Two Damaged Souls, Two Hearts Entwined, An Unforgettable Story

A volatile little girl and a man haunted by tragedy begin a lifelong journey of healing in this touching award winning novel of mutual respect, devotion, and redemption.


"The absolute BEST READ I've had in quite sometime."


"Beautiful Writing"


"Depth of Character"


"A Story I Could Not Put Down"


"A Delightful Read"


"Never Stale or Predictable"


"A Sly Sense of Humor"


"It made me laugh, cry and made me feel I was there."


"My favorite book this year."


"Every character is so well drawn they are painted in a technicolor of words."

2017 Readers' Favorite International Award Winner

Spanning the years 1917 through 1937, “The Finest Hat in the Whole World” follows Des Stewart and his niece Phena through the decades of the Great World War, flu pandemic, Prohibition, and the Great Depression. Yet, the world’s turmoil is nothing compared to that of their fractured family.


Des Stewart, “the responsible one,” of his siblings,  has put his life on hold to care for his widowed invalid mother who is gradually slipping into senility. Now thirty years old, he tends bar at a saloon close to home. Burdened with guilt, secrets, and regrets, he is depressed, overweight and apathetic about his future.


An opportunity for redemption arrives in the winter of 1917 when his nine year-old niece, Phena, comes to live with him. Troubled, temperamental and volatile, the girl has exhausted the patience of her parents. However, Des and Phena have a bond that originated the night of her traumatic birth, a bond that distance and circumstance could never break.


Can Des overcome his insecurities and bitterness as he molds Phena into an honorable woman?


And... what does it mean to wear the finest hat in the whole world?

Inspiration Can Come From the Most Unexpected Places

And Result in a Book Called, "The Finest Hat in the Whole World"

I'm a genealogist. I love to explore the past. I want to know about the people whose DNA became a part of me. I want to know about their lives, their interests, their triumphs, their struggles. I want to know how their lives affect my life today.


I grew up knowing absolutely nothing about the paternal side of my family, except that my dad had one brother and two sisters, all of whom were much older than him and were people he never felt close to. It wasn't until I reached adulthood that I asked my father to tell me about his family. At first, he didn't want to talk about them. Eventually some gentle digging on my part encouraged him to tell me just a little bit. That little bit helped me understand him a little better - a few evasive (and painful) comments about alcoholism and how it ruined the family unit. He was the only one who escaped that curse, yet the fall-out from its effect on his mother, brother, and sisters did him some serious emotional damage that followed him the rest of his life. Knowing he was seven years younger than his closest sibling made me curious about that gap in time between his mother's pregnancies. So, digging a little further, I inquired if there had been any other siblings (imagining maybe there had been one or two that had died or something).


He thought for a few moments, and I could see him struggling with a decision. Finally, he nodded and said, "I heard there was another sister, but I don't know. I don't know anything about her."


"My gosh! Haven't you ever wanted to find out for sure?"


His face reddened with the abrupt surfacing of his Irish temper. "I don't want to know. I don't care to know. Now, drop it."


Let's face it: dysfunctional families are more the norm than the exception all over the world. Although some people suffer because of that, others find inspiration in their less than perfect relatives.


Thus began my genealogical odyssey three decades later. I discovered my late father's bloodline was rich in brave, intelligent and very astounding people - men and women who struggled and sacrificed all the way back to the Revolutionary War to build this great country for their future generations. Needless to say, I was gobsmacked.


In my journey through the generations of the 20th Century I learned my dad's parents had produced eight children in all, and five - five - survived into adulthood and lived very long lives. It turned out my dad did have a third sister, and if I had found her just two years earlier, I could have met her before she died.


To this day, I wonder how my dad would have reacted to my discovery.


That aside, the more I researched and learned about my newly-found aunt, the more I came to like and respect her. And through her I came to like and respect the man (her uncle) who raised her into adulthood. He gave her the love and encouragement she needed to be happy and successful in her life. Yet, there was a mystery there, an unexplained upheaval in the family unit. Why did her parents send her to live with relatives - a child of six years old - and keep their other children? I never learned the reason, and perhaps that is just as well - better left unknown, better left in privacy with the deceased. Still, like persistent ghosts they haunted me. The real-life story of the relationship between my newly discovered aunt Marge and my grand uncle Gene touched and inspired me. Eventually I realized I had a story that wanted to be written.


The Finest Hat in the Whole World is not the real story of their lives, but a work of fiction they inspired.

Read the First  Two Chapters Here


Chapter 1



Secrets are like moonlight obscured by fog.


