Sweaty in the hot summer of ’27. An execution is imminent, and the family has been dreading it for years. Henriette wakes to the sound of feet hurrying along the hall outside her second-floor bedroom, then down the stairs and back up again. A thin, keening sound. Coughs and sobs. It’s her older brother Carl, plagued by a nightmare.
Henriette was eight in 1920 when Nicola Sacco, a shoemaker, and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, a fishmonger, were convicted of robbery and murder in South Braintree, Massachusetts, and she’s grown up with this wound to her sense of hope and possibility. Wisps of adult conversation drifting above her head taught her the story. Now she lies rigid in her bed, as though her stillness could stop time, standing by while others face what may already have become disaster.
Father first assumed the two Italians were guilty. As followers of the anarchist Luigi Galleani, the men could be expected to plant bombs and murder anyone they considered a class enemy. Mother feared the jury was prejudiced against immigrants, workers, and all victims of the Red Scare then roaring to life. Henriette sat silent through many dinners while her parents argued, her shoulders rigid, focused on spooning her soup “as little boats go out to sea . . .away from me.” Late at night, roused by fighting voices, she’d stand in her bedroom in the dark, aching for calm, while angry words curled under and around her door like smoke. She’d bite her swelling lip and strain to hold her parents together while Carl ran through the house, trying to outrun bad dreams. Here he goes again now, panicked at midnight. His identical twin, Russell, is used to the sound and does not wake.
Sacco and Vanzetti protested their innocence for seven years following their conviction, supported by the likes of Albert Einstein, George Bernard Shaw, and H.G. Wells. By the time Henriette was twelve, the case was famous all over the world and awakened her own sense of justice. Maybe the world was really not a good place.
As she entered adolescence she felt energized to protest. Her favorite poet, Edna St. Vincent Millay, wrote to the governor of Massachusetts in a letter widely publicized, “I cry to you with a million voices: answer our doubt.” Her poem, “Justice Denied in Massachusetts,” was published on the front page of the New York Times. Millay was arrested along with Katherine Anne Porter and Dorothy Parker for demonstrating against the execution. Then a convict named Celestino Madeiros confessed to the crimes, and the protest continued to spread. Henriette read the papers and learned about the IWW, International Workers of the World, a leader of the movement to free the two men. She rolled the organization’s nickname around in her mouth, “Wobbly, wobbly,” and read about anarchists and Bolsheviks.
Now she lies in bed, hot, moments before hope is lost. She pictures Carl sparking as though he were a live wire, as though his own body felt the deadly current that could at any moment zip through all three convicts: Sacco, Vanzetti, and Madeiros. She refuses to think about what it’s like to know the moment when you will die, to be strapped into a chair and wait for someone to throw a switch. She murmurs Millay’s despairing lines: “Forlorn, forlorn/ Stands the blue hay-rack by the empty mow/We shall die in darkness and be buried in the rain.”
Just before her thought of execution can defeat her refusal to imagine it, her parents step out into the hall across from her bedroom. The running stops. The cry subsides, and voices speak soothing, grieving words. It’s shortly after midnight, and the radio has just announced the execution. Henriette tenses, squeezes out tears, and thinks of Vanzetti’s words, written when his last appeal failed: “The taking of our lives — lives of a good shoemaker and a poor fish peddler — all! That last moment belongs to us. That agony is our triumph.” She knows that this disaster can never be undone. Opening her bedroom door, she stands there, helpless, seeing the shame in her parents’ eyes, shame for their country and the rule of reason in which they’ve put so much faith. Mother’s arm encircles Carl, who pants and drips sweat, his face pale, while Father’s stony face for once does not melt at the sight of Henriette.
Huge crowds follow the funeral cortege through the streets of Boston, and people wear black armbands reading, “Justice crucified.” Vanzetti’s final words, spoken to the warden as he walks to the electric chair, are publicized. “I wish to say to you that I am innocent. I have never done a crime, some sins, but never any crime. I thank you for everything you have done for me. I am innocent of all crime, not only this one, but of all, of all. I am an innocent man. I now wish to forgive some people for what they are doing to me.”
The words chill Henriette with their dignified generosity, their tragic failure. They stay with her as she grows up and goes to college, popping up at odd moments to remind her of the world beyond family, classes, and boyfriends. Maybe she will not remain a bystander forever.
The young women of Foster Hall hurried from dark, wood-paneled dorm rooms down polished stairs, meeting each other’s eyes with worry and excitement, and then looking away. No one knew just who would have to drop out, their funds for tuition obliterated by the Crash of 1929 and the escalating economic disaster. Breakfast smells wafted up the stairs: the rich aroma of coffee and the steamy odor of boiling oats. Chilly and nervous in the food line, the women took small helpings of toast, tea, and coffee and proceeded to the dining room, where the clatter of dishes competed with low-voiced introductions.
