Loud and noisy young men and women, many as my grandmother would have said the worse for wear, were clumped about the edges of the room. Food, a luxury unless you grew it yourself since the war began, stood on fancy serving trays on every surface large enough to hold one.
I heard Mrs. Bly gasp and Hannah utter a shocked expletive just as the rest of the party fell into focus for me. At the far side of the room a young couple stood in the middle of a passionate embrace beneath a hand painted banner that read "Congratulations Mr. & Mrs. Sol Bly."
I looked at Mrs. Bly's horrified face and was trying to form a coherent question when several burly security guards roughly pushed Hannah from the room and then dragged all three of us down an unlit hall. We were unceremoniously thrown into a room where we found Harry nursing a busted lip.
He was as angry as a red head can get until he caught sight of me, then he turned so pale his freckles looked like bird shot. "Riss ... I swear I didn't know."
His words confirmed my suspicions and worst fears; it was passed April and the jokes were all done. It had indeed been Sol standing there with some girl that wasn't me. I wasn't ready to ask why but I could at least ask a numb, "Who?"
Harry shrugged angrily. "Uncle Bill had me hustled away before I could ask. He slapped me and called me a hysterical boy and told me if I didn't shut up he would have me locked up."
Before I could think of another thing to say a narrow faced, dark eyed, austere looking man walked into the room and locked the door behind him. He looked square at me and said in a deep, calm voice, "It's too late you know. There's no need to cause a scene at this point."
I looked him square in the eye and it reminded me of looking into the eyes of a puma that I'd had to shoot; cold, calculating ... a pure predator. I said nothing. Not because I was especially afraid but because that gaze told me there wasn't anything to say, at least not to him. My silence however managed to unsettle him and I think he would have had more to say but he was forced to turn to his sister who had collapsed into a chair and was weeping. "How could you Bill? How could you let this happen? You knew everything was all planned and …" She looked up and realization dawned. "You did get my telegram didn't you," she accused.
"Yes," he admitted without remorse. "Your husband always did do his best to interfere with my plans for my family. Thanks to him everything has been chaos around here for two weeks. I've been working on this for over a year and your brats, as bad as your husband, have nearly ruined things three times over."
Ignoring most of what he had said she asked, "Who is she?"
"Daughter of one of my partners and he’s lucky to have her,” he answered readily enough. “Her father is dying and taking his own sweet time doing, though he’s been worse lately. And when he's gone the girl will inherit his full estate. I want majority control of the factory and that stock will give it to me. I had the boy convinced months ago then the fool had to play hero and nearly get killed. I expected him to come back and pick up where we left of but instead the fool boy gets piece of hillbilly trash knocked up and promised to marry her as a consequence."
Searching for any crumb I asked, "Did you tell him I had changed my mind? Or that I'd lost the baby?"
He laughed and said, "Nothing so melodramatic girl. I simply told him the truth. He didn't need to marry you to have you before and he wouldn't need to to keep having you if he made it worth your while. That he could marry Shantelle, have a good respectable life here and rise up in the company just like I did, not have to scrimp and scrap for every little thing. That he could have you on the side until he wanted to try a new flavor. The baby was just an accident and he shouldn't have to pay for an accident the rest of his life."
Feeling like a knife had been plunged into me I turned away and went to the window, pulling back the blackout curtain to let in some moonlight. My world had come crashing down on me for the third time and it hurt; maybe not bad enough to kill me but right then it felt pretty close to it.
I heard Sol's uncle telling Mrs. Bly that she didn’t need to worry about me, that he was sending me to work in the munitions factory until he decided exactly what was to be done as that wasn’t what was important right then. He kept on in that vein but little did he know that I had already decided that he could stuff his plans one way or the other.
I felt a rough pinch on my arm as he demanded, "Are you listening to me girl?"
"Not particularly," I replied as I tried to walk passed him. When he tried to grab my arm again I was ready for him and I showed him that he'd underestimated this hillbilly by slicing his arm open with the pen knife that was as much my constant companion as my pistol was; and he was lucky I didn’t use that on him.