That’s what Desmond thought as he walked through the damp night, his feet sore and swollen in his boots. This time of year the moon was always ahead of him as he trudged home in the early morning darkness. This time of year, it was always foggy. He could not remember a New Year’s Eve when there wasn’t fog, and it always seemed to him, as on this night, the fog existed only to stay the light of the moon.


That was okay with him.


He had many secrets.


His ears were still ringing from the music and the voices. The cigar smoke and overly sweet perfume lingered in his nostrils with the stench of beer and cheap whiskey.


They had two bottles of champagne on hand in case someone felt generous. By golly, someone did feel generous, a nattily dressed young man sporting a thin mustache, accompanied by three women dressed in the latest evening fashion. One of these young women wore a waist-length string of pearls and made a show of entwining them through her painted fingers as she flirted at the bar. The gentleman turned out to be her cousin visiting from San Francisco, and he requested his other two ladies remain seated at the “respectable area,” while he arose from his table and intercepted Miss Pearls, as Des nicknamed her, at the bar. Without any elaborate show, which Des thought smart, the gentleman slid a Half Eagle across the bar and purchased the two bottles of champagne. He told Des to keep the change, and he escorted Miss Pearls back to his table at the respectable area.


 Ordinarily, folks around here didn’t waste their hard-earned jack on such upper-class frivolities as champagne. They were mostly farmers, field laborers and industrial workers; many employed by the railroad in the shops or on the trains. They were tough, muscular men who peppered their conversations with casual profanities, and they were proud of the dirt under their fingernails and the calluses on their hands. Beer and whisky was good enough for them. All they wanted was to get drunk and have a good time.


The gentleman, who Des nicknamed “Mr. Bubbles” because he ordered the champagne, was out of place among this company, only due to his expensive suit and pomaded hair. Mr. Bubbles wasn’t upper crust; he just wanted to give that impression. Des came to that conclusion because the young man’s mannerisms didn’t match his costume. He had also noticed the ragged appearance of his fingernails when he slid the Half Eagle across the bar to him. In reality, Mr. Bubbles was a working stiff from the west side of the valley who wanted to be better than his circumstances. Either he was too stupid to realize this made him a target, or he was too egotistical to care. However, Des cared, and he kept a close eye on the guy in case he got himself into trouble.


He also kept an eye on the dozen women, eight of whom were prostitutes escorted and monitored by their “protectors” who stationed themselves at the bar where they could watch the girls through the mirror. Ordinarily, women were not allowed in the saloon, but tonight was an exception, and the prostitutes generated extra profits for the establishment through increased sales of drinks.


As Mr. Bubbles and Miss Pearls weaved through the raucous crowd to their table, Des’s boss, Charlie Flanagan cast him a satisfied smirk. Earlier that evening, Des told him the champagne wouldn’t sell, that people in these parts weren’t the champagne type. Flanagan bet him two bits the champagne would sell. A good sport, Des tossed him a quarter to square the bet.


It was New Year’s Eve 1916 and anything was possible. Industrialization created thousands of new jobs. More efficient modes of transportation created not only more jobs, but freedom – ask any blue-blooded college kid who owned his own car. It was party time.


Yet, a cloud was settling over the party, and everyone knew it. There was talk of the war in Europe; talk American troops were preparing to cross the Atlantic. In Des’s small town, the young men were excited about it, lured by the romance of travel to the “old countries,” and some were haplessly attracted to the vision of themselves in uniform and the women attracted to them by the uniform. Others simply loved the idea of taking up arms and shooting somebody.


However, few in Des’s circle had mentioned hearing anything about a draft – unless they were talking about beer – and Charlie Flanagan opined offhandedly it would take “a big bam of some kind to get us involved in that mess over there.” Then he heartily slapped his palm onto Des’s shoulder and told him, “Whatever happens, we got nothin’ to worry about. They wouldn’t want a couple of old fossils like us.” That made Des laugh, although he didn’t consider himself an “old fossil.” He had just turned thirty in mid October.


Yet, Des was glad for his fading youth as he looked across the barroom at the many young men in the crowd. He wondered which of them would be here to celebrate the next New Year’s Eve. The military always snagged the men of the lower, or working, classes first. He glanced at Mr. Bubbles and wondered if the guy would present tonight’s charade to the Draft Board if the time came. There were many men like Mr. Bubbles around, and the army could easily sift the genuine from the fake. Des felt sorry for him; the Army would draft him in a minute.


Mr. Bubbles and his entourage of tipsy women survived the night to usher in 1917. Des stayed later into the morning, saw the lingerers and musicians safely off. He locked the doors, balanced the till, and hid the money in the false bottom of the ash can under the bar where Charlie Flanagan would find it later. Des was the only employee his boss trusted to know about the ash can. He cleaned up the saloon, no easy task, especially around the spittoons where all the drunks had missed their target. When he was done, he left a note for Flanagan who had passed out in the supply room, left him a note to assure him he’d restocked for the day shift and locked the doors on his way out.


