The Black Dress
By DJ Swykert
Felton was a pit boss, worked a copper mining crew in the number six shaft at the Mohawk Mine. The mine bosses liked Felton. His crews produced more good ore then the rest, the men worked like devils for him, some because they loved him, some because they feared him. But his crew was a producer, and he was paid a better percentage than the miners and did less, he stood, they dug, afterwards they all drank.
The Bucket was the favorite watering hole of the miners, a speakeasy affectionately known as the Bucket of Blood, ostensibly for the fighting and bleeding that often ended evenings there. Felton was a star at the Bucket, his reputation exceeded only by his ability to inhale the sweet vapors of Canadian whiskey, smuggled across the lake by a variety of illegal importers on small crafts willing to challenge the dangerous waves and undercurrents of the great lake; Lake Superior, Gitchee Gumee, the Shining Deep Sea Water of Longfellow’s immortal Hiawatha. It was good whiskey, and cheap, as it was smuggled into the country and avoided taxation. And cheap was as important to miners, and Felton, as was the taste, the flavor. Felton besides being cruel, was enormously tight with a farthing; he could squeeze a nickel until the buffalo cried.
The owner of the Bucket, Rudolph James Vitali, was as famous in the county for his whiskey as Felton was for his fists. Felton seriously wondered what Rudy might possibly want of him when the bartender handed Felton a note from Rudy asking him to stop by his house on the way home that afternoon.
Rudy Vitali lived down the street from Felton’s one bedroom tiny unpainted frame house in an elegant home that appeared as if it belonged on a hillside in the Italian countryside, replete with a plant room on the side where his wife Elizabeth grew flowers that gave the house the sweet aroma of spring even in December. She was a housekeeper fastidious to a fault; even company had to remove their shoes at the door. Felton, whom rugged Cornish miners bowed to in deference to his strength and prowess as a warrior, removed his like a child and almost cowered at the hem of Elizabeth Vitali when she opened her door and directed him, “Come in, but remove your boots first.”
He was greeted with a handshake from Rudy Vitali as he stood in the foyer with its solid oak door and etched glass picture of a young girl walking with a cow. “I’m glad you could stop by. I’ve been meaning for you and me to have a talk,” Rudy said. “I have a venture I’d like to propose to you.”
Felton shook his hand, nervous, his palm clammy, wondering what the speakeasy owner Vitali wanted of him. “Pleased to meet you,” he said, with due respect.
“I’ve got a proposition for you,” Vitali said, his finger touching his lip and smoothing his mustache. “A chance for you to make some real money, more than you can make down in that pit in a month. And it won’t take you but a few minutes of your labor. You might even enjoy it.”
Felton was a naturally suspicious person; he took no one’s word for anything, possibly because his word was worth very little, unless it benefited him. If you were looking for favors, or help, or needed anything that required effort, work, you might as well whistle in the wind as ask Felton Newick. “Why are you asking me? There’s a mine full of men needing money? I ain’t lonesome when it comes to being broke. I got a lot of company down there in the pits.”
“Because you can do something they can’t.”
“And what’s that?” Felton asked, still curious, still dubious.
“You can fight,” Vitali snapped, with a sharpness that made the hairs on Felton’s neck stand.
It didn’t frighten him, it just made him wary. Any time you fight someone, no matter how tough you are, how fearless, it pays to be wary, on guard, this was something Felton learned a long time ago, many fights ago–many beatings ago. “Who’s bothering you? And why don’t you just take care of him yourself?”
“Has nothing to do with being bothered. It’s business, it’s about money. And maybe a little pride. I’ve got a friend in Pittsburgh who has a fighter, Bad Jake Witherspoon. He claims Jake’s gonna be the next heavyweight champion. Does a lot of bragging about how there isn’t anybody in this country tougher than Bad Jake. He mentioned he heard miners are supposed to be tough, but didn’t think there was a miner in the Copper Country that could hold a candle to Bad Jake. It kind of got under my skin listening to him, and I told him there are some pretty tough men here. He dropped it for a while. But then started back up again about it a while ago, and said if I think there’s anyone here who could stand up to Bad Jake maybe we should arrange a fight, put up a prize for the winner, and with side bets on the fight we could all clean up. I’ve heard you’re the toughest man in number six shaft, maybe any shaft.”
