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    AC Benus
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Stories posted in this category are works of fiction. Names, places, characters, events, and incidents are created by the authors' imaginations or are used fictitiously. Any resemblances to actual persons (living or dead), organizations, companies, events, or locales are entirely coincidental.

On the Grass - 1. On the Grass

i.

End of the Road

 

Somehow, by hook or by crook, I always seem to choose the bumpiest roads to get where I’m going. And that just ain’t talking about the rural routes – but life in general. I takes the detours, the muddy paths, the soft shoulders, the potholes as my rig plods along, my gear constantly rumbling behind my backache like the droning of cicadas, only their noisy clatter is pings and sloshes as bottles of ‘fixer’ bump together and glass negatives bounce in their cubbyholes.

You see, it’s been twenty years now, me working this summer circuit, alone, just following where my rented horse treads. But don’t you worry; I keep company well enough, for I track the passing weeks by which wildflowers are blooming next to the country lanes. I got names for all of them too, or, I should say, names drilled into me by Old Man Clackson as we meandered, perched atop his wagon. And the names he gives ‘em are sweet sentimental things. Like – oh, there’s “Mable’s Blue-Eyes” – a tiny cluster of dark buds that open up third week of June; or “Golden Feathers” – a yellow job with big daisy-like petals that peeps out from the tall grass come last week of August.

But heck, lest you get the wrong impression, Old Man Clackson was no botanist, or biologist or what have you, so he don’t know no proper names for any of these sweet-scented calendar spokes – the flowers. And neither do I for that matter, for in my time I’ve been nothin’ but a farmhand, a menial drudge, a ditch-digging day laborer, and a photographer. And this last occupation I’ve occupied for near a lifetime now is entirely due to Clackson, God rest his soul. See, back during the Civil War, he got a Government job hauling this rig around with the Grand Army of the Potomac as one of the War Department’s official historians. His big glass plates rattled near to shattering as he crossed thru streams next to blown-up bridges – so he’d say while we drove – and make pictures of our boys dug into trenches around Petersburg, Virginia, as we tried to take the Reb Capital at Richmond. The old gentleman’s eyes would glaze over as he tried to tell me what it was like photographing them brave souls killed on the battlefields, as well as those hollowed-out, skeletal American soldiers liberated from them C.S.A.’s death camps, like Andersonville. He didn’t like to talk about it, especially not Andersonville, where he had to make a permanent record of once-heroic men reduced to starved corpses, so weak an assistant had to help them lift their heads so they could gaze into the eternal eye of the camera.

Imagine having to do that and not want to turn into pure rage and round up every Southerner you find as a complicit criminal. That he kept his scriptures and sanity intact tells you right there what kind of man Clackson was.

But, anyways, after the War, in 1866 to be exact, the old gentleman bought his rig from the authorities who were selling it for scrap at a public auction. Almost as if wanting to get some fresh air, he set up routes to tour rural locations and photograph farmers and shopkeeps in country towns where never the likes of a store-front studio was seen. Itinerant photographers the newspapermen like to call us, tho my old boss had a better name for that too, for he’d always say we were “on the grass picture-takers,” on account of us unfurling a backdrop and capturing people sitting or standing on the grass wherever our wagon rolls up and stops for a time.

See, he took me on as his apprentice when I was nothin’ but a sixteen-year-old roustabout. He learned me his trade, and for that – and for his kindness – I’m eternally grateful. He kept me on too, and nine years of winter routes thru warm-weather Texas and Louisiana, and the same thru prairie-grass territory up here, he let me buy him out when he decided to quit in 1882 – when I was twenty-five; him, sixty-five.

Name’s Malden, by the way. Malden Cass, and that’s the John-Hancock painted on the side of this now-rickety old rig. But she sure holds up, even tho things have sure changed since she was first commissioned. The chemical bottles still rumble back of me as I drive, but gone are the great stores of negatives the size of window panes. Cameras are smaller too, and the shots are bound for frames or albums in people’s homes, and not as moldering relics of American tragedy in the National Archive.

But looks like I got ahead of myself again, for I should tell you where I am at the moment.

I travel the Fair and Summer Picnic circuit around the upper part of “The Mitten” – that’s the peninsula of Northern Michigan to outsiders like you and me. Saginaw is homebase and where I store my rig and equipment offseason. It’s also where I pick up a horse at the beginning of warm weather and lay in my store of supplies.

My route up here never varies, or hasn’t at least for the longest of times. The path I follow is set by when each community decides to do up its dog-day events under The Mitten’s fickle sun. But usually I rolls out of Saginaw heading for Midland and their crimson-banner Rhubarb Rendezvous, then off to Standish, Tawas City, Oscoda, Rogers City, Mackinaw, Traverse City, Frankfort, Ludington, and all the highland vales, villages and wide spots in the road laid out in my mind by the blooming wayside flowers, tracking the flow of ripeness from cherries to apricots; from cucumbers to watermelons; to greengages, nectarines and peaches; to string beans and cantaloupes; and all the agricultural bounty Michigan provides to celebrate. But, by the time the apples begin to take their first ripe blush on the branch, I’ve packed up, tucked my wagon in a dry barn to over-winter, and takes flight myself on the train to sunnier climes just like the geese coming down like waifs from Canada.

The thing about being an itinerant anything is this: there are lots of ghosts on the road; people and places you remember that are now vanished. They add up and eventually lead a person to ponderin’ things over. Thoughts like ‘Where have they all gone?’

Then again, I suppose when you gets to this level of feeling or sentimentality – or whatever you want to term it – it is time to quit the road. And it’s my time too.

So, in a week or so, I’ll end my tour, driving my photography rig back into Saginaw like some Roman potentate did in ancient times to claim victory in a campaign. For this will be my last hurrah. I’m retiring and don’t suspect I’ll be seeing these parts again. Twenty years is a good run of summers, and Old Man Clackson only got in sixteen up here; but then again, he was older when he started because of the War and all. But I do get ahead of myself, for I ain’t hung up my blackout curtain yet.