He was very tired, but enjoying the walk home in the crisp, clean air and blissful serenity. The fog was growing thicker. The mist of it settled on his coat. His hands, in his coat pockets, were beginning to numb with the chill. He curled his fingers into his palms to try to warm them. Under his hat, the tips of his ears ached from the cold. He wanted to tug his hat down further over his ears, but he didn’t want to take his hands out of his pockets. At last, his ears won the war of will. He quickly pulled down his hat and then just as quickly shoved his hands back into his pockets.


He trudged onward, following the blurry moon behind the fog, his white breath leading the way and his boots crunching the gravel. That was the only sound. If he stood still, there would be no sound at all. Even his breath would make no sound for he had walked this path every night for the past five years and his body and lungs were accustomed to the pace. His mind was accustomed to the quiet. He rather liked the quiet; in fact, he looked forward to it. The same silence that accompanied snowfall came with this fog. He wondered if he was the only person on earth who noticed the silence.


He never asked anyone. Maybe they would think him strange, so he never asked.


***** ***** *****


As usual, his little sister Ellen left the porch light on for him. Unusual, though, was the yellow illumination beyond the parlor window. He wondered if she was worried about him, expected him to come home drunk like last year. She had nothing to worry about. He was stone cold sober – had been all night.


Ellen was asleep on the sofa. Her long and wavy blond hair blanketed one side of her face as she lay there. When she was a tot, her mother curled it in ringlets. Ellen hated it, hated the ritual, and hated the results. Now that she was eighteen, she could make her own decisions about her hair. Ringlets were out, and the loose bun was in. At night, she set it free to fall the way it wanted.


In her slumber, she mumbled something, turned over on her back, took a deep breath that included a soft snore. She would be appalled to learn that she snored sometimes, and Des would never tell her. Instead, he listened for a few moments as he watched her from the doorway. She stirred at the sound when he hung his keys on the hook by the door, squinted her pale blue eyes in his direction.


“Hey...” She smiled just a little, but it was a worried smile.


He asked in a whisper, “Why aren’t you in bed? Is Ma alright?”


“She’s fine.”


“Why are you sleeping in here?”


“Was it fun tonight?”


“It was work.”


She sat up slowly, took a yellow paper from the coffee table, offered it to him. “You got a telegram.”


He sighed tiredly. “Who died this time?”


“I didn’t read it. It’s addressed to you.” Again, she motioned with it, offered it to him.


“When did it come?”


“Around ten o’clock. For heaven’s sake, Des... I’m not gonna hold this all night.”


He settled beside her, took the unwelcome thing from her in the same motion. The telegram contained some puzzling news:


“Arriving noon 2 Jan with Phena STOP Louise very ill STOP Gerald.”


Des reread it before he told Ellen, “Gerry’s coming day after tomorrow, or day after today, since it’s already morning today.” The perplexed and impatient expression on her face almost made him laugh, if not for the seriousness of the rest of Gerald’s message. “He’s bringing little Phena... says Louise is ill.”


“What about their other kids?”


Des knew why Gerry would bring Phena and not the four other children, but there was no reason to divulge it to Ellen. He answered her with a subtle sideways nod of his head.


She pressed on, “How sick is Louise?”


“He says here she’s very ill.”


Ellen read the telegram over his shoulder and concluded, “Another one of her melancholy nervous breakdowns, I guess. I wish he had offered more details. What are we gonna tell Ma?”


“I’ll talk to her. Not you, okay? It’s my place to tell her. I’ll tell her after I get some sleep.”


She didn’t argue. Des was twelve years older than she, and despite their invalid mother’s insistence on the title, he was the head of the house. He had fulfilled his duties admirably in the eight years since their father died. Neither of her two other siblings, both older than her and married, could disagree.


***** ***** *****


As soon as Ellen went to bed, Des took a shower to wash away the booze and cigar smoke odors. Now in his bed, warm and comfy under the blankets, he pondered the ramifications of his older brother’s telegram.


The moon cast its pale light across his bed. He gazed at the moon, not really seeing it at first because of all the what ifs running through his brain. Eventually, his what ifs became a tedious drone, and the moon caught his attention. He noticed something different about it. Although the thick valley fog still shrouded it, the moon presented itself to him with a visual clarity seen only on the clearest of nights.