Hearing this caused Felton to puff up a bit. “I’ve never backed away from any man. I can handle myself,” he said, trying to appear modest, but feeling more rooster than crow. “How much money do you think is in this for me?”
Vitali answered without hesitation, which meant he’d already thought about this for some time. “I was thinking we’d put up a purse of a thousand dollars to the winner of the bout. And if you’re as good as I’ve heard, you might want to wager some on it yourself. You could clean up. We can all clean up. And button my friend’s lip once and for all about how tough Bad Jake is.”
A thousand dollars was a lot of money in 1934 with the Great Depression waging. It was close to what even a hard working miner like Felton could earn in a couple of months. Felton almost drooled when he answered, “I’ll beat this Bad Jake for you, for a thousand dollars. Hell, for a thousand you can throw in his brothers and cousins. I’ll beat them, too.”
Rudy Vitali smiled. The die was cast, and it made him happy, he was about to shut up his friend and make a lot of money. “Then it’s a deal,” he said, extending a handshake. “We’re gonna have us a fight here in Mohawk, at the Bucket.”
Entertainment dollars in a small mining town during the depression were almost non-existent. As word spread about the upcoming fight between the toughest miner on the peninsula, and Bad Jake from Pittsburgh, the fight took off, became an event of huge proportions with posters on every corner. And strangely enough the status of Felton changed, from a rather villainous copper belly snake of a miner’s pit boss to a champion of the people, a local hero, one of them. The fight between Felton Newick and Bad Jake Witherspoon was all most talked about.
Make no mistake, though, Felton didn’t overnight become a good guy, he was still bad, badder than Bad Jake. Lost in all this excitement, the fervor, nobody paid any attention to the continued bruising of Mirabel’s pretty face, and the bruises to her spirit. None bothered to ask Mirabel what she thought about her husband’s pending battle.
Mirabel did not share in the same hero worship for Felton the rest of the community had developed. For one thing, she still hurt from the last time Felton hit her. For Mirabel, fighting had a more personal and poignant sensibility to her than to the rest of the town. The idea you gain admiration for punching someone in the face didn’t resonate with her, but it did with Felton. Mirabel let him bathe in the glow of his newfound stature, and hoped it might change him for the better, improve the home life of her and Rafe. This turned out to befalse hope. If anything, since the advent of his newly acquired status, Felton drank even more and came home less, as his comrades were anxious to buy favor with their new champion, and the women who drank at the Bucket likewise were happy to court his company. Being a hero wore well on Felton. Life for him was good, the way he always thought it should be.
The time he felt the least appreciated was at home. “Can’t you make anything but boiled potatoes and potted meat.”
“There’s nothing else here to make. I asked you when you came in last night for grocery money. But you were drunk, probably don’t remember. And probably don’t have any money, left it at the Bucket instead of in your pocket.”
She felt his raw knuckles slam into her jaw, twisting it. “You got a mouth on you. I’ve warned you before about it,” Felton said, standing and taking hold of her hair, bending her down to his knee. “Don’t you bad mouth me, you mind your tongue.”
Mirabel felt her hair pulling loose from her scalp, like weeds being torn from the garden. She knew better than to try and break free, chose to just kneel at his feet and remain still, take the pain now or risk it would only get worse later. He held her this way, foam at the sides of his mouth, for a minute that passed like an hour, then released her and she slumped to the floor. Perhaps Bad Jake will bring you to your knees– take you to the floor, she thought, then felt a pang of guilt that she would ill wish her own man, her own husband.
From the corner of her eye Mirabel saw Rafe peeking around the corner from the bedroom. She stood and dusted herself off, straightened her dress, pulled the wrinkles out of her apron. “I’ll fix our dinner. It might not be to your liking, but it is your dinner, and our son’s,” Mirabel said, and nodded towards Rafe’s big dark eyes watching them.
