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Authors: William Kent Krueger

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BOOK: This Tender Land
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It took a while for the full effect of the encounter to hit me. Then I began to cry, trying to keep my sobs quiet. I’d thought I was alone before, but now I understood how truly abandoned I was. An emptiness opened inside me that could have swallowed the whole universe.

“Albert,” I whispered. “Albert.”

CHAPTER FIFTY-NINE

I PULLED INTO
Saint Louis two days later. The city had been my goal for so long I’d anticipated feeling something momentous when I arrived. Instead, I stood in yet another alien place, amid a spiderweb of tracks spun in the shadows of a jagged line of tall buildings, all of it laid out under a sky as gray as an old nickel.

I had no idea where to go, how to begin my search for Aunt Julia. I hadn’t been in Saint Louis since we’d visited following my mother’s death, which was half my lifetime ago. What was familiar to me by now was the Mississippi, so I made my way to the river. I found a city of shacks, a Hooverville beyond my imagination with a populace a hundred times greater than I’d seen in Hopersville. Shanties covered the flats for a full mile downriver, hovels built between hillocks of debris, all of it looking so tenuous I thought that if the gray sky cracked open and rain poured out, everything before me would simply wash into the river and be swept away.

I walked along makeshift pathways, amid an overpowering smell and sense of decay. In my imagining across the whole of my journey, Saint Louis had been a distant, golden promise. All that way, I thought with sinking hope, and everything I’d gone through, and for what?

“Hey, kid!”

I looked up. The darkness of my thoughts must have shown on my face, because a man with a beard like Spanish moss on his cheeks eyed me from beneath the brim of a worn fedora the same dismal color as the sky.

“On the bum, kid? Hungry?” He pointed downriver. “Free kitchen under the bridge. The Welcome Inn.”

“Thanks.”

“You get used to it,” he said.

“What?”

“If you don’t know now, you soon will.” He stepped inside a shack no bigger than a piano crate and covered in tar paper.

I found the Welcome Inn, with a long line of forlorn people looking for whatever might be handed out to them, women and kids among them. Although I was plenty hungry, I couldn’t bring myself to join that queue yet, and I wandered down to the edge of the river.

The surface of the water was oily and iridescent, and a foul, unnatural odor came off it. On the far side, industrial chimneys sent up columns of smoke that fed the dirty gray of the sky, and God only knew what those enterprises were pouring into the Mississippi. Up in Saint Paul, the water had been abysmal, and it had flowed past a hundred other towns and cities since then. With that beggared gathering of humanity at my back and the Mississippi looking so sick in front of me, it seemed that the place I’d come to was its own kind of hell.

“I should have gone with Maybeth,” I said aloud. At the sound of her name my heart nearly broke. But I brightened as I recalled our promise to each other to write as soon as we could. The letter I’d written hadn’t been mailed; maybe Maybeth’s luck had been better.

I asked three people in that Hooverville before anyone was able to direct me, and a short while later I found myself in the downtown post office, which was not nearly so grand as the one in Saint Paul but just as busy. I waited in line, and when I got to the window, asked about general delivery.

The clerk eyed me over the lenses that sat on the end of his nose. “What’s the name?”

Ever since running from Lincoln School, I’d been careful not to give my real name, in case word of my infamous deeds spread.

“Well, son?”

But this was for Maybeth, so I said, “O’Banion. Odysseus O’Banion.”

“Odysseus? Let me check.”

He was gone for a bit, came back, and shook his head. “Nothing, son.”

“How about Buck Jones?”

“Like the cowboy star?” He smiled. “You go by a couple of pretty famous monikers. Let me see.”

I had no better luck with that name. I was just about to leave when another thought occurred to me. “I’m trying to find my aunt. She lives on a street with a Greek name and there’s a fudge store on the corner.”

The clerk looked up at the ceiling and thought, but I could tell I was ringing no bells. The man behind me in line, however, a fellow who, judging from his girth, hadn’t been hit too hard by the Depression, spoke up, saying, “I know that one. Candy store, corner of Ithaca and Broadway, in Dutchtown, but it closed last year. Another victim of these hard times.”

The clerk wrote directions on a slip of paper, and when I left the post office, I walked with renewed energy in my step. I had a destination again. I was almost home.