Truth is, I thought of retirin’ back before the turn of the new century, but there was just one thing left undone, and two years later, I guess I’ve marshaled the courage to go do it. It will be my last summer stop, the end of my flower calendar, and a final good-bye to warm Mitten evenings when the air is so thick with feral pollen, it lends its own particular gravity to every sundown.

But don’t get me wrong; that’s not the only thing I’ll miss. I’ll miss the unique kind of people up here too. The honest souls. For during my time I’ve seen all manner of pairings thru my camera lens. They come to stand on the grass and have me capture something special to them. Nine times out of ten, I not only image the special bond between them, but show – at least privately – there is something deeper between them. I say all types, and that includes mixed-race couples of black-n-white, native-n-black, and white-n-native too. But also of spinsters – “sweet spirits,” as I was raised to think of them – who reside jointly in some peaceful cottage around town. And them “farmer brothers” who are not related, nor married to women neither, and who always show up in town one day from someplace else to buy and settle down on a remote farm, modest and content as hens at their broodings. That’s upon their nests, for you city-folk.

Another type I often see are much lonelier: the single men who work as hired-hands on all the agricultural land surrounding these farm communities I pass thru. These men, always limited in age from their early-twenties to late-thirties, come singly to have a 25¢ portrait made. They sit alone – never with any friend or sweetheart – and always manage to look miserable on cue. I’ve often wondered what these unattached fellas do with these pictures. I fancy they go off in envelopes thru the U.S. Post Office to people and places unknown to anyone around these parts, perhaps sent in the faint chance the receiver will have his or her heart relent and write back an immediate “Come Home!”

Like I say, one wonders.

But I know there’s few among us who don’t like seeing love and hope among the young, and such youthful sweethearts deserve to have their pictures taken too. In fact, a new prop I bought on a whim this past spring in Saginaw is gettin’ a real honest-to-goodness workout.

I keep a number of properties in the wagon, for, just because each photograph is captured on the grass, it don’t mean I can’t have a few different roll-down backdrops for the sitters to choose from. And it don’t mean I can’t provide a seat or two, with or without a small table to sit around. And these four-legged stands are important in a way, because they can display items of symbolic significance in the photograph. They can be telltale enough so the viewer of the final portrait can read the sitters’ “story.” That’s why I keep smaller props close to hand: a veil or a bridal bouquet to compose a “wedding shot”; a statue of a serpent devouring its own tail to show the picture is a “betrothal shot.” I know there’s a fancy, Ancient-Greek-type name for this snake, but I never heard of it.

Other properties serve less happy occasions, but people come to me from time to time to look thru my black-bunting and inspect my weeping-willow backdrop. It’s always the saddest of days when small tikes or babies are brought to me for a “post-mortem memorial” picture, and slightly less so when a beloved grand- ma or dad is dressed to the nines and propped up in their coffins for me to “fix” on photographic paper.

But besides the mourning garb, I keep around lighter fare in the form of signs people can hold in their hands. Printed on them are slogans like: “Lovable But Lonesome”; “Niagara Falls Bound?”; “Having A Gay Ole Time”; “Not Married But Willing”; and others. It brings a smile to people just to flip thru my stack and choose one.

But, as I started to say, the brand-new prop I picked up this year is something of a rage. It’s one that packs flat but unfolds to become large enough for sweethearts to sit on together. For after all, everybody knows what rhymes with spoon, and that’s what intendeds are supposed to do – spoon all lovey-dovey both in front of and away from the camera.

And so, sometimes when I’m out on the rig like this, letting the road jostle me to-and-fro, I think thoughts like these; think how things might have been different. For me personally, I know I would have settled as a hired-hand someplace too and been like the lonely men who come sit before my camera, if not for Old Man Clackson being in the right place at the right time to change my direction in life.

For you see, I’ve got one last stop to make. It’s a place I’ve avoided with good reason all these years, but, seeing as it’s the Year of Our Lord Nineteen Hundred Aught Two – and my last hurrah, as they say – I’ll dare show my face there one last time, making it my last town too. And I’m going . . . because, well – because it’s her town.

Up ahead, my horse is pullin’ nigh of my end of the road, and the queasy feeling in my gut is reassured by the familiar sight of the wildflowers, and settled a bit by hearing the sound of the cicadas’ drone, which, if you think about it, ever seeks out and sings about love.

 

 

ii.

of Pinch-Faced Ladies

and a Pair of Beautiful Boys

 

Before schoolchildren picked up slates and sour looks again to march off to the classroom; before farmers, their grown sons and hired-hands needed to spend long hours getting the wheat in; and before shopkeepers, their clerks and accountant-wives dug through every dusty box of merchandise for the dreaded yearly inventory, Bay City held one final celebration to herald the end of summer.

The community’s Homecoming Picnic had lots “on the go,” with wood-chopping and marksmanship contests, games of chance for the younger set, and food rivalries for all ages of homemaker. Town lady and agricultural wife alike competed with pies and cakes for various church repairs needed before the snows began their relentless falls.

As for Malden Cass, itinerant photographer, he’d set his rig up on a good spot. The “studio” side, the long stretch of the wagon with the backdrops, he positioned to the south for good natural night. Here he’d also set up his camera and unpacked his chairs and tables for sitters and props.

Round the other side was Malden’s front parlor, where he’d unfurled a little tent, as he always did, with eye-catching streamers. “Pictures Taken – All Welcome – Two Bits A Pop!” proclaimed a cheery banner over the entrance.

Once people had stepped under its canvas roof, they could browse the properties, examine examples of the photographer’s work, and select what style of boards to have the completed images mounted on. Some of these had simple frames in sepia tones, which best complemented Cass’ albumen prints, while others crossed into more mawkish territory with rose-surrounded ovals and cupids sporting drawn bows. A third type offered pre-printed sentiments as captions below the portraits; in Malden’s many years of experience, he knew the “Forget Me Not” would outsell all others choices combined. It had been that way summer after summer, for many a year.

As for the less remunerative aspects of why he was there, the personal ones, he’d made discreet inquiries and learned Ezekiel was still around, on his family farm just outside of town, the same as twenty summers ago.

