sight, is he?”

The doctor replied quickly, “Now Mrs. Nelson, don’t jump to conclusions. Tommy’s vision is 20/20 with his glasses. Let’s just hope it stays that way.”

With his vision corrected, Tommy began to excel in school and skipped the second grade, but he was teased by some older boys about his coke-bottle thick glasses, yelling, “Hey, four-Eyes, you Blind Bat.”

One afternoon, an older boy from Oklahoma with a mean reputation followed Tommy home, jeering, “Hey, Four-Eyes, I bet I could beat you up.”

“Leave me alone Virgil. I haven’t done anything to you!”

With the sole of his left shoe flapping, Virgil ran into Tommy’s yard and picked up a croquet mallet, testing its weight in his hand. With a malicious grin, he said, “Hey, Bug Eyes, let’s me and you play a little game.”

He suddenly swung the mallet at Tommy’s head, smashing his glasses. Tommy fell to the ground with a bloody face. Virgil threw the mallet aside and ran away with his left shoe flapping.

After a few minutes, Tommy got up and staggered into the house. When Stella saw him, she cried out, “Tommy, what happened?”

Feeling woozy, he replied, “Virgil hit me with a mallet for no reason.”

“Who is this “Virgil?” she inquired while examining the wound.

“He’s that new kid in town from Oklahoma. Him and his brothers were suspended for stealing from the cafeteria.”

Stella cleaned the wound and applied ice to his spreading bruise. Trembling with rage, she met John when he came home from work, saying, “John, some Okie kid attacked Tommy with a mallet and broke his glasses. I’m going to report that little bastard to the constable.”

He put his lunch pail on the table and said, “Maybe that’s not such a good idea, Stella. We might cause more trouble. Those Okies are always getting into knife fights and shooting each other.”

She slammed her fist on the table. “Goddamn it, John. What’s wrong with you? Tommy was almost killed in our own front yard. I’m not going to stand by and do nothing. I’m going to report that boy and I don’t care what you say!”

The next morning, she went to the constable and told him what had happened. After he looked at Tommy’s bruised face, his expression hardened, and he said, “I know all about that family. I’m going to pick them up. I want you to be here this afternoon so you can testify at the hearing.”

That afternoon, Stella gave her account of the attack. Virgil and his father, wearing foul-smelling clothes, sat sullenly on a bench while the father stared at the floor with blood-shot eyes.

The constable hooked a thumb in his belt and approached Virgil’s father. “Mr. Worten, last week I caught you stealing chickens. I told you then if you caused any more trouble, I would run you out of town. You’ve got 24 hours to get out of Sebastopol, or I’ll throw you in jail.”

The father protested, “But, sir, I didn’t do anything. It was the boys …”

“Shut up, Goddamn it or I’ll lock you up right now! Tomorrow I’m going to drive down to Tent City to make sure you’re gone. If you’re not, you’re going to be in a lot of trouble.”

Mr. Worten looked at the floor, meekly replying, “Yes sir, we’ll be gone.”

Stella cleared her throat. “Your honor, May I suggest something? I think Virgil should be made to pay for Tommy’s broken glasses. It would be a good lesson if he could work at odd jobs and give us a little at a time.”

Mr. Worten squirmed on the bench, pleading, “Ma’am, we ain’t got no money. Any money the boys make goes to feed the family!”

With a sigh, the constable walked wearily back to his desk, saying, “He’s right, Mrs. Nelson. Your chances of getting any money from these people are nil. The case is closed.”

As Tommy and his mother walked back to their car, Virgil, with his left shoe flapping, ran from the Courthouse, brushing past Tommy, yelling, “I’m just as good as you are, you rich son of a bitch! I’m glad I broke your Goddamn glasses!”