  Chapter 2


Her name was Josephine, but everyone called her Phena. She didn’t know why they called her that, but she was so accustomed to the nickname, she hadn’t bothered to ask. She liked that her name was unique. There were too many Marys, Anns, and Sarahs in the world. There were five Marys in her class at school, and they all raised their hands when the teacher called out that name, but when the teacher called out, “Phena,” she was the only one who raised her hand.


Today she should have been in school, but instead, she was on a train. She used to find the rhythm of the train soothing. Now it seemed to jostle her with a wicked intent to keep her stirred up.


It was her fourth ride on a train. The first two times it was exciting to her, and she was riveted to the sight of the countryside and mysterious little towns outside the big windows. Back then the scenery inspired her imagination, and she conjured up new existences filled with adventure, beauty and people who were always kind. The third time she rode the train, she cried because she was leaving Pa’s family behind, and Pa had said it was for keeps. Pa never explained why he was uprooting her and her siblings and Ma, and the mystery surrounding the reason only made it worse for Phena. On that journey she spent most of her time crying and thinking about the past, the place, the people, and the happy life she was leaving behind. During that trip, she dared not imagine the future, for the future seemed hidden far within a foreboding black tunnel she was afraid to enter. This time, however, she had a clear idea of her destination, and only a dim realization of why she was on this train. The gravity of her present situation influenced the darker side of her imagination.


She imagined Grammy, Uncle Des and Aunt Ellen wouldn’t want her. She imagined her pa, not knowing what else to do with her would dump her off at the nearest orphanage and she’d never see him again. She imagined her ma was glad to be rid of her. She imagined her sisters and two brothers would not miss her.


Actually, her siblings had no idea she was gone yet.


Pa had rousted her out of bed at four o’clock that morning and told her to get dressed. After she dressed and met her father in the kitchen, she saw a suitcase on the wood floor by the back door.


“You’re gonna live for a while with Uncle Des,” he told her, “Until your ma gets better.” The tone in his voice was aloof.


No one was awake in the house except her and Pa. Although it was obvious to her, she had to verify it. “Just me?”


 He finished his coffee, stood and took up the suitcase. Then he went to the back door and wrapped his hand around the knob. “Put on your coat.”


She stared up at him. Her father, tall, thin and muscular, always seemed like a giant to her. She felt insignificant in his presence; as if she was a bug he could squash with his big foot if he wanted to. Yet, he was a gentle person, easily moved to laughter – at least, with adults. He was different with his children, not mean, but distant, even a bit uncomfortable. It seemed to Phena that children were an ominous mystery to him, little rocks better left unturned in case a monster dwelled beneath.


He noticed she was staring at him. The fear and confusion in her eyes was getting to him, so he turned his face away from her. He pointed to the coat rack at the far corner of the kitchen, “Put on your coat.”


She obeyed him and put on her blue wool coat. It was too small for her now that she was nine and had grown since last winter. The seams were tight under her arms and the length of the material too short to reach her wrists. However, the middle part was still big enough to button up so long as she stood up straight and sucked in her tummy.


While she buttoned her coat, she kept one eye on the living room beyond the kitchen, expecting her mother to come and say goodbye. In a few moments, she realized her ma would not appear. Her eyes pooled with tears. “Is Ma still mad at me?”


With his back to her, he opened the door and moved aside to encourage her to step out ahead of him. “She was never mad at you. She’s been ill. We think it would be better for you to stay with Uncle Des till she gets better.”


Phena stayed put by the coat rack. “How come only me?”


“They can only take one.”


“Where are the others going?”


He gazed out beyond the yard to the train depot in the distance, a black shadow against the dawn sky, save for the golden glow of its square windows. “That’s not for you to worry.”


“Will Ma be well soon?”


“Most likely.”


“And then you’ll bring me home?”


“Yeah.” There was no commitment in his voice. He simply stood in the doorframe, held the door open for her while he gazed at the silhouette of the train depot in the faint light of the eastern horizon. Finally, he looked at her, but only for a moment, “We’re lettin’ the cold in...”


***** ***** *****


It was warm in the train. Pa, sitting next to her, added to the warmth. Although he had been quiet through most of the journey, his presence was a comfort to her. However, she wished he would talk to her, strike up a real conversation, instead of occasionally sharing a comment about something in the scenery outside the window. She decided to initiate their conversation with the only thing they had in common.






“What’s Ma sick with?”


He answered apologetically, “I don’t know.”


“What happened to the baby? Did it die like the last one? Is she sad over it, like the last one? She got sick then, too. Remember?”