Felton gathered himself in. “The fight’s in another month. There’ll be plenty to eat then. And some fine dishes to eat it on. I’m going to get us a new set of plates and silverware from the Wolverine Market.”
Better you put in a new stove to keep us warm come winter, Mirabel thought, but kept the thought to herself and went about her business, silent, her thoughts lingering behind as she worked to fix their supper. This was the end of love between themand Mirabel knew it right then. She knew there would be no new plates and silver, no new furnace, either, and no love anymore between them, it was over. Mirabel got this feeling in her breast the fight could be a new beginning for Felton, but perhaps an ending for her.
Felton began in earnest to get ready for the fight. He slowed his drinking excursions after work and instead took to running the trails behind his house, increasing his wind, building his legs. The money saved by coming home from work he used at the Wolverine Market to improve his diet, and to his credit, Mirabel’s and young Rafe’s, too, and the future seed growing in Mirabel’s stomach. She was more than two months late, but she was already beginning to show. It was going to be a large baby, most likely another son.
This new Felton was more endearing. The sober version was more caring, had a gentler side that began to warm Mirabel to him, rekindle what had been eroding for the past year. She took pride in cooking his dinner, roasting a chicken, a cut of beef on occasion, baking pasties, seeing he had a warm one wrapped in a towel for his lunch, and domesticity settled into the small house on Ahmeek Street. It became more of what she hoped for than what she regretted. The only interruption to her newly recovered tranquility was the impending fight. But there was no discussion of it, she never expressed either her fear of it, or the feeling in her breast she had a month earlier. She simply fortified Felton as she could, with her food and nurturing.
One night, after lovemaking, Felton turned his head to her and said. “You and me are bound together tight, Mirabel, so tight nothing can get between us. And any snake of a man that tries I’ll kill him. I’ll kill anyone that tries to get between us.”
Mirabel shook it off, made light of it. “There’s no other man you need to worry about, Felton. There’s never been one and won’t ever be one.” But in her head she knew he was expressing something that didn’t sit gently in his belly. But she thought it a strange thing for him to say, as she’d never given him a cause to worry about another man, unless it was one she had yet to meet, one to follow. Perhaps his gut knew more about what was to come than even he understood, and this was how it erupted from his inner depths.
He smiled at her reply, but there was no warmth in it, just satisfaction. “Things are going to be different in a short while,” he said. “When this is over, life will change for us. Maybe we’ll move to Calumet, get us a real house in town to live in and get out of this mine shack here in Mohawk.”
“How do you figure to do that?”
“The thousand I’m gonna win is only a beginning. I’m going to take it and put us into a business, maybe a store, something I can work at above the ground instead of down in it.”
She had never known Felton to be a planner, or much of a thinker. Perhaps there was more to his underneath than she knew. This encouraged her, brightened the gloom of her often dismal, foggy life high up on the peninsula, where it sometimes snowed in early October and never melted until late in May. It gave her a ray of hope she hadn’t known since Felton rescued her from the doldrums of being a young high school student. But it was a ray she would never know the warmth of, or see the light of.
Felton was a strong man–his skill as a fighter was strength, not agility or poise. He was not dumb, though, and knew this was the only way he could beat a professional–with strength and stamina. Raw punching power and endurance is what he could bring to the fight, and he did, he was as physically ready for the bout as he had been for anything in his life.
When they met eye to eye that Saturday evening at the Bucket, standing toe to toe in the center of the barroom, Felton was surprised at the small stature of Jake, who stood a foot underneath Felton’s chin, short armed, stout and barrel-chested with thick thighs and lean bony calves. But what Felton learned very quickly was what made Jake the fighter his reputation was built on–speed. From the opening bell his fists literally flew into Felton’s larger body with a rage, bruising his chest and upper arms until after a few minutes, Felton, who had yet to land a hard blow, could barely throw a punch. He had virtually been disarmed.
