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Author Biography: Ann Howard Creel is the author of two award-winning young adult novels, Water at the Blue Earth and A Ceiling of Stars. This is her first adult novel.
On August 30, 1944, only four months after Bea's wedding, my sisters accompanied me to Union Station to send me off on a journey that would please only my aunts. I thought of Aunt Eloise and Aunt Pearl often on that day. A shame they had missed this farewell into matrimony. Without knowledge of the circumstances, they would have been joyous.
During the war, Denver's Union Station served as a crossroads for some four million American soldiers who passed through its doors. Among the throng of uniformed servicemen and -women who daily boarded and debarked trains and made connections, Abby, Bea, and I walked to the ticket window and purchased a ticket for travel south, to launch the first step of a journey much different from the academic missions I'd once imagined. On that day, I would leave the city for the countryside, to carry out the plans for marriage arranged and urged on by my father.
Into my hand, Abby pressed gifts wrapped in new linen handkerchiefs and tied with ribbon. She held her face still. "I'm sorry Father couldn't make it."
"He tried," Bea said, but her youth betrayed her. Barely twenty years old and although a married woman, she hadn't yet learned to mask untruths on her face. It still flashed every emotion, just as it had when we three sisters shared a bed and huddled under a play tent of quilts in the sting of winter mornings. How little of the world she had experienced.
"Call us," was all else she could say.
On that morning, just after the liberation of Paris, the entire country sat perched on the sill of celebration. Laughter was louder, and in everyone's eyes gleamed a hopefulprospect, a wish we all held on to for easy victory, despite doubting its likelihood. Inside the passenger car I rode, the air grew dense with smoke from unfiltered cigarettes held loosely between fingers, passed about, and shared. In 1944, cigarettes had become scarce, but not so on that day.
Near me, only one other woman traveled alone, a thirtyish woman with hair dyed platinum blond like Jean Harlow's. I thought of asking her to play a hand of rummy, anything to break the monotony of the ride and divert my attention. In the university library, once I'd introduced myself to a girl named Dot who later became one of my best friends. But the blond woman seemed engrossed in reading her newspaper, and perhaps I pondered on it too long. Perhaps people traveling alone wanted to be left alone.
I studied the scenes outside the window. In the last days of summer, wood ducks skimmed over low-water ponds, and razored pines swayed in the hills between Denver and Colorado Springs. Just outside of Pueblo, I saw a huge pile of salvaged rubber tires, precious commodities during the war, chained and watched over by a guard. In Pueblo, a town that held an Army air base and therefore another teeming depot, I debarked from the train, following the blond woman but preceding the throng of servicemen. An hour later, I changed trains and headed east. I tried to buy lunch in the dining car but changed my mind after I found it full of people pressed in against each other.
Across the plain, the land shook free of mountain, hill, and mesa, becoming instead long and close-fit to the earth's contours, as a sheet fits a bed. Wild sunflowers grew in patches just feet away from the tracks. They made me remember something Mother once said to me. I had everyone beat in the eyes. Mine, she had said, like her own mother's, were as big and as deeply brown as sunflower centers. And that memory nudged another one. Hadn't Mother once told us a story about sunflowers? During the years of our girlhood, she had whispered to us so many fairy tales, myths, and even some stories of her own making, that it was difficult to recall them all. In her own girlhood, she had once had aims of becoming a novelist, and in my opinion, she had an imagination fresh enough to have succeeded as a writer. Once I asked her if she'd ever regretted her decision to marry and have children, but she'd only laughed and rubbed my head. "Who better to tell my stories to than you girls?"
The story had been something about the sunflower heads, about how they follow the track of the sun. With my eyes closed, I reached far back onto the shelf of distant memory, but still I could not remember it.
The train made five stops between Pueblo and my destination, including one at Nepesta, where the Missouri Pacific and the Santa Fe Railroads crossed. Outside my window, occasional ranch houses, signs of modest human habitation, dotted land that seemed most suitable for gophers and field mice. Then abruptly, outside of Fowler, the untrodden prairie ended, and miles of rowed crops in the fertile bottomlands of the lower Arkansas River began. For a few moments at a time, I saw stretches of the river-a silver-blue strand of waterway that curled back on itself and braided through stands of cottonwoods and willows. Near Rocky Ford, trucks piled high with ripe honeydew melons waited to cross the tracks, reminding me that summer was still at hand.