THE WHITE LETTERING
on the glass read
EMERSON’S FUDGE HOUSE
. There was nothing behind the big window but empty shelves and an empty counter. I walked up Ithaca half a block, and there it was. Straight out of my memory. A three-story brick home set behind a tall, wrought-iron fence, and painted pink, just as I remembered. But it was much smaller than I recalled, and long overdue for a fresh coat of paint. The lot next to the house was vacant, a sea of weeds, and the weeds had begun to creep through the fence and infest the grass of the lawn, which needed cutting. The shades on all the windows were drawn, and the feeling the whole picture gave me was not welcoming. I opened the gate, and the hinges cried out for oil. I went slowly up the walk and mounted the stairs and knocked at the front door. It was eventually opened by a slender Negro woman in a silky red
dressing gown. She was pretty but looked desperately in need of sleep and more than a little unhappy to see a kid standing on her doorstep.

“What?” she said even before I could speak.

“I’m looking for someone,” I said.

She put a fist on her hip in a challenging way. “Yeah? Who?”

“My aunt Julia.”

Her eyebrows, which were penciled on, rose and the tired look vanished. “Julia?”

“Yes, ma’am. My aunt. She used to live here.”

She eyed me up and down and gave her head the faintest of shakes, as if having trouble believing I was real. “You wait right here, sweetheart.”

I couldn’t tell if her sudden sugary tone was sincere or if she was mocking me. She closed the door, and I stood on the small stoop and studied the sky, which was no longer gray, but had taken on a sickly green cast, the kind I recalled only too well from the day the Tornado God had torn through Fremont County and killed Emmy’s mother. Around every corner of my journey, the Tornado God had seemed to be waiting, and I was afraid that its ultimate purpose all along had been to deny me a happy ending.

The door opened again, and I didn’t recognize the woman who stood there. But her eyes were blooms of wonder and her words were a hush as they escaped her rubied lips: “Oh, my God. It
is
you.” She reached out, touched my cheek with her hand, and whispered in amazement, “Odysseus.”

CHAPTER SIXTY

WE SAT IN
a room at the back of the house that reminded me of the cozy parlor in Cora Frost’s farmhouse. There was a little fireplace with a mantel above it, on which stood an antique-looking clock. A filled bookshelf ran along one wall. Vases with colorful flowers were set about the room to brighten it. Aunt Julia had asked the woman in the silky red dressing gown to bring us sandwiches and lemonade. The sandwiches were ham and cheese and the lemonade had ice chips in it. I hadn’t eaten at all that day and was tempted to gulp my food. But Aunt Julia was refined in her manners, and I didn’t want to offend her, so I ate as carefully as she.

In my whole life, I’d laid eyes on her only once. Mostly, Aunt Julia had been a name that came from my mother’s lips in the stories she’d told of her childhood. Even so, I’d imagined a reunion of great emotion, of warm hugs and lots of tears. It hadn’t been like that. She’d invited me inside and had led me to this small room at the rear of the house, where we sat across the coffee table from each other, our talk awkward.

“How . . . how did you get here?”

“I rode the rails.”

“Like a hobo?”

“Like practically everybody these days.”

“Oh, my.” She frowned, then smiled. “But safely. You made it safely. All the way from . . . ?”

“Minnesota.”

“From the school there? The Indian school?”

“Yes, ma’am. That place.”

She nibbled at her sandwich, then her eyebrows, which had been
painted on just like the other woman’s, bent toward each other. “But you can’t have finished your education. You’re only twelve.”

“Almost thirteen.”

“Still.”

“I ran away.”

She sat back a little and her spine stiffened. “Well, that doesn’t sound good.”

“They were mean to us there.”

“School can be hard.”

“They beat us.”

“Oh, come now, Odysseus.”

“A boy died. Billy Red Sleeve.”

That gave her pause. As if in afterthought, she said, “Where’s Albert?”

“He stayed in Minnesota.”

“At the school?”

“He found a job in Saint Paul.”

As soon as I’d entered the house, the green sky had split open, and now a heavy rain beat against the windows. I thought of all those people in Hooverville and imagined everything they had sliding into the river.

Aunt Julia turned her eyes toward the storm outside and seemed lost in what she saw. “Well,” she said, looking at me again with a brightness clearly false. “What are your plans?”

