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04 May 2016

The Wilderness – Chapter 2: The Husband

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It was the middle of the night in late August and Franklin Charles was wide-awake. In a large poster bed, he lay next to his wife and suffered under the heat of an enormous red quilt. In spite of the high summer temperatures, Harriet insisted that it remain on the bed year-round. Every year as the humidity settled over the city and Franklin began to itch and sweat, he would hope for the day when Harriet would decide it was simply too hot for the quilt. Franklin had been hoping for twenty-five years.

Most nights Franklin could ignore the heat and would eventually fall asleep to memories of ice-cold lemonade in the Adirondacks. He would dream of the lake where they spent long stretches at their family cottage. Those were days filled with swimming and sunbathing, while evenings meant steak and shrimp dinners on the porch while they watched the moon trade places with the sun. Even Harriet seemed to enjoy herself.

Somadirondackchaire nights, Franklin would sit for hours after Celine and Harriet had gone to bed, dangling his feet in the water as he listened for the sounds that were missing from their home in the city: the haunting call of the owl, the lap of the water against the dock, the steady song of the crickets. True, Franklin appreciated the luxuries of the city, but there was something reassuring about these lazy days on the water. It comforted him to know that places such as this still existed. Those times at the lake had always been his happiest.

Now it was 1926 and the summer was drawing to an end. It was the first year that their lake house had been unoccupied. Before they realized it, the days and weeks had passed, and neither Franklin nor Harriet had bothered to mention it. With Celine gone, neither one of them seemed particularly inclined.

Celine had been gone since the beginning of the season. They’d only heard from her once since she had left for Canada. And while Franklin fully supported his daughter’s independence, he’d been unable to shake the concern that had crept into his mind and gnawed at him during the night.

I’ll just send a telegram. First thing in the morning. A simple telegram asking when they should expect her home would ease his mind without making his twenty-three year-old think she was being parented. It was a perfectly reasonable move. Having made the decision, Franklin relaxed slightly and tried closing his eyes again.

In the dark, Franklin smiled as he thought of his girl and her humor. He recalled the last afternoon they had spent in Central Park. It had been overcast, and Celine had brought a stash of old acorns and hazelnuts.

“I don’t ever hit them,” she had assured him after suggesting they throw them at a family of barking squirrels. “I just hit the branches. Like to show them who’s in charge,” she had explained as she tossed a fat hazelnut at one of the squirrels.

During their walk, Franklin and his daughter had discussed various topics that they tried not to mention around Harriet. Issues of human rights and government control and cultural influence. Was there a threat that slavery would be back? Why wasn’t more being done to remedy the plight of the veterans who had returned from the Great War and still not found their way? And were the local police ever going to do something about all of this organized crime business?

As they had walked, Franklin had studied his animated daughter, noticing how she moved her hands to and fro like a conductor as she talked. There was something striking about the way she tilted her head and tucked her hair behind her ear that reminded him of his first meeting with Harriet. The same dark hair, the aristocratic features, the green-tinted eyes, cheeks that were easily flushed. He wouldn’t inform his daughter of this, but the realization made him a little sad.

“What?” Celine had noticed him staring at her. “Why are you looking at me like that?” She had sensed a shift in his mood and was never one to ignore that kind of thing.

“It’s nothing. I’m just going to miss you,” he had said, not knowing how to explain what he was feeling.

Maybe that was when the emptiness started. Maybe it was when Franklin realized he was having the kind of deep conversation with his child that he longed to have with his wife. Maybe that was when the patch of loneliness had started to seep into his heart. A slow leak, like the water dripping from the old faucet in their kitchen.

“Dad, have you been listening?” Celine had waved her hand in front of him as they had arrived at the pond where he had taught her to skip rocks.

“Sure, sure I’m listening,” he had assured her. “Organized crime. It’s terrible,” he had said and grinned sheepishly. Celine had shaken her head and linked her arm through his as they had turned back towards home. That was the last time he remembered laughing.

To distract him from the loneliness, Franklin had spent the summer in his law firm. He would go in to the office early and stay late. Anything to keep him preoccupied from the reality that without his daughter in the house, there was nothing there for him.

By the time Independence Day had come around, the tiny leak of loneliness had become a steady flow. An overwhelming sense that he was alone in the world. The only thing that made it at all bearable was knowing that summer was not forever. Under the misery of the insufferable red quilt, Franklin reminded himself that August was full of promise. Autumn leaves were sure to follow the summer sun, and the fall was certain to bring his daughter home.

