The year is 1911. After attending college in Wichita for two years, Margaret Chambers returns home to teach in the one-room schoolhouse of her youth. Trouble brews quickly. The God-fearing citizens of this small, weather-beaten town feel threatened by the bright-eyed, full-figured Margaret. She's too smart by half and she needs to be put in her place. The men devise a plan to chase Margaret from the county forever. But fueled by whiskey and the shame of their own desires, their plan soon spins out of control. In one night of brutal violence, they ambush Margaret and tar and feather her naked body.
After the men are arrested, a long, painful trial beginsa trial that will thrust this proud, private Kansas town into the national spotlight, splitting families apart and exposing the dark secrets of one hideous night to the unforgiving light of day.
Esther's Pillow is based on a true story. It is the story that author Marlin Fitzwater learned at his father's deathbed. Haunted by his family's own role in the Chambers scandal, Fitzwater reached deep into the past to unearth the shocking secrets of one family, a small Kansas town, and the dark passions that changed them all forever.
Author Biography: Marlin Fitzwater was White House press secretary from 1982 to 1992 to Presidents Reagan and Bush. He now lives outside Washington, D.C., in Deale, Maryland. He hails from Abilene, Kansas.
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I sat and watched as my father lay dying of Wilson's disease,a rare and incurable form of liver destruction caused by the buildupof copper in the body. My brother and I prayed for a painlessdeparture. Amazingly, the process of natural death from the systematicshutdown of the body seemed well ordered and observable, muchlike the process of growing, and aging, only sped up in reverse, like therewinding of an old movie reel. Dad consolidated seventy-six yearsof life into six months of dying. As the days passed, he grew weakerand weaker, gradually shutting down various functions, much like acomputer shuts down at the end of the day, first the screen, then thehard drive, then the printer, until all systems are finally stillas still asdeath. At least that's the way my computer shuts down. I'm a teacherand my computer is very old.
In one of those stages of death, very near the end, my father babbled.He spent three days shouting continuously. He talked straightthrough the night, at the top of his lungs, and seldom in complete sentences.When we first heard him call for Jay we didn't pay much heed.
"Jay!" my father shouted. "Where are you? Where are you going?"
In an hour or so, he repeated the phrase. My brother sat quietlybeside Dad, his hand resting gently on the old man's forehead, onethumb moving in concentric circles on Dad's temple. He said nothingas Dad rambled. But when Dad called for Jay a third time, mybrother raised his eyes and asked, "Who's Jay?" There was noresponsefrom Dad, of course, and I had no idea who Jay was. Perhaps a friendor neighbor; there are so many in seven decades of life.
The Langstons don't get involved in other people's lives. My dad'sfather, Grandpa Ray, died in his nineties without ever uttering a harshword, except once when a hired hand got careless, swung his hay hookfor a bale of straw that Grandpa was leaning on, and put the hook clearthrough the calf of Grandpa's leg. He knocked Grandpa down. Bloodsoaked through Grandpa's overalls, yet all he moaned was, "DammitClint, watch out for that thing."
Another time, a neighbor arrived to help just as the last bale of strawwas stacked in the barn. Even Clint commented that this neighbornever got anywhere on time where there was work to be done, butGrandpa said nothing. He offered a glass of tea and we all sat around,sweating, feeling real good about the work and the fact that the jobwas through. No, Langstons didn't fuss much with others. They kepta kind of detached attitude toward other folks. So when Dad cried outfor Jay, it seemed out of character.
Dad only had one brother, a retired natural gas company executivenamed Edward, who lived in Dodge City. Apparently UncleEdward and Dad had been inseparable as kids growing up in Nickerly,a town of only a few hundred people in central Kansas. Dad onlytook me there once, for a reunion of the Nickerly Presbyterian church.He talked in the car about playing basketball at Nickerly, about howeveryone there used the two-handed, underhanded set shot, especiallyfor free-throw shooting. When I was in grade school, Dad could hitthat shot thirty times in a row in our makeshift hoop, a peach basketwith the bottom knocked out, nailed on the side of the barn.
When Uncle Edward arrived for the funeral, he seemed muchyounger than I had remembered him.