“Yeah.” He didn’t want to discuss it. The marriage was a mistake, and he only realized it too late to get out of it. Now they had five children, and neither he nor Louise was happy about it. Louise bore most of the burden, and it was wearing her down. At first she enjoyed being a mother, but by the time her third, Phena, was born, she became overwhelmed by the chaos of three toddlers always underfoot. As for Gerald, he easily escaped into his job as a conductor with the railroad, which took him far away from home for days at a stretch. Sometimes he volunteered for extra shifts just to avoid going home. Yet, once home he could not quench his hunger for his wife, and they produced child number four and child number five despite all their precautions. To be fair, her appetite was greater than his, and he outwardly blamed her although inwardly he condemned himself for his weakness.


Eleven months later child number six, a boy, came along. That baby died at two weeks of age, died of something the doctor called, “failure to thrive.” Gerald suspected Louise, during one of her breakdowns, smothered the baby with a pillow, but he was not home to witness it, and if he had been home he probably would not have stopped her. Louise’s sanity was more important to him than the life of a child neither of them wanted. He hated that about himself, hated that he found it so easy to do what was logical as opposed to what was moral. Louise, on the other hand, often could not discern reality from fantasy, so if the doctor called it “failure to thrive,” she accepted the diagnosis as reality. Whatever fragment of memory she had of smothering the child, if that was the case, she brushed off as one would the fragment of a bad dream. Gerald never questioned her about it. He knew the truth. He knew it based on her past behavior.


Beside him, Phena gave a very soft sigh, began to pick at a hangnail on her thumb. He observed her for a while, vaguely intrigued by her complete focus on the danged hangnail, a focus that bordered on obsession. She was like that with everything that caught her attention until a sudden external stimulus snapped her out of it. Then she would react with a feral viciousness as if her internal world had been invaded and she was under attack. Her dark eyes would flash with raw hatred at the invader, a hatred that frightened all those in her little universe. Gerald had never liked her. He wished he could... but she frightened him in the same way a rabid dog would frighten him. How could one ever comfort a mad dog without being bitten? Thankfully, she was not at her mad dog stage of obsession at this moment; she was merely gathering her troubled thoughts while she picked at the hangnail on her thumb. Her brow was furrowed with sadness, and he stirred with compassion for her, slowly wrapped his arm around her shoulders and gently tugged her close to him.


At this moment, she felt a rare intimacy with him. He had never put his arm around her before now. In all of her life, he had never set her on his lap as she had seen other fathers do with their children. For all of her life she wondered what was wrong with her that caused him to keep his distance. She wanted to ask him, but decided not to. She didn’t want to say or do anything to spoil this rare gift of affection from him. She rested her cheek against his rough tweed coat. The material smelled like pipe tobacco, which is what he always smelled like. Phena liked the scent for it evoked a sense of calm and safety within her. If only that feeling could stay with her forever.


It wouldn’t stay forever. Nothing good lasts forever.


It seemed to her only the bad things lasted forever, and that thought returned her to the confusing and painful matter of why Ma and Pa didn’t want her anymore.


Her question came in a whisper. “The baby died?”




“And that’s why Ma’s sick again?”


He sighed morosely, “That’s right.”


“I didn’t mean to sass her. I didn’t mean to.”


He tilted his face, gently kissed the top of her head. “You’ve gotta stop sassin’ people, Phena.”


It was simply her nature to fire back, and she was tired of hearing it. “I know.”


“Uncle Des won’t put up with it, neither will your Grammy.”


He was wrong about Uncle Des. Although Phena had not seen him in four years, she remembered him as amused by her sassiness. One time he pulled her aside and told her conspiratorially, “Don’t ever lose your spark, missy.” Then he gave her an approving wink of his left eye. She melted. Unlike her Pa, Uncle Des was generous with affection, and really seemed to enjoy the presence of children. Sometimes, he was like a kid himself, quick to play tag or show off a new magic trick. He knew lots of magic tricks. She wondered if he had learned any new ones, and if he would show them to her. She wondered if he was still the same, or if he had changed and gotten all serious like her ma and pa. If he had changed, had lost the child within him, he might not like kids anymore. If he didn’t like kids anymore, he wouldn’t like her.


And then there was Grammy. The last time Phena saw her, she was in a wheelchair and spent a lot of time inside. Grammy used to sew quilts and pillow covers and make rag dolls, but that stopped when her eyesight began to trouble her. Uncle Des and Aunt Ellen took care of her. They took good care of her, even though she lost her temper sometimes. Uncle Des said she lost her temper because she was angry she couldn’t walk or see well anymore. Uncle Des said old people hate it when they think they’re a burden on someone.


Aunt Ellen said Grammy had ten kids in all, but only four were still alive. In the days when Grammy was a young lady, children often died of sickness or accidents before they were three years old. Ellen said two of Grammy’s babies were born dead. She told Phena that while she was burying four dead kittens and the dead mother cat in the marsh by the river. Sometimes, when babies are born dead, the mother dies too.


