Three boys were photographed in 1948 standing in front of pre-war housing. The youngest and most prominent held a cap pistol; the oldest and shortest stood wide-legged, squinting into the sun; the middle child, called by his mother to look at the camera turned toward her voice as the picture was shot. He momentarily fixed a smile on his face, then lowered his head to avoid the glare while the photographer snapped the black-and-white photo, taking care to keep the Brownie box camera parallel to the ground.
Seventy-two years later, the youngest of the three cousins, always in front, always favored, always able to rebound until he wasn’t, will turn various shades of blue and gray and drown in his own lung fluids as his grandmother did one hundred and two years earlier – his eyes panicked by the isolation of death.
The oldest cousin will always be short – short of money, short of education, short of health, ultimately short of breath. He will suffer from throat cancer – the same that killed his father – except the son conceded defeat long before his father and will end his days amid beer and loud music.
The middle cousin will accept his family dictates, make his compromise with life, then, after years of disorientation, adopt an interest in sports – will talk sports all day while drilling teeth. At night he will sit in his cubby hole – his wife called it a den – and deteriorate with the same fixed smile until age seventy-nine.
Early in her adult life, Pauline learned not to mix liquor. Very late she learned people were like liquor. Some people were like beer. Quickly accepted and enjoyed. Others were like rum. Cloying, but easy to take when mixed with anything sweet. Some were like vodka. Tasteless. Some were tequila. Depending on the mood, quick or lingering, but ultimately lethal. Others were gin. Acerbic then painful. Some ouzo. Overwhelming, then glorious, albeit fleeting. Some were brandy. Warm, enveloping, and, if well handled, temperate. Others bourbon. Acceptable, pleasant enough at first, then destructive. Others were scotch. An acquired and lifelong taste.
Too late she learned her life’s lesson:
Although she thought he was brandy, he soon became bourbon. She remained scotch.
*Derived from Red Indian traders who hid liquor bottles in the high shaft of their riding boots.
Whenever Pauline asked her grandmother a question, she was told a story. Once she asked: “Why do we live here?” she was told two stories.
Her grandmother heard the clunking of old ladies’ heels up her steps and across the porch. Then she heard a knock. Then, two more knocks.
“Don’t those people have anything better to do?”
It was the third visit that month. She took her time opening the door.
“Good afternoon.” Four women greeted Gigi. Her given name was Gayle. Her nickname, Gigi, bestowed by her deceased brother for some long-forgotten reason. The women started their spiel without taking a breath. The more they talked, the more animated they became. Gigi thought they’d start bouncing like schoolgirls. She extended her left arm to fill the space between her shoulder and the door jamb.
“I’m sure you heard what happened at the hotel across the river” said the oldest woman.
Years earlier, after twenty-three years of marriage and two surviving children, a suspicious Gigi barreled into the family lawyer’s office without knocking. She saw her husband, her two sons, and the lawyer hunched over a desk with paper, quill pens, an open ink bottle, and two ink blotters between them. The room reeked of cigar smoke.
“What are you doing here without me?”
Four male heads jerked up. The lawyer – old with a fringe of gray hair in a horseshoe pattern from ear to ear – set down his pen and looked at her. “Good afternoon, Gigi. Just in time.” Her husband stared at the papers on the desk, his hands reaching toward them and then pulling it back. Her two sons regressed – heads lowered, mouths shut.
Gigi strode to the polished walnut desk, reached in front of the lawyer, and grabbed the papers. She flipped to the second page of her husband’s Last Will and Testament. “I hereby leave all my lands, buildings, equipment, and livestock to my two sons…” She ripped the pages into multiple pieces.
“No. You will not.”
She walked to the fireplace, reached into the brass match holder, selected a long wooden match, struck the match against the mantel, held flame to paper. As flames crawled up the page, she dropped the bundle onto the logs set atop the cast iron grate.
“It all goes to me.” She looked at her husband. “It was my father’s land. It was never part of my dowry. It remains mine.” She tapped the desk with her forefinger. “Start writing now,” she said to the lawyer.
The lawyer winked at the three men on the opposite side of his desk and wrote. Gigi stood until he finished, periodically telling her husband to be quiet. “Let me see the papers.” She reached out her hand and read.
She walked over to her husband. “Now sign it.” He attempted to speak as husbands do in situations like this.
“Don’t talk. Sign. Right now.” She glared at the males with their screwed-on smiles. “Just sign it.”
The lawyer cleared his throat, leaned back, then straightened himself and said, “Now Gigi. Why would you want to own land? You wouldn’t know what to do with it.”
“Ach mein Gott. Sign it!” The volume of her voice grew louder with each word.
A few moments later, she folded the signed and witnessed will, walked across the street to the courthouse, entered the register of deeds office, paid the filing fee, tucked the receipt into the apex of her corset. Fourteen sections of land on the Ninnescah River plus thirty-six acres secluded on the western fringes of Nebraska, South Dakota, and North Dakota – free and clear, fertile, and primed for intra-family squabbles.
The evening before her husband’s funeral, Gigi had written to the Distillers Corporation in Waterloo, Ontario. In 1881, her own state enacted a constitutional prohibition against alcohol: The public sale of alcohol is hereby and forever prohibited. However, Canadian prohibition did not ban the manufacture of liquor for export. Prohibition revived an historic profession – bootlegging. She proposed that the Canadian bootleggers use her remote properties as staging areas for distribution west of the Missouri River and east of the Rockies. She took her payments in Canadian gold, deposited in a Canadian bank, then invested in real estate and Canadian whisky manufacturers.
One month later with family tension as high as the tree line, she executed a ten-year, land-use-only, fixed-cash lease with her sons – no mineral rights, no evergreen clause.
She quickly abandoned the churned-butter, thick-cream, twenty-four-hours-a-day-screech-of-a-rusty-windmill life and at a speed that brought reproach from the parish priest, she moved to the state’s largest city.
Gigi bought a three-story house with a wrap-around porch on the west bank of the Arkansas River. She commissioned a room to be built in the center of the house – its sole entrance through a door in the back of her bedroom closet. Not all her imported liquor was for distribution by Canadians.
Gigi, her arm extended to block the doorway, listened as the women on the porch continued their spiel without taking a breath. “I’m sure you heard what happened at the hotel across the river.”
Gigi knew personally about the axe and the private hotel saloon across the river where a woman walked behind the bar, cracked the large mirror, broke several bottles, dented the railing, caused several hundred dollars in damage, handed the axe to the bartender, then waited until the sheriff and newspaper photographer arrived, posed; and, as agreed, was carted to jail where she paid the pre-arranged fine. Carrie Nation received her publicity; the bartender kept the axe he proudly hung over the cracked mirror; the sheriff made a public arrest for property destruction.
The oldest woman handed Gigi a petition. “Sign it. It’s to deliver to the legislature and governor.”
Gigi stroked her cameo, waited, then said, “Ach, mein Gott. Go away.” Then she gently closed the door.
She heard old lady heels clomp across the porch and down her steps.