Inimical, a novel about process
Set in the interwar period, Inimical brings heedless English aristocrats to hobnob with German embassy staff at gatherings of the International Peace League—-a front organization for the extra-governmental activities of more than one nation. Geoffrey Malcolm-Webb, reporter for the Mirror, and agent trusted with disparate assignments, but limited information; Greta Freund, former actress; H. Bruce Van Nest, propaganda master; and Werner von Kneussl, WWI veteran and embassy secretary, come together to play their roles. The guiding hand works as a machine . . . but the pawn has a heart.
Inimical Excerpt from Chapter Eleven: The Hindenburg
For we cannot understand of God what He is, but only what He is not, therefore we cannot see how God is, but only much more how He is not. Thomas Aquinas
May 6, 1937. The drenching rains and thunderstorms had barely cleared by 6:00 p.m. Finally the winds fell away. The Hindenburg, advised against landing during the late afternoon’s threatening weather, approached Lakehurst for the second time, receiving her latest radio message from the station commander: “Conditions definitely improved recommend earliest possible landing.” This was at 6:08 p.m.
But while the Hindenburg‘s crew held her forward momentum in check at the mooring mast, a cold breeze from the south shot up. She had dropped ballast at intervals; she had finished valving gas—the ship was in the best possible trim, yet not the most satisfactory. She had a heaviness astern; a deviation from ordinary expectations, troubling but not alarming. At 6:10 p.m., the landing crew, a greater number of whom were civilians than naval personnel, heard the landing station signal, and stood ready.
A process took place before the bow trail ropes would be dropped to the ground crew. The engines were reduced to idling speed, thrown ahead and astern. The Hindenburg was positioned, with a final burst of power. The starboard rope came down, the port rope followed. Newsreel cameras: Paramount, Fox, Universal, Pathé, swung from the airship to the ground. The port bow trail rope was coupled, winched; a southeast gust made the rope spring taut. The was at 6:21 p.m.
Along her route, observers with field glasses had watched her. She was a great attraction—filmed, photographed, talked about. Some observers, mixing unobtrusively among the interested public, were charting her course, recording positions within a synchronized timeframe.
Excerpt from Chapter Eleven: The Hindenburg
Bonus Short Story
Sometimes a visitor got onto the property, just as far as stepping over the ditch. The postman only stopped his car, and almost never did, only for bills. It was not a mystery, people knew an old woman lived in the Lewis house, alone. They saw her, but rarely, when she would come out to sweep snow off her porch. The meter reader had not seen her, ever; but Ray, old and alone himself, living at the bottom of the hill, making birdhouses and putting them on the lawn to sell, told his daughter it was the kind of habit people got, something they always did to keep up, when they did nothing else.
“Does she get food?” Mary Anne had asked, in a voice that allowed he was making Mrs. Lewis up.
“I see a white van go up that way. It’s not like I watch all the time.”
She swept her porch of snow, not leaves. Not acorns, and a heavy crop of these littered the steps, the six inches or so of porch outside the rail. The lamp, seen through the front glass, came on at night. There was an armchair with its back to the window; now and then a figure moved, difficult to make out but for the movement. The window had a generation’s worth of grime. The curtains were never pulled.
There was another thing, and few people knew about it. Those who knew would not have said they knew.
Ray had been up fairly often; he’d had success in early years, bringing her a Christmas box, shooting a little breeze. Weather’s not too bad. Quiet holiday’s the best kind, ma’am. And good luck to you…happy new year.
His daughter tried to find things he would use. She’d subscribed him to fruit, and he didn’t want it, but the critters did, so every day he’d bowled out a grapefruit or a pear, to see the raccoons sneak out after it. But he’d also, as he had with the hat and scarf set, gone carrying the carton taped back up in its paper, filled now with apples that had come soft, to knock on Mrs. Lewis’s door. That last time, she’d answered.
“Oh, Ray, I haven’t got a thing!”
“That’s quite all right, ma’am. It’s the season.”
The phrase didn’t mean a great deal. He was pleased she knew him to be Ray. It was all right…Mrs. Lewis was all right…in the head, then. She could pass away, and there’d be no reason he had to be the one to find out. Her mister must have passed away.
“What you think she lives on?” He’d said it to the postman.
“Social security, I guess.”
Ray took this as discretion, since the postman would know.
The big windstorm they’d had just Sunday peeled back the tar paper that Ray, spending a summer’s worth of energy, had stapled up—hoping it would stop the leak. He’d constructed his porch from plywood and decking, ten years past, and the job held up okay…only the bolts he’d used to fix it to the trailer wall didn’t hold, and the porch had fallen askew, gapping wider from earth to roof.
He used it for a junk room, and the junk was garbage he wouldn’t pay to have hauled. Couldn’t pay. He hadn’t known the floor was going too, not until the corner where ice always built up on the windowsill slumped in.
He wasn’t bothering with it anymore.
