Winter Nights

     Prairie winter nights when the air becomes frigid, the stars in its unrestricted canopy are brighter, it seems, than at any other time of year.  It’s as if they have moved closer to share earth’s sparse warmth to which nature, in her relentlessness, subjects all earth’s creatures to.

Perhaps it is, simply, the tilt of the earth’s axis, an optical illusion.  Perhaps it is the dry cold air’s clarity.  Or perhaps those stars are nature’s compensation for pale sunlight and shortened days in that warp of time called winter.  For whatever reason, it does seem as if a clearer view of those heavenly bodies lifts us, give us hope beyond this world, even strength to endure.  Perhaps.

     Were a mere mortal to attempt to pluck a star from the heavens, it seems their best effort could undoubtedly be made on a cold, quiet night in the dead of winter when the only cloud to dispel the beauty of those heavenly bodies is the vapor that rises from within mankind itself.  Of course, man in all his ingenuity has yet to devise so great a plan.  We must still content ourselves with standing in awe of them, of their Creator.  And, on the plains, on a cold December night, we have much to hold in awe.

     So it was as Peter and Elizabeth Christiansen emerged from church services on the eve of 1941.  Having been married quietly five days earlier at her mother’s home, they held hands as they descended the church steps beneath night’s twinkling canopy in a frigid, snow-covered world.  Their future lay before them in yet unresolved questions.  They would as easily pluck one of the stars from beyond the church bell tower as know what the weeks ahead held. 

Their first challenge was clear, a trip to Omaha.  In three days, they would leave to explain and, if possible, salvage the relationship, the lost trust, their news would engender.  Both knew it would be an unpleasant task merely a necessary one.  So they held hands depending upon the one thing they were very sure of, that they would face this and all future problems together, under the star of their love for one another.

     News of the hasty marriage had swept through Wareham like winter snow sweeps across the prairie.  Within hours of the licensure (county clerks are not bound by privacy or discretion), most heard and tucked the information away to be retrieved and discussed at length, come summer, over cold beer, hot dogs, and the arrival of the town’s newest citizen.  Clucking tongues shook heads, swore they’d seen this coming, “Hadn’t Frank tried to prevent this very thing a couple years ago.  If he hadn’t died . . . what a tragedy . . . well, it was to be expected with only her mother’s guidance.”

Elizabeth felt the stares.  Her bridal blush deepened. To the best of her ability, she resigned herself to those silently clicking tongues and, with Peter steadying her, carefully descended the icy steps that New Year’s Eve in the same camel heels she’d worn home just ten days earlier.  Beneath the same camel-colored coat, mauve hat and scarf, she wore the navy suit her aunt had given her for Christmas, the one she’d been married in.  Having resigned herself to the eyes, to lips veiled behind hands, Elizabeth took comfort in Sister Angelina’s words and walked with dignity beside her husband.

     Peter, on the other hand, could barely control his frustration at the general reaction insinuated their way.  At the bottom of those steps, he looked at his bride, and said, “I want to say ‘Hi’ to Paul.  You want to come along or go to the car?  It’s pretty cold.”

     “Just wish him a Happy New Year for me, OK?  I’m freezing.”

Peter’s look betrayed that frustration, frustration heightened by his mother’s prophetic words. 

“You should have taken your coat off inside, Beth.  If people want to stare, that’s their problem.”  His tone belied a resentment boiling just short of anger.

     Elizabeth couldn’t help but smile.  “Honey, it’s going to take some time.  I kept my coat on because I was chilly.  Weren’t you?”

     He relaxed a little, shook his head, handed her the keys.  “I’ll be right there.”

     “OK.”

     She watched him walk away, felt even more strongly the pride being his wife meant to her, marveled that she could be even more in love with him after the past week than ever before.  She would not have thought it possible.  Memories of their first days as husband and wife filled her with joy and delight, contentment and desire. 

Elizabeth watched Paul turn towards him, extend his hand in congratulations; then she turned, began carefully picking a path through the trail of icy footprints that led to their car.  She’d gone only a few feet when she heard, “Elizabeth!”  Dreading the encounter, she took a breath and turned back to face Jennifer Sturhman.

