Preface; Part I, Chapter 1

Preface

In 1974 I met a willowy woman during the summer solstice celebration held at Loon Lake, where Latvians had established a retreat. She turned out to be Anna Noon, someone I had known when she was a child but had not seen since. Before a blazing bonfire she asked whether I remembered the poem she had written for me while we were stranded by an ice storm. When I was able to recite several stanzas, she threw me off balance by asking in a surprisingly surly manner why then I had never written so much as a word for her.

Anna may have forgotten that bit of impertinence, but I could not let it go. Back in my study I began to bang out a short satire about a spirited girl who is transformed into an unpleasant nag by a series of unfortunate events. Once my anger had abated, I scrapped the piece and stared something more circumspect. I sought to share certain events Anna had neither been in a position to observe nor capable of comprehending. The gaps I filled with unabashed make-believe.

Vadim Voronin, who knew Anna from that time, dismissed my story as nothing more than a fairy tale where a young innocent comes close to being chopped up, cooked and served to a large number of guests, many of whom had accepted the invitation to dine merely because they were not otherwise engaged. Still I sent the manuscript to Anna, assuming my fictions were more accurate than hers. She never acknowledged receipt, so I present it for your edification.

Matiss Mantenieks

21 June 1977

Part I. Arrival

1949-1950

Chapter 1.  A Homecoming of Sorts

Regrettably, dear Anna, your story starts with a rather despicable character to which I can assign no redeeming qualities, perhaps because it is based on a man of the cloth and that profession is rife with moral weakness. A certain Reverend Wendell Weiss [1], the only Lutheran minister in Anishinaabeg [2], a small town on Lake Michigan’s eastern shore known for squirrel stew, spectacular sunsets and affluent summer residents. We first encounter him in late January, 1949. He like most in the following pages is a resourceful individual. Many in the environs are not, but they do not interest me so I will not bother with them except in passing.

This particular pastor has a problem, and he has a plan.

The problem is his sister died in the dead of winter and left him a motel. Had he been young it would have been a boon, but he is pushing sixty so he sees it as a burden. His predicament is apparent to anyone in Anishinaabeg who has given it a second thought. Some regulars crowded into a blue Naugahyde booth at the Deluxe Diner on a snowy morning can serve here to speak for all:

“He can’t sell the place,” the solicitor says. “Not in its current condition.”

“He can’t run the it,” the surgeon says. “Not while he wears the collar.”

“He can’t hire a manager,” the scientist says. “Not till it turns a profit. He’s already stretched too thin by his wife’s incessant demands.”

“You’re right about that,” the waitress says, pausing to pour coffee. “She’s been whining about a washer for weeks. Can you imagine what he has to put up with living with the likes of her?”

The three do not choose to picture the possibilities, being happily married men with the means to manage any challenge they might encounter.

The waitress brings piping hot plates of the breakfast special. The three slice through succulent sausages to the sound of pleasing pops and employ pieces of buttered toast to sop up puddles of luscious yolk from fried eggs with the conscious contentment of those recently released from privations of war.

.

The plan takes shape later that day in the privacy of the parsonage.

Wendell sits at his massive mahogany desk, lethargic after a leisurely lunch. He is writing Sunday’s sermon, trying to turn his tired treatise on the Trinity into something more topical. When the last rays of the sinking sun spill over his shoulder, he sets aside the various versions, turns on the desk lamp and starts over on an unspoiled sheet.

Falling back on the familiar he is fast to finish. Reading what he has written he surmises his hours of work will evoke little more than cautious coughs, restrained squirms and surreptitious sideways glances on the subsequent Sabbath. Feeling he has devoted sufficient time to the edification of his congregation he turns to more mundane matters.

A prodigious pile of mail is waiting. Using a beveled brass cross he opens each envelope. The last contains a circular from his synod describing efforts to resettle the masses of displaced persons—DPs—overrunning Europe after the war. It informs him the DPs need sponsors and work before they can enter the States. And it urges him to take action: one out of three DPs is a Lutheran.

He has to help—he has known that for some time—but cannot see how rescuing refugees can be accomplished so everyone benefits in the bargain. He stares at the empty expanse of wall before him. There amid the pallid pattern of the yellowing paper his wife has been itching to replace God reveals His plan.

A seductive perception of the possible—or perhaps simply the savory smell of supper seeping through the cracks around the study door—infuses him with an unusual sense of purpose. His once leaden limbs readily carry him down the hall and into the dingy dining room. He smiles as he seats himself.

Chin in hand and elbows on the tatted tablecloth he awaits his wife Winifred, who likes to call herself “Winnie” much as she likes to call him “Wennie.” Wendell detests his moniker but no longer bothers to remind her not use it since he has protested so many times in the past it is now pointless.

“What makes you so smug, Wennie?” she asks.

“I can get a refugee to run that roadhouse on the cheap,” he replies.

