Thursday, July 27, 2006
Chapter 2 - Salina, Kansas
Right at the start of that day John Irwin felt inevitable change in the air. It was fast beginning to look as though stability was a dream for other people to realize and not for himself and the boys. But he would not give up on attaining that dream.
In the winter of nineteen-nineteen, Salina, Kansas was but a dot of a town on the rolling plains at the cold and windy center of a web of mostly straight dirt roads which divided wheat fields and ranches large and small. The roads were paths which connected one farm to another, one family of lives to another and one small town to the larger towns and cities. For strangers to the town there was an acute awareness that these roads extended over the horizon, to the strangers these roads purpose was only to come from and go to the small plains town. But for the prairie’s sons and daughters these roads were lifelines that held great importance, emotional investment, and a point of concern daily for those whose lives contain worry. For the prairie’s sons and daughters the roads were the way out. The long roads of intensity of feeling while leaving were the same shorter roads of return while coming back, if ever coming back.
In the center of Salina, at mid-morning on this bitterly cold day, very few people were out walking on Iron Street. On occasion, one or two cars or a motorcycle would slowly traverse the town in a wobbling motion, as the mud from the warmer and wet week before had now turned into miniature canyons created by hoof prints, and frozen tire and wagon wheel tracks on every street of Salina. Stove and boiler smoke and steam drifted upwards and expanded, and blended into the grayness of overcast already above every house and industry, in this approximately two-mile oval of structures on the plains of northern Kansas.
A two-story brick building in the merchant section of town was adorned modestly with a long sign above the first floor that read “First Kansas Home Trust Co.” The building was an unremarkable structure, typical of twenty other buildings in Salina. On the second floor, at the front of the building above the sign, behind the smoked glass panes that separated bookkeeping and accounting from the manager’s office, on the side wall sat a pot-belly wood stove providing supplemental heat for extremely cold days like this one. In the center of the room two unoccupied heavy wooden chairs faced a large desk. An incandescent bulb, its light directed downward by a circular green painted tin cover, hung low over the desk, illuminating brightly four opened ledger books, a fountain pen holder , a coffee cup, a wood and brass candlestick telephone, and the head and hand’s of an accountant. His visor, a blinder from the light, pointed downward over the hundreds of numbers that represented the futures of so many in Salina, including his own family’s economic future, and the future of the bank. O.W.’s father, John H. Irwin was hard at work.
John lifted his head from the books for just a few moments and closed his eyes to rest his vision. He sipped at his coffee. Then a knocking came on the glass part of his office door followed by a gruff male voice making a request:
“It’s Robert Kingsley, Mr. Irwin, may I see you for a just a few minutes?”
“Sure come on in Robert.” John directed and removed his visor.
Before Robert Kingsley had even passed over the threshold of John’s office, John recalled Robert’s numbers in his thoughts:
“Kingsley . . .principle: two thousand and seventeen dollars, four months behind, last payment fifteen dollars. Promised seventy this month.”
“Have a seat Robert.”
Standing, and pushing his desk chair back, John cordially offered a handshake from across his desk. The men sat down across from each other and smiles remained on each of their faces, forced, trying to maintain that “everything is okay,” pretense. It was not. Because a man doesn’t walk into the accounts manager’s office at a mortgage bank, in the middle of the day, to discuss good news. For John this was a crying shame, because he should be able to talk with Robert Kingsley, without a worry. He and Robert would drink together at least a couple of times a month. Many nights they would stumble out of the saloon together, sometimes falling flat down in the mud, one purposefully dragging the other down to the mud with him as a matter of mutual humiliation. Always they would get up laughing like madmen into the night air, drawing scorns from the shopkeeper’s families trying to sleep above their stores. Robert and John’s children were in the same primary school. Orenthal (“O.W.”) played with his boy Jacob. John was uncomfortable that this conversation was about to happen, but one thing was certain, Robert was even more uncomfortable.
“John it’s worse than I thought it would be this month, I just don’t know what to do. My wife Emma is scrubbing floors. My lower ten was flooded so badly this past summer I don’t think I can plant there this spring. I can give you ten bucks today.” Robert was uneasy, leaning forward in the chair.
