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Read Chapter 1 of my new and not-yet-published novel,
Run With The Wind:
Late July 1938
SARAH JACOBS COULD not have known, but in less than 15 minutes there would be a dead man in her front yard.
It was brutally hot. The prevailing southeast sea breeze which normally cooled this semi-tropical island-city on the Texas Coast had vanished this day, and temperatures soared. Sarah, sitting on her front porch in an old wooden rocker rubbed her glass of iced tea across her brow, then instantly regretted it as condensation dripped into her eyes. He pulled a handkerchief from a skirt pocket and dabbed at the moisture, blinking as she did.
She was waiting, with some anxiety, for her 10-year old son to return from Offats Bayou.
Earlier, she had driven to the Ferry Landing, crossing to Bolivar Peninsula, on a mission to find August Morton, one of her older and most experienced channel pilots. He had spent a lifetime on the Texas Coast, and knew intimately every shoal, inlet and channel between Port Arthur and Freeport, but he had an annoying habit of going off on benders. When sober, there was no channel pilot more competent.
She knew, from long experience, that she would find him sleeping off his bender in one of Bolivar’s beach-front beer stands, and she also knew which ones the old widower usually favored.
Sarah was secretary and assistant general manager for Galveston Pilots Guild. Early this morning a radio-telegram told of a freighter that was returning for repairs following an engine room fire. Sarah needed Gus to pilot the crippled ship into port and had left the grizzled old channel veteran in a café, eating the breakfast she’d bought and drinking quantities of strong black coffee. He promised to arrive sober and presentable at the coastguard docks by 3 PM for transport to the crippled ship, and she trusted him.
It was on the return ferry crossing that she noted how still the waters were.No dolphins followed or ran ahead, and even the ubiquitous gulls were calmer than usual. While the morning temperatures had been relatively comfortable, all the signs now pointed to an oppressively hot and still afternoon.
Sarah went to the Pilot’s offices, made several telephone calls about necessary arrangements, and then drove home, thinking she’d make a late breakfast for her son.
However, she found that Rae had already given Benji his breakfast, and had given him permission to go fishing.
Rae had been brought to Weismann home while barely out of childhood, in the long-ago past when the mansion was filled, not only with Sarah’s large family, but also numerous servants. Rae remained at the home while storms, influenza, and national financial panics decimated both the family and the number of servants. Today, Sarah and her son were all that remained of the family, and Rae the only servant. Sarah considered Rae a friend.
Rae’s monthly salary was $10, and Sarah allowed her to live rent-free in two of the rooms of the old carriage house. Rae “day-maided”, as she called it, for several of Sarah’s neighbors, and both cleaned and cooked for Sarah, taking her own dinner up to her rooms after supper.
Sarah’s son Benjamin, once completely paralyzed with polio, today used only a wrist cane and one short brace on his left leg. His passion was fishing, and he pulled his gear in an old wagon, using a rope harness he’d devised. Sometimes Sarah took him and one of his friends to a favorite spot along the bay side of Galveston Island, but more often Benji went alone to an old pier at Offats Bayou, owned by a friend of Sarah’s.
She was now fretting as she waited for his return. He’d told Rae to look for him by lunchtime, but it was now almost an hour past.
Sarah rocked slowly, longing for the return of the southeast sea breeze, and reached again for her iced tea, leaving a wet ring on the floor. The two ceiling fans that still worked creakingly stirred the hot air.
Where is Benjamin?
Her fretting worries about Benji, along with earlier anxieties about Gus and the crippled freighter were overshadowed this day by a longer-term issue which often crowded her thoughts.
She needed money.
Benjamin, stricken with polio in his second year of life, had undergone years of doctors, hospitals and therapy. He was better. But the medical expenses had been enormous, and Sarah’s modest trust fund was now, for all practical purposes, depleted.
Her son would need further treatments. How could she pay for it? Her coupe, older than her son, wouldn’t last forever. The old house, a once-splendid Victorian mansion, was falling apart, though taxes were still high. College for Benjamin loomed in the future.
Sarah, at 33, was 9 years a widow. Her marriage had lasted little more than a year when Glenn, her gentle, gentile husband died in an accident at sea. Compounding the tragedy of her husband’s death, Sarah’s father had taken his own life as the Great Depression took the remnants of the family shipping business. Sarah was left alone, with only an infant son, stricken with infantile paralysis, and an old house.
Money, the slender young widow again thought, as she ground her fist into her forehead. I’ve got to start making more money!
She pushed strands of her short brown hair away from her forehead, damp from this day’s heat and humidity, and thought, not for the first time, about the current level of government spending in Galveston. Beads of sweat fell into her dark, wide-set eyes, stinging them and blurring her vision. She wiped her already damp handkerchief across her brow.