She places the meatloaf and mashed potatoes before him without comment, turning back for green beans and corn. When she takes her seat, she finishes off her food without reference to his remark.

After she serves the crumb cake she bought at the bakery, she opens the new issue of Life she picked up on her way home and tossed on the table. Flipping through the pages she stops at the section featuring resort fashions and studies each image with the care she normally accords her daily devotional. “You could end up spending every spare penny supporting some indigent immigrant,” she says without looking up.

.

As winter warms and ice breaks up in the bay, disconcerting cracks appear in the plan. Wendell has known proceeding over Winnie’s protests was perilous but, driven by an strong sense of purpose, has convinced himself he could bring her around once the deed was done. Now as he stands looking out at the open expanse of lawn between the parsonage and the church, he feels as exposed as the gray grass rapidly losing its protective pall of snow.

Returning to his desk the calendar that nags him nearly as much as Winnie does informs him it is February 28, some 11 weeks after he had first contacted the relevant relief worker. During all that time the man had not done anything other than prove Winnie’s point [3]. There were doctor and lawyer DPs, scientist and engineer DPs, poet and playwright DPs, even a concert pianist DP. He shudders at the thought and prays a more suitable type turns up soon.

His prayer is answered one splendid spring morning. Returning from his constitutional among the trilliums springing up behind the parsonage he spots an official-looking envelope saliently situated on his desk. The letter inside concerns a Latvian who once ran a pension on the Baltic Sea. He does not know what that is, but it sounds a lot like a motel. Here is a woman who could—if she had a trace of his late sister’s initiative—restore his inheritance to profitability.

He envisions endless possibilities until Winnie calls him to lunch.

While Wendell may be resourceful he is not always observant. And so he fails to register the strange smile Winnie wears while serving up a big bowl of Franco American Spaghetti, a large plate of buttered bread, a small plate of crisp celery spears, a tall glass of creamy milk and those Betty Crocker Brownies he likes so well. And he had hardly been in a position while out earlier to watch how his wife put a pot to boil on the stove, held an envelope over the ascending steam, found a spot on the side of the flap where she could slip in her thumb and applied pressure until the limp envelope succumbed to her will.

Still by the first bite of a brownie he starts to sense his wife has become uncharacteristically communicative. Over coffee this woman of few words—with him at least, though she is capable of chattering incessantly with church ladies and the like—gives a short speech going to the heart of what is on her mind:

Before the war, as you remember dear Wennie, that motel—or motor court, as we called them then—was a pretty nice place.

Cars speeding along the highway saw the inviting cabins nestled among the firs and pulled off in such numbers the night manager often had to turn away the tourists they disgorged.

Many returned summer after summer. For them—especially the city folk—the motel was more like the home they hoped to have than the place they currently had to inhabit.

They gathered on the landscaped grounds, lounged on the lawn furniture and fried franks in the open instead of sitting in airless hotel rooms, eating stashed sandwiches because the meals in the dining room below were way beyond their means.

After the war, with gas no longer rationed and soldiers reunited with kith and kin, they were back on the road again.

Some found their customary stopping places closed, which only meant more business for smart operators like your sister, who’d capitalized on the wartime lull to plan renovations for the day when building restrictions would be removed.

I’ve been thinking, dear Wennie, it wouldn’t take all that much to get the motel back to where it was not that long ago . . .

Disregarding the borborygmus in his belly Wendell rises, knowing Winnie’s about-face means he must secure the Latvian’s sponsorship before she peremptorily settles on someone else. He pens a response without perusing the particulars, offering Christian refuge to a certain Allegra[4] Avotiņa—however that’s pronounced—and brood, seven-year-old Anna and five-year-old Andris.

He carries the letter to the post office, eschewing his cheerless Chevy clunker for a pleasurable promenade sure to benefit his intestines. Too roiled to return home he heads in the opposite direction. He enters the first inviting door, which happens to be that of the Deluxe, nearly empty this time of the day, and positions his ample posterior on a red standard-sized vinyl-covered stool at the counter. A blue-eyed redhead brings him burnt coffee with a sunny smile.

“What’s new?” Wendell asks, stirring in spoonfuls of sugar.

“Not much, Reverend,” she replies. “What’s new with you?”

“My sister’s establishment will soon be back in business,” he says. “I’m bringing over an expert from Latvia to run it.”

“You don’t say,” the waitress says and straight away sits down beside him. “That’s where Santa and his reindeer live!”

He does not have the heart to tell her that is Lapland. She somehow has about her the scent of apple blossoms.

.

News that DPs are coming spreads fast. Soon the pastor cannot saunter down the streets without city councilmen, county dogcatchers or even clerks from the notions counter at Noon’s Department Store coming up to ask, “Any word yet, Reverend?” Only the police chief appears uninterested, but he has not been right since returning from the Allied occupation of Berlin. To each Wendell says with decreasing conviction, “These things take time.”