“Don’t be ashamed Robert you’re not the only one. It’s happening all over Kansas, Illinois too, and Missouri. I’ll take your ten because I have to, but next month is crucial, because if the old man sees the farm loan book for this month, he’ll be down my throat for the next month’s payments and I won’t be able to stop a foreclosure. It kills me Robert. I’m sorry.” A small tear formed in John’s eyes and he wiped his eyes as if to remove dust from them.
“John you and I have known each other ever since you came to Salina. I was at your wedding.”
Robert pulled up a smile on the side of his face. John smiled simultaneously.
“I’m sure this is a spell of rotten luck, we’ll get through it.” John said.
John’s pessimism was as bad as it could get, he wondered if he was fooling anyone with his pretense of optimism garnished by fake smiles and relaxed poses.
“At any rate John, you and I must remain chums through all this, being you are here at the loan office, or not. I may lose a lot of my life, but losing people over this kind of thing is just not right.” Robert solemnly declared to John.
“I whole heartedly agree, Robert. Don’t you worry about that. I don’t make anything in this office personal; it’s all business, friends always, chums.”
Robert stood, and John stood and walked around his desk to escort him to the door. The men shook hands, a two-handed grasp of close kinship. Robert smiled, put on his hat and left without another word.
John sat at his desk chair and pulled on his visor and picked up his fountain pen and, he then held it in the air over the side of the desk for a few moments, and then placed it back in its holder. He spun his chair around toward the window overlooking Iron Street, and he watched a horse and carriage from the ice company making a delivery to the restaurant across the street, he smiled at the irony of selling ice in ten degree weather. He looked to the north end of the street and across where one of two of Salina’s primary schools were, and he took solace in knowing that his sons, Orenthal and Sydney, were sitting in there, happily unaware of the grown-up problems that their father was facing.
Salina, Kansas had seemed like a paradise of sorts for anyone whose goals in life were not accelerated, not greedy, not exploitative. But the growth of Salina that had seemed to be never ending, just a few years back, was now at a stand-still.
A looming economic crisis had been brewing in the past few years, and the tension could be felt in most families. But for John the tension was heightened, for he had recently been made aware of a betrayal of his own loyalty. A white-collar crime had been committed and John was unknowingly culpable, arguably complicit, he was innocent yet aware. He had been thrust into a pit of dishonesty, which his character was previously immune from, but now would have to deal with. Dealing with it might mean fleeing Kansas. For a single father of two boys, this crime he was aware of and this recession of incomes and spending, a recession from home-buying and capital investments, meant big change was needed. For the First Kansas Home Trust Company and its hardest working employee and Junior Partner, times were dismal. John loathed the impending march of a one family parade of failure towards greener pastures, and locations yet unknown. There was no choosing this fate, it was an inevitability that soured his stomach and put his nerves on edge. Moving the boys, was something he would never had considered just one year ago.
There had to be a break, an optimistic opportunity in sight, and so John kept his eyes and ears wide open for something, anything. There had not been a stranger in town in two weeks who was not a traveling salesman. One of the Main Street hotel owners had recently asked John for an extension on his loan, a man of impeccable honor, the last man he expected would default on a note. Folks were used to a new family getting off the train at least once a week, filling the platform at the station with their trunks, their kids running through town and peering into nearly every store’s windows. Usually these families’ hopes had been trampled upon in Chicago or St. Louis, New York or Boston by city dog-eat-dog cruelty, and they had sought the simplicity of just making a decent living, not striving for wealth and mansions or motor cars and all that is associated with a metropolitan lifestyle. It was these families that John Irwin had served for eight years since assuming the loan officer position. He had been arranging their loans, getting to know them, often finding a farmland or a house in town that was just right for them.