"Your dad was a great left fielder," he said. "He could run and catchanything. Very fast. One time against Ellsworth, this ole boy hit a highone, and your dad started running. He actually jumped the fence,just a barbed wire cattle fence actually, and caught the ball. We hada big fight over whether or not it was legal. Your dad never said a word.Just walked back to his position and waited for the decision."
"Let me ask you something," I ventured. "When Dad was delusionaryjust before he died, he kept calling for Jay. Do you know whothat could be? Maybe somebody from Dad's youth?"
Uncle Edward looked up toward the ceiling as if in contemplation,then down at the floor, then turned his head toward me. "It mightbe your grandfather's brother," he said quietly.
I thought for a moment. I had never heard Dad mention an UncleJay. I had never heard Grandpa Ray mention a brother Jay.
"I never heard of Jay," I said. "Was he a lot older than Grandpa?"
"I don't really know," Edward said.
"Where does he live?" I asked. "Of course, he would be dead now.But what about relatives? How come we've never heard from any ofthem?"
"I don't really know," he repeated.
"But why would Dad call out his name?" I asked impatiently.
My dad's brother started slowly. "Well," he said, "we don't reallyknow much about Jay because Dad never would talk about him.My dad, your Grandpa Ray, just turned away whenever Jay's namecame up."
"Why?" I asked. "What happened? Why didn't anyone ever mentionany of this?"
"Well," he said, "we didn't know much. The story goes that Jay gotin some kind of trouble. Some trouble with a girl. Then he passed somebad checks, and your granddad told him to leave Kansas and nevercome back."
My uncle leaned forward in his chair, a straight back with a stuffedseat in floral print fabric. I had found the chair on the loading dockof the local furniture store one afternoon after basketball practiceitmust have been my junior year in high schooland asked the storemanager if I could have it. It had a long scar along the inside of oneleg, hardly noticeable, but the manager said he couldn't sell it. I gaveit to Mom and Dad, and they set it out on the porch.
The porch had always served as a gathering place for evening conversation.Our little house was a typical cottage with the porchstretched across the front. The front door opened into a living room,then a dining room, then a kitchen, with two bedrooms along the sideof the sitting rooms. Our house and those of our neighbors conformedto the dominant architecture in most small towns across America. Weall lived in simple homes, built in the forties and fifties for middleclassfamilies and modified over the years with porch boxes, bedroomadditions, and finished attics. Despite the additions, the housesremained small. Ours had served us well for four decades. Now the oldchair creaked when my uncle leaned forward, reminding me of thepassage of time and the distance of my own travels.
"That's about all I know," Uncle Everett said. "I asked my dad,your grandfather, about it a couple of times, but he just wouldn't talkabout it."
"Forgive me," I said, "but did he rape her? What happened?"
"I don't know," my uncle repeated. "I never really knew. I thinkshe was a schoolteacher."
With each question, my uncle offered a few more words. It wasn'tclear to me whether he knew more, or didn't want to know more, orjust didn't want to tell me. But he was clearly reluctant to talk aboutJay, and I decided to let the matter rest for a while. My family had obviouslybottled this thing up for at least four generations. Dad hadrepressed the memory so deep that only death's calling could pry itto the surface.
After the funeral, after the aunts and uncles and cousins haddeparted on two- or three-hour drives to remote Kansas towns, a bouquetof gladiolus was brought from the funeral home and placed on thecorner table in my brother's home. I collapsed into a chair across theroom, my feet propped on a small footstool covered with a dark blueneedlepoint of red and pink roses, and I dozed off. My dreams weresentimental and warm. I saw Dad riding his Farmal tractor, pulling thesmall International Harvester combine through the golden wheat fieldsalong Holland Creek, the heat causing him to blur in the distance.As he moved away, the thermal winds turned his body into a shimmeringmirage. From time to time he would stand up on the tractor,turn his head to see if the combine bin was full, then wave his wide-brimmedstraw hat, a signal for me to drive the little Ford Ferguson andwheat trailer out to the combine, pull it right up under the downspout,and wait for Dad to start the auger. I drove the tractor with onehand so I could hold on to the water jug with the other. That jug hadbeen around more wheat fields than I had. One side was caved in wheresomeone had dropped it under a tractor tire. Mom had filled it withwater and ice, which made the sides sweat in the sun, and when youpulled the cap off the small spout on top, the steel opening wouldalmost freeze your lips. The jug was heavy, and you had to be carefulnot to put your mouth around the spout without having a good grip.A chipped tooth from this process was pretty common. I was just handingthe jug to Dad on the combine when Gary woke me.