Piles of paperwork plague the pastor into summer. The Friday before the Fourth Wendell completes what he is certain is the final form. He signs with a flourish and sets out under the scorching sun to post it personally. Requiring rest and refreshment before heading home he stops at the Deluxe.

“What’s up, Reverend?” the waitress asks from on high, where she is tacking tri-color bunting along a ledge in celebration of the birth of her nation. The pastor regards her round arms reaching for the rafters and the hem of her rumpled pink seersucker uniform following suit up her short, sturdy legs.

“I’m done ironing out details on the DP,” he replies.

“The Devil’s in those details,” she says, twisting her torso to turn a flushed freckled face toward his sweaty immobile bulk.

“He has kept his hand in,” he says. “Can you believe some paper-pusher notified me—after all this time—there has to be one able-bodied adult for every dependent allowed in? That Latvian I want has two.”

“He’s right,” she says, alighting on the linoleum and straightening her skewed skirt. “We don’t need any charity cases.”

“I’m sure I can get the work of two from that one,” he says, blushing a bit. “Sure enough to sign the waiver he sent me.”

 “What reason would she have to work hard?” she asks, setting her white cap to a jaunty angle amid a lush crop of corkscrew curls. “She could get herself situated, then give you the slip.”

 “Because she’s indebted beyond belief,” he says, disinclined to debate someone of her stature. “I practically plucked her off a troopship carrying refugees to Rio. She could’ve been slaving away in Sao Paulo by now [5].”

“Never let her forget how you saved her,” she says, fastening a button on her bountiful bosom that had come undone amid her earlier exertions.

“Bring me a Braunschweiger on rye,” he says. “And a large lemonade. This DP mess made me miss lunch.”

.

Irksome storms occupy the pastor the subsequent autumn. Living in Michigan he is only marginally aware of the unusually active Atlantic hurricane season. Moreover he has been busy buying a new and completely redesigned Ford sedan, a purchase permitted by extra income expected when the refugee reconstitutes his shuttered motel. His pull as a pastor had put him at the head of a long line.

The day he is scheduled to take possession of the shiny Sea Mist Green sedan with the white-walled tires—a vehicle he understands some will find unbefitting a preacher but hopes others will take as a sign their Reverend has now become a man of substance with a soupçon of elegance—torrents of rain turn streets into turbulent tributaries of the river that cleaves the town.

Undeterred he drives off the lot and toward the main intersection. With one eye to the oncoming traffic and the other to the empty sidewalks he hopes to happen upon someone harebrained enough to venture out who is also nimble enough to note his recent acquisition. No such person can be found.

A block beyond the Deluxe he sees the surgeon scurrying by, his head protected from the pounding precipitation by a folded newspaper. He does not pause to ponder why the good doctor is not ensconced in his luxurious Lincoln; he simply sees his chance and seizes it, rapidly rolling down his window.

“Like a lift, Doc?” he yells across the street. “I’m on my way to minister to a parishioner perishing at your very hospital, if that’s where you’re headed.” The surgeon confirms he is in fact on his way to work and wades through standing water the storm sewer can no longer disperse.

Wendell squirms as the surgeon slides in beside him. The inconsiderate sawbones sets his soaked overcoat on the pristine tweed upholstery and dumps his sopping paper on the unspoiled dash, providing an undesired baptism.

“You have the honor of being the first passenger to ride in my new car,” Wendell says as the surgeon makes himself at home.

“Your DP should be arriving around now,” the surgeon says, apparently not hearing over the thrum of the rain. “When’s the big day?”

“If only I knew,” Wendell responds, decidedly disturbed. Disturbed by the surgeon’s indifference, by the DP’s delays, by something he cannot define. “Sent me a postcard two weeks ago saying she was leaving Bremerhaven and would arrive in New York in a week and a half. That’s the last I ever heard.”

“Not so nice in New York now,” the surgeon says. “Nor the middle of the Atlantic, for that matter. Downright dangerous from what I understand.”

The surgeon reaches for the sodden New York Times, which he prefers over the regional rag. He reads relevant parts of the lead story to the pastor:

Hurricane 11 moves across the Atlantic with winds reaching 100 miles per hour…Tropical Storm 12 forms east of Bermuda and moves north-northwest with peak winds of 60 miles per hour… Locally, Eleven’s tail fells wires and trees. Electricity is cut off for 50,000, and a smaller number of phones are put out of service. Wind gusts up to 70 miles per hour, accompanied by heavy rains . . .

“Anything on the USS Sturgis?” Wendell asks, then barrels ahead without bothering to wait for an answer. “What will I do if she doesn’t show?”

“Take the missus to the movies,” the surgeon says with a sideways smile. “Slattery’s Hurricane’s still on at the Odeon [6].”

“Maybe I will,” Wendell says, knowing full well he will not. No Lutheran can countenance a drug-running airman redeeming himself by flying into the eye of a storm. We are saved by the grace of God, not by any of our own actions.