     Jennifer, bedecked in the latest fashion for university co-eds, strutted towards her.  Despite her perfect smile, her eyes revealed little of the kindness her words implied.

     “Elizabeth you look lovely!  But then, all brides do, they say.  Congratulations. 

“Where’s the groom?”

     Elizabeth nodded towards the small gathering across the churchyard, “Talking with Paul,” and wishfully studied Peter’s bare head, his broad shoulders, willed him to turn, to look back.  Jennifer was the one person she preferred Peter run interference with.

     Jennifer, too, looked, studied Peter openly, so openly that Elizabeth finally said, “Did you have a Merry Christmas, Jenn?” merely to draw her attention away then began to shiver.

     “Why, yes, I did,” Jennifer responded and slowly dislodged her eyes.  Turning back to Elizabeth, she looked her up and down and said, “I knew your aunt and uncle were generous to a fault, Liz.  But that coat is lovely.”

     Warmth colored Elizabeth’s cheeks yet made no dent on the cold.  Embarrassment exacerbated her shivering.   “They have been more than kind to me.”

     “Yes, I see that.  I must say, Liz, I was taken aback when I heard your news.  Obviously, your Christmas was exactly what you’d planned.”  Jennifer smiled warmly; the cold wind could not penetrate her fur-lined wrap.  Only the eyes revealed her true venom.

     Jennifer’s directness startled Elizabeth, not because she wasn’t aware of her capacity for it, but because it went so far beyond even Jennifer’s norm.  Elizabeth paled, moved to change the subject. 

“How do you like the university, Jenn?  It’s so large; I think I’d be lost there.”

     “Have you seen the campus?”

     “When Peter visited over Labor Day, we drove to Lincoln to see the sights.  It was lovely.”

     “And you didn’t look me up?  Why, Liz, I thought we were better friends.”

     “We didn’t have your address or much time.”

Elizabeth’s teeth began to chatter.  

     “How are Margaret and Henry?”

     Shivering with more than cold, Elizabeth pulled her coat closer, grew amazed by what seemed almost serpentine in Jennifer’s expression.  Her antagonist’s eyes narrowed; her voice hissed over nearly clenched teeth, the bite in her words stung with bitterness.  Jennifer’s head moved slowly side to side.  Her eyes did not move or blink but focused hypnotically on her victim.  Elizabeth tried to look away but couldn’t.

     Jennifer’s eyes glazed, held. 

“I can only imagine their surprise at this news . . . Last time I talked to your aunt, she was hoping to match you with Dr. Bishop’s son.  ‘Cosmopolitan’ I believe she called him.  To be honest, it made me a little jealous of you.  Somehow, I had the distinct impression you had definite interest.”

     Willing herself from the trance, Elizabeth found her inner core and said, “Aunt Margaret should have realized my commitment to Peter was something I would never betray.  She obviously gave you the wrong impression.”  She paused then added, “Sorry to disappoint you.”

     “Why, Liz, whatever do you mean?  How am I disappointed?”

     “I imagine you thought that, with me out of the way, you’d pay Peter another visit, like you did last September.  Did you think he wouldn’t tell me?”  The moment she said the words, Elizabeth regretted falling into the trap.

     “But then, I’m not the one in trouble, am I, Liz?  You know, I don’t think you’d be lost at the university, not at all.  There are lots men to shop; I’m sure you’d pick one that suited you, and apparently, you know what to do next.”

     “What?”  Elizabeth exhaled.

     Seeing, Jennifer added, “Peter is the only one?  I don’t suppose this baby is . . . Sidney Bishop’s perhaps?” 

Jennifer’s head slid slowly sideways.  The insinuation ended with a slick, one-eyed smirk; her attention clearly back on Peter. 

     Elizabeth’s defenses crumbled, her words a vanishing mist frozen in air, “How can you say that?  You know I couldn’t, I wouldn’t . . .” Tears blinded her. 

     Paul was the one who noticed.  Nodding, he said, “Pete . . .” directing Peter’s gaze.  “Looks like trouble.”  Peter looked, saw his wife turn, take a quick step. Elizabeth’s foot found ice beneath the snow.  He watched her slip, watched her fall, land in knee-deep snow along the uneven path of frozen footprints.