I swallowed the bite of sandwich I’d been chewing, which wasn’t easy because my throat had gone dry at what I was about to propose.

“I thought I could live with you.”

“With me? Here? I’m afraid that won’t be possible, Odysseus.”

“I don’t have anywhere else to go.” This was true, but I confess that I did my best to make it sound as pathetic as I could.

“Of course you don’t,” she said with real sympathy and in a way that sounded as if she were chastising herself for her insensitivity. “Well, I suppose then. Just until we figure what to do with you.”

“Thank you, Aunt Julia.”

She studied me in silence for an uncomfortably long time and finally said, “Last I saw you, you were half as tall. That’s how I’ve remembered you. You’ve grown. Almost a man.”

Almost a man. She sounded proud when she said that, as if she’d had a hand in shaping me. And I understood that she thought she had. For all those years since our only meeting, she’d been sending money to the Brickmans to see to my well-being. She had no way of knowing that, until we’d stolen it, the money had done Albert and me no good.

She stood up, went to the door, and called, “Monique!”

The woman in the red silk dressing gown returned. Although they spoke in low voices, I heard Monique say, “With this weather, it’s going to be slow tonight.”

They spoke further, and Aunt Julia finally declared, “The attic room then.”

THE MINUTE I
stepped into the attic, I was dragged back in my memory to Jack’s farmhouse and the space in his attic with the cut-to-shreds mattress. This place wasn’t in that kind of disarray, but it still gave me the feeling of being shunted away from prying eyes, as if I were a fugitive. Which, I admit, I was, but I didn’t appreciate being treated as such by my aunt.

“You’ll be fine here,” she said with the same false brightness she’d maintained since my arrival. “See, you have a window.”

Which overlooked a neglected backyard, an old stone patio directly below me, and an alleyway along the back of the property, all of it dreary in the downpour. There was also a narrow bed in the room, a chest of drawers, a standing lamp, and the smell of must.

“Who stays here?” I asked.

“No one for a long time.” A note of sadness soured her bright tone. Then something dawned on her. “You have no bag, no suitcase?”

“I didn’t have time to pack.”

“We’ll have to do something about that,” she said. “Tomorrow, maybe. Today just rest. I imagine you’re tired.”

“I need to use the bathroom.”

Right away, I could see that concerned her.

“There’s one on each floor below you, but I’d rather you didn’t use them. They’re for . . .” She paused to consider her explanation. “They’re for my other guests.”

“Other guests? Is this a hotel?”

“Not exactly, Odysseus. I’ll explain later. There’s a toilet in the basement. Use the back stairs.”

Swell, I thought. For me and the spiders.

“Just make yourself at home. Have you eaten enough?”

“Yes, ma’am, I’m fine.”

“Please don’t call me ma’am. It makes me feel old. Aunt Julia will do.”

She descended the stairs, and I heard the attic door close, and I was alone again. The room was stuffy, so I opened the window just a crack. Rain came in, puddled along the sill, and dripped onto the wood floor, but at least there was fresh air. I still had to pee, but instead of going all the way down to the basement, I opened the window further and relieved myself into the downpour outside. I lowered the window again but left an opening so that I had some air coming through, then sat on the bed, feeling no less alone than I had in the empty boxcars. But in those boxcars I’d had no mattress, and the one beneath me felt gloriously soft, and Aunt Julia had been right—I was tired. Very soon, I was asleep.

I WOKE TO
the sound of laughter, a woman’s, high and shrill, coming from directly below me. The attic room was dim, nearly dark, but I could still hear the rain beating against the window. When I stood up from the bed, my feet touched water. I went quickly to the standing
lamp, turned it on, and saw that the storm had driven a good deal of rain into the room.

I had nothing with which to dry the floor, so I went down the attic stairs and into the hallway. The laughter had ceased, but I heard the murmur of voices coming from behind a closed door. Before I could move, the door opened. A man stepped out, dressed in a nice suit but with his tie undone. After him came a woman, young and pretty and blond, wearing a pink chemise that just barely covered the tops of her thighs. Her hair was disheveled, her lipstick smeared. The man didn’t notice me. He bent to the woman and planted a long, wet kiss on her lips.

BOOK: This Tender Land
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