He deposits the surgeon near the hospital portico with a perfunctory nod and heads home, arriving before Winnie, who blows in on a blast of wet wind.

“Why were you out on such a wretched day?” Wendell asks.

“Gertie got us girls matinee tickets for the most marvelous movie,” she says, her hair aglitter with raindrops, her round cheeks rosy from the raw cold.

Right behind her is a drenched delivery boy in a short slicker. He hands Wendell a tattered telegram outlining the DPs updated itinerary.

.

The last Monday of October Wendell’s agenda is amended again.

The telephone rings shortly after sunrise. The operator announces a long distance call, always an event at the parsonage. Winnie, in cold cream and curlers, shouts to Wendell from the bottom of the stairs, then runs up them in a panic, bursting into the bathroom and rousting him from his accustomed seat.

Wendell descends to his study reluctantly and with decided difficulty bends to retrieve the receiver from where Winnie had hurled it in her haste. “Good morning,” he hears a foreign female say over static. “This is Allegra Avotiņa. My apologies for intruding at such an unreasonable hour.”

Wendell does not wish to socialize in his skivvies.

“What’s wrong now?” he asks.

“Our arrival in Anishinaabeg is delayed a day,” the voice replies. “Could you pick us at the train station this Thursday at twelve?”

“What’s wrong with Wednesday?” he asks, annoyed by one more adaptation required by people putting him out on several previous occasions.

           “There were problems in processing,” the voice responds.

“What sort of problems?” he asks, practically shouting.

“My daughter was unsettled by the rough crossing,” the voice replies. “When Ellis Island inspectors tried to tag her, she tore up her papers, then those of strangers’ children standing nearby [7].

“Can’t you control your own child?” he asks, foreseeing a future full of tiresome tangles with a willful hellion.

The voice assures him that under most circumstances it can.

“Make sure there are no more ‘problems,’” he says.

The voice assures him it will.

He replaces the receiver, then picks it up and slams it down.“Seems we’ve sponsored a spoiled brat,” he says, eying Winnie accusingly. “Babies aren’t the bundles of joy they’re believed to be, you know. Especially when they become bigger. Be grateful you were born barren.”

.

After puffy pancakes and a postprandial stroll Wendell calms down. He dives into his diverse duties—comforting a disconsolate dowager abandoned by her spouse after decades of perfect contentment, extricating himself from a determined do-gooder champing at the bit to build a chapel in Cotobato, composing a column on ecclesiastical events for the church newsletter—and dispenses them with such dispatch he has time for a nice nap before supper.

That evening he sits in on the monthly meeting of the Church Council. The youngest Chairman ever elected by the Elders begins by requesting supplementary funds for the church choir. Through radio broadcasts and public appearances it has racked up a creditable track record in calling Anishinaabeg back to worship after the war, so the requested sum is easily secured.

Still the Chairman is not ready to relinquish the floor. He warns the good work of the choir could come to naught if they are not quick to capitalize on the accomplishments. With each newcomer the congregation has become more progressive, not to mention more moneyed. “How long,” he asks, “can we count on the best of Anishinaabeg to suffer the shabby edifice we currently inhabit?”

Before a soul can respond, he proposes razing the weather-beaten wood building with the peeling white paint and erecting a modern brick structure. Before Wendell can begin to grasp his good fortune, everyone voices support.

Wendell is ebullient as he bolts back to the parsonage to tell Winnie the splendid news. He does not even utter an expletive after tripping over the rake the caretaker has carelessly left out on the starlit lawn. Without taking it to be an omen he calmly picks it up and carries it to the insubstantial storage shed.

As he approaches the parsonage, a glint from the screened-in side porch catches his eye. Upon entry he locates the source: light reflected from glass on a television. But what a TV! A Motorola console with burled red mahogany and a cinematic screen, even larger than the 12-inch one in Noon’s window. Why it is here among the cardboard boxes and sticks of furniture townspeople had piled up for the DPs he does not understand. He had covered everything with a tarp at the start of the storms, so the set is recent.

“Where’d the TV come from?” he asks once he locates Winnie.

“Mister Noon brought it,” she replies. “So our refugees can learn English.”

“Their English is plenty good,” he says. “You heard that woman.”

“We didn’t take turns talking to her, if you recall,” she says.

“Why would he give it away?” he asks. “Must have cost a fortune.”

“He sold the store,” she says, “and will be leaving town in two days [8].”

“I knew that,” he says. “I don’t know why he wouldn’t take it with him.”

“Said it would get ruined on the road,” she says. “The insides are so fragile. He’s driving down to Detroit, as you must then know.”

“TV’s bad for kids,” he says. “The girl’s halfway to a hooligan already.”

           “My thoughts exactly,” she says.

“Maybe we should hang on to it until the kids get older,” he says.

“Maybe we shouldn’t give it to them at all,” she says.

“Why should foreigners get something few of us have?” he says.