♦⊕♦⊕♦⊕♦⊕♦

“You missed our bridge game,” Mrs. Charles informed her husband as he walked in the door the following night. It was the last Saturday in August, and Harriet was sitting alone in the parlor. She wore a new silk dress from Paris that would never be worn again. Her thick black curls were piled high on her head, and Franklin wished the scowl on her face could be contributed to all the pins in her hair.

“I told you I might not make it. Case goes to trial next week,” Franklin said as he entered the room and removed his jacket. He was disappointed that Harriet had waited up for him. He preferred it when she went to bed early and he could sneak in unnoticed.

In June they had started playing a weekly card game with a new couple in the neighborhood that Harriet had befriended. Transplants from Georgia, the O’Keif’s came from a long line of embittered plantation owners, and Franklin despised them. If it wasn’t for Harriet, he would have asked them to leave his house on several occasions. He had been glad to find an excuse to be gone for the evening.

“I’ve hardly seen you this summer,” Harriet observed as Franklin loosened his tie. “Without you and Celine throwing your tasteless humor about, it’s been a regular tomb around here.”

Franklin remained tight-lipped as he rolled up his sleeves and poured a glass of scotch. This ensued a dramatic sigh from his wife who made her staunch support of the temperance movement clearly known.

Before the days of Prohibition, Franklin had been a man with little inclination to drink. Naturally, there were those rare occasions such as weddings and Christmas Eve dinners that afforded themselves a glass of champagne or a snifter of brandy, but for the most part, Franklin did not feel the urge to drink. It wasn’t until he began hearing the ardent platitudes of his wife that his drinking became more frequent.

“I swear,” Harriet said as her husband poured his drink, “you might as well open a speakeasy right here in the parlor.” These days Harriet was routinely swearing to and declaring how things were or how they ought to be. Consequently, Franklin had become all the more motivated to drink in front of her. His own silent rebellion that generally incited his wife’s abrupt exit from the room.

“Don’t stay up too late,” Harriet had instructed him before rising from the sofa. She would expect her husband to follow close behind her.

Harriet called out to Zelda as she slowly climbed the staircase, one heeled foot at a time, as one who was weary from a hard day’s work. Franklin knew she would sit in front of the vanity until their maid Zelda came up to help her prepare for bed. A tradition that few of New York’s women were practicing anymore but a ritual that Harriet clung to as earnestly as she did all of her convictions.

“It’s the twentieth century, Mother. Don’t you think it’s time you started dressing yourself?” On her last night at home, Franklin had heard Celine argue with Harriet about the issue of domestic service.

“Do you not think we pay Zelda a fair wage? Do we not give her a room and all the food she wants?”

“Food that she cooks,” Celine had challenged, crossing her arms and shaking her head as Zelda hovered about her mother, helping put the finishing touches on Harriet’s attire for a lavish dinner party.

“It’s part of her job, and I don’t hear her complaining,” Harriet had retorted as Zelda adjusted the pearl combs in her hair.

“She’s standing right here, Mother. Why don’t you ask her? Zelda, what do you think?” Celine had been confident that Zelda would be on her side of the issue. How could she not be?

“I think that you both look beautiful this evening,” Zelda had said as she secured one last pin in Harriet’s abundant curls. After twenty years of living with the Charles family, she had learned to stay out of the notorious mother-daughter debates.

In the end, the situation had remained quite unresolved. While Franklin hid in the library, Harriet and Celine had argued about the abuse of wealth and power. Zelda had continued to quietly help Harriet with her hair and wardrobe requests. The next day, however, Harriet granted Zelda a full week off to take the train down to Virginia and visit her relatives. It was the first time that Franklin and Harriet had been alone in the house. If he was remembering correctly, they hadn’t spoken more than a few sentences to one another. Not that much had changed by their being alone, but with an empty house their strained silence felt more profound.

As Harriet left him to retire for the evening, Franklin chugged back his scotch and was debating a second glass when Zelda appeared from the kitchen.

“How were they this evening?” he asked even though he could anticipate the answer. The O’Keif’s had a propensity to insult anyone who wasn’t white or rich and do it all with innocent expressions that made Franklin sick with rage.

Zelda met Franklin’s gaze with her soft brown eyes, a look that meant he shouldn’t have bothered to ask. “If I wasnbottlepic‘t so offended I’d almost feel sorry for them.”