"Where do you suppose Jay is today?" Gary asked, shoving my feetoff the footstool.
"He's history," I replied. "But he must have relatives somewhere.Somebody in our family must know something."
"I was cleaning out Dad's things yesterday," Gary said, "and cameacross this old suitcase." He placed a battered cardboard case on thefootstool. "It's full of old pictures of us kids and Grandma andGrandpa. Maybe there's something in there."
My brother was naturally handsome, with all the rough edges stillon. His hands were callused from daily work in the gas station, greaseaccentuating the creases in his palms, a faint smell of kerosene lingeringin his clothes. His dark wavy hair, while thinning, reminded meof Dad, at least in the dusk of a long day.
Gary put down his cigarette. He normally smoked only in his garageor on the back steps of the house, but the funeral had put a barrel ofpressure on him, to the point that he felt he deserved to smoke inside.He stubbed the cigarette out in a brown porcelain ashtray with a deerperched on one edge. You could grab the little antlers to empty the discardedbutts into a wastebasket.
The suitcase was coming apart at one corner where a brass nailwas missing from the hinge. Gary moved it from the stool to thecouch, holding it between his hands like a giant sandwich, then settingit gently behind a pillow so the contents wouldn't accidentally spillonto the floor.
As he lifted the lid, the smell of mildew or mothballs, or at leastsomething ancient, escaped. The pictures were piled with no order,corners sticking out in every direction, heaped large upon small. It wasobvious someone had shuffled the deck many times over the years,no doubt looking for an aunt or long-forgotten cousin. Most of thepictures had a kind of Civil War tinge to them, as if produced on tintype.Some were edged in a kind of black lace around the edges, nodoubt a part of the printing process. On top was a picture of Dadand Grandpa, wearing overalls and standing in a field of maize. Theylooked like my brother. All Langstons have thick wavy hair. GrandpaRay had died at ninety-two with the great wave totally white, butsolidly in place. Dad was gone at seventy-six with only a trace of grayat the edges and the wave slightly thinned. I glanced at Gary. His wavewas rumpled from worry, but unquestionably a gift from the two menin the picture.
Gary picked up each picture gingerly, examined it for a few seconds,then handed it to me. They were mostly family shots, except for onepostcard. Gary stared at it, a stone structure with turret rooms at eachcorner that stretched four stories high, giving the building a castleeffect, with steeply pitched roofs between the turrets. The building wasset on a wide dirt street with a few trees and an old car, perhaps aModel A Ford, parked in the corner. Gary flipped the card in searchof a description or at least a post office cancellation. In the upperleft-hand corner it read, "Nickerly County Court House, 1911." Therewas no writing under the postmark.
Gary handed me the courthouse and picked up the next picture.It showed an older man, surrounded by family, posed in front of aframe farmhouse. The man had white hair and a snowy beard, unevenat the bottom as if trimmed infrequently. His waistcoat was buttonedat the collar and open down the front, gaping as it crossed his amplemidsection.
"That must be Grandpa Aaron, the dunkard ministerGrandpaRay's dadthe Langston who brought us all to Kansas from WestVirginia," I remarked. "Do you see Grandpa?"
"What's a dunkard?" Gary asked.
"He baptized people in the river," I said. "He dunked them."
Gary was squinting at the picture, trying to discern family faces."This must be Aaron's family. Here's Grandpa Ray, and these mustbe his sisters ... great beauties," he said with a snicker. "But look hereon the end. Look at that wavy hair. These are Aaron's kids, all linedup, with Grandpa Ray at one end, and this kid on the other end ...must be Jay," Gary announced triumphantly. "This is him!"
The wavy-haired young man in the picture looked to be abouttwenty. He had a long ruddy face, with a smirk frozen at one cornerof his mouth, as if he didn't really want to be in the picture.
"He looks like a wise guy," I remarked.
"Always in trouble," Gary added.
Near the bottom of the box, with only three or four pictures leftto consider, we found proof of Jay's existence. The background of thephotograph was a pasture, open and barren to the distant horizon. Twomen were standing in thick clover, with nothing around them to distractfrom the stark reality of Ray and Jay Langston. Jay's arm waswrapped around his brother's shoulder. It must have been their lastpicture together.