He returns to the porch, pondering the paucity of his possessions. How could he be the respected pastor of a newfangled church when all he possessed in the parsonage to enlighten and entertain him was a failing Philco radio?

He returns inside to round up Winnie. Between them they manage to move the console to the pantry, heedless of the stresses and strains sure to produce protracted pain in the following days. “That’ll at least keep it out of the weather,” the pastor says.

.

The day the DPs are due to arrive, the Ford fails. When Wendell does succeed in starting it up and driving it to the service center, the insolent Indian there insists nothing is amiss with the machine. Reluctant to rely on a redskin’s [9] word Wendell rushes over to borrow the police chief’s pickup, parked up the street. The cab is caked with mud and the interior littered with leaves, but it is better than sticking with something that could stall at any time.

He struggles with the strange starter, almost flooding the engine. He grinds the unfamiliar gears, nearly nicking the black Cosmopolitan parked too close to his rear. He repeatedly misses his turns, distracted by the unfamiliar feel of the truck and the uncertainty of what awaits at his destination.

When he pulls into the parking lot, his mood is as black as the clouds that blew in overnight. When he enters the station, the waiting room is empty. According to the prominent clock, which shows a time different from his, he has missed the train by a mile. He hurries to the sheltered area outside.

Standing amid leather luggage and a battered steamer trunk a good-looking blonde in a camel hair coat with a fur collar, spiffy hat and high heels stands holding the hands of two tow-headed tots: a small squirming pigtailed girl with a fur muff dangling from a velvet rope and an even smaller boy with slicked-back hair and what seems like the short pants of a swank suit showing between undone overcoat buttons. Refugees aren’t meant to look like that [10].

He suppresses an inappropriate reaction and sanguinely strides toward what have to be his DPs since they appear to be the only travelers there. Deftly avoiding their expectant eyes, he gives them a hearty, “Welcome to America!”

Unable to roust a redcap he locates a stooped Negro with white hair sweeping up trash and enlists his assistance with the unwieldy trunk. He helps by carrying the small suitcase—his back bothering him badly—as the woman lugs the large one and ushers everyone to the mortifying means of transport by which he is sure the woman will immediately and irrevocably take his measure.

“Kids ride in the back,” he says, heaving them onto the truck bed next to their bags, slamming the gate and opening the passenger door for the woman.

“So do I,” the woman says, pulling off her leather gloves, forcing the gate back down and hauling herself up to take her rightful place by her children.

Wendell does not see the woman grit her teeth and steady her young as they bump along back roads, a bitter wind searing their faces, raking their hair and flinging the girl’s hat at a barbed-wire fence that edges a fallow field. He enjoys the crimson and gold trees arched over farm stands stacked with the scrumptious apples, succulent grapes, pendulous pears and rotund rutabagas and pumpkins, products of a prodigious harvest bestowed by a bountiful God.

.

Allegra disembarks the borrowed truck as the dreary day darkens, threatening rain. The pastor propels her onto a porch, where produce disfigured by hollow eyes and toothless grins stare at her suspiciously. He hurries her into a hallway, where a musty mirror snatches at her soul. He deposits her in the parlor, where a plump matron with hair piled high in a pompadour inspects all three.

“Welcome to America,” she says, dispensing with introductions. “I’ve delayed lunch to accommodate your late arrival.”

“Thank you, Missus Weiß,” Allegra replies, taking care to properly pronounce the pastor’s presumed spouse’s surname. “We are sorry for any inconvenience.”

“That’s “Weiss,” if you please,” she says. “We’re not Germans or Jews, you know.”

The supposed spouse stands and ushers them into the dining room, snapping on the overhead light. She takes pains to point out the new mottled moss green wallpaper and the color-coordinated cushions on the chairs. After finishing with the fine points of the furnishings she shows Allegra her seat.

“Would you allow us to wash up first?” Allegra asks, hoping it is not the custom in the United States to take meals in an unsanitary state.

“One more delay won’t matter I suppose,” Missus Weiss replies.

She leads them into the kitchen, where she points to a soap sliver sitting by the sink and hands Allegra a stained tea towel drying on a dowel. Allegra swabs streaked faces and scrubs grubby fists. She then attends to her own toilet but cannot bring herself to comb her hair while scrutinized by Missus Weiss.

Returning to the dining room Allegra locates her previously assigned seat while Anna and Andris, steered by Missus Weiss, clamber onto chairs across from her. Reverend Weiss sits down heavily at the head of the table.

Missus Weiss leaves and in no time returns, her broad face beaming. She carries a bowl of startlingly red soup, so hot it is steaming. She places it before Allegra and repeats the process until all are served. She then sets a plate of pale crackers in the center of the table and takes her end seat opposite the pastor.

“Bless Oh Lord the gifts we are about to receive [10] through Your boundless beneficence,” the pastor says sonorously, then promptly turns his attention to his meal, leaving responsibility for social discourse to his spouse.

