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By Karen Ross Epp
AuthorHouseCopyright © 2013 Karen Ross Epp
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Rural Iowa, March 1946
Rattling along as if in a strange vibrating machine, Rose scanned the landscape framed by the Buick's window. She searched the stark scene for something recognizable. There were no light poles, palm-lined streets or quaint bungalows one-after-the-other. All that lay before her was a bleak expanse of monochromatic hills, dotted by bare trees and plowed black earth. Heavy spring rains had turned the roads (if you could call them that) into a quagmire of brown muck. With Jack, her husband of three months, they made their way across the countryside.
Beyond each hill, reality sank in. So this is Iowa! The place Jack had been talking about all these months. A place far removed from the likes of her home in Los Angeles. There were no motorized sounds piercing the air, no horns honking, no sirens wailingnothing of the hustle and bustle she was accustomed to.
He'd told her about the slow-paced life people enjoyed here, where men hunted, worked the land and enjoyed the dominance that their society provided. Where sturdy women bore children, kept the house, helped in the fields alongside their men, and from what she gathered, kept quiet. Electricity, indoor plumbing, telephonesall the rage in LAwere probably several years away for Jack's folks and others tucked away in these rural hamlets. When Rose asked Jack what they did for entertainment, he had responded, "Oh, church. Revival meetings. Card games in the back of the mercantile. Dances at the Legion Hall. Stuff like that."
Jack glanced over at her, giving her that cocky grin which had drawn her to him in the first place. He was anxious for her to meet his folks and show her the life he'd left behind, a life spent on the rich bottom land that skirted the Fox River.
This land had provided for the Conner family through the good and lean years. Jack had told Rose on their very first date how much he missed it. His argument for moving back was that Los Angeles and California held little promise or opportunity for him. He was tired of work at the factory where he and Rose had met. The long hours indoors doing the same thing, day-in-and-day-out, wasn't what he wanted for his future.
Rose had been apprehensive about the move. It was so soon after their marriage. But she'd been taught that a woman's place was beside her husband, so she'd made the choice to follow her man.
Her mother's grief-stricken face reappeared in her mind along with the memory of how she'd clutched a handkerchief to her breast, as though she would succumb at any moment, finally raising her arm and waving the hankie as Rose and Jack drove away.
Sophia Calamia had sobbed in her broken English, "Rosa, how can you leave me?"
Rose reasoned that her mother's anguish was intensified because of her sister's death. Carina. How Rose missed her. Always the levelheaded one in the family, Carina had also been painfully shy. Keeping to herself most of the time, she'd seldom socialized and rarely dated. The only activities Carina had truly seemed to enjoy were church meetings, during the week in addition to Sunday. "She's a saint!" their mother had often remarked.
Carina had taken care of most household dutiesironing, washing, cleaning, and mending. She was the one who'd kept Rose and the rest of the family in freshly laundered clothes. One of her tasks was the family's dry cleaning. She had spent hours on the Calamias' enclosed back porch, cleaning their woolen suits, sweaters, and dresses in benzene, a colorless flammable liquid used in dry cleaning.
As a result of such prolonged exposure to the benzene, Carina had begun suffering severe migraine headaches. Unaware of the hazards of this toxic chemical, her fate was sealed. As the years passed, the pain had become debilitating and she'd developed an inoperable brain tumor. No one, in the 1940s, could have imagined the true culprit of her suffering. Her frail health, Rose had always reasoned, was the cause for her beloved sister's reclusiveness.
Rose was jolted back to reality as Jack stopped the car and pulled the hand brake.
"Why are we stopping?"
He looked at her. "Rose, we'll have to walk the rest of the way. I don't think we can make it in the car. The mud is too deep!"
She looked at him as though he had asked her to carry the car. "What do you meanwalk? How far is it?"
Opening her door, Rose stood on the running board, her eyes darting around. She took in their surroundings, the muddy road that stretched out before them.
She looked at Jack with disbelief. "I've got my new coat on ... and heels!" She stretched out her arms so Jack could appreciate her inappropriate attire.
Already out of the car, Jack stood with his hands on his hips. "Now look, Rose, you'll just have to take it off and walk. You're not in California anymore!"
"Well, I know that, Jack, but you don't really expect me to walk all that way! I'll be a mess when I meet your parents! What will they think of me?"
He tapped the end of her nose. "I reckon they'll think you're beautiful. Now c'mon, Goddamn it! Don't be a baby!"
Rose winced. "I hate it when you swear!" Her strict upbringing and compliance with the commandments made Jack's cursing even more offensive to her. "You look mean when you do that. I don't like it!"
There were things about her new husbandlike his languagethat were unsettling to Rose. She sensed an undercurrent of anger simmering just below the surface.
"Okay ... please get your pretty little ass down here ... and get movin'!"
Jack smirked and lifted his arms. "What? You wanted me to talk nice."