I walked out of the room and down the hall, back towards the party. I don't know where I got the nerve; I just knew it had to be done if I was ever going to have any peace or self-respect. I opened those double doors and walked right up to Sol and taped him on the shoulder. The guards, who I could see out of the corner of my eye, were in a right panic not knowing what to without creating a worse scene than I was about to.
When Sol turned and saw who it was to say he was shocked was putting it mildly. I’d never seen him turn that exact shade of green. I said in a normal tone of voice that nevertheless carried to everyone that was within earshot and then some, "Your uncle busted your brother's lip keeping him from coming in here. Your mother is nearly in hysterics and I think you finally managed to truly embarrass your sister."
The young woman clinging to him stepped forward and said, "How dare you talk to my husband that way. How dare you try to ruin our reception. Who do you think you are?!"
Unwilling to be cowed by the person that had taken part in destroying my world I said, "Well until a few minutes ago I was his fiancé and I am still the mother of his unborn child." That shut her up real quick. It also shut up everyone else in the room, even the sloppy drunks. "Sol, your daddy was killed two weeks ago. Your momma sent a telegram to your uncle to let you know."
He said quietly, "He told me."
That Shantelle keep pulling on his arm for his attention but he ignored her as much as I did. "Yet you still went through with this?"
He didn't answer me but shame began to creep into his face replacing the bravado that had been there just the moment before. Still having trouble believing what was happening I told him, "I never would have forced you to marry me. We were both equally guilty. You didn't have to lie and do this." He reached a hand out but I stepped back. "What you've gone and done has spoiled anything that could have been between us, even if all it turned out to be was friendship. When I leave here I never want to see you or hear from you again. Never in two lifetimes would I have thought you would have done me and the baby like this. It's plain I was a fool to have ever trusted you with my heart. You're dead to me ... and to our baby too."
I didn't give him a chance to say anything in reply. I turned around and left at a fast trot. Harry caught me as I was heading for the wagon and insisted on following me. All I was thinking about was getting to my bags before I was stopped. "Where are you going?" he demanded.
"I haven't got a gosh dang clue," I said between clinched teeth.
Then he asked, "How are you gonna get there?"
"Don't know that either," I told him climbing into the wagon and sliding a box out of my way.
He stopped me and looked at me close and asked, "Want company on the way?"
I was so mad I almost said no outright but reason and commonsense had started to filter back in around my anger and hurt. "Your mom and sister need you."
"Naw," he denied. "Uncle Bill might be an old so and so but he's always doted on them. He'll see them taken care of if for no other reason than his own pride. 'Sides, I've only got a couple of months until I have to show up for duty and I don't want to spend 'em locked up in a guilded cage; he might figure out how to manage me before I can get away from him. We can use that time to find you a place to stay."
"Harry ..." He was a good friend but my life was a mess and I didn't want to drag him down with me. I couldn’t escape into the past and I had no future to speak of either.
He gave me a sidelong look as he helped me by dragging his mother and sister's belongings out of the wagon. My stuff was on the bottom. "I already have an idea."
"Uh, no offense Harry but sometimes your ideas ..."
"Yeah I know," he agreed with no resentment. "But this is a real idea."
I was desperate and knew it so I let him talk. Not only that he made it plain that part of his plan was to take the wagon by turning the tired, and still harnessed animals around and heading us back out into the streets after removing a few more things from the bed.
I asked him if he was sure one more time and after using a few choice words to explain just how sure he started telling me the rest of his plan. "There's this man ..."
He sighed then said, "I wouldn't want to listen if I was in your shoes either but I'm not sure you got many options at this point so at least hear me out." After I nodded he continued. "There's this man I know. He needs a wife." Despite my groan he kept going. "But not just any wife. He farms a nice chunk of land and he has a little boy."
"So? Lot's of men have kids and more than a few of ‘em are farmers. Don’t see where that should make it hard And if he's so well off he's got a nice chunk of land he should be fairly drowning in females applying for the position."
