Indiana Gothic (Pope Brock)

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  FEBRUARY 20, 1906

Jolting along in his buggy through the freezing night, gripping the seat with his free hand, Dr. MacGregor Porter could see the bonfire from the road. It was a mile or more off, up a slight rise of hill, but he could make out the lick and leap of the flames plain enough, see the dark and shifting figures. He knew what they were doing and why. Hell, he'd advised it. That day a patient of his who lived there, nice woman, had died of cancer. Now the family was burning her bedroom furniture and her clothes.

Yea, man is born to trouble as the sparks fly upward, the doctor said to himself. He was a compact individual, with wry eyes and a bandito's mustache, bundled up as snug as he could get against the cold. Coasting onto a smoother stretch of road, he snapped the reins on the horse's flank and picked up speed. He was on his way to another farmhouse now, on another hurry-up call. A boy with a cough this time. Could mean anything. Maybe just a cold. Maybe TB.

He blew out a breath and looked up at the great splatter of stars overhead, and at the moon half slipped into the pocket of the sky. The whole firmament seemed to be catching its light from the snow, which lay smooth and undisturbed in every direction, mile after mile--and flat mostly, with a few rolling hills that kept losing their initiative. As he rode along, resting his boots on a heated brick wrapped in rags, Dr. Porter could pick out a weathered farmhouse here and there in the distance, a barn, ribbons of fence. Along the western horizon he could see a long sketch of bare trees and nearby them, like a crack in the porcelain, a dark creek running toward the White River, which marked the county line.

It was called the Pocket, this rich wedge of land in southwestern Indiana, and it was farming soil as fine as any in the nation. Come summer, these fields would turn to kingdoms of corn and wheat and cattle, a good hundred thousand acres here in Daviess County alone, tended by farmers and their families who devoted their lives to work and worship and not a whole lot else.

Dr. Porter believed there were a few who overdid it. When it came to religion, in particular, he could name several people he thought should cut down their dosage. Starting with these temperance crusaders: right in the village of Elnora, where he lived, they had already managed to ban saloons in the referendum of '04, and now they were taking the fight to the town of Washington, the county seat, and some of them didn't put any bounds on what they would do in the name of the cause. Every once in a while another tavern would explode in a fireball, usually in the middle of the night, showering glass and flaming debris all over the street--not often, but just enough to keep a man's buttocks a little tight on the barstool.

The temperance nuts weren't the worst of it. Vigilante groups were springing up now too, through the nation's South and Midwest, full of their own ideas of how everybody should behave. Around Elnora one of these ragtag posses had been operating lately--some wearing hoods, some bank-robber kerchiefs, only a couple ever identified--galloping through the night every once in a while with torches held high, burning crops and beating up Catholics. Maybe they'd give some fellow who'd been lifting his hand against his wife a taste of his own medicine. You could never predict what these birds wouldn't like.

Of course, most people around here weren't this way. They weren't fanatics, just deep-down Christians who clung to the Bible as their solace and their code. Even so, Dr. Porter had noticed how most of these regular citizens seemed to put up with the bombers and night riders. Nobody ever really organized or fought back. Mulling that little puzzle over, with the detached air of a medical man, Dr. Porter had concluded that in a place like the Pocket, so steeped in old-time morality, where flagrant sinners could be marked with the flaming brand of outcasts--well, a few abscesses on the body religious were the kind of thing you had to expect. Although some families just mixed a pinch of morality in a bucket of ignorance. A lot of Protestant children actually had it in their heads that someday the Pope might show up, lead them all out of town like the Pied Piper, and drown them in the river.

Dr. Porter slowed down, peering along the rail fence by the roadside for the turn-up to the Hale house. He was four or five miles southeast of Elnora now, on a route he'd ridden a couple thousand times in his life, but he'd never actually been to this place before. It was a little runt of a farm, maybe twenty-five acres, squeezed in between some much grander holdings. The Hales had just bought it that past fall. Before that, the land had been owned by some kind of fundamentalist family who didn't believe in doctors.

Creaking along slowly now, over frozen mud and gravel up the snaking drive, he looked ahead for the house. He drove through a twist of trees and there it was, a dark hulk, sharp-bladed, against the night sky. Two upended rectangles of light threw a minor glow onto the front porch.

Dr. Porter came to a stop and climbed down from his rig, then reached back in for his bag. Hugging his greatcoat tight against the wind, he hollowly mounted the steps to the front door. It was flung open before he could knock.