Gary turned the photo over. Someone had written in small carefulletters: RAY and JAY. Nothing else.
We stared at the picture for long minutes, trying to fathom howsomeone like Jay could simply drop off the face of the earth; how wehad never even heard about this handsome man with his arm aroundGrandpa's shoulder. I had been duped to the end by my own father, byall of the Langstonsaunts, uncles, and cousinswho had kept thesecret. I felt foolish.
"This courthouse postcard gives me an idea," I said to Gary. "Let'sgo to Nickerly. I'm sure this old courthouse has been torn down. Butlet's go find out about Jay."
"You mean about his life?" Gary said. "His birth certificate, thingslike that?"
"Sure," I replied. "What about this woman and the bad checks business?Surely somebody remembers. Court records. Maybe the countyhistorical society, assuming they have one."
"When?" he asked.
"Now. Tomorrow. I have a few days before going back to New York.You're off work for Dad's funeral. Let's go tomorrow."
* * *
It was a warm drive to Nickerly. Sun heated the outside of thewindows, but the insides were cold to touch, forming a kind of cocoonaround my family memories. I let my mind flutter. The miles passedunnoticed. On a Kansas highway the lines are straight, fence postsmark the distance, and the prairie grass sparkles like the ocean. I wonderedhow many years it took before my metaphors reversed, when Istarted comparing the prairie to the ocean, which I had never evenseen until I was twenty-five.
I wasn't really like the rest of the Langstons. I had moved away fromKansas, moved away from them. Gone soft. There was a hardness inmy family, more like stone, that gave strength to the soul of the Langstons,an internal discipline that could be vengeful or spiteful, butthat rarely showed itself.
There was only one occasion I could remember when my father'siron will was publicly displayed, and it related to his in-laws, the otherside of the family. When my mother's father died, my mother and herfour brothers and sisters set about the task of divvying up the familyantiques. The one thing my mother wanted was the family piano,the one she had learned to play as a little girl, had practiced on forhours; the instrument that had given her dreams of other places,taking her off the farm and out of the cycle of rural life with its bleakpromises. Mom was in her fifties at the time of her father's death. Shewanted to retrieve those memories of hope. But her sister, a far lessaccomplished pianist, had the same dreams and wanted the piano too.
It turned out that similar disputes erupted among the other brothersand sisters, to the point that they couldn't agree on the dining table,the buggy in the barn, the fine china, the primitive paintings, and allof the linens and quilts that Grandma had made in her later years.They argued and fought about who would get what. For weeks theytraded letters, then agreed to a meeting, where they argued again andhurled insults long forgotten, dredging up schoolboy conflicts fromforty years before. In the end, one brother said, "OK. Call Jim Shockey,the auctioneer. Sell every damned thing. If you want it, buy it, and we'llsplit the money five ways. I'm tired of arguing." Then he stompedout of the house and never spoke to my parents again.
I went home for the auction, primarily because I wanted to bid onsome board games, particularly a chinese checkers board with the marblesin a coffee can, that Granddad, Gary, and I had played on everyWednesday night.
I flew to Wichita, rented a car, and drove straight to the farm whereGranddad's three hay wagonsrubber-wheeled flatbeds that carriedhay stacked six bales highwere parked in the front yard, coveredwith tools, wire, nails, pots, pans, porcelain, ashtrays, birdbaths,household goods of every description, and carpentry vises and grips ofevery kind. The auctioneer was giving his rapid fire, beckoning to allbuyers to please give two dollars for a porcelain bird that Grandmahad painted. I walked over to Dad, who was talking to my old gradeschool principal.
"Hi, Dad," I said, gripping his hand. My dad smiled and said, "Well,look who's here. I thought you'd be here earlier."
"My plane stopped in Chicago," I said. "Lost an hour. Has everythingsold?"
"No," Dad said, "we're just about to move into the house. This outsidestuff is about all gone. Walk around. See if there's anything youwant."
I had missed the board game. It sold with a "lot"that's auctioneertalk for a group of unrelated itemsin this case a pickle jar, a bagof rusty nails, a hand ax, and a horse bridle that draped over all theitems to denote the boundary of the lot. It went for three dollars andfifty cents.