"Well, his boy's ... different. He's sick a lot too. He's run through the bunch near where he lives and he couldn't find one he wanted that wouldn't cause more problems than she fixed."
I snorted, "And I'm knocked up and homeless. That’s going to knock the number of problems he’s got down for sure."
"Riss ..." he muttered, impatient with my attitude.
Getting serious once more I said, "Tell him to advertise in one of them newspaper flyers like gets posted on the board at the depot."
Harry shook his head. "He's already tried that. He got a lot of replies but most want a lot of money just to come out and have a face to face. They want all sorts of guarantees and have lots of requirements. Most of them want a house with running water and power, no out house, shopping they can walk to, and an allowance on top of everything else. Dino isn't broke but after paying the planters and the tax man he ain't exactly flush right now and he won't be until after his harvest."
"Dino? You don't mean ... you do! Harry!"
"Aw stop your clucking. Dino isn't a bad guy and he pays fair which is more than I can say of some folks. What do you have against him anyway?"
I sighed then admitted, "Nothing I guess, or at least nothing important. I just don't believe Dino Pappas can't find a wife. As soon as he hit the county and took over his grandpa's place for him he was swarmed and that was even before his wife run off. And you're not kidding about him not exactly being broke."
"Maybe, but it depends on what you consider valuable. The taxman don't take payments in grapes and the Feds don't take the state funny money neither. And lots of the women wanted more from him, well stuff ... he ... you know he ain't inclined to ... uh ..."
No, Dino Pappas wouldn't be inclined to romance and all of what he would consider nonsense. "I heard his wife - the one what run off - kind of soured him on the idea of marriage."
Harry nodded, "So it did ... for a while. But I guess between the boy and ... uh ... other things he's ... uh ..."
"He's what?" I asked suspiciously.
"Er ...". Even in the dark I could see his face glowing red hot with embarrassment.
"I'm not sure ... you know ... after what just happened ... and your condition and all ... um ..."
I sighed. Harry was a good 'un but he was still more boy than man and way too easy to embarrass. "Just spit it out already. It can't be any worse than the mess I'm already in ... can it?"
"Well the thing is ... guys have drives ... and needs ... and I guess that ... you know ... it gets old and expensive visiting ... certain ... places I shouldn't be mentioning in the prescence of a lady. I guess Dino is reckoning on killing two birds with one stone. He'll get someone to see to his boy and all the housekeeping stuff and someone to see to his ... uh ... needs."
Upset and embarrassed despite my own predicament I snapped, "How 'bout I feel the need to stone you right about now."
"Aw Riss, you know what I mean. Ain't no other way to say that than blunt. 'Sides, if you marry Dino people won't talk."
"Are you stupid on purpose?! Even if ...," I stopped, suddenly close to tears. "Look, even if I had married Sol people were gonna talk. They were already talkin'. Heck, some people had stopped speaking to me all together and I was even asked to step aside and let someone else play piano by everyone except the amen pew sitters and that’s because them folks where my grandfather’s friends and wouldn’t hear of it. And just wait 'til folks hear what's happened. They'll say I got what was coming to me."
Harry shrugged. "Like Dad said, it takes two to tango. And as for Sol ...". I could hear the hurt and anger in his voice. "I always figured Hannah would be the one to disgrace the family first and maybe me second, but did you catch the look on her face? Even my dingy twin knows what a fool Sol has acted. She knew I was coming after you and told me to tell you to be sure and write. As for Sol, I don't feel like I ever knew him now. I mean if he’d do this what else has he lied about." He shook his head. "I just can't believe what he did. And he just stood there and didn't say sorry or nuthin'. You know I'd offer to marry you myself but I ain't got nothing to support you with, especially with a baby on the way. Besides, you've probably had enough of the Bly men."
I was afraid of laughing at the way he said the last part, and it was too sweet to spoil. The truth was marrying Harry would have been like marrying a brother. I knew he would have made the sacrifice for my sack which was sweet but it kinda had a bit of ickiness to it that I didn't much care to think on. When I didn't say anything after a while he asked, "You wanna ... uh ... talk ... or cry or something?"