Chapter 26

 

After Stella was elected President of her Chapter of the Native Daughters of the Golden West, Violet secretly arranged a party to celebrate her victory. She had contacted many of Stella’s old friends to come early to the Ravioli Palace in Occidental. When Stella and her family arrived, ostensibly for a small get-together with Violet and Pete, they all yelled, “Surprise! Surprise!”

Stella threw up her hands and shouted, ““Oh you guys! I can’t believe this, but what’s the occasion?”

“We’re celebrating your ascendancy, Madam President,” Violet happily replied.

After Stella’s friends greeted her with hugs and well wishes, Violet announced, “Our dinner is ready. I suggest we retire to the dining room. Tonight, you can order roast duck or New York steak. The appetizers include pickled, garbanzos, anchovies, cheese, salami, spiced beans, ravioli, pasta, roast beef, and chicken cacciatore.”

When everyone was seated, Violet tapped a glass with her spoon, saying, “Hey, everyone, I’m going to propose a toast. Stella has just been elected President of the Native Daughters of the Golden West. Let’s drink to the new President! Long live the President!”

They all lifted their glasses, drank their wine and shouted, “Speech! Speech! We want a speech!”

Stella stood up, saying, “No, I don’t have a speech, but I want you to know how glad I am to see each of you. I think of you as my family. Now, let’s sit down and eat this amazing meal.”

As chatter resumed around the table, Juanita, with her pigtail coiled around her head, leaned towards Stella and asked, “What happened? You used to be so shy.”

“Well, I got sick of being shy. I told myself I’m as good as anybody else. You know, it’s funny. The more I believe that, the more people react that way to me. Of course, John still thinks he’s the boss just because he’s a man.”

Juanita’s eyes twinkled, saying, “Let them think that. They don’t know any better.”

As Stella tasted the soup, she listened to snatches of conversation around the table.

Luigi was talking to Violet, saying, “That’s a right. Mr. Carlini, he justa disappear. Nobody knows a what a happen to him.”

Pete listened politely to Florence as she described her affluent family. “This banquet reminds me of the simply marvelous feasts my family have on Thanksgiving. We would all gather at the lake house with a gorgeous view of the mountains.”

Gloria, who was glassy-eyed from her fifth cocktail, sat Next to Alfred, her new husband and former employer.

He looks like a baby pig with his pink face, bald head and supercilious grin, Stella thought.

Danny Smith, Stella’s former brother-in-law, sat with Rose, his second wife. She doesn’t look anything like my sister. Maggie was much prettier

James sat across the table from Stella’s husband, arguing, “John, why don’t you quit your job and go to work at the shipyards where they pay real money?”

John didn’t respond, but Sophie said, “John, James is right. Everything cost more now. You could do a lot better in the shipyards.”

Bristling, he replied, “Well, sure I could make more money, but what happens if I got fired? At least, I have security with the State.”

One of the Italian waitresses, a long-time resident of Occidental, reached over Stella’s shoulder to place a platter of ravioli on the table. “How are you, Stella?” she asked.

“Mary, it’s good to see you! I’m fine. How are you doing?”

“I guess I’m doing all right. Have you heard Rico has joined the army and is station in Texas, getting married to a Mexican woman?”

Stella grimace. “I don’t care what that asshole does, but I just heard that Mr. Carlini has disappeared. Do you know anything about that?”

“No, I sure don’t, but I’ll let you in on a little secret. According to gossip, he’s Rico’s father. You know, Rico’s mother was pretty wild. Well, I’ve got to get moving. It’s busier than a bitch.”

Stella looked at Tommy, thinking, So Mr. Carlini could be Tommy’s grandfather. That would explain a lot.

Tommy was sitting at the children’s table with Kenny, swaying back and forth gleefully with their arms linked. Stella noticed that Kenny’s hair was still blond while Tommy’s hair had turned brown. She studied the other children. Daryl, Maggie’s son, was a little older than Tommy, but he was much shorter. Florence’s son, Robert, who was already more than six feet tall, looked helplessly at his mother and mouthed the words, “These kids are driving me nuts.”