He was in a hallway now, slashed by a great shadow, the door closed behind him. A woman was talking. She probably thought she was telling him something, but all he caught was her fear. Off to the left, he noticed there were two other people in the parlor, her daughters most likely: one, a plump child of six or so, lay on her belly on the carpet with a stereoscope pressed against her face like opera glasses, idly kicking her legs; the other, a girl in her mid-teens with a waterfall of dark hair, stood against the wall, wedged between the edge of the piano and the window, gazing directly at the doctor with a look he couldn't read.

He glanced back to find that the woman had already turned and was heading up the stairs. He followed. In a moment they were standing in a dim sickroom, lit by three or four sulfur candles placed here and there, reeking with disinfectant. The boy, Arthur Hale, about ten years old, lay in a moon-stained bed by the window fighting to breathe.

Another huge cough, grinding up from deep in his chest, brought the child halfway to a sitting position, and then he fell back again on his pillow. The doctor blew out two of the candles, forced the window open wider, and then, dragging a chair to the bedside, opened his bag and began rifling through it. At the same time he pushed a wastebasket closer with his foot.

Now it was too damn dark. "Can you light that?" he asked the mother, and poked a thumb at the kerosene lamp on the bedtable. Fetching matches from the mantelpiece, Mrs. Hale struck one and applied it to the wick.

In the bloom of light Dr. Porter could see the boy's face clearly now; it was a mottled white and blue. A sucking noise came from his windpipe.

Sliding his index finger into Arthur's mouth and reaching deep, the doctor drew out a long gray eel of phlegm, pulled it free and slung it into the trash can. The boy snatched a tremendous breath. Then Dr. Porter touched the homemade poultice on Arthur's chest--it was cooling off--and glanced at the bedtable. Nothing on it but a bottle of Foley's Honey and Tar Cough Syrup. Might as well give the boy glue.

With a half-turn of his head, the doctor told Mrs. Hale to go down to the kitchen and heat up some onions for another poultice. When he called to her again--he had some other instruction to add--she had reached the bedroom door, and for the first time, in the light from the hallway, he got a good look at her face.

She had the eyes of a cornered animal, but God almighty, what a handsome woman.

Mrs. Hale was poised listening to him; then she was gone. A moment later Dr. Porter pulled his eyes from the doorway and returned his attention to the boy.

"You been vomiting, son?" he asked as he searched for something in his bag. The boy rocked his head no.

Sloshing a little whiskey into a glass from the flask he carried, Dr. Porter crumbled in a bit of rock sugar and gave it a quick stir with his house key. (Whatever else he gave his patients, they all got whiskey.) He brought the glass to Arthur's lips.

But Mrs. Hale continued to float in his mind's eye. There were a few iron gleams in her auburn hair now, but she had the kind of looks that last--those wide gray eyes and prime bones. He was trying to remember what he knew about her.

She had a sister, that was it: Maggie, the one who married Ham Dillon. They lived not more than a mile away. But the Dillons had a first-class farm, one of the finest around, and Ham himself was one of the leading lights of the county.

It was peculiar, all right. Here was the older sister, a real belle of the ball, stuck off in this little hog wallow, living in Maggie's shadow more or less.

Where was Mr. Hale anyhow?

Briskly the doctor kept working away on Arthur, who was breathing better now. With daubs of skunk grease--a sort of light yellow cold cream, a good inhalant, supplied to him by a local trapper--he streaked the boy's throat and chest while making low, soothing sounds. But his mind lingered on the mother.

Then he was jarred by piano music suddenly rising up from downstairs, aching and rippling, a deathbed farewell to love. For an instant he felt as if he'd been caught at something. Must be that older girl playing. What was it? Chopin. Even Dr. Porter, whose taste in music ran more toward Civil War tunes and coon songs, knew Chopin when he heard it. His wife played the same thing. Nobody knew quite why, but that fellow's music seemed to have crystallized some great, romantic yearning in the air. It had found its way into practically every piano bench in the United States.

Borne along by the foaming piano downstairs, Dr. Porter thought again of Mrs. Hale. He thought of her long body, of the delicate blue veins that traced the back of the hand he'd seen at her throat. She looked strong, though. He pictured those translucent hands of hers in the sharp grip of passion.

A wracking cough from Arthur brought him to.

Down in the kitchen Allie Hale, a long knife in her hand, was savaging an onion on the cutting board. The music from the parlor she barely heard. Allie was caught in her own electric anxiety, and under her knife the onion turned to dozens, hundreds of little pieces.

She had good reason to worry. Any illness could be frightening, and infections were always running around loose. People died all the time of the littlest things. Last fall twelve-year-old Mamie Bowers over in Odon had come home with a squiggle of blood on her elbow, and the next week she was dead.