“There was a prohibition against new wallpaper patterns during the war,” Missus Weiss says, “One of a host of hardships we Americans had to endure.” She ticks off several more. Allegra starts to explain her hardships but is sufficiently savvy to stop short of mentioning the moldy bread rinds they ate for supper, the sleepless nights they spent in underground shelters and, grateful there had been no direct hit, the colorless hands of bloody corpses reaching out from the rubble they saw after emerging into the bright morning sunlight.

Allegra takes a spoonful of the thin substance to postpone the required commiseration. The taste of such uninspired soup—or perhaps lightheadedness associated with hunger—causes her loose all ability to converse. She floats back to a dining room in Rīga before Russians ravaged it. She touches the black tole branches and birds, the sparkling crystal beads and teardrops of the chandelier. Caresses soft folds of a subtly patterned scarlet silk shawl, the smooth metal of the pocket pistol secreted within them, the sleek wood of the inlaid table where they have been placed. Presents my beloved Antons brought back from Rome.

Missus Weiss rousts her from her reverie by clearing her throat. “Yes,” Allegra says, searching for words. “So sad.” She tries to force down more soup so as not to seem unappreciative. Apparently that does not suffice since Missus Weiss suddenly falls silent, pursing lips and pointedly fussing with flatware.

Allegra opens her mouth to make amends, then clamps it closed. The soup’s acidity, slowly accumulating in her stomach, has achieved a critical mass and now slices through the protective lining. She sneaks some crackers as inconspicuously as possible. The salt on their surface stings her scraped hands but the swallowed starch starts to settle her seared insides.

If I am queasy, Anna must be on the verge of vomiting [11].

Allegra pushes crackers toward Anna. As soon as Anna wolfs some down Allegra turns to address the situation shaping up with her son. Andris is serenely spooning in soup, splattering red blobs. Before she can correct him, Missus Weiss reaches across her and gives his scrawny wrist a sharp slap. All Allegra can do is study the stained cloth, scratching at the selvedge with ruined nails. Cheap material, poor workmanship. Her good table linens are most likely stashed in the sideboard. Rebuking a starving boy seems to buoy Missus Weiss.

After Andris polishes off the last particle, he looks around for the next course. No matter how hard he cranes his neck, none is forthcoming [12]. Reverend Weiss stands, signaling lunch is over, and requests Allegra join him in the study.

Seated on the edge of a large horsehair chair Allegra wills herself awake as Wendell reviews each clause of a contract long since signed. He requires she stipulate she understands she and her children are ensured living space at the motel and sufficient food to sustain them until revenue rolls in, which she does.

“Do you also understand you will also be paid for any chore conducted here at my or my wife’s behest?” he asks. Allegra attested she does.

The pastor puts away the papers and pauses.

“Good,” he says. “Then you can start making money immediately. Our washer broke weeks ago, and Missus Weiss has piles of laundry to do by hand.”

.

Allegra stands staring at the round, white machine, so spent she is shaking. She knows she can complete the assignment only if she first finds a way to repair the washer. Power is the primary requirement of any modern appliance, and that is something she understands. A simple short started the fierce fire that razed her first pension. A similar problem could be at play here.

She needs someone to show her where tools are kept but everyone seems to have disappeared. She stands still, waiting for some clue as to where they might be. All she hears is the buzz of a housefly banging against window glass, hatched since summer, struggling to escape.

She heads for the study, assuming the pastor is still there. She hears his lowered voice through the door. “Can’t talk now,” it seems to say. “How about the Deluxe tomorrow at three?” Rapidly withdrawing she comes upon the entrance to the parlor, where her son and daughter sit sedately at Missus Weiss’ slightly swollen feet while she reads to them from a cumbersome black book.

“The eyes of the Lord are in every place, beholding the evil and the good [13],” Missus Weiss says, refusing to look up at Allegra as she enters. After standing in silence for an intolerable period of time Allegra leaves.

She makes her way back to the kitchen, then out the back door. She sees strange shapes on the sun porch that have possibilities. Cautiously she opens the screen door, approaches an object and lifts a corner of the tarp concealing its identify. She sees a handsome mahogany bookcase with glass doors. These people seem to have so many possessions they must store some on porches.

While securing the tarp she stumbles over storage boxes. She eliminates one immediately since it has “Nicholas Noon’s Books” scrawled in an immature hand. Beside another is a substantial toolbox. It is unidentified but she is sure the worn spanners and hammers inside never saw the Reverend’s soft hands.

Benefiting from this find she unscrews the plate covering the washer’s motor, locates two frayed wire ends, twists them together and insulates them with black tape. She starts the machine and is overjoyed to see signs of life. Soon unsavory unmentionables agitate in the contraption’s innards.

While they wash she soaks the tablecloth in cold water. She squeezes it dry, works some glycerin into the stains and sets it aside. She clears the table, washes the dishes and disposes of cans labeled “Campbell’s Tomato Soup.” She runs the first load through the wringer, then carries a basketful to the backyard.