Ralph, Kenny’s younger brother, was smelling the flowers in one of the vases. Joey, looking intimidated, sat next to his big brother.

Mr. Mueller nudged Stella’s arm and asked, “Could you pass the spaghetti, please?”

Stella thought he looked the same, big yellow teeth and bald head. He had married a twin sister of his former wife. “Now, Lester, watch what you eat. You know how you always get gas,” she warned.

He grinned sheepishly, but took a large serving of pasta anyway.

While Gloria signaled for another cocktail, Stella heard a commotion at the front. Martha and her family entered the restaurant. Martha shouted, “Hi everyone! Sorry we’re late!”

Clifford ran to the children’s table and punched Tommy’s shoulder, saying, “Hey pal, those glasses look keen!”

John shook hands with his hunting partner, saying, “Hey Ernie, I plan to come up there this fall and get that really big buck you missed.”

After introductions, Martha wedged between Mr. Mueller and Stella, whispering, “He said to tell you hello and that he still thinks of you. He’s going to China.”

Stella didn’t trust herself to speak, so she nodded and stared straight ahead.

At the end of the meal, the waiters burst into the dining room, carrying a huge cake and singing a Puccini aria.

After the party, John was driving home. Stella looked over the rolling hills covered with apple blossoms and thought about Baxter’s lovely green eyes. I wonder why he’s going to China.

Chapter 27

 

Stella said anxiously, “John, our money situation is desperate, and I’ve been thinking about getting a job,”

“What’s that? Damn it, Stella, no wife of mine is going to work! I’m the one who supposed to make the money!”

“Maybe you’re right, but you’re not making enough. This month, I couldn’t pay all the bills. Tell me why you don’t want me to work.”

He took a deep breath and replied, “I want you here to make my dinner.”

“Is there anything else?”

“Yes. The kids need you to be here.”

“What else, John?”

“I don’t want you running off to some God dam place where I won’t know what you’re up to.”

“Is there anything else?” she patiently asked.

He scratched his head. “By God, a woman’s place is in the house.”

“Look John, I can get a part-time job at the Greasy Fork Cafe. It’s in walking distance, so you won’t have to worry about where I am. If I take that job, I’ll have your dinner ready for you every night, and I’ll be here when the kids need me. Let’s just give it a try.”

He screwed up his face and scratched his head. Finally he said, “Well, I don’t like it, but we can give it a try.”

After working at The Greasy Fork for two weeks, Stella rubbed the small of her back and glanced at the clock, thinking, only twenty minutes more and I’ll be through, thank God!

The waitress who was wiping the counter asked, “By the way, Stella, have you found another house to rent?”

“No, I haven’t found anything we can afford. When our house went up for sale, I wanted to buy it, but John refused. I’m so exasperated with his excuses.”

A late customer entered the restaurant. Faye slid along the counter, asking, “Yes Sir, what would you like?”

“Well, I’m not exactly sure,” He replied.

Stella was shocked and turned to face the man who had haunted her imagination. When their eyes met, she felt a thrill of electricity. With his face glowing, he said, “Stella, I had to see you on my last day in the States.”

She spoke in a rush.” Hello Baxter. It’s wonderful to see you again, but why are you going to China?”

I’m going there to fight the Japs. I’ve join the Flying Tigers, and I’ll board a ship later tonight. Is there somewhere where we can go and talk?”

Stella glanced at Fay who was listening to their conversation. She nodded and said, “Stella, you can leave early. I can finish up.”

“Thanks a lot, Fay. I haven’t seen my cousin in years,” she replied, feeling guilty over her lie.

As they walked to Stella’s car, she took his arm. When they were alone, she said, “I’m so happy to see you, but I don’t have much time. I have to pick up the kids in just a few minutes.”

He caressed her fingers, saying, “Stella is there any way you could see me tonight? This will be our last opportunity to be together.”