But farm people lived with the fear and the fatalities, and they didn't come apart. Something else was pushing Allie to the ragged edge of hysteria. As she worked at the cutting board, she was trying to figure out what it was.

If he dies, it's a judgment on me.

She paused with the knife in mid-stroke. It was there in the Bible, that bit about the sins of the father being visited on the children. It must apply to mothers too.

The baby woke up and began to whimper. The littlest, Lewis: he was tucked into a homemade wooden cradle with PIERCE'S ALL-RIO COFFEE embossed on the side, set beside the glowing stove to help keep him warm. At the sound of his cries Big Jack, the dog, heaved himself up from the corner by the woodbox and plodded over to investigate. With great care he sniffed all around the baby's head, then looked over at Allie, his eyes empty of news.

The Lord would never do that, Allie thought, as she reattacked the onion. Kill a child like that? No. It was impossible. Then she thought of Maggie, her younger sister--so easy to resent now, with her big house, her prying solicitude. She remembered Maggie's presents from last Christmas, delivered with that remark that the Hale children sure looked ready for some good warm clothes. And her pies. Gooseberry, blackberry, cherry, plum: Maggie made the most wonderful pies around, everybody said so, with crust that crumbled like-- Nothing has crumbled so magnificently since the Roman Empire, that's what their father had said one night years ago, in the mellow throes of a good Bordeaux. And Maggie sitting there silent with that glint of triumph in her eyes. That's what her pies were, little golden-brown acts of triumph with fork holes to let the steam out. Especially when she brought one by these days for Allie and her family, the overworked Hales who were having such a rough time. Allie rarely telephoned her these days, but Maggie still kept it up, still turned up sometimes, at galling moments, uninvited.

And yet she could never dislike Maggie for long. You couldn't deeply dislike someone you had betrayed; you didn't have the right, or that's the way it seemed. Of course, you couldn't love the person either, or even like her much. Every sisterly emotion held suspended: that was Allie now. Except for those moments when terror touched her, as light as a kiss, that Maggie would find out what she'd done.

With a wooden spoon Allie shoved the smoking bits of onion around in a skillet. Leaving them sizzling, she crossed to the kitchen table, pulled a square of red flannel out of a drawer, and spread it out flat. Then she returned to the skillet, grasped the handle with a dishcloth, walked back over, and scraped the steaming mound of onions onto the flannel. With quick strokes she smoothed them out with the spoon, folded the red cloth over and then, snatching it up, darted for the stairs. Chopin and onions wafted through the house.

"It's croup, Mrs. Hale," the doctor said, the moment she entered Arthur's room. "He's a sick boy, but he's going to make it. I mean to say, it's not whooping cough, it's just . . ." He paused, gazing at her, then added idiotically: "croup."

Together they taped the poultice onto Arthur's chest--it was so hot the first touch made the boy cry out--while Allie kissed his forehead, smoothed his hair. From downstairs they heard the baby erupt with a great howl. The music broke off. There was the sound of running feet.

Soon after, Dr. Porter and Allie were downstairs again in the hall, he reassuring, she grateful, he taking his overcoat down from a peg (and swearing to himself he'd be back in church next Sunday). Louise was standing in the parlor with her back to him now, holding and patting Lewis, whose moonface loomed up over her shoulder. His eyes were fixed on the doctor. The baby looked old and infinitely troubled.

As he reached down for his bag, Dr. Porter felt a tug at his coat. It was the six-year-old. She was holding up the stereoscope.

"Look," she said.

He did (stepping into the parlor where the light was better), and brought to his eyes a vast lavender wonderland, an Arabian dream: it was every possible shade of purple, a marvelously tinted photograph of mosques and minarets, minutely etched, rising up behind some sort of main street where he could make out bearded merchants in their stalls and a woman swathed in a long cloak. The three-dimensional effect was really extraordinary, he thought. He hadn't looked at a stereoscope in years.

It was the figure of the woman that held his attention most. As far away as she was standing--she was really just one small element in the scheme of the picture--she was the only one facing the camera, gazing with a taut pride that seemed to say: Everything you see here, this whole luminous kingdom, belongs to me.

Just then came the crunch of buggy wheels approaching the house, and the sound of a horse clopping to a stop. Allie went to the parlor window and looked out. The buggy had pulled in under the eave of the barn, where it was dark, but the lightspill from the house was enough to show her that it was Maggie climbing down, Maggie reaching back to pluck something off the seat. As Allie expected, it was the hamper her sister used for carrying pies.
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Excerpted from Indiana Gothic by Pope Brock. Copyright © 1998 by Pope Brock. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.