But thoughts of winding down…because you had no money and no gumption left, made him peer up the hill. Whenever he passed the front window, the distance and the heavy growth of scrub made it hard, but Ray began to think he was seeing a limb down, a nest of black lines clawing over the chimney. He thought she would probably not do anything about it.
Or…there’d be two of them up there, and someone would find out after a while, and they’d knock at Ray’s door and say, “You’re the closest neighbor. Didn’t you see anything?”
His daughter didn’t want him at home with her.
Ray, also, if he were going to die, wanted to be here in his living room, sunk in his chair, watching a gospel show on TV, hearing the choir. He made up his mind he’d climb the hill. Call someone, if it looked bad.
He pictured, as the road steepened, flagging down the white van. A handy thing, if this were its day. Settle the question. If the driver was a home helper, after all, tuck away that news for Mary Anne.
Then he could forget Mrs. Lewis, be glad at last that he could.
No one passed. Wind gusted, yellow leaves came down in a zig-zag line skirting the roadside. Ray thought he should have put a hat on. The clouds seemed wanting to spit a little rain. He reached the point where the angle of the hill, if he cut across the ditch, would be just as testing to his lung-power as to keep going, and turn where she’d once had a drive.
Weeds and saplings had taken this over. He ought to tell easy enough if van tracks had been pressed into the tall grass, and he saw no sign of it. He didn’t like coming through this way, having to wedge round, right next to what had been the outhouse.
Well, it still was.
But getting to the porch by way of the yard meant looking out for gopher holes…it was chilly today…maybe not so much it would’ve killed the mud-daubers that had sealed the window sash with their nest, sandy columns all down between glass and screen.
The glass grey over the kitchen sink, showing an oval of light from the parlor. He came to a standstill.
Looking at the little door, as ever just an inch or so cracked.
He heard someone give a chuckle. “You from down the hill.” The man used a tree branch to swing himself, coming up over the rise of the slope behind the privy.
“That’s right, I knowed ya.”
“You’re one of those…” Ray cast an arm towards the Spaulding property, not remembering the name that might be this stranger’s. A rail fence edged where the hill dipped into Spaulding’s hollow. When the farmhouse had renters, they’d kept a pony, and Ray had always seen it hang its head, sag the barbed wire, stretch its nose as fenced animals did, to browse the other side.
“Yeah, I come back…” He gave Ray his hand. “My name’s Joshua. I got a little camper-trailer, I put up where they tore down the house. I don’t know what they was thinkin’…they was gettin’ rent for it.”
“Bee in the bonnet.”
“That sign been up every time I come past for a couple years now. You ever see anyone come out to look?”
“Nope,” Ray said.
Joshua grinned. He and Ray both laughed. He smacked Ray on the shoulder, guiding him, shooting a look at the outhouse as they shuffled by. Once they got around the split limb, and the roots knuckling bare earth under the oak tree, there was room enough to jog up the porch steps.
“You here to look in on Mrs. Lewis?” Ray asked. He thought he’d leave the job to Joshua…if the Spauldings’ squatter said he was.
“Looked in through the glass a couple times, and she ain’t anyplace I can see. But you and me go on inside now.”
Their shoes cracked acorn shells, Joshua’s high-tops leading Ray’s sneakers. Joshua seized the rusting handle, and with another grin, swung open the screen. The front knob was tortoiseshell porcelain, didn’t even catch, the lock an inside bolt, as Ray knew from those few times he’d set foot in her living room.
“Just puttin’ my head in.”
Joshua held back, just to say this to Ray, having twisted the knob and unstuck the door already from the carpeting it snagged on. “Hey, ma’am!” he yelled.
Ray went in too, and the room had a chill; the blue sofa, the rust rug, the shiny drapes open on their traverse rod, a smell. Of old smells settled in together…some cellar to it and frying oil, dirty bathroom and wood smoke, perfume or the sweet odors they put in dish soap and toilet paper.
“Hey, ma’am, Mrs. Lewis!” Ray called.
“Well, I’ll go in the bedroom,” Joshua said. “You see if she got a basement. Could’ve took a fall.”
Ray stepped into the kitchen. He inched to have a look, though she lay there, between the red metal cabinet under the sink, and the metal-legged table with the red top. He eyed the window, bending slow to his knees. The table and counter had dead wasps all over.
Her housecoat was heaving, taut on fat round shoulders; she breathed as an old person breathes, labored even in unconsciousness.
“Nothing to do with that branch,” Joshua said. “Broke out a window, but the rug was dry. I can get one…that barn down there got a lot of old junk. Clean up.” He laughed. “Clean up all them.”
Something came pattering down over Ray’s back. Joshua crunched foot-to-foot past the sink, walking on insect shells, and crouched to look Ray in the face.
“Come on. We can get her in that bed.”
Ray had a nice wireless phone, from Mary Anne, and hadn’t brought it with him. He never remembered the battery, and had to charge it when he wanted to make a call
“Need an ambulance,” he said.
“I’m gonna get the heavy end, and you get the legs.”