With her mind racing, she thought, I could tell John I was going to my regular meeting of The Native Daughters of The Golden West, but what am I doing? This is madness. She swallowed. “All right Baxter, I’ll meet you tonight by the high school at eight o’clock.”

That evening, Stella prepared for the night. As she pulled on her formal golden gown, she thought, I feel guilty for deceiving John, but I can’t help myself. Tonight, I’m going to be with Baxter. Tomorrow, I’ll be a faithful wife again.

John lay on the bed with his hands behind his head, watching her as she brushed her hair with her eyes sparkling. He asked, “When are you getting home tonight?”

She busied herself with her earrings before answering, “Oh, I guess I’ll be back about the same time as usual.”

She zipped her purse shut. “I better get going. I’ve got to pick up Violet. Joey’s asleep. Be sure to make Tommy get in bed by nine. Good bye now, John,” she said, bending over and giving him a quick kiss.

When Stella pulled into Violet’s driveway, she was waiting in her formal gown, saying, “Hi Stella. We’re almost late.”

“Hi Violet, I’m not going to the lodge. I’m going to see Baxter, you know, that guy I told you about. He’s going to fight a war or something, and this is our last chance to see each other. Would you cover for me at the lodge?”

“Sure, I’ll be happy to make explanations,” Violet replied.

“Thanks, Violet, maybe I’ll see you later tonight at Jack’s Bar.”

After she dropped Violet off at the lodge, she went to the high school where Baxter was waiting. He got into the car quickly, saying, “Hi Stella. I’m happy to see you again.”

When he tried to give her a kiss, she pushed him back, saying, “Baxter, not here. Someone might see us. I know a place we can go.”

When she parked by an inexpensive motel a few miles from Santa Rosa, they went Inside their room. Baxter wrapped her in his arms, saying, “Stella, I’ve dreamed of this moment. I’ve never stopped thinking of you.”

They kissed passionately. She lay back on the bed, saying, “Baxter, I love you.”

He looked into her eyes and smiled. “Stella, I’m so glad you love me. I want to marry you.”

She drew back. “Baxter, if it were just me, I’d run off with you tonight, but that’s impossible. You’re going away, and there’s my family to think about. I’ve allowed myself to be with you tonight only because you’re leaving. Let’s make the little time we have be just for us.”

“Could we get married when I come back?”

She touched his face. “I can’t promise anything. Let’s not worry about the future. Let’s just cherish each other for now.”

As his fingers caressed her face, she thought, after tonight he’ll be gone. Now, he’s a gift just for me. She pressed her hand to the back of his neck, whispering, “Baxter, let’s make love.”

Later, at the Santa Rosa bus station, saying goodbye was difficult. Stella tried to find words to express her feelings, but she could only weep. When their remaining seconds expired, Baxter tore his magical green eyes from her face and dashed for the departing bus. She stared at the empty space he had occupied, whispering, “Good bye, you beautiful dream, good bye.”

When she was in her car, she became concerned about the time, thinking, it’s late! John will wonder what’s happened to me. Please let him be asleep. I hope Violet is still at Jack’s Bar so I can say I was with her.

As her anxiety grew, she increased her speed.

Back at Sebastopol, she entered Jack’s bar and saw Violet sitting at the bar.

Violet waved. “Hi Stella. Come over here,” she called.

Stella took a stool and nervously looked around the crowded saloon for any sign of danger. With a knowing wink, Violet asked, “Well, how did everything go?”

“Don’t ask Violet; I’m in no shape to talk right now.”

Violet tapped her arm. “Don’t look now, but John just came in, and he looks plenty mad.”

Stella saw him in the back mirror with his face livid. He rushed to her and roughly grabbed her arm, shouting, “Stella, where the hell have you been? Come with me, you bitch.”

She cried out, “John, let go. You’re hurting me. What’s wrong with you?”

“What’s wrong with me?” he shouted. “I just talked to that waitress. Who’s this so-called cousin you’ve been seeing? Where did you go tonight?”

