Sunday, August 26, 2007

Journal of a "Novel"-Entry 36

Excerpt: Chapter IV

The first appearance of a portion of the fourth chapter from my novel, Only the Dying, currently in progress .

It was a typical Saturday afternoon in late September. Brogan was at the service station, of course, hard at work. At least Greta knew he would have some respite the next day from his labors, as the Men’s Club from St. Joseph’s was taking an autobus to Chicago to see Fred Gillies’ Chicago Cardinals take on the Pottsville Maroons. Her husband had been looking forward to it all week long, rather gleefully; few things in the world seemed to give Walter Brogan as much pure joy as watching a football game. Greta would never understand this, which is not to say that she didn’t understand sports – she’d loved baseball since she was a teenager, and used to relish watching semi-pro league games and reading about her favorite pitcher, Christy Matthewson, striking out eighteen batters in one game. But football, with all the hitting, the grunting, the interminable drives and the bloody faces – to her it was far more barbaric and disagreeable to watch, and seemed less intelligent, less strategic. Perhaps one or two steps up from the gladiator contests of Ancient Rome.
The weather was bright, crisp, windy and cool. The sun was shining so clearly and the colors were so vivid that from the inside it almost looked as though it had gone back to the stifling temperatures of July or August. In actuality the temperature was hovering around a modest 58 degrees and the gusts contained a hint of the sharp edge that warned of approaching seasonal changes. The harvest was still a few weeks away but the corn stalks were transforming into tans and browns and golds, and the leaves on the high trees were curling inward and drying out, readying themselves for final flight.
Greta fought against it as creatively and proactively as she could, but on this particular afternoon, she was bored. There seemed to be no escape. Walter was off earning his pay, as he so often was. Her mother had been suffering from headaches all morning, and she was currently taking a repose; getting her to do this much was hard to pull off, but now Greta paid with the lack of even her company. Her younger sister Eva had gone to Indianapolis to a woman’s vocational school where she was studying – if that was what one could call it – the secretarial arts. She longed for a job in an office, taking shorthand or answering phones, something neither Greta nor Eva’s own twin sister, Gertie, had ever aspired to, even for one moment. So much for the common misconception that identical twins always want to do all of the same things. The fact that Eva was actually boarding at the school, at least on a provisional basis until the winter holiday, was remarkable in itself: she was certainly the first woman on either side of the family to do this. As for Gertie, she had remained at home, nothing unusual for a young woman only 20 years old, but she worked as well – Heinricks saw to that. She was employed at the local grocery mart, what they sometimes still referred to as the General Store, on Township Avenue in Bentonville. Miller’s Grocery, it was officially called.
It was to Miller’s, in fact, that Greta decided to walk just then. She did so spontaneously, but had nothing better to do, and had been reading from a novel her friend Bea Owens had recommended – Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, by Anita Loos – for the better part of the previous hour. Normally, Greta didn’t take much to popular novels. There were some exceptions, like Sherwood Anderson or some Edith Wharton books. She was still trying to banish the overall taste of The Great Gatsby from her mouth, with that irascible Daisy Buchanan and her unending lamentations. The writing was brilliant, she could see, but the characters were at their worst deplorable and at best highly confused. More evidence of the obvious malaise she could perceive creeping across the ever-hedonistic landscape like darkness visible. Give her Dickens, Balzac, or Jane Austen over these ‘modern’ novels any day and she would find so much more to sink her teeth into.
However, one could only read for so long, and as much as she enjoyed it, her sense of duty would ultimately interfere. There was probably something she ought to be using her time for that was more constructive for more of the household. In this case she remembered that her father had made plans to have two gentlemen to their house for Sunday dinner on the following night, and her mother had mentioned that she wanted to bake some pies to serve after the meal. One rhubarb and one apple, Greta thought she had said. They were low on sugar and had no rhubarb, and required a few other odds and ends, so Greta decided that while her mother rested she may as well head into town and pick up the needed items.
The men coming to the house were business partners, Greta knew, and there was no real surprise there. One of them was William Jonsrud, her father’s accountant, and the other was a man she’d never met, but her father had mentioned that he was coming in from Chicago. Greta knew from Heinricks’ tone and from the fact that one of the men was Mr. Jonsrud that the reason for the ‘meeting’ was not a trivial one. If his accountant was involved, there was at least some serious discussion taking place; probably there would be deliberation over a significant business decision her father was preparing to make after the meal with brandy and cigars and behind a closed door.
Of course, her father told Isle and Greta little about his business plans, but they did know he was considering the establishment of a restaurant where The Golden Room was currently located, and Greta was capable of putting together more of the puzzle than her father would sometimes give her credit for. She would have been willing to wager some of the little money she had put away on the role of the second visitor – the man from Chicago – as an investor.
This meeting, in addition to adding chores and tasks to Ilse’s (and Greta’s) usual Sunday workload in the house, had caused a spell of tension between her father and her husband. The difficulty was that Walter would not be present for it. Heinricks was miffed that on an occasion where he felt it would be beneficial for his son-in-law to be present, and when he had had the consideration to include him in their post-dinner plans for discussing the matter, Brogan evidently had better things to do. Heinricks had made it perfectly clear that it wasn’t necessary for him to arrange the meeting in his own home and that when he did things like this it wasn’t just because he was too lazy to do it elsewhere. In his view it was painfully clear that his son-in-law was still developing his ability to recognize and take advantage of a sound opportunity when it came his way.
