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Chapter Four: Fox Trot


Wiping the counters for the umpteenth time, I declare the kitchen clean at last. Even though Edna and I had an army of helpers to assist with tidying up after the reception, it took us well over an hour to put Henderson House back to rights. Johnny and Eddie cleared the buffet while Florence wrapped the leftovers, and Edna and I did the dishes. Mr. Blackwell, Wahya, and Albert searched the house high and low for missing cups and cutlery. They found punch glasses in the flowerpots on the porch, dessert plates next to the sink in the upstairs bath, and a fork on the bedside table in my suite!

I pick up my teacup and take a seat at the dinette, careful not to disturb Louie. The house purrs contentedly—satiated no doubt by an afternoon of gossip, laughter, and celebration. My mother’s parties, though perfect and polished, never felt as lively as our gathering this afternoon. Mother measured her success by the stack of elegantly penned thank you notes that would arrive on heavy cream card stock the day after one of her soirees. Listening to the low, steady, thrum in the air above my head is all the confirmation I need—it was one heck of a wedding reception.

I run my fingers along the white pattern encircling the red enameled tabletop. My son, Robert, says there’s a fine antique kitchen table and chairs waiting for me in my carriage house in Princeton. Guess the dinette stays, too.

“At this rate, Louie, all I’ll be taking on the train is my suitcase and you,” I say aloud.

Robert sent a photograph of the carriage house in his last letter. I pull the snapshot out of my apron pocket and set it in front of me. I don’t know why I’ve been carrying this picture around all week. Hoping to form a connection to my new home, I suppose.

“Ridiculous. As if I could connect through a photograph,” I mutter.

Louie sighs, shifts his position, and rests his chin on top of my foot. The cottage in the picture looks like something out of a Grimm’s fairy tale—ivy-covered stone walls, narrow leaded-glass windows, and a steep, slate roofline with two chimneys.

“If it was made out of candy, I might think those fireplaces were meant for cooking wayward children—”

“Wayward children?” Albert’s deep voice startles me. “That’s quite a departure from your usual menu.” He rests a large hand on my shoulder. The weight of it calms me in an instant.

“I didn’t hear you come in. Lost in my fairy tale. Have a look.” I push the photograph toward the empty seat on my right. Albert’s hand trickles down my arm as he takes a seat, removes the glasses out of his breast pocket, and picks up the photo.

Residual pins and needles prick the length of my arm where his fingers touched my skin. Albert and I will be alone in Henderson House tonight. Edna wanted to pack a bag and sleepover, but I assured her the professor and I would be on our best behavior. Professor Albert Rutledge is a gentleman, through and through. Edna was the last of the clean-up crew to leave and wagged a cautionary finger at me on her way out, but honestly, Albert and I would be alone for long.

Mrs. Stanton, the woman who rents room number two, has been in Oklahoma City helping her daughter with newborn twins for the past few months. Her daughter has asked her to move in with them. Mrs. Stanton will arrive tomorrow morning and stay for a few days to settle her affairs in Bartlesville. By the time she leaves on Monday, Bessie and Frank will return from their honeymoon. Tonight is the only night Albert and I will have Henderson House to ourselves.

“Hmm. If this is the carriage house, I can’t imagine what your son’s home looks like,” He sets the picture back in front of me.

“I’m not sure Robert’s house would fit in a single photo.”

“Mildred, I don’t want to step out of line, but I’m curious how your children became so wealthy. It’s extraordinary.”

“Oh, it’s not extraordinary. They are all smart and hard-working, but they inherited most of their money, to begin with.”

“When your husband died?”

“Oh, no. When my father died.”

Albert knits his eyebrows together in an uncharacteristic moment of incomprehension.

“My husband, Charles, had a wonderful career as a surgeon, but this house and all the fancy things in it—well, let’s just say I’m from what they call ‘old money’ in St. Louis.”

“You don’t strike me as a debutante.”

“Trust me, my mother felt the same way. As an only child, and tragically, a daughter, my mother pinned all her hopes for the future on my narrow shoulders. I failed miserably when I came out at cotillion. No matter how expensive the dress, how French the style, Mother deemed me too tall, too skinny, and far too aloof to attract a husband. She sent me to live with an aunt in New York for a season, thinking it would make me more desirable to local suitors.”

“Did it?” Albert asks. “Is that how you landed your Charles?”

“Hardly! I made my triumphant return from New York only to commit my biggest social blunder yet at the Veiled Prophet Ball in 1904. Mother dreamed they might crown me the Queen of Love and Beauty, as they had her.”

“And?” Albert asks with a raised eyebrow.