The customers suddenly became quiet, with all eyes turned in Stella’s direction.

“John, shut up. We can talk about this in private!”

He shook his fist in her face. “Goddamn you, Stella. You come with me or else.”

A huge lumberjack moved quietly through the crowd, stopping in front of John. Without warning, he swung his fist. John reeled backwards, crashing through tables and chairs. “You treat ladies with respect,” the giant woodsman rumbled.

Stella grabbed her purse and dashed for the door, not caring what the bar patrons might think. As she drove, she tried to control her panic, thinking, Oh God! John’s so mad he could kill me! I better get the gun.

When she reached her house, she ran into the bedroom and took the Colt .44 from the dresser drawer. Her fingers trembled as she pushed bullets into the cylinder. She heard footsteps on the porch. She snapped the gun shut, thinking, Oh God, it’s him.

The front door banged open. “Stella, where the hell are you?”

Her hands shook. John dashed through the house and stopped at the bedroom door. “So there you are, you slut!”

Stella raised the gun. “John, I’m warning you. Don’t you come near me or I’ll shoot.”

“Damn you, I’ll teach you,” he snarled, doubling his fists and lunging across the room.

She closed her eyes and squeezed the trigger. The explosion nearly tore the gun from her hand.

John cried out, “Oh my God, you shot me! You shot me!”

Tommy ran into the bedroom, but stopped when he saw his stepfather fall across the bed with blood gushing from his head. Stella pushed him back and yelled, “Tommy, you go back to your room this minute! Now mind me!”

He returned to his room. Stella felt stunned, unable to think. Noticing the revolver in her hand, she replaced it in the drawer. John moaned as she wrapped a towel around his bloody head. She heard a car sliding to a stop in front of the house. Violet ran through the open door, yelling, “Stella, where are you? What’s happening?”

Stella shouted, “Violet, I’m in the bedroom. Go get the doctor. Please Hurry!”

In a few minutes, Violet returned with the doctor who dashed to the bedroom and examined John’s injury. With a worried look, he said, “This is a gunshot wound, and it’s serious. He needs to go to the hospital. Ladies, can you help me carry him to my car?”

The three of them carried John to the doctor’s car and put him across the back seat. With bloody smears on her golden gown, Violet said, “Stella, you can go with the doctor. I’ll stay here and watch the kids.”

“Thanks, Violet, you better go in and talk to Tommy.”

As the doctor sped to the hospital, he glanced at Stella, saying, “I have to report all gunshot wounds to the police, but I can wait until tomorrow. I suggest you carefully think about your answers before you make any statement. Do you understand what I’m saying?”

Unable to speak, she silently nodded.

At the hospital, John was wheeled quickly to the operating room while the doctor prepared for surgery. During the next two hours, Stella paced anxiously in the waiting room. When the doctor finally returned, he said, “He’s going to live. The bullet grazed his forehead, and I had to remove bone fragments from his frontal lobe, but, in time, he will fully recover.”

Stella clasped his arm. “When can I see him?”

“You can see him as soon as he wakes up.”

When Stella saw her husband with his head wrapped in a bloodstained bandage, she cried out, “Oh, John, I can’t tell you how sorry I am.”

He reached for her hand, saying quietly, “It’s my fault, Stella. I promised you once I would never hit you. You were only protecting yourself. I’m going to tell the police I accidentally shot myself while I was cleaning my gun.”

She stood by his bed submissively, saying, “Oh John, I don’t know what to say.”

“You don’t have to say anything. Are you going to leave me?”

She blinked in disbelief. “Why, no. No! I’m not going to leave you. You and the kids are my family. I’ll stay if you want me.”