Henriette stepped lightly into the line, having finally arrived where she’d wanted to be for a year and more. All through high school and the year she’d spent at home after graduation, when Mother insisted she was too young for college, she’d yearned for the South Side and its university. Meetings of Wobblies and Trotskyites. Jazz playing in the nearby clubs. The intellectual life of the classes, where students debated whether homosexuality was illness or social deviance. Though money was tight at home, she was confident of staying in school, for Father was a pioneer of advertising — the man who’d invented the Sears Roebuck catalogue and continued to write it. He’d gone to work for Julius Rosenwald when both were young men, shared Rosenwald’s philanthropic interest in education for Negroes, and he expected to stay at Sears for the rest of his life. When former Brigadier Gen. Robert Wood began his ascendency at the company, Father adopted Wood’s more conservative stance but never gave up on education for all. As floods in Mississippi and the ensuing Northern Migration brought more and more Negroes into the city, both Father and the company thrived. No crash, however devastating, could stop Sears from selling dresses for $6.75, as well as car radiators, musical instruments, brood coops for chickens, and asphalt roofing to families all over the country.
Henriette took a tray and went through the food line, taking black coffee, oatmeal, and a piece of toast. After eating a few bites, she pushed the food away and joined the crowd heading out. Everyone wanted to be on time for the first day of class, even if it might be their last. The sun was out and the day warming as Henriette entered the main quadrangle and walked among students scattered on stone benches and grass, dotting the lawn with bits of color. She wondered which of the boys and girls might become her friends. Younger than most of them, she tasted her freedom.It would be spicy, like the soups her brother Carl liked to make, and smooth, like the swing of her body the year before when she’d danced to jazz with Harold Overstreet at the Sunset Café.
She shifted her books onto one hip, feeling the pull of her sweater against her breasts, and yanked her shoulder-length hair out of her collar. Her shirtwaist open at the throat, she approached the Social Sciences Building, where she found room 122, the lecture hall for Introduction to North American Anthropology, and slid into a seat near the back. Classmates to her right and left would see her long, straight nose and olive complexion in profile, might notice that she looked like Nefertiti. In front of her, curved rows of seats converged on a lecture podium. There the professor, a heavyset older man with a square chin above dewlaps, busily sorted notes. On a small table to one side was an electric slide projector, black and silver and bigger than Father’s wooden stereopticon, the viewer through which he displayed his three-dimensional wildflower photos. A white-haired teaching assistant hunched over it, arranging the slides one by one, keeping track of their order. The T.A. raised his head, and Henriette saw his young face. He couldn’t be much older than her twin brothers, four years her senior. The contrast between the T.A.’s face and hair was unsettling, and she kept her eyes on him. His prominent forehead and deep-set eyes gave him a sort of animal look that roused her shapeless but intense desire. When he dropped his hands to his sides, his unusually long arms suggested an early primate, but his three-piece suit looked properly academic, and his large head sat comfortably on his slight body. As he rose to arrange papers on a lectern, Henriette noticed his economy of movement, the energy exactly proportioned to the task, and she smiled inside at that sinuous perfection. Fascinating, but so beyond her.
“Welcome to the brand-new Department of Anthropology,” said the T.A. He passed out syllabi for Indian Culture and Artifacts in the Americas. “Any questions?”
Henriette raised her hand, eager to be noticed but not yet sure what she would say. “Why is this class required before Culture and Artifacts in the South Pacific?” The T.A. paused a moment and turned to the Professor, who was still busy, then looked back at her.
“I guess it’s just because A comes before P. Some administrator was learning how to alphabetize.” Laughter, and she joined in. Sometimes her sassy questions got her into trouble, but this one had produced an interesting result. The Professor began his lecture, spreading a droning blanket over the T.A.’s spiky wit. Her mind drifted off.
She couldn’t believe she was actually here, at the University of Chicago in the South Side’s Hyde Park, that she had finally defeated Mother’s determination to tuck her safely away with a bunch of girls at Vassar Female College in Poughkeepsie, New York. Her rebellion had slowly built up steam during her year at home in suburban Oak Park, with her high school friends away at college. She’d read and fretted and killed time at the movies, that dark place where she could weep and laugh without restraint, following detective Charlie Chan as he solved murders — “like potato chip,” as he said in his pidgin English, “cannot stop at just one”— or mouth agape at “The Constant Nymph,” as orphaned, teen-aged Tessa fell in love with a married composer, ran away with him to Belgium, and finally sickened and died. In contrast to her stagnant life, the movies made everything vivid and real.
Whenever Mother allowed it, she traveled to Chicago’s South side to visit her brother Carl, in his first year of medical school at the U. of C. and living in an apartment. She’d climb to the second floor, where the smell of frying garlic and ginger promised some new trick he’d learned from a Chinese restaurant; a yeasty smell meant bread, rising or baking. Everything Carl made woke up her appetite as surely as meals at home suppressed it.
Henriette wanted nothing more than to submerge herself in the thick of Hyde Park. Sick of being the little girl in the living room when her parents entertained Negro leaders, she was determined to enter their world on her own terms. A personal renaissance — that’s what it would be. And with men. The only young men she knew were her brothers’ older friends, and at the U. of C. half of the student body would be male.