In the last three weeks John had answered the front door for two Fuller Brush salesmen. He had long ago figured out that if the traveling salesmen had made their way to Salina, they likely did terribly in Topeka, some having spent the last of their money on train tickets to the next westerly city rather than turn back to Chicago in defeat with self pity as a sack full of sample brushes draped over their backs like a bag of rocks. The last two desperate salesmen, that John had answered the door for, were war injured and outwardly gimpy, and so out of the pity confined within him, John purchased brushes from each of them. Fuller Brushes now filled the lower cabinet of the dry sink on the back porch, one or more brushes for every possible use; shoe cleaning brushes, hair combing brush, curly hair combing brushes, straight hair brushes, a dish cleaning brush, a clothes washing brush and a new kind of brush for scrubbing one’s own teeth. John suspected the whole brush thing was some kind of a flim-flam, but everyone else he knew bought them also, so there was no embarrassment in owning twenty brushes for twenty distinct uses. It was American empathy for the veterans that kept Fuller Brush and its salesmen on their feet. For John, having been unable to join the ranks of the army to fight in the big war, due to his own gimp leg, he could feel like a participant, in a small way, by buying for example a special door and gate Hinge-brush. “Flora would love having all these different brushes,” John thought to himself, imagining what his wife would think of another small part of his life. He smiled to himself as if she were beside him snickering at the “worlds greatest brush collection.”
John looked across the street again and up towards the bank. He smiled and recalled the day it was robbed.
Two months ago the most exciting to thing to have happened to Salina in years came and went, when the outlaw Henry Starr came into town and scared the heck out of the sheriff, his deputies, and most men in the downtown area. Starr and his gang had parked their car right across from the Salina Savings and Loan on Ohio Street. In a career spanning more than fifteen years, Starr and his various gangs had robbed more than twenty banks, more robberies than James Younger and his gang, more than the Dalton gang. But Starr’s face was well known, in part because of his moving pictures about his exploits, three in all, produced in Hollywood and starring him. But word was he was robbing banks again. He was with three other men and with no timidity they all had their guns strapped onto their thighs. But they did not even look at the bank, instead they went into the restaurant, sat down and ate, paid their bill and left town. During their hour in the restaurant, the sheriff had gathered men with shotguns, perched them on rooftops, adding three in the shops across from the restaurant, and five inside shops near the bank. In the moments before Starr and his men exited the restaurant, grown men urinated in their pants, in certainty of a shootout that afternoon before Henry Starr and his men had driven off so casually. But true to how creative Starr’s methods of operation had been in the past, the gang came back two hours later, parked in front of the bank, spent five minutes inside and left without firing a shot, and having stolen over six-thousand dollars. The boom in tourism that followed was as if harvest season had arrived. People and reporters came from all over the region to see the bank, talk to the witnesses and take photographs. A newsreel company showed up and made a short about the robbery. For about three weeks income was generated and everyone ate. Bills were paid, and there were smiles in Salina. The general populace took glee in the danger of the bank robbery. The dime novels and the moving pictures showed of romantic portrayals of famous gun slingers and aided in this fascination to the point of near acceptance of the actions. Salina and its neighbor to the north, Fort Riley, had known some of the most famous of the past, like The Hole in the Wall Gang, Jesse James and Wild Bill Hickock. Now the drama returned with the Starr Gang. John saw an irony, but it was lost on most folks. The robbery of a bank’s funds which belonged to the citizenry, actually generated a lot of income for the town; perhaps even more than what Starr and his men had stolen.
The pace of life in Salina was predictable to the point of tedium. The chores and daily living needs of each and every person in town could almost be timed with a pocket watch. A few of the old timers sitting on the benches in front of Seitz’s Drug Store in the afternoons would do just that, checking their watches as a local passed by the store as if checking their own sense of time and reality. An observant town’s person knows when farmer Smith needs a new bag of grain feed, when Mrs. Crotchet goes grocery shopping, or when the smokehouse two blocks away changes flavor from mesquite to hickory. If the train is late, or a bad boy gets the cane over at the school, everyone in town knows who and when and why.