Four months later, Stella and her family had moved into a ram-shackled house near Occidental. She was sitting at her round oak table, warmed by the early morning sun. John had left for work and Tommy had walked to school, the same one-room school she had attended. Joey was still sleeping. She shifted her weight and grabbed another cracker, waiting for the bout of nausea to pass. Frowning, she thought, that doctor was wrong about John’s full recovery. Ever since the shooting, he’s different. Now he never worries or gets angry, sad or happy. We don’t argue any more, but he’s lost his zest for living.

After eating another cracker, she removed a newspaper clipping from her pocket, a ritual she frequently repeated. Through her tears, she read, “BAXTER HAMILTON was mortally wounded in a fierce dogfight with Japanese aircraft while he was working for the Chinese government.”

She returned the clipping back to her pocket, next to her heart. When she glanced outside, she saw a chipmunk chattering furiously as a red and yellow leaf spiraled down, twisting, falling, descending until it touched the ground and was gone forever.

Postscript

 

A young matron with haunting green eyes was sitting in her wheelchair next to her mother. Gently, she shook her mother awake, saying, “Mom, wake up. It’s me, Susan.”

Stella slowly opened her eyes and recognized her daughter. “Oh, hello Honey. I’m so glad to see you. How long have you been here?”

Susan wiped her mother’s forehead with a damp cloth, replying, “I’ve been here a couple of hours, but I didn’t want to wake you up until I heard you moaning in your sleep. How are you feeling?”

Stella derisively laughed. “I feel as good as a person can feel, racked with pain and about to die.”

“Oh Mother, I’m so sorry. Is there something I can do?”

Stella beckoned to her daughter to come closer, saying, “Yes, there is something you can do. I want you to buy me a large bottle of sleeping pills so I can put myself out of this misery.”

“Mother, I just can’t bring myself to participate in your death, but the nurse from hospice said she would start you on morphine. In the meantime, let’s talk about the important people in your life. You’re 69 and you haven’t told me very much about your past.”

Stella moved to find a more comfortable position as a grinding pain increased, saying, “Well, you kids are the most important people in my life, but I feel so guilty about passing my father’s blindness to Tom and Joe.”

“Mother, you shouldn’t feel that way. Both of those brothers have done alright.”

Stella replied, “Tom has done well, being a teacher and a psychologist, but I worry about Joe. He’s still tied to my apron strings, and I don’t know what’s going to happen to him when I’m gone.”

Observing her mother appeared to be distracted from pain, Susan continued, “Mother, what about the other people in your life? I’d like to hear about them.”

Stella replied, “I wasn’t overly sad when my rat brother was killed on his motorcycle, but when Kenny was shot in Korea, I grieved hard. He was only 17, too young to die. My best friend, Violet, and her husband were killed in a car wreck. I cried for days. Oh yes, there were my three husbands. After I left Rico, he moved to Texas and married some young Mexican woman. I think they had six children. John and I had our differences at first, but he mellowed out after an accident. You were only 11 when he died at work from lifting something too heavy. Finally, there was Bud. I cut up his clothes and threw him out when I found lipstick on his underwear. After a heart attack, he moved to Needles where he’s been living all these years, but the joke’s on me. I’ve been paying for his life insurance ever since.”

A painful seizure prevented Stella from concentrating, but the nurse from Hospice arrived and quickly injected her with morphine. Stella soon became drowsy and fell into a deep sleep.

“Hey Ma, wake up. It’s me, Frank,” her youngest son said, gently shaking her awake.

Her eyes fluttered open, and she weekly said, “Oh Tom, I’m so glad you’re here. I want you to get me a big bottle of sleeping pills.”

“It’s not Tom. It’s me, Frank!” he answered irritably.

She grasped his hand. “Oh, Frank, I thought you were in Viet Nam. I’ve been so worried about you.”

“Ma, I’ve been back from Viet Nam for ten years. You’re confused, and what’s this business about sleeping pills?”

She drew in her breath from a sudden pain. When she could speak, she whispered, “Frank, could you get me the pills? I’m in so much agony I can’t stand it. It’s time to check out.”