But the fight was not brief. For an hour Felton would land on the floor, crumple to his knees, as Mirabel had once hoped for. But always he would push himself back up with his powerful forearms. Later in the bout he would roll back to a sitting position in the ring and wait for his second to help him back to his feet. Near the end of an hour he began to drop to his knees, then fall flat onto his stomach. His second would roll him to his side and then pull him up by his hands. In the end, though, he went down on his back and never got up. Not that night, not ever. Felton was dead.
They carried his body back to Mirabel using an old door for a stretcher. There was a white hanky over his face. She had them place him on the bed. Mirabel and Rafe would sleep on the living room floor that night. Once everyone had left, offered their condolences, gave her his shirt and boots, then did she cry. But she didn’t cry for long. There was nothing tears could return to her but grief, and her grief could continue without them. There was still some ham in the kitchen, and potatoes, and bread and butter. She fed Rafe, and the child in her belly a good dinner. That night, after Rafe was asleep, she went to Felton in the bedroom and sat with him for a last time.
In the morning she took Rafe by the hand and walked down the street to Rudolph Vitali’s tall, white clapboard house to ask if he could help her to bury Felton, as she had no money. She knocked on the oak front door with the etched glass window in it, the picture of the girl walking with a cow. How pastoral the window seemed.
“What about his family?” Vitali asked.
“They left with the rest of them. I guess they’re as done with him as everyone else is but me. I have no way to even get him off of the bed, and if I could, I have nowhere to take him.”
This was the beginning of a new relationship in Mirabel’s life. To his credit, Rudolph Vitali didn’t intend it, but it was to happen. He looked at Mirabel, who had the look of angels in her eyes, and he saw his future. “I will have a couple of men come over and take his body. I will have him laid out at the Thomas Funeral Parlor in Laurium and arrange for a proper funeral and burial, a grave and a marker in Lakeview Cemetery.”
Mirabel didn’t know what to say. She hadn’t any idea of what Rudy Vitali would do when she came to him, but this was more than expected. She muttered, “Thank you, he’s beginning to stinkand I have nowhere else to live.”
“I will have his body removed within the hour. You and your son stay here at my house until then,” Vitali said.
Mirabel and Rafe sat in the parlor with Elizabeth, Rudy’s wife. Vitali excused himself to attend to the removal of Felton’s corpse. Elizabeth sat as stone faced and proper as her high button dress, as if it was her husband lay dead in the bedroom, not Mirabel’s. Perhaps she had a sense of the future, the same intuitiveness Mirabel seemed to possess on occasion. There was no conversation, no hostility, but no hospitality, either. The time seemed to pass interminably slow, but when Vitali returned in an hour, Felton had been removed and was on his way to the funeral parlor in Laurium.
“I will call Mr. Thomas at the funeral home. When Felton is ready to be shown I will come down to your house and get you. We will make the arrangements together. I want you to be satisfied with them.”
Mirabel’s vocal chords were dry, and her voice squeaked. “I can’t pay you. I have no money.”
Vitali put his finger to his lips. “You aren’t the cause of this, Mrs. Newick, I am. I want to make it right. And I will.”
“You can’t make it right. Nobody can, Felton’s dead.”
“I know. But I can make it right from here on. And I’m going to,” Rudy said, then reached in his pocket and took out some bills and gave them to Mirabel. “Take this. I will call Percy at the Wolverine Meat Market and tell him to stop by your house later. Get whatever you need. I will set up an account for you in my name. All you will have to do is sign for the order.”
“What’s the money for?” Mirabel said, holding the money toward him.
“For personal expenses,” Vitali answered, taking her hand and closing her fingers over the bills. “Life is give and take. You gave. I’m trying to give a little back. It’ll never replace your loss, but it will allow you to grieve without worrying about money.”