The sound of hands clapping brought Henriette back to the lecture hall. She was here and that was what counted. Still seated, she watched the T.A. put on a charcoal overcoat with black velvet collar, pack up the slides, and leave with the Professor. Then she rose and spoke to the student beside her.
“Who is he?” she asked, sotto voce. “The T.A. Do you know?”
“No idea,” said the student. “Why? I’m Nadine Abravanel,” and she extended her hand. Henriette shook it and introduced herself, feeling dwarfed by Nadine’s ample breasts and muscled arms, intimidated by the straight black hair that curved along her face, emphasizing her forthright manner. “Are you here for anthropology?” asked Nadine. “Worried about the reading list?”
“Not really,” said Henriette. “I’m more interested in literature.”
“Me too,” said Nadine. “Especially poetry. Why don’t you sign up for American poets? I’m going to. We get to read Edna St. Vincent Millay, Walt Whitman, and Robinson Jeffers too. Have you read him?”
“Millay’s my favorite,” said Henriette. “ I haven’t yet read Jeffers.” Nadine moved towards the door, and Henriette turned to another student.
“Have you registered yet?” she asked.
“I can’t,” said the student, keeping her voice low. “I might have to drop out. You know — money — my father — his job. What about you?”
“Lots of students are in your shoes,” said Henriette, wishing she hadn’t asked. She felt doubly guilty about her situation: first for her privilege, which seemed undeserved, and second for her need to escape the hands that fed her. She owed so much to her parents, but when she thought of Mother she saw a juggernaut, threatening to crush her, while Father huddled in corners, springing out unpredictably to stand too close and then explode with rage. She pushed the thought away. She wanted to talk about the T.A., but she didn’t want to reveal the sudden desire and ambition she’d felt on seeing the white hair, the velvet collar, and the arms so obviously evolved from forelegs. As she joined the crowd leaving the hall, she turned to the person beside her.
“That T.A.,” she said. “Do you think he’s foreign?”
“Maybe. He could be a visiting scholar. Or a dandy.” Opinions swirled around Henriette. She thought of the dark body hair that curled, escaping from his collar and cuffs, and she couldn’t help but imagine hair curling all over his body. “Why don’t you ask him?” someone said.
“Me?” asked Henriette. She shrank, timid at the thought of confronting him with a personal question, then reminded herself it was only words. “All right,” she said. “Another day.”
Suffocating dark and a panicky need for air. A bad dream she couldn’t remember must have robbed her of breath. She gulped air and grabbed the rough edge of the blanket, then let go and moved her hands to her body, from breasts to waist and thighs. She was all here, out of the dream world and safely in her bed, but where? In the faint light from the window she saw the hulk of her Secor # 2 typewriter on the desk. Of course, she’d dropped into sleep, tired from the first day of school, in her new dorm room at college.
She would not cry. There was plenty of air, and she was safe here. She crawled toward the foot of the bed and reached a hand up to the heavy typewriter, the monster that had gotten her through term papers in high school and columns for the school paper, then her valedictory address and letters to her friends at college. The typewriter had been a hand-me-down from her father, and she never used it without remembering how hard he’d worked to teach himself everything he knew. She ran one hand over the smooth, hard body of the machine, along the date “1913,” the year of her birth, engraved on the front, then found the keys and danced on them with her fingers, the keys responding as though with a little tune. If only she could funnel all the desires of her mind and body through this machine, the machine that would compose them into a stream of words and speak for her. She imagined her fingers feeding words to the typewriter and the typewriter spitting them out, neat and black, on clean white paper. As long as she could maintain that stream of words, from fingers to machine to paper, she’d be in control of the telling, and there’d be plenty of air to breathe.
A memory she tried not to allow seemed to force its way in from the typewriter to her fingers, reversing the tide that put her in control of the story. She lifted her fingers from the keys and felt the smooth rubber platen, the round cases for the ribbon perched high on the frame. But no object, no matter how solid and normal, could obscure the memory that elbowed its way into her mind: not a book she’d pulled from her satchel one day after high school; an apple she’d taken from the kitchen; her own body plopped down on the couch to read while she ate; Father, the one who always took her side, unexpectedly home. She squelched the scene before it played itself out. This could not be real, was not true. She knew she was wrong even to think it. She curled on her side, and sleep soon washed her body away.
MAGGIE KAST’S first novel, A Free, Unsullied Land, was published by Fomite Press in 2015. An excerpted story, “The Hate that Chills,” won 3rd prize in the Hackney Literary Contests and was published in the Birmingham Arts Journal. She is the author of The Crack between the Worlds: a dancer’s memoir of loss, faith and family, published by Wipf and Stock. She received an M.F.A. in writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts and has published fiction in The Sun, Nimrod, Carve, Paper Street, and others. A chapter of her memoir, published in ACM/Another Chicago Magazine, won a literary award from the Illinois Arts Council and a Pushcart nomination. Her essays have appeared in America, Image, Writer’s Chronicle, and elsewhere.
Adapted from A Free, Unsullied Land, by Maggie Kast, Copyright © 2015 by Maggie Kast. With the permission of the publisher, Fomite Press.