     Hurrying over, his eyes framed the question his lips would not as he reached down for her.  “Honey?”

     “I’m fine,” she said weakly.  “Embarrassed is all.”

     “Are you sure?”  He studied her expression, detected her mood, saw wet lashes, and helped her stand.  Then he brushed snow from her side and back. 

     Elizabeth quickly wiped a hand over her cheek to catch the tear that had escaped. “Yes,” she whispered. 

     Peter did not miss the tear. 

“I thought you were going to the car to get out of the cold?”  Pulling the glove from his left hand, he combed snow from her hair.  Elizabeth saw Jennifer wince at the sight of the gold band he wore.

     “We were talking.”  

     Peter noted the look she gave Jennifer.  Several seconds later, she looked back, asked.  “Can we go now?”

     “You’re sure you didn’t hurt yourself?”

     “I’m fine.”

     For Jennifer’s benefit as much as Elizabeth’s, he kissed his wife where she had wiped the tear and said so that Jennifer could hear, “I couldn’t bear it if something happened to you,” with as much truth, as much passion as the words possessed.  Then, wrapping both arms around her to steady as well as warm her, he looked at his wife’s nemesis.  Blue eyes iced absolute dismissal. 

Jennifer’s breath caught.  She understood checkmate.

     “I’m glad you’re alright, Liz.  Really.”  Chameleon like, Jennifer transformed once more, grew visibly kinder. Elizabeth marveled at the change, at her words.  Jennifer, she realized, having done all the damage she could, simply retreated, or perhaps it was Peter’s presence.  It didn’t matter.  All that mattered was that Jennifer couldn’t hurt her anymore.  Once she told Peter what had been said, it could be forgotten.  Now, all she wanted was to be home and warm.  Neither was prepared for what happened next.

     Paul joined the stalemate.  Looking at Peter, he said, “You know, Pete, I meant to tell you something Jenn told me last night, something you’d like to know.”

     Paul’s tone surprised Peter.  It reflected in his eyes.  Their seriousness didn’t fit Paul’s nature.  Peter tightened his embrace of Elizabeth and waited expectantly. 

     “Tell him, Jenn.” 

All eyes turned towards Jennifer.

     “It’s just that I bumped into Jess Blakemore last time I was shopping in Omaha.  He asked about you, about Liz.  I told him she was working at her uncle’s bank.  He seemed real interested.  Said he’d look you up, Liz.”

     Elizabeth’s breath caught.  Her hand tightened on Peter’s lapel.  She sagged into him. 

Struggling against the emotional storm he’d been suddenly sucked into, Peter checked Elizabeth, but his eyes betrayed his turbulent feelings concerning Jess, feelings he’d kept from nearly everyone.  In fact, the only person beyond their families that knew the truth behind Jess’ hasty departure a year and a half earlier was Paul.  Paul, Peter knew, had not betrayed that confidence.

     Peter cleared his throat, asked, “When, Jennifer?  How long ago?”

     “Three, maybe four weeks.  I was Christmas shopping at Brandeis.  He does deliveries for them.  I told him that your uncle’s bank was only a couple blocks away, Liz.  I thought maybe he’d already stopped by.  He seemed quite certain he would.”

     Elizabeth focused solely on the lapel of Peter’s coat.  Again there were tears.  These slid down her cheeks.  Both their reactions surprised Jennifer.

     “We better go.”  Peter’s tone, his eyes had lost their edge.  They started away then he hesitated, turned back.  “Did you tell them where they live?”

     “No, but I told him Henry’s name.  He repeated Harrison back to me.”

     As he turned once more, his eyes found Elizabeth’s.  Once again, they said what he could not.   Seeing her near panic, he tried to reassure her. 

     “It’s a long time ago, Beth.  It probably didn’t mean anything.”

     “You heard her, Peter.”

     “Maybe he was just making conversation.”

     “You know him better than anyone.  Do you believe that?”

     Peter did not respond; there was no need.  Climbing into Peter’s father’s old Chevy, they drove away.

     “Now that was interesting.”  Jennifer looked at Paul.