Mirabel tucked the money in her pocket, took Rafe’s hand and they left. Elizabeth closed the door behind them without a word. Rudolph Vitali stood behind her, there was a look about him that would cause Mirabel to wonder forever; it wasn’t sadness, it wasn’t glee, it was simply resolve, as if he knew what would be next, and he couldn’t, or wouldn’t, resist it.
The funeral was very nice, extravagant, actually. The Thomas Funeral Home is palatial, a converted 11,000 square foot mansion with plantation style pillars on the enormous walk-around porch, and not a place they held funerals for the indigent. Its clientele was the upper class, the upper crust of mining society; the partners, shareholders, board members, presidents and vice-presidents, and for one evening the Newicks and the Jennings.
Rudolph Vitali was there, but not his wife Elizabeth. Felton’s parents, two brothers, three sisters and Mirabel’s family, four sisters and three brothers and parents, counting everyone from Mohawk Mine and family, there were over a hundred people, but the old mansion was big enough to handle the endless procession of mourners who came to pay their respects. It was a grand evening, and even grander burial, as a spectacular funeral carriage moved slowly out Pine Street to Lake View Cemetery followed by a long stream of cars and a few horse-drawn buggies to witness the last rites for Felton Newick.
Rudy Vitali stood in the first row behind the family as the casket was lowered. Mirabel was aware of him, could feel his gaze on her shoulder blades as she stood next to her parents with Rafe holding her hand. When the casket was finally lowered, and Reverend White said final prayers, a tear formed at Mirabel’s left eye, but she refused to sob, would not cave into her heart. She loved Felton, even her bruised life with him, but perhaps even more in the peace that followed his death. In spite of the turbulence between them it never had entered her mind to leave him, to change a thing. As everyone began to file out of the cemetery from the corner of her eye she caught Rudy Vitali watching her, and felt a kick in her stomach from her unborn son, who would become her second son, James.
Life for Mirabel Newick and her sons, after her husband Felton’s demise in the boxing ring, became rather comfortable. Rudolph James Vitali, promoter of the bout, walked down the street every evening and visited with Mirabel and baby James, who Mirabel began to call Jimmie. It didn’t escape Rudy Vitali that the child’s middle name was the same as his, he was flattered, even if it was mere coincidence, Mirabel had no idea Rudy’s middle name was James. But, true to his word to Felton, Rudy took care of everything as promised. He assumed charge of the household; paid the rent, kept it warm, saw to it that Percy from the Wolverine Market stopped every other day and took an order, and put the expense on his account. Life was good, and not without affection, as Vitali not only brought candies for the boys and sweets for Mirabel, it was quite obvious his sweet tooth extended beyond his teeth and gums and into the bedroom, an interest Mirabel was reluctant to deny him. Everything Mirabel and the boys had a need of was being provided, even someone to help with the children and do some of the housekeeping. Compared to the welts and bruises Felton used to give her, Rudy’s bedroom visits were a small sacrifice for the domestic security and comfort he represented.
Rudy hired Anna Finch to come to the house each morning and help Mirabel with the care of Rafe and the housework, including the preparation of meals. This left Mirabel free to dote on young Jimmie, and Rudy Vitali, to the chagrin of Rafe, who resented all the attention awarded his younger brother. Rudy’s wife, Elizabeth, also seethed over the arrangement, but remained at home down the street. Elizabeth did not come with Rudy to visit Mirabel, or her children.
Elizabeth Vitali’s tongue, though, visited a lot houses, and before long word spread through the community of the affection shared by her husband and young Mirabel. It became the favorite topic at tea times everywhere, but the women kept it among themselves as it would be of no good fortune for their husbands to hear of it, and unlikely any of them would be of a mind to bring it up at the Bucket, or in person with Rudy Vitali. The miners, stout Methodists they were, would have told them to simply forget the idle chatter as it was of no business of theirs, and a day of reckoning, when it came, should come better from a higher power. Best thing they could do is tend to their own business, as the mines were working again, and life was good, and there was no need to rattle any sabers needlessly.