“And the crown went to Miss Stella Wade. I remember the morning paper extolling the new queen as being both ‘handsome and dignified with that indefinable something known as style.’”

Albert chuckles. “You remember what the paper said about Miss Stella Wade almost forty years ago?”

“My mother read the sentence to me several hundred times while I was in the hospital.”

“The hospital?”

“Yes, as my father and I were walking up the steps to the Merchant’s Exchange building with the other thousand ball guests, I tripped on the hem of my gown, fell, and broke my ankle. Father rushed me to the hospital, and that’s how I met my Charles. He was completing his medical training in St. Louis. Charles came to call on me at our home the evening after I’d been released. And the rest, as they say, is history.”

Albert leans back in his chair and crosses his arms in front of his broad chest. “I can’t believe your family participated in the Veiled Prophet Ball. I’ve heard some not-so-flattering stories about St. Louis’ strange and mysterious parade and ball.”

“Like what?”

“Everything from it was created to compete with Mardi Gras in New Orleans to it was a manufactured opportunity for the St. Louis elite to illustrate their power over the working class.”

“Really, Albert, you sound like a communist.” I shrug and take a sip of tea. His comments give me pause. I never stopped to think about what the ball and the society represented other than another reason for my mother to dress me up and be disappointed in me.

“Not a communist,” Albert says. “Just the son of a bricklayer who won a scholarship to college and never thought in a million years he’d fall for a society gal, even at this late stage in life.” Albert uncrosses his arms and puts his hands on the table.

I lean over and place my hands over his. “Have you fallen for me?”

Albert flips his large hands over and on top of my slender ones. He slides his thumbs gently up and down mine. The tenderness inside this hulking man never ceases to unhinge me.

“Louie certainly seems to think so. Or he wouldn’t have stolen that bouquet.”

I laugh, but once again, it’s not a straight answer.

“Now that the kitchen is spic-and-span, I hate to ask what’s for dinner,” he deflects.

“The icebox is overflowing with leftovers.”

“Then why don’t you leave dinner to me? I can make a cold plate with the best of them.” He stands and strolls behind the kitchen counter toward the icebox.

“I’m happy to heat up something.”

“No, no, you sit and relax. Olive used to say the best thing about eating cold leftovers was no pots to scrub afterward. Why spoil a night off by heating things up.”

Albert rarely invokes the name of his wife. Olive died about four years ago. He stopped teaching at the University of Tulsa and moved to Bartlesville after her death. I doubt he’s used her name a dozen times since he came to Henderson House. He knows so much about Charles, and I know so little about Olive. It doesn’t seem fair. If we’re going to make room for each other in our hearts, I should know more about her. I’m not even sure how she died.

“Tell me about Olive?” I ask.

Albert stops and looks up from his work. He rubs a hand across the back of his neck and stretches his head to one side and then to the other.

“Olive,” he whispers as if trying to wake a sleeping child. His ocean-blue color deepens and begins to swirl. “Olive was a delicate creature. We met at the University of Chicago.” He returns to retrieving leftovers from the ice box.

“What was she studying?”

“Oh,” he looks back at me, “Olive wasn’t a student. She came to Chicago to live with an ailing aunt and picked up a job working in the admissions department.” Albert focuses on peeling back a corner of tinfoil on each plate so he can evaluate the dinner options. I wait for him to continue his story, but after a few quiet moments, it’s clear he isn’t going to say more unless I pose another question.

 “How did you meet?” I ask.

Albert looks up and stares at me as if he doesn’t quite understand the question.

“Let me get these plates ready, first,” he says, his voice halting and unsteady. I watch him make our plates in silence. His color churns around his head and shoulders like clouds building over the sea before a heavy rain. The joy of this afternoon’s celebration begins seeping out of the air around me. The house is preparing to be sad.

Albert brings over two perfectly prepared plates of leftovers—cucumber and tomato salad, an assortment of finger sandwiches, a pasta dish Bertie Crane made with parsnips, pears, and pecans, a corn muffin, and an almond cookie.

“This looks wonderful. Thank you, Albert,” I say.

He turns to the counter to grab two glasses of iced tea and sets them in front of us. His silence fills me with dread. Was I wrong to start prying about Olive?

Albert takes his seat at the dinette, dwarfing the tiny table and chairs. He takes a bite of cucumber salad and breaks his muffin in two, staring at the broken pieces for a moment.