John got up from his desk chair and walked across his office to the light switch next to the door, he turned the knob to shut if off and watched as the glow dimmed to darkness in the bulb. If John was going to sit and stare out of his window, he was going to do it in the darkness, where townspeople who know him, won’t notice. He took his chair again. This time his eyes and mind toured two photographs that sat on a shelf behind him. The first picture was of Flora and him. Flora was sitting, wearing her best Sunday dress and a flowery hat tilted to the side just a bit. She had rouge and lipstick and looked like a grown-up China doll. He was proudly standing up and beside her, both his hands on each of her shoulders. John and Flora were smiling in this one. He remembers Flora had insisted on smiles for this one photograph. He looks at the area of his neck in the photograph and remembers the metal contraption that secured him in position for the photographer. The other portrait on the end of the shelf was of the boys. Sydney was seven years old in this photo and Orenthal was about six. They were both smiling. Sydney’s smile was blurry because he was misbehaving, as usual. John’s gaze returned to the photo of Flora and himself. The memories of his early life began to flood his mind as he gazed, lost onto the tinted black-and-white photo. John stared deeper into the eyes of the young man that was him from a decade past. Could the small happy eyes of his own image tell him something back? Could John determine some wisdom from his glass-plate reflection of years now behind him?
In moments John no longer saw the photograph he stared at, rather he saw before him a moving picture show of a young boy being dragged by the arm, down a busy Chicago street by his father, who was steadfast, bitter, anxious to get home to start drinking. He was remembering his father and a cruel life back in Chicago. In keeping his early memories, John knew the contrast of life in the fast paced and unpredictable big-city, to that of the life of the rural Midwest. He was raised a lone son, by his father on the south end of Chicago, who was widowed after John’s mother was hit by a streetcar when her heel became caught in the rail. His father told him the story once, one night while drunk and he never repeated it:
“There must have been fifty people that saw her stuck in that rail! Every damn one of them watched and walked by, every damned one of them will go to hell for not doing a damn thing to help her! They said it all happened too fast and the driver was not even looking. Damn them all to hell! I was not even fifty feet away in the dry goods store buying whiskey! Damn them all to hell.”
John’s father never took him to church. He had no need, and “neither do you,” he would tell John. However the concept of Hell was a convenient and comforting belief for him to adopt, because it was where all those people who let his wife die would end up, eventually.
For obvious reasons John’s father, Orenthal J. Irwin, the name John would later give his youngest son, was a very bitter man. “O.W.,” he was called for short. He was an accountant at the Chicago Cattle Exchange Company at the nearby Union Stock Yards, and he was an evening alcoholic. To conceal his drunkenness, he would always drink at home, by lamplight. Through all his drunkard nights he would never let John’s education or discipline lapse. He would attend all school functions. He never missed packing a good lunch for John. John had to be at the top of his class in mathematics – it was imperative as the son of an accountant. Together they lived in a tenement building with eight other families, and the building was the scene of ruckus almost every night and day. Fighting could be heard between wives and husbands, and every other conceivable mix of family. Common was the sound of dishes being thrown and broken, or a thud of a person’s body, usually a woman, being thrown against a wall, usually followed by silence that was followed by a disturbing type of relief felt throughout the building. There was not peace there; be it from the ever present feeling of tension from domestic violence and despair surrounding the home, or whether it was the unrelenting clapping of horseshoes on the cobblestone street out front, or the frequent steam whistle of a train engine at the yards less than a mile away, or the annoying laughter or anger of drunks partying in the alley way. The neighborhood was a constant calamity, a circus of disturbance, a hell for the solemn and peaceful at heart. There was definitely “no joy in Mudville,” young John used to exclaim, his favorite phrase almost every time he approached the building with his dad. John’s father would regimentally force him to do homework every night by lamp light. When John reached the age of eleven, with his father’s influence, John was given a job working at the Union Stock Yard, in the yards, all weekend, every weekend. To John this was not unique or fortunate for him compared to other people, this was just life as far as he knew it, and as far as he knew for everyone like him. Stickball in the street was a precious time that John cherished, and because he had little time to play, he would remember almost every game fondly. There was an orphanage directly across the street from John’s tenement building. His father would often point to its dark brick walls and iron fencing as a threat to be used as disciplinary leverage against him, as probably did most other parents in the neighborhood.