Spring comes late on the Keweenaw Peninsula, not generally until near the end of May. When it does arrive it comes with a fury, everything, the apple trees which are in abundance, the lilacs, lupines, daisies, ferns; they all seem to bloom at once. Jimmy was four months old, the arctic winds that came across the lake in May were warm, and the sun seemed to shine twenty hours a day. Mirabel took to walking with him in a buggy in the afternoons. It was then she suspected she had been shunned. None of the other women seemed willing to chat with her. They all had excuses for things they needed to do; places they needed to be. It came to her full attention one morning from Anna as Mirabel prepared to leave.
“I’ll be back in about an hour, Anna. I’ll take both of the boys so you can finish your cleaning uninterrupted.”
“Thank you Mrs. Newick.”
Mirabel tucked Jimmie into the buggy, made sure he was blanketed and that Rafe’s coat was buttoned. She paused at the door, then turned and said, “Anna, can I ask you something?”
“What’s that Mrs. Newick?”
“Is it just my imagination, or are the women avoiding me? It seems nobody wishes to stop and talk to me. When they see me they all seem to have things they need to do.”
In truth, Anna didn’t like what went on in the house, either, but it wasn’t her place to interfere. However, Mrs. Newick had asked. “I hear the women talking, Mrs. Newick, unpleasant things. I’ve thought of mentioning them to you. But it’s none of my business.”
“Tell me, Anna, what do you hear? I’d like to know. Maybe I can set it straight.”
There was an uncomfortable pause, Anna had opened the door, but how far did she dare enter? “I hear them talking about Mr. Vitali being here every afternoon.”
Mirabel strongly suspected Rudy Vitali was the reason behind the silent treatment, but she needed to hear it to believe it. Hearing it from Anna impacted her withforce, harder than her own realizations, which she could fool herself into believing weren’t real. Hearing it from Anna made it real, took the starch out of her; broke her a little. “I can’t set that straight, Anna, it’s the truth. He comes to see me and the boys every afternoon.”
Anna would like to have said, but he could keep his visit out of the bedroom, restrict it to the parlor, but she didn’t say it. And though the arrangement between Mirabel and Vitali went against her grain, she did admire Mirabel, for being a woman living on her own, and she’d grown fond of the boys. “It’s your business Mrs. Newick, none of theirs. You have much on your plate they don’t, there’s not a one in the lot of them have a right to judge you.”
But they do judge me, and they judge right. “Rudy Vitali feels responsible for me and the boys, because of what happened to Felton. That’s why he visits every day.”
But it isn’t only the boys he comes to visit. “Don’t pay them any mind Mrs. Newick. They should find better things to do. It just points out how dull and boring their lives are. In the end they’ll forget about it and move onto other gossip.”
They may quit talking, but they’ll never change their minds. “I don’t pay them any mind, Anna. I have a house to manage and two sons to bring up by myself. I don’t have time to pay them any mind. And won’t.”
The conversation ended here, and Mirabel went out for her walk with the boys. But the gossip around town, the minds made up, the miners, their wives, nothing changed; nothing ended. But it was ended as far as Mirabel and Anna were concerned, and their life, the house chores, the two boys, the relationship between the two women, and Rudy Vitali’s daily visits continued without further conversation on the matter.
Over time the two women became true friends. The boys grew older, and in spite of the relationship between Mirabel and Vitali, a sense of family and unity between all of them, including Anna, prevailed in the household. The tiny house became a comfort, a place of refuge from the world for all of them. Then Anna contracted pneumonia and died. Mirabel blamed her death on the cold damp weather everyone on the peninsula suffers with.
Cornish funerals are long emotional functions. The Cornish miners, with their deep baritone voices, are good singers, and the procession with the coffin to the gravesite is as moving as anything on God’s good green Earth can be. Anna Finch was the widow of one of them, George Finch, and the widow Finch, in spite of her allegiance to Mirabel Newick, had their respect. She was a good Cornish widow, and a Methodist, and the funeral lacked none of the pomp and circumstance of any Cornish Methodist funeral. The entire village attended, which included Mirabel Newick and her two sons, now six and eight, who stood by her side, but did stand by themselves, away from the assembly.