"Oh you're impossible!"
Rose shifted her gaze back to their surroundings. This place was remotebackwards looking. Are there no paved roads around here? Jack had mentioned that his parents didn't have electricity. Her mind raced. Oh ... my ... God! I'll bet they don't have an indoor toilet, either!
She took a careful step out of the car, and instantly found herself ankle-deep in mudsticky, stinky, sucking mud. When she tried to take another step, the suction held her fast. She fell backwards with a feeble squeak. Spread-eagled on her backside, and in shock, Rose thought she might burst out in tears. Jack, however, threw his head back and out came that hearty farm boy laugh.
She scowled back at him. Of course he'd think it was the most natural thing in the world to be, as he put it, "up to your ass in mud!"
Huge chunks of bottomland clay fell from Rose's fingertips as she lifted her hands out of the mire. When she tried to shake off the mess, some of it flew back into her hair, clinging to a ringlet in front of her eyes. The sensations and smell were totally foreign to Rose. Raised in the city, she'd not had an occasion to wallow in the mud.
Jack leaned forward and grabbed one of her hands then yanked her up out of the mud. She fell forward into him, almost knocking them both over in the process.
He smiled down at her and cupped her chin.
"C'mon Rosie, let's get goin.' We'll getcha cleaned up once we get to the house. You'll be as good as new!" She knew he was trying to lighten her mood.
With a mischievous grin that made his eyes crinkle at the edges he pinched her bottom and whispered an innuendo about helping her take a bath. Rose knew she could have been covered in cow manure, and he'd still get riled up for her.
"How can you be thinking of sex at a time like this?"
"Oh, I think about it all the time, Rosie!"
Remembering their wedding night, Rose recalled that same grin. He'd taken her in his arms and gently lowered her to their bed. She'd felt hot and cold, nervous and excited, at the same time.
She'd been a virgin: the bloodstained sheet was proof of that. Important proof, Rose had learned, as in the old country it was tradition to show the virginal evidence the next day. When she had told so to Jack, he'd replied, in no uncertain and colorful terms, that that was the most ridiculous thing he'd ever heard.
Her new husband had tried to be gentle and tender with her. It was a sweet and erotic memory that made her feel truly like a woman. Jack had done that, and much more, to and for Rose since they'd met.
So Rose had insisted they wait until they were married. Jack had said it didn't matter, but she knew the gossip that plagued girls who'd gone all the way with a boyfriend. "Boys don't respect girls who go all the way!"Her mother's words kept her in check.
"Was it painful?" he'd asked, once they lay beside each other in the dark. Rose hadn't been sure what she was supposed to feel. Even though he had tried to be tender and take things slowly, it had been all he could do to hold back.
While it had hurt, the experience was one that had made Rose feel truly like a woman. Jack had done that for her in so many ways, not just sexually, since they'd met. He had a way of bringing out a rebelliousness she hadn't allowed herself to indulge before him.
Still, she wondered if marriage to Jack would actually allow her the freedom she now longed to experience after years in an over-protective family. She liked feeling protected by Jack, but sometimes she also felt controlled by him. She wasn't sure she liked that.
Jack could see the apprehension in her face, even as she smiled up at him. From his six-foot-four vantage point, he bent down to his just-over-five-five wife and planted a light kiss on her forehead. Oh, but he loved everything about her. How did I get this lucky? He shook his head.
Taking a bandana out of his back pocket, Jack wiped as much of the mud from Rose's hand as he could. Then he wrapped his arm around her waist, and they began the quarter-mile walk to the Conner farm.
Los Angeles, California, December 1945
Jack took an elbow in the ribs; Johnny Castro prodded him then pointed with his chin as the raven-haired beauty strolled slowly by. She walked with confidence, seemingly oblivious to the stares of the line workers. They'd seen her a lot lately, now that she'd moved up to work in the office.
"What a rack!" A not-so-muffled catcall came from one of the line workers as Rose passed.
Jack gave him a "Back off, asshole!" look.
"I'll betcha five bucks you don't have the balls to ask her out!" Johnny said. He knew Jack had been admiring the girl for quite some time and he also knew how to stir things up.
Johnny was about 5-10, shorter than Jack and much stockier. The wavy black hair, dark eyes, and gleaming white smile he'd gained from his Mexican heritage got him a lot of action. In that sense he was quite a ladies' man, in Jack's opinion, but he was also respectful when it came to women.
Jack slapped his friend on the back. "You're on, John."
He took a deep breath and then whistled.
Rose, dressed in slacks and a snug sweater that flattered her generous breasts and slender hips, kept walking, lifting her chin a little higher.
"See, she won't even look at ya ... farm boy!" Johnny chided. He knew how far to push his friend without getting a fist in his face.
In contrast to Johnny, Jack was tall and lean, with rope-taut musclesfarm work had made him strong. Because of this, while he lacked the street smarts Johnny possessed, he could take care of himself when times called for it.