But here, on the final afternoon of the town’s three-day affair, the crowd presented slim pickings. Malden sat in his folding chair on one side of the tent and eyed the prospective sitters. There were pinch-faced church women, who wandered over from the food-judging events, wearing their blue, red, and yellow ribbons – but the photographer knew they were not going to open creaky coin purses to shell out for “frivolous” picture-taking displays.

That being said, the prim gray-hairs did put Malden in mind of the first time he’d laid eyes on the girl, his girl, for she was in the company of her grandmother.

Events once more played themselves out behind the shutter of his eyes . . . .

 

He could see and smell the summer of 1881 as if it were yesterday, while through the lens of recollection, those few warm-weather days with her took on a particular, golden light.

The young woman had shown up on the first day of Bay City’s early-summer Strawberry Festival to have her picture taken with her grandma. And although the twenty-four-year-old Malden Cass was busy dealing with all the sitters waiting in line, he noticed her right away. She carried her own special chiaroscuro – or, picturesque light-in-dark energy. It seemed to halo her wherever she went, and little did Malden suspect this young laurel’s bloom revealed more of a “bad girl” free-spirit than she might first seem to possess.

Finally the pair of sitters made it to the front of the line. The photographer’s assistant tried to rein in his attraction to the girl. “Family picture?”

“Oh, yes!” the younger one replied, linking her arm with the senior lady’s. “My Nanna, Mr.—

“Malden. Just Malden.”

“—Malden, hasn’t had her portrait made since she left Dearborn ten years ago. That’s when she moved in with her daughter here – my mother, you understand.”

The young man glanced with warmth at “Nanna,” but the older woman merely replied with an even grimmer-set frown.

“That’s a wonderful idea,” he replied to the both of them. Then he held up his pencil and pad of claim-tickets. “Your name, miss?”

“Tess. Tess Foster, 216 North Grant Street.”

“And which mounting board did you select?”

“The cheapest one!” the gray-hair insisted.

“Oh, Grandma, they’re all the same price.” Tess guffawed, bonding for a wordless moment with Malden’s lopsided grin. “We’d like the Excelsior  model, Mr. Malden.”

The young man had to swallow a lump, so taken was he. “Malden Cass, but just Malden, if you please. . . . ”

The silent locking of eyes which followed was only broken by Nanna’s throat-clearing.

“ . . . Here’s your claim-stub”—Malden felt his face and neck turning red as we wrote—“kindly wait in this area until your number is called, and Mr. Clackson will show you around back to make your portrait.”

He tore the top one away from his pad and purposefully placed it in the hands of the older woman.

Tess asked, blushing herself now, “And when shall I come around to collect it?”

“Tomorrow morning, or anytime after that. Our homebase is a mile south of town.”

The girl’s face went blank. “Home-base?”

“Oh. It’s a sports term – from baseball. It means that’s where we take the rig and camp after closing shop for the day.”

Malden flicked the pad of claim-tickets against his finger, already anticipating encountering this beautiful young laurel again.

Consequently, he was in his best breeches, and on his best behavior the next day, expecting to see her beaming countenance at any moment. But, Tess disappointed, and as the hours dragged on towards the time they’d pack up and head for “home-base,” Malden realized he most wanted to meet with Tess again to simply exchange a few more words; perhaps a few more illuminating words.

Malden Cass felt low later in the summer afternoon as the photography wagon pulled off the road. The boy unhitched their horse, took off her bridle and collar, and led her to the small paddock they’d rented for her to roam and feast upon.

That done, and with Old Man Clackson already developing the day’s batch of negatives, the young man barely had time to change into his work clothes before hearing a friendly “Yoo-hoo!” calling from the road back to town.

The shadows were lengthening, but Malden could easily make out the figure of Tess Foster strolling towards him. It was as if she brought all the sun-kissed, ruby flush of early summer with her.

The young man quickly went to the rig and searched through the completed photographs until he found the right one.

He stood holding it, smiling helplessly, as Tess sauntered up to him. “You walked? From town?”

“Pshaw! It’s only a mile. Does a city-girl like me good. I couldn’t come earlier today, so I thought I’d take a stroll.”

Malden was tongue-tied; beguiled by her rosy cheeks and crimson-hued lips.

“Is that it?” Miss Foster gestured to the envelope in the young man’s grasp.

“Yes!” He handed it over.

Tess immediately pulled out the double portrait. “Oh, my, it’s wonderful. It’s so nice to have an up-to-date likeness of dear Nanna. She lived alone for so long; a war-widow, you know, on her own raising a family.”

“I’m sorry to hear that. Mr. Clackson was a Government photographer during the War. He don’t like to talk about it tho.”

“I can imagine.” She slipped the picture back in its envelope. “I nearly forgot! Here is your quarter-dollar.”

Malden Cass felt loath to take it, but knew it wasn’t his to refuse either. “Thank  you.”

“Are you and Mr. Clackson related?”

“Oh, no, Miss—”

“Tess.”

“Tess. He’s from back Baltimore way and gave me an apprenticeship when I was young and lurpy. He just found me lookin’ for work on the road, as I was.”

“Then where is it you are from, if you don’t mind me asking.”

“From out West.”

“California?”

“Utah. From a Mormon, hard-scrabble farming background. One of twelve siblings, and no one special compared to my brothers.” Embarrassment coursed through him, like he was forced to admit to himself Tess was out of his league. “So I was – am grateful – to Clackson for taking me in, teaching me a trade, renewing my faith, hope and love for people again. He’s been kind to me; kinder than he needed to be.”

Unbeknownst to him, Malden’s tender praise of his benefactor went a long way to melting Tess’ heart.

“What about you?” the young man asked. “Do you come from a big family?”

“Medium, I suppose. I have an older sister and a younger brother. That’s all.”

“That’s about the right size.”

They became aware of the cicadas just starting to sing.

Tess’ mood darkened a bit. “Though I may be joining a larger family soon.”

“What is it you mean?”

She could hardly hold his eye. “My mother, along with several of the ladies at our church, think I should marry a certain widower named Ezekiel.”

Crestfallen, Malden asked, “Who is he?”

“He’s in his mid-thirties, alone with five young kids, a couple of miles west of town. He’s on a big farm by himself and needs someone, so we’re semi-formally attached.”