“Is Ma gonna die?” she asked Pa.


“Your ma’s gonna get well.”


“She won’t die like the mamma cat?”


He didn’t know what she was talking about. They didn’t have any pets. He didn’t care to ask her what she meant by that. Instead, he answered tersely, “No.” He removed his arm from around her shoulders, shifted in his seat. “We’re almost there.”


Aunt Ellen had once joked Grammy was sick of raising kids. Phena pictured her Grammy having a temper fit the moment Pa walked in with her and the suitcase.


“What if I can’t stay there? What if Grammy says no?”


“Grammy already said yes.” He read the time on his pocket watch. The train was on schedule. He gazed into her soft brown eyes. She was the only one of his children born with brown eyes. They always held a contemplative glint that reminded him of his mother’s and his brother Des’s eyes. Not only was the contemplation there, but also a pleading for reassurance. Her confusion and trepidation made him feel like a cowardly bastard. Yet, he was doing this for her safety, and some day she would understand. Encouragingly, he advised her, “Try not to picture bad things.”


***** ***** *****


Her fears immediately subsided when Uncle Des swept her up in his big strong arms and joyfully hugged her to him.


“Did you have fun on the train?”


“Yeah! I got to watch the sun come up and we ate breakfast in the dining car!”


“The food’s good on the train, huh?”


“Uh-huh... They had cream cheese for the toast. I liked it. An’, Pa let me have tea. It was good. Do you like tea?”


“I like coffee better.”


She almost volunteered she liked coffee too, but if she said that she would be revealing she once stole a sip from Ma’s cup. Coffee was only for grown-ups. Pleased she had caught herself in time, she smiled demurely at Uncle Des. She noticed the glint of delight in his eyes, the blush of his cheeks, the big smile. He was exactly as she remembered him. In that moment, she realized she would be perfectly happy in his care, much happier than at home with her parents who argued all the time. He would let her have coffee if she wanted it; she was sure of that.


She kissed his cheek and whispered in his ear, “I missed you, Des.”


“Missed you, too,” he whispered back in a baby voice.


From the kitchen, Grammy called out, “Bring the child to me!” Her voice sounded harsher to Phena than she recalled. In the next moment, Grammy said to Pa, who was in the kitchen with her, “You just see to it that woman gets well...”


“Is Grammy mad?” Phena asked Des.


Des laughed softly. “Uh-uh.” He set her on her feet, took her hand and led her into the kitchen.


Phena hesitated at the doorway threshold, pulled back firmly on Des’s hand to make him stop with her. From there she observed the owner of the harsh and gravely voice that frightened her. The harsh-voiced woman was a very old lady in a wheelchair rolled up to the round wooden table. She was a tiny thing dressed in her best Sunday outfit, a dress that was very old and so many years out of fashion even Phena was aware of it. The heavy black cotton and lace material, once the height of Victorian refinement, was now faded to a smoky gray that resembled the stormy sky outside. She had fastened a brooch at the top of the high collar. The brooch had a large crimson stone in its center, and Phena assumed it was red-colored glass, and thought it amazing they had red-colored glass way back in “those olden days.”


Des jiggled Phena’s hand to get her attention. Once she looked up at him, he whispered to her, “It’s okay.” Then, in a louder but gentle voice, he addressed the little old lady “Here she is, Ma.”


The woman squinted her wrinkled-up eyelids, tried to see the small blurry figure. She could tell the girl was wearing a blue coat, but that was all she could discern through her fading vision. “You come closer here, Phena...”


Grammy was thinner, paler and more wrinkled than Phena remembered her. Her hair had gone completely white and was so sparse Phena could see her pink scalp in places. She marveled that old women went bald like some men did, and it made her wonder if that would happen to her when she was old.


Grammy squinted her milky eyes at the little girl, “What on earth, child? Are you afraid of me? What is it?”


Phena blurted, “You got bald spots!”


Des snorted, tried to stifle his laughter.


Pa slapped his hand to his forehead, “For lan’sakes, Phena!”


Grammy laughed heartily. “Less hair to fuss with! What else about me scares you?”


“There’s white clouds in your eyes. Is that why you can’t see?”


“Yes, ma’am... that’s why I’m half-blind.”


“I’m sorry, Grammy.”


Pa interjected, “I apologize for her rudeness. Seems her nature, that is...” He then turned to his brother Des who had finally succumbed to his giggling, “Quit that laughing! This isn’t funny!”


Des crumpled sideways in the doorway, held his belly with both arms as he tried to stop giggling.