Rudy Vitali was there as well, with Elizabeth, who was beginning to severely gray and stoop a bit. But she stood tall and proud on Vitali’s arm near the front with the congregation and never turned a look upon Mirabel and the two boys. But Mirabel took notice of her, and knew Elizabeth was aware. After the service, Mirabel and the boys returned home. Vitali joined them an hour later.
“I’ll look for another housekeeper for you.”
“That isn’t necessary. I told you a long time ago I didn’t need any help. But I didn’t have it in me to tell that to Anna. She was my friend. But I can handle the house and my sons–they’re growing, becoming less dependent, they’re always doting on me, especially Rafe.”
“I’ve noticed,” Rudy said, his eyes slanting narrow, “how they hang on you.”
“They’re in need of a father,” Mirabel interjected. “Rafe, you and Jimmie go out and play, I need to talk to Mr. Vitali.”
“Can’t you call me Rudy?”
Mirabel stiffened at the prospect. “No, I won’t,”
The two boys looked warily at their mother, but obeyed. As soon as they left Vitali walked towards the bedroom and stood in the door, waiting for Mirabel to follow.
“That’s what I want to talk to you about,” Mirabel said, and remained in her chair.
“I love you Mirabel.”
“I need more than love, Rudy. I need a reputation. I need an honorable life to live and raise my sons with, where they can hold their heads up high and not be ridiculed for their mother’s sins. I can never have that with you. You can love me, but your love can’t make me respectable.”
“The church won’t allow me a divorce. I’ll give you anything I have, but I can’t marry you.”
“I know that, Rudy. I don’t expect, or want you to divorce Elizabeth. She doesn’t deserve it. She deserves what you claim you feel for me.”
“What I do feel for you,” Rudy said, tapping on the door frame with his fingers. “Come over here. Let me hold you.”
There are moments when decisions are made in a fraction of a second that impact a much longer span of time. Mirabel looked at Rudy standing in the bedroom doorway. He was an attractive man, but she didn’t feel that raw passion grip her the way it did when she used to look at Felton. She wanted to feel that again, and knew it would never happen with Rudy. But there are many ways to love a man, and she possessed many of them for Rudy Vitali. Maybe that’s all she’s ever to know, maybe it can be enough, even if it’s not enough, it can be comfortable. She got up and went to Rudy. They made love that afternoon. Her body accepted him, her mind took him in, but her heart was absent.
That evening, while the northwest wind howled outside, and the small clapboard house creaked and groaned, the three of them, Mirabel, Rafe and Jimmie huddled in bed as they did every night. The two boys snuggled against Mirabeland she held them close against her breasts as they fell asleep. It was how they slept every night with their mother.
Mirabel wanted the affair with Vitali to end, like an alcoholic wanting to acquire sobriety she wanted to regain her dignity. But as she lay in bed holding her sons that evening, with the wind at the door, she knew her priorities. The security of Rafe and Jimmie came first, before all else. Rudy Vitali was to stay in her life; everything else she desired could wait. And the town folk could just be damned.
In the morning, after dropping the boys off at the Mohawk School, Mirabel walked to the train station on North Ahmeek Street and took the twenty minute train ride to Calumet.
In 1942, the city was still thriving, not as busy as in its heyday during the 1890’s when it bustled with a population of nearly twenty-five thousand, but it was still a real city compared to Mohawk with about eight hundred residents. Mirabel walked down Oak Street from the train station to Vertin’s Department Store on the corner of Sixth. She knew exactly what she was looking for and went directly to women’s fashions.
“May I help you?” the blond saleswoman with light blue eyes, tasteful skirt and white blouse asked.
“I’m looking for a new dress, something fancy to go out in,” Mirabel answered, clutching her purse with the fresh twenty dollar bills in it, a gift from Rudy Vitali on her twenty-seventh birthday.