With tears in his eyes, he replied, “Ma, please don’t ask me to do that. I still have nightmares about all the people I killed in Viet Nam.”

The nurse came in the room interrupting their conversation, cheerfully saying, “Stella, it’s time for your happy time injection.”

Later, the nurse woke her up, saying, “Stella, you have a long distance phone call from someone called Tom.”

Stella struggled back to consciousness and took the phone, saying, “Tom, what’s wrong?”

A familiar voice laughed. “Nothing’s wrong Mother. I just wanted to say hello and see how you’re doing.”

Stella waited for a spasm of pain to pass before speaking. “Oh, Tom, please hurry. I’m in so much pain, even with the morphine. All of the other kids refuse to help me. I know I can count on you to get me something to put me out of this misery.”

He hesitated for several moments, saying, “All right Mother, I’m going to hang up now, but I’ll see you this afternoon.”

She hung the phone up, thinking, I can count on Tom. He’s always been my favorite.

Later that afternoon, Stella opened her eyes, delighted to see her oldest son standing by her bed. She whispered, “Tom, you finally made it. It’s hard for me to talk, but would you please run down to the drugstore and buy me a big bottle of sleeping pills?”

He replied, “The doctor said he has increased your morphine. Doesn’t that help?”

With a look of distress, she said, “Tom, don’t argue. That stuff puts me in a dream world that scares me, but when I’m awake, the pain is unbearable. I want out!”

“All right, damn it! I’ll do it.”

Stella remained quiet with a pensive expression. Finally she spoke, “Tom, there is something I need to tell you. When you were just a baby, a man by the name of Julius Carlini often came to our rescue. I wondered at the time why he was so kind. I later found out from Rico’s sister that he was Rico’s father. She made me promise not to tell Rico, but I thought you should know about your grandfather who’s now dead.”

That evening, Stella slipped into a deep coma. While the siblings sat in the living room, Susan thought, Joe and Frank look like brothers, but Tom and I look completely different. The one thing in common is we’re all handicapped. Both Tom and Joey have RP. Frank is screwed up from Viet Nam, and I’m in a wheelchair, thanks to polio.

Joe remarked, “The doctor said it’s just a matter of hours.”

Tom was the first to speak. “Personally, I’m glad she’s in a coma. At least, she’s out of pain. I told her I would help her commit suicide, but I just couldn’t bring myself to kill our mother.”

Susan touched his arm. “Don’t feel badly Tom. None of us could do it either. There’s nothing we can do now but wait. I suggest we take turns watching her.”

Joe volunteered to go first, but when he went into her room, he shouted, “Everybody, come quick! There’s something wrong with Mother.”

They quickly came and stood around Stella’s bed, listening to her struggle for breath with a rattling sound in her throat. Slowly, she opened her eyes, recognizing each of her children, and closed her eyes again. After a painful moment, she spoke with animation. “Oh! I can see them all, Mama, Papa, sister, Violet, Kenny and Baxter’s there too! They’re calling to me. They want me to go with them.”

Joe whispered softly, “Mother, go to them. Just turn loose and go.”

 

As she drew her last breath, Stella ran, Young again, glory bound, no longer in pain, shouting, “I’m coming! I’m coming!”

 

 


Stella

About the Book: Stella is about a young woman’s struggle to survive during the Great Depression, confronted with abuse, poverty and the consequences of her own passionate choices. About the author: Ryan Scott is a published author with a Ph.D. in counseling psychology, living in Austin, Texas. His four marriages, his loss of sight and his experiences working as an apple picker, dish washer, grocery clerk, high school teacher, real estate investor, hippy night club owner, radio broadcaster, and psychologist colors his writing with a profound understanding of human flaws, strengths and dreams. Dedication: I dedicate this literary flourish to the memory of my Mother.

  • Author: Ryan Scott
  • Published: 2016-05-26 20:05:13
  • Words: 51720
Stella Stella