“I met Olive at a faculty reception in 1925,” he begins. “I was already solidly in my mid-thirties, and Olive wasn’t quite twenty-two. Talking with her that evening was like gulping down breaths of early spring air for me—her cool, crisp repartee invigorated me, and I inhaled the unmistakable promise of warmer days in her floral scent. We immediately began dating and married early the next year.” He smiles. “It was freezing the day of our wedding. There’s cold and then there’s Chicago in January. The wind made it feel like we were saying our vows in the farthest reaches of the Antarctic, but we were so happy. When we stepped out of the Bond Chapel on campus, Olive said she couldn’t feel the cold because our love was her eternal spring.”

Albert gazes off into the distance. Perhaps he’s reliving his wedding day. Lord knows I like to revisit mine sometimes. I refrain from saying anything, leaving him to his happy memories of Olive. We’ve got the whole evening for Albert’s story to work its way out of him. Given the shift of brighter blue working its way into his color, I sense he is ready to talk about her. He won’t need any more prodding from me.

After returning his attention to his supper, Albert continues. “All of our married friends on the faculty already had babies or were having babies, but Olive’s cycles were extremely irregular, and we couldn’t seem to get pregnant.”

I’m impressed by his honesty and honored we have gotten close enough for him to confide in me about such private matters. My Charles was a physician, but I’m not sure he could have discussed my “cycles” with a member of the opposite sex without clearing his throat or raising an eyebrow.

“Olive felt like a failure—like it was her fault we didn’t have children. Like she was broken somehow.” He pauses. “Children and child raising were all the other women in our circle talked about. She was on the outside looking in. Olive started having trouble sleeping and over time, the insomnia changed her. Fatigue sucked all the joy out of her. She was either sad and tired, or anxious and wound up. There was nothing in the middle. She wasn’t Olive anymore.”

“I’m so sorry, Albert,” I say, watching him move the food around on his plate.

“Then in the early ‘30s, her doctor told us about a new medication for people with insomnia. It sounded perfect for Olive. So, she started taking it to help her sleep.”

“Did it work?”

“In the beginning, the pills were a miracle. Within a month, my Olive started to come back to me. That’s when we decided to move to Oklahoma. Olive wanted to be closer to her parents and she had a cousin who was married with no children—an ally in a world of nothing but mothers. It seemed like a good place for us to make a new start. Only, starting over’s never as easy as we hope. Is it?” Albert gives me a knowing smile. We are both on the precipice of new beginnings once again.

“No. It never is,” I smile in return. “What happened when you moved?”

“After we settled into our new home in Sapulpa, Olive’s sleeplessness returned. Her new doctor recommended that she up her dosage of the medication. I guess some patients can develop a tolerance for Seconal and so they need to increase the dosage to get the same effect. The doctor was very clear that Olive could never drink alcohol in conjunction with her medication as the consequences could be fatal. Since neither of us drank, it didn’t seem like a problem.”

My heart sinks, and I remain silent—waiting for what the house already knew.

“When Olive first developed her sleep issues, we started sleeping in separate bedrooms. It made sense because she used to toss and turn, then get up and read in the middle of the night. Once she began sleeping better, we stuck to our habit of separate bedrooms. When Olive increased the dosage, it wasn’t uncommon for her to be so overcome by sleep that she would lie down on her bed with her clothes on. One night, I came home late after a faculty dinner and Olive was asleep on top of her covers in her day dress. I went in and rubbed her back for a moment, and she looked up at me with her eyes at half-mast. I asked if she wanted to change into her nightgown and she said no. I helped her climb under the covers. She told me she loved me, and I told her I loved her. She smiled a sleepy smile and rolled over like she had so many other evenings when I’d gone in to say goodnight. I had no idea Olive would never wake up again.”

Albert’s broad shoulders rise and fall several times as he takes a few deep breaths. I close my eyes and feel the house wrap itself around us. The walls of the kitchen feel close and comforting as if the room shrank to half its size to hold us in this moment.

“The hospital recorded her death as congestive heart failure, but—” he trails off. “The morning of the funeral, Olive’s mother, sister, and brother-in-law came to help. Friends and relatives were already dropping off food for the post-service reception. My brother-in-law and I decided it made sense to move the sofa to make more room for people to gather around the dining table. It was one of those heavy, upholstered couches with a pleated fabric skirt that ran all the way to the floor. Anyway, when Bill and I picked up that dang sofa and moved it against the living room wall, Olive’s mother gasped and then let out a long slow wail. At least a dozen or more empty bottles of vodka lay pressed up against each other in the space where the sofa had been. ‘How could you not know?’ Olive’s sister screamed and pointed at me. ‘What kind of husband wouldn’t know about this?’ She began to sob and ran out of the house. I never saw her sister again. She didn’t even come to the funeral after that.” Albert takes a sip of iced tea.