The United States was clearly preparing for war. Galveston was being fortified. Fort Crocket had been reactivated and huge cannon emplacements were being constructed on the seawall. It was rumored that the new airfield adjacent to Offats Bayou would soon be taken over by the Army. There was a blimp hangar being built across the bay at the Naval Air Station in Hitchcock. Government contractors and military personnel were bringing their families to Galveston. Housing was at a premium.
Maybe, Sarah told herself, again not for the first time, I could rent out parts of this old house.
As this thought reoccurred she arose from her rocker, moved down the steps and walked to the gate. She looked along the street for Benji, then turned and looked up at the building that was her only asset.
She saw a crumbling 22-room house, built by her grandfather in the 1880s. Fifty years of wind and salt air had taken their toll, and the second and third floors had been closed for years. The roof leaked, and two of the side porches, which supported turrets above, were rotten. The turrets leaned precariously, and costly repairs loomed even if she didn’t rent any part of the house.
She knew nothing of carpentry, plumbing or painting, and the prospects of costs cascading beyond control overwhelmed her, leaving her feeling weak and helpless.
Her thoughts turned once again to her great-Uncle Levi, her grandfather’s brother. Would he provide advice on what to do? An ironic grin crossed her face. Yes, he’ll certainly provide advice, as long as I don’t argue or talk back! But will he lend money?
Levi Weismann, President and founder of one of Galveston’s more prestigious banks, was Sarah’s and Benjamin’s sole surviving blood relative.
The patrician banker, now in his eighties, had lost none of his mental capacities. He walked everywhere, his cane the only condescension to his advanced age. He had lived, since the day in 1918 when his wife died of influenza, in a two-room suite on the eighth floor of the Hotel Galvez. His bearing was erect, he always wore a suit and tie, attended temple more or less regularly, and ruled his bank with an iron hand.
Uncle Levi had been incensed when his 21-year old great niece married a gentile. However, the old man had found himself touched by Sarah’s later presentation of her infant son to Rabbi Cohen, which had been tragically followed by the deaths of both Glenn and Sarah’s father. The old man, rigid in his beliefs and unforgiving of the sins of others, found himself forgiving Sarah for marrying outside her faith.
But, Sarah thought as she turned back toward the porch, shaking her head, regardless of how Uncle Levi might now feel about her, business was business. She was certain no one would loan much money to a widow whose only assets were a dilapidated 50-year old house and a $100 monthly salary from Galveston Pilots.
As she climbed the steps she turned, once again looking for her son. Finally! He was still 2 blocks away but moving rapidly, his aluminum wrist cane flashing in the sun. Sarah waved, noting that he was wearing his straw fishing hat, which she knew he hated but wore at her insistence, at least when she was watching.
Benjamin spotted her on the front steps and waved. She thought he might have shouted, but the distance diminished any sound. He seemed to be trying to move faster than usual, but the brace and the loaded wagon hindered him. Sarah remained standing on the porch steps, waving, her thoughts now turning from the issue of money to how proud she was of her son, and the progress he’d made against the enemy of infantile paralysis.
A block farther down, the nose of a dark sedan slowly crept from behind the corner hedges onto Sarah’s street.
Infantile Paralysis! Polio! Sarah hated the very words, and they became a battle cry, a battle she and her son fought together, beside one another every step of the way. Progress was painful and slow. Setbacks were common. Months and then years passed. Ever so slowly, ever so mind-numbingly slow, there was improvement.
Sarah never stopped fighting. She would win! Benjamin would win! Her boy would be well! She railed at the fates, and at God, if there was one, over such torture for her boy as she gritted her teeth and endlessly massaged the baby’s paralyzed limbs. Her jaw would eventually settle into a hard line, making her mouth straight as it lost its tip-tilted young-girl smile. The laughing, playful girl vanished, and was replaced by a strong-willed and determined woman.
One day Benji was fitted with leg braces, and Sarah cheered and shouted and wept, along with the medical staff surrounding the boy, now 4, when with crutches he took the first faltering steps he had ever taken in his life.
“Mama,” the 4-year old boy said, looking up at her with wide-set serious dark eyes, so like her own, “someday I’m gonna go to the beach, and run with the wind!” Benjamin had just now turned 10, and Sarah wished and hoped and believed that one day her son would fulfill his dream.
As Benjamin hurriedly stepped off the curb and onto the crushed-shell street a tour jitney turned the corner onto their block, honking. The driver of the open-sided bus shouted rudely. Benji scrambled back onto the curb, almost losing his balance.
Three blocks away the dark sedan finished its slow turn onto 51st Street and, hidden by the oncoming tour jitney, moved toward Sarah’s crumbling mansion.