Just at that moment, the door of the rig rattled open. Old Man Clackson appeared, blinking in the sunlight and pulling off his elbow-length rubber gloves. “My goodness, Cass. Why didn’t you tell me we had a customer.”

“Sorry, Mr. Clackson. Miss Foster stopped by to pick up a print.”

The photographer craned his neck to see up and down the road. No wagon or buggy was waiting. “Who brought you, miss?”

“No one, sir. I walked from town.”

The three glanced up, unanimously growing conscious of how the late-afternoon was soon to segue to the dimmer but glorious golden hour preceding sunset.

“Malden, be a young gentleman; I insist. Walk with Miss Foster here and see she’s safely returned to town.”

Tess’ mouth opened as if to voice some mild protest, but instead, she rose slightly on tiptoes. At the same time, her hands linked behind her waist, and she nodded.

“I’ll fetch my jacket!” Malden ran off, leaving the others alone for a minute.

“Don’t worry, Miss Foster. Malden is the thoroughly decent sort of lad.”

“Yes. He mentioned his Mormon upbringing.”

Mr. Clackson chuckled reassuringly. “That too – but I mean, fundamentally, at heart, his is a gentle soul, lassie.”

The pair felt compelled to gaze around once more, inhaling the scent of the evening soon to be blossoming around them.

Mr. Clackson broke the reverie, speaking in a joyfully somber way. “Seeing the troublesome things in life I’ve seen has made me appreciate the small blessings we encounter along our journey’s highways and byways. I’ve tried to instill this in young Malden too, miss.”

Malden jogged up to them with cheeks flushed in the way only young men can summon with artless ease. Carefree of grin, he extended his arm. “Shall we?”

“Yes.” She inserted hers with his, and they set off at a leisurely pace up the road towards Bay City.

At first, the pair strolled in comfortable silence, allowing the summer setting to reassert its primacy. After the first fifty yards or so, Malden’s attention was caught by swaying drops of color off to his left side. He pointed out a particular yellow wildflower, one with a notched bloom. “That’s Cricket’s Crutch.”

Tess peered through the verdant margin between themselves and the growing grass of wheat fields beyond. “I don’t know what you mean.”

“Here!” Malden let go of her arm, dashed in among the roadside color, and picked a “Cricket’s Crutch” for the girl. He brought it back to her, and she held it between her right-hand fingers as they re-linked arms and continued strolling.

“I never knew this flower had a name. I’ve never felt more like a town-homebody than now.” She laughed outright. “Even though I am only from North Grant Street, Bay City, Michigan.”

“Oh, I don’t know if that’s its proper name. It’s just what me and Old Man Clackson call it. We keep track of the time just lookin’ for and naming all the wayside flowers – the ones nobody else seems to care for.”

Tess raised her “Cricket’s Crutch” to her nose. It smelled faintly sweet and green.

Malden gushed, “You’re lucky to live here, in The Mitten, amongst all this beauty, and bounty too. You see, this is our summer route, and I love it. It sure beats our winter route around Clackson’s studio in Shreveport, Louisiana.”

“You don’t like it there?”

“Oh, it’s all right, but there’s not much variety to see off the roadsides down there. And that part of the world can’t beat the sunsets up this way.”

Tess’ only ‘comment’ was to unconsciously move a little freer with the young man by her side. The pair walked on in affable quietude for a time, Malden not quite able to see Tess glancing around with new eyes; his eyes.

Tess suddenly felt naughty. “I’ve never talked to a Mormon before. Never even met one.”

“And, according to the Church, you still haven’t. Mormons would be the first ones to tell you I’m ‘fallen’ and ‘apostate.’ A hopeless cause who’s sluffed off his catechism for worldly temptations.”

“Well, I don’t buy it for a minute. If you’re lapsed in the church you were born into, it means God wants you testifying to other matters.”

Cass had his breath taken away. This laurel was not only pretty as a new penny, but as bright as a whip. “Feeling the Spirit, we’d say. But you are absolutely right.”

Meanwhile the burgeoning heart of the golden hour spread over their heads. Low-angled light, seemingly edged with saffron, illuminated the sweet-smelling pollen in the air.

“I know how you feel,” said Tess in all seriousness. “I may not be as good as my church’s folks think either. It could be whatever ‘sin’ they perceive in me has guided them to select my nearly-intended as a ‘grounding cure!’”

“I’m sorry to hear that.” It was all Malden could manage to say.

Raising heads to the sky, both realized in unison how their arms had slackened. And then, as they walked slower than ever, they found they were holding hands.

After a few more paces, Tess felt Malden’s tension mount through his fingers as he asked, “Your almost-betrothed . . . the farmer . . . what’s he like? I hope he’s not taken to drinking strong waters, and that he treats you—”

“Ezekiel Hamlin doesn’t drink, and is a good man, or so I’m reassured by my family and church leaders. And they should know, shouldn’t they?”

“But if he’s thirty-five, why does he have to takes to him a laurel who’s . . . so young?”

“A laurel?”

“A young lady.”

“But I’m not young. I’m eighteen—”

“Yes, eighteen,” Malden echoed sincerely. “You are just now coming into your own. You should have a chance . . . to . . . to feel the spirit and find out what path you want to takes in your own life.”

“Like you?”

“I suppose. And yes, you are right to make fun of me if you want. I’m just a traveling nobody. Not fit for—”

“Happiness?”

“Yes. I’m already creaking on to my mid-twenties, and what do I have to show for it?”

Tess gently smiled at the irony. “Plenty. You have a vocation, a mentor; you live an unrestricted existence of travel and fresh air; of Cricket’s Crutch, and beauty”—she started to well up—“of life.”

Malden halted their steps. In dead earnest, he asked, “You think so?”

Tess let loose and laughed, in spite of herself, so charmed by the apostate youth was she.

She turned close to him, slowly nodded and pulled him down to settle a kiss on his cheek. “Yes,” said she.

Malden found himself placing his index finger under her chin and guiding her mouth back up.

Hearts racing, the pair drew in once more for a heartfelt kiss; a soul kiss. It lingered and was as sincere as either had ever felt in their entire young lives.

 

As Malden Cass emerged from his memories, he realized his own finger, perhaps foolishly, rested above the spot on his cheek Tess had kissed all those long summers past.