She pins bulging brassieres and ballooning bloomers, intermixed with ribbed undershirts and striped shorts, to the tangle of clotheslines strung between trees, leaving them to dry in the whipping wind. After she finishes three more loads, she washes the tablecloth and hangs it where it is most likely to catch the rays of a sun that have at long last deigned to shine.

.

After the Russians had removed Allegra’s brother—together with thousands of other Latvians—from his homeland in cattle cars, she vowed no one she knew would ever again be required to travel in something constructed for cargo. Having a better understanding of her situation now than upon her arrival, she heads off Wendell before he can again steer her children to the back of the truck. Situating Anna in the center of the cab’s stained bench and herself at her side she instructs the Reverend lift up Andris so he can sit on her lap.

They follow a road edged with thick stands of pines that exude such a familiar scent that even with the windows rolled up Allegra has to squeeze shut her eyes not to cry. Opening them again she sees water through trees that stretches to meet the setting sun. It is as vast as a sea—the Baltic Sea—although the Reverend claims it is merely Lake Michigan. One seagull swoops down, then another, feasting on large fragments of discarded food. Just like in Vecāķi.

The pastor babbles about this and that, but she hears nothing. After five years of exile in the Austrian Alps she feels she has finally come home to her long-lost seashore. Andris is sound asleep. She reaches across his inert body and softly squeezes Anna’s knee. Anna looks up at her with uncertain eyes.

.

After the pastor leaves, Allegra takes stock of the situation. Apart from the sign with burned-out bulbs that forms “MOTE­­­­­” when she flips the switch and the general dustiness and mustiness that comes from disuse the place is pleasant. Guest cabins made of stained wood planks, each with a window box, the dried stalks suggesting someone recently cared enough to plant flowers. An office and attached living quarters sufficiently removed to afford both manager and guests a modicum of privacy. Inside décor that is both unobtrusive and efficient.

The living quarters are sparsely furnished. A steel-framed double bed with a thin mattress on bare springs for her, a couple of cots moved in for her children. A washing machine for laundering guest linens. A knee-high icebox and a hotplate on a counter for the night manager. Cupboards above and below the counter. A frayed red easy chair with a covering of fine, gray animal hairs. A functioning toilet, a stained washbasin and shower behind a defective door.

Only after Allegra sheds her coat and sits down does she see something major is missing: no furnace or heater of any sort [14].  Whatever warmth manages to accumulate during the day will seep out through the thin walls and gaping windows at night. Her pension had been primarily a summer place but some guests arrived in the early spring and stayed through the fall, so it was outfitted for year-round use. The motel, she now recalls the pastor saying, was set up for the short summer vacations of the sort middle-class Americans take.

Dismissing her concerns she washes off the accumulated grime from herself and her children and makes up the beds. Wearing the last of their clean clothes and using their outer garments as additional blankets the Avotini at last lie safe in Anishinaabeg, the last place on Earth they ever expected to inhabit.

.

No one can sleep. Everyone is hungry. Allegra arises to search her cupboards for the food the pastor promised. All she sees behind the first door is rows of canned corn. This is fodder for livestock, not food fit for people. She looks to see what else there might be. She finds cartons of Pablum behind the second door and prepares a large pot of it on the hot plate, hoping to settle growling stomachs. She then spoons the substance into turquoise bowls made of some synthetic material and sprinkles each with sugar, knowing it will induce sleep.

The children succumbed immediately. Exhausted though she is Allegra cannot stop mulling over what to do next. Finally she rises, wraps herself in a quilt, takes Anna’s coat, slips into the office, turns on the desk lamp and sits down. She locates scissors and using one tip carefully lifts a thread from where fur joins fabric on the collar and snips it. Then she carefully lifts and cuts the stitching until the pieces separate, removing paper currency as she works.

The inflation spreading across Europe made the money she brought from her own country and supplemented by working in Austria all but worthless. She earned more once she found a job outside the confines of the DP camp in the French Sector of Germany, where they were required to stay before they could come to America. The sainted Commander turned a blind eye to her comings and goings, which allowed her to keep her salary and still receive benefits.

The American government forbade refugees bringing in money, so she spent what she could prior to departure. She bought bolts of wool cloth and fur pelts on the black market and arranged to have travel apparel fashioned. She purchased leather luggage. She changed the remainder into dollars and hid what she could in coats. Thanks to the ruckus Anna caused at Ellis Island they were never searched for contraband. She smiles as she assures herself she can now discretely purchase a space heater and sufficient food for the coming winter.

When she returns with her stash, she finds Anna sitting upright in bed, pointing to the place on the wall where light illuminates resinous knots in the pine paneling. “Dievu acis, Dievu acis,” Anna whispers in horror. The Eyes of God.


[1] Yes I know: that is not his actual name. I am reluctant to use real names when telling tales on people who are not public figures. I trust a smart girl like you will translate the surname from modern German and the given name from Old German and see why they were selected.