What Greta knew about her husband that her father didn’t appreciate, or couldn’t be bothered to understand, was that Brogan could see what his father-in-law was doing. The fact was that he did appreciate it, at least on the surface, and often took Heinricks’ lead. However, Brogan didn’t operate the same way as Heinricks did, and he never would. It was a matter of style, a fundamental difference in their approach to work, and to life. Heinricks was well versed at making these connections, forming networks; his way of doing business was not unlike politics; it was about who you knew, and who knew you. Brogan wasn’t that sort of man. He didn’t want to work people over or to sell anything. He wasn’t interested in pandering to the little man and romancing the big one. All he wanted to do was knuckle down and get to the job at hand and do it as hard as he could.
A man who approached his work this way was probably never going to get very far ‘ahead’, as Heinricks tried to impress on his bull-headed son-in-law. Here was an example of why: missing this dinner and the discussion to follow to go watch a football game. Greta had fallen for and still admired her husband’s brand of oxen integrity. He was a workhorse, all right, but he got things done his own way. However, she had enough of her father in her to see his point of view also and, worse, to occasionally find herself aligning with his concerns that Brogan’s style might be a financial disadvantage. But he was exactly who he was. Which meant that on workdays – like this day, despite it being Saturday – he would be hard at it. And on days meant for leisure, like the following day, he would direct the same energy towards the action on the gridiron and the two-fisted camaraderie of being with his friends.
Greta laid the novel down on the cherry wood table and rose. It was almost completely silent in the house, something she was never able to get used to in the previous three years. Indeed, she had thought that by now her daily life would have been considerably noisier than it actually was. Everything in its own time, she reminded herself. Or, in God’s time. The sun blazed brilliantly through the maple trees outside in the yard and the air was almost visibly contorted by the vigorous autumn wind. It was coming into that time of year in Bentonville that everyone seemed to love, and how could they not feel that way? The colors and the weather and the wildly various smells that erupted in and around a farm town like this one during the autumn months – nothing could match its sheer earthiness, its palpable spirit of plentitude, communion with the land, and general optimism. All of this, uniquely American. The hour of the harvest in the heart of the vast country. The soil-dusted hands of the farmer and the gritty salt of the earth.
She wandered down the groaning staircase and threw a lambswool sweater over her shoulders. Down the hall towards the back of the house she could hear her mother’s steady breathing and was glad that she was asleep. Ilse was more willing to concede the times she felt fatigue or illness or both to her daughter now than she had ever been when Greta was being raised. Greta was thankful for this because of the implicit trust and level of comfort on her mother’s part, but also because it revealed to her that her mother was more human than she had ever seemed before, when Greta and her two sisters and Peter were all schoolchildren.
She went in to the kitchen and rummaged in a drawer until she found the nub of a brown pencil. On the counter there was a brown paper sack with a dozen Granny Smith apples inside. Greta tore off a small piece of the sack and scribbled on it: GONE TO MILLER'S FOR SUGAR, RHUBARB, ETC. BE BACK SHORTLY. G. She withdrew one of the apples, curled the sack up around the rest, and pinned the note down with the apple in the middle of the counter. Then she moved through the parlor and out the heavy front door with its dazzling top half of beveled glass and brass ornamentation. She didn’t bother to wear anything on her head, something she would regret shortly, much to her own embarrassment.
In front of the house near the curb she stopped to breathe in the wonderful Hoosier air that she had always loved. In the spring and early summer you couldn’t step out of your door without getting pummeled by the odor of manure as farmers worked to fertilize their crops. One grew used to this, even to the point of having affection towards it, something city dwellers found borderline insane. Mention this to someone from Indy or Chicago and they’d consign you mentally to the booby hatch specifically erected in their own heads as the appropriate place for most country folk. But to smell the manure in the Spring meant the payoff of the harvest in the fall – the burning leaves, the cool wind, pumpkins ripening, corn roasting.
The end of 4th Street was not far from Heinricks' front door and beyond that stretched an expanse of soy fields and brittle corn stalks. On that very afternoon Pete Johnson, who owned both fields, was working his way south on foot through the corn, muttering to himself. He had a long job ahead: he had only four aging horses and an old plow, for it would be some time before he could manage to afford a tractor-drawn combine. Further still than these fields was a tiny graveyard laid out in a rectangular patch of land with one large, graceful tree standing near the middle of the stones like a sentinel. From where she stood Greta could see the individual graves with their tiny markers like a conclave for organized insects, aligned in careful rows. They had been burying the townsfolk here since just after the Civil War. The graveyard was not as large as one might expect. To one side there had recently been added an elevated statue of the crucified Christ under which the parish priests were reposed in a semi-circle of their own, a separate entity from the more geometrically arranged graves of the laypeople. That is where I am headed, someday, thought Greta, but rather than any feeling of despair or self-reproach for being so morbid, she found, as she had before, consolation in the thought. Perhaps it came from her sense of certainty that she would never stray far from where she felt she belonged.

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