Rose had caught Jack's eye from the very first time she strolled past his workstation, leaving the subtle scent of perfume in her wake. She wasn't a typical all-American pinup girl, no, she was exotic, and he liked that about her. She was different from anyone who had ever attracted him, and that was intriguing: like a forbidden fruit, he had to have a bite.
With a quick side-glance, Rose noticed the tall man whose eyes were locked on her as if she were in his gun sights.
She was just leaving the material control office where she worked, the day's invoices tucked under her arm. Her long hair, done up in a pompadour, gleamed under the strong factory lights. She didn't fancy herself beautiful, but she did take care of what she had: wavy black hair, smooth olive skin, and sparkling black eyes she inherited from her Sicilian parents. Her brothers often teased her, though, about what they referred to as her "bird legs." It was the one part of her body she wasn't proud of.
Jack watched her stroll past. He tried to imagine what she looked like under all those clothes, how she smelled, and what her kisses would taste like.
All the guys had noticed Rose. Her name was often called over the loud speaker"Rose Calamia, report to office" or "Rose Calamia, report to material control!" Jack had smiled to himself when on one occasion a coworker had asked Rose, "Are those real?" referring to her ample bosoms.
She had just smiled, and said, "What do you think?" and continued walking. Rose was naive, she knew that, but she knew a wolf when she saw one.
She'd learned a lot from having two brothers at home who exuded testosterone.
She wasn't sure about this tall one who stared at her. Oh, he was handsome, she was sure of that. There was something about those eyesblue, deep and brooding. She'd first noticed him as one of the "new hires" who operated the drop hammer on the line. Word traveled fast in the plant, and rumor had it he'd been in the Army but was discharged for some medical reason.
Well, he appears to be healthy to me. He can look all he wants, I'm not about to give him the satisfaction of appearing interested. Anyway, Mama won't let me date boys outside her circle of friends or the neighborhood.
Jack watched as Rose closed the office door with a shapely hip, hand keeping a careful grip on the stack of papers she carried. She thinks she's bein' all cool and highfalutin'. He sensed she was aware of him. Hell, I'll give it another shot. What do I have to lose?
Johnny's eyes widened as Jack pushed off the machine he'd been leaning on and moved toward Rose with his John Wayne stride.
That son of a bitch ... he's going to ask her out! The farmer has balls after all! Johnny watched, shaking his head and trying to control the smirk on his face. Man, this is gonna be good!
Rose caught a glimpse of the tall, lean man walking toward her. Oh, no! What does he want? What will I say? He's so ... so tall! Oh, my God ... She shook her head. Get a hold of yourself!
Sweat trickled down her back. She'd never felt so nervous, so vulnerable. The papers she carried almost slipped from her grasp. This is no time to show your clumsy side, Rose. Unlike some of her girlfriends, she wasn't good at flirting and making small talk with men. Oh, sure, other guys had made passes at her, but she just laughed it offignoring their advances.
But this one was different. This one intrigued her, and now he was moving with purpose.
Stopping once they stood toe-to-toe, Jack blocked her way.
"Hey, I'm Jack. Y'gotta a minute?" She looked up at him, wide-eyed.
Jack's hands suddenly felt cold and clammy. "I ... uh ... would you like to go out sometime?" He barely managed to spit out the words.
What kind of a dumbass approach was that? Smooth, Jack. Real smooth. She probably thinks you just dropped off a turnip truck. And she'll probably slap you.
Jack looked back at Johnny, whose smirk had turned into a full-blown grin behind the hand he'd brought up to his face. Hiding his amusement was Johnny's only shot at not getting sucker punched once this little scene was over.
Jack scowled at him. Man, I've played right into Romeo's plan. I'm gonna kill that Mexican when I get out of here.
Rose tilted her head back a little more and looked up into Jack's eyes. He's like a California redwoodHUGE! She liked what she saw.
In one breath she blurted, "Oh, I'd like thatwherewhat time? I meanOh, I'll have to think about it. Well, sure, that'd be nice." She refilled her lungs and started to panic. Mama won't approve, not to mention my brothers. They'll kill this guy first, and ask questions later.
Jack looked as dumbstruck as Rose.
"Did you say yes? I meanReally? That's great! Uh, where do you live? And, oh! I guess I should ask your name."
Jack knew her name all right, but thought it only polite to ask.
Her mouth was dry, and the words seemed to stick in her throat.
"It's Rose ... Rose Calamia. I live, uhover on Avenue 34. Do you know the Five Points area?"
"No ... 'fraid not." He nodded toward his friend. "But maybe my buddy Johnny knows. He's from around here."
Excerpted from Corn Rose by Karen Ross Epp. Copyright © 2013 Karen Ross Epp. Excerpted by permission of AuthorHouse.
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