The train stopped at La Junta, home to another Army air base, where pilots received training in flying B-25 bombers. I debarked along with still more servicemen. La Junta, Spanish for "the junction," was probably named for its location at the convergence of the old Santa Fe and Navajo Trails, and still served as a transportation hub, only now for trains and planes instead of horses and wagons. The train station was huge compared to the buildings in the surrounding area and contained a roundhouse, docks, restaurants, and hotel rooms.
I expected to see my party as soon as I arrived; however, for a time that seemed much longer than it surely was, I stood on the platform with my large traveling case sitting upright at my side, waiting alone.
My father's old friend from seminary, the Reverend Willard Case, was to meet me and introduce me to the man who would become my husband. I had not seen the reverend in almost twelve years and wondered if I would recognize him. But as the depot finally began to clear of uniformed men and family members bustling about, I saw him striding toward me down the platform. He looked much as I had remembered him-wire-thin with a brisk walk. He removed a felt hat, the kind men found fashionable to wear with their suits during the war years, and I saw that since I'd last seen him, his once dark and unruly hair had turned into ribbons of silver strung away from his face.
As Reverend Case laid eyes upon me, recognition lit his face. "Ah, Olivia," he said as he approached me with an outstretched hand. "We were late in arriving." He took my hand in both of his. "And how was the journey?"
"Fine, fine," I answered, glancing up not at him but instead at the man who accompanied him. He had a face that wasn't unpleasant. No feature was too big or too small, but the resulting mixture was one that couldn't be called distinctive or handsome, either, and he had thinning red-brown hair that made him appear older than the thirty years I had been told was his age. He was tall and broad and appeared strong, as I would've guessed a farmer to be. Dressed in a brown suit with faded knees and elbows, he held himself a step back, completely still, his hat in one hand.
Revered Case followed my eyes. "Yes, let me make the introductions. Mr. Ray Singleton, this is Miss Olivia Dunne."
"Livvy," I said as we shook hands. "Most everyone calls me Livvy, for short."
I saw the lift of a smile in one cheek, but for only the slightest second, and then it was gone. Mr. Ray Singleton, who would become my husband as of this day, provided neither of us changed our minds, simply nodded in my direction. Then he stood back again, and holding his hat with both hands now, he shuffled it about in a circle.
He allowed Reverend Case to take the lead in conversation. "Any problems getting here?" the reverend asked me.
"Just a crowded train," I answered.
He pointed to my bag. "Is this it?"
Funny how I had fit what was left of me into that one case. "For now, yes," I answered.
Reverend Case directed our next moves. "We have the car parked nearby. Quite a little drive ahead of us," he said with the smile that now I remembered. Although they shared the same profession, Reverend Case's face and expressions lacked the hard edge that marked my father. While in Denver for the yearly conference, he had stayed in our guestroom and had tolerated the spying games and antics of three young girls. Twelve years ago, even then I had wondered how this gentle man could have once been a close friend to my father. Or had my father perhaps been softer in his youth?
"Do we need to use the station services?" he asked me.
I nodded. "Please pardon me."
In the ladies' room, I removed my hat and pinned away feathers of hair that had escaped from the French twist hairstyle
Bea had assisted me to put up for my special occasion. I checked my suit jacket from neck to waist, straightened my skirt, and smoothed out the lines that had creased my hem from hours of sitting in one place. And I regretted that because of rationing, I hadn't been able to purchase nylons to wear.
This man, Ray Singleton, didn't look anything like my sisters' husbands, but then again, I didn't look like my sisters. My body was lean and firm over the bones, not the sort that had ever lent itself to wolf whistles or men's admiring comments.
I pulled out my compact and powdered my nose. I ran the puff three times over the birthmark above my upper lip, which softened its color. But until I started to pin the hat back in place on my head, until I began dropping hatpins that clinked and bounced on the concrete flooring, until I crouched down to retrieve the pins, I hadn't noticed what I'd done to my shoes. On the train, I'd crossed the heels of my pumps over each other so many times that I'd worn ruts into the leather.
—From The Magic of Ordinary Days by Ann Howard Creel. (c) July 2001, Viking, a division of Penguin Putnam, Inc. Used by Permission.