Fully awake now, and embarrassed, the photographer knew he’d rolled into town with a specific ambition, but he felt frustrated, for there was nothing he could do except what he had. He waited and waited for a glimpse of a certain someone, but now that Bay City’s Homecoming Picnic was in its final hours, Malden wondered if all his efforts would prove to be in vain.

While thinking these thoughts, the activity of a pair of young men caught his attention. Handsome youths of approximately equal age, Cass’ experience of years behind the camera lens told him they were farm boys, just out of their teen years, immaculately scrubbed down to their cuticles and dressed in their finest Sunday clothes to have their pictures taken. They also weren’t related, as Malden could see by the one’s fairness, and the other’s superior height and build.

However, it was what they were doing that drew the photographer’s curiosity. For standing at the bridal table, they inspected the dried flower bouquets and veils with a shy, excited interest. The smaller, perhaps slightly younger boy, picked up the white lace headcover and grinned at his companion in such an open, wistful way, Malden’s heart melted.

The older, taller lad, cast a nervous glance about the tent, lest one of the busybody church ladies had stuck a long nose into their business. None had, so the young man nodded and guided his partner’s hands to put the veil back in place. As he did, he caught Malden’s eyes on him.

Mr. Cass flicked the claim-stub packet in his hand between his fingers, stood and went warmly up to the young men.

“Here for pictures, boys? I’m Malden Cass, the photographer.”

“How do you do? I’m Ritter Schorsch,” said the darker, more commanding fellow. “And this is my . . . friend . . . Kim Hamlin.”

Malden’s heart lurched.

“And, Mr. Cass,” replied Kim politely, “we’re here for two photos, but with both of us in them, if that’s all right.”

The purity of intent on Kim’s sunny countenance shone frank but firm.

“That’s right,” affirmed Schorsch.

“There is no problem. We’ll get you lads the pictures you want.”

Kim and Ritter saw the streak of sentiment cross the middle-aged photographer’s face, but neither quite knew why it was so momentarily intense.

Nevertheless, Cass got down to business.

“Pick out the frame or frames you want on the mounting boards.”

A few minutes later, the boys – with Ritter standing to the side of a sitting Kim, his hand on the other young man’s shoulder – were posed on the grass with a pleasing backdrop of Venice behind them. Malden regarded the couple through his camera’s viewfinder, and even though upside-down and backwards, the experienced photographer easily recognized “it” – the love the two had for one another. He operated the shutter, quickly shielding and removing the postcard-sized negative, affixing the boys’ claim-ticket to it. But he felt bad.

Having seen Kim’s features light up with all the choices of props and backdrops to tell their true “story,” when the three of them knew the finished portrait, looking stiff and staid to the uninitiated, was all and all best for the young men’s safety and continuing happiness.

And then, as he handed them their claim-stub, inspiration struck. Malden lowered his tone. “Your prints will be ready for pick up tomorrow, but you boys should come find me later today. I’m in a pull-out two miles south of town. Come by this evening, before seven when the light fades, and I’ll take the kind of picture you gentlemen really want. On the house.”

Kim and Ritter searched each other’s face. They were not sure how much they could trust this stranger, but the young hope in them very much wanted to.

 

 

iii.

Purgatory

 

The horse I picked myself up this year is a bit of an unpredictable thing. This summer I’ve gotten in the habit, like this evening, of propping the door open to my rig while I work. It lets the fresh air in, and allows me to keep an eye on that free-spirit equine. He’s a young one, well-behaved in general, but sometimes prone to the headstrong and deceptive tactics only proud-cuts, out to test the world for all its worth, can come up with.

I have to chuckle; that might make a fitting description for the young man I used to be – except for the . . . well, you know. For you see, I’ve made mistakes, and don’t you think I haven’t.

But for the present, I needn’t have worried about my horse too much. He was safe in his paddock, enjoying the late-season wildflowers after his own special fashion; by eating them.

So, in a way, I was glad my hands were busy with doing an old familiar task. All the prints for the pictures I captured today – as there weren’t very many of them – were done processing. Now I could dry-mount them on the boards their sitters had chosen one by one.

I was about near the bottom of the stack, to that last photograph I took on this, the last day of the Homecoming Picnic. It was the uncanny portrait I’d made of Kim Hamlin and Ritter Schorsch; the one in which they sat all prim and proper; the one not giving even the most compunctious critic anything to wave the withering finger of condemnation over.

For as unpleasant a thought as it may be, there are a lot of “ignert” people in the world. The rude and the uncouth, too freely moralizing over matters best left to Nature and nature’s Creator. Let the prudes stick to pullin’ planks from their own eyes, not the splinters of their blameless neighbors, like those two beautiful boys.

Yet, somehow, I have to face how thinking of Ritter and Kim, and recalling what type of bucking colt I myself used to be, puts me in mind of another September evening; of another Mitten circuit easing towards an uncertain close.

 

“Ah, come on, Old Man Clack – I mean, Mr. Clackson – stop making out like it’s a big deal.” Truth was, I was gettin’ fed up having to listen to him having a “Talk” at me; that is, sermonizing until he was blue in the gills. “We’ll just run one little detour before heading on to Saginaw and our train south.”

“No big deal, Young Man Cass, is not yours to judge. But anyway, we’re on the road to Bay City, ain’t we? So, you tell me what you’re yelping about?”

“I’m sorry. You are right, but I can’t help feeling nervous.”

The midday sun beat down on the hat-brim of the senior on-the-grass photographer while he held the reins of his rig’s mare.

And he was right – we were on the road back to Bay City, albeit a bumpy, little-traveled pot-hole spur, making the wagon contents rattle at the back of our heads like an army of sidewinders, but I could feel my old mentor was holding back his true opinion like a venomous revelation.

He knew. He’d been warning me since I was sixteen to be wary of small-town girls, and up till now, this summer tour of 1881, he had nothin’ to worry about.

“Come on, boy,” Mr. Clackson said, snapping me back to more immediate concerns. “I’ve been the one handing you those letters from Miss Tess all these long seven weeks since we left her burg’s strawberry social, so what gives? Lay it on me straight, kid. I mean it.”