Sometimes there would be a stick ball game in the street in front of the orphanage and John would see the boys behind the fenced in play-yard, and now and then a nun would walk over, and she would whack one of them with a stick or sometimes they would even beat a boy with their fists and hands. In this boyhood, young John walked on eggshells, living in fear of upsetting his father. To young John it seemed that every few months he would get a barrage of slappings and spankings of punishment for exercising his freedom, for choosing to excuse himself from his father’s strict schedules of homework and housework, or the grueling hours at the Union Stock Yard.
At the very grown-up age of sixteen, in the sweltering peak of the summer of eighteen ninety-one, John had grown to so deeply resent his life in Chicago that he found his courage to leave. It was as if the idea of leaving were a pail of water that had been his burden to carry, and it had overflowed and the spill was his freedom, and the law of gravity dictated a splash-landing to spread and quench the ground beneath his feet. He ran with a small bundle of belongings wrapped in a bed sheet and slung over his shoulder. With fear and the feeling of his father’s angry eyes behind him, he ran until he was out of breath and then ran until his lungs hurt, then he ran further until his legs felt like wet bath towels ready to collapse underneath him. He ran south down that cobble stone street away from the smells and sounds of that ghetto. At the train yards, out of sight, he ran on the dirt between trains, westerly, a small figure of a boy on a mission of self preservation; he found concealment in the freight and livestock cars. A mile from the main depot he climbed into an open cattle car, and when a long wait for his fear to subside had passed, he fell asleep in fresh yellow straw. Afraid to leave the car he had chosen, he waited almost a full day for the train to move. For young John it was a matter of chance to have climbed aboard a west bound train towards Denver.
To avoid the infamously brutal rail yard goons who would patrol the stopping trains for hobos or “jumpers,” he leaped off the train into the bushes a mile or so outside of Jefferson City, Missouri. Having no experience jumping off a train, he badly broke his leg in so doing. Later after his leg healed, John would smile when remembering this adventure, because he had jumped off to avoid getting his legs broken by the goons at the rail yard. “Go figure,” he says in conclusion, every time he tells that story. For three days, and before his leg bone was set, he limped and at times crawled through woods, over creeks, and across an occasional wheat field. At the end of this painful trek he was finally found and taken in by a hog farming family named Worley, outside of Jefferson City. John’s story would usually end:
“I was never in my life so happy and relieved, to be kissed in the face with the big wet sloppy tongue of a hound dog as I was lying there in that wheat field that day. Until that dog started licking me I thought I was going to die right then and there. I truly was on my last leg.”
He stayed with the Worley family for two years. He would read them the newspapers and books that he would borrow from the local school. He taught their two young daughters their alphabet and numbers. He befriended their farm help, a young black man, not much older than he named Charles Monroe. They had become best of friends. John would tell Charles about books he had read, what things mean, history, geography, and how Charles could make money from buying and selling hogs. John recalls fondly later teaching Charles to read by drawing letters and words in pig-dung with the end of a stick, on the barn walls. John found a calling of sorts in bringing literature and other knowledge to the Worley family and to Charles. It was the Worley’s gratitude of his presence that brought about a change in the bitter and tough city-raised young man. Before him was a family who trusted him, nearly without condition, as soon as they had met him. They never inquired as to how he broke his leg but he was glad to tell them. It seemed a given that John would repay them in any manner he could. In two years time he may have carried ten-thousand buckets of water into the house and over to the hogs, or into the kitchen. At the pigsty he shoveled the weight of a thousand hogs. He read for hundreds of hours to everyone in the family and to Charles.