The jitneys, gaudily decorated, picked up tourists from the beach or the excursion trains, and brought them through residential areas, passing by Galveston’s many fine and well-maintained Victorian mansions. The drivers shouted an “historic” spiel about each.
Sarah’s run-down home had recently been added to the itinerary, and the so-called “spiel” was insulting at best. Sarah recognized the driver of this particular bus, one of the more obnoxious ones. He always stopped his bus in front of the mansion and shouted insulting references about the “once-rich Jews” who now lived in the dilapidated house. He made a point of noting the rusting wrought-iron picket fence, the weed-strewn yard and the rotten side-porches, which proved, he shouted, that those who now lived here had fallen on hard times. He always added, to derisive laughter, “Now those Jews know how regular folks feel!”
Benji crossed 51st Street behind the jitney and Sarah stepped down to meet him, opening the gate as he moved past. She hugged her brown-haired boy as she heard gears grind and the bus begin to move away. Benjamin’s hated straw hat fell onto the walk.
Her son was out of breath and seemed anxious as he pointed at his wagon. “Nothing today, mom. All I caught was hard-heads and piggy-perch. I gigged some crabs, but the bucket turned over, and they got away.” Sarah looked down at Benji, “You didn’t get your brace wet with salt water, did you?” He shook his head as he turned, looking back along the street.
The dark-colored sedan, moving slowly toward their block suddenly accelerated.
Benjamin looked back at the sound, and wrapped his arms around his mother’s waist, clutching at her skirt as he buried his head against her.
Sarah heard the approaching vehicle and turned, annoyed that her son was hampering her movements. She watched as the late-model sedan crossed the intersection and, still accelerating, turned sharply to the left, their side of the street. Dust and shell scattered as the tires sought purchase. The car completed its sharp turn and, engine racing, jumped over the curb. Sarah grabbed Benjamin’s hand and began moving rapidly toward the porch steps.
Once there, she turned again, watching in fascination as the car crashed into the fence. The uprights snapped. A section collapsed, and the car turned toward Sarah and her son, lurching to a stop. She pushed Benji farther up the steps as she turned protectively to face a potential enemy. She did not see her son fall, then begin a frantic scramble across the porch.
There were shouts from the jitney. Tourists pointed, gawking at the tableau of a young woman standing on her porch steps, protecting her house and son. The bus lurched to a stop.
“Look at that!” someone shouted. Sarah knew without looking that some from the bus were scrambling out.
Benjamin, scrambling, crawling crab-like, reached the front door, dragging his cane. A trail of urine marked his path.
The car was now fully onto the weedy lawn, at a full stop. A cloud of crushed shell dust floated in the still air. There were more shouts from the tour jitney. Several who climbed out had cheap box cameras.
The door of the dark sedan swung open. Sarah watched in fascination as a man climbed slowly, wearily, from behind the wheel. He was wearing a hat and a heavy business suit, his tie askew, He turned toward Sarah and his eyes locked with those of her son, now leaning against the mansion’s heavy leaded-glass front door, panic and fear plain upon his face as his hands scrabbled for the handle of the heavy leaded-glass door.
The focus of the man’s eyes moved from her son to Sarah. He nodded toward her in what could have been a greeting as he stood, weaving, holding onto the car’s door with both hands. His jacket gaped open. His chest was covered in blood. He moved around the opened car door, feet dragging, and, as he did, he staggered and fell sideways onto the fender. His hat tumbled to the ground. A woman behind Sarah, at the front gate, screamed.
Pushing himself upright, still leaning weakly against the fender, the man again focused his eyes onto the slender woman on her front steps, who now moved up the last step toward her son. Benjamin was pulling the front door open. She saw the man’s lips move soundlessly as if he was trying to speak.
His mouth moved again, and again there was no sound. He shook his head in what appeared to be frustration, and tried to push himself off the fender, and fell onto his knees.
He needs help! What can I do? Sarah’s mind was a confused jumble.
She heard the heavy front door of the old mansion slam shut.
Sarah took three steps down to the walk as the man crawled toward her.
A number of the tourists from the jitney crowded into Sarah’s yard, chattering excitedly. A heavy-set woman in overly-tight orange-colored rayon slacks, sweat staining her crotch, screamed as she watched the man collapse onto his face and then roll over onto his back. Sarah looked at the invading tourists as they scrambled through her gate, and shouted as she moved toward the injured man,
“This is private property. Get out!”
No one listened. One man stopped and picked up her son’s straw hat and placed it upon his own head.
Sarah reached the prone man, lying on his back. She knelt. His eyes were blank, staring sightlessly into brassy hot sky.
He was dead.