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Gretchen Loses It

Every week during the Great War, the Augusta Junction Tribune printed the latest list of military casualties on page one of section two in their Sunday edition. Young medic Luther Feldhusen Jr., eldest son of cattleman Luther Feldhusen and his German immigrant wife Gretchen Feldhusen, took his place among the honored deceased.

 

Eddie griped about being a pallbearer once more, but served with appropriate although fake solemnity alongside his brother Des, his grieving brother-in-law Howard, and Luther’s many friends. Eddie had never met the deceased, and really didn’t give a damn. The only thing Eddie found interesting about the whole episode was the tragic circumstance of Luther’s death: that he had caught the flu from his patients at a southern cantonment, a place (according to Eddie’s “sources”) that could be better described as a “morgue-in-waiting.”

 

After all was said and done, the patriarch Luther Feldhusen returned to running his cattle business and slaughterhouses. He spent his nights in the arms of his mistress, for his mistress’s eyes did not remind him of the warm blue eyes of his fallen favorite son.

 

Gretchen fully expected her husband to widen the gorge between them, and when he did so, she felt liberated. All tears for her dead son spent, the lump in her throat now only a vague soreness, she devoted her time, energy and creativity to her only real love, her second son Howard and his downtown restaurant. She arrived at four each morning to do the baking. By seven o’clock the breakfast crowd filled the place to capacity, and she happily doted on the customers while Howard and his crew manned the kitchen. Three in the afternoon was down time for all restaurants, the time the kitchen crew prepped for the dinner rush and the dining room crew dressed the tables for dinner service. Phena arrived about this time to earn some spending money cleaning the tables and the glass salt and pepper shakers, polishing the silverware and folding the burgundy colored linen napkins. Gretchen loved this time of day best, for this was when she could visit with her little lieblingskind. A little past five, Des would arrive from his job to bring Phena home. Gretchen engaged him in conversation over complimentary coffee, a daily ritual she considered the icing on her cake. Luther be damned... she didn’t need him.

 

November brought torrential rains to the valley. After a five-day onslaught, the railroad tracks flooded at all points. The trains were delayed, stranding many passengers in Augusta Junction. That was bad for the stranded passengers, but very good for Howard’s business, which was close to the depot and hotels.

 

Gretchen, Ellen and Phena waited tables as more customers swarmed in. The drone of conversations and laughter accompanied the ceaseless patter of windblown rain against the windows. The women often needed to raise their voices to be heard over the din. A group of tipsy businessmen at a corner table found Gretchen’s German accent amusing, and one of them began to mimic her. Gretchen ignored the insult until she overheard one of them refer to that morning’s newspaper headline about suspicions Germany was using biological warfare, specifically, the Spanish Flu, against their enemies. Gretchen snapped and launched into a tirade about how her doctor-son Luther died of that same supposedly German-manufactured flu while trying to cure his fellow American soldiers.

 

“That’s right! American, you sonofabitch! And, I’m an American, too!” She was just about to whack the idiot with the coffee pot, but the sudden silence stopped her. She did not realize the tears streaming down her face until she looked around at all the customers through the increasing blur of her tears, the customers who stared at her in shock.

 

It was barely three seconds into her passionate tirade when Des entered the restaurant. As the people came to abrupt silence, he stood still in the entranceway, uncertain of what he had just walked into. There she was, red-faced and trembling, the coffee pot suspended in mid-swipe in her white-knuckled fist, her tearful eyes full of hurt and rage scanning the faces. At last, her gaze fell upon him and the expression in her eyes softened to one of mortification. Everything within him wanted to race to her and embrace her, yet he could not will his body to move a muscle.

 

A middle-age woman, smartly dressed and well groomed, arose from one of the window booths, stood and faced Gretchen. Silently and quickly, she went to the stricken woman, went to her with a motion as if she was floating. She paused for the briefest moment, and then she put her arms around Gretchen, drew her to her and held her there. Only Gretchen and the people at the tables nearest them, heard the woman say, “I just lost my son, too...” They kissed each other’s cheeks and cried and, when they were done, the woman released Gretchen and turned to the men who had started the whole thing. “You should all be ashamed of yourselves! I am certainly ashamed of you!”

 

Des glimpsed Phena who had stopped clearing a table at the window nearest the door. Like everyone else there, she was stunned and staring at Gretchen and the compassionate woman. He whispered Phena’s name, which got her attention, made a subtle gesture with his fingers to leave with him. She nodded and tiptoed behind the counter where she retrieved her umbrella, coat and schoolbooks, tiptoed back to him. They left as quietly as possible. They even opened their umbrellas as quietly as possible when they reached the sidewalk.

 

They didn’t converse until they were a block away, and it was Phena who began with a question. “Will Gretchen be alright?”

 

“Yeah.”

 

“Why are some people so mean?”

 

“I don’t know.”

 

“Is it because they drink?”

 

“Hell... I don’t know. Yeah... I guess... some people. Some people are only brave enough to be mean when they drink.”

 

She scrunched her forehead when she looked up at him. “You don’t gotta be brave to be mean!”

 

“No, that’s not what I meant.”

 

“Those men were kinda drunk. They were makin’ fun of her. I bet if they weren’t drunk, they wouldn’t have done that.”

 

“Probably not.”

 

“You haven’t been mean a single time since you quit drinkin’.”

 

He managed a modest smile. “You’ll never let me forget that, will you?”

 

She giggled. “Nope! But, just to be fair, I quit bein’ a brat, right?”

 

“Right.”

 

“And, look!” She stopped and fished in her coat pocket, brought out a silver dollar coin and showed it to him. “I earned one dollar this week. I earned it. I worked for it like you told me I should!”

 

“That’s my girl!” he responded proudly.

 

They continued on, she pausing now and then to hop with both feet upon a rain puddle. After her splat landing, she would turn full circle each time and resume her place astride Des. “Can we put flowers on Grammy’s grave and Luther’s grave tomorrow?”

 

“If it’s not raining.”

 

“I wanna buy Gretchen some flowers, too.”

 

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