I sighed. “Like I said, Tess just wrote me last week and begged me to beg, borrow or steal, but to just get to Bay City before we rolls outta state.”

“She had to have said why.”

“Honest, Mr. Clackson – she didn’t. That’s the reason I’m so anxious to get there. She could be sick; she could be rethinking marrying that oaf, Ezekiel. She could be – oh, I don’t know – but I’m a jumble of nerves.”

Tho, to be truthful about the matter, I had been lying to Old Man Clackson, and he was smart enough to know when an honest cuss like me was withholding. Tess never said to come back; never mentioned it; but my gut told me something was wrong. Her once-sweet letters dispatched to every rural post office of our route – sent “In Care of Mr. Malden Cass, Photographer” – had grown distant. I felt something was wrong, and I had to find out what, before it was too late.

I’d been staring at my hands, but could feel the boss’ glare borin’ a hole thru me. I turned to face it.

“Listen, Malden, I’m only going to say this once and I hope you have the common decency to tell me straight up: If – and I mean IF – you’re gonna run off – quit me, that is – at least have the goodness to let me know. You of all people realize how I’ve had my boys run off from the middle of a circuit before, and I’ve come to expect better from you.”

Well, Clackson being as sincere as he was, left me feeling conflicted. I wanted to assure this big-hearted man I wouldn’t turn fly-by-night on him, but Tess had me scared. If she needed me, by rights I owed her first priorities, and it might turn out best for my mentor if he knew nothin’ about it – about what happens to Tess and me if we have to leg-it someplace, quick.

So, after a little while mullin’ it over, I raised a big ole cat-grin and stretched my lean frame like a stiff board against the hard wagon seat. As I raised my arms to lock hands behind my head, I told him, “You best worry about keepin’ this picture-taking tub on the road, old man, not my loyalty.”

That seemed to settle him some, and hours later, I finally got to see my Tess.

I sent a hurried note, tellin’ her where she could find me, for I’d been tasked with bringin’ our horse to a livery stable in Bay City. Clackson had only agreed to one night in town and declared he would stop at a hotel, for once.

Inside the netherworld gloom of the stable’s hay maw, the light filtered in as if through a crypt. And it also sent the air into a macabre dance while the pollen and dust slowly settled. Hushed tones pervaded, and that continued once Tess arrived.

She stuck her head above the ladder, and I waved her up and into my arms. This was a familiar and intimate spot for the both of us.

It felt so good to hold her again; a true homecoming. It felt even better to taste her cherry lips once more, but as we got hotter, she held me back by the shoulders.

I sat up straighter and took her hand. “Tell me, Tess, what’s the matter. I know something’s wrong by what you stopped sayin’ to me in your letters. All your sense of hope for the future – for our future – dried up.”

She acted for a moment like she’d begin to cry, but didn’t. “I can’t keep anything from you, Malden Cass, even by avoidance, which is what the church ladies ding as Sins of Omission.”

“I ain’t one to gives two hoots for all the church women of this world, Tess. And I don’t think you should be either.”

She held my gaze. “That’s where you and I differ, I’m afraid. You’re a lapsed Mormon, and I make no judgements on that, but I’m not a lapsed anything. I’m just a nothing, plain and simple.”

I coaxed her with a gentler tone. “What has happened, Tess? Please tell me.”

In a ghostly quaver to match the half-light around us, she replied, “I’m with child. Your child, Malden. It can be only yours.”

I dropped her hand. I figure I was shocked. But, in a moment, I didn’t know why, because of course, I should have realized it was possible . . . . And then, not by slow degrees, but by a great, whooshing feeling of joy, I hugged her with my whole upper body. I felt so carefree, so happy, it was me who started to cry.

“My . . . darling . . . Tess,” I stammered. “It’s wonderful. You go pack a bag. I’ll go get my pay from Old Man—”

“Malden!” She pushed back. “You’ll have to stop.”

“But—” The laurel interrupted me by pulling something out of the cuff-end of her sleeve. Then as dispassionately as a schoolmarm settling a schoolyard dispute, Tess dabbed at the corner of my eyes with her handkerchief. When she spoke to me next, her voice was resolute; her decision, firm as ice. “You shouldn’t have come. You’ve spoiled your own dream of an us. When the truth is, Malden, everything’s been decided. I’m getting married.”

Stunned, I asked, “Do you plan on tellin’ Ezekiel?”

She shook her head ever so slowly, like her further words on the subject were meant to convince the both of us. “I think it best if I tell no one. As far as Ezekiel goes, it’s still early enough, and we’ll be wed on Sunday.”

Every syllable broke my heart.

“Won’t he figure it out? He sounds like nobody’s fool.”

“Well,” Tess said softly, “even if he does, Mr. Hamlin is a decent man. An honorable man like you, Malden.”

 

I barely caught a tear before it fell on the boys’ portrait and ruined it.

I stepped back from the workbench so I could wipe my face and blow my nose. But at the end of it, my mind was a bit cleared of the past too.

The sound of a buggy pullin’ up outside offered some much needed distraction. I peeked out, and it was Kim and Ritter, right on time.

While they got their horse hitched to a tree, I quick finished up the two prints they’d ordered and had the set in my hands as I stepped down to greet them.

“Welcome, boys!”

In the lengthening light of the approaching evening, the young men appeared more relaxed and even happier – if that was possible – than at the Picnic earlier in the day.

I walked halfway out to them, and we met on the luscious green between the wagon and road.

As we linked up, Ritter offered his hand first, which I shook gratefully, glancing at Kim’s youthful face before he wanted to shake my hand as well.

“I have your portrait, gentlemen – one for each of you.”

They received the prints as if important diplomatic documents, and instead of takin’ a photograph each to admire, they huddled shoulder to shoulder to inspect the top one together. Their tenderly joined smiles rewarded with notions that I had done good by them.

By way of shootin’ the breeze, I asked, “Nice evening for a drive?”

Kim Hamlin glanced up. “Very nice! Birds chirping; the cicadas starting to drone; the air sweet and mellow.”

“You’ll have to pardon him, Mr. Cass. Kim can sometimes ‘wax poetical,’ as the books say.”