At this, if he’d been in some way contending with Joshua, he gave in. They tilted her, to carry her face up, and she gagged out a stream of spit. She coughed as they hefted her round the stove. She did not come to.
The closet door was standing open…possibly it had been. Ray saw Mrs. Lewis kept blankets stacked on the shelves inside. They lowered her to the corded spread.
She had no phone of her own that Ray could see, nothing much on the bedstand but religious pamphlets and a lamp with a fissured brown shade. Noise caught his ear, a motor zooming loud and quieting, axles banging over ruts. It got closer, closer, then cut off.
“Joshua!” A woman shouted.
“Just get in here!” he shouted back.
Ray let Mrs. Lewis’s head sink on the second pillow they’d propped her against, murmuring to one another half-sentences of advice.
“Breathe a little better that way.”
“Get them dentures.”
It was true. In her fall, her upper plate had loosened. Her exhalations, forced around it, sounded unwell. Neither man wanted to reach in.
They heard the spring of the screen door whinge, the woman call out, “No, goddamn, don’t you even!” She came to stand in the bedroom door. Ray could hear children yipping (as he described it to himself), in the yard.
“You let ’em out the van? Keep ’em away from that privy.”
“Josh, is that her?”
He snorted that she’d ask, beckoned the woman to change places with Ray, steering Ray by the shoulder again, back from the bed.
“You don’t have to worry, now. You go on home, if you want.”
“I didn’t look,” Ray said, “out in the living room, to see if she’s got a phone.” He wasn’t harping. He just wanted to know. “Or, if that van drives okay…”
“Drives good. But old Mrs. Lewis don’t need any hospital. Tamera’s gonna look after her. You get me, Ray. Say they wanna put her in a home. Be kind of a problem. ’Cause of that out back.” He jerked his head.
There’d been a time when Ray, bringing a space heater of Mary Anne’s that he’d thought Mrs. Lewis might use more, had got no answer to his knock…and he’d taken a little stroll. He’d meant to try pounding on the kitchen door. But you get curious, passing by an old-time privy, wondering what it looks like inside.
She’d come out the back way, saying, “Ray, what you want?”
It had been normal after that, her thanking him, him showing her what the buttons did.
“At least the power’s on.” Tamera’s voice was coming from the kitchen. “I’m gonna boil some water. Lindy, get in here! I got a chore for you.”
She came into the living room, holding a dust mop. Ray hadn’t meant to wander like that, ruminating. He put his hand on the tortoiseshell knob.
“You folks come down the hill if you need anything.”
By Christmastime, the side of the camper trailer blocked the outhouse mostly from sight. Ray had seen his neighbor carry up a number of things, bricks and lumber, three windows, all broken, but enough good glass to fix one, from the Spaulding barn…Joshua always, after that first day, coming and going. The van came and went, Tamera and the kids, into town and back. Ray, bringing his ladder, helped on a couple of projects. They’d fit a pipe to the chimney for a new woodstove; after the first deep freeze, Ray had knocked wasps’ nests from under the eaves, while Joshua put up gutters. They’d let him look in on Mrs. Lewis.
Tamera had her sitting up in a chair, and when the bedroom door swung back, she was slumped there, asleep. But then she’d lifted her head, and given Ray a black-eyed stare.
Less to eat turkey and more for the new satellite dish, Ray joined the family for Thanksgiving, and hadn’t seen her that time—but the bedroom door was closed. It was a snug house, if they weren’t using that room. Out here, only a sleeper-sofa opposite the old sofa, shelves with toys and kids’ books, an ironing board, a beanbag chair, the TV and the new woodstove.
He had the impression, from the pride and delight Lindy and Eric took in folding out and repacking the sleeper, that it was their own bed.
“How’s the old lady?” he’d bent down to whisper.
That had brought giggles.
Monday, he’d used the twenty-five dollars Tamera gave him for the Sam’s Club card, his daughter’s gift. He’d ridden into town in the van; he did these days, when Tamera did her shopping. He’d bought a couple things they had at the grocery store, for the kids. They had a lot at the grocery Ray hadn’t expected. Tee shirts and socks, Christian books, decorations, toasters, pots and pans. He been buying everything at the gas station he could ride his bike to.
The postman asked, handing Ray a red envelope sealed with a foil sticker, “Old Mrs. Lewis got renters?”
Ray lied, a little bit. He wasn’t sure why. “Relatives. She’s still living up there, but they’re taking care of her.”
It was dusk, and they were getting ready to drive into town, up and down the hills, look at the Christmas lights. Ray had been sent out back with the keys. Tamera was hunting coats; Joshua, his wallet. The van sat chugging, almost failing, coming steady again, heater going full blast. There was a moment, and the white winter sun hadn’t vanished. Ray shuffled up to the privy door. A fly was buzzing here, even in the cold. The crack was a little wider. Nothing need stop him just pushing it open.
But something did. Some sense that he would not be wiser, for knowing more about his new neighbors than was good.
He went back, and got in the death seat, next to the driver’s.
(copyright 2017 Stephanie Foster)