There was innocence at the foundation of this family that young John had not observed in anyone he had ever met in Chicago. The Worley’s language was a conglomeration of short statements and questions, slang and emotion conveying sounds uttered in quiet or thrown across the house, or across the farm. With such a true intent these words and sounds were bantered, so that the recipient need not listen closely to fully grasp the meaning, he only needed to hear the tone of the message, or see the face of its conveyor. To John in his first few months on the small hog farm, the feeling of being drenched in honesty was almost uncomfortable. After a time John grew to understand that in this household there were no lies, no misleading and no taking advantage of others. Deceit required complexity. Believable lies depended upon weaving concepts together in sentences that complimented each other. John realized that telling a lie to Frank Worley, or to his wife Joanne or their young daughters, would be like contaminating a can of white-wash with a drop of black paint. The Worleys were dirt poor and mostly illiterate, ignorant of culture and politics and history. He had realized that his entire mind and body had been wound-up like a steel spring, on the defensive, for years, and from everyone in his life in Chicago, from his father, from his co-workers at the stockyard, from his school masters and his peers at school.
If there was a lesson from his time spent living the simple and sustaining lifestyle on the Worley hog farm it is “trust and you will know peace.” He realized that fear of being deceived, or robbed, is as corrupting as the act itself. The frequency of the occurrences of the thief who steals from you, the liar who deceives you, or the greedy man who takes from you in plain view, does not diminish your life. It diminishes theirs far more. In trusting your fellow man there is far more value than what ever might be stolen, or whatever deception may be played upon you. If you live in a place where you are surrounded by others who are repeatedly deceiving you, the answers to solve this dilemma may lie far more in yourself than in them, or that place where you have chosen to live.
John would exclaim at the end of what is come to be known by Sidney and Orenthal as “the Worley Story again.”
“If you can’t trust all the people around you, why you’re just sitting in a big kettle of poison and there is a sign on the wall of the kitchen that says GET OUT OF THE KETTLE. So that’s how I lost my city-slicker attitude and I never got it back!”
Two years passed at the Worley farm and changes were apparent due entirely to John’s presence. For the girls, they had entered school and were showing great promise having already learned to read and spell before starting. Mr. Worley was smiling more often due to John reducing his workload and having brought his knowledge to the household. With her extra money and time, Mrs. Worley bought a Singer sewing machine and was making clothes for everyone, and was inventing clothing the family didn’t really need. John and Mr. Worley secretly hoped her wool and cotton creations would not find their way to their backs. Strange creations like coats with pull-over hoods sewed onto rear of the necks, and winter coats with wooly mittens connected to a string and sewed into the sleeves. Charles Monroe could not doubt that John had bettered his own life, for he now owned two hogs of his own and he and his mom and pop and little brother were as proud as could be.
In the afternoon on one warm spring day John was eating lunch on the front steps of the Worley house when Mr. Worley came out and sat down beside him.
“You know, I usually can tell when something is good enough to call a job a job well done.” He said matter-of-factly, looking towards the barn and the fields.
John smiled from the corner of his mouth, as if he knew exactly what Mr. Worley was saying, but he did not really. He hurriedly scooped up his beans and placed his plate down. John responded:
“Yeah, especially if you’ve done that thing once or twice before, so you know what done looks like.”
It was quickly obvious that Mr. Worley had specifics in mind, but that he was unclear of just how to say it. Mr. Worley sat down on the porch steps beside John and was looking over at John’s face to gauge his reaction, a clear indication to John that this was not going to be casual afternoon porch conversation. Mr. Worley continued:
“What I’m talking about is when you set-out to do something you have to have a picture in your head of what it would like if it were already done. Then when that picture looks kind of what you wanted it to, well, you might just be done. Like when we set out to grade that hillside better so the rain water would flow down from the troughs, we used our heads and we weren’t just guessing when we knew it was finished, because at the end of the day, it looked damn well like it would work and sure enough last fall that side of the pen was dry enough to walk through.”
Now John was getting it. Mr. Worley was trying to tell him it was time for him to move on. A sweeter man than Mr. Frank Worley, John had never known and may never know. This talk on this afternoon, as simple as it may sound, would be a moment in his life he would never forget. Unforgettable because Mr. Worley had begun to seem as a father to young John. As Mr. Worley continued with his message, tears began to form just on the edges of John’s eyes.