I had to smile myself, for the younger boy’s reaction was to sneer at his partner for the merest of seconds. But, it was enough to chastise the older boy.

“Nothin’ wrong with that,” I assured them both. “I’ve been known to both wax and wane quite lyrical myself over matters touching upon Nature.”

“Thank you for the photographs,” Ritter said sincerely. “I think you captured us perfectly.”

“I agree,” added Kim.

“Well, I’m glad you like the shot. Truth is, being a traveling picture-taker, I see all manner of folks thru the lens, not the least of which are Damon and Pythias types, like you lads.”

Intended to reassure, the allusion to the famous Ancient Greek couple wound up makin’ the boys self-conscious.

“Well, we’re aware, sir,” said Ritter, “and glad to know there’s a wider world out there where we can get lost in the crowd.”

“That’s right,” Kim agreed. “Soon our purgatory of being stuck here will be at an end, Mr. Cass.”

“What do you mean? And call me Malden, please.”

Ritter Schorsch answered for his partner. “What he means is, we just have to bide our time in Bay City for a few more months. Then Kim will turn twenty-one and be free – legally – so we can go seek our fortunes elsewhere.”

“You don’t say? What sort of destination, gents, do you have in mind?”

Kim replied resolutely, “We’re not greedy, sir. I’d say we have the modest ambition of just wanting a life away from prying eyes and small-town tongue wagging.”

“Yes, sir,” added Ritter, “and there are lots of good jobs now in the Detroit area, what with the auto industry gearing up—”

“Same in Saint Louis! Lots of automobile manufacturers, in fact, more than Detroit. Plus, they’re building a whole city out of lath and plaster for their World’s Fair to be held the summer after next. Imagine seeing that!”

Ritter let out a good-natured chuckle. “You can guess where Kim is hoping to settle down.”

“Detroit’s too close, Rit. You know that.”

“Being somewhat close to home can’t be a bad thing, can it?”

Kim’s silence said it best: We’ll talk about it later.

The pair were so well-matched, I’ll admit it raised a little smile of my own.

“Anyway”—Kim picked up the original thread of the conversation—“Ritter’s already twenty-one and has been patiently waiting for me to ‘catch up.’”

I suddenly felt – I don’t know how to term it – a sense of, I suppose, of protection. Like I should . . . .

“You boys set, I mean, squared away on the finances?”

They exchanged puzzled grins.

“I mean, saved up enough money to run away, as you hope. Because, I could—”

“Mr. Cass, Malden, you’re kind to think of our situation,” explained level-headed Ritter, “but yes, we’ve been saving every penny from every odd job we could get since we were seventeen—”

“And eighteen, for Ritter.”

“Yes. So we’ll be all right on that front.”

“Say”—I tried to check my emotions—“this talk of runnin’ away, I get it. I ran from my Pa’s farm too, and much younger and less prepared than you fellas, but – I want to know – your dads been good to you? No problems at home?” I was especially anxious to hear from Kim on this topic.

Again they glanced at each other with a sort of bemused air.

Ritter replied. “Our Pas are both fair-minded men, Malden, sir. In fact, if anything, Kim’s dad dotes on him. He’s always treated him as something of a pet, even tho he can be quite a taskmaster with Kim’s older brothers.”

My conscience was alleviated. Ezekiel had turned out to be kind to the lad. And, regarding Kim’s happy, confident tone, I also knew something else was true: Ritter Schorsch was worthy of Tess’s boy. He’d take care of and look after Kim because he too was a good and decent young man. It was a relief to have this confirmed before my very eyes.

I surprised them by asking, “And how is Ezekiel doing?”

“You know my father?”

“Yes, in the long ago, when I’d come thru these parts, he was gettin’ ready to marry a young woman – your mother, I believe.”

“Oh, he’s fine, sir. Slowing down now, finally letting my brothers manage the farm.”

As much as I enjoyed chatting with them, I had to concede the light was beginning to fade, so I took Ritter and Kim around the side of my rig.

I’d already set up my camera and the starry sky back-curtain. In front of it, I’d assembled the sweetheart’s paper moon for the boys to sit close together on. The reason being how wistfully, how longingly, they’d regarded it earlier in the day, in town, at the Picnic.

 

 

iv.

from the Shadows

 

When the treasured golden hours arrived the next evening, it found Malden Cass locked away in his wagon darkroom. Only a red lantern shone as he worked on one last batch of albumen prints, the final ones he’d ever make as an itinerant photographer.

Most were already completed and hung on a clothesline to drip and dry, but one was still in the fixer, and Malden gently sloshed it back and forth with a pair of tongs. Unlike Clackson, he didn’t normally wear gloves for this process.

He grabbed and turned the print over. Right before his eyes appeared the image of Kim and Ritter sitting on his most popular lovers’ prop. Ritter rested his back against the knowing wink of the “Man in the Moon,” while Kim reclined on the lower part of the crescent’s horn, his body leaning back into his partner’s arms. They’d linked opposing hands, for although the more-often seen grasping of right hands designated “friendship,” the taking of left in right spoke only of love because it served as the visual symbol of “marriage.” Consequently, they gazed through the camera lens with that particularly contented way all couples seem to effortlessly convey, although these young men were altogether too seriously in love to smile themselves.

At long last, the photographer allowed one of his own tears to fall. It mixed benignly with the fixing solution, and a moment later, Malden moved the print to the rinsing tray. The pure water here would neutralize the sodium thiosulfate of the developer and set the image forever.

The on-the-grass man gently moved it around for a few minutes more and then took it out to dry with the rest.

A figure moved from the red-lit shadows within the rig. Tess Hamlin spoke faintly, mournfully.

“You’re a sentimental old fool, Malden Cass.”

The man turned to face her with untroubled ease. Laughingly, he defended himself. “I can’t help it. Not when Kim is your child; your son.”

“He’s your son too, Malden. You know that.”

The man nodded, unable to keep from saying, “You’re just as beautiful as I remember.”

Tess replied sadly, “You never married, did you.”

“No, Tess. No – how could I?”

Tess, distracted, added, “No, and Ezekiel never did either.”