“They don’t need your pity, Zelda. They’re what’s wrong with this country. More than sixty years have passed and those folks still can’t get over the fact that they lost the war.” He could feel a rise in agitation as he remembered their last bridge game. Within the first five minutes the O’Keif’s had insulted every ethnicity in the city, household servants, and children. While he gritted his teeth, they had prattled on about the wretched poor and wasn’t it an unfortunate thing that not all of God’s creatures were born with money. Because of his wife, Franklin had remained silent. He had been hating himself ever since.

It wasn’t that Franklin couldn’t speak. He was a well-practiced attorney who could skillfully cross-examine a witness with his rich voice and his intense looks. Whenever his wife was absent, he was known for passionate speeches that moved the listener. It was solely Harriet who missed the opportunity to hear her husband express his true self.

“I’ll speak with Harriet and tell her they’re not welcome here anymore,” Franklin told Zelda as he felt the first cue of relaxation from the scotch.

“That’s a nice thought.” Zelda had spoken quietly as she moved past him, convicting him. Franklin had made the same promise to her several times before. The grandfather clock followed her up with a harsh announcement of the ten o’clock hour, its accusing tone ensuring that Franklin understood the brevity of his inaction.

Rather than follow his wife to bed, Franklin lowered his suspenders over his shoulders and decided it would be best to have that second drink. By now the ice in his glass had almost melted, and the beads of condensation made the surface slippery in his hand. Gripping it tighter as he poured, Franklin thought about Celine and knew the O’Keif’s wouldn’t have lasted one evening in their house if she had been home.

“I’m sorry, but there seems to be a misunderstanding. We’re simply not people who entertain racists.” The last time Harriet had invited such rancid guests over to the house was the night she and Celine had argued about Zelda. They had only been halfway through the hors d’oeuvre hour when Celine overheard them  use a derogatory term with Zelda. This signaled a premature ending to their dinner plans, and Celine had promptly shown the stupefied guests to the door. They had exited to the sound of Harriet profuse apologies for her daughter’s rudeness. Franklin had never been more proud of his daughter.

“I don’t know where she finds these sort of people,” Celine had told Franklin that day in Central Park. “Why do you let her carry on with such rubbish? Doesn’t she see they’re trying to stoke the embers of slavery with their foul notions? She just sits there and pretends she doesn’t hear their subtle degradations. If I were Zelda I’d spit in their food and pour soup in their laps.”

“She’s a grown woman, Celine. I can’t make her see things the way we do.”

“Please tell me you won’t let her bring any more of their kind to the house while I’m away.”

Drinking his second glass of scotch, Franklin cringed. The shame of passivity flowed as he thought about how he had failed his daughter’s request by allowing the O’Keif’s into their home. When he reached for a third drink, the glass slipped from his fingers and shattered across the hardwood floor. Some of it broke into large pieces that could be easily picked up. Others were small and stubborn, barely visible yet sharp enough to draw blood.

Franklin had remained in the parlor for some time, blankly staring at the mess and continuing to drink more than he ought. His thoughts eventually landed on the red quilt upstairs, a present given by his sister on their wedding day. For twenty-five years it had covered their bed, reminding him of the day he had promised to love Harriet forever. He wasn’t sure how long he had despised that quilt.

It was close to midnight when Franklin finally stopped drinking and resigned himself to another night lying next to his wife. Leaving the broken glass behind, he trudged up to the bedroom and opened the door to hot, stale air. Harriet had been sleeping deeply for some time when he eased himself into bed. Her typically flawless hair was scattered about in a frenzy of curls, as if she had forgotten her values for one night.

It had been a long time since Franklin had really looked at his wife, and he had to admit that in spite of everything, she was still a beautiful woman. In candid moments like these, her features were tender and vulnerable, reminding him of the girl he thought he had married.

Harriet shifted slightly, as if she could sense his gaze and was uncomfortable with the scrutiny. Watching her like this, Franklin felt a fresh surge of loneliness and wondered what it would take to fill the empty patch in his heart.

That’s alright, he told himself. The summer was over and Celine would be back soon. Everything was going to be easier.

To be continued…

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Go back to read Chapter 1. Go on to read Chapters 345, 6, & 7

Additional Resources: Prohibition-A Film by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick

Written by Heidi Sadler. © 2016, Heidi Sadler. All Rights Reserved.

 

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