[2] This is my tag for a town only you need to recognize. It means “First People” to those who originally laid claim to the land. To others in the Forties it was merely an unpronounceable but useful appellation. Tourists somehow seemed to assign more authenticity to Indian designations than to those comparably appropriated from either English municipalities or French explorers.

[3] I am not certain how many dared honestly declare their true profession. You see, no one wanted refugees with intellectual or artistic abilities, only those with strong backs and practical know-how. Even I had to hide my credentials from our Reverend—though you would have thought he would have delighted in my being conversant in philosophy and theology—and falsely list my occupation as “farmer.”

[4] While “Allegra” is not Latvian, when I write about her I hear the molto allegro passages of Mozart symphonies, which are not evoked by the name her parents provided. Had they seen the true nature of their bawling babe, I am certain they would have done what I did. I say this since they were decidedly more imaginative when assigning an Italian name to her younger brother. If you’ve ever wondered why, may I remind you Europe is a small place where cultures intermingle. Rīga is approximately 170 miles from Rome, about a 100 less than Anishinaabeg is from Detroit.

[5] Latvians lived in Brazil well before you were born. The exodus started in 1890, when 25 families departed from Rīga, arrived in Laguna in the state of Santa Catarina and grew to more than 300. Other Latvian enclaves were established, including the Baptist colony Vārpa, founded in 1922 in the state of São Paulo. I personally know of a relative named “Adão” still living in that region.

[6] At Loon Lake I was amused to see you affected a peek-a-boo hairstyle similar to one once worn by one of the stars, Veronica Lake. By the time this film came out she had altered it to conform to the safer hairstyles women working in war industry factories were encouraged to adopt. That could have led to her demise, as her career went downhill fast after a successful run of the film.

[7] I regret casting your initial actions in an unfavorable light, but this is my earliest information. Please note some would have done far worse. The first reliable documentation—ironically prepared in 1902 by Doctor Still—of comportment similar to yours was labeled a “Defect of Moral Control,” followed by “Minimal Brain Dysfunction,” “Hyperkinesia,” “Hyperkinetic Disorder of Childhood” und so weiter. Terms no more diagnostic than Heinrich Hoffman’s tag in the 1845 tale “Die Geschichte vom Zappel-Phillip,” where the misbehaving boy is called “Fidgety Phillip.”

[8] I wonder if some of what I build into your story won’t be wasted since you seem to have lost the love of language you exhibited as a child. Therefore I will spell out this for you: I selected the surname of “Noon” so that when you eventually marry his son “Nicholas,” a bit of alliteration I rarely resist, your name will become “Anna Noon,” a double palindrome where each element—much like those comprising your young self—can with equal ease be read forward or back.

[9] While Wendell has no faith in anyone other than those similar to himself and distrust of Indians is pervasive in the area, I wonder whether here he may not have a religious rather than a secular basis for his denigration. Ever since efforts of missionaries in the 1700s in the region Indians in Anishinaabeg have mainly been Catholic and he allocates little praise to Papists of any stripe.

[10] While there is a particular reason I will reveal later why you and your family look so swank, I should stress that even if that were not operative neither your family nor most World War II refugees would have resembled the tired poor huddled masses or the wretched refuse of teeming shores the Statue of Liberty claims to embrace. Most of us entering at that time had been well off before war erupted and came not for economic gain but to evade torture, deportation and death. The poor of our native land facing the same had neither the ways nor the means to effect escape.

[11] Should you not know, you spent most of the turbulent transatlantic crossing below decks, curled up in a hammock in the women’s hold, a bucket by your side. Your mother was able to adapt to the rolling ship well enough to discharge her duties in the galley. The Negro cook supervising her secured scarce bottles of Coca Cola for you to sip when you became seriously sick. Andris by contrast ate everything put before him but was particularly partial to spaghetti.

[12] Why someone would fail to comprehend common courtesy demands a more substantial meal be offered to people who by my back-of-the-envelope calculations—3747 miles from Bremerhaven to New York City, another 865 from New York to Anishinaabeg—have travelled more than 4612 miles without a real meal is beyond comprehension. Even if American sponsors viewed refugees as nothing more than chattel, certainly chattel require some modicum of care to be serviceable.

[13] I have Wennie reading from Proverbs 15:3 of the American King James version of the Bible with the full knowledge that the preceding one (13:2) states, “The tongue of the wise uses knowledge aright: but the mouth of fools pours out foolishness.” Such are the small pleasures of authorship.

[14] If it is any consolation, when I arrived at the farm owned by the good Reverend’s brother, the retired schoolteacher selected as my sponsor, I was shown to unheated quarters above a drafty garage. I stood it several months, after which I trudged 26 miles in the snow to find other work. I landed a low-paying job at the Deluxe Diner, which at least allowed me to rent a room in the apartment of the colored cook and share the warmth of a clanging radiator.

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