“I’ve waited so long; longed so often to see you again.”

“Yes, Malden, I know.” She brushed his hair aside. “I know and I’m sorry.”

“You have nothin’ to apologize for.”

“But still, it’s clear you wonder if things would be different if I’d made another decision – run away with you.”

“In a way,” Malden said, “but also I accept it’s like cryin’ over spilled milk; pointless. No good can come of ‘what ifs’.”

“You are right, and for my part, I accept I made the right choice. At least it was the best decision for Kim.”

The truth hurt him. It made him sad. “I can’t argue with you there. It turned out best for him. But it was so hard on me. All these years, alone, on the road. It got so, from time to time the thought of joinin’ you seemed like such an overwhelming comfort. I don’t know how I managed to keep from doing it . . . . But every time those dark, shadowy ideas crept in, I just knew – felt – it’s not what you wanted for me. But many were the long nights on the road when all I wanted was to follow in your path, my beautiful laurel.”

“Yet, think, Malden, if you had . . . . Now that you’ve met him, would you trade knowing Kim for all the world?”

“No, my sweetheart; you are right. I wouldn’t.”

Oh, Malden, I’ve had such guilt—”

“Did you realize our meetin’ in the hayloft was not the last time I came to Bay City? I returned on Old Man Clackson’s schedule, bright and early, summer of 1882, but you were already gone.”

“Yes, and I’m sorry.”

“I could never force myself to come back after that.”

“But you’re here now”—she took his hand as she had first twenty-one years ago—“and that’s all that matters.”

He smiled. “Your Kim – our Kim – is so grown and beautiful. A happy, healthy boy. We did good, Tess. We did good.”

“And Ezekiel’s loved him like his own. Or, perhaps better than his own boys, for if he ever suspected, he never uttered a word about it.”

“You were right all along. Hamlin’s a good soul who raised a golden young man.”

“You will help Kim and Ritter, won’t you?” She hastened her tempo, as if she’d just heard a noise approaching from the outside world. “There’s not much I can do for them anymore—”

“I will help them, and keep them safe, as much as I can.”

Relieved, Tess leaned forward, kissing that now-sacred place on Malden’s cheek.

Light rapping sounded on the other side of the door. Kim’s voice called out, “Mr. Cass? Are you in there?”

Tess stepped noiselessly back into the crimson-tined, obsequy-ingrained shadows.

Malden gathered himself, grabbing a small stack of mounted photos as he went to the door.

He walked into the sunset light, closing the portal behind him, and down the few steps to greet Kim Hamlin on the late-summer grass.

“Good evening, Mr. Cass. I’m here to pay for and pick up our photograph.”

“Malden. And no Ritter today?”

“No. He had some farm obligations tonight.”

Malden heard a horse neigh and bridles jingle. A buggy was sitting off the road just a little way up.

“My father drove me and is waiting,” explained Kim.

Malden glanced more intently at the man. Ezekiel Hamlin was every bit as resolute as he remembered him.

“Here.” The photographer handed over the stack of prints.

The boy immediately lit up; the paper moon shot was on top.

Malden explained. “I made several extra prints of the formal portrait so you fellas can give them to friends and relatives, on the house. I know your father especially will miss you once you’re gone to build your own life.”

“Your generosity is too much—”

“And, I hope you don’t mind, but I made one of each sitting for me to keep as well.”

“No, Mr. Cass, we don’t mind. After all you’ve done for us, Ritter and me, we’re happy to think you want to remember us with our pictures.” Kim fumbled in his trouser pocket. “But really, you have to let us pay you—”

“No; no, I don’t, young man. It’s on me, really. It’s the least I can do.”

The boy grinned as he ceased his motions, shy and flattered. “You have our eternal gratitude for what you’ve done for us.”

“I’m not sure if I mentioned it already, but I won’t be up this way again. I’m givin’ up the rig to work fulltime out of a regular storefront.”

“Well, me and Ritter can appreciate the feeling of wanting to quit The Mitten.”

“And yet, ain’t there anything you’ll miss from this part of the world?”

Kim thought a moment. Sincerity shone from his voice as he said, “I’ll miss this – the smell and the light at evening. Moments like these when the air is pollen-soaked and sweet hay graces the sunsets with scent – these I’ll miss.”

Malden felt a choking quaver rise in his throat, one of emotion. “You know – I knew your mother, at one time.”

Kim was taken aback. “You did?”

“Oh, yes. And I have to say, you’re the spittin’ image of her.”

“Well . . . ” He blushed. “People do tell me that, and my Pa has a picture or two. She died in child-birth, you know. Bringing me into the world—”

“Yes, I know, son. I found out the very last time I was in Bay City, twenty years ago. I’m so sad I never met you earlier.”

The young man’s grin was back in place. “But I’m glad we did meet at last, Mr. Cass – Malden – because—” He couldn’t go on right that moment. Instead he held up the photograph. “Ritter and me – we’re both so grateful.”

Ezekiel called from the buggy.

Kim made to go, but Malden stayed him with a hand on his arm. “Wait.” He extracted something from an inner jacket pocket. “Here’s an envelope. Better put that spoonin’-moonin’ shot away.”

“Oh, yes.”

While Kim hurriedly buried the picture, Malden added, “And I’ve put my business card in there. I’ve got a studio on the boardwalk in Kemah, Texas, on the Gulf Coast. Lots of jobs there too, rebuilding after the hurricane of ’99. I want you and Ritter to drop by anytime you like. Who knows, you may even like it there well enough to stay.”

Kim paused, and then beamed. “We just may!”

A moment later, his boy’s optimistic tone still echoing in the photographer’s ears, Malden waved as Kim ran off to join his father.

And then, after the young man had gestured farewell in return, the black buggy pulled off to head up the road. All around them stirred the sweet-smelling wildflower air of a Michigan summer’s evening about to set in all of its glory.

 

 

———

 

 

 

 

_

Copyright © 2022 AC Benus; All Rights Reserved.
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Stories posted in this category are works of fiction. Names, places, characters, events, and incidents are created by the authors' imaginations or are used fictitiously. Any resemblances to actual persons (living or dead), organizations, companies, events, or locales are entirely coincidental.
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