“We have to laugh about it,” Grammy said, “Otherwise, we couldn’t get on. I swear, Gerry, you’ve your father’s way about you at times.” She reached her arms out to Phena, “Now, you come here and give me a hug. I’m happy you’re staying with us. Don’t be afraid of me.”


Hesitantly, Phena leaned forward and hugged her. She held her breath while she did this, for Grammy smelled like pee.


Grammy whispered in her ear, “It isn’t pee. The medicine makes me smell like that.”


Awed, the little girl pulled away. “How’d you know?”


“I heard Ellen mention it once.” She chuckled self-consciously and added, “My hearing’s still one-hundred percent!”


Des, now recovered from his giggles, offered, “Sorry about that, Ma.”


“Pour your brother some coffee, and leave us to visit.”


“Yes, ma’am.” To Phena, Des asked, “Would you like to see Jake? We got some chickens, too. They had babies.”


“Oh, I’d love that!” Phena replied, “Can we ride Jake?”


“I’ll saddle him up. How’s that?”


For a while, she forgot about all the bad things in her life.


Around noontime they took dinner, beans and ham hocks Ellen had cooked the previous night. Des baked the bread earlier that morning, and its aroma filled the house. Since it was a special occasion, Ellen had gone out that morning to get them vanilla ice cream for dessert. Phena was on her second helping of the ice cream as the adults conversed over their first and only helpings.


She listened to them discuss family things, memories and anecdotes about Grammy’s children who had died. In the years between the births of Phena’s pa and her Uncle Des, Grammy had another son, named Alex, and a daughter named Donna. Alex died at the age of eighteen. Phena did not understand all the details of that story, but she did understand Alex’s death had something to do with machinery. As for Donna, she died of something called cancer, and it was a slow and horrible death. During the years between the births of Uncle Des and Aunt Ellen, Grammy had two other children who had died - of another disease Phena had never heard of - cholera.


Of Grammy’s children who were still alive, Phena’s pa Gerald was the eldest, and then Des, who took care of Grammy and Ellen and still wasn’t married. After Des, came Edgar, who everybody called Eddie, who was married and had two little girls. Eddie drank too much and got into fights with people, and his wife cried a lot and was always mad at him. Pa was always mad at him, too. He told Grammy and Uncle Des he didn’t want to talk about Eddie. They didn’t talk about him for the rest of the meal. However, Grammy was very proud of Ellen, the youngest, who recently graduated school and wanted to be a teacher, so they shifted the topic of conversation to her.


Curiously, no one talked about Grandpa – at least – not in Phena’s presence. All she knew about Grandpa was that he died many years ago. She couldn’t remember much about what he looked like, except he was toothless and skinny and had a long white beard. Other than that, she couldn’t remember anything else about him.


When the big clock chimed once indicating one o’clock, Pa leaned back in his chair and lit his pipe, suggested to Des, “How about a beer before I head off for the two o’clock?”


Des rose from his chair and, as he did so, it seemed to Phena that his mood darkened. Yet, when Des spoke his voice was as lighthearted as always.


“The saloon’s open.”


“Naw... I don’t wanna walk all that way. Takes too long.”


“In that case, I’ll get the bucket and meet you out back.”


Pa instructed Phena, “You stay in here and help Ma and Ellen with the clean-up.”


She knew that meant Pa wanted to talk privately with Des. She suspected they were going to talk about her, and she wished she could hear what they had to say. However, she knew best to obey Pa, and she nodded and told him okay. Maybe, if she was a good girl, Pa would tell her mother, and she would want her back soon.


***** ***** *****


The two brothers sat on the old wooden bench outside the barn. They each dipped a Mason jar into the bucket of beer, drank a little and thought to themselves.


The damp air smelled of hay, alfalfa and cow dung, with a very slight hint of wood smoke. To the men it was a wonderful aroma, the perfume of Eden, the eternal reminder of home, hearth and all that is good and right. For a minute, they each closed their eyes and breathed it in, breathed it all in as if its essence was life itself. They held that life within their lungs until their lungs surrendered it back to God. At once and at the same time, they opened their eyes and took one more breath of it, this time shorter, as if that breath was dessert.


Gerald gazed off into the distance, surveyed the scenery to see what was the same and what had changed. He felt a peculiar combination of relief and disappointment to find it much the same as the day he left it. He was relieved because it still felt like home; he was disappointed because it seemed suspended in time, left behind as the rest of the world sped onward.