“What can I say, Mildred? I honestly had no idea my wife was drinking. She knew the dangers of mixing alcohol with her medication. Whether her death was intentional or accidental, I’ll never know.” Albert puts his head in his hands. “If only I’d been more observant. I failed her.”

I reach over to stroke the graying hair around his temples.

“No, Albert. You didn’t fail her. You loved her as best you could. That’s all anyone can do.”

“But if I’d been paying closer attention, I could have saved her,” he mumbles into his hands.

“Albert, I’m going to tell you something. A secret,” I whisper. Albert raises his head out of his hands and looks at me.

“Can you promise to keep it for me?”

He nods.

“I see colors around people. The colors speak to me. They tell me when someone is happy or hiding something. When I get to know someone’s color, I can sense changes in it and even know if they might be coming down with a cold.”

“Do you see a color around me?” he says, eyes wide, waiting for my response.

“Yes. You’re blue, like the sea.”

“That’s nice.”

“It’s very nice,” I agree, touching my hand to his cheek. “The day Charles died, I sensed no change in his color. I had no warning he was ill or might collapse. And I certainly had no indication that he would have a serious heart attack and die while out for a walk. I felt a similar kind of guilt. I replayed that morning over and over in my mind, trying to see what signs I had missed. I was sure if I had been paying closer attention, I could have saved him. My gifts failed me, and I failed to save Charles.”

“Huh. Guess we’re two peas in a pod. When did you stop feeling guilty? Feeling like you failed?” he asks.

“It took time. I had to learn how to forgive myself. It helped when I told Edna about my gifts and that I felt responsible. The weight of his death was lighter, and easier to bear, once someone else knew. Have you talked to many people about how you felt responsible when Olive died?”

He shakes his head. “You’re the first person I’ve ever told.”

“Oh, honey, you’ve been keeping all this locked up inside for four years?” I pop out of my chair and throw my arms around Albert’s neck. He hugs me from where he sits at the table, resting his head on my chest and I stroke his hair like I used to pet my children when they were sad or injured. For the first time, Professor Albert Rutledge feels small in my arms. He doesn’t cry, but I sense the sadness pouring out of him. I can almost see it leaving his body and dissipating in the air around us. The house soaks up Albert’s despair like a thirsty sponge, collecting it, and drawing it away from him. I don’t know how long we stay in our comforting embrace. And I’m so thankful that for once, no one else is in the house to interrupt us.

After several minutes, Albert pushes back his chair and looks up at me.

“When was the last time you enjoyed a foxtrot, Mildred?” he asks.

I shake my head in surprise at the subject change. “I don’t know. More than a dozen years I suppose. Not since Charles was alive.”

“Let’s put our dishes in the sink and go dance.”

Alberts stands and clears the plates. I follow him to the sink and wash everything quickly while he heads to the living room. Just as I’m finishing, the sound of Artie Shaw and his orchestra billows out of the record player. I open the door to the dining room and music fills the whole house with an amber glow. Albert walks over to me, takes my hand, and leads me to the foyer. One of his arms moves to my waist, the other grasps my hand and we begin gliding across the marble floor to the music.

“Slow, slow, quick, quick,” Albert whispers in my ear. His soft breath sends my heart racing skyward. He guides us around the foyer, taking advantage of the entire space. The memory of the steps slowly eases its way back into my muscles, and I fall into perfect rhythm with him. As a tall woman, I’ve never felt delicate dancing with a man before. I stood face to face with my husband when we danced, but I must tilt my head up to look into Albert’s eyes. For such a large man, he moves with incredible grace and ease. Albert controls our dance with quiet confidence. A slight tap on my back, a bit of pressure moving my hand in one direction or the other is all it takes to follow him. We are lost in each other and lost in the music. When the record finishes, we keep moving together until the sound of the needle bumping into the spindle breaks the spell.

Albert takes my hand, kisses it, and bows. His eyes never waver from mine. As he rises, his lips pass so close to my face that I feel his warm breath on my nose and cheeks. It would be so easy for him to lead me into my bedroom. For us to banish our combined sadness by indulging in our physical desire for one another. Albert’s color flickers. He’s weighing an important decision.

“I believe I should retire to my room,” he says, dropping my hand.

“Of course, it’s been a long day.”

I watch Albert climb the stairs before walking to my suite. I told Edna she had nothing to worry about. The professor is a gentleman. As I close my bedroom door, the feeling of floating over the floor in his arms washes over me. Lightheaded, I sink into an armchair, and for just one moment, I wish Albert Rutledge was a cad.


Next Chapter: Chapter Five: Painted Brick