As we moved into the house, I could feel a little tension, if onlybecause it was so crowded. All the brothers and sisters were there. Ahalf dozen antique collectors were fidgeting in the front, eager topick up some cheap furniture in the hope that few of these farmersknew the real value of the china cabinets with curved glass or the oakdressers with hand-carved legs. The auctioneer kept his eye on them.He would run up the price if he could. He was paid on commission,and besides, the family had made it clear they wanted high prices.
As fate would have it, bidding began first on the piano. The auctioneer'sstaccato voice began the arcane ritual of selling. "Gimme fifty.Here now fifty-five. Beautiful piano. All the kids got lessons on thispiano. Now sixty. Now seventy. Who'll give me eighty? Eighty-five?"And so it went, so fast that it took my ears several minutes to adjust,to figure out what he was saying, to know the bidding level. The firstround included several neighbors, people who wanted the piano fortheir kids, especially if they could pick it up for fifty bucks or so. Butthe collectors soon raised the price to over one hundred dollars andthat knocked most people out of the bidding.
My dad was determined to buy the piano for Mom. He hadn't beenable to give her too many luxuries in life. Even after twenty-five yearsof marriage, Mom's wedding ring was still the most expensive itemhe had ever given her. So Dad held back, waiting for the bidders tothin, waiting to get a little closer to the actual buying price.
But my mother's sister had the same idea. She didn't turn the biddingover to her husband, the way most farm wives would. Shescreamed out her first bid at two hundred twenty-five dollars. Dad hadalready bid once. When he heard her voice, he turned to confirm thesource, then caught her eye. He saw determination and confrontation.I was standing next to Mom and she grabbed my arm, seeing the trainwreck coming, seeing the fierceness in her sister's eyes and the painof unresolved differences; she knew a fearful contest was at hand.She murmured something I didn't fully catch, "No, Dad, no." But itwas a sorrowful plea, as if she knew Dad had to do it.
The price started climbing, in twenty-five-dollar increments, pastthree hundred, until the last collector dropped out. They couldn'tmake any money at that price. But the auctioneer kept going, changingthe increments to a hundred, knowing that he had family againstfamily, and that was alright with him. One of these people wouldpay dearly, but all the brothers and sisters would gain. He didn't flinchfrom the task.
As they passed four hundred, everyone in the room began to turntheir heads from Dad to my mom's sister. Everybody knew them ofcourse, knew their relationship and their circumstances. My aunt'shusband worked for a grain elevator, was college educated, and madea good salary. They lived about ninety miles from Abilene, so peopledidn't know exactly how well they lived. But most felt they were alot better off than us. They knew my dad was a farmer, my mother rodethe tractor to help out, and most of our property was rented. Theyknew our cash flow was suspect, and surely my dad couldn't go toohigh.
I thought about telling Dad I would loan him, or give him, somemoney. But the room was so crowded I couldn't figure out how to doit so no one would notice. Also, I had never seen Dad so determined,so driven. A look of challenge blazed in his eye. The neighbors inthe room started to edge away from him. And then the bid passedsix hundred.
My mom's sister began to waiver. She looked at her husband. Heshook his head, realizing this bidding had gone far beyond price andreason. He wished she had dropped out long ago, but he also knewbetter than to argue. Then my mom started crying, and her sister justlooked at her with contempt, perhaps for being the weak sister, perhapsbecause my dad had chosen this ground on which to fight, perhapsbecause she really wanted the piano. But it seemed to me thatall legitimate motives had vanished at about two hundred dollars.
Excerpted from Esther's Pillow by MARLIN FITZWATER. Copyright © 2001 by Marlin Fitzwater. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
A fictionalized story based on true facts from a Kansas courtroom in the early 1900's makes this book especially interesting. Women of today can relate to the heroine's resolve to not only stand up for herself but to stand up to the moral hypocrisy of her time. That the author's own father's deathbed utterings stirred him to seek out his families unknown direct link to the crime is especially intriguing.
Marlin exposes what jealously, gossip and hatred can do in a small community and how one woman in 1911 strikes out to bring justice. The story is based on, what might have been, a happening in his own family history. The story demonstrates how far women have come in 90 years and is a good lesson to all that we must stand up to unjustice and bullies everywhere. For Marlin's first attempt at fiction, I say he did a great job weaving fact and fiction together for a compelling story. I highly recommend this book.