She felt awkward the first time Vitali gave her money. She was twenty, widowed, her stomach bulged with new life about to enter the earth just as the spring outdoors had entered the trees and bloomed. It was only months after the death of Felton, and she was lonely, fearful, worried about the future of Rafe and the soon to arrive second child in her belly. True to his word Vitali had taken care of her, there were groceries in the icebox, wood in the stove, the bills paid, and he would stop by most afternoons just to check. But it was still a lonely frightful time.
Jimmie was born in early June. By the time her birthday in late July arrived, Mirabel had regained her figure; her breasts were full, but she had a waist and her beautiful beguiling smile had returned, and Vitali seemed to take more and more notice of her, not as a child, not as a widow, but as a woman. She could just sense this when he was around. And on her birthday, and every birthday since, he would give her an envelope with twenty dollar bills in it. It felt like blood money, but she took it, saved it in a box on a shelf in the tall chiffarobe in the bedroom. Now it was time to invest the money, invest in herself. Which is what brought her and the twenty dollar bills to Vertin’s.
The saleswoman eyed the striking Mirabel, imagined she had a nice figure hidden underneath the long, loose cotton dress she was wearing. “What kind of function is the dress for? Short skirts are in style, very popular with younger women.”
“No, a dress, shorter perhaps, but elegant, something you might wear to a social, or out for the evening.”
Mirabel left with a dress she never believed she would own. It was shorter, black, fit to her form, cut to reveal her shoulders, but came with a small jacket that could be put on as the evening cooled, or if modesty needed to prevail. She felt vibrant, alive, warm inside as she walked down Oak towards the Michigan House, carrying the stunning black dress in a box under her arm.
She waited as the maitre de seated her. She felt daring, sitting alone in the hotel restaurant, being waited on by a rather good looking man in black slacks, a white shirt with a dark bowtie and a black apron. He brought a glass of water and left the menu on the corner of the table.
“I’m Anthony; I’ll be your waiter this afternoon. Would you like something to drink while you look at the menu?” he asked.
What Mirabel knew about wine, about eating in a restaurant, came pretty much from reading books and magazines. Mirabel was not a simple person; she was an intelligent person with a simple life. “What would you recommend?”
Their eyes met in a dark pool with spirits that hid in the brown depths. Butterflies filled her stomach with energy. “We have an excellent house Pinot we serve by the glass. I think you will be happy with it, madam.”
Anthony was nice looking, clean, thoroughly scrubbed, with hair as brown as his eyes. He was lean, but muscular. Mirabel was reminded of Felton, which was perhaps why the butterflies when she looked at him. “Bring me a glass of the wine,” she blushed.
“Bring me a glass of wine,” Mirabel blushed.
“Yes, madam,” he answered. “I’ll get your wine and be back to take your order, if you’ve decided.”
Mirabel opened the menu, but had a hard time focusing on the entrees. She looked at the page: roast beef sandwich, blue plate meatloaf, linguine in red sauce, grilled cheese and fried chicken, but her mind still saw Anthony. She was still trying to sort out her menu dyslexia when he returned with the wine.
“Have you decided on something, or do you need a few more minutes?” he asked.
“I think I’ll have the roast beef sandwich,” she said, not wanting to appear confused and roast beef was the only thing she remembered on the menu.
“Very well, Madam,” Anthony said, quickly jotting the order down and then leaving for the kitchen.
Mirabel watched as Anthony disappeared behind the swinging doors that led to the kitchen. She recognized the skip in her heartbeat, and realized the last time she felt this was when she met Felton. Her body had signaled her, the real Mirabel inside had spoken. This voice remained silent with Rudy Vitali.
On the train ride home Mirabel looked at the new dress and wondered where or when she would ever wear it. She reflected on standing in front of the mirror at Vertin’s, how she looked, how the dress made her feel, and wondered when she would feel this way again. As the train pulled up to Ahmeek Street and stopped, her imagination stopped with it. Reality loomed just outside the train door: the little house, her sons, food for the table, wood for the stove, and Rudy. When she exited the train the box with the dress was left behind on the seat.