 The land was flat in all directions, dark amber under the cloudy January sky. The brown rooftops of small ranch houses and barns dotted the vast expanse of fields. Grain silos stood like sentinels at the east and south, and the sight of them produced memories of summers long ago when he worked the grain fields as a youth. To the north stood the small central hub of McDonegal Township, with its courthouse, saloons, shops, livestock supplies and feed market, the slaughterhouse, a blacksmith’s shop, and one combination gasoline station and automobile repair shop. The tallest building in McDonegal Township was the three-story hotel near the railroad depot. Inside the hotel was the only restaurant in the area. It made most of its money from the travelers who had to stay overnight while awaiting train transfer. The McDonegal depot was a junction point where three lines converged. The railroad tracks followed along the river and then wound gradually into the valley. The only thing new about the scenery was the double-deck iron bridge that crossed the river at the east side of town and provided easy access to the growing city of Augusta Junction. The top deck served automobiles, horse-drawn wagons, carriages, and pedestrians. The bottom deck was for trains. Gerald recalled the bridge was under construction at the time he moved away with Louise and the kids four years before.


Thinking about the bridge and the railroad reminded him he had a train to catch at two.


Although he had spent the entire morning rehearsing in his mind what he would say to Des, now that the time had come, he couldn’t think how to initiate their conversation. A glance at Des told him his younger sibling was suffering the same dilemma. Each had spent too many years feeling guilty for their mistakes. They had spent too many years nursing their wounds and secretly desiring reconciliation. Yet, each was afraid to extend a hand fearing the other would refuse that hand. However, this current situation required they reconcile, as much for each other as for the well being of one certain little girl.


Gerald decided to plunge ahead, as there was no more time to waste. He continued to gaze into the distance as he told Des, “Louise thinks she’ll be better off with you. She always thought that. I know you thought about it, too.”


Des also gazed off into the distance. “I can’t deny it.”


“Is it gonna be too much?”


“No.” Des nudged his brother so they would look each other in the eye. “I’ll take good care of her.”


Gerald glanced at him for only a moment. “I know that.” With a fatigued sigh, he added confidently, “She’ll be happy here.”


“I suppose you’re still sore at me.”


One side of his mouth lifted in an ironic smile, “I was done with that after I beat the tar outa you.”


Des winced at the memory, nodded regretfully, “I was only trying to help. I never meant for things to turn out the way they did. But, hell... I had to do something.”


“It wasn’t your business.”


“Those kids needed someone to protect them, and you couldn’t be there all the time. It was different when you were home, but once you were gone again – ”


“I know all about it!”


“Did you know about all the times Phena came to me crying?”


Gerald’s patience began to ebb. “The child brought it on herself.”


“She didn’t deserve it!”


“Louise ain’t over it. She can never be over it as long as Phena’s around. And, to tell you the truth...” Gerald then shifted uncomfortably. His discomfort was not physical, but wholly emotional. His voice became deeper and cracked as he continued, “I can’t get past it, either. I love the child – you understand. I love her, but she’s always been somewhat disrespectful toward us. I don’t know if she senses something, or what. Whatever it is, it only makes it harder to feel any real closeness toward her. As far as Louise is concerned, she’s tried, but she can’t love her in the same way she loves the others. It’s tearing her apart. It’s tearing her apart so much that she doesn’t want any more kids. She tried to abort the last one. It didn’t take, and the baby was born early. It was deformed... born dead. Louise feels like she caused that child a slow and agonizing death. She won’t get over that... ever.”


“Are you thinking of committing her?”


His blue eyes blazed with anger when they met Des’s. “Hell, no!”


Gently, Des said, “She needs a doctor, Ger.”


“I ain’t committing her! No way!”


“Then you got a long, hard road ahead of you, both of you. And you can’t blame me for that. She had episodes long before – ” At that point, Des thought it better to shut up. He wished he had shut up before he said it at all.


Gerald grit his teeth, stared again into the distance.


Des said into his beer, “I’m sorry. I’m sorry for everything.” After a long swig, he said, “I’m truly glad to have Phena here, though.”


“Well, you always had a way with her.” There was a hint of resentment in his voice, enough to indicate that, in spite of their best efforts at this moment, things were not settled between them and may never be settled.


“What if, down the line, Louise wants her back?”


“We’ll deal with it then.” At that, Gerald downed his jar of beer in three big swallows. He did not want to consider, even for an instant, that Louise would change her mind out of guilt. This called for another beer, and Gerald dipped his jar a second time and drank half of it right off the bat.


“You know,” Des said, “You can’t just leave her here and not expect me to... Jesus! It was hard enough seeing her go the first time!”


Gerald replied sternly, “I thought it best for Louise, best for all of us.”


Des gripped his jar of beer tightly, almost enough for it to break in his hand. “There won’t be a second time!”