I shook my head. "Maybe later. Right now my head's so stuffed with stuff nothing can find its way out."
Harry let the quiet carry us for another mile before turning practical again. "We're not gonna get much farther before the curfew kicks in. And the horses need to rest. I've still got the money Mom sewed into my belt but we're gonna need some for the toll road. You feel up to camping?"
I shrugged. "What you got in mind?"
"Remember where you and Hannah picked them berries at lunch?" I nodded. "There's an old house, all over grown, if you go down that driveway a spell. It ain't much but it'll keep us and the horses dry and outta sight of the road patrol. And a bucket of them berries will make a reasonable breakfast if you can make a little extra fry bread tonight."
For four the remaining food would just barely have been slim rations but for just two they were reasonable becoming even more so as we realized it wasn’t taking us nearly as long to travel the same miles. After we made camp and while Harry saw to the horses I fried up some of the last of the cured ham and used the grease in the skillet to wilt some summer greens I found growing between the flagstones of the old patio. With what little bit of seasoning was left in the skillet I made a double batch of fry bread. As a treat I also peeled a couple of pickled eggs and sliced them over the greens. It wasn't a feast but it was pretty good for road food and it was a heck of a lot cheaper than eating at any of the places set up to serve folks that were travelling overnight along the highway.
The next morning as we were hitching the team I said, "I made a mess last night at your uncle's party. What's the chance he's gonna send someone after me? And you're sure he won't tack it out on your momma and Hannah?"
"Chances? Slim to none. Uncle Bill won't waste the money looking for us so long as we stay out of the city. And I already told you he dotes on Mom and Hannah. He'll get them wrapped up and comfortable and they won't even realize they're in nothing but a pretty jail. I'm more like Dad ... I'm one Bly he won't sink his hooks into." Looking at me he changed the subject. "I heard you crying last night."
Too tired to dissemble I said, "I guess you did. I didn't mean for you to though."
"It's all right. I just don't know what to do to make it better."
"I don't guess there's anything that can make it better. But Harry?" When he turned to look at me I told him, "I meant it. I don't want nuthin' to do with Sol ever again. Don't tell any of them about where ever I wind up or whatever I wind up doing. I might be able to forgive him one day - may have to to keep it from eating me alive - but for the rest of it he's dead to me."
"What about ... you know ... the baby?"
"Sol made his choice. He betrayed us. He likely thinks he made a lucky escape. When the baby gets old enough to ask questions I won't lie, and I'll have to accept if he or she ever go looking for their own answers, but I can't imagine I'll ever encourage it," I said trying to keep the hurt and anger I was still feeling out of my voice.
"What about me, Hannah and Mom?" he asked quietly.
"You? Sure, always … don’t ever think any other thing than that. But for the rest of it I just haven't thought that far ahead. I'm not ready to. Please don't ask me to write something in stone before I’m ready to."
"Sure, I understand I think. Just try and get around to it one of these days. Mom was starting to get excited ... at least after the shock wore off. Hannah too. It'd be a shame ..."
"Harry ... Please."
It had taken us a full week to travel from the farm to the city; it barely took four on the return trip. The wagon was lighter and we didn't have to stop early for Mrs. Bly or Hannah each night. Harry parked the wagon in a shaded grove of apple trees and then told me to wait while he walked the rest of the way to the Pappas place and put things to Dino.
I let him go but I swear I'm still not sure Harry knows what he's doing. I'm still not sure I know what I'm doing even if he does. I'm even less sure a man like Dino Pappas would look to someone like me in my situation for a wife. I know I gotta do something before I get too big to do anything but I'm just not sure this is the right something me to do. I’m not blaming anyone for my troubles, my choices brought ‘em on. I take responsibility for that. But I could still just about do something dreadful to Sol, his uncle, and even that Shatelle girl. What am I supposed to do? For sure I've got myself into a powerful mess.