“You see John it was two years and two months ago that me and Noser found you lying in the mud with a piece of bone sticking out of your right leg, not 300 yards past that field over there. I’ll be honest, I thought for sure you were one of those free-loaders running from somebody. But every man, or in your case a boy, deserves a chance, and boy you haven’t let us down. Me and the Mrs. and the girls, Charles too, feel like you’re one of us. If you really were one of us, you know, like us dirt farmers living by the scruff of our necks, well then you’d stay around here all of your life. But you’re educated and a smarty pants with good ideas. Hell, you could move to Jefferson City and be the Mayor one day, if you wanted to.”
John responded looking upwards at the unusually serious face of Mr. Worley.
“I know what you’re saying it’s time for me to move on. Except I’m not going to be a Mayor because they look terribly silly wearing that sash that says Mayor and those silky top-hats.”
John had quickly lightened the air of this conversation. They both had a chuckle before Mr. Worley continued. Mr. Worley stood up for a moment and reached into his back left pocket and produced a folded up and tattered newspaper. He sat back down and handed the paper to John. It was a section of the Topeka Daily Capital, from Kansas, more than a hundred miles away to the west. John unfolded it to a classified add that Mr. Worley had circled in pencil.
“I’ll have you know, it took me a while, but I read that advertisement myself, after I found this paper at the Barber, I’m pretty sure is says “Accountants Wanted,” at the top there. Now, because you’re so good with numbers and all, I figure this is something you should go after. You see, I’ve got a picture in my head of a job done, and in that picture you’re wearing a suit and tie, and you’re clean and shaven and driving a fancy carriage, maybe even one of those horseless carriages. You have a white house with those fancy columns and little kids and a real pretty woman. That’s my picture of a job that needs to be done and it’s time for you get started on it.”
Staring at the paper but not reading it, John sat silent, just looking downward at the already yellowing newspaper just two days old. At first he felt shunned and disappointed, even a little afraid that his life was about to change again. He felt sadness that he would have to leave the Worleys and Charles and that he might not see them again. Mr. Worley broke the silent pause:
“Boy this is not a permanent thing, we want you to visit us. You’ve got to watch the girls grow up. You’ve got to see Charles farming business get bigger. It’s just that there’s getting to be no work in all of Missouri. Why, Jefferson City has started having bread lines and soup kitchens to feed all the city folks coming out here for work. Kansas has more work. I hear-tell there’s even some homesteading lands out there still, if you can make the land work that is. But I fancy you in town or in a city, you know, like a man known about to folks.”
Two weeks later John was hitch-hiking to Topeka to apply for work at the Kansas Pacific Railway Company as a bookkeeper. In two days John arrived, hungry and tired. By sundown on his first day in that relatively big city John had been hired. By eighteen-ninety-six he was promoted to the manager of the accounting department and with that promotion he suddenly had five men under him, who used to be his friends. To capitalize on further sprawl westward by families and businesses, the entire office was soon transferred further west to the city of Salina, Kansas.
In his office at the First Kansas Home Trust Company, John was staring out over the street again. Some twenty telephone, telegraph, and electricity wires cluttered his view to the other side of the street. He could see the ice company carriage had made its delivery and rode off, and its position had been replaced by the Kowalski Brothers Meats and Fish Co., using their Model-T Flat Bed. Flora loved their catfish dish, he thought, sometimes ordering it one visit after another. John smiled and his eyes began to well-up with tears. She would always pander to her slightest desires, like ordering the same catfish dish over and over again, even though there were twenty other plates to choose from. John looked at her face in the portrait. Her hair had been reproduced perfectly he thought, black like coal, wavy like ripples in a pond. He picked up the framed photo of the two of them and swung his chair back to face his desk-top, pushing one of the ledger books aside to stand the portrait up firmly in front of him. Just left of center, he picked up his ink fountain pen, paused and once again, and placed it back in its holder, too distracted to work. Flora’s eyes were haunting him from the silver-oxide-coated tin plate behind glass on his desk. Emotion rose inside of him, and a tear formed in his eyes and he remembered those earlier days, in the beginning that belonged to them both.