     “What?”  Paul’s casual good humor had returned.

     “Their reactions.  A bit odd, weren’t they?”

     “Pete’s just worried about his wife, the baby they’re going to have,” Paul said, fully aware of the duplicity of meaning in his words.  Looking into the green eyes studying him, he added, “A word of advice, Jenn.”

     “Don’t say it. I wouldn’t dream of saying anything else to . . . or about her.”

     “Looked to me like you said plenty.  You know Peter.  And Liz.  They’ve been headed this way a long time.  At least they fell in love, made a commitment before they got involved.  That’s more than we can say.”

     Jennifer watched their taillights disappear.  “Maybe I just like impossible challenges,” she said more to herself than him.  Looking back, she said, “So why did Jess leave so abruptly, Paul?  I know you know, and I would bet my fur coat it had something to do with her, didn’t it?”

     Paul smiled his good-natured smile.  “There’s nothing on this earth you could do to get me to betray his trust.  He’s too good a friend.”

     Coyly arching her brows, Jennifer touched Paul’s jacket.  “Nothing?”

     Paul chuckled.  “Nothing.  Our free wheeling days are over, Jenn.  Don’t take this too hard, but I’d kind of like to find a girl a little more like Liz if you get my drift,” and laughed aloud at the steaming green fire his words inspired.  “Happy New Year, Jennifer.”  He tacked a kiss on her cheek and added softly, “Better luck in Lincoln.” 

     Her huff of cold mist attacked Paul’s back, all but blocked him from view as he sauntered away, then vanished.    As she headed towards her car, sleet began to sting her face.  The wind picked up, hurled snow across her path.  Sleet and snow stung her face, her legs and ankles.  Within minutes, the sudden storm built to one of fury, filling the sky with gray ice, blocking all stars from view.

 

     Hunched over the bar, he studied his drink, reflected on the fact that he hadn’t seen her in well over a week.  All around him, people, in eager anticipation of the New Year, were partying.  Some were playing pool.  Some were dancing.  Many were singing.  All were drinking.  Loud laughter filled the room save for the lone drinker at the end of the bar.  He evidenced no mirth.

As midnight approached, a barmaid of unusual girth began passing out hats and noisemakers.  He took the ones handed him, placed them on the bar without speaking.  All the while he wondered, wondered if she were gone for good, wondered if she’d return the first of the week when the holidays were over.  Each noon for nearly three weeks, he’d watched the bank, seen her go to lunch with her uncle or a friend or two.  He’d watched her board the train with her suitcase, her bag of gifts.

It had taken no time to find out where Henry Harrison lived.  Earlier, he’d driven to the banker’s home in the affluent residential area west of downtown.  Once again he hadn’t seen the light in the second story window he had decided was hers.  It hadn’t been on since she’d left.

Reaching into his jacket pocket, he withdrew an old crinkled photograph.  Setting it in front of his drink, he thought back to the summer a year and a half before.  The cracked ribs and bruises he’d suffered had healed long ago but were not forgotten.  Nor had he forgotten the beautiful girl that, in his mind, provoked them.  Even before he’d discovered her accessibility, he’d spent hours reliving the color of her eyes, the smell of her cologne, how she’d felt in his arms on the dance floor.  Seeing her again had fanned to life the fire that had smoldered within him all those months.  So he’d watched and waited and wondered at the turn of events that had taken her from Peter’s world, placed her within his.  How and when he would approach her, he did not know.  What was certain was that he would.  And this time, he would not fail.

As the clock struck, ringing in 1941, Jess lifted the noisemaker, placed it to his lips, and blew, knocking the picture of the boys and the horse into the wet ring left by his previous drink.  Happy New Year, Peter, he thought as he watched it slowly absorb the water and curl.  Happy New Year to you, too, Elizabeth.  Wherever you are.

     Miles away, in the cold second-story bedroom of his parent’s farmhouse, the room they’d shared since three days after their wedding when they brought her things to his home, a handsome young bridegroom kissed his sleepy bride, wished her a Happy New Year.  Rousing, she turned to him as the chill prairie wind rattled the frost-covered window beside the bed.  Soon, they lost all save the warmth of the love now theirs by right to share.    

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